P.C. Hodgell

Dark of the Moon

Chapter 1

Fire and Ice
The Ebonbane: 7th of Winter


"Wake, wake!" shouted city guards under windows barred for the night.  Fists pounded on doors.  Bells began to shrill.  From the roof of the Council Hall came the sudden boom of the warning horn, all five of its mouthpieces manned at once.

The citizens woke.  They tumbled bleary-eyed into the streets to find the sky alight overhead.  From the north came shrieks and the crash of falling buildings.  An unearthly wail rose from the Temple District as the gods, bound in their sanctuaries, felt the stones heat around them.  Fiery motes danced in the air.  What they touched, burned: roofs, clothes, flesh.  Panic spread.  Now people were running, some already on fire, down through the twisting streets, toward where the River Tone ran between dark buildings.  Quick, the water.  The swift, cold current bore them downstream under the soaring bridges to smash against the prow of Ship Island or drown in the white water along its sheer sides.

On the island itself, in the Palace of the Thieves' Guild, an old man sat in a tapestry-hung room.  On his lap lay a book bound in white leather with the texture of an infant's skin.  His head tilted back.  Gaping mouth and empty eye sockets opened only into darkness.

The chamber room door burst open.  A man clad in royal blue stood on the threshold, his golden hair shining softly in the gloom.  He stared at the old man.  An unpleasant smile twisted his handsome features, but when he turned to the dark figures crowding the corridor behind him, they saw only anger and grief in his face.

"The Talisman has done this," he said to them.  "Get her."

A low growl answered him.  The hallway emptied.  Moments later, shadowy forms slipped through the streets, oblivious to fire and ruin, growling still.  Swift as they were, rumor outpaced them:

The Lord of the Thieves' Guild is dead, is dead.  The Talisman has slain him.  Brother thieves, the hunt is up!

The Talisman ran for her life, ran for home.  One corner more, and there was the inn, the Res aB'tyrr, blazing.  Dark figures came at her, silhouetted by the glare.

"The fire might have spared it, Talisman.  We didn't."

They closed in on her.  Someone inside the inn began to scream.  She fought her captors' sooty hands, shouting the names of her friends: Cleppetty, Ghillie, Taniscent . . . . But here was Tanis now, clinging to her arm.

"A party, Talisman, a lovely party, and you're the guest of honor!  See, here's a friend to escort us."

The brigand Bortis shambled out of the darkness, grinning.  The blood streaming from the red ruin of his eyes looked black in the light of the burning inn.  He took her arm.  The streets were lined with silent people, staring at her: Hangrell, Raffing, Scramp with the rope still around his neck, Marplet . . . dead, all dead.  Judgment Square.  The Mercy Seat.

Dally was sitting on the stone chair.  He looked up, smiling, and courteously rose to make room for her.  His skin hung in tatters about him.

"I loved you, Talisman.  See what your love did to me."

Still smiling, he bound her to the chair with strips of his own skin.

They were all coming for her.  Firelight flashed off knives, off short, flaying blades, their edges white hot.  She huddled back in the Mercy Seat, but they kept coming, coming . . .


Jame woke to her own cry of horror.  Stone pressed against her back, but where were the knives?  The air here was cold, so cold that it seared her lungs as she drew a deep, shuddering gulp of it.  Where was she?  The wind keened and snow stung her face, numbing it.  No, not in Tai-tastigon at all, but high above it in the storm-locked passes of the Ebonbane.  She had fled the city before the thieves could catch her.  Now a blizzard had her instead, and she was lost in it.  But why was it so dark?  She drew back against the rock that sheltered her, fighting the first feather touch of panic.

"Marc, where are you?"

Jorin whimpered in her arms.  Blind from birth, the ounce cub saw through her eyes—when she could see anything at all.

"Marc?" Fear sharpened her voice, making her sound even younger than her nineteen-odd years.  "Why is it so dark?  Did you let me sleep past moonfall?  Marc?"

Feet crunched on the snow.  "Lass?  Softly, softly.  Let me look."

She felt the Kendar's big hands gently touch her face.

"H-have I gone snow blind?"

"Ah, no such thing.  Your eyelids are only frozen shut."

Tears?  thought Jame.  But I never cry.  Then she remembered the inn.

"They all burned to death," she said unsteadily.  "Cleppetty, Tubain, everyone at the Res aB'tyrr except Taniscent, and she was dead already."

"Well now, I suppose it could happen," said Marc slowly.  "A good bit of the city was burning when we left, but that was three days ago, after the worst of it, and the inn was safe enough then.  Now, if you were a farseer—"

"But I've been spared that at least, haven't I?" Jame's voice sounded strange even to her, as if it belonged to someone else, locked away in the dark, gripped by nightmares and memories.  "You needn't remind me that I'm Shanir.  The old blood, the old powers—god-spawn, unclean, unclean . . ."

Marc shook her.  Gentle as he was, the tremendous strength in his hands shocked her away from the memory of her father shouting those words after her as he had driven her from the keep that had been her home, into the Haunted Lands.  But that had been long ago, before the years in Perimal Darkling, which she could no longer remember, before she had returned to Rathillien to lead her double life as the Talisman, apprentice to the greatest thief in Tai-tastigon; and as the B'tyrr, tavern and temple dancer.

Jorin anxiously touched noses with her.  Then she felt the rasp of his tongue on her frozen eyelids.  There in the dark, still closer to dreams than reality, she tried to sort one from the other.

"So the Res aB'tyrr is probably safe, but Dally and Bane. . . . Is Dally really dead?"

"Yes.  Very."

Jame shivered.  "And Bane?  Is he dead too?"

"We can only hope so."

So, in the end, it came to that.  Bane, Dally, Tanis, Scramp . . . . She gave a bitter laugh.  "It occurs to me, somewhat belatedly, that I'm rather hard on my friends."

At that moment, the ice sealing her eyelids at last melted away.  Jorin rubbed his soft cheek against hers, purring.  His whiskers tickled.  Marc had let her sleep almost until morning, Jame saw, but in that time the storm had eased.  Now more snow seemed to be blowing than falling, and the full moon low in the sky glowed through a thinning cloud cover.

By its light, Jame regarded her friend with concern.  The biggest mountaineer's jacket they had been able to find barely fit across his broad shoulders, much less down those powerful arms.  The exposed wrists looked blanched.  His beard was white too, both with frost and years.  At ninety-four, late middle age for a Kendar, surely he was too old for such a desperate adventure.

"Why did you ever let me talk you into this?" she demanded.

"As I recall," he said mildly, "it was more a case of not being able to talk me out of it.  We'd pretty well decided even before the uproar that it was time to leave.  You have that twin brother of yours to find—name of Tori, wasn't it?—and I've an itch to see old friends in the Riverland.  We're going home, you and I.  This is just the shortest route."

"Right.  Just as jumping out a third story window is the fastest way to the ground."

"Oh, I've tried that too," said the big man placidly.

Jame started to laugh, then drew in her breath sharply.  Simultaneously, Jorin's head snapped up.  The ounce might see quite well through her eyes, but she had only recently gained a limited use of his nose and ears.  Now she heard what he heard, distorted at first, then all too clearly.

"Wolves," she said, and scrambled to her feet.

Marc rose almost as quickly, but his stiffened knees betrayed him and he lurched against a rock.  "No, no," he said absently, pushing Jame aside as she reached out to steady him.  "Always stand clear or someday I really will fall and smash you flat."  He drew himself up to his full seven-foot height, towering over her.  "Wolves, you say?  If we're lucky."

"Trinity.  And if we aren't?"

The howling began again, closer, unexpectedly shrill.

"Wyrsan," said Marc.  "An entire ravening of them, from the sound of it, and headed this way.  They may be smaller than wolves, but they're faster and fiercer.  These rocks won't protect us for long if they catch our scent.  There may be better cover up near the Blue Pass."

He stepped out into the open.  Leaning into the wind, he trudged stolidly up the nearly invisible path between snowdrifts, his bulk breaking both the ice crust and the wind's force for Jame as she struggled after him with Jorin bounding along behind her in their footsteps.  The worst of the storm might be over, but the wind was still savage and the driven snow blinding.  Jame could see nothing of Mounts Timor and Tinnibin, which must be looming over them now, or of the Blue Pass, which cut between them, straddling the spine of the Ebonbane.

The situation was bad enough without wyrsan on their trail.  Not much was known about these beasts because they usually kept to the deep snow of the heights during the brief travel season when the passes opened.  Superstition claimed that they were possessed by the souls of the unavenged dead.  Rumor had it, perhaps more accurately, that they were prone to killing frenzies and could tunnel nearly as fast under the ice crust as they could run on top of it.

The two Kencyr had risked this winter crossing largely because they had hoped to find quite a different sort of creature here among the jagged peaks.  Long ago—nearly two thousand years, in fact—the first of the Three People had grown disgusted with the rest of the Kencyrath and retreated to the wilds of Rathillien to think things over.  They were still at it.  One of these catlike, almost immortal Arrin-ken made his home here in the Ebonbane, but Jame had been mentally calling to him for three days now without success.  It looked as if she and Marc were on their own.

Abruptly, the Kendar stopped and Jame ran into him.  He shouted something, then turned and climbed the snow bank to the right.  Jame scrambled after him.  A sloping snowfield stretched out before them, wind rilled, sheltered by the flank of Mount Timor.  Snow blew over their heads off the mountain's spine.  The ice crust here was thick enough first to bear Jame and Jorin's weight, then Marc's.

Jame drew level with him.  "What did you say?"

"I thought we might find something useful up here.  The top of that mound up ahead might be our best bet for a stand."

Not far away, Jame saw a rectangular pile of rocks about ten feet high with sloping sides and a flattened top.  Suddenly, she knew exactly where they were.  This was the field where Bortis and his band of brigands had slaughtered last season's first caravan, the one Jame herself would have joined if it hadn't been for Marc's unexpected arrival in Tai-tastigon.  That thing ahead was the burial cairn of the victims.

The wind moaned about it, raising ghosts of snow around its black flanks.  Subsequent caravans had not only raised this monument, but, to conciliate the dead, had built into its outer walls whatever personal possessions the brigands had overlooked.  Here a bride's broken mirror gave back a splintered reflection of the moon, there a wooden doll thrust a stiff arm out between the stone blocks.  Jame slowed, staring.  Her own people believed that while even a single bone remained unburned, the soul was trapped, but here were hundreds, thousands of bones.

Marc had reached the cairn.  "Come on, lass," he said, holding out his hand.  "You first.  We only have to hold on until dawn."

Jame still hesitated.  This was ridiculous.  She had dealt with bones before, and with the dead themselves, if it came to that.  They simply obeyed their own rules.  Once you found those out, you could usually cope, however messy things got.  Besides, in a sense, she and Bane had already avenged these poor folk in that before the massacre, he had put out one of Bortis's eyes protecting her; and after it, she had gotten the other one defending Jorin.  No one had seen Bortis in Tai-tastigon since.  She wondered fleetingly what had become of him, then put him out of her mind and began resolutely to climb the cairn's sloping side.

The stones were slick with ice under her hands.  She thought she felt a vibration deep inside the cairn.  Then, suddenly, a stone gave way under her weight and her right leg plunged into the mound up to the knee.  Something inside grabbed her foot.  Her startled yelp turned into a grunt as Marc's arm shot around her waist and jerked her back.  Something white furred and slobbering was wrapped around her foot.  It let go, plopping back into the hole.  Marc swung her down to the base of the cairn where she collapsed breathless in the snow.  Her boot hung in shreds.

"What in Perimar's name was that?" she gasped.

"A wyrsan kitling.  It looks as if they've converted the entire mound into a ravery."

"But wouldn't it have been pretty solid?"

"Not after they'd eaten the bodies out of it.  Jorin!"

The ounce had been warily sniffing the edge of the hole.  He jumped back as a shrill, yammering cry came out of the mound, immediately echoed by other voices down wind.

"That's done it," said Marc.  "The adults will be all over us in minutes.  Run."

They ran.  Some distance ahead, the field ended in a steep, rocky slope that, if they were lucky, the wyrsan would not be able to climb.  Suddenly Marc floundered.  Jame grabbed his arm as the white expanse before them split open, great chunks of it thundering down into darkness.  They stared in dismay at the gaping crevasse.  Behind, the yipping grew rapidly nearer.

"Now what?" said Jame.

"Too late to turn back.  I might be able to catapult you across."

"And leave you here to have all the fun?  Forget it."

"As you wish.  But for future use, let's make a pact: Whatever you can't outwit, I hit.  That should take care of most contingencies."

"It's nice to know you think we still have a future," said Jame, watching as he dropped his pack and unslung his double edged war-axe.  "Just the same, I'm more likely to start hitting things than you are."

"Not wyrsan," said the big man firmly.

The howling began again, much closer this time.  It was a sound that slid the thin knife edge of panic between thought and action.  Hearing it, one only wanted to run and run.  Then, in the midst of that shrill chorus, one voice wavered and broke into hysterical laughter.

"That was no wyrsa," said Jame.

"A haunt?"

"This far south of the Barrier?  Well, maybe, but I've never met one yet who thought that being dead was funny."

"It's not," said Marc.  "Stand behind me."