Ho’Demi sat his shaggy horse and contemplated the impenetrable fog before him. His scouts had reported that the Duke of Ichtar and what remained of his command from Gorkenfort drew close. For all Ho’Demi knew they were but ten paces away.
Ho’Demi shivered. He did not like these southern lands with their damp mists. He yearned for the northern wastes of the Ravensbund with its endless leagues of grinding ice. He yearned to be once more hunting the great icebears with the men and women of his tribe—not these Ghostmen whose very whispers defiled the wind.
However, the northern wastes were denied Ho’Demi and his people. For as far back as tribal memory stretched the Skraeling wraiths had existed. Until the past year they had been neither numerous nor brave, and as long as his people hunted in packs, the Skraelings had not attacked. But now, massed by the unseen yet powerful hand of Gorgrael the Destroyer, the Skraelings had driven them from the Ravensbund, down through Gorken Pass, past Gorkenfort and town—where the Duke of Ichtar had stopped the invasion of Gorgrael’s Ghostmen—and into these southern lands. Ho’Demi had finally stopped his people’s flight here at Jervois Landing. It was here that Borneheld, having somehow escaped the Skraelings, intended to make his stand.
Ho’Demi and his people had always intended to help the Southerners against Gorgrael and his Skraelings; it was part of their heritage. But when he had offered his warriors at Gorkenfort, Borneheld had laughed and said he had no need for Ravensbund assistance. He, Duke of Ichtar, commanded a real army. Well, now the Duke and his real army might not be so slow to accept the help of the Ravensbund warriors.
Ho’Demi had led as many of his people out of the Ravensbund as he could. But the Ravensbund tribes lay scattered across the vast territory of the northern wastes and Ho’Demi had not been able to get word to the majority of the tribes to flee into the southern lands. Only twenty thousand had pitched their sealskin tents about Jervois Landing, a mere twentieth of the Ravensbund population. Ho’Demi shuddered to think of what had happened to those left behind. He hoped they had found a place to hide among the crevices of the ice packs, there to await the day when Gorgrael was defeated by the StarMan. He hoped they had the courage for a long wait.
The Ravensbundmen were a proud and ancient people who had adapted their culture and society to a life spent almost entirely within the ice-bound regions of northern Achar. Few had any contact with the world beyond the River Andakilsa. The King of Achar (whosoever he currently was) might fondly believe that he ruled Ravensbund as he ruled the rest of Achar, but as far as the Ravensbundmen knew or cared, the Achar King had as much control over them as he did over the Forbidden. Ho’Demi was their Chief, and his was the law they obeyed.
But now, for the sake of the Prophecy and because it was the only thing left for him to do, Ho’Demi would put himself under the command of Borneheld. Ravensbundmen had been aware of the Prophecy of the Destroyer for thousands of years, and Ho’Demi knew that, divided, no one could defeat Gorgrael. Someone had to begin the alliance that would create Tencendor and crush the Destroyer. As the Skraeling threat grew infinitely worse, he had quickly realized this was a sign that the Prophecy had awoken and now walked. Of all the peoples of this land, perhaps the Ravensbundmen were more loyal to the name of the StarMan than most. When he called, then they would rally.
In groups of never less than a thousand, the Ravensbund people had passed by Gorkenfort, many weeks before Axis had arrived. As yet they did not know where the StarMan was; they did not know who he was. Until they found him, until they could declare their loyalty and their spears for him, Ho’Demi had decided they would fight with Borneheld. If he would have them.
* * *
Borneheld knew what the bells were the instant their gentle sound reached him through the fog, and he hunched even further beneath his voluminous cloak.
It had been two weeks since they had fled Gorkenfort. As soon as Axis had drawn the Skraelings northwards away from the fort, Borneheld had ordered the gates opened and led his column out through the ruins of Gorkentown. The march south toward Jervois Landing was a desperate trek through icy conditions which hourly weakened his men’s resistance to death. Many had died from the freezing cold or from the physical effort of the march. In the past week even more had died as the Skraelings made nibbling attacks on the rear and flanks of Borneheld’s retreating column. Others deserted. Even those two old brothers whom Axis had dragged north with him from the Silent Woman Keep and who had babbled incessantly about musty prophecies had disappeared one night. As far as Borneheld was concerned, the Skraelings could feed all they wanted on those two as on any others not prepared to stay with him.
Unaccountably, the Skraelings had left them alone for a critical five days after their escape from Gorkenfort. They had ridden as hard and as fast as they could—until the horses started to die beneath them—expecting an attack from Gorgrael’s army at any moment. No one in Borneheld’s company knew that it was because Axis and his command had hurt the Skraelings so grievously in the icy wastes above Gorkenfort that the SkraeBolds had needed to regroup the decimated Skraeling forces.
All Borneheld and his company knew was that they’d had five days’ start on the Skraelings, and that five days was the difference between life and death. When the Skraelings did finally reappear, they did not do so in force, and Borneheld’s column had managed to keep moving farther south toward the comparative safety of Jervois Landing. The Skraelings would not push so far south. Surely.
Yet every step they took southwards toward safety increased Borneheld’s bitterness. It hadn’t been his fault that Gorkenfort had fallen. Traitors had undermined his command and betrayed both Ichtar and Achar. Magariz’s actions had confirmed that. His most senior, most trusted commander had chosen to ride with his bastard half-brother rather than fight for Borneheld and the cause of Achar. For thirty years Borneheld’s jealousy of Axis had dominated his life; now bitter resentment twisted his gut. Artor curse him, he thought, I hope he died out there in the frozen wastes. Screaming for me to ride to his rescue, screaming my name as the wraiths chewed the flesh from his bones.
But even that thought could not bring a smile to Borneheld’s cold-chapped face. Now, after the treachery of Gorkenfort, Borneheld trusted few. If Magariz could turn against him, then who else might prove treacherous? Even Jorge and Roland, riding silent and introspective farther back in the column, did not enjoy the same depth of trust as they once had. No, Borneheld truly trusted only Gautier and Timozel. Who would have thought that such a young whelp—and an Axe-Wielder to boot—could grow into such a loyal and devoted servant to the Duke of Ichtar? Timozel had clearly demonstrated his worth on this march south, proving that he could harry men into obedience as well as Gautier, and fight with as much courage as Borneheld himself. Now he rode his horse slightly to the left and behind Borneheld, sitting tall and proud in the saddle, the occasional flare of his visionary eyes keeping Borneheld’s own hopes alive.
Artor had graced Timozel with visions, and that meant Artor would eventually grace Borneheld’s cause with victory as well.
Borneheld’s eyes slipped to the horse that followed a few paces behind Timozel’s. His wife, Faraday, clung to the saddle and to Yr, as she had since her horse succumbed to the cold three days ago. Could he trust Faraday? Borneheld frowned under the hood of his cloak. He had thought that she loved him, for had she not whispered words of love and devotion to him night after night, and fled to his arms when Axis had proved incapable of protecting her? But what was it she had murmured to Axis as they said goodbye in the courtyard of Gorkenfort?
Curse her, he swore silently. Her future would be with him, not with Axis. She would provide Ichtar with an heir, not whatever shadowland Axis currently ruled. He would rather see her dead than betray him as Magariz had.
The loss of Gorkenfort and, subsequently, Ichtar had hurt Borneheld to the core of his soul. As a young boy growing up in a loveless household, deserted by his mother, ignored by his father, Borneheld had always had Ichtar. And when his father died and Borneheld became Duke of Ichtar at only fourteen, he finally felt that his life had meaning. Ignored by so many when he was simply the son of Searlas, Borneheld revelled in the power he wielded as the new Duke. Power brought him the attention he craved, the respect he demanded, the command that was his due, and, eventually, the woman that he desired above all others.
Now most of Ichtar was lost to him, and Borneheld felt the loss as keenly as a physical wound. What power would he command as the man who had lost Ichtar? What respect? Even if he could win back Ichtar—and he would—he would still feel vulnerable. He would only feel safe if he commanded ultimate power over all of Achar, if he sat the throne itself. As King, Borneheld would have all the power, the respect and the love he craved. As King, he would surely be able to flush out the traitors about him once and for all. Desperate as he was to get it back, Ichtar was no longer enough for Borneheld.
And didn’t Timozel’s visions indicate that Borneheld would become King? Yes, it was Artor’s wish that he take the throne.
Now, as he approached Jervois Landing, Borneheld reviewed the forces he still commanded. Despite the losses at Gorkentown—all of which had been the fault of either the demon-spawned Axis or that traitor Magariz—he still controlled a powerful force. The original column of five thousand he had led from Gorkenfort had been swelled by the refugees from Ichtar. As sorry as these refugees were now, they could work and some could be trained to fight. There were also troops still stationed in Achar that Borneheld could command. There was still a cohort of five hundred Axe-Wielders guarding the Brother-Leader at the Tower of the Seneschal. All these could be his. And, if those soft chimes meant what he hoped they did, he would also have the Ravensbundmen. Uncouth savages to be sure, but they had both spears and horses. If they could stick an enemy in the gut then they would be useful. Finally, there were the resources of the Corolean Empire to the south of Achar. If that simpering fool of a King, Priam, hadn’t yet thought about arranging a military alliance with the Coroleans then Borneheld would make sure that he soon would.
Suddenly a stationary horseman loomed out of the mist and Borneheld barked an order to halt. He sat for a moment and looked at the inscrutable Ravensbundman’s face. It was even more intricately tattooed in blue and black than most of his race. Dizzying whorls and spirals covered not only his cheeks, but his forehead and chin as well—although, strangely, there was a circular area right in the center of his forehead that remained naked and untattooed. As with all his race, the savage had tiny chips of blue glass and miniature bells threaded through his myriad greasy black braids. Even his mount—ugly, stunted, yellow-furred nag that it was—had glass and bells woven into its mane and tail. Uncivilized savages. Still, if they could kill they might yet serve a purpose.
Ho’Demi let the Duke stare at him a moment, then spoke, demonstrating a fluent command of the Acharite language. “Duke Borneheld. Gorgrael has taken my land and murdered my people. He drives his Ghostmen south. The Ravensbundmen live only to defeat Gorgrael. If you fight against Gorgrael then we will stand by your side.”
Borneheld narrowed his eyes at the barbarian. “I do fight Gorgrael. But if you want to fight with me then you will place yourself and your people under my command.”
Ho’Demi wondered at the implicit threat in Borneheld’s tone, but it did not perturb him. He nodded. “Agreed.”
“Good.” Borneheld peered into the mists behind the Ravensbundman, trying to see how many men he had with him. “How many will you bring to my command?”
“Of the twenty thousand in my camp, eleven thousand can fight.”
“You have done well to choose my cause,” Borneheld said quietly. “Together we will make our stand here at Jervois Landing against whichever of our enemies attack first. This time, I will prevail.”
Copyright © 1996 Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd.