PERFECTING THE DARKNESS
No one can truly be called a man so long as he basks in the light of his father and mother. For until we are forced to stand alone, we never know the measure of strength that abides within us. And once a boy's father dies, he cannot be called a child any longer.
--The Wizard Binnesman
This was the face of the Earth King: Skin the shade of dark green oak leaves, fading in the fall. Old man's hair of silver webs. A sorrowful face as full of furrows as the rind of a rotting apple. And green-black eyes that were wild, hunted, like the eyes of a stag in the forest.
That is how Fallion, at the age of nine, remembered his father. A father he had not seen now for three years.
Strange then, that on an autumn evening as Fallion rode on a mountain track outside Castle Coorm with his younger brother Jaz and Hearthmaster Waggit beside him, and a small contingent of guards bristling front and back, the image of his father should intrude so heavily on Fallion's mind.
"Time to turn back," the point guard, a woman named Daymorra, said in a thick accent. "I smell evil."
She nodded to her right, up a hill where fences of stacked gray stones parceled out some cowherd's lands and formed a dam that held back the leaning pine forests of the mountains above. There, at the edge of the forest rose a pair of barrows, houses for the dead. In the swiftly falling darkness, the shadows under the trees were black. And above the mountain hovered a haze, purple and green like a bruise in the sky. Strange lights flashed among the gauzy clouds, as if from distant lightning.
Fallion's personal guard, Sir Borenson, laughed and said, "You don't smell evil. It's a storm you smell."
Daymorra glanced back, troubled. She was a rugged woman from beyond Inkarra, with strange skin as gray as a tree trunk, black hair as fine as flax, and black eyes that glinted like lightning. She wore a simple outfit of ebony cotton covered by a supple leather vest, with an ornate steel buckler that covered her belly, and a slave's collar of silver around her neck. Neither Fallion nor anyone that he knew had ever seen anyone like Daymorra until she had shown up at the castle six months earlier, sent by Fallion's father to join the guard.
"Humans may not smell evil," Daymorra said. "But I've garnered endowments of scent from a burr. They know the smell of evil. Something is there, in trees. Evil spirits, I think."
Fallion knew of men who had taken endowments of scent from dogs, but he had never even heard of a burr. Daymorra claimed to have taken endowments of hearing from bats, grace from hunting cats, and brawn from a wild boar. The skill to draw attributes from animals other than dogs was unheard of in Fallion's land. If her story was true, hers was an exotic amalgam of powers.
Fallion rose up in his saddle, drew a deep breath, and tasted the air. It was so heavy with water, he could smell tomorrow's morning dew, and the air was just cool enough that he could feel the first thrill of winter in it.
I do smell something, he thought. It was like an itch, an electric tingle, across the bridge of his cheek.
Daymorra eyed the barrows distrustfully and shivered. "One should give dead to fire or water, not leave evil spirits in the ground. We should turn back now."
"Not yet," Waggit argued. "We don't have far to go. There is a thing that the boys must see.
Daymorra's nostrils flared; she reined in her horse, as if thinking, then urged it ahead.
Fallion's younger brother Jaz had been watching the side of the road for small animals. Fallion's first vivid memory had been of discovering a frog--like a bit of gray-green clay with a dark mask. It had hopped over his head and landed on a lilac leaf when he was only two. He'd thought it was a "squishy grasshopper," and felt the most amazing sense of wonder. After that, Fallion and his brother had become obsessed with hunting for animals--whether they be hedgehogs in the fields above the castle, or batsin the guard towers, or eels and crayfish in the moat. Jaz spoke up, "What is a burr?"
Daymorra frowned, then made big eyes and spoke as she rode. "A fawn, I think you call it. It is a forest fawn?"
Jaz shrugged and looked to Fallion for help. Though Fallion was only a few months older than his brother, Jaz always looked to him for help. Fallion was both much larger than Jaz and more mature. But even Fallion had never heard of a "forest fawn."
Waggit answered, "Among the islands where Daymorra's people come from, the burr is a small antelope--not much taller than a cat--that lives in the jungle. It is a timid creature. It is said that the burr can taste the thoughts of those that hunt them. The fact that Daymorra was able not only to catch one, but to take an endowment from it is ... remarkable."
They rode around a bend in silence, plunged below a thin cloud, and climbed again, only the thud of iron-shod hooves and the slithering sound of ring mail announcing them. To the left, the dull sun floated on the horizon like a molten bubble in a vat of ore. For the moment there were clouds above him and below, and Fallion pretended that he was riding through the clouds. The road ahead was barren, riddled with rocks and roots.
Fallion caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, glanced to his right, under the shadowed pines. A chill crept up his spine, and his senses came alive.
Something was under the shadows. Perhaps it had just been a raven flitting under the trees, black against black. But Fallion saw Borenson reach down with his right hand and grasp his long-handled warhammer, whose metal head had a bird on it, with spikes sticking out like wings.
Fallion was young enough to hope that a bear hid in the woods, or a huge stag. Something better than the ground squirrels and cottontail rabbits he'd been spotting along the road.
They crested a small hill, overlooking a vale.
"Look there, my young princes," Waggit said soberly to both Fallion and Jaz. "Tell me what you see."
A cottage squatted below, a tidy home with a freshly thatched roof, surrounded by ruby-colored roses and butterfly bushes. Birds flitted everywhere--yellow-headed bee eaters hovering and diving around the bushes.
A woman was out late, handsome, in a burgundy work dress, her hair tied back with a lavender rag, raking hazelnuts onto a ground cloth while her red hens clucked and raced about pecking at bugs and worms in the freshly turned leaves.
The woman glanced uphill at the riders, no doubt alerted by the thud of hooves on hard clay, the jangle of weapons. Worry showed in her eyes, but when she saw Borenson, she flashed a smile, gave a nod, and went back to work.
Hearthmaster Waggit whispered to the boys, "What do you know of that woman?"
Fallion tried to let his mind clear in the way that Waggit had taught him, to focus. He was supposed to gaze not just upon her face or figure, but upon the totality of her--her clothing, her movements, the house and possessions that she surrounded herself with.
Waggit was teaching the boys to "read." Not to read characters or runes upon a parchment, but to read gestures and body language--to "read" people. Waggit, who had mastered several disciplines in the House of Understanding, insisted that "Of all the things I teach you, reading the human animal, as is taught in the Room of Eyes, is the skill that you will invoke most in life. Reading a person well can mean the difference between life and death."
"She's not married," Jaz offered. "You can tell because she doesn't have any clothes but hers drying on the line." Jaz always tried to speak first, making the easy observations. That only made Fallion's job harder.
Fallion was being tested; he struggled to find something more insightful to say. "I don't think she wants to get married ... ever."
Behind him, Sir Borenson gave a sharp snort of a laugh and demanded, "Why would you say that?"
Borenson knew this land, this woman. His snort sounded almost derisive, as if Fallion had guessed wrong. So Fallion checked himself, and answered. "You and Waggit are her age. If she wanted a husband, she'd smile and look for a reason to talk. But she's afraid of you. She keeps her shoulders turned away, like she's saying, 'Come near me, and I'll run.'"
Borenson laughed again.
Waggit asked, "Is he correct?"
"He's got the widow Huddard right," Borenson said. "Cool as midwinter.Many a man has wanted to warm her bed, but she'll have nothing to do with any of them."
"Why not?" Waggit asked. But he didn't ask Borenson or Jaz. Instead he looked at Fallion, probing, testing.
What he saw was a handsome boy with black hair, tanned features, nearly flawless. His face still swelled with the fat of a child, but his eyes held the wisdom of an old man.
Waggit studied the boy and thought, He's so young--too young to plumb the depths of the human soul. He is, after all, only a child, without even a single endowment of wit to his name.
But Waggit also knew that Fallion was of a special breed. The children born in the past few years--after the Great War--were different from children born in the past. Stronger. Wiser. Some thought that it had to do with the Earth King. As if the rise of the first Earth King in two millennia had bestowed a blessing upon their seed. It was said that children in the rising generation were more perfect than their forefathers, more like the Bright Ones of the netherworld than normal children.
And if this was true of the get of common swineherds, it was doubly true of the Earth King's firstborn, Fallion.
Fallion's brother Jaz was nothing like Fallion. He was a kind boy, small for his age, and already distracted by a salamander pawing through the dead leaves by the roadside. He would be a thoughtful prince someday, Waggit imagined, but nothing special.
But Fallion had a greater destiny. Even now he gazed down upon the widow, trying to discover why she would never marry.
Her little cottage at the edge of the wilds was so ... lush. The garden behind the house was lavish for a lone woman, and it was kept behind a tall fence so that her milk goat, which stood in the crook of a low apple tree, could not get the vegetables.
Bushes and trees had been planted around the house to break the wind and offer shelter to birds--bee eaters and sparrows that, like the chickens, cleared the garden of worms and beetles.
Wicker flower baskets hung from the eaves of the cottage, drawing honeybees, and Fallion did not doubt that the widow Huddard knew where the hives lay.
This woman lived in harmony with nature. Her home was a little island paradise surrounded by rocky hills.
Fallion said, "She works hard. Nobody around her works as hard. We've seen a hundred cottages along the road, but none like hers. She doesn't want to raise some man like he was a baby."
Sir Borenson laughed again.
Waggit agreed, "I suspect that you're right. The other shacks that we've passed were poor indeed. Their owners merely survive. They look at the hard clay, the rocky ground, and don't have the heart to work it. So they let their sheep and cattle crop the grass short and live off what scraps of meat they can get. But this woman, she thrives on ground that breaks the hearts of lesser men. One widow with the heart of a warlord, forever battling the rocks and clay and cold up on this hillside ... ." Waggit spoke with a note of finality. The lesson was done.
Fallion asked Waggit, "Did you bring us all of the way up here, just to see one old lady?"
"I didn't bring you up here," Waggit said. "Your father did."
Jaz's head snapped up. "You saw my da?" he asked eagerly. "When?"
"I didn't see him," Waggit said. "I heard the command last night, in my heart. A warning. He told me to bring you boys here."
A warning? Fallion wondered. Somehow it surprised him that his father had spared him a thought. As far as Fallion knew, his father had forgotten that he even had a pair of sons. Fallion sometimes felt as fatherless as the by-blows that littered the inns down on Candler's Street.
Fallion wondered if there was more that his father had wanted him to see. Fallion's father could use his Earth Powers to peer into the hearts of men and see their pasts, their desires. No man alive could know another person or judge their worth like Fallion's father.
Fallion's horse ambled forward, nosed a clump of grass by the roadside. Fallion drew reins, but the beast fought him. "Get back," Fallion growled, pulling hard.
Borenson warned the stallion, "Careful, friend, or the stable-master will have your walnuts."
All right, Fallion thought, I've seen what my father wanted me to see. But why does he want me to see it now?
Then Fallion had it. "With a lot of work, you can thrive in a hard place."With rising certainty he said, "That is what my father wants me to know. He is sending us to a hard place."
Borenson and Waggit caught each other's eyes. A thrill passed between them.
"Damn," Borenson said, "that boy is perceptive."
Movement up on the hill drew Fallion's eye--a shadow flitted like a raven between the trees.
Fallion could not see what had drawn his attention. The wet trunks of the pines were as black as ruin. The forest looked as wild and rugged as Fallion's father.
He focused on the tree line. A few great oaks sprawled silently along a ridge, offering shade to a pair of brown cattle, while smaller oaks crowded the folds. But still there was no sign of what had drawn his eye, and again Fallion felt uneasy.
Something is there, Fallion realized. Something in the shadows of the trees, watching us--a wight perhaps. The ghost of a shepherd or a woodsman.
The loud bleat of a sheep rode down from the woods above, echoing among the hills in the crisp evening air.
"Time to go," Borenson said, turning his horse; the others fell in line.
But the image of the cottage lingered, and Fallion asked, "The widow Huddard, she ... makes a lot of her own things. She sells milk and vegetables, honey and whatnot?"
"And your question is?" Waggit asked.
"She lives well from her own labors. But I was born a lord. What can I make?"
Fallion thought of the craftsmen at the castle--the armorers, the alewives, the master of the hounds, the dyers of wool. Each jealously guarded the secrets of his trade, and though Fallion suspected that he could master any of those trades, he had no one to teach him.
Waggit smiled with satisfaction. "The common folk manipulate things," he said. "Blacksmiths work metal, farmers till the land. That is how they earn their living. But a lord's art is a greater art: he manipulates people."
"Then we are no better than leeches," Fallion said. "We just live off of others."
Sir Borenson sounded so angry that his voice came out a near roar."A good lord earns his keep. He doesn't just use others, he empowers them. He encourages them. He makes them more than what they could become by themselves."
Maybe, Fallion thought, but only because they know that he'll kill them if they don't do what he says.
With a sly grin, Waggit added, "A lord's craft can indeed be marvelous. He molds men. Take Sir Borenson here. Left to his own devices, he is but the basest of clay. He has the natural instincts of a ... cutthroat--"
"Nay," Daymorra threw in with a hearty laugh. "A lecher. Left to his own ways, he'd be a lout in an alehouse, peddling the flesh of young women."
Borenson blushed, the red rising naturally to his face, and laughed. "Why not both? Sounds like a good life to me."
"But your father turned Borenson into a lawman," Waggit said. "And there are few better. Captain of the Guard, at one time."
Fallion gave Borenson a long look. Fallion had heard that Borenson had been powerful indeed--until his Dedicates had been killed. Now the guardsman had no endowments of brawn or of speed or of anything else, and though he had the respect of the other guards, he was the weakest of them all. Why he had not taken new attributes was a mystery that Fallion had not been able to unravel.
Fallion knew that there were dangers in taking endowments of course. Take the brawn from a man, and you become strong, but he becomes so weak that perhaps his heart will fail. Take the grace from a woman, and suddenly you are limber, but maybe her lungs won't unclench. Take the wit from a man, and you have use of his memory, but you leave an idiot in your wake.
It was a horrible thing to do, taking an attribute from another human being. Fallion's mother and father had abhorred the deed, and he felt their reluctance. But why had Borenson turned away from it?
Borenson wasn't a real guard in Fallion's mind. He acted more like a father than a guard.
Waggit said softly, "The shaping of men is a--"
There was an odd series of percussive booms, as if in the distance up the mountain, lightning struck a dozen times in rapid succession. The sound was not so much heard as felt, a jarring in the marrow.
Waggit fell silent. He'd been about to offer more praise for the Earth King. But he often worried about praising Fallion's father in front of the boys.Gaborn Val Orden was the first Earth King in two thousand years, and most likely the last that mankind would see for another two thousand. He cast a shadow that covered the whole world, and despite Fallion's virtues, Waggit knew that the boy could never come close to filling his father's boots.
Waggit had an odd sensation, glanced up the hill. Almost, he expected to see the Earth King there, Gaborn Val Orden, stepping out from among the shadow of the trees, like a nervous bear into the night. He could nearly taste Gaborn's scent, as rich as freshly turned soil. Nearby, a cricket began to sing its nightly song of decay.
Borenson drew a deep breath, and raised his nose like a hound that has caught a familiar scent. "I don't know about evil, but I smell death. There are corpses in the forest."
He turned his horse, and with a leap it was over the hedge and rushing up toward the pines. Waggit and Daymorra looked at each other, as if wondering whether they should follow, and Fallion made up their minds for them. He spurred his horse above the hedge and gave chase.
In moments, they thundered over the green grass up the hill, leapt another stone fence, and found themselves under a dark canopy. The pine needles lay thick on the ground, wet and full of mold, muffling the footfalls of the horses. Still, with each step, twigs would break, like the sound of small bones snapping in a bird.
It seemed unnaturally bleak under the trees to Sir Borenson. He'd been in many forests. The clouds above and the setting sun had both muted the light, but the black pine boughs seemed to hurry the coming of the night.
In the solemn forest, mist rose from the ground, creating a haze, like an empty songhouse once the candles have been snuffed out, after the last aria of the evening.
They rode through deep woods for nearly half a mile before Borenson found the bodies. They were riding up a steep draw, through trees so thick that even ferns could not grow beneath them, when they came upon five girls lying in the crooks of a mossy old oak--pale flesh, white and bloodless, fingers and toes turned blue.
Each body was at a different height. But all of them were well above the reach of wolves. All of the girls were young, perhaps five to thirteen years old, and most were naked. Their bellies looked swollen, as if they were pregnant.
But most horrifying were their expressions. They stared up with eyes gone white, and their mouths gaped wide, as if they had died in inexpressible fear or agony.
Both, Borenson suspected. His heart sank. His own daughter Talon, the oldest of his brood, was eight. At that moment he felt that she was the most precious thing in his life. He glanced back, afraid that Fallion and Jaz would see the bodies, but it was too late. The princes were staring in shock.
Fallion peered up, horrified by what he saw. As yet, he had not learned the mysteries of how children were formed. He had never even seen a girl with her clothes off, and he knew that what he saw now was evil and unnatural.
Up the hill, there was a cracking sound in the woods, as if a horse had stepped on a branch. Everyone stopped and glanced uphill apprehensively for a moment, then Borenson turned back to the princes.
"Get them away from here," Borenson told Waggit and Daymorra.
Borenson rode his horse near, placing himself between the princes and the girls in order to obscure their view. And for a moment he just stared at two of the girls, wedged in the crook of the same branch, whose bodies lay almost even with his eyes.
Both girls had rips and cuts on their flesh, bruises from rough handling. Both had obviously been violated by a big man, for there was bleeding and tearing in their most sacred places.
Borenson glanced at the ground and saw huge tracks--as if an impossibly large bear had been circling the tree.
Waggit rode up and whispered, "The girls taken from Hayfold? All the way up here?"
Borenson nodded. Three girls had been kidnapped a couple of nights before from the village of Hayfold. Such crimes were almost unheard of since the coming of the Earth King. Yet more than three bodies were here now. Borenson wondered where the other two had come from.
"I'll cover the corpses," Borenson said. "We can bring a wagon up tonight to retrieve them."
He reached up, feeling more fatigued than his labors of the day could account for, and unpinned his green woolen cape. The lowest two girls were laid out side by side, and he imagined that his cape would cover both of them.
But just as he pulled the cape up, one girl moved.
He grunted in surprise and quicker than thought his boot-knife leapt from scabbard to hand. He stared at the girl for a moment, and saw movement again--a shifting in her belly.
"Is ... is there something in there?" Waggit asked, his voice shaken.
And now that Borenson thought about it, he realized that the girls were too bloated for such cold weather. They shouldn't have swelled so much in a pair of nights.
He saw it again, as if a child kicked inside the dead girl's womb.
"There are babies in there," Fallion said, his face a study in horror and amazement.
Leaning forward, Borenson plunged in his knife, penetrating the skin, so that the smaller girl's belly flayed open. Out spilled its contents.
Borenson saw several creatures--wet, slimy, squirming. Like black malformed pups feeding at their mother's teats.
One spilled out onto a limb, rolling to its back. Its eyes were lidless, like a snake's, and vast and soulless in a wolflike face. Its tiny paws looked powerful, with claws as sharp as fishhooks. Its body looked too long for those legs, almost otterlike, with folds of skin that ran from leg to leg, like a flying lizard. But the creature had black hair, and its mouth held far too many teeth.
"What in the world?" Waggit intoned with revulsion.
The girl's innards were mostly gone. Tripe, guts, liver. The monsters had been feeding on them.
"Eating their way out," Waggit said. He asked the others, "You ever heard of anything like this?"
"You're the scholar," Borenson shot back.
Both men looked to Daymorra for an answer. She was the one who had traveled most widely in the world. She just sat astride her horse, nocking an arrow to her great bow, and shook her head.
Suddenly, from the highest branch above them, there was movement. A pale face turned to them, and a small and frightened voice whispered, "Get away from here. Before they come back!"
A young woman with hair as red as cinnamon was staring down at them--fierce eyes as blue as summer skies, the eyes of a savage. With her pale complexion, Borenson had just thought her to be another one of the dead. She looked to be twelve or thirteen, her small breasts just beginningto form. Her clothes were sodden rags, and her windblown hair had bits of leaves, lichens, and bark caught in it.
He stared in surprise. The girl's teeth were chattering. Strange, Borenson thought; I did not hear it before. She still clung to a scrap of cloth, a dark green coat. Her thighs were bruised and bloody, but her stomach was not yet bloated. Her rape must have been very recent.
Borenson glanced back at the others, to see their reaction, but the young woman begged, "Please, don't leave me!"
"We won't," young Fallion said, spurring his horse. In an instant, he was under the limb, reaching up.
The girl leaned forward, grabbing him around the neck. She felt shaky and frail as she half slid, half fell into the saddle behind him.
Fallion worried for her, hoping that there might be time to save her still. He wondered if it was safe to touch her--if the creatures inside might eat their way out.
Borenson threw his cape around her shoulders. Fallion felt her tremble all over as she hugged his chest. She clung to him as if she'd die before she let go.
"Do you have a name, child?" Borenson asked.
"Rhianna," the girl said. Her accent was one common to folk in the far northwest of Mystarria.
"A last name?" he asked. She made no answer. Fallion turned to see her. Her blue eyes were filled with more terror than he had ever seen in a human face.
Fallion wondered what horrors she had seen.
For her part, Rhianna stared at the men, and she was too afraid to speak. She could feel something hurting her inside. Was it fear that gnawed at her belly, or something worse? Why were these men still here? Everyone else was dead. She could tell them later what had happened--about the dark stranger, the summoner. She forced some words past lips that would not let her speak. "Please, let's go. Get me out of here!"
In the woods above them there was a distant crack, like a wet limb snapping under heavy weight.
"I smell evil," Daymorra whispered. "It's coming."
Suddenly a voice inside Fallion warned, "Flee!" It was his father's voice, the warning of the Earth King.
All the others must have heard the same warning, for Waggit instantly grabbed Jaz's reins and went thundering downhill through the woods.
Borenson fumbled with his boot-knife for an instant, thinking to put it away, but then stabbed the damned creature that lay on the limb through the belly, and it wriggled on the end of his blade. He marveled at its strength, until it let out a shrill bell-like bark.
And in the woods, uphill, an enormous roar sounded, shaking the air, a mother crying out to her young.
There was the sound of limbs snapping and trees breaking, and Borenson looked back. Fallion was trying to turn his mount, mouth wide in horror. Borenson slapped its rump, and the horse lunged away uncertainly.
Rhianna wrapped her arms around Fallion. He locked his own small hand over her fist and thought, We were all wrong. My father didn't send me here to see some old woman. He sent me to see this!
He glanced back into the woods, trying to discern what gave chase, as Borenson sheathed his knife.
Fallion's heart was pounding like a sledgehammer upon an anvil. His father seldom sent warnings, and only did so when a man was in mortal danger.
There was a sound like the churning of wind, or the rising of a storm up the hill, as if something were rushing through the trees. Fallion peered up through the woods, and it seemed that he saw movement--dark forms leaping and gliding through the trees. But it was as if light retreated from them, and the harder he squinted, the less certain he could be of what it was that he saw.
"Ride!" Daymorra shouted as she drew back her arrow. "I will hold them off!"
Waggit and Jaz were already gone, leaving Daymorra to her fate. Borenson spurred his own horse and kept just off Fallion's flank. Soon the horses were galloping at full speed.
Fallion's training took over and he clung to the saddle and crouched, offering less wind resistance as an aid to his swift force horse and making a smaller target of his back. Rhianna clung to him, warming his back. With his ear pressed against the horse's neck, he could feel the heat of its body on his cheek as well as between his legs, could feel every thud of its hoovesagainst the soft humus, and could hear the blood rushing through its veins and the wind wheezing through the caverns of its lungs.
He was suddenly reminded of an incident from his childhood: on a foggy morning, not five years ago, he and Jaz had gone out on the parapet. The streets had been all but empty so early in the morning, and Fallion had heard a strange sound, a panting, as if someone were running, followed by a call: "Wooo--OOOO. Wooo-oooo."
Both boys thought that something was coming for them, scrabbling up the castle walls, and they tried to imagine what it might be. So they ran into the room and barred their doors in fright.
They tried to imagine what kind of animal might make such a noise, and Fallion had ventured that since it sounded like a horn, it must be an animal with a long neck.
In their room, the boys had a menagerie of animals all carved from wood and painted in their natural colors. Jaz suggested that it might be a camel that was chasing them, though neither boy had ever seen one. And in his mind, the sound immediately became a camel--black and huge, like the war camels that were ridden by the Obbattas in the desert. He imagined that the camel had sharp teeth dripping with foam and bloodshot eyes.
Four-year-old Fallion and Jaz had rushed out into the Great Hall of the castle, stumbling in fear and shouting to the guards, "Help! Help! The camels are coming!"
Sir Borenson, who was taking breakfast at the time, had laughed so hard that he fell off of his stool. He took the boys outside in the fog and drew his sword very dramatically, cursing all camels and commanding them to do no harm.
Then he led them toward the sound of the eerie calls. There, in the courtyard, they found a puppy chained to a stake--a young mastiff that alternately howled and panted as it tried to pull free.
"There's your camel," Borenson had said, laughing. "The Master of the Hounds bought him last night, and was afraid he'd try to run home if we took him off his chain. So he'll stay here for the day, until he figures out that he's family." Then the boys had laughed at their own fear and had petted the puppy.
Now as Fallion rode, he heard trees snapping, saw the fear on Borenson's face.
We're not children anymore, he thought.
He looked to his brother Jaz, so small and frail, riding in his haste. Fallion felt a pang of longing, a stirring desire to protect his brother, something that he'd often felt before.
Fallion suddenly heard a strange call, like deep horns ringing one after another, all underwater, then a sudden screeching and the sounds of trees crashing, as if some enormous creatures tangled in battle.
Fallion imagined Daymorra fighting there against the creatures, and whispered the only prayer he knew, "May the Bright Ones protect you, and the Glories guard your back!"
Fallion opened his eyes to slits. Darkness was coming fast even as his horse lunged out of the woods and leapt down a sloping field. The garnet air seemed wan and diffuse, as if filtered through fire-lit skies. Fat grasshoppers leapt from the stubble as the horses pounded past, and there in the grass, white flowers yawned wide, morning glories with petals that unfolded like pale mouths, getting ready to scream.
There were more cries in the woods as the party reached the road. Somehow they had circled behind the widow's place. Her black dog raced out from under her porch, giving chase, but could not keep up with the force horses. Soon it dropped away, wagging its tail sheepishly as if its defeat were a victory.
Something stirred inside Fallion, and he heard his father shout, "Run!" Fallion spurred his horse harder. "Run! The ends of the Earth are not far enough!"
Again his father's image intruded in his mind, a dimly recalled green figure, a shadow, and Fallion felt his presence so strongly that it was as if the man's breath warmed Fallion's face.
"Father?" Fallion called out.
Fallion looked behind him, wondering what could be giving chase, when he felt something pierce his stomach.
He glanced down to see if an arrow was protruding from his ribs, or to see if one of the black creatures that inhabited Rhianna was there. His wine-colored leather vest was undamaged. Yet he could feel something vital being pulled from him, as if he were a trout and a giant hand had pierced him and now was yanking out his guts.
He heard a whisper, his father's rambling voice. "Run, Fallion," he said."They will come for you." And then there was a long silence, and the voice came softer. "Learn to love the greedy as well as the generous ... the poor as much as the rich ... the evil ... . Return a blessing for every blow ... ."
Suddenly the voice went still, and there was a yawning emptiness in Fallion. His eyes welled up. Fallion saw sheep running headlong down from the hills, and everywhere, everywhere, from all of the guards, grunts and cries of pain issued. Fallion could feel keenly a wrongness descending upon the world.
"Sweet mercy!" Waggit shouted.
Borenson growled, "The Earth King is dead!" and somewhere in the distance, from Castle Coorm, whose towers rose above its gray weathered walls, a bell began to toll.
Fallion had never known a world without an Earth King. All of his young life, he had felt secure. If danger arose, whether from assassins or illness or accident, he had known that his father's voice would whisper in warning, and he would know how to save himself.
Suddenly he was naked and bereft.
The horses galloped hard along the dirt track. Borenson cast a fearful glance uphill.
"Above us!" Borenson shouted. Darkness thickened all around, as if the last of the sun had dipped below the horizon, sucking all light with it.
Tears of pain filled Fallion's eyes, and he looked up the mountain. Daymorra came riding hard from under the trees. It seemed that a wind swept toward her, rattling the pines along the mountainside, causing whole trees to pitch and sway and crack and fall. But it was no wind. Instead Fallion saw creatures--like scraps of blackest night, floating about in a mad dance, landing in the trees and shaking them. Their growls rose, deep and ominous, like distant thunder, but they held to the woods, and did not dare race into the open fields. Instead, they leapt from tree to tree, following through the woods, while the trees hissed and bent under heavy weight.
And then all of the horses were speeding away, down the long winding road, while the enemy fell behind. Borenson brought out a warhorn and sounded it, in hopes that the far-seers at Castle Coorm would hear and know that they were under attack. The far-seers with their many endowments of sight might spot them from the castle. But Fallion knew that at such a great distance, he would look as tiny as an ant.
The night suddenly descended, falling instantly and unnaturally to smother the world.
It was the end of a golden age of peace. Fallion knew it. Everyone knew it. Even the sheep felt it.
Fallion squinted in the unnatural darkness as the horses thundered. Rhianna clung to him, gibbering with pain or terror, and he felt hot tears splash down from her eyes to his back.
Are there monsters in her? Fallion wondered. Are they eating their way out? What are we running from?
And instantly he knew: for years the old folks had said that the world was becoming more like the netherworld. They said that fresh springwater tasted better than old wine. The hay in the fields smelled sweet enough to eat, and often folk spoke in awe at how vivid the stars now burned at night. And the weather: the lazy summers let fruit grow fat on the trees, while the winters came with a sharper bite. Some said that the world was becoming more "perfect," bringing perfect weather, perfect children, perfect peace. But there was a dark side, too. New terrors were said to be hiding in the mountains, creatures more vile than anything the world had known.
And now, Fallion thought, perfect evil has been unleashed upon the world.