The War of the Moonstone: an Epic Fantasy, страница 1
THE WAR OF THE MOONSTONE
Cover image used with permission
Wolves ranged throughout the forest, howling furiously, sending fear before them like a plague. Their howls shook the stones of the great fortress that reared from the cliffs of the mountain, the fortress where the wolf-lord lived. And in his hall, upon his throne, he sat and waited.
Presently a shadow stepped from behind a pillar, its eyes shining yellow in the dimness of the chamber.
“I am here.”
Vrulug, the wolf-lord, smiled at his visitor’s stealth, though his guards put their hands to the hilts of their swords. He waved them away.
“Step forward,” he said.
The shadow obeyed. The low, leaping red light of the braziers revealed it, an inch at a time. It was a man, or at least it appeared like one for the moment—tall and dark and wild, broad of shoulder, deep of chest, unclad. The smell of blood rose from him. Though he stepped forward, his face remained in shadow, and his eyes glinted from the darkness.
“I’m yours to command, my lord. What would you have of me?” Raugst’s voice betrayed only a slight edge. He had been called away from the hunt and clearly longed to rejoin it.
“Something important.” Vrulug dismissed his Borchstog guards, and they left grumbling, obviously not pleased at the thought of their lord alone with the visitor, perhaps even jealous of the intimacy it shared with him. Smoke from a nearby urn drifted across the room, and from somewhere the cry of a tortured prisoner echoed off the walls.
“I need for you to infiltrate the Wesrains,” Vrulug said, without preamble.
Raugst lifted his eyebrows in appreciation. Then, smoothly, he bowed his head. “It shall be done, my lord.”
“Good.” Vrulug relaxed. Raugst would do well, as he always did. “Grand times are approaching, my friend. The grand times.” He lowered his voice. “The Master . . . makes His move.” He let the words stretch out, making each one important.
“Truly?” There was genuine surprise in Raugst’s voice. When Vrulug inclined his head, Raugst’s eyes glittered with a different sort of light than before. “I did not think it would be so soon.”
“Nor did I, yet the hour of His victory approaches. What’s more, we will make it happen.” He let the importance of that sink in, then clapped his hands. A servant emerged from an alcove with a platter bearing a bottle and two sparkling glasses. The servant filled each glass with red fluid, fine wine laced with human blood, and Vrulug and Raugst both took one.
“To the One,” Vrulug said, and Raugst echoed the words.
They drank. The howling of the wolves outside reached a crescendo, and Raugst cocked his head, listening.
“Do you miss the hunt?” Vrulug said. “I know I drew you away too soon.”
Raugst smiled. “On the contrary, my lord. I have new prey now.”
“Here! This way!”
Giorn Wesrain spurred his mount, pushing on through the forest. His brothers followed, close at his heels. Ahead fled the great boar-like creature that had been terrorizing nearby villages of late. Its grunts and squeals sent shivers down his spine.
He burst out into a clearing. The massive, wooly beast ran ahead of him, around an outcropping of rock, over a knoll, then into the forest once more. The behemoth reeked of blood and death. Giorn followed, head lowered, thighs pressed into his mount’s flanks. His eyes stayed fixed on the great black shape. It must weigh upwards of a thousand pounds, a nightmarish abomination that only vaguely resembled a natural boar. Two of Giorn’s arrows sprouted from its flank, and blood trickled down its hide.
Cypresses loomed ahead, and over the thumping of his horse’s hooves Giorn heard water. Leaves whipped at his face. He ducked, his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. Hurry, he told himself. He had to kill the thing before it endangered his brothers. As the Baron’s oldest son, it was Giorn’s responsibility to end the creature, but it was not theirs.
“There!” cried Meril, the middle son.
“No, I think I saw it go that way!” said Rian.
They shouldn’t have come. They were too proud, and they wanted revenge for the villagers the creature had slain. Giorn urged his horse on, faster. The boar plunged through the trees and into the undergrowth, vanishing into the darkness of the forest. Giorn rode after it, tense and wary. He could no longer see it, no longer hear it. Where had it gone? One hand strayed toward the lance in its bracket—
Growls, then howling.
The hounds! They’d found it.
Steering his horse toward the sounds, he came upon the great beast, black and tusked, its wooly coat matted with decaying material; it had literally wallowed in a mound of bodies in the cavern lair Giorn had flushed it from. It had its back to the stream, which was too wide and raging for even it to cross. To its fore were three hounds. One sprawled on the ground, still and lifeless.
Even as Giorn arrived, one of the remaining hounds leapt at the monster’s side. The boar swung its massive head, catching the hound on the point of a tusk and flinging it away. Giorn’s heart wrenched, as he had trained the hounds himself and loved them well.
He snatched at his bow and readied an arrow. Fired. Hit. Fired again. Quivering, the shafts stood out from the monster’s head and neck, but the creature did not even seem to notice.
The last hound lunged for its throat. The boar-thing swung its head, and the dog’s broken body hurtled to the ground.
Giorn readied another arrow, fingers trembling. Drew back the string to his ear, aimed and loosed. The arrow flew directly into the beast’s right eye. It squealed but did not go down. Instead, it lowered its long, broad head, fixing Giorn with its remaining eye, small and hateful, and charged.
Giorn jerked at his horse’s reins, hauling it to the side. He just barely dodged the black, furred beast as it barreled past. Instantly he heard the sounds of heavy flesh striking flesh. A horse neighed in fear and pain. His brother Rian screamed.
Horrified, Giorn wheeled about, lifting his lance from his bracket. Rian was down, his entrails spilling across the leaf-strewn ground. His horse, a bloody mess, mewled beside him.
Giorn felt something twist inside him. “Rian!”
The boar rammed Meril’s horse next. Its tusks ripped deep into the horse’s side, and, screaming, the animal crashed to the ground. Meril jumped clear. He hit the ground, rolled, and stayed down.
The boar moved toward him, who had apparently landed badly, twisting an ankle. Giorn couldn’t reach him in time. Giorn cocked his lance and flung it as hard as he could. The lance sailed through the air, straight toward the beast, and blood spurted where it struck. The creature screamed.
Still it kept its feet, though it staggered and shook its head. Giorn swore. No natural being could have resisted such a wound. A thing of Oslog, it must be.
He guided his mount around Rian as he readied his bow. He needed to distract the creature. The beast was already nearing Meril, foam fizzling on its snout. Flies buzzed about its gory tusks.
Meril’s face paled. Shakily, he reached for his dagger and ripped it free. It glinted in the vague light that fell through the tall trees, but the weapon seemed a puny thing compared to the wooly vastness of the boar.
It all happened very fast. One moment Giorn was approaching the beast even as it descended on Meril, who was all but helpless against it. Then, suddenly, a wild shape burst from the undergrowth, hunting knife bared and flashing.
The stranger caught the beast by surprise. He wrapped one arm around its neck as far as it could go, bracing himself, and with the other he plunged his blade under the be
The stranger, who bore a tusk wound on his chest, gasped for breath and clung to his kill like a drowning man to a log. Meril stared at him, too shocked to wipe the blood from his face.
Giorn shook off his surprise and climbed down from his horse. He knelt beside Rian, who was trying to gather up his guts and stuff them back into his body. Shame and grief welled up in Giorn as he stroked his brother’s hair and kissed his forehead.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I failed you.”
Rian tried to smile. Blood came up. “You did the best you could, brother mine.” His voice came weak and gasping, but even so it carried his usual cavalier tone. “At least I saw the beast die first. Even now it paves the way to hell for me.”
“You won’t go to the hells,” Giorn said. He found Rian’s hand and gripped it tight. “You’ll find the Lights of Sifril, and they will guide you to paradise.”
Rian chuckled, a ghastly sight with the blood coating his teeth, then the luster in his eyes faded and he sagged. For a long moment, Giorn remained beside him, and the wind whispered through the trees. Then the elder brother mastered himself and rose. A quick look showed the stranger bending over Meril, helping him stand. Both were drenched in blood, not all of it from the beast.
“You’re wounded,” Giorn said, noting the tusk wound on the stranger’s chest.
The man shrugged. “What is the life of a woodsman compared to that of a lordling?” He was tall and sturdily-built, Giorn saw, rugged but with a keenness to his dark eyes that spoke of intelligence and character.
Giorn clapped him on the shoulder. “What may I call you?”
“Raugst.” And he smiled.
Shortly Giorn’s retainers arrived, and he aided them in building a litter for Rian’s body. His manservant Hanslib carried a flask of whiskey, and Giorn shared this generously with Meril and Raugst as his retainers built a second, larger litter for the beast. Its head would adorn his mantle back home, of that Giorn would make certain.
“I owe you my life,” Meril told the woodsman, lifting the flask in a toast. “To your long health.”
He drank, then handed the flask to Raugst, who graciously said, “To yours.”
“What sort of name is Raugst for a woodsman?” asked Giorn.
“I hail from the border. Names are different there.”
Giorn could tell from the bitter tone in his voice which border Raugst meant, and he nodded. Oslog, the empire of the Dark One, bordered the kingdom of Felgrad to the south. It had stood poised on the brink of destroying its northern neighbors for ages, but so far the united kingdoms of the so-called Crescent Alliance, of which Felgrad was a part, had held Gilgaroth, the Breaker, the Wolf, Lord of the Second Hell, at bay.
“The beast must have been a thing from the South,” Meril said, gesturing to the bloody corpse of the boar. Flies gathered to it, and it was beginning to stink in the sultry afternoon air. Rian will not be far behind, Giorn thought. “It was no thing of these parts.”
“Likely enough,” Giorn said, who had had similar thoughts. “It could have been sent by Vrulug himself.”
The Enemy’s chief agent in this quarter, Vrulug had tried to raze Felgrad for a hundred generations. Some said it was only the presence of the Moonstone, guarded by the Temple of Illiana in Hielsly, that had stymied him for so long.
“I saw that and worse growing up in the highlands,” Raugst said, eyes on the behemoth. “The creatures of the Breaker are ravenous and cruel. They kill for pleasure. For sport. Death to them all!”
Giorn looked Raugst in the eye. “You must come with us back to Thiersgald. Father will want an account of Rian’s death. And he will want to meet the man that saved Meril.”
Raugst bowed his head. “As my lord commands.”
With a heavy heart, Giorn led the way back through the dense autumn forest. Though the many great pines were still green, the majestic cypresses and elms and ash were skeletal and forlorn. A cold breeze rustled Giorn’s hair and sent shivers through his body. Meril broke out in a low dirge, and after some time Giorn joined him. They sang of fallen warriors being born to the heavens by flights of angels and of the weeping wives left behind. The retainers sang, also, and not just out of loyalty; they had loved Rian well.
Raugst, likely unfamiliar with the local songs, remained silent, sitting grim and dark atop the horse Giorn had provided him.
They passed through the first villages of Fiarth, and word spread from block to block as the procession passed through. The villagers donned their blackest garments and lined the streets to either side of Giorn’s party. Some carried candles. All bowed their heads respectfully, and many of the men thumped their chests in a warrior’s salute as Rian was dragged by. Giorn had placed his brother’s body with his arms crossed over his chest and with his longsword depending from them. He’d died protecting his people and deserved the funeral rites of a valiant warrior. Giorn would see to it that a song was written in his honor.
Finally the procession crested a low rise and beheld Thiersgald laid out before them. By then it was night, and the lights of the city twinkled like a sea of stars on a rolling velvet plain. Home to a quarter of a million people, Thiersgald was the capital of Fiarth. Giorn and his people traveled along the brick-paved road and came upon the great South Gate of the city with its twin guard towers standing to either side. The soldiers stationed there verified Giorn’s identity before admitting him, as was customary after nightfall, and when they learned of Rian’s passing issued word for the mourning bells to be rung. Presently their tolling echoed throughout the city.
Side by side, Giorn and Meril rode down the cobbled streets, meeting the eyes of the people that lined the road. Some threw flowers or coins.
The white-spired Temple of Illiana blazed with a thousand candles, and the slender priestesses in their white robes lined up before the elaborately-wrought edifice to pay their respects. The High Priestess stepped forward, directly in Giorn’s path. He drew to a halt and bowed his head. She was a beautiful woman, tall and willowy and fair, with black curly hair and proud blue eyes, now saddened.
“Lady Niara,” he said.
“Lord Giorn.” She dropped her veil of formality and stepped closer. Her voice lowered. “I’m so sorry. The barony is a lesser place without Rian.” She went to the body, said a soft prayer that Giorn could not hear, and stroked Rian’s hair. Then, serenely, seeming much like an angel herself, she bent over and kissed him on first one eye, then the other. Giorn fancied that he saw Rian’s eyelids glow for a moment after each kiss.
Lady Niara looked upon the shaggy, bloody mound of the beast, made a sign to ward off evil, then turned back to Giorn. “Shall my ladies and I take Rian now and prepare his body for entombment?”
Giorn shook his head. “Father will want to see him first.”
“But have one of your priestesses seek me at the Castle later, and we’ll make arrangements.”
“As you wish.”
She let her eyes linger on his a moment, questioning. He held her gaze steadily but made no further move. Not here, he thought. Not now.
She bowed and withdrew. Giorn led on.
When they were some distance away, Raugst said, with some awe in his voice, “She was lovely.”
Giorn turned to regard him. Raugst wore a strange expression.
“Yes,” Giorn said. That was all. He hadn’t the heart to say anything further. The funeral bells echoed loudly in his ears.
The procession passed through the outer city and then through the gates of the inner wall, the original wall of Thiersgald, built long ago before the city had expanded to its present girth. Here the road was lined by colonnades and great palaces of veined white marble, and mansions of gold brick and red granite reared in t
Father was waiting for them at the wide stairs that led up to Wesrain Castle. A tall, thin man, with a likewise thin mustache and beard, and black pouches under his pale blue eyes, he sometimes gave the impression of being lofty and aloof, but he was very low now, and his servants stood anxiously nearby as if ready to catch him should he fall.
Seeing his father’s grief saddened Giorn all over again, and as he met his father’s gaze they shared a heavy sorrow. They would miss Rian sorely.
Climbing down from his horse, Giorn embraced Lord Harin Wesrain, then stepped back as Meril did the same. Raugst stayed out of the way while the Baron bent over his fallen son and wept. Giorn gave his father some time, then, in a soft voice, said, “We would’ve lost Meril too were it not for our new companion, Raugst the woodsman.” He indicated Raugst, who bowed his head.
The Baron scrutinized the woodsman for some time, his eyes flinty. Raugst said nothing, which Giorn appreciated. At last the Baron sighed, kissed Rian’s forehead, and in dull tones he said, “Come. I have no appetite, but when I heard you were arriving I had dinner prepared. Let’s not waste it. We will eat, we will drink, we will toast Rian’s bravery, and the story shall be told.” He gestured to Raugst. “And you will be our guest of honor.”
The dinner that night was somber indeed, and the candles that stood in a row upon the ancient, darkly-stained dining table were black and dripping. Even the roast venison with the savory brown gravy and the cabbages and potatoes that Giorn normally loved tasted like ash in his mouth.
His sister Fria had taken Rian’s death badly, and she wept quietly and did not eat. She was a pretty young woman, with chestnut hair and a small straight nose, but she had one bad eye that rolled around in its socket, a condition that disturbed her few suitors greatly.