Authors: A. J. Lake
DARKEST AGE BOOK THREE
A. J. LAKE
SPECIAL THANKS TO LINDA CAREY
For Mike: first, last and always
In a cave underground, the dragon Torment brooded.
He had no lair now. He had lived all his long life in the mountain that had birthed him, the rocks groaning in agony as he burst from them. He had rested in the high caves, preyed on the creatures that lived on the mountain’s slopes, and flown through the flaming crevasse at its heart, to do the bidding of the one who had summoned him. Now master and mountain were gone. The caves of his home were red-hot slag and grey ash, and Torment, damaged and half blinded, had fled from the dreadful heat to this low, cramped place. It had held some of the little ice creatures once, and Torment made them his prey...
He roared, and the sound brought snow thumping down outside the cave entrance. His lair was gone, the prey had all disappeared, and everywhere the rock was hot and painful even for him to touch. But that was not the worst. The voices were still with him. They were silent now, but he could feel them curled up in his head, waiting to call on him again.
In another place, the ice dragon slept, enfolding a hill like a white cloak. Her great shoulders twitched, scattering rocks down the slopes, as she dreamed of flight – the winds rolling around her; the white fields stretching away below.
She was dreaming about the last time she had tasted the snow-wind and felt the air swell beneath her wings. There had been another dragon: she had swatted it down. There had been fire, coming suddenly out of the air as she tried to rest, and nearly engulfing her – but her wings had been powerful enough to take her far away, to a place where the snow lay undisturbed. Where was the voice in her head now, the tiny call that had woken her? It had spoken to her: pricked her out of sleep, goaded her into the air. And then it had vanished, leaving her to return to her sleep. Deep in her dreams, she wondered if she would ever hear the voice again.
Under the heavy pall of smoke, in the fiery heart of
, another dragon howled.
He was all made of fire. He had been a long time forming: countless years of close-banked rage had twisted his shape out of the heat of the earth. For a century or more his maker had been imprisoned in the caves above, and in all that time the dragon had writhed in the fires below the surface, gaining form and breath until he dreamed the burning dreams of his master. And today the dragon had awakened.
His master was free of these cramped walls of rock. He’d broken out into the world beyond, the infinite space outside
of these walls, and had already begun to split himself, spread himself, and to devour. The dragon gathered itself to follow. Nothing would exist but the glory of fire.
He was held back. A new thought came into his mind and stuck there, like a rock that could not be burned:
Not yet. Later
. He thrashed and spat, straining upwards as his master shot into the air, away from him, and disappeared.
Alone and thwarted, the fire dragon screamed, pouring his flames from the mountain until the sky above him turned black. It was not enough to burn clouds. He would burn everything, everywhere . . . when he was free.
still burned. Its red light was visible through the trees, and its low thunder sounded all around them.
They must be more than five leagues away by now
, Edmund thought, but he could still feel the rumbling beneath his feet.
He stopped for a moment to look back. He could no longer see the snow fields through the black trunks, but the sight of the mountain was still imprinted on his mind’s eye: the waves of molten rock pouring from it; the snow giving way before the tide of fire and clouds of ash sweeping over the land. Edmund wondered how fast those tides were moving. He and his six companions had walked across the snow for most of a day before the fire erupted, reaching the shelter of the forest not long before sunset. But there would be no more rest now. The fire was creeping towards them across the ice: the trees could not shelter them against this. Already, the lake where they had fished not three days before would have turned to steam, and then to a pit of blackened rock. He thought unhappily of
, the glacier dragon who
had carried him and his friends down the mountain: he had jolted her out of her sleep by picturing the destruction of her home, and now it had happened. At least he had seen the great dragon flying away. She would be safe – for now.
‘Come on, Edmund!’ Cathbar had come back for him, and laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. The captain’s voice was urgent. ‘No standing about: those fires are moving!’
Edmund hurried after him. They abandoned their recently gathered firewood, and loaded the water bottles on one of the two horses. The young girl from the Snowlands, Fritha, went ahead of the party, finding paths between the scaly trunks. Cluaran the minstrel and his quiet friend Ari followed her with the horses, who flattened their ears nervously. On Cluaran’s horse, his mother, Eolande, sat with her head bowed, the only member of the party seemingly unaffected by the general haste.
Edmund walked behind, with Elspeth. She was walking as fast as the rest of them, even though her face was still pale beneath the smoke-grime, and she unconsciously nursed her wounded right hand. When he touched her arm she turned to him with a wan smile.
‘I was trying to hear Ioneth,’ she said. ‘I can feel her voice in my head, if I concentrate – but it’s so weak.’
Edmund looked down at her hand, its palm marked with a livid red slash. ‘Do you think . . . Will she be able to fight, now?’
‘She has to.’ Elspeth’s voice was filled with determination. ‘She gave her life to make the sword! It’s the only reason we’re here. It’ll come back, and we’ll find Loki and kill him.’
Edmund did not answer. He had been there when the crystal sword was destroyed, only a day ago, in Loki’s underground cavern. Elspeth had gone in to kill him. Instead, the demon-god had tricked her into freeing him, and the sword that should have saved them all was gone. Maybe Ioneth’s spirit still lived – he had too much faith in his friend’s good sense to think she was deceiving herself – but he had
the blade shattering. He trudged on beside Elspeth without speaking.
The sun had long since set, but the bloody light of the fires still followed them through the trees, and the air felt unnaturally warm. Edmund was beginning to sweat inside his thick furs. The patches of snow underfoot were giving way to damp, slippery pine needles, and melting drips from the branches above fell on to their heads.
‘Slow down!’ Cathbar called, ahead of them. ‘Something’s wrong.’
Fritha came running back, her face pale – and Edmund saw what they had seen. The red light that surrounded them came from ahead now, as well as behind. At the same moment they heard the crackle of flames. Both horses whickered in panic.
‘We must get upwind of it,’ Cathbar said urgently, turning back the way they had come, but Fritha shook her head.
‘We go to the river,’ she said, and started off at an angle, beckoning them to follow.
She led them at a run through the dark trees, while the air grew hotter and the red light ahead began to flicker. The smell
of smoke stung Edmund’s nose, and he heard Elspeth breathing raggedly. Ahead of them both horses were trying to break into a canter, giving little whinnies of fear, while Cluaran and Ari ran beside them, each talking to his charge in a low voice. Only Eolande, effortlessly keeping her seat on the leading horse, seemed not to have noticed the danger they were in.
‘It’s here,’ Fritha called over her shoulder.
It was a stream rather than a river, not wide but deep, with stony banks sloping down on each side. The fire was visible on the far side: a yellow bank of flame in the near distance, veiled in smoke.
‘It’s moving away from us,’ Cathbar said. ‘Look at the trees.’
Edmund peered into the smoky gloom, wrinkling his nose. The trees on the far side of the stream seemed oddly small and slender – and he realised they were stumps, stripped of their branches. Many seemed to have fallen, and lay in strange diagonals against the others. There were no leaves or branches to cut off their view of the fire; only bare trunks.
‘They’ve already burned,’ said Cathbar.
The horses were standing still, wild-eyed and sweating, and Edmund found himself moving close to their steaming flanks, though he did not feel cold. The whole party huddled together, as if for reassurance.
‘This is Loki’s doing,’ Cluaran said, with certainty.
Ari nodded. ‘Not even lightning could make a fire like this in winter,’ he said. ‘We’re lucky he started it where he did. But for that stream, it would be burning here.’
‘You think it was luck?’ Cluaran retorted. ‘Even weakened as he is, Loki could find us and burn us with a thought.’ He gazed bleakly at the distant flames. ‘No – he likes to play games with his enemies.’
They stared at each other; a circle of pale faces in the red-lit gloom.
‘He’s somewhere in the forest, isn’t he?’ Elspeth said.
Edmund’s throat felt tight. ‘What should we do?’
‘I say we let him wait for us,’ Cathbar said. ‘Stay where we are till daybreak so we can get a proper sight of him when we meet him. Besides,’ he added with a pointed glance at Eolande, ‘didn’t my lady here tell us he was strongest by night?’
Cluaran looked thoughtful. ‘You have a point,’ he agreed. ‘His illusions may have less power by daylight, though if he chooses to use force . . .’ He let the words tail away. ‘If we are to meet him, I would rather we saw him clearly.’ He looked around the group. Ari was nodding, and Elspeth, rubbing at her hand again, made no objection. Edmund’s legs felt like water at the thought of walking through the dark towards the fire-demon, and he nodded too as Cluaran asked, ‘Are we agreed?’
‘No,’ Fritha said.
She reddened a little as they all turned to look at her. ‘I mean,’ she said hesitantly, ‘
will stay here; that is good. But I will go on now.’
Edmund saw his own consternation reflected on the faces of the others.
‘My home is on the other side of this river,’ Fritha said quietly. ‘I must go there and find my father.’
She was already turning from them when Elspeth started forward, taking her by the arm. Edmund thought he saw a glint like tears in his friend’s eyes.
‘I’m going with you,’ she said.
Edmund expected Cathbar to argue, but the captain nodded. ‘You’re right, girl,’ he said. ‘We owe him that much.’
It was true, Edmund knew. Grufweld had given them hospitality he could ill afford, and allowed Fritha, his only child, to guide them on their dangerous journey. ‘I’ll come too,’ he said, though his voice sounded thin and strained.
Cluaran exchanged a look with Ari, and sighed. ‘Come on, then,’ he said. ‘The way should be easy to find, at least.’
The river was barely wide enough to wet their feet, but once on the other side Edmund felt as if their last refuge had gone. Smoke curled around him, stinging his nose and eyes. The flames came no closer, but their heat and the smell of the burning hit him like a solid force. And all around them were scorched trunks, hot to the touch; some of them were crowned with dull red embers that showered sparks on the travellers as they moved through them. Cluaran and Ari led the horses at the back of the party, and the animals stepped cautiously on the hot ground, the whites of their eyes showing.
Fritha led them swiftly, and Edmund wondered how she could find her way in this charred wilderness. Her haste infected
him, and he quickened his pace, fearing every moment to come upon Grufweld’s hut and find it in flames.
He became aware that the reddish glow around them had grown brighter, and the heat more intense. Then, from ahead, he heard the crackle of burning, louder than before – and Fritha gasped and stopped.
She was standing at the edge of a clearing that was ringed with the blazing skeletons of wood, and charred stumps. Ash and smoke hung in the air in a thick pall, pouring from the trees whose trunks still burned. Inside the clearing the ground was black and featureless, bare of everything but ash.
Fritha had turned, white-faced. ‘We must go on, quickly,’ she said, her voice tight. ‘Look!’
At the far end of the clearing, maybe a hundred paces away, was a wide gap in the forest. The trees were not as badly burned here but they had fallen to right and left, leaving a broad channel like the wake of a man walking through tall grass. In his mind’s eye Edmund saw Loki, grown to giant size as he had been when they last saw the demon, standing in the midst of this devastation and laughing before setting off to leave a trail that his enemies would follow. He ran to Fritha’s side, and her horrified face told him that the trail led towards her home.
It was agreed between them without words that they could not go through the dreadful clearing: the horses shied back if they approached it, and not one of them wanted to set foot
on that blackened ground. Fritha led them in a wide circle around it, squeezing the horses between the trunks that still stood; skirting the ones that still blazed. She moved at a run, barely looking back to check that the others could follow. Both Edmund and Elspeth were breathless by the time they reached the beginning of Loki’s trail. The smell of burning was less here, and the light of the flames was behind them. But the ground was ripped and broken, and lined on both sides with twisted roots as thick as a man’s leg where the trees had been torn up and thrown aside.
Fritha took a deep breath, before stepping on to the unnatural path. ‘
’ she called, and began to run down the wide track.
The slash in the forest canopy above their heads revealed a sky that was beginning to lighten.
‘It’s near morning,’ Cathbar said. ‘Or as much morning as we’re going to get. If his power is less by daylight, maybe we’ve come in good time.’
‘I wouldn’t rely on that,’ said Cluaran.
Fritha had stopped ahead of them and held up a hand. She waited until they came up to her before speaking. ‘My home is near here. We must
. . . go soft.’
The swathe of torn trees ended only a hundred paces further on. The trunks closed in ahead of them again – but through them, Edmund could see weak grey light. They were at the edge of Grufweld’s clearing. His heart started to thump.
‘Stay close,’ Cathbar hissed – but Fritha was already rushing forward, out of the trees. Edmund and Elspeth followed close behind.
Fritha’s home was just as he had seen it last. Edmund let out a breath he had not realised he was holding as relief washed over him.
The snugly built hut with its wolf-hides nailed over the door, the drying-shed behind and the neatly stacked woodpile all spoke of peace and order. Even the fiery glow from the kiln where Grufweld burned his charcoal looked warm and reassuring. Edmund felt Elspeth’s grip on his arm relaxing. As the other three came out of the trees behind them, Fritha gave a cry of joy and started forward.
The hides over the hut’s door swung abruptly aside, and Grufweld appeared in the opening. The huge, bearded man’s face looked tired and worn, but he held out his arms in welcome to Fritha.
‘Come inside, quickly!’ he called. ‘There’s danger out here!’ Edmund and Elspeth followed Fritha towards the hut, and the welcoming glow of firelight within.
A roar of fury interrupted him. From behind the charcoal-kiln a figure rose, black and shapeless, waving a fiery rod. It lumbered towards them, howling unintelligible words. Cathbar yelled and ran at it, drawing his sword.
Fritha, a dozen paces from the door of her home, had stopped dead, turning to face the apparition.
’ she stammered.
The black figure put its hand to its head. He had been draped in thick furs, Edmund saw now – and he gasped as the man threw back his hood.
Facing Fritha across the clearing, brandishing a charred stick like a weapon, was another Grufweld, the mirror of the man in the doorway – and with the self-same horror in his face.
‘It’s a trick!’ cried the first man. But Fritha was standing still, midway between the two, looking from one to the other in bewilderment.
Cold horror took hold of Edmund.
I was looking for a burning giant
, he thought,
and all the time he was here – Loki, in the form of Fritha’s father. But which one?
Elspeth’s face was white and she was staring at her right hand, as if willing the sword to appear. Cluaran, Cathbar and Ari had all drawn their weapons and were looking vainly between the two Grufwelds. One of these men was their mortal enemy – but which?
From behind him he heard Cluaran’s voice, low and choked: ‘Your skill, Edmund – use it, for pity’s sake!’
Edmund forced his eyes shut. Even that tiny movement seemed an effort. In the welcome darkness, he felt outwards . . . and touched something huge: a wall of thick black smoke, pushing back at him. Waves of dizziness washed over him; he swayed, and felt Elspeth gripping his shoulders. ‘Try again!’ she whispered. ‘Please.’
Swiftly, he sent his mind the other way. The poisonous smoke was all around him, filling his sight . . . but he found a chink in it. There was Fritha’s face, pale with terror. And there, behind the sight, was an answering terror in the man whose eyes Edmund had borrowed: the fear that he would lose his daughter, as he had lost her mother.
Edmund realised he had fallen to his knees. His body would not let him rise, but he opened his eyes and brought his hand up to point. The man in the doorway spread his arms, calling pleadingly to Fritha. The fur-clad man only stared.
‘Him!’ Edmund shouted, pointing at the man in the black furs. ‘Fritha – that one is your father!’
Fritha was already running away from the hut, towards the man by the kiln. He dropped his stick and ran to embrace her. At that moment, Edmund found he could move again. He scrambled up and pelted across the snow to Fritha and her father. Elspeth followed with Cluaran, Ari and Cathbar.
‘Stay behind us!’ Cathbar ordered. He barged into Edmund, pushing him and Elspeth towards the scant shelter of the kiln, and wheeled to face their enemy.
But Loki had gone.
There was no Grufweld standing in the doorway. There was no door. The hut was a charred heap on the ground; the snow beneath their feet was not snow but feathery grey ash. Even the kiln was a smoking ruin.
Above their heads, a shape of fire was gathering, like a great bird with a trailing tail, impossibly huge against the featureless
grey sky. The tail hung down, a single tendril of flame, caressing the ashes of Grufweld’s home. Then it whipped into the air. For an instant the thing turned its head to look at them – and it was gone, faster than an arrow-flight. A single clap of thunder shook the ruined trees around the clearing.
There was nothing left of it but a smoke-trail, like a scar across the sky . . . and the echo of mocking laughter.
She was a small child, running fearlessly through the darkness of the caves and out on to the ice fields. Her sisters kept ahead of her, their black hair streaming in the summer wind. Try as she might, she could not keep up with them. They pounced on her from behind a rock, and the three of them rolled, laughing, in the snow.
She saw another time: her mother telling her to gather cloudberries. There was a feeling of dread in her – she did not know why: she had done this many times before – but the coldness grew as she wandered further and further, in search of the best patches. She filled her basket with the red-gold berries and walked home – but home was not there any more. It was all black; the air was hot, and her mother and sisters had vanished. Bewildered, not yet crying, she ran to the cave-mouth, now full of bitter-smelling smoke. A wave of heat pushed her back, and she recoiled, coughing in the suddenly thick air.
A tall man was standing there as she ran back across the ice. He was very pale, with white hair and eyes the colour of water, not like anyone she had ever seen, but she stopped when he called to her. His accent was unfamiliar, hard to understand.
– You had better come with me, he said. What is your name?
– Ioneth, she replied.
Elspeth woke with a start. She was lying wrapped in rough, scratchy fur, with bodies pressed close to her on each side, and the ground hard and uneven underneath her. They had slept close together for warmth, she remembered. Grufweld had made a small fire from the remains of his charcoal – Elspeth could feel its embers warming her feet – but none of them had had the heart to gather branches for a larger blaze. The bitter smell of smoke was still in her nostrils, and the sky that she could see between the trees was as grey as ash. But the pines themselves were straight and unburned: Loki had not walked here.
The smoke-smell brought back images from her dream – Ioneth’s dream.
Were those your first family, the ones that Loki killed? And who was the man who rescued you?
He had looked a little like Ari, she thought. The voice inside her head did not reply, but Elspeth thought she could feel a faint stirring of memory and regret.
She put the dream aside: they must take up Loki’s trail as soon as they could, and Cluaran and Ari were already up and
feeding the horses. She sat up, waking Edmund and Fritha on each side of her.
‘Still no sun,’ Edmund muttered as he opened his eyes. The lowering sky lay like a weight on all of them, and there was little talk as they packed up their furs and skewered the cold remains of last night’s roasted rabbit for their breakfast. They were heading south, following the direction in which Loki had vanished the morning before. They trudged all day through the trees, pursued by the greyness and the ashen smell, but without finding any other sign of Loki. Ari was their guide now: the caves where the Ice people made their home were to the south. He moved with an urgency that Elspeth could well understand, having seen what had happened to Grufweld’s home, though the pale man was as quiet as ever.
Fritha and Grufweld came with them; the hut had been burned so completely that there was nothing left for them in the forest. Grufweld told how he had returned from his trading trip to the smell of burning, and the sight of his home in flames. The next moment the flames had vanished, and all had seemed as it was when he left it, but Grufweld knew what he had seen – and knew, too, the stories of Loki and what the demon-god could do. He had spent the night in the trees at the far side of the clearing, sheltered by his cart and the one wolf-pelt he had not sold, hoping that his daughter and her companions would return to him. He and Fritha stayed close together now, and Elspeth could not look at them without a stab of guilt:
They’ve lost everything because of me!
She was the
one who had unleashed Loki. She found herself walking faster. But Fritha and her father had not lost
, she reminded herself: they still had each other. For a moment Elspeth remembered her father, drowned such a short time ago, and the greyness of the air seemed to thicken around her till she could see nothing else.
‘Don’t go so fast!’
Edmund came puffing up beside her. ‘You can’t keep up this pace!’ His voice was half-admiring, half-accusing, but his face was bright with relief, and Elspeth realised that he had been worried about her.
‘Cathbar says you should be watching your strength for a while, after . . .’ His words trailed away, and Elspeth avoided his gaze. Neither of them wanted to remember the fight in Loki’s cave. Her failure. ‘You could ride,’ Edmund suggested instead, pointing ahead to where Cluaran was leading one of the horses, with Eolande sitting impassively on its back. The other horse was behind them, harnessed to Grufweld’s handcart, which held their scant supplies.
Elspeth shook her head. Edmund was right: even the short burst of speed had tired her, and her breath was coming faster. But she was no horsewoman, and she was not going to add to the load on the cart. ‘I’m well,’ she told him. ‘I just wish we could get out of these trees.’
‘Ari said it shouldn’t be long now. We should reach the Ice people by midday.’ Edmund looked up at the sky between the dark branches. ‘Not that we’ll be able to tell.’
But the trees began to thin soon after, and gave way to a plain of snow edged with white-capped hills. Ari quickened his pace still more, veering east towards the hills with the confident tread of a man going home. The snow was crusted over with ice, and he, Fritha and Grufweld moved over the plain as smoothly as if it were grass. Elspeth had learned from her last journey over the ice fields to walk softly, sliding her fur boots so that they did not break the surface, but she and Edmund still stumbled from time to time, sinking calf-deep in powdery snow. The horses and the high-wheeled cart left deep tracks, and soon all Elspeth’s attention was taken up with staying on her feet and avoiding the ruts. The tiredness was becoming an ache in her bones, but she would not give in to it.
They had crossed maybe half the distance to the hills when Ari’s steps faltered. A faint smudge of darker grey had appeared in the air ahead, insubstantial at first but slowly growing clearer against the snowcaps.
Elspeth saw Ari’s shoulders jerk. ‘Cluaran,’ he said, his voice harsh, and muttered something that Elspeth could not hear.
Cluaran was at the pale man’s side in a moment. By the time Elspeth and the others ran up, the minstrel had turned back to unhitch the horse from Grufweld’s cart.
‘Ari will ride ahead,’ he announced. ‘Go,’ he said to Ari, leading the horse over to him. ‘We’ll follow as quickly as we can.’
The voices came first. Elspeth had expected to hear screams, or keening, but there was just a man’s voice calling something inaudible, and a couple of quiet replies. As they reached the foothills, low outcrops of rock pushing through the snow, there was a child’s thin wail, swiftly hushed. The sounds would have been reassuringly ordinary but for the thickening haze in the air, and the horribly familiar stink of ash.
They were approaching the hill in a drawn-out straggle. Eolande would not walk, so Cluaran had hitched her horse to the cart, and the beast now plodded at the back of the group, led by Cathbar. Cluaran strode out in front, as if anxious to make what speed he could. But the minstrel stopped when he rounded the final outcrop. He was standing quite still as Elspeth and Edmund joined him and saw the blackened ground.
The plume of smoke had been hidden by the side of the hill, but now it loomed taller than the hill itself, dark-grey and choking. It rose from a pit in the rock whose sides looked like black glass – and all around, feathery ash lay like drifted snow. Behind the pit, the side of the hill seemed to have cracked open: there was a rubble of charred boulders, some twice the height of a man, and beyond them, a black and empty space.
‘What has he done?’ Cluaran whispered, and rushed forward into the darkness. Elspeth followed him, with Edmund close behind.
The ground underfoot was level, like a passageway. Elspeth groped for the wall as the rock closed in around them, and felt the smoothness of masonry under her fingers. After a moment,
her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. ‘Oh no,’ Edmund muttered beside her, but Elspeth could only gaze in awe and dismay.
Before them was a giant chamber, filled with tiers of seats that sloped down to a central space. To one side, faint light came in through a great rent in the wall, rubble-edged and showing a sliver of pale sky. It lit the circular floor, smooth and flat but now charred black – and the wreckage of a carved stone chair, charred like the ground and the seats around it; split into two halves.
‘The judgement hall,’ Cluaran muttered. ‘I never thought to see it like this.’
‘Nor I,’ said a cracked voice from the shadows. Elspeth spun to see a tall old man, white-haired and even paler than Ari, with brows like two crags. When he spoke again his voice was flat with exhaustion. ‘You failed, then, story-teller; or failed us. I see you have found your children, but what is that to us? Now
children are dead.’
‘Not all of them, I think,’ Cluaran said quietly. ‘Erlingr . . . I grieve for this . . . for you. It’s as you say: we were betrayed, and we failed. Now, if you wish, I’ll go – but I would help you, if you’ll allow it. I have medicines and supplies, and there are willing hands among my companions to help you rebuild.’
‘Do as you will,’ the old man said. He walked heavily over to one of the stone benches and sank down on it, dropping his head into his hands. ‘I was wrong, it seems, and I have paid for it – I, and all my people. The monster has
taken his revenge on us, as you said he would.’ He raised his head, his pale eyes almost lost under the overhanging brows. ‘The survivors – most of them – will be in the water-caves. Go to them if you will. I have no help to give them now, no comfort.’
‘But it’s now that they need you most!’ Cluaran cried. ‘Come with me – let them see that you are still alive and strong. That will be the best help they can have: to know that Erlingr still leads them!’
But the old man bowed his head and would not move or speak again. After a while Cluaran turned and left the chamber, gesturing to Elspeth and Edmund to follow him. Erlingr did not look up to see them go.
‘Who is he?’ Edmund asked in a low voice, as they came out again into the grey daylight.
‘Their leader – once,’ Cluaran said shortly. He sighed. ‘I fear that Ari must take that responsibility now.’
The rest of the party had reached the hill. Grufweld and Fritha were leaning exhaustedly on the cart, gazing in horror at the destruction before them, while Cathbar tried to calm the horse, whose nostrils flared at the new smell of burning. Only Eolande, on its back, showed no trace of emotion or tiredness.
‘We’ll leave the cart here,’ Cluaran told them. ‘But bring any medicines or salves.’ He looked up at Eolande. ‘Will you lend us your skill, Mother?’ But she stared at him blankly until he turned from her, shaking his head.
Fritha ran to collect her pack, and Cluaran led them around the foot of the hill, skirting the black pit as widely as they could. The hillside was scarred and blackened in both directions as far as they could see, with the same glassy, black surfaces where the rock had melted. They passed another fall of boulders, and Fritha gave a muffled exclamation, pointing down at one of the rocks. She bent to look more closely – and recoiled, her face white. Following her gaze, Elspeth saw a man’s bare foot.
‘Leave him!’ Cluaran ordered. ‘He’s dead. There will be others we can help.’
Elspeth followed him, feeling suddenly cold. She had not heard any more voices, she realised: not so much as a whisper. What had happened to Ari’s people? Were there really any left? And where was Ari?
Further along the ridge the stink of smoke lessened and the rocks became only soot-blackened. Elspeth found to her relief that they were no longer walking on ash, though the snow had vanished.
Cluaran stopped, listened and whistled. ‘The stream is still flowing,’ he said. ‘Come on.’
Soon Elspeth could hear the faint splash of water – and then, the stamping of hooves on rock. Around the next outcrop, a thin trickle ran into a shallow basin in the stone, and beside it, Ari’s horse was tethered to a bush.
Cathbar tied up their own horse and helped Eolande to dismount. ‘Is there anyone alive here, apart from us?’ he asked, grim-faced.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Cluaran.
The sound of water grew louder as he led them to what seemed at first to be a shallow cleft in the rock. A darker area at the back revealed itself as a tunnel – but before they could enter it, two men appeared, brandishing spears. One of them was Ari.
He relaxed when he saw them, though his face was drawn with grief and shock. ‘These are my friends,’ he told the other man, who went back into the tunnel, shouting something. Ari turned without another word and led them inside.
The tunnel opened into a series of caves. Water dripped from the walls of two of them and pooled on the floor of the third – and every dry spot was crowded with pale-eyed, white-haired people.
There must be a hundred of them
, Elspeth thought: men, women and children; some standing, blank-eyed; others weeping softly, or crying out in pain.
It’s my fault
, she thought wildly.
I unleashed him!
She wanted to turn and run.
‘Some of these are
– hurt with the fire,’ Fritha said, behind her. ‘I have medicine for that.’ She fumbled with her pack to produce a sealed pot, and hesitated, looking wide-eyed at the Ice people. ‘Do you think it will work for them,’ she whispered, ‘as it does for us?’
Edmund came forward. ‘I’m sure of it,’ he said to Fritha. ‘Elspeth and I will help you.’
Elspeth was glad to have work to occupy her. She tried not to look around the crowded caves, but busied herself with
practical tasks along with Edmund: fetching clean water, improvising bandages and splints, and setting up beds for the younger children in the driest areas.
Fritha also seemed overwhelmed at first: Elspeth guessed that she had never been among so many people before. But as the fair-haired girl tended a child with a badly burned arm, hearing his cries subside and listening to the thanks of his mother, she seemed to forget her nervousness. She moved around the caves, speaking to the Ice people to find those whose burns and cuts were the worst, and making her small pots of salve last longer than Elspeth could have believed.
They stayed among Ari’s people for the rest of the day. There was always more to do: as the worst injured were tended and given beds, Grufweld and Cathbar fetched more of their supplies from the cart and scouted with some of the men for other safe caves. Elspeth, moving in a haze of weariness, heard Cluaran talking urgently to his mother, who had stayed at the edge of the outer cave.
‘You could help! I know your skill in these things. At least help me to find the right herbs.’
Eolande went slowly outside, followed by her son and Ari. The pale man stopped in the cave door, and turned to speak to Elspeth and Fritha.
‘We’ll make more burn-salve for you. Thank you for all you’re doing.’
Fritha gave him a nod of acknowledgement, but Elspeth could accept no gratitude, not when she knew this was all her
fault. When one of the women smiled at her in thanks for a cup of water, she felt her eyes filling with tears and had to turn away.
Many of the children they tended were orphaned. When Loki had dropped from the sky the day before, the Ice people told her, he had torn open the hill that housed the judgement hall and sent fires raging through the caves on each side, destroying whole families in their homes, and burying countless others in the rubble. When the men ran out to fight him, the wooden spears had burned in their hands, and the men had followed, their bodies turning to ash. Out of a community of three hundred, maybe one third was left.
. The words rang in her ears, and she thought she could feel Ioneth stirring in pain.
‘Please tell me,’ she asked one of the women, ‘when Loki . . . when the monster left you, how did he go? And which way?’
The woman looked at her incredulously. ‘It just went! It turned into a big ball of fire and went back to
– to hell. Where else would it go?’
‘It flew to the south,’ put in a soft-voiced girl. Her eyes were very large in her thin face and she cradled her bandaged arm as she spoke. ‘To the sea.’ There was a small chorus of agreement. Some of the children had watched from the mouth of the water caves as the demon became a fireball and soared away. They had watched it out of sight, hoping it would never return.
‘And in the sea, the fire will go out!’ piped up a small boy with a bandage over one eye.
‘It surely will,’ Fritha told the child, hugging him. Over his head, she looked anxiously at Elspeth.
‘He won’t come back here, that’s for certain,’ Elspeth said, trying to fill her voice with confidence.
I’m sure he won’t
, she thought.
He means to go much further than this
But wherever he goes, I will follow.
It was a party of five who set off southwards the following morning. Edmund could see that Elspeth was desperate to follow Loki, and Cluaran and Cathbar seemed to share her sense of urgency.
‘I’ve no notion how we’ll fight him now,’ Cathbar said. ‘But if a way comes up – well, I’d rather be on the spot and able to take it. It’s that, or stand by while he goes on burning.’ He had gone out with a rescue party the day before, finding one or two survivors, but many more of the dead.
Ari said he would stay with his people: as Cluaran had predicted, many of them had already started to look to him as their leader, and they left him deep in discussion with the elders about ways to open up new caves for those made homeless and replenish the supplies that had been destroyed.
He shook hands with Cluaran before they left. The pale man looked somehow older, Edmund thought, his face marked with the horror of yesterday’s loss, and maybe with his new responsibilities. ‘I’ll not see you again,’ he said. ‘My place is here now.’
Cluaran nodded. ‘Did we do wrong, Ari?’ he asked. ‘If we had not meddled with Loki, this would not have happened.’
Ari shook his head. ‘We both know he would have broken free, in our children’s lifetimes if not in ours. And the sword . . . Ioneth . . . came to us now.’ His face twisted. ‘Find her again, Cluaran. For all our sakes.’ He turned to Elspeth and Edmund. ‘If the sword returns, strike well,’ he said to them. ‘Wherever you go, and however you fare, our people’s friendship goes with you.’
Fritha and her father, to Edmund’s surprise, chose to stay with the Ice people too, at least over the winter. Fritha’s skill as a nurse had made her valuable to the community already, and she could not bear to leave the motherless children. Grufweld’s trade, charcoal-burning, was less useful to them – the Ice people had little use for fire, except sometimes for cooking – but his strength, and his skills at building and hunting, would be much needed in the days to come.
Fritha hugged Edmund and Elspeth fiercely before they left.
. . . true friends,’ she told them. ‘You will kill this monster, and then you will come back to see us. But if you cannot come . . . I will remember you always.’
‘I’ll come back some day,’ Edmund promised, mortified to find that his eyes were pricking. Before he could turn away Fritha leant forward and kissed him. Edmund felt his face glowing, and the place where her cool lips had touched his cheek burned for a long time afterwards.
Grufweld waved away their apologies for the trouble they had brought on him. Cluaran offered the charcoal-burner a gold coin, given to him by the king for his journey, but Grufweld courteously refused: the nearest villagers had little use for coins, and besides, hospitality was a matter of honour and need, not a thing to be bartered. Cathbar, however, was not to be put off: after pumping Grufweld’s hand repeatedly, he insisted on making him a present of his hunting knife.
‘Least I could do,’ he said gruffly, as they walked away. ‘He lost a good axe back in that fire, as well as his knife – and those Ice folk know nothing about metal.’
And now they made their way across the snow plain towards the coast. They had left all their supplies with the Ice people, taking only the two horses, Cluaran’s gold coin and his remaining bag of silver. The horses were much needed: Elspeth, for all her eagerness to be gone, was not yet fully healed, as Cathbar had feared, and yesterday’s walk had worn her out. Well before noon (though it was hard to judge with the sunless sky), she had begun to stumble almost at every step, and Cluaran had made her ride. The other horse was ridden by Eolande, who sat straight-backed and still, her face empty.
The snow grew thinner as they went, and the trees grew closer on both sides. Around noon they were walking through pines again, mixed with leafless birch and aspen. Where the pines were thickest there was no snow at all, and Edmund was glad to feel the carpet of needles beneath his feet again. He
thought that Cluaran walked with a new spring in his step too, even while leading his silent, blank-eyed mother.