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Asrãthiel is a beautiful young woman, the darling of the Weathermaster clan. Yet there is an air of sadness that surrounds this beauty, for Asrãthiel lost her mother to an evil enchantment and her father soon after when grief engulfed him and he set off on a quest to find a way to free his love. While she has want for naught Asrãthiel keenly feels the loss of her parents.
Keener still, Asrãthiel feels the loss of mortal life, for while she loves her father's people dearly she knows she is not one of them. Her mother was descended from the dreaded sorcerer of Strang, and in Asrãthiel's blood lies a mighty power waiting for her to use for good or ill. In his travels her father was rendered near-immortal and this dubious gift was passed to Asrãthiel.
Now near adulthood, Asrãthiel is at a crossroads. She can stay in the safety of all she has known, hide from the world and choose to use her powers in small ways to do small good. Or she can embark on a quest to fully realize the power that surges in her blood and perhaps undo the evil that her ancestors wreaked.
Her decision will reshape the world.
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Cecilia Dart-Thornton's interests include playing music, oil painting, graphic design, photography, and clay sculpture. She lives in Australia.
Comrades and Foes
Do ye know Tom Steele with his cap dark green
And his long-range bow and his blades honed keen?
Soft through the leaves he goes creeping unseen,
Hunting deer in the glades of an evening.
--traditional hunting song
The world, a sphere of metal and rock scarfed in water, turned.
Above the churning vapors of the troposphere, stars appeared to glide across the heavens from east to west; from High Darioneth, across the Snowy River to the western shores of Tir. There, in Grïmnørsland, a hunting lodge perched on a stark crag, looking out over the ocean. Surf pounded the cliffs and a blood-biting wind howled in from the sea, smacking of brine. Around this building the landscape ramped into the stormy distance; gaunt and wild, rugged, roaring with cataracts, roofed by racing clouds in full sail, battered by salt winds, lapped by mists. This was a realm of black rock, grey sky, and silver water, where dark green conifers, rank on rank, stalked up mountainsides to pierce steaming skies.
The hunting lodge belonged to the King of Grïmnørsland, Thorgild Torkilsalven. From here, on the twenty-first of Mai, five princes set out: Halvdan and Gunnlaug, the second and third-born sons of Thorgild; Kieran and Ronin Ó Maoldúin, the eldest sons of Uabhar of Slievmordhu, and Walter Wyverstone, younger brother to Crown Prince William of Narngalis. Thorgild had invited the royal scions of his neighboring kingdoms to be his guests in Grïmnørsland, where they might participate in games and divertissements, celebrating the season and reconfirming the bonds of solidarity between the realms. The monarch himself remained with his queen, their eldest son Hrosskel and their daughter Solveig at Trøndelheim, attending to matters of state, while the rest diverted themselves with blood-sports.
Low in the sky rode the evening sun, drifting on a band of persimmon cloud. The five princes, accompanied by their retainers, moved on foot through harsh terrain, clambering up the sides of dim vales and following narrow tracks through forests of spruce, pine, birch, and larch that soared out of shadow. The topmost tapered tips caught the last bright gleams of sunlight so that they glistened like miniature trees dusted with gold. Against the glimmer of sunset the black silhouettes of wind-gnarled branches wove elegant patterns. Falcons with outstretched wings hovered over sharp-toothed crags; Steinfjell, Isfjell and Galdhøpiggen, Sterkfjell and Skagastolstindane; heights with towering, majestic names.
"It is a fact," Prince Gunnlaug Torkilsalven was instructing Walter of Narngalis, "that some archers conceal themselves in thickets to ambush whitetail deer, or crouch behind woven blinds near lakes and streams to waylay roe deer as they come down to drink. The second approach is never successful after rain. Game will not visit watering places when there are small puddles to drink from. Therefore, the truly versatile huntsman must perfect the art of stalking on foot."
Walter nodded brusquely, his lips compressed in a thin line. He found it insulting to be lectured on a topic he understood well, but was too courteous to protest.
"Hounds would have been useful, of course," continued Gunnlaug, "yet a man must learn to hunt without hounds, in case he ever finds himself alone in the wilderness."
Gunnlaug of Grïmnørsland was a brawny youth, somewhat shorter in stature than his elder brother Halvdan, who walked ahead. His features were coarse, his pockmarked skin reddened and roughened by much exposure to wind and sun. Like his sibling he was flaxen-haired and hazel-eyed. As he and the other huntsmen made their way in single file along a precipitous goat track he was sweating copiously, and to Walter's joy, after some time he began to lag behind.
"There's a big-antlered beauty up there in Hoyfjell's crags, thinking he's too clever for me," Gunnlaug called out, wheezing slightly. "But I shall nail him. He shall be no match for Gunnlaug Torkilsalven. I'll put him down for good and get a fine trophy this evening."
"Make speed, Gunnlaug," his brother Halvdan called back over his shoulder.
"There is no need to scuttle forward like a frightened pig," panted Gunnlaug. "We have plenty of time. The sun is yet a thumb's breadth from the horizon."
"If you had not swallowed so much beer last night you might find it easier to keep up," said Halvdan, but he said it in an undertone. His younger brother was easily provoked to wrath, and his inevitable outburst of rage would spoil the atmosphere of comradeship. Gunnlaug, perhaps guessing Halvdan's thoughts, turned his head and spat upon the ground in a gesture that might have been either a cleansing of the palate or contempt. He flicked sweat-drenched strands of blond hair from his eyes.
The huntsmen leapt from rock to rock and scrambled down scree slopes.
"We have timed our excursion well," said Conall Gearnach, mentor to the princes of Slievmordhu. "If we keep the sun behind us we can use the low light to our advantage. It will dazzle the eyes of our prey." Gearnach, a doughty warrior who had weathered about forty Winters, was commander-in-chief of Slievmordhu's crack corps, the Knights of the Brand. Having earned himself a formidable reputation as a fighting man, he had risen to the position of one of King Uabhar's most highly respected knights. His nickname was "Two-Swords Gearnach," for he was as well able to use his left hand as his right, and he had taught himself to wield two blades simultaneously, making him an opponent to be reckoned with.
Although Conall Gearnach was liegeman to the King of Slievmordhu, and performed the duties of guide and counselor to his sons, he was well acquainted with the princes of Grïmnørsland also. King Uabhar's eldest son Kieran had spent two years of his boyhood dwelling in the household of King Thorgild. The young prince had been under the auspices of Gearnach, who in those days held the second highest office of the Knights of the Brand: that of captain-general. During that period Kieran had formed a fast friendship with Halvdan, second son of Thorgild. By chance, the two had been born on the same day, and they were like-minded in a great many ways: both enjoyed shooting at targets, and wrestling, and balladeering, and fishing in the deep fjords of the west coast. Both were young men of fearless honesty, who loved duty and honor as much as they loved good fellowship. Kieran Ó Maoldúin, a youth of considerable height, possessed a mane of dark brown hair that flowed down upon powerful shoulders. In looks he took after his mother; his nose was straight and thin, and his oval countenance sharp-lined with the clean contours of late adolescence. Tall and blond was Halvdan Torkilsalven, with a muscular torso; a physical match for Kieran. When the two wrestled, the outcome could never be predicted.
"Continue to keep watch for unseelie wights," Gearnach reminded the equipment-laden retainers as the party crossed the vacillating suspension bridge over the gorge of the great river Fiskflød. Far below, the torrent was gushing rapidly; droplets sprayed up like fans of threaded sequins as the water smashed against rocks in midstream and swirled around snags, gurgling and rumbling. Clinging onto the hand-ropes to keep their balance, the huntsmen eventually reached the other side of the chasm. There, on the grassy flank of an outflung spur of Hoyfjell, grew the stands of ancient spruce trees for which they had set their course. For a few moments the party halted beneath the needlelike foliage and swigged a draught from their water-bottles. The bearers and equerries handed to three of the huntsmen their arrow-packed quivers and tautly strung hunting-bows. Princes Halvdan and Kieran had carried their own gear, as had Gearnach.
Having outfitted themselves, the party moved quietly in amongst the rough-barked boles. They were wearing close-fitting garments dyed with greens and browns, to blend in with their surroundings. Soft-soled boots shod their feet, and they sought to avoid stepping on twigs or dry leaves, looking for mats of fallen spruce-needles, or short turf on which to walk. A steady breeze rustled the fragrant foliage, creating a continuous whisper of silvery sound against which the hunters' slight noise of passage might pass unmarked. Branches dipped and swished as a couple of squirrels scampered by.
As they neared the high clearings where wild deer grazed, the huntsmen continually monitored the direction of the air currents, that they might approach the animals from downwind. "The evening breeze generally blows downhill," Conall Gearnach murmured to Prince Ronin of Slievmordhu, who clambered close behind him. "We are still climbing. All is well, so far."
Ronin--second in line to the throne of Slievmordhu--was of middle height, and, like his father, had a somewhat square face. His nose was wide, with flared nostrils, and jutted above a downy upper lip. "I wish I were not downwind of Gunnlaug," he commented with a wry grimace. "He stinks of stale sweat and beer."
Gearnach chuckled quietly. As they climbed the spur, with the wind in their faces and the sun peering over their left shoulders, the knight hitched his baldric to a more secure position on his shoulder. He put on an extra burst of speed and pulled ahead of the group. Instinct warned him it would be wise to scout in advance.
His intuition proved well-founded. From the corner of his eye he spotted movements that seemed out of place, above them on the slope and to the left. Instantly he extended his hand in a prearranged signal. The gamekeepers and other attendants, always alert to Gearnach's commands, took heed and relayed the message through the party: Possible danger ahead. Take cover.
The huntsmen made themselves inconspicuous behind boles and fallen branches, and crouched, watching. If Gearnach had signalled "peril," it was likely that unseelie wights lurked nearby.
From the northwest, a line of stooping figures came loping swiftly and quietly through the woodland. They were moving across the spur, keeping to the south side, just below the crest of the ridge and parallel to it. It was an old huntsman's trick, staying out of sight beneath a ridgetop to avoid being outlined against the horizon. Gearnach counted twenty of them.
Yet, these were not wights.
They were men: gigantic men, slow and strong as oxen; uglier than diseased toadstools. It was also said they were as stupid as cabbages, but never to their faces, for they were utterly without compassion. The recognition startled the watchers. It was not often that Marauders were spied at such great distances from the eastern ranges of Slievmordhu. The Grïmnørslanders amongst the party knew also that on the other side of the spur the land dropped quickly into a valley, where the village of Ødegaard nestled in a bend of the river, and it was toward that isolated hamlet that the Marauders were making. There was no doubt they intended to despoil the village; it was ever their way.
"My heart yearns to pin those freaks with my sword," muttered Gunnlaug. "This will prove a better day's sport than I had hoped."
Gearnach, who had crawled speedily back to join the hunting party, whispered, "My lord Gunnlaug, you and the other princes must not endanger your lives by challenging these creatures. As your fathers' heirs you bear that responsibility to your people."
"Nay, Two-Swords," Halvdan said quickly. "It is there you are mistaken. Leaders who are not prepared to defend their subjects are unfit to rule them."
"Aye," brothers Kieran and Ronin said together.
"Indeed Halvdan is right," Walter of Narngalis agreed.
For the blink of an eye Gearnach held still, while a thousand concerns whirled through his mind. He was aware that if they were to strike the Marauders they must strike soon, or they would lose the advantage. The five sons of kings under his care were fearless; he had guessed they would refuse to be left out of any action, and as their vassal he was in no position to gainsay them. Making one last attempt to do what he considered to be his duty, he said, "We must let them pass, but send messengers to the village to raise the alarm."
The princes would not hear of it.
"Quit your dawdling, man!" said Gunnlaug, seething. "Let's skewer them."
If the knight was nettled at the prince's insulting tone, he was too disciplined to show it. Besides, his thoughts were occupied with matters at hand. All members of the hunting party were trained fighters. It was part of a princely education to study the martial skills, and the gamekeepers and equerries who accompanied the princes on hunting trips had also been tutored in combat, for they additionally performed the role of bodyguards.
Conall Gearnach rapidly calculated the odds. The hunting party numbered only a dozen, but he reckoned he could personally take on two foes at a time. Furthermore, if the Marauders were allowed to reach the spur's furthest outpost and begin descending into the valley of the Fiskflød he and his companions would gain an extra advantage; not only would they take the brigands by surprise, they would be attacking from higher ground. There would be an opportunity for some archery before they engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
The knight made his decision.
"Follow me," he said. "Keep low and be silent. When I give the signal, move quickly to the attack. Loose your arrows. Keep shooting until they either scatter and flee, or rush us. If they advance, draw your blades for close work."
The huntsmen crept up the slope in the wake of the Marauders. Soon the brigands reached the eastern end of the spur, where it began to fall away into the dale. They commenced their descent. At their backs, the huntsmen quietly congregated along the very spine of the ridge, looking down upon their foes. Trees were sparser on this northern incline. Spruce gave way to ivy-carpeted birch-woods, their delicate boughs in early bud. In the wooded valley at the foot of the spur, mist was rising from the broad and winding river. Through the trees on the far shore, the slate roof of a tiny cluster of houses could be glimpsed. Tendrils of smoke trailed from their chimneys. Sunlight snagged like filaments of glitter on the topmost crags of the mountains that rose behind the village. The huntsmen drew arrows from quivers, nocked them to the bowstrings, and stealthily moved forward. Calculating his moment, Gearnach sketched a quick downward stroke through the air, and the skirmish ensued.
Prince Gunnlaug's arrow was first to spring from the bow; he had not waited for Gearnach's downstroke but had let fly as soon as the knight raised his hand. The shafts of his companions were not far behind, and three huge Marauders lay writhing, mortally wounded by the time the remainder realized they were under attack. During the ensuing moments another four suffered injury and fell screaming to the ground. Some of the brigands dashed...
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