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"Wonderful . . . J.V. Jones is a striking writer." So says Robert Jordan, the author of The Wheel of Time epic fantasy series. And Jones lives up to that praise in the highly charged epic adventure of Ash March and Raif Sevrance, two outcasts whose fates are entwined by fate and by need, in the cold, dark world that threatens to be torn asunder by a war to end all wars. They are but two of many who fight the dreaded Endlords, but both Ash and Raif are special in unique ways that isolate them, yet which also enable them to perform heroic acts that might save their world.
Raif, wrongly accused and cut off from his clan by the treachery of their new headsman, has a talent for killing that is part of his curse and his burden. But he bears another burden of greater weight. Ash is a sacred warrior to the Sull, an ancient race whose numbers have declined.Raised as a foundling, she never knew her true heritage, she must learn to accept the terrible gifts of her heritage.
But as Ash learns more of her greater fate, Raif's task looms dark and desperate, for he must journey through the nightmare realm of the Want, a place where even the Sull now fear to tread. For deep within the Want is the Fortress of Grey Ice, and there he must heal the breach in the Blindwall that already threatens the world. Should he fail, not even Ash's powers can save them...
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J. V. Jones is the author of the bestselling Book of Words trilogy, The Barbed Coi, and A Cavern of Black Ice, the first book of the Sword of Shadows series. Born in England, she now makes her home in San Diego, California, where she's working on the third Sword of Shadows novel, A Sword from Red Ice.
The Ice Fog Rises
They found blood on the trail on the seventh day, five spots, red against the grey of old snow. It wasn't new-spilt, but it might look like it to someone who was unfamiliar with killing game in midwinter. Blood began darkening to black the moment it left the body, thickening and distilling until there was nothing but copper and iron left. It was different when the air crackled with ice. Blood could freeze in perfect red drops in the time it took to drip from an elk's collarbone to the taiga below. Raif remembered how he and Drey would scoop up frozen beads of elk blood after a kill and let them melt upon their tongues; sweet as fresh grass and salty as sweat. The taste of winter and clan.
But this wasn't elk's blood before them.
Raif glanced ahead to the top of the rise, where towers of white smoke rose straight in the still air. The trail had been rising all day and they still hadn't found the source of the smoke. The ground was hard and brittle here, formed from basalt and black chert. Cliffs soared to the east, high and straight as fortress walls, guarding knife-edged mountains beyond. To the west lay the farthest tip of the Storm Margin, its rocky draws and moraines disguised as rolling hills by a thick layer of snow. Beyond there lay the sea ice, and beyond that lay the sea. Stormheads gathering on the westernmost horizon had begun to silver the floes.
"What happened here?" asked Ash, who was standing above Raif as he crouched over the blood. Her voice was clear, but there was too much space between her words.
"One of the Sull breathed a vein."
"How can you be sure?"
Raif faked a shrug. "Even a clean kill leaves more blood." He fingered the red spots, remembering frozen carcasses, ice-bent blades, Tem Sevrance laughing at his sons as they strained to push an elk kill down a slope only to have it crash into the lake ice at the bottom and sink. When Raif continued speaking his voice was low. "And the blood wasn't sprayed. It dripped."
"How do you know it's human?"
Abruptly, Raif stood. He felt an irrational anger toward Ash and her questions. They both knew the answer here. Why did she force him to speak it?
"Listen," he said.
Standing side by side on the headland, their breath whitening in the freezing air, Raif Sevrance and Ash March listened to the sound they had been heading toward all day: a crackling hiss, as if lightning touched down upon water.
Raif counted the columns of smoke as he said, "They were here, Mal Naysayer and Ark Veinsplitter, they heard what we hear. They saw the smoke." And knew it was something to be feared, so they let blood to still their gods.
Ash nodded, as if she had heard what he had not spoken. "Should we make payment too?"
Raif shook his head and started forward. "This is not our land and not our business. There are no debts here for us to pay."
He hoped it was the truth.
They had been following the Sull warriors' trail for nine days. It had led them north and west from the Hollow River, across land Raif would never have dared to cross if it hadn't been for the telltale markings in the snow. Horse casts buried shallow, human hair snagged on the bark of a dead pine, a footprint stamped on new ice. The Sull had left "Such a trail as can be followed by a clansman." Raif's shoulders stiffened as he walked, aware of the insult in Ark Veinsplitter's words. "We travel without leaving any trail," they boasted, "but will make effort to leave one for you." Even as Raif had resented the Sull's arrogance, he knew to be thankful for their skills. No clansman would cross a green-froze lake, nor scale an unknown ice sheet in the hope of finding a pass.
The journey had not been easy. The days had been short and the nights long and full of silence. What could he and Ash say to each other? Raif wondered as he stripped bark for the watchfire each night. They could not talk about the Cavern of Black Ice, nor what had happened later, when they emerged from river and something, something, came with them. All Raif saw was a shadow, but shadows don't make pine needles crack beneath them...and shadows can't scream.
Raif shivered. Whatever it was, it was gone now. Fled. And even though they had seen nothing since, it had changed everything.
Ten days ago, in the cavern beneath the frozen river, he and Ash had spoken of returning to the clanholds, of finding Angus and journeying with him to Ille Glaive and visiting the Broken Man one last time. Heritas Cant had a promise to keep. "Return safely from the Cavern of Black Ice and I will tell you the names of the beasts," he had said. But now the word safely seemed an impossibly high standard to keep. They were not safe. Raif did not count himself a clansman anymore, but the old instincts had not left him. He knew when to fear. A deep unease had settled upon him, making him watchful and ready. The ice pick he counted as his only weapon lay cooling the skin at his waist.
He could not say whose decision it was to follow the Sull north. It was something else he and Ash didn't speak of, the need to learn more. The two Sull warriors knew what Ash was. She was a Reach, born to release the Endlords and their Taken from their thousand-year confinement in the Blind. Ark Veinsplitter and Mal Naysayer could provide proof that Ash had released her power safely, leaving the Blindwall intact, and the Endlords imprisoned in their own breed of hell. The Sull were the only ones who could tell them it was safe to return home.
Home. Raif took a breath and held it. He could not return to his birthclan. Raif Sevrance had been judged an oathbreaker and traitor. There was no place for him at any hearth in the clanholds. He had no family or home...only Ash.
As he glanced toward her their gazes met. Eyes that had once been gray regarded him levelly. Before he and Ash had reached the Cavern of Black Ice her eyes had been the color of silver and hailstones. Now they were the color of the sky at midnight. A perfect Sull blue. If he thought about it too long he knew it would undo him. He and Ash had been through so much together. They had journeyed long and far, learned the many different ways to live with fear and weariness, and the only way to live with loss: simply to carry on. His arms knew what it felt like to bear her weight. She had leaned on him countless times, put her safekeeping willingly in his hands. Yet what she didn't know was that his safekeeping was in her hands. Ash March held the power to destroy him. All his dreams about the future centered around her. When everything was done and the nightmare that had become their lives had ended he hoped to take her somewhere new and begin again.
Digging his heels into the snow, Raif began the slow climb toward the ridge. Her eyes, that was the thing. Their blueness filled him with fear. Ash March had changed, and a small, insistent voice inside him warned that things could never be the same between them. A shift had taken place. Ash might be pale, and too thin for a girl of seventeen winters, yet strength lay in the set of her mouth and the determined tilt of her chin. Something new and vital had come alive within her, and Raif found himself waking in the darkest, coldest hours of each night, hoping that it wasn't something Sull.
It took them an hour to top the rise. Ash pushed ahead, and Raif was content to follow the shadow she cast against the full moon. Neither spoke as they surveyed the valley below. Twelve geysers of steam erupted from the ice and rubble of a dry glacier bed. A ring of blue fire blazed at the base of each column, leaping up from a crater of ash and melted stone that had formed around the burn. The roar was deafening: the crack of exploding rocks, the hiss of melting snow, and the constant rip of igniting gas.
The quickening wind brought the stench of char and lightning to Raif. He had no words for what he saw. To find fire and smoke here, at the frozen edge of the Storm Margin, seemed as impossible as finding breath in a corpse.
"Is this where the trail leads?" Ash asked, turning her face toward him.
He found he could not look into her eyes. "The trail cuts through the valley, toward the coast."
"So we must cross here?" As Ash spoke the ground moved beneath them, and rocks and snow spewed forth as a new column of smoke rent the valley floor
Thirteen, Raif counted, feeling the heat of the explosion puff against his face. He remembered the tale of Murdo Blackhail, the Warrior Chief, who had led his men to war across the Stairlands. On the final day of their descent, the mountain had erupted above them, and a spray of molten rock burst forth. Murdo had been riding at the head of the party, high atop his stallion, Black Burr. His breastplate had burst into flame with the heat, and later when his armsman pulled it from him, Murdo's skin and muscle came with it. In the two days it took him to die, Murdo Blackhail directed his men to victory over Clan Thrall and took his wife to his bed, fathering their only son. Bessa, his wife, was led to her husband blindfold and with plugs of wax within each nostril, for the sight and stench of his burned flesh was said to be terrible to behold.
Raif grimaced. "We travel through the valley," he said.
The gas vents glowed blue in the failing light. Ash had little fear of them and picked a path through their center, once drawing close enough to a crater to drink water from its moat of melted snow. Raif spoke no word of warning, though he saw the danger clear enough. The entire valley floor was under pressure, its ancient rock buckled and twisted by whatever forces lay below. It might have been beautiful, this corridor of burning gas and rising smoke, but all the tales of hell he had listened to as a child had begun with an approach such as this.
They walked well into the night, Raif postponing making camp until the gas vents were far behind them. The next day the sun barely rose above the horizon, and what light it gave could hardly be called daylight at all. The following day was darker still, and the trail left by the Sull became more difficult to follow. As the afternoon wore on Raif began to spot signs of other men. Ice-bleached bones and sled tracks, dog fur and slicks of green whale oil pitted the path. The snow itself was hard and frozen, the air so dry and clear that even the finest specks of dust were revealed.
They came across the Whale Gate at some time during the long night. Formed from the jawbone of a massive bow whale, the ancient archway rose as high as two men and as wide as four. It stood alone on a headland of frost-cracked rocks and graying weeds, marking entrance into the territory beyond. Raif bit off his mitts and touched it with bare hands. The ivory was stained and scaling, its edges jagged with the stumps of baleen combs. Designs had been burned into the bone. Dolphins chasing stars had been seared atop an older, darker design of beasts slaying men.
Raif took his hands away. In the sheltered valley below the gate, the faintest possible lights twinkled, and above them a white haze of exhaled breaths shifted in the air like sleeping ghosts.
"The trail ends here." Raif couldn't remember the last time he had spoken, and his voice sounded strange and rough. He looked down upon the village, if village were what it was. Stone mounds, rising mere feet above the ground, formed a circle around a smoking firepit. The mounds were built of obsidian and basalt and other black things, and their edges glowed faintly in the starlight. They reminded Raif of the barrows of Dhoone's Core. Twelve thousand clansmen dead, each corpse interred in a stone tomb of its own. For three thousand years they'd lain there, rotting to bone dust and hollow teeth. Withy and Wellhouse kept no history of the massacre. Raif had once heard Inigar Stoop name it "the Price of Settlement," but warriors and chiefs gave it another name, whispered around campfires in the deep of night. The Field of Stone.
Suddenly Raif wanted very much to turn back, to grab Ash's hand and take her...where? No land that he knew of was safe.
Abruptly, Ash stepped through the gate, leaving Raif no choice but to follow her into the village below.
Dogs began barking as they approached. Yet even before the first growl of warning caused lights to brighten and stir, a figure stood in waiting at the first of the stone mounds. Raif recognized the pale bulk of Mal Naysayer, his cloak of wolverine fur stirring in the wind, the haft of his great two-handed longsword rising above his back. As Raif and Ash approached, the warrior stood unmoving, silent and terrible against a field of burning stars.
"The Sull are not our people and they do not fear us." The old clan words came to Raif as he raised a hand in greeting, yet they were old words and often said and men who knew nothing about the Sull spoke them, and they fell from his mind when the warrior began to kneel.
Mal Naysayer, Son of the Sull and chosen Far Rider, dropped to his knees as they drew near. He held his position until Ash and Raif passed within speaking distance and then laid himself down upon the snow.
Oh gods. So it begins.
Muscles in the warrior's back moved beneath his cloak as he spread his arms wide to form a cross. Raif could see dozens of white letting scars on his knuckles as he dug bare fingers into ice. Not for me, Raif knew with certainty. No Sull would prostrate himself before a clansman without a clan.
Ash stood silent above the Sull, wrapped in lynx fur and boiled wool, her hair lifting and falling in the changing air. Nothing showed on her face, not exhaustion or fear...or surprise. "Rise, Mal Naysayer of the Sull, for we are old friends met in far lands and I would speak to your face, not your back."
Raif felt a tremor pass through him as she spoke. How could I have come so far with her and not realize she has been leading the way all along?
In silence, Mal Naysayer pulled himself to his feet. The silver chains and brain hooks at his waist chimed softly as he brushed snow from his mouth. Raif watched his eyes. Pale as ice and colder still, they spared no glance for the clansman. The warrior looked only at Ash.
"Snow burns," he said.
A chill went through Raif...and for one brief instant he almost knew why. He saw thirteen columns of smoke rising from a valley thick with snow, heard the old guide chanting a fragment of a cradle song, long forgot: Snow burns, the Age turns, and Lost Men shall walk the earth.
Ash breathed deeply and did not speak.
Raif spotted a line of men coming toward them, bearing spears pointed with volcanic glass and torches that burned with white-hot flames. Small and dark-skinned, they moved in the fluid and soundless manner of men accustomed to stalking large prey. Rib cages of walrus and seal were bound to their chests in armored plates, riding over layer upon layer of skins and strange furs. Forming a defensive half-circle behind the Naysayer, they thrust their spear butts deep into the snow.
Raif watched them watch him. He supposed he should be grateful that they at least considered him more of a threat than Ash, but the Sull's words had stirred a fear within him, and h...
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