The old mansion was haunted, beyond doubt. The offended ghost of its slaughtered master still loitered upon the premises. Yurune the Bloodless, sorcerer and deviant that he was, had surely deserved his fate at the hands of an outraged mob. The ax stroke that parted his head from his body should in all justice have dispatched his soiled spirit straight to the malevolences that he served. But justice had proved characteristically capricious, and Yurune's essential self lingered yet to guard his domain and secrets against his killers'descendants. Or so the story ran.
Was it true, was any of it true? Tradain liMarchborg was determined to find out.
There would be no shrinking and no cowardice--not today. How many times in the past few years had he approached the gutted building only to retreat, cowed by a shivery shadow, by a whisper or a gleam; by nothing at all? How many times had he slunk ignominiously away, throat constricted and heart hopping? Too often--but not this time. He was thirteen, and far too old for childish terrors. This time, he was going in.
He lay concealed in the tall yellow grasses that rustled at the crest of a rise overlooking the house. His caution was redundant, for the place was deserted as always. Humans wisely shunned the spot, had shunned it since the days of Yurune. But the pressure of invisible eyes was all but tangible, and instinct clamored a warning. The gooseflesh rose along his arms, the weedy adolescent figure stiffened, and he glanced back quickly over his shoulder.
No one there, of course. Pressing himself flat to the ground, he held his breath and listened. No voices, no footsteps, nothing beyond the ceaseless papery rustle of the wind amidst dead grasses. Nothing audible or visible to justify the chilly, oddly enjoyable trepidation that now possessed him.
Releasing his breath, he lifted his head to peer once more through the fringe of pallid vegetation. Down below bulked the mansion, at once familiar and immensely alien, silent and sinister even in the harmless daylight of late autumn. The walls were charred, but whole; shutters cracked but still barred, still defensive, even after all these years. The four eccentric turrets, twisted and misshapen, presumably reflected the bent nature of the architect/owner. The house was ringed with ancient trees. Their branches, dark and elaborate as wrought iron, arched above the spiral towers. Although those branches were bare, save for the occasional clinging scrap of brown parchment leaf, little light struggled through to touch dead Yurune's dwelling. The place was a natural home of shadows.
Beyond the house, beyond the iron trees, rippled the leaden waters of Lake Oblivion, an aqueous mass grave embracing countless casualties of the last century's Sortilegious Wars. The great rock rising from the grey waters at the lake's center, and the ancient fortress crowning that rock, were veiled in fog, as usual--and just as well. Fortress Nul, that prison reputedly inescapable and purgatorial, was best left hidden from sight and mind. Likewise best forgotten or ignored--the myriad restless ghosts said to haunt the lake and its environs; ghosts that watched and waited, ghosts that dreamt cold dead dreams of vengeance, ghosts that laid weightless frigid fingers upon the eyes of intruders....
Tradain shivered pleasurably, and his own living fingers sought the medallion that hung at his neck--a small silver disk, stamped with the potently protective image of immortal Autonn. The talisman seemed meaningless now, its lifeless weight no source of courage. He let it fall, and his full attention returned to Yurune's mansion.
The shuttered windows disclosed nothing. His own face was far more revealing--expressive, perilously ingenuous, with clear-cut features and keen eyes too blue and thickly lashed to waste on a boy--a youthful, unfinished face, saved from prettiness by the boldness of straight black brows, the strength of a well-defined jaw, and the carelessness of raven's wing hair.
Belly to the ground, he inched himself a few feet down the slope, then paused. His precautions were ridiculous. If ghosts or malevolences guarded this place, his presence was not about to escape their notice. He might just as well stand up and march straight on. Rising to his feet, he paused a breathless moment, during which lightning failed to strike. The sun shone dimly through the perpetual mists, the breeze whispered, the mansion brooded, and that was all.
Nervous tension mounting with every step, he resumed his advance. The meadow behind him was empty, and the heat of hidden eyes singeing his back was no doubt imaginary.
On he went, to the bottom of the hill where the iron trees grew, through a crackling sea of fallen leaves, and now the house of Yurune rose before him as it had risen so often in the past, but never before so close, and never so unequivocally threatening.
Through the leaves he waded, to the foot of the black basalt stairway--nothing so mundane as marble or sandstone for Yurune. A quick glance right and left--no sign of life or motion beneath the trees--then up the steps to the great portal, broken and shattered by that long-ago mob. The oaken remnants swung yet on ruined hinges. The entrance was unobstructed and apparently unguarded, but the sense of a vigilant, inimical presence was strong enough to freeze him on the threshold.
The hesitation was minimal, for the excesses of imagination were not about to break his resolve at this point. Taking a deep breath, he stepped over the threshold into dimness.
Muted light sliding in through the chinks in the shutters revealed a scene of devastation. Yurune's possessions--the heavy, plain furnishings, the scanty ornaments, sconces, and lamps--lay battered, hacked, and scorched. The hangings had been ripped from the walls, piled in a heap, and ignited. They had not burned well--a blackened mound remained, and soot grimed the ceiling above the spot. The cast-iron chandelier had been torn down to shatter upon the stone floor. Fragments lay strewn across the flags, and a few of the sockets still held the waxen stumps of ancient candles. It seemed that nothing had been stolen. The undisturbed dust of a century or more shrouded all. The invaders had been desperate enough to face Yurune the Bloodless, deadliest of black magicians, and they had destroyed him; but they had not dared to loot his house.
Through the ravaged chambers stole Tradain, encountering neither marvel nor menace. Presently he found his way to a windowless corridor thrusting darkly into the heart of the house, and there he stopped to draw candle and tinderbox from his pocket. He lit the candle, and the yellow light quivered upon the blackened stones, the dust and cobwebs, the ruby eyes of the fugitive rats. A dry puff of air gusted along the hallway. The flame shook, the light bounded, a quiet footfall echoed softly. Tradain's vivid glance shifted this way and that. The house was inhabited and empty, asleep and aware. He did not know what it expected of him. What he himself expected and needed was revelation. So far, he had not found it, but Yurune's mansion would yield its secrets yet.
On along the corridor he prowled, to an antechamber illumined only by a skylight four stories above--the room wherein, as legend had it, Yurune the Bloodless had met his end. Here, the parents of the countless murdered and violated children had hacked their tyrant to pieces.
Were there stains on the floor to confute the sorcerer's appellation? Tradain saw none. The porous stone was clear. Despite the gruesome celebrity of the place, he hardly paused to wonder, for the tapestry at the far end of the room, that would have thoroughly covered the wall in Yurune's time, was now hanging in rotten shreds, behind which he descried the outline of a door. Crossing the room, he thrust the woolen tatters aside and opened the door, to behold a stairway plunging into darkness.
He set his foot upon the first tread, and thought he felt the house peering over his shoulder, and breathing silent threats in his ear.
Behind him, clear and unmistakable, a footstep crunched upon broken glass. In the haunted stillness of Yurune's mansion, that faint pop was startling as the bang of a firecracker. Heart contracting, he spun in time to catch sight of a small, dark form diving for cover behind a mound of broken furniture. He carried no weapon, and if he had stopped to think, he would have retreated. Instead, three long strides took him around the pile, where he stooped, grabbed, and dragged forth a wriggling figure by one ankle. When he saw who it was, he released her at once.
"Glennian." He couldn't decide between annoyance and amusement.
"Herself," the child answered with characteristic impertinence. Sitting up, she tossed back her long mane of chestnut hair.
Excerpted from The White Tribunal by Paula Volsky. Copyright © 1997 by Paula Volsky. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.