The raven sprang from the edge of the precipice, spreading dark wings like shadows, and soared into the fiery dawn sky.
A wall of peaks fell away behind it, sharp as dragons' teeth, an impenetrable barrier of stone that stabbed at the sky. A wind howled off the mountains, slicing through the raven's feathers. It seemed the king toyed with his Stone again. The raven beat hard against the blast, righted himself, and fixed his eyes on the leafless forest that clung like mist to the land below. He had a message to deliver before the day died, to one in a place far to the south, and he would not fail in his task.
The raven's name was Gauris. Eleven and one hundred times the ice floes of the Winter Sea had cracked, thawed, and frozen again since the day of his shell-sundering. Through all of those years, Gauris had served the king faithfully. True, his feathers were not so glossy as they once had been, and his beak and talons were duller. However, his black eyes were still keen, and not even the young ones of the brood, for all they puffed their sleek breasts in pride, could fly so far in a single day as Gauris. That was why this message had been entrusted to him, for it was a missive of particular importance.
Or at least, so Gauris supposed. For no one, not even the king's closest minions, could know the king's thoughts and will. His heart was made of cold, enchanted iron, and some said the mind beneath his icy crown was forged of the same stuff. One thing Gauris knew for certain: The winds of war were blowing. And like a knight sharpening his blade and searching for chinks in his armor, the king needed to be sure all of his tools were at the ready. It was one of those tools--one of the most precious of them all--to which Gauris flew now.
He swooped toward the forest, skimming just above the tops of the bare, silvery trees. It was still only early Sindath, but winter had already come to this part of Falengarth, and it would never depart again if the king had his way. Gauris awaited that day with great anticipation. Surely there would be need for swift couriers in the New Times: messengers to carry the king's commands throughout his vast realm, which would claim all of Falengarth from shore to shore. And none were swifter than the king's ravens, fed with dark meats over the centuries to grant them speed and strength.
True, it was whispered by some that the king had his own master who would return in the New Times, a master whom some called the Nightlord and who had been wrongfully banished long ago. If this were so, would not the Nightlord be ruler of all things when the war was won? But surely the Nightlord would be grateful for the king's service, just as the king would be grateful for the swiftness of his ravens. Surely, in the New Times, there would be rewards for all who served on the victorious side.
The forest fell behind him, and Gauris pumped strong wings as the sun edged higher. Sere fields slipped below, dotted by lakes that flashed like coins before vanishing behind. Another range of mountains hove into view. It was a weathered jumble of rocks far lower than the wall of bitter stone that barred the way into and out of the king's dominion (and which were woven with spells of madness, so that only his ravens and a few of his other servants could pass beyond them). Gauris struck toward the line of muted peaks and followed them southward.
After a few more leagues, he spied a bowl-shaped valley in the mountains. In the valley was a lake; and in the center of the lake, on a jutting spur of rock, was a half-ruined fortress. Smoke belched up from the keep's towers, as if from arcane engines, and steam boiled from the nearby waters of the lake. A crimson flag snapped atop the keep's highest turret, its bloody field marked by a black crown encircling a silver tower. Tiny figures moved outside the walls of the fortress; light glinted off helms and swords.
Gauris didn't know exactly where he would find the one to whom he was to deliver the king's message, but he knew the signs to look for: strife and destruction; smoke and fear. Wherever she was, shadows would gather. He folded his wings and dived toward the fortress below.
Moving so swiftly that the men in the keep's main yard would perceive nothing more than a dark flicker in the corner of their eyes, Gauris darted through a gap in the side of a crumbling watchtower. He settled on a rotten beam and took care to keep to the gloom of the ruin.
In the yard below, a score of knights marched to the fierce beat of a drum. The knights wore suits of plate armor as black as Gauris's feathers. Each carried a red shield marked with the same black crown and silver tower as the flag above the keep. Broadswords slapped against their thighs.
As the dark column of knights drew near, gaunt men, women hunched in rags, and children with scab-crusted legs hastened to get out of the way, clutching buckets of water or lumps of peat to their chests, their eyes hazed in fear. Puckered brands marked the backs of their hands.
As the knights reached the center of the yard, the gates of the keep flew open, and three more of the onyx warriors thundered through on sooty chargers. The horses pounded to a stop. One of the knights on foot approached the horsemen. Cocking his head, Gauris listened.
"Hail to the glory that once was," said the knight who stood on the ground, holding a fist against his breastplate, voice deep and hollow inside his helm.
One of the horsemen nudged his mount forward and mirrored the salute. "Hail to the glory that will be once more."
Both men lowered their fists.
"Did you find the fugitive's hiding place?"
The horseman grunted in disgust. "The wildmen who follow him are little better than dogs. But they are clever dogs, and there are witches and workers of runes in his band of rabble. There is no telling what tricks and deceptions they have fashioned to hinder us."
"Magic," the other spat. "Such perversions will not be suffered when the ancient order is restored. The witches and runespeakers will be put to the torch, and the land of our ancestors will be polluted no longer. It cannot happen too soon."
"Have faith, brother," the horseman said, laying a gloved hand on the other's shoulder. "The miscreant dared to call himself king of this place. We will find him and his motley band soon enough. And they will pay for their sins."
The men continued to exchange words, but Gauris had heard enough. Before any wandering eyes might notice the shadow in the ruined tower, he sprang from the rafter and darted into the sky. He wondered who these onyx knights were. Surely they were men of war. But in the coming battle, which side did they serve?
It didn't matter. Clearly the one to whom he was to deliver his message was not among them. Gauris flew on.
Again he followed the tumbled line of mountains south, searching for the telltale signs of strife and panic. His wings had begun to ache, but he ignored it. In his younger days, he could have flown twice this far without so much as a twinge.
Far below, the thin line of a road snaked over hills and vales. Gradually the road grew wider, linking together gray blots on the land that Gauris knew to be towns of men. A dark cloud billowed up from one of them. He swooped nearer.
The town burned.
Flames leaped among shabby buildings, consuming thatch roofs, cracking stone walls. Cries of suffering rose with the smoke, along with the ringing of swords. It seemed dark figures moved with swift precision through the streets, although Gauris couldn't be sure; it was hard even for his eyes to pierce the veil of smoke. Besides, his heart told him this was not the place. From what little he knew of the one he sought, such a mean collection of hovels would be far beneath her attention. He rose again toward the sky.
The aching in the raven's wings grew steadily as he flew southward. When he could, he caught an updraft of air, floating upon it for a while so he could rest. Then, when the air shifted, he beat his wings once more. More towns and castles passed below, and stone-walled fields where crops lay rotting. The spidery web of roads that connected the keeps was empty. Then Gauris's black eyes caught a speck of motion. He forced his stiffening wings to bend and wheeled closer.
A line of people moved along the road, three hundred strong, all clad in black. Was this an army of some sort?
No. Gauris circled lower and saw that over half of the people were women and children, and instead of armor they wore robes of rough, black cloth. A feverish light shone in their eyes, so that Gauris wondered if they were refugees of plague. Then he saw the symbol drawn in ashes upon the brow of each man, woman, and child: the shape of a single, staring eye.
So this was an army after all, but an army of pilgrims, not warriors. Their toneless chant rose on the air.Drink the ice
Breathe the fire
Shadow be your lover
Chain the mind
Still the heart
Darkness rules forever
Gauris's heart swelled in his breast. Yes, he understood. There was a gate in the northern mountains, a gate of iron a hundred feet high, bound with runes. But soon the last of the hated runes would crack, the gate would open, and the king would at last ride free. Then it would be just as the people chanted. The king would rule forevermore.
Whoever these pilgrims were, surely they were on the side of right in the coming battle. His spirit rising, Gauris forgot the pain in his wings and soared onward.
Just as the sun reached its zenith, the line of mountains he had been following ended in another wall of peaks that ranged east to west. The raven propelled himself upward, then across a bare, rocky highland. The air here was terribly thin, so that he had to beat his wings twice as often just to move the same distance. At last, blood pounding, he spiraled down the other side of the pass, to greener lands below.
He strayed both east and west, searching. Below him, all appeared peaceful and prosperous; these realms had not yet been gripped by early winter and war as had the lands to the north. All the same, Gauris's keen eyes could make out the subtle but unmistakable signs of growing strife. Here and there he paused--on a branch, a window ledge, a stone wall--an unseen shadow, listening.
Atop a hill, hidden in a labyrinth of standing stones, a dozen men gathered. They sat in a circle, naked save for linen kilts, sweating in the heady smoke of herbs thrown on a fire. One of them, a man with powerful arms, wore a wooden mask shaped like the head of a bull. A sword lay across his knees.
"Tell us of the Hammer and the Anvil," the men in the circle said to the one in the mask.
A rumbling voice issued from behind the mask. "The Hammer and the Anvil are the tools of Vathris. With them he will fight the Final Battle, and their deeds will be glorious."
"And when will they come?" the men asked.
"They are already here. At least, so say the priests of the innermost circle. They believe that the Final Battle has already begun."
A thrill ran around the circle.
"Will we win it?" said a young man, gazing into the fire, his beard no more than a soft down on his cheeks.
The one in the bull mask shrugged massive shoulders. "Win or lose, it does not matter. Even in defeat there is glory, if one fights with honor. All who die in the Final Battle will have a place in Vathranan after the world ends. Now, if you would fight for your god, you must draw from yourself the blood of his Bull."
He took up the sword and ran his hand across the edge, so that crimson flowed, staining the steel. He passed the sword to the next man, and the next. All drew blood, the young one with the greatest fierceness of them all. . . .
The raven flew on.
In a castle with nine towers, a king paced and fumed.
"What do you mean she's no longer at Ar-tolor?" the king bellowed.
He was a powerful man, clad in black and silver, his beard glossy with oil. Blue eyes sizzled like lightning. The guardsman took a step back.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty. That is the news brought by Sir Dalmeth, who returned from Toloria not a quarter hour ago."
The king clenched a fist. "Then by all the Seven, where in the Dominions is she?"
The guardsman swallowed. "It seems she's not anywhere in the Dominions, Your Majesty."
The king stopped in his tracks. The mastiffs by the hearth whined and cowered. "What?"
"Tarras," the guardsman managed to blurt out. "She went south to Tarras, Your Majesty. With Lord Falken, Lady Melia, and others. Two moons since."
The king's blue eyes narrowed. "It is not like my ward to run off on foolish adventures. At least, it wasn't until she made the acquaintance of Ivalaine. By the Bull, this has the mark of the Witch Queen in it. But I'll put a stop to it." His gaze returned to the guard. "Send a messenger to Tarras at once. . . ."
Still the raven flew on as the sun sank toward the western rim of the world.
Not far from the castle, beyond a circle of standing stones, in a dense fragment of primeval forest, soft lights danced beneath gold and copper trees. High laughter rose on the air, along with wild music and the chiming of bells.
All at once, both laughter and music ceased. Around the eaves of the wood, gangly shadows prowled back and forth, seeking entry. Lights flashed again--brilliant silver now, near the edges of the wood. Shrill cries drifted upward. The shadows retreated; all was still. . . .
Onward the raven flew, each beat of the wings a stab of pain in his breast.
In the grotto of a secret garden, a trio of young women gathered, eyes bright, gowns smudged with dirt, and leaves tangled in their hair. An iron pot suspended from a tripod of green sticks bubbled above a fire.
Excerpted from Blood of Mystery by Mark Anthony. Copyright © 2002 by Mark Anthony. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.