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Authors: Keith Francis Strohm


BOOK: Bladesinger
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The Fighters Series

A Forgotten Realms Novel


Keith Francis Strohm


Proofread by BW-SciFi

Ebook version 1.0

Release Date : July, 6th, 2008


To the Davidsons—Robin, John, Demarie, Parker, and Carson—for offering shade beneath the desert sun; and to the God who brought us together:


Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. Domine Deus, Rex coelestis.


Deep the heart’s yearning for fairest Cormanthor, for the bright leaves of home, where the sun’s kisses fall upon jeweled crystal spires, and summer winds blow through ancient oak bowers;


Soft the heart’s turning through the long sigh of years, to the glades of Varaenae, where the Eadulith flows with moon-stippled grace, and lilaenril blooms within night’s dark embrace;


O fairest of homes!


Sharp the heart’s churning for that now-distant road,

for the vale of Ny’athalael, where the dryads still sing

of root-hidden beauty,

and silver streams carry their songs to the sea.


O Cormanthor, Hail!


Through the heart’s discerning, in shadow and flame,

we carry the song of your glory within;

Remember us dearly, your sons and your daughters,

‘till we come once again to your soil.


To the bright, golden leaves of our home!


—from “Aelrindel’s Lament”


The Year of the Unstrung Harp

(1371 DR)


Deep among the jagged teeth of the Icerim Mountains—where wild winter winds shriek fell tidings and the snow-blasted dead claw at their ice-blue tombs—an old woman sang. Harsh-throated and cruel, the terrible song echoed among the frost-rimed boulders, not drowned out by the wind but amplified, carried like the rumor of war or pestilence, until even the iron heart of the mountain trembled before it.

Yulda, hathran and sister to the Witches of Rashemen, threw a gnarled hand against the stone wall of the mountain, and the deep rumble of an avalanche answered. A sharp bark of laughter escaped her. No going back now, the witch thought with a thrill. Snow, ice, and stone sealed the treacherous path she had followed—as she had planned. The spell was simple for one such as her, steeped in the ancient ways of the wychlaran. The very stones and trees of Rashemen were alive with the presence of ancient spirits known to her people as telthor. Those same spirits, shaped by centuries of wild storms and harsh winters, were eager to accede to her request.

The heaving subsided after a few moments more. Yulda started forward, her thick, furred boots crunching across the thin layer of ice-encrusted snow. On any other night, in any other place, the witch would have used the moon’s own light to guide her way. Here, in the wilds of the Icerim, with thick clouds blanketing the sky, she gathered her power and sent a golden ball of light ahead on the path she followed. The raking wind tore through her black robes until they rustled around her like the shadow of dark wings, but she paid it no mind. Simple cantrips to keep the cold at bay were one of the first things the witches taught their most junior ethran, or apprentices, and now her devotion to the arcane lore of Rashemen offered her protection enough from the predations of winter.

Thinking of the ethran brought Yulda back to her own apprenticeship, so many decades ago it seemed lost in the fog of time. She had been young and unsure of herself then—all too eager to please the other hathran. It wasn’t until she had mastered the witches’ arts and became a hathran herself that she began to see the hypocrisy behind her sisters’ existence.

For all of their talk of keeping the law and defending Rashemen, the wychlaran were nothing more than glorified hedge witches, like those unproven who, through their own weakness, did not choose the harsh discipline and study of the hathran. The word of a Rashemi witch may be law, but they rarely spoke such a word without deliberation, relying instead on the Iron Lord and his dull-witted thugs to order things. The vremyonni, too, stung her pride like a thorn. Those male spellcasters known as the Old Ones, laboring in their secret cavern strongholds away from the eyes of the hathran, were an affront to the true dignify of the wychlaran.

Yulda had long since seen the error in such a system. Working through ale-addled men instead of ruling as they should was exactly the reason that the wychlaran were so ineffective. After centuries, danger still threatened Rashemen from its borders. Let the men, and especially those damned secretive vremyonni, truly understand their place in the natural order. Only then would Rashemen attain its true destiny!

A rumbling cough interrupted Yulda’s thoughts, and the witch cast around for the source of the disturbance. There, high on an escarpment, shimmering within the golden witchlight, crouched a Rashemi snow tiger. With another deep-throated rumble, it bounded down the steep slope, muscles rippling beneath a pelt of purest white, and halted before the black-robed witch. Up close, the snow tiger shimmered and glowed with its own incandescence, betraying its incorporeal nature.

Yulda pulled back her hood and gazed upon the creature from beneath the confines of her stark white mask, the symbol of her status as a hathran. Even here, poised on the threshold of plans that would mean her own death at the hands of her sisters if discovered, she was hesitant to remove it. She had worn the mask for far too long to cast it off so easily.

“Excellent work, my dmizny, my Fleshrender,” Yulda purred at the spirit tiger in a voice that held none of its earlier harshness. Truly excellent work, she thought. Without the presence of her telthor companion, she would never have found the cavern that held the key to her plans.

Fleshrender let loose a long growl then fell into place by Yulda’s side as the witch continued on her way. She sometimes wondered what the telthor did when not directly in contact with her; one look at its baleful eyes usually convinced her that she really did not want to know. It was enough that the two were bound together in this dark purpose.

The path led through several old rockfalls, cluttered with ice and drifts of snow, and up a series of steep slopes. Yulda trudged onward for another candle’s length, wheezing as she navigated the relentless course. The witch had just climbed over the shattered corpse of an ice-slain tree when her shimmering, golden witchlight winked out of existence, plunging her into total darkness.

She cursed loudly as her knee banged against the frozen stone before her, then laughed at the absurdity of it all. The dispelling of her magic should not have come as a surprise. The witch had, after all, chosen this place for a reason. During the course of its troubled history, Rashemen became the battleground of warring nations, whose mighty spells even now held sway over portions of the land. Yulda knew that no magic would function at all beyond this fallen tree and across a broad sweep of flatland, until the spellcaster reached the entrance to a small cavern at the base of a natural outcropping of stone.

The witch reached into her robe, pulled out a small torch, and lit it with some flint and steel. The flame guttered beneath the heavy wind but continued to cast fitful light. With a sharp motion to Fleshrender and a mental command to wait here, Yulda hurried along the path toward the cavern. Walking through this area devoid of magic set her teeth to itching; she felt only half alive, as if something precious and vital were missing. The torch nearly went out a few times along the way, but she finally arrived at the cavern entrance, breathless from the buffeting of the wind.

Yulda dropped the torch and bowed her head to avoid banging it on the uneven stone as she entered the cave. Immediately, she let out a sigh of relief as her mystic senses returned. In the dying light of the torch, she could see a shadowed path leading toward the back of the cave. Following it, she stood at last before a wall of stone inscribed with several glyphs. The witch sang softly, almost humming, and purple light flared from the glyphs before the wall shimmered and faded away.

She stepped through and made a sharp gesture with her hand. At once, flames erupted from wooden torches placed roughly in iron sconces around the cave. The gray stone of her rude demesne rippled with incandescent fire as the crystals embedded within the rock caught the newly created light. Normally she would stare at such a spectacle, marveling at the delicate interplay of elements. Tonight, however, she was driven by a dark and terrible purpose.

Ignoring the sharp stalagmites that jutted up from the uneven stone floor like the gray teeth of a giant frost troll, Yulda deftly made her way to the back of the cave, past hastily strewn fur rugs and the detritus of past experiments. She finally stopped before a large alcove covered in darkness so thick that even the combined illumination of the torches could not pierce it. With another word, she banished the darkness—

—and gazed upon the naked form of a vremyonni, held spread-eagled by four obsidian chains that pulsed with a baleful green light. The Old One was ancient even by the standards of his brotherhood. Deeply weathered flesh sagged on the wizard’s decrepit bones, drooping toward the floor like melted candle wax. Faint tufts of silver hair sprouted from the creased lines of the man’s skull; only his thickset eyebrows and flowing white beard bespoke the Rashemi blood beating sluggishly within his chest.

He stirred at Yulda’s approach, gazing up at her with eyes that still shone brilliant gold, despite his treatment. The witch nearly stopped in her tracks. Power resonated from him, sharp and bright, so different from her own magic. She felt a wave of desire crest over her all at once—wild and desperate. With an iron discipline honed by nearly a century of study, the hathran mastered her body’s need.

The Old One was dangerous still. His lore was deep; it burned within him, the very animating force that pumped each beat of his ancient heart. It had taken all of her cunning to lure the wizard into her trap and overwhelm his arcane defenses. She would not falter now and allow a single misstep to ruin her plan—not when she was so close.

“Have you reconsidered my offer?” Yulda asked in a voice not far from the purr she had offered her telthor companion earlier.

The vremyonni ignored her, staring steadily into her eyes.

“Where is the boy?” he asked at last, his deep, rumbling bass echoing in the frigid cave.

“The boy?” she replied with little comprehension—then she remembered the wizard’s pupil, a lad of less than twelve summers, with soft, smooth skin and golden hair. “Ahh… I remember now. He’s dead.”

The news seemed to deflate the vremyonni even more than his cruel bonds. The Old One bowed his head, but Yulda stepped forward and pulled the sagging wizard’s head up violently to face her.

“I will have your secrets, old man—and those of your pathetic brotherhood.” She nearly screamed the last words.

He gazed at her for a few moments then said softly, almost whispering, “Before I will betray the very oaths that give me life, I would see the face of my captor.”

Yulda stepped back as if struck. No one gazed upon the naked face of a hathran, least of all a man, yet her path these past decades had led her far beyond the ways that blinded her tradition-bound sisters. Reaching carefully, almost tenderly, up to her mask, the witch slowly removed it, revealing the weathered lines of her own countenance. She watched as the Old One’s face changed—first in disbelief at the moment of recognition, then in horror as his gaze fell upon the gaping hole where Yulda’s left eye should have been, a hole that now pulsated with an obsidian energy that seemed to draw the very light of the cavern into it.

“You …” the Old One stammered. “What have you done?”

The question hung in the air between them, and for a single moment Yulda felt free of the compulsion that had driven her for nearly half a century. The horror of her own actions came alive within her and cried out for justice. Here was an open door, an opportunity to step from her treacherous path.

The moment passed.

With a snarl, the hathran threw her white mask to the floor and shattered it with a single stomp of her booted foot.

“I have done what I must,” she finally answered the vremyonni’s question. “Now,” she asked almost sweetly, “what will you do for me?”

“I will never betray the oaths of my brotherhood,” the Old One said, “especially to a durthan pawn.”

At that, Yulda laughed, a terrible sound, like the cawing of a crow.

“Do you think I have anything to do with that dark sisterhood?” she asked at last, nearly spluttering as she tried to catch her breath. “The durthan are nothing more than toothless crones. They scurry and scuttle in the shadows of the Erech Forest, clutching their little secrets and spinning webs of intrigue like bloated spiders, too full of themselves to realize true power.

“No,” the witch continued, drawing blood as she ran a sharp nail down the Old One’s gaunt cheek. “I am far more than wychlaran. I am free—and nothing will stop me before I have worked my will upon the world.”

“Then I am truly sorry,” the vremyonni replied. “The freedom you have is a terrible burden. Who can survive it?”

The Old One’s words were spoken mildly, but their sorrowful tone awoke a fierce flame within Yulda’s heart. Who was this broken wizard, this man, to feel sorrow for her? She turned from him and with a single shout sent an arcane message spinning across the breadth of Rashemen to the one person she trusted. The witch’s forces would begin to gather. Her time was at hand.

“If you will not offer me the power that I seek,” Yulda said fiercely as she returned her attention to the captive wizard, “then I will reach into your very heart and rake for it.”

Quietly at first, and then with greater intensity, the witch gave voice to the spell that had taken her eye to learn. Black power billowed from her ruined eye socket like smoke, forming a cloud that gathered around the chained Old One. A final shouted incantation sent the cloud rushing at the chained wizard with enough force to extinguish the guttering torches. The cave plunged into darkness as the Old One’s screams kept company with the night wind.

BOOK: Bladesinger
13.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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