Aloun half-rose, face darkening and eyes afire, gaze locked with
Luelldar. His lips twistedâand then froze. Eyes still fierce and hard on Luelldar's, he sat back down and said nothing.
Luelldar nodded as if satisfied, and said calmly, “The Talonar tactic you anticipate has been pondered by others. Ouvahlor is ready if such attacks are attempted.”
The last of the whorl's glow died away, and Luelldar added softly, “More than ready. Klarandarr's spells are mightier than anything Talonnorn can manage. Klarandarrâand so, all of Ouvahlorâis closer than any Talonar to what lies within the Ever-Ice you so glibly swear by. He knows how to reach closer to the cold heart of Niflheim, harnessing deeper magic than any crone of Olone.”
“And so they are doomed.”
“In my admittedly limited experience, brother, staring at nothing doesn't make it become something. At least, not at any speed one might deem âenlightening.' You will probably crumble to nothing yourself first.” Jalandral's drawl was playful, even affectionate, but Ravandarr flushed. As usual.
“I was merelyâ”
you were. Picturing what the dread âDoor of Fangs' will look like in that doorway, where nothing but a curtain now keeps us from striding right into the sharp edge of Taera's loving tongueâand closets enough of gowns for even the biggest of our gorkul to get lost and smothered in. Pretty things, but I doubt they'd fit either of us.”
Ravandarr flushed again, and said stiffly, “IâDral, I have no intention whatsoeverâ”
not. You flinch back from touching gownsâand the fair shes inside themâas if they're made of fire. Olone look
brother, can't you take things more easily? Laugh, wink, even
a time or two; I can't even remember if you know
Jalandral's bright teeth flashed as he struck a grandly heroic pose, long arms crossed elegantly, one hand gripping the hilt of the wickedly slender sword at his hip. He wiggled his eyebrows, winking exaggeratedly, and broadened his smile into a parody of a leer. “See? A smile, and it cost me nothing? Olone will be
Ravan regarded his older brother with the usual hot flare of envy.
Jalandral was handsome, elegant, and debonair, his flippancy somehow charmingâeven, it seemed, to the oldest masked crones of the Houseâand his reputation as a deadly duelist and acid-tongued wit outshone even his standing as the heir of House Evendoom.
Whereas Ravandarr Evendoomâhe made himself try to smileâwas younger, taller, heavier; a shy, gorkul-clumsy younger brother standing always in the shadow of his brother's shining fame. Hesitant and heavy-tongued beside Jalandral's drawling elegance, slow-bladed and slower-booted against Jalandral's almost careless agility, overlooked where Jalandral drew every eyeâ
“That's a smile?” Jalandral rolled his eyes. “Or
you lost the knack?”
Ravandarr grimaced. He was rough dark stone where his older brother shone like a gem, terse where Jalandral was glib, plodding whereâ
Jalandral slid out of his pose like an uncoiling snake, and was suddenly gripping Ravandarr's shoulders. “Brother,” he murmured, “we are what we are, not what we long to be. Be yourself, and be content, and wait. I'll probably soon get myself killed in some oriad prank or other, and you'll be heir, andâbehold! House Evendoom will suddenly discover the worth of someone thoughtful and methodical and mostly silent, rather than dazzlingly annoying! Oh, our crones love you more than me right now, believe me!”
“Because they see me as too witless to be more than an trudging tool,” Ravandarr said bitterly. “I've not your looks, yourâ”
Learn your own way to be happyâordering Nifl to go out and get themselves killed, as Father does; or manipulating we rampants, as the crones do; or playing pranks and wenching, as I doâand
it. Glowering and glooming will get you noticed, yes, and deemed dross to be hurled away in battle and forgotten as if you'd never been. Then poor Father would have to get busy and sire more of us, and you
Despite himself, Ravandarr chuckled, and a moment later they were laughing together. Lord Erlingar Evendoom's appetites were as legendary as what Olone had endowed him with, and the subject of many Talonar tales and jests. Some of the nastiest, told in other Houses, were the funniest, though Ravandarr never thought of them when his father was looming over him, cold-eyed and dominating every chamber he entered, seething rage never far behind that chilly smile. Lord Evendoom had eyes like two drawn and waiting daggers.
With distaste Ravan thrust thoughts of his father away, as he always did, and found himself gazing, in his mind, on a far dearer member of his family. The closest thing he had to a friend, closer and more trusted than his laughing brotherâwho, after all, always thought first of Jalandral, and cheerfully said so.
Taerune, cruel-tongued, as keen-witted as Jalandral, and oh, so beautiful. Taerune whom he ached to have, but never could. Taera, eldest of his many sisters, who'd mothered him when they were younger and who still lashed him with advice when she saw the need, leaning against this very wall with her arms crossed languidly and barbed words darting from her mouth, a crone in time to come but a formidable warrior and envoy of House Evendoom right now, who â¦
“Dral,” he blurted out suddenly, “how does Taerune find happiness?”
The heir of House Evendoom rolled his eyes. “Rampants, sometimesâ”
Ravandarr flushed, swallowed, and muttered a wordless protest that he'd
Jalandral still had hold of his brother's upper arms, and shook Ravandarr a little to silence him, so as to add, “And scheming for her inevitable cronehood, when she'll be able to order such as we hither and thither to all manner of dooms for her entertainment and sometimes for the profit of House Evendoomâ”
And then he let go of Ravandarr and thrust him away.
The younger brother staggered back, still embarrassed, and saw Jalandral lose his easy smile.
The heir of House Evendoom concluded quietly, “And toys. More than any of us, Taera loves toys. Not gowns and jewels, but toys: coffers with hidden compartments, buckles with poison fangs, things that do one thing but can also secretly be used thus-and-so to do something else; that stone-headed firefist she's been teaching to talk as we do; toys.”
He waved at the empty doorway. “This Door of Fangs? It's a toy, no more, to be nigh forgotten by her come next Turningâbut toys keep Taerune happy.”
“Why toys, do you think?”
Jalandral shrugged. “She had to find her own way. She was
going to use Mother's way.”
Ravandarr could not remember his mother, beyond a tall, sharp
black shadow that strode through his dreams cloaked in more fear than Father ever evoked. “And what was Mother's way?”
There was something twisted in Jalandral's sudden smile. “Killing her children in slow, creative, and painful ways. I once had six older brothers. Didn't you know?”
The Door of Fangs
There is Olone, and the pursuit of Olone.
And there is diversion.
Olone gives life meaning.
Diversions make it bearable.
All hail diversions!
âNiflghar drinking chant
nger grew in Taerune with every step: dark, surging,
. She could taste it; as always, it thrilled her. She lashed the scorchstone of the street beside her restlessly as she stalked forward, growling under her breath in quickening eagerness.
Her way was slowed again, blocked by Nifl who were all standing watching something yonder. In another moment she'd be among them, whip slicing deep into flesh, hurling screaming Nifl aside amid spraying blood â¦
Blood. Should she call up her wardshield? It would take only one drawn dagger or frantically clawing hand to mar her, and so in an instant thrust her far from Olone. Yes, bestâ
Best hold, as her shield flared into flickering life around her, and watch what the knot of standing Nifl were craning to see. Their murmurings had told her what it was, now, something she never tired ofâand why should she? This should be good.
If the Hunt were swooping over the streets, it was to parade trophies and proclaim their victory. They'd beâ
A long, high bellow of exulting laughter came swooping out of distant stone-fanged darkness, swept around the eagerly murmuring Nifl standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of Taerune, and tore past, air humming over taut black wings.
Another and another, the air snarling in their wake. As heads turned and the watching Nifl in the street laughed in delight, the racing riders made their mounts loop in the air high overhead, and swoop down and past again.
The darkwings they rode were like weirdly twisted, gigantic batsâbats with long, snakelike necks and small, baleful-eyed, triangular heads. Like petulant vipers they hissed and tossed their heads, chewing on the bits in their mouths, as the laughing riders on their backsâyoung warblades of House Evendoom, whipswords gleaming back the shifting rosy glows of their spell-armorâbrought them rushing lower still, long black talons scudding past within easy reach of upturned Nifl faces. Riders leaned down and shook their gory trophies: the severed heads of human slaves who'd tried to flee Talonnorn.
Slaves were always escaping. If they were strong and desperate, it was easy enough to drag the ore- or offal-sledge they were chained to into a river of rockfire until it melted away. They cooked their manacled limbs trying it, usually, but then â¦ they were dead anyway. The Hunt never missed.
Still laughing, the warblades made their flying steeds climb, great bat wings beating, to soar high over the city and jeer victory from a safe height, high above the towers of Houses less than friendly to Evendoom. Along with every other Nifl around her, Taerune watched them goâbut then looked down again and snapped her whip, thrice as long as she stood tall, causing it to undulate and then bound up from the scorchstone and crack across a Nifl's back and shoulder.
He turned with a startled roar that held more anger than fear, hand going to sword hilt.
So did the four other Nifl standing with him.
Three black tears were clustered on all of their chests. Maulstryke. Taerune's glare caught fire.
She brought the whip back to her shoulder, still smiling tightly. Her wardshield would sear them to the bone if they caught and tugged on the whip to pull her within reach, and then tried to use warsteel on her within its silent might.
They knew thatâhow could they not? All Talonnorn had tasted Evendoom wardshields a time or two, in the brawls every Arkklar if at no other time, but these were young rampants, five to her oneâand they were Mauls.
And all Mauls are fire-tempered fools.
As their blades sang out, Taerune brought her arm down and sent the whip leaping out.
With a crack that echoed off the scorchstone it shattered a sword arm and sent that blade flashing and clanging away, striking sparks off stone as it rebounded off a wall and fell.
The Nifl she'd struck reeled and shrieked, his eyes wide in shock and disbelief, and fell. His four fellow Mauls scattered with purposeful speed, moving to come at her from all sides. They hefted their swords like veteran warblades, faces flat and eyes deadly.
Behind Taerune, some of her darmarch murmured in alarm. She lashed the street behind her, to make the whip crack back in their direction and remind them just who they should be fearing the most. The last thing she wanted was them fleeing through the city streets like frightened younglings, chased by happily hewing Mauls.
“You are overbold, foolish she,” the nearest Maulstryke rampant said icily, lifting his sword.
In reply Taerune gave him her coldest smile, and raised her whip again.
“Daughter of the Ice, it is time for you to learn more than chants and holy sayings and the teachings of the Way. Sit.”
child. Sprawl. Lounge on the table. Scratch yourself. Be at ease. Awe and solemnity end at that door. This chamber is for plain speech. There are no secrets here.”
Utter bewilderment was clear on Lolonmae's open-mouthed face. The wrinkled old priestess chuckled.
“I'll make wind if you like, to completely shatter your reverence. Don't stand there gaping, little oneâyou look like a sacrifice, all wide-eyed dismay! Sit down!”
Lolonmae's lip trembled. “So â¦ so there
“Of course, but not in the way you're thinking. We don't slay
needlessly here; we persuade recreants to take the shapes of beasts useful to us, and serve for a time as guardians or hunters-of-intruders. It's a punishment some grow to enjoy.”
Hesitantly the young novice went to one of the chairs at the table and sat in it, drawing her legs in under her. She crossed trembling arms over her breast, still staring at the Revered Mother of Coldheart with confusion and fear brimming in her eyes. “Am â¦ am I to be punished?”
“No. Enlightened. And yes, there
“Oh. What â¦ what are you going to tell me?”
“Answers to whatever you ask. So think of something, or you're going to be rather bored, sitting there in silence watching me eat slaar-worms.” The Revered Mother lifted ajar from her lap, plucked off its lid, and smiled down into the faint glow. “I
Lolonmae managed to quell her shudder completely. “Ask about â¦ anything?”
“Anything. The Ravagers, my undergarments, why Nifl worship other gods, or gods at allâanything.”
Lolonmae blinked as she tried to picture what a Revered Mother might wear under her robes, decided she did not want to know, and then sighed, fought down the fears still flooding her, and blurted out, “All right: the Ravagers. Why are there Ravagers? Are they all oriad?”
“No. Most are unpleasant and desperateâthey have to be, to survive in the Wild Darkâbut they are not mad. They are outcasts.”
“Murderers? Lawbreakers? Darksins?”
“All three, some of them. Others choose to go out into the Wild. Most aren't guilty of much more than being ugly.”
The Revered Mother sighed, dipped a hand into her jar, and munched. The child knew nothing; this was going to take longer than she'd feared.
“Lolonmae,” she asked quietly, “what do you know of the worship of Olone?”
“A false faith,” the novice said promptly. “The foolish Nifl who follow it strive ever to become more beautiful, so as to ascend to Olone, whom they see as â¦ well, as beauty. They spendâwasteâtheir lives trying to become ever more beautiful.”
The Revered Mother nodded. “What do you think happens to someone in a city of Olone worshippers, someone who is not beautifulâor becomes less so?”
“They â¦ they are killed?”
“Often. Yet just as often they are driven forth into the Wild to die, or flee to avoid being slain. The âWild Dark' is called that for a reason: many beasts that devour Niflghar lurk there. If Nifl outcasts don't join the Ravagers, they seldom last long.”
“So the Ravagers
butchers, infant-eaters, and rapists?”
“Some may well be. Most are ugly or disfigured, or maimed or infirm in some way. They raid and hunt, as the tales you've heard describe so bloodily, but mainly up in the Blindingbright where humans rule. Look at the table beside you.”
Lolonmae blinked, peered into the gloom, and gave the elder priestess a puzzled frown. The tabletop was bare.
The Revered Mother sighed again. “Regard the bare stone more closely, child.”
This time the novice noticed the faint markings.
The Revered Mother quelled another sigh, swallowed a last mouthful of slaarâahh, both sweet and roast-meat juicy;
she loved good slaar!âand bent her will.
Obediently, one little mark on the tabletop suddenly glowed, making Lolonmae jump and exclaim.
” the elder priestess snarled under her breath. Were all the younglings this slow-witted? “That,” she announced calmly, “is the city of Talonnorn. You've heard of it, I believe.”
If Lolonmae heard the biting sarcasm in those words, she gave no sign of it, but turned wide eyes to the Revered Mother. “This is a map?”
By way of reply, the elder priestess pointed silently at the tabletop. Lolonmae looked there again.
A handful of other points of light glowed, amber to Talonnorn's emerald. “Ways to the surface we know of,” the Revered Mother explained. “The table between is our local Wild Dark.”
The elder priestess
sigh this time. Heavily. A ruby light, brighter than the rest, blossomed not far from Talonnorn's emerald glow. “Us,” she said, and waved her hand.
Seven brown-yellow lights glimmered into life, scattered across the table. “Ouvahlor, between here and Talonnorn. Ouvahlor and Talonnorn love each other not at all. Over there, Uryrryr. There, Imbrae and Nrauluskh. Beyond them, Yarlys and Oundrel.”
“And in far Yarlys I met my doom,” Lolonmae murmured, a snatch of song so old that the Revered Mother had sung it as a child.
The elder priestess wondered if Lolonmae knew any other words of that tune, or why it had been composed at all. The young these days seemed so
so unaware and complacent, accepting the ways of things without understanding why things were thus-and-so, and who had fought to make them that way. She waved her hand again, ere dipping it once more into the jar.
And the table grew a shimmering tangle of lines, a chaos that linked all of the cities and ways up to the Blindingbright, in routes so meandering and entwined that it was hard to trace them, even peering hard and close at the table.
Lolonmae frowned and squinted, but at least she was trying to follow routes, here and there. “These are â¦ the underways? The passages from city to city the raiders take?”
“And traders. More often, traders.”
That made Lolonmae turn, eyes wide. “
with the cities of Olone?”
“And the Ravagers,” the Revered Mother told her calmly. “They bring us plants, and their berries and juices, for our alchemies. In return for magics and healing ointments.”
The novice was frowning. “What do they trade with the cities of Olone for?”
“More magic. Good weapons.”
“And what do Talonnorn and Imbrae get in return?”
“Humans, child. Strong humans. Plucked from where the Hairy Ones dwell, up in the Blindingbright.”
Lolonmae's lip curled. “And what do they of Olone need humans for? Food? Surely not breeding for beauty? Or are they all so indolent that they need slaves to do everything for them?”
“Indolence, yes, though they see it not so. Their need was born of fear. Fear of being cast out due to disfigurementâand fear of such marring befalling them in cooking over hearth fires, fighting with blades in the cities, mining, or smithywork. So they have slaves to do such things for them.”
The novice shook her head. “Truly, they are worthy of our contempt,” she said, disbelief and amazement strong in her voice.
“The Ravagers sneer at us and the cities of Olone about equally,” the Revered Mother said gently, gazing into the slaar glow in her jar in
contented satiation. “They think us both oriad and lazy, ignorant and doomed.”