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Authors: David Cook

Soldiers of Ice

BOOK: Soldiers of Ice
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Prologue

It was

a bad day for hunting. Old Wolf-Ear knew it

would be fruitless. The sun was already too

bright and too high, and the pack was

too far from the ragged darkness of the

woods. There wouldn’t be any game

in this flat snowfield between the forest

and the icefall at the glacier’s base. The

hunter knew all this even before it wrinkled back its muzzle to sniff the cold, sterile scent of pine and ice.

The air

carried none of the tingling warmth of deer musk or rabbit scat, only a suggestion of newborn mice buried deep beneath the snow. The grizzled stalker toyed with the idea of digging them out, but the tiny morsels weren’t worth the effort. Besides, Wolf-Ear was with a pack and had to uphold the old gnoll’s reputation as a hunter. So instead of digging, Wolf-Ear growlingly spat into the snow to cleanse out the lingering scent.

“No More

hunting. Back to village,” Wolf-Ear barked, glaring at the three whelps accompanying it, keeping its

 

Battle Site

 

The Harers

 

one strong eye on them. Two of the three younglings properly lowered their heads in submission to the old cur’s judgment.

The third, though, glared back defiantly. This one

stood slightly taller than the old hunter, the older gnoll being stooped and bent.

“I go back to camp with a kill.” The challenger sneered in disgust, the blackish lips of its wolfish muzzle curling back to show dirty yellow fangs that hung over the lower gums.

The younger gnoll shifted its rag-wrapped feet slightly forward in the churned snow to assert its challenge.

Old Wolf-Ear’s neck hairs bristled at the move, and its good ear twitched under the coarse, greasy rags that wrapped its head. The old gnoll caught the warning snarl building in the back of its throat. As it kept its good eye unerringly fixed on the upstart whelp, Wolf-Ear unexpectedly lashed out with its spear to lay on a blow like a schoolmaster caning a boy. The suddenness of the vicious roundhouse swing left the younger gnoll defenseless, and the

spear shaft delivered a bruising wallop alongside the whelp’s ear, where luckily a thick, matted scarf cushioned the blow. Even with the cushion, the youngling still reeled, its vision wavering.

Before the stunned gnoll could plant its feet firmly on the slippery ground, Wolf-Ear almost casually struck again with a chopping whack to the knee. The youngling dropped like a felled tree into the drift behind it, cracking the ice crust to flounder in the powder beneath. Old Wolf-Ear stepped alongside it, and with a quick jab pressed the spear’s point against the challenger’s chest. Feeling the tip prick through all its layers of leather and fur, the whelp stopped floundering.

Its attention gained, the old hunter snarled out, “I lead this pack. Do not challenge me, pup.” Even as Wolf-Ear spoke, the grizzled gnoll made sure it knew where the other two cubs were.

‘you lead, Wolf-Ear,” the young cub mumbled, turning its Soldiers of Ice

3

 

face away. Winter steam formed thick clouds from its muzzle as its mouth hung open slackly, showing a purplish red tongue.

Satisfied, the old hunter pulled back its spear and turned to glare at the two other younglings. They stood there, eager to watch a fight, while the wind flapped their greasy wraps of cloth and hide. Taken from some unfortunate traveler, the once-rich cloth they wore was tattered and stained, and decorated with tassels of animal fur and bits of bone.

Wolf-Ear growled at them just in case they had any ideas.

The old gnoll hated working with the cubs, for they were too eager to impress the females of the lodges. Some More hard work would serve them right.

‘Youngsters want a kill,” Wolf-Ear snarled sarcastically.

‘qhen we hunt on the tall ice.” With that, it extended its spear toward the north.

The pack looked up at the great ice wall Wolf-Ear pointed to. It was the forward edge of the glacier that capped the northern end of their valley, a tumbled wall of rock-encrusted ice that had been there since before the gnolls had arrived.

The broken wall, less than a half-mile away, stood about three times taller than the tallest trees at its base. The gray-black barren peaks of the mountains were its grim supporters at either side.

“Fo the top. We spot our kill from there,” Wolf-Ear pronounced with grim glee. There was no game up on top of

the wall, but the climb and cold would sap some of the fire from the young hunters. It they were smart, they would watch Wolf-Ear and learn how to survive on the ice. Otherwise—well, whatever happened they deserved. No one in

the pack would mourn for weaklings.

In the hour that passed as the group clambered over the loose moraine and onto the angular face of the ice, Wolf-Ear wa’tched with malevolent pride as the young hunters struggled. The climb was an ordeal for them, and their 4

The Harpers

 

Soldiers of Ice

5

 

hands quickly became matted with frozen blood from the cuts of jagged stones. “Climb!” Woff-Ear barked whenever one of them lagged behind, particularly the tallest one, and they scrabbled harder at the old gnoll’s snarl, determined not to show their pain. Wolf-Ear hoped the climb hurt, for pain would teach them much More than the veteran hunter could.

As they neared the top, where the rim was a serrated bartier of upthrust plates pushed out by the glacier’s relentless pressure, Wolf-Ear steered them toward a cleft in the wall. It was an old trail along the bottom of a narrow crevasse, one that tapered gradually to the top of the ice field. The going was easier here, and the pack made rapid progress toward the top. At last the old hunter called a halt and watched, amused, as its charges, bloodied and exhausted, sagged against their bows. Over and around them, the glacier groaned and creaked like a protesting spirit upset at their presence.

A grinding squeal shivered down the narrow walls of the canyon, rousing the group. old Wolf-Ear had never heard a sound quite like that. It wasn’t the rumbling thunder of an avalanche. Instead, it reminded the gnoll of spring ice breaking up on the river, the floes grating and shifting against each other, but up here that was impossible, for there were no rivers and the ice never moved. Curious, the old gnoll motioned the others to follow.

They hadn’t gone five steps before the squeal swelled into a shriek. The crevasse echoed with shrill grinding as the crystal floor began to shake. Ice overhanging the lip of the top fell in shivering chunks and cascaded down, smashing against the sides, stinging the gnolls with frozen

shards.

And then suddenly, the source of the noise came into view, rushing down the cleft straight toward them.

Avalanche, Wolf-Ear thought blindly, but the gnoll knew it wasn’t an avalanche even as it came into view. It was a wave of solid ice that flowed like water down a streambed, crashing over the broken snow blocks and splashing

against the side of the crevasse. Icicles sprayed like froth in the flow’s advancing flood.

“Run!” the old hunter barked, fear finally uncovering the compassion Wolf-Ear really felt for the kits. Its urging was hardly needed. The younglings were already scrambling, casting their bows and spears aside in haste.

Wolf-Ear wasn’t so quick, and before the old gnoll could pivot, the rushing flood swept over it. The ice flowed over its body like water and swept it, floundering and gasping, along with the current.

The tallest of the younglings seized the lead, covering huge strides with its long legs. Behind it, the other two vainly tried to keep up, jostling each other in their panic.

There was a thud and scream as the inundation swept the pair under. Realizing it couldn’t outrun the flood of white, the surviving youngling desperately leapt for a jutting ice shelf. It was almost out of reach, but the young gnoll’s strong fingers gained a crumbling purchase on the rotten ice and snow. Fueled by terror, the kit hoisted itself over the lip, the churning ice splashing on the creature as it surged past.

Panting on its belly, the gnoll peered over the edge and watched Wolf-Ear’s frozen body flow down the crevasse until it disappeared over the icy waterfall as the bizarre river plunged toward the valley below.

 

One

 

“A mug of ale, Jhaele,” the small

black-haired woman ordered as she

strode through the door and plopped

herself astraddle the hard bench of the

great trestletable in the center of the

taproom’s commons.

“Aye, Martine,” the landlady echoed.

Her long platinum tresses gleamed in the light from the open door.

“No, wait. Best make it tea,” the young woman called fi.om the table. She drew her sheath knife and began to fidget with it, idly poking the tip into the tabletop.

The landlady nodded and sighed. “Tea, then.” Wood

tapped metal as she scooped a ladleful of water from the pot that hung over the fire. “Now, what’s troubling you, dear?”

the landlady asked kindly, looking back toward the other woman.

“It’s—Jhaele, how did you know I’m upset?” Martine blurted.

The hosteler ambled over to set a steaming mug on the Soldiers of Ice

7

 

table with a solid thump. “For one thing, you haven’t been in here a minute, and already you’ve got that knife of yours out. If you spent as much time hunting as you spend carving at my furniture with that knife, you could be dangerous.”

Martine was suddenly conscious of the small blade in her hand and the lines she’d been absentmindedly etching on the unvarnished tabletop.

“Sorry.”

“It’s a tavern table. It’s seen worse.” The older woman dismissed Martine’s worries with a reassuring pat on her shoulder. “So what troubles you?”

“It’s just that Jazrac wants to see me.”

“Harper business, eh?”

Martine almost gave a start until she remembered how everybody in this dale seemed to know everyone else’s business, even secret business such as that concerning the Harpers. “I suppose,” she allowed. “He’s been my sponsor, vouched for me, and I’m still not a full member, you know.”

I’m saying More than I should, the woman realized even as she said the words.

“Ah, I didn’t, but that helps to explain things.” Jhaele gave a wry smile that only someone who has heard countless secrets could do. “Don’t you worry. He’s a hearth-lover, a stay-at-home. He probably wants you to do some

legwork for him while he hovers around Elminster.”

“Maybe,” Martine allowed tentatively as she took up the mug. “But his message said he had important news for me.”

“Hmph. With wizards, everything is important,” the landlady chuckled as she turned to tend the fire.

 

Jazrac was waiting for Martine on the footpath that led to the mill. He looked old, but not o old as to be 8

The Harpers

 

Soldiers of Ice

 

grandfatherly, nor was she so young by comparison. The wizard met her with a sweeping bow More showy than

polite, his seasoned head bent till the sharp tip of his salt-and-pepper goatee brushed against his chest. The rich velveteen cloth of his robes, impractical dress given the rustic surroundings, rustled as he rose to his thin, imperious height.

“Greetings, Master Jazrac,” Martine said with a schoolchild’s nervous courtesy and a small bob of her body, as

much of a curtsy as anyone would get from her. In her buckskin trousers and fur half-cape, such niceties were lost anyway. ‘You have news for me?”

“Indeed, great news. Come, let’s walk,” he offered and said nothing More. The wizard deftly steered her onto the mill path, clearly relishing the air of teasing mystery he was creating. Martine bit at her lip and followed, since there was no other choice. Jazrac was born to be overly dramatic, she knew. It was one thing she had learned in the several years she’d known him. He could have been a thespian had his magical talent gone undiscovered.

Though she was bursting with curiosity, Martine followed the older man into the faded brown woods. Behind

them was Shadowdale, a collection of thatched houses clustered around a muddy crossroads. The curling spire of the Tower of Ashaba rose above the rest and was just visible through the branches of the trees. Jazrac led the way by half a step. Martine cocked her head to look up at him, dark bangs of bobbed hair spilling sideways across her forehead.

“Martine, my dear, I know it seems as if you’ve been doing nothing but playing messenger ever since you joined the Harpers.” The huntress bristled at the condescension in his tone. “Certainly you’ve been kept busy. In fact, some of the others wondered if you might be in need of a rest. Four months trekking in the wilderness is More than enough time with no inns, no baths—barely even a bed, I imagii Rest? I don’t need any rest. What have I done wra

Martine thought. Her eyes flashed with alarm even as strove to keep her expression calm.

Jazrac didn’t notice any reaction, or at least paid no n With a muttered, twisted phrase, he made a pantom

sweep of the path ahead, velvet sleeve aswirl. The h breath of wind in the barren treetops suddenly arched swirled down at his command, blowing the dead foli

into the woods till the leaves caught their sharp cor along the bank of the nearby millstream.

Martine barely glanced at the tattered shapes as I

swirled away, unwittingly drumming her fingers on

thigh while waiting for her companion to continue. She accustomed to Jazrac’s little magical displays. She fear guessed his next words—praise for jobs well done, a gestion that she needed More time or More guidance, I an offer of a mission suitable to her talents. Undoubte would be another package to deliver or a fellow Harp{

accompany on a mission, all so she could watch and le Only a few More such as these and surely they w{

advance her. A little More patience and seasoning were she needed. In all this, Jazrac meant well; the wizard generously watched over her career up to now. Marti thoughts madly raced to review the scenario she was tain would follow.

BOOK: Soldiers of Ice
8.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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