Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan
Late Winter, 5E988
redator and prey: the sudden blast of snow interrupted the race for life, the race for death, the boreal owl taking to the swirling branches of a barrens pine, the arctic hare scuttering under the protecting overhang of a rock jut. And driven before the wind, a wall of white moaned across the ’scape, while both hunter and hunted sheltered, waiting for the storm to end, for the race to begin again, for flight and pursuit, for life or death.
But now the race was suspended as snow and ice hurtled across the land, hammering upon anything standing in its way, the wind sobbing and groaning and filling the air with the sound of its agony. And the hare crouched beneath the rock and closed its eyes against the snow pelting inward, while high in a distant tree, a furlong or so away, the owl blinked and turned its head northerly, and deadly talons gripped tightly, disputing the lash of the branch.
And they waited.
Yet these two were not alone there in the Untended Lands, there along the north face of the Grimwall Mountains, for something deadly raced across the icy waste.
Perhaps the owl sensed it first, or mayhap the hare—who can say?
Out from the north it came, there where the owl stared:
Dark shapes bobbing in the distance, obscured by the storm. Nearing
And an eighth of a mile north of the owl’s tree, under
the rock the hare felt the vibrations, not the occasional shaking of this unstable land, but a ragged drumming upon the ground:
Feet pounding, furred, clawed, racing southward, down from the north. Killers
In the thrashing branches the owl peered at the oncoming running shapes, ready to take flight should the need arise.
More than one. Through the storm. Coming swiftly. Still obscured
The hare opened its eyes but made no other movements, relying upon snow and white fur and utter stillness for protection.
Thudding paws. Many. A pack. Racing, running
Onward they came, the owl watching.
Three of them. In a line. One after another. Long, flowing shapes. Each with something large racing after
And mingled in with the sound of the wind came strange cries and a sharp cracking, and the ears of the hare twitched.
More than a pack. Several packs. Killers all. One after another. Hammering. And something calling out
Now the first was close enough for the owl to see.
Wolves, or the like. Running in a line. And behind, another pack. Or so it seemed. And another pack after
Past the hare’s shelter they raced, mere yards away.
Flashing legs. Wolf legs. Killer legs. All running. Grey fur. Black. And silver. Bound together. Running before something large. Something gliding upon the snow
One after another they passed the hiding place of the motionless hare. First, nineteen racing animals, then another nineteen, and another. And something
snapped in the air, and something called out
as they thundered past, killers running through the wind and snow and hauling the gliding things after.
And though they had hammered past and away and were gone, the storm swallowing them up, still the hare remained motionless.
And a furlong beyond in the wind-tossed tree, the white owl watched as the three teams emerged from the whirl and hauled the sleds across the frozen white, the drivers behind standing on the runners and cracking their whips and urging the part-wolves, part-dogs onward, the passengers on the sleds bundled against the chill.
The owl’s head rotated ’round as they came on and past and away, racing through the blowing snow and toward the south, through the blowing snow and toward the looming Grimwall Mountains standing ominously in the distance, barring the way.
Swiftly the sights and sounds of the intruders faded away, lost in the storm.
And only the yawl of the wind and pelting of the snow remained.
And time eked by.
Still the owl gripped the branch.
Still the hare crouched below the stone….
The storm blew itself out sometime after nightfall. And the Moon rose and cast its argent light across the snowy ’scape. In the silvery luminance the white hare warily sniffed the air, its long ears twitching, listening for danger.
Cautiously, the hare emerged from under the rock jut. After a hop or two, again it stopped and listened, ears turning this way and that, eyes wide and gazing.
At last it set off for its burrow, some distance away.
And from the high branches of a remote tree, a white owl quietly launched itself into a long, silent glide.
Late Winter, 5E988
called the sledmaster, urging the dogs onward, Shlee in the lead, maintaining the pace.
Gwylly leaned out and squinted past Faeril sitting before him.
How can they see where to run?
Snow blew horizontally across their direction of travel, and Gwylly’s vision ahead was baffled by the storm. He could see all the dogs, swift and true, tails straight out, ears laid back and flat, running hard against their tug lines fastened to the gang; but ten yards or so beyond Shlee, Gwylly could make out nothing but whirling white. Glancing back, the Warrow could see Laska, lead dog of the team behind, and he could barely see Riatha’s sled gliding after; but of the third team, the one hauling Aravan, there was no sign, although now and again he could hear the
of Tchuka’s signal whip.
Leaning forward, he called out to Faeril above the steady
of the runners. “The dogs—I hope they know where they are going.”
Behind, B’arr, the sledmaster, laughed, a sharp bark “Shlee know, little ones. Shlee know.”
Both Gwylly and Faeril twisted about in the sled basket to look back at the Aleutan’s smiling face, with its bronze features and dark eyes and straight black hair and moustache and beard. The sledmaster was dressed in a fur-lined parka with matching breeks and mukluks, his mitten-gloved hands firmly gripping the hide-wrapped handlebar, his feet well-planted on the sled runners.
In turn, the Aleutan saw before him two beings of ancient legend, dressed in quilted down:
he had named them, though they called themselves Warrows. A small, slender folk, with tilted, jewel-like eyes, and pointed ears, and a ready smile—eyes and ears and pale skin much like that of the
, the “Elves,” in the sleds behind. But unlike the
were small, child size, no bigger than six- or seven-year-old Aleutan children, standing as they did somewhere between three and three and a half feet tall, with the male
, Gwylly, being slightly larger than the female, Faeril; why, they were barely taller than Rak or Kano, B’arr’s great power dogs at the back of the team.
, the Elves, on the other hand, with their tilted eyes and pointed ears, stood slightly taller than an adult Aleutan, perhaps five foot five or six for the female, Riatha, with the male, Aravan, a hand or so higher.
But no matter their height, both
, they were
, like Chieftains, standing erect and walking with purpose and looking you straight in the eye, as if they owned the world.
And they were
, with weapons of steel and silver and starlight and crystal:
The Warrows, the
, bore missile weapons: The
female was armed with two belts of throwing knives crisscrossed over her torso, five steel blades to a belt, ten steel knives in all; but there was more, for one belt held a silver blade—yet, strangely, on the other belt was an empty scabbard where the silver one’s mate should have been. The
male, too, bore a dagger, yet his weapon of choice seemed to be a sling, and he carried two pouches of bullets at his waist: one filled with steel spheroids, the other, smaller one with bullets more precious, bullets of silver.
On the other hand, the Elves, the
, bore weapons suited to close combat: The
female was girted with a long-knife and with a splendid sword whose blade glittered like starlight. The
male also wore a long-knife at his waist, yet the long-knife seemed insignificant when compared to his black-hafted spear with its marvelous crystal blade.
But it was not only the features and bearing and stature and weaponry of the
that told the Aleutan these were folk of legend, for even more telling was that the dogs allowed these strangers,
approach and pet them, ruffle their fur, fawn over them—even Rak and Kano, feral savages that they were, even haughty Shlee. The same was true of Ruluk’s and Tchuka’s teams, with their leads, Laska and Garr, and with their power dogs, Chenk and Darga and Kor and Chun, and with all the others, too. Yipping and yammering in excitement whenever the
came near. Rolling on the ground. Nuzzling. Bouncing. Dropping down on their forelegs, inviting play. Savages acting like puppies! Aye, these were the folk of legends told by the lore tellers while gathered ’round the fires; of that, there was no doubt.
Onward hammered the team through the storm, the sled
Faeril looked at Gwylly, her gaze of amber capturing his of emerald. “Shlee knows,” she said, smiling, glancing up at B’arr and then back to Gwylly. “Shlee knows.” Then the damman turned to face front once more.
Out before her ran nineteen dogs, two by two, except for Shlee alone in the lead, the dogs of each pair running on opposite sides of the tow line, each fastened to that gang line by their individual tug lines. Had Faeril measured, she would have found that the team was evenly spread out over a distance of nearly eighty feet from the first dog to the last, giving them room to run, and Faeril could see at most ten yards beyond the lead dog ere her vision gave out. Hence she knew that if the eyesight of Shlee in the lead was like her own, then the dog could be seeing no more than thirty or forty yards beyond into the storm, and the wee damman wondered what would happen should there be a crevasse in the way?
* * *
They came to the old stone ring atop the low hill within a half hour, Shlee somehow finding it in spite of the storm. Ruluk’s sled with Laska in the lead, and Tchuka’s with Garr, running in on their heels. Still the snow blew and swirled in the moaning wind, and the stone wall of the ruin was but a vague darkness on the crown of the tor.
And as the Aleutans separated the three teams a distance from one another, and began driving widely spaced individual stakes into the frozen ground and tying a dog to each, Gwylly and Faeril were joined by Riatha and Aravan, and they began unloading the sleds, carrying goods through the
blow and into the tumbled remains of a small round building, the ruin open to the sky, snow swirling in.
Her voice nearly lost under the groan of the wind—” ’Tis from the eld days,” murmured Riatha, setting down her burden, the golden-haired Elfess running her hand over the stone, her silver-grey eyes gazing hither and yon, her head turning this way and that, as if seeking unseen sights and listening for unheard voices.
“A watchpost, I would say,” responded Aravan, placing his bundle next to Riatha’s, the Lian Elf slender and dark, his hair as black as a raven’s wing, his eyes deep blue, as were those of other Elves of his kindred.
A faint tremor ran through the earth, and Faeril placed a hand against the rock. “Dragonslair?” she asked, receiving a nod from Riatha.
“Aye, wee one. From Kalgalath’s ruin thousands of Springdays agone. As a bell remembers its ring, so too does the world remember the Dragon’s destruction.”