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Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan

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BOOK: The Eye of the Hunter
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Faeril closed the journal.

Riatha looked up at Urus, her silver eyes glittering in the firelight. “Well do I remember that day.”

Urus nodded, for he, too, had been present when Aurion had made the pledge, even though it was a millennium agone.

One at a time Faeril’s gaze took each of them in, and her voice came softly. “I think it is time we went to Caer Pendwyr to see the High King.”

That night, as Riatha stood her watch, she at last accepted the fact that for now Stoke was absolutely lost to them. And as the night slid by and when finally came the dawn, she realized as well that the Eye of the Hunter, too, was gone.

C
HAPTER
24
Trek

Spring, 5E988
[The Present]

W
hen they set out, the buccan rode on the back of a great brown Bear. The Bear was also laden with two frame packs, roped ’round so that they rode one on either side. The Bear did not gladly suffer such burdens, yet seemed to understand that they were necessary, for Gwylly had been sorely wounded, and though his healing had progressed, deep breaths were painful, and he was unable to sustain long hikes through the heavy-laden snow, and so the Bear bore the wee two-legs cub.

It had been thirteen days since the combat, thirteen days since Faeril had been Vulg bitten and Gwylly had been stabbed, thirteen days since they’d had an inkling of Stoke’s whereabouts. And when they had broken camp that morning to begin the long journey southward, an air of failure, of dejection, rode like a hag on their shoulders, and their faces were glum, were chapfallen. Yet none thought to abandon the search, to give it up, for each was driven to go onward, to run this monster to earth: two were compelled by the history of a time long fled, and bound by a pledge given therein; three by distant events they had lived millennia agone, and the vengeance they would wreak in return; all were impelled by Destiny.

Even the Bear.

In the council of the previous night, Riatha had unrolled her maps, all trying to divine Stoke’s goal….

In the near distance lay the remains of Dragonslair, a
firemountain blasted into ruins. “Too unstable,” commented Riatha, “for I have passed it often and have seen and felt how the earth wrenches, and any underground haunts are likely to collapse.”

To the north lay the Great North Glacier, and the monastery on the slope above. “Unlikely he will return to that place,” said Urus, “for there he suffered defeat at our hands. But as to farther north…”

Aravan made a negating gesture. “Unlikely as well. There is nought but barrens beyond, sparsely populated, and then only in summer when the Aleuti bring their herds of
ren
.”

Riatha traced their route on one of the maps. “His track went southerly….”.

Gwylly pointed at the map, his finger stabbing into a shaded zone. “What’s that?”

“The Khalian Mire,” answered Aravan. “A place of dire events in times long past.”

Faeril raised an eyebrow. “Dire events?”

Aravan nodded. “I will tell thee another time, Faeril, for our task here is to anticipate Stoke’s goal and not to recount history.”

“Well, if the mire is such a dreadful place, then surely Stoke might hide within.”

“Aye, Faeril, he might at that; yet were he to seek its clutch, like as not we would ne’er find him. Heed”—Aravan’s finger traced across the map—“the mire is fully forty or fifty leagues from north to south and twenty from east to west. It is a vast tangle, with unnumbered bolt-holes. Too, the land holds no tracks, the seeping muck backfilling, steps disappearing even as they are made. Lastly, Stoke knows that we pursue him, else he would not have laid an ambush. Hence, I deem he will hie far from these environs ere stopping, and when next we hear of his depredations, they will be”—Aravan gestured at the maps—“remote…not nearby as is the mire.”

Faeril reluctantly nodded and turned her attention back to the maps. “East lies the Wolf Wood.”

Riatha shook her head. “Nay, Stoke would not go there—for that is where Dalavar the Wolf Mage dwells, he and his Draega and other such. Evil ranges wide of those woods, for Dalavar tolerates it not.”

Gwylly’s eyes went wide. “Draega?”

Aravan answered. “Silver Wolves, Gwylly. Foe of
Rûpt
, especially Vulgs. They remained here in the Mittegarda after the Sundering, for here was trapped Dalavar the Wolfmage, exiled forever, and they are a blood-loyal pack and will not abandon one of their own.”

Here was another tale for the telling, and though Gwylly was about to burst with curiosity, now was not the time. Again all turned their eyes to the map.

Riatha pointed to two areas. “There is the Skög…and the Lesser Mire.”

Urus growled in ire, his hand sweeping diagonally across the length and breadth of the maps. “
Hèl!
There is the entire Grimwall, running thousands of miles east and west. Stoke favors mountains.”

“In that case,” added Faeril, “I can see many mountain ranges on Riatha’s charts: the Rimmen Mountains in Riamon; the Skarpals in Garia; the Grey Mountains in Xian; the Gronfangs and Rigga, bordering Gron. Down here is the Gûnarring, and over here the Jillian Tors. There’s the Brin Downs and the Red Hills and the Signal Mountains and—”

“Arrgh!”
Urus leapt to his feet.
“Stoke!”
he shouted to the stone of the mountains. Echoes slapped back.

Frustration filled Riatha’s face, for Stoke’s goal could be anywhere in the wide, wide world.

And that had been when Faeril had read to them of Prince Aurion’s long-ago pledge, and they had decided to seek the aid of the High King….

And now they trekked southward: two Elves, two Warrows, and a Bear.

* * *

They covered some twenty miles that day, trudging through the deep snow, the Bear breaking trail, the five of them wending among the stone massifs of the Grimwall, Riatha directing them, for she had often come this way to visit the Great North Glacier when Urus had been trapped within.

Southward they had gone faring in a long westerly arc, the Elfess aiming for the village of Inge in the Land of Aralan, where they would rest and recuperate and purchase mounts for their journey to see the High King. And as they had pressed ahead, the earth beneath their feet shuddered
and trembled, for the ruins of Dragonslair lay among the mountains before them.

That evening, Riatha kindled a small fire with wood that Urus and Aravan brought from the coppice surrounding them. As water heated for tea, Urus glanced at the stars above. “They seem not much changed in all the centuries I slept,” he rumbled. “I find it hard to believe that a thousand years have gone by. To me it was but a nearby yesterday when we tracked Stoke unto the monastery. Tell me, Riatha, of the happenings in the wide world beyond since last I knew.”

Riatha sat back on her haunches. “I cannot speak for the whole world, Urus, for much of the time I dwelled in Arden Vale, separate from the doings of Men and Drimma…and of the Waerlinga.

“Yet there were two upheavals of note while thou slept within the ice:

“Some forty years after thou didst carry Stoke down into the crevasse, a great War was fought—”

“The Winter War,” exclaimed Gwylly.

“Aye, wee one,” agreed Riatha. “’Twas the Winter War. The Wizard Modru acquired a token of great power, the Myrkenstone, and with it caused a vast darkness to o’ercome the world—parts of it at least.

“I was in Riamon at the time, and fought with the Men and Elves to free the Drimma of Mineholt North, who were under siege by one of Modru’s Hordes.

“Aravan…” Riatha paused.

The Elf looked up from the fire. “I was on the Avagon Sea, striving against the Rovers.”

“Just so.” Riatha added tea leaves to the boiling water. “Thy Folk, Urus, they fought in the Grimwalls above Delon Isle, seeking out the hidden holts and doors of the
Spaunen
within, shutting them in forever, or so it was believed.”

Urus nodded, for he had fought in those same regions himself long before. “Then
that
is why the Wrg gathered long past. They readied themselves for the Winter War to come.”

Riatha nodded. “Aye, though none but Modru knew it at the time.”

“Tell him about Tuckerby Underbank,” urged Faeril. “I mean, he was the hero of the Winter War, single-handedly
destroying Modru and all of his schemes. And oh, by the way, Urus, Tuck was a
Warrow
!”

Aravan smiled. “Single-handedly, wee one? Not quite. He was aided in his venture by the High King and the Vanadurin of Valon, to say nought of the Elves of Arden and Men of Wellen who held Kregyn Pass against the Horde behind.”

Faeril bobbed her head in agreement, but added, “Yet Tuck
was
the key, and as the High King later said, all the rest but aided him along his way.”

Gwylly smiled a great, wide smile and squeezed Faeril’s hand, and he said with quiet pride: “And he was a
Warrow
.”

“Modru is dead? Hai, there’s a bit of news!” Then Urus laughed, for what was news to him was but history to the others. He held forth a tin cup and Riatha filled it with tea, handing him a crue biscuit as well. The Man settled back. “This Winter War, start at the beginning and tell me all.”

Long they talked into the night, Riatha speaking of the great conflict and of the darkest day at its end. Yet at last all took to their bedrolls, but for the one who set watch, each taking a turn throughout the darktide.

* * *

All the next day as southward along their arc they fared, the trembling of the land grew more violent, and in the distance they could hear a muttering of thunder and see dark plumes rising up into the sky.

The Bear did not like this jolting of the earth beneath his feet, nor the rumble of sound to the south. And he growled and snuffled, and whenever the tiny two-legs on his back dismounted, the Bear would stand erect and snuffle and peer and roar. Yet he did not frighten away whatever it was that juddered the land below; but by the same token, neither did it frighten away the Bear.

That night Riatha spoke to Urus of the next great conflict—the War of Drimmen-deeve—telling of the retaking of that Dwarvenholt, the Drimma wrenching it from the grasp of Gnar and his minions. Here, too, Faeril spoke of the Warrows involved—Peregrin Fairhill and Cotton Buckleburr—guides to King Durek’s Host.

* * *

Another two days passed, the five wending among the trembling mountains, drawing nearer to Dragonslair. On the following day they rounded a shoulder of stone to come
within sight of the great ruined firemountain, the shattered crater belching out roiling clouds of smoke and blasting huge rocks up into the sky, the air thundering, and here and there rivers of molten lava ran red up out of its bowels and down its stubby flanks. The Bear reared up, sending Gwylly tumbling, and roared and clawed in a display of might, refusing to be intimidated by this bellowing mountain. Satisfied that he had demonstrated his courage, the Bear dropped back to all four paws and swung his head to look hindward at the small two-legs cub in the snow, sounding a
Whuff
that he was ready to go onward. Gwylly scrambled up and clambered back onto his unruly mount, and then the five resumed their trek, Aravan chuckling at the antics of the Bear.

That night they camped within sight of the wreckage. And borne upon the wind was the smell of sulphur and brimstone. In the darkness now and then an eerie blue fire rose up from the crater. “’Tis Kalgalath’s ghost-fire,” said Riatha. “They say that every Springday, Kalgalath’s ghost rises up from the fire and flies beyond seeing up into the sky, only to come plummeting at last down the very throat of the firemountain, whelming the Kammerling into the world, blasting Dragonslair to ruin, all but that eastern slope yon.”

Like a maimed hand, the middle slope of the eastern slant yet stood, rearing upward into the air, a wall that had somehow survived the ruin of Kalgalath. For here it was that the mighty Dragon had met his doom, here at the hands of Elyn and Thork, the great Fire-drake plummeting down to destroy the very mountain in which he lived.

And still the land juddered and shook, here along the Grimwalls, e’en though the firemountain had detonated nigh three thousand, four hundred years agone. Here was the epicenter, here at the ruins of Dragonslair, for as Riatha put it: “Yet unto this day the earth remembers that destruction, that mighty whelming, as a bell remembers its ring.”

That the land had shuddered off and on for such a long while was a mystery in and of itself, or so Riatha said, remarking, “The Loremasters say that the Utruni—the Stone Giants—were here at Kalgalath’s doom centuries past and remain unto this day. And yet it was at this time of destruction the land became unstable, and it has shaken for lo these many years; and that is a riddle: For Utruni
work to shape the land, to raise its mountains and carve the valleys. And in this work they strive to gentle the earth, to ease the quaking of the world, quelling it. And yet, here, the Utruni have let
this
land continue to judder, even though nearly thirty-four hundred summers have passed.

“It is as if they are waiting for something to happen….”

* * *

Across this jolting realm the five plodded, past the fire and brimstone and molten lava, past the rocks blasted upward and the boiling reek, past the maimed ruin of Dragonslair, past the place sung of in many a bard’s songs. A week or more did the shattered firemountain dominate the ’scape, first before them, then to their right, then fading into the mountains rearward. And slowly they swung southeastward, aiming now for the village of Inge, there along the south slope of the Grimwalls, where they would take some days of rest, and hoped to find horses for the journey south.

And as they came down through the mountains, spring drew upon the land, snow melting, water cascading, plants greening. Here and there flowers thrust upward, blossoms braving the chill. And where the snow had melted altogether, new growth burgeoned.

Gwylly’s healing progressed apace, and now he began walking long stretches on his own, the Bear ambling at one side, Faeril at the other.

BOOK: The Eye of the Hunter
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