Authors: Luke Scull
She pushed aside the bearskin that covered the entrance to her hut and stepped out into the early-morning air. The freezing wind buffeted her immediately, depositing snowflakes on her skin and causing it to prickle where moments ago it had perspired. Snow blanketed Heartstone as far as the eye could see. The capital and largest city of the High Fangs was a sea of white, dotted by mounds and hills that were all that remained of the huts and longhouses buried beneath the night’s snowfall. The tall wooden wall surrounding the town rose menacingly from a thick fog that obscured the frozen surface of Lake Dragur beyond.
Yllandris could feel damp cold on the bottom of her bare legs. The snow had swallowed her boots and now reached almost to her knees. She paid it no mind – she was a sorceress and a daughter of the Highland people. The soft fops in the Lowlands might quail at such hardships, but she was made of sterner stuff. Besides, she would not appear weak in front of the Brethren.
There were eight of them. Gaern had led this hunt; he sat on his huge haunches at the front of the pack, panting heavily. Frozen blood clung to his snout, though whether it belonged to him or another Yllandris could not be certain.
She narrowed her eyes. A massive silver boar lay with his head resting on the snow. The animal’s breathing was shallow and a jagged wound ran down the length of his left flank. It looked deep. It was a small miracle he had made it back to Heartstone.
It took her a moment to remember the beast’s name.
. He had been with the Brethren for twenty years. Already greying when he had transcended, he was old even by the standards of the most grizzled warriors in the High Fangs. For a boar, the animal the Highlander had merged with during the Shaman’s ritual, he was positively ancient.
‘What did this to you?’ she snarled. Thorne measured eight feet from the tip of his snout to the end of his tail and weighed close to half a ton. Even a pack of Highland cats would shy away from attacking such a formidable beast – especially when they saw the human intelligence shining within those gimlet eyes.
Yllandris placed a hand on Thorne’s boulder-like head. Thought-mining was next to useless when attempted on a Highlander, but the Brethren were no longer human. The natural resistance her people possessed towards mental intrusion evaporated when they transcended.
Images formed in her mind. She saw giants, ugly hulking creatures half again the height of a man, wielding crude clubs and axes of wood and stone. The Brethren had fallen upon them on a ridge overlooking a pine-crowded valley. Despite their size and strength, the giants had been outnumbered and overwhelmed by the speed and cunning of their foes. She witnessed Gaern take a club to the face and then rise up with a mighty roar to wrap his arms around the giant that had struck him. The transcended bear closed massive jaws around the giant’s neck and tore out its throat in a shower of blood.
Some of the Brethren had taken minor wounds, but the encounter with the giants had proved to be little more than a distraction. It was not giants they hunted.
Yllandris mined deeper and concentrated. Scattered recollections came to her: visions of snow-encrusted vales and frozen streams; a herd of elk scattering in alarm as the Brethren passed by. Then she saw it and she could not stifle a gasp. It was impossibly tall, towering over even Gaern: a lithe, black-skinned reptilian monstrosity with bat-like wings and claws resembling scythes. It had ambushed them as they crossed the surface of a frozen lake, plummeting down out of the sky to rend Thorne with its enormous talons. The others had immediately surrounded the demon, but it had dodged their attacks with terrifying speed. One of the pack, a white cougar unknown to her, leaped onto its back and sank its claws into the fiend’s scaly skin. The creature took to the wing again, pulled the transcended great cat from its back and disembowelled it while those below looked on.
The Brethren had retreated then. This was a fight they could not hope to win. Thorne had somehow kept pace with the others, leaving a sticky red trail across the snow for miles. Now, though, his strength was all but gone. His fading mind had become hazy, the images indecipherable.
Yllandris quickly withdrew her hand and listened to the final exhalations rattling from that great chest. They had lost two of the Brethren. The King would need to be told.
She spun around to face the small crowd that had gathered to watch. Fur-clad men and women stared back, all much paler than she. The men wore their hair loose and long, and their beards were flecked with snow. The women had their hair braided. Many wore small trinkets of bone and copper around their necks and wrists. Not a few of them regarded her with barely disguised hostility.
Go ahead and hate me
, she thought, sneering back at them.
I’m young and beautiful, a sorceress high in the favour of the King. I could have any one of your husbands in my bed in an instant, and you all know it. I will be a queen. None of you will amount to anything, you sour-faced pack of bitches
‘Find a healer,’ she ordered the greybeard closest to her. ‘The rest of you, fetch a pallet. Thorne must be brought to the Great Lodge. Move your feet before I light a flame under them.’
She strolled away from the crowd in the direction of the Great Lodge, confident that her orders would be followed. Many of the assembled Highlanders might desire or despise her, depending on what they had between their legs, but they feared her even more. Besides, the Brethren were their sacred protectors. None would dare anger the Shaman by dishonouring one of the beasts.
The snow continued to fall. Yllandris made sure no one was looking and then pulled her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders.
In marked contrast to the vast majority of the structures in Heartstone, the Great Lodge was a huge and sprawling edifice. It occupied the centre of town where it rose higher than any other building, gazing down on its domain like one of the great alpha wargs that roamed the highest peaks. The Shaman would be up there, she knew, unless he was off hunting. Their Magelord had become less and less a part of the world of men, preferring to dwell alone under the stars when he was among them at all. Whatever ancient tragedy had driven him to isolate himself so far from his peers had slowly stripped away his humanity.
Yllandris paused for a moment to stare up at the Great Lodge before entering. She always felt a shiver of excitement when she approached the massive building. It represented the pinnacle of power among her people here in the secluded north of the world.
She had always admired strength. Ever since she had stumbled across her mother’s broken body on the floor of their hut as a child, had met her father’s eyes and saw what he had done, that terrible, irrevocable moment when he had pushed things too far, she had sworn to achieve power at all costs. It was the only thing that mattered.
Her father had been exiled for his crime. She had become a foundling, hunting for scraps and shelter where she could find it. The High Fangs were a hard and unforgiving country, and her life might have taken a much darker path had she not come into her magic shortly after her first blooding. The circle of sorceresses in Heartstone had seen her potential and taken her under their wing. They were a bitter and spiteful brood of old hens, but their teachings had proved invaluable. What they didn’t realize was that one day their prodigal daughter would become queen, and their precious hierarchy would be turned on its head.
The massive warrior stationed outside the entrance to the Great Lodge nodded as she approached and beckoned her to go on inside. She stepped past him through the huge gate, inhaling the pungent odours of ancient darkwood, smoke, fur and leather that hung in the air.
This is what home will smell like, so very soon
She followed the vast entrance hall down towards the throne room, practising a regal smile on the men standing guard on either side. The Six were among the finest warriors in Heartstone, sworn to guard the King with their lives. The weapons and shields of legendary Highlanders hung from the darkwood walls, glistening in the smoky light of the torches arrayed on sconces down the length of the hall. Some day she would have sons, and no doubt their own arms would have pride of place among these of heroes from ages past.
She paused for a moment before entering the throne room and adjusted her shawl one final time. With a nod to the guards on either side of her, she swept through the great double doors.
Magnar, King of the High Fangs, watched her enter from his mighty oak throne at the head of the long trestle table dominating the room. Eight of the ten smaller thrones positioned lengthwise down the table were empty. The Butcher of Beregund, Krazka One-Eye, watched her hungrily from the throne immediately to the King’s right. On Magnar’s left, Orgrim Foehammer scowled and crossed his meaty arms over his expansive paunch.
Yllandris slowed. She hadn’t expected Magnar to have company. Not these two men, at any rate. Krazka and Orgrim were the most powerful of the chieftains who ruled the ten Reachings under the King, who in turn answered to the Shaman – when the Magelord bothered to involve himself in matters of state.
‘Yllandris,’ drawled Magnar in his cultured voice. ‘What brings you here?’
?’ interrupted Orgrim, distaste plain in his voice. He slammed a fist down on the table. ‘We’re here to discuss war!’
Krazka licked his lips. Yllandris wasn’t sure which made her more uncomfortable: the leering eye on the right of that cruel face or the dead, colourless orb staring blindly on the left. ‘This the one you spoke about, Magnar? Your pet sorceress, aye? No wonder you like to keep her close.’
The King beckoned her to approach. He was young compared with the chieftains beside him, only a few years past his twentieth winter. Muscular and exceptionally tall, he regarded her with eyes the colour of steel. It was said Magnar’s prowess with a sword matched that of any of the Six, his elite bodyguard. He had proved a shrewd ruler during his short reign.
A formidable man. One who deserves a woman to match
. She gave him a small curtsy. ‘My king, a pack of the Brethren returned just moments past. They were attacked by a demon of a kind I have never before seen. Two of the pack were killed: Thorne, and a white cougar whose name I do not know.’
‘This is troubling news,’ said the King. He was an educated man; perhaps
educated for the tastes of certain of his chieftains. His personal prowess and the ruthlessness he had displayed during his rule had ensured their muttering went unvoiced in public, but Yllandris knew some of them bore Magnar a grudge, and not only because of his learned manner.
‘Describe this demon to me,’ the King commanded.
‘It was hugely tall and as black as the night. It flew with wings near as wide as this chamber. Its talons were the size of longswords, capable of rending a man apart with a single swipe. I saw all this from Thorne, before he passed away.’
‘The Devil’s Spine continues to fuck us up the ass,’ Orgrim growled. ‘That accursed place spews up more demons by the day. How many of the Brethren have we lost this year alone? At this rate the High Fangs will be overrun.’
Krazka finally tore his gaze away from her breasts. He rubbed at his weeping dead eye with the back of his hand, where it left a trail of sticky slime. ‘It ain’t just the demons crawling out of the Devil’s Spine that’s the problem. They’re chasing out the giants and the wargs and fuck knows what else. This latest attack is just the tip of the iceberg.’
The King frowned and leaned forwards. ‘This has come at a bad time. We plan to move on Frosthold in the next few days. I had intended to send the Brethren with our main force. With the Shaman’s approval, of course.’
Yllandris was confused.
That was the principal town of the North Reaching under the rule of Mehmon, one of the oldest and most respected chieftains of the High Fangs. Why would they move against Frosthold?
The King noted her puzzled expression. ‘Mehmon has declared independence,’ he said. ‘He no longer wishes to honour the Treaty, claiming his own people are starving. If his mutiny is allowed to go unpunished, other Reachings will follow his lead. Mehmon must be brought to justice and Frosthold put to the sword as an example to the rest. Orgrim and Krazka will return to their Reachings shortly and ready their men.’
Yllandris noticed the eager look on Krazka’s face. The Butcher of Beregund had earned his reputation three years ago, when he had led the ruthless massacre of the town of the same name. The Green Reaching had rebelled and the town of Beregund had been slaughtered to a man. No doubt he was looking forward to a repeat of the bloody work that had made him infamous across the High Fangs.
‘This demon will wreak chaos if it is left unchecked,’ she said. ‘It is capable of destroying entire villages.’
Magnar nodded. ‘Then I will split the Brethren. Half will accompany the war party to Frosthold, while the other half will hunt down this fiend—’
‘No,’ said a deep voice from a dark corner of the chamber.
The Shaman stepped out into the torchlight. His tanned body rippled in the orange glow, naked save for a pair of tattered brown breeches. He wasn’t tall by the standards of the men in the room, but he was incredibly wide, three hundred pounds of muscle packed onto a frame a shade under six feet. Deep veins threaded his bulging biceps and heaving chest and shoulders. His straggly black hair ran down to his waist, which seemed chiselled as if from stone. He looked like a god, or some heroic figure of legend.
He is neither. He participated in the killing of the gods and the bringing about of the Age of Ruin
. She wondered how long he had been in the chamber. The Magelord could have slipped unnoticed into the throne room at any time, wearing the form of any number of creatures – even that of an insect. There was said to be no greater Shifter in the known world than the Shaman.
‘I will hunt and slay this monster,’ the Shaman growled in his low, rumbling voice. ‘Send the Brethren to Frosthold. You will need them.’