Authors: David Gemmell
“So what?” Eris sneered. “There’s three of us, and we’re not exactly easy meat. If they send that black bastard, I’ll cut his heart out.”
Orendo bit back an angry retort. Instead, he rose and stepped toward the taller, heavier man. “You have never seen Nogusta in action, boy. Pray you never do.” Stepping past the two younger men, Orendo walked to a nearby tree … “The man is uncanny,” he said over his shoulder. “I was with him once when we tracked four killers into Sathuli lands. He can read sign over rock, and he can smell a trail a hound would miss. But that’s not what makes him dangerous … You know what makes him dangerous?” he asked them. “There is no bravado in him. He moves, he kills. It is that quick. When we found the killers, he just walked into their camp and they were dead. I tell you, it was awesome.”
“I know,” came the tomb-deep voice of Nogusta. “I was there.”
Orendo stood very still, a feeling of nausea flaring in his belly … He turned very slowly. Eris was lying flat on his back, a knife through his right eye. Cassin was beside him, a blade in his heart …
By David Gemmell
Published by The Random House Publishing Group:
LION OF MACEDON
ECHOES OF THE GREAT SONG
KNIGHTS OF DARK RENOWN
The Drenai Saga
THE KING BEYOND THE GATE
QUEST FOR LOST HEROES WAYLANDER
IN THE REALM OF THE WOLF
THE FIRST CHRONICLES OF DRUSS
THE LEGEND OF DEATHWALKER
HERO IN THE SHADOWS
THE SWORDS OF NIGHT AND DAY
The Stones of Power Cycle
LAST SWORD OF POWER
WOLF IN SHADOW
THE LAST GUARDIAN
SWORD IN THE STORM
A Del Rey
Published by The Random House Publishing Group
Copyright © 1997 by David A. Gemmell
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd., in 1997.
Del Rey is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 00-102476
Thirty years ago I saw a young woman climbing a rock face in the pouring rain. She was too short to reach the higher holds, and there was no way she would make it to the top, but she clung to that rock face, refusing to be lowered, until exhaustion made her lose her grip. Twenty years later the same woman wanted to run the London Marathon in under four hours. She broke her foot at fifteen miles—and ran on to finish in three hours and fifty-nine minutes.
is dedicated with love to Valerie Gemmell.
My thanks to my editor, Liza Reeves; test readers Val Gemmell and Stella Graham; copy editor Carol Johnson; proofreader Michael Bennie; and Alan Fisher, whose insights are invaluable.
Special thanks to my goddaughter, Chloe Reeves, for the joy of her company.
HE NIGHT SKY
over the mountains was clear and bright, the stars like diamonds on sable. It was a late winter night of cold and terrible beauty, the snow hanging heavy on the branches of pine and cedar. There was no color here, no sense of life. The land lay silent except for the occasional crack of an overladen branch or the soft, whispering sound of fallen snow being drifted by the harsh north wind.
A hooded rider on a dark horse emerged from the tree line, his mount plodding slowly through the thick snow. Bent low over the saddle, he rode on, his head bowed against the wind, his gloved hands holding his snow-crowned gray cloak tightly at the neck. As he came into the open, he seemed to become a focus for the angry wind, which howled around him. Undaunted, he urged the horse on. A white owl launched itself from a high treetop and glided down past the horse and rider. A thin rat scurried across the moonlit snow, swerving as the owl’s talons touched its back. The swerve almost carried it clear.
In this frozen place “almost” was a death sentence. Everything here was black and white, sharp and clearly defined, with no delicate shades of gray. Stark contrasts. Success or failure, life or death. No second chances, no excuses.
As the owl flew away with its prey, the rider glanced up. In a world without color his bright blue eyes shone silver-gray in a face as dark as ebony. The black man touched heels to his tired mount, steering the animal toward the woods. “We are
both tired,” whispered the rider, patting the gelding’s long neck. “But we’ll stop soon.”
Nogusta looked at the sky. It was still clear. No fresh snow tonight, he thought, which meant that the tracks they were following would still be visible come dawn. Moonlight filtered through the tall trees, and Nogusta began to seek a resting place. Despite the heavy hooded gray cloak and the black woolen shirt and leggings, he was cold all the way to the bone. But it was his ears that were suffering the most. Under normal circumstances he would have wrapped his scarf around his face. Not a wise move, however, when tracking three desperate men. He needed to be alert for every sound and movement. These men had already killed and would not hesitate to do so again.
Looping the reins over his pommel, he lifted his hands to his ears, rubbing at the skin. The pain was intense. Do not fear the cold, he warned himself. The cold is life. Fear should come only when his body stopped fighting the cold, when it began to feel warm and drowsy. For death’s icy dagger lay waiting within that illusory warmth. The horse plodded on, following the tracks like a hound. Nogusta hauled him to a stop. Somewhere up ahead the killers would be camped for the night. He sniffed the air but could not pick up the scent of woodsmoke. They would have to light a fire. Otherwise they would be dead.
Nogusta was in no condition to tackle them now. Swinging away from the trail, he rode deeper into the woods, seeking a sheltered hollow or a cliff wall where he could build his own fire and rest.
The horse stumbled in deep snow but steadied itself. Nogusta almost fell from the saddle. As he righted himself, he caught a glimpse of a cabin wall through a gap in the trees. Almost entirely snow-covered, it was nearly invisible, and if the horse had not balked, he would have ridden past it. Dismounting, Nogusta led the exhausted gelding to the deserted building. The door was hanging on one leather hinge, the other having rotted away. The cabin was long and narrow beneath a sod roof, and there was a lean-to at the side, out of the
wind. There Nogusta unsaddled the horse and rubbed him down. Filling a feedbag with grain, he looped it over the beast’s ears, then covered his broad back with a blanket.
Leaving the horse to feed, Nogusta moved around to the front of the building and eased his way over the snow that had piled up in the doorway. The interior was dark, but he could just make out the gray stone of the hearth. As was customary in the wild, a fire had been laid, but snow had drifted down the chimney and half covered the wood. Carefully Nogusta cleaned it out, then relaid the fire. Taking his tinderbox from his pouch, he opened it and hesitated. The tinder would burn for only a few seconds. If the thin kindling wood did not catch fire immediately, it might take him hours to start a blaze with knife and flint. And he needed a fire desperately. The cold was making him tremble now. He struck the flint. The tinder burst into flame. Holding it to the thin kindling wood, he whispered a prayer to his star. Flames licked up, then surged through the dry wood. Nogusta settled back and breathed a sigh of relief, and as the fire flared, he looked around, studying the room. The cabin had been neatly built by a man who had cared. The joints were well crafted, as was the furniture: a bench table, four chairs, and a narrow bed. Shelves had been set on the north wall. They were bare now. There was only one window, the shutters closed tight. One side of the hearth was filled with logs. An old spiderweb stretched across them.