Authors: Mj Hearle
Blake is gone.
He sacrificed himself to save Winter, leaving her alone, unprotected . . . hunted.
An ancient enemy is rising, but Winter is no longer the innocent girl who was fated to die at Pilgrim’s Lament. She will not wait to be saved. She will do what she must to survive, even accept an unsavoury alliance with those who destroyed her love.
In the gathering darkness, the enemy of an enemy is not always a friend, and Winter must find the strength to stand alone and fight for the one she loves. For she is the key to unlocking the secrets beyond the veil of shadows.
And she is Blake’s only hope.
The best man I know.
Ce que je fais ce soir, je fais pour elle . . .
Two thousand years ago . . .
Lamara trailed closely behind the farseer, her gaze focused on the burning torch in his hand. The orange flames licked at the tunnel walls and ceiling, hurting her eyes with their brilliance, but she didn’t look away. It was better than watching the darkness. Teodore, the stonesmith’s son, had told her there were trolls in these mountains and sometimes she thought she could hear footsteps following behind. Once when she looked back she was sure she saw a pair of dull green eyes staring at her, but when she blinked they were gone. No, it was better to watch the farseer’s fire, and pray to the gods it wouldn’t go out.
He had not spoken to her since they’d entered the tunnel, and had said only three words beforehand.
Are you prepared?
Lamara said she was, although in truth felt anything but.
It was the games that had brought her here. Three weeks ago the farseer’s acolytes – grim-faced, bearded men wrapped in dark furs – had appeared in her village. Along with the other girls of her age, none older than twelve, Lamara had been asked to play a series of games in the village square. Strange, childish games involving ropes tied into intricate knots. While the other girls struggled to unravel the knotted cords, Lamara merely had to touch the twisted material and it loosened. This trick of hers greatly interested the acolytes and a meeting was called between her mother, the village high priest, Ufgar, and the farseer’s men.
After the meeting, Lamara was told by her mother that she’d been awarded a rare gift. She was to see the farseer. A single tear had trickled down her mother’s face, which Lamara didn’t understand. This was not a sad occasion. It was a great honour to be summoned by the farseer. He was closer to the gods than even Ufgar. She knew this despite never having seen the farseer. In fact nobody she asked seemed to know exactly what he looked like. Not Selek, not Valmer, and certainly not that irritating Teodore. The only information she could gather before being put on the back of one of the acolytes’ horses was that the farseer was very old and very mysterious, and that she shouldn’t stare into his eyes for too long. To do so might give him power over her. This last warning was given by Teodore so she ignored it.
Lamara and the acolytes had travelled for three days along a winding trail which led them through a rocky narrow ravine, and into a vast forest where it always seemed to be twilight. After the trees thinned, the ground became rocky and the air cold and Lamara could barely see the sky for the tall mountains crowding around them. It was on the slope of one of these craggy peaks that the farseer’s hut lay.
As she waited nervously for him to emerge, Lamara thought of all the stories she’d heard about the farseer. That he was actually one of the gods masquerading in human form, that his father was a wolf, his mother a great she-bear, that he was older than the Sacred Tree in the village square – had in fact planted the acorn which sprouted it. Silly children’s stories, stories Lamara might have believed when she was younger, but now that she was nearly a woman found easy to dismiss. Or had done until now.
The door to the farseer’s hut swung open, and as he stepped into the clear afternoon light, Lamara’s breath caught in her throat. Dressed in a shaggy bearskin, the farseer stood taller than any other man Lamara had ever seen. His thick grey beard flowed down over his chest and was threaded with feathers and yellowed animal bones which rattled when he moved. It was his eyes that transfixed Lamara the most. So dark and wide they appeared to see everything all at once. Held in his penetrating gaze, Teodore’s warning no longer seemed so foolish, and it was only with great effort that she managed to look away.
‘Leave us,’ he gruffly ordered the acolytes. Wordlessly, the rider she’d been clinging to for the journey dismounted and joined his brothers. A cloud of dust was kicked up as the men turned their horses around and rode back the way they’d come. The farseer waited for the dust to settle and then slowly approached Lamara. Her horse snorted and tamped the ground, unnerved by the old man’s looming presence. She held the reins tightly, but there was a part of her, a large part, that wanted to ride after the acolytes. Lamara had never been so scared in her entire life.
‘Do not be afraid, young daughter of the grey wolves,’ the farseer said, gently taking the reins with one hand and offering her his other. ‘I will not hurt you.’
She sniffed back the rising tears and nervously met his gaze. His expression was forbidding, but there was nothing in it that suggested he meant her harm. With a trembling breath she slipped her palm into his and allowed him to help her to the ground.
‘Your journey was long and you must be hungry and tired, yes?’
She nodded wordlessly, still too intimidated to speak. It had been many hours since she’d eaten.
‘I have food inside,’ he said, and began walking towards the hut. Lamara waited till he’d taken a few steps before following him. It was her empty stomach more than anything that lent her the courage to do so.
Inside the hut a broth was bubbling in a dented cauldron and the air smelt mouth-wateringly like boiled rabbit. The farseer gestured to a pile of furs on the ground. ‘Sit.’
Lamara obeyed, trying not to look at the various skulls hanging from the ceiling. Not all of them were animals.
He spooned some of the broth into a wooden bowl and passed it to her. ‘This will restore your strength. Be careful, it’s hot.’
Lamara sipped the broth and was pleased to discover it tasted as delicious as it smelt. The farseer watched her eat in silence, thoughtfully stroking the tangled strands of his beard. She was too hungry to feel uncomfortable with the scrutiny. When she’d finished the bowl he poured another, and began to ask her questions. They talked about her mother, her grandmother, and her father who had been put in the ground three winters ago, his face black from the frost. They talked about the village, her friends, how often she prayed and to which gods. When she finished answering all of his questions, Lamara finally mustered the nerve to ask one of her own.
‘Please, Farseer, tell me why you have brought me here to the mountain?’
‘A worthy question, daughter, and one I’m surprised you didn’t ask earlier. Life is about asking questions after all. Seeking knowledge. Shining light on the darkness and seeing what lies there. Only the foolish never ask “why?”. It is my own questions that have brought you here, Lamara.’ He took a breath and the small flecks of light in his eyes seemed to flare brighter, like embers in the fire. ‘Put simply, I wish to know the unknowable. I wish to visit with the gods.’
Lamara frowned, unsure if she’d understood him correctly. ‘Do you mean you’ve summoned me to help you . . . pray?’
The farseer chuckled softly. ‘No. I am tired of silent prayers. Of reading signs in the clouds and trees and blood on the ground. I will look upon the gods with my own eyes. Hear their voices with my own ears. Touch them with these hands.’ He balled his hands into fists. ‘I wish to go to them as you see me. Spirit and body as one.’
Lamara felt even more confused than she had before, but before she could ask another question the farseer continued. ‘I have spent the last ten years building a doorway. A portal, the design of which has haunted my dreams ever since I was a small child. The same vision, tormenting me every time I closed my eyes, until I understood that this vision was a message from the gods. Instructions on how to travel to them.’
He fell silent, yet his eyes never left Lamara’s and she realised he was waiting for her to speak. To ask another question.
‘Forgive me, Farseer, but why do you need me? I know nothing of doorways and portals.’
‘I do not need you for your knowledge, daughter. I need you for your power. Your rare gift. It is true, I have built my doorway, but it will not open beneath my touch. The door is locked and will remain so until I find my Key. I believe this Key is you.’
A troubling sense of foreboding settled over her as the farseer explained that this was why he had sent the acolytes to Lamara’s village. The strange games of knotted ropes she’d been forced to play were a test. A test only the farseer’s Key could successfully pass.
‘What if you’re wrong?’ Lamara asked when the farseer had finished explaining the ceremony he intended to perform and the role she was to play. ‘What if I’m not the Key?’ Despite her faith in the farseer, what he was proposing sounded impossible, especially this mystical power she was supposed to possess.
The old man’s eyebrows twitched, then lowered ominously. ‘I am the farseer. I am never wrong,’ he replied, the dangerous edge in his voice prompting Lamara to quickly close her mouth. It seemed the farseer’s passion for questions didn’t include those that cast doubt over his wisdom. She ate the rest of her broth in silence, only once glancing up at the farseer to see if he was still angry with her. The emotion she saw reflected in his wizened features was even more troubling than anger – the farseer looked afraid.
Lamara was thinking about that shadowy look on the old man’s face when the tunnel lightened up ahead. She’d almost given up hope that they’d ever reach the other side of the mountain. While the promise of daylight lifted her spirits, the relief she felt was short-lived. Outside lay the farseer’s doorway. Soon it would be clear whether or not his faith in her was well founded. If she really was the Key.
Blinking in the daylight, like a rabbit emerging from its hole, it took a few moments for Lamara’s eyes to adjust. When they did she paused, momentarily stunned by the view.
They were near the mountain’s summit on a flat piece of rocky ground stretching out over a vast canyon. A thick, white fog rolled sluggishly through the canyon, as though some of the clouds had spilled from the sky and become trapped. Past this Lamara could see a purple mountain range rippling along the horizon. The jagged peaks were lost in a flashing thunderhead.
Seven acolytes were already gathered here on the rock ledge, dressed in furs and carrying long wooden torches. The flames blazed crimson against the gloomy sky. The nearest acolyte shuffled forward, took the farseer’s torch from him, and handed him a robe. Lamara had never seen such a magnificent piece of cloth. Rich and black with silver embroidery, the robe looked like it had been woven from the night itself. As the acolyte helped the farseer dress, Lamara’s gaze drifted to the object standing near the cliff’s edge on a raised dais. Her eyes widened – the portal.
Standing as tall as two men, the portal was made of three major pieces, two outer rings of chiselled granite engraved with a series of spidery runes, encircling a central disc of polished black stone. Looking at this stone, the sense of foreboding returned stronger than ever. She’d never seen anything like it. It was so shiny it looked like the still surface of a lake.
The robe now draped around his large frame, the farseer walked towards the portal. The acolytes silently formed a half-ring around the dais behind him. Their torches flickered as a cold wind gusted down from the snowy peak above and Lamara started to shiver. She told herself this was because of the cold.
The farseer turned to his men, singling each one out individually as he spoke. ‘Friends, it is faith that has brought you to the mountain this day. Faith that I, your farseer, will reveal to you a great secret. Show you a glimpse of the holy – of the divine.’ He paused, the echo of his voice disappearing into the swirling mists of the canyon. Along with the acolytes, Lamara stared at the farseer, mesmerised by his commanding tone and blazing eyes.