The Perilous Realm Online, Part Seventeen

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

They set out from the cave at dawn the next morning, Pendrake taking the lead. He walked quickly and said very little. Will had the feeling his thoughts were as much on Rowen as they were on what lay ahead. Ever since he met the old man Will had been surprised at his nimbleness and energy. Now that they were travelling over rocky, rising ground, he was even more astonished at the pace Pendrake kept. Even his father, who was many years younger than the toymaker, would have been huffing and puffing by now. 

All that day they followed the course of the Whitewing River westward. They met no travelers, and encountered nothing living other than birds and small animals that scampered away from them when they approached. They camped for the night in a stand of tall pines that sighed and creaked in the cold wind blowing down from the mountains. Will slept very little.

In the morning they went on, and the valley walls grew steeper, sweeping up from vast tree-blanketed slopes to cliffs of bare rock and ridges capped with snow. Each peak, Will discovered, had its own character. One in particular resembled the profile of a face gazing up at the sky. Will remembered the giant in the forest, and wondered if this was another such sleeper. He hoped very much that it wasn’t.

A narrow road ran alongside beside the river, but for the most part the companions stayed away from it. With Shade’s keen nose and Morrigan’s eye, that day they managed to avoid whatever Nightbane may have been prowling the region near Skald.

In the afternoon they entered a narrower valley where two great slab-shaped peaks, like immense castle keeps, soared into the sky, one on either side of the river. Pendrake called them the Sentinels, and said that long ago there had been dwelling places high upon their flanks, where defenders kept watch on the pass during the great war against the Shadow Realm. As they passed beneath the towering cliffs, Pendrake spoke about the long-ago war against Malabron. His tale of the ancient battle fought here was so vivid that Will began to wonder if he had seen it with his own eyes.

Beyond the Sentinels the river widened to a shallow, slender lake. Throughout the afternoon they walked along the lake’s southern shore, which began as a rocky shingle that gave way to low dunes of sand like dull pewter, littered with twisted stumps and limbs of dry driftwood. A wind from the west streamed incessantly through the valley, riffling the shallow surface of the water and forming whitecaps on the waves further out.

At the western end of the lake they made camp in the shelter of one of the dunes. They lit no fire, even though there was plenty of dry wood lying all around that looked like it would burst into a fine flame with little encouragement. The sun disappeared quickly behind the western ranges. The valley filled with shadows, and only the tops of the two sentinel peaks still glowed with a rosy light. Will was grateful for his fur cloak, which kept out the cutting wind.

The moon was dimmed by a thin veil of cloud, and shed very little light over the waters. As they sat together on the beach, listening to the waves lap, they saw tiny lights on the eastern shore, bobbing and flickering in the darkness. Moth watched intently for a moment and then guessed that they were probably Nightbane with torches.

“Are they following us?” Will asked. “Do they know we’re here?”

“I doubt it,” Pendrake said. “If they did, it’s unlikely they’d announce themselves like this with lights. My guess is they’re on the way back to their mountain lair from a raid somewhere in the foothills.”

“They are not afraid to use torches because they roam these lands unchallenged,” said Moth. “For too long they have had to fear nothing and no one.”

Morrigan flapped off for a closer look, and vanished swiftly into the dark. The others all watched for a while as the lights moved slowly along the lake and then climbed the hills along the northern shore, where they grew less distinct, until finally they winked out completely. Not long after, Morrigan returned, bringing confirmation that the torch-bearers were indeed mordog, although there were other Nightbane with them.

“Creech, by the sound of it,” said Moth when he’d listened to all of Morrigan’s tale. “That is worrisome. These creatures seldom join forces, unless compelled by something they fear even more than they hate each other.”   

“Should we look for better concealment?” Finn asked.

“I think we should stay here,” Pendrake said, “and keep watch through the night. The wind is in our favour for the moment, and we can count on Shade’s ears and Morrigan’s eyes.”

Shade lifted his muzzle to the wind, sniffed, and then sprang to his feet.

“There is a garm-wolf with them,” he growled, his voice so cold and threatening it made Will shiver. “Or more than one.”

“That’s what Hodge and Flitch said killed their brother,” Will said.

“I have met such beasts before,” said Moth. “They are large and very powerful. They fear nothing.”

“We should return to Skald,” said Finn bitterly. “They’ll soon know we’re here, if they don’t already.”

“It’s too late to turn back,” Pendrake said. “But the mountains are a hindrance to our enemies, too. If it comes to it, we can find refuge on the heights.”

 

***

 

They spent the night huddled together on the dune, and Will’s attempt to fall asleep on the cold, hard ground did not go well. He lept thinking about Rowen left behind in Skald. He already missed her lively presence among them. Was she all right? And he wondered if he was getting any closer to home, or further away with every step? His thoughts went round and round the same track. When he finally slipped into sleep the sound of the wind on the water took shape in his dreams as something rushing toward him, a vast shadow with great grey wings beating like thunder. Several times he started awake, heart pounding. Each time he saw only the forms of his companions around him, and Finn’s black silhouette against the starlight on the water, unmoving as a statue. The knight-in-training’s calm stillness had always given Will some comfort, but now his feeling of dread was too great. The third time he awoke, he lay there restlessly for a while and then got up and sat down beside Finn. He wanted to speak, but he was afraid his voice would give away how frightened he was.

 

“Dawn’s not far off,” Finn said. “Sit and keep watch with me, if you like.”

 

“Is there any point?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“They’re coming for us. They’ll never stop coming. I’m … not like you. I’m not brave.”

 

Finn laughed softly.

 

“You think I’ve never been afraid of anything? You and I are more alike than you know.”

 

“I doubt it. You’ve been trained to stand your ground. To fight. All I want to do is run.”

 

“That was me, as well, not long ago. After my brother left. He never trained with the Errantry, though he could have been a great knight. He chose to stay and help my mother with the farm after my father died, rather than going to Appleyard. Then a horde of Nightbane raided the farmlands, and many people were killed before the Errantry drove the invaders away. After that my brother grew to hate the Errantry. He said that they only protected Fable and cared nothing for the rest of the Bourne. So he gathered a band of those who thought like him, and set out after the Nightbane, to make them pay for what they’d done. Before he left he gave me his ring, and told me never to trust the Errantry.”

 

“And he never came back?”

 

“No. That was ten years ago. I was angry and afraid in those days. I ran away from home, just like you. I came to Fable with nothing and lived on the streets, stealing for my supper. I’d see knights-errant ride past in their bright armour and I’d curse them under my breath and steal some more, just to prove I could get away with it right under their noses.”

 

“I didn’t know,” Will said, greatly surprised. “How did you ever become one of them?”

 

“One winter I fell ill, and Master Pendrake found me and took me in. At the time, I had no idea why he’d bothered. I didn’t see anything in me that was worth saving. In fact, I stole from him. A beautiful chess set that he’d made. The pieces were carved like great figures of Story. Heroes, villains. None of it meant anything to me. I took the chess set and ran. I was going to sell it in the market.”

 

“So what happened?”

 

“Pendrake found me again. He had one of the chess pieces with him. A knight. I’d dropped it when I fled. All he said was You’ll get a better price if you have the complete set.

 

Will smiled, then he thought about his father’s motorcycle. He wondered if he would ever had the chance to return it, and what his father would say if he did.

 

“A few days later I brought the chess set back to him,” Finn went on. “And then he gave me something else, the book I carry with me wherever I go.”

 

“Is that why you joined the Errantry? Because of the book?”

 

A rare smile lit Finn’s face.

 

“I joined because I thought they would teach me how to be brave.”

 

“Did they?”

 

“They taught me something far more useful. They taught me how to be afraid, and still keep on.”

 

Will’s gazed across the lake to the dim outline of the far shore.

 

“How do you do that?” he asked.

 

“You’re doing it, Will,” Finn said. “And you’re not alone.”

 

Will nodded but said nothing. He found it hard to believe that this serious young man had once been a thief. Despite his coldness, Finn had inspired trust in Will from the beginning, but the story he’d just heard had not changed that. In fact Will realized he now trusted Finn all the more. And for the first time, he felt he could understand him.  In a tangle of mixed emotions the thought came that if he never found his way home, perhaps he too might join the Errantry one day, and learn from Finn how to fight, and master his fear.

From somewhere in the darkness rose low, eerie calls that echoed across the lake. The others were instantly on their feet and alert.

 

“Nightbane! There must be several bands,” Finn whispered. “They’re calling to each other from a distance, like a pack of ….” He broke off and glanced at Shade. “They must know we’re here.”

 

“I don’t believe so,” Moth said. “Morrigan says they’re still far off, and upwind. No, I think there must be someone or something else in the valley that’s set them off in pursuit. Still, if they’re on the move, we had better be as well.”

 

Swiftly they gathered their gear, and set out as the sky lightened and the sun rose behind them. Their progress along the narrowing Whitewing was difficult, as the shore was tangled with thick bushes and deadfall. The mountain slopes around them grew steeper and closer.   

 

As the morning passed Pendrake led them up through a forest of fragrant spruce and pine. The ground was mostly bare of undergrowth, and was criss-crossed with tiers of snaky roots that they could use at times like steps.  Beside them the river’s course narrowed, and soon the water was rushing through a deep canyon. When they rested briefly Will peered over the edge. He saw white water churning and seething far below. 

 

At midday they left the cool, sweet-smelling forest behind and climbed into dazzling sunlight.  Pendrake urged them on even higher, to a steep slope of broken shale, where they halted at last. If anyone tried to approach, they would have to do so over loose, clattering rocks. Pendrake let them stay here only long enough to refresh themselves. Carrying on up the slope, they finally reached the summit of the slope, and stood upon a narrow ridge of broken stone.

 

There, across a dizzying gulf of space, was the Whitewing Glacier. Its snow-mantled upper reaches gleamed a dazzling white in the sunshine, while the bare ice further down, which was cracked and rent by great crevasses, shone with a pale blue radiance.

 

The valley came to an end here, in a vast bowl of stone that reminded Will of some mighty amphitheater fallen into ruin. The sides of the bowl were formed by a curving mountain wall over which the glacier spilled, tumbling down to the valley floor, where the newborn river meandered out in glittering braids from the edge of the ice. Besides the river valley, the only other outlet from the bowl was to the southwest, a narrow ravine between the southern flank of the wall and the three snow-mantled peaks known as the Sisters.

 

“That way lies the Pass of the Needle’s Eye,” Pendrake said. “It leads over the spine of the Shining Mountains to the western ranges, and the Great Rampart.”

 

As Will’s eyes roamed over the great expanse, they caught a bright glint, midway down the long slope of the glacier. High upon a horn of iron-grey rock that jutted out like an island from the ice rose the white spires and battlements of a fortress. They gleamed wetly as though they had been carved of ice instead of stone.

 

“That is the citadel of Aran Tir,” Moth said, when Will had pointed out what he had seen. “It was used by my people as a refuge against the hosts of Malabron, but it was not built by the Shee. I have never seen it with my own eyes. It was abandoned long ago.”

 

“They say Aran Tir was shaped by the Stewards,” Pendrake said. “In the forgotten years before the war. On my last journey through these mountains, many years ago now, I found a stone stair that climbs the cliff wall above the northern edge of the glacier. The steps were partly blocked by fallen debris, but they took me to a spot where I could safely cross the ice to the base of Aran Tir. I say we still make for the pass, but by a more roundabout route that will take us nearer to the glacier. If our enemies close in on us before we reach the pass, then we will have a chance to reach the stair.”

 

“Where are these steps?” Finn said, shading his eyes with a hand. “There’s nothing but sheer rock as far as I can see.”

 

“The stairs were carved with concealment in mind,” Pendrake said. “I only found them because the old songs speak of them.” He pointed out a waterfall spilling down the rockface just to the right of the ice. Where the cataract touched the valley floor, he explained, was the place they had to reach.

 

“That is the surest way to Aran Tir. It may be we can use the citadel as it was once used by your folk, Moth. As a refuge.”

 

“We won’t last long on a rock in the middle of ice,” muttered Finn.

 

“Yet it may give us enough time to think of some other means of escape,” Pendrake said. “As things stand, I do not see any other choice.”

 

“What if we reach Aran Tir and find Nightbane waiting for us?” Will said.

 

“Such creatures would likely stay away from the citadel because it was crafted by the power of the Stewards,” Pendrake replied, “and still retains something of their presence. And because of the ice itself. It creaks and shudders like a living thing.”

 

“I remember it rumoured among my people that the river of ice is alive,” said Moth. “That it will not suffer Nightbane to tread upon it.”

 

“I have seen such things,” Shade said. “Where the Stewards walked, the trees and the stones spoke. When we went to war, the earth itself rose against our enemies.”

 

“If you know how to recruit your former allies, Shade, please don’t hesitate,” the loremaster said.

 

“I do not, Master Pendrake.”

 

“Then we’ll have to do the best we can. Let us hurry now.”

 

*

 

The companions set out along the ridge until it became too narrow and steep to climb. At this point they turned and began to descend the western flank of the ridge, into the great bowl itself. Their route took them down a long slope of scree that was tricky to walk on, until they found a goat path and followed it. Below them lay a barren plain of mud and boulders crossed by immense, snaking ridges of heaped stones that Pendrake said had been deposited there as the ice receded over the ages. The few evergreen trees that managed to grow in this inhospitable landscape were stunted, their spindly limbs all growing on one side, away from the knife-sharp wind that streamed down from the ice.  From time to time the travellers heard a distant crack and rumble, and looked up to see that a chunk of the upper glacier had given way and was tumbling down into the valley in a cloud of snow, the echoes rolling back and forth across the valley like distant thunder. Morrigan circled far above them, keeping watch.

 

“Ice once filled this entire valley,” Pendrake said. “Much of it melted during the Broken Years, when even the sun left its path and grew swollen in the sky.”

 

They kept along the gradually descending path, until the glacier’s wide meltwater tarn lay directly below them, its waters a bright blue-green. In the tarn floated chunks of ice that had fallen from the glacier, weirdly shaped by sun and wind and drifting in the water like aimless spectres. The midday heat had also released many slender cataracts of white water that spilled down the face of the rockwall, the roar of their fall muted by distance to a faint rumble in the air.

 

Morrigan gave a cry and swooped down past them. They followed the path of her flight and saw many dark, manlike figures toiling across the valley floor.

 

“Nightbane!” Moth cried.

 

“We must make straight for the ice,” Pendrake shouted. “It’s our only chance now.”

 

Morrigan gave another, even more piercing cry. She was circling a boulder-strewn area beside the tarn. Will shielded his eyes with his hand and saw two smaller figures darting in and out of the concealment of the boulders. They were wearing heavy cloaks and fur caps that concealed their features, but Will knew at once who they were.

 

“Rowen and Freya are down there,” Will shouted.

 

“No,” Pendrake said in a choked whisper. He leaned heavily on his staff as if the will and strength that had brought him this far had suddenly deserted him. Then he gave a cry and plunged down the slope. The others quickly followed, Shade soon tearing past the toymaker.

 

By now Rowen and Freya had seen them and were racing toward the slope. Several hundred yards behind them a horde of Nightbane had crested the last of the stone ridges and was descending in leaps and bounds toward the tarn. Despite his fear and the slippery slope beneath him, Will couldn’t take his eyes from what he was seeing.

 

Some of the Nightbane were like tall and powerfully built men. They wore blood-red plates of armour and bristled with weapons. The mordog, Will guessed. They were larger than he had imagined. Among them were other creatures, smaller but far stranger. They were thin and bony, and moved with an insect-like scuttling of their limbs.

 

In a few moments Will’s party had reached Rowen and Freya. Pendrake clasped his granddaughter in his arms. Freya was limping, and her right leg was bound with a bloody cloth.

 

“After you left Skald, our lookouts reported a horde of Nightbane heading west along the Whitewing,” Freya panted as they gathered around her.

 

“I had to warn you,” Rowen gasped. “I’m sorry…”

 

“They picked up our trail last night,” Freya said. “There’s at least five score of them. I tried to stop her, Father Nicholas–”

 

“No time now,” the toymaker said. “Run for the waterfall, all of you, and don’t look back.”

 

He took the lead. Shade ran beside Will and Rowen, and behind them came Finn with Freya, and finally Moth. Morrigan flew on ahead, her wings rippling like ragged black pennants as she beat against the streaming wind.

 

As he raced on Will heard the scuff of feet on rock and the dull clatter of armour, growing louder and louder. It was all he could do not to turn around, expecting at any moment to feel a heavy claw clutch his shoulder.

 

A hoarse shout came from Moth. Although Will thought he was almost out of strength he ran faster, leaping over larger stones and miraculously keeping his footing on the uneven ground. The plain began to rise steeply as they neared the rock wall. Will struggled up this last slope, his boots sinking in the soft gravel, his eyes fixed only on the ground before him. Shade stayed beside him, and when Will began to slip and stumble he gripped the shaggy ruff at the back of the wolf’s neck. As they toiled on together, Will heard the swish of a blade behind him and an inhuman scream, but he did not turn his head. He clambered on, his breath coming in gasps, and when he next dared to look up, he saw that the rock wall now loomed over them. Pendrake had reached the waterfall and was already vanishing into its billowing cloud of spray, with Rowen close behind him.

 

“Go on,” Shade shouted to Will. “Do not stop.” 

 

The wolf fell back with a snarl. Will lowered his head again for one last burst of speed, feeling the spray upon his face as he ran. The next thing he knew he had passed through the wall of slashing water and found himself in a dark, shuddering space on the other side, soaked and stunned by the cold. Pendrake was here, with Rowen. At the back of this hidden chamber in the rock was the stone stair, rising steeply in a deep crevice.

 

Rowen screamed, “Will! Watch out!”

 

He whirled around just as a huge shape came crashing through the fall into the rock chamber. Will had a brief terrifying glimpse of cold inhuman eyes, teeth bared in a hideous grimace, a jagged blade raised high. The creature jerked to a halt and stood, teetering like a tree about to fall. Then its weapon hit the floor with a clang, and the mordog toppled headfirst, an arrow in its back.

 

Finn, Freya and Moth came bursting through the fall with Shade at their heels. The swords of both men were streaked with black blood, and Finn had a cut above one eye.

 

“We dealt with the front-runners,” Moth said. “The rest of the horde is further back, but they’ll be here soon enough.”

 

Pendrake was leaning with a hand against the rock, breathing hard. For a moment Will feared for him, but then the old man took a deep breath, straightened, and picked up his staff. It was as if he had been drawing strength from the stone itself.

 

“Up the steps, everyone,” he said.

 

Pendrake herded Will and Rowen ahead of him, and the others followed. Shade took his place at Will’s side without a word, and Will saw the dark stains on his muzzle.

 

As they climbed the steps out of the cavern, the outer wall of the stair dropped away, leaving no barrier between them and a sheer drop to the valley floor. Will edged his way along, trying to look only at his feet and not at the terrifying void just beyond them.

 

After a long, toiling climb they rounded a bend in the rockface and found their path blocked by a mound of huge fallen stones. Moth leapt without pausing onto the mound and helped the others up. They scrambled as quickly as they could over the wet rocks to the other side. Here they found themselves on the edge of a precipice, with the long lower slope of the glacier revealed beneath them, hundreds of feet below. They were at the height of the stair. Ahead of them it descended steeply to a spur of rock that jutted out onto the ice, like a spearhead aimed at the horn of Aran Tir.

 

They halted to catch their breath. The wind shrieked in their ears, and all they could see in any direction was ice and rock. Will shivered. He felt as though they had come to the very top of the world.

 

“There used to be a guard post here,” said Pendrake, gazing back at the mound of fallen stones. “And a rope bridge that ran from this height to the base of Aran Tir.”

 

Morrigan swooped down, bringing the news that there were many mordog coming up the stair, but also that the other Nightbane, the smaller, scuttling ones called creech, were scaling the rock wall, as well as climbing the glacier itself.

 

“I thought they were afraid of the ice,” Rowen cried.

 

“They’re being driven,” Moth said, “and it’s not hard to guess by what.”

         

“They mean to cut us off before we can reach Aran Tir,” Pendrake shouted. “We cannot linger here.”

 

Moth spoke to the raven, who hopped to the edge of the stair and dived into empty space. A moment later Will saw her, already far below, a ragged black arrow speeding across the gulf of air toward the rock island, a small swift ripple of shadow following her upon the ice.

 

“She’s gone ahead to find out if Aran Tir is already taken,” Moth said. “If it is then we look for some other position that can be defended. Perhaps higher up on the glacier.”

 

“The steps down to the ice look open at least,” said Pendrake. “Let us hurry.”

 

“I have some rope,” Finn shouted, digging in his pack. “Not a lot, but enough, I think. We should be roped together on the ice.”

 

There was a clatter of stones from above. As one they looked up and saw a beaked, skull-like face with bulging eyes. The creature came scuttling down the rock wall directly at Will, its body squat and carapaced like a crab’s, its bone-like limbs strung together with naked red sinews. With an earsplitting shriek, the thing leapt through the air and landed in the midst of the company, swiftly followed by many more of its kind.

 

“Creech!” Moth shouted as he blocked a blow from a slashing claw.

 

“Stay with Shade,” Pendrake cried to Will and Rowen as he charged forward with his staff on high. They unsheathed their knives and drew close together with the wall at their backs. Shade planted himself in front of Will with his teeth bared.

 

The battle was fierce but brief. The creech gabbled and screamed as they fought, talons and fangs their only weapons. They were smaller and more wiry than the mordog, moving with a speed that amazed Will, but they were reckless and outmatched. The swords of Finn and Moth lopped limbs and split carapaces. Freya’s hammer sent her foes tumbling end over end. Pendrake’s staff landed with a terrible crack on several skulls. One of the creech jumped on Finn’s back and clawed at his face before he managed to fling it over his head and off the edge of the stair.

 

At Will’s side, Rowen gave a sharp gasp. He looked up. A creech had climbed facedown like a huge insect from the wall above. It was clutching at Rowen’s hair and dragging back her head, its jaws slavering at her neck. Before he could think Will slashed at the creech’s bony claw with his knife. The thing hissed and turned its attention to Will, giving Rowen the chance to pull away. The creech lost its grip on the wet rock and tumbled to the stones at their feet. It was up again in an instant, lunging at Will and Rowen before they could move, but now Shade was in front of them, snarling.

 

The creech froze, then retreated with a guttural sound like bones clattering together as Shade advanced. Another few steps and the creech was at the brink. It bared its fangs at Shade, spat, then flung itself over the edge.

 

In another moment the fight was over. Those creech that had not fallen to the ice below lay lifeless on the stones.

 

“They are good climbers,” Finn said, gingerly touching the livid scratches on his neck. “They must have scrambled up here ahead of us and lain in wait.”

 

“Which means there may be more of them soon,” Pendrake said.

 

Will tried to keep his hands from shaking as he sheathed his knife.

 

“You’re hurt,” Rowen said with concern in her voice. Will felt a burning on his neck. He touched the spot and his fingers came away bloody. There was no time to do anything about it. They still had to climb down to the ice and then cross it to reach Aran Tir. 

 

Will was already following Rowen down the steps when Shade made a sound unlike anything he had heard before. It was a growl so low and seething with fury that it froze him to the spot.

 

He turned. Shade stood among the fallen creech, gazing at the heap of fallen stones, his hackles raised, his ears back.

 

“Run now, Will Lightfoot,” he growled.

 

There at the top of the heap of stones stood another wolf.

 

Or something that might once have been a wolf. It was much larger than Shade, its fur black and matted into thick spines, its hulking frame like something that had been twisted into shape by a mind mad with hate. Its ears were torn scraps of raw flesh and its eyes were not amber like Shade’s but a dead cold black rimmed with red fire. From its huge jaws thick slaver dripped.

 

“Run!” Shade barked at Will, and in the next instant he bounded up the heap of stones and met the garm-wolf as it hurtled itself down.

 

The combatants collided in a writhing, churning mass of fur and snapping jaws, like a single monstrous creature tearing itself apart. Will stumbled backward, his gaze fixed on the terrible sight before him. The sounds coming from the throats of the two wolves he knew he would never forget. As he watched the desperate frenzy of the struggle carried Shade and the garm-wolf over the brink of the precipice, and they were gone.