The Perilous Realm Online, Part Eighteen

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Will stared at the place where Shade had been only a moment before. Finn ran back and took him by the arm.

“We have to go, now!”

Numb with shock, Will fell into line with the others. As quickly as they dared they descended the steps, which were wet and eroded by exposure to the ice. In places they had to leap across a gap from one intact step to another further down. When they were halfway to the spear-shaped spur, they heard a clatter from above and saw that a band of mordog had reached the heap of fallen stones at the height of the stair and were on their way down. There were many of them, forty at least, and even more were out on the ice, along with a great number of creech, toiling upward in an effort to reach Aran Tir.

At last the steps ended in a hollow between two standing stones, and then Will and the others were upon the rock spur, which stretched before them like a flat, wide stage. Desperately Will scanned the surface of the glacier below the cliff from which Shade and the garm wolf had fallen. Tears stung his eyes.

The companions dashed across the spur, splashing through the shallow meltwater

pools that dotted its surface. They reached the end, where another, shorter flight of stone steps led down in a half-spiral onto the ice. The Nightbane behind them were still descending the long straight stair, and most of those on the glacier were still a good distance away, except for a vanguard of mordog and creech who had drawn ahead of the rest.

As they stepped out onto the ice, Morrigan returned.

“As far as she can tell the citadel is empty,” Moth said. “The rock is almost completely surrounded by a deep crevasse, but there is a snow bridge that we might be able to cross.”

“That is how I reached Aran Tir the last time,” said Pendrake. “If we can get across the snow bridge to the citadel, there is a stairway that leads up to the great hall. From there we should be able to reach the upper towers, if the way is not blocked. ”

The companions set off across the glacier. Despite the cold wind shearing snow off the heights above, the heat of the midday sun had brought the ice to life: from all around came the sound of water trickling, gushing, spilling, as if the glacier was turning into a river beneath them. Will and the others were forced to slow down on this unfamiliar terrain. Their progress was difficult and uneven, as they were sometimes struggling through drifts of snow, or running across bare ice, and now and then even leaping over narrow meltwater streams.

On they struggled, and as they neared the great jutting horn of dark stone, they could hear a rushing that grew louder by the moment. The ice beneath them trembled.

Finally they neared the base of Aran Tir and came to a wide crevasse that yawned between them and the rock. The thunderous noise and shaking came from a meltwater cataract that poured into the crevasse at its upper end, the water plunging with a roar to unseen depths. As Morrigan had said, there was only one way across this final obstruction: a slender span of snow and ice that arched over the gap to a narrow ledge that ran along the base of the great horn of rock.

Moth took one end of the rope from Finn and led the way. He walked slowly up the arch of the bridge, paying out the rope as he went. At the highest point of the span he paused and crouched, placing a hand on the snow at his feet. Then he kept on to the far side, jumping at last onto the ledge at the base of the rock.

“The bridge is strong enough to hold your weight,” he called. “Go carefully, and keep some distance between you. Do not run.”

Will grasped the rope, followed by Rowen and her grandfather, and then Freya. Finn waited at the start of the bridge, his sword at the ready. When Will was almost halfway across the slender arch he stopped. A low rumbling, deeper and louder even than the roar of the nearby cataract, sounded from the depths of the crevasse.

The bridge shuddered and Will crouched, gripping the rope. He dared a look down and for an instant had a dizzying vision of glassy aquamarine walls dropping away into an inky well of blue-black shadow. Swiftly the tremor stopped and the sound faded, but Will stayed motionless, his heart pounding. Finally, at a shout from Moth he forced himself on.

At last he reached the rock ledge and stumbled forward.

“What was that?” he gasped.

“Perhaps the old tales are true,” Moth said, clutching Will’s arm to steady him. “The ice is alive and does not care for trespassers.”

As Freya, Rowen and her grandfather joined them on the ledge, Finn started across the snow bridge, coiling up the rope as he went. The toymaker turned from watching him and strode up to a pair of thick, slab-sided pillars of greyish stone at one end of the ledge. One of the pillars had collapsed against the other in pieces like a tumbled tower of children’s blocks. Both were covered with a layer of ice.

“The stair to the great hall was here, between these pillars,” he said, and Will heard the weariness in his voice. “We can’t get through this way.”

“You’ve been here before, Grandfather,” Rowen said. “There must be another way. It can’t end like this, not after Shade … ”

The toymaker turned to her with a stricken look, as if he had forgotten that she was there, in danger, and had just remembered. Will hoped he would say something comforting to her, to all of them, but the old man shook his head.

“We cannot climb sheer rock,” he said. “We’re trapped on this ledge.”

“Then we make our stand here,” Moth said, nocking an arrow in his bowstring. “The Nightbane will pay dearly for crossing the bridge.”

Finn was now at the halfway point of the span, and the pursuing Nightbane had drawn up at the far end. They crowded together at the brink, those in front leaning forward hesitantly to inspect the chasm at their feet. It looked as though none would dare the bridge, until at last a huge mordog went among them, snarling and cracking an evil-looking whip. Then the throng began to order itself and move in single file onto the span. Those mordog that carried crossbows took up positions on the edge of the crevasse and began to load their weapons. Moth shouted a warning and Will, Rowen and the toymaker took what shelter they could behind a low pile of tumbled stones. Moth let fly one arrow and then another, dropping two of the archers to the ice.

Finn ran now for the ledge, the black bolts of the enemy whizzing around him. As he did, Freya cried out, rose from where she was crouched beside Will, and charged back onto the bridge. One of the mordog arrows struck the ice directly in front of Finn and he stumbled. At the same moment Freya reached him and took his arm. They hurried for the ledge together, but the gap between him and the Nightbane advancing across the bridge had narrowed.

A crossbow bolt sped past Will’s head and Rowen screamed. The bolt had struck her in the shoulder. She collapsed, her fact contorted with pain. Will and the toymaker knelt beside her.

Rowen’s eyes were closed and she was gasping for breath.

“What can we do?” Will said desperately.

“Don’t touch the arrow,” Moth shouted, hurrying to their side. As he reached them a strange cry went up from the enemy. Will turned to see something advancing through the ranks of the Nightbane on the bridge.

It was twice the height of the tallest mordog and appeared to be a humped, spiny boulder with arms and legs. Will could see two tiny eyes and a gaping crevice of a mouth in the hump where its head should have been.

“What is that?” Will gasped.

“That is an unthunk,” Moth said, and even he sounded defeated now. “One of the big ones.”

Finn and Freya had almost reached the end of the bridge. At the unthunk’s roar Finn turned. Freya gripped his shoulder but he pulled away from her and charged back the way he had come. By now the creature had shouldered its way through the file of mordog on the bridge. With astonishing swiftness for something that seemed to be made of solid rock it swung a huge fist that Finn barely dodged in time. He dived forward past the gigantic creature, rolled to his feet, and instead of striking at the unthunk from behind, engaged a snarling mordog with an axe. Blade rang against iron, and again Finn dropped, so that the mordog’s next swing struck the unthunk’s leg as the monster turned in search of Finn. The mordog tugged its weapon free and scrambled to get away. With a howl the enraged unthunk batted it off the bridge and came charging at Finn and the rest of the Nightbane.

Again Finn dove, and slid between the unthunk’s legs. The unthunk whirled and struck Finn as he was scrambling to his feet, sending him sprawling. But the monster’s furious swing had thrown it off balance. It did a kind of slow, flailing pirouette, batting several shrieking mordog off the bridge, until at last it stood teetering on the brink. Then, with a groan like a falling tree, it toppled into the abyss.

Finn staggered to his feet as the mordog, only briefly cowed, advanced again in a rush. It looked as if Finn would be overwhelmed, but in the next instant Freya and Moth had joined him on the bridge. Two mordog fell, and the rest drew back. The defenders stood their ground. A grizzled mordog at the rear of the file cracked a spike-tipped whip, and the Nightbane surged forward once more.

As Finn, Freya and Moth braced to meet the onslaught, the low rumbling began again from below, now much louder. The entire citadel of Aran Tir seemed to shake, and splinters of ice cracked and fell from the bridge. The charging mordog stopped short in fear, piling into one another, and then turned and tried to shove their way back into the horde still filing onto the trembling span. In the scuffle that followed, several more were knocked screaming into the crevasse. Moth shouted something that Will could not hear, and then he, Freya and Finn turned and ran for the ledge.

Before they could reach it the bridge began to change beneath them. Sharp spikes of ice jutted from its surface, so quickly that the three had to dart between or leap over them. To his bewilderment Will saw movement within the bridge. A pulse like deep veins of blue water now coursed through the ice. Then the bridge shivered from one end to the other, shards of ice and snow falling from it like glittering scales. The rock under Will’s feet shook violently and he staggered back from the brink of the ledge, but not before he glimpsed horns, an immense scaled body, an icy blue eye.

The bridge was no longer a bridge. Whatever it had become, it was alive.

With a sound like sheets of glass shattering the creature broke free and plunged, sending the shrieking Nightbane on both sides hurtling into the crevasse. Finn and Moth came flying through the air and tumbled onto the rock ledge at Will’s feet. At the same instant Finn’s hand shot out behind him and grasped Freya’s arm. She had fallen short and was clinging to the edge of the rock. As Moth helped him haul her to safety, a huge cloud of snow and ice shards billowed up and out, blinding Will and his friends.

When the cloud had settled, the bridge and the enemy upon it were no more. But the creature was still there. Will and the others watched in stunned silence as it heaved itself out of the crevasse on the far side, its diamond claws digging into the bare ice. As it moved, the creature’s white scales gleamed with a faint blue tinge where they overlapped one another. The very air around it was hazy with frost.

A dragon, Will realized, gaping in awe. A dragon of ice.

The Nightbane that had not ventured onto the bridge were flinging away their weapons in terror and fleeing in all directions, some even heedlessly hurtling themselves into the crevasse. When the dragon’s entire form was out on the ice, it lifted its head and gave a roar that made Will clap his hands to his ears. A pair of wings unfolded with a creak and billowed out like massive sails, sending ice crystals glittering through the air. Then the dragon was among the fleeing mordog and creech like an ice storm, its great head sweeping from side to side and its mighty tail lashing.

There was a sound that to Will was like the huffing and hissing of a steam locomotive. From the dragon’s mouth shot a blast of white air thick with frost. As it swept its immense head around, any Nightbane caught by the blast turned hoary and icicled in an instant. After a few slowing steps they ceased moving and stood frozen in grotesque poses of terrified flight.

It looked as if many of the Nightbane not directly in its path would still escape, until the dragon did something even more astonishing. Its great head reared and then plunged into the ice, as if it was made of the same element and was merging with it. Moments later its head appeared again, like an upthrust pillar of ice, and to Will’s amazement another head rose near it, exactly like the first, and then another further away, each one in the path of a knot of fleeing Nightbane, who were quickly halted by a blast of frosty breath. As it moved in pursuit of its prey the dragon’s body undulated over and through the ice as though the glacier itself was rippling in waves.

In a short time there were no living Nightbane on the glacier but only nightmarish, icicled statues. Some of the very few who had escaped were scrambling over the rocky rubble alongside the glacier. Two of the dragon’s three heads plunged under the surface and did not reappear. The third stretched high on its scaly neck above the ice, and its body followed.

The dragon opened its mouth wide and gave a thunderous bellow, like the crack and roar of an avalanche.

Now that there were no unfrozen Nightbane within reach, the creature’s fury seemed to subside as quickly as it had itself appeared. It snorted a few times for good measure, and shook itself briskly from its horns to the tip of its tail. Then, as if as an afterthought, it slowly turned its massive head to look at Will and his companions. The steely blue eyes that regarded them gave no hint of the creature’s thoughts. Then the dragon heaved its massive body around, folded its wings, and poured itself into the chasm, as if its long, lithe body had melted instantly into rushing water.

Moments later it reappeared, crawling up onto the ledge a few feet from Will and his friends. They backed away quickly against the rock wall, Will and Pendrake helping Rowen, who had come to but was still breathing in gasps and looked deathly pale.

The dragon hunkered down on its forelegs and seemed to solidify before their eyes. It studied the small mortals before it as if there was no hurry in the world to decide what should be done about them.

Moth stepped forward, bowed, and spoke a few words in another language. The dragon’s eyes narrowed to blue slits and it gave a deep, frosty huff. Whether this was a sound of approval or scorn or something else entirely, Will had no idea. The dragon rose suddenly and with heavy tread, started forward. Its long blue talons clicked on the stone.

“Keep out of his way,” Moth cautioned in an undertone, and they all quickly obeyed, crowding together against the rock face. The dragon went past them without a glance, as if it had forgotten they were there. As its huge ponderous bulk brushed by, like a slowly moving train, its shadow fell over the companions and the air seemed to grow even colder. Will had the uncanny sense that before him was passing both a living creature and a force of nature, like storm or lightning or the ice itself, a power that was aware of him and his friends yet apart from them, involved with deep, remote things that he could not fathom.

The ice dragon reached the spot where the steps were blocked by the jumbled remains of the pillars. With one immense claw it began digging at the fallen rock. In a short time it had dislodged one of the huge chunks of stone, and then another. The dragon did not cast away the broken pieces of the pillar but instead nudged them almost tenderly to one side as it continued its work.

In a short time the staircase was free of all but a few small fragments of rubble. Briefly the dragon seemed to regard what it had done with a critical eye, and then it turned slowly to Will and his friends again. It now seemed to take particular notice of Rowen, who was doubled over and shaking in Freya’s arms.

The dragon bent toward her, and at this, Finn moved to block its way.

“No, wait,” Moth said, raising his hand.

Finn drew back. The dragon studied him briefly, then stretched out one of its forelimbs to Rowen. She raised her head and stared in wide-eyed shock at the immense creature towering over her. The dragon’s huge claw reached down toward the black mordog arrow in her shoulder. From this close Will saw that the dragon’s scales were translucent, like the ice itself. A blueish fluid pulsed beneath the surface. The claw touched Rowen’s shoulder and spread out as if melting like snow on her skin. She winced and gave a cry, and a moment later the claw was moving away from her and the arrow was gone. Will thought he glimpsed it for an instant, a dark sliver vanishing into the liquid depths of the dragon’s limb.

Rowen breathed out, the grimace of pain gone from her face, replaced by a look of astonishment.

The dragon turned away, and the now familiar ominous rumble sounded from its throat. It stared out across the ice, as if daring the Nightbane to come near again. Rowen touched her shoulder. She was still breathing heavily but already some of the colour had returned to her face.

“It was burning,” she said with a shiver. 

“The arrowhead must have been poisoned,” Pendrake said.

“Now there’s no pain,” Rowen said. “Just cold.”

She gazed up at the dragon.

“Thank you,” she said, through chattering teeth.

Moth stepped forward, bowed again and spoke once more to the dragon. This time it startled them all by answering, in a deep, booming voice that throbbed in Will’s ears.It gave a long, slow utterance, punctuated with several snorts and rumblings, and then concluded with anothermighty huff, so that jets of frost puffed from its nostrils and billowed over its head.Then the dragon turned to face the rim of the ledge and began to crawl headfirst down into the crevasse, its long, lithe body shivering into liquid again as it disappeared. The tail slithered out of sight last.

As suddenly as it had appeared, the dragon was gone.

No one spoke for a long time. Morrigan swooped down and alighted on one of the nearby fallen stones. She shook herself and gave a wheezy squawk that seemed a stunned comment on everything they had just witnessed.

“I agree,” Finn said.

“There are verses in the oldest books about the rivers of ice,” the toymaker said. “It calls them mighty dragons, slow to rouse but swift and deadly when the mood takes them. I should have paid more attention to those lines.”

Finn asked Moth what he and the dragon had said to one another.

“I thanked him with all the ceremony I could muster at short notice,” the archer said. “For saving us, and for his hospitality. The rock of Aran Tir is his home. He has been here as long as the ice has, if not longer, I would say. When the Stewards came and built their citadel, he befriended them. Now he guards the rock in their memory. I believe that last roar was his name, but I didn’t quite catch it. Too loud.”

Will looked back across the ice the way they had come. The dragon had not saved all of them.

“Why did he help us?” he asked bitterly. “Why didn’t he get rid of us like the Nightbane, if we’re trespassing?”

“He’s not given to long explanations,” Moth said. “He spoke only of a tunnel up ahead that will take us under the ice, to the pass.”

“In Skald we sometimes heard the dragon’s roar in the wind,” Freya said, eyeing the archer curiously. “But none of us ever dared venture into this place. You have spoken to a serpent of the frosts and returned to tell of it.”

“That is fine mail you’re wearing,” Moth said to her. “I was an armourer once, long ago.”

“Thank you,” Freya said. Like Will when he first met Moth, she clearly didn’t know what to make of him. “My father taught me the craft.”

“Does Ragnar know you followed us, Freya?” Pendrake asked.

“I did not have time to tell him, Father Nicholas.”

The toymaker sighed.

“You should go home, my child, but it’s far too late for that. For better or worse, we must see this to its end together.”

At the top of the steps they came out into an open, roofless space rimmed by tall, slab-sided columns.At the far end of this circular court rose a sheer wall, hundreds of feet high, topped by white towers that gleamed in the sunlight, like a vision of a palace in some other world that was far-off and out of reach. At the base of the wall stood a wide archway, partially blocked by rubble and chunks of stone.

“The forecourt of Aran Tir,” Pendrake said. “Through that archway is the main staircase up into the citadel. If there’s a tunnel near here I don’t know of it.”

 Here they found more shelter from the wind and cold, and agreed to take a short rest. Rowen still looked pale, and Pendrake was leaning heavily on his staff. There was no wood to make a fire, but they found refuge in a corner of the forecourt where there was a small nook with three stone benches. Here the toymaker saw to the company’s injuries. The cut on Finn’s forehead was deep, but it was not swollen or inflamed, and already looked to be healing over. Finn broke an icicle from the overhang of the archway and held it to the wound.

With all that had happened, Will had forgotten about his own injury. He was startled to discover that the creech’s claw had cut an ugly gash under his ear. He hadn’t felt it at the time, but as the toymaker covered the wound with a sweet-smelling salve, everything they had been through caught up with him at last. He began to shake uncontrollably, and felt as if he might be sick.

Rowen sat next to him and put a hand on his arm.

“I never got a chance to thank you,” she said.

Will realized she was talking about the creech that had attacked her on the high stair.

“It wouldn’t have made much difference if Shade hadn’t been there,” he said.

To his surprise, she kissed him softly on the cheek. While he sat in startled wonder, she gazed around the courtyard, and a troubled look came into her eyes.

“Does this place seem … strange to you?” she asked him.

“What do you mean?”

She reached down and put a hand to the ground.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing. But it’s like the stone … knows we’re here.” 

Will kept still for a moment, then shook his head.

“It just feels cold to me.”

He had no idea what Rowen was talking about, but after what had happened to her in Skald, he thought it better not to question her too much. Something was taking place within her that he could not understand.

Rowen looked up at her grandfather, who was applying salve to the cut on Finn’s forehead. She took a deep breath, and nodded.

“I suppose you’re right,” she said brightly, but her eyes betrayed her voice.

   Moth had gone to search for the tunnel, and came back with the welcome news that he had found it. When they were all ready to go on, he led them under the archway and up the wide, curving staircase. Will hesitated, looking back over the parapet for a moment, across the glacier to the rock wall where his friend had fallen.

They were leaving this place now, without Shade.

 

 

 

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