Grimwar Bane drew a deep breath to try and calm the pounding of his mighty heart. The ogre king stood still, his massive bulk planted on the two stout pillars of his legs, legs set in a wide stance with knees slightly bent. His head was cocked, ears pitched to any faint suggestion of noise that would emanate from beyond the panels of the banded oaken door. Finally he found his confirmation: a sonorous exhalation, long and measured and genuinely relaxed.
He knew that his wife, at last, was sleeping.
And this would not be just any sleep. She was exhausted, drained, and, if he knew his wife, she would be unconscious for a long time.
Stariz ber Glacierheim ber Bane was not merely the wife of the ogre king. She was also high priestess of the Willful One, Gonnas the Strong, baneful deity of the ogres of the Icereach. It was in the latter capacity that she had recently performed a grueling prestidigitation, a spellcasting that had lasted, uninterrupted, for the better part of a week. Smoke had swirled through the lofty temple chamber, a foggy murk swaddling the obsidian image of Gonnas, god of all ogrekind. Slaves brought warqat and meats to the high priestess, and dozens of lesser clerics bent their deep voices into chants that vibrated through the very bedrock of the mountain.
At last the high priestess had exclaimed her joy of revelation, and at the same time the king had felt a sick wateriness in his bowels. Bitter experience had told him that while his wife was the recipient of commands from the Willful One, it was her husband, Grimwar Bane, who was the oft-burdened executor of those decrees. Undoubtedly there was some onerous task lurking in the monarch’s near future.
There would be time enough later to find out what was his next job. For the time being, for at least this full day and part of the next, he could slip away. Perhaps it would be his very last chance for a long time. He had already sent a message to his lover and knew that she would be waiting for him in the private suite of apartments he kept for their all-too-infrequent meetings. It was time to make haste. The king leaned closer, listening to one more resonant breath. He could picture the queen’s broad nostrils flexing with the snore and was finally convinced that she had lapsed into her deepest stupor.
Grimwar did not depart from the front of the royal apartment, for he knew that his wife had spies throughout the mountain city of Winterheim. Any number of them could be lurking out there, watching and waiting to record the surreptitious activities of their ruler.
Instead, he crossed the great room, with its arched ceiling and massive fireplace. His feet, clad in soft leather boots for indoor comfort, made no sound on the plush rugs of white bearskin. Entering the hallway leading to his own sleeping quarters, he continued past his anteroom to the place where the corridor ended in a stone wall decorated only with a single torch sconce. The stout stick remained cold, for there was rarely need for light in this remote alcove.
The king grasped the torch sconce with his burly fist and pulled. It took all of his massive strength to wrench the metal bracket downward. Gears, well greased and huge, rumbled slightly, and a crack appeared in the corner as the end of the corridor slid back to reveal a shadowy passage. Swiftly, the king stepped through the secret entrance, turning to put his shoulder against the heavy granite slab.
He heard the knock at the door, the sound coming from the outer entrance to the royal chambers. Several sharp raps echoed explosively through the stillness, and after a moment the rude summons was repeated.
He froze, startled, trying to think. Who would dare disturb him now in his quarters, when he had left specific orders that the queen was acquiring her well-deserved rest and that the king desired to be left alone to meditate? The question was overridden by a more urgent concern-the disturbance, if it continued, would inevitably arouse his wife from her well of exhaustion.
Grimacing, unable to suppress the growl of irritation rumbling within his cavernous chest, he slipped back around the secret door to reenter the royal apartments. Hastily he pulled on the sconce until the massive portal rolled shut, then hurried into the great room. The knock on the door was repeated again, a little louder this time, annoyingly persistent.
“What do you want?” snarled Grimwar Bane in what he hoped was a loud whisper, leaning close to the double doors that gave egress from the king and queen’s abode.
“Begging the king’s pardon,” came the tremulous reply, the deep voice denoting a large and powerful ogre.
“But there is a… situation… in the temple of Gonnas.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“I fear not, Sire. The situation is in the Ice Chamber, and Her Majesty, Queen Stariz, has left longstanding orders that she is to be alerted at once, should there be a disturbance in that most holy of rooms.”
“The queen has retired and is exhausted by her previous labors. I am certain that she will want to wait until-”
“What is it?” Grimwar’s statement was cut off by his wife’s sharp voice and sudden appearance. The door to her chambers flew open to reveal the immense, square-faced ogress. Stariz wore her sleeping robe, a cloak of gray linen, but there was no sign of fatigue or dullness in the bright spots of her eyes.
“A disturbance in the Ice Chamber,” Grimwar grunted, trying to cover up his frustration as he opened the outer door. “Enter,” he declared, moving into the great room as the messenger followed behind. The king stood with his back to the fireplace and glared at the other ogre. He recognized the fellow as a captain in the Royal Guard, one Broadnose ber Glacierheim. “What is going on?”
His wife, her great tent of a gown flapping around her, shambled into the entry hall. Stariz glared at Grimwar, those small eyes glittering, and the king wondered how she could have woken so quickly and completely.
“What is the nature of the disturbance?” she demanded from the messenger.
“I… I am not sure I fully understand, Your Highness. The guards on duty summoned me, but of course I dared not enter the sacred sanctum. Nevertheless, as I stood without, I heard sounds like thunder and saw flashes of brightness coming from beneath the door. I know it is impossible, but I felt as though I observed a thunderstorm, bellowing and crashing within the precincts of Winterheim itself.” Broadnose dropped to one knee. “I beg Your Majesties’ forgiveness if I have overreacted, but I felt it best that I come at once and report.”
“You did well,” Stariz declared, as Grimwar suppressed the urge to kick the lackey right in the face. The queen, turning to her husband, again glared suspiciously at him. “This matter demands my immediate attention. I suspect that there is word from your mother in Dracoheim.”
Dracoheim. Grimwar Bane shuddered in spite of himself. The very name evoked chilly mists, lonely images of a nearly forgotten isle, remote and barren, with ancient dragons swirling through the sky, bringing fire and death, scouring life from the land. Of course, those dragons were gone, vanished with all the dragons from Krynn some four or five centuries ago, during the time of the Knight Huma’s war, but that did not much lessen the menace of Dracoheim.
Dracoheim was not uninhabited. Grimwar’s mother, the Dowager Queen Hannareit ber Bane, lived there, maintaining the exile she had begun during the reign of her husband, Grimtruth Bane. She had been banished there by Grimtruth when that king, growing tired of his older, brute-faced wife, had taken a younger mistress. The elder queen had chosen to remain there in stolid isolation, even though her husband was now long dead and her son had assumed the throne-for Grimwar Bane steadfastly refused to take vengeance on Thraid Dimmarkull, the mistress his mother blamed for her exile. For her part, Queen Hanna (for she retained that honorific) had vowed never to return to the capital so long as that brazen strumpet of an ogress still lived.
Grimwar had discovered, when he visited Dracoheim five years ago, that Hanna had made herself quite comfortable in the ancient castle. The island was rich in gold. In some places it was sulfurous and scorched by the heat of infernal flames, in others honeycombed by rich mines, steam-blasted caverns, and bubbling volcanoes. More than a thousand human slaves worked the mines, and much of the fabulous wealth was sent to the capital, but Queen Hanna, who managed the mines, kept a grand share.
Also on Dracoheim, Grimwar reflected, was the laboratory of the royal Alchemist. From the chamber of that sagelike servant, with his vats and forges and diagrams and bizarre elements, came dire weapons and inventions that added to the Bane kings’ power. Perhaps the current summons meant news of some discovery made by the Alchemist, something that would accrue further power and riches to the reign of the ogre monarch.
Grimwar Bane really didn’t care about that, not right now. He thought with a sigh of his mistress, waiting. He watched his wife dismiss Broadnose and enter her dressing room to prepare for a return to the temple. She would undoubtedly be occupied for hours, and during those hours the king would have his opportunity. He smiled, keeping his reaction private by turning to study the great fireplace, apparently meditating upon the great black bearskin hanging on the wall over the mantle.
For Thraid Dimmarkull was not just the former mistress of his father, the ogress behind the cause of his mother’s exile. Thraid, she of the full bosom and rosy lips, of soft curves and willing caresses, had been the son’s lover for many years now. Currently she awaited him in their private trysting chamber. With his wife heading off to the temple for a major spellcasting session, Grimwar Bane knew that he would be able to visit his beloved after all.
Queen Stariz strode through the lofty, arched entry-way leading to the Temple of Gonnas in the Royal Quarter of Winterheim. The sanctuary occupied a huge building in the mountain city and was devoted to the worship of the Willful One, the tusked and brutal god of ogrekind. The floor was black marble, the entry chamber dominated by the lofty statue depicting the god himself, a solid pillar of obsidian more than three times the height of the largest bull ogre. Twin tusks, inky black and as long as swords, jutted from the stern jaw of the implacable image, and the priestess-queen paused for a moment of reverence, bowing her head and clasping her hands before the forbidding visage.
She moved on, past kneeling slaves, into a dark hallway leading toward the deeper reaches of the temple. She moved with purpose, and the lesser priestesses who had gathered before the Ice Chamber scurried out of her way, genuflecting and chanting their mantras.
Stariz ignored them all as she halted before a broad, tall door of granite.
“Leave me!” she commanded, and waited for a short time as the priestesses all scattered to the other parts of the temple.
She could understand Broadnose’s description of the “disturbance.” Now she too heard the rumbling as of a great storm, saw the bright flashes-very much like lightning-pulsing across the floor through the narrow gap at the bottom of the door.
Only when she was certain that she was alone did Stariz reach forward and push on the stone portal, murmuring the word of command that released the door from its enchanted protection. Soundlessly, smoothly, it swung open, and she followed inside with a purposeful stride, marching into this hallowed room that was her province alone.
Her breath immediately frosted, for it was cold inside. The irregular walls were lined with frost, and in many places icicles draped downward from bulges, outcrops, and ledges. The far side of the chamber was different, however: There, instead of bare rock, the surface was smooth and shiny, slick like a sheet of ice made wet by a gloss of meltwater. It was as though a mirror was mounted in the rough stone, shadowy and yet illuminated at the same time.
Indeed, that smooth surface was the source of the crackling lightning, periodic flashes sparking within a roiling murk. To Stariz it looked as though she was witnessing a powerful storm from above, watching lightning burst between dark thunderheads. From the violence of the images, she knew immediately that the Dowager Queen’s message was urgent.
“Cartas Danir! Boraga, Orktan Gonnas!” Stariz chanted, the words exploding from her mouth like small thunderclaps.
Immediately the roiling image faded, the churning murk pulled back from the center of the ice sheet to bluster and swirl around the edges, like a frame of black smoke around a slowly clearing picture.
As the picture gradually became distinct, Stariz beheld her counterpart, former queen of Suderhold, now mistress of Dracoheim. The Dowager Queen Hannareit ber Bane met her gaze with an expression of triumph. The elder ogress bared her tusks slightly as she allowed her pleasure to twist her face into a smile. She might have been an older version of Stariz, they looked enough alike, though the two queens were not in fact related.
Still, they both had that square-jawed face, small eyes glowering below a large, round forehead. Each wore the mantle of a priestess around her shoulders, a rippling robe of black, smooth wool.
“My Queen Mother,” Stariz began, with a cool nod of her head. “I sense that you have important, and encouraging tidings.”
“You sense correctly, my Queen Daughter,” replied Hannareit. “Glory to Gonnas, the Willful One,” she added, her words a frosty whisper in the shadowy alcove.
“May his strength be ours,” Stariz responded. “What is your news?”
“The Alchemist has made an important discovery,” the elder queen reported, “though at some cost to himself.” Her lips curled into a smile that was as cruel as it was cold. “Indeed, it nearly cost him his life.”
Stariz waited patiently, knowing that Queen Hanna would soon get to the point. She felt a measure of pity for the elder queen, living her life out in the exile of a barren island… a moment such as this, no doubt, would be a rare thrill of pleasure for her. Stariz valued Hanna as an ally. It made good sense to be patient, and to allow her this moment of pride.
“He spent the last two seasons seeking some unusual power of explosive, as was suggested by the communications you and I both shared, premonitions from our mighty lord.”
“Gonnas be praised,” Stariz chanted, remembering the dreams that she and Hanna had experienced at the same time on the previous summer. They had both reported their vision: that wooden statues, sanctified by the god, should be burned in a holy fire. The ashes, the Willful One had indicated, could be the catalyst for a mighty weapon, if the proper means of ignition could be devised. The two ogresses had agreed that the Alchemist should set aside everything and devote all of his energies to the new task. Nevertheless, when Stariz had last communicated with Hanna-well before the Sturmfrost had struck-the Dowager Queen had only disappointment to report.
“It was the potion that provided the key,” Queen Hanna said. She chuckled, a dry and evil sound. “The nectar of life to that pathetic wretch-he never would have willingly included it in his recipe. There Was a happy accident, he spilled some onto the mix of ingredients, and the resulting explosion destroyed half of his chamber and nearly killed him!”
“But he survives, and can continue to work and refine his discovery?” Stariz pressed.
“Indeed, though I had to use a great amount of healing magic. However, he has been able to recreate the mixture under more controlled circumstances. I had the concoction placed in a suitable vessel, and the subsequent test annihilated a camp of human slaves with a most satisfactory blast.”
“You could spare a few slaves, I trust?”
“Indeed, that particular nest was a troublesome lot, always fomenting revolt, avoiding work, hoarding supplies. They will be no more trouble to me, it is safe to say. Even their buildings, stone houses and a smithy, were swept away by the impressive might of the explosion.”
“And this alchemy can be turned into a calculated weapon, for use against the humans of Brackenrock?” Stariz pressed, arriving at the matter that had governed her will for the past eight years. “So that we can finally, after all this time, avenge our honor and retrieve the Axe of Gonnas.”
“Undoubtedly. I am sending the secret formula to you, in the care of a loyal thanoi; even now, he has started the long swim toward Winterheim. I think…” Again Queen Hanna allowed herself that hint of a wicked smile. “I think you will be greatly pleased.”
“I will do my best to encourage your son to take advantage of this great gift,” Stariz assured the Dowager Queen, who scowled slightly in response.
“I presume my son has refused to address the matter of that harlot, Thraid Dimmarkull?” Hanna said pointedly. “Gonnas curse his stubbornness!”
Stariz suspected that there was more than stubbornness to her husband’s defense of the voluptuous Thraid. She did not know for certain, but she had cautioned her spies to be alert, and she was waiting to learn the truth. There had been too many long glances shared by those two and a number of unexplained absences.
One thing was certain, a belief she held deep within the cold shell of her heart: Stariz ber Glacierheim would never let herself suffer the same fate as the Dowager Queen.
Thraid welcomed King Grimwar with a soft, warm embrace and a kiss that seemed to envelop his mouth, his breath, his very being. He pulled her tight, felt the lush cushion of her body against him, and realized that he was shaking with raw desire.
“How I missed you, my king,” she whispered, nibbling with maddening delight at his ear, “and how delighted I am to see, to hold, to have you, again.”
“And you, my mistress,” the monarch replied. “It has been far too long.”
He held her at arm’s length and absorbed the sight of her, the clear skin, pale as ivory, the full lips, rouged and swollen and curled into their alluring pout. He ran his hands down her flanks, from the fullness of her bosom to the waist that was so remarkably narrow for an ogress, over the hips that rounded so invitingly, as if sculpted for his pleasure.
They stopped speaking then, for it had indeed been a long time since their last tryst. Desperation drove them into a clinch. Their frenzy was shared and delightful, and by the end the king was roaring like a triumphant lion while his mistress, his prey, mewled with delight beneath him.
“It is a good thing you maintain such a remote chamber for us,” Thraid said afterward, stroking the king’s strong jaw with her finger. “Else I fear your noise would have aroused the whole palace.”
“Indeed, the doors are well proofed against sound,” Grimwar Bane said with a deep chuckle, relaxing on the soft mattress, willing sleep to slowly rise up and claim him. He looked at his cherished one, watched her drowse, relishing the rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed deeply.
For some reason, he was not tired, not even relaxed. Though it hadn’t taken Thraid long to fall asleep, the king could not do the same. Restless, he worked his arm up from beneath her and sat up, frowning. He found it hard to relax, for he was distracted. He knew that his wife was talking to his mother, that there would be some disturbing bulletin from Dracoheim.
Now that Grimwar was temporarily sated, he was preoccupied by his strong suspicion that the news, however welcome it might be to Stariz, would involve some onerous task for himself.