There was mist all around. Kerrick could hear the sounds of water slapping against a hull and a more distant wash of noise… waves breaking onto a shore. The damp timbers had the familiar chill of his small cabin, and he smelled the pine-caulk and tar that sealed the hull.
Strange, though. The boat wasn’t moving, not even the gentle rocking of an anchorage in a placid harbor. The waves were strangely muted, more of a steady hiss than a rhythm of ebb and flow. The water was hot, hot and dry. He had a vague sense that he was safe, that there would be no drowning in this sea, yet at the same time, he found the very idea of safety improbable and troubling.
A furnace door opened, and an elf turned toward him, holding a tongs with a red-hot piece of metal, a sword blade, extended. There was no menace in the image-merely intrigue and wonder. The smith dropped the raw weapon to an anvil, picked up a hammer, and began to stroke the metal. The sound of the hammer blows was loud, thunderously loud, but like the waves it became a constant din rather than a series of individual impacts. As the smith pounded, the blade curled into an arc, then a full circle-a ring. The color brightened, from red to yellow to gold.
The hammer rang louder, a surreal noise beyond imagination.
He opened his eyes and absorbed the vista from a lofty tower. The hills of Silvanesti, the sun-speckled river, the myriad gardens, pools, and fountains, greeted him with such unexpected force that his heart nearly broke. The dazzling towers and manors of the city were living crystal and cultivated wood. Delicate bridges, like lofty webs of spun silk, spanned the gulfs between towers and hilltops.
A tall elf stood beside him, and he took great pleasure in the elf’s vague and strangely aloof presence. There was the Tower of the Stars, piercing the heavens with majestic pride, rising into a sky so yellow… but wait! He looked, squinted, wondered. Yes, the sky was yellow, a yellow as pure and warm and pleasant as the sun itself.
He knew the yellow sky was wrong and that he must be dreaming. In the easy way of dreaming he decided to visit the king and found himself in the palace. All the courtiers and ladies looked askance at him, but there was still that regal elf at his side, protecting him, so he strode forward without concern. The king was there in person, heir to the line of Silvanos, a golden visage surrounded by the reflected light of a thousand mirrors. His blessing fell upon the tall elf and spilled off of his shoulders, cascaded down to envelop Kerrick as well.
With terrifying quickness, darkness closed in, an awful, suffocating darkness that tried to drown him but did not have the mercy to let him die. His efforts to cry out were muted by a cottony thickness in his throat, and his attempts to thrash and kick were defeated by the weariness that left him limp, drained of all energy. The darkness was a smothering blanket and for a while it seemed an eternal funeral shroud. All the goodness and light was gone, except for one imagined pinprick, a perfect circle of gold.
Very slowly the cloak lifted, and with desperate, straining gasps he filled his lungs and breathed and fell into fitful sleep. He dreamed fitfully, with tantalizingly brief glimpses into a Silvanesti pure, clean, and warm. For a precious time, he felt weightless, careless, and content.
Inevitably the dream was broken, and the nightmare of despair and longing once more dragged him down. Sometimes he saw the golden ring, just out of reach, a taunting reminder of his anguish, his need. The precious magic was available if only he could touch it, could draw upon it. He knew that power would cure him-it was the only thing that could possibly soothe his hurts.
If he had known where the ring was, he would have clawed his way out of bed, crawled across the floor, anything to obtain it. But the ring was gone, and there was no antidote to the pain and despair, so he lay wretched and shaking, sweating and crying, until at last the darkness began to lighten and, once more, he returned to the real world.
He awoke to a grayness that made him think the summer had passed in Icereach. Someone sat beside his bed, and he asked for a candle. The person replied in a woman’s voice that sunlight was pouring in the window and a candle would cast no noticeable light.
So the grayness rested in his own eyes, then. The window was near his bed and yes, he could detect the brightness, angled rays from the sun that never climbed very high into the sky over the Icereach. But the sun was high enough-Kerrick knew that it was still summertime. Slowly, other physical details came to him: stone walls… heavy timbers in the ceiling… bedsheets. He guessed that he was in Brackenrock, probably lying in a small bedchamber somewhere in the fortress, high enough to catch the sunlight streaming over the walls. The person watching over him, that gentle woman, was still there.
“Feathertail?” He finally made out the shy smile of the pretty girl sitting near the bed. She was looking at him hopefully, and when he lifted his hand she reached out to take it.
“Kerrick! You’re going to be all right, aren’t you? I knew it, and Dinekki knew it-she asked me to keep an eye on you, so that you didn’t hurt yourself. You…” Her eyes dropped. “Sometimes it seemed as if you were suffering terribly.”
The elf felt a chill of longing, a hollow void that he could never fill, but he shook his head stubbornly and tightened his grip on her fingers. “That’s all in the past. It’s over. Tell me, what happened.” He strained to recall. “The last thing I knew I was fighting at the gate with Randall and a few dozen of his men, but the ogres had us outnumbered. They came in a tight formation! I… I put on the ring….”
At least that part was a vivid memory, slipping his finger through the golden ring, feeling the magic suffuse his flesh in a sensuous rush. He clenched his teeth. Everything after was a blank. “We won? The ogres were turned away?”
“You fought like a madman!” Feathertail exclaimed, her cheeks flushed. “Even Randall stood back and let you carry the charge. You slew a dozen ogres in as many minutes. You even struck down their king-we raised a great cheer, when we saw that from the walls. When Bruni charged out with the ogre axe, and it started on fire, the ogres fell back.
“That’s when you raced out to the catapult and turned it around,” she continued. “The catapult shot the golden orb down the mountainside. It blew up one of the galleys on the shore.” She drew a breath, suddenly very somber. “Surely it would have blown up all of Bracken-rock if it had come down inside the walls.”
“A brilliant flash of light.” Kerrick vaguely remembered now. “How long ago was that?”
“You’ve been… sleeping, for eight days,” the young woman replied softly.
“What of the ogres? Is the king dead?” The elf turned his head, tightened his grip on her hand.
Feathertail shook her head. “I don’t think so-they got him back on the ship, and we saw him stand up before they rowed away. That is, some of them marched away-Mouse counted about three hundred. They headed south, across the Whitemoor.”
Kerrick winced. “There must be twenty or thirty villages in that direction!”
“Yes. We sent runners to warn them, as much as possible. A few days ago, after they made the citadel as safe as they could, Strongwind Whalebone and Mouse left with five hundred men to try and catch up with them.”
“The galley that rowed away-did it turn back to the White Bear Sea?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. It sailed off to the west. That’s the last time anyone saw them.”
A chilling thought struck him, as he recalled the blast of magical fire and the sight of the gatehouse tower teetering, crumbling. “Moreen? Is she… where is she?”
Again Feathertail cast her eyes downward, and Kerrick saw tears glistening.
“She lives! Tell me she lives!” he cried, lurching upward, reaching toward her with both hands.
“Yes, she lives,” said the lass, clutching both of the elf’s fists in her own. “But she was grievously injured. She lost one eye. Dinekki says that we can only pray that she will be able to see out of the other one, when the bandage is removed.”
“Take me to her!” Kerrick declared, throwing back the covers. His muscles were weak, his nerves shaky, but he felt he must do something. “Please, Feather-give me my trousers and tunic.”
“Can you even walk? You’ve been so weak,” she demurred. “You should have something to eat, start to get your strength back.”
“I need to go now,” he said impatiently, determined to see the chiefwoman.
It took several minutes to get him dressed, which didn’t encourage a fretful Feathertail. “I’ll take you to her room, but it’ll be up to Dinekki if you can see her or not.”
They followed a sun-washed corridor, great arching open-air windows on one side and a wall of black slate on the other. He felt a rubbery weakness in his knees and had to be supported by Feathertail. The stones had been soaking up heat through the early weeks of the nightless summer, and now they radiated a comforting warmth.
Kerrick stopped halfway so that he could lean against one of the windowsills and catch his breath. They were high in the keep, with a commanding view of the courtyard. The first thing he noticed was the absence of the gatehouse tower. There was a gaping hole in the wall and shattered stones stained with blood all around the gate area.
Beyond, he saw the Courrain Ocean, blue and pristine, extending to the north. The lower terraces could be glimpsed, and Kerrick sadly noted the trampled fields, burned houses, and wrecked buildings dotting the view.
Another dozen steps brought them to Moreen’s room. Feathertail knocked quietly and led the elf into the comfortable anteroom. Dinekki was sitting at a table, mixing something brown and gooey in a large bowl. The elder shaman looked up from her poultice, uttering a snort of surprise when she spotted Kerrick. “I wondered when you’d be comin’ round here,” she remarked curtly. “Finally got those shivers out of your system, did you?”
Kerrick felt a flush of shame. He said nothing.
“He wanted to… that is, he wondered if he could see her,” Feathertail explained, after an awkward silence.
“Yes. Probably just what she needs.” The elder shaman squinted appraisingly at Kerrick. “That is, if you’re sure you’re up to it.”
“I am,” he said levelly.
Dinekki nodded toward the sleeping chamber, and Feathertail watched anxiously as the elf crossed the antechamber, knocked softly, and opened the door.
“Hello?” Moreen turned toward the entrance and Kerrick suppressed a gasp. Her eyes were wrapped in a white gauze bandage that wound around her head. One cheek had been scraped raw, was now covered with a red scab. Her body, always petite, looked like a child’s now, buried in a great mound of down quilts. Yet somehow in spite of those hurts, she managed to twist her mouth into her familiar ironic smile, one corner of her mouth tilting up while the opposite curved down.
“Kerrick? It’s you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, coining to the edge of the bed, kneeling. “How… how did you know?”
“I didn’t know,” Moreen replied, with a tiny shrug, “but I’m glad you’re finally up. They told me what you did, and I know how you suffered for donning the ring a second time in one day. It nearly killed you, it seems.”
“That’s nothing now-but you! Are you in pain? How do you fare?”
“No broken bones,” she said flatly. “Just had my face smashed by a half ton of gravel. And no, it doesn’t hurt very much any more. When Dinekki takes this bandage off, by Chislev, I promise you that I will be able to see!”
“Your goddess’s, and Zivilyn Greentree’s blessings as well.” The elf invoked the deity of his sailor’s clan.
“The floor is cold, is it not?” asked the chiefwoman, as Kerrick shifted his weight uncomfortably from one knee to the other.
“No, not at all, not in this warm summer air.”
“Well, still, you should get a chair, anyway,” Moreen declared. “I mean, stay here awhile, won’t you? Let’s talk.”
For a week he kept to her side, taking his food and drink in the chair, talking to her whenever the chief-woman was awake, and holding her hand gently during her long hours of sleep. The long slumbering seemed to do her immense good. She began to eat more gustily, and the skin of her cheek healed so cleanly that Dinekki pronounced there would be no trace of a scar. As to her remaining eye, they could only pray to all the gods that it would be intact when the bandage was removed. The shaman sternly warned that the poultice must be allowed to do its work and that the healing required a full fortnight of insulation from light or air. So the gauzy cloth remained in place, even as Moreen spoke enthusiastically about all of the things she would do as soon as she was back on her feet.
Bruni visited several times each day, bringing reports of the ogre marauders, news of the progress of repairs and of prospects for the upcoming fall harvest. “It will be a lean winter, again,” Bruni warned, “but there’ll be enough in the larder so that no one has to worry about starving.”
“That’s all we can ask for,” Moreen agreed, fidgeting under her covers, twisting her hands in her lap. Kerrick knew she was tempted to pull off some of her bandaging.
At last, one day, Dinekki came through the door with a bowl of steaming water. Feathertail brought a stack of clean cloths, and the shaman sat beside the injured woman. Kerrick leaned over her shoulder to watch, but she clucked him away.
“We’ll both want all the light we can get,” the old woman declared. “Now, you sit up in bed, Lady Chief-woman, and let’s see how your face is healing up.”
Dinekki’s bony fingers were steady as they touched the bandage, gently tugging at a knot behind Moreen’s ear. The shaman elder painstakingly unwound the strands of gauze, until the last coils of the bandage fell away.
Moreen immediately turned toward the window with a smile on her face. “The daylight-I can see it!”
Kerrick tried not to show the shock he felt. Moreen’s right eyelid was swollen shut and surrounded by a purple bruise. Her left eye gleamed beneath wounded skin.
But Moreen was laughing, turning from the window to the old woman. “I see you Dinekki-you saved my eye! Feather, and Kerrick! You’ve never looked so good, any of you!”
“That’s what we need to know. Now, close up and let me wash you off, then a little more of the poultice and a few more days with the bandage.
Moreen nodded, and the shaman dipped a sponge in the steaming water and started, very gently, to wash the chiefwoman’s ravaged face. An hour later a fresh bandage was in place, and-aided by a draught of Dinekki’s spirits-Moreen slept deeply, without movement or dreaming.
Kerrick went to get a loaf of bread from the kitchen and brought the meager sustenance back to her room. He took his place beside the bed and watched her sleep through the pale daylight of the midnight sun.
Moreen felt a bizarre contentment as she slowly recovered. Her strength seemed to increase every day, as did the clarity of her vision. She took a certain amount of pleasure from the black eye patch, a piece of soft sealskin, that she had taken to wearing over her scarred eye socket.
A week after her bandaging was removed she rose from the bed, took Kerrick’s arm, clutched it tightly as he led her through the room and down the hallway. It was the sight of the shattered gatehouse that brought back her memory of helplessness, the horror and doom of the ogre attack. She stood with Kerrick on one of the high ramparts of the keep and looked across the courtyard to the place where her citadel had been so cruelly invaded and nearly conquered.
The gap between the towers had been mostly sealed off with a pile of stones, leaving only a path wide enough for a single file of people to pass into and out of Brackenrock. She knew that Bruni had dispatched work parties to the timber groves to the east of the citadel, along the shore of the White Bear Sea. They were using oxen to haul lumber up the mountain, and by the end of the summer there would be more than enough to repair the gates.
She had been reassured, countless times, that her instinctive order to evacuate had saved at least fifty men and women in the towers and on the walls, as well as many Highlanders and Kerrick. Those in the courtyard had been spared the full brunt of the horrific explosion wrought by the ogres.
Though one tower still stood, it was neither occupied nor functional. The explosion had ripped out stairways and doors, cracking support beams and loosing cornerstones. Both towers would have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
“We need to be vigilant, more vigilant even than before,” Kerrick told her, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that he shared her apprehension about any future attack. “I don’t know…” he concluded weakly.
They were wending their way around the citadel wall, looking over the damage. They descended to a low wall that marked off a quarter of barracks and exercise yards, then climbed a steep stairway overlooking the courtyard. Moreen still had not regained her strength, but she was determined to keep active, to show her people that she was recovering, that she was the Lady of Brackenrock again.
She found herself back where she had been injured, looking over a drop of eight or ten feet into a tangled well of rocks and splintered timbers. Her vision was now almost flat, but even she could perceive the menacing depths of this black hole. She couldn’t imagine being trapped down there, buried by debris. “Such terrible force….”
“Your goddess was watching over you. There’s no other explanation,” Kerrick said sincerely.
“What if they come back?” Moreen said, gazing out at the blue sea. With an irritated sigh, she adjusted the patch that covered her empty socket. Moreen still wasn’t used to wearing the leather flap, and Kerrick too was getting accustomed to Moreen’s permanent eye patch.
“Why, if they come back, we’ll fight them again,” declared the elf boldly, “and defeat them again. “We know that they hold the Axe of Gonnas in awe-we can use that to our advantage.”
“Unless they blow the axe, and all of Brackenrock, to pieces,” Moreen replied bitterly. “No, we need some better plan.”
“What?” Kerrick asked hopefully.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”