Bolting upright from his makeshift pallet, the master drew a sharp breath, the faintly acrid air filling his lungs. Then he was on his feet and running, plunging down the spiraling stairs of the tower where he’d hidden himself, all the while praying no one had yet raised the alarm.
The dense silence encouraged him. It was dark as tar—after Vigils—and dawn wouldn’t break for hours. The torches lining the deserted corridors had sputtered out, and the sightless portraits of Drinnkastel’s former royal occupants were hooded in shadow. All the castle slept.
When he reached the north wing, his worst fears were confirmed: the Alithineum was afire. How could this be happening, on the very night he’d planned to spirit the Chronicles away? On the morrow, the book was due to be opened, as it was once every fifty years, to reveal a new prophecy. He had intended for that prophecy to be for his eyes alone.
It might not be too late.
But as he barreled toward the great library, his heart sank. Thick grey smoke curled from under the high brass doors, and even from here he could feel the ravenous heat being held at bay behind the gleaming portal. He raised his staff and bellowed at the fire, commanding it in the oldest of tongues to retreat.
A cold dread crept over him as the fire not only resisted, but roared its rebuff to his assault. He summoned all the power at his command and hurled it at the fire within once more.
Gwarth anfeldyl! Drwy olwen gorweddwich allyn marwyl!
A deafening wuff resounded from behind the archive’s doors, and in the sudden silence, he could hear the tick and groan of the metal cooling. At a word, the doors swung open.
He was dully aware of shouts and the sound of pounding footsteps, but he did not heed them, nor did he cast more than a glance at the charred remnants of a thousand times a thousand precious books. He made straight for the ruins of the pedestal, under whose domed crystal the Chronicles was housed.
Only a silver puddle on the blackened oak marked the place where the tome had rested.
With a hiss, he cast his shadow forward and wrapped himself within its concealing cloak. His fury drove him out of the Alithineum and past the first arrival at the scene of devastation.
When he saw who it was, a grim smile curved his lips. Perhaps all was not lost, after all.
Even before the door closed behind him, Leif regretted leaving Master Morgan’s blazing hearth. Still, despite the gusting wind, he paused to trace the runes etched in the stone lintel over the cottage door.
The sharpest weapon is a finely honed mind.
Leif had once asked the wizard whether he really believed that, to which Master Morgan made his usual response, peering at him from under his busy grey brows.
Leif wasn’t sure, so he busied himself with the jumble of beakers and pots stacked beside the sink. He knew the wizard didn’t mean to make him feel foolish, but in the old man’s presence Leif was glaringly aware of his own ignorance.
At least he could now read these runes himself; learning to decode such ancient symbols took up the bulk of the time he spent with Master Morgan. Otherwise, he tidied up after the wizard and listened avidly to his stories of the Before, the magical era that had come to a close five centuries ago.
As he hurried down the track toward the gorge, Leif kept his eyes on the patches of pale sunlight that lingered ahead. The tantalizing scent of the warm meat pie the wizard had tucked into his pocket made his stomach rumble, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He resisted its temptation by imagining the look of delight on his gran’s wrinkled face when he presented the pasty to her.
Shadows from the gathering clouds darkened the path as he approached the bridge, the towering pines beyond it swaying and whispering in the fading light. Leif hunched his shoulders against the blustering wind and gripped the ropes that served as
handholds. Only when he’d run across the wooden slats and was safely under the shelter of the trees did he release the breath he’d been holding. Master Morgan had repeatedly assured him the bridge was sound, but its swaying and creaking always alarmed him, even though the gorge had filled up over the years with forest debris and was now little more than a deep ravine.
The sun slipped below the mountain’s rise, and he quickened his pace. It was the shortest day of the year, and the light was dying swiftly. The forest path offered him some shelter from the wind, but little comfort—the lingering leaves hung brown and shriveled from spindly branches, and the maples that had blazed red well into late autumn now scratched starkly at the sky.
He marched doggedly along, the duff crunching underfoot, reciting the latest riddle the wizard had given him to work out on his way home.
“Under fire, newly born
Babe at evening, old at morn Measured hours mark its end Wind a foe, night a bend.”
“No, not a bend, a friend!” he muttered irritably, for he sometimes had trouble recalling the simplest things.
Before he’d started at the village school, he’d harbored a secret desire to accomplish something extraordinary in life. But from his first day in the dingy classroom, he’d struggled to sit and listen to the droning lessons—and at the end of his first week, Master Warren pronounced him the poorest student he’d ever taught. After that humiliation, Leif had refused to go back, and his grandparents had taken over his
education. He stayed close to home, avoiding the other village children, relieved to escape their taunts and the schoolmaster’s cruel disdain.
But his unexpected apprenticeship with the wizard over these past months had given him renewed hope. Perhaps he was meant for greater things.
Still, if he couldn’t even remember a simple riddle...
In his distraction, he snagged his cloak on an overhanging branch. He pitched a few steps forward, and when he tugged the worn garment around to examine the damage, he found a long, jagged tear.
“Oh, hang it!” he exclaimed.
Gran would have kittens when she saw it, as she’d just mended it last week. He reached into his pocket for the comforting warmth of the meat pie, and decided he’d only tell Gran about the rip after she’d had a bite or two.
For these were lean days, and months of the same stretched ahead. The harvests in the south had been poor, and old farmers were predicting heavy snows throughout Drinnglennin this winter. Lurkers, who seldom ranged into the northern realms, had been preying on solitary travelers in Valeland. Just last month, Iver Fronsen was set upon by two of these rovers on the road to Findlindach. The Lurkers, being landless, were feeling the pinch of deprivation more than most. Hunger was abroad.
Not for the first time, Leif wished Master Morgan lived closer to the village. But the wizard was a solitary soul, and most folk were glad the old man kept to himself. Valers distrusted anything to do with magic. Leif’s grandda had been one of the few to scoff at their suspicions. “Master Morgan was once the most powerful wizard in the land, before he left the capital to roam the wider world,” the old man had once told Leif. “Folks forget that in his younger days, he served with two High Kings.”
“Why did he leave?” Leif asked.
Grandda shrugged. “Perhaps he’d had enough of court life. It’s none of our business, in any event. Folks should just let folks be.”
As he thought of his grandda, Leif felt a wave of regret. It was worse for his gran, for it seemed as if a part of her had died with Pren Landril, although she did her best to hide it. Sometimes, when she sat knitting by the fire, he could see the stamp of her grief on her lined face.
She would be waiting and worrying, as she always did when Leif was out after dark. His breath streaming before him, he hurried over the ridge and began the long descent to Tonis Vale. In the valley below, their croft was already shrouded in deep shadow. Grandda had told him—not long before he made the Leap—about bygone times when folk in the Vale had kept signal fires burning to light the way for anyone passing through. Leif wished he could see one beckoning him home now, but few outsiders traveled this way, and the villagers had no desire to attract strangers.
As he paused to catch his breath, a sharp, acrid smell made him gag. The hairs on his neck prickled as he imagined a filthy Lurker skulking behind the dense bracken. His fear kept him rooted in his tracks, peering into the gloom.
A dark shadow fell over him, and with a strangled cry, Leif plunged downhill, heedless of the shifting stones under his feet and the thin branches snapping in his wake. Only sheer luck kept him upright as he lurched forward, flailing his arms in panic. When he reached the place where the path leveled out, he pushed himself to run faster, his breaths tearing away from him in heaving gasps.
He felt a small surge of hope when he saw the light from their neighbors’ farm below. He had only a half a mile or so to go before he reached Malgly’s croft, and half as much again before reaching his own.
But as the light surrendered to gloaming, his luck ran out. He never saw the root that hooked his boot and sent him sprawling, wrenching his knee in a blaze of pain. With a cry, he pitched to the ground, his lungs emptying on impact.
For a moment, he lay stunned and struggling for breath. But when he heard something heavy crashing through the brush above him, he jackknifed upright, dragged his trapped foot from under the treacherous root, and pulled himself shakily to his feet. He lurched forward, but was brought up short by a jolt of pain in his knee. Casting about in panic, he spied a narrow opening between two large boulders just off the path. There was no telling how deep it was, or where it might lead, but he hopped toward it, white stars blooming before his eyes with each jarring step.
He dove through the hole into utter darkness. If whatever was out there was still coming in his direction, he could no longer hear it over the sound of his hammering heart.
He inched forward, biting his lip against the pain, praying that his hand wouldn’t land on the pelt of a wintering cave bear. His clothes were damp with sweat, and he began to shiver.
When he felt he was far enough away from the entrance so as not to be seen from without, he curled into a ball and gingerly felt his knee. It had already begun to swell, but he could extend his leg, albeit painfully.
There’ll be no more running for me this night.
Seconds, and then minutes, passed in the dense silence. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths, and the thunderous pounding of his heart slowed as he listened.
Gran always claimed he could hear birds molting, and it was true that his ears were sharp. Now, in the darkness, he became aware of small scratching sounds coming
from deep in the crevice or cave, whichever this narrow place might be. Bats, he told himself. Or maybe cave swallows.
His joints were cold and stiff, and he knew he was likely to catch a bad chill if he didn’t head for home before long. Still he waited.
The scratching started again, and a fresh rush of adrenaline flooded his veins. It seemed to be coming from behind him now, and he told himself perhaps sound did funny things inside a cave.
Scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch.
After a few moments, the insistent scratching stopped. It was quiet for so long, Leif drifted off.
When he awoke once more, all was quiet. It was probably just a wild dog, he thought. Feeling a bit foolish over how frightened he’d been, he grinned in the dark. All he wanted was to get home and watch his gran relish the pie in his pocket, no matter it was now as cold as a stone, while he warmed himself before the fire. Buoyed by these thoughts, he re-examined his knee, and thought the swelling might have gone down a bit, although it still throbbed like it had been whacked with Blearc’s cudgel. He’d have to walk slowly, but he’d get home in the end. He leaned back carefully on his scraped hands and let his head drop, easing the cramping in his neck. Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself up to test his weight on his injured knee. The sudden pain made him gasp, and his throat filled with the bitter burn of brimstone.
Then the world exploded.
A blast of rocks and heat propelled him across the darkness in a shower of rubble, slamming him against the wall. Deafened and battered, he struggled for breath as something massive hovered over him, pinning him fast with a suffocating pressure.
Its glowing crescent eyes blinded him to all else, so he didn’t see the cruel point of the creature’s talon aligned over his breast.
But he screamed in agony as the dragon plunged its claw through sinew and bone, deep into his thundering heart.