Tom trailed a finger along the length of the stone mantle. He could just reach the little wooden box if he stood on the tips of his toes. The wood was smooth, worn by gentle caress, the hinge stiff with age; within lay the most treasured of his grandfather’s possessions. Just a glimpse could fire the imagination and set a fire in his breast.
‘Thomas, where are you boy?’
Tom turned towards the hallway; hot hands snapping shut the box lid. Lessons unlearned, he was going to get caught again, prying where he shouldn’t. The door creaked open, the entrance darkened. There stood Mallakai; older than time, tall as a mountain, grizzly as a bear. Tom lowered his head; guilty as found, racing pulse fighting for attention with heavy heart.
‘Didn’t I leave my study locked?’ His grandfather’s voice came up from his boots, a cavernous sound, which even at a whisper was reminiscent of distant thunder.
‘Then how did you arrive before my hearth?’
Tom turned to the open window. ‘I was outside and it was ajar and…’
He stopped. No explanation could undo the fact that he had once again ignored his father’s wishes. There would be hell to pay and he could still feel the birch across his seat from last time. As always, Mallakai understood everything in an instant. He stepped towards his grandson, towering over the boy who stood soldier straight, as if the stiffness of his spine would somehow exonerate him of his misdemeanour.
‘We’ve been here before haven’t we boy?’
Tom nodded, unable to speak. He held out the box, defeated. There was no point in asking Mallakai not to tell his father. Both men had stood shoulder-to-shoulder last time temptation had got the better of him. Mallakai reached out a hand and to Tom’s surprise he did not take the trinket. Instead he closed the boy’s fingers over the box and bent to pick up a poker leaning against the hearth. He stirred the embers, coaxing tiny flames to lick at the edges of the grate. Carefully he placed a loaf-sized chunk of ash on to the fire
‘Pull that window shut and sit,’ he commanded suddenly. Tom did as he was told and retreated to a chair by the hearth. His grandfather settled himself near to the flames, turning his hands before the heat to ease the rheumatism that settled in his bones as the autumn fall of leaves had settled about his lawns.
‘I think it’s time I told you something about the item within that box.’
Tom almost dropped the trinket. ‘But father said… you said that it would have to wait until I was older.’
‘Yes Mallakai barked. ‘And look what good that has done. We have turned you in to a sneak-thief.’
Tom withered before the silver-haired Mallakai, who resembled a frosted version of his father. His grandfather was old enough to remember the Black Rose wars, but he was unbent by the passing years, his tall frame still heavy with muscle. Only last year Tom had watched as his grandfather turned a fallen oak into a mound of bricks for the fire in a single afternoon. His axe had been a metronome and neither Tom nor his father had been able to keep up. The deep furrows of his cheeks and the creases of his brow had taken none of the sparkle from Mallakai’s sky blue eyes. He reminded Tom of the weatherworn gargoyles that leered from the spires of St. Mulberry’s, except Tom wasn’t scared of the gargoyles.
‘I’m sorry grandfather.’
Mallakai frowned and wrinkled his nose as he always did when wrestling with an important thought. ‘No, I think it is I who should apologise. As soon as you took an interest in the box I knew it was futile to keep you away from its truth. Your father was naïve to think that forbiddance would be enough to separate you from your curiosity. No Tom, I think it is time you knew a little of the history of what lies within.’
Tom regarded the box with greedy eyes. He traced the swirls of gold leaf that curled about its edges and ended at its centre with the initials T, D and F. ‘I would like that,’ said Tom, fear of his father fading behind his excitement. He settled back into his chair, gripping the box tightly, his eyes fixed on Mallakai.
‘I will tell you a tale,’ his grandfather began, ‘a tale to stir your blood and raise the hackles on your neck. I will tell you of the Wolves of Winter.’
In the days when my father’s father was a young man, long before the Black Rose flew from the peaks of every northern city, the High King Stephen of what was then called Westumbria maintained a road to the far north. Winding through the passes of the Greendock Mountains and questing through the great desolation like a vein of hope, the Old North Road carried tradesmen to the fringe of the icy wastes. There, beyond the Kalapatians, edged by the ice-bound North Sea and hemmed in by the snow plains of Dunna, lay a finger of hospitable ground. Winterland.
Warm currents swirling in from the World Ocean brought fertility to the fields of the west coast. The people there made a living fishing for rare sea-creatures to fill the dishes of the nobles of Westumbria. It was a hard life; full of danger, for bears and wolves shared the forests with far worse creatures. Nevertheless, there was enough of a living to be made to tempt many a hardy soul north, especially when gold was discovered in the foothills of the Zurals. Prospecting towns grew up along the edge of the eastern hills; Kolton and Heliop became centres of hope and trade. The High King built castles along the Reach, Winterland’s most northerly peninsula to protect this newfound source of his kingdom’s prosperity.
It wasn’t long before the ghost’s arrived. That’s what my grandfather called them. Their proper name is the Nordakin. With pale skin as white as snow and nary a hair on their heads they came, eyes half-closed against the glare of winter like coat loops, alien red irises burning deep in to your soul. At first they were greeted with suspicion and kept at arm’s length beyond the defensive works. Yet familiarity breeds tolerance and before long they were allowed within the town walls, trading their oil and skins for spices and Meade of Westumbria.
Rulnik regarded them closely from his daily watch atop the walls of Castle Bronin; observed with suspicion the coming and going of their ice wagons, slicing through the frozen sea, pulled by gnarls. The work animals of the Nordakin would be a match for any bear. They snarled and snapped at the Winterlanders, baring their teeth and rattling their tusks against their harnesses. No good would come of this association, thought Rulnik, but his voice held no sway with the town council; he was only the sergeant of the city guard. And what was there to report? Trade was good; the High King’s coffers were filling up nicely and against all odds, Winterland prospered. Until Hunter’s Eve; until the world was turned upside down.
‘Hey serge! Grab a mug of Toki’s homebrew.’ Rulnik smiled to see Yanuk emerge from the door to the watchtower, carefully transporting the vessels brimful with the infamous foaming ale. The stocky lakelander reminded Rulnik of his little brother and stirred thoughts of warm afternoons by the tarn at Greendale. Yanuk’s family came from the other side of the lakes to where Rulnik grew up; the Wellhavenite shared his dislike of the bleak white canvas of the far north. Rulnik took a mug. He clashed it against Yanuk’s.
‘To the Hunter; arrow swift, angel light!’
‘Heaven bright,’ Yanuk completed the seasonal toast. They winced as the warm spices burned their throats and brought tears to their eyes.
‘By the Light, Toki could be tried for murder if that were any hotter. Men have swung for less.’
Rulnik laughed at Yanuk, enjoying the warmth that flowed through to his extremities. The night felt a little less chilling, the boredom of night watch a little more tolerable.
‘There was a fight today,’ said Yanuk. Rulnik looked at him with interest. ‘Down by the Battered Helm it was; ghosts, drunk on whiskey picking a row with the locals.’
Rulnik curled his lip and spat a ball of phlegm over the battlements. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling in my gut Yanuk. This will not end happily. When the ghosts first arrived they were respectful, timid even. Now they argue with the merchants and show open hostility in their dealings about the market.’
Yanuk drained his mug. ‘Don’t worry friend,’ he advised. ‘What harm can they do with the king’s guard watching over them. They are nothing but traders with trouble in their hearts. They would not trouble the Westumbrian army.’
A sound that never should be heard at night interrupted their conversation. The grating of iron against stone cut through the night. Rulnik knew instantly what it meant and his face was a mask of alarm. Chains were being loosed; the great winding wheel had been set free of its moorings. Castle Bronin was being opened up to the night, weatherworn gates creaking outwards on their ice-crusted tracks. Yanuk looked at Rulnik with questioning eyes. The sergeant dropped his mug and pulled the horn that hung at his breast towards his lips. ‘Run Yanuk. Wake the captain.’ And then he was blowing for all he was worth. His first note soared over the rooftops of the town, rousing the army from its bed, but the second note was lost to a cacophony of noise as the ice erupted a hundred yards before the castle walls.
Rulnik barely had time to register a fountain of debris hurtling skywards before he flung himself below the battlements, just in time to avoid being erased by flying ice chunks the size of hayricks that showered down on the northern wall of Castle Bronin. He crouched with arms crossed over his skull until screams from the town within the walls called him to action. Flames sprang up amongst the cottages from where coal braziers had been upturned in the bombardment. Thatch caught and flames danced as a second explosion forced Rulnik to his knees. Again, ice rained down before Rulnik risked a look between the crenellations. He was just in time to see a third hole open up in the ice, and watched in horror as a fellow guard was dashed from his post further along the wall by more of the hurtling debris.
Rulnik rose with caution, shouting for his comrades to sound off, nocking an arrow as he searched the gloom beyond the walls for the cause of the explosions. There were far too many gaps in the replies of his duty team, though it could have been raw fear that had taken their voices. Something was moving in the shadows. As the flames of the blazing town licked higher and the dark of night was pushed back a grotesque form was revealed. Twisting in its swollen mass, the ice-wyrm struggled through the hole it had driven through the surface of the frozen ocean. A second wyrm surged towards the foot of the town walls, its body as long as the mule trains that brought spices from the south. A third wyrm fought to free itself from the hole it had created, its bloated form finally crashing down on the ice to begin an inexorable crawl towards the castle.
The middle wyrm was closest to the wall. Rulnik watched in horror as it reared upwards, revealing rings of angled hooks that fought for purchase on the stone walls. The screech of the wyrm set Rulnik’s blood to ice, the stench overwhelmed him. His legs quivered as the battlements shook. The creature was climbing.
Screams from the gatehouse brought Rulnik back to his senses. He had almost forgotten that the city had been laid open, and now he bounded along the top of the wall, chivvying terrified soldiers in to action. A volley of arrows angled down from the walls in his wake, pitiful in their inadequacy. It was going to take more than that to slow the ice-wyrms down, and the Light only knew what would befall them if one of the creatures penetrated the town.
As Rulnik reached the gatehouse he barked at the men inside. ‘Hoy, Barik, Evlan; fetch the tar buckets, and bring firebrands.’ A head appeared at one of the arrow slits that looked down over the barbican.
‘Are you mad? The gate is breeched. Every hand is needed here!’
And then an arrow whistled up from the dark, splitting the air a finger’s width from Rulnik’s face. The sergeant looked down into chaos. All along the Northgate road a rolling melee unfolded. Mailed soldiers raced from the side streets to form a press against the battle-crazed ghosts. The safety of the town was in the balance. If the tide were not turned, torching the wyrms would bear no meaning on the future of Castle Bronin. His mind made up, Rulnik returned his bow to his back, drew his blade and launched himself from the city wall.
The impact of his landing drove a hole in the ranks of the Nordakin. Instantly Rulnik widened his circle with violent sweeps of his sword. He met axe blade with the flat of his sword, pulled his assailant close and flattened him with a head butt. The next ghost he took in the throat and the next drove his blade through its midriff. Left and right he swung, building up a momentum that set panic amongst the ghosts to have this deadly foe at their backs. Emboldened by the sudden uncertainty amongst the pale skinned raiders, the soldiers of the city watch fought their way towards their sergeant.
‘To Rulnik!’ they screamed and they drove a wedge through the ranks of the ghosts, forcing them back beyond the gates. Advance quickly turned to rout. Away from the narrow streets the ghosts seemed surprisingly few in number for a force supposed to take a town. Some of the guard wanted to chase them in to the night, until they say the horror unfolding further along the city walls. All three ice-wyrms were now attached to the castle walls; the first heaved the top half of its vulgar body over the battlements where it caught fast on the crenellations.
‘Holy son of Light,’ gasped one soldier, quickly making an L-shape at his breast with forefinger and thumb.
‘To the walls!’ yelled Rulnik. ‘Bring the tar; fetch the torches!’
The night was bonfire bright, the pulsing flesh of the wyrms running with slime as they drew closer to the flames. It took all of Rulnik’s authority to coax his barrel carriers close enough to the creature to carry out his plan. With swords and axes they broke open the barrels, coating the ramparts in a thick layer of tar, which Rulnik rolled as close to the beast as he dared. The guards retreated throwing down their torches as they ran. Fire swept along the battlements, catching the first wyrm in its grasp. Yet before Rulnik could measure the success of his plan the stone beneath their feet shuddered. There was a rumbling as of thunder from the deep and then the city wall collapsed, tipping wyrm and men into the streets below where the cottages continued to blaze unabated. The first wyrm was trapped in the burning rubble, half within and half without the city. No matter how much it writhed it could not shake free the heavy stones that held it in place.
By some turn of fortune, Rulnik had landed clear of the inferno. He kicked away masonry and scrambled to the top of a collapsed section of the wall. He could see none of his men, but the second and third wyrm were slinking away from the inferno and back into the frozen wastes.
Castle Bronin at daybreak; the fortress resembled a wounded animal licking at its sores. Teams of volunteers worked to pile the fallen stones in to a makeshift defence lest the ghosts return; others damped down the smouldering ruins of the northern quarter with bucketfuls of snow and shovels of ice; everywhere families huddled, whispering and embracing. Yanuk found Rulnik atop the gatehouse, no longer arranged in the centre of the city wall but a lone sentinel of stone at the end of the remaining section of the north rampart. Staring out across the frozen North Sea, a score of abrasions across his cheeks and nose clearly out of shape, he nevertheless managed a smile at the Wellhavenite’s appearance.
‘Looks like this pile of rubble is yours to command now serge,’ said Yanuk. ‘The captain didn’t make it.’
The news of his captain’s untimely demise barely registered on Rulnik’s features. He was numb from the revelations brought by the light of dawn. Every family it seemed had lost someone; a quarter of the guard were amongst those dead or missing, the town council reduced from twelve able men to three souls, one of whom might not make it through to the next dawn. The future of Castle Bronin hung in the balance and Rulnik had not the capacity to deal with the loss of a friend and mentor. Grief would have to wait. Decisions had to be made for the living, and there was something of great import on his mind.
‘Something’s not right here,’ Rulnik stated, returning to his vigil.
He turned to his second in command. ‘Since when did the ice-wyrms attack settlements?’ Yanuk looked blank. ‘I mean, I’ve heard of trappers going astray and stumbling into a lair,’ Rulnik continued, ‘but nothing like this.’
Yanuk caught the meaning in his voice. ‘You think they were driven to it; that they were run out of the deep by the ghosts?’
‘Aye,’ replied Rulnik. ‘But why go to such lengths and then support the attack with such a meagre force? It doesn’t make sense, unless...’ Rulnik grasped his friend by the arm. ‘Get me ten of our most able riders; ready the horses with a day’s food for each man.’
‘No time for questions Yanuk. I pray I will not be gone long, but I must ride out to investigate my fears.’
‘Will I count myself amongst the ten?’
‘No friend, I need you here. A firm hand must guide the people for the next few hours if disaster is to be averted. Occupy their minds with recovery tasks. Don’t hesitate to enforce law the hard way if you sense dissension.’
‘Yes serge, I mean captain!’
On horses shod with spiked shoes, the small party from Castle Bronin picked its way westwards along the shore. They shadowed the snowmelt, which morphed gradually into the River Arvin. For half a day they rode with the North Sea at their right shoulders, until shifting ice pack gave way to sailing bergs, and then to raging torrent. As they reached the point where the river turned towards the south, Rulnik found what he hoped he would not. It was Porl who spotted it first. The outrider came racing back towards the party.
‘Captain, come quickly. You have to see this for yourself!’
The party hastened over a low rise and immediately they saw what had got Porl so animated, and it was instantly apparent why the captain had dragged them away from their posts. A wide path had been churned through the snow-covered banks, following the line of the river towards where it would eventually empty out in to Loch Larn, towards the prospecting towns that fringed the Zurals.
Rulnik dropped from his mount to examine the tracks. ‘It is as I feared,’ he explained. ‘A great host has passed this way in the night. The ghosts are marching. The attack on Castle Bronin was merely a distraction. Winterland is under attack.’
His soldiers looked at him, realisation dawning in their eyes. To the south lay their families; to the south lay the passes that gave entrance to Westumbria.
‘What would you have us do Captain?’ It was Torbad who posed the question, his northern accent resonating from the deep barrel of his chest.
‘All that we can, and more,’ stated Rulnik. He turned to his outrider. ‘Porl, you must return to Castle Bronin. Raise the alarm with Yanuk. Tell him to light the warning beacon and to bring every man of able body south. He must set forth for Kolton before nightfall and fetch the garrison at Castle Moropus on his way.’
‘Yes sir.’ Porl turned his mount but Rulnik held him back. ‘Before you set forth, leave us your food. I’m afraid you must return hungry, for we will have need of you rations tonight.’
‘What will you do?’ asked Porl.
Rulnik regarded his men. ‘We will follow the trail of the ghosts, catch hold of their coat tails and slow them down anyway that we can.’
Porl looked at his captain with renewed respect. ‘I will bring Yanuk and his army.’
‘Then be gone,’ said Rulnik. ‘And may the Light illuminate your way,’ he added as the outrider raced away to the east.
It was not difficult to follow the progress of the ghost army. A thoroughfare of mud and trampled grasses marked their passage along the riverbank. When the trail turned towards Kolton the stony plain was littered with the remains of their rations and other debris. Rulnik took no comfort in this; an army that had no concern to cover its tracks was a vast host indeed. This was no raiding party that they pursued, but an invasion force.
As they rode Rulnik used all his tracking skills to calculate the size of the enemy force. He estimated a thousand souls or more must be pushing towards the civilian towns of the reach. With every step forward of his mount the odds of there being a way to halt the invasion seemed to lengthen. At best Yanuk could hope to bring a hundred men from the ruins of Castle Bronin; another four score would be gathered from the fort at Moropus, barely a fifth of what they would need for an even contest. It would have to be enough, for beyond Kolton lay the mining towns of the Zurals, with their families and their inns full of tourists. All they had for protection was the Justice of the Reach and a dozen constables at best.
They rode until the stars painted the sky, stopping only to allow their mounts a chance to drink. As the horses began to grow uncertain of their footing they ate a hurried lunch in the gloom of a narrow wood. In silence they sat, each to their private thoughts, until Rulnik pushed aside thoughts of sleep and spurred them on into the night. They walked alongside their mounts until the distant Zurals wore soft halos. As dawn extended pink tendrils across the early morning grey, Torbad, sent forward to scout the next valley, emerged from the fine mist that shrouded the plain. He had been gone a good hour.
‘We have caught their tail,’ he said, his face grim.
Rulnik nodded. ‘How many do they number?’
‘It’s difficult to be exact, but judging by the number of their fires, I’d say three, possibly four thousand. Their camp resembles a small city.’
To their credit, his men showed nothing of the fear that must have turned their stomachs. Rulnik was shocked; the ghosts had disguised their numbers well, but the captain could tell there was more that Torbad wished to impart. ‘Go on,’ he said, watching his own words dissipate in to clouds of white.
‘There is worse news, if that is possible. Beyond the camp of the host I saw the stars reflected in the valley floor.’
‘Loch Larn!’ Rulnik had not been prepared for this. They had travelled swiftly indeed. He had hoped to catch them much further north. The town of Kolton lay beyond the lake, and beyond the town was nothing but open plain, nothing to stop the ghost army heading for the passes of the Kalapatians and Westumbria proper.
‘Mount up. We have to act now or all could be lost.’
Torbad shook his head. ‘I have seen their number. We are only ten. What can we do?’
Rulnik’s face reflected the grey of morning, stone and stern in its expression. ‘We will do what we can. We will be like the wolves that hounded my father’s herds. Silent, swift, unseen; we will set fear in their breasts, caution in their steps, doubt in their minds.’
Torbad nodded. He liked the steel in his captain’s words. The other soldiers, a mixture of raw recruits and seasoned veterans drew strength from his certainty. They tightened the straps of their harnesses and loosened the laces that held their swords in place. Quiver caps were removed and bow strings tested. Rulnik tightened the strap of his helm and regarded his men.
‘For the King, and for the Light,’ he said.
‘The King and the Light,’ they replied. And then they were gone, melting like wraiths in to the mist.
A plan was forming in Rulnik’s mind. It required precision, speed and a distraction of their own. He knew something of the local geography, enough to give them a chance of some sort against such overwhelming odds. He sent Torbad and four riders off on a wide arc of the ghost encampment. They were under instructions to give the valley a wide birth to avoid any potential ghost sentries, and to find a defensible spot between the encampment and Loch Larn. The rest of the party Rulnik kept with him. He had plumped for the best riders of the small company. They would need every ounce of their skill, for he intended to go straight to the heart of the enemy encampment.
The twin allies of darkness and mist were all but gone by the time Rulnik and his men looked down on the ghost army. Under blood red sky they slithered forwards on bellies to silence the perimeter guards. Below, ghosts milled about, lowering tents and cooking rations. Unseen, Rulnik and his men slipped back to their mounts. They made final preparations for the wildest ride of their lives. Arrows were nocked, reigns gripped with white knuckles; the only sound the whispered prayers to the Light and words of love for the ones they might never see again. Rulnik looked each man in the eye; none failed to hold his gaze; they were together, as one. The captain nudged his horse in to a trot and then with the lowering of an arm they charged.
Hooves thrummed and bows sang; they swept from the hillside, gathering pace, delivering death and confusion. Arrow swift they darted between the tents on the outskirts, weaving their way ever deeper into the ranks of the enemy. A dozen ghosts had fallen before cries of alarm began to bounce about the encampment, but the men were moving so swiftly that there was confusion amongst the invaders as to where the threat was coming from. Panic was left in the wake of the invisible enemy that delivered death before swords could be drawn in response, but Rulnik knew the advantage of surprise would not hold for long. He gathered his men in tight and like the iron tip of an arrow they drove straight in to the heart of the camp. At the centre they met a wave of fetid air and immediately their horses balked. The barks and snarls and tusk rattling of the gnarls sent fear through the horses. One man went down as his mount reared and tried to turn away. A fellow rider scooped him up and then Rulnik, all thoughts of stealth gone, was shouting his commands.
‘Cut the tethers, free the beasts!’
His men set about slashing at the long ropes that were threaded through the muzzles of the beasts. Rulnik swept backwards and forwards at their rear, hacking down the ghosts that ran to see what had disturbed the gnarls. He snatched up a burning brand from one of the fallen Nordakin and hurled it into the midst of the stomping and snapping animals, followed by half a dozen arrows. This was too much for the gnarls. They strained and snapped the half destroyed restraining rope and butted one another in their panic to be free from fire and arrow. The animals stampeded and the company broke apart, each rider finding his own path as they ran with the beasts. The camp was now in uproar and ghosts darted everywhere, but their concern was in staying alive, not in finding the terror in their midst. On this occasion the difference in numbers worked in favour of Rulnik. So few were their party that they were able to melt in to the confusion.
Rulnik had no idea what had become of the rest of his men; it was each to his own now with no way to regroup unless they made it to the rendezvous point with Torbad. The edge of the encampment was in sight, his horse in full flight. With fear in its breast his mount was taking greater and greater risks, hurdling tents and plummeting through groups of bemused ghosts. The gnarls bucked along to left and right and then one turned without warning and took out his horse’s throat with a tusk. Rulnik sailed through the air and landed in the side of a tent. He had no idea which way was up or down but curled himself tightly in to a ball as a startled ghost raised an axe. This was it. He would die alone. Thoughts of Greendale flashed through his mind and then the ghost was gone, smashed by pummelling paw and ripping claw as the gnarls swept passed. Rulnik staggered to his feet. He had lost his helm and his bow was snapped. His long sword was gone with his mount, but he had a short stabbing blade strapped about his waist. It was to this he now turned for his only defence as he began a loping run for freedom. Every step sent fire in to his side; something was broken, but he could not stop. He gritted his teeth and jogged on.
An arrow whistled over his shoulder and he threw himself to the ground, just as two more darts whistled through the space where moments before he had stood. They had spotted him. As he regained his feet a ghost barrelled in to him, driving him backwards and over. The creature was evidently unarmed or he would have just run the captain through. Rulnik used the momentum of their tumble to push the attacker away and then he ran his blade across his assailant’s throat. He was up again, running, but from the corner of his eye he could see a dozen ghosts racing to cut off his path. They carried a mixture of spears and crude axes. Rulnik flung his blade, taking the first ghost in the chest. The rest halted a stride and he gained a couple of yards, angling his run up the hillside and away from the encampment. He looked down at his feet, taking care with every step to find firm footing amidst the scree; one slip and he would be pulled to pieces by the mob at his back. And still with every stride he expected to feel the burn of an arrow or the punch of a spear. Then it came, not a blow to the back, but a grabbing hand, taking him by the upper arm and sweeping him from the ground. Joslan, the youngest rider of their party, heaved him across the neck of his mount as the beast scrambled up the steep incline, and then they were over the brow and racing to the relative safety of Loch Larn. On blowing mount they haired around the rim of the valley, the sounds of pursuit falling away. The last ribbons of mist peeled away to reveal slate grey sky; the distant Zurals resembled the maw of a giant beast, teeth bared to the morning.
As they left the valley of the ghosts Rulnik soon saw where Torbad must have placed his men. A tower of stone, the weathered remains of an ancient plateau stood sentinel like between the valleys they had left and the shallow bowl in which lay Loch Larn. Their horse slid to a standstill in the shale at its base and within a heartbeat Torbad revealed his position half way up the stack of stone. Rulnik bounded up the rocks to meet him.
‘We have little time; it went well in the valley but we have to make full use of the time the distraction has bought us. Leave your three best archers to make the ghosts think twice about leaving the valley. You and one other must come with Joslan and I. And hurry. We have very little time to make a difference.’
Rulnik had private words with each of the three men they were to leave behind. There were to be two elements to their role, the most dangerous part of his hastily forming plan. He wished he could take their place, but there was work for him to do in the next valley that he could not leave to another. His commands instilled, they left Joslan’s lathered mount behind and jumped on to the three freshest looking beasts, Rulnik and Joslan sharing again in order to leave a mount each for the archers who were staying behind. They raced away from the stone needle and over the edge into the bowl where the dark waters of Loch Larn brooded; black and unforgiving, harbour of Rulnik’s great ambition.
It took a good hour for the chieftains to restore order to the Nordakin army. The gnarls, though tamed, bore the grizzly evidence of the carnage they had wrought on their tusks. They bucked and pulled and thrashed at their masters as, once more in thrall they drew their wagons up from the valley floor. The invasion had been slowed, but the army remained intact; the ice-dwellers were hungry for blood. As they emerged over the rise, thirty hundred spears and four score of gnarl-riders they once again felt the sting of Winterland. Three scouts fell to the human arrows before the ghosts pinpointed the source of their pain. Urged on by enraged ice-shamans, a score of ghosts picked their way up the tower of stone. Eight fell before the three brave souls of Castle Bronin withdrew. The race was on; the ghosts would not tolerate another distraction and a dozen more of their number was dispatched from the marching column to bring down the human meddlers. The three stumbled, skidded and scrambled down the back of the needle. Their horses stomped nervously about, pulling at their tethers. They were almost away when an arrow took out the throat of one soldier. He slipped sideways from his saddle and his horse shot away, dragging his body with it. Now there was panic where there had been steel. Spurs were dug in to flanks and the riders shot away, not to where Rulnik and the others had gone, but following their last command to draw the ghosts away to the west. Hail of ash followed them, but none of the arrows bit home; and yet their escape was not wholly satisfying as the ghost soldiers had been called back by their shaman. There would be no pursuit into the wilderness; their gamble had failed. Instead the riders did as Rulnik had bid them and turned their mounts about. It took all of their horse craft to make the tired stallions charge towards the ghosts, but charge they did, and with each stride the braying beasts gathered pace. The ghosts did not expect this and the men of Bronin powered through their ranks and on towards the valley where the black lake lay.
The gnarl-riders sprang forward, their beasts gaining ground on the human quarry with every stride. Within the space of half a league they had closed to three horse lengths. The pursuit stretched out on to the flood plain that lay before Kolton, Loch larn a dark expanse to their right. The foremost gnarl snapped and barked at the slowest horse. The young man of Bronin could feel its hot breath on his neck and he dug his heels in to the flanks of his horse, demanding the last breath from its lungs. And then the bold stallion was upended with a toss of tusks. Rider and horse crashed to the ground, a tumbling tangle of broken bone and torn skin. Within moments a dozen gnarls were ripping at their remains as the ghost riders fought to rein in their mounts. With maws whetted the bloodlust ran amok through the beasts. The smell of man was on the wind; the market town of Kolton a short gallop away. Heedless of the distance they had already raced ahead of the main army, which now fringed the lip of the valley, the gnarls sprang forward again. Then came the distant crump; an alien sound that neither beast nor rider understood. Stones ripped from their resting place fell short of the pack but drew the attention of the invaders towards the lake; and then came a deeper thunder, rising quickly to a roar. They saw it far too late, racing towards them at a speed many times greater than they could run. The wall of water smashed in to the gnarls, gathering riders and beasts in its embrace before scattering them in shattered mounds about the flooded plain.
Rulnik clawed at the shingle and stone, scrambling back atop the dam. He was unsure of his legs’ ability to hold him upright; the breeze threatened to lay him flat. They had been unable to retreat a proper distance from the explosive charge and it was with relief that he saw Torbad and Joslan shaking themselves free of debris further along the broken levee wall. His eyes stung with tears of pain and regret. The sight of the last rider luring the gnarls in to danger was etched in his mind, as was the image of him being pulverised by the wave they had unleashed. They had been unable to wait for him to reach them; the safety of the town had to come first. Tentatively Rulnik picked his way across the wall to the others. Together, but each to his own memories of the brave souls they had lost that morning, they looked out across the flooded plain. The water had settled across the valley, a fresh lake protecting Kolton from the ghost army. Here and there islands of broken gnarls poked above the waterline.
‘What now?’ said Torbad. ‘We cannot reach Kolton.’
‘We wait,’’ Rulnik replied. ‘Wait and hope that our sacrifice has been enough.’
The ghost army waited through the day for the waters to subside. By nightfall the level had drained away to shoulder depth and a party of the Nordakin were sent forwards by their chieftains to find a way through the shallow lake. Under moonlit night they struggled, drowned and tried again to find a way for the army to cross.
Torbad was aghast. ‘Why don’t they give up? That plain will be dangerous marsh for a month or more once the standing water drains away.’
‘They have come a long way,’ Rulnik stated. ‘They are committed to their plan. And who knows what awaits them back home if they don’t succeed?’
‘Then we have failed,’ said Torbad. ‘They will persist until Kolton falls.’
Rulnik was too tired to reply. Instead he made the sign of the Light at his breast and prayed that the coming dawn would bring a better day.
The survivors from Castle Bronin woke to a grey dawn and a sight to drive the chill deep in to their bones. A line of ghosts stretched from valley rim to the newly made shore before Kolton. In single file, weapons held above their heads they waded towards the sleeping market town.
Joslan uncurled himself from his cloak and leapt to his feet. ‘Hey, wake up. Hey…’
He hit the stones with a thud, Rulnik pressing him down hard.
‘Silence or we will all die. Your voice will not carry to the castle walls, but you will attract the attention of the ghosts.’
Joslan struggled to be free. ‘We can’t just watch as the town falls. We must do something.’
‘We have done all we can,’ the captain stated. ‘Now we must pray that it is enough.’
It didn’t take long for the first of the ghosts to emerge from the water. Soon a score or more of the pale skinned invaders were formed up below the town walls and more and more of their number would soon arrive to swell the force. When the weight of numbers was such that an attack might be launched the ghosts moved up the mound towards the town gate.
Rulnik held his breath. There was an eternity in every heartbeat. Ladders were fed through the ghost ranks and place against the wall. The foremost Nordakin began to scale the walls while still more swarmed from the lake. And then one by one the leading ghosts fell. Others still below the walls twisted and danced to an unheard melody, one it soon became apparent was played by the archers that now showed themselves atop the town walls. A banner unfurled and a shout went up from the walls as the pennant of castle Bronin danced on the breeze. Yanuk had brought his force to Kolton.
The land betwixt newly made lake and old town walls became a killing zone. No mercy was shown to the invaders and soon the banks ran with their blood. The Nordakin tried to flee; those that were not arrow shot risked drowning as the line of ghosts still feeding in from the opposite shore blocked their escape. Rulnik grimaced to see the horror unfold. Hundreds of lives were lost as the chieftains and shamans tried to drive their failing army back at the walls. Many of those that made it back to the rim of the valley were hacked down by their leaders as confusion reigned and the invasion disintegrated in to chaos. A melee broke out amongst the Nordakin and as the sun reached its zenith, the decapitated bodies of the chieftains were brought forward and flung in to the lake that had thwarted them. The ghosts that had survived rattled their spears at the town walls across the water before eventually melting away to the north. They had left half their number, dead or wounded in Winterland.
Mallakai stopped. Tom, who had been hanging on every word, could not hide his disappointment.
‘Grandfather, what happened next? You can’t end the story there.’
‘You speak like I am telling a tale,’ the old man replied. ‘This is history, and that is where the story ends. Kolton was saved, and Winterland had protected Westumbria from invasion.’
‘But what of Rulnik?’ Tom pleaded. ‘And Torbad, and Yanuk?’
Mallakai pursed his lips, wondering how much more he should tell Thomas. He decided a little more would be less cruel. ‘Rulnik disappeared then from the pages of history.’ He could see the instant deflation of his grandson’s mood. ‘But it doesn’t mean there are not interesting things that happened to him. On the contrary, I could tell you a lot more about Rulnik. It’s just his other adventures are not as well known.
‘Was he not feted by the King? He should have been rewarded by Stephen.’
‘High King Stephen was deeply indebted to Rulnik, and Yanuk,’ said Mallakai. ‘But he was also highly embarrassed. The whole affair had highlighted his complacency in his position. He had left the north inadequately protected, and disaster for Westumbria had only been averted by this handful of men of Winter. There was no public ceremony for the heroes from Castle Bronin, though Stephen did see the men in private.’
Tom leaned forward in his chair, eager to drink in every syllable.
‘And that brings me to your little box,’ his grandfather continued in the most unlikely fashion. Tom looked down at the trinket, still grasped tightly in his palm.
‘You know what lies within, but I think if I tell you that King Stephen gave it to Rulnik, you will look upon it with different eyes.’
Tom considered the box, traced its carvings again with his fingers, spoke the initials that swirled about the clasp. ‘T, D, F.’
‘To die for,’ whispered Mallakai. ‘Open it.’
Tom did, and there as it always had been was the ring of silver, crowned with the wolf’s head, Lupine eyes picked out with tiny red rubies.
‘The Wolves of Winter have helped the kings of the West on many occasions down the decades. And probably, one day they will ride again.’
Tom looked at his grandfather and his grandfather winked back at him. Then, the old man reached across the study, took the box and replaced it on the top of the stone mantle.
Tom gulped. ‘Will you tell me more of Rulnik?’
‘One day,’ Mallakai said. ‘One day you will need to know it all. But for now there are chores to be done.’
Tom looked as if he were about to protest, but one look from Mallakai made him think better of it. He rose to leave by the study door this time and then turned to see Mallakai standing by the hearth, his fingertips resting lightly on the box, his eyes staring through the study window, not at the rose garden outside but more towards the distant mountains. He turned just as Tom made to leave.
‘Don’t tell your father,’ he said.
‘I won’t,’ promised Tom. And then he ran out into the autumn sunshine, a myriad of possibilities spinning round his head.