Pristine, white snow. Clean as the robes of the Lady of Dreams.
His knees struck the cold, hard ground, his stomach heaved though there was naught within it to expel. His body wracked with waves of sickness that seemed to control his very thoughts. He shuddered and choked, his stomach ached and his lungs burned for air that he could not pull in. That old familiar pain in his chest had returned. He gasped for breath, the world white around him, and then more blood, this time from within him. He coughed it out.
It lay in the snow, a bright red star on a field of white. It became the world to him, there was nothing but that red star, that field of white, and he wondered if it was a sign from the gods, and what it could possibly mean.
Voices. Quiet mumbles interrupted his reverie. He turned to see two wretched urchins, gaunt and wan, dirt or blood the only colour upon them. They stood close together, hand in hand, the same worried expression creasing their young faces. Were they young? There was a terrible age in their eyes. He wondered if they were not children at all but dwarves, those long forgotten creatures, lost to time and memory. They had come from the gods to explain the message of blood in snow.
At their feet, a white woman lay in repose. She was made entirely of snow and the most beautiful creature that ever existed. She was a fi, a harbinger of the Lady of Dreams. He crawled toward her through the snow, but she was disappearing into the white, returning to her home at the Lady’s side. White melting into white. White as snow, white as innocence, white as death. Her features were smooth, her eyes closed, a storm of white curls upon her head. He licked his lips to ask her about the red star, but the metallic taste of blood sent him reeling, flashes of memory struck him like a flail.
The sorceress stumbled beside him, his grip on her arm the only thing, at first, to keep her standing, to keep her moving. The children behind him now, he gripped one of their hands in his other. He did not want them to see the sphere of blood hovering in her palm, growing larger and larger with every step toward their escape. His skin crawled, his stomach heaved. Kobalos that met them along the passages were rent mercilessly. Swallowed up by that which flowed within them. Their blood driven out through any passage it could find, or create. Driven to join the bloody sphere, which shrunk and grew with every passing moment, beating upon her palm like a disembodied heart.
With every beat of that heart the sorceress seemed to slip farther from herself, the blood within her beating along with that without. She was filled with a power like nothing she had ever felt before, so huge and so chaotic, it was like trying to ride a wild bull. She tried to push the power into her feet to keep them moving. She must keep moving. The magic threw here hither and thither. It reached out to those around her, but she managed to keep it off of the warrior and his children. It thrust a dark hand out and struck at the kobalos blocking their path. Broke flesh and pulled at the sweet liquid power within, growing stronger and more unruly. She tried to hold on, to direct it, even to stop it, but she could not and the harder she tried the more that awful power seemed to pull her apart. She wanted to call out, to break away, but the magic had her now. It tore her in two and all of a sudden she seemed to be moving away from herself, into a passage that was darkness and blood. Her body strode forward without her, all stark confidence and wild, chaotic power. Her voice wailing the words in a vile, forgotten language that only knew death.
The dark passages were blocked by hundreds of small green bodies, wide mouths, sharp teeth. Rusted blades or clawed hands reached out, ready to rip and tear and rend, ready to send them all to Bella. Everything was awash of red, the creatures seemed to melt, to turn to liquid. There was a high wind blowing around them, a whirlwind, filled with the voices of the dead and dying. An inhuman scream that bounced off the rock walls, off their ears, deafened them. They stumbled through the passages, the wind only growing, as the creatures that blocked their path turned to blood.
An abyssal ocean of blood.
He could not stop the coughing and heaving that came again. His throat grew raw. Deep inside him a spark of hope, of life, had been smothered in blood and death.
It seemed a lifetime before the cold touched him, reminded him of who he was and that he had a purpose. He turned to the children, huddled together, barefoot in the smoking earth. Tears were frozen on their faces. He looked to the white woman, waited to see her chest rise and fall. Reached out to lay a hand upon her. She was cold as the snow, he half expected her to melt beneath his touch. She did not. She did nothing. There was no life within her. She had given herself up to save them and she did not even get to see the sky. There was an anger inside him because of that. Or was it because of what she had done? Would he rather they had all died in the murk of Oomglaken? No. What would he have felt if she had lived through it all? His skin would crawl at her every word, he would not be able to look at her, to touch her.
He looked up, but the twilit sky was full of clouds, as soft and white as the snow around them. He wondered where they were. The passage they had exited from was different than that which they had entered through. It had collapsed behind them, leaving naught but a bloody scar upon the land, not unlike a set of ruby lips. The snow around the scar had melted so fast the dirt smoked.
He stood and looked at the children. Their ashen faces were striped with dirt and drying blood and streaked with sweat. They stood barefoot on the warm dirt, with cold snow all around them.
“What will happen now?” Cairbre asked. The boy’s features had changed. Cab couldn’t be sure how, or exactly what it was that had changed, but he could look from one to the other now and know which was which.
“We must find the monastery of the Eye,” he sighed. His father’s sword was heavy upon his side and he had to adjust it to hang from his shoulder. “And food and water.”
He looked at the princes, with their heads, arms and legs bare. He felt the cold air at every movement of his body, and he at least wore boots and britches and a leather breast plate. They would all freeze to death if they stood around much longer, but he could not make them walk barefoot through the snow. He could only carry the two of them at the most. He would have to leave Mag’s corpse. Something tried to tug at his heart with that thought. He brushed it away. His wards were alive and they must come first. It would be a terrible thing to let the sorceress’s sacrifice go to waste.
“Come,” he said. He plucked up Cairbre, who was thin as a willow branch and weighed just the same. It would not be too difficult to carry them both.
“What about her?” Ethamyn asked, finally tearing his eyes from the pale form in the snow to look to his warden.
“I cannot bring the dead to life,” Cab replied.
“She must be buried,” Ethamyn stated. His black eyes demanded action in an expression that struck at Cab’s heart, it was so similar to Innogen.
“We could not bury mother,” Ethamyn continued. “But we must bury her. She gave her life for us. We must at least open the door to the Long Dark for her.”
Cab stared at the child. The golden circlet of hawks sat upon his brow, seemed almost to hide among his tousled hair. He did not look like a prince, but he was starting to act like one.
“We have no tools,” Cab stated. “No time. We cannot stay out in the open like this, already it is twilight. And for all we know, whatever is left down there is still after us. ”
The prince raised his eyebrows. “There is nothing left.”
“We cannot be certain.” Man and child locked eyes. Each willing the other to do as he wished.
“She could,” Cairbre said. Cab broke his gaze to look again at the sorceress. At her head a woman of such beauty as could turn the tides knelt. The soft susurrous sound of waves lapping the shore seemed to fill his ears. Her robes were long voluminous things that seemed to rise up out of the snow around her, darkening from white to the blue of the deep ocean, adorned with bright pearls and abalone. Her hair was a river of darkness around her shoulders, her skin as radiant as moonlight. She was full with child and her eyes shone like stars. But her presence did not fill him with awe, as it may have another. His heart pounded in fear. This situation was far too similar to that one, it seemed long ages past, when another woman lay dead at his feet. He let the child slide back to the ground and pushed them both behind him.
This time it was not he who said:
“You cannot take her.” Only a prince would be so foolish.
“It is the price,” the goddess replied. “For your lives.”
“The price was paid a thousand fold,” Cab replied, not intending to argue with a goddess. “Down there, in the dark. With the blood of kobalos. She died not in childbirth nor by water. You have no claim to her.”
“Her name is Mag,” the goddess replied, placing a hand upon the sorceress’s forehead. “She has been mine since time began.”
“She’s not!” Ethamyn shouted. “She belongs to Bella. Anyone can see that. Only Bella’s servants practice with blood.” There were tears in the boys voice. Cab’s stomach ached with the memory of all that blood. Even in battle there had never been so much.
“So, you forgive her the use of blood magic then?” the goddess asked as she moved around the body toward them, seeming to grow as she advanced, until she was a giant, towering over them.
“Yes!” Ethamyn cried.
“Yes,” came his brother’s quiet answer.
Cab could see the ocean in the goddess’s eyes. He could feel the cold of it, could see vague shapes of monsters with too many arms and too few eyes. He shuddered and looked away before it could suck him in. The Lady of the Waters smiled as she stepped back, shrinking to her former stature.
“What warrior does not use the blood he spills to urge him onward in battle?” she asked as she knelt beside the corpse, brushed her fingertips across closed eyes.
“Magic is magic and blood is blood,” she whispered. She touched the corpse’s chest, palms, belly and knees and colour bloomed where she touched. She stood and looked to Cabriabanus.
“A warrior can only give his life. This she has done for you without hesitation. You are a warrior, yet you cannot recognize the warrior in another? You cannot forgive? Have you not known forgiveness?”
Cab could not respond. He knew what she wanted him to say. That he forgave Mag her use of dark magic. But what did it matter if he forgave her for it or not? She was still dead, the Lady of the Waters was here to take her away, never to be reborn, never to see the light after the Long Dark. He could not stop her this time. She would have all his loves.
But the Lady of the Water did not lift the dead sorceress into her arms. She stepped away from the body and began to fade with the twilight.
“You may wake her now, if you wish.”
But he could not seem to. He knelt by her side, shook her shoulder, breathed her name into her ear. She was perhaps a little warmer than the snow now, but still her chest did not rise and fall with breathing. And though he held his cheek close to her mouth he could not feel the heat of her breath.
He felt anger rising within him. He was exhausted, cold. He’d survived death too many times. The gods kept bringing him back, and making things hard. He had no food, no water, a sparse idea of where they might be and no clue how to get them to where they needed to go. He could hear the prince’s beginning to shiver and could feel it in himself. Into this situation, do the gods provide him the things he needs? Do they give food, water, shelter, warm clothing? No. They tell him the sorceress can be awoken. Do they tell him how? No. He wanted to scream. Even if he could wake her, she wore about the same as the children and he only had two arms, he couldn’t carry all three.
Then came the sound of footsteps in the snow and with a great sigh, Cab rose to his tired feet and turned in the direction of the sounds. A strange shape was coming to them from out of the night. He could not be sure what it was for it was too tall for a man alone. He turned to Ethamyn.
“Take off the crown, and hide it,” he said. Ethamyn looked about to protest, but instead lifted the circlet from off his brow and stepped one foot into it, sliding it up his leg until it was hidden in the mess of rags that he wore. It was icy cold upon the warm flesh of his thigh and he shuddered, but knew it was safe there. As safe as could be. Cab turned back, hands twitching at his sides. But it was no monster or twisted being from below. It was a rider, a young man, not yet bearded, on a thin white mare. He wore a long blue cloak and had painted stripes upon his horse. He stopped the horse at a reasonable distance and stared at them.
“Greetings, strangers.” The boy spoke in a gentle tenor.
“Good day,” Cab replied, though the night was all around them.
“I beg your pardon,” the boy said. “But it looks as though you’ve found some misfortune.” The horse on which he sat could not seem to stand still, which meant the boy was nervous.
“It looks that way,” Cab replied. He glanced at the shivering children and the prone form of the sorceress. He gritted his teeth. “It’s true. We have suffered.”
“Do you-,” the boy hesitated, leaning forward on his horse. “May I provide any assistance?” He was trying to see if the woman on the ground was dead.
“She is in a swoon,” Cab explained. The boy quickly sat upright on his mare, his cheeks flushing at his overly apparent curiosity.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “You understand, though, the picture you paint?”
“Of course. Here we are, a man, two children and a prone woman, in the middle of goodness knows where, in the snow, with no supplies, and no idea what to do.”
“It is good of you to question our motives,” he hesitated only a moment, decided to stay as close to the truth as he could without seeming like a madman. “You see, the children were taken captive, not many days ago, and my wife and I have put all our power into finding them. Now we have them back,” he placed a hand on each of the boys shoulders, “but it has been more of an ordeal than we expected and...” he trailed off, attempting to bring a little tremolo into his voice, attempting to snare the stranger’s compassion. He was a boy, after all, surely he’d had a mother and father too.
“I have a fire,” the boy stated. “Not far from here. You may warm yourselves by it, if you wish. And there is food and drink.”
“We would be in your debt,” Cab said with a bow. The boy came forward and vaulted off the mare’s back, alighting in the snow with barely a sound. He came to Cab and bowed his head.
“I am Adelbern,” he announced, holding out his arm. “I ride with the Eye.”
“I am Banus,” Cab replied as he grasped the young man’s proffered arm. It was safer to go with a less well known version of his name. “And I trust the Eye.” Indeed, he could see the pendant hanging from a cord around Adelbern’s neck, nestled amongst his blue-grey robes. He reached a hand up to his neck, only to find his missing. Lost in the dark of Oomglaken.
“If you like, the children can ride upon Hrosa,” Adelbern indicated the horse. “That way, you can carry your wife. I will lead the way.” Banus nodded and lifted, first the heir and then his brother up onto the skinny mare’s back.
“Here,” Adelbern said, pulling off his heavy cloak and wrapping it around the children. Banus bent and picked up Mag, and proceeded to walk beside Adelbern as the boy led them off. It was not a long walk through the dark and the cold and the snow. Thick clouds clung to the tops of the trees and warmed the night a little, though his nose and ears were pink and cold by the time he saw the first of the firelight. It seemed a blazing fire, for they saw it from some distance. As they came closer Banus heard other voices.
There were perhaps a dozen men situated around the fire, laughing, eating, drinking. They all wore robes similar to the boy, blues or greys. Many were bearded, though some were not, and they seemed a rowdy band of men. He wondered for a moment if they were not bandits. Perhaps they were mercenaries. He became wary once again.
“What have you got there, Bernie?” a blonde, bearded man called out. Another man got to his feet and came to the edge of the fire. With the fire at his back Banus could not see his features.
“Who have you brought us, my son?”
“These four have come upon some great misfortune, father,” Adelbern said. “I have offered them a place by our fire and perhaps some food, for they are thin as waifs all of them.”
“And you trust a man with a sword upon his back, Adelbern?”
“A sword at his back and a woman in his arms, father. It is hard to wield them both at once.” The man seemed satisfied at this and came forward so that Banus could see his face at last. His hair was copper and white, his chin stubble the same, and his eyes were the richest blue Banus had seen since Innogen.
“Will you vow upon an Eye, stranger?” the man asked.
“His many eyes see many things,” Banus replied. “I will do no harm to you, if you will do the same for us.”
“You know him then. That is good.” A grin split the man’s face. “I am Hunulf of the Blue.”
“Banus of the Brown.”
The boy, Adelbern gasped. “You did not say you were a man of the Sight!”
Hunulf cuffed his son on the back of his head. “Likely because of young boys foolish reactions to such. Come Brother, warm yourself. Perhaps when you are rested you can tell us a tale of the Nameless One.”