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THE DREAD (2)

 “What news do the spirit guides bring?”

Jair Rothlandorn, heir to the throne of Dhasson and Rider with the Sworn, leaned forward so as not to miss a word. Talwyn, just returned from walking the spirit paths, took a deep breath and accepted a cup of vass. She took it down in one gulp, as if its strong flavor and potent kick would fortify her, grounding her once more in the realm of the living.

“They believe we have three dawns before the war begins.” Talwyn was the shaman of her people and next in line to become their chief. Her role required her to communicate with the spirits of the Ancient Ones, the gods worshipped in the Winter Kingdoms long before the cult of the Sacred Lady came to these lands, the gods who became the Consorts of the Goddess.

“That’s something.” Pevre, Talwyn’s father and chief of the Sworn, sat back, watching Talwyn with a worried gaze.

“They weren’t reassuring.” Talwyn looked grim. “The spirit guides had little to add to what our own rune scrying has told us. Dark magic. Much bloodshed. Invasion by the living and destruction from the risen dead. If you were hoping for a cheery prediction, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.”

“We appear to be out of luck everywhere we turn.” Jair reached out to touch Talwyn’s shoulder, and she clasped his hand. The intricate tattoo that wound around each of their wrists marked them as married by the custom of the Sworn, although the royal court of Dhasson would never accept their union, nor their son, Kenver, as a legitimate heir to the throne.

Pevre tossed a handful of ground anise into the fire for protection, and its fragrant smoke rose into the night air. In the distance, Jair heard a single horn blast one sharp note: the report of the night guards marking both the hour of the night and an uneventful watch. “What of the Dread and the Nachele? Did the Spirit Guides bring word from the barrows?” Pevre asked.

Jair stole a glance at the three large, grass-covered mounds behind them. The ancient burial sites stretched from the coast of the Northern Sea in Margolan south through Dhasson to the Nargi border, and at one time, legend held that the barrows continued through Nargi into the steppes of the Southland tribes. One look at the dark hair and golden skin of the Sworn, and it was impossible not to guess that their bloodlines harkened to those same Southland tribes and to the people of the long-destroyed Southern Empire.

Imprisoned in the mounds for more than a thousand years were the Nachele, dark beings entombed to stop them from preying on the living. Their guardians, the Dread, were as fearsome as the things they guarded. Both were known only through tales passed from generation to generation, since neither had walked among mankind for ten centuries. The shamans of the Sworn were the only living people with whom the Dread communicated, and then only on the paths of spirit and by the Dread’s rare invitation. Talwyn and her father, both shamans of the Sworn, had seen the Dread, heard their long-dead voices. Jair suppressed a shiver, glad he shared none of his wife’s magic.

“The Dread are . . . agitated.” Talwyn chose her words carefully, and Jair wondered whether the spirits that dwelled in the large mounds bothered to listen to the living. “The magic is wrong. It was harder than it should have been to raise the Spirit Gods, difficult to walk the paths, more tiring than usual. It’s like there is a strange hum in the background that shouldn’t be there.”

“A hum?” Jair shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

Talwyn sighed and leaned against him. Jair realized that it was for support as much as it was a gesture of endearment. “I don’t understand it either. It’s hard to find a word for it. Hum is the closest I can get. Like there are voices talking in the distance. Only it’s not voices. It’s in the magic itself, and I think it’s coming from the invaders.”

Jair looked north, beyond the barrows, toward the shore of the Northern Sea. They were well behind the lines of battle, positioned by agreement with King Martris Drayke of Margolan, Jair’s cousin. In the cold light of the moon, the shadows seemed sharper-edged, and Jair was glad for the reassuring warmth of the fire in the early-autumn chill.

Talwyn closed her eyes. “The war may not have started yet, but somewhere, there’s been blood spilled. The Nachele are stirring in the barrows, and for the first time since I’ve been a shaman, I sense that the Dread are uneasy.”

 Jair frowned and looked from Talwyn to Pevre. “If no one’s dying yet in battle, then where is the blood coming from?”

Talwyn shrugged. “I guess it’s up to us to figure that out— more of that bad luck you mentioned.”

 They looked up as footsteps came closer, and Jair’s hand automatically fell to the stelian  sword at his belt, the weapon he carried as one of the Sworn’s elite trinnen warriors. Mihei, one of Jair’s fellow trinnen, was approaching with an unfamiliar guest. Mihei reached the edge of the firelight and stopped, bowing to Talwyn and her father.

“My apologies for the interruption, Cheira Talwyn, Chief Pevre.”

 Pevre shook his head. “We’ve finished the working. Who’s this with you, and how did we come to have a visitor on the eve of battle?”

The newcomer stepped into the firelight, and Jair raised an eyebrow, recognizing the cut of the man’s jacket to be Dhasson military issue, although it was stripped of its insignia. “Honored Chief and Cheira,” the man said, making a deep bow. “My name is Captain Davin, and I’ve come with a message for Prince Jair, from King Harrol.”

Jair motioned for Davin to join them and be seated. Mihei returned to his post. “These are dangerous times for a ride through Margolan,” Jair said cautiously, trying to read Davin’s face and posture. “Is Father well?”

Davin made the sign of the Lady in warding and then cast a glance toward Talwyn and her father, as if he feared they might take offense at the gesture. “The king’s well, thank the Lady. But I’m afraid these are dangerous times in Dhasson as well. Plague has spread from the Margolan border, and it’s reached the outskirts of Valiquet. So many farmers have died or fled from the plague that food is becoming scarce in the cities. The king sent soldiers out to recover what he could of the harvest, since much of it was left to rot in the fields and on the trees. I’m afraid we’ll eat through the winter stockpile long before spring.”

“And hunger means unrest,” Jair murmured. Davin nodded. “What else can you tell me, Captain?”

“Your father’s called up all the regiments on high alert. Dhasson doesn’t have coastline on the Northern Sea, but there’s plenty of shoreline along the Nu River, and the chroniclers warned the king that the last time invaders came from the north, their raiders went as far south as Trevath before they were beaten back.”

“So Father’s going to make sure they don’t get past Dhasson this time?”

“Yes, my prince.” He shook his head. “Granted I’ve been on the road for several weeks, but when I left, the army had its hands full keeping the peace. Frightened people drink more, and pick more fights. It’s as if there’s been a month of full moons, what with people losing their senses. The wretches at the madhouse went on a rampage and broke down the gates. No one knows why, or where they’ve gone. Even the Sisterhood is having a grim time of it. Word has it that some of their mages have been frightened out of their wits by something only they can see.” He shivered. “We’re past the Feast of the Departed, but there are ghosts walking in every crossroads and burying ground. They won’t lie still, and even the hedge witches can’t make them rest quietly. These are bad days, m’lord. Never seen the like of them.”

Davin reached into his jacket and withdrew a folded parchment. It bore the royal seal pressed into scarlet wax. From the way the seal made a dim glow as Jair broke it, he guessed that it had been spelled to open only for him.

“Problems?” Talwyn asked, turning to watch as Jair read down through the bold, sweeping pen strokes.

Jair’s mouth formed a hard line as he scanned the letter. “They’ve had more problems with the Black Robes,” he said dryly. “Damn Shanthadurists. He put an armed guard around the barrows while the Sworn is on the northern leg of the Ride, but there’ve been grave robbings and goat killings at cairns and crypts all around the kingdom. Amulet sellers are making piles of gold off people’s fears, and the farmers won’t put their flocks out to the autumn pastures because they’re afraid of what might happen to the animals and the shepherds.”

“No wonder the Dread are restless,” Talwyn murmured. Davin paled.

“He’s sent three regiments to patrol the Nu River in case the Temnottans try to move inland. He also sent a division to watch the Nargi border. Seems some of the nobility think the Crone Priests might be behind all the grave robbing, and while Father says he doubts that, he wouldn’t put it past Nargi to make a move while everyone’s busy fending off invaders from the north.”

“Anything else?”

Jair managed a wry half smile. “Father sends his regards to Pevre, and his love to Talwyn and Kenver. He says he’d far rather be on the Ride with us than where he is.” He frowned. “He’s asked you to pray to the Spirit Gods to bless Dhasson. He says he’s asked the same of the Lady’s seers.” He glanced up to meet Talwyn’s eyes. “He must really be worried. Father’s not exactly observant when it comes to religion. I’ve never seen him pray except in public on feast days, and then the seneschal has to write out the words on a paper Father keeps in his sleeve.” Jair carefully folded the letter and slipped it into a pouch at his belt.

“I’m sorry to bear worrisome news, m’lord.”

Jair shrugged. “It’s not as if you were the cause of it. What instructions did Father give you once the message was delivered?”

 “I’m to return with your reply, if it’s possible to do so with war in the offing. If I can’t return, then I’m to offer my services to you or to King Martris.”

“And your assessment of the road between here and Dhasson?”

Davin was silent for a moment, as if something he had seen warred with his bearing as a soldier. “Speak your mind, Captain,” Jair encouraged.

“Twice on the road, I was set upon by ashtenerath,” Davin said in a quiet voice. “Fortunately, only one or two at a time, and they smell so bad I had warning of their coming. I saw ghosts aplenty and even though I know how to set stones for a night warding, many a night I couldn’t sleep because there were things out there, just beyond the wardings, wanting my blood. I came upon the body of a peddler near a crossroads, and the man and his horse looked as if they’d been torn apart by something, but it wasn’t any animal I could name. The bite and claw marks were wrong. Magicked beast or dimonn, I didn’t stick around to find out. I passed villages without a living soul in them from the plague, and at night, I could hear their wights calling me to join them.” He shivered. “I’d prefer to face a whole army in battle, Your Highness, than take that road again. But I’ll do as you command.”

“Perhaps one of the vayash moru could be persuaded to carry your reply to your father,” Pevre suggested.

Jair nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Right now, there’s nothing urgent I have to tell Father that won’t wait.” He looked at Davin, and the soldier averted his eyes, as if ashamed to admit his fear of a return journey. “You’re a brave man, Davin, and a clever one to make that trip in one piece. I’d like you to carry a message for me to the Margolan battlefront, to King Drayke. You need to tell the king what you’ve told me.”

 Davin drew a deep breath, pride in his eyes at the unexpected praise. “I would be honored to do so, my prince.”

“Good, then it’s settled.” Jair gestured to Mihei, who had waited just beyond earshot. “Davin’s going to need provisions and a place to stay the night.”

Mihei inclined his head in assent. “Done.” He looked to Davin. “Please follow me.”

Jair watched Davin and Mihei leave the edge of the firelight. Talwyn laid a hand on his arm. “What are you really thinking?”

Jair sighed and stared into the fire as if a sign from the spirits might appear. “I’m worried, about Father and about Dhasson. I’m too far away to do anything, and besides, we’ve got more than our share of problems here. Between his report of strange goings-on in Dhasson and Davin’s stories of what he saw on the road, I have to think that it’s more than just the Shanthadura Black Robes trying to revive the worship of a long-forgotten goddess. It’s too close to what you heard from the Spirit Guides, about something disturbing enough to upset even the Dread and the Nachele. I don’t look forward to going up against a power that has the Dread worried.”

 Pevre nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. I’ve spent my life riding these barrows, and more than once, I wondered whether the whole thing was just a myth. After all, the Dread haven’t stirred in a thousand years, and generations of Sworn have ridden from one end of the barrows to the other time after time without anything noteworthy ever happening. But now . . .” His voice drifted off and he looked up at the star-lit sky. “Now, I’m afraid I have the answer I was looking for, and it’s one I’d have rather done without.” He looked from Jair to Talwyn. “It’s late, and there’s no telling what morning will bring. Best you get some sleep while you can, before Kenver wakes you up at dawn.”