A King for Hothar
A serial novel written
exclusively for Sabledrake
Vol. X -- Chilldark
She knew her
eyes were open, for she could feel the flutter of her lashes against her
cheeks when she blinked. But, open or closed, it did not matter in the
spin and tumble of movement had stopped, and Idasha was now only aware of
a gentle rocking. She braced her hands against the strangely textured
floor and sat up, promptly banging her already-reeling head against a
She grumbled a
curse and rubbed the sore spot. With no idea of what her surroundings were
like, she couldn't tell which way was forward, which way was aft, or what
other obstacles might crowd the interior of the underwater craft.
her breath and listened, and did not hear the sound she most feared:
dripping water heralding a leak or crack in the hull.
The craft had
survived the descent, and so had she. That was something, at any rate.
But was it
something to be thankful for? Would she sooner wish for a swifter death by
drowning? She was adrift in the dark, with no way of knowing how deep
beneath the surface she might be. It was entirely possible that she was
trapped at the bottom of the Iceblown Sea.
the length of the craft, feeling her way. It seemed little more than a
hollow tube, but at one end she reached a compartment with cabinets built
into the walls. A bench was firmly affixed in the center, and in front of
it her blindly questing hands found what felt like three pairs of reins
tied to a smooth wooden wheel, and various levers of uncertain purpose.
That gave her
her bearings. She was in the helmsman's place, and at least the craft was
right side up.
Rising to her
knees, she touched the ceiling. Not wood, here, but the cold stiff curve
of sea-bear skin.
to the cabinets, opening them one after another and trying to puzzle out
by touch alone what the contents were.
maps and charts. A brush and a clay pot with stickiness near the lid ...
glue or tar for sealing seams. A metal box ... tinderbox?
snatched it up. Yes, it was a tinderbox, containing not only flint
and steel and tinder but also four stubby candles.
She took out
what she needed and closed the box, making a small pile of tinder shavings
on the metal lid. She struck the flint and steel together, startling
herself with the bright flash of the spark. It flared and died, and she
spark landed squarely in the tinder and flickered into tiny short-lived
flames. Idasha poked the candle's wick into them, and the flame steadied
and grew stronger.
which had been aching from trying to see into the darkness, now ached from
the searing fire of that single white-gold glow.
Light. Such a
simple thing, such a vital thing. For a moment she only sat with the
candle held between her palms, reveling in the light. Then she turned to
examine what it revealed.
compartment was barely large enough for two people, with a second bench
curved against the contour of the wall. The cabinets divulged more
treasures -- a stout knife, a ball of twine, tinned fish, packets of
flatbread, soap, a whistle made of bone, wooden cups, a charcoal
marking-stick, a blanket, a pair of sheathed shortswords, a coil of rope.
Hidden far in the back, behind a pile of rags, she even found a metal
flask that sloshed when she shook it and smelled of strong brandy.
having fully explored the cabinets, she made herself see just how bad her
situation was by bringing the candle close to the window-skins and peering
didn't reach far, but it showed her that the craft was floating only
half-submerged on the inky surface of the water. But when she looked up,
she saw nothing. No stars, no clouds, no pale band of the world-belt,
nothing at all.
It had not
been dark on the Iceblown Sea, not with the mountains of ice glimmering
faintly white even in the dead of night or during a storm. And if she had
been carried by some miracle to the river in the Narluk jungle that poor
murdered Tunok had so anticipated, why was the air still so cold?
her way to the center of the craft, the hollow open space beneath the top
hatch. It was almost as empty as it had felt when she'd been crawling
sightless through it, and much smaller than she thought it had been.
Several casks were mounted along the walls, filled with fresh water. A
dipper on a cord dangled beside each.
The floor was
ribbed and ridged and coated in some sort of waterproof resin. Idasha
remembered Felin telling her how the crews would harpoon seals and
sea-bears. Here must be where they stored their catch.
At the rear
was another compartment, this one closed off by a door. Idasha looked in,
and understood she'd found the equivalent of the oarsman's galley. Four
cranks jutted from the walls, each operating one of the paddle-wheels
mounted on the outside of the craft.
This was not a
promising development. Even if she was able to figure out how to pilot the
vessel, she couldn't turn all four cranks at once. And even if she could
do that, she couldn't steer at the same time.
Idasha said a
few choice words she'd picked up from her brother Seric's best tracker,
words that would have made most well-bred ladies swoon on the spot.
At the back of
the galley was yet another door, which led to a small, cramped privy of
With no more
of the craft left to explore, Idasha returned to the hatch and looked up.
Coiled beside it and tied into place was a rope ladder. She lowered it,
and climbed up.
opened easily enough, admitting a draft of dank, cold air that almost blew
out her candle. She shielded it with her hand as she leaned against the
edge of the opening, looking around in amazement.
It was a
The plinks of
drips falling from the cavern ceiling were magnified and resonant over the
gentle whisper of the current. Her light reached far enough to glisten on
the damp stones of the cave walls. Snow-slush floated like curdled cream
on the black water.
The river was
moving slowly but inexorably, carrying her along. She strained to see
ahead, searching for what disasters might be awaiting her. But while there
were some fanglike spurs of rock protruding, the way directly in front of
her seemed clear.
oval appeared at the fringes of the candlelight, near a dark, bobbing
shape. The river carried her slowly but inexorably toward it, and she
realized that whatever it was, it was pinned against the rocks.
As she closed
with it, she suddenly saw that it was the body of a man, and that the hair
wavering in ripples around his head was the deep russet of an autumn leaf.
trying not to think of it, trying not to think of how he had been taken by
Nerrar's treacherous magic and made to throw himself over the rail into
the unforgiving sea. The whirlpool must have caught him as well, and
washed him up like driftwood for her to find.
seemed that he was moving, but she knew that was the current stirring his
limbs. He was not truly waving his arm toward her in supplication. Only
the senseless motion of the current.
couldn't leave him there.
river could sweep her past him, she ran to fetch the coil of rope from the
cabinet. She bound one end of it to the ring in the underside of the
hatch, threw off her snowbeast-pelt cloak, and secured the other end
around her waist. She tipped the candle, pouring a puddle of wax and then
wedging the end into it as it solidified, holding the candle upright.
insane for doing this," she said to herself, and the cave made her
words, though softly spoken, reverberate like the voice of a spirit.
Insane or not,
she gulped several breaths to expand her lungs, and plunged into the
of sealskin protected her from the worst of the cold, but they covered her
only from neck to wrists and ankles. The fleece lining of her gloves,
boots, and hood soaked up the freezing water, turning instantly into heavy
sponges. The exposed skin of her face felt frost-flayed.
She swam to
Felin, her limbs already going leaden and leached of their strength. He
had been wedged into a cleft in the rocks, stuck fast, and her best
efforts at pulling him loose proved futile.
passed them, towing the rope. Idasha slung Felin's arm around her neck and
held tight to him, pushing against the rocks with her feet as she felt the
rope go taut.
enough, and he floated free. She looped the rope around him and began
drawing herself hand-over-hand. Somehow, finding a strength she hadn't
known she possessed, she dragged his weight up to the hatch and lowered
As she was
climbing in after him, she kicked over the candle and extinguished it,
casting her once more into total darkness. She closed the hatch and
dropped to the floor.
struck her a moment later, clattering her teeth and making her fingers
clumsy as she tried to unlace and remove her gloves, hood, and boots. She
lost her balance, fell onto Felin, and gave up. Her head resting on the
wet sealskin that covered his chest, she succumbed to despair and wept
silent, scalding-hot tears.
became aware of a low thumping noise. The quiet was so complete that she
could hear the beating of her own heart …
But ... her
heart, driven by her exertions and emotions, was drumming much faster than
Idasha sat up
with a gasp, tearing off her hood in such a violent motion that she yanked
out many strands of her own hair. She pawed the sodden tresses aside and
pressed her ear firmly to Felin's chest.
dragging, steady pulse thudded beneath her cheek. She felt the mildest of
rising-and-falling sensation as shallow breaths slipped in and out of his
miseries instantly forgotten, Idasha scurried on hands and knees through
the pitch-black craft. She found the cabinets by memory and pawed through
their contents, taking the knife, a handful of rags, and the tinderbox.
She lit another candle, which showed her the terrible blue-tinged pallor
of his face.
The laces of
his clothes had swollen in the water, which would have made them a
difficulty to untie even had her fingers been at their most dexterous. She
cut the laces with the knife, divesting him of everything but his
smallclothes. Despite the insulation of the sealskin garments, his flesh
felt like a man-shaped block of ice. She scrubbed him with the rags,
drying him and forcing feeling into his skin, and then moved him onto the
He began to
shiver. Cold as she was, he was far colder.
stripped off her own clothes and lay atop him, her snowbeast-pelt cloak
drawn over them both to preserve what little warmth they had. She covered
her head with it to trap the heat of her breath as well.
overwhelmed her, and she fell asleep listening to the strengthening rhythm
of Felin's heart.
to wakefulness as if emerging from a pit in which he'd been buried alive,
a pit of treacherous loose earth that kept giving way beneath his hands
and spilling him back into the would-be grave.
His memory was
an emptiness in which questions buzzed like wasps trapped within a jar. He
shied away from full consciousness, impelled by a dread that he could not
put into words. Something dire had happened to him, might still be
happening, and it filled him with such a sense of revulsion, shame, and
violation that he could not bear to face it.
A name came to
him -- Felin Kathak -- and with it a rush of recollections, of self
and identity. Yes, he was Felin Kathak, once called the Red Wolf. Son of
Avar and Lydra, cousin to Davore ... and all of them dead.
Yet this was
not the place of spirits. Surely in the place of spirits he would not be
gradually becoming aware of a waning marrow-deep chill that had permeated
him until his bones and very teeth ached. Or of a needling tingle in his
face, hands, and feet. Or of the sensation of something warm and heavy
draped across him, soft-yet-firm skin pressed against his own.
No, this could
not be the place of the spirits. He lived. He lived ... and the weight
atop him was a woman, her breath warm and humid on the side of his neck.
Had he been
drinking? Was this Naralna, she of the sunset hair? But how? He'd refused
her ... hadn't he? Unless she had, infuriated by that refusal, come to him
as he slept ...
But it could
not be Naralna, for he had left his uncle's lodge ... left with ...
struck him again with such force he nearly slid back into merciful
insensibility, but he fought it. He would not run and hide from his own
of a sword-point beneath his chin roused Felin at once. In the moment
before he recognized the man leaning over him, he imagined, chagrined, his
father scolding him for trusting to rats and wolves to alert them to
trouble instead of putting a man on watch.
to throw himself sideways from the berth and shout a warning, and then saw
that it was Belorva holding the sword on him. The blade was red and
dripping, the smell of blood hot and mortal.
out, and I'll still your voice forever," Belorva hissed. The big
man's face was wracked with guilty anguish, but it did not stop him from
half-dragging Felin from his bed.
clenched his jaw and kept quiet, searing Belorva with a furious glare of
deadly promise. He let himself be led to the door, where Nerrar and his
bestial followers waited. On the way, he spared an apprehensive glance at
the other berths.
slumbered peacefully, cheek resting on folded hands. But Tunok, plodding
good-hearted Tunok, was sprawled on drenched blankets, one hand clutching
fitfully at the air. Even as Felin watched, that hand fell.
out onto the deck, stars and the world-belt shining overhead with frosty
brilliance, the ice-mountains aglow with it. Felin knew by the sound of
the water and the motion of the boat that they were near the Throat of
Ice, nearer than they were supposed to be. He'd told the captain to steer
clear of it until morning.
night-watch sailors were crumpled by the helm, their heads twisted in
unnatural poses. The wheel was unattended, the boat drifting where it
would. Which was, thanks to the draw of the sea, toward the great
all your concern that I was leading you to your deaths," Felin
whispered fiercely to Belorva, "you're hastening there yourself if
you let us get too close to the Throat of Ice! It will tear the boat
have heard enough from you!" Belorva snarled.
you murdered Tunok!" Felin snarled back. "I don't know why
you've turned against me, Belorva, but what has Tunok done to you? He was
your brother-in-arms, your friend!"
don't know why? You drove us to it! Nerrar told me what you meant to do,
take us to Westreach! And then what? Give ourselves over to their justice?
No, Commander! I think not!"
not have gone along with us, even with proof of your deception, Nerrar
added sharply. In a more intense, private stab of thought, he said to
Felin, And Belorva here is so much more easily swayed.
listen to me --" Felin began.
done with that! Done with you! Nerrar is right ... you've been led astray
by your fancy! But I haven't! We'll take her back, and tell the
king how it was all your doing! He'll forgive us then, I know he
father may have been Kathani, Belorva, but you don't know their ways. Even
if the king lets you live, what would you do? They have no place for the
crippled and infirm, they distrust magic ... how long do you think you and
Nerrar would be allowed to stay? What sort of life do you think you would
did not have the desired effect, Felin saw that right away. Belorva could
not be swayed. He must had harbored secret ill-will toward Felin going as
far back as the day Felin had first brought Idasha among them and refused
to let her be treated as shared plunder, the day Belorva had been savaged
by a ride-beast ... and healed by Nerrar!
did, in sudden doubt, relax his grip enough for Felin to wrest free and
disarm the larger man.
No! I'll not
allow it! Nerrar's fury raked his mind, and the wolves and rats lunged
to do his bidding.
He had no
choice but to run Belorva through the ribcage before turning to deal with
the wolves. As the first of them reached him, it leaped, and he thrust the
sword out in front of him with both arms and all his strength. The tip
impaled the wolf just below the breastbone.
wailing cry, made inhuman by the ravaged mess that was his mouth and
throat, burst from Nerrar. Felin yanked the sword out in a sweeping slide
that disemboweled the wolf, hoping that the impact of the shared pain
would be enough to fell Nerrar.
was not with him. Nerrar's glittering eyes fixed on him and a relentless
razor-fist sheared through the tissues of his mind. He felt Nerrar's magic
burrowing into him, forcing itself into him the way a man might force
himself into an unwilling woman. It raped its way to the most integral
Kathani core of his being, and seized control of him.
not break free, could not react, could do nothing. He was a helpless
onlooker within himself, hideously cognizant of what was happening as his
limbs were put into motion at Nerrar's bidding.
lying cur! Nerrar commanded. You brought us to the Iceblown Sea, so
let's see how well you swim in it! Jump, now!
as a doll, he stalked to the rail and climbed onto it. The silver-streaked
indigo water churned below.
he fought for all he was worth, soul battering against the confines of the
prison of Nerrar's power, but it was unyielding as an iron wall. He
inwardly shouted his denial and dismay as his enslaved body obeyed its new
As he fell,
in the instant before he struck, he heard a voice -- her voice --
shriek his name.
of the icy sea nearly stopped his heart. It slapped him back to his
senses, breaking the evil spell. He burst to the surface, but the current
had already swept him away from the boat and toward the eddying funnel of
the whirlpool. It battled him as if it were a living thing, a living
hungry thing meaning to devour him.
He caught a
glimpse of Idasha, fighting off the second wolf, and then knew he was
going under. He took the deepest possible breath, and dove down into the
Throat of Ice, stroking as strongly as he could into the cyclonic
And then ...
nothing, until awakening to find himself here. Wherever here was.
He opened his
eyes to the underside of a pelt. He found that his arms moved, sluggishly
but well enough to let him paw the pelt away from his face.
flame of a candle melting in a puddle of its own wax shed a feeble
illumination on the interior of an underwater craft.
in puzzlement. This was exactly where he'd wanted to be, but how on earth
had he gotten here?
And who ...?
wildest-hope idea exploded in his mind. He knew he was a fool for letting
himself entertain it even for a moment, bracing himself for the
disappointment he was sure would follow as he pulled the pelt down
further. Stifling a groan as his neck-bones creaked, he raised his head to
look at her.
He dropped his
head with a hard bump, staring wide-eyed at the curved roof.
It could not
be Idasha! He was dreaming without sleeping, that had to be it! Or had
breathed so much water that this was some dying illusion.
again ... and there was no mistaking that fall of bronze hair, even when
it was a tangled damp mass plastered to his shoulder. No mistaking that
face, with its determined chin and insolent cheekbones.
he tried to say, but it came out as a strained croak.
His arms were
able to move more readily now, and he brought them up to confirm with his
hands what seemed impossible to believe.
Yet it was
true ... Idasha, in nothing but a fine-embroidered linen kirtle, covering
his body with her own. His almost entirely unclad body, he realized.
Had they ...?
No, he would
not have forgotten that! And if he had, he would be sorely vexed!
extraordinary as it seemed, she must have come after him! In an underwater
craft, and fished him from the river ...
ruefully to himself. She hadn't been overcome with passion and seduced him
as he lay insensate ... more was the pity, though he would still have been
vexed not to be alert for it ... but lent him her warmth to counteract the
chill of the water.
She had saved
Alone? Or was
someone else even now piloting the craft?
that it didn't matter. For the time being, he was alive and no longer
cold, and in a close embrace with the woman he loved. Other matters --
hunger, thirst, danger -- would interfere all too soon anyway.
He curled one
arm around her waist and with the other hand stroked the gentle curve of
her spine. She stirred at his touch, mumbling sleepily.
you," he said.
she sighed. Then her eyes flew open. "Felin?"
him by the ears and kissed him breathless. "When I saw you fall, I
thought you lost forever."
memory serves," he said, "I'm to punch you in the stomach now.
As you did to me, when I took that liberty."
we don't plan to make a custom of fisticuffs after each kiss!"
"Am I to
take it you anticipate more kissing?"
know what to anticipate, Felin Kathak, or what to expect."
dictates that you still not trust me, yet you save my life a second
her fingers down the side of his face and into his half-grown beard.
"Love has little to do with wisdom."
searchingly into her stormy-sea eyes. "Idasha ..."
speak, Felin. Not now. Not yet."
her lips to his again, and he knew that she was right. Though there was
much he needed to ask, much they needed to discuss, the only thing that
mattered right now was the warm reality of the woman in his arms.
the Chilldark Way," Felin said, studying the helmsman's seat as if
cudgeling his memory for lessons he'd been given long ago. "My family
has known of it for years, but as you have seen, it is a dangerous and
impractical way to travel. A small craft such as this can manage it, but
Kathani invaders trying to move an army would never be able to do
it," Idasha said. "Why, then, hadn't they sent spies,
chuckled. "You've met my uncle the king. We're not a cunning and
stealthy family as a rule. Assassination is seen as a cowardly Narluki
practice, and as for spies, to what avail? All he'd wish to know would be
where your forces were, and once he started marching in with his troops,
your forces would come to meet him. Besides, the Chilldark Way cannot be
traversed back to Kathan, and any Kathani spy would have as much
trouble getting out of Westreach by the passes as getting in."
considered that, thinking back to her days - they seemed so long ago! - of
sitting sentry above Deathstone Pass with old Cadmun. So much had happened
since then that it might have been something she recalled from her
childhood. To think that she was coming home to Westreach by this
strangely circuitous route! With a Kathak, a vile and murderous Kathak,
empties, this underground current, into Six Rivers Lake?"
it should have been named Seven Rivers."
to the castle!" she marveled with some unease. "What then?"
He sighed and
combed his fingers through his hair. "Then you are home, as promised,
and I pray you'll find it in your heart to forgive the wrongs I've done
believe you now that you've sought to set them right. But what will you
do?" She asked it with less nervousness than she felt, inwardly
changed me, Idasha. Changed the very soul of me. I do not know what I'll
do, where I'll go. Belorva and Nerrar may have been wrong about much, but
they were right about one thing. There is no home for the likes of us now.
Not in Kathan, not in Hothar, not anywhere. And so I shall surrender
myself to your foster-brother the king, and accept what justice he metes
his head and shook it slightly, then returned his gaze to the swirl of
black water visible through the dried membrane of the window.
pulled them briskly along, and the subterranean passage had long since
been worn smooth but for a few rocks and formations to the sides. As long
as they kept the craft centered, they were in no danger.
is a good and just man," Idasha said. "That you've helped me,
and brought me home, means that he'll likely overlook stealing me in the
first place. I'll see to it that he does!" she added with a flash of
fire in her voice, the fire that Gethin had never been able to naysay when
they were children.
will be duty-bound to see me returned to Hothar, where my crimes are much
greater," Felin replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "By my deeds,
and by my very bloodline, my life is forfeit."
can't go!" she said sharply. "Men and their honor, I've said it
before and no doubt will again, men and their absurd stifling honor!
You do not have to go before Gethin, before Jherion, and calmly await
their judgement! Go elsewhere! Begin anew! If being a Kathak is what
condemns you, take a new name! But to walk in and bend your head to the
He grinned a
little despite himself. "Pack-beast droppings?"
cowardice. Easier to let yourself fall down and die than to work, than to fight!
Aren't you a fighter?"
have I been since I was old enough to lift a weapon. But always with
something to fight for. My king, my land, my revenge --"
your own life's blood?"
must be something greater, Idasha, else it's all only the meaningless
squabbling of dogs."
mean you need an excuse."
we are all just dogs, we men, growling and snapping at each other but
making grand causes of it to have it seem like something more?"
She braced her
fists on her hips and thrust her chin at him. "As it happens, Felin
Kathak, that's near exactly what I think."
His laugh was
rueful, and the defeat evident in his slouched shoulders wrenched a knot
in Idasha's heart. "You may be right. But suppose that I did as you
would have me do? I'd be for the rest of my years looking behind me,
waiting for my secret to be discovered. I could make no friends, have no
family, for fear that when the truth came out, they would loathe me or be
blamed for my deeds. I am quit of bringing pain to those I love."
bring pain to me to see you die," she said, not softly but
accusingly, lashing at him with the words.
would you be my something greater, Idasha?" He did say it softly, but
with a tone as deep and cold as the water through which they floated.
"Would you be my purpose, my reason to keep fighting? We both know
that cannot be, and we both know why. You are the rightful queen of
Hothar, and --"
told you before, I'm not, I can't be!"
And I am the enemy, the outlaw. How could there be a future for us, when
our paths lead in opposite directions?"
"I am not
Hothar's queen." She bit off each word as if crunching through a
crisp stalk. "I don't want to be!"
takes the easy way, the coward's way?"
She stared at
him, fuming. "I thought you said there was precious little cunning in
picked some up, here and there."
It came to
her, then and there, that if she did accept the fate that an accident of
birth had outlined for her, she could decree him cleared of his crimes.
Could save him from the execution that would otherwise be his.
The rest of
her, every part of her that had ever been glad that she was only
foster-sister to Gethin, princess in name alone and free from dynastic
concerns, rebelled in stark horror against the very notion.
save her, it would be a thousand times worse than being a mere princess!
Her every word, every act, scrutinized and on display for all of Hothar to
gawk at! Never a moment's privacy! Servants and attendants, unobtrusive
perhaps but she would know they were there! Guards and soldiers bound to
protect her, to keep her safely out of harm's way, like a caged and
roaming the mountains! No more hunting except tamely in the royal
preserves, in such a great noisy retinue that the only game around was
that too docile and fat to get away! No more solitary swims, no more
trousers, no more lovers, no more freedom!
She looked at
Felin, sure that he knew what must be racing through her mind. But he was
not watching her, concentrating instead on the river as the walls began to
narrow and the current began to swiften.
eerie shifting light of their single candle cast dangerous shadows on his
face, bringing out the aspect of the Red Wolf that was his name-of-war. So
fierce … so wild … and yet she loved him far more than she knew she'd
ever be able to love courtly, gentlemanly Alkath Halan.
him, yes, she loved this wild Red Wolf … but not enough to give away her
freedom. Not even to save his life. At the core of her, there was a
coward, and a selfish one at that.
is out there," he said, low as if he thought he might be overheard.
Where?" Idasha peered into nothing but darkness.
candle, blow out the candle."
dropping them once more into the perfect black. At once the sounds seemed
louder, their breath gusting, the slap of water on the hull booming
moving faster," she whispered. "What did you see?"
know. A shadow --"
that? How can you tell?"
glow, fleeting but there, a pale glow. Gone now."
light, shining off a piece of ice."
Felin said. "It wasn't ice … there!"
but needlessly, for it was the only thing in sight to draw her eye. And
there it was, a glow, distant but distinct, and of such a shade of
luminescent violet that she knew he was right. Not ice.
Then it was
gone, swept ahead of them and down as the buffeting of the current grew
river," she said. "It descends again. We're going under."
grimly. "This is the tricky bit."
always a tricky bit." She knelt and held on as the small craft dipped
nose-first into the churning waves. Cold swallowed them again, and the
blackness seemed eternal as death.
But then, far
and faint, a different glow. Shimmery faint cerulean, brightening to a
coming up!" Idasha said. "The lake already!"
too soon," Felin said. "We can't be there yet, despite how swift
the river's been carrying us!"
what is it?"
The blue light
was above them, widening as they passed under the opening in the cave
ceiling. Then they were in the midst of it, sweeping along under a
glacial-blue cavern of ice lit from above by the sun.
passed over them, moving in a rippling band like a ribbon twisting in the
wind. Idasha's breath caught in her throat and she heard a gasp from Felin.
It was bigger
around than their craft and ten times as long, undulating with sinuous
grace. At one end, where its length first narrowed, then widened into a
rounded arrowhead, twin glints of violet glowed like amethysts filled with
it?" Felin's words were barely more than a puff of air.
Black Snake," murmured Idasha with dread-tinged reverence. "By
all the spirits that ever were, it's the Black Snake of Westreach!"
As if it heard
her, the serpent coiled and dove toward them.
at the helmsman's wheel and the reins that controlled it, but with no one
in the rear to propel the craft, it only wallowed within the current's
grasp. They glimpsed the Black Snake again, flashing past, and then it was
beneath them and into the dark water where they could no longer see it.
The wake of
its passage spun them in a roll. Felin had belted himself securely into
the helmsman's seat, but Idasha lost her grip and tumbled to the roof of
the craft. She felt the hard smooth curve of the window-membrane beneath
her hands and though she knew full well how tough it was, could all too
easily imagine it ripping in half, flooding them with icy water.
It did not
give, and the craft continued its roll, slowing. Felin helped Idasha right
herself, and pulled her onto his lap where his strong arms would suffice
as a strap.
thought it was only a legend," he said.
true. The Black Snake, that found two warring tribes on the shores of the
lake and swallowed them whole. The first king of Westreach cut them out of
it with a lhote, and told them …"
off, remembering the rest of the legend that every Westreacher child was
taught in school, the legend that was recreated every year by actors.
While sometimes the details differed, one thing was always constant. What
the king had said, and how they were all to take it to heart as the first
of his laws. The first law of the new land.
doesn't matter. Plainly, it is real enough."
matters is escaping it before it has us for supper."
The craft rose
as if on a swell. Something large was coming up beneath them, coming fast.
on!" Felin wrapped his arms around her. "If it passes us, we'll
roll again. If it rams us …"
ram them and crack open the wooden craft like an eggshell, the Black Snake
nudged them a glancing blow. The long body rasped over the hull with a
sound like a finger drawn quickly over rough cloth, and then it snagged
them with the coil of its tail.
dragging them, towing them straight up into the glacial blue light.
catch didn't smell like food, didn't feel like food, didn't taste like
food. But she knew there was something of food about it, and was in no
state to be picky. Her young were ravenous, and if she couldn't provide,
they would turn upon their siblings and then their own mother.
interestingly, she sensed that there was still something of live-food
about this particular large morsel. Most of the ones she found that were
this big were already dead, not that she or her young ever turned away a
meal of carrion.
swim-food, fish and swim-food, that was their usual diet. This one was
different, and in some dim corner of her brain, the serpent understood
that it came from above, came from walk-food territory.
she knew about the above was stored in the recesses of her ancestral
memories, knowledge gleaned by some long-ago foremother and passed down by
the rite of the feasting.
One of her
kind had braved the above, and devoured many walk-foods before being cut
apart. The memories ceased at that point, dead flesh knowing nothing. But
some of the meat and offal must have fallen back into the waters, there to
be eaten by the rest, and the learning absorbed.
What she had
seen with her bright violet eyes told her that there was walk-food held
within the new thing. As if it was an egg, a concept she had no trouble
An egg. Too
tough for her teeth to crack, too large for her to stretch her jaws
around. But when it hatched, small and tender prey would emerge and make a
fine feasting for her young.
She flipped it
up from the water with practiced skill. It landed in the pile of bones
from previous meals, snapping many.
attracted the attention of her young, and three small heads popped above
the rim of the nest in quick succession. Their tongues shuttled curiously
at the air, but found only their mother's own scent. Their eyes, a murky
lilac, lacked the keenness of her sight.
The boldest of
the three, a fine sturdy female who might one day challenge her mother and
win, slithered down from the nest first. She twined along her mother's
side, issuing soft endearing hisses in a ploy to be fed.
and the smaller male followed their dominant sister. The male hung back, a
crescent of tiny white scars on his black scales telling of a disagreement
shooed her young back to the nest with some scraps of fish left over from
an earlier hunting expedition. The oldest female's hiss grew briefly
louder and more threatening, but she subsided when her aggressiveness was
rewarded by a choice sliver of blubbery swim-food meat held in her
When the young
had settled down as much as they ever did, the mother coiled herself
around the nest and lowered her head to rest on her back. She let her eyes
drift closed, their brilliant glow dimmed by the translucent lids. Thus,
she gave the appearance of sleeping but was still watchful and alert.
egg stayed where it was, rocking slightly as if the creature within was
stirring. Its shell grated on the bed of bones, a layer so deep that the
ones on the bottom, deposited there by ancestors pre-dating even the one
that had ventured to the above, were ground to powder and packed into flat
planes as hard as stone.
roof of the den rose in a roughly conical shape. At one time, or so the
ancestral memories of the mother serpent told her, the hole at the top had
been open to admit the golden light of the sun. But now it was clogged
with a mass of solid ice that only let the weak blue reach down to warm
back then, there had been many of her kind. Colonies of them, nesting
together on the sheltered rocks. And they had all been much smaller.
things changed, and in the end it didn't matter much. What she knew would
go to her young when she was too old to fend off their attacks, and in
that way, all things were forever.
She mused on
these things in her vague way, resting her body in the state of
near-hibernation and listening to the rustles of her young as they tried
to fit their growing bodies comfortably in the confines of the nest.
the egg rocked again, and a round crack appeared in it. The tip of the
mother serpent's tail twitched in interest, for she had never seen an egg
come apart like that. A single round shard of it folded back, and the head
of the creature inside slowly raised up.
It was not
fumbling and helpless as a new-hatched thing should be. It moved with a
wary agility, and something about its appearance struck her as oddly
She was on the
verge of remembering when the second creature emerged from the opened egg.
Two in one shell, both seemingly healthy, that was unusual!
They were the
strangest-looking creatures she had ever seen. A male and a female by
their scents, but pelted in the dead skins of one of the many kinds of
As she was
puzzling over this seeming impossibility, she heard a vicious hiss. Her
head darted out too late to snare the tail of the boldest female, as the
young serpent made for the strange creatures.
The male moved
quickly, and with a sharp sound that made the mother's scales contract, he
brought from somewhere a shining fang extending from his own limb.
memories flared within her mind and she knew what trouble she'd brought
into her own den. But the young female, having not yet eaten and learned
those memories, did not hesitate.
serpent reared high, gaping her jaws as wide as they'd go without
unhinging, and letting the full force of her violet eyes blaze down in her
wrath. Her furious hiss sent the smaller two of her offspring burrowing
under each other's coils at the bottom of the nest.
But it was too
late for the boldest one. The male, daunted but determined, slashed at her
with the long shining fang. The young one's body was as thick as his
hindlimb, but his strength was such that he chopped her in two. The halves
fell, convulsing, to the bone-strewn rocks. A flood of watery purple
liquid gushed from the severed ends, filling the den with the scent of
killed the small one, his surge of triumph was dismayingly short-lived.
The mother's head towered nearly to the ceiling, swaying near an icicle
plugging a hole in the cave roof, an icicle with a base as wide as a man
her sleeping, thought they might be able to carry or push the craft back
into the water and make an escape, but that plan was out of the question
to kill her!" Idasha shouted.
Felin barked a
short, scoffing laugh. "With these?"
He held one
shortsword and she the other, which she'd found in the cabinets inside the
craft. While functional, they were pitiful weapons against something the
size of the snake.
first king gutted one with a lhote!"
that he were here!"
head jabbed down like black lightning from on high. Felin and Idasha
sprang apart, and the gnashing mouthful of pointed teeth - no tidy pair of
fangs here; that was a mouth meant to reduce a whale to ground sausage in
a chew or two - clamped onto a pile of picked bones. Ribs flew like
jackstraws, spraying shards of bone.
kill it, we need to take the head and stomach!" he heard Idasha say
from somewhere on the other side of a gruesome cairn.
bit ahead of things!"
had coiled back to ready a second strike. Felin would have sooner been
back on the battlefield with Jherion's army thundering over the rise. Men,
he could kill.
an idea!" She dove and rolled over a cobblestone path of skulls as
the snake struck again.
yet, I have a plan," Felin announced. "Keep her busy!"
The look of
astonishment she gave him was worth its weight in diamonds. See if
chivalrous Alkath Halan ever treated her like that! Despite the
circumstances, he almost laughed aloud as he ran to the craft and jumped
As he worked
frantically, he watched Idasha through the window-membrane. She scrambled
over the bones, sometimes only a few steps ahead as the increasingly
maddened serpent lunged this way and that. Her shortsword could barely
penetrate the sleek black scales, but soon purplish blood was trickling
from a number of small wounds.
the lever into its last position. At the top of his lungs, he called,
She knew his
intent, knew his need, in an instant. Forgetting her attacks, she ran
straight at the craft as if trying to flee. The serpent, not to be denied
her meal, plunged after.
Idasha cried, flinging herself into a hollow.
He threw the lever. The tight-wound spring released.
Even as he did
it, he was suddenly, horribly sure that it was going to miss. But the
serpent struck at Idasha with those tooth-ringed jaws wide open, and the
heavy barbed harpoon shot into her dark gullet straight as an arrow in
flight. So straight, in fact, that it tore through the roof of her mouth,
out the back of her head, and kept going.
Gagging on her
own blood, the serpent whipped about in death throes. A whip of her tail
smashed through the nest and shattered it, crushing one of the surviving
young instantly and throwing the other on a high arc that ended nearly at
Idasha's feet. She made short work of it with her sword, barely taking her
eyes off of the dying mother.
let her fall into the water!" Idasha said, as if either of them had
any control over matters if the massive body did indeed writhe its way
into the river.
But in the
end, after one final spasm that clenched all the coils together tight as a
fist, the giant serpent went limp.
out of the craft and embraced Idasha fervently. "We did it!"
Her laugh was
savage and delighted. "The Black Snake of Westreach! Help me cut off
her head, slit her open."
we don't need trophies. We know --"
As they stood
with the dead serpent's blood coursing in purple streamlets to mix with
the river, Idasha told him what that first king of Westreach had said all
those years ago, and explained to him what she had in mind.
she asked when she was done. "The easy way, the coward's way?"
honorable way," he said, and pulled her close to kiss her.
Continued in Vol. XI - Cruel Truths.