The End of Earth and Sky

The Eye of the Maker

Book One

THE END OF EARTH AND SKY

 

Now available exclusively from Amazon

 

Young Calin Lowford sees his best friend slain by a creature not seen in the land since the ancient wars.  Forbidden to join the fight against these foes, he is sent as servant to the wizard Rijeth, to learn of strange magics and stranger omens. His quest to avenge his friend will lead him through sorcery and peril to a secret at the end of the world — the mysterious Eye of the Maker.


 

Chapter 1: The Drums of War

Octopus1His bloodthirsty nature has always been evident to those who knew him. From boyhood, he shirked every duty to go on sanguinary hunts in the trackless waste of Palandain. Deprived of nobler quarry, the young killer contented himself with the butchery of wild beasts, without even the inadequate excuse of hunger. But the time soon came when he could put his skills to the murderous use for which he had longed.

—The Indictment

Shield Monday began well enough. Bron Cowler kicked me awake while Håkar Isenhelm called me Fatty and threatened to leave me for the vultures; and when I did clamber to my feet with a heavy groan, I threw clods at them. You can tell from this, if you have ever been a youth on the frayed edge of manhood, that we were the best of friends. House-guests, like fish, begin to stink after the third day: that is because guests and hosts are obliged to be polite. We were as rude as we liked, and could hunt together for a fortnight without ever really losing our tempers.

It was a delicate sort of rudeness. For instance, I could call Bron a purulent wart with the wits and hygiene of a brain-sick rat, and he would just laugh, once I explained to him what purulent meant. Or Håkar could call me an addle-pated cock-virgin born of a slug’s congress with a beached whale, and I would applaud his inventiveness. But if one of us missed an easy shot, or lost a stag’s track (for we hunted without dogs), the others bit their tongues. That sort of criticism could lead to real fights.

This was our third day out from Hillwarden. We struck camp early, and by mid-morning came to one of my favourite spots. Our northward march led us along the valley of a good-sized stream, which had cut away the soil at one of its bends to expose a natural salt lick. High on the eastern slope of this valley, in a stand of willow overlooking the lick, some earlier hunter had woven a blind out of live saplings in the Easterling style. I settled into the blind, resting my crossbow on the breastwork of matted branches.

‘It will never work,’ Bron Cowler told me. ‘You’ll not catch a cold in that blind, let alone a deer.’

‘I didn’t come here to catch anything,’ I said, leaning back against the mossy rock face and pulling my hat down over my eyes.

Håkar pulled a long face. ‘And he calls himself a hunter. Cal, why don’t you just take up fishing?’

‘Too many people fish,’ I said. ‘Nobody comes up here but us. Give us a call if you spot anything.’

We had this argument every trip — three or four times a year, if our work allowed it. Håkar was a superb spearman and a dead-eye shot with a crossbow; Bron, the eldest of us at twenty, was a wilier tracker than grizzled huntsmen who had spent their lives in the wilderness. But I never could see why I should spoil a good hunt by chasing a lot of wild animals. I came along for the peaceful days, the stark grandeur of the wilderland, and the delightful absence of all the tiresome folk I knew in Hillwarden Thorp. Here I could watch the weather for hours, or stare at the dazzling white peaks of the Eastern Deichóri, and nobody would box my ears or curse my idleness. I liked to look at the mountains, and wonder what was on the other side of them. Boys everywhere do the same, and in the Eastern Thorps grown men do it as well. For no one actually knew. It was not only impossible to scale those razor-cut cliffs and jumbled crags, it was forbidden as well. I used to wonder what treasure could be so rich, or wonderland so bewitching, that merely hiding it behind an impassable mountain wall was not protection enough.

All the same, I kept half an eye on the salt lick, waiting for the deer to forget that I was there. Bron was quite right about the blind: it was a wretched thing, riddled with gaps, and anything with eyes could see me sitting there. I only went there for the view. But while Håkar and Bron wore themselves out tracking deer or flushing wild boar, I would sit in that blind and let the game come to me. It is a simple enough trick of meditation. If you keep quite still in mind and body, wild creatures will first forget their fear of you, then all but crawl over you from sheer curiosity. Then you can shoot them in perfect tranquillity, as if your crossbow-bolt just happened to shoot itself while you were leagues away. But meditation was not in my friends’ nature, and they could never forget their anxious hope for the kill. You have to empty your mind of all violent thoughts, I used to tell them; and they said it was easy enough for me, since mine was so nearly empty to begin with. Besides, they could prove by a hundred unassailable arguments that it was impossible to hunt that way. I only had the one argument on my side — but they never refused the meat.

After an hour or so, Bron and Håkar came back to refill their bottles and soak their heads in the stream below. I went down to join them. It was a steep climb back, and by the time I returned to the blind I was wheezing like a broken bellows.

Håkar shook his head at me. ‘You’re worse every trip, Cal. I never thought I’d see a friend of mine in such a pitiful condition.’

‘Comes of being old Scrivener’s prentice,’ said Bron. ’Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mister Lowford!’ Bron was a wonderful mimic. His imitation of the master scribe’s ill-tempered croak made me laugh despite my short breath.

‘You need to get away from the drawing-table,’ Håkar added. ‘That office stool is putting a shiny patch on the seat of your breeks.’

‘Only a patch,’ said Bron, ‘and the breeks are wider every year.’

‘Shut up,’ I told him, mopping my brow with my sleeve. ‘It’s a hot morning, that’s all.’

‘It is that,’ said Bron, ‘for the time of the year. Wind’s in the west, of course. Breath of the Mountain.’

Håkar glared over his shoulder at the looming peaks. He hated to be reminded of anything beyond his reach. ‘Queer thing, that. How a wind can blow hot from a snow-topped mountain is too many for me.’

‘Mountain air is only cold because it’s thin,’ I said fussily. ‘It heats up when it grows thick again.’

Bron squawked out a laugh. ‘He’s right, Hawk. Cal knows all about growing thick.’

‘Shut up,’ I said again, shying a stone that just missed his left ear.

‘And about heating up,’ Håkar added.

‘Shut up!’

‘Come ahead, Bron,’ said Håkar, ‘It’ll do him no hurt to starve awhile.’ He stalked off on his gangly legs, tangled hair bobbing like a pale flame among the firs, Bron skulking after like a shadow. As they vanished into the woods to the north, I cheered them on with our mocking battle-cry: ‘Forth the Village Idiots!’ Then I settled back in the blind and lost myself in the morning sun reflected from the snowy crags in the west.

Hillwarden Thorp did not happen to have a village idiot, but with us on hand it had no need of one. This opinion was held by nearly everyone within a day’s march. The landowners of the district had good reason to despise at least two of us. Bron poached their game, and Håkar at any rate kept trying to poach their daughters. And I was a misfit by any reckoning. Even my own family, the Lowfords of Hillwarden, called me a standing loss, and they were infamously peculiar themselves. In short, we were Not Like the Others, and since the habits and opinions of the Others were self-evidently proper and correct, that was quite enough to convict us of being fools.

I lay back in the blind and watched the play of light and cloud on the grey rock curtain of the Deichóri. Away to my left Deichor Lammarion, Child-of-Thunder — the Mountain, as we called him for reasons plain enough — reared his bulky head to brush the sky. Above the glacier-carved tumult of his shoulders, his summit wore a smooth, shallow cone like the sun-hat of a Rossarian peasant. A thin white plume rose from the cratered peak, a reminder of the volcanic wrath that raised the cone above all other peaks even in that mighty range. It also reminded me of a quill pen in an office inkwell. I groaned and looked away.

Below me, half a dozen fallow deer had come to work their tongues upon the salt lick. A half-grown fawn was the first one sated or bored. It wandered away from the others, plashing its hoofs in the stream, pausing briefly to drink before it came up the eastern slope to frisk before me as if it wanted to be shot. After a while it frisked away. A buck came next, trotting lightly up to a thicket of elder-bushes, sniffing the breeze and nibbling warily at the yellowing leaves. I cradled my crossbow in the crook of my arm, pressing the stock against my shoulder. Too late, the buck pricked up its ears. At that range, I hardly needed to aim. I filled my mind with thoughts of the mountains as I squeezed the catch—

Caw! C’rr — c-caw! Bron’s signal clove the air like a blunt axe. My bolt whizzed over the buck’s shoulders as it darted back into the woods, and the other deer scattered from the lick. What was the matter with Bron? He prided himself on his bird-calls. We used a stupefying variety of them as signals, but the crow-call was his favourite. He was enough like a crow himself, black-haired, undersized, and scrawny, with the rough-and-tumble doggedness one finds among late-born children of huge families. Bron was the fourteenth of sixteen or thereabouts, and found it easier to earn his keep by poaching, or hunting by your leave, than by sweating the blood from his heart as a farm hand. A fourteenth child grows up with incessant noise, and in camp Bron would jabber and squawk whether we listened or not. But he was always quiet and earnest during the hunt itself. It was not like him to frighten off every creature in earshot.

I jammed my crossbow against the ground and cranked back the bowstring to fit another bolt. Another cacophony of caws erupted in the woods, followed by the sound of a barn-owl. That meant me, of course. Calin, come quick! Game’s afoot! As soon as my bow was loaded, I trotted up a deer-path towards the sound.

‘H’st! In here!’ Bron’s urgent hiss stopped me before I had gone a furlong. Glancing round, I saw Håkar beckoning me into a copse of young firs. His eyes glowed like shooting stars.

‘Where’s the fire?’ I hissed back. Bron put a finger to his lips, then pointed at my feet. Wide blunt footprints had mashed deep holes in the carpet of dead needles. Bent branch and broken twig marked the creature’s careless slot. Something big had just bulled through the copse. ‘So what is it?’ I asked.

Bron shrugged. ‘Could be a bear.’

‘Good luck to it,’ I said. ‘I didn’t slog all the way up here to be mauled by bears.’

‘How you talk!’ Håkar laughed. ‘I think the three of us can take a single bear.’

‘I can,’ said Bron, ‘if you two don’t cock it up.’

Håkar made an ironic bow. ‘As you wish, Great Hunter. Well?’

Bron’s voice dropped to the faintest sigh; we almost knocked heads getting close enough to hear him. ‘No calls. Easy track; we’ll follow quick. Think it’s making for Seven-League Combe. No easy way down the gorge. Fan out on my hand-signal, and shoot when I flush it out.’

‘Dangerous,’ I whispered back. ‘It’s a bear, not a bunny rabbit.’

Bron brandished his short spear. ‘If it charges, it gets this.’

‘Have it your way, Great Hunter,’ said Håkar.

‘Naturally,’ said Bron, giving him a faint smirk. ‘Let’s go.’

We went in single file, stepping gingerly. The obvious tracks ended with the firs, but Bron followed the trail by marks I could not see. Once or twice he brought us up short with a gesture, and we would strain our ears at every sound. Was it the wind that rustled those branches, or something else? As we filed past a patch of brambles, their branches heavy with ripe berries, Bron stopped short. ‘That’s odd,’ he breathed.

‘What’s odd?’ Håkar asked.

‘At this season? A bear would stop to gorge — strip every berry.’

‘Maybe its mother was calling,’ Håkar suggested.

‘Very funny,’ I said. ‘What if it’s not a bear?’

Håkar shrugged. ‘Then what?’

‘Who knows? A catamount — some kind of ape — a woodwose —’

‘—Or a big hairy monster with two heads and a recipe for roast Calin,’ Bron sniggered. ‘It’s a bear till I say different. You worry too much, Cal.’

‘You assume too much,’ I answered gloomily.

We quickened our pace as the slot grew plainer, and soon came to the meadow overlooking the combe. A narrow stream had nibbled away at the hillside until it collapsed. Now the stream skirted a wide scree slope, impassable to anything but a mountain goat. Our quarry was making straight for that slope. When it halted or turned aside, the game would be ours. Bron made a V with his fingers and waved it in a circle: Move out!

A stand of ancient pines perched on the edge of the precipice. Bron’s bear must be in there. Håkar and I stalked through the tall grass in a fighting crouch. We had never flushed a bear before, though Håkar had once taken shots at a possible lion. Sweat crawled down my neck like a column of ants. I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to claw it off. Patience, Calin, patience! I took my place near the brink. Was Håkar in his? He had better be. It would be just like him to try to close with it single-handed.

For if Bron was a crow and I was an owl, Håkar was a bird of prey: a hawk, for obvious reasons. He was the scion of a fine old Palandine family, respectable now, but descended at long remove from the wild men with flaxen hair who came ravening down from the North a thousand years ago. He was particular about his name, which was handed down or stolen from a legend of the Heroic Age. We always pronounced it Hawk-ahr out of respect, for he used to wreak bloody vengeance upon the rotten-hearted boys who purposely called him Hack-ahr. If Bron hunted for the pot and I for solitude, Håkar hunted for trophies. Not indeed the kind of trophies one hangs on the wall of a huntsman’s lodge: his trophies were the girls he tried to impress with tales of his daring deeds. Fair-haired, long-jawed, tall and lean, he had just the kind of disreputable good looks that kept giddy young maidens flocking about him. Of course these were Easterling maidens, not quite giddy enough to let him take their maidenhead. Bron and I used to laugh when he missed his catch, and wither him with scorn from our womanless nests.

For all that, Håkar had a brain and a spirit, and no one doubted his courage. He had aimed his whole being at a military career, and in fact had just finished his first year at the Wardhall Academy to nearly unanimous acclaim. After a summer of exercises in the field, he came home for a few days as cock-of-the-walk, a week’s hunting, and then back to books and maps for the Scythetide term. An Easterling youth is expected to know his way with a spear and a bow, but Håkar knew a good deal more than that. He was, in fact, a born warrior. If anyone had a chance in single combat with a bear— But that was ridiculous. Even he had to know that.

A thrush broke briefly into song: All ready. Bron was hiding in the rose-bushes at the south edge of the meadow. The branches began to rustle as if a fawn were caught in the thorns. Bron was convincing: I fought back a silly urge to go after the fawn myself. But our bear refused the bait. That was strange. The warmth of eftsummer still lingered in the days, but autumn was well upon us. It was a bear’s job to be hungry at this time of year.

I did not know I had been holding my breath till I let it out in a heavy whoosh. Bron’s movements became obvious, then desperate. He was losing patience, and so was I. I made up my mind to give an owl’s hoot — I’m out! — and head back to my comfortable blind—

And something stepped out of the pines!

A stocky creature, man-high and wearing a heavy pack, came stumping back into the clearing. It carried something like a broomstick made of brass. Another hunter! I smothered a laugh. Who would have guessed it? A hundred hunting-parties could spread out in these empty hills and catch no sight of one another, not though they hunted seven years. We had blundered into one by sheer stupid luck.

Bron stood up and strode into the open. ‘Well met, friend!’ he said with a grin. ‘What hunting brings you here?’

The stranger made no answer, but brandished his stick like a weapon. There was a flash of light and a loud bang. Bron’s grin vanished as he fell backwards in the thicket. Dropping his pack and drawing a broad-bladed dagger, the stranger sprinted across the meadow to pounce on Bron’s twitching form. He jerked Bron’s head back and slit his throat with one swift stroke. Then he stood up, licked the blood off his blade, and threw his head back in an ear-splitting yell of triumph—

A crossbow-bolt sprouted from his neck like the first crocus of spring. He fell heavily to the ground. Håkar ran at him, screaming with rage, stabbing wildly with his spear. Bright blood fountained from the stranger’s chest. My bow dropped from my nerveless fingers, and I was noisily sick in the grass.

When I stood up again, Håkar was beside me, green-faced and panting. ‘Good shot, Cal,’ he said grimly.

‘What?’ I did not remember shooting. My crossbow was no longer loaded, but the fact conveyed no meaning to my staggered wits. ‘You got him.’

You got him, Cal. I lost my head. He’d have had my tripes out in a moment.’

‘Oh.’ I wandered over to the two corpses. Håkar stalked beside me, a murderous light in his eyes.

‘Oh, Bron!’ I croaked. I half expected him to jump up and yell, Boo! But he remained still and silent. Far to the north, thunder rolled like the echo of a dirge.

‘Look at this.’ Håkar hauled the stranger up by the hair. The face was hideously misshapen, obviously not human. A round jaw jutted massively below a wide pug nose; beady black eyes glittered under a ridge of bone covered with a single bushy eyebrow. I had never seen such a face in the flesh, but I knew them from pictures—

‘A Morak,’ I said blankly. I had always vaguely thought of them as creatures out of ancient tales, though my father had faced them in battle not long before I was born. It was the kind of tales that gave this illusion its hold in my mind. Old wives and pious Elodans said the Morakh were distant kin to men. Dân, the first man, was our common ancestor; but they sold themselves to the Destroyer in the beginning of time, for no better reason than to point an edifying moral. The mark of the Destroyer had been upon them ever since: an insatiable lust for blood and violence, unhindered by any trace of conscience. My father said the stories were the lies of third-rate poets, but the mark was real enough: he bore the scars to prove it.

‘Of course it’s a Morak, you fool,’ said Håkar. ‘But what is it doing here? No Morak ever crossed the Dike of the Defenders.’

That was true. In the seven centuries since the vanished Defenders built their wall across the land from north to south, no evil thing had breached its silent guard. Yet this was unmistakably a Morak’s head. As suddenly as the flash of its brazen musket, the shape of the world had changed.

We stood and stared while the flies began to settle on Bron’s corpse. Tears swam stupidly in our eyes, too witless to let go and fall. After a year or two, Håkar broke the silence. ‘Should we bury him? We can’t just leave him here.’

‘We haven’t got the tools. We might manage a cairn.’

‘Oh, Vargon!’ Håkar swore. ‘I wish I had that Morak alive again. I’d kill it a thousand times.’

Again the thunder rolled in the north, beyond the desolate hills. Boom, r-room, boom.

‘Whatever we do,’ I said, ‘we’d better get started before it rains.’

Håkar looked at me strangely. ‘What do you mean? It’s bone dry.’

Boom, r-room, boom.

We gaped at each other. ‘Vargon!’ Håkar said again. ‘What fools we’ve been!’

‘That was no thunder.’ I tried to swallow, but my throat was tight with fear. ‘Morakh don’t travel alone, do they?’

‘Not outside the Twisted Hills. There must be a troop of fifty out there. Cal, we’ve got to get out of here!’

My numb brain could make no meaning of the words. ‘Bron is dead,’ I said stupidly, blinking away my tears.

‘We’ll all be dead if we don’t get moving. Quick!’ Håkar seized my arm and dragged me south towards the wood.

The exertion of walking made my wits seep slowly back into my head. ‘Wait! What will we tell the Elders?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘A Morak can’t cross the Dike. Everybody knows it.’

‘Tell Bron that.’ Håkar spat on the dead creature.

‘So what will they say when we come back without Bron, and with a wild story about a Morak that couldn’t possibly be here?’

Håkar looked sick. ‘We’d be up for murder. You’re right, we need proof.’ He drew his knife and hacked off the Morak’s head, liberally smearing himself with gore. I lopped off its right hand and took its firearm. We stuffed the pieces in a sack.

‘Farewell, Bron,’ Håkar murmured before we turned away. ‘We’ll avenge you.’

Håkar set our pace back to the north shore of Dwimmermere: an easy lope for him, a gruelling run for me. I was wheezing like a broken pipe-organ before we crested the last low hills east of Deichor Lammarion and saw the dark lake lying deep in its narrow cleft, and the farmsteads and orchards huddled round its shores. We had come six or seven leagues without a rest, but for all our haste the sun was plunging quickly, and the vast shadow of the Mountain stretched out to meet us. A broad apron of heath sloped down to the lake-head. With a last desperate effort I drove myself down the slope, and actually overtook Håkar for a moment before I tripped on a molehill and fell soundly on my face.

Håkar broke stride to give me a hand up. I rolled over and spat out a mouthful of sod. ‘You go on, Hawk,’ I groaned. ‘This pace is killing me.’

‘You’re coming with me.’ He took my wrist in both hands and dragged me to my feet.

‘I can’t run all the way to Hillwarden!’

Håkar pointed at one of the nearest farmhouses. ‘Isn’t that your uncle’s place? He’ll give us horses.’

‘Horses,’ I repeated between wheezes. ‘You know, I think I’m getting my second wind. Maybe I can run all the way to Hillwarden.’

‘Less of that, Cal! You’re not that bad a rider—’

‘Horses don’t like me,’ I complained.

‘—and your sluggard feet have cost us time enough already. So come ahead—’

‘I’m not quite fond of them either.’

‘—and give us a big, happy, uncle-charming smile. Look alive, now!’

Håkar aimed a good-natured kick at the shiny patch on the seat of my breeches, and I lumbered into unwilling motion. Håkar shot ahead, and was hammering on my uncle’s door while I was still limping down the heath.

‘Who’s that, then?’ came a woman’s sharp voice from an upstairs window.

‘Håkar Isenhelm and your nephew Calin. Let us in!’

‘Great Berion, give us a moment. Faramon!

I came staggering down to the door before my uncle drew the bolt. Faramon Lowford was a big man, heavy-set, wise as an elephant but not quick in the uptake. He had a thick brown moustache, to which bits of his dinner were clinging. ‘You young scamps! You gave my missus a turn. Thought you were hunting up North.’

‘We were,’ Håkar said between gasps.

‘You’ll forgive my bolts, I hope? Some mighty strange creatures have been about these parts, and some of ’em can open doors. I’m not the only one who’s took to locking up after dark, and some are doing it by day.’

‘Wise of them,’ I said shortly. ‘Bron Cowler has been killed.’

My uncle’s eyes bulged. ‘What! Killed dead?’

‘Is there another kind of killed?’ Håkar asked waspishly.

‘Just making sure I heard you right,’ said Faramon mildly. ‘Hunting accident?’

‘No, sir. A Morak shot him.’

‘What! You’ve no call to go fooling on the wrong side of the Dike.’

‘I don’t think there is a right side any longer,’ I said. ‘We saw one Morak on this side for certain, and heard one of their war-drums. There must be scores of them.’

‘We can prove it,’ said Håkar, ‘but believe me, you don’t want us to. Now listen: We must get to Hillwarden at once. Lend us your two swiftest horses, and we’ll not trouble you further.’

My uncle was still shaking his head at the news. ‘A Morak in Palandain! That’s the worst tidings in my time.’

‘It is that,’ said Håkar.

We stood silent for a moment while Faramon licked the crumbs out of his moustache. ‘Right, then.’ He bellowed over his shoulder: ‘Farin! Out to the stables with you. Saddle Wingfoot and Storm. Lively, lad!’

A tow-haired youth of about sixteen darted by us and vanished in the deepening gloom. My uncle was counting on his fingers. ‘Lowfords, Tarneys, Underheaths, Outmoors. I can raise forty men quick enough. We’ll show these brutes how we Lakemen deal with trespassers.’

‘And if there are more than forty Morakh?’ I asked drily.

‘Then we’ll shoot more than once,’ he answered. ‘We’ve none of those musket contraptions, but skill counts more at this game.’

Håkar looked up at the looming shadow of the mountains. Columns of grey stormcloud were marching up the shoulders of Deichor Lammarion. ‘If the Mountain would give us one of his early snowstorms tonight, it would come in handy.’

A rueful smile crinkled the corners of Faramon’s eyes. ‘It would, though I never thought I’d say it with a crop in the field.’

‘They say the Defenders could call up sun or storm at will,’ I said. ‘I wish they’d left us more of that sort of knowledge.’

‘We’ve no Defenders now, so men will have to serve. Hi! Here’s Farin with those horses. Ride like lightning, lads, and send all the help you can!’

We answered by leaping into the saddles and kicking the beasts into a brisk trot. Wingfoot and Storm, alas, were slower than their names. ‘East or west?’ I asked.

‘West,’ said Håkar, ‘by the old North Road. It’s shorter by half.’

‘If the road isn’t washed out,’ I said gloomily.

‘You worry too much, Cal.’

‘That’s what Bron said.’

The sun disappeared behind the mountains, and their shadows swooped down like carrion-birds. We cantered south along the ruinous highway, where the unpeopled western shore of Dwimmermere lapped at the feet of the Deichóri. Before the last light faded, we came to the Tarnbrook, one of a dozen icy streams that fed the dark lake. It was a short day’s journey to Hillwarden Thorp this way, three hours’ hard riding if we had luck for a change. Of course we had none. The weather had been perfect for hunting, clear and bright and unseasonably warm: too warm for the sweating glaciers that fed the Tarnbrook. While we were away, a flash flood had washed the old wooden bridge into the middle of the lake. All that remained were the stumps of the stone piles.

‘Sithron,’ Håkar sighed. ‘We can’t ford this.’

‘Then we’ll have to find a place where we can. Upstream or down?’

‘You choose. I’ve made enough mistakes for one day.’

I chose to go upstream. We rode west along the high bank, scanning the deep shadows of the gill for a place where the horses could cross. But the brook was running high and strong, and we dared not risk our mounts’ footing in the dark. A few furlongs upstream, we came to a steep upward slope. High on the hillside was a single standing stone, gleaming a white warning in the starlight.

‘Chalk up a mistake for me,’ I said, ‘if you’re keeping score.’

For the standing stone marked the lawful border of the Deichóri, the bourne beyond which it was death to go. A hangman’s rope awaited anyone who tried it and returned alive, but the rope was seldom needed. For if the law and the crags were not enough, a curse was on the stones, or on the land beyond. At long whiles some fool would flout it to prove his courage. The last man of Hillwarden to try it was a hothead named Col Halcombe, who, egged on by his friends after a long bout of beer-drinking, dashed a hundred yards past a standing stone and back again. He was unmarked and apparently unharmed, but that night he woke up howling like a wolf that had lost its mate. He had to be chained to a post, with two strapping village lads to force-feed and clean him. When Håkar, Bron and I were very small boys, we used to sneak out by night and watch him bay at the moon. A little later he died.

‘Downstream it is,’ said Håkar. We rode back to the ridge above the lake and dismounted to pick our way down to the water’s edge. The mouth of the brook was shallow enough to cross, but cold as Nekrith’s knife, and we lost a quarter of an hour rubbing and stripping the horses’ legs to keep the chill from settling in their muscles. We dared not risk a trot again till the lights of Hillwarden were in sight.

My father’s house grew high on a hillside, at the end of a blind lane off the North Road. We coaxed the horses on as best we could, and hitched them to the thick wall of living pine and thornbush that formed the front of the house. It was midnight, and Bron had been dead for thirteen hours.

I ran up two flights of stairs and beat frantically on my father’s chamber door. ‘Father, come quickly! Bron’s been killed!’

‘How’s that?’ a sleepy voice replied. ‘Go back to bed, Calin. You’re having nightmares again.’

I hammered on the door again. ’Father!’

An assortment of crashes and curses came from the room before my father emerged in his dressing-gown, his eyes glistening wetly in the light of a candle-stub. ‘Great Berion, Calin, you gave me a turn! I thought you said Bron had been killed.’

‘He has. By a Morak. Show him, Hawk.’

Håkar groped in the sack and pulled the head out by the blood-slick hair. ‘We’ve got the hand, too,’ he said.

‘Oh, put it away. It turns my stomach.’ My father sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘Very well, you’ve got my attention. What idiot whim spurred you to meddle with a Morak?’

‘What spurred it to meddle with us?’ Håkar shot back. ‘We were in the hills north of Dwimmermere, a day’s march west of the Dike. I could lead you right to the spot.’ Quickly he sketched an account of the day’s horrors.

‘So a Morak raiding-party has crossed the Dike,’ my father summed up.

‘Or an army,’ I suggested.

‘No, not an army. The great drum is for raiding-parties. What you heard was the signal for all scouts to return to camp. We need not fear that an army will turn up on our doorstep — at least not yet.’

‘That’s not what worries me,’ I said. ‘How did they get over the wall?’

‘Or through it,’ my father said bleakly.

Håkar snorted. ‘Are you saying someone has broken through the Dike of the Defenders? No one has that much power, not even Teshren herself.’

My father gave him a look of cold contempt. ‘Know much about it, do you? I suppose you’ve measured her power to the nearest pennyweight.’

‘Military geography is a first-year course at the Red Siege,’ Håkar replied stiffly.

‘Yes, of course. Forgive me.’ My father waved a helpless hand. ‘If Teshren and all the Sandshades could break the Dike, they would have done it centuries ago. No one else has half their power. The High Ward only dreams of such might.’

‘Not that they would use it to knock down their own defences,’ said Håkar.

‘One would hope not.’ My father strode down the corridor to his study and began to scribble a hasty message. ‘Wardhall must be warned,’ he said. ‘Take this, Håkar, and ride east to the Dike. If you swap horses at Four-League Post, you should make Wraithstead by morning. Send the message on to First Lord Sundrake, immediate haste, by order of Raeder Hallin Lowford.’

‘First Lord Sundrake, immediate haste,’ Håkar repeated.

‘And one you’ve gone that far— You were due back at the Academy soon in any case, were you not?’

‘Scythe Sunday.’ Håkar grinned bashfully.

‘Then you might as well go straight on to Goldenwood. I may be retired from service, but my name will get you a bed in Wraithstead and fresh horses at every post.’ That was understating the case. There were not thirty living Raeders in Pyrandain, even counting the Seven Lords of the Circle. It was a rare adept who could pass the tests in three branches of the Defenders’ magic — Divining, Rending, and Healing — and those who did could wield a kingly authority. My father chose to keep his power veiled and unused, as a general thing, which only contributed to the Lowfords’ reputation for eccentricity. Still, if the fancy took him to order a pink palanquin and a procession of elephants, the Wardsmen would think he was mad — but they would find him the elephants.

Håkar’s grin broadened. ‘Thank you, sir!’

‘Let’s have less thanking and more riding. Be off with you!’ He pressed the message into Håkar’s hand and pushed him towards the stairs. I followed, but my father brought me up short with a word. ‘And just where are you going, Calin?’

‘With Hawk, of course.’

‘You shall do no such thing. I want you where you can be watched.’

‘You don’t trust me.’

‘Not with an errand like this.’

‘But you trust Håkar, do you?’ I said bitterly.

‘I trust him alone more than you two together,’ my father answered mildly. ‘You have had an evil influence on one another for much too long. I was never happier than when he was accepted by the Academy and you were not.’

‘You didn’t let me apply.’

‘If you are going to remind me of trivialities, you might as well take some sleep. You have your work to go to in the morning.’

‘Oh, no! I still have a week’s leave.’

He patted my shoulder and gave me a sad but kindly smile. ‘Old Scrivener has not been well, you know. He can use your help. And you will do better at the shop. I know of no cure for sorrow, but work makes it easier to bear. Now I must be away—’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To Palandain, of course, to see what has happened to the Dike. I must be away, and you must take your rest while you can. I foresee many sleepless nights coming for us all. It has the look of an unreposeful time.’

Comments

  1. I enjoyed The Eye of the Maker very much. Keep them coming, please. I left this opinion in Amazon.es:

    Very good novel. It is very well written and the characters are likeable. It includes the classic coming-of-age novel features, but the world-building is very original (though not too detailed). The Old Gods are similar to ancient Greek ones, but they actually acknowledge the existence of the real God (aka the Maker). The whole book has a tolkienesque air.

    For those who have read Lord Talon’s Revenge, by the same author, this book is different. More serious and less cynical. This is epic fantasy, and very good epic fantasy at that.

    It is a bit short (about 236 pages according to Amazon’s estimation), so maybe the trilogy will end up as one longish book.

  2. Other countries censor content and not just rogue regimes such as the Iranian mullocracy. Poor people! http://www.baidu.com

  3. Aster Breo says:

    Just finished End of Earth and Sky. Really enjoyed it! When will Book 2 be out?

  4. Garth says:

    I enjoyed the book quite a bit. You may be amused to note that I got halfway through the sample chapter above increasingly thinking it might be set in Fifth Age Middle-Earth or something! (References to Easterlings, Wood-woses, and so forth, and perhaps even the Misty Mountains.) The appearance of the Morak pretty much scotched that, though. I was very impressed with your worldbuilding throughout.

    On the whole, I thought the first half of the book more successful than the second. The Mountain, and the Dioni, felt too… mundane. Not numinous enough to suit the theme. And good grief, Calin is a diehard skeptic, isn’t he? You’d think after seeing the sixth impossible thing before breakfast he’d learn! 🙂 I’m fond of the kid, though. (Perhaps

    And I really like where I think this is going in the next book. Eagerly awaiting it!

    P.S. One gathers that Rijeth has more than a touch of the Old Knock in him? Though minus the atheism – Hallin has that angle covered. (An atheist skeptic wizard who deals with spirits while calling them ‘forces’… If he weren’t such a decent man, I’d suspect he was Screwtape’s ‘Materialist Magician’!)

    I’m very much increasingly wondering what Hallin’s angle is in all this. Just when did the Lowford tradition get lost? Given his deliberate attempts to stunt Calin (I don’t think the verb is too harsh) I’m guessing the chain got broken this very generation and no earlier.

  5. . Normally, this can be done with the end from the paper, because last page.

Speak Your Mind

*