Frost reached into her saddlebag for the last strip of dried meat that made up her hastily drawn provisions. Relaxing in the saddle, she began to chew the tough substance, caring little that it had no taste. A swig of cool liquid from her nearly empty water skin washed it down, and she rode on toward Shazad.
With the storm over, the clouds gone, a bright moon shone down through the trees. Once, Frost stopped her horse and gazed skyward for long, questioning moments, for amid the stars there seemed to be a single red eye, staring toward the ground. But a drifting breeze stirred the thick branches and dripping leaves, shaking water into her upturned eyes. When she could see again, the vision was gone. A trick of the moon, no doubt, or her imagination. Her mother had warned her that madness was the fate of murderers.
She cast her gaze about, peering into the darkness. Etai Calan, this wood was called. Forest of the Forgotten. Forest of the Damned, she thought.
Glimmering in the moonlight were the demon-things that gave Etai Calan its name; monstrous webs stretched between the huge old trunks, burning with a dew-laden fire that never faded. With elegant, lazy grace they draped among the limbs and branches. Esgarian legends spoke of an ancient, half forgotten race of spider-like creatures that once inhabited the land and used this forest as a museum to display their most beautiful works of art -- webs which to this day endured. What had become of that race, no one remembered. No trace of them remained, and no legend or song told of their passing. But the webs were treated with reverence, and when the road was cut through Etai Calan not a strand was disturbed.
Frost was more than glad the path avoided the strange webs. She had no love for spiders, artistic or otherwise. From a safe distance, though, she wondered why they never blew apart in storms like the one she had just come through, and what gave them such an eerie light. The webs grew thicker as she rode deeper into the wood, and a twist in the road brought them close enough to touch.
She stopped her horse and listened. Since darkness had fallen, Etai Calan had been silent. Unnaturally so. Except for the steady fall of her mount's hooves and the dripping water off wet leaves, no other sound touched her ears. The quiet was unsettling, but after awhile she rode on, alert for any hint that she was not the only living thing in the night.
The air came suddenly alive with sound, a soft rhythmic flutter at first as if the dark was filled with thousands of wings. The beating grew and grew as a vague shadow passed overhead, hiding the bloated moon from sight. Frost grimaced as the noise assailed her and fought to stay astride her panicking steed. Then, sound and shadow faded in the distance, and the wood was quiet as before.
A chill fell upon the forest. Frost drew her damp cloak closer around her. Magic, she was sure... Had the storm, too, been created and not natural?
Again the shadow passed over the trees. Her mount trembled and tried to rear, and Frost fought to hold him still, cursing the pig-farmer that had sold him to her.
Thick clouds rolled in and blotted out the stars. The moon slowly vanished, taking the last light. Only the glowing webs of Etai Calan showed her the road.
A pungent odor of dead leaves and decayed wood swam in her nostrils borne by a cold wind that played suddenly in the leaves and ceased as suddenly.
From the sky a dense column of vapor fell, and as it touched the ground it flowed outward like water in all directions. Another column, then several more, descended on her right and left, as straight as bars in a cell door. She drew her sword and swung it through the nearest one. A wisp clung to her blade, then trailed away into the air.
She sheathed her weapon with difficulty, wrapping the reins tighter around her free hand as she fought to control her mount.
The smoky columns fell everywhere, increasing in number with each breath. As they met the ground a thick carpet of fog spread over the forest floor. Trees on either side of the path began to fade, obscured by the mist.
A column of fog fell on her thigh and oozed over her knee. Its touch was feathery soft, icy cold. She recoiled, wheeling her horse in a tight circle.
The road was gone, hidden in the heavy mist, yet she leaned close to her horse's neck and whipped him into motion.
Like giant spears the columns fell. Frost leaned away from their touch, weaving her mount through them. It no longer mattered that the road was invisible. She urged the beast faster along, seeking some escape. The air was filling with the vapor, and it burned her lungs with cold fire when she breathed.
Too late she saw the web, had a dark vision of writhing in those glistening strands while a fat spider sucked her blood. With a desperate cry she swerved and was knocked from the saddle by a thick, low branch.
Hard and flat on her back she hit the ground, splashing mud. The rim of a shield, the last piece of armor she had, bit painfully into her spine, causing her to regret the way she wore it strapped over her shoulders. She coughed, struggling for breath through a bruised throat.
Staggering to her feet, she spotted her horse waiting uncertainly in the fog. There was panic in the animal's crazed eyes. It stamped the earth and shook its tangled mane; then suddenly it whirled and galloped out of sight.
She cursed bitterly. Everything she owned was tied to that miserable creature. Everything except her sword, shield and the clothes on her back.
Her father's saddle was gone. Two days before she had carried that saddle for miles, her last legacy, rather than abandon it when her first horse had broken a leg.
She looked around to get bearings. Unslinging the shield, she set it on her right arm. With her left hand she grasped her sword's hilt for reassurance and began to walk.
Afoot there was more time to think rationally. Magical forces were at play in this forest, and she was caught up in them; whether by accident or deliberate design remained to be seen. Weather control was fundamental to anyone with mystic knowledge, yet the suddenness of the cold and the depth of the fog spoke of a powerful, possibly malignant intelligence. And the thunderous beating of wings, of thousands of wings --
She pushed on, stumbling on unseen rocks and roots. Then abruptly, the fog gave way, rolling from her feet so she could see plainly the obstacles in her path. Guidance, she realized, for the mist began to open at odd angles leading her in directions she had not intended to go. She stopped to consider -- and the mist waited for her.
She was lost for sure, and tired of wandering blindly. Holding her shield high, she went where the path led.
Suddenly, the trail ended. She waited expectantly for the fog to open in some new direction, but it did not.
A robed and hooded figure stepped out of the mist not an arm's length away. Neither face nor hands showed beneath the folds of the shrouding garment. Frost whipped out her sword. The point hovered at the Stranger's throat.
"Another move, and I'll run you through," she threatened with a calm she did not feel.
The Stranger spoke her name. Her real name.
Enraged, she raised her blade to slay, but a power took hold of her left arm, and she found she could not strike, nor could she slam the edge of her shield at the unseen face. A subtle dread crept up her spine, changing her desire to kill to a more defensive attitude. She backed a couple of steps, regarding the figure carefully, warily.
"If you speak that name again I swear I'll find some way to gut you, demon or no."
"Very well. Frost. I shall use your chosen name, though it is neither pretty, nor pleasing to the tongue." The voice, a man's, was richly melodic, filled with sweet music, soft, yet strong. He made no move to attack. Still, she kept her sword leveled between them.
"How do you know any name to call me by?"
"Your names are as clear in your mind as words on a page to me," he answered. "Every thought you have ever had is writ thereon, and I have seen a little of it."
It was likely. Once, she had such power, however limited, to see another's mind. That this stranger had free access to her private thoughts did not please her. "Why?" she asked.
"There is a task I must pass on to you. My task first, but you must do it for me now."
"Why should I do anything for you?"
The Stranger shrugged. "I could say that you will do it for money, but I have none to give you. I could say that you will do it to save this miserable world and your own life with it, but you will most likely fail and lose both. Or I could say that you will do it because by undertaking the task and confronting the dangers you may, for a little while, escape the nightmares and memories that torture you, and for that reason I believe you will do as I ask."
Her sword arm trembled, and she struggled to suppress the temper that swelled within her. He knew about the nightmares. He knew it all.
"In plain words, what do you want of me?" she said through clenched teeth. "But I warn you, I'll probably refuse your task. I don't think I like you much."
A hand extended to her. In the palm was a leather-bound book with iron hinges and a lock. The leather was cracked and worn with age. The lock was rusted and of a kind she had never seen before. To judge by the edges, the pages were yellowed and brittle. The thing exuded a musty, molding smell that crept unpleasantly up her nose. Yet, she was attracted to the delicate characters and runes that were carved into the binding. They caught and held her eye. She reached out carefully to touch it.
"You must deliver this to a sorcerer in Chondos."
Frost jerked her hand back. Her grip on the sword tightened. "Do I look like a fool? Chondos is a land ruled by black magic. Sensible men avoid it as they would a plague."
"Because of rumors the Chondites themselves have fostered," the Stranger said. "True, the land is ruled by sorcery, but not all sorcerers are black sorcerers, as you should know. You are a witch yourself."
"No longer," she muttered. "My witch-powers are gone."
The Stranger shook his head. "Your mother's curse only deprived you of certain psychic mechanisms by which you express those powers. The power itself is still within you, though you may never again be able to tap it."
"No matter. I have a sword now."
"In time, you may wish for the return of your skills. The foes you face may not always be human."
"I'm learning," she answered slowly, "that I prefer to see up close who I'm fighting. Or what. There's little enough pleasure in this business and none at all if you can't see your enemy's face when you kill him."
"You put up a good front, but that's only bluster," the Stranger said. "Still, you have a strong spirit. It will serve you in good stead through the days and nights to come."
Suddenly, the figure tilted his head as if listening for something. Frost listened, also. The misty air was still and silent.
"They have found me," he announced calmly. "They must not discover you here, too."
"Who has found you?" She listened again. "I hear nothing."
"There is not much time, please. Take the Book and get far away." He held the ancient tome out to her. "Please!" he urged when she hesitated.
"Not so fast. I still want some answers. Just what is this book, and why must it go to Chondos?"
The Stranger glanced skyward again, yet Frost still heard nothing but her own short breathing.
"There is little time, so listen carefully." He thrust the Book into her arms, brushing aside the sword she held between them. "This is the Book of the Last Battle."
Copyright © 1983 by Robin W. Bailey