The Lords of Hate

Chapter 1  The Frozen Nightmare

    Alorn of Lavandrel, Prince of Born, slept by his wife Annalor in the Castle of Onuma, but his sleep was disturbed. Waking, he rose and crossed to the window of the chamber to stare out at the scarlet stars burning in the deep red sky. The moons had long since set and it would not be long before the blue orb of Talas rose above the horizon, turning the sky to pink. Alorn's mind was filled with unease, but as he brooded he heard Annalor murmuring in her sleep. He turned towards her and as he did so he realised that his own restlessness was but a reflection of hers. She was possessed by some powerful dream which caused her to toss and turn and even to speak wildly. He watched her with concern but as the dream passed his look was replaced by one of tenderness. His own feeling of distress had passed and he was able to sleep peacefully until dawn. They lay close together, his dark blue countenance framed by red curly hair, her skin much paler, hair long and straight and of deep midnight red.
    Next day as they strolled along the high rampart of the castle beneath the orange vault of midday, they looked out over the City of Onuma towards the distant hills of Moren and Alorn asked Annalor about her dream. She stopped still and stared out far into the distance for a long time before she spoke.
    "It is just a dream," she said finally but her voice was tense.
    "Tell me about it," persuaded Alorn gently. "Do not forget that I too have suffered dreams and that I know they cannot be ignored."
    Again Annalor was silent for a while and then began to speak slowly, reluctant to put into words the images that had assailed her sleeping brain.
    "This dream I have had many times. I dream that I am cold, colder than I have ever been, a dark, icy cold that chills my bones and freezes my heart. At first I cannot see; my eyes are filled with a pale yellow light which has no warmth. My ears are filled with grinding crashes. The light fades and dimly I perceive huge blocks of ice, blue and unfathomable in the cold yellow dimness. The ice moves, it shudders and cracks. Snow falls, at first gently and then, hard driven by the wind, it hurtles against me, stinging my eyes and choking my breath. The wind rises from a gentle moan to a hideous howl and then above the wind I hear the voice."
    Annalor paused. Her sky-red eyes were closed; her voice had risen almost to a shriek, like winter wind chasing through the castle turrets. Alorn grasped her hand. It was cold as death. She resumed speaking, her voice low again.
    "The voice is calling. Always it calls 'Feethra, Feethra'. It is a woman's voice, both imperious and beseeching, full of anguish and uncertainty. 'Feethra,' calls the voice, 'Feethra come back to us. Where is the help for which we sent you? Why are you so long away? Feethra, return, I command you.' The wind rises again and the voice is lost. Snow hurtles against me and the dim light fades. I am lost in the cold and the darkness, and the never-ending ululation of the wind."
    After a while, Alorn spoke.
    "How long have you been having this dream?"
    "For many nights now, perhaps ever since my father left for the Great Continent."
    "Does it never vary?"
    Alorn brooded a space.
    "Has the dream no meaning for you?" he asked at last.
    Annalor hesitated.
    "I cannot discern any meaning and yet I cannot dismiss it as meaningless. It troubles me greatly," she whispered and she laid her head on Alorn's breast while he encircled her with his arms and gently stroked her hair.
    "We shall go and consult Merian. He is learned in oneirology", he said decisively. "At the same time we shall see your father. Perhaps he can set your mind at rest."
    Annalor raised her head.
    "Thank you," she answered simply. For the rest of the day she was more lively and playful than she had been for many days, yet so subtly had the melancholy crept upon her, that Alorn had scarcely noticed it and now he marvelled that it should have been so.
    In the evening as they sat at dinner, Alorn related his plans to his father the king. Gault listened gravely.
    "I agree it is unwise to ignore such persistent visions and if anyone can unravel them, it will be Merian. Since Annalor's father is visiting him, it would seem even more desirable that you should go. Will you travel by ship across the Ocean of Storms?"
    Alorn shook his head.
    "I had thought to take one of the great bats. It will be quicker and it is time I put the loss of Jeth behind me and began to cultivate a new mount."
    King Gault nodded.
    "Very well," he agreed. He smiled a little grimly. "I hope this time you will not bring upon us such troubles as resulted from your last flight to the Great Continent."
    Alorn smiled in turn.
    "You know as well as I Father, that those troubles would have come even had I remained here, and perhaps then they would have overwhelmed us."
    "Doubtless that is true," replied Gault. "Nevertheless my hope for your safety and my peace remains. Take good care of yourself and of Annalor."
    That night Alorn was again disturbed by Annalor's dream. She tossed and turned on their couch. It was early in the night and the grey moon Umandrel shone into their chamber. By its light Alorn saw that Annalor's face bore a look of horror and fear that pierced his heart. He knelt beside her and spoke gently, soothingly. Gradually her countenance became more composed and the nightmare receding, she began to breath more evenly. Carefully he woke her and asked about the dream. As the memory of it flooded back she clung to him, shivering.
    "It began as on all the other nights," she said. "I was alone and cold in a frozen world. Snow slanted past me at the behest of the wind and above the wind came the voice, but this time the words were different, and the voice was full of anger. 'Come Feethra', it demanded, 'come and see how we suffer while you tarry. See how we are afflicted while you bring no help.' The world dissolved and then reformed, and I was standing on the coast. The snow had stopped. Above me the vault of the sky was black and strewn with stars, but overhead shone a small intense yellow disc which shed little warmth and though it lit the ground, gave neither light nor colour to the sky. All about me was strange. Even the pale stars were not in their usual patterns and their light had a sinister yellowish tinge. An oily sea heaved before me and washed thickly against the frozen shore. In the distance I saw some mounds of snow which looked artificial and before long a figure emerged from one, but it was too far off and too swathed in clothing for me to be able to see whether or not it was human."
    Annalor halted and buried her face in her hands. Alorn comforted her and presently she resumed.
    "It was what happened next that was so terrifying. As I watched something broke through the surface of the sea - it was a head, a head of monstrous aspect with two multi-faceted eyes, one on each side. Its skin was scaled and from its forehead rose two stalks which ended in long waving antennae. The front of its face was blank from its bald scaly cranium until it reached a large muzzle which opened to show rows of pointed teeth. Below the jaws on each side were long slits which moved regularly open and closed."
    Annalor shuddered.
    "It was hideous. It moved shorewards and as the waves fell away I saw more of the scaled body. It had two pairs of long powerful arms, each of which ended in a claw and in each claw it clutched a stone club. As I watched, more of those brutal heads broke through the surface. The first one climbed onto the ice, walking on a pair of long spindly legs. A short rigid tail jutted out behind it. The creature waited until a number of its fellows had assembled and then they all made off across the snow-covered ice at a fast jerky run. More and more of them waded ashore and set off after the first. I saw that they were making for the snow houses. Before they reached them they were seen. At this the sea creatures began to utter piercing shrieks and to brandish their clubs. The snow dwellers came hurrying out of their mounds, but there were not many of them. They did not attempt to fight but fled across the snows. Their flight was to no avail. The sea creatures caught them and... and they clubbed them to death."
    Annalor's voice had dropped to a whisper. Alorn gave her a small beaker of water from which she sipped.
    "It was then that I heard the voice again. It was full of bitterness and anguish. 'See Feethra, see how we suffer. Return to Ua. Bring allies. Summon our ancient kin'. This was repeated over and over again until I thought it would have driven me mad had I not heard another voice, a voice full of gentle strength and love which said 'Let her alone. Leave her be. She has naught to do with this. She cannot help you'."
    Annalor raised her face to look at Alorn and she smiled.
    "It was your voice. I recognised it and became calm."
    Alorn was now thoroughly alarmed.
    "Tomorrow we must prepare for our journey," he said, "and at dusk we shall leave."
    As twilight stole through the city of Onuma the following evening, Alorn and Annalor gathered their cloaks about them and crossed the courtyard of the citadel to the central tower. Carefully they climbed the narrow stair which clung to the inside wall of the hexagonal shaft, Alorn in front, a lighted torch glowing feebly in his hand. All was silent yet they felt a vibration in the air as the bats hanging aloft stirred and probed their surroundings with their unhuman senses.
    At last they reached the first of the beams from which the bats hung, but Alorn ascended higher yet. For some time he had been observing the bats and he knew which one he wanted. He found it close to the top of the tower. Grasping Annalor's hand he walked out onto the beam from which the bat hung. Rope ladders were suspended from the ocken. Alorn and Annalor sat down on the wooden beam and each in turn swung their legs over the side and descended. Close to the body of the bat, Alorn climbed down until he could reach out and grasp the harness attached to the creature's back. Carefully he transferred his grip from ladder to harness and waited for Annalor to do the same.
    When the two of them were securely strapped in place, Alorn raised to his lips a tiny whistle, and blew into it, his lips and tongue moving to create a remembered pattern. No sound came to human ears, but the bat heard and slowly stretched its wings. Alorn blew again, and this time the bat dropped from its perch, spread its wings, and flew silently up the dark tower and into the darkening sky.
    Alorn blew directions into his whistle. In his ear Alorn wore a tiny crystal which caught the sounds made by the bat and reduced their frequency to one Alorn could hear. At Alorn's behest, the great bat flew purposefully eastward towards the coastal town of Dinnal.
    By the time their mount reached the sea, the twilight had deepened into night. The sky was overcast. No star glimmered and even the light of the moons did not penetrate. Blue-lit windows glowed far below in Dinnal, and the harbour light cast a powerful azure beam out over the black sea. The air was warm. Far to the south could be heard the drum roll of thunder, while the sea heaved lugubriously. The bat flew on and soon the coast-line dropped behind, the last friendly twinkle from Dinnal faded, and even the harbour light was lost to view. Annalor reached out and grasped Alorn's hand. He returned her squeeze, and they felt a companionable sense of security, nestling in the warm fur of the great animal whilst the world stretched emptily away into the night.
    Interval after interval they sped eastward beneath the rain black clouds. Once they caught sight of the lanterns of a fleet. As they passed over they could dimly perceive the pennants of a squadron of frigates from Born heaving and dipping on the deep. About them flapwings circled lazily. The threatened storm did not come and as dawn approached the skies cleared so that Talas rose blue and magnificent into a translucent pink sky. Their mount had begun to emit nervous squeaks as daylight stole across the heavens but Alorn urged it on and eventually a smudge of land appeared on the horizon.
    Soon the bat was swooping down towards woodland where it found a convenient perch. Before leaving it, Alorn gave the bat instructions to return to Onuma the following night and then he and Annalor unstrapped themselves and clambered down through the trees to the ground. Finding a clearing they made a fire and cooked a meal. It was almost noon and the sun shone down into the glade. Tired, they stretched out in its warmth and slept.
    Alorn was awakened by the chill of afternoon as the trees cast their shadows. Annalor too stirred and woke. She sat up and swept her long hair over her head. Then she smiled.
    "I had no dream," she remarked.
    "I am glad to hear it," replied Alorn, "but night will come soon and I think we should make a start on our trek."
    The trees grew thickly, the steely ocken mingled with the herbalist's aldaran and the strange laman tree. Alorn threaded his way through them, crushing underfoot the thick undergrowth of enchanter's beard with its fluffy seed cases. Annalor followed closely until the wood thinned and the plain lay ahead of them. Now they could walk side by side through the waving herbage of the Red Grass Plain. Here in the open they felt the warmth of the sun again. The sky had reddened and a few brown clouds had appeared on the horizon.
    They struck out north-eastward in the direction Alorn reckoned Merian's cottage lay. They felt refreshed by their slumber and Annalor was not anxious to sleep again too soon for fear of the dream returning, so they resolved to walk through the night. They easily found their way by the light of the moons and stars. The constellations of the Wheel, the Rider and the Ship kept them company. Woods they avoided, walking round them being quicker, they were sure, than trying to find a way through in the dark. All about them were the sounds of the night, the call of the click-click and the nighthoot predominating.
    The next morning they found some shade at the edge of a copse, ate and then slept. Once again Annalor's sleep was free of dreams. Whether it was because they were now far from Born, or because she slept by day and not by night she did not know but was reluctant to do anything that might bring back the nightmare.
    So they journeyed many nights, sheltering from rain in the thickets and spinnies which dotted the Red Grass Plain. They felt gay and carefree, alone in each other's company. Sometimes they ran for sheer joy through the waving grass beneath the stars until they collapsed exhausted but laughing. It was the season of Pollination and the nights were balmy. From time to time Alorn's keen eyes scanned the horizons on the chance of seeing a herd of centaurs, and perhaps even his old friend Kapallitas but they saw no one. All the time, Alorn kept them moving steadily inland and northward towards the Hills of the Wind.
    It was a bright star-lit night when they first spied the hills, rising up black against the deep red sky of midnight. Umandrel and Hirandrel had already sped across the heavens casting their grey and red light. By dawn the walkers were close to the foothills. In the fresh clear light of morning, the Hills of the Wind rose steeply into the pink sky.
    "We need to be further to the north," said Alorn. "It will be easier to continue walking over the plain as long as we keep the hills always in sight."
    A day or so later, as they slept in the morning sun, Annalor began to moan in her sleep. Alorn woke instantly and watched her with concern sure that her dream had returned. He took her gently in his arms and spoke to her soothingly. When she had become calmer he woke her.
    "Your dream came back," he said.
    Annalor nodded.
    "It was as before," she told him. "When I heard the voice, it said, 'Why do you hide from me Feethra; why do you seek to escape my pleas? There is nowhere you can hide. I shall always find you. Yet it is hard for me to believe that you have abandoned us; that you flee from us. That is not what we expect from such as you. So much depends on you - yea everything depends on you; you must not fail us.' Then your voice began to drown that other and I returned to our beloved Lavandrel."
    Annalor shuddered.
    "We must find Merian quickly. I cannot bear many more of these dreams."
    Alorn reassured her.
    "It cannot be far now. Since the dreams have found you again, and daylight seems no barrier to them, let's hasten. We need to travel by day so that I can keep a look out for the track we must take."
    So Alorn and Annalor bent their steps northward and strode rapidly across the deep red sward. Their idyll was over and they were oppressed by urgency. As though in tune with their mood the sky grew overcast, brown clouds looming up over the hills to hide the sun and inject a chill into the air.
    In the early afternoon they descried the outlines of a wood on the horizon and directly in their path. As they drew nearer they realised it was more of a forest. A close-set wall of trees marched away westward as far as they could see, and to the east managed even to storm the lower slopes of the high hills. Alorn frowned.
    "We must have come to the hills further south than I had intended," he said. "I had not expected to come across so extensive a plantation."
    "How wide might this wood be?" asked Annalor.
    "I don't know," confessed Alorn. "I fear it may extend some considerable distance northward as it obviously does to the west."
    "To go round it to the west would seem a long journey," said Annalor, "but the trees do not appear to extend so far eastward."
    "That is true," agreed Alorn, "and although the way may be steep on those slopes, it should at any rate be direct."
    By common consent, they turned aside to pick their way up the incline. The ground became rougher. Bare boulders protruded and the easy turf struggled against rough bracken and stunted aldaran which had escaped the confines of the wood. The warmth generated by their exertions contrasted with the cool air and made them feel clammy and uncomfortable. Although they were soon able to veer northward, they found that as they did, so the wood thrust further up the hillside forcing them to yet higher ground. It was awkward walking across the steeply sloping ground and Alorn feared a ricked ankle would be a likely accident. The pair eventually found themselves so far up the hill that Alorn called a halt.
    "It might be easier," he said, panting and wiping the sweat from his brow, "if we made straight for the ridge and walked the rest of the way along the crest. We can easily drop down to the plain again once we are past the woods."
    Annalor nodded, breathless.
    They set off, zig-zagging upward towards the skyline above which the stormriders circled. The folds in the hills were deceptive and as they seemed to approach the summit, so further slopes appeared beyond, but finally, late in the afternoon they found themselves on the ridge looking out over a shallow valley to another line of hills further east. They turned to look the way they had come and only then did they appreciate how high they had climbed. The ground dropped away from where they stood to the dark red trees of what now appeared a sizable forest stretching away north and west, its boundaries lost in a pink haze. Above them arched the infinite sky. A feeling of intense loneliness assailed them.
    "Come on," urged Alorn, "we have further to go than I thought."
    It was not too difficult walking along the ridge but it seemed endless. At times Alorn thought he detected traces of a path although the stony ground was so lacking in vegetation that it was difficult to be sure. Their way led them up and down the undulating backbone of the hills. Twilight came slowly on the heights. The plain was lost in rapidly deepening gloom but the upper air retained a luminous quality so that they seemed to be walking on the coast of a silent sea.
    At length fatigue compelled them to halt. They descended a short distance into the dark where they could take shelter from the night winds and were close enough to the trees to be able to collect twigs and branches for a fire. Alorn struck a spark to the tinder from his flint. Blue flames leaped up and the warmth and light of the blaze transformed their mood as they sat close together eating some of their dwindling supply of food and drinking water from Alorn's flask. The stars appeared and sparks flew up to meet them. The melody of the nightsinger floated to them on a breeze.
    Taking a flaming brand for illumination, Alorn collected together a large heap of firewood. He and Annalor spent the night talking of times past, when they had been part of their world's struggle against the Grey Maker. Then they had faced danger and fear separated. Now at least they were together and the courage they drew from each other and from the memory of former trials overcome, helped to hold at bay the forebodings which Annalor's nightmares had brought. She dozed fitfully, waking with a start as she felt the cold of that place of her dreams seeping into her bones. Alorn heaped more wood on the fire, and shadows danced in the blue firelight while Annalor shivered and leaned closer to the blaze.
    So the night passed in dozing and talking and staring into the fire, and at last morning came, a pink glow in the east beyond the ridge. The stars faded and the empty sky was pure and clear like fresh water. Alorn and Annalor stretched their aching limbs, tidied up their camp site and stamped out the glowing embers of their fire. Then they retraced their steps to the ridge.
    For several days they walked due north along the spine of the hills. Even when the forest receded from the slopes and finally ceased altogether, they decided to remain on the heights.
    After one particularly restless night, they moved off very early. At first it was cool in the early morning and they were glad of the exercise to keep them warm but as the sun rose higher it grew hot and the colour of the sky deepened to a brilliant orange. To the east the valleys were filled with mist above which the hilltops stood out like islands in a ghostly sea. As they toiled on they glanced down from time to time at the mist, which seemed to boil and foam as the sun reached it. Soon clouds of vapour became detached from the seething mass and came rushing up the steep hillside towards them. The mist was thin but cold as it poured over them and down towards the coastal plain. The river of mist thickened and blanketed the sun, leaving them in a cold and impenetrable fog. Annalor shivered. Alorn paused and turned to her.
    "We should be all right if we keep always on the highest ground, but we'd better go slowly."
    It was as well that Alorn heeded his own warning, for abruptly he found himself at the brink of a precipice which dropped away into unseen depths. He and Annalor withdrew from the edge. They looked to right and left but could see nothing in the enshrouding mist.
    "Let's go down towards the left," suggested Annalor. "At the worst we shall end up on the plain. If we go eastward we might wander forever among hills and valleys."
    Alorn nodded and they carefully picked their way down the slope keeping a safe distance between themselves and the cliff edge. The ground was rocky and broken. The chasm seemed to bend away northward and they followed it, the slope growing more shallow until at last they were on almost level ground and the cliff had vanished. Without it they felt bereft of direction. The ground was so jumbled that in clambering over blocks of stone and deviating round rocks and boulders, Alorn found it impossible to be sure in which direction they were going and whether they were going straight at all. He stopped bewildered, and it was then that they heard the tapping - quiet and intermittent, formless and ghostly, it seemed to be moving inexorably towards them.

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