Brand woke. His heart thrashed in his chest. His stomach churned, and the blood in his veins ran chill. But he spared no thought for any of those things.
He lay still, wrapped in his bedclothes, while his eyes strained to see and his ears to detect whatever had roused him from forgotten dreams.
It felt cold. It was dark also, being in that last stretch of night when the hours were long and the dawn, though near, was not yet come. It was that period when the human spirit ebbed lowest, where wills were weakest and shadows pooled the most deeply.
He saw nothing out of place. He heard no noise that should not have been. Yet his heart raced ever faster, and sweat, cold and clammy, trailed down his face and onto his throat like the lingering fingers of ghosts.
All through the city a questing breeze touched and pulled and tweaked at anything loose. A weather vane creaked as it turned on some high roof. A stable door banged unheeded, and in the palace where Brand lay shivering white curtains danced palely in the open windows.
He concentrated on the breeze. He did not like it. The open window near his bed looked over the city, but he saw nothing amiss far below. Yet the air was unnaturally cold on his face. Even as the thought came to him its fluttering movement stilled. The curtains ceased their billowing, and the cobbled streets below grew quiet once more.
He let out a long breath and relaxed. All he heard now was a whisper of air down the corridor outside his room and the faint creak of doors.
The warmth under the blankets began to soothe him back to sleep. The day was not yet begun. There was no need to stir. He could rest a little while longer and gather his strength for the toils yet to come.
Nor was he even wanted here, not among this foreign people. They did not like him. They did not respect him. They thought him far too young for his high position. Yet he had spilled his blood in deadly battles to serve them, defied death for their benefit, but most would still like to see his back, to see him walk off into the wild lands from whence he came.
And that was his desire – he ached to return to his homeland – to walk the paths that once he knew and to reclaim the life that had been stolen from him. Yet ties of loyalty held him, and he would not break them. The king of Cardoroth was a great man. To him he owed much, and he would serve and help in any way that he could.
Brand stirred, restless once more. Almost he had been lulled, but he knew sorcery when he felt it. Through a fog that dimmed his thoughts he forced himself to sit up in bed. His head suddenly cleared. Many in the city might wish him gone, but not the king. Gilhain trusted him. He had given him opportunity when others had not, and respect when others offered only disdain.
Gilhain! The last dregs of confusion scattered. Sorcery was afoot and the king would be its target. Brand leapt out of bed. No time he had to don chain mail or helm or the white surcoat of his station. He pulled on trousers and boots, drew the sword of his forefathers from its ancient sheath, and ran bare chested to the door.
He put his hand to the metal knob. The cold he felt there shocked him like a blow. He flung it open anyway and let go swiftly. Immediately a blast of frigid air assailed him, and as he ran the length of the corridor he saw frost on the marble floor and the iciness of it bit his unshod feet.
“Durlin!” he called loudly, summoning the king’s bodyguards who slept in rooms along the passageway.
He sprinted ahead, but he saw nobody and heard no reply.
“Durlin!” he yelled again. “To the king!”
The door to Gilhain’s chamber was now before him. The two Durlin stationed there lay slumped on the ground. A quick glance told him that they were dead, though no blood marked their white surcoats.
Beneath the door strange lights flickered, and he heard the first call of any person beside himself.
“Guards!” It was the queen. Fear gripped her voice and made it shrill.
A moment he hesitated, knowing that on the other side sorcery and mayhem filled the room and that he would likely die if he entered. But he was the Durlindrath, leader of the bodyguards, and when he swore his oath to protect the king he had done so from the heart.
He kicked with all his might. The door, built of sturdy oak slabs to protect against assault, did not budge. But the metal of the bolt that held it in place shattered within its icy casing. Shards from the ruined doorjamb flew into the air, and the door careened inward on its great hinges.
Brand sprang into the king’s chamber. The rapid breath from his heaving chest turned to mist before him.
Yet more vapor, like a roiling fog, swirled within the room. There was no frost here, for the floor was laid with deep carpet, but ice hung in ribbons from the windows and sheeted the marble walls.
Gilhain and the queen were held at bay against the far wall. The king grasped a mighty sword in his two hands while she raised high a long knife. Six figures pressed toward them. They were wraithlike, gray and vaporous as the fog that eddied in the room. They glided on tall legs and their long arms reached forward like creeping fingers of mist toward the king’s throat. The wraiths had faces: gaunt, cold-eyed and cruel. A pale light lit their hollow cheeks and glimmered silver-white in their trailing hair
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