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Opis ebooka A Bright Power Rising - Noel Coughlan

AscendantSun's memory stretches back to the bloody birth of the cosmos. Created to serve a dead god, he tired of his empty religion and adopted the faith of his former enemies. Now, a threat from the past is forcing him to choose between his new friends and his own people.Escaping enslavement made Grael a hero in others’ eyes. As everything he has won begins to slip away, he strives to protect his loved ones from both the Elfin invaders and the machinations of his own ruler.Everyone else considers Garscap's childhood tragedy to be a curse, but he knows it marked him for greatness. Mercenary, manipulative and murderous, he has the mind of a great leader, but not the heart. Will his ruthlessness prove ultimately to be his people’s salvation or their bane?Prophesy is against them. Numbers, too. But the greatest threat is mistrust. Can they forge an effective alliance before the bright power rising in the east destroys them?

Opinie o ebooku A Bright Power Rising - Noel Coughlan

Fragment ebooka A Bright Power Rising - Noel Coughlan

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Stretches

Sunrest

Or Legion Ranks & Structure

PROLOGUE

PART 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

PART 2

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

PART 3

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

A Word From The Author

The Parting Gift

The Unconquered Sun

Acknowledgments

About Noel Coughlan

by Noel Coughlan

A BRIGHT POWER RISING

Copyright © 2014 Noel Coughlan

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover Illustration © Marek Purzychi (http://igreeny.deviantart.com/)

Maps © Rob Antonishen (http://www.cartocopia.com/)

Morpheus Font was used with the permission of Eric Oehler

Edited by Finish The Story (http://www.finish-the-story.com/Editing.htm)

Additional proofreading by Proofed to Perfection (http://www.proofedtoperfection.com/)

Published by Photocosmological Press (http://photocosm.org/)

Epub Edition 2014: ISBN:978-1-910206-01-0

Build: H1

For my wife, Colette,

who made this book possible.

More detailed versions of the Stretches map is available at http://photocosm.org/elysion-maps/.

More detailed versions of the Sunrest map is available at http://photocosm.org/elysion-maps/.

PROLOGUE

Never enter the forest.

The Gilt Spider, the Elfin hunter of men, waited there with webs of silken gold to catch naughty little boys. Granyr had warned her son many times. Why had he not listened?

Because he was too young, still clumsy at speaking, grasping only half of what was said to him. The fault was hers. She should have kept a better eye on him. A moment of distraction had robbed Granyr of her reason for living.

Stifling her sobs, trying to rub away the tremble in her hands on her skirt, she stared helplessly at the wood encircling her farm. There was no time to search the house and shed again, not if he had blundered into the forest.

The sensible course, however demeaning, was to summon help from Pigsknuckle. If she raised the alarm, the villagers would form search parties and cover a lot more ground than she could alone. But her heart screamed otherwise. If they had let her settle in the village instead of this wild, lonely place, her child would be safe. If her husband was still alive, things would be different. She fought unwanted images of a great, y-shaped cross drenched in his blood. This was his family’s reward for his sacrifice: his wife made a pariah; the son he had never seen lost and perhaps dead.

May the Forelight damn the Pigsknucklers for their conceit. She had to find her boy.

Instinct, primal and desperate, swept her forward, her son’s pet name bursting from her chest. “Lilak, where are you?”

As she punched her way into the monster that had swallowed her child, briars mauled her face and hands, tugged and tore at her dress. Her gaze sifted the sun-dappled gloom. Any glimmer of movement might be her son. She tried to steady her rasping breath to hear his plaintive whimper.

Soon, she was adrift in the monotony of the forest, as lost as the child she sought. She shivered at the prospect of the approaching night, an inevitable pall declaring all hope dead.

A howl filled the forest and reverberated through her. Other wails rose up in answer. Her fingers sought her knife, but the scabbard was empty. She groaned at her stupidity. The blade lay in the hut, forgotten in her panic to find her child. She could only guess at the proximity of the wolf pack, but if they found her unarmed and alone, they would kill her.

Granyr searched the forest floor for a fallen branch to use as a club. Most were too rotten, too flimsy, or too unwieldy, but she eventually found a suitable one. The rough bark of her makeshift weapon chafed against her calloused palms. Its heft was reassuring, though it would be no match for a wolf pack.

A high-pitched squeal tore through the wolves’ madrigal. Her terror forgotten, she rushed toward the cry, her cudgel cradled in her arms. It had to be her son.

The howling ceased. Barking and snarling tore apart the silence. A lupine yelp was cut short by the sound of a heavy blow.

She veered toward the noise. Hunters must have happened upon the wolves’ trail. Help was nearby.

She heard the whisper of the stream before she stumbled upon it. Blood tinged its trickling waters. Shivering at the prospect of what she might find, she headed upstream. A lupine corpse bled into the brook—its body twisted awkwardly, the skull crushed in and its lower jaw unhinged and hanging in an incongruous grin.

Another yelp alerted her that the wolf’s slayer had struck again.

Granyr rushed toward the cry. Beneath a broken tree stump lay another dead wolf. Rivulets of blood flowed down its muzzle from a single puncture wound between its eyes.

A soft whine drew her attention to the bushes to her right. She cautiously probed the foliage with the club. The stick brushed through the leaves unharmed. Raising her weapon above her shoulder, she stepped into the thicket.

A snarling frenzy of fur, legs, and jaws writhed in mid-air in front of her. She brought her cudgel down on the beast, delivering a glancing blow that sent it into a convulsion of rabid barks. Unnerved by the futility of her strike, Granyr stared uselessly at the creature as it swayed from side to side. It took time to gather her thoughts. The wolf posed no threat. Hanging upside down by one paw, it could not reach her.

She glanced up at the rope from which it dangled. It was a light yellow-green cord, surprisingly slender given its obvious strength. No mortal hand could make a rope so fine. The maker of the trap was not a Stretcher, like her, or even human. It had to be the Gilt Spider. The trapholding the wolf had been intended for unwitting trespassers in the Elf’s domain.

The memory of a thousand childish nightmares made her back away from the wolf. She turned and ran in no particular direction. The forest whirled dizzily about her. A gantlet of branches lacerated her face and hands.

She burst from the oppressive gloom into the clearing around her home where she collapsed, weeping, and pounded the ground beneath her fists. Lilak was still lost somewhere in the maze of shadow behind her, perhaps already the Gilt Spider’s prey.

“Forelight, I beg you. Protect my son,” she pleaded, but her heart cried otherwise. The saints claimed that the Forelight was love itself, but what love had he shown to her? He had stolen her husband and now her boy.

She picked herself up. Her grubby fingers tried to brush away the blood, sweat, and dust caked to her face. The sun was already slipping behind the holy mountain called the Pig. Night was spreading over the valley. She couldn’t abandon her son to it. She needed a torch and her knife.

Utterly spent, she trudged toward her home, dreading its chill emptiness.

A healthy pillar of smoke rose from her home. Surely, by now, the fire should be ash. A small figure stood at the entrance. She quickened her pace. Aching muscles strained as she ran to her son and clasped him to her bosom. Here was Lilak, alive and safe! Praise the Forelight! Someone must have found him—the same person who had tended the fire—but that mystery could wait. For this exquisite moment, it was enough to embrace her son, to feel his arms hugging her neck; to have his sweet, childish babble tickle her ear. The horrors of the forest no longer mattered now. She had Lilak again.

Granyr gently held him at arm’s length. “Never wander off again,” she chided, attempting to conceal her relief with a frown. “Do you promise?”

Lilak nodded with innocent solemnity. She pressed him to her once more. Something in his hair attracted her attention, an alien thread of gold among the black. Its significance squeezed her chest so tight she could hardly breathe. The real Lilak, her Lilak, was gone forever. The Gilt Spider had taken him and what stood before her was a cruel fraud.

She shoved the sham boy away and screamed.

PART 1

GRAEL

Chapter 1

A beauty as proud as the sun,

Are the tears of the Golden Light.

Beware the eyes of the Fair One

Lest those bright fires consume your sight.

~From Alackalas and the Fair Princess.

Every step pulled the Pig a little more from the sky. Already, distance had reduced its snowy peak to just another crooked tooth in the jaw of the Stretches Mountains. Whenever the sight of his mountain folded into the winding terrain, Grael feared it lost forever.

Before him, a rope stretched. One end was knotted around his wrists, the other tethered to a cart bloated with wares amassed by the Jinglemen on their trading expedition. No doubt some of these goods were ill-gotten, like Grael.

From beneath the canopy stretching over the Jinglemen’s precarious pile, Harath Melkath glared, as cold and distant as the mountain that bred her. A purple bruise marred her left cheek. Her red hair was disheveled. Their captors had ripped her halo from her head and tied the circlet of twisted white and blue cloth across her mouth. The profane sight was so sickening that Grael struggled to look upon it. To her credit, the daughter of the most powerful man in Pigsknuckle maintained her customary haughtiness, even when bound and gagged. Grael wanted to offer her words of consolation, but the accusation in her stare kept him silent. She blamed him for their plight, and it was difficult to disagree. If he hadn’t attracted this scum to Pigsknuckle, she would still be safe there.

His own halo clung to his head by a single braid. It danced a precarious jig against his temple with each step, threatening to forsake him at any moment. The prospect filled him with dread. It was all he was, all he believed in. A tangible statement that he was a Stretcher,a true worshiper of the Forelight. The colors even proclaimed him as a Pigsknuckler. What was he without it?

He picked up his pace. If he could slacken the rope, he might be able to grab the halo before it fell off completely.

A whip lacerated his shoulder with the force of lightning. His legs wilted, and he fell. The wagon dragged him along the grating earth, straining his shoulders and arms to the point of breaking.

The air filled with the tinkle of dancing metal that gave the merchants their name. Their leader, Tarum Sire, halted his horse by the cart. He yelled to the driver, “Don’t pull him apart, Hackit. He’s no good damaged.” He looked down at Grael. His bearskin coat created the impression of great bulk. From a necklace of black feathers and shell beads hung a wooden fish. “Are you all right, boy?”

“I am fine,” Grael said, ignoring his scrapes and pains as he quickly picked himself off the ground to prove his point. To say anything else put his value in question. Tarum’s concern was limited to his coin pouch, and he had no use for a cripple.

Grael’s eyes sought Harath. Her wide-eyed concern salved his pain. For the first time that he could remember, she looked on him with sympathy.

“He was trying to escape,” the grinning bundle of rags driving the cart slurred, directing a malign stare at Grael. “He was trying to reach the girl so he could free her.”

Tarum Sire’s belly laugh brimmed with smug menace. He stroked the ends of the black mustache curving to his chin, his frosty blue eyes narrowing. “For your sake, I hope that was not your intention. Remember, boy, you are a long way from your village. This is the Gilt Spider’s land, and no place for solitary travel.”

Grael glowered at the Jingleman. Threatening him with children’s tales! Despite what mothers told their innocent broods, the chances of being taken by the Gilt Spider were remote.

Tarum Sire stared at him for a moment, then threw back his head and shook with laughter. “Besides, you wanted to go to the city of Formicary,” he sneered. “You are just entering through Shackle Gate.”

“Aye, for you, it’s the wrong gate,” Hackit mocked. “But it’s the gate that pays us best.” He peered down at Harath. “Don’t worry, deary. I’m sure the Sire has finer things planned for you than working in the mines.”

“No less back-breaking, though,” Tarum Sire quipped.

Harath kicked against the side of the cart.

Tarum Sire’s fat laugh lingered as he galloped away. Hackit’s wheezing cackle choked on a fit of coughing. He cracked his whip. Grael was thankful that it was directed at the hides of the draught animals and not his. The cart shuddered forward.

Still smarting from his fall, Grael trudged behind. The gentle clapping of his halo was gone. He moaned. The final concession to his slavery had been made. Better to be the Gilt Spider’s victim than to suffer such humiliation.

As the sun slipped behind the darkening mountains, the caravan halted by a small stream. Exhausted and aching, Grael plunked down on a tuft of grass and watched the Jinglemen set up camp. Soon they were all sprawled around the smoking campfire, waiting for their dinner. The smell of cooking meat made Grael’s mouth water.

Hackit looked at him and smiled. The old Jingleman leapt up. He chuckled softly as he limped over to his cart. “Pardon, deary,” he said as he rummaged inside. His search terminated in a wheezy laugh. What was Hackit up to?

Hackit carried a bag under his arm as he returned to the campfire. “Let’s see what treats the young lad has brought us.”

Tethered like an animal, Grael listened to the Jinglemen as they divvied out the contents of his backpack.

“Hey, Pigsknuckle boy,” Hackit quipped as he licked pastry off his fingers. “Your mother’s a good cook.”

Another Jingleman sighed. “Pigsknuckle, where the streets, if there were any, would be paved with goat droppings.”

Tarum stood up and puffed out his chest. In a baritone voice reminiscent of Widan Melkath, Pigsknuckle’s politician, he swung one arm wide and said, “Welcome to Pigsknuckle, at the foot of the Pig, the last place for pilgrims to have a dump without committing sacrilege on the holy mountain till they reach Pigsback.”

The taunts lingered with Grael in the dark, cold night. It was hard to accept his squalid fate. There had to be some way to escape the horrors of Formicary's mines, and free Harath from a certainly despicable fate, but Grael couldn’t find it. The cord lashed around his wrists was too stout to break or chew through. Appeals to the Jinglemen's compassion were futile, and he had nothing with which to buy his freedom—his captors had already taken everything he possessed. Concocting some kind of hidden treasure to whet the Jinglemen's avarice and bargain for his release was a tempting gambit. Alone, he might have risked it, but he could not put Harath in even greater jeopardy. Nor could he abandon her if a chance for flight arose. They must escape together or not at all. But such an opportunity was unlikely. Her presence was a stronger fetter than any rope.

“Are you all right?” Harath whispered.

It was the first time she had ever spoken to him. Shyness had always made him avoid her. She had been like an Elfin maiden, a prize too great for a mere mortal like him.

“I'm fine.” His answer was reflexive. “They didn't hurt you, did they?”

“My honor is intact.”

Grael's cheeks burned. The possibility had never entered his head. “How did they catch you?”

“We had better be quiet in case they hear us. I’ve had enough of being gagged.”

“I meant no offense.”

She made no reply.

“Harath, are you there? Say something.”

The silence reproached his crassness. He had set out to Formicary partly to win her admiration. Long before he left Pigsknuckle, his imagination had mapped out his adventure as a series of simple steps. After a profitable stint as a mercenary, he could return home as a rich man like Garscap Torp and ask for Harath’s hand in marriage. Now, with his plans ruined by the Jinglemen’s treachery, his one guilty consolation was that circumstances had conspired to throw him together with Harath. And almost the first word out of his mouth had caused her to spurn him.

***

The Pigshead was an ideal hiding place, secluded and forbidding. From an early age, Pigsknucklers learned to avoid the eerie geologic feature, a ridge protruding from the precipitous mountainside. The promontory's gentle slope terminated at another precipice and inclined inward, creating the impression of a giant snout. This, legend maintained, was the face of the mountain.

The villagers fervently believed those who trespassed in its shadow risked waking the monster. Saints knew this was nonsense. A saint had petrified the creature, and miraculous works by a priest of the Forelight could not be undone so easily. But the tenets of childhood still haunted Saint Charlin, so he tread softly.

The object of his visit was another nightmare of his youth—the Gilt Spider. The very name conjured terror. Every time a hunter failed to return home or a child disappeared, it was whispered.

He raised the hem of his cassock and splashed across the little stream beneath the snout. The shade concealed a cave entrance.

“Forelight, protect your servant, the humblest of saints,” he whispered so softly that only his god might hear him.

He squeezed into the narrow opening. The crevice constricted around him, forcing his body into ever more elaborate contortions in order to progress. Plunging through the earth like this was unnatural, but he had no choice other than to push forward. It was tempting to seek reassurance from whatever sliver of sunlight that had followed him into this rocky vice, but in the cramped space, to even glance back risked injury, entrapment, or worse.

Relief at stumbling into the wide inner chamber was tempered by the knowledge that he had to suffer that dreadful passage again to exit. A sweet scent dispelled a little of the cavern’s earthy smell. Neat rows of slender candles on the floor wove a shifting web of light and shadow across the ceiling. At the far end stood two y-shaped crosses. One was the Forelight’s holy symbol, a furka, in gold. The other was the Gilt Spider, dressed in the black robes of a saint, arms raised high and head pressed against one shoulder, in the prayerful pose of a devout Stretcher. Though Charlin had witnessed this before, the incongruity of the scene remained jarring.

The Elf ceased his prayers, dropped his arms to his side, and turned to face Charlin. Candlelight sparkled in his amber eyes and polished his flaxen skin into living gold. On a mess of aureate curls rested the black halo of a saint. The creature's beauty was alien and had a distasteful taint of femininity. Charlin directed his gaze at the floor to avoid the Elf's hypnotic stare.

The Elf’s dulcet tones filled the cave. “Has something happened to Saint Sebryn?”

“The abbot of Saint Odran’s remains in good health,” Charlin replied.

“You never call it Pigsback,” the Elf observed.

“I am not here to discuss names. Saint Sebryn sent me here on an urgent matter. Harath Melkath, the daughter of the Politician of Pigsknuckle, has disappeared.”

“Sebryn knows better than to blame me for her vanishing.”

The lack of indignation in the creature's voice made Charlin shiver. It was a pity that Saint Sebryn was not hale enough to do his own unsavory errands. The abbot might be convinced of this creature's good faith, but the unearthliness of the Elf made Charlin's instincts scream otherwise.

“Of course not.” Charlin almost choked on his words. A cough exacerbated his discomfort.

The Elf filled a cup from a pitcher and passed it to Charlin. He sipped, then sipped some more. The beverage was like a wine, but Charlin didn’t recognize the fruit. An aftertaste of something sweet and delicate lingered—honey perhaps. It was rather good, and it softened his cough.

“It’s one of my few luxuries from home,” the Elf said. “You were saying?”

“Saint Sebryn wants your help to find the politician’s daughter. On the same day she vanished, some wandering traders—we call them Jinglemen—visited the village. They may have abducted her.” Charlin’s cheeks reddened. “If that's the case, then they hold another hostage—my brother. He secured passage with them to Formicary.”

“Why do the Pigsknucklers not pursue these Jinglemen?”

Charlin took a deep breath. “They don’t suspect the Jinglemen. The Pigsknucklers believe the Gilt Spider took her.”

“You didn’t disabuse them of this fallacy?”

“The decision was Saint Sebryn's. The Pigsknucklers must not suspect this arrangement.” Charlin waved one hand vaguely around the cavern.

There was a hint of impertinence in the Elf’s wan smile. “But surely they would accept such an insight as a saintly miracle. The Pigsknucklers could pursue the Jinglemen, and I could be left in peace.”

This interrogation was irksome. Nobody else would dare question a saint’s decision. “To claim a miracle where there is none is a terrible sin. Besides, by now the Jinglemen are well beyond the reach of Pigsknuckle. Any pursuit by the Pigsknucklers would have to be negotiated with the other villages along the Jinglemen’s route, and of course, with the monasteries to which those villages owe allegiance. Progress would be slow at best. It may also lead to unanswerable questions from other saints.”

The Elf raised an eyebrow. “Unanswerable questions?”

“We cannot lie under any circumstances, as you know. The best we can do is to avoid the truth.”

“Indeed. If I find the Jinglemen, and they have your missing girl, what am I to do? I took a vow of pacifism. My reputation alone may not be enough to free her.”

“Saint Sebryn has instructed me to release you from your oath, if you are willing.” It was sickening to loose the Gilt Spider again upon an unsuspecting world, but this creature might be Grael's only hope.

The Elf was silent for the longest time before he spoke. “I will do as Saint Sebryn wishes.”

Charlin slipped Saint Sebryn’s scroll from inside his cassock. He unrolled it and read the beginning. “Place your hands on the furka.” His voice trembled as he began the convoluted rite to absolve the creature of its sacred pledge.

Chapter 2

The unlucky, the foolish, the bold,

The Gilt Spider’s latest prey await,

Enshrouded in webs of silken gold,

Their snarer’s keen blade to carve their fate.

~From Alackalas and the Fair Princess.

Days turned with the wagon’s wheels, slow, grinding, and unmerciful. Whenever the vehicle stuck in mud or hit an obstacle, Grael became another beast of burden. The rest of the time, the wagon dragged him along, wringing out his last vestiges of hope.

Hackit took a particular dislike to him, seizing every opportunity to goad him with his whip. Once, early on, Harath made the mistake of trying to stay Hackit’s hand.

“Leave him alone,” she had blurted as the leather seared Grael’s shoulder, forcing him to his knees.

“Leave him alone,” Hackit repeated, raising a finger with each word. As each finger curled back into his palm, the whip flicked at Grael. The first blow left him face down in the dirt. He squirmed as the second and third lashes struck his back.

“Anything else to say, deary?” Hackit asked. “Mm? Mm? I thought not. As for you, boy, if you don’t get to your feet now, you never will.”

After that she never intervened again, but whenever Hackit lashed Grael, the concern in her gray-green eyes salved the sting. The foul old lecher ignored Harath most of the time, probably out of fear for what Tarum Sire might do, should he damage her. Scars would lower her worth to Formicary’s whoremongers.

Every evening, Grael watched the Jinglemen gather around the fire to eat and swap the same old bawdy tales and grubby dreams of wealth and sexual adventure.

Tarum Sire was deaf to his men’s pleas for grog. “In a foreign land it is best to stay sober,” he growled when pushed on the subject.

Their dry revelry soon lapsed into listlessness, and one by one, they drifted away to their bunks to sleep off the night.

This enforced temperance was a great comfort to Grael. He shuddered at the possible drunken antics of such coarse imaginations. Particularly with a beautiful woman in tow.

But Hackit was the most persistent petitioner, the most plaintive, the most fawning. “It’s bitter cold,” he lisped one evening as he stroked his dirty beard. “It makes my old bones shiver. I could use a little something to warm me up.”

Grael held his breath. Would Hackit succeed this time?

“Drink your tea then,” Tarum Sire grunted.

“Ah, Sire, tea might burn fingers and sting the mouth, but it goes cold in the belly. I need a proper warmth there. Something to last through the night.”

Tarum Sire pointed to the fire. “Eat it, if you must.”

“What?”

“Eat the flame. Like one of those fire swallowers in Formicary. Then you will have plenty of heat in your belly.”

Grael exhaled as the Jinglemen snickered at Hackit’s expense. On other occasions, such gentle teasing had been sufficient to silence the old Jingleman.

But not this night.

“True, Sire,” Hackit said. “The flame looks right warming, no mistake. But there’s one problem. I might singe my beard.”

Grael tensed at the Jinglemen’s chuckles.

“Hackit’s beard’s so greasy, if it caught fire, it’d burn like a candle,” Scaral, the heavy Jingleman with drooping eyelids, said, patting Hackit on the shoulder.

Hackit grinned, exposing his sparse, rotten teeth. “Ah, please, Sire. One sip of firewater, enough to moisten the tongue and fortify the stomach, and I’ll be happy for the rest of the trip. You won’t hear another word from me. I promise by the Seven Lights.”

“Go on, Sire,” Gristle said. His fingers played with the copper beads in his long, silver beard. “Nobody has ever seen Hackit happy before.”

“I don’t know if I can take Hackit being happy,” Tarum Sire said with a devilish grin. “Or recognize him, for that matter.”

“Never mind about making him happy,” Scaral said. “Making him shut up all the way back to Formicary—that’s worth a few sips of liquor.”

“Sips?” Tarum Sire repeated.

“It’s bad for a man to drink alone,” Gristle said, his face radiating mock innocence as his hand polished his bald pate. “Unhealthy. Would you not agree, lads?”

Exaggerated nods and playful smiles expressed hearty approval for the sentiment. A few licked parched lips at the prospect.

As Tarum Sire played with his mustache, Grael silently begged the Forelight. For the love of your servants, keep this unbeliever from succumbing to this temptation. This once. Please.

Tarum slowly rose to his feet, sauntered to one of the wagons, and retrieved a small ceramic jar. The other Jinglemen, giggling like naughty children, scattered and sacked their belongings, mustering a variety of cups and bowls to receive the precious libation.

“Where’s your cup, Sire?” Hackit asked as his leader uncapped the jar.

“Someone needs to stay sober enough to stand guard,” Tarum Sire said.

“Aye. Someone does, but not you, Sire. Let Kaven do it.”

Kaven, who was hardly older than Grael, expressed his disapproval with a violent howl. But the others pacified him with effusive praise for his sacrifice and solemn promises of recompense.

Grudgingly, Tarum Sire collected his drinking vessel—an ornate bronze goblet. He poured some of the jar’s contents into it. Nodding in the direction of his prisoners, he raised his goblet. He gulped down a mouthful of the spirit with wolfish pleasure.

Grael’s heart shriveled. So this was how the Forelight answered his prayer. He had been stupid to hope for more. Miracles were for saints, not for common folk like him.

The other Jinglemen roared with pleasure, passed the jar around, and toasted the munificence of their leader. The jar emptied quickly and was discarded, and the sullen Kaven was dispatched to fetch another.

Harath thrashed about in the back of the wagon in a frenzied effort to loosen her binds. Spurred by her efforts, Grael strained against the rope around his wrists, biting and gnawing at it with rabid fervor, though it was too stout to break.

The Jinglemen jeered at his exertion till the sting of Hackit’s whip ended it.

“Enough!” Hackit snapped. “Can’t even have a drink in peace. This is what I get for being so nice.” He grabbed Grael by the hair, dragged him over to one of the wagon wheels, and seizing another rope, wrapped it around his neck.

As the noose closed, Grael kicked and screamed. Hackit punched his face and pulled the rope so tight that every breath hurt his throat. Grael tried to pull it with his bound hands, but the futile attempt only tightened the noose.

The Jinglemen laughed and joked, thoroughly entertained.

“Lashed to the wheel, you won’t be going anywhere tonight. That’s for certain,” Hackit said. “As for your girlfriend…” He unwrapped a stained, ragged cloth from around his wrist. Its original colors of white and blue were barely distinguishable.

Grael’s neck burned as he twisted his head to get a glimpse of what was happening in the wagon. His inability to see either Harath or Hackit emphasized his helplessness.

“Remember this,” Hackit said.

The wagon creaked and groaned as Harath struggled with the Jingleman. Hackit squealed with delight as her screams choked off. His colleagues clapped and cheered and toasted Hackit’s prowess.

“Thanks to you, deary, we’ve been dry a long time,” Hackit murmured. “The sire was afraid if we got too boisterous we might knock down your value. Of course, the sire is the worst drunkard among us. Once he gets a taste of the liquid fire, he cannot stop himself from having another and another. That’s why I made sure he joined our little celebration. Sober, he was likely to cut it short. Don’t worry. When he is nicely tipsy, I’ll remind him you’re here waiting for him. After he’s had his sport, there’ll be no reason the rest of us can’t.” Hackit’s chuckle decomposed into coughing and spluttering.

Grael chewed again on the knot holding his wrists, more out of frustration than any hope of freeing his hands. He was nothing more than an audience to Harath’s danger.

“I bet you’re sorry now you begged us to take you from your village,” Hackit croaked as he plodded back to the campfire.

Shock halted Grael’s biting a moment. The tilt of Hackit’s head indicated the comment had been directed at Harath, not Grael. The notion of her begging vagabonds such as these to whisk her away to some foreign land was beyond scandalous. It was preposterous. The woman in the wagon could not be the daughter of the Politician of Pigsknuckle. She had to be an Elfin impostor, a changeling of some sort. And yet, Grael’s heart vouched that his fellow prisoner was the genuine Harath Melkath. Why would she choose to leave her village in such a sordid fashion?

He continued to gnaw on the bindings despite the scrape of the noose against his throat with his jaw’s every movement.

The mountains snuffed out the sun. Clouds crept across the sky and blotted out stars just glimmering to life. Soon, only the campfire pierced a little corner of the implacable, starless night. The Jinglemen’s merrymaking became more rambunctious with every clink of an empty jar striking its discarded predecessors. Even the luckless Kaven sneaked a few swigs of forbidden spirit.

Conversations became incoherent, random, and sodden. Scaral’s rambling, pointless story about a one-legged whore in Formicary was cut short by the brothers Chalas and Asurach, who were inspired to fart a tune from the grassy plainsof their birth. Gristle and a wiry, bow-legged man called Anorsop had to be held apart after Anorsop took offense at Gristle’s urinating on his wagon. The next instant, when one of their comrades fell on the fire, their feud dissolved in manic laughter.

Grael spat out the few broken fibers in his mouth and studied his bindings. The rope exhibited little evidence of his effort.

Tarum Sire hushed the others as though trying to bring some decorum to the proceedings, but then started a rendition of an old fireside favorite: the difference between riding a woman and riding a horse.

“You know, you could show us,” Hackit slurred. “You’ve a horse, and you’ve a woman yonder.”

“I doubt you could tell them apart, you old codger,” Tarum said, guffawing and pounding Hackit’s back.

The gathering convulsed in laughter.

Grael exhaled a trembling breath as the moment of danger passed and the high jinks swept onward. A few revelers played a knife game till they tired of nicking their fingers, while others danced sloppy jigs to the contorting tune of Gristle’s flute. Chalas and Asurach wrestled. Scaral crawled into the bushes and vomited. Kaven forgot all pretense of being sober.

Tarum Sire rose to his feet and turned his back on the merriment. Hackit’s rotten grin was ugly with triumph as Tarum wobbled toward the prisoners’ wagon.

“She won’t be worth much after you finish with her,” Grael said. It was a heinous argument, but he had no other. “Would you rob yourself of a fortune for a few moments of pleasure?”

Tarum paused. With his back to the fire, he was an impenetrable black mass. “You may be speaking good sense. Unfortunately, my balls are deaf to your advice.” He chuckled and walked by Grael and out of sight behind the wagon.

“Beloved Forelight, save your innocent servant from this heathen!” Grael pleaded. “If you are to ever answer one prayer, let it be this one. Please!”

As Harath gave a muffled scream, Grael punched the side of the wagon with his bound hands and kicked his legs in frustration. The rope around his neck pinched his throat as her scuffle with the Jingleman shuddered through the wagon. The defeated Tarum emitted a pained groan as he fell from the back of the vehicle and thudded against the ground.

As Tarum climbed to his feet, his stream of curses dissolved into booming laughter. “Damn, woman, you kick like a mule.” His voice brimmed with reluctant admiration. “You’ve more spirit than the rock breaker fastened to the wheel. Maybe I won’t throw you to the others when I’m finished. Maybe I’ll make you my wife.”

Harath let out a defiant growl. She flailed and kicked the sides of the wagon as Tarum staggered toward it.

“If you hurt her, I’ll kill you!” Grael yelled.

Tarum took no notice. The other Jinglemen cackled and guffawed.

Grael glared at them in turn. “I’ll kill you all!”

At that moment, a shapeless, shifting silhouette burst out of the night and leapt over the campfire. The shine from the flames revealed the cloaked figure’s face, as passive as a golden idol. The eyes, glittering and cold, were at once beautiful and inhuman. Elaborate spiked axes flicked at the awed Jinglemen with serpentine grace. Anorsop gurgled a final scream as his punctured throat sprayed a bloody mist over his appalled comrades. Chalas, sitting victorious atop his brother, slumped over, dead. Asurach threw aside the corpse sprawled over him and chased his brother’s killer into the night.

“Come back!” a sobered Tarum called as he ran to the fire. “Come back, you fool!”

Somewhere in the fright shivering through Grael was relief for Harath. She was safe, for now, thanks to the mercy of the Forelight.

“What was that?” Kaven asked, eyes shocked wide.

“The Gilt Spider,” Hackit whispered.

Grael’s relief wilted as Hackit stretched a finger toward him.

“That pup summoned him!” Hackit cried. “He threatened to kill us all, just before the Gilt Spider appeared!”

Tarum snorted and slapped down Hackit’s hand. “Why would the Gilt Spider do the bidding of a Stretcher?”

“If it was the Gilt Spider, then we’re fortunate,” Gristle said. “By all accounts, he never leaves behind corpses, much less survivors. We won’t see poor Asurach again.”

“The Gilt Spider’ll be back for the rest of us,” Hackit said.

“And we’ll be ready for him if he does,” Tarum Sire said as he delivered a rousing kick to the snoring Scaral. “Get up! Gristle and Kaven, get rid of the corpses. I don’t care where you put them. Just get them out of my sight. The rest of you can encircle the camp with fires. Nobody sleeps tonight. Don’t fear the Gilt Spider. Elves bleed the same as any other race.”

“You’ve killed one, have you?” Kaven asked hopefully.

Gristle filled Tarum’s silence. “No.”

***

Like the Jinglemen, Grael stared into the nocturnal abyss, striving to discern a creeping shadow against the blackness. First light brought some relief, despite Hackit’s dire warnings that the day belonged to the Gilt Spider.

“What makes you say that?” Kaven demanded.

“Stands to reason,” Hackit said. “The Gilt Spider is an Elf. Elves serve the Golden Light, the torch of day.”

“All Hackit or the rest of us know about the Gilt Spider comes from the ravings of drunken Stretchers,” Gristle muttered.

Hackit pointed to Grael. “The boy may know more. He’s from these parts.”

Grael’s relief at the loosening of the constriction around his neck was brief. The Jinglemen hauled him to his feet.

Gristle seized Grael’s hair and pressed the point of a knife to his throat. “You had better spill everything you know about the Gilt Spider, because if we have to ask your girlfriend, you’ll never talk again.”

Grael wracked his memory. “I’ve never seen one of the Fair Folk before. Few in my village have, and then only as a fleck of yellow in the distance. Golden they are, and ageless. Their beauty surpasses all other races.”

“We all saw one last night,” Tarum said. “Can’t say much about its beauty.”

Grael talked through Tarum’s comment. “The splendor of their womenfolk is such that they have to be cosseted away and guarded by monstrous, misshapen beasts, for the briefest glimpse of their beauty drives the beholder mad with desire. A hero of my people, Alackalas, took one as his wife, but he could only behold her as a reflection in a mirror lest her unmitigated beauty drive him insane. In the end, the precaution was not enough to save him. Most Elves live in great cities where the sun rises. They have a few settlements in the mountains, like the one in the valley of Martyrsgrave, but rarely stray beyond them. The Fair Folk have taken little interest in Stretchers for generations.

“The Gilt Spider is the exception. He is a hunter of men. The unwary and the foolhardy that wander the forests are his usual quarry, but he has even been known to snatch an untended babe from its crib. Those whom he steals are never seen again. They say that nobody sees him and lives.”

“Enough!” Tarum Sire bellowed. “The boy knows no more than what he overheard from his mother when he was bouncing on her knee. Last night, our attacker had nothing more magic than surprise. If our guard had been sober and alert, he wouldn’t have had that.”

Kaven’s lips parted to speak, then pursed in silent frustration.

As the Jinglemen walked back to their campfire, apparently forgetting Grael, he sighed softly and bowed his head in gratitude for this little mercy.

Tarum Sire continued. “I hope the Gilt Spider, or whoever he is, visits us again. Discounting Asurach, we number nine. The Gilt Spider numbers one. I like those odds. And I know someone in Formicary who would pay a fortune for the head of an Elf. A fortune.”

“Who?” Hackit asked, scratching his ear.

“Never you mind,” Tarum Sire said. “I know him, and that is what is important. Scaral and Kaven, you bury our fallen friends deep. If the Gilt Spider wants their remains, he can dig for them. The rest of you, strike camp.”

***

“Asurach!”

Jinglemen galloped past Grael. As their horses skidded to a halt, they leapt down and crashed through the undergrowth.

The wagon halted where Asurach’s corpse hung by the neck from a tree. His eyes were bulging horrors. His tongue, swollen and black like a hideous slug, extended from his mouth. A dagger pinned a note to his chest. Sickened, Grael could hardly look upon it. He had never seen anything so horrible.

Before he could warn her, Harath strained over the goods piled in the wagon to glimpse the commotion. She shivered at the sight of the dead man and quickly turned away, her eyes squeezed shut as though she was trying to wring the image out of them.

The Jinglemen gathered beneath the dead man, untied the noose of yellow-green cord from the tree, and lowered the corpse to the ground.

“What do we do with him?” Gristle asked. “Dig another grave? It’ll be dark soon enough, and I don’t fancy camping in this forest.”

Tarum Sire shrugged. “Asurach ran off. He left us. We owe him nothing. Leave his body for the crows.”

It took Kaven a while to unravel the noose’s knot, but Tarum insisted the cord must not be cut. The Elfin rope was worth more undamaged. While Kaven fumbled, the other Jinglemen puzzled over the parchment.

“I can read,” Tarum declared as he seized it. He frowned. “It’s gibberish. Some foreign script.”

“Ask the boy. He might be able to make sense of it,” Hackit squealed.

As the document was thrust in front of Grael, he heaped silent curses on the old Jingleman for again drawing unwelcome attention to him. Some of the characters were familiar from inscriptions in the monastery of Pigsback, but a hint of comprehension, however slight, would earn him a violent interrogation.

He shook his head and returned the Jinglemen’s stares with unfeigned apprehension. “I am a humble shepherd’s son. What would I know of writing?”

“We should squeeze him a bit to make sure,” Hackit slurred.

“Let the boy be. We’ve no time to waste on such nonsense,” Tarum Sire muttered. “The day will soon turn against us, and we must be clear of this forest before nightfall.” He tossed the parchment into the bushes.

“Don’t throw it away,” Hackit squeaked, scrambling after it. “It might be worth something.”

Tarum Sire’s scornful laughter filled the forest. “Scoop up a few cowpats while you’re at it, in case they’re worth their weight in gold.” His mirth collapsed into frustration. He yelled, “We cannot read your message, you stupid bastard!”

The echo of his cry melted into the silence of the mountains.

A loud, melodic voice resonated like thunder through the valley. “Give me the boy and girl, and keep your lives.”

The hair lifted on the back of Grael’s neck. The astounding horror of the Gilt Spider’s demand tingled through him like a venom, leaving only a dead coldness in its wake. He trembled.

Harath looked at him with glassy eyes, her mouth agape, her face white with fear.

“Don’t listen to him,” Grael pleaded. “For the love of the Forelight, don’t hand us over to the monster.”

“I couldn’t care less about you or your god,” Tarum grumbled as his gaze searched the encircling labyrinth of forest for the speaker. “Tell me this, Gilt Spider. Why do you want them?” he boomed.

“They are my prey, and I am hungry.”

“And why would the corpses you left at our camp not satisfy your hunger?”

“They are buried. They are stale.”

“Why did he not eat Asurach? He wasn’t buried.” Tarum muttered. Opening his arms wide, he yelled, “Like them fresh, do you? Come down here and collect your dinner.”

“I desire the thrill of the chase. Free the Stretchers, and I will find them. You have until the sun sets. Their lives for yours. Make your choice.”

“How do we know you’ll keep your part of the bargain?” Tarum asked.

He waited but no reply came.

Grael’s sense of impending disaster was mirrored in the faces of most of his captors as the caravan traveled on through the forest. Tarum Sire was the sole exception. He appeared to be in a perpetual daze, as if fascinated by some puzzle. When Gristle and others hinted they should surrender the Pigsknucklers to the Gilt Spider, Tarum smiled and waved away their veiled entreaties.

“A wooden coin for your thoughts,” Hackit asked him as he rode alongside the old man’s cart.

“A wooden one?”

“If I offered anything but wood, you would hold me to it. What are you thinking?”

“If the Gilt Spider was as almighty as everyone believes, he wouldn’t need to bargain with us.”

Tarum kicked his horse into a canter, leaving Hackit mumbling nervously behind him.

Grael found some comfort in his utterance. Clearly, Tarum was all that stood between the Gilt Spider and his quarry. The other Jinglemen would hand over their prisoners in a heartbeat. This twist of fate was peculiar and disconcerting. Last night, Grael had begged the Forelight to smite Tarum Sire. Now, the captives’ only hope depended on his survival. At least, until nightfall, when the Gilt Spider’s deadline passed and the Jinglemen’s decision was made for them.

The day stretched mercilessly. Every moment dragged. Would the sun ever drop from the sky?

Occasionally, some random Jingleman drew up beside Hackit’s wagon and exchanged whispers with him. Grael was too far away to overhear, but they had to be discussing the Gilt Spider’s ultimatum. They might be even plotting against their leader.

It was late afternoon when the Jinglemen found a satisfactory campsite in a wide glade rising gently above the endless forest. A jagged outcrop at the center provided a bulwark against the bitter cold wind. The black and gray corpses of campfires beneath the rock and the tree stumps that pockmarked the clearing indicated previous transient habitation. Two Jinglemen were dispatched to the rock’s summit to stand guard while the others huddled around a newly kindled fire at its base.

Hackit and Kaven tied Grael and Harath together back to back and plunked them down near the fire. Hackit joined his comrades by the fire and fixed a malevolent stare at Grael. The other Jinglemen took little notice as they tracked the sun’s slow, slow decline.

Grael mouthed a silent prayer to the Forelight to hurry the night. As the sun rested on the shoulders of distant mountains, a question from Gristle sent a shiver through him.

“Are we going to let the two kids go?”

“Gules rises yonder, fat and bright,” Tarum said, pointing to the bloody moon smoldering in the ashes of the day. “There’s no cloud in the sky or the threat of one. Our friend will not surprise us so easily on a night like this.”

“So, you’ll risk our lives to spite the Elf?” Gristle charged.

Tarum Sire’s indulgent smile had a hint of deprecation. “For every risk I take, there must be a reward. In the end, we’re all dead. We might as well be rich in-between.”

“Is an Elf’s head worth so much?”

“It is.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The Jinglemen fell silent again as the sun slipped away like sand in an hourglass, till the last shining speck disappeared, and with it, any chance to reverse their course. They had defied the Gilt Spider’s ultimatum and now must face the consequences.

Bloody moonlight seeped into the night, shaping the darkness into a discernible topography. The Jinglemen were restless and taciturn, their eyes fixed on the encircling moorland for any disturbance creeping through the vegetation.

Harath’s head tapped Grael’s shoulder as she leaned to one side. It was a comfort that she slept. He lowered their bound torsos to the ground and sought the same oblivion. The chafe of the rope, the awkwardness of his position, the prickle of the crushed foliage against his face, the sepulchral cold and the haunting specter of the Gilt Spider conspired to deny him. He turned to prayer to see him through the hellish night, knowing every whispered word brought its end closer.

A scream tore through the silence. A commotion of shadows flitted above Grael. Excited voices clashed in thunderous babble.

“Ruscondel’s dead!”

“The Elf killed Ruscondel!”

The grim outcome of the battle whirling around him was as certain as the Gilt Spider’s presence. Harath’s fingers touched Grael’s. He clasped her hand awkwardly as he listened to the Jinglemen’s panicked cries.

“Get down!”

“Quick! Over there!”

“Get the bastard before he gets away!”

“Where is he?”

“There! There! There!”

“I can’t see him.”

“There!”

The crisp twangs of loosed bowstrings hushed the clamor.

“Got him.”

Gleeful roars and congratulations gave way to confused dismay.

“He’s up and running again.” Hackit’s foul slur was unmistakable.

“I hit him. He fell. You all saw him fall.”

“Scaral, that may be, but he didn’t stay down.”

“We can't just lie here,” Grael whispered to Harath. “We need to see what is happening.”

With some difficulty, they lifted off the ground, and sat upright. Grael was facing the Jinglemen, a clump of jittery silhouettes against the firelight.

“Maybe the arrow missed him. Maybe he fell as the arrow was about to strike,” Kaven suggested.

“Maybe he’s made of gold, and the arrow bounced off him,” Gristle muttered.

“The arrow struck his shoulder. I’m certain of it,” another Jingleman insisted.

“You must have the eyesight of a bat to see that in the dark,” Gristle said.

“Didn’t slow him up much if it did,” Hackit said in a hushed tone.

“Enough of this prattle!” Tarum Sire bellowed as he emerged from the huddle. “Either Scaral missed, or the Elf’s armor saved him.” His voice exuded confidence, but the light of the campfire revealed it as a lie.

“Did you see the stumpy arrow that killed Ruscondel?” Kaven asked. “Too small for a bow. The Gilt Spider must have thrown it at him. Imagine the strength to cast it that distance and pierce poor Ruscondel’s armor.”

“How did he see him in the dark?” Hackit asked.

Scaral began to explain. “We were climbing up the rock to take our turn on watch…”

“Shut up,” Tarum said, turning toward the others, his face once again veiled by shadow. “Enough of this childish drivel. The Gilt Spider is as much flesh and blood as any of us. It isn’t magic to run away.”

“Flesh and blood he may be, but he’s killed four of us so far,” Gristle said. “And I think it’s time to do my magic. Kaven, grab your stuff. We’re leaving.”

Gristle stomped over to his sleeping mat and started to gather his possessions. After a moment’s hesitation, Kaven scurried after him and did the same.

“If you leave now, I’ll make it my business to ensure no caravan will ever hire you again,” Tarum said, shaking a fist.

Gristle continued to pack his belongings. “I’ll have to take the chance.”

“Damn coward,” Tarum muttered as Gristle saddled his horse.

Gristle paused, then finished tightening the cinch. He swung stiffly into his saddle and waited in silence for Kaven to mount his animal.

Despite the risk of incurring Hackit’s whip, Grael could not keep silent. “Don’t go,” he begged. “Please.” Desperation inspired him. “The Gilt Spider is waiting for you out there. You stand a better chance as eight than two.”

Gristle glanced coldly at Grael but made no reply. “Good luck,” he said to his former comrades as he kicked his horse and galloped away, Kevan trailing behind him but glancing back several times. The thunder of hooves peppered with the tinkle of dancing metal faded into the night. Of the original twelve Jinglemen, six remained.

“Damn them, and damn the Elf,” Tarum said. “I promise by the Golden Light that begot him, this ends tomorrow.”

Harath’s grip tightened, her nails dug into the backs of Grael’s hands. The pain was a welcome distraction from his own fear. The Jinglemen were now as much their protectors as their captors.

***

Something squirming against Grael’s back jolted him awake. The dampness of the night clung to his face like cold sweat. The first light of dawn had already formed a halo over the mountains.

Harath exhaled behind him. “I suppose we should thank the Forelight for surviving the night.” Her voice was shaky.

“We’ll be fine,” Grael lied. He looked around the empty camp. Where were the Jinglemen? What if they had fled in the night? What if the Gilt Spider had killed them?

“Tarum Sire, are you there?” Grael called.

“Shut up, unless you want my fist for breakfast.”

Grael’s heart lifted at the sound of Hackit’s slur. Even that devil was better company than the Gilt Spider.

As the morning strengthened, the Jinglemen emerged from melting shadows. They immediately set about striking camp. Ruscondel’s corpse was placed in a shallow dent in the ground and covered with a thin, earthen veil. Grael and Harath were lashed to an uprooted tree trunk. Grael faced the outcrop. Harath, on the other side of the log, faced the forest’s edge.

“Elf!” Tarum Sire roared from his horse. “You have won. Behold your prize, our humble offering to the Golden Light. Let us leave in peace and bother us no more.”

As the caravan departed, Grael tested his bonds. He could hear Harath engaged in the same frantic struggle behind him. The Gilt Spider’s precious cord held firm. Its use was a surprising oversight by the Jinglemen in their rush to flee. How far would they go before they realized their error? Tarum Sire would not be pleased.

The banal melody of the caravan slowly faded into the distance, till the only sounds were the whisper of the wind through the trees and the thumping of Grael’s heart.

“What will we do?” Harath pleaded.

“We’ll think of something,” he reassured her, his voice thick with fear. What could they do but wait and pray for some miracle?

“Perhaps if we both leaned against the rope in the same direction at the same time?” Harath suggested.

“Let’s try it,” Grael said. Anything was better than sitting here placidly waiting for the Gilt Spider.

They shifted their combined weight left and then right, but the cord was too strong. If anything, it tightened its grip.

“He’s coming!” Harath cried. “Oh, my sweet Forelight, he has a knife in his hand.”

Grael turned his head to look, but Harath’s flowing red hair obscured his view. He sought Harath’s hands, but the trunk separated him from them.

“Remember, we live not for this life but the next,” Grael said, suppressing the quiver in his voice. Creeping terror inside declared him a liar.

Harath burst into tears. “I have no next life, other than the endless torture of Hell. I am a sinner. I did not honor my father. I flouted the saints’ law. And now, I am going to die and suffer eternal damnation. Oh, beloved Forelight, forgive me, please forgive me.” She started screaming.

Grael strained to look back, but all he could see was a bloody knife and the flaxen hand that held it. The fantasy of a prayerful martyrdom died. Fear overwhelmed his senses. Convulsive terror shrieked though him.

And then, barely discernible through the din of his screeches, came miraculous words—the Forelight’s Prayer. The voice was soft, tuneful.

Grael opened his eyes. The countenance before him possessed an unearthly beauty, but it was more like a mask than a living face with its unblemished, straw-colored skin and its smooth smile. Only the Elf’s amber eyes sparkled with life. The wind played with the stranger’s shock of golden curls, sometimes partially concealing the black symbols on his forehead: a disc above what looked like a bow and arrow pointing upward. The Elf wore no cloak. His breastplate was adorned with a simple depiction of the left half of a face. A convoluted weapon rested across his shoulders, its complex heads at both ends reminiscent of antlers. Small oval shields protected his forearms.

“You have no need to fear me,” he said. “I am a Stretcher, like you.”

“I thought your people worshiped the Golden Light,” Grael said.

“I did, long ago,” the Elf said. His gaze followed Grael’s eyes to the bloody dagger in his hand. He sliced at the cord. “The blood belongs to one of your captors. I found him lurking in the forest, no doubt waiting to ambush me. This is a trap. Your captors left you here as bait. As soon as you are free, run to the forest in the direction from which I came. Let the mountains guide you home.”

As the cord fell away, an arrow struck the Elf’s calf. The agony twisting his bland features dispelled any illusion of invincibility. The Gilt Spider was flesh like any other creature.

The Jinglemen appeared from behind the promontory and the edge of the forest. The Elf’s hands reached to the wooden rack across his shoulders. What had appeared to be a single weapon was a brace of identical wooden rods terminated at both ends with spiked, double-bitted axe heads. As the Jinglemen closed in, Grael grabbed Harath’s hand and ran.

The Elf shouted after them, “Remember the true name of he who saved you. I am AscendantSun for this lifetime, Auctor always.”

Grael glanced back before plunging into the forest. The Elf stood in the midst of the five surviving Jinglemen, his extravagant weapons poised for combat, like a wounded stag beset by wolves.

Chapter 3

To know beauty famed but unwitnessed

Is why I must scale this lofty spire,

To embrace a love both cursed and blessed,

Which poets dream of and kings desire.

~From Alackalas and the Fair Princess.

Through the forest they raced, plunging headlong through the foliage. It did not matter where they were going as long as it put more distance between them and the Jinglemen. Though Grael’s instincts screamed otherwise, he gentled his pace to match Harath’s. She was slower, and her long skirt kept snagging on bushes, hampering her. It was tempting to elevate the hem of the offending garment to disencumber her movement, but even in this crisis, such a liberty was inappropriate.

“I can go no farther,” she gasped. “I need to catch my breath.”

Grael glanced over his shoulder. The Jinglemen might be already in pursuit. “Very well.”

She began to wander away, apparently oblivious of the possible dangers lurking in this unfamiliar forest.

“Where are you going?” he demanded.

“That is no man’s business,” she said, reddening.

Grael didn’t know what to say. His ears and then his cheeks burned. “Very well. Be careful.”

She regarded him disdainfully. “I won’t go far…just far enough.”