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Prophecy : Child of Earth
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Meridion sat in the darkness, lost in thought. The instrument panel of the Time Editor was dark as well; the great machine stood silent for the moment, the gleaming threads of diaphanous film hanging idle on their spools, each reel carefully labeled Past or Future. The Present, as ever, hung evanescent like silver mist in the air under the Editor's lamp, twisting and changing moment by moment in the half-light.
Draped across his knees was an ancient piece of thread, a lore strand from the Past. It was a film fragment of immeasurable importance, burnt and broken beyond repair on one end. Meridion picked it up gingerly, then turned it over in his hands and sighed.
Time was a fragile thing, especially when manipulated mechanically. He had tried to be gentle with the dry film, but it had cracked and ignited in the press of the Time Editor's gears, burning the image he had needed to see. Now it was too late; the moment was gone forever, along with the information it held. The identity of the demon he was seeking would remain hidden. There was no going back, at least not this way.
Meridion rubbed his eyes and leaned back against the translucent aurelay, the gleaming field of energy tied to his life essence that he had shaped for the moment into a chairlike scat, resting his head within its hum. The prickling melody that surrounded him was invigorating, clearing his thoughts and helping him to concentrate. It was his namesong, his life's own innate tune. A vibration unique in all the world, tied to his true name.
The demon he was seeking had great power over names, too Meridion had gone back into the Past itself to find it, looking for a way to avert the path of devastation it had carefully constructed over Time, but the demon had eluded him. F'dor were the masters of lies, the fathers of deception. They were without corporeal form, binding themselves to innocent hosts and living through them or using them to do their will, then moving on to another more powerful host when the opportunity presented itself. Even far away, from his vantage point in the Future, there was no real way to sec them.
For this reason Meridion had manipulated Time, had sliced and moved around pieces of the Past to bring a Namer of great potential together with those that might help her in the task of finding and destroying the demon. It had been his hope that these three would be able to accomplish this feat on their side of Time before it was too late to prevent what the demon had wrought, the devastation that was now consuming lands on both sides of the world. But the strategy, had been a risky one. Just bringing lives together did not guarantee how they would be put to use.
Already he had seen the unfortunate consequences of his actions. The Time Editor had run heatedly with the unspooling of the time strands, fragments of film rending apart and swirling into the air above the machine as the Past destroyed itself in favor of the new. The stench of the burning timefilm was rank and bitter, searing Meridion's nostrils and his lungs, leaving him trembling at the thought of what damage he might inadvertently be doing to the Future by meddling in the Past. But it was too late now.
Meridion waved his hand over the instrument panel of the Time Editor. The enormous machine roared to life, the intricate lenses illuminated by its ferocious internal light source. A warm glow spilled onto the tall panes of glass that formed the walls of the circular room and ascended to the clear ceiling above. The glimmering stars that had been visible from every angle above and below him in the darkness a moment before disappeared in the blaze of reflected brilliance. Meridion held the broken fragment of film up to the light.
The images were still there, but hard to make out. He could see the small, slender woman because of her shining hair, golden and reflecting the sunrise, bound back with a black ribbon, standing on the brink of morning in the vast panorama of the mountains where he had last sighted the two of them. Meridion blew gently on the lore-strand to clear it of dust and smiled as the tiny woman in the frame drew her cloak closer about herself. She stared off into the valley that stretched below her, prickled with spring frost and the patchy light of dawn.
Her traveling companion was harder to find. Had Meridion not known he was there prior to examining the film he never would have seen him, hidden in the shadows cast by the sun. It took him several long moments to find the outline of the man's cloak, designed as it was to hide him from the eyes of the world. A faint trace of mist rose from the cloak and blended with the rising dew burning off in the sunlight.
As he suspected, the lore-strand had burnt at precisely the wrong moment, obliterating the Namer's chance to catch a glimpse of the F'dor's ambassador before he or she reached Ylorc. Meridion had been watching through her eyes, waiting for the moment when she first beheld the henchman, as the Seer had advised. He could make out a thin dark line in the distance; that must have been the ambassadorial caravan. She had already seen it. The opportunity had passed. And he had missed it.
He dimmed the lamp on the Time Editor again and sat back in the dark sphere of his room to think, suspended within his glass globe amid the stars, surrounded by them. There must be another window, another way to get back into her eyes.
Meridion glanced at the endless wall of glass next to him and down at the surface of the Earth miles below. Black molten fire was crawling slowly across the darkened face of the world, withering the continents in its path, burning without smoke in the lifeless atmosphere. At the rim of the horizon another glow was beginning; soon the fire sources would meet and consume what little was left. It took all of Meridion's strength to keep from succumbing to the urge to scream. In his darkest dreams he could never have imagined this.
In his darkest dreams. Meridion sat upright with the thought the Namer was prescient, she could see the Past and Future in her dreams, or sometimes just by reading the vibrations that events had left behind, hovering in the air or clinging to an object. Dreams gave off vibrational energy; if he could find a trace of one of them, like the dust that hovered in afternoon light, he could follow it back to her, anchor himself behind her eyes again, in the Past. Meridion eyed the spool which had held the brittle lore-strand he had spliced together, hanging listlessly on the Editor's main pinion.
He seized the ancient reel and spun out the film, carefully drawing the edge where it had broken cleanly back under the Time Editor's lens. He adjusted the eyepiece and looked. The film in frame was dark, and at first it was hard to make out anything within the image. Then after a few moments his eyes adjusted, and he caught a flash of gold as the Namer sighed in the darkness of her chamber and rolled over in her sleep. Meridion smiled.
He had found the record of the night before she and Ashe had left on their journey. Meridion had no doubt she had been in the throes of dreaming then.
After a moment's consideration he selected two silver instruments, a gathering tool with a hair-thin point and a tiny sieve basket soldered onto a long slender handle. The mesh of the thumbnail-sized basket was fine enough to hold even the slightest particle of dust. With the greatest of care Meridion blew on the frame of film, and watched under the lens for a reaction. He saw nothing. He blew again, and this time a tiny white spark rose from the strand, too small to be seen without magnification even by his extraordinarily sensitive eyes.
Skillfully Meridion caught the speck with the gathering tool and transferred it to the basket. Then, watching intently, he waited until the lamp of the Time Editor illuminated the whisper-thin thread that connected it to the film. He turned his head and exhaled. He had caught a dream-thread.
Working carefully he drew it out more until it was long enough to position under the most powerful lens. He never averted his eyes as he gestured to one of the cabinets floating in the air above the Editor. The doors opened, and a tiny bottle of oily liquid skittered to the front of the shelf, then leapt into the air, wafting gently down until it came to rest on the gleaming prismatic disc hovering in the air beside the him. Keeping his eyes fixed on the thread lest he lose sight of it, Meridion uncorked the bottle with one hand and carefully removed the dropper. Then he held it over the thread and squeezed.
The glass below the lens swirled in a pink-yellow haze, then cleared. Meridion reached over and turned the viewing screen onto the wall. It would take a moment for him to get his bearings, but it was always that way when one was watching from inside someone else's dreams.
Rhapsody did not sleep well the night before she handed herself over to a man she barely knew, a man whose face she had never seen. Having been gifted with prescience, the ability to see visions of the Future and the Past, she was accustomed to restless nights and terrifying dreams, but this was different somehow.
She was awake for much of the long, torturous night, fighting nagging doubts that were very likely the warnings, not of some special foresight, but of ordinary common sense. By morning she was completely unsure as to the wisdom of her decision to go overland with him, beyond the stalwart protection of her strange, formidable friends.
The firecoals in the small, poorly ventilated grate burned silently while she tossed and muttered, neither awake nor really asleep. The mute flames cast bright sheets of pulsing light on the walls and ceiling of her tiny windowless bedchamber deep within the mountain. Upon becoming king of the Firbolg in Ylorc, Achmed had named his seat of power the Cauldron, but tonight the place more closely approximated the Underworld.
Achmed had made no secret of his disapproval at her leaving the mountain with Ashe. From the moment they had met on the streets of Bethe Corbair the two men had exuded a mutual mistrust that was impossible not to notice; the tension in the air made her scalp hum with negative static. But trust was not Achmed's common state. Aside from herself and Grunthor, his giant sergeant-major and long-time friend, as far as she knew he had extended it to no one.
Ashe seemed pleasant enough, and harmless. He had been willing to visit Rhapsody and her companions in Ylorc, their forbidding, mountainous home. He had not appeared uncomfortable with the fact that Ylorc was the lair of the Firbolg, primitive, sometimes brutish people that most humans feared as monsters.
Ashe had exhibited no such prejudices. He had dined agreeably at the same table with the glowering Bolg chieftains, taking no notice of their crude table manners and ignoring their propensity to spit bone fragments onto the floor. And he had taken up arms willingly in defense of the Firbolg realm against an attack by the Hill-Eye, the last holdout clan to swear fealty to Achmed, whose reign as Warlord was still new and sorting itself out. If he was amused or displeased in any way by Rhapsody's obnoxious companion's ascent to monstrous royalty, Ashe did not show it.
But there was little, in fact, that Ashe did show. His face was always carefully covered by the hood of his cloak, a strange garment that seemed to wrap him in mist, making him even harder to discern than he already was.
Rhapsody rolled over bed and let out a painful sigh. She accepted his right to concealment, understood that the great Cymrian War had left many of its survivors disfigured and maimed, but still could not escape the nagging thought that he might be hiding more than a hideous scar. Men with hidden faces had plagued many different areas of her life.
Rhapsody opened her emerald eyes in the darkness of her cavelike chamber. In response, the coals on the fire glowed more intensely for a moment. The remnants of charred wood, reducing in the heat to white-hot cinders, sent forth wisps of smoke that rose above the coalbed and up the chimney that had been hewn into her chamber centuries before, when Ylorc was still Canrif, the old Cymrian seat of power. She drew a deep breath and watched as more smoke billowed up, forming a thin cloud above the ashes.
She shuddered; the smoke had seeped into her memory, bringing back an unwelcome picture. It was not one of the lingering images from her old life on streets of Serendair, her island homeland, gone now beneath the waves of the sea on the other side of the world. Those days of abuse and prostitution that had haunted her for so long rarely plagued her sleep anymore.
Now she dreamt mostly of the terrors of this new land. Almost every night brought the hideous memories of the House of Remembrance, an ancient library in this new world, and of a curtain of fire that formed a hazy tunnel. At the end of the column of smoke a man had stood, a man in a gray mantled-cloak, much like the one Ashe wore. A man whom the documents they had found identified only as the Rakshas. A man who had stolen children, sacrificing them for their blood. A man whose face she had also not seen. The coincidence was unnerving.
The coals were doing little to dispel the dampness of the room, she thought hazily. Her skin was clammy, causing the blankets to cling to her and scratch. Beads of sweat tangled the hairs at the back of her neck in the chain of the locket she never took off, pulling painfully as she writhed again, struggling to break free of the clutching bedding.
Just as her stomach was beginning to twist in cold worry, a pragmatic thought descended. Achmed was arguably her best friend in this land, the surly other side of her cheerful coin, and he tended to walk the world veiled from sight as well.
It never ceased to amaze her, after all this time, how she could be so close to this assassin-turned-king, a man who seemed to make it a life's goal to annoy anyone with whom he came in contact. The fact that he had dragged her through the Earth itself, against her will, away from Serendair before the Island was consumed in volcanic fire, saving her life in the process, had not inspired gratitude in her. Although she had ceased to resent her kidnapping over time, a tiny corner of her heart would never forgive him for it. She had learned to love him and Grunthor in spite of it.
And she had learned to love the Firbolg as well, largely through the eyes of these two friends, whose blood was half-Bolg. Despite their primitive nature and warlike tendencies, Rhapsody had come to appreciate many aspects of this cave-dwelling culture that she found surprisingly sophisticated, and far more admirable than some of the behavior she had seen exhibited by their human counterparts in the provinces of Roland. They followed leaders out of respect and fear, not arbitrary or dubious family heritage; they spent what meager healing resources they had on bringing forth infants and protecting mothers and their young, a moral tenet Rhapsody shared. The refined social structure Achmed and Grunthor had introduced was just beginning to take root when the need for her journey had become clear.
Rhapsody writhed onto her back, seeking refuge from her dreams and a more comfortable position, but neither was to be had. She succumbed to the rapid whirring of thoughts through her brain again.
Finding the claw had changed everything. From deep within the vaults of Ylorc they had unearthed the talon of a dragon, fitted with a handle for use as a dagger. The claw had rested undisturbed for centuries, even as the Bolg took over the mountains, making the abandoned Cymrian realm their own. Now it was in the air, and the dragon to whom it belonged would feel it, would taste its vibrations on the wind. Rhapsody believed she would come for it eventually. Having heard the tales of the mighty Elynsynos, and seen the fierce and horrific statues of the beast in the Cymrian museum and in village squares across Roland, she had no doubt that the dragon's wrath would be virulent. Images of that wrath had led the parade of nightmares on this last night in Ylorc, causing her to wake for the first of many times, trembling.
It was to spare the Bolg from the devastating consequences of that wrath that she had decided to find the wyrm first and return the dagger, though both Achmed and Grunthor had objected strenuously. Rhapsody had stood firm in her decision to go, her determination fueled by the thought of her adopted Bolg grandchildren withering to ashes beneath the dragon's breath. It was another of the dreams that haunted her, though sometimes the victims changed. Her dreams did not discriminate.
She feared for Jo, the teenaged street child she had found in the House of Remembrance and adopted as her sister. She also feared for Lord Stephen, the pleasant young duke of Navarne, and his children, whom she also had taken into her heart. Each of these loved ones took turns in her nightmares roasting alive before her eyes. This night the honor had belonged to Lord Stephen.
It was within his castle that she had first seen a statue of Elynsynos. He had already suffered the loss of his wife, his best friend, Gwydion of Manosse, and countless people within his duchy to whatever evil was plaguing this land, causing inexplicable outbreaks of violence. The loss of Rhapsody's world and her family had almost killed her; the Bolg and her friends, this was her family now. To leave that family open to attack would be almost as bad as losing it the first time, in some ways worse. Ashe said he knew how to find the dragon. It was well worth risking herself and her safety to save them. She just couldn't be sure, in this land of deception, that she was not endangering them even more by going with him.
Rhapsody twisted onto her side, entangling herself in the rough woolen blankets again. Nothing made sense anymore. It was impossible to tell whom or what to trust, including her own senses. She could only pray that the dreams of the coming destruction were warnings, not like the foregone premonitions that had told her of the death of Serendair, but either way, it would be impossible to tell until it was too late.
As she drifted off to troubled sleep it seemed to her that the smoke from the fire had thickened and formed a ribbon in the air, a translucent thread that wound around her dreams and settled behind her eyes.
Achmed the Snake, king of the Firbolg, was having nightmares as well, and it irritated him. Sleeping terrors were Rhapsody's personal curse; generally he was immune to them, having lived out more than his share of torments in the waking world, the old world, a life that he was well glad to be rid of.
The inert stone walls of the Cauldron, his seat of power within the mountain, normally provided him with dark and restful sleep, dreamless and undisturbed by the vibrations of the air to which he was especially sensitive. His Dhracian physiology, the burdensome gift granted to him by his mother's race, was both a blessing and a curse. It gave him the ability to read the signals of the world that were indiscernible to the eyes and minds of the rest of the populace, but the toll was great; it left him with little peace, having to daily endure the assault of the myriad invisible signatures that others defined as Life.
He was therefore unintentionally appreciative to find this fortress hewn deeply into the mountainous realm of darkness that was Ylore. The smoothly polished basalt walls held in the quiet, stagnant air of his royal bedchamber, keeping the noise and tumult of the world at bay. As a result his nights were generally free from disturbance, tranquil and comforting in their silence.
But not this night.
In a flurry of growled curses Achmed spun over in his bed and rose to stand, angry. It was all he could do to keep from striding down the corridor to Rhapsody's room and dragging her out of her own sleep, demanding to know what was wrong with her, why she was so oblivious to the danger in what she was about to undertake. There would be little point in doing that, however; Achmed already knew the answer to that question.
Rhapsody was oblivious to almost everything. For a woman whose brain was keen and mind vibrant with an intelligence he could feel in his skin, she was capable of disregarding even the most obvious facts if she didn't want to believe them.
Initially he had assumed that this was a factor of the cataclysmic transformation they had each undergone, a metamorphosis that occurred when they walked through the inferno that burned at the center of the Earth during their escape from Serendair. Upon exiting the conflagration Rhapsody was vastly different; she had emerged from the fire physically perfect, her natural beauty enhanced to supernatural proportions. He had been fascinated, not only by the potential power that was inherent in her now, but by her utter inability to recognize the change. The open-mouthed gawking that she experienced in the street whenever she put the hood of her cloak down had done nothing to convince her of the magnificence of her visage; rather, it made her feel like a freak.
Achmed gave the bedsheet that had remained wrapped around his foot a savage kick. Over time, as he had gotten to know Rhapsody better, he realized that her self-deceptive tendencies had long preceded their walk through the fire. It was actually her way of protecting the last shred of her innocence, her fierce desire to believe in good where none existed, to trust when there was no reason to do so.
Her life on the street had clearly been one from which innocent belief could not hide easily. She had had commerce with one of his master's servants, Michael, the Wind of Death, and had doubtless been introduced to the harshest of realities by him. Nevertheless, she was always looking for the happy ending, trying to recreate the family she had lost in volcanic fire a thousand years before by adopting every waif and foundling she came across. Up until now this tendency had only served to set her up for heartache, which didn't bother him a bit. Her latest undertaking, however, threatened to compromise more than her life, and that aspect of it disturbed him deeply.
Somewhere out in the vastness of the lands to the west was a human host harboring a demon, he was sure of it; he had seen the work of F'dor before. He had, in fact, been the unwilling servant of one. A twisted race, evil and ancient, born of dark fire, he had hoped that the demise of their Island homeland would have taken the last of the F'dor with it. Had he been there during the Seren War that raged after they left he would have seen to it as his final act of assassination, the trade he had plied in those days.
But he had escaped the Island early. The war had come and gone, Serendair had disappeared beneath the waves a millennia before he emerged from the Root, half a world away, on the other side of Time. And those that had lived through the conflict, had seen the cataclysm coming and had possessed the wisdom to leave before it did, had undoubtedly brought the evil with them to this new place.
It had all the pathos of the World's Cruelest Joke. He had broken the unbreakable chain of the demon, fled from something from which flight was impossible, had made a successful escape from that which could not be escaped only to find it here again, waiting out there somewhere for him, indiscernibly bound to one of the millions of inhabitants of this new land, biding its time. For the moment they were safe from it, it seemed; the evil had not broached the mountains yet, as far as he could tell. But now this brainless harlot was leaving the protection of his realm. If she survived, she would undoubtedly come back as its thrall without even knowing it.
In earlier days, this would actually have been, in a warped way, a good thing. The possibility that the F'dor had bound itself to her would have alleviated the need for him to go in search of it. Upon Rhapsody's return to the Teeth, the Firbolg mountains, Grunthor would have killed her in front of him while he performed the Thrall ritual. It was another racial gift he possessed as half-Dhracian, the strange death dance he had seen but never performed that would prevent the demon from escaping as the host died, destroying it eternally along with its human body, in this case Rhapsody's. If she had not, in fact, been possessed, her needless death would have caused neither of them a second thought.
But that was no longer the case. Grunthor loved Rhapsody fiercely, defended her with ever fiber of his monstrous being. At seven and a half feet, and the same width as a dray horse, that was a lot of ferociously determined protection.
Even he himself had come to acknowledge that she was useful to have around. In addition to her compelling beauty, which frightened the Firbolg or at least made them hold her in awe, there was Rhapsody's music, one of the most useful tools they had in their arsenal aimed at bringing about the conquest of the mountain and the advancement of the Firbolg civilization.
Rhapsody was Liringlas, a Skysinger, proficient in the science of Naming. There were pleasing aesthcstics to the music that was inherent in her, part of her physical makeup. She emanated vibrations which soothed the sensitive veins that traced the surface of his skin. Achmed had decided long before that this was one of the reasons that he found her endearingly irritating, rather than a genuine annoyance, as he found most people to be.
The more useful aspects of her musical ability, however, were its powers to persuade and to inspire fear, to heal wounds and cause damage, to discern vibrations that even he could not identify. Rhapsody had been instrumental in their taking the mountain; without her the campaign would certainly have taken much longer and would have been far bloodier. Unfortunately, though these were the talents he valued, Rhapsody did not.
She spent an inordinate amount of time instead using the comforting aspects of her musical healing, singing to the injured to ease their pain, soothing anxiety, ministrations that he felt confused the Bolg and annoyed him beyond belief. But eventually he had come to tolerate her need to alleviate suffering; it secured her assistance in the necessary things.
In addition to helping win the mountain, she had been responsible for negotiating the treaties with Roland and Sorbold, organizing the vineyard plantings and establishing an educational system, all things that were critical to his master plan. So he had come to respect her ideas and rely on her almost as much as he did on Grunthor, which was why her leaving with Ashe felt like betrayal. At least that was the reason he attached to the stabbing sense of frustration he had felt ever since she had announced her plan to go with this interloper, this stranger shrouded in mist and secrets.
Just the prospect of her departing Ylorc in the morning made him feel physically cold. Achmed cursed again, running thin hands through sweaty hair and sitting down angrily in the chair before his uncooperative fire. He stared at the minuscule flames for a moment, remembering the sight of Rhapsody as she came back from her walk through the wall of fire within the belly of the Earth, having unintentionally absorbed its power and lore, purged from even the smallest of physical flaws. From that moment forward any fire, from the flickering flame of a candle to roaring bonfires, responded to her with the same adulation that men did, mirroring her mood, sensing her presence, obeying her commands. It was power that he needed here, within the cold mountain.
The Firbolg king leaned forward, elbows on knees, his folded hands resting on his lips, thinking. Perhaps he was worrying unnecessarily. Rhapsody's initial work was done and progressing nicely. The hospital and hospice were running smoothly, the vineyards tended carefully, even through the winter, by the Firbolg she had trained in agriculture. The Bolg children now were studying the techniques that would make their clans healthier and more long-lived, more prepared to stand their ground against the men of Roland. The lifeless mountain had grown warm under her ministrations. The Cymrian forges constructed by Gwylliam, the fool who had built and ruled Canrif and had started the war that destroyed it, blazed night and day in the fabrication of steel for weapons and tools, the residual heated air circulating within the mountain. The Bolg would barely miss her presence.
And her status as a Namer provided the insurance against her going unnoticed as an unwilling thrall of the demon. F'dor were the masters of lies, deceptive and secretive; Namers were forsworn to the truth. Their powers were deeply tied to it; it was the act of keeping their thinking and speaking honed on the truth as they knew it that allowed them to discern it on deeper levels than most. Rhapsody had demonstrated the ability to manipulate the power of a true name in the moment they had met, though she had done so unintentionally.
A moment before he and Grunthor had come upon her in the old land he was still known by the name given him at birth: the Brother. He was enslaved, breathing air tainted by the sickening smell of burning flesh; the malodor of the F'dor whose mark was upon him, the demon that had possession of his own true name. The invisible chain around his neck was tightening as each second passed. Undoubtedly the F'dor had begun to suspect that he was running, trying to escape its last hideous command.
And in the next moment, he had tripped over Rhapsody, running from her own pursuers in the back streets of Easton, trying to escape the lascivious intentions of Michael, the Waste of Breath. A slight smile crossed his lips and he closed his eyes, turning the memory over in his mind again.
Pardon me, but would you be willing to adopt me for a moment? I'd be grateful.
He had nodded, not having any idea why.
Thank you. She had turned back to the town guards who were chasing her. What an extraordinary coincidence. You gentlemen are just in time to meet my brother. Brother, these are the town guard. Gentlemen, this is my brotherAchmedthe Snake.
The crack of the invisible collar had been inaudible, but he had felt it in his soul. For the first time since the F'dor had taken his name the air in his nostrils cleared, dispelling the hideous odor from his nose and mind. He was free, released from his enslavement and the damnation that would eventually follow, and this stranger, this tiny half-Lirin woman, had been his rescuer.
She had, in her own panicked moment, taken his old name, the Brother, and changed it forever into something ridiculous but safe, giving him back the life and soul over which he had lost control. He could see in his memory even now the look of shock in her clear green eyes; she had had no idea what she had done. Even as he and Grunthor had dragged her overland and into the root of Sagia, the immense tree sacred to the Lirin, her mother's people, she was still suffering the notion that in their escape they were trying to save her from the Waste of Breath. To his knowledge she was still under that mistaken impression.
So if the F'dor should come upon her and bind itself to her soul, it would be easy to discern. She would no longer be able to act as a Namer, would lose her powers of truth once she was the host of a demonic spirit that was an innate liar. It was small comfort, given all the other dangers that were lying in wait for her out there somewhere, beyond his lands and his protection.
Achmed shivered and looked at the hearth. The last of the firecoals had burned down, vanishing in a thin wisp of smoke.
Deep within the barracks of the Firbolg mountain guard Grunthor was dreaming, too, something he did not tend to do. Unlike the Firbolg king, he was a simple man with a simple outlook on life. As a result, he had simple nightmares. His bad dreams, however, tended to cause more collective suffering.
Grunthor, like Achmed, was half-Bolg, but the other half was Bengard, a giant race of grisly featured desert dwellers with oily, hide-like skin that held back the effects of the sun. The Bolg-Bengard combination was as unappealing to the eye as Rhapsody's human-Lirin mix was pleasing, even to the sensibilities of the Bolg, who held Grunthor in high esteem dwarfed only by their utter fear of him. It was an attitude that pleased him.
As Grunthor muttered in his sleep, whispering through the meticulously polished tusks that protruded from his jutting jaw, the elite mountain guard captains and lieutenants who shared his barracks remained still. To a one the Bolg soldiers were afraid that any movement might in some way disturb the Sergeant-Major or set him off, which undoubtedly qualified as the last thing any of them wanted to do. It seemed that neither Grunthor nor any of the Bolg who shared the sleeping corridor with him would be getting any rest that night.
Grunthor dreamt of the dragon. He had never seen one before, except for a rather bad statue of one in the Cymrian museum, so his visions were limited to the scope of his imagination, which had never been vast. His only knowledge of them came from Rhapsody, who had told him dragon tales during their endless journey along the Root, stories of the great beasts' physical might and power over the elements, as well as their ferocious intelligence and tendency to hoard treasure.
It was this last characteristic that was giving him nightmares. He feared that once Rhapsody was within the dragon's lair, it would seek to possess her and never let her return to the mountain. This was a loss he could not contemplate, having never before cared enough about anything to miss it.
Unconsciously he patted the wall next to his bunk, whispering in Bolgish the words of comfort he had imparted to Achmed not long after they had emerged from the Root, seeking to console his longtime friend and leader about the loss of his blood gift. Grunthor had known him in the days when he was the Brother, the most proficient assassin the world had ever known, so called because he was the first of his race born on the Island from which they had come.
Serendair was a unique land, one of the places Time itself was said to have begun. As the Firstborn of his race in that unique land, the Brother had a bond to the blood of all who lived there. He could seek out any individual heartbeat with the skill of a hound on the hunt, matching his own to it and following it with deadly accuracy, relentless in his quest until he found his quarry. Watching him seek and find his prey was a marvel to behold.
All that had changed when they came forth from the Root into this new land on the other side of the world. Achmed's gift was gone, now the only heartbeats he could hear were the ones that had come from the old world of Serendair. Even though Achmed had said nothing, Grunthor had felt his despair, and so knew that there were things in life that brought sorrow when they were no longer there. It was the first time he had ever had this realization.
He was now experiencing the feeling himself. Rhapsody was Lirin; a slight, frail race upon which the Firbolg in the old land had preyed very, successfully, though what Lirin lacked in strength they generally made up for by being sly and swift. They were a race he had even consumed a few of himself; though not as many as he had teasingly led her to believe.
In many ways Lirin were as opposite to the Firbolg as he himself was to Rhapsody. Lirin were sharp and angular where Bolg were sinewy and muscular. The Lirin lived outside, in the fields and forests beneath the stars, while the Bolg were born of the caves and mountains, the children of the dark of the earth. In Grunthor's opinion Rhapsody had benefited from being sired by a human; her appearance was still slight but not frail, the sharp angles giving way to slender curves, high cheekbones and softer facial features than her mother undoubtedly had. She was beautiful. No doubt the dragon would think so, too.
At the thought Grunthor roared in his sleep, sending his lieutenants scrambling up the roughhewn walls of their chamber or out of their bunks entirely. The wood of his massive bed screamed and groaned as he thrashed about, snorting and growling, finally settling onto his side in silence again. The only sound in the room for a few moments afterwards was the quickened breathing of his unfortunate bunkmates who huddled against the barracks walls, their eyes glittering and blinking rapidly in the dark.
Unconsciously Grunthor pulled his rough woolen blanket up over his shoulder and sighed as the warmth touched his neck, a sensation similar to being near Rhapsody. He had initially been reluctant to leave the Root once they had arrived here. He had been bound to the Earth by the song of his name that she had sung to lead them through the great Fire. Grunthor, strong and reliable as the Earth itself, she had called him in his namesong, among other descriptions. From the moment he had exited the Fire he had felt the beating heart of the world in his blood, a tie to the granite and basalt and all that grew above it. The Earth was like the lover he had never had, warm and comforting in the darkness, a feeling of acceptance he had never known, and it was inextricably linked to Rhapsody.
In a way he did not miss being within the Earth, or the earthsong that still hummed in his ears when he was wrapped in silence, because she was there. He could still see her smile in the dark, her dirty face gleaming in the glow given off by the Axis Mundi, the great Root that bisected the world that had been their path away from Serendair and to this new place.
He had been her protector from the very beginning, had comforted her in her night terrors, let her sleep on his chest in the dank chill of their journey along the Root, kept her from falling into nothingness during the arduous climb. It was a role so far removed from any he had ever played before that he hardly believed himself capable of it. It had taken every resource of self-control that he had to keep from locking her in her chambers now and driving her guide from the mountain. How he would deal with a double first lossRhapsody herself, and the memory she kept alive of being within the Earthwas more than he could imagine. If she were to die, or just never come back, Grunthor was not sure he could go on.
And then, as ever, his mind cleared as the thoughts became too complicated, and pragmatism returned. Grunthor was a man of military solutions, and weighed the odds of her survival unconsciously. She carried a credible weaponDaystar Clarion, a sword from the old world they had found within the earth, for reasons unknown, here on the other side of the world. It, like they, had undergone a significant change; its blade burned with flame now, where in Serendair it had only reflected the light of the stars. He had taught her how to fight with it, and she was a credit to her instructor, performing admirably in their campaigns to subdue the Bolg. She could take care of herself. She would be all right.
Excerpted from Prophecy : Child of Earth by Elizabeth Haydon. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Haydon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.