A cold wind sang across the plains, blowing dusty snow before it and rattling through the dead, brown grass. It whipped over the army massed outside the ancient town of Athol and broke against the walls of the fabled city, keening along the uneven stones. Bright pennants cracked in the breeze, lending sharp counterpoint to the music of the wind.The warlord Karroth spurred his horse to the fore of his army. The city gate remained resolutely closed. Karroth held his sword high over his head, and, on his signal, the battering ram trundled forward to take down the gate.Before it made contact, a white flag on a crooked stick poked above the battlements.‘Parley!’ cried a trembling voice.‘Surrender!’ Karroth shouted back. ‘No parley! No terms. Surrender or we’ll knock your city into the dirt!’
Behind him Tabar, his second in command, rolled his eyes, his helmet hiding his expression. Now, if they didn’t immediately yield, Karroth would feel honor-bound–no, reputation-bound–to destroy a defenseless city. A rich and defenseless city. They always had this argument. Why not do the least damage and salvage the most booty? Why burn, loot, and pillage when, with a little forethought, you could secure the city, spare the lives of the grateful populace, and have gold thrown at you?
So far, Karroth’s answer had always been the same–and Tabar liked having his head remain where it was.
‘Spare us,’ the voice quavered. ‘And you shall have our richest treasure of all.’
Karroth’s eyes narrowed.
‘This city is mine, old man! Whatever treasure you speak of, I have it already, or will soon enough.’
‘Not so, warlord. Not so. For, if you were to annihilate us all, you would never discover where this treasure lies hidden.’
Karroth and Tabar exchanged glances.
‘Show yourself,’ Karroth ordered. ‘I want to see who I’m dealing with.’
The oldster pushed his head up over the walls, his long gray beard and hair flapping in the brisk wind. He reached out one gnarled hand to the warlord.
‘You will not regret your decision, Merciful One.’
Karroth made an impatient face and gestured for Tabar and a few others to come with him. A small postern door opened inside the main gate, and they ducked inside.
They made an impressive company. Karroth was a tall man, lean and rangy as a wolf, his clean-shaven face sharp and angular, his nose a jutting blade. His dark-blond hair was cut short; an emerald earring glinted from one ear. He wore a plain black surcoat over his armour, its simple folds undecorated. Tabar hulked next to him in pitted, dented chainmail. The rest of Karroth’s bodyguard were equally intimidating.
The old man led them to the lord of Athol, a small, soft man, rich as a pastry in velvet robes. The city lord gabbled on, wringing his hands.
‘Wine, gentlemen? Or meat? After all your exercise, you must be hungry, I’m sure. Is it warm enough? I can call for more logs on the fire–or, well, we did rather run out, with this dratted siege–not, you understand, that I am complaining. Oh no! In fact, it was very well run, better than most, you know. And I can appreciate such things, I assure you. Oh! Good fortune! No one is sitting here–just the thing to bring that fire right up.’
At a gesture from Karroth, Tabar reached out his arm and stopped the lord from dragging an ornate chair onto the fire.
Karroth leaned back.
‘What treasure?’ he asked evenly, his gloved hands toying with his dagger. The manor lord looked nervously at his advisor. No longer sent out as a peace offering, the old man eyed the warlord with considerably more fire than he had shown on the walls.
‘Have you ever considered marrying, Warlord Karroth?’ he asked.
‘I’m not the marrying type, old man. If you mean to offer me a woman to pull off my army, I might have to kill you for the insult.’
‘Not just any woman,’ the old man said. He leaned forward. ‘A princess. The princess of Athol, in fact.’
Karroth’s hands stilled and he looked over at Tabar. The bear shook his head slightly. Don’t believe him. Karroth looked back at the old man.
‘You like to live dangerously,’ he said softly. ‘I don’t like liars.’
‘It’s no lie. The princess of Athol, and her dowry, are at a place remote from here. Just as the legend has told, from mothers to daughters and fathers to sons: once woken from an enchanted sleep, the princess of Athol will bestow her treasure on her one true love. Now here you are, and she is stirring. Oh yes, the signs say she is stirring.’
‘Where is she?’
The old man shook his head, nervous but holding his ground.
‘To have her–you must free this city.’
‘I could burn this city to the ground.’
‘Then you would never have the princess,’ the advisor said simply.
The pudgy lord looked from one to the other desperately.
‘She… She is young, warlord, and waiting for you. You will be her saviour…’ He abruptly shut up at the look of fury his advisor gave him.
Tabar frowned at the interchange. What had the lord said that he was not supposed to?
If Karroth noticed, he gave no sign. The warlord raised an eyebrow.
‘So why don’t you wake her?’ he asked the plump man.
‘Why–why–why, I am a married man,’ he stuttered. ‘She–why, you are–she–‘
The advisor cut in sharply. ‘The story is well known. Anyone can wake her. She must bestow her dowry.’ Again he glared at his master. ‘My lord is being realistic. He knows she would not choose him. But a handsome warlord–that is another matter.’
‘Right now, I have a city. If I accept your offer, I might get a fortune.’ With great deliberation he scored a line on the gleaming tabletop. The city lord made a small noise in his throat. ‘I don’t think so.’
The silence that followed his refusal was broken only by the sounds of the city lord’s gasping breaths. The advisor, however, was unmoved.
‘Are you so unsure of yourself, warlord?’ the old man asked softly.
Karroth’s eyes narrowed, and Tabar groaned silently. Then the warlord’s grin flashed.
‘Nice try, but I don’t think so.’
‘I never would have taken you for a cautious man,’ the advisor went on.
Karroth leaned back in his chair, his expression amused and dangerous.’Go on. Tell me more.’
The advisor looked him straight in the eye. ‘You’re afraid she’ll turn you down.’
They drew up a contract and Karroth waited, cleaning the mud clots from his gloves with the point of his knife. He looked bored. Possibly only Tabar knew how keenly he was listening to the negotiations without seeming to, his head cocked and his knife stilling at some of the finer points. When they had finished, he pulled the parchment over, scrawled his name on the line at the bottom, and pressed his sigil into the wax underneath.
‘Let’s go,’ he said peremptorily, looping his sigil’s chain back around his neck. He nodded toward the door and his men rose to follow. The city lord swallowed and watched them go; Karroth grabbed the advisor by one wide sleeve and pulled him along.
‘You’re our hostage, old-timer,’ Karroth said at his outraged protest. ‘Not that I don’t trust your directions. But you know how it is. People are so much more honest if someone holds a knife to their throat. Besides, what if the princess is ugly? I’ll have to take it out on someone.’
It was coming on to twilight when they reached the dark mouth of a cave in one of the jumbled rock formations that dotted the plain. Torches burned at either side of the entrance. Feebly the old man dug in his heels.
‘No. You know the tale. You have to go alone. Otherwise she disappears and is gone forever, never to return.’
Karroth thrust the old man at one of his soldiers.
‘Hold onto him,’ he ordered. He loped toward the cave, his body blending in with the scrub and the shadows. As they lost sight of him, the old man changed. A smile crossed his face and he cried out triumphantly, a cry that altered in midscream to a raven’s croak. The man holding him started back with a shriek of his own as the sorcerer shuddered and turned into a black bird. With another croak the raven flapped into the air and was gone in the darkness, leaving behind one dark feather floating to the ground.
Furious, Tabar drew his sword.
‘The commander!’ he shouted. ‘Come on!’
They charged up the hill after Karroth.
The cave was small; torches guided them along its short length. Karroth looked up from a stone shelf, his expression unreadable.
‘He was a shapeshifter,’ Tabar said, panting. He nodded at the entrance. ‘Took off as soon as you got in here.’
‘Yes, I bet he did.’
‘What is it?’ Tabar asked, trying to peer around him at the stone shelf. It seemed awfully short to be holding a sleeping woman. Karroth stepped aside.
‘Take a look. Remember when the lord said she was young?’
As one the warriors bent over the crib at the black-haired, bright-eyed baby gazing solemnly up at them.
Tabar’s heart sank. It had been a full day’s ride to the cave. While they were on this wild goose chase, the wealth of Athol was no doubt disappearing out the back door.
He looked up at his commander. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Exactly what I told them I would.’
The other warriors exchanged glances. Tabar knew what they were thinking; more was at stake here than a city’s fortune. My job to bring it up, he thought.
‘He’s a shapeshifter, Karroth. A bird. He’ll have the news out you’ve been had by morning. Then what?’
Cold fury leaked into Karroth’s eyes.
‘Then we go bird hunting.’ With a foul curse he turned and smashed his fist into the wall. The warriors winced. As the commander stormed from the cave, Tabar called out, ‘Wait!’
‘What!’ Karroth turned rigidly, silhouetted against the torchlight outside the cave.
‘What about the baby?’
Karroth stared and then flapped his arm at Tabar disgustedly. The warriors looked at one another. Tabar sighed and sheathed his sword. He picked up the infant in one hand and the full wineskin that had been left with her in the other. Goat’s milk, he thought, sniffing, left behind for the very tiny–and very wet–princess. Someone had more faith in the goodwill of dangerous men than he would have had himself. He shifted the baby to a more secure hold.
‘We can’t just leave her here,’ he explained to the others.
No one said a word.
Toward dawn the engines of war silenced. The walls of the city were a smoking rubble, and fires crackled here and there, wherever there was wood and thatch left to burn. The gate still stood, listing like a drunken reveler, but the walls it once linked were torn to the ground.
A dark presence, Karroth brooded over the destruction of the city. He hadn’t moved much during the battle, simply given his orders with a quiet intensity that Tabar (still holding the baby) relayed to the men. Tabar had only seen him in such a mood once or twice in their career together; it boded no good for the townspeople who got in his way.
A sooty, weary soldier came up and saluted, his expression signaling bad news.
‘There wasn’t much left, sir,’ he reported. ‘Looks like they squirreled it all away before you called the attack. Most of ’em must have run out the back when… When you were gone, that is…’ his voice faltered and faded off.
Karroth’s expression was remote as he looked past the warrior to see a small troop navigate their way through the rubble, dragging a captive.
‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘I got what I wanted.’
As Karoth spoke, the gate, giving way to the pull of the earth, toppled with a groaning crash. His warriors brought over the city lord, a palsied wreck. He was the only prisoner.
‘I’m not much for playing games,’ Karroth said mildly. ‘You can tell the bird that when you see him in hell.’
The blood from the lord of Athol soaked into his stiff armour. Karroth grabbed a corner of the velvet robe and wiped off his dagger as the dead man fell to the ground.
‘What are you doing with that?’ Karroth asked sharply, nodding at the baby in Tabar’s arms.
The army was on the move again, a ragged line of warriors and camp followers struggling across the stony plain. The wind swept along after them, kicking up their horses’ tails and pushing them toward the snow-capped mountains that edged the plains’ northern boundary.
A watery sun played tag with the clouds.
‘She’s your betrothed, remember?’ Tabar said. He was perhaps the only one who could get away with that.
Karroth cursed. Tabar grinned.
‘Think, Karroth. The thing about babies is, they grow up. And this is one rich little baby.’
Karroth grunted. ‘I didn’t see a bit of that legendary dowry in the cave.’
‘You didn’t kiss her. That’s part of the story.’
Karroth made no reply, and Tabar’s mouth dropped open, remembering suddenly that Karroth had been alone in the cave.
‘Or did you?’
‘Shut up, Tabar, or I’ll cut your throat.’
But the threat was form only; Tabar laughed.
‘She needs more milk; we’re almost out. And fresh diapers. A wetnurse would be the best thing.’
‘This is an army,’ Karroth said acidly. He barely glanced at the infant. ‘We have camp followers. Not nursemaids. And why haven’t you given it to the whores?’
‘You sure you want that? Just think,’ Tabar mused, shifting the baby in his arm. ‘The Princess of Athol. Right here. All her treasures in the hands of the man who woke her from her enchanted sleep — in about sixteen years.’
Karroth reined up. He stared levelly at his second in command.
‘All right, Tabar. You win. If she comes with money, fine. But until I start to see some of it, keep that brat out of my hair.’ The warlord turned his horse around and stood in his stirrups, shouting for his lieutenant. ‘Tal! Take a squad and sack a village! Bring back a wetnurse!’
The warrior saluted, and Karroth spurred his chestnut war stallion to the other side of the line, his disgust with Tabar evident in his rigid posture.
Tabar watched him gallop off and sighed.
‘Well, little baby, we bought you some time. Let’s see what we can do with it.’
The army pitched camp in the vastness of the plain, dotting the darkness with cooking fires and tents. Karroth sat at his table in his massive tent, the roasted haunch of young goat in his hands. The last of the milk gone, the baby was crying a hungry, tired squall that was weakening by the minute. Tabar dandled her anxiously, trying to get her to suck a little wine from his fingers. Karroth rolled his eyes.
‘Why does she have to be in my tent?’ he grumbled around a mouthful of meat. ‘A dying baby–it’s bad luck.’
A sentry poked his head in.
‘Tal’s back, sir,’ he said cheerfully. Tabar let out his breath with explosive relief as Tal pushed through the opening, dragging a young woman by the sleeve.