Authors: Sean Stewart
Ace Books by Sean Stewart
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
This Ace Book contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. It has been completely reset in a typeface designed for easy reading, and was printed from new film.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Maxwell Macmillan Canada edition published 1993
Ace edition/May 1995
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1995 by Sean Stewart.
Cover art by Tara McGovem.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
For Kay, Christine, Cait
mother, wife, daughter
this book about fathers and husbands and sons
Memories haunted the Ghostwood, brittle as the twigs that splintered like tiny bones under Mark’s boots. Sifting through drooping cedar boughs, the old wind muttered of things that waited in darkness without hope. To every question the Ghostwood had but one answer, made from sorrow, and loneliness, and time.
Shielder’s Mark followed a stream into the Forest, whistling a cheery tune and thinking,
God, what a bloody dismal place. Only an idiot would come here on purpose. An idiot with ambition
, he corrected himself wryly.
An idiot who means to collect on the King’s promise to grant one wish
to the man who breaks the Ghostwood’s spell. Just because practically every hero since Duke Aron has failed to survive the Wood, that’s no reason to be scared
. “That’s a reason to bloody panic,” Mark growled to himself.
Sure, they were heroes: but could they shear a sheep, or shoe a horse, or mend a fence with a loop of haywire ? No doubt a village handyjack has a thousand tricks that would put those famous duelists and adventurers to shame.
Somehow, this had all seemed a good deal less stupid before Mark had actually entered the Ghostwood.
From time to time the Forest’s desolation would run into his limbs like water, and he would have to stop, and spit a long carpenter’s spit.
You’ve nowt to go back to, last and least of heroes
, he would remind himself.
So you might as well go on
All his life Mark had longed to seek his greatness in the Ghostwood. His father had abandoned him when he was only a boy. When his mother died, early in the spring of his twenty-first year, he left his home and set out for the haunted Forest. He left his hammer to the cooper, his spare clothes to the miller’s son, his mother’s grave to the grass and the rain.
He tried to leave his childhood too, but that came after him. Dreaming of fame to come, Mark never looked back; never saw his childhood following behind, cool and dark and vague as a shadow.
It was a hard scramble following the stream into the Ghostwood. After hours of sloshing through eddies and jumping from rock to rock in the channel, Mark suddenly stopped, heart pounding, and stared at a boot cradled in the grasp of a willow root. It had been a proud boot once, fit to grace a gentleman.
Little now remained but tattered pieces of tooled leather, spotted here and there with rust where once a button or a buckle gleamed.
Must have tumbled downward from the Red Keep and gotten snagged
At the sight of something which had once touched human life, the vague dread of the Ghostwood hardened into panic in Mark’s chest.
Probably came off some poor bastard who went to break the spell. Nails to nuts that’s you in two days, my friend
Well don’t just stand there staring, you silly bugger. Get on, get on with it!
He spat and scrambled on without looking back.
When some hours later he saw the second boot, wedged between two rocks and half-buried under dead leaves, he felt a different, deeper kind of dread, the kind you feel when faced with the impossible. The second boot was the mate of the first, no question: but it was whole. Worn, but whole.
How the hell! T’other one’s been through a hundred years, but this
. … A buckle, only slightly tarnished, clinked against Mark’s sword blade as he brushed away the coverlet of leaves. He’d never heard a lonelier sound.
, he thought:
T’awd stories are true
! Two boots, one old, one young.
You’re walking back through time, lad. Back through time
He swore and leapt away. He couldn’t pretend this was normal any more. He bolted forward, splashing wildly through the stream, jumping from rock to rock or floundering through the freezing water until exhaustion finally drowned his fear. Then he slowed, trudging forward into the Forest’s dark heart, feeling himself dwindle like a match falling into a well endlessly deep. For the first time in his life he wished he believed in God.
Hours passed as he hacked his way through ranks of pine boughs.
Bastard way to treat good steel
, he thought ruefully. He wiped off his sword as best he could, but the blade was still sticky with pine-sap when he gave up and stuck it back into its sheath.
And then, a little miracle: a path began to grow from nowhere, a hollow tunnel through the Wood.
Well, that’s the worst behind you
, he thought.
And with every step, the shadow of his past streamed out longer and darker at his back.
The stories said there was a Tower at the centre of the Wood, guarded by terrors. Mark had brought his sword, and a set of iron climbing spikes: he figured he had a damn sight better chance of scaling the Tower wall than he had of battling past guardians that had proved too awful for any of the great heroes to defeat.
He walked for a long time while the dirt path got broader and cleaner. Gloomy cedars drooped around him, and chambers of pine, quiet and dusty as cathedrals; as full of death and long silence. At length these gave way to other trees, elms and poplars and muttering oaks. As he travelled back through time, white paving stones erupted from the earth and knit themselves together into a road. But the better the path became, the harder Mark found the walking. He strode through years drifted like withered leaves, rustling around his ankles, his knees, his hips: wading with every step through uncounted empty days. At last he could think of nothing but grief, age, death, abandonment, hollowness, desolation.
The King can pay a Keep for this: nowt less
Think! Think about summat… Twenty servants, then, the King can give you; a stable too, and canty livery. Summat smart, as a man would feel proud to wear. Blue and silver maybe: but soldierlike, not just flashy.
How long had he been walking in the Wood?
It was twilight now, but he couldn’t remember when last he’d seen the sun.
The path was paved with flagstones of white marble, gleaming under a ghostly grey tunnel made by an aisle of oaks. Farther on, an orchard of cherry trees whispered with the breeze, their tops a foam of pink blossom.
And beyond that, above a wide moat, stood the haunted Keep and its Tower, built of red granite.
. Mark shivered with wonder.
Tales around that spire like red wool wound around a spindle. Break the spell here and be famous for life. Forever! Shielder’s Mark, greatest of champions. Father of a proud line
Firelight winked close by, fierce as lightning to Mark’s nervous eyes. He smelt smoke on the air, and something else, like foul stew.