Authors: Clayton Emery
Then the pain was everything and crowded out all thought, all feeling.
Again, Sunbright dreamed. If a dead man can dream.
He lay on a sheet of steel that ran to the horizon: the tundra turned metal, he supposed, with a steel-gray sky overhead. He tried to rise, but couldn’t lift his arms or legs or head, or even roll over, so he must be bound. Then something dark flickered and filled the sky. Soft wisps of blackness brushed his cheeks.
Someone called his name. He should open his eyes and see who. But his eyes were open, the dream insisted, else how could he see the sky?
“Sunbright, wake up.”
He didn’t want to wake up, despite being half frozen on his sheet of tundra steel. Oh, frozen! That was why he couldn’t rise. Some enemy had come in the night and poured water over him, binding him with ice. Shar, perhaps, night goddess, winter goddess, in his land where nights were months long. Lady of loss, mistress of the night and cold. Would she have black hair?
He opened his dream eyes, saw it was indeed a beautiful woman with black hair who hovered over him. A silver circlet bound her hair at the brow, and her clothes were silver, or else shining black. He couldn’t see that far down.
“Sunbright, get up!” she demanded.
The young man peered up at her. She seemed petulant for a goddess, he thought, but they were used to getting their way. Her face was longer and narrower than before, her nose almost pointed. Her eyes were now black on black. Human eyes weren’t like that. With an icy white finger she jabbed his chest, again and again. “Wake up, fool! You’re in danger!”
At this, the helpless, frozen barbarian chuckled softly, then laughed aloud. “No, no,” he gasped, “I’m not in danger anymore. I’m dead now. There’s no danger worse than that.”
The figure continued to poke, poke at his chest, until the jabs hurt. “But there is! Danger not to your body, but to your spirit!”
“Oh, that.” Sunbright gave up laughing, groaned instead. “Smolyn’s eyes, there’s always something! Who said the dead rest easy? Who wants my soul?”
“You do. You’re not done with it.”
“Eh?” He peered at the woman, but she was shrinking rapidly, to the size of a yearling pup, then a cat, then aWhat was that sitting on his chest?
“Awake?” croaked the bird. “Good. Eat this.”
The black bird banged his lip with a black beak that had an extra bend at the bridge. Sunbright yipped in pain, and the bird dropped a berry into his mouth. Instantly his mouth and nose flared at the bitter turpentine flavor. He tried to spit the berry out, but glucked and swallowed it instead.
“Juniper berries are poison!” he gargled.
“Nonsense, eat ‘em all the time. Stay here.” The raven flew away.
Sunbright watched it go, winging high along the canyon walls, then up into the late autumn sky. The sun was slanting long there, warming the cliffs. To be warm would be nice.
“Stay here?” the young man rasped. “Why should I? I’m cold! Iaah!”
Trying to pick up his head, he learned why he couldn’t. Hair from his topknot ripped in a hundred places. The sharp pain made him wrench up his arms, but they too were frozen to the ice, and so lost hair and skin when he spasmed. And that made him gasp, which made his cracked ribs screech and his belly wound howl…
“I said to stay put,” croaked a cranky voice.
Sunbright lay gasping on his side, hugging his ribs and gut and head with hands and arms rubbed raw and bleeding. It would take all the fat that could be rendered out of one ox to soothe all these frost blisters. Glumly he rolled over, hissing with pain, and heard rattles and crunches from behind him. Most of his tackle was broken and hung in tatters from his body, like porcupine quills. Head spinning, he saw the outline of his arms had stained the ice red, while a patch of golden hair, like misplaced grass, adorned the ice. Glop like thin ice milk coated him, had wet him and glued him to the ice. “What is this stuff-worm snot?”
“Remorhaz blood,” rattled the bird, beak full. “The creature leaked all over you.”
“I sheared off its legs. A bunch of legs. Oh.” Now that his vision had cleared, he saw the legs lying not three feet off. They looked like hollow birch logs. “Uh, where is theOuch!” Turning his head too fast, moving anything in fact, hurt.
“Crawled off north, toward the cold lands. It’s going pretty slow. Saw it just now, winging back. Open up.”
This time, Sunbright dutifully opened his mouth. The bird hopped to his shoulder and dropped in a half dozen blood-red juniper berries. Their tangy sting set the barbarian’s nose running, and he coughed, which racked him from sore head to tingling toes.
Careful not to move or cough, Sunbright munched slowly. The bird flew off and returned with more berries. The young man ate those too. Oddly, they made him hungry. A roast, he salivated at the thought, a roast would be mighty good right now. A roast of anything. With a fire to go under it, like the warmth up high.
“Now,” pronounced the bird, standing on the ice before him with fat black toes. Built for arctic climates, even the feathers on its legs came down to brush the thick appendages. “Do you feel worthy?”
“Worthy?” the boy gulped. “Worthy of what?”
“Your power?” Then, for the first time, the boy realized he was talking to an animal, and what the animal was. “You’re a raven!”
“True. But are you worthy?”
“Worthy?” The questions were tiring Sunbright. He should have paid better attention, he knew. A raven was the totem of his clan. Even the name of the tribe, Rengarth, some said was simply a rendering of “raven” from an ancient tongue. So now, if he of the Raven clan in the “raven” tribe saw a raven, that should be triply lucky.
But really, he just wanted to sleep for a while. It would be night soon, and he could sleep the night away, here on the warm ice that had already sucked up so much of his blood.
The raven interrupted his thoughts. “If you’re worthy, prove it. Or else lie here, pity yourself, and die.” With a flap of wide wings, it took off toward the south.
“Prove what?” Sunbright groaned. “That I’m worthy of a raven’s power? Easy for him to say: he can fly. I don’t even have any blood left.”
But this test is important, a voice urged. Follow the raven. Perhaps it was his mother’s voice, off in the east, or perhaps his father’s, speaking from the lands of the dead. Or perhaps it was his own. He was stubborn too, and made demands on himself. But could he follow the raven? He doubted he could walk.
Still, he could crawl. Maybe that would do.
Squinting, he located south, one of only two directions he could go in this narrow canyon. The ice worm had gone north, so south was better. He put out a hand, hissing as skinned flesh stuck to the ice. But the wounds continued to weep their salty tears and didn’t stick as badly as healthy flesh might. He put down the other hand, grabbed ice …
No, he was forgetting something. Two hands empty wasn’t right.
Sword. His father’s sword.
Lurching in a circle on his hip, he found the long steel tool half embedded in the ice. He almost wept as he dug into the ice to free it with fingers that were already raw. But then he clutched it tight. And it worked well, helped him, for when he turned the arched blade down, it bit the polished ice of the canyon floor and gave him a brace to pull on.
He shoved the sword ahead, chunked the edge down, pushed lamely with his toes, pulled with his arms, caught up to it. Did it again. And again.
Hours later, he crawled from the ice shadows, then blinked, blinded. The morning sun, as big as a god’s face, rose in the east and bathed him in glorious, life-giving warmth.
Laying his head on a steel pillow, Sunbright slept.
Candlemas limped down a long, long hall wide and high enough for a coach-and-six to run flat out. The floor was black onyx and white quartz, the two colors swirling and interlacing in complex patterns hand-cut and meshed by generations of artisans. The surface of the floor was so shiny it was almost invisible, which made it difficult for the wizard to tell where to place his feet. And further, he limped, because his missing arm set him lurching off-balance.
At the far end of the corridor, he heard maids giggling and chiding one another over some sexual escapade, but when he appeared, they hushed and scurried back to work. Each wore a white cap and short white dress with a black apron: the colors of Lady Polaris, which Candlemas found monotonous. At one time, the maids would have been glad to see him, a welcome distraction in their dull routines here in Sysquemalyn’s territory.
But after five months the wizard’s arm was still regenerating. It had done so bit by bit, from the inside out, needing to be left in the open air. First the bones had grown, until he had a skeleton’s arm rattling alongside, with no muscles to pick it up. Then the arteries had stitched themselves, so he was bothered by the pulsing of his own heart’s blood. Then muscle, slowly knitting together. Now came the worst part, the spinning of nerves, like a thousand tiny spiderwebs, every one itching and burning yet sending electric shrieks from his teeth to his toes if he touched or bumped them. He prayed for the skin to grow back soon, for now his tingling arm looked like the work of a clumsy butcher. Maybe, with skin on it, the girls could stand for him to touch them again.
Snarling at the once friendly maids, he learned Sysquemalyn was in the conservatory torturing flowers. So he stumped that way, careful not to brush his raw arm against any obstacles.
Sysquemalyn was deep into the conservatory, which was longer and higher than some wizards’ houses and roofed entirely with tiny diamond panes of bull’s-eye glass. Green plants poured forth a riot of red and white and purple and yellow flowers, and no less than nine human stoop-backed gardeners bustled about them. Their supervisor tended her own patch at the back of the conservatory. Here in the hot greenhouse, she wore nothing but a short chemise and a frilly apron that looked ludicrous. Especially since, as a collector of grotesques, Sysquemalyn had many weird and sinister plants concealed back where Lady Polaris wouldn’t see them on her infrequent visits. The flowers resembled fleshy organs, bilious teardrops, lizards’ tongues, finger bones, and more. The female wizard hummed as she snipped liver-colored blossoms and dropped them into a pail.
“Your damned barbarian is still alive!” Candlemas growled without preamble. “You owe me an arm!”
She pretended bemusement. “An arm, dear ‘Mas? Why do you need three? A third to comb your beard? Certainly not to comb your head.” She laughed gaily at her wit.
Exasperated, exhausted by his long walkregenerating strained a bodyCandlemas nevertheless ran his good hand over his bald pate, evoking another merry trill. “Don’t change the subject! And don’t mock me! Your barbarianyou started this stupid contestis still alive! He’s been healing in the forest south of the Barren Mountains! He didn’t die when attacked by the remorhaz, damn it, and you owe me an arm!”
Sysquemalyn set down her snippers and pouted prettily, as if sympathetic. “Dear, dear Candlemas. You’re all tuckered out by your little rebuilding project there. Barbarian? I don’t… Oh, the yellow-haired fellow, skinny as a plucked chicken! I remember him!”
“I remember too!” In the greenhouse, the wizard was sweating heavily. Salty drops running down his healing arm stung like wasps. “You cheated, sicced a fiend on me too soonaargh!” Pained, he lurched backward against a table, knocking a dozen potted flowers to the slate floor with a crash.
Sysquemalyn tsked, but clearly Candlemas wasn’t about to go away. With a theatrical sigh, she perched her rump on a tall stool. “Very well. I may have been in error when I conjured the fiend. It could have happened to anyone. You should feel sorry for me, I’m so embarrassed.”
“Sorry?” gasped the man. “Em-embarrassed?” He swooned, clawing sweat from his face.
Smirking, Sysquemalyn replied, “You know, this is great fun. I’m so glad we formed this little wager. It was dead boring around here.”
Eyes bugging from his head at her audacity, Candlemas couldn’t answer. Almost absently, Sysquemalyn picked up a lacquered bladder and gave an experimental squeeze. A thin green stream arced across the space between them and struck Candlemas’s red-meat arm.
With a scream, the wizard leaped fully three feet in the air, crashed against a rack of potted flowers, and sent them smashing as he shrieked and clawed and ripped at his new arm as if to tear it off.
“By Tipald, am I careless!” Sysquemalyn tipped a crockery pot to sprinkle cool water over the writhing wizard. “That’s liquid fertilizer. My, I’ll bet that stings!”
As Candlemas ground his teeth and fought to regain his feet, Sysquemalyn jabbered on. “I’ll tell you what, since you feel so put-upon. Let’s continue the contest, and up the stakes even further. Let’s see … If your barbarian is healthy, we’ll dump some more tests on him, hard ones this time. If he survives, you win, as before. If he dies, I win. And the loser this time gets flayed alive!”
“Flayed …” croaked Candlemas. He felt flayed now.
“And just to be fair, you decide the test! I’ll stay out of it.”
Despite dire warnings and his own pain, Candlemas was intrigued. But one thought intruded that had bothered him for weeks. “No, wait, wait. There’s a flaw in the argument, and I should have seen it when we made this bet. To win, you need the barbarian to die. And if we keep piling on tribulations, he will die. Then you’ll have won. But for me to win, he must survive, which he won’t if we keepkeepPut that damned thing down!”
“But, dear, it makes things grow.” She’d been toying with the bulb of fertilizer again. Now she squirted juice amidst the hanging fronds of a plant that looked like dead snakes wrenched inside out, as if she were giving them a loving kiss. “But I understand your dilemma, and that’s why I’ve turned the contest over to you. Surely, if you control all the tests, and you’re fair, your hero will win. Then you can braid a whip from whatever you like and get whichever slave you like, no matter how strong, to beat me until I’m a heap of hash. Now wouldn’t that be fun?”
Candlemas groaned, but had to admit the idea gave him great pleasure. He tried to detect flaws in her new arguments, new tricks, but it was hard to think in this steamy den and through the fog of pain. Finally he snarled, “Agreed! And I hope you suffer as keenly as I have!”