Authors: Mel Odom
Tags: #Fantasy, #S&S
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For my son, Chandler
Look, Littlefoot! Daddy built a world for your imagination to play in!
As always, I couldn’t have come this far without Brian Thomsen, my editor, who steered a straight course for me even when things were at their most confusing.
And I couldn’t have explored the world of
further without the generous patronage of Tom Doherty, a gracious man and a publishing legend.
Also, Ethan Ellenberg, my agent, who has always stood beside me in the fiercest conditions.
The Dread Rider
The horse’s hooves thudded against the ground as the rider urged his mount along the trail. Forest spread out around him. Gray clouds steamed from the horse’s nostrils and disappeared into the darkness of night.
From the last hill, he had seen the light of the old inn tucked away into the mountains where he had ridden to bring the prize that he carried. Delivering the package gave him no real satisfaction. As soon as he finished this task, another would be given.
He only hoped that the next task wasn’t as bloodless as this one. He had learned to kill a long time ago, and his knowledge of enjoyment over such a thing had taken place in the instant after he’d claimed his first life.
The horse faltered beneath him. The hooves skittered out of beat against the hard-packed earth and bare stone showing where constant travel had worn everything else away.
The animal was dying.
The rider knew that and didn’t care. He had killed three of his last five mounts, ridden them till they had died, then had walked the necessary miles to his next stop, where he was given a fresh horse.
In the beginning, he hadn’t been alone. Twelve others had ridden with him.
The number was auspicious for a number of reasons, but the auguries of his kind had demanded that thirteen ride at the wizard’s call. They never veered from their auguries, just as they never veered from a task once they had accepted it.
Now there were three of them left. Ten others had died in combat along the way, combating harsh terrain, fearsome creatures, and bandits and men who tried to kill them for the gold they carried, as well as the package they had been given to deliver.
Only one rider yet remained behind him. The other had fallen to a pack of bloodwolves miles back. The predators had taken the horse out from under the third rider, and they had left him there to sort out his own fate with the creatures.
There had been no thought of going back for their comrade. They only battled together while they were riding, while they were heading in the same direction to accomplish the task they had undertaken.
Maybe the other rider would arrive at the inn in the morning. Maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. All that truly mattered was the journey, as fast as they could go.
Long minutes later, the horse coming loose beneath him, the rider arrived at the inn. The horse almost made it to the stable before its heart gave out.
Acquainted with the feeling, knowing that the horse was nothing more than falling dead meat, the rider pulled his right leg free of the stirrup, threw it over the horse, and leapt from the saddle. He landed on his two feet as the horse collapsed into a death sprawl ahead of him and to one side.
The other rider thundered to a halt just behind him and leapt from his mount as well.
Standing straight and tall, ignoring the amazed looks of the two men and the dwarf sitting outside the inn on the covered porch smoking and drinking tankards of ale, the rider adjusted the twin swords at his hips and started walking.
He was taller than most humans. Dressed as he was in the hooded cloak and all in black, he knew he was a frightful thing to behold and he took pride in that. Besides being a skilled rider, he was a deadly warrior. All who had heard of him, and most had, knew those things about him.
The humans and the dwarf on the covered porch gave him no acknowledgment and quickly broke eye contact.
Besides the height and the dress and the demeanor he carried, the rider knew his eyes marked him as well. While he was delivering, they glowed, identifying him for all to see.
He strode into the main hallway, swept the area with his gaze, and felt his companion slightly behind him and to the right so they could both fight if it came to that. He walked to the desk, where an old man and woman stood awaiting his arrival anxiously.
“Yes?” the man asked, smiling hopefully, as if the rider might take some relief or pleasure in that expression.
“I am here,” the rider said.
The old man was taken aback. “I can see that. Do you need a room? Perhaps for you and your friend?”
“No.” Irritation chafed at the rider. He didn’t like talking, didn’t like standing, didn’t like having nothing to do after he had arrived.
A man’s voice called his attention.
The rider swiveled his head toward the speaker and saw a human standing halfway down a staircase leading to the inn’s second floor.
“It’s me you’re here to see,” the human said. “I am Dannis.”
The rider recognized that name. The humans, dwarves, elves, dwellers, and even goblins insisted on that kind of individuality. It was a strange concept to a rider. Riders simply knew each other. There was no need for names.
“Come on.” Dannis waved him up the staircase.
The rider led the way, flanked by his companion. The human led them upstairs to a small, neat room bathed in lantern light.
The rider didn’t care for the light. Mostly, he rode at night and his eyes didn’t function as well in lighted areas.
Dannis was a compact man with long, hard years and a smooth-shaven face. Someone whom most would overlook, but the rider sensed the magic within the man. With his own kind, the rider knew that magic was an innate thing. But the humans took magic upon themselves, putting it on their bodies like a sickness.
“You have the package?” Dannis asked.
Without a word, the rider stripped the carryall from his shoulder and handed it over to the human. During the journey, all of the riders had sensed the magic within the package, but none of them had investigated it. That type of behavior wasn’t part of their nature. He wasn’t curious about it now.
Dannis opened the carryall with the air of a man doing something awe-inspiring. He took out a rectangle of paper that opened and opened and opened yet again.
The rider glanced at the markings on the surfaces of the open rectangle of paper and saw that some of the surfaces held images.
“Have you looked at this?” Dannis asked.
“No.” During the course of his duties, the rider hadn’t been asked to check on the state of the object. Some things that he carried were perishable. That was important to know.
“Do you know what it is?” Dannis seemed proud of his new possession.
.” The human smiled. “Not many of these left around these days.”
The rider had heard of books. Once they had all been thought destroyed by Lord Kharrion, the being who had brought all the goblinkin hordes together and nearly taken over the world. During that long war, the riders had served with the Goblin Lord as well against him. Both sides had paid gold for their tasks, and those tasks—the rides hurtling across the landscapes—had given riders their reasons for living.
The rider waited.
The human seemed disappointed. “I don’t suppose you’d be impressed.”
The rider felt that was self-evident and didn’t respond.
“A funny thing about this,” the human said, unable to conceal his pride over the object, “it looks like a book, but it’s a trap. A very clever trap, but a trap nonetheless.”
That caught some of the rider’s attention. He knew all about traps.
“And a most compelling trap for those for whom it is set.” Dannis slid the book back into the carryall. “At the time we set up delivery here, we did not know where the trap’s final destination would be. We have since learned the whereabouts of the person we are setting the trap for. I was told you might accept another assignment.”
Excitement flared within the rider. “Yes.”
Dannis handed the carryall back, adding a sack of gold that completed the balance for the task. “I need this taken to Hortugal. Do you know where that is? One of the goblinkin cities the South?”
“Yes,” the rider said, and he didn’t tell the human that riders knew where every place was.
“You don’t have a problem with goblins, I take it.”
“No,” the rider replied. Goblinkin were just like bloodwolves. If they got in his way or interfered with him, he killed them. Just as he did with humans, dwarves, and elves.
“There is a wizard there. His name is Ertonomous Dron. Deliver this package to him and tell him to go to Kelloch’s Harbor.”
The rider considered that. Kelloch’s Harbor was far to the north.
“The package can be delivered to Kelloch’s Harbor,” the rider pointed out.
“No,” Dannis said. “That wouldn’t do at all. I don’t mean to offend, but you don’t fit into the trap at all.”
“When can you leave?” the human asked.
“Now,” the rider answered. And he spun on his heel and did.
What’d ye think ye’re a-doin’ with yerself?”
Startled by the booming voice that penetrated even the raucous nightly crowing and lying of the sailors and cargo handlers that filled the Broken Tiller, Juhg looked up. His hands moved automatically to close the journal he’d been working in. Just as rapidly, for he had learned to be quick of hand if he wanted to eat or go unpunished among the goblin slavers that had once owned him, he shifted the handmade book beneath the plate that still held half his dinner. The dim oil lanterns and tallow candles that lit the tavern created long and deep shadows that aided his efforts.
Raisho, a young sailor of
—the ship Juhg currently sailed with—stood in front of the small table Juhg had taken at the back of the tavern. Raisho was human, an inch or two over six feet, and broad of shoulder from pulling oars and shifting cargo all of his life. At twenty years, he was young for an adult among his kind, and he still went smooth-shaven because he could not yet command a full beard. A red leather band festooned with osprey feathers held his unruly black hair back in a queue that left his forehead bare and trailed a ponytail to the base of his neck. The sun, wind, and weather had tanned his skin deep, supple warm ebony, save where it was marked with a seaman’s indigo blue tattoos wishful of good luck. Lantern light glinted on the silver hoops he wore in both ears. His dark brown eyes sparkled with merriment at Juhg’s reaction.