The day was blessedly clear, a rarity in Blackreach, where the clouds clung to the high cliffs and cold rain, if not hail, fell most days. It was these rare clear days that Aeric treasured, the days when he could climb the rocky slopes above Falladar and stand upon the high precipice, cold wind whipping his cloak and hair, and see all the way to Shadowbay, and he fancied, the jagged isle of Darkspire far to the northwest, though the basalt castle itself was beyond his vision.
The rain would return though, it always did, and the dark clouds already gathering on the western horizon promised soon rather than later. Aeric turned away from the view and put his mind back to the task at hand. He had come up here to gather skysilk, not stare at castles and lands he’d never see. Setting his rope about a rusted pin, he carefully edged his way down to a ledge some twenty feet below, where he had spied the glistening silver of skysilk. He climbed with one hand, keeping his jot staff ready in the other, in case the sky spiders were about.
Two of the goat-sized creatures were hunkered down in a cleft when Aeric alighted on the ledge, but they scuttled back when he waved the forked end of the jot staff at them. Only two, that was good. They were shy things really, and tended to eat the small birds and other creatures that wandered into their webs, but when they were swarming… Aeric had grown up on stories of sky spider swarms, and it was said that half a dozen were more than enough to overwhelm a man. When they swarmed, they filled the skies like flocks of birds, if birds had eight legs and flew on webs rather than wings.
Keeping a wary eye on the spiders, Aeric set to his task. He deftly sorted through the delicate, translucent strands, disentangling and cutting them and stuffing them in the leather scrip at his side. He was after the smooth strands, the ratha, that the spiders traveled on, not the sticky gara strands that caught and held the spiders’ prey. The longer strands were better, though he would take whatever he could get. The skysilk buyers paid by weight, and the silvery strands seemed to weigh less than air. He was still well short of his quota, and if his family was to eat come winter, he would need a miracle.
The male spider, a big black with silver stripes on its stick-thin legs, rushed Aeric, plainly fed up with his meddling and messing of its nest. He swung the jot staff in a swift arc, lifted the spider, and flung it out off the cliff. The dwindling black dot suddenly flared its legs, and the silver net of web caught, and the spider drifted lazily away on the up-canyon winds. It would be back in its nest by nightfall. That was the trick when a sky spider attacked, to flick it away, preferably as far away as possible, without damaging it. It was illegal to kill one, even in defense. Farther down the cliff, there was a big aggressive brood mother, twice the size of the silver female that cowered in the back of her nest now, that Aeric would have smashed a dozen times over if doing so wouldn’t have meant losing a hand. The skysilk, and the spiders that made it, was worth more than the cliff rats who collected it.
Aeric pulled as much of the ratha threads from the nest as he could, leaving behind only those that lay beneath the female. Cowardly creatures for the most part, sky spiders would attack if pressed, and their venom could leave a man paralyzed for days, and some got smart and learned to run up jot staves to get at their wielder. Not a likely prospect for survival when one was tethered to a cliff 300 feet above the Faunfyll river by a length of hempen rope.
The rain started as Aeric climbed to a lower ledge. He had been so intent on the silk that he hadn’t even noticed the clouds close in overhead. That was Blackreach for you; if it’s not raining, wait an hour, his father had liked to say. Rain made the smooth basalt slick, the footing and handholds treacherous. That was the life of a cliff rat, though. Vicious spiders and rain-slick cliffs. Most fell eventually. Aeric’s father had fallen to his death not two miles from this spot. It would be fifty years next moon’s turn. His younger brother had fallen just last year when a pin pulled free of the cliff and dashed him on the river rocks below.
Aeric tried not to think about that as he descended a vertical section, but those thoughts always crept in. Cliff rats always kept the fall in the back of their minds, as a reminder of what could happen. Carelessness was death up here.
Aeric glanced down to gauge the distance to the next ledge. The river, a silver stripe between black cliffs, spun dizzily. Looking down was bad. Aeric reached his foot down to find the ledge.
The fangs sank into his ankle. Aeric jerked back. His full weight hit the rope around his waist. He felt the burning sting of venom creep up his leg. He scrabbled for a handhold, a foothold, anything. Time seemed to slow. He saw the shiny black eyes of the spider peering up at him from the ledge. He heard the sound every cliff rat dreaded, of metal scraping on stone. The pin pulled free. Aeric didn’t know if he screamed as he fell. And so I die, he thought.
The awareness crept in in fits and starts. He became aware of the sound of crashing water first. Then came the pain, his whole body ached and burned and throbbed. Finally, he opened his eyes. The world was gray, everywhere gray and hazy. For a moment, he thought he was dead. But there was no pain in the afterlife. Fog. He tasted the heavy mist on the air. Dimly, he realized he was lying half in the water. He managed to turn his head, and saw black basalt, pale green moss dripping with dew, and the Faunfyll river.
He had fallen. The memory came back suddenly. He shoved it away; this was no time to ponder his mistakes on the cliff. He tried to rise, but his body wouldn’t obey. The venom, he thought. How ironic, to survive the fall but drown because you couldn’t drag yourself out of the river. He could move his head, just a bit. He saw that he lay mostly in an eddy, saved from the current by a big boulder, but the swirl of the water tugged at him, and threatened to drag him back out into the main channel. Out there was nothing but whitewater. Death.
Determined not to die, Aeric closed his eyes and tried to decide what parts of his body still worked. The bit leg was useless, but his right arm moved, albeit weakly. He heaved himself onto his side and inched his way, pulling himself along with one arm, further onto the shore. It seemed to take hours, and by the time his strength failed him, he seemed not to have moved at all. The river no longer tugged at him, though his feet were still in the water.
Consciousness began to fade. As the world faded, Aeric’s thoughts were of his family, of Eilah and lovely Yesra planning her wedding, and little Coryn, his horns just coming in. He didn’t know if he would ever see any of them again. If he died, how would they survive? He’d given Coryn his first climbing spikes just a moon’s turn before, but he was just five years old, too young to support the family.
He awoke to voices. Rough hands were lifting him, pulling him, jostling him, making every hurt scream. He moaned in pain. The world went dark again.
When he woke again, he was indoors, covered in scratchy goatwool blankets. Smells of goat and potato stew, herbs and musty dampness reached his nose. His bed was stuffed with straw, lumpy and rough beneath him. Was he home? A woman’s face appeared above him, but it was not Eilah. She was aged, her face wrinkled and drawn.
“Be quiet,” the woman said. “Be still. You were half dead when they pulled you from the river. Your leg is broke, and most of your ribs, and your arm. You need rest for the bones to knit. I will bring you a tea to help you sleep.” She went to move away, but Aeric seized her wrist. His left hand moved, that was good. He was weak, and his body burned with venom.
“Where?” he asked again, more strongly.
“We are at Ashford,” the woman said. “I am Varli.”
“Ashford?” That made no sense. “Ashford Castle?” The ceiling overhead was dressed stone, he realized, not slab rock or thatch. He wasn’t even entirely certain where Ashford lay. Somewhere down by the mouth of the Faunfyll River, where it flowed into Shadowbay, he thought. Far from home. Far from Eilah.
“Lord Ashford’s mushroom pickers found you and brought you in,” Varli said. “You’re lucky Lord Ashford wanted watercaps; they usually don’t go down to the river.” She pulled her hand free of his grasp and went away for a time. He could hear her in the room, but he couldn’t turn his head enough to see. She returned in time and pressed a clay cup to his lips. The warm tea tasted of willow bark, feverfew and poppy. “Tell me, what sort of creature bit you?”
“Sky spider,” Aeric said weakly.
“I thought as much,” Varli said. “You’re a cliff rat, then.” It wasn’t a question. No one else got bit by sky spiders, because no one else was mad enough to go climbing around the cliffs where sky spiders lived.
He was drifting again. Poppy did that. He was alive. He was going to make it. He was going to get home.
The early days blended together. Pain and poppy mingled together in a dull haze, and in his lucid moments his thoughts were of home and hearth. Eilah would be worried sick, and Yesra, and Coryn was so young he wouldn’t really know what it meant when Father didn’t come home. He hoped they weren’t trying to search the cliffs, it was too dangerous. When days and days passed and he didn’t return, they would accept the hard truth that he was gone. That’s how it had been when his own father had fallen. Aeric had just come to manhood, 14 and still learning the trade, the day his father didn’t come home. He remembered the fear in his gut and the look on his mother’s face; she hadn’t wept, at least not in front of him and his brother. Daryn had been only a couple of years older than Coryn was now. He had heard her at night, though. Was Eilah weeping now? He had been old enough to take over his father’s climbing routes, to become the man of the house and care for mother and teach Daryn how to climb and gather skysilk, but Coryn was far too young to make the quotas. Yesra was a good climber, as agile on the cliffs as anyone Aeric had ever seen, and good with the spiders too, but she would wed that boy on the next full moon, and they would go make their home on the other side of Fallador, and she would leave the cliffs to keep the home and clean and sort and trim the skysilk for the merchants. She would have to do it all until she had children. There would be no one for Eilah and Coryn. Lord Nightbough would take no pity on a widow and her babe. If he did not return, Coryn might find himself in an apprenticeship, if there were any sonless tradesmen in need of one, perhaps as a trapper or a forester. Not a tunnel imp, he hoped. That trade was the worst of the worst, and the miners who extracted iron and copper and coal from the depths of the mountains might live their entire lives without seeing the sky. But no, he would return, and take up the ropes and climbing spikes again, and care for his family.
For a fortnight, he saw only Varli. The herb woman bustled about, talking when he was awake, tending his wounds and checking his casts and bruises. He was slowly getting stronger, though. He needed less of the poppy tea to keep the pain at bay. He thought he might even be able to stand soon. One day, as Varli spread a salve over his blackened, spider-bit leg, which was swollen as though it belonged to a dead man, the door of the cluttered chamber swung open. The man who entered was tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in what must have been the livery of Lord Ashford, a gray doublet bordered in silver, white starburst sigil embroidered on the chest. His hair was dark gray, his eyes yellow, with horns that curved above his hairline. He was flanked by two others in plainer dress.
“Is he awake?” the man demanded.
Varli stood, hands on hips. “It is too soon, Morcan,” she said. “He is still too weak. You will give him another fortnight, at least.”
“Lord’s orders,” Morcan said. “The lord had questions that need answers.” He nodded to the two men, and they pushed Varli roughly aside and hauled Aeric roughly from the bed. Clad in woolen bedclothes, one leg swollen with spider venom, the other encased in plaster, he had to lean on them to keep upright. They took him down a long hall, half-carrying him as he could barely walk, to square, windowless chamber of the same dressed stone. Spread out on the rough-hewn wooden table were Aeric’s possessions, everything he had carried when he fell. His eyes went to his scrip, still bulging with skysilk.
Morcan went to the table. “You recognize these items?”
Morcan went first to the scrip, upending it and spilling the silvery strands out on the table, where it puddled like quicksilver. His life. His whole life was lived for those silver ratha strands. Morcan took up a handful and let the strands slide through his fingers. “Skysilk. Worth more than gold. Lords have killed to get less than this. And you are no lord. Where did all this come from? Are you a thief?”
“I am a cliff-climber, m’lord,” Aeric said. This one ranked high, he suspected. “I climb the cliffs and harvest the ratha strands from the spider nests.”
“And this is your climbing gear?” Morcan waved a hand over the hammer and pins and spikes, the short length of knotted hempen rope.
“It is, m’lord.” Aeric knew he was walking a perilously thin ledge now; if they thought he was a thief, a skysilk thief no less, he would hang. “I climb the cliffs and harvest the silk to meet my quota. My father was a cliff climber, and his father, who was thrall to Lord Nightbough. My son’s learning the trade.”
“A cliff rat,” Morcan said doubtfully. “A cliff rat who fell. We find your type every now and then, washed up on the rocks. Usually dead.” He was watching Aeric carefully.
“Please m’lord, I am no thief. The silk is for Master Thewarin, Lord Nightbough’s buyer. I have a quota to meet, eight pounds a year. M’lord, I need to go home.”
“If you’re cliff rat, then you have no coin or goods or worldly possessions to pay for the boarding you’ve had here, nor the food you’ve eaten, or the medicines and bandages used on your wounds. It seems you must remain here until your debt is paid.”
The realization came on Aeric slowly. “Please m’lord, I have a family. At Falladar, I have a wife and a girl and a boy, a shack on the cliff edge. They need me, m’lord. Please, I need to go home!”
Morcan continued as though he had not heard. “This skysilk will count toward your repayment, and you will pay the rest with your trade.”
“M’lord, I need that to meet my quota for Therawin,” Aeric protested. He could expect a whipping if he came in under quota. He’d heard stories of those punishments being dealt to the family instead, if the father vanished. An image of Eilah stripped and hanging by her wrists flashed through his mind.
“You will pay your quota to me now,” Morcan said. “I am responsible for the thralls to Lord Ashford. Your quota is 3 pounds per quarter. Whatever you collect above that will go toward your debt.” He glanced at Aeric’s casts and bandages. “Best heal up fast if you want to see Falladar again. The quota is due on the next full moon. Seeing as you are somewhat broken, one pound will be due from you.”
Three pounds per quarter. He wasn’t particularly skilled with sums, but he thought that meant twelve pounds per year. Twelve! Lord Ashford was greedy, indeed. It was impossible. No one could gather twelve pounds of skysilk in a year, not if they climbed every waking moment, which most cliff rats did already.
The secondary shock that he was now a thrall hit Aeric as he took to his bed, not in Varli’s chambers, not that anymore, but in a cramped cell in a low stone barracks set in a hillside that lay across the yard from the big tower house that was Castle Ashford. The entrance, Aeric noticed, was faced so that anyone in the castle did not have to watch their thralls come and go. The stout, squat tower by the gatehouse was for that. He glimpsed a tall, horned figure silhouetted against the sky at the top of the tower, a spear at his side. Not that any thrall would dare run. Life might be hard serving a lord, but it was preferable to flaying.
Varli came to see him in the barracks daily at first, to change his bandages and bring him poppy tea for the pain. As soon as he could stand it, he declined the tea. Everything he ate or drank was added to his debt, he knew, and essence of poppy was dreadfully costly.
The life of a thrall at Ashford Castle followed the same pattern each day. They woke an hour before dawn, washed in cold water and ate a miserable meal, usually day-old potato cakes and a mealy apple if they were lucky, and a mug of watery, barely-hard cider to wash it down, all by guttering torchlight, and went out into the pre-dawn gloom. There were places thralls did not go on the castle grounds, namely anywhere near the tower house, except for the house servants, but they slept on pallets in the tower basement and wore finer garb than the rest of them, barely thralls at all. Only the grooms went near the stables, where the mules and the horses and Lord Ashford’s own mount, a capral, were stabled. Aeric got a look at it once, as a nervous groom led the beast in the yard. More goat than horse with its cloven hooves and black horns, the spirited creature had pranced and reared. Its thick, shaggy fur was white spotted with gray, its eyes dark. Any thrall other than a groom going near the stables was assumed to be attempting to escape, and might lose a foot. Attempting to escape was not escaping, so the punishment was less.
With bones half-healed, Aeric went out in search of sky spiders and their silk. Ashford Castle hunched upon a black basalt cliff jutting out over the mouth of the Faunfyll river. The Shadowbay stretched out to the west, and the great North Sea beyond, and across the bay was Darkspire, the shining black spires of the castle, a real castle, not just a tower house like Ashford. He could see it for true now, not squinting or pretending it was there. He’d never thought he would actually see it, but it was upriver that drew his gaze. Upriver, up that canyon, up that road, was home. Falladar was a cluster of shacks and hovels before Lord Nightbough’s tower house, built into the black cliffs. But Aeric knew better than to attempt the trek. Lord Ashford’s men would catch him before he was a league from the castle. His only hope of ever going home was to pay off his debt. Only then would Lord Ashford release him.
As the weeks passed, it became horrifyingly clear to Aeric that he would never meet his quota. The few sky spiders residing within Lord Ashford’s holdings simply did not produce enough even for one cliff rat to meet quota, let alone the three that Ashford employed. The spiders themselves were nasty, aggressive things, prone to leaping at him whenever he appeared. They were overstressed by repeated gatherings. Yet Aeric climbed, each and every day. His bones ached as much as his heart when he dragged himself back to the barracks each night and dumped out what meager strands he had managed to acquire. He was never going to make it home. Never. He would never see Eilah again, never see Yesra wed her boy, never see Coryn grow to manhood.
The moon’s turn came, and Aeric came in well under the one pound of skysilk Morcan had demanded. Sitting on his cot, staring down at the pitiful little pile he had gathered over the last few weeks, he wondered how Lord Ashford, or his man Morcan, dealt with those who came in under quota. Would it be a whipping? A strapping? Would he lose a finger, or an ear? He would find out.
The collection morning came and Aeric turned in his sorry amount of skysilk to Morcan’s assistant. That evening, after Aeric returned from the cliffs with a few more precious strands, a guard took him into the base of the tower house, to Morcan’s study.
Yet, it was not only Morcan awaiting him within. That second figure looming over Morcan’s shoulder was tall and thin, with lank silver hair and dark, twisting horns rising steeply above his head. He wore a deep blue velvet tunic bordered in some sort of silvery material Aeric didn’t recognize. That thin mantle, nearly transparent, seeming to shift through all the colors of the world in the flickering torchlight was woven skysilk. This could only be Lord Ashford himself.
Aeric dropped to one knee, stifling a groan as his leg protested. He was still not fully healed from his fall. It would not do to not show proper deference to his lord, though. Lord Ashford’s green eyes were hard. He would grant no mercy. Why had the lord of the castle come himself, rather than leaving the punishment to his steward? Aeric kept his eyes down. His heart pounded in his ears.
“Rise,” Lord Ashford commanded.
Aeric did so stiffly. Lord Ashford was scrutinizing him with those emerald green eyes.
“You are our new cliff rat,” Ashford said. “And you didn’t meet your quota this quarter.”
“I’m sorry milord,” Aeric said, eyes on the floor. “I tried…there aren’t enough spiders…”
“I need none of your excuses,” Ashford said. “At this rate, I’ll be feeding you for the next century. I understand you have a family back up in Fallador. I have a task for you. If you succeed, I may let you return to your family.”
Aeric couldn’t speak. The words barely made sense. Ashford would let him return home? Without paying his debt? That couldn’t be. Besides, what could he do for Lord Ashford? He was cliff rat, all he did was climb for silk. “Milord?” he asked cautiously.
Ashford looked annoyed. “You have a particular skill. I need that skill. You are a climber. I need you to climb Darkspire Castle.”
The room seemed to spin. Aeric felt himself grow lightheaded. Darkspire Castle, the seat of Droemar Mirtrand, Prince of Blackreach? “Why?” he managed to stammer.
“There is an item in Darkspire that I desire,” Ashford said. “You are going to climb the cliffs and enter the castle and retrieve this item.”
“I am no thief, milord,” Aeric protested. “Please…”
“Do you want to go home or not?” Ashford said. Aeric knew enough not to protest too strongly. He was not thief, but if he refused to do this, he would remain a thrall to Lord Ashford, likely for the rest of his life. With the way Lord Ashford was looking at him, he suspected his life here at Ashford Castle was about to get much, much worse. A lord could not kill his thralls offhand, not unless the thrall committed some crime, but a lord, or his steward, could make a thrall’s life so miserable that they would end their own life. They could cut back his food, give him poor equipment, arrange an accident. He was not a thief!
“Milord…I…I will do as you command.”
“As I knew you would.” A faint smile twisted Ashford’s dark lips.
Darkspire Castle loomed at the crest of a broken headland of black basalt. Once, the rock where it perched had been attached to the cliffs across the channel, but eons of wind and rain and waves had eaten the solid rock away, leaving Darkspire an island in a sea of black waves.
Aeric stood on the cliff behind Ashford Castle, looking over at Darkspire silhouetted against the darkening sky. He was dressed all in black, boots, breeches, tunic, all dyed wool. They were by far the best clothes he had ever worn, loaned to him by Morcan for this task. The black would keep him hidden. There would be no moon tonight. A black moon, the time for plots and schemes and evil deeds, Aeric thought.
He was to steal the helm of Aemon Am’rath, who had been Prince of Blackreach more than a hundred years ago. Aeric had been just a young man when Aemon the Gray Wolf had fallen. He still remembered the tales, of how the Prince had fallen in love with a Tuatha noblewoman in Lath, far to the south and gotten killed for it. His last son was thought to be dead, though every now and then rumors popped up that Amon was still alive. The Am’raths had ruled Blackreach for nearly a thousand years, and those years had been peaceful. Aeric remembered a time when the lords paid decent wages to their underlings. The Hundred Years War that gripped the country since Aemon’s death had seen the thirteen Great Houses vying for power ever since. Ashford was not a Great House, though they were on the cusp of gaining that title. Possessing the antlered wolf helm of Aemon Am’rath would give Lord Ashford leverage against the other noble Houses. The last thing Aeric had ever wanted was to become enmeshed in the wars of his betters.
The small rowboat creaked as Egon pulled the oars, lurching as the fearsome waves of Blackwind Bay battered it. Areic huddled in the bow, holding tight to the burlap sack that contained his ropes and spikes. He couldn’t get his ropes wet, if he did, they would be nearly useless. His climbing hammer hung at his belt. He had a dagger as well, another loan from Morcan, just in case. Not that Aeric had ever used a weapon against another person before. The thought made him sick. Daemaris were fighters. They were the ones who trained to kill others. A cliff rat could no more take up a sword than a daemaris take up the ropes and climb after skysilk. It simply was not done.
Every fiber of Aeric’s being screamed against his actions as he climbed from the boat onto the rocks at the base of Darkspire. He dared to look up. The towers of the castle loomed, blacker than the night, like a hole of nothingness where no stars shone. He took his first length of rope from the sack and secured it around his waist. He took a deep breath. He really was going to do this. The rocks were slick. The waves crashed heavily below. He set his first pin and began to climb.
The stars peeked out between the heavy clouds as Aeric climbed. He focused on the task at hand. That was all he could do, just focus on the climb. Not on what would come after, just the climb. Handholds and toeholds. Advance. Set a pin. Loop the rope. Advance.
At long last, the raw, living stone turned to rock that had been shaped and worked and stacked. The curtain wall of Darkspire Castle came sheer to the edge of the cliff on which it perched. Only twenty feet of climbing remained, yet these were the hardest. There were guards walking the top of the wall, and it would only take an instant for one of them to glance down and see him there.
Aeric gained the top of the wall, untied his rope from his waist, and slipped down the other side. Only when his feet touched ground did he allow himself to take his eyes from the black basalt in front of him. He was on the grounds of Darkspire Castle. His heart echoed in his ears so loud he was sure the guards on the wall could hear it.
The hardest climb lay ahead. The cliff and the curtain wall had simply been a preliminary. Crouching in the black shadows at the base of the wall, Aeric looked up at the black hulk of the main keep of Darkspire Castle. He nearly quailed then, but a voice in the back of his head seemed to speak as if from nowhere. Do you want to go home or not? If you succeed, I may let you go home.
The black basalt stones fit together so snugly that Aeric could scarcely get his fingers between them for a handhold. He would do this last part as a free climb. He couldn’t risk even the muffled taps from his cloth-wrapped hammer.
As he climbed, Aeric kept his instructions in the front of his mind. The helm was said to be kept on the third floor of the east wing, proudly displayed in the largest sitting room on that floor. At least, that was the last place Lord Ashford’s spy had seen it. Aeric could only hope it was still there.
Beginning on the second floor, the stone walls were worked with various friezes and designs, giving Aeric a good surface for climbing. He kept well away from the tall, narrow windows. Most had casements of leaded glass, the candles and lamps within making the diamond-shaped panels glow purple and green.
The third floor loomed overhead as Aeric hauled himself silently over a carved ledge. He was on the eastern wing, where he needed to be. Overhead, a window casement stood open, despite the chill night. Ashford’s spy had left it open for him, as was the plan. Or so he hoped. There was no light coming from the room. He hoped he wasn’t about to pull himself into a room of waiting guards.
Aeric caught the edge of the window sill. Nothing happened. Nothing seized his wrist or flung him off. He pulled himself up and looked in. It was empty. He hauled himself into the room, dropping soundlessly onto the plush carpet that covered the floor.
Pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the deeper gloom inside, Aeric surveyed the room. More wealth than he had ever had in his entire three centuries of life was contained in that room. The carpet beneath his feet seemed to have an intricate knotwork pattern cut into the velvet. The glimmer of real silver showed on lampstands and ornaments. Even the furniture was gilded. He seemed to be in some sort of small study. At least, he assumed it was small in comparison to the rest of the castle; the room was easily half again as large as his shack at Falladar. The door stood slightly ajar.
Aeric went to it cautiously, soft doeskin shoes making no noise on the carpet. He eased the door open and peered into the gloomy hallway. There was no one to be seen. A single standlamp flickered piteously far down to the left. Once you leave the room, go left. Those had been his instructions. He saw no guards, no servants, no thralls as he crept silently down the hallway, following the flickering lamplight. The walls were a lurid black, the polished basalt reflecting the lamplight weirdly. Tapestries covered the walls, their designs hidden in the darkness. Pottery and sculptures stood on pedestals in shadowed alcoves, their illuminating lamps dark.
Aeric approached a crossing of two corridors. He shrank back into an alcove as footsteps echoed softly to his right. He held his breath as a tall daemon wearing polished, layered armor, his horns curving above a sleek helm. He wore a longsword and dirk at his belt and carried a long, double-ended spear, a raliesh, on one shoulder. He was a daemaris. Aeric had never seen one of the fabled warriors up close. If the warrior so much as glanced sideways, he would see Aeric crouched there.
But the daemaris did not turn or glance to the alcove where Aeric crouched. Only after the man was well past, vanished behind a far corner, did Aeric dare to creep out of his hiding place. He went right. Left, then right. The third door. His goal was ahead. The third door proved to be a massive set of carved oaken double doors. In the gloom, Aeric thought that the carving was of a pack of wolves chasing a stag. He laid a careful hand on one of the carved wolves. The right-hand door swung inward on oiled hinges.
The room was black. Aeric paused to let his eyes adjust. The tall, narrow windows that covered the far wall had casements of purple and green glass. There were chairs and armchairs and couches of dark wood, all upholstered in dark velvets. Aeric kept to the shadows and crept to center of the room. A huge hearth occupied most of one wall, the ashes cold. The room had not been used in some days, it seemed.
At the far end of the room, under those soaring windows, upon a wrought iron stand, stood the object of Aeric’s climb. The helm of Aemon Am’rath gave off a faint glow in the dim light, the bronzed and silvered metal gleaming faintly in the tinted starlight. It was wrought in the shape of a wolf’s head, the eyes empty to allow vision, the long muzzle serving as a nasal. Two bronzed antlers rose from the brow. The ears swept back elegantly, hiding the hinge and the holes that allowed the helm to fit over the wearer’s horns.
Aeric touched it carefully, running his fingers over the sculpted bronzed steel fur. This was it. All he had to do was take it. Hands trembling, Aeric lifted the helm off its stand and slipped it quickly into the black burlap bag he had been given for the purpose. Now, to get out of Darkspire Castle.
He had to go back out the way he came. If he took a wrong turn, he might never find his way out of the castle, not alive, at least. Aeric tried to pay attention to his surroundings over the pounding of his own heart. He turned back into the first corridor.
And blundered straight into a daemaris. In the instant of horror that gripped him, Aeric couldn’t be sure if the daemon was the same one he had seen earlier. It didn’t matter. With an oath, the warrior groped for him. Aeric threw himself backwards, out of reach of that armored hand. He scrambled back down the hall, the warrior hot on his heels and crying an alarm.
Aeric dove to the floor, the raliesh blade sweeping over his head, so close he could feel the rush of air. Lamps were flaring to life as thralls, roused by the cries, rushed to light the darkened corridors.
“Stop, you rat!” the daemaris bellowed as Aeric heaved himself to his feet and bolted down the hallway.
The sounds of pounding feet echoed in the halls. Aeric threw himself into a darkened sitting room. With a start, he realized that he was back in the first room he had entered. The window casement still stood open. Aeric leapt for it. Cries of “The helm! The helm is gone!” echoed down the halls.
Aeric dropped the last ten feet to the ground, rolled, and came up at a run, bolting for the curtain wall. The walls of Darkspire were meant to keep people out, not in. He scrambled up the wall, gained the top, and was greeted with the sight of the entire castle garrison pouring out into the darkened yard, torches gleaming in the mist like fireflies. He dropped down below the merlons, hoping to hide his form, and set his second rope about one. With a tug to make sure it was secure, he fastened the other end about his waist and slipped over the wall.
Aeric didn’t dare look down. Far below, he could hear the crashing of waves on rocks. He climbed, feeling each foothold carefully before committing his weight. Above, he could still hear the tumult he had caused. It was worth it. The helm of Aemon Am’rath swung heavily in its sack at his waist. That helm would buy his freedom. He would be able to go home.
A shout above made Aeric look up. The guards had found his rope. He pressed himself against the sheer basalt as a crossbow bolt ricocheted off the stone next to him. He was in a precarious spot, the ledge on which he stood was barely wide enough for his toes, the rock smooth and slick with gathering dew. He was leaning on his rope for support in this difficult section.
The rope went slack. They had cut it. The realization crossed Aeric’s mind as he started to fall. He was halfway down, still some 100 feet above the crashing waves of Blackwind Bay. His only regret was not being more careful.
Aeric came to lying in the damp bottom of a small boat. Darkened forms clustered around him, talking softly. The smell of the salt spray was thick in his nose. Slowly, painfully, he sat up. “Where?” he managed weakly.
One of the figures in the boat turned to him. The man was shrouded in a dark oilskin cloak. “You’re lucky to be alive,” he growled. With a start, Aeric realized that he held the antlered wolf helm in his lap. The man laid a hand on it. “Now that you’re awake, you’re going to tell us just how you happened to come into possession of the hlem of the rightful ruler of Blackreach.”
There were five others in the small boat, which rocked ominously on the wind-driven waves. Two were pulling sets of oars. In the gloom, Aeric could only make out their eyes, glowing red and gold and purple in the shadows of their cowls. He told them everything, from his first fall to his thralldom for Lord Ashford, to the promise the lord had made in exchange for him stealing the helm. “I need that back,” Aeric said. “I must take it to Lord Ashford.”
The man who had first spoken put a hand protectively around the helm. “You will do no such thing. Ashford is a swine if he thinks stealing the helm will improve his standing among the Thirteen. I am called Maugrim. And you will be coming with is.”
“No!” Aeric cried. “I have to go home! My wife…”
“Will have to fend for herself a while longer,” said Maugrim. “Any man who can infiltrate Darkspire Castle is far too valuable to let slip away.”
Aeric started to protest, but Maugrim cut him off. “What if I could offer you a better life? Not just for you, but for your family as well? Do you remember what it was like before Aemon was killed?”
Aeric did remember. He had been a young man then, barely a dozen decades into his life, and just wed to Eilah, when the first rumors of Aemon Am’rath’s demise reached Falladar. Aemon’s line had faltered, his sons slain, one in a Svard raid as the barbarians to the north swarmed a keep, and the other by the Scarlet Brotherhood, and his wife dead of a fever. He had gone south, seeking political alliances with the rich elven kingdom of Lath, and there fallen in love with the daughter of a noble House. There in Lath the Scarlet Brotherhood had tracked him down and there slew the Last Lord of Blackreach. Aemon’s rule had been peaceful. Even cliff rats and tunnel imps had gotten decent wages then. There had been enough food. After Aemon’s death, the thirteen ruling houses had plunged into their war, and that war had lasted these past 100 years. All folk like Aeric could do was keep their heads down and hope not to get caught up in it.
“What does it matter?” Aeric said bitterly. “Aemon is dead. His sons are dead. Those days aren’t coming back.”
“They might,” Maugrim said, a yellow light blazing in his eyes beneath his cowl. “Aemon had a third son. You know the story of how he went away to Lath, fell in love with an elvish princess, and died for it? There was a child borne of that union, Aemon’s trueborn heir. We thought the boy dead for nigh on century now, but he’s alive, living in Lath. We’re going to go and find him. We’re going to bring him this.” He ran a long-fingered hand over the bronzed helm. “We’re going to bring him home to Blackreach. There are still those who remember the good days with Aemon as lord. They will rally to our cause when Amon Am’rath dons his father’s helm and raises his father’s banner. The Thirteen will have to bow to him. He will end this war, restore the peace, and life will be good again, for everyone, you and your family included.”
“And if I don’t agree?”
“Then we bind you hand and foot and toss you into the bay,” Maugrim said grimly. “This your only option if you want to get back to your family alive.”
Aeric looked out into the expansive bay. The cliffs rose black and fierce all around, widening toward the sea. Out in the bay stood a single ship, the sails furled. As the rowers bore the boat toward it, it grew larger against the blue bruise of the early morning sky. Aeric could not shake the feeling that the black ship was waiting to bear him away from the only home he had known, and that he would never see Blackreach, or Eilah, again.