It was raining when Byron woke. He was lying flat on his back beneath a dripping canvas roof. The wooden floor of the wagon rocked and pitched with the muddy grade of the road. Byron sat up and looked out through the rear bars. He was inside a rolling cage that was covered by a heavy tarp. The rain fell hard, obscuring his view, but he could make out two awful creatures, carrying sword-like clubs over their wide shoulders.
They wore great round helmets, like cooking kettles with grates for seeing, anchored at the neck to iron collars that extended down into breast and back plates. They had long, thick, hairy limbs, broad heads, and bushy brows. Byron could see them scowling at him with yellow, unblinking eyes as they trudged along in the slop behind the wagon. Byron rubbed the back of his neck and stretched. He looked around inside the bare shelter and found Nosh sitting with his hands clasped across his shins. He was upright and ready, but gazed into the falling rain as if deep in thought.
“Nosh,” Byron said, still clutching the back of his neck.
Nosh blinked. “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” Byron said. “What happened?”
“My uncle,” Nosh said with a deep frown. “I don’t know where he’s taking us, but he’s got a whole troop of Fellsmen doing whatever he says. It’s unbelievable.”
“Fellsmen?” Byron said.
“Members of the Fell Clans,” Nosh said. “Like those fellows out there.”
Byron glanced at the guards again and sat up. “How long have you been awake?”
Nosh shrugged. “A few hours.”
Byron looked around at the dripping enclosure. “How long have we been in here?”
“I don’t know,” Nosh said with a shrug. “Two days maybe?”
“Two days is right,” said a voice. “You have your father’s sense of surroundings.”
A flap at the front of the wagon opened and Prince Dornthelf looked in through the bars. He was sitting in a covered place, and beyond him Byron could see the mules that pulled the wagon. Beside Dornthelf sat another dwarf who held the reins.
“Moratene wearing off, eh, Mr. Ambassador?” Dornthelf said. “Well it’s kept you quiet, which is lucky for you. Nosh shook it off a while back. It never really took, as a matter of fact. He has his father’s endurance, too.”
Nosh looked out the back of the wagon into the rainfall. Dornthelf laughed and closed the flap.
“Where are we?” Byron asked.
Nosh did not respond.
“Nosh?” Byron said. “Are you okay?”
“I had the dream again,” Nosh whispered. “That’s what woke me up. No amount of moratene could keep me asleep after that.”
“The Hall of Sovereigns,” Byron said.
“Maybe seeing all the portraits reminded me.”
“Did you ever tell Thúmose?”
“No. I told you. No.”
“Nosh, why not?” Byron asked.
“What difference does it make now? I’m scared, Byron. It was different this time.”
Nosh sighed deep and stared at the floor of the wagon. “At the end, there was another voice. It said ‘Come home Garrowthelf. Come home and take your rest.’ But it wasn’t the voice of anybody in the dream. It was all whispery and kind.”
“Garrowthelf?” Byron said.
“That’s my real name,” Nosh said.
Byron blinked. “You were named after the Suicide King?”
Nosh sighed again and nodded. “I’m scared, Byron. It’s like this dream is a message or a signal. It’s like somebody’s calling to me, somebody I don’t want to meet.”
A loud voice sounded through the hammering rain and the wagon jolted to a stop. Byron and Nosh tumbled into each other and rolled to the back of the cage. Rain spattered in on them and the two yellow-eyed guards approached. They hauled Byron and Nosh out of the wagon and dropped them into the mud. Nosh shouted and struggled. One of the guards drew a broad, toothedged knife and stepped on Nosh’s chest.
“Moksha doesn’t like dwarves,” Prince Dornthelf said, stepping around the back of the wagon. He wore a heavy cape of oiled hide with the hood up. “And I don’t need you much more than alive, Nosh, so behave yourself. On your feet—and—er, hooves. Careful with the goatling, grub. He’s worth more if he’s healthy.”
“Vee do not like zat vord,” the guard said, glowering down at Dornthelf.
Dornthelf squared off with the larger fellow and pointed at him with a gloved hand. “Just you do as you’re told, Fellsman,” he said to Moksha the guard. “All I need to do is say your name in the right company and you’re done for, got it?”
Moksha grumbled and glanced around at his partner. He stepped back and sheathed his knife. Byron helped Nosh to his feet and the two of them stood there, soaked to the skin, covered with mud. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the rain came down heavily. Dornthelf set off walking at the head of a band of dwarves. Byron and Nosh stumbled forward, pushed and prodded by the guards in the same direction.
A huge wall of stone stood before them. Dornthelf halted at the wooden gate and pounded on it with his fist. A small hatch opened and a voice shouted out. Dornthelf shouted back. Byron could not hear what was said, but the gate groaned and swung open. Dornthelf waved them on and the guards pushed Byron from behind. As soon as they crossed inside the gate, two hooded figures threw a stout wooden beam across it, then trudged away into a lamplit shed and slammed the door.
“Keep moving,” Dornthelf said and laughed. “Don’t think of wandering off. You’ll be safer if you stay here with me.”
It was a fortress town of stone and wood, with flat roofs and turrets stacked up and into the cliff face. Muddy alleys and cobblestone roads meandered away from the paving stones of the main track. Atop the walls and in the turrets, the dark forms of the guards stood watch in the rain. Lamplit windows dotted the dim shadows of the buildings and smoke billowed from chimneys on every side.
Dornthelf led them through the town toward the mountain against which the place was built. He went up a wooden stair onto a porch and through a heavy door. Inside was a large, firelit room full of shadows and dark nooks. A railed balcony looked down on the main floor from the back of the place.
Hunched figures sat at wooden tables drinking from large, leather-bound mugs. There were men and dwarves, gnomes and dark creatures like Byron had never seen. One terrible figure sat at a table by himself with his gear spread out before him.
“Ogre,” Byron muttered. Nosh nodded and stared at the huge creature as they passed.
Dornthelf laughed. “Ogres, trolls, Fellsmen of all sorts. Everybody’s welcome.”
Shouts and murmurs filled the room. Harsh laughter sounded. At the table nearest the door, a heavy, hulking brute in battered armor stood up, knocking over his bench. He growled and pointed a menacing finger at two Fellsmen who sat across from him. One of them put up its hands while the other fumbled in his gear for gold coins to add to the stack already on the table.
As Dornthelf passed, all three of them turned to stare. Byron paused to look at the angry brute, prompting one of Dornthelf’s henchmen to give him a shove.
“Keep moving, goat boy,” the dwarf said.
Byron stumbled and fell to the floor. As Nosh lifted him to his hooves, Byron saw the anger in the young prince’s eyes.
“Don’t, Nosh,” he said. “You heard what your uncle said. I doubt there’s any help in a place like this.”
Byron glanced up at the balcony as they pressed on. Two hooded men and a pair of gnomes sat at a table against the railing. One of the men was looking down at Byron. Firelight caught the stranger’s eyes and through the slats of the railing, Byron could see the dark shape of a great sword resting against the bench where the man sat. As they drew near, Byron locked eyes with the man who stared down at him unblinking. The stranger watched until they passed beneath the balcony and out of sight.
Dornthelf opened another door and led them out through a hall and into an open courtyard. The rain poured down. They marched across the courtyard and entered a torchlit cave. At the entrance, beneath the heavy teeth of the portcullis, an imposing armored figure stood leaning on a spiked club. A group of Fellsmen was at hand; one held chains and manacles.
The huge guard with the spiked club lifted his chin. “I’ll take it from here,” he said.
“If you’ll sign this,” Dornthelf said, holding up a rolled paper.
A gnome appeared from the shadows and took the document. He opened it and read, glancing from Byron and Nosh to the page, lifting an eyebrow.
“Very pretty,” he said to Dornthelf. “Someone expects a handsome profit, to front such a sum. But this applies to the goatling only. What of the dwarf?”
“He’s for the South,” Dornthelf said. “They’ll be along to fetch ‘im.”
“The South?” the gnome said. “Your own kin, Prince Dornthelf? You’ve outdone yourself at last.”
“Keep your nose where it belongs, gnome,” Dornthelf said. “Just sign it and I’ll be on my way.”
“Yes, yes,” the gnome said. “No need for hackles. There.” He held the paper up to Dornthelf who snatched it away and rolled it up tight.
“Well that’s that,” Dornthelf said. “Good riddance to you both.” Then he turned and headed back across the courtyard, vanishing into the gray of the falling rain.
“Right, then,” said the enormous guard. Four Fellsmen stepped forward. A moment later Byron and Nosh were bound in chains, facing the dark of the tunnel. “Section Nine,” the guard chief said. A Fellsman tugged on Byron’s chain and started walking.
Byron pulled back. “Nosh!” he cried.
“Byron!” Nosh shouted, his voice angry. He lashed out and took one of the Fellsmen off its feet. Byron’s guards yanked on the chains and pulled him to the ground. He kicked and screamed as they dragged him away. He thrashed onto his back and saw Nosh at the entrance.
“Byron!” the dwarf prince cried, still lashing out.
The last Byron saw of Nosh, the Fellsmen were on him, forcing him down with their fists and calling for more chains.
Byron leaned against the rough wall with his arms fettered above him. Screams echoed from the deep recesses of Section Nine. Hours passed. Far into the night Byron stared at the darkness, listening to the moans and pleas for mercy that resounded in the near and far of the dungeon.
“I wonder if I’m alone in here,” Byron said out loud.
He struggled to his hooves until he was able to reach the monocle that hung on its chain beneath the cover of his coat. He lowered himself back to the floor and took a look around.
“No worse than Valleygate,” he said with a shrug.
It was a cold, stone floor with no bed but a scant pile of rotten straw. Byron sighed. Across from him was a stone stair leading up to a wooden door with great black straps. As Byron stared at it through the monocle it became a door of iron, standing partly open. It was like the vision in the hawthorn tunnel, and again Byron felt like he was in it.
In the vision he was no longer bound with chains. He walked up to the door and pushed through it, stepping onto a landing high above the floor of a wide, round chamber of stone. A dungeonlike stair led down in a single torchlit flight that wound one time full around the wall of the chamber. Byron took the steps down to the bottom.
Above him, muffled by stone and distance, great thuds and booms sounded like faraway explosions. The noise rumbled faintly in the stone of the floor where Byron stood.
Five arched tunnel entrances opened in the curved wall. A pair of rails glistened with torchlight and led away into the darkness of each tunnel. At the center of the chamber, the rails met on a round switch platform of rusted metal. Byron went and stood beside it.
Faint light appeared in the middle tunnel. It grew brighter as Byron listened, and soon he heard footfalls. A dwarf appeared, holding a torch, and stepped into the round chamber. The hilt of his great sword stuck up above his shoulder, and he wore heavy rings of muddied mail. He was bloodstained and wore his beard in a plait. Two more dwarves very like him followed, also carrying torches. Behind the dwarves, silent as mice, came a band of terrible warriors.
They were men, Byron knew, for they were tall and walked on two legs, but they looked like horrible bringers of death, newly arrived from some deep place in the tunnel from which they now came forth in deadly earnest.
Each wore a black scapular, pointed at the bottom and girt at the waist with a silver belt, from which hung the scabbard of the glittering sword held in hand. Upon the breast of the scapular was the crest of a red unicorn rampant.
Their shields were black and set with the same image. Beneath the scapulars the men wore shirts and aprons of glittering scales, and heavy boots gaitered with woven chain.
But it was the helmets that struck Byron cold, for they were visored with a face he knew, but crafted in such a way as to make the face seem a demon of death and vengeance. The masks were both beautiful and hideous. They were wrought in the shape of a horse’s face, covering completely the face of each man to well below the chin. On the back of each helmet was a strip of flowing hair that fell to the middle of the man’s back, like a steed’s mane. A single spiraling horn half a foot long jutted out from the forehead of each visor.
“Mr. Thúmose,” Byron muttered.
One by one they emerged from the tunnel. Their eyes were angry and fierce and wary, staring through the masks, as they surveyed the chamber they had entered. The last one through stopped to scratch something in the tunnel wall with his knife before emerging into the chamber.
“Welcome to the lower crypts,” said the lead dwarf who was halfway up the stair. “If you’ll just follow me?” He pointed with his sword to the top. “After that door, we’re like to meet their worst.”
“And the princess?” the first masked knight asked. His sword was greater than any and shone with gleaming silver light.
“Thirty levels up,” the dwarf said. “If they got her to the safe house.”
“Would you listen to that?” said another dwarf at the sound of a distant explosion. “They must’ve breached the main gate. The vermin are roaming at will up there.”
“Your last chance lies on the dark road of time now, Turpin,” said the masked warrior with the great sword. “Do what your king could not, and trust to the long hope of your people.”
Turpin, the dwarf, nodded, but the fierce anger did not leave his face. He turned and passed through the iron door. The two other dwarves followed and behind them went the dread warriors of the Unicorn, swords drawn, armor glittering with torch-fire.
“Don’t forget to mark the door,” the lead knight said. “There’s a chance we may survive this and have to find our way out. If you get separated after we have the princess, make for the lower crypts.”
The last knight paused to scratch something into the outside of the door with his knife.
Byron climbed the stairs behind them. The door led into a corridor lined with other doors just like it, but smaller. At the end of the passage was another dark passage, and from it came the sound of rushing water. Byron examined the door and saw that the knight had scratched three simple lines: an open angle pointing to the side, with another line sticking off the top. “The Unicorn,” he said. “Mr. Thúmose.”
A sound like keys echoed from beyond his cell and a door opened. Byron blinked and let the monocle drop from his eye. The door, the scratched marking, and the whole chamber all vanished and Byron was back in his cell, chained to the wall. Torchlight appeared in the little barred window in his cell door, and fell in a dim spot at the top of the stone stair.
There were footsteps and an angry voice. Byron sat up as best he could and listened.
“Open it,” said the angry voice.
No one answered. There was a loud jangling of keys and the lock to Byron’s door opened with a clack. The door swung in with a sonorous groan and orange light fell across him. A tall, cloaked shape appeared in the doorway, black against the torchfire. It descended the steps, approached Byron, and looked down at him.
“Get these bracelets off him at once,” the figure said.
A Fellsman guard appeared, standing with hands on hips. No helmet covered his head, but a heavy iron collar to which a helmet could be fastened covered his face to the nose. The brute was broader than the man but shorter. “No need to fear,” it said. “He’s a hearty one, not like to die on you.”
The figure spun and swung his arm, striking the guard backhand, full on the brow. The blow staggered the Fellsman and sent him onto his back in the straw.
“Have you forgotten who I am?” the man asked. “Give me the key to those bracelets.”
The Fellsman scrambled to a seat against the wall. He groped at his belt for the keys that dangled there. “No, no, please, boss! I meant no disrespect!”
“You’ve already shown it,” the man said. “By managing my friend as you have. I should take your hands for this.”
“No, please! Please, boss!” the Fellsman said, holding up the keys.
With the same sudden speed, the man snatched them away. “Bring the light,” he said and he turned to face Byron again.
Byron looked up at the tall, shadowy figure. The man gripped Byron’s chin with gentle strength and turned his face left and right. Byron saw the face of the man in the lantern’s pale glow. It was stern and weathered, but not old. The lamplight gleamed in the man’s eyes as he crouched to open the locks. Byron struggled to his hooves and the man reached out to support him.
“Steady, Byron,” the man said. “Not too much.”
He reached into his cloak and took out a hunk of cheese, wrapped in a large leaf. He handed it to Byron. The man’s cape fell so as to reveal the worn pommel of a sword of great make. Byron saw the hilt; its crux was stained as if by high heat and at its center was a round, dark opal, with flecks of fiery red and orange all through.
“Where am I?” Byron asked, taking a great bite.
“One of the worst places there is,” the man said.
“No,” the man said with a laugh. “Not so bad as that. This is Sogfarrow. And, for now, that’s bad enough.”
“How do you know my name?” Byron asked.
“We have met before, you and I,” the man said. “Though you’ll not remember it. My name is Miroaster.”
Byron stopped chewing and stared up at the man.
“A name I hope you have come to trust,” Miroaster said with a smile. Then he turned to the guard. “Where is the dwarf?”
“What dwarf, boss?” the guard said. “No dwarf on my block.”
Miroaster leveled his sword at the guard. In the dim light of the torches in the hall, Byron saw that it was stained along its length with the marks of extreme heat. A foot-long shard, half the width of the blade, was missing from the tip.
“Will you cross me even now, grub?” Miroaster shouted. “Where is the dwarf who came in with my friend?”
Gaping up at Miroaster, the guard stepped back, shaking his head. “G-g-gone,” he said. “Gone, boss. Took him out straight away—took him out!”
“Who?” Miroaster demanded. He gripped the hilt of his sword and took a step toward the terrified guard. “Who took him?”
“Strangers! Strangers, boss! I don’t know, never seen them—well, once maybe, maybe twice—from the South. Cold strangers, cold as death—silent. Never talk, never say a word, never say where they come from. I only heard it, heard they come from the South.”
Miroaster paused. He looked hard at the guard for a long moment. Then he turned.
“Come Byron,” he said, “we’re going.” He lifted Byron into his arms, took the stair in two strides, and went out.
Byron looked down at the sword. “I saw you when I came in.”
“Yes,” Miroaster said as he went along. “And I saw you.”
“Hixima is worried about you,” Byron said. “What are you doing here? ”
“I needed something. I thought I could get it here and I was right.”
“What could you possibly need in a place like this?” Byron asked.
“What about?” Byron said. “I mean, well—I suppose it’s not my business.”
Miroaster laughed. “Little is afoot now in Everándon that is not your business, Byron Thorn. We may speak of it more, later. For now we must get clear of Sogfarrow. Here, take this, it belongs to you.”
He handed Byron a rolled-up paper.
“What’s this?” Byron said.
“The deed,” Miroaster said.
“What’s a deed?”
“A certificate of ownership,” Miroaster said.
Byron opened the page and read it. “You paid fifteen thousand pieces of silver for me?”
“No, only five. The rest our friend Dornthelf made up, though I doubt he knows it yet.”
“How?” Byron asked.
“I took back what he was given for you, when I saw him leaving.”
“Even so, you paid a whole lot. Where did you get it all?”
Miroaster laughed. “I have resources. Besides, to me you’re worth a great deal more. I only wish I could have done as much for Nosh.”
“We have to help him!” Byron said.
“Indeed. But he is beyond our reach, at least for now.”
“Someone must know where he is.”
“Without doubt, Byron,” Miroaster said. “But who they are is as much a mystery as his whereabouts.”
Byron let his shoulders sag.
“Don’t abandon hope,” Miroaster said. “We can be sure the guard was not lying.”
“How can we be sure?”
“His fear of Miroaster assures it. No, whoever has Nosh, they have taken him south. We will go south also and hope for helpful rumor. As it happens, my path leads in that direction already, to see one to whom such rumor might find its way.”
“That seems like a thin hope,” Byron said.
“Maybe,” Miroaster said. “But were I not already headed there, I would alter my course, for however thin it may seem, it is our best hope of helping Prince Nosh. Now keep your eyes open and don’t say anything you can keep from saying if you try.”
They passed out through the long, rainy courtyard, but Miroaster did not enter the tavern room where Byron had first seen him. Instead, he went along the alleyways and dark passages of Sogfarrow, moving fast and sure. Everywhere they went, the folk they met stepped aside for Miroaster, looking away as he passed. On two occasions, Fellsman guards turned and fled at the sight of him. At the main gate, they were given no contest. The guards did not speak, but only opened wide the main door without words, so that Miroaster did not even need to slow his pace.
“They all seem to know you,” Byron said.
“You know your way around.”
“It pays to,” Miroaster said. “I’ve been here many times and many times had need for escape.”
“That seems hard to believe.”
Miroaster smiled and set Byron down. “Time you found your legs again. Come, let us use what light remains to us.”
Byron glanced back at the dark walls of Sogfarrow. The rain fell harder. It was cold and he could see his breath, but leaving the place behind him gave him strength. He felt a familiar tug in his pace as he followed in Miroaster’s step.
“Oatencake,” he said to himself, remembering the man who had guided him and his friends through the fortress of Qualnáchnabard on their journey to follow the Midwinter star. “It’s just like it was with Peter Oatencake.”
With each step he took, as it had been with Oatencake, Byron felt himself borne forward as if in tow behind Miroaster; each step was far greater than his own little stride could explain. Byron bounded along behind the tall man. Very soon they left the road behind and headed off into the wild.