Contessa Dawn sat on her oak chest and flipped through the yellowed pages of the great black book. The book that was a gift for her thirteenth birthday. When she awoke that morning four years ago her father set a wooden case on the washstand beside the bed. He turned to her and said he didn’t know what was inside, who it was from or whence it came, but that the rickety old woman that delivered it said, “’tis for your daughter’s eyes only.” He bent and planted a delicate kiss on her forehead then left with a grin saying he would leave her to it. She truly loved her father. He’d always treated her more special than her sisters. He was kind, gentle, fair and always lenient with her. He was hardly ever cross but always had a smile for her. She was proud of him too for the courage he’d shown with his lightning swift sword in the Dragon Valley Wars and that he handled all his affairs with patience and wisdom. Hewas the best father any daughter could hope for.
As soon as he’d shut the door she leaped from her bed, slipped her robe over her night rail, took the key that lay atop the case and opened it. There was a small hemp sack and a note that said, “Let no one know, especially your father, that you have this. Guard it with your life if you want to live. It could save you one day.”
She removed the “Oracles” from the sack, fastened the latchbolt on her door,cradled her treasure and carried it back to her bed. Its mysterious words filled her with dread and confusion then and each time she read from it. Even now.
The voice she heard in her mind as she read spoke deep and ghostly, like a cold, north wind.
He is darkness that shines
He comes harmless yet stalking
Weapons be none to slay him
But there be
A chill crawled down her spine. One would think a seventeen-year-old Contessa would have more fortitude. She hadn’t consulted these pages in months but something deep inside compelled her to steal it out. A memory struck her—the crackling of fire and wailing. Wailing of those three who were burned at the stake in the village. She could see black plumes of smoke rising and smell the sickening odor of their melting flesh. When later she asked her father about it all he said was they were found with theforbidden book. A knock at the door. She started. The latch was unbolted! A death shiver trickled along her back. The intruder might open up and catch her with the “Oracles.”
“Milady,” Tianna, a maidservant called.
“One moment, Tianna.” She quickly closed the text, rose, lifted the lid and crammed her secret back into the bottom of her oak chest and shut it.
“Your presence is needed on the bailey,” Tianna said. “They’re unloading thewagon. The driver needs your seal that the right amount of goods have been received.”
Why her seal? Where was father? Strange.
She quit her chamber and seeing no sign of where Tianna went, Dawn descended the spiral stairs. All last night the storm had raged in a mighty campaign. She had clenched her covers tight as she trembled. Rain galloped upon the shutters. Now it was like everything had been trampled and died. The midmorning’s eerie quiet ran rampant throughout the keep, pressing her like constricting walls of thick wax.
She entered the Hall. “Father?” Looking about she saw no one. “Father, where are you?” she called louder. “Father?” Minnecent, the head maid, appearing from the kitchen passage, hastened in, wiping her hands on her apron. “Minnecent,” she asked, meeting her just in front of the dais. “Where is father?”
Fidgety as a mouse, the gray-haired servant looked at her with tired eyes.“He left before sunup with two of his guards for Hinterland.” Minnecent lowered her head, brushed past and swiftly went her way. Dawn, in mounting curiosity, turned and watched the lean figure take the dark and narrow service passage leading to the chicken yard leaving her in complete befuddlement. Hinterland? What business could he possibly have there?
* * * * * *
In the shadows of a gloomy chamber, Count Grood of Tarnlock’s clammy hand quivered as heset his chalice on the roughened table. In his younger days he had been in many a gruesome battle in which he mustered steel courage but this dark sorcery connection made his heart shrivel. He sat opposite the Schard Wizard Binguile who of long white beard and black robe of pointed hood, drank with him. Next to Binguile was the hump-shouldered skeleton of a servant, lltor. Dressed in a tattered brown tunic, he stood at his master’s right shoulder, bony fingers clenched round the silver ewer’s handle, ready to replenish host and guest with wine. Grood started as a boom shook the walls. The wine cups and table rattled. There followed an unfathomable roar that sent ripples of hoarfrost down his spine. Iltor’s wobbly legs shuddered the more but the wizard remained completely composed.
“Go feed him,” Binguile said coolly to Iltor.
“No, Master, no. I beg you.” Iltor trembled all over and his big eyes quaked in their sockets. His teeth chattered andhe gave a squeaky sound. Cold dread coursed through Count Grood for the skinny one.
“Ye whimpering coward,” Binguile rasped. “He won’t harm you if you leave his bowl and go quickly.”
Then the thing beyond the wall thundered and roared more terrible than before and Iltor, in convulsive terror, straightened and shrieked at the ceiling, dropping the ewer onto the cracked flagstone floor with a clatter and spilled itscrimson contents.
“Damn you, you clumsy oak twig! Go! Or I shall curse you more than ye already are, you miserable wretch of a cripple!”
Iltor wheeled and knelt before Binguile. “No, Master. Spare me. I beg you.”
Iltor rose and, at all speed, spun on his scrawny heel and left the chamber. Count Grood and the wizard sat silent for half a moment then, amid poundings and growls that rumbled not so strident but nevertheless continued, Binguile leaned toward him.
“I wish there were more barons like you, my brave ally,” the wizard said. “Then the takeover of Hinterland would be not so difficult and the Three Lands would belong to the Schards.”
“There would still be my country the Lowlands and King Longard’s Upland.”
“Aye. But unlike Hinterland, your kingdom and Upland have more unseen Schard advisors in control of high places and even stronger influence insmaller towns and villages. Once we combine our efforts in gathering sufficient fighting force, those two kingdoms will bend and break soon thereafter.”
Iltor yelled a long scream that made Count Grood’s blood turn to ice then he dared not breathe, as the entire castle became silent as a grave.
“Dragondung!” Binguile swore. “Another servant gone. Have you, Count Grood, one I could borrow until I find a replacement?” The Count thought to offer Selwyn, theignorant kitchen boy and formed his lips to speak but Binguile waved him off. “Never mind. Back to business. As a token of the bond between us, for the Hallow’s Eve sacrifice…” The wizard leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands at his waist.
Grood took a sip from his chalice. The gripping suspense of the Schard Master’s imminent demand, like a score of barbed arrows lodged deep in his flesh, pricked his soul. God! What have I done? Why did I make an unholy pact with this leader of devils? This thing beyond the wall—can no one subdue it?
And it was as if he were stabbed in the heart when Binguile said: “You will give me the very fairest—you will give me your daughter…Dawn.”