/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

Runemarks

Joanne Harris

Seven o'clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the end of the world, and goblins had been at the cellar again… Not that anyone would admit it was goblins. In Maddy Smith's world, order rules. Chaos, old gods, fairies, goblins, magic, glamours – all of these were supposedly vanquished centuries ago. But Maddy knows that a small bit of magic has survived. The “ruinmark” she was born with on her palm proves it – and makes the other villagers fearful that she is a witch (though helpful in dealing with the goblins-in-the-cellar problem). But the mysterious traveler One-Eye sees Maddy's mark not as a defect, but as a destiny. And Maddy will need every scrap of forbidden magic One-Eye can teach her if she is to survive that destiny.

Joanne Harris

Runemarks

© 2007

To Anouchka

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My heartfelt thanks go to the faithful warriors who stood by my side throughout all the adventures and misadventures that have befallen this book. To Jennifer and Penny Luithlen; to Peter Robinson; to Christian, who read it first; to Philippa Dickinson; to my fantastic editors, Nancy Siscoe and Sue Cook; to Melissa Nelson for the jacket design; and to Judith Haut and Noreen Marchisi for publicity. To my P.A., Anne, who runs my life; to Mark, who runs the Web site; and to Kevin, who runs everything else. Most of all, I am grateful to my daughter, Anouchka, who pestered me constantly for four years until I finished this story to her complete satisfaction…

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CHARACTERS

VILLAGERS

Maddy Smith, a village witch

Jed Smith, a smith

Mae Smith, a brainless beauty

Adam Scattergood, a bully

Mrs. Scattergood, an innkeeper

Dorian Scattergood, the black sheep of the family

Crazy Nan Fey, a midwife; reputed to be imaginative

Nat Parson, a parson

Ethelberta Parson, his wife

Torval Bishop, his immediate superior

Matt Law, a lawman

DEVOTEES OF THE ORDER

Examiner Number 4421974, Examiner of the Order

Magister Number 73838, Magister of the Order

Magister Number 369, Magister Emeritus of the Order

Magister Number 262, Magister of the Order

Magister Number 23, Magister of the Order

GODS (VANIR)

Skadi, of the Ice People, bride of Njörd, the Huntress; goddess of destruction; principal enemy of Loki

Bragi, god of poetry and song; has no reason to love Loki

Idun, his wife, goddess of youth and plenty; was once abducted by Loki and handed over to the Ice People

Freyja, goddess of desire; once mortally insulted by Loki

Frey, the Reaper, her brother; no friend to Loki

Heimdall, golden-toothed sentinel of the gods; hates Loki

Njörd, sea god, once married to Skadi but now separated due to irreconcilable differences; agrees with her on a single subject-dislike of Loki

GODS (ÆSIR – SEER-FOLK)

Odin, chief of the Æsir, blood brother of-and ultimately betrayed by-Loki

Frigg, his wife; lost her son because of Loki

Thor, the Thunderer, son of Odin; has more than one bone to pick with Loki

Sif, his wife; once went bald because of Loki

Týr, god of war; lost his hand because of Loki

Balder, son of Frigg; died because of Loki

Loki

OTHERS

Sugar-and-Sack, a goblin

Hel, Mistress of the Underworld

Surt, ruler of World Beyond, Guardian of the Black Fortress

Jormungand, the World Serpent

Fat Lizzy, a potbellied sow

The Nameless

RUNES OF THE ELDER SCRIPT

Fé: Wealth, cattle, property, success

Úr: Strength, the Mighty Ox

Thuris: Thor’s rune, the Thorny One, victory

Ós: the Seer-folk, the Æsir

Raedo: the Journeyman, the Outlands

Kaen: Wildfire, Chaos, World Beyond

Hagall: Hail, the Destroyer, Netherworld

Naudr: the Binder, the Underworld, distress, need, Death

Isa: Ice

Ár: Plenty, fruitfulness

ýr: the Protector, the Fundament

Sól: summer, the sun

Týr: the Warrior

Bjarkán: Vision, revelation, dream

Madr: Mankind, the Folk, the Middle Worlds

Logr: Water, the One Sea

Book One. World Above

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1

Seven o’clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the End of the World, and goblins had been at the cellar again. Mrs. Scattergood-the landlady at the Seven Sleepers Inn-swore it was rats, but Maddy Smith knew better. Only goblins could have burrowed into the brick-lined floor, and besides, as far as she knew, rats didn’t drink ale.

But she also knew that in the village of Malbry -as in the whole of the Strond Valley -certain things were never discussed, and that included anything curious, uncanny, or unnatural in any way. To be imaginative was considered almost as bad as giving oneself airs, and even dreams were hated and feared, for it was through dreams (or so the Good Book said) that the Seer-folk had crossed over from Chaos, and it was in Dream that the power of the Faërie remained, awaiting its chance to re-enter the world.

And so the folk of Malbry made every effort never to dream. They slept on boards instead of mattresses, avoided heavy evening meals, and as for telling bedtime tales-well. The children of Malbry were far more likely to hear about the martyrdom of St. Sepulchre or the latest Cleansings from World’s End than tales of magic or of World Below. Which is not to say that magic didn’t happen. In fact, over the past fourteen years the village of Malbry had witnessed more magic in one way or another than anyplace in the Middle Worlds.

That was Maddy’s fault, of course. Maddy Smith was a dreamer, a teller of tales, and worse, and as such, she was used to being blamed for anything irregular that happened in the village. If a bottle of beer fell off a shelf, if the cat got into the creamery, if Adam Scattergood threw a stone at a stray dog and hit a window instead-ten to one Maddy would get the blame.

And if she protested, folk would say that she’d always had a troublesome nature, that their ill luck had begun the day she was born, and that no good would ever come of a child with a ruinmark-that rusty sign on the Smith girl’s hand-

– which some oldsters called the Witch’s Ruin and which no amount of scrubbing would remove.

It was either that or blame the goblins-otherwise known as Good Folk or Faërie-who this summer had upped their antics from raiding cellars and stealing sheep (or occasionally painting them blue) to playing the dirtiest kind of practical jokes, like leaving horse dung on the church steps, or putting soda in the communion wine to make it fizz, or turning the vinegar to piss in all the jars of pickled onions in Joe Grocer’s store.

And since hardly anyone dared to mention them, or even acknowledge that they existed at all, Maddy was left to deal with the vermin from under the Hill alone and in her own way.

No one asked her how she did it. No one watched the Smith girl at work. And no one ever called her witch-except for Adam Scattergood, her employer’s son, a fine boy in some ways but prone to foul language when the mood took him.

Besides, they said, why speak the word? That ruinmark surely spoke for itself.

Now Maddy considered the rust-colored mark. It looked like a letter or sigil of some kind, and sometimes it shone faintly in the dark or burned as if something hot had pressed there. It was burning now, she saw. It often did when the Good Folk were near, as if something inside her were restless and itched to be set free.

That summer, it had itched more often than ever, as the goblins swarmed in unheard-of numbers, and banishing them was one way of putting that itch to rest. Her other skills remained unused and, for the most part, untried, and though sometimes that was hard to bear-like having to pretend you’re not hungry when your favorite meal is on the table-Maddy understood why it had to be so.

Cantrips and runecharms were bad enough. But glamours, true glamours, were perilous business, and if rumor of these were to reach World’s End, where the servants of the Order worked day and night in study of the Word…

For Maddy’s deepest secret-known only to her closest friend, the man folk knew as One-Eye-was that she enjoyed working magic, however shameful that might be. More than that, she thought she might be good at it too and, like anyone with a talent, longed to make use of it and to show it off to other people.

But that was impossible. At best it counted as giving herself airs.

And at worst? Folk had been Cleansed for less.

Maddy turned her attention to the cellar floor and the wide-mouthed burrow that disfigured it. It was a goblin burrow, all right, bigger and rather messier than a foxhole and still bearing the marks of clawed, thick-soled feet where the spilled earth had been kicked over. Rubble and bricks had been piled in a corner, roughly concealed beneath a stack of empty kegs. Maddy thought, with some amusement, that it must have been a lively-and somewhat drunken-party.

Filling in the burrow would be easy, she thought. The tricky thing, as always, was to ensure it stayed that way. ýr, the Protector, had been enough to secure the church doors, but goblins had been known to be very persistent where ale was concerned, and she knew that in this case, a single charm would not keep them out for long.

All right, then. Something more.

With a sharp-ended stick she drew two runes on the hardpack floor.

Naudr, the Binder, might do it, she thought-

– and with it Úr, the Mighty Ox, set at an angle to the mouth of the burrow.

Now all it needed was a spark.

That spark. That was the only true magic involved. Anyone familiar with the runes-which were only letters, after all, taken from an ancient language-could learn to write them. The trick, Maddy knew, was to set them to work.

It had been difficult at first. Now working the runes was easy as striking a match. She spoke a little cantrip-

Cuth on fyre…

The letters flared for a few seconds and then dwindled to a warning gleam. The goblins could see them-and so could Maddy-but to Mrs. Scattergood, who despised reading (because she could not do it) and who thought magic was the devil’s work, the runes would only ever look like scratches in the dirt, and they could all continue to pretend that the goblins were only rats.

Suddenly there came a scrabbling sound from the far, dark corner of the cellar. Maddy turned and saw a movement in the shadows and a shape, rather larger than a common rat, bob away between two of the barrels.

Quickly she stood up, lifting her candle so that its flame lit up the whitewashed wall. No sound could be heard; nothing moved but the shadows, which jerked and juddered.

Maddy stepped forward and shone the candle right into the corner. Still nothing moved. But every creature leaves a trail that only a few know how to see. There was something there; Maddy could feel it. She could even smell it now: a sour-sweet, wintry scent like roots and spices kept long underground.

A drunken party, she thought again. So drunken, perhaps, that one of the revelers, stupefied beyond all thought of caution by Mrs. Scattergood’s excellent ale, had curled up in some dark corner to sleep off the after-effects of a bellyful. And now it was trapped, whatever it was. Trapped behind a drift of stacked ale kegs, its burrow sealed, the cellar shut.

Maddy’s heart began to beat a little faster. In all these years she had never had such a chance: to see one of the Faërie at such close quarters; to speak to it and have it answer.

She tried to recall what little she knew of the Good Folk from under Red Horse Hill. They were curious creatures, more playful than bad, fond of strong drink and well-dressed meats. And wasn’t there something else as well, something that lingered tantalizingly on the edges of memory? A tale of One-Eye’s, perhaps? Or maybe some more practical trick, some cantrip to help her deal with the thing?

She left the candle on top of a barrel and came to peer into the corner. “I know you’re there,” she whispered softly.

The goblin-if it was a goblin and not just a rat-said nothing.

“Come out,” said Maddy. “I won’t hurt you.”

Nothing moved; just layers of shadow disturbed by the candle flame. She gave a sigh, as if of disappointment, and turned to face the other way.

In the shadows, something lurked; she could see it from the corner of her eye.

She did not move, but stood, apparently lost in thought. In the shadows, something began to crawl, very quietly, between the barrels.

Still Maddy did not stir. Only her left hand moved, fingers curling into the familiar shape that was Bjarkán, the rune of revelation.

If it was a rat, Bjarkán would show it.

It was not a rat. A wisp-just a wisp-of Faërie gold gleamed in the circle of her finger and thumb.

Maddy pounced. Her strike was well timed. At once the creature began to struggle, and although Maddy couldn’t see it, she could certainly feel it between her hands, kicking and twisting and trying to bite her. Then, as she continued to hold it fast, the creature finally went limp; the shadow dropped away from it, and she saw it clearly.

It-he-was not much bigger than a dog fox, with small, clever hands and wicked little teeth. Most of his body was covered in armor-pieces of plate, leather straps, half a mail shirt cut clumsily down to fit-and out of his brown, long-whiskered face, his eyes shone a bright, inhuman gold.

He blinked at her twice. Then, without any warning, he shot away between her legs.

He might even have escaped-he was quick as a weasel-but Maddy had expected it, and with her fingers she cast Isa, the Icy One, and froze him to the spot.

The goblin struggled and squirmed, but his feet were stuck to the ground.

He spat a gobbet of fool’s fire from between his pointed teeth, but still Maddy would not let him go.

The goblin swore in many tongues, some animal, some Faërie, and finished off by saying some very nasty things about Maddy’s family, which she had to admit were mostly true.

Finally he stopped struggling and sat down crossly on the floor.

“So what do you want?” he said.

“What about-three wishes?” suggested Maddy hopefully.

“Leave it out,” said the goblin with scorn. “What kind of stories have you been listening to?”

Maddy was disappointed. Many of the tales she had collected over the past few years had involved someone receiving three wishes from the Faërie, and she felt rather aggrieved that in this case it had turned out to be nothing more than a tale. Still, there were other stories that she thought might contain more practical truths, and her eyes lit up as she finally remembered the thing that had been lurking at the back of her mind since she had first heard the suspicious sounds from behind the barrel.

“In yer own time,” said the goblin, picking his teeth.

“Shh,” said Maddy. “I’m thinking.”

The goblin yawned. He was beginning to look quite cocky now, and his bright gold eyes shone with mischief. “Doesn’t know what to do with me, kennet?” he said. “Knows it’ll bring revenge if I don’t get home safe.”

“Revenge? Who from?”

“The Captain, acourse,” said the goblin. “Gods, was you brung up in a box? Now you let me go, there’s a good girl, and there’ll be no hard feelings and no call to get the Captain involved.”

Maddy smiled but said nothing.

“Ah, come on,” said the goblin, looking uncomfortable now. “There’s no good in keeping me here, and nowt I can give yer.”

“Oh, but there is,” said Maddy, sitting down cross-legged on the floor. “You can give me your name.”

The goblin stared at her, wide-eyed.

“A named thing is a tamed thing. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”

It was an old story, told by One-Eye years ago, and Maddy had almost forgotten it in the excitement of the moment. At the beginning of the First Age, it was given to every creature, tree, rock, and plant a secret name that would bind that creature to the will of anyone who knew it.

Mother Frigg knew the true names and used them to make all of Creation weep for the return of her dead son. But Loki, who had many names, would not be bound to such a spell, and so Balder the Fair, god of springtime, was forced to remain in the Underworld, Hel’s kingdom, until the End of All Things.

“Me name?” the goblin said at last.

Maddy nodded.

“What’s a name? Call me Hair-of-the-Dog, or Whisky-in-the-Jar, or Three-Sheets-to-the-Wind. It’s nowt to me.”

“Your true name,” said Maddy, and once more she drew the rune Naudr, the Binder, and Isa, to fix it in ice.

The goblin wriggled but was held fast. “What’s it to you, anyroad?” he demanded. “And how come you know so bloody much about it?”

“Just tell me,” said Maddy.

“You’d never be able to say it,” he said.

“Tell me anyway.”

“I won’t! Lemme go!”

“I will,” said Maddy, “as soon as you tell me. Otherwise I’ll open up the cellar doors and let the sun do its worst.”

The goblin blenched at that, for sunlight is lethal to the Good Folk. “You wouldn’t do that, lady, would yer?” he whined.

“Watch me,” said Maddy, and, standing up, she began to make her way to the trapdoor-now closed-through which the ale kegs were delivered.

“You wouldn’t!” squeaked the goblin.

“Your name,” she said, with one hand on the latch.

The goblin struggled more fiercely than ever, but Maddy’s runes still held him fast. “He’ll get yer!” he squeaked. “The Captain’ll get yer, and then you’ll be sorry!”

“Last chance,” said Maddy, drawing the bolt. A tiny wand of sunlight fell onto the cellar floor only inches from the goblin’s foot.

“Shut it, shut it!” shrieked the goblin.

Maddy just waited patiently.

“All right, then! All right! It’s…” The goblin rattled off something in his own language, fast as pebbles in a gourd. “Now shut it, shut it now!” he cried, and wriggled as far as he could away from the spike of sunlight.

Maddy shut the trapdoor, and the goblin gave a sigh of relief. “That was just narsty,” he said. “Nice young girl like you shouldn’t be messin’ with narstiness like that.” He looked at Maddy in reproach. “What d’you want me name for, anyroad?”

But Maddy was trying to remember the word the goblin had spoken.

Snotrag? No, that wasn’t it.

Sna-raggy? No, that wasn’t it, either.

Sma-ricky? She frowned, searching for just the right inflection, knowing that the goblin would try to distract her, knowing that unless she got it completely right, the cantrip wouldn’t work.

“Smá-”

“Call me Smutkin, call me Smudgett.” The goblin was babbling now, trying to break Maddy’s cantrip with one of his own. “Call me Spider, Slyme, and Sluggitt. Call me Sleekitt, call me Slow-”

“Quiet!” said Maddy. The word was on the tip of her tongue.

“Say it, then.”

“I will.” If only the creature would stop talking…

“Forgot it, hast yer!” There was a note of triumph in the goblin’s voice. “Forgot it, forgot it, forgot it!”

Maddy could feel her concentration slipping. It was all too much to do at once; she could not hope to keep the goblin subdued and make the effort to remember the cantrip that would bind him to her will. Already Naudr and Isa were close to failing. The goblin had one foot almost free, and his eyes snapped with malice as he worked to release the other.

It was now or never. Dropping the runes, Maddy turned all her will toward speaking the creature’s true name.

“Smá-rakki-” It felt right-fast and percussive-but even as she opened her mouth, the goblin shot out of the corner like a cork from a bottle, and before she had even finished speaking, he was halfway into the cellar wall, burrowing as if his life depended on it.

If Maddy had paused to think at this point, she would simply have ordered the goblin to stop. If she had spoken the name correctly, then he would have been forced to obey her, and she could have questioned him at leisure. But Maddy didn’t pause to think. She saw the goblin’s feet vanishing into the ground and shouted something-not even a cantrip-while at the same time casting Thuris, Thor’s rune, as hard as she could at the mouth of the burrow.

It felt like throwing a firework. It snapped against the brick-lined floor, throwing up a shower of sparks and a small but pungent cloud of smoke.

For a second or two nothing happened. Then there came a low rumble from under Maddy’s feet, and from the burrow came a swearing and a kicking and a scuffle of earth, as if something inside had come up against a sudden obstacle.

Maddy knelt down and reached inside the hole. She could hear the goblin cursing, too far away for her to reach, and now there was another sound, a kind of sliding, squealing, pattering noise that Maddy almost recognized…

The goblin’s voice was muffled but urgent. “Now look what you’ve gone and done. Gog and Magog, let me out!” There came another desperate scuffling of earth, and the creature reversed out of the hole at speed, falling over its feet and coming to a halt against a stack of empty barrels, which fell over with a clatter loud enough (Maddy thought) to wake the Seven Sleepers from their beds.

“What happened?” she said.

But before the goblin could make his reply, something shot out of the hole in the wall. Several somethings, in fact; no, dozens-no, hundreds-of fat, brown, fast-moving somethings, swarming from the burrow like-

“Rats!” exclaimed Maddy, gathering her skirt around her ankles.

The goblin looked at her with scorn. “Well, what did you think would happen?” he said. “Cast that kind of glam at World Below, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in bilge and vermin.”

Maddy stared at the hole in dismay. She had intended to summon only the goblin, but the cry-and that fast-flung rune-had apparently summoned everything within her range. Now not only rats, but beetles, spiders, wood lice, centipedes, whirligigs, earwigs, and maggots squirted horribly out of the hole, along with a generous outpouring of foul water (possibly from a broken drain), to form a kind of verminous brew that poured and wriggled at alarming speed out of the burrow and across the floor.

And then, just when she was sure that nothing worse could possibly happen, there came the sound of a door opening above-stairs, and a high and slightly nasal voice came to Maddy from the kitchen.

“Hey, madam! You going to stay down there all morning, or what?”

“Oh, gods.” It was Mrs. Scattergood.

The goblin shot Maddy a cheery wink.

“Did you hear me?” said Mrs. Scattergood. “There’s pots to wash up here-or am I supposed to do them an’ all?”

“In a minute!” called Maddy in haste, taking refuge on the cellar steps. “Just…sorting out a few things down here!”

“Well, now you can come and finish things off up here,” said Mrs. Scattergood. “Come up right now and see to them pots. And if that one-eyed scally good-for-nowt comes round again, you can tell him from me to shove off!”

Maddy’s heart leaped into her mouth. That one-eyed scally good-for-nowt-that must mean her old friend was back, after more than twelve months of wandering, and no amount of rats and cockroaches-or even goblins-was going to keep her from seeing him. “He was here?” she said, taking the cellar steps at a run. “One-Eye was here?” She emerged breathless into the kitchen.

“Aye.” Mrs. Scattergood handed her a tea towel. “Though I dunno what there is in that to look so pleased about. I’d have thought that you, of all people-” She stopped and cocked her head to listen. “What’s that noise?” she said sharply.

Maddy closed the cellar door. “It’s nothing, Mrs. Scattergood.”

The landlady gave her a suspicious look. “What about them rats?” she said. “Did you fix it right this time?”

“I need to see him,” Maddy said.

“Who? The one-eyed scallyman?”

“Please,” she said. “I won’t be long.”

Mrs. Scattergood pursed her lips. “Not on my penny, you won’t,” she said. “I’m not paying you good money to go gallivanting around with thieves and beggars-”

“One-Eye isn’t a thief,” said Maddy.

“Don’t you start giving yourself airs, madam,” said Mrs. Scattergood. “Laws knows you can’t help the way you’re made, but you might at least make an effort. For your father’s sake, you might, and for the memory of your sainted mother.” She paused for breath for less than a second. “And you can take that look off your face. Anyone would think you were proud to be a-”

And then she stopped, openmouthed, as a sound came from behind the cellar door. It was, thought Mrs. Scattergood, a peculiar kind of scuttling noise, punctuated by the occasional thud. It made her feel quite uncomfortable-as if there might be something more down in that cellar than barrels of ale. And what was that distant sloshing sound, like wash day at the river?

“Oh my Laws, what have you done?” Mrs. Scattergood made for the cellar door.

Maddy put herself in front of it, and with one hand she traced the shape of Naudr against the latch. “Don’t go down there, please,” she said.

Mrs. Scattergood tried the latch, but the runesign held it fast. She turned to glare at Maddy, her fierce little teeth bared like a ferret’s. “You open this door right now,” she said.

“You really, really don’t want me to.”

“You open this door, Maddy Smith, if you know what’s good for you.”

Maddy tried once more to protest, but Mrs. Scattergood was unstoppable. “I’ll wager you’ve got that scally down there, helping himself to my best ale. Well, you just open this door, girl, or I’ll have Matt Law down here to take you both to the roundhouse!”

Maddy sighed. It wasn’t that she liked working at the inn, but a job was a job, and a shilling a shilling, and neither was likely to be forthcoming as soon as Mrs. Scattergood looked into the cellar. In an hour or so the spell would wear off, and the creatures would crawl back into their hole. Then she could seal it up again, sweep up the mess, mop up the water…

“Let me explain,” she tried again.

But Mrs. Scattergood was beyond explanations. Her face had flushed a dangerous red, and her voice was almost as shrill as a rat’s. “Adam!” she shrieked. “Get in here right now!”

Adam was Mrs. Scattergood’s son. He and Maddy had always hated each other, and it was the thought of his sneering, gleeful face-and that of her long-absent friend, known in some circles as the one-eyed scallyman-that finally made up her mind.

“You’re sure it was One-Eye?” she said at last.

“Of course it was! Now open this-”

“All right,” said Maddy, and reversed the rune. “But if I were you, I’d give it an hour.”

And at that she turned and fled, and was already on the road to Red Horse Hill by the time the shrill, distant screaming began, emerging like smoke from the Seven Sleepers’ kitchen and rising above slumbering Malbry village to vanish into the morning air.

2

Malbry was a village of some eight hundred souls. A quiet place, or so it seemed, set between mountain ridges in the valley of the river Strond, which flowed from the Wilderlands in the north through the Uplands and the Inlands before finally making its way south toward World’s End and into the One Sea.

The mountains-called the Seven Sleepers, though no one remembered exactly why-were bitter and snow-cloaked all year round, and there was only one pass, the Hindarfell, which was blocked by snow three months of the year. This remoteness affected the valley folk: they kept to themselves, were suspicious of strangers, and (but for Nat Parson, who had once made a pilgrimage as far as World’s End and who considered himself quite the traveler) had little to do with the world outside.

There were a dozen little settlements in the valley, from Farnley Tyas at the foot of the mountains to Pease Green at the far side of Little Bear Wood. But Malbry was the biggest and the most important. It housed the valley’s only parson, the largest church, the best inns, and the wealthiest farmers. Its houses were built of stone, not wood; there was a smithy, a glassworks, a covered market. Its inhabitants thought themselves better than most and looked down on the folk of Pog Hill or Fettlefields and laughed in secret at their country ways. The only thorn in Malbry’s side stood roughly two miles from the village. The locals called it Red Horse Hill, and most folk avoided it because of the tales that collected there and the goblins who lived beneath its flanks.

Once, it was said, there had been a castle on the Hill. Malbry itself had been part of its fiefdom, growing crops for the lord of that land-but all that had been a long time ago, before Tribulation and the End of the World. Nowadays there was nothing to see: only a few standing stones, too large to have been looted from the ruins, and, of course, the Red Horse cut into the clay.

It had long been known as a goblin stronghold. Such places drew them, the villagers said, lured them with promises of treasure and tales of the Elder Age. But it was only in recent years that the Good Folk had ventured as far as the village.

Fourteen years, to be precise, which was exactly when Jed Smith’s pretty wife, Julia, had died giving birth to their second daughter. Few doubted that the two things were linked or that the rust-colored mark on the palm of the child’s hand was the sign of some dreadful misfortune to come.

And so it was. From that day forth, that Harvestmonth, the goblins had been drawn to the blacksmith’s child. The midwife had seen them, so she said, perched on the baby’s pinewood crib, or grinning from inside the warming pan, or tumbling the blankets. At first the rumors were scarcely voiced. Nan Fey was mad, just like her old grandam, and it was best to take anything she said with a dose of salt. But as time passed and goblin sightings were reported by such respectable sources as the parson, his wife, Ethelberta, and even Torval Bishop from over the pass, the rumors grew and soon everyone was wondering how the Smiths, of all people-the Smiths, who never dreamed, went to church every day, and would no more have flung themselves into the river Strond than truckle with the Good Folk-could have given birth to two so very different daughters.

Mae Smith, with her cowslip curls, was widely held to be the prettiest and least imaginative girl in the valley. Jed Smith said she was the image of her poor mother, and it almost broke his heart to see her so, though he smiled when he said it, and his eyes were like stars.

But Maddy was dark, just like an Outlander, and there was no light in Jed’s eyes when he looked at her, only an odd kind of measuring look, as if he were weighing Maddy against her dead mother and finding that he had been sold short.

Jed Smith was not the only one to think so. As she grew older, Maddy discovered that she had disappointed almost everyone. An awkward girl with a sullen mouth, a curtain of hair, and a tendency to slouch, she had neither Mae’s sweet nature nor her sweet face. Her eyes were rather beautiful, halfway between gray and gold, but few people ever noticed this, and it was widely believed that Maddy Smith was ugly, a troublemaker, too clever for her own good, too stubborn-or too slack-to change.

Of course folk agreed that it was not her fault she was so brown or her sister so pretty, but a smile costs nothing, as the saying goes, and if only the girl had made an effort once in a while, or even showed a little gratitude for all the help and free advice she had been given, then maybe she would have settled down.

But she did not. From the beginning Maddy was wild: never laughed, never cried, never brushed her hair, fought with Adam Scattergood and broke his nose, and, if that wasn’t already bad enough, showed signs of being clever-disastrous in a girl-with a tongue on her that could be downright rude.

No one mentioned the ruinmark, of course. In fact, for the first seven years of her life no one had even explained to Maddy what it meant, though Mae pulled faces and called it your blemish and was surprised when Maddy refused to wear the mittens sent to her father by the village’s charitable-and ever-hopeful-widows.

Someone needed to put things straight with the girl, and at last Nat Parson accepted the unpleasant duty of telling her the facts. Maddy didn’t understand much of it, littered as it was with quotes from the Good Book, but she understood his contempt-and behind it, his fear. It was all written down in the Book of Tribulation: how after the battle the old gods-the Seer-folk of that time-had been cast into Netherworld, but how in dreams they still endured, fragmented but still dangerous, entering the minds of the wicked and the susceptible, trying desperately to be reborn…

“And so their demon blood lives on,” had said the parson, “passed from man to woman, beast to beast. And here you are, by no fault of your own, and as long as you say your prayers and remember your place, there’s no reason why you should not lead as worthwhile a life as any of the rest of us and earn forgiveness at the hand of the Nameless.”

Now, Maddy had never liked Nat Parson. She watched him in silence as he spoke, occasionally lifting her left hand and peering at him insolently through the circle of her thumb and forefinger. Nat itched to slap her, but Laws knew what powers her demon blood had given her, and he wanted as little to do with the girl as possible. The Order would have known what to do with the child. But this was Malbry, not World’s End, and even such a stickler as Nat knew better than to try to enforce World’s End Law so far from the Universal City.

“Do-you-understand?” He spoke loudly and slowly. Perhaps she was simple, like Crazy Nan Fey. In any case, she did not reply, but watched him again through her crooked fingers until at last he sighed and went away.

After that, or so it seemed, Jed Smith’s youngest daughter had grown wilder than ever. She stopped going to church, lived out in Little Bear Wood for days on end, and spent hours at a time talking to herself (or, more likely, to the goblins). And when the other children played jump stone around the pond or went to Nat Parson’s Sunday school, Maddy ran off to Red Horse Hill, or pestered Crazy Nan for tales, or, worse still, made up tales about terrible, impossible things, which she told the younger ones to give them nightmares.

She was an embarrassment to Mae, who was merry as a blue jay (and as brainless) and who would have made a brilliant marriage but for her unruly sister. As compensation, Mae was spoiled and indulged far more than was good for her, while Maddy grew up sullen, unregarded, and angry.

And sullen and angry she might have remained but for what happened on Red Horse Hill in the summer of her seventh year.

No one knew much about Red Horse Hill. Some said it had been shaped during the Elder Age, when the heathens still made sacrifices to the old gods. Others said it was the burial mound of some great chieftain, seeded throughout with deadly traps, though Maddy favored the theory that the place was a giant treasure mound, piled to the eaves with goblin gold.

Whatever it was, the Horse was ancient-everyone agreed on that-and although there was no doubt that men had carved it into the flank of the Hill, there was something uncanny about the figure. For a start, the Red Horse never grassed over in spring, nor did the winter snow ever hide its shape. As a result, the Hill was riddled with whispers and tales-tales of the Faërie and of the old gods-and so most people wisely left it alone.

Maddy liked the Hill, of course. But then, Maddy knew it better than most. All her life she had stayed alert to rumors culled from travelers, to pieces of lore, to sayings, kennings, stories, tales. From these tales she had formed a picture-still maddeningly unclear-of a time before the End of the World, when Red Horse Hill was an enchanted place and when the old gods-the Seer-folk-walked the land in human guise, sowing stories wherever they went.

No one in Malbry spoke of them. Even Crazy Nan would not have dared; the Good Book forbade all tales of the Seer-folk not written in the Book of Tribulation. And the people of Malbry prided themselves on their devotion to the Good Book. They no longer decked wells in the name of Mother Frigg, or danced on the May, or left crumbs by their doorsteps for Jack-in-the-Green. The shrines and temples of the Seer-folk had all been torn down years ago. Even their names had been largely forgotten, and no one mentioned them anymore.

Almost no one, anyway. The exception was Maddy’s closest friend-known to Mrs. Scattergood as that one-eyed scally good-for-nowt and to others as the Outlander, or just plain One-Eye.

3

They met in the summer of Maddy’s seventh year. It was Midsummer’s Fair Day, with games and dancing on the green. There were stalls selling ribbons and fruit and cakes, there were ices for the children, Mae had been crowned Strawberry Queen for the third year running, and Maddy was watching it all from her place at the edge of Little Bear Wood, feeling jealous, feeling angry, but nevertheless determined not to join in.

Her place was a giant copper beech, with a thick, smooth bole and plenty of branches. Thirty feet up, there was a fork into which Maddy liked to sprawl, skirts hiked up, legs on either side of the trunk, watching the village through the circle of her left thumb and forefinger.

Some years before, Maddy had discovered that when she made this fingering and concentrated very hard, she could see things that could not normally be seen. A bird’s nest in the turf, blackberries in the bramble hedge, Adam Scattergood and his cronies hiding behind a garden wall with stones in their pockets and mischief on their minds.

And it sometimes showed her different things-lights and colors that shone around people and showed their moods-and often these colors left a trail, like a signature for any to read who could.

Her trick was called sjón-henni, or truesight, and it was one of the fingerings of the rune Bjarkán-though Maddy, who had never learned her letters, had never heard of Bjarkán, nor had it ever occurred to her that her trick was magic.

All her life it had been impressed upon her that magic-be it a glamour, a fingering, or even a cantrip-was not only unnatural but wrong. It was the legacy of the Faërie, the source of Maddy’s bad blood, the ruin of everything good and lawful.

It was the reason she was here in the first place, when she could have been playing with the other children or eating pies on the Fair Day green. It was the reason her father avoided her gaze, as if every glance reminded him of the wife he had lost. It was also the reason that Maddy alone of all the villagers noticed the strange man in the wide-brimmed hat walking along the Malbry road-walking not toward the village, as you might have supposed, but in the direction of Red Horse Hill.

Strangers were not often seen in Malbry, even at a Midsummer’s Fair. Most traders were regulars from one place or another-bringing with them glass and metalware from the Ridings, persimmons from the Southlands, fish from the Islands, spices from the Outlands, skins and furs from the frozen North.

But if he was a trader, Maddy thought, then this man was traveling light. He had no horse, no mule, no wagon. And he was going the wrong way. He could be an Outlander, she thought, with his matted hair and ragged clothes. She had heard they sometimes traveled the Roads, where all kinds of people met and traded, but she had never actually seen one; those savages from the dead lands beyond World’s End, so ignorant that they couldn’t even speak a civilized language. Or he might be a Wilderlander, all painted in blue woad, a madman, a leper, or even a bandit.

She slipped out of her tree as the stranger passed and began to follow him at a safe distance, keeping to the bushes by the side of the road and watching him through the rune Bjarkán.

Perhaps he was a soldier, a veteran of some Outland war; he had pulled his hat down over his forehead, but even so, Maddy could see that he wore an eye patch, which hid the left side of his face. Like an Outlander, he was tall and dark, and Maddy saw with interest that although his long hair was going gray, he did not move like an old man.

Nor were his colors that of an old man. Maddy had found that old folk left a weak trail, and idiots left hardly any trail at all. But this man had a stronger signature than any she had ever seen. It was a rich and vibrant kingfisher blue, and Maddy found it hard to reconcile this inner brilliance with the drab, road-weary individual before her on the way to the Hill.

She continued to follow him, silently and keeping well hidden, and when she reached the brow of the Hill, she hid behind a hummock of grass and watched him as he lay in the shadow of a fallen stone, his one eye fixed on the Red Horse and a small, leather-bound notebook in his hand.

Minutes passed. He looked half asleep, his face concealed by the brim of his hat. But Maddy knew he was awake, and from time to time he wrote something in his notebook, or turned the page, and then went back to watching the Horse.

After a while the Outlander spoke. Not loudly, but so that Maddy could hear, and his voice was low and pleasant, not really what she’d expected of an Outlander at all.

“Well?” he said. “Have you seen enough?”

Maddy was startled. She had made no sound, and as far as she could tell, he had not once looked in her direction. She stood up, feeling rather foolish, and stared at him defiantly. “I’m not afraid of you,” she said.

“No?” said the Outlander. “Perhaps you should be.”

Maddy decided she could outrun him if need be. She sat down again, just out of reach on the springy grass.

His book, she now saw, was a collection of scraps, bound together with strips of leather, the pages hedged with thorny script. Maddy, of course, could not read-few villagers could, except for the parson and his prentices, who read the Good Book and nothing else.

“Are you a priest?” she said at last.

The stranger laughed, not pleasantly.

“A soldier, then?”

The man said nothing.

“A pirate? A mercenary?”

Again, nothing. The Outlander continued to make marks in his little book, pausing occasionally to study the Horse.

But Maddy’s curiosity had been fired. “What happened to your face?” she said. “How were you wounded? Was it a war?”

Now the stranger looked at her with a trace of impatience. “This happened,” he said, and took off his patch.

For a moment Maddy stared at him. But it was not the scarred ruin of his eye that held her thus. It was the bluish mark that began just above his brow and extended right down onto his left cheekbone.

It was not the same shape as her own ruinmark, but it was recognizably of the same substance, and it was certainly the first time that Maddy had ever seen such a thing on someone other than herself.

“Satisfied?” said the Outlander.

But a great excitement had seized hold of Maddy. “What’s that?” she said. “How did you get it? Is it woad? Is it a tattoo? Were you born with it? Do all Outlanders have them?”

He gave her a small and chilly smile. “Didn’t your mamma ever tell you that curiosity killed the kitty cat?”

“My mamma died when I was born.”

“I see. What’s your name?”

“Maddy. What’s yours?”

“You can call me One-Eye,” he said.

And then Maddy uncurled her fist, still grubby from her climb up the big beech tree, and showed him the ruinmark on her hand.

For a moment the Outlander’s good eye widened beneath the brim of his hat. On Maddy’s palm, the ruinmark stood out sharper than usual, still rust-colored but now flaring bright orange at the edges, and Maddy could feel the burn of it-a tingling sensation, not unpleasant, but definitely there, as if she had grasped something hot a few minutes before.

He looked at it for a long time. “D’you know what you’ve got there, girl?”

“Witch’s Ruin,” said Maddy promptly. “My sister thinks I should wear mittens.”

One-Eye spat. “Witch rhymes with bitch. A dirty word, for dirty-minded folk. Besides, it was never a Witch’s Ruin,” he said, “but a Witch’s Rune: the runemark of the Fiery.”

“Don’t you mean the Faërie?” said Maddy, intrigued.

“Faërie, Fiery, it’s all the same. This rune”-he looked at it closely-“this mark of yours. Do you know what it is?”

“Nat Parson says it’s the devil’s mark.”

“Nat Parson’s a gobshite,” One-Eye said.

Maddy was torn between a natural feeling of sacrilege and a deep admiration of anyone who dared call a parson gobshite.

“Listen to me, girlie,” he said. “Your man Nat Parson with his foolish Good Book has every reason to fear that mark. Aye, and envy it too.”

Once more he studied the design on Maddy’s palm, with interest and-Maddy thought-some wistfulness. “A curious thing,” he said at last. “I never thought to see it here.”

“But what is it?” said Maddy. “If the Book isn’t true-”

“Oh, there’s truth in the Book,” said One-Eye, and shrugged. “But it’s buried deep under legends and lies. That war, for instance…”

“Tribulation,” said Maddy helpfully.

“Aye, if you like, or Ragnarók. Remember, it’s the winners write the history books, and the losers get the leavings. If the Æsir had won-”

“The Æsir?”

“Seer-folk, I daresay you’d call ’ em here. Well, if they’d won that war-and it was close, mind you-then the Elder Age would not have ended, and your Good Book would have turned out very different, or maybe never been written at all.”

Maddy’s ears pricked up at once. “The Elder Age? You mean before Tribulation?”

One-Eye laughed. “Aye. If you like. Before that, Order reigned. The Æsir kept it, believe it or not, though there were no Seers among them in those days, and it was the Vanir, from the borders of Chaos-the Faërie, your folk’d call ’em-that were the keepers of the Fire.”

“The Fire?” said Maddy, thinking of her father’s smithy.

“Glam. Glám-sýni, they called it. Rune-caster’s glam. Shape-changer’s magic. The Vanir had it, and the children of Chaos. The Æsir only got it later.”

“How?” said Maddy.

“Trickery-and theft, of course. They stole it and remade the Worlds. And such was the power of the runes that even after the Winter War, the fire lay sleeping underground, as fire may sleep for weeks, months-years. And sometimes even now it rekindles itself-in a living creature, even a child-”

“Me?” said Maddy.

“Much joy may it bring you.” He turned away and, frowning, seemed once more absorbed in his book.

But Maddy had been listening with too much interest to allow One-Eye to stop now. Until then she had heard only fragments of tales-and the scrambled versions from the Book of Tribulation, in which the Seer-folk were mentioned only in warnings against their demonic powers or in an attempt to ridicule those long-dead impostors who called themselves gods.

“So-how do you know these stories?” she said.

The Outlander smiled. “You might say I’m a collector.”

Maddy’s heart beat faster at the thought of a man who might collect tales in the way another might collect penknives, or butterflies, or stones. “Tell me more,” she said eagerly. “Tell me about the Æsir.”

“I said a collector, not a storyteller.”

But Maddy was not to be put off. “What happened to them?” she said. “Did they all die? Did the Nameless hurl them into the Black Fortress, with the snakes and demons?”

“Is that what they say?”

“Nat Parson does.”

He made a sharp sound of contempt. “Some died, some vanished, some fell, some were lost. New gods emerged to suit a new age, and the old ones were forgotten. Maybe that proves they weren’t gods at all.”

“Then what were they?”

“They were the Æsir. What else do you need?”

Once again he turned away, but this time Maddy caught at him. “Tell me more.”

“There is no more,” One-Eye said. “There’s me. There’s you. And there’s our cousins under the Hill. The dregs, girlie, that’s what we are. The wine’s long gone.”

“Cousins,” said Maddy wistfully. “Then you and I must be cousins too.” It was a strangely attractive thought. That Maddy and One-Eye might both belong to the same secret tribe of traveling folk, both of them marked with Faërie fire…

“Oh, teach me how to use it,” she begged, holding out her palm. “I know I can do it. I want to learn-”

But One-Eye had lost patience at last. He snapped his book shut and stood up, shaking the grass stems from his cloak. “I’m no teacher, little girl. Go play with your friends and leave me alone.”

“I have no friends, Outlander,” she said. “Teach me.”

Now, One-Eye had no love for children. He looked down with no affection at all at the grubby little girl with the runemark on her hand and wondered how he could have let her draw him in. He was getting old-wasn’t that the truth?-old and sentimental, and it was likely to be the death of him-aye, as if the runes hadn’t already told him as much. His most recent casting of the runestones had given him Madr, the Folk, crossed with Thuris, the Thorny One, and finally Hagall, the Destroyer-

– and if that wasn’t a warning to keep moving on-

“Teach me,” said the little girl.

“Leave me alone.” He began to walk, long-legged, down the side of the Hill, with Maddy running after him.

“Teach me.”

“I won’t.”

“Teach me.”

“Get lost!”

“Teach me.”

“Ye gods!”

One-Eye made an exasperated sound and forked a runesign with his left hand. Maddy thought she saw something between his fingers-a fleck of blue fire, no more than a spark, as if a ring or gemstone he was wearing had caught the light. But One-Eye wore no rings or gems…

Without thinking, she raised her hand against the spark and pushed it back toward the Outlander with a sound like a firecracker going off.

One-Eye flinched. “Who taught you that?”

“No one did,” said Maddy in surprise. Her runemark felt unusually warm, once more changing color from rusty brown to tiger’s-eye gold.

For a minute or two One-Eye said nothing. He looked at his hand and flexed the fingers, now throbbing as if they had been burned. Then he looked at Maddy with renewed curiosity.

“Teach me,” she said.

There was a long pause. Then he said, “You’d better be good. I haven’t taken a pupil-let alone a girl-in more years than I care to remember.”

Maddy hid her grin beneath her tangled hair.

For the first time in her life, she had a teacher.

4

Over the next fortnight, Maddy listened to One-Eye’s teachings with a single-mindedness she had never shown before. Nat Parson had always made it clear that to be a bad-blood was a shameful thing, like being a cripple or a bastard. But here was this man telling her the exact opposite. She had skills, the Outlander told her, skills that were unique and valuable. She was an apt pupil, and One-Eye, who had come to the valley as a trader of medicines and salves and who rarely stayed anywhere for longer than a few days, this time extended his visit to almost a month as Maddy absorbed tales, maps, letters, cantrips, runes-every scrap of information her new friend gave her. It was the beginning of a long apprenticeship, and one that would change her world picture forever.

Now, Maddy’s folk believed in a universe of Nine Worlds.

Above them was the Firmament, the Sky City of Perfect Order.

Beneath them was the Fundament, or World Below, which led to the three lands of Death, Dream, and Damnation, which gave way to World Beyond, the Pan-daemonium, the home of all Chaos and all things profane.

And between them, so Maddy was taught, lay the Middle Worlds: Inland, Outland, and the One Sea, with Malbry and the valley of the Strond right at the center, like a bull’s-eye on a shooting target. From which you might have concluded that the folk of Malbry had no small opinion of themselves.

But now Maddy learned of a world beyond the map’s edge, a world of many parts and contradictions, a world in which Nat Parson or Adam Scattergood, for instance, might be driven to madness by as small a thing as a glimpse of ocean or an unfamiliar star.

In such a world, Maddy understood, one man’s religion might be another’s heresy, magic and science might overlap, houses might be built on rivers or underground or high in the air; even the Laws of the Order at World’s End, which she had always assumed were universal, might warp and bend to suit the customs of this new, expanded world.

Of course only a child or an idiot believed that World’s End actually was the end of the world. There were other lands, everyone knew that. Once there had even been trade with these lands-trade, and sometimes even war. But it was widely held that these Outlands had suffered so badly from Tribulation that their folk had long since fallen into savagery, and no one-no one civilized-went there anymore.

But, of course, One-Eye had. Beyond the One Sea, or so he said, there were men and women as brown as peat, with hair curled tight as bramble-crisp, and these people had never known Tribulation or read the Good Book, but instead worshiped gods of their own-wild brown gods with animal heads-and performed their own kind of magic, and all this was to them every bit as respectable and as everyday as Nat Parson’s Sunday sermons on the far side of the Middle World.

“Nat Parson says magic’s the devil’s work,” said Maddy.

“But I daresay he’d turn a blind eye if it suited him?”

Maddy nodded, hardly daring to smile.

“Understand, Maddy, that Good and Evil are not as firmly rooted as your churchman would have you believe. The Good Book preaches Order above all things; therefore Order is good. Glam works from Chaos; therefore magic is the devil’s work. But a tool is only as good or bad as the one working it. And what is good today may be evil again tomorrow.”

Maddy frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Listen,” said the Outlander. “Since the world began-and it has begun many times, and many times ended, and been remade-the laws of Order and Chaos have opposed each other, advancing and retreating in turn across the Nine Worlds, to contain or disrupt according to their nature. Good and Evil have nothing to do with it. Everything lives-and dies-according to the laws of Order and Chaos, the twin forces that even gods cannot hope to withstand.”

He looked at Maddy, who was still frowning. She was very young for this lesson, he thought, and yet it was essential that she should learn it now. Even next year might be too late-the Order was already spreading its wings, sending more and more Examiners out of World’s End…

He swallowed his impatience and started again. “Here’s a tale of the Æsir that will show you my drift. Their general was called Odin Allfather. You may have heard his name, I daresay.”

She nodded. “He of the spear and the eight-legged horse.”

“Aye. Well, he was among those who remade the world in the early days, at the dawn of the Elder Age. And he brought together all his warriors-Thor and Týr and the rest-to build a great stronghold to push back the Chaos that would have overwhelmed the new world before it was even completed. Its name was Asgard, the Sky Citadel, and it became the First World of those Elder Days.”

Maddy nodded. She knew the tale, though the Good Book claimed it was the Nameless that had built the Sky Citadel and that the Seer-folk had won it by trickery.

One-Eye went on. “But the enemy was strong, and many had skills that the Æsir did not possess. And so Odin took a risk. He sought out a son of Chaos and befriended him for the sake of his skills, and took him into Asgard as his brother. You’ll know of him, I guess. They called him the Trickster.”

Again Maddy nodded.

“Loki was his name, wildfire his nature. There are many tales about him. Some show him in an evil light. Some said that Odin was wrong to take him in. But-for a time, at least-Loki served the Æsir well. He was crooked, but he was useful; charm comes easily to the children of Chaos, and it was his charm and his cunning that kept him close at Odin’s side. And though in the end his nature grew too strong and he had to be subdued, it was partly because of Loki that the Æsir survived for as long as they did. Perhaps it was their fault for not keeping a closer watch on him. In any case, fire burns; that’s its nature, and you can’t expect to change that. You can use it to cook your meat or to burn down your neighbor’s house. And is the fire you use for cooking any different from the one you use for burning? And does that mean you should eat your supper raw?”

Maddy shook her head, still puzzled. “So what you’re saying is…I shouldn’t play with fire,” she said at last.

“Of course you should,” said One-Eye gently. “But don’t be surprised if the fire plays back.”

***

At last came the day of One-Eye’s departure. He spent most of it trying to convince Maddy that she could not go with him.

“You’re barely seven years old, for gods’ sakes. What would I do with you on the Roads?”

“I’d work,” said Maddy. “You know I can. I’m not afraid. I know lots of things.”

“Oh, aye? Three cantrips and a couple of runes? That’ll get you a long way in World’s-” He broke off suddenly and began to tug at one of the straps that bound his pack.

But Maddy was no simpleton. “World’s End?” she said, her eyes widening. “You’re going to World’s End?”

One-Eye said nothing.

“Oh, please let me come,” Maddy begged. “I’d help you, I’d carry your stuff, I’d not cause you any trouble-”

“No?” He laughed. “Last time I heard, kidnapping was still a crime.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. If she disappeared, there would be posses after them from Fettlefields to the Hindarfell and One-Eye put in the roundhouse or hanged…

“But you’ll forget me,” Maddy said. “I’ll never, ever see you again.”

One-Eye smiled. “I’ll be back next year.”

But Maddy would not look at him and stared at the ground and would not speak. One-Eye waited, wryly amused. Still Maddy did not look up, but there came a single small, fierce sniff from beneath the mat of hair.

“Maddy, listen,” he told her gently. “If you really want to help me, there’s a way you can. I need a pair of eyes and ears; I need that much more than I need company on the Roads.”

Maddy looked up. “Eyes and ears?”

One-Eye pointed at the Hill, where the dim outline of the Red Horse glowed like banked embers from its rounded flanks. “You go there a lot, don’t you?” he said.

She nodded.

“Do you know what it is?”

“A treasure mound?” suggested Maddy, thinking of the tales of gold under the Hill.

“Something far more important than that. It’s a crossroads into World Below, with roads leading down as far as Hel’s kingdom. Perhaps even as far as the river Dream, pouring its waters into the Strond-”

“So there’s no treasure?” said Maddy, disappointed.

“Treasure?” He laughed. “Aye, if you like. A treasure lost since the Elder Age. That’s why the goblins are here in such number. That’s why it carries such a charge. You can feel it, Maddy, can’t you?” he said. “It’s like living under a vulcano.”

“What’s a vulcano?”

“Never mind. Just watch it, Maddy. Just look out for anything strange. That Horse is only half asleep, and if it wakes up-”

“I wish I could wake it,” said Maddy. “Don’t you?”

One-Eye smiled and shook his head. It was a strange smile, at the same time cynical and rather sad. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I do. That’s not a road I’d care to tread, not for all of Otter’s Ransom. Though there may come a time when I have no choice.”

“But the treasure?” she said. “You could be rich-”

“Maddy,” he sighed. “I could be dead.”

“But surely-”

“There are far worse things than goblins down there, and treasures rarely sleep alone.”

“So?” she said. “I’m not afraid.”

“I daresay you’re not,” said One-Eye in a dry voice. “But listen, Maddy. You’re seven years old. The Hill-and whatever lies underneath it-has been waiting for a long time. I’m sure it can wait a little longer.”

“How much longer?”

One-Eye laughed.

“Next year?”

“We’ll see. Learn your lessons, watch the Hill, and look out for me by Harvestmonth.”

“Swear you’ll be back?”

“On Odin’s name.”

“And on yours?”

He nodded. “Aye, girl. That too.”

After that, the Outlander had returned to Malbry once a year-never before Beltane or later than Maddy’s birthday at the end of Harvestmonth-trading fabrics, salt, skins, sugar, salves, and news. His arrival was the high point of Maddy’s year; his departure, the beginning of a long darkness.

Every time he asked her the same question.

“What’s new in Malbry?”

And every time she gave him the same accounts of the goblins and their mischief-making: of larders raided, cellars emptied, sheep stolen, milk soured. And every time he said: “Nothing more?” and when Maddy assured him that was all, he seemed to relax, as if some great burden had been lifted temporarily from his shoulders.

And, of course, at each visit he taught her new skills.

First she learned to read and write. She learned poems and songs and foreign tongues; medicines and plant lore and kennings and stories. She learned histories and folktales and sayings and legends; she studied maps and rivers, mountains and valleys, stones and clouds, and charts of the sky.

Most importantly, she learned the runes. Their names, their values, their fingerings. How to carve them into fortune stones, to be scattered and read for a glimpse of the future, or bind them like stalks into a corn dolly; how to fashion them into an ash stick; how to whisper their verses into a cantrip, to skim them like jump stones, throw them like firecrackers, or cast their shadows with her fingers.

She learned to use Ár, to ensure a good harvest-

– and Týr, to make a hunting spear find its mark-

– and Logr, to find water underground.

By the time she was ten years old, she knew all sixteen runes of the Elder Script, various bastard runes from foreign parts, and several hundred assorted kennings and cantrips. She knew that One-Eye traveled under the sign of Raedo, the Journeyman-though his rune was reversed and therefore unlucky, which meant that he had undergone many trials and misfortunes along the way.

Maddy’s own runemark was neither broken nor reversed. But according to One-Eye, it was a bastard rune, not a rune of the Elder Script, which made it unpredictable. Bastard runes were tricky, he said. Some worked, but not well. Some worked not at all. And some tended to slip out of alignment, to tipple themselves in small, sly ways, to warp, like arrows that have been left in the rain and will rarely, if ever, hit straight.

Still, he said, to have any runemark at all was a gift. A rune of the Elder Script, unreversed and unbroken, would be too much for anyone to hope for. The gods had wielded such powers once. Now folk did what they could with what was left; that was all.

But bastard or not, Maddy’s runemark was strong. She quickly surpassed her old friend, for his glam was weak and soon exhausted. Her aim was as good as his, if not better. And she was a fast learner. She learned hug-rúnar, mindrunes, and rísta-rúnar, carven runes, and sig-rúnar, runes of victory. She learned runes that One-Eye himself could not work, new runes and bastard runes with no names and no verses, and still, he found, she wanted more.

So he told her tales from under the Hill and of the serpent that lives at Yggdrasil’s Root, eating away at the foundations of the world. He told her tales of standing stones, and of lost skerries, and of enchanted circles, of the Underworld and Netherworld and the lands of Dream and Chaos beyond. He told her tales of Half-Born Hel, and of Jormungand, the World Serpent, and of Surt the Destroyer, the Lord of Chaos, and of the Ice People and of the Tunnel Folk and of the Vanir and of Mimir the Wise.

But her favorite tales were those of the Æsir and the Vanir. She never tired of hearing these, and in the long, lonely months between One-Eye’s visits, the heroes of those stories became Maddy’s friends. Thor the Thunderer with his magic hammer; Idun the Healer and her apples of youth; Odin, the Allfather; Balder the Fair; Týr the Warrior; falcon-cloaked Freyja; Heimdall Hawk-Eye; Skadi the Huntress; Njörd the Man of the Sea; and Loki the Trickster, who on different occasions had brought about both the deliverance and the dissolution of the old gods. She applauded their victories, wept for their defeat, and, unnatural though it might be, felt more kinship with those long-vanished Seer-folk than she had ever felt for Jed Smith or Mae. And as the years passed, she longed ever more for the company of her own kind.

“There must be more of us somewhere,” she said. “People like us, Fieries”-family, she thought-“if only we could find them, then maybe, perhaps…”

In that, however, she was disappointed. In seven years she had never so much as glimpsed another of their kind. There were goblins, of course, and the occasional cat or rabbit born with a ruinmark and quickly dispatched.

But as for people like themselves…They were rare, he told her when she asked, and most of them had no real powers to speak of anyway. A glimmer, if they were lucky. Enough to earn them a dangerous living.

And if they were unlucky? In World’s End, where Order had reigned for a hundred years, a runemark, even a broken one, usually led to an arrest-and after that an Examination, and then, more often than not, a hanging (or Cleansing, as they preferred to call them in those parts).

Best not to think of it, One-Eye said, and reluctantly Maddy took his advice, learning her lessons, retelling her tales, waiting patiently for his yearly visits, and trying hard not to dream of what could never be.

This year, for the first time, he was late. Maddy’s fourteenth birthday was two weeks gone, the Harvest Moon had worn to a sliver, and she had begun to feel anxious that perhaps this time her old friend would not make it back.

The previous year she had seen changes in One-Eye: a new restlessness, a new impatience. He had grown leaner over that past twelvemonth, drank more than was good for him, and for the first time she’d seen that his dark gray hair was touched with white. His yearly journeys to World’s End were taking their toll, and after seven such reckless pilgrimages, who knew when the net might fall?

The runes had given her little by way of reassurance.

Maddy had her own set of fortune stones, made from river pebbles from the Strond, each painted with a different rune. Casting them upon the ground and studying the patterns into which they fell, she discovered, was sometimes a means of divining the future-though One-Eye had warned her that runes are not always simple to read or futures always set in stone.

Even so, a combination of Raedo, the Journeyman-

– with Thuris, Thor’s rune, and Naudr, the Binder, had filled her with misgivings.

One-Eye’s runemark. A thorny path? And the third rune-the Binder, the rune of constraint. Was he a prisoner somewhere? Or could that final rune be Death?

And so when Mrs. Scattergood had said he was there-there at last, nearly two weeks late-a great relief and a greater joy had swept her up, and now she ran toward Red Horse Hill, where she knew he would be waiting for her as he always waited for her, every year-as she hoped he would every year, forever.

5

But Maddy had reckoned without Adam Scattergood. The landlady’s son rarely troubled her when she was working-it was dark in the cellar, and the thought of what she might be doing there unsettled him-but he sometimes lurked around the tap, awaiting an opportunity to comment or to jeer. He had pricked up his ears at the commotion in the kitchen-wisely keeping his distance from any danger of work to be done-but when he saw Maddy leaving through the kitchen door, his eyes gleamed and he determined to investigate.

Adam was two years older than Maddy, somewhat taller, with limp brown hair and a discontented mouth. Bored, sulky, and doted upon by his mother, already a parson’s prentice and a favorite of the bishop, he was half feared and half envied by the other children, and he was always causing mischief. Maddy thought he was worse than the goblins, because at least the goblins were funny as well as being annoying, whereas Adam’s tricks were only ugly and stupid.

He tied firecrackers to dogs’ tails, swung on new saplings to make them break, taunted beggars, stole washing from clotheslines and trampled it in the mud-although he was careful to ensure that someone else always got the blame. In short, Adam was a sneak and a spoiler, and seeing Maddy heading for the Hill, he wondered what business she might have there and made up his mind to spoil that too.

Keeping hidden, he followed her, staying low to the bushes that lined the path until they reached the lower slopes of the Hill, where he crept quietly up on the blind side and was in a moment lost to sight.

Maddy did not see or hear him. She ran up the Hill, almost stumbling in her impatience, until she caught sight of the familiar tall figure sitting among the fallen stones beneath the flank of the Red Horse.

“One-Eye!” she called.

He was just as she had seen him last, with his back to the stone, his pipe in his mouth, his pack on the grass beside him. As always, he greeted Maddy with a casual nod, as if he had been away for an afternoon and not a twelvemonth.

“So. What’s new in Malbry?” he said.

Maddy looked at him in some indignation. “Is that all you have to say? You’re two weeks late, I’ve been worried sick, and all you can say is What’s new in Malbry? as if anything important was ever going to happen here…”

One-Eye shrugged. “I was delayed.”

“Delayed? How?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Maddy gave a reluctant grin. “You and your news. I suppose it never occurs to you that I might worry. I mean, it’s only World’s End you’re coming from-and you never bring me news from there. Doesn’t anything ever happen in World’s End?”

One-Eye nodded. “World’s End is an eventful place.”

“And yet here you are again.”

“Aye.”

Maddy sighed and sat down next to him on the sweet grass. “Well, the big news here is…I’m out of a job.” And, smiling as she remembered Mrs. Scattergood’s face, she told the tale of that morning’s work, of the sleeping goblin trapped in the cellar and how in her clumsy haste she had summoned half of World Below in trying to capture him.

One-Eye listened to the tale in silence.

“And, Laws, you should have heard the noise she made! I could hear it all the way from Little Bear Wood-honestly, I thought she was going to burst-”

Laughing, she turned to One-Eye and found him watching her with no amusement at all, but with a rather grim expression. “What exactly did you do?” he said. “This is important, Maddy. Tell me everything you remember.”

Maddy stopped laughing and set herself to the task of recalling precisely what had happened in the cellar. She repeated her conversation with the goblin (at mention of the goblins’ captain she thought One-Eye stiffened but could not be sure), went over every rune she had used, then tried to explain what had happened next.

“Well-first of all I cast Thuris,” she said. “And then I just…pointed at the hole and sort of…shouted at it-”

“What did you say?” asked One-Eye quickly.

But Maddy was feeling anxious by now. “What’s wrong?” she said. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Just tell me, Maddy. What did you say?”

“Well, nothing, that was it. Just noise. Not even a cantrip. It happened so fast-I can’t remember-” She broke off, alarmed. “What’s wrong?” she repeated. “What did I do?”

“Nothing,” he said in a heavy voice. “I knew it was only a matter of time.”

“What was?” she said.

But now the Outlander was silent, looking out at the Horse with its mane of long grass illuminated in the morning sun. Finally he began to speak. “Maddy,” he said, “you’re growing up.”

“I suppose so.” Maddy frowned. She hoped this wasn’t going to turn out to be a lecture, like the ones she sometimes got from well-meaning ladies of the village about growing into womanhood.

One-Eye went on. “Most especially, your powers have grown. You were strong to begin with, but now your skills are coming to life. Of course, you’re not in control of them yet, but that’s to be expected. You’ll learn.”

It was a lecture, Maddy thought. Perhaps not quite as embarrassing as the womanhood talk, but-

One-Eye continued. “Glam, as you know, may lie sleeping for years. Just as this Hill has lain sleeping for years. I’ve always suspected that when one awoke, the other would not be far behind.”

He stopped to fill his pipe, and his fingers shook a little as he pressed the smoke weed into the bowl. A string of geese passed overhead, V-shaped, toward the Hindarfell. Maddy watched them and felt a sudden chill against her skin. Summer was gone, and falltime would soon give way to winter. For some reason, the thought almost brought tears to her eyes.

“This Hill of yours,” said One-Eye at last. “For a long time it lay so quiet that I thought perhaps I’d misread the signs and that it was-as I’d first suspected-just another nicely made barrow from the Elder Days. There have been so many other hills, you see-and springs, and stone circles, and menhirs and caves and wells-that showed the same signs and came to nothing in the end. But when I found you-and with that runemark-” He broke off abruptly and signaled her to listen. “Did you hear that?”

Maddy shook her head.

“I thought I heard-” Something like bees, One-Eye thought. A hive of bees trapped underground. Something bursting to escape…

Briefly Maddy considered asking him what he meant by with that runemark. But it was the first time she had ever seen her old friend so nervous and so ill at ease, and she knew it was best to give him time.

He looked out again over Red Horse Hill and at the rampant Horse in the morning sun. Such a beautiful thing, the Outlander thought. Such a beautiful thing to be so deadly.

“Beats me how any of you can live in Malbry,” he said, “with what’s hidden under here.”

“D’you mean-the treasure?” breathed Maddy, who had never quite given up on the tales of buried gold under the Hill.

One-Eye gave his wistful smile.

“So it’s really there?”

“It’s there,” he said. “It’s been buried there for five hundred years, awaiting its chance to escape. Without you I might have turned my back on it and never thought of it again. But with you, I thought I might have a chance. And you were so young, so very young. With time, who knew what skills you might develop? Who knew, with that rune, what you might one day become?”

Maddy listened, eyes wide.

“And so,” he said, “I tutored you. I taught you everything I knew and kept a careful watch on you, knowing that the stronger you became, the more likely it was that you might accidentally disturb what lay sleeping under the Hill.”

“Do you mean the goblins?” said Maddy.

Slowly One-Eye shook his head. “The goblins-and their captain-have known about you since the day you were born. But until now they had no reason to fear your skills. Count on this morning’s escapade to change all that.”

“What do you mean?” said Maddy anxiously.

“I mean that captain of theirs is no fool, and if he suspects we’re after the-treasure-”

“You mean the goblins might find the gold?”

One-Eye made an impatient noise. “Gold?” he said. “That old wives’ tale?”

“But you said there was treasure under the Hill.”

“Aye,” he said, “and so there is. A treasure of the Elder Age. But no gold, Maddy; not an ingot, not a nugget, not even a nickel penny.”

“Then what sort of treasure is it?” she said.

He paused. “They call it the Whisperer.”

“And what is it?” Maddy said.

“I can’t tell you that. Later, perhaps, when we have it safe.”

“But you know what it is, don’t you?”

One-Eye kept his calm with some difficulty. “Maddy,” he said, “this isn’t the time. This-treasure-may turn out to be as dangerous as it is valuable. Even speaking of it has its risks. And in many ways it might be safer for it to have stayed sleeping and forgotten.” He lit his pipe, using the fire rune Kaen and a clever little flick of the fingers. “But now it’s awake, for good or ill, and the greater danger would be if someone else were to find it-to find it and put it to use.”

“What kind of someone?” Maddy said.

He looked at her. “Our kind, of course.”

Now Maddy’s heart was beating faster than one of her father’s hammers. “Our kind?” she said. “There are others like me? You know them?”

He nodded.

“How many?” she said.

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me,” said Maddy fiercely. There were others, and One-Eye had never mentioned them. Who were they? Where were they? And if he’d known of their existence all this time, then-

“Maddy,” he said, “I know it’s hard. But you have to trust me. You have to believe me when I tell you that whatever I may have hidden from you, however I may have misled you at times-”

“You lied to me,” Maddy said.

“I lied to you to keep you safe,” One-Eye told her patiently. “Wolves of different packs do not hunt together. And sometimes they even hunt each other.”

She turned to him, her eyes burning. “Why?” she demanded. “What is the Whisperer? Why is it so important to you? And how do you know so much about it, anyway?”

“Patience,” said One-Eye. “The Whisperer first. Afterward I promise I’ll answer all your questions. But now-please-we have work to do. The Hill has not been opened for hundreds of years. There will be defenses to keep us out. Runes to find. Workings to break. Here…you’ll need this.” He pulled a familiar object out of his pack and handed it to Maddy.

“What’s this?” said Maddy.

“It’s a shovel,” he said. “Because magic, like leadership, is one-tenth genius and nine-tenths spadework. You’ll need to clear the outline of the Horse to a depth of maybe four or five inches. It may take some time.”

Maddy gave him a suspicious look. “I notice there’s only one shovel,” she said.

“Genius doesn’t need a shovel,” said One-Eye in a dry voice, and sat down on the grass to finish his pipe.

It was a long, laborious task. The Horse measured two hundred feet from nose to tail, and centuries of weather, abuse, and neglect had taken their toll on some of the finer work. But the clay of the Hill was dense and hard, and the shape of the Horse had been made to last, with wards and runemarks embedded at intervals to ensure that the outline would not be lost. There would be nine of them, One-Eye guessed, one for each of the Nine Worlds, and they would need to find all of them before they were able to gain entry.

It was One-Eye who discovered the first, scratched on a river stone and buried beneath the Horse’s tail.

“Madr, the Middle World. The Folk. A good start,” he said, touching the rune to make it shine. He whispered a cantrip-

Madr er moldar auki

– and at once, a place at the Horse’s head lit up with a corresponding gleam, and almost at once under the turf, Maddy found the rune ýr.

ýr. World Below. The Fundament. Things will move faster now.”

They did: ýr lit the way to Raedo, the Outlands, tucked underneath the Horse’s belly, then Logr-the One Sea -in the Horse’s mouth-

– then, for each of its legs, Bjarkán, for the world of Dream, Naudr, for the Underworld-

– Hagall, for Netherworld, and Kaen, for Chaos or World Beyond-

– and finally, right in the middle of the Eye itself, the rune of the Sky Citadel-

– Ós, the Æsir, brightest of all, like the central star in the constellation of Thiazi, the Hunter, which hangs over the Seven Sleepers on clear winter nights.

Ós. The Æsir. The Firmament. Maddy looked at the rune in silence. This was the moment of which she had dreamed, and yet now that she was so close, she felt a curious reluctance to proceed. It angered her a little, and yet she was conscious of a tiny part of her that wanted above all to step away from the threshold and walk back to Malbry and the safety of its familiar cleft.

One-Eye must have sensed it; he gave a little smile and put his hand on Maddy’s shoulder. “Not afraid, are you, girl?”

“No. Are you?”

“A little,” he said. “It’s been so long…” He took out his pipe, relit it, and drew in a mouthful of sweet smoke. “Foul habit,” he said. “Picked it up from the Tunnel People on one of my trips. Master smiths, you know, but terrible hygiene. I think the smoke helps them disguise the smell.”

Maddy touched the final rune. It flared opal colors like the winter sun. She spoke the cantrip:

Ós byth ordfruma…

The Hill opened with a sliding crash, and where the Eye had been there was now a narrow, raw-sided tunnel sliding downward into the earth.

6

Five hundred years ago, around the dawn of the New Age, there had been few strongholds more secure than the castle on Red Horse Hill. Built on a steep mound overlooking the valley, it commanded the entire plain, and its cannon were forever pointed at the Hindarfell pass, which was the only possible place along the Seven Sleepers ridge from which an enemy could attack.

In fact, it was a mystery to the people of Malbry how the castle had fallen at all, unless it was by plague or treachery, because from the broken stone circle, you could see all the way to Fettlefields to the north and, to the south, to Forge’s Post, at the foot of the mountains.

The road was wide open, barely shielded by gorse and sparse scrubland, and the sides of the Hill itself were too steep for men in armor to climb.

But Adam Scattergood wore no armor, the cannon had long since been melted down, and it had been fully five hundred years since a lookout had stood on Red Horse Hill. As a result, he had managed to climb the Hill unseen, and, crawling through the rabbit-tail grass to the lee of the Horse, he hid behind a fallen stone to listen to what the witch girl and the one-eyed scallyman were saying.

Adam had never trusted Maddy. Imaginative people made him nervous, and the world they inhabited-a strange, dark world where Adam Scattergood was neither noticed nor wanted-made him feel very uneasy indeed. But what he wouldn’t admit to himself was that Maddy frightened him. That would have been too ridiculous. She was a bad-blood, wasn’t she? No one would ever want her, not with that ruinmark on her hand. She would never amount to anything.

Adam Scattergood (Laws be praised) was a handsome boy with a brilliant future. He was already a parson’s prentice; with luck (and with his mother’s savings) he might even be sent to World’s End to study in the Universal City. In short, he was one of Malbry’s finest-and yet here he was, spying on the girl and her Outlander friend, like a sneak without any friends of his own. It annoyed him to think this, and he crept a little closer to the base of the stone, straining his ears for something secret, something important, something with which he could taunt her later.

When he heard the part about the treasure under the Hill, he grinned. There was a rich vein of mockery in that. Goblin Girl, he’d say. Found any gold yet? Buy yourself a new dress, Goblin Girl? Get yourself a Faërie ring?

The thought was so appealing that he almost left his hiding place there and then, but he was alone, and suddenly the girl and the Outlander didn’t seem as funny as when Adam was with his friends. In fact, they looked almost dangerous, and Adam felt glad he was safely out of sight behind the big stone.

When he heard about the Whisperer, he was doubly glad he’d hidden away. Adam wanted nothing to do with any relic of the Elder Age, however valuable-in any case, it was probably cursed or possessed by a demon. And when it came to opening the Hill, Adam could have hugged himself with glee, for although he had a lively terror of anything uncanny, it was clear that this time, Maddy and her one-eyed friend had overstepped the mark.

Opening the Hill to World Below! Nat Parson would have strong words to say about that. Even Matt Law, who had no love for the parson, would have to admit that this time Maddy had gone too far. There could be no ignoring such a blatant violation of laws laid down in the Good Book.

This could mean the end of the witch girl once and for all. The people of Malbry had long tolerated her peculiarities for her father’s sake, but such conjuring was a serious crime, and the moment Nat Parson found out (as Adam fully intended that he should), Maddy might be Examined, or even Cleansed.

Adam had never seen an actual Cleansing. Such things didn’t happen much outside World’s End-but civilization was marching on, as the parson was wont to say, and it could only be a matter of time before the Order established an outpost within reach of Malbry. It couldn’t happen too early for Adam. An end to magic; the Hill dug out, its demons burned, and Order restored to the valley of the Strond…

But as time passed and nothing happened, Adam grew sleepy behind his rock. He began to doze, and when at last Maddy drew open the Horse’s Eye, he was jolted awake with a gasp of astonishment. One-Eye looked up, his fingers crooked, and Adam was suddenly sure the Outlander could see right through the ancient granite of the fallen stone to where he was hiding.

A great terror gripped him, and he flattened himself even more closely to the ground, half expecting to hear heavy footsteps coming toward him across the Hill.

Nothing happened.

Adam relaxed a little, and as the seconds passed, his natural arrogance began to return. Of course he hadn’t been seen. It was just this place, he told himself-this Hill, with its ghosts and noises-that had unnerved him. He wasn’t afraid of a one-eyed scally. And he certainly wasn’t afraid of a little girl.

What was she doing, anyway? Maddy seemed to be lifting her hand; from his position, Adam could just see her shadow on the grass. He couldn’t have guessed she was using Bjarkán-but now she too could see the boy hunched against the fallen stone, his face a blur of fear and malice.

Maddy needed no workings to know what her enemy was doing there. In that second she understood it all. She saw in his colors how he had followed her, how he had spied on her and One-Eye, and how he meant to run back to the village with his stolen knowledge and spoil everything, as he always spoiled everything.

And now her rage at last found an outlet. Quite without thinking, and with her bastard runemark glowing hot on her palm, she hurled her anger and her voice, like the stones Adam had so often thrown at her, toward the crouching boy.

It was instinctive. Her cry rang out across the Hill, and at precisely the same time there was a flash of light and a deafening crack! as the standing stone split into two pieces and granite shavings spackled across the brow of the Hill.

Adam Scattergood was left crouching between the two halves of the broken rock, his face the color of fresh cheese and a wet stain spreading over the crotch of his fine serge trousers.

Helplessly, Maddy started to laugh. She couldn’t help it. The attack had left her almost as terrified as Adam himself, but still the laughter came and would not stop, and the boy stared at her, first in fear, then in awe, and finally (as soon as he realized that he was unhurt) in black and bitter hatred.

“You’ll be s-sorry, witch,” he stammered, climbing shakily to his feet. “I’ll tell them what you’re planning. I’ll tell them you tried to murder me.”

But Maddy was still laughing, out of control. Tears ran from her eyes, her stomach hurt, and even so, the laughter felt so good that she couldn’t stop, could hardly breathe. She laughed until she almost choked, and Adam’s face grew darker still as, breaking away from the circle of stones, he fled back down Red Horse Hill toward the Malbry road. Neither Maddy nor One-Eye tried to stop him.

Now Maddy went up to the broken stone. The laughter had fled as fast as it had erupted, and she was left feeling drained and a little sick. The granite had stood three feet high and almost as broad; nevertheless, it had been split clean in two. She touched the break: it was rough and raw-edged, and inside it, here and there, nuggets of mica shone.

“So, you can throw mindbolts,” said One-Eye, who had followed her. “Well done, Maddy. With practice, that may be a useful skill.”

“I didn’t throw anything,” said Maddy numbly. “I just threw…my voice. But it wasn’t a rune; it was just nonsense, just random shouting, like today in the cellar.”

One-Eye smiled. “Sense,” he said, “is a concept of Order. The language of Chaos is nonsense by definition.”

“The language of Chaos?” said Maddy. “But I don’t know it. I’ve never heard of it-”

“Yes, you do,” said One-Eye. “It’s in your blood.”

Maddy looked out across the Hill, where the distant figure of Adam Scattergood was getting smaller and smaller along the Malbry road, occasionally giving vent to a shrill scream of rage as he ran.

“I could have killed him,” she said, beginning to shake.

“Another time, perhaps.”

“Don’t you understand? I could have killed him!”

One-Eye seemed unmoved. “Well, isn’t that what you wanted to do?”

“No!”

He smiled but said nothing.

“I mean it, One-Eye. It just happened.”

One-Eye shrugged and relit his pipe. “My dear girl, things like that don’t just happen.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh yes, you do.”

And she did, Maddy realized-she was not the daughter of a smith for nothing. The thing she had thrown at Adam-the mindbolt-had not sprung out of thin air; it had been forged. It had been heavy, like a crossbow quarrel, and she had cast it at Adam with the strength-and intent-of years of pent-up anger.

Once again she felt a moment of dread as she imagined what might have happened if the stone had not taken the impact. And with that fear came the even more terrible knowledge that she could (and would) do it again.

One-Eye must have read her thoughts. “Remember what I taught you?” he said gently. “Fire burns; that’s its nature. Use it or not, but remember this: a mindbolt isn’t a blunderbuss. It won’t go off on its own.” He smiled. “As for the boy-no harm was done. It’s a pity he heard us, of course. It gives us less time. But it changes nothing.”

“Wait a minute,” said Maddy, looking into the open tunnel. “You don’t think we should go in right now, do you? After what happened?”

“After what happened,” said One-Eye, “what choice do we have?”

Maddy thought about that for a time. By now Adam would have made his report-unless he’d stopped to change his trousers-no doubt embellishing it with as many tales of demons as his limited imagination could invent.

Jed Smith would have to be told, and Matt Law, and the bishop, not forgetting Nat Parson, who had been waiting for such a crisis since his legendary pilgrimage to World’s End, and who would be delighted to have such an important violation to deal with. And whatever else happened, the incident would go down in the Malbry ledger alongside the most important events of the village’s history, and Adam Scattergood would be remembered until long after his bones were dust.

The sun was high in the sky now, and the valley was green and gold in its pale light. A little smoke rose over the rooftops, and the scent of burning stubble reached Maddy from afar, filling her eyes with sudden tears. She thought of the smithy and of the tiny house abutting it, of the smell of hot metal and smoke, of the ring of marigolds around the front door.

This was her world, she thought, and until this moment, when she was close to leaving it, she had never realized how much it meant to her. If she fled now, she tacitly admitted her guilt, and things could never go back to what they had been before.

“Is it worth it, One-Eye?” she said. “This Whisperer, whatever it is?”

One-Eye nodded. “It’s worth it,” he said.

“More than gold?” said Maddy.

“Much more than gold.”

Once more Maddy looked out across the valley. She could stay and argue her case, of course. She would at least get a fair hearing. There hadn’t been a hanging in the valley since Black Nell, a saddleback sow with a ruinmark on her back, had eaten her piglets ten years ago. But One-Eye was an Outlander-one of a tribe of beggars and bandits-and his trial was likely to be short and harsh. She had no choice-and besides, with the Hill standing open at her feet and the promise of hidden treasure below, how could she turn away?

The passage was rough-edged and narrow, sloping down into the side of the Hill. She stepped inside, stooping a little, and gingerly tested the earth ceiling. To her relief it was dry and firm; from the depths of the tunnel came a cellar scent. Maddy took another step, but One-Eye stayed where he was, watching her, and made no move to follow.

“Well?” said Maddy. “Are you coming, or what?”

For a moment One-Eye said nothing. Then he slowly shook his head. “I can’t go in there, Maddy,” he said. “He’d recognize me the moment I set foot in World Below. And he’d know at once why I was there.”

“Who would?” said Maddy.

“I wish I could tell you,” he said. “But time is short, and there’s none to spare for a long tale. The treasure you seek-the Whisperer-is no ordinary piece of loot. It may be disguised as a block of glass, a lump of iron ore-even a rock. It’s in its nature to hide, but you’ll know it by its colors, which it can’t disguise. Look for it in a well or a fountain. It may be buried very deep. But if you call it, it will come to you.”

Maddy looked once again into the passageway-it was dark in there, dark as a tomb, and she remembered One-Eye telling her that there were roads beneath the Hill that led all the way to Death, Dream, and beyond…

She shivered and turned to him again. “So-how do we know it’s still there? What if someone’s taken it?”

“They haven’t,” said One-Eye. “I would have known.”

“But you said there were others. And now-”

“Truth is, Maddy,” he interrupted, “I’m not sure if he’s there at all, or what he means to do if he is. But if I come with you and he’s waiting down there with whatever glam he’s managed to hang on to-”

“Who is he?” said Maddy again.

One-Eye gave a twisted smile. “A…friend,” he said. “From long ago. One who turned traitor in the Winter War. I thought he was dead, and maybe he is, but his kind have nine lives, and he always was lucky.”

Maddy started to speak, but he cut her off. “Listen, Maddy. He’s waiting for me. He won’t suspect you. He may not even notice you. And you can find the Whisperer and bring it to me before he sees what’s happening. Will you do it?”

Once again Maddy looked into the Horse’s Eye. It yawned darkly at her feet, as if the Horse were coming awake after centuries of sleeping.

“What about you?” she said at last.

The Outlander smiled, but his good eye gleamed. “I may be old, Maddy, but I think I can still handle a rabble of villagers.”

And perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it seemed to Maddy that her friend had grown taller somehow and looked younger, stronger, his colors brighter and more powerful, as if years had been shorn from him-years, she thought, or maybe more. For Maddy knew that the Winter War had come to its end over five centuries ago; demon wolves had swallowed the sun and moon, and the Strond had swollen to the flanks of the mountains, leveling everything in its path.

Nat Parson called it Tribulation and preached of how the Ancient of Days had tired of mankind’s evil and sent fire and ice to cleanse the world.

One-Eye called it Ragnarók.

“Who are you?” she said.

“Does it matter?” said One-Eye.

He must have seen his answer in Maddy’s face, because he nodded and some of the tension went out of him. “Good,” he said. “Now run and find the Whisperer-or let it find you if it can. Stay hidden, and stay alert. Trust no one, whoever they may appear to be, and above all, say nothing-to anyone-of me.”

“Wait!” said Maddy as he turned away.

“I’ve waited enough,” said the Outlander, and without a glance or a farewell gesture he began to walk back down Red Horse Hill.

Book Two. World Below

*

1

The passage was not even, but dipped down at irregular intervals, sometimes crossing water, sometimes narrowing to a cleft through which Maddy had to squeeze to pass through. By inverting the runes, she had closed the mouth of the tunnel behind her, and now the rune Bjarkán at her fingertips was her only means of penetrating the darkness.

After some minutes, however, she found that the passageway had broadened a little and that its earth walls had begun to give way to a hard, almost glassy surface. It was rock, Maddy realized as she moved deeper into the hillside; some kind of dark and shiny mineral, its surface occasionally broken by a crystalline outcrop that shone like a cluster of needles.

After half an hour the floor too had mostly changed to the same glassy rock, and sheets of phosphorescence powdered the walls, so that the way was softly illuminated.

And there were color-signatures everywhere, like skeins of spiderweb, too many to count or to identify. Many of these showed the remnants of magic-cantrips and glamours and workings and runes-as easy to see as wagon tracks on a muddy road.

She cast ýr, the Protector, to keep herself hidden, but even so she was sure that among so many workings she must have set off a few alarms. Uncomfortably she considered what kind of spider might live in such an intricate web, and her mind returned to One-Eye, and to the person-friend or enemy-he feared, who might be lying in wait at the heart of the Hill.

What was she looking for? she wondered. And what did One-Eye know of any treasure of the Elder Age?

Well, she told herself, there was only one way to find out, and the simple fact of being under the Hill was thrilling enough-for the moment, at least. She wondered how far downward the passage led, but even as she did so, she felt the ground drop abruptly at her feet, and without further warning the narrow walls at either side of her opened to reveal a huge underground canyon, broadening out far beyond Maddy’s field of vision into a labyrinth of tunnels and a vastness of caverns and halls.

For a long time Maddy could do nothing but watch and wonder. The passage had come to a sharp stairway cut into the rock face; this led downward into a vast gallery, occasionally intersecting with other walkways and cavern entrances set at intervals down the canyon walls, with what seemed to be suspended catwalks, illuminated by torches or hanging lanterns, on the distant far side.

Maddy had expected a single cave, maybe even a single passage. Instead there were hundreds-no, thousands-of caves and passages. From the bottom of the canyon came a sound of water, and although it was too dark-in spite of the lanterns-to see the river itself, Maddy guessed it to be broad and fast-moving; its voice was like that of a wolf with a throatful of rocks.

Here too there were spells and signatures, there were green fingers of phosphorescence, nuggets of mica studded the walls, and wherever there was a trickle of water against the rock, musky flowers cast their tendrils: the pale, sad lilies of World Below.

“Gods,” said Maddy. “Where do I start?”

Well, to begin with, more light. Raising her hand, she cast Sól-the sun-so that her fingertips blazed and the tiny crystals embedded in the steps and walls flared with sudden brilliance.

It was not nearly enough to light the vastness ahead, but even so, she felt a little better, if only because there was less chance of her falling down the stairway. At the same time, she thought she caught sight of something at her elbow, something that shrank quickly into the shadows as her light shone out, and, almost without thinking, she cast Naudr like a net and pulled it in with a flick of her fingers.

“You again!” she exclaimed when she saw what she had caught.

The goblin spat but could not escape.

“Stop that!” said Maddy, drawing the rune a little tighter.

The goblin pulled a face but kept still.

“That’s better,” said Maddy. “Now, Smá-rakki”-the goblin made a pff! sound-“I want you to stay right here with me. No slinking off this time, do you understand?”

“Pff!” said the goblin again. “All this fuss for a nip of ale.” All the same, he did not move but glared at Maddy with his amber eyes, lips drawn back over his pointed teeth.

“Why were you following me?”

The goblin shrugged. “Curiosity, kennet?”

Maddy laughed. “Plus, I know your name.”

The goblin said nothing, but his eyes gleamed.

“A named thing is a tamed thing. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Still the goblin said nothing.

Maddy smiled at the unexpected piece of luck. She was not sure how long her control over him would last, but if she could have an ally-however reluctant-in World Below, then maybe her task would be a simpler one. “Now listen to me, Smá-rakki-”

“They call me Sugar,” said the goblin sullenly.

“What?”

“Sugar. You deaf? Short for Sugar-and-Sack. Well? You don’t think any of us go round tellin’ folk our real names, do you?”

“Sugar-and-Sack?” repeated Maddy.

Sugar scowled. “Gødfolk names are like that,” he said. “Sugar-and-Sack, Peck-in-the-Crown, Pickle-Nearest-the-Wind. I don’t go round laughin’ at your name, do I?”

“Sorry. Sugar,” said Maddy, trying to keep a straight face.

“Right. No harm done,” said Sugar with dignity. “Now, what exactly can I do you for?”

Maddy leaned closer. “I need a guide.”

“You need yer bleedin’ head seein’ to,” said the goblin. “The minute the Captain learns you’re here-”

“Then you’ll have to make sure he doesn’t,” she said. “Now, I can’t possibly find my way around this place on my own-”

“Look,” said the goblin, “if it’s the ale you’re after, then I can get it back, no trouble-”

“It isn’t the ale,” said Maddy.

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re going to help me find it.”

It took some minutes to convince Sugar that he had no choice. But goblins are simple creatures, and he was not blind to the fact that the sooner Maddy had what she wanted, the sooner she would be out of his way.

However, he was clearly very much in awe of the individual he called the Captain, and Maddy soon realized that it would be best if she did not confront her new ally with too great a conflict of loyalties.

“So who is he, this captain of yours?”

The goblin sniffed and looked away.

“Oh, come on, Sugar. He must have a name.”

“Course he has.”

“Well?”

The goblin shrugged expressively. It was a shrug that began at the tips of his furry ears and went all the way down to his clawed feet, making every link of his chain mail shiver.

“Call him Sky Trekker, if you like, or Wildfire, or Crookmouth, or Hawk-Eye, or Dogstar. Call him Airy, call him Wary-”

“Not his nicknames, Sugar. His real name.”

The goblin made a face. “You think he’d tell me?”

For a while Maddy thought hard. One-Eye had warned her that he might not be the only one with interests under the Hill, and the webwork of glamours she had encountered on her way in confirmed his suspicions. But the goblins’ captain-most likely a goblin himself, or maybe a big cave-troll-could he be the one of which her friend had spoken? It seemed unlikely-no goblin had woven those spells.

Still, she thought, it was worth finding out more about this captain person and any threat he might represent. But Sugar was annoyingly vague; his attention span was catlike at the best of times, and as soon as the conversation turned to details of where, why, and how, he simply lost interest.

“So, what’s your captain like?” she said.

Sugar frowned and scratched his head. “I think the word is volatile,” he said at last. “Yeh, that’s the word I’m lookin’ for. Volatile and narsty. Tricky too.”

“I meant, what does he look like?” persisted Maddy.

“Just pray you don’t see him,” said Sugar darkly.

“Great,” said Maddy.

In silence, they moved on.

2

According to legend, the world beneath the Middle World is divided into three levels, linked by one great river. World Below is the realm of the Mountain People, the goblins, trolls, and dwarves. Beneath that is Hel’s kingdom, traditionally given over to the dead, then Dream, one of the three great tributaries of the Cauldron of Rivers, and lastly, at the very door of Chaos, Netherworld, known to some as the Black Fortress, where Surt the Destroyer guards the gate and the gods themselves have no dominion.

Maddy already knew this, of course. One-Eye’s teachings had been thorough on all matters concerning the geography of the Nine Worlds. But what she had not suspected was the monstrous scale of World Below: the countless passageways, tunnels, alcoves, and lairs that made up the underside of the Hill. There were rifts and fissures and crannies and nooks; and dugouts and dens; and side passages, storerooms, walkways, and potholes, burrows and warrens and larders and pits. And after what seemed like hours of searching through these, Maddy’s excitement at actually being in the fabled halls was starting to fade visibly as she began to understand that, even with Sugar’s reluctant help, she was unlikely to be able to cover even the hundredth part of them.

They found goblins only on the top level of the great gallery. Cat-faced, golden-eyed, squirrel-tailed, all dressed in mail and rags and leather, they paid little attention to Maddy or to her companion.

They were not the only inhabitants of that level. As she hurried along the crowded passageways, Maddy passed dozens of other creatures, all as busy and incurious as the goblins themselves: Tunnel People, colored like the clay of their native earth, with great jaws and tiny, lashless eyes; Mountain People; Sky People; Wood People; even a couple of men of the Folk, hooded and furtive, with traders’ packs on their shoulders and staves in their hands.

“Aye, miss, there’s always some that’ll trade with the Gødfolk,” said Sugar when Maddy commented on this. “You don’t think you’re the only one what’s found their way down here, do yer? Or that the Eye’s the only gateway under the Hill?”

Below that there was less traffic, fewer spells. Here were storerooms, vaults, sleeping quarters, food stores. Maddy, who was growing hungry, was tempted to raid these, but goblins are not especially particular about what they eat, and she had heard too many tales to take the risk. Instead, searching her pockets, she found an apple core and a handful of nuts and made a small, unsatisfying meal of these, a decision she was to regret later.

They moved down toward the river, and here at last were stone lanes packed with spoils and takings. Remembering what One-Eye had told her, Maddy cast Bjarkán and searched, but among the webwork of little spells and signatures that crisscrossed the tunnels, among the bundles of feathers, chests of rags, pots and pans, and broken daggers and battered shields, she could find no sign of anything resembling a treasure of the Elder Age.

Goblins, of course, are terrible hoarders and, unlike dwarves, will steal anything that comes to hand, regardless of its value. But Maddy was not discouraged. Somewhere in all this, she was sure she would find the Whisperer. Rather an odd name for a treasure, she thought, but then she remembered the Dropper, Odin’s ring; his spear, Fear-Striker; and Mjølnir, the Pounder, the hammer of Thor; and told herself that the treasures of the Elder Age had often borne such mysterious names.

And so she searched on: through old mattresses, dry bones, and broken crockery; through sticks and stones and dolls’ heads and partnerless shoes and loaded dice and fake toenails and scraps of paper and tasteless china ornaments and dirty handkerchiefs and forgotten love poems and balding oriental rugs and lost schoolbooks and headless mice.

But still, as One-Eye had warned her, she found nothing of value-no gold, no silver, not even a nickel penny.

“There’s nowt here.” The goblin had grown increasingly restive as they proceeded deeper into the belly of the Hill. “There’s nowt down here and it’s not bloody safe.”

Maddy shrugged and kept on going.

“Now if I knew what you were looking for…,” said Sugar.

“I’ll tell you when I’ve found it.”

“You don’t even know what it looks like, do yer?” he said.

“Shut up and watch where you’re going.”

“You don’t bloody know!”

As Maddy followed Sugar deeper and deeper into the Hill, she began to fear that the goblin was right. The Hill was a ragman’s paradise, stuffed from seam to seam with worthless trash. There was nothing resembling treasure here; nothing magical, nothing precious, nothing approaching One-Eye’s description.

Also it was clear to Maddy that Sugar was as baffled by their search as she was herself. He had repeatedly denied that there was any kind of treasure beneath the Hill, and after consideration she was inclined to believe him. Goblins don’t really understand wealth and are just as likely to steal a broken teapot as half a crown or a diamond ring. Besides, she just couldn’t imagine how a treasure of the Elder Age-a thing of such importance that One-Eye could spend years trying to locate it-would remain for long in the hands of Sugar and his friends.

No, the more Maddy thought about it, the less likely it seemed that the Good Folk had anything to do with this. The secret-if it was there at all-lay deeper than the goblins’ lair.

In the hours that passed, she twice cast Naudr on her reluctant companion, with slightly less effect each time. She was very hungry and wished she had taken advantage of the goblins’ food stores, but these were far behind her now and hunger, fatigue, and the strain of controlling the goblin, casting and recasting Sól, and passing unseen through the labyrinth of spells were beginning to take their toll. Her glam was weakening like a lamp fast running out of oil. Soon it would be used up.

Sugar was not unaware of this, and his gold eyes gleamed as he trotted tirelessly down one passage after another, leading Maddy further and further under the Hill, away from the storerooms and into the dark.

Maddy followed him recklessly. The webwork of signatures that had so baffled her on the earliest levels had mostly thinned out and disappeared, leaving her with one single persistently bright and powerful trail that overwhelmed everything else and filled her with curiosity. It was an unusual color-a pale and luminous violet shade-and it lit the darkness, crossing and re-crossing as if someone had passed there many, many times. Maddy followed-thirsty now and numb with fatigue, but with a growing sense of excitement and hope that blinded her to her own weakening glam as well as to the furtive glint in the goblin’s eye.

They were passing through a large, high-ceilinged cavern with a chandelier of stalactites that picked up the glow of Maddy’s runelight and threw it back at her in a thousand wands of fire and shadow. Sugar trotted ahead, ducking automatically beneath a protruding ledge of stone that brought Maddy up short and gasping. “Slow down!” she called.

But Sugar did not seem to have heard. Maddy followed him, lifting up her hand to light his trail, only to see him vanish behind an outcrop of gleaming lime.

“I said wait!”

As she hurried forward, Maddy realized that she was beginning to see more clearly. There was light coming from somewhere ahead; not runelight, nor a signature, nor the cool phosphorescence of the deep caves, but a warm, red, comforting glow.

“Sugar?” she called, but either the goblin could not hear or he was maliciously ignoring her, because there was no reply but the echo of her own voice-sounding small and very lost-rebounding glassily between the great stalactites.

All at once a shudder went through the ground, and Maddy lurched forward, holding out her hands to steady herself. Dust and stone fragments, dislodged by the upheaval, pattered onto her back. She was just straightening up again when a second tremor struck, and she was flung against the wall as a slab of rock the size of a haunch of beef dropped from the ceiling.

Instinctively Maddy threw herself into a connecting tunnel. Stalactites fell like spears from the roof of the main chamber as the whole mountain seemed to shudder to its roots. But although Maddy was showered with dust and particles of rock, the tunnel roof held, and as the tremor died away-sounding to Maddy like the rumble of a distant avalanche over the Seven Sleepers-she put her head out of the tunnel mouth and looked around.

Maddy, of course, knew all about earthquakes. It was the World Serpent at Yggdrasil’s Root-or so Crazy Nan had always maintained-grown too large for Netherworld to contain, shaking out his coils into the river Dream. In time, said Nan, he would grow so large that he would circle the world, as he had in the days before Tribulation, and he would gnaw right through the World Tree’s roots, causing the Nine Worlds to collapse one by one, so that Chaos would have dominion over all things forever.

Nat Parson had a different tale: according to him, the tremors were caused by the struggles of the vanquished in the dungeons of Netherworld, where the wicked (meaning the old gods) lay in chains until the End of All Days.

One-Eye denied this and spoke of rivers of fire under the earth and avalanches of hot mud and mountains boiling over like kettles, but this seemed to Maddy to be the least likely explanation of all, and she was inclined to believe that he had exaggerated the tale, as he did so many things.

Nevertheless, she was sure that an earthquake had caused the tremors, and it was very cautiously that she left the safety of the tunnel mouth. The stalactite chandelier had partly collapsed, leaving a treacherous rubble of shattered pieces in the center of the chamber. Beyond it was nothing but stillness and silence, apart from the distant after-echo and the dust that filtered from the trembling walls.

“Sugar?” called Maddy.

There was no reply, but she thought she heard a scuffling sound, far away to her right.

“Sugar?”

Once more there was no reply. Stepping out into the hall, Maddy thought she saw him, just for a moment, about a hundred steps ahead; then he dodged beneath a broken archway and was gone.

Quickly she cast Naudr again, but her concentration had been broken by the earthquake, the light was failing, her feet suddenly felt too far away, and she realized, too late, as the shadows rushed in, that she had fallen victim to the goblins’ oldest trick.

Sugar had never meant to guide her toward anything. Instead, without ever quite disobeying her, he had allowed her to move deeper and deeper into the perilous passages under the Hill, sapping her strength and waiting until her endurance gave way and her power over him failed and he was able to seize an opportunity to make his escape, leaving her alone, exhausted, and lost in the tumbled passageways of World Below.

3

It was lucky for Maddy that she was a sensible girl. Anyone else might have tried to feel their way through the unlit passageways, moving blindly further and further into the tortuous guts of the Hill. Or called for help, bringing who knows what from the darkness.

But Maddy did not. Though she was afraid, she kept her head. Her glam was used up, which was bad enough, but she was almost sure that sleep would replenish it-sleep and (if she could get it) food. The short tunnel in which she had taken shelter seemed safe enough; it was warm and there was a sandy floor. Groping her way, she found it again and settled there to rest.

She had no idea what time it was. It could be night in World Above or even morning. But here there were no days, and time seemed to have a life of its own, stretching like a weaver’s thread into a loom that wove nothing but darkness.

Tired as she was, Maddy was certain she wouldn’t sleep. Every few minutes the floor trembled beneath her, dust fell from the ceiling, and there were other sounds, rustlings and patterings just outside the tunnel mouth that to her overstretched imagination sounded like giant rats or great cockroaches chittering over the fallen stones. Still, at last, her fatigue got the better of her fears. Curled up on the floor with her jacket around her, she slept.

It might have been three, or five, or even twelve hours later; there was no way of telling. But she felt rested; Sól at her fingers shone out without a moment’s hesitation, and although she was hungry-and fiercely stiff from lying on the floor-she felt a rush of pleasure and relief as the colors sprang to life around her once again.

Standing up, she looked out from the tunnel’s mouth. She could see that the darkness was not complete. There was no phosphorescence in the walls at this lower level, but the red glow from the caves was more noticeable now, like a reflection of fire against a bank of low cloud, and the violet signature she had followed so far was brighter than ever, leading straight toward the distant glow.

Of Sugar there was no sign, except for a signature too dim to be of use. It was likely that on his return, he might give the alarm, but that couldn’t be helped. No, thought Maddy; the only thing she could do was continue downward, following the direction of the violet trail, and hope that she might find something to eat-her last frugal meal seemed a very long time ago now.

Beyond the cavern the passage branched out into two forks, one larger than the second, still lit with that dim, fiery glow. Without hesitation Maddy followed it; it was warmer than in the higher caverns, and as she moved gradually downward-the incline was small but unmistakable-she thought she could hear a sound, far below her, like the low hishhh in the shells One-Eye brought her from the shores of the One Sea.

Coming closer, she realized that the sound was not constant. It came and went, as if carried on a gusting wind, at intervals of five minutes or so. There was a smell too, which grew stronger as she neared its source, a curiously familiar laundry smell with an occasional whiff of sulfur, and now there was a film of steam on the walls of the passage and a new slickness to the floor, which suggested that she was approaching its source.

Even so, she must have been walking for almost an hour when the passage came to its end. During that time there had been several small earth tremors, which had caused no damage, the rushing sounds had grown progressively louder, and the air was fugged with steam and fumes. The glow came brighter now-bright as sunlight but bloodier and less constant-bright enough to obscure any colors, if there had been any to follow.

Instead Maddy followed the light, and as the passage opened out, she found herself entering a cavern larger than any she had ever seen or dreamed of.

She guessed it to be close to a mile in width, with a ceiling that soared away into shadow and a floor of cindery, tumbled rock. A river ran through it-she could see a gully at the far end of the cavern into which the water disappeared-and in the center, there was a round pit with a furnace at its heart, clearly the source of the reddish light.

As she stepped into the cavern, there came a rushing sound, and a great plume of steam, like the boiling of a million kettles, erupted from the fire pit, sending her scurrying for the safety of the passageway. The laundry smell intensified; sulfurous steam enveloped Maddy in a burning shroud, and the fissures and passageways of World Below shrieked and bellowed like the pipes of a giant organ.

It lasted a minute, maybe less. Then it was over.

Cautiously, over half an hour, Maddy crept closer to the pit.

The eruptions occurred at regular intervals-Maddy guessed every five minutes or so-and she was soon able to recognize the signs and get under cover when danger threatened. Even so, the going was not pleasant; the air was scarcely breathable, and soon Maddy’s shirt and hair were stuck to her skin with steam and sweat. There must be an underground river, she thought-maybe even the river Dream on its way down to Netherworld-meeting the cauldron of fire as it passed, each element fighting to dominate the other until at last they burst forth together in a spume of superheated air.

Still, she never thought of giving up. There was something in the fire pit, some force that drew her as surely as a fish on a line. This was no trick, she told herself, nor was its power anything she had encountered before. Whatever it was, it was very close, and Maddy had to curb her impatience as she inched her way forward.

Once more the geyser burst forth. Maddy, now less than twenty feet away, felt the blast in the small of her back and, as soon as it began to die down, crossed the remaining stretch of rocky floor toward her goal. She stepped up onto the lip of the well and, shielding her face with a fold of her jacket, looked straight into the eye of the pit.

It was smaller than she had expected, no wider than a foot across, and as round and regular as a water well. Her eyes had been deceived into thinking it larger by the intensity of the furnace within, and it was lucky for Maddy that she had covered her face, for already her vision was blurred, like that of someone who has looked into the noonday sun.

Jed Smith’s forge was a candle in comparison; here, metals and rocks bubbled like soup a thousand or more feet below the lip of the pit, and the stench of sulfur came to Maddy on a column of air so hot that it crisped the hairs in her nose and raised blisters on her unprotected hands.

She bore it for less than five seconds. But in those seconds Maddy saw the heart of the mountain, burning brighter than the sun. She saw the sink through which the river drained and the meeting of forces within the pit. And she saw something else in that fiery throat: something blurred and difficult to see but that spoke to her as plainly as the signatures she had followed through the passageways.

The thing was not large-the size of a watermelon-and was roughly rounded in shape. It might have been a lump of glowing rock, suspended by who knew what forces in the gullet of the pit.

Surely there could be little hope of recovering anything from such a hiding place. The most skilled climber could not reach it; even assuming he could somehow withstand the blaze, the geyser would shoot him back out of the pit like a cork from a bottle before he had covered half the distance.

Besides, any fool could see that the thing was caught fast: a flexible webwork of glamours and runes bound it tighter than the strongest of chains.

As she watched, the rock seemed to glow even brighter, like an ember beneath the blacksmith’s bellows. A thought as absurd as it was troubling struck her-It sees me-and looking down into the pit, she could almost believe she heard it now-a strong, soundless call that seemed to drill into her mind.

(Maddy! To me!)

“The Whisperer.”

Now she began to move away, breathless and almost fainting from the heat, once more using the rocks and hollows of the cavern for shelter. She could do no more for the present. All she could hope for was to recover her strength and try to think of some kind of plan or, if she could not, to find her way back to the Red Horse and tell One-Eye that, whatever his disappointment in her failure to bring back the Whisperer, he could at least be fairly sure that no one else would ever lay hands on it.

It was cooler at the edge of the cavern, and the air, though noxious, was easier to breathe. Maddy rested there for some time, letting her eyes adjust once more to the gloom. There were smaller caves set into the cavern’s sides, some barely alcoves, others as large as fair-sized rooms, which might give reasonable shelter from tremors and eruptions.

In one she found a trickle of clean water and drank gratefully, for her thirst had begun almost to equal her hunger.

In another she found a vein of dull yellow metal almost as thick as her arm running through the wall.

And in the third, much to her surprise, she found a stranger standing with his back against the wall and a loaded crossbow pointing straight into her face.

4

For a second or two she was confused. The figure in the shadows seemed to have no shape, no substance-all she could see was his eyes and a slash of light across his mouth that flickered and glowed. But if her mind was fuddled, her hands seemed to know exactly what to do. Impulsively she raised them and, without a moment’s hesitation, cast Kaen-Wildfire-as hard as she could into the stranger’s face.

Why Maddy had chosen that particular rune she could not have told you, but its effect was immediate and devastating. It struck her would-be attacker like a whip, so that he dropped his crossbow with a howl and fell to his knees on the cavern floor.

Maddy was almost as stunned as he was. She had acted on pure instinct, with no anger and no desire to harm. And now that she could see him more clearly, she was surprised to discover that her assailant was not the giant super-goblin she had imagined, but a slim red-haired person not much bigger than she was.

“Get up,” she said, kicking the crossbow out of his reach.

“My eyes,” said the stranger behind his upflung arms. “Please. My eyes.”

“Get up,” she repeated. “Show me your face.”

He looked no more than seventeen. His red hair was tied back, revealing sharp but not unpleasant features, now drawn with pain and distress. His eyes were streaming, and there was a vicious welt across the bridge of his nose where the mindbolt had struck, but otherwise-to Maddy’s relief-there seemed to be no lasting damage.

“My eyes.” In the light from the distant fire pit they were a curious, flaming green. “Gods, what hit me?”

In all events he was no goblin, but Maddy could tell at once that he was not from the valley, although there was nothing outlandish in his bearing or dress. A little ragged, perhaps, as if he had traveled rough; his leather jacket was deeply stained, and his boots were worn thin at the soles.

Slowly he got to his feet, squinting at Maddy, one hand lifted defensively in case of another attack. “Who are you, anyhow?” His accent marked him as a stranger-a northerner, from the Ridings perhaps, judging from the color of his hair. But Maddy, who had initially been alarmed at finding him, was now surprised at the depth of her relief. To see another human being after so many hours alone in the caverns was an unexpected joy, even if the stranger did not share it. “Who are you?” he repeated sharply.

Maddy told him.

“You’re not with them?” he said, jerking his head at the upper levels.

“No. Are you?”

“You’re a Fury,” he said. “I can see your glam.”

“A Fury?” Maddy looked at her runemark and saw it glowing dully on the palm of her hand. “Oh, that. It won’t hurt you, I promise.”

She could see the stranger was not convinced. Every muscle in him seemed tensed, as if he were uncertain whether to run or fight, but his eyes stayed fixed upon Maddy’s hand.

“It’s all right-I won’t spell you. What’s your name?”

“Call me Lucky,” he said. “And keep your distance.”

Maddy sat down on a rock by the entrance. “Is that better?”

“For now, yes.”

For a moment they faced each other. “Do your eyes still hurt?”

“What do you think?” he snapped.

“I’m sorry,” said Maddy. “I thought you were going to shoot me.”

“You could have asked me instead of just belting me in the face.” Cautiously he fingered his damaged nose.

“I know a runecharm that would help.”

“No thanks.” He seemed to relax a little. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Maddy hesitated for only an instant. “I’m lost,” she said. “I came here through the Horse’s Eye and got lost in the tunnels.”

“Why’d you come?”

She hesitated again-and decided on a half-truth. “Don’t you know?” she said. “The whole Hill’s a giant treasure mound. Gold left over from the Elder Age. Isn’t that why you came here?”

Lucky shrugged. “I’ve heard the tale,” he said. “But there’s nothing here. Nothing but trash and goblins.”

He had been hiding out in the tunnels for nearly two weeks, Maddy learned. He had entered World Below from the other side of the mountains, beyond Hindarfell; had evaded capture several times on his way before finally running into a posse of goblins who caught him and took him to their captain.

“Their captain?” said Maddy.

He nodded. “Great big vicious brute. Seemed to think I was some sort of spy. When I told him I was just a glassblower’s prentice from up the Ridings, he flew into a rage and swore he’d starve the truth out of me. Then he shut me up in a hole and left me there for three days.”

On the third day Lucky had got lucky. In the floor of his cell he had uncovered a grating, once the opening to a drainage tunnel, through which he had managed to escape. Famished, filthy, and afraid, he had stolen what he could from the goblins’ stores before finding his way to relative safety, where he had been hiding ever since, living on fish and fresh water from the river, plus what was left of his stolen supplies.

“I’ve been trying to get back aboveground,” he told Maddy, “but every goblin under the Hill’s after me now. They won’t come here, though,” he said, looking beyond her at the glowing fire pit. “None of that rabble ever comes this far.”

But Maddy’s attention was elsewhere. “Food?” she said. “You’ve got food here?”

“Why? You hungry?”

“What do you think?”

For a moment Lucky seemed unsure. Then he came to a decision. “All right. This way.” And with that he led her out of the cave and along the edge of the fire pit cavern until they reached a place where the river, running swift and dark from an opening in the wall, had been partly diverted by a fall of rocks.

“Wait here,” he told Maddy. Then he ran up to the water’s edge, leaped up onto a cluster of fallen boulders, and vaulted off into the darkness.

For a second Maddy was alarmed-from where she was standing, it looked as if Lucky had simply flung himself into the rapids. But she could see him now, standing on a flat shelf about halfway into the stream, white water surging around him. He must have known about the shelf, Maddy thought; even so, it was a dangerous move. Still, any fisherman will tell you that river fish love fast water best of all, and Maddy was not surprised when, a few seconds later, Lucky bent down and pulled sharply at something at his feet.

It was a fish trap, cleverly woven from string or twine. Lucky inspected the contents, hefted the net over his shoulder, and returned, moving quickly and deftly over the hidden rocks.

While he was thus occupied, Maddy watched him closely through Bjarkán-the magic circle of finger and thumb. She made certain he didn’t see her do it; she didn’t want to frighten him off. Still, Trust no one, One-Eye had said, and she wanted to be sure that this glassblower’s boy was all that he appeared to be.

But Bjarkán confirmed what she already felt. Lucky cast no colors at all. Her first, fleeting impression-that of someone older, taller, with fiery eyes and a crooked smile-had been nothing but a trick of the light and of her own fears. And as Lucky reached the water’s edge, grinning, with his catch over his shoulder, Maddy breathed a sigh of relief and allowed herself-at last-to unbend.

They shared the catch between them. Lucky showed Maddy how to cook the fish. These were sour-fleshed and bony, with huge, blind eyes, but Maddy ate every scrap of hers, licking her fingers and making hungry little noises of appreciation.

Quietly Lucky watched her eat. The messy business of catching, cooking, and eating the fish had broken much of the ice between them, and he had dropped his sullen manner and become quite friendly. Maddy guessed that he was as relieved as she was to find an ally in the tunnels, and the fact that he had survived here alone for two weeks said a lot for his courage and ingenuity.

In that time, she learned, he had found food and a means of cooking it; he had located a source of good drinking water and a place to wash; he knew where the air was sweetest and had found the most comfortable place to sleep. He had been charting the tunnels too, one by one, trying to discover a way to reach the surface without passing through the great gallery, but so far without success. And all that without even a cantrip to help him.

“What will you do if there’s no way out?” asked Maddy when he had finished his tale.

“Risk it, I suppose. They’ll drop their guard eventually. But that captain-I don’t want to run into him again.”

Maddy looked thoughtful. The Captain-she still felt she was missing something, but couldn’t put her finger on what it was.

“So what about you?” Lucky went on. “How did you find your way down here? And how come you know so much about this place?”

It was a fair question. Maddy considered it, and Lucky watched her, not quite smiling, his eyes flame green in the firelight.

“Come on,” he said, seeing her hesitation. “I may not be a Fury, but that doesn’t make me a fool. I’ve seen your glam, and I know what it means. You came here for a reason. And don’t give me that old tale of treasure under the Hill, either. There’s no treasure here, and you know it.”

So he hadn’t believed her. On reflection, she wasn’t surprised. He was too clever to be taken in. In a way, that reassured her. She could use an ally in the caves, and his knowledge and his resourcefulness might well come in handy.

Trust no one, One-Eye had said. But surely she owed him some explanation, and besides, if the goblin captain was the enemy, then there could be no danger in telling Lucky a few things.

“Well?” There was an edge to his voice. “Do you trust me or not?”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you-” began Maddy.

“Yeah, right,” said Lucky. “I don’t have to be a Fury to see what’s what. I mean, what have I done to make you suspect me? Apart from fishing for you, that is, and showing you where it’s safe to drink, and-”

“Please, Lucky-”

“It’s all right for you, isn’t it? You’re in no danger. You can get out of here whenever you like. Me, I’m here till I get caught. Why should you help me, after all? I’m only a glassblower’s boy from the Ridings. Why should you care what happens to me?”

And with that he turned his back on her and was silent.

Trust no one. Even now the urgency of One-Eye’s words rang in Maddy’s ears. But One-Eye wasn’t here, was he? One-Eye had sent her under the Hill with no warning and no preparation, expecting her to know exactly what to do. But neither of them had foreseen this-and what was she supposed to do now? Abandon Lucky to his fate?

“Lucky,” she said.

He hunched his shoulders. Even in the flickering light Maddy could see that he was shaking.

“You’re scared,” she said.

“Well, duh,” said Lucky. “Believe it or not, being dismembered by goblins wasn’t on my list of priorities for the week. But if you don’t trust me-”

Maddy sighed. “All right,” she said. “I’ll trust you.”

She just hoped One-Eye would understand.

So Maddy told her tale in full-everything she had meant to tell and quite a lot she hadn’t. She spoke of her childhood, of her father, of Mae, of Mrs. Scattergood and the invasion of rats and insects in the cellar-at this point Lucky laughed aloud-of her dreams and ambitions, of her fears. He was a good listener, and when Maddy finally stopped talking, feeling tired and dry-mouthed, it was with the not unpleasant feeling that she had never revealed quite as much to anyone-not even to One-Eye-as she had to this boy.

“So,” he said when Maddy was done. “You opened the Hill. You found your way here”-for some reason she had not told Lucky about Sugar-“and now you’ve found your Whisperer. So what happens next?”

Maddy shrugged. “One-Eye said to bring it out.”

“That simple?” He grinned. “And did he give you any idea of how you were going to work it? Magic rope, perhaps, or a cantrip to make you fireproof?”

Silently Maddy shook her head.

“It’s a glam, isn’t it?” said Lucky. “It’s some bauble from the Elder Age, all bound up in heathen runes. How d’you know it’s safe, Maddy? How d’you know it won’t just zap you into smithereens the minute you lay your hands on it?”

“One-Eye would have told me.”

“Assuming he knows.”

“Well, he knew it was here.”

“Hmm.” Lucky sounded unconvinced. “It just seems rather odd, that’s all. Him sending you down here alone like that.”

“I told you,” said Maddy. “It was safer this way.”

There was a rather lengthy pause. “Don’t bite my head off,” said Lucky slowly, “but it seems to me your Journeyman friend knows a lot about this that he hasn’t told you. First he says there’s gold under the Hill, then he says it’s a treasure of the Old World, but he won’t say what it is, then he sends you in here alone without even a syllable of warning-I mean, didn’t you ever hear the tale of Al-Adhinn and the enchanted lamp?”

Maddy began to feel annoyed. “One-Eye’s my friend. I trust him,” she said.

“Your choice.” Lucky shrugged.

“No one made me come here, you know.”

“Maddy, he’s been feeding you tales of World Below since you were seven years old. I’d say he’s got you well trained by now.”

Maddy’s fists clenched, just a little. “What are you saying? That he lied to me?”

“What I’m saying,” Lucky told her, “is that a man may plant a tree for a number of reasons. Perhaps he likes trees. Perhaps he wants shelter. Or perhaps he knows that someday he may need the firewood.”

Now Maddy’s face was pale with anger. She took a step forward, the runemark on her palm flaring suddenly from russet brown to angry red. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Look, all I said was-”

In an instant Maddy’s hand was aflame; a bramble of runelight sprang from her palm. It was Thuris, the Thorn, angriest of runes, and Maddy could feel it wanting to bite, to sting, to lash out at the cause of her rage-

Alarmed, she flung it at the wall. Thuris discharged harmlessly into the rock, leaving a sharp scent of burned rubber in the air.

“Nice aim,” said Lucky. “Feel better now?”

But Maddy had already turned her back. Who in the Nine Worlds did he think he was? He was only an accidental player in this game, a bystander, just clever enough to enter World Below but not enough to get out again, just a glassblower’s prentice with no magic and no glam.

And yet, she thought, what if he’s right?

She shot him a look over her shoulder and saw him watching her curiously. Serve him right, she thought, if she left him here. Let him rot underground or be caught by goblins. It would be no more than he deserved. She stood up abruptly and turned to the cave entrance.

“Where are you going?” Lucky said.

“I’m going to get the Whisperer.”

“What, now?”

“Why not?”

Now there was alarm in Lucky’s voice. “You’re crazy,” he said, catching hold of her arm. “It’s late, you’re exhausted, you haven’t got a clue-”

“I’ll manage,” she snapped. “I’m a lot smarter than you give me credit for.”

Lucky gave a rueful sigh. “Maddy, I’m sorry,” he said. “Me and my mouth. My brother always said I should have it sewn up, do everyone a favor.”

Maddy glared and would not turn around.

“Maddy. Please. Don’t go. I apologize.” Now he even sounded sorry, and Maddy found herself relenting. He couldn’t be expected to take all this on trust. His world was very different from hers, and it was only natural for him to be suspicious. He had no magic, knew nothing of the Whisperer, and more importantly, she reminded herself, he didn’t know One-Eye.

The question remained, Maddy thought-did she?

5

The doubts he had awakened were not easily put aside. After a rather silent supper of leftover fish, Maddy found herself tired but unable to rest. While Lucky slept, apparently oblivious, she tried in vain to find a comfortable position on the rock floor but again and again found her mind going back to the same words.

A man may plant a tree for a number of reasons.

What had been One-Eye’s reason? Why had he taught her so much and yet kept so much from her? Most of all, how could he know anything about a treasure that had been lost since the Winter War?

Behind her, Lucky was still asleep. Maddy couldn’t see how he could sleep in such relentless heat, with the sounds of World Below echoing and rumbling like thunder around them, but there he was, twitching a little, as if at some dream, curled comfortably into a hollow in the rock with his jacket rolled up beneath his head.

Perhaps he was used to the heat, she thought. A glassblower’s prentice has to spend long hours working the ovens, fanning and stoking the fires for the melted glass. Besides, he was unusually resourceful-for a prentice-and he had had time to get used to the unpleasant conditions.

Still, now that she came to think of it, Maddy realized that although Lucky knew a great deal about her, she still knew almost nothing about him. What was he doing under the Hill? From what he had told her, he had been gone for two weeks or more-a serious breach of his contract of apprenticeship, for which he would be punished when he returned. Why would a glassblower’s prentice come here? More importantly, how had a glassblower’s prentice managed to break into World Below in the first place?

A few feet away, Lucky slept, a picture of innocence. Maddy could not believe she hadn’t at least questioned him, hadn’t even thought of doing so until now. There had been so much else to do-and besides, Lucky had no magic, no glam. Bjarkán confirmed it-he left no trail.

But now even that made Maddy uneasy. She tried to recall exactly what she had seen as Lucky came back over the rocks with his fishing net. Surely there should have been something, she thought-his colors, at least. Lucky was young and strong and smart; he should have left a good, bright signature behind him. But even with Bjarkán, there had been no colors. Not a gleam, not a glimmer.

Could he have hidden them somehow?

The thought was too alarming. It suggested-

Sitting up sharply, she raised her hand and cast Bjarkán for the second time, and this time she concentrated as hard as she could, looking into the runeshape for anything-anything-out of the ordinary.

The glassblower’s prentice slept on, one hand clenched at his side, the other flung out against the rock. Now she could see his signature, a bright and exuberant violet, glowing fitfully as he slept.

Maddy gave a sigh of relief. Just nerves, that’s all it was; nerves and her own fears, making her jump at shadows. She lowered her gaze…

And then she saw it in his left hand, where, sleeping, he must have relaxed his guard. A trio of runes, like thin trails of colored fire scrawled across his palm: ýr, the Protector, crossed with Bjarkán and Ós, a complex charm to shield him as he slept.

So much for his innocence, Maddy thought. Gods knew who this Lucky was or why he had lied, but one thing about her new friend was clear. He was no prentice after all.

He was a Fury, just like her.

Most runes can be neutralized, either by reversal or by casting another to combat their effect. Maddy judged that T ýr might break through Lucky’s defense, revealing whatever he was hiding. Of course, it did depend to some extent on the strength of his glam, but Maddy had the advantage, and surely now his resistance must be at its lowest.

Taking care not to disturb the sleeper, she stood up and silently cast the rune. Then, with a sudden push, she set it to work.

His charm flickered but did not fail.

Maddy gave another push and at the same time cast Bjarkán. The runes vanished, and Maddy was left looking into a face she had seen once before and which, now that she saw it in its true colors, seemed unexpectedly familiar.

His Aspect had not been greatly altered. He had much the same coloring and build, although he was a little taller. But he was older than he had first seemed, and even in sleep, there was less innocence in his features, more guile. There were marks too, which had not been there earlier: a runemark-

– Kaen, reversed, on his bare arm-and now she saw that his mouth was crisscrossed with fine, pale scars, too regular to be accidental.

Maddy dropped her hand to her side. Too late now she understood everything, too late she remembered what Sugar had said, too late remembered One-Eye’s words.

A…friend, he had told her, turned traitor in the Winter War. I thought he was dead, and maybe he is, but his kind have nine lives, and he always was-

“Lucky,” whispered Maddy, turning pale.

“That’s right,” said Lucky, opening his fiery eyes. “But you can call me Captain.”

6

He moved fast-very fast for a man just waking from a deep sleep. But to Maddy’s surprise, he did not attempt to strike at her, but simply leaped toward the mouth of the cave, so that the mindbolt she flung at him smashed against the wall, dislodging a shower of rock fragments as it did so.

She raised her hand again, moving to the cave entrance to block his escape. This time Lucky did not attempt to run but, with a curious rapid flick of his fingers, summoned the rune Kaen and cast it-not at Maddy, but at himself-and vanished, or so she thought, leaving only a thin gunpowder trail of fire where he had been standing, a trail that now moved swiftly toward the cave mouth.

The violet signature went with it, and in that instant Maddy summoned Logr-Water-and shot it at the fire trail, stopping it short and charging the air with thick steam.

In a second Lucky was back, soaking wet and gasping.

Logr trembled once more at Maddy’s fingertips, ready to strike. Slowly, hands raised, Lucky got up.

“Try that again and I’ll kill you,” she said.

“Hold it, Maddy; I thought we were friends.”

“No friend of mine,” said Maddy. “You lied.”

Lucky pulled a face. “Well, of course I lied. What did you expect? You creep up on me, you whack me in the face with something that feels like a combination sledgehammer and lightning bolt, you interrogate me, and then-then you just happen to mention that you’re big friends with One-Eye, of all people…”

“So I was right,” she said. “Who are you?”

He had dropped his disguise, standing before her in his true Aspect. Once again Maddy thought he looked familiar, although she was sure she had never met him before. In a story, perhaps, or a picture from One-Eye’s books. But she knew him, she was sure of it; she knew those eyes.

“Listen. I know you don’t trust me. But there are a lot of things One-Eye hasn’t told you. Things I can help you with.”

“Who are you?” she demanded again.

“A friend.”

“No, you’re not,” said Maddy. “You’re the one I was warned about. The thief. The one who’s after the Whisperer.”

“Thief?” He laughed. “Maddy, I have as much right to the Whisperer as anyone else-more right than some, as a matter of fact.”

“Then why did you lie to me?”

“Ask yourself rather-why did he lie to you?”

“This isn’t about One-Eye,” she said.

“Isn’t it?” Lucky’s gaze was difficult to hold; his voice low and oddly persuasive. “He knew I’d be here,” he said. “Ask yourself why. And as for the Whisperer-you’ve still no idea what it is, have you?”

Slowly Maddy shook her head.

“Or what it does?”

Again she shook her head.

Lucky laughed. It was a light and pleasant sound, instantly likeable, irresistibly contagious. Maddy found herself grinning back before she realized the trick. She was being charmed.

“Stop that,” she said sharply, casting ýr with her fingers.

Lucky looked unrepentant. Even behind the protection rune there was something in his smile that invited a response.

“I know you,” she said slowly. “And One-Eye knows you too.”

Lucky nodded. “Told you I was a traitor, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And that I turned my coat when the war turned against him?”

Again Maddy nodded.

Oh, there was definitely something familiar about him, something she knew she ought to remember. She struggled with the thought, but Lucky was still speaking, his voice soft and compelling.

“All right,” he said. “Just listen to this. It’s something I’ll bet old One-Eye hasn’t told you.” Now his grin was hard and metallic, and in the dark his eyes gleamed fire green and subtle. “Get this, Maddy,” he said. “We’re brothers.”

Maddy’s eyes grew very wide.

“Brothers in blood, sworn to each other. You know what that means, don’t you?”

She nodded.

“And yet he was willing to break his oath-betray his brother-for the sake of his cause, his war, his power. What kind of loyalty is that, do you think? And do you really think a man who can sacrifice his brother would think twice about sacrificing you?”

Now Maddy felt as if she were drowning. The words flowed over her and she found herself drawn in, helpless. But even as she struggled against the charm, there came once more that little sting of recognition, the feeling that if only she could remember why she knew him, then everything else would fall into place.

Think, Maddy, think.

Once more she drew the protective charm. ýr lit at her fingertips, dimming the persuasive glamour of Kaen.

Think, Maddy. Think.

That voice. Those eyes. The silvery crisscross of scars over his lips, as if long ago, someone, armed with something very sharp…

And now at last it came to her: the old tale of how the Trickster had challenged the Tunnel Folk-the master forgers, Ivaldi’s sons-to a test of skill and had wagered his head in return for their treasures and lost. But even as they made to cut it off, he had cried, The head is yours, but not the neck!-and so, outwitting them, escaped with the prize.

At that, the dwarves, enraged at the deception and bent on revenge, had sewn up Loki’s mouth, and from that day forth his smile had been as crooked as his thoughts.

Loki. The Trickster. How could she have missed it? She knew him so well by reputation, had seen his face in a dozen books. One-Eye had given her what warning he could; even Sugar had called him Crookmouth. And the biggest clue was right there on his arm.

Kaen. The fire rune. Reversed.

“I know you,” said Maddy. “You’re-”

“What’s a name?” Loki grinned. “Wear it like a coat; turn it, burn it, throw it aside, and borrow another. One-Eye knows; you should ask him.”

“But Loki died,” she said, shaking her head. “He died on the field at Ragnarók.”

“Not quite.” He pulled a face. “You know, there’s rather a lot the Oracle didn’t foretell, and old tales have a habit of getting twisted.”

“But in any case, that was centuries ago,” said Maddy, bewildered. “I mean-that was the End of the World, wasn’t it?”

“So?” said Loki impatiently. “It isn’t the first time the world has come to an end, and it won’t be the last, either. Thor’s beard, Maddy, didn’t One-Eye teach you anything?”

“But that would make you-” said Maddy, perplexed. “I mean, the Seer-folk-the Æsir, I mean, weren’t they-the gods?”

Loki waved his hand dismissively. “Gods? Don’t let that impress you. Anyone can be a god if they have enough worshipers. You don’t even have to have powers anymore. In my time I’ve seen theater gods, gladiator gods, even storyteller gods, Maddy-you people see gods everywhere. Gives you an excuse for not thinking for yourselves.”

“But I thought-”

“God’s just a word, Maddy. Like Fury. Like demon. Just words people use for things they don’t understand. Reverse it and you get dog. It’s just as appropriate.”

“What about One-Eye?” said Maddy, frowning. “If he’s your brother”-her mouth dropped as she remembered yet another of those old stories-“then that would make him-”

“That’s right,” said Loki with his crooked smile. “The Allfather. The General. Old Odin himself.”

Book Three. The Whisperer

*

1

Ragnarók. The End of the World. According to Nat Parson, it had been a great Cleansing by the Nameless, a single, titanic attempt to rid Creation of evil and to bring Perfect Order to the Worlds, with fire and ice and Tribulation.

Only Noar’s line survived, or so the Good Book said, and the survivors-the demons and heretics that cheated Death-were flung into Netherworld to await the End of Everything.

One-Eye, on the other hand, had told her of the Prophecy of the Oracle and of the last great battle of the Elder Age: of how Surt the Destroyer had joined with Chaos and marched against the gods in Asgard, while the armies of the dead, in their fleet of coffin ships, sailed against them from the Underworld.

On that final plain the gods had fallen, fathoms deep in glamours and blood: Odin, the last general, swallowed by the Fenris Wolf; Thor the Thunderer, poisoned by the World Serpent; T ýr the One-Armed; Heimdall of the Golden Teeth; Frey the Reaper; Loki…

“But if they were the gods,” Maddy had said, “then how could they fall? How could they die?”

One-Eye had shrugged. “Everything dies.”

But here was Loki telling her a different story: of how the fallen gods had not been destroyed, but had remained-weakened, broken, lost to themselves-waiting to return even as Chaos swept over the Nine Worlds, taking everything in its wake.

Years had passed; a new Order had come. Its temples were built on the ruins of springs and barrows and standing stones that once were sacred to an older faith. Even the stories were outlawed-There’s nobbut a thread ’tween forgotten and dead, as Crazy Nan used to say-and at last the march of the Order had trampled the old ways into near oblivion.

“Still, nothing lasts forever,” said Loki cheerfully. “Times change, and nations come and go, and the world has its revolutions, just as the sea has its tides.”

“That’s what One-Eye says.”

“A sea without tides will go stagnant,” said Loki, “just as a world that stops changing will stiffen and die. Even Order needs a little Chaos-Odin knew that when he first took me in and swore brotherhood between us. The others didn’t understand. They were out to get me from the start.

“Chaos was in my blood, they said-but they were happy enough to use my talents when it suited them. They despised deceit, hated lies, but were content to enjoy the fruits of them.”

Maddy nodded. She knew what he meant. To be an outsider-a bad-blood-always blamed and never thanked. Oh yes. She understood that very well.

“When Odin took me in,” Loki went on, “he knew exactly what I was. Wildfire that cannot be tamed. So what if I slipped my leash a couple of times? I saved their skins more often than any of them knew. No one was grateful. And in the end”-once more Loki gave his crooked but oddly charming smile-“in the end, who betrayed whom? Was it my fault that I got out of hand? All I ever did was follow my nature. But accidents happen. Something went wrong. High spirits, perhaps; a little understandable friction at a difficult time. And all of a sudden, old friends didn’t seem quite so friendly anymore, and I began to think it might be good to remove myself until the dust had settled. But they came after me and meted out their clumsy vengeance. I imagine you’ve heard the story.”

“Sort of,” said Maddy, who had heard a somewhat different version. “But I rather thought-I mean, I heard you’d killed Balder the Fair.”

“I never did,” snapped Loki crossly. “Well, no one ever proved I did. What happened to the presumption of innocence? Besides, he was supposed to be invulnerable. Was it my fault that he wasn’t?” Now his face darkened again, and his eyes took on a malevolent gleam. “Odin could have stopped them,” he said. “He was the General; they would have listened to him. But he was weak. He could see the end coming, and he needed all his people on his side. And so he turned a blind eye-’scuse the pun-and delivered me into the hands of my enemies.”

Maddy nodded. She knew the tale-some part of it, anyway: how the Æsir had left him chained to a rock; how Skadi the Huntress, who’d always hated him, had hung a snake to drip venom into his face; how their luck had been bad from that day until the End of the World; and finally, how Loki had broken free on the eve of the battle to play his part in the destruction that followed.

Clearly he had no regrets. He said as much as he told Maddy of the last stand of the Æsir; of the battle One-Eye called Ragnarók.

“Perhaps I could have saved them if they’d stood by me at the end. Who knows, I might even have turned the battle around. But they’d made their choice. He’d made his choice. And so the world ended, and here we are, the dregs of us, hiding in caves or peddling cantrips, trying to figure out what went wrong.”

Maddy nodded again. One-Eye’s voice inside her head warned her that this was Loki-Loki-and that whatever else, she must not be charmed, flattered, or deceived into dropping her guard. She remembered One-Eye telling her that charm comes easily to the children of Chaos and determined to take nothing of what he told her at face value.

But Loki’s tale was dangerously plausible. It explained so many things that One-Eye had refused to tell, although some of it was still hard to digest, and his talk of the gods as if they were human beings-vulnerable, fallible, besieged-was especially difficult to accept. She had grown up with stories of the Seer-folk, had learned to think of them as friends, had dreamed of them in her secret heart, but even in her wildest imaginings had never thought to meet one someday, to talk to one as an equal, to touch a being who had lived in Asgard and have him stand in front of her, with a very human-looking welt across the bridge of his nose-a welt that her own mindbolt had caused…

“So…are you…immortal?” she said at last.

“Nothing’s immortal,” he said, shaking his head. “Some things last longer than others, that’s all. And everything has to change to survive. Why d’you think I carry my glam reversed? Or that Odin does, for that matter?”

Maddy glanced at the runemark on his arm. Kaen-Wildfire-still gleamed there, violet against his pale skin. A powerful sign, even reversed, and Maddy had used it often enough herself to know that she must respect and mistrust its bearer.

“So how was your glam reversed?”

“Very painfully,” he said.

“Oh,” said Maddy. There was a pause. “Well, what about the Fieries? Fieries, Furies, whatever they are…”

“Well, we’re all Furies now,” he said with a shrug. “Like anything that’s been touched with the Fire. Demons, as your parson might say. Of course, I always was-comes of being a child of Chaos-but it can’t be easy for the General, who was always so set on Law and Order.” He grinned. “Must be hard for him to accept that-to the new gods, at least, to the Order-he’s the enemy now.”

“The new gods?”

Loki nodded, for once not smiling.

“You mean, all that’s real too? The Nameless and everything Nat Parson preaches from the Book of Tribulation?”

Loki nodded again. “As real or imaginary as any of us,” he said. “No surprise your parson’s so gloomy about the old ways. He knows who the enemy is, all right, and he and his kind will not be safe until ours is Cleansed from the Nine Worlds: every tale forgotten, every glam subdued, every Fiery extinguished, to the last spark and flame.”

“But-I’m a Fiery,” said Maddy, opening her hand to look at her own runemark, now glowing like an ember.

“That you are,” said Loki. “No question about it, with that glam you carry. No wonder he kept so quiet about you. You are something quite unique-and that’s worth more than Otter’s Ransom to him, or to me, or to anyone who can keep you on their side.”

Maddy’s runemark was burning now, sending tendrils of thin fire snaking toward her fingertips.

“The Oracle predicted you,” said Loki, watching, fascinated. “It predicted new runes for the New Age, runes that would be whole and unbroken, with which to rewrite the Nine Worlds. That rune of yours is Aesk, the Ash, and when One-Eye saw it on your hand, he must have thought all his Fair Days and Yules had come at once.”

“Aesk,” said Maddy softly, flexing her fingers into a cat’s cradle of fire. “And you think One-Eye knew this all along?”

“I should think so,” Loki said. “It was to Odin that the prophecy was made.”

Maddy thought about that for a moment. “Why?” she said at last. “What does he want? And what’s this…Whisperer he needs so badly? Did the Oracle mention that at all?”

“Maddy,” said Loki, beginning to smile, “the Oracle is the Whisperer.”

2

There was a flask of dark mead hidden in the cave. Loki gave Maddy a sip and drank the rest as he told his tale.

“The Whisperer,” he said, “is an ancient power, even older than the General himself, though he doesn’t enjoy being reminded of that. It’s a story that goes back to the very beginning of the Elder Age, to the first wars between Order and Chaos, and-if you ask me-it’s one that doesn’t reflect too well on either side. Of course yours truly was completely neutral at that time-”

Maddy raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Listen, do you want to hear this story or don’t you?”

Maddy nodded.

“All right. In the old, old days of the General’s youth, Asgard was a stronghold of perfect Order, and there wasn’t a spark of magic there. The Vanir-enchanters from the borders of Chaos-they were the keepers of the Fire, and they and the Æsir waged war for years, until at last they realized that neither of them was ever going to win. And so they exchanged hostages as proof of good faith, and the Æsir got Njörd and his children, Frey and Freyja, and the Vans got Honir-nice lad, but not bright-and a wily old diplomat called Mimir, who stole their glam, gave them his counsel, and reported back home in secret.

“But the Vans soon realized they had a couple of spies on board, and in revenge they killed Mimir and sent his head back to Asgard. By then, though, the General had already got what he needed: the runes of the Elder Script, the letters of the ancient tongue that created the Worlds.”

“The language of Chaos,” Maddy said.

Loki nodded. “And Chaos was not best pleased at the theft. So Odin used his new skills to keep the Head alive and gave it glam to make it speak. Not many folk return from the dead, and what they have to say is usually worth hearing. It gave old Mimir the gift of prophecy, invaluable to the General. But the gift came at a high price. Odin paid for it with his eye. And as for Mimir’s Head, or, as he called it, the Whisperer”-Loki finished the bottle of mead-“I don’t imagine it cared much for us then, so I wouldn’t count too far on its goodwill now. I’ve tried to talk to it, but it never was fond of me, not even in the old days. And as for getting it out of here-”

“But what do you want with it?” said Maddy. “Why is it so important?”

“Please, Maddy,” said Loki with some impatience. “The Whisperer’s not just some bauble. It’s an oracle. It knows things. It predicted Ragnarók and a number of other things I wish I’d known at the time. If Odin had paid more attention to its prophecy instead of trying to prove it wrong, then perhaps Ragnarók wouldn’t have turned out as it did.”

There was a pause as Maddy took in the implications.

“But why go after it now?” she said.

“A second chance?” Loki gave his twisted smile. “Listen, Maddy, Odin put half of himself into that old glam. Half of the General in his prime; think what he could do with it now. Powers you can’t imagine, just waiting to be tapped. Powers from the realms of Chaos.” He sighed. “But the damn thing has a mind of its own, and it isn’t bound to cooperate. Nevertheless, there are folk out there who would give anything to lay their hands on it. And others, of course, who would give anything to stop them.”

“Gods,” said Maddy.

“Amen,” said Loki.

He had found the Whisperer on one of his exploring trips, he said, some hundred years after the end of the war. Everything else was Chaos and slaughter. Many had fallen; some lost forever, some buried in ice, some consumed by the fires of Chaos. The survivors were thrown into Netherworld, but Loki, slippery as ever, had somehow managed to escape.

“You escaped the Black Fortress?” Maddy said.

Loki shrugged. “Eventually.”

“How?”

“Long story,” said Loki. “Suffice it to say that I found…alternative accommodation in World Below. And it was there at last that I found the Whisperer,” he went on, “though I soon realized it was useless to me. It recognized me, of course, but it wouldn’t talk except in gibes and insults, wouldn’t lend me so much as a spark of glam, and certainly wouldn’t prophesy. I thought maybe to get it out of the pit, to use it as a bargaining tool with one of the surviving Æsir-”

“The surviving Æsir?” said Maddy quickly.

“Rumors, that’s all. I had a feeling Odin might still be around. It would certainly have helped my position if I could have brought him the Whisperer. And of course, with the General back on my side, I’d have been safe from any former colleagues with an ax to grind. Or even a hammer.”

Since then, he said, he had tried many times to retrieve the Whisperer from its fiery cradle. But he had not yet found a way to break the glamours that held it in the fire pit-glamours left over from Ragnarók, which his reversed and thus weakened glam could not hope to combat.

Failing that, he had made the Hill impregnable, putting together an army of goblins, a webwork of glamours, and a labyrinth of passages to hide the Whisperer from the world.

“And maybe it’s best left hidden,” he said. “Unless Odin gave you something to help? A glam, a tool-perhaps a word?”

“No,” said Maddy. “Not even a cantrip.”

Loki shook his head, disgusted. “In that case, forget it. Might as well try to catch the moon on a string.”

Maddy thought about that for a while. “So you think it’s hopeless?” she said at last. “There’s really no way of bringing it out?”

Loki shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve tried. If the General wants to talk to it, he’ll have to come down here himself.”

“Perhaps.” Maddy was still thinking hard.

“You should tell him, you know. Ragnarók’s over. And as far as the Order is concerned, we’re all of us the enemy. Perhaps we should rethink our allegiances. Bury our grudges. Start again.”

“You betrayed the Æsir,” said Maddy. “You’re crazy if you think he’ll ever take you back.”

“The Æsir!” Unexpectedly her words had struck home; for a moment Loki’s eyes flared with unfeigned anger. His colors flared too, from ghostly violet to fiery red. “All they ever did was use me when it suited them. When there was trouble, it was always Please, Loki, think of something. Then when it was over, it was Back to your kennel, without so much as a thank-you. I was always a second-class citizen in Asgard, and not one of them ever let me forget it.”

“But you fought against them at Ragnarók,” said Maddy, who had begun to feel more sympathy for this dangerous individual than she dared admit.

“Ragnarók,” said Loki scornfully. “Whose side did they expect me to take? I had no side. The Æsir had abandoned me, the Vanir always hated me, and as far as Chaos was concerned, I was a traitor who deserved to die. No one would take me, so I looked after number one, as always. All right, maybe I settled a few scores on the way. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s all history. The General has nothing to fear from me.”

“What are you saying?” Maddy said.

Loki gave his crooked smile. “Maddy,” he said, “I’ve been hiding out in World Below for the best part of five hundred years. All right, it’s not the Black Fortress, but it’s hardly bliss. It stinks, it’s dark, it’s overrun by goblins, and I’m constantly having to watch my back…Besides, if I read the signs correctly, there will come a time very soon when none of us are safe, when even the deepest hole will not be enough to hide us from our enemies.”

“So?”

“So I’m tired of hiding,” Loki said. “I want to come home. I want to see the sky again. More importantly, I want the General to make it clear to any of the others who might still harbor a grudge that I’m officially back on the side of the gods.”

He paused, and a wistful look came over his face. “There’s a war on the way. I can feel it,” he said. “I don’t need an oracle to tell me that. The Order is already on the march, spreading the Word through the Middle World. Odin knows-according to my sources he’s spent the last century or so traveling between here and World’s End, charting its progress, trying to learn how much time we have left. My guess is, it just ran out. That’s why he needs the Whisperer. As for myself”-Loki grinned and put down the bottle-“Maddy, I can’t help it. It’s the Chaos in my blood. If there’s a war, I want to fight.”

For a long time Maddy said nothing. “Then tell him so,” she said at last.

“What, meet him aboveground?” Loki said. “You must be out of your tiny mind.”

“You really think One-Eye’s going to come to you?”

“He’ll have to,” said Loki. “If he wants the Oracle. With that on his side there isn’t a secret, scheme, or strategy that the Order can keep from him. He can’t hope to win the war without it. And he certainly can’t afford to let it fall to the other side.” Loki grinned. “So you see, Maddy, he has no choice but to accept my terms. Bring Odin to me, and I’ll let him talk to the Whisperer. If not, then frankly, I don’t rate his chances when the Order gets here.”

Maddy frowned. It all sounded just a little too slick. She had already experienced Loki’s charm, but she knew his reputation too, and she knew that his motives were rarely pure. She looked at him and saw him watching her with a dangerous gleam in his fiery eyes.

“Well?” he said.

“I don’t trust you,” said Maddy.

Loki shrugged. “Few people do. But why not? You’re strong. You’ve already beaten me once before.”

“Twice,” said Maddy.

“Whatever,” he said.

Maddy considered the point for a moment. She realized-rather late-that she didn’t actually know very much about Loki’s powers. Certainly she had beaten him-or had she? It hadn’t been a fair fight. She had taken him by surprise. Or maybe he’d let her surprise him, she thought. Maybe that too was part of his plan.

Now Maddy’s mind began to race. What did she know of the Whisperer? It was an oracle, Loki had said. A power of the Elder Age, an old friend of One-Eye, an enemy of Chaos. Loki had said it hated him, would not speak except in gibes. But One-Eye had said it would come to her, and could it be, she thought suddenly, that Loki somehow knew that too…

Could it be that he had misdirected her? That far from wanting to rescue the Whisperer, he was actually trying to keep it from being rescued?

Could it even be possible that it was Loki himself who had trapped the Whisperer in the fire pit, having failed to make it work for him?

Fire was his element, after all. Could it be that all this was a carefully constructed trap, its aim to lure One-Eye into World Below, where Loki had had centuries to prepare himself for their eventual showdown?

“Well?” said Loki impatiently.

Well, it was far too late to waste time with questions. Yesterday’s ale is nobbut this morning’s piss, as Crazy Nan used to say, which meant, Maddy supposed, that if anyone was going to get her out of this mess, it probably wasn’t the king’s guard.

“Well?”

Maddy sighed. A shadow of a plan was beginning to form in her mind. It was a rather desperate plan, but it was all she could think of at such short notice. “All right,” she said. “But first you have to show me.”

“Show you what?”

“The Whisperer.”

3

She followed him back to the fire pit hall, taking care not to let him out of her sight. He had agreed to her demand with apparent good cheer but with a trace of sullenness in his colors that suggested that he was far from pleased. She knew he was tricky-indeed, if he was Loki, he was trickery itself-and if he already suspected what she meant to do, there was no telling how he might react.

They stepped to the lee of the fire pit, sheltering behind a spur of rock until the geyser had spent itself. Then, in the brief lull between two ventings, Loki stepped forward and came to stand on the lip of the well.

“Stand back,” he told Maddy. “This can be dangerous.”

Maddy watched as he stood motionless, his colors flaring with sudden intensity and the first and little fingers of his right hand pronged to form the runeshape ýr.

His face was streaming with sweat, she saw; his fists were clenched, his eyes screwed shut as if preparing for some painful ordeal. This part at least was no act, she thought. She could feel the effort he was making, see the trembling of his muscles and the strain in every part of his body as he waited, tensed, for the Whisperer.

Even when the geyser began to reawaken, the low rumble rising to become a muted roar, Loki did not stir, but seemed to wait, regardless of his peril, as patiently as a fisherman snaring a trout.

Two minutes had already passed, and now Maddy could hear the eruption building, like a furious howl in a giant’s throat.

Then, almost imperceptibly, he moved.

If Maddy had not been watching very carefully, she would have missed it altogether, for Loki’s style of working was very different from hers. Under One-Eye’s instruction Maddy had learned to value caution and accuracy above all things, to coax the runes rather than to fling them, to handle them with care, as if without it they might explode.

But Loki was fast. Balancing like a rope-dancer on the edge of the pit as the column of steam came rushing toward him, he raised his head and made a curious quick fluttering movement of his hand. At the same time, he shifted to his fiery Aspect, his features just discernible in the twisting flames, and skimmed runes at the column like a handful of firecrackers.

Maddy had scarcely time to read them all. She thought she recognized Isa and Naudr-but what was that shuttling rune that spun like a sycamore key into the boiling flow, or the one that broke into a dozen shining pieces as it skimmed the flame?

She had little time to ask herself the question, though, for it was then that the geyser blew. The column of steam punched into the ceiling, hurling fragments of rock into the scorched air. And in the column, suspended for a moment in that massive splurge of cloud and flame, Maddy saw something that popped up like an apple in water and half heard, half felt its silent call-

(?)

(?)

– as it dropped once more into the pit.

Loki had fled in fiery Aspect, taking refuge behind a slab of rock. Now he returned to his true form. His face was flushed, his hair lank with sweat, and a reek of burning came from his clothes. Nevertheless, he seemed exhilarated; in the afterglow his eyes were pinned with weird fire. He turned to Maddy. “You saw it, then?”

Uneasily she nodded, recalling the quick way it had bobbed to the surface, and how the light had seemed to shine right through it, and how it had called to her…

“That was the Whisperer. Ouch,” he said, blowing into his scorched hands.

“But it’s alive!”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Now Maddy could see just how much this effort had cost him: in spite of his careless words he was shaking, breathless, and his colors were dim. “It really doesn’t like me,” he said. “Though to be fair, I don’t think it likes any of us very much. And as for getting it out of there-you’ve seen what it’s like. If Odin wants to consult the Oracle, then he’ll just have to do it the hard way.”

There was a silence as Maddy stared at the fire pit and Loki’s breathing returned to normal. Then she stood up cautiously. She could feel the next eruption preparing itself; beneath her feet she sensed rather than heard the ripping of fiery seams under enormous pressure.

“What are you doing?” Loki said. “Didn’t you hear what I just told you?”

Maddy stepped up to the fire pit. Beneath her, it gargled molten fire. Loki followed, uneasy now, but hiding it well-except for his colors, which betrayed his anxiety and his fatigue. Whatever he had done to the Whisperer, it had already robbed him of much of his glam-an advantage Maddy intended to use.

Now she was standing at the edge of the pit.

“Watch your step,” said Loki casually, “unless you care for a Netherworld hotfoot.”

“Just a second,” she said, looking down into the fiery throat. The pit was very close to venting. Maddy could smell the burnt-laundry fume; she could feel the fine hairs in her nose begin to crackle. Her eyes stung; her hands were trembling as she too formed the runeshape ýr.

“Maddy, be careful,” Loki said.

At the bottom of the pit, hot air began to roar as the subterranean river gushed out into the flow of boiling rock. In a second steam would obscure the pit; then, a second later, the column of flaming gas and ash would erupt.

Maddy just hoped she had timed it right.

Now she was balanced on the very edge of the fire pit. The stones beneath her feet were slick with sulfur and the glassy residue of many, many ventings. She tried to recall how Loki had done it-balancing on the rim like a dancer on a rope, his hands shuffling runes so fast that Maddy could hardly see them before they sank into the cloud at his feet.

He was right behind her now; her skin prickled at his closeness, but she did not dare turn-he must not see what she was planning. Inside the pit, the furnace glow brightened from orange to yellow, from yellow to almost white, and as the power began to build, Maddy turned the full force of her concentration on the Whisperer.

If you call it, it will come to you.

She felt it, heard it in her mind-

(?)

And now she called it, not in words, but in glam-what Loki had called the language of Chaos. It was no language she had ever learned, and yet she could feel it linking her with the Whisperer, joining with it like notes in a long-lost chord.

At last she could see in the depths of the pit something like a cat’s cradle of light, a complicated diagram in which many, many runes and signatures crossed and recrossed in strands of increasing complexity.

A net, she thought, and for the second time she felt a response-a glimmer, a cry-from the object in the pit. A net just like the one Loki had used to trap his fish-

(!)

And it was a net that she meant to use against him. But Loki’s runes did not play fair, straining and twisting between her fingers. Naudr, the Binder; Thuris, the Thorn; T ýr, the Warrior; Kaen, Wildfire; Logr, Water; Isa, Ice.

Loki’s runes, Loki’s trap. Even as she drew them, she could feel them moving, turning slyly out of alignment, waiting for her concentration to break.

“Maddy!” said Loki’s voice behind her, and she needed no runes now to sense his fear. His hand brushed her shoulder; Maddy swayed, uncomfortably aware of the pit at her feet. One push, she thought…

She called out again to the thing in the fire and, with a cry that echoed across the cavern, wrenched the net with its catch of glamours up and toward her out of the pit.

It was just then that the geyser blew.

The steam, a great hot hammer of air, came punching out of the narrow gauge. For a second everything went white; the laundry smell filled the cave and Maddy was sheathed in a scalding cloak. But for that second Loki flinched back and at the very same time Maddy cast the net, not at the Whisperer in its fiery column, but directly behind her, at Loki’s face.

He had no time to shield himself. The runes of the Elder Script flickered out-Naudr, Thuris, T ýr, and Ós, Hagall and Kaen, Isa and Úr. The net fell, snaring Loki as neatly as any fish, and finally Aesk, Maddy’s own rune, hurled the Trickster across the cavern as the fiery column burst free, showering them both with ash, sulfur, and shards of volcanic glass.

The blast was greater than any thus far. It threw Maddy forward twenty feet, and she fell to her knees, half stunned. Behind her the geyser was reaching its climax: ash and cinders filled the air; flaming rocks fell all around her; something heavy crashed to the ground only yards from where she had been standing.

“Loki?” Maddy’s voice resonated flatly against the seeping walls. Half blinded by the scalding steam, she lay behind a flat rock, gasping for breath. The unaccustomed working had all but exhausted her glam. If he were to attack right now, she wouldn’t have much more than a cantrip to throw back at him.

“Loki?” she called.

There was no reply.

A minute later the blast had abated; now sulfurous fumes filled the cavern. Maddy risked a glance around, but in the sickly yellow mist there was nothing to be seen.

Then, as the mist cleared and the extent of the damage became apparent, Maddy realized why. The ceiling above them had partly collapsed. A mound of debris obscured the pit; one huge slab of rock, its near side studded with pieces of stalactite, lay atop the mound like a gauntleted fist.

And Loki?

And the Whisperer?

There was no sign of either in the ruined cavern.

4

It was a few minutes more before Maddy could stand. She did so shakily, brushing cinders out of her hair. Her vision was still cloudy from looking into the fire pit; her face and hands were sore, as if they were sunburned.

The aftershock was over now, and in its wake the cavern was eerily still. Dust trickled from the broken ceiling onto the giant mound of rocks and rubble, completely obliterating the end of the cavern where Loki and his net had been thrown.

Congratulations, Maddy, said a dry voice inside her head. Now you’re a murderer.

“No,” whispered Maddy, horrified.

She’d never intended to hurt him, of course. She’d only meant to keep him at bay, to hold him while she claimed the Whisperer. But everything had happened so fast. She’d had no time to measure her strength. And if now, by her fault, he was under there-smashed beneath that fist of rock…

And now it was not just the fumes from the pit that were making it hard for Maddy to breathe. The mound of stones, so like a barrow from the Elder Age, almost seemed to fill the cavern. Slowly, reluctantly, she moved toward it. A small part of her protested against all hope that Loki might be trapped but unhurt, and fitfully she began to turn over the smaller rocks, searching in vain for a scrap of sleeve, a boot, a shadow-

A signature.

That was it! Maddy could have kicked herself with frustration. Casting Bjarkán with a trembling hand, she found his at once, that unmistakable wildfire trail. No two light-signatures are ever the same, and Loki’s, like One-Eye’s, was unusually complex and alive.

Alive!

A good tracker may tell the age of the wolf he hunts, whether it limps, how fast it was running, and when it made its last kill. Maddy was not so skilled a tracker, but she spotted the fragments of the net and traces of the mindrune she had cast.

There had been tremendous power in that final rune, power enough to collapse the ceiling as Maddy dragged the Whisperer out of the pit. Pieces of Aesk still littered the floor, like shards from an exploded bottle, and here was where the rune had thrown him, pinning Loki like a moth as the ceiling collapsed on top of him.

But then…

There it was, against all hope, leading away from the mound of stone: not a back-trail, not a fragment, but a signature, scrawled fleetingly in that characteristic lurid violet against the rock.

She guessed from its faintness that he had tried to hide, but either he was too weak to shield his color-trail or the falling rocks had taken up too much of his concentration, because there it was, unmistakably, leading toward the cavern mouth.

It was there at last that Maddy found him. He had fallen behind a block of stone; one arm was up to cover his face, his motionless fingers still pronged into the runeshape of ýr, the Protector. He was very still, and there was blood-an alarming amount of it-on the rock behind him.

Maddy’s heart did a slow roll. She knelt down, shaking, and held out a hand to touch his face. The blood, she saw, came from a narrow slash just above his eyebrow. A rock must have caught him as he ran, unless it was the fall that had knocked him unconscious. In any case, though, he was alive.

Relief made Maddy laugh aloud; then, hearing her voice rattle eerily across the ruined cavern, she thought better of it.

He was alive, she reminded herself-but as soon as he awoke, doubly dangerous. This was his place. Gods knew what resources he might have at his command. She needed to get out, and quickly.

She looked around. The cavern was still acrid with the stench of the fire pit, but at least the air was cooler now that the shower of debris had stopped. It had been a close shave, she saw now: a chunk of volcanic glass the size of a hog’s head had flown through the air, missing her by inches, and now lay, still glowing, by her feet.

Thinking fast, Maddy assessed the situation. It looked bad: she had failed-she had lost the Whisperer-her strength was exhausted, and she was buried in the tunnels of World Below with miles and miles of passages and galleries between herself and the surface.

Still, she thought, it had been a good plan. It should have worked. For a second there had been a contact between them. The Whisperer should have answered her call. It almost had-but, as Crazy Nan used to say, “Almost” never wins the race.

Maddy looked around in desperation. What was she to do now?

“Kill him,” said a voice behind her.

Startled, Maddy turned around.

“Go on. He deserves it.” It was a man’s voice, dry and rather fussily disapproving, like Nat Parson in mid-sermon. But there was no one in sight; around her the shadows swelled, red-tinged, as the fire pit drew breath.

“Where are you?” she whispered.

“Just kill him,” said the voice again. “Do the Worlds a favor. You’ll never get a better chance.”

Maddy looked left and right but saw no one.

Had she imagined it? Was she so addled by smoke and fumes? Somewhere at the back of her mind she was conscious of a small, persistent voice telling her to run, that the geyser was about to vent again, that she was already half poisoned from the fire pit fumes, and that unless she got out into breathable air, she would collapse, but none of that seemed very important now. So much easier to ignore it, to close her eyes, to think of nothing.

“Stop that,” said the voice sharply. “What are you, an imbecile? Look down, girl, look down!”

Maddy dropped her gaze.

“Lower.”

“But there’s nothing-” began Maddy, then stopped short, her eyes widening as she finally saw-really saw-the thing that had crash-landed almost at her feet, still glowing from the heat of its fiery cradle.

“Ah, at last,” said the Whisperer in a weary tone. “Now, if you can possibly bear a little more exertion, you might at least give that bastard a kick from me.”

5

As far as anyone knew, the passages that ran beneath Red Horse Hill had never once been mapped or counted. Even the Captain didn’t know them all, for although he had used the place for centuries as a bolt-hole and rallying place for goblins, he was not the architect of the Hill, nor the custodian of all its secrets.

Rumor had it that if you went deep enough, you could follow the Strond right down into Netherworld and the Black Fortress, which straddled the river Dream, but no one knew that for sure-except possibly the Captain, and any goblin foolish enough to ask him for particulars deserved everything he got.

Sugar-and-Sack was no fool. But he was curious-perhaps more curious than was altogether safe-and he had seen a number of peculiar things, which he longed to try and investigate. It had begun with that girl who knew his true name and her descent into regions where no goblin ventured but into which the Captain sometimes disappeared, returning in a foul temper and reeking of smoke.

Next had come the developments in World Above. In usual circumstances Sugar would have taken little interest in these. Goblins don’t like trouble, unless they are causing it themselves, and the frequent comings and goings on Red Horse Hill-the posses and the parson stirring up the neighborhood-would normally have kept him safely underground.

But this time he sensed that there was something more afoot than the usual tension between Folk and Faërie. There had been rumors-and a horseman, riding hard on a laden steed, galloping back to the Hindarfell. There was a scent too, like incense and burned stubble, and half an hour ago the Captain had returned from one of his forays with a rag around his head and a nasty gleam in his eye, had put his guard on full alert, and had shut himself up in his private quarters, snapping at any goblin who came close.

Sugar knew better than to get in his way. He had done what he always did in similar circumstances: had settled himself in an out-of-the-way place and prepared to acquaint himself with a plum cake, a ripe cheese, and a small barrel of mule-kick brandy that he had stashed there several weeks before. He was just getting comfortable when the sound of voices reached him-and one of them, he knew at once, was Maddy’s.

His duty was plain-to stop the girl. Those were his orders, clear as kennet, orders from the Captain himself-and the Captain had a way of making himself very unpleasant if his orders were not obeyed.

On the other hand, he told himself, anyone who could make Loki nervous would be more than a match for Sugar-and-Sack. The better part of valor, in this case, would be to lie low and finish the brandy.

It was a good plan, and it would have worked just fine, thought Sugar later, if it hadn’t been for his dratted curiosity. The same that had led him to the girl in the first place. And now it got the better of him once again as he crept along in the shadows, trying to hear what the voices were saying.

An argument seemed to be in progress.

***

It had not taken long for Maddy to discover that the Whisperer was not at all grateful for its release. In the hours after their escape from the cavern, following her own back-trail and carrying the object in a sling made from her jacket, she had many opportunities to curse herself for having succeeded so well.

One-Eye had been right, she thought. The Whisperer looked and felt just like a lump of rock. A chunk of some glassy volcanic stuff-obsidian, perhaps, or some kind of quartz-but looking closer, she could see its face: a craggy nose, a downturned mouth, eyes that gleamed with mean intelligence.

And as for its personality…It was like dealing with a bad-tempered old man. Nothing pleased it. Not their pace, which was too slow, but which became uncomfortable when Maddy speeded up, nor Maddy’s conversation, nor her silence, and especially not the fact that they were going to join One-Eye.

“That war crow?” said the Whisperer. “He doesn’t own me, never did. Thinks he’s still the General. Thinks he can just start giving orders again.”

Maddy, who by now had heard this several times before, said nothing. Instead she tried to concentrate on the path, which was rocky and filled with holes.

“Arrogant as ever. Who does he think he is, eh? Allfather my-”

“I suppose you’d rather I’d left you in the fire pit,” said Maddy under her breath.

“What? Speak up!”

“You heard.”

“Now listen to me,” said the Whisperer. “I don’t think you know what you’re dealing with here. I’m not just a rock, you know. In the wrong hands I could explode like a grenado.”

Maddy ignored it and kept on walking. It was hard going. The Whisperer was heavy and awkward to carry, and every time she thought of resting, she imagined Loki-angry, recovered, and out for revenge-running up the passage after her. She had done what she could to hide her trail, crossing it at intervals with the runesign ýr or doubling back on her own tracks. She hoped it would be enough to delay or lose him, but she couldn’t know for sure.

The Whisperer had not been slow to deplore her compassion. “You should have killed him when you had the chance,” it complained for the twentieth time. “He was helpless, unconscious-completely at our mercy. Failing that, you could have left him, and the fumes would probably have finished him off. But what do you do? You save him. You drag him into the clean air. You tie a rag around his head. You practically tuck him into bed, for gods’ sakes-what next, a glass of milk and a runny egg?”

“Oh, give it a rest,” said Maddy crossly.

“You’ll regret it,” said the Whisperer. “He’s going to bring us nothing but trouble.”

To give the thing some credit, she thought, it had just cause to resent the Trickster. As they moved toward World Above, it treated Maddy to a centuries-long catalog of grievances against Loki, beginning with his adoption into Asgard and the havoc he had wrought there and culminating in his reappearance, some hundred years after Ragnarók and in the most unlikely place-the catacombs of the Universal City in distant World’s End.

“What was he doing there? I don’t know. Up to no good-that goes without saying-and weak from his reversed glam. But just as tricky as ever, damn him, and he must have known I’d be somewhere nearby-”

“Known?” said Maddy.

“Yes, of course.” The Whisperer hissed. “There I was, peace at last, sleeping away the centuries, and what does he do? He wakes me, the bastard.”

“But how could he know where you’d be?”

It gave a pulse of angry light. “Well, given that I’m not what you’d call independently mobile nowadays, I suppose he just searched among the ruins until-”

“Ruins of what?” Maddy said.

“Well, Asgard, of course,” snapped the Whisperer.

Maddy stared. “Asgard?” she said. Of course she knew that the Sky Citadel had fallen at Ragnarók. And she had heard so many stories about the place that she almost felt she’d seen it herself, with its golden halls and its rainbow bridge that spanned the sky.

The Whisperer laughed. “What? Didn’t Odin tell you? The far side of that bridge was at World’s End. The Folk never knew about that, of course. They couldn’t cross it, only ever saw it when it was raining and sunny at the same time, and even then they thought it was a natural phenomenon, due to extraordinary weather conditions. But Dogstar knew-that’s Loki to you-and he found me and brought me to this place, a place at the very center of the Worlds, a place where lines of great power converge, where he bound me with runes and trickery and swore he’d release me-if I gave him what he wanted.”

“I knew it,” said Maddy. “But what did he want?”

Once more the Whisperer hissed to itself. “He wanted his true Aspect back. He wanted his rune unreversed. Failing that, he wanted to use me, to sell me to either the Æsir or the Vanir in exchange for his miserable skin. But he had done his job too well. He couldn’t get me out of the pit. The forces that imprisoned me-forces from Dream and Death and beyond-held me fast, and all he could do was stand guard over me and hope and pray that I never escaped. And so it has been for centuries”-the Whisperer gave its dry laugh-“and if that doesn’t give me a right to revenge, then this New Age of yours is even more pathetic than I thought it was.”

By this time they had reached the upper levels, and Maddy could see increasing signs of goblin activity. Their colors gleamed across her path; their footprints scuffed the red earth floor. When she found she could hear them too, she stopped.

This was the most dangerous part. From here on, there would be no place to hide. The long climb to the upper level would leave her visible on the rock stairway for a dangerous length of time. But she knew no other way out: all other paths led into the warren of storage and treasure rooms that honeycombed the Hill, and below there was the river, a crashing darkness in which lay no hope.

“What have we stopped for?” demanded the Whisperer.

“Quiet,” said Maddy. “I’m thinking.”

“Lost, are you? I should have known.”

“I’m not lost,” said Maddy, annoyed. “It’s just that-”

“Told you you should have killed him,” it said. “If I were him, I’d get back before us, set up an ambush, have posses of goblins at every corner, and-”

“Well, what do you suggest?” she snapped.

“I suggest you should have killed him.”

“That’s a lot of use,” she said. “I thought you were an oracle. Aren’t you supposed to know the future or something?”

The Whisperer glowed in open contempt. “Listen to me, girl. Gods have paid-and dearly-for my prophecy. The General gave me his eye, you know; but that was a long time ago, and he got a bargain. As for you-”

“I’m not giving you an eye,” said Maddy at once.

“Gods alive, girl. What would I want with that?”

“Then what is it you do want?”

The Whisperer glowed brighter still. “Listen,” it said. “I like you, girl. I like you and I want to help. But you’ll have to listen to me now. Listen and take notice. Your old friend One-Eye has systematically lied to you to bring you to this point. Over the past seven years he has fed you a careful diet of half-truths and deceptions, all the more heinous for what you are-”

“What d’you mean, what I am?”

The Whisperer glowed brighter than ever, and now Maddy could see sparks of runelight trapped like fireflies within the volcanic glass. They danced, beguiling, and Maddy’s head began to feel pleasantly befuddled, as if she had drunk warm spiced ale. It was a charm, she told herself, and she shook aside the pleasant feeling and pronged ýr with her fingers at the Whisperer, which continued to glow-in smugness, she thought-as if it had made some rather clever point.

“Stop that,” she said.

“Merely a demonstration,” said the Whisperer. “I speak as I must and cannot be silent. That rune of yours is strong, you know. I predicted such runes before Ragnarók. I imagine that’s why One-Eye sent you. Didn’t want to risk his own skin.”

For a moment Maddy said nothing. She was cautious of the Whisperer, and yet it confirmed some of what Loki had said. Loki, of course, was not to be trusted, but the Oracle…

Could an oracle lie? she wondered.

“He means to start a war,” it said. “A second Tribulation, to wipe out the Order once and for all. Thousands will die at a single word.”

“Is this a prophecy?” Maddy said.

“I speak as I must and cannot be silent.”

“What does that mean?”

“I speak as I must-”

“All right, all right. What else do you see?” Now Maddy’s heart was beating fast; behind the Whisperer’s rocky face, lights and colors danced and spun.

“I see an army poised for battle. I see a general standing alone. I see a traitor at the gate. I see a sacrifice.”

“Couldn’t you be a little less vague?”

“I speak as I must and cannot be silent. The dead will awake from the halls of Hel. And the Nameless shall rise and Nine Worlds be lost, unless the Seven Sleepers wake and the Thunderer be freed from Netherworld…”

“Go on!” said Maddy.

But the Whisperer’s colors had suddenly dimmed, and it almost looked like a rock again. And now Maddy was conscious of something nearby: a furtive movement in the shadows, a tiny crunch of pebbles on the floor. She spoke a sharp cantrip-

Nyd byth nearu

– locked her hands together to form the runeshape Naudr, then reached into the gloom and dragged out a diminutive figure, furry-eared and golden-eyed and covered in mail from head to foot.

“You again!” she said incredulously.

Sugar’s curiosity had finally got the better of him.

6

“Kill it,” said the Whisperer.

Maddy was looking down at the dazed goblin. “Spying, were you?”

“Kill it,” repeated the Whisperer. “Don’t let it get away.”

“I won’t,” said Maddy. “Will you stop asking me to kill people? I know this goblin,” she went on. “He’s the one who guided me.”

The Whisperer made a sound of exasperation. “What does it matter? Do you want it to report us?”

Sugar was squinting cautiously at Maddy. “Report what?” he said. “I don’t know nowt, and I don’t want to know. In fact,” he went on in sudden inspiration, “I think I’ve lost me memory-can’t recall a thing, kennet. So there’s no call for you to be worrit about what I’ve heard-you can be on yer way and I’ll just lie here quietly-”

“Oh, please,” said the Whisperer. “It heard everything.”

Sugar assumed an expression of hurt astonishment.

“I know,” said Maddy.

“Well, then? We have no choice. The minute it gets the chance, it will report to its master. Why don’t you just kill it, there’s a good girl, and-”

“Be quiet,” said Maddy. “I’m not killing anyone.”

“Spoken like a lady, miss,” said Sugar with relief. “You don’t want to listen to that narsty thing. You just get on back nice and safe to the Horse’s Eye. No need to be staying here any longer than you have to, kennet?”

“Shut up, Sugar. You’re going to lead us back to World Above.”

“What?” snapped the Whisperer.

“Well, obviously we can’t leave him here, and we need to find a safe way out of the Hill. So I thought-”

“Were you listening to anything I just said?”

“Well…,” said Maddy.

“I happen to have just made a major prophecy,” said the Whisperer. “Have you any idea how privileged you are? Four hundred years in that blasted fire pit, with Dogstar at me every day, and I never gave him so much as a syllable.”

“But aren’t you supposed to be telling One-Eye all this?”

The Whisperer made a sound very like a snort. “Look what happened last time,” it said. “The idiot got himself killed.”

It was just then that they heard the sound. A distant pounding directly overhead, too regular to be accidental, which sent shock waves through the hollow Hill that made the rock walls tremble.

Boom-boom-boom.

Boom-boom-boom.

“What’s that?” said Maddy.

“Trouble,” said the Whisperer.

To Maddy it sounded like cannon fire; to Sugar, like the Tunnel Folk at work. Some kind of mining or digging, perhaps, and now they could hear the sound of falling grit as it filtered down onto the stairway from the ceiling far above.

“What is it, Sugar?”

Sugar gave one of his whole-body shrugs. “Sounds to me like the Horse’s Eye,” he said. “P’raps it’s your lot at it again. Bin a lot of bloody noise among the Folk recently.”

Maddy wondered how long she had spent underground. A day? Two days? “But we have to get out. Can’t we bypass Red Horse Hill?”

“You can, miss, but it’s a long way round, nearly as far as the Sleepers, and-”

“Good. It’ll be safe, then.”

Safe? thought Sugar. Safe? The idea of safety and Sleepers in the same sentence-even in the same paragraph-made him want to whimper. But there was no denying the hammering sound, and now his sharp ears could make out other sounds too: the sounds of heavy horses, wheels, and the occasional clap of metal against metal…

“Uh-oh,” said Sugar.

“What?”

“I think they’re tryin’ to get inside.” His voice was incredulous; in five hundred years of siege (as he saw it) the Folk had never managed to do so much as crack open the front door to World Below, and here they were actually pounding their way into the rock.

“The Captain’s not goin’ to like this,” he said. “He’s not going to bloody like this at all.”

7

In a corner of Little Bear Wood, Loki’s head was still aching. Wildfire was his name and wildfire his temper, and in World Below he had given it rein, cursing in his many tongues and breaking a number of small, valuable objects that just happened to be lying around.

He had blundered; that he knew. He had misjudged Maddy not once, which was forgivable, but twice, which was not; he had been careless and complacent; he had been tricked-and by a girl!-and worst of all, of course, he had let her get away with the Whisperer.

The Whisperer. That thrice-damned bauble. It was his pursuit of the Oracle, and not his fear of the Folk on the Hill, that had brought him out of his stronghold, though now that he was here, watching the Hill from a suitable tree, he was unsettled to see the numbers of people gathered around the Horse’s Eye.

There was the constable; the mayor in his official hat; several hundred men and women, armed with pitchforks and hoes (How rustic, thought Loki); a clutch of assorted brats; some ox-drawn digging machines; and the parson, of course, very smart in his ceremonial robes, with his prentice beside him, riding a white horse and reading aloud from the Book of Tribulation.

All this in itself was not so unusual. Every once in a while there was unrest among the Folk, often after a bad harvest, a cattle plague, or a bout of the cholera. The Faërie tended to get the blame for anything that went wrong, and over the years their legend had built, so that now most of the villagers believed-as Nat Parson did-that the Hill was the abode of demons.

Loki had never discouraged this. On the whole, it was fear that kept people away, and when they did march against him (every twenty years or so), waving flags and relics, swearing to burn out the vermin once and for all, they rarely stayed long. A couple of days-and a gaudy glamour or two-was usually enough to cool their evangelism. And besides, the Eye was securely shut. Sealed by runes, it was surely proof against any attempt at entry by the Folk.

Still, this time he could not help feeling a little uneasy. The digging machines were a new development, and in all his years under the Hill he had never seen such a large and well-organized gathering. Something had happened to excite them thus. A raid, perhaps? Some trick carried out by the goblins in his absence? Too late he told himself that he should have paid more attention to what was going on in World Above. The parson, especially, should have been watched. But, as always, there had been the Whisperer to deal with. The thing seemed to have boundless energies, and over the years most of Loki’s strength had gone into keeping it subdued. Then Maddy had arrived, and all his attention had suddenly turned toward her.

This-this almighty shambles-was the result.

Loki sighed. Of all the times to lose the Whisperer, this was perhaps the worst. He was not unduly afraid of the Folk. His glam might be reversed, but that didn’t make him helpless. Even the machines were not much of a threat; it would take them weeks-maybe months-to reach him.

What he did fear, though, was their fanaticism. Left alone, it would burn itself out, but at the right time, and with the right kind of leader-a leader who awakened it, nurtured it, fanned it, fed it on a diet of prayer and Tribulation…

He had heard the tales, of course. He employed an efficient network of spies from his stronghold in World Below, and over the past few hundred years the word from World’s End had been getting stronger. Word of the Order, followers of the Nameless, of the conflict building between Folk and Fiery, and of the last, the greatest, Cleansing, the holy war that would sweep the Fiery from the faces of all the Worlds.

In World’s End, the rumors said, there were cathedrals tall as mountains, large as cities, where the Examiners held court and their prentices copied out endless invocations on scroll after scroll of illuminated parchment.

In World’s End, Order reigned; bad blood had already been mostly erased, and goblins and other vermin were dealt with efficiently and without mercy. In World’s End, if a sheep or a cow was born with a ruinmark, then the whole herd was swiftly destroyed, and if-Laws have mercy-it was a human child that bore the mark, then that child would be taken away and given into the guardianship of the Examiners, never to be heard of again.

There were other tales too, of hills and barrows once given over to the old gods, now emptied of their original occupants and made holy once again in preparation for the Great Cleansing. And there were other, darker tales of demons caught and bound by the power of the Word; demons who were dragged, screaming, to the scaffold and the pyre; demons who looked like men and women but were in fact the servants of the enemy and therefore had no souls to save.

In World’s End prayer was compulsory; Sundays were fallow; mass was twice daily and anyone refusing to attend-or indeed, exhibiting unnatural behavior of any sort-was likely to face Examination and Cleansing if they failed to renounce their ways.

Of course, thought Loki, that was all a very long way from the valley of the sleepy Strond. But his many informants spoke ever more loudly of the coming of the Examiners, and it was whispered on the Roads and reported in World Below that even the Ridings had become infected by rumor and tales.

Tales of the Word, that power given only to the highest rank of priests (though Loki could recognize a cantrip sure enough, and as far as he was concerned, their incantations were just cantrips under a new coat of paint). Tales of the Nameless, which, according to the Book of Tribulation, rose from the dead at the End of the World and will come again at the hour of need to save the righteous and strike down the blasphemers.

Loki was in no doubt that he counted as one of the blasphemers. Reviled by the new gods as a demon, loathed by the old gods as a traitor-his position had never been good. But now he had lost the Whisperer-the single ace in an indifferent hand-without which he would have nothing to bargain with when the time of reckoning came.

He had to get it back, he thought, before it reached the General. The Oracle would have guessed that, of course, and Maddy would be on her guard. Still, he thought, he was not beaten yet. He knew all the exits to Red Horse Hill, and from his hiding place in the wood he could watch for the fugitives unobserved. In World Below, without knowing their destination, he might lose them among the thousands of tunnels that lined the Hill, but here, in World Above, Maddy’s colors and those of the Whisperer would shine out like beacons for miles around. True, so did his own colors, but still, it was worth the risk, he thought. Besides, at the first sign of danger he could open the doorway under the Hill and be safe underground in a matter of seconds.

Loki’s sharp eyes traveled all around the valley, from Red Horse Hill to Farnley Tyas, to Forge’s Post and Fettlefields and even as far as the Hindarfell, where distant smoke from a hayrick or a cook-fire smudged the horizon into a haze. There was as yet no trace of a signature, but he felt sure Maddy would show herself soon. He watched and waited, taking his time-it had been decades since he’d last ventured into World Above, and in spite of the urgency of his task he could not help but take pleasure in the feel of the sun and the blue of the sky.

It had been a good falltime, but the season was almost done, and soon would come the long, bleak winter. He could smell it: the wild geese had flown; the fields were bare after that busy Harvestmonth and the stubble burned in time for the next seeding. Wherever Maddy and Odin were planning to meet, they would surely not venture out of the valley at such a time. So far, it was still warm in the afternoon sun, but there was a sharp edge to the air that would soon turn to ice and a long, slow five-month before spring’s awakening.

Awakening! The thought came to Loki with sudden certainty, and he froze, his eyes fixing on the hazy sky, the distant pass, and the seven peaks that guarded the valley. There were tales about those peaks, he knew. He had spread many of them himself in the hope of discouraging attention from the glacial halls under those mountains and from the seven deadly inhabitants that slumbered beneath the ancient stone.

The Sleepers.

“No. They wouldn’t dare.”

In his alarm he spoke aloud, and birds flew cackling out of the scrub at the sound of his voice. Loki scarcely heard them. Already he was sliding down the tree trunk, sending leaves and fragments of bark showering onto the forest floor. Surely, he thought, they wouldn’t dare! The General himself had never dared-after Ragnarók, Odin could no longer assume the Sleepers were his to command.

Unless he knew something that Loki did not. Some new rumor, some warning sign, some omen that Loki’s spies had failed to read. Perhaps, at last, Odin had dared.

Loki’s mind raced furiously. If the Sleepers were awake, he thought, then surely he would have known by now. Their presence would have launched echoes and alarms throughout World Below. No reason to panic just yet, then. The General was above all a tactician, and he would not risk unleashing the Sleepers without first ensuring his absolute authority.

But with the Whisperer in his hands…

A distant shudder ran through the ground. It must have been the digging machines-though for a second Loki had been almost sure that he sensed something else: a convulsion that passed over the skin of the valley like a tremor on the skin of an old dog.

He shivered.

Surely not! There must still be time…

If the Sleepers awoke, he was as good as dead.

Unless he recovered the Whisperer…

If Maddy was heading for the Sleepers, he thought, then the quickest way was underground. It might take her four hours to reach the place-that gave her quite a lead on him-but Loki knew World Below better than anyone. He had shortcuts through the Hill that no one else knew and, with luck, perhaps he could still cut her off. If not, then at least he could be sure that Odin would not have ventured underground. So the General would be traveling overland toward the mountains, which gave him a journey twice as long-and over some rather rough terrain. Which left Maddy and the Whisperer alone.

Loki grinned. In a fair fight he knew he had no chance, but Loki was not accustomed to fighting fair and had no intention of starting now.

Well, then-

With a flick of the fingers he cast ýr at the ground and prepared to re-enter World Below.

Nothing happened.

The door that should have slipped open at his command remained sealed.

Loki cast again, frowning a little.

Still the doorway declined to reveal itself.

Loki cast Thuris, then Logr, Water, and finally Úr, the Mighty Ox, a rune of brute force, which was his equivalent of kicking the door hard in his impatience.

Nothing worked. The door stayed shut. Loki sat down on the forest floor, angry, puzzled, and breathing hard. He had flung those runes with all his glam. Even if the door had been magically sealed, surely something should have happened.

It was shielded, then, whatever it was. He cast Bjarkán as hard as he could.

Still there was nothing. Not a gleam, not a twinkle. The door was not just sealed; it was as if it had never been there.

That shudder, he thought. He’d taken it for the work of those digging machines, but now that he thought about it more carefully, he realized he’d made a mistake. That was the echo of powerful glam-a single working, likely as not-and World Below had shifted accordingly, going into total lockdown against a potential intruder.

He tried to think what kind of assault might have triggered such a response.

Only one thing came to mind.

Now he began to feel afraid. He was locked out of World Below, alone and with enemies on either side. Time was short, the Sleepers might already be awake, and every second lost brought Maddy and One-Eye closer together. The solution was a dangerous one, but he didn’t see that he had a choice. He would have to go after them overland.

He uttered a cantrip, cast Kaen and Raedo, and if anyone had been there to see, they would have been amazed as the young man with the scarred lips and the harried expression dwindled, shrunk, shed his clothes, and became a small brown bird of prey that looked around for a second or two with bright, unbirdlike eyes before taking wing, circling the Hill twice in a widening arc, and soaring away into the thermals and off toward the Seven Sleepers.

Anyone with the truesight, of course, would not have been fooled for a minute. That violet trail was far too distinctive.

8

Nat Parson was enjoying himself. It wasn’t just the robes, or the ceremony, or the knowledge that everyone was watching him, majestic on his white horse, with Adam Scattergood standing beside him with the incense pot in one hand and a fat church candle in the other. It wasn’t the close attention of the visitor from World’s End, who watched him (with admiration, Nat thought) from his position in the Eye of the Horse. It wasn’t the noble sound of his own voice as it rolled over the Hill, or the roar of the digging machines, or the smoke from the bonfires, or the Fair Day firecrackers that popped and flashed. It wasn’t even the fact that that tiresome girl was for it at last-her and the Outlander too. No, all these things were pleasing, but Nat Parson’s happiness ran deeper than that.

Of course, he’d always known he was destined for greatness. His wife, Ethelberta, had seen it too-in fact, it had been her idea to embark on that long and dangerous pilgrimage to World’s End, which had led to his subsequent awakening to the stern duties of the Faith.

Oh, there was no denying that he had been dazzled by the sophistication of the Universal City: its abbeys and cathedrals, its solemn passageways, its Laws. Nat Parson had always respected the Law-what there was of it in Malbry-but World’s End had opened his eyes at last. For the first time he had experienced perfect Order, an Order imposed by an all-powerful clergy in a world where to be a priest-even a country parson-was to command hitherto unimaginable authority, respect, and fear.

And Nat had discovered that he liked to command authority. He had returned to Malbry with a craving for more, and for ten years following his return, through sermons of increasing violence and dire warnings of terrors to come, he had built up a growing clique of admirers, devotees, worshipers, and prentices in the secret hope that one day he might be called upon in the fight against Disorder.

But Malbry was a quiet place, and its ways were lax and sleepy. Common crime was infrequent enough, but mortal crime-the kind that would enable him to appeal to the bishop, even the Order itself-was almost unheard of.

Only once had he exercised this authority, when a black-and-white sow had been convicted of unnatural acts-but his superiors had taken a dim view of the matter, and Nat’s face had been red as a beet when he had seen the reply from Torval Bishop from over the pass.

Torval, of course, was a Ridings man and took every opportunity to sneer at his neighbor. That rankled, and ever since, Nat Parson had been on the lookout for a way to settle the score.

If Maddy Smith had been born a few years later, he often told himself, then his prayers might well have been answered. But Maddy had been four years old when Nat returned from World’s End, and although it might have been possible to take a newborn child into custody, he knew better than to try it then, just as he sensed that World’s End Law would have to be adapted to suit the needs of his parishioners, unless he wanted trouble from the likes of Torval Bishop.

Still, he’d kept his eye on the Smith girl, and a good thing too-this present matter was far too serious for Torval to dismiss, and it had been with a feeling of long-delayed satisfaction that Nat had received the visitor from World’s End.

That had been luck indeed for Nat. That an Examiner from World’s End should agree to investigate his little parish was cause enough for excitement. But by chance, for that same Examiner (on official business in the Ridings) to have been within only a single day’s ride of the Hindarfell pass-well, that was beyond anything Nat could have hoped for. It meant that instead of waiting weeks or months for an official to ride over from World’s End, the Examiner had been able to reach Malbry in only forty-eight hours. It also meant that Torval Bishop could not interfere, however much he wanted to, and that in itself was enough to fill Nat Parson’s heart with a righteous glow.

The Examiner had had a number of complimentary things to say to Nat: had praised his devotion to duty; had shown a flattering interest in Nat’s thoughts on Maddy Smith, the one-eyed peddler who had been her companion, and the artifact they had called the Whisperer-which Adam had heard them discussing on the hillside.

“And there has been no sign yet of the man or the girl?” the Examiner had said, scanning the Hill with his light-colored eyes.

“Not a sign,” the parson had replied, “but we’ll find them, all right. If we have to raze the Hill to the ground, we’ll find them.”

The Examiner had given one of his rare smiles. “I’m sure you will, brother,” he had said, and Nat had felt a little shiver of pleasure move up his spine.

Brother, he had thought. You can count on me.

***

Adam Scattergood was also enjoying himself. In the short time following Maddy’s disappearance he had almost completely forgotten his humiliation at the witch girl’s hands, and as the frenzy had spread, so had Adam’s self-importance. For a young person of such limited imagination, Adam had found plenty of tales to tell, aided by Nat and by his own desire to sink Maddy once and for all.

The result had been far more than either of them could have hoped for. The tales had led to searches, alarums, a visit from the bishop, an Examiner-an Examiner, forsooth!-and now this wondrous combination of Fair Day and fox hunt, with himself as the youthful hero and man of the hour.

He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. There were four machines on the Hill now, giant screws made of wood and metal, each one drawn by two oxen. From four drill points, two at each end of the Horse, came forth clots of red clay. Around these points the animals’ hooves had made such deep ruts in the earth that the outline of the Horse was barely visible, but even so, Adam could see that the entrance was still as closely sealed as ever.

Boom-boom-boom!

Once more one of the drilling machines had hit stone. Still the oxen strained and lowed. Nat Parson raised his voice above the squeal of the machine. A minute passed, and then another. The oxen kept on moving, the drill gave half a turn, and then there was a crack!-and the mechanism spun free.

Two men went to the beasts’ heads. Another climbed into the hole to inspect the damage to the drill. The three remaining machines went on, inexorably. Nat Parson seemed unmoved by the setback. The Examiner had warned him it might take time.

Book Four. The Word

*

1

Deep in the tunnels of World Below, Maddy was hungry, tired, and at the end of her patience. The passage was featureless, they had been walking for hours, and the steady shuffling lurch of her footsteps in the semi-darkness had begun to make her feel quite seasick.

Sugar had turned sullen as it became clear that he was expected to walk all the way to the Sleepers.

“How far now?” Maddy asked.

“Dunno,” he said dourly. “Never go that far, do I? And you wouldn’t, neither, if you knowed what was there.”

“Why don’t you tell me?” said Maddy, containing an impulse to mindbolt the goblin through the nearest wall.

“How can it tell you?” the Whisperer said. “It has nothing but legends and stories to go by. Devices used by the ignorant for the benefit of the foolish and the obfuscation of the credulous.”

Maddy sighed. “I suppose you’re not going to tell me, either.”

“What,” it said, “and spoil the surprise?”

And so they shuffled on, through a passageway that smelled sour and unused, for what seemed like leagues (though in fact it was only three or four miles). As they left the Hill, the pounding of the machines receded, although they all heard the peculiar clapping sound that came afterward and felt the cold tremor that shivered all along the granite layer above their heads.

Maddy stopped. “What in Hel was that?”

It was the sound of glam, she thought. That unmistakable aftershock-but so much louder, so much stronger than any mere cantrip she had ever heard.

The Whisperer brightened like an eye.

“You know, don’t you?” Maddy said.

“Oh yes,” said the Whisperer.

“Then what was it?”

The Whisperer glowed complacently. “That, my dear,” it said, “was the Word.”

2

Nat Parson could barely contain his excitement. He’d heard of it, of course-everyone had-but he’d never actually seen it in action, and the result was more splendid and more terrible than even he could ever have hoped for.

It had taken more than an hour of prayer for the Examiner to prepare himself. By then the Hill had been trembling with it, a deep resonance that seemed to suck silently at Nat’s eardrums. The villagers felt it; it raised their hackles, made them shiver, made them laugh without knowing why. Even the oxen felt it, lowing and straining at their harnesses as the machines went on grinding, and the Examiner, his pale face now sheened with sweat, his brow furrowed with exertion, his whole body trembling, stretched out his hand at last and spoke.

No one had actually heard what he said. The Word is inaudible, though everyone said afterward that they had felt something. Some wept. Some screamed. Some seemed to hear the voices of people long dead. Some felt an ecstasy that seemed to them almost indecent-almost uncanny.

Loki had felt it from Little Bear Wood but, in his eagerness to seek out Maddy and the Whisperer, had mistaken the vibration-and the crack that followed-for the work of the digging machines on the Hill.

One-Eye had felt it as a sudden rush of memories. Memories of his son Balder, dead from a shaft of mistletoe; of his faithful wife, Frigg; of his son Thor-all folk long lost, whose faces seldom returned to his thoughts.

On the Hill there had come a wakening shudder, making Nat’s hair stand on end. Then a crack like a thunderbolt.

Laws, that power!

“Laws,” he said.

The Examiner was the only one who had seemed unimpressed by the procedure. In fact, Nat thought he had looked almost bored, as if this were some everyday routine, somewhat fatiguing, but no more exciting than digging out a nest of weasels.

Then he had stopped thinking and, like the rest of them, had simply stared.

At the Examiner’s feet there was now an irregular gash in the ground, some sixteen inches long and perhaps three inches wide. Its shape seemed vaguely significant-it was ýr, the Fundament, reversed-although Nat, who was not familiar with the Elder Script, did not recognize its importance.

“I have broken the first of nine locks,” said the Examiner in his flat voice. “The remaining eight are as yet intact, but this reversal is the most important.”

“Why?” asked Adam, which pleased Nat because it was the question he had wanted to ask but had not for fear of sounding ignorant.

The Examiner gave a small, impatient sigh, as if to deplore the ignorance of these rustic folk. “See this mark-this ruinmark? This marks the entrance to the demon mound. Eight more of these locks remain to be broken before the machines can get inside.”

“How do you know there isn’t another way into the Hill?” said Dorian Scattergood, who was standing close by.

“There are several,” said the Examiner. He seemed to be enjoying himself, though his voice remained dry and contemptuous. “However, the enemy’s first defense is to close the Hill against all intruders. To dig deep, as a rabbit does when it scents the hawk. And so now, as you see, the Hill has been sealed. No escape from within, no way in from without. However, as any hunter knows, it is sometimes useful to fill in smaller rabbit holes with earth before setting the snare at the main burrow’s mouth. And when this burrow is opened at last”-the Examiner gave a chilly smile-“then, Parson, we shall dig them out.”

“You mean the…Good Folk?” said a voice behind him. It was Crazy Nan from Forge’s Post, perhaps the only person, thought Nat, who would have dared to speak openly of the Faërie-and in front of an Examiner, no less.

“Call them by name, lady,” said the Examiner. “What good can possibly come from this evil place? They are the Fiery, Children of the Fire, and they shall be put to the fire, every one, until the Order rules supreme and the world is Cleansed of them forever.”

A hum of approval went around the gathering-but Nat noticed that Crazy Nan did not join it and that several others looked a little anxious. It was easy to see why, he thought; even in World’s End such powers as the Examiner’s were rare, honors conferred upon the highest and holiest rank of the clergy. Torval Bishop wouldn’t have approved; to an oldster like Torval such things would have seemed dangerously close to magic-which was, of course, an abomination-but to Nat Parson, who had traveled and seen a little of the world, there could be no mistaking one for the other.

“Not children, though,” persisted Nan. “I mean, goblins, Good Folk, that’s all right, but we’re not going to Cleanse any real children, are we?”

The Examiner sighed. “The Children of the Fire are not children.”

“Oh.” Crazy Nan looked relieved. “Because we’ve known Maddy Smith since she were a bairn, and she may be a little wild, but-”

“Lady, that is for the Order to judge.”

“Oh, but surely-”

“Please, Miss Fey,” interrupted Nat. “This isn’t just common business anymore.” His chest swelled a little. “This is a matter of Law and Order.”

3

“The Word?” said Maddy. “You mean it exists?”

“Of course it exists,” said the Whisperer. “How else do you think the Æsir were defeated?”

Maddy had never read the Good Book, though she knew “Tribulation” and “Penitences” well enough from Nat Parson’s Sunday sermons. Only Nat and a handful of prentices (all boys) were allowed to read any part of it, and even then, their reading was restricted to the so-called Open Chapters of “Tribulation,” “Penitences,” “Laws,” “Listings,” “Meditations,” and “Duties.”

But some chapters of the Book were locked, with silver clips that pinned the pages shut, the key kept on a fine chain around Nat Parson’s neck. No sermons were ever preached from these Closed Chapters, as they were called, although Maddy knew some of their names from One-Eye.

There was the Book of Apothecaries, which dealt with medicine; the Book of Fabrications, in which were histories of the Elder Age; the Book of Apocalypse, which predicted the final Cleansing; and, most importantly, the Book of Words, which listed all the permissible cantrips (or canticles, as the Order preferred to call them) to be used by the special elite when the time of Cleansing came.

But unlike the rest of the Closed Chapters, the Book of Words was sealed with a golden clip, and it was the only chapter of the Book that was closed even to the parson. He had no key to the golden lock, and although he had tried several times to open it, he had always failed.

In fact, on the last occasion, when he had taken a leatherworker’s awl to the golden lock, it had begun to glow alarmingly and to get uncomfortably hot, after which Nat had been careful not to interfere with it again. He knew a charmed lock when he saw one (it was not so very different, in fact, from the runecharm the Smith girl had placed on the church door), and though he was disappointed that his superiors had shown so little trust in him, he knew better than to challenge their decision.

Maddy knew all this because when she was ten years old, Nat had asked her to remove the lock, saying that he had lost the key and needed to consult the Book for parish purposes.

Maddy had taken malicious pleasure in refusing. “I thought girls weren’t allowed to touch the Good Book,” she’d said modestly, watching him from beneath her lowered lashes.

This was true; Nat had said so only the week before, in a sermon in which he had denounced the bad blood, disorderly habits, and weak intellect of females in general. After that, of course, he could not insist any further, and so the Book of Words had remained closed.

That had done nothing to endear Maddy to Nat; in fact, it was at that moment that the parson’s dislike of Maddy had turned to hate, and he had begun to watch for any sign that might justify an official Examination of Jed Smith’s pert, clever daughter.

“But the parson doesn’t have the Word,” Maddy said. “Only an Examiner could have-” She stopped and stared at the Whisperer. “Examiners?” she murmured in disbelief. “He’s called in the Examiners?”

Not kings, but historians rule the world. It was a proverb that One-Eye had often quoted, but even Maddy didn’t quite realize how true it was.

The Order of Examiners had begun five hundred years ago, in the Department of Records in the great University of World ’s End. It had to have happened there, of course. World’s End was always the center of things. It was the financial capital and the home of the king, the Parleyment was there and the great cathedral of St. Sepulchre, and rumor had it that in the vaults of the Department of Records, there was a library of more than ten thousand books-poetry and science and histories and grimoires-to which only the serious scholars-Professors, Magisters, and other senior staff-had access.

In those days the Examiners were simply officials of the University. They were entirely secular, and their Examination procedures consisted merely of written tests. But after Tribulation and the dark time that followed, the University had remained a symbol of Order. Gradually its influence had grown. Histories were written, conclusions drawn, dangerous books hidden away. And quietly, studiously, power had passed. Not to kings or warriors, but to the Department of Records and the little clique of historians, academics, and theologians who had appointed themselves the sole chroniclers of Tribulation.

The Good Book had been the culmination of their work: the story of the world and of its near destruction by the forces of Chaos; a catalog of world knowledge, science, wisdom, and medicine; and a list of commandments to ensure that in the future, whatever else happened, Order would always triumph.

And so the Order was begun. Not quite priests, not quite scholars, though they shared elements of both, over the years they had become increasingly powerful, and by the end of the first century following Tribulation they had extended their authority far beyond the University. They controlled education and ensured that literacy was restricted to the priesthood, its prentices, and members of the Order. The word University was expanded to make Universal City, so that as years passed, folk forgot that once there had been free access to books and to learning and came to believe that things had always been as they were.

Since then the Order had grown and grown. The king was on the coins, but the Order told him how many to strike; they governed the Parleyment; the army and the police were under their jurisdiction. They were immensely wealthy, they had the power to seize land and possessions from anyone who broke the Law, and they were always recruiting new members. From the priesthood, for the most part, although the Order also took students from the age of thirteen, and these prentices-who gave up their names and renounced their families-often turned out to be the most zealous of all, working tirelessly up the ranks in the hope that one day they might be found worthy to receive the key to the Book of Words.

Everyone had heard tales: of how some prentice had denounced his father to the Order for failing to attend prayers or how some old woman had been Cleansed for decking a wishing well or keeping a cat.

World’s End, of course, was used to it, but if anyone had suggested to Maddy Smith that a villager of Malbry-even one as vain and stupid as Nat Parson-would deliberately court the attention of the Examiners, she would never have believed them.

***

Two hours later, and at last the passageway had broadened out, a faint gleam reflecting dully against mica-spackled walls. The sour cellar smell that suffused the Hill no longer troubled Maddy at all. In fact, now that she thought about it, the air seemed sweeter than before, although it was growing perceptibly colder.

“We’re getting close to the Sleepers,” she said.

“Aye, miss,” said Sugar, who had been getting more and more nervous as they approached their goal. “Not long now. Well, that’s my job done, then, and if I could just be on me way…”

But Maddy’s eye had lit upon something, a point of luminescence too pale to be firelight, too bright to be a reflection on the stone. “That’s daylight,” she said, her face brightening.

Sugar considered putting her straight, then he shrugged and thought better of it.

“That’s the Sleepers, miss,” he said in a low voice, and that was when his courage, already tried to its breaking point, finally gave way. He could withstand many things, but enough was enough, and there comes a time for every goblin to take the better part of valor and run.

Sugar-and-Sack turned and ran.

Maddy ran toward the light, too excited to think either about Sugar’s desertion or about the fact that it didn’t really look like daylight at all. It was a cool and silvery light, like the pale edge of a summer pre-dawn. It was faint but penetrating. Maddy could see that it touched the sides of the passageway with a milky gleam, picking out the fragments of mica in the rock and lighting the plumes of steam that came from Maddy’s mouth in the cold air.

It was a cavern. She could see that now. The passage broadened, became funnel-shaped, and then opened out, and Maddy, who had considered herself accustomed to marvels after her time under the Hill, gave a long sigh of amazement.

The cavern was beyond size. Maddy had heard tales of the great cathedrals of World’s End, cathedrals as big as cities with spires of glass, and in her imagination they might have been something like this. Even so, the sheer hugeness of the space almost defeated her. It was a bristling vastness of luminous blue ice, its ceiling vaulted in a thousand bewildering swirls and fantails, its height lifted unimaginably by glassy pillars as broad as barn doors.

It stretched out forever-or so it first seemed-and the light seemed trapped within the ancient ice, a light that shone like a distillation of stars.

For a long time Maddy stared, breathless. The ceiling was open in part to the sky; a fragment of moon stood outlined against a patch of darkness. From the gaps in the vaulting, icicles fell, tumbling and plunging hundreds of feet to hang, crystalline, above her head. If I threw a stone, thought Maddy with a sudden chill, or if I were to even raise my voice…

But the icicles were the least of a thousand wonders that filled the cavernous hall. There were strands of filigree no thicker than a spider’s web; there were flowers of glass with leaves of frozen gauze; there were sapphires and emeralds growing out of the walls; there were acres of floor smoother than marble, fit for a million dancing princesses.

And the light: it shone out from everywhere, clean and cold and pitiless. As her eyes adjusted, Maddy saw that it was made from signatures; thousands of them, it seemed, crisscrossing the rapturous air. Maddy had never, never in her life seen so many signatures.

Their brightness left her speechless. Gods alive, she thought, One-Eye’s is bright and Loki’s is brighter, but this makes them look like candles in the sun.

She had been moving, wide-eyed, bewildered, further into the cavern. Every step showed her new marvels. She could hardly breathe-hardly think-for wonderment. Then in front of her she saw something that momentarily eclipsed everything else: a raw-edged block of blue ice with thin columns at its four corners. Maddy peered closer-and gave a cry as she saw, embedded deep beneath the ice, something that could only be…

A face.

4

In the fields to the west of Little Bear Wood, Odin One-Eye was watching birds. One bird in particular, a small brown hawk, flying fast and low across the fields. Not in a hunting pattern, he thought-although there was surely plenty of prey. No, this hawk flew as if it sensed a predator, though there were surely no eagles this far from the mountains, and only an eagle would bring down a hawk.

A hawk, but what kind?

That was no bird.

He had sensed rather than seen it almost at once. Its movement, perhaps, or the speed of its course, or its colors scrawled across the sky-half obscured by the setting sun but as familiar to One-Eye as his own.

Loki.

So the traitor had survived. It came as no great surprise to him-Loki had a habit of beating the odds, and that hawk had always been a favorite Aspect of his. But what in Hel’s name was he doing here now? Loki, of all people, should have been fully aware of the recklessness of flaunting his colors in World Above. But here he was, in broad daylight-and in too much of a hurry even to cover his tracks.

In the old days, of course, Odin could have brought down the bird with a single mindrune. Today, and at such a distance, he knew better than to try. Runes that had once been child’s play to him now cost him an effort he could ill afford. But Loki was a child of Chaos; its harmonies were in his blood.

What could have forced him to leave the Hill? The Examiner and his invocations? Surely not. No single Examiner could have flushed out the Trickster from his stronghold, and Loki wasn’t the type to panic. Besides, why would he leave his base? And why, of all places, make for the Sleepers?

One-Eye left the fields by a gap in the hedge and, skirting the edge of Little Bear Wood, squinted after the fleeting hawk. The western road was completely deserted; the sun’s rays shone low across the brindled land, sending his long shadow sprawling behind him. On the Hill a bonfire was lit: the folk of Malbry were celebrating.

Briefly One-Eye hesitated. He was reluctant to leave Red Horse Hill, where Maddy would surely look for him. But Loki’s presence in World Above was much too disturbing to ignore.

He took out his bag of runestones and cast his fortune quickly, there on the side of the western road.

He drew Ós, the Æsir, reversed-

– crossed with Hagall, the Destroyer-

– with Isa and Kaen in opposition-

– and finally his own rune, Raedo, reversed, crossed with Naudr, the Binder, rune of the Underworld-rune of Death.

Even in the best of circumstances such a fortune would not have made for cheerful reading. Now, with an Examiner of the Order on Red Horse Hill, with Loki in the world again, with the Whisperer in unknown hands, and with Maddy still missing in World Below, it seemed like a taunt from the Fates themselves.

He gathered the runestones and stood up. It would take him the best part of the night to reach the Sleepers unobserved. He guessed Loki could do it in less than an hour. That couldn’t be helped, and staff in hand, One-Eye began the long trek toward the mountains.

It was then, just then, that the possemen struck.

He should have known, One-Eye told himself later. That little wood, so convenient and well placed on the edge of the fields, was the perfect site for an ambush. But he had been preoccupied with thoughts of Loki and the Sleepers; blinded by the sinking sun, he never saw them coming.

A second later they were out of the trees, running low to the ground, a posse of nine, armed with staves.

One-Eye moved surprisingly fast. T ýr, the Warrior, shot out like a steel dart from between his fingers, and the first man-it was Daniel Hetherset, one of Nat’s prentices-fell to the ground with his hands clasped to his face.

Time was when that would have been enough. This time it was not, and the eight remaining posse members barely halted, exchanging rapid glances as they fanned out across the road, staves at the ready.

“We don’t want a fight.” It was Matt Law, the constable, a large, earnest man not built for speed.

“I can tell,” said One-Eye softly. At his fingertips T ýr was a blade of light, rather short for a mindsword but keener than Damascus steel.

“Come quiet,” said Matt, whose face was cheesy with fear. “I give you my word you’ll be fairly treated.”

One-Eye gave a smile that made the lawman shiver. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, “I think I’d rather be on my way.”

That should have ended it. As it was, the possemen drew back a little. Matt, however, stood his ground. He was fat but not soft, and under the gaze of his fellow villagers he was very conscious of his duty as an officer of the Law.

“You’ll come with us,” he said, “whether you want to or not. Be reasonable. You’re outnumbered. I’ve given you my word that your case will be treated according to due process and with every…”

One-Eye had been watching Matt and had missed the man who shifted-oh, so slyly-into the line of his blind eye.

The others stayed where they were, spread out against the sun, so that One-Eye’s vision was blurred and their faces, which might have given them away, were lost in shadow.

Daniel Hetherset, who had fallen beneath the Outlander’s blow, was recovering. The mindsword had not cut him badly, and now he began to struggle to his feet, blood still flowing from the ugly scratch across his cheek.

One-Eye’s gaze had dropped fractionally; Matt was standing directly in front, and the man who had blindsided him-it was Jan Goodchild, a father of two from one of the most right-thinking families in the valley-now swung out his staff and struck at One-Eye’s head as hard as he could.

If the blow had connected properly, the fight would have been over there and then. But Jan was excited, and his strike went wild, hitting One-Eye on the shoulder and knocking him off balance into the group of possemen.

There followed a messy scuffle, with weapons flailing wildly, Matt Law calling for order, and the Outlander, T ýr in hand, swiping and feinting just as cleverly as if it had been a real short-sword and not just a glamour held in place by nothing but the force of his own will.

One-Eye, unlike Loki, had always been a natural with weapons. Even so, he could feel his glam weakening; it takes a great deal of power to use a mindsword, and his time was running short. Jan swiped at him again, hitting his right arm with sickening force; the strike that would have speared Jan went astray and hit Matt Law instead, a messy blow right in the midsection.

One-Eye followed up with another strike, this time spearing Jan through the ribs, a clean thrust, and One-Eye had time for a single thought-You’ve killed him, you fool-before T ýr guttered and died in his hand.

Then they were on him, seven men with staves, moving together like reapers in the corn.

A blow to the stomach doubled him up. Another to the head sent him sprawling across the western road. And as the blows fell-too many to count, far too many for the crooked fingerings of ýr and Naudr to disperse-One-Eye had time for one more thought-This is what you get for helping the Folk-before one final crashing blow fell across the back of his head and pain and darkness swallowed him whole.

5

Meanwhile, Loki was not finding his task quite as straightforward as he’d hoped. It had been many years since he had approached the Sleepers by this route, and by the time he reached the mountains it was dark. Beneath him the slopes were blank and featureless in the starlight. A waning moon was rising; small clouds flirted across it from time to time, painting the sky silver.

He flew onto a spar of rock that jutted out above a broad belt of scree. Here he regained his Aspect and rested-his shift to hawk guise had stolen more of his glam than he had expected.

Above him the Sleepers were icebound and forbidding; below were scree and stark rock. Down in the foothills, narrow paths crisscrossed the scrubby brushland; blackthorn trees grew; wildcats had their lairs here and sometimes fed on the small brown goats that ran freely across the heather. Afew huts had been built on the slopes of these foothills-mostly by goatherds-but as the land grew bare, even these few signs of habitation ceased.

He stood and looked up at the Sleepers. The entrance was maybe two hundred feet above him, a deep, narrow crevasse buried in snow. He’d been through once but would not have chosen to take the same route again if there had been any other choice.

There was not, and now he stood shivering on his spar of rock and quickly considered his position. The great disadvantage of his type of shapeshifting was that he took nothing with him but his skin-no weapons, no food, and more importantly, no clothes. Already the bitter cold had begun to work on him; much more of it and it would finish him quick.

He thought of shifting to his fiery Aspect but dismissed the idea almost at once. There was nothing to burn above the snow line, and besides, a fire on the mountain would attract far too much of the wrong sort of attention.

Of course, he could always fly up to the crevasse, sparing himself a long, exhausting struggle up into the icy regions. However, he was aware that his hawk guise made him vulnerable-for a hawk can speak no cantrips, and a hawk’s claws are useless if fingerings are required. Loki did not relish the thought of flying blind-not to mention naked-into the Sleepers and whatever ambush might be waiting.

Well, whatever he did, it would have to be fast. He was too exposed out on the blank rock, his colors visible for miles. He might as well have written LOKI WAS HERE across the open mountainside.

And so he regained his bird form and flew to the nearest goatherd’s hut. It was abandoned, but in it he managed to find some clothes-little more than rags, but they’d do-and skins to bind around his feet. The skins smelled of goat and were a poor substitute for the boots he had left behind, but there was a sheepskin jacket, rough but warm, which should keep out the worst of the cold.

Thus attired, he began to climb. It was slow, but it was safe, and over the last five hundred years Loki had learned to value safety more than ever.

He had been climbing for nearly an hour when he met the cat. The moon had risen, scything over the frozen peaks and throwing every rock, every spur into sharp relief. He had passed the snow line. Now his feet crunched against the skirt of a glacier, which looked frilly white from a distance, but which closer inspection revealed to be a grim hardpack of snow, stones, and ancient ice.

Loki was tired. He was also aching with cold; the skins and rags he had stolen from the goatherd’s hut might have served him well enough on the lower slopes but did little against the bitter cold of the glacier. He had tucked his hands into his armpits for warmth, but even so they ached viciously; his face was sore; his feet in their skin bindings had long since lost all sensation, and he stumbled drunkenly across the crust of snow, hiding his trail as best he could.

Once more he considered reverting to his fiery Aspect, but the cold was already too intense. Shifting to his fire form would simply burn up his glam all the faster, leaving him helpless.

He needed rest. He needed warmth. He had already fallen half a dozen times and found it harder on each occasion to struggle to his feet. At last he fell and could not stand up again, and he realized that he no longer had a choice: the possibility of his freezing to death by far surpassed the risk of his being seen.

He cast Sól but clumsily and winced at the pain in his frozen fingers. Shifting to hawk guise was no longer an option; his strength was gone, and he was down to his last cantrips. The rune lit up but gave little heat.

Loki cursed and tried again. This time the warmth was more focused, a glowing ball the size of a small apple that shone against the dull snow. He held the fireball close, and little by little he felt the life return to his crippled hands. Pain came with it. Loki yelped: it felt like hot needles.

Perhaps it was this cry that alerted the cat, perhaps the glow; in any case it came, and it was large-five times larger than a common wildcat and brindled brown as mountain stone. Its eyes were yellow and hungry, its claws soft-sheathed steel in the shaggy pads of its feet.

Further down the slopes, where prey was plentiful, it would most likely have given Loki a wide berth. But here on the glacier prey was scarce. This human-helpless, on his knees in the snow-seemed like a gift.

The cat moved closer. Loki, who could feel the sensation returning to his feet as well as his fingers, tried to stand up, then fell once more, cursing.

The cat moved closer still, wary of the fireball between Loki’s hands, wondering in its dim fashion if this were a weapon that might harm it if it sprang. Loki did not see it and continued to curse as Sól sent its knives into his fingers.

He might be big, the cat thought, but he was slow, he was tired, and more importantly, he was on the ground, where his size would be of no advantage to him.

All in all, it fancied its chances.

The cat had never attacked a human before. If it had, it would have gone for the face and would most likely have killed him with a single bite. Instead it leaped onto Loki’s back, caught him by the scruff of his neck, and tried to roll him over.

He acted fast. Surprisingly fast for a human-though Loki was not precisely human, the cat sensed-and rather than try to grapple with his attacker, the man hauled himself upright, ignoring the claws that gouged into his ribs, and deliberately flung himself as hard as he could onto his back.

For a second the cat was stunned. Its jaws loosened and Loki broke free, boosting himself away and onto his knees so that now he faced the creature head to head, his fire green eyes reflecting its yellow ones, his teeth bared.

The cat squalled, a terrible, ratcheting sound of rage and frustration. It faced him, ready to spring if he made the smallest move. Such battles of will could last for hours among the cat’s own kind, but it sensed that the human’s strength would fail him before long.

Loki knew it too. Numbed as he was with cold, it was hard for him to judge the damage done by the cat’s claws, but he could feel warmth flowing down his back and knew he might collapse at any time. He had to act-and quickly.

Eyes still locked on those of the cat, he held out his hand. In it shone Sól, fading a little but still alight. Very gently Loki moved from his knees to the balls of his feet, so that now he was squatting on his haunches, the sun rune outstretched. The cat squalled and bristled, ready to pounce.

But Loki pounced first. With an effort he sprang to his feet, and at the same time, gathering the last of his glamour, he flung Sól-now a white-hot firebrand-at the snarling creature.

The cat fled. Loki saw it go, a streak against the glacier’s breadth, and heard its cry of defiance as it went. It did not go as far as he would have liked, however, but settled at a distance of about three hundred yards, where the edge of the glacier met a nest of rock.

Here it waited, immobile. It could smell blood-and that made it growl softly with frustrated hunger-but more importantly, it could smell weakness. The human was wounded. At some point soon he would relax his guard.

And so it watched, and when Loki began once more to climb, slowly and laboriously, toward the dim blue cleft between the Sleepers, the cat climbed with him, keeping its distance but gradually closing as his steps faltered, his shoulders slumped, and at last he fell, headfirst and senseless, into the moonlit snow.

6

The face was buried deep, half obscured by tiny rosettes of white frost. But it was unmistakably a woman’s face, white and remote beneath the ice.

“Who is she?” said Maddy at last. With her hands she had managed to clear some of the frost. Underneath, the ice was dark and clear, like lake water. Beneath it the woman lay, slim as a sword, hands crossed against her breast, her pale, cropped hair fanning out into ice crystals around her.

“See for yourself,” said the Whisperer.

Maddy cast Bjarkán with a hand that shook. The runelight seemed to pick out every gleam, every glamour, every rune carved against the surface of the ice block, with a radiance that hurt her eyes.

Through it she found she could see the woman clearly: her face was still and coldly beautiful, with the high cheekbones and full lips that were typical of the northern folk. She wore knee-high boots and a tunic, belted at the waist, and at her belt there hung a long white knife.

But the most startling thing was the woman’s signature. It was a chilly, piercing blue, like the ice itself, and although it was sheathed tight around her body in a sleeping pattern, it was unmistakably alive. Its gleam was only fractionally less than that of the mark on the woman’s right thigh:

The runemark Isa-Ice.

Now Maddy could see the glamours that ringed the ice block: a complex chain of runes that strongly resembled the net in which Loki had imprisoned the Whisperer.

“So he told the truth,” said Maddy softly. “There are more of us.”

She realized that she had been afraid to believe it. Now the joy of knowing that she was not alone made her want to scream like a savage.

She did not-remembering that ice cascade poised above her head-but she clenched her fists in fierce delight. And now she could see, further down the hall, more of the ice blocks, their pillars standing out like sentinels in the gleaming hall. Seven of them, all in a line, like four-poster beds, their columns festooned with dripping icicles, their coverlets of frost.

“Who are they?” said Maddy.

“The Sleepers,” said the Whisperer. “Though not for long.”

Once more Maddy thought of the fire pit hall. “Did Loki do this?”

“No,” it said.

“Does One-Eye know?”

“Oh yes. He knows.”

“Then why didn’t he tell me?”

“I’m an oracle,” said the Whisperer, “not a bloody mind reader.”

Once more Maddy looked at the ice woman. “Who is she?” she said.

“Ask her,” said the Whisperer.

“How?”

“In the usual way.”

“You mean-wake her up?”

“Why not?” it said. “You’re going to do it eventually.”

Maddy was sorely tempted to try. She remembered the Whisperer’s prophecy: how the Sleepers would awake and Thor would be freed from Netherworld-on the other hand, she knew it to be devious, and she didn’t like its superior tone.

“I’m not doing anything,” she said, “unless you tell me who they are.”

“They are the Vanir,” the Whisperer said. “Hidden here since Ragnarók. Surt’s shadow had fallen across the Worlds; the Æsir had fallen, one by one. The Vanir, defeated, fell back and hid, and with the last of their glamours they created this half haven, half tomb in the hope that one day they might be reawakened in the new world, the new Asgard.”

“The new Asgard?” Maddy said. “What happened to that?”

“Prophecy isn’t an exact science. It will happen eventually. Though maybe not for your friend One-Eye-”

Maddy gave it a sharp look. “I see a general standing alone?”

The Whisperer gave its chilly smile. “So you were paying attention,” it said. “It’s nice to be appreciated. Now wake the Sleepers, there’s a good girl, and we can get the rest of my prophecy under way…”

“Well…” She hesitated. “I’ll need to talk to One-Eye first.”

“In that case you may have a long wait,” said the Whisperer, and its colors glowed in the pattern Maddy had come to associate with smugness.

“Why?” she said. “What’s happened to him?”

So the Whisperer told her of One-Eye’s arrest; of the fight with the possemen and of what had followed. There could be no doubt about it, said the Whisperer. It was attuned to the General; it knew his mind, felt every piece of glam he cast.

“He fought them,” it said, “but they were too many, and he lost. If he were dead, I would have known. Therefore I suppose that they took him to whatever suitable place of imprisonment you may have in the village-”

“The roundhouse,” said Maddy.

“Most likely,” it said. “And there, we must assume, whoever was using the Word back on the Hill will be more than eager to interrogate him.”

Maddy’s eyes were wide with alarm. “They won’t hurt him, will they?”

“Is that a question?”

“Of course!” she said.

The Whisperer smirked. “Then yes. They will. They will extract every piece of information he possesses, and when they have finished, they will kill him. And after they have killed him, they will go after the rest of you. And they will not stop until every last one of you has been wiped out. I hope this addresses your query.”

“Oh,” said Maddy. There was a long pause. “Is this a…professional opinion-or is it an actual prophecy?”

“Both,” said the Whisperer. “Unless, of course, you do something about it.”

“But what can I do?” said Maddy in despair.

The Whisperer laughed, a dry, unpleasant sound. “Do?” it said. “My dear, you’ll have to wake the Sleepers.”

7

According to the Book of Meditations, there are nine Elementary States of Spiritual Bliss.

One: Prayer. Two: Abstinence. Three: Penitence. Four: Absolution. Five: Sacrifice. Six: Abnegation. Seven: Assessment. Eight: Arbitration. Nine: Inquiry.

By this definition Nat Parson had reached the seventh Elementary State and was about to move on to the eighth. It felt good. So good, in fact, that he had begun to wonder if he might soon be permitted to tackle the Intermediary States-those of Examination and Judgment-for which he felt himself to be more than ready.

The Outlander was guilty-no doubt about that. Nat Parson had already Assessed him on more than a dozen counts of common crime-such as theft, vagrancy, corruption, and vagabondage-but the real meat was on the mortal charges: attempted murder of an officer, conspiracy, conjuration, artifice, and, most promising of all, heresy.

Heresy. Now that would be something, Nat Parson thought. There hadn’t been a charge of heresy in Malbry for over half a century. World’s End was different-more civilized, more particular. Hangings were common in the Universal City. The Examiners were quick to spot heresy as soon as it reared its ugly head, and their tolerance for all things uncanny was short.

Odin One-Eye knew that, of course. He knew a great deal, in fact, that would have made the parson’s jaw drop, though to Nat’s frustration he had not spoken a word since his arrest.

Well, he would be made to talk, thought Nat savagely, and anyway, that ruinmark straddling the scarred socket of the Outlander’s blind eye spoke for itself.

It had certainly spoken to the Examiner. If the business on the Hill had left him unmoved, the capture of the Outlander now saw him close to agitated. At first he had shown irritation at being called away from his place on the Hill, but as soon as he saw that ruinmark, and the man lounging insolently against the inner wall of the roundhouse, he lost much of his earlier aloofness.

“Who is this man?” he said in a strangled voice.

“A vagrant,” said Nat, pleased to have found something at last that impressed the World’s Ender. Until then nothing had-not his own quick thinking, not the menace under Red Horse Hill, not even Ethelberta’s cooking, which was acknowledged to be excellent as far as the Hindarfell and beyond.

In fact, the previous night, when Ethelberta had gone to the trouble of cooking the Examiner a meal (and it was one of her best, Nat could have told him-spatchcocked quail and fried mushrooms and honey cakes with almonds), the Examiner had refused all nourishment but bread, bitter herbs, and water, reminding both of them of the joys of Abstinence (the second Elementary State of Spiritual Bliss), so that no one had eaten anything much, Ethelberta had thrown a quiet but intense little tantrum in the kitchen, and Nat, in spite of his uncritical admiration of all World’s Enders, had felt quite annoyed with the fellow.

Now, in the roundhouse, he felt as if he’d got a little of his own back.

Nat Parson was very pleased with the roundhouse. It was not a large building, barely the size of his kitchen at home, but it was built of good solid mountain granite, and there were no windows. If Matt Law had had his way, there would have been no roundhouse at all-ten years ago there hadn’t been, and generations of Laws had used their cellars to lock up the occasional drunk or debtor.

Nat Parson, fresh from his pilgrimage, had put an end to that kind of laziness. He was pleased he had; the Examiner considered them a backward enough lot as it was. Still, he was impressed with their prisoner, and Nat felt a brief swell of pride at the efficiency with which the Outlander had been dealt with.

“A vagrant? By what name?”

“Goes by the name of One-Eye,” said Nat, who was enjoying his moment.

The Examiner’s voice was sharp. “I don’t care what he goes by,” he said. “Your true name, fellow,” he snapped at One-Eye, who was still sitting against the wall-in truth, he could hardly do otherwise, given that his feet were chained to the floor.

“I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours,” said One-Eye, showing his teeth, and the Examiner’s lips tightened, so that his pale mouth almost vanished.

“This man must be interrogated,” he said, fingering the gold key-his only adornment-that dangled from the cord around his neck.

“I’ll see to it,” said Nat. “I’m sure that between us, Matt and myself will be able to provide you with all the answers to-”

But the Examiner cut him short. “You will not,” he said in his scholarly voice. “Instead you will follow my instructions to the letter. First, you will have this man fully restrained-”

“But, Examiner,” protested Nat. “How could he-?”

“I said fully restrained, fellow, and that’s what I meant. I want him chained. I want him gagged. I don’t want to see him move so much as a fingertip without my permission. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Nat stiffly. “May I ask why?”

“You may not,” said the Examiner. “Second, no one will hold any conversation with the prisoner unless I myself give the order. You will not address him, nor allow him to address you. Third, guards will be posted outside the door, but no one is to enter without my permission. Fourth, word is to be sent at once to the Universal City, to the Chief Examiner in charge of Records. I shall write the message, to be delivered to him with the utmost urgency. Do you understand?”

Nat Parson nodded.

“Lastly, you will call a halt to all activity on the Hill-the machines to be left in place, guards to be posted, but no one to be allowed access to the mound or the earthworks without my express permission. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and, Parson”-the Examiner turned and favored Nat with a look of distaste-“make up a room for me in your house. I shall need a work space, a large desk, writing materials, a smokeless chimney, adequate light-I prefer wax candles rather than tallow-and complete silence to aid my meditations. I may have to remain here for some weeks, until my…my superiors arrive to take charge of the situation.”

“I see.”

Nat’s annoyance at being spoken to in such a fashion was only slightly tempered by his excitement. His superiors, eh? Nat had only the vaguest understanding of the complex system of ranks and seniorities within the Examining body, but it now seemed that his Examiner, lofty official though he undoubtedly was, held only a junior rank in the Order. More officials would come, officials who, if approached correctly, might learn to value the talents of a man like Nat Parson.

Now he thought he understood the Examiner’s abrupt manner. The man was nervous, out of his depth. Hiding his ineptitude beneath an arrogant facade, he thought to bamboozle Nat into allowing him to take the credit for all Nat’s work. Well, think again, Mister Abstinence, thought Nat savagely. One day I too may have a golden key-and on that day I’ll make you sorry you ever called me “fellow.”

The thought was so attractive that he actually smiled at the Examiner, and the World’s Ender, startled by the fierce brilliance of that smile, took half a step back. “Well?” he said in a sharp tone. “What are you waiting for? It’s six hundred miles to World’s End, in case you’d forgotten, and I want that rider long gone before nightfall.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nat, and he left the roundhouse with a brisk step while the Examiner, still shaken by that smile-The man must be a half-wit to grin so-fingered the key to the Book of Words and watched anxiously as the guards chained One-Eye to the roundhouse wall by his neck, feet, and fingers.

8

The Examiner’s caution had seemed excessive-even cowardly-to the parson. But Nat had not the other man’s experience and knew next to nothing about the Children of the Fire. The Examiner, however-who, like all members of the Order, had no name, simply a number branded onto his arm-had met with demons before.

It had been some thirty years since his first sighting. At the time, he had been a mere junior prentice, a scholar in the Universal City, and had taken little part in the grim proceedings. But he remembered them well. The Interrogation had taken close on fourteen hours, and by then the creature-a weakened thing, with a broken ruinmark-had been quite insane.

Even so, it had taken two Examiners armed with the Word and three prentices to restrain it, and when at last they had dragged it, howling, to the pyre, it had cursed them with a force that left three of them blind.

The young prentice had studied hard and joined the ranks of the Order, electing to discontinue his studies and work more actively in the field, later spearheading the outreach program into the Ridings and beyond, to root out such evil wherever he found it.

For this sacrifice he was given the Word. It was not usual for a junior to receive it, especially not a junior who had scarcely finished his twelfth year of study, but exceptions could be made in certain cases, and besides, the field operatives of the Order needed all the protection they could get.

On his pioneering journey from World’s End the Examiner had seen maybe two dozen cases worth reporting to the Department of Records. Most of these had turned out to be duds: fraudsters and half-breeds and Outlanders and freaks with no real power worth speaking of. He had come to accept that most of his day-to-day job would consist of digging out goblin infestations, filling in sacred springs, tumbling standing rings, and making sure the old disorderly ways stayed dead and buried.

But in a few cases he had seen things-disquieting things-that altogether justified his sacrifice. The one-eyed man from Malbry was one of these, and the Examiner was torn between the hope of having finally discovered something that would merit the attention of the Chief Examiner and the fear of having to deal with the creature himself.

He would have felt much happier if the man had been bound by the power of the Word. But the Examiner had used up much of his self-control on Red Horse Hill, and it would take long meditation for him to dare to use it again.

For the Word was not an everyday tool. Every instance of its use-save in times of war-had to be fully accounted for and a date written into the heavy ledgers of the Department of Records. It was also unwieldy, sometimes taking hours to prepare, though its effects were immediate and devastating.

And, of course, it was dangerous. The Examiner had used it more than most-one hundred and forty-six times in all his long career-but never without an inward shudder. For the Word was the language of the Nameless. To invoke it was to enter another world, and to speak it was to commune with a power more terrible than demons. Besides, behind the fear lay a deeper and far more dangerous secret, and that was the ecstasy of the Word.

For the Word was an addiction, a pleasure beyond any other, and that was why it was given only to those men who had proved themselves able to withstand it. The Examiner dared not use it twice in one day, and never without the proper procedure. For in spite of his abstinence the Examiner was a glutton in matters of the Word, and he worked all the time to keep his appetites secret and under control. Even now, the temptation to use it was almost unbearable. To speak, to see, to know…

He looked at his prisoner, a fellow who might be fifty or sixty or even older, dressed in Journeyman’s leathers and a cloak where the patches had long since overwhelmed the original fabric. He looked harmless as he looked human, but the Examiner knew that a demon may take on any Aspect, and he was not fooled for an instant by the prisoner’s outward appearance.

By his Mark shall ye know him, said the Book of Apocalypse.

Even more damning was the Book of Words, where all the known letters of the Elder Script and their variants had been set down, along with their several interpretations. From this list the Examiner had made quick work of recognizing Raedo, the Journeyman, and his suspicions had quickly become certainties.

It had not, of course, escaped his attention that the Journeyman rune, though clear and unbroken, was nevertheless reversed. The Examiner did not drop his guard on that account. Even a broken glam can be lethal, and a whole runemark-reversed or not-was a rarity indeed. In fact, in thirty years he had never made such a capture himself, and he guessed that this man, uncouth though he seemed, might prove to be more than a mere foot soldier in the enemy’s camp.

“Your name, fellow,” he said once more. In the absence of the parson he had dared remove the Outlander’s gag, though for safety’s sake he kept the chains in place. By now the man must have been in acute discomfort, but he said nothing and simply watched the Examiner with his one, unnaturally gleaming eye.

“Your name!” said the Examiner, and made as if to kick the stranger as he lay there so insolently. He did not kick him, however. He was an Examiner, not an Interrogator, and he found violence distressing. Also he remembered the demon with the broken ruinmark that had left three of his Order blind, and decided that this was not the time for rash action.

Odin laughed, as if he had read the Examiner’s mind. “My name is Untold,” he quoted maliciously, “for I have many.”

The Examiner was startled. “You know the Good Book?”

Again Odin laughed, but made no answer.

“If you do,” said the Examiner, “then you must know that you are already finished. Why resist us? Your time is done. Tell me what I need to know, and you may at least save yourself some pain.”

Odin said nothing, but simply smiled his unnatural smile.

The Examiner’s lips compressed. “Well,” he said, turning to the door. “You leave me no choice. When I return, you’ll be begging to tell me everything you know.”

Odin closed his one eye and pretended to sleep.

“So be it,” said the Examiner dryly. “You have until tomorrow to reflect. You may mock me, fellow, but I can guarantee that you will not mock the power of the Word.”

9

“Is there no other way?” said Maddy at last.

“Trust me. I’m an oracle.”

Once more Maddy looked into the ice coffin where the pale woman lay, her colors shining softly in the cold light. The blue tones of the ice that encased her threw deathly shadows across her features, and her short hair, so light that it was almost lost in her frosty shroud, was frozen around her face like seaweed.

Casting Bjarkán, Maddy narrowed her eyes, and the workings that bound the ice woman leaped into sight. As she had first seen, they resembled those that had held the Whisperer, but they were more numerous, binding the Sleeper’s ice coffin into a complex knot of interwoven glamours.

“Be careful,” said the Whisperer. “There may be traps set into the work.”

There were. Maddy could see them now, designed to spring out at anyone unwise enough to lay hands on the Sleeper. A protective measure-but for whose protection? She touched the runes gently with her fingertips; at her touch they glowed ice blue, and Maddy could feel them itching, working, struggling to be free.

“Think what they could tell you, Maddy,” said the Whisperer in a silky voice. “Secrets lost since the End of the World. Answers to questions you never dared ask-questions Odin would never have answered…”

It would be easy, Maddy knew. Beneath her fingertips the runes were alive, quickening almost of their own accord. All they needed was a little help. And if in exchange they could give her the answers to questions that had plagued her all her life…

Who was she really?

What was her glam?

And how did she fit into this tale of demons and gods?

Quickly, before she could change her mind, Maddy gathered her strongest runes. She cast them like knucklebones, swift and sure: Kaen, T ýr, Hagall-and finally Úr, the Mighty Ox, beneath which the block shattered with a sudden almighty crunch, and the blue surface of the ice was blasted in a second into a milky crackle-glaze.

The impact threw Maddy backward, one arm raised to shield her eyes from the ice shards that accompanied it. Then, when nothing else happened, she dropped her arm and moved carefully toward the now opaque block.

Nothing moved. The trembling chandelier of ice above her head made small, shivery sounds in the aftershock of the blast, but no icicles fell, and a chilly silence came once more over the great hall.

“Now what?” she said, turning to the Whisperer.

But before it could answer, there came a sound: first a distant crunching sound, followed by a rumbling, a tumbling, a slip-sliding, and finally an avalanche of frozen material that fell from some distant funnel in the ceiling to thud against the glassy floor.

Maddy moved fast, made for the wall of the cavern and flattened herself against it, as now the balancing icicles began to drop from the vaulted ceiling, spike by spike, like the teeth of some giant threshing machine.

A packet of snow the size of a hay wagon exploded against the ground close by, bringing down with it a jangling necklace of small projectiles and lastly a single large object-no, a person-who landed heavily and with a muffled ouch! on the fallen snow.

10

When Loki collapsed, bleeding and exhausted against the skirts of the glacier, it was with the knowledge that he had made a number of grave-possibly fatal-miscalculations.

What kind of fool puts his head into the wolf’s mouth for the sake of curiosity? What kind of fool leaves his citadel to go aboveground, unarmed and unprotected, chasing rumors, when he should have been preparing for a siege? But curiosity had always been Loki’s besetting sin, and now it looked as if he were going to pay for it.

But he had always had more than his share of luck. As it chanced, the very spot where he fell hid one of the skylights that opened onto the hollow halls of the mountain below. Snow had crusted it, but it was a brittle frosting, and a man’s weight was more than enough to break through.

And so, just as he hit the ground, a fissure opened up beneath him, revealing a ragged hole through which he fell, helpless to prevent himself-through the ceiling of the great cavern with its hanging ice gardens; through filigrees of brittle lace, fashioned by a thousand years of freeze and thaw; and finally through a sickening swatch of empty air-before landing, more mercifully than he would have dared to expect, on a thick wad of powdery snow.

Even so, the impact knocked all the breath out of him. For a time he just lay where he had fallen, half dazed and gasping. And when he looked up, shaking the ice crystals out of his hair, it was to see a familiar face staring down at him, a face as merciless as it was beautiful, around which the pale, cropped hair stood out like a frill of sea foam.

In one hand she carried something that looked like a whip made from runes, a flexible length of barbed blue light, coiled carelessly about her wrist. Now she released it, with a hiss and a crackle, and it slithered to the ground, snapping with glam. The ice woman stared at the fallen Trickster, and her lips, still tinted faintly blue, curved in a smile that made him shiver.

From the far side of the cavern, Maddy was watching. She had seen Loki fall and had recognized him at once by his signature and the color of his hair. She had seen the ice woman rise, striding confidently across the great hall, apparently oblivious to the fragments and shards that rained from the ceiling.

Now she watched the confrontation, cautiously, through Bjarkán, keeping low to the ground behind a table-sized block of unpolished ice.

“Loki,” purred the woman. “You look terrible.” The glam between her fingers began to uncoil, slowly, like a sleepy snake.

Loki raised his head, not without difficulty. “I try to oblige.” He pushed himself up onto his knees, keeping a watchful eye on the runewhip.

“Please don’t get up on my account.”

“It’s no trouble,” Loki said.

“I wouldn’t quite say that,” said the woman, pushing him down with a booted foot. “In fact, I think I can safely say that you’re in rather a lot of it.”

“That’s Skadi,” said the Whisperer.

“The Huntress?” said Maddy, who knew the tale. A part of it, anyway: how Loki had tricked Skadi out of her vengeance against the Æsir and how, at last, she had made him pay.

“The same Skadi who hung the snake-?”

“The very same,” said the Whisperer.

That, thought Maddy, complicated things. She had been counting on the fact that the reawakened Sleeper would be both friendly and eager to help. But this was Skadi, the Snowshoe Huntress, one of the Vanir by marriage to Njörd. Her hatred of Loki was legendary, and from the look of things, five hundred years had done nothing to abate it.

“What about Loki?” Maddy said.

“Don’t worry,” said the Whisperer indifferently. “She’ll kill him, I expect, and then we can get on with business again.”

“Kill him?”

“I would think so. Why do you care? He wouldn’t lift a finger to help you, you know, if your positions were reversed.”

Maddy glared. “You knew this would happen.”

“Well, of course I did,” said the Whisperer. “Have you ever known Loki to keep his nose out of anything that might be interesting? And Skadi always had a special grudge against him above all, you know, ever since the Æsir killed her father, Thiassi of the Ice People, warlord of the Elder Age. The Æsir killed him, but Loki arranged it. I’d keep out of her way if I were you.”

But Maddy was already moving. Using the ice block as cover, she edged closer to the two opponents, Bjarkán crooked between her fingers. Across the hall Skadi looked down at Loki and gave her chilly smile.

“Come on, Skadi,” said Loki, working to recover a little of his glam. “I thought we were past all this by now. It’s been how long-five hundred years? Don’t you think it’s time we-?”

“That long?” she said. “It seems only yesterday that you were in chains with a snake over your head. Those were the days, eh, Loki?”

“Well, you haven’t changed much, either,” said Loki, bringing one hand slowly behind his back. “Still as perilously attractive as ever,” he went on, “and still with the same delightful sense of humor-”

And at this he moved, with the same uncanny speed that Maddy had seen before, and as he threw himself out of range of Skadi’s glam, he flung a rune into her face.

Maddy had time to recognize ýr just as Skadi countered it with a blow of her runewhip. The coil struck once, like blue lightning, casually pulverizing ýr, then slammed home, the barbed runes that made up its length biting into the frozen ground.

Loki dodged-but only just. The runewhip opened up a crevice in the ground where he had been and swept a dozen icicles off a hanging buttress twenty feet above as it snapped back into the light-crazed air.

Loki tried for another rune, but before the fingering was even complete, T ýr, the Warrior, was blasted from his hand with a force that left his fingers numb. And now he was cornered, his back to the wall, one arm thrown up to cover his face as Skadi stood over him, runewhip raised. Maddy could see him forking runes at the Huntress, but his glam was burned out; not a glimmer remained.

“Now, Skadi,” he said, “before you do anything hasty-”

“Hasty?” she said. “Not a chance. I’ve been looking forward to this for five hundred years.”

“Well, yes. Nice to see you’ve kept your strength up,” said Loki. “But before you cut me into little pieces-”

“Oh, Loki, I wouldn’t do that.” She gave a laugh that rattled the icicles all the way to the frozen vault. “That would be over far too quickly. I want to see you suffer.”

Now Loki played his final card, his crooked smile beginning to show. It was a desperate move, to be sure, but he had always been at his most inventive in times of crisis.

“I don’t think you do,” he said.

“And why’s that?” said Skadi.

Loki grinned. He’d never felt less sure of himself, but as it was his last card, he played it with style. “I’ve got the Whisperer,” he said.

There was a very long pause.

Slowly the runewhip was lowered to the ground.

“You’ve got it? Where?”

Loki smiled and shook his head.

“Where?” In Skadi’s hand, the runewhip stirred threateningly, its tip reaching for him like the fangs of a snake. He waved it away with an impatient gesture.

“Oh, please. The minute I tell you that, I’m dead.”

“Good point,” said Skadi. “So. What do you want?”

11

Maddy had frozen the moment Loki mentioned the Whisperer. In her anxiety over One-Eye, it had not occurred to her how dangerous it was to have brought it with her into the Hall of the Sleepers.

Now it did, and Maddy cast about wildly for a place to hide it. Fortunately, she realized, the ice cavern was perhaps the only location in World Below where such a thing was possible, for the light-signatures that stitched the air were so bright and so numerous that among them even a powerful glam like the Whisperer might pass unnoticed for a time.

Cautiously she edged back behind the block where she had first taken cover. By scraping at the base with the edge of her knife, Maddy found she could make a gap large enough to hold the Whisperer. Sealing it with ýr and a few handfuls of packed snow, she inspected the result and decided it might pass.

It would have to pass, she told herself. Time was short, One-Eye was a prisoner, and although Loki was hardly a friend of hers, she wasn’t going to stand by and watch him be slaughtered. And so Maddy stood up and began to walk calmly toward the two deadlocked adversaries.

***

So far, so good. He’d bought himself some time.

Of course, it was the worst kind of ill chance to have happened upon Skadi, of all people-Skadi in her full Aspect, angry, alert, and strong as ever, Isa having no reverse position-besides which, Loki had never been much of a fighter, even in the old days, relying on wits rather than weaponry.

That runewhip of hers, he thought darkly. Doubtless some glam of the Elder Days, when they still had time and power to spend on such fancy work. It had not struck him directly-if it had, it would probably have taken his hand off-but even so, it had felt like being hit over the knuckles with a cudgel. His whole arm hurt, his right hand was still numb, and his chances of being able to work even the simplest fingering within the next hour were poor indeed.

But he was alive, against all expectation, and that was enough to cheer him for the present. At least…

Skadi had her back turned, and the first she knew of Maddy’s approach was the look of sudden anguish that flashed through Loki’s eyes. She turned and saw a young person not more than fourteen years of age walking steadily toward them.

“Skadi,” she said. “Nice to meet you. I see you and Loki have been catching up.”

Loki swallowed. For the second time that day he found himself at a loss, and did not enjoy the feeling. He was only too aware that a single word from Maddy could condemn him. And who could blame her? They’d hardly parted on the most friendly of terms.

Still, he thought, there’s always hope. Already his quick mind was sifting plans and possibilities. “Skadi,” he said, “meet Maddy Smith.”

Of course, if the girl was still carrying the Whisperer, then he was lost. And if she refused to play along, there again, he was lost. Perhaps they both were, for though Maddy was undoubtedly strong, Skadi was old and battle-trained, and with that deadly glam at her fingertips, Loki didn’t rate their chances if it came to a fight.

Maddy, however, seemed cheerful enough. “I’m glad to see you, Skadi,” she said. “I imagine Loki told you why we’re here.”

“Actually-no,” said Loki. “We were…discussing old times.”

“Well, it’s like this,” said Maddy, reaching down to pull him to his feet. “They’ve got One-Eye. And they’re using the Word.”

Book Five. The Sleepers

*

1

“When?” demanded Loki.

“At sunset.”

“Then they may not have used it yet,” he said.

Skadi looked at him. “Used what?”

“The Word, of course.” Shivering, he began to pace, his bare feet soundless on the glassy floor.

“What Word?” said the Huntress with suspicion.

“Gods,” said Loki in disgust. “This just gets better and better, doesn’t it? Maddy, where’s the General?”

“The roundhouse, I think.”

“How well guarded is it?”

Maddy shrugged. “Two men. Maybe.”

“Then we’ll have to move fast. We can’t let the Order interrogate him. If they find out who he is and what he knows…” He shivered once again at the thought.

“What Word?” repeated Skadi. “What is this Word, and where is the Whisperer?”

Loki looked impatient. “Look, dearie, things have changed a bit since Ragnarók. There have been some quite significant developments in the fight between Order and Chaos, and if you hadn’t been asleep under the mountains for the past five hundred years-”

“That wasn’t my idea,” Skadi hissed.

“Convenient, though, wasn’t it? Nice of old Njörd to count you in, even if you’re not technically a Van. No Examiners, no reversals, no Black Fortress-”

The Huntress’s eyes lit dangerously. “Hold your tongue, Dogstar, or I’ll relieve you of it.”

“Hey,” said Loki. “What did I say?”

“Please,” interrupted Maddy. “We don’t have time. One-Eye needs help-”

Skadi looked at her in scorn. “You want me to help him?”

“Well, yes,” said Maddy. “Isn’t he the General?”

Skadi laughed, a cheerless sound. “To the Æsir, perhaps. But not to the Ice People. Not to my folk. Whatever alliance we once had, it ended with the war. As far as I’m concerned, he and the rest of you can all go to Hel.”

For a moment Maddy was at a loss. Then she had a sudden inspiration. “He’s got the Whisperer,” she said.

The Huntress froze. “Has he?” she said, staring at Loki.

“Has he?” said Loki, genuinely startled.

Skadi raised her runewhip again. “I should have known you were lying,” she said.

“I wasn’t,” said Loki. “I said I knew where the Whisperer was. I didn’t say I had it on my person. For gods’ sakes, Skadi, give me some credit. Why would I bring it here, of all places? Would I really be that stupid?”

Maddy glanced uneasily over her shoulder to the ice block behind which she had hidden the Whisperer. “Would that be very stupid, then?”

“Very,” he said.

Meanwhile Skadi was watching Maddy. “So you were the one who woke me,” she said.

Maddy nodded. “I thought you’d help. The Whisperer said to wake the-” She stopped short, realizing her mistake.

But it was too late. Skadi’s eyes had widened. “It spoke to you?”

“Well…,” said Maddy. “Only once.”

“Did it make a prophecy?”

“It told me to wake you,” said Maddy, who was wishing she hadn’t got into this. “Look, are you going to help or not?”

“I’ll help,” said the Huntress with a chilly smile. “But I’m taking him with me. We’ll fly out together, find the General, pick up the glam, and if for some reason it isn’t there-”

“Why shouldn’t it be there?” said Loki.

“Let me guess,” said Skadi. “Perhaps some lying, conniving person thought he might be able to get me out of the way by sending me on a wild-goose chase while he and his little friend weaseled off with the Whisperer-you know, something like that. This way we can all rest easy. Don’t you think?”

Maddy glanced at Loki. “I’ll go.”

“You can’t.” He spoke reluctantly, as if weighing heavy odds. “The Hill is sealed from the Horse’s Eye. You can’t use the tunnels. Anyway, it would be suicide to go aboveground in this snow-as well as taking more hours than we can afford. No. She’s right. Whoever goes will have to take bird form to reach the village-an hour’s flight, if all goes well.”

Demon blood, Vanir blood, meant the power to shift from one Aspect into another. Loki and Skadi both shared that skill. Too late Maddy saw that her attempt to help had simply placed One-Eye in greater danger than before.

Loki knew it too-being basically dishonest himself, he had no great trust in Maddy’s story, and the prospect of facing Skadi again-this time after an hour-long flight and with One-Eye as his only chaperone-filled him with dread. “My dear Skadi,” he said, “it’s not that I don’t want to come with you-I mean, there’s nothing I’d like better than to risk my life for the General again, but-”

“No buts. You’re coming.”

“You don’t understand.” Now there was desperation in his voice. “My glam’s used up. I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m frozen stiff. There was a mountain cat the size of a-Honestly, I couldn’t light a fire in this state, let alone tackle an Examiner armed with the Word.”

“Hmm,” said Skadi, and frowned.

Loki was right. She saw that now. His colors were weak, and, using Bjarkán, she could read his distress there as clearly as footprints in snow. He couldn’t shift; he couldn’t fight; she was surprised he could still stand.

“I need food,” said Loki. “Rest.”

“No time for that. We leave at once.”

“But, Skadi…”

But Skadi had already turned away. Leaving Maddy and Loki together, she seemed to be searching around the vast cavern, inspecting the walls, the floor, and the ice sculptures that rose out of it-here an oliphant, there a waterfall, a giant table, and beyond that a ship that gleamed in the moonlight, its every surface clustered with brilliants.

“Maddy, please. You’ve got to help me.” Loki’s voice was soft and urgent. “I promised her the Whisperer. When she finds out I don’t have it-”

“Trust me,” said Maddy. “I’ll think of something.”

“Really? That’s good. Forgive me if I don’t fall at your feet with gratitude just yet…”

“I said, I’ll think of something.”

For a second Skadi seemed to pause, then she moved on, still searching, her pale hair shining eerily as she went.

“What are you doing?” Maddy called, seeing the Huntress move deeper and deeper into the Hall of Sleepers.

“Getting help,” came the sardonic voice. “For our poor, exhausted friend.”

“Oh no,” said Loki.

“What now?” said Maddy.

“I think she’s going to wake someone else.” Loki put his face in his hands. “Gods,” he said. “That’s all we need. More people after my blood.”

2

More people after my blood, he’d said, but the second woman who came strolling out of the Hall of Sleepers was as different from the icy Huntress as cream is from granite.

This woman was round and soft and golden; flowers gleamed in her long hair, and Ár, the green rune of Plenty, shone out from her forehead. Her gaze fell on Maddy, and it was wide and trusting and slightly perplexed, like that of an infant who wishes to please.

And such was the charm of this strange and childlike woman that even Maddy, who had plenty of reason to dislike a certain kind of cowslip-haired beauty, felt the air of the cavern thaw a little at her presence and seemed to smell the scent of distant gardens and ripe strawberries and fresh honey straight from the comb.

Skadi walked behind her at some distance, as if unwilling to get too close to something so unlike herself.

Loki too recognized her; as the smiling woman made her way toward him, Maddy saw in his face a mixture of relief and what might have been embarrassment.

“Who is it?” whispered Maddy.

“Idun,” he said. “The Healer.”

“Here he is,” said Skadi curtly. “Now get him moving, and fast.”

Idun peered at Loki, wide-eyed. “Oh, dear. What have you been up to this time?” she said.

He pulled a face. “Me? Nothing.”

“Do be polite, Loki, or you won’t get your apple.”

Idun, thought Maddy. The keeper of the magical fruit that cures sickness and heals Time. According to the tales, the fruit was golden apples stored in a golden casket, but the fruit that Idun held out to Loki was small and yellow and wrapped in foliage, more like a crab apple than anything else, though its scent, potent even in the frosty air of the cavern, was all green summer and creamy Harvestmonth crammed into a handful of withered leaves.

“Eat it,” said Skadi as Loki hesitated.

Loki did, looking none too pleased. For a moment nothing seemed to happen, and then Maddy saw his signature brighten suddenly from its dim bruise color to a vibrant gleam. It had been fading; now it hummed with power that crackled from his hair and his fingertips and shimmered briefly across his entire body like St. Sepulchre’s fire.

The effect was immediate. He straightened; breathed deeply; tested his ribs and his injured hand and the gouges from the cat’s claws and found them mended.

“Feeling better?” said Idun.

Loki nodded.

“Good,” said Skadi. “Let’s go. And, Loki…”

“What?”

“In case you were thinking of pulling a fast one-”

“Who, me?”

“I’ll be watching you.” She smiled. “Like a hawk.”

***

Ten minutes later an eagle and a small brown hawk were on their way to the village of Malbry. It would take them an hour to cross the valley. Without wings, Loki said, it was pointless to follow-and yet Maddy hated the thought of leaving One-Eye at the mercy of the Huntress when she realized (as she inevitably would) that she had been deceived.

Idun, as she soon discovered, was no help. She listened attentively enough to Maddy’s story but seemed to feel no sense of urgency or danger at all.

“Odin will think of something,” she said, and appeared to feel that ought to reassure her.

But Maddy was not reassured. “There must be some way,” she said. “It’s my fault. I took the Whisperer…”

Idun was sitting on a block of ice, singing to herself. At the mention of the Whisperer she stopped, and a look of mild anxiety crossed her features.

“That old glam?” she said. “Best leave it alone. It never did give us anything but bad news.” She pulled a comb from her hair and examined it, then began to sing again, her voice a thin filament of sweetness in the chilly air.

It was clear to Maddy that whatever powers Idun possessed would be of little use to her in their present situation. Wild thoughts of mindblasting her way out of the cavern were attractive but impractical, and she knew that however much she tried, she could never walk to the village in time.

One solution remained, and as she examined it from all angles, weighing the benefits and disadvantages, she became more and more convinced that it was her only hope.

“There’s no choice,” she said at last. “I’ll have to wake another Sleeper.”

Idun smiled vaguely. “That would be nice, dear. Just like old times.”

Maddy had a feeling that reviving old times was the last thing they needed right now, but she didn’t see any alternative. The question was, whom to wake? And how could she be sure that waking someone else wouldn’t just make matters worse?

With a heavy heart, and with Bjarkán gleaming at her fingertips, Maddy went over to the remaining Sleepers. Idun followed her through the caverns like a lost child, singing to herself and wondering at the lights and colors. Maddy noticed that wherever Idun went, the ice melted briefly, reconfiguring itself into frost flowers and ice garlands in her wake. More than once she looked anxiously at the chains of icicles suspended above their heads and tried not to think of what might happen if Idun stopped moving for too long.

Instead she concentrated on the Sleepers. There they lay in their beds of ice, still and gleaming beneath the bindwork of runes. Five remained of the original seven-four men and one woman-and for some time Maddy went from one to the other and back again, trying to determine which one to choose.

The first was a man of powerful build, with shaggy hair and a beard that curled like foam. His signature was ocean blue; he wore the rune Logr beneath a tunic of something that looked like close-linked scales, and his feet, which were large and shapely, were bare.

Maddy had no difficulty recognizing him from One-Eye’s accounts and decided at once that there was no question of waking him. That was Njörd, the Man of the Sea, one of the original Vanir and onetime husband of Skadi the Huntress. Their marriage had failed, due to irreconcilable differences, but all the same Maddy felt it wiser to keep Njörd out of the situation for the moment.

The second Sleeper was like Njörd, with the fair skin and pale hair of the Vanir, though Maddy sensed a warmth coming from him that had been absent in the Man of the Sea. He too was a warrior, with the rune Madr on his chest and a spyglass around his neck. It took Maddy some time to decide who he was, but she finally made up her mind that he must be golden-toothed Heimdall, messenger of the Seer-folk and wakeful guardian of the rainbow bridge; even beneath the ice, his bright blue eyes remained open and fiercely aware.

Maddy passed him by with a shiver of unease. She knew from the stories that Heimdall, though loyal to Odin and to the Æsir, hated Loki with a passion and was unlikely to be sympathetic to anyone trying to help him.

The third was Bragi, husband of Idun, a tall man with the rune Sól on his hand and a crown of flowers around his head. He looked gentle (Maddy knew him mainly as a champion of songs and poetry) and she would have liked to have chosen him, but Bragi, she knew, was no friend of Loki’s, and she didn’t like the idea of having to explain his role-or, indeed, her own-in what was becoming a very tortuous mess.

The fourth Sleeper was armored in gold and his long hair gleamed with it; the rune Fé shone out from his brow and a broken sword lay at his side.

Next to him, close enough to touch, was the last Sleeper, a woman of bright and troubling beauty. adorned her as well; her hair was fretted and woven with gems, and a necklace of twisted gold circled her throat, catching the light even through the ice. She bore a striking resemblance to the Sleeper beside her, and Maddy knew them at once to be Frey and Freyja, the twin children of Njörd, who had joined the Seer-folk with him in the time of the Whisperer.

With her hands Maddy swept the loose snow from the face of the last Sleeper. Freyja slept on, beautiful and impassive, giving nothing away.

Dared she wake her? Could she even be certain that Freyja-or any of the Vanir-would be any more helpful than Skadi or Idun? Of course, Skadi was only one of the Vanir by marriage; she came from the Ice People of the north, a savage race with whom the gods had held an uneasy truce. Surely it had been pure bad luck that she had woken Skadi first, and surely the other Vanir would be keen and ready to rescue their general.

Rapidly Maddy went over in her mind all that she remembered about Freyja. The goddess of desire, Freyja the Fair, Freyja the Fickle, Freyja the Falcon-Cloaked-

Ah. That was it.

Sudden excitement surged through Maddy. Now she could see a glimmer of hope-not much, but enough-that once more set her heart beating fast.

The runes felt familiar now, kindling quickly beneath her fingers. Here too the net that contained them seethed with impatience; the bindings itched; the glamours shone out with an imperious light.

Maddy reached for them with one hand, a bunch of colored ribbons like those on a maypole. She pulled-

– and the whole assembly came loose with a ripping and tearing and a great flare of colors and hues.

This time the ice did not shatter, but instead melted away, leaving the Sleeper damp but unharmed, dabbing at her eyes and yawning delicately.

“Who are you?” she inquired when the operation was complete.

Maddy explained as quickly as she could. One-Eye’s capture, Skadi’s awakening, the Examiner, the Whisperer, the Word. Freyja listened, her blue eyes wide, but as soon as Maddy mentioned Loki’s name, they narrowed again.

“I’m warning you now,” said Freyja stiffly, “I have…certain issues…with Loki.” (Maddy wondered briefly whether there was anyone in the Nine Worlds who didn’t have issues with Loki.)

“Please,” she urged. “Lend me your cloak. It’s not as if I’m asking you to come with me.”

Freyja looked Maddy over with a critical eye. “It’s my only one,” she said. “You’d better not damage it.”

“I’ll be really careful.”

“Hmm. You’d better.”

Moments later it was in Maddy’s hands, a cloak of tricks and feathers, light as an armful of air. She pulled it around her shoulders, feeling the delicious whispery warmth of the feathers against her skin, and at once it began to shape itself to her form.

The thing was alive with glamour, it seemed. Runes and bindings stitched it through. Maddy could feel them, delving, painlessly taking root in her flesh and bone, transforming her into something other.

It was blissful; it was terrifying. In seconds her muscles lengthened; her vision sharpened a thousandfold; feathers sprouted from her arms and shoulders. She opened her mouth in astonishment, but nothing emerged but a harsh bird cry.

“There. It quite suits you,” said Freyja, leaning over to inspect the result. “Now, when you want to take it off, just cast Naudr reversed.”

How? thought Maddy.

“You’ll manage,” said Freyja. “Just make sure you bring it back.”

It took her a few minutes to become accustomed to her new wings. For an agonizing time she fluttered wildly, confused by the altered perspective and half panicked by the enclosed space. Then at last she found the skylight and shot through like a flung projectile into the night.

Oh, the freedom, she thought. The air!

Below her the valley hung like a silver-stitched tapestry-the glacier, the road twining down along the Hindarfell pass. The sky was all stars, the moon was dazzling, and the joy, the exhilaration of flight was such that for an indeterminate length of time she simply let it take her, shrieking, into the illuminated sky.

Then she remembered the task at hand and, with an effort, took control. With her enhanced vision she could see about a mile ahead of her the hawk and the eagle-Loki and Skadi-streaking toward Malbry.

Below them the fields were beginning to turn, moving from Harvestmonth yellow to Year’s End brown. In Malbry a few lights still shone, and the smell of smoke from the bonfires hung over the land like a banner. Somewhere among those lights, she knew, her father would be awake, drinking beer and watching the sky. Her sister would be dreamlessly asleep on her bed of boards, a lace cap tied around her cowslip curls. Crazy Nan Fey would be sitting in her cottage talking to her cats.

And One-Eye? What was he doing? Was he sleeping? Suffering? Hopeful? Afraid? Would he be grateful to see her, or angry at how badly she’d handled the situation? Most important of all, would he play along? And if so, with whom?

3

Midnight. A potent hour.

The church clock tower struck twelve, then, a minute later, struck twelve again. In a small bedroom under the eaves of the parsonage the visiting Examiner, who had been waiting for just that signal, gave a tiny smile of satisfaction. All the rituals had been performed. He had bathed, prayed, meditated, fasted. Now it was time.

He was hungry, but pleasingly so; tired, but not sleepy. Once more he had refused the Parsons’ offer of a home-cooked meal, and the resulting slight feeling of light-headedness had been more than compensated for by a renewed intensity of concentration.

On the bed at his side the Book of Words lay open. Now at last he allowed himself to study the relevant chapter, with the familiar shiver of pleasure and fear. That power, he thought dimly. That intoxicating, indescribable power.

“Not mine, but yours, O Nameless,” he murmured. “Speak not in me, but through me…”

And now he could feel it already at his fingertips, moving through the parchment to illuminate him: the ineffable wisdom of the Elder Days, the desire, the knowledge, the glamour-

Tsk-tsk, begone! The Examiner banished temptation with a canticle. Not mine, but yours is the power of the Word.

That was better. The feeling of delirium subsided a little. He had a job to do, and an urgent one: to identify the agent of Disorder, the one-eyed man with the ruinmark on his face.

That ruinmark. Once more he considered it, with a tremor of unease. A potent glam, even reversed-the Book of Words said so-and there were verses in the Book of Fabrications, obscure verses, couched in terms so archaic as to be almost impossible to understand, that hinted at some dark and perilous connection.

By his Mark shall ye know him.

Aye. That was the crossroads.

If only the Examiner had completed his studies, stayed on at the Universal City for another ten years or so; then he might have been able to trust in his gut. As it was, he was still a novice in so many ways. A novice, and alone-but if Raedo meant what he thought it did, then he badly needed the support of his Magisters, and quickly.

A horseman riding as far as the Universal City might take weeks to bring help. Time aplenty for the Outlander to regain his strength and to contact his minions. All the same, the Examiner had held back until now. The Book of Words was not to be used lightly at any time, and the canticles of greatest power-Bindings, Summonings, and Executions-were especially restricted. Even more so was the Communion, a series of canticles through which, at a time of great need, a member of the Order could convey a message to the rest. It was a ritual of great power, a merging of minds and information, a mental link with the Nameless itself.

But Communion was dangerous business, he knew. Some said it drove the user insane; others spoke of bliss too terrible to describe. He himself had never used it before. He’d never had to; but now, he thought, perhaps he must.

Once again his eyes slid back to the Book of Words, open now to the first chapter, “Invocations.” One canticle headed the first page-underneath, a list of names.

The Examiner read: A named thing is a tamed thing.

He read on.

Fifteen minutes later he had made up his mind. The decision could no longer be delayed; whatever the risk to his sanity or his person, he had to invoke Communion with the Order.

Some part of him regretted this-for the present the Outlander was his alone, and to involve the Order would be to lose that independence-but mostly it was a blessed relief. Let someone else take charge, he thought. Let someone else make the decisions.

Of course, there was always the chance that he might have misread the signs. But even that might be a relief. Better the ridicule of his peers than the terrible responsibility of having allowed the enemy to slip through his untrained fingers.

He considered the Book. It had to be done according to the correct process, he reminded himself. His mind would be wide open during the time of Communion, and he wanted to be sure that no taint of vainglory marked it. It took him ten minutes to achieve the required state of tranquillity and five more to summon the courage to utter the Word.

The rune Ós vibrated at untold length, an unheard note of piercing resonance that cut through the dark. All over the valley, dogs pricked up their ears, sleepers awoke, trees dropped their remaining leaves, and small animals cowered in burrows and nests.

Maddy felt it in a pocket of turbulence that tumbled and turned her.

Loki saw it as a ripple of deeper darkness that flickered over the land.

Skadi neither heard nor saw it, all her attention being fixed on the little hawk ahead of her.

For a moment the Examiner sensed their presence. For that moment the Examiner was everywhere: soaring in the air, crawling on the ground, imprisoned in the roundhouse, buried under the Hill. Power surged within him, terrible and astonishing. With his mind he reached further; touched World’s End and the tangle of minds awaiting him; was suddenly there-in a study, a library, a cell-linking, touching, Communing with every soul in the Order without the need for any words.

For a time it was a babel of minds, like voices in a crowd. The Examiner struggled to keep the link, struggled to keep his own mind from foundering. He could make out individual voices now-Magisters, Professors. The Council of Twelve-the high seat of the Order, where all decisions were made, all information regulated.

Then, suddenly, all fell silent. And the Examiner heard a single Voice that addressed him by his true name.

Elias Rede, intoned the Voice.

The Examiner took a sharp breath. It had been close on forty years since he’d heard his name, had given it up, as all prentices did, for his safety and anonymity within the Order. For practical purposes he’d been given a number instead-4421974-which had been branded onto his arm during his initiation.

Hearing his name after so long filled him with an inexplicable fear. He felt exposed, alone, utterly vulnerable beneath the scrutiny of some immensely superior mind.

I hear you, Magister, he thought, fighting the urge to run and hide.

The Voice-which was not quite a Voice, but an illumination that shone directly into his secret self-seemed to chuckle softly.

Then tell me what you see, it said, and at once the Examiner felt the most terrible, most agonizing sensation: that of something moving relentlessly through the pages of his mind.

It did not hurt, but it was anguish nevertheless. It was secrets thrown open, foibles exposed, old memories brought out to shrivel beneath that merciless light. There was no question of resisting it; beneath that scrutiny Elias Rede gave up his soul-aye, to the last scrap-every memory, every ambition, guilty pleasure, little rebellion, every thought.

It left him empty, sobbing his confusion. And now he was aware of a new horror: that of the Order watching and sharing. Every prentice, every Professor, every Magister, every scrub. All were present; all judged him in that moment.

Time stopped. From the depths of his misery the Examiner was conscious of a debate going on in the chambers of World’s End. Voices boomed around him, raised in excitement. He didn’t care. He wanted to hide, to die, to bury himself deep under the earth where no one could ever find him.

But the Voice had not finished with Elias Rede. Now it shuffled through the past few hours, going over in relentless detail the business on the Hill, the arrival of the parson, and the capture of the Outlander-especially the Outlander-sifting and checking every feature, going over every nuance of every word the man had spoken.

More, it said.

The Examiner faltered. Magister…I-

More, Elias. Give me more.

Please! Magister! I’ve told you everything!

No, Elias. You see more.

And in that moment he realized he did. It was as if an eye had opened within his mind, an eye that saw behind the world into some other, fabulous place of lights and colors. His eyes grew wide.

Oh! he gasped.

Look well, Elias, and tell me what you see.

It was a revelation. Forgetting his misery, he drank it greedily. Everything around him had a life, he saw: behind the trees, colors; behind the houses, signatures. Even his own hand, crooked into a circle with the thumb and forefinger joined together, cast a trail of brightness, gleaming against the dark air. Surely the Sky Citadel itself could not have been more beautiful than this-

Stop your gawping and look outside.

Forgive me, Magister, I-

Outside, I said!

He opened the window and leaned out, once more peering through the circle of his fingers. The night too was stitched with patterns: fading trails of many colors, most of them dim, but some like meteors crossing the sky. And above the roundhouse a brightness shone, a kingfisher trail that shot sparks into the starry sky.

At last, in that moment, Elias Rede knew the man with the scarred face and hid his own face with trembling hands.

Well done, Elias, said the Voice. The Nameless thanks you for your work.

The link was fading, its many voices growing unruly as the One Voice grew faint. Elias Rede felt his mind contract; the Communion was nearing its end. And yet the visions-the wondrous visions-remained, though slightly dimmed, as if, once seen, they could never be quite unseen.

A gift, said the Voice. For loyal service.

The Examiner reeled. Now that his mind was mostly his own again, he began to understand the outstanding honor that had been given to him. A gift, he thought, from the Nameless itself…

O Nameless, he cried, what must I do?

Without words, it told him.

And as the church clock struck half past twelve, Elias Rede-Examiner Number 4421974-lay on the floor of the Parsons’ guest bedroom with his arms wrapped around his head and shivered and wept with terror and joy.

4

Meanwhile, in the roundhouse, everything was quiet. Two duty guards stood at the door, but there had been no sound from inside the oven-shaped building since the Examiner’s departure, just before dark.

Even so, the guards-Dorian Scattergood, from Forge’s Post, and Tyas Miller, from Malbry village-had been left with very strict, very specific orders. According to Nat Parson, the Outlander was already responsible for two near fatalities, and they had been strictly warned against any lapse in concentration.

Not that he looked to be much of a fighter. Even if he were, the Examiner had left him chained hand and foot, with his fingers strapped together and with a hard gag between his teeth to prevent him from speaking.

This last measure had seemed a little excessive to Dorian Scattergood-after all, the man had to breathe-but Dorian was just a guard, as Nat Parson had pointed out, not paid to ask questions.

At any other time Dorian would have had no hesitation in pointing out that he wasn’t actually being paid at all, but the presence of an Examiner from the Universal City had made him cautious, and he had returned to his post without a word. Which didn’t make him any happier. The Scattergoods were an influential family in the valley, and Dorian didn’t enjoy being ordered about. Perhaps that was why he decided to check on the prisoner-in spite of his orders-just as midnight rang from the church tower.

Entering the roundhouse, he found the Outlander still awake. Not surprising, really-it was hard to imagine anyone being able to sleep in such a position. The prisoner’s one eye glittered in the light of the torch; his face was drawn and motionless.

Now, Dorian Scattergood was an easygoing fellow. A pig farmer by trade, he valued the quiet life above all, and he didn’t like unpleasantness of any kind. He was, in fact, Adam’s uncle, but had little in common with the rest of the family, preferring to mind his own business and let them get on with theirs. He’d moved out to Forge’s Post some years ago, leaving Malbry, Nat Parson, and the rest of the Scattergoods behind him. Unbeknownst to everyone but his mother, he also had a ruinmark on his right forearm-a broken form of Thuris, the Thorn, which she had obscured as best she could with a hot iron and soot-and although he had never shown any evidence of unnatural powers, he was known in the valley as a skeptic and a freethinker.

Unsurprisingly, this had not endeared him to Nat Parson. Tension had built up between them, and then, ten years ago, Nat had found out that one of Dorian’s sows-Black Nell, a good breeder with a broken ruinmark and a vicious temper-had eaten a litter of her own piglets. It happened occasionally-breeding sows were funny creatures, and old Nelly had always been temperamental-but the parson had made a great meal of the whole affair, calling in the bishop, for Laws’ sakes, and practically implying that Dorian had been involved in unnatural doings.

It had cost Dorian some business-in fact, there were still folk in the valley who refused to deal with him-and it had left him with a great mistrust for the parson. Lucky for Odin it had, of course; for it meant that Dorian, of all the villagers, was the most inclined to disobey Nat’s orders.

Now he peered at the prisoner. The fellow certainly looked harmless enough. And that gag must hurt, forced between the Outlander’s teeth and held in place with a bit and a strap. He wondered why Nat had thought it so necessary that he be gagged at all. Just plain old meanness, more than likely.

“Are you all right?” he asked the prisoner.

Understandably Odin said nothing. Through the gag his breath came in shallow gasps.

Dorian thought he wouldn’t treat a plow horse to a bit like that, let alone a man. He moved a little closer. “Can you breathe?” he said. “Just nod if you can.”

Outside the roundhouse Tyas Miller was getting nervous. “What’s wrong?” he hissed. “You’re supposed to be keeping watch.”

“Just a minute,” said Dorian. “I don’t think he can breathe.”

Tyas put his head around the door. “Come on,” he urged. “You’re not even supposed to be in there.” When he saw Dorian, his face dropped. “The parson said not to go near him,” he protested. “He said-”

“The parson says a lot of things,” said Dorian, leaning over to release the gag from the prisoner’s mouth. “Now, you stay outside and watch the road. I’ll not be a minute in here.”

The strap was stiff. Dorian loosened it, then cautiously drew the gag from between the prisoner’s teeth. “I’m warning you, fellow. One word and it goes back.”

Odin looked at him but said nothing.

Dorian nodded. “You’d like a drink, I daresay.” He pulled out a flask from his pocket and held it to the prisoner’s lips.

The Outlander drank, keeping his eye on the gag in Dorian’s hand.

“I’d leave it off all night if I could,” said Dorian, seeing his look, “but I’m under orders. Do you understand?”

“Just a few minutes,” whispered Odin, whose mouth was bleeding. “What harm can it do?”

Dorian thought of Matt Law and Jan Goodchild and looked uncertain. He wasn’t sure he believed half of what the parson had told him, but Tyas Miller had seen the mindsword with his own eyes, had seen it cut through flesh like steel.

“Please,” said Odin.

Dorian shot a glance over his shoulder to where Tyas was standing guard outside the door. The fellow was chained fast enough, he thought. Even his fingers were fastened tight. “Not a word,” he said.

The prisoner nodded.

“All right,” said Dorian. “Half an hour. No more.”

For the next thirty minutes Odin worked in near silence. His glam was still weak, and even if it had been stronger, the straps on his hands would have made the fingerings of the Elder Script almost impossible.

Instead he concentrated on the cantrips, those small uttered spells that require little glam. Even so, it was hard. In spite of the water his throat was still parched dry, and his mouth hurt badly enough to make speech difficult.

He tried it anyway. Naudr, reversed, would have loosened his hands, but this time it died, barely raising a spark. He tried it again, forcing his cracked lips to form the words.

Naudr gerer naeppa koste

Noktan kaelr i froste.

It might have been his imagination, but he thought the straps on his left hand slackened a little. Not enough, though; at this rate he would have to cast a dozen cantrips in order to free just one finger. After that he might be able to try a working-if there was time, and if his glam held, and if the guard-

The clock tower struck. Half past twelve. Time.

5

Meanwhile, less than a mile away, Maddy was closing steadily on the eagle and the hawk. She’d kept high above the other two, well out of their line of vision, and she was almost sure she hadn’t been seen. Now she veered a little to the right, still keeping very high, and surveyed the village with her falcon’s gaze.

She could see the roundhouse, a squat little building not far from the church. A guard stood outside it; another seemed to be looking inside. Only two of them. Good, she thought.

Elsewhere it seemed fairly quiet. There was no sign of a posse or any other unusual activity. The Seven Sleepers Inn had closed for the night, and only one light shone from inside, where no doubt Mrs. Scattergood had found some other poor soul to do her clearing up.

In the street behind the Seven Sleepers a couple of late revelers were walking home, their gait uncertain and their voices raised. Maddy recognized one of them straightaway-it was Audun Briggs, a roofer from Malbry-but it took her a few moments more to recognize the second.

The second was her father, the smith.

That was a shock-but Maddy flew on. She couldn’t afford to be delayed. She only hoped that if there was trouble, then Jed would have the sense to keep well clear. He was her father, after all, and she would prefer him-indeed, she would prefer all the villagers-to be well out of the way when the sparks began to fly.

She was reaching the outskirts of Malbry now. In front of her, less than a hundred yards ahead, the hawk and the eagle were beginning their descent.

Maddy stooped, falling steeply from her superior height. She made for the church tower, dropping down behind its stubby spike, and fluttered to a landing, gracelessly, in the deserted churchyard.

The feather cloak proved simple to release. A shrug, a cantrip, and it fell to the ground, leaving Maddy to bundle it up as best she could and thrust it into her belt. Unlike the others in their Aspects, she had retained her clothes underneath the falcon cloak. That gave her a little more time.

She looked around. There was no one about. The church was dark, and so was the parsonage. Only one light shone from under the eaves. Good, thought Maddy again. She found the path-mourning the loss of her bird’s night vision-and began to run quietly down it toward the village square, now deserted as the church clock struck half past the hour.

It was time.

In the sky above Malbry, Loki’s time was running out. He had been thinking furiously throughout his flight, but as yet no solution to his particular problem had presented itself.

If he tried to get away, the eagle would catch him, ripping him apart with her talons.

If he stayed, he faced one (or both) of two enemies, neither of whom had any reason to love him. His hold on Skadi, he knew, would last just long enough for her to realize that he’d lied to her once more. As for the General-what mercy could he expect from him?

Even if he managed to get away-during the scrap, perhaps, or in the confusion-how long would he last? If Odin escaped, he’d soon come after him. And if he didn’t, the Vanir would.

It didn’t look good, he thought as he began his descent. His only hope was that the girl Maddy would take his side. That didn’t seem likely. Then again, she could have killed him twice. She had chosen not to. What that meant he couldn’t say, but perhaps-

Behind him the eagle gave a harsh cry of warning-Hurry up, you-and Loki obediently entered his dive.

6

The night was aflame with secret stars. So the Examiner told himself as he stepped out into the cold air and, in the magic circle of his finger and thumb, saw the light-trails of a thousand comings and goings spring into life around him.

So this is what the Nameless sees, he thought, looking up into the illuminated sky. I wonder-however does It stay sane?

He staggered a little beneath his new awareness. Then he saw something that made him draw a sharp breath. Two light-trails, one violet, one icy blue, streaking like comets toward Malbry. More demons, he thought, and drew the Good Book even tighter to his thin chest. More demons. Better hurry.

He reached the roundhouse minutes later. He was pleased to see that the guards were still alert, though one of them gave him an anxious look, as if expecting censure.

“Anything?” he said in a sharp voice.

Both guards shook their heads.

“Then you are dismissed,” said the Examiner, reaching for the key. “I won’t be needing you again tonight.”

The anxious guard now looked relieved and, with the sketchiest of salutes, went on his way. The second-Scattergood, if the Examiner recalled the name-seemed inclined to loiter. His colors too seemed somehow wrong, as if he were nervous or had something on his mind.

“It’s a little late,” he said, politely enough but with a question in his voice.

“So?” said the Examiner, who was not used to having his decisions questioned.

“Well,” said Dorian, “I thought-”

“I can do my own thinking, I’ll thank you, fellow,” said the Examiner, making the sign with his finger and thumb.

Now Dorian’s colors deepened abruptly, and the Examiner realized that the man was not nervous, as he had first assumed, but actually angry. This did not trouble him, however. He had dealt with a good many rustics in his time, and he was aware that such folk often resented the work of the Order.

“Fellow?” said Dorian. “Who d’you think you’re calling fellow?”

The Examiner took a step toward him. “Out of my way-fellow,” he hissed, holding Dorian’s gaze, and smiled as the guard’s colors flickered from angry red to uncertain orange, then finally to muddy brown. His eyes dropped, he muttered some commonplace, and then he was gone with a single backward glance of resentment, furtive, into the night.

The Examiner shrugged. Rustics, he thought.

Little did he know that Elias Rede-otherwise known as Examiner Number 4421974-had used that word just once too often.

Odin looked up as the door opened. He was far from close to breaking free, but by working and needling at the straps that bound his right hand he had managed to slip three fingers loose. It was not enough, but it was a start, and thanks to Dorian Scattergood it was to take the Examiner completely by surprise.

He’d entered the roundhouse boldly, the Good Book tucked comfortably beneath his arm. He had already quite forgotten the misery of Communion, that feeling of worthlessness and the knowledge that the most trivial and intimate part of his secret self had been peeled open for the casual scrutiny of something immeasurably more powerful…

Now he felt good. Strong. Masterful.

Armed with his new awareness, he saw that what he had taken for the compassion in his soul was in fact a deep, unworthy squeamishness. He had been arrogant enough to believe that he knew the will of the Nameless.

Now he knew better. Now he saw that he had spent the past thirty years as a rat catcher who thinks he is a warrior.

Today, he thought, my war begins. No more rats for me.

Still trembling with the exaltation of his noble task, he turned to his prisoner. The man’s face was in shadow, but the Examiner saw at once that his gag had been removed.

That stupid guard! He felt a surge of annoyance but no more; the prisoner’s hands were still behind his back, and his colors reflected his exhaustion. Across the ruin of his left eye, Raedo shone weirdly, a butterfly blue against his weathered skin.

“I know you,” said the Examiner softly, opening the Book. “And now I know your true name.”

Odin did not move. Every muscle protested, but he remained quite still. He knew he would have one chance, and one chance only. Surprise was on his side, but confronted with the power of the Word, he had few illusions as to his success. Still, he thought, if he could only get the timing right…

Hands still behind his back, he worked at the runes, aware that his glam was almost out, that if he missed, there could be no second try, but that sometimes a flung stone can be just enough to turn aside a hammer blow.

Beneath his fingers, with aching slowness, the rune T ýr had begun to take shape. T ýr, the Warrior, which had once adorned a mindsword of such power that it made him well-nigh invincible in battle-now reduced to a sliver of runelight no bigger than his fingernail.

But it was sharp. Beneath its small curved blade a fourth finger worked free of its bindings, then a thumb. Odin flexed his right hand, rubbing his palm softly with his middle finger like a spinner rolling a thread.

The movement was too small for the Examiner to see. But he saw its reflection in One-Eye’s colors, a darkening of purpose that made him narrow his eyes. Was the fellow planning something?

“I see you’d like to kill me,” he said, watching the blue of the prisoner’s glam take on the glossy purple of a swollen thundercloud.

Odin said nothing, but behind his back his fingers worked.

“So you won’t talk?” said the Examiner, smiling. “I assure you, you will.” In his hands the Book of Words lay open at chapter one: “Invocations.”

In other words, Names.

7

It takes a superior kind of courage to torture a man, reflected the Examiner. Not everybody has it, nor are many called to the task. Even he, in spite of his brave talk, had never been required to deal with anything much higher up the scale of being than a ruinmarked nag or a warren of rabblesome goblins.

And now he must cast the Word on a man.

The thought made him feel slightly sick-but not with horror, he realized. With excitement.

Of course, he already knew its effects. He’d first seen them in action thirty years ago, when he was just a scrub. It had sickened him then: the creature’s hate, its curses, and at the end, when the final invocations had all been made, the near-human bewilderment in its pain-filled eyes.

Now he felt a surge of righteous joy. This was to be his moment of glory. For this task he had been granted a power that Magisters waited years in vain to receive, and he would prove himself worthy-aye, if he had to wade through rivers of unnatural blood.

Around him the Word began to take shape as, in a steady voice, he began to read aloud.

I name you Odin, son of Bór.

I name you Grim and Gan-glari,

Herian, Hialmberi,

Thekk, and Third, and Thunn, and Unn.

I name you Bolverk,

I name you Grimnir,

I name you Blindi-

At this point Odin could leave it no longer. With a sharp movement he brought his hand from behind his back and flung T ýr with all his strength at the Examiner. At the same time, he tore his left hand free of its bindings and cast Naudr, reversed, to release the chains that held him.

The weapon was small, but its aim was true. It snickered through the air, bit deeply into the Examiner’s thumb, and sliced across the pages of the Good Book before punching into the Examiner’s side.

It lodged there, sadly not deep enough to kill the man, but able to tap his blood in such abundance that for a moment Odin had the upper hand. He leaped at the Examiner, not with glamours now but with his own strength, knocking the Book out of his hands and driving the man against the wall of the roundhouse.

The Examiner, no fighter, gave a cry of alarm. Odin closed in. And he might even have managed to take the man if at that very moment the roundhouse door had not been flung open, and three men appeared in the doorway.

One was Audun Briggs. The second was Jed Smith. And the third was Nat Parson, his face flushed with unholy fire.

8

Meanwhile, above the roundhouse, Loki had spotted the Examiner’s trail. He’d seen it before; it was a strange greenish color, bright but somehow sickly, glowing like St. Sepulchre’s fire.

He saw the parson too, with his couple of henchmen, though both of them were far too preoccupied with what was happening in the roundhouse to pay any heed to the small brown bird that landed on the hedge, not far from them. Quickly Loki shrugged off his bird Aspect. A glance over his shoulder told him that Skadi had come to rest not far away, also clad only in her skin, but with her runewhip already in hand.

Here goes, he thought. Death or glory. Of the two, he wasn’t sure which he feared most.

Odin saw the three men enter. Instinctively he turned to fight-and straightaway caught Jed Smith’s crossbow bolt straight through the shoulder. It pinned him to the wall, and for a few seconds he was caught there, one hand pressed against the missile’s shaft, trying vainly to wrench it out.

“Examiner!” Nat ran toward the fallen man. The Examiner was pale but still conscious, his reddened hands clasped over his belly. At his feet the Good Book lay open, sliced almost in two by the mindbolt that had struck him.

Impatiently he waved the parson away. “The prisoner!” he gasped.

Nat felt a twinge of resentment. “He’s safe, Examiner,” he assured his guest.

“Secure him!” gasped the Examiner again, groping for his Book. “Secure him-gag him-while I invoke the Word!”

Nat Parson gave him a sideways glance. Oho, so the Examiner was asking for his help now, was he? Polite as ever, eh, Mister Abstinence? But not so cool with that hole in your gut!

Nevertheless, he raced to obey the order, joining Audun Briggs in half dragging Odin to the far side of the roundhouse while Jed Smith kept the prisoner covered, a second crossbow bolt ready.

He had no need of it, however. There was no fight left in the Outlander. Once more bound and gagged, he could do nothing but watch as the Examiner, lurching to his feet (with the parson’s help), prepared to complete the canticle.

I name you Thror, Atrid, Oski, Veratýr…

And now Odin could feel the Word closing on him…

Thund, Vidur, Fiolsvinn, Ygg…

His curse was stifled by the gag; his entire will now struggled against that of the Word. But his will was failing; his blood soaked into the hardpack floor. He remembered the Examiner saying to him, Your time is done, and was suddenly conscious-amid his rage and sorrow-of a feeling of deep and undeniable relief.

9

Something was definitely going on inside the roundhouse. Maddy could feel it-see it-as Bjarkán teased out the signs from the cool night air. She could see two signatures-Skadi and Loki-approaching from the opposite side of the square. They had not yet seen her, and silently Maddy made for the roundhouse’s only door, keeping to the broad crescent of moonshadow that skirted the building.

At her side her hand began to curl into the familiar shape of Hagall, the Destroyer.

Less than a dozen feet away the Examiner was preparing to unleash the Word.

The Word itself is entirely soundless.

Nat had learned that already, on Red Horse Hill. The Word is cast, not spoken, although in most cases it is preceded by all manner of verses and canticles designed to give it greater power.

His eye flicked back to the Book in the Examiner’s hands. The Book of Words, unlocked in his presence for the first time. The list of names on the butchered page filled nine verses, and their effect on the prisoner had been dramatic. Now he slumped, glaring, on the roundhouse floor, his single eye blazing defiantly, the ruinmark on his face glowing with unnatural light.

The Examiner too looked exhausted; his hands fumbled blindly at the open Book.

“Let me hold it,” said Nat, reaching to take it.

The Examiner did not protest; he surrendered the Book into the parson’s hands without even seeming to hear his words.

“Now answer me.” The Examiner’s voice was hoarse with exertion. His eyes fixed the prisoner; his bloody hands shook. “Tell me this, and tell me true. Where are the Seer-folk? Where are they hiding? What are their numbers? Their weapons? Their plans?”

Odin snarled beneath the gag.

“I said, where are they?”

Odin writhed and shook his head.

Nat Parson wondered how the Examiner expected to get a confession of any sort from a man who was so securely prevented from speech. “Perhaps if I removed the gag, Examiner-”

“Be quiet, fool, and stand aside!”

At this, Nat jumped as if stung. “Examiner, I must protest…”

But the Examiner was not listening. Eyes narrowed like a man who can almost-but not quite-grasp the thing he seeks, he leaned forward, and the Word rang soundlessly into the air.

All over the village, hackles raised, cupboard doors swung open, sleepers turned over from one uncomfortable dream into another.

“Where are the Seer-folk?” he hissed again, making a strange little sign with his finger and thumb.

And now the parson was sure he could see a kind of colored light that surrounded prisoner and Examiner like an oily smoke. It peacocked around them in lazy coils, and with his hands the Examiner fretted and teased the illuminated air like a seamstress combing silks.

But there was more, the parson thought. There were words in the colors. He could almost hear them: words fluttering like moths in a jar. Not a word came from the prisoner on the floor, and yet somehow the Examiner was making him speak.

And now Nat realized with mounting excitement that what he had taken for colors and lights were actually thoughts-thoughts drawn directly from the Outlander’s mind.

Of course, Nat knew perfectly well that he should not have been watching this at all. The mysteries of the Order were jealously guarded, which was why the Book of Words was closed. By rights he knew his duty: to stand back, eyes lowered, well out of range, and let the Examiner perform his Interrogation.

But Nat was ambitious. The thought of the Word-so close he could practically touch it-eclipsed both caution and sense of duty. Instead he stepped closer, made the same strange sign he had seen the Examiner make-and in a second the truesight enveloped him, spinning him for a moment into a maelstrom of lights and signatures.

Could this possibly be…a dream?

If so, it was the first one Nat Parson had ever experienced.

“O beautiful!” he breathed, and moving closer, unable to help himself, for a second he held the prisoner’s eye and something-some intimacy-passed between them.

The Examiner felt it like a rush of air. But the parson was in his way, damn the fool, and in the half second it took to push him aside, the precious information was lost.

The Examiner gave a howl of anger and frustration.

Nat Parson stared at the prisoner, his eyes wide with new knowledge.

And at that moment the roundhouse door slammed open on its hinges and a bolt of deadly blue light shot into the room.

I’m going to die, the parson thought as he cowered on the floor. He was vaguely conscious of Audun and Jed doing the same; at his side the Examiner lay, already stiffening, hands outstretched as if to ward off annihilation.

There was no doubt in Nat’s mind that the man was dead-the bolt had ripped him almost in two. The Good Book lay on the floor beside him, its pages scattered and scorched by the blast.

But even this had not killed his curiosity. As the other two hid their eyes, he looked up, made a circle with his finger and thumb, and saw his attackers: a woman, quite naked and almost too beautiful to look at in her caul of cold fire, and a young man in a state of similar undress, with a crooked smile that made the parson shiver.

“Get him,” said Skadi.

“Hang on,” said Loki. “I’m freezing to death.” Briefly he surveyed Audun, Nat, and Jed, still lying shivering on the roundhouse floor. “That tunic should do,” he said to Audun. “Oh, and the boots.” And at that he rapidly relieved him of both, leaving the guard in his underthings. “Not exactly a perfect fit,” said Loki, “but in the circumstances-”

“I said, get him,” snapped Skadi with mounting impatience.

Loki shrugged and stepped over to the prisoner. “Stand up, brother of mine,” he said, forking a runesign so that the chains dropped off. “Here comes the cavalry.”

Odin stood up. He looked terrible, thought Loki. Good news at any other time-but today he had been rather counting on the General’s protection.

Skadi moved forward and raised her glam. The runewhip hissed; its tip forked like a serpent’s tongue. “And now,” she said, “give me the Whisperer.”

10

Loki considered shifting to his fiery Aspect, then rejected the thought as a waste of glam. Skadi was standing over him, Isa at the ready, and fast as he was, he feared she was faster.

“Of course I’ll keep my end of the bargain,” he said, not taking his eye away from the runewhip that crackled and hissed like bottled lightning. “Eventually.”

Skadi’s expression, habitually cold, grew icy. “I warned you,” she said in a low voice.

“And I told you straight. I promised you the Whisperer. You’ll get it, don’t fret”-he glanced at Odin-“when we’re all out of this safely.”

Now, One-Eye was weak, but he had lost none of his mental agility. He knew Loki well enough to understand the game he was playing and to play along-for the time being. He could be lying-he probably was-but whether or not he had the Whisperer, now was not the time to dispute it.

“That wasn’t the deal,” said Skadi, coming closer.

“Try to think,” said Odin calmly. “Would either of us have brought it here, like some valueless bauble? Or would we, rather, hide it in a safe place, a place where no one would ever find it?”

Skadi nodded. “I see.” Then she turned and raised her glam. “Well, Dogstar, I think that concludes our business,” she said, and brought the runewhip down with a head-splitting crack. It missed Loki-just-and gouged a four-foot-long section out of the wall where he had been standing.

Nat, Jed, and Audun, who had all three been lying low in the hope of being overlooked, tried to press themselves further into the roundhouse floor.

Loki shot Odin a look of appeal. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I just saved your life.”

“You think that matters?” Skadi said. “You think that pays for what you’ve done?”

“Well, not exactly,” Loki said. “But you may still need me one of these days…”

“I’ll take that risk.”

She raised her glam. Barbed Isa fretted the air.

But now it was Odin who stepped forward. He looked old, his face drawn, his shirt drenched with fresh blood, but his colors blazed with sudden fury.

Skadi found him in her way and stared at him in astonishment. “You can’t be serious,” she said. “You’re giving him your protection now?”

Odin just looked at her steadily. To Nat, who was watching, his colors seemed to envelop him in a cloak of blue fire.

“No,” said Skadi. “I’ve waited too long.”

“He’s right. I may need him,” Odin said.

“After what happened at Ragnarók?”

“Things have changed since Ragnarók.”

“Some things never change. He dies. And as for you…” She fixed Odin with her cold gaze.

“Go on.” His voice was very soft.

“As for you, Odin, my time with the Æsir is done. I have no quarrel against you-yet. But don’t imagine I’m yours to command. And don’t you ever stand in my way.”

Behind her, Nat was mesmerized. The door stood open, not six feet away, and he knew he ought to take his chance to flee before these demons remembered his presence. And yet it held him: their dreadful fascination, their startling glamour.

They were the Seer-folk, of course. He’d guessed that at once, as soon as the Examiner cast the Word. That makes them gods, he thought in excitement. Gødfolk or demons, and with that power, who cares?

Now the three Seer-folk faced each other. To Nat they looked like columns of flame, sapphire, violet, and indigo. He wondered how he could see them still, now that the Examiner was dead, and he remembered the moment of contact between himself and the Outlander, the moment he had looked into the man’s eyes and seen…

What, exactly, had he seen?

What, exactly, had he heard?

The Seer-folk were arguing. The parson vaguely understood why: the ice woman wanted to kill the red-haired man, and the Outlander-who was no Outlander but some kind of Seer warlord-meant to stop her.

“Take care, Odin,” she said in a low voice. “You left your sovereignty in the Black Fortress. Now you’re just another used-up has-been with delusions of godhood. Let me pass, or I’ll split you where you stand.”

And she would too, thought Nat Parson. That thing in her hand was all rage. The Outlander, however, seemed unmoved. He was trying to call her bluff, thought Nat, not a move he himself would have considered.

“Last chance,” she said.

And then something that looked like a small firework of great intensity and spectacular power whizzed soundlessly over Nat’s head and hit the ice woman in the small of the back, pitching her abruptly into the Outlander’s arms.

Nat turned and saw the newcomer, engulfed for the present in a fabulous blaze of red-gold light. A woman, he thought-no, a girl-clad in a man’s waistcoat and a homespun skirt, her hair unbound, her arms outstretched, a sphere of fire in each of her hands.

Laws, he thought, she makes the other one look like a penny candle-and then he caught sight of the girl’s face and gave a hoarse cry of disbelief.

It’s her! Her!

For a second Maddy looked at him, her eyes filled with dancing lights. Nat almost swooned, and then she was past him without a word. The first thing she did was check the Outlander. “Are you all right?”

“I will be,” said Odin. “But I’m out of glam.”

Now Maddy knelt beside the stricken Huntress and found her alive but still unconscious.

“She’ll live,” said Odin, guessing her thoughts. “But I knew those skills of yours would come in useful.”

Loki, who had dived to the ground the moment the mindbolt had shot through the door, now dusted himself off with a good show of carelessness and gave Maddy his crooked grin.

“Nice timing,” he said. “Now to get rid of the Ice Queen…,” and he raised his hand, summoning Hagall, the Destroyer.

“Don’t,” said Maddy and Odin together.

“What?” said Loki. “The moment she comes round, she’ll be after us.”

“If you touch her,” said Maddy, summoning T ýr, “I’ll be the one after you. And as for the rest of you,” she said, turning to Nat and the other two, “there’s been enough violence here already. I wouldn’t like to see any more.”

She looked at Jed Smith, who was watching her with horror in his eyes, and her voice trembled, but only once.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she told him softly. “There are so many things I can’t explain. I-” She stopped there, conscious of the absurdity of trying to tell him that the daughter he’d known for fourteen years had turned into a total stranger. “Look after yourself,” she said at last. “Look after Mae. I’ll be all right. And as for you”-this was to Nat and Audun Briggs-“you’d better be off. You don’t want to be here when Skadi wakes up.”

That was enough for the three men. They left in haste, only Jed daring to look once more over his shoulder before he vanished into the night.

Loki made to follow them. “Well, folks, if that’s all-”

“It isn’t,” said Odin.

“Ah,” said Loki. “Look, old friend, it’s not that I don’t appreciate this reunion. I mean, it’s been a long time, and it’s great that you’ve kept going and all, but-”

“Shut up,” said Maddy.

Loki shut up.

“Now listen, both of you.”

Both of them listened.

11

In the tunnels beneath Red Horse Hill, Sugar-and-Sack was trying vainly to avert a rebellion. In the absence of the Captain, and with the growing crisis in the Horse’s Eye, things had begun to fall apart, and it was only Sugar’s conviction that the Captain was-firstly-still alive and-secondly-liable to blame him for all this upset that kept him from joining the rabble in looting, destroying, and running amok.

“I’m tellin’ yer now,” he told his friend Pickle-Nearest-the-Wind. “When he gets back and finds this mess-”

“How’s he goin’ to get back?” interrupted a goblin called Able-and-Stout. “The Eye’s closed. They’ve reversed the Gate. We’re down to tunneling like rabbits to get into World Above, and when we do make it out there, there’s guards and posses and whatnot all over the place. I say pack up, take what’s worth taking, and get the Gødfolk out of here while we still can.”

“But the Captain-” protested Sugar.

“Let him rot,” said Able-and-Stout. “Ten to one he’s dead anyway.”

“Done,” said Pickle, scenting a bet.

Sugar looked nervous. “I really don’t think-” he began.

“Don’t yer?” said Able, grinning. “Well, I’ll give you odds, if you’re game. A hogshead of ale says he’s dead. All right?”

“All right,” said Pickle, shaking his hand.

“All right,” said Sugar, “but-”

“All right,” said a pleasant-and rather familiar-voice behind them.

“Ah,” said Sugar, turning slowly.

“It’s Sugar-and-Spice, isn’t it?” said Loki.

Sugar made a strangled noise of protest. “We was just talking about you, Captain, sir, and sayin’ as we knew you’d be back in time-hem!-so to hensure that everythin’ was ready, and hanticipatin’ your requirements, we-hem!…”

“Sugar, do you have a cough?” said Loki, looking concerned.

“No, sir, Captain, sir. We just thought, didn’t we, boys…” He turned to the others for support and saw, to his astonishment, that they had already fled.

It had taken their combined forces to reverse the runes and break open the Hill. As it was, the aftershock had blown apart the Horse’s Eye, which now stood permanently open, a tunnel of darkness leading into World Below.

Loki had not wanted to take them there. But Maddy had convinced him otherwise. In any case, One-Eye in his weakened state was not capable of shifting his Aspect, and they could not expect to go far with only one feather cloak between the two of them.

No, she had said, the only thing that made sense was to hold World Below for as long as they could and explore the possibilities of their new partnership.

“Partnership?” She could tell Loki was as uncomfortable with the idea as One-Eye had been. But he was far from being a fool, and with Skadi on the warpath he had been quick to see the advantage of staying together.

Now they sat in his private rooms, with food and wine (provided by Sugar), and talked. No one ate much except Maddy, who was ravenous; Odin drank only a little wine and Loki sat to one side looking edgy and uncomfortable.

“We have to stay together,” Maddy said. “Settle our differences and work as a team.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Loki. “You weren’t killed at Ragnarók.”

“Killed?” said Maddy.

“Well, as good as,” admitted Odin. “You know, they don’t usually let you into the Black Fortress of Netherworld if you’re still alive.”

“But if you were killed, then how-?”

“It’s a long tale, Maddy. Perhaps one day-”

“In any case, we’re finished now,” said Loki, interrupting. “The Order on our trail, the Sleepers awake-”

“Not all of them,” said Maddy quickly.

“Oh no? And how long d’you think it’ll take Skadi to wake the others?”

“Well,” said Odin, “at least they haven’t got the Whisperer.”

Maddy examined her fingernails very closely.

“They haven’t, have they?”

“Well-not as such.”

“Why?” Now his voice was sharp. “Maddy, is it safe? Where did you leave it?”

There was a rather uncomfortable silence.

“You hid it where?” howled Loki.

“Well, I thought I was doing the right thing. Skadi would have killed you if I hadn’t thought of something.”

“She’ll kill me anyway,” said Loki. “And she’ll kill you for helping me. And as for the General-she’ll kill him.” He glanced at Odin. “Unless you’ve got some fabulous trick up your sleeve, which I rather doubt…”

“I haven’t,” said Odin. “But I do know that if the Vanir are awake, then there is really only one thing we can do.”

“What? Surrender?” said Loki.

Odin gave him a warning look.

Loki put a finger to his scarred lips.

“Some of the Vanir are loyal to me,” said Odin. “The rest may yet be brought around. We can’t afford to oppose each other. We’ll need all the help we can get if we’re to go into battle against the Order.”

Loki nodded. His smile was gone; now he looked eager, almost wistful, as he had by the fire pit, when he’d told Maddy there was a war coming. “So you think we will?”

“I think we must.” Odin’s voice was heavy. “I’ve known it since I found her, seven years old, savage as a wolf cub, with that mark on her hand. How she got there I couldn’t say, but all the signs were there from the beginning. An unbroken runemark-Aesk, no less-an innate ability to throw mindrunes, even her name-”

“My name?” said Maddy. Both of them ignored her.

“She never suspected,” Odin went on. “I fed her tales, half-truths, in readiness. But I knew from the start. It was in her blood. You can’t imagine all the times I’ve wanted to tell her-all the times I’ve wanted to give in to her demands and take her back to World’s End with me.”

“Tell me what?” said Maddy, beginning to lose patience. “What’s in World’s End? One-Eye, what is it you haven’t told me?”

“But I knew she was safe,” said Odin, ignoring her still. “As long as she lived in this valley, by the Red Horse, I knew she’d come to no real harm. A little unpleasantness from the other children, perhaps-”

“A little unpleasantness!” cried Maddy, thinking of Adam Scattergood.

“Aye, a little,” snapped Odin. “It isn’t easy being a god, you know. You have to take responsibility. It isn’t all about golden thrones and castles in the clouds.”

Maddy was staring at him, mouth slightly open. “A god?”

“Seer, demon, whatever.”

“But I’m a Fiery,” said Maddy. “You said so yourself.”

“I lied,” he said. “Welcome to the clan.”

Maddy just stared at both of them. “You’re crazy,” she said. “I’m Jed Smith’s daughter, from Malbry village. A runemark, a few glamours-that doesn’t make me one of the Seer-folk. It doesn’t make me one of you.”

“Oh, but it does,” said Loki, grinning. “This was predicted centuries ago. But you know what they say-Never trust an oracle. Their talent is all misdirection. Sounds prophetic but makes no real sense until the thing’s already happened.”

“So who am I?” cried Maddy.

“You haven’t guessed? All those clues and you haven’t guessed?”

“Tell me, Loki,” she snarled, “or I swear I’ll blast you, whether you’re a relative or not.”

“All right,” said Loki. “Keep your fur on.”

“Then tell me,” said Maddy. “If I’m not Jed Smith’s daughter, then who am I?”

Odin smiled. A real smile, which gave his stern face a kind of tenderness. “Your name is Modi,” he said at last. “You’re my grandchild.”

Book Six. Æsir and Vanir

*

1

Outside the roundhouse Nat Parson stood up on legs that felt like wet string. Audun Briggs had almost passed out-whether from fear or from too much ale he could not say-but Jed the smith was sober enough and grasped the implications of what he had just seen with commendable agility.

“Did you see her?” demanded Nat. “Did you see the girl?”

Jed nodded.

Nat felt some of his agitation recede. He was aware that Maddy had been in his thoughts rather often in the past few days and had secretly feared that his obsession might have clouded his mind. Now he felt vindicated. The girl was a demon, and there could be nothing but praise for the man who brought her to justice.

That he himself should be that man was never in doubt. With the Examiner dead, Nat Parson unilaterally proclaimed himself in charge and appointed Jed Smith (for want of anyone else) his second in command. Besides, thought Nat, Jed had every reason to want an end to the bad blood that shamed his family, and when the reinforcements from World’s End finally arrived, he would want to make it clear that his loyalties had been with Law and Order from the very beginning.

He turned to Jed, who had moved back toward the roundhouse building and was watching the fallen Huntress through the open door. Jed had never been a perceptive man, being blessed with more muscle than most but somewhat less brain, and it was clear from his expression that events had left him at a loss. Examiner dead, lawman injured, and here they were, outside a building wherein lay a demon who might awake at any time.

Jed’s eyes found his crossbow, which had fallen to the ground during his flight. “Shall I go in and finish her?”

“No,” said the parson. His head was spinning. Ambitions that had once seemed as distant as the stars now lay almost within reach. He thought fast and saw his chance. He would have to be quick. And it would be dangerous, aye-though the rewards could be great. “Leave me here. Get clothes for the demon woman. You’ll find some in my house-borrow one of Ethelberta’s gowns. Take Briggs home and sober him up. Don’t speak of this to anyone. Either of you. Understood?”

“Aye, Parson. But will you be safe?”

“Of course I will,” said the parson impatiently. “Now off you go, fellow, and leave me to my business.”

Skadi awoke and found herself in darkness. The roundhouse door was shut, the Æsir were gone, she was mysteriously clothed, and she had a headache. Only the runes she carried had prevented it from being worse-her attacker had taken her entirely unawares.

She snarled a curse and raised her glam, and in the sudden flare of light she saw the parson sitting there, looking pale but quite calm and watching her through the spyhole of the rune Bjarkán.

In a second she had reached for her glam, but even as it took shape in her hand, the parson spoke. “Lady,” he said. “Don’t be alarmed.”

For a second Skadi was astonished at the fellow’s presumption. To imagine that she feared him-him! She gave a crack of laughter like splitting ice.

But she was also curious. The man seemed so singularly unafraid. She wondered what he had seen and whether he could identify the person who had knocked her down. Most of all she wondered why he had not killed her when he’d had the chance.

“Did you put this on me?” She indicated the gown she was wearing, a blue velvet with a bodice of stitched silver. It was one of Ethelberta’s best, and although Skadi despised a lady’s finery, preferring the skins of a wild wolf or the feathers of a hunting hawk, she was aware that someone, for some reason, had attempted to please her.

“I did, lady,” said Nat as the Huntress slowly lowered her runewhip. “Of course, you have every reason to be suspicious of me, but I assure you, I mean you no harm at all. Quite the reverse, in fact.”

Using the truesight, the Huntress looked at him once more with curiosity and contempt. Surprisingly his signature-which was a strangely mottled silver-brown-showed no attempt to deceive or betray. He genuinely believed what he was telling her, and although she now saw him to be wildly excited beneath his appearance of calm, she perceived astonishingly little fear.

“I can help you, lady,” he said. “In fact, I think we can help each other.” And he held out his hand, wherein lay a key, its teeth still red with its master’s blood.

***

Now, the parson had always been an ambitious man. The son of a potter of modest means, he had decided at an early age that he had no wish to follow in his father’s footsteps and had become a parson’s prentice at a fortunate time, taking over from his erstwhile master just as the old man was growing too feeble for the task.

He’d married well-to Ethelberta Goodchild, the eldest daughter of a rich valley horse-breeder. To be sure, she was nine years older than Nat, and there were some who considered her a trifle muffin-faced, but she came with a handsome settlement and excellent connections, and her father, Owen Goodchild, had once had high hopes of promotion for his new son-in-law.

But years passed, and promotion never came. Nat was already thirty-one years old, Ethelberta was childless, and he told himself that unless he took matters into his own hands, the chance of achieving something more than a simple parish in the mountains seemed distant indeed.

It was at this point that Nat began to consider the Order as a possible career. Knowing little about it except that it was for the spiritual elite, he set out on a pilgrimage to World’s End-officially to replenish his faith, in reality to discover how he might access the secrets of the Order without having to devote too much of his time to study, abstinence, or prayer.

What he found in World’s End filled Nat with excitement. He saw the great cathedral of St. Sepulchre, with its glass spire and brass dome, its slender columns, its painted windows. He saw the Law Courts, where the Order dispensed justice, and the Penitents’ Gate, where heretics were led to the gallows (though sadly the Cleansings themselves were not open to the public, for fear the canticles might be overheard). And he frequented the places where the Examiners went: he walked in their gardens, ate in their refectories, drank in their coffeehouses, and spent hours watching them in the streets, black gowns flapping, discussing some element of theory, some manuscript they had studied, waiting for his moment to discover the Word.

But of the Word itself he received no sign. The elderly Professor to whom he finally voiced his ambition told him that a prentice must study for a full twelve years before reaching the level of Junior in the Order, and that even at Examiner level it was by no means certain that a member would ever be granted the golden key.

His hopes dashed, Nat had returned to his parish in the mountains. But the image of the key had never left his mind. It became an obsession, the symbol of all that life had denied him. And when Maddy Smith had refused to break the charm upon the golden lock…

Nat looked at the key in his hand and smiled-and Skadi wondered briefly how such a fatuous smile could also appear so wolfish.

You? Help me?” She began to laugh, an unsettling sound.

The parson watched her patiently. “We can help each other,” he said again. “The Seer-folk have something both of us want. You want revenge against those who attacked you. I want the Smith girl brought to justice. Each of us has something the other needs. Why not cooperate?”

“Gods,” said the Huntress. “I’ll give you this: I haven’t laughed so much since I hung the snake above Loki’s head. If you never make it as an Examiner, there’s a career in comedy waiting for you. What in the Worlds could you have that I need?”

Nat indicated the ravaged Book, pages scattered on the roundhouse floor. “Everything we need is in this Book. Every name, every canticle, every invocation of power. With your knowledge and the words in this Book, we could bring down every one of the Seer-folk, we could make them do whatever we want…”

Skadi picked up one of the scorched pages.

So, this Word was a kind of glam-a series of cantrips and incantations available even to the Folk. Loki had known of it, she recalled. He had feared it too, she told herself, although the Huntress could not imagine any magic of the Order being more powerful than that of the Ice People.

She scanned the page, expressionless, then dropped it back onto the ground. “I need no books,” she said.

It was then that Nat had an inspiration. Something in her eyes, perhaps, or the contemptuous way she had said books, or the way she’d held the page upside down…

“You can’t read, can you?” he said.

Skadi faced him with eyes like knives.

“Don’t worry,” the parson said. “I have the key. I can read for the both of us. Your powers combined with those of the Word-together we could succeed where the Order has failed. And then they’d have to take me in-I’d be an Examiner, maybe even a Professor…”

Skadi’s lip curled a little. “I have no use for a book or a key. But if I did, what’s to stop me from taking them both-and then killing you, just for fun-like this?” And she grasped hold of the parson’s hand and forced the fingers back one at a time. The key fell; there was a sound like that of a small twig snapping-

“Please! You need me!” Nat Parson screamed.

“Why?” she said, moving in for the kill.

“Because I was there!” the parson cried. “I was there when the Examiner cast the Word on the one-eyed Journeyman!”

The Huntress paused. “So?” she said.

“So I’ve seen inside the General’s mind…”

The Huntress stood as if transfixed, her eyes shining like distant glaciers. Next to her, Nat nursed his broken finger, whimpering a little in pain and relief. He had told her everything-not quite in the way that he’d envisaged it (over sherry, in the parsonage), but in a scrambling, squealing way, in terror for his life.

Lucky for him that she had believed his tale. But glam, as she knew, is volatile-and the fellow’s description of what had happened left her in no doubt. He had trespassed into the path of the Word and in doing so had glimpsed Odin’s thoughts-thoughts and plans regarding the Æsir.

Coldly the Huntress considered the Æsir. Though she had joined them for strategy’s sake, she felt no loyalty to Odin’s clan. Her father and brothers had died at their hands, and Odin himself, who had promised her full recompense, had somehow managed to renege on his deal, to trick her into marriage with Njörd when Balder the Fair had stolen her heart, and to rob her of her revenge on Loki, who had lured her kinsmen to their deaths.

The Vanir were no better, she thought, following blindly where Odin led. Skadi’s allegiance was still to the Ice People, in spite of her marriage to the Man of the Sea, and she’d always been happiest in the Ice Lands, living alone, hunting, taking eagle form and soaring over the dazzling snow.

If war were to be declared, she thought, then this time there would be no alliance. The General had betrayed her, Loki was her sworn enemy, and Maddy Smith-whoever she was-had planted her colors in the enemy camp.

She turned to Nat, who was watching her, his broken finger in his mouth. “So what did you see?” she asked him softly.

“First your word. I want the girl-and the power in that Book.”

Skadi nodded. “Very well,” she said. “But at the first sign of treachery or if I even suspect you of trying to use your book against me…”

The parson nodded.

“Then we have a deal. What did you see?”

“I saw her,” he said. “I saw Maddy Smith. When the Examiner asked, Where are the Seer-folk?-that’s what I saw in your General’s mind. That’s what he was trying to hide. And he was ready to die rather than give up her name-”

“Name?” said Skadi.

“Modi,” said the parson. “That’s what he called her. Modi, the Lightning Tree, first child of the New Age.”

2

Meanwhile, under Red Horse Hill, Maddy was thinking furiously. One-Eye and Loki had left her alone, One-Eye to sleep and regain his strength before setting off to recover the Whisperer, Loki on some nefarious business of his own. The hall was lit only by a branch of candles, and Maddy’s shadow pranced and sprang against the stony walls as she paced repeatedly up and down.

Her initial reaction to One-Eye’s disclosure had been an immediate and overwhelming feeling of anger. That he could have kept such a secret from her for so long, only now revealing the truth at a time when battle lines were already drawn, with Maddy-like it or not-firmly on his side.

She hated the deceit of it, and yet, she thought as she paced, hadn’t a part of her longed for this? To have a purpose, a clan-a family, for gods’ sakes? Hadn’t the signs been there from the start? Hadn’t some part of her always known that Jed Smith and Mae were none of her blood and that Odin, for all his strangeness, was?

She did not hear Loki enter the hall. He had changed the clothes he had stolen from Audun Briggs for a fresh tunic, shirt, and soft-soled boots, and it was only when he touched her arm that she realized he was there at all. By then her agitation was so great that she almost hit him before she recognized who he was.

“Maddy, it’s me,” he protested, seeing T ýr half formed between her fingers.

Listlessly she banished the rune. “I don’t feel like talking, Loki,” she said.

“Can’t say I blame you.” Loki sighed. “Odin should have told you the truth. But try to see it from his point of view…”

“Is that why he sent you? To argue his case?”

“Well, of course he did,” said Loki. “Why else?”

Maddy couldn’t help feeling a little disarmed at his unexpected frankness. She smiled-then remembered his legendary charm.

“Forget it,” she said. “You’re as bad as he is.”

“Why? What did I do?”

Maddy gave an angry sniff. “Everyone knows what’s going on except me,” she said. “What am I, a child? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of him. And I’m sick of being treated as if I don’t matter. I thought he liked me.” She sniffed again, more fiercely than before, and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her shirt. “I thought he was my friend,” she said.

Loki gave his crooked smile.

“So what does he want? A war with the Order? Is that why he needs the Whisperer?”

Loki shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“But he doesn’t have a chance!” she said. “Even with the Vanir on our side, it would still be the ten of us against all of the Order, and anyway”-she lowered her voice-“the Whisperer practically told me he’d lose.”

Loki’s eyes widened. “You mean it made a prophecy? It made a prophecy and you didn’t think to tell anyone about it?”

“Well, it didn’t make sense,” said Maddy awkwardly. “I don’t even know if it was a prophecy at all. It just kept saying things like I speak as I must and-”

“Gods,” said Loki, disgusted. “It made a prophecy. To you. After all these years I’ve been trying to persuade it to say something-anything.” Eagerly he leaned closer. “Did it mention me at all?”

“It wanted me to kill you. Said you’d turn out to be nothing but trouble.”

“Ah. That figures. What else did it say?”

“Something about a terrible war. Thousands dead at a single word. Something about waking the Sleepers…a traitor…and a general-a general standing alone…”

“And when were you planning to tell him all this?”

Maddy was silent.

“Well?”

“I don’t know.”

Loki began to laugh softly. But Maddy was scarcely paying attention. Dry-mouthed, she recalled the Whisperer’s words, struggled to remember the exact phrasing. It sounded more like verse to her now, bleak verse in the language of prophecy.

I see an army poised for battle.

I see a general standing alone.

I see a traitor at the gate.

I see a sacrifice.

The dead will awake from the halls of Hel.

And the Nameless shall rise and Nine Worlds be lost,

Unless the Seven Sleepers wake

And the Thunderer be freed from Netherworld…

“It’s coming true,” she said at last. “The Sleepers are awake. The Order is coming. It said the Nine Worlds would be lost…” Maddy swallowed, feeling sick. “And I can’t help thinking it’s all my fault. I was the one who woke the Sleepers. I was the one who recovered the Whisperer. If I’d left it in the fire pit-” She broke off and frowned. “But why is the General standing alone? Why aren’t we with him?” Once more Maddy began to pace up and down in the dark hall. “This isn’t what I wanted!” she yelled.

“Believe it or not,” said Loki sourly, “I’m not altogether thrilled to be here, either. But I have no choice-without Odin I’m already dead. The fact that I have a very good chance of ending up dead anyway doesn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm.”

“Then tell me,” said Maddy urgently. “Tell me the truth. Who am I really? And why am I here?”

Loki watched her with a little smile across his scarred lips. “The truth?” he said.

“Yes. All of it.”

“The General won’t like that,” he said.

All the more reason to tell her, he thought, and deep in his stomach, Loki grinned.

3

“So who am I?” she said. “And what’s my part in all this?”

Loki helped himself to wine. “Your name is Modi,” he began. “And the Oracle predicted your birth, long before Ragnarók, though it turns out it wasn’t entirely accurate on gender. But one thing it was certain of: Modi and his brother, Magni, are the first children of the New Age, born to rebuild Asgard and to overthrow the enemies of the gods. That’s why you carry that rune on your hand. Aesk, the Ash Tree: symbol of renewal and of all the Worlds.”

Maddy looked down at her hand, where Aesk shone blood-red against her palm. “I have a brother?” she said at last.

“Or a sister, maybe. If they’ve been born yet. Like I said, the Oracle hasn’t been all that accurate.”

“And my…parents?”

“Thor, the Thunder Smith, and Jarnsaxa-not exactly his wife, but a warrior woman from the other side of the mountains. So you see, little sister, you do have demon blood in you, on your mother’s side at least.”

But Maddy was still reeling from the new information. She tasted the names on her tongue-Modi, Magni, Thor, Jarnsaxa-like some fabulous, exotic dish.

“But if they were my parents-”

“Then how come you were born to a couple of rustics from the valleys?” Loki grinned, enjoying himself. “Well, remember when you were little, how you were always told that you shouldn’t ever dream, that dreaming was dangerous, and that if you did, the bad nasty Seer-folk would come out of Chaos and steal your soul?”

Maddy nodded.

“Well,” said Loki. “It turns out they were almost right.”

Maddy listened in near silence as Loki told his tale. “Let’s start at the good bit,” he said, pouring more wine. “Let’s start at the end of everything. Ragnarók. The doom of the gods. The fall of Æsir and Vanir alike, the triumph of Chaos, and all that jazz. Not a comfortable time for yours truly, what with being killed-and by that pompous do-gooder Heimdall, of all people-”

“Hang on,” said Maddy. “You said that before. You were actually killed at Ragnarók?”

“Well,” said Loki, “it’s not that simple. One Aspect of me fell there, yes. But Death is just one of the Nine Worlds. Some of the Æsir found refuge there, where even Surt has no power. But some of us were not so lucky. Some of us were thrown into Netherworld-what your folk would call Damnation-”

“The Black Fortress. What was it like?”

Loki’s expression darkened a little. “Nothing prepares you for Netherworld, Maddy. It was beyond anything even I had known. I’d seen the insides of dungeons before, and until then I had thought a prison was simply a place of walls, bricks, guards-familiar trappings, the same in all worlds.

“But in Netherworld, Disorder rules. So close to Chaos, almost anything becomes possible: the rules of gravity, perspective, sense, and substance are bent and shifted; hours and days have no meaning; the line is erased between reality and imagination. What was it like? It was like drowning, Maddy, drowning in an ocean of lost dreams.”

“But you got out.”

Darkly he nodded.

“How?” she said.

“I made a deal with a demon.”

“What deal?”

“The usual,” said Loki. “A favor for a favor. I was a traitor to both sides, so they decided to make an example of me. I was locked in a cell with no windows and no doors, no up and no down. Nothing could reach me-or so they thought. But the demon offered me a means of escape.”

“How?” said Maddy.

“There’s a river,” he said, “at the far edge of Hel. The river Dream charges toward Netherworld iron clad and at a gallop, churning with all the raw mindstuff of the Nine Worlds. To touch the water is to risk madness or death-and yet it was through Dream that I escaped.” Loki paused to refresh himself. “I almost lost my mind in the struggle, but at last I found my way into that of an infant, an infant of the Ridings folk.”

Somewhat ruefully he indicated his person. “I’ve done what I could with this Aspect,” he said. “But frankly I used to be much better-looking. Still, it’s an improvement on Netherworld-which is why I’ve adopted such a low profile over the past few hundred years. Don’t want Surt to get any ideas about checking up on old friends, eh?”

But Maddy’s thoughts were racing like winter clouds. “So you and One-Eye escaped through Dream. Doesn’t that mean that others could too?”

Loki shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

Maddy watched him, a gleam in her eyes. “But that’s not where I came from, right? I wasn’t part of the Elder Age…”

“No, you’re new. A new shoot from the old tree.” Loki gave her a cheerful grin. “A brand-new Aspect-no previous owner-just the way the Oracle said. It’s people like you who are going to rebuild Asgard after the war, while Odin and I end up as compost. And I’m sure you’ll understand if I’d prefer that to be later rather than sooner.”

She nodded. “I see. Well, I’ve got an idea.”

“What?” said Loki.

She faced him, eyes bright. “We’ll go and find the Whisperer. Right now, before One-Eye wakes up. We’ll bring it back to Red Horse Hill. And we’ll put it back into the fire pit. That way, no one will have it, and things can go back to the way they were.”

Loki watched her curiously. “You think so?”

“Loki, I have to try. I can’t stand by and let One-Eye get killed for some stupid war he can’t possibly win. He’s tired. He’s reckless. He’s living in the past. He’s so fixated on the idea of the Whisperer that it’s made him think he has a chance. And if he loses, everyone loses. All the Nine Worlds, the Oracle said. So you see, if you help me get it back-”

Loki gave a mocking laugh. “Impeccable logic, as always, Maddy.” He turned away in seeming regret. “I’m sorry. I’m not getting involved.”

“Please, Loki. I saved your life…”

“And I’d like to keep it, if that’s all right with you. The General would tear me limb from limb-”

“One-Eye’s asleep. He’ll be out for hours. Besides, I wouldn’t let him hurt you.”

Loki’s eyes flashed fire green. “You mean you’ll give me your protection?” he said.

“Of course I will. If you’ll help.”

Loki looked thoughtful. “Swear it?” he said.

“On my father’s name.”

“It’s a deal,” he said, and finished the wine.

And so keen was Maddy’s excitement and so eager was she to begin their search that she quite failed to see the look in the Trickster’s eyes or the grin that slowly formed across his scarred lips.

4

In the Hall of Sleepers there was confusion among the Vanir. All were now fully awake, all were present except for Skadi, but neither Idun, who had spoken to the Huntress, nor Freyja, who had not, was able to give a satisfactory account of what had actually occurred.

“You said Loki was there,” said Heimdall through his golden teeth.

“So he was,” said Idun. “He was in a bad way.”

“He’d have been in a worse way if I’d been there,” muttered Heimdall. “So what’s he up to, and how is it that Skadi let him live?”

“And who was the girl?” said Freyja, for the third or fourth time. “I tell you, if I hadn’t been so sleepy and confused, I would never have lent her my feather dress-”

“Nuts to your feather dress,” said Heimdall. “I want to know what Loki’s doing in all this.”

“Well,” said Idun, “he did mention the Whisperer…”

Five pairs of eyes fixed upon the goddess of plenty.

“The Whisperer?” said Frey.

So Idun told him what she knew. The Whisperer at large, Odin imprisoned, Loki possibly in league with him, and rumors of the Word, not to mention a mysterious girl who could unlock the ice and who had gods knew what glamours of her own…

“I say we get out while we still can,” said Frey. “We’re too exposed here if an enemy tries to mount an ambush.”

“I say wait for Skadi,” said Njörd.

“I say go after Loki,” said Heimdall.

“What about the General?” said Bragi.

“What about my feather dress?” said Freyja.

Idun said nothing at all but simply hummed to herself.

And in the passageway leading into the cavern, two figures standing in the shadows exchanged glances and prepared to put their plan into action.

Loki cast ýr and held his breath. So far, so good-he and Maddy had reached the Sleepers without incident and, more importantly, without alerting the Vanir to their intention.

From the Hall of Sleepers he could already hear a rumor of voices-and through the rune Bjarkán he could glimpse their colors: gold, green, and ocean blue. He noted with satisfaction that the Huntress was not among them. Good.

Now for the tricky part, the part that would place him in the most danger. They needed a diversion-something to draw the Vanir and to give Maddy the chance to recover the Whisperer. In other words, bait.

And so Loki took a deep breath and began to walk, quickly but casually, toward the entrance to the Sleepers’ Hall.

It was gold-armored Frey who saw him first, and for a few moments he squinted through the daze of glamours that crisscrossed the cavern, trying to decipher the intruder’s colors.

There were none that he could see, and that in itself was enough to make him a little wary. However, the figure that stood at the cavern’s mouth looked very small to be a cause of alarm. As the others turned to look, the intruder, a little girl of three or four, raised a face of such innocent entreaty in their direction that even Heimdall was taken aback.

“Who are you?” he snapped, recovering quickly.

The child, barefoot and clad only in a man’s shirt, smiled prettily and held out her hand. “I’m Lucy,” she said. “Do you want a game?”

For a moment the Vanir watched her in silence. It was clear to them all (except perhaps for Idun) that this was some trick: a reconnaissance, a diversion, maybe a trap. Warily they scanned the hall: there was no sign of anyone else, just the curly-headed infant standing alone.

Heimdall bared his golden teeth. “That’s no child,” he said softly. “If I’m not very much mistaken, that’s-”

“You’re It,” said Loki, grinning.

And before Heimdall could react, he slipped his disguise, shifted at speed to his wildfire Aspect, and fled for his life across the open hall.

The Vanir wasted no more time. In less than a second the air was shot through with mindbolts, flying daggers of runelight, flung nets of barbed blue fire. But Loki was fast, using the frills and crannies of the ice cavern to dodge, feint, and bewilder his attackers.

“Where is he?” yelled Heimdall, squinting through the runelight.

“Peekaboo,” said Lucy from behind a pillar of ice at the other side of the cavern.

Isa, cast from four different angles, shattered the pillar into a drift of diamonds, but by then the Trickster was already gone. In wildfire Aspect he led them toward the far side of the hall, dodging glamours and runes, twice more reappearing as Lucy from behind one of the fabulous constructions of ice. As the Vanir closed in on all sides, he pretended to falter, turning an expression of anguished appeal to the group of angry gods.

“Got him!” said Frey. “There’s no way out-”

“Tag,” said Lucy, and shifted again, to bird form this time, and made straight for the ceiling and its colossal central chandelier. At the hub, the small opening made by Loki’s fall gaped palely at the approaching dawn.

Too late the Vanir saw his plan.

“After him!” yelled Frey, and shifted into a harrier hawk, rather larger than Loki’s bird Aspect. Njörd became a sea eagle, white-winged and dagger-clawed, and Heimdall shifted into a falcon, yellow-eyed and fast as an arrow. The three of them made straight for Loki, while Freyja shot missiles at the gap in the roof and Bragi took out a flute from his pocket and played a little saraband that peppered the air with fast, deadly notes, scorching Loki’s feathers and almost bringing him down.

Loki spun in midair, lost control for a moment, then recovered and made for the sky. The sea eagle saw its chance and closed in, but its wingspan was too large for the cavern; it dodged a volley of semi-quavers, wheeled round, and clipped an ancient column of ice, shattering its core, before flying out of control into the nest of icicles that made up the main part of the ceiling. The frozen chandelier trembled, shook, and finally began to disintegrate, throwing down shards of ice that had hung intact for five hundred years into the Hall of Sleepers.

For a time confusion reigned. A cataract of frozen pieces, some knife-edged, others as large as bales of hay, had begun to tumble, slowly but with increasing momentum, from the bright vaulting. Some smashed onto the polished floor, flinging up fragments that were as sharp and deadly as pieces of shrapnel. Others pulverized before they reached the ground, snowing steely particles into the air.

It was so sudden, so cataclysmic, that for a few crucial seconds the Vanir lost interest in the winged fugitive and scattered to the far corners of the Hall of Sleepers in their various attempts to escape the avalanche:

Bragi played a jig so merry that the ice melted into gentle rain long before it reached his head.

Freyja flung up ýr and created a mindshield of golden light against which the falling fragments rebounded harmlessly.

Idun simply smiled vaguely and the particles of ice turned into a shower of apple blossoms that drifted quietly to the ground.

Heimdall, Njörd, and Frey beat their wings in angry confusion, trying to dodge the falling ice as their prey vanished, with no more injury than a few scorched feathers, through the grinning gap.

And in all the confusion Maddy simply strolled into the hall, quietly retrieved the Whisperer from its hiding place under the loosened snow, then calmly strolled out again-unobserved and unsuspected-into the tunnels of World Below.

5

Now Loki was flying for his life. He’d bought himself some time, of course: the three hunters had been slowed down, both by the collapse of the ice chandelier and by their greater size, which had made it less easy for them to leave through the small gap in the roof.

As it was, he had fifteen minutes on them before he spotted his three pursuers: the falcon, the sea eagle, and the harrier hawk, circling the valley in a hunting pattern, searching for him in the early morning sunlight.

At once Loki dropped his hawk Aspect and came to rest behind a small copse just outside Forge’s Post; here stood a tiny log cabin, with a line of washing behind it and an old lady dozing in a rocking chair on the porch.

The old lady was Crazy Nan Fey, the nurse of Maddy’s younger days. She opened one eye as the hawk came to land, and she watched with some interest as it became a naked young man, who proceeded to ransack Nan ’s washing line in search of something to wear. Nan supposed she ought to intervene-but the loss of an old dress, an apron, and a shawl seemed a small price to pay for the spectacle, and she decided against it.

Two minutes later a second old lady, barefoot and with a thick shawl over her head, was walking at a suspiciously athletic pace toward Malbry village. Closer observation might have shown that her left hand was oddly crooked, though few would have recognized the runeshape ýr.

Some birds flew overhead for a time, but as far as she saw, they did not land.

Maddy and Loki had arranged to meet by the big old beech in Little Bear Wood. Maddy reached it first, having taken the road through World Below, and she sat down on the grass to wait and to settle things once and for all with the Whisperer.

Their conversation was not a comfortable one. The Whisperer was resentful at having been left in the Hall of Sleepers “like a damned pebble,” as it put it, and Maddy was furious that it had hidden the truth about her Æsir blood.

“I mean, it isn’t something you just forget to mention,” she snapped. “Oh, and by the way, you’re Allfather’s granddaughter. Didn’t it occur to you that I might be interested?”

The Whisperer glowed in a bored kind of way.

“And another thing,” said Maddy. “If I’m Modi, Thor’s child, and according to the prophecy I’m supposed to rebuild Asgard, then presumably whichever side I’m on wins the war. Right?”

The Whisperer yawned lavishly.

Now Maddy blurted out the question that had been burning the roof of her mouth since Odin had first told her who she was. “Is that why One-Eye found me?” she said. “Is that why he taught me what he did? Did he just pretend to be my friend so he could use me against the enemy when the time came? And how would he do it? I’m no warrior…”

She had a sudden, vivid memory of Loki in the caves, saying: A man may plant a tree for a number of reasons-and though it was warm in the little wood, Maddy could not suppress a shiver.

The Whisperer gave its dry laugh. “I warned you,” it said. “That’s what he does. He uses people. He used me when it suited him, then abandoned me to my fate. It’ll happen to you if you let it, girl-to him you’re nothing but another step on the road back to Asgard. He’ll sacrifice you in the end, just as he sacrificed me, unless-”

“Is this another prophecy?” Maddy interrupted.

“No. It’s a prediction,” the Whisperer said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Predictions can be wrong. Prophecies can’t.”

“So you don’t actually know what’s going to happen, either?” said Maddy.

“Not exactly. But I’m a good guesser.”

Maddy bit a fingernail. “I see an army poised for battle. I see a general standing alone. I see a traitor at the gate. I see a sacrifice.” She turned to the Whisperer. “Is that me?” she said. “Am I supposed to be the sacrifice? And is One-Eye the traitor?”

“Couldn’t say,” smirked the Whisperer.

“The dead will awake from the halls of Hel. And the Nameless shall rise and Nine Worlds be lost, unless the Seven Sleepers wake and the Thunderer be freed from Netherworld-freed from Netherworld?” Maddy said. “Is that even possible?”

Within the Whisperer’s glassy shell, fragments of runelight sparkled and spun.

“I said, is it possible?” repeated Maddy. “To free my father from Netherworld?”

Loki had thought her childish and irrational. In fact, ever since she had heard the tale of his escape from Netherworld, Maddy had been thinking very clearly indeed. She had gambled on his willingness to help-not because she trusted in Loki’s better nature, but because she expected him to lie. She was sure he had no intention of allowing her to throw the Whisperer back into the fire pit, but the task of retrieving it from the Hall of Sleepers was a two-man job, and rather than let it fall into the hands of the Vanir, she was sure that Loki would be ready to humor her-at least until they reached World Below, where he would deliver Maddy and the Whisperer safely into Odin’s hands. For a price, of course.

Well, two could play at that game.

On her way from the Hall of Sleepers, Maddy had been doing some serious thinking. Part of her wanted to run to One-Eye with her questions, as she had always done as a child-but the Whisperer’s prophecy had made her wary, not least because, if she read it correctly, One-Eye’s defeat could lead to the end of the Worlds.

She wished she’d never heard of the Whisperer. But now that she had, there was no going back. And although it was a poor substitute for her old friend’s counsel, at least a prophecy could not lie.

She knew what One-Eye would think of her plan, and it hurt her to deceive him, but there was nothing she could do. I’d be saving him from himself, she thought. I’d be saving the Worlds.

Maddy gave up on waiting for the Whisperer’s answer. “Just as long as Loki agrees to help…”

“Don’t worry about that,” said the Whisperer. “I can persuade him. I’m very persuasive.”

Maddy gave it a long look. “Last time I knew, you wanted him dead.”

“Even the dead have their uses,” it said.

***

It was half an hour later that Loki arrived, footsore and dusty in Crazy Nan’s dress.

“Oh, look,” said the Whisperer in its nastiest voice. “Dogstar’s taken to wearing a dress. What next, eh? Tiara and pearls?”

“Ha ha. Very funny,” said Loki, untying the shawl that covered his head. “Sorry I’m late,” he said to Maddy. “I had to walk.”

“Never mind that now,” said Maddy. “What matters is that we have the Whisperer.”

The Trickster looked at her curiously. He thought she looked flushed, with excitement or fear, and there was something in her colors, some brightening, that made him feel uneasy.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“We’ve been talking,” said Maddy.

Loki looked uncomfortable. “What about?”

“I have an idea,” she told him.

And then she began to outline her plan, hesitantly at first, then with growing confidence, while beside her Loki’s face went paler and paler and the Whisperer glowed like a clutch of fireflies and smiled as if it might explode.

“Netherworld?” he said at last. “You want me to go to Netherworld?”

“You heard what the Oracle said!”

“Poetic license,” snapped Loki. “Oracles love that kind of thing.”

“A general will stand alone, it said. The Nameless shall rise. Nine Worlds will be lost. War, Loki. A terrible war. And the only way of stopping it is to free my father from Netherworld. You promised you’d help-”

“I said I’d help you recover the Whisperer,” said Loki. “I never said anything about saving the Worlds. I mean, what’s so wrong with a war, anyway?”

Maddy thought of the Strond Valley, and the fields and houses scattered all the way from Malbry village to Forge’s Post, and all the little roads and hedges, and the smell of burning stubble in the fall. She thought of Crazy Nan in her rocking chair, and of market day on the village green, and of Jed Smith, who had done his best, and of all the soft, harmless people of the valley with their little lives and their silly conviction that they were at the center of the Worlds.

And for the first time in her life Maddy Smith understood. The lectures, the bullying, the signs forked in secret behind her back. The hundred small cruelties that had sent her running for Little Bear Wood more times than she could remember. She’d thought they hated her because she was different, but now she knew better. They’d been afraid. Afraid of the cuckoo in their nest, afraid that one day it would grow and bring Chaos upon their little world.

And she had, Maddy thought. She’d started this. Without her, the Sleepers would not have awakened, the Whisperer would still be safe in the pit, and the war might be fifty years away, or a hundred years, or even more…

She turned to Loki. “It can be done. You said so yourself.”

Loki gave a sharp laugh. “You’ve got no idea what you’re suggesting. You’ve never even so much as set foot outside your valley before, and now you’re planning to storm the Black Fortress. Bit of a leap, don’t you think?”

“You’re afraid,” said Maddy, and Loki gave another crack of laughter.

“Afraid?” he said. “Of course I’m afraid. Being afraid is what I’m good at. Being afraid is why I’m still here. And speaking of being afraid”-he glanced at the Whisperer-“have you any idea what the General would do to me if-No, don’t answer that,” he said. “I’d rather not know. Suffice it to say that we both go and see him now, give him the damn thing, let him negotiate with the Vanir, yadda yadda yadda…”

“When Odin and Wise Mimir meet, Chaos will come to the Nine Worlds.” That was the Whisperer, speaking almost idly, but with its colors flaring like dragonfire.

Loki turned. “What did you say?”

“I speak as I must and cannot be silent.”

“Oh no.” Loki held up his hands. “Don’t even think of making a prophecy right now. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know.”

But the Whisperer was speaking again. Its voice was not loud, but it commanded attention, and both of them listened, Maddy in bewilderment and Loki in growing disbelief and horror.

“I see an Ash at the open gate,” said the Whisperer. “Lightning-struck but green in shoot. I see a meeting at Nether’s edge, of the wise and the not so wise. I see a death ship on the shores of Hel, and Bór’s son with his dog at his feet-”

“Oh, gods,” said Loki. “Please don’t say anymore.”

“I speak as I must and cannot be-”

“You were silent enough for five hundred years,” protested Loki, who had gone even paler than before. “Why break the habit now?”

“Hang on,” said Maddy. “Bór’s son-that’s one of Odin’s names.”

Loki nodded, looking sick.

“And the dog?”

Loki swallowed painfully. Even his colors had turned pale, shot through with silvery threads of fear. “Forget it,” he said in a tight voice.

Maddy turned to the Whisperer. “Well?” she said. “What does it mean?”

The Oracle glowed in the pattern she had come to recognize as amusement. “All I do is prophesy,” it said sweetly. “I leave the interpretation to others.”

Maddy frowned. “The Ash. I suppose that’s me. The green shoot from the lightning tree. The wise-surely that’s the Whisperer. Bór’s son on a death ship-with his dog at his feet…” Her eyes came to rest on Loki’s face. “Ah,” she said. “Dogstar. I see.”

Loki sighed. “So it means I die. Do you have to repeat it?”

“Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you die-”

“Oh, really?” snapped Loki. “Me, on Hel’s shore? What else do you think I’d be doing there?” He began to pace, tucking his skirts into his waistband, his shawl flying. “Why couldn’t you have told me all this before?” he demanded of the Whisperer.

The Oracle smirked and said nothing.

Loki put his face in his hands.

“Come on,” said Maddy. “You’re not dead yet. In fact-” She stopped for a moment, her face brightening. “Let me get this right,” she said. “According to the Whisperer, if Odin dies, then you do too.”

Loki made a muffled sound of despair.

“And when Odin and Mimir meet, then Chaos will come-Odin will fall…”

Loki’s eyes turned to hers.

“Unless we free Thor from Netherworld-in which case the war won’t happen at all, the General won’t die, the Nine Worlds will be saved, and my father…”

There was a long silence, during which Loki stared, transfixed, at Maddy, Maddy’s heart raced even faster, and the Whisperer shone like a chunk of star.

“So you see,” she said, “you have to come. You know the way into Netherworld. The Whisperer said it could be done-and if we keep hold of the Whisperer, then Odin won’t meet it, and there won’t be a war, and-”

“Listen, Maddy,” interrupted Loki. “Much as I’d love to save the Nine Worlds while committing suicide, I have a much simpler plan. The Oracle saw me dead in Hel. Right? So as long as I stay away from Hel-”

He broke off suddenly, aware of a small but vicious stabbing pain just above his left eyebrow. For a second he thought something had stung him. Then he felt the Whisperer’s presence, like a sharp object raking his mind. He took a step back and almost fell.

Ouch, that hurts!

He sensed it catching his thoughts like a fingernail snagging silk. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but when Loki tried to close his mind to it, a second lance of pain, more acute this time, slammed through his head.

“What’s wrong?” said Maddy, seeing him falter.

But Loki was in no position just then to explain. Eyes closed, he took another drunken step. Below him the Whisperer sparkled with glee.

What do you want? Loki said silently.

Your attention, Dogstar. And your word.

“My word?”

In silence, if you value your life.

With an effort, Loki nodded.

I know what you’re thinking, said the voice in his mind. You are afraid, because I can read your thoughts. You are surprised at how my powers have grown.

Loki said nothing but gritted his teeth.

And you are wondering whether I mean to punish you.

Still Loki said nothing.

I ought to, said the Whisperer. But I’m giving you a chance to redeem yourself.

Redeem myself? said Loki, surprised. Since when did you care about saving my soul?

In his mind he felt the Whisperer’s amusement. It’s not your soul I care about. Nevertheless, you will do as I say. Go with the girl to Netherworld. Take me with you as far as Hel. Free the gods-avert the war-

And why would you want to go to Hel? What’s your plan, you old fraud?

A last, tremendous bolt of pain went rocketing through Loki’s head. He fell to his knees, unable to cry out, as the voice in his mind delivered its warning.

No questions, it said. Just do as I say.

And then the alien presence was gone, leaving him shaking and breathless. Once more he wondered at how much stronger it had grown; his struggle to contain the thing, centuries earlier, had lasted for days, exhausting them both and causing devastation in World Below, but today it had brought him to his knees in seconds.

Now it shone with a warning gleam, and Loki heard its whispering voice, faint but commanding at the back of his mind.

No trickery. Do I have your word?

All right. He opened his eyes and took slow, deep breaths.

“What happened?” said Maddy, looking concerned.

Loki shrugged. “I fell,” he said. “Bloody skirts.” And with those words he picked himself up and turned the full force of his scarred smile on Maddy. “Now,” he said. “Are we going to Netherworld or not?”

6

It was a most unholy alliance. On the one side the Huntress, royally clad in Ethelberta’s blue velvet; on the other, the parson, with his golden key. It was two in the morning when they repaired to the parsonage and, to Ethel’s bewilderment and displeasure, went immediately to Nat’s study and locked themselves in.

There, Nat told the Huntress all he knew-about Maddy Smith, the one-eyed Journeyman who had been her friend, and most especially about the Order and its works-and he read to her from the Good Book and recited some of the canticles in the lesser of the Closed Chapters.

Skadi watched and listened with cold amusement to the little man’s efforts to master the glamour that he called the Word. As the hours passed, however, she began to grow curious. He was clumsy and untrained, but he had a spark, a power she did not quite understand. She could see it in his colors: it was almost as if there were two light-signatures there instead of one, a normal signature of an undistinguished brown and a brighter thread that ran through it, as a silver skein may be woven into a cheaper silk. Somehow, it seemed, Nat Parson, for all his conceit and self-indulgence, had powers that might be of value to her-or might threaten her, if allowed to grow untrained.

“Now light it.” They were sitting at Nat’s desk, an unlit taper in a candlestick between them. Kaen, the fire rune, gleamed, a little crookedly, between the parson’s fingers.

“You’re not concentrating,” said Skadi impatiently. “Hold it steady, focus your thoughts, say the cantrip, and light the taper.”

For several seconds Nat frowned at the candlestick. “It doesn’t work,” he complained at last. “I can’t work these heathen cantrips. Why can’t I just use the Word?”

“The Word?” In spite of herself, Skadi laughed. “Listen, fellow,” she said as patiently as she could. “Do you use an oliphant to plow your garden? Would you burn a forest to light your pipe?”

Nat shrugged. “I want to get to the things that matter. I’m not interested in learning tricks.”

Once more Skadi laughed. You had to give it to the man, she thought-at least his ambitions were vast, if his intelligence wasn’t. She had entered their pact with the intention of humoring him for just as long as it took to gain the secrets of the Order, but now her curiosity had been aroused. Perhaps he could be useful after all.

“Tricks?” she said. “These tricks, as you call them, are your apprenticeship. Despise them, and our alliance is over. Now stop complaining and light the taper.”

Nat made a sound of disgust. “I can’t,” he muttered angrily, and at that very moment, with an angry whoosh! the taper leaped into violent flame, scattering papers, bowling over the candlestick, and sending a jet of fire so high toward the ceiling that it left a black soot stain on the plasterwork.

Skadi raised a dispassionate eyebrow. “You lack control,” she said. “Again.”

But Nat was looking at the blackened taper with an expression of wild exhilaration. “I did it,” he said.

“Poorly,” said the Huntress.

“But did you feel it?” said Nat. “That power-” He paused abruptly, bringing one hand to his temple as if he had a headache. “That power,” he repeated, but vaguely, as if his mind were on something else.

“Again, please,” said Skadi coolly. “And this time try to exercise a little restraint.” She righted the candlestick-which was still hot-and placed a fresh taper on the spike.

Nat Parson smiled almost absently. The rune Kaen, less crooked this time, began to take shape between his fingers.

“Steady,” said the Huntress. “Give yourself time.” Kaen was burning brightly now, a nugget of fire in the parson’s hand. “That’s too much,” said Skadi. “Bring it right down.”

But either Nat didn’t hear her or he didn’t care, for Kaen brightened once again, now glowing so intensely that Skadi could feel it, like a lump of molten glass radiating fierce heat.

Nat’s eyes were pinpoints of eager fire; before him on the desk, scattered papers began to curl and crisp. The candle itself, standing unmarked in its holder before him, began to drool and melt as the heat increased.

“Stop it,” said Skadi. “You’ll burn yourself.”

Nat Parson only smiled.

Now Skadi was beginning to feel unaccountably nervous. Kaen across the desk from her was the shrunken heart of a furnace; its yellow had veered to an eerie blue-white.

“Stop it,” she said.

Still there was no reply from Nat Parson. Skadi cast Isa with her fingers, meaning to freeze out the fire rune before it could escape and cause damage.

Then Nat looked at her. Across the desk of charring papers, blue Isa and fiery Kaen faced each other in a deadlock, and once again Skadi felt that sense of peculiar, nagging unease.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, she thought. The fellow had no training, no glam-so where was he getting this influx of power?

In her hand Isa was beginning to fail. She cast it again, harder this time, putting the force of her own glam behind it.

On Nat’s face the smile broadened; his eyes closed like those of a man in the throes of delight. Skadi pushed harder-

And suddenly it was over; so quickly that she had difficulty believing it had ever been. Kaen broke apart, frozen by Isa, and a dozen fragments snickered into the far wall, leaving tiny flecks of cinder embedded in the plasterwork. Nat goggled at these with a bewilderment that might have been comic in any other circumstance, and Skadi let out a sigh of relief-which was absurd, as surely she could not have expected any other outcome.

And yet, hadn’t she felt something as she faced him across the desk? As if some power-maybe even a superior power-had lent itself to his, or some gaze of unspeakable penetration had flitted briefly over their struggle of wills?

In any case, it was gone now. Nat seemed awakened from a kind of daze, observing the marks of his working against the ceiling and walls as if for the first time. Once more Skadi noticed that he rubbed his temple with the tips of his fingers, as if to ward off an approaching headache. “Did I do it?” he inquired at last.

Skadi nodded. “You made a start. Tell me,” she said. “How did it feel?”

For a moment Nat thought about it, still rubbing his temple. Then he gave a tiny, puzzled smile, like that of a man trying to recall the excesses of a night of distant revelry. “It felt good,” he said at last. His eyes met hers, and she thought she saw in their silvery pupils a reflection of his earlier delight. “Good,” he repeated softly, and for the first time since the End of the World, the icy Huntress shivered.

7

She had planned to introduce her new ally to the Vanir without delay. Now she began to think again. After all, the Vanir were not her people-except through marriage, and that had been a mistake. The old man was still fond of her, of course, but their natures were too different for the marriage to last. Njörd’s home by the sea had proved unbearable to her; her place in the mountains equally so to him. The same went for Frey and Freyja: their loyalties were with their father, not her, and she knew that her pursuit of Odin and his grandchild might not meet with unanimous approval.

Of course, if she’d managed to lay her hands on the Whisperer, then things might have been different. But as things stood at the moment, she was likely to meet with some opposition-Heimdall, at least, would stay loyal to Odin-and she had no desire to find herself at odds with the Vanir. So far Odin held all the cards: the Oracle and, more importantly, the girl. The Vanir knew the prophecy as well as he did. None of them would knowingly oppose Thor’s child, and though Skadi had no love for Asgard herself, she guessed that the others would give a great deal for the chance to regain the Sky Citadel.

And so, that morning, after breakfast with the parson, she returned in bird form to the Hall of Sleepers. She flew right over Loki’s head, but by then he was already on his way to the meeting place in Little Bear Wood, and it never occurred to the eagle that the old lady it saw on the Malbry road might be the Trickster in disguise.

As Skadi dressed-in the same tunic and boots she had left behind-she gave the Vanir a carefully edited account of the night’s work. Odin and Loki were working together, she said, along with a girl-whose identity, she told them, was still unknown. They had the Whisperer; they had foiled the Examiners and, in spite of her vigilance, had managed to escape.

She did not mention her promise to Nat Parson or her plans for Maddy Smith.

“So why didn’t Odin wake us himself?” said Heimdall when she had finished.

“Perhaps he was afraid,” said Skadi.

“Afraid? Of what?”

Skadi shrugged.

“Obviously he’s planning something,” said Frey.

“Without telling us?” said Bragi, offended.

“Why not?” said Skadi. “It’s Odin’s way. Secrets and lies were always his currency-”

“Untrue,” said Heimdall. “He’s loyal to us.”

Skadi looked impatient. “Oh, please. Let’s face it, Goldie. The General’s always flirted with Chaos. More than flirted-and now we find he’s thick as thieves with Loki again-Loki, of all people. What more do you need? If he wanted you, he’d have wakened you, wouldn’t he?”

Now the Vanir were looking uneasy.

“The world has changed,” Skadi went on. “There are new gods, powerful gods, working against us. Why do you think he took the Whisperer? Why do you think he left the Vanir sleeping?”

There was a lull. “Perhaps he’s working on an alliance,” said Frey doubtfully.

“You think so?” said Skadi. “With whom? I wonder.” And she told them what she knew of the Examiners of World’s End; of the Nameless, of the Word. They listened in silence-all but Idun, who seemed oblivious-and when Skadi had finished, even fickle Freyja was looking grim.

“Their Word is more powerful than any of ours,” said Skadi. “They can defeat us-they can control us-they can make us their slaves. They are the Order. Who knows what deal Odin may have cut with them to save himself?”

“But you said he was their prisoner,” said Bragi.

“A trick,” she said, “to lure me to the village.” And she explained how, at the very moment at which she was about to release Odin, they had turned against her, striking her down with a foul blow and making their escape-with the Whisperer-into the Hill.

“Why you?” said Heimdall, still suspicious.

“Because,” said Skadi, “I’m not one of you. All you Vanir-you’ve been with him too long. You’ve started thinking of him as one of your own. He isn’t. His loyalties are with the Æsir first and the Vanir second-if there is a second. But to save the Æsir, don’t you think he’d sacrifice you if he had to? Do you think he’d hesitate, even for a moment?”

Heimdall frowned. “You think he made a deal?”

Skadi nodded. “I think they forced him to it,” she said. “His own life in exchange for ours. But his plan went wrong. I killed the Examiner. I got away, and the Order lost its chance. That doesn’t mean it intends to give up.” She began to pace across the shining floor, her ice blue eyes gleaming. “We must assume they are coming after us with reinforcements. We must assume they know where we are. And who.”

It was enough. The seeds had been sown. Little by little, Skadi watched them grow in the eyes of the newly awakened Vanir. Heimdall bared his golden teeth; Frey’s eyes grew colder; kindly Njörd darkened like the edge of a cloud just veering toward rain. Bragi sang a sad song, Freyja wept, and Idun just sat on a block of ice and smiled, her face as unlined and serene as ever.

“Very well,” said Heimdall, turning to Skadi. “Let’s assume for the moment you’re right.” He squinted keenly at the Huntress, as if he perceived something in her signature that the others did not-some shift in her colors, some wrongness in the light. “Let us assume that Odin has a plan which may not be to our advantage. That’s all I’m willing to assume,” he said as Skadi seemed about to protest, “but I do understand the need for caution.”

“Good,” said Skadi.

“All the same, we outnumber them,” said Heimdall. “Seven of us to the three of them-assuming we’re counting the girl, of course…”

“Plus the Whisperer,” Skadi reminded him.

Heimdall looked thoughtful. “Yes, of course. They do have the Oracle. And the Oracle has no cause to love the Vanir. After all, we’re the ones who cut off Mimir’s head in the first place.”

The others exchanged glances. “He has a point,” said Frey.

“But does Odin control the Whisperer?” asked Njörd.

“Perhaps not,” said Heimdall.

“Then what do we do?” asked Freyja. “We can’t just hang around here forever-I say we talk to Odin.”

Skadi shot her a look of contempt. “Are you volunteering for the job?”

Freyja looked away.

“What about you, Goldie? Do you want to walk into whatever trap he’s set for you and find out what he’s planning the hard way?”

Heimdall scowled and said nothing.

“Well, what about you, Bragi? You’ve usually got more than enough to say for yourself. What do you suggest?”

Njörd interrupted her. “What’s your solution, Huntress?” he said.

“Well, as it happens…,” she began.

She told them as much and as little as she dared. She spoke of Nat Parson and his ambitions-playing them down as the impossible dreams of a vain and foolish man. She stressed his potential usefulness as an ally, told of his links with the Order and the Church, told them how he had already helped them by giving them access to the Good Book.

Of his newly acquired powers and of the uneasy feeling those powers gave her, the Huntress said nothing. The man had a glimmer. But it was unstable power-and that barely more than a spark. Nothing to feel threatened by. And he might prove useful.

“Useful how?” said Heimdall.

Skadi shrugged. “In these new times we need new allies,” she said. “How else are we to fight the Order? Besides, the Nameless has a name. I’d like to know it before it comes to war.”

Grudgingly Heimdall conceded the point. “So what does he want, this parson of yours?”

Skadi smiled. “He wants revenge against a renegade of the Folk. In exchange, he will give us information that will arm us against the Order and the Word. All he wants is the girl-I’d say he’s offering us a bargain.”

“The girl?” said Bragi. “But who is she?”

“No one,” said Skadi. “You know what Odin’s like: he’s always had a soft spot for the Folk. I imagine he’s been using her as a spy or something.”

Once more Heimdall gave her a searching look. “Freyja said she had glam.”

“So what if she does?” said Skadi sharply. “I told you, she’s of no importance. What matters is that Odin’s deceived us. And our first priority is to find out why.”

There was a long pause as the Vanir considered Skadi’s words.

“All right,” said Frey at last. “But first we meet with the General. We get things straight with him once and for all. And if he’s betrayed us-”

“Which I know he has-”

“Then,” said Frey, “we’ll give your churchman his revenge.”

8

The passage they had chosen was low and very tight, half blocked with rock rubble in some parts and with a low stone roof that projected sharply at intervals, threatening to scalp them if they raised their heads. Its entrance was hidden in Little Bear Wood, and the way down was much longer and more tortuous than if they had taken the Horse’s Eye.

But, as Loki said, it was safer this way; the few light-signatures Maddy sensed were very dim and very old, which meant that One-Eye would have difficulty locating their trail, even if the runes they’d left failed to hide it entirely.

Loki, however, was taking no chances. He worked methodically to hide their trail with little glamours and runes of concealment, and Maddy would have been impressed by his attention to detail if she had not known that it was entirely motivated by self-interest. Their journey was a dangerous one, and for the first time in his life the Trickster was concerned for the safety of others-particularly Odin, who, if he managed to follow them, might find himself caught up in the perilous wheels of a prophecy that Loki devoutly (and selfishly) hoped would never be fulfilled.

“He may prove useful after all,” the Whisperer told Maddy as Loki scouted further ahead. “I can take you through World Below. But after that comes the Land of the Dead, where for all my knowledge I cannot guide you. He, on the other hand, has a connection.”

“What connection?” Maddy said.

“A family connection,” said the Whisperer.

Maddy stared. “A family connection?”

“Why, yes,” said the Whisperer. “Didn’t you know? The prodigal father’s coming home.”

It could have been worse, Loki thought. The going was hard but safe, and before long they would reach the honeycomb galleries of World Below, where he would be able to find them food and clothing (he was getting very tired of Crazy Nan’s skirts) and from which they would be able to pursue their descent unnoticed and undisturbed. Beyond that the risk-at least the risk of being followed-would decrease a little; after all, who would expect them to go willingly into the very throat of Chaos? As for any other risks they might encounter, he could not say, but so far his luck had not failed him, and he was inclined to trust it a little further.

Behind him he could sense, rather than hear, the Whisperer. Not so much words as thoughts that assaulted his wits and undermined his concentration. He would have to be careful. Even in the fire pit on some occasions, the force of its will had been almost more than he could bear. Now, at close quarters, it made his head ache, and the idea that it could look into his mind whenever it wanted did nothing to allay his discomfort.

What makes you think I’m interested in your mind? scoffed the Whisperer. Beats me how you can live in that snake pit anyway.

Loki shook his aching head. There was no point getting into a flyting match with the thing; insults only made it laugh, and as Chaos grew nearer, he would need all his glam for what was to come.

Shut up, Mimir, he hissed between clenched teeth.

Four hundred years in that pit of yours and you think I’m interested in your comfort? You have a lot to atone for, Dogstar. Just be grateful we have a common interest. And don’t even think of double-crossing me.

Loki wasn’t about to try-at least, not until he knew what he was dealing with. Long acquaintance with the Whisperer had made him wary, and its sudden desire to be taken to Hel troubled him immensely. Maddy believed it was helping the gods-but Loki was infinitely less trusting, and he knew that the Whisperer wasn’t in the habit of doing favors.

It wanted something-What, old friend?

What do you care? We have a deal.

Loki knew he should leave it be. The more he spoke, the more he listened to the Whisperer, the greater its hold over his mind. For the moment he could still tune it out; for all its power it had not managed to penetrate his deepest thoughts. That suited him fine. And yet…

Why help the Æsir? What’s your plan?

In his mind, the Whisperer laughed. I might well ask the same of you. Since when did you care about saving the Worlds? You’re only interested in saving your skin, and if I had any choice right now, you’d be chained to a rock in Netherworld, having your guts pecked out by crows.

Loki shrugged dismissively. Sticks and stones may break my bones-

They’ll do worse than that in the Black Fortress.

They’ll have to catch me first, said Loki.

Oh, they will, said the Whisperer.

They traveled in silence after that.

9

Meanwhile, in World Below, Odin One-Eye was awake at last. His time in the roundhouse had left him vulnerable, and although he was a quick healer, he needed time to recover his glam. As a result, it was past midday before he awoke to discover that Maddy and Loki had disappeared.

No one seemed to know where they had gone; certainly not the goblins, who in the absence of their captain seemed to have lost any control they might once have had and were deserting Red Horse Hill in droves, taking what loot they could carry with them.

He intercepted and questioned a number of these fugitives but could make little of what they told him. Rumors were flying like wild geese. The Order was marching on the Hill; the Nameless had risen; the World Ash had fallen; Surt the Destroyer had crossed over from Chaos and was even now on his way to devour the world.

There were other, more plausible rumors as well: the Captain was dead (Odin put this down to wishful thinking); World Below was overrun; any treasure, food, and ale was therefore free to all comers-this at least was true enough, as Odin discovered on entering the food cellars, although most of the goblins he found there were too drunk to make any sense.

By contrast, in World Above an ominous quiet reigned. The digging machines were abandoned in the open Eye; in the fields only a few people came and went. It felt like a Sunday, but the church bells were silent and even the farmers, who had good reason to be busy, seemed to have forsaken their business. Watching the world through the rune Bjarkán, Odin wondered at the eerie stillness while over the Hill the wild geese flew and storm clouds gathered sullen over the valley of the Strond.

Something was stirring, he could sense it clearly. It shivered through World Below, rattling bones and blowing through doorways. It had a voice-seven voices, in fact-and Odin had no need of truesight or oracle to know from where that wind was blowing.

The Sleepers.

Well, he thought, it was inevitable. Once Skadi had awakened, rousing the others was simply a matter of time. And without the Whisperer he could not know for sure what they knew or what they were planning. Did they have the Whisperer? Were they responsible for Maddy’s disappearance? And where was Loki? Was he still alive? And if so, what was his game?

It was crooked, of course-that went without saying-but the one thing of which Odin was still sure was that the Vanir would oppose any partnership with the Trickster. If Skadi had convinced them that Loki and Odin were together again, then he would have to approach them with the greatest of care.

And approach them he must, if he was to have the answers to his questions.

Casting his gaze toward the Horse’s Eye, he had found their summons in the form of a white-headed crow bearing a message. It sat on the big stone on top of the Hill, cocked its head, and spoke.

Craw.

One-Eye liked crows and knew their language from all the times he had taken their shape. He drew close to the bird and through the rune Bjarkán assured himself that this was indeed a common crow and not one of the Vanir in bird Aspect.

Vanir, it said. Parley. No trick.

One-Eye nodded. “Where?” he said.

Parson house.

“When?”

Tonight.

Thoughtfully Odin scattered a handful of scraps for the crow, which flapped down and began to peck at the food. No trick, it had said. But the parson’s house seemed a strange place to meet-could they be thinking of an alliance with the Folk?-and in today’s world, he knew, even old friends were not to be trusted.

Damn them, damn them. He was getting too old for diplomacy. His shoulder was still on fire from Jed Smith’s crossbow bolt; he was worried about Maddy, suspicious of the Vanir, and distressingly weakened by the power of the Word.

The Word. Oh, he’d known of its existence for many years, but he had never encountered its effects firsthand. Now that he had, he feared it more than ever. A single Examiner had bled him helpless. One man-not even a Magister-had come within inches of breaking his mind.

Imagine an army primed with the Word. The Book of Apocalypse didn’t seem quite so far-fetched now that he’d seen what the Word could do. And the Order was strong-in purpose as well as in numbers-while he and his kind were scattered and in conflict. But what could he-what could any of them do against the Nameless? Alone, he might gain a few years’ reprieve-ten, twenty if he was lucky-before the Order finally tracked him down. Together-if he managed to win back the Vanir at all-what could they hope for but defeat?

Perhaps the Examiner was right, he thought. Perhaps my time is over. And yet the thought did not fill him with the despair he might have expected. Instead he was conscious of a strange sensation, a kind of lightening of the spirit, and in that moment he recognized the feeling. He’d felt it before, in the days before Ragnarók, with Worlds colliding and the forces of Chaos awaiting their time. It was the joy of a gambler throwing down his last coin, the knowledge that everything stands or falls on the turn of a card.

Well, what is it to be? he asked himself. A few years’ reprieve or a merciful death? A sliver of hope or a bolt from the blue?

His chances were poor; he knew that already. The Vanir mistrusted him, Skadi had sworn vengeance on him, Loki had fled, Maddy was lost, the Whisperer missing, the Hill wide open, and the Folk on his trail. And without the Oracle the chances of his being able to talk, cajole, negotiate, or outright lie the Vanir into obedience were small indeed.

But Odin was a gambler. He liked those odds. They appealed to his sense of the dramatic. And so once more as the sun tipped westward, he picked up his staff and his battered old pack and made his way down Red Horse Hill.

10

In Skadi’s absence Nat Parson had slept, exhausted after his night’s work. But his sleep had not refreshed him, punctuated as it was with itchy, uncomfortable dreams that left him feeling edgy and dissatisfied.

He woke past noon with an aching head, dizzy with hunger, and yet the thought of eating made him feel sick. Most of all he was terribly afraid that the newly acquired powers he had demonstrated to the Huntress might somehow have seeped away.

To his relief, however, the power of the Word remained undimmed. If anything, he thought it had actually increased as he slept, like some fast-growing creeper feeling its way through his brain. He lit the altar candles on his first try, almost without thinking, and the colors that had so overwhelmed him before now seemed familiar, almost commonplace.

How this had happened he did not know, but somehow, as he’d stepped forward at the very instant the Examiner summoned the Word against One-Eye, their minds had meshed. By accident or design? Had he been chosen to receive this power? With the Order, of course, anything was possible. Perhaps it was simply chance, the aftermath of Communion combined with some more random element-chance or choice, who knows?-but whatever it was, Nat Parson meant to keep it.

He hardly spoke to his wife at all, except to demand the loan of her second-best dress. Her best was already lying discarded somewhere out on Red Horse Hill, and Skadi would need another when she returned from the Sleepers in bird form.

Ethelberta was quite naturally reluctant to part with the cream of her wardrobe in this way, and there was a small unpleasantness, from which Nat escaped to the sanctuary of his study before his desire to use the Word on Ethelberta became too strong to resist.

Meanwhile, the Huntress had returned. It had taken some hours to bring the Vanir around to her way of thinking, and it was early afternoon by the time she reached the village. By then her quarry was already gone: Maddy and Loki into World Below and Odin into World Above, to observe the parsonage and to check the area for a possible ambush.

He did not observe Skadi as, in the guise of a white she-wolf, she explored the intricacies of Red Horse Hill, sniffing out its passageways, calculating its defenses, searching for a fresh trail. Briefly she caught Loki’s scent, but it was faint and soon ran cold, and she could find no trace of Maddy Smith.

Well, that could wait, she told herself.

Today she hunted bigger game.

She turned her attention once more to the Hill. A natural fortress, in normal circumstances it could have withstood a siege of a hundred years or more. But now, with its gates in ruins and its troops deserting, the fortress might yet become a baited trap. Naudr, the Binder, angled just so against the catch of a door, might be set like a snare for an unsuspecting rabbit, to snap shut on whoever passed that way, while the rune Hagall could be left like a powder charge, to explode in the face of the unsuspecting victim.

She entered through the ruins of the Horse’s Eye and spent the best part of the afternoon setting as many of these snares as she could. She dropped them at crossroads and corner stones, at tunnel mouths and around dark bends. She worked the rune Naudr into a net and stretched it across a darkened doorway, and she fashioned the rune T ýr into a cruel barb that would hook the victim like a fish.

It might work, the Huntress thought. A man on the run-or even a girl-might well be taken unawares. An unguarded moment, a careless step-and the quarry would be caught or wounded, weakened, helpless; easy prey.

It was nearly four on the town clock when Skadi returned to the parsonage in her wolf Aspect. Ethelberta, who had vowed that this time she would not submit so easily to the woman’s demands, found herself quite at a loss when the Huntress arrived, and soon Skadi was clad in sumptuous white velvet (which would never brush clean, thought Ethel) while Ethel herself was giving orders to prepare the house for six more guests and hoping that they, at least, would arrive decently clothed.

Skadi, however, had other concerns. She had sown some suspicion among the Vanir-and Loki’s involvement had done the rest-but Heimdall and Frey, at least, remained loyal to the General. If Odin had the Whisperer and if Maddy was really Thor’s child, then he might yet be able to talk them round. Of course, if there were to be a casualty…

Coolly Skadi considered the Vanir. Not Heimdall, not yet-he was too powerful to lose. Not Frey, for the same reason. Not Idun-she was not as helpless as she first appeared, and besides, they might need a healer in times to come. Bragi? Njörd? She owed him nothing, she told herself. They were no longer married-and yet she was loath to sacrifice the Man of the Sea. He might be useful after all. Freyja, on the other hand…

Skadi considered the goddess of desire.

Oh, she had some powers. She wasn’t useless. She was annoying, however, and Skadi admitted to herself that of all the surviving Vanir, Freyja was the one she would miss the least. Not because of her beauty-everyone knew Skadi despised such things-or even because of their conflicting natures, but because of the discord she spread in her wake. With Freyja around, arguments broke out; friends quarreled; the most peaceable folk turned green-eyed and crotchety. Besides, she and Odin-

But Skadi bit off that thought before it could take proper shape. This was no personal grudge, she told herself. This was a tactical choice, taken for the greater good. The fact that Freyja and Odin had always enjoyed more than a passing intimacy did not enter into her calculations at all. Freyja’s death might grieve him, of course. It might even wound him in a place even the Word could not reach. Should she let that affect her decision? She thought not. Loki might have caused her father’s death, but it had been Odin who ordered it, Odin who afterward had bought her silence with a few compliments and a strategic marriage. And over the years, she had begun to realize how he’d manipulated her, how he’d used her to make a much-needed peace with the Ice People, how long and how cleverly he had misdirected her anger, making her believe that Loki, and Loki alone, was to blame…

And now the brothers were together again.

Skadi clenched her fists against the white velvet of Ethelberta Parson’s second-best gown. No amount of ironing would remove those creases, but Skadi’s thoughts were far away. In her mind clouds gathered, blood spilled, and Revenge, long deferred but all the sweeter for that, opened its sleepy eyes and smiled.

Isa is the only rune of the Elder Script to have no reverse position. As a result, Skadi had lost none of her powers in the wake of Ragnarók. She considered herself a match for almost any of the Vanir, even Frey or Heimdall-but against the six of them together she knew she could not prevail. Unless, of course…

It had been a long time since she’d had the leisure or inclination to create a new weapon, and this one, she knew, must be foolproof. Not large, no, but every thread picked over with runes of concealment, a weapon of elegance-a weapon of stealth.

If she’d had time, she might have fashioned a shirt-even a cloak, barbed in every stitch with runes of ice and poison-but time was short, and instead she made a tiny handkerchief, edged with ribbon lace so fine that you could hardly even see it, so intricate that the glamours that warped and wefted it were hidden between the love knots and the embroidered flowers, so deadly that a single cantrip would be enough to unleash its working. And on it, in plain, bright script, she placed the rune Fé-

Freyja.

Skadi was pleased. Normally she disdained the homely art of needlework, but as a daughter of the Ice People she was skilled in it nevertheless. Carefully she folded the tiny handkerchief and put it into a drawer of the elegant escritoire. The Vanir would be here before nightfall. Smiling, the Huntress awaited their arrival.

***

Odin saw them coming from his vantage point beneath a stand of trees, half a mile from Malbry village. It was six o’clock in the evening, and against the last of the sunset he could just make out their signatures moving across the fields, arching into the smoky sky. Skadi’s colors were not among them-but it was possible that she was hiding in ambush nearby, using the others as bait to draw him in. Of Maddy and Loki there was no sign, and only now did he admit to himself how much he had been hoping to see them there.

He cast ýr and ducked behind a hedge. There they were: the Reaper, the Watchman, the Poet, the Healer, the Man of the Sea, and finally the goddess of desire, trailing far behind. Why had they chosen to come on foot? What was their business at the parsonage? And exactly how much did they know?

Through Bjarkán he tried to detect the Whisperer. There was no sign of it, nor could he hear its voice as yet. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. He moved in closer along the hedge, circling behind the little group so that he stood the least chance of being spotted. It felt so wrong, to be hiding thus from his friends, but the world had changed, and not even old friendships could be taken entirely on trust.

Njörd was speaking. “I know she’s reckless-maybe even a little wild-”

“A little wild!” That was Freyja, her long hair shining like frost, the links of her necklace catching the light. “She’s an animal, Njörd-all that prowling around as a wolf and an eagle…”

“She was always loyal. At Ragnarók-”

Frey said, “We were at war then.”

“If Skadi’s right, we’re at war now.”

“With the Folk. With the Order, perhaps,” said Heimdall. “But not with our people.”

“The Æsir are not our people,” said Njörd. “We might all do well to remember it.”

Behind the hedge Odin frowned. So that was where the land lay. Of course, Njörd was the oldest of the Vanir, father to the twins, and it was understandable that his allegiance should belong to the Vanir first and the Æsir second. Besides, he’d long suspected that Njörd still felt tender toward his estranged wife, and as Odin knew, there could be no reasoning with a lover. He himself was not immune: there had been times-quite a few of them-when even Odin the Far-Sighted had shown himself as blind as the next man…

He glanced at Freyja, still dragging behind, her blue dress black to the knees with mud. “How far now?” she wailed. “I’ve been walking for hours, I’ve got a blister, and just look at my gown-”

“If I hear any more about your gown, or your shoes, or your feather dress…,” muttered Heimdall.

“We’re nearly there,” said Idun gently. “But I can give you some apple if your foot hurts-”

“I don’t want an apple. I want some dry shoes, and a clean dress, and a bath-”

“Oh, shut up and use a cantrip,” said Heimdall.

Freyja looked at him and sniffed. “You don’t have a clue, do you, Goldie?”

From his hiding place, Odin smiled.

11

In World Below, Maddy and Loki had hit trouble. Trouble in the form of a vertical shaft slicing down through the levels-no path downward, no alternate route, and a hundred-foot leap to the far side.

It lay at the end of a long, low passage, through which they had half crawled, half clambered for close on three laborious hours. Now, looking down into the ax-shaped rift and listening to the tumbling water some four hundred feet below, Maddy was ready to wail with despair.

“I thought you said this was the best way down!” she cried, addressing the Whisperer.

“I said it was the quickest way down,” it replied waspishly, “and so it is. It’s hardly my fault if you can’t handle a little climb.”

“A little climb!”

The Whisperer glowed in a bored way. Once more Maddy looked down: below them the river churned like cream. It was the river Strond, Maddy knew, swollen with the autumn rains, probing and battering its way between the rocks toward the Cauldron of Rivers. It seemed to fill the chasm completely, and yet as her eyes became accustomed to the deeper gloom, she saw a break in the rock on the far side-just visible across the gap.

She gave a long, exhausted sigh. “We’ll have to double back,” she said. “Find some other route down.”

But Loki was looking at her with a strange expression. “There isn’t another route,” he said. “Not unless you want to share it with a couple of thousand goblins. Besides…”

“Besides,” said the Whisperer, “we’re being followed.”

“What?” said Maddy.

“He knows.”

“Knows what?”

Loki glared at the Oracle. “I spotted a signature an hour ago. Nothing to worry about. We’ll lose them further down.”

“Unless he’s leaving some kind of trail.”

“A trail?” said Maddy. “Why would he do that?”

“Who knows?” it said. “I told you he was trouble.”

Loki gave a hiss of exasperation. “Trouble?” he said. “Listen, I’m already risking my skin. It happens to be rather a nice skin, and I’m in no hurry to see it damaged. So why would I want to leave a trail? And why in Hel’s name would I want to slow us down?”

Maddy shook her head, abashed. “It’s just that the thought of turning back-”

Once more he gave her a puzzled look. “Who said anything about turning back?”

“But-”

“Maddy,” he said, “I thought you understood. Chaos blood on your mother’s side, Æsir on your father’s. Did you really think that climbing down that cliff was the best option?”

Maddy considered that for a moment. “But I don’t know any glamours-” she began.

“You don’t need to know any glamours,” said Loki. “Glamour is a part of you, like your hair or your eyes or the fact that you’re left-handed. Did Odin have to teach you to throw mindbolts?”

Frowning, Maddy shook her head. Then she remembered Freyja’s feather dress and her face lit up. “I could use Freyja’s cloak,” she suggested.

“No chance. No bird could carry the Whisperer. And besides, I’m getting tired of losing my clothes.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” she said, and then she saw how it might be done. A rope-a thread, even-woven from runes, stretching from the top of the gully to the cave entrance. Úr, the Ox, would make it strong. Naudr, the Binder, would hold it in place. It would need to last a moment only-just long enough for them to swing down safely-and then it could be banished as quickly and easily as a spider’s web. She thought it might work, and yet, looking down into the seething water, she began to feel afraid. What if it didn’t? What if she fell, like a fledgling too eager to leave the nest, and was swept away into the Cauldron of Rivers?

Loki was watching her with amusement and impatience. “Come on, Maddy,” he said. “This is child’s play compared to what you did by the fire pit.”

Slowly she nodded, and then she opened her hand and looked at Aesk inscribed on her palm. It was glowing dully, but as she watched, it brightened, as the embers of a fire may brighten when air is blown over them. Closing her eyes, she began to tease out the runes to suit her purpose, as she had once teased the raw wool of newly shorn lambs, thread by thread, around a spindle. She could see it now, growing at her fingertips, a double skein of runelight that was as strong as steel-linked chain and as light as thistledown, and she spun it into the dusky air as a spider spins a web, until it reached the ground by the river’s edge and was securely anchored to the rock.

She tested the line with her careful weight. It held. It felt like corn silk between her fingers. Now for the Whisperer. Tucked into her jacket, it was heavy, but not unbearably so, and she found that with a little adjustment, she could carry it against her chest as she grasped the line with all her strength and jumped into the darkness.

Loki was watching her with a curious, half-admiring expression on his sharp features. In truth, he was feeling very uneasy. It was a simple working, to be sure, but untutored as she was, Maddy had been very quick to find the technique. He wondered how long it would be before she discovered her other skills and how much power she carried in that seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of glam. He himself was growing weak from the effort of resisting the Whisperer’s intrusions into his thoughts. And as Loki in his turn grasped the line, he thought he could see trouble ahead-

And why would that be? said a voice in his mind.

Loki flinched at its unexpected presence. With the distractions of their downward journey he had found it harder and harder to keep his thoughts his own. Below him the river seethed and spat, and he suddenly wished that he was carrying the Whisperer-as it was, he was too helpless, he thought, strung out in the air like a bead on a thread. The thing in his mind caught his discomfort and grinned.

Get out of my head, you old voyeur.

What’s wrong? Guilty conscience?

Guilty what?

Silently it laughed. To Loki its laughter felt like dead fingernails scraping the inside of his skull. He began to sweat. Maddy had reached the far side of the river, but Loki was barely halfway there, and already the runes were beginning to fail. His arms hurt, his head ached, and he was all too aware of the drop below. And the Whisperer was aware of it too, amused and merciless, watching him squirm…

Seriously, Mimir. I’m trying to concentrate.

Seriously, Dogstar. What’s your plan?

Loki tried to recast the runes, but the Whisperer’s presence was too strong, making him writhe like a worm on a line.

Hurts you, doesn’t it? it said, tightening its grip more cruelly-

And in that moment, as the Whisperer reached out in its unguarded glee, Loki saw something that made him catch his breath. For as his mind and the Oracle’s touched, he had caught a glimpse of something more-something buried so deep in the Whisperer’s mind that only its shadow was visible.

(!)

In that instant the Whisperer fled.

Then it was back, its playfulness gone, and Loki sensed its lethal intent. A fearsome bolt of pain went through his body, and he fought the Whisperer with all his strength as it plundered his mind for what he’d seen.

Spy on me, would you, you little sneak?

“No! Please!” Loki howled.

One more sound and I’ll take you apart.

Loki clamped his scarred lips shut. He could see Maddy below him, holding out her hand across the last stretch of water, the rune Naudr stretched out almost to breaking point between them.

That’s better, the Oracle said. Now, about that plan…

For a second longer its hold increased, wringing him like a wet dishcloth. His fingers cramped; his vision blurred; one hand left the disintegrating line to cast runes of strength into the darkness-

And then the line gave way, pitching Loki toward the racing Strond. He leaped for the other side, casting feather-light runes with both hands, and landed, one foot in the water, on the rocky far side of the churning gulf, and found, to his relief, that the Oracle was gone. Pale and shaking, he hauled himself out.

“What’s wrong?” said Maddy, seeing his face.

“Nothing. Headache. It must be the air.”

He stumbled on, carefully keeping his mind a blank. That little glimpse had been bad enough, but he knew that if the Whisperer guessed the full extent of his knowledge, then nothing-not even Maddy-could save him.

And that was how they crossed the river that marks the edge of World Below and the beginning of the long, well-traveled road to Death, Dream, and Damnation.

12

Hawk-eyed Heimdall never slept. Even at his moments of lowest ebb he kept one eye open, which was why he had been chosen as the watchman of the Æsir in the days when such things as watchmen were still necessary. That night, however, none of the Vanir dared to rest-except Idun, whose trusting nature set her apart, and Freyja, whose complexion needed its eight hours. Instead they sat, uneasy, waiting for Odin.

“What makes you think he’ll come at all?” said Njörd at last, looking out the parlor window. The moon was rising; it was eleven, maybe twelve, and nothing had stirred since just after nine, when a fox had run across the open courtyard and vanished into the shadows at the side of the parsonage. There had been a moment of uncertainty as the Vanir fell over themselves to make sure the creature was just an ordinary fox, and then, for hours, silence-a tense, awkward silence that oppressed their senses like fog.

“He’ll come,” said Skadi. “He’ll want to talk. He’ll have gotten our message, and besides-”

Heimdall interrupted her. “If you were Odin, would you come?”

“He may not come alone,” said Bragi.

“Yes, he will,” said Skadi. “He’ll want to negotiate. He’ll try to buy you back into his service using the Whisperer as bait.” She smiled as she said it; only she knew that Odin had nothing with which to bargain. Loki’s trail led under the Hill, and she had every reason to believe that he had the Whisperer, sure as rats run. “But he’s tricky,” she warned. “He can’t be trusted. It would be just his style to lead us into a trap-”

“Stop it,” said Heimdall. “We’ve heard your opinion. We understand the risk. Why else would we be here, making bargains with the Folk?” He sighed, looking suddenly tired. “I see no honor in this, Huntress, and if you ask me, you’re taking a damn sight too much pleasure in it.”

“Very well,” said Skadi. “Then I’ll let you do the talking. I’ll keep my distance and only intervene if there’s trouble. All right? Is that fair?”

Heimdall looked surprised. “Thanks,” he said.

“All the same,” said the Huntress, “perhaps the parson should be here. If Odin comes armed…”

But on that the Vanir were united. “The six of us can deal with him,” said Njörd. “We don’t need the preacher fellow or his Word.”

Skadi shrugged. By the end of that night she was quite certain that they would think otherwise.

Odin came an hour later, in the silvery glow of a false dawn. In full Aspect-a vanity that must have cost him the greater part of his remaining glam-tall, blue-cloaked, spear in hand, his single eye shining like a star from beneath the brim of his Journeyman’s hat.

In wolf guise Skadi watched him from the outskirts of the village, knowing that he would come prepared for this meeting. His signature glowed; he looked relaxed and rested-all part of the act, of course, but she had to admit that it was impressive. Only her wolf’s acute senses were able to discern the truth beneath the glamour-the faint scent of anxious sweat, of dirt, of fatigue-and she snarled a smile of satisfaction.

So she’d been right, then. He was bluffing. His glam was at low ebb, he was alone, and the only advantage he still possessed-their enduring loyalty-was about to be taken away.

She raced him back to the parsonage and, entering through the half-open side door, made her way rapidly to awaken Nat. “He’s here,” she said.

Nat replied with a curt nod. He did not seem at all confused by his sudden awakening-in fact, Skadi wondered whether he had been asleep at all. He stood up, and she saw he had slept in his clothes. His eyes gleamed in the moonlight, his teeth grinned, his colors showed nothing but excitement, and one hand went without hesitation to the Good Book at his bedside while the other clutched at the golden key on its leather thong.

“You remember what to do?” she said.

Silently he nodded.

Ethelberta had shrieked to see the white wolf at her bedside, then shrieked even louder as Skadi had resumed her natural form. Neither the Huntress nor Nat himself had paid her the slightest attention.

Now, lying in bed in her nightgown, she was trembling. “Nat, please,” she said.

Nat didn’t even look at her. In fact, at that moment he didn’t look much like Nat at all, standing next to the bed in his shirt and trousers, his long shadow brushing the ceiling, and a glow-she was sure it was some sort of glow-coming from his eager eyes.

Ethelberta sat up, still mortally afraid but struggling to express her outrage, her fury at this shameless creature-this naked harpy-that had seduced her husband into madness and worse. She knew herself she’d never been a beauty, not even in her younger days. And even if she had-the May Queen herself couldn’t hold a candle to the demon he called the Huntress. But Ethelberta loved her husband, vain and shallow as he was, and she was not about to stand by and watch him consumed.

“Please,” she repeated, clutching at his arm. “Please, Nat-just send it away. Send them all away, Nat. They’re demons; they’ve stolen your mind…”

Nat only laughed. “Go back to bed,” he said, and in the darkness his voice seemed to have a resonance that it had not possessed in daylight. “This is no concern of yours. I’m here on the Order’s business, and I’ll not have you interfering in it.”

“But, Nat, I’m your wife…”

He looked at her then, and his eyes were pinwheels of strange fire. “An Examiner of the Order has no wife,” he said-

And collapsed.

He was out for only a few seconds. Skadi revived him with a sharp pinch while Ethelberta sat with eyes brimming and her hands clapped tightly over her mouth.

An Examiner of the Order has no wife.

What was that supposed to mean? Ethel Parson was no more regarded for her intellect than for her beauty-everyone knew she’d bought her rank with her father’s money. Nor was she much of an independent thinker. No one had ever encouraged her to speak for herself. It was enough, she was told, to do one’s duty: to be a good daughter of the Church, a good mistress, a good hostess, a good wife. She’d also hoped to be a good mother-but that joy had never been granted her. Nevertheless, Ethel was no fool, and now her mind raced to comprehend what was happening.

An Examiner of the Order has no wife…

What did that mean? Ethel, of course, had no illusions regarding her husband’s devotion to her. An ugly girl rarely marries for love. And money, unlike beauty, often increases with age. Still, to be rejected in such a crude way, and in front of her-

This is no time for self-pity, Ethelberta. Remember who you are.

The inner voice that spoke these words was harsh but somehow familiar; Ethelberta listened to it in growing surprise. Why, that’s my voice, she thought. It was the first time she had ever really considered such a thing.

She looked at her husband, still lying on the floor. She was conscious of a number of feelings: anxiety, fear, betrayal, hurt. She understood all of those. But there was something else too, something she finally recognized-with some surprise-as contempt.

“Ethel…,” said Nat in a weak voice. “Bring me water and some clothes. My boots from the scullery and a gown for my lady. Your pink silk will do well enough, or perhaps the lilac.”

Ethelberta hesitated. Obedience was in her nature, after all, and it felt terribly disloyal to stand by and do nothing while her husband was in need. But that inner voice, once heard, was difficult to ignore. “Fetch it yourself,” she snapped, and gathering her dressing gown about her shoulders, she turned and strode out of the room.

Her departure did not particularly trouble Nat. He had other things on his mind-matters of importance, not least what had occurred just before he passed out: that rush of energy, that certainty of purpose, that overwhelming feeling of being someone else, not just a country parson with nothing on his mind save tithes and confessionals, but someone quite different.

He reached for the Good Book at the side of his bed, strangely comforted by the small familiar weight of it in his hand and by the warmth and smoothness of the well-worn cover. Then, taking the golden key from around his neck, Nat Parson opened the Book of Words.

This time the rush of power barely slowed him down. And the words themselves-those alien, terrible canticles of power-made more sense to him now, scrolling off the page, as easy and familiar as the rhymes he’d learned at his mother’s knee. It made Nat feel a little light-headed: that what only yesterday had seemed so new and intimidating should have become so quickly, so hauntingly, familiar.

Skadi was watching him, closely and with suspicion. What had happened? One moment he was lying on the floor, giving orders to Ethel and calling for his boots, the next he was simply…different. As if a light had been lit or a wheel spun that had turned him from the soft, rather vain individual he’d been into another creature altogether. And all that in the batting of an eyelash. The Word, perhaps? Or simply the thrill of anticipated action?

It was a matter she would have liked to explore more fully, but there was no time. Odin was on his way, and for the moment she needed this man-and his Word-if her plan was to succeed. Afterward she would see. The parson was expendable, and when he had served his purpose, Skadi would have no regret in terminating their arrangement.

As a matter of fact, she thought, it might even be a relief.

13

In the old days, thought Heimdall, they would have held their counsel in Bragi’s hall. There would have been mead and ale, laughter and song. Now, of course, just thinking about those days depressed him.

He looked out the window. Odin was waiting in the courtyard, no longer a bent old man, but standing taller than any human, clad in the light of his true Aspect. To Heimdall he looked as if he were made of light, and if any of the Folk had dared to look, they would have seen it, that signature blue, blazing from the face of the one-eyed beggar, streaming from his fingertips, crackling through his hair.

“I’ll go,” said Heimdall.

“We’ll all go,” said Frey.

He looked around at the remaining Vanir. They too were in Aspect, filled with light: Idun and Bragi in summer gold, Njörd with his harpoon, and Freyja-Freyja…

Hastily he turned away. It is never wise to look directly upon the goddess of desire in her true Aspect, not even for her own brother. He murmured, “I wonder, sister, whether it’s entirely prudent-”

Freyja laughed-a sound halfway between the clinking of coins and the last chuckle of a dying man. “Dear brother,” she said. “I have my own issues with Odin One-Eye. Believe me, I wouldn’t miss this meeting for the world.”

There was a bottle of wine on the table beside them. Bragi picked it up. By the laws laid down in the oldest days, where food and drink have been shared, there can be no bloodshed. Bragi’s hall might be dust, but the laws of honor and hospitality still stood, and if Odin wanted to parley-well. Whatever was done would be done according to the Law.

For a moment they faced each other. Six Vanir and One-Eye, gleaming like something out of legend, like mountains in the sun.

Odin offered bread and salt.

Bragi poured wine into a goblet.

One by one, the Vanir drank.

Only Skadi did not, of course; she was in the house with Nat Parson, watching from the bay window. The time was close-she could feel it in every sinew. In her hand she held a scrap of gossamer lace, inscribed with Fé, the rune of Wealth. And at her side Nat Parson clutched the Book of Words and stared. And unknown to either of them, unknown even to the gods whose fates lay so dangerously entwined, a third person was watching the meeting with horror and mounting outrage as she stood, hidden and shivering, in the doorway of the house.

When the last of them had honored the ancient Law, Odin allowed himself to relax. “My friends,” he said. “It’s good to see you. Even in these evil times, it is very good.” His one eye traveled over the assembled Vanir. “But someone is missing,” he said quietly. “The Huntress, I think?”

Heimdall showed his golden teeth. “She thought it better to keep away. You’ve already tried to kill her once.”

“That was a misunderstanding.”

“I’m glad,” said Heimdall. “Because Skadi was under the impression that you had betrayed us. That Loki was free and that you and he were together again, just like in the old days, as if nothing had happened. As if Ragnarók were just a game we lost and this was just another round.” He looked at Odin through narrowed eyes. “Of course, that’s where Skadi got it wrong,” he said. “You’d never do that, would you, Odin? You’d never do that, knowing what it would mean to our friendship and our alliance.”

For a time Odin remained silent. He’d anticipated this. It was Heimdall, of all the Vanir, who most detested Loki, and of all the Vanir, fierce, loyal Heimdall was the one Odin valued most. On the other hand, he valued Maddy, and if she had taken the Whisperer…

“Old friend-” he began.

“Cut the crap,” said Heimdall. “Is it true?”

“Well, yes, it is.” Odin smiled. “Now before you jump to any conclusions”-Heimdall had frozen in astonishment, mouth gaping midword-“before any of you jump to any conclusions,” repeated Odin, still smiling at the circle of Vanir that now enclosed him, “I’d like you to hear my side of the tale.”

And as Allfather began to speak, no one saw a tiny creature-a common brown mouse-dart out from behind one of the parsonage outbuildings and cross the yard. No one saw the trail it left and no one saw the thing it carried, very carefully, in its teeth-a scented scrap of something light as spider gauze, pretty as a primrose-and dropped not a foot away from where Odin was standing. Dropped on his blind side and left on the ground, shining ever so slightly among the glamours and dust, just waiting to be picked up and admired; a dainty thing, a trifle-an object of desire.

“To you, my friends,” Odin began, “Ragnarók was yesterday. But many things have changed since then. The gods of Asgard are almost extinct; our names forgotten, our territories lost. We were arrogant enough to think that the Worlds would end with us at Ragnarók. But an age is simply one season’s growth to Yggdrasil, the World Ash. To the Tree, we are simply last year’s leaves, fallen and waiting to be swept up.”

Frey spoke up. “Five hundred years, and that’s the best news you can give us?”

Odin smiled. “I don’t mean to sound negative.”

“Negative!” said Heimdall.

“Heimdall, please. I have told you the truth-but there are