The ancient fortress came on like the dark: looming over them abruptly between twinned scarps of sheer stone, crushing out the last light of the sky. And like the sky, the upthrust towers were noisy with birds, aswarm with pieces of night.
Apf’s delight in having deduced the fort’s existence was not shared by his brothers, who grew visibly more grim as they spied the fortress gate, gaping across the road like a mouth that could not wait to bite down on them. They flinched, twitched, worked their weapons loose, and appeared to be nervously braced against the infliction of every sort of pain.
Apf was aware of the tension spreading through the company and suppressed his own enthusiasm. “We’ll camp here for the night, brothers,” he declared, and although this decision was greeted warmly, it did not entirely dispel the apparent dread the others shared. The aides-de-camp (young knights in training, still with all their limbs intact and skins unscarred) quickly erected tents and set to work on fuming stews and other victuals. The chests of wealth remained in the carts, under heavy guard; but in a sense all the riches they carried were as safe as any wealth anywhere, for the knights were armed to the teeth and extremely possessive.
The night passed only because it had no choice in the matter, otherwise all present surely would have held it back and postponed dawn indefinitely. Long before light returned to the dank crags, the knights were up and about their business, grousing at their aides to stoke the campfires, polishing arms and armor, and cuffing any lad who hadn’t polished a breastplate to such a sheen that they could use it as a shaving mirror. The aides scurried about, scraping bowls clean before filling them with a meaty porridge for the knights, and hauling out martial gear for the day’s exploits. Breakfast was a brutal business. Gorlen had some difficulty absorbing the sight of one knight sawing hopelessly into a side of cured beef with the dull edge of an estoc; while next to him, another dug fussily into a bowl of rockberries with an elaborately embossed and gem-encrusted ten-tine fork that was fated to become as tangled in his mustache as a rake in devilweed.
Apf appeared at Gorlen’s side and gave a nod to his custodians, saying, “I’ll want him in the goyle’s sight at all times, so that the creature understands any hesitation or failure on its part will have severe consequences for his friend.”
“I have been threatened with torture before, but usually for my singing, never for having done nothing. And I never expected to hear such threats from a sworn and noble calling such as yours.”
“Sweet-tongued bard, I know you bear no such illusions about knights, but we’ll let that pass. I expect great things of the stonewight, and I would be mortified if I thought we would be forced to so much as tweak your earlobe. Now be at ease and let us take this fortress without further delay!”
Spar’s position in the entourage was dead first, and he showed no reluctance, no hesitation, and had none of the knights’ delaying business to attend to.
“In here, then?” he asked, twitching toward the ominous threshold.
“Aye, through there,” Apf indicated. “With your friend here right behind you, and we all watching your every move. Nothing sudden, now.”
“I am rarely accused of suddenness,” Spar said, and took a step forward, crossing into the grey enshadowed inner reaches of the keep just as the sun glanced off the highest morning clouds and cast reflected light down into the camp they were departing.
The vast open courtyard that first enclosed them showed its nature soon enough. There were bones everywhere, few of them intact, a great many severed and sawn clean through; crushed, twisted like green twigs, pulverized completely. It was far from clear how they had been scattered. Some might have been cast about by foraging scavengers—others appeared simply to have been flung. As with the rocky dens they’d passed along the way, there were tatters of dried flesh and torn clumps of hairy scalp snagged in stones, and hung flapping from a puzzling array of spiky sticks like pikes thrust into the flags of the yard. Snarls of weed and brush had overgrown the pavements, fibrous weaves of ancient dead vines tumbled down the inner walls, and almost immediately the morning light was lost to them as if a cloud had closed over the court.
Looking up, Gorlen saw that the rooks had arrived. They settled quietly on the tops of the weathered outer walls, watching with remarkable patience as the knights proceeded toward the far end of the courtyard where a weirdly skewed portal awaited.
The birds’ silence was cryptic but it did not last long, for after a moment one of the knights let out an agonized scream and the birds erupted into delighted and demonic scrawks and screeches.
The knight was a young one, far from fully armored, a wine- and water-bearer who had elected to remain far in the rear but had also moved off to one side of the party as if to remove himself from danger. Instead he had wandered straight into it.
The lad lay in the grass, screaming and thrashing, with blood spouting from his neatly severed ankle. Another aide went cautiously to his side, hauled him up, and dragged him back to the camp they had hardly left behind. The boy’s screams died as soon as he fainted.
Spar cast eyes down into the weeds, took a few steps to the side, and bent to poke at something hidden out of sight. There was a soft scything snap and he stood aright with a snarl of razorfoil wrapped around his stone wrist.
“All right,” Apf called, “fall in behind the goyle and go single file. Wherever you can, step only where the creature steps. And you—creature—essay a wider sweep of the path ahead. A few steps from side to side, and let’s see what you uncover.”
Spar regarded Apf wordlessly, then shook his stone hand to free it of the frond. The lethal twist of snare tumbled through the air, almost catching Apf square in the face, though he ducked at the last instant and it rebounded from his helmet.
“Has it slipped your mind we’ve got the bard here?” Apf said.
“An accident, I assure you.”
“Cast the next one in some other direction!”
“Indeed I shall,” said Spar, and turned away, but not before his eyes flicked from the fallen trap to Gorlen’s own eyes. Gorlen walked close enough to get a good look at it, and recognized the intricate knot and style of construction from the one hidden in the rook’s nest.
He looked with renewed respect, not to mention trepidation, at the rooks crowding the towers overhead. Nor could he dismiss the notion that they were staring back at him with particular specificity.
“Remember the care I took with your eggs,” he urged them under his breath, hoping his prayer might reach whatever presiding deity looked after them…or this place.
Several more razorfoils snapped at Spar’s heels as he made a series of sidestepping maneuvers and gradually gained the next threshold. Behind him, Gorlen, Apf, and the remaining host of knights stepped with only slightly lessened anxiety. Actually the knights looked ever more nervous now, considering that they had received a foretaste of whatever worse things certainly waited within.
The following chamber was a passage, narrow enough to admit no more than four men abreast—but the weeds did not grow, for here the floors were paved with polished sheets of solid stone, glazed but unweathered by the elements. In fact, the floor looked as if it had been mopped and polished only this morning. A stone of purest white, lustrous as moonlight, awaited their tread.
“This stone is ghostbane,” Spar announced, “and retains the memory of all that has transpired upon it, and what I see before us is death, carnage, rivers of blood.”
Apf sounded only slightly skeptical, but otherwise inclined to take the goyle at his word. “Visible to your kind, you mean? As for me, I see a virgin expanse, welcoming to the tread.”
“Shall I then proceed?”
“You have no blood to spill, so aye.”
Spar took several steps. From out of nowhere, with a whisper, an enormous blade fell like a portcullis, crashing down directly on his noble crown. Sparks flew, and Gorlen expected to see either a chip in Spar’s pate or in the immense edged barrier itself. Both proved equally durable.
Spar held the blade aloft and waited while the knights filed under it, though none were willing to move too far ahead. Aides were dispatched to bring stout timbers, even wagon axles, and the blade was thus propped up so that all could pass while Spar moved forward. Three more blades and a crusher fell as Spar cleared the passage, but at last they all stood together at the far end, where the passage widened and sent off two arms perpendicular to the first corridor.
A sound behind caused them to turn from pondering their next path: a sheet of water had begun to flow across the stone, rendering it once more spotless, washing away the mud and dust of their crossing. Blood and gore would have been rinsed off quite effectively. After the cleansing, the lethal barriers retracted noiselessly into the dim heights as the beams they’d brought toppled with no weight to hold them in place. No one rushed to retrieve the timbers. Clearly, retreating from the keep was going to be a venture just as protracted as that of invading it.
There was no question of dividing the party up, with one half taking either passage. Therefore Apf chose for them, steering Spar to the right—“No, left!”
The leftward passage was short and uneventful, but soon came to a blind right angle beyond which they could hear a steady granitic rumble. Spar peered around the corner and there was a tink as a sharpened dart hit, then glanced off, his peering eye. He stepped into full view of whatever waited around the corner, and the single dart became a raging hail of barbs, which he stood and endured until they were depleted.
“Good thing we didn’t turn right,” Gorlen muttered, but his tense escorts found no humor in his comment. For that matter, Gorlen saw their point.
After the darts subsided, the sound of grinding stones seemed louder than before. They followed Spar around the corner in close procession and saw ahead of them in musty gloom a dismal prospect: boulder after boulder, immense, polished, perfectly round, incised with glittering quartzite hieroglyphs and banded sigils of mystic derivation, rolling back and forth in a succession of grooves that stitched from side to side across the passage. The spheres rolled out of sight in either direction then back again, as if the passage were the inner hull of a ship rocking in a turbulent sea.
Spar turned to Apf and regarded him without expression.
“Well?” the knight demanded.
“What is the trick to this one?” Spar asked.
“Trick? What do you mean, trick?”
“These are elaborate traps, are they not? Lethal puzzles, contrived to test our wit and thus our worth? Am I expected to solve them as well as protect you from harm? Is it my body you have pressed into service or my mind?”
“Ludicrous,” Apf said. “They’re straightforward killing devices, nothing could be more obvious. The builders of this place hid unimaginable wealth here, and they intended it to stay. I contend this is our wealth, stolen from us, and I intend to reclaim it. Clearly they would rather I not. To answer your question, we did not bring you to solve puzzles, we brought you because you are impervious to pain. You are a tool, nothing more, and you will be used as I see fit.”
“Very well. I suggest I am the wrong tool for this job, and you would employ me incorrectly, to all our disadvantage, should you force me.”
“If you don’t go and put yourself in the path of those enormous balls and hold them back so that my men might pass, I’ll lay the bard down and see what sort of obstacle he turns out to be.”
“The right-hand path,” Gorlen offered, “would perhaps reward investigation?”
“Let me point out that even could I block one or two of these spheres—unlikely, given their sheer size, for while I am durable I am but a mere fraction of their weight—your knights would still be unable to get past the third, let alone the fifth, sixth, seventh…however many there may be. I suggest, as Gorlen recommends, we investigate the right-hand path.”
Apf pondered, chewed the inside of his lovingly barbered cheek, and finally told most of the party to stay where Spar had cleared the passage of darts, while a few, including Gorlen and the goyle, went back with Apf to examine the alternate passage.
An aide who might have been the twin of the one who’d lost his foot in the weeds, Apf brought in close and addressed in solemn tones. The boy blinked with nervous anticipation, flushed and suddenly grinning. “Oh, yes, Sir Apf! I thank you for this chance!”
When they reached the opposite corner, Spar put his head around as before. No darts this time, and the passage was silent. It appeared they had erred in following the other passage first. But before he could step out, Apf restrained Spar with a commanding tap of his dagger on the goyle’s shoulder.
“Let the young brave go,” Apf said. “This will be his first test on the path to knighthood.”
He inclined his head to the boy and gave a nudging indication with the dagger which, had he moved a foot closer, would have punctured the lad’s liver. His meaning was unmistakable, and the would-be knight fell back, then turned and took several increasingly fearless steps across the stone floor before it opened up beneath him. The lad burst into flame before his screams had really started, then sank with protracted sloth into a thick, black morass of fuming lava.
“As I feared,” Apf said.
“You feared this?” Gorlen cried. “Yet you sent him—”
“The goyle is invaluable to us at this juncture. Young knights can be gathered by the dozens in every small stop along the road.”
“Your judgment is low on merit,” Spar said dryly. “The lava is nothing to me.”
And with that, he stepped down into the exposed pool as if wading into a warm bath. Like the boy, he sank with each step and soon was lost to sight, except for his hand of flesh, which he held extended so that it stretched above the lava. The thick molten dough closed in with a crushing lassitude. They watched as the upraised hand moved slowly over the surface of the smoldering pool; the skin began to blister from proximity to the heat. Watching the hand’s progress, Gorlen involuntarily and unwillingly regaled himself over and over again with the memory of the bold young aide’s demise.
At last, at the far end of the pool, the hand began to rise; Spar waded out. The lava shed from his stone skin, immiscible to quickstone, sliding free as if it were beaded water, puddling, cooling, smoldering on the far floor.
“Do hurry!” Apf barked. And to Gorlen he grumbled, “Were time not against us, I would have held out for a gargoyle with wings. It figures we’d be stuck with a defective sort. Broke them, did he? I hope that’s not a mark of general maladroitness.”
Gorlen thought it best to say nothing. His opinion of Apf was plummeting—indeed, there was no bottom in sight.
“A lever here,” Spar said, and pulled something unseen at the dark end of the passage.
The solid floor reappeared, covering the lava pool so that Spar might walk back with ease.
At the same moment, they heard the grinding sound of the rolling boulders fade and die down.
“I believe our boulder problem has been solved,” the goyle remarked.
Along with the slowing of the boulders, the cawing of the rooks began to grow in volume and clamor. Gorlen could not be sure of their mood—he was no student of bird speech or manner, and these northern rooks were new to him—but there was an edge of consternation that he associated with other birds when they were alarmed by the presence of prowling carnivores, raptors or other nest-robbers. Thinking of how they had quietly watched Gorlen put his hand into their carefully prepared trap, he couldn’t help but feel that Spar’s blunt solution to the puzzle of lava and boulders had upset them. But Gorlen granted that if it got them through this ordeal sooner, then brute force and cheating were fine with him.