MageLord: The House of Bairn

Chapter One

The walls of Bjornshall rose into view as Ian and his entourage rode up.  Snow covered the fields and the roof of the lodge in a blanket of white.  The horses kicked up a cloud of white as they walked through snow almost up to their knees.  In another moon, the horses would no longer be able to navigate these lands.

Ian, his father Ivanel, and Arik were coming to discuss how Bjornshall and Ianshall were going to respond to the threat of Gavin's armies come spring.  Ivanel already had the skeleton of a plan in mind.  Now all that remained was to convince the occupants of Bjornshall that it was the best approach.

For now, though, Ian's mind was on other matters.  It had been almost a moon since his father had returned from Bjornshall with news of Bjorn's exile.  Ian still could hardly believe it.  He had not know Bjorn very long, but there was no doubt in his mind that Bjorn was a good man.  How could he have succumbed so thoroughly to the lure of Power?

The doors of the lodge opened and Freida Theodrswyf came out to meet them with a few of her clansmen.  In the absence of Bjorn and her husband she was the chieftain of the hall.

"Greetings, Ian," she said.  "Ivanel.  What brings you so far in the winter?"

"We have to discuss plans for this spring," Ian replied.  "How are we going to deal with Gavin?"

"Very well," Freida said.  "Enter and be welcome in our hall."

"And you in ours," Ian replied, dismounting.

* * *

Bjorn had travelled through these snow covered grasslands for almost a moon.  In all that time, there had been no sign of human habitation or large game.  It was almost as if he were adrift in a vast ocean of snow.

There was small game, but Bjorn did not have the tools to catch it.  The hares and mice that were hunted by the hawks above were too wary of his presence to be taken by his bow and he had no traps.

Once, Bjorn had shot one of the hawks, but it had been too harsh and gamy to eat.  Although, Bjorn did not doubt there would come a time when he would be hungry enough not to notice.

For a time the endless grass had provided ample forage for the horse.  Now, even that resource was gone -- wilted beneath the snow.  The grass Bjorn had harvested beforehand had run out a sevennight ago and now the feed was almost gone as well.

And behind him, as seemingly unstoppable as the sunrise, Theodr followed.  Even with Bjorn on foot, the old man continued to lose ground slowly, but he continued on unceasing.  Theodr must be at least three days behind him now.  In spite of that, Bjorn knew that Theodr would never give up the chase.

Bjorn stopped at the brink of a sudden chasm.  Bjorn stared at this unexpected break in the landscape.  What had caused it?  An earthquake, perhaps?  No, an earthquake would have cleft a deeper stroke in the earth than this.  Bjorn doubted that the snow covered bottom of the chasm was more than a score of feet below him and twice that across.

Finally, his mind recognized it for what it was -- a river.  A river completely devoid of water.  Had there been a drought?  Bjorn did not think so.  In the spring, when the snows from the winter melted, the river would flow again.  It would likely dry out once the snows were gone, however.

This was a parched and alien land.  Bjorn was almost glad that he was not attempting to cross it in the summer.  At least now there was water for him in the snow underfoot.

Bjorn frowned.  For now this dead river presented a serious problem.  Even empty it represented a difficult obstacle.  There was no way for him to cross this shallow chasm with his horse.  The walls of the river were too steep.

Bjorn had no choice but to turn south, away from the direction the Silver Book guided him.  Hopefully, further south, the banks of the river would slope enough for him to guide his horse across the river.  If not, he would be forced to cut a way down and that would cost him valuable time.  Time that Theodr would use to narrow Bjorn's lead.

* * *

Bjorn's trail led Theodr to the edge of the dead river.  Here the trail turned south along the river.  Once leaving the mountains Bjorn had travelled southeast as if fired from a bow.  This was good, as the infrequent snow threatened to cover his trail.  Twice Theodr had lost the trail during snows only to pick it up again a day or two later to the southeast.

If Bjorn had thought to vary his route, Theodr would have lost him long ago.  Fortunately, Bjorn was in too much of a hurry for that.

Aye, Theodr thought.  Fortunately.  It was not fortunate to hunt down a friend and kill him.  Even if Theodr found Bjorn before he could acquire the forbidden knowledge, it would be unfortunate.  It would simply be more unfortunate if he failed.

It was late and Bjorn's camp was still cleared from his stay here.  Theodr dismounted.  It would save his tired bones some work.

* * *

"So," Freida said, "'tis decided."

"Aye," Ian agreed.  They had spent two days at Bjornshall working out the details of the mages' flight from the two halls.  Come spring Helga and her parents along with Freida and half of Bjornshall would resettle at Ianshall.  None of these people were known by Gavin or Mathen.

The rest of the clan would split into two groups and travel to the east and west.  As they travelled, they would split into smaller groups and found new lodges.

"How far will the first lodge be built?" Ian asked.

"At least a moon's travel from either lodge," Freida said.  "And from there, at least a fortnight apart.  I think any closer than that would be too dangerous."

"I agree," Ian said.  "My father and I, along with the rest of the castle staff from Smithton, will return to Nalur's Ridge and begin rerouting the underground.  Once Gavin returns to Reykvid, we can resume sending people to Ianshall."

"Which will have to be renamed," Ian's father, Ivanel, pointed out.

"Yes," Ian agreed.  "'Twill be named after whomever becomes chief there."

"The original refugees from Reykvid will have to leave as well," Ivanel said.  "If Gavin brings Mathen with him, they will be recognized."

"Arvis won't like that," Ian observed.

"He would like the stake less," Ivanel replied.

Ian dropped his head in shame.  He had travelled here to build a safe home for the magi in the Wastes.  Instead, he had led the Hunt to Bjornshall.  Now, both it and Ianshall were threatened by his failure.

Ianshall could possibly survive as long as they appeared to be a seperate, established lodge unconnected with Bjornshall.  Moving half the people from Bjornshall to Ianshall would help foster that illusion.  However, that meant that Ian would have to leave the hall he himself had built from the forest.

"We will see you in the spring," Freida said to them, interrupting his thoughts.  "So we part."

"Until we meet again," Ian replied.

* * *

Gavin stood on the battlements of Reykvid staring out over the land to the east of the castle.  Winter had come early this year.  Snow covered the plains outside of Reykvid.  In the fjord below, snow covered the rooftops of the city itself.

It was good that he had followed William's advice and not led his forces to attack Bjorn or Valerian or whoever it was that Mathen had found in the far north of the Wastes.  They would barely have made it to Hunter's Glen before the winter would have brought them to a halt.

Still, it galled him to wait.  If it were Valerian who waited for them up there, this only gave him more time to prepare.  If it were not, then the mages might very well have fled before Gavin's forces arrived depending on what word Ivanel carried to them.

Gavin could still almost not believe it.  His uncle and his cousin -- mages.  Practitioners of the Forbidden Arts in his own family.  What did that say of himself?  Mathen and the other priests of Hrothgar maintained that the children of a mage were mages as well.

Did Gavin also have the blood of the mages in his veins?  Did he murder his own lineage?  Or had Ivanel's late wife been the mage?

That seemed more likely.  Mathen maintained that Ivanel did not bear the Mark, as he called it.  The aura of power that surrounded the mageborn.  Yet Ian, Ivanel's son, did have the Power.

In any event, it changed nothing.  Whether or not Gavin shared their blood, the mages had to be killed, lest one of them discover the power of the ancient Lords and return the world to the rule of the MageLords.  That could not be allowed to happen.  Never again.

* * *

Mathen rode into the biting wind.  In another moon it would be Midwinter's Day.  Mathen hoped to reach Hunter's Glen before then.

There was no way that Gavin's armies could reach the mages' hall before they fled next spring.  Now that they knew they had been found, they would scatter like vermin before the light of day.

Mathen could not allow that to happen.  Never before had such an opportunity presented itself.  Never before had the mages gathered in such numbers.

Mathen would return to the hall before the thaw.  He would follow these scum to whence they fled.  Then he would lead Gavin's armies to their hiding places.  None would escape.

"Mighty Hrothgar," Mathen said aloud, "watch over thy servant.  Allow me to deliver thy enemies to thy justice."

The cold seemed to lessen a bit.

* * *

Bjorn followed the river south for three days before he found a way down to the bottom.  A creek, equally as dry as the river that fed into it, provided a way down.  Unfortunately there was no way up the other side.  Bjorn would have to hope he could find a way out further downriver.

More importantly, he needed to find a source of food.  He had used the last of the horse feed yesterday.  In another few days, the horse would be too weak to carry him.  When that happened, he would have to kill it to keep it from going mad.

The meat would extend his own provisions which were almost exhausted as well.  Still, Bjorn would rather have the horse than a moon's worth of frozen horsemeat.

* * *

As Ian had expected, the news was not well received when they returned to Ianshall.  Jarl, Berek, Arvis, and their families had been the first to arrive at Ianshall.  More than anyone else who lived there, they had helped to build it.

"There will be another lodge," Ian assured them.  "And 'twill be started earlier in the year.  You will have a home again."

"Aye, lord," Jarl replied.

"I go with Ian," Hans Stefanson announced.

"You need to stay here, Hans," Ian said.

"No," Hans said.  "I am not needed here.  You need more men than you have to ride with you.  Four guardsmen is not enough for your journey.  You are my lord and my High Magus.  I will not stay."

"Your father needs you here," Ian insisted.

"No," Stefan interrupted.  "I would rather my son was not here when the Hunt arrives.  Besides, I will be all right."

He looked over toward where the women worked over the fire pits.  Ian followed his gaze to Brianna.  She met Stefan's gaze with a smile and then saw Ian looking her way as well.  She looked back to her work quickly.  Ian looked back to Stefan.

"Do I have a wedding to perform before I give up my office?" Ian asked, smiling.  Stefan smiled back.

"You might," he agreed.  "In any case, Hans is free to go with you if he wants."

"All right," Ian said.  "We could use another sword arm.  Arik, do you think you can start training him during the winter?"

"I believe so," Arik replied, smiling.  "I hope you don't bruise easily, Hans."

"I...don't think so," Hans replied, his eyes widening slightly.  Ian joined the other men in their laughter.

* * *

Bjorn stared at the small patch of bare ground.  For the last few days, the snow had been dropping off.  What had been snow up to his knees had dropped to the point where it barely covered his ankles.

Bjorn had done it.  He had travelled ahead of winter's southward march.  Now his pace would increase and he should be able to forage for food.  Now he had a chance to reach whatever remained of the ancient House of Rylur before Gavin's armies marched on his hall in the spring.

Of course this presented him with a new problem -- water.  His horse had been without feed for over a sevennight and his own rations had run out three nights ago, but they had not lacked for water.  The two of them could survive without food much better than they could without water.

It was barely past noon, but Bjorn decided to stop and make camp.  He had to fill his two small water barrels with melted snow while he still could.

* * *

The next day took Bjorn completely out of the snow.  By mid afternoon he was once again walking through dry, waist high grass.  The horse, half mad with hunger, glutted itself on the dry grass.

Bjorn found relief for his hunger as well in a den of wild hares.  He roasted the meat over a fire of dry grass in the center of his camp.  Despite his hunger, Bjorn forced himself to eat slowly until his hunger was finally sated.

He had enough meat left to feed him through tomorrow.  Hopefully he would find other game as well.  Water was still a problem, but that was tomorrow's problem.  There was enough water in the two barrels to last both himself and the horse a sevennight.  For now he could sleep content with a full belly and no immediate concerns.

Sleep did not come easily, however.  Without the pressure of hunger on his mind, his thoughts returned northward.  Bjornshall and Ianshall would be securely in the grip of winter now -- safe from Gavin and the Hunt until spring.

But spring would come to Reykvid long before it came to Bjornshall and Gavin would march northward with the thaw.  Bjorn doubted that the halls would be standing a week after the thaw.  Unless he could find a way to save them.

The preserved library of the MageLord Soren was the only chance his people had.  If only he could make Theodr and the others understand that!  He did not seek this Power for his own ends.

But, to Theodr, the law was the law and it was his duty to see it preserved.  That was the duty of the Guardian, after all and that law had protected the magi for over a thousand years.  But the law would not protect them from Mathen -- from one of their own who used his Power to sniff them out for the Hunt.

Bjorn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  He had to sleep.

Clear the mind, he thought.  See the pattern.

Slowly, he wove the patterns of Power within his own mind that would quiet and calm his restless thoughts.  The patterns that he had learned from the Silver Book.  Sometime during the mental exercise, he drifted off into sleep.

* * *

The next day yielded a brace of migrating geese and a small pond of runoff water.  Bjorn did not like the look of the stagnant water, so he let the horse drink from it, saving the pure meltwater in his barrels for himself.

The horse was still weak from its brief starvation.  Even so, Bjorn should be able to resume riding in a day or two.  At that point, his pace should pick up.

For the first time in almost a sevennight, Bjorn opened the Silver Book to its last page, the map.  He reached out with his mind and empowered the spell that had been laid on the map.  The small mark that showed his own location on the map faded away and was replaced by a new mark.

It was hard to tell distance at this scale.  However, he had crossed half the distance from the mountains to the House of Soren.  That meant he had at least another moon of travel yet to go.

That would give him two moons to find what he needed to save the lodge from Gavin's armies.  Not much time, but more than he had hoped for.

Bjorn closed the book.  It would simply have to be enough.

* * *

As he travelled to the southeast the land became even drier.  The grass now grew only in patches with bare sand between.  Game had become scarce and once again Bjorn's provisions were on the verge of running out.  Once again, Bjorn had taken to harvesting the grass in case it disappeared entirely.

The main problem, however, was water.  It had been a fortnight since he had left the snow and one barrel was almost empty.  After tonight he would be down to his last barrel of water.

To make matters worse, the days were becoming hot although the nights were still hellishly cold.  Bjorn had taken to travelling at night and building a canopy from his blankets for shade during the day.

If he were careful with his water it could last him and the horse another four days.  Of course, if he killed the horse, the water would last him much longer and he would have all the food he could carry.  Not that it would keep long in the heat of the day.

Bjorn looked over to the horse.  He did not want to kill the animal unless it was absolutely necessary.  He would travel another day before making that decision.

Hopefully he would find water by then.

* * *

By the third day he had still not found water and had still not killed the horse.  The grass had almost completely disappeared to be replaced with barren sand and tough, small plants with wide, blade-like leaves.  The insides of the leaves were moist but bitter.  Bjorn had tried eating a small amount but the cramps he had suffered from the experiment convinced him that the leaves were not edible.

The horse seemed to like them, though, and sufferred no apparent ill effects from them.  For that, Bjorn was grateful.  Now, if they could only find water.

There was water here -- deep beneath the earth where Bjorn could not reach it.  The small, hardy plants brought it to the surface where it could sustain the small lizards and mice that lived here, but not him.

Bjorn stopped to make camp.  There was less than another day's worth of water left.  Without water, he and the horse would not last a sevennight, if that long.

Bjorn finished setting up the canopy and sat crosslegged beneath it.  It was still an hour or so before sunrise.  He could have travelled further, but he had to find water.  He took a deep breath and immersed himself in the Power.

Bjorn cast his mind across the sand, searching for all the animals he could reach.  To them he presented a single question -- water.

The small sand mice were of little help.  They obtained their water from the plants they ate.  Plants that seemed to be poisonous to Bjorn.  The lizards and snakes obtained their water, in turn, from the mice which they ate.  The roots of the sandgrass, as Bjorn called the wide leafed plants, burrowed deeply into the ground, scores of feet, to bring water up to the surface.

Desperately, Bjorn cast his mind out in widening circles.  Finally, he found an animal that knew of water.  Man.  There were men living in this barren land?

There were, it appeared. Bjorn noted the direction of their settlement -- southwest.  Until now, he had avoided any contact with people.  Now, however, he had no choice.  Tomorrow, he would seek them out.

* * *

Raoul stopped outside the doors to the throne room.  A low chime sounded beyond the doors and the heavy, gilded doors swung silently open.

"Enter," a voice called.  Raoul obeyed and advanced before the person on the throne.

"What news have you?"

"The House is prepared, Lord," Raoul replied.

"Good," the Lord replied.  "It will be soon now."

"Yes, Lord."  Raoul bowed and left the throne room.

"Very soon," the Lord whispered behind him, but Raoul did not hear.

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