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The Dark World is a place of ice, wind and fury. A veil of black covers the sky. In all the world, only the Castle shines with light.

Tal had gotten used to traveling with Milla when she was wounded – and quiet. He wasn't sure about traveling with her once she was healthy. He never knew what she was going to do, and he suspected that she would still like to kill him. In Milla’s mind, Tal had never been more than a trespasser who'd come up with a good excuse to save himself.

Still, she had sworn an oath. He could probably trust her – at least until they got to the Castle. Then Tal would have a whole new set of troubles...

For the next four days and five sleeps, Tal tried to roam around the Ruin Ship. But whenever he went to open a hanging curtain or go through a doorway, one of the Shield Maiden cadets would pop up from behind, or in front, or from around the corner and politely lead him back to somewhere he'd already been.

Eventually he worked out that he was only allowed to be in the small sleeping chamber he'd been assigned, the Hall of the Reckoner, the Cadets' Feasting Hall where he had his meals (though he never saw anything he'd call a feast), and some of the time, the room where Milla had been ordered to stay in bed.

The only combat skill Milla could practice in bed was her bad temper. Since Tal was the only person she could practice on and get away with it, he found that visiting her was not much fun. But there was simply nothing else to do, except watch the ships and tiles get moved around on the Reckoner, and that was about as boring as the lecture on the basics of light that retired Lector Jannem gave every year.

On the positive side, though she was cross at being ordered to bed, Milla was bored, too, and sometimes she would actually answer Tal’s questions. The Shield Maiden cadets wouldn't speak to him at all, unless it was to stop him from going somewhere or doing something he wasn't allowed to do.

"How come there are no men here?" Tal asked Milla on the second day, after he'd ducked a pillow she'd thrown at him. He handed it back to her, noting that her face had lost its sickly gray tinge and was returning to its normal, surprisingly delicate paleness. All the Icecarls were very pale, much more so than the Chosen.

Most Icecarls had the same color hair, too, like sunshine mixed with white ash. Tal’s hair was the color of dirt, settling just above his shoulders. He felt that cutting his hair short would be an admission that he was no longer a proper Chosen.

"No men where?" snarled Milla.

"Here, the Ruin Ship."

"I told you," snapped Milla, "it is the chief place of the Shield Maidens. It is not like a normal clan ship. There are no families, no children, no hunters, no Selski. The only men who come here would be either lost hunters, messengers . . . or a Sword Thane."

"A Sword Thane?" asked Tal, suddenly interested.

"Women who wish to serve all the clans become Shield Maidens," explained Milla. "But men do not work so well together, so those who wish to be lawgivers and protectors become Sword Thanes."

"What do you mean?" asked Tal.

"Everyone knows this." Milla frowned. "Some clans prefer a Sword Thane, though they can be unreliable and hard to find. It makes a better saga, I suppose."

"Prefer a Sword Thane for what?"

"Trouble!" spat Milla. "When you have trouble, you send for the Shield Maidens, but sometimes a Sword Thane finds you and the trouble first."

"But aren't Shield Maidens heroes?" Tal inquired. "I mean, you killed the Merwin. Doesn't that make you a hero - which makes you a Sword Thane?"

"I wish to be a Shield Maiden, so I must try to be a hero," Milla repeated. "But only a man can be a Sword Thane. All Sword Thanes are heroes but not all heroes are Sword Thanes."

"What?" asked Tal. He was getting confused. "So what do you call a man who’s a hero but not a Sword Thane? What if he uses an ax or a spear?"

Milla didn't answer. She picked up the Merwin horn sword that never left her side and readied it to throw like a spear. Tal didn't stay to be a target, or for further explanation about Shield Maidens and Sword Thanes. He disappeared around the corner, and did not visit Milla again till she was up and final preparations were being made for their departure.

They left the Ruin Ship after a stay of a full five sleeps, the same way they had entered, stumbling along blindfolded, guided by Arla. This time, at least, they were much better equipped. The Shield Maidens had been generous in providing new furs, climbing teeth, ropes of braided Selski hide, and other things they considered essential to climb the ruined road to the Mountain of Light.

Tal had used part of the time in the ship to study Longface’s map. He had come to the conclusion that the bone had not actually been carved with a sharp tool, but cut by Sunstone light. That meant the Chosen who had done it had been extremely skilled, and that he still had his Sunstone when he had staggered down to the Ruin Ship. But not his Spiritshadow.

The tablet gave no clue to its maker’s mystery. There was writing on it, in addition to regular marks that were obviously a map. But all the writing said was:

Half road down pyramid Imrir fallen 100 stretch entry heatway tunnel Underfolk 7.

Tal had puzzled over this for some time, but all he could guess was that it meant there was an entrance to the heating system of the Castle - which he knew went through the mountain, right down into the deep earth. Underfolk 7 was almost certainly a reference to the lowest of the Underfolk levels, which Tal supposed was where the heatway tunnel came out. Presumably the entrance outside would be about halfway up the mountain, near a fallen pyramid.

Tal had a dim recollection that Imrir had been the Emperor long ago. The current Empress didn't have a name - Tal had never wondered about that before. Of course, she had been the Empress for much longer than most, fending off old age with her mastery of Sunstone magic. Maybe Emperors' or Empresses' names were only known after they died.

All thoughts of the Empress were gone by the time the blindfold came off. Arla left them, without a word. Tal watched with relief as she silently slid away. He felt like a caveroach about to be stepped on when Arla was around. Milla, of course, had a completely different reaction. Arla was everything Milla wanted to be twenty circlings from now.

Tal stood alone with Milla and the freezing wind. Far below, they could see the luminous outline of the Ruin Ship.

Both of them had moth-lanterns, but the dull green light only showed snow and patches of bare rock. If there was a road - even a ruined one - Tal couldn't see it.

"Come on," ordered Milla. She shouldered her pack and headed off. Tal fumbled on his own pack, groaning at the sudden weight. It was full of sleeping furs and climbing gear and food and what felt like at least his own weight in other things the Icecarls considered essential. Tal would have rather had a Sunstone, so he could properly warm himself. Even with inner and outer coats of thick fur, a cloth-lined bone face mask, and a short, hooded cape lined with the soft tails of something he couldn't pronounce, Tal was still cold.

Though he couldn't see a road through the amber lenses of his mask, he followed obediently. Either Milla could see something, or Arla had told her a secret sign to look for.

It was hard going, but not too hard. At times they had to clamber over great blocks of ice that had slid down from higher up, but it was clear they were on a path made by humans.

Once again, Tal regretted the absence of a Sunstone. He wanted to light up the whole mountainside, to see the sheer cliffs stretching up and up, and admire the way the rock had been carved away in precise lines to create the road, switchbacking its way up what would otherwise be impassable terrain.

But all he could see now was the occasional evidence of construction, particularly when there was a well-preserved stretch of road and mountainside forming a perfect right angle.

At other times, he had no idea how Milla found the road again after it had fallen away.

He asked her.

"The road smells of ghalt, the melting stone," Milla said. As usual, her voice bore a reluctance to talk to Tal, tempered with a desire to show off how superior Icecarls were. She bent down, swept away a light layer of snow and, with effort, pulled out a piece of black rock that shone in the moth-light.

"There are hot pools of ghalt in the far southern mountains," she said, holding the piece under Tal’s nose. "When it is hot it pours like water and smells very sour. Even very old, cold ghalt smells. I do not know how the ancients brought it here for the road."

Tal raised his mask to sniff at it, but he couldn't smell anything. His face just got cold.

As the hours of walking wore on, Tal was no longer interested in how Milla found the road. He was just glad that she did. He was also hoping that she would stop soon so he could rest. She had to be tired, too, he reasoned, since she was still recovering from her wound. But she showed no signs of weariness.

When she did stop, it wasn't for a rest. She suddenly backed up, almost hitting Tal. While he gawped at her, she threw her arm around him and wrestled him into the nearest snowdrift, piled up against the mountainside.

As they plunged into the snow, Tal felt a great rush of air go past. He caught a momentary glimpse of enormous translucent eyes, each as large as his own head, followed by spread wings of great size.

"What was that?"

Milla clapped her hand over his mouth, her fur glove almost smothering Tal. He started to struggle, then stopped as she held a knife against his throat and ordered him in a whisper, "Stay still!"

They lay together in the snow, not moving. Finally, they heard a terrible screech some distance off, and Milla relaxed. The knife vanished from her hand, and she let Tal sit up.

"Perawl," she said. "They can't see you if you stay completely still. They're a bit deaf, as well."

"What was the . . . the noise?" asked Tal. The unseen hunters in the air made this place even worse than being on the Ice. At least with the Selski you could hear them coming, and you could see a Merwin’s luminous horn.

Milla didn't answer, so Tal repeated the question.

"It could be any one of a number of things," replied Milla evasively. "The Perawl’s meal, I suppose."

"So the great Milla doesn't know everything," remarked Tal. Milla ignored him, her attention still focused downhill.

"Perhaps . . . perhaps it was the other way around," Tal added. The screech hadn't sounded like something being caught. It had sounded triumphant. "Maybe the Perawl was something else’s meal."

They looked at each other, expressions unseen behind their face masks. But Milla started off again at a faster pace and Tal followed without complaint.

Without his Sunstone, Tal had no idea how much later it was when they finally stopped to rest and eat. As on the Ice, the meal was Selski meat heated over a Selski oil stove.

"We will have three watches. I will take the first and third," declared Milla when they had finished eating. "You need only stay awake for the middle watch."

"I can stand two watches," said Tal. "Let’s have four watches."

"Do you know how to count every breath without thinking, even while asleep?" asked Milla.

"Uh, no," answered Tal. "What does -"

"That is how we count the passing time when there is no other means," explained Milla, as if she were speaking to a very small child. "So I will tell you when to begin and finish your watch."

Tal couldn't argue with that. Surreptitiously, he tried to count each individual breath, but he couldn't keep track. He half suspected that Milla couldn't, either, and she was just trying to be superior again.

It was a cold camp, and a dangerous one, with a long drop beside the road. They put their backs against the slope, and Tal silently told himself thirty times, I must not walk in my sleep.

Sleep did not come easily. The wind howled down the mountain and seemed to want to pick Tal and Milla up and take them with it all the way to the Ruin Ship far below. Because they were higher up, it was even colder than on the Ice, and Tal found himself huddling closer and closer to Milla to stay warm.

Milla seemed to take this as normal behavior, but Tal found even her fur-muffled closeness unnerving. He had never been so close to a girl before, let alone one who might kill him if he accidentally threw his arm around her while he was dreaming.

That thought didn't help him sleep. Neither did the noises he heard, or thought he heard, in the night. Even when Milla was supposed to be sleeping, she sat up every now and then to listen. Sometimes Tal wondered if she ever really slept. He wouldn't have been surprised to find that if she did sleep, it was with one eye open.

The middle watch seemed to go on and on forever. Tal decided to test if Milla was asleep. He leaned away from her, but she didn't stir. So he edged away a little more. She sank back into her furs, and Tal smiled. She really was asleep.

He reached across to lightly tickle under her chin, where a tiny square of skin showed clear of the mask and her laced-up collar. Tal had often done this to Gref, trailing his fingernail like an insect across him to see how long it took for his brother to wake up.

His gloved hand was just about to touch Milla’s chin when her hand snaked out from under the sleeping fur, her knife held at roughly the same point under Tal’s chin. For a frozen moment they faced each other, then Tal slowly withdrew his hand and Milla her knife.

"Two hundred and seventy-five breaths," said Milla. "I will know when it is my turn."

Tal was very wakeful for the rest of his watch, but sleep claimed him quickly when Milla took over.

Despite this, he felt like he'd had no sleep at all when Milla shook him awake, and they started off again. This time, the climbing became harder, as more of the road had been destroyed by avalanches. In some places the mountain had simply slipped away. They had to climb up very steep slopes of ice and stone, using ropes, Wreska jawbones full of sharp teeth strapped onto the sides of their boots, and bone spikes - called pitons - hammered in with a rounded stone as big as Tal’s fist.

Milla was an experienced climber. Tal was not. Luckily he had his shadowguard to help, though he tried not to call on it too much. He didn't want Milla to think he was beholden to his shadow.

Tal’s greatest difficulty was not being able to see. When climbing, the moth-lanterns had to be strapped to their backpacks, so most of the light fell behind them rather than in front.

It was even worse when it snowed. The first two "days" (by Milla’s reckoning) stayed clear and cold. But halfway through their second sleep, the snow came down heavily, so much that they would have been buried under it if they'd been on level ground.

The snow kept up through their third day, then just as Tal was falling asleep turned into particularly wet and unpleasant sleet that came in sudden bursts, blowing horizontally in wet sheets that soaked the travelers' outer coats in an instant. Fortunately, the inner furs stayed dry, evidence of the Icecarls' long practice of living in the wild.

By this stage, Tal was so tired that as soon as Milla told him he could sleep, he slept, no matter what the weather was doing.

On the fourth day, the sleet finally faltered and then stopped altogether. The wind died down, too, and the air became still. They made faster progress, and within a few hours they came to something that had to be the fallen pyramid mentioned on the bone tablet.

They first saw it when it reflected their lights, and for a heart-stopping instant, both thought themselves face-to-face with the eyes of some huge creature. But as the reflection multiplied, it became clear that what lay ahead was not a living thing.

Trudging wearily up the road, they saw that it was a pyramid. A pyramid of blue crystal, three times as tall as Milla. It must have slid down the mountain long ago, because it no longer stood upright. The point now angled back into the mountain, rather than up at the dark sky.

"The entry to the heatway tunnel must be close," said Tal. "Within a hundred stretches, the tablet says."

"Does it mention that?" asked Milla, raising her lantern. The green light spilled forward, and reflections from the pyramid swam back.

Right in front of the pyramid the road simply wasn't there anymore. It had fallen away, leaving a frightening gap.

"Oh," said Tal. "No, it doesn't."

Cautiously, Tal and Milla crept to the edge. They could not see any bottom.

"Can we climb up and over?" asked Tal, looking at the mountainside.

Milla moved her lantern across, noting the loose rock and signs of recent slippage. Then she shook her head.

"The rock face is too loose," she announced. "We will have to jump the gap."



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