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D awn came too early: Linden was not ready for it. But she forced herself to arise

when Stave spoke her name. Jeremiah needed her. All of her companions needed her. Befogged by too little rest and too many dreams, she stumbled toward the campfire to warm the chill from her bones.

The Giants must have kept the flames burning all night.

She had made no attempt to wield wild magic since she had created the caesure which had carried her to Revelstone after she had recovered her Staff. Now she was not sure that she knew how to find the pathway to power hidden within her.

The Swordmainnir were all awake and moving, as were the rest of Linden’s friends. Under Mahrtiir’s blind supervision, Bhapa, Pahni, and Liand prepared all of their remaining viands so that the Giants could each have one or two mouthfuls to supplement their breakfast of aliantha. While Linden rubbed her hands over the fire in the dim, grey morning, Stave informed her that the Humbled had discerned no danger during the night. Kastenessen was still waiting— She nodded inattentively: her thoughts were elsewhere. She could feel her health-sense leeching from her, sucked away by Kevin’s Dirt.

As always, she felt an almost metaphysical pang of bereavement. Without percipience, she could not gauge the condition of her companions. And she could not see into herself. She had never tried to wield wild magic under the bale of Kevin’s Dirt. She might be entirely unable to access Covenant’s ring. She would certainly not be able to control its force.

But if she restored herself with Earthpower, she would attract the skurj.

When she had eaten a few treasure-berries, and their tonic vitality had begun to lift the brume of fatigue and dreams from her mind, Linden looked around for Rime Coldspray.

The Ironhand was with Longwrath. While Onyx Stonemage and another Giant held him, shackled but ungagged, Coldspray interrupted his harsh demands by pushing aliantha into his mouth. He chewed the berries reflexively, swallowing the seeds as well as the fruit. They seemed to feed his rage.

Beckoning for Stave to join her, Linden approached Coldspray through grass heavy with dew. As soon as the Ironhand greeted her, she said, “Coldspray, we need to talk.”

Without hesitation, Coldspray asked another Giant to take over her task. Then she faced Linden and Stave, towering over them like a buttress against uncertainties and fears.

“I didn’t ask you last night,” Linden began. “Have any of your senses changed since you came to the Upper Land? Do they seem diminished?”

Coldspray shook her head. “They do not. I behold your concern, Linden Giantfriend. I see that it swells within you, though I cannot hear its name. And we retain our acuteness to the evil of the skurj.”

“Good. You’re like the Haruchai. Kevin’s Dirt doesn’t affect you. But the rest of us—” Linden dropped her gaze, irrationally ashamed of her weakness. “We’re being numbed. All of our senses are fading. And it’s getting worse. Soon we’ll be”—she fumbled for an adequate description—“stuck on the surface of everything. We won’t be able to see anything that isn’t right in front of us.”

“We will preserve you,” Coldspray replied gruffly. “Stave and the Humbled will do the same.”

Linden shook her head. “I know you will. That’s not the point. The point is that I can’t use power,” any power, “without my health-sense. Liand can’t use his orcrest.The Ramen will lose some of their effectiveness as scouts.”

Coldspray started to object, then stopped herself and waited for Linden to go on.

With an effort, Linden raised her head again. “We can solve the problem. Temporarily, anyway. But we can’t do it without Earthpower—and that draws the skurj.” Bracing herself on granite, she concluded, “Before we put you in any more danger, you should have a chance to think about it. If you have a better idea—”

Her voice sank away like water in sand. She could not imagine any response to the threat of Kastenessen and his creatures except wild magic.

Stave consulted the rising dawn. “The Humbled distrust any exertion of Earthpower. However, they can offer no alternative. They are certain that stealth alone will not ward us from our foes. And they remain in doubt concerning your purpose. They have not yet opposed you. They will continue to refrain.”

“And you, Stave of the Haruchai?” asked Coldspray with a glint of morning or humor in her eyes. “What is your counsel?”

The former Master gave a slight shrug. “I have said that I no longer oppose the Cho-sen’s deeds and desires. Also there is this to consider. Some use of orcrest or the Staff of Law may provoke a premature reply. Should Kastenessen strike before his forces have been fully prepared, he will grant us an advantage which we could not obtain otherwise.”

The Ironhand chuckled. “My friend,” she said, slapping Stave lightly on the shoulder, “your cunning grows ever more evident. If it should chance that you weary of being Haruchai, know that you will be made welcome among the Swordmainnir. Lacking the good fortune—and also the stature—of our blood and bone, you will become a Giant by acclamation rather than by birth.

“Linden Avery,” she continued more seriously, “my thoughts follow Stave’s. We cannot hope to conceal our presence from the discernment of an Elohim. Therefore

we lose naught, and may gain much, if Kastenessen answers the cleansing of your senses.”

Linden ducked her head again. When she raised her eyes, she tried to smile. “Thank you,” she said unsteadily. “I must have spent too much time alone. I keep forgetting what it’s like to have friends. Stave and Liand and the Ramen are doing their best to teach me, but I’m out of the habit.”

Coldspray and the Giants around Longwrath replied by laughing as though they were delighted. “Linden Giantfriend,” the Ironhand explained, “that tale is too sad for tears. ‘Out of the habit.’ ” She laughed again. “And its dolor is made more cruel by brevity. We are Giants. If we do not laugh, we will be compelled to insist upon the full tale of your years and loneliness. The very blood in our veins will require it.”

“Slay her,” remarked Longwrath. “Slay. Her.” For the moment, at least, he sounded strangely casual. He may have been affected by aliantha. Or perhaps the mirth of his people eased his turmoil.

“Oh, well,” Linden sighed, feigning sorrow or disappointment while her heart lifted. “I haven’t forgotten everything. I do remember Giants.” Then she called over her shoulder, “Liand! Are you ready?”

At once, the Stonedownor bounded to his feet. “I am.” His piece of Sunstone was already in his hand, and his face was bright with eagerness.

Quiescent, his orcrest seemed both translucent and empty, as if it formed a gap in the substance of his palm.

An oblique memory caught Linden. Millennia ago among the Dead in Andelain, High Lord Mhoram had urged Covenant to remember the paradox of white gold. Covenant had described that occasion to Linden days later, after he had rescued her from the Clave. There is hope in contradiction.

In Garroting Deep, the Mahdoubt had said the same thing. Upon occasion, ruin and redemption defy distinction.

Then Liand tightened his grip; and the Sunstone began to shine. Its light was whiter, purer, than the argent cast of wild magic. And it did not burn or flame: it simply emitted an immaculate radiance. Soon it filled the glade.

While the Giants watched in wonder, Liand bathed Pahni in whiteness until she, too, shone as if she had been transfigured.

Linden knew that the young Cord was afraid for Liand: Pahni dreaded the implications of his power or his fate. Nevertheless she made no attempt to conceal her gladness as her health-sense was renewed.

Linden ached to share in that restoration. Her nerves hungered for it.

Fortunately experience had made Liand adept. Although his people had been denied their true birthright for millennia, his entire being responded to the Sunstone. He

needed only a few moments to cleanse Mahrtiir’s perceptions, and Bhapa’s. Then he turned his light on Linden as if it were chrism.

Earthpower could not heal her emotional hurts. It could not relieve her anguished yearning for Jeremiah—or for Thomas Covenant. Still it made her feel whole again; capable in spite of her many limitations. When Liand was done, she was once again the Linden Avery who had beaten back Roger and the croyel; the Linden who could tear open time—

Trust yourself. Do something they don’t expect.

I can’t help you unless you find me.

The Giants observed in mute joy, as if they were witnessing an exaltation. Then as one they began to cheer.

There is hope in contradiction.

At the same time, Longwrath’s rage returned. “Slay her!” he demanded. “Slay her!”

Liand ignored the other Swordmainnir. Linden saw the brilliance of orcrest echo like daring in his eyes as he strode toward Longwrath. Days ago, she had witnessed the Sunstone’s effect on Anele. Clearly Liand intended to try a similar experiment with the damaged Giant.

Through his madness, Longwrath appeared to understand Liand’s purpose. As the Stonedownor approached, Longwrath hunched suddenly forward, jerked his guardians off balance. Then, roaring, he pitched himself backward with such vehemence that he broke free.

He landed on his back; flipped over to pull his feet under him. As he sprang upright, the shackles dropped from his wrists and ankles. An inarticulate howl corded his throat as he snatched his sword from its sheath.

Quickly Liand retreated. Quenching the Sunstone, he hid it behind his back. Chagrin burned in his face.

Linden feared that Longwrath would harm one of the Swordmainnir; but they recaptured their comrade with practiced ease. Coldspray stepped in front of him and engaged his flamberge with her glaive, compelled his attention, while four women circled swiftly behind him. As soon as Coldspray created an opening, another Giant kicked him in the small of his back. The shock of the blow dropped him to his knees; and immediately the women swarmed over him. In a moment, they had twisted the sword from his grasp and pinned his arms.

Muttering Giantish curses, the Ironhand retrieved Longwrath’s shackles and secured his wrists and ankles. Deceptively gentle, she replaced the gag in his mouth; returned his sword to its sheath. Then she left him to the care of Galesend and another Swordmain.

Linden sighed with relief—and regret. “Well, that didn’t work.”

“Forsooth,” growled Coldspray trenchantly. To Liand, she said, “I do not doubt that your attempt was kindly meant, but you must not hazard it again.” He nodded, openly

dismayed, as she continued, “I fear that Longwrath poses a greater threat than any skurj. He will free himself and strike when we are least able to oppose him. Do not provoke him further.”

The thought made Linden’s stomach clench. “Then what should we do? He’s going to get people killed, and there are too few of us as it is.”

The Ironhand scowled around the glade, considering her choices. “We will separate once more,” she announced. “Surely Kastenessen does not desire the death of one who desires yours. While Longwrath lags behind us, he will be spared. I will ask three of my comrades to accompany him.” Clearly she meant, To guard him. “If Stave and the Manethrall of the Ramen have no better counsel, the remainder of our company will hasten toward Andelain with such speed as Salva Gildenbourne permits.”

Stave deferred to Mahrtiir. The Manethrall cleared his throat. “My Cords will again scout our path. Their task will be to seek clear passage for long strides. It falls to the Humbled to ward us against peril.” Then he turned his bandaged face toward Bhapa and Pahni, locating them by scent and sound and aura. “But you must also seek rocky ground. Surely vestiges of the former plains remain, bouldered and barren, where the ancient litter of scarps and tors hinders the trees. If it can be done, we must stand among an abundance of loose stones when Kastenessen strikes.”

He did not explain himself; but Linden assumed that he thought her companions would be better able to defend themselves if they were not obstructed by jungle and brush.

Bhapa swallowed heavily. “We hear you, Manethrall. If your command can be met, we will meet it.”

Pahni gave Liand a quick hug, then clenched her teeth and left him to stand beside Bhapa.

With fierceness in his voice, Mahrtiir replied, “I do not doubt you. Trust to the Humbled, and fare well.”

However, Bhapa and Pahni did not set out immediately. Instead they waited to hear what the Ironhand and Stave would say.

“Stave of the Haruchai?” asked Coldspray.

Stave shrugged. “The Manethrall is wise and farseeing in the ways of strife. The Humbled approve his counsel. And I do not fear for them. It is their word that they are much healed. While they live, they will ward us.

“Rime Coldspray, I inquire only if you will bear the Chosen and her slower companions, as you have done before.”

“We will.” The Ironhand snorted a laugh. “Indeed, we insist upon it.” Several of her comrades nodded. “As stealth will not serve us, we must have speed.” Then she looked to Linden.

“Linden Giantfriend, what is your word?”

Linden took a deep breath; tightened her grip on the Staff. With as much confidence as she could summon, she said, “All right. Let’s do it. Just take care of Anele. And keep Liand near me.”

Chuckling, Frostheart Grueburn stepped forward and lifted Linden into her arms. “You misgauge us, Linden Avery,” she said with a grin. “Though we are large and for the most part foolish, we know a stick when it jabs our eyes. Any man as blighted as your old companion compels our esteem. Already we prize him.”

Stormpast Galesend chortled at Grueburn’s jest as she picked up Anele; cradled him gently against her stone-clad chest. While the Ironhand donned her armor, Grueburn continued more seriously, “As for the Stonedownor, we have heard you. He must bear the Staff of Law when the time has come for wild magic. Salva Gildenbourne permitting, Onyx Stonemage will run at my shoulder. At worst, she will be a stride before or behind me.”

Stonemage bent down so that Liand could sit on her forearm. Then she carried him to Grueburn’s side. Both Giants appeared to be stifling laughter.

A Swordmain who introduced herself as Cirrus Kindwind bowed to Mahrtiir gravely before she presumed to take him in her arms. Her manner revealed an instinctive sensitivity to his emotional straits. Being carried as if he were a child galled his combative spirit. Hidden deep within him was a dumb snarl of anguish and frustration. Kindwind had not known him before he lost his eyes. Nevertheless she appeared to recognize—and respect—his denied distress. She supported him on her forearm as if he were a visiting dignitary, and her posture conveyed the impression that she bore him with pride.

As Coldspray finished securing her cataphract, three Giants pulled Longwrath to his feet. The rest gathered around the Ironhand. At a nod from Mahrtiir, Bhapa and Pahni ran south across the glade. Abandoning the blankets and bundles that Linden’s friends had brought from Revelstone, seven Giants and Stave followed the Cords toward the knotted shade of the jungle.

Behind them, Longwrath protested through his gag. But he made no effort to break free. His shackles remained in place. For the moment, at least, he seemed willing to shuffle along in the wake of the woman he wanted to kill.

Then Rime Coldspray and Stave led Grueburn, Kindwind, and the others at a brisk trot into Salva Gildenbourne. The thick gloom of the trees closed over Linden’s company, immersed her in darkness. The early light could not penetrate the canopy. While her eyes adjusted to the shifting weight of shadows, she felt herself hurtling toward a future which might become an abyss.

Branches slapped at Grueburn. A few flicked Linden’s head and shoulders. The path of the Cords left no room for Grueburn and Onyx Stonemage to run side by side. Stonemage was compelled to follow Grueburn. Nonetheless it was obvious that Pahni

and Bhapa had found a route along which the Swordmainnir could travel easily. While Bhapa scouted farther ahead, Pahni stayed near enough to guide the Giants. To Linden, they seemed to flit among the massive old trees and the younger saplings.

Because she felt helpless and wanted reassurance, she called softly, “Stave, where are the Humbled?” She did not trust herself to raise wild magic suddenly. She would need warning—

Stave’s voice filtered back to her through the leaves. “Galt and Branl match our pace to the east, where we are certain of the skurj. Galt ranges ahead while Branl wards our rear at the outermost extent of our speech. To the west, Clyme watches. When the skurj approach, we will be forewarned while they are perhaps a league distant.”

A league, Linden thought; but the word told her nothing. She could not estimate distances in the constricted and bestrewn jungle. And she had no idea how swiftly the skurj might come. She only knew that tree trunks and boughs, fallen deadwood and swarming vines, rushed past her with disorienting quickness; that she crossed low hills and swept through shallow vales before she could count them; that Grueburn’s breathing was deep and hard, but far from desperation, and that her strength ran like valor in her veins. All of the Swordmainnir gave the impression that they were as fleet as Ranyhyn.

If they could sustain this pace, would they reach the boundaries of Andelain by noon?

Whatever happened, Linden would not have much time to prepare herself for Kastenessen’s attack.

Still she was too distracted to concentrate. Grueburn’s steps shook her; and the woodland inundated her senses with a cacophony of growth and decay. Sunlight began to glitter in the treetops. Around her, the forest seemed to unfurl endlessly, rumpled and unruly; manic with untended life. From the jouncing perspective of Grueburn’s arms, Salva Gildenbourne appeared impenetrable. The Swordmainnir should not have been able to move so rapidly. But at every twist and angle of the earth, every place where the trees clustered to form a barricade, every obstruction of vines and deadwood, the Cords found a path that allowed the Giants to run unhindered.

Hills and more hills. Swales and streambeds. Unexpected swaths of open grass bedecked with wildflowers. Small marshes like puddles in the jungle.

Every stride brought the need for wild magic nearer; and still Linden was not ready.

Snagged occasionally by snarls of brush, the company pelted down a long slope. Whenever Grueburn missed her footing and collided with a tree, she wrapped her free arm protectively around Linden; accepted the impact with her shoulder and ran on. Held against the woman’s armor, Linden felt the jolt as if she had been punched. But the branches that plucked at her face and arms only scratched her rarely; slightly. She kept her grip on the Staff.

She did not know how Mahrtiir’s Cords contrived to stay ahead of the Giants. She was familiar with the immense stamina of Coldspray’s people. And Stave was Haruchai. But there was nothing preternatural about the Ramen, except perhaps their communion with the Ranyhyn. Being smaller, Bhapa and Pahni had to sprint while the Swordmainnir trotted. Surely even their hardiness would not enable them to continue like this indefinitely?

At the bottom of the slope, the Cords led the Giants into a ravine like a jagged wound in the flesh of the terrain. There the ground was complicated with boulders, and the Giants were forced to move more slowly. In that respite, Linden cast her health-sense ahead; tried to catch a hint of Pahni’s condition. But the ravine twisted: the mossed granite of its walls blocked her view. The thick odors of damp, mould, and cold stone crowded her nose. She was tossed from side to side by Grueburn’s passage around and over the boulders. And the Giants in front of her filled her percipience. When she concentrated on Mahrtiir, Liand, and Anele, she could see that they were well. But she failed to detect Pahni’s presence.

“Mahrtiir?” she asked anxiously. “I’m worried about Pahni and Bhapa. How long can they keep this up?”

Over Kindwind’s shoulder, the Manethrall answered, “You have not been long acquainted with the Ramen, Ringthane. At need, we are able to run briefly with the Ranyhyn. And our inborn endurance is rigorously trained.

“My Cords will perform all that is asked of them.” After an instant’s hesitation, he added, “Yet it is plain that they near the limits of their strength. I do not wish them driven beyond themselves, if that may be avoided.”

As one, the Giants slowed their strides. Through the labor of their breathing, Linden heard Coldspray ask, “Stave?”

“The Cords have guided us well.” Stave did not sound winded. His voice betrayed none of his exertions. “We will sacrifice the benefit of their aid if we ask more haste than they can sustain.” To the Ironhand’s unspoken question, he replied, “The Humbled sense no peril.”

“Very well.” At the head of the company, Coldspray slackened her pace further. “In all sooth, we also are weary. We have known no true rest for many days, and even Giants must tire.

“I gauge that we have traversed four leagues. Doubtless our foes gather against us. If the Manethrall’s Cords discover a favorable battleground, perhaps we will do well to await our doom there rather than hazard exhaustion.”

“Aye,” answered Mahrtiir. “Rime Coldspray, you possess wisdom as well as cunning. If Kastenessen desires to prevent us from Andelain, he must strike soon. Therefore speed is no longer our greatest requirement.”

Covered in omens of shadow, the Ironhand’s aura seemed to imply a wish for confirmation. Again she asked, “Stave?”

Stave’s tone resembled a shrug. “If the Chosen does not gainsay it, I concur with the Manethrall.” After a moment, he added, “As do the Humbled. The time has come to seek terrain which may aid us.”

“Linden Giantfriend?” Coldspray inquired. “Do you consent?”

Four leagues? wondered Linden. Halfway to Andelain? She had no idea how much time had passed. Sunshine spangled the leaves in tiny flecks far overhead, but the sides of the ravine hid the sun. If the Giants had indeed covered four leagues—

Coldspray, Mahrtiir, and Stave were right. Kastenessen would attack soon. She needed to prepare herself.

What in God’s name was he waiting for?

Perhaps he was not waiting. Perhaps he had already prepared an ambush in Andelain.

The possibility that the skurj were feasting among the Hills of Andelain made Linden feel sick. But she swallowed her trepidations.

“You’re probably right. In any case, I don’t have a better suggestion. I could use the rest. And I need a chance to pull myself together.”

At once, the Ironhand sent one of her unburdened comrades ahead to talk to Pahni and Bhapa. Stave and the other Giants continued along the depths of the ravine.

Vaguely Linden wondered how much ground Longwrath and his guards had lost— and how long he would delay before he tried to kill her again. But she could not afford to distract herself with such concerns. The Swordmainnir would protect her. She needed to focus her attention on power and the skurj; on Thomas Covenant’s ring and his illimitable resolve. Not for the first time, her circumstances pressed her to surpass herself.

A grieved and frightened part of her insisted that she was not Covenant, she was not. She had never been his equal. It was folly to pretend that she could match his capacity for extravagant and unforeseen victories.

But if Roger and the croyel had given her time to think in the cave of the Earth-Blood, she would have said the same; and by doing so, she would have helped them destroy her. At least in part, she had succeeded against them because they had left her no room for self-doubt. Jeremiah’s wounded helplessness and the croyel’s cruelty had made her certain.

That certainty remained deep in her, as unshaken as buried stone. As long as she did not dwell on her inadequacies, she would be able to fight for what she loved; oppose what she loathed. She would find a way.

She had done so after the destruction of First Woodhelven.

Resting in Grueburn’s arms, Linden searched herself for scraps of Covenant’s power.

Gradually the walls of the ravine slumped away, releasing the company into a wide valley bordered on the south by an overgrown escarpment, high and thick with trees. Glimpsed through the jungle, the skyward thrust of the scarp looked too sheer to be climbed. But Bhapa and Pahni found a path upward by angling across the rise, bracing themselves on tree trunks and clinging to bushes. The roots of the trees and brush were deeply knotted in the escarpment’s fissured bones: they held the Swordmainnir as easily as the Ramen. Linden’s company made the ascent with less difficulty than she would have thought possible.

Beyond the crest, Salva Gildenbourne lost elevation by slow increments; and the Giants quickened their pace. Here the soil lay more thinly over its bedrock. Wider spaces separated the trees: undergrowth no longer clogged the ground. At irregular intervals, rocks mantled with grey-green lichen jutted among Gilden, sycamore, and oak. For the first time since dawn, Linden could look around her and see all seven of the Swordmainnir. When she glanced at Liand, he smiled to reassure her.

Pahni remained out of sight ahead, hidden by broad-boughed trees and the heavy shoulders of the Giants; but now Linden caught hints of the Cord with her other senses. Although Pahni moved fluidly down the gentle slope, she emanated an unmistakable pang of fatigue. Linden could feel the Cord’s muscles trembling.

Soon, Linden thought. Bhapa would have to find a place that suited Mahrtiir soon.

Abruptly Stave’s head jerked. An instant later, he announced to Coldspray, “The skurj, Ironhand. Galt has discerned them.”

Fear clutched at Linden as the Swordmain asked, “Is he able to count their number?”

“He cannot. They blur at the limit of his senses. However, they advance as though they are certain of us. And their pace exceeds ours. Soon Galt will endeavor to number them.”

Coldspray glanced back at Mahrtiir and Linden. “Shall we run, then? Is there hope in flight?”

Presumably the Giants could carry Pahni and Bhapa.

“Galt deems that there is not,” replied Stave flatly. “Trees and terrain do not hinder the skurj. And they appear capable of great speed. Can you outrun them at need? Can you do so until we have gained Loric’s krill?”

The Ironhand shook her head. “We have run too much. Already weariness weighs upon us, though we are Giants, and proud of our strength. If it can be done, we must abide by the Manethrall’s counsel.”

“Then my Cords must be forewarned,” growled Mahrtiir. “They cannot hear the minds of the Humbled.”

“Cabledarm!” Coldspray called to one of the Giants. “This falls to you. Overtake the Cords. Aid them in their search.”

“Aye,” Cabledarm responded. “Who else?” She bared her teeth in a willing grin. “When wisdom and cunning exhaust themselves, simple strength must prevail.

“Observe and learn, Linden Giantfriend!” she shouted as she broke into a run. “It is with good cause that Cabledarm is acknowledged as the mightiest of the Swordmainnir!”

Assisted by the slope, she seemed to bound after Pahni.

“Mightiest, ha!” muttered Grueburn to her comrades. “I claim that title. Free my arms, and I will ‘acknowledge’ any might that strives to prove itself against me.”

Several of the Giants chuckled; but Coldspray commanded sternly, “Quicken your strides, Swordmainnir. Haste now may earn a measure of respite ere the skurj assail us.”

The women picked up their pace. Linden expected them to race after Cabledarm, but they did not. Instead the Ironhand held them to a swift walk. After a moment, Linden realized that Coldspray did not want to overrun the Cords’ search for an abundance of loose stones— —the ancient litter of scarps and tors— When—or if—Bhapa found a place that satisfied Mahrtiir’s requirements, Coldspray wished to head toward it without needing to double back.

Trembling as if she, too, had run for leagues, Linden touched her pocket to confirm that she still had Jeremiah’s racecar. Then she drew out Covenant’s ring.

Irregular splashes of sunshine caught the small metal circle as the sun rose toward midday. Whenever Covenant’s wedding band flared silver in her hand, Linden winced involuntarily. Please, God, she prayed without hearing herself. Please. The ring looked puny against the pale skin of her palm; too little to encompass either hope or contradiction.

Wild magic is only as powerful as the will, the determination, of the person it belongs to. The rightful white gold wielder.

With it, Covenant had mastered Nom; faced Kasreyn of the Gyre; denatured the virulence of the Banefire. Wielded by the Despiser, its savage ecstasy had exalted Covenant’s spirit to secure and sustain the Arch of Time. And Linden herself had caused a caesure. In the wrong hands, it’s still pretty strong. Nevertheless this immaculate instance of white gold was not hers.

It doesn’t really come to life until the person it belongs to chooses to use it.

Roger could have been lying; but she did not think so. Too much of what he had said matched her memories, her experiences.

Damn it. She clenched her fist around the ring. She had created one caesure: she could form another; catch the skurj in a mad whirl of instants and send them hurtling toward an imponderable future. If she were willing to take the risk—

When she had asked Roger about Falls, he had replied, Eventually they’ll destroy everything.

On that subject as well, she could believe that he had told the truth.

All right, she promised herself grimly. No more caesures. I’ll try something else.

But she did not know what she would be able to attempt.

In the distance ahead, she felt Cabledarm reach Pahni; felt the Giant sweep Pahni into her arms and go on running. They sought Bhapa, but they passed beyond Linden’s range without finding him.

Moving at Coldspray’s side, Stave spoke so that Linden and the Manethrall could hear him. “Branl reports no threat. It appears that Longwrath and his escort will not be assailed. And Clyme also descries no presage of harm. Therefore he and Branl come to join our defense.

“Galt will do likewise. However, he intends first to number the skurj. At present, he perceives less than a score. If he discovers no increase in their force, he will endeavor to learn if they may be made to turn aside.”

Linden flinched. One of those monsters could swallow Galt whole—

“Then he is a fool,” snapped the Ironhand.

Stolidly Stave replied, “He is Haruchai as well as Humbled, neither slow of wit nor weak of limb. He will not sacrifice himself except in our direct aid. Rather he will seek only to determine whether the skurj may be slowed or diverted.”

Coldspray started to respond, but a distant shout interrupted her. Muffled by trees and foliage, Cabledarm’s bellow was barely audible.

“A place is found! Alter your heading somewhat eastward!”

Eastward— Closer to the skurj.

The Ironhand stopped; turned to face Mahrtiir. “Manethrall,” she said tensely, “our esteem for the Ramen grows ever greater. To say that your Cords have served us well is scant praise. We cannot delay for true gratitude. Know, however, that we are honored to claim the friendship of a people who possess such fortitude and skill.”

Before he could answer, she spun away and began to run. At once, her comrades followed, angling slightly to the left as they rushed between the trees.

Linden did not know how far they ran. Fears confused her. Repeatedly she caught herself holding her breath. Nevertheless the pace of the Giants made it obvious that Salva Gildenbourne’s verdure was growing thin. As the soil lost its richness, it exposed new sheets of stone and older outcroppings of bedrock stained by weather and time and lichen. Few shrubs and saplings obstructed the strides of the Swordmainnir. Gilden, ancient oaks, and occasional, brittle birches stood farther apart, allowing swathes of sunlight to reach the ground. The Giants flashed through incursions of brightness as if they flickered in and out of predictable reality.

Ahead of them, the trees opened briefly. Through the gap, Linden spotted a rocky tor, high and rounded like the burial-mound of a titan. Then the Giants ran into full sunshine, brilliant as Staff-fire; and she found herself staring at a formation like a volcanic plug so immeasurably ancient that the eons had worn it down to rubble.

It seemed tall to her: she could not have thrown a pebble to reach its crown. Yet it stood lower than the surrounding trees. Without Bhapa’s guidance, and Pahni’s, the Giants might easily have missed it.

Boulders as big as dwellings supported its sides, but the rest of the mound was composed of broken rocks in all sizes and shapes. From Linden’s perspective, the crest looked wide enough for all of the Giants to stand together and wield their weapons.

Mahrtiir’s eagerness suggested that the tor was exactly what he wanted. But Linden was not convinced. If her companions chose to defend themselves atop the mound, they would have no line of escape.

Bhapa stood, panting urgently, at the foot of the knuckled slope. But Cabledarm had carried Pahni up the tor. The Swordmain waved dramatically as her comrades emerged from the forest. “I recant my vaunt!” she crowed: a shout of delight. “Skill may accomplish much which lies beyond the reach of muscle and thew! The Manethrall’s Cords have humbled me. I would not have stumbled upon this admirable redoubt!”

“It will serve,” muttered Mahrtiir, peering at the mound with senses other than sight. “Here even Ramen may oppose Kastenessen’s vile beasts.”

Linden blinked in the sunlight; shook her head. Bhapa’s condition alarmed her. He gasped as if he were still running, on the edge of exhaustion. Dehydration made his limbs tremble. Apparently he had not paused for treasure-berries or water while he searched. After the battle of First Woodhelven, he had refused Mahrtiir’s place as Manethrall. Perhaps in compensation, he had nearly prostrated himself to prove worthy of Mahrtiir’s trust.

By finding this tor? Linden did not understand. The skurj devoured granite. She had assumed that the Cords sought an open rock field where the Giants could dodge and strike and flee. If they mounted the rocks, they would be trapped.

But the Ironhand did not seem to share Linden’s concern. “Serve?” she retorted as if Mahrtiir had made a jest. “It will do more than serve. It will concentrate our foes where the advantage of elevation and stone is ours. If Linden Giantfriend does not falter, we may yet hope for our lives.”

If Linden did not falter—

“Galt hastens toward us,” Stave announced. “The skurj pass beneath him. He has failed to deflect their course. Therefore he will endeavor to outrun them. He descries eighteen of the creatures. If others follow, he cannot yet discern them.”

“And the distance?” asked Coldspray.

“Less than a league.”

The Ironhand nodded sharply. “Then we must ascend now. Linden Avery may ready her power while we prepare ourselves.”

Coldspray’s comrades responded quickly. As Grueburn and Stonemage confronted the piled boulders, the last unburdened Giant lifted Bhapa into her arms and began to climb.

Supporting herself with her free hand, Grueburn worked her way upward. Time and weight had made the tor more stable than it appeared. And the Giants were intimately familiar with stone in every manifestation. None of them slipped on their way to the crest of the mound.

There the rocks were jagged and dangerous. Cracked granite and slick basalt protruded everywhere, as raw-edged as teeth: an invitation to twisted ankles, scraped shins, snapped bones. Combat would be difficult here. The Giants would have to watch where they placed their feet as closely as they studied their assailants. However, the crown formed a rough circle broader than Linden had guessed, perhaps thirty paces from edge to edge. Her defenders would have more than enough room to fight.

Grueburn set her down carefully. Bracing herself on uneven angles and splits, Linden looked at Pahni to gauge the young Cord’s condition. Like Bhapa, Pahni was close to the end of her strength—and seriously dehydrated. And she lacked his years of training and stamina. In spite of her Ramen pride, she sagged against Cabledarm.

As soon as Stonemage released him, Liand sprang over the rocks toward Pahni. He seemed careless of the treacherous surface, but his Stonedownor heritage must have guided his feet. He reached her in a moment; caught her in his arms. When he had held her for a few heartbeats, he panted, “Water. She is hardy, but she must have water.”

“As must Cord Bhapa,” muttered Coldspray distantly. Her gaze searched the eastward expanse of Salva Gildenbourne as if she sought to see past or through the trees. “We have none. And I will not risk one of my comrades to seek out a stream.” Then she glanced at Liand, smiling to reassure him. “Yet we would be abject indeed, unworthy of ourselves, if we had failed to secure some meager store of diamondraught.”

Liand stared, uncomprehending and frightened; but Linden’s anxiety for the Cords eased. She remembered diamondraught well. It was a potent liquor distilled to suit Giants. But it had virtues in common with aliantha: it would restore Bhapa and Pahni for a while.

Grinning, Grueburn and Stonemage reached under their armor and brought out stone flasks that looked small in their massive hands. By some application of Giantish lore, the flasks had been fashioned flat and slightly curved so that they fit comfortably inside the shaped armor.

Grueburn gave her flask to Liand; let him care for Pahni while Stonemage tended to Bhapa.

Relieved, Linden turned to consider the state of her other companions.

The Giants were visibly tired. They had been under too much strain for too long: their huge vitality had begun to fray like overstressed hawsers. But they still had

reserves of endurance. And a few swallows of diamondraught appeared to lift their

hearts.

At need, they would fight with the force of gales.

When Galesend released him, Anele moved, blind and sure-footed, toward the center of the crown. There he sat down, wedged into a snug crack between boulders. Bowing his head, he began to stroke the stone and hum as if he wished to soothe it.

Less certain than Anele, Mahrtiir felt his way around the rim of the crest, apparently examining the stones. Then he said to Stave, “You comprehend the worth of this vantage?”

“I do,” replied Stave impassively. “As will the Humbled. I honor your foresight, Manethrall.”

“I merit no honor, Stave of the Haruchai.” Mahrtiir continued his scrutiny of the mound. “I will be of scant use in these straits.” Then he bared his teeth. “Yet I am gladdened that my devotion to the lessons of struggle and combat has been of service.”

“Manethrall,” Rime Coldspray put in like a reprimand, “your tales are as mournful as Linden Avery’s, and as bitter in their concision. Do not speak of them here.”

“Aye,” Mahrtiir growled under his breath. “I hear you.” His bandage obscured his eyeless mien.

Muttering empty curses, Linden scanned the region around the tor.

When she looked to the west, she saw Clyme emerge from the forest. He ran easily; flung himself at the steep sides of the tor without obvious difficulty. She saw at a glance that he had told Stave the truth: his injuries were almost entirely healed.

A few moments later, Branl approached from the northeast. He sped to join Linden and her companions, unhampered by the rugged climb, as if he were as much an acolyte of stone as the Giants. He, too, was nearly whole.

Linden felt Galt’s absence like a burr in her mind. She wanted to wait for him; to hear his report on the movements of the skurj. To postpone as long as possible the moment when she would need to concentrate on white gold. Every life around her depended on her ability to wield Covenant’s ring. Fearing failure, she hesitated to make the attempt.

For that very reason, however, she could not afford to procrastinate any longer. She could not. Her companions had trapped themselves, and her. The skurj did not yet impinge upon her health-sense, but they were near. Kastenessen was not the Despiser. If Roger had described him honestly, his driving agony would make him impatient, intolerant of delay. She did not know why he had waited so long—

Now, she commanded herself. Do it now.

Liand still hovered over Pahni. Nevertheless Linden called his name as if she were callous to his apprehension. When he turned toward her, she said simply, “Here,” and handed him the Staff of Law.

Instant possibilities flared in his eyes. He had asked her to do this. Perhaps he thought that holding the Staff would enable him to channel more Earthpower through his orcrest.

Linden nodded to him, accepting the promise of his nascent excitement. Then, half cowering as though she felt naked without her Staff, exposed to shame and inadequacy, she clambered awkwardly toward a flat sheet of basalt within ten paces of the crest’s eastern rim. There she seated herself cross-legged, folded Covenant’s ring in both hands as if she were praying, and tried to think her way to wild magic.

Around her, the Giants drank small sips of diamondraught; talked quietly among themselves; adjusted their armor and readied their weapons. Clyme and Branl watched the east for Galt and peril. Stave waited, apparently relaxed, beside Linden. At Mahrtiir’s command, the Cords gathered to protect Anele.

Two or three paces beyond the old man, Liand stood alone with the Staff and his unspoken desires.

For the first time, Linden noticed the breeze that gusted over the tor, rustling like whispers among the treetops on all sides. Its touch made her aware of tiny lines of pain like damp streaks on her cheeks and forehead. She had been scratched during the rush of the Giants through Salva Gildenbourne. Bits of scab crusted her small hurts.

But some of the branches must have caught at her shirt hard enough to snag and tear the red flannel. Minor rents were scattered over her shoulders and down her arms. A few of them held droplets of dried blood. Like the bullet hole over her heart—like the cryptic grass stains on her jeans—the tears and plucked threads seemed trivial; meaningless. They did not reveal her doom.

Jeremiah needed her. She needed Thomas Covenant. Nothing else mattered.

The door that opened on silver fire lay within her somewhere. She only had to find it.

But when she reached inward, there was no door. Instead a twist of nausea squirmed in her stomach.

Oh, God! Sudden terror thudded through her. That’s it! That’s what he’s been waiting for!

Hardly realizing what she did, Linden dropped the ring. It dangled, useless, from its chain as she sprang to her feet—

—and Esmer materialized in front of her as if he had created himself out of wind and sunlight.

Kastenessen’s grandson, by theurgy if not by blood. I serve him utterly. As I also serve you.

Without hesitation, Stave stepped between her and Cail’s son; the son of the merewives. Shouting in surprise, the Giants wheeled. Their ready blades hissed across the breeze. Branl moved toward Stave. Undisturbed or simply uncaring, Clyme continued to watch for Galt and the skurj.

“Mane and Tail!” Mahrtiir snapped. “Esmer, no! This is not mere betrayal. It is Kastenessen’s triumph, and Fangthane’s.”

If Liand reacted, Linden did not hear or feel it.

Esmer’s presence precluded wild magic. Beyond question, this was what Kastenessen had been waiting for.

Yet Linden’s terror became dismay as she stared at Esmer. Unconsciously she had expected him to heal himself; to appear immaculate and severe, poised for power. But she was wrong. His graceful cymar hung in tatters, fouled with dirt and blood. And the wounds which he had suffered in his bizarre struggle with the Harrow, Roger, and the Demondim-spawn remained. His flesh had been burned and torn because he had declined to defend himself. Now his hurts stank of filth. Some of them were festering.

The green seethe of his gaze resembled weeping seas. Dolor and gall twisted his countenance. He looked like he had come to ensure Linden’s death; to make certain that both the Staff of Law and Covenant’s ring fell to Kastenessen—or to Roger and Lord Foul, if Kastenessen disdained such powers.

Coldspray stood behind him. “Is this indeed Esmer?” she asked through her teeth. “Then I will dismiss him.” Raising her stone sword, she demanded, “Turn, caitiff cateran, and make the acquaintance of my glaive.”

Without glancing away from Linden, Esmer cried, “Hold!” The word was a yelp of chagrin.

Sharply Stave said, “Do not, Rime Coldspray. His powers are unfathomable and virulent. Should he so choose, he will shatter this mound, sweeping us into the maws of the skurj. Your strength will merely provoke him. You cannot prevail.”

Coldspray hesitated, but did not lower her sword. “Linden Avery—” she began; then stopped as if in shock.

Until Mahrtiir barked her name, Linden did not see that the peak of the tor teemed with ur-viles and Waynhim.

In silence, they swarmed like shadows around the far taller Giants: several score of them, all that had survived the Harrow, and Roger, and the weapons of the Cavewights. Once again, their lore had enabled them to divine Esmer’s intentions. And they had veiled their presence until he manifested himself. Now they massed around Linden and Cail’s son, encircling Stave and Branl.

“Linden Avery—” Coldspray repeated. With an effort, she quenched her surprise. “What is your will? Are these the creatures that have aided you? The Demondimspawn? Why then do they now ward Esmer? We cannot oppose him without harming them.”

In response, the Waynhim and ur-viles began to shout, raucous as wild dogs. Their yipping howls and harsh coughs filled the air. They seemed to cast a pall over the tor as if their inherent darkness obscured the sunlight.

None of them brandished weapons. Even the loremaster did not.

Coldspray tried again. “Linden—”

Esmer cut her off. Suddenly disdainful, he rasped, “They do not ward me, Giant. That is the import of their speech.

“You possess a gift of tongues obtained from the Elohim. By my will, it is withdrawn. At no time will you be permitted to comprehend these creatures.

“However, they command me to inform you that they serve the Wildwielder. They acknowledge Giants. They have known the Unhomed, for good or ill. If you strike at them, they will not guard themselves. For her sake, they will raise neither hand nor theurgy against you. Yet you play no part in their desires.”

Coldspray glanced around at her comrades, then shook her head in bafflement. By my will— Apparently Esmer had the power to enforce his word.

Linden had made a promise to the ur-viles and Waynhim. If you can ever figure out how to tell me what you need or want from me, I’ll do it. Now Esmer had erased her only chance to understand them.

“But they also wish you to apprehend,” he continued less scornfully, “that their lore will not slow the skurj. They cannot preserve you.” An emotion that resembled remorse troubled his gaze. “They intend only to ensure that I may harm neither you nor any of the Wildwielder’s companions. If they mean to proffer some further service, they do not speak of it.”

The Ironhand’s shoulders sagged. As if in defeat, she dropped her glaive back into its sheath. “Then we must perish, son of malice. Kastenessen’s beasts are too many. We cannot defeat them without wild magic—and we are informed that your presence prevents any use of white gold.

“Is that your purpose? Will you impose our deaths?”

“It is my nature.” Hauteur fumed like spray from Esmer’s eyes, but his voice winced. “I am made to be what I am. I do not command the skurj. Like them, I am commanded.”

Fierce with alarm and granite rage, Linden wanted to retort; but Stave spoke first. Facing Esmer impassively, he said, “You are swift to cast blame, Esmer mere-son. It is your word that because of the Haruchai ‘there will be endless havoc.’ Yet is it not sooth that you fault Cail your sire and his kindred for your deeds rather than for theirs? The ‘havoc’ will be of your making, not ours. When we fall”—his tone sharpened—“we fall by your hand, Esmer, not by any act or reticence of the Haruchai.”

Esmer flinched. But he did not respond. And he did not withdraw.

Before Linden could voice her own accusations, Clyme announced, “Galt approaches.” His voice carried, blunt as a fist, through the clamor of the Demondimspawn. “The skurj follow. They do not hasten, but they come.”

Involuntarily Linden imagined a path of blight and withering in Salva Gilden-bourne’s abundance, formed by the fiery passage of Kastenessen’s monsters.

“Are they eighteen?” asked Coldspray tensely. “Does that remain Galt’s count?”

“It does,” Clyme answered. “He has discerned no others.”

Branl’s lack of expression suggested a sneer as he turned abruptly away from Linden, Esmer, and Stave. The ur-viles and Waynhim parted for him: their barking subsided as if they had given up demanding translation. A few of them watched Branl join Coldspray and Clyme. Others shifted their attention toward Anele and Liand.

“Eighteen.” The Ironhand bowed her head. “It cannot be done.” But then she raised her chin, bared her teeth. “Nevertheless we will attempt it.”

Her eyes flared dangerously as she began positioning her comrades to defend the tor.

Linden had tried before: she tried again. But she found no wild magic within herself. The door was gone. The sick clench of her stomach confirmed its absence. She could not pierce the barrier imposed by Esmer’s proximity.

And she could not oppose the skurj effectively with her Staff: not while Kevin’s Dirt held sway.

Nevertheless she was not beaten. She refused to accept it. Aid and betrayal. Esmer’s presence was a betrayal. Therefore he was vulnerable. His divided nature would compel him to help her, if she could ask the right questions, insist on the right answers; find the right lever—

You must be the first to drink of the EarthBlood.

His gaze remained fixed on her as if none of her companions existed. He ignored the Demondim-spawn. In a voice that steamed with pleading, he asked, “Wildwielder, why have you come to this place?” His wounds seemed to ooze concern like pus. “What madness drives you? Have you not been told that you must not enter Andelain? Do you hear neither friend nor foe?”

Linden shook her head. “Damn it, Esmer,” she countered, “can’t you even heal yourself ? Is this really what Kastenessen wants?” Or Lord Foul?

She intended to put as much pressure on Esmer as she could. And she was not going to reveal her underlying purpose: the bedrock on which she had founded all of her actions since Melenkurion Skyweir.

His manner stiffened. “I have inherited many gifts. There is no healing among them.”

Cruelly Linden insisted, “Your own grandfather wants you like this?” Flagrantly wounded, suppurating with pain. “He doesn’t want you whole?”

Esmer squirmed. “Delivering the Demondim-spawn to this time, I displeased him. Defending them against the Harrow, I displeased him greatly. His wrath is boundless. Therefore I am here.”

Behind him, Galt appeared on the rim of the mound. The Master’s chest heaved, demanding air, but he did not look weak or hurt—or troubled. “They come,” he

informed Coldspray and the other Giants. “Strength alone will not avail against them. Yet we will strive to create opportunities for your blades.”

The Ironhand nodded grimly. “Aye. Some few of them we will slay, with your aid. Then we must pray that they do not pause to feast upon their fallen and multiply.”

“That also,” replied Branl, “we will endeavor to prevent.”

“As will I,” Mahrtiir promised gruffly. “Blindness will not hamper my aim.”

Linden clenched her fists until her knuckles ached. Her palm and fingers missed the ciphered warmth of the Staff. “All right, Esmer,” she said through her teeth. “So Kastenessen is mad at you. So what? Give me something to count against this betrayal. Tell me why no one wants me to go to Andelain.”

She did not have much time.

His eyes bled anger and self-castigation. “I know not how to serve you, other than by preventing you from ruin.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she retorted. “I’m not going to ruin anything. If you go away—if you let me use wild magic—I won’t threaten the Arch. I can’t. I’m not the ring’s rightful wielder.” Roger had insisted on that. She believed him despite his many falsehoods. “I don’t have enough power.”

Esmer drew himself up. “You are mistaken.” Now he seemed to seethe with squalls as if she had insulted his intelligence. “There are two white golds. Each alone may damage Law. When both are wielded, their peril swells.”

Covenant had told her to be careful with wild magic. It feeds the caesures.

“Kastenessen’s desires are not the Despiser’s,” Esmer continued harshly. “He cares naught for the Arch of Time. Rather he yearns for the destruction of the Elohim.Yet he is but one against many. And the skurj are merely the skurj. He cannot sate his hunger by direct challenge. However, your white ring, and the other, may accomplish his desires. The ending of life within the Arch will achieve it. It will consume his true foes. Therefore Kastenessen commits his creatures against you. Your efforts to withstand them will commingle with the madness of the other Wildwielder. Your puissance will conduce to the end of those who Appointed him to bereavement and agony.”

Again Linden shook her head. “No. That still doesn’t make sense. If Kastenessen wants me to use wild magic, why are you here? Didn’t you say that you were commanded?”

Esmer made a show of patience while his eyes frothed and his wounds wept. “The attack of the skurj is a blade with two edges. Because of my presence, you will perish. Then your ring will fall into the hands of some other being. Kastenessen does not covet it for himself. No Elohim truly desires white gold. For such beings, its peril transcends its promise of might. But lesser wights crave it avidly. Should Thomas Covenant’s son or the Harrow gain possession of your ring, they will evoke wild magic sufficient to feed Kastenessen’s hunger.

“However, my grandsire is wroth with me. He execrates my wish to serve you. Therefore I am commanded here, as both a punishment and a snare. My presence ensures your death—and his triumph. Yet should you discover some means to sway me, so that I am induced to betray him, you yourself will provide his triumph.”

Abruptly the entire tor trembled. While Linden spread her feet to keep her balance, a scream of fire erupted beyond the eastern edge of the crest. Virulence shocked her senses as the skurj broke from the ground. From where she stood, the rim blocked her view of the beasts; but she recognized that they were many. Each roar exacerbated the others until the very air seemed to shriek with pain.

She closed her mind to the sound. She could not afford to quail. She would not. Therefore she chose to believe that the Giants would contrive to hold back the creatures.

“So either way Kastenessen wins,” she rasped at Esmer. “All right. I get that. But you still haven’t told me why you’re here. Since he can’t lose, why do you bother to do what he tells you? Why do you care?”

He ducked his head. His manner changed as unpredictably as wind-torn waves. “It is my nature. I must strive to serve you.”

“Then tell me how I can get enough Earthpower from my Staff to hold off those monsters.”

“You cannot,” he said as though he feared her in spite of her helplessness. “That is the true purpose of Kevin’s Dirt. My grandsire and I labored long and assiduously among the fouled depths and banes of Gravin Threndor to procure this outcome.”

You? Linden thought, aghast. You did that?

“We have been aided,” Esmer admitted. “The extremes of Kastenessen’s excruciation madden him. His thoughts do not cohere. But he has been counseled by moksha Raver. Jehannum serves him, winning connivance from Thomas Covenant’s son as from Cavewights and other powers. At the Raver’s urging, my grandsire severed his hand to exalt Thomas Covenant’s son. The magic to raise Kevin’s Dirt from the roots of Mount Thunder was Kastenessen’s, and mine. But the ploy was moksha Jehan-num’s.”

Linden swallowed her dismay. Esmer was helping her: she knew that. He had told her where to look for Kastenessen—and perhaps how to end Kevin’s Dirt. He had revealed how her disparate foes had been induced to work together. But he had given her nothing that would thwart the skurj.

If he answered her questions in order to betray Kastenessen, he was doing his grandsire no harm.

“You’re just talking, Esmer,” she said, deliberately dismissive. “You can say whatever you want because you know that I won’t live to do anything about it. If you want to prove that you’re worthy of your father,” of Cail, whose courage had been as boundless

as Kastenessen’s rage, “tell me something useful. Tell me why no one wants me to go to

Andelain.”

Without warning, the first of the skurj reared into view.

The sight staggered her; broke her concentration. Even in full daylight, the beast seemed to dominate the sky. Its heat washed over the tor, terrible and chancrous: its massive jaws gaped, blazing with repeated rows of fangs like magma shaped and whetted until the teeth resembled kukris. Heat shouted from the monster’s deep maw as if it articulated the Earth’s quintessential hunger.

The ur-viles and Waynhim huddled around Linden, apparently cowed. Their subdued chittering sounded like whimpers.

Rime Coldspray confronted the creature with her sword held ready. Yet she did not strike. She might have been immobilized; stricken with terror; helpless before the lambent ineluctable fangs of the skurj. But she was not. She was waiting—

The beast towered over her, savoring her death. Then the tremendous kraken jaws pounced for her head. If it caught her, it would bite her in half.

Branl interrupted the creature’s strike. Before it reached Coldspray, he flung a heavy rock down the throat of the skurj.

Reflexively the monster paused. It closed its jaws to swallow; concealed the sick radiance of its fangs.

In that instant, Coldspray swung her glaive. With all of her Giantish might and her Swordmainnir training, she cut into and through the heavy muscles at one hinge of the creature’s jaws.

The skurj fell into a convulsion of pain. Yowling through a spray of vile blood, it plunged out of sight.

Dear God— An abundance of loose stones. Now Linden understood. The mound was not a trap: it was an armory. Her companions could use the autonomic reactions of the creatures against them. Branl, Galt, and Clyme—even Mahrtiir—could force the skurj to pause.

Any interruption would create openings for the Giants.

But Coldspray’s blow appeared to infuriate the rest of the skurj. Their roaring lashed the air: their heat stank like gangrene. Eight or ten of them charged upward simultaneously. The others were close behind. Threats of slaughter scaled into lunacy as the creatures arched above the tor to crash slavering toward the Giants.

In the space between heartbeats, one small sliver of time, Linden whirled toward Stave. “The Seven Words!” she panted. “They affect the skurj!”

The Giants believed that the monsters could not hear. But Linden had seen one of them hesitate before the implicit theurgy of the Seven Words.

Stave acknowledged her with a nod. Then he sprang away, shifting easily among the Demondim-spawn to inform her companions.

Around the entire rim of the crown, battle exploded.

“Wildwielder!” Esmer shouted. “Forswear your purpose in Andelain, and I will depart!” A cryptic desperation edged his voice. “Do as you will with the Harrow. Others will oppose your efforts to retrieve your son. I will not!”

Pallid with strain, Linden faced him again. The horrid gaping of fangs made his features ruddy and lurid: it seemed to fill his hurts with disease. A bloody sunset shone in his eyes. Her companions were fighting for their lives; everyone who had aided her; her friends—

There was nothing that she could do to help them.

“That’s not an answer, Esmer.” If she turned her back on Andelain—on Covenant and the krill—she would sacrifice her only chance to save the Land. Terror and evil would rampage wherever they wished. “The Harrow isn’t here.”

“If I depart, he will come.” Esmer’s mien was rife with supplication. “He will remove you from this doom. Your death would complicate his desires.”

Should you discover some means to sway me—

The Giants were too few. The Humbled and Mahrtiir were fewer still. Kindwind tried to stop a skurj by jamming her sword past its teeth into the back of its maw. She hurt it; drove it back. But it clamped its jaws as it pulled away, taking her sword and her hand and all of her forearm with it. Blood fountained from the severed stump.

Guided by percipience, Mahrtiir heaved stones bigger than his fists between the fangs of the beasts. He yelled the Seven Words with such ferocity that the tor itself quivered. Skurj after skurj was forced to pause and swallow—or to falter. But that was the limit of what he could accomplish. If he touched one of the creatures, its hide would scald the flesh from his bones.

One of Clyme’s rocks interrupted a flash of fangs and incandescence. In that instant, Grueburn ducked beneath the skurj and drove her sword upward through its hide behind its jaws; buried her blade to the hilt. Somehow she struck a vital nervecenter, perhaps the monster’s brain. Spasming frantically, the skurj toppled down the stones. When its bulk collided with another creature, that beast tumbled as well.

Giants began to shout the Seven Words: a cacophony of invocation.

It was not enough.

Grinding her teeth, Linden demanded, “And if he does? If the Harrow offers me a bargain that I can live with? Will he save my friends? Can he rescue all of us?”

Esmer snorted contemptuously. “Doubtless he is able to do so. He will not. He need not. He cares naught for your companions. Knowing where your son is imprisoned, he requires no other suasion. He will not hazard himself for any cause other than white gold and the Staff of Law. If you insist upon the salvation of your companions, he will merely await a later opportunity to acquire your powers.

“The might of wild magic will be diminished if it is not ceded voluntarily. That he will regret. Nevertheless this plight serves his ends also.”

Bhapa and Pahni hovered uselessly over Anele. When they could, they threw stones at the skurj. The old man made mewling noises deep in his throat. His hands clutched at granite and basalt as if he thought that the broken rocks might redeem him.

Emulating Grueburn, Onyx Stonemage ducked under a blaze of fangs and thrust her sword like a spear behind the beast’s jaws. But she missed her target. In a vast roar of pain and blood, the skurj struck at her; slammed her to the jagged stones.

For a moment, her armor blocked the monster’s bite. At the same time, however, the beast’s fury twisted her blade within its wound. Before her cataphract failed, her thrust became a killing stroke. The skurj recoiled, seized by death. Its blood drenched her, stinking like offal, as the creature fell.

Two skurj were dead. At least one had been badly wounded.

Too many remained.

Stave joined the Humbled. Together they hurled a barrage of rock. Risking her whole arm, Cabledarm succeeded at chopping one huge maw into a grin that could not close by cutting through the muscles at both corners of the jaw. With a volcanic howl, the skurj lurched away. A froth of vile blood spattered the tor.

“But he knows where Jeremiah is,” Linden insisted, panting urgently. “Isn’t that why you tried to suck him into a Fall? To keep him from helping me rescue my son?”

Esmer groaned. “It is. It was.” His pleading became a kind of frenzy. “Your son is beyond price. But if you will forswear your purpose in Andelain, the threat to Kastenessen is diminished. Therefore your son’s worth declines. The Harrow will serve Kastenessen’s desires, though he intends only his own glory. It cannot be otherwise when wild magic and Law are wielded by greed and aggrandizement.”

Kastenessen’s desires are not the Despiser’s.

Others will oppose your efforts to retrieve your son. I will not!

The ruddy hue of burning over the tor began to change. It grew pale. White brilliance reflected in the seethe and misery of Esmer’s gaze. Through a fever of concentration, Linden felt Earthpower rise behind her.

The ur-viles and Waynhim jerked up their heads, scented the fraught air. Barking fervidly, they left Linden and Esmer. On all fours, they scampered to surround Liand.

The Stonedownor was calling up the light of his orcrest. He would draw the skurj to him; distract them—

But he was doing something else as well. Linden’s attention nearly snapped when she realized that he was also summoning power from the Staff. Or summoning the Staff ’s strength through the Sunstone. By instinct or health-sense, he had tuned the Staff ’s resources to the specific pitch and possibility of his orcrest.

The Staff appeared to give him only a small portion of its potential. He lacked Lin-den’s organic relationship with the runed black wood; and he had no experience. But in a mere handful of days, he had become intimately familiar with his piece of orcrest. Now he used Linden’s Staff to feed the Sunstone, enhance its distinctive theurgy—and to reinforce his stone so that it would not be shattered by the magicks which he demanded from it.

Linden did not know what he had in mind. He had told her nothing. Nevertheless she understood that he was not merely trying to attract or disturb the skurj. He meant to attempt something far more ambitious—

Kevin’s Dirt would hinder him as it did her.

Liand! Fearing the hunger of the monsters, she nearly shouted at him to stop. But she fought down the impulse. All of her companions were about to die. Her own death was no more than moments away. She could not afford to reject any gambit that might confuse or slow the skurj.

All who live share the Land’s plight. Its cost will be borne by all who live.

She had to let Liand take his own risks.

Perhaps the Demondim-spawn would protect him—

Like an act of violence against herself, Linden closed her mind to Liand. Instead she told Esmer, “Then you still have to answer my question. Why don’t you want me in Andelain? I’m not going to ‘forswear’ anything until I know what’s at stake.”

“Because you are not needed!” Esmer cried in stymied supplication. “There is no peril in Andelain! The skurj cannot enter among the Hills. Kastenessen himself cannot. Caesures do not form there. When Thomas Covenant’s ring returned to the Land, Loric’s krill was roused from its slumber. Its might wards the Hills. And other beings also act in Andelain’s defense. The skurj are turned aside. Kastenessen is shunned. Disturbances of time dissipate.

“Andelain is preserved,” Esmer asserted frantically. “It has no need of you.”

Linden heard him with a surge of joy and despair. Andelain was safe—! If she and her companions could cross four more leagues, they, too, would be protected.

But the distance was too great. They would die on this pile of rocks. None of them would leave its crown alive.

Behind her, the ur-viles and Waynhim growled an indecipherable incantation. Her nerves felt a streak of dank power, black and vitriolic, as the loremaster produced a dagger with a blade that resembled molten iron.

One dagger. The dark lore of all the Waynhim and ur-viles combined could not make one dagger potent enough to ward Liand.

What did he hope to accomplish?

Unable to jump back quickly enough, Galesend dove under an attack; pitched herself headlong down the tearing rocks of the mound’s slope. The creature’s jaws tried to

follow her. But Mahrtiir was screaming the Seven Words. And while the beast hesitated, Stave threw rock after rock into its gullet, coercing it to swallow, and swallow again.

In that respite, Galesend regained her feet. Battered and bleeding, she plunged her sword into the monster’s hide to cut an opening. Then she shoved her arm to the shoulder into its fire. Though she cried out in pain, she probed within the skurj,seek-ing some essential organ or artery which her fingers could crush.

Coldspray seemed to hack in all directions. Cabledarm, Grueburn, and the other Giants fought like titans; delivered an avalanche of blows. Even Kindwind gave battle, kicking heavily while she clutched her severed arm to slow the bleeding. Stave and Mahrtiir and the Humbled labored everywhere, hurling rocks and interruptions.

Still monsters mounted the tor, as unrelenting as seas.

“That still isn’t an answer!” Linden shouted, nearly wailing in frustration and terror. Come on, you sick bastard! Tell me something I can use! “It doesn’t explain why you and Kastenessen and Roger,” and Sunder and Hollian, “don’t want me to go there.”

Find me, Covenant had urged her. Find me.

Remember that I’m dead.

Esmer writhed as if he were being torn apart. “Are you blind, Wildwielder?” Excoriation and horror bled from his eyes; his wounds. His shredded cymar fluttered in a kind of ecstasy. “Do you comprehend nothing? We fear you.

“We fear what you may attempt with the krill. All the Earth fears it, every discerning or lorewise being among the living and the Dead. Even those who crave the destruction of life and Time fear it. The Harrow fears it, though doubtless he will feign otherwise. We cannot perceive your purpose. We know only your grief and your great rage. Thus we are assured that your intent is dreadful beyond any estimation. It will be no mere Ritual of Desecration. With Loric’s krill, you will strive toward an end too absolute and abominable to be endured.

“Therefore you must forswear your purpose,” he finished in a harsh whisper. “If you do not, I must incur your death, though Cail’s blood in my veins demands to serve you. You will extinguish hope forever in the Earth.”

Esmer had answered her. But he gave her nothing.

And she did not believe him: not entirely. Linden, find me. She was convinced that Esmer and Kastenessen—and Roger—wanted to prevent her from reaching Thomas Covenant among the Dead.

The one Swordmain whose name she did not know went down: Linden could not tell whether she would stand again. Somehow the remaining Giants, the four Haruchai, and Mahrtiir prevented the skurj from swarming over the crest. But with each strike, their incinerating crimson fangs reached deeper among the defenders. Bhapa, Pahni, and Anele had all been scorched with fetid blood.

And Linden could not fight for them. She had no power. Esmer stood in front of her like a mute wail, quelling any possibility of wild magic.

While she reeled, helpless to save herself, helpless to save anyone, she heard a massive concussion like a crash of thunder.

She had not seen the sky grow dark; had not noticed the daylight failing until only incandescent fangs and the orcrest’s pure radiance illuminated the battle. But when raindrops splashed her face, she looked up and saw thunderheads boiling overhead.

Elsewhere there were no clouds: only the vicinity of the tor was covered in storm. Nevertheless the thunderheads were swollen and livid, flagrant with lightning and wind and violence—

—and rain.

When she spun toward Liand, saw him standing with the orcrest clenched over his head, she realized what he had done.

Stave had confirmed that the Sunstone could be used to cause weather

Liand held the Staff in the crook of his elbow. His other hand gripped the hand of the ur-vile loremaster palm to palm. Both his human skin and the loremaster’s black flesh were crusted with blood.

Oh, God, Linden thought, oh, God, remembering how the ur-viles shared their strength and clarity. The loremaster must have cut its own palm as well as Liand’s; mingled its blood with his; infused him with its weird lore and puissance.

With blood, the Demondim-spawn had shown him how to create a storm. They had made him able to do so, in spite of their own suffering in proximity to the Staff.

Rain! Water— It was a weapon. Wind and thunder and lightning meant nothing: those elemental forces could not deter the skurj.But rain—!

As soon as she understood what Liand was doing, Linden knew that he would fail. He had already surpassed all of his limits—and his Sunstone had not shattered. But no mere shower would cool or daunt the terrible fires of the skurj. He had achieved more than she could have imagined. Nevertheless he simply did not have enough power—

The Staff did not belong to him. It was hers: she had made it. Caerroil Wildwood had incised it with unfathomable implications, and had returned it to her.

Liand!” she yelled as she scrambled over the rocks toward him. “That’s brilliant! You’re brilliant!

“Give me the Staff !”

Esmer made a sound like keening or exultation; but he did not leave the mound.

She feared that Liand would not hear her. He had immersed himself utterly in his efforts; in his orcrest and her Staff and the loremaster’s blood. He may have gone beyond hearing.

But as she neared him, he unfolded his elbow to release the Staff.

Suddenly one of the monsters toppled, yowling, as if its serpentlike body had been cut in half. With a rage as loud as the massed thunder, Longwrath climbed onto the crest.

Anointed and annealed by the gore of the creature that he had slain, his flamberge steamed in the gathering fall of rain.

Without hesitation, he sprang at Linden. His great size and strength carried him toward her in three strides. His sword wheeled to send her head spinning far from the tor.

In the same instant, Stave hurled a large rock that struck the side of Longwrath’s head. The impact staggered the mad Swordmain. He missed his footing; fell involuntarily to one knee with the tip of his blade inches from Linden’s face.

Desperately Grueburn and Coldspray converged on Longwrath. Grueburn grappled for his sword-arm while Coldspray kicked him in the jaw.

Linden heard a snapping sound that may have been Longwrath’s neck; but she did not falter. She was already shouting, “Melenkurion abatha!” as she snatched the Staff from Liand. “Duroc minas mill!” At once, Earthpower and Law poured through her as though she had uncapped a geyser. “Harad khabaal!”

With every ounce of her passion and purpose, she reached for Liand’s storm. Wielding her fire like a scourge, she flailed at the rain until it become torrential.

Between heartbeats, she transformed Liand’s showers. At once, they became a downpour so heavy that she seemed to have torn open an ocean in the sky. Water pounded the stones with such force that it nearly knocked her from her feet. Everything around her was inundated, hammered, bludgeoned, as if she stood directly under the cascade of the Mithil’s Plunge.

Now there was no light at all apart from the fire of the Staff and the laval gaping of the monsters’ fangs. Liand had collapsed. The loremaster held him while a Waynhim retrieved his quenched orcrest and returned it to its pouch at his waist.

Linden could no longer hear thunder: the torrent was louder. Rain swept the voices of her companions away. Only the furious consternation of the skurj pierced the downpour. They were creatures of magma and fire, stone and earth. They would not have survived if they had been dropped into the Sunbirth Sea. The whipped weight and ferocity of Linden’s rainstorm did not kill them. But it erupted into steam in their mouths. Crimson fume burst from their teeth. Explosive gouts of superheated vapor tore at their fangs, their flesh, while their necessary heat cooled. When they swallowed, they swallowed water as if it were poison.

The sheer mass of the rain forced them to close their jaws. Then it drove them to eat their way into the ground, seeking an escape from the pummeling torrents.

Linden’s fire was all that remained to light her companions.

She could not blink fast enough to keep her vision clear. She could scarcely hold up her head. Through a cataclysm of water, she barely saw two of Longwrath’s guards

clamber onto the crest. She heard nothing while the Giants yelled at each other, making swift decisions. She was focused heart and soul on the Staff and the storm. If Esmer remained or vanished, she did not notice it. She was only distantly aware that the Waynhim and ur-viles had scattered. She had no attention left for anything except rain.

If she could sustain this downpour—

Without disturbing Linden’s concentration, Grueburn lifted her from her feet. Stonemage cradled Liand like a sleeping child. Galesend carried Anele while Cabledarm bore Pahni. Still gripping the stump of her lost arm, Kindwind squatted so that Mahrtiir could climb her back, cling to her shoulders. One of Longwrath’s guards took Bhapa. The other and Coldspray supported Longwrath between them.

Leaving one Giant dead on the peak and another presumably lost to Longwrath’s madness, the Swordmainnir and the Haruchai descended the tor in a perilous rush and ran south.


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