Bullets hammered the north wall of the last redoubt, Akard's communications center. Mortars crumped. Their bombs banged deafeningly. Bullets leaking through the two small north windows had made a shambles of the communications gear.
Marika had done what she could to stem the nomad tide, and she had failed. She had only two regrets: that her pack, the Degnan, would go into the darkness unMourned, and that for her there would be no journey to the Reugge cloister at Maksche. For her there would be no next step on the road that might have led to the stars.
The hammer of savage weapons rose to an insane crescendo. The nomads were closing in for the last kill. Then the uproar ended. Braydic, the communications technician, whimpered into the sudden silence, "Now they will come."
Marika nodded. The last minutes had arrived. The inevitable end of the siege had come.
Marika did something never done before. She hugged the only surviving members of her pack, the huntresses Grauel and Barlog. The scent of fear was heavy upon their rough fur.
Pups of the upper Ponath packs hugged no one but their dams, and that seldom after the first few years.
The two huntresses were touched deeply.
Grauel turned to the tradermale Bagnel, who was teaching her to operate a firearm. His comrade, last of those who had survived last week's fall of the tradermale packfast Critza, had fallen defending one of the north windows. Someone had to hold that against the savages. Grauel's heavy spear was too unwieldy.
"Wait!" Marika gasped. Her jaw went slack. "Something ... "
The universe of the touch, the ghost plane into which silth like Marika ducked to work their witchery, had gone mad. Some mighty shadow, terrible in its power, was raging up the valley of the Hainlin River, which this last bastion of the fortress Akard overlooked. For a moment Marika was paralyzed by the power of that shadow. Then she flung herself to a south-facing window.
Three great daggerlike crosses stormed up the frozen river. They drove into the fangs of the wind in a rigid V. That fierce and dreadful shadow-of-touch preceded them, flaying the mind with terror. Upon each cross stood five black-clad silth, one at each tip of each arm, the fifth at the axis. The incessant north wind howled around them and tore at their dark robes. They seemed to notice it not at all.
"They are coming," Marika shouted to Grauel and Barlog, who crowded her against the windowsill.
An explosion thundered out behind them. It threw them together. Marika gasped for breath. Grauel turned, pointed her rifle. It barked in unison with that of the tradermale Bagnel as savages appeared in the dust swirling in the gap created by the explosion.
Marika clung to the windowsill, looking out, waiting for death.
The rushing crosses rose as they neared Akard, screaming into lightly falling snow, parting. Marika slipped through her loophole into the realm of ghosts and followed them as they plunged toward the attacking nomads, spreading death and terror.
Grauel and Bagnel stopped firing. The nomads had fled the breach. In minutes the entire besieging horde was in full flight. Two of the flying crosses harried the savages northward. The third returned and hovered over the confluence of the forks of the Hainlin, above which Akard brooded on a high headland.
Akard's pawful of survivors crowded the window, staring in disbelief. Help had come. After so long a wait. In the penultimate moment, help had come.
The cross drifted closer till the tip of its longest arm touched the fortress on the level above the communications center. Marika pushed weariness aside and went to meet her rescuers. She was only fourteen, as yet far from being a full silth sister, but was the senior silth surviving. The only silth surviving. Through eyes hazed with fatigue and reaction, she vaguely recognized the dark figure which came to meet her. It was Zertan, senior of the Reugge Community's cloister at Maksche.
It looked like she would get to see the great city in the south after all.
A moment after she had fulfilled the necessary ceremonial obsequiences, exhaustion overtook her. She collapsed into the arms of Grauel and Barlog.
Marika wakened after the fading of the light. She found herself perched precariously upon the flying cross. In one hasty glance she saw that she shared the strange craft with the other survivors of Akard. Grauel and Barlog were as near her as they could get-as they always were. Bagnel was next nearest. He rewarded her with a cheerful snarl as her gaze passed over him. Communicator Braydic seemed to be in shock.
The wind seemed almost still as the cross ran with it. To the left and below, the ruins of Bagnel's home, Critza, appeared. "No bodies anymore," Marika observed.
In a hard, low voice, Bagnel said, "The nomads feed upon their dead. The grauken rules the Ponath." The grauken, the monster lying so close beneath the surface of every meth. The archetypal terror of self with which every meth was intimately familiar.
The Maksche senior eyed Bagnel, then Marika from her standing place upon the axis of the cross. She pointed skyward. "It will get worse before it gets better. The grauken may rule the entire world. It comes on us with the age of ice."
Marika looked skyward, trying to forget the dust cloud that was absorbing her sun's power and cooling her world. She tried to concentrate on the wonder of the moment, to take joy in being alive, to forget the horror of the past, of losing first the pack with which she had lived her first ten years, then the silth packfast where she had lived and trained the past four. She tried to banish the terror lurking in her future.
Jiana! Doomstalker! Twice!
The voice in her mind was the voice of a ghost. She could not make it go away.
The hills of the Ponath gave way to plains. The snowfall faded. And the flying cross fled with the breath of the north wind licking behind.
IIFor months Marika had seen nothing but overcast skies. Always the bitter north wind had been present, muttering of even colder times to come. But now the gale could not catch her. She mocked it quietly.
Cracks began to show in the cloud cover. One moon, then another, peeped through, scattering the white earth with silver.
"Hello, strangers," Marika said.
The response startled Marika, for she had been enclosed entirely within herself, unmindful of her bizarre situation. "I was greeting the moons, Grauel. Look. There is Biter. One of the small moons is running behind her. I cannot tell which. I do not care. I am just glad to see them. How long has it been?"
The huntress shifted her weapon and position gingerly. It was a long fall to the frozen river. "Too long. Too many months." Sorrow edged Grauel's voice. "Hello, moons."
Soon Chaser, the second large moon, showed its face too, so that shadows below looked like many-fingered paws.
"Look there!" Marika said. "A lake. Open water." She too had not seen unfrozen water in months.
Grauel would not look down. She clung to their transport with a death grip.
Marika glanced around.
Five strangers, five friends. All astride a metal cross the shape of a dagger, running with the wind a thousand feet above the earth and snow. Grauel and Barlog, known since birth. Bagnel, known only months, strange, withdrawn, yet with the aroma of someone who could become very close. At that moment she decided he would become an integral part of her destiny.
Marika was silth. The Akard sisters had called her the most powerful talent ever to be unearthed in the upper Ponath. Sometimes the strongest silth caught flashes intimating tomorrow.