“To find the truth, seek the High Places.”
An uneasy peace has descended over the World Apparent. The Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom are recovering from the cataclysmic events of the Twelfth Reconquest, while in the south, the Djanki and the Sharib retreat to lick their wounds from the battle at Temple Rock. To the east, the divided Empire of Temeria is nearing the end of a long civil war, in which rival Generals have fought like mad dogs to seize the long-vacant Imperial Throne.
Sorrow leads Bail into the mountains in search of an ancient relic, escorted by the savage tribe who dwell there. Colken’s path leads him onto higher ground where he is met by someone, or something, unexpected. Meanwhile the infamous pirate, Captain Wade, has a meeting with the Raven Queen that could go either way…
Up, and further up. The Heartstones had been buried somewhere in the highest, remotest, and most inaccessible regions of the High Places, above the snow line, where even the mountain goats and snow lynxes preferred not to tread.
“It couldn’t be easy, could it?” panted Bail, though he knew it was folly to waste breath. The air was becoming lethally thin, and his lungs burned with the mere effort of expanding and contracting.
For the third time that morning he stopped and leaned against a handy tree for support. He closed his eyes, fighting against the pains in his chest and preferring not to see the contempt of his companions.
Amkur Beg had sent eight of his best warriors to accompany Bail and Sorrow on their quest for the Heartstones. Tall, rangy, lean ruffians in gray robes and goatskins with long hooked knives stuffed into their belts. They chewed and spat and scratched themselves, careless and leaning on their spears like negligent sentries after too many illicit brandies.
“These are the best I have,” said Amkur, “and will see thee safe. I cannot give more, for greater numbers might attract the attention of the other clans.”
Bail could not argue with that, and Sorrow said nothing. The boy had been very quiet since coming to the tower, watching events unfold with his bland, owlish expression. Bail was convinced that Sorrow was capable of sorcery, especially since Amkur had nearly choked to death at such an opportune moment. Bail had always felt uncomfortable in Sorrow’s presence, which was one reason he had tried to sell the boy into slavery.
Thus he set out from the tower in an uneasy state of mind, troubled by fear of knives in the dark and magical fingers clutching at his throat. A suspicious and vengeful character himself, he had no doubt that both Sadaf and Sorrow wanted to exact revenge on him, and would do so at the earliest opportunity.
“We must push on,” insisted a familiar childlike voice. Bail opened his eyes and looked wearily down at Sorrow. The boy didn’t seem affected by the altitude, and in the three days since they left the tower he had kept up a steady uncomplaining pace that impressed even the hard-bitten clansmen. By contrast, Bail feared he would soon have to be carried, even though such an admission of weakness would destroy any respect the High Bloods had for him.
Had he more energy, he would have snapped back a retort. As it was, he played for time by admiring the view. Below him the broken ground dipped steeply, leading precipitously into the heavily misted forests the party had spent days climbing out of. Rows of lesser peaks spread out far to the south, putting Bail in mind of jagged teeth or the spine of some monstrous skeleton, and brooding giants dominated the central mountain range. Green forests clung to the lower slopes of these ageless peaks like mossy growths of beard, and layers of snow and ice crystals shimmered at their peaks.
“Come, we have no time to stop and stare,” Sorrow said irritably, plucking at the hem of Bail’s jacket. The boy trotted away, clambering up the loose shale and pebbles as nimbly as a mountain goat. Sadaf and his warriors followed in silence, though one or two glanced sideways at Bail. He took a moment longer to gather himself for another effort, and then trudged after them, sucking in lungfuls of the thin air and breathing slowly.
“Three days,” Bail managed to croak. “Three days. That is all I give you.”