THE FIREHILLS OF ORLAND
Kelber gripped the worked-iron rail of the balcony and looked west toward the treeless peak twelve miles distant. Above the firehill an ominous sienna glow crept upward; highly-heated air melted an ever-growing hole in the milk-white clouds curdling that portion of Orland's skies.
"Vol Dorend's about to burst again," the boy said sourly. He glanced down at the formal gardens flanking the greathouse, where servitors still worked at cleaning up after the previous night's festivities. "What a way to celebrate the first day of my sixteenth year."
"But fitting." The deep-timbred voice came from the inner recesses of the room at Kelber's back. "You were born on the eve of another of Vol Dorend's extravasations."
The words brought Kelber's gaze to the crosshatch of fine white lines that scarred the under sides of both wrists, and he wondered yet again why the birthaide had tried to kill him only hours after he was born. Driven mad by the firehills, some said. If so, the vols had claimed her, for she had fled to them and never returned.
The milch cows suddenly flung up their heads, lifted their ropy tails and crow-hopped about. An instant later, the tremor passed under Lord Maygor's greathouse. The firedbrick building swayed on its foundation of cross-placed limbercane. The morning-tea crockery rattled, pictures and mirrors skewed on their gold-tasseled hangers, but the dwelling stood firm, as it had for hundreds of similar shakes.
Kelber clenched his hands into fists and pressed them against his temples. His black hair, cut short in the fashion of the kingdom of Bodwyn, was thick and curly, like soft springs under his knuckles.
"It's been only six months, Patra," he said. "Vol Dorend convolsed on the same day the Non sent that storm over the southern kingdoms of Prand."
A whippet of November wind brought a faint sulphurous odor belched from the firehill. Wrinkling his nose, Kelber turned his back on the vol, and in a few strides faced his father in the study. The older man sat behind a ponderous walnut-wood desk, the lordshare's considerable paperwork spread before him. His smoke-gray hair, short but not curly, softened a square face, florid almost to the color of his chair's red-leather upholstery.
All of Orland's peoples were rosy-skinned, but Lord Maygor's complexion was ruddier than most. Unlike many of Bodwyn's lords, he spent a great deal of time administering out-of-house duties, and his skin had long ago taken on the deep red glow of the land he owned.
"How much more of this can Orland take?" Kelber's eyes darkened with anger. Gold rings that circled the pupil and the cyan-blue iris glowed; gold flecks sprinkled in the blue-green glittered. "You said yourself it's getting worse every year. That when you were a boy, these disgorgements came five or seven years apart. Now they're only that many months apart. There must be something we can do."
Leaning across the desk, Lord Maygor tapped cherry-scented ashes into a receptacle and set the pipe in its holder. "If only I could get in touch with King Emmil..."
"Drecka!" The expletive, even though mild, was so unlike Kelber that Maygor winced.
"Where is Orland's First Loyal anyway?" the young noble cried. "We haven't seen evidence of him for over two years. Is he hiding from the Non? Why can't our King Emmil be like Prand's King Neel? He fought the Non and stopped the world from crumbling."
"He had two Second Loyals to help him," Maygor reminded his son. "King Emmil has no one."
"Whose fault is that?" Kelber flung himself into a chair opposite the old lord's desk. "Surely the Eternal One would allow him to father children, just as Prand's First Loyal has done. I don't think Emmil wants any offspring. I think he's afraid they might have more power than he does."
"From what our spies have gleaned, even King Neel had to call on the One for strength enough to save Prand."
"Then why can't our First Loyal do the same? Why can't he ask for help to put out these infernal fires."
Lord Maygor shook his head. "You are so young, Kelber. Things are not always as simple as they seem. King Emmil is a keeper of the land, not an owner of it. As intermediary between the Eternal One and Orland's peoples, he will ask for help in controlling the firehills only when he perceives that the majority of Orlandians want him to. At present, they do not." He reached out and set to rights the cups chattered off their saucers by the recent groundshake.
"I do not," he went on. "My lordshare is as close to the firehills as the law allows, and you know the reason. My vineyards yield twice as many crates of grapes per acre as those in Deltarn, for example."
Kelber had accompanied his father once to Deltarn, the southernmost of the continent's five kingdoms. Vegetation was greener there, but the soil so far away from the firehills was not nearly as nutrient-rich as that of Bodwyn, or Tiagelle, its neighboring kingdom.
Another tremor rocked the greathouse. Lord Maygor reached to pick up the mouthpiece of the brass tube that hung from a clamp on the wall behind his desk. The device led from his study to the servitor area on the main floor, and that end of the tube was always attended. "All vol procedures are now in effect," the old lord said into the mouthpiece. "And have a stablehand bring around two horses to the equipment room door." He glanced at Kelber. "You are riding out with me, aren't you? Or would you rather accompany the rest of the household to the safechambers?"
Kelber rose. "I'll go with you, of course. I can't stand being cooped up, just waiting."
Followed by his youngest son, Lord Maygor left the study and tramped down the worn brick steps. Upon arising, Kelber had dressed in lightweight woolen riding clothes; his father was similarly attired. In the equipment room, they tied gauze kerchiefs around their necks and donned the steel helmets and vests any wise man wore when an extravasation threatened. The two heavy-boned horses waiting outside were outfitted with burlap nose coverings, head protectors and metalcloth caparisons. It wouldn't prevent injury from the occasional larger projectile, but did protect against the searing-hot rock chips that sometimes fell like hailstones.
Father and son accepted their mounts' reins from the complacent stablehand.
"Thank you, Aldrin," Lord Maygor said, as he swung up on one of the great gray beasts. "Now get yourself to the safechamber."
"Aye, Milord." Aldrin touched two fingers to his right brow and turned to amble toward the opening of a cottage-sized earthen mound, a half-dozen paces from the east wall of the firedbrick greathouse.
Kelber grimaced. What his father had said was true. Most Orlandians—even those living near the firehills—accepted the eruptions as a way of life.
The animals, however, did not. The chickens had already gone to roost, heads tucked under wings. The pigs were snout-first into one end of the sty. The herd of milch cows, moon-eyed and stiff-legged, shifted from stone fence to stone fence, like a school of shadow-startled minnows. They'd give little milk tonight.
Vol Dorend's outburst seemed imminent. The firehill coughed red smoke and shuddered its massive shoulders. South and north, its fellows sat silent, their own fires smoldering far below the surface. From the road he and his father followed, Kelber could see Vol Tor and Vol Ferna. There were others, not within sight of Maygor's lordshare.
Why couldn't Orland have had trees at its Crown, like that great land mass called Prand that lay east across the sea? It was a question Kelber had asked many times and no one had an answer. Had the Eternal One turned his back on the world's lesser continent after creating it? Or had the Non—that everlasting antithesis of the One—corrupted it to suit his own designs?
They rode into the open courtyard of the subshare closest to the greathouse. Lord Maygor reined his horse toward the safechamber. "All hands accounted for?"
From behind a heavy wooden door came a muffled reply. "All here, Milord."
The period of enforced rest was no doubt appreciated. When the eruption was over, the sharehands would have plenty to do. While some took the sprinkler wagons into the fields to wash the worst of the ash off the grape leaves, the rest would ride patrol on the lordshare's borders to keep the gem gleaners from intruding on private property. By law they were allowed to pick rocks only on the openlands. But besides that, if any precious stones were found, they belonged to the lordshare—with the sharehand who found them receiving a quarter of their value, of course.
The lord prodded his horse into a canter and rode on, Kelber at his heels. Ash clouds had supplanted the milky white ones. Through them the sun shone hazy green. The land lay bathed in a sallow glow that furthered the yellow of the November-brown grasses and dulled the red of the few leaves remaining on the russet maples.
A shift of wind brought the stinking sulphur smell. Kelber lifted the kerchief from around his neck and tied it in place to cover his nose and mouth. Another groundshake rolled under them. The horses stumbled. Even after years of training and under practiced hands, the animals still exhibited fright. They crabbed and shied, emitting little snorts and squeals.
"Patra." Kelber was hard put to keep the unease out of his voice. "Let's go home."
They didn't really need to check all the subshares. The sharehands knew what to do. It was only the lord's strong sense of proprietorship that sent him out each time one of the nearby firehills convolsed.
And, Kelber suspected, the excitement of seeing the eruption. On more than one occasion he had crept out of the safechamber and joined his father atop the earthmound. His older brothers, Har-Maygor and Trendarmon, had little curiosity about the events, having seen enough of them. His sister Fye usually became hysterical, which at least kept his mother busy and not looking for him.
Sometimes the extravasation happened at night. Then it was terrifyingly beautiful. Great streams of fire flowed up into the dark sky and fell back on themselves like red fountains. At their bases, splashes of scarlet bubbled and leapt, shattered into droplets of carmine as they faded. Once he'd seen molten rock dribble down the side of the hill, its flaming surface pinking the feathered clouds sucked toward the heaving caldera.
Occasionally one of the firehills would throw rocks large enough to maim or kill livestock, but mostly the vols just spewed fire, small rocks and immense clouds of dust-fine ash. The heat burned the moisture out of the air. The ash particles turned sepia every leaf of the maples, every needle of the coned trees, every blade of the field grass. It grayed the red-tiled roof of the greathouse and scummed the waters of the ponds.
For weeks the area might be plagued with wind, and spatters of liquid mud. If rain did not come, King Emmil would coax clouds from the Great Sea to wash away the mud and dust. The land would bloom and prosper. Then just when the last rocks had been plucked from the crop fields and the last grains of ash washed from the grapevines, another firehill would disgorge its spite.
The never-ending cycle of destruction and recovery wore on Kelber. The little-boy excitement he'd once felt was gone. He looked toward Vol Dorend now with anger in his eye and hatred in his heart.
A rumbling began in the firehill's belly. It rolled across the harvested croplands, reverberated off the small stands of needletrees, sifted through the nearly naked branches of the maples and oaks and beeches.
"Here it comes," Lord Maygor said, his eyes riveted on Vol Dorend as if entranced.
A massive column of fire rose from the vol's mouth.
"Let's go, Patra," Kelber urged again, trepidation building within him. "This time, it's flinging rocks." His mount sidled and snorted. He reined it around toward the limited shelter of a copse of needletrees two miles away across a field of barley stubble.
"Yes," Lord Maygor said faintly and pulled his gaze from the awesome sight.
The first of the rocks, no bigger than walnuts, pattered around them like hail. Kelber drove his heels into the horse's flanks and lashed its shoulders with the rein ends. The frightened animal sprang forward, not really in need of such urging. As they raced across the field, rocks the size of needletree cones mixed with the smaller projectiles. One hit Kelber's mount a glancing blow on the head. The metal protector saved it from serious injury, but the animal staggered and went to its knees.
Kelber pitched forward. The pommel grip punched his stomach, expelled his breath and left his head reeling. As the horse lurched to its feet, righting Kelber in the saddle, his nose smashed against the short-cropped mane. Blood spurted over his face.
Lord Maygor swept past as his son's mount fell. He sawed on the reins and jerked his horse around to come back for Kelber. The sudden reversal loosed his helmet. It slipped back a little, revealing his sweat-sheened brow.
"I'm all right!" Kelber shouted, wiping his face with his sleeve. "Go!"
From above came the peculiar whistling sound some fissured rocks emitted as they fell. Maygor looked up. As if released from an aimed sling, the fist-sized rock slammed into the old lord's forehead. The force of the blow carried him backward over the horse's rump.
"Patra!" Kelber screamed and flung himself from his mount's back.
Though slight of build, panic leant him strength. With his arms locked around the heavier man's chest, Kelber dragged his father backward toward the copse. He glanced over his shoulder. The terrified horses had already disappeared into the sheltering trees. The distance, which had not seemed so great on horseback, now was dreadfully far. Rocks of various sizes continued to fall, bruising his hands and arms. In an agony of frustration, Kelber closed his eyes and envisioned the spreading limbs of the trees above their heads.
He stumbled over a root and fell, his father's limp form dragging against his legs. Kelber looked up, astonished that he had reached the needletree copse so quickly. The rockfall had diminished. The spreading boughs of the coned trees diverted the few remaining projectiles. Lightning flashed inside the ash cloud. The wind turned, no longer carrying the stink of the vol's breath. Kelber pulled down the kerchief, drew in a deep, shuddering gulp of air and forced himself to look at his father's wound.
For an instant his heart forgot to beat. Gorge rose in his throat. His father's forehead was a pulpy, bloody mass. A strangled cry pushed through Kelber's shock-numbed lips. "No! No, Eternal One! Please, no!"
He lifted his head, his soul reaching, begging. But beyond the yellow-tinged needles of the cone trees was only the pallor of a sky sick with foaming clouds of dust.
Closing his eyes, Kelber cradled his father's head against his shoulder. He could not bear to look again on that strong face, that crushed skull that had held all the knowledge of Maygor lands, all the memories of a gentle wife, three fine sons and a blossoming daughter. Could not look again into the gray eyes, filigreed with scarlet, staring toward the erupting firehill.
Overwhelming grief followed shock. It lay leaden hands on Kelber's heart, weighted his soul. He took hold of the broad square hands that had guided his when drawing a bow, pressed his cheek against the face that had come alight at his excellence in academics, strained to hear once more the deep voice shouting instructions on horsemanship.
Gone. The hand was limp, the face growing cold, the voice stilled. All the strength, encouragement, comfort, love—everything that had made Maygor the gentle, decent man he was—gone in an instant of red hate spewed by a firehill. Kelber pulled his father's body tighter against his chest and wept. While tears tracked his cheeks, mounting sorrow fanned the fires of rage within him until they burned as hot as the flames that leapt from Vol Dorend.
"Patra, Patra." Whispered words escaped between wracking sobs. "I swear...I swear...I'll put an end...to this curse."