Dragonrank master, p.1

Dragonrank Master, page 1

 

Dragonrank Master
 



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Dragonrank Master


  Dragonrank Master

  Bifrost 03

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  CONTENT

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  MAP

  Prologue

  Part 1: Hel's Mistress

  Chapter 1: Hel's Hall

  Chapter 2: Hel's Gate

  Chapter 3: Hel's Hound

  Part 2: The Masters of Midgard

  Chapter 4: Master Thief

  Chapter 5: Schoolmaster

  Chapter 6: Master of Illusion

  Chapter 7: Swordmaster

  Chapter 8: Masters of the Mind

  Chapter 9: Master of Fate

  Chapter 10: Mastering War

  Chapter 11: Master Plan

  Part III: The Dragonrank Master

  Chapter 12: Geirmagnus

  Chapter 13: Master of Time

  Epilogue

  DEDICATION

  In loving memory: To Gertrude Reichert and Ryan Boyles, as promised.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  To all those deserving who were inadvertently forgotten: D.J. Miller, R. Douglas, and S. Davis who encouraged and fueled my imagination; also Cindy and Melissa Mosko who kept the sparks alive.

  To Dave Hartlage for effort above and beyond the call of duty; James Hoffman and the Beths, Nachison and Hudson, who helped more than they know. To Arthur, Sandra, Steve, and Tal Zucker, Laura Newman, and Evelyn Migdol (you all know why). To Captain Kevin Ran-dle who spared an hour (the equivalent of 8V2 of his manuscript pages) to take me back to Vietnam—again.

  And, as always, to Sheila Gilbert who accepts nothing short of the best… and deserves it, too.

  But mostly, I would like to thank Tim Larson, once a bold lunatic who could never pass up a challenge, now a yuppie in suburbia.

  MAP

  PROLOGUE

  Northern winds battered a mud-chinked log longhouse in Kiarrmar, carrying the promise of a fierce Scandinavian winter. Inside, Taziar Medakan huddled beneath his bearskin cloak, a stranger to Norway's fouler weather. The cards in his small, callused fist felt brittle. He studied the faces of his four Viking companions and smiled as Kolbyr Hansson threw his cards to the rickety table which served as the only piece of furniture. Four pairs of grim, blue eyes settled on Taziar.

  Ignoring the Vikings' stares, Taziar shook a comma of black hair from his eyes. He flicked cards from his hand to the table in groups. "Two Vikings, two kings, and three dragons." He looked up. "Guess I win again." Leaning forward, he swept a pile of coins from the center of the table into a larger stack before him.

  Kolbyr went silent. To his left, Torben grunted. Bothi muttered a phrase to Hamar which Taziar could not decipher. He had spent a harried month learning the Norwegian tongue from barbarian friends in Sweden. Bothi's accent and civilized dialect rendered his words unintelligible, but their intention seemed all too clear. Suddenly, Taziar felt acutely aware of being the shortest man in the room by a full head and the lightest by again his own weight. Irony seared through him. Eight years a thief in Cullinsberg and I'm going to get killed for winning a card game honestly. He rose. "Friends, your Fates were kind to me today…"

  Torben opened his mouth to speak.

  Taziar dropped formality and finished in a rush. "It's not much fun spending money alone. Anyone for dinner and drinks? I'll buy."

  A tense hush followed Taziar's invitation. The Cullinsbergen waited expectantly, his hand sliding near the sword at his hip. He could never hope to best even one of the huge warriors before him, but he knew a display of crazed boldness might be his only means of regaining the Vikings' favor. He seized his hilt and twisted his face into a feigned snarl of offense. "Too good to drink with me?" His words rang with challenge, yet his eyes measured the distance to the door.

  Bothi growled. His sword rattled from its sheath, spinning wild highlights through the longhouse.

  Taziar held his breath and his ground. He kept his expression unreadable, but sweat spangled his brow.

  Hamar clapped a palm to Bothi's shoulder. "Enough. You've always preferred drinking to fighting. Don't begrudge the little man his winnings when he's offered to spend them on us, eh?" He gave Taziar a reassuring half smile. "Besides, Bothi, he'd probably kill you. Then you'd be embarrassed."

  Hamar's logic was lost on Taziar, but it seemed to calm Bothi. Hostility vanished beneath a rush of camaraderie. Bothi sheathed his weapon. Hamar opened the door, and the Norsemen filed through the portal into a snow-blanketed forest of evergreens. With practiced skill, Taziar flicked a handful of gold coins into his pocket and swept the remainder of his winnings into the pouch at his belt. From habit, he paused to pull his cloak more tightly about the black linen shirt and britches which had become his trademark from his days as a master thief, known as the Shadow Climber, in the southern barony of Cullinsberg. Though less fierce than the squalls farther north, the cold winds bit at Taziar unmercifully. He followed his companions, pulling the door closed behind them.

  As Taziar wound through stands of pine, he recalled easier days among innocent Swedish barbarians to whom kindness and honesty came as naturally as breathing. As a thief from one of the most decadent baronies on the continent, Taziar found the barbarians' way of life a comfortable change. Yet, soon he had become bored by its simple perfection. He had no wish to deceive trusting barbarians who were also friends, and his keen mind seemed dulled from disuse. His body craved the rushes of elation inspired by outwitting men and obtaining the impossible. So Taziar had traveled to Norway, seeking Astryd, the woman he loved. She was a sorceress, forced to spend eleven months of each year, without visitors, at the Dragonrank school. Older, more experienced men than Taziar deemed the wizards' training grounds impenetrable. But the immensity of the challenge served only to fuel Taziar's interest. En route to Astryd, Taziar had passed eagerly through Scandinavia's more civilized lands only to find that most of its citizens were only poor farmers. Since his arrival in the town of Kiarrmar, Taziar had uncovered nothing more exciting than a card game called g'mish.

  The forest broke to a plain crusted with frost and crisscrossed by boot tracks. Less than ten strides ahead of Taziar and his Viking companions, a rainbow rose like a column from the earth. Its multicolored bands arched across the clearing, their farther ends obscured by distance. Highlights of red, yellow, and blue winked like gems from the delicate lace of ice. Taziar gasped in awe. "Aga'arin's fat priest! I've never seen a rainbow end!" In the past day, he had noticed neither rain nor snow to explain its striking magnificence. It seemed too solidly real, more like a structure than the illusion of light he knew it must be. He crept tentatively toward it. The archway quivered in the breeze, obviously no work of man.

  Kolbyr slapped his legs, speaking between low-pitched snickers. "Small man, small brain." He held up a hand and spread his thumb and forefinger slightly.

  The Norsemen howled.

  Shocked by his companions' levity, Taziar whirled. His face flushed scarlet. A month in a village without cruelty had made him careless. He had forgotten the heated pain of ridicule.

  Gradually, the Norsemen's laughter subsided. Bothi gasped for breath. "Little dolt calls the Bifrost Bridge a rainbow.'' This inspired a fresh wave of mirth at Taziar's expense.

  Taziar scowled. His gaze followed the perfect sweep of the rainbow bridge. In his youth, he had run with a gang of street orphans. The experience had ingrained the need to preserve self-dignity, to remain collected and in control at all times. To lose face before a group of unforgiving rogues was to become outcast, to lose the shared companionship, food, and plunder, and, perhaps, to lose one's life. Taziar's slightness had made him even more sensitive to humiliation. Now, he struggled to regain his composure and the Vikings' respect. "Bridge?"
he asked, hoping the brevity of his question would keep him from sacrificing the Norsemen's attention to another round of searing laughter.

  Hamar fought a smile. "The Bifrost links our man world, Midgard, with Asgard, the realm of gods." He fidgeted. "Let's go now. I think we've paused here long enough."

  Taziar chewed his lip, intrigued by Hamar's obvious discomfort. Suddenly, the promise of adventure beckoned, reminding him of past feats which had earned him his pseudonym and his reputation: the boasts of youthful companions which inspired him to climb the highest, slickest walls architects could design; the theft of the greatest artifact of the baron's church which condemned him to Cullinsberg's dungeon, brutal torture, and a sentence of execution; and the lure of the impenetrable Dragonrank school grounds. "What's it like across the bridge?"

  Kolbyr stared incredulously. "Across it?"

  Bothi's voice acquired a patronizing tone. "You call yourself a climber, Shadow. Why don't you find out?" He smirked, glancing at his companions for encouragement, but the other Vikings became strangely silent.

  Hamar seized Bothi's forearm with a hand as large and furred as a bear's paw. His gray eyes went cold and all amusement left them. "We're here to spend Shadow's money, not get him killed by gods." He addressed Taziar directly. "You can't cross the Bifrost Bridge. No mortal can."

  Excitement coursed through Taziar. As he had so many times before, he accepted Kolbyr's dismissal as a challenge. Boldly, he approached the end of the rainbow and laid a hand on the blue-hued upper band. It swayed beneath his touch, but its substance felt real and solid, like a thinly hammered strip of steel. "It seems firm enough."

  A lofty shout of indignation suffixed Taziar's assessment. He turned. The Vikings were staring up the colored bands, their pallid faces etched with horror. What could be terrible enough to frighten battle-mad pirates? Apprehension prickled the edges of Taziar's consciousness. He followed the direction of his companions' gazes. A huge figure shuffled toward them on the Bifrost Bridge; distance blurred it to a moving mass of whiteness. The rainbow shivered beneath each footfall. "Who?" asked Taziar carefully, his gaze locked on the approaching form.

  Kolbyr inched forward and clamped fear-rigid fingers on Taziar's forearm. "Heimdallr," he whispered.

  "Heimdallr," Hamar echoed. He took a shuddering backstep.

  Even Bothi, who would as soon kill a man as acknowledge his presence, remained frozen, his features twisted in alarm. "The Guardian of the Bifrost."

  Taziar had seen a similar expression only once, on the face of an acolyte to Aga'arin before the insane, young priest swore he had looked upon his god. Superstitious awe. Taziar snorted. Cullinsberg's temples existed only to wring money from the pious to fill the coffers for their self-indulgent clergy. What is it about man's nature which forces him to invent gods? And what is it about the gods he invents which makes him panic in their presence? Taziar had asked himself the question too many times to ponder its significance now. He nudged Kolbyr. "If you fear him, why don't you run now, before he reaches us?"

  Kolbyr's fingernails gouged Taziar's flesh. His terror seemed tangible. "No good," he panted. "Heimdallr sees a hundred leagues in front of him and as well by night as day. He knows who we are."

  Torben finished the description in the routine monotone of a well-versed holy man. "He can hear grass growing and the wool on sheep and everything that makes more noise."

  Heimdallr's muscled form drew closer.

  Painfully, Taziar pulled free of Kolbyr's death grip. He waved his companions silent in the unlikely event they were correct about Heimdallr's acutely developed senses. Taziar had never found a reason to believe in gods, but until he crossed the sea to Scandinavia's strange lands, he had never accepted the existence of sorcerers, pirates, or rainbow bridges either.

  Heimdallr's descent seemed to span an eternity. The Vikings stood in quiet awe. And as Heimdallr finally reached the edge of the Bifrost Bridge, Taziar realized the man/god's size had created the illusion of closeness and it explained why his approach appeared to take so long. Heimdallr towered over even the largest Viking. Gold-red curls swarmed his scalp and chin framing angry, gray eyes, a straight nose, and ruddy cheeks. A chain about his neck held an ornately-crafted horn.

  Taziar read power and strength in every line of Heimdallr's frame. He stepped forward, aware his atheistic perspective would put him in the best position to bargain.

  "What is it you wish?" As Heimdallr spoke, he flashed teeth of glowing gold.

  Doubt suffused Taziar. Surely no normal man would guard a rainbow nor have a mouthful of sculpted metal. Taziar questioned his own concern. And what difference if he is a god? He recalled the huge chunks of time priests spent in prayer, glorifying deities with flowery words. A man who believes himself divine will fall easy victim to praise. He adopted his most humble expression. "Lord Heimdallr, forgive me. I am a stranger to this country. Yet tales of your greatness have spread even across the Kattegat to my people. I begged my new friends to bring me to this spot. Ignorant of the consequences, I leaned against the Bifrost. Please accept my sincere apologies and this offering to your magnificence. I assure you I shall not repeat the accident." He knelt as if before royalty, pulled the pouch of coins from his belt, and offered it to Heimdallr.

  Amusement colored the white god's features. He took the sack in one beefy hand and, without examining its contents, secured it to his own wide sash. "Thank you, little man, for your dramatic performance and your money." Turning on one booted heel, he tramped back up the Bifrost Bridge.

  Heimdallr's easygoing manner left Taziar slack-jawed with astonishment. As the god disappeared into the distance, the Vikings regained their arrogant courage. Bothi opened his mouth, but Taziar waved him silent until Heimdallr had sauntered well beyond the range of his legendary vision and hearing. In the time which passed, all surprise abandoned Taziar, leaving him feeling cheated. The anticipation of matching wits with a god had raised an excitement which could be quenched by nothing less than a noteworthy achievement.

  Bothi sputtered. "You stupid little insect! You gave away enough gold to feed a village."

  Taziar's blue eyes narrowed. While you stood like a panicked rabbit, too afraid to move or speak. He kept this thought to himself, still not crazy enough to do battle with four trained warriors. In his thieving days, the Shadow Climber had donated his stolen proceeds to the needy, the thrill of risking his life and achieving the impossible his only reward. Bothi's concern for a bagful of money seemed illogical to Taziar. "A single battle will earn you all twice as much." An idea came to him suddenly, and he whirled to face the Vikings' glares. "It was my money, but if it means so much to you I will happily retrieve it."

  "Retrieve it?" Kolbyr shook his head, obviously attributing Taziar's word choice to difficulties with their language. "You mean replace it."

  Taziar circled the Bifrost Bridge, studying it from every angle. He recalled, from his touch, that the three-tiered rainbow was unsteady; it quivered in the stronger breezes. Yet his fingers had detected irregularities in its surface. Some lofty architect had constructed it of blocks of an unknown material, chunks of light perhaps. And Taziar knew from experience that anything composed of parts would have cracks between, no matter how careful or divine its crafter. "No," he said slowly. "I will retrieve it. I will climb the rainbow and return your gold to the last insignificant chip."

  Bothi snickered. "And we'll wait and watch while Heimdallr casually tosses your broken corpse from the bridge."

  Hamar explained. "Heimdallr serves as watchman of the gods. It's his job to keep mortals and giants from Asgard. He fathered the races of men, so he can forgive your touch and, perhaps, even a few steps onto the bridge. But I doubt Heimdallr will carry the gold all day. To retrieve it, you will have to sneak past him and into his hall on Asgard. To do that, my friend, you will need to be less than a shadow and more than a climber."

  Kolbyr examined Taziar's face, apparently seeking to determine the seriousness of the smaller man
's boast. "Heimdallr will see and hear you the instant you stand on his bridge."

  Taziar smiled, enjoying the Vikings' attention. "Hear me, perhaps. But I believe your precise description was that Heimdallr sees a hundred leagues in front of him and as well by night as day. Is that not so?"

  "That's what the legends say."

  "Then," said Taziar, crossing around and ducking beneath the rainbow until he could see only the lowest, red band, "I will have to approach from beneath him." He slipped off his boots, sacrificing their warmth for the necessary gripping power and sensory input his bare toes could provide. Soon, exertion would make him forget the cold. With practiced skill, he caught handholds in the all but invisible seams of the structure and swung his feet so his soles rested on the undersurface of the Bifrost Bridge. The band shivered slightly. Knowing the movement would summon Heimdallr, Taziar spoke in a rapid whisper. "Leave now. I'll meet you at the longhouse. For my sake and your own, say nothing to anyone." With that warning, he turned full concentration to the arching band of light above him. Quietly, deliberately, he worked his upside-down way along the bottom edge of the Bifrost Bridge.

  An hour passed without sight or sound of Heimdallr. The superficiality of the Bifrost's crevices forced Taziar to concentrate upon them to the exclusion of everything else. His ardor remained, undulled and untainted. By the subtle upward arc of his course, he could tell his journey was still in its infancy, though the ground lay more than a league beneath him. He shook a cramp from his right hand and realized Heimdallr's presence might prove the least of his problems.

  Another two hours' climb, and Heimdallr's voice boomed across the rainbow strands. "Is someone here? Identify yourself now, or I shall be forced to kill you."

  Taziar slowed his ascent to a crawl. He felt the bridge shudder as the white god shifted position, presumably to block the passage of an invisible foe. Obviously, Heimdallr never even considered the idea that a man might be capable of climbing the underside of the Bifrost. Taziar dragged his aching limbs onward, beginning to understand why.

 
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