Prologue

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For a long while the darkness had been absolute. The gradual paling into charcoal grey was so slow as to be almost imperceptible.

The silence slowly melted into less-than-silence; it was some time before Mishka became aware of a sound like a gentle breeze – a breeze that was rhythmical, regular. It was slightly longer still before he recognised it as the sound of something – something very big – breathing.

The faint light that diluted the darkness seemed to have no particular source – it was simply present. In the absence of real shadows, the deep shadow at the far side of the huge stone vault of the cavern, some fifty feet from where Mishka sat, began to assume some significance.

Mishka stayed very still. He had chosen this deepest, darkest spot in the cave system in which to hide, secure in the knowledge that nothing and no-one would be here. The realisation that something was sharing the cave with him crept slowly over him like a chill prickling on his skin.

He stretched four of his five unfeelable senses to their limits.

The deeper shadow over there in the darkness was too indistinct to be given a shape – it was simply a deeper shadow with the vaguest of outlines, a vast bulk of blackness.

The breathing was slow – very slow. The lungs must be huge to contain that volume of air, thought Mishka, listening to that slow rhythm.

He closed his eyes and flared his nostrils, scenting – and tasting – the air of the cave. Mingled through the old, clean, neutral smell of the rock and the dust was a faint musky smell – somewhat reptilian in character. In a subtler way, it was reminiscent of the great snake-caves near Nahrsalk.

At the thought of Nahrsalk, Mishka trembled. Grief struck deeply through him at the loss of a mentor, a friend, a soulmate whom he had thought could never be lost. His fingers rested on the hilt of the sword, caressing the three black stones embedded there. The sword was silent now, its wild music stilled. He could have awoken the music again, had he wished – but to do so would cause more pain than was bearable. The Bondmaker could not forge a bond across the abyss of death.

Mishka hesitated before using his sense of touch. It was too closely akin to the feelable sense of Awareness – and he didn't know whether the great being on the far side of the cavern was possessed of the sense of Awareness itself.

Awareness would allow no anonymity. Mishka rested his fingertips on the floor of the cave, picking up vibrations. The heartbeat of the great creature was slow. One beat to every six of his own, as near as made no matter. Mishka took a deep, slow breath, closed his eyes and opened his mind, stretching Awareness tentatively outwards, sensing everything there was to be sensed in the cavern ... and made contact with a mind as old as the hills, as deep and broad as the ocean, and as Powerful and immediate as a thunderstorm.

The mindmusic of the great being was more closely akin to his own than he had expected – but echoing across vaster reaches of time than even he could fathom. And it answered that other question, too. That being certainly possessed Awareness – hugely so, in fact.

– Do you know who I am? he silently allowed his mind to ask that great being.

There was soft mental laughter.

– Yes, Beastmaster, I know who you are. The answer was spoken directly into his own mind.

There was a soft mental whisper of sound, and werelights sprang to life in the cavern, bringing weird colours to the stalactites hanging in the vast vaulted roof and the stalagmites growing like bizarre trees from the floor.

Mishka looked across at the great glowing lamps of eyes in the bronze-scaled vaguely packbeast-like head of the dragon.

– I have been waiting for you, said the dragon.

– How did you know I would come? asked Mishka.

– Because I know who you are, said the dragon.

– Why were you waiting? asked Mishka.

– I knew you would bring the Bondmaker.

The dragon lifted its head, snaking its neck with a soft, slithering scale-against-scale sound. Mishka watched the ripple of muscle in its massive upper shoulders as it tensed the great wing muscles, quivering the gleaming leathery wing-skin.

– The sword must lie safe, said the dragon.

– I know. But I don't know where.

– No. But I do, said the dragon. The place was there before the sword was forged, waiting.

– So how do I get there? asked Mishka.

– I take you, replied the dragon. You have not asked who I am, little one.

– No, said Mishka. I had not thought that you were real.

– Just a tale told to Children, said the dragon with a soft laugh.

– Something like that, agreed Mishka.

– And was the tale told to you? asked the dragon.

– Many tales, many times, many years ago. I believe you are Hlammaeth.

– I am, said Hlammaeth. Come, little one. We have a sword to conceal.   


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