In the vast kingdom ringed by the mountains on the top of the world the
old king lay dying, and his heir was a child. He had been a great conqueror in
his youth, and still, though age had left a mark on him that all could see, he
raged at death as he had raged at his captains to have his will obeyed. Death,
however, did not heed his gasping commands.

He was swift to advance and attack, and stubborn in defense. It had
been a week since he had collapsed before the nearly-finished walls of
Crastrung, seventy years since he had led his father's army against a rival
clan and forced the enemy to proclaim him king. All the tribes had come under
his sway, and his iron will had turned them into a single nation, the most
powerful in the world, fearing no people and feared by all.

His generals, shadows of his greatness but nearly as hungry for mastery,
could not understand why he had suddenly began building the great fortress of
Crastrung, at the mouth of the pass that led to the warmer lands below.
Perhaps old Malden the Wizard had had something todo with it, since he
became the castle's master builder. The construction of a defensive outpost
made little sense to the generals, who often looked hungrily on the softer and
richer folk living below, envying their large cities, their thriving marketplaces,
and their indolence and luxury. They had been both tempted and angered by
the oily southern traders who came to buy what they had.

The old king's campaigns had created many exiles, some of whom had trained
armies of the lowlanders. Financed by meddlesome rulers who wished to see
their cold neighbor weak, they attacked their enemy. The ease with which they
had been defeated promised easy conquest whenever the king's army would march
down upon them. Wizards the lowlanders had, but wizards could be bribed, or
eliminated suddenly by rivals. No spell, moreover, could rival the avalanches
Malden had called down on the king's army before the two had met, and the
survivors felt proof against any effeminate lowland mage. The logic behind the
huge expense of Crastrung escaped them.

Malden had not been popular at court. After his meeting with the king
in a gray tent pitched on the tundra, he had come to the gloomy old capital
city where the king now lay dying. He had brought light and laughter, and many
stories of distant times and places, which, once extracted from the stern face
he usually wore, easily entranced the young prince he had come to tutor.
Scowling, the generals muttered that the old fool was turning the heir into a
craven weakling, and that Crastrung was being built to defend this weakling's
kingdom from attacks by other weaklings from the lands below, for the wizard,
although he had fought against armies in his past, spoke of peace long and
eloquently, and never of the attack the generals longed for. The king's raging
will, however, had kept them in the field, rooting out the last of the
guerrillas still raising forgotten banners in the hills. He used them and
their soldiers methodically, quieting any breach of the his absolute authority.
They had never had a chance to act on their hostility toward the wizard, and
the few who had dared to grumble openly had felt the heavy weight of the king's
wrath. He, at least, could keep them in check, brooking no rival after the
conquest just as he had done in the course of it. But now he lay dying.

On the eighth day of his illness the old king, looking like one who had
already died, rose from his bed and armored himself. The noise of it brought
his boyhood friend and aide, Adson, commanding the king's personal guard in a
sort of semi-retirement.

"Lord!" the other man cried, "this could mean your death! I beg you
return to your bed, and let whatever need be done be done by others!"

Erect within the heavy armor, the old king turned to his friend and in
the same voice he had used to command the execution of a thousand mutineers, he
roared: "Muster my guard! Secure wagons and have my coffers emptied into them,
with animals and provision enough to reach Crastrung! Do it at once, and do
not try to save the unsaveable. You should have learned that much in all our
campaigns. Now!"

Trembling, as they had all trembled at the sound of that voice, Adson
obeyed. The old king stayed saddled on his horse at the palace gate while they
rode off on their journey, watching the loading of the treasure with the fierce
eye of a dying eagle. Once the last of the wagons had disappeared, he got off
the horse, accepting for the first time in his life the help of a groom, and
staggered to his bed. According to tradition, he died while still fully

Malden was waiting as Adson rode up with the wagons. The two men,
though not friends, Malden having none in the palace, still had a certain
respect for each other because of their common friend and master. Malden was
the first to speak.

"Vaults have been prepared for the treasure. Your guards can use my
workmen to move it there, making sure that they do not steal any of it. Then
you can take them home in your wagons. Crastrung is finished."

Adson looked at the towering walls, the huge missile weapons, and was
stirred. Crastrung was a man-made mountain of towers and battlements, with
walls so carefully polished by the mage's art that no crevice could be seen.
Tunnels existed both in the walls and under the rock on which the fortress
stood, holding food and weapons for many, carefully greased and sealed. There
were inner walls behind the huge outermost one, and machines and magical traps
of surpassing deadliness. Adson fancied poetry in his spare time, as some
soldiers do, and he could not but admire the shining threat the fortress voiced
silently in the cold morning sun.

"He will be pleased, Malden. You have built well. Is there a garrison

Malden looked at him with a certain sadness.

"There will be."

Adson obeyed his orders, and the last of the wagons were rolling out of
the huge steel gates when the messengers rode up. A young lieutenant, wearing
some new insignia Adson had never seen before, rode up to the old officer and

"I am ordered, sir, by the king, to instruct you that he requires the
gold you have stored in Crastrung at once. You are also ordered to arrest one
Malden on charges of sedition, and to return both captive and the gold to the
capital immediately, on the penalty of your life and the confiscation of your

Adson was amazed.

"But he just ordered me to carry it here, and Malden is his councilor
and architect! Explain this to me!"

The lieutenant was both arrogant and stupid, or he would not have said
what he did next.

"With the change of rulers there has been a change in policy. I would
advise you not to antagonize the new king at your time of life."

"The new king? You mean the prince?"

The lieutenant compounded the error.

"The prince was found unfit to rule the kingdom after his father's
death. He has been killed by persons unknown. Damen, by the acclamation of
his army, is the new ruler."

As soon as he heard the cavalry commander's name Adson realized what had
happened. As he opened his mouth to order his guards into the safety of
Crastrung, three companies of mounted archers appeared, surrounding the wagon
train and Adson. From behind them came the sound of the heavy gates slamming
and bolting themselves. Malden stood before them, uttering strange words as he
held his hands toward the gates. The metal began to glow and hiss, and soon
the heavy portals were welded together. Then the wizard turned and faced the
soldiers. His face was terrible.

"Only the man who would rule the world may enter Crastrung!" he intoned
sonorously, in a voice that echoed off the walls of the fortress and the
distant mountains.

"Ye may fight, and fight, but only the victor shall enter, and claim
what lies therein!" His eyes blazing with anger and despair, the wizard pointed
his finger at the gates and a beam of red light flashed from it to the gates.
Letters of gold appeared on their cooling surface, spelling out the words first
spoken by the wizard. The lieutenant shouted an order, and arrows flew, but
Malden was gone. Abandoning wagons and workers, Adson and his men took
advantage of the wizard's disappearance to cut their way out, and they vanished
into the southern hills.

Damen, as Adson and the others knew, was not capable of controlling the
kingdom for long, hence his attempt to seize the old king's gold. He was soon
assassinated by one Conders, the leader of the king's light infantry. Conders
was driven from the capital soon thereafter. General after general made the bid
for supreme leadership. Old Calox, the king's engineer, withdrew to his
family's castle in the farthest north, trying to hold a little firmly instead
of the entire kingdom loosely, but none of the other pretenders wanted their
intended dominion split. Calox's stronghold was attacked and taken by the
combined armies of the rest, who soon thereafter were fighting each other among
the ruins.

It was war, such as only a soldier or a shuddering poet can understand,
war as futile as it was glorious, minstrels urging the warriors forward over
the bodies of the slain with songs of the joy of killing. Cities were sacked
and burned, and were soon rebuilt as the defeated gathered their forces for
another try at rulership. Those who wished for peace, for an end to the
killing, fought as hard as any, for in times such as those weapons are only
dropped by the dying. Fathers killed sons, sons fathers, as the fury of the
kingdom's convulsions grew. Summer and winter it was all the same, armies
drowned as they tried to cross flooded rivers or lying, their corpses
half-covered with snow, after some stealthy ambush or mistimed assault. Heroes
triumphed and were betrayed. Women urged their men to battle or wept when a
husband or a father did not return. On and on it raged, in a war where no side
could hate the other, but could, and did, kill.

In one of their own cities, sprawling in the middle of the great
southern plains, the kings of the lower lands met in council. All had feared
the day when the tribes in the north would march down upon them, and they had
feared the old king most of all. Now, sprawling on their couches and eating
olives dipped in wine on the points of their jeweled daggers, they agreed to
unite and cripple the growing menace once and for all, while it was wracked by
turmoil within. A huge army was assembled of their combined levies, soldiers
not as fierce as the northerners, perhaps, but much better equipped. Alliances
were secretly made with many of the warring generals inside the mountains, so
that by the time they realized that the southerners spared no ally it would be
too late to join forces and defeat the invaders. Carrying silken banners, the
southerners moved northwards.

Advancing in the early stages of spring, the Southerners arrived as
quickly as the size of their host permitted, seizing the southern end of the
pass into the kingdom. Moving cautiously, the commanders marched upwards
through the melting snows until the walls of Crastrung were in view. They did
not hesitate at the sight of the great towers and catapults, which had not
seemed to age in the years since Malden had built them. The same spies who had
beguiled the warring commanders had assured their Southern masters that the
huge structure was empty and forgotten, as it indeed had been by all but those
who dreamed of fulfilling Malden's prophecy. Confidently, then, the order was
given to pass the fortress in the narrow spaces between its walls and the sides
of the pass.

The southern soldiers, relaxed in the knowledge that the cold northern
winter had ended, walked slowly toward the great walls, although a few of them
spoke eagerly about the old king's gold lying in the vaults below. Mercenaries
all, money meant more to them than the wispy ideals for which men, misguided or
not, were dying for on the other side of the pass. The walk was longer than it
seemed, and in the time it took them to approach Crastrung the sky had turned
from blue to gray. From the heights on either side the clouds began to
descend, cloaking the southern army and Crastrung in a freezing fog. It
clutched at the unprepared soldiers, blinding them and chilling them as their
armor began to frost with the intense damp cold. They began to mill around in
confusion, as many stopped their march, ignoring the shouts of their officers,
while they removed their armor and donned what warm clothing they had. Then
the great catapults of Crastrung began hurling the large clay pots full of
heated steel balls the old king had used on his enemies. Unable to see in the
clutching fog, the Southerners never knew how the great weapons were aimed,
loaded, and fired from behind the sealed gates. All they knew was the fiery
death the shattering pots released among them. Other missile weapons began to
shoot mysteriously from slits in Crastrung's high stone walls, and officers
were hurled from their horses by iron spears the length of a man. Complete
panic set in. Most of the still-living southerners threw down their weapons
and ran back down the way they had come, a few men starting a general rush down
the pass. It was then that the loosening snows on the mountain sides rushed
down upon them. The avalanches, worthy of Malden had he been alive to see
them, killed all but some hundreds of the invaders. Those that survived the
sickness and wounds they had received in the cold pass returned to tell the
assembled kings of their failure and the horror of their defeat. Again the
council met. So great was the disaster that the southern monarchs vowed that
for a thousand years no army of theirs would attempt to climb through that
pass, and wizards were called in with their geases, their compulsive dooms, to
make sure that this vow would be kept, by the kings and their sons. It was.

In the northern kingdom the fighting continued. It was Barantrid,
however, who slowly began to emerge as dominant. He was a young man,
undistinguished in the old king's army as the commander of a force of heavy
infantry. It was in the battles of the generals that that cold intelligence of
his began to make its presence felt for the first time. He had a surpassing
mind, devoid of all other concerns than his own supremacy. It made him far
more terrible than even the most experienced of the others. Upon hearing from
amazed traders of the fate of the southern army, he calmly marched his own
forces to the fields below Crastrung, and, in sight of those wall, gathered for
himself a huge supply of the superior weapons and armor of the ruined army.
With these weapons, and the adamantine genius with which he commanded, he
began, carefully, to dispose of his rivals one by one.

Adson, who had managed to elude the others by vanishing into the hills
whenever he was outnumbered, was lured to a parley. He had grown exhausted in
his old age in the cold hiding places he was forced to occupy, and Barantrid's
promise of safety in his family home had been enough to draw him within reach
of an assasin's dagger.

Barantrid was not only adept in killing. With the control of an actor
and calculated oratory, he convinced Adson's remnants of the old king's guard
that under his command their leader would be avenged. Conders, he told them,
was the murderer, and, using the guardsmen as the core of his army, Conders he
soon defeated and killed.

Like a wolf on the fringes of a herd of deer, Barantrid stayed out of
the dangerous center, picking off the weak while the others fought among
themselves. Each time those he spared of the other's army joined under his
banner, seeing only the newcomer's success, not the coldness of his mind and
the boundless hunger in his heart. Those men alone he spared, each time their
leader died, although under mysterious circumstances. It was said that he had
some mage of his own who arranged the deaths for him in secret, but if he did
the dark wizard had no control over him. The only thing that governed
Barantrid was his cold desire for supremacy, which he allowed no man to turn or
direct. And yet his army, and other men, found someting to admire in the
courage his obsession gave him, in the surety with which he commanded and led.
Barantrid fully exploited the good fortune that always seemed to accompany
him. Whenever an ambush was laid, a traitor brought word of it to him. Arrows
in battle could kill those around him, but he was never wounded. One of his
enemies attempted a night attack on him that resulted in hundreds of the
attackers falling to their deaths in a ravine near Barantrid's fortified camp.
Always he used what opportunity offered, as if he knew he would never be
defeated. Confident leaders make confident followers, and Barantrid's army
became invincible. While other soldiers stopped fighting in the spring, to
plow and plant their farms, Barantid's growing numbers stayed in the field the
year round, capturing the supplies of others. In this way they fed themselves
and starved their enemies. Also in this way they increased their ranks, for
only by joining Barantrid would the plundered farmer gain anything out of his

In the course of three years the number of those who could command a
large army dwindled to nine, then seven, then four. Barantrid carefully kept
his rivals divided. By allying with one, winning a battle for him and then
attacking unexpectedly, then retreating and allowing the rest to fight over
what he had abandoned, he kept his foes fighting--and weak. Eventually only
one other contender remained.

Krunig had been the lieutenant of the old king, noted for his
ruthlessness and his determination. He was by the time he and Barantrid fought
an old and cunning general, not readily taken in by Barantrid's ploys and
ruses. Those who were appalled rather than attracted by Barantrid's tactics
rallied under his banner, the old ways opposing the new. But Krunig was
against a harder will than his own. Although the older man tried to avoid
battle with the young challenger, Barantrid succeeded in trapping sections of
Krunig's army and crushing them with shrewd maneuvers and his devoted troops.
Barantrid also became the first general able to use such reckless wizards as he
could find in battle, men who tossed flame and wind into the ranks of his foes,
risking death, for the rewards Barantrid gave them. Eventually Krunig had to
fight, before he lost all the army he had left to the attacks of his relentless
enemy. The two armies met near the old capital city, in the south.

It was thirty years to the day since the old king had died, and, except
for Barantrid's army, the northern kingdom was sick of war. Perhaps Barantrid
knew this, for, though some say he gambled, others claim that he never took any
risk without knowing that success was assured. The two armies, about the same
in size, faced each other on a grey day in late autumn. From out of his ranks
Barantrid rode, in the armor he had worn as the old king's officer, surrounded
by his bodyguard, Adson's old command. Isolated, closer and closer they rode
to where Krunig waited. Krunig and his war-tired army hesitated in
astonishment. Just as Krunig began to order his herald to signal the attack,
Barantrid suddenly rushed him, and before those around the older man could
react, Barantrid and his bodyguard slew both Krunig and the core of his
oficers. Even as that happened Barantrid's army, well-armed and inflamed by
their leader's action, charged the confused ranks of the other army and killed,
by spear or spell, all those who refused to flee. Barantrid was supreme in the
northern kingdom before the day was over.

He had all that the old king had built, except one thing, and he wanted
that and more. On a pile of dead mens' broken shields and swords he addressed
his army, flushed with their victory and the brilliance of their commander.

"Conquerors!" he cried "you are alone in the world! No enemy can stand
before you! Nothing can balk you! You are unstoppable!"

The army cheered as if from a single throat, shouting out their loyalty
and admiration for Barantrid. He stoked their passion to a fever pitch with
waves and gestures toward the fallen of the other side before he continued.

"No mountains can hold you! You can seize any city, crush any army, if
you will allow me to lead you! What you and your fathers did we shall do
together! We have united a kingdom, we shall unite a world! Crastrung awaits
us with the gold and weapons we need to accomplish this mighty labor! With
what it contains we shall avenge our honor on the Southerners who have tried to
weaken us, the merchants who have cheated us, and take from them what they
stole from us! To Crastrung, heroes, if we wish to take that which gleams
before us!"

Those few that remembered what Malden had said began to whisper it among
the ranks. "Only he who would rule the world may enter Crastrung! If he can do
it, then we truly shall do what he says! We shall know for sure!" This spread
quickly throughout the assembled soldiers. Few remembered Malden, but all knew
the prophecy. During the wars many a general had dreamed of entering
Crastrung, and taking what lay within, and after that, the world. A few had
tried, either by spell or siege engine, but none had succeeded. Barantrid,
with the confidence he always had, felt sure of what he predicted. He would
rule the world, and these men would give it to him. He had spoken well, and
roused the right emotions. The army marched toward the fortress.

Barantrid was a careful man as well, and he had hired wizards who
claimed that they could defeat whatever Malden had used to seal the gates of
Crastrung. There was no need. As soon as Barantrid drew near enough to the
gates to read the words written on them, they silently, massively, swung open
of their own accord. From somewhere a trumpet sounded. Inside, Barantrid and
his waiting army could see the armories, the inner walls, and the doors marked
with the old king's seal that led to the treasuries below. With Barantrid in
the lead, they entered the gates, spreading throughout the ways of the fortress
as wonder upon wonder was revealed to them, whether in the numbers or quality
of the stored weapons, or in the vastness of the gleaming golden wealth they
found in the treasuries.

It was one of Adson's old men, who had been a young recruit in the
bodyguard on the day when Demen had tried to seize the old king's treasure, who
saw it happen. He had been standing before the gates, remembering what had
happened, the look on Malden's face, and the years of war since that day had
passed. They closed again while he watched, unable to move. Then, with a
ponderous grinding crash, every brick, every stone, every piece of mortar and
rubble that had gone into Crastrung gave way. Men screamed as twenty-ton
blocks crushed the life out of them, others dying as they fell from towers or
were buried in the collapse of tunnels and vaults. Barantrid had been standing
in the center of the fortress, looking at the stone throne Malden had built for
the king, when the fall of the innermost keep buried him under hundreds of tons
of masoned stone.

The people afterwards told that the thousand years of peace
they enjoyed after the deaths of Barantrid and his army came from the
protection of the pass by the garrisson that Crastrung had finally claimed.
Others said that eternal peace was what Malden had intended when he built
Crastrung, and that that is what the spell achieved. Yet after the thousand
years, there was war again. But a thousand years of peace is not something to
be despised, and Barantrid had truly claimed what lay within the walls of

Copyright 1986 by Rob S. Rice, but Permission to Print and Recirculate Granted, Providing Original Authorship Maintained