Prolog

(Fire Mountain Keep, Esland)

Durilil lay in bed, eyes closed, mind wrapped in fire, watching. The burning mountain was too far for unaided perception, even his, but to the Salamander all fires were one; merged in it, he could look out of the mountain at what he had done. There was a limit to how much a human mage could channel but none for the Salamander during the hours it had poured its fire directly into the mountain's heart. The crust of rock that had roofed the Northfire was gone, the accumulation of decades melted away in days.

The south end of the pass was filled with steam where lava pouring out of a crack in the mountain's side boiled off the snow and ice that still choked that end of the pass. The north end, already swept clean by magery, was clear. Someone on the Forsting side had kept his head; lines of troops were streaming north out of the pass in an orderly torrent, leaving behind piles of abandoned supplies. Where the slow advance of lava had reached the rear of the debris, a siege engine was burning.

Between the burning engine and the rear of the retreating army, a man was sitting his horse, looking uphill towards the lava. Curious, the mage let the vision expand. Ten miles and more from where Durilil lay in the keep, and even he had his limits, but perhaps … .

Iolen took a last look at the road home; no magery, whether from the Forsting guild or the College, would open it again until the mountain subsided. It would go hard on the loyal earls, but there was nothing he could do beyond persuading the Einvald to offer refuge to those who escaped the failed rising. Fredrik, still vigorous, might make it even in winter over the high pass that his castle guarded, but he had little hope for Eirick. As to his own position, whatever had gone wrong had been the failure of Forsting magery, not of his part in the plan.

That would do him little good if he chose to remain where he was until the lava reached him. He reluctantly turned his horse about and started after the tail of the army which should have put him on the throne his father had lost. As the road emerged from the crease between Fire Mountain and its eastern neighbor the left side dropped away. Iolen held his horse hard to the road's right.

Just in front of him, a stand of dried grass burst into flame; he wondered how the volcano had reached so far. The horse shied left; he snatched at the reins too late.