if it could only find release down in the Worm-ruined house.
Medrian was after him in an instant. She threw herself sideways at him to knock him off course, seized his arms and tried to pull him to a halt. He struggled with her, eyes wild. He did not seem even to recognise her.
‘Stop!’ she cried.
‘Let me go,’ he whispered hoarsely. He tried to break free, but she hung grimly on to him.
‘No!’ she shouted frantically. ‘If you step in that stuff, it’ll kill you. Don’t you understand? It’s acid, it’s poison!’
He stared at her, shaking convulsively; but he was seeing Sinmiel, Falin’s sister, dying in a pool of venom. Dying, because she had not watched where she was walking and had stumbled into the Serpent’s flesh-eroding effluent. With a hoarse cry, he broke away from Medrian and ran raggedly up to the top of the valley, then started around the rim towards a small, undamaged, stone cottage.
Medrian raced after him. The Serpent’s smell caught in her throat and she was coughing, gasping for breath. She could not match his hell-driven pace. She saw him enter the cottage, only to dash out again a moment later. She cut across towards him, but he still outran her, tearing across the meadow and down a path between dark trees that looked like skeletons rigid with dread.
At last she lost sight of him. She ran to a gasping, sobbing halt, doubled up with pain in her ribs. She fell to her knees as she tried to recover her breath; and now she was weeping, tearing at her long hair with white hands.
For the first time, her grief found release without the mocking interference of M’gulfn, but she was hardly aware of that. Estarinel... her thoughts twisted in an incoherent mass of grief. Oh, by the gods, what can I do?
When she began to recover, she pulled herself upright and sat back on her heels, looking at the twilight descending over Forluin. She was trembling, her breath escaping in rough sobs.
‘And did I not have another reason for coming here?’ she said to herself. ‘It wasn’t just to be free of the Serpent. I needed to torture myself with guilt... to see the agony M’gulfn had caused so I could truly understand what it has done. What I have done, since I couldn’t dissuade from doing this. I couldn’t... oh, Estarinel, I should have tried harder. I didn’t know...’
She dragged herself to her feet, dusted off the pale blue dress and brushed back her hair with her shaking hands. Then she strode down the path that Estarinel had taken.
The path wound through fields whose northern edges were scorched with ash. Where the vista was clear of trees, she could see the dim greyness of the distance, and knew that the Worm had done its work thoroughly there. Whole tracts of Forluin had been laid waste; and its venom had the ability to spread, insinuating itself through the ground like fungus to continue the destruction long after the Serpent had returned to its Arctic home.
Cold and desolate, she found herself on the fringes of a small village. Six or seven stone cottages clustered around a green with a well in its centre. Lights danced in some of the windows as twilight fell, but outside it was deserted. She felt sure Estarinel had been heading for this village, and would reappear if she waited for him. Meanwhile she had no intention of knocking on a stranger’s door, so she wandered across the grass and stood by the well, looking about her.
The love and care with which the cottages had been built was obvious, as was the careful tending of the green and the paths that wound around it. Flowers and shrubs had been encouraged to grow everywhere. There was an atmosphere of warmth and gentleness about the village that she had never sensed anywhere before, least of all in Alaak.
She hugged herself against the chill in the air. Strange – she rarely felt cold, at least not physically. This is just the sort of place, she thought, that the Serpent would most despise and wish to destroy. Not the