They took the most direct route homeward, and eventually the dense tangle of trees opened up into small clearings and woodcutters' camps as they reached the eaves of the forest. Then the trees gave way completely and the land stretched out before them. They reined to a halt and stared out over the wide plain that surrounded Frostmarris, the capital of the Icemark. The land was a patchwork of hedgerows and fields, orchards and gardens, all green and fertile in the country's short summer, while directly ahead the city rose out of the surrounding farmland like a huge stone ship in a sea of golden wheat.
Each of its massive gates faced the direction of each of the four winds, and over the south gate hung the huge Solstice Bell, its polished bronze gleaming in the bright sunshine, seeming to beckon Thirrin and her escort home. At the center of the settlement, she could see her father's fortress dominating the streets from its position high on the hill. The royal banner of a fighting white bear on a blue background was clearly visible as a cool breeze stretched it flat and snapping in the air, as though it were leading a charge of King Redrought's cavalry.
Thirrin spurred her horse on, already recovering from the shock of the battle and anxious to tell her father about the wolfman. They thundered across the plain, raising a cloud of dust on the summer-dry roads, and soon she and her soldier escort were riding through the gates of the city and up the main street. It was market day, and country people from the surrounding villages and farms lined the way with their stalls, selling everything from vegetables and cheeses to eggs and newly slaughtered meat. It was hot, and swarms of flies had been drawn to the blood and offal, making Thirrin's horse skittish so that it snorted and sidled as they moved slowly through the crowds.
"Make way for the Princess!" her escort shouted, spurring ahead and using his horse to force people aside. Unused to seeing royalty, some of the country folk who rarely came to the city stared as Thirrin rode by. Some even pressed forward to touch the hem of her tunic or her riding boots, as if she were a holy relic of some sort. This embarrassed her deeply, and she immediately unslung her shield and rode along with it on her arm, hiding behind the mask of her status.
"It's the Princess! It's the Princess!" The whisper ran ahead of her through the crowd of country people. Thirrin found herself wishing she'd worn her helmet and not just the simple iron cap she usually wore for hunting. At least in her war gear she had a noseguard that hid part of her face. She could only hope the crowd of bumpkins thought her blushes were simply the high color of a warrior.
At last she reached the outer gates of the upper city, and the guards on duty barred the way, as required. "Who seeks entry to the King's presence?" the soldiers demanded formally. Thirrin stared at them in silent pride and waited for her escort to answer for her.
"His daughter and heir, Princess Thirrin Freer Strong-in-the-Arm Lindenshield."
The guards snapped to attention, and Thirrin rode through into the castle. As soon as she'd crossed the wide courtyard, she dismounted and left the reins of her horse trailing on the ground, knowing that a groom would run to collect the animal. Then she strode into the Great Hall of her father's fortress.
Just inside the yawning archway of the doors, she paused for a moment to let her eyes grow accustomed to the dim light. Slowly the battered shields of long-dead housecarls -- the army's professional soldiers -- and the banners of old wars emerged from the gloom, and she once again strode forward.
Before her, the flagstone floor seemed to stretch away forever into the shadows, but here and there small islands of light pooled onto the age-scarred stones as sunshine lanced down from smoke vents high in the roof. At the far end of the hall she could make out the raised dais, where a throne of black oak stood. Its arms had been carved to represent the forelegs of a bear, and its feet into those of a dragon. And above it hung the battle standard of the Icemark: a standing polar bear, lips drawn back in a vicious snarl and claws outstretched. This very standard had been carried by Thirrin's father when the army of the Vampire King and Queen had finally been defeated at the Battle of the Wolfrocks.
From The Cry of The Icemark by Stuart Hill, pages 1-11 of the hardcover edition. Copyright 2005 by Stuart Hill. Fist published in the United Kingdom by The Chicken House. Published in the USA by Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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