• Tom Doherty Associates
The House of the Stag - Kage BakerSee larger image
See Hi-Res Jpeg image


email/print EmailPrint

The House of the Stag



Awards: World Fantasy Award - Finalist

Book Buy
Ebook Ebook 
    
Share this book with friends through your favorite social networking site. Share:           Bookmark and Share
Add this title to your virtual bookshelves at any of these book community sites. Shelve:             
sign up to get updates about this author
add this book's widget
to your site or blog

About The Author

Kage BakerKage Baker

Kage Baker lives in Pismo Beach, California.

photo: ©Den'Al Damron-McElhiney

Awards

World Fantasy Award - Finalist

Stay In Touch

Sign up to recieve information about new releases, author appearances, special offers, all related to you favorite authors and books.

Other Books You Might Like

cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Bird of the River

Tor Books
In this new story set in the world of The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, two teenagers join the crew of a huge river barge after their addict...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Anvil of the World

Tor Books
The Anvil of the World is the tale of Smith and his feud-prone people, the Children of the Sun. Smith, formerly a successful assassin, is trying to retire,...
  
cover Buy
The Sons of Heaven

Tor Books
This is the Kage Baker novel everyone has been waiting for: the conclusion to the story of Mendoza and The Company. In The Sons of Heaven, the forces...
  
cover Buy
Not Less Than Gods

Tor Books
Recently returned from war, young Edward Anton Bell-Fairfax is grateful to be taken under the wing of the Gentleman’s Speculative Society. At the Society,...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Empress of Mars

Tor Books
When the British Arean Company founded its Martian colony, it welcomed any settlers it could get. Outcasts, misfits, and dreamers emigrated in droves to...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Gods and Pawns

Tor Books
These eight stories, reprinted for the first time in this collection, delve further into the history and exploits of the Company. The book opens with the...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Sky Coyote

Tor Books
Facilitator Joseph has outlasted entire civilizations during his twenty-thousand years of service to Dr. Zeus, the twenty-fourth century Company that created...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Machine's Child

Tor Science Fiction
Kage Baker's trademark series of SF adventure continues now in a direct sequel to The Life of the World to Come. Mendoza was banished long ago, to a...
  
cover Buy

More formats
Audio eBook
Landline

St. Martin's Press
From New York Times bestselling author of Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell, comes a hilarious, heart-wrenching take on love, marriage, and magic...
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
Speak

Square Fish
In this powerful novel, a teenage heroine delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school.
cover Buy
First 100 Words

Priddy Books
Your little one will soon learn some essential first words and pictures with this bright board book. There are 100 color photographs to look at and talk about,...

EXCERPT

Chapter One

The Inventory

It's an immense and grand ledger: clasps plated in gold, cut jewels set along the spine, elaborate tooling to ornament the black stuff in which it is bound. All the same, it's a rather unpleasant- looking thing.

You can handle it, if you like, but you won't like the slightly clammy texture of the black stuff; you won't like the weight of the book in your hands, heavier than it ought to be.

You can open it, if you like, and try to read the iron- red text. You won't be able to read it, though, not without your eyes watering, and the disconcerting hieroglyphs will call to mind snakes, whips, thorns, claws. After a few pages you will notice the smell, which will disturb you to the foundation of your consciousness.

It is a slave registry.

It was not made by any crude band of conquerors, if that's your next question; no Riders with knives of bronze could have created anything this carefully made, nor would they have the meticulous patience to cut the point, dip the pen in-ink?-and write the history of each unfortunate soul . . .

4th day 3rd week 7th month in the 230th year from the Ascent of the Mountain. This day, flesh salvaged from the eastern face. Initially routed to Larder. Vitality detected; rerouted to Experimental Medicine and registered as Slave 4372301.

He opened his eyes to unrelieved blackness. Was he dead? He felt nothing. The last memory was of screaming air and blinding light, and a sense of regret as he'd fallen. He'd come so far up the ice wall, and before that so far through the passes, that it seemed a shame to die from simple clumsiness. But his frozen hands had failed him, and so . . .

Dead, then. Was this the womb of the earth? Not the way he had imagined it. He had thought it would be full of green and shifting lights, warm and humming. Not this, which was nothing. No light, no sound, no sensation of cold or heat.

The bleak thought surfaced: Perhaps the earth would not have you. Gard considered that prospect and resigned himself.

It was something of an anticlimax, then, when the light appeared. It flared, it danced like yellow leaves. He started, and every nerve in his body shrieked to life. He wept in pain as the light grew brighter. It was nearing him. He could hear, now, a clanking sort of noise, echoing, and the echoing of footsteps. Now and again the light paused, but always it came on again.

It resolved into a man. He wore the light in a thing like an openwork basket, mounted on his head. He was carrying a . . . water gourd? He wore a harness and woven stuff, like one of the Riders, but he did not look like a Rider. His skin was the color of a sunset. And now he was within arm's reach, if Gard had been able to move his arm.

He stopped and thrust his head in Gard's direction, in an interrogatory way. When he saw Gard looking back at him, he grinned.

"Hhhhnaaaii!" he said. Something popped into existence at his shoulder, the image of a burning child, and it moved its lips and spoke when he spoke again. "The big icicle is awake!"

Or, at least, that was what Gard understood him to say. Meaningless syllables sounded, but within his ear another voice spoke with meaning. Gard tried to answer him and could only sob.

"Yes, I daresay you would cry! I'd cry too, if I was in your condition. Cheer up, though; Magister Hoptriot thinks he will save your legs. Then you'll be lots of use. Always good to be of use, eh?" The man set down the- gourd? No, but it was like a gourd-and uncoiled a thing like a rope. He hooked its end into a wooden frame that held Gard's arm prisoner, and Gard felt a sting in his arm, a tiny spark out of the flaming pain that consumed him. He looked at himself by the light. All bandages, and stinking salve.

The man set the gourd-like thing down and looked Gard over. "Poor icicle. The medicine hurts, yes? Here's what you need." He pulled from a pouch at his waist a handful of leaves. They were green, nearly fresh, only a little limp with having been in the man's pouch. He thrust them between Gard's teeth. "You chew. Soon, you won't care about the hurt."

Gard did as he was told, rolling the leaves into a quid with his tongue. kage baker Almost at once his tongue went numb, and then his mouth; the numbness spread down from there, merciful as cool water. The man squatted, watching him. He chuckled.

"There, now he's happy. Aren't you happy?"

"Am I dead?" said Gard thickly.

"No, not dead! By the grace of the masters, alive. You came a long way through the snow. What were you doing?"

Gard summoned memory. "Looking for a way through."

"Ahhh! To the cities on the other side?"

Gard looked at the man in incomprehension, wondering what cities might be, and the flaming child at the man's shoulder fretted and danced, and at last a tiny voice spoke in Gard's head: Communities/villages/families of people.

"Too bad. You're here now," said the man. He laughed and shook his head. "It's not so bad. I used to break my heart that I wasn't back there, and then one day I thought, what would I be doing if I was back there? Scrambling to find a crust to eat, a place to sleep. Don't have to do that, here. Food and a bed guaranteed, at least." He smacked his thighs and stood.

"Yes, you'll get better. You're strong. I heard they found you wrapped in a white bear's pelt! Did you kill it yourself?"

Bear? Gard had a hazy memory of the white thing that had come down the slope at him, an avalanche on four legs. He had run his spear down its throat and then leaped on its back and locked his arms about its neck . . . blood steaming on the snow, and how grateful he had been for the warmth of its carcass as he skinned it. A demon of the snows, he had assumed. Had that been a bear? The burning child bounced in place, affirmed the word.

"But of course you must have killed it yourself. Nice! One of the mistresses claimed that pelt, very pleased she was too. I heard that story, I said to myself, 'This is a strong one, he'll make it,' " the man chattered on.

"How are you talking in two voices?" Gard asked.

"Eh?"

"The fire- baby that talks in my head," said Gard, unable to point at it. "What is it?"

"That? Why, that's only a Translator. Clever, eh? Otherwise I shouldn't have any idea what your jungle talk meant, and I'll bet you never learned the speech of the Children of the Sun." The man grinned wide.

Children of the Sun? "Is that what you are?"

"Yes, of course!"

"Is that what the people here are?"

The man's grin faded. "No." He turned and looked over his shoulder into the darkness. "No, only a few of us here. And long, and so long since I've seen the sun. But it's better than dying, eh? Food and a bed, just as well, not so bad. How's your medicine doing, eh? All drained in?"

Too many new things to understand. And why bother to try, when the numbness and the blindness were so pleasant? Gard floated away into darkness and never felt the needle removed from his arm.

He felt nothing until a long while later, when there was brightness in his face again.

The pain returned with the light. He was being hoisted from the place where he lay, someone gripping him around the legs and someone catching him around the shoulders. He gulped for breath and gave a hoarse scream at the pain.

"Easy with him. Poor old icicle, I'll bet that hurt, eh? Can't give you the leaf for the pain, so sorry; Magister Hoptriot wants a look at you, and he wants you conscious. You be good and you'll have some later, eh? Old Triphammer promises you."

Gard looked around frantically as he was swung down to the floor. The man with the light towered above him; so did two dark giants who crouched, one at his head and one at his feet, and lifted him. He was slung between them on a litter, such as people used to drag the sick, the dying. He was carried forward through the darkness, as the man with the light trotted alongside. Triphammer? The burning child showed him a picture of the man with the light. Perhaps that was his name.

Now he could see, in the halo of light that traveled around him, that they were in a long corridor. Now and again they passed grottoes in the rock, shelves upon which other bodies lay. Some were bandaged. Some were unconscious. Some lay watching Gard pass, and their open eyes were glazed, listless, motionless. Others were bound and writhing, turning a restless, furious gaze on Gard as he passed, and they whined in their pain. They were kinds of people he had not seen before.

In his terror and disorientation, Gard opened and closed his hands, clutching for . . . what was there to save him? Not his spear, not his knife: gone down the ice wall forever. Not the strength of his body: melted away. Nothing left but his strength of will. Nothing in his power to do but die bravely. He clenched his fists. He gritted his teeth.

The whole jolting way he made no sound, though he thought his kage baker teeth might never unlock again; he endured. At last he was borne into a room that flared with brilliance painful to his eyes, and he closed them. He was raised, set down on something hard and cold.

Deft hands unwound the bandages from his legs and burned like hot iron in their touch. He opened his eyes, not wide, but enough to see Triphammer and two others, the ones who had carried him, standing in a line with their eyes lowered. The bearers were big, their skins the color of slate, their eyes like downcast moons.

His tormentor was robed in skin, the hair scraped off smooth; it was gloved and masked in skin too. The eyes domed out like an insect's. It murmured to itself as it examined him, but no burning child appeared to translate for it.

Gard chanced a look at his body. He saw his legs and feet blackened, shriveled, bent. He closed his eyes again, laid his head back, praying for death. Now the voice spoke in his ear: "Are you conscious?"

He opened his eyes again, saw the mask had turned toward him, with a burning child now dancing at its shoulder. "Yes," he said.

" 'Yes, Master,' is what you're supposed to say," Triphammer told him hurriedly.

"Will he kill me if I won't call him Master?" said Gard.

Triphammer nodded, emphatic. The two big ones raised their eyes, stared at him.

"Then rot and eat filth, you slave," said Gard, to the masked one. The mask tilted toward him. There was the barest hint of a shrug; then it took a rag and dipped the rag in a bowl and daubed what was in the bowl on Gard's feet. The black skin smoked, peeled back, sloughed away. That was the last Gard saw before the darkness fell in on him again.

Four moons, lined up, were shining at him out of the starless night. Gard blinked at them, bewildered. The two at the left grew larger, and he felt hot breath in his face.

"Rahashpa, gotu," said a deep voice, and another of the burning children popped into view and lit the grotto. Drink, brother. The two litter bearers stood over him. One was leaning down to offer him a drinking gourd.

Gard drank, and gasped for breath. More fire. He hadn't thought fire could be liquid. But it warmed, rather than burned, and its aftertaste was pleasant. And the drinking gourd wasn't a gourd at all . . . it was the top of a skull. A laugh bubbled up out of his chest. He hadn't thought he'd ever laugh again.

"You called the master a slave," said the nearer of the two silver- eyed, grinning and showing a mouthful of fearsome teeth. "Your testicles are like two heads."

"The heads of enemies swinging at your belt," added the other.

"How we laughed in our hearts, when we heard your words."

"We said to ourselves, surely he is one of us."

"Are you?"

After a moment of confusion, Gard said, "Am I what?"

"One of our kind. But you must be one of our kind. If you were one of the Earthborn, you'd have died like a lily in the snow."

"But you are strong. We saw the skin of the beast you killed."

"What is Earthborn?" Gard asked.

The two looked at each other, puzzled. They looked at him. "You are a lost child, then."

Gard wondered what that meant. Lost child . . . yes, he had been, hadn't he? A foundling. No one's son. The one silver- eyed set aside the skull and leaned forward, nodding as though he understood.

"Ah, you were abandoned. It happens sometimes. Listen to me, brother: we are born of the Air. But when one of us takes flesh and mates with an Earthborn, or a Fireborn, there are children bred sometimes-"

"Earthborn are the slender things who live among the trees-"

"Triphammer, he's one of the Fireborn-"

"And you look a little like the Earthborn, but too big, too strong, and your heart is like ours. Welcome, lost child. Not to this filthy place; but to your own kind."

"Thank you," said Gard, trying to take in what they were telling him. He remembered the stories of his childhood. Were they demons, then?

The one with the skull bowl lifted it to Gard's lips again and then drew back suddenly, the silver moons blazing with emotion.

"By the Blue Pit! The masters don't know his name!"

The other one came close, leaned down too, spoke in an undertone, with urgency, "Little brother, have you told anyone your name?"

"No," said Gard.

They chortled with laughter, and the one beat his brother's arm so that the liquor in the skull slopped and smoked where it fell.

"Not your true name? But you were born in flesh. It would be the name you were given by the she that bore you," said the one with the skull bowl.

The memory of all that was past swirled by Gard, like a winter wind.

He shuddered and said, "I couldn't tell you the name of she who bore me, let alone the name she gave me, if she bothered."

The brothers rocked and hugged themselves.

"Oh, fortunate boy! Then no one knows, and there is no way you can be made a slave!"

"They may chain you. They may beat you. But unless the masters know your true name, they may not own you."

"Even in this cell, you are free. Not like us. We must serve them. Poor old Grattur!"

"Poor old Engrattur! They called us down into flesh with promises of pleasure."

"They gave us food. They made us drunk."

"We were unwise. We told our names."

"Now we are slaves. Now they own our wills."

"Naming calls; naming owns."

"But you they'll never call. You they'll never own!"

"So you are Grattur and Engrattur?" said Gard, and they winced.

"Two fools, Grattur and Engrattur. If you could see the spells that bind us round, you would wonder how we even breathe."

"Trapped down here to serve them forever, and we cannot even die."

"They would only body us again, call us back by our names."

"Body you?" Gard asked.

"Make us bodies again, by craft, and lock us in them-," said Grattur. They heard footsteps, and then Triphammer looked into the grotto.

"What are you doing here? Icicle needs his rest. What is this, what is this? Are you making him drunk? Idiots!

" Grattur showed his teeth. Engrattur took a wad of leaves from a pouch and tucked them into Gard's mouth. "He'll rest now, won't you, brother? Remember us, remember our fates. We're going, hothead!"

They shouldered their way out into the corridor. Triphammer looked after them angrily, then turned to hook the medicine into Gard's arm.

"Stupid demons," he muttered.

Am I a demon? Gard wondered, biting gratefully into the quid. The numbness came again, and the black bliss.

It was decided he would live, and so he was moved to a proper chamber; the grottoes, as Triphammer explained delicately, being more convenient to the Larder in case the seriously ill didn't pull through.

The house of the stag "But look what a fine cell you've been given!" said Triphammer, arranging the medicine rack above the new bed. "Dry as a bone. And look at all this fine bedstraw! Sweet as a summer meadow. I'll tell you, the masters must think you have great potential. My other patients would envy you. You don't often see slaves given such care, and that's a fact."

"I'm not a slave," said Gard.

Triphammer grimaced. "No need to be ungrateful. Here you lie, alive, and wasn't that their doing? And all your food and drink is their gift. You owe them service, really. After all. And it's not as though your future is so bleak. See, here's another gift for you!" Triphammer delved into a corner of the cell and held up two sticks, each with one end wrapped in rags. "Crutches! I'm to teach you to walk with them. Think of being able to get about on your own again, eh? Why, you might get a little wheeled cart, if you're diligent at your tasks.

"Perhaps even-" He dropped his voice. "There are special rewards for the best slaves, you know. Clever devices, all worked with spells. How'd you like a pair of silver legs, eh, to replace those poor withered ones? Set with gems, and strong enough to carry you across the world without tiring?"

The burning child had a lot of hopping and gesturing to do before Gard took in all Triphammer's meaning. But when he understood it at last, he looked scornful.

"That's a story for children. No men can make such things."

"Hai! And there you're wrong, my friend," said Triphammer, grinning. He pulled up a stool and sat. "I'll tell you a story, and no children's tale either, but the sacred truth, as I'm my mother's son.

"Long ago, when there were more gods than men, this black mountain rose up out of the earth. It was the tallest mountain in the world. It scraped the stars at night, raked up a plume of silver dust that trailed from its summit. Green lightnings crackled there, power hummed and danced there. And mages-who are drawn to the smell of power the way cats are drawn to stinking fish-went there and tried to find a way to take the power for their own and use it.

"From all corners of the earth they came, a long pro cession of mages going up hopeful, with their servants and their baggage and beasts; coming down broken, with their fine robes in rags, and their rich goods lost to the ice and snow. Every one of them it defeated. The power could not be taken. It would not be owned.

"And at last, the cleverest mage among them said, 'No one man can defeat the mountain. Yet, if two or three or ten went together, it might be done.'

"They came together and worked out a spell they thought would mine power from the mountain, as men mine ore from rock. Twenty of them met, twenty, and do you know how hard it is for so many mages to gather in one place, for one purpose? They're quarrelsome as cats. But the thought of so much power bound them to set aside their disputations, and one fine day they climbed the mountain, with their servants and their baggage and their beasts.

"They pulled themselves over the top, wading in snow, complaining. They drew the circle. They lit the braziers and cast on incense. They spilled blood, whose I don't know, and raised their chant. The power came at their call, it danced around them like green fire, and then-

"It bound them!

"It would not be bound, but bound them, all, with their servants and their baggage and their beasts, like a green bowl clamped down. They could not leave. They clawed and screamed at the wall that locked them in, till their fine robes were rags, and their rich goods were no use in the ice and snow. Miserable in the bitter weather they huddled there, and so at last to save their lives they dug into the mountain.

"They made tunnels, with their arts; caves and galleries, grand chambers at last, deeper and deeper always, and so in time made a grand palace under the rock. We are down at the mountain's roots, you and I, but if you went up, you'd see the fine rooms!

"And so they made the best of a bad bargain. Devised clever ways of growing food, in chambers lit by witchlight. Cut doors in the lower slopes, through which they still could not go, but other folk could be summoned and lured in to . . . to bring them things they needed. You have to admire them, don't you? Now they live like kings and queens, in this palace that might have been a prison. They are famed among mages."

Gard thought about this and could still not see so great a difference between mages and Riders. He saw clearly, though, that there was no use arguing with Triphammer. He said only, "And you came to serve them out of admiration, did you?"

Triphammer winced and looked away. "I was traveling. I lost myself, just as you did. Their servants found me and . . . I made myself useful. All for the best."

"So you came from the place on the other side of the mountains?"

"Long ago. Long ago. No use trying to go back now."

"Are there forests there?"

"Eh?" Triphammer looked up at Gard. "Forests? Big trees? Not where we live. It was open and warm, with good rock, and the blue sea . . . who'd want to live back in the woods? Nobody there but demons. You might walk for days and never see a living soul, just green leaves. Brrrr!"

10th day 5th week 4th month in the 231st year from the Ascent of the Mountain. This day, Slave 4372301 assigned to General Labor Pool, Class 3. Requisitioned by Magister Tagletsit.

Magister Tagletsit regretted the loss of the sun. He had come from a far desert country, where the sun was worshiped as a harsh lord, unquestioned master, king of dunes and stones and serpents, who withdrew his presence by night only that his trembling and shivering subjects might the better appreciate his return by morning.

So cruel a father must necessarily breed desperate love in his children. Magister Tagletsit, when he had found himself facing an eternity in stone- bound darkness, could not imagine life anywhere but under the blazing eye of his God. It nearly drove him to self- sacrifice; but then he had devised a means by which his discomfort was eased.

He lived in a great circular chamber, partitioned into rooms, the whole strictly aligned with the unseen points of the compass. All around its outer wall ran a tunnel. The tunnel wall was pierced through with many little windows into the rooms, through which shone the light and heat, at any given moment, of five hundred oil lamps.

The tunnel contained five thousand lamps, ranged in brass along its length, from east to west. One slave's duty was, each day, to consult the astronomical charts to determine at what precise spot on the horizon the unseen sun would rise, and when. He would enter the tunnel in felt slippers and move a golden peg to the corresponding point marked off on the tunnel wall.

Then he would return to his bed, for he was a valued slave with advanced clerical skills. Gard, unskilled cripple, must turn an hourglass and begin the daylong task of lighting each bank of lamps, east to west, one after another, extinguishing the first when the last had been lit. Then he would turn the glass and repeat the process on the next bank of lamps, thus working his way around the tunnel.

Each day he labored so, naked in the tunnel, while the sweat ran from his body, while the muscles in his arms screamed for hatred of his weight, and hatred of his useless legs that dangled between the crutches. Unthinkable to stop; for at each hour- mark a little cistern was mounted in the wall that would only discharge its drinking water for him if all the lamps to that point had been lit, and in the proper sequence too. The sweat of his body kept him faithful. The leather of his tongue in his dry mouth kept him faithful.

And if he was tempted, still, to die and never sweat or thirst again, one thought kept him still faithful: that there really were green forests beyond the mountains, and if he lived to escape, he might go there one day, even as Ranwyr might have gone. He might find a pass through the mountains into the valley and lead a weary people to freedom, even as Ranwyr might have led them.

And Magister Tagletsit was happy within his rooms, watching the angled light change with the passage of hours, basking in the warmth, and was able to pray in praise, "How great thou art, O Sun, whose eye pierces even into the depths of the earth! Truly thou art great, and none can hide from thee."

"Not so bad, after all, is it?" said Triphammer, when he would come in to tend to Gard's legs at the end of every shift. "You've got a soft job, eh? Just you think about what they rescued you from. Just you remember that ice, and those banks of snow. That's what I do, when I get to feeling sorry for myself. There I was, lost in drifts over my head, and wasn't I grateful to be let inside here!"

Triphammer said the same thing always, reliable as the circling sun.

"Why weren't your legs frozen, like mine?" Gard asked him, one night.

"Because I had a proper pair of boots on when I ran away, didn't I? Wasn't a naked jungle- boy like you," said Triphammer, not unkindly. He took Gard's foot and bent his leg at the knee. "Here, now: push with your foot, try to straighten out your leg. Hard as you can. Good! Good boy!"

A rumble of wheels came from the corridor outside, the tramp of heavy feet approaching slowly. "Good boy!" a voice mocked them, high and shrill. "Isn't he just the best little cripple that ever was?"

A long- nosed, blind face came around the edge of the doorway, as though peering in. It was followed by the rest of the speaker, bulky body, big long arms, four small thick legs. It pulled a wagon that supported a pair of immense jars.

"Catering," the shrill voice announced. "Where's your bowl, cripple? Where's your pitcher? Going to make me hunt for them?"

"They're right by the door, where they're supposed to be!" said Triphammer in annoyance. "If you'd used your ugly nose instead of eavesdropping on people, you'd have found them straightaway."

"Ugly, is it?" Big leathery hands groped, found Gard's meal dish and water pitcher. "Think I'll leave a big lump of something special in your bowl, hothead." Catering swung his arm backward and dipped the pitcher in one jar. He lifted it out and pretended to urinate in it.

"Just ignore him," said Triphammer to Gard.

Gard leaned up on his elbow to stare a threat, but saw Catering's empty eye- sockets. "Who put out your eyes, slave?"

The blind face grimaced, the head swung to and fro on its long neck.

"I was made without any," said Catering. He dipped Gard's bowl into the other jar and withdrew it brimming with dinner, into which he pretended to spit. "Here's your meal, cripple. May it poison you."

He slammed the bowl and the pitcher down and trudged on down the corridor. "He talks like that to everyone," said Triphammer. "All talk, though. Never you mind him."

Gard wondered what would frighten a creature so immense that it took refuge in threatening like a nasty- minded child.

Sometimes, as he struggled along the tunnel of the sun's path, Gard looked through the windows into Magister Tagletsit's rooms. At any hour he might see plump Magister Tagletsit in placid contemplation of a roll of paper covered in tiny black markings, or reclining on a bed covered in rich woven stuff trimmed in gold, or pouring a bloodred drink for himself from a pitcher. The pitcher fascinated Gard. It seemed to be made of clear ice, cut and faceted in patterns, perilous beauty, and yet it never melted in the heat of the lamps. He wondered what it would feel like if he touched it.

One day, when Magister Tagletsit was away and the pitcher had been left on a table near a window, Gard reached through the window and touched it. He was surprised; it was no cooler than anything else in the room.

He paid a price to learn that much. Hobbling back to his cell when lamp- night had fallen, he was overtaken by Triphammer, who was scowling.

"What'd you want to go lose a good job for, eh? Stupid icicle! Now we've both got to go report to Hodrash. No, not that way! Down this turning."

"Why?"

"Because you went and intruded, didn't you? Stuck your big, dirty jungle- paw through the window and left handprints all over the poor magister's nice pitcher!"

"But no one saw me," said Gard, astounded.

"You big fool, the magister's spirits saw you! These are mages. Didn't you know, they've got spirits you can't see, watching over all that belongs to them? But I suppose you didn't know, how could you know? I don't seem to have told you. The more blame to me. This way. Hurry! Don't make it worse for us."

Triphammer led him along an unfamiliar corridor in the rock. They turned in at last through a doorway. The chamber beyond was high- ceilinged, and to one side benches rose in stepped ranks, where a hundred might have sat without crowding. No one sat there now but three of the masters, in their fine robes, with a fourth entering in some haste. He bowed to the others, took his seat, and turned, all expectant, to watch.

On the floor of the chamber crouched a demon, golden- skinned, whose arms were great with muscle. He was amusing himself with a piece of intricately carved wood, a puzzle whose interlinking sections could be shifted to form different pictures. He set it aside when Gard and Triphammer entered and rose to his feet with a sigh. "Malefactors," he intoned in a bored kind of way.

"Reporting," said Triphammer briskly. "We acknowledge our sins and submit ourselves for discipline."

Gard, looking up, saw the masters lean forward in their seats. The demon went to the wall, where scourges of different sizes were hung, and looked over his shoulder at Triphammer. "Which of you is it to be first?"

"Me," said Triphammer, divesting himself of his tunic and hanging it neatly on a hook provided for that purpose. "My fault really, I should have explained better. And it's the boy's first time, Hodrash."

Hodrash nodded and selected a scourge. Triphammer went meanwhile to a post in the center of the floor. He stood on tiptoe to grasp hold of a bar at the top of the post. Gard watched, unbelieving, as Hodrash the house of the stag advanced and swung his big arm, and the scourge bit deep into Triphammer's back.

Triphammer grunted and set his face against the post. Crack, crack, crack, in quick succession the blows fell, businesslike. Gard remembered crouching hidden at the edge of a field, watching as an overseer had beaten a poor failing slave. White anger in his heart, then, and the resolve to die before he might ever be taken as a slave. And now-

"Hai," panted Triphammer, letting go of the bar and stepping back. Bright blood oozed from the stripes on his back. "Over and done, thank all the gods. Come on then, icicle. Your turn."

Icicle indeed; Gard stood frozen in his tracks. Hodrash looked at him in contempt, but there was pity in his face too, and he came to Gard saying loudly, "Not easy to move on those sticks, is it? Come along, boy." He hissed into Gard's ear, "Don't shame old Triphammer. If he endured, you should, a big lout like you."

So Gard let himself be led to the post, as though it were a nightmare and he had no power to resist, and let Hodrash help him to the bar, and Triphammer collected his crutches when they fell clattering to the floor. "You didn't have to bellow like that," said Triphammer aggrievedly, as he washed Gard's back. "Though I suppose if it was your first time, it must have been a nasty surprise. You'll have a bit more self- respect next time, I hope."

"I will never be beaten for their amusement again," said Gard.

"That's the spirit! Resolve to be a better boy."

Gard opened one eye to look over his shoulder at Triphammer. He wanted to strike him; but Triphammer's own back was still bleeding, untended, and the same pain must still be throbbing in his skin.

"I never thought you'd do a stupid thing like that, else I'd have warned you," Triphammer went on, rubbing salve into Gard's cuts. It burned, though not so badly as the scourge. "But I did tell you they were mages, didn't I?"

"I didn't think they had any real power," said Gard.

"Ah! Thought they were street conjurors, did you? The kind who pull colored scarves out of their fists? No, no, boy."

"There was a man, among my people," said Gard slowly. "Everyone said he was so wonderful, so wise, that he was going to save us all. And he didn't. Things only got worse."

"Very likely, with your jungle shamans. But there is such a thing as real Power, you see? And the masters have it. You won't forget that now, I daresay."

"Never again," said Gard.

When Gard's back had healed, Triphammer took him down to his new job.

"It's not so bad, the Pumping Station," Triphammer said, as they approached a cavern mouth that glowed red with firelight. "You'll have lots of company, at least. You'll be off your feet too. And I'd find it a more satisfying kind of work if I were you, because after all, it's more important, isn't it? Keeping the air and water moving and all. If it wasn't for these fellows, we'd all freeze and die of thirst. So that's some compensation, eh? And it could be worse. You could have drawn cesspit duty."

Triphammer rambled on at greater length about how fortunate Gard was, but his voice was drowned out as they entered the cavern. The cavern echoed with noise.

In the center of it a great fire roared; in the roof of it great turning blades of fans were mounted, to send warmed air into the hypocaust. The fans were connected by a series of gears of increasing size to a long mechanism set in the floor, a row of a dozen handles at which eleven figures labored, cranking them, and the laborers sang as they worked, a deep plaintive repetitive chant.

Another bank of gears was at the far side of the cavern, with a dozen slaves laboring there, hard by where a black river emerged from rock and hurried to vanish over a precipice into darkness, from which mist rose. These gears lifted water to a turning screw that vanished into a shaft in the ceiling. The fire was fed by two demons who went back and forth with armfuls of some red stone, a mountain of which was piled at the back of the cavern.

The demons turned and stared as Gard entered with Triphammer.

"It's the free boy," yelled Grattur.

"It's the little brother," yelled Engrattur. They dropped the stones they had been carrying and advanced on Gard, grinning.

"You see?" shouted Triphammer. "You've friends here already. Won't that be nice? Mind you don't learn stupid habits from them, though. They had a nice secure job carrying litters for Magister Hoptriot, and what did they go and do?"

"Stole his elixirs to make ourselves drunk!" said Grattur proudly.

"Stole his powders to get ourselves stoned!" said Engrattur.

"What's he doing here? Not gear duty?"

"Not gear duty, a fine boy like this?"

"Well, you know-the legs," said Triphammer, gesturing at Gard's crutches.

"Ah. But we'd heard he'd pulled duty on the Big Lantern."

"So he did! A nice secure job, and he went and lost it by breaking the rules," said Triphammer. The brothers howled with laughter.

"Broke the rules!"

"Broke the rules! Ah, he's one of us!"

"Don't encourage him, you fools," said Triphammer, looking about nervously.

"We say what we like down here, hothead," said Grattur.

"As long as the gears keep turning, they don't care what we say," said Engrattur.

"Yes. Well. Maybe so, and maybe not," said Triphammer. He turned to Gard. "I'm off to see to my other patients. Got a poor fellow lost his arm to the Blood Entertainments. No end of work retraining. You take your place now, and work hard. You'll be grateful, come the end of your shift, for a good exercise session with your legs."

Triphammer left the cavern. The brothers pointed to the empty seat in the nearer bank of gears. "That's your place."

"Welcome to the Pumping Station!"

Gard hobbled to the gear bank and took his seat under the massed glare of the other workers. Their song had fallen off-not to say fallen silent, in the unceasing commotion of that place.

"Who's this big prick?" demanded the nearest. Gard scowled at him, then started as he saw the speaker had no legs. His body ended at the hips, in a smooth asexual curve. Looking along the line, Gard could see that most of the others had suffered the same fate.

"What happened to your legs?" blurted Gard.

"I was made without any," said the other. He jerked his head in the direction of his fellow workers. "Them too. No need for legs, in this job. They cheated us."

"Only half- bodied them," said Grattur, leaning down. "But they're just as trapped as we are. That's the masters for you, eh?"

"Lure a poor creature in with promises of fun, and then leave off the most important bits," said Engrattur.

"Grab your damned handle and help us," said the worker. Gard obeyed. Raggedly, from the other end of the line, the song began again.

Excerpted from The House of the Stag by Kage Baker 
Copyright © 2008 by Kage Baker
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

You May Also Be Interested In

cover Buy

More formats
Audio eBook
Crossroads of Twilight
Book Ten of 'The Wheel of Time'
Wheel of Time

Tor Fantasy
In the tenth book of he Wheel of Time from the New York Times #1 bestselling author Robert Jordan, the world and the characters stand at a crossroads, and the...
  
cover Buy

More formats
eBook
The Lost Gate
Mither Mages

Tor Fantasy
Danny North knew from early childhood that his family was different, and that he was different from them. While his cousins were learning how to create the...
  Bonus
cover Buy

More formats
Audio eBook
Halo: Primordium
Book Two of the Forerunner Saga
Halo

Tor Books
A long time ago, I was a living, breathing human being. I went mad. I served my enemies. They became my only friends. Since then, I’ve traveled back and forth...