The Tower of the Seneschal
Twenty-nine years later…
The speckled blue eagle floated high in the sky above the hopes and works of mankind. With a wingspan as wide as a man was tall, it drifted lazily through the air thermals rising off the vast inland plains of the kingdom of Achar. Almost directly below lay the silver-blue expanse of Grail Lake, flowing into the great River Nordra as it coiled through Achar toward the Sea of Tyrre. The lake was enormous and rich in fish, and the eagle fed well there. But more than fish, the eagle fed on the refuse of the lake-side city of Carlon. Pristine as the ancient city might be with its pink and cream stone walls and gold and silver plated roofs; pretty as it might be with its tens of thousands of pennants and banners and flags fluttering in the wind, the Carlonites ate and shat like every other creature in creation, and the piles of refuse outside the city walls supported enough mice and rats to feed a thousand eagles and hawks.
The eagle had already feasted earlier that morning and was not interested in gorging again so soon. It let itself drift further east across Grail Lake until the white-walled seven-sided Tower of the Seneschal rose one hundred paces into the air to greet the sun. There the eagle tipped its wing and its balance, veering slowly to the north, looking for a shady afternoon roost. It was an old and wise eagle and knew that it would probably have to settle for the shady eaves of some farmer’s barn in this most treeless of lands.
As it flew it pondered the minds and ways of these men who feared trees so much that they’d cut down most of the ancient forests once covering this land. It was the way of the Axe and of the Plough.
* * *
Far below the eagle, Jayme, Brother-Leader of the Religious Brotherhood of the Seneschal, most senior mediator between the one god Artor the Ploughman and the hearts and souls of the Acharites, paced across his comfortable chamber in the upper reaches of the Tower of the Seneschal.
“The news grows more disturbing,” he muttered, his kindly face crinkling into deep seams of worry. For years he’d refused to accept the office his fellow brothers had pressed on him, and now, five years after he’d finally bowed to their wishes and accepted that Artor himself must want him to hold supreme office within the Seneschal, Jayme feared that it would be he who might well have to see the Seneschal—nay, Achar itself—through its greatest crisis in a thousand years.
He sighed and turned to stare out the window. Even though it was only early DeadLeaf-month, the first week of the first month of autumn, the wind had turned icy several days before, and the windows were tightly shut against the cold. A fire blazed in the mottled green marble fireplace behind his desk, the light of the flames picking out the inlaid gold tracery in the stone and the silver, crystal and gold on the mantel.
The younger of his two assistants stepped forward. “Do you believe the reports to be true, Brother-Leader?”
Jayme turned to reassure Gilbert, whom he thought might yet prove to have a tendency toward alarm and panic. Who knew? Perhaps such tendencies would serve him well over the coming months. “My son, it has been so many generations since anyone has reliably spotted any of the Forbidden Ones that, for all we know, these reports might be occasioned only by superstitious peasants frightened by rabbits gambolling at dusk.”
Gilbert rubbed his tonsured head anxiously and glanced across at Moryson, Jayme’s senior assistant and first adviser, before speaking again. “But so many of these reports come from our own brothers, Brother-Leader.”
Jayme resisted the impulse to retort that most of the brothers in the northern Retreat of Gorkentown, where many of these reports originated, were little more than superstitious peasants themselves. But Gilbert was young, and had never travelled far from the glamor and cultivation of Carlon, or the pious and intellectual atmosphere of the Tower of the Seneschal where he had been educated and admitted into holy orders to serve Artor.
And Jayme himself feared that it was more than rabbits that had frightened his Gorkentown brethren. There were reports coming out of the small village of Smyrton, far to the north-east, that needed to be considered as well.
Jayme sighed again and sat down in the comfortable chair at his desk. One of the benefits of the highest religious office in the land were the physical comforts of the Brother-Leader’s quarters high in the Tower. Jayme was not hypocritical enough to pretend that, at his age, his aching joints did not appreciate the well-made and cushioned furniture, pleasing both to eye and to body, that decorated his quarters. Nor did he pretend not to appreciate the fine foods and the invitations to the best houses in Carlon. When he did not have to attend to the administration of the Seneschal or to the social or religious duties of his position, there for the stimulation of his mind were thousands of leather-bound books lining the shelves of his quarters, with religious icons and portraits collected over past generations decorating every other spare space of wall and bringing some measure of peace and comfort to his soul. His bright blue eyes, still sharp after so many years spent seeking out the sins of the Acharites, travelled indulgently over one particularly fine representation of the Divine Artor on the occasion that he had presented mankind with the gift of The Plough, a gift that had enabled mankind to rise above the limits of barbarity and cultivate both land and mind.
Brother Moryson, a tall, lean man with a deeply furrowed brow, regarded his Brother-Leader with fondness and respect. They had known each other for many decades; having both been appointed as the Seneschal’s representatives to the royal court in their youth. Later they had moved to the royal household itself. Too many years ago, thought Moryson, looking at Jayme’s hair and beard which were now completely white. His own thin brown hair, he knew, had more than a few speckles of gray.
When Jayme had finally accepted the position of Brother-Leader, a post he would hold until his death, his first request had been that his old friend and companion Moryson join him as first assistant and adviser. His second request, one that upset many at court and in the royal household itself, was that his protégé, Axis, be appointed BattleAxe of the Axe-Wielders, the elite military and crusading wing of the Seneschal. Fume as King Priam might, the Axe-Wielders were under the control of the Seneschal, and within the Seneschal a Brother-Leader’s requests were as law. Royal displeasure notwithstanding, Axis had become the youngest ever commander of the Axe-Wielders.
Moryson, who had kept out of the conversation to this point, stepped forward, knowing Jayme was waiting for his advice. “Brother-Leader,” he said, bowing low from the waist with unfeigned respect and tucking his hands inside the voluminous sleeves of his habit, “perhaps it would help if we reviewed the evidence for a moment. If we consider all the reports that have come in over the past few months perhaps we might see a pattern.”
Jayme nodded and waved both his assistants into the intricately carved chairs that sat across from his desk. Crafted generations ago from one of the ancient trees that had dominated the landscape of Achar, the well-oiled wood glowed comfortingly in the firelight. Better that wood served man in this way than free-standing on land that could be put to the Plough. Thick stands of trees were always better cut down than left standing to offer shade and shelter to the demons of the Forbidden.
“As always your logic comforts me, Brother Moryson. Gilbert, perhaps you could indulge us with a summation of events as you understand them thus far. You are the one, after all, to have read all the reports coming in from the north.”
Neither Jayme nor Moryson particularly liked Gilbert; an unbrotherly sentiment, they knew, but Gilbert was a rather pretentious youth from a high-born Carlonite family, whose generally abrasive personality was not helped by a sickly complexion, thin shanks and sweaty palms. Nevertheless, he had a razor-sharp mind that could absorb seemingly unrelated items of information from a thousand different sources and correlate them into patterns well before anyone else could. He was also unbelievably ambitious, and both Jayme and Moryson felt he could be better observed and controlled if he were under the eye of the Brother-Leader himself.
Gilbert shuffled back into his seat until his spine was ramrod straight against the back of the chair and prepared to speak his mind. Both Moryson and Jayme repressed small smiles, but they waited attentively.
“Brothers under Artor,” Gilbert began, “since the unusually late thaw of this spring,” both his listeners grimaced uncomfortably, “the Seneschal has been receiving numerous reports of…unusual…activities from the frontier regions of Achar. Firstly from our brethren in the religious Retreat in Gorkentown, who have reported that the commander of Gorkenfort has lost many men on patrol during this last winter.” The small municipality of Gorkentown, two hundred leagues north, huddled for protection about the military garrison of Gorkenfort. Centuries previously, the monarchy of Achar had established the fort in Gorken Pass in northern Ichtar; it was then and remained the most vital link in Achar’s northern defenses.
“One shouldn’t expect every one of your men to come back from patrol when you send them out to wander the northern wastes during the depths of winter,” Jayme muttered testily, but Gilbert only frowned slightly at this interruption and continued.
“An unusual number of men, Brother-Leader. The soldiers who are stationed at Gorkenfort are among the best in Achar. They come from the Duke of Ichtar’s own home guard. Neither Duke Borneheld, nor Gorkenfort’s commander, Lord Magariz, expect to get through the winter patrols unscathed, but neither do they expect to lose over eighty-six men. Normally it is the winter itself that is the garrison’s enemy, but now both Duke Borneheld and Lord Magariz believe they may have another enemy out there amid the winter snows.”
“Has the Duke Borneheld seen any evidence for this with his own eyes, Gilbert?” Moryson asked smoothly. “Over the past year Borneheld seems to have preferred fawning at the king’s feet to inspecting his northern garrison.”
Gilbert’s eyes glinted briefly. These two old men might think he was a conceited fool, but he had good sources of information.
“Duke Borneheld returned to Ichtar during Flower-month and Rose-month, Brother Moryson. Not only did he spend some weeks at Hsingard and Sigholt, but he also travelled to the far north to speak with Magariz and the soldiers of Gorkenfort to hear and see for himself what has been happening. Perhaps, Brother Moryson, you were too busy counting the tithes as they came in to be fully aware of events in the outside world.”
“Gilbert!” The Brother-Leader’s voice was rigid with rebuke, and Gilbert inclined his head in a show of apology to Moryson. Moryson caught Jayme’s eye over Gilbert’s bowed head and a sharp look passed between them. Gilbert would receive a far stronger censure from his Brother-Leader when Jayme had him alone.
“If I might continue, Brother-Leader,” Gilbert said deferentially.
Jayme angrily jerked his head in assent, his age-spotted fingers almost white where they gripped the armrests of his chair.
“Lord Magariz was able to retrieve some of the bodies of those he had lost. It appears they had been…eaten. Chewed. Nibbled. Tasted.” Gilbert’s voice was dry, demonstrating an unexpected flair for the macabre. “There are no known animals in either northern Ichtar or Ravensbund that would attack, let alone eat, a grown man in armor and defended with sword and spear.”
“The great icebears, perhaps?” Jayme asked, his anger fading as his perplexion grew. Occasionally stories filtered down about man-eating icebears in the extreme north of Ravensbund.
“Gorkenfort is too far inland for the icebears, Brother-Leader. They would either have to walk down the Gorken Pass for some sixty leagues or shortcut across the lesser arm of the Icescarp Alps to reach it.” He paused, reflecting. “And icebears have no head for heights. No,” Gilbert shook his head slowly, “I fear the icebears are not responsible.”
“Then perhaps the Ravensbundmen themselves,” suggested Moryson. Ravensbund was, theoretically, a province of Achar and under the administration of the Duke of Ichtar on behalf of the King of Achar. But Ravensbund was such an extraordinarily wild and barren place, inhabited by uncouth tribes who spent nearly all their time hunting seals and great icebears in the extreme north, that both the King of Achar, Priam, and his loyal liege, Duke Borneheld of Ichtar, generally left the place to its own devices. Consequently, the garrison at Gorkenfort was, to all intents and purposes, the northernmost point of effective Acharite administration and military power in the kingdom. Although the Ravensbundmen were not much trouble, most Acharites regarded them as little more than barbaric savages.
“I don’t think so, Brother Moryson. Apparently the Ravensbundmen have suffered as badly, if not worse, than the garrison at Gorkenfort. Indeed, many of the Ravensbund tribes are moving south into Ichtar. The tales they tell are truly terrible.”
“And they are?” Jayme prompted, his fingers gently tapping his bearded chin as he listened.
“Of the winter gone mad, and of the wind come alive. Of ice creatures all but invisible to the eye inhabiting the wind and hungering for human flesh. They say the only warning that comes before an attack is a whisper on the wind. Yet if these creatures are invisible before attack, then they are generally visible after. Once they have gorged, the creatures are slimed with the blood of their victims. The Ravensbundmen are afraid of them—afraid enough to move out of their homelands—and the Ravensbundmen, savages as they are, have never been afraid of anything before.”
“Have they tried to attack them?”
“Yes. But the creatures are somehow…insubstantial. Steel passes through their bodies. And they do not fear. If any soldiers get close enough to attack them, it is generally the last thing they get to do in this life. Only a few have escaped encounters with these…”
“Forbidden Ones?” Moryson whispered, his amiable face reflecting the anxiety that such a term provoked in all of them. None of them had wanted to be the first to mention this possibility.
“Wait, Moryson,” Jayme counselled. “Wait until we have heard all of what Gilbert has to say.” All three men had forgotten the tension and anger that Gilbert’s jibe had caused moments before.
“Magariz’s soldiers have seen similar apparitions, although most who have been close enough to see them have died,” Gilbert said slowly. “One man they found alive. Just. He died a few minutes after Magariz arrived. He said, and this report was Lord Magariz’s own, that he had been attacked by creatures which had no form and which had suffered no wounds at the edge of his sword.”
“And how did they wound this soldier? I thought the Gorkenfort garrison were among the best armored soldiers in the realm.”
“Brother-Leader, Magariz understood from the soldier’s last words that the creatures surrounded him—then simply oozed through the gaps in his armor until they lay between it and his skin. Then they began to eat.”
Gilbert stopped for a moment, and all three men contemplated such a horrific death. Jayme closed his eyes; may Artor hold him and keep him in His care, he prayed silently.
“I wonder why they left him alive?” Moryson wondered softly.
Gilbert’s voice was caustic when he replied. “They had already consumed the rest of his patrol. One assumes they were reasonably full.”
Jayme abruptly pushed himself up from his chair and moved over to a wall cabinet. “I think Artor would forgive us if we imbibed a little wine this early in the afternoon, Brothers. Considering we still have the reports from Smyrton to review, I think we might need it.”
He poured out three glass goblets of deep red wine and handed them out before reseating himself behind his desk.
“Furrow wide, furrow deep,” he intoned.
“Furrow wide, furrow deep,” Moryson and Gilbert answered together, repeating the ritual phrases that served all Artor-fearing Acharites as blessings and greetings for most occasions in life.
Both ritual and wine comforted the men, and soon they were ready to resume their considerations.
“And what else from the north, Gilbert?” Jayme asked, holding his glass between both palms to warm the remaining wine and hoping the wine he had already consumed would beat back the chill gnawing at his soul.
“Well, the winter was particularly severe. Even here we suffered from extreme cold during Raven-month and Hungry-month, while the thaw came in Flower-month, a month later than usual. In the north the cold was even more extreme, and I believe the winter snow and ice persisted in places above the Urqhart Hills throughout the summer.” Even northern Ichtar usually thawed completely for the summer.
Jayme raised his eyebrows. Gilbert’s intelligence was good indeed. Did he have sources that Jayme did not know about? No matter, what was important was that much of northern Ichtar had spent the summer encased in ice when usually the ice and snow disappeared by Thaw-month.
“If the ice persisted above the Urqhart Hills, then Gorkentown must also have remained in conditions close to winter,” Jayme pondered. “Tell me, Gilbert, did the attacks continue through the warmer months?”
Gilbert shook his head and took another sip of wine. “No. The creatures appeared only during the most severe weather in the depths of winter. Perhaps they have gone again.”
“And perhaps they have not. If the extreme north remained encased in ice during summer then I dread the winter ahead. And if they depend on extreme weather conditions, then does that mean they will be back?”
“We should also consider the reports of our brothers in the Retreat at Gorkentown, Brother-Leader.” The Brotherhood of the Seneschal had a small retreat in Gorkentown for those brothers who preferred a more ascetic life, spent in contemplation of Artor, to the comfortable life of the Tower of the Seneschal.
“Yes, Gilbert. Perhaps we should.”
“Our brothers believe that the Forbidden might be behind this.”
“And their reasons for thinking so, Gilbert?”
“The reports and experiences of the garrison for one, Brother-Leader. But also several of the brothers have reported that demons inhabit their dreams on those nights when the wind is fiercest.”
Jayme chuckled softly. “Not reliable. You give me bad dreams most nights, Gilbert, and I am not yet ready to class you as one of the Forbidden.”
All three men smiled, Gilbert more stiffly than the other two. Moryson spoke gently, turning the younger brother’s mind from Jayme’s heavy-handed attempt at humor. “Have they reported seeing anything, Gilbert?”
“Neither Gorkenfort nor Gorkentown has been attacked; only small patrols or individuals outside the walls. No, the brothers have actually seen little. But they have observed the mood of the town and garrison, and they say that dark thoughts and moods lay heavily across the inhabitants. Extra prayers are offered to Artor every day, but the fear grows.”
“If only there was someone alive who actually knew anything about the Forbidden!” Jayme was angry at his inability to understand the nature of the threat in northern Ichtar. He stood up from his chair again and paced restlessly across the chamber.
“Gilbert. Forget the mutterings of the brothers in Gorkentown for the moment. What news out of Smyrton?”
“Unusual happenings there, too, but not the same as in northern Ichtar.”
Smyrton was a largish village at the extreme edge of the Seagrass Plains, the main grain-producing area of Achar. It was the closest settled area to the Forbidden Valley. If the Forbidden ever came swarming over Achar again, then the valley was the obvious place they would emerge, a natural conduit out of the Shadowsward, the darkest and most evil place bordering Achar. One day, thought Jayme, we’ll take the axe to the Shadowsward as well.
“The local Plough-Keeper, Brother Hagen, has sent reports of strange creatures sighted near the Forbidden Valley and, more disturbing, near the village itself. There have been about five sightings over the past several months.”
“Are they…?” Moryson began, but Gilbert shook his head.
“Nothing like the strange creatures of ice and snow that the soldiers of Gorkenfort report, Brother Moryson. Yet in their own way, they are just as strange. Man-like—but somehow alien.”
“In what way?” asked Jayme testily.
Gilbert had to swivel a little in his chair to follow the figure of his Brother-Leader as he paced the floor from window to fireplace and back again. “They are short and muscular, and very dark, making them extremely hard to see at night. They evade the villagers rather than seek them out. Each time one is spotted it has been carrying a child with it, and Brother Hagen reports that although no children from the village are missing, the villagers bolt their doors and windows fast at dusk. Perhaps they have stolen the children from somewhere else.”
“You said, ‘somehow alien’.” Jayme stopped before Gilbert’s chair and folded his arms in frustration. “What do you mean by that?”
Gilbert shrugged. “I only relate what Brother Hagen relates, Brother-Leader. He was not specific on that point.”
Jayme sighed and patted Gilbert on the shoulder. “I cannot but think the Forbidden are moving again.”
Spoken words about the Forbidden were enough to make all three men shiver with foreboding. Every Acharite living knew that a thousand years previously, during the Wars of the Axe, their forebears had driven the frightful races that had once dominated Achar with their evil sorcery back across the Fortress Ranges into the Shadowsward and the Icescarp Alps. Then, with the help of the Axe-Wielders, the Acharites had cut down the massive forests that had once harbored the Forbidden races, putting the cleared land under Plough and civilization. It was part of Acharite legend that one day the Forbidden would seethe back across the Fortress Ranges and slither down from the Icescarp Alps to try to reclaim the land that had once been theirs. Every parent scared their children with the threat.
Jayme walked slowly over to the fire, his shoulders stooped. He raised his cold hands to the flames until he noticed with horror that they were trembling, and quickly bunched them into fists and hid them in the folds of his gown. Though nothing as yet connected the two sets of reports from Gorkenfort and Smyrton, Jayme was scared they were connected. The responsibility of his position weighed heavily on him.
Moryson and Gilbert watched silently, both aware of the seriousness of these reports, both glad they were not the ones who had to make the decisions. Moryson scratched his chin reflectively. He knew dark events were upon them.
Slowly Jayme turned back to his assistants. “Tomorrow Carlon celebrates King Priam’s nameday. The celebrations will end with a banquet in the royal palace to which Priam has extended me an invitation. He has also advised me that we will need to meet privately to discuss the problem at Gorkentown. Neither Priam nor the Seneschal can meet this threat alone. Achar will have to stand united as it never has before if we can hope to survive the threat of the Forbidden. Artor help us, now and forever.”
“Now and forever,” the other two echoed, draining the dregs of their wine.
Copyright © 1995 by Sara Douglass