Listen! The seas whisper
and dream of breaking truths
in the crumbling of stone
Hantallit of Miner Sluice
Year of the Late Frost
One year before the Letherii Seventh Closure
The Ascension of the Empty Hold
Here, then, is the tale. Between the swish of the tides, when giants knelt down and became mountains. When they fell scattered on the land like the ballast stones of the sky, yet could not hold fast against the rising dawn. Between the swish of the tides, we will speak of one such giant. Because the tale hides with his own.
And because it amuses.
In darkness he closed his eyes. Only by day did he elect to open them, for he reasoned in this manner: night defies vision and so, if little can be seen, what value seeking to pierce the gloom?
Witness as well, this. He came to the edge of the land and discovered the sea, and was fascinated by the mysterious fluid. A fascination that became a singular obsession through the course of that fated day. He could see how the waves moved, up and down along the entire shore, a ceaseless motion that ever threatened to engulf all the land, yet ever failed to do so. He watched the sea through the afternoon’s high winds, witness to its wild thrashing far up along the sloping strand, and sometimes it did indeed reach far, but always it would sullenly retreat once more.
When night arrived, he closed his eyes and lay down to sleep. Tomorrow, he decided, he would look once more upon this sea.
In darkness he closed his eyes.
The tides came with the night, swirling up round the giant. The tides came and drowned him as he slept. And the water seeped minerals into his flesh, until he became as rock, a gnarled ridge on the strand. Then, each night for thousands of years, the tides came to wear away at his form. Stealing his shape.
But not entirely. To see him true, even to this day, one must look in darkness. Or close one’s eyes to slits in brightest sunlight. Glance askance, or focus on all but the stone itself.
Of all the gifts Father Shadow has given his children, this one talent stands tallest. Look away to see. Trust in it, and you will be led into Shadow. Where all truths hide.
Look away to see.
Now, look away.
The mice scattered as the deeper shadow flowed across snow brushed blue by dusk. They scampered in wild panic, but, among them, one’s fate was already sealed. A lone tufted, taloned foot snapped down, piercing furry flesh and crushing minute bones.
At the clearing’s edge, the owl had dropped silently from its branch, sailing out over the hard-packed snow and its litter of seeds, and the arc of its flight, momentarily punctuated by plucking the mouse from the ground, rose up once more, this time in a heavy flapping of wings, towards a nearby tree. It landed one-legged, and a moment later it began to feed.
The figure who jogged across the glade a dozen heartbeats later saw nothing untoward. The mice were all gone, the snow solid enough to leave no signs of their passing, and the owl froze motionless in its hollow amidst the branches of the spruce tree, eyes wide as they followed the figure’s progress across the clearing. Once it had passed, the owl resumed feeding.
Dusk belonged to the hunters, and the raptor was not yet done this night.
As he weaved through the frost-rimed humus of the trail, Trull Sengar’s thoughts were distant, making him heedless of the forest surrounding him, uncharacteristically distracted from all the signs and details it offered. He had not even paused to make propitiation to Sheltatha Lore, Daughter Dusk, the most cherished of the Three Daughters of Father Shadow—although he would make recompense at tomorrow’s sunset—and, earlier, he had moved unmindful through the patches of lingering light that blotted the trail, risking the attention of fickle Sukul Ankhadu, the Daughter of Deceit, also known as Dapple.
The Calach breeding beds swarmed with seals. They’d come early, surprising Trull in his collecting of raw jade above the shoreline. Alone, the arrival of the seals would engender only excitement in the young Tiste Edur, but there had been other arrivals, in ships ringing the bay, and the harvest had been well under way.
Letherii, the white-skinned peoples from the south.
He could imagine the anger of those in the village he now approached, once he delivered the news of his discovery—an anger he shared. This encroachment on Edur territories was brazen, the theft of seals that rightly belonged to his people an arrogant defiance of the old agreements.
There were fools among the Letherii, just as there were fools among the Edur. Trull could not imagine this broaching being anything but unsanctioned. The Great Meeting was only two cycles of the moon away. It served neither side’s purpose to spill blood now. No matter that the Edur would be right in attacking and destroying the intruder ships; the Letherii delegation would be outraged at the slaughter of its citizens, even citizens contravening the laws. The chances of agreeing upon a new treaty had just become minuscule.
And this disturbed Trull Sengar. One long and vicious war had just ended for the Edur: the thought of another beginning was too hard to bear.
He had not embarrassed his brothers during the wars of subjugation; on his wide belt was a row of twenty-one red-stained rivets, each one marking a coup, and among those seven were ringed in white paint, to signify actual kills. Only his elder brother’s belt sported more trophies among the male children of Tomad Sengar, and that was right and proper, given Fear Sengar’s eminence among the warriors of the Hiroth tribe.
Of course, battles against the five other tribes of the Edur were strictly bound in rules and prohibitions, and even vast, protracted battles had yielded only a handful of actual deaths. Even so, the conquests had been exhausting. Against the Letherii, there were no rules to constrain the Edur warriors. No counting coup. Just killing. Nor did the enemy need a weapon in hand—even the helpless and the innocent would know the sword’s bite. Such slaughter stained warrior and victim alike.
But Trull well knew that, though he might decry the killing that was to come, he would do so only to himself, and he would stride alongside his brothers, sword in hand, to deliver the Edur judgement upon the trespassers. There was no choice. Turn away from this crime and more would follow, in waves unending.
His steady jog brought him past the tanneries, with their troughs and stone-lined pits, to the forest edge. A few Letherii slaves glanced his way, quickly bowing in deference until he was past. The towering cedar logs of the village wall rose from the clearing ahead, over which woodsmoke hung in stretched streams. Fields of rich black soil spread out to either side of the narrow, raised track leading to the distant gate. Winter had only just begun to release its grip on the earth, and the first planting of the season was still weeks away. By midsummer, close to thirty different types of plants would fill these fields, providing food, medicine, fibres and feed for the livestock, many among the thirty of a flowering variety, drawing the bees from which honey and wax were procured. The tribe’s women oversaw the slaves in such harvesting. The men would leave in small groups to journey into the forest, to cut timber or hunt, whilst others set out in the Knarri ships to harvest from the seas and shoals.
Or so it should be, when peace ruled the tribes. The past dozen years had seen more war-parties setting out than any other kind, and so the people had on occasion suffered. Until the war, hunger had never threatened the Edur. Trull wanted an end to such depredations. Hannan Mosag, Warlock King of the Hiroth, was now overlord to all the Edur tribes. From a host of warring peoples, a confederacy had been wrought, although Trull well knew that it was a confederacy in name only. Hannan Mosag held as hostage the firstborn sons of the subjugated chiefs—his K’risnan Cadre—and ruled as dictator. Peace, then, at the point of a sword, but peace none the less.
A recognizable figure was striding from the palisade gate, approaching the fork in the trail where Trull now halted. ‘I greet you, Binadas,’ he said.
A spear was strapped to his younger brother’s back, a hide pack slung round one shoulder and resting against a hip; at the opposite side a single-edged longsword in a leather-wrapped wooden scabbard. Binadas was half a head taller than Trull, his visage as weathered as his buckskin clothes. Of Trull’s three brothers, Binadas was the most remote, evasive and thus difficult to predict, much less understand. He resided in the village only infrequently, seeming to prefer the wilds of the western forest and the mountains to the south. He had rarely joined others in raids, yet often when he returned he carried trophies of coup, and so none doubted his bravery.
‘You are winded, Trull,’ Binadas observed, ‘and I see distress once more upon your face.’
‘There are Letherii moored off the Calach beds.’
Binadas frowned. ‘I shall not delay you, then.’
‘Will you be gone long, brother?’
The man shrugged, then stepped past Trull, taking the westerly fork of the trail.
Trull Sengar moved on, through the gate and into the village.
Four smithies dominated this inland end of the vast walled interior, each surrounded by a deep sloping trench that drained into a buried channel that led away from the village and the surrounding fields. For what seemed years the forges had rung almost ceaselessly with the fashioning of weapons, and the stench of heavy, acrid fumes had filled the air, rising up to coat nearby trees in white-crusted soot. Now, as he passed, Trull saw that only two were occupied, and the dozen or so visible slaves were unhurried in their work.
Beyond the smithies ran the elongated, brick-lined storage chambers, a row of segmented beehive-shaped buildings that held surplus grains, smoked fish and seal meat, whale oil and harvested fibre plants. Similar structures existed in the deep forest surrounding each village—most of which were empty at the moment, a consequence of the wars.
The stone houses of the weavers, potters, carvers, lesser scribes, armourers and other assorted skilled citizens of the village rose round Trull once he was past the storage chambers. Voices called out in greeting, to which he made the minimal response that decorum allowed, such gestures signifying to his acquaintances that he could not pause for conversation.
The Edur warrior now hurried through the residential streets. Letherii slaves called villages such as this one cities, but no citizen saw the need for changing their word usage—a village it had been at birth, thus a village it would always be, no matter that almost twenty thousand Edur and thrice that number of Letherii now resided within it.
Shrines to the Father and his Favoured Daughter dominated the residential area, raised platforms ringed by living trees of the sacred Blackwood, the surface of the stone discs crowded with images and glyphs. Kurald Emurlahn played ceaselessly within the tree-ringed circle, rippling half-shapes dancing along the pictographs, the sorcerous emanations awakened by the propitiations that had accompanied the arrival of dusk.
Trull Sengar emerged onto the Avenue of the Warlock, the sacred approach to the massive citadel that was both temple and palace, and the seat of the Warlock King, Hannan Mosag. Black-barked cedars lined the approach. The trees were a thousand years old, towering over the entire village. They were devoid of branches except for the uppermost reaches. Invested sorcery suffused every ring of their midnight wood, bleeding out to fill the entire avenue with a shroud of gloom.
At the far end, a lesser palisade enclosed the citadel and its grounds, constructed of the same black wood, these boles crowded with carved wards. The main gate was a tunnel formed of living trees, a passage of unrelieved shadow leading to a footbridge spanning a canal in which sat a dozen K’orthan raider longboats. The footbridge opened out onto a broad flagstoned compound flanked by barracks and storehouses. Beyond stood the stone and timber longhouses of the noble families—those with blood-ties to Hannan Mosag’s own line—with their wood-shingled roofs and Blackwood ridgepoles, the array of residences neatly bisected by a resumption of the Avenue, across yet another footbridge to the citadel proper.
There were warriors training in the compound, and Trull saw the tall, broad-shouldered figure of his elder brother, Fear, standing with a half-dozen of his assistants nearby, watching the weapons practice. A pang of sympathy for those young warriors flickered through Trull. He himself had suffered beneath his brother’s critical, unrelenting eye during the years of his own schooling.
A voice hailed him and Trull glanced over to the other side of the compound, to see his youngest brother, Rhulad, and Midik Buhn. They had been doing their own sparring, it seemed, and a moment later Trull saw the source of their uncharacteristic diligence—Mayen, Fear’s betrothed, had appeared with four younger women in tow, probably on their way to the market, given the dozen slaves accompanying them. That they had stopped to watch the sudden, no doubt impromptu martial demonstration was of course obligatory, given the complex rules of courtship. Mayen was expected to treat all of Fear’s brothers with appropriate respect.
Although there was nothing untoward in the scene Trull looked upon, he nevertheless felt a tremor of unease. Rhulad’s eagerness to strut before the woman who would be his eldest brother’s wife had crept to the very edge of proper conduct. Fear was, in Trull’s opinion, displaying far too much indulgence when it came to Rhulad.
As have we all. Of course, there were reasons for that.
Rhulad had clearly bested his childhood companion in the mock contest, given the flushed pride in his handsome face. ‘Trull!’ He waved his sword. ‘I have drawn blood once this day, and now thirst for more! Come, scrape the rust off that sword at your side!’
‘Some other time, brother,’ Trull called back. ‘I must speak with our father without delay.’
Rhulad’s grin was amiable enough, but even from ten paces away Trull saw the flash of triumph in his clear grey eyes. ‘Another time, then,’ he said, with a final dismissive wave of his sword as he turned back to face the women.
But Mayen had gestured to her companions and the party was already moving off.
Rhulad opened his mouth to say something to her, but Trull spoke first. ‘Brother, I invite you to join me. The news I must give our father is of grave import, and I would that you are present, so that your words are woven into the discussion that will follow.’ An invitation that was normally made only to those warriors with years of battle on their belts, and Trull saw the sudden pride lighting his brother’s eyes.
‘I am honoured, Trull,’ he said, sheathing his sword.
Leaving Midik standing alone and tending to a sword-cut on his wrist, Rhulad joined Trull and they strode to the family longhouse.
Trophy shields cluttered the outside walls, many of them sun-faded by the centuries. Whale bones clung to the underside of the roof’s overhang. Totems stolen from rival tribes formed a chaotic arch over the doorway, the strips of fur, beaded hide, shells, talons and teeth looking like an elongated bird’s nest.
They passed within.
The air was cool, slightly acrid with woodsmoke. Oil lamps sat in niches along the walls, between tapestries and stretched furs. The traditional hearthstone in the centre of the chamber, where each family had once prepared its meals, remained stoked with tinder, although the slaves now worked in kitchens behind the longhouse proper, to reduce the risk of fires. Blackwood furniture marked out the various rooms, although no dividing walls were present. Hung from hooks on the crossbeams were scores of weapons, some from the earliest days, when the art of forging iron had been lost in the dark times immediately following Father Shadow’s disappearance, the rough bronze of these weapons pitted and warped.
Just beyond the hearthstone rose the bole of a living Blackwood, from which the gleaming upper third of a longsword thrust upward and outward at just above head height: a true Emurlahn blade, the iron treated in some manner the smiths had yet to rediscover. The sword of the Sengar family, signifier of their noble bloodline; normally, these original weapons of the noble families, bound against the tree when it was but a sapling, were, after centuries, gone from sight, lying as they did along the heartwood. But some twist in this particular tree had pried the weapon away, thus revealing that black and silver blade. Uncommon, but not unique.
Both brothers reached out and touched the iron as they passed.
They saw their mother, Uruth, flanked by slaves as she worked on the bloodline’s tapestry, finishing the final scenes of the Sengar participation in the War of Unification. Intent on her work, she did not look up as her sons strode past.
Tomad Sengar sat with three other noble-born patriarchs around a game board fashioned from a huge palmate antler, the playing pieces carved from ivory and jade.
Trull halted at the edge of the circle. He settled his right hand over the pommel of his sword, signifying that the words he brought were both urgent and potentially dangerous. Behind him, he heard Rhulad’s quickly indrawn breath.
Although none of the elders looked up, Tomad’s guests rose as one, while Tomad himself began putting away the game pieces. The three elders departed in silence, and a moment later Tomad set the game board to one side and settled back on his haunches.
Trull settled down opposite him. ‘I greet you, Father. A Letherii fleet is harvesting the Calach beds. The herds have come early, and are now being slaughtered. I witnessed these things with my own eyes, and have not paused in my return.’
Tomad nodded. ‘You have run for three days and two nights, then.’
‘And the Letherii harvest, it was well along?’
‘Father, by dawn this morning, Daughter Menandore will have witnessed the ships’ holds filled to bursting, and the sails filling with wind, the wake of every ship a crimson river.’
‘And new ships arriving to take their places!’ Rhulad hissed.
Tomad frowned at his youngest son’s impropriety, and made his disapproval clear with his next words. ‘Rhulad, take this news to Hannan Mosag.’
Trull sensed his brother’s flinch, but Rhulad nodded. ‘As you command, Father.’ He pivoted and marched away.
Tomad’s frown deepened. ‘You invited an unblooded warrior to this exchange?’
‘I did, Father.’
Trull said nothing, as was his choice. He was not about to voice his concern over Rhulad’s undue attentions towards Fear’s betrothed.
After a moment, Tomad sighed. He seemed to be studying his large, scarred hands where they rested on his thighs. ‘We have grown complacent,’ he rumbled.
‘Father, is it complacency to assume the ones with whom we treat are honourable?’
‘Yes, given the precedents.’
‘Then why has the Warlock King agreed to a Great Meeting with the Letherii?’
Tomad’s dark eyes flicked up to pin Trull’s own. Of all Tomad’s sons, only Fear possessed a perfect, unwavering match to his father’s eyes, in hue and indurative regard. Despite himself, Trull felt himself wilt slightly beneath that scornful gaze.
‘I withdraw my foolish question,’ Trull said, breaking contact to disguise his dismay. A measuring of enemies. This contravention, no matter its original intent, will become a double-pointed blade, given the inevitable response to it by the Edur. A blade both peoples shall grasp. ‘The unblooded warriors will be pleased.’
‘The unblooded warriors shall one day sit in the council, Trull.’
‘Is that not the reward of peace, Father?’
Tomad made no reply to that. ‘Hannan Mosag shall call the council. You must needs be present to relate what you witnessed. Further, the Warlock King has made a request of me, that I give my sons to him for a singular task. I do not think that decision will be affected by the news you deliver.’
Trull worked through his surprise, then said, ‘I passed Binadas on the way into the village—’
‘He has been informed, and will return within a moon’s time.’
‘Does Rhulad know of this?’
‘No, although he will accompany you. An unblooded is an unblooded.’
‘As you say, Father.’
‘Now, rest. You shall be awakened in time for the council.’
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Erikson. Originally published in Great Britain in 2004 by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers. All rights reserved.