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Forge of Darkness
In these gifts the shapes of adoration
THERE WILL BE PEACE.
The words were carved deep across the lintel stone's facing in the ancient language of the Azathanai. The cuts looked raw, untouched by wind or rain, and because of this, they might have seemed as youthful and as innocent as the sentiment itself. A witness lacking literacy would see only the violence of the mason's hand, but surely it is fair to say that the ignorant are not capable of irony. Yet like the house-hound who by scent alone will know a guest's true nature, the uncomprehending witness surrenders nothing when it comes to subtle truths. Accordingly, the savage wounding of the lintel stone's basalt face remained imposing and significant to the unversed, even as the freshness of the carved words gave pause to those who understood them.
There will be peace. Conviction is a fist of stone at the heart of all things. Its form is shaped by sure hands, the detritus quickly swept from view. It is built to withstand, built to defy challenge, and when cornered it fights without honour. There is nothing more terrible than conviction.
It was generally held that no one of Azathanai blood could be found within Dracons Hold. Indeed, few of those weary-eyed creatures from beyond Bareth Solitude ever visited the city-state of Kurald Galain, except as stone-cutters and builders of edifices, summoned to some task or venture. But the Hold's lord was not a man to welcome questions in matters of personal inclination. If by an Azathanai hand ambivalent words were carved above the threshold to the Hold's Great House - as if to announce a new age with either a promise or a threat - that was solely the business of Lord Draconus, Consort to Mother Dark.
In any case, it was not often of late that the Hold was home to its lord, now that he stood at her side in the Citadel of Kharkanas, making his sudden return after a night's hard ride both disquieting and the source of whispered rumours.
The thunder of horse hoofs approached through the faint light of the sun's rise - a light ever muted by the Hold's nearness to the heart of Mother Dark's power - and that sound grew until it rumbled through the arched gateway and pounded into the courtyard, scattering red clay from the road beyond. Neck arched by the reins held tight in his master's gloved hands, the warhorse Calaras drew up, breath billowing, lather streaming down its sleek black neck and chest. The sight gave the onrushing grooms pause.
The huge man commanding this formidable beast then dismounted, abandoning the reins to dangle, and strode without comment into the Great House. Household servants scrambled like hens from his path.
There was no hint of emotion upon the Lord's face, but this was a detail well known and not unexpected. Draconus gave nothing away, and perhaps it was the mystery in those so-dark eyes that had ever been the source of his power. His likeness, brushed by the brilliant artist Kadaspala of House Enes, now commanded pride of place in the Citadel's Hall of Portraits, and it was indeed a hand of genius that had managed to capture the unknowable in Draconus's visage, the hint of something beyond the perfection of his Tiste features, a deepening behind the proof of his pure blood. It was the image of a man who was king in all but name.
Arathan stood at the window of the Old Tower, having taken position there upon hearing the bell announcing his father's imminent return. He watched Draconus ride into the courtyard, eyes missing nothing, one hand up to his face as he bit skin and pieces of nail from his fingers - the tips were red nubs, swollen with endless spit, and on occasion they bled, staining the sheets of his bed at night. He studied the movements of Draconus as the huge man dismounted, carelessly abandoning Calaras to the grooms, to then stride towards the entrance.
The three-storey tower commanded the northwest corner of the Great House, with the house's main doors to the right and out of sight from the upper floor's window. At moments like these, Arathan would tense, breath held, straining with all his senses for the moment when his father crossed the threshold and set foot on the hard bared stones of the vestibule. He waited, for a change in the atmosphere, a trembling in the ancient walls of the edifice, the very thunder of the Lord's presence.
As ever, there was nothing. And Arathan never knew if the failing was his, or if his father's power was sealed away inside that imposing frame and behind those unerring eyes, contained by a will verging on perfection. He suspected the former - he saw how others reacted, the tightening of expressions among the highborn, the shying away of those of lesser rank, and how on occasion both reactions warred within the same individual. Draconus was feared for reasons Arathan could not comprehend.
In truth, he did not expect more of himself in this matter. He was a bastard son, after all, and a child born of a mother he never knew and had never heard named. In his seventeen years of life he had been in the same room with his father perhaps twenty times; surely no more than that, and not once had Draconus addressed him. He was not privileged to dine in the main hall; he was tutored in private and taught the use of weapons alongside the recruits of the Houseblades. Even in the days and nights immediately following his near-drowning, when in his ninth winter he'd fallen through ice, he'd been attended to by the guards' healer, and had received no visitors barring his three younger half-sisters, who had peered in through the doorway - a trio of round, wide-eyed faces - only to immediately flee down the corridor voicing squeals.
For years, their reaction upon seeing him had led Arathan to believe he was unaccountably ugly, a conviction that had first brought his hands to his face in a habit of hiding his features, and soon the kiss of his own fingertips served for all the tactile reassurance he required. He no longer believed himself to be ugly. Simply ... plain, not worthy of notice by anyone.
Though no one ever spoke of his mother, Arathan knew that she had named him. His father's predilections on such matters were far crueller. He told himself that he remembered his half-sisters' mother, a brooding, heavy woman with a strange face, who had either died or departed shortly after weaning the triplets she had borne, but a later comment from Tutor Sagander suggested that the woman he'd remembered had been a wet-nurse, a witch of the Dog-Runners who dwelt beyond the Solitude. Still, he preferred to think of her as the girls' mother, too kind-hearted to give them the names they now possessed - names that, to Arathan's mind, shackled each sister like a curse.
Envy. Spite. Malice. They remained infrequent visitors to his company. Flighty as birds glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Whispering from around corners in the corridors and behind doors he walked past. Clearly, they found him a source of great amusement.
Now in the first years of adulthood, Arathan saw himself as a prisoner, or perhaps a hostage in the traditional manner of alliance-binding among the Greater Houses and Holds. He was not of the Dracons family; though there had been no efforts at hiding his bloodline, in fact the very indifference of this detail only emphasized its irrelevance. Seeds spill where they may, but a sire must look into the eyes to make the child his own. And this Draconus would not do. Besides, there was little of Tiste blood in him - he had not the fair skin or tall frame, and his eyes, while dark, lacked the mercurial ambivalence of the pure-born. In these details, he was the same as his sisters. Where, then, the blood of their father?
It hides. Somehow, it hides deep within us.
Draconus would not acknowledge him, but that was no cause for resentment in Arathan's mind. Man or woman, once childhood was past the world beyond must be met, and a place in it made, by a will entirely dependent upon its own resources. And the shaping of that world, its weight and weft, was a match to the strength of that will. In this way, Kurald Galain society was a true map of talent and capacity. Or so Sagander told him, almost daily.
Whether in the court of the Citadel or among the March villages, there could be no dissembling. The insipid and the incompetent had no place in which to hide their failings. 'This is natural justice, Arathan, and thus by every measure it is superior to the justice of, say, the Forulkan, or the Jaghut.' Arathan had no good reason to believe otherwise. This world, so forcefully espoused by his tutor, was all he had ever known.
And yet he ... doubted.
Sandalled feet slapped closer up the spiral stairs behind him, and Arathan turned in some surprise. He had long since claimed this tower for his own, made himself lord of its dusty webs, its shadows and echoes. Only here could he be himself, with no one batting his hand away from his mouth, or mocking his ruined fingertips. No one visited him here; the house-bells called him when lessons or meals were imminent; he measured his days and nights by those muted chimes.
The footsteps approached. His heart thumped in his chest. He snatched his hand away from his mouth, wiped the fingers on his tunic, and stood facing the gap of the stairs.
The figure that climbed into view startled him. One of his half-sisters, the shortest of the three - last from the womb - her face flushed with the effort of the climb, her breath coming in little gasps. Dark eyes found his. 'Arathan.'
She had never before addressed him. He did not know how to respond.
'It's me,' she said, eyes flaring as if in anger. 'Malice. Your sister, Malice.'
'Names shouldn't be curses,' Arathan said without thinking.
If his words shocked her, the only indication was a faint tilt of her head as she regarded him. 'So you're not the simpleton Envy says you are. Good. Father will be ... relieved.'
'You are summoned, Arathan. Right now - I'm to bring you to him.'
She scowled. 'She knew you'd be hiding here, like a redge in a hole. Said you were just as thick. Are you? Is she right? Are you a redge? She's always right - or so she'll tell you.' She darted close and took Arathan's left wrist, tugged him along as she returned to the stairs.
He did not resist.
Father had summoned him. He could think of only one reason for that.
I am about to be cast out.
The dusty air of the Old Tower stairs swirled round them as they descended, and the peace of this place felt shattered. But soon it would settle again, and the emptiness would return, like an ousted king to his throne, and Arathan knew that he would never again challenge that domain. It had been a foolish conceit, a childish game.
'In natural justice, Arathan, the weak cannot hide, unless we grant them the privilege. And understand, it is ever a privilege, for which the weak should be eternally grateful. At any given moment, should the strong will it, they can swing a sword and end the life of the weak. And that will be today's lesson. Forbearance.'
A redge in a hole - the beast's life is tolerated, until its presence becomes a nuisance, and then the dogs are loosed down the earthen tunnel, into the warrens, and somewhere beneath the ground the redge is torn apart, ripped to pieces. Or driven into the open, where wait spears and swords eager to take its life.
Either way, the creature was clearly unmindful of the privileges granted to it.
All the lessons Sagander delivered to Arathan circled like wolves around weakness, and the proper place of those cursed with it. No, Arathan was not a simpleton. He understood well enough.
And, one day, he would hurt Draconus, in ways not yet imaginable. Father, I believe I am your weakness.
In the meantime, as he hurried along behind Malice, her grip tight on his wrist, he brought up his other hand, and chewed.
Master-at-arms Ivis wiped sweat from his brow while he waited outside the door. The summons had come while he'd been in the smithy, instructing the iron-master on the proper honing of a folded edge. It was said that those with Hust blood knew iron as if they'd suckled its molten stream from their mother's tit, and Ivis had no doubt in this matter - the smith was a skilled man and a fine maker of weapons, but Ivis possessed Hust blood on his father's side, and though he counted himself a soldier through and through, he could hear a flawed edge even as a blade was being drawn from its scabbard.
Iron-master Gilal took it well enough, although of course there was no telling. He'd ducked his head and muttered his apologies as befitted his lesser rank, and as Ivis left he heard the huge man bellowing at his apprentices - none of whom was in any way responsible for the flawed edge, since the final stages of blade preparation were always by the iron-master's own hand. With that tirade Ivis knew that no venom would come back his way from the iron-master.
He told himself now, as he waited outside his lord's Chamber of Campaigns, that the sweat stinging his eyes was a legacy of the four forges in the smithy, the air wretched with heat and bitter metal, with coal dust and smoke, with the frantic efforts of the workers as they struggled with the day's demands.
Abyss knew, the smithy was no factory, and yet it had achieved an impressive rate of stock production in the past two months, and not one of the new recruits coming to the Great House was left unarmoured or weaponless for long. Making his task that much easier.
But now the Lord was back, unexpectedly, and Ivis scoured his mind for the possible cause. Draconus was a measured man, not prone to precipitous acts. He had the patience of stone, but all knew the risk of wronging him. Something had brought him back to the Great House, and a night's hard ride would not have left him in a good mood.
And now a summons, only to be left waiting here outside the door. No, none of this was normal.
A moment later he heard footsteps and the portal clicked open. Ivis found himself staring into the face of the House tutor, Sagander. The old scholar had the look of a man who had been frightened and was still fighting its aftermath. Meeting Ivis's eyes, he nodded. 'Captain, the Lord will see you now.'
That, and nothing more. Sagander edged past, made his way down the passageway, walking as if he'd aged a half-dozen years in the last few moments. At the notion, Ivis berated himself. He hardly ever saw the tutor, who overslept every morning and was often the last to make bed at night - there was no reason to imagine Sagander was anything more than disquieted by the early meeting, and perhaps an understandable stiffness as came with the elderly this early in the morning.
Drawing a steadying breath, Ivis strode into the chamber.
The old title of this room was acquiring new significance, but the campaigns of decades past had been conducted against foreign enemies; this time the only enemy was the mutually exclusive ambitions of the Holds and Greater Houses. The Lord's charnel house smithy was nothing more than reasonable caution these days. Besides, as Mother Dark's Consort, there was nothing unusual in Draconus bolstering the complement of his Houseblades until it was second only to that of Mother Dark herself. For some reason, other Holds were not as sanguine about the martial expansion of House Dracons.
The politics of the matter held no real interest for Ivis. His task was to train this modest army.
The round table dominating the centre of the room had been cut from the bole of a three-thousand-year-old blackwood. Its rings were bands of red and black beneath the thick, amber varnish. It had been placed in this chamber by the founder of the House half a thousand years ago, to mark her extraordinary rise from Lesser House to Greater House. Since her sudden death ten years past, her adopted son, Draconus, commanded the family holdings; and if Srela's ambitions had been impressive, they were nothing compared to those of her chosen son.
There were no portraits on the walls, and the heavy wool hangings, undyed and raw, were there for warmth alone, as was the thick rug underfoot.
Draconus was breaking his fast at the table: bread and watered wine. A scatter of scrolls surrounded the pewter plate before him.
When it seemed that Draconus had not noticed his arrival, Ivis said, 'Lord.'
'Report on his progress, captain.'
Ivis frowned, resisted wiping at his brow again. Upon reflection, he'd known this was coming. The boy was in his year, after all. 'He possesses natural skill, Lord, as befits his sire. But his hands are weak yet - that habit of gnawing on his nails has left the pads soft and easily torn.'
'Is he diligent?'
Still Draconus was yet to look up, intent on his meal.
'At his exercises, Lord? It is hard to say. There is an air of the effortless about him. For all that I work him, or set the best recruits against him on the sand, he remains ... unpressed.'
Draconus grunted. 'And does that frustrate you, captain?'
'That I have yet to truly test him, yes, Lord, it does. I do not have as much time with him as I would like, though I understand the necessity for higher tutoring. Still, as a young swordsman, there is much to admire in his ease.'
Finally, the Lord glanced up. 'Is there, now?' He leaned back, pushing the plate away with its remnants of crust and drippings. 'Find him a decent sword, some light chain, gauntlets, vambraces and greaves. And a helm. Then instruct the stables to ready him a solid warhorse - I know, he has not yet learned to ride a charger, so be sure the beast is not wilful.'
Ivis blinked. 'Lord, every horse is wilful beneath an uncertain rider.'
As if he'd not heard, Draconus continued, 'A mare, I think, young, eager to fix eye and ear on Calaras.'
Eager? More like terrified.
Perhaps Ivis had given something of his thoughts away in his face, for his lord smiled. 'Think you I cannot control my mount? Oh, and a spare horse along with the charger. One of the walkers. Make it a gelding.'
Ah, then not returning to Kharkanas. 'Lord, shall this be a long journey?
Draconus stood, and only now did Ivis note the shadows under the man's eyes. 'Yes,' and then as if answering a question Ivis had not voiced, 'and this time, I shall ride with my son.'
Malice pulled him into the corridor leading to the Chamber of Campaigns. Arathan knew it only by name; not once had he ventured into his father's favoured room. He drew back, stretching the link between himself and his sister.
She twisted round, face darkening - and then she suddenly relaxed, loosening her grip on his wrist. 'Like a hare in the autumn, you are. Is that what you think he wants to see?'
'I don't know what he wants to see,' Arathan replied. 'How could I?'
'Did you see Clawface Ivis leaving? He was just ahead - took the courtyard passage. He'll have reported on you. He'll have talked about you. And now Father's waiting. To see for himself.'
'Because of his scars--'
'Those aren't scars,' Arathan said, 'it's just age. Ivis Yerrthust fought in the Forulkan War. They starved on the retreat - they all did. That's where those lines on his face came from.'
She was staring at him as if he'd lost his wits. 'What do you think will happen, Arathan?'
'If he doesn't like what he sees.'
Arathan shrugged. Even this close to his father - thirty paces down a broad corridor and then a door - still he could feel nothing. The air was unchanged, as if power was nothing but an illusion. The notion startled him, but he would not draw close to it, not yet. This was not the time to see where it led.
'He'll kill you,' said Malice.
He studied her face, caught the amused glint, the faintest hint of a smirk. 'Names shouldn't be curses,' he said.
She pointed up the corridor. 'He's waiting. We'll probably never see you again, unless we go behind the kitchen - below the chute where the carved-up bones and guts come out. Bits of you will be on the Crow Mound. I'll keep a lock of your hair. Knotted. I won't even wash out the blood.'
Pushing past him, she hurried away.
Clawface is a cruel name. I wonder what name they've given me.
He set his eyes on the distant door and set off, footfalls echoing. His father would not kill him. He could have done that long ago, and there was no reason to now. None of Arathan's own failings reflected a thing upon his father. Sagander told him so, over and over again. This was not a settling of shadows, because the sun's light, no matter how pale or dim, could never descry the binding lines of blood, and in place of light no words had been spoken to make it otherwise.
Reaching the door, he hesitated, wiped dry his fingers, and then rattled the iron loop beneath the latch. A muted voice bid him enter. Wondering at his lack of fear, Arathan opened the door and stepped into the chamber.
A heavy lanolin smell was the first thing to strike him, and then the light, sharp and bright from the east-facing window where the shutters had been thrown back. The air was still cool but rapidly warming as the day awakened. The sight of breakfast leavings on the enormous table reminded him that he'd not yet eaten. When his gaze finally lifted to his father, he found the man's dark eyes fixed on him.
'It may be,' said Draconus, 'that you believe she did not want you. You have lived a life with no answers to your questions - but for that I will not apologize. She knew that her choice would hurt you. I can tell you that it hurt her, as well. I hope that one day you will understand this, and that, indeed, you will find it in your heart to forgive her.'
Arathan said nothing because he could not think of anything to say. He watched as his father rose from the chair, and it was only now - now that he was so near - that Arathan finally felt the power emanating from Draconus. He was both tall and solid, with a warrior's build, and yet there was grace to the man that was, perhaps, more impressive than anything else.
'What we desire in our hearts, Arathan, and what must be ... well, that is a rare embrace, so rare you're likely to never know it. You have lived that truth. I have no promises to make you. I cannot say what awaits you, but you are now in your year and the time has come for you to make your life.' He paused for a time, continuing to study Arathan, and the dark eyes flicked but once down to the hands - and Arathan struggled not to hide them further, leaving them at his sides, the thin fingers long and tipped in red. 'Sit down,' Draconus instructed.
Arathan looked round, found a high-backed chair against the wall to the left of the doorway, and walked over to it. It looked ancient, weakened with age. He'd made the wrong choice - but the only other chair had been the one his father had been sitting in at the table, and that would have set his back to Draconus. After a moment, he settled uneasily on the antique.
His father grunted. 'I'll grant you, they do better with stone,' he said. 'I have no intention of bringing you to the Citadel, Arathan - and no, it is not shame that guides that decision. There is growing tension in Kurald Galain. I shall do my utmost to placate the bereaved elements among the Greater Houses and Holds, but my position is far more precarious than you might think. Even among the Greater Houses I am still viewed as something of an outsider, and with more than a little mistrust.' He drew up then and shot Arathan a glance. 'But then, you know little of all this, do you?'
'You are Consort to Mother Dark,' Arathan said.
'Do you know what that means?'
'No, except that she has chosen you to stand at her side.'
There was a slight tightening round his father's eyes at that, but the man simply nodded. 'A decision which seems to have placed me between her and the highborn Holds - all of whom bear the titles of sons and daughters of Mother Dark.'
'Sons and daughters - but not by birth?'
Draconus nodded. 'An affectation? Or an assertion of unshakeable loyalty? By each claimant the scales shift.'
'Am I such a son to you, Lord?'
The question clearly caught Draconus off guard. His eyes searched Arathan's face. 'No,' he finally replied, but did not elaborate. 'I cannot guarantee your safety in Kurald Galain - even in the Citadel itself. Nor could you hope to expect any manner of loyalty from Mother Dark.'
'I understand that much, Lord.'
'I must journey to the west, and you will accompany me.'
'I must leave her side for a time - knowing well the risk - and so I shall have no patience if you falter on the trek.'
'Of course, Lord.'
Draconus was silent for a moment, as if considering Arathan's easy reply, and then he said, 'Sagander will accompany us, to continue your education. But in this detail I must charge you with his care - though he has longed to visit the Azathanai and the Jaghut for half his life, it seems that his opportunity has very nearly come too late. Now, I do not believe he is as feeble as he imagines himself to be. Nevertheless, you will attend to him.'
'I understand. Lord, will Master-at-arms Ivis--'
'No - he is needed elsewhere. Gate Sergeant Raskan and four Borderswords will attend us. This is not a leisurely journey. We shall ride at pace, with spare mounts. The Bareth Solitude is inhospitable no matter the season.'
'Lord, when do we leave?'
'The day after tomorrow.'
'Lord, do you intend leaving me with the Azathanai?'
Draconus had walked to the open window. 'It may be,' he said, looking at something in the courtyard, 'that you will believe I do not want you, Arathan.'
'Lord, there is no need to apologize.'
'I am aware of that. Go to Sagander now, help him pack.'
'Yes, Lord.' Arathan stood, bowed to his father's back, and then strode from the chamber.
His legs felt weak as he made his way back down the corridor. He had not comported himself well, not in this, his first true meeting with his father. He had sounded foolish, naïve, disappointing the man who had sired him. Perhaps these were things all sons felt before their fathers. But time moved forward or not at all; and there was nothing he could do to change what had already taken place.
Sagander often spoke of building upon what has gone before, and that one must be mindful of that at every moment, with every choice made and about to be made. Even mistakes offered scraps, Arathan told himself. He could build from broken sticks and weathered bones if need be. Perhaps such constructs would prove weak, but then he had little weight for them to hold. He was a bastard son with an unknown mother, and his father was sending him away.
The ice is thin. Hard to find purchase. It is dangerous to walk here.
Sagander well remembered the day the boy almost drowned. It haunted him, but in curious ways. When he was left with too many questions in his own life, when the mysteries of the world crowded close round him, he would think of that ice. Rotted from beneath by the foul gases rising up from the cattle sludge lying thick on the old quarry's lifeless rubble beneath thirty arm-spans of dark water, and after days of unseasonal warmth and then bitter cold, the ice had looked solid enough, but eyes were weak at distinguishing truth from lies. And though the boy had ventured alone on to its slick surface, Sagander could feel the treachery beneath his own feet - not those of Arathan on that chill, clear morning, but beneath the scholar himself; and he would hear the creaking, and then the dread cracking sound, and he was moments from tottering, from pitching down as the world gave way under him.
It was ridiculous. He should be excited. Before him, so late now in his life, he was about to journey among the Azathanai and beyond, to the Jaghut. Where his questions would find answers; where mysteries would come clear, all truths revealed, and peace would settle on his soul. And yet, each time his thoughts skated towards that imminent blessing of knowledge, he thought of ice, and fear took him then, as he waited for the cracking sounds.
Things should make sense. From one end to the other, no matter from which direction one elected to begin the journey, everything should fit. Fitting neatly was the gift of order, proof of control, and from control, mastery. He would not accept an unknowable world. Mysteries needed hunting down. Like the fierce wrashan that had once roamed the Blackwood: all their dark roosts were discovered until there were no places left for the beasts to hide, the slaughter was made complete, and now at last one could walk in safety in the great forest, and no howls ever broke the benign silence. Blackwood Forest had become knowable. Safe.
They would journey to the Azathanai, and to the Odhan of the Jaghut, perhaps even to Omtose Phellack itself, the Empty City. But best of all, he would finally see the First House of the Azath, and perhaps even speak with the Builders who served it. And he would return to Kurald Galain in crowning glory, with all he needed to fuel a blazing resurrection of his reputation as a scholar, and all those who had turned away from him, not even hiding their disdain, would now come flocking back, like puppies, and he would happily greet them - with his boot.
No, his life was not yet over.
There is no ice. The world is sure and solid beneath me. Listen! There is nothing.
A scratching knock at his door made Sagander close his eyes briefly. Arathan. How could a man such as Draconus sire such a child? Oh, Arathan was bright enough, and by all reports Ivis had run out of things he could teach the boy in matters of swordcraft. But such skills were of little real value. Weapons were the swift recourse among those who failed at reason or feared truth. Sagander had done his best with Arathan but it seemed likely that, despite the boy's cleverness, he was destined for mediocrity. What other future could be expected from an unwanted child?
The knock came again. Sighing, Sagander bid him enter. He heard the door open but did not turn from his examination of the many objects cluttering his table.
Arathan moved up alongside him, was silent as he studied the array on the ink-stained surface. Then he said, 'The Lord stated that we must travel light, sir.'
'I know very well what I shall need, and this is the barest minimum. Now, what is it you want? As you can see, I am very busy - ideally, I need three days to prepare, but it is as Lord Draconus commands, and I shall make do.'
'I would help you pack, sir.'
'What of your own gear?'
Sagander snorted. 'You will rue your carelessness, Arathan. These matters demand deliberation.'
Sagander waved a hand at the assemblage. 'As you can see, I have completed my preliminary selection, always bearing in mind that additions are likely to occur to me until the very last possible moment of departure, meaning it shall be necessary to ensure that the trunks each have room to spare. I expect I will be returning with many artefacts and writings, as well. Frankly, I don't see how you can assist me, apart from carrying the trunks downstairs, and you will need help for that. Best let the servants deal with it.'
Still the boy hesitated, and then he said, 'I can help you make more space in the trunks, sir.'
'Indeed? And how will you do that?'
'I see you have five bottles of ink, sir. As we will be riding hard throughout, there will be little time to write during the trip--'
'And what about once we arrive among the Azathanai?'
'Surely, they will have ink, sir, with which they will be generous, particularly when it comes to a visiting scholar of such high renown as yourself. Indeed, I imagine they will be equally generous with scrolls, lambskin and wax, as well as frames, gut and scribers.' Before Sagander could respond, he went on, 'And these maps - of Kurald Galain - I presume they are intended as gifts?'
'It is customary--'
'While there has been peace for some time between the Azathanai and the Tiste, no doubt other visitors among the Azathanai might value such maps, for all the wrong reasons. Sir, I believe Lord Draconus will forbid the gift of maps.'
'An exchange between scholars in the interests of knowledge has no relevant bearing on mundane political matters - whence comes this arrogance of yours?'
'I apologize, sir. Perhaps I could return to our lord and ask him?'
'Ask him what? Don't be a fool. Furthermore, do not presume a sudden rise in your status simply because you spent a few moments with our lord. In any case, I had already concluded that I would not bring the maps - too bulky; besides, these copies are the ones done by your hand, last year, and the rendition is suspect at best, deplorable in some instances. In fact, given that, they make most dubious gifts, rife with errors as they no doubt are. You wish to assist me, student? Very well, give some thought to suitable gifts.'
'To one recipient or many, sir?'
Sagander considered the question, and then nodded. 'Four of respectable value and one of great worth.'
'Would the one of great worth be intended for the Lord of Hate, sir?'
'Of course it would! Now, be off with you, but be back before the evening meal's bell.'
As Arathan was leaving, Sagander turned. 'A moment. I have decided to reduce the number of trunks to two, with one only half filled. Bear that in mind with regard to these gifts.'
'I shall, sir.'
The door creaked when Arathan shut it behind him.
Irritated by the sound, Sagander fixed his attention once more on the gear on the worktable. He pushed the maps off the edge as they were cluttering his vision.
He did not think much of the boy's chances in finding a suitable gift for the Lord of Hate, but it would keep Arathan out from underfoot. Sagander had observed a new bad habit emerging from the boy, though the scholar was having difficulty defining it with any precision. It was in the way Arathan spoke, in the questions he asked and that mask of innocence on his face when he asked them. Not just innocence, but earnestness. Something about the whole thing was suspect, as if none of it was quite real.
There had to be a reason for Sagander to feel agitated following almost every conversation he'd had of late with Arathan.
No matter, this journey would put the boy back in his place - wide-eyed and frightened. The world beyond the house and its grounds was vast, overwhelming. Since the incident at the old quarry, Arathan had been forbidden from venturing into the countryside, and even his brief excursions down into the village had been supervised.
Arathan was in for a shock, and that would do him good.
Gate Sergeant Raskan tugged free his boot and held it up to examine its sole. He had a way of walking that wore down the heels from the back end, and it was there that the glued layers of leather started their fraying. Seeing the first signs of just that, he swore under his breath. 'Barely half a year old, these ones. They just don't make 'em like they used to.'
Rint, a Bordersword of seven hard years, stood across from Raskan, leaning against the keep wall. Arms folded, he had the bearing of a boar about to drive a sow into the woods. On the man's feet, Raskan sourly observed, were worn moccasins of thick, tough henen hide. Commanding Rint and the other three Borderswords wasn't going to be easy, the gate sergeant reflected. Earning their respect was likely to be even harder. True, the two leaned one against t'other, but without respect, command faltered every time, whereas it wasn't always the same the other way round. Proof enough that titles and ranks which used to be earned were now coins on dirty scales, and even Raskan's lowly posting came from being cousin to Ivis, and he knew he might not be up to any of this.
''Sall those cobbles you're walking,' Ville said from where he sat at ease near the steps leading down to the sunken trench flanking the gate ramp. 'Soft ground don't wear you out the same. Seen plenty of road-marching soldiers back in the border wars, arriving with ruined knees and shin splints. If we was meant to walk on stone we'd have cloven hoofs like rock-goats.'
'But that's what hard-soled boots are,' Galak chimed in next to Ville. 'Hoofs for road-clompers. Just hobnail 'em or shoe 'em like a horse gets shoed.'
'Hobnails damage the pavestones,' Raskan countered, 'and plenty of times a day my tasks take me into the houses.'
'They should last the trip,' Rint said, his weathered face seaming into a faint smile.
Raskan studied the man for a moment. 'Been west then, have you?'
'Not far. None of us have. Nothing out there in the Solitude, not this side of the divide, anyway.'
The fourth and last of the Borderswords assigned to him now arrived. Feren was Rint's sister, maybe a few years older. Wiry where her brother was solid and if anything slightly taller, she had archer's wrists with a coiled copper string-guard on the left one that she never took off - or so went the rumour - and a way of walking somewhere between a cat and a wolf, as if the idea of hunting and stalking stayed close to the surface at all times. There was a tilt to her eyes that hinted of blood from somewhere east of the Blackwood, but it must have been thin since her brother showed little of that.
Raskan tried to imagine this woman walking into a High Hall anywhere in the realm without offending the hosts, and could not do so. She belonged in the wilds; but then, so too did her companions. They were rough and uncultured, but ill-fitting as they seemed here on the House grounds, Raskan well knew how things would soon reverse, once they left civilization behind.
There were no ranks among the Borderswords. Instead, some arcane and mysterious hierarchy operated, and did so fluidly, as if circumstances dictated who was in command at any given moment. For this journey, however, the circumstance was simple: Raskan was in charge of these four, and together they were responsible for the safety of not only Lord Draconus, but also the tutor and the boy.
The Borderswords would do the cooking, mending, hunting, setting up and breaking down camp, and caring for the horses. It was this range of skills among their sect that the Lord was exploiting, since he wanted to travel quickly and without a train. The only thing that concerned Raskan was the fact that these warriors were not fealty-sworn to House Dracons. If treachery were planned ... but then, the Borderswords were famous for their loyalty. They stayed away from politics, and it was that neutrality that made them so reliable.
Still, the tensions within the realm had never been as high as they were now, and it seemed that his lord was at the very centre of it, whether Draconus wished it or not.
Thoughtful, eyes averted, Raskan pulled the boot back on, and then stood. 'I have horses to select,' he said.
'We will camp outside the grounds,' Rint said, straightening from the wall he had been leaning against. He glanced across at his sister, who gave a slight nod, as if replying to an unspoken question.
'Not on the training yard,' Raskan said. 'I need to get the boy on a warhorse this afternoon.'
'We'll take the far side?' Rint suggested, thick brows lifting.
'Very well, though Arathan's not at his best with too many eyes on him.'
Feren looked up sharply. 'Do you think we would mock the Lord's son, sergeant?'
'If the boy does not stand in his father's eyes,' she retorted, 'that is entirely the Lord's business.'
Raskan frowned, thinking through the meaning of the woman's statement, and then he scowled. 'Arathan is to be seen as no more than a recruit, as he has always been. If he deserves mockery, why spare him? No, my concern was that nervousness on his part could see him injured, and given that we depart on the morrow, I would prefer not to report to the Lord that the boy is incapable of travelling.'
Feren's uncanny eyes held on him for a moment longer, and then she turned away.
Raskan's tone hardened as he said, 'From now on, let it be understood by all of you that I am not obliged to explain myself to you. The boy is my charge, and how I manage that is not open for discussion. Am I understood?'
Rint smiled. 'Perfectly, sergeant.'
'My apologies, sergeant,' added his sister.
Raskan set off for the stables, his heels scuffing on the cobblestones.
It was late in the afternoon when the gate sergeant had the boy lead the warhorse by the reins out through the main gate and towards the training ground. The turf was chewed up beyond repair since the troop of lancers had taken to practising wheels-in-formation on a new season of chargers. The field was spring fed and beneath the turf there was clay, making footing treacherous - as it would be in battle. Every year they'd lose two or three beasts and as many soldiers, but many of the Greater Houses and Holds were, according to their lord, undertrained and ill-equipped when it came to mounted combat, and Draconus intended to be in a position to exploit that weakness if it came to civil war.
Civil war. The two words no one dared speak out loud, yet all prepared for. It was madness. There was nothing in the whole mess, in Raskan's eyes, that seemed insurmountable. What was this power that so many seemed determined to grasp? Unless it held a life in its hand, or the threat thereof, it was meaningless. And if it all reduced to that simple, raw truth, then what lust was being fed by all those who so hungered for it? Who, among all these fools buzzing round the courts of the realm, would be so bold and so honest as to say yes, this is what I want. The power of life and death over as many of you as possible. Do I not deserve it? Have I not earned it? Will I not take it?
But Raskan was a gate sergeant. He had not the subtle mind of Sagander, or of the lords, ladies and high servants of Kurald Galain. Clearly, he was missing something, and thinking only the thoughts of a fool. There was more to power than he comprehended. All he knew was that his life was indeed in someone else's hands, and perhaps there was some chance of choice in that, but if so, he had not the wisdom or cleverness to see it.
The boy was silent, as usual, as he guided the seemingly placid beast on to the soft, churned-up ground.
'Note the high saddle back, Arathan,' Raskan now said. 'Higher than you're used to seeing, but not so high as to snap your lower spine like a twig the moment you impact a line. No, better you are thrown off than that. At least then you have a chance if you survive the fall. Not much of one, but still. That's not of any concern to you for now, however. I'm just making it plain to you: this is a warhorse, and its tack is different. The cupped stirrups, the flanged horn. You'll not be wearing full armour in any case: the Lord has different ideas about that, and should we ever clash with mounted enemies among the Families, we'll ride circles round them. More than that, we're likely to survive dismounting, and not lie there broken and ready to be gutted like cattle.'
Arathan's eyes slid past Raskan during this speech, to where the four Borderswords were seated in a row on one of the logs lining the field edge. The sergeant glanced over a shoulder at them and then returned his attention to the boy. 'Never mind them. I need and expect your attention.'
'Yes sir. But why have they pitched those tents? Are they not welcome in the House grounds?'
'It's what they choose, that's all. They're half wild. Probably haven't bathed in years. Now, eyes on me, Arathan. These chargers, they're bred special. Not just size, but temperament, too. Most horses will kill themselves rather than hurt one of us - oh, I don't mean bites and the occasional kick, or a panicked rearing and the like. That's just accidental, or bad moods. You've got to consider this. These animals are massive, compared to us. By weight alone they could crush us, trample us, pulp us into red meat and bone splinters. But they don't. They submit instead. An unbroken horse is a frightened horse, frightened of us, I mean. A broken one is gentled, and in place of fear there's trust. Blind trust, at times. Idiotic trust. That's just how it is.
'Now, a charger, well, it's different. Yes, you're still the master, but come battle, you both fight and you fight as partners. This beast is bred to hate the enemy, and that enemy looks just like you and me. So, in a melee, how does it tell the difference? Between friend and foe?' He waited, saw Arathan blink as the boy realized that the question had not been meant to be rhetorical.
'I don't know.'
Raskan grunted. 'A good honest answer. Thing is, nobody really knows. But the damned animals are unerring. Is it the tension in the muscles of their riders that tells them which direction the danger's coming from? Maybe. Some think so. Or maybe the Dog-Runners are right when they say there are words between souls - the soul of the rider and the soul of the mount. Bound by blood or whatever. It don't matter. The thing you need to understand is that you'll forge something together, until instinct is all you need. You'll know where the animal is going and it will know where you want it to go. It just happens.'
'How long does that take, sergeant?'
He'd seen flatness come to the boy's eyes. 'Well, that's the challenge here. For both of you. We can't take the time we rightly need for this. So, after today, well, we'll see how it's looking, just don't expect to be riding this animal for more than a league or two each day. But you will be guiding her and caring for her. Plenty of people say mares can't be good warhorses. The Lord thinks different. In fact, he's relying on the whole natural herd thing with these beasts, and it's Draconus who's riding the stallion, the master of the herd. Y'see his thinking?'
'All right then, lengthen the lead. Time to get to work.'
Boy and beast worked hard that afternoon, with the lead and then without it, and even from where she and her fellow Borderswords sat on the log, Feren could see the sheen of sweat on the mare's black hide; and when at last the gate sergeant had the Lord's son turn his back on the charger, and the animal strode freely to come up alongside Arathan, Galak grunted and muttered, 'That was well done.'
'Grudging admission,' Ville commented. 'Thought I heard something split inside you, saying that, Galak.'
'Uniforms and hard-heeled boots. I admit I wasn't much impressed by these house-dwellers.'
'Just a different way,' said Rint. 'Not better, not worse, just different. '
'Back in the day, when there were still boars in the wood--'
'When there was still a wood,' Ville cut in.
Galak went on. 'The grand hunts had beaters and dogs. In a square of trees you'd need less than three bells to ride around. As if the boar had anywhere to go. As if it wasn't just minding its own business, tryin' to smell out a mate or whatever.'
'Your point?' Rint asked, laconic as ever.
'You're saying no better or worse just different. I'm saying you're being generous, maybe even false. You want to cut the carpet for them to walk on, you go ahead. I've watched a tereth come down to drink from a stream, in the steam of dawn, and the tears went silent down my face, because it was the last one for leagues round. No mate for it, just a lonely life and a lonelier death, even as the trees kept crashing down.'
Feren cleared her throat, still studying the boy who was now walking, the horse heeling like a faithful hound, and said, 'The ways of war leave a wasteland. We've seen it on the border, no different here. The heat sweeps in like a peat fire. No one notices. Not until it's too late. And then, why, there's nowhere to run.'
The gate sergeant was limping as he led his charges back towards the house.
'So she took a lover,' Galak said in a growl, not needing to add so what?
'The sorcery surrounding her is said to be impenetrable now,' Rint mused. 'Proof against all light. It surrounds her wherever she goes. We have a queen no one can see any more, except for Draconus, I suppose.'
'Why suppose that, even?' Galak demanded.
Feren snorted, and the others joined in with low, dry laughter, even Galak.
A moment later, Feren sobered. 'The boy is a ruin of anxiety, and is it any wonder? From what I heard, until this day, his own father was as invisible to his son as his new lover now chooses to be in her Citadel.'
'No sense to be made of that,' Galak said, shaking his head.
Feren glanced across at him, surprised. 'Perfect sense,' she replied. 'He's punishing the boy's mother.'
Brows lifting, her brother asked, 'Do you know who she is?'
'I know who she isn't, and that's more than enough.'
'Now you've lost me,' Ville said, his expression wry.
'Galak's tereth, Ville, lapping water at the stream as the day is born. But the day isn't born at all, not for her. You know she's doomed, you know it's finished for the sweet-eyed doe. Who killed her mate? With arrow or snare? Someone did.'
'And if that killer writhes in the arms of Chaos for all eternity,' Galak hissed, 'it'll only be what's deserved.'
Ville was now scowling. 'That's rich, Galak. We hunt every few days. We kill when we have to, to stay alive. No different from a hawk or a wolf.'
'But we're different from hawks and wolves, Ville. We can actually figure out the consequences of what we do, and that makes us ... oh, I don't know the word ...'
'Culpable?' Rint suggested.
'Yes, that's the word all right.'
'Rely not upon conscience,' Feren said, hearing the bitterness in her own voice and not caring. 'It ever kneels to necessity.'
'And necessity is often a lie,' Rint added, nodding.
Feren's eyes were now on the churned-up turf and mud of the practice field. Insects spun and danced over the small pools left by hoofs as the light slowly failed. From the coppiced stand behind them came evening birdsong, sounding strangely plaintive. She felt slightly sick.
'Impenetrable darkness, you said?' Ville said. He shook his head. ''Tis a strange thing to do.'
'Why not,' Feren heard herself say, 'when beauty is dead?'
Cut in half by the river Dorssan Ryl, the lands of the Greater House of Dracons consisted of a range of denuded hills, old mine shafts by the score, three woods that had once made up a small forest, a single village of indentured families, modest strip farms bordered by low stone walls, and a series of deep ponds filling abandoned quarry pits, where various breeds of fish were managed. Common land provided pasture for black-wool ahmryd and cattle, although forage was poor.
These lands marked the northwest border of Kurald Galain, fed by a single, poorly maintained rutted road and a single massive Azathanai bridge, since most traffic plied the Dorssan Ryl, where passage was facilitated by an extensive series of tow-lines and winches; although even these ox-powered machines were left idle during the spring flood, when even at a distance of a thousand paces the roar of the river could be heard from every room of the Great House.
The hills immediately to the west and north of the keep were mostly granite, of a highly valued dark, fine-grained variety, and this was the lone source of wealth for House Dracons. The Lord's greatest triumph, however - and perhaps the greatest source of envy and unease prior to his attaining the title of Consort to Mother Dark - was his mysterious ties with the Azathanai. Bold and impressive as was the native Galain architecture, with the Citadel its crowning glory, the masons of the Azathanai were without equals, and the new Grand Bridge in Kharkanas was proof enough of that, a bridge gifted to the city by Lord Draconus himself.
The thinkers in the court, those capable of subtle consideration, anyway, were not unmindful of the symbolic gesture the bridge represented. But even this proved sufficient cause for bitterness, resentment, and quiet denigration. The witnessing of an exchange of gifts will taste sour when one is neither giver nor recipient. By this measure station is defined, but no definition holds for long, and gratitude is thin as rain on the stones from a single cloud on a sunny day.
If words were carved upon the massive stones of the Grand Bridge, they were well hidden. Perhaps, if one were to moor a boat beneath the span, using one of the massive stone rings so cleverly fitted there, and shine a lantern's eye upward, one might find row upon row of Azathanai script. But in all truth this is probably a fancy and nothing more. Those who lived on and worked the river in Kharkanas did not mingle with the highborn, nor the artists, painters and poets of the time, and what they saw was their business.
Did they dream of peace, those grimy men and women with the strange accents, as they slipped past in their craft above depthless black waters? And where they walked, beyond the city, out where the banks were worn down and the silts were black along the shorelines, worshipping that kiss of water and land, did they fear the time to come?
And could we - oh gods, could we - have ever imagined the blood they would sacrifice in our name?
There will be peace.
Copyright © 2012 by Steven Erikson