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In the Eye of Heaven
1. The Path of Knots
Traveler's Night was coming on, and the horses were uneasy. It was almost as if they knew the numbering of days.
Durand scratched the back of his neck, peering through drizzle and branches.
He was meant to be riding home, guiding his lord up familiar tracks, but now he couldn't see for trees, and every breath of wind had the old forest alive with a sound like whispers. In an hour, it would be dark, and they would be caught on the road.
On Traveler's Night, no one slept outdoors.
Sir Kieren joked, "If I had known your father lived so far up in these wilds, I would have said, 'No reason to climb the forests of Gireth for your father's handouts, we'll have you knighted in the clothes you're wearing.' It isn't fine linen that makes a knight, after all. Now, I begin to wonder. In these wilds, a baron will have a house? Walls? Will he have a roof? Lad, if it's a bear's den, I won't think any worse of you--so long as I know.'"
Durand glanced back. They called old Kieren "the Fox" and he looked the part: A small-boned man, he sported silver-tipped red mustaches that made him look as if a pair of the creatures had just jumped up his nostrils. It had been Sir Kieren's idea to make the journey, and, from the glint in the man's eye, Durand judged that the Fox knew how lost they were.
"He's not quite a bear, Sir Kieren," Durand said.
"And this village? Your inheritance? I would like to see little Gravenholm, I think. And meet this poor old Ossericwhose grief gets you your fiefdom. The man whose son was lost upon the waves. Who lives alone in his forest hall knowing that his lord's obdurate youngest boy will have every stone of it one day."
"Not this time, Sir Kieren." Durand meant to give Gravenholm a wide berth and head straight for his father's stronghold. The tracks he'd chosen would lead them leagues from Gravenholm.
"I knew you had come down from the wilds," Kieren was saying, "but now I wonder what sort of--Host of Heaven!"
As his master swore, Durand's head crashed into the branches. Brag, his big bay hunter, screamed and pawed the air so that only a wrestler's grip kept Durand in the saddle. He fought the maddened animal for a look at what had spooked it and caught a glimpse of a pair of yellow eyes flashing up from the track. Then Brag was rearing, and it was all Durand could do to hang on.
After a moment, he found a better grip and took a look. Something had appeared between Brag's hooves: a pup, mottled leaf red and iron gray, and he could see the little fellow looking up with those yellow eyes, shrinking against the earth as hooves chopped down around it.
"Come on, Brag," Durand said. "Come on. Calm now." And, though Brag was no warhorse, the steady pressure of Durand's voice calmed the hunter enough that he could step back.
The pup shivered against the clammy track and looked up as Durand smeared bark and grit from his face. Suddenly he was not so sure the beast was a dog after all. He turned to say: "You know--"
And the monster must have stepped out just then, for Durand found the Fox's face stiff and pale, his blue eyes fixed on something.
Slowly, Durand turned back.
Gray and more massive than a man, a wolf flowed into the track only a few paces away. Never had Durand seen such a beast at close quarters. In the wastelands, a wolf was a sob on the wind and a winter thief of children, not a thing a man blundered across. Now, the brute's corpse-candle eyes caught Durand. Lost, and leagues from any village, he could not lookaway--lost things were what this monster hunted. Beyond the glowing eyes rose a rumble deeper than dungeon chains.
While Durand and his master--both armed men--sat frozen, the wolf cub rolled to its outsized paws and nuzzled at the monster. The tiny creature paid no heed to the long spines of the brute's hackles. The wolf lowered its leering head. For a moment, black lips touched the pup's muzzle, gentle as a kiss.
"God, it's--" Durand began--he was ready to confess surprise. He was ready to say he'd been wrong about wolves. But then the wolf's jaws sprang wide, swallowing the pup.
Durand said, "Hells!"
The word caught the beast's ear.
It stared, and blood welled between its yellow teeth. For a long moment, the wolf held Durand in its gaze, then it tossed its head back and gulped the cracking bones.
Durand wrenched the sword from his gear.
The wolf watched.
Bulges moved against the walls of its belly, kicking and pawing more slowly and more slowly.
"Host Below," Sir Kieren said. "It's a prodigy." His small hands twitched into the fist and spread-fingers sign that mirrored the true Eye of Heaven.
Durand gripped his blade. "Aye," he whispered. A prodigy: a sign scrawled by inhuman hands, pointing. The lamp eyes blazed as the brute smacked its jaws. Then, as suddenly as the monster had appeared, it coiled behind its leer and sprang in a long arc that cast it beyond the branches--it might as well have leapt right out of the world.
All around them, Durand had the feeling that the Powers of Heaven and Hell were stepping between the trees, full of death and promises, with their eyes on his neck. A cold shiver passed up his sword, drawing the heat from his knuckles. Blood pounded in his throat.
Sir Kieren spoke. "What doom does this foretell?"
"I cannot guess," said Durand. "A priest might read something more in it."
"It's always something with you around. I remember the Patriarch, old Oredgar, he held you in his eye one time: alwayswondered what he saw." Durand was about to question the man, but the old knight set the subject aside. "Let's see if there isn't somewhere in this wood we can get under shelter."
They urged their horses on.
And rode onto the doorstep of a village, the first in twenty leagues of lost wandering.
"What is this place?" breathed Kieren.
Durand stared, and, quite suddenly, understood where they had arrived.
"--Gravenholm," he said. His own voice came like the wolf's rumble.
"Your land?" Kieren whispered.
After all this way, to strike his tiny inheritance after the wolf ... Durand managed a nod.
"Hells," Kieren murmured. His hands formed the Eye of Heaven.
There wasn't much for Durand to say. In the failing light, plowmen's furlongs crosshatched the fields. A stream meandered heavily toward the manor house. They called the river Plaitwater. He knew the house. He had stood in the hall, sat at the table, and listened to the old man's grief.
"Gravenholm ..." murmured Kieren. "Your doorstep."
"One day." Now, however, the current owner still lingered inside, a widower alone at the end of a dead lineage. Durand winced.
"Bugger me," said Kieren in a cloud of breath. "Right, there's nothing for it. It's just a house. I want out of the weather. Come on. I don't think my heart can stand much more of this nonsense."
The knight urged his little roan into the fields and began to pick a course from bank to headland. Somewhere, far off, a fiddle was playing.
"Ah, listen there. That's better," Kieren said.
Durand could see the pale squares of the peasants' windows hanging in the mist. Closer, long-horned cattle stared over the Plaitwater. They looked as though they were drinking hot broth.
"And this must be Osseric's hall." A barn hulked by the water, flanked by a hall like a mountain of thatch on swollen timbers. "It's not so bad a place, though it would want a prop here and there if it were ever to serve as a fortress."
One day, Durand would live in that hall, but that night he felt like a housebreaker moving through the master's rooms. Dusk had caught them, though, and they really had no time.
Sir Kieren's eyes twinkled. "Which one's the barn, did you say?"
"Not sure," Durand said. "It'll do me, whichever."
"Surely. You are lucky to have the place. And I'd guess this moat is more to keep the stock from getting to the barley. Nothing unusual for a manor of this size. Not the mighty citadel of Acconel, but your father doesn't have a lot of liegemen. If it's all he could find ..."
It was more than Durand had any right to expect; there was little left for second sons in Errest the Old.
"Good for ducks," the old knight continued. "Geese, a passing salmon, beaver. That sort of thing."
"And me," said Durand. He'd spent fourteen years working to earn the place. His father could give him the old widower's lands, but, among the Sons of Atthi, only a knight could inherit a knight's land.
They skirted the moat, Kieren setting a dawdling pace. Durand squinted into the heavy gray ahead where the gloom of sky and forest blended, thinking that Heaven's Eye would be there sinking beyond the clouds. They had almost run out of daylight.
"Sir Kieren," Durand said, "we'll have to ride hard to make my father's stronghold by nightfall, I think."
"Lad," Kieren said, "night's fallen. The baron must wait another night for his son."
"It's hardly a league," Durand said. The sound echoed too loudly from old Osseric's walls. "It's a league to the Crossroads Elm, at most, and then it's straight on to the Col." They could be at his father's hall in no time.
"It'll be full dark before we cross the fields, lad." Kieren leaned close, eyeing the smudge of forest. "You forget that wolf-thing out there?"
"I'd be like a carrion crow at the old man's table."
"By the King of far Heaven, it's the Traveler's Night. When you're safe inside, it's all feasts and firelight with no doors closed to anyone, but when you're under the stars? There are more than mortal doors under the vault of Heaven. What doyou think it means that there are no doors shut? We will be the only fools on the road."
"Sir Kieren, it is two leagues up a proper road."
Up in Osseric's manor house, a figure passed an unshuttered window. Durand pictured the silence yawning out across the table in the man's hall, no sound but knives and smacking lips. There were no fiddles in the manor house. He would not go inside, not to count the old man's teeth like a horse trader.
"With the Traveler walking and the tomb doors swinging, I don't plan to ignore the omen of the wolf. We've had our warning," said Kieren.
"It's a bloody league!" Durand replied.
And caught himself. This was not how a man spoke to either master or friend.
Kieren had shut his eyes. "I remember when I first took note of you among all those strays at Acconel. A few of them were picking on some smaller boy. But you stood in their way. A little black-haired scrap you were, down from the Col of the Blackroots. In the face of three larger boys."
Durand had often been in some trouble or another. He took breath. "Did I win?"
Kieren winked. "You might have done if we hadn't pulled you off them. Go home. I'll catch you up tomorrow. Does that suit you?"
Durand knew this was more patience than he deserved, and he knew he ought to apologize. But as he opened his mouth, a door clomped shut somewhere in the old manor hall.
And he said, "Yes. Yes, it does." He bowed his head formally in the old country style. The last thing he wanted was to shame this man.
"Done then, lad. I'll meet you in the Col of the Blackroots tomorrow if it is the will of the Silent King. Tell your father I hope to see him then."
"I will do as you ask, Sir Kieren."
Kieren inclined his head. "I will carry your apologies to old Sir Osseric. You give mine to the Traveler if you meet him."
AS HE LEFT Sir Kieren, Durand threw Brag into a long gallop, storming past the fiddles of Gravenholm village to plunge deep into the misty forest once more. Finally, in a place assilent as a sanctuary, Brag jounced to a halt. The animal huffed at the thick air. Durand stroked the hunter's muscled neck, no horseman if he'd treat an animal this way.
Around him, mist steamed from the dark earth, thick as spirits. The Eye of Heaven had left him.
"Come on," Durand said, nudging Brag forward.
Ahead, the track meandered along the floor of a shallow and nameless valley. And, for the first time, Durand had a glimpse of how big a fool he'd been. The priests said that the Host Below swarmed every man's head, pulling and prodding. A tug of fear here and shame there. A night with poor old Osseric of Gravenholm would have done him no harm.
He looked into the dark woods; there were ruins under the leaves.
Since Durand could remember, they'd been telling Osseric's story back in the Painted Hall of Acconel. The man's wife had died in childbirth: a love story ending with oaths and sorrow. But the pages and shield-bearers in the Painted Hall fixed their attention on the son: a boy who'd lived in Acconel just as they did, who'd slept in the very same straw. He was brave. He was strong. But when his greedy master boarded a ship for the Inner Seas, he had to follow. And the winds off the Harrow drove their merchantman onto the rocks where the bandy-legged fiends of that shore gnaw the bones of sailors.
Dreams of the wreck haunted Durand as a boy: corpses bobbing on bales of wool or following the ship down with the dragging weight of the tin heaped in its hold. Creeping fiends with iron fangs and skin smooth as sheep's gut among the dead. A thrill of fear went through him even now--an armed man, supposedly trained for battle.
But Osseric was a knight in the service of Durand's father. The lost son had been the only heir, and so in a realm where every stump was knotted with a hundred titles, Durand's father picked his second son's future from that shipwreck. With no heir waiting, all Durand must do, the priests said, was become a knight. And that had been Durand's duty for the last fourteen years: fourteen years of bruises among the page boys and shield-bearers in the Painted Hall of the Duke of Gireth in faraway Acconel.
Durand shook his head. He should have sat down at Osseric's table and been civil to the man. Osseric deserved to know his heir. After Durand had been to the Col, he would come back and do what was right.
Just then, some motion among the clouds smothered the Gleaning Moon, dropping Creation into utter darkness.
"Hells," said Durand.
It was dark as blindness. Durand tried to recall the branches and the sopping leaves over the roots and ruins, but tapped a flood of childhood memories instead. He had played in these woods as a boy, and now remembered crabbed trees, a castle mound in a village of graves, a tumbledown shrine full of blank-faced icons. He remembered roots and ivy fumbling over stone. The realms of the Sons of Atthi were ancient, and most ancient of all was Errest the Old.
As the gray stone icons floated before his mind's eye and the cold stitched ice through his clothes, a breeze skittered through the high branches. He remembered Kieren's talk of the Traveler and the open doors.
"Not clever to dredge up dead men and drowned heirs alone in the dark," Durand muttered, setting his jaw. He was almost home, and there wasn't a twig or stone for leagues that didn't belong to his father. Muttering a charm against the Lost, he waited for a break in the clouds to let a little moonlight slip down. And, with the return of the light, it might have been any evening.
Then he heard a sound--tock--hollow and distant above the rattle of the wind. Thoughts of gates and latches and tombs returned, and the dark poured in.
Durand grunted, but urged Brag on.
He turned in his seat. The footpath behind him was black. The sound seemed to issue from somewhere beyond the curl of track ahead. It had a slow rhythm. It might be a length of old chain swinging somewhere--a lost trap or halter. It had to be some such thing.
Durand set his mind to tallying the coin his father would need for the dubbing in Acconel. He didn't much like it. Somuch silver for this; so much silver for that. Sir Kieren wasn't about to let his shield-bearer kneel in the Acconel high sanctuary in sackcloth, no matter that it might be easier.
The road might have been a black tunnel, a mineshaft. Heedless, Brag thumped forward. Durand reached for his blade, feeling as though he must move his hand with care.
Abruptly, the sound exploded under Brag's hooves: tock-tock-tock. It was the sound of iron shoes on stone. Durand threw his hood back and freed his blade. Cobblestones. It had been these cobblestones all along.
Right below him, the pale stones of the old Acconel road broke the skin of leaves. He likely traveled it a hundred times in childhood and had never heard. Now, every step scraped and clacked at the same note.
Brag must have noticed Durand's twitching; he had stopped dead. "Walk on," Durand whispered. And he heard the sound like a counterpoint beyond Brag's hooves: a staff's brass-shod heel, growing clearer, growing closer. What sort of man walked so blithely through the dark?
The trail opened, parting like curtains, and a huge tree spread black branches into the heavens. Now, Durand knew where he was. This was the Crossroads Elm, the hanging tree. Round the corner would be the open fields below the Col and no place for a man to hide. He could hear the staff still swinging just around that bend. Tock. Tock ... .
Then there was nothing.
Silence chased the last report into the distance, skittering off like ripples on a millpond.
Durand jerked Brag to a halt, staring at the elm's old trunk.
Not a whisper.
In his mind's eye, he saw the stranger stopped, waiting for him just around the tree.
Durand wouldn't sit there shaking. With a snarl, he spurred Brag on. The clatter of the hunter's hooves battered back the silence. With a wild surge, they swung round the great elm and into the open fields of the Col. Vast mountains reared into view. The empty road swung high to the old town between thepeaks--and there wasn't a soul for half a league. Neither was there a ditch or a shock of hay to hide in between Durand's sword and the mountains. The stranger had vanished.
Durand gave Brag the spurs.
Copyright © 2006 by David Keck