Google+ Profundus Librum: Steven Erikson - Forge Of Darkness

2012. augusztus 4., szombat

Steven Erikson - Forge Of Darkness

Kicsit régen (2011) jött már ki a hetedik Malaza könyv magyarul - A Kaszás vihara - , szóval most csak jelzem, hogy az összesen tíz részes sorozat lezárultával (külföldön) az egyik legnagyobb/legjobb fantasy szerző szeptember 18-án jön ki a legújabb könyvével, a Forge Of Darkness-el, ami a Kharkanas trilógia nyitó kötete lesz, és száz évvel a fő malazai események előtt fog játszódni.

Ami miatt ez hír lehet, hogy a Tor kiadó a könyv első öt fejezetét - minden héten egy újat - online elolvashatóvá tette kedvcsináló gyanánt. (Persze angolul, ez nem kérdés.)
Hogy ne kelljen kattintani se, ide rakom a komplett szöveget a blogra az érdeklődőknek. :) 

Olvassatok sok Erikson-t, megéri nagyon! Abszolút alap!
[Az Alexandra meg legyen szíves, és sürgősen nyomja után A Hold udvará-t - a sorozat első részét -, mert tutira sokan azért nem olvasták el a többit már eleve, mert az első rész a megjelenése óta gyakorlatilag beszerezhetetlen.]


Steven Erikson
Forge Of Darkness
Kharkanas Trilogy 01.


PRELUDE

. . . so you have found me and would know the tale. When a poet speaks of truth to another poet, what hope has truth? Let me ask this, then. Does one find memory in invention? Or will you find invention in memory? Which bows in servitude before the other? Will the measure of greatness be weighed solely in the details? Perhaps so, if details make up the full weft of the world, if themes are nothing more than the composite of lists perfectly ordered and unerringly rendered; and if I should kneel before invention, as if it were memory made perfect.

Do I look like a man who would kneel?

There are no singular tales. Nothing that stands alone is worth looking at. You and me, we know this. We could fill a thousand scrolls recounting the lives of those who believe they are each both beginning and end, those who fit the totality of the universe into small wooden boxes which they then tuck under one arm – you have seen them marching past, I’m sure. They have somewhere to go, and wherever that place is, why, it needs them, and failing their dramatic arrival it would surely cease to exist.

Is my laughter cynical? Derisive? Do I sigh and remind myself yet again that truths are like seeds hidden in the ground, and should you tend to them who may say what wild life will spring into view? Prediction is folly, belligerent assertion pathetic. But all such arguments are past us now. If we ever spat them out it was long ago, in another age, when we both were younger than we thought we were.

This tale shall be like Tiam herself, a creature of many heads. It is in my nature to wear masks, and to speak in a multitude of voices through lips not my own. Even when I had sight, to see through a single pair of eyes was a kind of torture, for I knew – I could feel in my soul – that we with our single visions miss most of the world. We cannot help it. It is our barrier to understanding. Perhaps it is only the poets who truly resent this way of being. No matter; what I do not recall I shall invent.

There are no singular tales. A life in solitude is a life rushing to death. But a blind man will never rush; he but feels his way, as befits an uncertain world. See me, then, as a metaphor made real.

I am the poet Gallan, and my words will live for ever. This is not a boast. It is a curse. My legacy is a carcass in waiting, and it will be picked over until dust devours all there is. And when my last breath is long gone, see how the flesh still moves, see how it flinches.

When I began, I did not imagine finding my final moments here upon an altar, beneath a hovering knife. I did not believe my life was a sacrifice; not to any greater cause, nor as payment into the hands of fame and respect. I did not think any sacrifice was necessary at all.

No one lets dead poets lie in peace. We are like old meat on a crowded dinner table. Now comes the next course to jostle what’s left of us, and even the gods despair of ever cleaning up the mess. But there are truths between poets, and we both know well their worth. It is the gristle we chew without end.

Anomandaris. That is a brave title. But consider this: I was not always blind. It is not Anomander’s tale alone. My story will not fit into a small box. Indeed, he is perhaps the least of it. A man pushed from behind by many hands will go in but one direction, no matter what he wills.

It may be that I do not credit him enough. I have my reasons.

You ask: where is my place in this? It is nowhere. Come to Kharkanas, here in my memory, in my creation. Walk the Hall of Portraits and you will not find my face. Is this what it is to be lost, in the very world that made you, that holds your flesh? Do you in your world share my plight? Do you wander and wonder? Do you start at your own shadow, or awaken to rattling disbelief that this is all you are, prospects bleak, bereft of the proof of your ambition?

Or do you march past sure of your frown and indeed that is a fine box you carry . . .

Am I the world’s only lost soul?

Do not begrudge my smile at that. I too cannot be made to fit into that small box, though many will try. No, best discard me entire, if peace of mind is desired.

The table is crowded, the feast unending. Join me upon it, amidst the wretched scatter and heaps. The audience is hungry and its hunger is endless. And for that, we are thankful. And if I spoke of sacrifices, I lied.

Remember well this tale I tell, Fisher kel Tath. Should you err, the list-makers will eat you alive.



ONE

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 pureborn. 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 halfsisters, 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.’

‘Father?’

‘You are summoned, Arathan. Right now – I’m to bring you to him.’

‘Father?’

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.’

‘Clawface?’

‘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?’

‘About what?’

‘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.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘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?’

‘Done.’

Sagander snorted. ‘You will rue your carelessness, Arathan. These matters demand deliberation.’

‘Yes sir.’

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 – wideeyed 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 roadmarching 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 fealtysworn 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?’

‘Bastard—’

‘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 illequipped 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?’

Arathan nodded.

‘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.


TWO


The candles painted the air gold, made soft the pale sunlight streaming in from the high, narrow windows. There was a score of them affixed to a disparate collection of holders – as many as could be spared from unused rooms of the keep – and more than half were melted down to stumps, their flames flickering and sending up tendrils of black smoke. A servant stood watchful nearby, ready to replace the next one to surrender its life.

‘See the genius in his vision,’ Hunn Raal said under his breath, a moment later catching young Osserc’s cautious nod from the corner of his eye. There was risk in speaking at all. The man working the bristle brushes through pigments on the palette and then stabbing at the surface of the wooden board was notorious for his temperament, and the scene was already tense enough, but Hunn had judged his comment a sufficient compliment to assuage any possible irritation Kadaspala might feel at the distraction.

Clearly, Osserc was not prepared to risk even a muttered assent under the circumstances. This was what came of a young man yet to see his courage tested. Of course, that was through no fault of Osserc’s own. No, the blame – and could there be any other word for it? – rested with the father, with the man who sat so stiffly in ornate regalia, one side bathed in the candlelight, the other in shadows brooding and grim, as befitted his darkening mood at the moment.

Kadaspala might well be the most sought-after painter of portraits in all Kurald Galain, famed for his brilliant talent and infamous for his impatience with subjects when composing, but even he was no match for the man seated in the high-backed blackwood chair, should Vatha Urusander’s frayed patience finally snap. The brocaded dress uniform was an invention, fit for official visits to the Citadel and other festive occasions, but in his day as commander of the legions, Urusander’s attire had been virtually indistinguishable from the commonest cohort soldier’s. The Kurald legions were now called Urusander’s Legion, and with good reason. Though born of a Lesser House, Urusander had risen quickly through the ranks in the harrowing first months of the Forulkan War, when the high command had been decimated first by treacherous acts of assassination, then by successive defeats on the field of battle.

Urusander had saved the Tiste people. Without him, Hunn Raal well knew, Kurald Galain would have fallen.

The career that followed, through the entire campaign to drive back the Forulkan, and then the punitive pursuit of the Jhelarkan deep into the lands of the northwest, had elevated Urusander to legendary status, justifying this belated scene here in the upper chamber of the keep’s newest tower, with the dust of the stone-cutters still riding the currents. The presence of Kadaspala of House Enes was in itself an impressive measure of Urusander’s vaunted status. This portrait would be copied upon the wall of the Inner Avenue in the Citadel in Kharkanas, in place alongside images of highborn Tiste, both those still living and those long dead.

But the man sitting stiffly inside that garish uniform, with all its martial decorations, was moments from shattering this perfect image of resolute dignity. Hunn Raal fought back a smile. Neither he nor Osserc could fail to see the signs, even as Kadaspala worked on, unmindful, lost in his own world of frenzied haste. Urusander had gone very still – and no doubt the artist saw this, if he gave any mind to it at all, as a triumph of his own will over his recalcitrant subject.

Hunn wondered if Osserc would speak, to stem the dyke before it burst – or would he recoil, as he had done for most of his sheltered life, only to then stumble over himself in an effort to soothe any and all who might take offence at his father’s tirade? Hunn was tempted to stand back and witness, but then, what good would be achieved? Even worse, Kadaspala might take such umbrage as to pack up his paints and brushes and march out, never to return.

There were reasons for Hunn Raal’s presence in this chamber. Had he not nearly died taking an assassin’s knife intended for Urusander? Well, he would step into the blade’s path yet again. Clearing his throat, he said, ‘Good artist, the day’s light is fading—’

Kadaspala – not much older than Osserc – spun on the old soldier. ‘You damned fool! The light is perfect! This very moment, can’t you see that?’

‘Even so, and in this, sir, I bow to your expertise. However, you must understand, Lord Urusander is a soldier who has taken many wounds in his career. Time and again he has bled in defence of Kurald Galain, winning for us all the peace we so take for granted. I know I could not sit still for as long as he has this day—’

‘Of that,’ Kadaspala snapped, ‘I have no doubt. Not that your dog’s face will ever grace a wall, unless as a mounted trophy.’

Hunn Raal snorted his laughter. ‘Well said, sir. But it changes nothing. The Lord needs to stretch out his limbs, that is all.’

The artist’s round face seemed to hover like a mask, as if moments from rushing, disembodied, straight for Hunn Raal; and then he turned away, flinging down his brushes. ‘What’s light, then, anyway? Isn’t it enough that Mother Dark’s stealing it all from us? What of the portraits in the Avenue? Useless!’ He seemed to be speaking mostly to himself, and for a host of reasons the others in the chamber, Urusander included, were content to leave him to it.

The Lord straightened, sighing deeply.

‘Tomorrow, Lord Urusander,’ Kadaspala said, in a tone worthy of a beating. ‘The very same time. And you, servant – more candles! Curse the darkness, curse it!’

Hunn watched his lord silently stride from the room, choosing the side passage leading to the steps that would take him down to his private chambers. The soldier then caught Osserc’s eye and nodded, and with Urusander’s son following he led the way out, using the main stairs. This wing of the keep still awaited furnishing, and they passed through empty rooms and echoing corridors before arriving at the main vestibule, where what had once seemed opulent now struck Hunn as tattered and worn, the walls, hangings and weapon-racks smokesmeared and battered by a century of wear.

Little remained of the ancient fortress that had once commanded this hilltop, at the very heart of the town of Neret Sorr; most of its ruins had been dismantled and reused in the construction of the New Keep a hundred years ago, and of the bloodlines that had once laid claim to this settlement and its outlying territories, the last drop had long since vanished into the earth. The common belief was that Urusander’s own family had been fealty-sworn to that vanished nobility, warriors from the very beginning, but Hunn Raal had been central in promulgating that legend. So much of history was nothing but gaping holes that needed filling with whatever was expedient, for now, and more significantly for the future, where the fruition of carefully planted inventions and half-truths would, if he had his way, yield a wealth of rewards. They stepped outside into the courtyard, strode into the shadows cast by the thick, high walls. Off to one side, an ox-drawn cart had delivered ingots of raw iron outside the smithy and the smith’s apprentices were busy unloading the stock. Unmindful of these efforts, the handler and the keep’s cutter were digging a tick out from behind the ox’s left ear, and the insect’s stubbornness was attested by the blood running down the side of the ox’s neck, while the animal lowed plaintively, hide rippling as its muscles flinched.

‘Where are we going?’ Osserc asked as they crossed the compound towards the High Gate.

‘Down into town,’ Hunn Raal replied. ‘Your father will be in a dark mood at the table tonight, assuming he shows up at all. I’ve never seen a man so eager to put down his sword, and all for a trunkful of Forulkan cylinders – and half of those broken. If those white-faced fools had any thought worthy of admiration, it did them little good against Tiste vengeance.’

Osserc was silent for a moment, as they approached the gate, and then he said, ‘It is his abiding fascination, Hunn. The laws of governance. The compact of society. We are in need of reformation, and proof of that is plain enough in all the troubles now coming home to roost.’ Hunn Raal grunted, feeling his face twisting. ‘Draconus. The troubles you’re talking about begin and end with that upstart.’

It had been a weighted comment on Hunn’s part, and he made sure not to react to Osserc’s sudden look, simply continuing on. ‘There is no history, no precedent. The family of Dracons was ever a Lesser House. And now some dubious heir to its thin blood stands beside Mother Dark. This is the threat and it has nothing to do with reform. Ambition, Osserc, is a poison.’

‘Well, my father has none of that.’

Inwardly, Hunn smiled, and it was a triumphant smile. ‘Just so. Who better to govern, then? She doesn’t need a damned Consort, she needs a husband.’

They emerged on to the first of the switchbacks leading down into the town. There was no traffic coming up this late in the day, but a cluster of carts heading down formed a logjam at the second turn, where the back end of a long-bedded wagon was being lifted by a dozen or so haulers to swing it clear.

‘If Draconus is a commoner,’ said Osserc, ‘so too is my father.’

Hunn had been waiting for that observation. ‘Not true. The earliest mentions of Neret Sorr note the ruling family’s name as Vatha. And more important, retired or not, Urusander commands the legions. Tell me this: how well have we been treated? You’ve seen it for yourself, friend. We fought and so many of us died, and we won. We won the war for everyone in the realm. And now, well, they’d rather forget we ever existed. It’s not right, how we’re treated, and you know it.’

‘We are no threat to the nobility,’ Osserc retorted. ‘That’s not how it is, Hunn Raal. It’s expensive maintaining the legions at full strength. The desire is to reduce active rosters—’

‘And throw the rest of us out on the streets,’ Hunn Raal said. ‘Or worse, into the wood to grub alongside the Deniers. And when the Forulkan come back? We won’t be ready, and not even your father could save us then.’

There were patterns to things, and Hunn Raal had his reasons for working them; in particular on this young man, this untried son of a hero who when speaking of the legions had said we, as if dreams were real. Hunn could see what was needed, but Urusander was not a man to be swayed by exhortations or arguments. He had done his service to the realm, and as far as he was concerned what remained of his life was now his own. He had earned it.

But the truth was, the realm needed a saviour, and the only way to the father was through the son. Hunn Raal went on, ‘The future is not for someone else, though each of us might think so. It’s for us. Your father understands that, at some deep level – beyond all the crazed Forulkan obsessions with justice and whatever – he knows that he fought for himself, and for you – for the world ahead of you. But instead he hides in his study. He needs drawing out, Osserc. You must see that.’

But there was an ugly cast to Osserc’s face now, as they fell in behind the line of carts trundling down to the next turn. Hunn Raal could almost see the gnawing fangs inside Osserc’s head. He edged closer, lowering his voice, ‘He refused you a sword in your hands. I know. To keep you safe. But listen, in a cut-down army, what chance do you think you’ll get to put all your training to good use? You say you want to march at my side, and I believe you. Abyss take me, but I’d be proud to be there, seeing that, too.’

‘It will never happen,’ Osserc growled.

‘The legions want you. They see – and we who are here see every day – so much of the father in his son. We’re all waiting. The day your father is made king, Osserc, is the day he will truly have to let go of the legions, with you taking his place. This is the future we want, all of us. And I tell you, I will work on Urusander. After all, he would never have had you trained to fight if he wanted you doing nothing but making lists of clay cylinders. You need a commission, and we’ll see it done, and that’s a promise.’

‘So you keep saying,’ Osserc muttered, but the strength had gone from his anger.

Hunn Raal slapped him on the back. ‘I do. Now, friend, let’s go drink, shall we?’

‘You and your drinking.’

‘Trust me; it’s all down to what a soldier’s seen. You’ll find that out soon enough. I plan on getting drunk, and you’ll need to drag me home.’

‘Not if I get drunk first.’

‘It’s to be a race then, is it? Good!’

There was something pathetic, Hunn Raal reflected, when a young man longed for a good reason to drink, to sit silent and alone, staring at memories that would not go away. Remembering fallen friends, and the screams of the dying. In truth, Hunn would not wish that on anyone, but if something wasn’t done to make the portrait of Urusander real, as real as it could be, there would be civil war.

With the legions trapped in the eye of the storm.

The true irony in all of this was the fact that Hunn Raal’s own Issgin line had more claim to the throne than anyone, even Mother Dark herself. No matter. The past was more than just empty holes. Here and there, those holes had been filled long ago, every truth buried, down deep and out of sight. And it was just as well. What he sought wasn’t for himself, was it? It was for the good of the realm. And even if it cost him his life, he would see Urusander on the Blackwood Throne.

His thoughts returned to Draconus, like a flash of sudden blood in the night, and he felt rage build hot in his chest. The common belief was that the legions would stand aside and take no part in the squabbles among the nobility. But the common belief was wrong. Hunn Raal would see to it. Should the tensions erupt into open warfare, Draconus would find himself facing not just the sons and daughters of Mother Dark, but Urusander’s Legion as well.

See you sweet-talk your way out of that mess, Draconus. See where your power-mad ambition finds you then.

Night clothed the town below, but the inns glowed in the valley bed with soft lanternlight, yellow and gold like the flames of candles. Looking down upon them, Hunn Raal could feel his thirst awaken.

* * *

Kadaspala wiped the last stubborn pigment stains from his hands using a cloth soaked in spirits, his eyes watering as the fumes reached his face. He’d sent the servant from his room. The idea of needing someone to help him dress for a meal was absurd. The secret of a great portrait was to meet the subject eye to eye, as equals, whether that subject was a commander of armies, or a shepherd boy who’d give up his own life to defend a flock of ahmryd. He despised the notion of betters. Station and wealth were flimsy props thrown up in front of people as flawed and as mortal as anyone else, and if it was their need to strut and prance behind them, it was proof of internal weakness and nothing else, and what could be more pathetic than that?

He would never have servants. He wanted no artificial prop to deference. Every life was a gift – he needed only look into the eyes opposite him, at any time on any given day, to know this. It did not matter to whom those eyes belonged. He would see true, and then make that truth plain to see for everyone else. His was a hand that would never lie.

The day’s sitting had been . . . adequate. The mood that took Kadaspala when rendering a portrait was a foul one, and he knew it. But most of his impatience was with himself. Each and every day was too short, the light too whimsical, his vision too sharp not to see the failings in his work – and no amount of praise from onlookers could change any of that. Hunn Raal had no doubt thought his comment soothing, even complimentary, but it had taken all of Kadaspala’s will to keep him from stabbing the smirking soldier in the eye with his brush. The passion that stole his mind when composing was a dark, frightening thing. Murderous and vile. Such depths had once frightened him, but now he simply lived with them, like an unpleasant scar marring his face, or pockmarks on his cheeks from some past illness.

Yet it was the breadth of the contradiction that most disturbed him: that on the one hand he could adhere to the belief that every life was of equal value, a value that was immense, while at the same time despising everyone he knew.

Almost everyone. There were precious exceptions.

The reminder made him pause, vision blurring slightly. It did not take much, he knew. A flash of memory, a sudden rush of anticipation for when he would see her again. There was nothing untoward in his love for Enesdia, his sister. He was an artist, after all, who knew the truth of beauty, and she was his definition of that virtue, from the core of her gentle soul to the smooth perfection of her form.

He dreamed of painting her. It was an abiding dream, an obsessive dream, yet he had never done so and never would. No matter how consuming his effort, no matter how vast his talent, he knew he would fail to capture her, because what he saw wasn’t necessarily there to be seen – though he could not be sure of that, as it was not something he discussed with anyone.

This battered old warrior, Urusander, offered him an appropriately stark contrast. Men like him were easy to paint. They might well have depths, but those depths were all of one colour, one tone. They were devoid of mystery, and this was what made them such powerful leaders. There was something frightening in that unrelieved monochrome, and yet it seemed to reassure others, as if it were a source of strength.

Some people suited their transformations, into paint on board, as dyed plaster on walls, or in the unrelieved purity of marble. They existed as both surface and opaque solidity, and it was this quality that Kadaspala found so cruel and monstrous, for it spoke of the will of the world. He knew he played his role. He gave the substance to their assertion of power.

Portraits were the weapons of tradition, and tradition was the invisible army laying siege to the present. And what was at stake? What victory did it seek? To make the future no different from the past. With every stroke of his brush, Kadaspala opened a wound, against all who would challenge the way things were. He fought that bitter knowledge, perversely setting his talents to the battlements as if he would refuse his own advance.

He wished he were less aware; he wished that his own talent could somehow blind him to its insipid appropriation. But this was not to be.

Thoughts churning, as they always did following a sitting, he dressed with haphazard indifference and made his way out, down to dine with the Lord of the House. Would it be this night, then, that Urusander or Hunn Raal finally broached the possibility of painting young Osserc? Kadaspala hoped not. He hoped that moment would never come. Finish the portrait of the father, and then flee this place. Return home, to see her again.

He dreaded these formal suppers. They were filled with banal reminiscences of battle, mostly from Hunn Raal, warring with Urusander’s daily discoveries when delving into the arcane idiocy of the Forulkan. With Osserc’s head turning as if on a spike. There was nothing in the Lord’s son that he wanted to paint, no depths to seek out. Behind Osserc’s eyes there was bedrock, disfigured by Hunn Raal’s incessant chipping away. The boy was destined for obscurity, unless he could be prised away from his father and his so-called friend. As it stood, the combination of Urusander’s raising high unassailable walls around his son, and Hunn Raal’s ceaseless undermining of those foundations, left Osserc in genuine danger. Should something lead to a collapse of his world he might well be utterly crushed. In the meantime the sheer oppression was visibly suffocating the young man.

No matter. None of this was Kadaspala’s problem. He had plenty of his own to worry about. Mother Dark’s power grows, and with that power, she is stealing the light. From the world. What future has an artist, when all is in darkness?

Mulling on these bleak thoughts, he strode into the dining room. And then paused. The chairs where he had expected to see Hunn Raal and Osserc seated were both vacant. Lord Urusander sat alone at his place at the table’s head, and for once the surface before him was uncluttered – not a single fired-clay cylinder or unfurled scroll of notations weighted down at the corners and awaiting his studious perusal.

Urusander was leaning back, in one hand a goblet, cradled at his waist. His faded blue eyes were fixed on the artist with an acuity that was unprecedented in his recollection. ‘Good Kadaspala Enes, please sit. No, here, upon my right. It seems that this evening it shall be you and me.’

‘I see, my lord.’ He made his way over. The moment he arrived and seated himself, a servant appeared with a goblet to match the Lord’s. Taking it, he looked down. Blackvine, the rarest and most expensive wine in the realm.

‘I was looking upon your day’s work,’ Urusander continued.

‘Indeed, Lord?’

Urusander’s eyes flickered slightly, the only detail to signal his mood, and that signal was obscure. ‘You are not curious as to my opinion?’

‘No.’

The Lord sipped, and it could have been stale water that passed his lips for all the change in his expression. ‘One may presume, I hope, that the notion of an audience is relevant to you.’

‘Relevant, Lord? Oh, it’s relevant . . . to an extent. But if you imagine that I yearn for a heavenly chorus of opinion, then you must think me naïve. If I were to require such reward as if it were the blood of life, why, I would starve. As would virtually every other artist in Kurald Galain.’

‘So opinions are without value?’

‘I value only those that please me, Lord.’

‘Then would you deny the potential worth of constructive criticism?’

‘That depends,’ Kadaspala replied, still to taste the wine.

‘Upon what?’ Urusander asked, as servants appeared once more, this time with the first course. Plates whispered down, the air was stirred by bodies in motion behind and around the two men, and the candles on the table flickered and dipped this way and that.

‘How fare your studies, Lord?’

‘You evade my question?’

‘I choose my own path to answering it.’

Neither anger nor patronizing amusement touched Urusander’s worn face. ‘Very well. The issue I am struggling with is one of moral stance. Written law is in itself pure, at least in so far as language can make it. Ambiguity emerges only in its practical application upon society, and at this point hypocrisy seems to be the inevitable consequence. The law bends to those in power, like a willow or perhaps a cultured rosebush, or even a fruit-bearing tree trained against a wall. Where it grows depends upon the whims of those in power, and before too long, why, the law becomes a twisted thing indeed.’

Kadaspala set the goblet down, eyed the food on the plate before him. Smoked meat, some kind of glazed vegetable, positioned in a way as if to regard each other. ‘But are not laws little more than formalized opinions, Lord?’

Urusander’s brows lifted. ‘I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, Kadaspala. To answer you, yes, they are. Opinions on the proper and peaceful governance of society—’

‘Excuse me, but peaceful is not a word that comes to my mind when thinking of law. At its core is subjugation, after all.’

Urusander considered, and then said, ‘Only in the matter of mitigating damaging or antisocial behaviour, and at this point I return you to my first comment. That is, of moral stance. It is the very matter with which I am struggling, with little forward progress, I admit. So,’ he took another sip and then set the goblet down and picked up his knife, ‘let us set aside the notion of “peaceful” for the moment. Consider the very foundation of the matter, namely, that law exists to impose rules of acceptable behaviour in social discourse, yes? Good, then let us add the notion of protecting one from harm, both physical and spiritual, and, well, you see the dilemma.’

Kadaspala considered that for a moment, and then he shook his head. ‘Laws decide which forms of oppression are allowed, Lord. And because of that, those laws are servants to those in power, for whom oppression is given as a right over those who have little or no power. Now, shall we return to art, Lord? When stripped down to its bones, criticism is a form of oppression. Its intent is to manipulate both artist and audience, by imposing rules on aesthetic appreciation. Curiously, its first task is to belittle the views of those who appreciate a certain work but are unable or unwilling to articulate their reasons for doing so. On occasion, of course, one of those viewers rises to the bait, taking umbrage at being dismissed as being ignorant, at which point critics en masse descend to annihilate the fool. No more than defending one’s own precious nest, one presumes. But on another level, it is the act of those in power in protecting their interests, those interests being nothing less than absolute oppression through the control of personal taste.’

Urusander had sat motionless through this, knife point thrust through a sliver of meat and suspended halfway to his mouth. When Kadaspala finished, he set the knife down and reached once more for his wine. ‘But I am not a critic,’ he said.

‘Indeed not, Lord, which is why I said I wasn’t curious about your opinion. I am curious about the opinions of critics. But about the opinions of those with no agenda beyond the aesthetic, I am interested.’

Urusander snorted. ‘Take some wine, Kadaspala, you have just earned it.’

The mouthful he took was modest.

‘Other nights when we sit here,’ Urusander said, now frowning, ‘you will finish off an entire carafe on your own.’

‘Other nights, Lord, I am subjected to war stories.’

Urusander laughed, the sound startling the servants with its booming thunder. Somewhere in the kitchen something crashed down to the stone floor.

‘The wine,’ said Kadaspala, ‘is exceptional, Lord.’

‘It is, isn’t it? And do you know why I have not served it before this night?’

‘Every morning, Lord, I check my jugs of cleaning spirits, to ensure Hunn Raal has not plundered them.’

‘Just so, artist, just so. Now, let us eat, but keep your wits about you. On this night, let us stretch our minds in dialogue.’

Kadaspala spoke with utter honesty. ‘Lord, pray we talk these candles down as the only measure of the evening’s passage.’

Urusander’s eyes were narrow and thoughtful. ‘I was warned to expect nothing but foul and bitter regard when in your company.’

‘Only when I paint, Lord. Only when I paint. Now, if it pleases you, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on my work thus far.’

‘My thoughts? I have but one, Kadaspala. I had no idea I was so transparent.’

He nearly dropped the goblet. Only the quick intercession of a servant saved him.

* * *

Enesdia, daughter of Lord Jaen of House Enes, stood frowning at the silvered mirror. The dye in the dress was said to come from a tuberous vegetable, which when simmered produced a deep and pure scarlet. ‘It’s the colour of blood,’ she said. ‘This is what everyone in Kharkanas is going mad for?’

The seamstresses flanking her in the reflection looked pale and drab, almost lifeless.

Seated off to the left on a settee, Cryl of House Durav cleared his throat in a manner all too familiar to Enesdia, and she turned, brows lifting, and said, ‘And what shall we argue about this morning, then? The cut of the dress? The style of the court? Or is it my hair that now dismays you? As it happens, I like it short. The shorter the better. Why should you complain about it, anyway? It’s not as though you’ve let your hair go long as a horse tail just to fit in with the day’s fashion. Oh, I don’t know why I invited you in at all.’

Mild surprise played with his even features for the briefest of moments, and then he offered up a lopsided shrug. ‘I was just thinking, it’s more vermilion than scarlet, isn’t it. Or is it our eyes that are changing?’

‘Idiotic superstitions. Vermilion . . . well.’

‘Dog-Runner wives call it the “Born of the Hearth”, don’t they?’

‘That’s because they boil the root, fool.’

‘Oh, I would think the name more descriptive than that.’

‘Would you now? Haven’t you somewhere to be, Cryl? Some horse to train? Some sword to whet?’

‘You invite me only to then send me away?’ The young man rose smoothly. ‘If I were a sensitive soul, I might be offended. As it is, I know this game – we have played it all our lives, haven’t we?’

‘Game? What game?’

He had been making for the door, but now he paused and glanced back, and there was something sad in his faint smile. ‘I hope you’ll excuse me, I have a horse to whet and a sword to train. Although, I should add, you look lovely in that dress, Enesdia.’

Even as she drew a breath, mind racing for something that made sense – that might even draw him snapping back on his leash – he slipped out and was gone.

One of the seamstresses sighed, and Enesdia rounded on her. ‘Enough of that, Ephalla! He is a hostage in this house and is to be accorded the highest respect!’

‘Sorry, mistress,’ Ephalla whispered, ducking. ‘But he spoke true – you look lovely!’

Enesdia returned her attention to the blurred image of herself in the mirror. ‘But,’ she murmured, ‘do you think he’ll like it?’

* * *

Cryl paused for a moment in the corridor outside Enesdia’s door, near enough to hear the last exchange between her and her handmaid. The sad half-smile on his face remained, only fading as he set out towards the main hall.

He was nineteen years old, the last eleven of those spent here in the house of Jaen Enes as a hostage. He was old enough to understand the value of the tradition. For all that the word ‘hostage’ carried an implicit pejorative, caged in notions of imprisonment and the absence of personal freedom, the practice was more of an exchange than anything else. It was further bound by rules and proscriptions ensuring the rights of the hostage. The sanctity of their person was immutable, precious as a founding law. Accordingly, Cryl, born of House Durav, felt as much an Enes as Jaen, Kadaspala or, indeed, Jaen’s daughter.

And this was . . . unfortunate. His childhood friend was a girl no longer, but a woman. And gone were his childish thoughts, his dreams of pretending she was in truth his own sister – although he now recognized the confusions swirling through such dreams. For a boy, the role of sister, wife and mother could – if one were careless – be so easily blended together into a heady brew of anguished longing. He’d not known what he’d wanted of her, but he had seen how their friendship had changed, and in that change a wall had grown between them, impassable, forbidding and patrolled by stern propriety. There had been moments of awkwardness, when either he or Enesdia stumbled too close to one another, only to be drawn up by freshly chiselled stone, the touch of which yielded embarrassment and shame.

They struggled now to find their places, shifting about in a search to discover the proper distance between them. Or perhaps the struggle was his alone. He could not be sure, and in that he saw the proof of how things had changed. Once, running at her side, he had known her well. Now, he wondered if he knew her at all.

In her room, only a short time ago, he’d spoken of the games now played between them. Not like the games of old, for these were not, strictly speaking, shared. Instead, these new ones held to personal, private rules, solitary in their gauging, and nothing was won but an abeyance of unease. And yet to this she had professed ignorance. No, ignorance was the wrong word. The word was innocence.

Should he believe her?

In truth, Cryl felt lost. Enesdia had outgrown him in every way, and at times he felt like a puppy at her heels, eager for play, but that sort of playing was behind her now. She thought him a fool. She mocked him at every turn, and a dozen times each day he silently vowed that he was done with it, all of it, only to once more find himself answering her summons – which seemed to be uttered ever more imperiously – and finding himself, yet again, the arrow-butt to her barbs.

It was clear to him, at last, that there were other meanings to the word ‘hostage’, ones not codified into the laws of tradition, and they bound him in chains, heavy and cruelly biting, and he spent his days, and nights, in tormented stricture.

But this was his twentieth year of life. He was only months away from being released, sent back to his own blood, where he would sit discomfited at the family table, trapped in his own strangeness in the midst of a family that had grown around the wound of his prolonged absence. All of this – Enesdia and her proud father, Enesdia and her frighteningly obsessed but brilliant brother, Enesdia and the man who would soon be her husband – all of it would be past, a thing of his history day by day losing its force, its power over him and his life.

And so, too sharply felt for irony, Cryl now longed for his freedom.

Striding into the Great Hall, he was brought up short at seeing Lord Jaen standing near the hearth. The old man’s eyes were on the massive slab of stone laid into the tiled floor, marking the threshold of the hearth and bearing ancient words carved into its granite mien. The Tiste language struggled with notions of filial duty – or so Kadaspala’s friend, the court poet Gallan, was fond of saying – as if hinting at some fundamental flaw in spirit, and so, as was often the case, the words were Azathanai. So many Azathanai gifts to the Tiste seemed to fill the dusty niches and gaps left gaping by flaws in Tiste character, and not one of those gifts was without symbolic meaning.

As a hostage, Cryl was forbidden from learning those arcane Azathanai words, given so long ago to the bloodline of Enes. It was odd, he now reflected as he bowed before Jaen, this Tiste prohibition against learning the masons’ script.

Jaen could well have been reading his mind, for he nodded and said, ‘Gallan claims he can read Azathanai, granting him the blasphemous privilege of knowing the sacred words of each noble family. I admit,’ he added, his thin, lined face twisting slightly, ‘I find the notion displeasing.’

‘Yet the poet asserts that such knowledge is for him alone, Lord.’

‘Poets, young Cryl, cannot be trusted.’

The hostage considered that statement, and found he had no reasonable reply to it. ‘Lord, I request permission to saddle a horse and ride on this day. It was my thought to seek sign of eckalla in the west hills.’

‘Eckalla? None have been seen in years, Cryl. I fear your search will be wasted.’

‘The ride will do me good, Lord, none the less.’

Jaen nodded, and it seemed he well understood the swirl of hidden emotions lying beneath Cryl’s bland words. His gaze returned to the hearthstone. ‘This year,’ he said, ‘I must give up a daughter. And,’ he glanced back at Cryl, ‘a most beloved hostage.’

‘And I, in turn, feel as if I am about to be cast out from the only family I truly belong to. Lord, doors are closing behind us.’

‘But not, I trust, for ever sealed?’

‘Indeed not,’ Cryl replied, although in his mind he saw a massive lock grinding tight. Some doors, once shut, were proof against every desire.

Jaen’s gaze faltered slightly and he turned away. ‘Even standing still, the world moves on around us. I well remember you when first you arrived, scrawny and wild-eyed – the Abyss knows you Duravs are a feral lot – and there you were, wild as a cat, yet barely tall enough to saddle a horse. At least it seems we fed you well.’

Cryl smiled. ‘Lord, the Duravs are said to be slow to grow—’

‘Slow in many things, Cryl. Slow to assume the trappings of civil comportment, in which I admit I find considerable charm. You have held to that despite our efforts, and so remain refreshing to our eyes. Yes,’ he continued, ‘slow in many things. Slow in judgement, slow to anger . . .’ Jaen slowly swung round and fixed Cryl with a searching regard. ‘Are you angry yet, Cryl Durav?’

The question shocked him, almost made him step back. ‘Lord? I – I have no cause to be angry. I am saddened to leave this house, but there will be rejoicing this year. Your daughter is about to be wed.’

‘Indeed.’ He studied Cryl for a moment longer, and then, as if yielding some argument, he broke his gaze and faced the hearthstone, gesturing. ‘And she will kneel before one such as this, in the great house that her betrothed even now builds for her.’

‘Andarist is a fine man,’ Cryl said, as evenly as he could manage. ‘Honourable and loyal. This binding by marriage is a sure one, Lord, by every measure.’

‘Does she love him, though?’

Such questions left him reeling. ‘Lord? I am certain that she does.’

Jaen grunted, and then sighed. ‘You see her truly, don’t you – the years together, the friendship you have both held for each other. She loves him, then? I am pleased. Yes, most pleased to hear you say that.’

Cryl would leave here, soon, and when he did, he knew that he would not look back, not once. Nor, for all that he loved this old man, would he ever return. In his chest, he felt nothing but cold, a scattering of dead cinders, the grating promise of choking ashes should he draw too deep a breath.

She would have a hearthstone. She – and her new husband – would have words that only they would know; the first words of the private language that must ever exist between husband and wife. Azathanai gifts were not simple, were never simple. ‘Lord, may I ride this day?’

‘Of course, Cryl. Seek out the eckalla, and should you find one, bring it down and we shall feast well. As in the old days when the beasts were plentiful, yes?’

‘I shall do my best, Lord.’

Bowing, Cryl strode from the Great Hall. He was looking forward to this expedition, away from this place, out into the hills. He would take his hunting spear but, in truth, he did not expect to sight such a noble creature as an eckalla. In the other times when he had ridden the west hills, all he had ever found was bones, from past hunts, past scenes of butchering.

The eckalla were gone, the last one slain decades ago.

And beneath him while he rode, if he so chose, Cryl could listen to the thunder of his horse’s hoofs, and imagine each report as the slamming of another door. They seemed to go on without end, didn’t they?

The eckalla are gone. The hills are lifeless.

* * *

Even bad habits offered pleasure. In her youth, Hish Tulla had given her heart away with what others had seen as careless ease, as if it were a thing without much worth, but it had not been like that at all. She’d simply wanted it in someone else’s hands. The failing was that it was so easily won, and therefore became a thing of little worth for the recipient. Could no one see the hurt she felt, each and every time she was cast aside, sorely used, battered by rejection? Did they think she welcomed such feelings, the crushing despond of seeing the paucity of her worth? ‘Oh, she will heal quickly enough, will our dear Hish. She always does . . .’

A habit like a rose, and on the day of its blossoming, why, see how each petal revealed its own unique script, with smaller habits hiding within the larger one. Upon this petal, precise instructions on how to force out the smile, the elegant wave of the hand and the shrug. Upon another petal, lush and carmine, a host of words and impulses to resurrect her vivacious nature; to glide her across every room no matter how many or how gauging the eyes that tracked her. Oh and she held tight upon the stem of that rose, didn’t she?

The horse was quiescent beneath her; she could feel the gelding’s comforting heat against her thighs, her calves. Beneath the branches of the tree under which she had taken shelter, evading the sudden downpour, she could see, through the slanting streams, the three men standing now before the basalt gravestone, out in the clearing where crouched the crypts and tombs, as the rain poured down as if seeking to drown them all.

She had known the pleasures of two of the three brothers, and, though she was no longer inclined, the last one was now likely beyond her reach, for he was soon to be wed, and it seemed that for Andarist his love was rare enough, precious enough, that once set at the foot of one woman, never again would he look elsewhere, never again would he even so much as glance away. That flighty, vain daughter of Jaen Enes knew not her fortune; of that Hish was certain, for she saw too much of herself in Enesdia. New to womanhood, eager to love and drunk with its power, how soon before she chafed at her bridling?

Hish Tulla was mistress to her House. She had no husband and would now take no one into her life. At her side, these days, was the desiccated remnant of her old habit, the petals almost black; the thorny stem stained and thickly smeared with something like vermilion wax. It served the role of an old friend, confidante to her confessions, ever wise in its recognition, never spurred into judgement. And these days, when she crossed a room, the eyes that tracked her . . . well, she no longer cared what they thought they saw. The woman older than her years, the spinster of many scars, the wild slave to carnal excess now returned to the earth, wisely subdued, though still ready for a moment’s bright vivacity, the flash of a smile.

The rain fell off; a curtain drifting down in sudden dissolution as the sun’s light broke through once more. Water still ran from the leaves, slicking the black branches, dripping down upon her waxed cloak like old tears. Clucking, Hish Tulla edged her mount forward. Stones crunched wetly under hoofs, and the three brothers turned at the sound.

They had ridden up from the south track, ignoring the torrent from the sky, and she concluded that they’d not seen her as they reined in before the crypt, dismounted and walked to stand before the unmarked plinth sealing the tomb. The body of their father, Nimander, lay in eternal repose within that crypt, in the hollowed-out trunk of a blackwood tree, but two years dead, and it was clear that his three sons were not yet done with the memory of him.

Witnessing the scene, Hish had recognized its privacy, the lowering of guard, and in their expressions now she thought she could see their disapproval and, perhaps, faint dismay. Raising a gloved hand as she walked her horse closer, she said, ‘I was sheltering from the rain, brothers, when you rode into sight. Forgive my intrusion, it was not intended.’

Silchas Ruin, to whom Hish had given ecstatic adoration for four months a few years ago, before he lost interest, was the first to speak. ‘Lady Hish, we knew we had an audience, but the shadows beneath the tree hid from us your identity. As you say, it was but chance, but be assured, you are always welcome in our eyes.’

Her old lovers were consistently courteous, probably because she never fought to hold on to any of them. The heart thus broken had no strength and even less will, and but crawled away with a weak smile and welling eyes. In their courtesy, she suspected, there was pity.

‘Thank you,’ she replied. ‘I thought only to identify myself, and now I shall ride on and leave you to your remembrance.’

To that, it was Anomander who said, ‘Lady Hish Tulla, you misunderstand our purpose here. We require no gravestone to remember our beloved father. No, in truth, it was curiosity that brought us to this place.’

‘Curiosity,’ agreed Silchas Ruin, ‘and determination.’

Hish frowned. ‘Lords, I am afraid I do not understand.’

She saw Andarist look away, as if he would claim no part in any of this. She knew he meant her no disrespect, but then, he had no reason to pity her and so cared little for courtesy.

These three brothers had a way of standing apart, even when they stood together. All were tall, and each shared something both magnetic and vulnerable. They could pull entire worlds around their selves, yet not once yield to pride, or arrogance.

White-skinned, red-eyed, Silchas Ruin waved a long-fingered hand, directing her attention to the basalt plinth. ‘By our father’s own command,’ he said, ‘the words carved upon his gravestone hide on the other side, facing in. They were intended for him alone, though he has no eyes with which to see, and no thoughts left to consider.’

‘That is . . . unusual.’

Anomander’s sun-burnished face, the colour of pale gold, now smiled at her. ‘Lady, your touch is no less soft for the years between us.’

Hish felt her eyes widen at those words, though, upon a moment’s reflection, perhaps more at the open affection in his tone. She met his gaze, searchingly, but saw nothing ironic or cruel. Anomander had been the first man she had taken as a lover. They had been very young. She remembered times of laughter, and tenderness, and the innocence of the unsure. Why had it ended? Oh, yes. He went to war.

‘We are of a mind to prise loose this stone,’ said Silchas.

At that Andarist turned to his brother. ‘You are, Silchas. Because of your need to know everything. But the words will be Azathanai. To you they will mean nothing, and that is as it should be. They were never meant for us, and to the bite of our eyes they will answer with bitter curse.’

Silchas Ruin’s laughter was soft. ‘These are your days of superstition, Andarist. Understandably.’ So dismissing his brother, he said, ‘Lady Hish, from here we ride on to the building site of Andarist’s new house. And awaiting us there is a stone-carver of the Azathanai, who has arrived with the hearthstone Anomander has commissioned as a wedding gift.’ He gestured again, in that careless way she remembered from years past. ‘This was but a minor detour, an impulse, in fact. Perhaps we will force the stone, perhaps not.’

Impulsive was not a behaviour Hish would associate with Silchas Ruin; indeed, not with any of these brothers. If their father chose to gift those words to darkness, it was in honour of the woman he had served all his life. She met Anomander’s eyes again. ‘Upon opening a crypt, you will all draw the breath of a dead man’s air, and that is truth, not superstition. What follows upon that, curse or ill, will be for seers to glean.’ She gathered up her reins. ‘Pray, withhold yourselves for a moment and grant me the time to depart this yard.’

‘You are riding to Kharkanas?’ Silchas asked.

‘I am.’ If he thought she would explain further, he was mistaken. She nudged her mount forward, directing it towards the track that cut over the hump of the hill. The crypts on all sides of this ancient burial ground seemed to crouch, as if awaiting the pounding of yet more rain, and the moss draped over many of them was so verdant it startled the eye.

Hish Tulla felt their regard following her as she rode on; wondered, briefly, at what words they might now pass among them, faintly amused perhaps, or derisive, as old recollections – at least from Anomander and Silchas – awakened, if not regret, then chagrin. But they would laugh, to break free of the discomfort, and shrug away their own impetuous years, now well behind them.

And then, in all likelihood, Silchas would exhort his muscles to prise loose the gravestone, to look well upon the hidden words etched into the black, dusty basalt. He would, of course, be unable to read them, but he might recognize a hieroglyph here, another there. He might glean something of his father’s message to Mother Dark, like catching a fragment of conversation one was not meant to hear.

In the dead man’s breath there would come guilt, bitter and stale, for the three men to taste, and Andarist would know fury – for that taste was not something to bring into a new home for himself and his wife to be, was it? He had every right to be superstitious – omens ever marked great changes in life.

A smell bitter and stale, a smell of guilt. Little different, in fact, from that of a dead rose.

* * *

‘To this day,’ Anomander muttered, ‘my heart swells at the sight of her.’

‘Just your heart then, brother?’

‘Silchas, will you ever listen well to what I say? I choose my words with precision. Perhaps, in truth, you speak only of yourself.’

‘It seems that I do, then. She remains lovely to my eyes, I admit, and if I find myself desiring her even now, there is no shame in admitting it. Even now, I think, we but spin in her wake, like leaves from a fallen tree.’

Andarist had listened in silence to this, unable to share in any tender memories of the beautiful woman who had ridden out from the shadows beneath the tree. Yet, in that moment, he saw an opportunity to draw out his brothers, in particular Silchas – and perhaps it would be enough to dissuade him from his intentions. So he faced Silchas and said, ‘Brother, why did you end it with her?’

Silchas Ruin’s white face bore droplets and streaks of rain as would a visage carved in alabaster. He preceded his reply with a sigh, and then said, ‘Andarist, I wish I knew. No, I think I realized that she was . . . ephemeral. Like a wisp of fog, I could not grasp hold. For all that she lavished attention upon me, it seemed there was something missing.’ He shook his head, shrugged helplessly. ‘Elusive as a dream, is Hish Tulla.’

‘And is this unchanged in her?’ Andarist asked. ‘She has taken no husband.’

‘I imagine her suitors have all given up,’ Silchas answered. ‘Each draws near, only to see too sharply his own failings, and in shame pulls away, never to return.’

‘You may well be right,’ Anomander mused.

‘She seems to have suffered nothing in her solitude,’ Silchas observed, ‘nor do I see any weakness in her attention to grace and perfection. In elegant remoteness, she arrives like a work of high art, and you may well desire to edge ever closer, seeking flaws in the maker’s hand, but the closer you get, the more she blurs before your eyes.’

Andarist saw that Anomander was studying Silchas intently, yet when he spoke it was clear that his thoughts had travelled tracks other than those consuming Silchas. ‘Brother, do you see Hish Tulla as a potential ally?’

‘In truth, I cannot say,’ Silchas replied. ‘She seems the definition of neutrality, does she not?’

‘She does,’ Anomander admitted. ‘Well, let us consider it again, at a later time. For now, will you have at this gravestone?’

Eyes closing, Andarist awaited his brother’s answer.

Silchas was a moment before replying. ‘I see more rain, and we have another league before us. The valley floor promises mud and treacherous footing. I suggest we set this matter aside for now, as well. Be at ease, Andarist. I would do nothing to endanger your future, and though I have little time for omens and such, I do not await what awaits you. So, if you’ll forgive my occasional amusement, let us not cross the lame dog’s path.’

‘I thank you,’ Andarist replied, glancing over to meet Silchas’s warm gaze. ‘And will endeavour to think no ill of your amusement, irritating and patronizing as it may be.’

The smile on Silchas’s face now split into a grin, and he laughed. ‘Lead us on, then. Your brothers would meet this famous mason and look well upon his offering.’

‘Famous,’ muttered Anomander, ‘and damned expensive.’

They returned to their horses and mounted up. Drawing their mounts round, they set off.

Andarist looked across at Anomander. ‘One day I hope to answer your sacrifice, brother, with one as worthy and as noble as yours.’

‘Where love is the coin, no sacrifice is too great, Andarist. And with that wealth, who among us would hesitate? No, I but teased with you, brother. I trust I will be well pleased with the giving of this gift, and I hope you and your bride find the same pleasure in its receiving.’

‘I am minded,’ Andarist said after a moment, ‘of our father’s gift to us. Mother Dark has rewarded his loyalty through the elevation of his sons, and you, Anomander, have been lifted the highest among us.’

‘And the point you wish to make?’

‘Would you have permitted Silchas the desecration of Father’s tomb?’

‘Desecration?’ Silchas said in shocked disbelief. ‘All I sought was—’

‘The sundering of a seal,’ Andarist finished. ‘What else could it be called?’

‘The moment is past,’ Anomander said. ‘There will be no more said on the matter. Brothers, we approach a precious time. Let us value it as it should be valued. The blood ever flows between us, and ever shall, and that is our father’s greatest gift to us – would either of you argue against that?’

‘Of course not,’ Silchas replied in a growl.

‘And though I am now elevated to First Son of Darkness, I will not stand alone. I see you both with me, at my side. Peace shall be our legacy – we will achieve it together. What must be done I cannot do alone.’

After a long moment of riding, Silchas seemed to shake himself, and then he said, ‘Hish Tulla looks fondly upon you, Anomander. She will see the nobility in what you seek.’

‘I hope so, Silchas.’

And Andarist said, ‘Though I do not know her as well as either of you, by reputation alone she is known for affability and a certain . . . integrity, and not once have I heard a word of spite directed towards Hish Tulla, which is in itself remarkable.’

‘Then shall I approach her?’ Anomander asked, looking from one brother to the other.

And both nodded.

Anomander had done well, Andarist reflected, in reminding them of what awaited them in the time ahead. A struggle was coming, and in Mother Dark’s name they would find themselves at the very centre of it. They could afford no divisiveness or contention between them.

Through the branches of the trees lining the track, the sky was clear, the glare of the sun like molten gold on the leaves.

‘It seems,’ said Silchas, ‘the way ahead has seen no rain, Andarist. I imagine your builders are well pleased at that.’

Andarist nodded. ‘It is said that the Azathanai have power over both earth and sky.’

‘These are Tiste lands,’ Anomander countered. ‘Purake lands. I do not recall my invitation extending to the extravagant use of sorcery. Though,’ he added with a half-smile, ‘I find I cannot entirely object to a cloudless sky over us.’

‘We shall arrive with steam rising from us,’ Silchas observed, laughing, ‘like children born of chaos.’

* * *

Envy was an unwelcome emotion, and Sparo fought hard against it as the servants – the heavy burlap in their hands – slowly walked back from the wagon-bed, and the cloth slipped easily across the surface of the hearthstone, and gasps of wonder rose from his cadre of stoneworkers and carpenters.

The massive foundation stones of the new house were behind the Tiste mason, and he did not need to turn and look at them to feel how their magnificence dwindled before the revelation of this Azathanai artefact. Destined to occupy the very centre of the Great Hall, the hearthstone would reside like a perfectly cut gem amidst a clutter of pebbles from the river. He felt diminished and offered no objection when the huge man standing at his side grunted and said, ‘Withdraw your workers, good Sparo. In the transport of the stone, I shall awaken sorcery.’

Sweat trickled down Sparo’s back beneath his rough tunic. ‘That will do,’ he barked to his crew. ‘Retreat to a safe distance, all of you!’ He watched his people hurry away, noted their uneasy glances back to the Azathanai High Mason.

‘There is nothing to fear, good Sparo.’

‘Earth magic is feral,’ Sparo replied. ‘It never sits well with us.’

Another grunt. ‘And yet you Tiste invite its gifts time and again.’

That was true enough. He glanced at the High Mason, feeling once more the almost physical buffeting the man’s presence delivered, as if the power the Azathanai held ever threatened to burst free; and saw once again the bestial wildness of a face that seemed moments from inviting such an eruption. ‘A meal is made finer, Lord, when one can avoid bloodying one’s own hands in the making of it.’

‘Then you are not a hunter, Sparo? Is that not unusual among the Tiste?’

Shrugging, Sparo said, ‘Less so of late, as most of the beasts are slain and shall never return to our lands. It seems that our days of glorious hunting will soon be at an end.’

‘Then let us hope,’ rumbled the mason, ‘that the Tiste do not turn to the final prey left them.’

Sparo frowned. ‘And what manner of creature might that be?’ ‘Why, each other, of course.’

With that, the Azathanai drew off his sheepskin cloak, letting it fall behind him, revealing the thick, scarred leather of his jerkin, the broad belt with its iron rings awaiting a stone-cutter’s tools, and set out towards the wagon. Glaring at the foreigner’s broad back, Sparo chewed on those last words, and found them displeasing to the palate. This Azathanai might well be a master of the shaping of stone, and in his blood the wild and raw sorcery of the earth, but such talents were no excuse for veiled insults.

Should he tell Lord Andarist of this exchange, however, it would no doubt be seen as trite, his own anger revealed as dishonest, little more than a reflection of his jealousy. It was one thing to be counted as among the finest masons when in the company of naught but his fellow Tiste, but these intrusions by the Azathanai arrived like salt to open wounds.

A febrile charge filled the air, rising like a breath from the ground. Muttering, the dozen or so workers backed further away, crowding against the heaps of rubble and wooden scaffolding on the other side of the main track. Fighting his own unease, Sparo watched the hearthstone lift from the wagon-bed. The oxen had already been unhitched and led away, to keep the beasts from panicking at the awakening of the Azathanai’s power. As the enormous block of basalt slid clear of the bed, the High Mason began walking towards the house, and the stone drifted into his wake like a faithful hound. Where it passed, however, the earth sank down as if still buckling to its massive weight. Small rocks spun away as if snapped by the passing of a huge wheel, while others crumbled to dust. The crackling energy filling the air began radiating heat, shrivelling the nearby tufts of grass, and smoke threaded along the path as the Azathanai guided the hearthstone towards its destination.

Sparo heard the thump of horse hoofs from the tree-lined track that led to the road, and he turned in time to see Lord Andarist and his brothers ride out from the shade of the nearest trees. The riders drew up sharply upon taking in the scene before them. Ignoring them, the Azathanai continued on, the hearthstone gliding along behind him – across the semicircular clearing fronting the house, and then on to the broad ramp that marked the approach to the gap still awaiting stone framing. Beneath the floating stone the ramp buckled, fissures spreading out through the packed soil.

Andarist had dismounted and now approached Sparo, who bowed and said, ‘My lord, I begged the Azathanai to await your arrival, but he is without patience.’

‘No matter, Sparo,’ Andarist replied, eyes fixed on the hearthstone as it slid over the threshold. The walls were not yet high enough to obscure their view as the High Mason guided his creation on to the earthen floor of what would be the Great Hall. The hearthstone left a depressed track as it approached the shallow pit awaiting it.

‘It was discourteous—’

‘The delay was ours – and the weather to the south.’

Lord Anomander had come up alongside his brother, while Silchas Ruin seemed content to remain seated on his mount a short distance back. Now, the First Son of Mother Dark spoke. ‘It is said that earth sorcery finds its truest vein of power at certain times of the day – and night – and so I expect the High Mason saw no value in delay, if only to ease his strain.’ He glanced over at Lord Andarist and said, ‘This much, at least, I did ask for.’

Sparo knew that it had been by Anomander’s instruction – and his coin – that this commission had occurred. Also, it was well known that this particular High Mason of the Azathanai was considered the lord among masters, his skill unequalled by any living mason, which set his status as, at the very least, equal to Anomander himself, whom Mother Dark had chosen to call her First Son.

Lord Andarist now turned to his brother, his eyes bright. ‘I would you accompany me, Anomander, to witness the placing of your gift.’ He turned then and waved Silchas forward. ‘And you as well, Silchas!’

But Silchas simply shook his head. ‘Anomander’s gift, and you the beneficiary, Andarist. I am well enough pleased to attend as I am. Go on, both of you, and quickly now lest that impolite creature forget his reason for being here, and for whom the stone was made.’

Andarist gestured that Sparo join them and the house-mason bowed a second time. ‘Lord, I am but—’

‘—my mason, Sparo, whose love for his art is sufficient cause in my eyes. Come, join us. Let us all look upon the majesty of this work.’

Trailing a step behind the two lords, Sparo followed along, feeling the thump of his own heart. Of course he would see the High Mason’s creation often enough in the months to come, in its rightful place in the Great Hall, but even hard basalt worked by an Azathanai was not immune to wear and tear, the scratches, stains and battering that came with a working hearth. And for all his envy, he was as Andarist had said: a lover of stone and the art of its shaping.

Silent with privilege, he joined his lord and Anomander upon reaching the packed earthen floor of the Great Hall. The Azathanai now stood to one side of the hearthstone, and the huge block hovered above its waiting seat. The High Mason faced Andarist and spoke, his expression flat.

‘The earth told of your approach. Are you the one soon to wed? Is this to be your home, Lord?’

‘Yes, I am Andarist.’

The High Mason’s broad visage then shifted to Anomander. ‘You, then, must be the First Son of Mother Dark. The giver of this gift to your brother and the woman he will take as wife.’

‘I am,’ Anomander replied.

‘And in so doing,’ the High Mason continued, ‘you bind yourself by blood and vow to what shall be made here, and to the secret words carved upon this hearthstone. If your loyalty is uncertain, speak now, First Son. Once this stone finds its place, the binding of the vow can never be broken, and should you fail in your love, in your loyalty, then even I cannot answer for the consequences.’

This sudden pronouncement stilled the two brothers, and Sparo felt his chest tighten, as if his heart’s beat was suddenly held, frozen. He struggled to breathe.

Anomander then tilted his head, as if to counter his own tension or affront. ‘High Mason,’ he said, ‘you speak of my love for Andarist, and my desire for the well-being of the new life awaiting him, as if they were in question. You speak, too, of this gift as if it embodies a threat, or indeed a curse.’

‘Such potential exists in every gift, and in its giving, First Son.’

‘The bargain made between myself and you,’ Anomander said, ‘involved the payment of coin for your services—’

‘Not precisely,’ the Azathanai replied. ‘You have paid for the protection and transport of this hearthstone, and its extraction from the Jhelarkan quarry. Your coin has purchased wagons, draught animals, and the necessary escort across the Bareth Solitude. For my talents, I take no coin.’

Anomander was frowning. ‘Forgive me, High Mason, but I surely paid for much more than what you have described.’

‘The Jhelarkan quarries are contested, Lord. Lives were lost in the procurement of this stone. Aggrieved families required compensation.’

‘This . . . distresses me,’ Anomander replied, and now Sparo could see the warrior’s taut fury.

‘The stone selected is unequalled in its capacity to contain and, indeed, sustain the sorcery I invest in it. If you wished a lesser gift, then you should not have made an approach to me. There are many highly skilled masons among the Azathanai, any one of whom could have served you well in the making of this gift. Yet you sought the finest worker of stone, to reflect the measure of your fealty to your brother and his pending union.’ The High Mason shrugged. ‘I have done as you requested. This hearthstone is without equal in the realm of the Tiste.’

‘And now you stand before us,’ said Anomander, ‘demanding my blood-vow.’

‘I do not,’ the High Mason replied, crossing his thickly muscled arms. ‘The stone demands. The words carved upon its face demand. The honour you wish to do to your brother demands.’

Andarist made to speak, dismay heavy on his features, but a quick shake of his brother’s head stilled him. Anomander said, ‘I have only your claim that the glyphs you have carved upon it – for the understanding of Andarist and Enesdia alone – do indeed avow love, fidelity and fecundity. And yet you ask of me, here and now, to give by blood and vow my binding to those secret words. Words that shall remain for ever unknown to me.’

‘I do,’ the High Mason replied. ‘On this, you have nothing but your faith. In my integrity, and, of course, in your own.’

Another moment, when it seemed nothing in the world could move, could break the stillness, and then Anomander drew a dagger from his belt and slid the edge across the palm of his left hand. Blood trickled down, dripped on to the ground. ‘Upon the hearthstone?’ he asked.

But the High Mason shook his head. ‘Unnecessary, First Son of Mother Dark.’

The hearthstone slowly settled into its bed of earth.

Sparo drew a sudden breath, almost sagged as the world righted itself once more. Looking at his lord, he saw Andarist, pale and shaken, possibly even frightened.

Neither brother had expected a moment so fraught, so heady with portent. Something had left them both, like a child in flight, and Anomander’s eyes were grave and older than they had been, as they held, steady as stone itself, upon the face of the Azathanai High Mason. ‘Then it is done?’

‘It is done,’ the Azathanai replied.

Anomander’s voice sharpened, ‘Then I must voice this unexpected concern, for I have placed my faith in the integrity of an Azathanai whom I know solely by reputation – his talent in the shaping of stone, and the power he is said to possess. In the matter of faith, Lord, you have gone too far.’

The Azathanai’s eyes thinned, and he slowly straightened. ‘What do you now ask of me, First Son?’

‘Binding of blood and vow,’ Anomander replied. ‘Be worthy of my faith. This and this alone.’

‘My blood you already have,’ the Azathanai replied, gesturing towards the hearthstone. ‘As for my vow . . . what you ask of me is without precedent. Tiste affairs are no concern of mine, nor am I about to avow allegiance to a noble of Wise Kharkanas, when it seems that such an avowal might well engulf me in bloodshed.’

‘There is peace in the Tiste realm,’ Anomander answered, ‘and so it shall remain.’ After a moment, when it was clear that the Azathanai would not relent, he added, ‘My faith in you shall not command your allegiance, High Mason. In your vow there shall be no demand for bloodshed in my name.’

Andarist turned to his brother. ‘Anomander, please. This is not necessary—’

‘This High Mason has won from the First Son of Mother Dark a blood-vow, brother. Does he imagine that a thing of little value? If there is no coin in this exchange, then is it not my right to demand the same of him in return?’

‘He is Azathanai—’

‘Are the Azathanai not bound by honour?’

‘Anomander, it’s not that. As you have said, binding by blood pulls both ways. As it now stands, all you have bound yourself to is this hearthstone. Your vow is to the upholding of your brother and the woman he loves, and the union thereof. If such was not your sentiment from the very first, then as the High Mason has said, best we not hear it now?’

Anomander stepped back as if rocked by a blow. He lifted his bloodied hand.

‘I do not doubt you,’ Andarist insisted. ‘Rather, I implore you to reconsider your demand on this Azathanai. We know nothing of him, beyond his reputation – yet that reputation is unsullied by questions regarding his integrity.’

‘Just so,’ replied Anomander. ‘And yet he hesitates.’

The High Mason’s breath hissed sharply. ‘First Son of Darkness, hear my words. Should you wrest this vow from me, I will hold you to it, and its truth shall be timeless for as long as both of us shall live. And you may have cause to regret it yet.’

Andarist stepped closer to his brother, eyes imploring. ‘Anomander – can’t you see? There is more to what you ask of him than either of us can comprehend!’

‘I will have his vow,’ Anomander said, eyes fixed on those of the High Mason.

‘To what end?’ Andarist demanded.

‘High Mason,’ Anomander said, ‘tell us of those ramifications which we do not as yet comprehend.’

‘I cannot. As I said, First Son, there is no precedent for this. Shall I be bound to your summons? Perhaps. Just as you may in turn be bound to mine. Shall we each know the other’s mind? Shall all secrets vanish between us? Shall we for ever stand in opposition to one another, or shall we stand as one? Too much is unknown. Consider carefully then, for it seems you speak from wounded pride. I am not a creature who weighs value in coin, and in wealth I ever measure all that cannot be grasped.’

Anomander was silent.

The Azathanai then held up a hand, and Sparo was shocked to see blood streaming down from a deep gash in the palm. ‘Then it is done.’

As he turned away, Anomander called out to him, ‘A moment, please. You are known by title alone. I will have your name.’

The huge man half swung round, studied Anomander for a long moment, and then said, ‘I am named Caladan Brood.’

‘It is well,’ said Anomander, nodding. ‘If we are to be allies . . .’

‘That,’ replied the High Mason, ‘still remains to be seen.’

‘No blood shed in my name or cause—’

Caladan Brood then bared teeth, and those teeth were sharp and long as those of a wolf. ‘That, too, Lord, remains to be seen.’ 

THREE 

Not too many years ago, fewer indeed than she cared to think about, Korya Delath had lived in another age. The sun had been brighter, hotter, and when she had carried her dolls, a dozen or more, up the narrow, treacherous stone steps to the Aerie’s platform, she had delivered them into that harsh light with breathless excitement. For this was their world, cut clean with the low walls enclosing the platform casting the barest of shadows, and the heat rising from the stone was lifted up by the summer wind as if giving voice to a promise.

Up here, in that lost age, it ever seemed she was moments from unfolding wings, moments from sailing up into the endless sky. She was a giant to her dolls, a goddess, and hers were the hands of creation, and even without wings she could stand and look down upon them, reaching to adjust their contented positions, tilting their faces upward so that she could see their stitched smiles or surprised ‘O’ mouths, and their bright knuckled eyes of semi-precious stones – garnet, agate, amber – that gleamed and flashed as they drank in the fervent light.

The summers were longer then, and if there were days of rain she did not remember them. From the Aerie she could look out and study the vast world beyond her and her dolls, her little hostages. The Arudine Hills girdled the north, barely a league distant from the keep, and from the maps Haut had let her examine she knew that these hills ran more or less west–east, only breaking up in the border reaches of Tiste-held territory far to the east; while westward they curled slightly northward, forming the southern end of a vast valley where dwelt the Thel Akai. If she looked directly east she would see the rolling steppes of the Jhelarkan Range, and the so-called Contested Territory, and in her memories she thought she caught glimpses of herds, smudged dark and spotting the land, but perhaps those images came from the ancient tapestries lining Haut’s study, and in any case the huge creatures only wandered now through her mind, and nowhere else. To the south she could make out two raised roads, mostly overgrown even then; one angling southeastward, the other southwestward. One of them, she knew now, led to Omtose Phellack, the Empty City. The other reached for the eastern borderlands, and it had been upon that road that she had first journeyed, from the world she had known as a child of Lesser House Delack, in the Tiste settlement called Abara, to this, the northernmost Jaghut keep in the realm they no longer claimed yet continued to occupy.

For this reason Haut had often mocked the notion of contested territory, but he also cited Jhelarkan indifference or possibly, given their defeats at the hands of the Tiste, incapability in claiming new lands for their control. Besides, the land in question was now empty, of little worth except as pasture, and the Jhelarkan way of life did not include the maintenance of domestic animals. There was nothing to contest, and it seemed just one more of those pointless arguments neighbours fostered with each other, a stamping of feet and holding of breath, a fury that could end in the spilling of blood. Haut was right to mock such things.

In her memories she could find no hint that she had ever seen a Jheleck. The territory to the east seemed the demesne of conquering weeds and scrub, ruled by relentless winds polishing cracked bedrock. It had been a place she had been forbidden to explore, except from here, atop the Aerie, straining across blurring distances with her eyes and seeing only whatever her imagination could conjure to life. But then, this was how she explored everything beyond the keep. Haut had kept her inside ever since she had been delivered into his care, isolated, hostage to everything, and to nothing.

She knew now that the Jaghut had not quite understood the Tiste tradition of giving and receiving hostages; certainly they had never sent one of their own children eastward, and given how rare those children were, it was no wonder. In any case, Haut only spoke of her enforced imprisonment as one of education: he had taken upon himself the responsibility of teaching her, and if he was an unusually harsh master, well, he was Jaghut.

Her dolls remained in her room these days. It had been years since they last looked up at the sun in its sky, with their ‘O’ mouths and eternal smiles. Sometimes, surprise and pleasure just faded away. Sometimes, the world dwindled, down until it was no bigger than a small, shallow platform atop a tower, and goddesses ran out of games to play, gave up reaching down to adjust the posture of her insensate children. Sometimes, the hostages just died of neglect, and power over corpses was no power at all.

This day, however, she was a goddess gripped by something that might be fear, or perhaps alarm, and her heart was thumping fast in her thin chest as she stood alone on the platform, watching the score or so Jheleck drawing ever closer to the keep. There was no question that they were intent on accosting Haut, either with violence or threat – she could think of no other reason for defying the prohibitions, for crossing the border into Jaghut territory. Of course, it was a territory no longer held by anyone. Were these ancient enemies coming to claim it for themselves?

There had been no images of these creatures anywhere among the keep’s tapestries, statuary and friezes, yet what else could they be? Arriving from the east, from the Jhelarkan Range, and no grass-eating beasts of old – she could see black leather harnesses on their long, lean forms; she could see the glint of iron blades strapped on to their forelimbs, and serrated discs flashing from their humped shoulders. They padded forward like swollen dogs, with hides of black or mottled tan, their long-snouted faces only hinted at beneath their boiled leather headgear – like hounds of the hunt, but they were their own masters.

It was said that this northern strain was kin to the Jheck of the far south, though purportedly much larger. Korya was relieved by that thought, since these Jheleck were nearly as big as warhorses. Though resembling dogs, they were said to be intelligent, possessors of a sorcery she knew only as Soletaken, though for her that was nothing more than a word, as meaningless as so many other words Haut had uttered over the years of her captivity.

She knew her master was not unaware of this intrusion. Nothing came on to his land without his knowing it, no matter how light the footfall or how thin the rush of air. Besides, he had sent her up here a short time past, his command harsh and snapping – she had at first imagined some transgression on her part, a chore not completed, a book left open, but she knew enough not to question him. In words he could wound deeply, and if he possessed humour she’d yet to find it. Yet still she was shocked when she heard the keep’s massive iron gate thunder open, and when she saw Haut emerge, no longer wearing his ratty, moth-eaten woollen robe, but bedecked instead in ankle-length black chain, overlapping iron scales shielding his shins and booted feet, with more of the same stacked along the breadth of his shoulders. From the flared back rim of his helmet of blackened iron, chain hung down like braided hair. When he paused and twisted round, glancing up towards Korya, she saw more chain, webbing his face beneath the eye-holes, dangling in tatters around his massive, stained tusks.

A sword was belted at his hip, but he made no move towards its long, leather-wrapped grip, his gauntleted hands remaining down at his sides as he swung back to face the Jheleck.

Haut was a scholar. He complained endlessly of brittle bones and arthritic pangs; she believed he was ancient, though she had no proof of that. His contempt for warriors was matched only by his disgust for war and all its idiotic causes. She had never before seen the armour he was now clad in, nor the weapon he now bore. It did not seem possible he was able to move under the weight of his accoutrements, yet he did so with grace, an ease she had never before seen in him.

It was as if the Aerie shifted beneath her, the world slipping in its massive gears. Mouth dry, she watched as her master marched directly towards the Jheleck, who now positioned themselves in a ragged row facing the Jaghut.

Halting ten paces away, and then . . . nothing.

Surely the Jhelarkan could not form words, not from bestial throats such as they must have possessed. If they spoke, it was through other means, yet there was no doubt in her mind that a conversation was now under way. And then Haut reached up and drew off his helmet, his long black iron-streaked hair falling loose in greasy ropes, and she saw him tilt his head back, and she heard him laugh.

Deep, rolling, a sound that did not fit into Korya’s world, a sound so unexpected it could stagger a goddess high upon her perch. Like thunder from the earth itself, that laughter rattled through her, climbed skyward like the beating of wings.

The Jheleck seemed to blur then, as if engulfed in black smoke, and moments later a score of warriors now stood in place of the beasts; and they began removing their long-snouted headgear, unstrapping the blades from their wrists and sliding the lengths down through iron loops in their harnesses; the serrated discs now jutted behind their heads like cowls.

What she could see of their faces was little more than the dark smudge of black beards and filthy skin. Apart from the now-loose leather armour, they appeared to be dressed in furs and hides. When they came forward, they shambled, as if unsteady on two legs.

Haut whirled round, looked up at her, and bellowed, ‘Guests!’

***

A solitary Jaghut and a young Tiste hostage: in this household there were no servants, no cooks, no butchers, no handmaids or footmen. The keep’s vast storerooms were virtually empty, and though Haut was quite capable of conjuring food and drink through sorcery, he rarely did so, relying almost exclusively on regular visits by the Azathanai traders who plied on seasonal rounds the tracks linking all the stilloccupied keeps.

In the absence of staff, Korya had learned to bake bread; she had learned to make stews and broths; she had learned to chop wood and mend her own threadbare clothes. Haut had proclaimed these tasks to be essential elements of her education, but she had begun to believe such chores were the product of less sanguine factors, beginning and ending with Haut’s own indolence, and his general dislike of company. It was, she often reflected, a wonder that he had ever accepted her presence, and the responsibility of taking her in.

As a people, the Jaghut rarely had anything to say to each other; they seemed perversely divisive and indifferent to such concepts as society or community. But this rejection was a conscious one; they had once dwelt in a city, after all. They had once built an edifice to civilization unequalled anywhere in all the realms, only to then conclude that it was all some kind of mistake, a misapprehension of purpose, or, as Haut described it, a belated recognition of economic suicide. The world was not infinite, and yet a population could aspire to become so; it could (and would) expand well beyond its own limits of sustainability, and would continue to do so until it collapsed. There was, he said, nothing so deadly as success.

Wisdom did not belong to mortals, and those whom others called wise were only those who, through grim experience, had touched the very edges of unwelcome truths. For the wise, even joy was tinged with sorrow. No, the world made its demands upon mortals and they were immediate ones, pressingly, ferociously so, and even knowing a reasonable course was not enough to alter a mad plunge into disaster.

Words were no gift, said Haut. They were tangled nets snaring all who ventured into their midst, until an entire people could hang helpless, choking on their own arguments, even as dissolution closed in on all sides.

The Jaghut had rejected that path. Defying the eternal plea for communication among peoples, in the name of understanding, peace or whatever, they had stopped talking, even with each other. And their city was abandoned, home now to a single soul, the Lord of Hate, the one who had laid bare the brutal truth of the future awaiting them all.

This was the history Korya had learned, but that had been another age, when she was a child, and it was the child who made answer to the bewildering tale told her by Haut, with her dolls, a family, perhaps even a society, and in that society there were no wars, and no arguments and no feuds. Everyone smiled. Everyone looked on in surprise and wonder at the perfect world their goddess had created for them, and the sun was always bright and always warm. There was, she knew, no end to the dreams of children.

The Jheleck had brought food: meat still dripping blood, jugs of thick, dark wine, leather bags holding sharp stones of crystallized sugar. At Haut’s command she brought forth salty bread from the stone cupboard forming the back wall of the kitchen, and dried fruit from the cellar; and the fire was lit in the main hall and the high-backed chairs drawn in from the walls, their legs making furrows in the dust closing in on the long table from all sides. Tapers were dipped and awakened to smoky flame, and as the twenty-one Jheleck crowded in, flinging off pungent furs, barking in their sharp tongue, the vast room grew steamy and redolent with old sweat and worse. Rushing back and forth from back rooms and storage cupboards, Korya almost gagged again and again upon plunging into the fug; and only when at last she could sit down, upon Haut’s left, drinking deep from the flagon of bitter wine pushed her way, was she able to settle into this new, heady world.

When the Jheleck spoke the Jaghut language, their accent was hard, all edges, yet clear enough to Korya’s ears, even if it carried with it a snide tone of contempt. The visitors ate the meat raw, and before long Haut himself joined in, his long-fingered hands slick with gore as he tore at the flesh, his inner teeth seeming to disengage from the flanking tusks when he chewed – something she had never seen before. Most of the animal products consumed in this house were of the smoked or dried variety, old and tough until soaked in wine or broth. Her master was regressing before her very eyes; she felt off-balanced, as if Haut had become a stranger.

Through it all, however, even as the wine softened the scene, she took in every word, every gesture, desperate to make sense of this gathering.

Guests.

They never had guests. Traders simply visited, and those that stayed overnight camped outside the walls. On much rarer occasions, another Jaghut arrived, to pick up on some obscure argument with Haut – a reluctant, pained exchange of words – and then was gone again, often leaving in the dead of night, and Haut’s mood would be foul for days thereafter.

The Jheleck had ignored her upon seating themselves and settling into their feast. Wine was guzzled like water from the well. Comments in two languages were flung back and forth. Belches and grunts accompanied every mouthful. There were no women among the warriors, leading Korya to wonder if this was some sect, a gaggle of priests or a brotherhood. Among the Thel Akai could be found monks sworn to weapons they themselves had fashioned from raw ore; perhaps these Jheleck were similarly avowed – they had not discarded their blades, after all, whereas Haut had divested himself of his martial gear as soon as he strode into the chamber.

The warrior seated on her left crowded against her, his heavily muscled shoulder and arm jostling her again and again. The Jheleck opposite seemed amused by her discomfort when he finally took notice. ‘Sagral,’ he suddenly barked, ‘ware your lumpy self, lest you end up in her lap.’

Raucous laughter greeted this comment, while Haut simply grunted, reaching for a jug of wine. Pouring himself another cup, he then said, ‘Careful you do not awaken her temper.’

The one who’d spoken lifted shaggy eyebrows. ‘You’ve suffered it, then, captain?’

Captain?

‘I have not, but she is Tiste and she is a young woman. I have waited for its coming since she first arrived, and still I wait. I am certain that it exists, although no amount of abuse I hurl at her has managed to sting it awake.’

Sagral leaned hard against her, thrusting close his broad, scarred face. ‘Anger is a sign of sharp wits, nay, of intelligence itself.’ His black eyes fixed on her. ‘Is it so?’ he asked. ‘Have years of Jaghut nonsense obliterated every spark? Assuming you had any to begin with?’

She studied him, making no effort to recoil, and said nothing.

Sagral’s eyes widened, and then he looked to Haut. ‘Is she a mute?’

‘She’s never said as much,’ Haut replied.

The brutes laughed again, and already she longed to be ignored as she had been earlier, but it seemed that now she was to be the butt of every jest. She turned to Haut. ‘Master, I wish to be excused.’

‘Impossible,’ Haut replied. ‘After all, they’re here for you.’

***

Typically, Haut was in no hurry to explain and she was left with a tumble of pointless questions filling her mind. They had given him a title; they had called him a captain. That was a military rank in the manner of Urusander’s Legion, or the Forulkan. But hostages were never given to soldiers: no army could be said to hold noble title, after all. Had her people erred in sending her here? Had they sent her into the keeping of a commoner?

No, that made no sense. If she—

‘Captain,’ said the warrior opposite her, his sharp tone snapping her out of her confused thoughts, ‘without trust there can be no peace. You, among all of us, know this as truth. In this gift, we shall find a name, and it shall be a name of honour.’

Haut slowly nodded – all at the table were now silent, listening. ‘And you wish to twine your gesture with that which I have the power to give to you. In return for what?’

‘Peace.’

‘I have peace, Rusk.’

The spokesman grinned, showing filed teeth. ‘Nothing lasts for ever.’

Haut grunted, reaching again for his cup. ‘Did your defeat at the hands of the Tiste teach you hounds nothing?’

Rusk’s grin vanished, and it was Sagral who answered, ‘You have no Borderswords. You have no Urusander’s Legion. You have no Houseblades of the High Families. What have we learned, captain? Your army is gone. This is what we have learned.’

‘We never had an army, Sagral,’ Haut replied, the vertical slits of his pupils narrowing as if in bright light. ‘We are Jaghut. Armies are anathema, and we have no taste for war. When facing fools who proclaim themselves our enemy, we simply destroy them. And we are thorough. For centuries you have tested us, and each time we have flung you back.’

‘We came in small packs,’ Sagral said in a growl. ‘This time, we shall come in our thousands.’

‘And when you came to raid, in your small packs, Sagral, we were content to drive you off, killing only a few of you. Should you now come in your thousands, our restraint is at an end.’

Rusk had been sucking on crystals of sugar, one after another, his small eyes fixed on Korya, and now he said, ‘We will return her home unharmed, captain.’

‘This is not how the hostage system works,’ Haut answered, slowly shaking his head. ‘Your treaty with the Tiste demands from you hostages – of your own blood. You cannot borrow one from someone else in lieu of the sacrifice you must make. The Tiste will accept only Jheleck hostages.’

‘But they offer none to us!’ Sagral snapped.

‘Because you lost the war, Sagral. You were faced with a simple choice: concessions or annihilation. By your presence we see which choice you made; now you must live with it or plunge once more into war.’

‘The Jheleck are not slaves!’

Haut glanced at Korya. ‘Hostage, do you consider yourself a slave?’

She knew the answer he expected from her, but it was the thought of travelling in the company of these beasts that motivated her reply. ‘Of course not. I am Tiste, born of House Delack. I am hostage to the Jaghut; the only hostage to ever have come to the Jaghut, and now the only one who ever will. In two years I will be returned to my family: the Jaghut tell us they are no longer a people. They tell us they have surrendered all claims.’

Sagral thumped the table, startling her. ‘Even their claim to you, child! It is only Haut’s selfishness that keeps you in his clutches! We will deliver you home, and we can leave with the dawn! Do you not wish this, or has Haut crushed the life from you? Made you a slave in all but name?’ He reared back, on his feet. ‘Even the Tiste know to disregard the Jaghut now – these tusked fools are nothing. They have abandoned the future and are doomed to die out. Their city lies in a bed of dust, ruled over by a mad man! You, hostage! You waste your life away here – two more years! For nothing!’

Korya had twisted in her chair to look up at him. She studied his rage-darkened face, the gleam of his bared teeth and their sharpened tips, the challenge in his eyes. Then she faced Rusk and asked, ‘Does this one need a leash?’

The sudden laughter stole the tension from the room, and all down the length of the table Jheleck warriors reached once more for the wine jugs. Sagral thumped back down, silent with shame. Bested by a Tiste female barely a woman – if that boyish frame was any indication – and made a pup once more was dour Sagral, kicked cowering into the cold – and all these biting comments were spoken in Jaghut, for her benefit, no doubt. When Korya glanced at Haut, she saw his pale eyes fixed upon her. She could never read them – neither approval nor disgust could alter that look; it was steady and unrelenting.

Captain. There had never been a Jaghut army. He had never been a captain of anything. The honorific made no sense at all.

Some unseen signal quelled the raucousness once more, and then Rusk spoke. ‘Captain, the Tiste have asked for fifty hostages. Fifty of our young ones. We will not surrender the lives of fifty Jheleck, young or old.’

‘It is hardly surrendering their lives, Rusk—’

‘The Tiste are heading into civil war.’

‘That fear has been uttered before,’ Haut replied. ‘It is meaningless. And even then, should civil war erupt, the lives of hostages will remain sacrosanct; indeed, I expect each family would immediately return your children to you, even at the risk of the preservation of their own Houses.’

Rusk snorted. ‘If you believe so, captain, then you understand nothing of civil war. And why should you? It is unthinkable to the Jaghut; but it is not so with us.’

A third Jheleck, silver-haired and scarred, said, ‘Our kin to the south were once united with us; in all ways they were identical – we were all Jheleck.’

‘I well recall your civil war,’ Haut said, nodding slowly. ‘And I have seen how it has made of you two people now. Varandas has written at length on the birth of the Jheck culture, and its myriad distinctions from your own.’

Rusk growled deep in his throat. ‘Varandas had no right.’

Shrugging, Haut said, ‘No matter, Rusk. The fool burned all his writings on the Night of the Dissension. What value history when no one heeds it anyway? My point remains none the less. Through your own experience, you now predict a similar fate to engulf the Tiste. But the Tiste are not Jheleck, nor are they Jheck, and the power at the heart of Kharkanas is not the wild force of your Vitr-born Soletaken, and Mother Darkness made no bargain with beast gods. No, Wise Kharkanas is a black diamond at the heart of the Tiste people, and so long as its inner fires burn, no sword can shatter it.’

‘We will not yield up fifty of our young.’

‘Then, Rusk, you will have war again. Although, if that occurs, you can find reason for relief, in that such an external conflict will unite the Tiste once more, thus ensuring no civil war.’

‘We do not fear their civil war, captain. We would welcome it, for when it closes, all Tiste lands will be ripe for conquest. But we will not risk the lives of our young.’

‘Korya is not your solution,’ Haut said.

‘Send her home then! Free her! She is of no value to you!’

‘When it is time I shall do precisely that. Education, Rusk, is a long-term investment. Expect no fruit in the first season. Expect none in the next, nor the one that follows. No, the reward is years away, and so it has been and so it remains with Korya. I have prepared the way for her life, and in that I am almost done. But not quite.’

‘You can do nothing more for her,’ said Rusk. ‘We can feel the essence of her soul. It is dark, empty. It has no power. She is not a child of Mother Dark, not in her soul, for the darkness that dwells there is not Kurald Galain. It is simply absence.’

‘Yes, perfectly so.’

‘Then what awaits it?’ Rusk demanded.

‘In the language of the Dog-Runners, Rusk, I have fashioned a mahybe. A vessel. Protected, sealed and, as you say, empty. What remains to be done? Why, its filling, of course.’

Hostage.

Stunned, frightened, Korya thought of the dolls in her room, each one awaiting life, each one awaiting the destiny that only a goddess could grant. They’d not moved in years. They crowded the darkness inside a stone chest.

‘With the dawn,’ said Haut to the Jheleck, ‘you leave. Alone.’

‘You will regret this,’ Rusk vowed.

‘One more threat from you,’ Haut replied, ‘and your host will feel ire. He might well cast you out to sleep under the stars, as befitting rude hounds that know nothing of honour. Or, if he judges you beyond salvage, he might simply kill you all.’

Korya saw Rusk pale beneath the grime. He rose, gestured, and all the other warriors pushed back their chairs, reaching for their discarded gear. ‘For the repast,’ Rusk said, voice heavy, ‘we thank you, captain. When next we dine in this hall, it shall be upon your snapped bones.’

Haut also rose. ‘So you twitch in your dreams, Jheleck. Now begone. I am done with you.’

***

Once they had trooped out, and Korya prepared to clear away the leavings, Haut gestured distractedly and said, ‘I shall awaken the sorcery of Omtose Phellack this night, Korya. Return to your room.’

‘But—’

‘Sorcery has value,’ he said. ‘It will aid me in de-lousing this chamber at the very least. Now, to your room. You have nothing to fear from those Soletaken.’

‘I know,’ she replied. ‘Master, if you have made me into a vessel . . . well, I do not feel it. I am not empty inside. I am not at peace.’

The word seemed to startle him. ‘Peace? I spoke not of peace. In absence, Korya, there is yearning.’ His strange eyes focused on her. ‘Do you not so yearn?’

She did. She knew the truth of it, as soon as he had spoken of what was inside her. She was the goddess who had tired of her children, who had seen the summers grow ever shorter, tinged with impatience, yet had not known what might arrive in place of the lost age.

‘Sleep this night,’ Haut said, in a tone she had never before heard from him. It was almost . . . gentle. ‘On the morrow, Korya, the lessons begin in earnest.’ He turned away, ‘My last task awaits us both, and we shall be worthy of it. This I promise.’ He gestured again, and she hurried from the room, her mind awhirl.

***

The carriage had been drawn up in front of the once-palatial entrance to the House of Delack. A single horse stood forlorn in the harness, head nodding as it chewed on its bit. The journey awaiting it would be arduous, for the carriage was heavy and in years past would have been drawn by a team of four. Beyond it, just visible from where stood Lady Nerys Drukorlat on the steps, the small boy was playing along the edge of the charred ruin of the stables, and she could see that his hands were black with soot, and he’d already stained his knees.

Here, in this failing estate, this was a battle that Nerys had no hope of winning. But childhood was short, and in these troubled times she would do all she could to make it even shorter. The boy needed guidance. He needed to be shaken free of his imaginary fancies. Nobility was born in the rigid stricture of proper attitude, and the sooner her grandson was bound to the necessities of adulthood, the sooner would he find his place as heir to the ancient House; and with proper guidance he would one day return the bloodline to the glory and power it had once possessed.

And she would hear nothing of that dreadful word, that cruel title that hung now over Orfantal like a crow’s mocking wing.

Bastard.

No child could choose. The venal stupidity of his mother, the lowborn pathos of his drunken father – these were not the boy’s crimes, and his innocence was not for others to denigrate. People could be vicious. Eager with hard judgement, eager with contempt.

‘The wounded will wound.’ So said the poet Gallan, and no truer words were spoken. ‘The wounded will wound / and every hurt is remembered.’ These lines came from his latest collection, his ominously titled Days of Skinning, which had been published at the beginning of the season and continued to foment outrage and heated condemnations. Of course, the truly cultured among the Houses could look upon unpleasant truths without blinking, and if Gallan in his courage had set blade to the Tiste culture and peeled back the skin, was not all that fury proof that he had seen true?

There was much to despise about one’s own kind, and the banality of fading glory was indeed bitter to bear. One day, there would be a rebirth. And if one saw clearly, and planned well enough in advance, then in the rising of a new age of fervour the bloodline could burst into new life, at the very heart of unimagined power. The opportunity would come, but not in her time. All that she did now was meant to serve the future, and one day they would see that; one day, they would understand her own sacrifices.

Orfantal had found a splintered shaft of wood, from one of the fence rails, and was now waving it over his head, shouting and running. She watched as he clambered atop a low heap of rubble, his expression one of triumph. He jammed one end of the shaft between two chunks of masonry, as if planting a standard, only to suddenly stiffen, as if speared through by some invisible weapon. Back arching, he stared skyward, his expression shocked, filling with imagined agony, and then he staggered down from the mound, stumbling to his knees, one hand clutching his stomach. A moment later he fell over and lay like one dead.

Silly games. And always ones of war and battle, heroic yet ending in tragedy. She’d yet to see the boy pretend to die while facing his imagined enemy. Again and again, it seemed he was enacting betrayal, the knife thrust from behind, the surprise and hurt filling his eyes. The hint of indignation. Boys were foolish at this age. In their ridiculous games they martyred themselves to their own belief in the injustice of the world, the chores that cut into their play time, the lessons that stole the daylight and summer’s endless dreaming, the shout from the kitchen that ended the day.

It all needed expunging. From young Orfantal’s mind. The great wars were over. Victory had won this peace, and young men and young women must now turn to other things – the sword-wielders’ time was past, and all these veterans, wandering through the settlements like abandoned dogs, getting drunk and spinning wild tales of bravery and then weeping over lost comrades – it was a poison to everyone, especially the young, who were so easily seduced by such tales and those crushing, wretched scenes of grief.

Soldiers lived in ways no others had, or could hope to, unless they too found the truths of war. Veterans returned home with all illusions scoured from their eyes, their minds. They looked out from a different place, but there was nothing healthy in that, nothing worthy. They had lived their days of skinning, and now all that they looked upon was duly exposed: gristle and sinew, bone and meat and the trembling frailty of organs.

Her husband had confessed as much to her, the night before he took his own life, the night before he abandoned them all, leaving only a legacy of shame. The hero who returned – what cause had he to kill himself? Returned to his beloved wife – the woman he had talked about, and longed for, each and every day while on the march – returned, rewarded, honoured, invited into a well-earned retirement far from strife and rigour. Home for less than a month, and then he drives a dagger into his own heart.

When the shock passed; when the horror faded; when eyes settled upon Nerys, the veiled widow . . . then came the first whispers.

What did she do to him?

She had done nothing. He had arrived home already dead. No, that was not it. When he had come home, it was she who was dead. To him. Out on those marches, on those fields of battle, on those miserable, cold nights under indifferent stars, he had fallen in love with the idea of her: that ageless, perfect idea, and against that she could not compete. No mortal woman could.

Her husband had been a fool, susceptible to delusion.

The truth was, the bloodline was already weak, almost fatally so. And things would only get worse. It had been some other soldier, a youth who’d lost an arm to a horse bite long before he drew blade against an enemy, who’d come to Abara drunk and bitter – oh, he’d told his share of lies, but after it had happened, Nerys had made inquiries, had discovered the truth. No, he had not lost his arm defending a Son of Darkness. No, he had not been recognized for his bravery. But it was too late. He had found Nerys’s daughter. He had found Sandalath, just a young girl still, too young to regard him with proper scepticism, and his slurred words seduced her easily, his calloused hand found the parts of her just awakened, and he stole from them all their future.

Bastard son.

Nerys kept him – that pathetic father – in coin, in the village. Enough to ensure that he stayed drunk, drunk and useless. She had made him the offer, made clear the only bargain available to him, and of course he accepted. He would never see his son, never see Sandalath, never come up to the house, nor walk the estate’s grounds. He had his corner of the root cellar in Abara Tavern, and all the wine he could pour down his numb throat. She even arranged to send him whores, not that he could manage much with them any more, according to their reports. The wine had stolen everything; he had the face of an old man and eyes that belonged to the condemned.

The door behind her opened and Nerys waited, without turning, until her daughter came up alongside her.

‘Do not say goodbye to him,’ Lady Nerys told Sandalath.

‘But he’s—’

‘No. There will be a scene and we won’t have that. Not today. We have had word. Your escort is taking a meal at the inn and will be with us soon. The journey awaiting you is long, daughter.’

‘I am too old to be a hostage again,’ said Sandalath.

‘The first time was four years,’ Nerys replied, repeating her part in this exchange almost word for word with the dozens of other times they had argued the matter. ‘It was drawn short. The House of Purake no longer exists as such – besides, Mother Dark has taken Nimander’s sons for her own.’

‘But they will take me back – at least let me go back to them, Mother.’

Nerys shook her head. ‘There is no political gain in that direction. Remember your duty, daughter. Our bloodline is damaged, weakened.’ She held on that last word, to ensure that it cut in the manner that it should – after all, who was to blame for this last wounding? ‘We do not choose such things.’

‘I will say goodbye to him, Mother. He is my son.’

‘And my grandson, and in this matter his welfare is of greater concern to me than is yours. Save your tears for the inside of the carriage, where none can see your shame. Leave him to his play.’

‘And when he looks for me? What will you say then?’

Nerys sighed. How many times did she have to say these things? Just this last time – I see the rider on the road. ‘Children are resilient, and you well know his education is about to begin in earnest. His life will be consumed by scholars and teachers and studies, and each night after dinner he will sleep and sleep deeply. Do not be selfish, Sandalath.’ She did not have to add again. ‘It is time.’

‘I am too old to be a hostage once more. It is unseemly.’

‘Consider yourself fortunate,’ Nerys replied. ‘You have served the House of Drukorlas twice, first among House Purake, and now, in the House of its rival.’

‘But House Dracons is so far away, Mother!’

‘Keep your voice down,’ Nerys hissed. She couldn’t see Orfantal any more – perhaps he had run behind the stables, which was just as well. Leave him to his adventures and his stained hands. In a very short time, a new life would take hold of him; and if Sandalath believed that the house behind them would soon be crowded with tutors, well, it did no harm to let her hold some comforting beliefs.

Orfantal was destined for Kharkanas. Where the whispers of bastard would never reach him. Nerys had prepared the way for that arrival: the boy was a cousin from an outland holding, south of the Hust Forges. He was being given to the House of Purake, not as a hostage, but to serve the palace and Mother Dark herself. He would be schooled by the Sons of Darkness, as one in their retinue. Of course, the boy had been raised from a very young age by Sandalath, and often called her his mother, but that affectation would wear off in time.

The horseman from House Dracons rode up, reining in behind the carriage. Remaining in the saddle, he bowed towards Lady Nerys and Sandalath. ‘Greetings and felicitations from the Consort,’ the man said. ‘I am named Ivis.’

Nerys turned to her daughter. ‘Into the carriage.’

But Sandalath was looking past the carriage, stretching to catch a last glimpse of her son. He was nowhere to be seen.

‘Daughter, obey your mother. Go.’

Holding herself as would someone with diseased lungs – shoulders hunched, caving in round the infection – Sandalath made her way down the stone steps. She had a way of seeming both old and impossibly young, and both states filled Nerys with contempt.

Nerys tilted her head towards the escort. ‘Ivis, we thank you for your courtesy. We know you have ridden far this day.’

Atop the bench at the front of the carriage the coachman was eyeing Lady Nerys, awaiting the signal. In the pale sky behind him a flock of birds winged towards the tree-line.

‘Lady Nerys,’ said Ivis, drawing her attention around, ‘we shall ride through the night and arrive at the house of my lord shortly after dawn.’

‘Excellent. Are you alone in this task?’

He shook his head. ‘A troop awaits us east of Abara, milady. Of course, we respect the traditional possessions of your bloodline, and so would do nothing to displease you.’

‘You are most kind, Ivis. Please convey my compliments to Lord Draconus, for selecting such an honourable captain for this task.’ She then nodded to the coachman, who snapped the traces, startling the horse into motion.

The carriage rumbled forward, bouncing over the uneven cobblestones, swinging on to the track that led round the back of the house. Halfway down the hill it would join the road into Abara, and from there it would take the north track, alongside the river, for a short distance before finding the branch leading northeast.

Drawing her heavy cloak about her shoulders, faintly chilled in the shadow of the entranceway, Nerys watched until the rider and the carriage disappeared round the side of the house, and then she looked once more to catch sight of Orfantal. But still he was out of sight.

This pleased her.

Some other battle in the ruins. Another triumphant stand. Another knife in the back.

Children dreamed the silliest dreams.

***

Standing in the shadow of the burnt-out stables, hidden from the steps of the house, the boy stared after the carriage. He thought he had seen her face, there in the small, smudged window, pale and red-eyed, as she strained to find him, but then the carriage trundled past, turning so that all he could see was its high back and strongbox, the tall wheels leaning and wobbling on old axles. And then, the strange rider in the soldier’s garb rode by, his horse kicking up puffs of dust once past the cobbles.

Soldiers came to Abara. Some had missing limbs or only one eye. Others bore no wounds but died with knives in their chests, as if the weapon had followed them all the way from those distant battles they’d fought in. Darting silver, barely seen in the night, following, finding, at last catching up. To kill the man who’d been meant to die weeks, even months, earlier.

But this soldier, who called himself Ivis, had come to take away his mother.

He didn’t like to see people cry. He’d do anything to keep them from crying, and in his mind, in the imaginary world of strife and heroism that he lived in, he often voiced vows over the tears of a broken woman. And then fought his way across half the world in the name of that vow. Until it killed him, like a knife creeping up from the distant past.

The boy watched the carriage until it was lost from sight. And his mouth then moved, voicing a silent word.

Mother?

There were wars far away, where hate locked weapons and blood sprayed like rain. And there were wars in a single house, or a single room, where love died the death of heroes, and weeping filled the sky. There were wars everywhere. He knew this. There were wars and that’s all there was, and every day he died, taken by that knife that followed him across the whole world, just as it had done to his grandfather.

But for now, he would hide in the shadows, in the stables that had caught fire, killing all but one of the horses. And maybe slink into the wood beyond the corral, to fight ever more battles, losing every time because the real heroes always did, didn’t they? Death always caught up, to everyone. And the day would rush past, as it always did.

Until the call came from the kitchen, ending the world for another night.

***

Sandalath thought she had seen him, there in the gloom, ghostly against one of the last still-standing walls of the burnt-out stable, but probably had only imagined it. The footing of her mind was uncertain, or so her mother always said; and imagination, such as she’d bequeathed to her son, in abundance, was no virtue in these stressful times. The air inside the carriage was stifling, smelling of mould, but the hinges on the side windows had seized with rust and grime, and the only draught to reach her came from the speak-box leading up to a tube of wood that rose beside the bench where sat the coachman. She barely knew him – he had been hired from the village for this one task – and should she call up to him, to beg his help opening a window, well, that tale would soon fill the taverns – the fallen House and its cursed, useless family. There would be laughter, mockery and contempt. No, she would not ask anything of him.

Sweat trickled beneath her heavy clothes. She sat as still as she could manage, hoping that would help, but there was nothing to do, nothing to occupy her hands, her mind. Too much rocking and jostling to resume her embroidery; besides, dust was already drifting in, sliced bright by thin spears of sunlight. She could feel it coating her face, and had there been tears on her cheeks – which she knew there were supposed to be – then the streaks would darken with dirt. Unsightly, shameful.

She remembered her first time as a hostage; she remembered her time in the Citadel, the breathless excitement of all those people moving through countless sumptuous rooms, the tall highborn warriors who never seemed to mind the tiny girl underfoot. She remembered the wealth – so much wealth – and she had come to believe that this was her world, the one to which she had been born.

She had been given a room, up a winding flight of stairs; there she would often sit waiting, flushed and excited, for the high bell announcing meals, when she’d rush down, round and round those ever-turning steps, to lunge into the dining room – and they would laugh in delight upon seeing her.

For most of that first year it seemed that she had been the centre of attention in the entire Citadel, feted like a young queen, and always nearby were the three warrior sons of Lord Nimander, to take her hand whenever she reached up, whenever she needed to feel safe. She remembered her fascination with Silchas Ruin’s white hair, the glint of red in his eyes, and his long fingers; and the warmth of Andarist’s smile – Andarist, whom she dreamed she would one day marry. Yet the one she truly worshipped was Anomander. He seemed solid as stone, sunwarmed and smoothed by winds and rain. She felt him like a vast wing, protective, curled round her, and she saw how the others deferred to him, even his brothers. Anomander: most beloved by Mother Dark, and most beloved by the child hostage in the Citadel.

The wars stole them away from her, father and sons all, and when Lord Nimander returned early on, crippled and broken, Sandalath had huddled in her room, frozen with terror at the thought of any of her guardians dying on some distant field of battle. They had become the walls of her own house, her own palace, and she was their queen, for ever and always. How could such things ever end?

Outside the carriage window the single-storey buildings of the village rolled past, and before them fleeting figures moved here and there, many stopping to stare. She heard a few muted calls flung up to the driver, heard a muffled bark of laughter, a drunken shout. Breath catching suddenly, Sandalath leaned back to keep her face from the dust-streaked window. She waited for her heart to slow. The carriage bounced across deep ruts, pitching her from side to side. She folded her hands together, gripping hard, watching the blood leave her knuckles until she could see the bones.

Her imagination was fraught. This was a difficult day.

Abara had been a settlement known for its growth, its wealth, before the wars took all the young men and women; in the time when House Drukorlas was on the verge of becoming a Greater House. When Sandalath had finally been sent back, like a gift that had lost its beauty, its purpose, she had been shocked by the poverty of her home – the village, the grand family house and its tired, tattered grounds.

Her father had just died, before her return, a wound brought back from the war gone suddenly septic – striking him down before any healer could attend; a tragic, shocking death, and for her, a new emptiness to replace an old emptiness. Her mother had always kept her husband – Sandalath’s father – for herself. She spoke of her selfishness as her reason for sending her daughter from the room, or keeping closed a door. There was talk of another child, but no child had come, and then her father was gone. Sandalath remembered him as a tall, faceless figure, and most of her memories of him were the sound of his boots on the wooden floor in the chamber above her bedroom, pacing through the night.

Now her mother never spoke of him. She was a widow and this title seemed to carry with it all the wealth it would ever hold, but it was the solitary kind; it embraced no one but Nerys herself. Meanwhile, poverty gnawed inward on all sides, like undercut riverbanks in a spring flood.

The young warrior who came to Abara, one-armed and soft-eyed, had changed her world, in ways she only now understood. It was not simply the child he gave her, or the nights and afternoons out under the sky, in meadows and glens on the estate, when he taught her to open herself up and draw him inside. He had been a messenger from another world, an outside world. Not the Citadel, not the house where dwelt her mother, for ever awaiting her husband. Galdan’s world was a hard place of violence, of adventure, where every detail glowed as if painted in gold and silver, where even the stones underfoot were one and all gems, cut by a god’s hand. She understood it now as a world of romance, where the brave stood firm in the face of villainy, and honour held vigilance over tender hearts. And there was love in the fields, in a riot of flowers and hot, bright summer days.

This was the world she whispered about to her son, when she told him old tales, to show him who his father was, and where he had lived, the great man he had been, before she snuffed out the candle and left Orfantal to sleep and dreams.

She was forbidden from speaking the truth, the ignominy of the discoveries about Galdan’s real past, or the fact that Nerys had sent the young man away, exiled into the lands of the Jaghut, and that word had come back that he had died, the circumstances unknown. No, such truths were not for her son, not for his image of his father – Sandalath would not be so cruel, could not. The boy needed his heroes. Everyone did. And for Orfantal, his father would be a man impervious to infamy, unsullied by visible flaws, the obvious weaknesses that every child eventually saw in their living parents.

In her creations, as she spoke at her son’s bedside, she remade Galdan, building him from pieces of Andarist, Silchas Ruin, and, of course, Anomander. Mostly Anomander, in fact. Down to his very features, his way of standing, the warmth of his hand closing upon that of a child – and when Orfantal awoke in the night, when all was dark and quiet and he might become frightened, why, he need only imagine that hand, closing firm about his own.

Her son asked her, where had he gone? What had happened to his father?

A great battle against the Soletaken Jheleck, an old feud with a man he’d once thought his friend. A betrayal, even as Galdan gave his life defending his wounded lord. His betrayer? Dead as well, stalked by his treachery – they said he took his own life, in fact – but no one ever speaks the tale, not a word of it. All the Tiste grieved over the sad events, and then vowed that they would speak of it no more, to mark their honour, their grief.

There were things a child needed to believe, sewn like clothes, or even armour; that he could then wear until the end of his days. So believed Sandalath, and if Galdan had stolen her own clothes, with his sweet lies, only to leave her shivering and alone . . . no, Orfantal would not suffer the same. Would never suffer the same.

The carriage was a cauldron. She felt fevered with the heat, wondering who would tell her son stories at night. There was no one. But he could reach out in the darkness, couldn’t he, to take his father’s hand. She need not worry any more on that matter – she had done what she could, and her mother’s rage – Nerys’s bitter accusation that Sandalath was too young to raise a child – well, she had proved otherwise, had she not? The heat was suffocating her. She felt ill. She thought she had seen Galdan, in the village – she thought she had seen him, stumbling as if to chase down the carriage, and then he’d fallen, and there had been more laughter.

Her imagination was unfettered, the heat driving it wild, and the world outside her window had transformed into something blinding white, the sky itself on fire. She coughed in the dust of that destruction, and horse hoofs were pounding now on all sides, voices raised, hoofs stuttering like drums.

The carriage rocked to a halt, edged down into a ditch, tilting her to one side so that she slipped down from the seat.

The sweat was gone from her face. It felt dry and cool.

Someone was calling to her, but she could not reach the shout-box, not from down here.

The latch rattled, and then the door swung open, and the fire outside poured in, engulfing her.

***

‘Vitr’s blood!’ Ivis swore, clambering into the carriage to take the unconscious woman in his arms. ‘It’s hot as a forge in here! Sillen! Raise a tarp – she needs shade, cooling down. Corporal Yalad, stop gawking! Help me with her, damn you!’

Panic thundered through the master-at-arms. The hostage was as white as Ruin himself, clammy to the touch and limp as a trampled doll. She seemed to be wearing almost all her clothes, layer upon layer. Bewildered as he laid her out on the ground beneath the tarp Sillen was now stretching out from the carriage side, he began unbuttoning the clasps. ‘Corporal Yalad, a wet cloth for her brow, quickly!’

If she died – if she died, there would be repercussions. Not just for himself, but for Lord Draconus. The Drukorlas family was old, venerated. There had been only the one child, this one here, and if cousins existed elsewhere they remained lost in obscurity. His lord’s enemies would be eager to see blood on Draconus’s hands for this tragic end, when instead his lord had been seeking to make a gesture, taking into his care the last child of this faded bloodline. A recognition of tradition, an honouring of the old families – the Consort had no desire to isolate himself in a mad grasp for power.

He stripped off yet more clothes, rich brocades heavy as leather armour, quilted linens, hessian and wool, and then paused, swearing again. ‘Sillen, take down that strongbox – see what’s in that damned thing. This must be her entire wardrobe!’

The coachman had climbed from the carriage and stood looking down on the unconscious woman. Ivis scowled. ‘We were about to leave the road anyway, driver – this one can ride, surely?’

‘Don’t look like it at the moment, sir.’

‘Once she’s recovered, you fool. Can she ride?’

The man shrugged. ‘Can’t say, sir. I ain’t a regular on the house-staff, right?’

‘You’re not?’

‘They let go most of the staff, sir, must be two years ago now. It’s all the fallow land, y’see, with nobody left to work it. People just died off, or wandered off, or wandered off and died.’ He rubbed at his neck. ‘There was talk of turning it to pasture, but that don’t take many people to work, does it? Mostly,’ he concluded, still staring down at the woman, ‘people just gave up.’

Sillen and two others had got the strongbox down, straining and cursing at its weight. ‘Locked, captain.’

‘Key’s right here,’ Ivis replied, lifting free an ornate key looped through a thong of leather round the young woman’s flushed neck. He tossed it over, then glared up at the coachman. ‘Take a walk – back to the village.’

‘What? I got to return the carriage! And the horse!’

‘One of my men will do that. Go, get out of here. Wait!’ Ivis plucked a small leather pouch from his belt and tossed it over to the coachman. ‘You didn’t see any of this – not her passing out, nothing at all. Am I clear?’

Wide-eyed, the man nodded.

‘If word reaches me,’ Ivis continued, ‘that what’s happened here has gone through Abara, I will hunt you down and silence your flapping tongue once and for all.’

The coachman backed up a step. ‘No need to threaten me, sir. I heard you. I understand what you’re saying.’

Hearing the lock on the strongbox click, Ivis waved the coachman back on to the road. The man hurried off, his head bent over as he peered into the leather pouch. The glance he threw back at the captain was a surprised one, and he quickly picked up his pace.

Ivis turned to Sillen. ‘Open it.’

The lid creaked, and then Sillen frowned. Reaching in, he lifted clear a well-wrapped clay jar, the kind used to hold cider. When he shook it even Ivis could hear the strange rustling sound the contents made. Not cider. Meeting Sillen’s questioning eyes, the captain nodded.

The soldier worked free the heavy stopper, peered in. ‘Stones, captain. Polished stones.’ He nodded towards the strongbox. ‘It’s full of these jars.’

‘From the shores of Dorssan Ryl,’ Ivis muttered, nodding to himself. He took from Corporal Yalad the wet cloth and leaned over to brush Sandalath’s forehead. Stones of avowed love – they all carried a few, mostly from family and mates. But whole jars filled with them? An entire damned strongbox of stones?

‘More than a few suitors, I guess,’ Sillen said, returning the stopper and slapping it tight with one palm.

Ivis stared across at the soldier. ‘If that was meant as a jest, Sillen, I’ll—’

‘No sir!’ Sillen said quickly, looking back down as he replaced the jar and closed the lid. ‘Begging your pardon, sir. What do I know of pretty daughters from noble houses?’

‘Not much, it seems,’ Ivis allowed. ‘Lock it up, damn you. And give me back that key.’

‘She’s coming round, sir,’ said Corporal Yalad.

‘Mother’s blessing,’ Ivis whispered in relief, watching her eyelids fluttering open.

She stared up at him without comprehension. He waited for some recognition as she studied him, but it did not seem forthcoming.

‘Hostage Sandalath Drukorlat, I am Captain Ivis. I am leading your escort to House Dracons.’

‘The – the carriage . . .’

‘We have to leave the road now, mistress – the track before us is good only for riding. Can you sit a horse?’

Frowning, she slowly nodded.

‘We’ll stay here for a while longer,’ Ivis said, helping her to sit up. Seeing her notice her half-undressed state, Ivis took up her outer cloak and draped it about her. ‘You were overheating in that carriage,’ he explained. ‘You fainted. Mistress, we could well have lost you – you’ve given us all a serious fright.’

‘I am weak with imagination, captain.’

He studied her, trying to make sense of that confession.

‘I am better now,’ she said, managing a faint smile. ‘Thirsty.’

Ivis gestured and a soldier closed in with a canteen. ‘Not too much all at once,’ he advised.

‘You’re holding my key, captain.’

‘It was constricting your throat, mistress.’ When she looked across at the strongbox, he added, ‘We’ll rig a harness between two horsemen.’ He smiled. ‘No idea what’s in that thing, but it’s damned heavy. Young women and their toiletry – it seems there’s no end to paints and perfumes and such. I know – got me a daughter, you see.’

Sandalath’s gaze dropped away and she seemed to concentrate solely on sipping from the canteen. Then she looked up in alarm. ‘The coachman—’

‘Sent him away, mistress.’

‘Oh. Did he—’

‘No. On my honour.’

It seemed she was about to press him on this, but lacked the strength, sagging back down as if moments from collapsing once more.

Ivis took her weight. ‘Mistress? Are you all right?’

‘I will be,’ she assured him. ‘So, how old is she?’

‘Who?’

‘Your daughter.’

‘Only a few years younger than you, mistress.’

‘Pretty?’

‘Well, I’m her father . . .’ And then he ventured a wry grin. ‘But she’ll need more wits about her than most, I’d wager.’

Sandalath reached out and touched his upper arm, a gesture that a princess might make upon a kneeling subject. ‘I am sure,’ she said, ‘she is very pretty.’

‘Yes, mistress,’ he replied. He straightened. ‘If you will excuse us for a time – I need to see to my troop, and see to the strongbox. Gather your strength, mistress, and when you feel able we will resume our journey to House Dracons.’

When he moved round to the other side of the carriage, Sillen edged close and said, ‘Mother help her if she looks like you, sir. That daughter of yours, I mean.’

Ivis scowled. ‘You’ve got a mouth on you, soldier, that’s going to see you looking up at us from the bottom of a latrine.’

‘Yes, sir. Didn’t know you had a daughter, that’s all. It’s, uh, hard to work my way round, sir.’

Behind them, Corporal Yalad snorted. ‘You really that thick, Sillen?’

‘See to that harness, Sillen,’ Ivis said.

‘Yes sir.’

***

Proper men had two arms for good reason. One to reach for things, the other to keep things away. Galdan had lost the arm that kept things away, and now, when every temptation edged into his reach, he snatched it close to be hungrily devoured.

He’d discovered this grim curse in the depths of cheap wine, and then in a young, innocent woman who lived only to dream of a better life. Well, he’d promised it, hadn’t he? That better life. But the hand that touched belonged to the wrong arm – the only arm he had left – and the touch did nothing but stain and leave bruises, marring all the perfect flesh that he should never have taken in the first place.

Love had no limbs at all. It could neither run nor grasp, couldn’t even push away though it tried and tried. Left lying on the ground, unable to move, crying like an abandoned baby – people could steal it; people could kick it until it bled, or nudge it down a hillside or over a cliff. They could smother it, drown it, set it on fire until it was ashes and charred bone. They could teach it how to want and want for ever, no matter how much it was fed. And sometimes, all love was, was something to be dragged behind on a chain, growing heavier with each step, and when the ground opened up under it, why, it pulled a person backwards and down, down to a place where the pain never ended.

If he’d had two arms, he could have stabbed it through the heart.

But nobody around here understood any of that. They couldn’t figure the reasons why he drank all the time, when in truth there weren’t any. Not real ones. And he didn’t need to do much to throw out excuses – the empty sleeve was good enough, and the beautiful woman stolen away from him – not that he’d ever deserved her, of course, but those who reached too high always fell the furthest, didn’t they? Forulkan justice, they called it. He’d had his fill of that, more than most people. He’d been singled out; he was certain of it. Touched by a malign god, and now its grisly servants stalked him, there in the shadows at his back.

One of them squatted close now, in this narrow, rubbish-choked alley beside the tavern, crouching low in the pit below the four steps leading down to the cellar. It was softly laughing at all the excuses he had for being what he was, for doing what he did. Reasons and excuses weren’t the same thing. Reasons explained; excuses justified, but badly.

They’d sent her away – he’d seen the carriage, rolling down the centre street – and he’d caught a flash of her face behind the dirty window. He’d even shouted her name.

Galdan dragged closer the day’s jug of wine. He’d drunk more from it than he should have, and Gras didn’t like it when he had to give up another one too soon. One a day was the rule. But Galdan couldn’t help it. Sand was gone now, for ever gone, and all those nights when he weaved his way to the edge of the estate, like a reaver haunting a border, and fought against his desire to find her, take her away from this useless life – he would never make that journey again.

Of course, it hadn’t been her life that was useless, and that journey in the dark had been a sham, despite all the river stones he left in the hidden place only they knew about. She found them; he knew that much. Found them and took them somewhere, probably to the refuse heap behind the kitchen.

Galdan stared at the jug, at the filthy hand and the fingers twisted down into the ceramic ear. It was all like this wine – he would grasp it, only to have it disappear – the hand that only took could hold nothing for very long.

Proper men had two arms. With two arms they could do anything. They could keep the world just far enough away, and take only what they needed and it didn’t matter if it then vanished, because that’s how it was for everybody.

He’d been such a man once.

From the deep shadows at the bottom of the stairs, his stalker laughed on, and on. But then, everyone in the village laughed when they saw him, and in their faces he saw all his excuses, the ones he liked to call reasons, and those were good enough for him. And, it seemed, for everyone else, too.

***

Galar Baras knew that the Forulkan had believed themselves pure in their enmity towards disorder and chaos. Generations of their priests, their Assail, had devoted entire lives to the creation of rules of law and civil conduct, to the imposition of peace in the name of order. But to Galar’s mind they had taken hold of the sword from the wrong end. Peace did not serve order; order served peace, and when order became godlike, sacrosanct and inviolate, then the peace thus won became a prison, and those who sought their freedom became enemies to order, and in the elimination of such enemies, peace was lost.

He saw the logic to this, but it was a form of reasoning that surrendered its power when forced; as was the case with so many lines of reasoning. And arrayed against its simplicity was a virulent storm of emotional extremity, an array of vehemence, with fear wearing the crown.

The Forulkan Assail solution was order born of fear, a peace deemed for ever under assault, for ever threatened by malicious forces, many of which wore the face of strangers. There was, he had to acknowledge, a kind of perfection to their stance. Dissent could find no purchase, so quickly was it cut down, annihilated in a welter of violence. And being unknown, strangers always posed a threat to those serving fear.

Theirs was a civilization tempered on a cold anvil, and the Tiste had revealed the flaw in its forging. Galar Baras found it ironic that the great commander who had defeated the Forulkan was such an admirer of their civilization. For Galar himself, he could well see its seductive elements, but where Urusander had been drawn closer by them, Galar had recoiled in unease. What worth peace when it was maintained by threat?

It was only the fearful who knelt in worship before order, and Galar refused to live in fear.

Before the war, the south Borderswords had been a loosely organized, under-equipped force. Still, it had been the first to respond to the Forulkan invasion, the first to stagger the enemy. The cost had been horrendous, and yet Galar could still appreciate that the birth of what would come to be called the Hust Legion was found in the chaos and discord of battle. There had been no peace in that creation, and the first years of its life had been cruel and harsh.

Among the weaponsmiths of the Hust forges, there was a belief that every length of blade had a thread of fear in its heart. It could not be removed; indeed, it was bound to the life of the iron. They called it the Heartline of the Blade. Cut it and the weapon lost its fear of shattering. The forging of a weapon was devoted to strengthening that Heartline: every folding of metal twisted that thread, wound it tighter, until the thread knuckled, again and again – there were secret arts in this tempering, known only to the Hust weaponsmiths. Galar knew that they claimed to have discovered the essence of that thread of fear, the vein of chaos that gave a sword its strength. He could not doubt such claims, for the Hust had given that Heartline a voice, taut with madness or overflowing glee, a sound both wondrous and terrible, crying out through the quenched iron, and no two voices were the same, and those that sang loudest were known to be the most formidable of all weapons.

The Hust Forge began supplying the south Borderswords towards the end of the Forulkan War, but the enemy was already in disarray, broken in retreat and fleeing the relentless advance of Urusander’s Legion. Their numbers reduced by attrition, the Borderswords had been serving as veteran auxiliaries, and had participated in all the major engagements over the last two years of the war. They had been exhausted, on the verge of dissolution.

Galar still remembered the now-legendary day of the Hust Resupply, the huge wagons lumbering out of the dust clouds and the moaning and lowing that filled the air – sounds the battered troop of Borderswords believed were coming from the burdened oxen, only to discover that the terrible cries came not from beasts, but from the weapons nestled in their wooden crates. He recalled his own horror when he was summoned to exchange his blade, when he set down his worn, scarred sword and took in hand the new Hust weapon. It had shrieked at his touch, a deafening peal that seemed to drag talons down all the bones of his body.

It had been a son of Hust Henarald himself who had given him the weapon, and as the cry abruptly fell off, its echo a ringing clangour in Galar’s skull, the young weaponsmith had nodded and said, ‘Well pleased by your touch, captain, but be warned, this is a jealous sword – the most powerful ones are, we have found.’

Galar was unsure whether to thank the weaponsmith or not. Some gifts proved curses. Yet the weapon’s weight suited the strength of his arm, and in his grip it felt like an extension of his own bones, his own muscles.

‘There is no such thing,’ the weaponsmith went on, ‘as an unbreakable sword, though Abyss knows we have tried. Captain, listen well, for the words I now speak are known to only a few. We struggled in the wrong battle against the wrong enemy. All iron has limits to its flexibility, its endurance: these are true laws. I cannot guarantee that your new sword will not break, though it is of such power that no mortal blade is likely ever to shatter it edge to edge; nor could any swing or thrust you manage make the weapon fail you. Yet, should it ever break, captain, abandon not the sword. There are many knuckles in the Heartline, you see. Many.’

At the time he had known nothing about ‘knuckles’ or ‘Heartlines’. Such knowledge came later, when the secrets of the Hust swords became his obsession. He thought now that he understood the significance of these knuckles, and though he had yet to witness, or even hear of, a Hust sword breaking, he believed that a miracle was buried in each blade, an expression of sorcery unlike any other.

Hust swords were alive. Galar Baras was convinced of this, and he was hardly alone in that opinion. Not one soldier in the Hust Legion believed otherwise. Urusander’s soldiers were welcome to mock and make their snide remarks. It had been the Hust mines that had been a Forulkan primary target in their invasion, and it had been a stand by the south Borderswords that had preserved them. Hust Henarald had shown his gratitude in the only way he could.

Even the highborn warriors of the Houseblades were made uneasy by the Hust Legion and their haunted weapons. Not all, of course, and something was about to come of that, and it was for this reason that Galar Baras found himself riding in the company of Kellaras, commander of the Houseblades of Purake.

There had been changes to that House. Upon the blessing of Nimander, for his service to Mother Dark, all land holdings had been relinquished to Mother Dark, and all those Tiste born to the bloodline, and their attendant staff, warriors, mendicants and scholars, now served her, taking the name of Andii, Children of Night.

The First Son of Darkness, Lord Anomander, whom Kellaras served, had shown no reluctance in his praise for the Hust Legion, and was open in his admiration for the House of Hustain. His forces had been the first to arrive in relief of the south Borderswords following the Stand at the Mines, and Galar remembered seeing Lord Anomander crossing the bloodied ground to speak with Toras Redone, the seniormost warrior who had assumed command of the Borderswords and in the days following would be officially granted the title of commander. That march itself was a measure of respect: the Lord could have as easily summoned Toras; instead, it was he who reached out to clasp her forearm, astonishing all the Borderswords present.

On that day, in the minds of the warriors who would soon become soldiers of the Hust Legion, they became Andiian; they too became Sons and Daughters of Night.

None of them could have imagined the political divisiveness that would result from that fateful moment: the schism that would rupture the relationship between Urusander’s Legion and that of the Hust. From months fighting side by side, suddenly Galar Baras and his fellow Hustain – with their dread weapons – were no longer welcome among Urusander’s ranks.

It was absurd and it was hurtful, and every effort to bridge that schism had failed; if anything, it was growing ever wider. Most of Urusander’s Legion had been disbanded, sent into the limbo of the reserve ranks, while the Hust Legion remained intact, standing continued vigilance over the precious mines. As Toras Redone had muttered, on a drunken night in her headquarters, when all the other staff had departed leaving only Galar and his commander, peace had become a disaster. Recalling that night, Galar allowed himself a private smile. He hadn’t been drunk – he couldn’t stomach alcohol – while she’d finished off most of a bottle of wine, but there’d been no recriminations afterwards. For both him and Toras, it had been their first lovemaking since the war. They’d needed each other, and though thereafter they rarely spoke of that night – the only one they had shared – she had once commented, in a private moment, that she’d drunk so much to find the courage to invite him to lie with her. When he’d laughed, she’d turned away, as if mortified. He’d hastened to explain that his laughter had been of disbelief, for in courage he too had failed until that instant.

They should have held to that moment of confession, he knew now. They should have found each other’s eyes and forged into a single blade their desires. Galar’s smile faded in the thinking of such thoughts, as they did every time he succumbed to reminiscence.

She had sent him away only a few months later, to serve in Kharkanas as the liaison officer of the Hust Legion. For a man and a woman who had fought a war, it seemed that their bravery ended at the edge of the battlefield. Still, it was no doubt all for the best. Toras Redone was married, after all, and her husband was none other than Calat Hustain, the son of Henarald – the man who had given him his Hust sword.

Now that Galar spent most of his time in the Citadel, he could at any time find comfort in the arms of a priestess, though he’d yet to do so. Instead, he seemed to be spending his days under siege, blind to half the weapons being thrust at him, and each night he slumped, exhausted, in his modest quarters. Wishing he could stomach alcohol.

He had since heard that Calat Hustain had accepted the commission of commander of the Wardens of the Outer Reach, far to the north on the Plain of Glimmer Fate. Was Toras now alone? Did she drink herself into other arms? He did not know and, perhaps, did not want to know.

Still, he was unable to fight off his anticipation, twisted as it was with anxiety, as they rode into the vastly thinned Old Forest. Once they emerged from its patchwork, silent stillness, they would come within sight of Hust Forge, the Great House itself. He told himself to expect nothing – it was likely she was not even in attendance, since the mines, where the Legion was stationed, were well to the south. Indeed, it would be better if she wasn’t. He had enough discord in his life these days.

Since settling into the city, Galar Baras had realized that the schism between Urusander’s Legion and the Hust Legion was but one of many; that even the beloved adoption of the title Andii had become a source of contention. To make matters worse, there was a growing power at the side of Mother Dark, and none could predict the fullest extent of Lord Draconus’s ambitions – though his most vociferous detractors never hesitated to imagine all manner of diabolical intent. For himself, Galar saw Draconus as a man in a precarious position, especially now that there was talk of a marriage – a union explicitly political, of course, seeking to mend old wounds; seeking, in fact, to head off civil war. If Draconus had ambitions, surely they did not extend further than solidifying whatever status he had attained, and even then the Consort must understand that he could fall from grace at any moment.

Unless, as his enemies boldly proclaimed, Draconus was forging secret alliances among all the noble families – the least absurd of the rumours to date – seeking to make the marriage impossible. The flaw in that possibility was, of course, the power possessed by Mother Dark herself. She might well love Draconus – and Galar suspected she did – but she was not a submissive creature. Her will was its own Heartline of the Blade. No lover could sway her, just as no argument could batter her down by sheer force of exhortation.

In many ways, she embodied the Forulkan ideal of justice and order – not that, in their myopic bigotry, they were even capable of recognizing that truth.

Her greatest gift to her children – to all of her children – was just that, Galar believed. So long as she remained, there would be no disorder, no chaos. And in that there was immeasurable comfort. Should the marriage occur, should Urusander of Neret Sorr find himself sharing Mother Dark’s rule as her husband, perhaps then the enmity would end, every schism healed, and no longer would the Hust Legion struggle in this seething atmosphere of malice and spite.

What would Draconus do then? He would have no place in the Citadel; indeed, no place in all of Kharkanas. Would he simply bow with grace and then retire to his north Hold on the banks of Young Dorssan Ryl? Galar believed Draconus was an honourable man. He believed that the Lord would yield to the will of the woman he loved.

No one could escape sadness in their lives. No one could evade the pain of loss. Draconus was wise enough to know this.

Peace could be forged. Only a fool would invite civil strife. Sons and daughters of the Tiste had given their lives defending the realm; the blood of every House and Hold, no matter how powerful or how minor, had been spilled. Who would dare turn their backs on that?

***

Commander Kellaras held to his silence as he rode alongside the Hust captain. He could hear muttering from the blackwood scabbard strapped to Galar’s side, and the sound chilled him like the touch of a corpse. He had heard many tales about this grim legion with its haunted weapons, but this was the first time he had been in extended company with a Hust soldier.

The journey out from Kharkanas, pacing the Dorssan Ryl with the plain called the Forging stretching out upon his left, and now this denatured scattering of trees, the old name of which could now not be spoken without the drip of irony, had been conducted with but the briefest exchanges; nothing approaching a conversation, and Kellaras had begun to believe the tales he’d heard from the Citadel Wardens, who were one and all veterans of Urusander’s Legion. The Hust swords were cursed, bleeding poison into their wielders. There was a darkness about such men and women now, but not pure as among those who served Mother Dark; this was murky, shot through with something sickly, as if infected with the chaos of Vitr.

Kellaras’s hands were damp with sweat inside his riding gloves. He felt buffeted by the power beside him – this officer of the Hust Legion with his never-silent sword, who seemed the heart of some swirling malevolence. Outwardly, Captain Galar Baras had the look of a man too young to bear the weight of a past war; his features were boyish in the way that never seemed to surrender to age – he would, Kellaras suspected, look much as he did now in three hundred years, or even five hundred. Yet, that sort of face usually belonged to someone irrepressible in their humour, in their optimism. It was a face that should be quick to smile, and smile often, alight with laughter at every turn.

Instead, Galar looked like a man who had lost sight of joy, and now stumbled in shadows. Ill-chosen as liaison, as the Hust Legion’s representative and ranking officer in Kharkanas – he was unliked in the city, rarely invited to events. As far as Kellaras knew, Captain Galar Baras spent his unofficial time alone. What were his interests? No one could say. What brought him pleasure? As Gallan once wrote, Closed doors do not sweat. There was nothing garrulous here, and he could not imagine ever approaching the captain’s private quarters, seeking his company. As far as he knew, no one did.

There were as many stumps in this wood as living trees, and the ones still standing looked unwell, the leaves more dull grey than polished black. He had seen no small mammals flittering through the dried leaves of the forest floor, and the rare birdsong he caught sounded querulous and plaintive, as if ever unanswered. Despite the sunlight finding its way down through the gaping holes in the canopy overhead, Kellaras could feel his spirits struggling.

He carried in his messenger’s satchel, strapped to his mount’s saddle, a missive from his master, Lord Anomander. He had been instructed to deliver it into the hands of Hust Henarald himself, and to await a reply. None of this required an escort, and it seemed to Kellaras that Galar’s insistence on this matter marked a kind of mistrust, even suspicion. It was, in fact, offensive.

Yet the First Son of Darkness was not ill-disposed towards the Hust Legion; in fact, the very opposite, and so Kellaras was not prepared to challenge his companion on this or any other matter. They could ride in silence then – it was not much farther, as he could now see the way open ahead – and pretend to amity.

Galar Baras startled him with a question. ‘Sir, have you any notion of your lord’s message to Lord Henarald?’

Kellaras stared across at the man as they cantered into the light. ‘Even if I knew the details, captain, it is not for us to discuss them, is it?’

‘Forgive me, sir. I did not mean to ask for details. But Lord Hust Henarald is well known for his personal involvement in the workings among his forges, and I fear he will not be in residence at his house. Therefore, I sought to ascertain if there was some urgency to the missive.’

‘I see.’ Kellaras thought for a moment, and then said, ‘I am to wait for the Lord’s response.’

‘Then it may well be sensitive to any delay.’

‘What do you propose, captain?’

‘The Great House to begin with, of course. If, however, Lord Henarald has travelled south to the mines, then I am afraid I must pass you on to a household escort, as I cannot be away from the Citadel for that length of time.’

Ahead of them waited the massive stone walls surrounding the Hust Forge. Kellaras said nothing, forcing himself to admit to having been knocked askew by the captain’s words. He cleared his throat and said, ‘You lead me to wonder, captain, why you insisted on escorting me in the first place. Do you doubt the reception I might receive at the house?’

Brows lifted. ‘Sir? Of course not.’ He then hesitated for a moment, before adding, ‘Very well, sir. I elected to ride with you in order to stretch my legs. I was a Bordersword since I first came of age, yet now I find myself trapped inside stone walls, in a palace where darkness bleeds so thick one cannot stand on a balcony and see a single star in the night sky. I thought, sir, that I might go mad if so confined for much longer.’ He was slowly reining in, eyes suddenly averted. ‘I apologize, sir. Hear the chimes? They have identified you and now prepare your welcome. I need go no further—’

‘But you shall, captain,’ Kellaras said, only now realizing that the young face belonged to a young man. ‘Your horse needs the rest and watering – if indeed I must ride onward, then I expect you to accompany me, for I shall be riding into holdings under the command of the Hust Legion. You will accord me the proper honour of an officer’s escort.’

It was a gamble. Strictly speaking, Kellaras’s rank could not be imposed upon an officer of the Hust Legion. But if this man was wilting inside what he viewed as a prison, chained there by duty, then only a countermand could keep him from returning to his office of misery.

He caught a moment of bright relief on the captain’s flushed visage, only to see it overwhelmed with sudden dread.

What now?

But Galar Baras kicked his horse forward again, resuming the pace alongside Kellaras. ‘As you command, sir, I am at your disposal.’

The enormous bronze gates were swinging open ahead, in a slithering rattle of heavy chains. Kellaras cleared his throat a second time, and said, ‘Besides, captain, have you no interest in seeing Lord Henarald’s expression when he learns that my master seeks to commission a sword?’

Galar Baras’s head snapped round in shock.

And then they were through the gates. 

FOUR 

The plain of glimmer fate had not seen rain in decades, yet the black grasses were thick as fur on the gently rolling land, rising as high as a horse’s shoulder on the level flats. The thin, spiky blades gathered close the heat of the sun, and to pass through them was akin to plunging into the cauldron of a furnace. Iron accoutrements – buckles, clasps, weapons and armour – burned to the touch. Leather slowly shrivelled and cracked in the course of a day’s travel. Cloth suffocated skin, making it red, hot and irritated.

The Wardens of the Outer Reach, that northernmost region of the plain verging on the silver, mercurial sea of Vitr, wore silks and little else, and even then more than a few days out from their outlier posts they suffered terribly, as did their horses, which were burdened with thick wooden leaves of armour protecting their legs and lower quarters from both the heat and the sharp, serrated blades of the grass. Patrols out to the Vitr Sea were an ordeal, and there were few among the Tiste willing to serve as Wardens.

Which was just as well, Faror Hend reflected: if there were yet more people as mad as they were, then the Tiste would be in trouble. Close to the edge of the Vitr the grasses died away, leaving bare ground studded with rotting stones and brittle boulders. The air sliding in from the tranquil silver sea stung in the lungs, burned raw the inside of the nose, made bitter every tear.

She sat astride her horse, watching her younger cousin draw out his sword and set one edge into a groove in a boulder near the Vitr’s edge. Some poison from the strange liquid dissolved even the hardest rock, and Wardens had taken to fashioning whetstones from select boulders. Her companion’s sword had been forged by the Hust, but long ago and thus mercifully silent. Still, it was new to Spinnock Durav’s hand, a blade the length of which crossed generations in the family. She could see his pride and was pleased.

The third and last rider in this patrol, Finarra Stone, had ridden along the shoreline, westward, and Faror had lost sight of her some time back. It was not unusual to set off unaccompanied when so near to the Vitr – the naked wolves of the plain never ventured this close, and of other beasts only bones remained. Finarra had nothing to fear and would eventually return. They would camp for the night in the shelter of the high crags where past storms had gnawed deep into the shoreline, far enough from the Vitr to escape its more toxic effects, yet still some distance from the verge of the grasses.

With the reassuring sound of Spinnock’s blade rasping as he honed it, Faror twisted in her saddle and stared out over the silver expanse of the sea. Its promise was dissolution, devouring flesh and bone upon contact. But for the moment the surface was calm, yet mottled, as if reflecting an overcast sky. The terrible forces that dwelt in its depths, or somewhere in its distant heart, remained quiescent. Of late, this was unusual. The last three times a patrol had arrived here, they had been driven back by the ferocity of storms, and in the aftermath of each one, more land was lost.

If the mystery of the Vitr could not be solved; if its power could not be blunted, forced back, or destroyed, then there would come a time, perhaps less than a dozen centuries away, when the poison sea devoured all of the Glimmer Fate, and so reached the very borders of Kurald Galain.

None knew with any certainty the source of the Vitr – at least, none among the Tiste. Faror believed that answers might be found among the Azathanai, but then, she had no proof of that and she was but a Warden of middling rank. And the scholars and philosophers of Kharkanas were an inward-looking, xenophobic lot, dismissive of foreigners and their foreign ways. It seemed that they valued ignorance, finding it a virtue when it was their own.

Perhaps among the war-spoils of the Forulkan, now in the possession of Lord Urusander, some revelations might be found; although it seemed that Urusander’s particular obsession, upon laws and justice, made the discovery of such revelations unlikely. Still, in his manic studies he might well stumble upon some ancient musings on the Vitr . . . but would he even notice?

The threat posed by the Vitr was acknowledged. Its imminence was well recognized. A few millennia were a short span indeed, and there were truths in the world that took centuries to truly understand. This led to a simple fact: they were running out of time.

‘It is said,’ Spinnock spoke, straightening and setting an eye down the length of his sword, ‘that some quality of the Vitr infuses the edge, strengthening it against notching and, indeed, shattering.’

She smiled to herself. ‘So it is said, cousin.’

He glanced up at her, and once more a strange kind of envy rushed through her. What woman would not lie prone before Spinnock Durav? Yet she could not, dared not. It was not that he was barely into manhood whilst she had eleven years on him and was betrothed besides. She would have discarded both obstacles in an instant; no, their bloodline was too close. The Hend – her own family – was but once removed from that of House Durav. The prohibitions were strict and immutable: neither the children of brothers nor those of sisters could mate.

Still, out here, so close to the Vitr, so distant from the lands of the Tiste, a voice whispered inside her, rising gleeful and urgent in moments like these: who would know? Finarra Stone had ridden off and would probably not return before dusk. The ground is bare and hard / and will hold all secrets / and the sky cares not / for the games of those beneath it. So many breathtaking truths in Gallan’s poetry, as if he had plied her own mind, and could at will reach into countless others. These were the truths that found their own flavours and made personal the taste, until it seemed that Gallan spoke directly to each and every listener, each and every reader. The sorceries of the delvers into the secrets of Night seemed clumsy compared to the magic of Gallan’s poems.

His words fed her innermost desires, and this made them dangerous. She forced silence upon the whispering in her mind, pushed down delicious but forbidden thoughts.

‘I have heard rumours,’ Spinnock went on, sheathing his sword, ‘that there are Azathanai vessels capable of holding Vitr. Made of strange and rare stone, they must be.’

She had heard the same, and it was details like that which convinced her that the Azathanai understood the nature of this terrible poison. ‘If there are such vessels,’ she now said, ‘one wonders what purpose might be served by collecting Vitr.’

She caught his shrug before he strode back to his horse. ‘Which camp is near, Faror?’

‘The one we call the Cup. You’ve not yet seen it. I will lead.’

His answering smile – so impossibly innocent – brushed her awake between the legs and she looked away, taking up the reins and silently cursing her own weakness. She heard him climb into the saddle of his own mount. Drawing her horse round, she guided the animal forward, back on to the trail leading away from the shoreline.

‘Mother Dark is the answer to this,’ Spinnock said behind her.

So we pray. ‘The poet Gallan has written of that,’ she said.

‘Why is that no surprise?’ Spinnock said, clearly amused. ‘Go on then, oh beautiful cousin, let’s hear it.’

She did not reply at once, struggling to slow the sudden leap of her heart. He had joined the Wardens a year past, yet this was the first time he had included her in his easy flirtations. ‘Very well, since you are so eager. Gallan wrote: In unrelieved darkness waits every answer.’

After a moment, as their horses scrabbled over uneven footing, Spinnock grunted. ‘As I thought.’

‘What thought is that, Spinnock?’

He laughed. ‘Even a bare handful of words from a poet, and I lose all sense of meaning. Such arts are not for me.’

‘One learns subtlety,’ she replied.

‘Indeed?’ She could hear his smile in the word. Then he went on, ‘And now, in your grey-haired wisdom, you will, perchance, pat my hand?’

She glanced back at him. ‘Have I offended you, cousin?’

He gave a careless shake of his head. ‘Never that, Faror Hend. But the years between us are not so vast, are they?’

She searched his eyes for a long moment, and then faced forward once more. ‘It will be dark soon, and Finarra will be most upset if we fail to have a meal awaiting her when she returns. And the tents raised, as well, with all bedding prepared.’

‘Finarra upset? I have yet to see that, cousin.’

‘Nor shall we this night.’

‘Will she find us in the dark?’

‘Of course, by the light of our fire, Spinnock.’

‘In a place called the Cup?’

‘Ah, well, there is that. Still, she well knows the camp, since it was she who first discovered it.’

‘Then she will not wander lost.’

‘No,’ Faror replied.

‘And so,’ Spinnock added, amused once more, ‘this night shall see no revelations. By the fire’s light no answers will be found.’

‘It seems you understood Gallan well enough, Spinnock Durav.’

‘I grow older with every moment.’

She sighed. ‘As do we all.’

***

Captain Finarra Stone reined in, her eyes fixed upon the carcass thrown up on to the ragged shoreline of the sea. The bitter air had sweetened with the heavy stench of rotting meat. She had spent years patrolling Glimmer Fate, and the Outer Reach that was the verge of the Vitr Sea. Never before had a creature washed ashore, living or dead.

She had ridden far from her companions and it would be dark well before she managed to return to them. This time, however, she regretted her solitude.

The beast was enormous, yet so much of it had been devoured by the acidic Vitr that it was difficult to determine what manner of creature it might be. Here and there, along the back of the massive torso, ragged sheaths of scaled hide remained, bleached of all colour. Lower down, closer to the ground, the thick slabs of muscled flesh gave way to a curved fence-line of red-stained ribs. The pale sack encased by these ribs had ruptured, spilling rotting organs on to the ground, close to where the Vitr slowly lifted and fell on the quartzite sand.

The nearest hind limb, bent like that of a cat, reached up to a jutting hip bone, level with Finarra’s eyes as she sat astride her horse. There were remnants of a thick, tapering tail. The forelimbs seemed to be reaching for the shore, the hand of one stretched out with thick claws buried deep in the sands, as if the beast had been trying to climb free of the Vitr, but this seemed impossible.

Its head and neck were missing, and the stump between the shoulders looked chewed, torn by fangs.

She could not tell if the creature belonged to land or sea, and as far as she knew the mythical dragons were winged, and there was no evidence of wings behind the humped shoulders. Was this some earthbound kin to the legendary Eleint? She had no way of knowing, and among all the Tiste, only a few had ever claimed to have seen a dragon. Until this moment, Finarra had half believed those tales to be exaggerations – no beast in all the world could be as large as they had made them out to be.

Her horse shifting nervously beneath her, Finarra studied the stump of the neck, trying to imagine the weight of the head that those huge muscles had held aloft. She could see a large blood vessel, possibly the carotid, the severed end forming a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man’s fist.

Some vagary of air current carried the heavy stench towards them and her horse backed a step, hoofs thudding the sand.

At the sound, the stump lifted.

The breath froze in her lungs. She stared, motionless, as the nearest hand dug deeper into the glittering sands. The hind limbs bunched, pushed. The torso rose and then lurched further up the beach, thumping back down heavily enough to make the shoreline shiver. The reverberation awakened in Finarra a sudden sense of danger. She backed her horse away, watching that ghastly torn stump wavering about, blindly groping. The second arm twisted round, coming up beside its companion, to sink talons long as hunting knives into the sand.

‘You are dead,’ she told it. ‘Your head has been torn away. The Vitr dissolves your flesh. It is time to end your struggles.’

A moment of stillness, as if somehow the beast heard and understood her words, and then the creature heaved forward, straight for her, crossing the distance between them impossibly fast, one hand scything through the air.

Her horse reared, screamed. The bludgeoning, raking hand caught its forelimbs, shattering the wooden leaves of armour, twisting the animal round in the air. Finarra felt herself pitched downward to her left, felt the immense weight of her horse suddenly above her. Disbelieving, overwhelmed by the impossibility of her death, she sensed one booted foot slipping free of the stirrup – but it would not be enough; already they were falling together.

The second hand came from the other side. She caught a flash of talons scything close, filling her vision, and then there was an impact and the horse’s scream cut off abruptly, and Finarra was spinning through the air.

She landed hard on her left shoulder, facing back the way she had come, and saw the carcass of her horse, its head and most of its neck torn away. The beast had lunged again, savaging the horse with its hands. Bones splintered to drumming concussions, blood pouring out on to the sand.

Then the demon fell still once more.

Pain was filling Finarra’s shoulder. A bone had broken and fire was lancing down her arm, numbing the hand. She fought to control her breathing, lest the creature hear her – she did not believe it was dead, and indeed wondered if death was even possible for a beast such as this one. Sorcery held its life-force, she suspected, an elemental defiance against all reason, and if the Vitr had worked its absolute dissolution, devouring even its bones, something shapeless yet white-hot would now reside on this shore, washed up from the depths, as virulent as ever.

Teeth clenched against the waves of pain, Finarra began pushing herself away, heels digging into the sand. She froze when she saw the beast flinch, the severed neck trembling. Then a shudder took the entire body, violent enough to tear flesh, and the demon seemed to sag, sinking down until a swath of hide on its flank facing her began to show bulges, and then split, the broken ends of ribs pushing through.

She waited a dozen heartbeats, and then resumed her slow, tortured retreat up the slope of sand. At one point her boot dislodged a fistsized rock that broke under her heel, but the crunching snap elicited no response from the beast. Emboldened, she drew her legs under her and regained her feet, her left arm hanging useless and swollen at her side. Turning, she mapped out her avenue of retreat between boulders, and then cautiously set out.

Reaching the high ground she turned about and looked down on the now distant creature. She’d lost her saddle and all the gear bound to it. She could make out her lance, a weapon she’d possessed since her Day of Blood, half its length pinned under the carcass of her horse. And her mount had been a loyal companion. Sighing, she faced east and set out.

As the day’s light faded, Finarra was faced with a decision: she had been walking along the boulder-strewn ridgeline above the beach, but her pace was slow, made more difficult by her useless arm. If she set off down to the beach . . . she had to admit to herself a new fear of that shoreline. There was no telling if the beast that had dragged itself ashore marked a solitary intrusion. There could well be others, and what she might in the gloom imagine to be a boulder could prove to be another such creature, that had crawled up higher on the strand. Her other choice was to cut inland, on to the flatter verge of Glimmer Fate, where the grasses had died, leaving nothing but gravel and dusty earth. The risk in that, with night fast approaching, would come from the high grasses – the naked wolves were not averse to pursuing prey into the lifeless area.

Still, she could pick up her pace on the level ground, and so reach her companions that much sooner. Finarra drew out the long-bladed sword that had once belonged to her father, Hust Henarald. It was a silent weapon, predating the Awakening, water-etched and a known breaker. Serpentine patterns flowed up the length of the blade, coiling at the hilt. Off to her left the Vitr Sea was an ethereal glow and she could see its play on the polished iron of the sword.

Finarra swung inland, threading past the rotted boulders until she reached the verge of the plain. She eyed the wall of black grasses off to her right. There were darker gaps in it, marking some of the hidden paths forged by the beasts dwelling in Glimmer Fate. Many were small, used by deer-like animals the Wardens saw but rarely, and even then as little more than a flash of scaled hide, a blur of a serrated back and a high, slithering tail. Other gaps could easily accommodate a horse, and these belonged to the tusked heghest, a kind of reptilian boar, massive and ill-tempered; but the passage of these beasts through the high grasses eschewed stealth and she would hear any approach from some distance. Nor could a heghest outrun a mounted Warden: the animals were quick to tire, or perhaps lose interest. Their only enemy was the wolves, evinced by the occasional carcass found on the plain, in trampled clearings drenched in blood and torn pieces of hide.

She recalled once hearing such a battle in the distance, the keening, ear-hurting cries of the wolves and the heavy, enraged bellowing of the heghest brought to bay. Such memories were unwelcome and she kept her eyes upon that uneven wall of grasses as she padded along.

Overhead, the swirling pattern of the stars slowly appeared, like a spray of Vitr. Legends spoke of a time before such stars; when the vault of night was absolute and not even the sun dared open its lone eye. Stone and earth were, in that time, nothing more than solid manifestations of Darkness, the elemental force transformed into something that could be grasped, held cupped in the palm, sifting down through the fingers. If earth and stone held life back then, they were little more than promises of potential.

Those promises had but awaited the kiss of Chaos, as a spark of enlivening, and as a force in opposition. Entwined with the imposition of order that was implicit in Darkness, Chaos began the war that was life. The sun opened its eye and so slashed in two all existence, dividing the worldly realm into Light and Dark – and they too warred with one another, reflecting the struggle of life itself.

In such wars was carved the face of time. Birth is born and death ends. So wrote the ancients, in the ashes of the First Days.

She could not comprehend the existence they described. If there was neither a time before nor a time after, then was not the moment of creation eternal and yet for ever instantaneous? Was it not still in its birth and at the same time forever dying?

It was said that in the first darkness there was no light, and in the heart of light there was no darkness. But without one the other could not be known to exist – they needed each other in the very utterance of defining their states, for such states existed only in comparison – no, all of this snarled mortal thoughts, left a mind trapped inside concepts hidden in shadows. Instinctively, she shied from extremes of any sort, in attitude and in nature both. She had tasted the bitter poisons of the Vitr; and she had known the frightening emptiness of unrelieved darkness; she had flinched from the heart of fire and blinding light. For Finarra, it seemed that life could only cling to a place much like this thin verge, between two deadly forces, and so exist in uncertainty – in these cool, indifferent shadows.

Light now warred in the sky’s deepest night – the stars were proof of that.

She remembered kneeling, in the time of her avowal to serve as a Warden, and cringing in that sorcerous absence, the deathly cold of the sphere of power surrounding Mother Dark. And by that chilling touch, there upon her brow, she had been invited into a kind of seductive comfort, a whisper of surrender – the fears had only come later, in that shivering, breathless aftermath. After all, Mother Dark had, before embracing Darkness, been a mortal Tiste woman – little different from Finarra herself.

Yet now they call her goddess. Now, we are to kneel before her, and know her face as Dark’s own, her presence as the elemental force itself. What has become of us that we should so descend into superstition?

Treasonous thoughts – she knew that. The philosopher’s game of separating governance from faith was a lie. Beliefs ran the gamut, from worshipping vast spirits in the sky down to professing love for a man. From listening to the voice of a god’s will to accepting an officer’s right to command. The only distinction was one of scale.

In her head she had run through her arguments in this assertion countless times. The proof, as far as she was concerned, was found in the currency used, because it was always the same. From the Forulkan commander ordering her soldiers into battle, to the paying of a fine for baring a weapon on the streets of Kharkanas: disobey at peril to your life. If not your life then your freedom, and if not your freedom then your will, and if not your will, then your desire. What are these? They are coins of varying measure, a gradient of worth and value.

Rule my flesh, rule my soul. The currency is the same.

She had no time for scholars and their sophist games. And no time for poets, either, who seemed obsessed with obscuring hard truths inside seductive language. Their collective gifts were ones of distraction, a tripping dance of entertainment along the cliff’s edge.

A sudden blur in the grainy gloom. A high-pitched scream intended to freeze the prey. Iron blade, serpent-twined, rippling out beneath the swirling stars, like a tongue of Vitr. Piercing scream, the thrashing on the ground of a mortally wounded body. A hissing growl, paws scrabbling behind her. Lunging motion—

***

Faror Hend straightened, holding up a hand to keep Spinnock silent. Another eerie cry sounded in the night, distant and to the west. She saw Spinnock draw his sword, watched him slowly rise to his feet. Finarra Stone was late – half the night was gone. ‘I hear no other voice,’ Faror said. ‘No heghest or tramil.’

‘Nor that of a horse,’ Spinnock said.

That was true. She hesitated, breath slowly hissing out from her nostrils.

‘Still,’ Spinnock went on, ‘I am made uneasy. Is it common that Finarra remain out so late?’

Faror shook her head, and then reached a decision. ‘Stay here, Spinnock. I will ride out in search of her.’

‘You ride to where those wolves do battle, cousin.’

She would not lie to him. ‘If only to ascertain that their quarry is not our captain.’

‘Good,’ he grunted. ‘Because I fear for her now.’

‘Build up the fire again,’ she said to him, collecting her saddle and hurrying over to her mount.

‘Faror.’

She turned. His eyes glittered above the first lick of flames from the embers. The light made his face seem flushed.

‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘I do not want to lose you.’

She thought to say something to ease him, to push him away from things lying beneath his words. To push herself away. ‘Spinnock,’ she said, ‘you have many cousins.’

He looked startled.

She turned back to her horse, not wanting to see more. Her tone had been dismissive. She’d not meant it to be, and its harshness seemed to echo in the silence between them now, cruel as a cut. She quickly saddled her horse, mounted up and lifted her lance from its sheath. Heel-nudging her mount out from the shelter of high, craggy boulders, she guided it towards the verge.

More wolves were keening to the night. Against small prey, the packs amounted to but three or four. But this sounded like a dozen, perhaps more. Too many even for a heghest. But she could hear no other cries – and a tramil’s bellow could knock down a stone wall.

It’s her. Her horse is dead. She fights alone.

Beneath the swirl of starlight, Faror urged her mount into a canter.

The memory of Spinnock’s face, above those newborn flames, hovered in her mind. Cursing under her breath, she sought to dispel it. When that did not work, she forced upon it a transformation, into the visage of her betrothed. Few would claim that Kagamandra Tulas was handsome: his face was too thin, accentuating the gauntness that was his legacy from the wars – the years of deprivation and hunger – and in his eyes there was something hollow, like emptied shells, haunted by cruel memories that shied from the light. She knew he did not love her; she believed he was no longer capable of love.

Born in a Lesser House, he had been an officer in Urusander’s Legion, commanding a cohort. If nothing else had ever overtaken Tulas in the wars, his station would have been of little value to House Durav. A lowborn of the Legion was no prize for any bride. Yet if love were possible – if this bitter, damaged man could earn such a thing, and learn to reciprocate in kind – then few would have opposed the union. But glory had found Tulas, and in that moment – when he saved the life of Silchas Ruin – the cohort commander had won the blessing of Mother Dark herself. A new High House would be the reward of this marriage, the elevation of Kagamandra’s extended family.

For the sake of her own bloodline, she would have to find a way to love Kagamandra Tulas.

Yet, as she rode through the night, she could not find his face – it remained blurred, formless. And in those dark smudges where his eyes belonged, she saw glittering firelight.

Obsessions were harmless, so long as they remained trapped inside, imprisoned and left pacing the cage of firm conscience; and if temptation was a key, well, she had buried it deep.

The lance’s weight had drawn her arm down, and she decided to seat the weapon in the socket riveted to the saddle. The wolf cries had not sounded for some time, and there was nothing on the bleak, silvered landscape before her to mark their presence. But she knew how far those cries could carry.

Faror willed her mind blank, opening her senses to the verge. She rode on for a time, until some instinct made her slow her mount. Hoofs thumped a succession of double beats as the beast dropped out of its canter, jostling her as she settled her weight into the trot. She now listened for the sound she dreaded: the muted snarls of wolves bickering over their kill.

Instead, a fierce shriek sliced through the night, startling her. Unseating the lance, she half rose in her stirrups. Drawing tight the reins she forced her frightened horse into a walk. The cry had been close. Still, before her she could see nothing untoward.

There.

A humped form, a trail of blood and gore, black in the grey dust. Beyond it, another.

Faror brought her mount up alongside the first dead wolf. A sword thrust had impaled the soft tissues of the belly, ripping open its gut. Fleeing, the savage creature had dragged its entrails behind it, until stumbling in them. Now the wolf huddled in a tangle, like a thing pulled inside out. Blood sheathed its scaly hide and the lambent eyes were ebbing.

The second beast lying a dozen paces further on had been hacked almost in half, a downward chop through the spine and down between ribs. The ground around it was scuffed, criss-crossed with ragged furrows. Wary, she guided her horse closer.

No boot prints in the dirt, but the gouges of claws and kicking limbs could well have obscured such signs.

Blood still poured down from the deep wound, and, leaning over, she could see the beast’s labouring heart. Alarmed, Faror pulled back. The wolf’s baleful eyes tracked her and the head tried to lift.

She set the point of the lance into the soft sack of the creature’s throat, and then punched the blade deep into the neck. The wolf tried biting at the long blade for a moment, and then fell back, jaws gaping, eyes fading. Straightening, tugging her weapon free, Faror looked around.

The edge of the grasses was a broken wall off to her left, perhaps sixteen paces away. Most of that barrier had been battered down, chewed by the passage of many beasts. Random sprays of blood made dark sweeps in the grey dust. Her searching gaze fixed on one path, where it seemed the passage had been at its most violent. The root bundles flanking the gap were thick with gore. She saw stalks sliced clean, blade-cut.

Halting her mount, she listened, but the dark night was again silent. Faror eyed the mouth of the trail. If she set out upon it, she suspected, she would come upon a grisly scene – the wolves feeding on a corpse. She would have to drive them off, if she could, if only to recover Finarra Stone’s body. It was clear to her that the fighting was over.

She hesitated, and not without some fear. It was not a given that she’d succeed in defeating the naked wolves; more packs would have been drawn to the kill site by the scent, and the eerie howls she had heard earlier. Somewhere in the high grasses there was a clearing, trampled down and bloody, and around it circled rival packs. There could be as many as fifty of the animals by now, and they would be hungry.

Thoughts of marriage, life in Kharkanas, and illicit desires, all fell away, as she realized that Spinnock might well find himself alone, facing the peril of returning to the fort with unguarded flanks: alone and abandoned; and Kagamandra Tulas would be left to mourn, or at least give the appearance of mourning – but that too would sink into those hollow eyes, one more cruel memory joining countless others, and he would know the guilt of not feeling enough, carving out still more emptiness in the husk of his soul.

She adjusted her grip on the lance, leaned forward to whisper in her horse’s ear, and prepared to urge it into the trail.

A faint sound behind her – she twisted round.

Finarra Stone was edging out from between the boulders forming the ridge above the shoreline. Her sword was sheathed and she gestured.

Heart pounding, Faror backed her horse from the trail mouth and then swung the beast round. She rode at a walk towards Finarra.

A second gesture told her to dismount. Moments later she was facing her captain.

Finarra was splashed in drying blood. Her left arm appeared to be broken, the shoulder possibly dislocated. Wolf fangs had torn into the muscle of her left thigh, but the wound was roughly bound.

‘I thought—’

Finarra pulled her close. ‘Softly,’ she whispered. ‘Something has walked out of the sea.’

What? Confused, Faror pointed back at the trail mouth. ‘A blade passed through the grasses. A weapon-wielder. I thought it you, captain.’

‘And you were about to set off after me – Warden, I would have been dead. You would have given up your life for no reason. Have I taught you nothing?’

Chastened, Faror was silent, only now realizing that she had begun to welcome that end, even though the grief others might feel at it still pained her. Her future felt hopeless – was it not simpler to surrender her life now? She had been about to do so, and a calm had come over her, an ecstasy of peace.

‘A small pack found me,’ Finarra resumed after a moment in which she searched Faror’s face intently. ‘Swiftly dealt with. But the danger was too great, so I returned to the broken path between the rocks. It was there that I found a trail – emerging from the Vitr.’

‘But that is impossible.’

Finarra grimaced. ‘I would have agreed with you . . . yesterday. But now . . .’ She shook her head. ‘Small footprints, puddles of Vitr pooled in them. I was following their trail when I came upon you.’

Faror faced the high grasses once more. ‘It went in through there,’ she said, pointing. ‘I heard a wolf cry.’

‘As did I,’ the captain said, nodding. ‘But tell me, Faror Hend, if you believe a creature from the Vitr need fear wolves?’

‘What do we do, sir?’

Finarra sighed. ‘I wonder if I have not caught your madness. We need to discover more about this stranger. We need to gauge threat – is that not our purpose here in the Outer Reach?’

‘Then we follow?’

‘Not tonight. We will return to Spinnock – I need to rest, and my wounds need purging, lest infection take hold. For the moment, however, lead your horse by the reins. Once we are well clear of this place, we will ride double.’

‘Did the wolves kill your mount, captain?’

Finarra grimaced. ‘No.’ She straightened. ‘Keep your lance at the ready, and ’ware the grasses.’

They set off.

***

Her wounded leg slowed them down, and Finarra longed to climb into the saddle behind Faror. The numbness of her arm had faded and in its place was a throbbing agony that lit the world red, and she could feel bone grinding on bone in her shoulder. Yet none of these concerns could scour away the look she had seen in Faror Hend’s eyes.

There was a lust for death, flowering black and fierce. She had seen it before, had come to believe it was a flaw among the Tiste, emerging in each and every generation, like poisonous weeds in a field of grain. The mind backed into a corner, only to then turn its back upon the outer world. Seeing nothing but walls – no way through, no hope of escape – it then longed for turmoil’s end, the sudden absence of self found in some heroic but doomed deed, some gesture intended to distract others, offering false motivations. Burying the secret desire was the goal, and death precluded all argument.

She thought she knew what haunted Faror Hend. An unwelcome betrothal, the prospect of a life bound to a broken man. And here, in this wilderness where all proscriptions fell away, there was at her side a young man she had known most of her life. He was young, bold in innocence, mindful of his own innate charm and the treasures it might win. Spinnock Durav had been pursued by women and men since he had first come of age. He had learned to not give up too much of himself, since those hands reaching for him desired little more than conquest and possession. He knew enough to guard himself.

Yet for all that, he was still a young warrior, and the adoration he clearly held for his elder cousin was growing into something else. Finarra had caught the flicker of earnestness amidst Spinnock’s subtle flirtations with Faror Hend. The two cousins were now engaged in exquisite torture, seemingly unaware of the damage it promised, the lives it might ruin.

In the darker times in the Legion, truths had been discovered about the nature of torture. As an act of cruelty, seeking to break the victim, it only worked with the promise of its end: all torture found efficacy in the bliss of release. This game of exquisite pain, between Faror Hend and Spinnock Durav, was at its heart the same. If no release were found, their lives would sour, and love itself – if ever it came – could not but taste bitter.

Faror Hend understood this. Finarra had seen as much in the woman’s eyes – a sudden revelation roiling in the storm of her own imminent death. The two had fused together into a web of impossibilities, and so the lust to die was born.

Finarra Stone was shaken, but there was little she could do – not yet. They would have to return to the outpost first. If they managed that, it would be a simple thing to reassign one of them – as far away from the other as possible. Of course, the captain well knew that it might not work. Torture could stretch vast distances, and indeed often strengthened under the strain.

There was another option. It had begun as an idle thought, a moment of honest admiration, but now a spark had found it – she remained wise enough to fear that her own motivations might have become suspect, and even here there would be repercussions. She could anticipate some but not all of them. No matter. Selfishness was not yet a crime.

It would be an abuse of her rank, true, but if she accepted all responsibility she could mitigate the damage, and whatever she herself lost, well, she would live with it.

‘Now,’ she said, then watched as Faror pulled herself astride the horse, kicked one foot free of the stirrup and reached down.

Finarra took hold of that grip with her good arm, cursing at the awkwardness, as she would have to use the wrong hand. Balancing on one leg, she lifted the other and set her boot into the stirrup, and then pulled herself upward. She worked her free leg over the rump of the horse before shifting her weight across the back of the saddle, and only then released her grip on Faror’s hand.

‘That looked . . . painful,’ Faror Hend said in a murmur as she took up the reins.

Finarra slipped her boot from the stirrup, her breaths harsh. ‘I’m here now,’ she said, her good arm sliding round Faror’s midriff. ‘Ride to Spinnock, Warden. He will be beside himself with worry.’

‘I know,’ Faror Hend replied, kicking the horse into motion.

‘The sooner he knows we are safe, the better.’

The woman’s head nodded.

Finarra continued, ‘After all, you are his favourite cousin, Faror Hend.’

‘We know each other well, captain, that is true.’

Finarra closed her eyes, wanting to sink her face against Faror’s shoulder, nestling into the thick black hair coming out from beneath the helmet’s flaring rim. She was exhausted. The events of this night had left her fraught. She wasn’t thinking clearly. ‘There are responsibilities,’ she muttered.

‘Captain?’

‘He’s too young, I think. This Vitr – it is like the kiss of Chaos. We must . . . we must guard against such things.’

‘Yes sir.’

The silks were slick between them, sliding with the roll of the horse’s slow canter. The motion rushed waves of pain through her wounded thigh. Her left arm felt impossibly swollen, monstrous as a demon’s.

They might have to cut it off. Infection is the greatest risk. Vapours of the silver sea are inimical, or so it is believed. Am I already infected?

‘Captain?’

‘What is it?’

‘Tighten your clasp upon me – I can feel you slipping. It would not do for you to fall.’

Finarra nodded against Faror’s shoulder. The horse was labouring under them, its breaths harsh and hot. Only dumb beasts are capable of carrying such burdens. Why is that?

***

The captain’s weight upon her back was a shifting thing, ever on the edge of sliding away entirely, and Faror Hend was forced to take the reins into one hand and fold her other arm alongside Finarra’s, grasping the wrist to keep it in place.

The body against her was hard and wiry, almost a man’s. Finarra Stone had fought in the defence of the Hust mines, as a Houseblade under her father’s command. She was only a few years older than Faror, and yet it was clear to the younger woman that in that modest gap there had been a lifetime of experience. In the years they had patrolled together on the Glimmer Fate, Faror had begun to think of her captain as old, professionally remote as befitted all veterans. Physically, the daughter of Hust Henarald was stretched and twisted like rope. Her face was hard angles, and yet perfectly proportioned, and her eyes only rarely met those of another; they were ever quick to shy away.

She recalled how Finarra had stared at her earlier, and how it had seemed almost physical, as if pushing Faror up against a wall. The moment had left her rattled. She had hardly been prepared for the other revelation. Someone has come from the sea. She thought back to those wolves, hacked and huddled in their own blood, the gore-spattered trail mouth cutting into the wall of grasses.

Someone has come from the sea.

Ahead, she could make out the faint glow of the campfire. Spinnock must have used up their entire supply of wood to create this beacon. The captain would not be pleased.

She guided her horse on to the trail wending between misshapen boulders and crags. It was, she saw, close to dawn.

Spinnock had heard their approach and he appeared ahead, weapon drawn. She gestured him back into the camp, and rode in behind him.

‘The captain is injured – help her down, Spinnock. Careful – her left arm and shoulder.’

She felt him take Finarra’s weight in his arms – the woman was barely conscious – and gently pull her down from the horse’s back. Faror then dismounted, feeling cool air slide along the length of her back as the sodden silks drew away from her skin.

Spinnock carried the captain to the bedroll that had been laid out. ‘She took a fall from her horse?’

Faror could see the half-disbelieving look he threw her. It was rumoured that Finarra Stone had once ridden a horse up a tower’s spiralling staircase. ‘She was attacked.’

‘I did not think the wolves would risk such a thing.’

Saying nothing, Faror went to her kit and began rummaging for the collection of bandages, scour-blades and unguents that made up their healing supplies. She joined Spinnock and knelt beside the captain. ‘The bite on her leg first,’ she said. ‘Help me remove the dressing.’

The wound revealed was severe and already the flesh around it was swollen and red. ‘Spinnock,’ she said, ‘heat up a scour-blade.’

***

The sun was high overhead and the captain had yet to regain consciousness. Faror Hend had told Spinnock all she knew of the night’s events, and Spinnock had grown quiet in the time since. They had used up most of the healing salves and the gut thread treating the leg wound after burning away what they could of torn, dead flesh. The scarring would be fierce and they were not yet certain they had expunged the infection. Finarra Stone remained fevered, and had not even awakened when they reinserted her dislocated shoulder and then set, splinted, and bound the broken humerus. The prospect of setting off in pursuit of the stranger seemed remote.

Finally, Spinnock turned to her. ‘Cousin, I have been thinking. It seems we are destined to spend another night here, unless we rig up a harness between our horses to carry the captain. If we are to do that, it should be now. This will give us enough time to ride to the outpost before night arrives.’

‘The captain desires that we track the stranger.’

He glanced away. ‘It is difficult to believe, I admit. From the Vitr Sea?’

‘I believe her. I saw the dead wolves.’

‘Might they not have been the ones that attacked Finarra? If fevered by infection, she might have become lost, doubling back on her own trail. Those footprints might well have been her very own.’

‘She seemed clear of mind when I found her.’

‘Then we are to wait?’

Faror Hend sighed. ‘I have another idea.’ She glanced across at the recumbent form of Finarra Stone. ‘I agree with you – the captain must be brought back to the outlier post as soon as possible. She is in no condition to lead us on to the trail of the stranger, and without a proper healer she might well die.’

‘Go on,’ Spinnock said, his eyes grave.

‘She will sit behind you on your horse – bound to you. And you will take her to the outpost. I will track the stranger.’

‘Faror—’

‘You have the stronger horse, and it’s rested. There are times when we must ride alone when on these patrols. You know that, Spinnock.’

‘If she awakens—’

‘She will be furious, yes. But the responsibility is mine. She can save her ire for me.’ She rose. ‘As you say, we must hurry.’

***

Faror had held to cold professionalism throughout the preparations, and had said nothing as she watched her cousin ride off, plunging into the furnace-hot path through the grasses and vanishing from sight in a bare half-dozen heartbeats. There could be no ease, no warmth shared between them. They were two Wardens of the Outer Reach and they had tasks before them. The Glimmer Fate was rife with dangers. Wardens died. These were simple truths. It was time he learned them.

She set out at a trot westward, back along the track she had ridden the night past. In the harsh sunlight the verge seemed even more forbidding, even more inimical. It was a conceit to imagine that they knew the world; that they knew its every detail. Forces ever worked unseen, in elusive patterns no mortal mind could comprehend. She saw life as little more than the crossing of unknown trails, one after another. What made them could only be known by following one, but this meant surrendering one’s own path: that blazing charge to the place of endings. Instead, a person pushed on, wondering, often frightened. If she glanced to her left she could see the wall of black grasses, shivering and rippling and blurry in the heat; and she knew there were countless paths through Glimmer Fate. Perhaps, if she could become winged as a bird, she might fly high overhead and see each and every trail, and perhaps even discern something of a pattern, a map of answers. Would this offer relief? Directly ahead, the verge stretched on like a beaten road.

She came at last to the first of the dead wolves. Small scaled rats had ventured out from the grasses to scavenge the carcass. They fled at her approach, slithering snake-like back into shelter among the thick stalks. She trotted her mount past and came opposite the gap in the grasses. The spilled gore was black, swarming with beetles, and in the heat Faror could smell the rot of fast-decaying flesh.

She reined in, eyed the gap for a moment, and then nudged her horse into it.

Once among the tall stalks, the heat swirled round her, cloying and fierce. Her mount snorted heavily, agitated, ears flattening. Faror murmured to calm the beast. The stench of spilled blood and ichor felt thick in her throat with every breath she took.

A short distance in, she came upon two more dead wolves, and crushed-down dents in the grasses to either side. Halting her horse and leaning forward to peer down one such side-trail, she could just make out the hind legs of a third wolf carcass. Straightening, she did a quick count of the breaks to either side.

Five. Surely there wasn’t a dead beast at the end of each of them? But the dried blood was everywhere.

Faror continued on.

Fifty heartbeats later, the path opened into a clearing, and here she found another slain pack, four creatures flung by savage blows to either side of a worn deer-trail that cut directly across the centre of the glade and vanished opposite. There was something almost dismissive about the way the wolves had been cut down and left dying from terrible wounds.

Shivering despite the heat, Faror Hend crossed the clearing. The resumption of the trail upon the other side narrowed markedly, and her horse was forced to push aside the thick, serrated stalks, the edges rasping against the wooden sheaths of armour protecting its legs and flanks. The heavy blades wavered and threatened to fold over both rider and mount. Faror drew her sword and used the weapon to keep the grasses from her face and neck.

Before too long she concluded that this was not a game-trail, for it ran too straight, passing near streams and springs but giving no sign of digression. The direction was south. If it remained true, it would lead to Kharkanas.

The stranger had travelled through the night; Faror saw no signs of a camp or even a place where rest had been taken. It was closing on late afternoon, the sky cloudless overhead, the light assuming a molten quality, as of fires raging beneath a thickening crust; and this light bled down through the black grasses with lurid tongues. She had never experienced such light before and the world around her seemed suddenly ethereal, uncanny. Changes are coming to this world. Sweat streamed beneath her silks.

Somewhere to the east, Spinnock Durav would be approaching the outlier post, but probably not arriving until well after dusk. She knew that he – and Finarra – should be safe enough while astride the horse. The wolves did not like the beasts and besides, the Warden mounts were trained for battle. And yet she feared for them none the less. If the captain’s infection had worsened—

Her horse broke through into a clearing, and at its far end stood a woman, facing them. Fair-skinned, her blonde hair dishevelled and roughly hacked at shoulder length. She was naked but for the scaled hide of a wolf draped over her shoulders. Faror could see fierce sunburn virtually everywhere else.

Reining in, Faror sheathed her sword and then raised a hand. ‘I mean you no harm,’ she called out.

Faror could see no weapons, not even a knife. Yet that made no sense – the wolves had been slain with a blade, and the woman’s golden tresses were cut with, it seemed, the same absence of subtlety.

She is very young. Slim as a boy. She is not Tiste. ‘Do you understand me? Are you an Azathanai?’

At that word the woman’s head lifted, eyes suddenly sharp. Then she spoke. ‘I know your language. But it is not mine. Azathanai. I know that word. Azat drevlid naratarh Azathanai. The people who were never born.’

Faror Hend shook her head. She had never heard the language the woman had spoken. It was not Azathanai, nor Forulkan. ‘You have been tracked from the Vitr Sea. I am of the Tiste, a Warden of the Outer Reach. My name is Faror Hend, blood-bound to House Durav. You are approaching the borders of Kurald Galain, the home of my people.’

‘A sea?’

‘Can you tell me your name?’ Faror asked.

After a moment the woman shook her head.

‘You refuse to, or you cannot remember?’

‘I recall . . . nothing. A sea?’

Faror Hend sighed. ‘You travel south – why?’

Again the woman shook her head. ‘The air is so very hot.’ She then looked round and added, ‘I think I did not expect this.’

‘Then I shall give you a Tiste name. For now, until your memory returns. And I shall escort you to Kharkanas, where rules Mother Dark. Is this acceptable?’

The woman nodded.

‘I name you T’riss.’

Cocking her head, the woman smiled. ‘I am “born of the sea”.’

‘Will you walk, or ride with me?’

‘The beast you are on seems useful. I shall have one too.’ She turned then and seemed to fix her attention on the high grasses off to her left.

Sudden motion from there, and Faror made to unseat her lance as the black blades of grass buckled and twisted, drawing into vast knots. She heard roots being torn loose from the hard ground, heard thick snapping and something like the twisting of ropes. A creature was taking form before her eyes.

A horse of bound grass. It clambered upright as if pushed from the earth, shedding dust, massive as a destrier. The sockets of its eyes were gaping holes; the maw of its mouth was a mass of spiked blades. Its own weight seemed to be vast, far greater than it should have been for a conjuration of grasses.

Faror’s own horse backed away in alarm and she struggled to control it.

T’riss had now turned to creating clothing from the grasses, the style seeking to mimic Faror’s own silks. She made no gestures as the black blades snaked up around her body, revealed no hint of power beyond her own will. This was god-like sorcery and it frightened Faror to the core. Now clothed in grasses woven sleek and strangely flowing, the woman conjured into being a lance of the same material, and then a belted sword, and finally faced Faror once more. ‘I am born of the sea. I travel with Warden of the Outer Reach Faror Hend blood-bound to House Durav, and we ride to Kharkanas, where rules Mother Dark.’ She waited a moment, brows slowly lifting.

Faror nodded.

Seemingly satisfied with that, T’riss strode to her strange mount and lithely leapt astride its back. She took hold of reins that seemed to grow out from the creature’s cheeks, just behind the tuck of the mouth, and slipped her now-booted feet into twisted-rope stirrups. She looked across to Faror. ‘Shall I break the path, Warden Faror Hend?’

‘If you would, thank you.’

‘The same direction?’

‘Yes.’

‘Mother Dark.’ T’riss smiled. ‘That is a nice title.’

***

The sun was settling on the western horizon as if melting into a pool of fire, and Sharenas Ankhadu knew she was probably alone among her companions in not welcoming its demise. Her skin was of a quality that deepened most becomingly, rather than burned, and she could feel its glow on her face, neck and the backs of her hands where they rested on the saddle horn.

True, the heat had been savage, but Sharenas delighted in that as well. She was not inured to cold as many of her kin seemed to be, and her memories of the northern campaigns against the Jheleck were one and all unpleasant. Her cohort had on occasion mocked her with extra furs and hoarded firewood when they camped, and more than a few had offered to share her bed, out of duty, they insisted.

There were rules in the Legion, of course, prohibiting such dalliance with the enlisted soldiers, and that was but one of many such rules that Sharenas had occasion to curse – even if only to herself. She had been young to take command of a cohort, but it was hardly surprising given the renown of her two elder kin. There had been legacies to live with, not all of them reputable.

As she rode now, in the company of other officers of the Legion – including those since stripped of their rank and made inactive – she spared a thought for regret. Neither Infayen Menand nor Tathe Lorat had elected to accompany this party; and Sharenas knew that the others were left wondering what their absence signified. Should they look to Sharenas for answers – and she’d caught the occasional glance sent her way – they would be disappointed. That said, Sharenas loved and admired both her sister and her cousin, and held them in great esteem, in which faith was strong. If sides must be chosen in the days to come, Sharenas was certain that they would not hesitate in answering the summons.

For all that, she had to admit that she could not be fully confident of some of her companions on this venture, and with that thought her eyes tracked once more to the huge ex-soldier riding behind the vanguard of Hunn Raal and Osserc. Ilgast Rend had accepted this invitation with reluctance, or so it was purported, and without question his mood was sour, unrelieved since their departure from Neret Sorr three days past. Indeed, upon arriving on the outskirts of the settlement, his first words to Hunn Raal had been a pointed question: ‘Does Urusander know of this?’ Smiling, Hunn Raal had evaded the question. Ilgast would have pressed if not for Osserc’s sudden claim that his father was not only aware of the pending journey, but approved of it.

That, Sharenas suspected, had been a lie. For a moment she’d thought that Ilgast would actually challenge Urusander’s son, but then he had turned away, his silence both dismissive and – in Osserc’s eyes – insulting. Hunn Raal’s sudden laughter and a heavy slap upon Osserc’s back had mollified the threat. For the time being, Sharenas had caught the glowering look Osserc had thrown at Ilgast’s back a few moments later.

Well, allies need not be friends. Ilgast Rend was master of a Greater House. In many ways, he had more to lose, potentially, than any other person present, should things go wrong.

But they won’t. Hunn Raal is honourable. He knows what he is doing, and he knows, as do we all, that what he is doing is the right thing to do. To crush the birth of any doubts in her mind, she needed only think of Urusander. And so long as her old commander remained as the singular focus of all their ambitions – the source of the reasoning voice through which their claims for recognition and justice would be heard, must be heard – then she need not worry overmuch about young Osserc and his thin skin, or his childishness and irritating diffidence. In any case, Hunn Raal was ever at the boy’s side, serving to mitigate Osserc’s tirades and impulsive reactions.

Four others accompanied them, although only one earned serious regard in her eyes. Hunn Raal’s three cousins, Serap, Risp and Sevegg, were soldiers, true enough, but followers of Hunn; and if there was any truth to the rumours, then Hunn’s assurance of their alliance was at least in part forged beneath the furs, even though all three were second cousins – not close enough to be a crime, but close enough to raise eyebrows and, perhaps, earn a few murmurs of disapproval. In any case, it was clear that the three young women worshipped their older cousin, and it amused Sharenas to imagine that sexual prowess lay at the heart of that worship. Alternatively, shared pity could on occasion resemble loyalty, and since she had never shared Hunn Raal’s furs she couldn’t be certain either way. After all, the man drank too much.

She suspected she would straddle him sooner or later, but only when a clear political advantage served to motivate her. He was not highborn enough though his bloodline was, and she could well see his untoward arrogance, ever warring with his duty to Lord Urusander. There would come a time when someone would need to take him down a few notches – for his own sake – and what he might initially believe a triumphant conquest on his part would quickly reveal a different nature. There was nothing easier than belittling a man when he lay between a woman’s legs. The effect was very nearly instantaneous and always unmistakable.

It was easy then to dismiss Raal’s three wet-lipped cousins. Not so easy to dismiss the last soldier in their party, who somehow managed to seem to be riding alone though he was in truth in their midst – indeed, at Sharenas’s side, upon her left. Straight in the saddle, welded together like iron blades into a man both forbidding and dangerous, Kagamandra Tulas had not spoken since leaving Neret Sorr.

Of course he well knew that the outpost of the Wardens that they now rode towards was also the station of his betrothed, Faror Hend, and that before this night was done he would find himself standing before her – the first time since the announcement.

Sharenas so wanted to witness that moment. It would be . . . delicious.

Kagamandra Tulas was dead inside. Every woman could see it, with but a single glance into his lightless eyes. His wounded soul had been left behind, discarded on some field of battle. He was a husk, the animation of his being grinding like worn teeth in an iron gear; it seemed Tulas did not welcome his own aliveness, as if he but longed for death, for the stillness that lay within him to seep out, poison the rest of his being, his flesh, his skin, his face, whereupon he could in his last breath thank the generosity of those who were about to inter him inside his silent tomb.

Poor Faror Hend. In the new way of things, upon the ascension of Urusander, political expediency would work none of its cruelty upon such things as marriage and love. The power of the Greater Houses, with all its guarded gates and patrolled walls, its outer pitfalls and deadly traps, would be struck aside. Service to the realm would be the only standard of value, of worth. In that future, drawing ever closer, Faror Hend would be free to wed whomever she chose, although in the irony of that future world, Kagamandra Tulas, who had given virtually all of himself to the defence of the realm, might well prove a most valuable prize.

Indeed, who else was likely to find himself standing at Lord Urusander’s side, like the ghost of a brother, warding the clasping of hands that would join Mother Dark with the commander of the Legion? Who but Urusander would be brave and humble enough to so honour Kagamandra Tulas? And did not Mother Dark herself make a grand gesture of solemn recognition to the saviour of Silchas Ruin’s life? No, Sharenas had no doubt, Tulas would soon find himself standing next to the throne, one gauntleted hand resting on the worn pommel of his sword, his empty eyes scanning the throne room, seeking a challenge none would dare.

For all that, he would be a wretched husband to any woman, making bitter any political advantage.

Would he have as his wife Faror Hend? So it seemed, a decision already carved deep in stone, firm as a mason’s will. Idly, Sharenas wondered if she might contrive to save Faror that lifetime of sorrow and loneliness. Kagamandra could not be reached, could not be sullied – nor would she even consider such a thing, no matter how sweet that triumph would be. This left Faror Hend herself. Sharenas did not know her well, barring that she was among the Durav bloodline. An unranked Warden – and that was hardly a posting one would eagerly choose. Unless . . . think on what she did, coming out here . . . she is betrothed, and days later she chooses her own exile from Kharkanas.

Ha! I see it now. She fled him. Out here, as far from Tulas as she could manage. Oh, how wonderful. Faror Hend – your betrothed has tracked you down! Are you not thrilled? Do you not swoon at the romance of the gesture?

The outpost ahead promised a lively evening. She had thought to stay close to Hunn Raal when he spoke with the commander of the Wardens; when he sought to forge an alliance with Calat Hustain. But, fascinating as that exchange might prove to be, her interest had now shifted to the drama, or even melodrama, of this fated meeting of the intended.

Poor Faror Hend. She would be left reeling. Made to feel . . . vulnerable.

Sharenas would be quick, then, to offer comfort. Wise, understanding, ready to listen without judgement – and in that lonely outpost, to whom else could Faror dare turn? Tell me your secrets, sister, and together we will find a way out of this nightmare. Even if it means ruining your reputation – you will thank me for it in a century or two, I am sure.

Show me the path of your longing, and I will take your hand and guide you down it. As true friends do.

***

Directly ahead of Ilgast Rend rode Captain Hunn Raal and Osserc, the son of Lord Urusander. Neither man inspired Ilgast. The captain was vain and arrogant. The would-be prince was the palest reflection of his father, thin-skinned and prone to malice. It was, frankly, astonishing that Lord Urusander had produced such an heir to the House. But then, Ilgast well remembered Osserc’s mother and her grasping ways. If not for the physical similarities between father and son, he could well have believed that Osserc was the spawn of some other man’s seed. Abyss knew, this was an age of frenzied spilling among the Tiste. Wives cheated, husbands wandered, and now even Mother Dark had taken for herself a lover.

Whelps were falling to the floor like sour fruit these days. Ilgast was not impressed with who his Tiste had become. The peace they had won was now stained with indolence and a distinct withering of probity.

His thoughts led to Urusander. The Lord had proved a fine leader of soldiers, but an end to the wars had not served the man well. He too had stumbled off the trail, losing himself in arcane indulgences better suited to wizened clerics with ink-smeared hands.

Urusander would make an indifferent king, and his disinclination to grant favour – his unassailable belief in justice – would soon turn his supporters. Men like Hunn Raal would find themselves no better off. No gifts of wealth, no grants of land or power, and no tipped scales of court influence. How long before they began plotting against their beloved lord? Ilgast understood these fools all too well. Their only true ambition was the elevation of their own station.

His greatest worry was that the ascension of Urusander would spill blood. Even the immensely satisfying ousting of Draconus and his outlander ilk was not enough to salve Ilgast’s fear. The Houseblades of the majority of the Greater Houses would resist the elevation of Lord Urusander and his followers. There was more to that position than simply protecting the power they possessed. He knew his own people. The political machinations by soldiers such as Hunn Raal would offend them to the core: they would see all too clearly the brutal ambition behind such efforts. They would be affronted, and then indignant, and then furious. Decorum was a fragile thing. It would not take much to see it shattered. In a world of blood, everyone drowns.

Yet here he rode in the company of these soldiers, sickened by the pathetic air of mischief surrounding Hunn Raal and his three vapid cousins; the febrile self-importance of Osserc as he continued to delude himself that he was leading this party; and behind Ilgast there was Kagamandra Tulas, who still faced the past war and would likely continue to do so until his dying day; and Sharenas Ankhadu – granted, the least objectionable of the trio of Legion captains who proclaimed themselves sisters of the spirit – yet he was disappointed that she was here. He’d thought her wiser, too sharp to fall into this wake of fools and be swept along like so much detritus. What then of his purpose in such dire company?

He knew that Hunn Raal counted his presence as a conquest of sorts, and no doubt the captain envisaged Ilgast’s alliance in persuading Calat Hustain and the Wardens to their cause. But the truth was, Ilgast knew he had isolated himself, too content with his retirement. Yet the world did not stand still for his seeming indifference. Though none had sought his counsel, he now saw himself as firmly between the two sides. With the blood of a Greater House in his veins, and his history as a cohort commander in Urusander’s Legion, he stood astride the chasm. Neither side had yet pulled with a force he could not resist, so he remained standing firm – a position that invited righteousness in his more careless moments.

Only slowly did he come to comprehend his solitude, and the other risks entailed in his stance. He had been fending off the occasional pull, particularly from the side of Legion, but events were progressing at an ever swifter pace, and now he no longer feared being pulled. He feared being pushed.

There were many others like him, he knew. There was, in his mind, no truer measure of stupidity than to imagine that the world could be reduced to two sides, one facing the other with fangs bared, brandishing weapons and hurling hate at the enemy. Things were never so simple. Ilgast disliked the immorality of a Consort to Mother Dark – if indeed she loved Draconus, she should damned well marry him. In the growing power of Mother Dark’s cult, there was a burgeoning strain of sexual excess. He did not lack his own appetites but he sensed a hedonistic undercurrent swirling beneath the extravagant displays, a rot at the core.

If religious ecstasy were no different from a cock in a cunt, then make a temple of every whorehouse and be done with it. If the bliss of salvation were a mindless shudder, well, who was left to clean up the mess? Yet Mother Dark seemed to be inviting this sordid surrender. Any faith that encouraged the mind to set aside its greatest gifts – of reason, of scepticism – in favour of empty platitudes and the glory of an end to thinking . . . well, he would have none of it. He would not blind himself, would not stop up his ears, would not close his mouth nor cut off his hands. He was not a beast to be yoked to someone else’s idea of truth. He would find his own or die trying.

The Consort needed to go. Mother Dark needed a proper marriage or none at all. The licentiousness of the court had to end. But these statements did not drag him into Urusander’s shadow, just as they did not insist he stand with his nobleborn kin. They were opinions, not fortifications.

He knew Calat Hustain. The man’s loyalty was absolute – to his own House. Hunn Raal would fail, and in failing, carve into his list of enemies the name of Calat Hustain.

Ilgast Rend meant to speak with his old friend. Late in the night, at the Rising of the Watch, long after the fools had drunk themselves into a belligerent stupor down in the main hall. They would discuss the new, deadly currents, and perhaps, before dawn, they would find a way of navigating these savage waters.

Such was his hope.

One night, someone might well slit Hunn Raal’s throat, and he’d not be missed. Leave Urusander to his intellectual masturbations – he did no harm and besides, he had earned his last years of pleasure, no matter how dubious that pleasure might seem. Mother Dark would tire of Draconus eventually. Indeed, she might travel so far inside the sorcery of Endless Night – or whatever it was that the cult worshipped – that such physical desires were left behind. Was it not already said that she was enwreathed in bitter cold darkness day and night now?

When the Consort vanished into that darkness, what did he find?

Ilgast remembered when Mother Dark was known by her birth name; when she was simply a woman: beautiful, vivacious, possessor of unimaginable strengths and unexpected frailties – a woman like any other, then. Until the day she found the Gate. Darkness was many things; most of all, it was selfish.

Dusk was fast closing, and directly ahead Ilgast Rend could see the midnight line of the grasses of Glimmer Fate, and there, crouching at its edge, stood a stone gate that marked the North Road. Down that road, in a short time, they would come to the outpost where Calat had established his headquarters this season.

The Wardens were an odd lot, a loose rabble of misfits. This was what made them so important. In a decent society, there must be a place for misfits, a place free of prejudice and torment. In a decent society, such people were not left to the alleys, the shadows beneath bridges, the gutters and the slums. They were not thrown out into the wilderness, and not throat-cut either.

Misfits had a place in the world, and must be cherished, for one day, they might be needed.

Torches flared at the gate. Guards were at their post.

Ahead, Hunn Raal twisted in his saddle and glanced back, though it was too dark to see where his eyes fixed. Facing forward again, he muttered something, to which Osserc shot a look over a shoulder. Then, turning back, he laughed.

Overhead, the stars appeared, a swirling whirlpool spanning the entire sky.

FIVE

Bareth Solitude was a vast plain crossed by ancient beach ridges of water-worn limestone cobbles; these ridges ran for leagues but they were relatively shallow, evidence, explained Tutor Sagander months ago, of an inland sea that had taken thousands of years to die. If he let his mind wander, Arathan could imagine that they were now riding through the thinnest water, the water of the past, the water of dim memory, and the seabed under the horses’ hoofs, with its ribbons of wild-blown sand and its blooms of yellow grasses, was far beneath the surface of another world.

If he let his mind wander, he could almost feel himself rising up, lifting clear of this hard, brutal saddle; he could ride his thoughts instead, as they floated out of his battered, weary body, ever upward. Thoughts alone, thoughts unfettered, could find a thousand worlds in which to wander. And none here, riding with him across the plain, would know; his body would give nothing away. There were many kinds of freedom, and the most precious ones were secret.

Sagander would not have understood such musings. Just as there were many kinds of freedom, so too were there many kinds of prison. It came as something of a shock when Arathan first comprehended this truth. The stone walls were everywhere, and no hard grey tower was needed as proof of their existence. They could hide behind eyes, or form barriers in the throat leaving no escape for words. They could rise suddenly around thoughts in the skull, suffocating them. They could block the arrival of other thoughts – foreign thoughts, frightening thoughts, challenging thoughts. And in each case, there was one thing they all shared – all these vicious walls: they were enemies to freedom.

Arathan had known hard grey walls all his life.

Yet now he rode, under an open sky, a sky too vast and too empty. His skull throbbed; his back was sore; he was blistered along the inside of his thighs. The helm he had been made to wear made his neck ache with its clunky weight. The supposedly light armour, banded bronze strips sewn on to leather, dragged at his shoulders. The vambraces covering his wrists and the thick metal-strapped gauntlets on his hands were hot and heavy. Even the plain sword belted at his side pulled at his hip.

He rode in the company of exhaustion, but still the air felt sweet as water on his face, and even the huge figure of his father, riding ahead at the side of Sergeant Raskan, seemed to hold no power over him. There were, he told himself again, many kinds of freedom.

On the day of leaving he had been filled with fear, and it had shamed him. Dawn had broken cold and sleep was still grainy in his eyes when he stood shivering in the courtyard, watching the frenzied activity as mounts were readied and various supplies were strapped on the saddles. Servants rushed about, mostly in response to the shrill demands of Sagander. The tutor’s two travel chests, packed with precision, had been flung open, the contents frantically rummaged through – there would be no packhorses for this journey, and this left Sagander in a state of such agitation that he had begun shouting abuse at all the servants, the stable-boys and anyone else who ventured near.

Excepting Raskan, of course, and the four Borderswords who looked on with flat expressions from where they stood near the gate.

Lord Draconus had yet to appear, although his two horses stood ready, a lone groom clutching the reins of Calaras; the huge warhorse seemed immune to the panic surrounding him, standing virtually motionless beside the mounting block. The other horses looked nervous to Arathan’s eye; his gaze caught another groom who was leading out from the stables his own mounts. The mare, Hellar, tossed her head as she emerged from the shade, and behind her was Besra, the gelding on which Arathan decided he would begin this ride – a solid-looking roan with a scarred neck. Both animals seemed enormous, as if they had grown overnight, and Arathan struggled to recall the confidence he had found by the end of the riding lessons.

‘Arathan! Come here, quickly!’

Startled by the command, he looked over to see Sagander on his knees beside one of the trunks. The old man gestured frantically, his visage darkening.

‘Come here, I said! Student you were and student you remain! Attend to me!’

Longing to be in his room, warm beneath the heavy furs, with a day ahead no different from all the other days, Arathan forced himself forward. His limbs felt stiff from cold and his mind was sluggish with lack of sleep, and the dread of leaving the world he had known all of his life left him feeling sick.

‘There shall be no trunks on this journey! I wasted half the night packing them. I was foolish listening to you, and see how I am now beset! You must make room among your own kit.’ He pointed at a heap of materials. ‘For those, do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Be quick about it then, before your father appears!’

Arathan went over to the objects. He studied them for a moment, considering how he might fit into his bedroll the assayer’s scales and the weights and measures. If there had been a small bag to hold the weights, it no longer accompanied them. He counted a dozen gradations of the pure metal, the heaviest feeling solid and filling the palm of his hand when he picked it up. The lightest one was barely the size of a pebble, like a thick coin. He tucked that one into his belt pouch.

At a snapping insult from Sagander, he quickly gathered up the rest of the equipment and made his way over to his horse.

The groom, a boy of about the same age as Arathan, had already strapped the kit to the gelding’s saddle, and upon seeing Arathan’s approach he made an expression of annoyance and turned to drag it free.

‘Set it down,’ said Arathan. ‘I need to fit these in.’

The groom did so, and then backed off, as if unwilling to draw too close to the strange instruments.

‘You can go,’ Arathan said to him. ‘I will do this.’

With a quick nod the boy hurried away, vanishing into the gloom of the stables.

Arathan loosened the careful knots he had tied to secure the bedroll. He’d already packed his change of clothes inside, including a new pair of henen hide boots. As the boots were heavy he had been careful with the balance, since Raskan had told him that horses were easily irritated by such things, especially over a long trek. Pulling the tie-strings clear, he unfurled the bedroll. He laid out the measures and the weights, but the scales were too large to fit. As he knelt, contemplating what to do with the awkward instrument, he became aware of a general silence in the courtyard, apart from the heavy approach of boots. A shadow fell over him and Arathan looked up.

‘Why are you not ready?’ Lord Draconus demanded.

At the question, Arathan felt his throat tightening, choking the words from him. He continued peering upward, silent.

He saw his father’s eyes shift to the scales on the ground beside Arathan, and then he reached down and picked them up. He held them out to one side. A servant appeared to take the instrument from him and hurry off, back towards the house. ‘There is no time for this,’ Draconus said, turning away.

Arathan watched his father walk back to Calaras. The servants in the courtyard all stood with bowed heads. Tutor Sagander was already beside his own mount, glaring across the distance at Arathan.

He quickly rolled up the bedding, leaving the weights and measures in place. He tied rough knots to bind the kit and lifted it to the back of the saddle. He struggled for a time with the straps; his hands felt clumsy, almost useless, the tips of his fingers too soft and yielding since they lacked most of their nails. Finally, he fumbled his way through and stepped back. Facing round he saw that his father was now astride Calaras, reins in gloved hands. Raskan was pulling himself on to his own mount, while two servants helped Sagander do the same. By the gate, the Borderswords had vanished and no doubt now waited outside.

Arathan took up Besra’s reins, which had been left to dangle. He had to grope to slide his boot into the stirrup, almost losing his balance, and then he pulled himself up and on to the saddle.

Draconus led them out through the gate, followed by Raskan and then Sagander, who curtly waved Arathan into his wake.

Glancing back, a moment before the gate’s shadow fell over him, Arathan saw his half-sisters, atop the steps before the door of the house. They were in their nightclothes: loose and flowing and black as ink. Above this filmy darkness their faces seemed deathly pale. A faint shiver ran through him at the sight, and then he faced forward once more and, trailed by his charger on a long lead, rode out from the courtyard.

The Borderswords were mounted on dun-coloured horses, the beasts lighter-boned yet longer-legged than the stable horses being ridden by those of the Lord’s household. In addition to their riders, the animals carried bundled tents and cookware, as well as packs bulging with dry foods and casks of water.

Feeling uncomfortable, burdened by the armour and the heavy helm on his head, Arathan guided his horse after Sagander – until without warning the tutor reined in. Besra edged deftly around the sudden obstacle, only to draw up when Sagander reached out and took hold of the bridle. ‘Look back, student. Go on, do as I say.’

The Borderswords were falling in behind Draconus and Raskan as they set out on the curving track that would lead them westward.

Arathan twisted in his saddle and studied the gate and the wall of the estate.

‘Tell me what you see,’ Sagander demanded, his voice oddly rough.

‘The Great House of Lord Draconus,’ Arathan replied.

‘Your entire world, student. Until this day.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Over with now.’

Arathan nodded.

‘Your sisters didn’t want to see you off. But your father commanded. Those girls despise you, Arathan.’

‘I know.’

‘Do you know why?’

He thought for a moment, and then he nodded. ‘I was born to the wrong mother.’

Sagander snorted. ‘Your life as you knew it is now over. You must look to yourself and none other, for all that awaits you. Even my own teaching is mostly done. Your half-sisters – they do not expect to ever see you again.’

‘They wore black, yes.’

‘Foolish boy, they always wear black. But yes, they wanted you to see.’ He released Besra’s bridle. ‘Come, let us catch up. You ride at my side, but I should tell you, your father was disappointed this morning – he did not expect to have to wait for you.’

‘I know, sir.’

‘Even more disappointing in his eyes, Arathan, was that you chose the gelding over the mare.’

‘But – I was told that I should not ride Hellar too much—’

‘When you leave the Great House, you ride your charger. Bastard son you may be, but in the eyes of the staff, you are still the Lord’s son. Do you understand me?’

‘I was not so instructed—’

‘Such instruction should not have been necessary! You have not just shamed your father, you have shamed me as well! I am your tutor who clearly has failed to teach you anything!’

‘I am sorry, sir.’

‘And you left behind the scales. What use the weights and measures without the scales?’

Ahead, the track opened out, winding and dipping through low hills. Beyond that, according to the maps Arathan had perused, the path angled slightly south, leading to the settlement of Abara Delack. Past Abara Delack was the Bareth Solitude, and at the far end of that vast plain there waited the lands of the Azathanai and the Jaghut.

‘I trust you brought with you my gifts, including the special one for the Lord of Hate?’

‘I have, sir.’

‘Tell me what it is – no, do not bother. After all, it is too late to change it, isn’t it? I expect it is worthy.’

‘That is for the Lord of Hate to decide.’

Sagander shot him a look. ‘I remain your tutor,’ he snapped. ‘You will speak to me with proper respect.’

‘Always, sir. My apologies.’

‘You are not particularly likeable, Arathan. That is your problem. No – both hands on the reins! Would you have your father look back to see you chewing your nails again? Sit straight in that saddle.’

The day would be hot, and the way ahead promised no hope of shade. Arathan could feel sweat trickling down beneath his heavy clothing. It was hard to believe that only a short time ago he had been shivering, feeling lost in a courtyard he had known all his life. Now, the sky was lightening, unrelieved by any cloud, and it was the blue of ice and steel, and the new sun felt hot on his back.

They continued on at a steady trot, suddenly amongst the denuded hills. A track cutting to the right looked vaguely familiar to Arathan. He pointed. ‘Where does that one lead, sir?’

Sagander seemed to flinch. ‘The quarries. I am not surprised you remember it.’

‘I don’t, really.’

‘Just as well.’

‘It’s where I almost drowned, isn’t it? Down at the end of that trail, where the cattle are driven to slaughter.’

‘You are better to forget all that, Arathan.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Arathan fixed his attention on the back of his father – the shoulders wider than Sergeant Raskan’s, wider than those of any other man Arathan could recall seeing. A heavy cloak of tanned hide hung down to drape across the rump of Calaras. It had been dyed black but that was years past and now it was bleached with salty sweat and years in the sun, giving it a mottled, shadowy hue.

Raskan kept his horse a step behind his lord, positioned on the left. Arathan did not think they were speaking. It suddenly struck Arathan that Ivis had not made it back in time to see them all off. His father had sent the master-at-arms away the day before, along with a troop of Houseblades. Arathan regretted that: he would have liked to say goodbye.

By mid-morning they had ridden clear of the hills and before them stretched land that had once been forested, perhaps a hundred or more years ago. Now it was covered in gorse and bracken, deceptively deep in places where uprooted trees had left pits. The track that crossed it was narrow, forcing the riders into single file. The land sweeping out to either side swarmed with butterflies, bees and tinier insects, all feeding on the small yellow, purple and white flowers studding every bush. Birds dipped and dived low overhead.

They met no one else and the horizons seemed too far away. The forest that had once stood here must have been vast. An entire city could have been built of the wood harvested here. Where had it gone?

Sagander had begun complaining of aches, groaning with every jolt in the saddle as the pace quickened slightly. He’d fallen silent shortly after passing the quarries and now that he rode ahead, the prospect of twisting round in his saddle to address Arathan was clearly too much, though once or twice he did glance back, if only to confirm that his student remained behind him.

Arathan welcomed the relative silence, although he too felt worn out. He hoped that for the rest of this journey he would be ignored by everyone. Life was easier that way. With attention came expectation, and with expectation there was pressure, and he did not do well with pressure. If he could slide through the rest of his life, unnoticed, unremarkable in any way, he would be content enough.

The sun was directly overhead when they reached an area roughly cleared of bracken, where the ground had been pounded level and two long stone troughs flanked the trail’s resumption at the far end. One contained burlap sacks of feed for the horses and the other was brimming with water. This was the nominal edge of the Lord’s land, and riders had been out the day before to supply the station. A halt was called, and at last Arathan was able to dismount, his legs weak as he stepped away from the gelding. He stood for a moment, watching the others, until a faint tug from his mount’s reins awakened him to the fact that he needed to lead his horses to the troughs.

Draconus had already done so, but the others had all waited – oh, they’re waiting for me.

Sagander’s savage hiss was unnecessary but it stung him like a switch to the back as he hurried forward, both horses thumping after him.

His father had leaned forward to splash water into his face beside Calaras’s muzzle as the warhorse drank, and then he drew the animal over to the second trough. Raskan held his lord’s second mount off to one side, making it clear that Arathan should precede him, but as Arathan made to guide Besra to the water he caught a sudden shake of the head from the gate sergeant.

The boy hesitated. He had ridden Besra all morning; surely it was right to let the beast drink before the warhorse. After a moment, he decided to ignore Raskan, and drew Besra up to the trough. If his father even took note of this, he made no sign.

When Arathan reached down to cup some water, however, the gate sergeant said, ‘No, Arathan. You share with your warhorse and none other. That will have to wait.’

‘I will share with the beast on whose back I have ridden, sergeant.’

Sudden quiet, and Arathan could feel himself wilting, yet he managed to hold Raskan’s hard gaze for a moment longer, before bending down to dip his hand into the cool water.

Standing near the other trough, Draconus spoke. ‘Sergeant Raskan, Hellar is now in your care, until such time as the boy awakens to his responsibilities.’

‘Yes, milord,’ Raskan replied. ‘I would that he still ride the charger this afternoon, for a time.’

‘Very well.’ Draconus led Calaras from the second trough, and beckoned the Bordersword, Feren. ‘I will speak with you,’ he said to her, ‘in private.’

‘Of course, Lord.’

Her brother took the reins from her, and she set off after Draconus as he strode to the far end of the clearing.

Raskan’s tone was rough and low as he moved up alongside Arathan. ‘I warned you clear enough on this.’

‘My error was in choosing the wrong horse this morning, sergeant.’

‘That’s true enough. You showed your fear of Hellar – to everyone. I feel a fool and I tell you, I do not appreciate that.’

‘Should we not honour each and every beast that serves us?’

Raskan scowled. ‘Who put such nonsense into your skull? That damned tutor? Look at him – it’ll be a miracle if he survives the trek.’

‘The thought was my own, sergeant.’

‘Be rid of it. And if you come up with any more of your own thoughts, Arathan, keep them to yourself. Better yet, crush them. You are not the one to challenge Tiste ways.’

Arathan almost heard the added words: leave that to men like your father.

But he would be free of all this soon enough. He had seen the last of the High House, and the way to the west stretched before him. Leading Besra to the second trough, he glanced over at the remaining Borderswords. If he had expected to meet their hard eyes, he was spared that, as Rint, Ville and Galak were all busy preparing the midday meal. Their mounts stood motionless, reins looped over the saddle horns – not ten paces from the long trough of water, and yet not one animal moved. Arathan looked for hobbles about their ankles but found none.

I think I understand. Before there can be disdain, there must be pride.

One day I will find something to be proud of, and then I will find this taste of disdain, and see if it suits me. Should I not think this, being my father’s son?

And yet, I do not. Pride needs no claws, no scaled armour about itself. Not every virtue must be a weapon.

These thoughts are my own. I will not crush them.

Sagander hissed behind him, ‘When next you turn to me, student, I will see the face of my own humiliation. I wish he had left you behind. You’re useless. Hands from the mouth!’

***

Rint hunched down over the embers, watching as the first flames licked the tinder alight. He fed in a few sticks and then nodded over to Galak, who began breaking up a brick of dried dung. Grunting, Rint straightened.

‘What do you think?’ Ville asked, standing close.

Rint shrugged, forcing himself from looking over to where Lord Draconus stood speaking with his sister. ‘She’s her own mind, as if you don’t know that.’

‘He wants a soft body for the cold nights, is my guess.’

‘We’ll see,’ muttered Rint in reply, and it was all he could do to keep his teeth from cracking at the thought. ‘He is a High Lord, after all.’

‘But he ain’t our High Lord, Rint.’

He glared across at Ville. ‘This ain’t none of your business. None of mine, neither. Feren decides and whatever she decides, we stand behind it.’

Galak grunted from where he crouched over the small fire. ‘Goes without saying, Rint.’

Ville scowled. ‘Still don’t like it. Consorts – what are they, anyway? Crotch-boys. Even worse than the damned priestesses in Kharkanas. Y’think he knows a damned thing about being honourable?’

Rint stepped close. ‘Keep it down, Ville. Any more of that and we’ll do without you, understand?’

In the tense silence following the low exchange, Galak rose. ‘Back in the courtyard,’ he said under his breath, ‘when I saw him standing there, holding out those scales. A shiver took my spine, that’s all. A shiver like the breath of the Abyss.’

Ville grinned at Galak. ‘You and your damned omens.’

‘Get the pot out,’ Rint said to Ville. ‘All this jabbering is wasting time.’

Leaving his two companions, he walked over to Sergeant Raskan and the old man, Sagander. Beyond them, the boy was sitting on the ground at the edge of the clearing, his back to them all. Both men were looking that way and if they’d been talking, it had been under their breaths and they ceased at Rint’s approach.

‘Sergeant,’ said Rint when he joined them. ‘This is the first meal of the journey. In the days that follow, our midday repast will of course make use of food that requires no cooking.’

Raskan nodded. ‘The Lord is well aware of your traditions, Bordersword.’

‘I assumed as much,’ Rint replied, ‘but I just wanted to make certain.’

‘Seems a ridiculous tradition,’ Sagander said, his expression sour. ‘Barely half a day out and we halt to gorge ourselves, when we should be hastening onwards.’

Rint regarded Sagander. ‘The first day of any overland journey, tutor, is always a difficult one, even for hardened travellers. Rhythms need finding, bones need shaking out, and not just for us but for our mounts as well. More injuries take horses on the first day than on any other. The early morning start, the cold muscles . . . these things pose risks.’

In response, Sagander shrugged and looked away.

Rint returned his attention to Raskan. ‘Sergeant. Two days to Abara Delack. When we are a few leagues out from the village, I will send Galak ahead—’

‘Forgive me,’ Raskan interrupted. ‘My lord has instructed me that we shall be riding around Abara Delack. We shall not be staying in the village, nor will we be guests of any of the resident highborn families.’

Rint considered that for a moment, and then he said, ‘None are to know of this journey.’

‘That is correct.’

‘Such secrets, sergeant, are very difficult to keep.’

‘That is understood, Rint, but we shall try nevertheless.’

‘Very well, I will inform the others.’

‘One other thing,’ Raskan said as Rint turned away.

‘Sergeant?’

‘It would be best if you Borderswords did not keep to yourselves so much. This is a small party, after all, and we have many days ahead of us. We saw some disagreement among you at the campfire. If there are matters that need discussing, bring them to me.’

‘Of course, sergeant.’

Rint walked back to where he’d left Ville and Galak, and saw that his sister had returned from her meeting with Lord Draconus. Oddly enough, it seemed that no one was speaking. Feren looked over as Rint arrived and shook her head.

Suspicion flooded through Rint, and from it swirled fury, thick and vile. He struggled to give nothing away, and said, ‘The sergeant wants us to be sociable.’

Ville grunted. ‘We take orders from two of ’em and the other two amount to an old man of letters and a rabbit in a boy’s skin. What kind of socializing is he expecting?’

‘How the fuck should I know?’ Rint said under his breath.

To his relief all three laughed, although Rint saw a glint of something in his sister’s eyes, something walled off from any pleasure. But then, he reminded himself, there was nothing new in that.

‘Rabbit in a boy’s skin,’ said Galak to Ville. ‘I like that one.’

‘Now forget you ever heard it,’ Rint warned.

‘Sure, but still, it fits—’

‘And how do you know that?’ demanded Feren, startling the others. ‘I like what he did with the horses. Traditions are all very well, but they started for good reasons. These days, it seems everybody’s so caught up in the forms they forget those reasons. The boy was right – you share with the beast that served you. That’s how you give thanks.’

‘You give thanks to the beast you ride into battle with,’ Ville retorted.

‘Give thanks to them all. That’s how it started, Ville. Back when it meant something.’

Rint studied his sister. He’d not seen such fire from her in years. He should have welcomed it; he should have found hope from it. Instead, he felt vaguely disturbed, as if he was missing some hidden significance to this outburst.

‘Meat’s soft enough for chewing,’ said Galak.

‘I’ll call the others,’ Rint said.

***

Arathan sat on the ground, studying the gorse and the clouds of busy insects. The heat was making him sleepy. His spirits sank when he heard the scrape of feet behind him.

‘Arathan, my name is Feren.’

Startled, he clambered to his feet and faced the Bordersword. Wiping wet fingers on his thigh, he stood uncertainly.

‘We have a ritual,’ she said. Her eyes were level with his, and their steadiness unnerved him as she continued, ‘The first meal of the journey. Meat is shared. With everyone.’

He nodded.

She moved slightly closer and suddenly Arathan felt cornered. She smelled of tanned leather and something like blossoms, but spicier. She was twice his age, but the lines in the corners of her dark eyes made him think of passion, and then she gave him a half-smile. ‘In my eyes,’ she said, ‘you did right with your horse. There are ways that people think must be followed, and then there are ways of the heart. If two paths await you, one cold and the other warm, which would you choose?’

He thought about this for a moment, and then asked, ‘And if there are no paths?’

‘Then make your own, Arathan.’ She gestured. ‘Come along, the first taste must be your father’s. The next must be yours.’ She set out and he fell in behind her.

‘I am a bastard son.’

She halted and turned. ‘You are about to come of age,’ she said in a low tone. ‘From that day forward, you are your own man. We all had fathers and mothers, but when we come of age we stand in our own shadow and none other’s. If you are called a bastard then the failing is your father’s, not yours.’

This woman was nothing like his sisters. Her attention confused him; her interest frightened him. He suspected that she had been given this task – of escorting him – because no one else wanted it. Yet even pity felt like a caress.

When she resumed walking, he followed.

The others were all waiting by the fire.

As they arrived, one of the other Borderswords grunted and said, ‘Relax, lad, it ain’t rabbit.’

The one whose name Arathan knew was Rint seemed to scowl, before saying, ‘My sister offers you the gift, Arathan. Your father has already shared the meat.’

Feren went over to the pot and speared a grey sliver of flesh with a dagger. Straightening, she offered it to Arathan.

When he took the dagger from her hand there was some chance contact, and the roughness of her palm shocked him. Regretting that the instant had been so brief, he bit into the meat and tugged it from the iron point.

It was tough and tasteless.

Feren then handed her dagger to one of her comrades and he repeated the ritual with Gate Sergeant Raskan. The fourth Bordersword did the same with Sagander. Once this was done, hard bread was provided, along with bowls of melted lard in which herbs had been mixed. Arathan watched Rint dipping the bread into the lard and biting into it, and so followed suit.

Unlike the meat, this was delicious.

‘In the cold season,’ one of the other Borderswords said, ‘it is lard that will save your life. Burning like an oil lamp in your stomach. Bread alone will kill you, as will lean meat.’

Raskan said, ‘There was a pursuit of the Jheleck, I recall, in the dead of winter. It did not seem to matter how many furs we wore, we could not stop shivering.’

‘Wrong food in your packs, sergeant,’ said the Bordersword.

‘Well, Galak, none of your kin were accompanying us.’

‘Did you track them down in the end?’ Rint asked.

Raskan shook his head. ‘We gave up after one bitter night out in the cold, and with a storm coming down from the north we knew we would lose the trail. So we returned to the fort. A warm fire and mulled wine enticed me back from death’s ledge, but it was most of a day and a night before the chill left my bones.’

‘It was well you turned back,’ observed Galak, nodding as he chewed. He swallowed before adding, ‘Jheleck like to use storms to ambush. I’d wager my best sword they were tracking back to you, hiding in that storm.’

‘That was an unpleasant war,’ Rint said.

‘Never knew a pleasant one,’ Feren replied.

Arathan had noticed his father’s retreat from this easy conversation, and he wondered at what force or quality of character Draconus possessed, to ensure loyalty, when camaraderie was so clearly absent. Was it enough that Mother Dark had chosen him to be her Consort?

Draconus had fought well in the Forulkan War. This much was known, meaning his courage and valour were above reproach. He had led Houseblades into battle, and he wore his heavy armour as if it were light as silk, and the sword at his belt looked worn and plain as a common soldier’s. These details, Arathan suspected, meant something. There was a code among soldiers – how could there not be?

The meal was suddenly over and everyone was preparing to resume the trek. Arathan hurried over to Besra – and saw that Raskan had instead readied Hellar. His steps slowed slightly, and then Feren was walking beside him, her eyes on the warhorse.

‘A formidable beast,’ she said. ‘But see her eyes – she knows you as her master, her protector.’

‘There is nothing that I can protect her from.’

‘But there is, at least in her mind.’

He glanced across at her. ‘What?’

‘Your father’s stallion. Oh, true enough, it is by the Lord’s hand that Calaras is held in check. But this mare looks to you. Such are the ways of beasts. Faith defies logic, and for that we are fortunate. But I see the animal is tall – here, I will give you a boot up.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ he asked suddenly, the words out before he could stop them.

She drew up at the question.

‘My father called you over – I saw that, you know. Did he tell you to be kindly towards me?’

Feren sighed, looked away. ‘None of this is by his command.’

‘Then what did he say to you?’

‘That shall remain between me and him.’

‘Has it do with me?’

A flash of anger lit her eyes. ‘Give me your boot, lad, or will we all have to wait on you again?’

Lifting him into the saddle seemed effortless to her, and once she’d done so she turned away, returning to where her comrades waited on their mounts.

Arathan wanted to call her back. He could hear his own tone echoing in his mind, the words sounding plaintive and thin as a child’s. A petulant child at that. But his suspicions had taken hold of him, and with them he had felt a deep, turgid humiliation, hot and suffocating. Did his father believe a woman’s attention was still required for his son? Was he to be mothered until his very last day in the man’s company?

‘It may be that you will believe I do not want you.’ Such had been his words in the Chamber of Campaigns.

But you don’t. Instead, you pass me off on whomever you choose.

‘Student! To my side!’

Gathering the reins, Arathan nudged Hellar into a trot. The beast lumbered, her stride very different from Besra’s loping gait. Apart from Sagander, no one else remained in the clearing.

I would have liked her better without your meddling, Father. Not every woman should be made to be my mother. Why do you bother interfering in my life at all? Cast me away; I will welcome it. In the meantime, leave me alone.

‘She means you no good, Arathan. Are you listening to me? Ignore her. Turn your back on her.’

He frowned across at the tutor, wondering at the man’s vehemence.

‘They carry lice. Diseases.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I am your company on this journey, is that understood?’

‘How soon before we arrive at Abara Delack?’

‘Never. We’re going around.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Lord Draconus wills it. Now, enough of your questions! It is time for a lesson. Our subject shall be weakness and desire.’

***

By mid-afternoon they were riding through old logging camps, broad swaths of level ground fringed on all sides by uprooted, burnt stumps. They were still some leagues from Abara Delack, but all tracks that remained led towards that settlement. Here they were able to ride side by side and Sagander insisted that Arathan do so.

In a way it was something of a relief. He could see that Rint had been just ahead of Sagander when they’d been in single file, and the Bordersword could not help but have heard the tutor’s loud, harsh proclamations that passed for a lesson, though Arathan had made certain that his infrequent replies to the tutor’s questions were muted.

Once on the wider path Rint kicked his mount up alongside his sister’s and the two fell into quiet conversation.

‘Weakness,’ Sagander now said, his tone both exhausted and relentless, ‘is a disease of the spirit. Among the noblest of our people, it simply does not exist, and it is this innate health, this natural vibrancy, that justifies their station in life. The poor worker in the fields – he is weak and his miserable poverty is but a symptom of the disease. But this alone is insufficient to earn your sympathy, student. You must be made to understand that weakness begins outside the body, and it must be reached for, grasped and then taken inside. It is a choice.

‘In all society there exists a hierarchy and it is measured by strength of will. That and nothing else. In this manner, the observation of society reveals a natural form of justice. Those possessing power and wealth are superior in every way to those who serve them. Are you paying attention? I will not accept a wandering mind, Arathan.’

‘I am listening, sir.’

‘There are some – misguided philosophers and bitter agitators – who argue that social hierarchy is an unnatural imposition, and indeed, that it must be made fluid. This is wilful ignorance, because the truth is, mobility does exist. The disease of weakness can be purged from the self. Often, such transformative events occur in times of great stress, in battle and the like, but there are other paths available for those of us for whom soldiering is not in our nature. Principal among these, of course, is education and the rigours of enlightenment.

‘Discipline is the weapon against weakness, Arathan. See it as sword and armour both, capable at once of attack and defence. It stands in stalwart opposition to the forces of weakness, and the middle ground, upon which this battle is waged, is desire.

‘Each of us, in our lives, must fight that battle. Indeed, every struggle that you may perceive is but a facet of that one conflict. There are pure desires and there are impure desires. The pure desires give strength to discipline. The impure desires give strength to weakness. Have I made this plain and simple enough for you?’

‘Yes sir. May I ask a question?’

‘Very well.’

Arathan gestured to the wasteland surrounding them. ‘This forest was cut down because people desired the wood. To build, and for warmth. They appear to have been very disciplined, as not a single tree remains standing. This leaves me confused. Were their desires not pure? Were their needs not honest needs? And yet, if the entire forest is destroyed, do we not therefore see a strength revealed as a weakness?’

Sagander’s watery eyes fixed on Arathan, and then he shook his head. ‘You have not understood a word of what I have said. Strength is always strength and weakness is always weakness. No!’ His face twisted. ‘You think confused thoughts and then you voice them – and the confusion infects others. No more questions from you!’

‘Yes sir.’

‘With discipline comes certainty, an end to confusion.’

‘I understand, sir.’

‘I don’t think you do, but I have done all that I could – who would dare claim otherwise? But you are drawn to impurity, and it grows like an illness in your spirit, Arathan. This is what comes of an improper union.’

‘My father’s weakness?’

The back of Sagander’s hand, when it cracked into Arathan’s face, was a thing of knotted bones hard as rock. His head snapped back and he almost pitched from his horse – there was hot blood filling his mouth – and then Hellar shifted beneath him, and a sudden surge of muscles jolted Arathan to the right. There followed a solid, loud impact, and a horse’s scream.

Sagander’s cry rang through the air, but it seemed far away. Stunned, Arathan lolled on the saddle, blood pouring down from his nose. As Hellar tensed beneath him once more, front hoofs stamping fiercely at the ground, making stones snap, Arathan tugged the reins taut, drawing in his mount’s head. The beast back-stepped once, and then settled, muscles trembling.

Arathan could hear riders coming back down the trail. He heard shouted questions but it seemed they were in another language. He spat out more blood, struggled to clear the blurriness from his eyes. It was hard to see, to make sense of things. Sagander was on the ground and so was the man’s horse – thrashing, and there was something wrong with its flank, just behind its shoulder. The ribs looked caved in, and the horse was coughing blood.

Rint was beside him, on foot, reaching up to help him down from Hellar. He saw Feren as well, her visage dark with fury.

Sagander was right. It’s hard to like me. Even when following a lord’s orders.

The tutor was still shrieking. One of his thighs was bent in half, Arathan saw as he was made to sit down on the dusty trail. There was a massive hoof imprint impressed down on to where the leg was broken, and blood was everywhere, leaking out to puddle under the crushed leg. Against the white dust it looked black as pitch. Arathan stared at it, even as Feren used a cloth to wipe the blood from his own face.

‘Rint saw,’ she said.

Saw what?

‘Hard enough to break your neck,’ she added, ‘that blow. So he said and Rint is not one to exaggerate.’

Behind him, he heard her brother’s affirming grunt. ‘That horse is finished,’ he then said. ‘Lord?’

‘End its misery,’ Draconus replied from somewhere, his tone even and cool. ‘Sergeant Raskan, attend to the tutor’s leg before he bleeds out.’

Galak and Ville were already with the tutor, and Galak looked up and said, distinctly – the first clear words Arathan heard – ‘It’s a bad break, Lord Draconus. We need to cut off the leg, and even then he might die of blood loss before we can cauterize the major vessels.’

‘Tie it off,’ Draconus said to Raskan, and Arathan saw the sergeant nod, white-faced and sickly, and then pull free his leather belt.

The tutor was now unconscious, his expression slack and patchy.

Galak had drawn a dagger and was hacking at the torn flesh around the break. The thigh bone was shattered, splinters jutting through puffy flesh.

Raskan looped the belt round high on the old man’s thigh and cinched it tight as he could.

‘Rint,’ said Draconus, ‘I understand you witnessed what happened.’

‘Yes, Lord. By chance I glanced back at the moment the tutor struck your son.’

‘I wish the fullest details – walk at my side, away from here.’

Feren was pushing steadily against Arathan’s chest – finally noticing this pressure he looked up and met her eyes.

‘Lie down,’ she said. ‘You are concussed.’

‘What happened?’

‘Hellar attacked the tutor, knocked down his horse, and stamped on his leg. She was about to do the same to Sagander’s head, but you pulled her back in time – you showed good instincts, Arathan. You may have saved your tutor’s life.’ As she spoke, she fumbled at the buckle under his sodden chin, and finally pulled away his helmet, and then the deerskin skullcap.

Arathan felt cool air reaching through sweat-matted hair to prickle his scalp. That touch felt blessedly tender.

A moment later he was shivering, and she managed to roll him on to his side an instant before he vomited.

‘It’s all right,’ she whispered, using her blood-stained cloth to wipe sick from his mouth and chin.

He smelled woodsmoke, and moments later burnt flesh. Feren left his side for a moment and then returned to drape a woollen blanket over him. ‘They’re taking the leg off,’ she said. ‘Closing off the bleeding. Cutting the bone end as even as possible. Sagander still breathes, but he lost a lot of blood. His fate is uncertain.’

‘It’s my fault—’

‘No, it isn’t.’ But he nodded. ‘I said the wrong thing.’

‘Listen to me. You are the son of a lord—’

‘Bastard son.’

‘He laid a hand upon you, Arathan. Even if Sagander survives the loss of his leg, your father might well kill him. Some things are just not permitted.’

‘I will speak in his defence,’ Arathan said, forcing himself to sit up. The world spun round him and she had to steady him lest he topple over. ‘I am the cause of this. I said the wrong thing. It’s my fault.’

‘Arathan.’

He looked up at her, fighting back tears. ‘I was weak.’ For a moment he studied her face, the widening eyes and then the scowl, before blackness rushed in from all sides, and everything fell away.

***

Brush had been hacked down to clear space for the tents, the horses unsaddled and hobbled well away from the carcass of their slain companion. Ville had butchered as much horse flesh as they could carry and now crouched by the fire, over which sat an iron grille bearing vermilion meat that sizzled and spat.

When Rint returned from his long meeting with Draconus, he walked to the fire and settled down beside Ville.

Galak was still attending to Sagander, who’d yet to regain consciousness, whilst Feren hovered over the bastard son, who was as lost to the world as was his tutor. Raskan had joined his lord where a second fire had been lit, on which sat a blackened pot of steaming blood-broth.

Ville poked at the steaks. ‘First day out,’ he muttered. ‘This bodes ill, Rint.’

Rint rubbed at the bristle lining his jaw and then sighed. ‘Change of plans,’ he said. ‘You and Galak are to take the tutor to Abara Delack and leave him in the care of the monks, and then catch us up.’

‘And the boy? Coma’s a bad thing, Rint. Might never wake up.’

‘He’ll wake up,’ Rint said. ‘With an aching skull. It was that damned helmet, that lump of heavy iron, when his head was snapped back. It’s a mild concussion, Ville. The real risk was breaking his neck, but thankfully he was spared that.’

Ville squinted across at him. ‘That must’ve been some blow – didn’t know the old man was that strong.’

‘The boy wasn’t expecting it at all – Abyss knows, no reason to. Anyway, we’ll take it slow on the morrow, Feren keeping a close eye.’

‘And the Lord’s judgement?’

Rint was silent for a moment, and then he shrugged. ‘He didn’t share that with me, Ville. But you know how they look on such things.’

‘Bad luck for Sagander. Makes me wonder why me and Galak got to take him to Abara Delack. Why not just slit the fool’s throat and stick his head on a pole?’

‘You worked on him hard – the Lord saw that.’

Ville grunted. ‘Don’t want to insult us, then?’

‘If you like. Thing is, there’s proper forms, I suppose. Making a point about something ain’t no use if there’s no way of people seeing it.’

‘What about Abara Delack, then? What do we tell the monks, since this whole trip was supposed to be a secret?’

‘You were escorting the tutor to the monastery – they make the finest paper, after all.’

‘Used to, you mean.’

‘You tried explaining that to the tutor, but the old man was fixed on it.’

‘So, if he comes round we’d best be there – to tell him how it is.’

‘No. If he survives the night we’re to wake him tomorrow morning, and Draconus himself will tell the tutor what needs telling.’

‘Then we catch you up.’

Rint nodded, drawing a knife to stab at a steak.

Ville snorted. ‘Why’d I bother? Might as well take bites out the carcass itself.’

‘But then you don’t get the smoky flavour, Ville.’

Feren joined them. ‘It’s normal sleep now,’ she said, sitting down. ‘He’s tossing and turning, but not so much – no fever. Breathing’s deep and steady.’

Ville was studying Feren with narrow eyes, and then he grinned. ‘Never saw you being a mother before, Feren.’

‘Nor will you, if you value your life, Ville.’ She set a hand on Rint’s arm. ‘Brother, what I told you earlier.’

When he shot her a look, she simply nodded.

Rint studied the half-raw meat in his hands, and then resumed chewing.

‘You two can be so damned irritating,’ Ville muttered, reaching to turn the remaining steaks again.

***

Sergeant Raskan dipped a knife blade into the blood-broth. The soup was thickening nicely. Sagander might retch at the taste, at least at first, but this rich broth might well save his life.

Draconus stood beside him, eyeing the horses. ‘I was wrong to take Hellar from him, I think.’

‘Lord?’

‘They are truly bound now.’

‘Yes, Lord, that they are. She acted fast – no hesitation at all. That mare will give her life defending Arathan, you can be sure of that.’

‘I am . . . now.’

‘Not like the tutor, was it, Lord?’

‘There can be deep bitterness, sergeant, when youth dwindles into the distant past. When the ache of bones and muscles is joined by the ache of longing, and regrets haunt a soul day and night.’

Raskan considered this, as respectfully as he could, and then he shook his head. ‘Your capacity for forgiveness is greater than mine would be, Lord—’

‘I have not spoken of forgiveness, sergeant.’

Raskan nodded. ‘That is true. But, Lord, were a man to so strike my son—’

‘Enough of that,’ Draconus cut in, his tone deepening. ‘There are matters beyond you here, sergeant. Still, no need for you to apologize – you spoke from your heart and I will respect that. Indeed, I begin to believe it is the only thing worth respecting, no matter our station, or our fate.’

Stirring the blood-broth again, Raskan said nothing. For a moment there, he had forgotten the vast divide between him and Lord Draconus. He had indeed spoken from his heart, but in an unguarded, unmindful fashion. Among other highborn, his comment might well have earned a beating; even a stripping of his rank.

But Draconus did not work that way, and he met the eye of every soldier and every servant under his care. Ah, now if only he would do that for his only son.

‘I see by the firelight that your boots are sadly worn, sergeant.’

‘It’s the way I walk, Lord.’

‘Out here, moccasins are far better suited.’

‘Yes, Lord, but I have none.’

‘I have an old pair, sergeant – they might prove somewhat too large, but if you do as do the Borderswords – filling them out as needed with fragrant grasses – then you will find them serviceable.’

‘Lord, I—’

‘You would refuse my generosity, sergeant?’

‘No, Lord. Thank you.’

There was a long time of silence. Raskan glanced over to where the Borderswords were crouched round the second cookfire. Ville had called out that the steaks were ready but neither the sergeant nor his lord moved. Hungry though he was, the cloying reek of the bloodbroth had drowned Raskan’s appetite. Besides, he could not abandon Draconus without leave to do so.

‘This swirl of stars,’ Draconus suddenly said, ‘marks the plunge of light into darkness. These stars, they are distant suns, shining their light down upon distant, unknown worlds. Worlds, perhaps, little different from this one. Or vastly different. It hardly matters. Each star swirls its path towards the centre, and at that centre there is death – the death of light, the death of time itself.’

Shaken, Raskan said nothing. He had never heard such notions before – was this what the scholars in Kharkanas believed?

‘Tiste are comforted by their own ignorance,’ Draconus said. ‘Do not imagine, sergeant, that such matters are discussed at court. No. Instead, imagine the lofty realm of scholars and philosophers as little different from a garrison of soldiers, cooped up too long and too close in each other’s company. Squalid, venal, pernicious, poisoned with ambitions, a community of betrayal and jealously guarded prejudices. Titles are like splashes of thin paint upon ugly stone – the colour may look pretty, but what lies behind it does not change. Of itself, knowledge holds no virtue – it is armour and sword, and while armour protects it also isolates, and while a sword can swing true, so too can it wound its wielder.’

Raskan stirred the soup, feeling strangely frightened. He had no thoughts he could give voice to, no opinions that could not but display his own stupidity.

‘Forgive me, sergeant. I have embarrassed you.’

‘No, Lord, but I fear I am easily confused by such notions.’

‘Was I not clear enough in my point? Do not let the title of scholar, or poet, or lord, intimidate you overmuch. More importantly, do not delude yourself into imagining that such men and women are loftier, or somehow cleverer or purer of integrity or ideal than you or any other commoner. We live in a world of facades, but the grins behind them are all equally wretched.’

‘Grins, Lord?’

‘As a dog grins, sergeant.’

‘A dog grins in fear, Lord.’

‘Just so.’

‘Then, does everyone live in fear?’

The firelight barely reached the huge man standing beside Raskan, and the deep voice that came from that vague shape sounded loose, unguarded. ‘I would say, most of the time, yes. Fear that our opinions might be challenged. Fear that our way of seeing things might be called ignorant, self-serving, or indeed evil. Fear for our persons. Fear for our future, our fate. Our moment of death. Fear of failing in all that we set out to achieve. Fear of being forgotten.’

‘My lord, you describe a grim world.’

‘Oh, there are balances on occasion. Faint, momentary. Reasons for joy. Pride. But then fear comes clawing back. It always does. Tell me, sergeant, when you were a child, did you fear the darkness?’

‘I imagine we all did, Lord, when we were little more than pups.’

‘And what was it about darkness that we feared?’

Raskan shrugged. His eyes held on the flickering flames. It was a small fire, struggling to stay alive. When the last of the sticks had burned down, the coals would flare and ebb and finally grow cool. ‘The unknown, I suppose, Lord. Where things might hide.’

‘Yet Mother Dark chooses it like raiment.’

Raskan’s breath stilled, frozen in his chest. ‘I am a child no longer, Lord. I have no cause to fear that.’

‘I wonder, at times, if she has forgotten her own childhood. You need say nothing on that matter, sergeant. It’s late. My thoughts wander. As you say, we are no longer children. Darkness holds no terrors; we are past the time when the unknown threatens us.’

‘Lord, we can now let this cool,’ said Raskan, using his knife to lift the pot clear of the flames and setting it down.

‘Best join the others then,’ said Draconus, ‘before that meat turns to black leather.’

‘And you, Lord?’

‘In a few moments, sergeant. I will look some more upon these distant suns, and ponder unknown lives beneath their light.’

Raskan straightened, his knees clicking, his saddle-sore muscles protesting. He bowed to his lord and then made his way over to the other fire.

***

It was dark when Arathan opened his eyes. He found that he was pressed against a warm body, both soft and firm, solid as a promise, and he could smell faint spices on the still night air. The blanket was now shared, and the person sleeping beside him was Feren.

All at once he could hear his heart pounding.

From the camp there was no other sound; even the horses were quiescent. Blinking, he stared up at the stars, finding the brightest ones all in their rightful places. He struggled to think mundane thoughts, fought to ignore the warm body slumbering at his side.

Sagander said that the stars were but holes in the fabric of night, a thinning of blessed darkness; and that in ages long past there had been no stars at all – the dark was complete, absolute. This was in the time of the first Tiste, in the Age of Gifts, when harmony commanded all and peace stilled every restless heart. The great thinkers were all agreed on this interpretation, his tutor had insisted, in that forceful, belligerent way he had whenever Arathan asked the wrong questions.

But where is the light coming from? What lies behind the veil of night and how could it not exist in the Age of Gifts? Surely it must have been there from the very beginning?

Light was an invading fire, waging an eternal war to break through the veil. It was born when discord first came to the heart of the Tiste.

But in a world of peace and harmony, where did the discord come from?

‘The soul harbours chaos, Arathan. The spark of life knows not its own self, knows only need. If that spark is not controlled through the discipline of higher thoughts, then it bursts into flame. The first Tiste grew complacent, careless of the Gift. And those who succumbed, well, it is their souls you see burning through the Veil of Night.’

She shifted against him. She then rolled over so that she faced him, and drew closer, one arm crossing his chest. He felt her breath on his neck, felt her hair brushing his collarbone. The scent of spices seemed to come from all of her, from her breath and her skin, her hair and her heat.

Her breathing paused for a long moment, and then she sighed, drew closer still until he felt one of her breasts pressing against his arm, and then the other one, sliding down to rest on the same arm.

And then her hand was reaching down to his crotch.

She found him hard and already slick, but if that amounted to failure she seemed unperturbed, using her palm to slide what he had spilled out over his belly, and then taking hold of him once again.

With that grip she pulled him on to his side, and her leg, lifting to settle over him, felt astonishingly heavy. Her other hand reached down, forced itself under his hip, and pulled him over her lower leg until he was clenched between her thighs.

She made a sound when she guided him inside her.

He did not know what was happening. He did not know where she’d put him in, down there between her legs. Was it the hole where she pushed out her wastes? It could not be – it was too far forward, unless women were different in ways he had not imagined.

He’d seen dogs in the yard. He’d seen Calaras savagely mount a mare, stabbing with his red sword, but there was no way to tell where that sword went.

She was moving against him now, and the sensation, of burgeoning heat, was ecstatic. Then she grasped his wrists and set his hands round her hips – they were fuller than he’d imagined they would be, and his fingers sank into deep flesh.

‘Pull,’ she whispered. ‘Back and forth. Faster and faster.’

Confusion vanished, bewilderment burned away.

He shuddered as he emptied himself into her, felt exhaustion take him – a deep, warm exhaustion. When she let him slide back out, he rolled to lie on his back.

But she said, ‘Not so fast. Give me your hand . . . no, that one. Back down, wet the fingers, yes, like that. Now, rub here, slow to start, but faster when you hear my breathing quicken. Arathan, there are two sides to lovemaking. You’ve had yours and yes, I enjoyed it. Now give me mine. In the years ahead, you and every woman you lie with will thank me for this.’

He wanted to thank her now, and so he did.

***

The boy had done his best to be quiet, but Rint was a light sleeper. Though he could not make out what his sister was saying to Arathan, the sounds that followed told him all he needed to know.

So she was ensuring that she’d get some pleasure from this. He could not begrudge her that.

She’d told him that Draconus had not commanded her. He had but requested, and no repercussions would attend her refusal. She had replied that she would give the matter some thought, and had said the same to Rint, pointedly ignoring his disapproval.

Leave the teaching in the hands of some court whore. Play it out like the cliché it’s come to be. There are ways of learning and they repeat generation after generation. Of all the games of learning, surely this is the most sordid one. Feren was a Bordersword. Did Draconus understand nothing but his own needs, and would he trample everyone on his way to answering them? So it seemed. His son was about to become a man. Show him what that means, Feren.

No, it wouldn’t be a whore for Arathan. Nor a maid, nor some farm girl from one of the outlying hamlets. After all, any one of these could come back to haunt House Dracons, seeking coin for a bastard child.

Feren would do no such thing, and Draconus well knew it. The father need not worry about his son spilling seed into her womb. If she took with child she would simply disappear and make no claim upon Arathan, and she would raise that child well. Until, perhaps, the day when Arathan came for it.

And so the pattern would be repeated, from father to son and ever onward. And of women with broken hearts and empty homes, well, they were nothing worthy of concern – but this is Feren. This is my sister. If you get with child, Feren, I will escape with you, and not even the kin and will of House Dracons will ever find us. And should Arathan somehow do so, I swear I will kill him with my own hands.

High overhead, the stars blurred and spun, as if swimming a river of rage.

***

Sagander regained consciousness just before dawn and after a moment he gasped. Before the tutor could make another sound, a gloved hand pressed down upon his mouth, and he looked up to see Lord Draconus crouched over him.

‘Be silent,’ Draconus commanded in a low tone.

Sagander managed a nod and the hand left his mouth. ‘My lord!’ he whispered. ‘I cannot feel my leg!’

‘It is gone, tutor. It was that or your death.’

Sagander stared up in disbelief. He pulled one hand free from the blankets and reached down, only to find his hand flailing where his thigh should have been. A mass of sodden bandages met his groping fingers halfway down from his hip.

‘You struck the face of my son, tutor.’

Sagander blinked. ‘My lord, he spoke ill of you. I was – I was defending your honour.’

‘What did he say?’

Sagander licked dry lips. His throat felt swollen, hot. He had never before felt as weak as he did at this moment. ‘He suggested that he was your weakness, Lord.’

‘And how did this statement come about, tutor?’

In fragmented, stuttering phrases, Sagander explained the gist of the lesson, and the conversation that had followed it. ‘I defended your honour, Lord,’ he said upon finishing. ‘As your servant—’

‘Tutor, hear me well. I do not need you to defend my honour. Furthermore, the boy was correct. If anything, he was to be commended for his acuity. Finally, Arathan has shown me something I can respect.’

Sagander gaped, his breaths coming in short, frantic gasps.

Remorselessly, Draconus went on. ‘The boy has wits. Furthermore, he saw through to the venality underlying your assertions. The poor have taken weakness into themselves? By some dubious temptation of desire? Old man, you are a fool, and would that I had seen that long ago.

‘Arathan was right – is right. He is indeed my weakness – why do you imagine I am now taking him as far away from Kurald Galain as I can?’

‘My lord . . . I did not understand—’

‘Listen well. For giving me this one thing to respect in my son, you have my gratitude. It is this gratitude that now saves your life, tutor. For striking my son, you will not be gutted and skinned, your hide spiked to the wall of my estate. Instead, you will be taken to Abara Delack to recover from your injury, and I shall have some further instructions on that matter before we part ways. You are to remain in the village’s chapter of the Yedan Monastery until my return this way, whereupon you will accompany me back to the estate. Once there, you will gather such belongings as you cherish and then depart, never to return. Is all of this within your understanding, tutor?’

Mute, Sagander nodded.

Draconus straightened and spoke in a louder voice, ‘The sergeant has prepared some blood-broth. You have lost too much of your own blood and it needs replenishing. Now that you are awake, I will have Raskan feed you.’

Sagander had to turn his head to watch Draconus walk away. His thoughts were a black storm. The man whose honour he had defended would now destroy him. Execution would have been a far better fate. Now, it was his reputation and standing that the Lord had murdered, all in the name of an ancient prohibition against striking a highborn. But Arathan is no highborn. He is a bastard son.

I have struck him countless times, as befits a wayward, useless student. He is no highborn!

I shall challenge this. In Kharkanas, I shall make challenge before the law!

But he knew he wouldn’t. Instead, he would be kept in isolation for months, perhaps even longer, in a monastery cell in Abara Delack. And he would lose the fire of his indignation, and even should he hold on to it, flaring it anew each time he found himself struggling to move a leg that no longer existed, by the time he finally made it back to Kharkanas, the tale of his disgrace would have long preceded him. He would be mocked, his righteous claims laughed at, and he would see the glee in the eyes of his rivals upon every side.

Draconus had indeed destroyed him.

But I have other paths. A thousand steps to vengeance, or ten thousand, it does not matter. I will have it in the end. Arathan. You will be the first to pay for what you have done to me. And then, when you are cold as clay, I will stalk your father. I will see him humiliated, broken. I will see his skinned hide spiked above the gates of Kharkanas itself!

They had taken his leg. He would in turn take their lives.

The ice has cracked beneath me. I have fallen through and I feel such cold. But it is the cold of hatred and I am no longer afraid.

A sleepy-eyed Raskan arrived, setting down a smoke-blackened pot. ‘Breakfast, tutor.’

‘You are kind, sergeant. Tell me, was the boy terribly injured?’

‘Not so bad, tutor. Rint, who saw, was quick to point out the great weight of the helmet was equally responsible.’

‘Ah. I had not considered that.’

‘No more conversation for the moment, tutor. You must partake of this broth – your pallor is far too white for my liking.’

‘Of course, sergeant. Thank you.’

I should have swung harder.

***

When Arathan awoke again she was gone from his side. His head ached, a throbbing pain behind his forehead that made both eyes hurt as he blinked the sleep away. He listened to people moving about in the camp, heard the snort of Calaras, a heavy sound that seemed to thud into the hard ground and stay there, trembling earth and stones. There was the smell of smoke and cooking. Though the morning sun was warm, still he shivered beneath his blankets.

The events of the day before and of the night past were confused in his mind. He remembered blood, and the crowding round of people. Faces, looking down on him, had the appearance of masks, blank of expression but ready for cruelty. Recalling the blood on his face, he felt a return of the shame that had dogged him since leaving House Dracons.

Yet seeping through such emotions there was ecstasy, and for Feren there was no mask, only darkness filled with warmth and then heat, a spicy realm of quick breaths and soft flesh. He had known nothing like it before; oh, he had been spilling into his sheets for a few years now, and there had been pleasure in reaching such release, but he had imagined this to be a private indulgence, until such time as he was old enough and ready to make a child, although that concept was vague in its details.

Vague no longer. He wondered if her belly would now swell, making her movements ponderous and her moods mercurial – soldiers’ talk among his sparring partners suggested as much. ‘They become impossible, don’t they? A woman with child has armour in her eyes and triumph in her soul. Abyss help us all.’

He heard the thump of boots drawing closer and turned his head to see Sergeant Raskan arrive.

‘Arathan, you have your wits about you?’

He nodded.

‘It was decided to let you sleep – we shall be riding today, though not as hard as perhaps your father would like. In any case, if you are able, we intend to reach the river this day. Now, a meal awaits you.’

Arathan sat up and looked across to where the Borderswords had their cookfire. He could see only Rint and Feren. Ville and Galak were nowhere in evidence. A quick search of the camp revealed that Sagander too had gone missing. Sudden dread filled him. ‘Sergeant – the tutor – did he die?’ Are they off raising a cairn?

‘No,’ Raskan replied. ‘He is being taken to Abara Delack, where he will remain until our return. They left early this morning.’

Once more, bitter shame flooded through him. Unable to meet Raskan’s gaze, he stood, drawing the blankets round him. The scene spun momentarily and then steadied before his eyes, the pain in his skull fierce enough to make him gasp.

Raskan stepped closer to lend a supporting arm, but Arathan stepped away. ‘I am fine, thank you, sergeant. Where is the latrine trench?’

‘Over there. Beware the pit’s edge – it was hastily dug.’

‘I will,’ Arathan replied, setting off.

His father was tending to Calaras and had not yet looked over, nor did Arathan expect him to. His son had ruined the life of a loyal tutor, a man long in his employ. Sagander’s excitement upon discovering he would be making this journey now returned to Arathan with a bitter sting. It was no wonder Draconus was furious.

The latrine pit was behind some bracken and as he edged round the spiny bushes he halted in his tracks. The pit was shallow and indeed rough.

Sagander’s leg was lying in it like an offering, in a nest of blood soaked cloths. Others had been here since and their wastes smeared the pallid, lifeless flesh.

Arathan stared at the mangled limb, the bared foot white as snow, motionless as the day’s first flies crawled upon it, the hard, misshapen nails yellow as the petals of the gorse flowers, the deflated tracks of veins and arteries grey beneath the thin skin. At the other end jutted splintered bone, surrounded in hacked flesh. Bruises had spread down around the knee.

Pulling his gaze away, he stepped round the edge of the pit, and continued on through gaps in the bracken for a few more paces.

Of course they would bury it, as the camp was packed up. But scavengers would find it none the less. Foxes, crows, wild dogs. As soon as the wind picked up and carried off the smell of blood and death, long after he and his companions had left, the creatures would draw close, to begin digging.

He listened to his stream splash through spiny twigs and sharp leaves, and he thought back to the last hand that had touched him down there. The stream dwindled quickly. Cursing under his breath, Arathan closed his eyes and concentrated on the pain rocking back and forth inside his skull. Moments later he was able to resume.

As he made his way back to the camp he saw Rint standing nearby, a short-handled spade resting on one shoulder. The huge man nodded, his eyes thinning as he studied Arathan for a long moment, before setting off to fill in the latrine pit.

At the cookfire, Feren was scraping food on to a tin plate. Raskan had joined Lord Draconus with the horses. Pulling the blanket tighter Arathan made his way to the woman.

She glanced up, but only briefly, as she handed him the plate.

He wanted to say something, so that she would look at him, meet his eyes, but it was clear, after a moment, that she had no desire to acknowledge him. I wasn’t very good. I did it all wrong. She is disappointed. Embarrassed by me. He carried his plate off a little distance to break his fast.

Raskan strode over, leading Besra. ‘This one today, Arathan.’

‘I understand.’

The sergeant frowned. And then shook his head. ‘I don’t think you do. Hellar is returned to your care. You have found your warhorse, a true destrier. But she needs to walk some on her own, to work out the violence that your touch might well incite all over again. She is to wonder – by your inattention – if she has failed you. Later this day you will go to her and take the saddle, and she will be relieved.

‘Speak to her then, Arathan, words of comfort and satisfaction. She will know their meaning by the breaths upon which those words reach her. To communicate with a horse, think of truth as a river – never fight the current. Ride it into the beast’s heart.’

Uncertain as to the sergeant’s meaning, Arathan nevertheless nodded.

Raskan handed him the reins. ‘Now, give me that empty plate – it is good to see that you are with appetite – and go to your father. He wishes to speak with you.’

He had known that this moment was coming. As he set out, pulling Besra after him, Raskan said, ‘Hold, Arathan . . .’ and he took the blanket from the boy’s shoulders. ‘I will tie this up.’ He half smiled. ‘You had the look of a peasant.’

A peasant. Yes. About to stand shamefaced before his lord.

‘Mount up,’ said his father when he reached him. ‘To begin this day, you ride at my side, Arathan.’

‘Yes sir.’

He felt weak pulling himself into the saddle, and as he settled his feet into the stirrups a clammy sweat broke out, and he realized that he was not wearing his armour or his helmet. ‘Sir, I am unarmoured—’

‘For now, yes. Rint has your gear. We shall take the lead on the trail. Come.’

The sensation was strange – to be riding at his father’s side – and he felt hopelessly awkward, displaying none of the ease that seemed so much a part of Draconus.

‘Sagander owes you his life,’ his father said.

‘Sir?’

‘Twice, in fact. Though stunned by his blow, you still had the wits to pull Hellar away. Your horse would have crushed the fool’s skull with a single stamp, shattering it like an urthen egg. That was well done. But it is the second time you saved his life of which I will speak.’

‘Sir, I misspoke—’

‘You wondered if you were my weakness, Arathan. There is no dishonour in that question. How could there be? The matter concerns your life, after all. Is it not your right to wonder at your place in the world? Furthermore, it was perceptive – and this encourages me.’

Arathan was silent.

After a long moment, Draconus continued. ‘Until now, there is little that has impressed me about you – tell me, do you imagine your gnawing upon your fingers well suits the man you have become? This habit has even damaged your ability with the sword, and should it continue, Arathan, it may well see you killed. The hand holding the sword must be firm, lest what you will is failed by what you achieve.’

‘Yes sir. I am sorry.’

‘That said,’ Draconus grunted, ‘women will appreciate your touch in tender places.’

Something slammed down inside Arathan, and he knew then that Feren had reported to his father. In detail. She had done as her lord commanded. She belonged to Draconus, just as did Rint and Sergeant Raskan – everyone here, except for Arathan himself, was but an extension of his father’s will. Like weapons, and my father’s hand is surely firm. Will is bound to deed and no room for failure. ‘I am sorry that Sagander was injured,’ he said in a dull tone.

‘You have outgrown him, Arathan. Hellar was right in dismissing him – she knew your mind before you did. Remember that, and in the future trust in it.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Have you pain in your head, Arathan? I believe Rint has some willow bark.’

‘No, sir. No pain at all.’

‘You are quick to recover, then. Perhaps that is yet another of your gifts, so well hidden until now.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Understand, Arathan. If you were to have remained at my keep, you would have been vulnerable. I have enemies. Your half-sisters, however, are protected. Though their mother is no longer with us, her family is powerful. The same cannot be said for your mother. To get to me, my enemies could well look to you. Especially now, as you come of age.’

‘Sir, would it not have been easier to kill me when I was a child, unskilled with the blade, too trusting in adults?’

Draconus glanced across at him. ‘I was not speaking of direct violence, Arathan. Your being dead would remove the vulnerability that you pose to me and my interests.’

‘They would kidnap me?’

‘No. You are a bastard son. You are meaningless and worthless as a hostage.’

‘Then I do not understand, sir. What would they want of me?’

‘Arathan, you will be a young man with grievances. Against your father, who refuses to acknowledge you as his rightful son. Being young, you possess ambitions. My enemies will approach you, feeding both your anger and your desires. They will guide you into betrayal.’

You send me away to protect yourself. I am indeed your weakness. Because you do not trust me. ‘I have no ambitions,’ he said.

‘I might well believe that – no, I do not think you are lying. But time twists every path. You cannot claim to know your mind in the future. And we must be honest here – you have no cause to love me, or feel any manner of loyalty towards me.’

‘I did not know, sir.’

‘You did not know what?’

‘That love needs a cause.’

The conversation ended then, and did not resume. And Arathan had no idea why.

***

They reached the river at dusk, some two leagues south of Abara Delack. There was an old trader ford here, spanning the fast-moving water, marked by standing stones on either bank, along with the stumps of huge trees left in place in case winching was needed. Old campsites on either bank showed signs that they had fallen into disuse, the grasses high and the tracks leading down to the water treacherous with run-off and exposed stones. There was a smell of rotted fish in the still air.

Rint worked alongside his sister to raise the tents, unsaddle the horses, and begin the evening meal, neither of them speaking. The Bordersword saw that Arathan was alone once more – he had been sent back by his father some time earlier, as if the Lord needed to reject the image he and his son had presented in riding side by side on the trail, and Arathan had been ordered to change mounts, returning to Hellar with obvious trepidation – a detail earning a snap from Sergeant Raskan; and thereafter the boy had ridden behind the sergeant and Draconus, with Rint and Feren taking up the rear. Arathan had drawn his armour from the back of Besra and was laying it out on the ground, an air of loss about him.

Feren had not said much since the morning, leaving Rint to fill his own mind with imaginings, hard exchanges, accusations, and judgements so deadly and final they seemed to drip blood as if from a knife tip. Through it all he could feel the sweet lure of his own righteousness, as if he stood at the centre of a storm, untouched by doubt.

The violence of his thoughts made him taciturn and edgy. He missed the company of Ville and Galak, and feared that any conversation with his sister could well erupt.

With Raskan feeding the horses and Feren at the cookfire, Rint walked down to the water’s edge, a leather bucket in one hand. Draconus had walked across the stream and was now striding up the stony slope, as if eager to look out upon Bareth Solitude.

There were hidden purposes to this journey, and the secrecy drawn tight around it was proof enough of that. There was risk here, danger born of ignorance, and Rint did not like that. To make matters worse, he knew little of Bareth Solitude; and of the lands and peoples beyond the plain he knew even less. The Azathanai were enigmatic in the way of all strangers – they came among the Tiste singly, naturally remote and seemingly uninterested in forging friendships. In truth, Rint did not see much use in them at all. He would rather Jaghut than Azathanai; at least the Jaghut had seen fit to deny the Jheleck their belligerent expansion into the lands of the south. The Azathanai had done nothing, even as their villages were raided.

But the Jheleck never attacked a single Azathanai. They stole no children, raped no women. They merely burned down houses and ran off with loot, and to all of that the Azathanai simply laughed, as if possessions were meaningless.

‘Wealth,’ they said, ‘is a false measure. Honour cannot be hoarded. Integrity cannot adorn a room. There is no courage in gold. Only fools build a fortress of wealth. Only fools would live in it and imagine themselves safe.’

These words had been repeated, although Rint knew not which Azathanai had first uttered them; they had rushed through the soldier camps during the war, told like a tale of heroism, yet in tones of confusion, incomprehension and disbelief. But it was not the complexity of the thoughts that so confounded Rint and the others; in truth, there was nothing particularly complicated about them. Instead, the source of the unease engendered was that the Azathanai had given proof to that indifference.

The man decrying the starvation of peasants eats well every night. This is how convictions are revealed as hypocrisy, as empty words. But the Azathanai had spoken truth, and had watched, unperturbed, as the Jhelarkan raiders stole or destroyed all they had.

Such people frightened Rint. Were they even capable of anger? Did they not feel indignation? Did they not take offence?

He tossed the bucket out to the end of the rope knotted about its handles, watched as it settled and filled. The pull on his arms was solid as he drew against the weight.

Draconus had reached the rise and was staring out to the west, where the sun had lost all its shape in a welter of red upon the horizon. Moments later he raised one gauntleted hand.

Rint pulled the bucket up in a slosh of water and set it down on the bank, his heart suddenly thudding heavy as a drum. He watched as Draconus turned about and made his way back down to the river. He waded across and was met by Raskan. A few words were exchanged and then the Lord moved on, leaving the sergeant to stare after him.

Someone is coming. From the west. Someone . . . expected.

Feren came down to his side, her moccasin-clad feet crunching on the rounded pebbles of the bank. ‘You saw?’

He nodded.

‘Who might it be, I wonder?’

‘I would not think a Jaghut,’ Rint replied. ‘Who then? Azathanai?’ He saw her glance back at the camp, followed her gaze. ‘Do you fear for the boy now? What is he to all of this?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You did what was asked of you, Feren. He will have expectations.’

She shot him a hard look. ‘And is he nothing more than a damned pup to be brought to heel?’

‘You are the only one who can answer that,’ he retorted.

‘You are a man. Of this, you understand nothing.’

‘I don’t? How old would the boy have been by now? Same as Arathan, or close enough.’ He saw the effect of his words, like blades crossing her face, and it sickened him. ‘Sister, I am sorry.’

But her eyes had gone flat. ‘Children die. A mother gets over it, as she must.’

‘Feren—’

‘The failure was his father’s, not mine.’

‘I know. I did not mean—’

‘Grief led his hand to the knife. Selfishness sank it into his own heart.’

‘Feren.’

‘He abandoned me when I needed him the most. I learned from that, brother. I learned well.’

‘Arathan is not—’

‘I know that! Is it me who’s been chewing dead meat all afternoon? Am I the one worked into a black rage? I had a son. He died. I had a husband. He is dead, too. And I have a brother, who thinks he knows me, but all he knows is a sister he has invented – go to her again, Rint. She’s easy to find. Bound to the chains inside your head.’ She lifted a hand as if to strike him and he steeled himself against the blow, but it never came, and moments later she was walking back to the fire.

He wanted to weep. Instead, he cursed himself for being a fool.

A figure appeared at the rise on the other side of the river. Massive, towering, clad in thick plates of leather armour, a clutch of spears balanced over one shoulder, a heavy sack held in one hand. His head was bare, his hair unbound and lit like fiery blood in the glare of the setting sun. He paused for a moment and then lumbered his way down to the ford.

And Rint knew this Azathanai, though he had never seen him before.

The lone warrior among the Azathanai. The one known as Protector. Though whom he has fought is a question I cannot answer. Thel Akai halfblood, mate to Kilmandaros.

This is Grizzin Farl.

The water barely breached his heavy boots.

‘Draconus!’ he bellowed. ‘Is this how you hide from all the world? Ha, I had not believed the tales – now see me for the fat fool I am! But look, I have ale!’

***

He came among them like a man with nothing to fear and nothing to lose, and only much later – years later – did Arathan come to understand how each fed the other and could in turn fashion sentiments of both admiration and great pity. But with his arrival in the camp, it was as if a giant had descended from some lofty mountain crag, down from some wind-whipped keep with echoing halls and frost at the foot of wooden doors. Its master had grown weary of the solitude and now sought company.

There are those from whom pleasure exudes, heady as ale fumes, inviting as the warmth of a fire on a cold night. They encourage amusement with but a glance, as if jests fill the world and the company they share cannot help but fall into that welcoming embrace.

The Azathanai named himself Grizzin Farl, and he did not wait for Draconus to introduce him to the others; instead walking to each in turn. Raskan, Rint, and then Arathan, and when his hand clasped Arathan’s wrist the nest of wrinkles bracketing the giant’s eyes sharpened and he said, ‘A sword-wielder’s forearm, that. Your father has not been careless in preparing you for the life ahead. You are Arathan, inconvenient son of Draconus, lost child to a grieving mother. Will it be this hand I now hold that sends the knife into your father’s back? So he fears, and what father wouldn’t?’

Arathan stared up into those grey eyes. ‘I have no ambitions,’ he said.

‘Well you may not, but others have.’

‘They will never find me.’

Gnarled eyebrows lifted at that. ‘Will you live a life in hiding, then?’

Arathan nodded. The others were standing close, listening, but he could not pull his gaze from that of Grizzin Farl.

‘That is not much of a life,’ the giant said.

‘I am not much of a life, sir. Therefore it well suits me.’

Grizzin Farl finally released his grip on Arathan’s arm and turned to Draconus. ‘It is said Darkness has become a weapon. Against whom is it intended to strike? This is the question, and I go to hear its answer. Tell me, Draconus, will Kharkanas reel to my fated arrival?’

‘Towers will topple,’ Draconus replied. ‘Women will swoon.’

‘Ha! As well they should!’ But then he frowned. ‘Those observations, old friend, do not sit well together.’ And with that he turned to Feren and lowered himself to one knee. ‘Who could expect such beauty here on the very edge of Bareth Solitude? It is ever in my nature to save the best for last. I am Grizzin Farl, known among the Azathanai as the Protector, known among the Jheleck as the warrior who misses every fight, sleeps through every battle, and but smiles at every challenge. Known, too, by those Jaghut who remain as the Stone that Sleeps, which is their poetic way of describing my infamous lethargy. Now, I would have you speak your own name, so that I may cherish it and hold the memory of your voice for ever in my heart.’

Through all of this, Feren seemed unimpressed, though the colour was high on her cheeks. ‘I am Feren,’ she said. ‘A Bordersword and sister to Rint.’

‘Too young,’ Grizzin Farl said after a moment, ‘to lose hope. Your voice has told me a tragic tale, though the details remain obscured, but in loss there is pain, and pain will become a sting that ever reminds of that loss.’

She backed away at his words. ‘I reveal no such thing!’ she said in a rasp.

Grizzin Farl slowly straightened, then spread his arms out as if to encompass them all. ‘Tonight we will drink ourselves into wild joy, until the fire has dimmed and the stars flee the dawn, whereupon we will all grow maudlin and each swear everlasting fealty to one another, before passing out.’ He lifted his sack. ‘Ale from the Thel Akai, who are masters, if not of brewing, most certainly of drinking.’ He paused, and then added, ‘I trust you have food. In my haste to meet you, I fear I left home without any.’

Arathan was startled to hear his father’s sigh.

Then Grizzin Farl smiled, and once more all was right in the world.

***

The ale was strong and went immediately to Arathan’s head. Shortly after the evening meal, and in the midst of a bawdy song about a Thel Akai maiden and an old Jaghut with an aching tusk, sung with great melodrama by the Azathanai, Arathan fell asleep. Raskan awoke him the next morning with a cup of strong herbs and willow bark, and it was while he sat, sipping the hot drink, that he saw that Grizzin Farl was no longer among them.

Even now it seemed like a dream, blurred and raucous, almost fevered. Head aching, Arathan kept his eyes on the ground before him, as the others began breaking camp. He wondered what other matters were spoken of in the night just past, and he felt his own absence as if it mocked whatever claims he might make to having become a man. He had fallen unconscious like a boy at his first cups, a tankard stolen from the table and hastily gulped down behind a chair.

He had wanted to hear more about Darkness as a sword, a weapon. And it was clear that Grizzin Farl knew Arathan’s father – in ways no one else did, perhaps not even Mother Dark herself. What strange history did they share? What mysterious tales bound their past? A few covert glances to Raskan, Rint and Feren suggested that nothing momentous had been revealed; if anything, everyone seemed at greater ease than they had shown in the time before Grizzin Farl’s arrival, as if barriers had been pushed down after a night of ale and laughter.

After a moment of consideration, Arathan looked again at Feren, and saw that something had changed. There was a looseness about her, and then he caught a smile she sent her brother’s way at some muttered comment, and suddenly it seemed as if everything had changed. Tensions had vanished. The oppressive weight that had been Sagander’s accident had disappeared. Grizzin Farl came among us, and then he left, but when he left, he took something with him.

He saw his father watching him, and after a moment Draconus strode over. ‘I should have warned you about Thel Akai ale.’

Arathan shrugged.

‘And you barely recovered from a concussion,’ his father continued. ‘It must have hit you like a sleeping draught. I am sorry, Arathan, that you missed most of an enjoyable evening.’ He hesitated, and then said, ‘You have had too few of those.’

‘He called you his friend,’ Arathan said, his tone painfully accusing.

A flatness came to his father’s eyes. ‘He calls everyone “friend”, Arathan. Give it no further thought.’

Arathan glared after him as he walked away.

From a lone, diseased tree upriver drifted the morning cry of a bird and he looked over but could not see the creature among the crooked branches and sullen leaves.

It hides, and it is free.

Free to fly away from all of this.

***

A short time later they ascended the slope and came out upon the Bareth Solitude, and the way ahead stretched on in ribboned rows beneath a clear sky, and Arathan was reminded of Sagander’s lessons recounting the death of a great inland sea.

As he rode, he thought of water, and freedom.

And prisons.

To the west was the land of the Azathanai, where dwelt protectors who protected nothing, and wise sages who never spoke, and Thel Akai came down from the mountains to share drunken nights no one remembered the next day. It was a world of mysteries, and he would soon see it for himself. With the thought, he felt light in the saddle, as if moments from transforming into a bird, from taking wing in search of a diseased tree.

But the thin sea ahead was bereft of trees, and the beach ridges with their bleached cobbles edged basins of grass and little else.

He wasn’t interested in stabbing his father in the back – that broad back just ahead, beneath that worn cloak. No one would ever wield him like a knife.

Grizzin Farl had told him: his mother still lived. She lived, tormented by grief, which meant that she loved him still. He would find her and steal her away.

In a world of mysteries, there were plenty of places in which to hide.

For both of us.

And we will love each other, and from that love, there will be peace.

2 megjegyzés:

  1. Én élveztem olvasni a hozzászólás, én tetszik az oldal, és lesz újra Nagy blog nektek, valami nagyon jó hír, és fontos információkat. Szeretem a webhelyen. Horvátország . thanks

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