The latest book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series—out on September 18—begins the Kharkanas Trilogy, a new story set millennia before the main Malazan sequence and a new jumping on point for fantasy fans interested in taking on a new epic.
To whet your appetite, Tor.com will be releasing the first five chapters of Forge of Darkness in the coming weeks! We continue with Chapter Three:
Now is the time to tell the story of an ancient realm, a tragic tale that sets the stage for all the tales yet to come and all those already told…
It’s a conflicted time in Kurald Galain, the realm of Darkness, where Mother Dark reigns. But this ancient land was once home to many a power. And even death is not quite eternal. The commoners’ great hero, Vatha Urusander, is being promoted by his followers to take Mother Dark’s hand in marriage, but her Consort, Lord Draconus, stands in the way of such ambitions. The impending clash sends fissures throughout the realm, and as the rumors of civil war burn through the masses, an ancient power emerges from the long dead seas. Caught in the middle of it all are the First Sons of Darkness, Anomander, Andarist, and Silchas Ruin of the Purake Hold…
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.
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?’
‘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?’
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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?’
‘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?’
‘Only a few years younger than you, mistress.’
‘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.
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.
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.
Forge of Darkness © Steven Erikson 2012