Aug 23 2012 12:00pm
Forge of Darkness, Chapter Five (Excerpt)
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 finish with Chapter Five:
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...
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?’
‘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.’
‘Over with now.’
‘Your sisters didn’t want to see you off. But your father commanded. Those girls despise you, Arathan.’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.’
‘I am your company on this journey, is that understood?’
‘How soon before we arrive at Abara Delack?’
‘Never. We’re going around.’
‘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?’
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!’
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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—’
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘As a dog grins, sergeant.’
‘A dog grins in fear, Lord.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
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.’
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.
Forge of Darkness © Steven Erikson 2012