Thu
Aug 16 2012 12:00pm

Forge of Darkness, Chapter Four (Excerpt)

Steven Erikson

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 Four:

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...

FOUR

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What thought is that, Spinnock?’

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

‘One learns subtlety,’ she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nor shall we this night.’

‘Will she find us in the dark?’

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

‘In a place called the Cup?’

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

‘Then she will not wander lost.’

‘No,’ Faror replied.

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

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

‘I grow older with every moment.’

She sighed. ‘As do we all.’

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the sound, the stump lifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the demon fell still once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘Nor that of a horse,’ Spinnock said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Faror.’

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

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

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

He looked startled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A faint sound behind her – she twisted round.

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

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

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

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

‘I thought—’

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

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

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

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

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

‘But that is impossible.’

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

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

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

‘What do we do, sir?’

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

‘Then we follow?’

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

‘Did the wolves kill your mount, captain?’

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

They set off.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman’s head nodded.

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

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

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

‘Captain?’

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

‘Yes sir.’

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

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

‘Captain?’

‘What is it?’

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

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

***

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

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

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

Someone has come from the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

‘The captain desires that we track the stranger.’

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

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

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

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

‘Then we are to wait?’

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

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

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

‘Faror—’

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

‘If she awakens—’

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faror continued on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A sea?’

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

After a moment the woman shook her head.

‘You refuse to, or you cannot remember?’

‘I recall . . . nothing. A sea?’

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

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

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

The woman nodded.

‘I name you T’riss.’

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

‘Will you walk, or ride with me?’

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

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

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

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

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

Faror nodded.

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

‘If you would, thank you.’

‘The same direction?’

‘Yes.’

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such was his hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Forge of Darkness © Steven Erikson 2012

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Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
T'Riss -- the emergence of the Queen of Dreams?

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