The following is the Prelude and Chapter One of Ken Scholes’ debut novel—and the first volume in his series, The Psalms of Isaak—Lamentation, which hits bookstores on February 16.
Windwir is a city of paper and robes and stone.
It crouches near a wide and slow-moving river at the edge of the Named Lands. Named for a poet turned Pope – the first Pope in the New World. A village in the forest that became the center of the world. Home of the Androfrancine Order and their Great Library. Home of many wonders both scientific and magick.
One such wonder watches from high above.
It is a bird made of metal, a gold spark against the blue expanse that catches the afternoon sun. The bird circles and waits.
When the song begins below, the golden bird watches the melody unfold. A shadow falls across the city and the air becomes still. Tiny figures stop moving and look up. A flock of birds lift and scatter. The sky is torn and fire rains down until only utter darkness remains. Darkness and heat.
The heat catches the bird and tosses it further into the sky. A gear slips; the bird’s wings compensate but a billowing, black cloud takes an eye as it passes.
The city screams and then sighs seven times and after the seventh sigh, sunlight returns briefly to the scorched land. The plain is blackened, the spires and walls and towers all brought down into craters where basements collapsed beneath the footprint of Desolation. A forest of bones, left whole by ancient blood magick, stands on the smoking, pock-marked plain.
Darkness swallows the light again as a pillar of smoke and ash blots out the sun. Finally, the golden bird flees southwest.
It easily overtakes the other birds, their wings smoking and beating furiously against the hot winds, messages tied to their feet with threads of white or red or black.
Sparking and popping, the golden bird speeds low across the landscape and dreams of its waiting cage.
* * *
Wind swept the Prairie Sea and Rudolfo chased after it, laughing and riding low in the saddle as he raced his Gypsy Scouts. The afternoon sun glinted gold on the bending grass and the horses pounded out their song.
Rudolfo savored the wide yellow ocean of grass that separated the Ninefold Forest Houses from one another and from the rest of the Named Lands—it was his freedom in the midst of duty, much as the oceans must have been for the seagoing lords of the Elder Days. He smiled and spurred his stallion.
It had been a fine time in Glimmerglam, his first Forest House. Rudolfo had arrived before dawn. He’d taken his breakfast of goat cheese, whole grain bread and chilled pear wine beneath a purple canopy that signified justice. While he ate, he heard petitions quietly as Glimmerglam’s steward brought the month’s criminals forward. Because he felt particularly benevolent, he sent two thieves into a year’s servitude to the shopkeepers they’d defiled, while sending the single murderer to his Physicians of Penitent Torture on Tormentor’s Row. He dismissed three cases of prostitution and then afterwards hired two of them onto his monthly rotation.
By lunch time, Rudolfo had proven Aetero’s Theory of Compensatory Seduction decidedly false and he celebrated with creamed pheasant served over brown rice and wild mushrooms.
Then with his belly full, he’d ridden out with a shout, his Gypsy Scouts racing to keep up with him.
A good day indeed.
“What now,” the Captain of his Gypsy Scouts asked him, shouting above the pounding hooves.
Rudolfo grinned. “What say you, Gregoric?”
Gregoric returned the smile and it made his scar all the more ruthless. His black scarf of rank trailed out behind him, ribboning on the wind. “We’ve seen to Glimmerglam, Rudoheim and Friendslip. I think Paramo is the closest.”
“Then Paramo it is.” That would be fitting, Rudolfo thought. It couldn’t come close to Glimmerglam’s delights but it had held onto its quaint, logging village atmosphere for at least a thousand years and that was an accomplishment. They floated their timber down the Rajblood River just as they had in the first days, retaining what they needed to build some of the world’s most intricately crafted woodwork. The lumber for Rudolfo’s manors came from the trees of Paramo. The furniture they made rolled out by the wagonload and the very best found its way into the homes of kings and priests and nobility from all over the Named Lands.
He would dine on roast boar tonight, listen to the boasting and flatulence of his best men, and sleep on the ground with a saddle beneath his head—the life of a Gypsy King. And tomorrow, he’d sip chilled wine from the navel of a log camp dancer, listen to the frogs in the river shallows mingled with her sighs, and then sleep in the softest of beds on the summer balcony of his third forest manor.
But as he rounded to the south, his smile faded. He reined in and squinted against the sunlight. The Gypsy Scouts followed his lead, whistling to their horses as they slowed, stopped and then pranced.
“Gods,” Gregoric said. “What could cause such a thing?”
Southwest of them, billowing up above the horizon of forest-line that marked Rudolfo’s furthest border, a distant pillar of black smoke rose like a fist in the sky.
Rudolfo stared and his stomach lurched. The size of the smoke cloud daunted him; it was impossible. He blinked as his mind unlocked enough for him to do the math, quickly calculating the distance and direction based on the sun and the few stars strong enough to shine by day.
“Windwir,” he said, not even aware that he was speaking.
Gregoric nodded. “Aye, General. But what could do such a thing?”
Rudolfo looked away from the cloud to study his Captain. He’d known Gregoric since they were boys and had made him the youngest Captain of the Gypsy Scouts at fifteen when Rudolfo himself was just twelve. They’d seen a lot together, but Rudolfo had never seen him pale before now.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Rudolfo said. Then he whistled his men in closer. “I want riders back to each of the houses to gather the Wandering Army. We have Kin-Clave with Windwir; their birds will be flying. We’ll meet on the Western Steps in one day; we’ll be to Windwir’s aid in three.”
“Are we to magick the scouts, General?”
Rudolfo stroked his beard. “I think not.” He thought for a moment. “But we should be ready,” he added.
Gregoric nodded and barked out the orders.
As the nine Gypsy Scouts rode off, Rudolfo slipped from the saddle, watching the dark pillar. The column of smoke, as wide as a city, disappeared into the sky.
Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, General of the Wandering Army, felt curiosity and fear dance a shiver along his spine.
“What if it’s not there when we arrive?” he asked himself.
And he knew—but did not want to—that it wouldn’t be, and that because of this, the world had changed.
Petronus mended the last of the net and tucked it away in the prow of his boat. Another quiet day on the water, another day of little to show for it, but he was happy with that.
Tonight, he’d dine at the Inn with the others, eating and drinking too much and finally breaking down into the raunchy limericks that made him famous up and down the coast of Caldus Bay. Petronus didn’t mind being famous for that at all. Outside of his small village, most had no idea that more fame than that lay just beneath the surface.
Petronus the Fisherman had lived another life before returning to his nets and his boat. Prior to the day he chose to end that life, Petronus had lived a lie that, at times, felt more true than a child’s love. Nonetheless, it was a lie that ate away at him until he stood up to it and laid it out thirty-three years ago.
Next week, he realized with a smile. He could go months without thinking about it now. When he was younger, it wasn’t so. But each year, about a month before the anniversary of his rather sudden and creative departure, memories of Windwir, of its Great Library, of its robed Order, flooded him and he found himself tangled up in his past like an gull in a net.
The sun danced on the water and he watched the silver waves flash against the hulls of ships both small and large. Overhead, a clear blue sky stretched as far as he could see and sea birds darted, shrieking their hunger as they dove for the small fish that dared swim near the surface.
One particular bird—a kingfisher—caught his eye and he followed it as it dipped and weaved. He turned with it, watching as it flexed its wings and glided, pushed back by a high wind that Petronus couldn’t see or feel.
I’ve been pushed by such a wind, he thought, and with that thought, the bird suddenly shuddered in the air as the wind overcame it and pushed it further back.
Then Petronus saw the cloud piling up on the horizon to the northwest.
He needed no mathematics to calculate the distance. He needed no time at all to know exactly what it was and what it meant.
Stunned, he slid to his knees, his eyes never leaving the tower of smoke that rose westward and north of Caldus Bay. It was close enough that he could see the flecks of fire in it as it roiled and twisted its way into the sky.
“Oh my children,” Petronus whispered, quoting the First Gospel of P’Andro Whym, “what have you done to earn the wrath of heaven?”
Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam bit back her laughter and let the fat Overseer try to reason with her.
“It’s not seemly,” Sethbert said, “for the consort of a king to ride side-saddle.”
She did not bother to remind him of the subtle differences between an Overseer and a king. Instead, she stayed with her point. “I do not intend to ride side-saddle, either, my lord.”
Jin Li Tam had spent most of the day cramped into the back of a carriage with the Overseer’s entourage and she’d had enough of it. There was an army of horses to be had—saddles, too—and she meant to feel the wind on her face. Besides, she could see little from the inside of a carriage and she knew her father would want a full report.
A captain interrupted, pulling Sethbert aside and whispering urgently. Jin Li Tam took it as her cue to slip away in search of just the right horse—and to get a better idea of what was afoot.
She’d seen the signs for over a week. Messenger birds coming and going, cloaked couriers galloping to and fro at all hours of the night. Long meetings between old men in uniforms, hushed voices and then loud voices, and hushed voices again. And the army had come together quickly, brigades from each of the City States united under a common flag. Now, they stretched ahead and behind on the Whymer Highway, overflowing the narrow road to trample the fields and forests in their forced march north.
Try as she might, she had no idea why. But she knew the scouts were magicked and according to the Rites of Kin-Clave, that meant Sethbert and the Entrolusian City States were marching to war. And she also knew that very little lay north apart from Windwir—the great seat of the Androfrancine Order—and further north and east, Rudolfo’s Ninefold Forest Houses. But both of those neighbors were Kin-Clave with the Entrolusians and she’d not heard of any trouble they might be in that merited Entrolusian intervention.
Of course, Sethbert had not been altogether rational of late.
Though she cringed at the thought of it, she’d shared his bed enough to know that he was talking in his sleep and restless, unable to rise to the challenge of his young red-headed consort. He was also smoking more of the dried kallaberries, intermittently raging and rambling with his officers. Yet they followed him, so there had to be something. He didn’t possess the charm or charisma to move an army on his own and he was too lazy to move them by ruthlessness, while lacking in the more favorable motivational skills.
“What are you up to?” she wondered out loud.
“Milady?” A young cavalry lieutenant towered over her on a white mare. He had another horse in tow behind him.
She smiled, careful to turn in such a way that he could see down her top just far enough to be rewarded, but not so far as to be improper. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
“Overseer Sethbert sends his compliments and requests that you join him forward.” The young man pulled the horse around, offering her the reins.
She accepted and nodded. “I trust you will ride with me?”
He nodded. “He asked me to do so.”
Climbing into the saddle, she adjusted her riding skirts and stretched up in the stirrups. Twisting, she could make out the end of the long line of soldiers behind and before her. She nudged the horse forward. “Then let’s not keep the Overseer waiting.”
Sethbert waited at a place where the highway crested a rise. She saw the servants setting up his scarlet canopy at the road’s highest point and wondered why they were stopping here, in the middle of nowhere.
He waved to her as she rode up. He looked flushed, even excited. His jowls shook and sweat beaded on his forehead. “It’s nearly time,” he said. “Nearly time.”
Jin looked at the sky. The sun was at least four hours from setting. She looked back at him, then slid from the saddle. “Nearly time for what, my lord?”
They were setting up chairs now for them, pouring wine, preparing platters. “Oh you’ll see,” Sethbert said, placing his fat behind into a chair that groaned beneath him.
Jin Li Tam sat, accepted wine and sipped.
“This,” Sethbert said, “is my finest hour.” He looked over to her and winked. His eyes had that glazed over, faraway look they sometimes had during their more intimate moments. A look she wished she could afford the luxury of having during those moments as well and still be her father’s spy.
“What—” But she stopped herself. Far off, beyond the forests and past the glint of the Third River as it wound its way northward, light flashed in the sky and a small crest of smoke began to lift itself on the horizon. The small crest expanded upward and outward, a column of black against the blue sky that kept growing and growing.
Sethbert chuckled and reached over to squeeze her knee. “Oh. It’s better than I thought.” She forced her eyes away for long enough to see his wide smile. “Look at that.”
And now, there were gasps and whispers that grew to a buzz around them. There were arms lifted, fingers pointing north. Jin Li Tam looked away again to take in the pale faces of Sethbert’s generals and captains and lieutenants, and she knew that if she could see all the way back to the line upon line of soldiers and scouts behind her, she’d see the same fear and awe upon their faces, too. Perhaps, she thought, turning her eyes back onto that awful cloud as it lifted higher and higher into the sky, that fear and awe painted every face that could see it for miles and miles around. Perhaps everyone knew what it meant.
“Behold,” Sethbert said in a quiet voice, “the end of the Androfrancine tyranny. Windwir is fallen.” He chuckled. “Tell that to your father.”
And when his chuckle turned into a laugh, Jin Li Tam heard the madness in him for the first time.
Neb stood in the wagon and watched Windwir stretch out before him. It had taken them five hours to climb the low hills that hemmed the great city in and now that he could see it, he wanted to take it all in, to somehow imprint it on his brain. He was leaving that city for the first time and it would be months before he saw it again.
His father, Brother Hebda, stood as well, stretching in the morning sun. “And you have the bishop’s letters of introduction and credit?” Brother Hebda asked.
Neb wasn’t paying attention. Instead, the massive city filled his view—the cathedrals, the towers, the shops and houses pressed in close against the walls. The colors of Kin-Clave flew over her, mingled with the royal blue colors of the Androfrancine Order and even from this vantage, he could see the robed figures bustling about.
His father spoke again and Neb started. “Brother Hebda?”
“I asked after the letters of introduction and credit. You were reading them this morning before we left and I told you to make sure you put them back in their pouch.”
Neb tried to remember. He remembered seeing them on his father’s desk and asking if he could look at them. He remembered reading them, being fascinated with the font and script of them. But he couldn’t remember putting them back. “I think I did,” he said.
They climbed into the back of the wagon and went through each pouch, pack and sack. When they didn’t find them, his father sighed.
“I’ll have to go back for them,” he said.
Neb looked away. “I’ll come with you, Brother Hebda.”
His father shook his head. “No. Wait here for me.”
Neb felt his face burn hot, felt a lump in his throat. The bulky scholar reached out and squeezed Neb’s shoulder. “Don’t fret over it. I should’ve checked it myself.” He squinted, looking for the right words. “I’m just…not used to having anyone else about.”
Neb nodded. “Can I do anything while you’re gone?”
Brother Hebda had smiled. “Read. Meditate. Watch the cart. I’ll be back soon.”
Neb drew Whymer mazes in the dirt and tried to concentrate on his meditation. But everything called him away. First the sounds of the birds, the wind, the champing of the horse. And the smell of evergreen and dust and horse-sweat. And his sweat, too, now dried after five long hours in the shade.
He’d waited for years. Every year, he’d petitioned the Headmaster for a grant and now, just one year shy of manhood and the ability to captain his own destiny without the approval of the Franci Orphanage, he’d finally been released to study with his father. The Androfrancines could not prove their vow of chastity if they had children on their arms, so the Franci Orphanage looked after them all. None knew their birth-mothers and only few knew their fathers.
Neb’s father had actually come to see him at least twice a year and had sent him gifts and books from far off places while he dug in Churning Wastes, studying times before the Age of Laughing Madness. And one time, years ago, he’d even told Neb that someday, he’d bring the boy along so that he could see what the love of P’Andro Whym was truly about, a love so strong that it would cause a man to sacrifice his only begotten son.
Finally, Neb received his grant.
And here at the beginning of his trip to the Wastes, he’d already disappointed the man he most wanted to make proud.
Five hours had passed now and even though there was no way to pick him out from such a distance, Neb stood every so often and looked down towards the city, watching the gate near the river docks.
He’d just sat down from checking yet again when the hair on his arms stood up and the world went completely silent but for a solitary, tinny voice far away. He leaped to his feet. Then, a heavy buzzing grew in his ears and his skin tingled from a sudden wind that seemed to bend the sky. The buzzing grew to a shriek and his eyes went wide as they filled with both light and darkness and he stood transfixed, arms stretched wide, standing at his full height, mouth hanging open.
The ground shook and he watched the city wobble as the shrieking grew. Birds scattered out from the city, specks of brown and white and black that he could barely see in the ash and debris that the sudden, hot wind stirred.
Spires tumbled and rooftops collapsed. The walls trembled and gave up, breaking apart as they fell inward. Fires sprang up—a rainbow kaleidoscope of colors—licking at first and then devouring. Neb watched the tiny robed forms of bustling life burst into flame. He watched lumbering dark shadows move through the roiling ash, laying waste to anything that dared to stand. He watched flaming sailors leap from burning bows as the ships cast off and begged the current save them. But ships and sailors alike kept burning, green and white, as they sank beneath the waters. There was the sound of cracking stone and boiling water, the smell of heated rock and charred meat. And the pain of the Desolation of Windwir racked his own body. Neb shrieked when he felt this heart burst or that body bloat and explode.
The world roared at him, fire and lightning leaping up and down the sky as the city of Windwir screamed and burned. All the while, an invisible force held Neb in place and he screamed with his city, eyes wide open, mouth wide open, lungs pumping furiously against the burning air.
A single bird flew out from the dark cloud, hurtling past Neb’s head and into the forest behind him. For the briefest moment he thought it was made of gold.
Hours later, when nothing was left but the raging fire, Neb fell to his knees and sobbed into the dirt. The tower of ash and smoke blotted out the sun. The smell of death choked his nostrils. He sobbed there until he had no more tears and then he lay shaking and twitching, his eyes opening and closing on the desolation below.
Finally, Neb sat up and closed his eyes. Mouthing the Gospel Precepts of P’Andro Whym, Founder of the Androfrancines, he meditated upon the folly in his heart.
The folly that had caused his father’s death.
* * *