Introduction by James Frenkel
The story that follows is the second work of fiction set in the Vault of Heaven universe by a new epic fantasy writer named Peter Orullian. These stories introduce a world of long, tragic history in which there are no easy answers, and many mysteries that will be revealed, each in its own time, many of them in The Vault of Heaven, a series of novels which Tor will begin publishing with The Unremembered this April.
In December, Tor.com published “Sacrifice of the First Sheason”; following “The Great Defense of Layosah,” Tor.com will publish one more story set in this universe. Each of these stories is independent of the novels and of the other stories, though they share the same background.
At Tor, we have published quite a number of epic fantasy authors, and I personally have edited a lot of different series, from the multi-layered epics of Kate Elliott’s Crossroads books to the early heroic tales of Terry Goodkind; from David B. Coe’s Forelands and Southlands sagas to the Long Price Quartet of Daniel Abraham…and many others equally memorable. At SF conventions, readers will often ask me which is the epic fantasy that I love the most, but that’s a question I have never been able to answer. It’s like asking a parent which is his favorite child. It’s an impossible question.
They’re all different, of course, each with its own pleasures and rewards. The other question readers ask is what attracts me to the work or one author or another. And that’s not quite as hard to answer: I like what I like. Editors are readers first, and what we like as readers is…well, like any reader, we know when we see something we really like.
When I first read Peter Orullian’s early draft of The Unremembered, I was attracted by the characters, and then by mysteries in the story that made me feel I absolutely had to find out what was going on. Then, as I read more, I realized that I was hooked on his world, which has a rich history and culture, as well as some surprises I couldn’t have anticipated.
I also was fascinated by the unique connection of music to the magic of the world, something that readers will discover in The Unremembered. And there is a passion running through his narrative that is the hallmark of great storytelling. Without the excitement of great storytelling, there is no great epic fantasy.
Layosah Reyal sat at her kitchen table across from the two visitors, and ignored them. In her arms, her baby started to cry. She whispered softly to Audra to sootheher, as the two soldiers from the Recityv army patiently waited. The closer man balled a fist, his leather glove creaking in the stillness. Layosah had noticed her callers’ clean cloaks and polished blades when they entered her home—these were no men-at-arms, but a special envoy. She knew it to be true when she finally looked up from Audra and saw the look in their eyes. That, and the carefully bound package the second man held in almost ceremonial fashion.
“Anais Layosah Reyal . . .” The first soldier paused, his gaze gentle and kind. She was already nodding. “Anais Layosah,” he started again, softer, “by custom we come to honor your son’s sacrifice in the defense of his nation, his people, his brothers . . . and his family.” The young soldier looked down at Audra. “We will mourn with you.”
The empty ache spread in her stomach again, as it had before. She began to tremble. The second soldier quickly rose and lit the kitchen hearth behind her. Neither spoke until more light and warmth came to the small kitchen—a place once filled with the voices of her family raised over endfast smells of fried root and morning honey bread.
The silence gave Layosah time to travel back through memory, where she caught glimpses of smiles and laughter and her husband Eddock’s strong but careful touch—it had been his gentleness that had convinced her to accept his proposal to wed.The first soldier—he looked so young, hardly older than . . . she mustn’t think that—cleared his throat, breaking the spell of her reverie, and drew her back to the dreadful reality of the present.
He began to speak. “Anais Layosah, some weeks ago, at the far end of the kingdom of Nallan, General Stallworth’s army was beset by legions out of the Bourne. They came unexpectedly, a great dark army three times the size of the one we were already fighting. Weary men took up their blades and met the Quiet with valor, but many . . . most . . . were lost.”
Tears for her lost son began to fall hot and silent down Layosah’s cheeks. As the young soldier spoke, she imagined her son Aelon, barely eighteen, fighting, struggling, up to his last breath.
Six, she thought. I’ve lost six.
Her eldest boy, Maalen, had gone first. He and Eddock had joined the ranks of General Stallworth’s army together. Eddock had returned from that first march alone. A year later, Toele, her next boy. And two years on from that, Simick. Another great march—three years after Simick had been laid down—had sent both her beloved and his younger brother, Ren, north through the Wynstout Dominion; this time, neither returned.
The law required healthy men who reached the age of eighteen and had passed their Change into accountability to take up the crimson banner of Recityv and fight in this endless war.
So it was that all her older sons had gone. And Eddock was gone, leaving her alone and pregnant with a child whose face her father would never see, a child whose surprise arrival had brought some happiness to her when her heart grieved for the children she had already lost. She looked down at Audra. “Six,” she whispered to the babe, then took a shuddering breath, the full force of her grief descending upon her.
In her sorrow, and looking at the child in her arms, she recalled becoming pregnant for the first time, and Eddock’s joy over the news.
“I must buy milk this time,” she had said.
Her husband had frowned. “Hate the taste of it. Don’t waste the coin.”
“It’s not for you,” Layosah told him, a hint of something more in her voice.
He looked up from the blade grip he sat lashing. “We don’t have money for milk . . . why milk?” he asked, understanding beginning to bloom in his face—milk was said to be the best nourishment for a mother with child.
“His name will be Maalen,” Layosah said. “Your father’s name. And if he’s half as stubborn as you are, I swear I will—”
But she never finished her oath, as Eddock stood, pulled her close, and put his mouth on hers. After a long kiss, he had drawn back and given her a playfully mocking smile. “Milk?”
Forever after, the sight or smell of it had reminded her of that first happiness over the beginnings of their family.
The messenger had continued to speak as she had remembered that moment, remembered her beloved and all her sons whose blood had been shed in this never-ending war against the Bourne. These purveyors of ill news came weekly back to Recityv, into the homes of the fallen, to honor their memory and sacrifice by making a full accounting of how they had fought . . . and died.
“Yours is a grim task,” she said softly, interrupting the young soldier.
He showed her a forlorn smile. “Yes, Anais, a grim labor. But for your ears alone . . . I would rather someone else convey these tidings so that I could seemy sword stained and nicked.” The young man slowly ran a hand down his scabbard. “It is a shame to wear a merely ceremonial blade.”
“Your mother may not think so,” Layosah replied.
The second soldier, an older man—giving her the sense that, of the two, the younger had the greater gift for words—stepped around the table, and knelt. He drew forth the long, wrapped parcel he’d been so protectively holding, and held it out to her on open palms.
Layosah looked first at the bearer, then at the gift. No secret was this. Neatly wrapped in fine brushed leathers would be her Aelon’s sword and some of his personal effects, too. She looked at it for a moment before great uncontrollable sobs racked her body.. Her heart ached yet again when she turned weeping eyes to the left, where the wall had been fixed with pegs, upon which five other swords now rested—the markers of her dead sons and her beloved.
In her anguish, she held Audra close, fearful that her child would one day be sitting in her own home, in her own kitchen, receiving such news. It was a legacy the women of Recityv had shared for generations. She had too many friends who had likewise lost their sons, and who were now little more than mothers whose wombs manufactured soldiers to go and die in faraway places; mothers whose wombs created daughters who grew only, it seemed, to suffer as their mothers suffered, to hear the same dark tidings.
We are the wombs of war, she thought, as she so often had. In fact, many women—now childless by virtue of this war—had formed a sisterhood in Recityv. Until this moment, they’d mostly comforted one another when news came of fallen loved ones. Until this moment, they’d found a hard-won pride in being “wombs of war.” Until this moment, which, of all the moments that had come before, struck her differently . . . because her last child, like her, would bear life unto death, would be left behind to grieve as she did now.
No more. I will not give Recityv another daughter for its war.
She looked down at Audra. You will not be a womb of war. Even if I must . . . But she left that thought unfinished.
Layosah had not hung Aelon’s sword on her wall with all the others. It was as grim a task as that given to the messenger whose departure just hours ago she could not recall. He’d likely slipped out during the long hours of her grief after the news of her son’s death and his blade had been delivered; no doubt the young solider had other calls to make. Instead, she now carried the sword, still wrapped as it had come, in one arm, Audra cradled in the other. She bustled through the streets of Recityv, passing traders and alley barkers and lines of army recruits being walked by men in Recityv crimson toward the city garrison and training yards. She would have followed one of these, had she not known the way by heart.
Five times before she had walked this exact route. Except today her visit was not to bid a loved one farewell, nor to stand at the garrison gate and look on mournfully as the “Parade of the Fallen”—as the people called it—made its slow procession down the concourse. No, not that. Not today.
She paid no heed to the guards standing attendance on either side of the garrison entrance. She moved fast and focused on the great building at the far end of the long courtyard. There, she knew, the general and his officers’ cabinet planned and strategized and consigned men to death.
Before she could pass the gate, however, two men were abruptly in her path. “You aren’t allowed—”
She shoved the wrapped blade into their faces. “This is my permission, young man. Or will you deny entry to a mother who has sent six to their final earth defending our people.” She poked his chest where his tabard was emblazoned with the Recityv sigil—a tree with roots as deep as its limbs stretched high.
The two guards shared a look.
“Come with me then, and see that I make no trouble. That satisfy you?” Layosah got moving around them.
One of the guards fell in on her left and a step behind. Together they briskly walked the parade route toward the quarters of General Stallworth himself.
By the Sky I’ll see this done!
As they traversed the long, wide street, she held the thought that many young men had passed this way, marching in time to military drums or the call of their captains; and that many of those—including all the men of her family—would never set down another boot on these cobblestones.
Layosah bent her shoulders forward, and drove her aching legs harder toward this man whose war had left her nearly childless. At the high double doors, boldly graven with the Recityv sigil, two more men-at-arms stepped into her path, barring her. She nearly said something, but then her escort raised a hand. They gave him a deferential look and stood aside.
In the crisp morning air she boldly strode past them. Her escort quickly got ahead of her and led her through the door and beneath the high ceiling of a spartan receiving room. They angled immediately right, the young gate guard signaling with his hand to forestall yet another sentry’s attempt to block them from entering this last chamber.
Audra fussed a bit. Layosah bent her head toward the babe and spoke soothingly: “Be still, my dear. We are about to do some denouncing.”
She kissed her child’s forehead, still clutching tight the sword of her dead son, and followed her escort into the war room.
Here the ceiling rose every bit as high as that of the entry hall—twenty strides, she guessed. On the rear and side walls, from corner to corner, great maps had been painted in fine detail. In the middle of the room, beneath brightly shining braziers, stood a large table cluttered with yet more maps laid flat, upon which figurines of men and horses were positioned in various places that Layosah could tell represented lands far from Recityv.
In the air hung an acrid odor—men long without a bath, perhaps having slept little, slaving over their strategies and the miniature statues that represented men sent to war. A few of these soldiers, fitted in uniforms of crimson and white, stood together in corners, speaking in hushed tones. She wondered if they spoke reverently of the men whose deaths came as a result of their orders. Others stood near the maps on the walls or on the table, studying, scrutinizing the terrain and the figurines as if the inanimate things might move of their own accord.
Layosah took it all in with a glance, then headed for General Stallworth, a man she’d met before—he’d visited her himself after Ren had been killed. Her swift movement in the war room, the clap of her shoes, or some other noise brought the man’s attention to her while she was yet several strides away. The expression on his face made it clear that he remembered her, and that he knew why she had come.
As she drew near, he turned toward her.
“Stallworth,” she began, dispensing with his title, “you have claimed now six of my family with your failed plans. Your maps and war councillors do you no good.” She threw Aelon’s sword upon the table, where it clanked and stirred the maps, knocking over dozens of the figurines.
“I had the report given to me personally,” Stallworth replied. “He was a valiant young man. Though I know the honor of his sacrifice does you little comfort.”
As the general spoke, another man wearing a long grey cloak came up beside him. Layosah noted the sigil of the Order of Sheason on a chain around his neck.
“Six,” she repeated. “A husband and five sons. My womb has been your weapon, and you use it badly.”
Stallworth reached out a hand to gently touch her arm in consolation. She slapped it away. “I do not seek your sympathy or your pity. I want to know how you are going to end this. Because by my Skies, I will not let the only child left to me become another supplier of soldiers. You must bring an end to it. Tell me. Tell me how you are going to do it, Stallworth. Tell me the women of this city are not conceiving another generation of sons whose mothers will outlive them, and daughters whose inheritance will be childlessness and loss.”
The general stood silent for a long time. The Sheason beside him looked at Audra.
Layosah shook her head in disgust. As she did so, at the edge of her vision, she caught sight of something she hadn’t noticed before. She turned, leaning out over the table and the map. With an unsteady hand she reached out and took up one of the small figurines. Drawing it near, she inspected it, her heart beginning to race—not for the representation of the beastly Bar’dyn, creatures of nightmare from the distant Bourne, but because of the sight of the huge number of Bar’dyn figurines she’d inadvertently knocked over when she threw down her son’s blade.
Her pulse quickened further at what she saw next. Even as she looked out across the map, several of the figures representing Stallworth’s forces simply vanished. She stared, dumbfounded, with an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach.
For several moments, she could find no words, only pointing. Then, finally, she looked up at General Stallworth, holding the miniature Bar’dyn out toward him. “What does this mean?”
Stallworth drew a long breath, meeting her gaze. “The Quiet descends from the Bourne in numbers . . . beyond what we could have imagined. And it is not just Bar’dyn, but strange creatures unlike anything we have ever seen. And so many. The men stand firm.” He paused, his features tightening. “But they are as lambs to the slaughter. When their figures fade from our table . . .”
She imagined Aelon standing, helpless on some distant plain, watching a huge force advancing toward him, knowing he would die. “And here, you simply watch a token disappear. . . .”
Layosah clenched the figure of the Bar’dyn in her fist, feeling the jab of its edges in her palm. “What are you going to do about it?” she demanded. “I hear defeat in your voice. Either discover the way to victory—you and all your cronies here—or get into your saddle and go yourself to stand with the men you commit to die beneath this wave of Quietgiven.” She stepped close to him, feeling his breath on her nose as she looked up at him. “Because by all that lives, I will not stand idle knowing that the blood of my men was spilt for nothing. Someone must take action!”
To her surprise, the Sheason beside Stallworth nodded.
The general’s hard gaze softened. “It is a war bigger than Recityv, Anais Reyal. Bigger than men. We fight it the best we can—”
“Then that is not good enough!” Her shout brought cries from her child, but she did not relent. “Your war has lasted generations, Stallworth. Generals before you failed. Now you fail—”
“Of course we fail!” His eyes hardened. “We fight alone! We’ve entreated other realms to join us, and yet we have not one ally in this war. Some won’t join us for fear of reprisal from the Quietgiven if we are defeated. Some hold back their aid as leverage to advance their own politics. Some refuse because of old feuds. And some . . .” Stallworth’s eyes showed dark concern. “Some, mostly in the north, have signed treaties with the Quiet, believing that we cannot win, and trying to broker for position once the fighting is over.”
Layosah listened, horrified. Still, something had to be done. In a soft but urgent voice, she spoke again.
“Women do little more than breed more bodies to fill your suits of armor; men and boys bond over the thought of dying together; and widows and young girls are left to empty homes, porridge, and unsavory acts to earn a coin or else starve.” She looked intently at him. “You must do better.”
Silence followed her outburst. Neither the general nor Sheason seemed ready to speak. The silence was broken by the loud clap of boots approaching from behind.
“The rest are mounted, General. We are ready,” said a young man in untarnished raiment.
“Then it is time,” General Stallworth replied, his gaze still locked with Layosah’s. “I go to join young Aelon,” he said. A profound sadness and weariness deepened the lines in his face. “There is nothing more to be done, Anais. It is over.”
He walked past her, and the rest of the men in the great war room followed. Shortly, she heard the thunder of countless hooves fade into the distance . Layosah regretted some of what she’d said. Not all. But some. The man, Stallworth, rode to his death—had planned to, even before she’d implored him to take action.
She was now alone with the Sheason, who watched her closely. After a time, he showed her a faint smile. Looking at him, she recalled tales of these renderers of the Will and their ability to restore life. She looked down at Audra.
Better to die in innocence and never know despair,she thought. And if you save the lives of an entire people in doing so . . .
She turned a hard stare on the Sheason. “I need to speak with you.”
That evening, Layosah sat before the Sheason’s hearth, which burned bright and warm with cedar logs. Audra slept cradled in her left arm, her face peaceful in the firelight. Layosah held in her free hand a small goblet of warmed wine, dusted with cinnamon. The soothing warmth of the fire and drink eased her after a long day in which memories of Aelon, her other boys, and her husband had threatened to haunt her.
But now, at rest in a deep leather-covered chair offered her by Sheason Nolaus in his neat and well-ordered house, the revenants began to return. She drank from her wine again, alone, as the Sheason had excused himself. With each passing moment, she became more certain that he’d left her by herself precisely so that she would be plagued by her dark thoughts.
She had seen in the renderer’s eyes a keen and dangerous intelligence. Yet, he made her feel safe somehow. And even just being in his home gave her a bit of comfort.
Comfort enough that she opened herself up again to her memories, those revenants of the past, and recalled the day Eddock had returned from that first march . . . without Maalen.
He’d come into their home with two swords, and Layosah had known in her heart immediately what news he meant to share. No special messenger that first time. Instead, a father bearing his son’s blade back to the boy’s mother.
Eddock had stood before her, a broken man. “I tried to get to him, Layosah. He was too far . . .”
She’d said nothing, sure if she moved her knees would forsake her and drop her to the floor.
“We were separated in battle,” Eddock said through tears he tried in vain to wipe away. “I fought back toward him. I fought . . .”
Layosah found some strength at last and moved to Eddock’s side. Together they slumped to the floor of their small home. She wanted desperately to say something, but words failed her. She held his broad shoulders and felt him tremble.
“He was my son. I could not save him. I was a stone’s throw away and they killed him as I rushed to help.” Eddock lifted Maalen’s sword up between them.
They knew the tradition of hanging the swords of the fallen on the walls of the family home. It was meant to serve as a reminder of the honor and sacrifice of the one who laid down his life for the good of his countrymen. But kneeling together on the floor of their home, where Maalen had taken his first steps, had run and laughed as children do, they could find little more in the sacrifice beyond their own grief. The child that had begun for them with a tease about milk had gone to his earth scarcely a man.
And Layosah had watched as her beloved tortured himself with blame for not having been able to save him.
In the years ahead, it would get no easier for either of them. The small lives that began with such joy ended prematurely, bringing sorrow and confusion and pain. Layosah could say of Eddock that at least his had ended in those same distant marches.
Now, with Aelon dead, they were all gone. All save Audra.
Layosah gazed upon her babe and forced herself to put the past away and feel content, if briefly, in being warm, with the taste of wine in her mouth, and thoughts of tomorrow distant enough not to be burdensome.
When her peace was nearly full, the Sheason returned, and sat with her near the fire. “What then, my dear woman, can I do for you?” He smiled as though he already knew the answer.
Layosah sipped her wine before answering. She had the feeling she would need to be careful with her words. “Your oath, Sheason. What is your oath?”
Nolaus folded his hands together in his lap. “What do you really wish to ask me, Anais Reyal? Are you asking if I am bound by my word to help you? If at any cost and in any circumstance my authority to command the Will must serve your need?” He did not smile as he said it, but neither was there rancor in his voice.
She stared back at him. That was what she wanted to know. But hearing it from the Sheason made her realize how selfish a question it was. Still, she nodded. She had to know.
Several moments passed. Finally, he nodded. “The answer is mostly yes. My calling is to use the gifts I bear to ease the suffering of those I can help.” He paused, smiling again, but a touch more wanly. “But I cannot help all those who need help.”
Layosah put down her goblet of wine and balled her fingers into a fist. “When a life hangs in the balance, will you wish to help? I need to know, Sheason. I need to know if there are limits to your favor.”
A touch of severity lit the man’s eyes. “Aye, Anais. There are.” The stern look on the man’s face remained for several moments; then, as though he was suddenly himself again, his wan smile returned. “Forgive me. My anger is not directed at you or even at your question. It is . . . that I must answer as I do.”
Layosah gave him a questioning stare.
The Sheason looked back with appraising eyes. “You mean to do something unnatural, Anais. And you want my assurance that I can undo this thing, whatever it is. . . .”
She said nothing, her silence demanding an answer to her question.
“Very well,” the man said. “I am bound, my good woman. That I can render the Will to aid and defend those who need my help is a gift I cherish. But it is not a power that should be used to arrogate godhood. And some things must not be done . . . or undone.”
“You speak in riddles,” she said sharply. “It is no wonder people are wary of your kind.”
The man smiled, this time more fully, so that she could see his age in the wrinkles around his eyes. “People are wary of us, are they?” He chuckled softly. “Well, we shall have to endeavor to change such a perception.”
“Then start now,” she said, persistent. “You’ve said nothing that convinces me that there are limits to your favor. It sounds like a tradition steeped in myth. Arrogate godhood? Next you will tell me that the Charter itself binds you.”
The Sheason’s face drew taut with a grave expression. “Anais Reyal, these are not things to trifle with. What you speak of is part of the fabric of our world. You ask me what I will do when a life hangs in the balance, if I will wish to help. It is not as simple as you make it sound. I caution you. If there is a bloody deed in your heart, let it go. Don’t seek from my gift . . . permission . . . to do harm.”
And there it was. The Sheason had looked past her veiled questions to the heart of what she had come to ask. Layosah looked down at Audra, who slept soundly in her arms, and she began to cry. The losses of all those she loved seemed to pile upon her. She was alone now with this babe, and didn’t believe she could support the weight of it all.
No. Something must be done.
Perhaps it would take a woman who had seen as many skies as she; and perhaps the despair in her heart would give rise to courage she could not otherwise summon.
In either case—and without the assurance she’d hoped to have from the Sheason—she had decided. She wondered if this was how it felt to walk upon the gallows without offering a struggle.
She stood and reached out her hand. The Sheason took it, and she wrapped her first finger around his thumb in token of both gratitude and apology. Nolaus cupped their clasped hands with his other palm and looked intently into her eyes.
“It does not mean I cannot help. It means I won’t know until . . .”
Layosah found the strength to smile. “Put it out of your mind. You have helped me find my courage. That alone is help enough.”
“There is one thing more I would ask of you. The king. I should like to speak with him. You advise his general, so surely if I were with you he would listen to me. I know he walks the courtyard at dawn. Will you meet me there?”
The Sheason looked down at the child in her arms, a pained expression in his eyes. “It is what sets us apart, isn’t it?” he said.
“What is that?”
But the Sheason did not reply, leaving the question for Layosah to answer. He only squeezed her hand and escorted her to the door. “I will meet you there,” he said.
She tucked Audra close to her bosom and made her way home.
Tomorrow, she thought, tomorrow. . . .
Her arms full, Layosah walked slowly toward Solath Mahnus. The great seat of power—which housed the king, his council, and the court of judicature—rose up like a man-made mountain at the heart of Recityv. Parapets and spires stood high against a clear morning sky, lending to the place a grandeur that spoke of permanence and strength. She hoped her king possessed these same qualities.
When she arrived at the Wall of Remembrance, where the old stories had been carved in relief upon its surface, Sheason Nolaus awaited her. He nodded in greeting, and together they passed the gate guards, who nodded deferentially to the Sheason.
Beyond the wall, in the outer courtyard, the sun shone strong, lighting the wide stone stair at the east entrance. Dew on the steps glistened, steam rising as the sun warmed the stone.
King Baellor paced in the shadows to the left of the great stairs. Layosah shared a grave look with the Sheason and they moved toward their sovereign, their footfalls loud in the courtyard. As they approached, several men appeared as if from nowhere, preventing them from drawing too close. When the king looked up, he saw the Sheason and waved his men back.
The king’s eyes were heavy with sleeplessness. “You do not often walk with me in the morning, Nolaus. To what do I owe the pleasure today?”
The Sheason raised a hand toward her. “I would ask that you give this woman a moment of your time, Your Majesty. I believe she has earned it.”
King Baellor looked at Layosah. “I trust Nolaus’s judgment. What would you speak with me about?”
She did not hesitate. “Yesterday I received the sword of my fifth son to die in your army’s failed war.” She raised the five swords of her five dead sons.
“I don’t seek your sympathy, my king,” Layosah said quickly. She lowered the blades. “I seek your leadership. Your general tells me that efforts to find allies have failed in the past. It is troubling—”
“Troubling that you have failed to gain their support.” Layosah spoke as if she were scolding one of her children.
The king looked at the Sheason. “Is this what you thought I should hear this morning, Nolaus? After yesterday?” Baellor then turned an intimidating stare on Layosah. “I regret the sacrifice you have made, Anais, but this is not the time to upbraid your king. Yesterday we sent every last man into the far country to meet those descending out of the Pall. I would remind you that many have made such sacrifices . . . are about to make such a sacrifice.”
“That is precisely why I come this morning, my lord. Someone must speak for the blood of all those sent to die by foolish men. Someone with clear vision must show a king how to prevent more of his people from going early to their final earth.” She spared a look at Audra, feelings of hope and despair vying in her heart when she considered the child’s future.
“And your vision is clear?” The king’s face was edged with impatience. “Dear woman, I do truly regret the loss of the sons you are asked to grieve for. It is no pleasure to me to send them to war.”
His words were like a death sentence, leaving no room for argument, no room for compromise or collaboration. She had, then, the clearest thought she could remember ever having. Stallworth had said the war was bigger than Recityv. . . .
A great council. One to represent all the kingdoms of men.
“Then call them all at once,” Layosah suggested, feeling some excitement at the simple notion.
Baellor’s brow furrowed. “What? Who?”
“Send word to each of them, every king, every council, every nation, all at once. Let them know they are all being asked to come. That a seat awaits them. That it will be evident which seats remain vacant when you commence a great assembly of rulers to decide how to fight this war.”
The king studied her face.
“Kings before you have sought allies and failed. And some nations, so it is said, secretly conspire with the enemy.” Disgust filled her. “And some play politics while your people die. By the Skies, Your Majesty, if their conscience doesn’t tell them the right choice, shame them into it!”
Her sovereign looked past her at the Sheason, a weary expression reclaiming his face. He appeared as though he might say something more, but instead he gently put a hand on Audra’s head, offered a defeated smile, and started away toward an enclosed hallway that seemed to burrow into Solath Mahnus. Partway across the courtyard he stopped. She thought she heard him say, with his back still toward her, “It is not so simple.” Then he moved on, his Emerit guard trailing him, until he vanished into Solath Mahnus.
When he had disappeared inside his sanctuary, Layosah frowned at the realization of what she must do next. Her heart ached as she walked slowly to the base of the broad stairs and looked up at the ceremonial entrance to this hall of kings.
She paused to kiss her last child. “I love you, little one,” she said softly.
Then she mounted the first few steps to Solath Mahnus and, as violently as she could, she threw down upon the hard stone the five blades, five markers of the dead. The sixth blade—Eddock’s own—she wore beneath her overcloak. The steel clattered loudly in the courtyard, drawing the attention of the handful of guards and some courtiers who were about their business early. In the broad court of stone also walked a few members of the Reconciliation clergy, deep in their robes and in their thoughts, softly talking into the morn.
All these, and a few whose purpose she could not determine, stopped and turned toward her. Just the attention she’d sought.
“It must end today!” she cried. “Please, hear me. I beg of you. We cannot suffer this war another year, another day, another hour.”
The king’s guards started toward her, their intention clear. The wall guards came, too, running from their post. Several courtiers stared, and the robed prelates began moving toward her.
They think I am mad or else that I am a zealot, and that I need their healing hands . . . perhaps, today, they are right. . . .
“Five children have I lost to this war! And my husband, besides. I am not the first to send my family to die. During centuries of ongoing battle, your women have been mere wombs, producing soldiers whose lives amount to nothing as they are slain by an enemy we cannot defeat; or daughters whose own wombs will be used to bear more of these ill-fated soldiers!”
The guards were close now, a few drawing their swords. Tears welled up as she thought of what she meant to do next. Forgive me, Audra. But in the depths of her anger and despair, she had decided, and she lifted her child high over her head.
“The war must stop! Or I will dash the child against the stone, and her blood will be upon your hands for not heeding my words!”
Everyone in the courtyard immediately stopped. Gasps rose in the silence, followed by a soft coo from her babe. She caught a look from the Sheason, his countenance drawn heavily with understanding.
“My lady,” the closest guard said. “You needn’t threaten the life of the child. We will hear what you have to say. Please, lower the infant.”
Layosah laughed maniacally through her tears. “You think me a fool. Or mad. Or both. But we should all be so foolish and mad!”
Passersby from beyond the Wall of Remembrance began to come into the courtyard. Soon, a crowd had gathered, drawn by the spectacle of her grief. Good.
Still holding her baby high against the pale morning sky, she called, “This is my sixth child. All my sons went to war to defend us. All have perished. It has to stop!”
A low muttering of agreement rose from the crowd, even as more people streamed into the courtyard.
“My lady,” the nearest guard said, “please. We needn’t worry our fellow citizens unnecessarily. Come, let us go in. Perhaps we can speak with the king.”
“I have spoken with the king,” she said. “He is paralyzed by fear and outwitted by other sovereigns who better practice their statecraft.”
The man-at-arms shook his head. “Be careful, my lady.”
“No, sir,” she replied softly, “Not anymore.”
She looked out on the multitude, many of whom stared with rapt attention at Audra, who’d begun to fidget in Layosah’s upraised hands.
“They tell us lies!” she shouted. “They assure us the war is in hand. But Stallworth has ridden toward his own death after telling me the war is bigger than his army, bigger than we can sustain or win. How many lives have been lost while our king refuses to do what is necessary?” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “We will not bear more children simply to see them marched into the far country to die! We are not your wombs of war! It must end!”
Soon, there remained no room in the courtyard. And she continued her ardent appeal, her demand! Each time she railed anew, the great crowd roared its approval. Layosah had seen mobs before, but this was not the same. She saw in no man’s or woman’s eyes irrational intention. They were tired and scared. But for that moment, in the strong light of an eastern sun, the pall of death and despair lifted, caused by their collective desire to see an end to a war that was generations old.
Even as she held the king’s guard at bay with the threat of killing her only living child.
Have I gone too far? But I cannot stop. Audra, forgive me, I cannot stop.
She stared out at the great crowd, silent for a very long time. A hush fell over the courtyard. Softly, she spoke. “I would rather take my daughter’s life here, today . . . myself . . . than watch her grow up to bear children of her own that will only die or perpetuate this endless cycle of death.” She surveyed as many of the onlookers as she could. “These warmongers should have the resolve of a mother who is willing to send her children against the Quiet . . . who is willing to kill her own child to deny them one more womb of war.”
And on she spoke. All that day.
When her arms tired, she lowered Audra and held her close, but then drew Eddock’s sword and held it firmly, ready if it should come to that. And as she stood with Audra in one hand, and her beloved’s weapon in the other, she continued to rail against her king and her general and her nation for failing generations of families.
For three days she remained on the east steps of Solath Mahnus, decrying all those whom she could think of now only as murderers. When she had to, she fed her babe, keeping a watchful eye on the Emerit guards stationed nearby, one hand still holding tight her sword.
The first night, she sat upon the cool stone to rest and kept a dark silent vigil with the great crowd. But she did not leave. Would not. There was no going back to the life she had lived. One way or another, something would change here at the steps of Solath Mahnus.
When the second day broke in the eastern sky, she stood again and started to speak. At times, she recounted memories of her dead children. From the steps, she could see the crowd stretched beyond the courtyard, beyond the Wall of Remembrance. The great concourse beyond the wall, and the nearby streets, stood packed with more citizens yet, and she could hear men calling back to those too far to hear her, relaying her words. She began to grow weary, but the fire of her own anger and the shouts of agreement gave her strength to continue.
When the second night came, torches were lit, and she imagined that these citizens would return to their homes. They did not. Instead, they again sat, as they had the night before, and together kept a silence. It seemed as if they felt that they must watch with her, that what was happening held import for them all, and so they would not retire to their homes.
When Layosah stood on the morning of her third day at the steps of Solath Mahnus, she wondered if she would, after all, be able to force those who pontificated in vaulted rooms to listen and understand and act . . . if she still had the courage to go through with what she’d planned if she could not compel them by words alone. Yes, the blood she promised to spill would be upon their heads, but only if she had enough will to see it through. After two days of calling on her king to hear her, she began to fear she could do neither.
And if she failed, she felt, the deaths of her five sons, and of her beloved, would have been in vain. More than this, her daughter would inherit Layosah’s fate. Yet for all that, as her third day wore on, speaking to the people and demanding that her sovereign take action, she lost much of her zeal, despair gripping her.
As dusk settled over the courtyard on the third day, Layosah’s strength was nearly gone. Weary to the bone, she could barely stand. She began to fade, and her eyes threatened to close despite all her efforts. Just as the torches were lit, she caught a glimpse of movement, and forced herself up straight in time to stop the king’s men in their rush to seize her.
With a surge of anger flooding through her, she gathered her strength and held Audra high, believing that it would be the last time she could do so. Suddenly she felt as if she had lost herself. Who am I? How can I do this? Audra was crying—a sound she heard as though it came from far away. She felt tortured, wounded . . . mad. And in the next moment, fury overcame her, righteous anger that gave her strength in her conviction and clarity of purpose.
She glared at the king’s guard, then looked out once more over those keeping vigil with her. The citizens got to their feet as she prepared to speak, her voice now a hoarse rasp.
“My grandmother raised soldiers. My mother, too. And now I . . . I stand here on these chiseled steps with a child. My family’s blood is good enough to be spilled for Recityv to protect her from the Quiet, but her king will not do what is needful so that my daughter will not likewise know the pain of war tidings.”
Layosah began to tremble and teeter. Her strength, even fueled by her anger, was flagging.
“I lift my child here and call upon King Seachen Baellor one last time to form a council to represent all the people. He must look beyond his borders, mend broken alliances, call for truces to old feuds. Shame any who deny! All must come. All must be convinced to stand with us!”
Her arms were failing fast. She locked her elbows to keep Audra held aloft. Sweat beaded on her face, running down her cheeks and neck. She felt like she was living one of the many nightmares she had so often lately. Her vision blurred, so that she saw only streaks of firelight from the many torches that blazed in the night.
The multitude clamored for something to be done. Part of her believed they wished to watch her see it through, make good on her threat—bloodlust in their cries. But in some moments, she heard more truly, as the war-weary people of Recityv began to chant for the king to answer Layosah’s demand.
In the extremity of her need, she called out one last time: “Or else I should rather dash my babe on this stone stair and snuff her life, than see her bear another generation to war!”
The greatest tumult yet rose from those gathered in the courtyard and in the streets around Solath Mahnus.
As the din died down, one of the guards crept close enough that she heard him when he said, “The king does not yield to threats or demands. You will have to kill you child or stand down.”
Layosah turned to the Sheason, who had been close by throughout her stand here, and whose face still was a mask of doleful understanding. He returned her stare and slowly shook his head. He would not help her if she did this thing.
I must not yield. So much depends on it. . . .
She knew that once she threw down her child, her life was forfeit. Not by dint of law. But because her mind and soul would be broken. The only reassuring thought was that of walking slowly into a still, cold lake until her feet could no longer touch the bottom and she could slip soundlessly to her own death.
She wept openly, helplessly ranting against her own plan to kill Audra, even as she prepared to cast the child down on the steps of her king’s castle. The throng wailed, loud in her ears. The guards watched, their eyes wide.
She began to rock back on her heels to give her arms momentum. She closed her eyes, because she couldn’t bear to watch her darling Audra fly to her death, but in the instant of her blindness, she saw the faces of her family. Most of all, she saw Eddock and the moments they had shared in joy and pain over the lives they’d created, the family they’d shared.
With those images in her mind and the sound of the great crowd in her ears, she heard through the din the sharp cry of a child. It wasn’t Audra. The sound struck her, and she opened her eyes, casting her gaze out over the thousands gathered in the courtyard and beyond the Wall of Remembrance. She suddenly took note of fathers holding up sons so that they could see, young girls seated near their parents’ feet, mothers holding infants of their own.
So many young lives, newly begun, and brought into the world by parents . . . who still . . .
Layosah shot a look at Sheason Nolaus and found a warm smile. She had found the answer to the question she’d posed him a few nights earlier. She understood now that she could not have fully appreciated simply being given that answer. She had to feel it for herself:
It’s what sets us apart, isn’t it?
The realization did not come as a new or profound revelation, but rather as a simple, quiet truth. She, like so many others, lived on. They loved, and had families in the face of uncertainty . . . and hoped.
Her vision blurred from weariness. Her strength began to fail. She looked up at the daughter she still held aloft, preparatory to an act of desperation and hopelessness.
Layosah let out a heartrending cry: “No!”
She collapsed upon the steps, folding Audra into her chest, safe and crying. She huddled over her, feeling broken and bitter and shamed. But for all the dark moments and feelings, she could not let the last good thing she and Eddock had done together be destroyed, certainly not by her own hand. Her love of her husband and of her little one simply would not allow it.
Silence followed. Only the hum of torches, as her child quieted against her breast.
She did not know how long she had lain there when a hand firmly gripped her shoulder. The guards, she thought, who would now strip her child from her and lock her in the depths of Solath Mahnus. But when she looked up, she saw the thoughtful face of her king. He looked ready to say something, his eyes alight in the flames of nearby torches. But he remained silent, staring at her and her child. Perhaps it was her fatigue, or the ache in her spirit after so much loss, or the numbing fear of what would now happen to her, but whatever the reason, Layosah thought she saw change in her king. She stared up into his dark, wondering eyes.
The man then again put a hand gently on Audra’s head, and stood to face the great multitude. He met their expectant stares, and she thought he might make some grand speech to allay their worries, perhaps even commend her willingness to do her child harm to rouse him from the depths of his keep. He did neither.
After several long moments, and still looking out over the people who’d gathered to support Layosah’s defense of another generation of children—trying to save them from the horrors of war—he spoke instead to a captain of his personal guard, one she’d not noticed before.
“Call the birders, bring heralds to me here, now.” He said nothing more before he fell silent again and waited.
Shortly, those summoned made their way through the crowd, gathering around the king. He took up a quill and ink and wrote out a message on a parchment. While the crowd watched, his men copied the short script several dozen times on individual sheets.
When the task was done, the king nodded to his captain. “Make way,” the captain said, gesturing for the people to part, as horses were brought to the steps of Solath Mahnus.
The heralds mounted. The birders fastened notes to the legs of small raptors. When stillness reclaimed the outer courtyard, King Baellor spoke with a resoluteness Layosah could not remember ever hearing.
“Recityv will stand alone no longer. If your sons and daughters are called upon to perish for her sake, it will be at the side of children raised in kingdoms other than our own.” He stopped, seeming to consider what next to say. “No, not to perish. To vanquish. To end our centuries of suffering. I’ve been a fool, quailing before the politics of alliance like a coward, beneath the politics that make alliances so fraught with difficulty. I will be a fool no more.”
He then raised a hand. At that signal, the birds took flight, and the mounted heralds stormed from the courtyard in a thundering of hooves over stone. Layosah watched with weary eyes, the air fairly filled with birds winging skyward into the darkness, carrying the king’s message, and horses gaining speed as they passed the Wall of Remembrance, their riders bent low in the saddle, racing with their majesty’s words tucked into their shirts.
It was done. She had made him see. At some cost that she felt she would later understand—the awful notion of what she’d almost done here—she’d made him see.
Over the flutter of wings and clatter of hooves, the great crowd broke into a deafening chorus of cheers. The king did not stand to receive any of it, but instead turned and bent near to her.
“You’ve reminded me of my oath, Anais. Thank you. This convocation of seated kings and other rulers . . . I will endeavor to be as compelling with them as you have been with me.” He reached down and helped her to her feet. The king then gathered the swords strewn nearby, and, carrying them himself beneath one arm, he assisted her up the steps toward Solath Mahnus. “You will rest. Then you will tell me of the men who carried these swords. Each one. Sparing nothing.”
Together they ascended the stone stairs as the relieved and hopeful cries of the city faded behind them.
Copyright 2011 by Peter Orullian
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