Forge of Darkness, Chapter Two (Excerpt) |

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Forge of Darkness, Chapter Two (Excerpt)

The latest book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series—out on September 18—begins the Kharkanas Trilogy, a new story set millennia before the main Malazan sequence and a new jumping on point for fantasy fans interested in taking on a new epic.

To whet your appetite, will be releasing the first five chapters of Forge of Darkness in the coming weeks! We continue with Chapter Two:

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…



The candles painted the air gold, made soft the pale sunlight streaming in from the high, narrow windows. There was a score of them affixed to a disparate collection of holders – as many as could be spared from unused rooms of the keep – and more than half were melted down to stumps, their flames flickering and sending up tendrils of black smoke. A servant stood watchful nearby, ready to replace the next one to surrender its life.

‘See the genius in his vision,’ Hunn Raal said under his breath, a moment later catching young Osserc’s cautious nod from the corner of his eye. There was risk in speaking at all. The man working the bristle brushes through pigments on the palette and then stabbing at the surface of the wooden board was notorious for his temperament, and the scene was already tense enough, but Hunn had judged his comment a sufficient compliment to assuage any possible irritation Kadaspala might feel at the distraction.

Clearly, Osserc was not prepared to risk even a muttered assent under the circumstances. This was what came of a young man yet to see his courage tested. Of course, that was through no fault of Osserc’s own. No, the blame – and could there be any other word for it? – rested with the father, with the man who sat so stiffly in ornate regalia, one side bathed in the candlelight, the other in shadows brooding and grim, as befitted his darkening mood at the moment.

Kadaspala might well be the most sought-after painter of portraits in all Kurald Galain, famed for his brilliant talent and infamous for his impatience with subjects when composing, but even he was no match for the man seated in the high-backed blackwood chair, should Vatha Urusander’s frayed patience finally snap. The brocaded dress uniform was an invention, fit for official visits to the Citadel and other festive occasions, but in his day as commander of the legions, Urusander’s attire had been virtually indistinguishable from the commonest cohort soldier’s. The Kurald legions were now called Urusander’s Legion, and with good reason. Though born of a Lesser House, Urusander had risen quickly through the ranks in the harrowing first months of the Forulkan War, when the high command had been decimated first by treacherous acts of assassination, then by successive defeats on the field of battle.

Urusander had saved the Tiste people. Without him, Hunn Raal well knew, Kurald Galain would have fallen.

The career that followed, through the entire campaign to drive back the Forulkan, and then the punitive pursuit of the Jhelarkan deep into the lands of the northwest, had elevated Urusander to legendary status, justifying this belated scene here in the upper chamber of the keep’s newest tower, with the dust of the stone-cutters still riding the currents. The presence of Kadaspala of House Enes was in itself an impressive measure of Urusander’s vaunted status. This portrait would be copied upon the wall of the Inner Avenue in the Citadel in Kharkanas, in place alongside images of highborn Tiste, both those still living and those long dead.

But the man sitting stiffly inside that garish uniform, with all its martial decorations, was moments from shattering this perfect image of resolute dignity. Hunn Raal fought back a smile. Neither he nor Osserc could fail to see the signs, even as Kadaspala worked on, unmindful, lost in his own world of frenzied haste. Urusander had gone very still – and no doubt the artist saw this, if he gave any mind to it at all, as a triumph of his own will over his recalcitrant subject.

Hunn wondered if Osserc would speak, to stem the dyke before it burst – or would he recoil, as he had done for most of his sheltered life, only to then stumble over himself in an effort to soothe any and all who might take offence at his father’s tirade? Hunn was tempted to stand back and witness, but then, what good would be achieved? Even worse, Kadaspala might take such umbrage as to pack up his paints and brushes and march out, never to return.

There were reasons for Hunn Raal’s presence in this chamber. Had he not nearly died taking an assassin’s knife intended for Urusander? Well, he would step into the blade’s path yet again. Clearing his throat, he said, ‘Good artist, the day’s light is fading—’

Kadaspala – not much older than Osserc – spun on the old soldier. ‘You damned fool! The light is perfect! This very moment, can’t you see that?’

‘Even so, and in this, sir, I bow to your expertise. However, you must understand, Lord Urusander is a soldier who has taken many wounds in his career. Time and again he has bled in defence of Kurald Galain, winning for us all the peace we so take for granted. I know I could not sit still for as long as he has this day—’

‘Of that,’ Kadaspala snapped, ‘I have no doubt. Not that your dog’s face will ever grace a wall, unless as a mounted trophy.’

Hunn Raal snorted his laughter. ‘Well said, sir. But it changes nothing. The Lord needs to stretch out his limbs, that is all.’

The artist’s round face seemed to hover like a mask, as if moments from rushing, disembodied, straight for Hunn Raal; and then he turned away, flinging down his brushes. ‘What’s light, then, anyway? Isn’t it enough that Mother Dark’s stealing it all from us? What of the portraits in the Avenue? Useless!’ He seemed to be speaking mostly to himself, and for a host of reasons the others in the chamber, Urusander included, were content to leave him to it.

The Lord straightened, sighing deeply.

‘Tomorrow, Lord Urusander,’ Kadaspala said, in a tone worthy of a beating. ‘The very same time. And you, servant – more candles! Curse the darkness, curse it!’

Hunn watched his lord silently stride from the room, choosing the side passage leading to the steps that would take him down to his private chambers. The soldier then caught Osserc’s eye and nodded, and with Urusander’s son following he led the way out, using the main stairs. This wing of the keep still awaited furnishing, and they passed through empty rooms and echoing corridors before arriving at the main vestibule, where what had once seemed opulent now struck Hunn as tattered and worn, the walls, hangings and weapon-racks smokesmeared and battered by a century of wear.

Little remained of the ancient fortress that had once commanded this hilltop, at the very heart of the town of Neret Sorr; most of its ruins had been dismantled and reused in the construction of the New Keep a hundred years ago, and of the bloodlines that had once laid claim to this settlement and its outlying territories, the last drop had long since vanished into the earth. The common belief was that Urusander’s own family had been fealty-sworn to that vanished nobility, warriors from the very beginning, but Hunn Raal had been central in promulgating that legend. So much of history was nothing but gaping holes that needed filling with whatever was expedient, for now, and more significantly for the future, where the fruition of carefully planted inventions and half-truths would, if he had his way, yield a wealth of rewards. They stepped outside into the courtyard, strode into the shadows cast by the thick, high walls. Off to one side, an ox-drawn cart had delivered ingots of raw iron outside the smithy and the smith’s apprentices were busy unloading the stock. Unmindful of these efforts, the handler and the keep’s cutter were digging a tick out from behind the ox’s left ear, and the insect’s stubbornness was attested by the blood running down the side of the ox’s neck, while the animal lowed plaintively, hide rippling as its muscles flinched.

‘Where are we going?’ Osserc asked as they crossed the compound towards the High Gate.

‘Down into town,’ Hunn Raal replied. ‘Your father will be in a dark mood at the table tonight, assuming he shows up at all. I’ve never seen a man so eager to put down his sword, and all for a trunkful of Forulkan cylinders – and half of those broken. If those white-faced fools had any thought worthy of admiration, it did them little good against Tiste vengeance.’

Osserc was silent for a moment, as they approached the gate, and then he said, ‘It is his abiding fascination, Hunn. The laws of governance. The compact of society. We are in need of reformation, and proof of that is plain enough in all the troubles now coming home to roost.’ Hunn Raal grunted, feeling his face twisting. ‘Draconus. The troubles you’re talking about begin and end with that upstart.’

It had been a weighted comment on Hunn’s part, and he made sure not to react to Osserc’s sudden look, simply continuing on. ‘There is no history, no precedent. The family of Dracons was ever a Lesser House. And now some dubious heir to its thin blood stands beside Mother Dark. This is the threat and it has nothing to do with reform. Ambition, Osserc, is a poison.’

‘Well, my father has none of that.’

Inwardly, Hunn smiled, and it was a triumphant smile. ‘Just so. Who better to govern, then? She doesn’t need a damned Consort, she needs a husband.’

They emerged on to the first of the switchbacks leading down into the town. There was no traffic coming up this late in the day, but a cluster of carts heading down formed a logjam at the second turn, where the back end of a long-bedded wagon was being lifted by a dozen or so haulers to swing it clear.

‘If Draconus is a commoner,’ said Osserc, ‘so too is my father.’

Hunn had been waiting for that observation. ‘Not true. The earliest mentions of Neret Sorr note the ruling family’s name as Vatha. And more important, retired or not, Urusander commands the legions. Tell me this: how well have we been treated? You’ve seen it for yourself, friend. We fought and so many of us died, and we won. We won the war for everyone in the realm. And now, well, they’d rather forget we ever existed. It’s not right, how we’re treated, and you know it.’

‘We are no threat to the nobility,’ Osserc retorted. ‘That’s not how it is, Hunn Raal. It’s expensive maintaining the legions at full strength. The desire is to reduce active rosters—’

‘And throw the rest of us out on the streets,’ Hunn Raal said. ‘Or worse, into the wood to grub alongside the Deniers. And when the Forulkan come back? We won’t be ready, and not even your father could save us then.’

There were patterns to things, and Hunn Raal had his reasons for working them; in particular on this young man, this untried son of a hero who when speaking of the legions had said we, as if dreams were real. Hunn could see what was needed, but Urusander was not a man to be swayed by exhortations or arguments. He had done his service to the realm, and as far as he was concerned what remained of his life was now his own. He had earned it.

But the truth was, the realm needed a saviour, and the only way to the father was through the son. Hunn Raal went on, ‘The future is not for someone else, though each of us might think so. It’s for us. Your father understands that, at some deep level – beyond all the crazed Forulkan obsessions with justice and whatever – he knows that he fought for himself, and for you – for the world ahead of you. But instead he hides in his study. He needs drawing out, Osserc. You must see that.’

But there was an ugly cast to Osserc’s face now, as they fell in behind the line of carts trundling down to the next turn. Hunn Raal could almost see the gnawing fangs inside Osserc’s head. He edged closer, lowering his voice, ‘He refused you a sword in your hands. I know. To keep you safe. But listen, in a cut-down army, what chance do you think you’ll get to put all your training to good use? You say you want to march at my side, and I believe you. Abyss take me, but I’d be proud to be there, seeing that, too.’

‘It will never happen,’ Osserc growled.

‘The legions want you. They see – and we who are here see every day – so much of the father in his son. We’re all waiting. The day your father is made king, Osserc, is the day he will truly have to let go of the legions, with you taking his place. This is the future we want, all of us. And I tell you, I will work on Urusander. After all, he would never have had you trained to fight if he wanted you doing nothing but making lists of clay cylinders. You need a commission, and we’ll see it done, and that’s a promise.’

‘So you keep saying,’ Osserc muttered, but the strength had gone from his anger.

Hunn Raal slapped him on the back. ‘I do. Now, friend, let’s go drink, shall we?’

‘You and your drinking.’

‘Trust me; it’s all down to what a soldier’s seen. You’ll find that out soon enough. I plan on getting drunk, and you’ll need to drag me home.’

‘Not if I get drunk first.’

‘It’s to be a race then, is it? Good!’

There was something pathetic, Hunn Raal reflected, when a young man longed for a good reason to drink, to sit silent and alone, staring at memories that would not go away. Remembering fallen friends, and the screams of the dying. In truth, Hunn would not wish that on anyone, but if something wasn’t done to make the portrait of Urusander real, as real as it could be, there would be civil war.

With the legions trapped in the eye of the storm.

The true irony in all of this was the fact that Hunn Raal’s own Issgin line had more claim to the throne than anyone, even Mother Dark herself. No matter. The past was more than just empty holes. Here and there, those holes had been filled long ago, every truth buried, down deep and out of sight. And it was just as well. What he sought wasn’t for himself, was it? It was for the good of the realm. And even if it cost him his life, he would see Urusander on the Blackwood Throne.

His thoughts returned to Draconus, like a flash of sudden blood in the night, and he felt rage build hot in his chest. The common belief was that the legions would stand aside and take no part in the squabbles among the nobility. But the common belief was wrong. Hunn Raal would see to it. Should the tensions erupt into open warfare, Draconus would find himself facing not just the sons and daughters of Mother Dark, but Urusander’s Legion as well.

See you sweet-talk your way out of that mess, Draconus. See where your power-mad ambition finds you then.

Night clothed the town below, but the inns glowed in the valley bed with soft lanternlight, yellow and gold like the flames of candles. Looking down upon them, Hunn Raal could feel his thirst awaken.

* * *

Kadaspala wiped the last stubborn pigment stains from his hands using a cloth soaked in spirits, his eyes watering as the fumes reached his face. He’d sent the servant from his room. The idea of needing someone to help him dress for a meal was absurd. The secret of a great portrait was to meet the subject eye to eye, as equals, whether that subject was a commander of armies, or a shepherd boy who’d give up his own life to defend a flock of ahmryd. He despised the notion of betters. Station and wealth were flimsy props thrown up in front of people as flawed and as mortal as anyone else, and if it was their need to strut and prance behind them, it was proof of internal weakness and nothing else, and what could be more pathetic than that?

He would never have servants. He wanted no artificial prop to deference. Every life was a gift – he needed only look into the eyes opposite him, at any time on any given day, to know this. It did not matter to whom those eyes belonged. He would see true, and then make that truth plain to see for everyone else. His was a hand that would never lie.

The day’s sitting had been . . . adequate. The mood that took Kadaspala when rendering a portrait was a foul one, and he knew it. But most of his impatience was with himself. Each and every day was too short, the light too whimsical, his vision too sharp not to see the failings in his work – and no amount of praise from onlookers could change any of that. Hunn Raal had no doubt thought his comment soothing, even complimentary, but it had taken all of Kadaspala’s will to keep him from stabbing the smirking soldier in the eye with his brush. The passion that stole his mind when composing was a dark, frightening thing. Murderous and vile. Such depths had once frightened him, but now he simply lived with them, like an unpleasant scar marring his face, or pockmarks on his cheeks from some past illness.

Yet it was the breadth of the contradiction that most disturbed him: that on the one hand he could adhere to the belief that every life was of equal value, a value that was immense, while at the same time despising everyone he knew.

Almost everyone. There were precious exceptions.

The reminder made him pause, vision blurring slightly. It did not take much, he knew. A flash of memory, a sudden rush of anticipation for when he would see her again. There was nothing untoward in his love for Enesdia, his sister. He was an artist, after all, who knew the truth of beauty, and she was his definition of that virtue, from the core of her gentle soul to the smooth perfection of her form.

He dreamed of painting her. It was an abiding dream, an obsessive dream, yet he had never done so and never would. No matter how consuming his effort, no matter how vast his talent, he knew he would fail to capture her, because what he saw wasn’t necessarily there to be seen – though he could not be sure of that, as it was not something he discussed with anyone.

This battered old warrior, Urusander, offered him an appropriately stark contrast. Men like him were easy to paint. They might well have depths, but those depths were all of one colour, one tone. They were devoid of mystery, and this was what made them such powerful leaders. There was something frightening in that unrelieved monochrome, and yet it seemed to reassure others, as if it were a source of strength.

Some people suited their transformations, into paint on board, as dyed plaster on walls, or in the unrelieved purity of marble. They existed as both surface and opaque solidity, and it was this quality that Kadaspala found so cruel and monstrous, for it spoke of the will of the world. He knew he played his role. He gave the substance to their assertion of power.

Portraits were the weapons of tradition, and tradition was the invisible army laying siege to the present. And what was at stake? What victory did it seek? To make the future no different from the past. With every stroke of his brush, Kadaspala opened a wound, against all who would challenge the way things were. He fought that bitter knowledge, perversely setting his talents to the battlements as if he would refuse his own advance.

He wished he were less aware; he wished that his own talent could somehow blind him to its insipid appropriation. But this was not to be.

Thoughts churning, as they always did following a sitting, he dressed with haphazard indifference and made his way out, down to dine with the Lord of the House. Would it be this night, then, that Urusander or Hunn Raal finally broached the possibility of painting young Osserc? Kadaspala hoped not. He hoped that moment would never come. Finish the portrait of the father, and then flee this place. Return home, to see her again.

He dreaded these formal suppers. They were filled with banal reminiscences of battle, mostly from Hunn Raal, warring with Urusander’s daily discoveries when delving into the arcane idiocy of the Forulkan. With Osserc’s head turning as if on a spike. There was nothing in the Lord’s son that he wanted to paint, no depths to seek out. Behind Osserc’s eyes there was bedrock, disfigured by Hunn Raal’s incessant chipping away. The boy was destined for obscurity, unless he could be prised away from his father and his so-called friend. As it stood, the combination of Urusander’s raising high unassailable walls around his son, and Hunn Raal’s ceaseless undermining of those foundations, left Osserc in genuine danger. Should something lead to a collapse of his world he might well be utterly crushed. In the meantime the sheer oppression was visibly suffocating the young man.

No matter. None of this was Kadaspala’s problem. He had plenty of his own to worry about. Mother Dark’s power grows, and with that power, she is stealing the light. From the world. What future has an artist, when all is in darkness?

Mulling on these bleak thoughts, he strode into the dining room. And then paused. The chairs where he had expected to see Hunn Raal and Osserc seated were both vacant. Lord Urusander sat alone at his place at the table’s head, and for once the surface before him was uncluttered – not a single fired-clay cylinder or unfurled scroll of notations weighted down at the corners and awaiting his studious perusal.

Urusander was leaning back, in one hand a goblet, cradled at his waist. His faded blue eyes were fixed on the artist with an acuity that was unprecedented in his recollection. ‘Good Kadaspala Enes, please sit. No, here, upon my right. It seems that this evening it shall be you and me.’

‘I see, my lord.’ He made his way over. The moment he arrived and seated himself, a servant appeared with a goblet to match the Lord’s. Taking it, he looked down. Blackvine, the rarest and most expensive wine in the realm.

‘I was looking upon your day’s work,’ Urusander continued.

‘Indeed, Lord?’

Urusander’s eyes flickered slightly, the only detail to signal his mood, and that signal was obscure. ‘You are not curious as to my opinion?’


The Lord sipped, and it could have been stale water that passed his lips for all the change in his expression. ‘One may presume, I hope, that the notion of an audience is relevant to you.’

‘Relevant, Lord? Oh, it’s relevant . . . to an extent. But if you imagine that I yearn for a heavenly chorus of opinion, then you must think me naïve. If I were to require such reward as if it were the blood of life, why, I would starve. As would virtually every other artist in Kurald Galain.’

‘So opinions are without value?’

‘I value only those that please me, Lord.’

‘Then would you deny the potential worth of constructive criticism?’

‘That depends,’ Kadaspala replied, still to taste the wine.

‘Upon what?’ Urusander asked, as servants appeared once more, this time with the first course. Plates whispered down, the air was stirred by bodies in motion behind and around the two men, and the candles on the table flickered and dipped this way and that.

‘How fare your studies, Lord?’

‘You evade my question?’

‘I choose my own path to answering it.’

Neither anger nor patronizing amusement touched Urusander’s worn face. ‘Very well. The issue I am struggling with is one of moral stance. Written law is in itself pure, at least in so far as language can make it. Ambiguity emerges only in its practical application upon society, and at this point hypocrisy seems to be the inevitable consequence. The law bends to those in power, like a willow or perhaps a cultured rosebush, or even a fruit-bearing tree trained against a wall. Where it grows depends upon the whims of those in power, and before too long, why, the law becomes a twisted thing indeed.’

Kadaspala set the goblet down, eyed the food on the plate before him. Smoked meat, some kind of glazed vegetable, positioned in a way as if to regard each other. ‘But are not laws little more than formalized opinions, Lord?’

Urusander’s brows lifted. ‘I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, Kadaspala. To answer you, yes, they are. Opinions on the proper and peaceful governance of society—’

‘Excuse me, but peaceful is not a word that comes to my mind when thinking of law. At its core is subjugation, after all.’

Urusander considered, and then said, ‘Only in the matter of mitigating damaging or antisocial behaviour, and at this point I return you to my first comment. That is, of moral stance. It is the very matter with which I am struggling, with little forward progress, I admit. So,’ he took another sip and then set the goblet down and picked up his knife, ‘let us set aside the notion of “peaceful” for the moment. Consider the very foundation of the matter, namely, that law exists to impose rules of acceptable behaviour in social discourse, yes? Good, then let us add the notion of protecting one from harm, both physical and spiritual, and, well, you see the dilemma.’

Kadaspala considered that for a moment, and then he shook his head. ‘Laws decide which forms of oppression are allowed, Lord. And because of that, those laws are servants to those in power, for whom oppression is given as a right over those who have little or no power. Now, shall we return to art, Lord? When stripped down to its bones, criticism is a form of oppression. Its intent is to manipulate both artist and audience, by imposing rules on aesthetic appreciation. Curiously, its first task is to belittle the views of those who appreciate a certain work but are unable or unwilling to articulate their reasons for doing so. On occasion, of course, one of those viewers rises to the bait, taking umbrage at being dismissed as being ignorant, at which point critics en masse descend to annihilate the fool. No more than defending one’s own precious nest, one presumes. But on another level, it is the act of those in power in protecting their interests, those interests being nothing less than absolute oppression through the control of personal taste.’

Urusander had sat motionless through this, knife point thrust through a sliver of meat and suspended halfway to his mouth. When Kadaspala finished, he set the knife down and reached once more for his wine. ‘But I am not a critic,’ he said.

‘Indeed not, Lord, which is why I said I wasn’t curious about your opinion. I am curious about the opinions of critics. But about the opinions of those with no agenda beyond the aesthetic, I am interested.’

Urusander snorted. ‘Take some wine, Kadaspala, you have just earned it.’

The mouthful he took was modest.

‘Other nights when we sit here,’ Urusander said, now frowning, ‘you will finish off an entire carafe on your own.’

‘Other nights, Lord, I am subjected to war stories.’

Urusander laughed, the sound startling the servants with its booming thunder. Somewhere in the kitchen something crashed down to the stone floor.

‘The wine,’ said Kadaspala, ‘is exceptional, Lord.’

‘It is, isn’t it? And do you know why I have not served it before this night?’

‘Every morning, Lord, I check my jugs of cleaning spirits, to ensure Hunn Raal has not plundered them.’

‘Just so, artist, just so. Now, let us eat, but keep your wits about you. On this night, let us stretch our minds in dialogue.’

Kadaspala spoke with utter honesty. ‘Lord, pray we talk these candles down as the only measure of the evening’s passage.’

Urusander’s eyes were narrow and thoughtful. ‘I was warned to expect nothing but foul and bitter regard when in your company.’

‘Only when I paint, Lord. Only when I paint. Now, if it pleases you, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on my work thus far.’

‘My thoughts? I have but one, Kadaspala. I had no idea I was so transparent.’

He nearly dropped the goblet. Only the quick intercession of a servant saved him.

* * *

Enesdia, daughter of Lord Jaen of House Enes, stood frowning at the silvered mirror. The dye in the dress was said to come from a tuberous vegetable, which when simmered produced a deep and pure scarlet. ‘It’s the colour of blood,’ she said. ‘This is what everyone in Kharkanas is going mad for?’

The seamstresses flanking her in the reflection looked pale and drab, almost lifeless.

Seated off to the left on a settee, Cryl of House Durav cleared his throat in a manner all too familiar to Enesdia, and she turned, brows lifting, and said, ‘And what shall we argue about this morning, then? The cut of the dress? The style of the court? Or is it my hair that now dismays you? As it happens, I like it short. The shorter the better. Why should you complain about it, anyway? It’s not as though you’ve let your hair go long as a horse tail just to fit in with the day’s fashion. Oh, I don’t know why I invited you in at all.’

Mild surprise played with his even features for the briefest of moments, and then he offered up a lopsided shrug. ‘I was just thinking, it’s more vermilion than scarlet, isn’t it. Or is it our eyes that are changing?’

‘Idiotic superstitions. Vermilion . . . well.’

‘Dog-Runner wives call it the “Born of the Hearth”, don’t they?’

‘That’s because they boil the root, fool.’

‘Oh, I would think the name more descriptive than that.’

‘Would you now? Haven’t you somewhere to be, Cryl? Some horse to train? Some sword to whet?’

‘You invite me only to then send me away?’ The young man rose smoothly. ‘If I were a sensitive soul, I might be offended. As it is, I know this game – we have played it all our lives, haven’t we?’

‘Game? What game?’

He had been making for the door, but now he paused and glanced back, and there was something sad in his faint smile. ‘I hope you’ll excuse me, I have a horse to whet and a sword to train. Although, I should add, you look lovely in that dress, Enesdia.’

Even as she drew a breath, mind racing for something that made sense – that might even draw him snapping back on his leash – he slipped out and was gone.

One of the seamstresses sighed, and Enesdia rounded on her. ‘Enough of that, Ephalla! He is a hostage in this house and is to be accorded the highest respect!’

‘Sorry, mistress,’ Ephalla whispered, ducking. ‘But he spoke true – you look lovely!’

Enesdia returned her attention to the blurred image of herself in the mirror. ‘But,’ she murmured, ‘do you think he’ll like it?’

* * *

Cryl paused for a moment in the corridor outside Enesdia’s door, near enough to hear the last exchange between her and her handmaid. The sad half-smile on his face remained, only fading as he set out towards the main hall.

He was nineteen years old, the last eleven of those spent here in the house of Jaen Enes as a hostage. He was old enough to understand the value of the tradition. For all that the word ‘hostage’ carried an implicit pejorative, caged in notions of imprisonment and the absence of personal freedom, the practice was more of an exchange than anything else. It was further bound by rules and proscriptions ensuring the rights of the hostage. The sanctity of their person was immutable, precious as a founding law. Accordingly, Cryl, born of House Durav, felt as much an Enes as Jaen, Kadaspala or, indeed, Jaen’s daughter.

And this was . . . unfortunate. His childhood friend was a girl no longer, but a woman. And gone were his childish thoughts, his dreams of pretending she was in truth his own sister – although he now recognized the confusions swirling through such dreams. For a boy, the role of sister, wife and mother could – if one were careless – be so easily blended together into a heady brew of anguished longing. He’d not known what he’d wanted of her, but he had seen how their friendship had changed, and in that change a wall had grown between them, impassable, forbidding and patrolled by stern propriety. There had been moments of awkwardness, when either he or Enesdia stumbled too close to one another, only to be drawn up by freshly chiselled stone, the touch of which yielded embarrassment and shame.

They struggled now to find their places, shifting about in a search to discover the proper distance between them. Or perhaps the struggle was his alone. He could not be sure, and in that he saw the proof of how things had changed. Once, running at her side, he had known her well. Now, he wondered if he knew her at all.

In her room, only a short time ago, he’d spoken of the games now played between them. Not like the games of old, for these were not, strictly speaking, shared. Instead, these new ones held to personal, private rules, solitary in their gauging, and nothing was won but an abeyance of unease. And yet to this she had professed ignorance. No, ignorance was the wrong word. The word was innocence.

Should he believe her?

In truth, Cryl felt lost. Enesdia had outgrown him in every way, and at times he felt like a puppy at her heels, eager for play, but that sort of playing was behind her now. She thought him a fool. She mocked him at every turn, and a dozen times each day he silently vowed that he was done with it, all of it, only to once more find himself answering her summons – which seemed to be uttered ever more imperiously – and finding himself, yet again, the arrow-butt to her barbs.

It was clear to him, at last, that there were other meanings to the word ‘hostage’, ones not codified into the laws of tradition, and they bound him in chains, heavy and cruelly biting, and he spent his days, and nights, in tormented stricture.

But this was his twentieth year of life. He was only months away from being released, sent back to his own blood, where he would sit discomfited at the family table, trapped in his own strangeness in the midst of a family that had grown around the wound of his prolonged absence. All of this – Enesdia and her proud father, Enesdia and her frighteningly obsessed but brilliant brother, Enesdia and the man who would soon be her husband – all of it would be past, a thing of his history day by day losing its force, its power over him and his life.

And so, too sharply felt for irony, Cryl now longed for his freedom.

Striding into the Great Hall, he was brought up short at seeing Lord Jaen standing near the hearth. The old man’s eyes were on the massive slab of stone laid into the tiled floor, marking the threshold of the hearth and bearing ancient words carved into its granite mien. The Tiste language struggled with notions of filial duty – or so Kadaspala’s friend, the court poet Gallan, was fond of saying – as if hinting at some fundamental flaw in spirit, and so, as was often the case, the words were Azathanai. So many Azathanai gifts to the Tiste seemed to fill the dusty niches and gaps left gaping by flaws in Tiste character, and not one of those gifts was without symbolic meaning.

As a hostage, Cryl was forbidden from learning those arcane Azathanai words, given so long ago to the bloodline of Enes. It was odd, he now reflected as he bowed before Jaen, this Tiste prohibition against learning the masons’ script.

Jaen could well have been reading his mind, for he nodded and said, ‘Gallan claims he can read Azathanai, granting him the blasphemous privilege of knowing the sacred words of each noble family. I admit,’ he added, his thin, lined face twisting slightly, ‘I find the notion displeasing.’

‘Yet the poet asserts that such knowledge is for him alone, Lord.’

‘Poets, young Cryl, cannot be trusted.’

The hostage considered that statement, and found he had no reasonable reply to it. ‘Lord, I request permission to saddle a horse and ride on this day. It was my thought to seek sign of eckalla in the west hills.’

‘Eckalla? None have been seen in years, Cryl. I fear your search will be wasted.’

‘The ride will do me good, Lord, none the less.’

Jaen nodded, and it seemed he well understood the swirl of hidden emotions lying beneath Cryl’s bland words. His gaze returned to the hearthstone. ‘This year,’ he said, ‘I must give up a daughter. And,’ he glanced back at Cryl, ‘a most beloved hostage.’

‘And I, in turn, feel as if I am about to be cast out from the only family I truly belong to. Lord, doors are closing behind us.’

‘But not, I trust, for ever sealed?’

‘Indeed not,’ Cryl replied, although in his mind he saw a massive lock grinding tight. Some doors, once shut, were proof against every desire.

Jaen’s gaze faltered slightly and he turned away. ‘Even standing still, the world moves on around us. I well remember you when first you arrived, scrawny and wild-eyed – the Abyss knows you Duravs are a feral lot – and there you were, wild as a cat, yet barely tall enough to saddle a horse. At least it seems we fed you well.’

Cryl smiled. ‘Lord, the Duravs are said to be slow to grow—’

‘Slow in many things, Cryl. Slow to assume the trappings of civil comportment, in which I admit I find considerable charm. You have held to that despite our efforts, and so remain refreshing to our eyes. Yes,’ he continued, ‘slow in many things. Slow in judgement, slow to anger . . .’ Jaen slowly swung round and fixed Cryl with a searching regard. ‘Are you angry yet, Cryl Durav?’

The question shocked him, almost made him step back. ‘Lord? I – I have no cause to be angry. I am saddened to leave this house, but there will be rejoicing this year. Your daughter is about to be wed.’

‘Indeed.’ He studied Cryl for a moment longer, and then, as if yielding some argument, he broke his gaze and faced the hearthstone, gesturing. ‘And she will kneel before one such as this, in the great house that her betrothed even now builds for her.’

‘Andarist is a fine man,’ Cryl said, as evenly as he could manage. ‘Honourable and loyal. This binding by marriage is a sure one, Lord, by every measure.’

‘Does she love him, though?’

Such questions left him reeling. ‘Lord? I am certain that she does.’

Jaen grunted, and then sighed. ‘You see her truly, don’t you – the years together, the friendship you have both held for each other. She loves him, then? I am pleased. Yes, most pleased to hear you say that.’

Cryl would leave here, soon, and when he did, he knew that he would not look back, not once. Nor, for all that he loved this old man, would he ever return. In his chest, he felt nothing but cold, a scattering of dead cinders, the grating promise of choking ashes should he draw too deep a breath.

She would have a hearthstone. She – and her new husband – would have words that only they would know; the first words of the private language that must ever exist between husband and wife. Azathanai gifts were not simple, were never simple. ‘Lord, may I ride this day?’

‘Of course, Cryl. Seek out the eckalla, and should you find one, bring it down and we shall feast well. As in the old days when the beasts were plentiful, yes?’

‘I shall do my best, Lord.’

Bowing, Cryl strode from the Great Hall. He was looking forward to this expedition, away from this place, out into the hills. He would take his hunting spear but, in truth, he did not expect to sight such a noble creature as an eckalla. In the other times when he had ridden the west hills, all he had ever found was bones, from past hunts, past scenes of butchering.

The eckalla were gone, the last one slain decades ago.

And beneath him while he rode, if he so chose, Cryl could listen to the thunder of his horse’s hoofs, and imagine each report as the slamming of another door. They seemed to go on without end, didn’t they?

The eckalla are gone. The hills are lifeless.

* * *

Even bad habits offered pleasure. In her youth, Hish Tulla had given her heart away with what others had seen as careless ease, as if it were a thing without much worth, but it had not been like that at all. She’d simply wanted it in someone else’s hands. The failing was that it was so easily won, and therefore became a thing of little worth for the recipient. Could no one see the hurt she felt, each and every time she was cast aside, sorely used, battered by rejection? Did they think she welcomed such feelings, the crushing despond of seeing the paucity of her worth? ‘Oh, she will heal quickly enough, will our dear Hish. She always does . . .’

A habit like a rose, and on the day of its blossoming, why, see how each petal revealed its own unique script, with smaller habits hiding within the larger one. Upon this petal, precise instructions on how to force out the smile, the elegant wave of the hand and the shrug. Upon another petal, lush and carmine, a host of words and impulses to resurrect her vivacious nature; to glide her across every room no matter how many or how gauging the eyes that tracked her. Oh and she held tight upon the stem of that rose, didn’t she?

The horse was quiescent beneath her; she could feel the gelding’s comforting heat against her thighs, her calves. Beneath the branches of the tree under which she had taken shelter, evading the sudden downpour, she could see, through the slanting streams, the three men standing now before the basalt gravestone, out in the clearing where crouched the crypts and tombs, as the rain poured down as if seeking to drown them all.

She had known the pleasures of two of the three brothers, and, though she was no longer inclined, the last one was now likely beyond her reach, for he was soon to be wed, and it seemed that for Andarist his love was rare enough, precious enough, that once set at the foot of one woman, never again would he look elsewhere, never again would he even so much as glance away. That flighty, vain daughter of Jaen Enes knew not her fortune; of that Hish was certain, for she saw too much of herself in Enesdia. New to womanhood, eager to love and drunk with its power, how soon before she chafed at her bridling?

Hish Tulla was mistress to her House. She had no husband and would now take no one into her life. At her side, these days, was the desiccated remnant of her old habit, the petals almost black; the thorny stem stained and thickly smeared with something like vermilion wax. It served the role of an old friend, confidante to her confessions, ever wise in its recognition, never spurred into judgement. And these days, when she crossed a room, the eyes that tracked her . . . well, she no longer cared what they thought they saw. The woman older than her years, the spinster of many scars, the wild slave to carnal excess now returned to the earth, wisely subdued, though still ready for a moment’s bright vivacity, the flash of a smile.

The rain fell off; a curtain drifting down in sudden dissolution as the sun’s light broke through once more. Water still ran from the leaves, slicking the black branches, dripping down upon her waxed cloak like old tears. Clucking, Hish Tulla edged her mount forward. Stones crunched wetly under hoofs, and the three brothers turned at the sound.

They had ridden up from the south track, ignoring the torrent from the sky, and she concluded that they’d not seen her as they reined in before the crypt, dismounted and walked to stand before the unmarked plinth sealing the tomb. The body of their father, Nimander, lay in eternal repose within that crypt, in the hollowed-out trunk of a blackwood tree, but two years dead, and it was clear that his three sons were not yet done with the memory of him.

Witnessing the scene, Hish had recognized its privacy, the lowering of guard, and in their expressions now she thought she could see their disapproval and, perhaps, faint dismay. Raising a gloved hand as she walked her horse closer, she said, ‘I was sheltering from the rain, brothers, when you rode into sight. Forgive my intrusion, it was not intended.’

Silchas Ruin, to whom Hish had given ecstatic adoration for four months a few years ago, before he lost interest, was the first to speak. ‘Lady Hish, we knew we had an audience, but the shadows beneath the tree hid from us your identity. As you say, it was but chance, but be assured, you are always welcome in our eyes.’

Her old lovers were consistently courteous, probably because she never fought to hold on to any of them. The heart thus broken had no strength and even less will, and but crawled away with a weak smile and welling eyes. In their courtesy, she suspected, there was pity.

‘Thank you,’ she replied. ‘I thought only to identify myself, and now I shall ride on and leave you to your remembrance.’

To that, it was Anomander who said, ‘Lady Hish Tulla, you misunderstand our purpose here. We require no gravestone to remember our beloved father. No, in truth, it was curiosity that brought us to this place.’

‘Curiosity,’ agreed Silchas Ruin, ‘and determination.’

Hish frowned. ‘Lords, I am afraid I do not understand.’

She saw Andarist look away, as if he would claim no part in any of this. She knew he meant her no disrespect, but then, he had no reason to pity her and so cared little for courtesy.

These three brothers had a way of standing apart, even when they stood together. All were tall, and each shared something both magnetic and vulnerable. They could pull entire worlds around their selves, yet not once yield to pride, or arrogance.

White-skinned, red-eyed, Silchas Ruin waved a long-fingered hand, directing her attention to the basalt plinth. ‘By our father’s own command,’ he said, ‘the words carved upon his gravestone hide on the other side, facing in. They were intended for him alone, though he has no eyes with which to see, and no thoughts left to consider.’

‘That is . . . unusual.’

Anomander’s sun-burnished face, the colour of pale gold, now smiled at her. ‘Lady, your touch is no less soft for the years between us.’

Hish felt her eyes widen at those words, though, upon a moment’s reflection, perhaps more at the open affection in his tone. She met his gaze, searchingly, but saw nothing ironic or cruel. Anomander had been the first man she had taken as a lover. They had been very young. She remembered times of laughter, and tenderness, and the innocence of the unsure. Why had it ended? Oh, yes. He went to war.

‘We are of a mind to prise loose this stone,’ said Silchas.

At that Andarist turned to his brother. ‘You are, Silchas. Because of your need to know everything. But the words will be Azathanai. To you they will mean nothing, and that is as it should be. They were never meant for us, and to the bite of our eyes they will answer with bitter curse.’

Silchas Ruin’s laughter was soft. ‘These are your days of superstition, Andarist. Understandably.’ So dismissing his brother, he said, ‘Lady Hish, from here we ride on to the building site of Andarist’s new house. And awaiting us there is a stone-carver of the Azathanai, who has arrived with the hearthstone Anomander has commissioned as a wedding gift.’ He gestured again, in that careless way she remembered from years past. ‘This was but a minor detour, an impulse, in fact. Perhaps we will force the stone, perhaps not.’

Impulsive was not a behaviour Hish would associate with Silchas Ruin; indeed, not with any of these brothers. If their father chose to gift those words to darkness, it was in honour of the woman he had served all his life. She met Anomander’s eyes again. ‘Upon opening a crypt, you will all draw the breath of a dead man’s air, and that is truth, not superstition. What follows upon that, curse or ill, will be for seers to glean.’ She gathered up her reins. ‘Pray, withhold yourselves for a moment and grant me the time to depart this yard.’

‘You are riding to Kharkanas?’ Silchas asked.

‘I am.’ If he thought she would explain further, he was mistaken. She nudged her mount forward, directing it towards the track that cut over the hump of the hill. The crypts on all sides of this ancient burial ground seemed to crouch, as if awaiting the pounding of yet more rain, and the moss draped over many of them was so verdant it startled the eye.

Hish Tulla felt their regard following her as she rode on; wondered, briefly, at what words they might now pass among them, faintly amused perhaps, or derisive, as old recollections – at least from Anomander and Silchas – awakened, if not regret, then chagrin. But they would laugh, to break free of the discomfort, and shrug away their own impetuous years, now well behind them.

And then, in all likelihood, Silchas would exhort his muscles to prise loose the gravestone, to look well upon the hidden words etched into the black, dusty basalt. He would, of course, be unable to read them, but he might recognize a hieroglyph here, another there. He might glean something of his father’s message to Mother Dark, like catching a fragment of conversation one was not meant to hear.

In the dead man’s breath there would come guilt, bitter and stale, for the three men to taste, and Andarist would know fury – for that taste was not something to bring into a new home for himself and his wife to be, was it? He had every right to be superstitious – omens ever marked great changes in life.

A smell bitter and stale, a smell of guilt. Little different, in fact, from that of a dead rose.

* * *

‘To this day,’ Anomander muttered, ‘my heart swells at the sight of her.’

‘Just your heart then, brother?’

‘Silchas, will you ever listen well to what I say? I choose my words with precision. Perhaps, in truth, you speak only of yourself.’

‘It seems that I do, then. She remains lovely to my eyes, I admit, and if I find myself desiring her even now, there is no shame in admitting it. Even now, I think, we but spin in her wake, like leaves from a fallen tree.’

Andarist had listened in silence to this, unable to share in any tender memories of the beautiful woman who had ridden out from the shadows beneath the tree. Yet, in that moment, he saw an opportunity to draw out his brothers, in particular Silchas – and perhaps it would be enough to dissuade him from his intentions. So he faced Silchas and said, ‘Brother, why did you end it with her?’

Silchas Ruin’s white face bore droplets and streaks of rain as would a visage carved in alabaster. He preceded his reply with a sigh, and then said, ‘Andarist, I wish I knew. No, I think I realized that she was . . . ephemeral. Like a wisp of fog, I could not grasp hold. For all that she lavished attention upon me, it seemed there was something missing.’ He shook his head, shrugged helplessly. ‘Elusive as a dream, is Hish Tulla.’

‘And is this unchanged in her?’ Andarist asked. ‘She has taken no husband.’

‘I imagine her suitors have all given up,’ Silchas answered. ‘Each draws near, only to see too sharply his own failings, and in shame pulls away, never to return.’

‘You may well be right,’ Anomander mused.

‘She seems to have suffered nothing in her solitude,’ Silchas observed, ‘nor do I see any weakness in her attention to grace and perfection. In elegant remoteness, she arrives like a work of high art, and you may well desire to edge ever closer, seeking flaws in the maker’s hand, but the closer you get, the more she blurs before your eyes.’

Andarist saw that Anomander was studying Silchas intently, yet when he spoke it was clear that his thoughts had travelled tracks other than those consuming Silchas. ‘Brother, do you see Hish Tulla as a potential ally?’

‘In truth, I cannot say,’ Silchas replied. ‘She seems the definition of neutrality, does she not?’

‘She does,’ Anomander admitted. ‘Well, let us consider it again, at a later time. For now, will you have at this gravestone?’

Eyes closing, Andarist awaited his brother’s answer.

Silchas was a moment before replying. ‘I see more rain, and we have another league before us. The valley floor promises mud and treacherous footing. I suggest we set this matter aside for now, as well. Be at ease, Andarist. I would do nothing to endanger your future, and though I have little time for omens and such, I do not await what awaits you. So, if you’ll forgive my occasional amusement, let us not cross the lame dog’s path.’

‘I thank you,’ Andarist replied, glancing over to meet Silchas’s warm gaze. ‘And will endeavour to think no ill of your amusement, irritating and patronizing as it may be.’

The smile on Silchas’s face now split into a grin, and he laughed. ‘Lead us on, then. Your brothers would meet this famous mason and look well upon his offering.’

‘Famous,’ muttered Anomander, ‘and damned expensive.’

They returned to their horses and mounted up. Drawing their mounts round, they set off.

Andarist looked across at Anomander. ‘One day I hope to answer your sacrifice, brother, with one as worthy and as noble as yours.’

‘Where love is the coin, no sacrifice is too great, Andarist. And with that wealth, who among us would hesitate? No, I but teased with you, brother. I trust I will be well pleased with the giving of this gift, and I hope you and your bride find the same pleasure in its receiving.’

‘I am minded,’ Andarist said after a moment, ‘of our father’s gift to us. Mother Dark has rewarded his loyalty through the elevation of his sons, and you, Anomander, have been lifted the highest among us.’

‘And the point you wish to make?’

‘Would you have permitted Silchas the desecration of Father’s tomb?’

‘Desecration?’ Silchas said in shocked disbelief. ‘All I sought was—’

‘The sundering of a seal,’ Andarist finished. ‘What else could it be called?’

‘The moment is past,’ Anomander said. ‘There will be no more said on the matter. Brothers, we approach a precious time. Let us value it as it should be valued. The blood ever flows between us, and ever shall, and that is our father’s greatest gift to us – would either of you argue against that?’

‘Of course not,’ Silchas replied in a growl.

‘And though I am now elevated to First Son of Darkness, I will not stand alone. I see you both with me, at my side. Peace shall be our legacy – we will achieve it together. What must be done I cannot do alone.’

After a long moment of riding, Silchas seemed to shake himself, and then he said, ‘Hish Tulla looks fondly upon you, Anomander. She will see the nobility in what you seek.’

‘I hope so, Silchas.’

And Andarist said, ‘Though I do not know her as well as either of you, by reputation alone she is known for affability and a certain . . . integrity, and not once have I heard a word of spite directed towards Hish Tulla, which is in itself remarkable.’

‘Then shall I approach her?’ Anomander asked, looking from one brother to the other.

And both nodded.

Anomander had done well, Andarist reflected, in reminding them of what awaited them in the time ahead. A struggle was coming, and in Mother Dark’s name they would find themselves at the very centre of it. They could afford no divisiveness or contention between them.

Through the branches of the trees lining the track, the sky was clear, the glare of the sun like molten gold on the leaves.

‘It seems,’ said Silchas, ‘the way ahead has seen no rain, Andarist. I imagine your builders are well pleased at that.’

Andarist nodded. ‘It is said that the Azathanai have power over both earth and sky.’

‘These are Tiste lands,’ Anomander countered. ‘Purake lands. I do not recall my invitation extending to the extravagant use of sorcery. Though,’ he added with a half-smile, ‘I find I cannot entirely object to a cloudless sky over us.’

‘We shall arrive with steam rising from us,’ Silchas observed, laughing, ‘like children born of chaos.’

* * *

Envy was an unwelcome emotion, and Sparo fought hard against it as the servants – the heavy burlap in their hands – slowly walked back from the wagon-bed, and the cloth slipped easily across the surface of the hearthstone, and gasps of wonder rose from his cadre of stoneworkers and carpenters.

The massive foundation stones of the new house were behind the Tiste mason, and he did not need to turn and look at them to feel how their magnificence dwindled before the revelation of this Azathanai artefact. Destined to occupy the very centre of the Great Hall, the hearthstone would reside like a perfectly cut gem amidst a clutter of pebbles from the river. He felt diminished and offered no objection when the huge man standing at his side grunted and said, ‘Withdraw your workers, good Sparo. In the transport of the stone, I shall awaken sorcery.’

Sweat trickled down Sparo’s back beneath his rough tunic. ‘That will do,’ he barked to his crew. ‘Retreat to a safe distance, all of you!’ He watched his people hurry away, noted their uneasy glances back to the Azathanai High Mason.

‘There is nothing to fear, good Sparo.’

‘Earth magic is feral,’ Sparo replied. ‘It never sits well with us.’

Another grunt. ‘And yet you Tiste invite its gifts time and again.’

That was true enough. He glanced at the High Mason, feeling once more the almost physical buffeting the man’s presence delivered, as if the power the Azathanai held ever threatened to burst free; and saw once again the bestial wildness of a face that seemed moments from inviting such an eruption. ‘A meal is made finer, Lord, when one can avoid bloodying one’s own hands in the making of it.’

‘Then you are not a hunter, Sparo? Is that not unusual among the Tiste?’

Shrugging, Sparo said, ‘Less so of late, as most of the beasts are slain and shall never return to our lands. It seems that our days of glorious hunting will soon be at an end.’

‘Then let us hope,’ rumbled the mason, ‘that the Tiste do not turn to the final prey left them.’

Sparo frowned. ‘And what manner of creature might that be?’ ‘Why, each other, of course.’

With that, the Azathanai drew off his sheepskin cloak, letting it fall behind him, revealing the thick, scarred leather of his jerkin, the broad belt with its iron rings awaiting a stone-cutter’s tools, and set out towards the wagon. Glaring at the foreigner’s broad back, Sparo chewed on those last words, and found them displeasing to the palate. This Azathanai might well be a master of the shaping of stone, and in his blood the wild and raw sorcery of the earth, but such talents were no excuse for veiled insults.

Should he tell Lord Andarist of this exchange, however, it would no doubt be seen as trite, his own anger revealed as dishonest, little more than a reflection of his jealousy. It was one thing to be counted as among the finest masons when in the company of naught but his fellow Tiste, but these intrusions by the Azathanai arrived like salt to open wounds.

A febrile charge filled the air, rising like a breath from the ground. Muttering, the dozen or so workers backed further away, crowding against the heaps of rubble and wooden scaffolding on the other side of the main track. Fighting his own unease, Sparo watched the hearthstone lift from the wagon-bed. The oxen had already been unhitched and led away, to keep the beasts from panicking at the awakening of the Azathanai’s power. As the enormous block of basalt slid clear of the bed, the High Mason began walking towards the house, and the stone drifted into his wake like a faithful hound. Where it passed, however, the earth sank down as if still buckling to its massive weight. Small rocks spun away as if snapped by the passing of a huge wheel, while others crumbled to dust. The crackling energy filling the air began radiating heat, shrivelling the nearby tufts of grass, and smoke threaded along the path as the Azathanai guided the hearthstone towards its destination.

Sparo heard the thump of horse hoofs from the tree-lined track that led to the road, and he turned in time to see Lord Andarist and his brothers ride out from the shade of the nearest trees. The riders drew up sharply upon taking in the scene before them. Ignoring them, the Azathanai continued on, the hearthstone gliding along behind him – across the semicircular clearing fronting the house, and then on to the broad ramp that marked the approach to the gap still awaiting stone framing. Beneath the floating stone the ramp buckled, fissures spreading out through the packed soil.

Andarist had dismounted and now approached Sparo, who bowed and said, ‘My lord, I begged the Azathanai to await your arrival, but he is without patience.’

‘No matter, Sparo,’ Andarist replied, eyes fixed on the hearthstone as it slid over the threshold. The walls were not yet high enough to obscure their view as the High Mason guided his creation on to the earthen floor of what would be the Great Hall. The hearthstone left a depressed track as it approached the shallow pit awaiting it.

‘It was discourteous—’

‘The delay was ours – and the weather to the south.’

Lord Anomander had come up alongside his brother, while Silchas Ruin seemed content to remain seated on his mount a short distance back. Now, the First Son of Mother Dark spoke. ‘It is said that earth sorcery finds its truest vein of power at certain times of the day – and night – and so I expect the High Mason saw no value in delay, if only to ease his strain.’ He glanced over at Lord Andarist and said, ‘This much, at least, I did ask for.’

Sparo knew that it had been by Anomander’s instruction – and his coin – that this commission had occurred. Also, it was well known that this particular High Mason of the Azathanai was considered the lord among masters, his skill unequalled by any living mason, which set his status as, at the very least, equal to Anomander himself, whom Mother Dark had chosen to call her First Son.

Lord Andarist now turned to his brother, his eyes bright. ‘I would you accompany me, Anomander, to witness the placing of your gift.’ He turned then and waved Silchas forward. ‘And you as well, Silchas!’

But Silchas simply shook his head. ‘Anomander’s gift, and you the beneficiary, Andarist. I am well enough pleased to attend as I am. Go on, both of you, and quickly now lest that impolite creature forget his reason for being here, and for whom the stone was made.’

Andarist gestured that Sparo join them and the house-mason bowed a second time. ‘Lord, I am but—’

‘—my mason, Sparo, whose love for his art is sufficient cause in my eyes. Come, join us. Let us all look upon the majesty of this work.’

Trailing a step behind the two lords, Sparo followed along, feeling the thump of his own heart. Of course he would see the High Mason’s creation often enough in the months to come, in its rightful place in the Great Hall, but even hard basalt worked by an Azathanai was not immune to wear and tear, the scratches, stains and battering that came with a working hearth. And for all his envy, he was as Andarist had said: a lover of stone and the art of its shaping.

Silent with privilege, he joined his lord and Anomander upon reaching the packed earthen floor of the Great Hall. The Azathanai now stood to one side of the hearthstone, and the huge block hovered above its waiting seat. The High Mason faced Andarist and spoke, his expression flat.

‘The earth told of your approach. Are you the one soon to wed? Is this to be your home, Lord?’

‘Yes, I am Andarist.’

The High Mason’s broad visage then shifted to Anomander. ‘You, then, must be the First Son of Mother Dark. The giver of this gift to your brother and the woman he will take as wife.’

‘I am,’ Anomander replied.

‘And in so doing,’ the High Mason continued, ‘you bind yourself by blood and vow to what shall be made here, and to the secret words carved upon this hearthstone. If your loyalty is uncertain, speak now, First Son. Once this stone finds its place, the binding of the vow can never be broken, and should you fail in your love, in your loyalty, then even I cannot answer for the consequences.’

This sudden pronouncement stilled the two brothers, and Sparo felt his chest tighten, as if his heart’s beat was suddenly held, frozen. He struggled to breathe.

Anomander then tilted his head, as if to counter his own tension or affront. ‘High Mason,’ he said, ‘you speak of my love for Andarist, and my desire for the well-being of the new life awaiting him, as if they were in question. You speak, too, of this gift as if it embodies a threat, or indeed a curse.’

‘Such potential exists in every gift, and in its giving, First Son.’

‘The bargain made between myself and you,’ Anomander said, ‘involved the payment of coin for your services—’

‘Not precisely,’ the Azathanai replied. ‘You have paid for the protection and transport of this hearthstone, and its extraction from the Jhelarkan quarry. Your coin has purchased wagons, draught animals, and the necessary escort across the Bareth Solitude. For my talents, I take no coin.’

Anomander was frowning. ‘Forgive me, High Mason, but I surely paid for much more than what you have described.’

‘The Jhelarkan quarries are contested, Lord. Lives were lost in the procurement of this stone. Aggrieved families required compensation.’

‘This . . . distresses me,’ Anomander replied, and now Sparo could see the warrior’s taut fury.

‘The stone selected is unequalled in its capacity to contain and, indeed, sustain the sorcery I invest in it. If you wished a lesser gift, then you should not have made an approach to me. There are many highly skilled masons among the Azathanai, any one of whom could have served you well in the making of this gift. Yet you sought the finest worker of stone, to reflect the measure of your fealty to your brother and his pending union.’ The High Mason shrugged. ‘I have done as you requested. This hearthstone is without equal in the realm of the Tiste.’

‘And now you stand before us,’ said Anomander, ‘demanding my blood-vow.’

‘I do not,’ the High Mason replied, crossing his thickly muscled arms. ‘The stone demands. The words carved upon its face demand. The honour you wish to do to your brother demands.’

Andarist made to speak, dismay heavy on his features, but a quick shake of his brother’s head stilled him. Anomander said, ‘I have only your claim that the glyphs you have carved upon it – for the understanding of Andarist and Enesdia alone – do indeed avow love, fidelity and fecundity. And yet you ask of me, here and now, to give by blood and vow my binding to those secret words. Words that shall remain for ever unknown to me.’

‘I do,’ the High Mason replied. ‘On this, you have nothing but your faith. In my integrity, and, of course, in your own.’

Another moment, when it seemed nothing in the world could move, could break the stillness, and then Anomander drew a dagger from his belt and slid the edge across the palm of his left hand. Blood trickled down, dripped on to the ground. ‘Upon the hearthstone?’ he asked.

But the High Mason shook his head. ‘Unnecessary, First Son of Mother Dark.’

The hearthstone slowly settled into its bed of earth.

Sparo drew a sudden breath, almost sagged as the world righted itself once more. Looking at his lord, he saw Andarist, pale and shaken, possibly even frightened.

Neither brother had expected a moment so fraught, so heady with portent. Something had left them both, like a child in flight, and Anomander’s eyes were grave and older than they had been, as they held, steady as stone itself, upon the face of the Azathanai High Mason. ‘Then it is done?’

‘It is done,’ the Azathanai replied.

Anomander’s voice sharpened, ‘Then I must voice this unexpected concern, for I have placed my faith in the integrity of an Azathanai whom I know solely by reputation – his talent in the shaping of stone, and the power he is said to possess. In the matter of faith, Lord, you have gone too far.’

The Azathanai’s eyes thinned, and he slowly straightened. ‘What do you now ask of me, First Son?’

‘Binding of blood and vow,’ Anomander replied. ‘Be worthy of my faith. This and this alone.’

‘My blood you already have,’ the Azathanai replied, gesturing towards the hearthstone. ‘As for my vow . . . what you ask of me is without precedent. Tiste affairs are no concern of mine, nor am I about to avow allegiance to a noble of Wise Kharkanas, when it seems that such an avowal might well engulf me in bloodshed.’

‘There is peace in the Tiste realm,’ Anomander answered, ‘and so it shall remain.’ After a moment, when it was clear that the Azathanai would not relent, he added, ‘My faith in you shall not command your allegiance, High Mason. In your vow there shall be no demand for bloodshed in my name.’

Andarist turned to his brother. ‘Anomander, please. This is not necessary—’

‘This High Mason has won from the First Son of Mother Dark a blood-vow, brother. Does he imagine that a thing of little value? If there is no coin in this exchange, then is it not my right to demand the same of him in return?’

‘He is Azathanai—’

‘Are the Azathanai not bound by honour?’

‘Anomander, it’s not that. As you have said, binding by blood pulls both ways. As it now stands, all you have bound yourself to is this hearthstone. Your vow is to the upholding of your brother and the woman he loves, and the union thereof. If such was not your sentiment from the very first, then as the High Mason has said, best we not hear it now?’

Anomander stepped back as if rocked by a blow. He lifted his bloodied hand.

‘I do not doubt you,’ Andarist insisted. ‘Rather, I implore you to reconsider your demand on this Azathanai. We know nothing of him, beyond his reputation – yet that reputation is unsullied by questions regarding his integrity.’

‘Just so,’ replied Anomander. ‘And yet he hesitates.’

The High Mason’s breath hissed sharply. ‘First Son of Darkness, hear my words. Should you wrest this vow from me, I will hold you to it, and its truth shall be timeless for as long as both of us shall live. And you may have cause to regret it yet.’

Andarist stepped closer to his brother, eyes imploring. ‘Anomander – can’t you see? There is more to what you ask of him than either of us can comprehend!’

‘I will have his vow,’ Anomander said, eyes fixed on those of the High Mason.

‘To what end?’ Andarist demanded.

‘High Mason,’ Anomander said, ‘tell us of those ramifications which we do not as yet comprehend.’

‘I cannot. As I said, First Son, there is no precedent for this. Shall I be bound to your summons? Perhaps. Just as you may in turn be bound to mine. Shall we each know the other’s mind? Shall all secrets vanish between us? Shall we for ever stand in opposition to one another, or shall we stand as one? Too much is unknown. Consider carefully then, for it seems you speak from wounded pride. I am not a creature who weighs value in coin, and in wealth I ever measure all that cannot be grasped.’

Anomander was silent.

The Azathanai then held up a hand, and Sparo was shocked to see blood streaming down from a deep gash in the palm. ‘Then it is done.’

As he turned away, Anomander called out to him, ‘A moment, please. You are known by title alone. I will have your name.’

The huge man half swung round, studied Anomander for a long moment, and then said, ‘I am named Caladan Brood.’

‘It is well,’ said Anomander, nodding. ‘If we are to be allies . . .’

‘That,’ replied the High Mason, ‘still remains to be seen.’

‘No blood shed in my name or cause—’

Caladan Brood then bared teeth, and those teeth were sharp and long as those of a wolf. ‘That, too, Lord, remains to be seen.’


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