Sunset Mantle

With a single blow, Cete won both honor and exile from his last commander. Since then he has wandered, looking for a place to call home. The distant holdings of the Reach Antach offer shelter, but that promise has a price: The Reach Antach is doomed.

Barbarians, traitors, and scheming investors conspire to destroy the burgeoning settlement. A wise man would move on, but Cete has found reason to stay. A blind weaver-woman and the beautiful sunset mantle lure the warrior to wager everything he has left on one final chance to turn back the hungry tides of war.

Read an excerpt from Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss—available in paperback and ebook September 15th from Tor.com!

 

 

 

Chapter 1

It was a heavy wool mantle dyed black and lined with rabbit fur, the sort of cloak that might be worn by a captain at arms, or a prosperous merchant. The embroidery followed all around the edge of the cloak, all the reds and oranges and yellows of a sunset close threaded, twisting up until here and there the dark shape of a swallow could be seen. Farther up the mantle, there were more birds, and more, until the embroidered birds could not be distinguished from the black of dyed wool. It was the finest thing Cete had ever seen.

He stood there, in the street leading out of Reach Antach, looking at the mantle hanging beside the door of the seamstress’s shop, reaching out to touch it, and then pulling back, his fingers clumsy and blunt beside the glory of that cloak.

“Is there some help I can give you?” asked a woman coming out from the inside of the shop.

Cete turned like a startled cat. It had been time out of memory since someone had come upon him unawares. He had been so lost in the embroidery that he had neglected even the most basic caution.

The woman did not start back at his turn, just waited, with the same questioning look on her face.

“It is remarkable work,” said Cete, finding his voice.

“The mantle, you mean?” she replied. “Thank you. It is three years of stitching. A commission; bought, but not paid for.”

Cete looked again at the mantle, at the sunset, at the cloud of swallows rising up into the sunset. Even if he could afford it, it was not for him. It was beautiful, and it had looked like he could have it, but it was already gone. Much like the Reach Antach. It seemed a fine place, but Cete was sure it had already been given over to slaughter.

“I would give a great deal to own something so fine,” he said.

“Mm?” asked the woman.

Without thinking, without looking away from the mantle, Cete unhitched his belt. “Would this be sufficient?” he said, passing it over. “I cannot ask for a thing that has been sold, but… perhaps this could…”

“No,” she said. “No; this is of no use to me, and of great value to you. I cannot take it.”

Cete looked away from the mantle to see the woman. She was holding the belt, running her hands over the links. “The workmanship is no better than serviceable,” he said, “but it is not flawed. And there is the value of the silver, and the clasp and the boss are stamped; surely—”

“It is a merit chain from the prince of the Hainst clan,” she said. “Since I did not earn it, I could take no pride in what it is. The silver value is too much less than the chain’s true worth. This is of no use to me.”

As she talked, she held the belt out, but did not look at it. She didn’t look directly at Cete, either. Her clouded eyes rested a bit to the left of where she should be looking. Blind. Blind, but she could make a thing like that cloak. Blind, but she wore her hair in the braids of an unmarried woman, not loose like an outcast, and her shop was near the center of the Reach, not beyond the walls.

During the afternoon services, Cete had seen the Antach of the Antach speaking to a tribal chieftain. In an instant, he had seen the reasons for the Reach Antach’s prosperity, and the inevitability of its destruction. This came together just as neatly. Although she was blind, the community chose not to identify her as such. If she sold a merit-chain for its silver value, she would be seen as the ruin of a fighting man. It would erode the goodwill on which she relied. Cete took the belt back from her. “I understand,” he said.

“If you wish to commission an embroidery,” she said, “use the belt to earn coin; I will make something fine for you.”

“Thank you,” he said. And he hesitated. The Reach Antach had made an alliance that the city clans would have to destroy. It might be in a day, in a month, in ten years. But the Reach Antach would burn, and everyone who bore the name Antach would die. There was no reason for Cete to stay a moment longer than he had to, no reason to say his name within the walls of the Reach.

“I am Cete,” he said.

“Marelle,” she replied, and smiled. Her face showed the signs of long hours of hard work, rather than the untroubled smoothness of ease, and her hair was dark and coarse. She looked forward when she smiled, rather than to the side, and she showed her teeth, rather than merely turning up her lips. It was the smile of one man to another, rather than that of a woman to a man. But Cete could not help being struck by it.

“I will consider your advice, Marelle,” said Cete, and with one last look at the embroidered sunset, he left.

* * *

He had arrived at Reach Antach an hour previous, looking for somewhere to stay. The town was a fine one, built on a strong position on a hilltop, with groves of olive and apricot down on the lower slopes. From all reports, the silver mines were profitable, and the soil was black, and smelled rich. The church was well built, with a scholar-priest of the Irimin school sitting on the dais, her mantle bound up with gold and silver threads that told of a great lineage and notable achievements. When Cete had gone in for the afternoon services, he had let himself hope that Reach Antach would suit. When the services were done, he knew that he would have to leave.

The cities built the reaches. They defended the walls as they went up, they provided dressed stone and cut lumber, they opened their storehouses until the reaches could feed themselves. In return, the reaches provided men and silver to the cities that had founded them, until the debt was paid. Repayment took centuries, and the reaches were always looking for quicker ways out. The method that the Reach Antach had chosen would never be allowed to succeed.

Cete knew he had to leave, but rather than taking him to the gate that would lead to Reach Tever, his feet brought him to the Brotherhood Hall, where men who had no clan connection would look to sell their labor, and those who needed labor would go to buy. Perhaps the crisis he had seen brewing would be delayed, or perhaps he could find work that would spare him from what he foresaw. But while it was far more likely to mean his death, he could not leave Reach Antach, could not walk away from the glory of that mantle or the hope of having something that fine for himself.

The Brotherhood Hall was not far from Marelle’s shop, and its iron-bound doors were open. There were a half dozen older men inside, sipping cups of tea, chatting softly amongst themselves, and three times as many younger men standing in the artificially relaxed poses of men who felt they had something to prove. Exactly what one would expect from the Brotherhood Hall of a prosperous reach.

During the afternoon service, Cete had marked who had sat where. The man he had picked out as the factor of the mine—a thin man with little hair left and hands that showed no calluses—had sat among the scholars. Perhaps overly pious, but not excessively so, and unlikely to risk the smell of dealing badly. At least not in the open.

As Cete ambled towards him, the factor’s eyes marked his merit chain, the fine-grained wood and thrice-forged steel of the axe Cete wore at his side, and the breadth of his shoulders. Not a fighting man, but a man who knew what to look for when evaluating warriors.

“Come in, be welcome,” he said, standing. “Would you join us for tea?”

No contract.

If there were something to bargain for, the factor would have been less welcoming. “Thank you,” said Cete. “It is a kind offer, for a stranger in your halls.”

As was expected of him, he sat and drank tea for the better part of an hour. He talked with the older men, kept silent more often than speaking, showing his respect for their position and for their clan and for their Reach.

When enough time had passed, he finally broached the possibility of selling his labor. He had no expertise in pick or shovel, no apprenticeship in carpentry or fine metalwork, no training in the mathematics of pulley and lathe, of mine and trench. He had hoped that there would be some need for guards for the mines, or for the caravans carrying the silver back from the Reach to the city clans who owned the Antach debt, but at that suggestion, there was nothing but regretful shakes of the head.

“Full complement here,” said the factor. “The tribes have been quiet of late, praise God, and the work has been steady; not many leave.”

“I suppose the same is true of the private holders,” said Cete. Most families had no need of protection beyond that which the clan armies and the troops of the Reach provided. But there were wealthy families who had reason to fear an enemy attack, and there were those who engaged in risky ventures, and there were those who pretended to the status of the one group or the other.

“Yes, and my apologies for saying so.” The factor shook his head, an apologetic gesture. But there was nothing but pride in his eyes. “We are blessed in having veterans of the Reach army available for service, known to the heads of families and the private holders; there is little need to buy the work of outsiders, even from a man who wears a merit chain of the Hainst. Even the militia is at full complement.” A militia contract was two days of labor a month, for training and drill—it wasn’t enough to feed a man for a week. And not even that was available.

It all fit into place, all pointed to the same thing Cete had seen at the afternoon service. There was nothing unusual about a tribal chieftain attending services in a reach church during times of peace. The men of the tribes worshipped God with the same prayers as the men of the cities. But though one wore braids in his hair and beard, and a raw wool robe dyed red and blue, and the other had his hair closely cropped and wore the office chain of the head of a reach, there could be no mistaking the fact that chieftain and Antach were brothers. Of course the tribes had been quiet, of late. Of course peace had rippled out to the private holders. But when the ripples reached the cities, the wave would come crashing down upon them.

Well. Cete had made his choice; all that was left was to thank the mine factor for the tea, and get directions to the mustering grounds for the Reach army. No hope of winning a place in the Antach clan army, not without a connection. Besides, even if he could earn a place there, Cete would not take it. A remnant of the Reach army might survive the coming disaster. Of Clan Antach, there could be no survivors.

* * *

The army of Reach Antach mustered outside the wall, below the northern gate. So far as Cete knew, there were no reaches north of Reach Antach, and certainly no cities. Just tribal lands, and wastes, and the endless stretch of the unknown; that there was a gate in the northern wall was a testament to hope; the army mustered beneath showed the sensible limits of those hopes.

The encampment didn’t show any obvious rot. The clan and Reach banners were clean and crisp, there was no rust on the armor of the sentries, and the drills that Cete could see as he went down from the town towards the encampment were solid; footwork for long spear and training with axe and shield. There would be rot. If nothing else, Reach Antach had been enjoying an unnaturally extended period of peace and prosperity. But nothing could be seen on the surface.

The recruiting sergeant’s tent flew the banners of Reach Antach, of Clan Antach, and of Clan Termith—a city clan. Cete tried to remember what he knew of the Antach’s background. They’d been a family from the Coardur clan, and the Termith were one of the five city clans that had backed the Antach’s claim to build a reach and become a clan themselves. Presumably, the reach general was a Termith, and that’s why their flag was flying. Cete went in, provoking a scowl from the sergeant behind the table, who had scattered skewers and lamb gristle amidst parchment scrolls.

“Fancy chain,” said the sergeant. “How’d you get it?”

That wasn’t necessarily a sign of rot; sergeants were not known for their manners.

“By performing a service for the Hainst chief,” said Cete.

“Ha! Likely story. If you’re in with the Hainst, what’re you doing in the reaches?” There was a little gobbet of fat in the sergeant’s beard. It bobbed when he talked, and Cete felt an urge to brush it off. Possibly with the head of an axe.

“The madding took a Hainst lordling in battle. I slew him. The service and exile came as one.” It was a story that Cete preferred not to tell; his shoulders bowed with the weight of it. He ought to have anticipated. Eber Hainst was on the edge of madding often enough; Cete ought to have shifted his position so that he was not the one who had to kill Eber when the darkness swallowed him.

The recruiting sergeant shook his head, not quite dislodging the fat in his beard. “You never killed a warrior in the madding. Little guy like you, and old? More like it’s a merit chain for rolling drunks in an alley.”

If Cete fought this sergeant, he would be outlaw, win or lose. But when the time came, a reckoning would be paid.

The sergeant picked up a bit of bone and gristle, gnawed at it. “You want to list, you run the gauntlet.”

“Fine,” said Cete, his shoulders unlocking, his hands opening. There had been enough talk; it was time for blood. “Line it up.” The gauntlet was more used as a threat or a punishment than as a recruiting test—men were injured regularly, maimed often. But he had set his purpose towards work in Reach Antach. Fighting was the work he knew, and this was the only buyer of the labor of fighting men in the Reach.

“Damn fool,” said the sergeant. “Go on to field six, and wait there.”

Whatever else this Reach army was, it was scarcely a welcoming place. For a moment, Cete considered turning around and leaving, taking his pack and heading on to Reach Tever or beyond, and leaving Antach to its fate.

But there was that mantle and the woman who had made it. Cete was a rational man, but the glory of her work had trapped him like a boar in a pit. He went to field six, folded his cloak and tunic atop his pack, laid his axe beside it, sat himself down on the earth, and prayed.

Cete did not count himself a pious man, but this was a time for prayer. He said the war psalms, lost himself in the poetry, bathed in the fire of the living God. When the gauntlet was assembled, he was ready. He knew what he would do.

Cete stood, stretched, smelled the dirt in the summer air, looked across the field. There were two lines of men drawn up, holding bludgeons and blunted swords. They were young, and their cotton arming shirts were a clean white, showing none of the ground-in rust that marked veterans. Too far apart for a proper gauntlet; they each wanted room to swing. They were almost all taller than him, and some were larger. Those he could see wore smiles, all broad white teeth. Cete held back his own smile.

There was a line drawn in the dirt between the two rows, and the sergeant was at the other end, all smiles as well. So many smiles; it was as though Sheavesday had come in summer. Cete could feel the blood pulsing in his neck, feel the shivering starting in his fingers. “Whenever you’re ready, old man,” said the sergeant.

“What are your rules?” asked Cete.

“Pretend to wear a merit chain, and you don’t know the gauntlet?” laughed the sergeant. “Rule is this—walk the line from one end to the other. That’s it. No other rules, no—”

Cete stepped forward. The first man on the left, holding an overseer’s truncheon, moved first. He was tall and broadly built, with a child’s face. The first man on the right was smaller, with pale, almost brown hair and a neatly cropped beard. He held a practice sword, and he pulled it back to strike.

Cete grabbed the man with the truncheon by his elbow, pushing in close while the weapon was still raised, and punched him in the center of his chest at the same time, moving with all his weight. The man showed more surprise than pain at that, the sort of stupefied, half-embarrassed look that Cete had seen on countless faces of men who had taken a mortal blow in battle.

The sword was coming down. Cete pivoted, sent the big man into the man with the cropped beard. Cropped beard fell back, as did the man next to him, who’d gotten tangled in his fellow soldier’s elbows. If Cete had let go of the big man, all three of them would’ve been off the line until he was past. He didn’t. One hand on the elbow, the other on the wrist, and he twisted. The boy dropped to a knee. Cete let go of the elbow and drove a fist into his nose. The crunch of cartilage and blood, the tears of pain. Another punch, this one in his eye. That rocked his head back; the boy had enough muscle in his neck that it wasn’t a killing blow, but he was unquestionably out.

One last punch. Cheekbone, just under the eye. No point in that but showing the others what would happen to them. The head rocked back again. This time, Cete let the boy fall, pulling the truncheon loose from nerveless fingers.

The smiles were gone.

The young soldiers looked white around the edges, nauseated, afraid. Eighteen of them—seventeen, now—and one of him. Cete gave a battle roar, full-throated, from his core, and they took a step back. He walked forward, truncheon swinging loosely, and they blanched. They’d get their courage back, and there were too many of them, too young, for him to beat them all. But at least they knew that staying on the line meant a blooding.

Before he could get to them, the sergeant came roaring through. “I’ll see you bled for this, you outclan swine!” There was spittle on his beard and wildness in his eyes. Cete felt his muscles tense, felt the length of the truncheon in his hand. Could be that he would bleed for it, but he couldn’t help what he was about to do, any more than he could leave the mantle behind. It was the edge of the madding; it was his rage, not his mind, which would swing the truncheon.

“A three-year veteran, and you a grayhair trash!” shouted the sergeant. Just another step, two, and Cete would have the range on him. He could already hear the crack of wood on skull, feel the shock going up his arm. The madding had not quite swallowed him, but it was getting close.

“Attention!” came a shout from outside the field, and the sergeant stopped. Another step, another half a step, and Cete would’ve started his swing, would’ve killed or been killed.

“Sir!” said the sergeant.

“What’s this?” asked another voice, not shouting, but with a clear note of command. All eyes had turned to the interloper, but no pause had been called for the gauntlet. Cete could push past, he could step up and crack the sergeant’s skull open. He did neither, but nor did he turn away to see the man who was talking. Cete was balanced on the point of a knife.

“This outclan grayhair heard there was easy meat for no work here, sir, so he faked up some story with a merit chain. Then he cheated at the gauntlet, hurt young Arthran bad, sir. Nothing to concern you, sir; I’ll deal with it.”

A laugh. “You’ll get your fool head cracked open, Sergeant Mase. Arthran’s half his age and has a foot of height on him, and he’s a damn bloody pulp. Didn’t you hear that battle roar?”

The sergeant hesitated, took a half step forward, hesitated. Cete crouched, ready, willing himself back from the edge.

“Enough.” The man who had been talking vaulted the fence into the exercise yard, the smooth leap of a young man secure in his strength. All the soldiers stood at attention, including the sergeant and, after a breath, Cete. “You wear a merit chain of the Hainst.”

“Yes,” said Cete.

“Have you held command before?”

Cete hesitated. Before he had been cast from the Hainst, he had been a captain general; he had left that behind, and had not allowed himself to want it since. “Yes,” he said.

“I am Radan Termith; I am captain general here. How are you called?” Radan wore a commander’s armor, lacquered scale and inlaid plate, and he wore it well. Long hair, black and thick, and a close-cropped beard. Young, nearly as young as the soldier who Cete had laid out, but he wasn’t showing arrogance or deference, just the easy assurance of command.

“I am Cete.” Sergeant Mase ground his teeth at that, but Cete had no reason to defer to the commander; he was not under orders.

“Well, Cete,” said Radan. “You’re looking for work?”

“I am,” said Cete.

“I will buy from you three years of work as a fifty-commander, at the rate of one half-mark a day, one quarter paid in advance, one quarter on completion, and the rest every tenth day of service.”

Cete had been hoping for a short-term contract, something he could walk clear of if he saw the hammer start to fall. He’d hoped to temporize, rather than commit; it had been foolish.

“These terms are acceptable to me,” he said. “My labor is yours for the term you have specified, sir.”

Radan leapt back over the fence, where a half-dozen junior officers waited. “The contracts will be drawn up, and your first payment prepared. Report to the quartermaster after the evening services; he will have your contract, your initial payment, and your assignment.”

Radan gave the exercise yard one last look. “See to Arthran, Mase,” he said. “And be less of a fool, if that’s at all possible.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mase, and knelt beside the man whose truncheon Cete still held. A fifty-commander was a lieutenant-captain, and it was no longer appropriate for Cete to bear a grudge against a sergeant who was to serve alongside him. Which did not mean that there was no longer a reckoning due.

Cete dropped the truncheon and walked to the end of the line. The rest of the soldiers were no longer on the gauntlet, but if he left it undone, it would mean one thing, and finishing it meant another. Then he left the yard, headed back towards the Reach. It was not a wise decision, but it was made. He was a fifty-commander in the army of Reach Antach, sworn to the Antach of the Antach, and to his commander, Radan Termith. Their doom was his. Now he would see what that decision had gained him.

* * *

There was more of Marelle’s work hanging from the walls within her shop. A woman’s festival gown, with irises and orchids twined on the sleeves, a prayer mantle with broad stripes of geometric patterns, clothing embroidered with flowers and constellations, hawks and hounds, bold patterns and subtle. Nothing there could match the sunset mantle, but all of it was beautiful.

“I should like to commission from you a mantle,” he said. Marelle was sitting in a straight-backed chair, her fingers pulling a red thread through a white cloth as she stared off into the middle distance.

“How much?” she asked.

Cete considered. He would have a hundred and fifty marks as his first payment. As an officer, he would have to pay for lodgings, he’d need some money set aside to cover gaps in issued equipment and pay for festival meals for his command. The most he could spare was twenty marks from the initial payment, and then two of the five he’d receive every ten days. Fifty, if he could wait until the Sheavesday festival. Fifty marks could buy a man a house, or ten olive trees, or twenty-one sheep.

“Sixty,” he said, “I will give you twenty tomorrow, and the rest on delivery.”

“I will trust you to pay for what you purchase,” she said, drawing back slightly, the faintest hint of offense in her voice.

“I am now a fifty-commander in the Reach army,” said Cete. “And I have no friends or relations within two month’s travel.” Or within ten year’s travel, but that was of less concern to the law. “If I die, all I own will be given to charity. I do not want you to work for me and receive nothing.”

“Most men think that the Reach army is a safe, if dull occupation,” said Marelle.

“They are wrong,” said Cete.

Marelle nodded. He was an outsider, and she would have heard that the Reach army was safe from men who had lived in the Reach for decades, but she didn’t show any signs of surprise or disbelief at his pronouncement. “You think that war is coming?” she asked.

“When I went to the church for the afternoon service,” said Cete, “the Antach of Antach was there, at the dais. Next to him sat a man with the victory braids of a tribal chief in his hair and beard.”

“Tribesmen fear God as well as we do,” said Marelle. “If they come in peace, their chiefs are accorded all honor—that’s mere prudence.”

“Yes,” said Cete. “But for all their differences—the Antach in his city mantle, the tribesman in his robes—there could be no mistaking the fact that the men were brothers.”

Marelle’s lips quirked up in a smile. “It is supposed to be the deepest-held secret of the Reach,” she said.

Cete forbore mentioning that if a blind woman could see it, it could not be such a great secret as all that. “Then they ought never have been seen together. I cannot say how it was arranged, but the city clans cannot allow it. The enmity of the tribes is the leash around the neck of the Reaches. It extends their debts from years to centuries, forces them to rely on the arms of the city, to pay double for everything. If one reach slips its lead, the others will follow. A war is coming, and I do not think that the Antach will be permitted to win.”

“The Antach thinks,” started Marelle, and then shrugged. “But I think that he is wrong, and that you are right.” She stopped her embroidering, a length of scarlet thread between her hand and the white fabric. “If you joined the Reach army on my urging, I am sorry for it.”

“You spoke only good sense,” said Cete. “I will have the money for you tomorrow.”

“I will make something fine for you,” said Marelle. “Before Sheavesday.”

With that done, Cete felt almost giddy. That it was commissioned did not mean it would ever be completed. Death came to all men; he might never see it done, even if it were finished. But he had made his choice, and now he had made his commission.

“How comes it that a clan lord has a brother who is chief of a clan?” he asked. There had not previously been space in his mind for that question.

“In the clans, descent is through the father,” said Marelle. “In the tribes, the mother. The father of the Antach took two wives. With their knowledge and consent—they were both ambitious women.”

Within the law, but outside of custom. Ambitious, certainly, but foolish just as surely. They talked for a time about that, and about other things, until it was almost time for the evening services, and Cete had to make his hurried farewells. It was only later that he realized he had not spoken to Marelle about his commission, had not specified what colors he wanted, or what pattern. Well and good; he could not have imagined that sunset sky, clouded with birds. He had no doubt that Marelle’s eyes could not see, and he had no doubt that he lacked her vision.

Excerpted from Sunset Mantle © Alter S. Reiss, 2015

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