The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need. And so, in reply, there is a woman.
At the beginning—no, at the end—she appears, full of fury and bound by chains of prophecy. Setting off on an unexplained quest which she is compelled to complete, facing unnatural challenges in a land that doesn’t seem to exist, she will discover the secrets of herself, or die trying. But along the way, the obstacles will grow to a seemingly insurmountable point, and the final choice will be the biggest sacrifice yet.
This is the story of a woman’s struggle against her very existence, an epic tale of the adventure and emotional upheaval on the way to face an ancient enigmatic foe. Marie Brennan’s Cold-Forged Flame begins a new series about the consequences of war—and of fate. Available September 13th from Tor.com Publishing.
She comes into existence atop a flat, rough slab of stone. In the first few instants, as the sound of the horn fades, that stone consumes all her attention: its pitted, weathered surface, shedding grit against her knuckles where her fist is braced. It is ancient, that stone, and full of memory.
As she herself is not.
She lifts her head to find she is not alone. Nine people stand in a loose arc in front of where she kneels, six men, three women, with torches all around throwing their features into shifting, untrustworthy relief. Pale, all of them, much paler than her. The torchlight lends their skin a false warmth, brightens their hair to gold or fire’s orange. Every last one of them, she thinks, is holding their breath. Watching her.
On the ground before her lies the corpse of a bull, its throat neatly slit. Some of the blood fills a copper bowl set at the foot of the stone, while the rest soaks quietly into the grass. At the sight of it, her muscles tense abruptly, as if lightning has shot through her veins.
They’re still watching her. They carry knives, the men and women alike, and when her free hand moves, the one not set against the stone, it finds nothing at her own side. There should be a weapon, but there isn’t. Which means these people have the advantage.
It isn’t a good way to start.
She licks her lips, finds everything moves as it should. Tests her voice.
“Who the hell are you?”
The words come out like a whip-crack, breaking the quiet of the night. The man at the center of the arc straightens. He grips a curved horn in one hand, a bloodstained knife in the other; he is the one who sounded the call, the one who slit the bull’s throat. Drawing in a deep breath, he gives the horn to the woman at his side and steps forward. He is older than the others, his hair and beard grey beneath the fire’s false color, and the pin that holds his draped garment at his shoulder is richly worked gold. A leader of some kind. She focuses on him, almost as intensely as she had upon the stone.
In the tone of one speaking with ritual intent, he says, “I am Ectain cul Simnann, Cruais of my people, and I bind you to this task: to bring us blood from the cauldron of the Lhian.”
The weight of it has been there all this time, lost beneath the sights and sounds, the scent of blood in the air. At his declaration, she feels that weight solidify around her, binding with a strength beyond any rope or chain. She is caught: has been since the first instant, with no hope of escape.
The fury of it drives her from her stillness. In one fluid motion, she rises from her crouch and leaps over the copper bowl of blood, the cooling body of the bull, to land in front of the leader. He has a knife and she doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter: at first because she’s determined to kill him anyway, and then because she can’t. Her hand slams to a halt before she can touch him.
It doesn’t stop him from lurching backward. His eyes are wide with fear, but not surprise. So. He knew she couldn’t hurt him… but his confidence in that protection was less than absolute.
Her lips skin back in a fierce smile. “You’re safe. How about the rest of them?”
“Please!” He drops to his knees, hands raised in a gesture of peace. Then he notices the bloody knife he still clutches, and lays it down hastily. “Please. We mean you no harm. We only need you to do something for us. When that’s done, you will be free to go, with our blessings and our thanks—you have my word.”
What good is his word, when he’s a stranger to her? Ectain cul Simnann, Cruais of his people: sounds with no meaning. She knows blood; she knows knives. She doesn’t know him.
She casts a cold stare across the others. They’ve clumped together for comfort and safety, backing up toward one of the tall stones that ring this place. None of them have laid down their knives. They won’t attack her, though: they need her for something. To bring them blood from the cauldron of the Lhian—whoever or whatever that might be. So they’ll be hesitant if she goes for them. She felt the easy response of her body when she leapt from the stone, how readily her muscles answered her call. She’s pretty sure she could kill one, two—maybe even three—before they subdue her.
Part of her wants to do it, just for what they’ve done. Binding her to their will.
It won’t accomplish anything, of course. That’s the meaning of the lead weighing down her bones: sooner or later, she will have to do as this man commands, whether she kills everyone he brought with him or not. The only thing murder would accomplish would be turn him against her—assuming he actually means what he said, about letting her go afterward. But there’s a significant part of her that wants to say fuck it and kill them anyway.
“Please,” the Cruais whispers. It draws her attention back to him, which is probably what he intended. He’s arranged himself more formally now, with his hands curled into fists and set against the ground. “I could bind you not to harm them. But I don’t want to. All I want is for you to bring us the blood.”
What tugs at her now isn’t the binding. It’s curiosity. “Why do you need it? What’s so special about this blood?”
He shakes his head. “It’s better if I don’t tell you.”
Her breath huffs out in disbelief. “Right. Then let’s try something else. Who, or what, is the Lhian? Where can I find this cauldron?”
A dead leaf clings to his knuckle when he lifts one hand to gesture at a young man watching from nearby. She can see a family resemblance in the wide-set eyes, the rounded cheeks that have fallen into jowls on the Cruais. “Therdiad will take you, as far as he can go.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“Forgive me.” He sets his fist back down, bows forward until his head nearly touches the ground. She can see his arms shaking as he bends: from age or nerves, or maybe both. “I understand your frustration—”
“I don’t think you do.” She drops to one knee and seizes the collar of his tunic. It’s partly a test: yes, she can touch him, so long as she doesn’t plan on inflicting bodily harm. But maybe he doesn’t know that, because a small sound of fear escapes him when her hand closes around the fabric and jerks him up from his bow.
In a low voice, iron-hard with anger, she says, “I have nothing. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where this place is, what is going on, or why the fuck you need me to do this for you, apart from guessing that you’re a coward too scared to do it for himself. All I know is that apparently I have no choice: I have to do what you say. The least you owe me in return is some information.”
He sags in her grip, not fighting. “I do this for the good of my people.”
“Your people don’t mean a damned thing to me.”
“I know. And you have no reason to believe me. When you return, I promise I will answer your questions—all of them, as completely as I can. You are right, that I owe you that. But for now…” His mouth trembles, then steadies. “I do this for your own good as well. The less you know, the safer you will be.”
A snarl builds in her throat. She asks questions, and he gives her only a paradox in return. If what he says is true, there must be a reason. But if what he says is true, then he can’t tell her that reason—not without defeating his own purpose. Which means she’s supposed to trust him.
Every instinct rebels at that thought. He’s a stranger—no, worse. He’s the man holding her leash. There’s no basis in that for trust. And she has nothing to draw on for strength or reassurance, because inside her there’s a gaping void, an abyss where everything should be: memory, understanding, knowledge. Her sense of self. She might as well be dying of thirst in the desert, and he’s holding a skin of water, warning her that it’s poisoned.
How the hell do I even know what a desert is?
That question loosens her grip. The Cruais scrambles out of range, standing once more. He reaches below the collar of his tunic and draws out a vial on a cord, which he offers to her with an unsteady hand. But when he speaks, his voice is stronger. “Please. I swear to you on my sister’s heart that I will give you everything when you return. An explanation. Your freedom. Any gifts of gold or supply that we can give you. But you must go.”
When he says that, the hook buried in her spirit tugs in response. Yes: she has to go. But she also has to come back.
He doesn’t flinch when she snatches the vial from his hand, like a cat taking its prey. When she fixes her gaze on him, though, he shivers. She takes black satisfaction in that. “If you don’t make good on your promise,” she says, “then I swear on my own blood: you will pay for it.”
The lightning in her body sparks in response.
* * *
Therdiad takes her: the Cruais’ grandson, she thinks. He’s dressed much like the old man, although the pin on his shoulder is less elegantly worked. She doesn’t ask. What does it matter, who takes her on this journey? She’s just as fucked regardless.
The torchlight fades behind them, but she can still see it for a long distance in this flat, grassy terrain. The sky above them is clear and brilliant with stars, no moon to outshine them. She doesn’t feel much like talking to Therdiad: they walk in silence, while the stars move slowly overhead.
She loses track of how long they’re out there, settling into the comfortable rhythm of walking. It comes as an unwelcome surprise when she hears a steady, rushing pulse up ahead, breaking the quiet. Water. Waves. The sea, she thinks. The word brings an image to mind, though she can’t remember ever having seen it.
There are more lights, too, a dim glow off to the left. “Is that a town?” she asks.
Therdiad casts a glance that way, then promptly veers right. Away from the lights. “That isn’t where we’re going.”
“How am I to know?” she says dryly, following. “It isn’t like you’ve given me a map.”
“It won’t be much further,” Therdiad says. “We’re looking for a rowboat.”
“Your rowboat? Or will any rowboat do? I wonder… could be that’s your home back there, and you don’t want me to see it. Or could be you’re on somebody else’s land here, and you’re afraid of getting caught.” His shoulders twitch at the second suggestion, and she grins at his back, feral. “I see. So we’re stealing a rowboat from the good people of that place.”
Therdiad pauses long enough to give her what she suspects is his best glare. It doesn’t leave much of a mark. “I’m not a thief. The boat is ours. We left it there last night, before we went to the ring of stones.”
Nine people wouldn’t fit in any boat Therdiad could row on his own. Carrying a boat overland would be inconvenient; that suggests they came by water, and there’s a second boat somewhere, which brought the rest of the group here. She calculates this reflexively, even though it doesn’t lead her anywhere useful: if she wants to escape, it would be easier to wait until Therdiad finds the boat, then club him over the head and take the boat for her own. Or just run for that town. She might get at least a little distance away, before the hook buried in her gut drags her back to her path.
Running would be a waste of time, and not one she feels like indulging in. But she still thinks about these things, as if it’s habit.
They find the boat pulled up above the tide line in a small inlet, where the tiny slope gives it all the cover to be had in this flat terrain. It’s a narrow sliver, wooden-ribbed, covered in cured hide. Much too small for nine people; four would be cramped. She wonders where the other boat is.
Therdiad puts his hand on the edge and says, “Help me?” for all the world as if they’re working together. She snorts and takes the other side.
At least he doesn’t ask her to row. He arranges the oars and gets them out past the breakers with the skill of someone who’s done this a lot, then settles into a comfortable rhythm, like she did on the walk here. “I hope your strength holds out,” she says, “because I don’t remember the last time I rowed.”
The sarcasm misses him completely. “It isn’t far,” he says. “The island is in the middle of the bay.”
So it’s a bay they’re in, not the open sea. Probably too wide for her to swim, though—especially since she has no idea whether she knows how to swim.
A thin mist rises as he rows. She can see the moon just above the horizon now, a sharp crescent. Waning, she thinks—which means it isn’t long until dawn. Another thing she knows, as if she’s been awake on countless nights she can’t recall.
“Thank you,” Therdiad says without warning.
She can’t help raising an eyebrow. “For….”
“Doing this. It’s very—”
He stops, and she regards him with an ironic eye. “Brave of me?”
Therdiad ducks his chin. “I was going to say kind.”
But it isn’t, and they both know it. There can be no kindness without choice. No courage, either. She hasn’t even been kind in how she’s dealt with the situation.
It says something about Therdiad, though, that he wanted to thank her anyway.
He continues rowing. There’s nothing to see but the dark, low waves, and the two of them in the boat. She put the vial around her neck when they started walking; now she lifts it and examines it in the faint light of the moon. The shaft, she thinks, is made of bone, hollowed out. Human or animal? She can’t tell. The stopper is more bone, carved to fit tightly, with a hole in the top where the leather cord is threaded through. The entire thing is barely the size of her finger; it won’t hold much blood. Whatever they need it for, they don’t need a lot.
She tucks the vial away inside the neck of her shirt and looks around for something else to occupy herself. Her gaze falls on a pistol laid on the bench at Therdiad’s side.
He catches her looking. He stiffens and the rhythm of his rowing falters, as if he’s fighting the urge to drop his oars and move the gun out of her reach.
“Don’t worry,” she says, mouth quirking. “I’m not going to shoot you.”
He doesn’t look reassured. After the threats she made to the Cruais, it’s no surprise.
She shrugs and leans back, bracing her hands against the stern of the boat and stretching her legs out, as if at leisure. “You’re taking me where I have to go, aren’t you? I shoot you, I just end up having to row myself there. Not worth the trouble.”
“Very comforting,” he mutters, but a hint of a grin tightens the corner of his mouth. His rowing gets stronger again.
After a few more strokes, she lets herself study the gun again, openly this time. “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing. I know it’s a pistol; I know you hold one end and point the other at somebody you want to kill, and then you pull the trigger to lower the match and a bullet comes out at high speed—though I’d have to light the match first. I’m pretty sure I could load it if I tried.” That isn’t what her hands itch for, though. She isn’t sure what is. “I even think I know that what you have there is an antique—there are better guns out there than matchlocks. How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?”
Therdiad doesn’t answer. But from the way he bends his effort to the task of rowing, she knows he has answers, and is holding them back. The Cruais should have sent someone else. Someone more ignorant, or a better liar.
She asks, voice flat, “Did I even exist before that moment?”
“No,” Therdiad says. Then: “Yes.”
He drops the oars. They rattle in their locks, heavy and wet, but there’s a collar that will keep them from sliding all the way out and being lost in the waves. She’s paying attention to that, but he isn’t, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped tight.
“Don’t,” he says, full of intensity. “Don’t try to remember. You can if you try—maybe—but it really is better for you if you don’t.”
“Why?” She resists the urge to grab him by the shoulders. That won’t work this time; it will only make him stop talking. “Is there something dangerous in my memories?”
He shakes his head. “It isn’t that. I mean, maybe—I don’t know what you would remember. But that isn’t why I’m warning you. The more you remember… the more you might end up losing.”
It puts a core of ice in her gut. She wants to ask him to explain, but he’s already pulling back, regretting having said that much. Even so—”How the ever-loving hell do your people expect me to succeed at this, if I’m supposed to go through it blind?”
“You’ll succeed.” He picks up the oars again, resumes rowing. “That’s why we brought you here.”
Excerpted from Cold-Forged Flame © Marie Brennan, 2016. Originally appeared on The Book Smugglers.