Against the flat like thunder Where the self dwells between the eyes, Beneath the blow the bone shattered And the soul was dragged forth To writhe in the grip Of unredeemed vengeance…
The Last Night of Bloodeye Author unknown (compiled by Tiste Andii scholars of Black Coral)
THE SHADOW’S LAUGHTER WAS LOW, A SOUND THAT PROMISED madness to all who heard it. Udinaas let the netting fall away from his fingers and leaned back against the sun-warmed rock. He squinted up at the bright sky. He was alone on the beach, the choppy waves of the bay stretching out before him. Alone, except for the wraith that now haunted him at every waking moment.
Conjured, then forgotten. Wandering, an eternal flight from the sun, but there were always places to hide.
‘Stop that,’ Udinaas said, closing his eyes.
‘So you’re always saying. Then follow them, wraith, and leave me alone.’
Udinaas opened his eyes and stared down at the sliver of shadow between two rocks, from which the voice was emerging. Sand fleas scampered and darted on the flanking stone, but of the wraith itself there was no visible sign. ‘Why?’
‘You would bargain?’
‘I thought Tiste Andii were supposed to be dour and miserable. And please, Wither, no more rhymes.’
‘Can other wraiths see you? Hannan Mosag’s-’
Udinaas made a face, studied the tossing waves that warred with the river’s outpouring current. ‘The Edur claim it was the other way round, Wither.’
‘How should I know? Now, if you intend to lurk in my shadow, Wither, you must learn to be silent. Unless I speak to you. Silent, and watchful, and nothing more.’
Udinaas sighed. Most of the noble-born Edur were at the interment ceremony for the murdered fisherman, along with a half-dozen kin from the Beneda, since the Edur’s identity had finally been determined. Fewer than a dozen warriors remained in the compound behind him. Shadow wraiths seemed to grow bolder at such times, emerging to flit across the ground, between longhouses and along the palisade walls.
He had often wondered at that. But now, if Wither was to be believed, he had his answer.
Udinaas rose and brushed the sand from his coarse woollen trousers. He looked about. Three slaves from the Warlock King’s citadel were down by the river mouth, beating clothes against rocks. A lone fisher-boat was out on the water, but distant. ‘How far will I need to walk?’
‘If I am perceived to be straying too far, I will be killed outright.’
‘I am named Udinaas, and so you will address me.’
‘I am more than a slave, Wither, as you well know.’
‘Enough.’ He walked down to the waterline. The sun threw his shadow into his wake, pulled long and monstrous.
The rollers had built a humped sweep of sand over the stones, on which lay tangled strands of seaweed and a scattering of detritus. A pace inland of this elongated rise was a depression filled with slick pebbles and rocks. ‘Where should I be looking?’
Udinaas stared down, scanning the area. ‘I see nothing.’
A misshapen lump that sat heavy in his hand. Finger-length and tapered at one end, the metal object within swallowed by thick calcifications. ‘What is it?’
‘Hundreds of millennia? There would be nothing left-’
There was nothing pleasing in this, but Udinaas straightened and tucked the lump in his belt pouch. He returned to his nets. ‘I shall not,’ he muttered, ‘be the hand of your vengeance.’
Wither’s laugh followed him in the crunch of stones.
There was smoke hanging above the lowlands, like clouds dragged low and now shredded by the dark treetops.
‘A funeral,’ Binadas said.
Seren Pedac nodded. There had been no storms, and besides, the forest was too wet to sustain a wildfire. The Edur practice of burial involved a tumulus construction, which was then covered to form a pyre. The intense heat baked the coin-sheathed corpse as if it was clay, and stained the barrow stones red. Shadow wraiths danced amidst the flames, twisted skyward with the smoke, and would linger long after the mourners were gone.
Seren drew her knife and bent to scrape mud from her boots. This side of the mountains the weather daily crept in from the sea shedding rain and mist in pernicious waves. Her clothes were soaked through. Three times since morning the heavily burdened wagons had skidded off the trail, once crushing a Nerek to death beneath the solid, iron-rimmed wheels.
Straightening, she cleaned her knife between two gloved fingers, then sheathed it at her side.
Moods were foul. Buruk the Pale had not emerged from his wagon in two days, nor had his three half-blood Nerek concubines. But the descent was finally done, and ahead was a wide, mostly level trail leading to Hannan Mosag’s village.
Binadas stood and watched as the last wagon rocked clear of the slope, and Seren sensed the Edur’s impatience. Someone had died in his village, after all. She glanced over at Hull Beddict, but could sense nothing from him. He had withdrawn deep into himself, as if building reserves in anticipation of what was to come. Or, equally likely, struggling to bolster crumbling resolve. She seemed to have lost her ability to read him. Pain worn without pause and for so long could itself become a mask.
‘Binadas,’ Seren said, ‘the Nerek need to rest. The journey before us is clear. There is no need for you to remain with us as escort. Go to your people.’
His eyes narrowed on her, suspicious of her offer.
She added nothing more. He would believe what he would believe, after all, no matter how genuine her intent.
‘She speaks true,’ Hull said. ‘We would not constrain you, Binadas.’
‘Very well. I shall inform Hannan Mosag of your impending visit.’
They watched the Edur set off down the trail. In moments the trees swallowed him.
‘Do you see?’ Hull asked her.
‘I saw only conflicting desires and obligations,’ Seren replied, turning away.
‘Only, then, what you chose to.’
Seren’s shrug was weary. ‘Oh, Hull, that is the way of us all.’
He stepped close. ‘But it need not be so, Acquitor.’
Surprised, she met his gaze, and wondered at the sudden earnestness there. ‘How am I supposed to respond to that?’ she asked. ‘We are all like soldiers, crouching behind the fortifications we have raised. You will do what you believe you must, Hull.’
‘And you, Seren Pedac? What course awaits you?’
He turned away. ‘I have no expectations, Seren, only fears. We should resume the journey.’
She glanced over at the Nerek. They sat or squatted near the wagons, steam rising from their backs. Their expressions were slack, strangely indifferent to the dead kin they had left behind in his makeshift grave of rutted mud, rocks and roots. How much could be stripped from a people before they began stripping away themselves? The steep slope of dissolution began with a skid, only to become a headlong run.
The Letherii believed in cold-hearted truths. Momentum was an avalanche and no-one was privileged with the choice of stepping aside. The division between life and death was measured in incremental jostling for position amidst all-devouring progress. No-one could afford compassion. Accordingly, none expected it from others either.
It began to rain once more.
Far to the south, beyond the mountains they had just crossed, the downfall of the Tiste Edur was being plotted. And, she suspected, Hull Beddict’s life had been made forfeit. They could not afford the risk he presented, the treason he had as much as promised. The irony existed in their conjoined desires. Both sought war, after all. It was only the face of victory that was different.
But Hull possessed little of the necessary acumen to play this particular game and stay alive.
And she had begun to wonder if she would make any effort to save him.
A shout from Buruk’s wagon. The Nerek climbed wearily to their feet. Seren drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders, eyes narrowed on the path ahead. She sensed Hull coming to her side, but did not look over.
‘What temple was it you were schooled at?’
She snorted, then shook her head. ‘Thurlas, the Shrouded Sisters of the Empty Throne.’
‘Just opposite Small Canal. I remember it. What sort of child were you, Seren?’
‘Clearly, you have an image in your mind.’
She caught his nod in her periphery, and he said, ‘Zealous. Proper to excess. Earnest.’
‘There are ledgers, recording the names of notable students. You will find mine in them, again and again. For example, I hold title to the most punishments inflicted in a year. Two hundred and seventy-one. I was more familiar with the Unlit Cell than my own room. I was also accused of seducing a visiting priest. And before you ask, yes, I was guilty. But the priest swore otherwise, to protect me. He was excommunicated. I later heard he killed himself. Had I still possessed any innocence, I would have lost it then.’
He came round to stand before her, as the first wagon was pulled past by the Nerek. She was forced to look at him. Hesitated, then offered him a wry smile. ‘Have I shocked you, Hull Beddict?’
‘The ice has broken beneath me.’
A flash of anger, then she realized the self-mockery in his confession. ‘We are not born innocent, simply unmeasured.’
‘And, presumably, immeasurable as well.’
‘For a few years at least. Until the outside is inflicted upon the inside, then the brutal war begins. We are not born to compassion either – large wide eyes and sweet demeanour notwithstanding.’
‘And you came to recognize your war early.’
Seren shrugged. ‘My enemy was not authority, although perhaps it seemed so. It was childhood itself. The lowered expectations of adults, the eagerness to
‘Because it was unjust.’
‘A child’s sense of injustice is ever self-serving, Hull. I couldn’t fool myself with that indignation. Why are we speaking of this?’
‘Questions I forgot to ask. Back then. I think I was a child myself in those days. All inside, no outside.’
Her brows rose, but she said nothing.
Hull understood anyway. ‘You might be right. In some things, that is. But not when it comes to the Edur.’
The second wagon trundled past. Seren studied the man before her ‘Are you so certain of that?’ she asked. ‘Because I see you driven by your own needs. The Edur are the sword but the hand is your own, Hull. Where is the compassion in that?’
‘You have it wrong, Seren. I intend to be the sword.’
The chill in her bones deepened. ‘In what way?’
But he shook his head. ‘I cannot trust you, Seren. Like everyone else you shall have to wait. One thing, however. Do not stand in my way. Please.’
The third wagon halted beside them. The curtain in the door window was dragged aside and Buruk’s deathly face peered out. ‘And this is guidance? Who blazes the trail? Are we doomed now to wander lost? Don’t tell me you have become lovers once more! Seren, you look positively
‘Enough, Buruk,’ Seren said. She wiped the rain from her face and, ignoring Hull, moved past onto the path. Nerek stepped to either side to let her pass.
The forest trail was flanked by Blackwood trees, planted to assert Edur possession of these lands. Rough midnight bark that had been twisted into nightmarish images and arcane script by the shadow wraiths that clung to every groove and fissure in the rugged skin. Wraiths that now rose into view to watch Seren and those following in her wake.
There seemed more than usual. Flowing restless like black mist between the huge boles. Scores, then hundreds, crowding either side of the trail. Seren’s steps slowed.
She could hear the Nerek behind her, low moans, the clack of the wagons slowing, then halting.
Hull came alongside her. ‘They have raised an army,’ he whispered.
There was dark satisfaction in his tone.
‘Are they truly the ancestors of the Edur?’
His gaze snapped to her, feverish. ‘Of course. What else could they be?’
She shook herself. ‘Urge the Nerek onward, Hull. They’ll listen to you. Two days remaining, that’s all-’ And then she fell silent.
For a figure was standing upon the trail. Skin the colour of bleached linen, tall as an Edur, a face obscured by dark streaks, as if bloodstained fingers had drawn down the gaunt cheeks. An apparition, the dull red eyes burning from those deep sockets dead. Mould hung in ragged sheets from rotting armour. Two scabbards, both empty.
Wraiths swarmed at the figure’s feet, as if in worship.
A wagon door clattered and Buruk staggered out, wrapped in a blanket that dragged the ground behind him as he came to Seren’s side.
Seren took a step forward.
Hull reached out a hand. ‘No-’
‘Would you have us stand here for ever?’ she snapped, pulling herself free. Despite the bravado of her words, she was terrified. Ghosts revealed themselves in childhood tales and legends, and in the occasional fevered rumour in the capital. She had believed in such apparitions in a half-hearted way, an idea made wilfully manifest. A whispery vision of history, risen as harbinger, as silent warning. A notion, then, as much symbolic as actual.
And even then, she had imagined something far more… ephemeral. Lacking distinction, a face comprised of forlorn hints, features blurred by the fading of their relevance. Half seen in currents of darkness, there one moment, gone the next.
But there was a palpability in the tall conjuration standing before her, an assertion of physical insistence. Etched details on the long, pallid face, the flat, filmed eyes watching her approach with fullest comprehension.
‘A dragon,’ the apparition said in the language of the Tiste, ‘once dragged itself down this trail. No forest back then. Naught but devastation. Blood in the broken earth. The dragon, mortal,
Taken aback, Seren said nothing.
Behind her, Hull Beddict spoke, ‘Of what do you accuse her, ghost?’
‘A thousand. A thousand upon a thousand misdeeds. Her. You. Your kind. The gods are as nothing. Demons less than children. Every Ascendant an awkward mummer. Compared to you. Is it ever the way, I wonder? That depravity thrives in the folds of the flower, when its season has come. The secret seeds of decay hidden beneath the burgeoning glory. All of us, here in your wake, we are as
‘What do you want?’ Hull demanded.
The wraiths had slipped away, back among the trees. But a new tide had come to swarm about the ghost’s tattered boots. Mice, a seething mass pouring up the trail. Ankle deep, the first reached Seren’s feet, scampered round them. A grey and brown tide, mindless motion.
There was something terrible, horrifying, about them. Thousands, tens of thousands – the trail ahead, for as far as she could see, was covered with mice.
‘The land was shattered,’ the apparition said. ‘Not a tree left standing. Naught but corpses. And the tiny creatures that fed on them. Hood’s own legion. Death’s sordid tide, mortals, fur-backed and rising. It seems so… facile.’ The undead seemed to shake himself. ‘I want nothing from you. The journeys are all begun. Do you imagine that your path has never before known footfalls?’
‘We are not so blind as to believe that,’ Seren Pedac said. She struggled against kicking away the mice swarming around her ankles, fearing the descent into hysteria. ‘If you will not – or cannot – clear this trail, then we’ve little choice-’
The apparition’s head tilted. ‘You would deliver countless small deaths? In the name of what? Convenience?’
‘I see no end to these creatures of yours, ghost.’
‘Mine? They are not mine, mortal. They simply belong to my time. To the age of their squalid supremacy on this land. A multitude of tyrants to rule over the ash and dust we left in our wake. They see in my spirit a promise.’
‘And,’ Hull growled, ‘are we meant to see the same?’
The apparition had begun fading, colours bleeding away. ‘If it pleases you,’ came the faint, derisive reply. ‘Of course, it may be that the spirit they see is yours, not mine.’
Then the ghost was gone.
The mice began flowing out to the forest on either side of the trail, as if suddenly confused, blinded once more to whatever greater force had claimed them. They bled away into the mulch, the shadows and the rotted wood of fallen trees. One moment there, the next, gone.
Seren swung to Buruk the Pale. ‘What did you mean when you said the tiles didn’t lie? Barrow and Root, those are tiles in the Hold of the Azath, are they not? You witnessed a casting before you began this journey. In Trate. Do you deny it?’
He would not meet her eyes. His face was pale. ‘The Holds are awakening, Acquitor.
‘Who was he, then?’ Hull Beddict asked.
‘I do not know.’ Abruptly Buruk scowled and turned away. ‘Does it matter? The mud stirs and things clamber free, that is all. The Seventh Closure draws near – but I fear it will be nothing like what all of us have been taught. The birth of empire, oh yes, but who shall rule it? The prophecy is perniciously vague. The trail has cleared – let us proceed.’
He clambered back into his wagon.
‘Are we to make sense of that?’ Hull asked.
Seren shrugged. ‘Prophecies are like the tiles themselves, Hull. See in them what you will.’ The aftermath of her terror was sour in her throat, and her limbs felt loose and weak. Suddenly weary, she unstrapped her helm and lifted it off. The fine rain was like ice on her brow. She closed her eyes.
Hull Beddict spoke to the Nerek.
Blinking her eyes open, Seren shook herself. She tied her helm to her pack.
The journey resumed. Clattering, groaning wagons, the harsh breathing of the Nerek. Motionless air and the mist falling through it like the breath of an exhausted god.
Thirty paces ahead, unseen by any of them, an owl sailed across the path, silent on its broad, dark wings. There was blood on its talons, blood around its beak.
Sudden bounties were unquestioned. Extravagance unworthy of celebration. The hunter knew only hunting, and was indifferent to the fear of the prey. Indifferent, as well, to the white crow that sailed in its wake.
A random twist of the wind drew the remnants of the pyre’s smoke into the village. It had burned for a day and a night, and Trull Sengar emerged from his father’s longhouse the following morning to find the mist drifting across the compound bitter with its taint.
He regretted the new world he had found. Revelations could not be undone. And now he shared secrets and the truth was, he would rather have done without them. Once familiar faces had changed. What did they know? How vast and insidious this deceit? How many warriors had Hannan Mosag drawn into his ambitions? To what extent had the women organised against the Warlock King?
No words on the subject had been exchanged among the brothers, not since that conversation in the pit, the stove-in dragon skull the only witness to what most would call treason. The preparations for the impending journey were under way. There would be no slaves accompanying them, after all. Hannan Mosag had sent wraiths ahead to the villages lying between here and the ice-fields, and so provisions would await them, mitigating the need for burdensome supplies, at least until the very end.
A wagon drawn by a half-dozen slaves had trundled across the bridge, in its bed newly forged weapons. Iron-tipped spears stood upright in bound bundles. Copper sheathing protected the shafts for fully half their length. Cross-hilted swords were also visible, hand-and-a-half grips and boiled leather scabbards. Billhooks for unseating riders, sheaves of long arrows with leather fletching. Throwing axes, as favoured by the Arapay. Broad cutlasses in the Merude style.
The forges hammered the din of war once more.
Trull saw Fear and Rhulad stride up to the wagon, more slaves trailing them, and Fear began directing the storage of the weapons.
Rhulad glanced over as Trull approached. ‘Have you need of more spears, brother?’ he asked.
‘No, Rhulad. I see Arapay and Merude weapons here – and Beneda and Den-Ratha-’
‘Every tribe, yes. So it is now among all the forges, in every village. A sharing of skills.’
Trull glanced over at Fear. ‘Your thoughts on this, brother? Will you now be training the Hiroth warriors in new weapons?’
‘I have taught how to defend against them, Trull. It is the Warlock King’s intention to create a true army, such as those of the Letherii. This will involve specialist units.’ Fear studied Trull for a moment, before adding, ‘I am Weapons Master for the Hiroth, and now, at the Warlock King’s command, for all of the tribes.’
‘You are to lead this army?’
‘If war should come, yes, I will lead it into battle.’
‘Thus are the Sengar honoured,’ Rhulad said, his face expressionless, the tone without inflection.
‘Binadas returned at dawn,’ Fear said. ‘He will take this day in rest. Then we shall depart.’
‘A Letherii trader caravan is coming,’ Rhulad said. ‘Binadas met them on the trail. The Acquitor is Seren Pedac. And Hull Beddict is with them.’
Hull Beddict, the Sentinel who betrayed the Nerek, the Tarthenal and the Faraed. What did he want? Not all Letherii were the same, Trull knew. Opposing views sang with the clash of swords. Betrayals abounded among the rapacious multitude in the vast cities and indeed, if rumours were true, in the palace of the king himself. The merchant was charged to deliver the words of whoever had bought him. Whilst Seren Pedac, in the profession of Acquitor, would neither speak her mind nor interfere with the aims of the others. He had not been in the village during her other visits, and so could judge no more than that. But Hull, the once Sentinel – it was said he was immune to corruption, such as only a man once betrayed could be.
Trull was silent as he watched the slaves drag the weapon bundles from the cart bed and carry them off to the armoury.
Even his brothers seemed… different somehow. As if shadows stretched taut between them, unseen by anyone else, and could make the wind drone with weighted trepidation. Darkness, then, in the blood of brothers. None of this served the journey about to begin. None of it.
‘Binadas says Buruk carries Letherii iron,’ Rhulad said, breaking Trull’s reverie. ‘That will prove useful. Dapple knows, the Letherii are truly fools-’
‘They are not,’ Fear said. ‘They are indifferent. They see no contradiction in selling us iron at one moment and waging war with us the next.’
‘Nor the harvesting of tusked seals,’ Trull added, nodding. ‘They are a nation of ten thousand grasping hands, and none can tell which ones are true, which ones belong to those in power.’
‘King Ezgara Diskanar is not like Hannan Mosag,’ Fear said. ‘He does not rule his people with absolute…’
Trull glanced over as his brother’s voice trailed off.
Fear swung away. ‘Mayen is guest tonight,’ he said. ‘Mother may request you partake in the supper preparations.’
‘And so we shall,’ Rhulad said, meeting Trull’s eyes a moment before fixing his attention once more on the slaves.
The other slaves were busy in the longhouse, scurrying back and forth across the trusses as Udinaas entered and made his way to his sleeping pallet. He was to serve this night, and so was permitted a short period of rest beforehand. He saw Uruth standing near the central hearth but was able to slip past unnoticed in the confusion, just another slave in the gloom.
Feather Witch’s assertions remained with him, tightening his every breath. Should the Edur discover the truth that coursed through his veins, they would kill him. He knew he must hide, only he did not know how.
He settled onto his mat. The sounds and smells of the chambers beyond drifted over him. Lying back, he closed his eyes.
This night he would be working alongside Feather Witch. She had visited him that one time, in his dream. Apart from that, he had had no occasion to speak with her. Nor, he suspected, was she likely to invite an exchange of words. Beyond the mundane impropriety established by their respective class, she had seen in him the blood of the Wyval – so she had claimed in the dream.
Rugs had been dragged outside and laid across trestles. The thump of the clubs the slaves used to beat the dust from them was like distant hollow thunder.
A flitting thought, vague wondering where the shadow wraith had gone, then sleep took him.
He was without form, an insubstantial binding of senses. In ice. A blue, murky world, smeared with streaks of green, the grit of dirt and sand, the smell of cold. Distant groaning sounds, solid rivers sliding against each other. Lenses of sunlight delivering heat into the depths, where it built until a thundering snap shook the world.
Udinaas flowed through this frozen landscape, which to all eyes in the world beyond was locked motionless, timeless. And nothing of the pressures, the heaved weights and disparate forces, was revealed, until that final explosive moment when things
There were shapes in the ice. Bodies lifted from the ground far below and held in awkward poses. Fleshed, eyes half open. Blossoms of blood suspended in motionless clouds around wounds. Flows of bile and waste. Udinaas found himself travelling through scenes of slaughter. Tiste Edur and darker-skinned kin. Enormous reptilian beasts, some with naught but blades for hands. In multitudes beyond counting.
He came to a place where the reptilian bodies formed a near-solid mass. Flowing among them, he suddenly recoiled. A vertical stream of melt water rose through the ice before him, threading up and out from the heaped corpses. The water was pink, mud-streaked, pulsing as it climbed upward, as if driven by some deep, subterranean heart. And that water was poison.
Udinaas found himself fleeing through the ice, clashing with corpses, rock-hard flesh. Then past, into fissure-twisted sweeps devoid of bodies. Down solid channels. Racing, ever faster, the gloom swallowing him.
Massive brown-furred creatures, trapped standing upright, green plants in their mouths. Herds held suspended above black earth. Ivory tusks and glittering eyes. Tufts of uprooted grasses. Long shapes – wolves, steep-shouldered and grey – caught in the act of leaping, running alongside an enormous horned beast. This was yet another scene of slaughter, lives stolen in an instant of catastrophic alteration – the world flung onto its side, the rush of seas, breathless cold that cut through flesh down to bone.
Udinaas had known many for whom certainty was a god, the only god, no matter the cast of its features. And he had seen the manner in which such belief made the world simple, where all was divisible by the sharp cleaving of cold judgement, after which no mending was possible. He had seen such certainty, yet had never shared it.
But he had always believed the world itself was… unquestionable. Not static – never static – but capable of being understood. It was undoubtedly cruel at times, and deadly…
Then, in the depths, a shape. Squatting on bedrock, a stone tower. A tall narrow slash suggested a doorway, and Udinaas found himself approaching it through solid ice.
Into that black portal.
Something shattered, and, suddenly corporeal, he stumbled onto his knees. The stone was cold enough to tear the skin from his knees and the palms of his hands. He staggered upright, and his shoulder struck something that tottered with the impact.
The cold made the air brutal, blinding him, shocking his lungs. Through freezing tears he saw, amidst a faint blue glow, a tall figure. Skin like bleached vellum, limbs too long and angular with too many joints. Black, frosted eyes, an expression of faint surprise on its narrow, arched features. The clothes it wore consisted of a harness of leather straps and nothing more. It was unarmed. A man, but anything but a man.
And then Udinaas saw, scattered on the floor around the figure, corpses twisted in death. Dark, greenish skin, tusked. A man, a woman, two children. Their bodies had been broken, the ends of shattered bone jutting out from flesh. The way they lay suggested that the white-skinned man had been their killer.
Udinaas was shivering uncontrollably. His hands and feet we numb. ‘Wither? Shadow wraith? Are you with me?’
His heart began hammering hard in his chest. This did not feel like dream. It was too real. He felt no dislocation, no whispering assurance of a body lying on its sleeping pallet in an Edur longhouse.
He was here, and he was freezing to death.
He turned and studied the doorway.
And only then noticed the footprints impressed upon the frost-laden flagstones. Leading out. Bared feet, human, a child’s.
There was no ice visible beyond the portal. Naught but opaque silver as if a curtain had fallen across the entrance.
Feeling ebbing from his limbs, Udinaas backtracked the footprints. To behind the standing figure. Where he saw, after a numbed moment, that the back of the man’s head had been stove in. Hair and skin still attached to the shattered plates of the skull that hung down on the neck. Something like a fist had reached into the figure’s head, tearing through the grey flesh of the brain.
The break looked unaccountably recent.
Tiny tracks indicated that the child had stood behind the figure – no, had
His thoughts were slowing. There was a pleasurable languor to his contemplation of this horrid mystery. And he was growing sleepy. Which amused him. A dream that made him sleepy.
With a final glance back at the immobile scene of past murder and recent desecration, Udinaas staggered slowly towards the doorway.
The silver enveloped him, and sounds rushed in from all sides. Battle. Screams, the ringing hammering of weapons. But he could see nothing. Heat rolled over him from the left, carrying with it a cacophony of inhuman shrieks.
Contact with the ground beneath vanished, and the sounds dropped, swiftly dwindled to far below. Winds howled, and Udinaas realized he was flying, held aloft on leathery wings. Others of his kind sailed the tortured currents – he could see them now, emerging from the cloud. Grey-scaled bodies the size of oxen, muscle-bunched necks, taloned hands and feet. Long, sloping heads, the jaws revealing rows of dagger-like teeth and the pale gums that held them. Eyes the colour of clay, the pupils vertical slits.
Savage exultation. There were things other than love upon which to thrive.
A tide of air pushed – drove him and his kind to one side. Bestial screams from his kin as something loomed into view.
Bone-white scales, the red of wounds smeared like misty paint, monstrously huge, the dragon the Wyval had chosen to follow loomed alongside them.
And Udinaas knew its name.
Udinaas knew now what he was about to witness. The sembling on the hilltop far below. The betrayal. Shadow’s murder of honour in the breaking of vows. A knife in the back and the screams of the Wyval here in the roiling skies above the battlefield. The shadow wraith had not lied. The legacy of the deed remained in the Edur’s brutal enslavement of Tiste Andii spirits. Faith was proved a lie, and in ignorance was found weakness. The righteousness of the Edur stood on shifting sands.
Silchas Ruin. The weapons of those days possessed terrifying power, but his had been shattered. By a K’Chain Che’Malle matron’s death-cry.
The silver light flickered. A physical wrenching, and he found himself lying on his sleeping pallet in the Sengar longhouse.
The skin had been torn from his palms, his knees. His clothes were sodden with melted frost.
A voice murmured from the shadows.
Wither. Udinaas rolled onto his side. ‘Your place of slaughter,’ he whispered. ‘I was there. What do you want of me?’
‘Against the Edur?’
A sleep that had left him exhausted and battered. Grimacing, he climbed to his feet.
With two of her chosen slaves, Mayen walked across the threshold then paused two strides into the main chamber. She was willow thin, the shade of her skin darker than most. Green eyes framed by long, umber hair in which glittered beads of onyx. A traditional tunic of silver sealskin and a wide belt of pearlescent shells. Bracelets and anklets of whale ivory.
Trull Sengar could see in her eyes a supreme awareness of her own beauty, and there was darkness within that heavy-lidded regard, as if she was not averse to wielding that beauty, to achieving dominance, and with it a potentially unpleasant freedom in which to indulge her desires.
There were all kinds of pleasure, and hungers which spoke naught of virtues, only depravity. Once again, however, Trull was struck by self-doubt as he watched his mother stride to stand before Mayen to voice the household’s welcome. Perhaps he once more saw through shadows of his own casting.
Leaning until his back was to the wall, he glanced over at Fear. Uncertain pride. There was also unease in his brother’s expression, but it could have been born of anything – the journey they would undertake on the morrow, the very future of his people. Just beyond him, Rhulad, whose eyes devoured Mayen as if her mere presence answered his cruellest appetites.
Mayen herself held Uruth in her gaze.
The formal greeting was complete. Uruth stepped to one side and Mayen glided forward, towards the Blackwood table on which the first course had already been arrayed. She would take her place at the nearest end, with Tomad opposite her at the table’s head. On her left, Fear, on her right, Uruth. Binadas beside Uruth and Trull beside Fear. Rhulad was to Binadas’s right.
‘Mayen,’ Tomad said once she had seated herself, ‘welcome to the hearth of the Sengar. It grieves me that this night also marks, for the next while, the last in which all my sons are present. They undertake a journey for the Warlock King, and I pray for their safe return.’
‘I am led to believe the ice-fields pose no great risks for warriors of the Edur,’ Mayen replied. ‘Yet I see gravity and concern in your eyes, Tomad Sengar.’
‘An aged father’s fretting,’ Tomad said with a faint smile. ‘Nothing more.’
Rhulad spoke, ‘The Arapay rarely venture onto the ice-fields, for fear of hauntings. More, ice can blind, and the cold can steal life like the bleeding of an unseen wound. It is said there are beasts as well-’
Fear cut in, ‘My brother seeks resounding glory in the unknown, Mayen, so that you may look upon us all with awe and wonder.’
‘I am afraid he has left me with naught but dread,’ she said. ‘And now I must worry for your fates.’
‘We are equal to all that might assail us,’ Rhulad said quickly.
Binadas frowned. ‘Old sorcery, Mother. But it seems inclined to slumber.’ He paused, thinking. ‘A tribe of hunters who live on the ice – I have seen naught but tracks. The Arapay say they hunt at night.’
‘Hunt what?’ Trull asked.
His brother shrugged.
‘There will be six of us,’ Rhulad said. ‘Theradas and Midik Buhn, and all can speak to Theradas’s skills. Although unblooded,’ he added, ‘Midik is nearly my equal with the sword. Hannan Mosag chose well in choosing the warrior sons of Tomad Sengar.’
This last statement hung strange in the air, as if rife with possible meanings, each one tumbling in a different direction. Such was the poison of suspicion. The women had their beliefs, Trull well knew, and now probably looked upon the six warriors in question, wondering at Hannan Mosag’s motivations, his reasons for choosing these particular men. And Fear, as well, would hold to his own thoughts, knowing what he knew –
Trull sensed the uncertainty and began wondering for himself. Fear, after all, was Weapons Master for all the tribes, and indeed had been tasked with reshaping the Edur military structure. From Weapons Master to War Master, then. It seemed capricious to so risk Fear Sengar. And Binadas was considered by most to be among the united tribes’ more formidable sorcerors. Together, Fear and Binadas had been crucial during the campaigns of conquest, whilst Theradas Buhn was unequalled in leading raids from the sea.
‘There have been untoward events of late,’ Mayen said, with a glance at Uruth.
Trull caught his father’s scowl, but Mayen must have seen acquiescence in Uruth’s expression, for she continued, ‘Spirits walked the darkness the night of the vigil. Unwelcome of aspect, intruders upon our holy sites – the wraiths fled at their approach.’
‘This is the first I have heard of such things,’ Tomad said.
Uruth reached for her wine cup and held it out to be refilled by a slave. ‘They are known none the less, husband. Hannan Mosag and his K’risnan have stirred deep shadows. The tide of change rises – and soon, I fear, it will sweep us away.’
‘But it is we who are rising on that tide,’ Tomad said, his face darkening. ‘It is one thing to question defeat, but now you question victory, wife.’
‘I speak only of the Great Meeting to come. Did not our own sons tell of the summoning from the depths that stole the souls of the Letherii seal-hunters? When those ships sail into the harbour at Trate, how think you the Letherii will react? We have begun the dance of war.’
‘If that were so,’ Tomad retorted, ‘then there would be little point to treat with them.’
‘Except,’ Trull cut in, recalling his father’s own words when he first returned from the Calach beds, ‘to take their measure.’
‘It was taken long ago,’ Fear said. ‘The Letherii will seek to do to us as they have done to the Nerek and the Tarthenal. Most among them see no error or moral flaw in their past deeds. Those who do are unable or unwilling to question the methods, only the execution, and so they are doomed to repeat the horrors, and see the result – no matter its nature – as yet one more test of firmly held principles. And even should the blood run in a river around them, they will obsess on the details. One cannot challenge the fundamental beliefs of such people, for they will not hear you.’
‘Then there will be war,’ Trull whispered.
‘There is always war, brother,’ Fear replied. ‘Faiths, words and swords: history resounds with their interminable clash.’
‘That, and the breaking of bones,’ Rhulad said, with the smile of a man with a secret.
Foolish conceit, for Tomad could not miss it and he leaned forward. ‘Rhulad Sengar, you speak like a blind elder with a sack full of wraiths. I am tempted to drag you across this table and choke the gloat from your face.’
Trull felt sweat prickle beneath his clothes. He saw the blood leave his brother’s face.
‘I am not so young, Father,’ Rhulad said in a rasp, ‘nor you so old, to let such words pass-’
Tomad’s fist thumped the tabletop, sending cups and plates clattering. ‘Then speak like a man, Rhulad! Tell us all this dread knowledge that coils your every strut and has for the past week! Or do you seek to part tender thighs with your womanish ways? Do you imagine you are the first young warrior who seeks to walk in step with women? Sympathy, son, is a poor path to lust-’
Rhulad was on his feet, his face twisting with rage. ‘And which bitch would you have me bed, Father? To whom am I promised? And in whose name? You have leashed me here in this village and then you mock when I strain.’ He glared at the others, fixing at last on Trull. ‘When the war begins, Hannan Mosag will announce a sacrifice. He must. A throat will be opened to spill down the bow of the lead ship. He will choose me, won’t he?’
‘Rhulad,’ Trull said, ‘I have heard no such thing-’
‘He will! I am to bed three daughters! Sheltatha Lore, Sukul Ankhadu and Menandore!’
A plate skittered out from the hands of a slave and cracked onto the tabletop, spilling the shellfish it held. As the slave reached forward to contain the accident, Uruth’s hands snapped out and grasped the Letherii by the wrists. A savage twist to reveal the palms.
The skin had been torn from them, raw, red, glittering wet and cracked.
‘What is this, Udinaas?’ Uruth demanded. She rose and yanked him close.
‘I fell-’ the Letherii gasped.
‘To weep your wounds onto our food? Have you lost your mind?’
‘Mistress!’ another slave ventured, edging forward. ‘I saw him come in earlier – he bore no such wounds then, I swear it!’
‘He is the one who fought the Wyval!’ another cried, backing away in sudden terror.
‘Udinaas is possessed!’ the other slave shrieked.
‘Quiet!’ Uruth set a hand against Udinaas’s forehead and pushed back hard. He grunted in pain.
Sorcery swirled out to surround the slave. He spasmed, then went limp, collapsing at Uruth’s feet.
‘There is nothing within him,’ she said, withdrawing a trembling hand.
Mayen spoke. ‘Feather Witch, attend to Uruth’s slave.’
The young Letherii woman darted forward. Another slave appeared to help her drag the unconscious man away.
‘I saw no insult in the slave’s actions,’ Mayen continued. ‘The wounds were indeed raw, but he held cloth against them.’ She reached out and lifted the plate to reveal the bleached linen that Udinaas had used to cover his hands.
Uruth grunted and slowly sat. ‘None the less, he should have informed me. And for that oversight he must be punished.’
‘You just raped his mind,’ Mayen replied. ‘Is that not sufficient?’
Uruth simply glared at the younger woman, then, to Trull’s surprise, she nodded. ‘Very well, Mayen. You are guest this night, and so I will abide by your wishes.’
Through all of this Rhulad had remained standing, but now he slowly sat once more.
Tomad said, ‘Rhulad, I know of no plans to resurrect the ancient blood sacrifice to announce a war. Hannan Mosag is not careless with the lives of his warriors, even those as yet unblooded. I cannot fathom how you came to believe such a fate awaited you. Perhaps,’ he added, ‘this journey you are about to undertake will provide you with the opportunity to become a blooded warrior, and so stand with pride alongside your brothers. So I shall pray.’
It was a clear overture, this wish for glory, and Rhulad displayed uncharacteristic wisdom in accepting it with a simple nod.
Neither Feather Witch nor Udinaas returned, but the remaining slaves proved sufficient in serving the rest of the meal.
And for all this, Trull still could not claim any understanding of Mayen, Fear’s betrothed.
A stinging slap and he opened his eyes.
To see Feather Witch’s face hovering above his own, a face filled with rage. ‘You damned fool!’ she hissed.
Blinking, Udinaas looked around. They were huddled in his sleeping niche. Beyond the cloth hanging, the low sounds of eating and soft conversation.
Feather Witch scowled. ‘She-’
‘I know,’ he cut in. ‘And she found nothing.’
He watched her beautiful eyes widen. ‘It is true, then?’
‘It must be.’
‘You are lying, Udinaas. The Wyval hid. Somehow, somewhere, it hid itself from Uruth.’
‘Why are you so certain of that, Feather Witch?’
She sat back suddenly. ‘It doesn’t matter-’
‘You have had dreams, haven’t you?’
She started, then looked away. ‘You are a Debtor’s son. You are nothing to me.’
‘And you are everything to me, Feather Witch.’
‘Don’t be an idiot, Udinaas! I might as well wed a hold rat! Now, be quiet, I need to think.’
He slowly sat up, drawing their faces close once again. ‘There is no need,’ he said. ‘I trust you, and so I will explain. She looked deep indeed, but the Wyval was gone. It would have been different, had Uruth sought out my shadow.’
She blinked in sudden comprehension, then: ‘That cannot be,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘You are Letherii. The wraiths serve only the Edur-’
‘The wraiths bend a knee because they must. They are as much slaves to the Edur as we are, Feather Witch. I have found an ally…’
‘To what end, Udinaas?’
He smiled again, and this time it was a much darker smile. ‘Something I well understand. The repaying of debts, Feather Witch. In full.’