In the dark corners of the night he dreams of the silent palace by the shore: a place where harsh sunlight and leaden shadows are cast over the white marble of its corridors. Without the cries of seabirds or the whistle of wind over flagstones the silence here is profound, broken only by the occasional faint break of a wave on the rocks outside and his own hurried heartbeat.
He finds himself in an immense hexagonal hall, looking down at incomprehensible script carved into the floor. The strange words corkscrew slowly in from a dark doorway to the foot of a spiral staircase, the hall’s only other feature. It rises up from the floor, twisting thirty yards up through the air, then somehow fails to quite meet the hall’s flat ceiling, stopping less than a yard short.
Prayer or curse, he follows the oblique path of writing around and around until finally he reaches the staircase. Each step has a symbol cut into its centre, runes he has never seen before. After a pause he places his foot squarely on the first and continues in that way, eyes moving always to the next shape, until he reaches the top. The air feels thinner up here. It looks a dizzying drop to the floor below when he leans over the balustrade. Then he squeezes through a hatchway in the ceiling and finds himself staring up from the floor of a cavernous domed shrine.
The palace is a shell, an unfinished work of altarless temples and blank crumbling memorials. In every direction he can see high halls, empty of everything but countless statues carved from the same ancient stone as the walls. Through the vaulted windows, even the waves lapping at the sun-blasted beach appear unreal. He has never ventured out to dip his fingers in that ocean or tasted the salt on the air or felt the touch of the sun on his skin.
Drifting down the yard-deep steps of an oval assembly hall, he feels exposed and vulnerable. An old woman once told him that the Gods decide your fate in such a chamber; they argue and debate over your birth until the course of your entire life is set. But there are no compassionate voices to speak for him here, no sound other than that of his bare feet on stone, muted, like the echo of a dead song.
He knows where his path will eventually take him. It’s the same place every time, but still he walks through unknown rooms and down hanging walkways, always hoping that the next turning will be the way out. Once more he finds himself in a gigantic chamber, where a stretch of wall fifty yards long has been savagely ripped open. Picking his way over the rubble he enters the forest of statues inside. Monsters and heroes stand in stony readiness, waiting for the day they will be revived for some final cataclysm. A terrace lies through the pillars on the other side of the immense space. After the miles he’s walked, another few hundred yards is too far for his legs to carry him. Fear liquefies his muscles and drags him down to hide behind the heel of some brave dead warrior, watching and waiting.
He sees a large man standing in the centre of the hall, terrible and powerful, as if the greatest of these statues has somehow come to life. He knows the man will die—that enormous strength means nothing to what stalks this place—even before a black-armoured knight appears from nowhere to attack the man. He sees a huge fanged blade tear at the man’s flesh, watches it sever the head. Terror smoulders deep in his gut: he knows the blade will one day rip into his own frail body. And then he sees something horrific in the killer’s face—the curse he shares. The palace fades. The blood pales. All that remains is the burning light of that gaze.
Isak lay motionless, tracing the familiar cracks and veins in the roof struts while his legs protested the lack of space in the cramped caravan. These dreams, though infrequent, had haunted his nights for as long as he could remember. Even though he was, in all other things, a stoical youth, they could still reduce him to a cowering child. The visions were so real he sometimes woke retching in dread. Shame crept over him at the thought. He was older now, old enough to be called an adult, and yet his dreams frightened him more than any man could. For a time he remained still, tracing the grain of the wood above to calm his pounding heart.
The clutter and dirt were reassuringly normal, and welcome for once. Finally sitting upright, Isak stretched and massaged the sleep from his long limbs until the tingle of a jolting wooden bed had receded. He tugged his ragged shirt into some semblance of order and pushed long fingers through his black, matted hair. He ignored the worn, filthy shoes that lay discarded in one corner. Looking out through the rear curtains he could see the warm weather continued. A scavenger bird hung limp in the deliciously blue sky, while swallows swooped and rose after the last of the morning’s prey. Back home, summer would be long dead, but here it took the Land longer to accept that autumn had arrived. For the moment, insects and beaming flowers still reigned.
Through the fug of the enclosed room came a faint breeze, bringing with it a scent that was as different as the weather. Here the warm smell of clay-rich earth and wild thyme pervaded everything, though the damp resinous odour of home lingered in his mind. The dark loamy soil of the Great Forest to the north bore no resemblance to this sticky red dirt. They still had far to travel; he guessed another week at least would pass before the view started to change, so until then, he’d just enjoy the weather.
Isak poked his head out to where his father, Horman, sat with the reins swinging casually from his hand and one leg braced up over the footplate as usual. Dressed in similarly rough and patched clothes, Isak’s father bore little resemblance to his son beyond the dark hair and pale complexion common to all of their tribe. He was smaller, with a scrappy beard that failed to conceal his perpetual scowl; Horman looked aged beyond his physical years, as if spite had drained his youth as well as his joy. Rusty earth stained his breeches and loose shirt. His black eyes flickered at the sound of Isak’s movement but narrowed when he saw his son’s face. He flicked up his coiled whip, but Isak dodged out of habit and it caught only air. There was nothing he could do to avoid the look of resentment that followed.
“So you decided to stir at last? It must be three hours since dawn. You’re here to work, not to spend the night running the wilds. Sometimes I wonder why I keep you around at all.” His father hawked and spat into the parched dust of the road, then returned his gaze to the distant horizon.
Isak answered bitterly, “and then you remember that I’m as good as a slave to you. In any case, it’s not as if you could manage yourself.”
This time the whip was wielded with purpose; Isak’s retort was rewarded with an angry welt down his cheek.
“Shut your mouth, unless you want worse. And don’t think you’re getting any breakfast, not when I had to set the traces myself this morning. You didn’t even catch anything last night—you’re even more useless than the rest of your damn kind.” Horman sighed. “Merciful Nartis, save us from white-eyes. No doubt Carel’s fool enough to feed you, so get out of my sight or you’ll get more of this.” He twitched his whip and returned his attention to the road.
Isak vaulted the rail and leapt effortlessly on to the dusty ground. It was only as he trotted past similar wagons, ignoring the stares of their occupants, that he realised the pace of the whole train had been increased. They were two weeks behind deadline. Obviously the wagon-master preferred to punish the horses for his own drunken stupidity.
A long-dead river had carved this mighty path through the Land, stirring life for miles around, but that had been in another age. Now the summer heat baked everything to the same dusty brown and it took an effort to find the hidden beauty of this place: the strange nocturnal creatures, the scented mosses concealed under rocks, the camouflaged plants bursting with colour underneath. All Isak’s father saw was the desiccated channel they drove down. It was too much effort to drag his damaged leg up the bank so the only things to break his horizon were the twin mountains to the south.
Isak ran over to one of the lead caravans and leapt up on to the driving seat with the carelessness of familiarity. The driver, like Isak himself, was a man apart from the rest of this inbred community. Carel made no comment other than to smile wearily at Isak’s arrival. His crinkled face belied his strength and age—Carel was close in years to Isak’s father, but where bile had aged one, experience had marked the other.
His black hair, now heavily seamed with white, was long, plaited three times, and tied back with copper wire, which declared to the world that he was a mercenary—but the white embroidery on his collar and the white leather threaded through the plaits set him above being a mere sword for hire. Carel—Sergeant Betyn Carelfolden—was a Ghost, a legend within their small group. He had retired from the Palace Guard of Lord Bahl, the Lord of the Farlan, a handful of summers after Isak’s birth. Membership of that élite regiment guaranteed a position in society that could not be bought. Everyone respected the Ghosts of Tirah.
“Horman not in the best of moods today, then? Here, take the reins, I could do with a break.”
Isak took the reins from Carel’s hand and watched as the man stretched, then fumbled for his pipe. The horse, unimpressed, snorted scorn at its new handler.
Carel was the only person in the wagon train to treat Isak as if he were normal. Being born to parents who had been servants on a suzerain’s estate, coupled with years of hard soldiering, had taught the mercenary to look beyond appearance, something for which Isak was always grateful.
“He’s never in the best of moods,” Isak grumbled. “Yesterday he pushed a knife right into my hand, just for touching that green ring of mother’s.” He held up his hand, displaying the ugly, dark-red scab.
“Well then, you deserved it.” Carel wasn’t going to let his fondness for the boy stand in the way of a lesson. “You know perfectly well what that ring means to him. Just leave her things alone. It’s all he has left. At least you heal much faster than the rest of us. Be grateful for that.”
“He has more of her than I do. All I have is the blame for her death.” Isak sighed.
“And such is life,” replied the mercenary without a trace of sympathy. He was Isak’s friend, but that didn’t mean Isak got special treatment. “You are what you are—that in itself is enough for most, and more for Horman. He really loved your mother. Why antagonise him?”
There was no reply. Isak just sat there looking sullen, unable to admit defeat.
“Fine, enough talk of your father. Are you looking forward to joining the Palace Guard? After Silvernight you can take the trials without your father’s permission.”
“What’s the point?” Isak ran a fingernail along a groove in the wood. “I’ll never be a Ghost—why would they want someone like me?”
“You won’t be an outcast all your life, I promise you that. Do you think I would bother to waste my time teaching you to fight despite what that lot think?” Carel jabbed a thumb back at the wagons following. “These people aren’t like most Farlan. You might never be popular, but the tribe has a use for you, sure enough. I’ve fought side-by-side with your kind, and there’s far worse than your childish temper in the ranks of the Ghosts—men who’d have been hanged years back if they weren’t so happy to be in the front line. You’re all a dangerous lot, but you’ve more of a mind than most and the Swordmasters will see that. Just remember me when you become General Isak.”
The veteran smiled and Isak smiled back. Carel didn’t suffer fools or time wasters. There had to be something to his words, or all the hours of drilling and sparring would have been for nothing. Isak knew he could best Carel with a weapon—even a weighted training stick against a sword—but that wasn’t the problem. All white-eyes were preternaturally fast, and strong, but it was this very power that scared normal people. Isak had had that demonstrated to him almost every day of his life.
Carel insisted there were others like him in the Guard, but no one ever saw them. If it were true, clearly they were not trusted with keeping the peace on Tirah’s streets; they were used only in the slaughter of battle.
“I suppose you’re right,” Isak admitted. “I just daren’t allow myself to hope. But I’ll take any chance to get away from this lot, even if I have to break Father in two to do it.”
This disrespect earned him a clip round the ear, one that would have been painful to anyone else, but Isak bore it without flinching. Every child in the train had felt the back of Carel’s hand at one time or another, but it made no difference: they all loved him—and his stories. But no one else in the train understood Carel’s obvious affection for the wild white-eye, and all Carel would say was that in Isak he recognised the angry young man he himself had been.
The wagoners were a community held together by blood ties as much as poverty. Most of the year was spent on the road and even in Farlan territory they kept to themselves. The caravan was the only home Isak had ever known, but it was not where he was welcome; only in the wild places did he find some comfort of belonging. The presence of others always reminded him that he was blessed and cursed in equal measure—and that men feared both. White-eyes were born to be protectors of the Seven Tribes, but jealousy and fear had demonised his kind and now many saw them as symbols of the Land’s polluted soul.
Carel grimaced at the boy. “You’re as sulky and bad-tempered as your father. I think you’ve inherited more than you lot normally do.”
“Perhaps he’s just particularly unpleasant,” retorted Isak sourly.
“Perhaps so, but he’s not too bad a man to others. Your problem is that you have the look of your mother. He sees her in your face, and that brings out the worst in him. If you didn’t get at him so, you might not have to spend your life trying to stop yourself fighting back.”
Isak turned his head sharply to meet the mercenary’s knowing expression. As he looked into those dark eyes he saw the twinkle of humour that had brightened his childhood and relaxed. Carel might be the only one who could see his internal struggle, but he was also the only one who understood it.
“White-eyes are pretty much the same, whatever the tribe,” he continued, tapping out his pipe on the rail beside him. The curl of a smile hung on his lips as he fixed a fond gaze on the youth. “You remember I told you about Sergeant Kulet? Now that one was a bastard, the worst white-eye I’ve ever met. Man killed his entire family when he was sixteen—well, ’cept his mother of course, but we can’t blame any of you white-eyes for the size you were as a baby. The ones to blame are the Gods, and most folk aren’t that stupid.
“Anyway, the Swordmaster wasn’t allowed to execute Kulet. The high priest of Nartis stepped in and said a birthmark on his face showed Kulet’d been touched by Nartis.” Carel gave a snort of scorn. “Touched by a daemon more like, if you ask me, but that birthmark was as blue as a temple door, no doubt about it. We kept him just drunk enough to spend most of the day telling jokes—the bugger could make me laugh even more than your foolery can—otherwise he’d get bored and start a fight in the barracks. But when you saw him on the battlefield—well, merciful Death! If you had Kulet next to you, you were glad. He fought like a man possessed, never gave ground, never left the man next to him vulnerable. You knew you were safe in his lee.”
Carel took a long pull on his pipe, then tapped Isak on the head with it. “Smile; you’re one of the blessed. You’re all violent, insolent, brooding, and heartless. You make the best soldiers because you’re twice as strong and half as caring. Don’t take that wrong, you’re like a son to me, but I’ve known many. Behind the eyes you’ve all got something barely under control. P’raps it’s worse for you—your father never was good at taking orders either—but no white-eye was ever as meek as a lamb. Obey your father till the spring and then you’re free, I promise. Just keep your temper until then.”
“I hardly feel like I’m blessed.”
“Ah boy, the Land is harsh. It’s a cruel place and it needs white-eyes to tame it. The Gods knew that when they made the first of you to be born. The last of the Farlan line was their model, and scripture tells he was no court jester.” Carel clapped a hand on Isak’s shoulder and tugged him round to look him in the eye. There was an almost wistful tone to his voice when he spoke again. “Our Gods might be great and powerful, but they’ve never needed to be subtle.”
Isak recognised the words: an old soldier’s favourite mantra.
The veteran smiled. “Come on now, get that scowl off your face. The lecture’s over.” He put his feet up and leaned against the wooden frame of the caravan, content in the sunshine that they wouldn’t see for months once they arrived home.
Isak shifted in his seat and settled down for a long and uncomfortable day. As his mind wandered, he tried to count the months until he reached adulthood. Whether he was good enough to join the Ghosts or not, next year he would be able to do as he pleased; not to be dragged back like a rogue mule when he left. His father had made the most of the law regarding childhood, but he couldn’t hold on to Isak forever.
Becoming a Ghost was still a dream to Isak, but one thing was sure: he could better Carel with a sword. He had nothing more to learn. If the Swordmasters were like the wagoners, he would go elsewhere—perhaps become a mercenary like Carel was now and travel to distant cities. Many of his kind did that, and some never found employment to be proud of, but white-eyes didn’t become hermits and live in quiet humility. Their nature was not so peaceful.
Isak was still lost in daydreams of military glory when a sound up ahead broke through his reverie. Heads appeared from almost every caravan and wagon in the train, anticipating something to break the monotony of the journey. The spiced breeze was still detectable, but it did nothing to cool faces red under the onslaught of the sun. Most people wore wide-brimmed hats of some kind, but Isak rarely bothered. His skin was as fair as anyone’s, but it never peeled or burned, just as any injuries healed quickly. In those ways he knew he was blessed. It was the rest of it that made people nervous.
Off to the left Isak saw a pair of wood pigeons perched on a branch, eyeing the wagon train with lazy interest. He started to reach for the crossbow slung behind him but stopped when the sound came again. It was a voice calling. He pulled himself to his feet on the wooden seat for a better look.
From his vantage point Isak could see a horseman approaching, plaits swinging in the air and a spear held aloft. The signal asked for Carel, who had spotted the rider too and already slipped on to the back of his own steed, which trotted patiently alongside the wagon. The stock pony was nothing like as impressive as the horses he had ridden in the Ghosts, and it bore little decoration bar the tattoos of breed and a charm to Nyphal, the Goddess of travellers, but it had served well over the years. With one hand on the pommel of his sword, Carel indicated for Isak to rein in before urging his stock pony forward.
The wagon train ground to an eventual halt behind them as an uneasy silence descended. This was untamed land for the greater part, and people mixed curiosity with caution. As Carel reached the horseman, figures appeared from behind the bend in the road. Six men were coming towards them, five of them the train’s guards, mounted on stock ponies like Carel’s own, and one man, a stranger, on foot. The five on horseback towered above the newcomer, but they looked curiously cowed in his presence.
Carel stopped and dismounted once he was past the lead wagon. While he waited for the man to reach him he looked around, scanning the terrain. He didn’t see anyone else, but he kept his hand on his hilt as the man approached—he appeared calm, but a stranger alone and on foot was more than unusual out here.
Isak found himself digging his nails into his palm in apprehension. The stranger was taller even than Isak, who himself looked down on the rest of the wagon train occupants. He was clad in black from head to toe, and the hardened leather and heavy, scaled armour he wore showed that he was not a native of these warm parts, where the guards wore little or no protection. Despite his height, the man was clearly not Farlan, nor from any other tribe Isak had seen on their travels.
Worryingly, the man had his sword drawn, yet Carel paid it no attention. He left his own weapon sheathed as he moved in close to speak to the man.
Isak realised suddenly that his attention had been caught by the blade itself, not the man who held it, which went against everything Carel had taught him. The sword tells you nothing about what your enemy is going to do; keep your eyes on it and you’ll watch it all the way into your belly. Even knowing this, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the weapon: its shape and colour were unlike any he had seen before. Faint bursts of light pricked the black surface so gently that he almost dismissed them as fancy. Just the sight of that blade made Isak shiver, as if some primal fear stirred inside.
The stranger said something, too quietly for Isak to hear.
“We’re just traders returning to Tirah. We don’t want trouble, but we are prepared for it.” Carel replied in a loud voice, so that those wagoners with weapons would reach for them. Isak could see that Carel looked puzzled, and a little apprehensive: this situation didn’t make much sense—who travelled alone and on foot out here? Was this an ambush of some kind? He glanced back inside Carel’s caravan to make sure that the mercenary’s spear was within reach.
The stranger was hairless, and terribly lean, but there was no sign of illness; rather, he had about him an unnatural vitality. Pale parchment skin looked stretched to fit the skull underneath, and his eyes were completely black. For the first time Isak saw why people feared the differences in his own face.
“There is one here who is not like you, one who should come with me.” The man spoke clearly this time.
“We have a white-eye with us; what of him? He’s young. What use would you have of him?” Carel sounded dismissive.
“He should come with me to seek his future.”
Carel stepped back, away from the stranger. “You think I’m just going to hand him over to you? You look like a sorcerer to me.” He took hold of the charm around his neck, carved with the rune of Nyphal, protector of travellers, and muttered a short mantra under his breath.
“Get back into the wagon, Isak. Keep out of sight,” hissed Horman, a concerned look on his face. He had approached Carel’s caravan out of sight of the stranger; now he motioned his son off the driver’s seat. Isak climbed down quietly and slid back into the dark interior without a word while his father cocked his crossbow.
“What does he want with me?” he whispered.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, I’ll give you to him if you don’t shut up.” Horman scowled at his son and turned his attention back to Carel.
Isak did as he was told, fearing the stranger and his father’s anger equally. Horman had never been a patient man; he blamed much of his misfortune on his supernatural son, from the inevitable death of his wife giving birth to Isak to his exit from the cavalry following an accident. Horman had no tales of heroic battle and near-fatal injuries overcome with which to enthrall his grandchildren by the fireside. Instead, he had lost his livelihood thanks to a simple drill manoeuvre gone wrong the day he learned of his wife’s death. Now even ants crawling on the supplies were Isak’s fault.
The stranger looked over at the wagons, his eyes moving down the line until Isak felt his gaze lock on to him. Suddenly a cold presence was all around, as if bitter winter had just invaded, and Isak fell back in surprise and alarm. He felt a surge of panic at the alien mind filling his thoughts and, inexplicably, hatred beyond anything he’d ever known before. In the next instant, the contact was broken off, so abruptly that Isak flinched in surprise.
“He’ll kill me,” Isak moaned, his hands trembling uncontrollably. “He’ll kill us all.”
Horman turned with a frown and gave Isak a clip around the head to shut him up. “He’ll have to get in line then, now quiet!”
Isak ducked down as the stranger’s gaze rested on the western horizon for a moment before turning back to Carel. “My name is Aracnan. I am just a mercenary, like you. My task was twofold; the second part was to deliver a message to the boy if he would not come. Tell your men to put their bows away. My employer is more powerful than you can ever imagine. Here is the message.”
Carel found his hand full, and then Aracnan leapt up on to the rocky bank above him. It was a jump far beyond the capability of any street acrobat, but he landed so lightly that not a stone nor chunk of dirt was dislodged onto the stunned men below. Then he was gone.
They tried to track him, but once they had scrambled up the bank they couldn’t even guess at which direction Aracnan had taken, and the ground held no clues that any man had walked there. Finally, unwilling to waste much more time chasing ghosts, the wagon master called off the futile hunt and they recommenced their journey in near silence, everyone lost in their own thoughts.
Isak jumped when Carel leaned over to whisper in his ear, some hours later, “Nyphal was looking down upon us, I’m sure; I felt her presence.”
“Was that what I felt? A Goddess?” asked Isak, unsure whether he would have described what he had felt as divine.
The mercenary nodded, his eyes fixed on the western horizon, where the Gods lived. He’d seen Aracnan’s anger, contained though it was, and had no doubt the Goddess had intervened for them. “We’ll stop at the next shrine and sacrifice there. I’m not sure what Aracnan wanted with you, but he meant you no good—of that I’m certain.”
He kept his frown for a moment, then shook it off and nudged Isak with a laugh. “The Gods were looking down on you, boy, so maybe they’ve plans for you after all. You might find out there are worse things in life than bales of cloth.”
Isak sat with his lips firmly set, determinedly looking north to the cool, wooded valleys and mist-shrouded mountains the tribe called home: the land where the God Nartis raged in the sky above a city of soaring spires and the dark-haired Farlan tribe; north, to the Lord of Storms.
Tirah, the seat and heart of an autocrat’s power: a city that slumbered warily at the heart of the Spiderweb Mountains. Crowned by seven great towers and wreathed in curling mist, Tirah was famed throughout the Land as the oldest of human cities, and one of the most beautiful. Dark cobbled streets led directly into the tendrils of forest that reached down from the mountain line. The rangers who patrolled up in the mountains described the grey mass of Tirah as besieged, a great standing stone slowly succumbing to the creep of moss. No one else went up there—it was a place where Gods and monsters walked. In three thousand years, the Farlan had spread well beyond Tirah’s streets and into the dense expanse of the Great Forest, but it was far from tame.
This night, a creature far from home had ventured onto those streets, driven there by desperation and hunger. As a hero of the Western Tunnels, the most vicious battleground of a long-standing war, he’d been chosen as a seeker, for only the strongest could survive the rituals that entailed. Despite the risk posed by humans, the seekers were sent out in small bands to all corners of the Land, following the trail of magical artefacts their people needed so badly. Whatever spells the priests of home had burned into his flesh, they had made him aware of magic, leaving him as tormented as an addict by its bitter perfume drifting on the wind. Barely thinking, he’d trudged on, intent on his search, even as his comrades fell to the creatures of the forest.
It was loyalty that had taken them north in the first place, and it was loyalty that brought them, enfeebled and afraid, to their deaths in a land of cloying scent, numbing cold, and constant rain. No God would claim their souls and he feared that this place was so distant it would be impossible for any of them to join their forebears in the Temple of Ancestors, to guard over the next generation.
The daemons stalking him had caught the scent once more. Their chilling calls went up even as he found cobbles underfoot. The child in him wanted to turn and shout, beg for some respite, even as his aching heart strained to keep tired limbs moving. The warrior in him said run or die. The blanket of fog brought their wail from every direction, and from an indeterminate distance. But they were close. He could feel them.
He ran, blindly—but it was a dead end, and at last there was nowhere else to go. Blank stone walls rose up on either side; the only window he could see was too high to reach. A low wooden storehouse hugged the left-hand wall, but he was too exhausted to climb. The time had come. Panting, trying to fill his tortured lungs in the choking, sodden air they had here, he allowed himself one moment to remember the warm taste of home, then readied his claws for battle. Drawing himself up to his full height, he called out his battle-honours with what strength he could muster. The long list declared his prowess even as it summoned the beasts to him.
Then he crouched, his withered limbs tense and ready, and a sibilant snarl cut the night’s mist. It scarcely had time to die as three leapt on him as one and bore him down. So much for his pride. Now empty eyes ignored his limp body being torn apart; unhearing ears were deaf to the guttural snorts as his flesh was devoured, his blood licked up.
A figure watched the dying, but he felt nothing for the outmatched and pitiful creature. He knew nothing of the Siblis race except that that they were unsuited to these parts. A long cloak billowed out behind him as he ghosted over the cobbled ground. But something had compelled the Siblis to come so far, into so inhospitable a place. Curiosity stirred. Gliding over to the jerking body he threw back the huge wolves with ease and bent down to inspect what remained.
The beasts, baulked of their prey, snarled as they retreated a step, hackles raised and ready to attack. Then they realised what he was, and that recognition elicited a whimper of fear, but the man ignored them. With heads down, and bellies brushing the ground, the wolves backed away until, at a safe distance, they turned and fled back to the forest. They had melted into the mist before they even made the tree line.
The man knelt down and placed the bow he was carrying to one side. It was a beautiful weapon, fully six feet in length—the man was extraordinarily big and could draw it with ease—and slightly recurved, with an intricately painted design down its entire length. The grip and tips were finished in silver but it was the hunting scene traced with infinite care in blue and white that made the bow a work of art.
“The last of the Siblis.” He was glad to make some noise again after a day of silent tracking, even if he was speaking only to the night. He had found other bodies during the past week. “And this one was the seeker,” he went on to himself. “The war must be going badly if they have revived this practice, but what in the name of the Dark Place brought it here?”
He knew the Siblis were engaged in an almost eternal war with the Chetse, a slow, bitter struggle that drained both sides and left no one a winner. Now it appeared the Siblis were desperate enough to curse their own soldiers with a craving for magic, a craving that would drive them to the brink of death as they sought weapons for their outnumbered warriors. There were runes cut into the corpse’s torso, still open and weeping, kept that way by magic. Did they understand the agony they were putting their servants through?
“I think you go hungry tonight,” he called out suddenly, looking up sharply at a form watching from the rooftop. A mutter cut through the mist—soft, but certainly not human—and then it was gone. Whatever had been watching would not return; seeing him was enough to guarantee that. He turned the corpse over, noting the length of the sharp bony protrusions extending from each wrist. A prod revealed how little meat was on the creature. They had all been starving in this alien environment. Its skin was rough and scaled like a lizard’s, much tougher than human skin, but he could still count at least a dozen cuts and abrasions that had only half healed.
Picking the corpse up by the ankle, he threw it on to the roof of the small storehouse the Siblis had died against. The corpse wouldn’t be disturbed tonight, at least. Gargoyles were mainly territorial, and hunted by sight, not scent: that one would not return soon, and no others would be drawn into claimed territory.
A muffled cry came from the main building as the owner heard the commotion outside. A weak light flickered in the window above and then a round face appeared, a man’s, his several chins shaking in anger. A woman was shouting in the background.
“What in Bahl’s name is going on out here?” The man blinked the sleep from his eyes and peered down at the street, a candle in one hand and a club in the other. “You, what are you doing? Get away, before I call a patrol!”
The giant slipped back the hood of his cape to reveal the blue mask underneath. His eyes blazed suddenly as he brought the bow up from the floor with a thought. The merchant gasped and dropped the club on to the floor, wincing as it fell on his bare toes.
“My Lord, forgive me, I did not realise—”
The giant held up a hand for silence. He was not in the mood for conversation.
“Return to your bed. If that wife of yours continues to screech, I’ll have the Ghosts cut her tongue out.”
Lord Bahl, Duke of Tirah and ruler of the Farlan tribe, marked the wall so a night patrol could retrieve the corpse later and continued on his way. This night was special to him. He didn’t want anything to intrude on his memories of a birthday long forgotten by others, just to be alone with the past in his beloved city. Outside, he forgot his loneliness and bathed in the night, remembering the happier time before he had become Lord of the Farlan, when duty had not been his only purpose.
A low moan escaped his lips; it grew and rose up into the night sky. “Only one thing I have ever asked, only one,” he prayed through the sudden waves of choking grief that rolled over him. “I have ever been loyal, but—” His voice trailed off. Forsaking the Gods would not bring her back; all that would achieve was harm to the nation that was now his life’s purpose. He stood and made a conscious effort to subjugate those feelings, drive them back into the deepest reaches of his heart. On this night only, the date of her birth and her death, the Lord of the Farlan allowed his dreams to be of her.
Off to the north, the Golden Tower caught his eye. The half-ruined landmark still shone in daylight, but now it was little more than a black presence that Bahl felt as much as saw against the night sky. Squatting near the tower’s base was a tavern, the only glimmer of happiness in the entire district. Bahl could hear a dulled chatter coming from within. This was a poor district nowadays; the warehouses and workshops meant few people actually lived here. The patrons of the tavern would be labourers and wagon drivers, men without homes who followed the work. They were always amongst the first to hear news from abroad.
He eyed the drab, graceless tavern. It backed up against a larger building and faced into a crossroads, a good position even in this mean quarter of the city. A statue stood at the centre of the crossroads, probably for no reason other than that there was space. Bahl wondered how many men these days would recognise that the statue before him was a monument to Veriole Farlan, the first king of their tribe. How many would truly care? The city was covered in statues of lords and Gods, as well as scowling faces said to ward off evil spirits. Though there were very few creatures like the gargoyle watching the people below, the city’s grim and ancient grandeur meant tales persisted.
Taken by a sudden thirst for beer and cheerful voices on such a dismal night, Bahl drifted towards the tavern, changing his appearance as he did so. He felt the clammy night air on his scalp as he pulled off the close-fitting silk mask he wore. A simple glamour gave him dark hair with three copper-bound plaits. No magic could alter the colour of his eyes, but a mercenary white-eye would probably be ignored. Lifting the hem of his cloak, Bahl gave it a quick violent twitch; when it fell back to touch his calves it was a dull green—only the rich wore white cloaks. The simple enchantments left behind a familiar rushing tingle, a seductive reminder of how little he used his prodigious skills.
The combination of age and dirt obscured whatever picture adorned the sign that moved stiffly in the night air, but if Bahl’s memory served correctly, this was The Hood and Cape. At least it was not one of the many taverns in Tirah that liked to have his head swinging in the breeze. The tavern was dingy, but light shone merrily enough through the window, an invitation to passersby to leave the chill open air. Bahl didn’t think the welcome would extend to him, but he thumbed the latch and pulled open the door anyway.
Pipe smoke tickled at his eyes as he ducked through the doorway into a large room illuminated by two fires and several oil lamps. Rough tables stood in no real order and the ground was sticky with spilt beer and mud. A short bar opposite the door was manned by a drowsy man who had a paunch fitting to a barkeep and a scowl for the new arrival.
A man of about fifty summers sitting by the fire was apparently the centre of attention in the room. Rather dirty, with unkempt hair and his right leg resting on a stool, he was obviously in the middle of regaling his audience with a story, something about an encounter on the road to the Circle City. The tall white-eye kept his head bowed as he crossed over to the bar. He picked up the tankard of beer that was placed wordlessly before him and dropped a silver coin in return. The barkeep frowned at the coin for a moment, then swept it up and went in search of change.
Bahl hunched down over the bar, leaning heavily on his elbows to make his great height less obvious and facing away from the focus of the room. When the barkeep returned with his change, a motley collection of copper pieces, Bahl gave the man a nod and found a bench on the furthest side of the room from the storyteller. There he could sit and listen in peace.
Bahl almost laughed at himself. Here he was, sitting and sipping at his beer—surprisingly good for such an establishment—but what was he doing? Sitting alone in a tavern in one of the city’s less salubrious districts, scarcely half an hour’s walk from his palace—perhaps he’d finally gone mad? Then he heard his own name mentioned by the storyteller, and Aracnan’s, and every nerve in his body came alive. He’d not been paying the man much attention, so all he caught was that Aracnan had demanded to speak to the teller’s son. Now why would that be?
He sipped the beer, no longer tasting it. There was something in the air that disquieted him: first the seeker, following his death to Tirah, then the casual mention of Aracnan. Bahl could almost see a thread weaving its way through the streets, snagging on his shoulder and drawing him into its web. It was a string of unlikely or inexplicable events . . . some agency was at work here.
The man holding court claimed that he had seen the mercenary slipping into the palace when he had been a member of the cavalry there. Then, with a self-important ring to his voice, he added that he had been told to forget the whole incident by the Chief Steward himself when he raised the matter with him.
Bahl wrinkled his nose, unconvinced. He doubted even the most alert guard could notice Aracnan’s passage if Aracnan didn’t wish to be seen, and his Chief Steward tended to threaten his subordinates in a more direct fashion. It was strange to hear the storyteller use Aracnan’s name, though: Bahl had been acquainted with Aracnan for more than a hundred years, yet he knew almost nothing about the man. Even the rumour that Aracnan had been the one to teach Kasi Farlan, the first white-eye and last of King Veriole’s line, how to use a sword was unconfirmed. That was before the Great War, seven thousand years ago. Bahl could believe it. Immortals kept their secrets close, and no mortal had eyes like Aracnan’s.
The little Bahl had picked up about this current story was enough for him to want to meet the boy Aracnan had apparently wanted to talk to. Aracnan had his own agenda, but sometimes he was commanded by the Gods themselves; whatever his purpose, it was always worth investigating his actions.
An old man sitting by the fireside coughed obviously. Bahl guessed he was the usual storyteller in this tavern and had not taken kindly to some dirty wagoner taking centre stage. A love of stories and mysteries was at the heart of Farlan culture: a Farlan liked nothing so much as to tell all manner of grand tales, washed down with a drink or four. It was a poor tavern indeed that couldn’t afford a resident storyteller to entertain the customers.
The elderly man smoothed his beard and shuffled in his seat as he played his audience. Bahl smiled inwardly; Aracnan’s greatest feats were known to only a handful of people, and there might well be even greater exploits that had gone completely unnoticed by history.
“Aracnan is as mysterious as the Gods themselves,” the old man began, his voice pitched low to make his audience listen the more closely. “Some say he fought at the Last Battle. Perhaps he is one of the cursed Vukotic family.”
He paused, allowing a mutter to pass around the room as men frowned and gestured and murmured incantations under their breath, invoking protections against the cursed. Superstitious fools, Bahl thought to himself, only daemons are attracted by speaking their name.
The old man cleared his throat again, regaining his audience’s attention. “Maybe he’s a daemon that wanders the Land. Nothing is known for sure, except that he appears without warning, often just before a battle. He commands his own fee and takes no argument. Do you remember the late Duke Helrect?”
“The one who killed his wife and became a monk?” asked one of the more vocal listeners.
The storyteller nodded gravely. “He did become a monk, but I heard from the Captain of the Guard there a darker tale. It was rumoured that his wife was a sorceress who consorted with daemons and wanted to enslave the city. The duke’s mage tried to denounce her, but she struck him down before he could reach the palace.”
Bahl grimaced at that. The woman had been ambitious, true enough, but hardly a creature of evil. The mage had been more than a match for her mean abilities, just not impervious to arrows. He said nothing. Stories had a life of their own. Sometimes in a land of magic there were forces that changed even truth. He turned his attention back to the old man, who was imbuing the story with high emotion now.
“Then she barricaded herself in her tower, and any man who neared it fell dead. The captain told me that he was taking counsel with the duke when, despite the locked doors, a daemon appeared in the chamber—to kill them all, or so they thought. The daemon named himself Aracnan and said he had been sent to their aid. He told the duke to enter the tower at first light—and then he was gone. The duke broke down the tower doors at dawn and found his wife, torn into a thousand pieces, and all of those pieces scattered over the room.”
The storyteller paused with a theatrical shudder. “The duke went to offer thanks at the Temple of Death and was told by the priests that the price of their master’s aid was that he must renounce his title and become a monk.”
He turned back to the wagoner and addressed him directly: “You’re wrong. Aracnan doesn’t work as an agent of Bahl; he is older and more powerful than even our Lord. It’s said that he is a messenger of the Gods. You should have sent the boy with him, rather than cross him.”
The wagoner belched his opinion of the storyteller. “Perhaps, but I don’t believe that my son has any destiny except to cause me trouble and carry cloth for the rest of his life. He’s no good for anything else, that’s for sure—can’t take orders that don’t come with a whip, so not even the Swordmasters will want him. At least the scroll your daemon wanted to give the boy will fetch a few coins, though less than he has cost me over the years, more’s the pity.”
“I still say he wanted nothing good with that boy,” a voice broke in. Bahl turned to look towards the new speaker, but kept from meeting his gaze. The man wore white on his collar and Bahl had no wish to be recognised yet.
“Carel, Nyphal is not watching over the boy, so keep your fool mouth shut,” replied the wagoner. Bahl assumed they were good friends for no one spoke to a former guardsman like that, no matter how silver his hair might be, unless they were close.
“What did the scroll say?” someone called out.
“Can’t open the damn thing. Carel here reckons it’s magical, that only the boy can read it, but the lanky bastard won’t touch it. There are some symbols on the outside, but what they mean, Death only knows.” He belched again and sat back as he felt the beer rising in his throat, then wiped his cracked lips while looking expectantly at the crowd.
After a few moments Bahl signalled the bartender to give him another. “And what price for the scroll?” he enquired. This way was worth trying first.
“To you? More than you could afford. I have enough trouble with my son; the thought of having to deal with another white-eye makes me more than thirsty.” The man glanced over to his friend, the former Ghost, and Bahl saw he was flanked by four armed men, no doubt wagon train guards.
A bulky mercenary sitting off to the left chuckled, and eyed Bahl’s fine armour with the smile of a thief. With a nod to his companions he stood. His thick jaw marked him a half-breed: Farlan mixed with one of the nomadic peoples, maybe. The Farlan were an elitist people, but even those regarded as inferior stock could look down on a white-eye.
“Perhaps you should buy us all drinks, white-eye. Or donate those fine gold rings at your waist. Very exclusive tavern this is; not just anyone drinks here—not unless they’re stupid, or willing to pay for us all.”
Bahl looked down and realised his cloak was open enough to show the dragon-belt at his waist. Four thick gold rings hung from it, worth far more than their weight. The man couldn’t take his eyes off them; his stubby fingers stroked the hilt of his dagger. Before anyone could blink, Bahl had drawn his broadsword and levelled it at the man’s throat. Crackling threads of light danced up and down the five-foot-long blade before fading to nothing around Bahl’s glove.
The mercenary looked deep into Bahl’s colourless eyes and utter panic showed on his face. A bolt of lightning leapt from the blade and the mercenary spun in the air as it threw him backwards. He hit the edge of a table and crashed down on the floor. Sparks and tongues of flame danced around the room so ferociously that even the fires and lamps shrank back in fear.
No one else moved. They all averted their eyes, desperate not to be the next to attract Bahl’s attention. Bahl’s free hand bunched into a fist, and he sought to compose himself. Tonight more than ever, his rage was close to the surface; it felt like a red mist of violence lurking at the edges of his vision. He drove it back down, and as he calmed himself he noticed how the new odours of burnt flesh and urine cut through the air.
“I will take the scroll now.”
The cowering wagoner scrabbled it out of his bag, dropped it, picked it up again, and gave it to Bahl, retreating hurriedly back to his seat. The giant looked at the scroll in silence, a puzzled expression on his face, and then passed his hand over it, muttering wordlessly.
“Lord Bahl,” said a voice. Bahl turned to see the Ghost—Carel?—down on one knee, eyes on the ground.
“My Lord, I would swear on the name of the Palace Guard that Aracnan meant to kill the youth. It was the sight of Nyphal that held him back.”
Bahl nodded, to himself more than anyone else. It was true only the youth would have been able to open the scroll, and probably fortunate that his instincts had stopped him, though it wasn’t intended to kill. He tucked it into his belt. The College of Magic would no doubt enjoy prising its secrets apart.
“Bring the boy to the palace. I will take him off your hands.” The offer surprised him as much as the wagoner. What do I do with him? he wondered in the privacy of his own mind. Was Aracnan pursuing a mission of the Gods here, or some private enterprise of his own? Either was possible.
Abruptly Bahl froze, like a dog catching a scent on the wind. The tavern and its occupants faded from his awareness and instead he felt the city around him, stone houses and damp streets and gutters clogged with rubbish, and a mind like his own. Aracnan.
He sheathed his broadsword and made for the door. As he pulled it open, the sensation grew stronger. Aracnan was on a rooftop ahead, masked by shadows. Somehow he’d been able to conceal himself from Bahl until now, perhaps just to prove he was more skilled in magic than Bahl would ever be.
The Duke of Tirah stepped out and pulled the door closed behind him. He took a moment to check for curious faces, then, when he was certain he was alone, he walked left to an alley until he was out of sight of the tavern. Then he waited.
“Surprised, my Lord?”
Bahl hadn’t even seen the mercenary cross the rooftops to reach him. It was disconcerting that Aracnan could get around him so easily.
“Impressed. But also curious. You’ve never needed to hide yourself in Tirah before.”
“Times, it seems, are changing. Someone doesn’t want me in this city, so I shall be brief. It was hard enough to find you without inviting another attack.”
“That is my problem. Your beloved city is safe. What I came to tell you is that the boy is to be your Krann. I was told to bring him to the palace, but he would not come.”
“My Krann . . . So that’s what the Siblis had sensed; they were following the call of his gifts. And the tavern, did you encourage me to go there?”
“I did, but only gently. You’d have noticed if I’d had any ill intent towards you.”
Bahl paused, about to speak, then shrugged and returned to more important matters. “The boy refused? How is that possible?”
“With this one there’ll be no simple answers. The boy’s trouble, but now he is your trouble. Take care, my Lord. The Land has not been so dangerous a place since the Great War.”
Isak stumbled on down the street, stubbing his toe on the cobbles, but there was no chance of a rest. He’d been drifting off to sleep in the warmth of the stables, soothed by the comfortable sighing of horses, when the door had burst open and his father appeared, his face contorted into a mask of terror and rage.
“You’ve done it now,” Horman screamed, “and you’ll get what’s coming to you, white-eye bastard! Soon I’ll be rid of all your trouble at last. You’re going to the palace, and I hope you rot there!”
Before Isak had been able to say a word, a mob of drunken men had set upon him with drink-fuelled passion, and with so many of them, there had been no chance of fighting back. Instead, Isak took a deep breath and forced his way out through them, then took to his heels and ran, not caring where he was headed. The cobbles were painful against his bare feet so he turned into the nearest alley and hopped the fence at the end, picking a direction at random. His mind was racing: what had he done now? There had been real intent in the punches he’d received; they were going to kill him if they caught him.
Isak had to escape—or find a patrol—so he headed for where most of the towers were situated, where the rich folk must live. There’d be guards there, surely. Soon he found himself on the long avenue leading up to the palace. The moons escaped the clouds for a moment and shone down onto the smooth walls and the Tower of Semar, which loomed out from behind them. They lit a path for Isak to follow, but instead he just stood and gaped at the sight; he was still standing there when the leaders of the pack caught up.
Before Isak had fully grasped what was happening a fist flew into his stomach and drove the wind from him. As he doubled over, that blow was followed by a knee to the groin. Thin hands gripped his shoulders, and Isak saw a man’s ratlike features for a split second before they smashed into his face, then he crashed to the ground. A hot sharp burst flowered in his side as he was kicked and spun onto his back. Now the rest of the gang had caught them up, but they silently kept their distance from the fight.
As Isak blinked back the pain he saw the drizzling rain glint in the moonlight as it fell around him. With an effort, he forced himself to his knees, his eyes fixed on the hatred blazing out of the face of the man who’d hit him. The man drew a knife from his belt, ignoring a cry behind him, and as Isak struggled to stand, his attacker lunged forward, a hungry smile on his lips.
Isak heard someone—Carel, maybe?—shout out a warning, but his eyes were fixed on his attacker. He managed to bring his left hand up, grasping the hilt and stopping the dagger from sinking into his throat. Pain screamed up his arm and into his shoulder as the edge sliced his palm, but he kept his grip for long enough to be able to grab at the man’s wrist with his other hand, then pulled his stunned assailant close and buried his teeth into the man’s hand.
The assailant screamed and dropped the knife, which clattered onto the cobbles and was immediately forgotten. He swung desperately at Isak, who released his bite, gave the man a bloody grin, and threw him against the wall of a house behind him. The man was reaching for another weapon, but this time it didn’t matter: Isak held back his blow until the man had just got a finger round the hilt of the second blade, and then he lashed forward with both palms to smash into the man’s throat with a sickening crunch. As the man twitched and went limp, the only sound was Isak’s breathing, ragged with pain and wrath.
The broken figure slid slowly down the wall and crumpled in a corner like a doll. Isak stared down at the man, then at his hands. The rain was running red trails down the fingers of his left hand; the other was washed clean as he watched. Then, a little belatedly, he remembered the rest of the gang behind him and took off down the street. As Isak started to run again, the pack stirred into action and followed after him, baying for blood.
Carts and stands that by day were overflowing with produce and wares of all kinds now stood empty and dripping: the Palace Walk Market was the largest in this part of the city, but tonight it was dead, offering the injured youth no hope of sanctuary. The only light came from the palace up ahead.
The richer parts of the city cowered in the shadow of the fortress walls that surrounded the peak of the hill. Guard towers dotted the length of the massive wall, but in a city famed for its spires it was the Tower of Semar that stood out. It rose up and up, impossibly high, a myth come to life, but myth or not, that was where Isak was headed.
“Yes, my Lord.” The soldier remained on one knee, sounding anything but certain, as though scarcely able to believe what he was telling his lord. “My Lord, I’m quite sure it was Ilit. I was on the wall and I saw him appear as Chief Steward Lesarl was crossing from the barbican to the hall. They spoke, and then the Chief Steward showed him to the side door that leads to the tower stairs.”
“What was he carrying?”
“How did—?” His voice trailed off. You didn’t question the Master. “He had something in a sack, something bulky, and what looked like a sword.”
Bahl sighed. There could be no doubt now. Isak really had been Chosen by Nartis as Krann, the God-appointed heir to Lord Bahl and future Lord of the Farlan. White-eyes could only have children with their own kind, and female white-eyes were incredibly rare, so their patron God chose a successor rather than wait for acceptable progeny. The Gods would send gifts to place their Chosen above the rest of humankind, bestowing priceless weapons or talismans, tools to keep the tribe strong and safe.
It wasn’t unheard of for Ilit, the Messenger God, to bring the gifts, but it was far from common. It was a portent Bahl didn’t care for, especially when that God had gone to the steward of the Palace rather than its lord. Bahl heard Aracnan’s words echo in his mind: This boy is trouble.
They had headed towards the tower. Whatever the gifts were, it had obviously been deemed necessary to leave them in safer hands than his. The old lord sighed. He’d had enough surprises tonight, and the boy hadn’t even arrived yet.
The jutting barbican towers loomed large as Isak rounded the fountain in Barbican Square. He slipped on the rain-slicked cobbles, flopping down like a sodden rag. The jolt drove the wind from his lungs and pain flared in his bruised ribs. He rolled on to his back and stared up at the gloom of the night sky, blinking away the fat raindrops that fell into his eyes. A groan escaped his lips as he forced his head up, but then he saw the pack behind him, closing fast.
Get up, you fool, fight the pain and run. The thought spurred him into action, forcing him up from the ground. He had only forty yards to go, so he lowered his head and sprinted for the drawbridge. Mercifully, it was down and he muttered a quick prayer of thanks to Nartis as he flew across. The light from the arrow-slit windows illuminated the rain that prickled the surface of the black moat water. In his desperation Isak had thought only to get into the protective lee of the gate towers; now he slammed into the iron-bound gates and rebounded, scrabbling fruitlessly for a way to get inside.
He brushed his sodden hair back from his forehead and wiped away the mixture of rain, blood, and dirt to clear his eyes. As the downpour worsened, Isak looked up to the heavens, not praying to Nartis this time, just with a look of beaten accusation as his pursuers arrived.
The youth curled into a ball, bloody hands shielding his head as the men laid into him. Triumphant grunts accompanied each blow. One kick rolled him on his back and he couldn’t stop his eyes flickering open for a moment. He glimpsed the face above him, distorted and robbed of humanity and suddenly the face disappeared, thrown sideways as the beating abruptly ended. Isak twitched, tense in expectation of the next blow, but it never came. Carefully, he looked up to see his attackers standing sullen, red-eyed with unspent anger. One was picking himself up from the floor, unhurt, but obviously bewildered.
Now Isak could see that two palace guards had taken up position on either side of him, hands resting on the pommels of their long swords. Their black armour, over which was draped the stark white livery of their Lord, looked fearsome in the half-light. They were dressed for battle, with helms covering their faces. Isak looked to his left, at a door set into the wall. A shield was propped just inside the doorway, an eagle with outstretched wings, painted black on white. Lord Bahl’s coat of arms.
A gust of wind rustled along the wall, spreading a shiver through the men huddled on the drawbridge. They were wavering, about to turn and run, but then Horman arrived and stiffly forced his way to the front of the group.
“That bastard white-eye just killed a man,” he shouted. “He’s my son and I know the law. Step aside.”
One of the Ghosts stepped forward. He said nothing as he gestured for Horman to approach. He took his hand off his sword as he reached up to remove his helm. Isak felt a surge of panic. Before the age of eighteen summers, a child remained the property of his or her parents, unless they chose to let that child become an adult earlier. Most parents gave in to their children and declared them adult at sixteen or seventeen summers, but not Horman: he had needed to do nothing to keep Isak a slave, and in the eyes of the law he was still a child. Now Isak could be hung on his father’s word for the man he’d just killed.
Unhurriedly, the guard standing with Horman bent his head to pull off his helm, so deliberately that Horman almost reached out to take the helm from his outstretched hands. A single soldier’s plait unfurled. The guard looked up to meet Horman’s gaze with eyes as white as Isak’s. Horman still had his mouth open in surprise when the guard hit him.
The other guard stepped forward, his sword rasping from its sheath. Isak’s pursuers shrank away, then scurried back across the drawbridge until only Carel remained. The guard walked up to him, sword lifted, until he spotted the white collar, whereupon he nodded and stepped back. Carel returned the nod and took Horman by the shoulders to pull him to his feet. Horman was unsteady; the white-eye Ghost was Isak’s height, but much bulkier, and his punch had left Horman dazed and shaking.
Touching a finger to his lip, Horman held the bloody digit up to inspect it. He shrugged Carel off and scowled at Isak. “Fine. Don’t come back, ever. You’re dead to me.”
The words hurt more than Isak could understand: he hated his father. He could think of nothing to say. Horman spat on the floor and turned away, slapping down the hand Carel raised to slow him. Carel looked at Isak and shrugged.
“Remember me when you’re a general, Isak,” he said, then Carel too turned and walked away. Isak opened his mouth to call after him, but the words wouldn’t come. After a few heartbeats, he clamped it shut. He looked down and saw the mess of blood on his hand. He felt hands underneath his shoulders, lifting him to his feet. The white-eye guard was staring at him, but Isak was too numb to react.
“Can you walk?” asked the normal guard, frowning.
Isak nodded, gingerly touching the ground with his toes before trusting his weight to them.
“Was that really your father?”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
A shrug this time. Isak didn’t look at the guard; he kept eyes on his father, swiftly disappearing into the night.
“Who told you to come?”
“No one did. They chased me from the stable, I don’t know why. I thought if I could find a patrol my father wouldn’t beat me to death, and here must be the best place to find a patrol.”
“Did you kill the man as he said?”
Isak held up his injured hand for the man to see. “I did, but he was trying to cut my throat at the time.”
“And you’re sure no one sent you?”
Isak gave him a wary look. “Of course. Why do you keep asking me that? Who would have sent me here?”
The man gave up. With an exasperated click of the tongue he turned back to the guardroom and motioned for Isak to follow. His comrade stayed for another moment, his expression disconcerting as he stared into Isak’s eyes. When Isak straightened up and looked back at the white-eye, a spark of belligerence flared to life in his belly. Strangely, it was the guard who shivered and looked away.
The normal guard, the smallest of the two by a good five inches, motioned again for Isak to enter the guardroom and this time the boy followed the flicker of a fire and stepped inside towards the warmth. He picked his way past two short-handled glaives propped against the wall and placed himself as close as he could to the flames. There was a small table in the middle of the room on which was a pile of rags and an empty plate. Isak fingered through the oily rags, looking for the cleanest, which he wrapped as tightly as he could around his injured hand.
The white-eye guard stepped inside and pulled the outer door closed. It was a thick piece of oak with a massive iron lock, but the door was dwarfed by the slab of granite on a simple iron runner—presumably to be used in times of siege. Once the room was secured, the man turned and examined Isak again. Isak couldn’t work out if the expression was hostile or puzzled, but he decided he was too hungry or cold to much care anymore.
The other guard moved to the far end of the room where the outline of another stone slab was visible. He pulled a chain hanging through a hole in the ceiling and gave a short whistle. The sound was repeated somewhere above, and it heralded a widening of the dark crack down one side. Isak could feel the grinding of stone through his bare toes.
The guard plucked a burning torch from a holder on the wall and ducked through the growing gap. “This way,” he said tersely.
Thirty yards of narrow passage took them to an iron-bound wooden door set at an awkward angle to the wall. Pushing this open, the guard stepped back to allow Isak to squeeze past. Ducking through the doorway, Isak peered into a large noisy hall, then descended the handful of worn steps. A huge blazing fire was opposite him, above which hung spitting haunches of meat attended by two young girls. The room contained a score of long tables, and some of the men—Isak guessed they were guardsmen from their austere uniforms—turned to look at the new arrivals but quickly resumed their meal. The high beams of the chamber were hung with regimental flags and drapes covered the walls, interspersed with shields, swords, and broken standards, no doubt trophies from past battles. The scents of pipe smoke, burnt fat, fresh bread, and thick stew hung tantalising in the air.
Isak craned around, peering at the hall’s ornaments, recognising a handful of the emblems from his travels. They’d probably been won in the battles recorded on the wall tapestries. Though the hangings were faded and soot-stained, he was still able to make out the lines of troops and enemy formations. He turned back to the guard, who pointed at one of the servants, then stepped back inside the passage and closed the door. Isak stared after him; clearly they didn’t care that he’d killed a man. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense—but nothing had this evening, and Isak wasn’t about to cry over spilt blood.
The servant wore the traditional Farlan costume of wide loose trousers bound down at the feet and a thick paral shirt, neatly arranged and tied at the waist with a belt the thickness of a man’s hand. It looked as if he were about to leave for the temple to take up some candlelit vigil, except the man’s belt was decorated with Lord Bahl’s eagle rather than any divine symbol.
The servant glowered at Isak; he too said nothing, but pointed at an empty table and left, returning shortly with a bowl of steaming venison stew, a flatbread draped over the top. Isak fell upon it ravenously, eating as fast as he could in case there’d been a mistake and it was removed before he’d finished. He’d barely started to mop up the last of the gravy when the empty bowl was replaced by a second, and accompanied this time by a flagon of beer. He ate this helping more slowly, but he was a growing boy already well over six feet tall and it took a third large bowlful to satisfy him.
Finally he settled back, wiped a smear of juice from his lips, and looked around at his surroundings. It was the first chance he’d had to properly inspect the room. The tapestries, he could now confirm, were indeed scenes from famous battles, with the names of the actions woven into each picture in a variety of ways: in one it was spelled out in the shading of the trees in the background; a second was embroidered on a general’s banner. Isak remembered Carel’s tales of these very engagements: most featured Lord Bahl at the forefront of the action, riding a dragon or a rearing stallion, always leaving great swathes of dead in his wake.
The tapestries were displayed around the room in chronological order, as far as Isak could see. The oldest, which happened more than two hundred summers ago, was positioned behind the top table at the right-hand end of the hall; the most recent engagement was sited by the grand main door—Isak knew Carel had taken part in that one shortly after joining the Ghosts. He spent an idle few minutes looking for a figure that could have been the white-haired old man in his youth, but most of the soldiers were just blank shapes rather than people. It gave him some comfort to think that some of those soldiers had been white-eyes: at this distance they all looked the same, and they had fought together, as a team.
He smiled, thinking of Carel as a young man like himself; unsure quite what he should be doing, keeping close to the veterans, trying to absorb everything he could see while also keeping himself alive. Now he had the luxury of time to think, Isak wondered again why Carel had walked away at the palace gates—how could he just assume that Isak would be accepted here? Even Isak knew this was not how men were recruited to the Guard. What in the name of Death was going on? For that matter, what had sent his father into such a rage? Isak knew his father was quick to anger, but he’d never seen him like that, or his friends. They had been like feral dogs, worked up into a frenzy; something must have happened to make them like that. Isak felt a shiver run down his spine. Somehow he knew it was to do with that strange mercenary, Aracnan.
Now he looked around at the other men in the hall, searching for a friendly face. They were a motley collection; the handful of Ghosts were clean and neat in their uniforms, but most of the diners were forest rangers, dressed raggedly in dark woodland colours. Though their hands were clean for eating, mud still stained their clothing, and he could see a couple of dressings that looked hastily wrapped. One ranger had blood dried into his mess of hair and stained down his tunic. The rangers were all lean, tanned by sun and wind; they lacked the obvious bulk of the palace guards because their battles were not fought with armour and pikes, but with stealth and camouflage and swift arrows flashing out from the trees.
Those who bothered to look back at Isak spared the boy only a moment’s disinterested gaze. Perhaps they knew why he was here, perhaps not: the only thing Isak knew was that he had much to prove before he would be accepted. No one appeared to care about the colour of his eyes—that made a change, for it made most people keep their distance. He wasn’t totally ignored, though, for now the dogs roaming the hall came to greet him, licking at the mud and blood on his bare toes and sniffing up to the empty plate, but once satisfied there was no food left for them, they returned to loiter by the great open fire where they panted and stared longingly at the spitted joints of meat that perfumed the hall.
High above, at the very top of the Tower of Semar, Lord Bahl paced in his quarters as the gifts destined for his new Krann called out through the lonely night. Whatever they were, they gnawed at his mind, but Bahl was a disciplined man, one who knew well the corrupting nature of magic. He had no intention of letting magic rule him as it had Atro, the previous Lord of the Farlan.
Lord Atro had ruled the tribe for four hundred years before Bahl killed him. An evil man even before he came to the palace, he had delighted in his newly found power and had murdered, tortured, and defiled as he pleased. Raiding tombs and desecrating temples had fed his addiction for magical artefacts, and the more he loved them, the more they called to him. By the time that Bahl fought his celebrated duel with Atro, the old Lord had been barely coherent, but even so, the battle had nearly cost Bahl his life.
“My Lord, please calm yourself. The boy is down below, but he can wait. I need you to relax, or we will lose our new Krann in a matter of minutes.” Lesarl, Bahl’s Chief Steward, stood at a table to one side of the room. Bahl was not one for fine surroundings: the chamber, the smallest and loneliest room at the very top of the tower, was unimpressive by anyone’s standards. Bahl was content with simple but sturdy furniture—a small oak table, a pair of overfilled bookshelves, and an oversized bed that took up much of the remaining room. It was a retreat from life as much as from the opulence in the palace’s public rooms below. Apart from that, all that could be said for it was that it commanded the best view of the mountains—on those days when mist didn’t obscure the city.
“Why today?” He looked at his steward.
“I have no idea. A test for you?”
This elicited only a grunt, but Lesarl hadn’t expected much more. He poured a glass of wine from the jug on the table and held it out to his lord until Bahl sighed and took it. With Lord Bahl in this mood he was capable of anything. Getting a jug of wine down his throat might actually help matters.
“I was wondering whether you would return tonight. You’ve never spent so long in the forest before today.”
“I always return.”
“Is it worse?”
Lesarl warmed his hands in front of the fire and looked up at the only painting in the room. What was most remarkable about the painting was not the artistic detail, nor the undeniable beauty of the woman who lay beside a stream, but the contented smile on her lips, for these were the lips of a white-eye. Lesarl had never—he thanked the Gods—actually met a female white-eye, but they were known to be as selfish and aggressive as their male counterparts. All white-eyes were born with violence in their blood, and no matter how lovely, how serene she looked in this picture, this woman would have been a real danger when roused.
“Lesarl, stop staring. Your place is not to remind me of the past,” Bahl growled, his hand reaching for the ring hanging from a delicate chain around his neck. Ineh, the girl in the painting, was pictured wearing that very ring. The painting and the ring were the only things Bahl had kept.
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” the Chief Steward said, turning back to face Bahl. “Her face always distracts me. I swear those eyes follow me down every corridor like a nursemaid.”
“A nursemaid? She should have been mother to her own children.” For a moment Bahl forgot the boy and the God’s gifts below and was drawn into a happier time, but the call of the present—or maybe the future—brought his attention back to Lesarl. “So, are you going to tell me what you took down there with Lord Ilit? I can feel something unusual, nothing I am familiar with. There is . . .” His words tailed off.
“Are you sure?” began Lesarl.
“Yes damn you,” roared Bahl, “I think I know my own weaknesses well enough! Your place is not to lecture me.”
Lesarl shrugged, hands held out in a conciliatory gesture. He could not argue with that: it was Lord Bahl’s ability to turn those very weaknesses into strengths that had rebuilt the Farlan nation. “It’s a suit of armour and a blade.”
“And?” demanded the white-eye. “I can tell there’s something more—I feel it grating at my bones.”
“My knowledge is limited, my Lord, but I don’t believe there can be any mistaking them. Siulents and Eolis, the weapons of Aryn Bwr, are back.”
Bahl inadvertently spat out his mouthful of wine and crushed the glass to powdered crystal. Aryn Bwr: the last king. His crimes had caused his true name to be expunged from history. Aryn Bwr, first among mortals, had united the entire elven people after centuries of conflict, and the Gods had showered him with gifts—but peace was not the elven king’s true motive. Aryn Bwr had forged weapons powerful beyond imagination, powerful enough to slay even Gods of the Upper Circle, and he had led his people against their makers. The Great War lasted only seven years, but the taint of the horrors committed by both sides lingered, millennia on.
“Gods, no wonder Ilit didn’t come to me . . .” His voice tailed off.
“I couldn’t believe it, holding Eolis in my hands . . .” Lesarl’s voice was shaking too.
“Is our new Krann fortunate or cursed?” Bahl wondered.
“Who knows? The most perfect armour ever made, a blade that killed Gods—I don’t think I would want them at any price. But blessed or cursed, what does it mean?”
“They will make him the focus of every power broker and madman in the entire Land. That is something I would curse few with.” Bahl frowned, brushing fragments of glass into the fire.
“How many prophecies mention them?”
“Neglecting your studies, Lesarl?”
He laughed. “I cannot deny it—but in my defence I have been running the nation, so the omission is hopefully forgivable. The whole subject is beyond me, in any case. I can work with the stupidity of people, but prophecies, no, my Lord.”
“It is the most complicated of sciences; it can take a lifetime to understand the rambling mess they come out with.”
“So what are we to believe?”
“Nothing.” Bahl laughed humourlessly. “Live your life according to prophecy? That’s only for the ignorant and the desperate. All you need to know is what others believe: the cult of Shalstik, the prophecy of the Devoted, of the Flower in the Waste, of the Saviour, of the Forsaken . . . Know your enemy and anticipate his attack. With the unexpected arrival of this new Krann, the eyes of the whole Land will be upon us. The longer we can keep his gifts a secret, the better.”
“Will that be possible?” Lesarl looked dubious. “When the Krann is seen without gifts, half the wizards in the city will become curious. I don’t know what their daemon guides will be able to tell them, but power attracts attention. Someone will work it out, surely. The Siblis—they could sense them from who knows how far away?”
“The Siblis used magic so powerful it was killing them, I doubt anyone else will be making so great an effort. But yes, you’re right: at some point someone will work it out, but any delay helps us. If the mages get there first, at least they will probably come to you for confirmation. Flatter their intelligence and wisdom, then make it clear that people will die if it becomes common knowledge that Siulents and Eolis are back in play. We’ll decide how to deal with anything the priests might say some other time. For now, let’s go and see whether the boy is worth all the trouble he brings.”
Isak dozed at the table, his head resting on his arms, despite the constant rumble of conversation that filled the room. The bitter scent of fat drifted over from the fire and in his soporific state he licked his lips, tasting again the venison stew with which he’d filled his belly. Meat was a rare pleasure in Isak’s life, for hunting rights were exclusive to those folk who paid for permission. Nomads, travellers, the poor—they could only supplement their usually meagre diet with birds shot on the wing, and that was difficult enough without the clatter of a wagon train to scare them away. It was one of the few times that Isak’s natural skill and keen eye served his people well: bringing down a goose or wild duck for the communal cooking pot was one of the rare times his father ever came close to praising him.
Slowly, through his reverie, he became aware of a change in the hall. The voices had stopped. The hairs on his neck rose and a tingle of anticipation ran down his spine. He looked up to see every man in the room standing. One ranger at the next table glared at him and after a moment of panic, Isak jumped up—and found himself face to face with a thin man several inches shorter than he was, and behind him, a giant, close to a foot taller than Isak, wearing a blank blue mask.
“So, you’re the new arrival,” said the smaller of the two. The man’s smile widened as he looked Isak up and down. Isak, feeling like a cow in a cattle market, fought to keep his calm.
“Welcome to Tirah Palace. Does my Lord have a name?”
“Ah, my name is Isak. Sir.” Isak’s eyes darted from one face to the other. The masked giant hadn’t moved even a fraction. It was as if he were a statue, thought Isak. A memory stirred in the depths of his mind, a shape just below the surface. Oh Gods, this is Lord Bahl. Still the man didn’t move or speak, but his eyes stared deep into Isak’s own, and Isak felt as if the man gazed on his soul itself, inspecting and assessing with cold dispassion.
Isak could feel all eyes on the old white-eye; Lord Bahl possessed an aura of command that demanded the attention of everyone. It was like a blazing fire in the centre of the room; even with his back turned Isak would have felt the heat prickle on his skin. Abruptly, the man held out his hand. Isak stared at the huge fingers before him, blinking as if he’d never seen a hand before, then, shakily, he took Bahl’s wrist and felt the massive hand close about his own.
“Isak. Not a name I’d have given a son of mine, but a man must make his own name in the end. I imagine the Gods will not hold your father’s crude humour against you. Welcome, Isak.”
“Th—thank you my Lord,” was all Isak could manage. He was used to his name; he scarcely even remembered these days that Horman had named him Isak—Kasi backwards—to mock the Gods who had taken his beloved wife from him. Now, as Bahl gripped his forearm, Isak felt a sudden pressure behind his eyes. He could feel the immense presence of the Land beneath his feet, and the thump of his heart booming through his head. Then the memory of his dreams flooded back, coursing in a torrent through the contact. Isak’s knees buckled under the weight, stars bursting in his vision before everything faded to black.
He remembered the island, the feel of the scorching sun and chill marble . . . and the numbing terror. He remembered the chamber, the ranks of pillars supporting a bloated dome set with sparkling clusters of stars, and the sound of ringing steel and death; the shocking scarlet of blood. He remembered the dead man whose face now rose out of the shadows.
When Isak opened his eyes that same face was staring down at him, blank but unmistakable. The rest of the room was a buzzing distraction, nothing more. Obeying the burn in his throat, Isak gasped for air.
“Be still,” said a calm voice beside him. Isak turned his head slightly to see a middle-aged man kneeling beside him. A green patchwork cloak and battered mail marked him as a ranger. Isak tried to raise his hand, but it felt like he was moving another person’s limbs rather than his own. The ranger reached out to stay him a little longer, but Isak shrugged his hand off. With an effort, he forced himself to sit upright; he still felt undignified with his legs splayed out wide, but it was better than remaining flat on the floor like a fainting maid.
“You can stand?”
Isak nodded. He refused the offer of a hand from the ranger, pulling himself carefully upright. He was still shaking a little and tried to hide it by brushing the mud from his shirt. The man with Lord Bahl had a curl of a smile on his lips. Once he judged that Isak had regained his equilibrium he stepped forward, hands held out with palms up in greeting. “I am Lesarl. I place myself at your service.”
Isak hardly heard the words; he was taking a better look at Lord Bahl, the man in his dreams. Under a snowy cape the gigantic white-eye wore a misty-grey suit of armour and a broadsword strapped to his back. It was all Isak could do not to faint away again: his dreams had always been vague, obscure—perhaps for his own sanity—but he knew with terrible certainty that this was the face he’d always seen as blank and inhuman: now he knew why. Bahl’s hood echoed the smooth expressionless features of statues of Nartis.
Shaking the feeling of strangeness from his head, he turned his attention to Lesarl. “Are you useful for anything?”
Despite the snorts of laughter that crept from the corners of the room, Lesarl showed not a flicker of reaction. He had dealt with wits sharper than a white-eye’s before. “Your master finds tasks for me to perform from time to time. I am the Chief Steward.”
His words had the desired effect. Even as cut off as the wagoners were, they all knew perfectly well that the Chief Steward ruled the Farlan nation; if Isak had not been so dazed, he might have recognised Lesarl’s name in time. The Chief Steward wielded complete authority, as he saw fit, in Lord Bahl’s name, but this was balanced against an untidy death if Lord Bahl ever became displeased with his conduct. He was not a man to casually insult.
Isak nodded dumbly, not knowing how to apologise for his rudeness, but Lord Bahl passed over it. “We can deal with who’s who tomorrow. For now, you need sleep. You will have a room in the tower. Come.” The Lord of Storms didn’t wait for a response, but turned to lead the way.
Isak tried to collect his wits. The aura that surrounded the huge man was almost tangible and his physical presence was breathtaking. Isak felt as if Bahl’s powers, both temporal and physical, were radiating out, enveloping all those around him. Bahl stood over seven feet tall and was bulky for a Farlan, but every step was graceful; he moved with purpose and efficiency. As Isak’s head cleared, he remembered that Bahl’s armour was magical—though he couldn’t see any runes inscribed on its surface, he knew they would be there somewhere. Merely focusing on the misty surface of Bahl’s cuirass seemed to thicken the air in his throat. Something deep inside Isak recognised that metallic taste and craved more.
Then his mind snapped back to what Lord Bahl had said. “A room in the tower? I don’t understand, my Lord.”
Bahl stopped in his tracks. He turned back, shoulder shifting up: an instinctive movement. Thanks to Carel’s training, Isak recognised that Bahl was ready to draw and strike if need be. Isak could almost see the massive broadsword appear in front of him and for a moment he wondered if he really had, but then the image faded.
“You don’t know?”
“No, my Lord. My father said nothing. I thought I was going to be hanged.”
“Well then, allow me to explain,” Lesarl said with sardonic smile. “We have a tradition here not to hang the new Krann when he joins the Chosen.”
Isak couldn’t help himself as a string of expletives poured from his mouth, provoking peals of laughter from the Ghosts and breaking the tension in the room. Bahl narrowed his eyes and Isak hurriedly composed himself, though his head was spinning in confusion. This all felt more like a practical joke than divine edict. He was cold, tired, hurting, and more than a little aware that he was making a fool of himself. He had no idea what would happen next.
“Are you an adult?” Lord Bahl asked him suddenly.
Isak shook his head mutely, suddenly afraid that whatever was going on, his father could still ruin it. Horman could have declared his son an adult at fourteen and thrown him out, but instead he had insisted Isak was still a child and condemned him to another four years of near-slavery.
“Very well. Lesarl will have your father persuaded to make you my ward. That life is behind you now. Now you are Krann of the Farlan and Suzerain Anvee. There is little to come with that title other than Anvee itself and the estate of Malaoristen, but you do hold court rank. The rest can wait. I’m sure Lesarl will have papers for you to sign, but none of that matters for now.”
Isak stayed quiet, concentrating on not gawping like a dying fish as he worked the words through his head. Krann? Suzerain? That was only one step below a duke. Now he was too scared to comment, and torn between laughing at the absurdity and sinking back to the floor until life made sense again.
Everyone knew there had not been a Krann of the Farlan for two hundred years, not since Bahl himself was named heir to Lord Atro. It was something other tribes did; the Farlan had no need. His limbs trembled, as though the ground beneath him was shaking with indignation, or perhaps trepidation. Was there now a need? He’d never doubted that there was more to life than bales of cloth, but a suzerainty? A court title? And money? Dukes and suzerains were men of wealth and ancient family, people who held glittering balls for the equally wealthy and splendid—though it was true that Bahl, a white-eye and as remote as the Gods, was Duke of Tirah and foremost in all of the Farlan lands.
Now the eyes of the Ghosts grew sharper. Isak saw men who’d bled for their tribe, who’d stepped over the corpses of their friends to fight on, with no time to stop and mourn: men who must now answer to an untested youth. They could hardly be impressed with their new Krann thus far. He shuddered: he, who had never even been in a real fight, might soon be called upon to lead these battle-hardened men to war.
Bahl led Isak back down the hall to a doorway which opened into a dim corridor. It was silent apart from a brief scuffle of feet somewhere off in the distance. As the door shut behind them, the welcoming aromas of the Great Hall—food, burning logs—were replaced by scents of dust and age. Brands ran down either side of the corridor, and the flames made strange dancing shadows on the walls. Flags and drapes covered the walls, the colours muted in the flickering light.
Isak hesitated: he could almost feel the millennia radiating from the stone underneath. The place was more like a tomb than a palace. Lord Bahl moved on, ghosting along without sound, followed by his Chief Steward, who stepped carefully and quietly. Isak, watching them, thought irreverently that serving Lord Bahl so long had caused the Chief Steward to adopt some of his Lord’s ways.
A stairway carved with images of the Upper Circle led up off to the left; the stretch of right-hand wall was broken by four plain doors, but Isak’s eyes were drawn to a pair of ornate double doors at the far end of the corridor and he began to feel a pull, both foreboding and enticing at the same time. As he drew closer he could see the double doors were framed by a dragon made of wrought iron. Ribbed wings swept down each side almost to the floor, while its glaring beak jutted out from the wall, glaring at anyone approaching. Bahl went straight up to the door and opened it. The click of the latch broke the silence and stirred Isak into movement.
Beyond was a large circular room, a dozen yards in diameter and high enough to accommodate even the largest of white-eyes. On the walls were faintly scrawled geometric chalk markings, but a taste of magic in the air made it clear they were not simply idle scribbling.
Isak stepped towards the nearest one, narrowing his eyes to try to focus on the complex shapes and patterns of runes. A rumble from Bahl warned him against getting too close: obviously he didn’t want curious fingers within reach of the writing.
As he turned away from the walls, Isak realised there was another person already in the room; a maid kneeling at Lord Bahl’s feet. She stood up as Bahl passed her, heading for the centre of the room, and Isak caught a glimpse of pronounced features betraying more than a little apprehension. Then she saw Isak and dropped her head down low, apparently hiding her fear behind a fall of long, thick hair. She followed Lesarl into the black circle marked on the floor, standing as far from Bahl as she could. Holding a bundle of what looked like bedding tight to her chest, the girl stood with hunched shoulders, her eyes fixed on the floor before her. She looked as if she were braced to go out in a gale.
Isak stepped into the circle and pushed down with his foot: it wasn’t stone, but something smoother and more yielding. As he focused on it, Isak suddenly found himself dizzy, and a sensation of falling rushed over his body. The more he stared, the more insubstantial the floor seemed.
“How do I go down?” he asked.
Bahl had raised a hand towards the wall where a birdlike shape was drawn. He gave a dry laugh. “Patience, young man. You’re not ready for that. Down is a greater step than you might think.”
“What’s down there?”
“I said patience. Explanations are for the morrow.”
Isak nodded this time and kept quiet.
Returning his attention to the image on the wall, Bahl began to mouth words and make gestures. A ghost of colour lingered momentarily after his hand had passed through the air, then melted away. Before Isak had time to ask another question a silent wind began to whip up from all around, tugging at clothes and the bundle carried by the maid.
Strange, shadowy shapes danced around their bodies, wings without substance tearing past Isak’s face with ever-increasing speed. He flinched, but Lord Bahl stood still, as solid as a mountain. The flight of wings turned into a storm, nipping and dragging at their clothes as the platform under their feet started rising suddenly. While the girl was clearly terrified, Isak was too astonished to feel anything else. He had never shown much of the natural tendency towards magic that white-eyes were supposed to have. The handful of times when something unexplained had happened had been when he was getting a beating or having a nightmare. It was never in a form that could be controlled or predicted, and it was too rare to make his father think twice about giving him a thrashing. For the first time in Isak’s life it suddenly felt as if magic might be easy and accessible.
The journey itself lasted just a few heartbeats, then the wind suddenly fell away to reveal a room six yards across. The walls of the room were only gently sloped, and Isak realised that since this room was half the diameter of the one below, they must have travelled further than it had felt. The maid, a relieved look on her face, darted on to the solid floor and went to make up the low bed.
Isak looked around the room, then followed the girl off the dark platform and onto solid flagstones. The room was unremarkable; even Isak, a wagon-brat, felt mildly disappointed at the musty air and plain furnishings. There was a battered desk with a worn leather-backed chair before it and a clothes trunk next to the bed. The fireplace was very plain. It didn’t fit the decadent image he had of palace life.
“My Lord, I am reminded of another matter that you will wish to attend to immediately,” announced Lesarl. “Might I suggest we retire to the top room?” Bahl turned enquiringly. The blank look on his steward’s face seemed to answer his question.
He turned back to his new Krann and said, “Isak, you need to sleep more than you realise. Any questions you have can wait for later. I will wake you when it is time.”
Without waiting for a reply, Bahl repeated his motions and the pair disappeared upwards in a sudden flurry. Isak found the chair behind him and sank down thankfully. The weight on his mind had drained his limbs of strength and he suddenly felt desperately tired. This wasn’t what he’d imagined, but the presence of a bed was enough; anything more than a rug on the ground was luxury.
He turned to the desk, where he found a razor lying snug in a bone sheath, beside it a copper bowl, a water jug, and a polished copper and glass mirror. Leaning forward, he caught his face in the mirror, a perfect reflection that sent a shiver of excitement through his body. It had been made with magic: there was no other way to produce such a smooth surface. It might have been a paltry extravagance for a palace, but it still cheered Isak’s spirits.
His eyes drifted up to the single shelf above the desk. A few dusty books lay on it, all of them looking older than he was. Carel had taught him to read, but it had always been a chore rather than a pleasure. Scanning the titles—From across the Sea, The Campaigns of Manayaz Vukotic, Duels of Words: The Founding of the College of Magic—Isak decided he was too tired to face any of them tonight, although the second one made him linger a moment, wondering why it was here in the first place. Manayaz Vukotic had died as the worst of traitors, for he had led his tribe against their patron God during the Great War. This act of heresy had condemned Vukotic himself to an eternity in the Dark Place, and his five children to be cursed with vampirism. Odd to have an account of his successes in the new Krann’s quarters, no matter what lessons could be learned from them. Isak hadn’t expected that sort of book to be readily available, even here. Perhaps it was a test of some kind, though to what end he couldn’t fathom. With a sigh he looked back at the maid, this time seeing her properly. She was pretty, taller than he’d first thought, and with what looked to be a fine bosom under her thick robe.
“What’s your name?” he started.
The girl gave a small shriek at the unexpected break in the silence. She stared round, looking horrified that Isak was capable of speech. Isak wondered if some of Bahl’s guests were a little less than friendly to the maids when left alone with them.
The girl steadied herself, reassured perhaps by Isak’s equally startled expression. She looked him over quickly, then said, “Tila, my Lord, my name is Tila Introl. I am to be your personal maid.”
Isak had no idea why he needed a personal maid, but she was pretty so he had no complaints. He looked around the room for a way to open conversation, prodding absentmindedly at the bloodstained bandage around his left hand. Then the books caught his eye once more.
“Can you read?” he asked, nodding his head encouragingly towards the dusty tomes.
“Of course, my Lord. My father has an extensive library.” She sounded a little surprised.
“Your family has money?” he asked, bemused at the idea that his maid was highborn. No one else could afford any sort of library.
“Yes, my Lord. My father is Anad Introl. He is Gatekeeper of the City, and a member of the city council.”
“Does that mean I should have heard of him?” Isak asked.
“No, my Lord,” she said with a worried expression. Isak forced a smile at her; he’d snapped because he was tired. Tila looked a little uncertain, but she returned it; Isak had always been able to elicit a smile from people, even his father sometimes, despite his unwillingness to like anything about his son. Carel said it was part of being a white-eye: after all, men had been willing to rush to their deaths at Lord Atro’s command; Lord Bahl was considered withdrawn, practically a hermit, yet his presence was enough to command complete attention and obedience. Carel had told him that every white-eye he’d ever met, no matter how brutal, possessed some remarkable redeeming quality.
Isak was pretty sure he could start to put people at ease by making them laugh, so Tila’s hesitant smile gave him hope. The last thing he wanted was a maid who hated white-eyes.
“It’s traditional for the palace maids to come from the noble families,” Tila began hesitantly. “Lord Atro initiated it as a hostage system so he could keep control of the nobility, but the tradition has continued. The rest of the palace has proper servants; we’re only here in the main wing. Sometimes it feels more like a finishing school. Readying us for being married off.” She looked down at the bed. “I’m sorry, my Lord. I’ve been chattering away; I’ll finish here and get out of your way. We were all instructed to keep from wasting your time—”
“You aren’t in my way,” he replied quickly, “and as for wasting my time, you probably have far more idea than I do about what I’m meant to do with it. I know what a Krann is, but not what will be expected of me. Can you tell me anything?”
“No, my Lord, I’m sorry.” The girl shook her head. “I was just woken to make your room ready; we weren’t even told to expect you. I’m sorry it’s dusty and bare in here, but Lord Bahl is the only one who can bring us up and he’s been in the forest for weeks. There is a library, on the second floor; I could try to find you some lore books, I suppose. The Chief Steward will know but . . . well you don’t want him to think you’re in his pocket. The only other person is Lord Bahl; he was once Krann, but I wouldn’t dare ask him.”
“Why not—does he beat the servants?” Isak asked, on more familiar ground now.
“No, my Lord,” Tila replied quickly, “Lord Bahl is good to us; he doesn’t even notice us most of the time, which suits me fine. But you do hear stories—”
“What sort of stories?” he said, annoyed at his own ignorance—even the maids knew more than he did.
“Well—” she sounded a little dubious, as if unsure of how much she should say. Spreading gossip was dangerous, but if the new Krann was going to survive in the palace, he had to know.
She took a breath and started, “Stories about what he did to the last lord, to Lord Atro. I suppose it’s romantic, to avenge the death of one’s lover, but—”
She looked disinclined to go further, wondering if she should even have started this conversation.
“What sort of stories?” Isak pressed her. “What happened? When?” Horman had banned all talk of white-eyes around Isak; though tales of blood and violence were a staple diet at the fireside, Isak had never been welcome. All this was completely new to him.
“Surely you must know?” she started, but as she saw him stiffen, she quickly continued, “They say that three entire streets were destroyed in the battle. It ended in Cornerstone Market and bits were found as far away as Myrenn Avenue. Atro was hacked apart, and they say that when they tried to gather all the pieces together to bury them, half of them were burnt.”
“Is Myrenn Avenue far from the market?”
Tila gaped. “Far? It’s more than two hundred paces! Two hundred paces—for pieces to fly through the air!”
“Oh that’s easy, I can do that.”
A look of panic flashed over her face, but Isak smiled as she started back and she realised that he had been joking. Tila gave a hiss of exasperation at her own gullibility and opened her mouth to retort when the words died. Isak’s own smile faltered as he realised she had checked herself, remembering her position in relation to his: she was a maid, noble-born or not, gossiping to the new Krann rather than attending to her duties. She pushed errant strands of hair back behind her ears as she turned back to the bed and tugged the sheet flat with a practised hand.
Her tasks finished, Tila straightened her dress and then sat down on the floor facing into the dark circle there. She didn’t seem to trust the magic that held it, though the platform was solid and secure. Isak looked at her, but now she kept her eyes lowered.
“Do you want to go back down again?”
She twitched at the sound of his voice, then forced herself to look at him. “How, my Lord? Lord Bahl is the only one who can take us. The Chief Steward is still up there, so no doubt he will be down soon.”
“I can take you down,” Isak said brightly. “I’m pretty sure I can do what he did. It didn’t look that hard.”
“Didn’t look that hard?” Tila looked shocked. “It’s magic, so what’s so simple about that?”
Isak paused. When he’d entered the circle below and watched Bahl trigger the magic, it had looked simple; it had felt to him as if the tower had welcomed him with its secrets. How did you explain that without sounding like a madman? She would think he meant that the tower had spoken to him, but it wasn’t that it was alive, not at all, just that he thought it was able to recognise someone like him. Isak hadn’t felt as though he had been Chosen until the magic of the tower had treated him as such. He’d bluster the rest for a pretty face.
“If you don’t know anything about magic, then I can’t really explain it to you.”
“Well, I suppose you are a white-eye. ‘Pretty sure’—what exactly does that mean?” She still sounded unconvinced.
“Well, if it doesn’t work we’ll fall hundreds of feet and die—but I really think I know how to do it. Don’t worry,” he added, with what sounded like entirely too much enthusiasm for her liking. Grabbing her arm he pulled her up and into the centre of the room. Tila yelped and tugged away, but Isak was so intent on what he was doing he didn’t even notice her efforts.
Closing his eyes, Isak visualised himself standing alone in the tower. As the dry scent of the air receded from his awareness, he felt only the warm presence of Tila’s arm under his fingers. As he tried to focus, the warmth slid down his fingers until the tips became hot. Tila flinched slightly as he let go of her arm, but she had the sense to keep quiet rather than break his concentration. Then her presence faded from his awareness and he was left disembodied and alone.
An image of the symbol drawn in the room below appeared in his mind. He felt the cylindrical tower, so still and strong about him, the air motionless on his skin while the wind outside tore upwards past windows and beyond the conical peak that pierced the clouds. The symbol flexed gently as he focused on it, the outstretched wings flickering as the wind felt its call.
Isak chanced a breath. Now he could see how to release the wind, to channel it through the symbol and into the chimney. He was sure he could control it, but he wanted to enjoy the sensation for a while first. The magic he’d sensed vaguely over the last few years was suddenly within reach and under his control; it set every nerve ending aflame and made him want to laugh with delight. Finally he reached out to the symbol and gently took hold of it. At his touch, the symbol quivered, trembling as it held back the eager wind. He clasped it for a moment as an understanding of the magic in it poured into him, then he opened it, and a broad grin appeared on his lips as the first feathers flashed around his chest and down his spine.
Then the air burst into life. Even with his eyes closed, Isak could feel the shadows dancing past, running questing fingers over his face and head. Tila moved closer to him, hiding in the lee of his large frame as the wind played through her hair and tugged at her clothes. The air grew dense, pressing the two of them together as the wind rushed and raged.
With his eyes closed, Isak could feel their swift movement down until, with a jolt, they arrived at the bottom and the wind melted away to nothing. When Tila dared to look up, there was only the gloom of the lower chamber and the now-still chalk markings on the wall.
Isak turned to look at her—suddenly aware of the closeness of her body from when she’d instinctively leaned towards him—but as he did so Tila took a smart step away and busied herself tidying her hair. Bobbing low in a curtsey she backed towards the door. “Thank you, my Lord.”
“Will you come to see me again?” As the words left his mouth Isak cursed himself for sounding stupid. There was something about her he found comforting—even when her pretty face was clenched in a mask of fear, it felt more welcoming than the blank looks that had greeted him in the dining hall.
“Of course, my Lord. I am your personal maid,” she said. “Your chambers and meals will be my responsibility.” At last she met his eyes, and this time she looked at him as if he were human, not just some damn white-eye, which pleased him.
“Oh. Well, good,” he said, finding his voice again. “But that’s not what I meant. I meant to talk. I don’t know anyone here, or what in Nartis’s name I should be doing. Put me in the middle of a forest and I can survive, but this place is beyond me. I was never taught much in the way of history, or etiquette.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Tila repeated, this time with sympathy on her face. “I shall await you here tomorrow morning to fetch you to your breakfast. Lord Bahl would probably prefer you to eat in the Great Hall, with the Ghosts, but if you need me before, just send someone to find me, Tila Introl, as I’m sure my Lord remembers.”
“Yes, of course, Tila Introl, daughter of the Gatekeeper. I, of course, am Isak—just Isak. My family name is Fershin, but like Lord Bahl I was never considered worthy of it.”
Tila opened her mouth, no doubt to apologise, as most people instinctively did at hearing that, before closing it again—much to Isak’s relief. The last thing he wanted was her pity.
“But if what Lord Bahl told me is really true, I suppose my name is Suzerain Anvee now—but let’s stick with Isak, shall we?” He smiled at the notion and saw relief on her face as she curtsied and scurried away back to her bed.
As soon as the door shut behind her, whatever he could sense under his feet forced itself into his thoughts and drove all else away. His gaze drifted down to the circle he was standing on. The urge to let his eyelids drift shut grew overpowering as the winged symbol appeared in his mind. As he reached for it, Isak felt a presence beside him. Alarmed, he opened his eyes, but saw nothing until he looked up and realisation dawned at last. He closed his eyes and felt himself in the still tower with the wind rushing all about, but this time he was not alone: there was another with him, one who drew the wind to himself.
Don’t you think you’ve gone far enough tonight? Bahl’s voice in his head felt strangely natural, and Isak smiled and nodded, as if the Lord could see him. Maybe he could. There was an edge to the voice which urged caution: down was obviously as large a step as Bahl had said it was. Whatever was calling him from down there wasn’t alone.
Isak’s curiosity was piqued, but he could tell there was no hurry. There was a taste of envy in the tower now—whatever was waiting for Isak would not accept Lord Bahl, and the man knew it.
Sleep now. Tomorrow will bring challenges enough without the need for you to chase more.
The Stormcaller © Tom Lloyd