FORTITUDE AND LUST
Everywhere in the mountain cave is dark. Even after the loss of the recent battle, Gelahn did not expect that he would be tumbled out of the world he had been hoping to conquer into this place of misery. In the end, his skills as mind-executioner had not proved enough and that sense of failure tastes like a greater darkness on his tongue. It is not a taste the mind-executioner is accustomed to.
Now, his back is pressed solid against rock. It is not of course a dead rock, but a living, breathing entity. The mountain people are not so easily destroyed, although his dealings with them have ravaged their great structure to almost nothing. He has been prepared to sacrifice them for what he so much desires and he would do it again and again. Willingly. This they know. It is why they are waiting for him.
Here, in the heart of their kingdom, he too waits. He continues to lean against the curved rock. His feet are damp from the slippery black surface and the air smells as if a thunderstorm has just raged through. That may be true outside, but here in the mountain he is protected from all the elements.
That has given him time to meditate. And how he has needed the time. Mind-skills are so easily lost and he must work hard to hold them. They are all he has but, still, the meditation has not gone well. Each time he closed his eyes he saw the face of Simon the Scribe standing framed by the glittering jagged city of Gathandria, holding the mind-cane in his hands and sending him to oblivion in the mountainside, in temporary exile far from his rightful home. The battle had been lost and he had known in that instant that his best hope was to come into the darkness of the earth. It is where the most mysterious of his skills dwell, and where he can revive them again. Because it is not in the mind-executioner’s heart for failure to be an end of his story. It is just a beginning. He has suffered too much for it to be anything else. How the Gathandrians will live to regret the choices they have made. This thought alone makes him smile, while around him the remains of the mountain groan.
Behind that groan, a faint howling. Gelahn opens his eyes but does not need to see what he knows is there; his mind itself provides a necessary light. The mountain dogs are stirring, their sleek and undulating bodies shifting in and out of the rock that forms this cave and is itself the life they cling to. He can sense the occasional flash of their crimson eyes and the faint aroma of raw flesh. Soon he will use them. All he needs is a plan. And the mind-cane the scribe has stolen.
He rises and strolls towards the far end of the cave. The air feels cold even so deep within the rock. One or two of the dogs follow him like shadows and their presence gives him strength. When he reaches those beings he is holding captive, they do not flinch and he is glad to see it; the last of the mountain people do not show emotion easily. This makes them easier to manipulate. Even now, when their home has been all but destroyed in the recent mind-wars, they are as still and eternal as the stone from which they came.
“It is not over yet,” he whispers. “I have you to do my will. The scribe only has the mind-cane and he is too weak and limited to comprehend the fullness of its power, let alone use it.”
He cannot be sure, but did the stone he speaks to quiver? Something in the atmosphere between mind-executioner and rock has altered. He stretches forward, but the first of the mountain people stands erect still. Its tall, thin figure smells of dust and snow. Winter will soon be upon them all. Gelahn allows his hand to run over the smooth surface of stone slowly. It feels cool to his touch. He knows the contact will cause his prisoner pain. This is why he takes his time. The development of fear in those he plans to use can only be a good thing. His long year-cycles of life have taught him that. Because while failure is the taste in the air for now, it will not always be so. This he promises himself.
With or without the mind-cane, the next battle between Simon the Scribe and himself will be a fiercer, more physical one and he will be the victor.
The red-haired woman stared round her kitchen-area and sighed. The wild cornflour whitened her hands as she formed the dough for bread on her one good work surface, and the sharp scent of it filled her mind with images of summer days picnicking in the great Gathandrian park and the laughter of children. All very pleasant but this wasn’t how Annyeke Hallsfoot had hoped the day would begin. After the high excitement of the battle and Gelahn’s defeat two day-cycles ago, she’d thought the menfolk would be eager to face the task of building a new Gathandria. Their glorious glittering city now lay in ruins, the bright towers nearly all smashed into fragments of glass and stone, the Great Library and the museums battered and open to the skies, the theatres and galleries gone, and the trees in the parklands stunted and fallen. Even the Place of Government was not how it had been. Yesterday, when she’d sneaked like an interloper into her former work-area, she’d been sure there’d been a few more missing stones from the outside wall and the gash in the roof stretched far wider. Not only that, but the scribe – through compassion or foolishness – had allowed the mind-executioner to escape. Where was he now? In the desert-lands? In the Kingdom of Air or hidden deep in the mountains with his murderous dogs? She could not tell, but one thing was certain; Gelahn would surely return to fight them again for the power and land he coveted. They needed to prepare for the battle they would have to face. This was what she thought the menfolk would be planning for.
She’d thought wrong. The Elders had vanished, leaving her without any further word and in sole charge of the rebuilding programme and the war preparations; her overseer in the Sub-Council of Meditation, Johan Montfort, had not spoken more than a few sentences to her since that particular announcement; and, worst of all, the Lost One, Simon the Scribe, was asleep and useless in her living-area. He’d been slumped there for the whole of those two day-cycles, muttering darkly at her whenever she tried to rouse him. To her mind, this wasn’t the action of a man supposedly sent to help them change their world. This was the action of a man in denial.
The worst of it was the presence of the mind-cane. In her house. It seemed to be there simply because Simon was, but she didn’t think the scribe had any control of it at all. Gods and stars help them. If that was the case, no-one else had even a whisper of hope in understanding it. For the last two mornings, its strange humming had woken her. When she’d drawn aside the curtain giving the scribe some privacy in her home, she’d seen its dark length with the silver carving on the top resting near Simon’s makeshift bed. It had been vibrating like a wild animal about to attack. Damn it, she wasn’t even sure what she meant by that, but it definitely felt like a living thing, not an object. A dangerous one too. The thought of getting close to it made her shiver.
She turned, wiping her hands free of the cornflour as best she could. Talus was standing right next to her, his hair peaked up from his head like the distant and now destroyed mountains. He was seven summers old, and she’d all but adopted him during the final stages of what the people were already naming the Gathandrian Wars. She was even becoming used to being a mother. Almost. Though perhaps elder – much elder – sister was more closely akin to the truth of it.
“You’re early,” she said with a smile she hoped might look sincere.
“The bread smells nice.”
“Ah, you’re hungry then.”
When he nodded, she gestured at him to sit at the table and brought out the bread she’d made yesterday. He ate as if he hadn’t eaten in a moon-cycle. She couldn’t remember ever being that young.
“Annyeke?” he said again between mouthfuls.
“Why doesn’t the Lost One get up?”
Annyeke sat opposite him. Her body felt weary, as if she’d been running for a long time and hadn’t stopped yet. She ran her hands through her hair, not caring about the remnants of the flour. She thought of all the things she could say and then decided, as usual, to tell the truth to her young charge. His courage deserved it.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “It could be because he’s tired. And he has had a lot to go through even in order to reach Gathandria. Or it could be because he’s scared about what will happen next and he doesn’t want to make the first step towards it. Whatever that is. Or he might be worried about the mind-cane. The gods and stars know we’re all worried about the mind-cane. Or at least I am. It’s like having a hungry river-wolf at home.”
At this, Talus grimaced. She knew he wasn’t a great friend of the river-wolves, though they were unlikely to cause anyone harm. She decided to aim for the more positive side of honesty. Was sensible lying what parenthood was about? “Really, it could be any one of these things. Or perhaps all of them. It’s hard to say. But he’ll get up soon. And then we can plan properly how we’ll win this war so the mind-executioner won’t ever hurt any one again.”
There followed a pause and she cursed herself for saying too much. Talus had lost his own family in the mind-wars. That was why he was here. Still, she could sense, without making much of an effort, the workings of his mind under his pain as he took in this information.
Then the atmosphere of his thoughts lightened and he smiled, his eyes dancing at her. “You could ask Johan Montfort for help. He’ll know what to do.”
Annyeke only wished this was true. And that she had the same confidence in the ability of the Gathandrian menfolk to help that Talus still held to. In truth, she knew in her mind that Johan, like the scribe, was exhausted. His long journey with Simon from the Lammas Lands had been fraught with difficulty, dogged as they’d been by the tricks and attacks of the mind-executioner. She suspected he hadn’t had much time for meditation on the way and he was paying for that neglect now. And on his return, he’d had to face the reality about the Elders’ treachery – how they had betrayed so many Gathandrians to their deaths simply in order to bring Simon back to them. The very fact that they had imprisoned the mind-executioner for so long and then let him go in order to bring destruction was beyond anyone’s grasp, though she still had to explain the full story to Johan. Gods and stars above, there was another task she was not looking forward to.
And of course Isabella, Johan’s beloved sister, was dead. A mystery to them all that she had betrayed them so. Annyeke blinked away tears and pretended to smile at Talus, though she did not think he was fooled.
Perhaps it was best if she concentrated for a while on Simon. Though the situation did not look good in this particular hour-cycle, he might well turn out to be the easiest of her problems to deal with.
The scribe knew he was in Annyeke Hallsfoot’s one public room in the small house she owned near the Gathandrian parklands. She had curtained it off to provide a makeshift bedroom and to afford him a sense of privacy. The thick velvet of the pale green curtain certainly cut down on the noise of his landlady and her young charge going about their everyday business, but it did little to soften the sense of mind-activity. Not only indoors, but outside in the city itself. It felt as if people were waiting. For him, Simon knew it but had no wish to enquire further into that thought.
Annyeke had provided him with a bed made from blankets piled together, a set of manuscripts she thought he might like to read, a basin of water that she refreshed on a half-daily basis, and a change of clothes. The latter two items he assumed were to encourage him to get up and face what he had to. So far they’d proved unsuccessful. Right now the scribe refused even to open his eyes. If he did so, he knew what he would see. Already he could hear its background hum, demanding attention. Attention he didn’t want to give. For the last two night-cycles, he’d tried to hide the mind-cane where he wouldn’t see it, or be forced to deal with the thing. Each morning, when he’d opened his eyes to the sun, it had found him again.
He didn’t want to touch it. Even though it had saved them all in the battles with the mind-executioner, and it had been his hand that had wielded it, his eyes that had witnessed its gold and silver strength. He couldn’t comprehend its power and, if he faced the truth, he was afraid.
Beyond all this, the fact he was in the mysterious city of Gathandria wasn’t giving him the comfort he’d anticipated. For so long, on the wild, dangerous and wonderful journey he’d taken with Johan from the Lammas Lands, it had been like a mirage: something to aspire to, where all would be well and everything bad about himself – of which there was much – would be healed.
But now he was here, and as far as he could tell any healing had failed to happen. Odd how he’d felt so brave at the height of the battle, or as brave as a coward could feel, but now he felt nothing. No, this wasn’t true either. He felt tired, hungry and thirsty. He also felt like a fool.
The mind-cane’s humming grew louder. He’d left it in the far corner of the bedroom last night, but it was now lying on the floor near his bed. As he continued to glare at the object of his discontent, he became aware of smells and sounds. First, the scent of baking bread. Then the low murmur of Annyeke’s voice, interspersed with Talus’ higher-pitched tones. He swallowed. Not too long ago, the boy in his own care – Carthen – had died in the desert. It wasn’t something he liked to remember. As his mind eased into wakefulness, he didn’t have to strain his hearing to understand what his two house-companions were saying. Talus was confused, but eager and longing for a solution to whatever problem had just been presented to him. Annyeke was more circumspect. She certainly wasn’t happy; the waves from her thoughts hit him like a cold winter wind and he struggled not to gasp out loud. She was close to despair, but keeping that fact hidden with a veneer of wry humour. By the gods, that was something he understood.
Simon cursed under his breath and glared at the cane. He wouldn’t have been able to fathom any of what he’d just thought without it. Damn the artefact. He didn’t want to share other people’s secrets. Before the mind-cane, he had only been able to know the thoughts of other if he was close enough to the person. And he had enough secrets of his own. Though now, of course, Johan knew most of them too. Once more he wondered where Johan was. His erstwhile companion had vanished after his sister had been buried, and Simon hadn’t seen him since. Johan’s absence left an empty space in his blood and he didn’t relish the feeling.
Annyeke hadn’t seen Johan either, he realised. She was worried about that. Angry also, but it wasn’t her main concern. As the truth of the matter melded into the scribe’s consciousness, he found himself sitting up slowly and pulling the thin woollen blanket from his frame. The sunlight made him blink again and he shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. The main concern filling Annyeke’s mind at this moment was Simon himself.
By staying here, he was letting her down. He was the problem, when she’d hoped he would be the one to bring solutions. Well, he’d tried, hadn’t he? He’d used the mind-cane to banish the mind-executioner, and the effort involved had floored him. He wasn’t sure now what further use he could be. Johan had talked of another war to come, the dangers of the mind-executioner lurking like a shadow of a mountain over them all. Simon couldn’t even begin to comprehend what any of those words might mean. The Gathandrians were a curious people, their minds full of signs and symbols that had little to do with the truth as he understood it. Had understood it anyway. He allowed himself a small grin. After all, he was half-Gathandrian too, which made him the most mysterious of them all.
The mind-cane’s humming rose in intensity. The sound made him shiver, but this time it clarified something within him. He rolled out of bed and stood up slowly. He still refused to look at the cane. Against his skin, the air was colder than he’d expected. He looked out of the window, and the whiteness of the sky made him shake his head. Of course. It was winter here, as it would be back in the Lammas Lands. Best not to think of Ralph, however.
He saw Annyeke’s garden was bleak, but there was something lovely about it. The lemon tree didn’t have many leaves, but they were lush and deep green. He imagined fruiting would be some way distant. When did the spring-cycle arrive here? Apart from the tree he could see a few herb bushes, all of them resting on pale yellow grass. Where he’d come from, the grass was green, so he didn’t know whether this was a sign of the recent battles or not. Had the wars affected the country here so much? Johan had said it had, but hadn’t explained in any detail.
In fact, Johan hadn’t explained very much at all since Simon had last seen him, two day-cycles ago. Where was he?
The scribe closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the wood of the window frame. Johan. His cousin, newly discovered, and a man whose friendship he had come to enjoy without the need for anything more demanding. He’d experienced neither kinship nor friendship for a while, if at all, and he didn’t want to lose something before it had barely begun.
So. He would have to talk to Johan. And the people out there – Annyeke and the boy Talus. It was time to face the world.
As he reached for his tunic and cloak, lying freshly washed and folded where Annyeke had left them, the mind-cane hummed more loudly, spun forward and touched him. Its ebony coolness seared his mind. He recoiled with a gasp, willing it away from him. The cane receded a few paces but remained on the alert, as if waiting for another gap in his defences. He could feel the slow crimson of it oozing away from his thoughts. Odd how he hadn’t been that afraid during the moments when he’d touched it before on the journey here. He hadn’t even thought about it on the occasions when his blood – such as it was – was up. But now, in the spaciousness of relative peace, he had grown more wary than ever.
In truth, Simon didn’t know what the cane might do to him if he allowed it a greater inroad into his soul. He dressed quickly, strengthening the barrier to his thoughts so the cane couldn’t spring through. Though of course it was a ridiculous act. The mind-cane did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. It did not take its orders from the scribe. Simon slipped out of the curtained entrance and into the world beyond.
The cane followed him but did not approach any nearer. And, thank all the gods and stars, its strange humming stopped. But for how long?
At his sudden appearance Annyeke and Talus turned. Annyeke herself was a short, rounded woman with long red hair that she had tied this morning into a messy plait. Her fingers were white with flour from the bread she had been baking. Her smile, found in the instant she saw him, was wide and welcoming, but he could sense the troubles lying in her heart. The boy simply blinked and pushed his brown hair away from his face.
For a moment there was silence and Simon wondered which of the many apologies he owed them he should start with. But it was Talus who spoke first, staring curiously at the cane. “Is it going to kill us?”
The scribe had no real idea. He understood quite well that the cane was capable of killing. What he didn’t know was whether it actually wanted to kill. He didn’t think he could say that to a seven-summers-old boy he’d only just met, when a woman’s voice in his head said: Be honest. We’ve had enough of words that are less than the truth here.
Annyeke. The green essence of her drifted through his thoughts. Just like Johan (damn the man but where was he?) she’d read him before he’d realised it. He wished he had that skill with them.
He hunkered down so his eyes were at the same level as the boy’s. Something in Talus’ expression reminded him of Carthen …
“I don’t know,” he said, in answer to Talus’ question. “The cane has the power to kill, yes, but so far, while I’ve been … sleeping, it’s left the three of us alone. I hope that blessing will continue. And I think … I think that if it does decide to kill anyone, that person will probably be me. In which case, it will give you and Annyeke time to escape.”
The boy frowned for a moment or two and then nodded, as if Simon’s explanation made any kind of sense. Or perhaps Talus was simply being polite in the face of evident adult confusion? The scribe didn’t know and he wasn’t about to meddle in the mind of an unknown child to find out.
Above them both, Annyeke smiled again. “That’s answered then. So we may have a while to live yet. Talus, why don’t you go and see if there are any bush-herbs in the garden? I’d like to have something to flavour the soup with at midday. And besides the Lost … the scribe and I need to talk.”
The boy sighed, gave Annyeke an accusing glance and left. The movement of the curtain brought a deeper shaft of sunlight into the eating area.
Annyeke grimaced. “I’ll pay for that, but I needed to see you alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Simon said. “For not communicating for two days. Thank you for your patience. And for letting me stay.”
His companion nodded, but asked for no further explanations. He was glad of it. She sat down at the table, indicating he should do the same.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked, but he shook his head and gazed at his surroundings. Here, in the eating area, simple glazed bowls were scattered on the working surfaces, one of them filled with what looked like flour. A hunk of unbaked bread lay to one side. The fire in the oven warmed the air and another freshly baked loaf had been split up upon platters, some of which had already been eaten. He noticed the colours Annyeke had chosen for her surroundings: green and yellow. The same as he’d lived with in his sleeping-area for the past two nights.
It was then that he became aware of the atmosphere of calm around him, in spite of the mind-cane quivering at the edge of his vision. This feeling seemed to emanate instead from the stone walls around him. It gave him a sense of hope. When he glanced up, he saw she was smiling.
“Thank you,” she said. “Gathandrian houses take on the mind-sets of those who live in them. I only wish I were that calm now. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to pry into your thoughts, but they were so clear.”
The scribe wondered what the atmosphere of the place where he had lived back in Lammas might be. Cowardly and confused, no doubt. Little wonder she could read him so well.
“No matter,” he said. “Johan does the same. Perhaps I’m an open scroll to all Gathandrians.”
The mention of Johan’s name brought a slight blush to Annyeke’s face. A ripple of something from her mind drifted through his and, as if she’d suddenly shouted it, how things were with her became clear. Simon knew how love felt, and he reached out and patted her arm even as she was replying.
“Even so,” she said, recovering her mental poise. “Even so, I should be more courteous. I’m not used to visitors, you see. And recently there’s been rather too much to think about. Even for a woman.”
The words were meant in jest, but Simon still nodded. He’d heard what the disgraced elders had said at Isabella Montfort’s burial, had an inkling of the kind of responsibility they’d given to Annyeke before they – like Johan – had vanished. It seemed beyond any one person’s capabilities. Now he could sense their presence in his companion’s mind, the facts of them almost overshadowing her, if such a thing were possible: greatest of them all was the First Elder, the Day-Guardian of the Wine Lands. A man whom past sins and regrets had all but shattered. He had departed from the city to the distant place of healing where the cypress trees grew in abundance in order to try to save Gathandria with prayer. That much Simon could see, although he could not understand it. He had taken the remaining four elders with him, men skilled in glass-making, the carving of chairs, the nurture of gardens and parks, and one who knew the harmony of words and silence. They had gone together in order to meditate, leaving Annyeke alone. He did not envy her task.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
Annyeke leaned back on her stool and brushed her hand through her hair. The gesture caused some strands to escape from her plait and she frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure what the elders meant, if I’m honest. Of course we need to work together as a people, try to rebuild our strength and face Gelahn when he attacks us again. But if you ask me how in the gods’ names we’re going to do that, then I really don’t know. The elders left me no clues. But that doesn’t mean I won’t die trying, if I have to.”
Watching the determination flicker over her face and feeling the bright echo of it in his mind, Simon thought perhaps the elders had known exactly what they were doing. It also surprised him that she would dare to mention the mind-executioner’s name. Hadn’t Johan warned him against doing so, since it apparently gave their enemy an entry to the mind and a chance to ravage them. It was obvious things in Gathandria were changing but, without any personal sense of the land’s history, the scribe had no understanding of how much. Or how dangerous those changes might become. But right now there were more urgent issues to face.
“I hope we won’t have to die,” he said. “I’m a scribe, not a soldier. I was hoping things might be easier once I was here in your lands, but I can see already that’s unlikely.”
If Simon had expected the frisson of distaste he was accustomed to from Johan when he expressed something less than enthusiasm for an act of bravery, his expectations were not fulfilled.
She stretched forward, gripped his shoulder and opened her mouth to speak as the door to the outside world was pushed open and someone who wasn’t Talus stepped onto the threshold.
The castle of the Tregannons is no longer his home. He does not even need the gifting of a Sensitive to know this. Ralph’s few remaining guards mutter in the shadows and the stallholders have gone from the courtyard. The women too. Not that he has taken a woman for many moon-cycles. Nor any man neither. Not since Simon the mind-dweller came to haunt him.
Ralph thinks Simon saved him during the battle with the Gathandrians, but he cannot be sure. His hair is burnt, as is the skin on his arms and chest. His leg is twisted and cannot bear his whole weight. He doesn’t remember much about how this happened but perhaps that is for the best. In truth it is certainly better not to think of the scribe at all, nor about what he himself has done. He must instead think of his people. The Lammas dwellers. Soon the mind-executioner will return and Ralph must be ready for him. The executioner and he have failed in their endeavours and he does not know what his enemy will do now, nor how he might want Ralph to help him.
There is no other choice, but he has always known that. The mind-executioner’s hold on him is too great and Ralph will never be free of it. He gave up that freedom when he chose to save himself rather than Simon before the great and fruitless journey to Gathandria that has brought them only more pain and a despair he cannot shake.
This morning, when the sun wakes him, Ralph finds a moment in the darkness of his mind when everything is at it should be. He is the Lord of these lands, his position is sacred and the decisions he has made over the past moons are mere fantasy and nothing but children’s terrors. That moment doesn’t last long but it is precious beyond anything he has known.
It has only been two days since the scribe sent Ralph back here. The thought of another day of inaction is too overwhelming, so he swings himself out of bed, reaches for the half-finished beaker of wine he left the night before, takes a long gulp of its sweetness and begins making the small series of decisions that will keep him alive through to the night. He hopes.
All but stumbling over the remains of yesterday’s frugal supper of winter oranges and slivers of dried goat meat, Ralph flings open the carved wooden door and yells out into the corridor’s darkness.
“Boy! Bring me my garments. And fresh water. I need to wash.”
He closes the door without waiting for any response, limps across the bed-area and gazes out of the window. The boy will come. He knows it. Since the death of Ralph’s former steward, only a handful of his personal servants remain with him. But how long they will stay, Ralph does not know. The first morning of his return here, his young dresser’s response was quick, startled no doubt by his Overlord’s unexpected return home. Yesterday, the boy had tarried and Ralph had been all but ready to shout for him again when he had arrived in the chambers, bearing the tunic and overshirt he is still wearing. The cloak lies discarded on the stone floor where Ralph had pushed it during his night-time thrashings. Sleep had been granted only with the wine he’d drunk. He should have punished the boy’s tardiness before, but the heart for it has gone.
Now, Ralph wonders if he will bother coming at all. While he waits, he gazes out over the castle courtyard, acknowledging once again its emptiness. Only a few moon-cycles ago, he would have seen a hubbub of bread-sellers, herb-dressers, beer- and mead-makers and the inevitable travelling story-tellers, all vying for the honour of being part of the evening tale-bearing. Simon of course had once been one of these before Ralph had taken him into his employ, although he had sold his mind-skills secretly, as well as offering his talents with writing and herbal cures. A gift learned from his mother, Simon had once told him. Ralph hadn’t known then which of his skills he had meant. Now he’ll never know.
The air drifts in, smelling of trees and the faint metallic sweat of the few soldiers lurking near the moat. They don’t see him and he makes no effort to command their attention. He has no orders to convey. Though he must do so soon, before all his protection is lost. Ralph senses he will be needing it.
The time for the beginning of one of Simon’s stories goes by before the boy arrives. Ralph would give the whole of his castle, lands and ancient privilege (though not, please the gods, its people) to know where the scribe is now and whether he is safe, but there is nobody here to whom he can offer such a prize. And none who would take it: thus far has he, Ralph Tregannon, brought the Lammas Lands and all its lesser lords into disrepute.
The boy knocks on the bed-chamber door and opens it without waiting for any command. When Ralph turns round from the window, the boy won’t look him in the eye. He’s only fifteen winter-cycles old and he’s been Ralph’s personal steward for two days now. A slight boy with pale blond hair and a limp which almost echoes his own. Ralph doesn’t even remember his name. As he thought, the boy is later than he was yesterday but Ralph says nothing; he’s too young to be caught up in the middle of Lammas politics. Too young also to be forced to stay with a discredited Lord.
“Why do you stay, boy?” The question is spoken aloud, even though Ralph had not realised he would do so, and the boy starts, almost dropping the jug of water and basin he clutches under one arm.
“My Lord,” he mutters, dodging past and placing the items on the side shelf. He is still carrying the bundle of clothing Ralph asked for. “Do … do you wish me to lay out your morning dress?”
Words crowd Ralph’s mouth. So many questions he wishes to ask but he cannot bear listening to the answers. He wants to ask again why the boy stays when there is no future here. Or not one that bears any resemblance to the past they have known. He wants to ask where the other servants have gone and what they might be doing. If indeed they are still alive. He wants to ask if the boy imagines that the soldiers will be any defence against the mystery of whatever is to come upon them. Most of all though, he wants to ask if he thinks that Ralph’s presence here is more of a blessing than a curse.
Of course, he asks none of these things. Not of a servant. Ralph’s father taught him well. Instead, he shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Leave them on the bed. I will dress myself today.”
As he speaks, Ralph remembers the last time he made the decision to dress himself: the morning when Simon the Scribe first visited the castle.
He brushes the memories aside as the boy nods a reply and leaves. He doesn’t look back.
When he’s gone, Ralph fills the basin with the icy water and splashes it over his face. It knocks away his self-pity and makes his mind feel clear. He washes quickly and, as he dresses in plain clothes, Ralph thinks about what has happened and what might still.
He chose to support the mind-executioner, believing that what he offered would bring peace and prosperity to those under his care, the Lammas people. There had been unrest for so long in the lands, wars and rumours of wars, that an alliance with a man who promised peace had been too tempting to resist. But he was fooling himself. If he is going to survive, and by the gods he intends to, Ralph will have to acknowledge the truth to himself at least. What the mind-executioner had promised him was power. The chance to extend the Lammas rule into the lands beyond their borders, the chance to make the Tregannon name more far-reaching than that of any of the minor lords around him.
Simon, the mind-executioner had said, stood in the way and must be destroyed. Ralph had been committed to give up the scribe as easily as if he had been a sworn enemy, and with no second thoughts about what he was doing: betraying a friend and a man under his protection for the sake of gain. He could fool himself that he’d been blinded by the mind-executioner’s mental hold, but the fact remained that Ralph had been willing for him to have that power. The fault in the first place had been his: so where is his honour now?
He doesn’t bother with breaking his fast; the questions in his mind aren’t conducive to eating, though he does finish last night’s wine. Instead he walks out into the corridor, favouring his wounded leg a little, past his private rooms, through the series of stone-carved arches and into the dining-hall. One maid-servant is clearing out the grate, though why she should do so he has no idea. There will be no entertainment here for many seven-days, he thinks. Ralph ignores her but the sound of his boots on the slabs and the swish of his cloak send her scuttling away into the shadows.
In the courtyard he shouts for the horseman and waits, rubbing his hands together to fight the cold, while he appears. Like the steward for the dressing ceremony, the horseman is not swift. Again Ralph does not complain. Even so that must surprise the man; he has sometimes been harsh in his lordship, though not until recently unfair. He can see now that trying to emulate his father’s firm hand with the servants has not been wise. Not many have stayed with him, when he thinks he needs them the most.
By the time Nightcloud, his grey stallion, is ready, the sun is already creating long shadows from the turreted walls. No soldiers stand to attention, and that alone is enough to pierce Ralph once more.
“When will you be back, my Lord?” the groom asks but Ralph shakes his head, beyond speaking for that moment. Besides, he has little idea. Today he will ride, see what ravages have fallen across the land for himself. When he has seen that, then he will know more of what he must face.
He grasps the reins handed to him but as he places one foot in the stirrup, Nightcloud snorts and tosses his head, sidling away as if Ralph is a stranger to him.
“What the …?”
“Please,” the groom says, “he hasn’t been ridden for a while. He’s grown unused to the feel of a man.”
“So I see.” And he does. He sees the horsemen have grown lazy and decided that he would not return from the journey with the mind-executioner. They have been lax in their duties; Ralph’s stallion has been left to his own devices and become skittish.
With a curse at his companion, Ralph turns and speaks softly to the horse, threading his fingers through his mane and holding him still. “Hush there, boy, hush. All will be well, steady. You know me, Nightcloud, fiery one, don’t you? Yes you do.”
Moments later, he is in the saddle. The stallion trembles beneath him, and Ralph strokes his neck. The contact there fills his mind with pictures of fire and wind, orange and pure white, and with a gasp he jerks his hand away. Since the scribe helped him in secret to hone his thought-skills, Ralph’s gifts as a Sensitive have grown stronger. Even to the point of sensing the emotions of the higher beasts, should he touch them. He had almost forgotten it. Risking a glance at the groom, Ralph sees he’s noticed nothing out of the ordinary and raises a prayer of thanks to the gods and stars. It would be the worse for him if the people discovered what he is. Mind-skills of any quality have been punishable by death in the land for many years; that is why the executioner came. Ostensibly, at least.
Shaking such memories away, he wheels Nightcloud out of the yard, and the horse trots over the unguarded drawbridge, through the patches of marsh-cotton and starwort. Above them the corn-crows circle, their sharp cry beating at the frosty air. Outside his immediate home, Ralph kicks the grey into a gallop and sets his head past the village for the woods.
It is only on a horse that he feels most whole, something he doesn’t think Simon ever fully realised, for all the scribe’s skills at reading him. Of course, with his background of poverty and the need for constant flight, always on foot, the opportunities for learning horsemanship never came to Simon. Early on in their acquaintance Ralph offered to teach him, but he was unwilling. The gods know why. Now, as he gives Nightcloud his head, and the village flashes by in a haze of green and brown, Ralph would truly be nowhere else but here. The rich smell of horseflesh, the rhythmic beat of hooves on earth, the feel of the wind through his hair, all of this takes away the difficulties he wrestles with and leaves them far behind for a while. Not only that, but the ride helps him see things more clearly.
They gallop through the woods, dodging the thick-set branches of the old oaks and weaving their way with the skill of the familiar through the ash and lichen-trees. Ralph can tell Nightcloud remembers the touch of his hand and the nudge of his heel now; the time for forgetfulness and inactivity is over. He is glad however that he did not take him on the journey to Gathandria. He could not have borne to lose such an animal. In truth, for the moment riding feels like reclaiming a friend. Perhaps the only one Ralph has.
When they are through to the other side of the woods, he pulls the stallion to a halt. As Ralph expects, he tries to fight the command and maintain his gallop, but at the last the Overlord is stronger-willed. He pats the horse’s neck once more, whispers words of endearment and feels again the thrill of Nightcloud’s colours in his mind. As he dismounts, looping the reins over one arm and staring out at the mountains, the horse whickers at him.
The mountains are not what they once were. Since his return here, even the shape of the horizon has changed. Where once the southern hills reared their mystery at the Lammas outer boundaries where none dared go, now their height is shattered as if a great rock from the sky has blasted them out of existence. That too is surely the mind-executioner’s doing. It occurs to him that each of the battles fought and the damage caused on the journey they took in pursuit of the scribe and the Gathandrians has had an echo here in the Lammas Lands also. Is that true for all the lands then? If so, there must be some kind of link, however fragile, between them all. The thought of that makes Ralph shiver and he turns aside, reaching into his cloak for the packet he has hidden there.
At the same time he is trying not to think of it, forcing his mind to build its walls of defence as Simon taught him. As distant from him as the mind-executioner is, Ralph is still wary lest his enemy pick up the tenor of his thoughts. If he reads them, Ralph has to hope that the executioner only understands the broad stroke of his mind. As he brings the bundle out into the morning light, Nightcloud snorts and tosses his head at him, but he pulls back on the reins and whispers until the horse is soothed again. It is impossible for him to know what Ralph is doing, but Nightcloud must have picked up on his trepidation.
He opens what he is holding and the green rocks catch the light. He dares not look at them too closely for fear of what he might find there. The seven Tregannon emeralds. A secret kept hidden through the generations for fear of mockery and death, and something bequeathed to him from his father, and from his father before him. And so on until the annals of the past disappear entirely when none can discover them. Their strength is untested and Ralph is not sure precisely how their power is fathomed. But he believes in their wisdom – the one faith he has kept from boyhood – and he intends to rely on their help now.
Which is why, for the first time in many year-cycles, he finds himself kneeling on the rough ground, out of sight of all prying eyes, and whispering words of need and desperation into their green clarity.
“Please, our family legends say you are the key that unlocks our salvation and I have nowhere else to turn. I do not know how to use you, but I am asking for your help to save my people and this land. Please, give me a sign that I can know you have heard me. And show me what to do.”
Ralph waits. For one heartbeat and another and then another. Nothing happens, though in truth he had not known what to hope for. Still, he had expected rather more than clear sky and a silence broken only by Nightcloud’s munching and the distant shriek of a field-crow. A little more time drifts by before he struggles to his feet, already cursing himself for his childishness and feeling the unsteadiness of his leg again. Does he truly think a mere legend can save them? This is real life and he cannot escape it.
And already time has flown faster than Ralph wished for. In the east, dark clouds threaten the sky’s deep peace and his heart thuds a warning. Soon the men in the fields will begin to prepare themselves for rain, perhaps a winter storm. They will be wrong. Because his mind is humming with a sound that he knows will soon reach an almost unbearable intensity. There is little time. He must ride back while he still can. He must prepare himself.
For before long his enemy will come on the wings of the rain. From the ravaged mountains themselves. It is the mind-executioner.
The mountain cave seems darker now, if such a thing were possible. The mountain people have flowed together in their prison so their stone sides form what could have been a barrier to his arts, if they had been stronger than he. The smell of dust has become greater, almost overwhelming, and their tall elongated stature is more jagged. Haunting. As Gelahn continues to touch the mountain leader’s frame, a spark of stone travels up the mind-executioner’s arm. A foolish gesture and one he quickly turns back on his would-be assailant. With a shift of his thoughts, the stone falls to the ground, tearing itself apart from the rock-flesh of its owner. Duncan can feel the scream in his mind but it does not hurt him, even without the mind-cane.
The fact that the mountain has tried to harm him, however, gives him the beginnings of an idea. Releasing the mountain man who staggers back before all but disappearing into the bodies of his companions, Duncan erects a mind-wall and pursues the thought. Up to now, the pain he has used to control his enemies has been based in his mind only. While he still possessed the mind-cane, that power was more than enough. He shakes his head at the memory. He will not dwell on the past; it is the future that is important.
Equally important is that Hartstongue the Scribe does not know how to harness that power; if he did, then by now Duncan would be beyond death, drowning in the fires that never go out. He snorts a laugh – has he not already experienced something of that in his former Gathandrian jail where the Elders chose to keep him for so long? By the gods, he will never let that memory go. It gives him strength. Strength to fight and keep on fighting. But if his mental powers are less, then why not utilise physical prowess instead? Perhaps now is the time to take his battle into the lands and bodies of men. Perhaps now is the season to begin to build an army in the flesh. Time to learn how to inflict physical, as well as mental, pain.
He turns back to the mountain leader. He smiles. Both of them have much to learn, and quickly.
Concentrating, he forms an axe in his mind, feels the length and breadth of it, the stalwart wood of the handle and the silver glimmer of the blade. He has not done this before; he has never needed to and in truth he remains unconvinced of its success. But a story’s end-time later, the twin of the axe lies on the stones at his feet. He can feel its weight against his torn shoe. He picks it up and turns to his mountain companions.
“Come then,” he says. “Let us see what we can discover together.”
Duncan discovers that mountain people can die without the use of mental tricks, although the process is slower and more exhausting. He also discovers that the stone-dwellers never stop fighting back, and twice he has to pause in what he is engaged in to rebuild the mind-wall that keeps them out. This would have been unnecessary if he still had the cane, but in that case neither would he have required the axe. He will have to be careful of his mind-skills now; the loss of the cane means he has to spend more time refreshing his thoughts.
Finally the execution is complete. When the mountain-leader is beyond even the healing of stone, Duncan lays down his axe and slumps to the floor besides the ravaged being. The high keening of the mountain assaults his ears and he wipes the sweat from his face. Beyond the mind-wall’s protection, the dead mountain leader’s companions are mourning, but after a while they fall silent. As stone, he thinks to himself and laughs. They are as silent as stone now. It is the mountain-dogs who continue to roam in the shadows and growl.
He waits for his strength to return. Then he gets to his feet, rips aside the mind-wall and steps out into the stones’ dark grief.
“This,” he says, his voice rising like the cry of the wolf on the hunt, “this is what will happen to you all if Simon the Scribe is allowed to take on his power.”
As he speaks, he gestures at the fallen stone-man, and even the mountain-dogs cease their frenzied pacing. “For do you truly believe that you will be safe from a man who cannot control the strength the mind-cane gives him? If he becomes master of one tenth of the power he dreams of, then you, the mountain of the world, will no longer survive. He will blast you out of existence and all your people and legends will be lost. The death I have been forced to show you today will be multiplied beyond all your imaginings and there will be nothing left for you. Is that how you wish your future to be. Is it?”
He stares round at the solidity of them, challenging them to act. But they will not fight him; how can they when his strength is greater? They are not so foolish. Still, even as he thinks that, at the edge of his vision Duncan catches a hint of movement from the creature who had been closest to the leader. He turns and stares in its direction and the whisper of rebellion is quelled. Good. No, better; he can use such a fighting spirit in the battles to come. It will be distilled into the heart of the dogs.
When all continues quiet and no remaining entity of the mountain attempts to move towards him, Duncan speaks again and this time his voice is lower, more persuasive.
“I am sorry for what I had to do,” he whispers. This is naturally a lie, but no matter. “But the time for old leadership is over for you. Now you and your dogs will answer to me and together we will win. The training we must go through will be hard, but not fatal, I promise you. When we are ready, the mountain people and I, the mind-enabler, will take up our places of honour in the world once more. Then all will be as it should.”
As Johan stepped through her doorway, the chill winter air swept in with him, scattering the dry remains of Annyeke’s flour over the work surface. At the same time, Simon rose, stepped to one side and gestured at the stool he’d vacated. Annyeke simply stared at Johan. He looked as if he’d been awake for many day-cycles, his blue eyes were dark with exhaustion and his clothes were not of the freshest; a faint smell of stale herbs and sweat drifted around her and she stepped back, wrinkling her nose.
“I’m sorry, I …” Johan began but Simon shook his head, strode over to him and led him to the nearest seat while Annyeke fetched bread. Even with her back turned she could sense Johan’s colours, the very fact of him, easing through her skin: sea-blue, aquamarine, sapphire.
“Don’t worry,” the scribe said when Johan tried another feeble protest. “And don’t try to talk. You must eat.”
Annyeke dropped two hunks of bread on a platter and set it before Johan. He grimaced and she understood he hadn’t actually eaten since his return to the great city. When she gestured at him, brooking no refusal, he took a hesitant first bite but then moaned and began to eat with gusto. Typical man, she thought – they forgot to eat while their minds were elsewhere and then valuable time was lost whilst they regained their strength. When would they ever learn?
Still, while he finished the best of her bread, she was impressed that he only glanced twice at the mind-cane that hovered in the corner of the room. She and Simon had their backs to it and she couldn’t find it within herself to blame them. When Johan finished his first platter, Annyeke refilled it and he ate that too. He refused a third plate, instead downing a beaker of springwater. Just as well, as there was no more bread to hand.
“Thank you,” he said at last, his voice steadier than she’d anticipated. From his proximity, she knew his mind was less so, but she could not hope for miracles. Not yet anyway.
She nodded. There were so many things she wanted to say to this man but none of them could find their way into her mouth. Most of all she longed to touch him, but knew if she did that once she’d never be able to let go. He was her overseer in the Sub-Council of Meditation. It would – or should – be unthinkable.
As if he’d caught the echo of her mind, though gods and stars forbid, surely he had not, he sprang to his feet and paced towards the window before turning.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staring briefly at her before dropping his gaze again. “I should have been here. I … I have not been.”
It wasn’t a great apology, though in truth she hadn’t thought they’d needed one. The normal rules surely did not apply now. Annyeke suddenly realised that the steady blue of his aura had become streaked with jagged green and a deep abiding red. The colours of jealousy and shame. She swallowed. Was she drawing those feelings out of him? Because of the responsibility the Elders had left to her? He had no reason for it; she would give the herbs and trees from the parkland itself for the burden of this duty not to be her own, but his. But what was done had been witnessed by many. Impossible to change it now. Johan looked as if he might say something else, but the scribe got there first.
“Well,” Simon murmured. “We may not be the most obvious of conspirators but at least we’re all here.”
“Conspirators?” Annyeke raised both eyebrows.
“Yes. Shouldn’t we be planning something to defend Gathandria against the mind-executioner’s next assault? Your elders were convinced that the Battle of the Western Shore was not an end to it.”
The Battle of the Western Shore, Annyeke thought. That was already what the people were calling it. It made it sound more formal than it had been. She remembered it more as a desperate skirmish and an unlikely victory than a battle. She waited for Johan to speak but, with a slight smile, he gestured at her to take the floor.
She rose from the table where she’d been sitting and frowned at the two men, wondering what in the name of the stars above her words might be and how the three of them could possibly begin. Then it came to her.
“I’ve been looking through the old texts,” she said. “While you’ve both been … resting and I think they might be the key to what we do next.”
Annyeke was surprised she had managed to vocalise her thoughts at all, much less that they sounded reasonable. The fact that Johan was sitting in her kitchen-area continued to make her feel as if a shock of ice-cold water was drenching her. Over and over again. From the instinct for personal preservation, she assessed her personal mind-wall but found nothing untoward there, and besides Johan still hadn’t seemed to notice anything; which was something she should be accustomed to, damn him to the far reaches of the Gathandrian empire. Knowing how she felt about Johan didn’t make it easier to bear. Nor did the realisation that the scribe had, in a way beyond her imaginings, guessed her secret make her life any less difficult. How had he done that? His mind-skills weren’t greater than hers, mind-cane or no mind-cane.
“What old texts?” This from Simon. He had no real knowledge of Gathandria beyond the little Johan must have told him. She could sense the lack of her country’s history in his head. And books and writing were of course central to the scribe’s heart.
“They’re the legends of our country,” she explained. “Stories written down over the generations, before even our telling, and which have been kept in the Great Library of Gathandria for as long as the tales themselves have existed. Much of the Library was destroyed during the wars with Gelahn, but the most precious of the books were kept underground in a cellar only the elders knew of, until I found it. There were other far more terrible things going on in that cellar too, but that’s not for the telling now. The fact is I brought some of the most important texts home, not long before the two of you returned to us, and I’ve been reading them. They talk about many interesting things.”
“The old legends,” Johan whispered, a frown creasing his forehead for a moment. “You have them? Which ones? What do they say?”
“All the stories that the elders talked about,” Annyeke replied, “and some they didn’t. Mostly – and it’s hidden throughout the writings, so you have to read carefully – there’s an overarching legend about a ‘Lost One’ who has been missing for many year-cycles. So many that nobody can remember his name. Though why the elders assumed that it’s a man is a mystery to me; it may just as well be a woman. There’s no reason why not. Ancient Gathandrian doesn’t specify gender. Anyway this Lost One returns one day to our city, when it is most in need of him. He fights for us and our world is safe. Not only us but all the worlds around us too, which are our responsibility. All the tears and pain and crying will be gone, and instead we will have peace. And joy and plenty and love. That, at least, is what the texts tell me.”
By the time she’d finished, she was whispering. Neither of her companions said anything to fill the void. It was as if all the truth of the words she’d spoken had filled the room and created its own brief world, or as if none dared speak at all.
The air rolled in stillness.
Broken a moment later by the door being shoved open and a small boy rushing into the relative warmth of the cooking-area. Talus.
“Johan,” he panted, eyes shining and hair sticking up from his head like the plumage of young park-crows. “Johan, you’re here.”
Johan took a step away from Annyeke’s young charge, arms stiff and eyes wide, as if faced with a wood-leopard on the hunt.
At the same time, the mind-cane leapt from its position of rest in the corner, the wild humming louder than she’d ever heard it before, and hurtled across the space between them towards Talus. She could sense a surge of frustration, despair even, pouring from it, but didn’t know why.
The shout was hers, but it was Simon who got there first.
Without thinking the scribe launched himself toward the mind-cane as it spun towards the boy. He could feel the waves of a strange anger born of fear sweeping over him from its silver carving, but he had no concept of any danger to himself. His thoughts were full of the memory of Carthen.
He hit the cane away from Talus with his fingers. At once, heat seared up his arm and he tumbled to the floor with a cry. The pain arced between skin and mind, mind and skin, a circle of agony. At the edge of his vision he could see Annyeke lurching towards him, obviously trying to help in some way. Behind her, Johan grabbed Talus and pushed him out of danger.
The mind-cane jittered on the stone slabs, moving once more towards the boy. The humming had vanished, but the impression of threat had not. More than that, he could sense a strange purpose emanating from the cane, but what it was eluded him.
The scribe blinked. The voice was not audible but in his head only. It was Johan. Despite everything that had happened and the situation they now found themselves in he couldn’t help but smile. Over the last two day-cycles, he’d missed the Gathandrian’s thought-voice.
“Yes?” he replied, in mind only.
“Pick the cane up.”
“Pick it up,” Johan said directly to his mind again. “Now. Please?”
The cane’s humming began again. Sending a variety of thoughts towards Johan, none of which could be spoken with the child present, Simon skidded along the floor in obedience. His eyes were fixed on the length of vibrating ebony and silver. His heart was beating fast and his skin felt cold. A relief after the heat of pain a moment ago.
Once between the cane and his companions, he slowly, so slowly, stretched out his hand. The mind-cane’s trembling became more violent and the feeling of thwarted anger more powerful, but the noise it was making lessened. He thanked all the stars for that, as the sound had pierced his skull, making it almost impossible to think.
Just as his fingers were only a shade or so away from the cane’s dark mass, Annyeke spoke.
“Wait,” she said.
“Why?” This from Johan.
“I don’t know if the cane meant to frighten us. Simon, what were you thinking when Talus came in?”
The scribe swallowed and for a long moment the world in front of him blurred before coming back in clarity again. “Nothing. Except that …”
“Except … what?”
“Except when he greeted Johan, I thought of Carthen.”
As he spoke his apprentice’s name aloud for the first time, his voice shook and he pushed back a fresh wave of memory. As he did so, the cane started its strange humming again and began to slide along the floor like strange water, heading towards Johan and the boy.
This time the voice in his mind was Annyeke’s and the shock of it made him shake his head, as if to dislodge her. He wondered for a heartbeat or two if all Gathandrians were like this, or whether privacy was a shifting notion here.
“Never mind that, Simon,” she said, aloud this time and quickly as if getting all the words out into the open before danger struck again. “I think the cane is picking up on your thoughts, acting on them. Perhaps mine too, but not so greatly. You thought of your friend and the cane homed in on Talus. It’s responding to you. As it has been over the last two day-cycles. You must clear your mind.”
How? With that thought came another flare of anger towards Annyeke, but he quelled it at once. Put into his head the picture of the river he had once shared with Johan. Something calm, flowing and blue. With every breath, he eased himself more into those waters, imagining the refreshment, the happiness he would gain from that. As he did so, the noise the cane was making changed into a purring sound, it rested back down on the floor and spun slowly into his hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world. For one long moment, he could feel no burning, as he had before. Then the palm of his hand began to grow hot and he let the cane go.
It lay beside him, silent and still at last.
Annyeke sighed and got up as the boy ran towards her.
“Good,” she said. “And thank you, Simon. I think perhaps here is where we’ll begin.”
He barely reaches the castle in time before the clouds descend upon them. Nightcloud is as nervous as a rabbit in spring and the groom struggles to hold him. Glancing backwards at the darkening sky, Ralph places his hand on the horse’s neck where the servant can’t see and sends a flow of calming thoughts through the skin of his palm into the animal’s hot flesh. At once, Nightcloud trembles into stillness. The groom’s eyes widen as he glances at Ralph but he is wise enough to say nothing. Ralph knows however there will be rumours tonight and he curses his own desperate need for haste. He will have to be more careful in future.
He growls at the man, hoping to distract him with commands he will already most likely perform. “Rub the horse down and give him only a little hay. I don’t want him fretful.”
“Yes, my lord,” he blinks and his gaze slides away. Perhaps he too is planning rebellion. Such an act would not surprise Ralph and may indeed only be what he deserves. Still, he does not have the power to broach the horseman’s mind and trying to read his emotions will only alert him to any oddities. Best wait until whatever is ahead finally comes.
For now, Ralph must prepare for Gelahn.
He takes the courtyard at a run, ignoring the pain in his leg and nearly stumbling over one of the old hunting hounds, blind in its dotage. The swiftness of the movement makes the pouch of emeralds in his belt rub against his thigh. He does not know what to do with them. The one or two men he passes pay him no heed; they are already casting fearful glances at the sky and running for their own homes.
During the frantic journey inside the castle to his private rooms, Ralph meets no-one. The few servants he owns have already fled or are in hiding. He can’t blame them. The last time the mind-executioner was here, the hopes that they had for the Lammas Lands – all the plans he’d longed to share with his people – were slowly destroyed. Optimism turned to despair and dreams to dust. Ralph had wanted everything too quickly and power most of all. It was the desire for that which had brought them all to ruin.
Once in his rooms, Ralph swings round, seeking for solutions to what is to happen, though he knows there are none. He was a fool to hope in spite of everything that Gelahn would have finished with him. If that had been the case, then now Ralph would be dead.
Death is not the worst that can occur.
The sky is almost like night, although there are no stars and he makes his way by feel. Gelahn’s arrival has blocked out the sun. Outside there is a terrible silence. Even the animals and birds make no noise. Flinging his cloak from him, Ralph snatches the emeralds from his belt and holds them for a moment in the palm of his hand. Their magical glow seems stronger but that might only be the light of them against the darkness. He must find somewhere to hide them, but where?
The voice makes him jump and Ralph curses, in his mother’s tongue. A heartbeat later, he wishes the words unspoken; he has staked his reputation on his father’s blood.
“Who is that?” he asks again, this time in the language of the castle.
“A-Apolyon, my lord.”
The name means nothing and still Ralph cannot make him out. His mind is too much occupied to try to sense anything outside its own dread. The one thing he understands is this unknown voice bears no threat towards him.
“Your new s-steward, my lord.”
Of course. Now that he’s given Ralph his name, it is as if he’s known it all along. After all, it was he who gave it to the boy many year-cycles ago when he first came to the castle. The lad was too poor to carry his own. Not that it is a real-name, given through the formal naming ceremony. No need for that for one who will own nothing when he dies.
“Why haven’t you fled like the others?” Ralph says. “There is no safety here.”
“I cannot, sir.”
No. Of course he cannot. His limp is too pronounced and besides he has no home but here.
The sound of distant howling breaks into Ralph’s thoughts. Gelahn’s mountain dogs. The noise of them is carved onto his skin. They almost killed Simon once. He is glad they did not.
So little time.
“Come here,” he says roughly. There’s no room for courtesy now.
A scraping over the floor, and then the boy’s hand is on Ralph’s unwounded leg. Withdrawn just as quickly. He pays the insult no heed. Instead, crouching down, Ralph takes the seven emeralds in their silk pouch and pushes the small bundle into Apolyon’s fingers. Then he half-leads, half-drags the boy to the wall behind his bed.
Opening the trapdoor to the secret library, and fumbling with the lock mechanism, Ralph is talking all the time.
“Go. Take what I’ve given you and go. A few paces along this passage-way, you’ll find a collection of books. You won’t see it as it’s dark, but they’ll be there. When the air begins to smell of calfskin, put your hand out. Your left hand. The third book that you touch will be the one. Take it from the shelf, open it and put the bundle I’ve given you inside. Stay there. If I don’t come or if danger falls upon us, then the other side of the library leads to another passage. That will take you to the fields beyond the bridge. A chance for escape if you need it. Understand?”
“Yes, m-my lord.”
Then he’s gone. Ralph hopes the boy has the courage to do what he tells him. He hopes the emeralds will be safe. A glance down at his hands tells him that his fingers carry a soft green aura even in the gloom, but he doesn’t know what it means. After that, there’s no chance to hope or fret about anything else. He just has time to secure the trapdoor, take a few paces into the middle of the bed-area and draw in a deep breath, but not deep enough to find any courage from it, when Gelahn is there.
A deeper darkness in the gloom around him, a flash of fire and the mind-executioner is present. Strange how the power that once drew Ralph to him repels him now. Strange too how in the darkness he can still see. What he sees is this: a Lone Man, born under the auspices of that distant star. A star whose course never meets with another. Naturally, the mind-executioner has never told him that. He says nothing that is not to the point. Neither is he what one might expect. A head shorter than Ralph is, shorter even than Simon, he is not physically strong and the only distinguishing feature he possesses is the mystery of his eyes. They hold you, so it is impossible to get away. It is his eyes that make him beautiful. Beauty is power and Ralph knows the executioner uses this. As always he wears round his neck the pendant in the shape of a small silver circle. It’s a light even in the darkness. By it, Ralph sees the executioner is dressed simply, in a dark tunic with his cloak layered across one arm. Ready for action.
Of course now he does not carry the mind-cane. Simon and the Gathandrians have that, and Ralph wonders if they will use it. If they even know how.
He wonders too how much of his mind Gelahn has already plundered and how long it will be before he understands all of Ralph’s secrets. Each of his defences must surely be useless against the executioner. What will he do with that knowledge?
Gelahn smiles, but Ralph does not respond. Something in him is proud of that moment. When the other man speaks, his voice is as cold as winter.
“It is good to see you again, Lord Tregannon,” he says. “I trust you have prepared for my arrival?”
All this of course is a lie, and they both know it. As he speaks, the darkness that has consumed the land begins to lift and Ralph hears the sound of Gelahn’s mountain dogs. Perhaps it is they who have helped cause the darkness. It would not surprise him.
“It is hard to prepare for anyone’s arrival in a land that has been so devastated,” Ralph says. “Now we have little to offer any guest who may chance upon us and many of our neighbours are keeping to themselves.”
For fear of being tainted or made vulnerable by the curse of the Lammas Lands and what has happened to us is the natural end of the sentence, but Ralph does not say it.
This does not matter. For the next moment, before even a story’s first breath can be felt, Gelahn has lifted his free hand in a small and casual gesture, and Ralph’s mind explodes.
He finds himself scrabbling for relief, gasping for air, and with his back slammed against the bedroom wall behind him. Gelahn’s darkness fills Ralph’s head and it is as if the executioner’s power alone obliterates every thought he has ever had, every hope and every dream. Ralph has no history – no past and no future. This is the worst it has ever been when Gelahn reads him, moulds Ralph’s will to his. All the Overlord can do is wait for the mind-executioner to discover everything that has happened since Ralph returned here without him. Discover it and punish him.
This time, however, something is different.
In the darkness, and even in the pain which tracks through his body as the wolfhounds track young wolves, something remains untouched. Something green and glowing, like the colour around his hand just before Gelahn arrived. And even as Ralph thinks this thought, the green glow surrounds it. Within its faint circle, there is no darkness.
The word floats, a deeper green framing it. Safe. Ralph reaches for it. Not with his hand but with his thought. Somehow it captures him and for a long, long moment, all the life he has led since this morning, all the memories he has of this one day - the horse ride, the steward, the hidden library – are bound within its strength.
The emeralds, he thinks, this must be to do with the emeralds.
Then Gelahn lets go.
The darkness draws itself together and seeps away. Ralph knows it can’t be real and it’s simply his imagination, but he almost believes he can see it creeping home into Duncan Gelahn’s eyes. Odd how when he’s able to breathe again the day outside is as it should be. The winter sun is shining and there’s a crisp edge to the air in the room.
Gelahn speaks. “You have found it hard to hold your lands together then.”
This is not of course a question, but Ralph answers as if it is.
“The wars with Gathandria have all but destroyed us,” he says, knowing the wars are not the worst of it. “Each battle fought in the mind on our journey there and back has carved out its mirror image in blood and death and grief here. And when our defeat came …”
The executioner holds up his hand. Fearful of what his enemy might still discover in him, even now, Ralph falls silent. Gelahn leans forward, and the Overlord can see strange grey lights in his eyes.
“It is not a defeat,” he whispers, but there is no gentleness in his tone, “it is not a defeat when the battle has not yet truly begun. It is a setback only, no more.”
Ralph cannot help himself. He laughs. “A setback that has torn down so many of our buildings that there is barely an untouched one left, set our fields on fire so our planting is lost and we face starvation, scattered the Lammas people to the lands around us and incited the desire to rebel in those who remain. Forgive me but, for me, that is far more than a setback. I …”
Even while he’s speaking, the mind-executioner knocks him down to his knees, and Ralph feels the constriction in his throat. Gelahn hasn’t moved. The lack of the mind-cane has not drained his power in personal combat. That much is obvious.
This time when Gelahn speaks, it is directly to Ralph’s mind, and the Overlord closes his eyes and tries to breathe through the pain.
Do not insult me again, or what you think of now as disaster will be as nothing compared to what will happen to you and to your people. Do you understand?
Beyond speech, all Ralph can do is nod. When Gelahn lets go, he turns his back to the Overlord as if he is nothing and strolls over to the window. Ralph clambers to his feet, rubs the soreness at his throat and wishes for wine.
In the silence, he waits for his conqueror to speak first. He does not trust his voice not to shake. He can still hear Gelahn’s dogs. Outside, thank the gods and stars. Ralph hopes they are harming nobody, but understands that if he makes any more mistakes then deaths will occur.
What the executioner says is not what Ralph expects.
“You still have your fighting troops then.”
Ralph blinks. “Yes. Some of them.”
Gelahn turns then and fixes him with his gaze. The Overlord is unable to look away.
“That wasn’t a question, Lord Tregannon,” he says. “I had already gleaned that from your mind. You have always been so open to me. I trust that good wisdom you show will continue, now that we are more in need of each other.”
Ralph longs to ask how he can possibly need Gelahn when all he has caused is disaster and pain. He expects him to pick up on those thoughts, but the green glow that lurks in the corner of Ralph’s mind is still there and swallows them up. His heart beats faster.
Gelahn does not react, but simply pauses for a moment and then continues speaking. “Yes, you are in need of me as without me your power and command over your people will be nothing. And I …”
“Yes, Lord Gelahn?...”
“I am in need of you for the men you possess, however few. And most of all for the military skills you have.”
Ralph laughs and the mind-executioner cocks his head. After a moment or so, when the Overlord is silent, Gelahn inspects his fingernails, waiting for him to speak.
“I cannot believe that to be true,” Ralph says at last. “You have power enough, even without the mind-cane. You can destroy us all.”
The mind-executioner’s answer makes Ralph’s thoughts grow as dark as his arrival made the sky outside.
“That is correct,” he says in a way that makes Ralph shiver. “And, again, you are wise to note it. But this time, Tregannon, the battle will be fought not only in the realm of the mind, but also in the physical realm. This time, the blood that we shed will be first and foremost in the flesh and the death we deal our enemies will be permanent.”
In the small home of the Acting Elder of Gathandria, surrounded by the remains of bread and with two worried men to soothe, Annyeke was about to say something inspirational – if she only knew what that might be.
But the sound of shouting from the street outside stopped her, then the noise of wood scraping on stone. The next moment her front door was slammed open, the entrance curtain torn down and a vast mass of wild white terror launched itself through the room towards the table. Blood poured from its frame, and she and Talus and the two men flung themselves out of the way as the beast skittered across the floor and skidded to a halt.
In the shocking silence following this onslaught, as Talus clung to her, the mind-cane began to hum.
Annyeke had always hated birds. And, by the gods and stars, especially legendary ones. So she stared at the great white snow-raven from the Kingdom of the Air now sprawled on the stone floor against her eating-table and shuddered. The beast was almost the size of a grown man, with the span of its wings nearly doubling that length. It brought with it a strange smell of cinnamon and lime which turned her stomach. She could feel the swift tumbling of Talus’ mind against hers and fought for balance for them both.
Simon was backed up against the wall, the mind-cane abandoned at his side and his hand touching his cheek. No, more than touching it, for a reason she couldn’t fathom he looked as if he was protecting it. Why would he wish to do that? The bird – whatever it might be in reality – was at the moment no danger. In fact it looked as if it might even be dead. Which would be a good thing. There was certainly enough blood for that to be true. The stonework must have somehow torn through its feathers.
Johan was already there, his hands touching the fallen bird. Firm but gentle. Annyeke sighed. Then shook her head to dispel the thought.
“Is it dead?” she asked, easing Talus away from her but keeping her hand on his arm.
“I don’t think so.” Johan frowned but didn’t look up, continuing his examination of the bird.
“Am I right? It looks like a …”
“… a snow-raven.” Simon confirmed it, his voice low, and Annyeke blinked.
She’d been right, although she couldn’t understand why it should be here at all. She herself had never seen such a bird directly, though many of her fellows had. They were the stuff of Gathandrian legend – talked about in all the ancient tales and many of the modern ones. She’d glimpsed them with the Elders by means of the mind-circle’s power when she was watching Johan take his long, hard journey home with Simon but, because of the light that emanated from them, Annyeke had never seen one in any detail. It had been an impression of whiteness and song.
“It’s dying,” Johan said.
“He,” was the Scribe’s hissed response. “Their leader is a he.”
“I can’t sense anything,” Johan turned to Simon, raising one eyebrow. “You can’t know that for sure.”
“I know. It’s the raven leader. And he’s not dead.”
Time to intervene, Annyeke thought. Even though she hated birds, she didn’t particularly want a dead one in her home. A dead bird would somehow be even more horrific than a living one, legend or no legend. And the men were, once again, doing nothing to stop this possibility.
She steeled herself for compassionate action. “Talus, take the largest jug and fetch water from the street-well. Simon, give me your tunic. Johan … can you put the bird on the table? It will be …”
“He,” Simon said again.
“… he will be easier to tend to there.”
A small storm of activity as her companions hurried to obey her commands. In spite of everything, it felt good to be doing something at last, however unsuccessful it might be. Because she was tired of doing nothing.
In a matter of moments the bird was on the table and Annyeke, heart skittering a staccato rhythm, was dipping a piece of Simon’s tunic, torn into strips, into clear water, almost as if this was an everyday occurrence.
As she began to clear up the blood, at arms’ length and with her face half turned away, she distracted herself from the fact that she was all but touching the bird directly by concentrating on Simon.
“How do you know he’s not dead?” she asked, praying that whatever happened, the still raven under her hands would not suddenly stir or open its eye at her. If it did, she was sure she’d scream and flee. Not a good plan for the Elders’ chosen leader.
“I can hear him,” the Scribe answered simply. “In my head.”
Unable to stop herself, Annyeke made a quick pass through the top level of Simon’s thoughts. She couldn’t sense anything out-of-place there. Whatever he was experiencing must be somewhere deeper or it was hidden by the mind-cane. She didn’t think he was lying.
“I’m sorry,” Johan said. “I can’t sense any life at all.”
“No.” As the scribe spoke, Annyeke felt a sudden jab in her mind, as if someone had slapped her. At the same time, Simon pushed past her and put his hand on the raven’s snowy back. Johan began to speak, his voice low, reaching out towards the scribe, but she never got to hear what he might have wanted to say.
He knew the raven wasn’t dead. The bird couldn’t be dead. Thoughts and images, a jumble of sea and sky, feather, mountain and desert, were filling his mind. Simon’s heart was beating fast and he could feel the muscles in his shoulders begin to ache. If the snow-raven was dead, where were the pictures coming from?
Neither did he want the raven to be alive. The memory of his strange encounter with the bird – the questions Simon had had to answer to save his life, the attack and the agonising healing of the scar on his face – made him shiver.
Still, when Annyeke asked him, he took off his tunic, trying to ignore the sudden chill against his skin, and tore it into strips for her. But it was Johan’s refusal to believe the truths that throbbed in his head which drove him to action. Pushing between the woman and the table, he put his hand on the bird. An instinctive gesture only. He hadn’t thought what it might do.
It woke the raven.
The bird reared up, its massive beak only a hair’s breadth from Simon’s eye. Wings came up also, spattering blood onto wood and stone. A raucous shriek filled the air. The bird launched itself at him and the scribe ducked. In spite of this, solid claws slammed into his shoulder and he fell, scrabbling at the floor. All the images and strange words in his head disappeared. He could no longer hear the raven within him at all.
Johan flung himself after the bird, though Simon had no idea what his friend might do if he caught the raven. He missed. At the same time, Annyeke grabbed Talus and pushed him roughly through the door. He wondered whether they should all do the same. Though, knowing Gathandrians, that probably wasn’t an option. Meanwhile the raven flew, still shrieking, between walls and ceiling and floor. The table was overturned, jugs and pots fell with a clatter, some smashing to pieces, and an acrid smell of herbs filled the room, almost overpowering the scent of blood.
Do something then.
The words were Johan’s.
How? Simon answered, astonished he could still create a mind-link, however small and tenuous.
You brought the raven to life. Now you need to calm it again. Soon.
Breaking the mind-link and wishing he’d never got out of bed since it seemed to have brought nothing but danger and noise upon the whole household, Simon cursed aloud and hauled himself to his feet. In mid-flight, the raven all but knocked him down again.
The link hadn’t been broken then. All right.
As Annyeke tried to save the rest of her household crockery, Johan sprang after the destroyer of houses once more. His efforts knocked the bird off balance, and the raven fell back towards Simon.
Heart beating far too much out of control, the scribe stretched out his arms, wrapped them in vain round the great boulder of white feathered power, and man and bird tumbled together to the floor.
He understood several different things at once. First the boy, Talus, had gone beyond any sense of fear and was starting, from his relatively safe position outside the door peering in, to enjoy the whole adventure. In truth, Simon wasn’t sure how this might help, but at the very least it meant less sense of jaggedness to fight against. And his mind needed all the respite it could seize. Secondly he realised how much Annyeke hated birds, though he couldn’t fathom why. Thirdly, he found that he, like Talus, was enjoying having something other than himself and the likely fate of Gathandria to focus on. And finally, he realised exactly how blank and unstable his own mind was.
As the scribe tumbled down with the enraged bird, he could see Annyeke holding Johan back despite his stature.
Wait, Simon heard in his mind, a thought shared only between the two of them but which somehow he also could hear.
At the same time, the bird’s shrieks stopped. Instead of the raucous thought-piercing sound, he heard only silence.
From where he lay on the floor, the raven overpowering him, the scribe saw Johan reach out, take Annyeke’s hand where it rested on his arm and pat it once before letting go. Then Johan took the two strides necessary to reach him and hunkered down.
The raven twisted where he lay in Simon’s grip and stared at Johan. The black eye blinked, and it felt as if a spate of dark water had tumbled through the scribe’s mind and he gasped. Johan too almost fell except that Simon grabbed him, kept him safe.
The raven flapped free, then hopped up onto the table, opened his beak noiselessly and gazed for a moment or two at them all. When her turn came, Annyeke stepped back and Simon could sense her fear once more.
Finally, the raven stretched out the wing nearest the scribe and brushed his shoulder with it. The mind-cane, all but forgotten in the corner, quivered, hummed for a heartbeat before it too fell silent.
It was Annyeke who spoke first, with more than a slight tremor in her voice.
“I-I think you’ve found another companion, Simon,” she said.