The Executioner’s Cane by Anne Brooke
Chapter One: Arrivals
Simon Hartstongue landed with a bump and a muffled gasp on something not as soft as he’d hoped for. It felt as if all the breath he possessed had been expelled from his body and was not anticipating returning soon. It was evident he had not yet perfected the art of travelling by means of the emeralds, whether they were the original ones or the two new ones formed by the war, but at least it was better than travelling by sea. He hadn’t enjoyed that experience at all.
He staggered to his hands and knees just as something warm brushed over his cheek. He sneezed, and a raucous whistle rewarded his daring. When he blinked, he could see the large outline of the snow-raven hovering only a few fingers’ breadth from his eyes. At once, he backed away. Although the great bird appeared, for the moment, to be on his side, and had been so through all the recent battles, he could never be entirely sure of its intentions. He couldn’t help but notice the raven looked utterly unscathed by the recent travelling ordeal, but then that, he imagined, was the gift of flight. He himself was dusty, shaking and bruised.
When he tried to kneel upright, jagged stone pierced his skin and he cursed and rolled away. One glance told him he’d landed at the end of the Lammas village, near the old well. By the gods and stars, a few paces to the right would have put him in the centre of the well itself and he shuddered at the thought; swimming was not one of his talents.
Still shaking his head at his lucky escape, Simon gathered together the emeralds that had enabled him to journey here and placed them in the bag at his belt. This took a while but he quickly found there was nothing he could do about the way his fingers trembled. Then, skin still glowing green along his hands, he crouched in the shadow of the well stonework and gazed at his surroundings. It seemed a long time since he’d been here, at least as a free man. That in itself was a rare experience and he hoped it would continue for a while to come. However, what he saw made his jaw tighten. The Lammas Lands were not as they had been, even from only a little while ago when he had last visited here. The mud around the well was churned up and the stones the people had used as a makeshift path were scattered in all directions. The trees he could see at the edge of the wood were blasted as if a great fire had swept through them. He even thought he could smell a hint of smoke and darkness in the air, but wondered if that was merely his own suggestion. The small houses of the poorer villagers themselves were no better – instead of the partially-destroyed structures of his memory, all he saw were piles of shattered stone and rubble. Had so much further chaos ensued as a result of the Gathandrian mind-battle, even adding to the damage he had seen here before? Simon groaned and brushed a shaking hand through his hair. If so, the task he had set before himself would be so much the worse. Well then, come what may; he had made his decision. He would hold to it.
A faint humming at his side caught his attention. It was then he remembered the cane.
The moment he called it to mind, the cane itself leapt towards him and eased itself into his hand. As if it had been waiting purely for his remembrance: a vibrancy of black and silver. Simon realised he didn’t feel scared of it this time. Aware yes, but the fear that had crippled him for so long had gone. As he gazed at it, its intricate carving glowed in the morning sun. He held his breath, sure something was about to happen – perhaps the cane would communicate with him by fire as it had in the past – but it remained almost inert and instead he turned his mind to other matters.
He was at last in the same country as Ralph Tregannon, without the threat of immediate war to flurry the waters between them. Such waters indeed as they were, may the gods and stars help them both.
However, he had come here for one main purpose and, no matter what his blood whispered to him, such a purpose did not include the Lammas Overlord. At least not directly. He had come here to help the Lammas land itself to heal, if he could. The stars above knew the debt he needed to pay to the people was a vast one, but he could not rest until he had begun his mission.
Which, by the looks of it, needed to start soon. The blasted trees, the ruined dwellings around him had not yet given rise to any sense of movement, or people. It was morning, just after the time of the fast-breaking, by his calculation of the sun. The men should be leaving for the fields and the womenfolk caring for the children or doing the thousand and more tasks left to them. He could smell no baking and hear no talk or even laughter, if laughter were possible. Where was everyone?
For a while he explored the village, stumbling over broken stone and the remains of what the villagers had abandoned: half-eaten and rotting vegetables; scattered herbs; a torn cloak, small enough for a child. This last he picked up and held it to his face for a moment before placing it back down on the ground. He needed to find someone – anyone – and he needed to ask them exactly what had happened. How bad the mind-wars had been. Yes, he had seen the destruction when the mind-executioner, Gelahn, had brought him here before, and he saw it again now. But he needed to hear a Lammasser speak. There was of course no guarantee they would wish to speak to him. After his near hanging in Lammas, it was only the good will and courage of the Gathandrians which had saved him at all.
Not a pleasant memory indeed, for a variety of very good reasons.
In Simon’s hand, the cane suddenly felt warmer, and at the same time the snow-raven spread his wings and rose into the air. That great bill opened and from it a single sphere of gold and black fell into Simon’s outstretched fingers. He didn’t grasp it but let it settle in his palm. For two heartbeats, the beauty of it pierced his skin and then the colours flowed away and nothing remained. Still he knew what the colours meant, or at least what they meant to him. The livery of Ralph’s army, the insignia of the soldiers. The thought of it made him shiver but when he looked up the raven was circling, the beat of his wings pushing the great bird further away from where Simon stood. Towards the Lammas castle.
“As you wish then,” he muttered. “I will go to the castle. Though I fear it is not there my search should begin.”
Nonetheless, when Simon turned and set his face towards Ralph’s home, he noticed the warmth in his hand inspired by the cane spread upwards over his skin, and his heartbeat quickened. He was still a fool then, as he had always been. But this time, at least greater matters were at stake. The matter of repairing the damage done to Lammas, damage he himself had in large part brought upon their heads.
The path from the village to the castle was not usually an arduous one, in spite of the climb. In the past Ralph Tregannon had enjoyed an eagle’s eye view over his subjects from his home, but the distance between village and castle had not been great. Now, however, Simon found himself scrabbling for a foothold, slipping backwards in mud and becoming entangled in thorns. Overhead the raven released a harsh cry into empty air, whilst the mind-cane hissed and fizzed in his grip. Simon cursed and released it. If it wasn’t going to help him at this point, then it could fend for itself. It always had before. The cane’s silver top sparked and the artefact began to hum. Simon scrambled away, slamming his back against a ruined tree which creaked ominously at the weight of him, but no further threat transpired. He should stop being so nervous. He was part of the cane and it was part of him. He understood that now. He should not be so afraid, but a lifetime’s cowardice did not fade away quickly. He needed time.
“Which I probably do not have,” he muttered again, wondering if he would in fact ever meet another person to engage in conversation or not. “Nothing in these wars has ever happened in the way we planned it.”
The cane quivered and Simon stood up, trying to brush mud from his cloak but succeeding only in smearing it further downwards. Annyeke, the new Gathandrian First Elder, would not be happy if she saw him like this; the cloak had been one of the parting gifts she had offered when he left the city and he had been pleased to accept it. He was not a man used to needlework. He filled a space in his mind with the knowledge he would have to clean his clothes before he saw his Gathandrian friends again, or all the gods and stars would never be able to rescue him. Not that he seemed to have much control over the way the emeralds allowed him to travel in any case. Thinking about this brought Ralph to mind once more; the emeralds belonged to the Tregannons. Simon should in all decency return them, even though he was likely to need them later.
As he continued his climb to the castle, the clouds above him darkened and made the brilliance of the snow-raven’s body brighter still. Somehow the light of it guided him through the trees. And there was always a slight smell of burning.
After the length of a story’s end, he finally reached the clearing. Ahead of him, the Tregannon family home loomed like a greater forest, although one made from stone. But it was not how it had been. The grandeur, the sense of physical domination had vanished. Half the roof was missing, jagged stone stretching up towards the sky, into the emptiness where the turrets had once stood tall. The north side of the building had gone, shattered stonework spreading out across the courtyard, and the shutters on the windows flapped in the breeze, loosed from their customary moorings. Simon thought they looked like nothing more than the hands of children trying to attract his attention. He swallowed. This was where Ralph had lived, and where he must surely be living still, but for all his skills, both newly-discovered and old, Simon could sense no hint of the man he loved. He could sense no hint of anyone. He felt nothing but a strange silence.
Above him, the snow-raven gave yet another wild cry and launched himself towards the castle. Simon watched as the great bird flew three times round the courtyard and then alighted on what looked to be the most secure section of the rooftop. Still, the unexpected weight caused several stones to fall, landing with a cloud of dust on the ground. Then the raven turned in Simon’s direction and half-unfurled his wings as if to offer a challenge.
Simon took a breath, reached out for the mind-cane which had followed him as closely as one of Ralph’s hounds and felt its answering warmth on his skin. He began the last part of his journey to the castle.
This too proved neither easy nor pleasant. At the stream, the guard’s booth lay ruined, and no soldier stood watch. The small bridge had been washed away entirely and he had to make his way through the water, gasping as it soaked through to his skin. Narrow though the water course was, by the time Simon scrambled up on the other side, he was shivering. He stood on the churned up earth and shook the water from his legs. At the same time, the memory of the first time he’d visited the castle swept through his thoughts: the courtyard full of people commencing their day; the sheer grandeur of his surroundings; the clatter of the soldiers’ weapons; the way Ralph had looked at him.
He shook his head, but found he could not dislodge the memory quite so easily. No matter. He needed to find the people, or at least a clue as to where they might be. Now that he was on the other side of the water, he began to be aware of the sensations of other minds in his. There were people here then. Not many but enough for him to form an impression of despair, fear and hopelessness which would no doubt overwhelm him if the men and women he sought were closer. He glanced down at the cane. It was glowing just at the point where his hand grasped it. He thought it might be enhancing the power of the feelings hovering within the castle grounds. Would it perhaps help him to bear those feelings also? Only the time-cycle would reveal that truth.
Clutching his cloak further around him to keep in what warmth there was, he made his way around Ralph’s fortified home. Upon closer inspection, the damage was worse than he had feared. Not only were parts of the castle entirely gone, leaving the spaces inside open to the wind and weather, but each remaining stone had been scarred and knocked almost imperceptibly out of place. He was no stone-craftsman, but he was surprised to see so much of it remained standing. Stepping back, he glanced upwards to where the snow-raven continued to perch, gazing down at him with that all-seeing dark eye. Surely the bird’s weight would be of no benefit to this potential ruin? Simon had already done enough damage to the lives of the Lammas people. Causing more, even unwittingly, would be unthinkable. He had to entice the raven down, but how?
For lack of any other ideas, and with his mind filled with memories of watching Ralph in the hawk-hunts, he stretched out his free hand and made a low crooning noise. The results were not what he’d anticipated.
The cane in his other hand bucked and spat. A single silver flame flowed, so quickly his eye could barely catch it, from the intricate carving, into his fingers. Then up his arm, across his body and into his outstretched palm. The snow-raven at once spread his wings and launched his great frame from the top of the castle, swooping down and down, straight towards where Simon stood. The scribe gasped, took a step back to save himself, his heart beating double-rate through his blood. Still he stood firm and merely ducked as the bird swept by, feathers brushing against his arm and cheek.
“By the gods and stars,” he muttered, “what are you doing?”
Banking on the onward trajectory, the raven swung round near the stream and flapped the last few field-paces back towards him. Before the bird could even think of alighting on his hand, an act that surely would have felled him to the earth for many hour-cycles, Simon dropped the cane and folded his arms against his chest. The moment the cane fell to the earth, the silver glow on Simon’s skin vanished and the raven landed in a swirl of white feathers and strange elegance next to the mind-artefact. The great bird cocked his head, and that strange dark eye regarded him once more. The scribe blinked. For a long moment, he felt as if somehow he’d failed to carry through an action he could not fully understand. And then the intensity of the bird’s gaze and the continuing silence of the courtyard were broken by the sharp cry of a female voice.
He swung round.
A small plump woman was marching up to him. He had no idea where she had come from. He could see no obvious doorway nearby. Without any warning, Simon could feel the power of her name in his head: Jemelda. The shapes of the letters he saw in his thoughts were laced with red. He gulped and waited for her to reach him.
When she did so, she ignored the silent bird. Instead she glared at the cane and then at him. Then she spoke.
“How dare you come to us like this,” she hissed. “You will never in the eternal time-cycles now or to come be welcome here amongst the Lammas people. Murderer.”