Prologue – I
I will set the tale down here much as I had it from an old woman in Hoke, as she had it from her grandmother, and she from her grandmother before. I doubt there is anyone who has not heard it in one form or another. It is a good tale, but the wise will not take it as the truth, whole and entire. However flawed our understanding of the Anain may be, we can assume that they would not trouble to be so clear in the expression of their desire as this tale would have us believe. Nor does it seem likely that they would display even such brief patience as the story suggests. We lesser races, after all, must seem to them as slow and stilted and inconsequential as the mute and dull beasts of the field seem to us.
Tane, the Shining City, had fallen. The Kyrinin were undone, their lords and captains slain, their armies scattered to the winds. The streets were strewn with bodies and the drains overflowing with
blood. The triumphant Huanin armies, marching under the argent stag-banner of the Alsire King, had broken down the walls and claimed the city as their own.
The conquering King stared out from the highest room of the Rose Citadel, in Tane’s gilded heart, and he looked upon his work and was glad, for though he saw ruin and fire, still the city was the
greatest in all the world and in it he would be the greatest King. Now a tall tree grew in the courtyard outside that noble tower.
The tree stretched a branch in through the window, and the branch twisted and cracked as it came. In the sound of its wooden bones breaking was a voice that spoke to the King.
‘This city has run with blood, and the mind of the world is riven with pain and grief and fury. It is enough. Now we claim this place and will cleanse it and make it ours. You must take your armies away.’
‘I will not,’ the King replied, ‘for my warriors have given their lives to win this great city for me and it is to be the home and heart of my people.’
At these words, the branch withdrew and the great tree was once more a tree, silent and still. The King summoned his servants and said to them, ‘Take your axes and cut down the tree in the courtyard, for I mislike its countenance. And when you have cut it down, burn the wood so that not a twig remains.’
On the evening of the following day the King was again in that high chamber. Leaves blew in through the open window and spun upon the breeze and filled the room, and in the sighing of their dance was a voice that spoke to the King.
‘This war of yours fouls the mind of the world. This city is filled with the cries of the dead and it is no place for the living. We will see an end to this war; we will take this city and still its torment. Yours is the heart that will be broken if you do not depart from here with all your host, for this is a city of the dead and so it will remain.’
But again the King shook his head. ‘If I leave as you request, all that has gone before – all the strife and the struggle that cast their dark pall over the land these last years – all this will be for nothing. I will not go, for all the lives that have been taken and all the loss that has been suffered were for the purpose of bringing me here.’
And at these words of the King, the leaves that were in the room fell to the floor and spoke no more to him. The King summoned his servants and said to them, ‘Clear out these leaves and make a fire of them in the courtyard. When they are burned away to nothing, return and close this window up with shutters, and nail it fast. I dislike the breeze.’
Now the King had a daughter, who was as bright in his eyes as the morning. On the third night the father and the daughter ate together in that highest chamber of the Rose Citadel, and made one another great promises for a glorious future.
But the Citadel shook in its stone bones, and the walls trembled. The shutters that had been fixed across the window were torn apart. Vines that grew without the Citadel came in like a thousand writhing snakes and they seized the King’s daughter. They lifted her from the floor and coiled about her.
And the voice of the vines said, ‘Twice you have refused us, and thrice we will not allow. You will depart from this place on the morrow, or nothing of your happiness will remain unruined.’ And the vines broke the neck of the King’s child, and cracked her spine and snapped her arms and legs and cast her down on the cold stone floor at the King’s feet.
As the heartbroken King’s host departed the next morning, the ground shivered behind them and brought forth saplings: an ocean of trees sprang from the blood-fed loam and reached up towards the sun. When night fell and the King turned and looked back the way he had come, he saw not the great plain there had once been but a forest so vast that his eye could not track its limits. And of Tane, of the greatest and most wondrous city in all the world, there was no sign, for the forest had swallowed it and all its countless corpses.
Thus ended the War of the Tainted. Thus was born the Deep Rove, and men called it the Forest of the Dead and did not walk beneath its ill-rumoured canopy.
from Tales of the Anain
by Arvent of Dun Aygll
Prologue – II
K’rina had been weeping intermittently for days. Her na’kyrim eyes, once so beautiful, were now red, veined and bleary. She did not sleep, took no food, hardly spoke. Her friends feared for her, but she did not respond to their efforts to help or comfort her.
She wandered amongst the pools and reed-beds that surrounded Dyrkyrnon. She squatted down beside stagnant ponds and peered blankly at the grey water. When wet fogs and drizzles drifted across the vast marshes she did not seem to notice, but allowed the moisture to settle on her hair and skin, mingling with her tears. Everywhere she went she was followed by two girls. They stayed a few paces behind her and did not intrude upon her grief-fuelled daze. They simply watched, and kept her from harm, and each night reported to the elders.
On the fourth evening K’rina did not return to her sleeping hut. Instead, she kept walking: out into the water-maze of the marshes, heading north-west. One of the attendant girls brought word to the village and the elders sent men to bring K’rina back. She did not struggle or protest. When they took hold of her she slumped into their arms and would say nothing.
In K’rina’s sleeping hut, bathed in candlelight and the scent of soothing herbs, a tall na’kyrim knelt over the stricken woman. He pushed his fingers through her hair again and again, pressing
each fingertip to her scalp. He whispered constantly in the tongue of the Heron Kyrinin. Black spiralling tattoos covered his face, even his closed eyelids. Beneath his firm touch K’rina was unresponsive. She did not weep, but her eyes were bleak and exhausted, as if they had not seen sleep for weeks. She stared up into the shadows that lurked against the hut’s roof.
At length, the tall na’kyrim rocked back on his heels. He regarded K’rina with a puzzled expression, then spread a woollen blanket over her and rose. He left, ducking his head to pass out
into the wet night.
A cold rain was falling. The grass around the domed huts was sodden, the earth bloated with water. Paths of rush matting had been laid down. The man took only a few paces down one of these before he found his way blocked by a much shorter figure, cloaked in a too-large rain cape and leaning on a staff.
‘It’s wet,’ the tall man said. ‘Why aren’t you inside, Arquan?’
‘I will be soon enough. None of us would last long here if a little water pained us.’
The tall man grunted in distant amusement and cast narrowed eyes up towards the sky. There was nothing to see: no stars, no moon, nothing but the darkness from which the remorseless rain fell.
‘I wanted to hear how K’rina was,’ Arquan said from beneath the cowl of his cape. ‘Can you help her, Lacklaugh?’
The taller man stepped around Arquan and walked on.
‘We shall all be meeting in the morning,’ he said as he went.
‘Why not wait until then?’
Arquan hurried after him, spilling rainwater from creases in his cape.
‘I’d rather not. I’m sleeping badly, as all of us are: the nights are long and worrisome. I’d sooner talk than search in vain for rest. And you know K’rina has been a good friend to me.’
‘Come, then. I’ll give you some shelter and something warm to drink. I can’t offer anything to make your nights less worrisome, though.’
Lacklaugh set out low stools for them to sit on and warmed wine beside the fire. Arquan, hunched up on one of the stools, rubbed his hands together and splayed them to soak up some of the fire’s heat. Stumps were all that remained of the two smallest fingers on his left hand.
‘I’ve always preferred frost and ice to these winter rains,’ he murmured.
‘We’ll be ice-bound soon enough,’ Lacklaugh grunted. He was scraping shavings from a block of hard cheese, delicately picking morsels from the knife’s blade with his lips.
‘Did K’rina have anything to say for herself, then?’ Arquan asked. He helped himself to a cup of the dark red wine. Lacklaugh mutely shook his head.
‘Were you able to help her?’
‘Not much.’ Lacklaugh unlaced his calf-length boots and pulled them from his feet. One had a long Kyrinin hunting knife scabbarded along its side – a legacy, like the tattoos that swirled across his face, of his youth, when each summer he had run with a Heron spear a’an. ‘She might sleep a little tonight, but what ails her is beyond my reach. I cannot even ease my own dreams, or still the itch of disquiet at the back of my own thoughts. How could I hope to heal her, when what she feels is so much more sharp-edged?’
‘Yes,’ sighed Arquan. ‘And we know why it’s she who suffers so much more than the rest of us, don’t we?’
Lacklaugh shot him a grim glance. ‘Perhaps.’
‘Of course we do. She was the only one who loved – liked, even – that poisonous little wretch. She never forgave us for casting him out. It’s been years, but I doubt there’s been a day gone by when she’s not thought of him, not grieved over his absence.’
‘No,’ Lacklaugh grunted. ‘She has carried a secret hope, all this time, that she would one day see Aeglyss again.’ He sighed, staring at the boot he still held in his hand. ‘She will go to him.’
‘The intent, the desire, is clear in her mind. What is left of her mind, at least. She is on the brink of madness, I think. Ensnared. The… currents… in the Shared are far too strong for her.’
‘But why go to him?’ cried Arquan in a mix of alarm, anger, confusion. ‘What’s been flowing in the Shared these last few days is… is corruption. Poison. Nothing you would want to draw nearer to.’
Lacklaugh shrugged and tossed the boots to the foot of his sleeping mat. He swallowed down a great mouthful of the warmed wine. ‘We feel unease, we feel unbalanced by the taint leaking into our minds. But you said it yourself: she loved Aeglyss. She cared for him as a mother might. What she feels now is not the same as we do. She does not sense the wrongness or the danger of it all, only the pain, the suffering. His pain and suffering. She thinks of him as her child, and what mother could help but go to her child at the sound of his torment?’
‘Well, we can’t let her go,’ said Arquan.
Again, Lacklaugh shrugged. ‘Short of binding her hands and feet, keeping her under guard day and night, I doubt we can prevent it.’
‘Then we bind her. We guard her.’
‘Dyrkyrnon is not a gaol; we are not gaolers.’
‘Why not, if it’s the only way to keep one of our own safe? She must emerge from this waking dream some time, and then she’ll thank us. If Aeglyss is indeed at the root of this, there’s nothing but harm can come of it.’
‘Oh, you will get no argument from me there. I said when we sent him away that he would bring nothing but misery wherever he went.’
‘I went deep – as deep as I dare – last night,’ growled Arquan.
‘You can’t tell quite what’s wrong, but everything feels out of kilter. And his presence is there, a shadow thrown across the Shared. Fouling it. All the old anger and contempt. The Shared reeks of it. But there’s power, too, like the echoes of a great shout.’
Lacklaugh sighed. ‘He was always strong, but to make himself felt all through the Shared like this… it defies understanding.’
‘Agreed. Something happened, clearly. We all felt the moment when something… broke. Whatever happened, he’s not the Aeglyss we knew. Even then, when we cast him out, we were more than a little afraid of him, and of what he might do. Now…’ Arquan shook his head as if shying away from the thought. ‘So what will you be saying to the rest of the elders tomorrow?’ he asked.
‘That I expect K’rina to keep trying to leave us, and that I see little sense in seeking to prevent her. If she stays here, she will only sink further and further into despair. She may harm herself, or someone else, in the end.’
Arquan stared into his cup of wine.
‘Trouble’s even more likely to find her if she wanders off in search of Aeglyss,’ he said disconsolately.
Lacklaugh rose. He took a fishing spear from the wall and peered at its viciously barbed point.
‘I need to replace the bindings on this,’ he muttered, and began searching around for some cord.
‘This place hardens hearts,’ Arquan said, though without the accusation or reproach that the words implied.
‘It does,’ agreed Lacklaugh as he sat back down and laid the spear across his knees. ‘Dyrkyrnon has never been a hotbed of soft hearts. But then, soft hearts are not what we have needed. If K’rina chooses to leave – however misguided the reasons for that choice – she puts herself beyond our protection. Our world is bounded by the pools, the mists. If we reach out beyond those limits, we invite the world to reach in. That is not what any of us would want.’
‘I still have friends amongst the Heron, though. I know young warriors who grow bored now that there is peace with the Hawk. No doubt they long for some kind of adventure. They might follow her – some of the way, at least. Guard her. Unless you want to volunteer as her guardian?’
‘I’m an old man, and a coward.’ Arquan raised his left hand showing the stubs of his two missing fingers. ‘I had my fill of the wide world long ago. It kept part of me so that I should not forget just how much it disliked me.’
Lacklaugh did not look up. He was frowning in concentration as he wound the cord around the haft of his spear, binding the barbed bone point in place.
‘I don’t suppose there’s any of us here who would leap at the chance to walk by her side,’ Arquan said. ‘Not at the best of times, and certainly not if Aeglyss is waiting at the end of whatever road she wants to follow. Perhaps your Heron friends are the best we can do.’
‘Perhaps they are,’ said Lacklaugh, grimacing as he pulled the cord tight. ‘You should not condemn yourself, or the rest of us, too harshly, though. If Aeglyss is indeed the cause of this… this sickening of the Shared, none of us here could offer K’rina much in the way of protection. None of us has that kind of strength, for all that we have the most potent na’kyrim outside Adravane amongst our number.’
‘We do,’ agreed Arquan glumly, then corrected himself at once. ‘We did. It appears the one we cast out can now lay claim to that dubious honour.’