An Extract from Fall of Thanes

From Chapter One – Ruins

Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin.
-A proverb of the Aygll Kingship

Pay no heed to grief. It is only weakness leaving your heart.
- A saying of the Battle Inkall

I

The movement of birds. That was what told Orisian oc Lannis-Haig that they were coming. Wood pigeons, half a dozen, took flight from the leafless treetops, their wingtips cracking like a rattle of drums. He saw them arrowing away over the canopy, and knew that in their flight they told a tale of what lay beneath. Somewhere there, down amidst the dank greys and browns of the tree trunks and undergrowth, the enemy were coming: men, and likely women, he meant to see dead before the pale, sinking sun touched the horizon.

The woodlands were not large, not compared to the great tracts of forest Orisian had seen on the flanks of the Car Criagar or beyond the Karkyre Peaks. He shied away from that latter thought. His mind refused to approach too closely any memory of the Veiled Woods, and of what had happened there. If once he turned over that rock, what he uncovered might break him.

These woods were tame, as docile as any horse broken to the saddle and bit. Their oaks grew straight and tall above thickets of coppiced hazel. They lay amidst vast swathes of farmland and pasture on the gentle slopes west of Ive, and were just as much shaped by human hand as were those surrounding fields. Charcoal burners and timber merchants had laid out nets of pathways and clearings and campsites through them. Now, Orisian knew, one of those trails was being followed not by woodsmen but by the wolves of the Black Road.

He glanced at the warrior Torcaill, who was crouched alongside him amongst the rocks at the top of the slope.

‘You saw?’

‘Yes, sire. It won’t be long. Will you come away now? Back behind the crest, at least?’

‘No,’ murmured Orisian. ‘I’ll see what’s done in my name.’

He looked up, briefly, towards the west. There were clouds there: great dark masses that would muffle the sun before it set. More snow to come. The last fall had been almost a week ago, and light enough that no trace of it now remained.

‘Let me bring up your horse, at least, sire,’ Torcaill said.

‘So I can flee more easily? No. Leave it where it is.’

The warrior frowned, his displeasure unconcealed.

‘Go to your men,’ Orisian told him. ‘Make sure they’re mounted and ready. If Taim needs you, it’ll be soon.’

Torcaill went, scrambling back over the rocks. He had two dozen men waiting just out of sight. Orisian knew they would already be fully prepared. They were as eager as anyone to spill Black Road blood, and needed no encouragement from Torcaill to ready themselves for the task, but he found the warrior’s concern for his safety unsettling. Troubling.

Only Ess’yr and Varryn remained with him. The two Kyrinin were nestled down in the shadow of a boulder, paying no heed to the events unfolding around them. Ess’yr was smoothing the flights of her arrows one after another, a picture of perfect, absorbed attention. Her brother sat staring fixedly at the patch of grass between his feet. Neither had spoken since they settled into their place of concealment. They seldom did now, and perhaps that was why Orisian found their company easier than most. He craved silence, sought it as a friend and ally.

Three figures emerged from the woods: hunters from Ive, who today were bait in the trap. They trotted along the faint path that led up the slope. They were almost casual in their demeanour, but their backward glances hinted at tension. Orisian narrowed his eyes, trying to unpick the thick tapestry of the woodland edge, searching for the pursuit that – if all was happening as intended – should be close behind. He could detect no sign of it yet.

He noted that Ess’yr had set her quiver down. She wiped her right hand down the flank of her hide jacket, from the faint rise of her breast to her hip, and with her left took up her bow. She would willingly use it to kill on his behalf, Orisian knew. Varryn he was less sure of. The Kyrinin warrior had become the most reluctant of allies ever since they left the Veiled Woods; ever since Orisian had refused to free Ess’yr of any obligation to him, or send her away.

Rothe’s absence stabbed at him afresh then, the anguish as pointed and wounding as ever. Each time he remembered that he could not turn his head and see the big, bluff shieldman there, an arm’s length away, the thought strangled the breath in his throat and pinched at his eyes. It always brought the insistent memory, contemptuous of his every effort to dispel it, of his hand over the wound in Rothe’s neck. Of the thick blood pulsing out between his fingers.

He blinked twice, knowing that the image would never be so easily dismissed. The sounds of slaughter saved him. Cries were rising from the woods. He heard people crashing through the thickets, blades clattering against one another. The noise rescued him, for now, from the grasp of his memories.

The three Kilkry-Haig huntsmen had turned and were heading back to join the fight. Ess’yr stood up, shaking her hair away from her face with a feline flick of her head. Orisian could see movement in the gloom beneath the closest trees: figures struggling back and forth. Taim Narran’s mixed company of Lannis and Kilkry men had closed with its prey. Black Road bands were ranging widely across the territory of the Kilkry Blood, raiding, scouting, seeking pillage or simple bloodshed. This was the second such group to come within reach of Ive in the last week; the second they had lured into ambush.

Men spilled out from amongst the trees, stumbling and struggling and hacking. Orisian rose. The shield was heavy on his left arm. He drew his sword, rhythmically tightening and easing his fingers about its hilt. It felt much more familiar in his grasp than once it had. Familiar but not yet natural, not good. Never good, perhaps.

‘Friend or foe?’

Ess’yr stood perfectly still, bowstring drawn back almost to touch her lips.

‘What?’ Orisian asked.

‘Is that one friend or foe?’ she asked.

Orisian looked down the slope. One man had broken free from the battle and was labouring up towards them. His head was low, his attention consumed by the task of keeping his footing on the wet, slick grass. He wore a jerkin of hide and fur, carried a lumber axe in one hand. He had thick, dark hair. A heavy beard.

‘Foe, I think,’ Orisian said quietly, and before the sound of his words had died the arrow was gone, cutting through the cold air. He watched it, skimming out and down, struck by its elegant precision and the soft whisper of its flight, as it went unerringly to its warm home.

 

They entered Ive without ceremony, the last light of the day at their backs. What relief there was at their return was muted. They had killed twenty or more Black Roaders, and brought another back with them as prisoner, but such small victories brought little and brief comfort. There were, everyone knew, thousands more to take the place of those enemies felled today.

Torcaill and Taim rode on either side of Orisian. Varryn and Ess’yr walked a few paces behind them. When they had first arrived here with Orisian, the Kyrinin had been met everywhere they went in Ive by hostility and suspicion. They attracted little attention now. The town’s inhabitants recognised them as members of Orisian’s retinue, and accepted them – if reluctantly – as such. Orisian’s Blood had long been allied to their own, and its Thane could keep what company he saw fit, no matter how strange and ill-advised such company might be.

As they made their way through Ive’s darkening streets, they found their path blocked by a great mass of cattle, jostling and barging along beneath the switches of cowherds. In the failing light, the beasts all but merged into a single roiling creature, lowing and steaming as it rumbled into the town’s heart, its flanks turned yellow by firelight spilling from windows. Men shouted at the cowherds to clear the roadway. Orisian rode on regardless, ploughing through the fringes of the herd. His company of warriors strung out behind him. Many of the Kilkry men amongst them drifted off down side streets, making for the homes they had been summoned from that morning, or to take their turn at sentry duty on the town’s outskirts.

The cattle and their herders were only the latest of many to come seeking sanctuary in Ive, hoping for refuge from the chaos sweeping across the Kilkry Blood. Every time another family arrived, they brought tales of horror and disaster: wild Tarbain tribesmen burning and looting villages; companies of Inkallim appearing suddenly out of the night, intent upon slaughter. Donnish, the coastal town a day or two’s ride west of Ive, had already fallen, abandoned by the tattered remnants of the Haig armies all but destroyed by the Black Road’s remorseless advance. Further north, Kolkyre, where Roaric the Kilkry Thane languished, was cut off by a besieging host, and accessible only by sea. His Blood was on its knees.

Still, it was not yet as utterly ruined as was Orisian’s own Blood. The sixty or so Lannis warriors at his back as he dismounted in the courtyard of Ive’s Guard barracks were all that remained to him of his inheritance as Thane. He bore the title but in truth was master of nothing more than whatever strength rode with him. What respect was shown to him – and there was a good deal of it, from both his own followers and the people of Ive – felt, as often as not, undeserved and unearned.

Weariness took him as he entered the barracks. It was crowded inside, full of Guardsmen and townsfolk alike. And outsiders, too: those who had fled here with nothing but what they could carry, reliant upon the town’s Guard for shelter or sustenance; warriors who had found their way here after defeat, and now slept on the floorboards of these draughty halls, dreaming perhaps of the chance to redeem themselves.

Orisian ignored them all. He met no one’s eyes as he made his way to the stairs. When they recognised him, people here sometimes came begging for favours or aid. He helped them when he could – though that was seldom – but he was too exhausted for such exchanges tonight.

‘I’ll eat in my room,’ he murmured to Taim, and climbed away from the hubbub.

He ate without enthusiasm. The food that was brought to him was good, the best the town had to offer, but he seldom had much of an appetite now. It was as if his mind and body could accommodate only so many hungers, and that for food was crowded out by less corporeal longings: for his sister’s safety, for the undoing of so much that had been done to those he knew and loved. For some reason to be given for all the deaths.

After pushing aside the half-finished meal, Orisian closed his eyes and allowed his head to sink down onto his chest. He let time pass, consciously clearing his thoughts. It was a struggle, for he had barely more mastery over them than over the Blood he was supposed to lead, but he managed it. He dozed, until something – he did not know whether it was a sound from outside, or perhaps the determined, ungovernable stirring of his own mind – roused him.

He went sluggishly towards the window. He halted an arm’s length back from it, keeping to the dark. He did not want to be seen if he could help it, and he was close enough to look down upon the little orchard, bounded by high stone walls, that lay behind the barracks. The ancient, crooked apple trees clenched up like wizened hands, half-lit by lamps burning in the kitchens. Almost beyond the reach of that light, in the heart of the grove, Ess’yr and Varryn had made shelters from stakes and hides.

Orisian could see the two Kyrinin now, moving amongst the trees. They drifted through the winter’s dark, unhurried. They were gathering sticks for a fire. Orisian held himself quite still. Even his breathing grew shallow and soft. He did not know if they could see him from down there amongst the shadows, but they might. Their eyes were more than human, after all.

Ess’yr squatted down on her haunches to build the fire. Her hair slipped forward to hide her face. Orisian watched her hands instead. They were pale, indistinct shapes, but still their movements had grace and ease. Done with her preparations, she reached for some small bag or pouch and scattered something from it on a flat stone at the fireside. Food, Orisian knew. He had seen this many times since that first night with her in the forests far north of here. She left morsels for the restless dead.

He found himself wishing Ess’yr would look up, and turn her face towards him. He both wanted her to know that he was watching her, and feared it. Perhaps she already knew. Perhaps she knew that he was constantly aware of her presence; that wherever they were, whoever he was talking to, if she was near there was always a portion of his attention claimed by her.

He could hear voices, softened and blurred, from the rooms below, and, more distant, the lowing of cattle, penned up in some yard or barn. Sparks flared amongst the sleeping apple trees. Once, twice, Ess’yr struck glimmers of fire from a flint. One must have taken, for she delicately raised the little bundle of kindling in her cupped hands and blew upon it. In moments, a tiny flame was born. Orisian could see her face then; see a faint line of firelight reflected on her hair. He smiled.

There were footsteps in the passageway outside. Taim Narran was calling for him. Orisian turned away from the window, feeling as he did so suddenly and terribly sad.

‘You wanted to be informed, sire, if the prisoner was saying anything of interest,’ Taim said when Orisian opened the door.

‘Wait a moment while I get a cloak,’ Orisian murmured.

‘I can tell you what he’s saying. If you would prefer to stay here. There is no need …’

‘Do you think it’s too cold for me outside?’ Orisian asked gently as he settled the cloak about his shoulders. ‘Or that I should not see what happens to prisoners in Ive?’

His Captain made no reply.

‘It’s all right, Taim. Whatever was fragile in me was broken long ago. Lead the way.’

II

The room clenched about him like a tight, hot fist. The heat of half a dozen small braziers was gathered by the rock walls, concentrated, blasted back to make the air thick and suffocating. Within a couple of paces Orisian could feel sweat on his forehead. The orange-red heart of each brazier almost seemed to pulse, so intense was the light and heat being hammered out into the cramped space.

The prisoner was tied to the far wall. His arms were stretched up and apart, bound to iron rings set in the stonework. He had slumped down and his own weight had tautened the muscles in his arms and shoulders. He was naked to the waist, his skin overlaid with a film of sweat. Fresh burns pockmarked his chest, red and brown and raw. The man who had inflicted them was standing to one side, stocky, black-bearded. Orisian vaguely recognised him: he had seen him around the barracks once or twice before. One of the town’s Guard. He wore massive leather gloves, and was watching the hilt of a knife sunk into the brazier. He did not even look up when Orisian and the others entered. There was no room in his attention for anything save that knife, buried in the fire, collecting into its metal the savage heat.

One of the several Kilkry warriors gathered there grasped the prisoner’s hair and lifted his head up. His nose was broken and bent. The blood from it might be what crusted the man’s lips, or his mouth might be shattered as well. Orisian winced momentarily at the sight of him. His own jaw and cheek gave a single aching beat, remembering the ruin visited upon them by the haft of a Kyrinin spear. A thread of mixed saliva and blood hung from the man’s chin. Some remembered instinct made Orisian want to turn away. It was the stirring of the person he no longer quite was. It lacked conviction. He chose to look.

‘Speak,’ someone hissed at the broken Black Roader. ‘Let’s hear your poison again.’

Orisian glanced at Taim. His Captain’s face was fixed and grim. Was there the slightest disapproving tightening around his eyes? A faint disgusted curl at the edge of his mouth? Orisian could not be sure. Perhaps he wanted to see those things there, and allowed that desire to imagine them for him. He wanted to find in Taim some disgust and revulsion that he could borrow for himself; to be as horrified by this sight as he would have been just a few weeks ago.

The man’s voice was stronger than Orisian would have expected. Uneven but clear despite the distortion of his heavy northern accent.

‘You’re finished. Your time’s done. It’s his time now. The Black Road’s time. The Kall. He’ll cast you all down into ruin and wreck, and lead us to the mastery of the world, and open the path for the Gods to return.’

‘Who will?’ the interrogator demanded, shaking the man’s head so violently he pulled a fistful of hair from his scalp. He took hold again and twisted the prisoner’s face toward Orisian. Orisian watched those battered lips stretching into a snarling smile.

‘The halfbreed. The Fisherwoman’s heir. Fate works through him.’

‘His name?’ Orisian asked quietly.

‘Not to be named. The na’kyrim. In Kan Avor. That is enough.’

‘Aeglyss?’ Orisian demanded, but the prisoner only grinned at him through blood. There was a madness in his eyes. A sort of mad joy, Orisian thought, a delight at the descent of the world into savagery.

‘Keep him alive,’ Orisian said, and left the choking heat of that deep chamber without another word. He climbed up the steps and out into the bitter night air. Tiny flecks of snow were darting down out of the darkness, dancing in the cauldron of the courtyard. He felt them falling on his cheeks and lips: points of numbing cold.

‘It’s as you thought,’ Taim said behind him. ‘As your na’kyrim have been saying. Whether in his own right, or as someone else’s tool, the halfbreed’s worked his way to the heart of things.’

Orisian looked up into the black sky, blinking against the grainy snow.

‘They’re not my na’kyrim,’ he said.

 

In Eshenna’s half-human eyes, Orisian saw very human things: exhaustion and a haunted, hunted unease. When first he met this na’kyrim in Highfast, he had found her determined, firm. That vigour was gone, or at least buried by the debris of what she had seen since then.

‘Where’s Yvane?’ Orisian asked her.

‘With K’rina.’ She spoke that name with obvious reluctance. Another of the petty, cruel tricks the world was working upon its inhabitants in these troubled times: it had been Eshenna who insisted most determinedly that K’rina might be a weapon in the struggle against Aeglyss, yet the cost of finding her, and her condition when they did, had shaken Eshenna to her core. She had not been as well prepared as she imagined for what lay outside the walls of Highfast.

Orisian pitied her, but it was a detached kind of pity. Few had been ready for what had happened since Winterbirth. Many suffered. More than most, Eshenna had at least made some kind of choice in the path her life had taken in recent weeks.

That path had led here, to a simple, bare house just outside Ive’s Guard compound. Erval, the town’s Captain – and a good man as far as Orisian could tell, though as deeply unsettled as anyone by the course of recent events – had made it available to Eshenna and Yvane without hesitation or demur. Judging by its dilapidated and damp state, Orisian suspected it had been empty for some time. Still, it served the purpose asked of it now: a place for the na’kyrim to shelter away from prying eyes, small enough that it could easily be watched over by the men Taim Narran had set to the task. Whether the more important role of those guards was to ensure no misguided townspeople caused trouble for Yvane and Eshenna, or to protect those townspeople from K’rina if necessary, Orisian did not know. No one did.

‘K’rina still will not come inside?’ he asked Eshenna.

She shook her head. ‘If we try to move her from the goat shed, she thrashes about. Howls.’

‘But does not speak.’

‘No. She never speaks.’

‘You don’t look well,’ Orisian murmured.

Eshenna gave a short, bitter laugh. She was feeding wood to a little fire. As she bent, and sparkling embers swirled up in front of her face, the gauntness of her features was apparent. Since leaving Highfast, she had thinned and her skin had grown paler, almost as if the Kyrinin half of her mixed heritage was asserting itself.

‘If there’s anything I – anyone – can do for you, tell me,’ Orisian said. ‘I’ll help if I can.’

‘I know,’ Eshenna sighed. She held a stubby chunk of wood in her hand, gazing down at it, running her long fingers over its flaking bark. ‘I need sleep. And I need the voices, and the storms, in the Shared to quieten. You can’t do that, can you?’

‘No. I can’t.’

Eshenna threw the log into the flames and crossed her arms, staring blankly into the heart of the fire.

‘Yvane will be a while yet. She spends a lot of time with K’rina.’

Orisian nodded silently and left the na’kyrim to her dark contemplations.

Behind the run-down house, stone walls enclosed a long, thin yard. Half of it was given over to dark, bare soil, which the inhabitants must once have cultivated. Snow was speckling the earth now. The rest was cobbled, running down a gentle slope to a ramshackle shed against the furthest wall. Orisian walked towards it, brushing snow from his hair as he went. He could hear the low voices of two of Taim’s guards coming from beyond the wall and the rumble of the slowly rising wind as it blustered about Ive’s roofs, but there was no sound from within the shed.

He pulled the door open and peered in. The stink of goats assailed him. The animals were long gone. The only light within came from a single tallow candle Yvane must have brought with her. K’rina was curled in the corner of the shed, on old straw, facing the wall. Yvane knelt beside her, sitting back on her heels. Neither of the na’kyrim stirred at Orisian’s arrival. He stepped inside.

‘No change?’

‘No,’ said Yvane without looking round.

‘You shouldn’t be in here alone,’ Orisian said. ‘What if she attacked you? What if she tried to escape again?’

Yvane rose to her feet. There was just a hint of stiffness, the slightest unsteadiness, in the movement. Perhaps her years weighed a little more heavily on her now. Perhaps sleepless nights were taking their toll on her, as they did on so many others.

‘She’s not some wild animal,’ Yvane said softly. ‘Nor a prisoner, as far as I recall.’

‘Maybe not, but we’ve paid a high price to bring her here. If we lose her, that price was for nothing. She’s tried to slip away once already.’

Yvane hunched forward a little to brush straw and dirt from her hide dress. She gave the task more attention than it merited.

‘What?’ asked Orisian.

‘You’re wounded,’ the na’kyrim muttered.

Orisian put a hand to the side of his face, tracing the great welt that ran up his cheek, feeling the yielding gap left by lost teeth. That was not what she meant, though. He knew the shape of her concerns, and it had nothing to do with the punishment his body had taken.

‘Some wounds grow thick scars,’ she said. ‘Enough wounds, enough scars, and you can hardly recognise the one who bears them. Ends up being someone completely different.’

Orisian grimaced and stared down at the flagstone floor. He did not want to hear this. It achieved nothing, ploughing over and over the same small field of Yvane’s preoccupations.

‘When I first met you …’ the na’kyrim began.

‘When you first met me, all of this had only just started. I hadn’t seen then what I’ve seen now.’

Yvane sniffed and rubbed at her nose with the back of a grubby finger.

‘None of us had, I don’t suppose,’ she said. ‘I could see why Inurian had taken to you, back then. I could see a little something of what he must have seen in you. He always prized gentleness, thoughtfulness. Compassion.’

‘There are other things I need – we need – more now.’

‘Are there? You think Inurian would agree, if he was still here? You think he would find you as worthy of his affection now as he did …’

‘Don’t,’ Orisian snapped. He glared at her, and met those impassive, piercing eyes with a resilience he would once have thought impossible. He had much deeper reserves of anger to draw upon now, and it could armour him against even Yvane’s fierce gaze.

She smiled, a gesture that started sad and became something much darker and colder before it faded away. She looked down at K’rina.

‘None of us had any idea how far all of this would go,’ she muttered. ‘Except perhaps Inurian. He looked into Aeglyss’ heart back then and saw the poison in it.’

‘We’ve got a prisoner. He talks of Aeglyss as a leader. A ruler, almost, in Kan Avor. As if they all follow him now.’

‘Oh?’ Yvane sounded barely interested.

‘It makes K’rina more important.’

‘As what? A club to beat Aeglyss with?’

‘Or a key in a lock,’ Orisian said, exasperated. ‘I don’t know. Something. It was you and Eshenna who told me she mattered in the first place. I didn’t want to find her like this. None of us did. But now we know the White Owls – Aeglyss – were seeking her. We can see that something, whatever it is, has been done to her. She’s important. Don’t blame me for wanting to understand how, and why. For wanting to know that there was a reason for my warriors to die finding her.’

Yvane held out a placatory hand. ‘We’ll disturb her,’ she said, with a glance down at the prostrate woman in the straw. She bent and picked up the little candle. The flame died between her finger and thumb. For a moment there was only darkness and the wind rattling the roof shingles. ‘Let’s go back to the house,’ Yvane said.

They barred the door of the shed behind them.

‘I need to know, Yvane,’ Orisian said as they walked. ‘We all do. There’s no time left to be gentle, or cautious. Things are falling apart. If K’rina is to mean anything …’

‘Mean anything?’ Yvane snapped, coming to a sudden halt and jabbing Orisian in the chest. ‘She means as much as I do. Or you. That is precisely what she means. Or do you think a mere halfbreed must work harder than that to have meaning?’

‘You know that’s not—’ Orisian protested.

‘Something’s been done to her,’ Yvane rushed on, uninterested in anything he might have to say. ‘That’s what you said. Well, she didn’t do it to herself. The Anain have scraped out her mind, as best we can tell. As if she was nothing, as if whatever thoughts and feelings were in there before mattered not at all. She’s a victim in all of this, as surely as anyone is. As surely as Inurian was, or Cerys or any of the others at Highfast.’

She hung her head. The two of them stood there in the dark yard, the wind rumbling overhead.

‘Nevertheless,’ murmured Orisian.

‘Nevertheless,’ said Yvane dully. ‘There’s always a nevertheless. But not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to try to sleep.’ She turned and walked away from him, towards the pale flame of a candle burning in the window of the house.

 

Orisian stalked back to his bedchamber with a familiar, imprecise anger churning in him. It was always there, always ready to fill any spaces in his thoughts if given the chance. Yvane would say it was the wake Aeglyss left as he moved through the Shared, discolouring everything – every mind – it washed up against. Orisian did not know. It felt like his own thing, crafted from his own experience, but he did not doubt that such a sense might be deceptive. It hardly mattered. It was there, in his heart and his mind, and he must deal with it, whatever its source.

Before taking to his bed he looked down on the orchard once more. The fire was still burning, a little beacon beneath the creaking and swaying apple trees. There was no sign of Ess’yr and Varryn. They had probably retired to the shelters they had made for themselves.

He laid himself out on the mattress and closed his eyes. He no longer expected any night to bring easy rest, for they were always full of frightening dreams and sudden wakings. Still, he could hope.

 
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