More info about "Caddoran"
a Mushroom eBooks sampler
Copyright © 1998, Roger Taylor
Roger Taylor has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.
First published in United Kingdom in 1998 by Headline Book Publishing.
This Edition published in 2003 by Mushroom eBooks,
an imprint of Mushroom Publishing,
Bath, BA1 4EB, United Kingdom
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This is a sampler of Caddoran by Roger Taylor. If you enjoy reading these sample chapters and would like to read the rest, you can buy the complete Mushroom eBook edition from the usual bookshops online, or find more details at www.mushroom-ebooks.com.
Fantasy Books by Roger Taylor
Mist folded around the five figures on the beach, reducing their world to a grey, shifting dome, and deadening everything around them. Even if they had not been afraid of discovery, it would have made them lower their voices.
Hyrald massaged his left arm with his right hand, to stave off the chilly dampness that was threatening to make him shiver. His sister moved to his side and voiced the inevitable question.
‘Where are we?’
Hyrald would have liked to reply, ‘Just another damned lake. We’ll find shelter for the night and move around it in the morning,’ but every sense told him otherwise.
‘It’s the sea, Adren,’ he said flatly.
Standing only a few paces away, Thyrn, slight and restless, and his uncle, Nordath, both turned to him as they caught the reply. The third man, Rhavvan, taller and heavier than the others, presumably also heard but made no response. He continued staring intently into the mist.
‘What?’ Thyrn demanded querulously.
‘The sea,’ Hyrald confirmed, more relaxed now that the word had been spoken, though he glanced uneasily at Rhavvan, who had moved further away and now stood vague and insubstantial at the shadowy limit of his vision.
Thyrn looked around into the greyness as if for an ally. ‘The sea! It can’t be. The sea’s to the east, not north. Are you sure? How do you know? Gods, we’ll be trapped if we can’t move on . . .’
‘Sniff the air.’ Hyrald cut across the outburst almost viciously. He was in no mood to debate the obvious and Thyrn’s nervous disposition had to be firmly handled if it was not to run out of control. ‘That’s salt. I remember it well enough now. Be quiet.’ He raised a hand to emphasize the order.
Thyrn blew out a steaming breath into the mist and stamped a foot irritably. Water welled up around his boot. Hyrald caught his eye and he fell still.
Into the ensuing silence came the sound that Hyrald was listening for. A soft, distant lapping. He motioned the group forward and soon they were standing at the water’s edge. It glistened, oily smooth in the dull light, and quite still save for an occasional slow welling like the sleeping breath of a great animal. A thin foam-specked rim slithered slightly towards them, then retreated.
‘This is the sea?’ Thyrn whispered, curious now, as well as frightened. ‘I always thought it would be noisy – violent – great waves crashing in. Like in the old tales – and pictures.’ He waved his arms in imitation, then crouched down and tentatively dipped a finger into the water. Hyrald watched him – Thyrn could bring an almost uncanny intensity to the most trivial of actions – and it was rarely possible to predict what he would do next. He sniffed his damp finger then, without hesitation, sucked it noisily. His face wrinkled in distaste and he spat drily and wiped his hand across his mouth.
‘I just told you it was salt,’ Hyrald said. Almost in spite of himself, and as had proved the case before, he felt his irritation turning into a mixture of compassion and amusement at Thyrn’s naïve curiosity. ‘It’s the sea all right. I’ve only seen it once, and that briefly and a long time ago – before Adren here was born – but that smell’s unmistakable. Takes me right back.’ He pulled a wry face as he pushed the old memories away. They were too much of a burden now, too full of different times. ‘I suppose it’s quiet because there’s no wind, or . . .’
The voice was soft, but commanding. It was Rhavvan’s. He was abruptly among them, urging them forwards, his arms spread as if to gather them all together. There was the same purposefulness in his moving as previously there had been in his motionless watching. It allowed no pause. Thyrn staggered to his feet fearfully, but made no sound. Hyrald and Adren took his arms to steady him, but he needed little support and was almost immediately half walking, half trotting ahead of them, his uncle following close behind him.
Hyrald looked significantly at Rhavvan serving as rearguard. He was answered with a brief hand mime that told him, ‘Riders,’ and fingers held up which said, ‘Two, maybe three.’
Hyrald nodded and drew his sword nervously. Both circumstances and his personal inclination led him towards evasion in preference to confrontation, but with no idea where they were or where they were going, the latter was very probable. Noting her brother’s action, Adren drew her sword also. They strode on in silence, Rhavvan occasionally inclining his head to catch any sounds behind them. Hyrald took solace from the fact that though they were lost, so too were their pursuers, and the mist hid everyone alike. Then the soft padding of his feet intruded to dispel this faint comfort and he looked down – mist would not hide the footprints they were leaving.
Even as the realization impinged on him, Rhavvan grimaced and hissed out, ‘Stand, they’re on us!’
Nordath moved in front of Thyrn protectively, his sword uneasily extended. Thyrn crouched low behind him. In front of them in turn, Hyrald and Adren stood either side of Rhavvan. Both kept a good distance away from him however, noting that he was hefting his long staff in preference to his sword, and to be hit accidentally by that was only marginally less damaging than being hit on purpose!
Then Rhavvan was crouching low and signalling them to do the same.
Struggling to control his breathing, Hyrald screwed up his eyes and peered into the shifting greyness. More thoughts that he did not want leaked into his mind. What was he doing here? What madness was abroad that would make Vashnar proclaim the Death Cry against them, turning him, his sister and Rhavvan from hunters into hunted? He tightened his grip on the sword and gritted his teeth to dispel the questions; there were no answers to be had here – they were only a hindrance. He must focus completely on what was happening.
Within a heartbeat of this resolve, a shapeless movement in the mist ahead of him formed itself into a rider.
Perhaps they’re not after us. Perhaps they’re fishermen or something. Not everyone in the country’s searching for us – surely? It was an unexpected and unsettling thought, and it made Hyrald falter as he braced himself. Then it and all doubts were gone, for as the rider drew nearer he saw the drawn sword. And he recognized the uniform of the Arvenshelm Wardens.
This was no foolish villager looking for easy money. Vashnar was sending his own men the length of the country against them! And they had drawn swords without challenge.
The implications almost unmanned Hyrald. He began to tremble violently, and his mind was filled with visions of throwing down his own sword and begging for mercy, or alternatively, dashing off into the mist and abandoning everything.
Rhavvan’s voice cut through his fear. ‘Yours, Hyrald! Left side!’
At the same time he became aware of Rhavvan surging upwards, his long staff lunging towards the rider’s head. The Death Cry was the Death Cry – no choices – and as though drawn after him, like an inadequate shadow, Hyrald too was on his feet and swinging a wild double-handed blow at the figure now above him, sword raised. The rider gave a brief cry of alarm and instinctively straightened up to avoid Rhavvan’s staff, but the speed of his horse and that of Rhavvan’s attack gave him little chance; Hyrald knew that the man’s neck had been broken even as the flat of his own sword struck him across the chest. The impact knocked Hyrald backwards and he tripped, nearly losing the sword. The corpse fell clear of him but he rolled over several times nevertheless, desperate to be away from it.
As he staggered to his feet he was aware of violent action to his left as Adren and Rhavvan encountered a second rider, but before he could move to help them a third rider was emerging from the mist. He saw that it was another Warden but half in stark panic and half in a sudden, raging anger, he somehow jumped aside from the galloping horse and blindly thrust out his sword.
This time, he did lose it, though he was dragged some way before it was torn from him. As he tumbled on to all fours, he saw the rider sliding gracefully out of his saddle. Hyrald hesitated for a moment then stood up, reaching for a long knife in his belt. But the rider dropped on to his knees and slowly fell forwards. His fall was halted momentarily as the sword, embedded in his chest, struck the sand, then he tumbled onto his side.
A noise behind Hyrald made him turn sharply, his knife extended in front of him and swinging from side to side in a dangerous arc.
It was Rhavvan, crouching low, and edging towards him sideways, his staff extended and sweeping like Hyrald’s knife.
Adren, some way from them and hazy in the mist, was crouching similarly. Nordath and Thyrn seemed not to have moved.
How long had that taken? Hyrald thought, irrelevantly. Scarcely seconds, he presumed – and almost certainly two men were dead – suddenly cold now beyond anything this mist could bring. But time in combat was not measured thus. The moments just gone when he had seen Thyrn taste the seawater and pushed aside his own unwanted childhood memories were now the dim past.
‘Are you all right?’
Rhavvan had to ask the question twice before Hyrald heard it. ‘Yes, yes,’ he nodded eventually. He was shivering.
For another strange passage of time, the five remained silent and still, partly uncertain what to do, partly watching and listening for any further attack. Then a groan rose into the damp air, drawing them all back to the present. It was the rider that Rhavvan and Adren had dealt with. Rhavvan slowly straightened and walked over to him.
‘I can’t hear anyone else,’ he said. ‘And they’d be on us by now if there were others nearby. Get their horses, Adren. Nordath, see what they’ve got in the way of supplies.’ He glanced at Hyrald and then at the third fallen rider. ‘You go and get your sword back.’ An unsteadiness in his voice marred the briskness he was affecting.
Knife poised and teeth bared uneasily, Hyrald lifted the cloak which had draped itself over the fallen rider’s head. He was relieved to see a heavily bearded and lined face. He was far from certain how he would have responded had he found himself looking into a face he knew, or that of some fresh-faced young recruit. Gingerly, he felt about the man’s throat for a pulse, though he knew he would find nothing. There was a stillness about the body that he recognized well enough.
More distressing was the retrieval of his sword. It had jammed between the man’s ribs, and freeing it involved a deal of brute force, causing the corpse to twitch disturbingly and to emit strange noises. When he finally succeeded in wrenching it free, he pushed it three times into the soft sand to clean it, then skimmed it noisily through the silent sea.
‘Wardens’, he said needlessly as he joined Rhavvan, kneeling by the second downed rider. ‘Vashnar’s.’ Rhavvan nodded but held up a hand for silence.
‘How many more of you are there?’ he asked the rider.
Hyrald knelt beside him. This time the victim was a young man, his face distorted by pain and fear, but again Hyrald was relieved not to recognize him. Not that it gave him much consolation. Stranger or no, he was still a Warden, and they were all a long way from Arvenshelm. His earlier questions about what Vashnar was doing returned in full force.
‘How many more of you are there?’ Rhavvan was asking again.
‘You’ve killed me,’ the rider said through clenched teeth. ‘I’m dying.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Rhavvan said. ‘You’ve been lucky. Especially drawing on us without a challenge. Your two companions are dead but all you’ve got, as far as I can tell, is a broken shoulder.’
Fear returned to the rider’s face, then he made a lunge towards a knife in his belt. The attempt ended in his crying out in pain and collapsing back.
‘I did tell you you’d broken your shoulder,’ Rhavvan said, shaking his head. ‘But then I suppose if you’d been the kind of person to listen to advice, you’d never have ended up in the Wardens, would you?’
With a deft movement he produced his own knife and brandished it significantly in the man’s face. Then, none too gently, he heaved him into a sitting position, cut a length from his surcoat, bound the injured arm across his chest, and dragged him to his feet. It was swiftly done, but it was a noisy procedure which made Hyrald and the others wince openly and left the young man gasping with pain and leaning heavily on Rhavvan.
‘Listen to me,’ the big man said forcefully.
He had to say it twice more before the rider looked at him, eyes ill-focused.
‘How many are in your company? Where are they?’
The rider’s face became sullen.
Rhavvan gave up. ‘All right. We can’t help you further. Go back along your tracks. You’ll find help eventually.’
‘We can’t leave him,’ Nordath objected. ‘He can hardly stand, let alone walk.’
‘What the hell else can we do with him?’ Rhavvan retorted.
Nordath stammered. ‘I . . . I don’t know, but we haven’t seen even a farmhouse for two days and if there were only these three, he’ll die of exposure . . . or starvation, or something.’
‘So might we all, before we’re through,’ Rhavvan snapped. He pressed the palm of his hand against his forehead and voiced the question that kept returning to Hyrald. ‘What in the name of all that’s sane is happening?’ He flicked a thumb towards Thyrn. We start off chasing this errant Caddoran. “A discreet matter,” Vashnar tells us – Warden to Warden. No Cry to be called – no public fuss. Then, no sooner do we find him than the Death Cry’s proclaimed against us. I didn’t even know it was still legal. And against all of us! It’s madness. What are we doing wandering about in a part of the country where no one lives, no idea where we are, where we’re going . . .’
‘We’re going north, Rhavvan.’ It was Thyrn, anxious and earnest. ‘There are other countries up there, and a great city – so big that . . . ’
Rhavvan turned to him angrily, making him flinch and step backwards. The big man pointed upwards. ‘There’s a moon up there, boy, but it doesn’t mean we can get to it. City or no city, it may have escaped your notice but we’ve just run into the sea where we didn’t expect to find it. And now we’ve got Wardens – Wardens, no less – our own people, at our backs.’
Hyrald laid a quietening hand on his arm.
Rhavvan paused, then growling to himself and shaking off the hand, he turned away from Thyrn. ‘I know, I know,’ he said to Hyrald. ‘Not his fault. No one’s fault – except Vashnar’s. But . . .’
‘Come on,’ Hyrald said. ‘Let’s move. We haven’t the time for debate. We’ve got to keep moving. We’ll have to head west along the coast and see where we come to. At least anyone following will be as lost as we are.’ He looked at the young Warden still leaning on Rhavvan. ‘You’ve got a choice. Stay here, or come with us. If we come across a village we’ll leave you there.’
The Warden, holding his bound arm stiffly and swaying slightly, returned his gaze. ‘Can I have my horse?’ he asked.
Hyrald extended his arm to stop Rhavvan’s advance. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, lad. Just take this message back to the others. We don’t know what’s going on. Whatever Thyrn’s done, it probably needs no more than disciplining by the Caddoran Congress, and the rest of us have done nothing. Vashnar had no right to proclaim even the Cry against us, let alone the Death Cry – we’re here at his asking.’ He leaned forward. We’ve had no Hearing – nothing.’
‘I don’t know anything about that,’ the Warden said, shifting uncomfortably.
‘Well, you do now.’
The young man met his gaze awkwardly. Hyrald looked at him intently, then at the bodies of the two other men lying nearby. It was not difficult to see what had happened once the Death Cry had been proclaimed. ‘Barrack room talk, eh? Told you it would be easy money, did they? Or put you in well with Vashnar?’ There was no reply. ‘Well, you’re a lifetime wiser than you were a few minutes ago. As are your friends. Ask more questions in future.’ He glanced at his companions. ‘We’ll give you a couple of days’ food and water – that’s the best we can do. Head back the way you came – you won’t enjoy it but you should make it. And anyone you meet on the way, tell them what I’ve said. The more people who’ve heard about it, the safer you’ll be when you get back to Arvenshelm – whatever’s going on there.’ An unexpected thought came to him. ‘And tell them too, that as things are, we’ve no choice but to treat anyone who tries to stop us as mortal enemies, but one day, somehow, we’ll be back for a Hearing – for justice. Do you understand?’
A soft cry from Thyrn and a gasp from Rhavvan made the Warden start before he could reply. Rhavvan stepped forward, his staff poised defensively as a strange swaying shape emerged uneasily from the mist.
Krim glowered bleary-eyed at the grimy window through which the spring sunlight was filtering into the murky hall. His hand clutched fitfully at a shabby remnant of what had once been an ornately embroidered curtain but withdrew at the first hint of a snowfall of ancient dust. The curtain, swaying up to the gloomy ceiling, was attached to a mechanism that had ceased to function shortly after Krim had arrived to take up his late father’s duties many years ago. It was one of several things that had been a constant source of strain between Krim and Ector – the Moot Palace’s Most Noble Artisan – a man of similar vintage and disposition whose charge it was to maintain the fabric of the rambling cluster of buildings that constituted the Moot Palace.
Krim curled his lip and turned away from the window to look to the protection of his own charges from the blanching touch of the sun. Tall, thin, and alarmingly straight, he moved like a large and very stiff insect. So much so that even those who knew him, caught unawares, would tend to flinch in anticipation of the creaking of joints that might reasonably be expected from such a gait. But Krim moved silently. Indeed, but for the occasional hacking cough – not dissimilar to that of a gagging dog, though explosively short and very loud – everything about Krim was silent. It was a necessary part of his office.
For Krim was the Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer to the Striker of the Moot, the oldest and most dignified of the clutch of ancient offices that served the will and the needs of Arvenstaat’s Great Moot and which, tradition had it, were essential to its continuance. His formal title was actually Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer and Assassin to the Striker of the Moot, though the word Assassin, being a reminder of the distant bloody origins of the Moot, had long since been dropped from routine usage. Indeed, in this more enlightened age, moves were afoot to have all reference to it removed even from the written records of the Moot.
Krim’s attitude to such proposals, however softly worded, could best be described as venomous. The Moot was tradition. That was the very foundation of his life and work, as it had been for his father before him and his father, and all his forebears back through many generations. Change was anathema. To change was to destroy. The Moot was the pulsing heart of Arvenstaat and to deviate from its ancient ways was thus to threaten the stability of the entire state and all its peoples. Indeed, such troubles as Arvenstaat now suffered from, and, insofar as he understood any of them, could all, in Krim’s estimation, be directly attributed to the embracing of needless change. With dark silence, Krim quietly smothered all fledgling hints of ingenuity and originality whenever he could. His very presence at the councils of the Moot Officers dulled the bright eye and crushed the eager green shoot.
But while such matters underscored his life, it was a more pressing call that now occupied him. Moving only his head, he scanned the objects of his responsibility, seeking out those that were being touched by, or in the probable path of, the intrusive sunlight. Not that, to an outside observer, a great deal of sunlight survived passage through the fly-blown window. What might have been direct and brilliant outside was diffuse and hesitant inside. But to Krim’s eyes – eyes that rarely ventured beyond the Moot Palace, and had not been outside its gloomy courtyards in decades – the light glared and, in glaring, menaced his domain: the Striker’s cushions. The Moot’s cushions. His cushions. Cushions designed for and used by all the Strikers that had ever been, each housed in its individual alcove in shelves which towered in serried ranks around the circular tiered floor and rose up the curved and irregularly recessed walls from floor to ceiling. Access to these upper shelves was gained from balconies which, in their turn, were linked by an intricate arrangement of ramping walkways and stairways – straight stairways, spiralled stairways and strangely dog-legged stairways, all with uneven steps twisted by age and use and neglect. The whole formed a rambling vertical and horizontal maze. The parts swayed unsteadily when trodden upon and often creaked for no apparent reason.
The cushions were laid out meticulously in accordance with the dictates of Akharim the Great – the first Cushion Bearer and Founding Striker. The original Assassin, it was he who had dispatched the last Dictator, Koron Marab, and he whom Krim had been discreetly named after, in an uncharacteristic spasm of boldness by his father. However, as Krim had foreseen many years before, this Session of the Moot was proving particularly trying, for the strict ordering of the cushions brought those that were now in current use directly into the path of light from the offending window. It left him with a profound dilemma. The cushions belonged where they belonged, as decreed by Akharim. They could not, for example, arbitrarily be moved to those empty and more shaded alcoves intended for the cushions of Strikers yet to come. Even to think of such a thing disturbed Krim deeply. It was not for Moot Officers – or anyone – to question Akharim’s wisdom. Yet to leave the cushions where they were was to see their ornate and colourful embroidery washed and drained by the sunlight with all that that meant to the tenor of the conduct of the Moot’s debates.
Krim, however, knew the history of his office and that it had been peopled from time to time by men of resolution and determination in the face of such difficulties. Secretly, he fancied himself one such and, donning this heroic garb, he had finally acted – an almost unheard-of occurrence in a Moot Officer. With great trepidation and in great secrecy, he had acquired materials and after edging and embroidering them – with an undeniable skill – he had carefully draped them over the assaulted cushions. But the daring had taken its toll and left him ever nervous of discovery – constantly alert to the sound of approaching feet. His spindly frame shuddered throughout its entire length at the thought of some wretched Moot Page barging in on him inopportunely, seeing his subterfuge and recklessly proclaiming it through the corridors of the Palace.
With this in mind he had prepared a written report to the Striker and the Under Striker, expressing his deep regrets at what he had been obliged to do, and pleading the desperate exigencies of the time and the continued negligence of the Palace’s Most Noble Artisan who ‘has been told repeatedly, both verbally and in writing, of the nature and urgency of the problem, and who has consistently declined to effect the necessary repairs’. Accompanying this immaculately written report was a carefully annotated and cross-referenced list of all his pleas to Ector. When not actually tending to his charges, Krim spent much of his time weighing this report and making subtle changes here and there, to ensure that all the nuances of his distress and justification would be properly appreciated.
Occasionally, in his less troubled moments, Krim wove other fantasies – fantasies as elaborate as his embroidery. One of these had him being honoured by the Moot for his devotion to duty and culminated in his impromptu covers becoming part of the Moot’s revered traditions, their use perhaps even being enshrined in an addendum to Akharim’s Treatise.
Today, however, was not such a moment. Today the Striker himself was coming to the Cushion Hall. And coming at Krim’s own request, after he noticed that the cushion beneath the Striker’s feet had become worn and flattened. Krim was twitching. He had left his guilty coverlets on the cushions as long as he dared, but the Striker would be here at any moment and he had no choice but to remove them now, leaving the precious fabrics exposed to the ruthless glare of the sun.
His mouth stiffened into a thin line as he steeled himself to this grim task. It occurred to him in a desperate moment that perhaps he might raise the matter with the Striker directly, but the very thought chilled him. The Striker had no authority to intervene arbitrarily in such matters. He too, was bound by the Moot’s ancient traditions and the Treatise. He would have to judge the Striker’s mood and act accordingly.
A familiar tapping reached him through the muffled air of the hall. Arms and legs flapping he made his way down a stepped aisle and up a narrow stair to the scene of his treachery where, with practised speed, he deftly removed the covers and thrust them into the Bag of his Office which hung by his side.
Scarcely had he finished than three solemn knocks announced the Striker.
Nervously, Krim straightened his Bag of Office, barked out a loud cough, then stretched himself to his full height and moved to open the door.
Striker Bowlott rolled in. A loud rap on the floor with his long cane and an airy gesture sent the two Moot Pages who attended him scuttling forward to lay out their burden of cushions by the Fitting Chair. A further tap dismissed them to wait outside.
Small and stout, Bowlott was typical of the line of Moot Strikers. Pompous and self-opinionated, he fondly mistook his considerable low cunning and nit-picking knowledge of the Moot’s arcane procedures for wisdom.
‘Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer,’ he said, acknowledging Krim’s low and disconcertingly unsteady bow with a mannered nod.
‘Striker Bowlott,’ replied Krim. ‘My apologies for disturbing your busy day with such a matter, but your comfort is the comfort of the Moot and the ease of the State.’
It was a traditional greeting which the Striker acknowledged this time with a limp-handed gesture.
Krim’s lanky arm stretched out, motioning him to the Fitting Chair. This was an exact replica of the Throne of Marab, the ancient chair which stood in the Moot Hall and which had accommodated successive Strikers since its original owner’s demise. Undecorated by so much as even a chamfer or a rounded edge, it was stoutly built and profoundly uncomfortable. Ostensibly this was because Marab was a battle-hardened warrior unaffected by such niceties, but the reality was that he hardly ever sat on it. In his time, the assembly which was to become the Moot was a token representation of the people which Marab, nothing if not shrewd and perceptive, had invented so that he would have plenty of scapegoats ready to blame whenever anything went wrong. On the rare occasions when he actually summoned the assembly, he would drape an arm over the back of the chair and, with his other hand on his sword hilt, tell the people’s representatives what was needed of them. Then he would leave. Once, when he had actually sat in it, Akharim, young, ambitious, and looking to ingratiate himself, had obsequiously offered him his own cushion; Marab had sneered and caustically blessed him with the title of Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer. In so doing, and untypically, he completely underestimated both Akharim’s dark and vengeful nature, and his almost inhuman patience. As did several other members of the assembly who chose subsequently to make Akharim the butt of their humour because of this humiliation.
After Marab’s death – an event much appreciated by the people – Akharim had retained the throne and most of the power that went with it, while ostentatiously rejecting the actual title of Dictator. Subsequently he had taken delight in enshrining the post of Cushion Bearer in his elaborate and obsessive Treatise on the Procedures for the Proper Ordering of the Moot.
Striker Bowlott heaved himself into the chair and Krim immediately began the ritual of positioning and adjusting the cushions which the Pages had brought. During this, Bowlott let out a noisy sigh. Krim noted the sound. It was good. The Striker was in a confiding mood. He must stay alert, ready to seize any opportunity that might present itself to bring his problem to the Striker’s notice. Like most of the Moot Senators, Bowlott’s dominant concern was with his own dignity or, more correctly, with the appearance of dignity, and thus almost his entire life was spent hiding behind a screen of empty words and gestures. Unaware that he was exactly the same, it was one of Krim’s secret conceits that he could see through such, to the real man lurking within, and thereby manipulate him. As a result, he despised most of the Moot Senators, and Striker Bowlott in particular, as vain self-seekers and unworthy of the offices that they held. In this, he was at one with most of the population of Arvenstaat, even those who bothered to participate in the four-yearly Acclamations – fewer and fewer with each session of the Moot and now only about one out of every three eligible electors.
However, illogical though it was that the people should willingly accept such folly in high places, the Moot Senators did exercise power over the land, albeit not as much as they imagined, and the Striker, in his privileged position as an ostensibly independent arbiter, exercised power over the Senators. And Krim in his turn, saw himself as exercising influence, if not power, over the Striker. Not that he involved himself in the squabbling of the innumerable and shifting factions that comprised the Moot. Like Striker Bowlott, he understood that while the Senators indulged in this, they would be less likely to turn their attention to anything else. Krim used his perceived power exclusively to enhance the esteem in which the office of Cushion Bearer should be held and, by the same token, to undermine the positions of his fellow officers, particularly the Most Noble Artisan.
As was his habit, he stood back and cast a professional eye over the seated Striker. Bowlott’s mean little eyes were as peevish as ever and his down-turned mouth had a particularly self-pitying look. While in genuine awe of the office, Krim really couldn’t stand the man. Perhaps it was because he was already agitated by concern about the destruction of his cushions by the intruding sunlight, but Krim felt something else stirring within him. His gaze drifted away from the sour spectacle in the chair to a cushion that lay on a shelf beneath the chair. This was a special cushion, the Blue Cushion. As with all the other cushions, one such was made for each new Striker. It was fashioned after the one with which Akharim had smothered Marab and was used ceremonially to menace each new Striker on his selection by the Shout of the Moot.
The increasingly unspoken portion of his title came to Krim so unexpectedly and with such force that it made him start. He disguised the movement by returning to his inspection of the Striker with a vague wave of his hands. However, this did not prevent a small flood of other thoughts bubbling out in the wake of the word.
What an odious little wretch Bowlott was. What a pity the title of Assassin was purely formal. Right now, he could just . . .
To his horror, Krim found his fingers curling as if to grip the edges of an imaginary Blue Cushion. Other resources rallied to rescue him from this bizarre interior onslaught and two violent high-pitched coughs shook him free.
They shook Striker Bowlott too. His eyes became almost round and he winced conspicuously at having someone else’s affliction so thoughtlessly imposed on his own deep and profound concerns. He sighed again.
Krim, unsteady, but now well away from the edge of the abyss which had so abruptly opened at his feet, clasped his hands and cocked his long thin head on one side to denote that he was in reality deep in concentration.
‘Ah, I see the problem,’ he said, the sound of his own voice further helping him back to normality. ‘I suspected as much when I saw you in the Hall.’
He knelt down and began to move the padded footstool which ensured that the Striker would not suffer the indignity of having his legs swinging freely. Though furniture rather than a cushion, and thus technically falling within the remit of the Moot’s Most Noble Assistant Artisan (Furniture), this stool had been deemed to be the responsibility of the Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer by a ruling of the twenty-third Striker, now enshrined in the Addendum to the Treatise.
‘I did not feel particularly uncomfortable,’ Bowlott said, venturing a little sternness to offset the fact that he quite enjoyed Krim’s fussy ministrations.
Krim became knowing. He straightened up so that, though still kneeling, he was almost face to face with the seated Striker.
‘It is because the conscientiousness of Strikers can lead to such neglect of their personal needs, that my office exists. It is my duty – my honour – to anticipate such matters. Should you actually feel uncomfortable, then I would indeed have failed.’
Bowlott nodded understandingly. Krim tapped the footstool, then drawing out a brass measuring rod from his Bag of Office, he lowered his face so that one cheek almost touched the floor. In this position, he began crawling around the footstool, placing the measuring rod at strategic points and mouthing measurements to himself. With his long limbs protruding, he looked like a great spider.
‘The burdens of office manifest themselves in many ways,’ he said. ‘In this instance, the repeated need for you to stand to gain order in the Hall has reduced the height of the stool, causing subtle signs of strain in your seated posture.’ He pursed his lips and nodded to himself as though approving this diagnosis, though his true assessment was that the damage was due to the fat little oaf paddling his feet in tantrums as he shrieked to make himself heard. Krim had seen it coming for weeks and it was concern for his workmanship rather than the Striker’s comfort that had prompted him to act.
‘I’ll have the stool re-upholstered before the next meeting. Now, if I may . . .’
There followed a routine but thorough check of all the cushions that supported the Striker. This was the pampering that Bowlott enjoyed.
Krim clucked and hummed to himself as he continued his inspection, gently moving the Striker’s head from side to side, and positioning his hands and arms.
‘Good, good, good,’ he concluded eventually.
He stepped back to admire his work, then, satisfied, and noting the Striker’s relaxed, if not drowsy condition, he saw the opening he had been waiting for.
‘But it occurs to me that there’s much to be said for such examinations being made regularly. Say perhaps, every twenty meetings, so that these little faults can be noted and corrected before they manifest themselves.’
Making the inspections a regular event in the calendar of the Moot would bring them within the purview of one of the several Outer Moot Sub-committees dealing with the activities of the Most Noble Artisan and his various assistants, and was, of course, like most matters involving change, out of the question. Krim knew this well enough, but he had made the suggestion purely so that he could drag the Most Noble Artisan into the ensuing conversation and thence discreetly complain about his neglected curtains and the depredations that would be wrought on his charges by the sun if they were not repaired. There were other, more formal ways of doing this but they were time-consuming, spectacularly ineffective even by Moot standards, and liable to bring him into direct conflict with the Most Noble Artisan, all of which enabled him to justify his disregard of them on the grounds of the desperate seriousness of what was going to happen. His action also chimed with another of the more raffish images of himself that he entertained from time to time. This portrayed him as the last great protector of the Moot, striking boldly with an unspecified, but revolutionary action of some kind which would rescue the Moot from an encroaching but equally unspecified danger and bring it back to its time-honoured way of acting in strict accordance with the Treatise.
Not that he was allowing himself such indulgence at the moment. Indeed, he began to feel uneasy about his impetuosity almost as soon as he had spoken. He braced himself for a reproachful diatribe on the subject.
But the remark seemingly went ignored.
‘Fretful times, Krim. Fretful times.’
Krim blinked. Bowlott had called him by name – he must be in a particularly relaxed mood today. This was the moment. He was searching for a suitable response when Bowlott continued. ‘This affair of Vashnar proclaiming the Death Cry against Hyrald and the others is causing great problems. The corridors are ringing with it. It’s going to interfere with the business of the Moot if it continues.’
In spite of himself, Krim gaped. For a moment even his concerns about the sunlight vanished. He had not expected this! Striker Bowlott concerning himself with matters outside Moot business.
Though not a gossip – indeed, he was a sink of silence – Krim listened a great deal and little that happened in the Moot Palace passed him by. He had heard about what Vashnar had done but paid no great heed to it. As a matter outside the Moot it was of little import. Besides, the Wardens were an odd lot – one of the more regrettable legacies of the Moot’s long history. As a body they were perhaps tolerable enough, but as individuals most of them were quite beyond the pale, showing – even revelling in – a complete disregard for the intricacies of the traditions and procedures of the Moot.
And now their antics had brought this about! The Striker driven to discussing them with an Officer of the Moot. Yet, he could not forbear a frisson of excitement as the image of himself as saviour of the Moot stirred contentedly deep within him – the Striker raising this matter with him!
Self-interest quickly reasserted itself. Starting from so unusual a topic, it should not be too difficult to direct the conversation back to Moot matters and thus his duties as Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer. Then it would be a simple matter to introduce the name of the Most Noble Artisan at some point . . .
He must be bold.
‘I’m unfamiliar with the details of the affair, Striker Bowlott. I tend not to listen to Corridor gossip. I have quite pressing problems here in the Cushion Repository.’ He turned and indicated the offending window. ‘The curtains, you see . . .’
‘Your discretion is well-known, Krim, and you’re not alone in being unfamiliar with the details.’ Bowlott tapped his hand on the arm of the chair agitatedly. ‘Everyone’s talking about it, but no one seems to know what’s actually happened.’
This was not what Krim had had in mind. His hand hovered in the general direction of the window for a moment, before he realized that he was going to have to pursue the Striker’s choice of topic until a better opportunity could be found to bring him back to matters of real moment.
‘Surely the Death Cry is not a Moot matter,’ he offered, laying heavy emphasis on the word Moot in an attempt to imply that the Striker should not be concerning himself with it.
‘All things are matters for the Moot, when the Moot so determines,’ Bowlott rebutted sternly, furrowing his brow so that his tiny eyes almost vanished.
Krim, crushed by this proclamation, bowed.
‘And the Moot may yet so determine if this affair continues to be a distracting subject of debate and gossip amongst its members.’ The eyes reappeared and Bowlott pressed back hard against the cushion that supported his head and shoulders. Recovering himself, Krim unfolded to his full height and nimbly made minor adjustments to the cushion.
Bowlott’s face relaxed. ‘Technically, you are correct. The Cry is one of the ancient and fundamental rights of the people, the protection of which is the Moot’s fundamental duty. However, there are times when to protect such a right, it becomes necessary to circumscribe . . . or even curtail it . . .’
Bowlott’s voice faded away as he made this last pronouncement. Krim was genuinely disturbed. He found himself gaping again. Although he had been too long ensconced in the Moot Palace even to envisage clearly what might happen, he remembered enough from his younger days to know that the Cry was a right particularly cherished by the public, and that to interfere with it would be to bring about open defiance of the Moot’s authority. And it was a basic, if unspoken, tenet of both Senators and the Moot’s officers alike that attracting the people’s attention to the activities of the Moot was a bad thing.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Even thinking about the people beyond the Moot unsettled Krim. Now he found himself assailed by the thought that faced with Bowlott’s remark, he should actually do something! But what? His mind began to spiral towards panic. Then he heard himself speaking.
‘I haven’t your deep understanding of such matters, Striker Bowlott. The Treatise. The Addenda. Ancient rights. But perhaps if . . .’ He hesitated. ‘If you were to . . . speak to Commander Vashnar . . . perhaps ask him why he proclaimed the Death Cry against Hyrald and the others . . . why . . .’
His voice faded as Bowlott turned to him, eyes glinting enigmatically out of the depths. Then, abruptly, he was out of the chair and pacing to and fro.
The Fitting Chair stood at the centre of a small circular arena, the lowest point of the Cushion Repository and a focus for the rows of tiered shelves. After traversing this a couple of times, Bowlott, hands clenched behind his back and head bowed, turned into one of the aisles that led up from it. After an unsteady start, Krim strode after him, swaying stiffly, long hands nervously fiddling with the brass measuring rod. What had prompted him to speak as he had? Such recklessness. Was he to be rebuked? Was perhaps the Striker going to make an impromptu inspection of his domain, in search of something that might be wanting, to sharpen further his rebuke? Krim’s hands began to shake. The sun glinted malevolently off the brass rod sending shards of mocking light into the dingiest reaches of the Repository.
The Striker stopped as he reached the top of the steps and turned to look over the arena as though he were facing the fully assembled Moot. Krim, some way below, stared up at him apprehensively.
Looking over Krim’s head at his invisible audience, Bowlott proclaimed, ‘Your skills are a great comfort to us, Venerable and Honoured Cushion Bearer.’
Us, Krim noted ecstatically. Not a rebuke, but a formal Striker’s commendation. A great honour, both to him and his office. He glowed under it, forgetting his recent concerns and quite forgetting his real opinion of the Striker.
Bowlott continued. ‘After long and taxing consideration of the relevant precedents, I have determined what must be done to resolve this matter. I shall speak to Commander Vashnar. I shall ask him why he has done what he has done.’
Krim bowed, flushed with delight. Such wisdom, he thought.
‘It’s a sea monster.’ Thyrn was wide-eyed as he stared at the approaching shape. Hyrald shot him a silencing glance, though there was as much doubt in his eyes as anger, and he half drew his sword as he moved to stand by Rhavvan. One of the horses whinnied. Adren reached up to calm it.
As if in response, the shape stopped its advance and stood swaying slightly.
‘Who are you? What’s been happening here?’
An unsteady voice, a man’s, reached them through the mist.
Rhavvan frowned. ‘Who’re you?’ he echoed back, following it with a more uncertain, ‘What are you?’
The shape wavered, then replied, ‘I’m a shoreman.’
And, abruptly, with two cautious paces forward, it was a man. What had made his mist-shrouded form so strange was a long object he was carrying on his back. His loose-fitting calf-length boots and hooded long coat were patently working clothes of some kind, and they glistened dully as if wet. The coat was unfastened and Hyrald noted immediately that he was unarmed, apart from what was obviously a working knife in a rough string-bound sheath shoved into his belt. The object on his back exaggerated his movements, which in turn demonstrated that he was torn between staying and fleeing. He was also edging sideways slightly, as if he were trying to move around and past them. Whatever else he might be, Hyrald decided, he was no immediate threat. He released his sword and Rhavvan, reaching the same conclusion, lowered his staff.
‘Who are you?’ the newcomer repeated, clearly afraid. ‘What are you doing here?’ Then he saw the bodies of the dead Wardens. He stepped back with a cry, half stumbling as he did so.
Rhavvan moved forward quickly and caught his arm.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I . . . I told you . . . I’m a shoreman. Let me go. Don’t hurt me. I’ve nothing worth having on me. Hardly any fish even, today.’ Then, more urgently, ‘I must get off the shore.’ He tried to shake free of Rhavvan’s grip, but was apparently no match for the big man. He made no attempt to draw his knife with his free hand.
Hyrald intervened. ‘Don’t be afraid. We mean you no harm.’
He nodded to Rhavvan, who reluctantly eased his grip on the man. Hyrald met his frightened but unexpectedly searching gaze. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he repeated earnestly, willing calmness into the man. He pointed to the two bodies. ‘I can explain what’s happened here. There’s been . . . an accident. We’re not going to hurt you. We just want . . .’
A raucous cry from above made all of them start. It was followed by the sound of a wave gently breaking.
With unexpected force the man tore his arm free from Rhavvan. His face was desperate now and it was obvious he was going to flee no matter what the cost. Yet, as Hyrald held his gaze, he hesitated. Hyrald held out a hand to stop Rhavvan seizing him again. The man pointed past the group, into the mist. His mouth worked silently for a moment before he managed to say, ‘For mercy’s sake, man, the tide’s turning. Get off the shore.’
Somewhere, another wave broke, louder this time. The nearby water’s edge suddenly retreated then surged forward with unexpected force, splashing over Hyrald’s boots, tugging at him impatiently. The shoreman began running, deftly evading a lunge from Rhavvan despite his cumbersome burden.
A cold breeze brushed Hyrald’s face and the man’s fear swept over him. ‘We’re lost. Help us,’ he shouted after the retreating form. ‘Please.’
The shoreman stopped and turned, then gestured to them.
‘Get on your horses – follow me, quickly.’ And he was running again.
His urgency infected the others and, without any debate, Rhavvan mounted, dragging the injured and protesting Warden unceremoniously across his saddle, while Hyrald and Nordath took the other two horses with Adren and Thyrn. Another wave lapped around the horses’ hooves. Then they were galloping after the fleeing shoreman. It took them longer to catch him than Hyrald had anticipated – he was running very quickly, despite his burden.
As they rode, it came to Hyrald briefly that he might perhaps be dreaming, following this silent figure through the cold greyness that constantly unfocused his eyes. He could hear nothing above the dull sound of hooves on the soft sand and the disordered clatter of tackle, though somewhere he sensed a growing sound trying to be heard. The runner’s urgency pervaded everything, drawing the three riders after him, like an army, unmanned and turned into a rout by a single sudden deserter.
Then they were moving alongside a wide foaming stream running between sharp, fresh-cut banks in the sand – it too, seemed to be fleeing. Once again Hyrald felt disorientated as the stream was moving faster than they were, giving the impression when he looked down at it that he was not moving, or even moving backwards. He shook his head to rid himself of the disconcerting image.
The shoreman, running along the edge of the stream, was looking at it intently, though occasionally he glanced backwards at the riders. He reached a decision and shouted something.
Hyrald caught the words, ‘Risk it,’ and ‘Follow me,’ then, with bewildering speed, the shoreman had swung his burden from his back, dropped it into the water and stepped into it – it was a narrow boat. He snatched up a paddle hung on the side and gesticulated urgently with it to the riders, before plunging it into the racing water. ‘Quickly,’ he kept shouting.
Hyrald hesitated for a moment, but Rhavvan dashed past him, echoing the shoreman’s cry. Nordath and Hyrald spurred forwards after him.
Though the stream was not very wide, it was deeper than Hyrald had expected and he could feel the fear in his horse as the water dragged at its legs. Then, as the water deepened further, everything was confusion and near-panic, with spray and curses filling the air as the horses struggled to stay upright against the power of the stream and the riders struggled to stay mounted.
When they were halfway across, a sudden surge in the stream made Nordath’s horse lose its footing. It recovered, but as it did, Thyrn lost his grip on Nordath and, with a cry, tumbled into the water. Hyrald watched horrified as, arms thrashing, Thyrn floated for a moment then disappeared beneath the water. The sight of his upturned, terrified face, and the knowledge of his own helplessness, brought the futility and insanity of the past few weeks crashing down on Hyrald. A frantic roar of rage and frustration formed in his throat as the current relentlessly carried Thyrn away.
It was the shoreman. His voice barely penetrated the din of the splashing horses and the turmoil filling Hyrald’s mind, but a blow from his paddle and his urgent gesturing did. Adren shook her brother and shouted the same message directly into his ear. ‘Get us out or we’ll be joining him!’
As Hyrald returned to his own struggle, he was aware of the shoreman, his paddle working desperately, now one side of the boat, now the other, pursuing Thyrn. The boat twisted and turned as he manoeuvred it through the increasingly turbulent stream while he peered into the depths in search of the young man.
Hyrald could see no sign of Thyrn, but the shoreman suddenly spun his boat about and plunged an arm into the water. The boat tilted perilously and for a long moment everything seemed to be motionless and balanced. Then the boat turned and abruptly righted itself and Thyrn was being lifted out of the water. He was flailing his arms frantically, causing the boat to rock violently. Hyrald was about to call out to him to be still when the shoreman gave him a powerful slap across the face, and somehow managed to drag him half across the boat where he pinioned him with a none too gentle boot.
Hyrald’s horse was the last to reach the far side of the stream. When it arrived, Rhavvan and Nordath had already ridden downstream to meet the shoreman and his passenger. Thyrn spilled out on to the sand, coughing and retching, as the boat was driven into the bank at speed. The shoreman vaulted out of it and dragged it from the water. Rhavvan hoisted Thyrn to his feet with the intention of examining him, but the shoreman urgently signalled him to keep moving. By way of emphasis, he himself began running again, slinging the boat across his back as he ran and scarcely breaking stride. Rhavvan hastily thrust Thyrn up behind Nordath with the injunction, ‘Hang on!’ and remounted.
With the riders trotting beside him, the shoreman maintained the same headlong pace for some while until the sand became dry and loose and dotted with occasional clumps of hard green grass.
Finally he stopped and dropped to his knees, breathing heavily. Rhavvan dismounted and lifted the injured Warden down, a little more gently than he had handled him before. The man was unconscious.
‘He’s only passed out,’ Rhavvan said, laying him down. ‘Probably the best thing he could have done in the circumstances.’
Hyrald cast a glance at Thyrn, slithering down from Nordath’s horse. The young man, wringing wet and still coughing, was a dismal sight, but seemingly unhurt so, his own knees shaking, he crouched down unsteadily by the panting shoreman. ‘Thank you,’ he said, resting a hand on his shoulder. ‘We’d no idea where we were, or the danger we were in. It seems to me you risked your own life to save us . . . especially Thyrn here.’
‘We were nearly too late,’ the man replied breathlessly. He was patting his boat as if he wanted to embrace it. ‘But I couldn’t leave you, could I? Whoever you are. Not to the sea.’ He shivered then looked at Hyrald intently. ‘What possessed you to go out that far?’
‘We need to light a fire,’ Nordath interrupted before Hyrald could reply. He indicated Thyrn, hugging himself. ‘He’s sodden. The last thing we need now is him down with a fever.’
Hyrald looked around. ‘I doubt there’s any wood lying about here. See if there’s anything in the Wardens’ packs.’
‘They were Wardens then, those men – those bodies we left. I thought I recognized the uniforms.’ The shoreman looked at the unconscious figure by Rhavvan. ‘He’s one too. What are Wardens doing up here? Who are you people? What’s going on?’
‘There’s a tent – and food, but no wood,’ Nordath called out.
‘This lot won’t burn,’ Rhavvan said, tugging at a clump of the tough grass.
‘Where can we find firewood around here?’ Hyrald asked the shoreman, ignoring his questions. We’ve got to get Thyrn dry and warm. I’ll answer your questions then.’
The shoreman peered into the mist, orientating himself.
‘That way,’ he said eventually, standing up and pointing. With a final pat he swung the boat on to his back. ‘I’ve got a shelter you can use. It’s not much, but there’s wood there, and some food and water. It’s not far.’
As they followed him, leading the horses, the mist began to yellow and then to clear, revealing a blue sky and a late afternoon sun. It was a welcome sight and the warmth it brought began to ease the mood of the group. Hyrald looked back, but though he could hear the distant clamour of the sea, he could see only sand dunes and the dull grey haziness of the mist. Rhavvan scrambled to the top of the highest nearby dune and peered around.
‘I can’t see anyone,’ he reported when he came down. The shoreman watched him warily.
‘There were only three of us.’ It was the young Warden.
‘Back with us, eh?’ Rhavvan said, almost heartily. ‘Slept through all the fun.’
The Warden grimaced in pain as he dropped down from the horse. Rhavvan caught him. ‘You may as well ride,’ he said.
The Warden scowled at him and shook his hand free. ‘Wherever you’re taking me, I’d rather walk.’
‘We’re not taking you anywhere,’ Hyrald said. ‘You’re free to go anytime you want to.’ He pointed to the shoreman. ‘But that man just saved all our lives and now he’s offering us shelter. It’s up to you whether you accept it or not but, if you’re leaving, the least you can do is thank him.’
The Warden looked at him, bewildered, but did not reject Rhavvan’s supporting hand as the group set off again. They continued in silence as the dunes gradually merged into undulating countryside. Swathes of purple and white flowers splashed the short turf, and birdsong filled the air. More and more trees and bushes began to appear and it was in a dip at the edge of a small copse that they came to the shoreman’s shelter.
It was a ramshackle collection of stones, weathered timbers and branches, and plaited grasses. As they approached it, a large dog emerged from the trees. Hackles raised, teeth bared and growling ominously it looked at each of the newcomers in turn as it moved towards them. Its slow, deliberate gait was more menacing than any demented charge.
‘Stay here,’ the shoreman said to the others needlessly. He went forward and, squatting down by the dog, spoke to it softly. None of the watchers could hear what he said, but the dog walked a little way from the shelter and lay down. It did not close its eyes however, but kept them fixed on the new arrivals.
‘Fine dog,’ Adren said nervously.
The shoreman grunted. He seemed a little more at ease now. ‘Don’t go near him, and don’t make any sudden movements,’ he said tersely as he disappeared into the shelter. A moment later he emerged with an armful of wood which he took to a small, stone-lined pit. Within minutes a fire was blazing and Thyrn was enthusiastically drying himself and his clothes while the others sat and examined the contents of the Wardens’ packs.
With the unspoken consent of the others, Rhavvan offered the food to the shoreman, but he took only a loaf which he promptly proceeded to cut up and hand around.
‘I’ve plenty of food,’ he said. ‘And I’m not lost. Your need seems to be greater than mine.’
His earlier questions were implicit in the statement and Hyrald introduced himself and the others. The Warden eventually called himself Oudrence.
‘My name’s Endryk,’ the shoreman said.
Rhavvan frowned slightly. ‘That’s not an Arvens name.’
Endryk looked at him, but said nothing.
‘Well, wherever you hail from, it’s our good fortune you were here today and we’re all indebted to you,’ Hyrald said, breaking the awkward silence. He indicated the food again. ‘Are you sure there’s nothing here that you want?’
‘I’ve everything I need,’ Endryk replied. ‘Except an explanation of what you’re all doing here and what possessed you to go so far out on the shore. It’s a dangerous place for even those who know it well.’ He looked around the seated circle and quickly glanced at his watchful dog. Then he looked directly at Hyrald. ‘I heard you shouting and fighting, before you try to tell me there was an accident out there again. The only reason I came near you was because I’d no choice. That’s the only way off the shore.’
Hyrald gave a guilty shrug. ‘I’m sorry. I was just trying to reassure you once I knew you weren’t another attacker. We were lost. We needed your help – more than we realized, as it turned out.’
‘Tell him everything,’ Nordath said. ‘He’s entitled to know. He could have left us, and without him we’d all be dead now.’ He motioned towards Oudrence. ‘And he needs to know if he’s going back. We’ve got to start getting our side of this business widely known somehow.’
Hyrald nodded. He stared into the fire for a moment, wondering where to begin.
‘It’s difficult,’ he said. ‘We’ve nothing to hide, but we really don’t know what’s happened. Or rather, we don’t know why it’s happened.’
He plunged in. ‘The fact is, the Death Cry’s been proclaimed against all of us. We’re trying to get out of the country – to go north until we can find some way of having it annulled. Oudrence here came with two other Wardens to find us, but . . .’ He grimaced. ‘We killed them when they attacked us.’
Endryk looked at Oudrence, pale and stiff. ‘Why didn’t you kill him, as well?’
It was an unexpectedly cold question. ‘We’re not murderers,’ Hyrald replied angrily. ‘We were attacked, we defended ourselves, we survived. Two died, he didn’t. None of it was of our seeking and what we did – what we’ve done since all this started – we’ll defend before any tribunal.’
Endryk’s face was unreadable. Increasingly, Hyrald noted, he was becoming less and less the frightened man they had encountered on the shore. His response was blunt.
‘You can’t have the Death Cry proclaimed against you and not know what it’s about, still less have the Wardens coming all the way up here to find you. I doubt there’s anyone in Arvenshelm who even knows this place exists.’
‘That’s true enough,’ Rhavvan replied. ‘The only maps we could find of this region are vague to say the least. But what Hyrald’s just told you is true. We were sent to find Thyrn by his employer – Commander Vashnar – our own senior officer. Nothing urgent or particularly unusual – not even the Cry. Just find him and quietly bring him back. Then we’ve no sooner found him than we’re all being hunted. And the Death Cry isn’t something to stand and debate about, is it?’
‘But you’re telling me about it.’
Rhavvan shrugged. ‘As Nordath said, you’re entitled to know. We’ve done nothing wrong and we’ve got to start saying that sooner or later.’
Endryk looked at Thyrn. ‘He doesn’t look particularly dangerous to me. What did you do, young man, to upset your employer so badly?’
Thyrn stared at him blankly.
‘It was a Caddoran matter,’ Nordath answered for him protectively.
Interest flickered briefly in Endryk’s eyes. ‘Caddoran, eh? Heirs to the ancient battle messengers and the great storytellers.’ His face darkened. ‘Reduced to runners for merchants and the Wardens.’
Nordath’s eyes narrowed at the barely disguised sarcasm in his voice. ‘Thyrn’s is a rare gift these days,’ he protested. ‘And being a Caddoran is a respected and useful profession.’
‘I apologize,’ Endryk said, without hesitation. ‘I meant no reproach to the lad. You must forgive me, I’m not used to company.’
He turned to Oudrence. ‘Is all this true, Warden?’
The sudden question made Oudrence start and then flinch as the movement hurt him. ‘I don’t know. There is a Death Cry for them, but I don’t know why. The two I was with said it would put us in well with Commander Vashnar if we found them and brought them back. It seemed like a good idea at the time – the way they explained it.’ He looked round at the others. ‘I didn’t know they were going to attack you like that – not draw on fellow Wardens.’
‘What in mercy’s name did you think they were going to do?’ Rhavvan snapped angrily. ‘Three of you against five? Take us all the way back to Arvenshelm in chains?’
‘I told you, I don’t know,’ Oudrence shouted. ‘I didn’t even know what the Death Cry really meant.’ He was suddenly very young and defensive. ‘I only finished my basic training a few weeks ago. I just did as I was told, followed the others.’
‘They brought him along to do the work, Rhavvan, that’s all,’ Hyrald said dismissively. ‘We’ve done it to new recruits ourselves before now – and had it done to us when we first started.’
‘What . . . what’ll happen to their bodies?’ The question burst out of Oudrence.
‘From this part of the shore they’ll be washed out to sea,’ Endryk replied gently. ‘They’ll be long gone already. The tide’s very powerful. A few minutes more and we’d all have been lost . . . horses included.’
The group fell silent. Oudrence put his head in his free hand.
‘What’s the matter with your arm?’ Endryk asked.
‘His shoulder’s broken,’ Rhavvan replied as Oudrence opened his mouth. ‘I just bound it up to keep it still.’
‘I know a little about healing,’ Endryk said. ‘May I look at it?’
Oudrence looked at Rhavvan who shrugged.
Endryk’s examination was markedly more gentle than Rhavvan’s had been, and Oudrence relaxed noticeably as his injured shoulder was carefully tested and manipulated. Seemingly satisfied, Endryk announced, ‘You’re lucky. It’s not broken, just dislocated. Hang on.’ Before Oudrence could respond, Endryk wound his arms about him in an elaborate embrace and then jerked him violently. There was a cracking sound that made all the watchers start and then cringe, and such colour as there was in Oudrence’s cheeks drained away instantly as his mouth opened to draw in a loud breath of disbelief and horror.
‘There, that’s better,’ Endryk said briskly, releasing him and slipping Oudrence’s arm back into Rhavvan’s impromptu sling. ‘It’s going to hurt like hell for a while, but at least it’s back in place. Rest it as much as you can – keep it relaxed.’
Oudrence, staring wide-eyed into the fire, let out the breath he had taken in, in a series of short, distressed gasps.
‘Anyone else got any problems?’ Endryk asked, sitting down and looking expectantly round the circle. A series of vigorous head shakes greeted this inquiry.
‘Will he be fit to move on . . . on his own?’ Hyrald asked, a little hoarsely.
Endryk nodded. ‘The nearest village is a long day’s walk away, but it’s not difficult. He won’t enjoy it, but he should be all right if he takes it easy. He can rest here tonight – you all can, if you want. I’ll show him the way tomorrow.’
‘We seem to be growing more and more in your debt,’ Hyrald said.
‘You’ve lived too long in Arvenshelm,’ Endryk said. ‘What else could I have done? Left you? Walked on?’
‘Even so . . .’
‘Nothing you’ve told me makes any sense,’ Endryk interrupted. ‘But that’s the way it is with the Moot and its officers and everything around it.’ He tapped his head. ‘Devoid of logic and reason. Full of self-deception, vanity, corruption.’ His tone was bitter. ‘That someone’s proclaimed the Death Cry – with or without so-called just cause – shows that clearly enough. It’s barbarous – a relic of times long gone!’ He ended abruptly with a gesture of disgust. ‘Just offering you a hand when you were in danger, helping the lad with his injury, incurs no debt. How could I have done less?’
‘I didn’t mean to offend,’ Hyrald replied, taken aback by this sudden passion.
‘You didn’t, you didn’t,’ Endryk said hastily. ‘I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about such matters. You must forgive me. As I said, I’m not used to company.’
‘Where are you from?’ Rhavvan asked.
‘Or questions,’ Endryk added forcefully. Rhavvan raised an apologetic hand and sat back. ‘If you want to carry on north, I’ll show you the way as well, though it’s at least four days west, inland past the estuary, before there’s a river narrow enough to cross. And it’s no easy crossing.’
‘Have you ever been north?’ Adren asked. Rhavvan looked at Endryk in anticipation of another rebuke, but none came, just a slight nod.
‘What kind of place is it?’ Thyrn burst in, wide-eyed. ‘There’s a great city there, isn’t there? Bigger even than a dozen Arvenshelms. And a land where everyone rides horses . . .’
‘There are towns and cities, and people,’ Endryk replied quietly. ‘And people are the same everywhere.’
‘Can you tell us anything about these places? Would we be safe there?’ Hyrald asked.
‘From the Death Cry, yes. But you’d be safe from that here. No one in the village, or in any of the villages within a week’s walk, gives a damn about anything that happens in Arvenshelm.’ He chuckled to himself. It was a warming sound. ‘In fact, most of them probably have no idea where Arvenshelm is. Still less what the Moot and Wardens are. It might be that your journey’s ended.’
Hyrald shook his head. ‘They found us once, they’ll find us again. If we stayed, we might only bring trouble to you.’ He let out a noisy breath. ‘We have to leave Arvenstaat. Settle into new lives somewhere until we can find out what’s happened – have the Death Cry set aside.’
‘How are you going to do that from exile?’
Hyrald made a helpless gesture. ‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. None of us have. We . . .’
‘Think about it now,’ Endryk said bluntly. ‘While you can. There are other lands to the north, and you could survive there, even live well. But maybe not, too. And this land is yours. Don’t be too anxious to be rid of it. Its roots will go deeper than you know.’
‘We’ve no choice.’
‘There are always choices.’
Hyrald shrugged to end the discussion. He was finding the course of the conversation oddly disturbing. The sun had set and though the sky was still clear, it had become quite dark in the dip.
‘My choice now then is to rest,’ he said, stretching. ‘We’ll accept your offer to stay here tonight, with thanks. This is the first time we’ve stopped running since all this started. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we need to pause and think for a while. And we’ll certainly need to put today behind us before we can do that.’
Hyrald woke the next day with bright daylight shining in his face. It was obviously long past dawn. Although he was uncomfortable, he felt refreshed. He had envisaged a disturbed and difficult night, cramped as they all were in the shelter and following on the day’s desperate events, but he had gone to sleep as soon as he had lain down. The light was coming through the doorway of the shelter which had been left open and it enabled him to disentangle himself gently from Nordath’s legs. Stiffly he levered himself upright and went outside.
Endryk was talking to the horses, tethered to a nearby tree. Rhavvan was crouched over the fire prodding something in a pan. ‘Very useful, those supplies our colleagues brought.’
Hyrald frowned at the remark. ‘First shade of the day,’ he said. Rhavvan looked up at him questioningly.
‘I was just feeling glad to be awake after a good night’s sleep, and you remind me we killed two of our own yesterday.’ He raised a hand to forestall Rhavvan’s protest. ‘I know. They asked for it. They drew on us. We couldn’t have done anything else. But that doesn’t make it any easier.’
Rhavvan returned to his cooking. ‘It does for me,’ he said. ‘A damned sight easier. For crying out, Hyrald, would you have gone tearing all the way up here on such an errand? They came in blades swinging and they got what they deserved. I’ve taken my stick to a few in my time, but I can count on one hand the number I’ve drawn against – and none of them without damned good justification. Here, sit and eat, it’ll clear your mind – you must’ve got sand in it. It’s got everywhere else!’
Gradually the others emerged from the shelter. Reproach was offered to Hyrald for managing to sleep through Oudrence’s tossing and turning as he had striven unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position, but Hyrald could tell that the events of the previous day and the night’s sleep had somehow renewed the group’s determination.
Despite some initial wariness, not to say downright alarm, on the part of the young Warden, Endryk examined Oudrence’s shoulder again and pronounced it sound.
When they had finished eating – a bizarre mixture of dried meats that the Wardens had carried, and fresh fish that Endryk had provided – Hyrald turned to Oudrence.
‘Time for you to go now, if you’re going,’ he said. He looked at Endryk for confirmation. ‘It’s going to be a fine day. You should make good progress. You’ll be all right once you reach the village, I’m sure. You might even be able to borrow a horse.’ He bent close and looked directly into Oudrence’s eyes. ‘You can tell anyone you meet what’s happened here, and everything we’ve said. When you get back to Arvenshelm – you are from Commander Vashnar’s own district, aren’t you?’
‘Well, tell Vashnar – tell everyone – the truth. Don’t lie about anything. And tell him we’re going north, but that we’ll be back, and looking for justice when we come. Do you understand?’
Hyrald answered an unasked question. ‘And don’t blame yourself for what happened to your companions. They were experienced men, they knew what they were doing and the risks they ran. They misled you and you were lucky not to get killed along with them.’ He turned to Endryk. ‘You can show him the way?’
‘I’ll have to take him part of the way.’
‘How long will you be?’
‘A few hours.’
Hyrald thought for a moment. ‘Take one of the horses,’ he said. ‘We’ll be ready to leave when you get back. I want to make as much progress as possible today.’
* * * *
Thyrn rubbed his hands excitedly. Endryk and Oudrence had been gone some time.
‘West along the coast for about four days, he said. Then across the river and we’ll be there – safe.’
Hyrald thought for a moment then shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking. We can’t go on like this. We should go west along the coast, but only until we reach the Karpas Mountains. Then south. Back to Arvenshelm.’
Apart from two doors, recessed so deeply into the walls that they looked like darkened cave entrances, Bowlott’s office was bounded, floor to ceiling, by shelves. Crooked and bowed by their long service to the Moot, they loomed ominously over the room. Peering over their tilting edges were books and documents of all shapes and sizes; weighty tomes, slender volumes, wax-sealed scrolls, stacks of papers bound with faded ribbons, leaflets, pamphlets, mysterious well-worn boxes, and more than a few wrapped objects not readily identifiable.
Bearing the Moot’s crest and covered with a variety of ponderous and old-fashioned scripts, age-browned labels marked past attempts to bring order to this domain, but, curled and brittle, this slender shield line had been long overwhelmed, leaving confusion to hold the field unchallenged. Unchallenged that is, except for a dusty gauze of ancient cobwebs which brought a certain unity to the tumbled documents on the upper shelves and which was moving steadily downwards like a frayed grey curtain. It petered out at those levels where the spiders, paper-loving insects and small wildlife were diligently continuing their self-appointed task of mummifying the accumulated wisdom of the Moot.
Further down, small stretches of order hinted at a lingering rearguard action as occasional ranks of stiff leather spines and gold embossing stood out boldly. These however merely served as a metaphor for the constant defeat of the Moot’s present by its lumbering past.
The floor complemented the descending greyness. Ragged stacks reached up the walls like wind-carved buttresses, from an uneven landscape of boxes and books which fell away to a central plain of musty carpeted floor. Rising from this, like a massif, was Bowlott’s desk, seemingly the inspiration and model for the whole room, with its own miniature central plain surrounded by overspilling disorder. Had Krim ever seen this room, he would have been consumed with envy, for it had no windows. No daylight intruded its blanching fingers into Bowlott’s lair. Such light as there was came from lanterns mounted on four austerely straight pedestals. They heightened the darkness above.
Striker Bowlott sat frowning at his desk. He was always ambivalent about visiting Krim. Though he could not have admitted it to himself, one reason for this unease was that the Venerable Cushion Bearer was extremely good at his job. Further, he was very reliable. Indeed, the man was efficient. This unsettled Bowlott at a level far below his conscious awareness. Efficiency was a word not merely rarely heard in the Moot, but actually shied away from. It had powerful and disturbing undertones of workmanlike vulgarity, of doing things, of practical achievement, and, as such, suggested matters far beneath the dignity and the lofty principles which inspired this revered seat of government. Nevertheless, Krim was efficient. His cushions transformed the Throne of Marab from a jagged torture seat into the vertical equivalent of a luxurious, supportive and well-sprung bed whose only disadvantage was that it was sometimes difficult to stay awake when sat in it. And, when on Throne Duty himself, rather than his crumpled and even older junior assistant, the alacrity with which Krim could adjust and change cushions to maintain the Striker’s comfort as he shifted and turned through ‘long and taxing’ meetings was legendary amongst those who took an interest in such matters.
Then, of course, and even worse, like all the Moot Officers, there was an air of continuity about Krim that irked Bowlott. It was deeply unjust that the likes of Krim and Ector, mere craftsmen after all, should be allowed to remain here in perpetuity when such as he, a lawyer no less, an undisputed master of the ways of the Moot and a natural leader, chosen by the chosen of the people, were there like temporary servants, their tenure at the fickle whim of those same people. Bowlott had little sense of circular reasoning. His ten years in the office and the very high likelihood of another ten did nothing to allay this insecurity and he twitched nervously whenever he thought about it. He really should do something about having the position of Striker made permanent. In fact, this whole business of Acclamations needed to be looked at carefully. The governing of Arvenstaat, a matter which, to Bowlott – and most Senators – meant, above all, a knowledge of the deep intricacies of the Moot and its procedures, was not something that should properly be left to the arbitrary choices of the ignorant and untutored masses.
These were old and familiar thoughts and Bowlott made no effort to pursue them. He was always like this after he had visited Krim – relaxed by the man’s ministrations and made tense by the obsessive, gangling presence. That was another thing about Krim – he was too tall. And too straight. Bowlott could never decide what it was about Krim that he liked the least.
‘Long streak of cold water,’ he muttered to himself into the dusty silence. The prejudice voiced, his little eyes flicked peevishly from side to side as if half-expecting the shade of the Venerable Cushion Bearer to appear out of the gloom, wild-eyed and vengeful now, and purposefully bearing the Blue Cushion.
Almost in panic, Bowlott thrust the vision away and snatched up a pen. Its point buckled as he thrust it into the paper, making an image like a squashed spider. He threw it away irritably. It struck a box and fell on to an uneven heap of papers before dropping on the floor. A few sheets of paper avalanched silently off the heap, gently covering the broken pen for ever.
This sudden flurry of activity dispatched the lingering after-image of Krim and brought Bowlott to the matter which had been increasingly making itself felt over the past few weeks and which he had, for some unknown reason, raised with Krim.
‘Vashnar, Vashnar, Vashnar,’ he mouthed silently, as if forming the man’s name might somehow produce an explanation for what he had done.
The governing of Arvenstaat was an ill-defined affair. In so far as he had bothered with such constitutional matters, Akharim, in his Treatise on the Procedures for the Proper Ordering of the Moot, had been wilfully evasive. After all, like many a usurper before him, he had only written the Treatise to give some spurious credence to his own seizure of power. It was sufficient for him that his charges consisted of followers and leaders. The followers, the masses, on the whole were best left undisturbed. There was little point in seeking their opinion about anything, least of all who should rule them. Not only were they not interested but, as his own example served to show, there were always incipient leaders amongst them. It was best that such random forces were not encouraged. As for the leaders, he further divided these into those who talked their way to power and those who fought their way. It was thus his task to ensure that the existing talkers and the fighters be kept aware of their common interest in maintaining him in power. The Treatise, in many ways an unexpectedly elegant and convincing piece of work, occupied the talkers, while persuading most of the fighters to form a guard to enforce his will. These last he further controlled by encouraging mutual suspicion and by the occasional use of silent knives.
In the end, the combination of Akharim’s shrewd judgement and those silent knives proved extremely effective, and it was the talkers who prevailed as nominal rulers while the guards enjoyed the actual power, equilibrium being maintained by their unspoken agreement that the masses should remain undisturbed. Thus the Moot and the Wardens began their long journey through Arvenstaat’s history. And thus it was that Bowlott and the Moot Senators believed that their people could only be governed by written words – by laws. Only laws could make right the failings of the foolish and the wicked, and once a law was passed, nothing else was needed. And laws, in their turn, could be made only by the Moot, with its fund of ancient wisdom.
As with much that happened in the Moot, Bowlott’s vision had little contact with reality. The accountability of the Wardens, for example, consisted of a yearly formalized report from Vashnar, some solemn but token questioning on trivial procedural points by one of the Moot’s many sub-committees followed by a fulsome vote of thanks from the Moot assembled. As for the interminable new laws that the Moot passed, the Wardens and the local Watches, which served in lieu of the Wardens in the smaller towns and villages, generally ignored them, confining themselves to their long-established role of ensuring that the wilder elements of society were kept quiet, one way or another, so that the bulk of the people could get on with their lives in peace. On the whole, this had become an agreeable arrangement and it worked well enough while nothing particularly untoward happened. Lately, however, untoward things had been happening, and this lethargic stability was beginning to waver ominously.
News had come from the coast that the Morlider islands had been seen again. Until some sixteen years ago, these floating islands had returned every year or so for generations and, while powerful tides protected Arvenstaat from the worst excesses of their vicious inhabitants, coastal villages had been regularly raided. Then, coinciding with rumours of a terrible war in lands to the north, the visits had mysteriously stopped. Their equally mysterious return now was causing great unease.
More tangibly, trade with Nesdiryn, over the mountains to the west, declining ever since the ousting of the Count by its strange new rulers, had eventually come to a complete halt. As a result, traders had been seeking out their Senators and asking for help. And too, alarming stories had come from there recently; a great army was being gathered with the intention of making a war of expansion against Nesdiryn’s neighbours; the Count had ousted his rivals in a fearful battle in the mountains; the Count had been defeated and killed by them; and many variations upon these themes, but all involving the threat of armed violence.
And now this business with Vashnar and the Death Cry.
Bowlott picked up another pen and began decorating the image of the squashed spider. The Cry was a routine device used by the Wardens and the Watches for dealing with thieves and other wrongdoers. True, it stirred people out of their routines and was thus a little risky, but there was sufficient momentum in the ordinary lives of most of them to ensure that nothing got out of hand. The Death Cry, however, was another matter. That had caused a stir. All the more so for its involving another Warden. Again, it had provoked people into pestering their Senators about it. Though he had skilfully avoided showing any response when he heard about it, it had come as a shock to Bowlott to realize that the Death Cry could still be invoked, and that, like the Cry, it was officially outside the remit of the Moot.
He shook his head as the spider slowly turned into a rather grotesque blossom.
‘I shall speak to Commander Vashnar. I shall ask him why he has done what he has done.’ The words he had uttered to a rapt Krim – Bowlott was always sensitive to the mood of his audience – returned to him. Barbed thorns sprang out of the blossom. Rather an impetuous declaration, that, for all it fell only into Krim’s ear. Probably brought on by the man’s comforting attention. He should have been more careful. Still, it seemed that it was all that was left. It was some time before Vashnar was to report to the Moot and, in any event, this was unequivocally not a matter to be dealt with in such a public way. He drew an elaborate border around the blossom then screwed up the paper and threw it on the floor.
For a little while, he leaned back and stared up at the grey, ill-shaped and shadowy ceiling. The sight comforted him. Nothing had disturbed those uppermost volumes in generations. All was well. All was preserved. The wisdom of the Moot lay coiled and ready to spring to the defence of the land should dire times come to pass.
He took up another piece of paper and began writing. When he had finished he removed a plug from a funnel-ended tube fastened to one arm of his chair, and coughed into it. The sound passed along the tube to emerge in an adjacent room as a tetchy grunt. Two Moot Pages looked up irritably from a board game they were playing.
‘Oink, oink,’ one of them said quickly, laughing and pointing at the other. ‘Piggy’s calling. Your turn.’
The ritual having been observed, his companion scowled and stabbed the board with his finger as he stood up. ‘I can remember where all those pieces are,’ he said significantly, a declaration which was received with raised hands and an expression of profound innocence.
‘Will it be six copies, Striker Bowlott?’ the Page asked uncertainly as he examined the paper.
Bowlott frowned and shook his head. ‘Six copies is for official memoranda to members of the Outer Moot, Page, or, during recess, for informal notifications to the Moot Hall Attendants. You should know this by now.’ He reached out and tapped the paper. ‘This is a special docket of interview, Striker to Officer . . . very confidential. Four copies and one on vellum for the Registrar. And don’t forget to bring the finished copy back to me for my personal seal. See to it quickly now. This is an urgent matter.’
The page pulled an unhappy face for the benefit of his companion as he emerged through the cave entrance from Bowlott’s office. Being a Moot Page was an esteemed position in certain sections of Arvenshelm society, particularly that occupied by the clerks and copyists who dealt with the Moot’s extensive output of words. It was not particularly well paid, but it was secure for life, presented little intellectual challenge and, almost inevitably, led its holders onto become Attendants or Official Scribes – part of the self-perpetuating bureaucracy that had accreted around the Moot, as it does about all governments. Fond parents would glow when one of their children was accepted for such a post and, if not careful, could become a grievously unctuous burden to their friends and neighbours. Generally, a Page’s life was a relaxed affair and, mimicking the Moot itself, it had long-established and unofficial procedures of its own to ensure that this remained so. Nevertheless, from time to time, there were problems.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked the companion, guiltily repositioning a piece on the board on seeing his friend’s distress. He anticipated with a grimace. ‘Not a twenty copy?’
The Page shook his head. ‘Striker to Officer – four and a V.’ He held out the paper. ‘But it’s to Commander Vashnar. Over in the Warden’s Section.’ This provoked a further grimace – a genuine one. Uncomfortably, a request was made. ‘Will you come with me?’ There was a brief pause while friendship and peer loyalty were tested, then a reluctant, ‘Yes,’ followed by another brief silence which ended in a livelier, ‘What is it?’
Bowlott’s message was simple to the point of sparseness.
Attend on me at close of Moot today. By Order, Bowlott, Striker to the Moot.
At the top it bore the instruction, To Commander Vashnar, in person.
It was greeted with a long in-drawn whistle. ‘Vashnar, in person. And here!’ The reader was wide-eyed. He pointed to the tube from which Bowlott’s cough had emerged a few moments earlier and his voice fell to a whisper. ‘We’ll have to listen to that.’ He became thoughtful. ‘And we’d better do all the copies as well.’ The first Page stared at him in surprise, only to be met with a knowing pout from his more experienced companion. ‘You never know,’ he declared, bureaucrat-to-be. ‘Vashnar could check up on us.’
There were two reasons why the Page had asked his friend to accompany him. One was that, being relatively new to the job, he was far from certain of the way to the Warden’s Section through the Moot Palace’s convoluted corridors and closed courtyards. The other was that, though rarely visited, the Warden’s Section was a place universally feared by Pages. Civilian officers of the Moot, of all ranks, were generally despised by the Wardens but while adults might expect some surliness or outright sneers, Pages could usually look to more physical humiliation.
However, in this instance, Bowlott’s personal seal and Vashnar’s name had the effect of a talisman and, though flushed and flustered with the haste and anxiety of their journey, the two Pages reached Vashnar unmolested.
The room from which Vashnar conducted most of his day-to-day work was starkly different from Bowlott’s dusty office. Amongst other things, it was light, with a large window occupying almost the whole of one wall. It was also bare of any form of ornamentation and there was not a vestige of disorder. A plain but well-made and highly polished wooden table served as a desk, and pens, inks and various writing tablets were laid out on it with meticulous precision. A carved crystal ink-stand stood at the heart of the display. The pale grey walls bore only maps of Arvenshelm and Arvenstaat, while a set of shelves stood to attention in one corner, displaying two rows of neatly arranged books. Dominant amongst these was one written by Vashnar’s paternal grandfather on the history and duties of the Wardens. Akharim had left no Treatise for the guidance of the Wardens. His thoughts on that had come down as an oral tradition which had necessarily shifted and changed as convenience had dictated over the years. Vashnar’s grandfather had set down this tradition together with an extensive analysis and commentary. It was a weighty and stern work, generally known as The Commentaries. It was prefaced by the maxim:
Above all things, there shall be order.
Vashnar’s thoughts were very much those of his grandfather.
Vashnar stood up as the two Pages were shown in. Taller than most men, and heavily built, he had a stillness about him that could be mistaken for ponderousness. In fact this was because he moved economically, using the minimum of effort in all things. This same economy made him both powerful and fast in his reactions when need arose, as many a wrongdoer could testify to as the young Vashnar had progressed through the ranks of the Wardens. Though it had been a long time since the position of leader of the Wardens had been open to challenge by physical combat, a residue of that thinking still allied itself keenly with Vashnar’s own grasp of the realities of power.
Both Pages looked up at him. His presence filled the room for them as he looked slowly from one to the other. Their already flushed faces reddened further under this scrutiny, until a surreptitious elbow in the ribs jolted the official bearer of the message back to his duties.
‘From Striker Bowlott . . . Commander . . . sir,’ came a dry-throated announcement.
Vashnar extended a large hand and took the shaking paper.
The Pages noted no response as he read it, though those who knew Vashnar well would have detected a momentary narrowing of his cold black-irised eyes. And those who knew him well would have detected it, for no one grew to know Vashnar well without being sensitive to such minutiae.
He moved to the window, noticeably darkening the room. The two Pages risked an unhappy glance at one another as he turned his back to them and stared out at the view. Making people feel guilty was something that Vashnar did without even thinking about it.
After a distressingly long pause and without relinquishing his vigil, he spoke. ‘Tell Striker Bowlott that I shall attend on him as . . .’ He looked down at the paper again. ‘As ordered.’
Vashnar remained by the window for some time. When he turned, it needed no subtle perception to read the surprise and irritation that flickered across his face at finding the two Pages still there.
A second trembling paper was held out to him. ‘Would you sign this, please, Commander.’
‘To show we’ve delivered the message, sir.’
Vashnar stared at the shaking duo. ‘What was the reply I just gave you?’ he said. ‘Speak it, now.’
He had to repeat this instruction before the two Pages stammered out variations of, ‘You’ll attend on Striker Bowlott as ordered . . . sir.’
Vashnar gave a curt nod then slowly extended a forefinger towards the door. ‘My aide signs . . . papers. See that you deliver my reply quickly and accurately.’
When the two Pages had scurried out, Vashnar took The Commentaries from the bookshelf and laid it carefully on the desk as he sat down. He did not open it, but laid his hand on it as though he were about to take an oath. He often sat thus when he was angry or unsettled. It brought the supporting shade of his grandfather to him, carrying him past that of his weak and despised father. It was one of his few regrets that he had never met the old man, though this did not stop him from forming a clear impression of him.
And, although no sign of it showed other than his hand on The Commentaries, he was both angry and unsettled now. Angry at Bowlott’s thoughtless and pompous, By Order, and unsettled by his being driven to the point of seeking an interview with him. It did not help that he knew it was his own fault that this had come about.
He drummed a brief tattoo on The Commentaries. He did not need to read his grandfather’s comments on the Death Cry. He knew that his actions had been in accordance with established tradition and that no reference to the Moot was needed, but . . .
But what had possessed him to do it? What demon had reached into him and persuaded him to this deed which might undo the years of steady progress he had been making in consolidating power to himself? He ran his thumb gently over the inside of the ring that graced the second finger of his right hand. The ring was his only needless decoration and touching it was his only nervous mannerism. Both were very discreet.
With no other outward sign of the turmoil within, he cursed Thyrn. It was not a new curse. Indeed, it was one that was almost constantly in his mind. And, as it was apt to do, it spiralled out into a curse against all the Caddoran. Damned freaks. Why couldn’t some other way be found to . . .?
Here the anger turned on itself. Vashnar was not given to railing against what could not be altered and it angered him further that he could not restrain himself from doing just that. The Caddoran had been an integral part of Arvenstaat’s culture since before the state had existed as such, their origins rolling back into the ancient tribal times and thence into myth where they played elaborate roles of confidants, go-betweens and manipulators to the peculiar gods of the old Arvenwern. Even now, though notionally they were only message carriers, they were in fact much more. Routinely, any Caddoran could memorize a spoken message almost instantaneously and retain it for as long as the sender required. Masters of the art, however, could carry subtleties of intonation, gesture and expression – could convey the true meaning of a communication in a manner not remotely possible by written word, or even rote recitation. Myths notwithstanding, the origin of the art was obscure, though there was little doubt that it developed from a battlefield skill. Amongst the Caddoran, being able to trace a line of descent in the general direction of some famous hero was a matter of great pride. Only a few generations ago, in less civilized times, that same kudos would have been gained by tracing the line back to some more legendary figure.
Yet the art was deeply strange. Though training was required, it was pointless unless a strong natural aptitude was present, and while this tended to run in families, it was wildly erratic, sometimes skipping several generations then producing two or three at once, sometimes jumping from the male to the female line. Then the talent would appear spontaneously in a family with no history of it. Thyrn had been one such. Though many theories had been offered, the progress of this necessary trait through the generations defied all analysis.
Thyrn proved to be more than just another unexplained example of the appearance of the talent. He had been exceptional, showing such aptitude that he was accepted for training by the Caddoran Congress while only five years old, instead of the normal twelve. Subsequently, at the age of fifteen, he had become a White Master, the highest possible grade and one which many Caddoran could not even aspire to. Prior to Thyrn, the youngest White Master had been twenty-seven. Not only did he have a gift for memorizing and reproducing messages which awed his superiors, he seemed to sense intuitively what the message sender wanted to say at such a deep level that on transmitting his message, the recipient would feel himself in the presence of the actual sender. Inevitably he became the personal Caddoran to the Wardens’ Senior Commander.
Yet, in many ways, he was still a child. It was as if his talent took so much of him that the remainder could not fully develop.
This, however, merely made him odd company when not on duty. It in no way lessened his value to Vashnar who, though he schooled himself obsessively in self-reliance, made the mistake he was now ruing, of growing to be too dependent on him for the carrying of his many sensitive and confidential messages. Nor did it concern Thyrn’s parents who basked in the glory of their son’s high employment and who, though he lived in the Moot Palace now, still ‘advised’ him on the disposition of his not insubstantial remuneration. It did concern his father’s brother, Nordath, though, whose family pride in the young man was far outweighed by his affection for him and concern for the pain that he could feel emanating from him. In Thyrn he sensed the Caddoran that he had nearly been, and for some reason he could not avoid a feeling of guilt that he had been spared the burden.
‘He needs friends of his own age. Ordinary friends. He’s too different to get on with even the other Caddoran novices,’ he had frequently told his brother. ‘He needs friends he can talk to, wrestle with, get into trouble with.’
But it had been to no avail. Thyrn’s parents had drawn a protective curtain about him; there was no saying what corrosive influence other children might have on their son’s precious – and lucrative – talent. The boy’s career had to be considered.
Despite their ‘protection’ Thyrn had returned Nordath’s affection and turned to him as friend and adviser.
Thus it was that Nordath had one day rushed to his door in response to a frantic hammering, to find Thyrn standing there, white-faced and shaking.
The disbelieving cry came simultaneously from Rhavvan and Adren. Nordath and Thyrn looked at Hyrald in bewilderment.
‘Back to Arvenshelm?’ Rhavvan echoed. ‘Are you crazy?’ He thrust a finger in the direction that Oudrence and Endryk had taken. ‘There could be scores of Wardens out looking for us. Those two who came with Oudrence won’t be the only ones looking to catch Vashnar’s eye, and if they found us, others can. And what are we going to do when . . . if . . . we manage to reach Arvenshelm alive? The crowds might have gone for now, but they’ll come back soon enough.’
‘I know, I know,’ Hyrald replied defensively. ‘But what are we going to do anyway? Think about what Endryk said last night. How are we going to be able to get the Death Cry rescinded if we’re in some foreign land? Think about it now, he said, and he was right. We’ve been so busy running, hiding, surviving, we haven’t stopped to think what we’re doing, or why. Not once.’
‘But . . .’
‘But nothing. It’s true. You know it.’ Hyrald began pacing up and down, talking as much to himself as to the others as he struggled to clarify his thoughts. ‘We’re Wardens, for mercy’s sake. The service isn’t perfect, god knows, but on the whole we keep the peace, we’re respected men. And we’ve got – we had – good lives. So what are we doing here at the back end of nowhere, off the edge of any map I’ve ever seen, running like frightened dogs – and having to kill our own?’ He put his hands to his temples. ‘I can’t believe we did that – right or wrong. And look what happened on the shore. We know the streets, the people, but out here? We’re lost. The way that tide came in!’ He closed his eyes and blew out an unsteady breath as, for an instant, he was crashing across the raging stream again. ‘So fast! Faster than we could gallop, for pity’s sake. I can feel it pulling at my horse right now. It’s the purest chance that we’d got horses, that Endryk was there and that we weren’t all killed.’
He became emphatic. ‘And if we get across the sea, who knows what kind of people we’ll find out there?’
‘People are the same everywhere, Endryk said.’
Nordath put a restraining hand on Thyrn’s arm, but Hyrald merely dismissed the remark, albeit with a sneer.
‘Yes, they are,’ he said simply. ‘They’re dangerous.’
Thyrn persisted despite Nordath’s silent plea. ‘We must go on. Away from here. Away from Vashnar. There’s a great city up there – everyone’s heard about it – so big you can’t see all of it no matter how high a building you climb. We’ll be safe there. We can hide, we can . . .’
His voice faded as Hyrald stopped pacing and turned a searching look on him. When he spoke however, it was softly and slowly. ‘We don’t even know why we’re here. We don’t know why Vashnar called the Death Cry, and we don’t even know why he wanted you in the first place.’
‘It’s a Caddoran matter,’ Nordath said, edging forward to stand by Thyrn.
Hyrald’s hand gently paddled the air, motioning him to silence. The gesture was both placating and menacing. ‘You’ve said that before,’ he replied, without taking his eyes off Thyrn. ‘But it’s not enough now.’ He turned to Adren and Rhavvan. ‘We’ve known one another for ever. We trust one another. We’ve been in some difficult places together keeping Arvenshelm’s good citizens safe in their beds and on the streets, but this is beyond anything we’ve ever known. It’s time to stop running before we run out of luck. Time to think. Time to find out the why? of all this.’
‘It’s a Caddoran matter,’ Nordath said again, more forcefully.
Two birds flew over the group and disappeared into the trees beyond the shelter, their wings noisy and urgent. Hyrald shook his head.
‘Nordath, I’ve known you for a long time too. No more of this. Thyrn gossiping about Vashnar’s private messages is a Caddoran matter. Us unofficially tracking him down on Vashnar’s behalf is a Wardens’ matter. But Vashnar unearthing the Death Cry; us escaping from Arvenshelm by the skin of our teeth, thanks to some loyal friends and no small amount of luck; and us careening across the country, stealing food and hiding from village Watch patrols and would-be manhunters, killing our own, is a different matter altogether. Before we go anywhere, I . . . we . . . need to know what Thyrn’s done. I’ve no great affection for Vashnar, but I know him as well as anyone does and I respect him. And I’ve never known him do anything without a reason.’
Nordath cast an uncomfortable glance at Thyrn whose expression was becoming increasingly desperate.
‘It’s difficult,’ he said weakly.
‘These past weeks have been difficult,’ Hyrald retorted caustically. ‘Yesterday in particular.’
Abruptly, Nordath’s protective manner slipped away and uncertainty pervaded him. He turned unhappily to Thyrn and seemed to have to drag words from some great depth when he spoke. ‘You’ll have to tell them . . . us,’ he said. The last word was almost inaudible, but the three Wardens heard it.
‘Us?’ exclaimed Rhavvan. ‘You mean you don’t know?’
A gesture from Hyrald silenced him. The sudden change in Nordath’s demeanour as Thyrn’s guardian was disconcerting in itself, but now he saw Thyrn’s eyes glazing over. For a moment he thought that the young man was going to collapse.
As did Nordath, who reached out to support him. Despite this change, Rhavvan pressed his question.
‘You mean, you don’t know what all this is about?’
Nordath, recovered now and looking intently into Thyrn’s face, tried a half-hearted negotiation. ‘No, I don’t,’ he admitted bluntly. ‘But the fact that Vashnar’s proclaimed the Death Cry against you is enough to tell you it’s something really bad he wants hidden, isn’t it?’
Adren intruded quickly between Rhavvan’s wide-eyed indignation and Hyrald’s scarcely veiled anger. ‘The seriousness isn’t in dispute, Nordath,’ she said quietly. ‘Hyrald’s right. We’re here through a mixture of good luck and sheer panic, but we can’t carry on like this, we need to know why we’re running if we’re ever going to be able to stop. You must tell us what Thyrn’s done, Caddoran matter or not. You’re not bound by any oath just because he might’ve broken his and told you something. If you want to help him, you’ll have to tell us.’
As she was speaking, she was helping Nordath to lower Thyrn into a seated position against the wall of Endryk’s shelter.
‘What’s the matter with him?’ Rhavvan asked.
‘I don’t know.’ Nordath straightened up. ‘He goes like this sometimes – when things are too much for him. He usually just comes out of it after a while, as if nothing had happened.’
‘Running away, eh?’
Nordath turned on Rhavvan furiously, obliging the big man to take a step backwards. ‘You judge this lad when you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, Warden. Caddoran aren’t like ordinary people. They’re strange, special. Almost impossible for the likes of us to understand. And Thyrn’s special even amongst them. How do you think he got to work for Vashnar at his age?’ He slapped his hand on his chest. ‘I don’t know why, but I’m the only person he’s ever been able to turn to like an ordinary human being – a friend. His parents – my blessed brother and that shrew of a wife of his – just see him as a milch-cow. The other Caddoran of his age are too intimidated by his talent to treat him as an equal, while the older ones are for the most part either jealous of him or wanting to shine by reflection from him. And Vashnar cares for nothing and no one except his position and the power it brings him.’
Rhavvan recovered. ‘We still need to know what’s going on!’ he shouted.
Nordath nodded briefly, but his anger was spent and he sagged. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to . . . I know none of us wants to be here. I realize we’re a burden to you. I’m grateful . . . we’re grateful.’ He fell silent and sat down wearily beside Thyrn.
Prompted by Adren, Hyrald crouched down in front of him. ‘Is Rhavvan right? Do you really not know what Thyrn’s done?’
Nordath did not reply immediately, but fidgeted nervously, rubbing the palm of one hand with his thumb. ‘No, I don’t,’ he replied eventually. ‘When he came to me he was frantic – hysterical. I couldn’t get two coherent words out of him. I’ve seen him in lots of moods, learned a lot about him over the years, even got some inkling about how he thinks, but I’ve never seen him like that before.’ He recalled the thunderous pounding on his door, and yanking it open to have the terrified lad tumble, white and shaking, into his arms.
‘It took me a long time just to get him quiet,’ he went on soberly, ‘and I soon learned that asking what had happened just set him back to where he’d started. I’ve never felt so helpless. Then, you three were there looking for him, and . . .’ A shrug encompassed the gasping Warden who had brought the news of the Death Cry, and the subsequent confusion and flight. ‘I haven’t asked him since – not that we’ve had a chance.’ He turned to the still distant Thyrn. ‘But in any case, I haven’t dared. Rightly too, by the look of him now.’ He levered himself up, reluctant to continue talking about Thyrn as though he were not there. He lowered his voice. ‘I don’t even know if he can hear what we’re saying when he’s like this. And you’re right, Rhavvan, he is running away, but what from, and where to . . .’ He shrugged again.
‘All of which leaves us where?’ Rhavvan asked, though his manner was softer.
‘No worse off, I suppose,’ Hyrald replied resignedly. ‘But, Nordath, we must try to find out what he’s done – you can see that. Can you speculate – guess at what might have happened?’
Nordath shook his head. ‘No. I told you, Caddoran think in different ways to the rest of us – especially Thyrn. You’ve seen how he is – nice to be with, more often than not, with an innocence about him and always wanting to know – like a child. Then other times he’s so serious and intense it gives you a headache just looking at him. All I got from him were odd words like “darkness” or “blood”. And he kept covering his eyes and curling up, as if he’d seen something he didn’t want to.’
‘Touched him. Deep.’
It was Thyrn, his voice distant and strained. As the others looked down at him, he let out a long, hissing breath and folded his hands tightly over his head. Hyrald knelt down in front of him, bending low in an attempt to look into his face.
‘What did you say, Thyrn? We didn’t hear you.’
A slight whimper keened out of the young man’s tightly closed lips. Hyrald could feel the fear that prompted it rippling through him.
‘Don’t be afraid, you’re safe with us, here. You . . .’ He stopped with a startled cry as Thyrn’s hand shot out and seized his arm. It drew him forward until there was scarcely a hand’s width between their faces.
‘Everyone be afraid,’ Thyrn said, his voice soft and still strained. ‘No one’s safe. No one, anywhere. Darkness.’
Then the grip was gone and Thyrn’s hands were covering his face. Hyrald looked up at Nordath for advice.
‘I’ll make him talk,’ Rhavvan said grimly, before Nordath could speak.
‘I doubt it,’ Hyrald said. ‘I agree with Nordath. From the look of him I’d say he’s scared out of his wits.’
Rhavvan bent forward, clenching his fist menacingly. ‘Just another uncooperative witness. Make him more afraid of us than whoever else is frightening him.’
Hyrald noticed a slight twitch in Thyrn’s face at this remark.
Part of you is still here, then, he thought. Listening, learning, watching. What goes on in that Caddoran mind of yours?
Once again, almost as though Thyrn had reached out to him, he sensed the young man’s leaking terror.
He spoke directly into Thyrn’s face as he eased Rhavvan’s proffered fist aside. ‘Difficult to do that, I’d judge. A push too far from where he is and, like some of our witnesses, we’ll lose him completely.’ Besides, despite the lad’s irritating ways, as Nordath had claimed, he couldn’t help liking him, not to say feeling sorry for him. ‘I think right now he needs our help more than we need his.’ He put his hands on Thyrn’s shoulders.
‘Thyrn.’ He spoke softly. ‘I know you’re afraid. We’re all afraid. It’s understandable after what we’ve been through. But you’ve done well. You’ve run with us, hidden with us, eaten and slept with us. Done better than many a Senior Cadet.’ He paused and searched into Thyrn’s eyes for signs that he was being heard. But he could read nothing.
‘We’re safe here for the moment. Safer than we’ve been since we started. But we have to think what to do next. And to do that we have to know why we’re running.’ He became confidential. ‘I don’t want you to break your Caddoran Oath. I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I know it’s very important to you. But we’ve all got to help one another. Even if you don’t want to help yourself, think about your uncle. He . . .’
A hand on his shoulder stopped him.
‘No,’ Nordath said firmly. ‘He’s had nothing but that off his parents and his teachers all his life. Let me speak to him.’
Hyrald looked into the unfocused eyes again. He felt guilt well up inside him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, patting Thyrn’s arm. ‘I made a mistake.’
Nordath took Hyrald’s place in front of the immobile young man. Rhavvan made an impatient gesture and strode off. Hyrald motioned Adren after him.
Nordath’s hand fluttered uncertainly, then, a little awkwardly, he put his arms around his nephew. ‘Go where you’ve got to go, Thyrn. Come back when you’re ready. We’ll be here, waiting for you. We’ll take care of you.’
Equally awkwardly he released him and stood up, rather self-consciously.
‘We will take care of him, won’t we?’ he said to Hyrald.
Only years as a Warden prevented Hyrald from showing his doubts as he met Nordath’s gaze. It had occurred to him more than once in the days immediately following their flight from Arvenshelm that perhaps surrendering Thyrn might be a way of having the Death Cry against him and the others lifted. He was honest enough to admit that it was only the unexpected ferocity of the response to the Death Cry that had prevented him from doing this. As they had moved further away from Arvenshelm, the clamour and urgency had lessened but the day-to-day needs of hiding and surviving had remained, and the option of surrender had faded away as the group gradually became five instead of three and two.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘We’ve taken care of you so far. We won’t stop now.’
But some time later, as he abandoned Nordath to his vigil and joined Rhavvan and Adren on top of a nearby rise his mind was awash with doubt.
‘Why so fierce?’ he said. Rhavvan frowned and Adren looked at him blankly.
‘Why were the crowds so fierce when the Death Cry was announced? If we hadn’t been warned – given that little extra time – we’d have been . . .’ A sideways cutting action of his hand finished the sentence.
Rhavvan shrugged airily. ‘Not everybody loves a Warden,’ he declared mockingly. ‘The ordinary Cry doesn’t exactly bring the best out in people, does it? You know how long it takes us to get the streets quiet after one.’
Hyrald looked down at Thyrn and Nordath by the ramshackle shelter, then at the surrounding landscape. The view beyond the shelter was restricted by gently hilly terrain, lush with trees and shrubs, but in the other direction the colour gradually faded until it ended in the pale line of the dunes. In a dip between two of them, Hyrald could just see the bright line of the sea. It was good here. Open, undisturbed, even the air was different – so very different from the soiled and oppressive streets of Arvenshelm. Yet too, it was frightening. It was empty and lonely. It left him feeling exposed and vulnerable, thrown totally on his own resources. And the glint of the distant sea at once lured him and repelled him, filling him with vague images of great and alien spaces.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, returning to his friends. ‘It wasn’t just the ordinary mob. It was as though . . .’ he searched for the words. ‘. . . as though something fearful had been released. There was a real bloodlust in those we saw when we were hiding in the Old Park.’ He shivered at the memory, then he became thoughtful. ‘I wonder how many people got killed in all that, in the general crush, by mistaken identity?’
‘Not to forget the score-settling. There’s always some of that in any Cry. I should imagine a lot were hurt. It’s just one of those things. Anyway . . .’ Rhavvan threw a suddenly cheerful arm around Hyrald’s shoulders, making him stagger. ‘What’s the problem? People are bastards at the best of times, you know that. Whack you as soon as look at you if they thought it was to their advantage. They have to run amok from time to time. It’s enough for me that we got away.’
‘I’m a Warden, and I see people for what they are.’ A jabbing finger emphasized his point. ‘As do you, normally.’
‘Maybe,’ Hyrald conceded reluctantly. ‘But there was still something more. Worse than I’d have expected – realist or no.’
‘You’re right.’ It was Adren. ‘I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it was worse than the usual mob that comes out for the Cry – much worse.’
Rhavvan threw up his hands, dismissing the two of them.
‘It’s been brewing for months,’ she went on. ‘Perhaps years.’
‘What has?’ demanded Rhavvan, increasingly exasperated.
‘Trouble,’ Adren replied simply. ‘Year on year since I joined there’s been more violence and discontent. And we’ve had more drunks, more beatings, more crowd flare-ups, more everything this last year than ever before – you know that. It’s as though there’s something in the air – like a storm coming.’
‘Horse manure,’ Rhavvan declaimed. ‘That’s all there is in the air – horse manure. And the warm weather always makes people fractious.’ He slapped the purse on his belt. ‘A nice heat-wave’s always good for business. More overtime, more fines, voluntary contributions, and the like.’ He laughed.
The sound should have lightened the mood of the group a little, but the clink of coins in Rhavvan’s purse had a dull, funereal timbre to Hyrald, reminding him that money was of no value to them now. Here it was only something more to be carried – another burden. And Adren was unconvinced by Rhavvan’s airy analysis.
‘There’s a restlessness about,’ she insisted doggedly. ‘I don’t know what it is, but something’s falling apart. And all this business about the Morlider and what’s going on in Nesdiryn hasn’t helped. In fact, I think that’s . . .’
A loud cry from Nordath cut across her.
It was Close of Moot. Early today. The last few grains of sand in the hourglass which stood by the Throne of Marab had to be encouraged on their way by a surreptitious flick of Striker Bowlott’s middle finger but if anyone saw, no one was interested in raising any elaborate procedural points about it. As usual, most of the Senators were only too anxious to be away to fulfil their various social and business commitments. Being a representative of the people was demanding work.
The current speaker froze, gaping in mid-word and mid-gesture as the end of Bowlott’s staff struck the floor. An audible sigh of relief passed around the Moot Hall, dappled with the sounds of various Senators waking suddenly. The doleful peal of the Moot bells carrying the news through the corridors of the Palace seeped into the hall.
As he always did at close of Moot, Bowlott sat motionless until the sound of the bells faded into the general mumbling background of the hall, then his beady eyes scanned the noble and expectant assembly two or three times before, very slowly, he began to lever himself upright. Krim’s deputy creaked forward to take the cushion that had been supporting Bowlott’s head, lest it slip forward and mar the dignity of the occasion by entangling itself in his robes like a workman’s pack, or by slithering down behind him and nudging his backside. It was a heavy cushion and its urging had more than once caused Striker Bowlott to waver unsteadily on his footstool at this juncture.
Today, however, there was no such lapse, though Krim’s deputy, compounding Bowlott’s malicious slowness with his own natural frailty, stretched out the ending of the day’s business even further as he meticulously performed the ritual of the storing of the cushions. It was then his duty to escort the Striker from the hall. This involved walking down the long central aisle and was made all the slower by his tendency to drift from side to side, thereby, on average, increasing the length of the journey by about a third.
Eventually, however, they reached the entrance to the hall and the Assistant Cushion Bearer concluded his duties by executing a series of formal bows – another ritual, but one during which he invariably became confused and opted for starting again with much apologizing and sighing. When he finally reached the end, Bowlott turned and exited the hall with unusual speed for fear that the old man might be confused enough to begin bowing again. It was a relief to stride out freely for a little while – it was not easy following the Assistant Cushion Bearer even for someone of Bowlott’s physical ineptitude. He really did not appreciate Krim missing the Close of Moot.
He had not gone far when he heard two sets of footsteps approaching from behind. He closed his eyes as he recognized both of them.
‘Striker Bowlott, can you spare a moment?’ Two voices, a droning tenor and a shrill descant bearing an unmistakable eastland accent confirmed his identification.
Bowlott surreptitiously increased his pace so that they had to scurry to catch him. ‘Inner Senator Welt, Inner Senator Bryk,’ he acknowledged, stopping suddenly as they reached him and watching their stumbling halt. ‘How may I help you?’
Though there were many little cliques and cadres in the Moot, there were three major factions. The Keepers, whose members were drawn mainly from the families of the larger merchants and traders, came predominantly from Arvenstaat’s cities and thus tended to dominate the Inner and Outer Moots. Then there were the Deemers who, typically, were clerks, lawyers and academics. As individuals, some of the Moot Senators were quite able, but a peculiarly incestuous blending of the Moot’s ancient procedures and traditional loyalty to particular factions, subverted ability utterly and grievously detached the Moot from reality. Of the three factions, the Deemers were by far the furthest away. The third faction consisted of the Strivers, its members drawn from Arvenstaat’s small traders, artisans and farmers. Confined for the most part to the Moot General, they were much given to pompous and impassioned rhetoric liberally sprinkled with earthy metaphor. Most of them affected intimate knowledge of a rugged working lifestyle though their manicured hands and expensive, well-tailored robes usually gave the lie to this.
Senators Welt and Bryk were the respective leaders of the Keepers and the Strivers, for the time being allies against the Deemers. Both were effectively permanent members of the Moot and both were unlovely. Bryk’s bulging eyes and pursed mouth reminded Bowlott inexorably of a large, bad-tempered fish, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he did not openly wince when his high-pitched and penetrating voice pierced its way through the Moot Hall’s dull air. Welt’s voice, by contrast, was profoundly soporific. Indeed, it was not uncommon for wagers to be made between the more frivolous Senators about the number of members that Welt would lure into sleep over any given time. He walked with a pronounced stoop but was still taller than Bowlott, and he had the look of a sad bloodhound.
They each took one of Bowlott’s elbows and bent forward intently.
He raised silencing hands before they could begin to speak. ‘Senators, I think I know why you wish to speak to me, but I have a pressing meeting on a most urgent matter.’ He looked from one to the other taking some pleasure in seeing them exchange a glance, and watching their curiosity displacing their fawning confidentiality. They would not question him directly – that kind of thing was just not done; part of the art of the Moot debate was the ability to ask questions without seeming to, and also not answering questions while seeming to. Under normal circumstances Bowlott would have enjoyed seeing how Bryk and Welt played this scene but he was genuinely anxious about his pending meeting with Vashnar.
Although there were extensive informal working arrangements between lower ranking Wardens and equally low ranking Moot Officers, the relationship at the top was starchily formal. The two institutions which governed Arvenstaat each tacitly understood what was expected of them and took great pains to provide it without trespassing on the other’s domain to any great degree. However, with Vashnar’s proclaiming of the Death Cry and the consequent stirring up of the people, this balance had been disturbed and Bowlott had been placed in the invidious position of being seen to be ‘doing something’. His immediate anxiety was not that he did not know what to do – that was normal – it was that he could not begin to start drafting a form of words that would look as if he did know. Vashnar’s action had been far too practical and conspicuous for that. Worse, he hardly knew the man; unlike these two dolts at his elbow, whom he knew all too well.
What were his weaknesses? Vashnar couldn’t be ambitious, for where could he rise to from his present position? Was he greedy? Possibly, but this post carried many privileges and was well rewarded even excluding the Gilding – the long-established network that directed into his hands ‘gifts’ from grateful merchants and others who received particular protection from the Wardens. Perhaps he was vain? But that was unlikely to be a powerful lever even if he was. Lecherous? Women, men, boys?
The latter in particular was a weakness amongst certain high-ranking Wardens, but it was a dangerous trait, very unpopular with the people, and even if Vashnar was so inclined, Bowlott reasoned that he would be far too cunning and well placed to leave any chance of exposure open for discovery. Added to which, for what it was worth, he was married.
It was a serious problem. He would have to make judgements about him as they spoke. This was something he quite enjoyed when meeting newly appointed Senators, full of enthusiasm and foolishness and easily crushed, but the Senior Commander of Arvenshelm’s Wardens . . .?
Despite these circling preoccupations, Bowlott could not resist tormenting his two companions by satisfying their curiosity while at the same time adding to it.
‘I’ve asked Commander Vashnar to come to my office at Close today, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate, it would be very discourteous of me to keep him waiting. However . . .’ He set off walking again, startling them both. ‘We can talk a little about your problems on the way.’ He kept his eyes forward and maintained an unexpectedly rapid pace as the two men flapped after him. ‘If I’m not mistaken, Senator Bryk, your members have been complaining about the number of their electors coming to speak to them about these Morlider rumours.’ He did not wait for a reply. ‘Tiresome business altogether. I sympathize. It’s hard enough running the country without having electors bothering you every day with their petty problems.’ He made an airy gesture. ‘They do not have our breadth of vision, you see, gentlemen. And you, Senator Welt, have the same problem, because of the decline in trade with Nesdiryn. One can understand this a little more, but again, merchants, traders, well-meaning souls though they be for the most part, have little grasp of the problems with which we have to wrestle, eh?’ He looked expectantly at his entourage. ‘Indulge me, have I read the times correctly?’
To his satisfaction there was quite a long pause before either replied. He could almost hear the clatter of confusion as their thoughts: ‘Vashnar. What does he want to see Vashnar for?’ vied with the need to answer his question.
Welt recovered first. ‘Indeed, Striker,’ he droned. ‘As ever, you have your ear firmly against the heart of the Moot.’ Bowlott inclined his head modestly. ‘But, if something has occurred of such importance that it requires you to meet directly with Commander Vashnar, we will, of course, not trouble you any further. Our concerns dwindle into insignificance.’
‘However,’ Welt continued, ‘as Senator Bryk and I are here with you, fortuitously – the greater part of the Moot as it were.’ He made a peculiar rumbling sound which, even after many years of dealing with the man, Bowlott had to strive to remember was supposed to be a comradely chuckle. ‘Then perhaps we may be of assistance to you in your discussion with the Commander?’
Bryk, fish mouth seeking air, nodded in agreement.
Bowlott was surprised. This was a remarkably direct approach, especially from two such experienced Senators. Then again, he mused, they wouldn’t be the first Senators to become a little strange as a result of being obliged to talk to their electors. Such people could be very unsettling; they brought in the pettifogging irritations of the outside world like a cold draught.
He pretended to ponder Welt’s suggestion.
‘I appreciate your gesture, gentlemen, especially as I know you’re both very busy, but it would be . . .’ he stretched out the pause. ‘. . . inappropriate for you to become involved at the moment.’
That was enough, he thought. Keep them fluttering. He rapped his staff on the floor before either of them could pursue the matter. Out of habit, the two men stopped and bowed their heads at this signal of dismissal. Bowlott nodded to both of them and continued on his way. He allowed himself a peevish smile at the sound of scuffling and whispering behind him as the two men scurried off.
The smile vanished abruptly as just ahead of him Vashnar emerged from an adjoining passage. The Commander’s leisurely but purposeful stride carried him in like a dark cloud, and Bowlott had the impression that the pictures, tapestries and statuary that decorated the walls of the long hallway were drawing away from him watchfully as he passed, while at the same time, paradoxically, Vashnar’s bulk made everything look smaller. Involuntarily, Bowlott cringed. It was not an experience he was used to and it brought an immediate reaction. This was his domain. It was other people who cringed around here! Vashnar might be the Senior Warden Commander, but he still had things to learn about the Moot.
‘Commander,’ he called out, forcing himself to hurry forward.
The cloud paused and turned. Bowlott straightened as black eyes searched through him. His little eyes reflected the stare back.
‘Striker Bowlott,’ Vashnar acknowledged.
‘Thank you for your promptness, Commander.’
Vashnar had Bowlott’s message in his hand; he indicated it significantly. ‘Close of Moot you . . . ordered . . . Striker. And Close of Moot it is.’
Aah. That hesitation. That quiet edge to the voice. Defensive about his position. A useful hint of weakness. A good starting point. Bowlott had to make an effort not to smile. He transformed the muscular impulse into a puzzled frown.
‘May I’?’ he asked, reaching for the message. He was reading it and shaking his head as they came to his office.
Opening the door, he ushered Vashnar into the ante-room ahead of him. The two Pages jumped to their feet, knocking over their board game.
‘Page.’ Bowlott’s voice was stern; he waved the paper ahead of him like an irritable moth. ‘One does not order the Senior Commander of the Wardens. By Request, is the ending for such a message. By Request. You should both know this by now.’
‘But Striker . . .’ The protest ended abruptly as a left foot swung rapidly up behind a right leg to deliver a kick without in the least disturbing the kicker’s posture and demeanour.
‘I . . . I apologize, Striker . . .’ the protestor stammered, accurately reading his friend’s suggestion and just managing to suppress the urge to reach down and massage his bruised leg.
Bowlott gazed skywards and directed a hand towards Vashnar.
Increasingly flustered, it took the Page a moment to understand the gesture. ‘I apologize, Commander,’ he managed eventually. ‘I . . . made a mistake in interpreting the Striker’s message. The blame is mine entirely. No offence was intended.’
Vashnar gave a non-committal grunt. With a parting glower at the two Pages, Bowlott motioned Vashnar towards the door to his office. The guilty Page rushed to open it, knocking the spilt remains of the board game across the floor on his way.
As he closed the door behind the two men, he simultaneously grimaced, bent down to rub his leg and mouthed a silent oath to be shared equally between Bowlott and his companion. Still rubbing his leg, he hopped over to join his friend, now standing by the voice tube, his expression gleeful.
Though the deep, tunnel-like doorway was high enough to accommodate him comfortably, Vashnar could do no other than stoop as he passed through it. The urge to remain stooped stayed with him as he emerged from the cave entrance into the heart of the Striker’s world. The lamplit pallor, the grey oppression, the faded but almost total disorder, heightened by the occasional splash of tidiness, all conspired to ignite long-forgotten memories of childish dreams when suffocating walls and ceiling would close around him until he jerked violently awake, shouting and gasping and beating the bedclothes. Though transient, the impression was disturbing and for a moment Vashnar could not move. Bowlott, still flushed with noting the Commander’s sensitivity about his position, and his success in transferring the blame to the Pages, did not notice this demonstration of a far greater weakness.
All signs of Vashnar’s momentary discomfiture had vanished by the time Bowlott reached the central massif. He picked up a chair and placed it on the same side of the desk as his own. This would demonstrate his awareness of their equal status and further deflect blame for the ‘By Order’. Vashnar looked at the chair warily before he sat down; it creaked uneasily under his bulk. The sound made him cast an equally wary glance around the over-burdened shelves as though it might signal the onset of a catastrophic avalanche of books and papers.
Bowlott misinterpreted the movement. ‘You’ve never had the pleasure of coming to my den, have you, Commander?’ He retraced Vashnar’s glance around the room smugly. ‘It rarely fails to impress. The collected wisdom of the Moot gathered here. Statutes, debates, precedents, modes of proceeding . . . everything is here. The heart of the government of Arvenstaat. The wisdom of the past enshrined for the guidance of the future.’
Vashnar had difficulty in not sneering outright. Part of him still wanted to choke. Dust, paper, disorder on a scale he’d scarcely have thought possible outside a natural disaster . . . This could well be a metaphor for the way the Moot ran the country. And, continuing it, an inadvertent spark – perhaps from one of these lanterns – could end it all.
And out of the ashes . . .
He dismissed the thought quickly. Just as Bowlott did not know him, so he did not know Bowlott other than by repute and through largely formal contacts. Whatever else he might seem to be, this fat clown now beaming proprietorially at him would be crafty and capable, and quite probably ruthless in his own way. There was no saying how he might read a man.
‘It’s impressive indeed,’ he said, confining himself to the comparatively safe ground of the truth. ‘A marked contrast to my own office.’
Bowlott nodded understandingly. ‘Yes, I imagine. The world of the man of action . . . austere,’ he said, just avoiding the word ‘simple’ at the last moment. ‘Constantly dealing with the immediate – with the misdeeds of the bad and the foolish. While we here must struggle with the more ponderous responsibilities of guiding the state through the years.’
Idiot. Get to the point.
There was a brief, awkward silence, then Bowlott leaned forward confidentially.
‘Still, Commander, I’ve not asked you here to discuss our respective obligations. We both know what they are. Under your capable leadership, the Wardens fulfil their duties admirably, leaving the Moot free of disturbance to fulfil its duties in turn. Generally speaking, all is as it should be.’ He gave a reluctant shrug. Seeing no other choice he would have to plunge right in. ‘However, your declaration of the Death Cry has unfortunately caused . . . ripples.’ He raised a protective hand before Vashnar could respond. ‘I appreciate that your action was perfectly in order. There’s no difficulty there. The Cry has never been a matter for the Moot, nor would any of us wish it to be. But the Death Cry, Commander – and against fellow Wardens.’ He allowed himself raised eyebrows. ‘I’m sure you’re more aware than I am of the stir that it’s caused – a stir that’s now spread so far as to be felt even here. Hence my request for our unprecedented meeting.’ As was usually the case, once he had started talking, the way ahead became clearer. ‘To be honest, I’d thought the Death Cry moribund. I’ve never known it used before, but . . .’ He gave a dismissive wave. ‘My ignorance of such matters is of no consequence. Obviously you chose to use it because some extremely serious offence had been committed, but I felt that in the light of such seriousness, perhaps the Moot might be able to play a part in helping you resolve the affair.’
Vashnar shifted a little, making his chair creak again. Had Bowlott’s opening remarks been in any way challenging to his authority, he would have had no compunction in discreetly telling him to mind his own affairs and walking away. The Moot was nothing without the Wardens to implement its will and no consequence would follow from such an action. He saw now however, that he had underestimated Bowlott’s ability to slither around events – a foolish mistake. A deep self-anger threatened to stiffen his jaw. It was a pillar of Vashnar’s vision of himself that he never did anything without careful thought and meticulous planning. So what in the name of sanity was he doing, making such an elementary error of judgement? It served only to compound the other foolish mistake he had made recently – the real cause of his anger – the proclaiming of the Death Cry against Thyrn and, worse, Hyrald and the others. It took him some effort to force the clamouring questions into silence and he achieved it only by making the resolution that this day – once he was free of this dust-choked lair – he would gather together his every personal resource, scattered since all this had started, and determine precisely why he had done what he had done. Then, and only then, could he set about reconstructing the plans of years which he had so strangely jeopardized.
He felt an ironic twinge of gratitude towards Bowlott. Had the wretched little man not inadvertently forced the issue, it is possible that he might not have steeled himself to this task until far worse consequences had ensued. And they would have ensued, beyond any doubt! Now there was merely the immediate problem of dealing with Bowlott’s insinuating inquiry.
‘I understand your concern, Striker Bowlott,’ he began. ‘And I appreciate your offer of assistance. Moot and Wardens are rather like draught horses . . .’ Quoting the Treatise, eh? Bowlott thought, more than a little surprised. ‘Independently, yet together, we draw the state along evenly and smoothly.’ Vashnar risked extending Akharim’s analogy. ‘But sometimes the road is . . .’ He hesitated.
‘A little uneven?’ Bowlott offered incongruously.
Vashnar shook his head. ‘Worse than that. The road is no longer there. Swept away. Gone.’
Bowlott blinked and stared.
‘Then one of us has to continue alone. Find a new way.’ Like Bowlott before him, Vashnar was gathering confidence now that he had started. ‘This is what has happened here. I can’t tell you more at the moment, because I don’t yet have the full measure of it – not yet found my way, as it were. Certain matters – Warding matters – have still to be resolved. But suffice it that something of the utmost seriousness has indeed happened and I shall advise you fully about it as soon as I can.’ He let out a resigned breath. ‘I’m afraid there’s no way in which the Moot can help. I’m sorry if the incident has caused problems for any of the Senators, but please assure them that the matter is being pursued with the utmost vigour, and I’ve every hope that it will be concluded very shortly.’
Used to equivocation, Bowlott saw that he had done sufficient for the moment. That Vashnar was sitting in his office saying anything at all about the Death Cry made a strong enough point for the time being. The Commander now knew that the Moot had taken an active interest in his actions and that eventually, one way or another, he would have to give an account of them.
‘That’s most reassuring, Commander,’ Bowlott said, standing up. ‘I’ll pass it along to those Senators who’ve been asking about it, and we’ll all look forward to your reporting on the matter in due course.’
Slightly unsettled by Bowlott’s abrupt abandonment of the questioning, Vashnar also stood up. The chair let out a squeal of relief.
‘Once again, my thanks for taking the time to come and discuss this with me, Commander. I appreciate it. You will remember to call on me at any time if you feel there’s anything the Moot can do to assist, won’t you?’ Bowlott’s arm directed Vashnar towards the cave entrance.
The two Pages were at their desks and working with studied diligence as Bowlott escorted Vashnar silently through the ante-room.
Walking through the corridors of the Palace, Vashnar felt strangely detached – his mind in one place, his body in another. The encounter with Bowlott had been no problem, but that dreadful room seemed to have numbed him. It was indeed like the heart of the government of Arvenstaat. Grey-edged, decaying and subtly menacing in its disorder, its nightmare quality hung about him. It confirmed the rightness of his own long-planned intentions, intentions already made more urgent now with increasing rumours of the Morlider islands appearing along the coast and hints of invasions from Nesdiryn in the west.
By an irony which eluded him, it was a diplomatic visit to Nesdiryn which had crystallized a long-felt dissatisfaction into a clear determination. He had merely glimpsed the two strange brothers who had ousted the Count, though their disturbing presence had been almost tangible as they scuttled through an audience chamber surrounded by their equally strange entourage. He had, however, met their Lord Counsellor Hagen and seen the Citadel guards and been impressed, almost over-awed, by both: Hagen, a powerful, frightening presence, single-mindedly ruthless in his determination to fulfil the will of his masters and to bring order to the land; the Citadel guards efficient and unquestioningly obedient and in conspicuous control of the streets.
Hagen it was who had given him the ring he now wore on his right hand. ‘The Lords have noticed you, Commander,’ he had said, fixing him with a penetrating gaze that Vashnar had had difficulty in meeting. ‘They see things far beyond the sight of others, but even I can see you are one of us.’ He leaned forward, the intensity of his gaze redoubling. ‘Our time is coming. Above all things, there shall be order.’ The quotation from his grandfather’s Commentaries made Vashnar start despite himself.
How . . .?
Before he could speak, Hagen had taken his hand and was placing the ring on his second finger. ‘They offer you this gift. It is very special. It has been crafted to their design and their spirit enshrined in it will keep them ever watching over you.’
Circumstances had allowed Vashnar to make only a formal expression of thanks, but the gift and Hagen’s manner had had a profound effect on him. The ring itself was simple and exactly to his taste, in so far as any form of personal adornment was to his taste. A stout black band held a small crystal set in a plain, highly polished, background. It fitted perfectly and he had worn it ever since. The thought of removing it unsettled him in ways which he felt ambivalent about and, after a while, the idea stopped occurring to him. Occasionally, when alone, he would stare at it. He thought that from time to time the crystal changed colour slightly – now faintly green, now blue, now clear – but it was the polished background that held him. It reflected images more clearly than any mirror he had ever seen, and years of wearing the ring had never diminished this. Once, standing in front of a mirror and casually raising a hand to his forehead, the ring had reflected itself and, for an instant, he had seemed to see an infinitely deep well opening before him. It was full of lights and sounds and voices – calling out to him, reaching for him. The vision was gone as quickly as it had appeared and, just as quickly, he dismissed it.
Since that time, albeit for no apparent reason, the borders with Nesdiryn had gradually closed and the already infrequent diplomatic exchanges had been replaced by rumours carried by random travellers. Nevertheless, the memory of Hagen lingered powerfully with Vashnar and he continued to wear the ring.
He was thinking about Hagen and gently rubbing his thumb over the ring as he found himself entering his own office. He paused as he closed the door behind him, suddenly aware that he had no recollection of his journey after leaving Bowlott. He frowned and tried to recall the route he had followed, but nothing came. He had no memory of the long corridors, the stairs, the hallways, the people who would have stepped aside from him. There was just his formally polite parting from Bowlott, then nothing – only emptiness – until he was here. His frown deepened. None too soon had he made the resolution to pull himself together, to review the events that he had set in train and that seemed to be slipping away from him. The grey cobwebs from Bowlott’s room formed around his mind. He shook his head to clear it, then, opening the door slightly, called out to his aide, ‘See that I’m not disturbed!’
The cobwebs returned, weighing in on him. Breathing heavily, he sat down at his desk. He was aware of his hands moving two writing tablets a little, then moving them back again to their original positions.
But they were a long way away . . .
At the end of a tunnel.
The cobwebs returned, closing over his eyes. Tighter and tighter, darker and darker.
Vashnar’s fingers, resting on the desk, fluttered as if trying to brush them away, then his head slumped forward.
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