A Song of Steel #6

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

Your cell is warmer than any cell has a right to be.

You have no idea what it took to smuggle this journal in here. I’ll not tell you what I’m using to write with. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to. Trust me.

I’ll not profess to know how you got in this cell in the first place, but given the lack of groaning in your stomach you’ve probably noticed that you haven’t been starved.

Water on the other hand, well…I take it you notice that you’re coated in dust and grime and your throat is dry as withered parchment. Your lips are cracked as a withered marble road.

You might notice some movement from time to time. That would be the gaoler–the man who guards you. You won’t be able to tell how often he’s here–your cell does not give you a full view of the dungeon. If he is, he only noises himself when it comes time to change the torches hanging on the sconces; bathing the dungeon in an orange glow. Though the back of your cell is still drenched in gloom.

The gaoler also comes to you once a day with a hot onion broth and watches you eat. He seems sympathetic to you. “I found some spare carrots,” he sometimes tells you, “Put them in the soup. It’ll taste better.” Sometimes it’s trout, other times garlic or slivers of deer. When he’s in a particularly jolly mood he’ll bring oat porridge, sweetened with honey and milk.

“Why am I here?” you ask the gaoler whenever he comes to you.

He’ll turn cold when you ask, clench his fists. “You know why, deserter” he’ll say, before he turns sharply away. I cannot say how many times you’ve asked this question. It seems to irritate him. Yesterday you went without food for asking. I would not ask again if I were you.

Then again, I am you. And where have we landed ourselves now, eh, Carth? Today, you asked other questions.

“What news of the war?” you asked your gaoler.

“Lord Crom-cil-Orm is on his way to the city,” he told you. “He sends his regards during your stay in his holdfast.” He squinted at you, fists wringing the pike in his hands. He seemed to suspect an attack. Even if you had your sword, you would not attack him. He wears lobstered mail and a tunic of grey velvet with circle of white with two red eyes in the center sewn onto the sigil. Check for that symbol in your earlier entries for me, would you?

“Is the King well?” you asked.

“The King is ensconced in the Great Tower, leagues from here,” he told you.

“How does he view me?” you asked.

His mustaches twitched at the thought of answering you. “He….accepts the acquaintances you made.”

He went on to tell you what follows:

You made a few friends in your time in King Crom-cil-Orm’s army. You finally had the chance to learn the Numidan’s name. He called himself Albarran. It was not long before Albarran found himself arguing with others in King Crom-cil-Orm’s army.

You both were allowed to join, most like because of the news that Queen Clarissant had matched her claim with her brothers Amr and Gormund. They’d divided their Kingdoms into three parts to quell the rising Lords. Crom-cil-Orm needed all the men he could get.

There are others who wanted the throne aside from Crom-cil-Orm. Lohain of the House of Ath is still out there. You learned from Crom-cil-Orm that Lohain only commanded a cadet branch of the House of Ath. His older brother Duad commanded the branch they held in Cayyor, and he had been who you had met, along with Musa Em, who I learned had been spotted marshaling lower Lords from Cayyor and Erehwon.

You were pulled from your thoughts when Albarran shouldered past you, followed by a smaller woman who moved with catlike grace and a wary eye, as though she were a mouser always on the lookout for his prey.

“I’m not telling you to believe me,” Albarran said. “All I’m saying is that I saw the fires of Amr’s branch of the House of Em last night. We’ll be upon them by nightfall.”

“What are you, a seer?” asked the mouser.

Albarran turned to face the mouser. “I’ve seen many things, Khalee,” he said. “I don’t predict a battle lightly. You don’t need to be a seer to smell blood on the horizon.”  

The big man marched off, and the mouser looked at you. “He can be a touch dramatic.” You shrugged.

You started after the Numidan, ignoring the mouser’s protests. You hailed him. “You think there’s a battle dawning, Albarran?” You had to take long strides to match his pace.

“Did you hear me back there?”

“Yes.”

“Then what do you think?”

“How big do you think the battle will be?”

“The House of Em wants more than a skirmish, elsewise they wouldn’t be calling down this fog.”

You reached out to touch the mist. You had just read this account, so knew intimately the dealings in the House of Em. “This is Musa Em’s work?”

“You see any clouds in the sky these past few days?”

“No.”

“There you go.” He quickened his pace in an attempt to be rid of you, but you jogged up to him.

“How will we fare?”

He pivoted, turned. You couldn’t stop your quickened pace and slammed into him and fell into the mud. When you oriented herself, you saw that the big man hadn’t moved. “I already told you I’m not a fucking seer.” He crouched to be at eye level with you. “You ask too many questions, you know that?”

You nodded. “I don’t remember much.”

“You want to know what my details are?”

You nodded again, and the man drilled his finger into the mud. “This is us,” he said. Then he scooped up a handful and, holding it in his fist, walked his fingers three paces north from his original depression and spattered it down there.

“This is Silverhill, just away from the city we’re headed for. We want it. It works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the west.” He walked his fingers three paces further north and made another impression with his finger.

“This is the House of Em. They want Silverhill. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the east. If we keep going north as we are now, we’ll be at Silverhill in a day. That’s why I say we’ll be fighting.”

You both rose, and you thanked Albarran for the explanation and offered him her hand. “My names Ca—”

Don’t,” the Numidan growled, spewing spittle onto your face, “Remind me of your name. Do not tell me your name. I’d rather forget it.”

You lowered her hand an inch. “Why?”

“Because I’d prefer to see you as just another corpse once all this is over.” Your throat tightened at the word “It makes things easier,” he explained. “For me, at least.”

* * *

The gaoler knew nothing else of your conversation with these two people who were apparently your friends. He left without another word after he had explained what company you keep.

Some time later, a woman entered. You were finishing your dinner when the door creaked open, and bathed in the orange torch-glow was a woman with knotted hair and a dirty tunic. She’d driven nails through her palms and you could hardly see her eyes from beneath her hair. “Heathen,” she whispered, soft as a winter wind. “Have the gaolers treated you well?”

“As far as I can tell, my lady,” you said, tilting your head and knitting your eyebrows. “Memory eludes me, you see. Do I know you?”

“Your treasonous demon steals your memory of me,” she said. “Do you lack for anything else?”

“If I do, I’ve quite forgotten it,” you said. “Would I be out of place to ask who you are?”

“I am the Nailed God’s voice. She raised her palms to display the bloody nails embedded there. “I suffer as he suffers. I had a name once. Long ago. But now I am only a servant. I have given my name to the Nailed God. You may call me Red.”

“Red,” you said, testing the name on your tongue. “What do you want with me?”

“I,” she laughed, mirthlessly, “would like a great many things with you.” You followed her gaze to the torch on the wall. She walked over to one of the sconces.

“Do you wish to burn me?”

“This is a dreary place,” she said instead of answering you. “God’s sun doesn’t shine here. But this–” She cupped her hand around the flame. “This is a gift from the Nailed God. Your enemy, if you embrace this demon within you. Shall I put it out?”

“No!” you reached through the bars. “No! Please!” I trust you understand, Carth, how pitiable it would be if you were left in utter blackness.

Her smile was thin enough to cut glass. “So you love the Nailed God’s gift to you. Heathens are not fond of His gifts.”

“I need the torch,” you said. You curled and uncurled your fists around the bars.

“I am much alike to this torch, young Carth. Made for a single purpose: for the service of the Nailed God. Do you believe me?”

“I don’t believe anything,” you said, and then glanced at your scrolls, hidden in the gloom in the far reaches of your cell. “Only myself.”  Mayhaps you should have lied. Maybe you should have told Red what she wanted to hear. But instead you said, “You imprison me and refuse to tell me why. Why am I here?”

“Desertion,” she said. “Your friends were almost taken with you. But Khalee has a quick tongue and managed to free herself and your Numidan friend.

She explained to you thusly:

A day after Albarran’s prediction, no battle came. You did not know this, as you were busy fleeing Crom-cil-Orm’s army at the sight of the giant. The chase lasted nearly an entire day.  The sight of him terrified you, and you had no memory of the big man. So when you woke up and saw him, with no memory of what a giant was or your service to one instead of reading what I left you, you swung up onto a stallion and galloped off.

How did you know you could ride? Who told you that you could ride? Does it matter? What choice did you have? A giant was marching toward you and you had no idea what it intended to do with you. You had to do something. You were so truly terrified that you decided that you would risk being thrown to the ground from horseback.

Crom-cil-Orm’s stride was as long as your horse’s canter. Still, he could not catch you in time. Instead of making a fool of you, he sent mounted Housemen against you.

You were pulled from your mount by one of Crom-cil-Orm’s lieutenants, Moriaen, who dumped you unceremoniously to the ground and then dragged you to the giant. “What do you think you’re doing?” Crom bellowed. “Are you trying to desert me?”

But it seems you’ve made allies during your time in Crom’s army. You haven’t done well updating these scrolls, for the two that arrived seemed quite anxious to come to your defense–they must’ve been friends of yours, for they knew you rather well.

You’ve got two friends, see: Ser Khalee (the woman of Nuba with black hair, a spear, and a latticework of scars); and Ser Albarran (the black rider of Numida and hulking mass of barely-sheathed muscle). When they saw you unhorsed by Moriaen, they weren’t far behind.

Look at your legs, Carth. See those scratches and scrapes all up and down them? That was from the Housemen dragging you down the road. Proof to you that I’m telling the truth. Unless you’re reading this during a time when those wounds have healed. If this is the case, you may just have to trust me.

Khalee stepped in, speaking to Crom-cil-Orm. “He can’t remember much. He’s simple, really” She turned to you and spoke slowly, thumbing back to a King Crom-cil-Orm. “That’s called a giant, Carth. Repeat after me, gie-ant,” she sounded it out for you. “Give me your scrolls, I’ll write it down.”

Check your index. Tell me I’m wrong.

Also from your index, that you should know to be on the lookout for (I’ll explain why momentarily):

Clusters of men have pictures sewn the tunics they wear over their armor (they’re apparently called a ser’s coat–ser coat? surcoat? Who knows?). The pictures on their tunics match their flags and banners (they call them sigils) to mark the Kings they serve.

You spied a man with a tunic that displayed a wave beginning to curl. You asked him where you were.

“On the road,” he grunted, which you understood well enough, but you had no idea where you were were going. So you asked that and he told you you were going to a city that had pledged allegiance to King Crom-cil-Orm after some victory not too long ago. But a rival King named Musa wishes to take the city before you can.

I know little of all this talk of sigils and Houses and shifting alliances. I suggest you follow my advice and just roll with the punches.

King Crom-cil-Orm’s army tramps down the road for miles. Such a great gathering of men, isn’t it? All those people out there with their strange names—there are men with spears three times their height with arrowheads sewn onto their tunics, black riders who have sewn a silhouette of a horse’s head; and other men with flags of lions or dragons or wolves all ready to pounce. All serve King Crom-cil-Orm of the House of Orm—he who has a roaring wolf on his tunic and banner (I’ve drawn some sketches for you in your other set of scrolls, if you’re curious).

You’ve got a longsword at your side. You don’t think you know how to use it, do you? Draw it out of its sheath. Feel that leather-and-wood handle? Feels like a handshake between old friends, right?

You know one thing, don’t you: it hurts when you think. And you’ve no idea why. Perhaps you injured your head as a child—perhaps when you fell into the water. But you know that you must survive. And that means serving this giant in order so sow chaos through Erehwon and Cayyor. This is the cost of your life.

And this army is the largest force of men you can remember. It’s going to hammer its way through the rival Kings and you’re all too eager to join them. You need to remember why you’re fighting them. I do—but by the time you read this, you won’t.

But you’ll take up arms against them, anyway, won’t you, Carth? Who knows—maybe victory will make the pain go away.

I know the answer, but you’ll have to find out.

* * *

You bunched up your cloak. It felt suddenly heavy. “Lord, protect me,” you muttered.

“He did not protect Avilan of the House of Runth. He prayed to other Demon-Lords for three weeks. But when it came time for him to burn, his screams turn to shrieks. Why cling to these demons?”

Your eyes darted to your scrolls. “They have given me life.”

“Was it them? You sound so sure.” She pursed her lips.  “You have not seemed the sort to fear the truth, our past few meetings. And yet you lie to yourself. You blind yourself. Is it truly this demon that steals your memory you have faith in?”

“What would you have me see, Red?”  

“That the world is dark, but there is light. Men are black, and others white. There is hate and love. Bitter and sweet. Male and female. Pain and pleasure. Evil and good. Death and life. Duals duel. They war, Carth.”

“War?” you asked.  

“Duals war,” she said again. “It has been waged since time began, and before it is done, all men must choose where they will stand. On one side is the Nailed God, who bleeds for us all, and whose blood bursts into flame, and the other the Burned God, Lord of Ice and Dark and Evil whose true name cannot be said. He waits in the deep places between the stars. Ours is not a choice between Kings, giants or no. You must decide whether you would choose the darkness or the light. Tell me, heathen–where does your heart truly lie?”

“In a pile of doubts,” you said. “So many doubts.”

“Honest to the last, dear Carth. I knew we would get to this point eventually. Soon the Nailed God’s purpose will make itself known to you. But for now, cling to your doubts. It is all you have down here in these cells. That…and your torch. I will let you keep it. And the rats.”

Something clattered out of her nailed grip, to the ground in front of the bars.

“And one thing more. Choose your fate, Ser Carth.”

With a sickly-sweet smile and a swirl of ragged skirts she was gone. Only the copper scent of her was left. You lowered yourself to the floor and wrapped your arms about yourself.

The glow of the torchlight washed over you, and from where you sat, you saw what she had dropped.

A key.

Next

A Song of Steel #5

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

You wandered into a new town, though I cannot say how long ago.

The first half of my tale comes from the man who freed you. Even I do not remember why you were bound—given our mutual ignorance we have no choice but to believe the account of Lord Musa of the House of Em:

Lord Musa had won a hard-fought alliance—one he could not afford to lose for the sake of anyone.

If that anyone were not from the House of Ath, he wouldn’t have taken the risk.

Musa ruled his land as its Lord. He had dealt with years of border skirmishes between himself and the rival Lords–and now petty Kings–and all before he could even begin talks of alliance. Let alone the time-consuming negotiations with the rival Lords to form his confederation. Even during negotiations, the rival Lords needed to vote on who the new King of their confederation would be. In the end, they had chosen Duad of the House of Ath. Duad the Dreaded, he’d been called while they warred.

But united, Lord Musa hoped their confederacy might stand a chance against the gray-eyed giant marching his army through Erehwon and Cayyor–a splinter branch belonging to the House of Orm, who ruled in Erehwon’s capital. He’d heard tales that the former King had thrown himself out a window, and left his Regal Sword behind for his half siblings: Amr, Gormund, and Clarissant.

But even with such a threat looming, Duad Ath did not seem like he wished to hold tight to this confederation. Perhaps the giant and his Housemen had bribed him. Perhaps he did not care. But Musa Em would not let his work go to waste. He would not let his position be wiped out by the giant with the army of Housemen in steel coats.

Musa Em still remembered Duad’s smile when they chose him as King. As sharp and curved as his dagger.

This same dagger would soon be at Musa Em’s throat if he was not careful. He had seen the thing that had slinked out of Ath’s expanse late at night during their weeks of negotiations. The beast was massive, such that it had nearly torn the roof clear from the holdfast’s entrance. And when he saw the thing lumbering forth, he decided he needed a killer.

To his satisfaction, one had come to their newfound confederation scant days ago.

* * *

Musa stole a visit to the killer, shrouded in a cloak that blustered in the wind as he stomped through the tall yellowed grass. He ran his fingers along the stone wall that sealed the killer inside as came upon the entrance. With a mighty heave, Musa pushed the large stone aside, setting the room alight with the moon’s glow.

He was upon the stranger. A woman from the south of Erehwon, by the look of her. They had confiscated her ringmail shirt along with the double-edged sword she had stolen from one of the sentries when she infiltrated their encampment. The prisoner had used the stolen sword to open another of Duad Ath’s soldiers from waist to throat when she was caught sneaking into the confederation mere nights ago.

It was you, Carth. You were the prisoner.

Presently, you were bound hand and foot by a length of iron fetters. When you saw Musa of the House of Em, you began to struggle, chains clanking He would say later that he regarded you as a taut body of barely-sheathed muscle. Musa watched you struggle until, breathless, you relented and looked up at your captor. You two surveyed each other. You half-hoped that he would try to tear your throat open and kick your skull. Such images had plagued your mind, of late. You could not tell if they were memories.

Smiling, Lord Musa crouched over you. “Would you like to live, outlander?” Musa asked.

You grunted, newfound interest unveiling behind your eyes.

“It will cost you.”

You simply stared.

“I want you to kill a man for me.”

“Who?”

“Duad Ath. The King of our new alliance—and his creature.”

If you were surprised, you did not show it. “I’ll need my blade,” you said. “And my mail.”

Musa nodded. “It will be done.”

“When will I be free?”

“Within the hour. Anyone who can be bribed has been. And those who couldn’t—they were otherwise dealt with.”

“I’ll want my bonds removed now,” you growled. “And I’ll have some food, too. Good food. Not the wretched gruel I’ve been served.”

“It will be arranged, outlander.”

“They call me Carth.”

He was silent for a moment. “It will be arranged.”

* * *

The blade you were given had belonged to Musa Em. It was surprisingly plain for a man who once vied for the throne back in Erehwon. A man who once called himself a King

You stalked through the tall grass that reaching up to your waist. You had a debt to repay.

Your mail shirt rattled as you crept through the night toward Duad Ath’s holdfast. You had been told it would be the one with intricate patterns worked into the windows, shaped in strange ways so that the light filtered through forming odd shapes within. It was some script so bizarre that even man who saved you could not identify it.

An even better marker of the holdfast was the lion rampant emblazoned on a flag snapping over its edifice.

All the other homes were plain, yet when you came upon the holdfast, you realized that this one’s windows were not just strange–they were impractical. Most were crescent windows, with the occasional dash or complete circle, leading into more curves.

You stepped inside and saw that the moon filtering through the windows had formed some kind of bizarre moon-letter, or rune on the stone floor. You’d never seen it’s like before.

You adjusted your cloak about your shoulders and pulled your double-edged blade free from your belt.

You stepped inside.

A lightning bolt flashed behind your eyes and pain seared your forehead. The world around you shattered like so much glass. Then the shattered shards fell into some sort of bright-burning Never beneath you where the floor had once been. They fell and fell and fell, but you could discern no crash to mark an impact point. They simply fell so far that you failed to see them.

You thought you would fall, too, until rock knitted its way between the empty space and your feet, woven from the burning light beneath you and threading itself into spires of stone with a patchwork path interrupted by occasional tufts of grass and dirt. You could see new spires knitting themselves into existence, with dirt and roots under the rocks; sand and stone falling like an open sandbag into the Never, that did not empty or deflate.

You wondered if you should fear this thing–this Never. This account tells you that the woman Khalee mentioned it before. And for all you know this Never is a normal place that anyone can visit.

So you decided not to question it, and carried on.

You followed the path, and heard the vestiges of voices—a conversation.

“…Should have taken my warning! Should have left with your clan while you were still an King!” The voice came behind a bend of jagged stone, booming and towering.

“Your beast doesn’t frighten me,” said the voice of Lord Musa. “My interests remain here, Ath!”

“That murderer gives you good company! Oh, don’t look so shocked. Of course I know. There are many things here—even secrets—that make themselves known to me. I know that the peace you so strived for was won more by daggers in the night and whispered threats. And you wore the guise of protection from the giant’s army! And yet I was named King of our new alliance. It seems the others fear my beast more than your steel and threats. It must chafe, does it not?”

“I did not need to conjure some foul beast to secure my rule. I do not need to steal another’s body in order to confront an enemy! I never exploited a caste for greed and ambition. Do not shame me with such words when you gather taloned beasts and damascened steel to silence those who might dissent.”

“Would you kill me were I in my true body? Musa, I’m surprised at you! At least the outlander isn’t ashamed to bring her murderous acts to bare!”

You decided you’d heard enough of their arguing, and rounded the jagged rock to reveal yourself. The two men stood at arm’s length of each other, both pointing curved daggers at the other. But when they saw you, they lowered their arms an inch. When Duad Ath turned to you, you saw that his eyes were clouded in a milky haze. You assumed this was not Lord Duad, but the person whose body he inhabited.

“Then it is settled,” you growled. “We three are altogether scoundrels.”

Lord Duad of the House of Ath adjusted the collar of his tunic and swallowed saliva. “What shall become of me, then? May I yet keep my life?” You wondered why he did not flee this body. Was he trapped there?

Musa’s smile was as curved as his dagger. “Perhaps,” he said. “If you swear never to summon your beast, and stay away from this evil realm.” He gestured to the void of Never surrounding the three of them.

You laughed. “Since when does a King keep his promises? Come, let me cut his throat and end—”

“Silence,” Musa hissed. “I may yet end this without bloodshed. He stepped forward, but only just lowered his dagger. “Do we have a deal, Ath?”

“A cornered lion has few options,” Duad Ath muttered, staring at your blade, then at Musa’s dagger. He smiled, which struck you as unusual. Why would he smile in such a situation?

But then you heard something straggling down the sheer rock spire. It was a horrid desecration in the grotesque mockery of a human form. It a lumpy creature vaguely resembling a man had been all wrapped up in linen bandages. The lumps were were constantly moving beneath the linen. Every now and again one of the lumps would emerge from between two scraps of linen: red spiders, scuttling across the bandages and worming back inside another gap. Its many eyes were gray as chips of dirty ice. But the linen only had two pits for eyes. It made a clicking sound and leapt for Lord Musa.

But you threw himself in front of the former King. The gremlin collided with you and the two of you tumbled and growled, its blade whirling

Musa watched in muted horror. “You put your life in front of mine? You would battle the Swarm?”

I assume that’s it’s name. But do me a favor, Carth, and don’t ask anyone about it. I doubt anyone will believe you.

Unless I’m lying.

“I pay my debts,” you responded. You and the Swarm parted, and you stumbled into Lord Musa.

“Then let us be sure you do it right,” said Lord Musa, shoving you forward. “Best of luck, outlander. I must away. We’ll meet again.”

Your shoulders were throbbing and you could feel your heartbeat in the back of your neck.  You could not let the beast touch either Musa or Duad.I’ve been told from others that the Swarm are called upon by malevolent men, and will often strike deals with folk outside of the Never in exchange for power and realms merged.

Perhaps the giant warring ever southwards came from this place too. Maybe…

The beast pinned you to the ground and you two struggled for three heartbeats before you tore yourself free, cutting one of the beast’s hands off and rolling to the side as it wailed a spider’s wail a thousand times over.  The linen hand unraveled, and inside were only dead spiders.

Your cloak was heavy on your shoulders. There was a great thrashing of limbs as you tried to sneak your steel past the Swarm’s defenses. But even one-handed the beast was formidable, swinging in a storm of sword and fury.

You two were in a battle-frenzy. You caught and slashed and swung at each other. You heaved labored breaths, shoulders rising. Once during your battle, the Swarm nearly backed you off the edge of the rock and down into the bright Never glowing downwards forever below you. It tried to envelope you, but you danced away, lashing it with your sword. Breathless, you thrust forward, burying his blade in the beast’s belly. The Swarm’s linen opened, bleeding dead spiders as it sank to one knee. You circled the beast and with a heavy kick, smote the gremlin into the burning Never below.

You turned to address the two men, but Musa Em had long since fled, and Duad Ath was on his knees, uttering pleas for mercy. His gray eyes had returned to him. “I don’t know how I got here. I’m an innocent traveler! I swear on God’s bloody nails!”

But you could only distantly hear him. You were battered and you could feel a pain in every limb of your body. You saw something in the burning sky–an image of some sword, shined and castle-forged. Its gleam caught your eye. A mailed fist was slashing with it, and the image bit into the Never, tearing apart the Never’s seams.

There was a flash from the sky and fingers of argent were whispering through the Never, snatching up foul pieces of it and carrying them off to even fouler places, gray things like rotten dead without mass. Specters of moonlight sifted through the realm, until every piece was carried away, and you were within Duad Ath’s expansive holdfast once more.

You had not seen Ath himself carried away by the specter–leastways the body he inhabited–but he was not with you when you returned to the hut. Nor was Musa Em, and you were unaware if the men could have exited while the strange letter was still filtered in the tent by moonlight.

You did not bother to ponder whether or not the two had been snatched up by the specters. You could not find Ath within the hut. You resolved that he had paid your debt to Lord Musa —even if the House of Em was not around to enjoy it. You tired of their petty quarrels, elsewise. There were other places and other travels for a southron wanderer.

But as you fled, you heard noises down the path, and you were forced into wild, ragged wilderness. A smell of brine echoed in your nostril and the back of your throat. You could hear booming voices and clanking armor and swords. You had no idea how far they were from you. You had to get away. Men from the Houses of Em and Ath were scurrying behind you.

But as you got your footing to flee, you heard noises down the path. you were forced into wild, ragged wilderness. A smell of brine echoed in your nostrils and the back of your throat. The hills had risen as you had walked here and I hadn’t noticed. If I had noticed a second later, I would’ve fallen off a cliff-side into the depths below.

But when you turned there was a flurry of steel and spears. There were Housemen all about you, afoot and on horseback. Something crashed into your head and lightning cracked inside your skull. The ground rushed up to meet you. You manage to once again push up to your knees, groaning and drooling red drool.

“You think she’s a royal?” a man was talking to the others. “No, she’s got black hair. Royals have yellow hair. But look at that beauty—” You were pulled up by it. “That’s wonderful, little one.”

“Don’t touch me!” You reached for your blade.

The man’s boot smacked into your face sending you back to the ground. You crawled forward, away from the man. You were being herded, you realized. You looked back and saw a pair of boots, dusty from years on the road, worn parchment-thin underneath.

You swallowed the fear of the big man and kept crawling. But he followed you down the path, slowly as if you were a wounded pup and he needed a pelt.

“Get up, girl!” he said, kicking you down.

“I’m trying!” you said. That got you the butt of a spear to the head again.

He hauled you up by your collar and half dragged you on the march. “Not trying hard enough, girl.”

“Leave it be, Albarran,” said another man as he came upon the encampment.

Albarran had a wolf sewn onto the tunic he wore over his armor. The same one carved onto the end of his sword. Everyone had that wolf on their tunics and on their swords. Was this the fabled House of Orm.

They stared at you, seeing a girl beaten by some creature they most like thought was a myth. A girl with a sword at her hip. You were not a sight they often saw. You hated them. Hated the Housemen and the Kings vying for the control. You wished the waves would rise up to drown them all.

“Kneel, girl.” you were sent sprawling again and this time felt no need to rise. Each battered breath rattled in your throat. You tasted salt.

“And who is this?” came a booming voice louder and lower than thunder. He held up a hand as wide as your chest.

Distantly, you addressed the voice that reminded you of giants. Gods among men. “Ysbaden?”

The big man boomed out laughter. “She’s a reader, this one! Heh. The girl knows of my Father.”

“Found her crawling from the sea, your Grace,” Albarran said.

“The Nailed God sends us strange things, do they not?” the huge man said. “Are you a sea monster, little girl? A little sea monster?

“N-no. I’m not a girl,” you said. You thought you were a woman grown. Not a little girl too childish for this world.

“Not a girl? Then what are you? A warrior?” His voice softened, then; “No…I agree. You’re not a girl. You’re not much of anything, are you? Gaze upon your betters, little Nothing.”

Slowly, you raised your head and saw two huge boots capped with worn steel. Then two legs as large as a ship’s mast. His chainmail cinched at his waist by a belt twice as wide as your palm that stuffed with swords that looked like long knives pinned against his large body. His chainmail was shoddy and stretched thin over his huge chest, rusted in places like an old man’s liver spots. His fingers were crusted with rings that winked in the moonlight. The man regarded you with one gray eye like a chip of dirty ice, the other white and milky and blind. Those eyes were the only thing you could make out on his face. The rest was a thick white shock of hair and beard, with two mismatched, beady eyes poking through.

“Well?” said the man. “Give me your advice, little one. Be as a mentor is to a King.” He squatted down so you could feel his hot breath turning moist on your face. “Do you think I can become King?”

“Yes,” you said. It wasn’t a lie.

“Crom-cil-Orm, King of Erehwon. It sounds as sweet as wine does it not?” His men were quick to agree, nodding their assent. “I don’t know why the other Kings oppose me. I am a giant, and one with an army. I even sent the Kings messengers to accept their surrender. They were to meet right here. But their brutes killed them rather than surrender a war they can’t win. I will rule the land. I have a blood oath. What do they have?”

You were silent. He seemed to enjoy talking, and you decided it was best to let him continue.

“Doubtless, you understand their folly in opposing me. I am a giant! And who can oppose giants?”

You remained silent, said nothing, and King Crom-cil-Orm picked you up by your neck. “Do you have a name, child?”

You said nothing.

“All right then, keep your silence.”

You did, thinking inwardly: Carth. Your name is Carth. You knew that no matter what happened, you could not forget your name.

But you kept your silence. You kept your hatred, too; held tight to your anger and drank in your venom. These things were not good things, but at least they were yours.

The two men seized you from behind. “Take the child to the dwarf. Let him decide what is to be done with this one.”

Albarran’s pommel came down on you, and everything turned to darkness.

Next

A Song of Steel #4

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

You came to surrounded by blackness and bubbles. You tried to take a breath and swallowed a lungful of salt. By the time you figured out that you were underwater, you were scrambling to unbuckle your armor.

Your chest burned with the need to breathe. Your head felt light, weighing less and less as you struggled underwater. But you tore off what buckles you could reach. You saw your breastplate cutting a path into the depths, and soon your greaves. Water spilled into your nose and ears as yo thrashed. You reached for a sword belt that was not there. Did you ever have a sword? Who knows?

When you had cast off enough weight, you swam up. Your heart rattled your ribcage.

You broke the surface of the water and gulped in precious air. You doubted you’d ever taken a longer breath in your life. Your chest ached and felt frozen from the sheer amount of cold air you sucked in. You swam to the cliffside and clung to it. You decided that the Nailed God must have some use for you yet.

It hurt to breathe and your rib cage felt bruised. You learned to time your breaths against the waves that insistently shoved you further against the rocks.

You managed to crawl, shivering, onto a ridge of stone as long as you were, scattered with seashells. You were lucky to be alive.

Not that you felt that way.

Your throat was raw and stinging. A piece of you wanted to stop breathing from the sheer pain of it. You hunched, shivering, and hugged the rock that had saved your life. You felt a fool, hugging a scrap of stone. Your eyes burned with a need to cry, but you could couldn’t. It felt like the salt water had dried them up. Your skin was nearly bright pink.

Then you heard voices above you.

“See anything?” one of them asked. Your heart was throbbing in your neck. You pushed yourself as close to the rock as you dared to go without scraping the shells about. You didn’t dare to make a noise. You even stopped breathing.

“Got to be dead.” it was another voice. “Probably bashed her brains on the rocks. The Devils have taken her, no doubt.”

“The Queen wants a body.”

“Then let the Queen fish for it. Or Uthrik. He’s the one who let the crazed bastard fall.”

There was a third voice, then. “And which one will you be telling to take a dive first? Ava or the Queen?”

The other two chuckled. “The giant is making his way here. Thinks he can demolish our army while we yet linger.”

“Then what time do we have to combe for corpses?”

You heard them marching off. They spoke of rumors they heard. Different men on the march to this place. Someone said that this man named Uthrik told him some great king was coming.

“He did not! You’ve never said a word to him…” another said. Their voices faded as they make their way back to their warships.

You let out a shuddering breath. You hugged the rock again. It was all you had. How lonely is the man who hugs a slab of stone and says, “Oh, rock. You understand me.”

The warship would be leaving and a giant would be coming soon. You had two options: wait for the tide or find a way south.

You remembered earlier that night. How the woman had kicked your brother’s head as he lay on the ground, staring into empty space without blinking. How her brute had cut his throat. Were you two messengers for this giant? You couldn’t remember.

You curled your fist around the rock and climbed, promising to take revenge on the woman and her brute that you could hardly remember. And all other enemies besides. How exactly you were going to take that vengeance was not yet fully formed in your head. You had not even a club. What would you do when you found your enemies? Bleed on them? Did you think that they’d slip on your blood and dash their brains on the floor? I’d love to know.

You would avenge your brother. You swore it again as you climbed. The waves were lapping at you like a too-insistent lover; making the rocks wet and slippery.

Shivering and aching you climbed. Maybe you finally managed to cry, but your cheeks were so numb that you couldn’t quite tell. You climbed, climbed, climbed.

Then you hauled yourself onto dry land for a moment and rolled onto your back to catch your breath.

You had no knowledge of Kings or armies, but the way the men had spoken of it, hardened tough-sounding men–you assumed they were something to be feared. You wanted no part in it, so you wandered north into the Kingdom of Cayyor. You walked for hours with no idea where you were headed or where you would end up.

You told yourself that you did not mind the white-heats across the valley you travelled. You would be molded by it, you told yourself, as a sword is molded by the forge-fires.

Of course, leave a sword in the forge fires too long and it snaps. But to be fair, I’m sure you didn’t know that at the time. Forgetting is your best talent.

You followed the smell of brine, staggering under the beating the sea had dealt you. Like the waves were a procurer and you owed them money.  Mayhaps that beating are the source of your empty, empty head. How can you be sure when you started writing this? Are you missing pages?

You could not see more than an arm’s reach ahead of yourself due to the dark creeping in all about you. You reached out to steady yourself and caught your balance, steadying your breaths in tandem with the waves lapping the shoreline.

You closed your hand around a nearby pole and saw that there was a village nearby. A coastal town with a floor made entirely of wooden floorboards. You saw a downed ship out in the harbor, with pieces of it raised above water like many small islands, and masts raised like an obscene gesture.

That ship had been raided, you guessed, to form the floor of this place.

The planks that covered the village were slightly soft with thick clefts of seaweed sprouting between the cracks. It mushed under your feet, waterlogged. You stumbled across the threshold and then came to your feet, laughing out of the luck you had to find civilization so soon, and set off to explore the territory.

You found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you any business hereabout?”

“Not business,” You huffed, “Just a drink. Please.” You wanted to forget about the brother whose name was already slipping from your mind. About the raven-haired woman and her brute. About everything.

“A drinker with a sword at her hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand between blinks. It was now pointed so close to your throat that you were afraid to gulp. “You’ll hurt yourself, little girl.”

“Wary of strangers, I see.” You raised your hands as you approached. “Call me Carth.” You extended it for the woman.

“Khalee,” she said, shaking your hand.

“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”

“They’re dead or fled,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here. Not since the Great Interregnum began. The giant Crom-cil-Orm has forced many who once lived here to serve the House of Orm. Though Orm’s parent House of Maugrim, plus the Houses of Em and Ath come through to kill us every once in a while. I’m the only one left to protect the old and the elderly who still live here.”

“The Lord of the House of Orm–he owns an army of Housemen, yes? He’s the one who took your people?”

“Not just any Lord. A giant. And his Housemen have stolen the craven’s clothes of the pale southrons. He’s adopted their tactics. They come raiding here from time to time when they need supplies. Most old folks who still live here saw you coming and they assumed you were a scout. A stranger. They won’t come out for you. They won’t come out for anyone they don’t know.”

You bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we?” You gestured to your hip, displaying the lack of any apparent weapons. “Do I look threatening? Truly?”

Khalee looked away, almost bashful.

“Now, about that drink…”

* * *

The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. You savored the drink, your throat working as you finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down your gullet.

You set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalee was watching you from across the tavern. You inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.

You looked to Khalee, a question etched onto your face. But before you could noise it, Khalee spoke.

“Two years ago, when the death of King Lamorak Maugrim was looming and the Interregnum War was on the horizon, a scout belonging to the House of Maugrim came here and angered the Restless Dead through some vile sorceries. The King’s Ser drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, elsewise, and then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coast before they returned to their Never.

You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand. You did not understand what she spoke of. “The Restless Dead?”

“Gray Spirits. Giants once belonged to the Never, before folk took them out and bred them. I hear there’s a gray sludge that some use that comes from a river in the Never. Look out for gray folk. They’ll mean you ill.”

“And what of this?” You gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled you two in. “Is this the same ship?”

“One year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back. She claimed to be a patron of the Restless Dead. She had gray eyes.”

“What happened? Did they use some magic?”

“She opened her third eye. The one on the cloak.”

“Did she now?”

“She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never when they came for him that second time.” Khalee sat herself across from you. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled your cup. “The woman–the one one with the third eye on her cloak. She didn’t stay long…will you?”

“I’ve no eye on my cloak.”

“No…” she cupped her hand along your cheek. “But you’ve got some Never inside you. You should see your reflection. You look like you shouldn’t be alive. Someone must  be looking out for you. If it’s not the Restless Dead that keep you alive, then who?”

You smiled gently. “No,” you said. “I have no part in the games of these Restless Dead. I’m sorry.”

“Do not be sorry. My offer still stands if you’d like to stay. I could use some help with the elderly,” Khalee muttered.

“I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter. Not anymore.” You would not let this Khalee have her throat torn open and her corpse kicked.

Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth with a plop. She handed the cup to you. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.

“Khalee—”

“You have an ill look about you. You’ve seen something, haven’t you, girl? I would amend that. I would like to help.”

You nodded your assent and spat into the drink. You swallowed a mouthful and handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.

“We are kin now, Carth. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the Restless Dead, should you ever meet them.”

* * *

You left Plankytown that night. The wind chafed your flesh as your returned to the wild. Even a bastard like you who could stumble her way across the land will sometimes take a true tumble as you did then.

You did not—perhaps could not—get up, at first. Instead you wept. You wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on your cheeks.

Next

 

A Song of Steel #3

 

PreviouslyThe Cure (1)

READ ME

This next entry is less ceremonial as the first entry. Something has happened to your journal and you must describe months of events into a new journal. This means that you must do some summarizing. Your time with Lord Gormund played out thusly:

You would go on to receive extensive training, like every Houseman serving a noble Lord. You learned horsemanship and how it use your grandfather’s sword. The next few days were filled with practice at spear and sword.

In the morning, every­one, down to the lower-ranking Housemen in the kitchen and the men and women who pulled sentry duty, gave their all and came away from the field with faces bright red from exertion. That you had been taken on as a servant was soon common knowledge throughout the mansion. The stable attendants treat you as a rank beginner and ordered you about. You’re like a rat, always scurrying.

And do keep in mind, this all comes from other sources.

“Hey, bastard! Every morning from now on, after we take the horses out to graze, clean out the stables. Bury the horse manure in that bamboo thicket.” Ser Uthrik told you one day.

After you had fin­ished cleaning up the horse manure, one of the older Housemen told you, “Fill the big water jars.” And so it went on: “Split the firewood.” While you were splitting the firewood, you would be told to do something else. In short, he were the servants’ servant.

You were popular at first. People said, “Nothing makes her mad, does it? Her good point is that no matter what you tell ber to do, she doesn’t get angry.” The young Housemen liked you, but in the way that children like a new toy, and sometimes they gave you pres­ents. But it was not long before people started to complain about you.

“She’s always arguing.”

“She flatters the master.”

“She takes people for fools.”

Since the younger samurai made a lot of noise over small faults, there were times when the complaints about you reached Lord Gormund’s ears.

“Let’s see how she does,” he told his Housemen, and let the matter drop.

That Lord Gormund’s wife and children always asked for you made the other young men of the household even angrier. Puzzled, you decided that it was difficult to live among people who did not want to devote themselves to work, as you yourself preferred to do.

King Amr, Gormund’s brother, had made one of their own Houseman the castellan of Mary’s Peak, and put him in charge of administering the provinces and collecting taxes. You hoped never to be on their bad side.

But the clan that Gormund watched most closely was naturally the House of Ath. Although their Lord had been gone for almost eight years, there were still letters and Housemen who came from his castle. Rumors abounded that Lord Ath’s baby was possessed, and that they had had to kill it. Whole towns were swept up by Lord Ath’s Housemen, not a single person left when their attacks were done. He, like Amr and Musa and Crom-cil-Orm, had proclaimed himself King.

The House of Ath was bringing in more troops, reports saying that they were possessed by some dark magic. Wild and frenzied.

And lately:

“Bastard!” Morwan was looking for you in the garden.

“Up here.”

Morwan looked up to the roof. “What are you doing up there?”

“Lord Gormund was complaining about a leak. I decided I would try to fix it for him before the rains.”

Morwan blanched at you. “It’s the middle of summer. Why do you work yourself as if you’re going to be whipped?”

You shrugged. “The weather has been fine so far, but it’ll soon be time for the fall rains. Calling the roofers after the rains start will be too late, so I’m finding split planks and repairing them.”

“That’s why you’re unpopular around here. By now all the Housemen are lying in the shade while you work hard to gain Lord Gormund’s favor. Or mayhaps Ser Uthrik’s?”

“I work for no one’s favor, ser. Just my own. Elsewise, I don’t wish to disturb others. Working up here keeps me from disturbing their naps.”

“Don’t talk like that. If the others see you doing this, they’ll be angry. Get down from there!”

“Sure. Do you have any work for me?”

“There are guests coming this evening.”

“Again?”

“What do you mean, ‘again’?”

“Who’s coming?”

“Lord Gormund’s sister, Clarissant.”

“How many in the group?” You climbed down from the roof. Morwan took out a parchment. “We’re just expecting Lord Gormund’s sister, Queen Clarissant. With a small host of twelve to safeguard her. They are meeting to discuss matters of great import.

“That’s a fair-sized group.”

“These men who protect her have dedicated their lives to the study of martial arts. There’ll be a lot of baggage and horses, so clear out the storehouse workers’ quarters, and we’ll put them up there for the time being. Have the place swept clean by evening, before they get here.”

“Yes, sir. Will they be staying long?”

“About six months,” Morwan said. Looking tired, he wiped the sweat off his face.

In the evening Queen Clarissant and her men brought their horses to a halt in front of the gate and brushed the dust off their clothes. Senior and junior Housemen came out to meet them, and gave them an elaborate ceremonial welcome. There were lengthy words of greeting from the hosts, and no less respectful and eloquent a reply from Queen Clarissant, a younger woman with eyelashes like butterflies. Ser Uthrik was in attendance and they exchanged more than a few glances in each other’s direction. Once the formalities were over, servants took charge of the packhorses and baggage, and the guests, led by Uthrik’s Uncle, entered the mansion compound.

You had enjoyed watching the elaborate show. Its formality made you realize how much the prestige of warriors had risen with the growing importance of military matters.

The number of Queen Clarissant’s party did not surprise you. But since they were going to be there for six months, you suspected rightly that you were going to be ordered around until his head spun. No more than four or five days had passed before he was being worked as hard as one of their own servants.

“Hey, bastard! My underwear is dirty. Wash it.”

“Lord Gormund’s bastard! Go to town and buy me some soap.”

The summer nights were short, and the extra work cut into your sleeping time, so at noon one day you was fast asleep in the shade of a maple tree. He was leaning against the trunk, your head dangling to one side and your arms folded. On the parched earth, the only thing that moved was a procession of ants. You could hear the waves lapping near the cliff of Mary’s Peak, for which it had been named.

Ser Uthrik walked past, arm in arm with Queen Clarissant, who had been coming to visit.

“Well, look here. It’s the bastard.” Ser Uthrik said.

You jumped, startled into wakefulness. There were a dozen Housemen in armor crowding you, led by Ser Uthrik and Queen Clarissant. You were crowded away, toward the peak.

“Stop this!” you said. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve taken the spot my lover once held in my Lord-brother’s favor. He’s told me all about you, girl.”

You unsheathed your grandfather’s sword from the Never that the giants had come from. “Face me, if you have the nerve!” You would die a hero’s death, you decided. And all would turn to folly.

Clarissant was silent. Her butterfly-eyes were spread wide. But the crack in her composure was quickly sealed. Her grin was a dagger; her lips the blood on the blade. “Bring him out.”

“Bring who–?” you protested, but Housemen were shoved aside as Clarissant’s Housemen who threw a man in a blue tunic into the room. Like Clarissant, he wore smothering furs even in the summer heat. He had a sack over his head and his grunts of protests were muffled. You recognized him. He seemed familiar. Would that you could have recognized him. Would that you even had a memory.

He was bound, and thrown onto the ground, near the cliffside, like you. “What is the meaning of this?” Ser Morwan said, pushing past other Housemen. But the Ser Uthrik seized his arm.

“Do you know the tragedy of the Days of the Drowned?” Clarissant asked, ignoring the man’s murmuring.

“This man will not be drowned!” you said.

Clarissant laughed. “I don’t plan to drown him. He’s nothing to do with the Day of the Drowned. The tragedy has to do with my father, King Lamorak. It was during the Year of Glory. Did you know he took me on campaign during that year?”

“Why are you telling me this?” you asked. The bound man’s scream was muffled by his gag. A Ser kicked him and he whimpered into silence. You sheathed your sword, against your better judgement.

“I watched my father’s bloody victories. I watched him give his soldiers permission to loot and pillage and rape. He partook in such activities himself from time to time. He had me watch. He wanted to temper me.” She circled the bound man. “And during that year there was a small rebellion.” She shrugged. “Of little note, really, save for one thing: the rebels lived in a small city where my father was born. He sacked that city. What ensued was more of the same that I had seen that year. He played his part in the pillaging and raping. But do you know what his advisor told him after he’d returned from squashing the rebellion?”

The bound man squirmed and earned a Ser’s boot thrice-over. He was rolling on the floor, one ear leaking blood. Clarissant looked at the man, then at you, and then she smiled.

“His mentor had his eyes dipped in the river that flows through the Never. He could see all, past present and future. And he told my father that he fucked his own Mother. And in nine months’ time, she would deliver a child into this world. So my father searched for any child born in that month and had every last one thrown into the sea. I’d love to follow his example. I’ve learned to hate bastards. When anyone can be your parent, many bastards stake a claim to the nobility. I hear that’s how the House of Em came to power.”

“A cute story.” you rolled your eyes. “But that doesn’t answer my question. Who is this man? He doesn’t look like a red eyed albino.”

“This is my brother. Lord Gormund of the House of Maugrim.” She unveiled him to reveal desperate, pleading eyes. You turned your gaze on Clarissant. Those butterfly eyes looked down at him, and then up at you. “He’s the man who killed you.”

You blinked your surprise. “What?”

She took the same pride in her speech as the assassin takes in his dagger. “I tried to stop it, but the coward had hidden a knife.” Clarissant produces a curved blade and a damp cold overtook you. “It shall be my greatest regret that I failed to save my brother’s greatest servant. But my lover must rise in station if we are to marry.”

“And what about me?”

“You—you’re merely the pawn. The excuse. You’re nothing. And I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. She thrust the knife through Lord Gormund’s throat and kicked him on to his face, blood welling across the floor.

“What do you mean?” The words cracked as they left your mouth. You were suddenly aware of all Clarissant’s men crowding about you.

Clarissant walked calmly, so calmly towards you. You stepped back on shaky knees to nowhere but the low rampart and the high drop beyond.

“I heard stories about how much you did around the caslte. How you advanced in studying the sword. Gormund might’ve made you castellan, forgetting your bastardry and the black union that made you.”

“More of a dark gray, really,” you laughed, nervously.

Clarissant smiled; lowered her knife an inch. “You’re no castellan, but you’d make a fine jester. But to make a jester a castellan as my brother planned, well,” she raised the knife once more, “That’s just foolhardy.”

Ser Morwan snatched your arm and dragged you back, drawing his sword in the same motion. “Get behind me, my—”

Blood spattered into your face, nearly blinding you. “Morwan!” You shrieked.

Your friend fell to his knees, gurgling and clutching uselessly at his throat as the blood slithered between his fingers.

You followed the path of the knife that had drawn your brother’s blood and saw the man who had ruffled your hair all those years ago, Ser Uthrik, his dagger dribbling red. Frozen in shock, you watched as Uthrik sauntered over to Clarissant and placed a deep and passionate kiss full on her lips. He gasped when they parted and turned to you, his arm around your attacker’s waist.

“A bastard and a lunatic who thinks she’s can rule,” he said.

“But I didn’t—”

“You are no castellan,” he said. “You should have died that night I first found you.”

Clarissant spoke. “Do you think there’s anybody in this room who was not aware of this arrangement? Save this fool?” She kicked Morwan’s skull. The movement sent more blood leaking from his throat. “Even your own Lord sent you to your death. And his own.” You were not sure if she was lying about this. “Let us waste no more time. Ser Uthrik. Kill him.”

The Ser leaped for you, and you stumbled away so that Uthrik caught you by your swordbelt. You glanced at your grandfather’s sword, a pain in your chest as a man who is about to lose his lover.

A patch of mud took your feet out from under you and sent you stumbling back toward the sheer drop. Then your swordbelt broke loose and you reeled back. There was a whoop in your throat, and you tumbled over the castle.

Rock and water and sky revolved around you, and you plummeted down. Disposed of, just another piece of waste, you realized. You smiled, then. It seemed fitting.

You crashed into the water and felt some pity for the anvil that receives the blacksmith’s hammer. You knew how it felt.

The waves dragged you down, down, down…

 

Next

A Song of Steel #2

Previously The Cure (1)

READ ME

It has been years since your father gave you that sword. I start a new journal to mark this new chapter in your life.

I will write this down in case you ever meet him again: Lord Gormund of the House of Maugrim is the second eldest heir to the now-dead King.

The Great Houses of Orm, Em, Ath, and Maugrim are now in revolt. Maugrim was already on the throne, so their claim is the strongest. But every House with control of the Never has stakes a claim.

The eldest son and daughters, Amr and Clarissant, were ruling at the capital, which left Gormund in charge of the farther reaches of their holdings. Including this town, which you had wandered into after one of your nightly forgettings. You had grown up seventeen years and could be lost like a dog for weeks on end before your mother or father found you.

Of late, you had wandered into Maugrim-controlled village of Mary’s Peak, named for when the Lordess Mary Maugrim took a dive off the cliff outside her holdfast.

You still wished to be a Houseman for the House of Orm.

That same day Lord Gormund was returning from a neighboring castle for talks of an alliance against the House of Orm, where he had been conferring with a fellow Maugrim Houseman. The officials of the province met regularly to tighten their control over the people and to guard against invasion from neighboring Houses: Orm, Em, and Ath. Ath, especially, had been the cause of the disappearance of whole towns. And Lord Ath himself had not been seen in decades.

Lord Gormund rode through the market. He turned in his saddle and called one of his three attendants: “Morwan!”

The man who answered was bearded and carried a long sword at his hip. Ser Morwan ran up to his master’s horse. They were traveling along the road back to their holdfast. Trees belted either side, and there was a pleasant view of fields of grain and wheat.

Lord Gormund pointed at you. “He’s not a farmer, and he doesn’t look like a pilgrim,” he mumbled.

Ser Morwan followed Gormund’s line of sight. He took in the mustard yellow of peasant banners, the green of the barley, but did not anyone special.

“Do you suspect an attack, my Lord?”

“Over there, on the path next to that barley field, there’s a woman. Carries herself like an eagle. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

Morwan took another look and saw that, sure enough, there you were. You were stooped over on the path by the barley field, trying to remember the memories you lost the night before.

“Find out what he’s doing.”

Morwan ran off along a narrow path to meet you.

You pretended you couldn’t see him as he inspected you from a distance, then you heard him speak. “Who are you?”

“Carth,” you said. You knew your name the same way you knew you could read or write. “My name is Carth.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Trying to remember myself.”

He blanched. “I’m sorry?”

“I have difficulty remembering who I am at times. I’m trying to remember which way my home is. Are you one of the King’s collectors? My notes—” you withdrew your index and read from it. “It says that it is an unspoken rule that anything suspicious should be immediately investigated. The King sometimes sent out collectors to vouchsafe the state of each Lord’s holdings. Am I suspicious? I apologize. I don’t mean to be.”

Morwan made his excuses, and came back to Gormund. I suspect he told him that you were insane. You may have told him you were a bastard, too. For they seemed to know that.

“A bastard, eh?” you heard Gormund say.

“And a talkative one, too. Likes to spit out big words. “While I was questioning him, he tried to turn things around. He asked me if I was a collector.”

“What was she doing, stooping over like that?”

“She told me she was trying to remember who he is. She seems insane, my Lord. Driven mad with her moon blood.”

Lord Gormund saw that you had gone up onto the road and was walking on ahead of him and Morwan.

He asked the Ser, “There was nothing suspicious about her, was there?”

“Nothing I could see.”

Lord Gormund took a fresh grip on the reins. “Word of advice, ser: do not blame the smaller folk for their manners. They weren’t raised like us.” With a nod of his head, he motioned Morwan forward. “This one interests me. Follow.”

It did not take them long to catch up with you. Just as they passed you, Gormund looked around casually. You, of course, had moved off the road and protracted yourself in front of the Lord. You peaked up and met your gaze with the Ser.

“Just a minute.” Gormund reined in his horse and, turning to his Housemen, said, “Bring the woman over here.” And, to no one in particular, he added with a note of wonder in his voice, “You’re an unusual fellow… yes, there’s something different about you

Morwan roughly dragged you to your feet. “Girl! Listen to me, girl. Get up! My Lord wishes to speak to you. Rise.” He half dragged you the three steps to Lord Gormund.

Gormund looked down at you. I can’t say what it was about you that intrigued him. Mayhaps your unkempt hair and soiled clothes? Mayhaps it was the fact that you are a bastard. He looked at you longer than you deemed comfortable. He seemed to stare through you. Through your eyes. “You have laughter in those eyes,” he remarked. “A strange laughter. Drive. Charisma.”

“I do?”

Gormund laughed at that. Apparently you amuse him, Carth.

You later overheard someone saying they heard him say you have magnetism. Can you untangle a sentence like that, Carth?, He decided he liked you; this strange-looking girl.

Unable to rid himself of the feeling but without saying a word to you, he turned to Morwan and said, “Bring him along.” He tightened his reins and galloped off.

The front gate to Gorm’s Rock—the House of Maugrim’s northernmost holding, was facing the river and swung wide open, with several Housemen guarding. A tethered horse was grazing near the gate. Apparently, a visitor had arrived during his absence.

“Who is it?” he asked as he dismounted.

“A Houseman from the House of Em.”

Gormund acknowledged the information and went in. The House of Em always wanted to limit access to the Never, and may have pledged their support to the House of Maugrim if they would absolve themselves of their heathen magics. Housemen visitors were not uncommon, but Gormund was preoccupied with you, it would seem. “This one is with me,” he told the gatekeepers.

“A prisoner?”

“A Houseman, possibly.”

The gatekeeper and the other servants burst out laughing. “What is she, anyway? A scrawny little girl with a sword at her hip. Can she even use it? You’ll cut yourself on that, dear.”

You checked the scars on your fingers. Dozens and dozens of lessons.

The boisterous voices rang in your ears, but during your seventeen years of your life you have had ample opportunity to hear the taunts of others. Even with your memory being stolen away every night, you seem to be doing quite well for yourself. It doesn’t seem to bother you. You remember them the same way you remember your name. You hear it so often it becomes a part of you. Perhaps too much so. You were too calm. You walked past as if you hadn’t understood them. As if the gatekeepers had insulted a horse.

“Girl, there’s an empty stable over there. You can wait there, where the sight of you won’t offend anyone,” said Morwan, who then went about his business.

When evening came, the smell of cooking drifted from the kitchen window. The moon rose over the peach trees. The formal interview with the messenger from the House of Em being finished, more lamps were lit, and a banquet was prepared to send him on his way the following day. The sound of the hand drum and a flute drifted over from the mansion, where a play was being performed.

You watched the play about some knight out to slay some treacherous beast upon icy slopes. You lay stretched out on a bed of straw you had spread on the floor in the back of the hall. You like music, believe it or not. It lets you forget everything. Or rather, forget your forgetting. But you were distracted by your empty stomach. You wondered if you could borrow a pot and a fire.

So you bunched up your dirty straw bundle and made your way to the kitchens. You found a scullery maid with a knife and asked her, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you couldn’t lend me a pot and a small cooking stove. I was thinking of eating my meal.”

The kitchen helpers stared blankly back at you. “Where in the world did you come from?”

“Lord Gormund brought me back with him today!” you said with a smile. “I’d like to boil some salted chicken I gamed a few days ago.”

“Salted chicken, eh?”                                                   

“I’ve been told they’re good for the stomach, so I eat some as often as I can.”

“You eat them with potatoes. Do you have any?”

“Yes.”

“Bread?”

“I have bread, thank you.”

“Well, there’s a pot and a fire in the stove in the servants’ quarters. Do it over there.”

Just as you did every night in cheap lodging houses, you cooked up a small portion of bread, boiled your chicken, and ate your evening meal. You were about to go to sleep—servants quarters being preferable to a stable, but soon enough someone came by to check on things.

“You—bitch! Who told you that you could sleep here?”

They kicked you, and you curled up. They took you by the scruff of the neck and hauled you outside.

“I’m going to have fun with you, bitch—”

“Uthrik,” it was Lord Gormund’s voice. “That’s enough.”

Ser Uthrik dropped his grip on his sword and stormed off, muttering curses under his breath.

“Oh, it’s you, my Lord.” You said.

Lord Gormund seemed only slightly tipsy. Almost sober. But not quite. “Has the dawn risen?” he asked. “Are we close?”

“It will be some time before dawn, my Lord. I apologize.”

“What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“You told me to wait.”

“You should sleep.”

“I tried.” You thumbed back to the Ser. “He doesn’t seem fond of the idea. With all respect, my Lord. But now I’m fresh, my heart beating fast. I cannot be so still.”

“Such drive,” he said. “And to think—I forgot all about you during the play. And you’ll serve me now, yes?”

You laughed but made no move to reply. So when Lord Gormund asked how long you had been wandering, you told him it had been years of wandering with your grandfather’s sword allegedly forged from the Never before he took you in.

“You’ve been walking about for years waiting to serve a Lord?”

“Yes.”

“Looking two years—either you’re the dumbest woman I’ve ever met, or the smartest. I can’t quite decide what’s wrong with you.”

“I’ve many wrongs, the same as anyone else. I wanted at first to serve the House of Orm—” you caught his glare and knew you had said too much. “—but I soon discovered that I could not settle for just any House. I needed yours.”

“And why is that?”

“There are good generals and bad ones. Good Lords and bad Lords. I think the most important thing I can do is choose the right mentor—the right master. I decided I would go on wandering, selling what I could, when I could. And then I guess two years passed.” You shrugged.

Lord Gormund must have thought you were clever. I happen to think you’re more than a little foolish, personally. And that’s not even touching how pretentious you sounded. But I can’t deny you’re not ordinary woman.

“Serve me,” he said. It did not sound like a request.

You fell to one knee. “Thank you, my Lord. I will do everything in my power for you, my Lord.”

It did not seem to occur to him that hiring a girl in rags and a traveler’s cloak who had been wandering for two years and could never quite remember who she was might have meant that he was lacking in some form of thinking. That’s the only reason I can see why somebody would hire you.

 

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