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?”
“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?”
“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.