A Song of Steel 1.3

Previously

A Song of Steel

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 Uthrik. 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 Sers 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 Sers 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.

 

The Vile Assembly

The Vile Assembly

The Great Detonations of the twenty-first age killed half the world. And yet more: it mutated we who survived. Our eyes don’t quite work properly, anymore, though our other senses are far greater. The average human will experience the perfect culmination of light and color to see the world properly roughly once every few years.

It’s not all bad, though. In the dark, you see, everything is anything it should be.

* * *

I found myself praying to Nailed God when I learned that my title of Lordess was balanced on a blade’s breadth. It wasn’t a rank bestowed by the Crown. I was, rather, the Lordess of a gang: the Murder of Crows.

I needed the Nailed God’s help.

A fortnight before my praying began, I’d found trouble with a Crown-approved gang: The Fangs; who lived down on Sandpiper Quarter, where the monsters dwelt.

My Murder reported one of the Fangs was selling thaumaturgical artifacts in my district of Elysium. So I assembled my Murder and set out to treat with him. Only to treat. Nothing more.

My Murder was wreathed in their own darknesses, and followed my orders to stay put while I approached. Halfway down the road, I’d heard the jangle of jewels against leather—a sack that held them, most like (In Morgad, you see, a keen ear keeps you safe—the ability to hear all the intricacies of sound and then translate them into sight is vital to survival in the blind city).

“What is your business in Elysium?” I asked.

The monster’s voice was raspy. It probably had teeth grinding in the back of its throat. I kept my distance, my hand holding the grip of my sharpwand. “What’s it to you?” he asked.

“You encroach on my district,” I’d told him.

“I can sell what I like where I like.”

“Why?” I asked him, “Because you belong to a Crown-approved gang?”

“Because I’m a prince of the Fangs!”

“A prince of the Fangs,” I had to admit, the words flowed well enough. And yet: “How high, truly, is a prince of the gutters? Is that not unlike being king of the ashes?”

At his hip was a rattling–a scraping. He was unholstering his sharpwand, I realized. So I mimicked the draw, though quicker than him, and cut off the hand that held his weapon.

He did not bother to scream—from shock or because the monster had no nerves to feel pain I’ll not profess to know. Nevertheless, he fled, hooves pounding down the stone street.

I followed him.

The street was empty, save us two and my Murder. I’d whistled across the way and heard one of my Crows whistle in return. I needed to keep track of where they all were. It was too easy to get lost in the dark city.

More and more of my Crows whistled, closing in on all sides.

And the next day, the minor prince from the Fangs was discovered in the gutter with his throat opened wide.

The Fangs didn’t like that. And having the Crown on their side gave them some authority to settle the dispute.

* * *

I finished my prayer to the Nailed God and sighed, hands falling to my sides and feeling the granite steps overlooking the battle-yard. Few dared to venture there, which was why I had—wearing a cloak of three layers of interwoven crow-feathers; and with fingers bedecked with rings of lapis lazuli. I’d chosen my favorite sharpwand—the one with the good-luck wolf on the end.

I let out a low whistle. Far off in the darkness, someone matched my note. So I tried three notes, interchanging. Thrice-over the same notes returned. Then came the footsteps—three pairs, and the sound of canes clacking toward me.

It’s a trick everyone in Morgad learns sooner or later—to separate the rhythm of a man’s cane. To know the difference between one man’s click clack click clack from another’s clackity click clackity click.

I whistled again and more whistles returned. Five, then seven, then ten. I continued this way until my Murder was assembled.

They were wordless for they knew what awaited us. Soft hands and rough hands helped me out of my cloak and removed my hauberk. They rubbed oils and ointments on my arms and torso. “Relax, Isora.” It was Retcha’s voice. The one who spoke a quarter-octave above me, but softer. “Now isn’t the time for fear.”

“No,” I agreed. “That comes later.”

Another Crow spoke, then. I think it was Azoc, my chief lieutenant. His thrice broken nose made his voice sound all squishy. “Your cloak—It’s scratchy. What’s it made from?”

“Crow feathers,” I said. “It cost me a high price.”

“If you lose, can I keep it?”

Azoc would gain Lordship over the Murder of Crows if I lost. I might’ve given him the cloak, too, except that he asked.

So I snorted a laugh and turned to face him. “You want it?”

“I’d love tha—”

I threw my fist toward his voice and felt his nose crack on my knuckles. In less than a second there was a whump on the ground. I didn’t hear Azoc speak or move. There was only his breathing.

“Find my cloak, please, Retcha,” I said, not unkindly. “That cost me a fortune. I’d rather not lose it.”

I felt a force on my shins like a raven had spattered into then. Hands grasped at my leg. The soft hands of my green boy. “I’ll always be your man!” It was Orym speaking now, squeaky as a rusty door hinge. I felt the boy’s soft hand on my cheek. “No matter what happens tonight, I’ll always be loyal to you.”

I reached out and clamped down on the boy’s wrist. “You will not,” I said. “If they kill me, you’ll flee and go kiss the feet of the first brigand with a sharpwand that you find on the road.”

“I cannot,” Orym said. “I will not! Don’t make me!”

I let the silence hang there. If he had anything more to say, he’d have filled it.

I could sense all ears on me, waiting for my voice. I laughed and then released Orym’s wrist. “You’re a fool,” I said. Though even I wasn’t sure if I meant it as an insult.

* * *

The Fangs arrived late to the battle-yard. Their steps were made heavy by what I assumed were royal-grade boots. I leaned forward from my seat on the steps. as they came stomping across the grass. There were seven rhythms to hail seven Fangs approaching. Seven cloaks snapped in the wind with a sound like war banners. Unless it was war banners, and they weren’t wearing cloaks. I could hear them mutter and hiss and growl guttural speeches to each other. The bootsteps fell silent, save one: their champion, who approached me.

“Are you ready, Lordess Isora?”

I spat on the ground in answer and then rose and reached out. “Who is this champion I’m speaking to? I would know your face.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this.” I reached out to touch him. My hands found his face and I traced its outline. Crows rustled and Fangs fidgeted with their sharpwands as I measured the width of his shoulders; the size of his hauberk—where there was flesh there were soft, squishy bumps, even on his right eyelid. His flesh was slicked with a layer of pus and his hair felt damp as seaweed. I touched his teeth, solid and flat, though with some slick layered-coating for protection.

He was short enough that I could put my palm flat on his head without moving my arm over my shoulder.

“A boy,” I said. “You’ve sent me a boy. Do you think a trial by battle rewards a concave chest?”

A few of my Crows laughed at that. The boy slid out of my reach. “Blade!” He shrieked. “Bring me my blade!”

“Mine, too,” I said. My Crows returned to me my hauberk and cloak. “If I die, I might as well ruin my most costly possessions. I don’t want any of you looting my corpse Do you hear me?”

There were scattered yeses, so I unholstered my sharpwand and turned toward the Fangs’ champion.

Across the battle-yard was a sound like something unzipping. Then I heard the unmistakable vrrrung of his weapon.

For the first time, my confidence wavered. I tightened my grip on my sharpwand and steeled myself toward the task at hand.

“He’s got a buzzblade,” Retcha muttered. “Do you hear that? He’s got a buzzblade.”

“And he’ll need long arms to use it,” I said, though I wondered if these monsters weren’t smarter than I’d anticipated.

But I knew the rules for engaging a buzzblade. If I tried to parry against its edge my sharpwand would be cut in half. So as we crossed the yard toward each other I kept my sharpwand down and out of its path and hoped the boy would come to me.

His breathing was heavy before his first attack; his tongue, I assume, hanging out as he panted; his great slavering jaws dripping with saliva.

The pitch of his buzzblade changed as he hefted it. I followed the noise, retreating as it grew louder and moving in when the vrrrunging grew fainter.

That was the problem with buzzblades. They could kill you quicker than a sharpwand, but your opponent could hear your weapon, which made defense easier.

The vrrrung changed to vrrraang and, anticipating a thrust, I sidestepped its path, listening to the sparks spit from the device, their heat nearly spewing onto my face

The vrrrang turned to vrrrung and the sparks crackled on the ground a mere foot away. The buzzblade’s sparks lurched. The boy was stumbling, changing tactics. I could hear his breaths from across the yard as he worked some spell to sharpen his teeth and turn fingers to claws.

So I broke his concentration—I smacked him on the ear with the flat of my sharpwand.

“Come, Fangs!” shouted Azoc, who had regained consciousness, “Let’s hear a fight!” There was laughter at that.

The boy was still stumbling—still changing, so I smacked him again. His transformation stopped and something fumped to the ground. I could hear sparks leaping into the air with fizzling cracks as the buzzblade chewed up the ground. The loose dirt sprayed my shins. Beyond the weapon I heard the boy huffing, but otherwise there was no sound of movement. He was regaining his strength to make ready for another attack, or spell.

I came forward, stepping around the buzzblade and I threw myself into a sustained, attack, swinging my sharpwand with well-practiced figures-of-eight.

The boy’s bootsteps were uneven in his retreat, distracting him from the attack he’d been readying. I heard a short, sharp shout and a sound like a box on the ear.

In my pursuit, I almost fell victim to the same trap—the hole that had no doubt turned his ankle. Treachery he planted that had been turned against him. If I had the breath I’d have laughed at the irony.

But I regained my balance and brought the sharpwand down hard, yet I sliced only through empty air. I whirled about, looking and listening for my opponent.

Then a line of pain panged the back of my shin. I fell to the dirt, spitting loose soil when  a weight fell on my stomach, driving my breath from me. I reached up and seized pus-slicked wrists. “That’s not how you fight with a dagger, boy.”

“One of us is about to get stabbed,” he said, “You’re in no position to tell me how to use this.”   

My arms burned with the exertion of holding his wrists. I didn’t reply. I just waited and calculated. One false move and his dagger would go through my throat.

“You killed one of our princes!” He grunted.

“He was in my district,” I said through my teeth.” I twisted his arms and my hips all at once. The boy and I toppled in a tangle of limbs. I pried the dagger from his hands as we struggled and threw one leg over his chest.

Our positions had changed as I pushed the knife toward his chin while boy pushed my hands back in an attempt to stave off the point. “He was making a profit off of my people!” I said. His pus mixed with my sweat, turning both our grips slick. “He was a monster, besides!”

I could feel his arms trembling, about to give way. The boy laughed, then, in spite of it all. “Is it too late to negotiate?”

“There’s no negotiation with monsters.” I said.

His arms collapsed and I drove the point up through his chin.  I fell off of him and crawled across the battle-yard, retracing my steps to retrieve my sharpwand.

I remember the buzzblade vrrunging, the salty sweat that I blinked out of my eyes. I took up my sharpwand and stood, my knees trembling. “Fangs!” I shouted. “Our dispute is settled. Leave now and we can forget what has happened.”

As I spoke, the sun pierced the sky, turning the world brighter and brighter. I could feel my eyes adjusting as light and color made themselves known to me for the fourth time in my life. The Nailed God had no doubt heard my prayer. Sight was not known to stay longer than seconds. I shielded my eyes at first, raising a hand to protect from the light of the sun.

But then I saw the rings on my fingers—there were no stones of lapis lazuli. There were only rusted bands. The sun had stolen my jewels.

But it had taken more, too. For the sun had stolen my crow-feather cloak and exchanged it for one of mottled green wool, so weathered it was almost gray. My sharpwand had little shine to it, and the wolf on the end was nothing more than a chipped block of wood.

And then I saw the five other Fangs—children, down to the last. Then I turned to the boy and saw that there was no monster. There was no pus or monstrous bumps—only big white pimples and grease. He had yellow teeth but nothing that belonged to a whale. He was just a boy with a dagger shoved up through his chin; his mouth hanging open, revealing the blade.

I collapsed to my knees and vomited. “Just a boy,” I sputtered. “Just a boy…”

But as it was before and as it would be the world began to blur as my sight left me until I was in my own darkness again. I wondered what trick the sun had played on me. He was the Nailed God’s agent, truth be told.

So I checked my belongings to see if the sun had returned them. My rings felt the same as they had before my sight returned. It must have returned to me my lapis lazuli. My cloak and sharpwand, too, seemed no different than any other time I had felt them in the dark. The sun, in its power, had returned my belongings to me, safe and now sun-blessed.

But there was one last thing I needed to check.

With shaking hands, I felt the boy’s face. Felt the bumps, touched the teeth—careful of the blade in his mouth—I felt no difference between what my hands told me now and what my they had said before we’d dueled. The only difference was the sweat and the blood. To this day I’ve no idea why the sun played such a cruel trick on my eyes.

“It’s a monster,” I muttered, smiling. “It’s only a monster…”

 

A Song of Steel 1.3

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A Song of Steel

READ ME:

When you awoke, Rorik and his friend dragged you to a wooden cart dragged by two powerful horses. Hard men were looking at you between the cart’s iron bars with eyes that had forgotten to blink.

“Mengled,” said Rorik, “We’ve got a new one for you.”

The dwarf hopped down from the cart, where you waited on your knees. “What’s the trouble with this one?”

“Crazy bitch thinks she’s a can fight like a Ser. Mayhaps she thinks she’s got a cock.” Rorik said.

The Dwarf waddled over to you and lifted your chin up with stubby fingers. “Hmm,” he mused. “I should be able to fix it…for a price.” His eyes glinted at the sight of Rorik’s enameled sword. “Hello, what’s this?” He reached for it.

“I wouldn’t,” Rorik said, seizing the grip.”

The dwarf curled his fingers and wiped his palm on his britches. “Throw the child in the cart. Mayhaps I’ll find some use for her. Let her keep her own blade. I want to see what she does with it.”

“Are you sure–?” Rorik began.

“It’s for my experiments, ser. I suggest you hasten to it. Find her a blade. Black iron, preferably.”

You were dumped into the creaking cart. You heard a sound like a thousand drums—horses moving. There was a whipcrack from behind the wooden wall and the cart rumbled forward, squealing like a hog. A woman’s sweaty hand sifted through your hair and dragged you back and into a sitting position.

You wished that the sea would rise and wash them all away. Consume Plankytown and the Kings and Rorik and Crom-cil-Orm and the dwarf and all the rest. But you knew it wouldn’t. And yet you hated the sea for it anyway, didn’t you, Carth? It’s never your fault you’re in trouble, is it?

You decided to wish for home instead. The only problem is you could not remember your home. Mayhaps you could wish for family? No, there was no family for you. No life outside of these iron bars. Just the journal you found in a satchel when you climbed out of the sea, dry as a bone with some strange gray thread sewn into a strange pattern on the leather binding. You suspected it might’ve been spun from the Never to make some sort of spell.

“Mengled wants broken men, girl,” the man opposite you said. He was pale with a hooked nose; crooked from several breakings. His pate was as barren as a baby’s.

“They’re good for his experiments. He thinks the only way to make the perfect man is by enhancing a broken one.”

“Apparently I’m needed as well.”

“It gets lonely in a cart full of broken men,” the hook-nosed man said. “Mayhaps you’ll bed one of us. Or all of us.

Then you reached for your black iron sword and they all fell silent. They stopped moving like puppets with their strings cut.

“You going to cut me down, wench?” the man asked.

“I will if you keep calling me wench.”

“What’s to stop me from taking that sword?” he asked.

“You don’t have a sword. I do.”

“You a murderer then? You seen war?”

“Might be I have.” You angled yourself and, with some effort, freed the sword so that it pointed at the man. I wish I could say unsheathing it was smooth and steady and intimidating. But that would be a lie. There was fidgeting and laughter, more than aught else.

“You going to cut me down now, wen—?”

“What did I say about calling me that?”

“I know what you said.”

All eyes were on the two of you as the cart rumbled down the road. The man looked over your sword. “That’s castle-made. King-status steel. Where’d someone like you get a sword like that?”

“From my father.” How was he to know if you spoke truly. Indeed, how were you?

“You kill him?”

“He died.”

“That’s no answer,” he said, flashing a grin even more crooked than his nose. His laugh sounded like a donkey braying. “Where does a girl from the gutter get a sword? You steal it? Were you a Queen? Is that the Regal Sword? The ones the giant’s cousins forged from smelted down from Never-stone?”

“I’m nobody, and this sword is nothing. Nothing but mine.”

“On that, at least, we can agree,” the man said. “Excepting that last remark. I think I’ll take it.”

“You think this isn’t my sword by rights?” I asked, tossing it round and offering him the hilt. “Go ahead. Take it.”

He raised his hand, but stopped short of touching it.

“Is this a trick?”

You grinned. “Might be. Want to make it interesting?” You held the blade and leaned forward so that your neck was straight up against the point. All he had to do was push. Either way, you decided, you won.

“You’re a stupid one, aren’t you, wench—” he touched the sword and you shot out your boot, smashing his face.

He yelped and the steel clattered to the ground as his head smashed into the bars. You sprang forward and seized his wrist in one hand, pinning it against the cart’s bars. With your free hand, you seized his greasy scalp, dragging your nails across his bald pate.

You shoved his head back against the iron bars. The next time you shoved so hard I swear you could feel your own head ringing. You slammed him into those bars again and again with such force that the cart started to rock from the force of it.  You wanted him as dead as the people in the tower with the brute and the woman in furs–as dead as that man whom the woman had kicked. Mayhaps you wanted to trade places, but why ruin the surprise?

He had long since stopped screaming when another man pulled you back. You could see the dead man’s blood spattered against the bars. He slumped over, not blinking.

“Anyone else want to call me wench?” you growled.

You all traveled in silence the rest of the way.

The sun was setting as you rumbled into a town. You listened for scattered reports. Someone had spotted a corpse in the reeds by the river. The holdfast in the town was empty. They found no food, not even a stray goose left to eat.

“There’s an inn,” it was Rorik who made that suggestion. “We could stay there.”

“When we’ve got a holdfast?” Lord Crom-cil-Orm roared. “With gates to be barred? I like those odds a little better myself. Some stone walls between me and my enemies helps me sleep easier.”

I was busy wondering why everyone in the town had run off. Even their Baron. But they were in the midst of a war. Mayhaps they had no choice.

The cart rumbled into the holdfast, gates studded with iron nails. “It’s not casle of Gorm,” said Crom-cil-Orm, “But it will serve.”

By full dark the cart was squealing through the press of flesh and steel, into the holdfast

We waited, all us broken men, there in the cart. The man who had pulled you back was apparently from Numida, and dark as an inkwell. The Numidan touched your shoulder, pointed to your sword and gestured abroad to the world outside. You thought he had no tongue, but he never opened his mouth, so you weren’t sure. After a few guesses at what he was asking, you landed on, “Where did I get the sword?”

He nodded.

“It was my father’s,” you lied.

“Who was your father?” another man asked.

“I never knew him,” I said. “Though I knew lots of his sons well enough. Cruel and vicious men. They all wanted the sword.”

“Older brothers?”

You tried to bar the tears from my eyes. I’ll not pretend to know why lying made you so upset. That’s your problem to figure out. I have bigger things to worry about after I finish transcribing this journal to you.

But the comment of older brothers troubled you. You hadn’t even wondered if any of them had been younger until somebody thought to ask. “I’m not sure. Didn’t know them too well, see.”

The Numidan made a clicking sound I think it was meant to be laughter.

“I never said you stole it, I just wanted to know where you got it, is all,” the man said.

“Do they have swords, too?” asked another.

“Big swords,” I said. “Bigger than mine,” you lied again.

“Might be that sword will prove itself useful tonight.”

“Might be,” you agreed. “I mean it’s—wait. Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Listen—God’s bloody nails, I heard something.”

“It ain’t nothing,” said a man missing an eye.

Realization dawned, much to the confusion of the folks around you. “That sound—like ravens’ wings. It’s an army.”

“An army don’t fly,” said an older man who seemed somewhat empty headed.

“No,” I said, “but marching sounds like that. When a raven’s wings flap. And when better to attack then when one of the Kings is drunk and feasting.”

The Numidan nodded, and thrust a sturdy finger out beyond the gate. A man was blowing a warhorn. “Shit,” said the old man. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Nothing to be done,” said the woman. “We’re locked in!”

You angled your sword between the bars. You couldn’t swing strong enough to break free, but you chipped away. Slowly you had more room to move as sparks spat from the breaking bars. You eased your sword back and forth.

“I told you it was a magic sword,” one of them said. You weren’t sure you believed that.

A tongue of flame consumed a hut at the back of the town. The fire leapt from one construction to the next like a column of cavalry riding toward the holdfast. There were true riders as well. Firelight glittered off metal helms and spattered their mail and plate with orange and yellow highlights. One carried a banner on a tall lance. You thought it was red-and-black, but the night was upon you, and it was hard to see. Through the firelight you could almost see the outline of a bird on the banner.

Fires flowered in the abandoned houses, flowing like a river toward your group. Toward the holdfast.

You managed to break two bars at the top and the bottom. You tried to wriggle free, metal scraping at your chest. You cursed inwardly as the Numidan pulled you back. “Not enough bars are broken, boy. You can’t break free.”

So he did have a tongue…

“We won’t get out,” a one-legged man said.

“We will!” you said through a clenched jaw. “Just one more bar.”

You could hear King Crom-cil-Orm thundering in the distance. “The Crow! The Crow! His archers arrive!”

Lord Lohain, a younger brother to the House of Em, according to your index, was called the Crow for his cowardly use of archers. It was called cowardly, leastways. From what I had heard, his Crows Claws had proved effective thus far into the war.

“Open the gates!” a Ser shouted, “In the name of the King!”

Which King?” Crom-cil-Orm shouted.  He yelped as his King cuffed him. “By whose command?” Crom thundered.

“Mine!” shouted a voice as you cut the third bar. You  filed out of the cart, one by one squeezing beyond cold metal the made gooseflesh rise on your skin. “Run,” you hissed.

“I’ve got one leg,” said one of the men. “Leave me be. I’ll only hinder you.”

You saw the enemy army part at the gates to let Lohain step forward. Long yellow hair in golden tufts framed his face. Ornate scrollwork was woven across his armor, and the end of his longbow were carved into crow-claws. “King Lohain of the House of Em, called Crow. Open this gate or my archers will rain their arrows on you. Surrender, and only the gray-eyed heathens will be put to the sword. And aught else that came from the blasphemous Never.”

Something whistled through the air and came down on Lohain’s side of the gate in a crunch of stone and metal, and King Crom’s laughter. He had thrown a piece of the holdfast at them.

The town was burning outside, and even through the thick walls you could feel its heat. You were trying to help the one legged man walk away from the battle, through the yard. The Numidan slung his arm over one shoulder, and you caught his other arm. The woman, the senile old man, the one eyed man and the others slipped through the night, beyond the back of the holdfast and into the forest beyond.

“So be it,” you heard Lord Lohain of the House of Em decree.

Arrows were flying, blades were whirling. Ladders were raising on the Crow’s side of the gate, while the giant’s side charged forward to fend them back. One green boy dropped his sword as he tried to unsheathe it.  A man leapt over the gates and into your path. He tried for a downcut, but as he raised his blade, your response came in steel, angling your sword under his breastplate and stabbing him through the groin.

He spat blood onto your face as he toppled.

“Behind you!” the one-legged man shouted. You whirled around, and a helmetless man was charging for you, a dirk in hand. You drove your sword’s point between his eyes. He reeled backwards and fell.

You watched the grass alight all round you. Sers were caught in a meelee. There was a song of steel from every direction, and man sang in tune with it, letting out bloody wails. The stench nearly overpowered you. One man lost his footing and fell from the holdfast. The Crow’s Claws were relentless in their arrow fire. And across the field axes clefted helms and pikes tore through throats. You aw a boy crushed under a warhammer—no, not a boy. A dwarf. Mengled.

But it was no use. For each man you cut back, there came another popping over the gate. Even you did not realize you could fight so well Yet if you broke away from the gate, you would risk the Crow’s Claws. For their arrows whistled harmlessly past you into lines of Sers sallying out from the holdfast.

Torches were flying on both sides, trailing tongues of flame. Four men emerged from the holdfast with axes, but Lohain’s men shot them down. A man was smashing another’s face in with a spiked mace as you, the Numidan and the one-legged man passed by. The Ser looked at you, fire dancing in his pupil, and then snarled and turned his attention back to the melee.

I suppose he decided you weren’t worth the effort.

But as soon as he turned his back, another man vaulted over the curtain wall and crouched with his impact. He reeled as he came up, as if his armor were vibrating him. The drop has knocked his helmet loose. But seeing you, he readied his halberd and ran at you. You smacked it aside with the flat of your blade and trailed it down the wooden haft, breaking away to spear the man through the throat. Blood dribbled down his gorget, and there was fear in his wet, glistening eyes as he toppled back, dead.

Then someone caught me by your traveler’s cloak. It was Rorik. “We don’t lose no prisoner’s,” he shouted.

You backed away a step, but Rorik came after you, trying for a slash, but you jerked back out of reach. You realized that the cliff side was at your back and that a new voice in your head told you to be wary of it.

This was not like the silly fighting you might have seen in stage-plays (the men have put some together some days when it is particularly boring). This was real longsword fighting.

The trick is to slash at your enemy’s legs and feet because those are the parts that are the least guarded. And when your opponent slashes at yours, you jump with both feet off the ground so that their sword swipes empty air.

This gave you an advantage. Since Rorik was much taller than you, he had to always be stooping.

As you fought, all your old battles came back to you. Your hands remembered forgotten skills. Round and round you two circled, swords snaking around each other, searching, testing for openings.

And then, so quickly that no one could quite see how it happened, you flashed your sword round with a peculiar twist and Rorik’s sword flew out of his grip, and the Ser was wringing his empty hand from the sting of vibration from the clashing swords.

Rorik tried for a lunge at you. He stumbled forward to seize you, but you danced aside. He lurched heavily, and could not stop his momentum before he had hurtled forward and spun back clumsily, trying to hack at you.

So you cut his hand off.

He stood there in shock and drove his other hand into your jaw. You toppled and he swung his leg over you. “You bloody bitch” He said. His single hand wrapped around your throat. Your arms were stretched out over your head.

He smashed your head into the ground and glass shattered behind your eyes. “I’m going to fuck you bloody!” The firelight played on his armor until he looked all red and orange. He slammed your head back again and the lightning cracked in your head. But as he did so you jerked my arms up. But the angle would not let you more than scratch at his helm.

But you felt heat radiating from your left, and an idea occured to you. With a strange twist of your hips you unbalanced him, seized his helm in your hand, and vaulted him face-first into the flames.

His shriek as bloody and awful. You thought he might’ve been crying. He called for mother and mercy and yielded three times before he stopped screaming. It took him quite a while before he stopped jerking entirely.

You heard a booming voice behind you. “I saw what’s left of Mengled’s corpse. I have no further use for you or your friends.” He pointed to the Numidan standing over the one-legged man, who had been pierced by arrow-fire and was cowering in a corner by the gate. The Numidan was trying to revive him, but too much blood had already covered his shirt and pooled beneath him. He was too far gone.

All that for nothing, you marveled.

The Numidan had retrieved Rorik’s sword from when you cut his hand off and was using it to fend off anyone who tried to come to close to the gate. He looked almost skilled. Practiced…

“Go now,” Crom-cil-Orm said. “Run off, little Nothing. Run off with your friends. You may live your pathetic existence. You’re of no more importance to me.” He started to turn. “I’ve Crows I mean to slaughter.”

But you did not want to. Where else did you have to go? Who else did you know? This Numidan seemed perfectly adept fighting away the House of Em’s soldiers. This giant planned on taking his army to Strathbury. He planned on taking the Seat of Thorns. And that would take you in sight of people you very much wanted to kill for reasons you didn’t entirely understand.

So I pried a loose stone from the earth and hurled it.

Not toward the giant, no. You weren’t nearly aiming for him. The giant was not your target–it was Lohain the Crow. As Crom turned around to do battle with  Lohain and his archers burst through the gate. That’s when the stone struck him. You did not kill him, but it gave his Crow’s Claws pause. King Lohain fell to the ground. You couldn’t tell if he was dead or not, but with the pause in arrow fire Crom’s forces soon overwhelmed the Crow’s Claws, cutting them down and watering the soil with their blood, before Lohain and his men were forced into a rout, riding off from the burning village.

As the embers of battle were being snuffed out, the giant turned to you and winked. “It seems there is some use for you after all.”

 

 

A Song of Steel 1.2

Previously                                                                               Next

A Song of Steel

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, Uthrik, 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 Sers 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 Sers 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 Sers 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, Rorik,” said another man as he came upon the encampment.

Rorik 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 Sers 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,” Rorik 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.”

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

 

A Song of Steel 1.1

Next

A Song of Steel

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You are an Ser-for-hire, aged girl. You must believe this journal above anyone else’s word. About everything. You cannot remember anything from before some skirmish involving a great tower and long, sharp swords. This journal will serve as your memory from now on.

You must remember how the raven-haired woman killed your brother after swearing an oath of peace. She gave the order, and her brute, a Ser, carried it out.

You can almost remember that, can’t you? How the woman kicked your brother’s corpse after he hit the ground. How the blood had leaked from his throat. She tried to kill you, too. But you took a tumble off a cliff before the brute could put his dagger to your throat.

You’re going to put an end this woman. You’ll kill her and her brute. Just as soon as you figure out who they are. You’ll kill her and everyone else who is responsible for emptying your head. You just need to rejoin the giant’s army to do it.

For an index of items, places, people, and locations, and various pieces of information, refer to the scrolls next to this one.

* * *

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 Lionol. 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 Lionol 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 you would forget. 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 Sers, yes? He’s the one who took your people?”

“Not just any Lord. A giant. And his Sers 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.