1a Reprise

“I give you my word,” said Celeste. “As Princess-Elect, Haradan to the Pharohim, the city of Bizapul shall be returned to its rightful owner, the Adukwe, their Royal Guard reinstated.”

Ubarak nodded as he rose from his couch. He circled the table fixed in the center of the room, probably the largest on the landship, while his Mage remained implacable in the corner, his three grey-garbed attendents discretely behind. He stopped before Celeste and began to raise his face as  she realised that they had not actually had eye-contact. They looked into one another’s eyes.

“Why this sudden change of heart?” he asked, and began to admire the movement of her mind in response.

She felt his presence, calm like a great mountain lake, deep in repose. She felt like an insect buzzing over its surface, a faint reflection of her self in his eyes.

“And why the change of apparel?” he asked, appraising her well-worn leathers, suitable more for a barab than a Royal Lady.

Celeste felt the beating of her heart, her breath in her lungs and she returned to herself, here in his mobile palace, talking with His Lord Ubarak of Ring Toloese.

“There is much to explain, My Lord,” she said and presented herself. From the moment their eyes had met, an answer had been drawn from his first question and then she had returned to herself. It had been the best part of a year since Celeste had felt the subtle and seductive immersion in the magic of the Solozo presence. And yet she was predisposed to politely ignore the invitation of his second question and return to the cause of her being before him. Having collected herself, she presented her own intent.

Ubarak admired her sensitivity and courage, but considered the possibility that Celeste was slavishly following her own will, that she was in fact behaving mindlessly. Was she ignoring a level of sensitivity between them and merely being bullish with her own concerns? It was expected, after all, she was Gal. So he waited, standing before her, his steady gaze upon her eyes.

Only now did she feel she met him. He was actually waiting on her. It was like she had delivered a message, something written, something externalised, and he had received it. And rather than read the message, the receiver, this Lord whoever-he-was, was ignoring it! He was looking at the messenger, looking back at Celeste. Ubarak remained gazing into her eyes, not in an invasive way, just awaiting at the edge of her self. Attending to her patiently.

This all happened in a flash. Their gaze lingered in this way for a couple of seconds at most, and she knew without it dawning in her consciousness: in this direction, love.

Ubarak confered with his Mage silently, then: “I can see you are here, naked of pretence, dressed in your true colours,” he said, a smile playing on his lips. “Then let us meet as equals,” and he gestured with his hand: his visage fazed before her, his face now showing its age, his hair thinning to grey and his eyes softening as his masq dissipated.

“I believe the conflict between us is misplaced,” began Celeste. She admired his grace as he offered her wine then resumed his seat, the elegance in how he moved his head and laid eyes upon her once again as he rested into the chair. Everything calculated yet natural, an exceedingly well cultivated Solozo Lord. “A greater threat faces us all, and it is not the barab. If my son and the heir of the Pharohim is to inherit anything, then my first priority is to my people, that all Gal may survive this threat. We are not our enemy. Our annihilation at your hands will serve little purpose.”

“Well said,” said Ubarak softly. “However, if you are here to tell me of the monsterous enemies gathering at the edges of Everdark, I already know.” He smiled, and with a magesterial apologetic air never witnessed in a Solozo Lord, he added: “I know, for I started it.”

1 Merdis

“I want to learn. Teach me.” The young man addressed the old man.

“I am not the right person. I am no teacher.”

“But you know things, you can do things.”

The old man shook his head. “I can no longer ‘do things’. I used to be able to, perhaps, when I was younger, but not any longer.”

“I am young. Teach me what you know, and I will continue from where you left off.”

The old man looked away over the trees.

They were sitting on a grassy knoll beneath the cover of a tree, above the roots in the soil. The boy had somehow found him. Searching the land, he had said, seeking a master. The old man breathed long and deep and remembered the garden he once tended, the multicoloured flowers he had gathered from all around the world. So long ago, purpose long forgotten.

“The student makes the teacher,” said the young man.

“I am too old. I lost the path. Not so long ago, perhaps, but even a hair’s width from it is a million miles.”

It was true. Another lost soul. It was as if he had spent all his life living in the city, and all he ever knew was of the city, the streets, the shops, who to go to get food, where to work, where his friends lived. Friends… And here he was, outside of the city, useless. None of that knowledge mattered. None of the living mattered.

“You have lived most of your life in a city, haven’t you?” asked the old man.

“Some. And some in the forest. I have spent time living under trees. I have lore of plants and animals, though not much.”

“And your learning?”

“Stone and woodcraft, building, engineering. I know how to build a house.”

“Better than me, then. I live in a cave,” said the old man. It was true. He lived alone in a cave. He didn’t know how to build a house. He hardly knew how to take care of himself. He had spent all his life in service to others, and now he was serviceless.

“I will build you a house,” said the young man, “if you teach me what you know.”

The old man turned his eye to him skeptically. “A house?”

“Fit to live in over winter. Right here.”

The young man was genuine in his offer, the old man could see that. “How do you know I have something worthy to share?”

“You have lived your life. You are old. That should be worthy enough. You have learned from Meherim, and you were Gal like me. The Meherim guard their gates jealously.”

So the boy knows something about me. “I was a child when I learned. You are too old.”

“But did you have one of these,” said the young man and lifted up a pea-sized crystal between them.

The old man sighed and put out his hand. “No, no I didn’t.” The young man dropped the crystal onto his palm and the old man brought it close to his face. He had seen a few in his life, more towards the end of it. They were becoming more common, even out here in the Reaches.

“It is almost completely solid,” remarked the old man and quickly handed it back.

“I have others. That is the largest,” said the young man placing the crystal inside a small leather pouch. He tentatively held out the pouch.

The old man sighed deeply, ignored the offered pouch. “We are both too old, we do not have the materials. Even if I were to teach you what I knew, I have not worked garsu for many years.”

“I do not need you to cast spells. Only to share what you learned.” The young man offered the pouch again.

Before taking the pouch, the old man spread out his robe. The young man quickly stretched to his pack and after rummaging around pulled out a leather panel. The old man took the pouch and panel, layed the leather on his legs and carefully shook the contents of the pouch gently into the hollow of his palm. There were an assortment of crystals, most of them the size of ears of wheat, some smaller, and the largest one he had already seen. “One is unfixed, the rest are fixed, most are solid.” He carefully poured them back into the pouch.

“And this,” said the young man, handing him a glass phial.

The old man frowned and took it. He held it up to the light and shifted it and saw the multicoloured grains within. Garsu dust. He handed it back to the young man.

“And this,” said the young man, with enthusiasm. His last offering, thought the old man. Baiting me with treasures. What could this be? Another glass phial, smaller than the last, filled with liquid.

He turned it in the air before him. Green liquid, similar viscosity to water. “Teach me,” he said. “What is this?”

“Ink,” said the young man. “Garsu ink,” and smiled.

“Is that so?” said the old man and considered it. He had never heard of it. The garsu must be even finer. Soluble dust. Clever Meherim. Rare, by the way the boy was attending it. He handed the phial back.

“I will give it you. If you are the teacher, the materials are yours. You will be able to practice with it.”

The old man snorted as way of a laugh. “And you, boy, do you you think you have a way with magic?”

“No, not at all,” admitted the young man. “But I learned my numbers and the way of reading.”

“Numbers, eh? Well, we’ll change that soon enough,” he said. And that was that. 

After a silence, the young man wondered: “So… does that mean you will take me on as your student?”

The old man looked over the valley south to the rising hills far in the distance, beyond which was the dual capital of Seven Valleys, Upper and Lower Tapton. Clear blue sky, beautiful day. Clouds would come, but today seemed like a good day to embark on the journey, perhaps the last in life.

“I will be slow. It will take a while to remember. And it will be incomplete.”

“I don’t mind. I have all the time in the world,” replied the young man enthusiastically.

“You will be slower. You will have to piece it together yourself. How well you do depends on your purpose. How it gives rise to your intention, how strong a conviction you have, how much of a pull your purpose has on your soul.” The old man turned to the young man, looked into his eyes. “Understand?”

The young man nodded.

The old man repeated his question, and the young man said, “I understand.”

“Good. I look forwarding to learning what reason brough you here, and what purpose will take you away.” The old man returned his gaze to the horizon. “Don’t blame me. I am just like the sky, the trees, this hillock we are sitting on, the ants that crawl over it. We are like two stones who have rolled up here on this hillock. Like the garsu, one solid, one clear. Understand that, and we’ll both learn something.”

1 Old Man

The old man rocked back and forth in the corner of a doorway of an abandoned house. People walking by, left and right, along the narrow alleyway, one of several that connected the two main market roads. The alleyway was too narrow to set up a stall, just enough width for two people to pass, a central channel for water and household discharge, sided by high walls with gates serving as back entrances to courtyards, many permanently locked. An alleyway between places, never a place to be for its own right. And here, the old man sat, pressed against an old wooden door, both grey and faded.

A boy stopped beside him and looked down at the disheveled old man, his stringy thin hair, his gnarled hands hugging himself. He didn’t say a word. Adults passed by, navigating round him like he was an obstacle, one glanced back and swore. The boy stood over the old man and waited.

The old man continued to rock back and forth, but noticing the boy’s feet and legs, he lifted his head. The boy looked down on a face ravaged by age, skin wrinkled and stained, eyes rhuemy and crusted, matted dirty beard.

The boy reached out his hand, the old man eyed it, seeing it empty, and returned his gaze to the face of the boy, rocking back and forth.

The boy opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t bring himself to wording. He sighed, tears in his eyes. He dropped his hand, and after a while turned away and walked down the alleyway, the old man’s eyes following him until he was out of sight. His head dropped and he continued his rocking back and forth.

The old man shook his head. He sat for a moment dejected, crumpled in his rags under a cart. He had tried to find a space under the bridge, but it was taken by several others, younger and stronger than him. There were few places to offer shelter from the rain. The cart was temporary of course, and the owners could move him on at any time, or if they were less generous, harm him for staying there in the first place. He had gathered plenty of wounds during his time on the streets.

The old man shook his head. He sat for a moment dejected, crumpled in his rags under a cart. He had tried to find a space under the bridge, but it was taken by several others, younger and stronger than him. There were few places to offer shelter from the rain. The cart was temporary of course, and the owners could move him on at any time, or if they were less generous, harm him for staying there in the first place. He had gathered plenty of wounds during his time on the streets.

It didn’t matter what he tried to do, it never worked out. There was a tendency for his mind to roll over the same old things in his head, the stories of his youth, the intentions lost, relationships gone, over and over in his mind. That was just an undercurrent, while his surface thoughts rolled over how even seeking shelter hadn’t panned out. It was remarkable how little food was needed to keep him alive. He might be lucky to get food from the same person over a few days in a row, but mostly it was about doing the rounds. There was no expectation when he appeared at the shopkeeper’s doorway, the servants entrance at the back of a rich house. If food came, he ate, and when it didn’t, he wouldn’t. Enough had come for him still to be alive. That was all.

The boy had approached him again. Nothing in his hand. He shook his head. It didn’t make any sense. The memory rattled around, dipping below the vacant stretches, churned through childhood memories of his own, what had gone wrong with his friends, and the bitter taste of disappointment — his mind rejected those. Such memories had been rich with anger, frustration, but over the years they had given out all their passion, and all that were left were bitter seeds, not seeds but stones, grit in his mind which he ignored like sand in fish skin he had picked from the dirt.

The boy. What did the boy want? What did the boy want from him…?

“Help me boy,” said the old man.

The boy knelt beside him. It was a dry day, and they sat in the shadow of a townhouse.

“Do you want to help me?” asked the old man.

They continued to sit together. The boy drew shapes in the dry dirt of the road. The townsfolk continued with their busy daily routines, oblivious to them. The shadow lengthened into late afternoon.

“If you are not here to help me…” said the old man. “What do you want from me?”

The old man shook his head, incredulously. Tears welled in his eyes.  He rubbed them, grime smeared on his cheeks. Didn’t make any sense. There was nothing he could contribute. He didn’t even know why he was living. HIs life consisted of long stretches of absence. Hadn’t received eyecontact for so long he had disappeared. Without reflection, and aspect of him had vanished. Thought was as continuous as an animals. The thought was thinking him. Memories, sensations of hunger, aches in his joints, the pain in his head, literally the hole in his gums. His movement instigated by the time of day, weather, hunger, the need to shit and piss. He was alive, but barely. This boy, the presence of this boy, appeared in his mind sporadically, but it had no movement to it. It was like a boat on the current of the sea, tossed around, not part of him, no imperative to it. So when it surfaced, there was nothing to it, no historic reason or future purpose. If anything, his memories would trigger, his nephew, the responsibility he had for him when his sister’s partner had been taken. Of her three children, he was responsible for one of them, but he had failed him, and so he would sink into another soporific trance.

“I have tried,” said the old man, to the boy, to himself. “I have tried. But each time I try, things go out of reach…”

He searched for his words. His mouth had forgotten how to form words. His tongue pressed against the two teeth remaining. The slurred sound that came out didn’t sound like words. Like a broken flute, a torn drum. His head ached, his knee throbbed, and again he was into the swamp of his memory, the injury to his knee when he was young. His job was to climb through a venilation tunnel, and listen to what was said on the other side of a grille. And as she shuffled his way backward in the tight shaft, he would have to navigate a corner, and thump, he’d hit is knee. And then later with some boys, fighting, thump, the same knee.  

Nobody would know about his knee. Only him. His life, all gone. Nobody paid attention at the time, except him, and even him barely. Life was just lived, like he was living it now. Nothing more to it. And yet, he had spent years trying to reach beyond himself. When meeting people, something always… beyond reach. Friendship, work, partners… never enough.

Its happened again, he thought. He puffed out some air, a wordless expletive.

Nothing will come of it. He was like an old dried leaf, abandoned, discarded, tossed around the street, nowhere to fall, no soil to add itself to the mulch. Just here. Just….

The old man opened his eyes weakly. His breath shallow. He hadn’t eaten for days. His body was numb, his heartbeat like a throbbing ache.

The boy was sitting beside him. His spirit rose, enough for the faintest smile, a slight upturn to the corner of his mouth. His spirit faultered, sadness, his heart rate rose, his breath ragged, and his left breath left him. His chest did not rise, his eyes rolled back relaxed, and he felt himself go, falling to sleep knowing it was for the last time, the anxiety in his body mixed with excitement. A memory, not reviewable, a passage of his spirit had come this way before, in his formation. He did not know it, but it was his awakening during birth, the rise, the fall which accompanied the experience, coming into this world. With excitement, with fear.

The boy whispered beside the old man, rolling a grain between his finger and thumb, breathing over it. It was not the words, for they went unheard. It was a formula which triggered associations in his mind’s eye, a formula he was solving concurrently as the old man passed. The grain between his finger, the seed of a garsu crystal.

The spirit rises, the spirit falls. And between them, there is a note, a spiritual note. The boy had heard this note in the old man. He rolled the garsu crystal in his fingers and held the note of the old man’s spirit, rising, rising, whispering, with tears in his eyes, rising. 

1 About a Boy

“Are you insane? You want to take a child into the Valley of the Dead?”

The old man sighed. “Insanity is what is happening around us,” he said patiently.

They were sitting at the back of a public house, the place filled with field workers and townsmen, the low hubub of voices, the relaxed flow of life which repeated tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come.

The old man nodded at them. “They all think it is normal. Everyday is the same. It makes sense to them. It is internally sane. But their behaviour is what is making the world sick.”

“But taking a child to the Valley of the Dead! What could a child hope to achieve there?!” The younger man asked incredulously. He was a man-at-arms dressed in assorted brined leathers, a sword blade at his side, a swarthy face topped and chinned by rough black hair, blue eyes shining.

The old man shook his head and sighed again. “Nothing,” he said flatly, “nothing.” It was not so much the young man’s questioning, for he had thought this himself many a time. He sighed because of his own answers, answers he did not himself believe. But it was a thought, arrived by deduction, a thing the clerics called logic. He didn’t believe it, hardly trusted it, but there it was nevertheless.

“Nothing,” echoed the young man, deflated, empty of passion. He had expected more of a fight, a reason from the old man. He sighed and let his gaze defocus into the room. He took a drink from his tankard.

“Where everyone else see the dead, ghosts, wraiths, demons,” said the old man, “the child sees only shadows in the trees. He sees nothing.”

The young man hummed in acknowledgement. “Figures,” he murmered and wiped his mouth.

“Not just any child, mind,” said the old man. “A child who is not afraid. A child who has not heard of the Valley as others have, who has not grown up with its stories. A child who has never lied, or cheated, or taken the wrong way to anything.”

“And where would you find this child? This good-natured child? This child who hasn’t heard of the unspeakable horrors that exist in the Valley,” asked the young man, his eyes diverted from the old man, softly in the room of villagers drinking their evening away.

“I have already found him,” said the old man. “But there is a catch.”

The young man nodded, then shook his head. “And what’s that?” he asked. Progress was at least being made, he thought. Not looking at the old man seemed to help. Just passing time, while gazing gently at the people before them, like a slow moving stream.

“He’s looking for a dragon,” said the old man.

“A dragon?” The young man snorted and shook his head. “You want to take a boy into the Valley of the Dead to look for a dragon?” He glanced at the old man. “This is going to end well.”

The old man raised his eyebrows to concede the point, a rare expression from him. “That would be a foolish venture.”

“Uhu,” remarked the young man, “foolish,” he quoted and turned away. “That would be one word for it.”

“No,” said the old man, “he wants me to help him find his dragon before we go to the Valley.”

“Riiiiight,” said the young man. “I’m not sure they have enough beer here for this ever to make sense.” Nevertheless, he rose to his feet, steadied himself, before making his way to the bar.

The old man watched the young man’s back as it receded. How much does he understand of what they were talking about, he wondered. How much real? How much rax? Even he was getting close to the point that he no longer knew. But then again, that was the nature of what they were exploring, and it was the only way they would survive passing through the Valley of the Dead. Putting their lives in the faith of a boy’s innocent, came at the expense of his belief in dragons. Correction, a specific dragon. A dragon which existed deep in Everdark. A dragon the size of a mountain. The dragon known as Argentis, the creator of time. Rax, or real? The old man shook his head and wryly noted he was responding as the young man had. Disbelief was a necessary part of the journey, it seemed, for the only one who needed to believe was the boy. The boy who had never lied, who was still true.

1 House on the Hill

The abandoned house on the hill is haunted. All the children in the town know it. The adults don’t visit the place, and they don’t talk about it. Dirgle says the adults don’t talk about it because they are afraid. It’s why they don’t go up there. Plisk says it is because it isn’t haunted, and they don’t visit or talk about it because it is just an old building of no interest to anyone. All the other children in the town agree with Dirgle. The abandoned house on the hill is surely haunted.

One day, middle of a summer’s afternoon, some children are exploring the forest on the hill and come upon the clearing and the remains of the house stand on the brow of the hill in stark daylight. They poke sticks in the ground, kick the dusty ground, lie around watching the ants carrying bits of leaf and seeds amid the long grass, while the idea is mooted that they should go up there. So they do. Dirgle is one of them. He’s first to push open a shutter and peer into the darkness, the other children asking him what he sees. He waits a moment while his eyes get accustomed to the dim light. There’s shafts of light from cracks in the shutters enough to see by, a door is open and light is visible on stairs probably from a hole in the roof. He climbs inside.

There’s a table, an assortment of chairs, tattered tapestries on the walls, a large stone fireplace, and what looks like a mound of cloth or leathers and furs stuffed into the fireplace. A strange smell lingers, thick, a waxy heavy scent. Another child pokes their head through the shutters, whispers to Dirgle who points at the mound at the fireplace and then carefully creeps over to the door and peers through. There’s a small tree growing in a hallway beside the stairs, a large shaft of light from a hole in the roof as he first thought. Dirgle is the first of three who explore the inside of the house, the kitchen and two other rooms on the ground floor. They pluck enough courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to the balcony with three rooms on the floor above. Only one of the children had been on a raised floor, it was strange to think of the air beneath the wooden boards. There’s furniture in the house, old linen, but no ghost.

Once out in the sunlight, walking down the hill, the two adventurers talk loudly, their chests sticking out, confident, recalling how they courageously explored the house. There was no ghost. But the other children suggest that ghosts only appear at night, not during the day. The three valiantly declare they would go at night, that night, and by the time they reach the forest’s edge they decide on who would bring a lantern. But when evening came, the group did not reassemble, no lantern was brought, and of the two brave adventurers only Dirgle was present. He couldn’t go to the house however much he wanted to without a lantern. So, over the next few days, the children gathered in different groupings and the story of Dirgle’s adventure spread, and recriminations between them as to who was afraid of going up to the haunted house at night.

After many days, and deep into summer, a small group of three, two boys Dirgle and Plisk and a girl Merit, walked over the open ground up to the abandoned house which loomed large and forboding black against the stary night sky. It was Dirgle who was again first. He snuck in and was told to lay the lantern on the ground so avoid the moving shadows as he turned one way and the other. The still yellow light from the lantern woke shadows from the objects in the room, and once it was all still, the others crept in through the broken shutter. They waited in the silence. But it wasn’t silent. As their ears got accustomed to being indoors, they heard small creaks from the walls, rustling from the ceiling, creaks from within the house. They stood crouched for a while like this.

“There is no ghost,” said Plisk, though he was afraid. His voice sounded thin in the dark. Shadows flickered as the flame from the lantern’s wick trembled. The darkness seemed alive.

That was as far as they got. They were too afraid to continue, and so they left the house, scrambling to be out first, then running down the hillside together, their muscles pumping, feeling their courage return. Once they told them, the other children were impressed by their adventure, and it became the highlight memory of that summer.

Years passed, the children grew, the house on the hill passed from conversation just as it did with adults. Nevertheless, incidents were reported. Sounds from the house one night when a shepherd had gone looking for a wandering goat which had found the grassland on the hill. Illicit visits by travellers who reported that something was indeed living up there, but it was only heard not seen. And even once when a child went missing, the townfolk had climbed up the hill with torches and lanterns and stood outside the house while the father and his brother had looked within. There was a suggestion to burn it down before they left, but they thought this might bring something worse down upon them, it was Imperial property, and if the owners ever returned there would be hell to pay if they were responsible.

“Let’s burn it down ourselves,” said Dirgle one morning. They were young adults now, Dirgle, Plisk and Merit, grown to be good friends who dreamed of life beyond the town. Each had daily tasks to complete, whether Plisk’s endless weeding in fields, gardens and orchards, or Merit’s drudgery of collection of wood from the forest, or Dirgle’s town work at his father’s tannery. They hardly had any time for themselves. Yet the thought lasted throughout summer like a candleflame in their minds. Only when they decided that the following year they would leave and seek their fortune in the city, did the thought of burning down the house on the hill flare into a real possibility. It would mark the end of their childhood. It would get rid of the old house and the fear associated with the place once and for all. It would be their service to the town, a beginning of their new lives together. Nobody would find out, it would be an accident.

Towards the end of summer, the three of them met at the fringes of the forest as twilight fell. They spoke furtively, swapping their worries of whether they had been seen by their families, or whether any had witness their supplies of oil depleted. As the shadows deepened and the stars appeared, they talked of the long summers they had lived in the town, the surrounding forest, the adventures they had. They all knew it was going to end, and if they did not leave next year, they would remain in the town, working at their parent’s shops in town, their fields, they would never leave the town. The house on the hill was black as a hole, and it took on all their fears about staying, the certainty their parents had, the repeated days, the sameness of life. It became a symbol to them. By changing this one thing, they were doing something significant. They were freeing the hill and themselves. And so they spoke deep into the evening as the stars appeared, and they waited until the moment arrived that action was required or the moment would pass. None of them felt the urge to start up the hill, and yet between them, they found themselves hurrying up the hillside worried that they would be spotted. They knew nobody was out there, not without a lantern which they could spot easily. It was dark around them. They were alone. As they approached the black house, they crouched as the childhood stories of the ghost arose in their memories, competing with the fear of their intent — they were going to burn down the house — and the anxiety they all felt that if they didn’t, they would remain in the town for the rest of their lives.

They had discussed the plan beforehand. Once in the house, they were to spread oil around, Merit the tableroom, Plisk the kitchen, and Dirgle would take the floor above. The summer had been long and dry, the old wood would take to fire quickly. It was important that they start the fire in order, first Dirgle in the first floor, then Plisk in the kitchen and lastly Merit in the final room which they would leave. Each would light a part of the fire, each would be responsible for the house burning, each was commiting to their future together the following year.

There was a problem with the plan. The tree which had taken root in the centre of the house had grown larger, pushed against the stairs and breaking the wooden boards, so Dirgle had to grab hold of branches to pull himself up what remained of the steps. Plisk and Merit watched his precarious ascent from below, their candlelight casting flicklering shadows from the branches of the tree like black arms across the walls and ceiling. Dirgle finally made it to the balcony where he dowsed the wick of his candle in some oil and tried to light it. The three strained to make out any sound in the house above the sharp clash struck flint. Finally the flame caught and they all breathed a sigh of relief. Plisk and Merit separated to their rooms below while Dirgle walked tentatively along the creaking balcony to one of the upper bedrooms.

The door was jammed, the hinges must have rusted. Dirgle pushed twice until it gave with a groan and something collapsed behind the door. A white cloud rose suddenly and Dirgle stood stock still, hand frozen around his candle, his eyes wide, ears straining. The cloud blew over Dirgle and he felt it settle against his face and around his ears, on the hairs of his head and down the back of his neck. From behind him he heard a whisper, “Who…?”

He wanted to jump round, turn to face it, but he couldn’t. He was paralysed. He had to force his body to turn, agonisingly slowly — and then he saw it! In the corner of his eyes a dark shape above the bed rising. His eyes flicked to it immediately, but it dispersed just as quickly. It escaping his vision, slipping into the shadows around the bed, along the edge of the door, and seemed to rise behind him. “Who calls me here?” came the voice again, louder.

Dirgle dropped his pot of oil which broke at his feet. The noise of the smashing pottery released him from his paralysis and he jumped back from the doorway. One foot fell through a partial hole in the balcony and he fell to the ground, he called out as he involuntarily dropped the candle which was in his hand, it flew through the air and rolled to a stop near the spilled oil. Dirgle’s eyes rose to the black rectangle of the doorway which seemed to swell and spread itself around the doorjamb and across the ceiling. Dirgle cried out in fear as a black form coallesced before him which the candlelight could not penetrate. The wrongness of it made his skin cold, a sickness in his stomach. And within the eyes of this black shape, for there was undeniable intent issuing from it, Dirgle saw himself, kneeling, his face stricken with fear. “You shall not leave this place,” came the voice like a whisper shouted loud. “You shall not leave!”  Dirgle struggled to his knees and leaped from the balcony.

Plisk saw Dirgle leap through a break in the banister and into the tree, his foot slip off a branch and his body spin and crash against the remains of the stairs which collapsed and they all fell to the ground: branches, steps, banister and Dirgle. Plisk ducked to protect his candleflame from the cloud of choking dust which filled the hall. As the last of the noise of the collapsing stair passed, Merit appeared at her doorway, fear in her eyes. Plisk passed Merit his candle who had to awkwardly nestle her pot of oil in the crook of her arm so she could hold both candles. Plisk stumbled into the pile of broken wood and began pushing away broken bits of wood. The shadows flickered around them madly, the arms of the tree seemed to reach out to grab them, as Plisk finally managed to take hold of Dirgle and began dragging him from the debris. “There is no ghost,” said Merit, repeating Plisk’s childhood phrase, trying to fight her fear. She stepped back into the table room momentarily submerging Plisk in darkness, the shadows pressing against him, the body of Dirgle heavy on his shoulder. Plisk stopped for a moment in the pitch black and breathed deeply. “Only Dirgle,” he said through gritted teeth. “Fat bugger should drink less!” and dragged him after Merit into the table room. Merit was already at the broken shutter, one of the candles on the ground before her. Her eyes were wide as she cried, “It’s coming!”, and she ducked out the window.

“We’re going,” said Plisk, as if to disagree, shaking his head. Sweating, Plisk dragged the lifeless body of Dirgle across the room, slumping Dirgle’s unconscious body over the sill and felt Merit pull from the other side. And they were out. Together on either side of Dirgle they shuffled across the grass down the hill to the safety of the forest. As their feet thudded against the uneaven earth, the weight of the body seemed to increase, while the further they got from the house and with the open sky above, their load seemed to lighten. Finally they reached the cover of the trees where they laid Dirgle’s body against a trunk and recovered their breath. Dirgle did not regain consciousness, his leg was damaged, bent the wrong way. Merit tried to put to words what she had seen of the living shadow, but Plisk didn’t want to hear it. They made their way back to town in silence after first ridding themselves of the oil and candles, and dunked Dirgles body in the stream to wash away some of the oil. Fallen from the bridge, they would tell his family.

Dirge was never to speak again. His leg healed though he limped for the rest of his life, but he was never the same again. He was a shell of himself, hollow, capable of only the simplest tasks, carrying things from place to place. His eyes were dead. Plisk didn’t want to talk about the experience, the loss of his friend weighed heavily on him. Merit told a few friends of what had happened, and but her friends thought what they had done was stupid and wrong, after all look at what had happened to Dirgle.

The following year, Dirgle, Merit and Plisk remained in Upper Tapton and never travelled to Bizapul. They did not talk of the house on the hill and when the children asked for stories of whether there was a ghost there, they did not answer them. Nevertheless, rumours spread and not a few travellers came to Upper Tapton to seek out the mystery of the house on the hill.

4b Reception

Celeste stood upon the dias at one end of the great hall wearing an elaborate white costume flanked on the right by Lord Maritan, his Lady Intiti and the Fathers and Mothers of Celeste’s adoptive family Adukwe, and on the left the regional officials of the Reach of Ashitlan.

Her costume was heavily starched and internally framed in wicker to maintain its shape, fluted to the ground and arched extravagantly upwards from her shoulders, precious pearls from the distant coast of Danke dangling like dew drops around her head. Its entire surface was covered by thin white Cithra petals, each painstakingly applied by hand. She resembled a great white flower, her head within the petals, her hair bound up like black filament, her arms elegantly raised to either side like sepals. It was all show, of course. Celeste had been helped into place, and only with supreme effort could she push against the shoulder-yoke and lift the entire costume herself. It was like wearing a heavy tent. The rehearsals had not accounted for the midday heat and a hall full of dignitaries, and being the first time she had worn it at a state event, droplets began to prickle on her skin, sweat soaking into the chemise. Thankfully, the white base mask applied to her face seemed to block her pores and cover the blushed exersion of her face.

“We can not compete with the Inner Ring,” Yidran had said. “So no magic, no masqs — real not rax!”

Celeste patiently held her pose, remembering only to breath through her nose. She had to keep her jaw ajar while keeping her mouth closed, in order to bring just the right hollow indent to her cheeks. To avoid puckering, a red sticky balm applied to her lips helped them stick together, accentuating their lush and full character. She resisted the urge to lick her lips and even to blink. Her eyelashes were coated with crystal filaments, a sparkling effect which echoed the great hall’s stained glass windows behind her, and she was afraid of repeating the disaster during rehearsal when the lashes had become entangled and one of her eyes had become sealed shut. So she retained her poise, not blinking, hardly breathing, her eyes completely still.

Below her, filling the hall, were the extended Royal family of Adukwe, assorted dignitaries and well-to-do from the city of Bizapul, all dressed in their feathered courtly apparel, shimmering in a magical haze of colour. The banners of Ring Adukwe were displayed prominantly across the dark walls and hanging from the rafters high above: a row of three black mountains.

“Of the Royal Ring Toloese, Lord Mbolo, Third Father of Terabiz,” announced the usher loudly, and a hush descended upon the hall.

Leading his retinue of attendants, the imposing stature of a Solozo Lord wearing such attire as put the local Royals to shame, a sequined kaftan embroidered with gold thread and countless tiny gemstones. Light did not just reflect off him, but emanated from him, a beguiling shimmer that brought to mind the effect of running water. He flowed through the middle of the court with such an aura of superiority that those he passed reflected on their mundane clothes by comparison and visibly wilted. The Lord climbed the three wide steps alone to stand before Celeste.

“Please accept the full hospitality of Ring Adukwe, and Family Adrienne,” said Celeste, faultering slightly as she spoke, then placing her hands before her to welcome him. What she wanted to do was tear her way out of her own costume, a flimsy thing made of sticks and starch, a tawdry affair in comparison to the garment her guest wore and the authority with which he wore it. It was the first time she had used her family name formally, family Adrienne, and despite all the practice she had faultered, hardly noticeable to anyone else no doubt but like thunder in her own ears. And Yidran, her tutor in courtly etiquette, would be furious. All this boiled in her mind as she stiffled in the heat of her costume. Real not rax, indeed!

“I hope to find them adequate,” Mbolo said barely laying his hands on hers, and without pause addressed an official to her side. “Are you the Ashitlan Sheff?” The man addressed gave a quick glance at Celeste and seeing that her face was shielded by her flamboyant shouldermounts, he stepped forward and bowed his bald head. Before he could utter a word, Mbolo continued: “Show me my quarters.”

The man gritted his teeth, bowed and stepped back to allow Mbolo to pass. He then dutifully followed Mbolo with a curt nod to excuse himself from the Prince-Elect’s reception. Mbolo clearly knew who he was addressing, thought Celeste, and to treat Aclimas like that… with such contempt, and ignore Maritan and Intiti, indeed the whole Adukwe court… This was not Bunto. Certainly he was from an Inner Ring and deserved the proper respect for it, but this was not what she had learned Bunto to be.

“Of the Royal Ring Beredin, Prince Mboktiz, second son of Bizasbuk,” called the usher.

A tall young Solozo strode purposefully through the crowd of dignitaries, managing to hold his own after the majesty of Mbolo before him without striking those around him with his wealth or ostentation. A handsome man, laid out in Imperial Guard battle kit, his less lavish retinue behind. He stepped up the dias and close enough for Celeste to see his clear and handsome face, his striking green eyes which shone with a lightness of joy and strength. He smiled confidently and bowed low before Celeste.

“May the luxuries of Bizapul delight the Prince on his visit,” said Celeste, her hands palms up to him.

The Prince smiled warmly as he laid his hands gently on hers, saying, “The delights are already evident, Princess-Elect.” He bowed and made his way to one side, addressing Lord and Lady Adukwe formally.

Celeste felt assured by him, calmed. She pondered on the Prince’s eyes. They were alluring, like falling into a spiralling tunnel of green crystaline light. Despite living amongst the Adukwe as one of theirs, she had never met royal blood like this. As a child she had heard stories of the Solozo, the imperial race of the Adukwe and all royal families, the divine confidence they possessed, their dignity and warmth. Unlike the masterful power of Mbolo, here was what she had dreamed of: a deep and benevolent authority. Celeste felt a shiver run down her back, the pearls suspended from threads on her costume quivered.

“Of the Family Adrienne, Master Dliston,” declared the usher.

And here was her brother, smiling brightly, wearing his formal dress with pride though Celeste noted it did not carry the Ring Adrienne emblem, an oversight to be corrected before the festivities that evening. He stepped quickly ahead of his attendants eager to cross the distance to the dais. As he skipped up to the platform, it was easy for her to superimpose her father’s face on her young brother: the narrow chin, almond eyes, high forehead.

“Welcome home, my brother, we have much to talk of!” said Celeste, and resisted the urge to step forward and hug him, which her costume would prevent should she try.

He paused, deciding whether to alter his prepared greeting, then said: “My sister shall make a home of wherever she is,” and he lingered there gently squeezed her hands. There was brightness in his eyes, excitement in seeing her, and also a nervousness. What was he afraid of? Was it the occasion? Was he overwhelmed? She squeezed his hands in return, to assure him that it was his sister beneath all this extravagant pomp. Dliston moved on and Celeste was pleased to see how Lord Maritan’s formal greeting was softened with an expression of familiarity. He had taken special delight in Dliston as his favourite, to which Celeste had never taken offence. 

“Of the Magestry,” declared the usher. Whether it was the word or the manner of enunciation, the hall fell into a deeper note of silence, as if every movement and motion of the assembled royals and dignitaries was stilled all at once. 

A thin man wearing a plain grey feathered kaftan walked alone, lightly handling a sabalwood staff topped with an opaque white stone. For all the splendour of the Major Houses, and the warmth for receiving their own in Dliston, there was an unmistakable intake of breath from the whole court at the simplicity of the man who walked between them. Inspiration as well as trepidation, for there was no greater indicator of the changes to come than this man who was to take their Princess-Elect, whose part to play as her primary advisor would bring prosperity or ruin to the Adukwe family and the Ashitlan region as a whole.

Once he had carefully walked up the three long steps to the stage, Celeste was surprised by the man who confronted her. He was younger than she expected, sallow skinned as if he had lived most of his life indoors, or below ground she thought. She observed him acutely, trying to discern some clue of his thought or feeling upon meeting her, but his face was expressionless, his eyes vacant. 

“Your servant awaits your instruction, my Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne.”

He bowed and remained there, subservient, revealing the self-seal tattoo on the back of his head, a blue triangle.

“The Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne welcomes her Mage, Celestsel” she said formally, and hesitantly laid her hand on the tattoo. It felt smooth and cold, like wet stone, not like skin at all, before withdrawing her hand. He raised his head and Celeste suddenlyt felt cold and isolated, as if shrunk, the warmth of her body far away, the many people around her distant. She somehow felt sealed within, and cold fear gripped her shrinking her further within herself.

The Mage Celestsel lifted his hands and placed them on the starched shoulder flutes and pulled them apart suddenly. The starched cloth material tugged and tore. Celeste returned to the present, frozen in place, shocked.

The Mage grabbed another two parts and tore them apart again, ripping the chest cavity open. Celeste remained frozen, horrified. What was he doing? How could he be doing this? Calmly he ripped open the dress again.

Celeste looked around and saw everyone still in place. Nobody came to her rescue. They seemed as shocked as her, hands to mouths, their eyes wide.

The Mage placed his hand flat on her face and pushed, pressing the makeup across her cheek, her mouth smeared, the crystals of her eyelashes caught on her eyelid and scratched her skin.

Finally, the Mage Celestsel stood back from his destructive work, took up his staff and found his place in her royal retinue, behind her and to the left. She wanted to turn and look at the Mage, but the costume’s structure prevented it. He stood behind her. For the remainder of her life, he would be there, making a shadow of her, and she knew that even face to face his deepest motives would be hidden from her. For it was well known that the motivations behind the Magestry were inscrutible.

Celeste stood upon the stage, her costume in tatters. She felt naked though the inner chemise remained intact, her face a smeared mess of makeup and tears. She felt exposed, violated, and alone.

2b Arrival

Celeste reached over the silver-engraved stone ledge and caught a glimpse of the royal retinue disappearing into the east barbican. It contained the dignitary Mbolo who had the authority of Ring Toloese to seal her future as first Gal Princess-Elect, Haradan to the Pharohim. Today was the Day of Appraisal, today her life would change forever.

She had climbed onto an archer’s alcove between two huge crenellations which provided a view over the east wall. She had managed to give Lady Yidran the slip earlier and had shooed away her servant, while the patrolling guard had taken a position further down the wall out-of-sight. Amid the cheering crowds lining the walls and peaking from windows, Celeste was alone. Soon the formal welcome to receive Lord Mbolo, a final lesson with Yidran, and the excruciating preparations for the festivity and feast that evening.

The landship’s sails had been furled revealing its arched masts, the crow’s nests in line with the height of the wall, men crawling over the rigging like ants. After its windspeed across the eastern plains, it had been sluggishly towed into place, its massive flat wheels designed for far-off sands groaning under its dead weight. A gangplank four-men wide had slid from the upper decks and the landship was disgorging the remainder of the Royal retinue directly onto the upper rampart which lead up to the Fortress of Bizapul. Celeste observed the five-sun banners of Ring Toloese flapping above the orini which cantered impatiently side to side, the gold painted armour of the Royal Guard flashing in the sunlight. Somewhere in the offboarding passengers was her brother and she immediately felt her spirit rise. It had been over a year since she had seen him and she couldn’t wait to hear about mother. For a whole year she had lived alone, to help her grow independent they had said. Not for the first time Celeste suspected there were other reasons behind her mother’s departure, but she quickly pushed aside the thought; she did not want to cloud her special day.

A pendant slipped from the chemise beneath her cote and hung from her neck by a silver chain as fine as thread. Her hand involuntarily caught it and instead of tidying it away, she rolled it gently between her fingers pensively. It was a gift from her mother on her eighth birthday soon after she had been chosen. It was a simple thing: two silver branches intertwined and tipped with a little clear gem seed. She had received much more expensive jewelry since, but this reminded her of all the changes in her life since moving to Bizapul, taking the city as their home, the tiny precious moments of joy during the interminable lessons, regulations, courtly duties. Moments like this, alone, at the edge of the mighty city of Bizapul, a city at the edge of the Urb Empire; so she was at the edge of her own childhood, a child at the beginning of adulthood.

At this moment she felt small and young, like the eight-year-old who knew nothing of the future that awaited her. If she had known, would she have chosen this path? Had she even chosen….? Of all the luxuries of her station, choice was not one of them. She hadn’t made one decision in her life, not what she ate nor when, not clothes nor how her hair was done up, certainly no affairs of state, none of it. It was all decided for her, even when her mother had been there. She had been foolish back then, had secretly resented her mother’s overbearing presence, but now she understood her mother meant to protect her. Without her mother, Celeste became a tool, a maniquin, a puppet caught in the catscraddle of state ritual and routine for the role she was to perform as Princess-Elect. And it was all to culminate in today’s ritual of Appraisal.

She gripped the pendant, felt the indentations press into the skin of her fingers. Memories of her mother holding up the pendant between them, her eyes fierce yet loving, warning her: “May your heart remain whole, my daughter. Whoever they teach you to be, may your heart remain whole.”

Celeste’s eyes were drawn to the horizon, the green undulating plain eastwards under a warm blue sky. Her destination lay beyond, across dry plains under a sun which never set, to the hollowcity of Terabiz to be reunited with her mother, and together they would venture into the homeland of Urb, to the capital. All her years of training to become an Imperial Princess of the Pharohim, the progenitor of a royal lineage. Would her heart withstand the awesome gaze of the Ever-Giving? Would her Gal blood survive the fearsome divine power of the God-Emperor?

She tightened her fist around the pendant and prayed to the ancients. For if she failed, it would not only be her family who would suffer, but her people. Her native beliefs had been replaced with a mindset suitable for her role amidst the Solozo, nevertheless she retained an awareness of her blood-tie to her people and the Sickness which was now tightening its grip on the land. And so, feeling like the eight-year-old peasant girl she once was, she prayed to the earth-angels to give her strength to fulfill their mutual hopes.

1a Coach House

Hungry, emaciated, delirious, the lone man waded across the river into the small village and the smouldering ruins of The Coach House. He felt a slap across his face and a charcoal smeared giant stood before him. He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around their legs. “All gone,” he sobbed. “The gold… My friends… gone….” He was pushed back while several female villagers began to crowd around. “It’s Matrich,” called a boy. “One of the freebooters passed here weeks ago. The one with the barbaroi?”

Several villagers stared at the boy blank-faced. “You have a good memory, Dlinch,” nodded one of them, who then knelt down and placed his hand gently on Matrich’s shoulder. Matrich scrabbled away from the touch, as if surprised. He glared up at them. They were staring down at him like he was a trapped animal, like a bird which had accidentally flown into a room. “We must go back…” he murmured and raised himself to his knees once more. “We must go back!” he implored pointing west. “There’s gold, a great pile of it! We must go back!” The villagers looked at one another.

“What happened to Surd? Darcia? The barbaroi Iklentil?” asked the boy, Dlinch.

Matrich stared wildly as if something terrible stood before him, then garbled something unintelligibly. Seeing nobody respond, he scrabbled to his feet and grabbed Dlinch, then seeing Dlinch was a boy, he grabbed a nearby villager and shook them. “We must go back!” The black-smeared blacksmith yanked him back and Matrich fumbled for his sword, but it was gone. He spun around, confused and fell. The crowd took a step back warily. “Look out,” one warned. Matrich found his knife tucked in his belt — was that dried blood around the hilt? He became aware of his hands and arms black with soot and white with ash, he looked down at his own body covered in dirt, torn, ragged, his wet breeches in tatters, he wore only one shoe. Someone laughed. Alarmed, Matrich jerked the dagger before him, the crowd dispersing further. “We must go back. Can’t you see, there’s nothing left for you here!” cried Machus pointing at the inn. Dlinch glanced over his shoulder at the Coach House, the other stone buildings around the square. They were the same as they ever were.

“There’s blood on his blade if I am not mistaken,” said the blacksmith ominously. “He’s dangerous.” Several men arrived from the fields, and headed by the blacksmith, they herded him to the outskirts of the village. Against his desparate protests, they told him he was not welcome and if he came back they would kill him. The blacksmith removed an old bell from the Guardhouse and hung it from the corner of his shack. They were to gather if the madman Matrich returned, or for any other threat. For a few days, the villagers went about their business a little more nervously, until its retelling over warm beer made it less about the young man’s destress and more of the blacksmith’s courage.

Summer was waning, autumn beginning its long slow descent to winter. Nobody else came from the west way, only dry leaves on a cold wind. Nobody knew what happened to Matrich. He was never seen again in those parts. Perhaps he had died from starvation, or his ravings had attracted wolves or a bear? Or perhaps he had regained his senses and gone east, returned to Tapton or Bizapul or his home back in Urb? He was certainly not their concern, there was more to worry about. Talk in the town turned to darker days, darker thoughts, and what was rising in the west.

“Join us.”

The old man’s eyes shone with an ageless fierceness. His tangled grey eyebrows, unkempt grey-white-yellow beard, bald head creased parchment-like and blotched with sunspots; a thick doublet of cured leather, much marked with cuts and permanent stains, over ring-laced leather shirt and worn trousers; and ever at his side a double-edged axe, the handle propped against the table upon which the group’s tankards lay, the axe-edge glinting sharply in the firelight.

“We’re seeking a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green,” said the old man. “Help us find it.”

A motley crew of self-serving adventurers, plunderers, mercenaries. Freebooters. They had rolled in earlier that day. Four of them, on foot. The old man, behind him a man literally armed to the hilt with assorted armour from the Imperial and Royal Guard, a short haired woman wrapped in a leather travel cape, and following them, at least a head taller, a warrior as big as a bear, a Rone-blood barbaroi by the looks of him. Apart from the considerable pack on his broad back, the barbaroi looked as if he was walking into an arena at Tarabiz wearing little but sandals and a mitra skirt of slatted leather strips, arms as broad as a grown man’s legs, ritually and combat scarred, black clan tattoos visible beneath his pack strap, shaved head but for a ponytail, thick angled beard down to his collar bones, heavy forehead and fearsome kohl painted eyes.

Dlinch had roomed them and carried their provisions from the chandler’s, and had taken over his sister’s role throughout the evening, waiting on them as they got progressively drunker, louder and carefree with their banter. The Coach House had never seen such a band pass through the place. Dlinch has dreamed of adventure, of course. Every maverick that passed through the village he had pestered, and some would regale him and his family, and the few locals who favoured the House beer over their own, with stories of adventures further west. The last, a gentleman warrior by the name of Tsariq, whom Dlinch had pleaded to take him as an assistant, help with camp stuff, collecting wood and fire-making, hunting and foraging and cooking, in exchange for learning how to fight with a sword. Too dangerous, said the man-of-arms, the Far Reach was no place to take a child. Learn your sword craft, then set off on your own when you have come of age.

Sure, thought Dlinch, and where would he learn sword craft out here in Hope Valley, a week out of Double Tapton, nearly a month from Bizapul? The only people in the vicinity were woodfolk. Their greatest opponents were standing trees, and their greatest knife work was slicing cooked meat from a spit. Preter, the local drunk handiman and brewer was reportedly a military man once, but after a lifetime of drinking the old codger had forgotten what a sword looked like, most likely. Dlinch had practiced his own skills with what he had as much as possible, throwing a knife at a corner-post around the back, splintering it so badly that his mother had clouted him only yesterday. He was also proud of the fact he could walk around silently when he wanted, creeping up on the chickens and scaring them, and his sister, even over dry straw strewn floors.

But none of this mattered because these four hadn’t asked him one question, hadn’t noticed he was alive except to fetch more drink from the barrel. On this last round, Dlinch had thumped the side of the huge barrel which stood in the corner of the common room and it resounded hollow. It was a legacy from the old days when the Coach House had to cater for several score men at a time, tomorrow he’d have to help Preter empty a small keg or two into it. As he filled the tankards, a thought wormed its way into his consciousness: perhaps this party of freebooters might not have the coin to pay for their beer, or lodgings? He didn’t like the thought, it was like a white maggot-thought. He was brought up to trust people, he had no cause to think otherwise. However, this group seemed a little too rowdy. They weren’t entertaining his family, and the locals who had gathered on hearing they had arrived had got fed up with their raucous baffoonery and had left earlier than usual. No stories, no magic, just endless bickering and wisecracking between themselves even when Abery who played the gita better than father played… and this maggot-thought.

“Join us,” the old man had said.

Dlinch found himself back before their table, drinks in hand, when the old man had shot off his request. Instead of responding, Dlinch’s mind had backtracked for a reason why he had been asked. Had the old man noticed his mistrust? His mind hiccuped and was now caught by a lazy smile on the young woman’s face, her head bowed on the crook of her arm as if sleeping though her eyes were open and awaiting Dlinch’s response, a half-slurred smile caught in her angular face, mouthing a word over her hand flattened on the table, on her finger a ring with a single small gemstone stud. The phrase returned to him like a fine thread, a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green, and his imagination began to unspool.

But just as he began, the old man broke the spell. “Come, boy. I’ve noticed your eyes haven’t left us all night,” the old man nodded and spoke with the resonance of long live-in truth. “I can tell you were caught. You are one of us. A searcher.” The man-at-arms and barbaroi had grown quiet now, and for the first time since arriving they attended to him, albeit with barely more awareness than they would a table or pebble. Dlinch’s eyes glanced at each rapidly, like a mouse caught out in the open all of a sudden. He had caught each of their names — Surd, Matrich, Darcia, Iklental, even the name of the old man’s axe, Adril! — but none knew his name of course, before returning to the old man who shrugged. “Then again, perhaps you are too young?” said the old man and took another drink, drawing the others with him, returning immediately to joking amongst themselves. At that moment, Dlinch knew hen wouldn’t even be a memory for them.

Dlinch tried to get the old man’s attention again, but he wasn’t listening any more. “Another drink!” was the bellowing response. Now, when the old man looked at him, his eyes heavy with drink, Dlinch felt shut out, a vacant sense of intentional dismissal which was far worse than not being noticed all day. He had been given an opportunity, and he had hesitated. He felt like an apple from last season, the ones left because they are unripe and small and hard, tossed aside at first glance. He was left with a bitter taste in his gut, only himself to blame. Dlinch turned away forlorn, not seeing the young woman’s sharp intent and unheard whisper before she was pulled back into the group’s drunken ribaldry.

Bearing down the stairs like a mountain storm, the old man shouting and swearing, glowering around the common room. Mother was up in a flash and planted herself before him in the middle of the room. “I’ll not be having any of that here! This is my place! The only hollering these wooden walls will hear will be mine!”

The old man man raised himself from his haunched stance, his fingers clenching and unclenching. He fixed Mother with his bright stare, alive with lightning.

Dlinch emerged from the shadows behind the fireplace. “Are you looking for this?” he said. The old man ignored him at first, locked in the combat of wills with Mother. DlinchHe held out the battleaxe with difficulty it was so heavy, stumbling over the mattresses left by the only other guests last night, a forgettable man and his lackey travelling to the Garsu mines. Brilliant entrance, thought Dlinch to himself ruefully.

When his eyes fell on his axe he smiled a humourless smile. “Breeding thieves here, are you?” he said, clearly addressing his mother and not Dlinch himself.

“You were so drunk last night, you must have forgotten to take it with you!” Mother said with an uncharacteristically uneasy tone. Dlinch couldn’t remember a time he had seen Mother like this. She was rattled.

The old man turned back to her. “To forget Adril would be to forget my own arm…” he growled. There was threat in his voice, and his manner. What could he possibly do? Attack his mother with his bare hands? Dlinch didn’t understand. It was just an axe.

“I took it, yes –” and Mother turned to him suddenly, fear and anger mixed in a hot temper which Dlinch could feel like a hammer “– but it’s not what you think, Mother!”

“May God-between forgive you — because I won’t!” invoked Mother. “Return the axe and apologise to our guest — and pray he does not use the axe upon you!”

It took a little more than Mother’s jibing to relieve the tension. Clearly the axe was not for Dlinch himself — he could hardly lift it. He had snuck into their room and removed it from the old man’s side himself, straight out of his hands while he lay in his bed. Dlinch had wanted to prove his proficiency, light on his feet, that he could be a useful addition to their team, win back the old man’s favour. The old man had grunted a few times, relaxed visibly as soon as his hands tightened around the haft of his axe, and by the time his companions had come down to join him for breakfast, the confrontation had dissipated completely. And with it, any hope of joining them either, Mother had seen to that. There was no way that she would let Dlinch go with this band of argumentative freebooters, not with this dangerous old man as their leader who had come to a hair’s breadth of threatening her in her own house.

Dlinch sat in the corner while the freebooters ate their breakfast of bread, sausages, eggs, their last for some time, they said. Mother served them frostily, and it was clear she would be glad to see their backs. She couldn’t afford to turn them away. She was locked in servitude to the coin, something he had noticed a few times in his young life. Some people used coin with gratitude, others reluctantly, and others still in a way which was disrespectful, as if who they were paying didn’t exist. Dlinch’s attention began wandering. The bright beams of sunshine from the open windows and door, no wind, another hot day; he identified himself with the dust motes floating in the air. Each tiny dust mote, here for a moment, then gone. Non-existent.

They had already bustled their way out and had gone, fully paid, only a whispered shadow from the young woman, her passage appearing to brighten the doorway as she left. Mother was already into her regular morning chores beginning with clearing the dishes, ordering her daughter to clear out the slop and reset the room, and reminding Dlinch pointedly of the barrel refilling and to raise Preter from his slumber. Dlinch dutifully pushed himself out of his reverie, his chair, looking around the Coach House common room, its cold grey fireplace which was his job to clean, the worn and uneven floorboards, assorted tables and chairs he had helped repair over the years, the old barrel and scored bar worn smooth by so many elbows, behind it the pegs of tankards in lines. These four walls which promised to be his workplace for his adult life, his inheritance, both the physical building and his servitude to the coin. He sighed and looked at the main doorway, and then the open hallway to the kitchen and back yard where he’d find Preter nestled in his corner of the hayshack, the tasks ahead of him later that morning, the rest of the day, again tomorrow and the rest of his life. He turned back to the main door, bright with sunshine, always open now because of the summer. He seldom used it himself, it was mostly for guests, locals and rare visitors. And even when he did take it the door it was always to come in, carrying bags and things for others. He had to reframe it mentally, the doorway out, keenly bright in the early sunshine.

He walked over to the doorway, his body cut in two by the sunlight; his legs and waist in warm sunshine, his chest and head in shadow caste from the extended roof. He looked out over the dusty road. East to Hopeton at the mouth of the valley, then Tapton and the city of Bizapul and the Empire of Urb beyond; it would take him a whole season of walking and he still wouldn’t reach Tarabiz let alone the capital. And in the opposite direction, south, along the river to Castleton and the pass to Wetton, the mudflats and Tabletop Plateau with its Garsu mines. It was a dead road. Since they had redirected the garsu caravane, nothing passed this way these days apart from supplies like ironwork tools, cloth and foodstuffs, and the last-hope miscreants selling themselves to the mines, like the traveller who had slept in the commonroom floor. The five stone buildings, chandler’s, mill, blacksmith, abandoned Guard House, and the Coach House, the surrounding old wooden houses of the settlement, most of which had fallen into disrepair, the trees beyond. Nothing came this far west into the Reaches.

Across the river, wide and shallow enough to walk across, which is why the settlement had been built here so long ago, a fork with one track heading north, past a few outhouses, families he knew, which would snake its way to the hillsides separating Hope from Crow Valley; and west along the river, a track leading nowhere, to distant lands where the sun never shone. It was that winding road west that the travellers said they were taking. Beyond the Reaches, overgrown now. Only for settlers who drove their wagons in and out of the village for monthly supplies. The old man’s spell overlaid his senses and he imagined such a place far to the west: a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green.

It had been generations since Urb had pushed its frontier into this valley, the barbaroi pushed back into the lifeless outlands. They had been bright with hope back then, but as the sunlight thinned that far west so did the light of civilisation. Summer was certainly the season to travel west, the sun’s rays extending the furthest at this time of year, but would he ever see the old man and his party again, thought Dlinch? It had to be before the end of Summer, if at all. His mind lingered on the thought morosely, shading the western horizon though the sky was clear. The West. Everdark. Land that had never felt the warmth of the sun. He couldn’t imagine it. Tsariq hadn’t returned. With a sigh, he wished them good luck and turned back into the common room and the prison of his life.

“Behold!” called Matrich in awe, “the fearsome Forest Guardian!”

As was his style, Matrich had struck a fast pace well ahead of the party. In the open like this, he always wanted to be first. Surd and Iklentil began to unhitch their weapons warily. Darcia pushed past them and motioned for them to stop, shaking her head as she approached Matrich.

Matrich smiled widely at Darcia and stepped to the side flamboyantly drawing his sword and pointing at a strangely twisted tree trunk which he had previously shielded out of sight with his body. From the right angle, it resembled a person: rough legs grown from the ground, a somewhat warped face beneath a cowl and a waist-high protrusion at its side made it look like it was drawing a sword. “On guard!” said Matrich.

 “You’re a child, Matrich.” Darcia shook her head once more, sighed and looked back the way they had come. It seemed longer than it was. Iklentil was still looking at the tree with a frown on his face. She motioned for him to follow her round so that he was facing the tree correctly and when he saw the shape, surprise lit his face. What goes for entertainment hereabout, Darcia thought.

This was the landmark that indicated they take the next trail off to the right. There were many trails off the main road west, settlers dotted all over the valley. They mooted whether they should stop off or not. Somewhere up this trail, off a further side path, was an old shepherd’s hut which had been reappropriated by a local wiseman. Before the relationship had frosted over, Mother had recommended they visit him. The wiseman offered various potions and tinctures which provided remedy to ailments which the locals swore by, and this druid had asked to be fetched if any strangers came to town, or if there wasn’t time, to recommend their visiting him. The druid had helped her personally on a few occasions for no payment, relieving the recurring pain in her foot, and she swore by the tipple of health tincture she added to her water every day.

The group stood at the rock discussing whether they had time to stop off. Matrich and Darcia were in agreement about continuing. The days were shortening, and they needed to press on and cover as much distance as possible before the summer sun died away completely. Surd half-heartedly suggested that the druid might lend some insight into their journey, but Matrich was not interested in hearing another conflab, and certainly not one between grey-beards. 

“On our way back, I’ll be happy to stop off at every opportunity. My legs will be tired of carrying so much gold we will be carrying!”

Darcia looked askance at Surd. Each of them had their reasons for going on this journey, and Matrich made a point of making clear why he was with them at every opportunity. It was like he needed to remind himself, especially at moments of duress of which there were many, such as when the insects clouded and bit “gold, gold, gold”, when there were three consecutive turns to the left or three to the right “maybe the gold is just around the next corner”, when the bedding — the same he had used every night — let a cold gust of air in, “I can feel the warmth of that gold, it is so close”. Matrich was not the easiest travelling companion.

Surd appeared to give in to the youthful exuberance of Matrich who was impatient to continue. Politically motivated no doubt, thought Darcia as she watched their exchange. Surd gave the impression that he listened, but for as long as she had known him, Surd got his way. He was an old dog, that Surd, and she knew all his ways. Realistically, there was little that an old man in the forest could offer them and Surd knew this. There were recluses dotted around the Seven Valleys, many with epithets like “Forest Guardian”, all choosing to shun the ways of the world and instead wisen like old nuts in obscurity. Surd was old but he was different. He had as much fire in him now as he did in his youth. Besides, he wasn’t one for potions. Mind over matter, he was fond of saying whenever Matrich complained of some physical hardship, mind over matter. 

“This Forest Guardian is good enough for me,” said Matrich as he kicked the guardian-tree, and without further ceremony continued their journey along their road.