Authors: Rachel Dunne
“Oh littlest brother, oh tiny cog, you have
much to learn.” Saval turned and walked from the room, back into the antechamber and straight to the stone slab; Joros remained in his new chamber, frowning down at the ice candle. It wasn't the candle flame whispering, he could see that now, but try as he might, he couldn't find the source. His attention was pulled away by a new sound, low and grating, and he turned to watch Septeiro in the antechamber.
The man had his hands pressed against the stone block, and Joros soon saw it wasn't a solid mass of stone, but a box. The top slid effortlessly aside, seemed to lower itself gently to the floor, and the whispering grew louder, fiercer, a babbling of soft, desperate voices. Saval smiled, that crazy light in his eyes again. Joros's head felt like it was about to split, and he thought,
There really is no dealing with fanatics.
“Come, brother,” Saval murmured, his voice carrying
under the whispers, eyes fixed on whatever was in the box. “Come see the glory entrusted to the Ventallo.”
“This is ridiculous,” Joros said, but the voices that were just beyond hearing were pulling at him, the throbbing in his skull pulsing in time with the incomprehensible words. His feet moved, and he stood next to Saval, and he looked down into the box.
Charred black and as long as the box, longer than a man, it was hard to recognize. But there was an ankle, there the smooth curve of muscle, there a toe the size of his hand. A leg. And the raw, rent flesh where it had been torn brutally away. The voices coalesced, crescendoed, broke over Joros in a single wave that commanded in a voice deep and desperate and lonely,
Into the silence that left Joros reeling, Saval whispered, “And thus did Fratarro shatter upon the bones of the earth . . .”
“. . . his limbs flung to the far horizons,” Joros finished, the words learned so long ago, a child's parable.
“Not so far after all,” Saval said, smiling that mad smile, and impossibly, Joros felt his mouth matching shape.
pounding at his door awoke Kerrus, and his breath formed a heavy mist before his face as he let it out in a frustrated sigh. “Can't sleep a whole night through, gods help me . . .” he muttered as he swung his scrawny legs over the edge of the bed, toes quickly finding his fur-lined boots. “Coming, coming!” he groused as the pounding continued. He pulled on his thickest coat and mittens before setting his hand to the door's cold handle, but the thing wouldn't budge. Grumbling more, he put his shoulder to it, and after a few hits that left his old bones feeling bruised, the snow that had been keeping the door shut gave up its hold. The winter air rushed in to swallow what little warmth had built up, and snow crept in to touch the toes of his boots. An eye peered at him from the darkness beyond the cracked door, and thin fingers helped Kerrus pull the door wider.
Mora, with her hair wild as the nest of a psychotic bird and her eyes almost as wild, said in her low voice, “You gotta come, Parro. There's trouble.”
Kerrus sighed again. The Parents' work was never fecking done. He took a bracing breath before joining Mora out in the snow that fell so pretty and in such a deadly way. Together they shoved his door closed again; Kerrus wasn't going to let the winter get any tighter a hold inside his home.
They turned together down the line of orderly huts, and Mora clanked as she walked. She could still walk faster than Kerrus even with the iron chain stretched between her ankles. She was a runner, was Mora, foolish a thing as that was. The chains kept her to a quick walk.
“What's the trouble?” Kerrus asked her, tucking in his chin against the cold.
“Patrol come back, yeah? Brought somethin' with 'em they found in the snows.” She licked at her teeth, eyes fixed ahead, body straining forward faster than her feet could bear her.
Excitement was low in Aardanel, locked in by snow and high palisades; Kerrus couldn't fault her her for relishing a little drama. “What did they find, Mora?” he pressed.
She looked at him, and her smile was made as much of fear as anything else. “A boy.”
Kerrus pushed his legs to go faster, the camp courtyard coming into view and shouting voices beginning to reach his ears.
A group of wardens stood gathered in a circle of torchlight, hands jabbing, voices raised in varying degrees of fury. Chief Warden Eddin stood silent among them, the torchlight casting shadows on his practiced mask of composure. He caught Kerrus's eye and beckoned him closer, and the priest squeezed with relief into the warm press of bodies, leaving Mora to lurk behind in the shadows, too cautious of the wardens to get any nearer.
That was when he saw the boy.
No more than eight perhaps, he stood at the center of the group of wardens, thin-faced, wide-eyed, half naked. His clothes were little more than rags, and the exposed skin was, Mother help him, even dirtier than the rags themselves. The boy's hands were tied before him, fingers tinged blue, and another rope wound tightly around his ankles. He was trussed up tighter than most of the prisoners who came to Aardanel, eyes wide as he watched the dozen wardens shout over his head.
Kerrus sucked in a breath, feeling the cold burn in his lungs, and let it out in a bellow, “What in all the hells is this?”
The wardens fell silent, staring at their feet like chastised children, and Eddin nodded approval. One of the wardens finally spoke up. “My patrol found this Northman bastard wandering the snows. Brung him in for questioning.”
“And I say throw the brute back to the snows he come from!” another warden shouted, not to be outspoken.
Someone muttered, “Ill luck, to have a Northman about.”
Kerrus looked at the boy, and the boy looked back at him. Blue eyes like ice over a lake, and Kerrus supposed his lank hair might have been blond, given a few washings. Stocky, thick shoulders, skin tanned from the sun glaring off snow. Northern blood, no doubt of that. “He's small enough,” Kerrus said. “I can't imagine he'll bring too much ill luck. Untie him.”
“He's a bloody Northman!”
“He's a bloody child!” Kerrus bellowed back, and reached out to snatch the ropes from the wardens' hands. The priest knelt down in front of the little Northman and untied the ropes. “The Mother and the Father love all the world's children,” he
told the wardens sternly. “Northern and southern, young and old, highborn and low, everyone from the king right down to you dolts. This poor soul has clearly suffered enough to have earned the Father's protection, and I'll hear nothing more said about it. Do I make myself clear?” There was muttering and grumbling and shuffling feet, but no disagreement.
They drifted away, some with backward glares, until it was just the priest, the boy, and the chief warden. “You'll care for him, then, Parro?” Eddin asked.
Kerrus sighed. “It seems I will. I'm bound to offer succor to all the Parents' children. Or at least that's what my old master made me swear.” Eddin clapped him on the shoulder, gave the boy a last, thoughtful look, and then went to join his men in the squat stone building that housed the wardens.
There was something eerie about the way the boy stared. He didn't blink nearly as often as he should. Some of the more superstitious convicts told tales of wolves in men's skin, big Northern brutes who could change into animals and tear you to shreds, beasts with no souls. It was cold out, but not quite cold enough for the sudden, violent shudder that took hold of Kerrus.
The priest looked away from those wide blue eyes, and became very aware of the other eyes staring. Prisoners and their families were crowded into doors and windows, braving the cold to gawp at their dirty visitor. Frowning, Kerrus held his hand out to the boy. “Come then, little lad. Let's get you cleaned and fed.” The boy looked at the proffered hand, at Kerrus's face, back to the hand, and then stuck his own hands in his armpits. Kerrus snorted. “As you wish.” He turned back toward his hut, and the boy slunk along behind him.
It took three scrubbings with the roughest sponges Mora could
find, but the boy cleaned up well enough. Bundled in borrowed furs, skin shined raw, hair plaited at the back of his headâhe could have passed for some young Northern lordling, if they'd had lords in the North. He had a healthy appetite, shoveling porridge into his mouth as fast as he could swallow the muck. Hard to tell if he hadn't eaten in a while, or if he just had a boy's voracious appetite. It amounted to the same thing.
Kerrus sat at his small table, waiting patiently until the boy had finished, then folded his hands and, with his most fatherly look, said, “Well, I imagine you'd best tell me what brings you to our neck of the woods.”
The boy stared.
Kerrus tried it again in the Northern tongue, which he'd learned the rudiments of a few boring winters ago, and got the same response. That exhausted Kerrus's knowledge of languages. “Not much of a talker, eh? I can respect that. Man needs to know when to keep his mouth shut. You'll have to learn to trust me, though, little lad.” He fished around in his pockets until he found one of the sweets he kept scattered about his hut and person. He set the sweet on the table in front of the boy. “I daresay I'm the best friend you've got now.”
The boy picked up the sweet, sniffed at it, gave Kerrus a strange look, and popped it into his mouth. He sucked at the sweet, and stared, and kept quiet.
Kerrus was awoken for the second time that night, this time by a
soft but persistent noise. His groggy mind thought at first it must be one of the camp dogs scratching at his door, but he
remembered Fat Betho had put the last of the dogs into a stew two nights ago. No recent supplies, poor hunting, and all that. Patharro made the beasts to serve the men, and they served best here by filling hungry bellies.
And there was the scratching again.
Kerrus sat up and squinted around the dim interior of his home. The boy lay in front of a guttering fire, huddled in the nest of blankets Kerrus had made before the fireplace, sleeping soundly.
Not sleeping after all.
“Boy?” the priest called softly. The little shoulders stiffened under a blanket, but the scratching didn't stop. Kerrus kicked off his own blankets and padded over to the boy. Propped up on his side, with one of Kerrus's small knives clutched in his hand and chips of wood scattered all about, he'd clearly been at it for a while.
It must have been a stride across, both ways, and cut deep into the floorboards. They never did do anything halfway, these Northmen. It was a huge design of gentle curves and sharp angles, intertwining lines, all made up of the same shape, repeating and overlapping. One of their runes, the world's oldest writing.
, in their ancient tongue.
“Aye, little lad,” he murmured. “You've unraveled the mysteries of the world. This is, beyond a doubt, a fire.”
The knife stuck quivering in the floor, so sudden Kerrus hadn't even seen the boy move. But there it was, at the center of the design, in the deepest-carved
. The boy looked up at Kerrus with those eerie, unblinking eyes, and slowly raised his hand, pressing it to the center of his chest.
“That's you, then, is it?” Kerrus asked. He pointed from the rune to the boy, who gave a solemn nod. Kerrus sat back and chewed the inside of his cheek. “Well, Scal, I'll admit I've had some better conversations in my days, but I can't say I object to your way of speaking either. We keep talking like this, and I'll soon have the prettiest floor in all the North.”
The boy was Parro Kerrus's shadow, and much like a shadow, he
didn't do a lot more than follow.
It was a touch disturbing at first, being constantly and silently followed by the little lad. No matter where he went, there was Scal, a step behind Kerrus's right elbow. Boy got himself a bloody nose for it more than a few times, for Kerrus was, in his defense, not particularly used to having to watch for elbow-high followers. Scal was persistent, though. What exactly he was persisting in, Kerrus hadn't the faintest clue, but the Almighty Father loved determination, so Kerrus couldn't fault the lad for it. The boy learned to stand farther back, and the priest learned to tuck his elbows in.
The exiles were a different matter. Aardanel was, on the best of days, inhospitable. Most days the environment tended more toward hostile, and that was when it came to other Fiaterans. Even with such a small Northman, Kerrus could see murder in some of their eyes, and was grateful once again for the chains binding the most dangerous prisoners. These, the scum of the earth, sent to its farthest reaches, were not a trusting folk.
“It's a strange new home you've found for yourself, Scal,” Kerrus said to the boy as he picked through his dwindling root cellar. As usual, the boy stood silent, but that had ceased to bother Kerrus. Most of the people he talked to said a good deal
less by opening their mouths than the boy did by keeping his shut, and the priest was used to talking at unreceptive vessels. It came with the cassock.
“Sometimes I wonder if you Northmen don't have a better concept of justice than we civilized folk. Fight to the death, and the one who comes out alive is the one who's in the right. You've no prison camps, and I certainly can't say as that's a bad thing. But it's not a cheery life here, little lad.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the boy. Food was still scarce, but Scal was already filling out some. “Can't imagine it's too cheery a life out in the snows either, though, is it? Ah, well, few of us are given the choice when it comes to hells, and for myself, I'd say living in this little hell is a good sight better than dying out in a wide-open hell, eh?”
Kerrus hoisted himself to his feet and pressed the vegetable basket into Scal's hands. The boy never offered up any help, but neither did he refuse whenever Kerrus asked him to do something. He still wasn't sure how much the boy understood; he got the same blank look even when he spoke the Northern tongue. He seemed an agreeable enough lad overall, Kerrus had decided.
The kitchen was as bustling as ever, with Mora and Fat Betho screeching at each other while a handful of children scrambled around underfoot, trying to do as told while attracting as little notice as possible. Parents help you if you caught Betho's attention when he was in one of his moods.
“Sodding whoreson,” Betho growled in Kerrus's direction. There was a bloody carcass lying on one of the long tables. Looked like it might have been an elk. Fresh meat always put Betho in a good mood.
“Messenger come in earlier,” Mora explained as she sorted through Kerrus's small offering of vegetables. “Eddin tol' him he ain't got supplies for us, he can walk back.” Ah. Horsemeat, then.
“What'd the messenger have to say?” Kerrus asked.
Mora just shrugged. “More prisoners comin' in soon, but no supplies comin' in with 'em. Same old âfeck you' it always is.”
Kerrus nodded glumly. A chunk of horsemeat apiece was as good as they would eat for a long while, until all the snow melted or until the sun fell from the sky, which was just as likely to happen. Kerrus hadn't seen grass nor good meat in the nearly two decades he'd lived in Aardanel, and he'd learned never to expect either.
Fat Betho glared, and hawked a slimy pile of spit onto the floor, narrowly missing one of the scampering boys. “Northman prick can feed his fecking self. Ain't wasting good meat on a craven little arsespittleâ” He came to an abrupt stop as he tumbled off his stool, and then the kitchen was full of shouting. Betho hollering, the boys cheering, Mora screeching like a harpy. It took Kerrus a moment to realize why, and then he became very occupied with trying to drag Scal and his flailing fists off the much larger prisoner. Scal was growling and snarling, mindless animal noises that made the hairs on Kerrus's neck stand up. He was only a boy, but a strong boy at that, and seemed pretty damn determined to keep smashing his fists into Betho's face. It was all Kerrus could do to keep his arms wrapped around the squirming lad and stumble slowly back toward the door.