By E.E. Knight
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of E.E. Knight and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Behold! O Exalted One…
The famed bearded horses of your allies of the Maygyen Heights:
From silken back-banner to the tooled leather of the hock-guards.
Notice the stoutness protecting vital sinews, the workmanship in the clasps on the leather.
Why do I draw the royal attention thither? Over curd and wine in the Maygyen tents last night,
I heard a tale of old Myrhyr new to my ears concerning a favorite of yours.
The Blue Pilgrim?
Of course! This poor storyteller only wishes to please
So I shall tell you how Skiar the last Discern had a hand in the armor’s making…
“Discern!” the voice echoed down the dark coppered shaft as through a sounding horn. “A rider comes. He hails us, distress-arm!”
With a half-ton of threaded metal-plated screw suspended above by doubtful rope blocking most of the light from the well-head, up to his knees in numbing artesian water, the Blue Pilgrim had distress enough without alarm-riders. He checked the weighted point of the plumb line leading to the new receiver, the finest work of the Vale’s blacksmiths but still a crude and heavy thing compared to the forged steel of Ancient Uldam it replaced. Satisfied, he slipped the line off the screw-tip.
He reached for the knotted climbing rope and went up the angled shaft of the screw-pump hand-over-hand, slithering like a snake in the tight space between out-drawn screw and well-wall. Out in the sun, snow-hooded mountains to either side of the high plain of the Vale formed a broken-toothed maw around the cloudless sky above. Just downhill the red roofs of Valehold, each with its raincatcher, shimmered in the dazzling summer sun, though at this altitude even the late summer saw little heat.
The men at the bracing lines between the water-channels had their eyes on the approaching rider, not their work.
“Is the replacement socket fitted, Skiar?” the Wellkeeper asked.
The Blue Pilgrim nodded, and turned to the locals. “Ah-hi, all.” Well-done. “We’re ready. Look to your work, men, if you’ll have water flowing to your troughs and gardens and sluices again.”
An assortment of blue and green eyes blinked at him. The town holy-men began to pray, bobbing their heads as they turned circles, always to their right. A race whose mathematicians had once calculated the circumference of the Earth using the Trailing Islands and the masts of marker ships now thought the water-spirits brought the water up thanks to the right-whirl motions of the priests rather than the threading on the screw-pump. Sad.
But despair has no place in The Way.
He could hear the hoofbeats, carried up by the wind. Better set the fools to work before someone recognized a cousin.
“Brace all!” The Blue Pilgrim looked to the men, they had set their feet as though about to engage in a festival line-tug contest. “Release the supports!” he shouted to the men with mallets. They pounded out the pegs and the bar holding the copper-plated screw suspended. The men strained as they took the weight. “Lower away!”
The screw settled in its socket. The Discern and the Wellkeeper hurried up to the well-head and replaced the gears that turned the screw. The Blue Pilgrim nodded at the Wellkeeper, mouthed words the Wellkeeper should know, but didn’t.
But the Blue Pilgrim could hardly blame him. Myrhyran edicts prevented dhymma – unassimilated provincials – from learning to read their old tongues.
The prompt made him remember. “Priming water!” the Wellkeeper called, and women with buckets came forward and backfed the outlet. When water sloshed out of the Old Uldam-wrought workmanship, the Wellkeeper needed no further hints.
“Turn away!” the Wellkeeper shouted. Boys pulled on the nose-rings of the well-oxen and the beasts began to walk.
The pump gurgled for one doubtful moment, then water began to pour into the irrigation channel, above the iron-pits where coals would be kept burning day and night in the winter to keep the ice away.
The rider, his horse shining with lather, saw the crowd and made for it. As he jumped his mount over the garden-channel the gushing water divided itself into three ducts, one leading to the town and its cisterns and sanitary gutter, the second to the garden-plots in the clay-pits with all its sub-divisions, and third to the livestock pens. The sheep and goats pricked up their ears at the sound of the fresh splashes and came to their feet, hurrying to find a place among the first at the trough.
The priests began to burn incense to reward the water-spirits with smells and chants that pleased the usually reliable (as long as the oxen or relief donkeys kept turning) phantoms. The Blue Pilgrim gave his back to the rigmarole and put on his sandals. Watching the town boys and girls dance barefoot in the fast flowing water brought more pleasure than he’d had all summer.
Lar, his apprentice, handed him his harness and cloak, but watched the rider as he half-fell off his horse and staggered into the crowd.
The Blue Pilgrim slipped into their familiar bonds, felt the weight of his weapons and accoutrements settle on shoulders and hips, then threw cloak over all. He passed the cone weight of the plumb line to the distracted boy as he tied his cloak. Lar craned his neck to see the arrival and he thought it best to divert the boy.
“What is the mark on the weight-point?” he asked Lar.
“Gravity, the truest of guides,” the boy replied, “for it establishes both verticals by the plumb and horizontals by the level.”
The Blue Pilgrim didn’t bother to tell the boy he was right. He expected correct answers and only reprimanded when Lar got something wrong. Which was rare in the last year – it was almost time for the boy to take the Second Step. But a new distraction hurried up, tufted wool of his office-cloak aquiver.
“Discern,” the town headman said. “A herd-rider has come. There is trouble at our sister town of Valemouth. The Maygyen Garrison prepares to ride!”
“Hard men, but the imperial garrison makes war only on open enemies of the Myrhyran Empire, not humble folk. What happened?”
“Head-taxes. Some of their number offered body insult to the bloodless daughters of Nob Weaver-head, pulling up skirts to check for a woman’s thatch to add adults to the rolls, and the Weaver’s guild met them in the street with violence. A Maygyen was killed. The Maygyen hung the weavers and promise to hang ten from each town of the Vale in retaliation.!”
The Maygyen were no natives to the Vale, but hard-handed riders brought up from the south by the Myrhyran Empire. The Myrhyrans were canny enough to know that resentment would inevitably build between a subject people and the garrison responsible for enforcement of the imperial law and tax collection. They used Maygyen in the Vale, and for all the Blue Pilgrim knew a allotment of tall spearmen of the Vale were walking the streets of another province, skins tanned by the fierce sun of the south.
“Who is the Captain of the Garrison these days?”
The headman grabbed at his cloak like a hysteric. “That is the blackest news of all. It is Ruyaad the Perfumed! The one who rode down the miner’s rising! He has returned. He is sure to carry out such a black threat. Save us!”
“He’s not as terrible as some. I shall have a word with him.”
“Be thankful it’s a warm night, Muhey,” the Blue Pilgrim heard Ruyaad say. “In three more moons it’ll be blowing ice crystals that hit like sling stones.”
The Maygyen had improved their living quarters since he last visited the garrison at Valemouth. Where there had been tents little round huts now stood. The dwellings boasted stone walls and thick thatch roofs, set well above the highwater mark of the gurgling Lambhop river flowing out the mouth of the Vale.
He stood inside Ruyaad’s hut, easy to find for it was the biggest and the only one under guard. Woven rugs with Ruyaad’s family exploits adorned the walls and floor, hung so they might form walls and a second roof around a tiny sleeping chamber enclosing the warm charcoal brazier and its attendant chimney.
Ruyaad the Perfumed had to bend almost double to pass through the entrance. The hut had no windows and only that one door to better keep the heat in. Unlike a long Myrhyran barrack, there were no arrow-slits or fall-away storming walls, for a Maygyen would rather die trying to reach his horse than be caught in his hut like a badger.
The Blue Pilgrim stood in the shadows, hands on his razor-edged Uldam knife and hammer-pick.
He smelled the frankincense and jasmine on Ruyaad, adding a softer note to the rich Myrhyran oils in his ringletted hair. The warrior looked into a platter of polished copper and began to clean his teeth with a horsetail hair.
The Blue Pilgrim stepped from the shadows. “Warm evening, Bannerchief.”
Ruyaad spun in a blur of riding cloak and silken scarf, a knife flashing in right hand and a notched band of sword-catching steel across his knuckles on the other. They locked eyes and Ruyaad straightened, putting away his knife.
“Skiar! By the holy ring, were you an assassin you could slay through heart-seizure. I’ll have that fool Muhey’s back three-striped for — ”
“Save your sentry’s flesh. I didn’t pass by him.”
Ruyaad’s gaze swept over the walls, floor, intact roof. “Is the garrison undermined? Don’t tell me those thick-headed ore-pickers — “
Ruyaad looked at the ring of stones above and the star-shaped – to better disperse the heat — copper tube leading down to his brazier. “No! A ten year old boy would have to be greased to fit.”
“A winter solstice trick of the Discerns to leave presents and puzzles with the most promising children, in a happier age. But it still has its uses.”
“There is soot on you, but a man might wonder if it was placed there, the way a Dessenian actor carries jam in his palm onstage to mime his wounds when slain. Keep your mysteries, then. But where are my manners?” He went down on his knees and reclined sideways on a rolled fur “Off your feet, guest, or shame me further for not steaming milk and a vanilla bean to greet your arrival, for I know you do not take wine.”
“This is not a social visit,” the Blue Pilgrim said, sitting cross-legged with wrists on knee-point.
“You are here about the weavers?”
“You should not be surprised if there is violence in the streets when you pull up a girl’s skirt.”
“I have instructions to follow. A new Scripton has come to oversee the Vale, and ordered me back before I’d half got the sheep-stench out of my nostrils. The Myrhyrans will have their head tax from every adult, and too many of your water-eyed fathers scrape their youths’ faces lest there be a beard that gives away manhood, or strap down womanly breasts on their daughters. There’s hardly a man here that has a beard in this cold! Madness!”
“I’m here to ask you not to carry out the threat to hang men in each town. The bodies in Valemouth must be enough.”
Ruyaad swept his long curled locks from his eyes. “’Twas not my order. Alas, my Bannerhail led the men down the high street that day. He is young and eager to be feared and thought commandlike. But the threat having been issued, I cannot let it go, lest an order of the garrison never be followed again. Were it otherwise!”
“You don’t share our conquerors’ enthusiasm for executions?”
“Hangings are not warrior’s work, especially the short-fall strangulations our Myrhyran lords demand. Yes, I am as unhappy about it as you.”
“The hanged men will be a good deal unhappier.”
“You would not come here just to wipe soot from my chimney. My ears welcome your advice.”
The Myrhyran end of Valemouth, on a small hill on the eastern edge of town that once held the cairns of the ancients, now elevated the Dome and Imperial spire of the Scripton and the homes of such Vale folk as had converted to the Eternal Faith. Gardens full of tiny, bright flowers ringed the hill, watered by women who traded their labor for the head-tax.
Ruyaad, wearing his best riding cloak and golden Ring of Submission, hurried up the steps of the Dome to the Imperial Guardian with his cloak bloused to the left.
“I must see the Scripton.”
The guardian pretended not to hear, and his eyes were unreadable behind face-shield. The spikes on the thick outer door of the Spire seemed more alive in the moonlight, thanks to the play of shadows from the flickering step-lantern.
“This vanquished one humbly begs to see his worship,” Ruyaad rephrased.
“He is at midnight prayers.”
“I must see him at once, for my men are set to ride before the dawn.”
The guardian looked over to his fellow. “Call for an attendant.”
When the attendant arrived Ruyaad was admitted, taken to a receiving room where he removed his weapons and boots, then bowed while a blindfold was tied about his head and a wire noose placed about his throat. Once properly restricted, the attendant gripped him firmly by the elbow and noose and led him within the Dome, where he felt the air and heard the echoes about him.
He smelled a burning prayer tape. “Scripton, the commander of the garrison begs attendance,” the attendant said.
“Is he properly restricted?”
“Then he may speak. What is the emergency, that brings a proud but vanquished Maygyen so humbled onto holy tiles?”
“It is about the punishment my Bannerhail declared, your worship.”
“I am gladdened there’s one among you not afraid to hang a few of the beardless ones. The very sight of them infects my eyes — would that all such heads be turned purple. But Ours is a liberal creed, praise to the Eternal Faith.”
“Praise it forevermore,” the attendant said.
“I had a thought,” Ruyaad said. “Your worship has only just arrived here. Were your worship to begin his office with an act of clemency matters might be set off on a steady hoof in the Vale. A washing away of bad blood between the garrison and the vanquished could be productive.”
“Yours is a pagan mind and would think that. Such laxity was the downfall of my predecessor. I’m told he even ate among them without a contamination mask. Save your tears for your banished soul, Bannerchief. The arts of civilization are lost on these sheep-counters.”
“Once they — “
“I’ve no wish to hear about the glories of Old Uldam, either. Their wisdom proved useless against the Eternal Faith’s will to power. Carry out the hangings, or I shall promote your Bannerhail and you’ll be condemned to a death of hours. Don’t deceive yourself that this is an empty threat or open to countermand.”
“We ride at dawn, your worship,” Ruyaad said. Against soft-palmed townsmen and rock-throwing shepherds, pulling them from their homes with women clinging to them. Disgusting.
Above, as black with soot as a witch’s night-cat, the Blue Pilgrim rested on a shelf running the circumference of the Myrhyran Dome. The spiral-arms of the tile pattern below, thick with sigils of the Eternal faith and its order and chaos, astrological characters and alchemical signs, drew together where the Scripton sat in the center of his ring of thirteen candles.
As a sort of mental exercise the Blue Pilgrim calculated how quickly he might drop from the dome, cross the tiles, and kill the Scripton. But it would accomplish little, Myrhyr would simply send another who would castrate more male youths as a prelude to sending them south into slavery as their sisters were delivered into Imperial brothels, or burn every home to the ground that didn’t carry the lintel-guard of the Eternal Faith, or another act of revenge the Blue Pilgrim’s mind wasn’t dark enough to imagine.
Instead of killing, he flexed his fingers and toes in readiness for the long climb to the dome-tip. The Myrhyrans built their Domes well enough, but were not a people who looked much to upkeep once the capstone was laid, and thanks to the cold of the Vale winters its interior was riddled with cracks and poorly-smoothed patching.
The garrison’s bearded horses were famed for the amount of strength packed into a frame little larger than that of a mountain pony. They huddled together, guarded in night-corral where they’d been gathered in readiness for the morning’s ride, steaming breath dispersed by the long hair about their muzzles.
Not a guard slept, and each moved from post-point to post-point and met his fellow sentry with a word or two to make sure the other was awake and alert, for Ruyaad the Perfumed kept a well-trained and laudably-led garrison. But even Maygyens had their failings, for they relied on their horses for everything from foretelling the weather to smelling a vampire in the woods ahead. The sentries trusted their herd of horses as much as their own eyes to detect an approaching threat to precious horseflesh.
When one restless mount began to shift among its fellows they thought little of it and gave it not a second look, for it moved calmly among the others. If they had they might have seen the figure clinging to the horse’s belly, his legs wrapped about its withers, or the knife flashing in the clear mountain air as its blade lost its candle-soot coating.
Ruyaad the Perfumed cursed the rising sun, cursed the morning chill, cursed his men, cursed his horses, cursed his luck, and even, for one of the few times in his life, cursed his mother for bearing him.
He cursed the rising sun for its constant ascent despite the delays, cursed the morning chill for the horses were stiff-legged and coming up lame almost from the moment they were saddled, cursed his men for not properly warming their mounts, cursed his horses for their strange fit of mass hysteria, where those who saw others of their breed limping seemed to decide to go lame too. Particularly he cursed his luck for pausing for a three-night in that homey roadhouse with the bread that tasted as though baked for the gods themselves and the breasts of the landlord’s daughters were as soft and plump as the mouth-melting loaves where the Imperial Summons could catch up to him.
None of this was his mother’s fault, but she was cursed with the rest of them. Already he was down seventeen riders, and they’d hardly left sight of Valemouth. But no eye could detect obvious injury or wounds to hoof or hock.
The horses should be properly warmed from their walk through town. Perhaps they could make up time on the road. Old Uldam built fine roads, and his horses could flow along them like water down a mountainside canyon.
“Banner to the trot!” he called.
The bearded horses tossed their heads in excitement at his sounder’s signal-call. They broke into their famous long-stepping buck-trot, which made them prized across the Myrhyran Empire for their endurance rides. No horses under sun and moon could cover the distance they could in a day’s ride, yet still be ready for another such the next day, and the third after that.
But not today, it seemed.
Horses began to pull up almost from the first step, some crying out in pain in voices that made the Bannerchief’s heart break and regret his earlier curses. One of his men dropped his first-lance as his horse lurched. A bad omen.
He halted the column.
Bandy-legged old Hyugen dropped off his limping horse, removed his helm, and ran his wrinkled hand up his mount’s lifted leg.
“The tendon’s nicked, Bannerchief,” he called. “We ride farther today and we’ll cripple these horses. As it is we’ll be lucky to get them back to stable fit for something other than the stew-pot.”
“Dismount!” Ruyaad called. That damned Discern! If he’s not the product of one of Lolok Fogherd’s nightsports with a wood-witch, I’ll forswear wine for life. “I bow to the wisdom of a past Bannerchief, Hyugen. It’ll be safer to bring the stable here than take the horses back. Hanastar!” he called his Bannerhail.
Hanastar rode up at the canter, six men trailing behind. “I’ve found six sound horses and riders,” he called as he halted and capered his horse to show its fitness. “Boldly handled, we can still ride among the shepherds and hang as many as we like, catching them on the open plain.”
“Your six sound horses will be better used getting tools and biding twine from Valemouth. We must brace up every injured leg and then go to the far fields for remounts and bring in the two-years and a few breeding mares — ”
“I still follow orders!” Hanastar interrupted. “These wool-shearers need to be taught to never make a fist in the presence of a Maygyen.”
Some of the garrison hotheads cheered that. Thus affirmed, the Bannerhail switched his horse away at the gallop, his riders buttocks-up behind, bent arms saluting their comrades as they gripped mane and rein in the left hand. Another rider tried to join them but his horse stumbled and danced as yet another tendon failed.
So young. Will he grow any older beyond this day?
“Let’s tend to our horses, men,” Ruyaad said.
By mid-morning the Blue Pilgrim sat cross-legged in the middle of the Vale-road, working a knotty stick with the axe-blade now notched in his pick. Any properly dried hickory was a marvelous wood, but the crotched piece of Vale hickory he worked, taken from a dead and dried limb, was half-petrified and only yielded small flakes to the edge.
He felt utterly exhausted from his long runs, but he’d taken water, fruit, yoghurt, and nuts brought by Lar from Old Bridge Crossing and would soon be restored. Lar watered his sore feet in the cool of the river, under orders to stay out of sight.
He’d spotted the Bannerhail rounding up a pair of shepherds on the plain and then they made for the Crossing, where a mighty tree grew just where the road turned down, planted two hundred years ago so travelers might rest in its shade and take in the view of the river, bridge, and town beyond.
It seemed the most likely place for a hanging, whether they were bound for tree or bridge, so as soon as the shepherds were dragged east he made for it at the lope, cutting across country.
He even dozed a little, drowsy in the sun.
Hoofbeats woke him, and he creaked his joints as he stretched. When he could distinguish one face from another on the approaching riders, he cradled the wood-crotch as a mother might a child, with the divided end up.
The exhausted shepherd and his slighter companion stumbled and tottered and tripped behind the second rider’s horse, bound about the wrist with lines leading to the saddle-grip. Both staggered along on bloody feet, covered with sweat and dust, only the boy with a sandal left. The Blue Pilgrim guessed from the like appearance that they were father and son.
“Here’s a third,” the Bannerhail called. “He’s tall, and will look fine dangling between the other two. What a shabby cloak, eh men? We’ll relieve him of his burden of poverty. Into line, Royth, stay back with the condemned.” Then he hailed down the road. “Hey, stranger, you picked a bad day to block our road carrying firewood.”
The shepherds dropped to their knees in exhaustion.
“That’s not firewood, Bannerhail,” one of the riders said.
“What’s that?” the Bannerhail asked. “Oh, bosh, he can’t know what that is to us.”
“I contradict. I know what a fall-mark is,” the Blue Pilgrim said. “I mean to have your lances properly angled up over your graves, should you carry out with these hangings. The people of the Vale will demand that you be left on rocky ground for the birds and dogs and ants, but I won’t have your poor spirits wailing all night and disturbing the sheep.”
Some of the men exchanged looks.
The Bannerhail inflated his lungs, and spoke to their men in their own tongue: “He thinks he’s green-skinned Bougy himself, with his tricky talk. We’ll find he bleeds red the same as us. Ready lance!”
The Blue Pilgrim answered in the same tongue: “O Wind and Earth, choose a spot to receive these dead!” He threw the crotched piece of wood high into the air. Before it landed off the road with a thud that made the horses jump he had his blade and pick.
“You’ve written your song with the battle still unwon,” the Bannerhail said. “It’s six mounted men to one afoot with short weapons.”
“Bannerhail, those weapons — ” the eldest of the men began.
The Blue Pilgrim shifted his tongue and let loose with an angry buzzing sound, rising and falling. The horses began to dance.
“Don’t tell me that tree’s full of yellowdarts,” one of the Maygyen said. “Curse this harsh land, everything grows overlarge and ornery.”
“It’s him! Ride him down,” the Bannerhail ordered.
The Blue Pilgrim let loose with a loud buzz as a big, gruff Maygyen touched lance-back to the horse’s rump. The horse reacted not by charging down the road, but by leaping sideways into his fellow. Soon all the terror-filled horses were whipping their tails and trying to get away from the noise. Only the Bannerhail kept his horse fully under control.
“Dismount and attack with sword!” the Bannerhail ordered.
The men jumped off their horses, and one mount ran off before he could retrieve his blade.
“Drogy, you fool. Hold on to the prisoners,” the Bannerhail ordered.
The Blue Pilgrim let them advance and form a ring around him. He stood facing the Bannerhail, and left off the buzzing. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why the delay? Cut him down, warriors of Maygya!”
They advanced into a brief whirl of blades. When they met in the center, one rider was down on one knee and another had dropped his sword and stood staring stupidly at his right arm, dangling nervelessly.
And the Blue Pilgrim stood outside the circle, bleeding from cuts in his shoulder and thigh.
“Ten more of your people will hang for that!” the Bannerhail shouted.
A warrior sprang out of the confusion, lunging for the Discern’s back. He sidestepped the stab and cut up with his blade and the sword fell from the man’s grip.
“He’s a wizard!” one of the remaining armed Maygyen shouted
“And ten more for that!” the Bannerhail roared, seeing his rider clutch a half-severed wrist.
“One might posit that I will save many more death sentences by cutting your throat, Bannerhail.”
The Bannerhail spurred his horse forward, lance lowered.
The Blue Pilgrim sidestepped the lance. Dropping his pick and shifting his knife to his left hand, he hooked his right hand on the Bannerhail’s elbow and swung into the saddle, closing a leg around the rider’s waist. He put his blade to the Bannerhail’s throat.
“What was that about hangings?” he asked the Bannerhail.
The rider reached for his dirk and the Blue Pilgrim grabbed the Bannerhail’s hand and turned it. The dirk dropped and the Bannerhail folded in pain. Blood ran from a small wound in his neck.
“No hangings,” he squeaked. “The order is rescinded.”
“Cut those shepherds loose,” the Blue Pilgrim prompted. “We return to Valehead.”
The Bannerhail repeated the orders.
“Now we ride to your Bannerchief, and let him hear the countermands from your own lips,” the Blue Pilgrim said.
“How many horses are fit to ride?” the Scripton asked, looking out at the straw-colored Vale from the Imperial Spire. He had old eyes and wrinkled hands, but hardly puffed climbing the seventy-seven steps of the Spire, and his beard and eyebrows were still the deepest black. Perhaps he took youth-draughts.
“Seventeen, hardly enough for three-man patrols of the Mouth,” Ruyaad reported, wondering what sort of death the Scripton would dream up for him. “We still gather remounts and can have another dozen ready to ride in a few days, but we won’t be back to full strength until the spring, unless you provide us with more horses or know some gift that will speed the healing of the hocked mounts. Were that your predecessor was not so eager to sell our horseflesh!”
“If you cannot ride into the Vale, we must make the Vale come here,” the Scripton said, pulling at his gold-corded beard. He waggled his fingers at an attendant scribe, who picked up a quill. “As they will not have Myrhyr’s law, I declare this place at enmity. Your men may help themselves to anything not under the Eternal Faith’s sigil.”
“Even if we could plunder the Vale entire, this vanquished one doesn’t see how it would help matters. Will you send for Imperial troops?”
“I was instructed to make the Vale profitable again. The expense of even an advance guard of an Imperial Host would set the balance sheet back a generation. No, I will arrange matters so these water-eyes will throng at my doorstep, offering to sell their own daughters into bondage and give up three-quarters of their herds so that they might enjoy Myrhyran protection again.”
“If your worship can accomplish this, your worship will indeed be numbered among the great of the Empire.”
The wrinkled fingers tightened on the stony rail. “I care not for the word ‘if.’”
“My apologies, your worship. But what of the one called sky-eyes, who did injury to the Bannerhail’s party? He might interfere again with the enforcement of Myrhyran will.”
“The Discerns know flesh and bone, nerve and organ, and may cripple and kill with that knowledge. But there are powers impervious to such surgeries.”
The Scripton stared out at the Vale with pursed lips, as though choosing where to place his pieces in a game of lance-bow-saber.
“Now I must visit the catacombs. Guards! Bring to me the young Bannerhail. He proved useless in life, perhaps he might do better after death.”
“Scripton, I command the garrison. Whatever punishment — “
“No, no, no, my gallant commander. You are popular both with your men here and back in your homeland. Besides which, I know your heart. You have pity for these clods; even tortured to madness your kraa would not do my bidding. But bravely said, Bannerchief. Bravely said.”
It was later told that the young Bannerhail’s screams carried all the way into town when the wind paused in its travels. A day passed, and heavy clouds gathered, bringing an unusually thick fog for the late summer. The next night the townspeople of Valemouth saw a heavy curtained wagon pass, pulled by sixteen oxen and guarded by the Scripton’s Imperial bodyguards. One door-boy, braver and more curious than the rest, dashed out onto the high road, hopped up on the cart and tried to see what rode in the back. Though he was pulled away and thrashed for his insolence, as he proudly showed his switch-marks to his friends while sweeping out the Copper Cup later, he said the Scripton himself rode behind the curtains, bent over a great stone box and whispering into its lid.
“Probably full of refined copper plates from the mines,” a tavernkeeper said. “This one’s just like the last, taking in tax but pocketing in profit.”
“But the cart headed north into the Vale,” the boy said. “Why would the Scripton smuggle ought into the highlands?”
“Listen to the young Discern!” the tavernkeeper guffawed. “Keep your nose out of Myrhyran business, boy, or they’ll lop it off for you.”
And thus began the terror in the Vale, later memorialized as the “Nights of Fog.”
It started with a pair of slaughtered sheep, found on a bare and wind-clawed hilltop ripped open so the organ meats might be removed. It was thought that some strange wild beast, or perhaps a huge eagle, had descended from the mountains and attacked the beasts, but for two animals to be found dead next to each other suggested to even the shepherds that they’d been killed elsewhere and brought to the very ordinary-looking summit to be eaten.
Then the shepherds and goat-keepers began to disappear. Three men and two boys, vanished without a track or sign, save for a dropped woolen hat found outside an isolated lean-to. Skiar the Discern, who began to wonder if he was fated to spend the rest of his days in the Vale, was summoned from his bare little lodge where Lar wrote out his formulas on a smoothed cave wall with a bit of charcoal.
Leaving Lar charged with repairing the gaping roof on the lodgement, he went first to the place where Radrak the goatherd was taken, for it was the easiest journey.
Other than reports that the previous night had been so thickly fogged that the mist swallowed even the crunch of one’s own footsteps, he could learn little.
“The goats have tracked up all the ground,” the Blue Pilgrim said to the alarmed villagers, circumnavigating the area around the lean-to. “I would almost believe one of the great birds of the south hunted here, but they are day fliers, and would be seen across the whole Vale if they circled. Yet a beast big enough to carry off a man would leave a heavier trace. Had he not dogs to warn him?”
“There’s one of them,” Radrack’s grown daughter said. “He’s watching from the rocks, you see? If any of us approach, he runs.”
The Blue Pilgrim tried to reach the cur to see if it bore some tell-tale mark, but it ran away with hindquarters tucked, setting a pace that indicated nothing wrong with it save wretched fear.
He spent the evening attending to the cracked chimney and fixing winter shutters in Radrack’s humble little home, thinking as he worked, and retired late to the high beds of the Vale people, situated so the rising heat from their fires warmed the leather-strap webbing. Radrack’s daughter said many prayers for her father to help guide his confused spirit into Afterlife Bliss and he fell asleep to her whisperings.
The summer’s harvest was coming in and they broke fast over rich potatoes, squash, and radishes, all smeared with apple-paste. But a commotion broke up the silent meal.
“Discern!” the village father said, approaching him at a heavy, puffing run. “The Vale is accursed! The great mill-house in Lambhop Dell has been visited now! Not a soul survives.”
“Get me a horse or a pony.”
The Blue Pilgrim understood weights and cantilevers and breaking strengths, but was no accomplished rider. He bumped along on the horse’s back and both horse and rider arrived unhappy and sore after the trip.
From any of the hills surrounding Lambhop Dell the mill-house looked like no great structure. Only once you went down into the Dell did you appreciate the three levels and massive stones and timbers that went into its construction. Judging from damage to door and windows, an elephant and a hauling chain and hook had been at work here.
Rumor had proved wrong in one respect, however. A boy still lived, the grandson of the miller Rouk. He’d been found hiding among the gears of the water-wheel.
“Scarecrow-man!” the boy said. “The scarecrow-man came in the fog.” After that they could get nothing from him but tears.
There were a few dark mutters that wherever the Blue Pilgrim went, trouble followed, and the Vale should have never asked him here to fix the screw-well in Valehold.
This time there were tracks, several sets of footprints, somewhat confused and with many drags and drops, as though a long fistfight had headed back into the dry grasslands of the Vale. The Blue Pilgrim followed it up a hill with some of the locals and mounted the nearest prominence.
“The tracks head for those rocks, the tilted ones,” he said, marking a distant serration. A spur of mountain rose behind it.
“That’s the spearpoint,” one of the goatherds said. “Poor, dry ground, always in the wind. What do I tell my wife, your honor? She’s scared to death. If the Mill’s not safe, no door in the Vale can keep this mist-ghoul out.”
“There are many explanations for a forced door and an empty mill,” the Blue Pilgrim said.
They heard a high, wailing signal call from a Myrhyran and a deep drum-roll. They looked down toward the mill and saw four Maygyen riders and three Myrhyrans in riding robe and stirrup-slipper. A Myrhyran, with his trumpeter before and drummer behind, addressed the men of the Vale who’d gathered at the mill. He must have been chosen for his powerful lungs and trap-hinged jaw, for even on the hilltop they heard most of his words, thanks to the wind.
“People of the Vale! Viol… done to great Myrhyr and the guardians of the Eternal Faith. It is the procl–…for this land…declared out of Myrhyran Law. Protection is withdrawn fr… stock, crops, homes, and lives. Hell itself may choose to visit your house, violators of the Faith’s Peace! This edict… until…certain…and acceptance of redress. First of these is the so-called Discern, Skiar, wanted for crimes both… and accept Myrhryan protection and justice.”
With another drum-roll the riders moved on down the high road.
“What is his meaning, your honor?” the goatherd asked. “I’m not used to such words, they cross over each other in my head like paddock-tracks.”
“One more piece of evidence. The Myrhyrans don’t have the riders to exact vengeance on the Vale. They mean to scare you back into the fold with devilry. The question is, how are they working the trick?”
“Your name was shouted,” a farmer said.
The Blue Pilgrim sat down to think. “The Myrhyrans did away with the Discerns in my grandfather’s time. I’ve been a wanted man since my mother carried me in womb.”
“You’d better flee again,” the goatherd said. “There are plenty in the towns who would buy peace with your neck.”
“Not just in the town,” the farmer said. “The Vale was at peace until you arrived.”
“I came to fix a well. My neck alone won’t buy an end to the Scripton’s terror. I was only first of a list of unspecified conditions. I will follow these tracks. They may lead to a camp of men and theatrical costume.”
“And if it is not men?” the goatherd asked.
“You may not have to bring me before the Scripton in chains to sell your Vale back into Myrhyran bonds.”
The trail back to the “spearpoint” narrowed as it went. He found a steel prying claw, a cap, and a night-slippper along the way, though the tracks remained confused. This could have been the intent of the raiding party.
One thing he had more difficulty identifying – a strip of tightly woven cloth as wide as his hand, as tough as canvas yet as supple as chamois, and dusted with some form of metallic powder. It somewhat resembled bandaging, and the powder might be Myrhyran medicine to ward off infection. For generations in a more peaceful age the Discerns acknowledged that the best medical manuscripts came out of the Myrhyran Empire.
He reached the “spearpoint” with hours of light to spare. The prominence stabbed at the cloudy sky, a jumble of broken sedimentary layers, the largest of which thrust northwestward and up like a foundering ship’s prow. He found it interesting only as a display of geologic forces. It did indeed look as though some underground earthen spirit had thrust a spear of rock up through the surface of the earth.
The Blue Pilgrim made no effort to hide his approach. If the mysterious tracks had been made by men, he wanted to talk to them, and if not, the beast had only struck at night, so in all likelihood it disliked the sun’s hard stare.
The tracks wound around boulders, and after a moment’s confusion the Blue Pilgrim realized they made for the broken summit.
He traced the tracks up, sometimes going on all fours to negotiate the trickier parts. Tracks became harder to read because of the bare rock and lack of grasses, so he simply made for the pointed end of the “spear.” It would give him a commanding view of much of the Vale, if nothing else.
A suspicious brown trickle concerned him as he approached the top. It was a last tendril of a smaller dry stream, which turned into a sun-baked puddle, which led to nothing less than a lake of dried blood atop the rocks. Sun and wind of the Vale had already turned the blood flaky, but there were distinct tracks in the dried puddle, as though men and sheep and dogs and what looked like a mountain bear had all danced under the moon.
This cannot be a trick. If one’s aim is to frighten simple herdsmen, you don’t leave your marks where they can’t easily be found…
He surveyed the land. The distant Myrhyran Imperial Spire at Valemouth pierced the horizon to the south. At the other end of the Vale, the gardens of Valehold stood out, a cascade of green flowing down the straw-colored hillsides. He could see six more villages, and of course the dark streak of the Lambhop and its thin woodsy patches.
This was not some strange monster that wandered in from across the mountains. A predator would locate itself closer to flocks and water. Conceivably an avian would choose such a perch as a safeguard against nest-raiders, but that left the tracks unaccounted for. No, this spot was chosen by design, not chance.
Design denoted some level of intelligence.
So if the Myrhyran plague loosed on the Vale was to stay there until its task was complete, there must be a force controlling it, or it might travel out of the Vale, or bash in the door of the Imperial Spire.
He followed the tracks, which incredibly flowed over the edge of the precipice in a waterfall of dried brown, and the last feeble flickering doubt of the evidence as some sort of bloody trick meant to terrify the Vale into submission winked out. He removed his sandals and explored, crawling and gripping with fingers and toes which soon grew sore with the effort. An overhang defeated him for a moment. In his bright and golden youth he would have swung like an ape, trusting to luck and strength to find a new grip beneath, but age had taught him caution. Or perhaps caution had taught him, and allowed him to reach this grizzled age —
The overhang loomed over a narrow chute, giving him purchase for a rest. As he let his strength recover he discovered a strange sort of white dust, like the refined sugars of Hari-hem oldsters used to sweeten their teas to syrups. It was curious enough, and utterly out of place in a corner accessible to wind and rain, that he placed it in a specimen-pouch in his harness for later examination.
He found a cave that smelled of old bat-droppings. The guano had hardened, but been worn away by the drag of a line at the lip of the cave. Examining the mouth, he found a new wheeled block driven with heavy iron bolts into the rock above. Something heavy had been swung up into the cave.
Groping a little farther into the darkness, he found another rag or two of the bandaging material, bloody and torn and still wet. The cave took an abrupt turn down, became almost a pit.
Fear washed over him as he left the last of the wholesome light of the cave mouth. He’d come ill-equipped to explore a cave, but he had three bits of candle in his harness, for a Discern always had to be ready to offer light – though usually this was taken in a metaphorical sense. After some effort with flint and the steel of his pick he lit a candle, and used it to light a knot of bandage which he then tossed down into the pit.
The drop-light came to rest on a rather awkwardly placed stone ark, almost big enough to be a multi-family tomb such as the Myrhyrans used to let tower-dried dynastic bones rest together. No bat droppings from the cracks above spotted it, and it rested at an angle thanks to the uneven bottom. A bit of broken rope lay beneath, along with some leather netting. The stone casket had obviously been lowered into the tomb with little ceremony or care. The top rested a bit askew.
The top made him unsettled, especially a tiny black crack between the cover and casing just big enough for fingers. Whatever plagued the Vale rested within that sepulcher, a dreadful presence. Worse, the presence didn’t shift, or scratch, or even breathe in its casing. It just waited.
The burning knot of bandage faded to a glowing orange line and went out, leaving him with his pathetic little candle-end at the edge of a black well.
He didn’t fight his fear. Like anger, or love, the emotion had its uses if properly acknowledged and heeded. And the sun would soon disappear.
The climb back up to the spearpoint passed easier, as he knew the route and holds now. There he waited for the sun not so much to disappear, but to fade, for the Vale was cloudy this time of year.
A bank of fog rolled up from the south and the Blue Pilgrim watched uneasily, for the wind was cold from the north. It washed up against the spearpoint and a fortunate cloudbreak offered him direct moonlight. He crept to the edge of the rock until he had to hang on with fingers and toes. He looked over the edge of the overhang and into the cave.
A living nightmare stuck its head out from beneath the cave overhang and began the climb down to the Vale.
Later he tried to tell himself that fog and shadow made his imagination add horrors to the creature. At first shock he disbelieved his sight, as a joke sent by his eyes that his brain refused to laugh at. If anything, it reminded him of the colorful silken festival dragons of Wy-an Wu and Wy-an Chu, the Twins of Jade in the Great East, where twenty men or more would dance down the street under a painted canopy of fabric, a great grinning head leading the way. But instead of fabric this creature’s limbs were stitched together with score-cubits of Myrhyran bandage. Instead of black-slippered feet it traveled on limbs of dog and man, sheep and bear, hoof and finger and claw working together to support it and drag the monster forward.
No wonder it hides from the sun. Such an abomination cannot stand —
A sharp tap at his side brought a startled gasp. The pouch in his harness where he’d placed the strange crystal substance twitched as though a mouse scratched inside. He stripped off his harness in half a panic and opened the pouch.
Two digits of what might have been a dog or wolf paw fell out and pulsed weakly on the rock. He sniffed at the fresh blood they contained, and looked around at the thick mist gathering about the receding creature in wonder.
Stifling a disgust a Discern should be loath to show, he began to experiment.
All the next day he rested in the ruins of the mill, waiting for his message to be answered, as frantic tales passed back and forth of a whole herd of cattle chased into the Lambhop and destroyed. According to the stories of the few men brave enough to survey the damage, tree-trunks had been broken like winter-dry corn-stalks, and the tracks told of a confused file of men and animals who chased the cattle down.
“Some demon drives them,” a cousin to the miller Rouk told him.
“Perhaps,” the Blue Pilgrim agreed, thinking of the Imperial Spire and the heavy spikes on the outer doors.
Ruyaad the Perfumed rode in late in the day on a horse that gleamed like liquid night, its beard dusted with silver, five riders behind. The Blue Pilgrim asked that he bring courage and experience rather than numbers. Along with their finest rope lines.
He’d also had the villagers assemble a herd of thirty sheep. The unhappy creatures were culls, lame, aged, sick. The people of the Vale were loathe to give even these up, until he explained that they might save any more doors from being smashed.
“Thank you for coming, Bannerchief,” the Blue Pilgrim said.
“Your note took some swallowing. Both in the reading and its destruction.” He patted his stomach.
“I’m going to ask your six to work with another six of the Vale. Are you willing?”
“Of course. Anything to put poor Hanastar to rest. It’s an infamy, to use a — ”
“Yes, yes,” the Blue Pilgrim said. There’d be time for words while getting the sacrificial flock to the Spearpoint.
After receiving similar assurances from the stout-hearted shepherds, each with a heavy mallet and their longest, stoutest bracing spikes, they set out for the Spearpoint.
“Why the bellows and the leather hose?” Ruyaad asked, seeing the Blue Pilgrim’s own pack.
“A last resort,” he said.
They came to the Spearpoint in the afternoon and made camp in sight of its point. The Blue Pilgrim saw to it his men ate and rested and made sure of the rendezvous. Then he asked them to retreat to the forest of rocks in the mountain above.
Ruyaad didn’t like his role. “Let me stay with you, at least. With a horse. This danger should be shared.”
“I agree with the bloodyhooves, though it pains me to say so,” Voot of the shepherds agreed. “Let me remain behind as well.”
“No. I must see to it that the beast’s attention is drawn to the sheep. Rest if you can, and return well before the dawn.”
He conquered their further arguments as a way of driving his mind away from the anxiety he felt, readying the bellows and hose and testing the wind.
The wait (before a poor crackling fire made of bits of dried brush, for firewood was one item he forgot to have someone bring) passed infinitely worse than the one above the cave, for he knew what was coming. He mixed his chemicals – carefully, for they could raise blisters if mishandled — and waited.
And, in the dark, with the mist about him, it came.
He heard it descend the Spearpoint, with the strange mixture of hoof and claw sounding from the rocks, muffled and dispersed by the fog. The sheep, already unhappy with the poor grazing and lack of water, blatted out an alarm.
It came out of the mist, the Bannerhail’s poor, branded face pale as death in the moonlight, and the rest behind, that horrific conglomeration of pulsing flesh and mismatched limb all wrapped in bandage pushing, pulling, and clawing awkwardly behind.
The Blue Pilgrim stood, a fighting axe-blade in his multi-pick and his knife freshly edged.
One eye on the Bannerhail still functioned, the other socket an ugly dry wound, and it fixed on him.
“Do you still have your memories?” he said. “You poor, sad thing. Come and let me end your sufferings.”
It came, hunching and lunging like a tiny legged-worm. The sheep, scattering, drew the attention of some of the other heads, wolf, bear, and human, attached like warts on the thing’s back.
But the young Bannerhail had eye only for the Blue Pilgrim, under the ugly Myrhyran astrological sign burned into his forehead.
The Blue Pilgrim aimed with his axe and threw, but missed. The blade buried itself into a mass of flesh by the Bannerhail’s ear. Giant bear arms, festooned with cattle-horns, opened to take him up –
And he brought up the hose and jumped on the readied bellows, turning his head away.
A jet of powder shot out the hose and into the daemon’s face. For a moment it engulfed the front end of the creature, but the Blue Pilgrim fled upwind, running, holding his breath and covering his eyes. When he dared look, through the tears in his stinging eyes, he saw the daemon blindly seize the bawling sheep. Some it devoured, some it gripped in limbs on the rear of its body.
Still it bayed and roared as it rubbed at its many sets of eyes. It turned this way and that, crashing into rocks as it chased the sounds of terrified sheep around and around.
The assembly of the Maygyen Heights and the Vale rode and ran up, as ready as men could be when faced with such a living blasphemy.
Behind the whirling lasso of Ruyaad the men rode their tough bearded horses. Their apparent eagerness and battle howls gave the men of the Vale heart to run forward with their mallets and pegs.
The Blue Pilgrim did what he could in the fray, though this sort of rough and tumble was neither to his taste nor ability, mostly holding tent spikes under swinging mallets in bruised and bashed fingers.
Around him, the riders on their beared horses charged the blinded daemon and got a line on limb, head, or horn. While the line was fixed on its peg the riders shot arrows or drove lance-point into the daemon to keep its attention off.
They lost three men: one rider horribly torn in two after being impaled on an antelope-horn and one shepherd crushed into a mass of red jelly, brains, and half-digested food. The third simply ran in terror. Two horses fell, including Ruyaad’s gleaming black mount. Ruyaad’s lost his voice in bellowing orders – and his usual pleasant aroma of frankincense oil.
But they managed to subdue it under a web of lines, each fixed to a deep-driven peg.
Only once the daemon was on its side did the Blue Pilgrim come forward and bash Hanastar the Bannerhail’s head into oblivion with a rock.
As the sun rose the mass gave a great heave, letting loose with a cry like a menagerie being burned alive. The daemon managed to break half the ropes and pulled the others, stake by stake, out as it lunged for the safety of the cave. All held their breath as the last peg broke and line parted, but as it reared to climb the Spearpoint it dissolved away into white powder under the bright Vale sun.
The men, burying the dead under a Maygyen fall-mark, gaped as the Blue Pilgrim quietly scraped up every particle he could into a black bag.
The next day the Imperial Guard failed to notice the black bag. Though one could hardly blame them, for it was left hanging high on the dome.
Crashes, sounds of alarm, and terrified screams echoed from the Dome and Imperial Spire that next night.
Even the most devoted of the Eternal Faith reported feelings of dread long before they placed prayer-slipper on the first step before the shattered doors.
The old, comfortably corrupt Scripton, reinstated quietly and quite without the usual Myrhyran pomp, feasting, and tributes, saw to it that nothing but rumor would ever be known about the removal of his predecessor. Wild tales still seeped out, telling of shattered columns, smashed tiles, torn-off doors, bloodstained walls and floors, and a deep crypt bricked up and sealed with much craft and holy symbols written on the masonry in the purest of refined silvers.
Though today the dome has fallen and all the stairs down to the catacombs have been filled in with dirt, visitors to the old Myrhyran ruins still speak of strange feelings of dread that come upon them whenever they step out of wholesome sunlight, as though hunger and malice still lives there, beneath their feet.
A presence that neither shifts nor scratches nor breathes, just waits.