Kraken’s Honor

Issue #31

I suppose there are worse ways to start a day than drowning, but standing on the splintered prow of the Ice Queen with the icy sea breaking green over the dwindling deck, I really could not think of one. The world had shrunk to a broken wedge of wood stuck fast on the rocks half a bowshot from shore. Not so far, were it not for the kraken lolling at ease in the shallows, watching the Queen breaking up with a nasty gleam in its golden eyes.

A cold death or a sharp one. Fine lot of choices for a winter morning.

“The beast looks hungry!” Halvak shouted over the frosted wind driving in our faces.

“The beast looks amused,” I said. It rankled, to end in a monster’s belly like some slaughtered bullock too stupid to avoid its fate.

Another wave smashed over the Queen’s figurehead, all but washing us both away. Halvak grabbed my arm; I clawed for the remains of the ship’s rail and clung hard, keeping us from the depths for another moment or two. Something snapped sharply underfoot and Halvak yelped as the deck tilted again.

“If ever you intended to discover if the gods have not all died, my prince, now would be a good time!” he shouted.

“And what if they’re still angry? I’ll take my chances with the sea!”

The sea had its own ideas. A wave shattered to spray across the bow. The spray froze where it struck, splintering apart again in glittering shards that fell and broke like crystal knives with every trembling passage of a wave. Deck and rail shone like the Isles of the Dead in all the legends, which told me a thing or two about how legends begin.

“I’ll not be part of this one,” I muttered, and hauled Halvak up beside me. He looked a sight, did my bard, with his green finery draggled and splotched and his black beard full of ice, but his blue eyes were steady on mine.

“You’ve a plan, my lord?” he said, so calm that my soul cringed from his certainty. Reputation is an evil thing, especially when it is your own.

“I’ve a hope,” I told him, and pointed at the kraken.

He gazed an instant with only the sound of the crashing sea to fill the silence. “This should be a tale worth telling,” he said finally.

A great wave smashed over the figurehead and carried it away, the Ice Queen herself gone to a cold and lonely grave. I twisted a hand in Halvak’s cloak and caught him close, eyeing a rock a fathom away. Halvak clutched at the remains of the rail, suddenly shy as a maiden.

“My lord!” he shouted over the wind, and fear edged his voice for the first time since we fled Westervar together ahead of the Night Maidens. “I think I should tell you—I cannot swim!”

I hauled him up against my side. “What makes you think I can?”

His hand clutched convulsively at my cloak as I launched us over the heaving gap, and then we landed sprawling on a great, slippery stone sheathed in ice and cold as a Night Maiden’s heart. I started to slide toward the sea; Halvak’s hand caught me back, pinning me to the rock with scant regard for royal bruises. Kicking and scrambling, we crawled up to a sea-carved hollow at the top, above the crash of the waves. We rested there, shivering and soaked and battered by icy needles driven down from the north with all the vicious intent my uncle could put into them. I heard a sound I could not at first believe and stared wildly into the wind, certain it was my uncle’s laughter I heard. Then I peered at Halvak. He was lying there on his belly with his face tilted up to the dirty gray sky and a great grin cracking his face apart, giggling like a demented child.

“You’re mad!” I shouted at him.

He sat up, scrabbling for a handhold on the ice, and made me a mocking bow from the waist. “No madder than my lord.” Then his gaze slid toward the shore and his voice turned urgent. “Up, Faeryk. If you’ve not broken your father’s sword landing on this rock, I’ve a mind you’re going to need it.”

The kraken had bestirred itself from the shallows. Its great horned head lifted. Nostrils each the width of my shoulders fluttered and sniffed the salt wind. Great fangs as long as my arm gleamed dully in the storm light and a hundred writhing limbs stirred idly in a queasy tangle like a nest of snakes.

I crawled to my feet, balancing precariously on the ice, sodden and dripping and numb from the frozen roots of my hair to my waterlogged boots. I left my father’s sword in the sheath. Even were my hands not too stiff and cold to wield it, it could do little but add to the krakens amusement should I brandish it in the monster’s face.

The kraken glided closer, ignoring wind and sea and the snow lashing at great golden eyes. It cocked its head, curious as a cat, wondering, perhaps, why we stood like tethered sheep awaiting our doom. Gradually it slowed, and hope all but choked me.

Halvak stood rigid by my side, his harp quiet in its case on his shoulder. Son of a hundred bards, he could have stayed and harped for my uncle and commanded his own castle, but here he stood on the remains of an oath and a principle long forgotten in Westervar. Honor. For that, and because that jewel of a voice should not end in a kraken’s belly, I looked up into the gold, slitted eyes peering down at me and began to fight for a kingdom I no longer wanted.

The kraken watched us from the safety of a four-fathom gap, craning its horned head back and forth. It seemed content to wait; already the sea had claimed the remains of the Ice Queen. We, however, would freeze to death before the creature ran out of patience, so I shouted, “Hoy! Lord of the Waves! What do you here in this cove, scavenging wreckage like a pirate?”

Halvak sucked in a strangled breath beside me. The kraken reared up, peering down its snout in high offense. It hissed, a blast that ruffled our sodden cloaks and all but blew us off the rock. It smelled of rotting fish and worse things I did not want to know about, but blessings of the gods, at least it was warm.

“I expected better of the Wave King,” I said. “Are you old, or crippled, that you lurk here in the shallows? Or are you just too lazy to hunt anymore, begging scraps from the rocks?”

“Are you mad?” Halvak said through his teeth, his voice thin and strained over the berserker shriek of the wind.

“A quick end might be a blessing. Hush.”

The kraken hissed again. A limb a bowshot away broke the surface of the bay, shivering out of the water to snatch a bit of floating wreckage from a wave. The kraken shoved it at us, and I saw the staring face of the Ice Queen’s figurehead with her long carved hair and her painted blue eyes. The beast set it on the rock beside us and Halvak turned his head slowly to stare at me, a hundred questions in his eyes.

“Did you bring the ship to grief, O King?” I asked the kraken. “Are you sunk to the level of Westervar, to attack from the shadows travelers who never harmed you?”

“Ah,” Halvak breathed beside me.

Slowly I drew the sword of my fathers and held it up, point down between my hands. The blade gleamed like ice and fire even in the dull light, crafted so long ago that the knowledge gone into its making had long been lost. To men, at least. The wave lords might still know its secrets. Surely they knew what it was. Who it belonged to.

The kraken’s head sank slowly until its eye hovered level with my own. “Will you redeem the honor of the sea, as I intend to redeem the honor of Westervar?” I did not shout; I would have wagered all that I no longer owned that it could hear me well even through the wind and the crash of the waves.

The golden eye blinked. I fought the hard shivers threatening to set me shaking like a frightened child and waited to see if the legends were true, if the kraken still sought to set right an ancient wrong, if honor still existed anywhere in the world my uncle ruled.

The kraken’s head sank farther until its chin rested on the waves and its great topknot hovered level with our feet. Its long, snaky spine wandered toward shore, a road of sorts, did we but dare to take it. Tentatively I touched the spiraling, curved horn rising taller than I was, and felt a shiver go through the great beast. Then I stepped between its horns onto the ridged neck, and started to walk.

“I knew there would be a tale worth telling,” Halvak said contentedly behind me.

We grew warmer trying to start a fire of driftwood and dead limbs from the trees above the cove than we did for a long time standing there beside the fire itself. The kraken lay quiet in the bay, watching us, its eyes barely above the dance of the incoming waves. Halvak stared at it, enchanted, his hands too cold yet to harp, but I could see the song forming in his head.

“How did you know what to say to it?” He held his fingers out to the spindly fire fighting valiantly against the wind gusting through our scant shelter of tumbled rocks.

“You a bard, and you do not know that tale?” I mocked him.

Blue eyes narrowed. “I think this is a king’s tale, meant for princely ears.”

“Aye,” I said slowly. Strange, how strictures laid in youth can bind even into manhood. I can see my father yet, with the locked book in his hands, turning from the window toward the kinder lamplight, looking gray and sad with the knowledge he must pass on to his only son and heir. “A king’s tale. A tale of two kingdoms, one of earth, one of sea, and two monarchs who lost their honor together, and have sought ever since to redeem it.”

Halvak’s black eyebrow shot up. “Then there is a curse!”

“A curse? No. But ill luck follows a house that stoops to murder, and ten thousand generations will never wash it away.”

Halvak frowned a little. “But you said you were going to redeem the honor of Westervar. And the kraken—it seems as obsessed with honor as you are. If you cannot wash away blood, how—?”

Like a good bard, he let the question dangle, waiting patiently with the fire swirling and smoking and the wind spitting ice: pure petulance now that it no longer had a viable chance at killing us. Rot in your tower, Uncle, you missed us.

I looked at Halvak. “You know how Kenlav my ancestor went mad in the Ice Tower and was killed by his own son. You’ve sung that tale often enough on a winter night.”

Halvak nodded, his hand moving restlessly across his thigh as though fingering the strings of his harp. “Aye, a grand, shivery tale it is. But just a tale, I thought.”

“The part about him drinking the blood of a hundred maidens, aye, that’s a tale. The part about him murdering a hundred men—that wasn’t. A hundred men and two, all in the mad conviction that one of them was the true father of his son, that his queen had betrayed him. And she had, but not with any mortal man. Poor king. His changeling son had eyes the color of the sea on a winter morning and hair pale as northern lights dancing over the ice. Kenlav knew the instant he laid eyes on the boy in his cradle it was no son of his. But he slew a hundred men and still his queen would not betray her lover.”

I shoved the fire together with my toe and tossed more wood on. Sparks and flame swirled up, startling Halvak into taking a step back. I would not, angry enough to defy the flames. A woman’s treachery had cursed my house; a woman’s misplaced love had sunk a king’s honor into a pit of blood. What other bitter knowledge lurked in that book now in my uncle’s hands? I knew there were tales my father had been reluctant to lay upon a boy, and now it was too late. Only Noal my uncle knew what slept behind the locks of that book now. In three years he had surely discovered how to open it.

“Who was he?” Halvak said, but he had guessed already. His eyes were on the kraken.

“The Sea King himself.” I heard the bitterness in my own voice. “My father said we should not hold the sea’s children to the standards of men, that they have their own ways, their own honor, but how can I not, when the sea comes to visit and takes a mortal shape? This—” I raked a hand through the fair, salt-caked hair straggling around my shoulders. “—is the legacy of that creature in the bay or one of its royal kin. And this.”

I drew my father’s sword again, now mine, the sword of the kings of Westervar, and touched the pale blade. Color shimmered and flared, a cascade of light like the fey, dancing colors of the northern skies. From high overhead a low keening that was not the wind moaned down through the clouds, trailing away out to sea. It left behind a deep shivering in the bones, a resonance as though the world were simply a great harp string that the sword had somehow set aquiver. I saw Halvak’s hand twitch, the harper in him itching to capture that note.

The gods forfend that he should. It would rip the life from him and still his voice forever, and that I could never bear.

I stilled the rippling colors and sheathed the ancient blade before it woke the gods it had betrayed so long ago. I heard Halvak’s breath go out in a soft sigh and looked at him across the fire. Those clear blue eyes stared into the flames and all the poetry of his ancestors lay in his face. I knew what he would say before he said it.

“That your uncle could not command the sword is a sign, Faer. It let your father hold it, but he never woke it in all his long life, yet you can with the merest touch. No wonder Noal fears you.”

“I would gift him the Ice Tower and all of Westervar if it would give me one more day of my father’s company.”

I heard the sudden deep note in my own voice and looked away. The kraken still watched us—me—with an unblinking regard so intent the hair crept on my neck. Here was a patient beast, a beast that wanted ...what? A hundred generations of men it had waited, haunting the northern seas, singing its eerie song to the winter nights under the fey colors of frozen skies—for what? Mourning a dead love? Repenting an adventure that had turned out badly? What did the sea people cherish? Invoking honor had been the wildest clutch at a crumbling ledge of hope. Yet Halvak was right. Honor seemed to be the key. So. What did the sea king know of that most elusive quality?

Halvak tossed more wood on the fire and settled onto his heels, looking up at me. The gale was dying at last, its spite passing inland. His black hair no longer whipped in his face but trailed in crusted tangles over his shoulders, making him look far older than his twenty-six years. Born on the same day, we were, sons of clans twined together for centuries. To every king his bard, but not every partnering led to tales sung by those who came after. Was that what bound us together, Halvak and I, that the heir to Westervar and the heir to the Sweetsinger clan had arrived in this world almost in the same hour? Father used to remark on it; he said only great kings were given bards to sing their deeds from the cradle. Then his eyes would slide to the empty place at his own shoulder, where ancient Rori had long ago declined to twiddles and aimless wanderings of fingers over the strings. Still, he never moved to set the old man aside. A keeper and a teacher and the kindest man that ever I knew, my father, but he knew that the wild magic of Rykaverk, Wavetamer, the ice blade, was never for him.

That was for me, and a cursed gift it was.

Halvak held his hands to the flames and said, “The kraken waits. For what?”

Reluctance laid a weight around my heart, for that answer I did not want to give. To go home to Westervar, to face the Night Maidens summoned from the sea ice by my uncle, to set hand and body to the grinding task of restoring an entire kingdom to its honor—my soul shrank from it. The light had left Westervar when my father fell from the highest pinnacle into the sea, and only greed and the madness of a long-brooded grudge lived there now. Thieves, other kings called us, we who must live on the spoils of what we could snatch from the sea, for no civilized land would trade with us. Sullenness and despair ruled Westervar, and what hope had I of wresting my people from the slim path of pride laid before them by my uncle, who at least was an effective pirate, and fed them through the endless winters on the grain from plundered ships?

I avoided the kraken’s fixed golden gaze. “It hopes I have a plan,” I muttered.

Halvak grinned. “You always have a plan.”

“Which doubtless explains why we’re stranded on this beach shivering a thousand leagues from anywhere.”

“You exaggerate, my lord. It cannot be more than nine hundred leagues from anywhere.”

Despite everything I felt myself smiling. “Eight hundred and ninety-nine farther than I am willing to walk. What odds, do you think, of another ship passing?”

Halvak eyed the kraken in the bay. “Not every ship’s captain is a fool, alas.”

“No.” I found my fingertip idly tracing Wavetamer’s embroidered sheath, and snatched my hand away. “Perhaps the kraken will give us a ride.”

Halvak coughed politely. “Ah. To where?”

Slowly I let the breath out of my lungs, unable to dodge the conclusion any longer. “Home. It began there. It must end there.”

Out in the bay, a sudden froth and splashing churned the incoming waves to foam and then settled. Halvak’s eyes lingered on the racing crests a moment, then he nodded and flashed me his grin. “I’ve a yearning to see that tale in the making.”

“A thousand-year tale?” Every harper’s dream.

He nodded, the longing rooted deep in him for the immortality of songs that never faded from the memories of men. “And a thousand-year king to sing them about.”

“I will settle for one, if it brings down the Ice Tower and my uncle with it.”

His lips parted and his eyes dropped; he looked troubled and uneasy for a breath, as though I had called some doom onto this beach where a kraken lay witness. Had I? In that moment I did not care. If I lived only one minute past Noal’s death it would be worth the cost. For my father I would redeem the shards of honor he had kept to pass to me; salvage in blood the last noble impulses of a great house. And give a gift to the only friend I had.

I stood up and started down the beach.

I have not poetry enough to describe that journey. Nestled between the kraken’s spiraling horns with the great golden eyes shining below our feet like lamps set to cut the fog, we rode the sea, gliding north through mornings like beaten silver and evenings like gilded frost. The sky sparkled in crystal brilliance overhead, a roof of glass coated with ice, pale and shining with the mazy dance of the sea. Floating bergs gleamed in pale splendor, fortresses of ice towering over us as we wound our way between them. At night the lights guided us home: the wavering, undead fingers of the gods trapped at the top of the world, reaching forlornly for the sky denied them by the sword at my hip. I found my fingers playing more and more with Wavetamer’s sheath, tracing the runes embroidered there, echo of those etched on the ice blade itself.

For Earth. For Sea. For Sky.

The hope of the three realms had been forged into this blade, hope denied for all the ages of the world. I knew a tale even older than the curse of my house that spoke of freeing the gods. It said that only the blood of the sea could break their prison. Had my kraken-bred ancestors taken that phrase literally? Even my bookish father could not tell what it meant. All he knew—all anyone knew—was that the gods still slept entombed at the top of the world while the sword of their doom slept fitfully in the Ice Tower through all the long ages. Was it courage that failed my ancestors, that they could not free the gods? Or ...would not, to diminish the world of men?

I had plenty of time to ponder that forever-unsolved mystery while the sea slid past, bowing silently at the passage of its king. Halvak sat and played softly to the sky and the sea and the kraken, untroubled by the writhing of great limbs around his ears as the beast propelled itself along or snatched idly at passing birds and fish, which it fed to us. I confess that hunger alone accepted that fare, but having set our faces to the north, it seemed pointless to arrive too weakened to accomplish anything. So we learned the lesson of survival.

On a night when the sky blazed and trembled with colors twining into a dance of ghosts across the northern rim, we came at last in sight of the Ice Tower rising sheer from its cliff above the sea. It glittered even in the dark, catching color from the sky, now green, now sapphire blue, now rose and gold and purple and white. I looked at it with loathing. Halvak sighed and put away his harp. The kraken twitched its great ear in disappointment and slowed to a rocking halt beyond the surf rolling over to crash against the headland.

“Now what?” Halvak drew his cloak closer.

“Now we discover the price of honor.”

I touched the kraken’s ear and saw its eye roll up toward me. “Set us ashore in the bay to the west and I account your part well played, grandfather.”

The kraken snorted, blowing froth and foam across the surface of the sea in a small gale. Its ears flattened like those of a cranky horse, and I wondered how I had offended it. Did it deny our kinship? Legend said the kraken had no hearts, and so could not love. What was left? Did I demean its pride with our shared blood?

Angry myself suddenly, for the kraken had begun this long doom, I ignored its pique and pointed to the west, where the waves ran smoothly into shore past a natural breakwater sheltering a dozen small ships. My uncle’s pirate fleet, without which Westervar would starve.

“If you grow bored, grandfather, you can break those ships to splinters for me.”

Halvak’s head whipped around toward me. “But—” Then he nodded, though the blaze of ghost light betrayed a sad cast around his mouth. “No half measures,” he said quietly.

“A man can only embrace the future if there is no safe past to return to.”

The kraken snorted again and angled westward, gliding past the breakwater in the dim and dire hour past the turn of the night. Halvak and I set foot on the shore of Westervar without so much as wetting our boots. When I turned to thank the kraken, it had already submerged. Only a widening ripple on the gentle waves showed its progress toward the nearest ship.

I resolutely turned my back. The village huddling at the foot of the cliffs slept quiet and dark under a blanket of snow, so still that it seemed some spell must have silenced even the dogs. We stalked like ghosts down the pebbled street, and only the fitful smoke from the chimneys told us we did not traverse a village of the dead.

Stars colder than the north wind whipping our cloaks peered faintly through the waterfall of color washing the north. Beside me, Halvak hummed a snatch of song, for courage, I guessed, and then fell silent, looking up at the tower looming on the headland. There my uncle would be, brooding in guilty fury, wondering where the nephew he had dispossessed wandered in his exile. Wavetamer’s power ran in his blood as it ran in mine, but not enough. Not enough to claim the sword and force it to his will. Only enough to bend the will of men to his bidding.

Had he pushed my father off the tower himself, or bade someone do it for him?

I felt the anger stirring in me again, the fatal rage that had betrayed me that night. Fury had given my uncle his opening; I fought it now but it shivered in a tight coil deep inside. Almost I handed Wavetamer to Halvak, for what anger might draw from the blade I could not tell. Then I mastered the notion, for what else had I come for? Noal had certainly not shrunk from shedding kin blood. Dishonor required a blood sacrifice and his I would take joy in spilling. In that moment I could not recall my father’s gentle hand, only the consuming pain of seeing his broken body brought back to the hall. I started up the cliff trail, scarcely seeing the treacherous rocks or the tortuous twists of the path. My father had come pale as ice from the sea, and as cold. Where was the kraken then, his blood and his kin? Why had it not saved him, that child of the waves? Why had fate brought the beast to me and not to him?

What did a kraken know of honor after all?

Faint screams reached my ear. I looked back from the top of the cliff. Only floating timbers littered the quiet waters of the harbor now. I winced and crept on, crouching, for the Night Maidens would be about, guarding my uncle’s stolen tower. Halvak stole along behind me, faithful as a shadow. As the pale bar of the tower loomed over us, I stopped suddenly, moved by a sudden twist of fear winding through my guts.

“Stay here,” I whispered to him. “This is my task.”

“No! I would die of shame to let you walk in there alone.”

“Will you refuse the command of your king?” I asked him gently.

“A king uncrowned. Prince Faeryk I have followed all my life. I’ll not change now.”

“You have no sword. It is folly, man.”

A grin tugged at his mouth. His face, illuminated by the mad lights overhead, took on a gay stubbornness I knew too well. “And walking alone into the Ice Tower is not? My lord, you have a fine sense of the absurd.”

“Madman.” In desperation I set him the one task I knew he could not refuse, the one that might preserve his life and give me my one chance, thin as a sword blade though it was.

“Hal, listen. I cannot battle my uncle and the Night Maidens together. If ever there was a harper worth the name in your line, now is the time to call up that blood, for both our lives. Play, my friend, and cast a spell like no other in the history of the world.”

He sobered, looking at me with those ice-blue eyes narrowed and considering. “It is a tale, Faer, that music can melt the hearts of the Maidens.”

“At the least it’s a diversion, and the life of a harper is still sacrosanct even in this cursed land.”

“As the life of its prince is not.” But I saw the challenge take hold and root itself under his instinctive urge to follow at my heels. He looked up at the cold spires of stone set in a circle around the base of the tower, the Ring of Adamant beyond which the Maidens ruled, and nodded sharply. Without warning he caught my shoulders and gave me a brief, fierce hug.

“If you die, I will never harp again.” His voice was light, but under the smile I knew he meant it. The night blurred in my sight; I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat and turned away.

Behind me, I heard him clambering lightly up one of the spires. A moment later, as I slipped into the deep shadow of the Tower itself, a thin, wandering note wavered into the sky, so exactly reminiscent of the lights still drifting aimlessly up from the horizon that a queer thrill shot through me. I felt the tug of the harp like a hook in my soul; it took a deal of will to not look back. As the song began to strengthen, pouring out rich and strong into the night, I slid around the base of the tower into the shelter of one of the pale stone ribs soaring up its side.

Just in time. A shadow blacker than the southern sky moved in the corner of my sight. I froze, my heart thumping anxiously. The Maiden paused, a shape spun of shadows and black ambition, her ear perhaps caught by the living heartbeat a scant two paces from her. Memories froze me in place, of hands colder than the pack ice touching me, drawing the life from bone and sinew, delivering me helpless to my uncle. Then a drift of Halvak’s song shimmered past on the breeze, and her head turned as though drawn by a cord. She moved away, swift as a fish in the sea, silent as the darkness.

Play, Hal, and don’t break the spell, I begged of him. While he played, he stood a chance.

I reached the tall entrance to the Tower and halted, taken aback. Where an unbarred opening had stood for all the millennia since the tower was built, an iron door now barred my way, tight shut against the night. This was the south side of the Tower; no light spilled from the northern sky to illuminate this visible symbol of my uncle’s fear. I touched my hand to it and found it cold, dead, unlike the cold that forever breathed off the glassy stone of the Tower itself. Here was a thing no ancestor of mine had shaped, and I knew it would not answer to me.

Harp notes showered down around the tower, and then I heard Halvak’s voice, his crystal-pure tenor that could melt stone. Hal, what are you doing? I wondered breathlessly, for he would wake every guard in the place. In desperation I drew Wavetamer; in its shimmering light I saw a door with no lock, bound so fast to the stone around it that not a glimmer of any torch flaring inside seeped around its edges. I wavered an instant in uncertainty. Halvak would be so disappointed: Prince Faeryk of the nimble wit caught short.

Without warning Wavetamer flared in my hand. Light cascaded down the blade and dripped in brilliant beads off the tip. I nearly dropped it, then took a tighter grip, my eyes dazzled by the sudden flare. Then I realized the light was still growing. Startled, I jerked the blade up and found it pulsing with all the colors still painting the northern sky. Harp song whispered down the night wind. All at once the sword answered, a deep, quiet note that hummed down my bones and into the door.

The iron shattered like brittle ice, cascading into a prickly heap at my feet. As I stood dumbfounded among the shards, a high, thin wail lifted on my left. Halvak’s song wavered, then resumed, but I heard a change in it, a desperate quality that drove my legs up the single step and through the opening. The wrath I had tamed earlier returned, bursting out of its cage to slow time to a crawl and encase my mind in ice, numbing me to all but a single purpose.

Find Noal. My uncle. My father’s brother. My enemy.

I raged up the winding steps, past closed doors and torches burning low in the ebb tide of the night. Either the guards had fled or they slept sound at their posts, for not one poked his head out to see who was singing in the middle of a winter night. Faintly I could hear Halvak’s song, wild and deep, throbbing on the air with the voice of night itself, calling to the frozen hearts of the Maidens. Abominations they were: ice made animate, quick with captured wind with seawater for blood, horrors born of my uncle’s fears. Was there in them any shard of feeling to respond, or were they only studying the base of the spire, deciding how best to attack? They would try to capture first, I was sure, to take their prize to Noal, but they had little imagination. If Halvak failed to cooperate, they would take more determined measures. A Maiden’s fist against a man’s skull left only ruin in its wake.

I came to the last door. Wavetamer rippled in my hand, quiet now but far from sleepy. I hesitated, then stepped to one side into the shelter of the wall and touched the blade to the door. As the wood splintered, a spear of night shot through the dissolving barrier and shattered against the opposite wall in a spray of inky darkness across the pale stone. Before Noal could arm himself again I rolled through the door and came up into a crouch with Wavetamer casting a wild, weird light into the absolute dark of my uncle’s lair.

Three years had not been kind to him. He cowered against the far wall, hollow-eyed and haggard, his eyes locked on Wavetamer with the fascinated horror of a man facing a poisonous serpent.

Wavetamer sank a little in my hand. Noal seized his chance, facing retribution with the same self-serving concentration he brought to everything else. Now that the moment was upon him, he snatched at weapons long laid by. His sword was so black I barely saw a faint gleam before it swooped out of the night and struck Wavetamer from my hand. Instantly cold numbed my arm to the shoulder. I backed away, my arm dangling useless at my side.

His laughter cackled out of the darkness that had stolen his face again. “You can’t use the sword either.” I heard the incredulity in his voice as the specter that had haunted him these three years shriveled and died. “All this time—”

He pointed the sable blade at me. The numbness spread from my arm to my shoulder and down toward my heart. It cooled the rage, stole the anger; into its place crept crippling grief for the absence of the man who should occupy this room. Gone, his life stolen for a brittle kingdom at the top of the world whose only hope lay in the swirling lights no man could touch.

Wavetamer glimmered on the floor, a ripple of color fading to a quiet gleam without my hand upon it. Only the muted quiver of song still resonated in the blade, a whisper at the core of my bones, but withering. Halvak’s voice came fitfully on the breeze, strained and thin. The Maidens must be pressing hard at the base of his refuge, and suddenly I saw the folly in leaving him there alone. Fate had cast us together. What right had I to set my fears above the woven strands of our lives? If he died out there, I had killed him.

I sank to one knee, gasping. Noal laughed. “So easy,” he marveled.

All at once a wild, keening shriek outside shattered the night, screaming of attack.

NO!”

Terror broke Noal’s spell. I snatched up Wavetamer with my left hand. It flared as though I had tossed oil onto flame, a sunburst of color. The shutters on the windows fell to dust and the ghost light poured in along with Halvak’s song. Song? There are not words to describe what Halvak had made. The wild, puissant magic of his house twined voice and harp into a thing new and half-alive, transcending the limitations of either. I heard the song reaching, straining for the deep, impossible note that would break bone and living stone.

I thrust Wavetamer toward the window and the flaming lights. My uncle stumbled backward toward the rumpled bed as the black blade fell keening to the floor and shattered. Quite suddenly I could breathe again, the numbing cold receding, but none of it mattered if Halvak died, if his song made him immortal and stole the only thing left to me.

Wavetamer flamed like a beacon. Beyond the window, the ghost light dancing on the horizon suddenly spun into a knot and shot toward me, a long streak like a comet racing toward the Ice Tower. Toward Wavetamer. I heard the sky groan under the weight of it, a ripple of sound that seemed to snatch the music from Halvak’s harp strings and wind it around the blade now blazing so bright it left no shadow in the room for Noal to hide in.

Halvak’s voice shivered to silence.

The last note of the song twined into rock and sky and stone, threatening to shatter the very Tower. Noal’s face twisted in pain, terror, realization of imminent doom. I ignored him; if he died it was incidental and I no longer cared. I had no anger left for wrongs that could never be righted, only a consuming need to pull that note back from the brink of eternity. For that I would wake even the gods.

I caught Wavetamer’s blade in my numb right hand and slid my palm down the edge, slicing it to the bone. With all the will I could summon I called that note back, captured it, bound it in the blood of Wavetamer’s rightful master. The sword belled and flamed so bright even I could not look at it, but I cared not if it blinded me if only the song bound itself to me and not to Halvak.

I saw my uncle clutch at his heart and sink toward the floor, but felt only despair as the note spun on and on. It drove deep into my bones but still refused either to quiet or to swell into a greater chorus of gods waking to Wavetamer’s call. Was my blood too tainted with the sins of my house? Were the gods dead after all? Or was this their vengeance on the mortals who had betrayed them? Ah, what good to release the gods if they turned out colder than the ice?

“Your blood is not enough.”

A clear voice cut clean as snow through the driving moan of the power wrapping itself around Wavetamer’s blade. Out of the dazzle stepped a man: slim, ageless, with hair pale as a silver morning at sea and eyes the clear gold of the rising sun. He caught the tip of the shimmering sword between his palms and looked at me through the maelstrom of color.

“For this did I seek a mortal mate,” he said, and snatched the sword cleanly into his chest.

“Grandfather,” I whispered, as the bright blood burst over his pale skin. Blood green as a summer sea in the heaving shadows of the headlands steamed in the chill blast through the windows. He slid to his knees, breaking the deadly kiss of the blade. His eyes were closed, his face peaceful, calm. As he started to pitch toward the floor I dropped Wavetamer and caught him, cradling him in the crook of my good arm.

“Why?”

His eyes opened, wandering over my face. “The true shame of your house was never that I sired one of its sons. Pride was the sin of your ancestors, as it was mine. Together we conspired to bind the gods, to give dominion of earth to man and of the sea to me and mine. We left only the sky to them, but denied them its freedom. Only together could our houses undo the wrong.”

“Why did you not just let my ancestor kill you along with the innocents he murdered?”

His eyelids drifted shut again. “Anger forges chains. Only love can break them.”

My throat tightened until I could barely speak. “And so you sired a mortal son to feel what you could not.”

He did not answer. The impossible hooning note eased into a dying rhythm, a slow thumping that faded bit by bit from my ear, slowed still again ...vanished. The kraken lay still. The blood of the sea flowed slowly over my hands and painted the cold stone of the floor. I laid him down and staggered up, and only then heard the whisper of music swirling gently around the Ice Tower. I caught my breath and spun toward the door, and there stood Halvak looking bewildered. His hands held his harp but its strings were still. With a start I realized the music came from Wavetamer.

“There are giants walking,” he said, wonder in his face. “Look, Faer. Look to the north.”

Unsteadily I turned and looked out the window. There, hulking along the horizon, stepped impossible shapes of light in colors my eyes did not recognize. Gravely they danced, hand in hand, celebrating their return to a world that had denied them in selfish arrogance for ages long passed out of time. My eyes blurred.

“You caught my song,” Halvak whispered, coming to stand beside me. “Bound it to Wavetamer. How?”

“We were what he waited for.” I knelt and touched the kraken’s still face. “A generation where the kraken blood ran as strong as the mortal’s, and more than duty bonded king and bard.” I thought of my father, matched with an ancient harper thirty years his senior, at cross purposes half the time, the other half mired in the shadow of a weakening gift the old bard had been reluctant to abdicate to someone younger. “Perhaps the gods foresaw their fate when they forged Wavetamer. They were wise to split its power.”

Halvak’s eyes widened to pale blue moons. Slowly he knelt beside me, looking down at the kraken. “The song....”

“And the blade.”

Wavetamer sang quietly to itself there on the floor, flickering and flaring like the dance of light on the northern ice. A thousand years from now men would still know Halvak’s song.

“What does one do with gods?” I wondered aloud.

Halvak’s eyes caught the swirl of light, trusting as a child’s. “I know not, my king, but it will surely be a grand tale.”


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S.A. Bolich lives in Washington State. She holds a degree in history and spent many years running around Europe as an Army intelligence officer, which comes out in her work in interesting ways. Recent sales include fantasy and science fiction stories to On Spec, Damnation Books, Pangaia, and Science Fiction Trails, among others, with an Honorable Mention from Writers of the Future as well. You can read excerpts from works in progress and join her blog, Words From Thin Air, on her website at www.sabolich.info.

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2 Comments on “Kraken's Honor”

2 Responses to “Kraken’s Honor”

  1. Guest says:

    12-07-2009, 11:41 PM
    Guest

    Kudos to S. A. Bolich

    What a pleasure to read such a finely crafted story. The taut description beautifully created the setting; the characters had personal depth, conflict, ambiguity, and the story itself interesting and fantastic turns. An excellent read!

  2. CLDeming says:

    12-10-2009, 08:54 AM
    CLDeming

    Great imagery!

    I really love the imagery you used here, Sue! It was an excellent tale, and I particularly liked the images of the bard’s singing.

    :)

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