It has been three days since the second battalion marched out. Three days I have hobbled the battlements, gazing north along the Rendvale Road that snakes through the devastated peaks of the Shatterach. Three days, waiting for some sign to rise above the bullying trees that thrust out of the splintered rocks.
But nothing. They are gone to the same fate as the first battalion three days their prior. So I pace, and wait for the thunder to come again, and I try not to think of you, my darling, at least for a little while. I cannot be distracted.
Wolden walks with me, lending me his shoulder when the broken bones of my foot spike the flesh and grind out agony. The supply cart running over it saved my life; prevented me accompanying my men to the death I sent them to. It looked like an accident. I made sure of that.
“Cold,” Wolden says. Wolden is all that is left of my command. A hulking camp attendant, too slow to wield a sword. I wonder if he has enough wit to rue the manner of the birth that robbed him of the bearing of a man. “Cold.” His steam bellows into the pristine air that smells of tin and freezes the tongue.
Four months here, and winter has not left this distant hinge of land, even though in the city of Celestry, far to the south, the trees will already be in bud on Conquerors Row. Here the snow never melts and it is always night, and above the stars are fierce through the tuerelva, pulsing loops of color that crawl across the sky. There should be a roaring with this sky, but it is noiseless. A silent fire above a silent land. This is a land of the dead.
“Aye, Wolden,” I clap him on the shoulder, my gauntlet chiming on his shoulder plate, the embossed throne of the Bearer lined in starlight and the gloam of snow. “Let us go down. The thunder will not come tonight.” I do not know that. But I know it will make Wolden go easier, and I desire to spare him what I can.
Wolden leads me to the northernmost of the guard towers and we labour down the giant-hewn stairs into the cavernous room above the gates, in which our camp is set. The camp is abandoned. I have sent every soul north through the gates. The cook boys mewled for their mothers as the odd-sort pieces of mismatched armor were strapped to their thin frames. The attendants went grim-faced, knowing they had not the sword-arms to survive a fight. Every man was needed for what lay ahead, I told them, to meet the terrible foe that had done for the first battalion. And it was true, in a fashion.
The tents stretch away, empty, clustered around the columns, shelter against the snow that drifts in through the gaps in the ceiling. This keep is ancient; a great wedge of stone between unassailable cliffs in a desolate land. None have lived this far north for two hundred years, and the Rendvale here is nothing more than ice-cracked dirt-pack. The keep has not been manned for decades. On our forays into the ranges we have found only scattered stones of what might have been old, old dwellings. Quiet reminders of the magic and arcanery that the Bearing of the Sun scoured from the land.
Shatterach Gates guards the road, but whom it guards, and what it guards them from, no scholar of the Sun can be certain.
But I am certain. There are other records, older, darker, not for the eyes of the devoted, which tell of this keep’s purpose. These records are privy only to the house of Kal-sur, secured below our seat in the Coded Rooms. They tell that this keep is a warning in stone not to travel the road further north. And a ward, at great price, against the cold abomination which lies beyond.
“Safe here,” Wolden says, and I nod. He will not rest if I tell him otherwise. I have grown fond of him these last days. Someone you overlook in the hall of three thousand men, he makes for an agreeable alternative to solitude. He wanted to go with the battalions, of course, but he would have been a burden to them and I needed someone to help me stay here, to ward. To help me wait for the reinforcements, I told the men. I did send messengers south. The men would have suspected, otherwise.
I wonder what news has filtered through to the Bearer. Hard riding would have gotten the messengers there yesterday, and hard riding is all there is on the Rendvale. Will you receive the news in your golden chamber, venerable Lord? Where unwilling maidens, wrenched from their lives, serve you?
Will you suspect, old man?
Wolden is shaking. This is all too much for him; the cold and the dark, and the loss of his fellows and his duties. A camp-hand was the closest he ever got to being a soldier. I hoped the men hadn’t bullied him. I liked to think not. After all, wasn’t my command, the proud house of Kal-sur, famed for its wisdom, for its compassion?
That will change. I am the last to shoulder the Kal-sur name. There will be no other. My darling wife...did not bear. The name will be preserved only in infamy.
“What’s that?!” Wolden hisses, and I know the answer before he has finished asking.
Thunder. Louder this time, a rumbling that dislodges snow from the columns and shudders the tents, so it looks like the hall is being buffeted by winds.
“You said....” Wolden cannot finish, instead turning to look out the great window, panes long gone. Through the lintel of crafted roses lies the northward path of the Rendvale, winding between scree slopes. Light limns the mountains of the cruel, broken heart of the Shatterach range. It fires something in my own, and I wonder if the two hearts are not so very different.
Wolden sinks to his knees as the first rumble distinguishes itself, welling up the road like agony. It is not thunder, not anything like, but it is the best word I have.
A distant bolt of lightning, startling emerald green, launches skyward, answered by a volley of reprisals thrusting down into the earth. The crack of trees and the thump of spewing fountains of earth ride in on the thunder-howls, and the noise becomes exquisite as bolts ricochet from the heavens. The shafts strengthen and straighten, so it looks like a thousand mile-high pulsating spike between sky and mountain.
The thunder strengthens, stirred beyond a return to slumber.
And so, too, am I.
“We go,” I address Wolden formally, as if he is bearing witness. “The Army of the Sun, Might of Celestry, has held out at Shatterach Gates as long as able. The Bearer of Heavens can ask for nothing more from us.” As the Bearer directed, we had cleared the Rendvale of brigands and wolves and set up camp in the ruined rose-windowed hall, whilst he and his adjutants weighed the cost of blood for a push into the Shatterach against the bounty of obsidian. The word came that I should send my men north, and so I did, knowing that I was sending them to their deaths. He is the Bearer, and his word is inviolate.
But the Craël is inviolate also.
The Craël. A debt of ancient blood and stinking earth. My skin heaps up on itself at the sound of its name, like I am calling it in my mind.
“Come!” I tell Wolden, sharply, to stir him from the floor where he groans and watches the columns of fire pulse and multiply. For a moment it is beautiful; like the tuerelva has brushed the earth. Underneath the thunder there is something like a drumbeat now, syncopated tremors that lift the tents, flapping the unsecured entrance hides.
I pull on his arm. “We must get the horses!” If he stays there I will never lift him.
He rises, his child’s face split into terror, eyes warring with his mouth. I push him and he is pliant. “Help me, Wolden,” I say and he scoops me up in his arm, taking the weight from my mangled foot. “We must go to the courtyard.”
Wolden nods, his tongue slack in his mouth. He can’t help glance to the window. “Don’t look,” I tell him. The light, like a perverted distillation of spring’s greenery, is washing through the hall, the tents casting verdant shadows. It swells and falls, like the breath of diseased lungs.
The Craël is waking.
I have pieced together its nature from the fragments in our Coded Rooms. I know it was buried in the mountains, even as Celestry was merely huts in mud. A desecration forged of war.
And we have woken it with our scrabbling for obsidian for the Bearer’s trade with the desert lands. The Kal-sur, keepers of knowledge, advised against trying for Shatterach Gates. The cost in lives would be too great; the Bearer of the Sun knows nothing of mountain lore. I advised against it, standing in the Spire before our Bearer, whilst my spies whispered to the court treasurers how much gold the desert traders would pay for the obsidian in the secret mines of the Kal-sur house north in the Shatterach ranges. The Bearer could not resist. He never could resist taking Kal-sur possessions.
Not that you were ever my possession, my darling.
The Bearer had nodded gravely, when I finished my plea that we keep from the cold, and rewarded my advice by appointing me the head of the expeditionary force. So predictable. He would not be defied. My appointment was a slight, no doubt, but the house of Kal-sur is no stranger to slights, dealt and suffered. Oh, my darling, your refusal of the Bearer’s Right cost us so very dear. His Right from Heaven to take whatever woman he desires. Why under heaven did he have to desire you?
How could he not? How could any man?
Wolden all but carries me back to the steps and we descend, leaping each drop. His arm is tight against my ribs but I bite my tongue. I will be thankful if I leave this place with only bruises and broken bones. On his last step he stumbles and we both sprawl out of the door into the main court-yard, the agony in my foot flaring as it slaps on the flagstones.
The Gates are open. We had hunted the fortress until we found the mechanism. We delved down into the cellars of black water and rats and floating spars of bone as long as a man. We hacked down the doors in the upper towers; teams of four men working day-long shifts to get through the ironwood logs that could have keeled ships.
We found it by accident in the end; two tall pilasters on either side of the gateway we had thought the worn statutes of kings, their heads accepting rope ratcheted with rings of notches we thought crowns. Two men was all it had taken to open them, such was the skill of the counter-balancing. Two men to open gates that stretched half the height of the Bearer’s Spire. What masons these keep-builders must have been.
“We must close the gates!” I shout to Wolden. Outside it is difficult to hear, to think, over the pounding of the thunder-growls. The light is fierce from up the Rendvale and I hold my hand to my eyes, able to see Wolden doing the same. “The rope!” I shout. “The rope!”
My voice sounds in the sudden silence, echoing around the chamber of the yard. Then the north-light blazes a final searing detonation, enough to sting my eyes into closing.
For a long moment, I know what it must be to be blind. In that span I am in an oubliette, far below the Bearer’s Spire, far below where my darling refused his mottled old man’s flesh and now lives a life scratching for rats in the dirt, to hold out for the moment her beloved husband will come for –
“NO!” I bound after Wolden as best my foot will let me. He is scrabbling on the floor, looking as if he would swim through the granite. “No!” I say to him. “Get up, we must close the gates.” If the Craël gets through this narrow wedge of the Shatterach Gates, all that remains before it is the long flat road to Celestry and nine hundred thousand souls. Whom it will consume, along with every living thing, down to the deepest hole.
“Gone,” Wolden says, and I realize he is crying. He looks up. Tears have cut lines through the dirt on his cheek.
“Not gone,” I say and he rises. “Not gone. Coming.” The Craël is awake.
I read of its fury in the sheaths of velum bound with ribbon and black wax in the Coded Rooms. A magic of revenge weaved into the earth by ritualists now long dead. It has slept whilst empires bloomed and burned. Until now.
As if to confirm, a new terror makes itself heard. This more dreadful than the thunder, in its quiet, determined way. A noise like a thousand branches drawn over gravel, like the rasping lungs of deep-desert veterans labouring up the Spire’s dais to morning adorations. A rattling effort, the scrape of nails on glass, sword-edge on shield. The sound you think might spill into coughing and then cursing, dead words.
“Coming,” I repeat. I wonder what it will look like, when it arises, and I feel my feetslowing, wanting to root and have no more part in this.
I set Wolden to the western post and I hobble as best I can to the other. I feel like an insect as I scuttle past the opening of gates that allowed fifteen hundred men to march ten abreast and still make the column crossing the threshold look like a needle thrust into a scabbard.
I am almost across when I make the error of looking up the Rendvale. And I see the thing I have summoned.
The warmth, then swift coldness, of piss on my legs brings me back from the rolling horror oozing over the dirt-pack towards me. Still a league distant, it is monstrous. A grotesque boil on the earth; a seething mass of tree spars and rocks that scalds the ice around it into steam. The way it moves! Questing forward, then rushing into the blackened space before it. Each thrust accompanied by boulders grinding, great snappings of century-old trunks as it heaves ahead.
Another noise counterpoints. A metallic chittering within the mass, like swords nicking each other in battle. The thing hoists itself up on its constituents of boulder and forest and muck. Tendrils of dirt flicker at its upmost. Like it is scenting the air.
It smells us.
Then it surges, rushes at us like a fetid landslide.
I fling myself forward, grabbing the robe and wrapping it around my wrists, and heave. “Pull, Wolden, pull!” My voice is hoarse from effort, and I thank the Sun’s path when Wolden finally understands and yanks down on his own rope. There is a moment of resistance – a strain I think that will pop my eyes, but then something gives and the gates shift, pivoting on themselves as silently as the writhing of the tuerelva.
I stumble backwards, Wolden edging towards me, both of us transfixed by the Craël, nearly upon us, framed by the shutting gates. So fast! The wall of sodden rock closes the last hundred yards. Cloying leaf rot and impatient earthen stench engulf me. I step back, in the shadow of the trembling cliff.
Something winks reflections of sky-glow at its tip. Metal.
I sink to my knees when I realize what it is.
Armor. Corpses of men mangled together, like they have been flung from the Spire one after another into a pile and the entire sinew-knotted pulp of flesh hoisted up. The bodies of my men.
Then the gates shut, with no more noise than a child slipping into sleep.
“Safe?” Wolden calls out, hugging the shadow of the gates as he staggers towards me, as if the greater darkness might offer him protection.
“Soon,” I say, gasping, hauling myself up by one of the horizontal sills that line the gate interiors. Every ten yards lengthways, at the height of kneeling man, is a deeper indentation; a rimmed bowl the size and depth of a barracks wash basin. The watchmen discussed them around their campfires, puzzling on their nature. I would have puzzled also, if not forewarned by my investigations in our Rooms. “Get the horses.”
Wolden scurries back, eyeing the gate. It has grown quiet. If the Craël is still moving, then it is capable of stealth. I realize it will be capable of many things I have not dared imagine, and the cold grips me harder.
I steady my breathing. I hear nothing but the sigh of snow shifting on the guard tower roofs. Then the whickering of the horses as Wolden brings them from their tethers outside the southern gateway, which stands tiny in comparison to its brother that guards the northern way.
“It cannot come in?” Wolden asks me, eyes wide.
I nod. “For the moment.”
He beams, like a child on Summersday, and I have to turn away from his happiness.
“Wolden, come to me.” He obliges, leaving the mounts. “You trust your commander?”
“Of course you do.” I smile for him. “You understand a commander makes difficult decisions, in his duty?”
It is too much for him. His forehead creases ferociously. “I...”
I wave a hand. “Never mind. I need your help. You have been so very helpful to me, but I need one last thing.”
“Lord.” His smile is back. He is being commanded.
“Place your head in this bowl, here, in the gate.” He moves into it unquestioningly. “Yes. Head right in.”
He lays his hands on the gate to steady himself.
At his touch the Craël roars, shuddering the stone, and I imagine three thousand corpse voices in shrieking harmony.
Wolden’s hands slap against the stone, but he does not rise. “Lord?” he shouts. “Lord!”
I lay a hand on his back, giving what comfort I can in human touch. And taking a portion in return.
Just as suddenly as it starts, the fury dies, and beyond the gates there comes a great wind, like before an avalanche. The stone cries out, the earth quaking beneath me as the gate absorbs the first slinging blow. Another whistling of wind, like breath being drawn, before a sickening crash shatters the top-most crenelations and sends spider-cracks dancing to the earth.
Wolden is holding on, hands gripping the bowl, shaking, and I find myself sorry that fate has denied him the life of a warrior. He would have been formidable. “Hold still, Wolden. You are brave!”
Another gut-rocking blow of the gates and I draw my eclipsed blade. Every man in the Kal-sur house carries such a blade, from the moment he has proved himself at the battle-dais. Did I ever prove myself to you, my darling? Did it give you something to hold on to, in the dark?
Suddenly I wish I could go back. I wish I could unknow the things I have come to know. But I am the house of Kal-sur, last of the lineage awarded for the crusade my grandsire’s grandsire fought in the desolation of this Shatterach range, bringing the light of the Sun to the harmless, black-haired woodsmen who shot birds with bows and slept in the grasses.
Another blow shakes us, causing me to hop onto my injured foot and call out, as if in imitation of the Craël. I grit my teeth and wait for the pain to subside to dull torture. I must do this. It is too late to step aside.
The Kal-sur house returned to Celestry from its conquest of the north with more than mere glory. My forefathers discovered a secret, a bundle of papers in a maddened hand, secreted in a half-tumbled tower overlooking a valley of stone. They revealed a mapping of wrath; the Craël, in the old language of the papers, buried under the slabs of the earth after a war in antiquity that laid waste to the mountains. A wrath we kept secret, in case our own purposes one day required it.
I touch Wolden on the temple in farewell, and I think he understands. He barks out a wretched cry, but the duty that burns pure in his simple soul pins him there. I lean in and shout into his ear. “Hold, Wolden. Hold!”
I raise the blade and murmur the eclipse’s blessing, to ensure the strike is true.
The papers told of the Craël and how to invoke it. They told of a fissure that looked for the world to be a mine of obsidian. In it dwelt a magic of retribution from a war long since lost, powered by the sacrifice of blood. The papers told of these Gates also; a first and last defence against the Craël.
As it is powered by blood, so is it warded.
“I am...sorry,” I tell Wolden and plunge my blade down through his neck, blade queering on his spine as I yank it free, letting the blood splatter and splash into the rimmed alcove. So much. But what is the blood of one man over the three thousand I have already spilled?
And the thousands yet.
Wolden’s life runs through the channel, dripping through vents, racing down the sluices. I am sorry, for him, for what I have let myself become. For letting myself be choked by the suffocation of fear and the honor of the Sun’s law until eruption was the only choice. At least now, my darling, there are no more lies, and my intent will be plain for all.
The first drop touches the ground. The courtyard thrums and my vision crackles as powers surge up through the earth and link across the gates. I hover a hand over the stone and it sings. These Gates are bonded by blood.
The Craël pounds, but the stone is abutted by something stronger now.
Raging ascends to the heavens, the tuerelva finally given voice. Far above on the battlements the Craël beats down with arms of corpses, bodies striking the parapet and losing tenacity with the whole, falling into the courtyard. Beaten flesh rains around me, mud and sinew, tree roots, limbs.
The impacts sound like the doors to heaven slamming shut.
Another mighty blow overhead and armor rains down, the white iron of the Sun’s warriors. Then a black and twisted helmet clatters in front of me. Foreign, amongst the bloodied metal of my men. I cannot stop myself reaching out to it and running my finger over the bossing, twisting the helmet around so I can imagine what kind of face there must have been there once.
To my horror, it is there still; leathery, desiccated, but preserved somehow in the cold of the Craël’s keeping. It is not a man. A fanged, narrow, blind thing that speaks of ancient ruin. It was never a man. I am sure it never walked this world when men did. I know instinctively that it was its kind that forged this...malice.
I turn and run; my foot, no accident that day, now no more than an inconvenience. I vault onto the foaming horse. It is insane with the noise and fury. I haul it around, clipping it across the face, hard, and it bucks sideways and then seems to calm enough for a sliver of reasoning. I point it to the southern arch, tiny compared to the colossal stone driven into the mountains behind me.
I know the Gates will not hold. The blood of one man, however plentiful, is not sufficient. These gates are for the sacrifice of battalions, but they do not have to hold long. Just enough for me to get back to Celestry before the wave of hell-earth and death engulfs me on the Rendvale.
The Craël will follow me. It is attracted to life like moths to candles. I will ride as a solitary flame down the Rendvale, to ignite a much greater pyre. I must see Celestry again. Not to warn it. Not to save it.
To watch it die.
For that, the Bearer should be grateful. That, at least, is more dignity than he afforded you, my darling. Doubtless you are dead? That is the only hope I have left to believe in; that you are dead and your suffering at his hands is finished. The old tyrant taunted me for years with your uncertain fate and stripped the Kal-sur house to the bone as his revenge for your slight. And I endured it. Each day more paralysed, cowed, pathetic.
The Craël howls, filling the world. My neck wets from the blood summoned from my ears and I roar at my mount, the Craël bellowing behind me as we rear onto the road.
An end to all prayers. Save mine.
I ride for the domain of the Sun. And above, in the sky, the tuerelva burns.