Tim Stead - Fantasy Writer

Eltaraya

Cain Arbak moved slowly up the divine stair. He took his time. He had to weave and ease his way through the crowds. It seemed as though every man woman and child from the low city was camped out here. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. Some gathered in family groups, noisy with children. They rested mostly towards the dark side, the mountain side, away from the edge, eating food that they had brought with them. Others clustered around the pillars, which for this one day were festooned with bright ribbons, and danced in their summery rags, their rainbow banners of hope.

It was Eltaraya, the festival of communion, one week before year’s end. This was the day, according to tradition, when the gods listened, and here on the divine stair, where every god had their own pillar, custom had it that prayers were borne to them on the winter wind. The temples, too, were full, bursting with incense and chanting, ringing with the chink of coin and the squeals of sacrifice, heavy with the smell of blood, but the stair was the favoured place.

The divine stair was itself a remarkable thing. It was etched into the side of the stub of a mountain on which the city of the gods was built. It was a groove fifty feet wide and ten feet high, the edge supported by pillars, the floor carved into long shallow steps that had worn again to an almost even slope with the passage of ten million feet over countless years. It began in the east, traced a line across the entire south face, and opened up before the gates to the high city in the west.

Cain looked at the ribbons as he walked. Yellow was for thanks, blue for a boon desired. Those were the traditional colours, but Bas Erinor was not always bound by tradition, and its people sought favour with green and red, orange and purple. The more expensive the dye the more favour they hoped for.

Some of the people crowding the stair recognised him. A year ago this would not have been the case, but now he was officially a hero, a city councillor, a wealthy man, a colonel in the Avilian army, and most surprising of all, a lord. Now men that he did not know knew him. It was an uncomfortable state of affairs.

“General!”

He turned and saw a face he knew. It was one of the men he had led in defence the Green Road; one of his men. A sergeant. The man was dressed in simple cottons, black and red, a thick coat, heavy boots, and a black scarf around his neck against the chill. There was a family, too: A wife, two girls, and a boy. A handsome family. They hung back behind their soldier husband and father, and Cain could see the uncertainty in the sergeant’s smile. Was it too bold to accost his commander in this manner?

The name came. Cain was always thankful when he remembered a name. So many of them escaped him.

“Barain,” he said. He took the sergeant’s hand – somewhat awkwardly given that he had no right hand himself. The soldier looked momentarily panicked that he had offered his general the wrong hand, but Cain smiled at him. He remembered what it was like being a sergeant. He remembered being ordinary, before he’d lost that hand at Bel Erinor. “Your family?” he asked.

“Yes, General.”

Cain knew what was expected. He bowed slightly to the wife when he took her hand, tousled the hair of the boy, patted the girls and told them they were pretty, smiling all the time. The funny thing was that he meant it. He knew his men. They would fight for him; even die for him if he asked it. In turn he trusted them, liked them, tried to preserve their lives. It was a bargain that he regarded as a sacred duty. Perhaps that was why they seemed to love him so.

He left Sergeant Barain smiling like a fool and carried on up the stair. There were two ribbons in his own pocket, one yellow and one blue. He liked the tradition, though he had never tied ribbons on the pillars before, this year he felt he had cause.

Cain was not officially a general. Briefly he had been acclaimed such by the men at the wall. There had been three nations there, small forces united against the common threat of Seth Yarra, and they had chosen him to lead them. He had not wanted the burden, but Sheyani, his wife to be, had swayed her countryman, a Durander colonel called Coyan, and Cain had been given command. The generalship had been a spontaneous moment, after they had taken it back from the Telans, before they faced the Seth Yarra assault. He had done his best, and in the end they had held the wall.

He knew that he should have died at Bel Erinor, months before. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, and he had ended up toe to toe with Wolf Narak, swords drawn. It was not a situation that many men had survived. But Narak had wanted to question him, and after taking his hand off had bound him and talked to him. Cain had still expected to die, but something had happened that he still did not understand. The Wolf God had freed him, let him live, made him a rich man, and all his good fortune had flowed from that moment.

Narak’s pillar was close to the top of the divine stair. It was one of the more recent carvings, and the lines in the stone, the wolf face, the crossed, curved swords, had a freshness that the older pillars lacked. Today, though, it was difficult to make out the detail. The stone was nearly obliterated by ribbons, the space around it a press of bodies. He supposed its popularity reflected that Narak walked among them, led their armies, killed their enemies. How could you not worship a god who took your part so actively?

He waited patiently in the throng, edging forwards as others took their turn, tied their ribbons, and spoke their words. Some were loud, shouting their thanks to the wind, making their desires public. They asked for death among their enemies, for an end to war, for peace, for courage, for wisdom; there was no end to the things they desired. Others were quiet, whispering by the pillar as though it had ears to hear, eyes closed and fingers smoothing the stone. Mostly it was the men who shouted.

One man recognised him, called to the others to make way, to stand to one side so that the Hero of the Green Road, the Wolf of Fal Verdan could take their place, but he hushed the man, and said that he would wait like any other. He would take his turn. Yet his name had been spoken, and most knew it. He saw many curious eyes turn to him, and shoulders no longer rubbed against him. He found himself in a small clearing of respect, his path towards the pillar eased.

Best to be done and gone, he thought. He reached the pillar and took out his ribbons. He tied the yellow one high, making a good tight knot, and as he tied it he thought of the past, his tavern, bought with Narak’s gold. He thought of Sheyani, her music and her dark, beautiful eyes. He thought of his modest but pretty estates at Waterhill, his friends, his luck.

Thank you.

He tied the blue ribbon lower. He thought of the future, the war that would resume when the snow melted and the White Road opened in the spring. He thought of the vast Seth Yarra armies that he would, at some moment, have to face. He thought of injury, death, loss and waste.

Do not take it from me. Do not abandon me. For a moment he was prescient with the sense of loss.

He stood a moment longer, staring out over the low city, the mad jumble of the poorer neighbourhoods, the nets of winter trees, stripped of leaves, cast above the houses of the rich and the better commercial streets. Even though he did not believe in the gods; certainly not Ashmaren, Pecanis and the rest; even though he thought of Narak as a man, even though he had seen him fight, and Narak fought like a god – no one could stand against him. Even so, in the absence of belief, he allowed himself to pray.

He stayed only a moment, then eased back through the crowd, and carried on up the stair to the city of the gods. He passed through the great gates, and the guards saluted him. It was ominous that workmen swarmed over the gates, chipping at the rusted hinges, hammering at the wood. It was preparation for a siege. Those gates had not closed for a thousand years, a dozen great wars, and yet now they were to be fixed, closed, strengthened.

At the gates to the Duke’s fortress he was saluted again. The men here were more formal, more determinedly polite. It reminded him that some of the older heads in the Avilian aristocracy were not fond of him. They thought he had too much honour for what he had done at Fal Verdan, the Green Road. They thought he was an upstart, and that he was planning to marry a foreigner only confirmed it. They were nationalistic to the core. Only things Avilian were any good. They would rather be at war with Berash than allied to them, and the same, to a lesser extent, went for Afael. Durandar, his wife’s nation, was beyond even comprehension.

In truth he believed those men thought that way because Berash was so similar to Avilian. It was smaller, but its soldiers were disciplined and fierce, equal to, or perhaps better than, some would whisper, Avilian’s own. Their customs were similar, their gods were the same. But it did not do to say such things in high councils.

Cain had no illusions. He had fought close to twenty years as a mercenary on both sides of the Dragon’s Back, and he had matched swords with every kind of soldier he knew of. The Berashi were better. The Telans were fiercer, but ill disciplined. The Afaeli were amateurs. As for the Duranders – well, it was rarely a straightforward fight against mages and magic. Any of them could kill you.

He walked through the courtyards and cloisters of the fortress. Less a fortress than a palace these days. The perfect green lawns were empty, the fountains unwatched and their music unheard, the flowers all gone with the coming of winter, an ambush of colour waiting for spring. In one walled court he saw young men practicing with sword and dagger, bated weapons ringing and scraping, shouts, claimed hits, curses. It was poor preparation for war. Avilian was too fond by far of its fencing tradition, its gentleman’s ways. The Berashi were more practical.

He passed from the outer to the inner, the flagged floors and high halls gave way to wooden floors, walls hung with tapestries. There were people here, mostly servants dressed in soft greys and muted browns, neat men who walked along the sides of the wide passageways, keeping their eyes on the floor. Cain willed each one he passed to raise his eyes that he might nod his head and smile at him, but they were too well trained. If he spoke he knew that they would stop and beg to serve him in whatever way he wished, but he did not wish – not for that.

It was why he stayed at the inn, the Seventh Friend. It was his place. His rules. Nobody looked at the ground in the Seventh Friend. Nobody bowed to him, or almost nobody, but they did what they were told all the same because he paid them well.

He came at last to the Duke’s chambers. He was early. Guards on the outer door saluted him, right fist to left shoulder.

“My lord,” one of them said. “You are the first to arrive, but the chamber is ready. Will you go in or will you wait in the antechamber?”

The antechamber had soft seats, wine, tapestries.

“I will go in,” he said.

The guard opened the door and walked with him past the spurned luxuries. A second door opened and a quite different room was revealed. Here there was a table, maps laid out upon it with the corners held down by silver weights, bare stone walls. Seven high backed chairs stood to attention around it. There was a jug of water and silver cups. A tall window dominated the south wall, and sunlight flooded through it, making the room bright and summer-like. He watched the guard leave and close the door, then went to the window and looked out. It was a good view of the castle lawns, the low city and the sea beyond, the coast stretching away to the east in the direction of Golt. He tried to pick out the inn, but decided that he could not see it from here.

“You’re keen.”

He turned, but he knew the voice. It was a voice that he had learned not to fear.

“Deus,” he said. “I had business on the way. It took less time than I expected.”

Wolf Narak smiled. He was not a big man; about six foot, probably less. His body was lithe, his movements graceful and economic. He was dressed for peace, cotton and silk, but the ever present swords strapped to his back peered over his shoulders, and their threat was lost on no one, least of all on Cain who had lost his hand to one of them. But Cain did not fear him. He served the Wolf now. He was trusted.

“I am glad to see you alone,” Narak said. “I have a task for you that is suited to your special talents.”

“A task?” Cain was suddenly worried. Narak’s tasks could be almost anything.

“It is not an easy thing, but there is less danger than you faced on the wall.”

“Tell me, Deus.”

There were footsteps outside, and voices. Narak looked mildly annoyed. The others were coming.

“It is the White Road, Colonel,” Narak said quickly. “Forgive me if I tell you all together, and try not to look too put out by what I say.”

The door opened and Duke Aidon of Bas Erinor walked into the room. Aidon was a young man, recently raised to his position after the death of his father in the east at the battle of Finchbeak Road, yet he had acquired the gravity necessary to his role more quickly that Cain had expected. He had not known Aidon before. He had only seen him once, but anyone with such expectations was spoken about, and Aidon had been described as easy going, kind, skilled, young – more than anything, young. He no longer looked young. Cain suspected that Aidon was still grieving for his father. He seemed stern, and robbed of laughter. As Duke of Bas Erinor Aidon was commander of the Kingdom’s armies, the true power in the land, and the weight of that duty was yet another burden that showed on his face.

Aidon was followed into the room by his brother, Lord Quinnial, whose crippled arm gave him some sort of kinship with Cain, and after him Prince Havil of Berash and Duke Petelan of Hibrae in Afael, representatives of the allied kings.

Havil saw Cain and stepped over to him at once, a broad smile on his face. “The Wolf of Fal Verdan!” he exclaimed. “I was not at the wall, though I wished to be, and have not had the chance to thank you for your service to my people.” He took Cain’s hand, left hand in left hand as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Prince Havil, I was only…”

“No modesty, Cain,” Havil said, and Cain could feel the man’s enthusiasm and friendship washing over him like a warm tide. Havil was a big man; strong and tall, broad shoulders, massive hands, and Cain knew his reputation as a formidable warrior. For all that he seemed to wear the crisis lightly. He seemed pleased to be in Bas Erinor, delighted at the company he was in, and completely at ease. Cain liked him at once. He seemed one of those rare men who saw only the world about them, taking themselves for granted. Other men might see life as a stage on which they must act, a story in which they must stand in the light, but Havil took his part, his duty, as though it was the rising of the sun, the falling of the rain – something as inevitable and unremarkable as that.

“I was fortunate in many ways, Prince Havil,” he said.

“As are we all,” Havil said. “But fortune seeks out the clever man before the fool.”

“Can we get to the purpose?” Aidon asked, cutting across their conversation. “And will you tell us why the colonel is here, Deus?”

A good question. Cain was not blind to the fact that he was among the most powerful men in three kingdoms, and somewhat out of place. But he thought he could detect a trace of unease in the Wolf God, as though Narak did not want to hear the question. He hesitated only a moment, though.

“As you wish,” he said. He turned to the map and placed his hand on it, spread out as though to cover it. “Here lies the White Road,” he said. “In the spring Seth Yarra will march north and seek to pass through it. They will come in great numbers. We will not wait for them. I intend to take the army through the Green Road before the snows melt and attack Seth Yarra in the rear as they move north. Even if we do not wipe them out we will inflict a great blow, reduce their force. While we are doing this the snows will melt and the White Road will become passable. Eventually Seth Yarra will reach it, and at that time we must have a force waiting for them. The colonel will take the First regiment of the seventh friend and defend the pass.”

“Three thousand men?” It was Havil who spoke, but Cain could see that the numbers did not add up. If only a tenth of Seth Yarra reached the White Road he could not hold them with three thousand.

“I believe it will be enough,” Narak said.

“Forgive me, Deus,” Aidon said. “I do not see how. How will three thousand hold against Seth Yarra?”

Cain waited for the answer as eagerly as the others. If there was no trick to it, then his new command could well be his last. His men were mostly green, half trained at best. By spring they would be better, but not veterans, and even veterans would have little chance at the odds Narak was proposing.

Narak leaned back in his chair and his eyes found Cain’s and held them for a moment. “The colonel and I are working on a strategy,” he said. “It is not yet ready for scrutiny – there are some details to be overcome – but we will discuss it in two weeks time. I just wanted you all to know that it is in hand.”

Cain managed to hide his surprise. He had been warned, but even so he was taken aback. He was angry, too. Somehow he knew that Narak had nothing. There was no strategy, no inkling of a tactic to defend the White Road.

“Would you like to outline it for them, Deus?” he asked.

Narak didn’t flinch. He smiled instead. “I think we need to discuss it first, colonel,” he said.

Cain nodded. He thought that he detected a stiffness to the smile, and for a moment he regretted his provocative question. It had been disrespectful, even indiscreet. Narak was not a man to annoy if you wanted to live a long life.

“As you wish, Deus.”

“Indeed I have some new information for you that may help,” Narak went on. “If you lords and princes will excuse us for a few moments I will discuss it with the colonel, and then we may return to more pressing matters.”

“We would prefer not to be kept in ignorance,” Aidon said, but his tone knew better. Duke he may be, but Narak was a god, and above them all.

“I understand, Lord Aidon,” Narak said. “But there is not yet enough for us to discuss, so if you will pardon me…” He rose and went to the door. Cain followed him, first executing a respectful bow to the room. Outside Narak walked steadily, not speaking until they were clear of the castle and its quiet servants. He stopped eventually in a courtyard and sat on a stone bench by a small fountain. Cain sat beside him.

“You must understand that I do not mean to put you in a poor situation,” Narak said. Cain did not answer, but sat and waited. “I wanted to discuss this with you before the others came, but there was not time.”

“That much I guessed.”

“You know that there is no plan?”

“That much I also guessed, but what do you have in mind?”

“You. I sent you to the Green Road with no more hope than you would buy time, but you took it and held it. You did things that others might not have done. You changed the rules. Pascha was impressed.”

“Really? I thought she disliked me.”

“Perhaps she does, but she was still impressed.”

“So, what? You want me to change the rules again?”

“Yes. The White Road is our doom. We cannot build a wall there, because it would take too long. We can only stand face to face with two or three times our number against us, and even if we win there will be no purpose to our victory. Too many of us will perish. More of them will flood through and we will not have the swords, the lances, the men to stop them.”

“I see.”

“It is unfair. I admit that. But you are an unconventional man, Cain Arbak. You do not think like Dukes and Princes. I would not say this to another, or even in another man’s hearing, but I am defeated by the problem. I need you.”

Cain shook his head. “You are a god. I am supposed to devise a strategy when a god cannot?”

“I am a man,” Narak said. “And I have seen fifteen hundred summers, so I am perhaps somewhat set in my ways. I know how to fight battles. I can make the best use of what men I have, the weapons they wield, but this needs more than that.”

“You ask a great deal, Deus.”

“I admit it. You are the only one that I can ask it of. The others depend on me. If I should display uncertainty they may lose heart, and then we would be lost indeed. I need men who are confident, who know that we shall prevail no matter how many Seth Yarra march against us.”

Cain sat in silence for a moment. He had not thought of the war beyond Narak. It was true that he had come up with a couple of trifling innovations during their defence of the wall on the Green Road, but it had been Narak who had saved them in the end.

“I do not know that I can do this, Deus,” he said. “I am not a great strategist, and I have never seen the White Road.”

“Well, the latter at least we can do something about.”

“Deus?”

“Give me your hand.”

He did so, carefully, and felt the Wolf’s fingers close about his own. In an instant he was elsewhere, looked down from cliffs onto a field of snow, felt the bitter wind, and the smells – it was as though the whole world stank of a thousand things. He tried to snatch his hand back, but Narak’s grip was unbreakable.

“Do not fear,” Narak said.

“It is magic…”

“It is. But there is no danger in it. You see through the eyes of a wolf, and he stands high above the White Road. He is on the south side.”

The view swung to the left, and he could see that the far wall of the pass was sloping at the base of the cliff, and towards the top of that slope there were patches where the snow had blown away. These were steep screes of frost shattered rock, they lined the pass on both sides and down below he could see that the snow cover was broken in many places by small, scrubby trees. Half a mile, he guessed, from side to side, and several miles long, though even in the clear winter air he could not see the whole length of it because it twisted, and the cliffs hid the western end.

The wolf, if such it was through which he saw, began to move. The bouncing motion of its head as it trotted bothered him, but it was heading west, towards the forest, and scanning the pass all the time. It was not an easy path that it took, at times there was scrambling up rocky outcrops, and at times jumping down into snowdrifts. This was not what a wolf would do in nature, Cain realised. This animal was under compulsion.

After twenty minutes he could see a gap opening up, the cliffs parting from one another, and the ground sloping away to the endless sea of the great forest, the trees holding their burden of snow but still undeniably trees. The wolf stopped and scanned up and down the pass again. There was a neck here, a narrow place where spurs of rock jutted from the north side and closed the passage down to five or six hundred yards. There had been something similar where they had begun, he recalled, but he had not thought of its significance at the time. He had been too distracted by amazement at what he was seeing and how he was seeing it.

The pass vanished and he was back in the courtyard at Bas Erinor. It felt as though his senses had been stripped from him. He could smell nothing. His sight seemed clouded and foggy, his ears bunged with wax. Narak was looking at him.

“That was the White Road?”

“Yes. Impassable now, and months yet before the thaw begins.”

“But you have seen it in the summer?”

“Many times. There is not much more to see. The ground is quite flat beneath the snow. Everything else is how you saw it.”

“And what am I to do, Deus?” Cain felt despair again. He had noted the two necks, and marked them as defensible positions, but they would not serve, not against the numbers of Seth Yarra.

“I do not know,” the Wolf replied. “If I knew I would not need to ask you. Pascha thinks you are a man of ideas. You showed that at the Green Road. It may be that this task is beyond you, that no solution comes, but there will be no blame if you fail. I will tell the council of princes that our idea proved to be unworkable. Do not think that you are alone in this. I and all of the Benetheon, and all the dukes and commanders, princes and generals of all the kingdoms have the same thing on their minds, but I have chosen you because of all the regiments yours is the one best equipped to do the impossible. The others have soldiers. You have masons and smiths, carpenters and clerks, all the talents of the city at your beck.”

“And the rest,” Cain said. “I will do as you ask, Deus, I will try to find a solution because now I can do nothing else, now that you have told me.”

Narak put a hand on his shoulder. “I made the right decision at Bel Erinor,” he said. “Even now I know that to be true. You have done as much as any man to defend the kingdoms, and I am grateful for your deeds. You do not need to prove yourself again, Cain, but it would delight me if you did.” He stood. “I must get back to them. They may have begun to bicker without a referee to guide them. Go well, colonel. Think deep.”

He turned and was gone, striding away down the corridor that led back to the council chamber, and in a moment he was out of sight. Cain sat still, listening to the delicate sound of the fountain and the muttering thunder of the city below. The city made a sound like the sea, but he had never really heard it before. He summoned the image of the White Road to his memory, but he could not bring back the smell. The essence of the wolf had already escaped him.


Copyright © Tim Stead 2012

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