OVER THE NEXT MONTHS my parents did their best to patch the hole left by Ben’s absence, bringing in the other troupers to fill my time productively and keep me from moping.
You see, in the troupe age had little to do with anything. If you were strong enough to saddle the horses, you saddled the horses. If your hands were quick enough, you juggled. If you were clean shaven and fit the dress, you played Lady Reythiel in The Swineherd and the Nightingale. Things were generally as simple as that.
So Trip taught me how to jape and tumble. Shandi walked me though the courtly dances of a half dozen countries. Teren measured me against the hilt of his sword and judged that I had grown tall enough to begin the basics of swordplay. Not enough to actually fight, he stressed. But enough so I could make a good show of it on stage.
The roads were good this time of year, so we made excellent time traveling north through the Commonwealth: fifteen, twenty miles a day as we searched out new towns to play. With Ben gone, I rode with my father more often, and he began my formal training for the stage.
I already knew a great deal, of course. But what I had picked up was an undisciplined hodgepodge. My father systematically went about showing me the true mechanics of the actor’s trade. How slight changes in accent or posture make a man seem oafish, or sly, or silly.
Lastly, my mother began teaching me how to comport myself in polite society. I knew a little from our infrequent stays with Baron Greyfallow, and thought I was quite genteel enough without having to memorize forms of address, table manners, and the elaborate snarled rankings of the peerage. Eventually, I told my mother exactly that.
“Who cares if a Modegan viscount outranks a Vintish spara-thain?” I protested. “And who cares if one is ‘your grace’ and the other is ‘my lord?’”
“They care,” my mother said firmly. “If you perform for them, you need to conduct yourself with dignity and learn to keep your elbow out of the soup.”
“Father doesn’t worry about which fork to use and who outranks who,” I
My mother frowned, her eyes narrowing. “Who outranks whom,” I said grudgingly.
“Your father knows more than he lets on,” my mother said. “And what he doesn’t know he breezes past due to his considerable charm. That’s how he gets by.” She took my chin and turned my face toward her. Her eyes were green with a ring of gold around the pupil. “Do you just want to get by? Or do you want to make me proud?”
There was only one answer to that. Once I knuckled down to learn it, it was just another type of acting. Another script. My mother made rhymes to help me remember the more nonsensical elements of etiquette. And together we wrote a dirty little song called “The Pontifex Always Ranks Under a Queen.” We laughed over it for a solid month, and she strictly forbade me to sing it to my father, lest he play it in front of the wrong people someday and get us all into serious trouble.
“Tree!” The shout came faintly down the line. “Threeweight oak!”
My father stopped in the middle of the monologue he had been reciting for me and gave an irritated sigh. “That’ll be as far as we get today then,” he grumbled, looking up at the sky.
“Are we stopping?” my mother called from inside the wagon. “Another tree across the road,” I explained.
“I swear,” my father said, steering the wagon to a clear space at the side of the road. “Is this the king’s road or isn’t it? You’d think we were the only people on it. How long ago was that storm? Two span?”
“Not quite,” I said. “Sixteen days.”
“And trees still blocking the road! I’ve a mind to send the consulate a bill for every tree we’ve had to cut and drag out of the way. This will put us another three hours behind schedule.” He hopped from the wagon as it rolled to a halt.
“I think it’s nice,” my mother said, walking around from the back of the wagon. “Gives us the chance for something hot,” she gave my father a significant look, “to eat. It gets frustrating making do with whatever you can grab at the end of the day. A body wants more.”
My father’s mood seemed to temper considerably. “There is that,” he said. “Sweet?” my mother called to me. “Do you think you could find me some
“I don’t know if it grows around here,” I said with the proper amount of uncertainty in my voice.
“No harm in looking,” she said sensibly. She looked at my father from the corner of her eye. “If you can find enough, bring back an armload. We’ll dry
it for later.”
Typically, whether or not I found what I was looking for didn’t matter very much.
It was my habit to wander away from the troupe in the evenings. I usually had some sort of errand to run while my parents set up for dinner. But it was just an excuse for us to get away from each other. Privacy is hard to come by on the road, and they needed it as much as I did. So if it took me an hour to gather an armload of firewood they didn’t mind. And if they hadn’t started dinner by the time I came back, well, that was only fair, wasn’t it?
I hope they spent those last few hours well. I hope they didn’t waste them on mindless tasks: kindling the evening fire and cutting vegetables for dinner. I hope they sang together, as they so often did. I hope they retired to our wagon and spent time in each other’s arms. I hope they lay near each other afterward and spoke softly of small things. I hope they were together, busy with loving each other, until the end came.
It is a small hope, and pointless really. They are just as dead either way. Still, I hope.
Let us pass over the time I spent alone in the woods that evening, playing games that children invent to amuse themselves. The last carefree hours of my life. The last moments of my childhood.
Let us pass over my return to the camp just as the sun was beginning to set. The sight of bodies strewn about like broken dolls. The smell of blood and burning hair. How I wandered aimlessly about, too disoriented for proper panic, numb with shock and dread.
I would pass over the whole of that evening, in fact. I would spare you the burden of any of it if one piece were not necessary to the story. It is vital. It is the hinge upon which the story pivots like an opening door. In some ways, this is where the story begins.
So let’s have done with it.
Scattered patches of smoke hung in the still evening air. It was quiet, as if everyone in the troupe was listening for something. As if they were all holding their breath. An idle wind tussled the leaves in the trees and wafted a patch of smoke like a low cloud toward me. I stepped out of the forest and through the smoke, heading into the camp.
I left the cloud of smoke and rubbed some of the sting from my eyes. As I looked around I saw Trip’s tent lying half collapsed and smoldering in his fire. The treated canvas burned fitfully, and the acrid grey smoke hung close to the ground in the quiet evening air.
I saw Teren’s body lying by his wagon, his sword broken in his hand. The green and grey he normally wore was wet and red with blood. One of his legs was twisted unnaturally and the splintered bone showing through the skin was very, very white.
I stood, unable to look away from Teren, the grey shirt, the red blood, the white bone. I stared as if it were a diagram in a book I was trying to understand. My body grew numb. I felt as if I was trying to think through syrup.
Some small rational part of me realized I was in deep shock. It repeated the fact to me again and again. I used all Ben’s training to ignore it. I did not want to think about what I saw. I did not want to know what had happened here. I did not want to know what any of this meant.
After I don’t know how long, a wisp of smoke broke my line of vision. I sat down next to the nearest fire in a daze. It was Shandi’s fire, and a small pot hung simmering, boiling potatoes, strangely familiar among the chaos.
I focused on the kettle. Something normal. I used a stick to poke at the contents and saw that they were finished cooking. Normal. I lifted the kettle from the fire and set it on the ground next to Shandi’s body. Her clothes hung in tatters about her. I tried to brush her hair away from her face and my hand came back sticky with blood. The firelight reflected in her flat, empty eyes.
I stood and looked about aimlessly. Trip’s tent was entirely aflame by now, and Shandi’s wagon was standing with one wheel in Marion’s campfire. All the flames were tinged with blue, making the scene dreamlike and surreal. I heard voices. Peering around the corner of Shandi’s wagon I saw several unfamiliar men and women sitting around a fire. My parents’ fire. A dizziness swept over me and I reached out a hand to steady myself against the wagon’s wheel. When I gripped it, the iron bands that reinforced the wheel crumbled in my hand, flaking away in gritty sheets of brown rust. When I pulled my hand away the wheel creaked and began to crack. I stepped back as it gave
way, the wagon splintering as if its wood were rotten as an old stump.
I now stood in full view of the fire. One of the men tumbled backward and came to his feet with his sword out. His motion reminded me of quicksilver rolling from a jar onto a tabletop: effortless and supple. His expression was intent, but his body was relaxed, as if he had just stood and stretched.
His sword was pale and elegant. When it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.
He was two dozen feet from me, but I could see him perfectly in the fading light of sunset. I remember him as clearly as I remember my own mother, sometimes better. His face was narrow and sharp, with the perfect beauty of porcelain. His hair was shoulder length, framing his face in loose
curls the color of frost. He was a creature of winter’s pale. Everything about him was cold and sharp and white.
Except his eyes. They were black like a goat’s but with no iris. His eyes were like his sword, and neither one reflected the light of the fire or the setting sun.
He relaxed when he saw me. He dropped the tip of his sword and smiled with perfect ivory teeth. It was the expression a nightmare wore. I felt a stab of feeling penetrate the confusion I clutched around me like a thick protective blanket. Something put both its hands deep into my chest and clutched. It may have been the first time in my life I was ever truly afraid.
Back by the fire, a bald man with a grey beard chuckled. “Looks like we missed a little rabbit. Careful Cinder, his teeth may be sharp.”
The one called Cinder sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under the weight of winter ice. Keeping his distance, he knelt. Again I was reminded of the way mercury moved. Now on eye level with me, his expression grew concerned behind his matte-black eyes. “What’s your name, boy?”
I stood there, mute. Frozen as a startled fawn.
Cinder sighed and dropped his gaze to the ground for a moment. When he looked back up at me I saw pity staring at me with hollow eyes.
“Young man,” he said, “wherever are your parents?” He held my gaze for a moment and then looked over his shoulder back toward the fire where the others sat.
“Does anyone know where his parents are?”
Some of them smiled, hard and brittle, as if enjoying a particularly good joke. One or two of them laughed aloud. Cinder turned back to me and the pity fell away like a cracked mask, leaving only the nightmare smile upon his face.
“Is this your parents’ fire?” he asked with a terrible delight in his voice. I nodded numbly.
His smile slowly faded. Expressionless, he looked deep into me. His voice was quiet, cold, and sharp. “Someone’s parents,” he said, “have been singing entirely the wrong sort of songs.”
“Cinder.” A cool voice came from the direction of the fire. His black eyes narrowed in irritation. “What?” he hissed.
“You are approaching my displeasure. This one has done nothing. Send him to the soft and painless blanket of his sleep.” The cool voice caught slightly on the last word, as if it were difficult to say.
The voice came from a man who sat apart from the rest, wrapped in shadow at the edge of the fire. Though the sky was still bright with sunset and nothing stood between the fire and where he sat, shadow pooled around him like thick oil. The fire snapped and danced, lively and warm, tinged with blue,
but no flicker of its light came close to him. The shadow gathered thicker around his head. I could catch a glimpse of a deep cowl like some priests wear, but underneath the shadows were so deep it was like looking down a well at midnight.
Cinder glanced briefly at the shadowed man, then turned away. “You are as good as a watcher, Haliax,” he snapped.
“And you seem to forget our purpose,” the dark man said, his cool voice sharpening. “Or does your purpose simply differ from my own?” The last words were spoken carefully, as if they held special significance.
Cinder’s arrogance left him in a second, like water poured from a bucket. “No,” he said, turning back toward the fire. “No, certainly not.”
“That is good. I hate to think of our long acquaintance coming to an end.”
“As do I.”
“Refresh me again as to our relationship, Cinder,” the shadowed man said, a deep sliver of anger running through his patient tone.
“I…I am in your service….” Cinder made a placating gesture.
“You are a tool in my hand,” the shadowed man interrupted gently.
A hint of defiance touched Cinder’s expression. He paused. “I wo—” The soft voice went as hard as a rod of Ramston steel. “Ferula.”
Cinder’s quicksilver grace disappeared. He staggered, his body suddenly rigid with pain.
“You are a tool in my hand,” the cool voice repeated. “Say it.”
Cinder’s jaw clenched angrily for a moment, then he convulsed and cried out, sounding more like a wounded animal than a man. “I am a tool in your hand,” he gasped.
“I am a tool in your hand, Lord Haliax,” Cinder amended as he crumpled, trembling, to his knees.
“Who knows the inner turnings of your name, Cinder?” The words were spoken with a slow patience, like a schoolmaster reciting a forgotten lesson.
Cinder wrapped shaking arms around his midsection and hunched over, closing his eyes. “You, Lord Haliax.”
“Who keeps you safe from the Amyr? The singers? The Sithe? From all that would harm you in the world?” Haliax asked with calm politeness, as if genuinely curious as to what the answer might be.
“You, Lord Haliax.” Cinder’s voice was a quiet shred of pain.
“And whose purpose do you serve?”
“Your purpose, Lord Haliax.” The words were choked out. “Yours. None other.” The tension left the air and Cinder’s body suddenly went slack. He fell forward onto his hands and beads of sweat fell from his face to patter on the
ground like rain. His white hair hung limp around his face. “Thank you, lord,” he gasped out earnestly. “I will not forget again.”
“You will. You are too fond of your little cruelties. All of you.” Haliax’s hooded face swept back and forth to look at each of the figures sitting around the fire. They stirred uncomfortably. “I am glad I decided to accompany you today. You are straying, indulging in whimsy. Some of you seem to have forgotten what it is we seek, what we wish to achieve.” The others sitting around the fire stirred uneasily.
The hood turned back to Cinder. “But you have my forgiveness. Perhaps if not for these remindings, it would be I who would forget.” There was an edge to the last of his words. “Now, finish what—” His cool voice trailed away as his shadowed hood slowly tilted to look toward the sky. There was an expectant silence.
Those sitting around the fire grew perfectly still, their expressions intent. In unison they tilted their heads as if looking at the same point in the twilit sky. As if trying to catch the scent of something on the wind.
A feeling of being watched pulled at my attention. I felt a tenseness, a subtle change in the texture of the air. I focused on it, glad for the distraction, glad for anything that might keep me from thinking clearly for just a few more seconds.
“They come,” Haliax said quietly. He stood, and shadow seemed to boil outward from him like a dark fog. “Quickly. To me.”
The others rose from their seats around the fire. Cinder scrambled to his feet and staggered a half dozen steps toward the fire.
Haliax spread his arms and the shadow surrounding him bloomed like a flower unfolding. Then, each of the others turned with a studied ease and took a step toward Haliax, into the shadow surrounding him. But as their feet came down they slowed, and gently, as if they were made of sand with wind blowing across them, they faded away. Only Cinder looked back, a hint of anger in his nightmare eyes.
Then they were gone.
I will not burden you with what followed. How I ran from body to body, frantically feeling for the signs of life as Ben had taught me. My futile attempt at digging a grave. How I scrabbled in the dirt until my fingers were bloody and raw. How I found my parents….
It was in the darkest hours of the night when I found our wagon. Our horse had dragged it nearly a hundred yards down the road before he died. It seemed so normal inside, so tidy and calm. I was struck by how much the back of the wagon smelled like the two of them.
I lit every lamp and candle in the wagon. The light was no comfort, but it
was the honest gold of real fire, untinged with blue. I took down my father’s lute case. I lay in my parent’s bed with the lute beside me. My mother’s pillow smelled of her hair, of an embrace. I did not mean to sleep, but sleep took me.
I woke coughing with everything in flames around me. It had been the candles, of course. Still numb with shock, I gathered a few things into a bag. I was slow and aimless, unafraid as I pulled Ben’s book from under my burning mattress. What horror could a simple fire hold for me now?
I put my father’s lute into its case. It felt like I was stealing, but I couldn’t think of anything else that would remind me of them. Both their hands had brushed its wood a thousand thousand times.
Then I left. I walked into the forest and kept going until dawn began to brighten the eastern edges of the sky. As the birds began to sing I stopped and set down my bag. I brought out my father’s lute and clutched it to my body. Then I began to play.
My fingers hurt, but I played anyway. I played until my fingers bled on the strings. I played until the sun shone through the trees. I played until my arms ached. I played, trying not to remember, until I fell asleep.