IWOKE IN A BED. In a room. In an inn. More than that was not immediately clear to me. It felt exactly like someone had hit me in the head with a church.
I had been cleaned and bandaged. Very thoroughly bandaged. Someone had seen fit to treat all my recent injuries no manner how minor. I had white linen around my head, my chest, my knee, and one of my feet. Someone had even cleaned and wrapped the mild abrasions on my hands and the knife wound from three days ago when Ambrose’s thugs had tried to kill me.
The lump on my head seemed to be the worst of the lot. It throbbed and left me dizzy when I lifted my head. Moving was a lesson in punitive anatomy. I swung my feet off the edge of the bed and grimaced: deep tissue trauma to the medial-poloni in the right leg. I sat up: oblique strain to the cartilage between the lower ribs. I got to my feet: minor spraining of the sub…trans…damn, what was that called? I pictured Arwyl’s face, frowning behind his round spectacles.
My clothes had been washed and mended. I put them on, moving slowly to savor all the exciting messages my body was sending me. I was glad there wasn’t a mirror in the room, knowing I must look completely battered. The bandage around my head was rather irritating, but I decided to leave it on. From the way things felt, it might be the only thing keeping my head from falling into several different pieces.
I went to the window. It was overcast, and in the grey light the town looked awful, soot and ash everywhere. The shop across the street had been smashed like a dollhouse under a soldier’s boot. People moved about slowly, sifting through the wreckage. The clouds were thick enough that I couldn’t tell what time it was.
I heard a faint rush of air as the door opened, and I turned to see a young woman standing in the doorway. Young, pretty, unassuming, the sort of girl that always worked at little inns like this: a Nellie. Nell. The sort of girl who spent her life in a perpetual flinch because the innkeeper had a temper and a sharp tongue and wasn’t afraid to show her the back of his hand. She gaped at me, obviously surprised that I was out of bed.
“Was anyone killed?” I asked.
She shook her head. “The Liram boy got his arm broke pretty bad. And some folk got burned and such…” I felt my whole body relax. “You shouldn’t be up, sir. Doctor said you weren’t likely to wake up at all. You should rest.”
“Is…has my cousin come back to town?” I asked. “The girl who was out at the Mauthen farm. Is she here too?”
The young woman shook her head. “It’s just you, sir.” “What time is it?”
“Supper’s not quite ready, sir. But I can bring you something if you like.”
My travelsack had been left by the side of the bed. I lifted it up onto my shoulder, it felt odd with nothing inside except the scale and loden-stone. I looked around for my boots until I remembered I’d kicked them off to get better traction running around the rooftops last night.
I left the room with the girl trailing behind me and headed down to the common room. It was the same fellow behind the bar as before, still wearing his scowl.
I walked up to him. “My cousin,” I said. “Is she in town?”
The barman turned the scowl toward the doorway behind me as the young girl emerged. “Nell, what in God’s hell are you doing letting him up? I swear you haven’t got the sense God gave a dog.”
So her name really was Nell. I would have found that amusing under different circumstances.
He turned to me and gave a smile that was really just a different sort of scowl. “Lord boy, does your face hurt? It’s killing me.” He chortled at his own joke.
I glared at him. “I asked about my cousin.”
He shook his head. “She hasn’t come back. Good riddance to bad luck, I say.”
“Bring me bread, fruit, and whatever meat you have ready in the back,” I said. “And a bottle of Avennish fruit wine. Strawberry if you have it.”
He leaned up against the bar and raised an eyebrow at me. His scowl reshaped itself into a small, patronizing smile. “No sense rushing about, son. The constable will be wanting to talk to you now that you’re up.”
I clenched my teeth against my first choice of words and took a deep breath. “Listen, I’ve had an exceptionally irritating couple of days, my head hurts in ways you don’t have the full wit to understand, and I have a friend who might be in trouble.” I stared at him, icy in my calm. “I have no desire to have things turn unpleasant. So I am asking you, kindly, to get me what I asked for.” I brought out my purse. “Please.”
He looked at me, anger slowly bubbling up onto his face. “You mouthy little swaggercock. If you don’t show me a little respect, I’ll sit you down and tie you to a chair until the constable comes.”
I tossed an iron drab onto the bar, keeping another clenched tight in my
He scowled at it. “What’s that?”
I concentrated and felt a chill begin to bleed up my arm. “That is your
tip,” I said as a thin curl of smoke began to curl up from the drab. “For your quick and courteous service.”
The varnish around the drab began to bubble and char in a black ring around the piece of iron. The man stared at it, mute and horrified.
“Now fetch me what I asked for,” I said, looking him in the eye. “And a skin of water too. Or I will burn this place down around your ears and dance among the ashes and your charred, sticky bones.”
I came to the top of the greystone hill with my travelsack full. I was barefoot, out of breath, and my head was throbbing. Denna was nowhere to be seen.
Making a quick search of the area, I found all my scattered possessions where I’d left them. Both blankets. The waterskin was mostly empty but other than that, everything was here. Denna might have just stepped away for a call of nature.
I waited. I waited for longer than was entirely sensible. Then I called for her, softly at first, then louder, though my head throbbed when I shouted. Finally I just sat. All I could think about was Denna waking alone, aching, thirsty, and disoriented. What must she have thought?
I ate a little then, trying to think of what I could do next. I considered opening the bottle of wine, but knew it was a bad idea, as I undoubtedly had a mild concussion. I fought off the irrational worry that Denna might have wandered into the woods in a delirium, and that I should go look for her. I considered lighting a fire, so she would see it and come back….
But no. I knew she was simply gone. She woke, saw that I wasn’t there, and left. She had said it herself when we left the inn in Trebon. I leave where I’m not wanted. The rest I can make up as I go. Did she think I had abandoned her?
Regardless, I knew in my bones that she was long gone from here. I packed up my travelsack. Then, just in case I was wrong, I wrote a note explaining what had happened and that I would wait for her in Trebon for a day. I used a piece of coal to write her name on one of the greystones, then drew an arrow down to where I left all the food I had brought, a bottle of water, and one of the blankets.
Then I left. My mood was not a pleasant one. My thoughts were not gentle or kind.
When I came back to Trebon, dusk was closing over the city. I made my way onto the rooftops with a little more care than usual. I wouldn’t be able to trust my balance until my head had a few days to mend itself.
Still it was no great feat to make it to the roof of the inn where I collected my boots. From this vantage, in the dim light, the town looked grim. The front half of the church had completely collapsed and nearly a third of the town had been scarred by fire. Some buildings were merely singed, but others were little more than ash and cinders. Despite my best efforts, the fire must have raged out of control after I was knocked unconscious.
I looked to the north and saw the peak of the greystone hill. I hoped to see the flicker of a fire, but there was nothing, of course.
I made my way over to the flat roof of the town hall and climbed the ladder to the cistern. It was almost empty. A few feet of water rippled near the bottom, far below where my knife pinned a charred shingle to the wall. That explained the state the town was in. When the water level had dropped below my makeshift sygaldry, the fire had flared up again. Still, it had slowed things down. If not for that, there might not be any town left at all.
Back at the inn a great many somber, sooty people were gathering to drink and gossip. My scowling friend was nowhere to be seen, but a cluster of folk were gathered around the bar, excitedly discussing something they saw there.
The mayor and constable were there too. As soon as they spotted me, they rushed me into a private room to talk.
I was tight-lipped and grim, and, after the events of the last several days, not terribly intimidated by the authority of two paunchy old men. They could tell, and that made them nervous. I had a headache and didn’t feel like explaining myself, and was quite comfortable tolerating an uncomfortable silence. Because of this, they talked quite a bit, and in asking their own questions, they told me most of what I wanted to know.
The town’s injuries were blessedly minor. Because it had been the harvest festival, no one had been caught sleeping. There were a lot of bruises, singed hair, and folk that had breathed more smoke than was good for them, but aside from a few bad burns and the fellow whose arm had been crushed by a falling timber, I looked to have gotten the worst of it.
They knew beyond all certainty that the draccus was a demon. A huge black demon breathing fire and poison. If there had been any slim sliver of doubt as to that fact, it had been laid to rest when the beast had been struck down by Tehlu’s own iron.
It was also agreed upon that the demon beast had been responsible for the destruction of the Mauthen farm. A reasonable conclusion despite the fact that it was dead wrong. Trying to convince them of anything else would be a pointless waste of my time.
I had been found unconscious atop the iron wheel that had killed the
demon. The local sawbone doctor had patched me up as best he could, and, unfamiliar with the remarkable thickness of my skull, expressed serious doubts as to whether or not I would ever wake.
At first the general opinion was that I was merely an unlucky bystander, or that I had somehow pried the wheel off the church. However, my miraculous recovery combined with the fact that I had charred a hole into the bar downstairs encouraged people to finally take notice of what a young boy and an old widow had been saying all day: that when the old oak had gone up like a torch, they had seen someone standing on the roof of the church. He was lit by the fire below. His arms were raised in front of him, almost as if he were praying….
Eventually the mayor and constable ran out of things to say to fill the silence, and merely sat there looking anxiously back and forth from me to each other.
It occurred to me they didn’t see a penniless, ragged boy sitting across from them. They saw a mysterious battered figure who had killed a demon. I saw no reason to dissuade them. In fact it was high time I caught a piece of luck in this business. If they considered me some sort of hero or holy man, it gave me useful leverage.
“What did you do with the demon’s body?” I asked and watched them relax. Until this point I had barely spoken a dozen words, responding to most of their tentative questions with grim silence.
“No worry about that, sir,” the constable said. “We knew what to do with
My stomach knotted, and I knew before they told me: they’d burned and
buried it. The creature was a scientific marvel, and they had burned and buried it like trash. I knew naturalist scrivs in the Archives who would have cut off their hands to study such a rare creature. I had even hoped, deep in my heart, that bringing such an opportunity to their attention might win me my way back into the Archives.
And the scales and bones. Hundreds of pounds of denatured iron that alchemists would have fought over….
The mayor nodded eagerly and singsonged, “Dig a pit that’s ten by two. Ash and elm and rowan too.” He cleared his throat. “Though it had to be a bigger hole than that, of course. Everyone took a turn to get it done as quickly as possible.” He held up his hand, proudly displaying a set of fresh blisters.
I closed my eyes and fought down the urge to throw things around the room and curse them in eight languages. That explained why the town was still in such a sorry state. Everyone had been busy burning and burying a creature worth a king’s ransom.
Still, there was nothing to be done about it. I doubted my new reputation would be enough to protect me if they caught me trying to dig it up. “The girl
that survived the Mauthen wedding,” I said. “Has anyone seen her today?”
The mayor looked at the constable questioningly. “Not that I’ve heard. Do you think she was connected to the beast in some way?”
“What?” the question was so absurd I didn’t understand it at first. “No! Don’t be ridiculous.” I scowled at them. The last thing I needed was to somehow implicate Denna in all this. “She was helping me in my work.” I said, careful to keep things ambiguous.
The mayor glared at the constable, then looked back to me. “Is your… work finished here?” He asked carefully, as if afraid of giving offense. “I certainly don’t mean to pry into your affairs…but…” He licked his lips nervously. “Why did this happen? Are we safe?”
“You’re as safe as I can make you,” I said ambiguously. It sounded like a heroic thing to say. If all I was going to gain from this was a bit of reputation, I might as well make sure it was the right sort.
Then I had an idea. “To be certain of your safety, I need one thing.” I leaned forward in my chair, lacing my fingers together. “I need to know what Mauthen dug up on Barrow Hill.”
I saw them look at each other, thinking: How does he know about that?
I leaned back in the chair, fighting the urge to smile like a tomcat in a dovecote. “If I know what Mauthen found up there, I can take steps to make sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. I know it was a secret, but someone in town is bound to know more. Spread the word, and have anyone who knows anything come talk to me.”
I came to my feet smoothly. It took a conscious effort not to wince at the various twinges and aches. “But have them come quickly. I leave tomorrow evening. I have pressing business to the south.”
Then I swept out the door, my cloak trailing rather dramatically behind me. I am a trouper to my bones, and when the scene is set, I know how to make an exit.
I spent the next day eating good food and dozing in my soft bed. I took a bath, tended to my various wounds, and generally took a well-deserved rest. A few people stopped by to tell me what I already knew. Mauthen had dug up barrow stones and found something buried there. What was it? Just something. No one knew more than that.
I was sitting beside my bed toying with the idea of writing a song about the draccus when I heard a timid tapping at my door, so faint I almost missed it. “Come in.”
The door opened a crack, then wider. A young girl of thirteen or so looked around nervously and scurried inside, closing the door softly behind her. She had curling, mousy brown hair and a pale face with two spots of color high on
each cheek. Her eyes were hollow and dark, as if she had been crying, or missing sleep, or both.
“You wanted to know what Mauthen dug up?” She looked at me, then away.
“What’s your name?” I asked gently.
“Verainia Greyflock,” she said dutifully. Then dropped a hurried curtsey, looking at the floor.
“That’s a lovely name,” I said. “A verian is a tiny red flower.” I smiled, trying to set her at her ease. “Have you ever seen one?” She shook her head, eyes still on the floor. “I’m guessing no one calls you Verainia though. Are you a Nina?”
She looked up at that. A faint smile showed itself on her stricken face. “That’s what my gran calls me.”
“Come sit, Nina.” I nodded to the bed, as it was the only other place to sit in the room.
She sat, her hands twisting nervously in her lap. “I seen it. The thing they got out of the barrow.” She looked up at me, then down at her hands again. “Jimmy, Mauthen’s youngest boy, he showed me.”
My heart beat faster. “What was it?”
“It was a big fancy pot,” she said softly. “About this high.” She held her hand about three feet off the ground. It was shaking. “It had all sorts of writings and pictures on it. Really fancy. I haven’t ever seen colors like that. And some of the paints were shiny like silver and gold.”
“Pictures of what?” I asked, fighting to keep my voice calm.
“People,” she said. “Mostly people. There was a woman holding a broken sword, and a man next to a dead tree, and another man with a dog biting his leg….” she trailed off.
“Was there one with white hair and black eyes?”
She looked at me wide-eyed, nodded. “Gave me the all-overs.” She shivered.
The Chandrian. It was a vase showing the Chandrian and their signs.
“Can you remember anything else about the pictures?” I asked. “Take your time, think hard.”
She thought about it. “There was one with no face, just a hood with nothing inside. There was a mirror by his feet and there was a bunch of moons over him. You know, full moon, half moon, sliver moon.” She looked down, thinking. “And there was a woman….” She blushed. “With some of her clothes off.”
“Can you remember anything else?” I asked. She shook her head. “What about the writing?”
Nina shook her head. “This was all foreign writing. It didn’t say anything.”
“Do you think you could draw any of the writing you saw on it?”
She shook her head again. “I only saw it for half a moment,” she said. “Me and Jimmy knew we’d catch a beating if his da caught us.” Her eyes welled up with sudden tears. “Are demons going to be coming for me too, cause I seen it?”
I shook my head reassuringly, but she burst into tears anyway. “I been so scared since what happened out at Mauthen’s,” she sobbed. “I keep having dreams. I know they’re going to come get me.”
I moved to sit next to her on the bed and put my arm around her, making comforting noises. Her sobbing slowly wound down. “Nothing is going to come and get you.”
She looked up at me. She was no longer crying, but I could see the truth of things in her eyes. Underneath it all she was still terrified. No amount of gentle words would be enough to reassure her.
I stood and went over to my cloak. “Let me give you something,” I said, reaching into one of the pockets. I brought a piece of the sympathy lamp I was working on in the Fishery, it was a disk of bright metal covered with intricate sygaldry on one side.
I brought it back to her. “I got this charm when I was in Veloran. Far away, across the Stormwal mountains. It is a most excellent charm against demons.” I took her hand and pressed it into her palm.
Nina looked down at it, then up at me. “Don’t you need it?” I shook my head. “I have other ways of keeping safe.”
She clutched it, tears spilling down her cheeks again. “Oh thank you. I’ll keep it with me all the time.” Her hands were white-knuckled around it.
She would lose it. Not soon, but in a year, or two, or ten. It was human nature, and when that happened, she would be even worse off than before. “There’s no need for that,” I said quickly. “Here’s how it works.” I took her hand that clutched the piece of metal and wrapped it in my own. “Close your eyes.”
Nina closed her eyes, and I slowly recited the first ten lines of Ve Valora Sartane. Not very appropriate really, but it was all I could think of at the time. Tema is an impressive sounding language, especially if you have a good dramatic baritone, which I did.
I finished and she opened her eyes. They were full of wonder, not tears. “Now it’s tuned to you,” I said. “No matter what, no matter where it is, it
will protect you and keep you safe. You could even break it and melt it down and the charm would still hold.”
She threw her arms around me and kissed my cheek. Then stood suddenly, blushing. No longer pale and stricken, her eyes were bright. I hadn’t noticed before, but she was beautiful.
She left soon after that and I sat for a while on my bed, thinking.
Over the last month I had pulled a woman from a blazing inferno. I had called fire and lighting down on assassins and escaped to safety. I had even killed something that could have been either a dragon or a demon, depending on your point of view.
But there in that room was the first time I actually felt like any sort of hero. If you are looking for a reason for the man I would eventually become, if you are looking for a beginning, look there.