He felt the change as soon as he stepped over the threshold of the croft. It came on like icy water, sprinkling across the nape of his neck and his shoulders.
He tilted his head a little to send the feeling away, traced a warding glyph in the air, like taking down a volume from a library shelf. Around him, the croft walls grew back to an enclosing height they likely hadn’t seen in decades. The boiling grey sky blacked out, replaced with damp smelling thatch overhead. A dull, reddish glow reached out to him from the hearth. Peat smoke stung his throat. He heard the hoarse whistle of breathing, the creak of……
A worn oak rocking chair, angled at the fireside, tilting gently back and forth. From where he stood, Ringil could not tell what was seated there, only that it was wrapped in a dark cloak and cowl.
The ward he’d chosen was burning down around him like some torched peasant’s hut. He felt the fresh exposure shiver through him. Reached for something stronger, cracked finger-bones etching it into the air.
“Yes – becoming quite adept at that, aren’t we.” It was a voice that creaked like the chair. Wheeze and rustle of seeming age, or maybe just the breathlessness at the end of laughing too hard at something. “Quite the master of the ikinri ‘ska these days.”
His fresh ward shattered apart, no better than the first – the chill of the Presence rushed in on him. The rocking chair jerked violently around, from no agency he could see. The thing it held was a corpse. The shrunken mounds it made within the wrap of the cloak were unmistakeable, the way it skewed awkwardly in the seat, as if blown there by the wind. The cowl was tipped forward like the muzzle of some huge dark worm, shrouding the face. One ivory-pallid hand gripped an armrest, flesh shrunk back from long, curving nails. The other arm lay in the thing’s lap, was covered by the way the cloak folded there.
Even as the chill blew through him, something about that fact was scratching for attention at the limen of his being.
His hand leapt up, across, closed on the hilt of the Ravensfriend where it jutted over his left shoulder.
“Oh, please,” creaked the voice. “Put that away, why don’t you. If I can break your wards like sticks for kindling, how hard do you think it’s going to be for me to break that dinky little sword of yours as well? You know, for an up-and-coming sorcerer, you show remarkably little breadth of response.”
Ringil let go the Ravensfriend, felt the pommel slip through his hands as the Kiriath-engineered scabbard sucked the handsbreadth of exposed blade back into itself. He eyed the slumped form before him and held down the repeated urge to shiver.
“Who are you?”
“And still he does not know me.” Abruptly, the corpse loomed to its feet, out of the chair as if tugged there by puppet’s strings. Ringil found himself face to face with the worm’s head cowl and the blank darkness it framed. He made himself stare back, but if there was a face in there, dead or alive, it didn’t show. The whispering voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, down from the eaves of the thatch, out of the crackle of the hearth, out of the air just behind his ear. “You did not know me at Trelayne’s Eastern Gate, when your destiny was laid out in terms you could understand; you did not know me at the river when the first of the cold legion gathered to you, and your passage to the dark gate began. I sent a whole shipload of corpses for you when you were finally ready. So tell me, Ringil Eskiath – how many times must I look out at you through the eyes of the dead before I am given my due?”
It fell in on him like the thatched roof coming down on his head. The cloak and cowl, the stylised placement of hands, one raised to the arm of the chair, the other gathered in the lap, holding-
“Oh, well done.” The corpse turned and shuffled away from him, back towards the hearth. “Took you long enough, didn’t it? Wouldn’t have thought it’d be so hard to recognise the Queen of the Dark Court when she comes calling. We are your ancestral gods, are we not?”
“Not by my choice,” he said starkly.
But through his head it went, all the same – the call-and-response prayer to the Mistress of Dice and Death:
Upon her molten iron throne
And is not touched
Is kernel heart of darkness to the blaze
It was ingrained – a decade of foot-dragging attendance at the Eskiath family temple, every week like clockwork until, finally, at fifteen years of age, he found the words to face his father down and refuse the charade.
By then, though, the cant was worked into his brain like tanner’s dung.
In shadows lit by liquid fire
And holds the dice
Holds dice for all, and all that is to come
The dice of days in one cold hand
And blows them free
Blows luck like sparks from out the forge of fate
“Yes, well.” The corpse bent stiffly into the shadows beside the fire-glow and the pallid, long-nailed hand reached a poker from its resting place against the stonework. Firfirdar prodded at the fire, and a log fell loose, cascading embers. “Fortunately, we’re not all dependent on your choices in such matters.”
“Then why am I here?”
“Oh.” The poker stabbed into the hearth a couple more times. Sparks billowed up the chimney. The voice rustled about in the flicker-lit, haunted spaces of the croft. “You were passing. It seemed as good a time as any.”
“You know, for a goddess of death and destiny, you show remarkably little sense of divine grandeur.”
The corpse leaned over the hearth, cowl pressed to the low stone mantelpiece as if tired by its exertions. The echo of Ringil’s words seemed to hang in the silence. For a long, cold-sweat moment, he wondered if the dark queen would take offence.
His fingers flexed and formed a brief fist -
Look, I won’t lie to you, Gil. No ikinri ‘ska ward is going to actually back down a member of the Dark Court. Hjel the Dispossessed, almost apologetic when Ringil asks him. It’s his magic, after all, his heritage he’s teaching here. But if you throw enough of them around, well – a faint shrug – you might buy yourself some time, I suppose.
Time to do what?
But to that, he gets no answer beyond the gypsy prince’s customary slipshod grin. Hjel is not what you’d call a consistent guide.
What he is, exactly, Ringil has yet to work out.
- and so….
He loosened the fist, forced his fingers to hang slack. Waited for the dark queen’s response
“Funny.” The corpse had not moved, was still bent there over the hearth. It was as if Fifirdar was talking to the flames. “Yes. They did say that. That you think you’re funny.”
A thick silence poured into the croft behind the hiss in that final word. All the hairs on Ringil’s forearms and the back of his neck leapt erect. He mastered the shudder, thrust it down and stared at the hunched black form. The shifting infinite possibilities of the ikinri ‘ska, swirling like water just below his fingertips…..
The corpse straightened up. Set the poker aside in the shadows by the wall.
“We’re wasting time,” said Firfirdar sibilantly. “I am not your enemy. You would not still be standing there if I were.”
“Perhaps not.” Behind the mask he kept, a cool relief went pummeling through his veins. He let the ikinri ‘ska subside. “But please don’t claim the Dark Court has my best interests at heart either. I’ve read a few too many hero legends to believe that.”
“Legends are written down by mortals, floundering in the details of their world, seeking significance for their acts where usually there is none.” The corpse hobbled back to its seat by the fire. “You would do well not to set too much store by such tales.”
“Is it inaccurate, then, my lady, to say that heroes in the service of the Court rarely end well?”
“Men who carry steel upon their backs and live by it rarely end well. It would be a little unjust to blame the gods for that, don’t you think?”
Ringil grimaced. “The Mistress of Dice and Death complains to me of injustice? Have you not being paying attention lately, my lady? Injustice is the fashion – for the last several thousand years at least, as near as I can determine. I think it unlikely the Dark Court has not had a hand in any of it.”
“Well, our attention has been known to wander.” It was hard to be sure with that whispering, rustling voice, but the dark queen seemed amused. “But we are focused on you now, which is what counts. Rejoice, Ringil Eskiath – we are here to help.”
“Really? The lady Kwelgrish gave me to understand that mortal affairs are a game you play at. It’s hard to rejoice in being treated as a piece in a game.”
Quiet. The corpse lolled back in the rocking chair’s embrace. The nails of its left hand tapped at the wooden arm-rest, like the click of dice in a cupped palm.
“Kwelgrish is…….forthright, by the standards of the Court.”
“You mean she shouldn’t have told me?”
The soft crackle of the fire in the hearth. Gil thought, uneasily, that the leaping shadows painted on the wall behind Firfirdar were a little too high and animated to fit the modest flames in the hearth that supposedly threw them. A little too shaped, as well, a little too suggestive of upward tilted jaws and teeth, as if some invisible, inaudible dog-pack surged and clamoured there in the gloom behind the dark queen’s chair, waiting to be unleashed…..
Very slowly, the corpse lifted both hands to the edges of the cowl it wore. Lifted the dark cloth back and up, off the visage it covered.
The breath stopped in Ringil’s throat.
With an effort of will, he held himself immobile. Looked back into Firfirdar’s eyes.
It was not that the corpse she had chosen was hideous with decay – far from it. Apart from a tell-tale pallor and a sunken look around the eyes, it was a face that might still have belonged with the living.
But it was beautiful.
It was the face of some fine-featured, consumptive youth you’d readily kiss and risk infection for, a face you might lose yourself in one haunted back-alley night, wake the next day without and spend fruitless years searching the stew of streets for again. It was a face that gathered you in, that beckoned you away, that rendered all thought of safety and common sense futile.
It was a face you’d go to gladly, when the time came; no regrets and nothing left behind but the faint and fading smile printed on your cooling lips.
“Do you see me, Ringil Eskiath?” asked the hissing, whispering voice.
It was like flandrijn fumes through his head, like stumbling on a step that suddenly wasn’t there. He reeled and swayed from the force of it, and the corpse’s mouth did not move at all and the voice seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“Do you see me now?”
Out of the seething, chilling confusion of his own consciousness, Ringil mustered the will to stay on his feet. He drew in breath, hard.
“Yes,” he said. “I see you.”
“Then let us understand each other. It isn’t easy being a god, but some of us are better at it than others. Kwelgrish has her intricate games and her irony, Dakovash his constant rage and disappointment with mortals, and Hoiran just likes to watch. But I am none of these. You would be ill-advised to judge me as if I were. Is that clear?”
Ringil swallowed, dry-throated. Nodded.
“That’s good.” The corpse raised pallid hands once more and lifted the cowl back in place. Something went out of the space around them, as if someone had opened a window somewhere to let in fresh air. “Now – to the business at hand. Walk with me, Ringil Eskiath. Convince me that my fellow gods have not been overly optimistic in their assessment of your worth.”
“Walk with you whe-”
The fire billowed upward in the hearth, blinded him where he stood. Soundless detonation that deafens his gaze. The croft walls and thatch ripped back, no more substantial than a Majak yurt torn away by cyclone winds. He thought he caught a glimpse of them borne away at some angle it hurt his eyes to look at. Gone, all gone. He blinked – shakes his head – is standing suddenly before a roaring bonfire, on a deserted beach, under an eerily luminescent sky.
“Walk with me here,” says Firfirdar quietly.
She’s unhooded again, it’s the same achingly beautiful dying youth’s face, but here it seems not to have the power it had back in the croft. Or maybe it’s him – maybe he has a power here the real world will not permit him. Either way there’s no punch-to-the-guts menace, no fracturing of his will and sense of self. Instead, he thinks, the Mistress of Dice and Death looks overwhelmingly saddened by something, and maybe a little lost.
“There is not much time,” she murmurs. “The dwenda have found a way back – though back is a relative term, as they’ll discover soon enough – and with them comes every dark thing men have ever feared.”
Ringil shivers. There’s a hard wind coming off the sea, stoking the bonfire, whipping the flames off it like spray from storm-driven waves, and leaching the heat away.
“Then stop them, why don’t you.”
A gossamer smile touches Firfirdar’s mouth at the corners, but it’s etched with that same sadness. Her eyes tilt to the sky.
“That was tried,” she says quietly. “Once. And your sky still bears the scars.”
He follows her gaze upward. The source of the eerie radiance slips from behind the clouds – the dying, pockmarked little sun he’s heard the dwenda call muhn. He shrugs.
“So try it again.”
“It will not be permitted again. Even if we could find some way to press upon the sky as hard and deeply as before, such powers must remain leashed. That was the pact, the gift of mending the book-keepers gave. We are bound by the codes they wrote.”
Ringil stares into the orange-red heart of the bonfire, as if he could pull some of its heat out and into himself. “So much for the gods. Maybe I should just talk to one of these book-keepers instead.”
“You already have, Ringil Eskiath. How else would you have returned through the dark gate except with its blessing? How else would you have come back from the crossroads?”
Memory stabs at him on that last word. The creature at the cross-roads, the book it held in its multiple arms. The razor talons it touched him with.
I should hate to tear you asunder. You show a lot of promise.
The branches buried in the heart of the fire suddenly look a lot like bones in a pyre. He turns away. He stares away along the shoreline, where the wind is piling up waves and dumping them out incessantly on the sand. Over the sound it makes, he grows aware that Firfirdar is watching him.
“That was the book keeper?” he asks reluctantly.
“One of them, yes.”
He locks down another shiver. Sets his jaw. “I was under the impression that I owed my passage through the dark gate to Kwelgrish and Dakovash.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes, you do. But – come.” Firfirdar gestures, away along the ghost-lit beach and into the gloom. “Walk with me. All will become clear.”
“Yeah?” Ringil grimaces. “That’d be a first.”
But he walks with her anyway, away from the useless glare of the bonfire, the heat it apparently cannot give him unless – the thought pops into his head unsought – he throws himself into its charnel heart and lets himself burn.
And that’d be a stupid thing to do.
So yes, he lets the dark queen link her arm through his – he can feel the chill it gives off through his clothing and hers – and she leads him away, under the dwenda muhn.
In the ghost light it casts, he notices, her feet leave no trace on the sand.
And, after a while, nor do his.