The house Tand’s men took her to was on the upper fringes of the town, just before Ornley thinned out into a scattering of isolated crofts. It was high ground, and there would have been a great view back down the slope of the bay to the harbour, if the air below hadn’t been quite so clogged with drifts of murky, low-lying cloud.
At least we’re out of the rain.
It was something Tand appeared to take comfort from as well. He put back the hood on his cloak as they walked the last couple of turns in the street, looked approvingly up at the sky. He was doing his best not to look smug.
“Seems to be clearing,” he said.
She tried not to sound too bad-tempered. “You really think we can trust this confession, Tand?”
“Oh, most certainly. Nalmur’s a good man, one of my best. He knows his work.”
Nalmur was leading the group. He glanced back at the mention of his name.
“I’d stake my life on it, my lady. We got at least three other squealers leading us to this bloke by name, and when he talked, well – you know it when a man cracks, you can almost hear it happen. Like a rotten tree branch going, it is.”
She masked a desire to bury one of her knives in his throat. “Right. And have you left this cracked man in any fit state to talk to us?”
“Oh, yes, my lady. Didn’t need to rough him up much past the usual.” An opened palm, explanatory. “He’s a family man, see. Good lady wife, a pair of strapping young sons. Plenty to work with.”
She saw smirks creep out on the faces of the other men in the group.
“Yes, thank you Nalmur.” Perhaps Tand saw something in her face. “You can spare us the details, I think.”
“Just as you like, my lord. My lady. But that confession is rock solid. You could build a castle on it, sir.”
Tand tipped her a told-you-so look. She worked at not grinding her teeth.
They took the final turn in the street, found themselves facing a short row of cottages, dwellings more hunched and huddled than the buildings lower down the hill. A brace of Tand’s men were loitering outside an opened door about halfway along the row. They were guffawing about something, but when they saw the approaching party, they stiffened into quiet and an approximation of drilled military attention.
A curtain twitched in her peripheral vision. She didn’t bother to look round. You could feel the eyes on you all the way along the street. Gathered at the edges of the darkened windows and in the gap of doors cracked a bare inch open, waiting to slam. Watching, hating as the booted feet tramped by.
It was the post-war occupations all over again.
Greetings from the Emperor of All Lands – we come to you in peace and the universal brotherhood of the Holy Revelation.
But if you don’t want those things, then we’re going to fuck you up.
Tand had taken the lead. He nodded at his saluting men and stepped between them, ducking in under the low lintel. Archeth followed, into the soft glow of a banked fire in the grate, and candles lit against the day’s end gloom. There was a pervasive smell of damp from the earthen floor and the whiff of voided bowels to go with it. A sustained, hopeless keening leaked in from the next room. Three more of Tand’s mercenaries stood guard over a man stripped to the waist and strapped to an upright chair.
Nalmur and the rest of the squad crowded in after her.
“Well then,” said Tand. “Nalmur, will you do the honours?”
Nalmur took a theatrical turn around the chair and its occupant. As Archeth’s eyes adjusted to the light, she made out bruising on the man’s face, crusted blood from the broken nose, a series of livid burn marks across chest and upper arms. His breeches were soaked through at the crotch. Nalmur dropped a friendly arm around his shoulders, and the man flinched violently against his bonds.
“My lord, my lady – meet Critlin Tilgeth, first warden of the Aldrain flame, Hironish chapter. Master Critlin here likes to get together with his pals a couple of times a year in a stone circle just west of here and invoke the spirits of the Vanishing Folk. Which they do by dancing around naked and fucking each other’s wives senseless. I guess you got to find something to fill your evenings with up here.”
Belly laughs from the men around her.
“Get on with it,” she said harshly.
“Yes, my lady.” Nalmur slapped the tied man amiably on one cheek. Straightened up. He switched to accented but serviceable Naomic. “Tell us about the grave again, Critlin. Tell us what you did.”
“Yes. Yes, we dug-” Critlin swallowed hard. His voice sounded as broken as his face. Low and shaky, a pleading in it, like raindrops trembling on the underside of a roof’s edge. His eyes kept darting to the doorway into the other room, the source of the endless weeping. “We dug it up. We – we went at night. The day before Quickening Eve, when the waters are low.”
Archeth frowned. “What waters?”
“He means the gap at Grey Gull peninsula, my lady.” Nalmur, for all the world like a tutor helping out a feeble student under examination. “Says the currents bring more water in at certain times, make it harder to cross.”
“But-” She shook her head irritably. “There was a dead sheep in that grave, that’s all we found, we didn’t….”
They’d been using Tethanne, while Critlin gaped uncomprehendingly back and forth, between this evil-eyed black woman and his tormentor-in-chief. Archeth made an effort, shunted the constant keening to the back of her mind, summoned her own creaky Naomic.
“You uh – you took the Illwrack Changeling out – and put a, uhm – deformed? Yeah – a deformed sheep in his place? What – position? – no, wait, what condition – what condition was the body in?”
Critlin hesitated. He seemed puzzled by the question, maybe confused by her fumbling, error-strewn speech. Nalmur fetched him a massive clout across the side of the head.
“The lady Archeth asks you a question! Answer, and be quick about it! Or perhaps you think little Eril’s jealous of the caresses his big brother’s had from my men. Perhaps he’d like some of the same?”
The wailing from the next room re-doubled. Critlin moaned deep in his chest and strained against his bonds. Nalmur grinned and raised his hand again.
“That’s enough!” Archeth snapped.
The hand came down. A small, angry smile played around the corners of Nalmur’s mouth for a moment, but he bowed his head. Archeth leaned in closer to Critlin. He shrank from her, as far as the chair-back would allow. The stench of shit wafted as he moved. She raised her hands, palms outward, backed away again.
“Just tell me,” she said quietly. “Was the body intact? Had it decayed at all?”
“Intact,” blurted Critlin. “It was intact! The sheep was but recently slaughtered. We took it from Gelher’s flock and-”
“Alright, that’s it you little goat-fucker!” Nalmur, stepping in with fist clenched and swinging. Archeth swung up and round, put a knife-fighter’s block in the way.
“I said that’s enough.”
Nalmur recoiled from touching her, whether out of respect for rank or superstitious dread, it was hard to tell. But there was a tight anger in his face.
“My lady, he is taking the piss. He’s-”
“He is broken!” Her yell froze the room. One of Nalmur’s men, already on his zealous way to the other room, stopped dead his tracks. Archeth swung on him, pointed. “You! You step through that door, I will fucking kill you.”
Tand stirred. “My lady, the man shows a distinct lack of respect, given his station. Joking at our expense should hardly go unpunished.”
“I will kill you.” Still eye-balling Nalmur’s man. “Don’t test me, human.”
And abruptly it was there in her head, like some unfolding map of a battle campaign she’d only heard rumour of until now. How it could be done, how it would go. The rest of Tand’s men, their positions in the room, the gnarled hilt of each knife she carried, how to reach them, in what sequence, how many spilt-blood seconds it would take to fucking kill them all…..
These fucking humans, Archidi. Grashgal’s voice, almost toneless, empty of anything but the distant trickle of despair, as the Kiriath laid their plans to leave. They’re going turn us into something we never used to be.
Hadn’t he called it right?
Didn’t she feel it herself, day-in day-out, the corrosive rub of human brutality, human cruelty, human stupidity against the weave of her soul. The slow erosion of her own moral certainties, the ground she gave up with every political compromise, every carefully balanced step in the Great Kiriath Mission, every lie she told herself about necessary sacrifice in the name of building something better…..
Through the doorway, the constant keening. Her hands itched for the hilts of her knives.
Maybe it was just fucking time.
Menith Tand was watching her, fascinated. She felt his gaze like shadow in the corner of one eye, and something about it, about being observed, pulled her back from the brink.
“You want to live, you stand down,” she told the mercenary by the door. Voice flat now, as flat and emptied out as Grashgal’s had ever been. “Nalmur, get your men out of here.”
Nalmur looked at Tand, outraged. The slave magnate nodded soberly.
“But my lord, this man is-”
“Broken. Remember?” Archeth fixed her eyes on Critlin as she spoke, didn’t look round, didn’t look at Nalmur at all. She didn’t trust herself to. “You heard him break, you said Like a rotten tree branch. Couldn’t miss it. Your work here is done, sellsword. Now get out, and take your thugs with you.”
It took less than a minute to clear the house. Give Nalmur his due, he ran a tight enough crew. A sharp whistle brought a couple of younger mercenaries out of the room the keening was coming from. A gruff command and everybody trooped out, leaving Archeth and Tand alone with Critlin. Nalmur was last man out, slamming the door ungraciously shut.
The room seemed suddenly larger, less oppressive. Even the weeping next door seemed to ebb a little.
Archeth crouched in front of Critlin’s chair, made herself as unthreatening as she knew how. The Naomic came a little easier this time around. Just getting Tand’s men out of the house felt like a headache lifting.
“Listen to me, Critlin. Just listen. No-one’s going to hurt you anymore. You have my word. No-one’s going to hurt your family, no-one’s going to hurt you. Just tell me again about the body.”
She drew a deep breath, staved off a krin-driven impulse to grab Critlin and start slapping him. “No, not the sheep. The body in the grave. What state was the body in the grave in?”
“But…..” Critlin stared. His voice quavered. “There was no body in the grave.”
Archeth shot a glance at Tand.
“Look,” the slave magnate began angrily. “You told my men-”
Critlin cringed as if Nalmur had just come back through the door.
“There was bone,” he gabbled. “Just bone, just fragments of it, tiny, nothing left but that. The rest was just….rotted…..”
His voice petered out. He was staring at them both as if they were insane. Archeth groped for some context.
“Well – were you surprised by that?”
He looked back at her numbly.
“That the Illwrack Changeling’s body had rotted? Did that surprise you?”
“N-no, my lady. He has been dead these four thousand years.”
She shut her mouth with a snap. Recognised suddenly which side of reasonable they’d all somehow ended up.
Because if these last weeks have been anything at all, Archidi, it’s a lesson in how badly myth and legend butt up against the real world.
And yet here she still was, wanting to know why a body put in the ground four millenia ago wouldn’t be in decent condition when you dug it up.
This place is driving us all insane.
“Alright, so there was no body.” Tand seemed to have moved past his previous anger – there was a deadly metronome patience in his voice now. “Or at least nothing much left of one. And you expected that. So why bother digging up the grave in the first place?”
“The lodge elder ordered it, my lord.” Critlin’s head sagged forward. He seemed to be giving up some final thing. “To take the sword.”
Archeth gave Tand another significant look. “There’s a sword now?”
The slave magnate shrugged. “He was a warrior, was he not, this Illwrack Changeling? Makes sense that they’d bury him with his weapons.”
“Alright, so you took the sword.” Archeth rubbed at her closed eyes with finger and thumb. “But, look – why bury a fucking sheep in its place? Why would you do that?”
“The lodge-master ordered that too, my lady.” The words were falling out of Critlin’s mouth now, stumbling to get out. He was done, he was over some kind of hill, and his eyes flickered more and more to the door into the other room. “Gelher’s flock have the run of Grey Gull – several were born last season with deformities – the lodge-master said it was a sign, that the soul of the Changeling had awakened – most died at birth, but two or three survived until this year. So the lodge-master said we must sacrifice one such in thanks – lay it in place of the sword. We did only as he ordered us, as our oath demanded.”
Archeth drew Quarterless from the sheath in the small of her back. The knife blade glimmered in the low light.
“Where is the sword now?”
“Taken back, my lady.” His eyes were fixed dully on the blade. For one chilly moment, Archeth thought she saw a longing in that gaze that made no distinction between Quarterless cutting his bonds or his throat. “Back to Trelayne. There will be a ceremony. The lodge-master says rejoice, the Aldrain are returning.”
She shivered, not sure if it was his words or the look in his eyes that caused it. She shook it off, knelt at his side and sliced through the cords binding his legs to the chair. He began to weep, like a small child. The stench from where he’d pissed and shat himself was stronger this close in. She cut the cords off his chest and arms, ripped them loose with unneedful violence. She stood back, let the sliced leavings of cord dribble out of her hands onto the floor.
She swallowed hard.
“Go to your family,” she said. “You will not be harmed further. You have my word.”
Critlin staggered upright, clutching at one arm. He limped away into the other room. Archeth stared after him, locked up in a paroxysm of something she could not name.
Menith Tand cleared his throat. “Perhaps, my lady-”
“Give me your purse,” she said distantly.
“I beg your pardon?”
She stirred as if awakening. Turned on him, Quarterless still in her hand. Words like hammered nails into wood. “Give me your mother fucking purse!”
Tand’s lips tightened almost imperceptibly. The same chained rage she’d seen in his eyes at the inn was there again. But he reached carefully beneath his cloak and fished out an amply swollen soft black leather purse. Weighed it gently in the palm of his hand.
“I do not care for your tone, my lady.”
“Yeah?” She reached back and put Quarterless away in its sheath. Safer there, the way she felt right now. “Then take it up with the Emperor when we get back. I’m sure you’ll be able to buy yourself an audience.”
“Yes, no doubt. Using the same funds that have made me a significant sponsor of this expedition and-”
She chopped him down. “Of which I am nominated imperial commander. Are you going to give me that purse or am I going to take it from you?”
Brief stillness between them. The faint reek of shit from the stained torture chair she stood beside. Horseplay commotion from Tand’s men out in the street. Raised voices – they seemed to be squabbling about something. In the next room, the keening went on as if Critlin had never been released.
Tand tossed the purse at her, hard. Two centuries of drilled reflex took it out of the air with knife-fighter aplomb.
The slave magnate turned away and headed for the door. He paused, hand on the latch, and looked back at her. The fire was out in his eyes now, and he looked merely – thoughtful.
“You know, my lady – you would be ill-advised to make an enemy of me.”
She should have left it alone, but the krin still sputtered and smoked in her like a pissed out camp-fire. The words were out of her mouth before she knew it.
“I think you have that backwards, Tand. I’ve seen better than you strapped to an execution board in the Chamber of Confidences.”
He held her gaze for a sober moment, then shrugged.
“Understood,” he said tonelessly. “Thank you for your candour.”
He turned the latch and went outside to his men. Archeth watched the door close on him, then cast about in the dampish, shit-smelling room as if she’d dropped something of value somewhere on the earthen floor. She closed her eyes briefly, too briefly, then forced herself to the door into the next room and the source of the keening. She leaned there in the doorway, curiously unwilling to actually step over the threshold.
On the big sagging bed that constituted the room’s only real furniture, like huddled shipwreck survivors on some fortuitous raft, a young woman sat and hugged two young boys to her. All three had had their clothing torn or sliced apart and now only the woman’s tight embrace held the remnants against their pallid flesh. The eldest boy looked to be about ten or eleven, the younger more like six or seven. Both their faces and bodies were marked, beginning to bruise. The woman’s eyes were closed tight, one swollen cheek was gouged where someone had struck her, most likely with a belt-end or maybe just the back of a heavily-ringed hand. Her lips were moving in some voiceless litany, but it was her throat the keening came from, the only sound she made, and she rocked in time with it, back and forth, back and forth, a rigid couple of inches either way.
Critlin was slumped on the ground near the doorway, curled into himself and crumpled back against the wall in a way that suggested he’d simply leaned there and slid down the stonework until the floor stopped him. He was less than four feet from his family and staring at them as if they’d sailed from some harbour quay without him. His left hand reached out for them, had got as far as resting on one of his own up-jutting knees, now hung there limp and lifeless.
Archeth swallowed and stepped into the room. Crouched at Critlin’s side, tried to fold his nerveless fingers around the purse. “Here. Take this.”
He barely looked at her.
“Take – look, here – just fucking take it, will you.”
The purse hung in his hand a scant second. Then it tugged loose with its own weight, fell from his slackened grip and into the dirt he sat on.
Muffled clink of imperial silver within.
Greetings from the Emperor of All Lands.
She got up and backed out.
Went back through the room they’d tortured Critlin in, as if pushed by a gathering wind. Yanked open the door and stepped out into the murky evening street.
Found a sword tip at her throat.