He’d suffered so many wounds in the past that he’d begun to believe pain held no more surprises for him.
He’d been wrong.
The further they went, the worse it got. He’d seen men with broken backs, shattered spines, heard them tell of it; but this was not that. There was no numbness, no loss of sensation, only ever-increasing agony that flared with every step, every motion. He felt blood pouring down his legs, and at one point he stopped, tried to glance over his shoulder, saw only red.
He didn’t want to see any more.
Not now, he told himself. And then, not ever.
They went on and on, following the route Merrick had planned. It became harder the closer they got to the harbour, the streets and alleyways narrowing, twisting, turning in on themselves. The sky above quickly became obscured by overhanging balconies, but the rain got through anyway, made the cobbles slippery, dangerous. He almost fell a number of times, would have had she not been there to catch him.
She was strong. Stronger than he’d given her credit for. And calm. She spoke words in a language he didn’t understand, soothing. He almost laughed:
Who’s rescuing who?
As if things weren’t bad enough, he could hear the hounds on their trail. Hard to believe he could hear anything over the storm, but there they were all the same, baying their frustration at the dark sky and getting closer by the moment. He tried to hurry but it did no good: if it wasn’t his back it was his knee, a sharp, stabbing pain that he would suffer for a long time, he knew. It tried to collapse out from under him at every step, until he called a stop.
“No more,” he said, the hurt plain in his voice. They were just past a bottleneck where two manors bulged out at each other, narrowing the alley into a thin defile.
She tried to get him moving again, pulled at his arm, but he shook his head in response. “Here’s as good a place as any,” he said, and leant over the crossbow, fought to load a bolt.
As good a place as any, he thought, shivering, but for what?
He’d been counting on speed, surprise and the storm to overcome any attempt at pursuit. They’d lost two of those things already, and the storm could only shield them for so long. Now they would have to fight again…
He almost considered sending her off on her own: he could stay, fight, delay them as long as possible while she made an escape. But how would she know where to go? What if she got lost? Seagrave was confusing even to those who had lived there their entire lives, and she had been locked in a room with no sight of the outside world for months. He couldn’t risk it. He wouldn’t.
Stand and fight, and die if you have to. He couldn’t remember who’d said that to him – some dead fool, no doubt. He grinned, despite everything. Let them come.
And they did.
Half-a-dozen dogs burst from a sheet of rain and threw themselves into the bottleneck, big Aerelian hounds almost half as tall as he was, snapping their jaws and slavering wildly as they leapt one atop the other trying to get at his throat.
In a heartbeat he sighted the leader of the pack, a heavily-scarred beast with greying fur, and made to loose. His finger tightened on the trigger…
For a moment he didn’t know who’d spoken, who could have; then the evling-girl – or whatever she was – stepped in front of him, blocked him. He cursed, made to push her out of the way – the dogs would be on them and tearing them apart before she could think…
She held out both hands and stepped forward into the pack. Cold, gut-wrenching fear took hold of him for an instant, until he saw her standing whole and unharmed, smiling, drawing one dog and then the other into an embrace. The hounds, now placid, tongues lolling out of wide mouths, made affectionate sounds and nuzzled her outstretched palms, curled around her legs, looked up at her with happy eyes.
They look like they’ve come home after a year in the wilderness. He stared in awe as she whispered in her strange tongue; she seemed to know them each and every one, like old friends, though he knew they had been raised in the kennels from pups, bred and trained for savagery.
They did not love anyone so much as they loved her then. Not even their master…
He came running around the corner, out of breath, red-faced, trailing a clutch of empty leashes and brandishing a beating stick before him like a ward.
Merrick aimed and loosed in the same breath, before the other man could get a shout out. The bolt took him in the eye, dropped him dead like a sack of bones.
The dogs did nothing – they turned dispassionate eyes from the form of their dead handler back to the girl.
She was still cooing to them when he stepped up behind and laid a weak hand on her shoulder. A few of them stiffened at that, but she continued to speak, and they listened.
“We can’t take them with us,” he said, trying not to sway. And, “We have to go now. There’ll be others close behind.”
He saw her head slump ever-so-slightly beneath the hood. She spoke a few things more, in a sad voice this time. Then she let them go. They milled about for a few moments, taking in the scent of her before the big grey one bolted and the others followed. Back the way they’d came. Soon enough they were barking once more, the sound receding beneath that of the rain to disappear far off somewhere, in some distant part of the city.
He knew what she’d done. Even if he couldn’t put voice to it, he knew. He’d always known…
In the ruins of Calador he heard a tale from Oldman Hostur.
They were holed-up in what had once been the Imperial Palace, but was now a maze of half-collapsed halls and tumbled-stone. The shattered and defamed symbols of the once-powerful Imperian Empire looked down on them as they huddled by the weak fire. Winter was quickly descending on the heartland and they’d been fighting the better part of a month, a retreat from beneath the walls of Galgrieve where the Master-Tyrant’s rebellion had been betrayed and defeated.
He’d been young then, barely capable of holding his sword, standing in a line, and not running before the enemy’s charge. Stories of haunted monuments and cursed cities still troubled him, and he was ill at ease amidst the debris, even accompanied by the other hundred or so survivors of the army as he was.
They sat here and there, exhausted and scared, with the overgrown arches and the tortured statues of the long-dead emperors accusing them – but where else could they have gone, that their enemies would not follow?
Hostur liked to talk – he was a Truthseeker through and through, so he never missed a chance to pontificate. Merrick liked best the stories about Cadmus and Colm, the original brother-kings of Landsgard and Landsbridge; or the tale of Darroc and the Lost Army. But this night the old man wanted to talk about something else:
“In the beginning there was the Balance,” he began, as he always began, with the Elementals and the Furies and the Everlasting War. Merrick only half-listened: he’d heard it before, and was more intent on repairing his kit then listening to another dry rendition of the Creation Age.
But when Hostur turned to the evling…
“They were called the Children of the Elementals – they were everything that was good and powerful and pure in the world given flesh, and what they knew at the beginning is more than we will ever know, even at the end.
“They were masters of all things – earth, wind, water, sun; the spirits of the living and the dead; and all the creatures who walked the earth save man, and the Dread Ones.”
He was warming up, staring into the fire while he worked his blade with the whetstone. Merrick on the other hand, could feel a chill. He tried to concentrate on what he’d been doing…
“You see, most believe it was the First Lords who saved us, but there’d be no First Lords without the evling. They were apart from the Dread Ones, and would have remained so forever, but they saw men’s plight – how we suffered in bondage – and their great compassion prompted them to act.
“They set the First Lords free, and gifted them with their own power, the power of Wielding. And together, the evling and the First Lords liberated the rest of mankind.
“That’s where the Wielders came from, you see? The evling were masters – they didn’t have to worry about burning themselves up, or being haunted by the multitudes of the dead, or any of the other things that plague the Gifted. And the First Lords too – they were the best of men, after-all.
“But when the war was won and the Dread Ones banished to their dark crypts beneath the mountains and sea, those same First Lords refused to give back their power. And the evling, they were too weak by that point to do anything about it. They’d broken their Sacred Vow, taken in the sight of the Elementals themselves, to make no war, and thus opened themselves to corruption. Who they were – what they were – was dying, and the last little bit of it died with the betrayal of men…”
He touched his own chest, as if he could feel the hurt in his very heart.
“When the First Lords passed their animus, spiritus, elementus onto their children, it wasn’t the same. It was changed, and wild, and dangerous. And weak. Weaker and weaker, all the time. They turned to the evling but the evling were no longer there – they had faded away amongst the rocks and the trees, the first breath of morning and the last light of day. Forever beyond our reach. And their gift had become a curse.”
The silence stretched for a long time, until someone by the fire cleared his throat – a boy, younger even than Merrick. “If they were so powerful, how could they just disappear like that, without a trace?” he asked in a whisper.
Hostur smiled knowingly. “Who said it was without a trace? There’s always a trace, if you know where to look.” His smile soured suddenly as he turned his attention back to the edge of his sword. “Besides, that’s not the point…”
“What is the point?” It took a moment for Merrick to realise it was he who had spoken. He even managed to hold Hostur’s gaze as the other man answered:
“That everything can die. In time.”
“That’s not the way the Freebearers tell it,” said someone else beyond the light of the fire – a dark, brooding shape in the night.
“Well, they wouldn’t, would they?” Hostur guffawed, sheathed his sword with a flourish and stood it beside him. “Priests from the Unbound Temple are concerned with many things, I’m sure, but I don’t think the truth is one of them. Not anymore. Never trust a holy man, you see? Not when they’re rich and powerful, at least.”
The conversation ended there. Men drifted off to sleep, or stood watch with their backs turned. And Merrick dreamt dreams of ages long past, and dead heroes. When he awoke, Hostur was dead: someone more pious than him had slit his throat in the dark, taken his kit and sword, and fled. Not long after that the remnants of the army started to fracture – men drifted off in twos or threes, or by themselves. Merrick found himself walking alone with naught but his sword and shield, knowing very little, and believing in nothing.
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