Kingmaker - GM Dkyrn
Human Oracle of Dark Tapestry
Many are called, few answer, and none have been chosen.
He was not aware of it, but High General Dujek had just done as he planned. The years he spent with the army, travelling from one place to another.
It was fun. He thinks Whenever I got within twenty from Alam, he would always slips his daggers in his hands. The so called assassin afraid of a little boy. he chuckles at the memory The squad mage, Ben. He was terrified, was he not?
Still, he tried to keep a low profile; those were moments that he could no longer indulge, Sorry needed the soldiers to fear and hate him; else, the so careful suggestion to send the ‘recruit’ to the Stolen Lands would not even be considered.
That task was the easy one, now the real challenge begins. Thinks the young boy cheerfully.
He was still dressed with the military clothes. His satchel was no bigger than a bedroll, and the raincape he wore was more like a cloak—not standard issue—reaching down to his ankles. He’d raised the hood. Despite the dawn’s burgeoning light his face remained in shadow.
He had opted to walk instead of mounting a horse. Travelling with merchants, Sorry remained somewhat a mystery and distant. Never joining at the meals, always walking alone. His destination, Restov. From there, he would start to wave his webs and set plans in notion. But for now, he was just a shy travelling adventurer.
‘Prod and pull,’ the old woman was saying, ‘It’s the way of the King, as like the gods themselves.’ She leaned to one side and spat, then brought a soiled cloth to her wrinkled lips. ‘Three husbands and two sons I saw off to war.’
The fisherboy’s eyes shone as he watched the column of mounted soldiers thunder past, and he only half listened to the hag standing beside him. The boy’s breath had risen to the pace of the magnificent horses. He felt his face burning with excitement, a heat that had nothing to do with the heat. The day was dying, the sun’s red smear over the trees on his right, and the sea’s sighing against his face had grown cool.
‘That was in the days of the Choral,’ the hag continued. ‘Pharasma roast the bastard’s soul on a spit. But look on, lad. The King scatters bones with the best of them. Heh, They started with his house, didn’t they, now?’
The fisherboy nodded faintly. As befitted the lowborn, they waited by the roadside, the old woman burdened beneath a rough sack filled with turnips, the boy with a heavy basket balanced on his shoulder. Every minute or so the old woman shifted the sack from one bony shoulder to the other.
With the riders crowding them on the road and the ditch behind them a steep drop to broken rocks, she had no place to put down the sack.
‘Scatters bones, I said. Bones of husbands, bones of sons, bones of wives and bones of daughters. All the same to them. All the same to the House Surtova.’ The old woman spat a second time. ‘Three husbands and two sons, ten coin apiece a year. Five of ten’s fifty. Fifty coin a year’s cold company, lad. Cold in winter, cold in bed.’
The fisherboy wiped dust from his forehead. His bright eyes darted among the soldiers passing before him. The young men atop their highbacked saddles held expressions stern and fixed straight ahead. The few women who rode among them sat tall and somehow fiercer than the men. The sunset cast red glints from their helms, flashing so that the boy’s eyes stung and his vision blurred.
’You’re the fisherman’s son,’ the old woman said. ‘I seen you afore on the road, and down on the strand. Seen you and your dad at market. Missing an arm, ain’t he? More bones for their collection is likely, eh?’ She made a chopping motion with one hand, then nodded. ’Mine’s the first house on the track. I use the coin to buy candles. Five candles I burn every night, five candles to keep old Rigga company. It’s a tired house, full of tired things and me one of them, lad. What you got in the basket there?’
Slowly the boy realized that a question had been asked of him. He pulled his attention from the soldiers and smiled down at the old woman. ’I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘the horses are so loud.’
Rigga raised her voice. ‘I asked what you got in your basket, lad?’
‘Twine. Enough for three nets. We need to get one ready for tomorrow. Dadda lost his last one—something in the deep waters took it and a whole catch, too. Ilgrand Lender wants the money he loaned us and we need a catch tomorrow. A good one.’ He smiled again and swept his gaze back to the soldiers. ’Isn’t it wonderful?’ he breathed.
Rigga’s hand shot out and snagged the boy’s thick black hair, yanked it hard.
The boy cried out. The basket on his shoulder lurched, then slid down. He grabbed frantically for it but it was too heavy. The basket struck the ground and split apart. ‘Aaai!’ the boy gasped, attempting to kneel. But Rigga pulled and snapped his head around.
‘You listen to me, lad!’ The old woman’s sour breath hissed against the boy’s face. ’ Choral the usurper king has been grinding this land down for a hundred years, and now King Noleski does the same. You was born in it. I wasn’t. When I was your age this was a country. We flew a banner and it was ours. We were free, lad.’
The boy was sickened by Rigga’s breath. He squeezed shut his eyes.
‘Mark this truth, child, else the Cloak of Lies blinds you for ever.’
Rigga’s voice took on a droning cadence, and all at once the boy stiffened. Rigga, Riggalai the Seer, the wax-witch who trapped souls in candles and burned them. Souls devoured in flame—Rigga’s words carried the chilling tone of prophecy. ‘Mark this truth. I am the last to speak to you. You are the last to hear me. Thus are we linked, you and I, beyond all else.’
Rigga’s fingers snagged tighter in the boy’s hair. ‘Across the stolen lands the Lord’s will drive their knife into virgin soil. The blood now will comes in a tide and it’ll sweep you under, child, if you’re not careful. They’ll put a sword in your hand, they’ll give you a fine horse, and they’ll send you across those lands. But a shadow will embrace your soul. Now, listen! Bury this deep! Rigga will preserve you because we are linked, you and I. But it is all I can do, understand? Look to the Lord spawned in Darkness; his is the hand that shall free you, though he’ll know it not—’
’What’s this?’ a voice bellowed.
Rigga swung to face the road. An outrider had slowed his mount. The Seer released the boy’s hair.
The boy staggered back a step. A rock on the road’s edge turned underfoot and he fell. When he looked up the outrider had trotted past.
Another thundered up in his wake.
‘Leave the boy alone, hag,’ this one growled, and as he rode by he leaned in his saddle and swung an open, gauntleted hand. The ironscaled glove cracked against Rigga’s head, spinning her around. She toppled.
The fisherboy screamed as Rigga landed heavily across his thighs. A bead of crimson spit spattered his face. Whimpering the boy pushed himself back across the gravel, then used his feet to shove away Rigga’s body. He climbed to his knees.
Something within Rigga’s prophecy seemed lodged in the boy’s head, heavy as a stone and hidden from light. He found he could not retrieve a single word the Seer had said. He reached out and grasped Rigga’s woollen shawl. Carefully, he rolled the old woman over. Blood covered one side of Rigga’s head, running down behind the ear. More blood smeared her lined chin and stained her mouth. The eyes stared sightlessly.
The boy pulled back, unable to catch his breath. Desperate, he looked about. The column of soldiers had passed, leaving nothing but dust and the distant tremble of hoofs. Rigga’s bag of turnips had spilled on to the road. Among the trampled vegetables lay five tallow candles.
The boy managed a ragged lungful of dusty air. Wiping his nose, he looked to his own basket.
‘Never mind the candles,’ he mumbled, in a thick, odd voice. ’They’re gone, aren’t they, now? just a scattering of bones. Never mind.’ he crawled towards the bundles of twine that had fallen from the breached basket, and when he spoke again his voice was young, normal. ‘We need the twine. We’ll work all night and get one ready. Dadda’s waiting. He’s right at the door, he’s looking up the track, he’s waiting to see me.’
He stopped, a shiver running through him. The sun’s light was almost gone. An unseasonal chill bled from the shadows, which now flowed like water across the road.
‘Here it comes, then,’ the boy grated softly, in a voice that wasn’t his own.
A soft-gloved hand fell on his shoulder. He ducked down, cowering. ‘Easy, boy,’ said a man’s voice. ’It’s over. Nothing to be done for her now.’
The fisherboy looked up. A man swathed in black leaned over him, his face obscured beneath a hood’s shadow. ‘But he hit her,’ the boy said, in child’s voice. ‘And we have nets to tie, me and Dadda—’
’Let’s get you on your feet,’ the man said, moving his long-fingered hands down under his arms. He straightened, lifting him effortlessly. His sandalled feet dangled in the air before he set him down.
Now he saw a second man, shorter, also clothed in black. This one stood on the road and was turned away, his gaze in the direction the soldiers had gone. He spoke, his voice reed-thin. ’Wasn’t much of a life,’ he said, not turning to face him. ‘A minor talent, long since dried up the Gift. Oh, she might have managed one more, but we’ll never know will we?’
The fisherboy stumbled over to Rigga’s bag and picked up a candle. He straightened, his eyes suddenly hard, then deliberately spat on to the road.
The shorter man’s head snapped towards him. Within the hood seemed the shadows played alone.
The boy shrank back a step. ‘It was a good life,’ he whispered. ‘She had these candles, you see. Five of them. Five for—’
‘Necromancy,’ the short man cut in.
The taller man, still at his side, said softly, ‘I see them, child. I understand what they mean.’
The other man snorted. ‘The witch harboured five frail, weak souls. Nothing grand.’ He cocked his head. ‘I can hear them now. Calling for her.’
Tears filled the boy’s eyes. A wordless anguish seemed to well up from that black stone in his mind. He wiped his cheeks. ‘Where did you come from?’ he asked abruptly. ‘We didn’t see you on the road.’
The man beside him half turned to the gravel track. ‘On the other side,’ he said, a smile in his tone. ‘Waiting, just like you.’
The other giggled. ‘On the other side indeed.’ He faced down the road again and raised his arms.
The boy drew in a sharp breath as darkness descended. A loud, tearing sound filled the air for a second, then the darkness dissipated and the boy’s eyes widened.
Seven massive Hounds now sat around the man in the road. The eyes of these beasts glowed yellow, and all were turned in the same direction as the man himself.
He heard him hiss, ‘Eager, are we? Then go.’ Silently, the Hounds bolted down the road.
Their master turned and said to the man beside him, ‘Something to gnaw on the King’s mind.’ He giggled again.
‘Must you complicate things?’ the other answered wearily.
The short man stiffened. ‘They are within sight of the column.’
He cocked his head. From up the road came the scream of horses.
He sighed. ’You’ve reached a decision, Cotillion?’
The other grunted amusedly. ‘Using my name, Ammanas, means you’ve just decided for me. We can hardly leave him here now, can we?’
‘Of course we can, old friend. just not breathing.’
Cotillion looked down on the boy. ‘No,’ he said quietly, ‘he’ll do.’
The fisherboy bit his lip. Still clutching Rigga’s candle, he took another step back, his wide eyes darting from one man to the other.
‘Pity,’ Ammanas said.
Cotillion seemed to nod, then he cleared his throat and said, ’It’ll take time.’
An amused note entered Ammanas’s reply. ‘And have we time? True vengeance needs the slow, careful stalking of the victim. Have you forgotten the pain they once delivered us? Brevoy’s back will be against the wall. They might not fall without our intervention. Where would be the satisfaction in that?’
Cotillion’s response was cool and dry. ’You’ve always underestimated them. Hence our present circumstances… No.’ He gestured at the fisherboy. ’We’ll need this one. The Swordlord’s raised the ire of Moon’s Spawn, and that’s a hornet’s nest if ever there was one. The timing is perfect.’
Faintly, above the screaming horses, came the shrieks of men and women, a sound that pierced the boy’s heart. His eyes darted to Rigga’s motionless form on the roadside, then back to Ammanas, who now approached him. He thought to run but his legs had weakened to a helpless trembling. He came close and seemed to study him, even though the shadows within his hood remained impenetrable.
‘A fisherboy?’ he asked, in a kindly tone.
‘Have you a name?’
‘Enough!’ Cotillion growled. ’He’s not some mouse under your paw, Ammanas. Besides, I’ve chosen him and I will choose his name as well.’
Ammanas stepped back. ‘Pity,’ he said again.
The boy raised imploring hands. ‘Please,’ he begged Cotillion, ’I’ve done nothing! My father’s a poor man, but he’ll pay you all he can. He needs me, and the twine—he’s waiting right now!’ He felt himself go wet between his legs and quickly sat down on the ground. ’I’ve done nothing!’ Shame rose through him and he put his hands on his face.
‘Please.’ he begged.
’I’ve no choice any more, child,’ Cotillion said. ‘After all, you know our names.’
’I’ve never heard them before!’ the boy cried.
The man sighed. "With what’s happening up the road right now, well, you’d be questioned. Unpleasantly. There are those who know our names.’
‘You see, lad,’ Ammanas added, suppressing a giggle, ’we’re not supposed to be here. There are names, and then there are names.’ He swung to Cotillion and said, in a chilling voice, ‘His father must be dealt with. My Hounds?’
‘No,’ Cotillion said. ‘He lives.’
‘I suspect,’ Cotillion said, ‘greed will suffice, once the slate is wiped clean.’ Sarcasm filled his next words. ’I’m sure you can manage the sorcery in that, can’t you?’
Ammanas giggled. ‘Beware of shadows bearing gifts.’
Cotillion faced the boy again. He lifted his arms out to the sides. The shadows that held his features in darkness now flowed out around his body.
Ammanas spoke, and to the boy his words seemed to come from a great distance. ’He’s ideal. They could never track him down, could never even so much as guess.’ He raised his voice. ’It’s not so bad a thing, lad, to be the pawn of a god.’
‘Prod and pull,’ the fisherboy said quickly.
Cotillion hesitated at his strange comment, then he shrugged. The shadows whirled out to engulf the boy. With their cold touch his mind fell away, down into darkness. His last fleeting sensation was of the soft wax of the candle in his right hand, and how it seemed to well up between the fingers of his clenched fist
It was the eighth day of recruiting and Staff Sergeant Aragan sat blearyeyed behind his desk as yet another whelp was prodded forward by the corporal. They’d had some luck here in West Pool. Fishing’s best in the backwaters, West Pool ‘s Captain had said. All they get around here is stories. Stories don’t make you bleed. Stories don’t make you go hungry, don’t give you sore feet. When you’re young and smelling of pigshit and convinced there ain’t a weapon in all the damn world that’s going to hurt you, all stories do is make you want to be part of them.
The old woman was right. As usual. These people had been under the boot so long they actually liked it. Well, Aragan thought, the education begins here.
It had been a bad day, with the local captain roaring off with three companies and leaving not one solid rumour in their wake about what was going on. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Lord’s Inquisitor arrived from Restov not ten minutes later, using one of those eerie magical Gates to get here. Though he’d never seen her, just her name on the hot, dry wind was enough to give him the shakes. Mage killer, the scorpion in the Lord’s pocket.
Aragan scowled down at the writing tablet and waited until the corporal cleared his throat. Then he looked up.
The recruit standing before him took the staff sergeant aback. He opened his mouth, on his tongue a lashing tirade designed to send the young ones scampering. A second later he shut it again, the words unspoken. West Pool ’s Captain had made her instructions abundantly clear: if they had two arms, two legs and a head, take them. The campaign was a mess. Fresh bodies were needed.
He grinned at the boy. He matched the Captain’s description perfectly.
Still. ‘All right, lad, you understand you’re in line to join the Restov Marines, right?’
The boy nodded, his gaze steady and cool and fixed on Aragan.
The recruiter’s expression tightened. Damn, he can’t be more than eleven or twelve. If this was my son…
What’s got his eyes looking so bloody old? The last time he’d seen anything like them had been outside Gronzi Forest, on Sagava—he’d been marching through farmland hit by five years’ drought and a war twice as long. Those old eyes were brought by hunger, or death. He scowled. ’What’s your name, boy?’
‘Am I in, then?’ he asked quietly.
Aragan nodded, a sudden headache pounding against the inside of his skull. ’You’ll get your assignment in a week’s time, unless you got a preference.’
‘Stolen lands campaign,’ the boy answered immediately. ‘Under the command of General Dujek Onearm. Onearm’s Host.’
Aragan blinked. ’I’ll make a note,’ he said softly. ‘Your name, soldier?’
‘Sorry. My name is Sorry.’
Aragan jotted the name down on his tablet. ‘Dismissed, soldier. The corporal will tell you where to go.’ He looked up as he was near the door. ‘And wash all that mud off your feet.’ Aragan continued writing for a moment, then stopped. It hadn’t rained in weeks. And the mud around here was half-way between green and grey, not dark red. He tossed down the stylus and massaged his temples. Well, at least the headache’s fading.
High General Dujek marched back to Jack’s side, his hard expression softened slightly with relief. From the trapdoor, voices rose in argument. ’They’ve arrived,’ Dujek said. ‘Giving your new recruit an earful about something—and don’t tell me what because I don’t want to know.’
Jack’s momentary relief was shattered by what he only now realized was the secret hope that Sorry had deserted. So his men had found him after all, or he had found them. Either way, his veterans did not sound happy to see him. He couldn’t blame them. Had he tried to kill Hubert? That seemed to be the suspicion of Ben and Alam.
Alam was doing most of the bellowing, putting more into his role as corporal than was warranted, and Dujek’s searching glance at Jack was enough to push him towards the trap-door. He came to the edge and glared down into the room below. Everyone was there, standing in a menacing circle around Sorry, who leaned against the ladder as if bored by the whole proceedings.
‘Quiet!’ Jack roared down. ‘Check your supplies and get up here, now!’ He watched them scamper, then gave a satisfied nod and returned to where the High General waited.
Dujek was rubbing the stump of his left arm, frowning distractedly.
‘Damn this weather,’ he muttered.
‘A healer could ease that,’ Jack said.
‘Not necessary,’ Dujek replied. ’I’m just getting old.’ He scratched his jaw. ‘All of your heavy supplies have been delivered to the drop point. Ready to move, Sergeant?’
Jack eyed the ridged saddles on the horses, then nodded sharply.
They watched as the squad members emerged from the square doorway, each wearing a raincape and burdened with a heavy pack. Some were engaged in a whispering argument, casting a glare back at the barbarian who’d trodden on their heels. The barbarian had attached his entire collection of charms, trinkets and trophies to various parts of his burly body, looking like a bedecked leadwood tree during the Kanese of the Scorpions. The recruit, Sorry waiting at the horses. His satchel was no bigger than a bedroll, and the raincape he wore was more like a cloak—not standard issue—reaching down to his ankles. He’d raised the hood. Despite the dawn’s burgeoning light his face remained in shadow. This is all I have left. Jack sighed.
Dujek asked quietly, ‘How is he doing, Sergeant?’
‘Still breathing,’ Jack replied stonily.
The High General slowly shook his head. ‘So damn young these days . . .’
A memory returned to Jack as he considered Dujek’s words.
On a brief attachment to the 5th, away from the siege at Pale, in the midst of the Sageva Campaign, Sorry had joined them from the new troops arriving at Nathilog. He’d watched Sorry put a knife to three local mercenaries they’d taken prisoner in Greydog—ostensibly to glean information but, he recalled with a shudder, it had been nothing like that. Not an act of expedience. He had stared aghast, horrified, as Sorry set to work on their loins. He remembered meeting Alam’s gaze, and the desperate gesture that sent the black man surging forward, knives bared. Alam had pushed past Sorry and with three quick motions had laid open the men’s throats. And then came the moment that still twisted Jack’s heart. In their last, frothing words, the mercenaries had blessed Alam.
Sorry had merely sheathed his weapon, then walked away.
Though the boy had been with the squad for two years, still his men called him a recruit, and they would probably do so until the day they died. There was a meaning there, and Jack understood it well. Recruits were not brothers. The stripping away of that label was an earned thing, a recognition brought by deeds. Sorry was a recruit because the thought of having him inextricably enfolded within the army burned like a hot knife in the throat of everyone in his squad. And that was something to which the sergeant himself was not immune.
As all of this flashed through Jack’s thoughts, his usually impassive expression failed him. In his head, he replied: Young? No, you can forgive the young, you can answer their simple needs, and you can look in their eyes and find enough there that is recognizable. But him?
No. Best to avoid those eyes, in which there was nothing that was young—nothing at all.
’Let’s get you moving to Restov.’ Dujek growled. ‘Mount everyone up.’ Without turning to Jack, the general said ”He may be ideal for the stolen lands. The Sword Lords are funding adventurers.”
The High General turned to say a few last words to the sergeant, but what he saw in Jack’s face killed those words in his throat.