From here, up near the crest of Levatin Hill, you can see most of the city. From the golden quarter, whose houses grow ever larger and more opulent as they climb toward the palace, all the way down to the Gate of Wounds which lurks beside the river, clinging to the city walls like the survivor of a shipwreck to flotsam. You have been here since dawn, as have your fellow citizens surrounding you, who jostle each other and gossip, though any real conversation dies out quickly. There seems to be an understanding, though none give voice to it. Tomorrow you will all return to your homes and places of work, if they still stand, or will find somewhere else to live, something else to do. But that is on the other side of the sunset. Today is the appointed day. Today the whole city, perhaps the whole empire, is holy ground, as much a sacred space as any temple.
The city lies beneath a dark grey cloud. To your right the river Vaas, which wraps around the Market district, seems to drink the sky and reflect a sallow portion of it back. There are a few points of color on the water: boatmen, ferrying some of the richer merchants from the districts upstream on the other side of the hill.
The person standing next to you, a bow-legged man with a laugh like a cough, nudges you and offers you one of the sticks of honey-sweetened meats that drip yellow fat down his fingers and onto his filthy breeches. You shake your head. He shrugs and starts chewing at a hunk of something that smells as if it is already several days past rancid.
Below you, members of the city guard line the wide Calatian Way, trying as much as possible to keep the pressing crowd from spilling onto that wide, paved thoroughfare, and in the main they are successful. Nobody wants to start a fight. Not here, not on this day. The guards look tired. Their cloaks, surcoats, and helmets, normally spotless and polished, are crumpled and soot-stained. Everyone in the city is exhausted, but to see the guard so seems particularly significant: Mas Gorton, the Emperor’s Hand, has been known to travel in unliveried carriages through the city to spy upon his Guard, eyes keen for any sign of slovenliness. Any guard caught wearing less-than-perfect attire is at risk of imprisonment, or worse. If so many of the guard are dressed so listlessly today then perhaps the rumors are true: that Mas Gorton is fled, under cover of darkness last night, or perhaps the night before. The story changes every time it reaches your ears: he was smuggled out in a deadcart, hiding under the bodies of the slain. Or he escaped dressed in the robes of a priest of Zur, or the skirts of a washerwoman. Or he has gone nowhere and yet is here no more, having slit his own throat immediately after hearing the news. Whatever the truth, there has been no news from the halls of the Justiciar for several days. The palace, too, remains silent.
There are three temples down by the Gate of Wounds. Between them they tender prayers for five different gods. Or six- there is considerable disagreement about whether the Lady of Rains should be considered the Feminine incarnation of Blind Kargon, or a god in her own right. Whatever theology divides them, the temples agree on the best way to commemorate the day. Fires have been lit in front of all three temples, from which a vivid purple-yellow smoke rises, thick and fragrant, in such volumes that it obscures the whole quarter.
A breeze drifts in and the purple-yellow smoke drifts out across the river. A span of heartbeats later, the grey clouds tear apart, defeated by the unquenchable sun. The bronze of the soldiers’ helmets blaze and the road becomes a river of light.
All around you people blink and wipe away tears, lift hands to shield their eyes. Then there is a murmur in the crowd that quickly builds to a roar. Because there, just now passing through the Gate of Wounds, stride two war elephants, pressed into service as beasts of burden through necessity: no other creatures in the empire are strong enough for the burden they pull. The platform has been built with timber and metal harvested from the carcasses of the Dark Lord’s fallen siege engines. Each wheel rises above the shoulders of the war elephants and the platform above casts them into shadow.
Ringing the platform are members of the Everguard, those heroes that held the walls of Krath-Melloth for three days and nights, never sleeping, never bending though their chances of survival were less than a grass-seed, particularly on that last night, when the last spells and ceremonies of the Dark Lord’s preparations snatched the stars themselves from the sky. There would have been nothing left of the world for them save the guttering light of their own watchfires, the crash of steel, and, beyond the gate, the scissor-click of the armblades of the Dark Lord’s carapaced and void-splintered soldiers and the screams of dying horses. These brave men and women now stand on the platform, as tall as they did then, looking out at the sea of cheering faces. Their cloaks are shining red, their armor garlanded about with flowers.
On a level above the Everguard are the Company of Seven, or at least those who have survived. They, too, have been dressed and scrubbed and polished, already looking less like themselves and more like the legends they will inevitably become. They will be the source of songs and stories for generations. Bons Straither, the tall Northman, seems particularly uncomfortable in his new clothes. His hand keeps reaching up for the ribbon that holds his hair behind his back. Even from this distance it is clear he wishes nothing more than to be home on the Wild Steppes, alone and complete. Beside him is Llawyn, the Lady of the Lights. She too is far from home but seems a little more comfortable here at the heart of the empire. From her belt hang knives and her twin swords are scabbarded and strapped across her back. There is a look of concern as she looks out across the crowd, as if she does not believe all danger has now passed. Brant Morston stands behind them both, unmoving, his stone skin making him look so much like the statues in his likeness that are no doubt already being chiseled out of blocks of grey marble in sculptor’s works and artist’s rooms, all the way from Alhambria to Scutter’s Peace. His hands, as large as barrels, are clenched at his sides.
On the third level is pitched a campaign tent. It has been festooned with bright ribbons and flowers, but its original purpose is still clear, even from here. Its sides are scored and scorched.
Another pair of elephants tread slowly beneath the Gate of Wounds and there is a gasp from those nearest as they see what they pull behind them. There is a buzzing in your head that only dissipates when you realize you have been holding your breath. The bow-legged man next to you curses in a language you do not recognize and does not seem to notice as two of his meat sticks slip from his grip.
When you can finally see it, you disbelieve your own eyes. It is surely not possible. Beside you, the bow-legged man starts up a moan that could be terror.
It is so vast and white and overwhelming that your mind refuses to accept what it is being fed, suggests you are seeing some creature hauled from the deepest parts of some faraway ocean, or some star-bleached rock fallen from the heavens. But you blink away the water from your eyes and force yourself to truly see.
Morgatin. The Dark Lord.
Or his head, at least.
His mouth is open, his whole face frozen in an aspect of pure desolation. The head lies on its side, so large it must surely have brushed the top of the gate on its way through. His eyes are gone, burned out by the sudden reversal of his last, most terrible magics. Some slow-moving blue-black liquid pools in the sockets. There are long black lines where it has flowed down the Dark Lord’s cheeks.
The crowd closest to the gate is screaming now. Those on the left side of the road recoil, backing into those behind them. On the other side of the road, pinned between this abomination and the river, people bend over, cover their eyes. At the back of the crowd, a few stumble down the bank and fall into the grey waters of the Vaas. Surely the Dark Lord is no threat, not now. But you cannot deny the cold terror that even now is pulsing through your bones. How much worse must that feeling be down there, close enough to touch this most grisly of trophies.
Your mind reels at the sheer size of the head. He had been a man, once, the stories said, a king’s advisor, but still, no more than a man. It was those dark sorceries that he pursued, the forbidden knowledge that he accrued unto himself, the compacts and treaties with unknown dominions that caused him to grow so, for his physical appearance to mirror his ambition, for his skin to acquire that bone-white pallor, even long before his death. The stories say many things but are silent on others. The name of the king Morgatin may have once served, along with the that of the kingdom, are lost, buried by years and time and red-rusted sands.
The elephants, having brought the Dark Lord though the Gate of Wounds, stop. The pair ahead of them do the same. The wave of shock and fear upon seeing the Dark Lord has dissipated somewhat. A hush falls upon the crowd, so complete that for a few seconds it is possible to hear the waters of the Vaas lapping against its banks, the gentle splash of the boatmen’s oars.
There is movement on the top level of the platform. The flap of the tent shakes, then is opened. Two figures emerge, moving slowly. Bero Bilberry and Carloman Fairwater, the only other surviving members of the Company of Seven. Bero Bilberry, the smallest, the least of them all and yet the most courageous. The one who, if the reports are true, wielded Morgr, that notorious and thrice-enchanted sword, even though it was crafted for someone more than twice his height. The one who, against all likelihood, found his way through long-haunted forests, lakes of dead mystery, and somehow, finally, made his way unseen through that void-splintered army, to find the Dark Lord and drive that grim blade deep into His incessant heart. Carloman Fairwater, who accompanied Bero every step of the journey, the softly spoken companion, supports his friend. Indeed, Bero leans so heavily against Carloman that he may not be able to stand unaided. Both are tired and grievously wounded: Carloman’s right hand is wrapped in so many bandages it is not entirely clear if he has any fingers left at all.
The crowd burst into a wild frenzy of cheering. Here, finally, is their hero, their salvation. All dread thoughts, all residual sorcery from the somber fact of the Dark Lord’s visage, are fled. The applause roars, rises, soars. And of course, you are swept away. You clap, scream, stamp your feet. Your mouth splits in a grin so wide it hurts.
Bero Bilberry surveys the crowd, a look of sorrow etched deep upon his face. Very slowly he raises an arm. He intends to speak. It takes a long time for the crowd to quieten. Even when there is silence once more, Bero’s voice is far too quiet to hear from up here. Most likely it is too low even for more than the first few ranks of the crowd. Someone turns backwards, repeats Bero’s words to the person behind him. That one does the same, then another, another. In this way do you hear what it is Bero intends to say, echoed through the crowd like ripples from a pebble cast into a lake, Bero’s words but in such a rich variety of voices and dialects. You have no way of knowing if these words are the same ones Bero spoke a span of heartbeats before. You must trust that they are.
“I have done that which you asked of me,” the echoes say. “The Dark Lord is defeated.”
There is another cheer from the crowd. Some individual voices rise above the cacophony. Savior, they call, victor. From over by the river Vaas you can hear a chant starting up. Hail, hail, the one true king. Perhaps Bero hears these words. His shoulders slump a little more. Even from here you can see the look of concern on Carloman’s face. Bero raises a hand again and the crowd once more fall silent.
“I am not a hero,” the echo drifts back to you. “I am not a savior. I am not-” He gasps, before continuing. “I am not a king. And by my heart, I am no god. I am tired. I am heartbroken. And I am going home.”
Bero Bilberry stops talking. This last, surely, must be a miscommunication. But Carloman is looking up at his friend, an expression of utmost love on his face. They embrace, awkwardly, struggling against any number of injuries seen and invisible. Bero places his hands to either side of Carloman’s face and he brings him close. They kiss, and the moment stretches on for a score of heartbeats, then double that.
The crowd raise their voices again. It seems as if most people are celebrating the words: savior, king, god, or reveling in such a heartfelt display of love. But there is a different tone in parts of the crowd. Not many, but growing, and it occurs to you that these people heard more than just the words savior, king, god. They heard I am going home.
There are confused rumblings. These grow and spread as Carloman gently guides Bero over to the edge of the platform. Bero sits at the edge, precarious. Brant Morston turns and picks Bero gently from the upper platform, then does the same for Carloman. The is a moment of conversation between the three, Brant Morston looming over his smaller companions like the clouds over the river Vaas. Bons Straither and Llawyn crouch down, embracing Bero and Carloman. Then they help them down to the first level of the platform and the waiting arms of two Everguard soldiers.
The confusion has spread widely now. Voices come to you, but these are no echoes of Bero’s words. They can’t just—, But we need—, They can’t—, but the king is dead, the king is not dead, they have to stay—
Someone moves through the crowd directly in front of you, obscuring your view. You complain and shove him away, but when you can see the platform again there is no sign of either Bero Bilberry or Carloman Fairwater. The remaining three members of the Company of Seven are deep in conversation. The Everguard remain standing, still as is their way.
The noise of the crowd has risen to deafening volume now. There is movement – people feeling they need to be somewhere other than where they currently are. Although there is no easy way to disperse a crowd as large as this one. People move one way only to find themselves blocked, then turn and try to return to where they were. Nobody seems to have any idea where the two companions have gone. But they certainly have gone.
The bow-legged man next to you coughs, and the cough turns into a wheeze, then a deep, hearty laugh. He laughs so much it seems he may never stop. He laughs until his face turns beet-red and tears stream down his cheeks. He holds his belly and leans over, laughing so much you wonder how he can still breathe. His last uneaten spiced meat stick tumbles from his fingers and lands in the dust at his feet next to the others.
And still, and still, he laughs.
|Grant Stone‘s fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and has twice won New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award.|