Actions

Work Header

Bard of Pain

Chapter Text


Bard of Pain 1
THE DARKNESS
 

CHAPTER ONE

The beginning of the end for Quentin-Andrew (or so it seemed at the time) came in the moment that he stepped into the shadow of Capital Mountain and was assaulted by a stranger.

During the first seconds of the attack, all that Lieutenant Quentin-Andrew could feel, in the form of warmth in his chest, was unadulterated pleasure. He had been attacked like this many times during his seventeen years serving the Commander of the Northern Army, and the results had always been the same. It never ceased to amaze Quentin-Andrew how many men continued to adhere to the rules of fair fighting even when it became clear that such rules were of no interest to their intended victim. And once the assailant had been captured . . .

The warmth spread to Quentin-Andrew's extremities. The Commander had given him standing orders that he could deal with such men in the manner that he preferred, as long as the necessary information was obtained from them. Few men, it was said, fell into the Lieutenant's hands without ending their lives pleading for the mercy-stroke.

Unfortunately, Quentin-Andrew was about to become acquainted with one of the handful of men in the Great Peninsula who scorned the rules of fair fighting. Moreover, the man had friends. As the first moment of pleasure faded, Quentin-Andrew became aware of this fact and turned his mission abruptly from capture to escape. It was too late, though; too late even to weigh the benefits and costs of calling for help, for the first action his captor took, upon seeing him disarmed and secured, was to clamp his hand heavily over Quentin-Andrew's mouth.

And thus Quentin-Andrew, who until this day had been the most valued soldier in the Northern Army, found himself pinioned and surrounded by soldiers of the Southern Army.

These men were part of the desperate remnant of what had once been the armies of the Great Peninsula's two southern lands of Koretia and Daxis. Even now that he was their prisoner, Quentin-Andrew could not help but view them with northern contempt, as the soldiers who were too weak – too civilized – to fight by the methods that had allowed his Commander to capture all of the Great Peninsula except for the area surrounding Capital Mountain, which now lay under siege.

A dozen soldiers stood before him; the Southern Army had taken no chances in planning this capture. One, however, had stood apart from the fight, fingering lightly the dagger in his hand: a young man, half of Quentin-Andrew's age. He lacked the hard muscles of a warrior, yet he watched the scene with great care, as though memorizing valuable information. Some part of Quentin-Andrew, deep in the cold darkness that had filled his mind for many years, flickered with curiosity, and a deeper part still flickered with recognition. But the part on the surface – the only part that anyone had seen for seventeen years – revealed no sign of interest as the young man stepped forward.

He was dressed in civilian clothes, as were the other soldiers, who had been forced to venture dangerously close to the Northern Army's camp. Nothing about his clothing revealed whether he was an army official, like Quentin-Andrew, or simply a bottom-ranked soldier who had been placed in charge of this hazardous mission. Quentin-Andrew hoped it was the latter. With an army official, he would be constrained by further orders from the Commander, but a bottom-ranked soldier could be questioned at length, using any methods Quentin-Andrew chose.

It had not yet occurred to Quentin-Andrew that his time of questioning had reached an end, and that a new questioning was about to begin.

The young man paused a moment to push back his cloak. The weather was mild by northern standards, but here in the south it was wintertime, and southerners dressed themselves accordingly. The young man tilted his head to the side, his gaze fixed upon Quentin-Andrew. Once again, a faint recognition flickered in Quentin-Andrew's darkness.

Suddenly the young man smiled and touched his heart and forehead in greeting.

"Randal son of Glisson," he said in a low voice, by way of introduction. His accent was that of a Daxion. "It is an honor to meet you, Lieutenant. A man of your talents has never before come my way."

So disappeared any lingering hopes Quentin-Andrew had held that he would not be recognized, but those hopes had never been great. An army in its final gasping breath, stretched to its limits in the days before its greatest battle, does not waste a dozen men to abduct a minor soldier. And ever since the time that the Commander had released Quentin-Andrew from his duty of leading the patrol that watched over the outskirts of the camp – his other duty had become too time-consuming – he had been known to have a habit of wandering alone late at night, perhaps as an inheritance of his father's blood. The Commander had once remarked, in half earnestness, that such a habit would prove to be the Lieutenant's undoing.

Now Quentin-Andrew coolly, and without haste, ran his mind through the alternatives available to him. Dozens of northern soldiers were within shouting distance, but they all knew the Lieutenant's voice, and none of them, he was aware from experience, would come near him except with great reluctance. His old patrol unit was out tonight, guarding the camp against intruders such as these; a single whistle would bring them running. Or would it? Eight years had passed since the Lieutenant had been their official, and that had been before most of the long, bloody tasks that the Commander had assigned him. Such tasks were done for the benefit of the Northern Army, but even so . . . The Commander himself. There was no question that he would risk his life to save the Lieutenant. These days, the Commander trusted no other man with his thoughts, which had grown steadily darker over the years, until Quentin-Andrew found it difficult sometimes to remember the light-filled man to whom he had pledged his loyalty at the beginning of the war. The Commander would come; but the Commander was away from the camp tonight, supervising the final stages of the siege.

The hand dropped from Quentin-Andrew's mouth. He had one moment in which to make his decision, and then the moment was lost as a gag was stuffed into his mouth.

The young soldier, Randal, was still watching Quentin-Andrew closely. Now, as though Quentin-Andrew had spoken, he said softly, "No one will come, Lieutenant. No one cares about you. You are alone now in the pit of your destruction."

The words burned him like fire. He knew, without having to think further, into whose hands he had fallen. For a minute he remained still, feeling the bonds around his arms; then, with a sudden jerk, he pulled himself free of his captor and lunged straight toward Randal's dagger.

Randal raised the dagger with a short laugh, preventing Quentin-Andrew from impaling himself upon the blade. He waited until Quentin-Andrew had been secured once more by the soldiers before he said, "You won't receive release that way, Lieutenant; you know better than that. We'll give you over to the Jackal's fire in time, but not until you have given us what we need. And should you delay your gift . . ." Randal's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Well, Lieutenant, I don't have your skills, but I can promise you with honesty that, by the time you encounter the Jackal's fire, it will seem cool in comparison to what you have endured."

o—o—o

The chamber was round, like the sun or the moon; it was deep, fringed by tiers of steps; and it was quiet, but for the sound of one man speaking. To the south side of the chamber, brown-robed priests sat listening and nodding their heads occasionally. The north side was filled with boys, whispering to each other and nudging one another and occasionally throwing pebbles when they thought that the priests weren't looking.

One boy stood apart from the others. He was of ten years and was dark-skinned. This was not remarkable in itself, for a few of the other boys bore skin that revealed unmistakably that their families had emigrated from the south. This boy, though, was not seated with the orphan boys whom the priests cared for. He stood in the galleries above the southern seats, surrounded on all sides by visitors who jostled each other to have a first view of the special guest.

By craning his neck, the boy could see through a gap in the crowd to the opposite balcony. The northern balcony, normally reserved for the Chara and other noble guests, was filled with an overflow of younger priests on this important occasion. The chiefmost of the balcony's inhabitants, though, was not a priest but an ordinary lesser free-man. He was formally dressed with a soldier's sword clipped to his belt and a black tunic enlivened only by the silver honor brooch that bound the neck-flap fast. He was taking no notice of the whispering of the younger priests or of the heightened excitement of the boys below him. His gaze was fixed upon the center of the room, where the High Priest of the Unknowable God stood, speaking as he held up a crystal bowl toward his unseen God.

The boy opposite, noting the man's unwavering attention, turned suddenly and began squirming his way through the tight-packed crowd, eliciting a few curses from the visitors who were trying to listen to the High Priest's speech above the murmur of the audience. Even the boy, though, could not fail to hear the brisk tones of the man who was accustomed to speaking before large audiences.

"We who worship the Unknowable God," the High Priest was saying, "know the God by many names. Here in Emor, in the land famed for its justice, we call him the Lawgiver, while his human representative is the Chara, our ruler who serves as High Judge of Emor and its northern dominions. We center our belief, though, on the knowledge that the Unknowable God shows different faces in different lands, and that each of these faces, though they may seem strange to us, is worthy of honor and worship."

The boy reached the back of the crowd. His way to the staircase was blocked by a Koretian merchant who had travelled over the border for this special occasion, bringing not only his wife but all six of his children. They huddled protectively together amidst the strangers, and it was clear that they would not give way to allow the boy passage. The boy frowned, momentarily frustrated, and then turned toward the window shedding light onto the balcony. As though it had been his plan all along, he worked his way back to the window and stood on tiptoe, staring out at the scenery before him.

Below in the sanctuary, the High Priest said, "We are privileged today to enjoy the company of a man who, for many decades now, has been famous not only in the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula, but who is also respected by the inhabitants of the mainland. To some, he is Master of the Koretian Land, ruler of that great nation that was born a thousand years ago. To others, he is High Judge of Koretia, upholding the law-system which Emor bequeathed to Koretia several decades ago. To still others, he is High Priest of Koretia, directing worship toward the seven traditional gods and goddesses whom the Koretians have served over the centuries – those gods who, as he himself has said, are but different faces of the Unknowable God above all gods. But to us who serve the Unknowable God directly, he will always be known simply as the Jackal, the man who has taken on the burden of holding the powers of the Jackal God and who speaks with that god's voice."

The boy, still standing by the window, turned slightly, as though preparing to work his way back through the crowd. Then he gave a shrug and continued to stand on tiptoe, peering through the window. From where he stood, in a sanctuary under the shadow of the Chara's palace, he could see the tiled rooftops of the neat houses in the capital city of Emor, surrounded by the lofty walls that had protected the city for a thousand years. The House of the Unknowable God was built high, though, and the boy could see over the walls to the autumn-brown fields and the black border mountains to the south of the city. At the feet of the mountains were dark shapes: tiny villages in the Emorian borderland. The boy looked at one of the dark shapes for a moment before turning his gaze back to the harsh slopes of the mountains.

The High Priest raised his voice to be heard above the rising murmur of the impatient crowd, saying firmly, "The Jackal can remain with us only for a short time today, as he is on his way to meet with the Chara to discuss matters concerning our two lands. Indeed, he has shown great courtesy in pausing here during his journey so that we might ask him to join the Chara in signing the Edict Against the God-Cursed, in which both rulers agree that they will not take under their care or into their employment any man or woman whom this house has declared to be under the curse of the Unknowable God. This edict was first proposed many years ago . . ."

The boy turned away from the window finally; his toes were aching from being stood upon. He paused as he brushed up against the Koretian merchant. In the manner of Koretian men, the merchant was wearing a dagger. The boy felt something pass through him then, too ill-defined to be a sensation – nothing more, perhaps, than the potential for a feeling. Then all of his thoughts were concentrated on reaching the front of the crowd.

This time he succeeded. The visitors were cheering like a chorus of trumpets, and the people on the balcony barely noticed the boy as he slithered his way to the railing. He looked down into the central circle of ground below the balconies. There, next to the high priest, was the guest all had come to see.

To his disappointment, he found that the Jackal, instead of facing south toward the priests, had for unaccountable reasons chosen to face north toward the boys. This had the effect of paralyzing the restless orphan boys. They glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, obviously fearful of doing anything that would attract the god-man's attention to them. Even the young priests in the gallery above were now still. Only the soldier leaned forward with a smile on his face, remaining oblivious to anything but the spectacle taking place below.

What little that the boy could see of the Jackal was disappointing. His tunic was as black as the soldier's and contained no gold border indicating his rank; his posture was upright, but his hands were relaxed by his sides. He did not even wear a blade, like the other Koretian men in the room. When he spoke, his voice was so soft that the people in the chamber fell silent in an effort to hear him.

"I am honored to receive such an introduction from the High Priest of Emor," he said, "but I fear I must correct, ever so slightly, one point he has made. He says that I hold the powers of the Jackal God. This is true, but at most times, as now, those powers lie so deep within me that I am nothing more than a man, with a man's limitations. This fact explains why I have hesitated for many years to sign the Edict Against the God-Cursed. If I, who am both man and god, cannot always know which men in these lands are cursed, how can the wise priests here hold this knowledge? The rite of cursing has been used for great evil in Koretia's past; I was not happy to learn that the priests of the Unknowable God had chosen to revive this practice.

"The High Priest has assured me, however, that the rite is not intended as a sentence of exile, as its name would suggest, but rather as a way to impress upon those who have strayed from the gods' ways how serious their crimes are. Included in the edict is a provision that any man under this curse may ask to have the curse lifted, and the priests must do so if they are given even the slightest proof that the man has attempted to turn his face toward the gods. Without this provision, I would not have signed the edict; with it, I do so with great hesitation, and only because, as High Priest of Koretia, I have the authority to lift curses. Yet I am growing old, and when I leave the Land of the Living I hope that those who remain here will remember that we are all in need of the gods' mercy, even the most honorable of us."

The boy wondered whether it was a coincidence that, at that moment, the Jackal tilted his head upwards. In the balcony above, the younger priests fluttered like nervous birds who have caught sight of a cat. Only the soldier, unflustered, continued to smile, placing his fist against his heart as though he were saluting the Koretian ruler with his sword.

The orphan boys had taken this opportunity to exchange excited whispers amongst themselves. They froze suddenly as the Jackal's gaze returned to them. When the Jackal spoke again, the boy in the balcony was astonished to hear a note of amusement in the ruler's voice.

"Some of you here," he said, "asked me earlier what will happen when I die. Will I become part of the Jackal God, living in the Land Beyond? Or will my spirit continue to dwell in my successor, he who holds the title of Jackal after me? Or will I perhaps live as a hillside jackal, making my lair in the Capital Mountain?"

The boys spluttered with giggles, and several of them reached over to nudge the boy who had evidently asked this question and who was now turning bright red. He was smiling as well, though, for the Jackal's voice had held no mockery in it.

"The truth is," said the Jackal as the boys' laughter diminished, "I have not been granted knowledge of what will happen to me after my death. I do not even know whether another man will take on the powers of the Jackal after me, though I trust that the kinsman whom I have chosen as my heir will serve as a just ruler."

There was a pause as the Koretians in the chamber murmured approvingly. The Jackal continued, "I do not know what will happen to me, and though I hold the powers of the god of death, I have been granted only glimpses of what occurs to men after death. What I have seen is hard to translate into human words."

The room had fallen utterly still. Even the soldier looked sober now, and several pairs of the boys – wine-friends, perhaps – had drawn closer to each other. One of the orphans who was sitting by himself, a young boy of perhaps seven years, chose this moment to lift his face and look up at the balcony where the older boy stood.

There was an exchange of looks, signifying little in the older boy's mind. The suggestion of a smile fluttered upon the younger boy's face. Then he looked down quickly, as though fearing that the Jackal had seen this frivolous exchange.

The Jackal was continuing to speak in a matter-of-fact manner, as though recounting light anecdotes from his travels. "Since words cannot explain fully what I have experienced, I will instead borrow images from the Koretian religion, for the images, though limited in the way that all images are, at least touch upon the truth that we will all know one day. Some of you, perhaps, come from the borderland, either the Emorian borderland or the Koretian borderland, and you may have heard your parents tell this tale when they were alive. Here in Emor, the worship of the Unknowable God has not existed long enough for native imagery to develop, but no doubt some day the Emorians will tell their own stories of what happens when men come for judgment before the Lawgiver who rules over your people. In the meantime, here is the story as the Koretian priests told it to me many years ago, when I was an orphan boy like yourselves."

The priests in the northern balcony had shifted backwards, as though aware that they were no longer within the Jackal's vision. Only the soldier continued to lean upon the railing. Watching him, the boy felt a sudden coldness, like a man being touched by a death shadow, and as though in defiance of this feeling, he placed his fingers in his ears.

No one noticed, and though the Jackal's voice was soft, it penetrated the boy's barrier. "It is said that when a man dies, the god of death comes to escort him to the Land Beyond. If the man has died in the normal way, or he is executed justly, his spirit remains in the Land of the Living for three days so that he can watch his kinsfolk mourn him. If the man is murdered, on the other hand, the Jackal comes for him at once. In either case, the man must then face a final judgment. As a boy, I was told that the Jackal judged whether the man was good or evil. The good were allowed to enter the gods' dwelling place after they had been punished for whatever small wrongdoings they had committed in their lives, while the evil were immediately flung into the pits of destruction.

"As I grew older, though, I heard another story, less often told, but one that I have learned is closer to the truth. In fact, the person who makes the judgment is not the Jackal but the man himself. The judgment is whether to enter the Jackal's fire, that fire which burns away the remaining darkness of the man's evil desires and gives the man the ability to enter the City where the gods dwell. If the man has kept his face turned toward the gods during his lifetime, the purging is short, for he has already undergone the fire in his struggles to do good. But for men who are truly evil, the fire is long and the pain beyond that which the greatest torturer in the world could produce. Such men, when faced with this agony, sometimes choose instead to flee from the Jackal. Since they cannot enter the City in the Land Beyond, these men dwell in the pits outside the City that are nothing more than their own desire for self-destruction. The pits are dark, the pits are cold, and the pits are eternal, for the gods, having given men the right to choose for themselves good or evil, cannot take away from men the right to choose the evil of eternal death."

The boy's arms were beginning to grow weary. He lowered his hands, not caring now whether he heard the Jackal's words, for all of his thoughts were on the soldier who stood on the balcony opposite. The Jackal was saying more now – something about fire and light and life – but the boy kept his gaze on the soldier, willing him to look away from the scene below.

The Jackal's voice ceased. The High Priest spoke again for a short time, after which the crowd gave a collective sigh and began talking in normal tones. The orphan boys below rose to their feet and began jostling each other. The young priests hurried from the balcony, evidently eager to collect their charges before they made mischief. The soldier, after lingering at the railing, began to turn away. At the last moment he caught sight of the boy, standing alone now on the southern balcony.

The soldier smiled – a broad smile that made the boy catch his breath. But almost immediately the soldier turned away to speak to a priest who had made his way onto the northern balcony and was gesturing. Without looking back at the boy, the soldier walked toward the balcony stairs.

The boy released his breath. In the coolness of the Emorian autumn, his mouth emitted mist into the air, but almost as soon as the mist appeared, the boy was gone. As though imitating the soldier's indifference, he had turned toward the stairs and was hurrying down the steps.

He found his path blocked by the seven-year-old boy.

The younger boy had wheat-colored hair that fell over his shimmering blue eyes; he wore a brown tunic with a hood, a miniature version of the robes worn by the priests of the Unknowable God. His hands, small and delicate, grasped the railing carefully. He was smiling broadly.

"I saw you on the balcony," he announced with pleasure. "I'm Gareth." He lifted his hand to his heart and his forehead in the free-man's greeting.

The older boy, after a momentary assessment, continued on his way, brushing past Gareth. Gareth, undisturbed, trotted behind him in his wake.

"You're from the borderland, aren't you?" he said breathlessly. "Are your parents new emigrants, or has your family lived in Emor for a long time?" He waited a respectable interval for a reply. When none came, he added, "Our patron comes from the borderland, you know. 'Tenant Griffith."

The borderland boy, without looking back at Gareth, wove his way around the tapestry-covered altar-table in the center of the sanctuary. Upon it, in a brazier, the eternal flame of sacrifice burned. The crystal bowl, filled with water, flanked it on one side. On the other side rested the symbolic Cup of Friendship. The cup was only half-filled with wine; the borderland boy guessed that the Jackal had drunk from it.

"He once led the Chara's border mountain patrol guard," Gareth said, still following the borderland boy like a buzzing fly. "They're the bravest soldiers in the world – they stop men from breaching the border between Koretia and Emor. 'Tenant Griffith was the one who persuaded the Chara to let our priests enter this land and start a house of worship here, and ever since he retired from the patrol he has given lots and lots of money to help the priests. He spends nearly all his time here—"

The borderland boy spun round then, swiftly, like a hunted animal turned at bay. He did not touch Gareth, but the younger boy, seeing his expression, fell abruptly silent.

"Leave me at peace." The borderland boy's carefully spaced words were too quiet to be heard by the priests walking past the boys toward the northern door leading to the remainder of the house, but Gareth staggered back, as though the borderland boy had downed him with a blow. Without watching to see what further effect his words would have, the borderland boy turned and began walking down the sunlit corridor.

The corridor was lined neatly with doors at regular intervals. A few of the doors were open, and the borderland boy could see that they led to living quarters and study chambers, now clogged with priests and orphan boys. Above the doors, the walls jutted upward into a clerestory, with unshuttered windows allowing light to fall onto the slate floor. Narrowing his eyes against the afternoon glare, the borderland boy paid no attention to the men and boys he passed in the corridor, but made his way resolutely toward the door at the end of the corridor, like a soldier entering valiantly into battle.

The door was ajar. The boy opened the door noiselessly, as he had seen his father do, and had a moment in which to survey the room before the others noticed him.

It was a small chamber, with windows set high in the walls, so that the room seemed filled already with dusk. Lamps had been lit against the coming night. The northern-most windows glowed, though, and the boy knew that the glow must come from the reflected light of the Chara's palace. He turned his eyes away from the brightness.

Amidst the sparse furnishings of desks and stools stood half a dozen men, five wearing priests' robes. The sixth man, though his back was to the door, turned immediately and gestured to the boy to close the door. The boy did so, and then went to stand by the soldier.

The soldier draped his arm around the boy's shoulders and smiled at the High Priest. "My eldest son, High Father," he explained. "I would have brought him to you long before this, but whenever I come to visit here, it seems that my son is always busy with his brothers and sisters or is away in the mountains, playing Hunter and Hunted with our village's children."

"That is hardly surprising, given his father's work." The High Priest did not smile at the boy, but he bowed his head in greeting. "Yes, I can see the resemblance. You have your father's eyes – and perhaps a little of his discerning spirit? His ability to see into the hearts of men is a gift from the God, and he has repaid the God many times over for that gift."

"Hardly, High Father." The soldier shook his head. "I have so much time to catch up on – so many years spent without knowledge of the Unknowable God, so many years certain that no gods existed. Since the time that you opened my eyes to the reality of where my debt lies, I have been toiling daily to offer what sacrifices I can."

"Perhaps you have been toiling in the wrong fields," contributed one of the priests dryly. It was the priest who had fetched the soldier from the balcony; he was now standing at the High Priest's right hand. "The God welcomes sacrifices, but I sometimes worry that your family is the one who makes the sacrifice, rather than you. You spend so much time here that you must seem like a stranger to them."

"My family understands how it is for me, Aiken," said the soldier with ease, his arm still firm upon his son's shoulders. "In years past, I was like a man wandering blind in the night. You have shown me a shaft of light that will lead me, in the end, to that lighted City I hope to enter one day, through the God's mercy. In the meantime, I owe a debt, and any sacrifice I make is small in comparison to what I have been given. And so I have been trying to decide for some time what gift I should give to the God that would express my full love for him – what sacrifice would cut keenly enough into me that I should truly feel the pain."

"Too great a sacrifice can be as much a sign of pride as too little a sacrifice," the High Priest commented. His gaze had been travelling ceaselessly between the soldier and his son. "Take care that you are sure of your motives for giving beyond what you have already given, Griffith."

The soldier had begun shaking his head from the moment of the High Priest's first words. "No pride, High Father – I know how little my sacrifice will appear in the eyes of the God. What I give is small to the God, yet great to me – that is why I have chosen this gift. High Father, as a sign of my everlasting love of the God, I wish to present to this house my eldest son."

The three priests at the back of the room, who had been listening attentively all this while, turned now to look at each other, raising their eyebrows. Aiken opened his mouth abruptly, but the High Priest was swifter still, saying in a calm voice, "Be assured that the God appreciates the sacrifice you have offered and that he accepts the love you have given him. We cannot accept the emblem of that love, however."

"Certainly not," said Aiken indignantly. "The boys who live in this house are orphans, or else they are dedicated to this house as babes, because their parents cannot afford to raise them. To take a boy your son's age, one who has two loving parents who care for him . . ."

"Did you talk of this with your wife, Griffith?" the High Priest asked.

"Of course, High Father," the soldier replied. His eyes appeared puzzled, and he was frowning. "The sacrifice is from both of us. She finds it as hard as I do to let the boy go, but she understands where my spirit lies in this matter."

The High Priest gave a small sigh, and then said firmly, "You are both god-lovers, Griffith; that has been clear since long before this. Nevertheless, your son's best interests are a matter that the God would wish you to consider. To leave his family now—"

"I want to leave."

The boy's words, hard and without hesitation, caused all in the room to look at him. Ducking free of the soldier's arm, the boy stepped forward and endured their scrutiny.

He was shaking, and had been shaking since the moment of the soldier's announcement; bile filled his throat. Yet he tilted his head steadily to look up at the High Priest as he said, "I don't want to live with my parents any more. I want to live here."

"You see?" said the soldier joyfully, smiling at the boy. "He is my son; his love of the gods is as great as mine."

The boy did not look his way. Still staring up at the High Priest, he asked, "May I wait outside? I was talking with one of the other orphan boys before."

The High Priest's gaze travelled over to the smiling soldier, and then quickly back to the boy. "Of course," he said quietly. "I'm sure that you would like to explore this house during your visit."

The boy turned then and walked stiffly past the soldier, ignoring the hand that the soldier laid upon his head. He closed the corridor door behind him quickly, but as he did so, he could hear Aiken saying, in a changed voice, "Perhaps, in the boy's best interests . . ."

Much to the borderland boy's surprise, Gareth was awaiting him.

The corridors were empty now, and all of the doors were shut. In the short time since the borderland boy had entered the chamber, the light in the corridor had turned ruddy from the setting sun. In one of the pools of light falling upon the east wall, Gareth stood, watching the borderland boy with uncertain eyes. The borderland boy, with barely a pause in his stride, walked down the corridor, passing Gareth on the way.

As the borderland boy had expected, Gareth detached himself from the wall and hurried down the corridor beside the older boy. "I'm sorry," he said. "I talked too much before. You're the guest; I should have let you talk."

"You can talk without cease," said the borderland boy, not looking his way. "I'll be here for the next six years."

"Will you?" Gareth channelled his delight into a skip and a leap. "Are you coming to live here, then? You'll like it here, truly you will. You'll have lots of friends. I'll be your friend if you'd like."

The borderland boy stopped then. They had reached the end of the corridor, and all that lay before them was the rectangular doorway to the sanctuary, leading to the narrow passageway between the tiered seats. The borderland boy considered for a moment the empty sanctuary, which held only fiery specks of dust, twisting through the air under the evening light. Then he turned to Gareth, who was waiting anxiously beside him.

"If you want to be my friend," he said, "where's the cup?"

Gareth gaped at him for a moment, and then hopped in his place, saying, "Wait here. I'll be right back. Don't go away!" He darted past the borderland boy into the sanctuary.

The borderland boy turned his back on the sanctuary and looked down the corridor he had just travelled. The sun's rays were crawling up the sides of the wall now, leaving a pool of darkness collecting on the ground. The door he had travelled through was shut.

Gareth arrived at his side, panting in his haste. In his hand was a bejewelled cup, with the berry-red wine of Koretia inside it. "It's from the altar," he explained. "I don't think the High Priest would mind, though. What we're doing . . . It's a sacred vow, really."

The borderland boy had turned his back halfway on the shut door at the other end of the corridor. He reached out and took the cup from Gareth, slowly raised it to his lips, and sipped from the wine of friendship. Gareth, his face flush from the evening light, wriggled with delight.

Unnoticed by both boys, two men stood at the other end of the corridor, with the door behind them flung wide open. The soldier gestured toward the drinking boy, raising his eyebrows. The High Priest looked for a long moment at the borderland boy, as well as at Gareth, whose face was alight with a smile. Then the High Priest nodded heavily, and the two men turned to re-enter the chamber.

If they had waited a moment longer, perhaps their thoughts would have changed, and if so, the destiny of the Three Lands would have taken a different course.

It may be that the High Priest would not have recognized what he saw. Though a wise man, he was still relatively young, and he had always seen darkness in shapes that were easily recognizable: in the vicious look of a murderer holding a thigh-dagger, in the angry expression of a man who hated the gods, in the petulant pout of a self-centered woman. This was where he was accustomed to seeing darkness, and he had not yet learned the many shapes that darkness can take.

The soldier might have been wiser, for within his family a seed had been planted long ago, so many generations past that the family tales told without words of the many methods by which his ancestors had prevented that seed from growing. The seed had not skipped his own generation, and if he had wished, he could have spoken to his children the warnings that his father had given him. Such a thought had never occurred to him, though, and he had not recognized the signs of the seed in his eldest son.

What happened next would perhaps have alerted him to the danger and awoken him to the darkness he had turned his back on when he entered joyfully into the light. But he had turned away too soon, and so he did not see what Gareth saw in the moment that the borderland boy lowered the cup from his lips.

Quentin-Andrew son of Quentin-Griffith was smiling.

At age ten, Quentin-Andrew already had darkly beautiful eyes. His smile, calculated to the slightest degree in the manner of its curve, would have driven women wild later in his life if he had ever bothered to bestow it upon them. As it was, the smile caused Gareth to wriggle again, clearly overwhelmed by the gift he had been offered. As Gareth reached out to take the cup and drink from it, his hand brushed the borderland boy's, and Quentin-Andrew felt a warmth enter him, such as he had never felt before. His smile increased, and Gareth laughed with joy.

Not until five years later, in the final moments of his life, would Gareth learn that Quentin-Andrew had smiled that day because he was imagining Gareth's death.