Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

The ninth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

It is hard to write what comes next – harder even than it was to write about Fenton's death.

Last night I found Cold Run's cemetery easily enough. It was where I remembered it, at the edge of the forest, well beyond sight and hearing of the village. That was just as I wanted it.

I was right too in remembering that Cold Run had an ancient sanctuary next to the cemetery. That shows the age of Cold Run, I suppose. Fenton told me that in the early years of Koretia, sanctuaries were never built in villages and towns but were instead built away from the people's homes, so that the priests could spend all their time worshipping the gods, and the people could receive peace when they came to offer up their sacrifices.

It has been many years, I am sure, since any priest offered a sacrifice here except, perhaps, on the occasions that villagers' ashes are placed in the ground. I had been foresighted enough, though, to bring my flint-box on this hunt, and it was not hard to find the right sort of wood nearby for a torch. I spent the last light of evening fashioning a torch-hook out of bits of spare metal in the sanctuary, then attaching it to the sanctuary wall. By the time that darkness came, I was ready.

I had to wait a long time, though. I suppose that Siward has been delaying each night until he was sure that I was no longer hunting on the edge of the village, and it was safe for him to come out. I had been afraid that he would bring his escort with him, but to my relief he came alone, cradling late summer vegetables in his arms. I supposed that, god-cursed though he was, even he knew that it is proper to visit the dead alone.

He placed the vegetables where I knew he would, on the ash-tomb of his father. I did not wait to see whether he would occupy himself with prayer or with some activity more befitting a god-cursed man; I was too busy trying to light the torch. It took me a dozen tries and a dozen more before I could persuade a spark to stick on the torch-wood, even though I had rubbed the wood with lamp oil I found in the sanctuary. It was sacred oil, I suppose – but then, what I was doing was sacred.

I had just reached the point of cursing softly when the torch flared up. Hastily I placed it on the hook near the open window. Then I waited.

He came, of course. Siward's curiosity had not been tamed by the years, and he could hardly have expected his hunter to be waiting in a place like this. I stood behind the door, my dagger drawn, holding my breath as the blood made my body throb with fear and eagerness.

The door opened, and Siward stepped through. For a moment, all I could see was the back of his dark head, turning from side to side; he was looking around the sanctuary to see who had lit the torch. Then his gaze was snagged by the torch itself, and by the objects lying in the corner beneath it: my back-sling, and atop it Fenton's glittering dagger.

I heard Siward gasp, and waited impatiently for him to come to an understanding of what was occurring. Finally he fumbled his dagger out of its sheath and whirled around.

This was as I had planned. I knew that my father would ask me for the details of the killing, and I was not going to shame myself and my family by attacking a man who had his back to me. Fenton's dagger was there only to remind Siward of why I was doing this, and of how great the crime was that he would pay for.

I was surprised, really, at how easy it was. I did not even have to wound him; it took just a few blows to disarm him. He tried to flee through the door then, but I abandoned my dagger and fell upon him, grinding his face against the floor as I chanted the words of binding.

He was sobbing before I had even started the chant, and he struggled to escape my grasp. Then, as I spoke the final words, he went limp under me, like a body whose spirit has escaped.

I wondered then, for a fleeting moment, whether the demon had deserted him, so that I was left only with an ordinary man. Then I iced over my heart, remembering whose hand had burned Fenton. Dragging Siward to his feet, I said sharply, "Go stand over there."

He went in the direction I pointed, his body still limp. When he had reached the dark corner, he turned round to look at me. I had already sheathed my blade and stepped away toward where the torch still hung, eating the air with its flame. With a soft prayer of thanks to the Jackal for use of his fire, I picked up the torch and walked steadily toward Siward.

I was a body's pace from him when he realized what I would do; then he screeched like an old woman. I suppose the contempt showed on my face. He gulped down the remainder of his scream and stood panting, like a bitch dog that has run too fast. "No," he said in a trembling voice. "Not that . . ."

"What ails you?" I took another step toward him. "Aren't you brave enough to receive the type of death you give?" I took hold of his hair with my free hand and began to bring the torch toward his face.

He screamed again, screwing his eyes shut against the approaching heat. At the very end of the scream, he babbled, "He was dead before I burned him! I swear it!"

I paused. The torch was causing my hand to sweat; moisture was running down Siward's face like tears. He opened his eyes a crack, swallowed another scream, and whispered rapidly, "It's what he wanted. I swear to you, it's what he wanted."

I had paused only to figure out which part of his face I should burn first; I knew better than to pay heed to the words of the god-cursed. Something made me hold my hand, though. If the demon was truly gone . . . Siward still must pay for what he had allowed the demon to do, but if the demon was gone, perhaps there was some hope that Siward would tell the truth.

I brought the torch forward a little more and watched Siward's eyes widen with terror. Demons, I supposed, did not show fear; they showed defiance. I waited a moment more before I realized that Siward's hair was beginning to tug in my hand. He was not trying to escape; he was on the point of passing out.

This was proof enough to me that I was dealing with a real man. I swung the torch back a bit. The moisture running down his face, I saw, was indeed tears. Not allowing my voice to soften – for that would be an act of impiety, given the godly task I was undertaking – I said, "You murdered a priest. The god-cursed deserve this sort of death. If you tell me, though—" My voice wavered, and I had to start again in a firmer manner. "If you tell me truthfully what Fenton said and did before you killed him, I'll grant you a quick death with my blade. If not . . ." I gestured with the torch.

"I will!" he said in a voice high with hysteria. "I vow to you, I'll tell you the truth!"

The oaths of the god-cursed are worth nothing, but I nodded as though his word was of worth, then walked back to place the torch on the hook. When I turned back, Siward was where I had left him, bound to my will.

The corner where he stood was dark, now that the torch was gone. Even when I returned to stand beside him, I could barely see his face. His body was pressed against the wood – the sanctuary was very old, too old to be made of modern building material such as wattle and daub. I took a second hasty look at the torch-fire, in order to ascertain that it was well away from the wall, then leaned against the wall next to Siward and said, with the firmness of a priest hearing a confession, "Tell me what happened."

I heard him swallow, and then he said in a quivering voice, "It was because of what Felix said. I mean— It's not his fault, but he told me before I left that what I was doing was a sacred act, so when I saw your sanctuary, it just seemed right that I should hunt my prey there." He paused, as though hoping I would understand his logic – as, indeed, he had reason to believe I would.

I said, "Felix must have told you that it's blasphemy to kill a priest."

"Of course!" Siward sounded stung. "I knew that when I was a babe in arms. But Fenton didn't look like a priest, that's the trouble. I thought he was the priest's assistant; his back was to me, and he was wearing ordinary clothes and holding a dagger—"

"It was a priest's dagger!" I said, exasperated. "He was readying himself to do the noonday sacrifice. Don't you know the difference between a curved priest's blade and a free-man's blade?"

Siward shook his head; one of his hands was gripped tight around the other. "I was too excited to notice. And – and too scared, I suppose. I knew that someone would come by at any moment and see me, so I closed and barred the sanctuary doors quickly. After that, I could hardly see anything. The only light was from the smoke-hole and from the cracks in the wood of the door and window-shutter."

It took all my effort to keep from springing for the torch; I could tell from the misery in Siward's voice that he too was aware of how careless he had been. No hunter is supposed to attack his prey that quickly – not for the prey's sake, but because it would have been too easy for the prey to cry out for help, leaving the hunter trapped.

"Fenton didn't call for help," I said flatly.

"His back stiffened when I closed the door, and I knew then that my prey would call out or flee or attack . . . I wasn't sure what he would do. So I ran over to him and pushed his chest down onto the table – the altar," he amended. "I didn't see at first what it was. He spoke to me then, but I didn't hear what he said, because I was so busy reciting the binding and taking the blade from his hand. I did think it was odd that he didn't resist me." His voice trailed off. Perhaps, even in the darkness, he had seen the look I was giving him.

"Go on," I said harshly.

He swallowed again, and wiped his nose, and returned to clutching his hands together. "I pulled him up and turned him round, and – and then I saw who he was. And I was so scared, I wanted to flee. I expected him to call down the gods' vengeance upon me, but he didn't say anything, and that made me even more scared, because I realized he knew—"

Siward stopped abruptly. Outside the sanctuary, cicadas were singing in a drowsy manner, their sound nearly drowned out by the crackle of the flame nearby.

"Knew what?" I said. I felt his body start to slide away, and I grabbed hold of his arm. "Knew what?" I shouted.

I could feel that Siward was shaking under me. "I didn't mean to," he whimpered. "I swear, I didn't mean to."

I went suddenly still; I felt, as I had not felt before, the first touch of autumn on my body. Then, with no thought to what I was doing, I struck his face with my fist.

He stumbled to his knees, but I pulled him up by the back of his tunic. I could feel that he was shaking like a rock-tumbled brook. "I didn't mean to—" His voice was muffled.

"You killed him!" I shouted. "You killed Fenton, and you killed Hamar too! You killed them both!"

"I thought he was at your feast!" His reply was more a scream than a shout. "I was sure everyone was at your feast, or I'd never have lit the fire! Fenton must have known that, or he wouldn't have let me go last month."

I released him, feeling the cold reach my stomach. "He saw you?"

Siward nodded; his hands were over his face. "I waited till your hall collapsed – I'd hoped they'd be able to rescue Hamar – and then I ran. I thought everyone would be at the fire, but as I passed the sanctuary, I saw Fenton standing near the door. His hand was on the mask of the Jackal, and he was looking at me. My heart nearly stopped then, but he didn't say anything, so I kept running."

I turned away; I could feel bile on my tongue. He had known – Fenton had known all along who Hamar's murderer was. If he was willing to see the guilty be punished, as my father had said, why had Fenton remained silent? Why had he let innocent men die in Siward's place?

I turned round, and what I was going to say next died in my throat as I took in Siward's appearance. His hands had fallen from his face; blood was running from his nose, and his left cheek was already turning dark from the mark of my fist. I felt sick, and was too confused to understand why.

"Go on," I said roughly. "You'd bound Fenton."

Siward was biting his lip, which was trembling, but he managed to say, "I was afraid he would try to dissuade me from killing him. I knew that it was wrong to kill a priest, but I was sure that it must be even worse to break a blood vow to murder – and I'd vowed to murder the first man I bound. And I had to kill a prey; it was my way of making up to the gods for the mistake I'd made with Hamar the first time. So I explained all this to Fenton quickly, and told him how he mustn't try to dissuade me, or I'd have to kill him immediately – and he just listened, looking at me. I couldn't read what was in his face. And when I was through he said, all gently as though I were a child, 'Do not worry. It is the gods' will that I die this way. The Jackal must eat his dead.'"

For a sharp moment, I could see all in clarity: Siward trembling against the wall, the torch-fire casting long shadows toward us, the glint of the moon-glow over the cemetery. Then I shouted, "What sort of fool do you think I am? You can't expect me to believe such a tale! Do you really think I'll give you a quick death in exchange for that lie? I'll—"

I stopped then. Siward had sunk to his knees and was sobbing uncontrollably; the blood from his nose splashed onto his hands as he tried to shield his face. I looked down at him, feeling coldness extend to the tips of my fingers. I knew then that I had not been mistaken before in what I felt.

I was sick, sick enough to vomit. Something had gone terribly wrong; my hunt had turned into something it was not meant to be.

I gulped in some air to steady myself, and then knelt down beside Siward. He began sobbing even louder as I touched him. After a moment of struggle with myself, I pulled my face-cloth out from my belt-purse and offered it to him.

He took it but seemed not to know what to do with it. "I didn't lie," he said between sobs. "I didn't lie."

I took the cloth and wiped his face clean. "It's all right," I said gruffly. "Go on with your story. I won't use the fire."

It took several minutes more for me to calm him. I was aware, as I had not been aware before, of the ash-tombs nearby. Oh, I was not superstitious enough to believe that the dead linger near their tombs. Why should they, when they live in the glories of the Land Beyond? But I could feel their presence: centuries' worth of villagers who had died of injuries and child-birth and sickness—

And feuds? How many had died in blood feuds?

Siward said finally, "I didn't know what to say after that. I was shaking so much that I dropped my dagger, though I was still holding Fenton's blade. I didn't think it would be right to kill a priest anywhere except his heart, and I was afraid that if I tried to kill him from where I stood, I'd miss the spot. So I made him lie on the table – on the altar, I mean. And then I placed the blade-tip against his heart, but when I looked, I saw that his eyes were closed and his lips were moving. I knew that he must be praying to his god, so I waited until he was finished, and then— It was really quite quick. I don't think I hurt him much."

I closed my eyes, took a long breath of dark night air, and said, without raising my lids, "And the fire?"

"That – that was because of what Fenton said. About the Jackal eating his dead. I knew that meant he wanted his corpse to be burned. It occurred to me afterwards, though, that because he was Emorian-born, your father might think he wanted to be buried whole in the ground, the way the Emorians are buried. I thought of writing a note to your father, but I was afraid he would recognize my hand. He helped me to learn my letters. So instead I took the sacrifice wood out of the pile and placed it all around Fenton, then poured oil on him, and then lit the wood, using the sanctuary flame. I took his blade away first, so that it wouldn't be harmed," Siward added. "I waited until the Jackal's fire began to eat him, and then I scooped up my dagger and ran, and – and you saw me. And that's all that happened."

I rose slowly to my feet. After a moment I thought to open my eyes. The sanctuary was darker than before; the torch had begun to burn down to its root. I went over and took the remainder of the torch in my hand; I heard behind me a shuffle as Siward stumbled to his feet.

"Are you going to—?" He stopped and swallowed. "Will you cut my throat, as you promised?"

I shook my head without looking his way.

"But Adrian—!" His protest was halfway between a sob and a scream; he stopped abruptly as I threw the torch to the ground and stamped it out. The night's darkness gathered us in.

"I'm not going to kill you at all," I said in a voice that sounded distant to my ears. "I'm going to let you go."

There was no sound behind me, and for a moment I wondered whether Siward had slipped out the door. Then he said hesitantly, "But you have to kill me. You vowed to."

I shook my head again and went to stand by the window. It faced north; beyond the ash-tombs, gleaming like fire-burned bones under the rising moon, I could dimly see the shapes of the border mountains, black against the black sky.

I heard steps behind me; they stopped a body's length away. "Why?" asked Siward breathlessly.

I leaned my cheek against the age-smoothed wood of the window frame, feeling the night wind cool the tears, even as they flowed down my face. After a while I said, "Fenton wouldn't have wanted me to. He hated the blood feuds, not only because innocent men die in them, but because hunters kill for the wrong reasons. They kill, not out of love of justice, but out of hatred and revenge." I looked down at the ash-tombs again; their whiteness blurred under my tears. "That's why I was going to kill you."

Siward was silent, and then took another hesitant step toward me. "But your family . . ."

"I know." I closed my eyes, but the tears gushed out regardless. Presently, I felt a nudge at my elbow, and I turned to see that Siward was offering me the face-cloth.

I wiped my face, smearing Siward's blood on it in the process, as Siward said in a hesitant manner, "I think you're wrong, Adrian. I really think you should kill me; it's what you promised your god. But if you decide not to— If you let me go—" He paused, then said in a rush, "I won't tell anyone I saw you. Not until they ask me. That will give you time to escape."

I lowered the cloth, ignoring the chill breeze blowing down from the north. The coldness had left me; all that remained was emptiness. "What about your face? I marked you."

Siward shook his head. "Griffith won't ask me about that. I'm always coming home this way." He gave a weak smile that I remembered from the old days. "I'm an easy target for the others. You remember."

I did, and as I looked at him standing there, shivering with cold fear, with blood on his face and a smile trembling on his lips, it was a wonder to me that I had ever forgotten. Many times, I had been the one who came to his defense as a boy, though I was no larger than he was; it had been all too obvious that Siward would never be the sort of boy who could defend himself against enemies. What demon had entered me to make me think Siward was vicious?

I said, my voice suddenly calm, "I'm sorry I threatened you with fire."

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said in a resigned voice. "That's part of the punishment."

"Punishment?"

"The punishment the gods have given me. Felix said that death would be too easy a punishment for me. He said that I must live with daily reminders that I am a man of dishonor."

My breath caught at the back of my throat. In my spirit's eye, I was seeing Siward, walking submissively between his escorts like a captive between his guards.

I turned and went over to the corner where the torch had been. When I came back to the window, Fenton's blade lay across the palms of my hands. Siward stared down at the glinting gold and said, "I used it to murder a priest. Is it desecrated?"

"I don't think so," I replied. "I washed off all the blood." I stared down at the blade for a moment, then took a deep breath and said, "My father burned a letter that Fenton was writing to Emlyn. It said how much Fenton loved Emlyn and how – how he was looking forward to seeing him." I bit my lip to control myself, and then forced myself to continue. "Fenton really cared for Emlyn, so I think Emlyn should have his dagger, to remember Fenton by. Do you think Griffith would let Emlyn have it?"

"I'm sure he would," said Siward, continuing to stare at the bejewelled sheath. "If you left it at the doorstep of our hall—"

I shook my head. "I can't leave it in the dust; it's a sacred object. It has to be entrusted to a man of honor, someone who will care for it until Griffith has a chance to see Emlyn." I held out the dagger. "You take it."

For a moment, I thought that Siward would fall to his knees again. Slowly he reached out and took the dagger from me. A smile was trembling on his lips once more. His hand touched mine briefly, warming my body.

The moon was rising higher. I turned away, picked up my back-sling, and was walking toward the door when Siward's voice halted me.

"I won't ask where you're going, but . . . do you know where you're going? Is there a place you can go where you'll be safe?"

I looked back at him. He was still standing there, defenseless even with a blade in his hand, and for a moment I felt my determination drain for me. It would be so easy, so very easy. Siward wouldn't blame me, my family would praise me, and the gods . . . Then I saw, beyond Siward, the black rocks framing the sky, and I felt courage enter me, like wine warming blood. "Yes," I said. "I know a place to go where I'll be safe from my family."

I turned and left.

o—o—o

So now I am journeying away from Cold Run, and away from Mountside, which I will never see again. My thoughts, I know, ought to be on my family, and I ought to be grieving at the loss of them. But I cannot think of that today, not after what happened last night. For I did not tell Siward the whole truth of why I broke my vow.

The gods murdered Fenton. That is what I learned last night; that is what Fenton learned in the moments before his death. It must have been as hard for him to accept as it is for me, yet his words leave no doubt as to what he believed, and what he believed must be true, for he was the wisest man I ever knew.

I see now how, in an odd way, I was closer to the truth than he was. I feared that the gods would punish me for my blasphemous questioning of their ways; Fenton was sure that neither he nor I would be punished, for he believed the gods to be all-good – he thought that they, like he, hated the blood feuds.

How wrong we both were. I was wrong in believing that the gods would not punish Fenton; he was wrong in believing that the gods hated the feuds. Not until Siward stood before him with his blade did Fenton realize the truth: that the gods are blood-lusting demons who, if they could not have his unquestioning obedience to their cruel ways, would punish him with death.

Fenton spent his final words in comforting Siward, who was too blind to be able to see that he was a tool in the hands of tyrants. I think Fenton also said those words in hope that I would hear of them and be warned. Yet even so, I think Fenton must not have given up hope that the gods would forgive him. I can see him lying on the altar, with Siward's blade touching his heart, praying to the gods to show him mercy.

The gods gave him their answer, in blade and fire.

So now I am not simply fleeing away from my family, but toward something new: the other gift Fenton left me. For if it is true, as I now believe, that the gods' law is a brutal system designed to bring hatred and pain to this world, there remains another law that has not been tampered with by the gods' bloodstained hands. My mission now is to find it.

I only hope I can reach Emor before the Jackal discovers what I have done.