She was a handmaid to Mayen, and, upon Mayen’s marriage to Fear Sengar, she would enter the Sengar household. And Udinaas was in love with her.
Hopeless, of course. Feather Witch would be given a husband from among the better born of the Letherii slaves, a man whose bloodline held title and power back in Letheras. An Indebted, such as Udinaas, I had no hope of such a pairing.
As he stood staring at her, his friend Hulad reached up and took his wrist. Gentle pressure drew Udinaas down to a cross-legged position amidst the other witnesses.
Hulad leaned close. ‘What ails you, Udinaas?’
‘She has cast…’
‘Aye, and now we wait while she walks.’
‘I saw a white crow.’
Hulad flinched back.
‘Down on the strand. I beseeched the Errant, to no avail. The crow but laughed at my words.’
Their exchange had been overheard, and murmurs rippled out among the witnesses.
Feather Witch’s sudden moan silenced the gathering. All eyes fixed upon her, as she slowly raised her head.
Her eyes were empty, the whites clear as the ice on a mountain stream, iris and pupils vanished as if they had never been. And through the translucence swam twin spirals of faint light, smeared against the blackness of the Abyss.
Terror twisted her once-beautiful features, the terror of Beginnings, the soul standing before oblivion. A place of such loneliness that despair seemed the only answer. Yet it was also the place where power was thought, and thought flickered through the Abyss bereft of Makers, born from flesh yet to exist – for only the mind could reach back into the past, only its thoughts could dwell there. She was in the time before the worlds, and now must stride forward.
To witness the rise of the Holds.
Udinaas, like all Letherii, knew the sequences and the forms. First would come the three Fulcra known as the Realm Forgers. Fire, the silent scream of light, the very swirl of the stars themselves. Then Dolmen, bleak and rootless, drifting aimless in the void. And into the path of these two forces, the Errant. Bearer of its own unknowable laws, it would draw Fire and Dolmen into fierce wars. Vast fields of destructions, instance upon instance of mutual annihilation. But occasionally, rarely, there would be peace made between the two contestants. And Fire would bathe but not burn, and Dolmen would surrender its wandering ways, and so find root.
The Errant would then weave its mysterious skein, forging the Holds themselves. Ice. Eleint. Azath. Beast. And into their midst would emerge the remaining Fulcra. Axe, Knuckles, Blade, the Pack, Shapefinder and White Crow.
Then, as the realms took shape, the spiralling light would grow sharper, and the final Hold would be revealed. The Hold that had existed, unseen, at the very beginning. The Empty Hold – heart of Letherii worship – that was at the very centre of the vast spiral of realms. Home to the Throne that knew no King, home to the Wanderer Knight, and to the Mistress who waited still, alone in her bed of dreams. To the Watcher, who witnessed all, and the Walker, who patrolled borders not even he could see. To the Saviour, whose outstretched hand was never grasped. And, finally, to the Betrayer, whose loving embrace destroyed all it touched.
‘Walk with me to the Holds.’
The witnesses sighed as one, unable to resist that sultry, languid invitation.
‘We stand upon Dolmen. Broken rock, pitted by shattered kin, its surface seething with life so small it escapes our eyes. Life locked in eternal wars. Blade and Knuckles. We are among the Beasts. I can see the Bone Perch, slick with blood and layered with the ghost memories of countless usurpers. I see the Elder, still faceless, still blind. And Crone, who measures the cost in the scrawling passage of behemoths. Seer, who speaks to the indifferent. I see Shaman, seeking truths among the dead. And Hunter, who lives in the moment and thinks nothing of the consequences of slaughter. And Tracker, who sees the signs of the unknown, and walks the endless paths of tragedy. The Hold of the Beast, here in this valley that is but a scratch upon Dolmen’s hard skin.
‘There is no-one upon Bone Perch. Chaos hones every weapon, and the killing goes on and on. And from the maelstrom powerful creatures arise, and the slaying reaches beyond measure.
‘Such powers must be answered. The Errant returns, and casts the seed into blood-soaked earth. Thus rises the Hold of the Azath.
‘Deadly shelter for the tyrants, oh they are so easily lured. And so balance is achieved. But it remains a grisly balance, yes? No cessation to the wars, although they are much diminished, so that, finally, their cruel ways come into focus.’
Her voice was like sorcery unbound. Its rough-edged song entranced, devoured, unveiled vistas into the minds of all those who heard it. Feather Witch had walked from the terror of the Beginnings, and there was no fear in her words.
‘But the tread of time is itself a prison. We are shackled with progression. And so the Errant comes once more, and the Ice Hold rises, with its attendant servants who journey through the realms to war against time. Walker, Huntress, Shaper, Bearer, Child and Seed. And upon the Throne of Ice sits Death, cowled and frost-rimed, stealer of caring, to shatter the anxious shackles of mortal life. It is a gift, but a cold one.
‘Then, to achieve balance once more, is born the Eleint, and chaos is given flesh, and that flesh is draconic. Ruled by the Queen, who must be slain again and again by every child she bears. And her Consort, who loves none but himself. Then Liege, servant and guardian and doomed to eternal failure. Knight, the very sword of chaos itself – ’ware his path! And Gate, that which is the Breath. Wyval, spawn of the dragons, and the Lady, the Sister, Blood-Drinker and Path-Shaper. The Fell Dragons.
‘One Hold remains…’
Udinaas spoke with the others as they whispered, ‘The Empty Hold.’
Feather Witch tilted her head suddenly, a frown marring her forehead. ‘Something circles above the Empty Throne. I cannot see it, yet it… circles. A pallid hand, severed and dancing… no, it is-’
She stiffened, then red spurted from wounds on her shoulders, and she was lifted from the ground.
Screams, the witnesses surging to their feet, rushing forward, arms outstretched.
But too late, as invisible talons clenched tighter and invisible wings thundered the dusty air of the barn. Carrying Feather Witch into the shadows beneath the curved ceiling. She shrieked.
Udinaas, heart hammering in his chest, pushed away, through the jostling bodies, to the wooden stairs reaching to the loft. Splinters stabbed his hands as he clawed his way up the steep, rough-hewn steps. Feather Witch’s shrieks filled the air now, as she thrashed in the grip of the unseen talons. But crows have no talons-
He reached the loft, skidding as he raced across its uneven planks, eyes fixed on Feather Witch, then, one step from the edge, he leapt into the air. Arms outstretched, he sailed over the heads of the crowd below.
His target was the swirling air above her, the place where the invisible creature hovered. And when he reached that place, he collided hard with a massive, scaled body. Leathery wings hammered wildly at him as he wrapped his arms tight about a clammy, muscle-clenched body. He heard a wild hiss, then a jaw snapped down over his left shoulder. Needle-like teeth punched through his skin, sank deep into his flesh.