As they drew near, he saw threads of smoke drifting out from the peak and the slitted flap that marked the doorway.
His escort halted and another wave directed him to the entrance. Shrugging, he crouched and crawled inside.
In the dim light sat a shrouded figure, a hood disguising its features. A brazier was before it, from which heady fumes drifted. Beside the entrance stood a crystal bottle, some dried fruit and a loaf of dark bread.
‘The bottle holds spring water,’ the figure rasped in the Meckros tongue. ‘Please, take time to recover from your ordeal.’ He grunted his thanks and quickly took the bottle. Thirst blissfully slaked, he reached for the bread. ‘I thank you, stranger,’ he rumbled, then shook his head. ‘That smoke makes you swim before my eyes.’
A hacking cough that might have been laughter, then something resembling a shrug. ‘Better than drowning. Alas, it eases my pain. I shall not keep you long. You are Withal, the Swordmaker.’
The man started, and his broad brow knotted. ‘Aye, I am Withal, of the Third Meckros city – which is now no more.’
‘A tragic event. You are the lone survivor… through my own efforts, though it much strained my powers to intervene.’
‘What place is this?’
‘Nowhere, in the heart of nowhere. A fragment, prone to wander. I give it what life I can imagine, conjured from memories of my home. My strength returns, although the agony of my broken body does not abate. Yet listen, I have talked and not coughed. That is something.’ A mangled hand appeared from a ragged sleeve and scattered seeds onto the brazier’s coals. They spat and popped and the smoke thickened.
‘Who are you?’ Withal demanded.
‘A fallen god… who has need of your skills. I have prepared for your coming, Withal. A place of dwelling, a forge, all the raw materials you will need. Clothes, food, water. And three devoted servants, whom you have already met-’
‘The bhoka’ral?’ Withal snorted. ‘What can-’
‘Not bhoka’ral, mortal. Although perhaps they once were. These are Nachts. I have named them Rind, Mape and Pule. They are of Jaghut fashioning, capable of learning all that you require of them.’
Withal made to rise. ‘I thank you for the salvation, Fallen One, but I shall take my leave of you. I would return to my own world-’
‘You do not understand, Withal,’ the figure hissed. ‘You will do as I say here, or you will find yourself begging for death. I now own you, Swordmaker. You are my slave and I am your master. The Meckros own slaves, yes? Hapless souls stolen from island villages and such on your raids. The notion is therefore familiar to you. Do not despair, however, for once you have completed what I ask of you, you shall be free to leave.’
Withal still held the club, the heavy wood cradled on his lap. He considered.
A cough, then laughter, then more coughing, during which the god raised a staying hand. When the hacking was done, he said, ‘I advise you to attempt nothing untoward, Withal. I have plucked you from the seas for this purpose. Have you lost all honour? Oblige me in this, for you would deeply regret my wrath.’
‘What would you have me do?’
‘Better. What would I have you do, Withal? Why, only what you do best. Make me a sword.’
Withal grunted. ‘That is all?’
The figure leaned forward. ‘Ah well, what I have in mind is a very particular sword…’
There is a spear of ice, newly thrust into the heart of the land. The soul within it yearns to kill. He who grasps that spear will know death. Again and again, he shall know death.
Listen! The seas whisper and dream of breaking truths in the crumbling of stone
Year of the Late Frost
One year before the Letherii Seventh Closure
The Ascension of the Empty Hold
HERE, THEN, IS THE TALE. BETWEEN THE SWISH OF THE TIDES, when giants knelt down and became mountains. When they fell scattered on the land like the ballast stones of the sky, yet could not hold fast against the rising dawn. Between the swish of the tides, we will speak of one such giant. Because the tale hides with his own.
And because it amuses.
In darkness he closed his eyes. Only by day did he elect to open them, for he reasoned in this manner: night defies vision and so, if little can be seen, what value seeking to pierce the gloom?
Witness as well, this. He came to the edge of the land and discovered the sea, and was fascinated by the mysterious fluid. A fascination that became a singular obsession through the course of that fated day. He could see how the waves moved, up and down along the entire shore, a ceaseless motion that ever threatened to engulf all the land, yet ever failed to do so. He watched the sea through the afternoon’s high winds, witness to its wild thrashing far up along the sloping strand, and sometimes it did indeed reach far, but always it would sullenly retreat once more.
When night arrived, he closed his eyes and lay down to sleep. Tomorrow, he decided, he would look once more upon this sea.
In darkness he closed his eyes.
The tides came with the night, swirling up round the giant. The tides came and drowned him as he slept. And the water seeped minerals into his flesh, until he became as rock, a gnarled ridge on the strand. Then, each night for thousands of years, the tides came to wear away at his form. Stealing his shape.
But not entirely. To see him true, even to this day, one must look in darkness. Or close one’s eyes to slits in brightest sunlight. Glance askance, or focus on all but the stone itself.
Of all the gifts Father Shadow has given his children, this one talent stands tallest. Look away to see. Trust in it, and you will be led into Shadow. Where all truths hide.
Look away to see.
Now, look away.
The mice scattered as the deeper shadow flowed across snow brushed blue by dusk. They scampered in wild panic, but, among them, one’s fate was already sealed. A lone tufted, taloned foot snapped down, piercing furry flesh and crushing minute bones.
At the clearing’s edge, the owl had dropped silently from its branch, sailing out over the hard-packed snow and its litter of seeds, and the arc of its flight, momentarily punctuated by plucking the mouse from the ground, rose up once more, this time in a heavy flapping of wings, towards a nearby tree. It landed one-legged, and a moment later it began to feed.
The figure who jogged across the glade a dozen heartbeats later saw nothing untoward. The mice were all gone, the snow solid enough to leave no signs of their passing, and the owl froze motionless in its hollow amidst the branches of the spruce tree, eyes wide as they followed the figure’s progress across the clearing. Once it had passed, the owl resumed feeding.
Dusk belonged to the hunters, and the raptor was not yet done this night.
As he weaved through the frost-rimed humus of the trail, Trull Sengar’s thoughts were distant, making him heedless of the forest surrounding him, uncharacteristically distracted from all the signs and details it offered. He had not even paused to make propitiation to Sheltatha Lore, Daughter Dusk, the most cherished of the Three Daughters of Father Shadow – although he would make recompense at tomorrow’s sunset – and, earlier, he had moved unmindful through the patches of lingering light that blotted the trail, risking the attention of fickle Sukul Ankhadu, the Daughter of Deceit, also known as Dapple. The Calach breeding beds swarmed with seals. They’d come early, surprising Trull in his collecting of raw jade above the shoreline. Alone, the arrival of the seals would engender only excitement in the young Tiste Edur, but there had been other arrivals, in ships ringing the bay, and the harvest had been well under way.