Authors: A.J. Dalton
‘He already knew who you were,’ Aspin protested.
He’s a spy for the Saint!
‘Look, I didn’t have to be the smartest of men to work it out, now did I?’ the blacksmith reasoned. ‘Everyone in Saviours’ Paradise knew to be on the lookout for a fair-haired boy of your age. I’d also had word of a boy called Jillan being involved in a killing in Godsend, the place they say the plague started.’
‘How could you know these things unless you were working for the Saint? He’s watching us through your eyes right now, isn’t he?’ Jillan challenged him, throwing off his blanket.
Quick as thought, Aspin took up a thick branch from the woodpile and stood watching the blacksmith tensely. Clearly, the mountain warrior had read something in the blacksmith’s possible response that he didn’t like.
The blacksmith’s eyes slid between Jillan and Aspin. He rolled his head on his corded neck and flexed forearms as wide as Jillan’s thighs. Then he made his hands into mallet-sized fists and squeezed them until his knuckles cracked. Aspin adjusted his grip on the branch.
Suddenly the blacksmith laughed heartily, his strong voice reverberating around the clearing where the wagon had been drawn up. ‘I’m just joshing with you, lads! You’re right to be cautious, but if I meant you harm you’d have already had it and no mistaking. Young Aspin, that branch of yours would do little more than tickle my bonce, and yon wizard is too spent to be helping you any. It’ll take more than you two ragamuffins to get the jump on Thomas Ironshoe.’
Jillan’s mouth fell open in surprise. ‘You’re Thomas Ironshoe?’
‘Aye, wizard, I am. Heard of me, have ye?’
‘I’m no wizard,’ Jillan said.
‘Why, sure ye are! Come now, there’s no shame in it. Indeed, one of my best friends is a wizard, but don’t go telling him I called him friend. Don’t want him getting too big for his britches or thinking I’ll start doing him any favours, do I? Tricksy sorts these wizards, if you take my meaning, no offence to your good self, Jillan.’
Aspin nodded. ‘I’ve had similar trouble with them too. That’s how I ended up here, and I’ve been imprisoned and had to fight for my life along the way.’
‘You know other wizards?’ Jillan asked the blacksmith. ‘Then, are you a-a …’
‘Pagan? A demon-worshipper? A consort of the Chaos? A dark corruptor of innocence? Some would say so, and those people would say precisely the same of you, wizard, would they not? Jillan, I’m just an ordinary man, with a family, hopes, dreams and fears, like everyone else. There’s a hamlet of similar folk not far from here if you’d like me to take you there? And to answer your earlier question, no, the Saint is not watching you through my eyes right now. There are ways of clouding the mind that mean he can glean very little when at some distance. I can show you the trick if you like. The least I can do, I’d say. Or have you been fortunate enough to avoid being Drawn?’
Jillan nodded slowly. Why did he still not trust this apparently affable man? After all, his parents had told him to find him Thomas Ironshoe, and Aspin seemed comfortable with him, didn’t he? ‘I’m not sure if we have time to go to your hamlet. I seek Haven, and then I have to get to Hyvan’s Cross, which is a long way from here.’
Thomas stilled. ‘What do you know of Haven? Where did you hear that name?’
‘My mother, Maria.’
‘And what is your father’s name?’
‘Jed – Jedadiah.’
Thomas’s eyes widened in recognition. ‘Maria and Jedadiah from New Sanctuary? Did they end up in Godsend then? I’d always wondered what happened to them. You do not know what it means to hear they are well. They were sensible to disappear – dark days back then. And you’re their lad, are ye? Figures. It all makes a bit more sense now. Well met, Jillan of Godsend! It’s an honour. But you’re not from Godsend, are you, Aspin, judging by your accent?’
Aspin shook his head. ‘I’m from close by, though.’
‘Well, Aspin-from-close-by, it is also an honour. Praise the gods that they have brought us together.’
Jillan shifted uncomfortably at this open lauding of the pagan gods, while Aspin nodded in agreement with the blacksmith. Thomas did not miss the difference in their reactions and smiled to himself.
‘What is Haven?’ Jillan asked, to distract him.
Thomas gave him an assessing look. After a moment he said, ‘Haven is here,’ placing his hand over his heart, ‘here,’ touching his head, ‘and here,’ touching his stomach. ‘It is the home of the Geas, our life energy. It is the energy we all share, the thing all life shares. It is that which keeps us quick, keeps us animated. You need not seek it, for it is here, all around us, Jillan.’
He’s not telling you everything. The Saviour was sure it was a place that could be found. You’re right not to trust him
Aspin threw the branch he was holding onto the fire and moved between the two of them. ‘As Jillan says, we need to be moving along. We cannot afford the time to visit your hamlet with you, Thomas, unless it will see us equipped with horses.’
‘Of course, Aspin-from-close-by! The way I see it, I owe you two my life, so two horses are the least I can do. My wife would not have it otherwise. She will also insist on making you the best home-cooked meal you’ve ever had, I’ll be bound. She will insist, and I can’t see the two of you refusing, judging by how famished you look.’
Aspin nodded and turned to Jillan. ‘What do you think? The horses will buy us valuable time,’ he whispered.
‘It’s good you thought of that,’ Jillan replied gratefully, more pleased than he could say that Aspin had not sided with Thomas, and had apparently decided to travel to Hyvan’s Cross with him. It was like having a friend again, although no one could ever take Hella’s place. It meant he wasn’t on his own any more. It made him feel braver, stronger. ‘Why didn’t you tell him you were from the mountains? I thought—’
‘I know, I know, but I sense you have doubts about him. He’s as good as his word, I’m sure of that, but I get strange flashes from him every now and then. They’re so quick, though, that I don’t catch them properly, as if he’s deliberately smothered them before I can read them. I’m happy to follow your lead, Jillan, as I was when you got me out of that cell and out of the town safely. I’m sorry about before … you know, when I said you were too young and all that. It wasn’t right. And you were right about not just leaving Thomas to die by the roadside.’
Jillan couldn’t help smiling. ‘And I’m sorry I called you a … a murdering pagan.’
You’re not really sorry, though, are you?
‘Well, I would have been, were it not for you.’
‘You were just doing what you thought best. And who’s to say you were definitely wrong? We’ll only know if we get through this without any more trouble. A home-cooked meal does sound good, though, doesn’t it? If I never have to look at dried meat and hard biscuits again, it’ll be too soon.’
‘If you’re still worried about lost time,’ Thomas called over, ‘I’ll show you shortcuts and secret ways through these woods. I’ll get you to Hyvan’s Cross in next to no time. Come, Jillan, and meet our wizard. He may be of help to you. Moreover, on our way I’ll tell you tales of when your parents were young and you were but a twinkle in your father’s eye.’
Laying it on a bit thick, isn’t he?
‘All right, we’ll come along, but we will need to leave tomorrow morning,’ Jillan consented as he tested his weight on his legs. ‘In the meantime I’ll have my sword back, thank you, Thomas Ironshoe.’
In desperation, she’d thrown everything to the winds, and now she found she could foresee nothing. What hope was there for an organising intellect that could not anticipate events in order to manipulate and control the outcome? Yes, she’d temporarily thwarted D’Selle and she’d won herself a stay of execution in persuading Elder Thraal to unleash the Peculiar, but now all the others had scented blood and were circling her. D’Shaa was not fooled for a second that D’Zel’s offer of an alliance would secure her power or position in any way. His Declaration for her was more surprising and promising, and had probably caused consternation among the other organising intellects, but from what she’d read none of the Declarations among her kind through the ages had ever ended happily. Invariably, one of the parties to the Declaration became Dominant and undid the Lesser. Certain Lessers had survived for millennia before capitulating, but in the end the result had always been the same. D’Shaa was in no doubt that D’Zel would quickly wish to become the Dominant party to their Declaration, so that everything she was and that she organised would become his.
Not only was she unable to anticipate and pre-empt the others of her rank: now she could not even pre-empt those under her sway in her own region. She’d been far too indulgent of Azual for far too long, she decided. He was impulsive, wilful and erratic. She should have had him put down immediately after the episode in New Sanctuary. Why hadn’t she? Because she was the most inexperienced of the organising intellects and had feared to undermine her position further at the time. Now look where that initial lack of confidence and foresight had got her. Now look at what it had resulted in: a lackadaisical Saint leaving a boy Undrawn for far too long; meaning the boy’s magic became manifest; meaning that the boy had the power to frustrate and overcome the Saint; meaning that the boy had learned to use the Saint’s own nature against him; meaning that the boy had now found access to her in the waking dream through the Saint. It was beyond belief. The boy was an abomination. Just contact with him had been so abhorrent and unsettling to her that she found it hard to maintain the mental discipline required to remain within the waking dream. See how close it was to destroying her! If she was absent from the dream for too long, Elder Thraal would immediately be aware of it. He would see how the magic of the Geas had spread like a virus through her region and her own organising intellect, and he would have no choice but to destroy her before the virus could spread further through the rest of the hierarchy. What if it had already spread to D’Zel as a result of the Declaration?
With panic beginning to eat away at her mind, she performed drill after drill, as if she were a novice again, just to retain her sense of self. The calm centre which is both the self and the absence of self. Enter the waking dream. Become infinite once more. The demands of the physical vessel disappear, for it is no longer the vessel. Yes, she had lost control of her region and yes, she had allowed the Geas a foothold, but she had also begun to expose the Geas and bend the boy to her will. Azual held the parents hostage and unexpectedly seemed to be making progress in the mountains. And the Peculiar was in play. All the mechanisms of her will and control of the region were still in place; it was now a matter of exerting that will more forcefully, of imprinting her desires on the thoughts of the People and thereby even the most simple of day-to-day events, of seeing herself writ large across the entire history and definition of this world and its energies.
‘Azual!’ she projected through the waking dream.
, came back the surprised and nervous thought.
What is your will? Command me!
‘You have failed thus far.’
Yes, holy one. There is no excuse
‘You are inadequate, Damon, unworthy of Sainthood.’
Mortification. Anguish. Self-hatred.
Yes, holy one
‘The fault must also be mine for ever having raised you up.’
No, holy one! Forgive me, but I must have deceived you in some way in the beginning
‘Silence!’ D’Shaa had to admit that she admired his devotion, however. In that, he had never been lacking. ‘Your deception aside, how has this happened? There must be traitors working against us, or innocents being used against us without their understanding. Who or what has been using the boy? As you do not yet know, then your search has been neither subtle nor exacting enough.’
Doubt. Irritation. Suspicion.
Holy one, I am neither wise nor skilled in divining the truth of the past, but the boy has definitely been aided by strange agencies of which I cannot identify the origin. His parents were of New Sanctuary, but what was the origin of the force that was using them? I eradicated most of those that the force used, but I now believe I did not eradicate the force itself. Through me, you will have seen the guard Samnir and heard he was Drawn by another. Perhaps he was an agent of another Saint. Also, there was the strange warrior who was captured in Saviours’ Paradise and freed by the boy. I did not recognise the warrior and do not know from where he came. How can he have any connection with the boy when it is the boy’s first time beyond Godsend? Then there is the plague, which muddles things even further
‘There is a range of forces arrayed against us,’ D’Shaa decided. ‘All operate through and around the boy. He is a powerful organising focus for them. Yet he is still within the web of my region and will, and I shall instruct you so that he remains so. Before that, however, there is something which you should know. I have unleashed the Peculiar, and he will soon enter my region. He is our ultimate guarantee that forces that depend on the boy will ultimately fall to the Saviours, even if it is not directly to you and me.’
Surprise. Uncertainty. Dread.
The Peculiar exists?
‘By the definition of this world, it must.’
I have only read fragments and subsumed half-memories of him. I assumed he was just a pagan myth. If he truly exists
‘Enough, Azual. You will not dwell upon such things, for it is beyond your understanding, and you well know the dangers of only partial understanding. Similarly, you will avoid any encounter or confrontation with the Peculiar.’
What if he seeks to take the boy from me?
‘You will ensure the boy is dead long before any such eventuality can arise, Azual. It means that you must act quickly now, however, and follow my instructions precisely. So attend well to my words. Here is what you will do in my name …’
‘Most splendid Chief Blackwing …’ Torpeth sonorously addressed the fat old man in the outlandish throne, who eyed them suspiciously from his seat fully ten feet off the ground.