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He walked the whole way with the weight of King Olidan’s regard upon him. Once the doors were closed behind him, once he had walked to the grand stair, only then did Makin speak the words he couldn’t say to Olidan, words the king would never hear, however loud-spoken. ‘I didn’t save your son. He saved me.’
Returning to his duties, Makin knew that however long the child pursued his vengeance it would never fill him, never heal the wounds he had taken. The prince might grow to be as cold and dangerous as his father, but Makin would guard him, give him the time he needed, because in the end nothing would save the boy except his own moment in the doorway, with his own fire ahead and his own cowardice behind. Makin could tell him that of course – but there are many gaps in this world … and there are some that words can’t cross.
Makin has always been an interesting character for me, a failed father-figure if you like. He should be Jorg’s moral touchstone but too often finds himself swept along by the force of Jorg’s personality and by the chaos/cruelty of the life he’s entangled in. We root for him to recover himself.
Sleeping Beauty (#ulink_954c6414-524d-5de6-95c4-da36240acec9)
A kiss woke me. A cool kiss pulled me from the hot depths of my dreaming. Lips touched mine, and deep as I was, dark as I was, I knew her, and let her lead me.
‘Katherine?’ I spoke her name but made no sound. A whiteness left me blind. I closed my eyes just to see the dark. ‘Katherine?’ A whisper this time. Damn but my throat hurt.
I turned my head, finding it a ponderous thing, as if my muscles strove to turn the world around me whilst I remained without motion. A white ceiling rotated into white walls. A steel surface came into view, gleaming and stainless.
Now I knew something beyond her name. I knew white walls and a steel table. Where I was, who I was, were things yet to be discovered.
Jorg. The name felt right. It fitted my mouth and my person. Hard and direct.
I could see a sprawl of long black hair spread across the shining table, reaching from beneath my cheek, overhanging the edge. Had Katherine climbed it to deliver her kiss? My vision swam, my thoughts with it – was I drunk … or worse? I didn’t feel myself – I might not yet know who I was, but I knew enough to say that.
Images came and went, replacing the room. Names floated up from the back of my mind. Vyene. I had a barber cut my hair almost to the scalp when I left Vyene. I remembered the snip of his shears and the dark heap of my locks, tumbled across his tiled floor. Hakon had mocked me when I emerged cold-headed into the autumn chill.
Hakon? I tried to hang details upon the void beneath his name. Tall, lean … no more than twenty, his beard short and bound tight by an iron ring beneath his chin. ‘Jorg the Bald!’ he’d greeted me and fanned out his own golden mane across his shoulders, bright against wolfskins.
‘Watch your mouth.’ I’d said it without rancour. These Norse have little enough respect for royalty. Mind you neither do I. ‘Has my beauty fled me?’ I mocked sorrow. ‘Sometimes you have to make sacrifices in war, Hakon. I surrendered my lovely locks. Then I watched them burn. In the battle of man against lice I am the victor, whilst you, my friend, still crawl. I sacrificed one beauty for another. My own, in exchange for the cries of my enemies. They died by the thousand, in the fire.’
‘Lice don’t scream. They pop.’
I recalled the bristling of scalp beneath palm as I rubbed my head trying to find an answer to that one. I tried now to touch the hair spread out before me across the steel but found my hands restrained. I made to sit up but a strap across my chest held me down. Straining, I could see five more straps binding me to the table, running across my chest, stomach, hips, legs, and ankles. I wore nothing else. Tubes ran from glass bottles on a stand above me, down into the veins of my left wrist.
This room, this white and windowless chamber, had not been made by any people of the Broken Empire. No smith could have fashioned the table, and the plasteek tubes lay beyond the art of some king’s alchemist. I had woken out of time, led by dreams and a kiss to some den of the Builders.
The kiss! I flung my head to the other side, half-expecting to find Katherine standing there, silent beside the table. But no – only sterile white walls. Her scent lingered though. White musk, fainter than faint, but more real than dream.
Me, a table, a simple room of harsh angles, kept warm and light by some invisible artifice. The warmth enfolded me. My last memories had been of cold. Hakon and me trudging through the snow-bound forests of eastern Slov, a week out from Vyene. We picked our path between the pines where the ground lay clearest, leading our horses. Both of us huddled in our furs, me with only a hood and a quarter inch of hair to keep my head from freezing. Winter had fallen upon us, hard, early, and unannounced.
‘It’s buggery cold,’ I said unnecessarily, letting my breath plume before me.
‘Ha! In the true north we’d call this a valley spring.’ Hakon, frost in his beard, hands buried in leather mittens lined with fur.
‘Yes?’ I pushed through the pine branches, hearing them snap and the frost scatter down. ‘Then how come you look as cold as I feel?’
‘Ah.’ A grin cracked his wind-reddened cheeks. ‘In the north we stay by the hearth until summer.’
‘We should have stayed by that last hearth then.’ I floundered through snow, banked along a break in the trees.
‘I didn’t like the company.’
I had no answer for that. Exhaustion had its teeth in me and my bones lay cold in white flesh.
The house in question had stood implausibly deep in the forest, so isolated that Hakon had been convinced the tales of a witch were true.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ I’d told him. ‘If there’s a witch living in the forest and she eats children then she’s going to want to live on the edge, isn’t she? I mean how often does a little Gerta or Hans come wandering this far in?’
Hakon had caved beneath the undeniable weight of my logic. We’d gone to ask for shelter, and failing it being offered, to take it. The door stood ajar – never a good sign in a winter storm, and the snow in front of the porch lay heavily trodden, covered with a fresh fall that obscured detail.
‘Something’s not right.’ Hakon unslung his axe, a heavy, single-bladed thing with a long cutting edge, curved to bite deeper.
I’d nodded and advanced, silent save for the crump of fresh snow beneath my boots. Reaching out with my sword, I pushed the door wider. My theory about little girls and the middle of forests didn’t survive the hallway. A child lay sprawled there, golden curls splashed with crimson, arms and legs at broken angles. I advanced another step, my nose wrinkled against the stink. Blood, the reek of guts, and something else, something rank and feral.
A hand clamped my shoulder and I nearly spun to hack it off. ‘What?’
‘We should leave … the witch—’
‘There’s no witch living here.’ I pointed at the corpse. ‘Unless she’s got teeth big enough to bite a girl’s face off, a taste for entrails, and a nasty habit of shitting in her own hallway.’ I pointed to the brown mound by the foot of the stairs, which, unlike the girl’s guts, was still steaming ever so slightly.
‘Bear!’ Hakon released my shoulder and started to back away. ‘Let’s run.’
‘Let’s,’ I agreed.
A big black head thrust out from beneath the stairs as we retreated to the horses. I saw another bear, larger still, through the broken shutters to the side of the house, licking out a bowl in the kitchen. And, as we reached our steeds and started to hurry away, a cub watched us from the attic bedroom, its wet muzzle thrust out between the winter boarding, teeth scarlet.
Why did it have to be bears? If it had been a witch I’d have stuck my sword through her neck and moved in. Bears though … Better to run, even if it’s out into the killing cold.
Each step sapped my strength as the heat left me, stolen a scrap at a time, squandered into the night air with every breath.
I plodded on, deep in myself, refusing exhaustion. It had been time to leave Vyene, whether winter was approaching or not. I might regret it now, freezing in the pathless forest, but I’d stayed too long. Sometimes the dream of a place sucks you in and before you know it you’re part of that dream too. In a city as grand and as old as Vyene the dream is one of glory, steeped in history, but like all dreams it’s an illusion that will use you up while grass grows under your feet, while thorns spring up, dense on all sides, and hem you in. A kiss had woken me there too. Elin, leaving with her brother, Sindri, to their halls and duties in the north. Hakon had wanted to stay, but he’d had enough of the ancient capital and wanted to see the provinces, to slum it with the King of Renar. And so we’d left, escaped the trap of intrigue and politicking that was Vyene, shook ourselves free before its soft jaws closed entirely around us, and moved along.
Full night and a bitter moon found us some miles further on, breaking from the treeline and setting out across a snowfield where the land turned stony and started to rise. Snow began to fall once more, large-flaked, ghostly, ponderous at first, then rushing as the wind picked up again.
I lay on the steel table remembering – seeing lost days unfold. The dreams that had wrapped me still clung, leeching away urgency and care. It occurred to me that some drug pulsed in my veins, some sleeping draught to keep me dull. I jerked my body within the bands that kept me on the table. Nothing moved. The thing must be bolted to the floor.
Each strap had a buckle. One free hand and I’d be out of there. So all that truly held me was the binding on my wrists. I strained to break a hand free but the bands weren’t made for breaking.
I stared around the room. In the top corner, opposite me, a glass eye watched, a short black cylinder ending in a dark lens.
The tubes that ran, from bottles on a steel stand to needles in my arm, hung tantalisingly close. Straining until my neck screamed and my vision blurred, I could almost touch the nearest of the trio with the tip of my tongue. Close! But ‘close’ can be the difference between cutting a throat and slicing air.
I stared at the tubes, hating them, trying not to let the drugs drag me down again. I felt myself sinking, the whiteness of the ceiling filling my mind.
I had felt myself sinking into a white embrace when we left the trees behind. The snow crust lay too thin to hold my weight and beneath it, cold soft depths where a man could flounder. In the drifts a man would lose the last of his heat quick enough, and find at the limits of his strength that the snow became almost warm, a cradle into which he might relax, and perhaps sleep, just for a moment, to recover himself.
‘Here!’ Hakon held the haft of his axe for me to grab hold and hauled me onto firmer ground.
‘Why did we leave the woods, again?’ I asked the question with numb lips, the words coming out blunt-edged. At least my teeth had ceased to chatter, which seemed as if it should be a good thing. The wind scoured the hillside. In the forest the trees had muted it.
‘Nothing beats a cave for shelter.’ Hakon pushed me on.
‘Cave? Where?’ I could see little past swirling snow and darkness.
I’d promised Sindri to send his cousin back alive after his trip to Renar. So far it looked as though it was Hakon keeping me alive. ‘And where’s my damn horse?’
‘Back in the trees with mine. I saw a light. We’re checking it out. You’ll remember when you’re warmer. Let’s get to the cave.’ Hakon kept up a steady pace and I stumbled after him.
‘Cave? There’ll be bears!’ I remembered something about a baby bear with a red muzzle, and a girl with golden locks and no face. Swords and axes aren’t a match for a bear’s strength. Put a length of steel through one and the beast will still kill you before it realizes it’s dead.
‘Bears don’t carry lanterns.’ Hakon scrambled up a boulder. ‘There! I see it. A light.’ He slid back down. ‘Doesn’t look like a fire though.’ A note of concern creeping in amid the excitement.
‘Hell if I care.’ I pushed past him, weaving a path up the slope.
In the end he followed. What choice was there other than to freeze to death? The bitter weather had come on us unexpectedly, a vicious early bite of winter at the tail of a mild autumn.
It’s the simple things often as not that lay us low. It’s the everyday world intruding on our little dreams of power and glory that kills us. For all my cunning and deathly swordplay a prince of Ancrath could die coughing up the flu, or choking on a fishbone, or frozen on a lonely slope by a freak snowstorm, same as any other man.
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