Authors: Edward W. Robertson
Edward W. Robertson
GASK, MALLON, & SURROUNDING TERRITORIES
It was the dog's fault Dante was about to die. The ruins of the chapel hunched behind him, hiding his killer. He was thirty miles from Bressel, ten from the nearest farm, and a world away from help. Despite that, he didn't doubt his body would be found—corpses had gravity to them, as if the vapors released by death were starkly visible to the mind's eye; if the man who'd attacked him didn't find his body lying in the cold grass and colder wind, a farmer or a pilgrim would.
But they wouldn't know who he was. They wouldn't know he'd left his home because he'd seen a man in a mail shirt bring a dog back to life. When he watched that dog shiver up to its feet, Dante could sense what was happening the way he could smell cold or feel a shadow on his skin. The world was showing him just how big it really was, and that if he wanted it, he would have to come find it.
He sat up, head swimming. Blood welled from the wounds on his side and thigh, dull black under the overcast night. Been blacker yet inside the chapel—he hadn't known he wasn't alone until the moment the man stabbed him.
Dante's stomach cramped. He fell back, panting, tears sliding down his temples into his hair. He caught his breath, shrugged off his cloak. The first strip tore so easily he laughed, then stopped cold, staring at the dark chapel. A silhouette against the black wall? The wind hissed through the grass and the pines.
After binding his wounds, he tried to stand and fell straight down, legs as noodly as the night he'd run out on his one and only whore.
It was stupid to have come here. Dumb like a severed arm is dumb. But he hadn't been slashed by a looter or squatter—the man had been a soldier, a guard. Guards guarded. It wasn't the chapel of Arawn the man stood sentry over, either. What hadn't been smashed in the Third Scour had been finished off by the following century of weather and vandals. Stonework rubbled the field, fuzzy with moss. Holes shadowed the pitched roof, darker than the clouds. Four generations and a hard day's walk from the last time and place anyone cared about their cult, a man waited in the freezing rain, standing watch over—what?
Dante braced his knee, shaking, and pulled himself upright. He eased toward the chapel's dark mass, touched damp stone. He drew his knife and walked on, left hand trailing the wall.
His fingers fell into empty space. He stopped and stared. Later, he'd try to deduce what instinct made him halt and wait, but could only conclude his life had been saved by fear and dumb chance. From the hole in the wall, a man coughed so close Dante could smell his breath.
The guard emerged into cloud-occluded starlight, gazing at the wind-ruffled trees beyond the grassy clearing. The sword he'd cut Dante with hung from his hip. Probably, he gazed into those woods and imagined the boy he'd injured curled beneath the cold boughs, heat slowly ebbing from his body.
Dante ducked forward, slashing for the man's hamstrings. The man screamed and fell, rocking in the sodden grass, hands clamped over the backs of his legs. Dante stood over him and wondered what the hell to do now.
"Where is it?"
The man's voice caught; he coughed phlegm. "Where's what?"
Dante leaned a boot into the man's ribs. "The book."
"I'll cut your throat," he said. "You'll be a body in the woods. Eaten by badgers."
"They took it away." The guard pawed a bloody hand at Dante's breeches. Dante jerked back, slapping the hand away, tasting bile. "Years ago," the man continued. "Back to the north with everything else."
"So they have you here for your health?"
The guard took a ragged, shuddery breath. He squinted up at Dante. "How old are you?"
"Would you ask death his age?"
The man smirked around his pain. "I'd say he looks about fourteen."
teen." Dante raised his knife. "My name is Dante Galand. If you don't tell me where the book is, I'm the last man you'll ever see."
"Then so's your stupid life." Dante knelt and dug the blade into the guard's smooth-worn leather shirt. Steel clicked against his breastbone; Dante swallowed down a retch. The guard sucked air between his teeth, eyes white and watery, silent. Dante steadied the knife over his heart. "I hope it's worth it."
"What basement?" Dante glanced at the hole in the wall, the weedy floor beyond. "I didn't see any stairs in there before you tried to kill me."
"I don't know."
He jabbed his knife into the man's shoulder. "Tell me!"
"I remember better when I'm not being cut apart!"
Dante knelt back, stomach knotting. His leg pulsed hot pain. Blood gleamed on the man's chest. It would be like cleaning a deer, wouldn't it? Focus on the knife's edge. Keep your fingers out of the way. Work fast, think about nothing but the cut. Wash up when you're done.
"Third row of the graveyard," the guard gasped. "Fourth stone. There's a ladder underneath. Storage—candles, prayer books, mats. I drank the wine. If the book's anywhere, it'll be there."
They stared at each other in the thin, cool autumn air. Most of the deer Dante'd downed weren't dead when he tracked the blood trail to their fallen bodies. He touched the knife's point to the man's throat. The guard thrashed.
"And you tried to kill me." Dante drove the knife into the man's chest. The guard shuddered, limbs thrashing. Dante leaned down until the body was slack as a summer pond. His stomach spasmed. He felt a thousand feet tall. He wanted to die. He watched the man be dead; frozen, stunned, he waited for someone to tell him what he'd done was right. He touched his own throat. All this for a dog.
Its body had lain on the bank of the creek some six miles upstream from the village. There the short, skinny trees grew so thick you could barely see the sky. The dog's fur was clumped with blood, its eyes shut, legs rigid. Flies whirred around its nose and lips. A noose trailed from its neck.
Instinctively, Dante had shrunk behind a birch, gripping its smooth bark. This was his place. No one else came here. Between here and the village lay marshes and ponds, short hills with grass on their crowns and trees in their folds, here and there a one-room hut with the roof staved in. He liked to follow the creek, turning stones in its quiet pools, snatching at waterstriders and poking at snails to watch them suck into their shells. He'd grown too old for this, he knew, and the day he found the dog he hadn't stopped to play with bugs and frogs. He'd just kept walking.
Leaves crackled from the screen of trees across the creek. Thirty yards upstream from the dog, a man in a bright mail shirt stepped into the gray day and knelt beside the water. He cupped his hand to drink, then flopped back on the bank and plucked burrs from the hem of his black cloak. A silver icon clasped it beneath his neck, rayed like a tree or a star.
The man stood, stretched, started downstream toward Dante. Before he'd gone ten feet his hand whipped for his sword. Dante breathed through his mouth, rooted. The man stalked forward, then stopped over the dog. He laughed lowly: just a corpse.
He hunkered down and prodded the blood-clogged fur around its neck. The stream splashed beneath the clouds. The man drew a knife, put it to the dog's neck, and sawed briskly. Dante choked. The man pulled away the severed noose and tossed it into the creek.
He touched his knife to his left hand. Blood winked from his palm; the air blurred around both hands. Small dark things flocked to his fingers, moths or horseflies or bad ideas, motes that clung and clumped to the blood sliding down the man's wrist, congealing into something round, back, barely translucent. The man lowered his hands to the dog's ribs and the ball of shadows flowed into the motionless body. He fell back on his ass and laughed, pressing his bleeding palm to his mouth. The dog kicked its legs.
The man in the mail shirt got to his feet. After a faltering, stiff-limbed try, so did the dog. The man scratched its ears; it whined; the man laughed again. Still whining, the dog backed up the bank and limped into the trees. The man belted his knife, glanced downcreek, and followed it into the woods.
At the village, no one had seen the man in the mail shirt and black cloak. The woods and fields looked pale and common. The snails and waterstriders were just bugs. At night, Dante remembered how his dad had made the lights dance in his hands. How he'd told stories of playing bodyguard for dukes and once the prince. In leaner times, and though technically illegal—only royals and the church could employ the wielders of the ether—he'd hire on with shippers to serve as a soldier-doctor. Nine years ago, he'd sailed west.
Heart pounding, Dante asked the monk of Mennok about living shadows and a silver star or tree. The monk told him to stop shouting, and that before anyone alive in Mallon today had been born, shadow-wielding men carried the book of the White Tree. They had been burnt though, books and men, during the Third Scour, along with their temples and worshippers. As for himself, he'd once read a fragment. And he could tell Dante plenty about the White Tree itself. The rest—that was lost to the ruin of past men.
The monk retreated into the monastery in search of his notes and two weeks later Dante went to Bressel in search of the book. He spent his pennies bribing the capital's archivists and churchmen one mug at a time until he learned the book wasn't some sort of recipe of spells, but the holy text of the Arawnites, comparable to Gashen's
. All known copies had been burnt, but it could be identified by the white tree on its cover.
So the book of the White Tree had a white tree on it. Useful. Disgusted and empty-handed, out of options, Dante researched the locations of their old temples. He'd come to the chapel in the woods expecting toppled stones and blackened rafters. He'd found that, but he'd stumbled into the guard, too: that and a forgotten cellar.
Wind rasped the grass between the headstones behind the chapel. The fourth stone of the third row was flinty and black. Dante nudged it with his toe, then dug his fingers under its lip, straining. He pivoted it into the weeds and fell down panting.