The gods who created this world have abandoned it. In their mercy, however, they chained the rogue god—and the monstrous creatures he created to plague mortalkind—in the vast and inhospitable wasteland of the Bourne. The magical Veil that contains them has protected humankind for millennia and the monsters are little more than tales told to frighten children. But the Veil has become weak and creatures of Nightmare have come through. To fight them, the races of men must form a great alliance.
The Right Draw
Mercy has many faces. One of them looks like cruelty.
—Reconciliationist defense of the gods’ placement of the Quiet inside the Bourne
Tahn Junell raced north across the Soliel plain, and his past raced with him. He ran in the dark and cold of predawn. A canopy of bright stars shone in clear skies above. And underfoot, his boots pounded an urgent rhythm against the shale. In his left hand, he clenched his bow. In his mind, growing dread pushed away the crush of his recently returned memory. Ahead, still out of sight, marching on the city of Naltus Far … came the Quiet.
Abandoning gods. The Quiet. Just a few moon cycles ago, these storied races had been to Tahn just that. Stories. Stories he’d believed, but only in that distant way that death concerned the living. Their story told of being herded and sealed deep in the far west and north—distant lands known as the Bourne, a place created by the gods before they’d abandoned the world as lost.
One of his Far companions tapped his shoulder and pointed. “Over there.” Ahead on the left stood a dolmen risen from great slabs of shale.
Tahn concentrated, taking care where he put his feet, trying to move without drawing any attention. The three Far from the city guard ran close, their flight over the stones quiet as a whisper on the plain. They’d insisted on bearing him company. There’d been no time to argue.
Through light winds that carried the scent of shale and sage, they ran. A hundred strides on, they ducked into a shallow depression beside the dolmen. In the lee side of the tomb, Tahn drew quick breaths, the Far hardly winded.
“I’m Daen,” the Far captain said softly. He showed Tahn a wry smile—acquaintances coming here, now—and put out his hand.
“Tahn.” He clasped the Far’s hand in the grip of friendship.
“I know. This is Jarron and Aelos.” Daen gestured toward the two behind him. Each nodded a greeting. “Now, do you want to tell us why we’ve rushed headlong toward several colloughs of Bar’dyn?” Daen’s smile turned inquiring.
Tahn looked in the direction of the advancing army. It was still a long way off. But he pictured it in his head. Just one collough was a thousand strong. So, several of them … deafened gods! And the Bar’dyn: a Quiet race two heads taller than most men and twice as broad; their hide like elm bark, but tougher, more pliable.
He listened. Only the sound of heavy feet on shale. Distant. The Bar’dyn beat no drum, blew no horn. The absence of sound got inside him like the still of a late-autumn morning before the slaughter of winter stock.
Tahn looked back at Daen. They had a little while to wait, and the Far captain deserved an answer. “Seems reckless, doesn’t it.” He showed them each a humorless smile. “The truth? I couldn’t help myself.”
None of the Far replied. It wasn’t condescension. More like disarming patience. Which struck Tahn odd, since the Far possessed an almost unnatural speed and grace. A godsgift. And their lives were spent in rehearsal for war. Endless training and vigilance to protect an old language.
“I wouldn’t even be in Naltus if it weren’t for the Quiet.” Tahn looked down at the bow in his lap, suddenly not sure what he meant to do. His bow—any bow—was a very dear, very old friend. He’d been firing one since he could hold a deep draw. But his bow against an army? I might finally have waded too far into the cesspit.
“We guessed that much,” said Daen.
Tahn locked eyes with the Far captain, who returned a searching stare. “Two cycles ago, I was living a happy, unremarkable life. Small town called the Hollows. Only interesting thing about me was a nagging lack of memory. Had no recollection of anything before my twelfth year. Then, not long before I turned eighteen … a Sheason shows up.”
The Far Jarron took a quick breath.
Tahn nodded at the response. “First day I met Vendanj, I realized stories were true. I saw him render the Will. Move things … kill. With little more than a thought.”
“Vendanj is a friend of the king’s,” Daen said. “Not everyone distrusts him.”
Tahn gave a weak smile to that. “Well, he arrived just before the Quiet got to my town.”
He then looked away to the southwest, at Naltus, a magnificent city risen mostly of the black shale that dominated the long plains. In the predawn light, it was still an imposing thing to look at. It never gleamed. It didn’t light up with thousands of lights as Recityv or any other large city. It didn’t bustle with industry and trade. It didn’t build reputation with art and culture. But the city itself was a striking place, drawn with inflexible lines. It had a permanence and stoicism about it. The kind of place you wanted to be when a storm hit, where you wouldn’t fear wind and light storms. And where rain lifted the fresh scent of washed rock. Altogether different than the Hollows, with its hardwood forests and loam.
What Tahn wouldn’t have given for some hard apple cider and a round of lies in the form of Hollows gossip. “Vendanj convinced me to follow him to Tillinghast.”
This time it was Aelos who made a noise, something in his throat, like a warning. It reminded Tahn that even the Far people, with their gift for battle, and their stewardship over the Language of the Framers … even they didn’t go to Tillinghast.
“Did you make it to the far ledge?” Daen asked.
Tahn turned and looked in the direction of the Saeculorum Mountains, which rose in dark, jagged lines to the east. Impossibly high. Yes, he’d made it there. He and the few friends who had come with him out of the Hollows. Though, only he had stood near that ledge at the far end of everything. A place where the earth renewed itself. Or used to.
He’d faced a Draethmorte there, one of the old servants of the dissenting god. More than that. He’d faced the awful embrace of the strange clouds that hung beyond the edge of Tillinghast. They’d somehow shown him all the choices of his life—those he’d made, and those he’d failed to make. It was a terrible thing to see the missed opportunity to help a friend. Or stranger. Wrapping around him, those clouds had also shown him the repercussions of those choices, possible futures. The heavy burden of that knowledge had nearly killed him.
It ached in him still.
But he’d survived the Draethmorte. And the clouds. And he’d done so by learning that he possessed an ability: to draw an empty bow, and fire a part of himself. He couldn’t explain it any better than that. It was like shooting a strange mix of thought and emotion. And it left him chilled to the marrow and feeling incomplete. Diminished. At least for a while. Maybe something had happened to him in the wilds of Stonemount. Maybe the ghostly barrow robber he’d encountered there had touched him. Touched his mind. Or soul. Maybe both. Whether the barrow robber or not, something had helped him fire himself at Tillinghast. Though he damn sure didn’t want to do it again, and had no real idea how to control it, anyhow.
“Yes, we made it to the far ledge,” he finally said.
He could tell Daen understood plenty about what lay on the far side of the Saeculorum. But the Far captain had the courtesy not to press.
Tahn, though, found relief in sharing some of what had happened. “Near the top, Vendanj restored my memory. He thought it would help me survive up there.”
Jarron glanced at the Saeculorum range. “Did it?”
Tahn didn’t have an answer to that, and shrugged.
Daen put a hand on Tahn’s shoulder. “The Sheason believed if you survived Tillinghast, you could help turn the Quiet back this time. Meet those who’ve given themselves to the dissenting god … in war.” He nodded in the direction of the army marching toward them.
Twice before—the wars of the First and Second Promise—the races of the Eastlands had pushed the Quiet back, avoided the dominion they seemed bent toward. Now, they came again.
“Mostly right,” said Tahn, “except all I’ve been fighting is a head full of badmemories. For two damn days, I’ve done nothing but sit around in your king’s manor, remembering.” His grip tightened on his bow, and he spoke through clenched teeth. “Better to be moving. Better to hold someone … or something, accountable for that past.”
“Idleness makes memory bitter.” Daen spoke it like a rote phrase, like something a mother says to scold a laggard child.
Tahn forced a smile, but the feel of it was manic. “Vendanj was the one who took my memory in the first place. Thought it would protect me…”
“From the Quiet,” Daen finished. “So you’re here with a kind of blind vengeance. Angry at the world. Angry at what you believe are the bad choices of people who care for you.”
The wind died then, wrapping them in a sullen silence. A silence broken only by the low drone of thousands of heavy feet crossing the shale plain toward them. Into that silence Tahn said simply, “No.”
“No?” Daen cocked his head with skepticism.
“I’m not some angry youth.” Tahn’s smile softened, and he leveled an earnest look on the Far captain. “If I’m reckless, it’s because I’m scared. And angry. Do I want to drop a few Quiet with this?” He tapped his bow. “Silent hells, yes. But when I saw them from my window in your king’s manor this morning … I’ll be a dead god’s privy hole if I’m going to let the Far meet them without me.” He pointed to the Quiet army marching in from the northeast. “An army that’s probably here because of me.”
Daen studied Tahn a long moment. “It’s reckless … but reasonable.” He grinned. “Well, listen to me, will you? I sound as contradictory as a Hollows man.” His grin faded to a kind of thankful seriousness. “I’m glad you were awake to see them from your window, Tahn. Somehow our scouts failed to get us word.”
He’d been up early, as he always was. To greet the dawn. Or rather, imagine it before it came. Those moments of solace were more important to him now than ever. Because images plagued him night and day. Images from Tillinghast. Images from a newly remembered past. Sometimes the images gave him the shakes. Sometimes he broke out in a sweat.
Tahn looked again now into the east, anticipating sunrise. The color of the moon caught his eye. Red cast. Lunar eclipse. By the look of it, the eclipse had been full a few hours ago. Secula, the first moon, was passing through the sun’s penumbra. He’d seen a full eclipse in … Aubade Grove!The memories wouldn’t stop. He’d spent several years of his young life in the Grove. A place dedicated to the study of the sky. A community of science. This, at least, was a happy memory.
Does the eclipse have anything to do with this Quiet army?
An interesting thought, but there wasn’t time to pursue it further. The low drone of thousands of Quiet striding the stony plain was growing louder, closer.
“We’ll wait until the First Legion joins us on the shale.” Daen spoke with the certainty of one used to giving orders. “Anything we observe, we’ll report back to our battle strategists.”
They didn’t understand Tahn’s need to run out to meet this army, any more than his friends would have. Sutter and Mira, especially. Sutter because he’d been Tahn’s friend since he’d arrived in the Hollows. And Mira because—unless he missed his guess—she loved him. So, he’d sent word of the Quiet’s approach, and slipped from the king’s manor unnoticed.
“I won’t do anything foolish,” Tahn assured Daen, and began crawling toward the lip of the depression.
The Far captain grabbed Tahn’s arm, the smile gone from his face. “What makes you so eager to die?”
Tahn spared a look at the bow in his hand, then stared sharply back at the Far. “I don’t want to die. And I don’t want you to die because of me.”
The Far captain didn’t let go. “I’ve never understood man’s bloodlust, even for the right cause. It makes him foolish.”
Tahn sighed, acknowledging the sentiment. “I’m not here for glory.” He clenched his teeth again, days of frustration getting the better of him—memories of a forgotten past, images of possible futures. “But I must do something.”
The Far continued to hold him, appraising. Finally, he nodded. “Just promise me you won’t run in until we see the king emerge from the wall with the First Legion.”
Tahn agreed, and the two crawled to the lip of the depression and peeked over the edge onto the rocky plane. What they saw stole Tahn’s breath: more Bar’dyn than he could ever have imagined. The line stretched out of sight, and behind it row after row after row … “Dear dead gods,” Tahn whispered under his breath. Naltus would fall. Even with the great skill of the Far. Even with the help of Vendanj, and his Sheason abilities.
We can’t win. Despair filled him in a way he’d felt only once before—at Tillinghast.
And on they came. No battle cries. No horns. Just the steady march over dry, dark stone. A hundred strides away, closing, countless feet pounded the shale like a war machine. Tahn’s heart began to hammer in his chest.
Beside him, Daen spoke in a tongue Tahn didn’t understand. The sound of it like a prayer … and a curse.
Then he saw something that he would see in his dreams for a very long time. The Quiet army stopped thirty strides from him. The front line of Bar’dyn parted, and a slow procession emerged from the horde. First came a tall, withered figure wrapped in gauzy robes the color of dried blood.Velle! Silent hells. The Velle were like Sheason, renderers of the Will, except they refused to bear the cost of their rendering. They drew it from other sources.
The Velle’s garments rustled as the wind kicked up again, brushing across the shale plain. Tahn’s throat tightened. Not because of the Velle, or at least not the Velle alone, but because of what it held in its grasp: a handful of black tethers, and at the end of each … a child no more than eight years of age.
“No,” Tahn whispered. He lowered his face into the shale, needing to look away, wanting to deny the obvious use the Velle had of them.
When he looked again, two more Velle had come forward. One was female in appearance, and stood in a magisterial dress of midnight blue. The gown had broad cuffs and wide lapels, and polished black buttons in a triple column down the front. The broadly padded shoulders of the garment gave her an imposing, regal look. The third Velle might have been any field hand from any working farm in the Hollows. He wore a simple coat that looked comfortable, warm, and well used. His trousers and boots were likewise unremarkable. He didn’t appear ill fed. Or angry. He simply stood, looking on at the city as any man might after a long walk.
And in the collective hands of these Velle, tethers to six children. The little ones hunched against their bindings. Ragged makeshift smocks hung from their thin shoulders. Each gust of wind pulled at the loose, soiled garments, revealing skin drawn tight over ribs, and knobby legs appearing brittle to the touch.
Worst of all was the look in the children’s faces—haunted and scared. And scarred. A look he knew. A look resembling the one worn by many of the children from the Scar. A desolate place he’d only recently remembered. A place where he’d spent a large part of his childhood. Learning to fight. To distrust. Lessons of the abandoned.
Not every memory of the Scar had been bad, though. A name and face flared in his mind: Alemdra. But the memory of her bright face quickly changed. Old grief became new at the thought of a ridge where they’d run to watch the sunrise, and seen a friend end her days. Devin. Some wounds, he realized, simply couldn’t be healed. No atonement was complete enough.
The Velle yanked at the fetters, gathering the small ones close on each side. The children did not yelp or complain, though grimaces of pain rose in some few faces. Mostly, they fought to keep their balance and avoid going down hard on the rocky plain.
Then the Velle reached down and wrapped their fingers around the wrists of the young ones.
The Far king’s legion hadn’t emerged from the city wall. The siege on Naltus hadn’t yet begun. But Tahn knew the stroke these Velle were preparing, fueled by the lives of these six children, would be catastrophic. Naltus might be destroyed before a single sword was raised.
Beside him, the Far captain cursed again and crept down to the dolmen to consult with his fellows. What do I do? His grip tightened on his bow. The tales of lone heroes standing against armies were author fancies. Fun to read, but wrong. All wrong. He could get off a few shots at the renderers before any of the Bar’dyn could react. But that wouldn’t be enough to stop them, or save the children.
Each Velle raised a hand toward Naltus. Tahn had to do something. Now.
Without thinking further, he climbed onto the shale plain and stood, setting his feet. He pulled his bow up in a smooth, swift motion as he drew an arrow.
Softly he began, “I draw with the strength of my arms, but release as the Will—”
He stopped, not finishing the words he’d spoken all his life when drawing his bow, words taught him by his father, to seek the rightness of his draw. The rightness of a kill. His father and Vendanj had meant for him to remain blameless of wrongfully killing anything, or anyone, because they’d thought one day they might need him to go to Tillinghast, where his chances of surviving were better if he went untainted by a wrong or selfish draw.
For as long as he could remember, he’d uttered the phrase and been able to sense the quiet confirmation that what he aimed at should die. Or if he felt otherwise, he shifted his aim. Usually it was only an elk to stock a meat cellar. But not always. In his mind he saw the Bar’dyn that had stood over his sister Wendra, holding the child she’d just given birth to. He saw himself drawing his bow at it, feeling his words tell him not to shoot the creature. He’d followed that intimation, and it had cankered his relationship with her ever since.
He was done with the old words. The Velle should die. He wanted to kill them. But he also knew he’d never take them all down. Not even with his ability to shoot a part of himself—something he hadn’t learned to control. He’d never be able to stop their rendering of the little ones.
More images. Faces he’d forgotten. Faces of older children—thirteen, fourteen—reposed in stillness. Forever still. Still by their own hands. The despair of the Scar had taken all their hope … Like Devin, and his failure to save her.
And what of the young ones in these Velle’s hands? The ravages of their childhood? Long nights spent hoping their parents would come and rescue them. The bone-deep despair reserved for those who learn to stop hoping. He also sensed the ends that awaited each of them. The blinding pain that would tear their spirit from their flesh and remake it into a weapon of destruction. And they wouldn’t simply die. Their souls would be spent. If there was a next life, if they had family waiting there, these little ones would never find it. They would have ceased to be.
Sufferings from his past.
This moment of suffering.
A terrible weight of sorrow and discouragement.
Then a voice in his mind whispered the unthinkable. An awful thing. An irredeemable thing. He fought it. Silently cried out against it. But the dark logic would not relent. And the Velle were nearly ready.
He took a deep breath, adjusted his aim only slightly. And let fly his awful mercy.
The arrow sailed against the shadows of morning and the charcoal hues of this valley of shale. And the first child dropped to the ground.
Through hot, silent tears, Tahn drew fast again, and again. It took the Quiet a few moments to understand what was happening. And when they finally saw Tahn standing beside the dolmen in the grey light of predawn, they appeared momentarily confused. Bar’dyn jumped in front of the Velle like shields. They still don’t understand.
Like scarecrows—light and yielding—each child fell. Tahn did not miss. Not once.
When it was done, he let out a great, loud cry, the scream ascending the morning air—the only vocal sound on the plain.
Bar’dyn began rushing toward him. Tahn dropped to his knees, unhanded his bow, and waited for them. He watched them come closer as he thought about the wretched thing he’d just done.
It didn’t matter that he knew he’d offered the children a greater mercy. Nor that he had decided this for himself. In those moments, it didn’t even matter if what he’d done had saved Naltus.
These small ones, surprise on their faces—Or was it hope when they saw me? They thought I was going to save them—before his arrows struck home.
The shale trembled as the Bar’dyn rushed toward him, wearing their calm, reasoning expressions. Tahn found himself already wondering what he’d do if he could go back and undo it. The bitterness overwhelmed him, and he suddenly yearned for the relief the Bar’dyn would offer him in a swift death. Then strong hands were dragging him backward by the feet, another set of hands retrieving his bow. Down into the depression, into the safety of the dolmen Tahn was cast. He flipped over and watched the Far captain and his squad defend the entrance to the barrow as Bar’dyn rushed in on them.
Jarron fell almost immediately, leaving Daen and Aelos fighting back three Quiet.
Tahn couldn’t stop trembling. It had nothing to do with the battle about to darken the Soliel with blood. It was about the way the Quiet would wage their war. About what men would have to do to fight back. Choices like he’d just made.
Abruptly, the Bar’dyn stepped aside. The two Far shared a confused look, their swords still held defensively before them. Then one of the Velle came slowly into view. It stopped and peered past the Far, into the dolmen.
“You are too consumed by your own fear, Quillescent. Rough and untested, despite surviving Tillinghast.” Its words floated on the air like a soft, baneful prayer. “Have you learned what you are? What you should do?”
Its mouth pressed into a grim line.
Tahn shook his head in defiance and confusion. Whatever Tillinghast had proven to Vendanj about Tahn being able to stand against the Quiet, the thought of his own future seemed an affliction. He’d rather not know.
“You are a puppet, Quillescent. Or were. But you’ve cut your strings, haven’t you? Killing those children. And for us, you—”
A stream of black bile shot from the creature’s mouth, coating its ravaged lips and running down its chin. A blade ripped through its belly. As it fell, it raised a thin hand toward him, and a burst of energy threw Tahn back against one of the tall dolmen stones. Blood burst from his nose and mouth. Shards of pain shot behind his eyes. In his back, the bruising of muscle and bone was deep and immediate.
He dropped to the ground, darkness swimming in his eyes. But he saw Daen and Aelos and the Bar’dyn all look fast to the left, toward the whispering sound of countless feet racing across the shale to meet the Quiet army—the Far legion come to war.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Orullian