What follows is a stand alone short(ish) story set in Har Nast.
The Angel On the Stairs
The Grove was still and warm. Safe as a mothers embrace. Tranquil.
Thost wandered, his heart content to simply walk and be with no fear or worry. His hands trailed through wildflowers and his hair brushed through blossoms of white and pink so that he seemed to have a comets tail of petals falling in his footsteps.
Off to his left, the clearing seemed to hove into his view. Again. Its light was different to the suffused golden glow around him, it was more like the murky light of a dawn in the city. The briefest moment of panic fluttered through his chest as he turned away and drifted deeper. Distant and close he heard his patron whispering words of calming and love. His breathing slowed and his heartbeats sank back to a slow murmur. He opened himself to The Glade and found it flowing through him and filling him with its peace. There was no sense of time passing, no dragging exhaustion of a day spent walking. Only the stillness of a single moment of contentment stretching out before him without end. The golden light bathing him like warm honey.
A small part of his mind thought about how unpleasant that would be. It was a fleeting thought, a brief flicker of an idea, but it began to grow, becoming the focus of his mind’s eye, not The Glade. As he walked he realised the clearing was in front of him now. The light had grown brighter and harsh, more intrusive and harder for him to ignore.
Thost sighed to himself, regretting the necessity of his choice even as he made it. The real world beckoned.
Awake, having lurched from his pallet, he stumbled around in his home, taking things from bowls and jars, small wizened herbs and shreds of plants that he had gathered some time before. He dropped his mixing bowl and dumbly picked it up again and slumped onto his small table before his equally small window, the morning light still harsh and grey after the vibrancy of The Glade. He remembered how to mix the ingredients properly, not too much of this root, twice as many of those leaves, water, more water. Heat, siphon off the dark liquid, add more water and flour, mix, place on the griddle above his fire and leave to cook.
He managed it all in a daze, not really thinking about what he was doing or even knowing it in a normal sense. It was always like this. Between actions he slumped exhausted upon his chair by the table and fight to remain awake, he woke himself by snoring a couple of times. Each time cursing himself and lurching over to turn the flat cakes before stumbling back to his chair and nodding his head in time to the rhythm of sleep.
His was an important task, an envied duty. So he was told by his middleman. Each time he thought of the words he felt sick. Were it that important someone else would have been sent. Were it that urgent it wouldn’t have been entrusted to him. He knew that, sure as sure could be.
His middleman in this city, a distant cousin, would send him notes or appear on his doorstep and tell Thost what was needed and where to leave it. He would never explain what it was need for or what was to become of the people who used the things that were made. Thost never asked, nor did he read the news sheets in the days after he performed a task, there was too much fear in it for him. Instead, Thost would ask his patron, usually lingering in The Glade for longer than he needed to before then going and preparing whatever it was that had been asked for. His patron was wise and knowledgeable so it was not often that Thost would be unable to meet requirements.
He did as he was asked, placed what he made where it was required, hid for the next week and then took payment from his cousin the next time he appeared with another task. That was their pattern now. Thost wasn’t certain what his cousin felt about the importance that he had gained in the eyes of the House elders. His cousin was not the favoured member of their House. The patron had only ever spoken to Thost and so his cousin Barrabos did not understand The Glade and the way Thost did what he was asked. To Barrabos it was all about The Cause. To Thost it was all about surviving.
But when ordered by the House…
The bread cakes on the griddle needed turning again and Thost levered himself from his chair to do it. A moment of inspiration hit him and he looked at the cakes and decided they would be his next metaphor in dealing with Barrabos’ questions.
The world is like a griddle cake… one side hard and cooked and not changeable, the other uncooked, malleable and attached to the cooked side by…dough? The Glade is like the dough, somewhere to meet with the Patron, who is not of this cooked realm… his thoughts trailed to a halt and Thost decided that the metaphor would need some work before he could use it.
They had last spoken about three weeks before, Barrabos had mentioned that this task was for something very important. It was Thost’s understanding that everything they were doing was important, not just bits and pieces of it. Before they had left it had been imparted to him with great care that their endeavour would free their home, liberate their people and the help to end the oppression that threatened to swallow every city state west of the mountains
Thost didn’t know what his mixtures and poultices and potions did exactly, but he suspected. His Patron couldn’t help but impart some of the knowledge to him along with the mundane instructions. Thost had begun to hear dark rumours, even by Har Nast’s standard of gossip they were frightening. Foreigners, from Off, from the South, from Breck, whispers of terrible things stalking the streets...
Thost stopped his brooding and pulled the cakes from the griddle before smothering the fire in ashes. His head was still swimming and he knew that if he started dwelling on what the gossips said he wouldn’t get anything done at all. He packed up what he needed and left.
* * *
Major Voss looked at the papers that thumped onto his desk. He lifted a corner of one with the knife he had been using to trim his nails a moment before.
“What is this?” he rolled his eyes to stare at the man before him.
Barely six feet tall and looking somehow shabby in his black silk undertunic, Staff Sergeant Tranche was struggling to remain at attention, his gaze locked onto some distant point beyond the wall. There was an odour that wafted from his uniform and pervaded around Voss’ office. The major breathed in through his mouth, Tranche was something of a slovenly man but this was a new low.
“My report into the Fey cult on Sharpner’s Street sir.” He quivered and Voss noticed a bead of sweat work its way down the side of Tranche’s face. He watched it rolling amid the stubble, the man had deep black rings about his eyes and looked paler than he probably should have for the time of day.
“And when did you complete this weighty and now long overdue tome?” Tranche physically juddered and his eyes darted around the small office for a moment before he regained his composure.
“It was completed last night Major.” Voss noticed the subtle clenching of Tranche’s hands.
“Would you care to give me the gist of this epic and save me half my morning deciphering your unique and impenetrable encoding of our language?” Voss leant back in his chair and continued to trim his nails, he admitted to himself that he was probably laying it on thick with the man, but he was just…one of those, one who needed a sharp yank of the chain occasionally.
“The Fey were operating out of a chandlers above number 56 of that road sir, embedding the candles with their potions and corrupting many minds with their stink.” Tranche was beyond indignant and his voice wavered with the strain of not shouting and swearing about the indignity.
The sad part of it all for Voss was the fact that despite the man’s evident lack of pride in his appearance or the privileged position he found himself in, Tranche was an excellent officer. He had a knack for sniffing out the Fey and their schemes, he almost seemed to be able to put himself into the mind of a worshipper or practitioner to walk in their shoes and find them. He also had no qualms about the use of extreme force to end whatever they had been up to. Rather the opposite in fact.
“Very good Staff Sergeant. I shall decipher this work at some later point. Well done, now, go home, sober up and report for the evening shift.” Tranche snapped his heels together and left.
Voss looked at the first page of the report before him, the handwriting was erratic at best and illegible at worst. He sighed and picked the wad of papers up, being careful to not pull out the badly placed sting binders. He dumped the whole thing into the wooden draw of a filing cabinet marked with Tranche’s name. It would remain there until the end of the month. Unread by Voss who just wanted results and the paperwork to appease his superiors, regardless of its content or appearance. All of the completed reports would be carted away by the small army of scribes forever cluttering the place up, presumably to be used as padding for Prince Ildarmek’s bed, or burned, or filed away in a deep basement to exist as a record of their glorious work that would never be read again for want of being found ever again.
Voss didn’t much care what happened to the reports, he could have done without the things in the first place, but the law was very clear; an execution without a report was the same as a lynching.
Bastard things. Probably a conspiracy from the Vello paper peddlers to keep their shithole afloat. The northern vassal city-state did indeed make a roaring trade in paper and crops and not much else. Har Nast having killed off all competition in the steel and arms trades, both metaphorically and literally.
He was about to sit back at his desk when he caught sight of the Hour candle burning in it’s alcove.
Damn, two marks late. He had a drawer full of the things, mostly imported from the small towns along the Nast river, far from the sprawling city and its wharves and docks. Each mark was an inch from the next and burned about an hour between them, give or take.
Voss pulled on his tunic and buckled his sword belt over it. The sleeves seemed especially flamboyant and useless as he made his way through the muggy air of the building. His boots rang a steady tattoo on the wooden boards and stone floors as he descended through the levels. On the ground floor he caught sight of Tranche loitering around the scribe’s stockade and grinning inanely at the pretty women working within. Voss would have said something but being late hurried past in silence toward the basement stairs.
It wasn’t that he needed to be there on time, not at all. In fact the whole process worked better if he varied the times of his arrival as much as was possible. His irritation came from the fact that he had other things to do with his day. Better things than mucking around in a filthy basement cell again.
The guards on the thick doors seemed alert as he passed them, with two sat at the small table and writing up reports on the nights activities and one standing by the thick ledger. Voss signed his name and rank with a small flourish at each of the three ledgers as he made his way from the general cells and into the Intensive Interrogation quarters.
He hammered at a door with a name hastily scrawled in chalk on the slate board next to it, there were twelve such cells this far down, but only two were occupied at present. A small hatch opened and Voss caught a glimpse of a stubbled jaw and an eye in the flickering from the torch to his left before the hatch closed once more and the bolts began to be drawn.
The door swung open to reveal a large cell, about the walls were hung and propped seemingly innocuous items that might be found in any of ten thousand homes about the city. The sounds of a man whimpering came from a small box in one corner, the floor around it was wet.
“We doused him not long ago Major. And once every half mark of the candle through night. He’s not a happy bunny.” Fobarl’s voice was tired sounding and higher pitched than Voss’, the nasal pitch grated on the major and he tried to limit Fobarl’s opportunity to speak at any given time if he could. Fobarl was not an Angel in the strictest sense. He had been a student at the university, studying the workings of the mind. The offer of this steady work and the chance to observe individuals under extreme pressure had proven too great however and Fobarl had left his former masters for the service of the city and the Steel Angels in particular. Voss had found the young man’s insights to be useful and refreshing, as well as extremely effective, even if he did sound like a flatulent arse most of the time.
Voss had been amazed at what the studious and irritating young man in his robes had achieved without once resorting to violence. Fobarl was in turn grateful for the chance to conduct his “thought process interruption” experiments with as much invention as he could muster.
Voss nodded and strode over to the box. To his left a barrel chested man was stirring from one of the two cots pushed against the wall. He nodded in a kind of informal salute to Voss who returned it as he walked. Unlike Tranche, Staff Sergeant Felbe was a both capable and ruthlessly efficient officer and in line for a full commission. Voss had taken a liking to the taciturn man.
He rapped on the rough wood of the box. It had come from the market at Fobarl’s insistence. The merchant selling it had assumed it would be used for the housing of a dozen rabbits, stock for a furrier.
The man in the box whimpered loudly at the banging on the wood.
Voss waved at Felbe to assist him and between them they opened the front hatch and extricated the man within. Felbe stood nearby, his posture open and menace written through him. Voss thought it was overkill but didn’t say anything, the man before them needed to be cowed and twisted to serve and Voss would achieve it in any way he could.
“No then my little rabbit.” He had yet to use the man’s actual name, instead referring to him as Little Rabbit. Again at Fobarl’s urging, to ‘alienate you from him and render his sense of identity confused and malleable’. At first Voss had resisted, it was a bit too infantile for him but he had to admit that it worked, given the right circumstances.
“I see you have been bathed, aren’t we kind to you?” the man before him was shivering and his muscles twitched and jumped beneath his skin as cramps ran riot over him, much as they had through the last week, his lack of sleep shone through in the mildly crazed glint in his eyes, tears came unbidden to them and he cried silently for moments before they stopped with as little warning as when they had begun. He had been denied sleep for every hour in last week, using a variety of different methods. Beatings were kept light and irregular, lest Little Rabbit draw comfort from the idea of being worth the aggression and anger of a more traditional interrogation.
Were he not Fey, Voss might have respected the strength being shown in his captive’s silence and resilience. Although he suspected that Little Rabbit’s mind had snapped and what Voss had thus far seen as strength might actually have been mindless torment.
“Oh no, no, no, what is this? Why is a rabbit wearing these?” Voss reached down and gently removed the spectacles from the man’s face, he admired the fine craftsmanship for a moment before dropping them on the flagstones and grinding them beneath his boot heel. “You are a rabbit.” Voss spoke gently “You are not a person, look.” He grabbed the man’s face and twisted it to stare at the hutch. “You sleep in a hutch, you don’t wear clothes, you don’t have a name. Why should you wear spectacles?” It was pure theatre of course, part of a campaign devised by Fobarl to remove the man’s shields of identity from him a piece at a time.
“You are a rabbit! A pet! You are mine to use, play with or discard as I choose. Do you understand?”
Little Rabbit couldn’t meet Voss’ eyes and whimpered. Voss sighed and casually backhanded him across the face, the blow was light and designed to shock, Little Rabbit cringed away sobbing. “Do you understand?” The question was mild and without heat but Little Rabbit nodded his head frantically.
“Good, what a good little rabbit. Felbe, you may feed the animal.” Voss stepped away and watched with mild disinterest as Felbe shoved the bucked of raw vegetables and grass toward the naked man. He clutched at it pathetically and weakly shoved some leaves into his mouth. This was actually the first time he had been fed in almost two days. The last time he had eaten, he had been fed and gone through their morning routine four times at odd intervals through the course of one day. There was only torchlight this deep and Voss understood that Little Rabbit was now probably totally dislocated from the world, with little or no sense of how long he had actually been kept.
Once the feeding was over Felbe dragged Little Rabbit to the table and dumped him into one of the chairs, a bowl of water was placed before him. Voss sat in the other, carefully moving the knee length skirts of his tunic away from his legs and manoeuvring his scabbarded sword as he sat.
“Now then little rabbit. We shall play a game.” Little Rabbit knew what was going to be said as well as did the others, it was an unchanging script but spoken by Voss as if new each time.
“We shall pretend that you are a man, and I shall ask you questions which, if you answer well, will yield rewards.” He spoke as though to a slow witted child. Little Rabbit stared dumbly back.
“Today’s reward will be a name, would you like a name, little rabbit?” Voss offered the suggestion like he would a sweet. Little Rabbit’s eye’s lit up and a fevered look crossed his face. In two months he had not been referred to with any sort of name beyond Little Rabbit. His name had been taken from him before his clothes.
“So then, you wish to play?” Little Rabbit nodded. From behind him Voss could hear Fobarl scribbling away with a pencil as was his habit when something new happened.
“Very good!” From a pocket within his tunic, Voss took out his note book and small wooden writing case with it’s pen and small inkpot, taking his time to prepare a nib and test it on a sheet of scrap paper before looking at Little Rabbit. He asked his questions in the same light tone of voice, as though he were playing a game.
“What is the Cabal?” Little Rabbit looked at him and the notebook, licked his lips and began to speak.
* * *
Thost opened the door to the stairwell and stumbled into it, still groggy and only just out of his trance. He brushed at his face and moved a string of drool that he had failed to notice earlier, he would have felt disgust but he was too dazed to really care, and such things were part and parcel of his visits to The Grove. He bent all of his frazzled mind onto not falling down the twisting flights of stairs and to reaching the entrance vestibule.
The steps slowly past by his feet in the cool echoing space and he was on his own as he lurched down the creaking treads. The rhythm of his footfalls helping to soothe his jangled and disquieted mind, The Grove called at him, lulling him back into a trance and pulling him in again.
He shook his head and stomped onwards, making more noise to drown out his patron’s call. Unable to shake it off entirely he slapped himself suddenly and before he could think the idea through. Thost cried out at the sudden, self-inflicted pain and stumbled down a step, grazing the back of his leg. Doors opened on the floors above him and people yelled at him to shut up. Thost shambled down the stairs marginally faster and into the vestibule. He gathered his breath and pulled the door open.
Muggy summer heat washed over him in a gritty blast of third hand air from the street. People swarmed along before the steps and Thost had to force his way into the crowd, he bobbed and wove between the people walking along, stumbling over his own feet and bouncing from shoulders and chests occasionally. The light here was bright enough to hurt his eyes, even though the day was overcast with smog and the fumes of the factories, but it seemed like a single glow with no obvious source and coming from everywhere at once, adding to his disorientation.
A few yards from his door he looked to his left, out of habit and fear. He had to stele himself to do it. Sucking in a great breath that filled his mouth with the taste of the city.
Staring through the crowds and down Blossom Street he could see the Cherry Orchard. Black granite walls and hints of tree tops beyond, and above them the House of Blossoms, black and red banners and newer watch towers high above the house. The walls weren’t built as a fortress or defensive structure of any sort, merely meant to obscure view of the orchard, the building was meant as a warehouse and office combined. The watch towers were later additions however, they gave hint to the buildings new purpose.
Thost slowed his step for a moment and mentally swore at the looming building.
You haven’t found me yet!
His audacity, his genius and his safety lay in his proximity to Blossom Street.
Who would look for one of my gifts this close to where Angels nest?
He stood gloating for a moment, terrified and exultant, yet again, at his own daring. Then his eyes caught a gap in the crowds at the other end of Blossom Street, flashes of bright shining metal and dark cloth. There seemed to be a bubble in the crowd through which the metal’s owners approached.
He turned and quickly made his way along Market Approach. Just because they weren’t expecting to find him so close was no reason to push his luck. If he was honest there weren’t any reasons to push his luck.
Angels are not stupid, no matter what my cousin may think.
He quickly lost himself in the heat and the crowds, swimming along almost totally hidden by the taller people around him. He stomped and pushed, weaving around and squeezing between merchants, citizens, bakers and several off duty soldiers. The entire city had woken at dawn and now Thost was pushing through crowds, not what he had wanted. But probably better and easier for him to hide amongst. Periodically he looked backwards and tried to spot the Angels in the crowd but the shifting currents and his own lack of height denied him any view. He scuttled into the higher shelter of a raised doorway and looked ahead, a hundred yards ahead of him was what he needed.
He pushed his way to the small corner market, a dozen opportunistic traders flogging their wares from blankets spread across the cobbles. He wandered between them innocently before buying a slightly stale pasty. He counted to one hundred heartbeats as he ate and watched the crowds, jostled and nudged with each bite, but there was no sight of any Angels in the crowd. Happier now, he pushed his way back in.
They have bigger fish to catch. The thought came quickly as he moved along. He began to search for a crumb of pastry between his teeth. They wouldn’t look for me! The probably don’t even know I exist! He freed the crumb. But what if they do?
Without wanting them to, implications began to rise.
Tales from all over the city had been filtered through his paranoia. Legends in the making of Angels striding into burning buildings to rescue children and old ladies, tales of Angels storming breaches in far flung city walls. Tales of Angels breaking down doors in the early morning. Tales of Angels setting the fires in the buildings in the first place. Whispers of what actually went on in the Cherry Orchard.
His pride at escaping them faded as he brooded on the reality of his life in this place.
For the first time in several months Thost found himself pining for the marshes he had called home. Wishing for a vista that was clear and uninterrupted by the city and its valleys and buildings and empty of its vast, heaving crowds of citizens and immigrants, of which he was considered by all in this place. Not Thost of the Arlen tributary, not Thost of house Farlen, just another face in the crowd, another wanderer trying to belong. Even though he had a purpose here, a purpose demanded by his House and the Matriarch. He hated the place, hated his constant fear of the Angels and of his discovery. And the fear of what would come from that.
At times Thost felt as though he were nothing more than a mouse amongst the tall stalks of Wheat. Unnoticeable, even to the wheat. His passing leaving less disturbance than the breeze. But he knew that mice are things hunted, by hawks and eagles as well as other mice. And knowing his hunters, Thost knew that the wheat could never be tall enough.
His pace had slowed as his thoughts circled. He felt as though the clouds were pressing in on him as much as the people around him were, the air thick and heavy. He sidestepped a covered wooden barrow of night soil, the Gongman pushing it nodded and winked above his heavy leather mask. Thost breathed in and wished he hadn’t. Pungent and overpowering. He gagged and looked around, he wasn’t just him, in the path of the hand cart other people were gagging and holding perfumed cloths to their faces. There were too many people, they would be looking at him, obviously a stranger, obviously foreign.
Bloody stupid day to be at this. He saw a pair of off duty officers from one of the city regiments walking along and darted to the left out of their way.
Any day is a bloody stupid day to be at this! The officers walked past him without noticing, intent on discussing some rumour of raids to the east. Thost looked around and then stopped himself. No one would be able to pick me out, not here, not in this dense crowd! Around him people moved and flowed in the invisible currents and tides of the city. Thost forced himself to breathe and sucked the air deep into his lungs. It stank of people and the city and all the things he hated. But no one noticed him doing it, no one cared that he was. Thost carried on walking.
He sweated a little more into his shirt. The heat and humidity were climbing as the sun reached its peak somewhere far above the smog and cloud that blanketed the sprawl of buildings within the huge city walls.
Horns blared from somewhere behind. Thost’s heart tried to beat its way through his chest in fear. Around him people were scurrying to the edges of the street, hiding in shops and pressing together, the crowd was almost good natured but mostly afraid. Thost ran quickly from one side of the street to the other, not finding a place to hide within the throng. In desperation he pushed past a woman and her child still finding himself at the front of the small crowd, trembling as he heard boots crashing in time to the drums that throbbed out their beat. The horns blared out again, low and urgent.
The Secondmen came first loping in their lighter steel and leather brigandines, and beating the tardy out of the way with two foot long staves. Thost and the others watched as a beggar near the edge of the crowd held his hands out to the passing soldiers, one of them lashed out viciously as he passed and the man sprawled backwards, still and silent. The crowds on either side moved away as much as they could.
The Secondman who had struck the blow hadn’t broken stride and didn’t look back, they passed Thost in a jingling and thumping group that shouted the way ahead clear.
After them came the soldiers. The finest warriors of Har Nast. Heavy infantry armed with nine foot long spears and looking sinister in armour left black from the forge. Clad in the steel that had made the city the only power to be counted in this part of the world.
So they think at any rate.
They thumped past, shields across their backs and left arms swinging. Company hornsmen let out blasts of sound that roared up and down the street while drummers beat the thunderous rhythm of the march and hobnailed boots kept time and struck sparks.
Thost stared directly at them at all of them. The officers ignored him and all of the others, keeping time with their men, more secondmen loped along the tight column eyeing the crowd and hefting staves. Thost stared at them as well.
Smile at them. Smile, make it a big one. Go on, wave. He stared longer and forced an inane grin across his face. His hand raised up and waved as the men passed, others around him were doing the same thing and some cheered.
He watched the whole column pass, several thousand at least. The crowds around him had dissolved slightly as people had worked their way toward the rear of the soldiers, avoiding staves and bruises. Thost stayed where he was. His destination was beyond the column of men. He waited and watched the whole headache inducing parade march past, mules and all, toward some poor town or city newly destined to have the shite beaten from it in the name of whatever it was Har Nast called its godless ways.
The heat and the people and the moisture were clamouring at him, prying for his attention, demanding it and trying to overpower him. At the back of his mind The Grove called to him, whispered promises of cool breezes and lush grass between his toes.
No! Not now! What use would you be now?
Forcing some control onto himself Thost managed to get to the appointed place. He deposited the sack where it was meant to go and turned away quickly. No one had seen him, or cared for that matter. He was sure of that. He was.
On his way home The Grove tempted and pulled at his senses so much that at times he could see it from the corner of his eye, almost like a thing stalking him. He managed the last hundred yards to his tenement in a slow jog, it was all he could do to not run flat out for the safety of the building. He did run up the stairs however, pushing open the door to his quarters, exhausted and panting. He barely slammed the door shut before diving back into The Glade. Retreating into its gentle embrace.
* * *
The great city swarmed. Gottard moved through its crowds unseen. Or more properly, not looked at. Throughout the vast urban sprawl, parks and green spaces cowered beneath the gaze of high windows in well-dressed buildings. The islands of tame nature crowded and overrun by people trying to escape the oppressive air of stone city and other people, all crammed in with each other, behind high walls.
Gottard moved slowly across the thronged street, weaving around carts and hawkers and farmers and citizens and all the others, making his slow and deliberate way toward the square opposite him.
Inside the low wall and railing, people crowded in to walk on gravel paths around manicured green space. They talked and laughed, some stood and conversed whilst others sat at the tables provided and ate with friends or alone. The place heaved. Gottard moved through the gentile people toward what looked like an oak, standing in the far corner. More chairs were set out beneath it and these were filled with slightly older citizens who watched the younger move with the air of spectators or experts.
Gottard leant against the trunk of the tree and watched as a table of young officers laughed loudly as they played at cards. One of the young men, handsome in his uniform, cast a glance at a group of equally young ladies, standing and giggling not far away and casting coquettish glances over at them.
Gottard smiled to himself, this was just about perfect.
He reached up into the lowest branches of the tree and pulled free the small sack he knew would be waiting there for him. It weighed fairly heavily in his hands. No one paid him any attention and he sank down against the tree to relax and begin.
He unstopped the flask, swilling its contents and smelling them appreciatively, as though they were a fine wine. His sipped at the bitter dark liquid, his face pulling as though he had been sipping whiskey. He watched as the young solders continued to stare at the young ladies and tried to gain their attention by proving how witty they were. The young ladies ceased their laughter as a trio of brutish looking mercenaries wandered across the grass, one of them trailing smoke from his pipe and all of them looking brutish and huge in their leather armour. The young officers turned and frowned then rose as they saw a group of grand dames drifting in their direction.
Gottard sipped a little more and judged that it was enough before chewing on a hunk of the black, bitter bread in the sack. He rolled a piece of it around his tongue, reflecting on this place. This city.
Gottard had no home now. Had not had a home for almost ten years. The walls of his city had burned before his eyes, his neighbours had fled and been chased down, his small workshop had been ransacked and wrecked. His wife…
Gottard swallowed the bread, enjoying the bitterness and the sour taste as it went down. The tingling in his limbs was now pronounced, shooting ripples of a powerful sensation emerging from his stomach and wrapping him in warmth. A glance at the sky and he drew in his breath as he perceived the sun and all of the power radiating from it in spectral waves that wove across the sky. His eyes saw the smog and thick layers of ash that drifted through amongst the clouds but his mind witnessed the power emanating from the sun.
Gottard looked around him and now he could see little sparks of energy lurking dormant in the tree above him and in the carefully maintained shrubs and grass. The people around him also seemed to have something, some aura but no sooner did he see it than it was gone. He focussed instead on the grass and shrubs and the tree. He felt them, their slumber and their vitality. He prodded at each of the sparks and rejoiced as they responded. He could feel the tingling reaching a peak, he pushed more at the sparks, he cold dimly hear noises, people noises, but Gottard was so deeply into his work that they were as nothing to him.
The sparks around him were responding more and more to his prodding and coaxing, from his weary eyes he could see that what had been sparks were now more like bonfires. He coaxed further and pushed harder, the tingling and rippling tide of power within him began to fade and with it Gottard felt his strength ebbing away.
At last, too short a time for Gottard and too long for others, his energy spent he pushed himself to his feet and staggered through the verdant growth. His quarters were outside the city walls, it would take him the rest of the day to reach them.
* * *
“What dreadful stench.” Voss’ voice was muffled from behind the visor of his helmet. He turned from the mangled wreckage before him to look at Staff Sergeant Bulheim. “Wouldn’t you say? Dreadful.” The rhetorical question overshot the other man who was scribbling in a cheap notebook with a charcoal stick. Voss sighed to himself and stepped over the row of wooden trestles. Nervous looking men in the tatty and mismatched armour of the city watch looked at him as he approached.
“Who is you commander?” The question was met with confused looks and shrugs.
“We was just told be here. Sir.”
“Yes I had gathered that much, by whom were you told?”
“By yon officer. Sir.” The speaker jerked his head toward a man dressed in the uniform of a Captain. Voss approached and the man snapped his heels together and bolted to attention. He appeared to have been surveying the devastation in dismay.
“Captain Frass sir. 2nd company of the 33rd light, Sir.” The man was efficient and almost seemed anxious to please. Cant imagine why that might be. Voss smirked to himself.
“So then Captain,” Voss stressed the man’s lower rank, “what would we call…this?” he gestured around him with an open handed wave.
“Sir! It would appear to be the site of a Fey assault on the city, sir.” Voss rolled his eyes and removed his helmet. His hair was darker with sweat, the sides and back of his head were shaved close and beads of moisture gathered there. He ran his empty hand through the longer mane on the crest of his head and shook the drops from his fingers.
“Yes captain, thank you, I had worked that much out by myself. What I was questioning was the specific nature of this assault. Whether it is something we have seen before in any of the forsaken isolated wastes of Fey civilisation out there.”
“…No sir…No I have not seen anything like this before.” Voss waved the Captain away with weary dismissal.
“I had worked that out as well.”
Stepping carefully, Voss moved around what had been an inner city garden. He didn’t frequent these place much himself. His uniform would ensure more than adequate space for himself and anyone he chose to escort about the city. But if he was being entirely honest with himself Voss would have to admit he just didn’t have time for most other people. They were lazy, stupid and grasping. They didn’t know what went on in the world and didn’t seem to care either.
He stepped over a body. The former square of grass had been transformed. It was like the worst of the darkest northern forests. He could see what looked like rose bushes, grown to monstrous size and thickness. He paused and broke off a thorn the width of his hand and half again the length. He turned it over and over in his hands. It was sharp all along its edges and the point was like that of a needle. The thicket looked like it was at least ten feet high and impenetrable. Voss could just make out the contours of a body in the dim interior, the rose bush seemed to have grown through it. He thought there were more somewhere deeper inside.
He was walking down an avenue cut from the grass which had grown to shoulder height and seemed thicker and sharper again than it should have any right to be. He ran the palm of one hand up a stalk and felt the sting of a small cut. The hacked out route wound away ahead of him and Voss could hear the ring of blades further ahead. Some of the good captain’s men no doubt searching for survivors. Voss knew there wouldn’t be any. He sighed to himself and retreated back down the route.
“So then Bulheim. What would you say has happened?” Voss looked around once more as the other man carefully put a ribbon into his notebook and pocketed the charcoal.
“I would say nothing I have ever seen before sir.”
“Very well put. So, have we some survivors to talk to?”
“At this point sir no. I will have the watch and the criers put out announcements as well as the City Press.” Voss nodded. There wasn’t much more they could do at this point but wait.
“Well done, is there anything pressing taking up space on your desk?” Voss doubted it. Bulheim was one of his men, methodical to a point and vicious when required and unlike Tranche he was punctual and grasped the concept of a deadline quite well.
“Excellent, I shall leave the wool gathering to you then.”
Voss turned and strode away. Colonel Arnost would be expecting his report, Voss left his helmet off as he walked and nodded to his escort. An extravagance, part of the mystery of the Angels was their inapproachability, courtesy of the heavy infantry battalions attached to them to maintain the distance.
Voss ignored the people being shoved out of his way as he started to formulate his report in his head. Comparing this attack to something similar might be a good start, another assault in a familiar vein…
What am I thinking, there has never been an event like this one! We have not seen this kind of practitioner before, if it even was a practitioner that is. His mood darkened as he moved through the space bullied by the four heavy infantry ahead of him. Behind him another six clanked along in his wake, their spears sloped at exactly the same angle.
His eyes stared at the crowd through the spears and helmets of his guard. The city flowed past him as he moved, its people and buildings, other small parks. Empty for the time of day. Not all that surprising given the word was out though. The businesses did their trade and the people moved from one to the other on business of their own and any one of them might know anything. Oh yes, come to Har Nast, we are free of worship and practitioners, come to Har Nast, we will welcome you with open arms, all are welcome! We should be closing the gates and scouring the place, not letting them run rampant. The crowds seemed to be getting heavier as businesses sent out their apprentices to fetch lunch from the hawkers and stalls set up on street corners. His escort suddenly seemed like a good thing as they made sure he could proceed unimpeded. They shoved the bearers of a sedan chair out of the way, the richly dressed owner looked up to complain as he picked himself from the ground, then he caught sight of just who had shoved him from his seat and thought better of it.
Voss’ shining visor hid his face, his expression. Worry was worming its way through his mind.
The Cabal. If they are what they are rumoured to be, then it is they who have done this to us, and I am no closer to finding them now than when I first heard the name.
He resolved to intensify his searching.
* * *
SIX MONTHS AGO
Thost stumbled into yet another person, he had not been expecting crowds like these. His cousin had warned him in his letter that there were more people here than he would be used to, but this was beyond everything he had expected. People bustled in every direction, face after face blurring into one great confusing mass. And everyone was so tall! That was something Barabos had not mentioned at all. The people from the Rivers had not mentioned that, they had said that the warriors of Har Nast towered over their own, but Thost had thought them to be lying. They were not. These people crowded in on him, loomed over him and jostled him with every step, seemingly without thought.
He paused to stare at a road sign made of carved and painted wood set high up in the wall of a building. Chandler’s Walk.
He looked again at the increasingly grubby letter in his hands. Follow the Walk and take the fifth street on the right. How long far do the Chandlers walk?
He pushed his way into the street and barged along it. He tried to barge, what actually happened was that he was pressed and bounced between shoulders as he walked, nearly falling on more than one occasion. He was elbowed in his stomach by a woman moving through the crowds with a large basket in one hand.
He pushed his way along, trying to get over toward the side of the street. The taller people around him pushed and crushed him away from his desired side. He ended up being moved further away from the side than he had been before he started. He grunted and strained and swam his way through the crowd. People looked down as he started use his own elbows to barge other people out of the way. Eventually he made it all the way to the other side of the street and then carried on, walking toward the south. Or what he thought was the south.
* * *
“What are you bloody well playing at?”
Thost span again and looked up into the face of a stooped and white haired old man. Who appeared to be furious.
“Well, I was here, you see, when I was meant to be and…”
“And nothing! Look at what you’ve done to my bleeding door!”
The wood was splintered and the iron banding shiny and gouged from the cobble he had used.
“I, well I mean. Nobody came. So I knocked louder.”
“With a sodding boulder?”
Thost looked at the floor.
“Are you him?” The old man seemed to swallow some of his anger for a moment. When Thost nodded the anger came back. “You’re late!”
Thost hurried to catch up with the old man as he marched away into the interior of the building. He saw wooden walls all around him and a wooden ceiling that was held up by large iron pillars. The warehouse had been subdivided into dozens of homes.
The old man turned and turned again as they went deeper into the maze like innards of the huge building. Eventually they came to a stone wall with a flight of stairs running up them. They climbed past two floors of corridors and rooms before reaching a final floor that seemed to be dazzlingly bright to Thost’s eyes, when they stopped watering he looked up and saw the roof was made of glass, grimy and cracked but letting the sunlight stream through.
“In here.” The door to a large room was held open and Thost was pushed through. His boots muddied a threadbare rug on the floor and he stumbled into a table as the old man pushed him out of the way.
This is the cabal? A group of mismatched foreigners sat around the edges of the room.
The cabal, the most feared group of Fey rumoured to exist in the city. Come here to wreak havoc and vengeance. But no one had seen anything of them.
A woman with a voice like a rusted hinge croaked at him.
“Pardon?” He got the gist. His customer was in the next room.
She was in the bed. Propped up and covered in blankets, fever seeming to eat her alive. The old man leant around the doorframe.
“You can do it for her?” His voice was rough and Thost didn’t want to wonder at their relationship. He simply nodded and the older man withdrew.
Thost settled himself on the stool that was the rooms only other piece of furniture. He reached out and held a frail hand.
“Matti’? I am Thost. Your friends have asked me to help you.” For a very sizable fee.
He stayed there, holding her hand for a few minutes, waiting to see if she would recognise him, or even that he was in the room. She didn’t.
Above him the sun filtered through the heavy clouds and smog to bombard the glass roof of the former warehouse with its heat. He shifted around on his stool and tried to focus. He felt her sweaty palm in his grip, the skin warm like old leather and wet. He felt the bones beneath and the veins wrapped around them. He listened, focussing on the ragged breaths that were pulled into the skinny torso labouring beneath the blankets. He listened with all of his might, opening himself to everything going on in the body on the bed before him. Slowly, so slowly, he began to feel the blood moving around, feel the sheets and blankets, the drenched pillows.
He tried to call the Grove. It stayed put. He frowned, tried again. Nothing.
Bastard thing! Come on!
His eyes clamped shut now and his teeth gritted, he reached for it, stretched, strained. He felt as though he was reaching for something that was just beyond his grasp. He stretched a little further, feeling the blood pound at his temples while still being locked into everything Matti felt.
There! The merest hint of a blade of grass in his hand, he felt Matti shift around under her blankets. Thost stretched a little harder. Straining and pulling to get more than one blade.
He felt someone shaking his shoulder.
His eyes opened and he looked around groggily. He felt too warm and a little sick, the hand he was holding was gripping his now. Only slightly, a tiny pressure in the fingers, but more than it had been when he had started. But he was worn through for the day.
The old man loomed over him.
“You’ve shat yourself.”
* * *
Thost spent the following day recovering. One of his eyes was horrifically bloodshot and he felt like an old washcloth.
He washed his britches.
He spent the evening on his balcony watching the city, thinking about the Cherry Orchard. He almost had enough to just leave, get away from them and the rumours about that building. This contract might bring him to their attention though, might make him important enough to notice. Technically he didn’t need to be important, His gift made him fair game, use it or not. Real or not. Suspicion was enough.
For now though they didn’t care about him, he was safe, ish.
He went back to the building over the next three days. Each day a little more of the Grove and a little more of Matti seemed to surface. He went home exhausted but hopeful, without messing himself.
* * *
The evening sun broke through the clouds and set the horizon on fire as Thost slouched across his one room toward his supper burning in the pot.
How could stew burn? It was mostly water wasn’t it?
He looked inside his battered pot and saw mostly blackened crust and ash. He sighed and moved the heavy pot from the fire before fetching his mostly stale bread from his table on the balcony.
The bread was tough to chew as he sat by the fire thinking.
Matti, Matti. She is ill. Very ill, don’t need my gifts to know that.
When he had asked what she was ill with he had been met with stern looks he would have called threatening if he were not being employed by them. He hadn’t asked again, though he had wondered.
Her fever should have broken on the second day, his gift should have seen to that. But it hadn’t. She had been kept in her sweating and ill state, and Thost had been prevented from bringing his full power to bare. The glade was almost there, almost within his grasp and each time it was a tiny bit easier.
But it’s taking too long. Far too long. Matti’ll be dead in two days, improvements or no. She needs to eat needs to heal.
Thost chewed thoughtfully for a while resigned.
I know. I know.
He breathed in deeply.
He imagined himself shouting into a dark cave. In his mind’s eye he stood before it, small and fragile, the depth of it unknowable and terrible in its scope, contained by his mind and yet bigger than him and everything around him.
He finished the bread and absently dusted the residue from his shirt. The fire flickered before his eyes as he waited.
He didn’t wait long.
From the cave in his mind’s eye came a breeze. He imagined it smelt of trees and grass in the spring, after the rains.
I am imagining it. It is not in the room. The words looped like a mantra.
The smells and sounds of the Grove rose up around him and he clung to the words in his head as something spoke to him from the cave.
He trembled and his mouth worked, repeating the words of his mantra silently, not pausing to swallow the spittle that built up and began to foam. He didn’t notice when he bit the tip of his tongue deeply, nor did he notice as the blood dribbled and mixed with the foam around his mouth and spattered on his shirt.
At length, the voice stopped speaking, the smells and sounds of the Grove receded and the cave disappeared from his mind.
Thost felt the muscles of his back cramp with tension and cried out at the sudden pain as he twisted awkwardly and against his will. After a while the agony subsided and he stood quickly stripping off his bloodied shirt and britches.
He’d wet himself.
* * *
They were all in the same places that they had been on that first day. All of them looked at him with blank faces this time. He didn’t say anything to them as he moved through the room, he made some expressions on his face that might have been smiles.
Matti lay where she had the day before. Still doused in sweat. Thost wasted no time today, he pushed the stool away with his foot and lay next to the bed on the floor, he reached up with one groping hand and found Matti’s arm. With his other hand he began stuffing mushrooms into his face.
Have to get more now.
They were difficult to find here and it took a while for him to build up the numbers needed. They were dried, smoked actually and tasting of that more than anything else. His mouth felt metallic, and then it felt numb. His eyes began to blur and he quickly pushed a last handful of fungus into his mouth, chewing noisily and messily and almost beyond the ability to care.
The Grove. It called to him now. He couldn’t just smell it, he could feel it, pushing in around the edges, the boards becoming softer as the grass came through and the air losing the sickly sweet smell of the ill and gaining the freshness of a mountain glade.
And he was there. He breathed deep, glad once more of his gift, glad of it for the hours or minutes that he would be here. He set off, moving through the blossoming trees under a sky bluer than blue and treading on grass softer than any he had set foot on.
Matti was curled up under a cherry tree.
Makes sense I suppose.
She looked healthier here, more like she was supposed to look. Old though, older than Thost.
“Matti.” She stirred in response. Then sat up, amazed and horrified at once.
“Where am I? Am I…No, no not this, not here!”
“It’s alright Matti, it’s all fine, we’re allowed to be here. They are my friends, they let me come here and help people. It’s fine.” I’m not the one who will pay, that’s why.
She looked at him as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. Thunder rumbled overhead.
“I…Never mind, it’s not important. Come on. We need to leave.”
“It was poison you know.” She said it almost like a challenge.
“I hadn’t been there long enough to hurt anybody. Why would I be poisoned?”
“You’re from the countryside aren’t you?”
“By that I take it you actually mean nowhere near here. Yes.” Her accent was good, not mangled and messed up like a lot of the foreigners.
“Trust me then, you need to come with me and then you and your friends all need to leave.”
“Because the Angels will come for us all otherwise.”
She looked at him like he had gone mad for a second before following.
“They scare you?”
“They scare everybody.”
“Where do they come from?”
“What…”she searched for a word for a moment “pantheon do they come from, who do they serve?”
For a moment Thost was genuinely lost for words, then he burst into laughter, deep belly laughs that rumbled along with the thunder.
“For someone supposed to be so wise you don’t know anything do you?” She said nothing and trudged behind him for a way. After a time Thost could see the glade centre again, the thunder was getting louder with each peal. Each peal… that sounded like footfalls of gods.
Realisation broke on him like cold water.
“Run!” Matti looked surprised and confused for a moment but followed him. They pounded through the grass, feet wet with dew, breathing hard quickly. Thost strained to reach the centre of the Glade, the place where the light was different, more like the gloom of an overcast, muggy day.
And he woke. The thunder was a drum tattoo from above, he craned his head around in time to see figures running along the iron supports frames next to the windows.
Matti stirred on the bed but Thost didn’t even look at her as he jumped up. The door gave way as he barged through it, around him the cabal jumped to their feet as he burst into the room. He ignored frantic questions and alarmed looks and bolted for the door.
He nearly made it, nearly. A heartbeat more and he would have gained the corridor.
From Matti’s room there came the sound of shattering glass and a frail scream followed by thumping noises.
Run! Run you arsehole you need to leave now!
His own voice screamed it at him but Thost felt himself drawn to turn around despite himself. He knew what he would be there, he wanted to see one for himself, if only the once before he bolted.
The Angel that stepped into the room was more than Thost had dreaded to see.
He stood over six feet tall with ease, ducking through the doorway that had been above Thost’s head. His armour was beautiful, a helm that covered his entire face with a silver visor shaped like a frowning visage that froze Thost with fear. A breastplate of intricate design covered a silk overtunic of deepest black that flowed around the upper arms and trailed low from the breastplate in sweeping skirts that covered armoured thighs.
He had a sword. It was bloody.
Right, seen one, good for you now bloody move!
Thost turned and ran. Behind him more glass shattered and screams began. He got to the stairs and took them two and three at a time, careless of falling. He made it to the ground floor when he felt it.
A shockwave dropped him to his knees in the corridor as it ripped through the building, it felt like worms of pain burrowing through his skull and into his eyes. He knelt and breathed heavily until the world stopped hurting. He saw a puddle of blood in front of him from his gushing nose. He ignored it and used the wall to stand up.
He heard the footsteps and turned.
What! No! He shouldn’t be able to think never mind stand!
The Angel on the stairs looked decidedly less grand than the other hand, if it was a different one, Thost couldn’t tell. His tunic looked like it had been dragged through a thorn bush and his armour was besmirched with blood. He was staggering down the stairs, his sword seeming almost forgotten in his hand. The he saw Thost and straightened up and the stains on his armour suddenly seemed less messy and more intimidating.
Thost turned and ran again.
He bounced from wall to wall drawing cries from the terrified occupants as they heard the booming of his passage on the wood.
Somehow, he made it outside where he ran harder than he had in decades. His heart pounded in his ribs, he wanted to vomit as he barrelled along in the alleyways. Suddenly he burst into the market like a cork from a bottle.
People went down with him in a tangle of thrashing limbs and cursing. Thost pulled himself out and pushed into the crowed, bulling room with elbows and fists.
People turned and looked at him and moved out of his way, he yelled it again, his breath almost gone and his voice croaking, more people moved away. The city blurred past, faces looking at him, his bloody face and shirt, bulging eyes and crimson from his neck to his retreating hairline as he ran. After too long he reached his block.
The stairs rushed past his feet and his swimming eyes. His key was in his hand before he reached his door and it turned in the lock smoothly. The clunking mechanism as soothing as a mothers caress after a nightmare. He burst into his room and slammed the door shut, locking it and falling to the ground to heave and labour for air.
The Angel at the table cleared his throat and Thost stopped breathing.
“Well done on crying thief. You made very good time.” Thost’s eyes rolled toward the open balcony door and the chair sat before it. The Angel’s helmet was on the floor. Bespattered. His face was red and his hair was dark with sweat, it rolled down the shaved sides of his head and from the long locks on top.
“You nearly got here before me.”
His voice was resonant and thick with the Har Nast accent. He leaned back in his borrowed chair and stretched his legs before him. The word nearly seemed to echo.
“My friends at the Cherry Orchard would very much like to speak with you about…Patrons.” He loaded the word with distaste. “Would you be so kind as to accompany me?” Civil but not a question.
Thost stayed where he was and in his mind screamed.
“No? Ah well.” The words were regretful, the tone not. The Angel stood and walked over to tower above Thost.
Thost was reached, pushing for the Grove, desperate, more desperate than ever before and he could feel it. Almost there! He felt the muscles in his back tearing under the strain but he could smell the breeze already!
His world grew dark as the Angel’s boot descended onto his face. Before the crunch of his nose and all going black he had one last flickering thought.