P.C. Hodgell

Work in Progress

Chapter 1:  Naming the Dead

Autumn’s Eve:  Summer 120
I

The night wind keened down stairwells, tasting of rain, and the tapestries that rustled against the cold, stone walls of the old keep’s lower hall exhaled their stale breath in fitful, answering puffs.  Woven faces shifted uneasily in the flickering torchlight, a thin lip twisting here, a brow furrowing there.  Eyes, so many watchful eyes, most the silver-gray of their house.  Even if the subject of the banner had had the ill-fortune to die wearing the wrong shade, Kendar artisans had somehow blended strands to achieve it.  Their work, as usual, was unnervingly effective.  From the rags of the dead, teased apart thread by thread, they had created an illusion of life that whispered back and forth, each to each:

he canhe can’the canhe can’t

Torisen Black Lord paced under the disapproving gaze of his ancestors, scanning their ranks with something like despair.  Except for his haggard expression, the fine bones of his face matched the best of those that glared back at him.  Moreover, he had donned his least shabby dress coat to honor this occasion and moved within it like a cat within its skin, unconsciously lithe.  If it was a bit loose at the waist, well, it had been a hard summer, and only his servant Burr saw him naked to remark on the growing shadows between his ribs.

"Winter is coming," he thought, with an involuntary shiver, "and the Greater Harvest has failed.  How will I feed my people?"

But these too were of his house.  Never mind that all had died long before he had been born and might almost be said to have lived in a different world, before the long years of chaos following Ganth Gray Lord’s fall.  Twice since he had become Highlord of the Kencyrath and, incidentally, Lord Knorth, Torisen had recited their names on Autumn’s Eve to keep their memory alive within their house.  True, he had had help from senior Kendar like Harn Grip-hard, contemporaries of his father, Ganth, and from his former mentor, Lord Ardeth.  Even so, there had been gaps, fading features to whom no one alive could put a name and others blurred beyond recognition.  Weeping stone and silent centuries had not been kind to warp and weft, especially when they were no longer bound to a name.

Then too, Harn had told him what little he knew about the disastrous fire here, the night that Torisen’s grandfather Gerraint Highlord had died, with its oddly selective destruction of banners.

And the previous spring his sister Jame had somehow blown out the great stained glass map in the Council Chamber two stories above, causing most of what banners were left to be sucked up into the night.

What he faced now were the survivors of those two catastrophes.  Otherwise they would have felted the walls a foot or more thick, the oldest moldering together all the way back to the Kencyrath’s arrival on Rathillien some three millennia ago.

Still, how many there were:  faces without names, names without faces.

Traditional Kencyr believed in well-trained memories rather than in the written word; hence, to Torisen’s knowledge, there was no other record of his house unless fragments of it found their way into story and song.

The Master of Knorth
High Lord of the Kencyrath
A proud man was he
Power he had and knowledge
Deeper than the Sea of Stars
But he feared death….

No one, ever, would forget Gerridon and his sister-consort Jamethiel Dream-weaver or the deal that he had wrought with Perimal Darkling to gain his precious if sere immortality.  Strange to think that, if the songs were true, he still lurked on the other side of the Barrier, on the last of a hundred fallen worlds, in his monstrous House, chewing the bitter, deathless rind of his life, waiting … for what?  No one knew.  Maybe for the coming of the Tyr-ridan, those three Kencyr who were each to embody one of their god’s faces, creation, preservation, and destruction.  Few, however, still had hope of that, especially with the Highlord’s house nearly extinct.  No, their god had forsaken them almost at the moment of drawing the Three People together and giving them their hopeless task of fighting the Shadows.

“We are on our own here,” Torisen said to the watching faces.  Odd, how some also seemed to listen and respond with subtle, rueful shifts of expression as light from the torch that he carried touched their faces.  Kendar work was indeed marvelous, or lack of sleep was at last catching up with him.  “It’s been so long since the Shadows last menaced us, and without that threat to unite us we are floundering, falling apart.”

He felt as if he was, at least.

Some said that the honor of his house had fallen with Gerridon, leaving those who fled across the Barrier to this new world without true authority.  Yet the Knorth had continued to rule, until Ganth Gray Lord had run mad after the massacre of his family’s womenfolk, created even more slaughter in the White Hills trying to avenge them, at last casting down his title and going into exile in the Haunted Lands. 

There his two twin children had been born.

There he had cast out his daughter Jame when she had proved to be Shanir, one of the Old Blood, whom he loathed above all things.

There in his growing madness he would eventually have killed his son if Torisen hadn’t gained the garrison’s approval to flee.

But did that truly supercede the authority of one’s lord and father?

If Gerridon had polluted Knorth honor, and Ganth had nearly destroyed what was left of his house, how could his son inherit anything?

You can’t, jeered his father’s hoarse, all too familiar voice behind the locked door in the Haunted Land’s keep where Torisen had grown up, which was still his soul-image.  As High Lord you swore to protect the people of this house, alive or dead, and you can’t even remember their names.

Torisen ran a distraught, scarred hand through black hair prematurely touched with white.  Things had been so much easier when he had commanded the Southern Host, responsible only for the bodies and not the souls of those put in his charge.  A year ago, Autumn’s Eve had only been a chore.  He had meant his presence here tonight, unassisted, to reassure his people.  Why, why, why couldn’t he remember any names now, or rather only one?

Mullen’s honest Kendar face regarded him anxiously from among the ranks of the haughty, Highborn dead.  He had been one of Those Who Returned, Knorth Kendar who would have followed their lord into exile but had been driven back by Ganth in the high passes of the Ebonbane.  In despair some had chosen the White Knife.  Others like Mullen had become Yondri-gon, wretched hangers-on in other houses, until the unexpected, well-nigh miraculous return of their lord’s son.  Torisen had reclaimed and bound as many of them as he could – perhaps too many to hold them all.  Mullen had earned his place in this hall by practically flaying himself alive on the cold stone floor, all so that his lord would never forget his name again.

“So much blood,” Torisen murmured, remembering.  A lake of it, an ocean, warm at its heart, congealing at the edges: Mullen had been all day at his grisly task and he, Torisen, had sensed none of that slow agony until the end.  The flagstones were scrubbed clean now, but Mullen’s blood must have seeped down through the cracks to the keep’s very foundation.

The entire Kencyrath feeds on Kendar blood, thought Torisen, not for the first time.  We so-called Highborn live on it.  Was that, too, our god’s will?  If so, what kind of monster do we serve; and in that service, what kind of monsters have we become?

No names of the living had slipped out of Torisen’s memory since Mullen, but by their anxious faces he knew that they feared it was only a matter of time.  Was he truly losing his grip – on the living as well as on the dead?

“What songs do you think they will sing of me?” he asked the wolver pup Yce crouched just inside the door, regarding him with her cold, blue eyes.

“Torisen Black Lord
A fool was he
Knowledge he had
Enough to fill a thimble
And he feared …”

Yce had begun to growl softly, stopping him.  She didn’t like the Death Banner Hall, perhaps because it reeked of old blood and ancient despair.

“You didn’t have to follow me in here, you know,” he told her.

But she followed him everywhere, usually just out of reach, a small white shadow on huge paws that promised unnerving size as she grew.  And, like all her kind, she would soon be capable of assuming an at least half-human form.  Why a feral orphan of the Deep Weald should have attached herself to him, Torisen couldn’t guess, unless she sensed that he was an outsider here too, like her.

he can’the canhe can’t

 

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