Fyryx slowly shed his wet coat and hat, then laid them carefully at the foot of the thick mat of bristlebush on the floor before him. Though soft sleep seemed to beckon, he showed no sign of napping abed this night. Instead, the restless man straightened and turned about, brushing aside a flap stitched of old sector flags to emerge from the battle tent’s aft chamber and into its dim, high-domed meeting hall.
With measured steps, he reached a pike-mounted torchure wheel of molded malaphant bone at center of the circular room and took from one of its seven spokes a short handtorch, soot upon the handle but flame aglow of gold. Its soft light seemed to soothe his reddened eyes. It smelled of sweet fat and comfort.
He let the glow lead him to a slumbering lamp that hung by the tent’s yawning fore door, a dark way of passage made stable this night. Fyryx lit it by slipping the torch through a collar just below, and the warm flame flared and licked at the air. Then he crossed the threshold where light cast shadow aside and slid gingerly in. His red hair and beard, washed briefly ablaze by the aura of burning oil, faded into embers.
As his eyes grew full to the half-light, Fyryx found the vell’s still but beautiful form curled like a babe in a cradle of straw. The three boys, his treasured nephews, sons of his brother Ayryx, had labored hard and done just as he had asked of them. Never before had they been more like men. But, the mission met, he sent them home to night the moon’s last hours in their own beds. Boys or men, they would stand stronger by the Keep well slept.
They had not gone willingly.
Fyryx knelt on the edge of the fragrant straw, but the hilt of the strangers’ sword pressed into his ribs beneath the web-woven umbershirt he always wore. He unlet the lash of spring vine that bound it to his blood-snake belt and set it down on the floor. Then he placed his right hand gently on the vell’s smooth, tan coat, not far from the heart, and closed his eyes.
Cold. So cold. Beyond the cold of death. It ran up his arm, standing each hair on end.
He sought the signs of life. The heart beat still though only an echo. The chest yet rose yet further it fell. Breath, yes, but shallow, grave. The chill wisp of a passing ghost.
Then he could hold the touch no more. He took back his hand but barely felt fingers. He shook them alive, slumping back on his heels. His eyes opened wide and wet.
“Heavens help me,” he whispered aloud. The vell quivered, but it could not hear him.
Fyryx looked on Arrowborne’s hind left leg, all curled up, too hideous to touch, and gnashed his teeth. “I shall slay every oddcat that prowls this sacred land, I swear.” The wound grew still with an ooze of its own, a sinister stew of sinew, skin, and bone, all abubble in colors never known.
The chamber’s air went heavy and damp, beading into summer sweat on what warm flesh it found. Fyryx wiped his face and noticed the feeling returned to his fingertips. He turned onto his hands and knees, then crawled like a child through the golden straw to the face of the angel-made beast. And there he sat.
“Do you remember the day, Arrowboy? The day we came to make this Keep, so, so long ago?”
The vell kept quiet and stiff as stone, its lidless eyes icy, disturbingly blank.
“We knew it was coming. For months of moons we knew, all since the Guard of the ull returned with word of a far new home, the promised land at last and hope. The Treasured talked of nothing else.
“We watched our parents ready and plan, and helped our families pack. The trip would be long and hard they said. And it was. But our lives had been hard already, ever lost in this Wilderness, so it was that many survived.
“Those of us left made a grand caravan nonetheless, winding our way from the northern wastes, climbing slowly the slopes of the Hail of Shales to the shadeless sweep of the high, flat plain. Scores of tired traveler’s carts. Teams of the strongest chevox, yoked or free, but all bearing our burdens. A small herd of boven bulls and cows. And the teeming folk, thick afoot.
“I remember Ayrie and me, riding in a creaky cart that tilted to one side. We lay in a bed of bush hay to cushion the bumps. You trotted alongside, with a smile that only a vell can smile. The warm morning sun washed our faces. So pure and bright. I’d never felt the likes of it. Even the dust in our mouths tasted good. If I close my eyes I can taste it still and see that sweet light, shining on the boys we were…
“It was on the faces of others too. The peace of a people being reborn, free to tell folklore anew. And who could deny us childish dreams? We were not prophets or ages-old sages, but nomads who’d never planted a seed. Who could foretaste the fruit of this day?
“No… I was all of seven, my brother just turned ten that spring. You, Arrowboy, you were already ancient yet acted a pup. So we played. As our columns crossed the empty plain to a distant dot, a speck in the hazy far where prey birds flew to flock, we played without a care. A game of names or ‘mock the folk’. Racing carts. A gumpod ball you chased and caught. We played as the white sun of noon sailed the sky blue, a prow of hot to plow the cool… A duel of spit. A wrestling match that always followed it (which Ayrie won each time). A round of your favorite hop-a-vell to entertain the Guard.
“Midday passed yet we ate as we rode, unwrapping cold flyrat from leaves of swamp palm, breaking off chunks of dark brickbread, downing gulps of knownot juice. Between bites, Ayrie leaned over the side of the cart and pulled up clumps of tough, musky scrubgrass, all but falling out each time. He fed them to me, then I to you from the palm of my outstretched hand.
“With the end of lunch we were sleepy and bored, so Ayrie and I both napped. Not you of course. And you had a joke — to poke our backs and bellies with the cold of your nose just as our eyes closed, nodding off.
“When we woke the crossing was well past half and the distant dot had blossomed to a misty wood, which rose on the horizon with a halo of prey birds circling high overhead. Still long away, hours thought Ayrie. With all else exhausted, but one game remained. It was Ayrie’s idea. Though we’d have to be quiet…”
Fyryx leaned forward, his lips near to Arrowborne’s ear. “Keep it secret…” he whispered. Then back he sat again, noting not a flinch on the vell’s frozen face.
“So we came to counting the folk. No one knew the number then. No one ever asked. They dared not find it different from the Semperor’s Rule of Threes, set when he chose the first Treasured ones, fathers and fathers before Ayrie and me. But you were there boy, you knew them all. And when the young Semperess herself, the beautiful Amyly, gave them the gift of a farewell song, you heard each note from her fabled lips. I know but the words:
Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three
Heroes every one
Cast to dwell in this hellish place
To keep the blood of their people safe
Left alone to wander lost
In wastes no foe would know or brave
Hidden for some fearsome day
Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three
Jewels in the Semperor’s vault of souls
Treasured in our hearts to hold
“It is said she sang as an angel… from childhood raised a Voyce of the Court, but enchanted the Semperor so… he fell in desperate love… and banished his first to take her as bride… What does an angel sound like, boy?…”
Fyryx snapped back with a start, having nearly slipped into dreamy sleep. “Oh, I’m sorry Ary… Arrowboy… I must have… So, the counting…
“First, the Guard. That was easy. For thirty-three there were and thirty-three there would always be. Fiercest fighters of all the known. Bravest of brave, true to the bone. One for each sector of Syland. Twenty-two bore the bounty of our oceanlands’ twin tides, sibling shores of brothers in arms never breached, whence rivers rose as blood aflow from the rim of the rugged east, running red by the stormy Syar Sea and westward down to drown in the thirsty Sea of Mer’n, deep blue but bedeviled — these gave us the outer Guard, proud soldiers of the ‘syr’. Eleven more were nobler still, warriors all of the inner ‘ull’, the sectors of secret, landlocked and walled, which held the Semperors’ city strong and ringed this wild heart, our home. Where you were born, Arrowboy.
“Next were the elders, we knew we’d need to tally those. They tended to die… though age and ill-health were the least of their woes. It seems that’s why the Semperor, so wise and well served by the eyes of spies, ruled their number so high as three hundred.
“Remember old Cornox, the boven man? Just a day before our departure, as Ayrie and I picked up pricklets in a thornblind down by the tar pool’s edge, we heard him come with another for a sit unseen on the round rocks. The other whispered a bit, but fell silent with a slap. Then the boven man began. In a voice that rattled of death he wheezed a musty tale, but nothing like we knew, all of the elders’ origin, of how they came to be. We couldn’t believe our ears and listened hard with all we had. This story was thick with politics. A lesson in the leader’s art, some of it dark.”
Fyryx coughed up something in his throat to make it go raspy and rough. “It went like this…”
So you believe the rhymes of children, do you? Songs of the elders’ election? O, how they were handpicked, selected from the wisest and most steadfast of all the land! Each by the touch of the Semperor himself, Poxum LVIII, the Foreknowing, Marshal of the Guarding Armies, Pilot Admiral of the Two-Seas Fleet, Keeper of the City at Syar-ull. Ooo, yes indeed. Then celebration! Their affirmation, solemn and warm, in the great cathydra’s Heroes Hall at Thynes, and the adoration of thousands strong, a throng awaiting them that night, beyond the storied rosewood doors…
Now surely that’s what some saw. But another side of the stone there was, the side in the soil with crawling things. Do you catch my meaning? It wasn’t just the good and pretty the Semperor picked. No, he was too clever not to toss some gutworms and bloodgrubs into the mix and be rid of them easy and quick.
So for every two of merit anointed he chose as third a foe, a voice of dissent appointed for the Wilderness to swallow up silent. From popular prayerman Xole of Mer’n-syr who preached of the Semperors’ power grown too strong, to the ancient Sons of the Shadow Guard forever claiming a bloodline fraud from crimes in Sempyre times gone by, to an angler named Wyll Kyll and crew who, in the royal port of Pyth-syr, made a stink of keeping their fishy catch for just themselves to sell — five score such were called to appear at the Semperor’s court without delay for the honor of joining the Treasured there by the eve of Mourner’s Day.
A few dared decline as unwell or deceased, but most of those soon were “encouraged” to come, suddenly looking less sick and less dead. Only an alliance of eight remained, five men and three women (one surprisingly young) from the southern-most shores, as a thwart to the Semperor’s will. They fled to the foothills of snow-capped Mount Taan and there held fort with a small force of men, simple sectormen, with loyalty deep as a bag of gold, if you know what I mean. They watched and waited for the Guard to come but day upon day all was quiet. And then one morn from the mountain itself a lone messenger, encloaked in cloud, descended. The Semperor would meet them for talks, he announced, seven days hence at Floramore, in the Taan-syr Gardens by the sea. Suspicious though some were to accept, even they could not cast away such an unheard of concession as this.
The Eight arrived on a glorious day and were greeted with gifts and spiced sweets. A line of young maidens beckoned them on, onto a path of petals pink, with a spray of fragrant perfume as they passed. So here they left their protectors behind. They came to a field of wild plume in bloom and a table set beyond their dreams. Platters replete with succulent meats, rare delicacies and decadent treats, dish after tempting dish, each more sumptuous than the next, and mugglets of pure silver pom wine to drink. At the head, the white-bearded Semperor himself, who stood with welcoming warmth and wide arms. “My children, precious people, how good you would come. Please…” He motioned for them to be seated.
But before they could sit there appeared in their midst a sight that beguiled the eye of each. A creature bejeweled of colors bright, a flying flower in flittering flight. And then another. And suddenly more. “Enchanting, aren’t they,” said the Semperor. “But, be careful friends, don’t let one choose you. For it shall follow you forever, whispering worries of death in your ear till you’re mad, mad enough to hasten the end by your own hand. Oh, and did I mention that they are particularly drawn to the delightful scent of lillylorn that you wear? Of course, if you’d rather join my fine Guard under cover of yonder carriage…” The Semperor waved his steady hand toward a gleaming, gilded wagon — a team of combed and ribboned chevox yoked before it.
All of the alliance but one fled for their lives from the beautiful beasts. The lone holdout, a powerful merchant named Doolox Slyne, was defiant. “No, dear Lord of Lies, Poxum the Pretender! I shall not trade the treasure of my lifetime for your feast of fools and garden games.”
The ruler’s response came cool and calm. “A pity. But it matters no more, dear Doolox. You have a new friend now.” The man, middle-aged yet cocksure and quick, jumped back — but too late. A flying flower the red of blood and boney white lit to rest in peace upon his shoulder. “Farewell Doolox. May your soul be not forsaken with your foolish flesh.”
The Semperor turned away, admiring a pleasing array of angel horns, mersies, and forgive-me-nots as he ambled contentedly to his waiting carriage. But a boyish footman suddenly shuddered in horror, going pale as a ghost. “Sire… at your ear… you have been chosen!”
The great leader gave a fleeting glance, then laughed with warm bemusement at the pixie of purple and gold that fluttered playfully by his crown. “Long ago, my son. Long ago.”
Doolox was given a fresh chevox and clear passage. After three days’ journey, he reached the soaring Cliffs of Syar and home a free man, then leapt to his death in the sea.
After a few moments’ rest, Fyryx cleared his throat and found his own voice once more. “It’s a wonder, old boy — of the seven who lived that day to join the Treasured as the last of the first, one lives still. We know her now as elderwoman Pum. Even at her olderly age, one of the only to stand for our homeland today. Yes, the Semperor chose well in choosing her… to endure the tests of time, to best the most treacherous, to survive the Wilderness so long…” He reached out to stroke the tip of Arrowborne’s sweetly tapered nose with the back of his hand. “Just as you will survive this…”
It burned his skin with the heat of an evil inferno, dark and unseen. “Snake spine and rose blood! What devil’s kiss was that?!”
Fyryx spat on his reddened flesh then rubbed in the thick, white foam to soothe it. He grimaced from the sting but recovered quickly, as if daring not to let the silence linger.
“Now look how you’ve made me lose my grip on this tale. Always the trickster you were. Like the way you made us lose count of all the elders on that Crossing Day a score and ten years ago. Braying out numbers, mocking our voices. You got Ayrie angry but I just laughed. I hadn’t learned to figure past my fingers anyway.
“On the other hand, the elders made themselves hard to miss in the pageant of our people. As was their custom from the many trails of tears gone by, they rode afront, just behind the vanguard, leaving the folk to follow as an afterthought and walk in their dusty wake. We traveled amidst them all, between those favored and the foot-borne, with a clear eye of everything. The elders spread out far before us in a carnival of colors, a field of flags abreast by three and long about a hundred strong. Family flags they flew, hoisted high and unfurled with pride to flap a tail or two in the warm wind.
“Flying foremost among them in a silken sheen of lavender and gold, which we could still see despite the distance, waved a banner bearing the fabled bloodname of Pum. The letter runes lilted by graceful design, each embroidered in the finest thread of angel hare with the chilling skill of the netherworld’s needles in a heavenly hand. Above was depicted a scene of supreme glory — of a young Poxanna the Picked, courtess of Pum, adorned in sacred white robes and anointed by the Semperor himself with a glowing touch upon her forehead. So holy the image… though, between you and me, the artist may have taken some liberties. Especially in the fresh-faced maiden portrayed, a breathtaking beauty of pure and perfect female form with flowing flaxen hair, soft full lips, and the pyre-hot peace — the knowing innocence — of one who’s caught glimpse of a godsign. That figure bore little likeness to the tall, almost manly woman of late middle age who rode under it. She who sat stiff and high above all in a grand sedan chair that had been mounted on a heavy chevox and decked in regal fabrics and frills…
“No, this woman who headed the body of elders could not be called comely by any stretch. It was more a skin of shields she wore, battle-pocked and built-up thick, formed at the peak of her powers — a face for fearing, not endearing to young ones like us. We had always avoided her ironwood eyes, too stern their stare, for surely they’d turn us to stone.
“So we had to be sly, even to spy her.
“‘She must not catch our count,’ cautioned Ayrie, as he figured the flags in his head.
“At last he had it. ‘Fourteen score, plus fifteen more, then add one Pum… We’re short by four!’
“I fumbled with my fingers like I followed, but must have looked lost.
“‘Oh, little brother,’ he said, shoving back the long licks of red hair that hid his brow and encroached upon his cheeks, ‘You can work this out, I know you can. Use the magic take-away trick I showed you, the one from Prince Poxum’s Secret Scrollbook.’
“It took me a minute. ‘Two-ninety-six?’
“‘Treasure!’ He smiled and punched me on the arm.
“‘Ayrie…’ I asked, ‘do you think it matters? The elder count, I mean.’
“Ayrie pondered a bit and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Father has always told us so, at least by his bedtime tales. But I guess he could have made those up.’
“A silence fell between us as we wondered into our own thoughts and gazed away at the parade of pretty pennants…
“All of a sudden, you got upset, making that vell kind of whinny and whine. Then something caught Ayrie’s eye. ‘Look!’ he whispered quick, giving me a shake. ‘Look at Madam Pum. Odd how she flies her flag like that.’
“But I had seen it too. Once, twice, thrice she let the banner dip, then reset it high and right again.
“For a moment, that seemed the all of it, until the air was split with a scream from the elder fold. And then a flag fell. Angry shouts and grunts were heard, furious fists and rusty blades thrust. A second was torn and thrown to the ground. Then pitiful pleas, someone begging for life. A third banner broken and spat upon, like the others, repainted in blood.
“We looked to each other, Ayrie and me, both mute, less afraid than amazed. Sure we’d heard tell of the elders’ ways, but never seen them laid bare before us like this. Such brutal truth for two young boys. And it wasn’t done.
“It left a wake, that treble attack. As its dark deeds echoed over the uncaring plain, a few hoots and hollers broke out behind us in pockets among the folk. Then, with the speed of a well-planned scheme, a gang of seven, all from the same clan and armed with coup clubs, burst from their midst to charge ahead — right past our cart and into the elder ranks. Once there, their flags rose one by one to join the rest. They were crude by comparison, like the raw craft of cruel children. Elsewhere, they might have been taken for a laborer’s old launderings hung out to air, these rags torn to form from fraying frocks and threadbare britches… except for the burnt black and bloody crimson scrawled all over them. Together they made immortal the murders just done, with each one proudly painting a scene — stick folk stabbing stick victims to death and shaking stick stabbards in victory.
“About then I noticed that Madam Pum saw none of this. She rode as rigidly as ever, the commotion at her back, as if she had already figured the aftermath.
“‘Three hundred…’ stammered Ayrie. ‘There are three hundred, Fyrie.’
“A big bump jolted our cart. We pulled ourselves up off the floor only to tumble down again by way of a boney crunch and thud.
“‘Bodies,’ said Ayrie.
“We gawked back through cracks in the cart’s sideboards and there they were. The felled elders, discarded in dirt and aground, barely wrapped in their own flags as funeral shrouds. How darkly had this day of dreams betrayed them. From a trio of treasured gems who had sparkled in that morning’s sun so hopeful, to three sad sacks of blood and broken bone — abandoned, unburied, unmourned, and damned.
“Suddenly, a rider swift and cloaked broke from the vanguard to turn back on us. Galloping hard through the elder rows, the figure aimed dead at our woeful cart while I felt the heart beat in my throat. But then, with his speed, the cloak flew off and I knew not to fear. It was father.
“‘How are my boys, Mister Arrowborne? Did you keep them from that mess?’
“You, friend vell, made a neigh meaning yes, then a nod, and pranced for a few steps with pride.
“‘Well done!’ father hailed with a nod in return. Then he turned to us with a lesson to learn. ‘It’s the code of the elders, sons. They rule themselves by blade and blood.’
“‘Yes sir,’ we said.
“‘Just as the Semperor wanted. My father, your grand, explained it to me at roughly your age as well. This game. “Let them check themselves, my son, and you shan’t have elders to fear.” The Guard are taught not to intervene. Even today I have no say.’
“A red-clad pikesman and mount approached from the fiery eye of a sinking sun. ‘Treasuror Hurx!’ he called, voice aboom. ‘The time draws near now, sir my sir. You are needed at the head.’
“Father gave wave of his hand to confirm. ‘Ayryx, Fyryx, let me look on you two. This is a day to remember. Soon shall we have the home we’ve long sought since even before I was born. Our struggle is all but over.’
“‘Yes sir,’ we said.
“‘Now mind your mother the rest of the ride,’ he ordered, but with a warm laugh. ‘Her sisters and she yet eye your behinds!’
“As father flew off in a cloud of dust, we turned to show our widest smiles to the ladies’ cart nearby. It seemed to entertain them, but mother still shot us a knowing look.
“Ayrie, though face afake in grins, couldn’t wait to whisper some secret to me.
“‘We must get a count of the folk,’ he said, ‘including our family, don’t forget.’ Brother sounded excited. ‘If they match the Semperor’s number too, that means…’ he paused as if searching for something. ‘Well, I don’t know exactly what it means, but we need to know. That’s for sure!’
“‘But how?’ I asked, forcing another too-happy look back.
“Ayrie pointed his index finger. ‘There’s just one way left I guess. Arrowboy, it’s up to you!’
“Yet you were way ahead of us two. The words had not passed Ayrie’s lips when you were already off, crashing through the waves of folk, turning their tide from side to side, and parting their number asunder. Then back you were before we knew it.
“Bumping the chevox that drew our cart, you had us pull to the side and stop as mother passed by displeased. The sun, now low, cast a rose and gold glow over the land, which you mined with your cloven front hooves for to find the treasured folks’ sum. We watched you dig shapes in the soil, some number runes long forgotten, plowed out in an ancient arithmetic. The earth here was rich and black, a mother lode thick with life. It smelled sweet.”
Fyryx, the man, came back for a breath and a glimpse of his breathless old friend. Both forelimbs of this vell lay still — no counting on them anymore — although just once they seemed to twitch. He slipped his hands beneath a hoof, huge yet light, to lift it up. It was delicate with a beautiful shape, but felt to him brittle and ready to break. So gently he set it down in the straw and withdrew to his boyhood again.
“A set of four shapes, that’s what you drew. Three diamonds inside a perfect circle, enclosed in a square, triangle beneath. But what did it mean? A trio of gems upon a moon, locked in a box, atop a peak. A sacred mount keeping three secrets safe? Neither Ayrie nor I had a clue.
“So we called an old folkster who came limping by, leathery-skinned, a big pack on his back, and hoped that he knew.
“‘Been an age since me’d seen that,’ he said with a spit. ‘On the knee of me grandy-dad learnt it. Sempyre ciphers they be. That one, this be…’ He bent himself closer and nearly tipped over, then hacked an awful cough. ‘Yup. This be yer triplet-ten-three.’
“That didn’t help. And our blank looks got his back up.
“‘What dummy boys do ye be?’ he bristled. ‘The Treasuror’s two? Sad to see. Yer beast it packs more brains.’
“That got a laugh from you, Arrowboy. But the old prune turned only more bitter.
“‘Now so ye’ll let me go,’ he griped, ‘we’ll give ye yer cipher red and ripe…’
“He screwed up an eye at us.
“‘A thousand times bloody three,’ he cursed. ‘Er, three bloody thousand, whichever be worse.’
“And with that he spat and slumped off.
“The bulk of the folk had passed us by, some running to reach the wood’s edge before dark. Now they were all but there. But we stood stuck in time, dumbstruck, digesting their constant number. The number the Semperor set years before.
“A shout from the slower folk woke us up.
“‘A child is born!’
“‘A baby boy!’
“‘The first in this place of promise.’
“The news was like whiplash and laid us flat. It filled me with odd disappointment. A feeling of being let down somehow.
“‘Three thousand and one?’ I asked, my voice quiet.
“‘Three thousand and one,’ Ayrie sighed, a bit sad.
“You see, we wanted the wonder, the lore. A wizard king to fight for, with charms and curses and spells to break, all to keep his secrets safe. In a world where we could be heroes someday… But a newborn babe now stood in the way of our silly boyish dreams.
“Another voice cried out. ‘Hear me, folk! Listen! There’s sorrow too. For his mother has died in the birth. Young Miss Trooly, yet brave she was, she gave her own life for her son.’
“Silence fell fleetingly over all, as folk hung their heads in respect for the dead.
“‘It can’t be so,’ sobbed a girl. ‘O my Troo!’
“‘To Heaven…’ sang someone. ‘I’ll ever love you.’
“I looked at my brother. ‘A third magic number.’
“‘The Semperor’s Rule of Threes,’ he confirmed.
“As folk gathered up their things at last to take the journey’s final steps, a couple came forward to claim the child.
“‘His life shall bear testament to this day, the day we found haven and hope. We’ll name him Homeboy to honor his birthplace and raise him as our own.
“‘And please,’ they added solemnly, ‘bring the mother’s body. We shall make a sacred place and bury her with dignity.’
“I worried a while that we’d done something dark, that our wishes had summoned some evil magician. This was wonder and lore alright, but not the way we’d ever dreamed. Our child’s play was over it seemed. No more games for Ayrie and me.
“By now, even the lumbering boven beasts had left us behind, dropping unwelcome memories of earlier grass in our path as they went. So we climbed the sides of our cart and leapt, up to your withers and hip, and rode vell-back the rest of the trip. Our chevox knew enough to follow with the poor abandoned cart in tow.
“We caught up to the slowest of slow folk and made our way woodward with them. They were the timeworn, the crippled and weak, but the wiliest ones at cheating death. Of these a few were Picklings, or what remained of them. The first folk heroes, chosen ten by each elder when the Treasured were formed from across the land. They were marked, it is said, for heart or head, for brawn or might, or out of spite. But no matter how or why, they survived. For near forty winters of withering bitter, enrobed in ice, entombed by snows, buried but alive… under two score summers’ devil sun, aswamp in stinking muck too thick, half drowned, all sick, swallowed by an evil hot, a heat that but hell knows… they thrived against even these awful odds — of oddcats and malaphants, reek frogs and flyrats, hungry snarl hogs by the pack, giant stingle wings, prick gnats, skyfire storms and blood snake rains, hollow fever in the veins, brain flukes, foul, leaking pus, and canker pox to eat the flesh — the only sleep, eternal rest, caught in corpse vine, skinworm mesh, or if you liked a dirt nap best, devil’s moss or sucker grass, depending how you’d rather pass. Although for a lad, the swamps were the test, where lurked it was said a siren lass who led men to wade into bogs too deep, to slip to the depths of marsh madness.
“So that’s how these salty old Picklings were brined — a fight to the death with death and time. Though bent by their struggles, never to fall. They were the most alive of us all.
“A wizened man, barefoot and draped in rags, stepped aside us from out of nowhere. He carried a young girl on his back and had a desperate look, a stare full of want that would not let go. The pair kept pace for a while that way before the poor soul finally spoke.
“‘Please… I know you are Huryx’ sons… good like him I’m sure of it. My grandchild, she can walk no more and I grow weak… I beg… may she ride with you… just the rest of the way?’
“‘Of course!’ said Ayrie. ‘Hand her up.’ And we squeezed the girl in between us.
“‘My name is Hannyn Lyll,’ she smiled. The prettiest thing I’d ever seen.
“As you pranced away with the three of us, I glanced back and saw her grandfather falter. Then he fell to his knees and wept.
“The sky was full of silhouettes, prey birds upset at our arrival, all aswirl overhead. Their caws and cries echoed against the wood.
“Everyone scurried to make hasty camp in the little light left of the day. No time to explore our new home now, that would have to wait for tomorrow. But the sun set red in the west, the last of its blood spilled on full-bellied clouds, portending the new life to come.
“It was not long before that vision was gone, washed away on the eventide of night.
“Someone shouted. ‘Hurry! The Treasuror is soon to speak!’ And we could see fires lit ahead, folk hoisting branches ablaze as torches.
“So you flew the rest of the way, old boy. It was all we could do to hold on. Our hair went everywhere in the wind and Hannyn, though she screamed, seemed to have the most fun… Well, maybe except for me.
“All were assembled on the rim of a rise where a tree wall rose from the airy plain. At our left, the elders had planted their flags and sat or stood waiting, all whispers and signs. On our right, the folk milled about in a mob, with more than a few sharing grog-skins of drink — mostly thick, potent mudmeade, guzzled and gulped. We wove a way between the two and stole a good spot right up front. Ayrie helped Hannyn down on his back, then the four of us found soft seats in the grass.
“Father loomed large on a great, ancient stump that served as makeshift stage. His kind eyes surveyed the scene before him, embracing the moment to take it all in. One of them gave us a playful wink. He straightened his tattered and dust-covered clothes with a tug to the soily green waistcoat he loved, which used to be fancy in grandfather’s day, then raised both hands for silence. Mother stood just aside him, she in a plain but wild-made dress of undyed limberwood and vine. She shot the folk a look to hush them. The Guard, aligned behind in the usual order, held their pikes high to make the point.
“With that our father, Huryx Hurx, the Treasuror, son of Treasurors, spoke.
“‘Fellow travelers! Gather near. The time has come, O pioneers, to end this endless trail of tears. To roll our rock of ages here. To rest. At last.
“‘You elder statesmen! Lend an ear! You wander-lost of two score years! You Guard of war, our shield and spear! This is your tale be told.
“‘For thirteen thousand days of fear, you carried all that you could bear, and braved to save what we hold dear. Our word. Our blood.
“‘So hand and heart might live, you gave the all you had to give, leaving but your broken bones and dreams.
“‘And your reward, the wicked Wild, starless nightmare of a child.
“‘Your only guide, blind faith.’
“Father paused, letting the flicker of a thousand flames reflect upon his handsome face. Then he pointed to the sky.
“‘Behold the stars! Heaven’s gate. A gift of light, the fruit of faith. Your reward, a golden pom. Cast on sacred ground.’
“He spread his arms wide. ‘Paradise found.’
“Many of the plain folk wept, or bowed their heads in prayer or thought.
“‘Trusted friends! Tested souls! This night is unlike all before. Folk of heart and soil! Four generations, lost no more.
“‘No more olders lost (fallen) gone too frail to follow, or fathers lost (slipped) in the swamps and swallowed, or mothers lost (cold) from the deathly hollows, or children lost (orphaned) left starved and sallow.
“‘Our weary age is over — every one, new-born. Tomorrow, we make haven here. And evermore vow that we keep safe the ruby red blood enjeweled in us all. The gift of our fathers! The wealth of our land! The Semperor’s secret trove!
“‘Treasured ones…’ he added last, with right fist firm upon the heart and left held open to the wood, ‘Welcome home.’
“The folk burst into a great celebration with wild cheers and tossings of things in the air — hats, coats, sticks, stones, even small children, who were then mostly caught.
“‘Hur-yx! Hur-yx! Hur-yx! Hur-yx!’
“The elders applauded politely, taking their cue from Madam Pum.
“And the Guard joined in on the fun, chanting a sweet little dirge of their own, laced ever so lightly with death.
“O father! Had only I known then or foreseen… All that I’d give now to warn you… How sour would turn the wine from that day, made of the shiny, sweet pom prize you gave. How the tempting fruit would rot and ever spoil our treasured lot. How red the blood I would spill to go back, to return and turn your mind, if my foe were not that devil time.”
Fyryx spat on the straw, as if trying to purge a foul taste from his tongue.
“When we woke in the morning we all took stock of our new world and each of its wonders. The wood’s edge was lined by a dense stand of arbors — great, stately hoaks full of cheek-filling haycorns and tall, sweeping swillows as well — leavish trees willing to let us pass. They quickly gave way to a soft, mossy grove that welcomed bare feet and caressed the toes. From there the land rose in a slope just so to form a fine hillock for defenders to hold and for keeping a watch on the wide plain below. Atop of that hillock our peeled eyes found six sibling hillocks all around, each one a little less high and more round, but blessed of green pastures for boven to graze with soft sweetgrass for pleasing cheese. And along those wee, lazy fields flowed a forest lavish and alive, of wildflowers bright by honey hives, of fleshfruit hung low, fat nuts to try, with truffle root for Treasure Pie, and flocks of slow billit to catch and fry. For builder and maker it offered as much, in everwood lumber and limberwood trunks, or stone of all sorts for our roads, huts, and such.
“It seemed to some the Semperor himself had surely made this place — and made it just so to quench all thirst, to fill every want or need… even down to the cold, clear spring that we found just over the high hill’s crest, in a notch just right for settlement. And that’s where we set to making our Keep, by a babbling brook running east.
“Yet another thirst there was, an older hunger our master knew that could not be so happily measured or met. A dark want. A red need. The lust for blood. The wont to bleed… It would be a lie to deny it… And so the maker crafted here one more wonder, an instrument made to feed and satiate that beast. Too bad the children found it first.
“Small screams drew us from far and wide through a sun-dappled valley of rosewood and pyne to the edge of a great field of green — but a green of vein-blue hue it was, like an ocean stained with jealousy. There in the deep of that sweetgrass sea stood a twisted old ironwood tree. It snaked skyward, spawn of a gray strain unknown, ominous, lost, at anchor alone, a strange scurvy pirate, no skull but all bones, bleeding black sap like bile. With gnarled, fingery branches it cast a wide net, nails longing to scratch at our treasure and get it…
“Two tots, the Mayn twins, had wandered too near in their innocence not knowing what was to fear. It taught them a lesson they’d never forget — a course in assailing with cutty sharps from its twitching limbs and hard arms. Men found them under the waves of blades, still with this world but maimed, everharmed.
“For the boy, Droydyn, his right hand was gone. His sister Nystra had lost her left.
“At least our medicine, all that we’d learned by trial of the Wild, spared their lives. From that day on we boys, the three, were often at their side — then when better, they at ours, always in tow. We didn’t mind. Sweet Hannyn especially befriended them both, ‘Droy’ and ‘Nys’, the siblings she never knew. And up they grew, the plucky pair, not as a single-handed two, but together too handy to compare. At seventeen yet apprenticed and their father’s own, they would be unmatched already, the finest craftsman of pikes ever known. The twain of Mayn. Nearly magical makers. Treasured by the Guard.”
Fyryx sat up with a start.
He snatched up the strangers’ sword from the floor and scrambled to his feet.
“It tracks us even here, the beast… to the very edge of our Keep.”
With a few steps he reached the tent’s front doorflap and pressed his ear to listen.
“This thing prowls with a purpose. Thirst it must for more of the blood, your blood, that it tasted yesterday.”
Fyryx noticed the lamp that he hung and how it now burned low. Its oil was almost empty. Its light but an afterglow.
“Morning is soon to come, my friend, and daylight will send this devil home. No oddcat strays far from its lair for long. Not once the sun comes up.”
He heard the growl again, but this time at a distance.
“It chills the spine, that sound, even from afar.”
Fyryx lowered the borrowed sword and began to pace the fore chamber floor. He was silent for a while. His shot eyes were all but shut, somewhere else.
At last he looked.
The petrified vell now seemed strangely serene. Was this the unworldly before him?
At last he spoke.
“You have a peace about you, old boy. Perhaps my childish tales have helped. We were never more alive than then, your pureblood never more clear… In those memories maybe you’ve found some relief from the poison that now pollutes your veins. A moment’s peace at least — in a place of the past where your soul can rest a while from the venom’s reach. Away from its fire and ice.
“And I pray that this peace is not that other, the calm of approaching death…”
Fyryx leaned on the bone-white blade like an old man with his cane.
“Please forgive me, Arrowborne. Riding you into the Wild again, I was careless, reliving a youth long gone. The Keep years had left you less quick and alert, and robbed me of my boyhood luck. I never valued that dumb luck enough or the practice we had evading death. Keeps you sharp, on edge, that constant threat. But we’d all gone hapless and dull in time, even the honored Guard. Waning behind our settlement walls. Flagging atop these seven hills. Wilting in their flowered fields…
“I won’t lie to you any longer, dear friend. There is no cure known for the oddcat’s fang. The moment it lunged and locked on your leg, its teeth too deep in your hind left hock, you were done, all was lost. Still, its toxin takes time to do its work. A day more, maybe two. Is that time enough to work wonders? For a miracle to save your skin? I pray that it’s so, but my hopes are all false.”
The lamplight finally flickered out.
“I had no heart to tell the boys, not out in the Liar’s field last night with all the world fogbound in half-truths and tricks. Not even here in this makeshift stable once they had been spellbound by sleepiness. No, they deserved better, so better to wait. They must learn your fate by the light of day, today, with their heads clear and eyes open wide. Though those eyes won’t long stay dry. I know that they’ll cry for you, Ayr the most. For he’s the most like me.
“You mean that much to them, Arrowborne boy. That much to us all. To me. And to Ayrie… if only I had a way to tell him… but maybe he’ll know somehow anyway. Can you hear me, Ayryx Hurx?”
A thin stream of sun from the tent’s flap door split the floor between Fyryx and vell. Yet the fresh broken dawn went unnoticed by both, for the man here turned inward as well.
“From this day and onward, take heart, remember, whatever befalls you now… your life shall not have been lived in vain. I make that promise. This I vow…
“Though my means may have at times been flawed, my purpose has ever been pure and right. The ends always back to where we began.
“The impure clot in our wild hearts, the true flaw spoiling our gemstone souls — that evil came from father’s own tongue in the rosy words of his treasured address. Oh, beautiful words, yes — soothing, easing. All well-meaning but misleading…
“So there at the end of that Crossing Day when we made this Keep our home at last, that was the moment we lost our way. To be shielded by armor but rusting away, deep in the irony wood…
“We were never intended to rest in peace, complacent, with comfort our only goal. The Semperor knew, he foresaw it all. And so his edict ordered we move at the turn of every third season. But we chose to ignore his wisdom and rule, thinking somehow that we knew better.
“Now we know how wrong we were. None can still deny that. Instead I reject my own father’s act and dare at last to overrule it. Back to the natural law of the land. To return to the struggle that made us strong.”
In slipped the sound of a songbird, sweet, adrift on a draft of the morning air. Fyryx nodded his head when he heard it.
“Brother vell, I’ve another confession to make. One more small mistruth I have told you tonight, spun from a secret that I’ve been keeping. A feint about a voice you knew… a Voyce of the Court I’ve come to know…
“A fortnight ago I had a dream. The Semperor’s siren appeared to me… Semperess Amyly, in song… and told me it was time to go. Seduced by her beauty, under her spell, I eagerly agreed. But little enchantment did I need to do what I’ve yearned for myself for years. Long before leadership fell to me, I felt in my heart that our destiny would be written without this safe Keep. Only now, I knew it to be true — filled with music, the courage to act.
“That very morn I gathered the Guard.
“‘Warriors! Ready your mounts to ride. Pack them with two weeks’ provisions. Into the Wilderness we go. Armed to the teeth. Tomorrow!’
“The next day we set out on expedition, to find a way back to ourselves once more…”
Men made noises, manly ones, just beyond the tent’s thin walls. They were the sounds that morning brings.
“Father would have thought me mad, rash to leave his ‘Treasury’, the Keep of the people he loved. No doubt my brother Ayryx too, who carried on that legacy. But they no longer stand this ground or walk its ways or smell the soil. With both lost or fallen to evil disease, the bloodline of Treasurors runs to me. Now I must claim it as my own. For once and for all. Finally.
“Not that I pity myself as weak, or that I’ve led meekly at every turn. I’ve ruled with force when pushed — quelling the tide of leavers, making judgment swift and punishment public, meting out justice sure and sharp. And yet, not rightly honored. Never more than Huryx’ younger son or the stricken Treasuror’s little brother.
“Ten years I’ve served in my brother’s stead. It’s been twenty since our father left to meet with death alone. I’ve already paid them due respect. I cannot fear to truly lead and be the Treasuror in full.
“What beset us yesterday — setbacks sobering and strange — none of that will sway me. No, the opposite is so…
“I’ve been thinking. These alien three that served themselves up last night like some stinking imported cheese — their arrival cannot be by chance. There’s a deeper secret behind this rot. For in all our Treasured history, from the moment this internal exile began, no one has ever found us before. No Sylander. Surely no outsider. And now these foreigners stumble upon us just when the Guard and I are away? Hardly happenstance, I say.
“I have a feeling we’re being tested, but know not by whom or why. How sad that we’ve failed in every way. First, exposed and naked to see, we’ve lost the defense of obscurity. Worse, we’re revealed unready to fight and die for the very reason we live — to be the blood of Syland, kept safe at all cost, untainted and pure. But the unclean slipped in anyway. The plainsmen let them pass untouched. The folk stood by gawking, all but bewildered. Even the Guard they turned into buffoons.
“But you, ancient one, seemed to know something more. Is it part of the Semperor’s plan, this test? A trial to ensure our fidelity? Or perhaps an attack that he foresaw? Something he spoke of to you years ago? I wish you could wake and tell me…
“Yet, despite your silence I have a sense. Tonight I thought it was evil had found us. This morning, with time, I’m not so sure. I may still choose to kill these three. In the end there may be little choice, now that they know so much. The plump one at least, in any case. But first I must learn what they are. Who sent them here? Both how and why? I sense a greater hand in this…”
The doorflap suddenly flew wide open, filling the room with warm sunlight. Fyryx squinted and shielded his eyes, then gasped as he caught glimpse of Arrowborne’s shape. Despite the life-giving yellow glow, his vell looked a pallor of bloodless death.
A Guard clad in sea green and blue burst in.
“Forgive the intrusion, sir my sir!”
Fyryx returned a watery glare, then barked something out, his throat too dry.
Surprised at this scene, the Guard stepped back.
“Do you want for assistance, sir my sir? May I serve you in some way?”
“No,” coughed Fyryx, seeking his voice. “What is it, Taan-syr? Speak.”
“The Finder’s plainsmen have caught a leaver attempting to flee through the Western Way. A lone man they say, no accomplices.”
Fyryx hoisted the strangers’ sword and stabbed it into the floor. Blood-red anger filled his face.
“I thought that we’d killed this disease off at last! And now there’s a new case to cure? More bad blood to let? But those foreign bodies might be to blame… an alien infection the source of it…”
The Guard Taan-syr looked puzzled as he handed Fyryx a flask of drink. “Have you orders, Treasuror sir?”
Fyryx gulped down a long swig of the liquid and tossed back the flask with a nod. Then he spoke to the Guard in a much clearer voice. “Thank you, Taan-syr. My orders are these. Bring the prisoner here to the dome room for trial, but hold him aside in the wings a while. For first I must meet with my inner ring on all of the recent threats to our Keep. Make the call for council now, to convene before this hour is up…
“But we must dine and sup as well to fill our bellies for the day. Have folk fetch us fresh meat, hard loaves from the hearthstone, and brewn ale, of course, by mugglet or cup. When the talking is done we shall break fast together before we turn judge to break bones.”
“Sir of sirs!” snapped the Guard with a cross-arm salute. “If there’s nothing else, sire, I shall…”
“Hold there, coast Guard. My nephews I need.” Fyryx turned his dark eyes from the vell’s lifeless carcass, just short of giving up the ghost. “Have their mother wake all three and send them here to sit for me.”
“As you wish, sir my sir, shall it be!” Taan-syr made a bow to leave then spun on his heel to march away.
“Wait,” called Fyryx. “There’s one more thing… The tall male stranger, the foreign warrior… bring him to the hall as well.”
Taan-syr touched one knee to the ground and dipped his head. “My Treasuror!” Then he was up and gone.
The room seemed suddenly vacant, the space between life and death vast.
The man moved into the light of day, to the vell. The distance fell away.
Fyryx leaned over his fading friend and kissed him on the crown of the head, just between his nascent horns. The man’s lips instantly blistered and bled, just as he had to know they would. But Fyryx simply wiped them clean, leaving his hand stained red instead.
“And still you sleep, my beauty. I’m afraid there’s no magic in me, old boy, only the blood of a lonely brother, destined to be the last, I fear…”