When he stopped to think on it, Mok could not help but be astounded at the speed with which the Keep had fallen into line. Tyme Kent, the aged forebear of the late Lady of Loss, had consented to Mok's adoption into the House. In truth he had not had much love for his grandsons, and his mins was not so acute as it had once been. Tyme Kent had listened to Master Quick, and then to Mok, and the sheer certainty in that young man's voice had taken hold of him as a sculptor's hand does ready clay. Tyme was in the great hall now. He had taken to spending his days there, and with milky, purblind eyes he watched the bustle of the Keep. He had not seen such verve and hurry since he was a young man, when the world had not been so gray.
Mok had taken to standing before the High table as he dealt with the business of the day. Being seated in the Lord's chair did not suit him, and in any case, it was only a chair. He did not appreciate the reverence with which many of the servants treated it.
"Lord Mok, we've ten more come in from the moors. They want to swear to you." A ragged bundle of knobs and sinew and multitudinous vests addressed him from the foot of the dais. Quay had been a steward in all but name and privilege to the family of Loss, but he had been a serf, and so earned no reward. Under Mok, he had begun to stand taller.
"I can't say." Quay fluttered his hands, his fingers like slender fish palely convulsing. His gaze traveled everywhere.
"Whatever they've done, they were driven from their homes by taxes and fines, and a few poachings too many. A lord's right, to be sure. Just as it is a lord's right to forgive them who come to him in need." He gave a meaningful look.
"Ten more," Mok muttered. "Can Kevon handle so many?"
It was impossible to say how far or how fast word had spread. There had certainly been no proclamation in Loesser of Mok's adoption. But servants talked, and the story of the Losses and their hereditary manservant was a local legend. That that manservant, after generations beyond easy reckoning, had become the master; this was no small thing. People had begun to arrive out of the lowlands and the woods. Not all bandits, of course, many of them simply lived in the wild; it was no harder than living with tithes. Things happened, though, when winter came, or droughts. Or fury.
A slave became a lord. People had to see. The Keep of Loesser had not been so full since centuries past. Many who came asked permission to serve, and places were found for them. Peasant longhouses raised overnight, their walls of wattle and daub, and fields long fallow were reclaimed. In Carrolan, there was no shortage of soil.
Others came who weren't well suited for farming, some of them showing skill or promise; the rest were sent to Kevon Quick and given to the training yard.
It was no exaggeration to say that he had never been so busy. The Master at Arms, caught up in the same strange spell that seemed to have taken Mok's destiny in hand, had applied all of his considerable will to the training of a new guard, and never mind from whence they came. Mok, who had murdered his master, had by his conduct instilled in Kevon a measure of respect, and his respect entailed his loyalty.
"All right," Mok conceded. "I'll take their oaths this evening, when the starflowers have just begun to bloom. Is there anything else?"
"Why yes, Lord Mok." Quay said. "As it happens there are a few cases out of Loesser that require a Lord's arbitration and judgement. Shall I send for the parties concerned?"
"Not yet." Mok's face was etched by a thorough frown. "I need a breath in the air." At this moment the ancient noble ensconced on the side of the hall by the fire clapped his hands and cackled elatedly. Mok and Quay both glanced at Tyme Kent, bemused, but there was nothing to be done.
"Well..." Quay said.
"Yes." Mok went out of the great hall and made his way across the courtyard, acknowledging the salutes of the guardsmen conscripted from the village. At Kevon's suggestion, most of the old men had been retired. Too many of them had shown signs of being unable to associate Mok with the title of Lord, though all observers agreed he'd done a truer job of lording than Midlim and Davim ever had. Davim especially.
Mok ascended the wall to his usual place, standing between two oversized crenels and looking out over the vista that was nominally his own claim. The land did not matter to him in itself any more than the throne did, or the fact of his adoption. These were means to an end.
The flask was cold against his hip. He kept it at his side, though now he had no use for it, because he did not know what else to do. It had changed him, not only by allowing him to do away with Midlim, but physically as well. He had drunken it thinking he deserved the same suffering inflicted on his master and the other nobles. But where it had taken life from others, to him it gave. He was stronger and more sure than he had been, and a fire burned always in his belly. He was ever warm. Since drinking from the flask, his mind had changed. He still desired peace, and peace above all else. The change was in his insight into how it would be achieved.
Those of fine clothing and noble blood would never allow him to remain as Lord. They would not leave him to improve his life and the lives of those in Loesser, to improve upon a system that was slavery in all but name. He hated how his people lived, his people. He hated it as he had come to hate his own past life. He wanted their labors eased, and their toil reduced. He had ideas, ten hundred of them He wanted to learn to read, and to have it taught to all who called him Lord, and all who did not.
He had already received the first messengers from Lanolier, where the Wardens of Carrolan resided. They had informed him that they were aware some accident, and much illness, had laid low all the rightful masters of the Keep. They had thanked him for taking up the duty of steward, and said that a deserving knight would soon be granted the seat, with Loesser as his stead, and to await the arrival of him or his agents.
Mok had fed the messengers, and sent them on their ways with no reply. He had no intention of giving up the Keep, but he had no means of holding it; not against any real force, new guard or no. The fire in his belly would not allow him to submit. There was a light breeze.
"How do you like your new name?"
The question came from an ancient man in an ochre cloak. He towered over Mok, having arrived in silence to loom behind him.
"I wondered if you would come back."
"That is to be expected. I would have returned sooner. I was detained. I have another gift for you, but first you must tell me what you think of your name."
"I don't think names are important."
"True and untrue," Timothean said. "A name cannot change the thing so named; however, it may alter our perception of a thing, will alter, in fact. Thus do names gain significance, not through any power inherent in them, but through the power we bestow on them."
The wind blew loud between the crenels.
"Why are you helping me?"
"Do you remember what we spoke of before?"
"I remember. Entropy. Decay. That has nothing to do with this. It has nothing to do with anything."
"I do not agree." Timothean placed an enormous, skeletal hand over Mok's shoulder, and the wind escalated into a shriek, catching them up. In another moment Mok found himself far above the keep, above the rolling swards of Carrolan, and moving fast. He tried to speak, but his words were torn from his lips and shredded beyond understanding. He was standing, his feet planted in a bed of air, and Timothean beside him, still gripping him tightly. All around them a cyclone, a shrieking, invisible beast with torrents of the tugging at his clothes and whipping his hair, yet largely harmless. The ground became a blur, and Mok lost all sense of direction. He was so high that he thought he could see the mountains that rimmed the edges of World to the south and the west, and he could see the blue line of the Ocean to the east. The colors flowed beneath him, a hurricane of blurs and viridian shades, then stretches of brown, then more of white and grey. His skin tingled, and the tips of his fingers froze. Everywhere a mist of cold obscured his vision, and the howling of the cyclone was bearable only because it had already deafened him.
When it was over, he could not tell the world did not still move. Timothean caught him, an ochre island of solidity in a palace of spinning hues. He was kept forcibly on his feet. Gradually, his sight came into focus, though his head was pounding.
They stood upon a steep escarpment, a basaltic jag crackling with sheets of ice and snow. The sky was a welter of cobalt clouds, brindled with the shadows of the Great Tree's lower branches. A stretch of permafrost, rooted with ridges and gullies that bespoke age old violence stretched in all directions, broken here and there by mesas like the one on which they stood, and a castle carved from ice. It was distant enough to appear small, though in truth it was larger than their current perch.
It glittered, an azure cabochon upon a corpse's hand. Magic thrummed beneath the earth, frozen in time.
A white cloud bloomed before Mok as he exhaled.
"Where are we?"
"I have brought you south many leagues. We are in the Blue Wastes, as your maps would say. And this is Iceholme." Neither name meant anything to Mok. They were not a part of the education of a manservant.
"We must continue from here on foot," Timothean said. "And quickly."
Timothean's strides carried him inhumanly far-- though he walked, Mok was forced to run to keep pace. Neither of them tired. The day passed into early evening, the sunflower seeming farther here than Mok had ever known it to be. South, he'd said. But how far? He knew of the Keepholds. Was this what lay beyond them? The glittering castle had grown into something vast. Its vitreous facade was breathtaking, both for its beauty and for the weighty aura of absolute cold that hung as thick as liquid in the air. Mok's teeth hurt, and he flexed his fingers to keep them blooded. His lungs juddered as he struggled to breathe. A collossal arch towered before them, seeming to press them with its weight. There had been a gate, once, shattered by some late cataclysm, which now lay in blocks and slabs of dead cold strewn behind the arch.
Mok hesitated, and his legs faltered. He could run no more. He could not take another step beneath that weight. Timothean seized him, and dragged him forward into the palace.
It passed in a blur. Mok was sickened by the malignant presence of the place, and all the strength went out of him. He hardly saw the passages they walked, and he was glad of it. He feared any revelation of the things that he had glimpsed out of the corners of his eyes, the things frozen in the walls.
All at once they reached the central chamber, little more than a cell at the heart of the cast complex. The walls curved into a cylinder, the ceiling was a vault. It was empty of all but a single translucent pillar. Inside this was an empty hilt of dark tallo. Mok moved forward as if drawn, while Timothean remained looming in the entranceway.
Not just a hilt. The blade was crystalline, and near invisible in the ice. He could just make out the outline of its edge. It was a longsword, but the blade was nearly a hand wide, making the whole appear stunted. Mok suspected that it would be awkward to wield.
Timothean spoke in an eldritch tongue that caused Mok's hair to stand on end. Some of the cold went out of the room, though none of the palaces felid weight went with it. Tomothean spoke, and the columnar prison began to melt. Soon rivulets ran into pools upon the glassy floor, where they quickly froze again. The blade was exposed, then the hilt and the pommel. It was half free, resting in the waxing cavity, when Timothean's sorcery faltered, and he spoke hoarsely.
"Take it, Mok. Take it now."
The young man dithered, full of unnamed fears.
"Why can't you take it? I'm no one."
"I cannot touch it!" Timothean snapped. "Now take it, we have no more time!"
An unseen hand pressed Mok closer, to within reach of the blade. He touched it and found that it was warm. Drawing it out of the half melted column, he felt that warmth flood him. Life returned to his fingers, and his bones ceased their aching. His breath steamed profusely.
"Now," Timothean said, "we go."
"That isn't yours, human."
A gaunt shape stepped free of the wall behind the column, escaping the ice with liquid ease. It was as tall as Timothean, though not stooped; humanoid, though inhuman. There was a greenish cast to its skin, to its long, apeish limbs. Its clothes were rotten and wet, and two tusks jutted up from its faintly prognathous jaw, each about the size of a thumb.
"Return Hikari to its resting place. Your kind have not the right to wield it." Yellow eyes shone dimly out of deep set orbits. The creature waited.
"It has always belonged to man," Timothean said. "And always will, Jabhut."
"My name is Caelian," the creature said. "I am of the Seven. This is your final warning, mortal. Your companion cares nothing for your life. He will use you, because he is old, and full of malice. I..."
Twin rivers of sorcery roared from Timothean's hands, bowing around Mok and slamming into the creature, the Jabhut, with enough force to sling him back through several feet of ice. Timothean glowed white, and stars of fading magic were reflected a thousand times in the diamondine chamber.
The column collapsed, and cracks spidered through the walls and ceiling. Mok stared, dumbfounded, as the Jabhut called Caelian picked itself up in swirls of vapor, and came doggedly forward. Timothean swept his ochre cloak aside and bid Mok, "Go! Go and I will follow!"
Mok complied, sprinting past his wizened companion just as another wave of sorcery was unleashed. Not looking back, he heard the boom of its impact and nearly lost his footing as the palace shook. Could that creature have survived? Another eruption assured him that it had. He ran heedless of direction, merely taking every opportunity to go down that he came across. Night had come outside, but the ice shone dimly with some inherent power. He could make out blurry, manlike forms trapped within the walls, and hoped there were no more Caelians. Fortune led him to the ground floor, and he sensed that he was near the open when a shambling shape slid out of an aperture to his side.
He acted without thought, the blade surprisingly light in his grasp. Not seeing his assailant clearly, Mok nevertheless succeeded in cutting the shadow in half.
Deep within the crystal blade, a mote of sapphire sprang to life.
And Mok went on.
Timothean and the Jabhut fought in an ever widening and irregular chamber. With every stroke and counter-stroke, hundreds of pounds of ice were vaporized, or pulverized, as interstices spread throughout the whole rumbling structure. Arcs of platinum energy skittered along the ice, digging and scarring. Timothean glowed in the heart of a storm.
Caelian came on, indefatigable. His own sorcery hung about him in a mist, absorbing most of the mage's sharper currents, and occasionally lashing out with a mighty and inchoate fist. The Jabhut growled from his chest. Timothean shouted in his effort and frustration. The palace trembled.
Mok had dispatched a dozen or so monsters in the semi-dark, seeing nothing but their outlines by the increasing light of his blade. They had been weaponless, and struck at him with nails as hard as raw tallow. His tunic was ripped, and he had a wicked cut across his right cheek, but was otherwise unharmed.
He ran across the long square, the arch soaring hundreds of feet above his head, and the whole cast edifice quaked. He did not know whether Timothean still battled the Jabhut, or what fell catastrophe was taking place within the palace. Chunks of ice the size of houses dislodged themselves from the battlements, crashing and bursting into tremendous showers of shards. Mok warded himself with his arm, leaning into the run, holding the bright brand of the mysterious sword before him.
The arch began to crumble just as he entered its shadow. The shockwave of a tumbling block sent him skidding off his feet. He rolled, and righted himself in time to see the mountainous sledge of the fractured arch careening down, too large and too fast to be avoided.
On instinct, he held up the blade. There was a sudden blaze of light.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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