Bawn did not stop. His long legs carried him swiftly down the rubble and out of the ruins. His skin was faintly golden, and his face implacable. As Maggitha picked her way to her daughter the guards who had betrayed them faced the newcomer with grim decision.
Strait swords rang out of their sheathes, and the impending conflict between Graham and Blawd was for the moment forgotten. The rider who had called out the warning now raised his loaded crossbow. There was a steely twang as the quarrel whistled just to the side of the barbarian's head. The guard cursed, and another crossbow was fired. This quarrel was off completely.
Maggitha helped Kerrigan to her feet. The girl's hair was tangled, and its red sheen was dimmed by dust and soil. Her eyes were wild.
Graham kicked his mule forward, and the bulky creature broke into a casual trot. It was not meant for fighting on, but he wanted to keep the height against his over-sized opponent. The other guards, all but Blawd, moved to surround.
Graham's blood was thrumming in his temples. He had never been so frightened. In all his years of service on the estate he had never looked upon anything half so portentous as this man striding out of Ten Towers. His first thought had been of ghosts and cursed grounds. But no, this barbarian was solid as any man, as real. Only a man, a naked one at that. The bite of a tallo blade would put him to rights, then Blawd could be dealt with in his turn.
The sword came down, flashing in the sunflower's regard, and Bawn caught it in one hand. With a twist of his wrist the tallo bent, and his other fist pistoned, once. The mule's head exploded. Graham was suddenly falling, and he didn't understand why. He didn't understand anything except that he was on his back and his armor was very heavy and his face was very warm. Was it raining? Such thick rain. And bitter tasting. He had been indentured as a young man, his family had needed the coin. Now that his contract was forfeit, he would take what loot he could and make a home of his own, a family, and he would never sell his sons. He had thought he would go north to Petronia. He had heard they did not indenture there, and it was so far that no one would have heard of Grape, let alone of the Lumlali estate.
Blawd watched as the barbarian dismantled his associates, even killing the mules. Everything within the reach of those massive hands seemed to disintegrate, flesh, leather, scale. Blawd knocked the woman away from her daughter. Little Kerry was the most valuable spoil of this expedition, even spoiled.
The girl squealed when he tossed her over his shoulder. He liked how she squealed. He expected to hear a good bit more of it in the near future. Setting off at an easy lope, he left the miniature caravan behind. In the woods his mule would be no good, another burden. This way he could keep up the pace for half a day.
He heard Maggitha wail. Stupid woman. He should have run her through. Only a whimper from the girl as he adjusted his grip.
That was good.
And he hit a wall.
Bawn looked down at the unconscious bandit, and then he looked at the fire haired girl drawing her knees up to her chest, sitting, and gazing up at him with enormous moss colored eyes.
* * *
Carrolan is a realm of endless fields, and hardly a hill or roll. The few rare mottes are all long claimed by castles or keeps, though many of them sit empty but for the winds. Emptiness is something of a theme here, and in this bread basket of the three kingdoms many fields lie fallow and unfurrowed. There is no need for so much space.
A man walks along one such useless stretch, claimed as it is by scraggly alders and mice and scrub. HE wears a plain brown cloak, and his long frame is stooped with age, though his step remains sure and quick. In his hand there is a corroded silver flask.
The sun hangs fully bloomed in the canopy of the sky, and arcing jagged shadows trace the upper boughs of the world tree above the sun. They are strokes of midnight in the otherwise misty blue and violet expanse. The keep of Loesser dominates a raised knuckle of earth, not especially defensible, but with clear views to all horizons. The town that surrounds it hosts no more than a thousand, and the farmlands extending half a riders day in any direction belong exclusively to the Lord of the Keep. The scattered families that till and sow these fields are servants of that Lord, tenants in servitude.
The old walker in his brown cloak sets his gaze upon Loesser, for it is in this place that he senses a spark that he can use.
* * *
Mok carried his masters trencher to the high table. The lords of Loesser sat facing the hall of their subjects from a raised step. Midlim Loss, the young lord of the Keep, accepted his meal genially enough, and immediately dismissed Mok from his mind. This one servant was unlike the others, or so Midlim's father had said. He had always seemed common enough, and he certainly filled the wine goblet of his master no more or less skillfully than the other common folk.
And they were all below his notice.
"She had tits," Davim Loss said. He was first Duke, younger brother to the young lord, and thoroughly lost in his reverie. "Tits like anything." His hands described their grand expanses. "I could have hid between them."
Idiot, Midlim thought, outwardly smiling. Like the servants, Davim had his place. If it was his right hand seat, so be it. Father always counseled patience, at least where family was concerned.
Mok waited in silence. Speaking would not have occurred to him. He was seventeen, and he was the twenty-third of his name. What the family name of his forefathers had been was not recorded in any journal belonging to the Loesses. It had been expunged. They had rebelled, or so the story went, the details lost. They had rebelled, and through perfidy slain their rightful lord before the insurrection was put down. In perpetuity, the line was kept close, but under heel.
"Why not just kill them? I would kill them," Midlim had once asked, having attained the world weary age of seven without yet being allowed to personally murder anyone. Tyme Kent, his grandfather and the Abdicated master of Loesser had not been surprised at the question.
"It's the spark that is corrupt. Kill them all, and the spark foes free to infest an innocent body. Keep them close, and the sickness of the soul that causes a good vassal to turn is confined and harmless. What your Mok, as I watched mine. They can never be trusted, but they are not dangerous as long as we keep them close. There has not been a rebellion in five hundred years."
Superstition. Hokum. That is what Midlim had long ago decided. Mok was a hereditary manservant, nothing more. If there had been rebellion in his forefathers eyes it was long since drained away. In those eyes there was only the ungleaming quietude of a lifelong slave.
After the meal had been taken, the lords of Loesser would go on their afternoon ride. The duties of any given noble-born personage consisted chiefly of eating, riding, oppressing the populace and carousing: not necessarily in that order. If time could be found for sleep, it would be enjoyed as well. Wearing fine clothing and being bathed by the unblooded lesserfolk were also among the burdens of the aristocracy.
"She was a pretty one," David went on and on. "So pretty I couldn't stand the thought of any peasant dirt-turner ever laying her. She said I was her first but you can never be sure. The taste of her..." His eyes glazed a moment, "I kept her three days. Took her from her fathers inn and kept her. But I can't be expected to keep bedding a peasant bitch forever no matter how sweet her mounds, can I? So on the fourth day I do the only thing I can. The only honorable thing. I lay her one last time and strangle her. Then send the body back to the innkeeper."
Midlim watched his brother coolly for a moment, making certain that the story was indeed finished. The punchline had been reached, and that was all. Midlim was twenty and four years of age, and Davim three years his junior.
"Gallant of you," he said at last. They went riding.
* * *
Mok was left behind in the stables. He had not yet broken his fast from the previous evening, which was not unusual as he was expected to be always at the ready to fulfill his masters needs, and servants must never eat in the presence of their betters. Even so, he did not proceed directly to the kitchens. Instead, he helped the Horseboy to muck the stalls and fill the troughs. Horse was very small and his bones crabbed with rickets, he could not carry the buckets alone, and one hand seemed always designated to scratching at the colonies of lice and mites that called his body and his sackshirt home. Mok's life was not one of wonders, but at least he had a proper tunic and underclothing; there were far worse roles to play than that of manservant. He helped the Horseboy, as was his habit, and then went to break his fast.
In the kitchen, Cook provided him with a sizable hunk of black bread, slightly charred at the crust, and a bit of cheese. Her husband, Chops, provided him with a finger sausage as well, not because it was expected, on the contrary, it bordered on forbidden, but because the couple was fond of Mok, and no harm could come of a mote of favoritism. They smiled at him as he ate, a man grown yet still so young. Bemoi had never seen fit to bless them with children of their own. They could not say whether cook was now too old for it. She had always been too old. The heat of the kitchen fires had dried and darkened their skins. The both of them had hands laced and knotted with the marks of old cuts and burns. Thirty or so was as good as fifty or more, with no more time.
Mok thanked them, his belly stilled, and he went out into the court yard. He washed his face with the run off that had collected in a divot in the main plaza. A few guards stood the gates, but not many, and they did not question him. Mok being Mok, they may not have even seen him. Their lives had never been at risk defending the keep. Most of them had not once seen a man or woman die by a sword, for all their seasons carrying them. Such folk are not in the habit of vigilance.
Mok took great pleasure in these moments of peace, for within him there was desire for little else. For all the conceit of Midlim Loss the man was not wrong in his assessment of Mok. All the contumacy had been bred out of him, and if he was not happy with his meager lot, or with that allotted to his fellow vassals, neither did his insides roil at their state. He was not content, yet neither had he the will to fight, or the belief so necessary to all fanaticism, the belief that by fighting a difference would be made in the sufferings of mankind. Mok often felt a niggling itch at the treatment he received, and the abuses heaped upon his fellows, some vague inkling that this was not the way things had to be. But life had always been as it was, here as everywhere, feudalism was no sudden plight. Nobles were nobles because of their lineage, because of the bloodlines that could be traced all the way back through the throat of time to the Exalted rulers of Valanthia, the One True Kingdom.
All Mok asked for in his heart of hearts was a little more peace, and the hours to enjoy it. He climbed to the South facing wall, and stood upon the battlements. The passing guards either did not note his presence or did not care. It was only Mok.
The wind tousled his long, untidy hair. By custom, servants within the keep never cut their hair, because their lives did not belong to them.
From between the crenels Mok saw the sweep of Carrolan, the paltry town surrounding Loesser keep and the meager farmsteads speckled beyond. There is peace in distance and in space, he thought. If only everywhere could be like this. When people crushed their lives into a press, closer and still closer, only conflict and domination could ensue.
"One is the ruler, one is the ruled," Mok muttered to himself. "Thus it will always be."
"Nothing but entropy is absolute."
Mok turned his head expressionlessly. Who had overheard his musings? An old man, gnarled as a whisper tree, stood two paces to his right. He carried no walking staff, only a tarnished flask in one hand. Dressed in plain and travel-worn clothing, he loomed. Even hunched as he was, he was taller than Mok, who himself was not small.
"Who are you?" Mok asked. "This is not your place."
"You have the manner of a lord," the old man said. "It is a wonder that they do not see it in you, for surely it should mean your death. Tell me, do you know the meaning of what I have said? Do you know this word, entropy?"
Mok met the man's eyes, pale blue as the sky in the spaces where the World Tree did not touch. He'd intended to make a demand of the stranger to identify himself, for it was clear that he did not belong here: not in Carrolan, not in Mythopoeia itself. Something in those eyes weakened him though, absolving his resolve, forcing him to look away. There was old strength there, older than he knew.
Mok shook his head.
"Entropy," said the old man, "is the tendency of all things to decay. It is the true face of the Exalted Hush, and though that god is banished now, it does not stop. Peace becomes war, and men dissolve into pools of blood and screams. In every endeavor something is lost, and the endeavorer is less for it forever and on. This is everything."
Now, Mok had a mind made for thinking. One might surmise that this was true of all minds, but one would be mistaken if one did so. The old man's speech had set the mill of ideas to churning, and Mok no longer cared that the old man was a stranger with silent feet and an imposing manner, because he was also interesting.
"If that was true," he said slowly, molding the words with his tongue as if from clay, "then there couldn't be anything left. You couldn't build a castle or a kingdom. If something is always lost, and you can't ever get it back, building anything would be like pouring water into a bucket filled with holes."
The old man's face pruned joyfully, and his blue eyes deepened, as if more of him were watching than before.
"That's exactly what it's like. Have you any experience in Philology?"
Mok shook his head.
"I presumed not. Then I will tell you quickly that Mythopoeia exists according to a body of Law much older than the gods and the Exalted. The most famous of these are the Laws of the Flame: the first being that magic can neither be created or destroyed, and the second that a flame must needs fuel to burn, and that a flame always seeks out the cold, but can never devour it all. Everything has a cost, and the cost is always greater than the reward. You are exactly right in saying that we should all be dust and bones in ages past, if indeed we could ever be born at all, except that the being of our lives is fueled from beyond." The old man's arm shot suddenly toward the sun, and then he said, "The sunflower itself is fed by a power further still."
Mok struggled to comprehend this, and the old man went on. "The flame of the sunflower feeds the earth, it heats the ocean and plays midwife to the seeds of the forests. We partake of its bounty, but most of what it gives will never be enjoyed, is simply lost out in the ether, and that is the way of everything. And that is the truth of entropy. Hot moves to cold, until there is no more heat.
Mok looked upward, slightly to the left of the full blooming flower, and shielded his eyes. "Who are you?" he asked at last.
"My name is Timothean," the old man said with abrupt gravity. "That name will mean nothing to you, or to anyone here. I tell you that nothing but entropy is absolute, and I tell you true. I've brought a gift." He held out the flask.
Mok stood still and held his hands at his sides.
"What is it?"
Timothean gestured with his free arm to the horizon. "All the world is in this flask, or all of Carrolan at least. It will make you a hero among men, nigh unto Exalted. Take it."
There was power in that voice, and Mok's hands began to move of their own volition. With an effort of will he stayed them, and he made his own face grave.
"I don't want it," he said, "I am the Mok. I have my life. I am not a noble. I am not a knight or a prince. That is not my place."
"Child," Timothean said, "I will tell you a secret." He leaned overtop of the smaller man and said in a low, urgent tone, "There is no such thing as Kings. They are not true. Take the liquid in this flask, and give it unto your masters. I trust you know a way to make them drink. It will sicken them, and their close kin, and then this keep will belong to the ones worthy of it. If you do not wish for a throne, surely you see at least the wisdom in finding the throne a better occupant than there now resides." He thrust the flask into Mok's hand. "It is yours to use or not to use, but keep it. And remember that you are now responsible for all the evil that your masters do, for you have the power to end it."
Mok thought to protest this, but no words came, and Timothean's heavy cloak swished along the stone as he turned and stepped over the merlon. Mok gave a shout, and leaned past the verge. The old man was already on the ground, walking gamely away.
Mok's eyes scanned left and right, his ears tuned for any alarm. Amazingly, there was none. Feeling foolish, he stashed the flask in his tunic, the rope around his waist catching it at his stomach. It was shockingly cold.
Mok rambled the catwalks for a time, assured by the gelid weight in his tunic that what had passed was not a dream. The sunflower contracted as the noon passed and he was brought out of the fastness of his thought by the sounding of horns. His lord had arrived, and he was standing on the far side of the Keep wall. He broke into a run. He had lost track of the turns, but a quick glance to the sky told him that it was still too early for his master to return. Something must have gone wrong.
He heard the muted clanging of the portcullis raised and lowered, and another sound that swiftly rose above it. Shouting, and the noise of upset horses. A shriek quickly stifled.
Mok reached the stairs within the walls, and the voiced died away beneath the slap of his bare feet on the stone. He ran to the stables.
* * *
Midlim's horse had lamed. A divot or a stone, or nothing at all. It didn't matter. The true cause was a weakness in the horse, and a weakness in the horse was a result of the failure of its keeper. This horse, Redface, had nearly thrown him. And Davim had laughed. That useless pox-cocked fool had laughed at him and that could not be forgiven. The men had heard, had seen, and there was nothing he could do to erase it.
Midlim had hacked off Redface's head, and it had taken some doing, horses having rather thick necks. Then he had taken a spare horse and galloped over the weald back to the keep, his retinue trailing behind.
The Horseboy, the culprit, had practically been hiding in the stalls. What good was he to anyone? He was no heavier than the filthy sackcloth that he wore. Why couldn't the halfwit wear real clothes?
A single backhanded blow practically finished the thing, and that was no use. He dragged the Horseboy into the open, and the other servants were all watching. That was as it should be. Now it would serve as an example.
Midlim beat the child to death with his hands. He took off his riding gloves and dropped them on the corpse. The anger was gone from him, and he felt pleasantly empty, as if he had just lain with a woman. He saw Mok standing nearby, inexplicably clutching his stomach, though he did not appear sick. Sickness would not have been tolerated.
Midlim commanded him to burn the body outside of the keep, and to burn his own clothing after. No use in risking the spread of those lice.
The manservant obeyed.