“Oy! Mal! Goat or ass?” Torus was braying.
Grigor frowned. His fool companions, with their stench of paan smoke, kept drawing him out of the epic he was reading.
They cackled like a group of hags as Torus bounced around in mimicry of a donkey.
Grigor gave Torus a scowl. Not that he’d noticed. The big, bald foot soldier was as perceptive as a lubberfish.
Grunting, Grigor returned his attention to the scroll and managed a few more lines of script before another of his companions interrupted him – the short, irritating weasel they called Mal. Grigor had met many men named after gods who seemed worthy of the title. But Mal was nothing more than a loathsome camp gossip.
Mal crouched low under the hanging spruce limb and stepped closer to where Grigor sat with his back against the dry tree trunk.
“Oy.” Mal’s nasal voice rose with the wind. “You hear me, One-Eye?”
Grigor reluctantly looked up with his sole eye that had inspired one of his many nicknames. Mal’s red hair contrasted sharply against the dark green of the tree. His long face with drooping eyes made him appear perpetually sleepy. The whole effect was worsened with a crooked nose, and one of those mouths that remained open at all times. The short man looked stupid. Not inaccurate. Not that Grigor could talk of ugliness. He’d travelled the known world as a slave soldier of the Solan Realm from his homeland of Krell in the west, to Thasus in the east, and he was yet to find a man uglier than himself.
“… running out,” Mal was saying.
Grigor sighed. Not again. He brought the ancient scroll down to rest on his lap and glanced beyond Mal’s slight frame. The others had formed a circle by the fire, all of them laughing as they puffed on paan pipes. Sniggering at Mal, Grigor had no doubt. “What is?” he asked reluctantly.
“You stupid?” Mal’s mouth gaped more than usual. “It’s the night of daemons.”
Grigor stared a moment before replying, slowly, “I’m aware tonight marks the beginning of the Sacred Abstinence.” Grigor was careful to use the words of the Faith, which all soldiers, from generals to slaves like him, had been forced to adopt. He’d read enough epics over the years to know all sects come and go, along with their gods. This newest cult, Duas, was tightening its grip on the Realm and converting the army had quickened the process. But Grigor didn’t trust any god, not even his own, and he trusted the men who followed them less so. Yet he no longer wished to risk the whip, so he took pains to speak the pompous words of the Faith where he could. He had to play along until this mission was over and he could finally return to the Capital to buy his freedom.
“Sacred Abstinence.” Mal spat. “Listen to you.” He stood as tall as his short stature would allow and broadened his chest, then lowered his voice in mimicry of Grigor. “I am aware it is the Sacred Abstinence. La-dee-bloody-da.”
“If that is all…” Grigor returned his attention to the scroll.
Mal took a step closer, but a screech interrupted him. “What was that?” Mal’s voice went high.
“Feeder bat,” Grigor replied, not turning from the scroll.
“Feeder b—” Mal yelped, throwing his arms in the air.
Mal straightened and returned doleful eyes on Grigor. “How do you know? A bird there. A bat thither. A storm brewing, or something wrong with Flur. How, by Unark’s balls, do you think you know?” Mal’s face was turning as red as his hair. His tantrums were tiresome to endure. Grigor briefly considered punching Mal and knocking out his last three teeth on the left. But Grigor’s hand continued to hold the scroll, the parchment too precious to risk a splattering of blood.
Grigor shrugged and cast a look at Flur,Grigor shrugged and glanced at Flur, barely visible behind a spruce tree. He waited for Mal’s ire to explode into the rantings they’d put up with for the last lunath, during which this sorry band of eight soldiers had tolerated each other. But Mal stepped away.
Grigor tried to return to the scroll, an epic by Scholarch Apolos, about the mythical heroes of Ancient Zraemia. He’d found it after his last battle, down in Galcia, in yet another border feud with the Saulads. The subsequent looting had been fruitful. But now his thoughts ran to Mal’s point. The night of daemons was about to begin. Or Darkenwynter, as his people called it. From his perch, Grigor held an excellent view of the snow-covered cliff that fell away to Nomans Lake. This was the northernmost point of the Solan Realm, and while they knew something of what lingered on the other side of that lake, it had never been conquered. Those mountains remained outside even the Realm’s authority.
Grigor scanned the horizon – a squiggly line formed by the craggy peaks on the other side of the vast lake where mountains loomed like hunched trolls, as though guarding something precious. One loomed larger than the rest. At this hour, with the sun sinking low, the mountain ranges were clear. Snow and ice covered them like a dusky red blanket in the dimming light, growing redder with every heartbeat. Grigor slowly raised a hand, to do something he rarely did in the presence of others, but he was concealed beneath the shadow of the spruce, and his companions were busy taunting Mal again, or refilling paan pipes.
Grigor returned his gaze to the tallest mountain. He was aware of the mountain's name and its notorious legends. Swiftly, he lifted the eyepatch that covered the deep scar and empty socket where his left eye once resided, and moved the patch to the right. The scarred eye socket housed no eye, for it had been cruelly plucked when he was a child. The scarring that remained was a hideous scab, worse than the long scar that ran along his cheek, adding to the overall horror that was Grigor’s appearance. Unlike Mal’s, it wasn’t a stupid ugliness, but one that terrified children and adults alike.
Grigor allowed his unseeing eye to ‘see’ the mountain. He slowed his breathing, for it took a while to switch sights, as he called it. Took concentration too, without the thrill of battle to aid it. When the sight finally came, forming in a blur of contrasting hues, he sucked a cold breath. The swirl of darkness, the pulsation, it spoke of power, and the unsettling thought of all those legends made his stomach drop. That was their destination. “Black Mountain,” Grigor whispered. He replaced the patch and regretted seeing it at all.
Grigor considered performing the Krell ritual of protection, as was required on this eve, to safeguard those he cared for from the daemons that would breach the Malfren gates. The gates that would weaken and warp when the sun went to its lengthy rest. Not that there were many for Grigor to pray for. He could count those he cared for on one hand, and there’d be plenty of fingers spare.
Invoking a protection prayer was not exactly possible right now. Not an oak in sight, and the spruce would not fool the Guardians. If his companions looked over to see himIf his companions saw him burying a cutting while muttering to himself, they would know what he was doing. He was too old to face the consequences of high treason.
Flur, the mare who’d pulled their cart all the way from the Capital, nickered as she stared at the horizon. Grigor glanced into the sunset, suddenly obscured by two figures drawing close to their camp. One tall, broad, and stalking in a familiar soldier’s gait – Captain Arenas. The other much slimmer, and walking quickstep to keep up – Vicon. A golden glint sparkled from the thin man’s earlobe where a stone dangled from a silver loop. Vicon had told Mal the trinket was amberstone, but Grigor saw through the lie. That stone was veridian. Contraband, unless registered with the censor’s office in the Capital, and sumptuary taxes paid for the privilege of owning it.
Grigor studied Vicon as he spoke with the captain. He resembled a thief with that long, greasy hair that hung in cords close to his head, with small, restless eyes and a sharp nose, as though it helped to sniff out treasures. Grigor very much doubted Vicon paid the high tax for the indulgence of wearing veridian. Even gold veridian.
“What are we all doing here?” Grigor muttered to himself as he eyed the two leaders of this ill-tempered troupe of soldiers. He grunted as a probable answer took shape. An answer that pointed to more crime. Crime that would risk his freedom.
Mal had tried to suggest something similar once, before Larzus had told him to shut his mouth. Now Grigor wondered if Mal wasn’t so stupid after all. Perhaps it was just a cruel trick of nature to give him that dimwitted appearance. But when he glanced at Brutus and Torus aiming pieces of hard biscuit at Mal’s open mouth as a way of passing the time, Grigor wasn’t so sure.
“Soldiers, gather here,” Captain Arenas shouted.
Arenas was always shouting. He was no Titus. But Grigor obeyed, carefully returning the scroll to his knapsack and getting to his feet. He strolled to the campfire where the others waited.
Arenas threw him a frustrated glare, which Grigor ignored as he lifted his chin to listen for orders.
“We leave now,” the captain growled. The look in his eye defied any one of them to question him.
Mal failed to pick up the cue. “What?” Spit flew from that open mouth. “Strike camp? What was the point making camp only to—”
“We won’t be striking,” Arenas said with a crack in his voice. “We leave at once. Armed and armoured.”
“Battle?” More spit. Mal just couldn’t help himself. “You never said what about battle.”
The captain’s grimace tightened as he turned hostile eyes on Mal. “We are soldiers.” He shifted focus to the others. “Ready yourselves. The sun has just now sunk beneath the horizon and we won’t see it again for an eightnight.”
Arenas mentioned nothing of the unnatural terrors that, despite the best efforts of the Faith, the men here believed were imminent.
“We leave within the hour,” Arenas turned to go. “Eat and be ready.”
Everyone dispersed to follow orders. Mal muttered to himself about bad omens and cruel gods, and his own ill luck to find himself on a senseless campaign on the first eve of the Darkness with a group of fools.
“You know we can hear you, halfwit?” Larzus shouted.
For once Mal ignored him, and shaking his head, crawled into his tent.
Grigor stood motionless for a moment, watching the actions of his fellows and trying to read the uneasy look on the captain’s face as he sat by his tent to sharpen his sword.
“You deaf as well as mute?” Grigor looked up. Vicon stood nearby, bouncing on his toes, his eyes nearly filled with black. The gold viridian earring glinting with the movement. “Dumb ox. Didn’t hear your captain?”
Grigor watched the man. Spittle foamed at the corners of his mouth. “Just ate, then?” Grigor said, arranging a knowing expression.
Vicon’s mouth stopped working, his black eyes widened even further before he narrowed them. Then he turned and walked off toward Flur.
Twilight found the party of eight boarding the sole ferry of Nomans Lake. Some planks moved when stepped on, as though the nails had rusted.
Grigor waited until the very last to board, appreciating the firm, unmoving ground of the rocky shore. Black Mountain's steep and unforgiving climb awaited them across the lake.
He’d never set foot on the mountain, though he’d read about the Realm’s attempts at conquering those ranges.. Black Mountain had got its name not from the dark colour of its rock face, or the vast shadow it cast, but from the deep, black tunnels of its interior. Grigor had no doubt of what those tunnels were made of. By and by, he grew certain that substance was the very reason for this senseless expedition. Why had Titus agreed to send him?
“Hurry, Grigor,” the captain shouted.
Grigor’s stomach clenched at the mere sight of the shifting lake waters. He never could handle travel over the sea. He boarded the narrow plank, trying not to look down into the inky depths.
As soon as his foot fell upon the boards, a familiar queasiness descended and he knew he’d not be rid of it until he returned to solid ground.
The ferryman was short and stood patiently, waiting for Grigor to board. Grigor intended to walk past him and make for the bow, where he would watch the horizon to escape the sickness, but the ferryman reached out and clasped Grigor’s arm with a small brown hand.
The little man smiled up at Grigor, exposing square teeth. “You are welcome where your companions are not.”
Grigor raised his eyebrows. The man had Hauflin blood, and a lot of it, for as well as being so short his owl eyes seemed to shift and change colour like the waters of the lake, and his skin took on the hue of its surroundings so that the little brown hand had darkened to match the colour of Grigor’s leather gauntlet.
“You will survive this,” the ferryman said. “Be not afraid.”
Grigor wanted to ask more, but the man slowly shook his head with a stoney stare, then removed his hand to grasp the ferry pole and push off.
Grigor moved to the ferry’s bow. The uneasy feeling about this dubious expedition now growing eightfold. He had never wanted to come, but Titus had assured him that this would be his last mission, and when Grigor returned to the Capital, his request to buy his freedom would finally be sanctioned. But the Hauflin’s words made him uncertain. Just as the soothseer’s words had when Melva took him with her for a telling. “You will survive mountain,” the seer had told him. “You must not be afeared.”
He’d brushed aside the old hag’s prophecy, telling himself he didn’t like the black of her eyes, that she was an eater if ever he’d seen one, ignoring that feeling in the deepest core of his being, where he discerned truth from lies as easily as any man detected light and shade.
Grigor clutched the pommel of his sword resting in its scabbard and turned back to watch the ferryman now weaving, back and forth, the long paddle that propelled this ramshackle vessel. You will survive this. The little man’s words haunted him as he turned back to look up at the towering mountain in the darkening night
“You look like shit, Tiny,” Larzus swaggered up with a smirk. “Worried about the ghouls?” He nodded at the mountain.
Grigor closed his eye and inhaled a deep breath of icy air. It seemed to ease the nausea for a moment so that he could open his mouth to speak without risking his rations spraying the deck. “Don’t like… seafaring.”
“It’s a lake. And it’s as flat as my mother-in-law‘s humour.”
Grigor grunted, keeping his gaze fixed on the horizon, just visible now.
“Don’t like it.” Mal joined them, sidling up like a conspirator, glancing nervously around.
“Really?” Larzus said, with a wink at Grigor.
Another rise of nausea threatened to unleash in Grigor’s throat. Perhaps he should expel the contents of his stomach on Mal’s short head. It’d give him something to complain about.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mal carried on, ignorant of his companion’s sarcasm. “‘Bout why they chose us.”
“Go on, then.” Larzus gave Grigor a conspiring half smile before turning to Mal and saying, “We’re only halfway across this freezing puddle. Tell us your thoughts, Weasel. Entertain us. With any luck, you’ll stop me from thinking about how bloody cold it is.”
Grigor closed his eye a moment and clutched his stomach.
Mal looked between them, his mouth as always hanging open. “We’re expendable. That’s what,” he said in hushed tones. “Mark my words, this is the last ferry any of us will see.”
“That’ll make Tiny here happy,” Larzus said, slapping Grigor on the back with a chuckle. “Make him the happiest man alive, I reckon, if he never saw no ferry again.”
Mal stared. “Don’t believe me, huh?”
Grigor groaned. Mal offended easily. It was draining.
The short man licked his open lips and danced on his toes as he jabbed a pointed finger at Larzus. “Don’t believe me, huh? You don’t know half of nuthin.”
“Enlighten me,” Larzus said, the sardonic tone thick as oil.
Mal pointed toward the stern. “Torus and Brutus were infantry soldiers under Anus.”
Larzus chuckled. Referring to Captain Arenas in such base terms never got tired, it seemed.
“You know that?”
Larzus straightened his shoulders, affecting a serious expression. “You don’t say? I see your point. We’re doomed!”
The sarcasm was so thick now even Mal could detect it, and he sputtered rapid-fire. “They found Torus and Brutus smuggling. Captain Anus was profiting by accepting bribes and not reporting them.”
“Smuggling what?” Larzus asked.
“Veridian. What else? They were stationed at the East Mines before they closed and were on their way to the Capital to await court martial when this expedition came up and Anus was directed to captain it.”
Larzus’s smirk faded. “Go on.”
Not needing any encouragement, Mal continued, “Rathaquar is a refugee who fled from trouble in Tarzique. He jumped sides and signed up as a soldier of the Realm when he made it to the Capital.”
Larzus scoffed at this. “And how does that make him expendable?”
“No family. No friends. No one will question his absence. Vicon,” Mal lowered his voice and pointed at the thin man, the leader of this expedition, who danced nervously on his feet on the opposite side of the bow from them, staring earnestly ahead. “He was sat in the Capital dungeons awaiting trial and—”
“Yes, yes,” Larzus said. “You’ve told us all about him a score of times.”
According to Mal, Vicon was something of a famed criminal, probably an undertrader, and some mysterious personage of power had arranged for his release from the infamous Capital dungeon. The Capital dungeon was full of criminals awaiting trial, and most of them died waiting. Mal’s knowledge did not extend to Vicon’s alleged crime, but Grigor would bet his right eye he knew it. The quickness of Vicon’s movements and speech, the contrast in his mood from desolate and overly fatigued to upbeat and animated, and the darkness of his eyes all pointed to the one conclusion. Vicon was an eater. That lie about the so-called amberstone in his ear confirmed it.
“What about you, Mal?” Larzus asked. “How are you expendable?”
Grigor watched the short man with interest for a change. The nausea was settled for the moment. Perhaps Mal’s prattle was a distraction, after all.
Mal looked down at his feet. “I… Well … I keep getting transferred.”
Larzus let go a loud laugh. “There’s a surprise. No commander wants you, hey, Mal? Can’t think why.”
Mal’s face reddened once again to the colour of his hair. “What about you then, Larzus? Want to know why you’re here?”
Larzus folded his arms and assumed a too-casual stance. His handsome face looked as haughty as any magnus. “Go on. What you got on me?”
“Got caught with your loincloth down, didn’t you?” Mal was smiling now.
Larzus slowly unfolded his arms. “How’d you know about that?”
“Men who can’t keep it in their tunic can’t keep secrets.” Mal laughed. “It’s one thing to fuck the camp followers, quite another when it’s the wife of your commanding officer.”
“Don’t you start, Tiny,” Larzus jabbed a finger at him. “That was years ago, and I got the whip for it.”
“Your commander likes his revenge served cold,” Grigor said.
Mal was still smiling, it made him look different.
“All right, weasel.” Larzus turned back to Mal. “What about Tiny here? You haven’t said shit about him.”
The smile faded and Mal’s mouth hung open once more.
A jolt of nausea rose like a fist in Grigor’s stomach.
“He’s the only slave soldier among us, and he’s about to buy his freedom.”
Grigor clutched his stomach as he glared at Mal. How the fuck did the weasel know?
“Grigor got close to his commanding officer, the famed and noble Titus.” Mal shook his head. “Can’t have a freedman knowing all his secrets. Not with a reputation like his now. Or the son’s at least.”
Grigor felt his lip curl.
“You can’t deny it,” Mal squeaked.
“Fuck off, Weasel,” Larzus said. “Go annoy someone else.”
“You’re the one who asked—”
“I said, fuck off!” Larzus shoved Mal, thrusting the small man backwards.
“Can’t handle the truth, huh? Mark my words,” Mal snapped, straightening his leather cuirass. “I never even mentioned the Eight Fools of the End.” Then he turned and made his way over to the other side of the ferry to bother Rathaquar.
Larzus spat into the lake and stalked off.
Grigor sniffed and studied the now-dark horizon, as black as the mountain. The ferry was almost at land, and Grigor was done with this trip as much as he was done with Mal’s speculation. In truth, all the weasel had revealed made sense. Disappointment filled him, but Grigor had dealt with that familiar feeling more times than he could count. He spat over the side as he realised what a fool he’d been.
He’d allowed himself to trust Titus, and Grigor trusted no one. Not since he’d been given away as a boy by the man he’d trusted most. He clutched the ferry’s railing until it felt like it might burst beneath his grip. Dammed if Grigor would succumb to a magnus’s fancy. Freedom was within his grasp. He would survive this night. As for fear, Grigor thought, staring at the mountain, he dined on the stuff.