The Staff Of Sorrows
The air was still around the circle of arches. There was a tension, an expectancy, as if the cold stone had souls etched into it like the glyphs of anguish, and they were soon to be free. A many-voiced gibbering broke the silence and a shadow cut the Twilight sky. Movement was initiated. A breeze touched the white stone like a blind man finding his way and the lowering sky began to shift. Within one of the arches was a shimmering, a flickering, then came a sound like ripping cloth and a shape appeared, became distinct. A rider came through the arch from nowhere in that land.
Into the Twilight rode Hadrim; long-limbed, grey-haired, wrapped in a ragged cloak with spatters of old blood on it. Like something disembodied his white hand twitched the reins of his horse to guide it out amongst the broken rock and gnarled bushes. He looked up, his expression bitter as he viewed the heaving mass of cloud. The sound of his horse’s hooves on the muddy shale and half-buried slabs was lonely and hollow. There was a taste like copper in his mouth.
Vengeance is over.
Time now to start anew, to begin his life again. But there was nothing inside him, nothing to begin from. Where was purpose? The blind breeze swept his hair across his face, whispered secrets in his ear, then tugged at his cloak to summon him. It brought with it the familiar cadence of the sea. He halted, his forehead creased in thought, then he guided his horse toward the sound.
At the top of a beach he dismounted and walked down toward the sea, his worn boots crunching salt-rimed shells into the shingle. Halfway to the sea he sat on a worm-eaten timber and gazed speculatively into the distance at a birdshape like a black rip in the cloud. Its cry was an obscenity. He stared at it, his face without expression. It rose and fell in the air, folding its wings in to fall then out to rise. There was something insubstantial about it, something otherworldly and strange.
Past curving mounds of shingle the waves were folding themselves over with a crash and hiss, foaming themselves across flat mussel beds then pulling back to leave windblown scud. Abruptly Hadrim stood, too edgy to relax, drew his sabre and thunked it down into the timber to leave it shivering in the salt breeze. From its pommel red silk flapped in the breeze. He turned away in disgust.
“Idiot,” he said, a sneer twisting his thin features. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head.
The birdshape drew closer, its cry louder and more substantial in the chill air. Hadrim did not notice. The tang of salt was fresh on his tongue, like blood.
The boy had been happy. He laughed as he rushed to a new and strange shell to add to the collection he was already having trouble carrying. His mother; a dark patrician woman of indeterminate age, laughed with him. Then her laughter stopped.
“Hadrim, come here.”
He looked up at her, his laughter dying as well. She was looking out at the sea. Something was wrong. The sea looked strange, darker, and there were weird birds circling above it. There was a strange tension, like in the Mirror room when uncle Edmund and father were working. Suddenly Hadrim was scared. The sea swirled, grew darker. Something…
It exploded from the sea; gigantic, black, terrifying. Sea water boiled and poured from it and its stink infected the air. Beyond it birdshapes wheeled and shrieked with horrid glee. Hadrim was frozen with terror; eyes seeing unclearly a shape vaguely manlike, a slime-white dog’s-head on a sinuous neck, red heat, stag beetle antlers stark against a rushing sky.
The creature howled
“Run, Hadrim! Run!”
They ran. He dropped his shells. The sea rushed against the shore and something came crashing onto the shingle. A black claw swiped. Hadrim saw his mother spun and flung then falling like a bloodied rag. He screamed and ran as fast as little legs could carry him. He knew a place; one of his dens. Somehow he reached the crevice full of sea-smell and decay. The black claw tore and scrabbled at slimed rocks, broke away clinging shellfish and loosed weed like shredded skin. The beast howled and there was a shape in the crevice with him, and-
With the shore wind whipping his cloak about him, Hadrim walked on down this beach he had known, came to a rocky promontory, and stepped up onto it. From there he saw, distantly, massive bastions rising above sheer cliffs, and above them the stony might of a tower.
The Sea-view Watch-tower. Perhaps someone had seen?
Hours passed before his father found them. Without a word he had taken them back to Edgehouse; her to be cremated and he to be left in the care of foster parents. Then without a word he had gone. Hadrim never saw him again.
Hadrim climbed down from the promontory and walked back to his sabre. Grief old and new clenched his insides. He had not cried. His mother had been killed and he had not cried. His father had left him and he had not cried. And now Alana … He clamped down on the thought and in that moment instinct made him look up.
The birdshape was above him, hovering like some hellish vulture; black and flickering red, beak claw and feral eye, the shade of a mad-man’s hallucination. With his heart lurching Hadrim dashed for his sabre, snatched it from the timber, and laid it back ready to cut. Gelid cold washed over his face. The shape rose up as if on a thermal, up into cloud, gone.
He sheathed his sabre then wiped cold sweat from his forehead on a dusty sleeve. He had seen many things on his travels, but this thing? Nowhere but here. He whistled for his horse, caught its reins and mounted. A dig of his heels sent it labouring up the beach, up a moss-greened scree slope and back to the track he had abandoned. For a time he forgot the birdshape and tried to enjoy the prospect of returning home after an absence of nearly twenty years. It had been a moment of strangeness; and interlude in the continuity of endless life.
The track took him between boulders like bowed giants, up a narrow defile then out onto flat gorseland. All around were strewn boulders and slabs interspersed with viciously thorned growths; the only plants to prosper here. Ahead of him, now only partially obscured by the sea-mist, stood Edgehouse. He reined his horse to a halt and took a long leisurely look.
It stood against the roiling phosphorescence of the sea like something grown from the very rock of the land. It was called a house but was more like a citadel. Behind heavily buttressed walls were slate-tiled granite buildings packed close together, the few gaps between them spanned by barrel-vaulted bridges, on the abutments of which grotesques and gargoyles squatted like sentinels. Inside, Hadrim knew, the buildings were joined by dim corridors, long and lined with dusty artefacts that waited out the shadowy centuries. Six baroque towers rose evenly spaced from the mass of roofs gutters and bridges, beyond the reach of the occasional chimney. Dark fists of towers striking up into the perpetual gloom of this twilight land; Surdar, so called. This was Edgehouse; a place constructed of stone, mortar, wood, and seemingly of carven shadow. This was Hadrim’s ancestral home, for centuries the home of family Arrinias.
Hadrim ran his gaze along the wall, past the massive steel-armoured gates, which he knew were hardly ever used, to the miniature towers each side of the postern gate, and there, behind a small length of crenellated wall, he saw a large shape moving ponderously. From this distance Hadrim could not judge its size nor could he make out much detail, but he knew what walked there; a Gatekeeper. He had never been able to say if they were human. They were larger than normal men, but it was possible for men to be that size. On average they were seven feet tall and twice the weight of a normal man. All of them had faces sheathed in metal, bull-horned helmets on their heads, and were otherwise clothed in fur and leather. That was where Hadrim had his problem. He did not know how much of that fur and leather was actual Gatekeeper, nor did he know if the horns were part of the helmets or if they came up from the inside. He shook his head. Only his father, Sennath, knew for sure. It was he who placed them where they were. He who had either fetched them from some far distant world, or bred them in some stygian laboratory within Edgehouse. Hadrim urged his horse onward. His father was no longer around to resolve such questions and he found little inclination to do so himself.
Closer to Edgehouse and he was able to make out the Gatekeeper’s taurian shape, momentarily joined by another. He also saw more-human figures farther along the wall.
Oswulf? Cynwolf? Ceola? Drannen?
Two brothers, two cousins.
No, even now he doubted his father had returned. Anyway, the chances were against it being any of his family strolling on the battlements. Then he reconsidered.
Who else had the leisure?
Finally the track dipped down to the postern gate and Hadrim looked up expectantly.
Will they know me?
The Gatekeeper watched him for a while then moved to one side. There was a loud metallic crash, then the sound of heavy ratchets clacking. Slowly the postern gate opened and Hadrim was able to ride on into the entrance tunnel, under the murder holes and threatening spikes of raised portcullises, to the shadowed courtyard beyond, his horse’s hooves clattering on the worn flag-stones. Once inside the womb of stone he dismounted and looked around at what was both familiar and unfamiliar.
Grey buildings rose about him to as high as six stories and arched windows observed him like critical eyes. Above him was the ribbed underside of a bridge. Hadrim smiled somewhat tiredly as he lowered his gaze to the three figures who approached. Two of them were young men; blond-haired, pale complexioned, dressed in the plain livery of house-carls. The third was a rod-straight old man with a fringe of hair round his bald head, a deeply lined face, long blue robe, and the black-silver chain of office round his neck, which marked him as the Castellan of Edgehouse. Hadrim recognised him.
“Sark, it’s been a long time,” he said.
Sark halted in puzzlement, absently waving one of the carls on to deal with Hadrim’s horse, then his eyes grew wide and his expression dumbfounded.
“Lord Hadrim! I thought…”
The carl holding the reins of Hadrim’s horse looked to his companion with ironical surprise. It would not take long for the news of his return to spread through Edgehouse, Hadrim surmised, and was glad. He smiled wryly, then passed his saddle bags to the carl before dismounting.
“Perhaps you mistook me for one of my brothers. I imagine it was assumed some time ago I was dead. As you can see, I am very much alive. How are things here?” He took his saddle bags back and nodded his thanks to the carl. The carls led his horse to the stables one side of the courtyard.
Sark regained some of his composure, but his reply faltered.
“Little changes, my Lord. Things are much the same-” his voice caught, then he continued hurriedly, “as when you were here last.”
Hadrim nodded and began strolling toward the entrance opposite the stables. Sark followed fretfully behind. It was obvious to Hadrim that Sark was frightened; concealing something. Also, he felt there was something missing, something different, even here in the courtyard. He had no wish to press the matter, knowing he would find out in due course.
“Who of the family is here?” he asked instead.
“Edmund, of course,” replied Sark, then, “Ceola, Cuthred, Sherol, Jerrod, and Oswulf. Cynwolf has been gone almost as long as you and so has Osric. He has remained in contact though.”
Hadrim turned his head as he walked, a half amused expression on his face.
“A reprimand, Sark?”
“No, merely an observation, Lord,” was Sark’s nervous reply.
Hadrim nodded as he laid his hand on the wrought-iron handle of a door.
“I take it there has been no news of any of the others?” he asked, referring to Sennath, and those others of his kin who had been absent longer than he or Osric. Those like his half-brothers Drannen and Mordac, and others more distantly related.
“No news, nothing.”
Hadrim swallowed his disappointment.
It seemed to him that for a family whose members were ageless Arrinias seemed to be suffering much attrition.
Where are you, father? No news, nothing.
Blindly he opened the door before him then halted as the heavy air of his home gusted out; dusty rooms, emptiness, contrasted with the smells of cooking. His throat caught.
This was home. This was real. He was back. Perhaps here he could forget … He turned to Sark.
“Are my rooms unoccupied?”
“Yes, I will have them made ready for you.” He paused, obviously uncomfortable, “Shall I inform Edmund..?”
“As you wish” said Hadrim, and he stood aside to allow Sark to pass. “And Sark…” Sark halted but did not turn. “You will find me in the library, when my rooms are ready.”
“Yes, Lord,” said Sark, and hurriedly departed. Hadrim was sure he was glad to be gone.
Only slightly perturbed by Sark’s uneasiness Hadrim shrugged his saddlebags more securely onto his shoulder and set out at a pace the aged Castellan would have been unable to match. Down echoey corridors of time-worn stone and wood from ancient trees he strode, his grey cloak belling out behind him. Above him beams and latticeworks tangled the shadows and under his feet were floors glinting with occasional colour; all that was left to attest to the beautiful and elaborate mosaics that had once been there. Shortly he passed a young house soldier wearing a tabard bearing the Arrinias coat of arms. The soldier looked at him and was unsure whether he should salute or not, and as Hadrim swept past never got the chance to find out.
As he walked on Hadrim wondered how many people there were now resident in Edgehouse, and how many others. The human population had been estimated at a thousand the last time he had been here. Their number, including the house soldiers, whose duties were mainly ceremonial, and the carls, who were few, were not the only ones contributing to the running of the house. He remembered the nonhuman residents. There were the Gatekeepers – perhaps – the needle-toothed cats that hunted poisonous lizards in the cellars where mushrooms were grown, and there were others, mostly unseen, mostly silent. It was thinking on these that brought home to him what was wrong, what was missing.
Where are the Rimhounds?
Before he had left he had been First Guardian; responsible for the defence of Edgehouse. Then the greatest threat to them had been the Abael; the demoniac natives of Surdar. To meet this threat he had bred guard dogs; Rimhounds. Hounds trained to kill any Abael with the temerity to enter the house; their senses were attuned to that kind. They were indefatigable and totally faithful.
Hadrim had not yet seen one.
He came to a halt below a spiral staircase and looked around. The Rimhounds should have been patrolling this corridor. There should have been some in the courtyard.
Where are they?
He shook his head and began to climb the stairs.
In due course. In due course.
In a moment he entered the corridor that led to the library, and was disappointed again. Here, where so much of value was kept, there should have been Rimhounds. He moved along to the door of the library and a smell as of rancid sweat infected his nostrils. He turned to the guard alcove from which it issued and his face creased with distaste.
“Rimael,” he hissed and his hand dropped reflexively to his sabre.
In the guard alcove stood a creature. It had skin the colour of a drowned man’s, pendulous arms, a swollen gut, and short bowed legs. The bottom of its bony head ended in a lamprey mouth like a sore. Saurian ridges extended from the back of this head down its neck, and its claws glinted like a promise in the gloom. It appeared to be female, mainly because of its drooping paps, but Hadrim knew it to be neuter, just as he knew how quickly the toxin on its claws could kill him.
It stood clad in chain mail and grasped a halberd in grotesque parody of a house soldier. This pretence seemed to make it worse for Hadrim and he stepped back when it turned febrile cat’s eyes on him, but it remained in its alcove. Hadrim nodded to himself then moved carefully to the library door, his gaze locked on the creature and his hand not leaving the pommel of his sabre. Reaching the door, he fumbled the latch open, stepped inside, and closed it between himself and the creature.
“Damn you, Cuthred,” he breathed, and slammed the bolt across.