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The House Of The Stag
By Kage Baker
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 Kage Baker
All rights reserved.
It's an immense and grand ledger: clasps plated in gold, cut jewels set along the spine, elaborate tooling to ornament the black stuff in which it is bound. All the same, it's a rather unpleasant-looking thing.
You can handle it, if you like, but you won't like the slightly clammy texture of the black stuff; you won't like the weight of the book in your hands, heavier than it ought to be.
You can open it, if you like, and try to read the iron-red text. You won't be able to read it, though, not without your eyes watering, and the disconcerting hieroglyphs will call to mind snakes, whips, thorns, claws. After a few pages you will notice the smell, which will disturb you to the foundation of your consciousness.
It is a slave registry.
It was not made by any crude band of conquerors, if that's your next question; no Riders with knives of bronze could have created anything this carefully made, nor would they have the meticulous patience to cut the point, dip the pen in — ink? — and write the history of each unfortunate soul ...
* * *
4th day 3rd week 7th month in the 230th year from the Ascent of the Mountain. This day, flesh salvaged from the eastern face. Initially routed to Larder. Vitality detected; rerouted to Experimental Medicine and registered as Slave 4372301.
* * *
He opened his eyes to unrelieved blackness. Was he dead? He felt nothing. The last memory was of screaming air and blinding light, and a sense of regret as he'd fallen. He'd come so far up the ice wall, and before that so far through the passes, that it seemed a shame to die from simple clumsiness. But his frozen hands had failed him, and so ...
Dead, then. Was this the womb of the earth? Not the way he had imagined it. He had thought it would be full of green and shifting lights, warm and humming. Not this, which was nothing. No light, no sound, no sensation of cold or heat.
The bleak thought surfaced: Perhaps the earth would not have you. Gard considered that prospect and resigned himself.
It was something of an anticlimax, then, when the light appeared. It flared, it danced like yellow leaves. He started, and every nerve in his body shrieked to life. He wept in pain as the light grew brighter. It was nearing him. He could hear, now, a clanking sort of noise, echoing, and the echoing of footsteps. Now and again the light paused, but always it came on again.
It resolved into a man. He wore the light in a thing like an openwork basket, mounted on his head. He was carrying a ... water gourd? He wore a harness and woven stuff, like one of the Riders, but he did not look like a Rider. His skin was the color of a sunset. And now he was within arm's reach, if Gard had been able to move his arm.
He stopped and thrust his head in Gard's direction, in an interrogatory way. When he saw Gard looking back at him, he grinned.
"Hhhhnaaaii!" he said. Something popped into existence at his shoulder, the image of a burning child, and it moved its lips and spoke when he spoke again. "The big icicle is awake!"
Or, at least, that was what Gard understood him to say. Meaningless syllables sounded, but within his ear another voice spoke with meaning. Gard tried to answer him and could only sob.
"Yes, I daresay you would cry! I'd cry too, if I was in your condition. Cheer up, though; Magister Hoptriot thinks he will save your legs. Then you'll be lots of use. Always good to be of use, eh?" The man set down the — gourd? No, but it was like a gourd — and uncoiled a thing like a rope. He hooked its end into a wooden frame that held Gard's arm prisoner, and Gard felt a sting in his arm, a tiny spark out of the flaming pain that consumed him. He looked at himself by the light. All bandages, and stinking salve.
The man set the gourdlike thing down and looked Gard over. "Poor icicle. The medicine hurts, yes? Here's what you need." He pulled from a pouch at his waist a handful of leaves. They were green, nearly fresh, only a little limp with having been in the man's pouch. He thrust them between Gard's teeth. "You chew. Soon, you won't care about the hurt."
Gard did as he was told, rolling the leaves into a quid with his tongue. Almost at once his tongue went numb, and then his mouth; the numbness spread down from there, merciful as cool water. The man squatted, watching him. He chuckled.
"There, now he's happy. Aren't you happy?"
"Am I dead?" said Gard thickly.
"No, not dead! By the grace of the masters, alive. You came a long way through the snow. What were you doing?"
Gard summoned memory. "Looking for a way through."
"Ahhh! To the cities on the other side?"
Gard looked at the man in incomprehension, wondering what cities might be, and the flaming child at the man's shoulder fretted and danced, and at last a tiny voice spoke in Gard's head: Communities/villages/families of people.
"Too bad. You're here now," said the man. He laughed and shook his head. "It's not so bad. I used to break my heart that I wasn't back there, and then one day I thought, what would I be doing if I was back there? Scrambling to find a crust to eat, a place to sleep. Don't have to do that, here. Food and a bed guaranteed, at least." He smacked his thighs and stood.
"Yes, you'll get better. You're strong. I heard they found you wrapped in a white bear's pelt! Did you kill it yourself?"
Bear? Gard had a hazy memory of the white thing that had come down the slope at him, an avalanche on four legs. He had run his spear down its throat and then leaped on its back and locked his arms about its neck ... blood steaming on the snow, and how grateful he had been for the warmth of its carcass as he skinned it. A demon of the snows, he had assumed. Had that been a bear? The burning child bounced in place, affirmed the word.
"But of course you must have killed it yourself. Nice! One of the mistresses claimed that pelt, very pleased she was too. I heard that story, I said to myself, 'This is a strong one, he'll make it,'" the man chattered on.
"How are you talking in two voices?" Gard asked.
"The fire-baby that talks in my head," said Gard, unable to point at it. "What is it?"
"That? Why, that's only a Translator. Clever, eh? Otherwise I shouldn't have any idea what your jungle talk meant, and I'll bet you never learned the speech of the Children of the Sun." The man grinned wide.
Children of the Sun? "Is that what you are?"
"Yes, of course!"
"Is that what the people here are?"
The man's grin faded. "No." He turned and looked over his shoulder into the darkness. "No, only a few of us here. And long, and so long since I've seen the sun. But it's better than dying, eh? Food and a bed, just as well, not so bad. How's your medicine doing, eh? All drained in?"
Too many new things to understand. And why bother to try, when the numbness and the blindness were so pleasant? Gard floated away into darkness and never felt the needle removed from his arm.
* * *
He felt nothing until a long while later, when there was brightness in his face again.
The pain returned with the light. He was being hoisted from the place where he lay, someone gripping him around the legs and someone catching him around the shoulders. He gulped for breath and gave a hoarse scream at the pain.
"Easy with him. Poor old icicle, I'll bet that hurt, eh? Can't give you the leaf for the pain, so sorry; Magister Hoptriot wants a look at you, and he wants you conscious. You be good and you'll have some later, eh? Old Triphammer promises you."
Gard looked around frantically as he was swung down to the floor. The man with the light towered above him; so did two dark giants who crouched, one at his head and one at his feet, and lifted him. He was slung between them on a litter, such as people used to drag the sick, the dying. He was carried forward through the darkness, as the man with the light trotted alongside. Triphammer? The burning child showed him a picture of the man with the light. Perhaps that was his name.
Now he could see, in the halo of light that traveled around him, that they were in a long corridor. Now and again they passed grottoes in the rock, shelves upon which other bodies lay. Some were bandaged. Some were unconscious. Some lay watching Gard pass, and their open eyes were glazed, listless, motionless. Others were bound and writhing, turning a restless, furious gaze on Gard as he passed, and they whined in their pain. They were kinds of people he had not seen before.
In his terror and disorientation, Gard opened and closed his hands, clutching for ... what was there to save him? Not his spear, not his knife: gone down the ice wall forever. Not the strength of his body: melted away. Nothing left but his strength of will. Nothing in his power to do but die bravely. He clenched his fists. He gritted his teeth.
The whole jolting way he made no sound, though he thought his teeth might never unlock again; he endured. At last he was borne into a room that flared with brilliance painful to his eyes, and he closed them. He was raised, set down on something hard and cold.
Deft hands unwound the bandages from his legs and burned like hot iron in their touch. He opened his eyes, not wide, but enough to see Triphammer and two others, the ones who had carried him, standing in a line with their eyes lowered. The bearers were big, their skins the color of slate, their eyes like downcast moons.
His tormentor was robed in skin, the hair scraped off smooth; it was gloved and masked in skin too. The eyes domed out like an insect's. It murmured to itself as it examined him, but no burning child appeared to translate for it.
Gard chanced a look at his body. He saw his legs and feet blackened, shriveled, bent. He closed his eyes again, laid his head back, praying for death. Now the voice spoke in his ear: "Are you conscious?"
He opened his eyes again, saw the mask had turned toward him, with a burning child now dancing at its shoulder. "Yes," he said.
"'Yes, Master,' is what you're supposed to say," Triphammer told him hurriedly.
"Will he kill me if I won't call him Master?" said Gard.
Triphammer nodded, emphatic. The two big ones raised their eyes, stared at him.
"Then rot and eat filth, you slave," said Gard, to the masked one. The mask tilted toward him. There was the barest hint of a shrug; then it took a rag and dipped the rag in a bowl and daubed what was in the bowl on Gard's feet. The black skin smoked, peeled back, sloughed away. That was the last Gard saw before the darkness fell in on him again.
* * *
Four moons, lined up, were shining at him out of the starless night. Gard blinked at them, bewildered. The two at the left grew larger, and he felt hot breath in his face.
"Rahashpa, gotu," said a deep voice, and another of the burning children popped into view and lit the grotto. Drink, brother. The two litter bearers stood over him. One was leaning down to offer him a drinking gourd.
Gard drank, and gasped for breath. More fire. He hadn't thought fire could be liquid. But it warmed, rather than burned, and its aftertaste was pleasant. And the drinking gourd wasn't a gourd at all ... it was the top of a skull. A laugh bubbled up out of his chest. He hadn't thought he'd ever laugh again.
"You called the master a slave," said the nearer of the two silver-eyed, grinning and showing a mouthful of fearsome teeth. "Your testicles are like two heads."
"The heads of enemies swinging at your belt," added the other.
"How we laughed in our hearts, when we heard your words."
"We said to ourselves, surely he is one of us."
After a moment of confusion, Gard said, "Am I what?"
"One of our kind. But you must be one of our kind. If you were one of the Earthborn, you'd have died like a lily in the snow."
"But you are strong. We saw the skin of the beast you killed."
"What is Earthborn?" Gard asked.
The two looked at each other, puzzled. They looked at him. "You are a lost child, then."
Gard wondered what that meant. Lost child ... yes, he had been, hadn't he? A foundling. No one's son. The one silver-eyed set aside the skull and leaned forward, nodding as though he understood.
"Ah, you were abandoned. It happens sometimes. Listen to me, brother: we are born of the Air. But when one of us takes flesh and mates with an Earthborn, or a Fireborn, there are children bred sometimes —"
"Earthborn are the slender things who live among the trees —"
"Triphammer, he's one of the Fireborn —"
"And you look a little like the Earthborn, but too big, too strong, and your heart is like ours. Welcome, lost child. Not to this filthy place; but to your own kind."
"Thank you," said Gard, trying to take in what they were telling him. He remembered the stories of his childhood. Were they demons, then?
The one with the skull bowl lifted it to Gard's lips again and then drew back suddenly, the silver moons blazing with emotion.
"By the Blue Pit! The masters don't know his name!"
The other one came close, leaned down too, spoke in an undertone, with urgency, "Little brother, have you told anyone your name?"
"No," said Gard.
They chortled with laughter, and the one beat his brother's arm so that the liquor in the skull slopped and smoked where it fell.
"Not your true name? But you were born in flesh. It would be the name you were given by the she that bore you," said the one with the skull bowl.
The memory of all that was past swirled by Gard, like a winter wind. He shuddered and said, "I couldn't tell you the name of she who bore me, let alone the name she gave me, if she bothered."
The brothers rocked and hugged themselves.
"Oh, fortunate boy! Then no one knows, and there is no way you can be made a slave!"
"They may chain you. They may beat you. But unless the masters know your true name, they may not own you."
"Even in this cell, you are free. Not like us. We must serve them. Poor old Grattur!"
"Poor old Engrattur! They called us down into flesh with promises of pleasure."
"They gave us food. They made us drunk."
"We were unwise. We told our names."
"Now we are slaves. Now they own our wills."
"Naming calls; naming owns."
"But you they'll never call. You they'll never own!"
"So you are Grattur and Engrattur?" said Gard, and they winced.
"Two fools, Grattur and Engrattur. If you could see the spells that bind us round, you would wonder how we even breathe."
"Trapped down here to serve them forever, and we cannot even die."
"They would only body us again, call us back by our names."
"Body you?" Gard asked.
"Make us bodies again, by craft, and lock us in them —," said Grattur. They heard footsteps, and then Triphammer looked into the grotto.
"What are you doing here? Icicle needs his rest. What is this, what is this? Are you making him drunk? Idiots!"
Grattur showed his teeth. Engrattur took a wad of leaves from a pouch and tucked them into Gard's mouth.
"He'll rest now, won't you, brother? Remember us, remember our fates. We're going, hothead!"
They shouldered their way out into the corridor. Triphammer looked after them angrily, then turned to hook the medicine into Gard's arm.
"Stupid demons," he muttered.
Am I a demon? Gard wondered, biting gratefully into the quid. The numbness came again, and the black bliss.
* * *
It was decided he would live, and so he was moved to a proper chamber; the grottoes, as Triphammer explained delicately, being more convenient to the Larder in case the seriously ill didn't pull through.
"But look what a fine cell you've been given!" said Triphammer, arranging the medicine rack above the new bed. "Dry as a bone. And look at all this fine bedstraw! Sweet as a summer meadow. I'll tell you, the masters must think you have great potential. My other patients would envy you. You don't often see slaves given such care, and that's a fact."
"I'm not a slave," said Gard.
Triphammer grimaced. "No need to be ungrateful. Here you lie, alive, and wasn't that their doing? And all your food and drink is their gift. You owe them service, really. After all. And it's not as though your future is so bleak. See, here's another gift for you!" Triphammer delved into a corner of the cell and held up two sticks, each with one end wrapped in rags. "Crutches! I'm to teach you to walk with them. Think of being able to get about on your own again, eh? Why, you might get a little wheeled cart, if you're diligent at your tasks.
"Perhaps even —" He dropped his voice. "There are special rewards for the best slaves, you know. Clever devices, all worked with spells. How'd you like a pair of silver legs, eh, to replace those poor withered ones? Set with gems, and strong enough to carry you across the world without tiring?"
Excerpted from The House Of The Stag by Kage Baker. Copyright © 2008 Kage Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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