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The Sum of All Men
By David Farland, David G Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1998 David Farland
All rights reserved.
IT BEGINS IN DARKNESS
Effigies of the Earth King festooned the city around Castle Sylvarresta. Everywhere the effigies could be seen — hanging beneath shopwindows, standing upright against the walls of the city gates, or nailed beside doorways — stationed any place where the Earth King might find ingress into a home.
Many of the figures were crude things crafted by children — a few reeds twisted into the form of a man, often with a crown of oak leaves in its hair. But outside the doors of shops and taverns were more ornate figures of wood, the full size of a man, often elaborately painted and coiffed in fine green wool traveling robes.
In those days, it was said that on Hostenfest Eve the spirit of the earth would fill the effigies and the Earth King would waken. At his wakening, he would protect the family for another season and help bear the harvest home.
It was a festive season, a season of joy. On Hostenfest Eve the father in a home would play the role of Earth King by setting gifts before the hearth. Thus, at dawn on the first day of Hostenfest, adults received flasks of new wine or kegs of stout ale. For the young girls the Earth King brought toy dolls woven of straw and wildflowers, while boys might get swords or oxcarts carved from ash.
All these bounties delivered by the Earth King represented but a token of the Earth King's wealth — the vast hoards of the "fruits of the forest and of the field" which legend said he bestowed on those who loved the land.
So the homes and shops around the castle were well adorned that night, on the nineteenth day of the Month of Harvest, four days before Hostenfest. All the shops were clean and well stocked for the autumn fair that would shortly come.
The streets lay barren, for dawn was approaching. Aside from the city guards and a few nursing mothers, the only ones who had reason to be up so late of the night were the King's bakers, who at that very moment were drawing the foam off the King's ale and mixing it with their dough so that the loaves would rise by dawn. True, the eels were running on their annual migration in the River Wye, so one might imagine a few fishermen to be out by night, but the fishermen had emptied their wicker eel traps an hour past midnight and had delivered kegs of live eels to the butcher for skinning and salting well before the second watch.
Outside the city walls, the greens south of Castle Sylvarresta were dotted with dark pavilions, for caravans from Indhopal had come north to sell the harvest of summer spices. The camps outside the castle were quiet but for the occasional braying of a donkey.
The walls of the city were shut, and all foreigners had been escorted from the merchants' quarter hours ago. No men moved on the streets at that time of night — only a few ferrin.
Thus there was no one to see what transpired in a dark alley. Even the King's far-seer, who had endowments of sight from seven people and stood guard on the old graak's aerie above the Dedicates' Keep, could not have spotted movement down in the narrow streets of the merchants' quarter.
But in Cat's Alley, just off the Butterwalk, two men struggled in the shadows for control of a knife.
Could you have seen them, you might have been reminded of tarantulas in battle: arms and legs twisting in frenzy as the knife flashed upward, scuffling as feet groped for purchase on the worn cobblestones, both men grunting and straining with deadly intent.
Both men were dressed in black. Sergeant Dreys of the King's Guard wore black livery embroidered with the silver boar of House Sylvarresta. Dreys' assailant wore a baggy black cotton burnoose in a style favored by assassins out of Muyyatin.
Though Sergeant Dreys outweighed the assassin by fifty pounds, and though Dreys had endowments of brawn from three men and could easily lift six hundred pounds over his head, he feared he could not win this battle.
Only starlight lit the street, and precious little of that made its way here into Cat's Alley. The alley was barely seven feet wide, and homes here stood three stories tall, leaning on sagging foundations till the awnings of their roofs nearly met a few yards above Dreys' head.
Dreys could hardly see a damned thing back here. All he could make out of his assailant was the gleam of the man's eyes and teeth, a pearl ring in his left nostril, the flash of the knife. The smell of woodlands clung to his cotton tunic as fiercely as the scents of anise and curry held to his breath.
No, Dreys was not prepared to fight here in Cat's Alley. He had no weapons and wore only the linen surcoat that normally fit over his ring mail, along with pants and boots. One does not go armed and armored to meet his lover.
He'd only stepped into the alley a moment ago, to make certain the road ahead was clear of city guards, when he heard a small scuffling behind a stack of yellow gourds by one of the market stalls. Dreys had thought he'd disturbed a ferrin as it hunted for mice or for some bit of cloth to wear. He'd turned, expecting to see a pudgy rat- shaped creature run for cover, when the assassin sprang from the shadows.
Now the assassin moved swiftly, grasping the knife tight, shifting his weight, twisting the blade. It flashed dangerously close to Dreys' ear, but the sergeant fought it off — till the man's arm snaked around, stabbing at Dreys' throat. Dreys managed to hold the smaller man's wrist back for a moment. "Murder. Bloody murder!" Dreys shouted.
A spy! he thought. I've caught a spy! He could only imagine that he'd disturbed the fellow in mapping out the castle grounds.
He thrust a knee into the assassin's groin, lifting the man in the air. Pulled the man's knife arm full length and tried to twist it.
The assassin let go of the knife with one hand and rabbit-punched Dreys in the chest.
Dreys' ribs snapped. Obviously the little man had also been branded with runes of power. Dreys guessed that the assassin had the brawn of five men, maybe more. Though both men were incredibly strong, endowments of brawn increased strength only to the muscles and tendons. They did not invest one's bones with any superior hardness. So this match was quickly degenerating into what Dreys would call "a bone-bash."
He struggled to hold the assassin's wrists. For a long moment they wrestled.
Dreys heard deep-voiced shouts: "That way, I think! Over there!" They came from the left. A street over was Cheap Street — where the bunched houses did not press so close, and where Sir Guilliam had built his new four-story manor. The voices had to be from the City Guard — the same guards Dreys had been avoiding — whom Sir Guilliam bribed to rest beneath the lantern post at the manor gate.
"Cat's Alley!" Dreys screamed. He only had to hold the assassin a moment more — make sure the fellow didn't stab him, or escape.
The Southerner broke free in desperation, punched him again, high in the chest. More ribs snapped. Dreys felt little pain. One tends to ignore such distractions when struggling to stay alive.
In desperation the assassin ripped the knife free. Dreys felt a tremendous rush of fear and kicked the assassin's right ankle. He felt more than heard a leg shatter.
The assassin lunged, knife flashing. Dreys twisted away, shoved the fellow. The blade struck wide of its mark, slashed Dreys' ribs, a grazing blow.
Now Dreys grabbed the fellow's elbow, had the man half-turned around. The assassin stumbled, unable to support himself on his broken leg. Dreys kicked the leg again for good measure, and pushed the fellow back.
Dreys glanced frantically into the shadows for sign of some cobblestone that might have come loose from its mortar. He wanted a weapon. Behind Dreys was an inn called the Churn. Beside the flowering vines and the effigy of the Earth King at its front window sat a small butter churn. Dreys tried to rush to the churn, thinking to grab its iron plunger and use it to bludgeon the assassin.
He pushed the assassin, thinking the smaller man would go flying. Instead the fellow spun, one hand clutching Dreys' surcoat. Dreys saw the knife blade plunge.
He raised an arm to block.
The blade veered low and struck deep, slid up through his belly, past shattered ribs. Tremendous pain blossomed in Dreys' gut, shot through his shoulders and arms, a pain so wide Dreys thought the whole world would feel it with him.
For an eternity, Dreys stood, looking down. Sweat dribbled into his wide eyes. The damned assassin had slit him open like a fish. Yet the assassin still held him — had thrust his knife arm up to the wrist into Dreys' chest, working the blade toward Dreys' heart, while his left hand reached for Dreys' pocket, groping for something.
His hand clutched at the book in Dreys' pocket, feeling it through the material of the surcoat. The assassin smiled.
Dreys wondered, Is that what you want? A book?
Last night, as the City Guard had been escorting foreigners from the merchants' quarter, Dreys had been approached by a man from Tuulistan, a trader whose tent was pitched near the woods. The fellow spoke little Rofehavanish, had seemed apprehensive. He had only said, "A gift — for king. You give? Give to king?"
With much ceremonial nodding, Dreys had agreed, had looked at the book absently. The Chronicles of Owatt, Emir of Tuulistan. A thin volume bound in lambskin. Dreys had pocketed it, thinking to pass it along at dawn.
Dreys hurt so terribly now that he could not shout, could not move. The world spun; he pulled free of the assassin, tried to turn and run. His legs felt as weak as a kitten's. He stumbled. The assassin grabbed Dreys' hair from behind, yanking his chin up to expose his throat.
Damn you, Dreys thought, haven't you killed me enough? In one final desperate act, he yanked the book from his pocket, hurled it across the Butterwalk.
There on the far side of the street a rosebush struggled up an arbor near a pile of barrels. Dreys knew this place Well, could barely see the yellow roses on dark vines. The book skidded toward them.
The assassin cursed in his own tongue, tossing Dreys aside, and limped after the book.
Dreys could hear nothing but a dull buzz as he struggled to his knees. He glimpsed movement at the edge of the street — the assassin groping among the roses. Three larger shadows came rushing down the road from the left. The flash of drawn swords, starlight glinting off iron caps. The City Guard.
Dreys pitched forward onto the cobblestones.
In the predawn, a flock of, geese honked as it made its way south through the silvery starlight, the voices sounding to him for all the world like the barking of a distant pack of dogs.CHAPTER 2
THOSE WHO LOVE THE LAND
That morning a few hours after the attack on Dreys and a hundred or so miles south of Castle Sylvarresta, Prince Gaborn Val Orden faced troubles that were not so harrowing. Yet none of his lessons in the House of Understanding could have prepared the eighteen-year-old prince for his encounter with a mysterious young woman in the grand marketplace at Bannisferre.
He'd been lost in thought at a vendor's stall in the south market, studying wine chillers of polished silver. The vendor had many fine iron brewing pots, but his prize was the three wine chillers — large bowls for ice with complementing smaller pitchers that fit inside. The bowls were of such high quality that they looked to be of ancient duskin workmanship. But no duskin had walked the earth in a thousand years, and these bowls could not have been that old. Each bowl had the clawed feet of a reaver and featured scenes of hounds running in a leafy wood; the pitchers were adorned with images of a young lord on a horse, his lance at the ready, bearing down on a reaver mage. Once the pitchers were set into their silver bowls, the images complemented one another — the young lord battling the reaver mage while the hunting dogs surrounded them.
The ornaments on the wine chiller were all cast using some method that Gaborn could not fathom. The silversmith's detailed workmanship was breathtaking.
Such were the wonders of Bannisferre's goods that Gaborn hadn't even noticed the young woman sidle up to him until he smelled the scent of rose petals. (The woman who stands next to me wears a dress that is kept in a drawer filled with rose petals, he'd realized, on some subconscious level.) Even then, he'd been so absorbed in studying the wine chillers that he imagined she was only a stranger, awed by the same marvelous bowls and pitchers. He didn't glance her way until she took his hand, seizing his attention.
She grasped his left hand in her right, lightly clasping his fingers, then squeezed.
Her soft touch electrified him. He did not pull away.
Perhaps, he thought, she mistakes me for another. He glanced sidelong at her. She was tall and beautiful, perhaps nineteen, her dark-brown hair adorned with mother-of-pearl combs. Her eyes were black, and even the whites of her eyes were so dark as to be a pale blue. She wore a simple, cloud-colored silk gown with flowing sleeves — an elegant style lately making its way among the wealthy ladies of Lysle. She wore a belt of ermine, clasped with a silver flower, high above the navel, just beneath her firm breasts. The neckline was high, modest. Over her shoulders hung a silk scarf of deepest crimson, so long that its fringes swept the ground.
She was not merely beautiful, he decided. She was astonishing.
She smiled at him secretively, shyly, and Gaborn smiled back, tight-lipped — hopeful and troubled all at once. Her actions reminded him of the endless tests that one of his hearthmasters might have devised for him in the House of Understanding — yet this was no test.
Gaborn did not know the young woman. He knew no one in all the vast city of Bannisferre — which seemed odd, that he should not have one acquaintance from a city this large, with its towering gray stone songhouses with their exotic arches, the white pigeons wheeling through the blue sunlit sky above the chestnut trees. Yet Gaborn knew no one here, not even a minor merchant. He was that far from home.
He stood near the edge of a market, not far from the docks on the broad banks of the south fork of River Dwindell — a stone's throw from Smiths' Row, where the open-air hearths gave rise to the rhythmic ring of hammers, the creaking of bellows, and plumes of smoke.
He felt troubled that he'd been so lulled by the peacefulness of Bannisferre. He'd not even bothered to glance at this woman when she had stood next to him for a moment. Twice in his life, he'd been the target of assassins. They'd taken his mother, his grandmother, his brother, and two sisters. Yet Gaborn stood here now as carefree as a peasant with a stomach full of ale.
No, Gaborn decided quickly, I've never seen her; she knows I'm a stranger, yet holds my hand. Most bewildering.
In the House of Understanding, in the Room of Faces, Gaborn had studied the subtleties of bodily communication — the way secrets revealed themselves in an enemy's eyes, how to differentiate traces of worry from consternation or fatigue in the lines around a lover's mouth.
Gaborn's hearthmaster, Jorlis, had been a wise teacher, and over the past few long winters Gaborn had distinguished himself in his studies.
He'd learned that princes, highwaymen, merchants, and beggars all wore their expressions and stances as if part of some agreed-upon costume, and so Gaborn had mastered the art of putting on any costume at will. He could take command of a roomful of young men simply by standing with head high, cause a merchant to lower his prices with a balking smile. Concealed by nothing more than a fine traveling cloak, Gaborn learned to lower his eyes in a busy marketplace and play the pauper, slinking through the crowd so that those who saw him did not recognize a prince, but wondered, Ah, where did that beggar boy steal such a nice cloak?
So Gaborn could read the human body, and yet he remained a perpetual mystery to others. With two endowments of wit, he could memorize a large tome in an hour. He'd learned more in his eight years in the House of Understanding than most commoners could learn in a life of concerted study.
As a Runelord, he had three endowments of brawn and two of stamina, and in battle practice he could easily cross weapons with men twice his size. If ever a highwayman dared attack him, Gaborn would prove just how deadly a Runelord could be.
Yet in the, eyes of the world, because of his few endowments of glamour, he seemed to be little more than a startlingly handsome young man. And in a city like Bannisferre, with its singers and actors from across the realm, even beauty such as his was common.
He studied the woman who held him, considered her stance. Chin high, confident — yet slightly tilted. A question. She poses a question of me.
The touch of her hand — weak enough to indicate hesitancy, strong enough to suggest ... ownership. She was claiming him?
Excerpted from The Runelords by David Farland, David G Hartwell. Copyright © 1998 David Farland. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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