Read an Excerpt
Forge of Darkness
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
THERE WILL BE PEACE.
The words were carved deep across the lintel stone's facing in the ancient language of the Azathanai. The cuts looked raw, untouched by wind or rain, and because of this, they might have seemed as youthful and as innocent as the sentiment itself. A witness lacking literacy would see only the violence of the mason's hand, but surely it is fair to say that the ignorant are not capable of irony. Yet like the house-hound who by scent alone will know a guest's true nature, the uncomprehending witness surrenders nothing when it comes to subtle truths. Accordingly, the savage wounding of the lintel stone's basalt face remained imposing and significant to the unversed, even as the freshness of the carved words gave pause to those who understood them.
There will be peace. Conviction is a fist of stone at the heart of all things. Its form is shaped by sure hands, the detritus quickly swept from view. It is built to withstand, built to defy challenge, and when cornered it fights without honour. There is nothing more terrible than conviction.
It was generally held that no one of Azathanai blood could be found within Dracons Hold. Indeed, few of those weary-eyed creatures from beyond Bareth Solitude ever visited the city-state of Kurald Galain, except as stone-cutters and builders of edifices, summoned to some task or venture. But the Hold's lord was not a man to welcome questions in matters of personal inclination. If by an Azathanai hand ambivalent words were carved above the threshold to the Hold's Great House – as if to announce a new age with either a promise or a threat – that was solely the business of Lord Draconus, Consort to Mother Dark.
In any case, it was not often of late that the Hold was home to its lord, now that he stood at her side in the Citadel of Kharkanas, making his sudden return after a night's hard ride both disquieting and the source of whispered rumours.
The thunder of horse hoofs approached through the faint light of the sun's rise – a light ever muted by the Hold's nearness to the heart of Mother Dark's power – and that sound grew until it rumbled through the arched gateway and pounded into the courtyard, scattering red clay from the road beyond. Neck arched by the reins held tight in his master's gloved hands, the warhorse Calaras drew up, breath billowing, lather streaming down its sleek black neck and chest. The sight gave the onrushing grooms pause.
The huge man commanding this formidable beast then dismounted, abandoning the reins to dangle, and strode without comment into the Great House. Household servants scrambled like hens from his path.
There was no hint of emotion upon the Lord's face, but this was a detail well known and not unexpected. Draconus gave nothing away, and perhaps it was the mystery in those so-dark eyes that had ever been the source of his power. His likeness, brushed by the brilliant artist Kadaspala of House Enes, now commanded pride of place in the Citadel's Hall of Portraits, and it was indeed a hand of genius that had managed to capture the unknowable in Draconus's visage, the hint of something beyond the perfection of his Tiste features, a deepening behind the proof of his pure blood. It was the image of a man who was king in all but name.
Arathan stood at the window of the Old Tower, having taken position there upon hearing the bell announcing his father's imminent return. He watched Draconus ride into the courtyard, eyes missing nothing, one hand up to his face as he bit skin and pieces of nail from his fingers – the tips were red nubs, swollen with endless spit, and on occasion they bled, staining the sheets of his bed at night. He studied the movements of Draconus as the huge man dismounted, carelessly abandoning Calaras to the grooms, to then stride towards the entrance.
The three-storey tower commanded the northwest corner of the Great House, with the house's main doors to the right and out of sight from the upper floor's window. At moments like these, Arathan would tense, breath held, straining with all his senses for the moment when his father crossed the threshold and set foot on the hard bared stones of the vestibule. He waited, for a change in the atmosphere, a trembling in the ancient walls of the edifice, the very thunder of the Lord's presence.
As ever, there was nothing. And Arathan never knew if the failing was his, or if his father's power was sealed away inside that imposing frame and behind those unerring eyes, contained by a will verging on perfection. He suspected the former – he saw how others reacted, the tightening of expressions among the highborn, the shying away of those of lesser rank, and how on occasion both reactions warred within the same individual. Draconus was feared for reasons Arathan could not comprehend.
In truth, he did not expect more of himself in this matter. He was a bastard son, after all, and a child born of a mother he never knew and had never heard named. In his seventeen years of life he had been in the same room with his father perhaps twenty times; surely no more than that, and not once had Draconus addressed him. He was not privileged to dine in the main hall; he was tutored in private and taught the use of weapons alongside the recruits of the Houseblades. Even in the days and nights immediately following his near-drowning, when in his ninth winter he'd fallen through ice, he'd been attended to by the guards' healer, and had received no visitors barring his three younger half-sisters, who had peered in through the doorway – a trio of round, wide-eyed faces – only to immediately flee down the corridor voicing squeals.
For years, their reaction upon seeing him had led Arathan to believe he was unaccountably ugly, a conviction that had first brought his hands to his face in a habit of hiding his features, and soon the kiss of his own fingertips served for all the tactile reassurance he required. He no longer believed himself to be ugly. Simply ... plain, not worthy of notice by anyone.
Though no one ever spoke of his mother, Arathan knew that she had named him. His father's predilections on such matters were far crueller. He told himself that he remembered his half-sisters' mother, a brooding, heavy woman with a strange face, who had either died or departed shortly after weaning the triplets she had borne, but a later comment from Tutor Sagander suggested that the woman he'd remembered had been a wet-nurse, a witch of the Dog-Runners who dwelt beyond the Solitude. Still, he preferred to think of her as the girls' mother, too kindhearted to give them the names they now possessed – names that, to Arathan's mind, shackled each sister like a curse.
Envy. Spite. Malice. They remained infrequent visitors to his company. Flighty as birds glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Whispering from around corners in the corridors and behind doors he walked past. Clearly, they found him a source of great amusement.
Now in the first years of adulthood, Arathan saw himself as a prisoner, or perhaps a hostage in the traditional manner of alliance-binding among the Greater Houses and Holds. He was not of the Dracons family; though there had been no efforts at hiding his bloodline, in fact the very indifference of this detail only emphasized its irrelevance. Seeds spill where they may, but a sire must look into the eyes to make the child his own. And this Draconus would not do. Besides, there was little of Tiste blood in him – he had not the fair skin or tall frame, and his eyes, while dark, lacked the mercurial ambivalence of the pure-born. In these details, he was the same as his sisters. Where, then, the blood of their father?
It hides. Somehow, it hides deep within us.
Draconus would not acknowledge him, but that was no cause for resentment in Arathan's mind. Man or woman, once childhood was past the world beyond must be met, and a place in it made, by a will entirely dependent upon its own resources. And the shaping of that world, its weight and weft, was a match to the strength of that will. In this way, Kurald Galain society was a true map of talent and capacity. Or so Sagander told him, almost daily.
Whether in the court of the Citadel or among the March villages, there could be no dissembling. The insipid and the incompetent had no place in which to hide their failings. 'This is natural justice, Arathan, and thus by every measure it is superior to the justice of, say, the Forulkan, or the Jaghut.' Arathan had no good reason to believe otherwise. This world, so forcefully espoused by his tutor, was all he had ever known.
And yet he ... doubted.
Sandalled feet slapped closer up the spiral stairs behind him, and Arathan turned in some surprise. He had long since claimed this tower for his own, made himself lord of its dusty webs, its shadows and echoes. Only here could he be himself, with no one batting his hand away from his mouth, or mocking his ruined fingertips. No one visited him here; the house-bells called him when lessons or meals were imminent; he measured his days and nights by those muted chimes.
The footsteps approached. His heart thumped in his chest. He snatched his hand away from his mouth, wiped the fingers on his tunic, and stood facing the gap of the stairs.
The figure that climbed into view startled him. One of his half-sisters, the shortest of the three –last from the womb – her face flushed with the effort of the climb, her breath coming in little gasps. Dark eyes found his. 'Arathan.'
She had never before addressed him. He did not know how to respond.
'It's me,' she said, eyes flaring as if in anger. 'Malice. Your sister, Malice.'
'Names shouldn't be curses,' Arathan said without thinking.
If his words shocked her, the only indication was a faint tilt of her head as she regarded him. 'So you're not the simpleton Envy says you are. Good. Father will be ... relieved.'
'You are summoned, Arathan. Right now – I'm to bring you to him.'
She scowled. 'She knew you'd be hiding here, like a redge in a hole. Said you were just as thick. Are you? Is she right? Are you a redge? She's always right – or so she'll tell you.' She darted close and took Arathan's left wrist, tugged him along as she returned to the stairs.
He did not resist.
Father had summoned him. He could think of only one reason for that.
I am about to be cast out.
The dusty air of the Old Tower stairs swirled round them as they descended, and the peace of this place felt shattered. But soon it would settle again, and the emptiness would return, like an ousted king to his throne, and Arathan knew that he would never again challenge that domain. It had been a foolish conceit, a childish game.
'In natural justice, Arathan, the weak cannot hide, unless we grant them the privilege. And understand, it is ever a privilege, for which the weak should be eternally grateful. At any given moment, should the strong will it, they can swing a sword and end the life of the weak. And that will be today's lesson. Forbearance.'
A redge in a hole – the beast's life is tolerated, until its presence becomes a nuisance, and then the dogs are loosed down the earthen tunnel, into the warrens, and somewhere beneath the ground the redge is torn apart, ripped to pieces. Or driven into the open, where wait spears and swords eager to take its life.
Either way, the creature was clearly unmindful of the privileges granted to it.
All the lessons Sagander delivered to Arathan circled like wolves around weakness, and the proper place of those cursed with it. No, Arathan was not a simpleton. He understood well enough.
And, one day, he would hurt Draconus, in ways not yet imaginable. Father, I believe I am your weakness.
In the meantime, as he hurried along behind Malice, her grip tight on his wrist, he brought up his other hand, and chewed.
Master-at-arms Ivis wiped sweat from his brow while he waited outside the door. The summons had come while he'd been in the smithy, instructing the iron-master on the proper honing of a folded edge. It was said that those with Hust blood knew iron as if they'd suckled its molten stream from their mother's tit, and Ivis had no doubt in this matter – the smith was a skilled man and a fine maker of weapons, but Ivis possessed Hust blood on his father's side, and though he counted himself a soldier through and through, he could hear a flawed edge even as a blade was being drawn from its scabbard.
Iron-master Gilal took it well enough, although of course there was no telling. He'd ducked his head and muttered his apologies as befitted his lesser rank, and as Ivis left he heard the huge man bellowing at his apprentices – none of whom was in any way responsible for the flawed edge, since the final stages of blade preparation were always by the iron-master's own hand. With that tirade Ivis knew that no venom would come back his way from the iron-master.
He told himself now, as he waited outside his lord's Chamber of Campaigns, that the sweat stinging his eyes was a legacy of the four forges in the smithy, the air wretched with heat and bitter metal, with coal dust and smoke, with the frantic efforts of the workers as they struggled with the day's demands.
Abyss knew, the smithy was no factory, and yet it had achieved an impressive rate of stock production in the past two months, and not one of the new recruits coming to the Great House was left unarmoured or weaponless for long. Making his task that much easier.
But now the Lord was back, unexpectedly, and Ivis scoured his mind for the possible cause. Draconus was a measured man, not prone to precipitous acts. He had the patience of stone, but all knew the risk of wronging him. Something had brought him back to the Great House, and a night's hard ride would not have left him in a good mood.
And now a summons, only to be left waiting here outside the door. No, none of this was normal.
A moment later he heard footsteps and the portal clicked open. Ivis found himself staring into the face of the House tutor, Sagander. The old scholar had the look of a man who had been frightened and was still fighting its aftermath. Meeting Ivis's eyes, he nodded. 'Captain, the Lord will see you now.'
That, and nothing more. Sagander edged past, made his way down the passageway, walking as if he'd aged a half-dozen years in the last few moments. At the notion, Ivis berated himself. He hardly ever saw the tutor, who overslept every morning and was often the last to make bed at night – there was no reason to imagine Sagander was anything more than disquieted by the early meeting, and perhaps an understandable stiffness as came with the elderly this early in the morning.
Drawing a steadying breath, Ivis strode into the chamber.
The old title of this room was acquiring new significance, but the campaigns of decades past had been conducted against foreign enemies; this time the only enemy was the mutually exclusive ambitions of the Holds and Greater Houses.
The Lord's charnel house smithy was nothing more than reasonable caution these days. Besides, as Mother Dark's Consort, there was nothing unusual in Draconus bolstering the complement of his Houseblades until it was second only to that of Mother Dark herself. For some reason, other Holds were not as sanguine about the martial expansion of House Dracons.
The politics of the matter held no real interest for Ivis. His task was to train this modest army.
The round table dominating the centre of the room had been cut from the bole of a three-thousand-year-old blackwood. Its rings were bands of red and black beneath the thick, amber varnish. It had been placed in this chamber by the founder of the House half a thousand years ago, to mark her extraordinary rise from Lesser House to Greater House. Since her sudden death ten years past, her adopted son, Draconus, commanded the family holdings; and if Srela's ambitions had been impressive, they were nothing compared to those of her chosen son.
There were no portraits on the walls, and the heavy wool hangings, undyed and raw, were there for warmth alone, as was the thick rug underfoot.
Draconus was breaking his fast at the table: bread and watered wine. A scatter of scrolls surrounded the pewter plate before him.
When it seemed that Draconus had not noticed his arrival, Ivis said, 'Lord.'
'Report on his progress, captain.'
Ivis frowned, resisted wiping at his brow again. Upon reflection, he'd known this was coming. The boy was in his year, after all. 'He possesses natural skill, Lord, as befits his sire. But his hands are weak yet – that habit of gnawing on his nails has left the pads soft and easily torn.'
'Is he diligent?'
Still Draconus was yet to look up, intent on his meal.
'At his exercises, Lord? It is hard to say. There is an air of the effortless about him. For all that I work him, or set the best recruits against him on the sand, he remains ... unpressed.'
Draconus grunted. 'And does that frustrate you, captain?'
'That I have yet to truly test him, yes, Lord, it does. I do not have as much time with him as I would like, though I understand the necessity for higher tutoring. Still, as a young swordsman, there is much to admire in his ease.'
Excerpted from Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2012 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.