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By K. V. JOHANSEN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 K. V. Johansen
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Chapter OneEvening prayers took place on the flat-topped bell-tower that rose above the gatehouse. Otokas was not a particularly devout man. Prayer had always seemed a pointless ritual.
The sun, sliding between the peaks at the western end of the lake, turned the Lissavakail's waters to molten copper, while the swallows made their last scrolling passes over the waves. The chief of the priestesses, whose title was simply "Old Lady," swayed back and forth as she chanted the prayer that was chanted every evening. Thanks for the day past, hopes for the day to come. Plentiful fish, millet in the terraced fields, fertile yaks, healthy babies, happy folk—peace and prosperity for the folk of the goddess Attalissa, the folk of Lissavakail, which was both lake and town.
The goddess met his eyes and smiled, a neat, correct figure standing against the west, patience itself in a girl's small body. Attalissa had heard the prayers as many times as he, the same words wearing the same deep grooves in the memory, until one did not hear them at all and could not remember if the ceremony were ending or had only just begun. She wore layers of stiff white silk embroidered in indigo and gold, gold rings in her ears, conical crown of gold filigree and turquoise plaques on her hair, dangling pearls over her brow. The priestesses whose turn it was to attend evening prayer fanned out before her, a flutter of indigo-blue gowns, except for the pair flanking her, who wore wide-legged blue trousers and shirts of scale armour, and carried broad-bladed spears.
Their armed presence was a formality, as so much of life on the holy islet of the temple adjoining the island town was formality; there had been no attack on the temple in generations. Still, the warrior priestesses of Lissavakail were more than ceremonial guard for the living goddess; they were sought out by the villages of distant valleys when raiders were troublesome, and they served as mercenaries, guarding wealthy travellers, gem-traders, and the chieftains of the gold-washing villages on the wild mountain tracks.
Otokas was more than ceremonial guard himself; he remembered raiders coming up from the desert, seeking control of the gold-bearing rivers of the mountains. He remembered years when the communities of the high valleys warred among themselves, with the encouragement of their gods and goddesses or in defiance of their pleas. Born forty winters before, he remembered centuries. He was the Blackdog, and the only man permitted on the temple islet.
The words of the prayer ran on. Did they make any difference, and had they ever? Would the snows refuse to melt and fill the streams, or the hot desert winds sweep up from the north to blight the sprouting grain, or the butter fail to come in the churns, if evening and dawn prayers were not said?
Attalissa met his gaze, expressionless, black eyes deep, unreadable, in her round child's face. She had caught, he realized, the shape of that private thought. A year ago she would not have. She grew, slowly, into godhead.
Prayer is for them, dog, not for you and me, she told him, in the silent speech, mind to mind, that they shared. She had seen eight summers, this incarnation of Attalissa. When Otokas first took on the burden of the Blackdog, Attalissa had been an elderly woman, older than his grandmother, older than the grandfather who had served her as Blackdog before him. When Attalissa died herself Otokas had wept as though she were his grandmother. But nine months later a newborn baby had stared up at him, cradled in his arms, and he had seen Attalissa recognize him, ancient familiarity in the infant's startled eyes.
Attalissa lived, and died, and was reborn in a girlchild conceived the day of her death. Some goddesses shaped themselves a physical body only when they so desired, remaining for the most part a spirit within the waters or appearing as a mist or a dance of light, but Attalissa returned, mortal life after mortal life, in a human body. Thus it was said she never grew remote from the concerns and the suffering and the joys of her folk; that was part of the fervent love the people of Lissavakail professed for her.
There were only a handful of the goddess's folk gathered at the western end of the red-lacquered bridge that arched from the temple islet across the channel to the island town. A pair of old women, eyes fixed devoutly on what to them must be only a cluster of blue figures and a tiny, occasionally bobbing, gold crown. A young couple, their minds quite evidently on something other than devotions. A family in their best clothes, indigo and red, the wife wearing her bride-gift circlet of gold coins across a weather-worn brow. They were not from town, by the cut of their clothes; peasants from one of the high villages. The children were paying more attention to the young couple than to the remote figures atop the tower.
They used to pray on the town's end of the bridge, the Blackdog remembered, meeting the townsfolk there. The folk had come to sing hymns for Attalissa, and she had held their babies and blessed them, kissed the foreheads of the brides and the grooms, exchanged stories of the old days with the old folk whom she had kissed as babies.
What Otokas was ... no tradition of the temple preserved, if it had ever been known. Old, as old as the goddess, or older, perhaps. God, demon, spirit of the wilds—even the Blackdog no longer remembered what it had been, before it became Attalissa's guardian, bound, like her, to human life.
The litany tottered to its end; the women bowed to the goddess, who bowed in return, carefully, to keep the tall headdress from falling. And then she cried out suddenly and dropped to her knees, at the same moment Otokas heard, smelt, felt—a crack like a thunderclap all about them, hot metal, a shock like an avalanche, mowing trees before it ...
He had his arm around the girl the next moment, kneeling by her, sword drawn, though there was no one to defend her against that he could see. The armed priestesses had moved as he did, barring the stairs, the only obvious entry for threat.
"The road," Old Lady said. "Sweet Attalissa save us! Look at the road!"
Otokas passed Attalissa to the arms of Kayugh, who was Spear Lady, captain of the warriors, and joined Old Lady at the parapet.
A black, shifting swarm covered the road on the southern shore of the lake, approaching the bridge to the town.
"Sound the bells," he shouted back to the armed pair by the stairs. "Raiders!"
The dog snarled in his soul, roused by the threat, and dangerous. Nothing the Blackdog could do here to defend the goddess.
Old Lady's hands shook as she gripped his arm.
"They weren't there," she said, and her voice shook as well. "Otokas, they weren't there, even a few moments ago."
"Wizardry," whispered the plump Mistress of Novices. "Or divinity." She looked at him, making it a question.
"Wizardry," Otokas confirmed. "I smell it. And—something else. But not a god. Not a goddess."
A scent to the spirit like old ashes on stone and the hot tang of metal and fire. Not familiar and yet ... no, that strange hot smell of ash and metal was nothing the Blackdog could ever have smelt before, but it raised the dog's hackles, roared of danger and death and the need to defend, deafening Otokas to all else for a moment.
It was not the time or the place. He forced the Blackdog quiet, calming it, calming himself.
Whatever the threat was, it could not be mere wizardry. No lone wizard, no group of wizards he had ever heard of except in the oldest tales, could hide an army, certainly not so close to a deity's holy place—if they had been hidden, and not dropped from some other location. He had felt the air shatter.
He called them raiders; that was what the mind expected. This was an army that poured down towards the island town's one bridge. They were not even coming from the east, the way around the lake and down to the Red Desert in the north, but from the narrow trail that meandered higher into the southern mountains of the Pillars of the Sky, branching and branching, connecting Lissavakail with its fields and high summer pastures, and the scatter of remote tributary villages. No way for them to have assembled there without passing Lissavakail.
Some few of the men and women were mounted on stocky Grassland horses; most were afoot. A hundred, two, three ... more came into sight in the narrow gap where a path scrambled up to the temple's own terraced fields. Nothing beyond that, no way they could have gained that height without climbing the very path they descended. The last of the red light picked out spearheads and helmets, sword-edges and armour. The temple bells rang out, a discordant jangling settling to a clashing peal that shook the floor beneath his feet. The town's bell-tower picked it up, and the few people who had gathered for prayers at the temple bridge hurried away into the spilling confusion of the town.
"The bridge," said Kayugh, and thrust the limp goddess back at Otokas. "We have to get it down!" She snapped orders; sisters followed her, the temple rousing to arms.
The temple was Kayugh's to defend, as the goddess was his and the town was the goddess's.
The goddess was in no state to defend anyone or anything, not even herself. The humanity that was Attalissa's virtue was also her weakness. The goddess grew into her powers slowly, came into full strength and understanding of herself only with womanhood. There was little she could do as she was now. The militia, and what sisters Kayugh would spare from defence of the temple, were all Lissavakail had.
"He comes for me," the goddess said, stirring suddenly. She pushed away from Otokas to find her feet, wild-eyed. "Otokas, he's coming for me. He'll take me and swallow me like a snake, devour me, Otokas, dog, I'm scared, don't let him, the lake will die ..." Her face was grey and her teeth chattered. As he bent to pick her up, her eyes rolled back white in her head and she collapsed again, limp as a dead rat. Old Lady stood with hands upraised, facing the lake with her back to Attalissa.
Prayer was no use now. If ever it had been.
"Down," Otokas ordered the sisters. "Arm, join your dormitories. No, two of you, keep watch, and you—" singling out a fleet-footed young sister, his own niece "—Attavaia, you be runner for the watchers. Bring word to Kayugh and me of the raiders' advance, if we're not back here when they reach the town bridge."
Torches flared in the town, men already arming, running to bar the stone bridge that was Lissavakail's only fixed link to the shore.
Otokas swung the goddess to his shoulder, started down the stairs, the two spearwomen hurrying to keep up. The bells were deafening; the tower shook with them.
"Where to?" the younger of the pair, Meeray, asked. Old Lady left her prayers and came puffing behind them.
"The chapel," Old Lady said. "We must assemble and pray for guidance."
"The Old Chapel," Otokas countered. It was the most defensible part of the fortress-like temple; the islet was nothing more than an upheaval of rock from the lake, cracked and seamed. The widest crack had been quarried, carved into a chapel in the earliest days when the priestesses first came. The temple had grown over the hill, obscuring stone and crevices and human-made cave, consuming much of the original hill for its masonry, but enough remained at the core to make the temple a warren of dead ends and sudden stairs. A few could hold off a horde in the passages around the Old Chapel. But a few could die there, trapped and starving.
There was a second, secret way out, though none but he and the goddess could take it.
Kayugh met them again on the way. She had changed to trousers and armour, had her helmet under her arm and a dozen armed sisters behind her, two dormitories, as they called the six-woman squads which slept and trained together.
"Our bridge?" he asked.
"They're cutting the beams away at the nearest posts, and taking up the planking," she reported, falling in beside him. "I sent Lilmass and a dozen archers across first, to help hold the town bridge. They asked to go."
Fear crawled under Kayugh's voice. Sent them to die in the town, she clearly thought.
"Can Attalissa help?" Kayugh asked. "Break the town's bridge, even? That would buy time. We could send someone across the lake and down to Serakallash, beg help from their militia, even hire mercenaries from the caravan-gangs."
"No," Otokas said, more harshly than he meant to, but the dog was fighting to break free, distracting him, and there was absolutely nothing the Blackdog could do, here.
"What do we do, then—wait behind our walls, hope they get bored and go home?" Kayugh snapped. "You saw them, Oto. Those aren't raiders. It's an invasion!"
"Faith," panted Old Lady. "Have faith. We will be guided. I will go out to speak to the strangers, after I've prayed. I dreamed—the goddess told me change was coming, a time of great change, a renewal of our glory and our might, by the will of the Old Great Gods. Faith will prevail."
"Faith in what?" Kayugh demanded, but under her breath.
Old Lady talked too often of glory and power as something quite separate from the child they served. They mostly stopped listening, except to head her off, if she seemed likely to start preaching it at the novices. Time she stepped down, they both thought, but that was supposed to be Attalissa's decision, and Old Lady claimed dreams approving her that the goddess could neither confirm nor deny, merely looking a puzzled, nervous child, when asked to do so.
"Oto, if we don't send for help now, before we're besieged—"
Otokas stopped, forced himself to listen, to look Kayugh in the eyes and see her, to shut out the dog's drowning urge to fight, which deafened him to all else. "I'm sorry. I meant, no, 'Lissa can do nothing about the stone bridge. But yes, you're right, send to Serakallash. Beg help, buy it, offer whatever they ask."
Old Lady squawked in protest. "You can't sell Attalissa's treasury to foreigners."
"Neighbours, surely," Kayugh murmured. "With respect, Old Lady, the treasury is worth nothing to dead women. To a dead incarnation. To the dead of Lissavakail, and if they are not already dying in the town, they will be before long. Your kinsfolk and mine. All of our kin."
Old Lady huffed and blew out her cheeks. "The senior sisters must vote on any such decision. We can convene them tomorrow, after dawn prayers. We're safe behind our walls here and defended by the goddess's lake. As I said, I'll pray for guidance, and then meet the leader of these raiders. I dreamed ... one would come whose service to Attalissa would raise her above all other gods. Wise words may turn enmity to fellowship. We can afford to take proper counsel and not let ourselves be panicked into rash acts. And any decision so important as spending the treasury must go to the senior sisters."
"The goddess can make such a decision herself," Kayugh said, with a worried look at the still unconscious girl. "And in her default, a tribunal, which is the three of us—the Old Lady, the Spear Lady, and the Blackdog. And with respect, Old Lady, you've said nothing about such a dream before. Neither has she."
"The child is but a shadow of the goddess's will," Old Lady said, with undue complacency. "A symbol."
Kayugh hissed. "Attalissa is Attalissa—"
"Offer the Serakallashi whatever you need to," Otokas said again. "I say so."
Old Lady squeaked and ducked away from his glare.
"Blackdog." Kayugh gave him a hasty bow, more for Old Lady's benefit than his own, he hoped. Followed it with a widening of the eyes, an almost imperceptible nod away from the women who flanked them both, waiting and worried at heated words and open discord.
He transferred Attalissa to Meeray's arms reluctantly, stroked the goddess's cool forehead. Shock, he thought. The goddess's fear was more than the child's experience could comprehend, rebounding on her.
"Take Attalissa and Old Lady to the Old Chapel and make them comfortable. Try to warm the place up. 'Lissa should be all right, she's only fainted. When she wakes, tell her I'll come to her soon, but I need to see what's happening in the town. Tell her, don't expect her to know. Remember she's only a child."
Attalissa's ability to reach his mind was still limited. She might find him, if he was out of sight, but she might not, and either way, she would still be more than half a panicked little girl, reaching for the only father she had ever known.
Old Lady began a protest about the damp Old Chapel, but fell silent at no more than a glance, took the arm Meeray's partner offered, and hobbled off. Otokas watched Attalissa out of sight and did not know his hands were clenched till Kayugh touched his fist, gently.
Excerpted from BLACKDOG by K. V. JOHANSEN Copyright © 2011 by K. V. Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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