The Waters Beneath the World
On the stony west shore of Roin Ieniesse, Fren MeqLier met Saint Jeroin the Mariner, and in Saint Jeroin’s ship they passed over the western waves through sleet and fog until they came to a bleak shore and a dark forest.
“That is the Wood Beyond the World,” Saint Jeroin told him. “Take care that when you step from the boat, your boot does not strike the water. If you but touch the waves, you will forget everything you have ever known.”
—From Frenn Rey-eise: A Tale of Saint Frenn Told on Skern, Sacritor Roger Bishop
The Dark Lady took Alzarez by the hand and pointed at the river.
“Drink from that,” she said, “and you will be like the dead, without memory or sin.”
Then she pointed to a bubbling spring.
“Drink there, and you will know more than any mortal.”
Alzarez looked at both.
“But the river feeds the spring,” he observed.
“Of course,” the Dark Lady replied.
—From “Sa Alzarezasfill,” a Herilanzer folktale
Ne piberos daz’uturo. Don’t drink the water.
—From a Vitellian funerary inscription
Here’s my wish;
A man with blood-red lips
With snow-white skin
With blue-black hair
Like a raven’s wing.
That’s my wish.
Anne Dare murmured the words to the song, a favorite of hers from when she was younger.
She noticed that her fingers were trembling, and for a moment she felt as if they weren’t attached to her but were instead strange worms clinging to her hands.
With blood-red lips . . .
Anne had seen blood before, plenty of it. But never like this, never with such a striking hue, so brilliant against the snow. It was as if she were viewing the true color for the first time rather than the pale counterfeit she had known her whole life.
At the edges it was watered pink, but at its source, where it pulsed into the cold whiteness, it was a thing of utter beauty.
With snow-white skin
With blue-black hair . . .
The man had flesh gone gray and straw-colored hair, nothing like the imagined lover of the song. As she watched, his fingers unclenched from the dagger he’d been holding, and he let go the cares of the world. His eyes went round with wonder as they saw something she could not, beyond the lands of fate. Then he sighed a final steaming breath into the snow.
Somewhere—very far away, it seemed—she heard a hoarse cry and the sound of clashing steel, followed by silence. She detected no motion through the dark trunks of the trees except the continuing light fall of snow.
Something chuffed nearby.
In a daze, Anne turned to find a dappled gray horse regarding her curiously. It looked familiar, and she gasped faintly as she recalled it charging toward her. The snow told that it had stamped all around her, but one trail of hoofprints led in from over a hill, the direction from which it must have come. Part of the way, the prints were accompanied by pink speckles.
The horse had blood in its mane, as well.
She stood shakily, feeling pain in her thigh, shin, and ribs. She turned on her feet to take in the whole of her surroundings, searching for a sign that there was anyone else nearby. But there were only the dead man, the horse, and trees stripped to bark by winter’s winds.
Finally she glanced down at herself. She wore a soft red doeskin robe lined with black ermine and beneath that a heavy riding habit. She remembered she’d gotten them back in Dunmrogh.
She remembered the fight there, too, and the death of her first love and first betrayer, Roderick.
She pushed her hand under the hood and felt the curls of her copper hair. It was growing back but was still short from the shearing she’d had in Tero Gallé what seemed like an age ago. So she was missing hours or days, not ninedays, months, or years. But she had still misplaced time, and that frightened her.
She remembered leaving Dunmrogh with her maid Austra, a freewoman named Winna, and thirty-eight men whose company included her Vitellian friend Cazio and her guardian Sir Neil MeqVren. They’d just won a battle, and most were wounded, including Anne herself.
But there had been no time for leisurely recovery. Her father was dead, and her mother the prisoner of an usurper. She’d set out determined somehow to free her mother and reclaim her father’s throne. She remembered feeling very certain about the whole thing.
What she didn’t know, couldn’t remember, was where those friends were and why she wasn’t with them. Or, for that matter, who the dead man was, lying at her feet. His throat had been cut; that much was plain enough—it gaped like a second mouth. But how had it happened? Was he friend or foe?
Since she didn’t recognize him, she reckoned he was most likely the latter.
She sagged against a tree and closed her eyes, studying the dark pool in her mind, diving into it like a kingfisher.
She’d been riding beside Cazio, and he’d been practicing the king’s tongue . . .
“Esno es caldo,” Cazio said, catching a snowflake in his hand, eyes wide with wonder.
“Snow is cold,” Anne corrected, then saw the set of his lips and realized he’d mispronounced the sentence on purpose.
Cazio was tall and slim, with sharp, foxy features and dark eyes, and when his mouth quirked like that, he was all devil.
“What is esno in Vitellian?” she demanded.
“A metal the color of your hair,” he said in such a way that she suddenly wondered what his lips would taste like. Honey? Olive oil? He’d kissed her before, but she couldn’t remember . . .
What a stupid thought.
“Esno es caldo is Vitellian for ‘copper is hot,’ right?” she translated, trying to hide her annoyance. By the way Cazio was grinning now, she knew she certainly was missing something.
“Yes, that’s true,” Cazio drawled, “if taken literally. But it’s a sort of pun. If I were talking to my friend Acameno and said ‘fero es caldo,’ it would mean ‘iron is hot,’ but iron can also mean a sword, and a sword can mean a man’s very personal armament, you see, and would be a compliment to his manhood. He would assume I meant his iron. And so copper, the softer, prettier metal can also represent—”
“Yes, well,” Anne quickly cut in, “that will be enough Vitellian colloquialism for now. After all, you wanted to work on your king’s tongue, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “Yes, but it’s funny to me, that’s all, that your word for ‘cold’ is my word for ‘hot.’ ”
“Yes, and it’s even funnier that your word for ‘free’ is ‘lover,’ ” she countered sarcastically, “considering that one cannot have the second and be the first.”
As soon as she saw the look on his face, though, she wished she hadn’t spoken.
Cazio immediately raised an interested eyebrow. “Now we’re onto a topic I approve of,” he said. ”But, eh—‘lover’? Ne commrenno. What is ‘lover’ in the king’s tongue?”
“The same as Vitellian Carilo,” she replied reluctantly.
“No,” Austra said. Anne jumped guiltily, for she had almost forgotten that her maid was riding with them. She glanced over at the younger woman.
Austra shook her head. “Carilo is what a father calls his daughter—a dear one, a little sweetheart. The word you’re looking for is erenterra.”
“Ah, I see,” Cazio said. He reached over and took Austra’s hand and kissed it. “Erenterra. Yes, I am approving of this conversation even more with each revelation.”
Austra blushed and took her hand back, brushing gilden curls back up into the black hood of her weather cloak.
Cazio turned back toward Anne.
“So, if ‘lover’ is erenterra,” he said, “I must disagree with you.”
“Perhaps a man can have a lover and remain free,” Anne said. “A woman may not.”
“Nonsense,” Cazio said. “So long as her—eh, lover—is not also her husband, she can be as free as she likes.” He smiled even more broadly. “Besides, not all servitude is unpleasant.”
“You’ve slipped back into Vitellian again,” Anne said, lacking entirely Cazio’s affection for the subject. She was sorry to have brought it up. “Let’s return to the topic of snow. Tell me more about it—in the king’s tongue.”
“New thing for me,” he said, his voice going instantly from glib near music to clumsy, lumbering prose as he switched languages. “Not have in Avella. Very, eh, fullovonder.”
“Wonderful,” she corrected as Austra giggled.
In fact, the snow didn’t seem wonderful to Anne at all—it seemed a nuisance. But Cazio sounded sincere, and despite herself, it made her smile to watch as he grinned at the white flakes. He was nineteen, two years older than she, but still more boy than man.
And yet she could see a man in him now and then, just on the verge of escaping.
Despite the uncomfortable turn of the conversation, for a moment Anne felt content. She was safe, with friends, and though the world had gone mad, she at least knew her footing now. Forty-some men weren’t enough to free her mother and take back Crotheny, but soon they would reach the estates of her aunt Elyoner, who had some soldiers, and perhaps she would know where Anne could acquire more.
After that—well, she would build her army as she went. She knew nothing of what an army needed, and at times—especially at night—that gripped her heart too tightly for sleep. But at the moment she somehow felt as if it would all work out.
Suddenly something moved at the corner of her vision, but when she looked, it wasn’t there . . .
Leaning against the tree, Anne exhaled frost and noticed that the light was fading.
Where was Cazio? Where was everyone else?
Where was she?
The last she remembered. They’d just struck north from the Old King’s Road, through the forest of Chevroché toward Loiyes, a place where she’d once gone riding with her aunt Lesbeth many years ago.
Her bodyguard Neil MeqVren had been riding only a few paces away. Austra had dropped back to talk to Stephen, the young man from Virgenya. The holter, Aspar White, had been scouting ahead, and the thirty horsemen who had attached themselves to her at Dunmrogh had been ranged protectively about her.
Then Cazio’s expression had changed, and he had reached for his sword. The light had seemed to brighten to yellow.
Was this still Chevroché? Had hours passed?
She could not remember.
Should she wait to be found, or was there no one left to search for her? Could an enemy have snatched her away from her guardians without killing them all?
With a sinking heart, she realized how unlikely that was. Sir Neil certainly would die before allowing her to be taken, and the same was true of Cazio.
Trembling still, she realized that the only clue she had to her current situation was the dead man.
Reluctantly, she trudged back through the snow to the place where he lay. Gazing down on him through the dimming light, she searched for details she might have missed before.
He wasn’t a young man, but she couldn’t say how old he was, either—forty, perhaps. He wore dark gray wool breeches stained at the crotch with what had to be his own urine. His buskins were plain, black, worn nearly through. His shirt was wool, too, but beneath it bulked a steel breastplate. That was worn and dented, recently oiled. Besides the knife, he had a short, wide-bladed sword in an oiled leather sheath. It was affixed to a belt with a tarnished brass buckle. He wore no visible sign that proclaimed his allegiance.
Trying not to look at his face or bloody throat, she pushed and patted her hands through his clothes, searching for anything that might be hidden.
On his right wrist she noticed an odd marking, burned or dyed into the skin. It was black and depicted what appeared to be a crescent moon.
She gingerly touched the marking, and a mild vertigo reeled through her.
She tasted salt and smelled iron and felt as if she had plunged her hand up to the elbow into something wet and warm. With a shock she realized that though his heart no longer beat, there was still quick in the man, albeit leaking rapidly away. How long would it take for all of him to be dead? Had his soul left him yet?
They hadn’t taught her much about souls at the Coven Saint Cer, through she had learned something about the body. She had sat through and aided in several dissections and remembered—she thought—most of the organs and their primary humors. The soul had no single seat, but the organ that gave it communication was the one encased in the skull.
Remembering the coven, she felt inexplicably calmer, more reassuringly detached. Experimentally, she reached up and touched the corpse’s brow.
A tingle crept up her fingers, passing through her arm and across her chest. As it moved on up her neck to her head, she felt suddenly drowsy.
Her body became distant and pillowy, and she heard a soft gasp escape from her lips. The world hummed with music that would not quite resolve itself into melody.
Her head swayed back, then down again, and with what seemed great effort she parted her eyelids.
Things were different, but it was difficult to say just how. The light was strange, and all seemed unreal, but the trees and the snow remained as they had been.
As her gaze sharpened, she saw dark water bubbling forth from the dead man’s lips. It cascaded down his chest and meandered through the snow a few kingsyards until it met a larger stream.
Her vision suddenly lengthened, and she saw a hundred such streamlets. Then a thousand, tens of thousands of black rills, all melting into larger streams and rivers and finally merging with a water as wide and dark as a sea. As she watched, the last of that man flowed away, and like leaves on a stream there passed the image of a little girl with black hair . . .
The smell of beer . . .
The taste of bacon . . .
A woman’s face more demon than human, terrifying, but the terror itself was already nearly forgotten . . .
Then he was gone. The liquid from his lips slowed to a trickle and ended. But from the living world the dark waters continued to flow.
It was then that Anne noticed that something was watching her; she felt its gaze through the trees. Inchoate fear turned in her, and suddenly, more than anything, she didn’t want to see what it was. The image of the demon-woman in the dying man’s eyes freshened, the face so terrible that he hadn’t been able to really see it.
Was it Mefitis, saint of the dead, come for him? Come for Anne, too?
Or was it an estriga, one of the witches Vitellians believed devoured the souls of the damned? Or something beyond imagining?
Whatever it was, it grew nearer.
Gathering the courage in her core, Anne forced her head to turn—
—and swallowed a scream. There was no clear image, only a series of numbing impressions. Vast horns, stretching to scratch the sky, a body that spread out through the trees . . .
The black waters of a moment before were fastened to the thing like leeches, and though it tore at them with a hundred claws, each tendril that fell away was replaced by another, if not two.
She had seen this thing before, in a field of black roses, in a forest of thorns.
The Briar King.
He had no face, only dreams in motion. At first she saw nothing she recognized, a miasma of colors that had scent and taste and palpable feel. But now she could not look away, though her terror was only growing.
She felt as if a million poisoned needles quilled her flesh. She could not scream.
And Anne was suddenly very certain of two things . . .