Lionwolf awakes on an unfamiliar shore under a cold blue sun, with no memories save the sensation of being in the deadly womb of the sea. Others join him, and they too cannot remember who they are or where they have been. Though Lionwolf can’t remember his name—and, in fact, calls himself Nameless—he feels like he was once a king. The twenty-three men on the shore are his army, and soon they are called to duty. Eyeless blue hounds and snake-haired figures riding eight-legged horses lead the men toward a towering city where a bestial mouth trumpets a horrible battle cry. It is Shabatu, a Place of War. There, Lionwolf sets eyes on the king’s lover, Chillel—the woman who was once Lionwolf’s wife.
Are Lionwolf and his men dead? And is Shabatu perhaps their hell?
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Here in Cold Hell
By Tanith Lee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Tanith Lee
All rights reserved.
The sun was blue.
He lay staring up at it, because it did not dazzle him; yet it gave light.
After a while he turned his head a little on the hard, smarting surface, to see what the sun gave light to.
Stones, shards and flints lay all around him, save in one direction where, about four shield-lengths off perhaps, they ended in dull and viscous water. That was the open sea. He thought so. But it did not really move, there were no waves, only an occasional sluggish rippling.
So cold. So cold ...
He had been deep inside the sea, which was like a deadly beating womb. Then he must have been cast ashore. A ship – he must have been on a ship, which had foundered.
He could not remember any ship, except one with seventeen masts stuck in ice and grounded. And even the ice – not so cold – as this.
The man lying on the long broken beach closed his eyes, but his hand reached out emptily across the stones, and closed inadvertently on something that was of a different, smoother shape. At first he examined it only by touch. What was it? Was it his? He drew it in and held it to his face to look. But he was still unsure what it was. Nevertheless, for some reason his hand shut tighter on it and tears ran out of his eyes.
The next time he woke it was because a baleful sound, like that of a mooing beast or of a trumpet, was echoing out across the vast space inland, behind him.
Slowly now he sat up, and gazed inland, but it was a sort of nothingness, the beach of shards stretching for ever, and in the distance clouds, maybe, slowly moving, low against the earth.
He put the unknown wooden thing he had found inside his shirt, under his heavier outer clothing, which seemed made of leather and wool.
Just then terror came, glittering and wild, into his mind and he thrust it away.
Where was this country? He did not know.
Who am I? He did not know.
The trumpet or beast mournfully called again, inland.
His shadow fell from him, transparent in the sapphire sunlight.
When he stood up, it was because a disturbance started in the sea-pond. Unlike the pure fear which had to do with confusion, no alarm rose in him at the twisting waters. Actually he was quite glad to see it. It might give him something to do.
He put his right arm across his body and located a sheathed knife thrust in at his belt.
The water parted, thick as soup. A dark round object rose from it. A seal? But the roundness gave way to a head containing features, a mane of hair, a pillar of neck and wide shoulders – a muscular man of some height and girth was striking up now from the depths. Swiftly he stood clear of the sea and stepped out on the beach.
The newcomer was not wet. Neither his clothing nor his shaggy black hair had any liquid on or in them. His look was bleak, and blank. He took a single further step, then fell straight down on his face on the shore.
I too did that. So it must have been.
Even as he thought this, another figure started to come up out of the thick and turgid sea – and then another and another.
Watching them he thought instantly, I'm no longer alone. I must have a name. He put his hand to his face. It was a brown, young hand, with long strong fingers and a callused palm. Looking at it a moment, he knew what each callus represented – use of a sword, a bow, the reins of a chariot ...
The other new arrivals – there were ten by now and still others plunged up and in – took no notice either of the man already standing on the shore, or of any of those who had also just come there. But each man, reaching the stones, fell over, on to either his face or his side, and one, dropping initially to his knees, curled up in the position of the unborn foetus.
I must have a name ...
Twenty men now were on the beach. Two more came wading in, and of these one glanced into the standing watcher's eyes. The watcher did not know this man – and yet there was something familiar about him. His hair was white although he too was quite young. The white-haired man raised one hand uncertainly, as if in greeting.
Unlike all the rest, additionally, he stayed upright after he had got out of the sea, despite heavily swaying this way and that.
'Where did it go?' he said, in a language the watcher knew very well, but could not name either.
'The – city – the Gullah – the world – where?'
Something flashed in the watcher's mind. He remembered a chariot. He remembered speed and shouting and his own red hair blown like a flag, and now, putting back his hands, he pulled this long hair in over his shoulder, to stare at and be sure. Yes, it was red and savage as fire.
'If I answer where all that went, my friend, then you must name me before I tell it.'
'Oh. A riddle? Then you are – you are ...' White-hair faltered. Great trouble smoked over his pale eyes. 'I can't,' he said, 'tell you your name. Though I saw you often, once ... But then,' despairingly he added, 'who am I?'
The watcher felt a pulse of heat run through his blood, strengthening him. He said, 'For now, you'll call me Nameless.'
'And, for now also, until you recall your own name, you shall be called Kuul. Which means One, or First, but in another tongue than that we speak now. As for the city and the ... Gullahammer, the Brotherhood – that was lost. It's been left behind.' Nameless paused, considering what he had said, and that he seemed to know yet did not understand it. 'Here too there'll be things to accomplish.'
The man with white hair, Kuul, looked about the shore at the other men who had fallen over, swooning or sleeping. He yawned suddenly, then shook his head, as if both to clear it and to deny. 'I was a long while in that filth of a sea. I couldn't find my way. I won't waste time asleep like these fools. They must be western trash. Or Olchibe. We're Jafn, you and I. We only really sleep when we are dead.' And then his eyes widened. A deep agony filled his face and hung there. He repeated, quietly, 'We are dead.'
Nameless laughed. He had to force the laugh from him, but it sounded convincing enough. And Kuul smiled a little, wanting to be steadied.
'Do you feel dead, Kuul?'
'No – no.'
One further man had emerged from the sea and sunk down. No more appeared. The pond was flat, sullen and ungiving.
But the beast or trumpet brayed again abruptly, and much more raucously, over the shingle. It seemed closer than before.
'God knows,' said Nameless, monotheistically in the Jafn manner. 'But I think someone else is on their way. So probably we'll learn.'
They checked their garments and weapons, of which last both men, and all the others from the look of it, had plenty, though some were of odd designs. Kuul clubbed back his hair and bound it with three strips of dried dog-gut.
Hair-tying for battle – that will make no difference to me, Nameless thought. Why was that? It must be he was benignly spelled, some witch or mage had made him invulnerable.
Of course, for surely he had been a king?
The idea of a fight was cheering, was it? He had fought a lot, previously, in the area beyond the dead sea, the world they had lost or left behind.
He noticed the men strewn on the beach were waking up again, some quite quickly, others slow and melancholy, as he had been.
Nameless was glad none of them had seen him lying weeping there on the cold shore, like a little boy wanting his mother.
'Yes, something's coming,' said Kuul. He turned to the waking men and shouted in a solid brazen tone, 'Hey, get up, you dreamers. Some urgent business is galloping towards us. Do you want to be caught on your backs like girls?'
And each of the men began scrambling upright, rubbing his face, searching out his personal armament of bows and daggers and spears.
Warriors, all of them. Perhaps they had been in a sea-battle with reivers ... Vorms? Yes, that was the barbarian name, Vorms and Fazions – but no, these peoples had allied with the Brotherhood, the Gullahammer. Some other rubbish of the outer seas then.
Nameless looked upward at the sun again. It had moved a little, like a proper sun, and faint cloudlets were blowing across it.
He had seen a blue sun before. But not, he thought, in the sky —
The ground rumbled. The lesser stones began to jump, some of them, small pebbles and flinders flying up. As yet, however, nothing was visible of what approached.
All the men ranked themselves alongside Nameless and Kuul. Some of them even called out the name of Nameless – the Jafn version of it. Had they heard in sleep?
He turned to the big, black-maned man who had come out of the sea the first, after Nameless himself.
'I've forgotten how you're called, brother. Excuse me. It's been a long journey.'
'Years,' agreed the black-haired man. 'But call me, for now, Choy.'
Nameless nodded. Choy meant Two, or Second, but only in the language of Gech, or sometimes Olchibe. And this man's skin was not yellow. He came from another nation.
It seemed also then Nameless had somehow named them all. He called along the line, 'Every man, say your name. We may need to shout to each other in the war that's coming.'
And they cried back their names – all numbers, though all in different tongues, and he believed all in tongues not their own – Olchibe again, or Jafn, or Urrowiy – like the unJafn name of First he had coined for Kuul, the first who spoke. Others had number-names which were from languages and dialects the Nameless one had never known.
Whatever else, they were a named band now, First and Second, and otherwise three to twenty-three.
By then a sort of haze was visible in the distance, murkier than the clouds which still drifted along there over the land. The rumble in the ground became a roar.
Then out from the fog burst a wall of rushing shapes, grey-black and golden, burning oddly in the cool sunlight, and the material of the beach flew off from either side of it like wings of water or ice.
Nameless flexed his body. He felt pleasantly hot now, and limber, ready to spring forward and leap among the enemy.
He raised the long knife, which was Jafn from its look. And next raised himself on to the balls of his feet to sprint.
In that second the amalgam which raced towards the twenty-four men on the shore exploded into visibility and nearness.
The waiting men howled. Yet none of them broke the line or fled. Instead, voicing berserk screams, they rushed forward, Nameless just ahead of them, his blue eyes wide as two furious suns.
The clash came awesomely, and reverberated along the shore for thousands of uncharted miles.
Nameless found himself lying now on his back, just as Kuul had warned the others not to be. Something stood on his chest and belly, panting hypnotically into his face.
It was heavy as lead, but in form lean, almost emaciated. Its muzzle and jaw dripped a scalding, stinging, stinking saliva. There were thin white teeth. The rest was bluish, a bluish hound, but it had no eyes.
Even pinned as he was, this blind fanged thing's mouth an inch above his throat, Nameless thought, I've seen such animals before – not dogs – but creatures without eyes and needing none.
The bellow of the numbered fighters had dropped, through fast stages of other noise, to silence.
One of the riders loomed, nearly above Nameless. Like the hound he was dark bluish, clad in black and coiled in strands of golden metal. He had a human similarity, but his hair seemed to be made of gold snakes, tied back rather as Kuul had done it, but hissing and struggling. And his eyes, if he had eyes, were masked by a sombre vizor.
The other riders were the same, and Nameless saw them sitting astride their mounts all along the line of now fallen men. As for what they rode, Nameless thought of the fish-horses the sea-peoples favoured. But then Nameless forgot those. These horses had neither scales nor single horns; they did not reek of herring either. They were metal, black and gold, and each of them had eight legs. At first he told himself, a fallen hero, that the shell of these animals was only armour, and maybe the legs only artistic extras added on to frighten any foe. But he saw how they moved, how the legs moved, and that in the holes the gilt blinders left bare white sparks spattered, and nothing else.
The eyeless dog panted, not tearing out Nameless's throat. The snake-haired rider who towered over him on the eight-legged horse spoke in a soft, emotionless, peculiar voice.
'When the jatcha lets you go, get up. You will run before us, to the Place.'
'What pl —' Nameless began to say.
At once the hound – the jatcha – thrust its dripping muzzle against and almost into his mouth.
It smelled of butchery and old death. Nameless – and several men who had tried to speak and got the same treatment – retched and choked, unable to roll aside.
Then the jatchas padded off them. Men vomited into the stones. Nameless did not. He spat and stood up.
He looked into the face of the vizored thing on the unhorse with spider legs, and nodded.
Turning to the fallen men as they realigned themselves snorting, wiping mouths, raging and in an extreme of horror, Nameless then shook his head: Do not resist what is irresistible.
They obeyed him. What option?
On their feet they trotted through the crowd of mounted beings as it made way for them, and out along the sharded shingle.
'Where the clouds move,' said the soft omnipresent voice. Nameless saw that each of the several riders uttered at once and as one. 'There is the Place. Run now. Run along.'
Nameless and his men ran along. Towards the Place.
He had seen cities. He recalled that he had. He could not exactly picture them, but knew he had thought them small, quaint perhaps, and far less than what had been described by those who did so beforehand. After the hours-long jog over the broken shore, they ran among thick cloud, the sort encountered only on the tops of high mountains, and not always there. Then for another hour they ran inside the cloud, the obscene riders and dogs only glimpsed behind them, but sounding always with the jingle of their harness and battle-mail. The cloud dissolved without warning. And there was the Place.
Nameless stopped. All of them staggered to a halt.
Their guards did not prevent this, or try to force them on. They brought their spider-horses to a standstill, dismounted, and stood clasping their mailed fists to their hearts, shouting out a single word, which must be the true name of the Place. 'Shabatu! Shabatu!'
'Face of God, what is it?' whispered Kuul.
Choy, on Nameless's other side, said, 'A great cliff, carved —'
'A city,' said Nameless. 'It's a city.'
Up it swarmed, far into the crystallized grey sky, vanishing there in a tapering perspective, while the blue sun perched on the highest limits, and lit it in streaming blue rays. It was pale, walled – walls within walls – up and up, on and on. One vast gateway broke the smooth frontage, and had doors of iron, fast shut. Above the gate was carved an open bestial mouth, fringed by black iron teeth. And from this mouth now erupted the beast-trumpet note heard on the far shore. Here it rang the air like a colossal bell.
Men covered their ears, moaned.
'Don't bother,' said Nameless. 'It can't hurt you now.'
Because, he thought, we are, as Kuul noted, dead.
The city had convinced him, it seemed.
But then anyway the guards were there, thrusting each man down on his knees.
'Greet the Place. The city of Shabatu.'
'I salute Shabatu,' said Nameless, flat as a slate.
The other men of his band followed his example, and in the same way.
Nameless thought, I can't fathom the meaning of its name ...
But everything now was names, known and unknown, to be invented or lost in amnesia. Also shapes, and new discouraging events. This was what a child must deal with, every second, once it had been born. But children lived and grew tough, throwing off their shackles.
Nameless glanced around at his men. 'Cheer yourselves up, my warriors,' he said, 'think how fortunate we are, to witness such sights denied to other men. Think of the tales we can tell when we go home.'
Excerpted from Here in Cold Hell by Tanith Lee. Copyright © 2005 Tanith Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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