by P.C. Hodgell
“Oh, I have come from a far, far land
My songs to sing to you...”
What came next? As he groped through his sodden memory, the Wolver Grimly slipped on a pink marble step and started to fall. The stair circled the outside of the Rose Tower, a long tumble to the hard pavement of the plaza below. Grimly yelped and flailed with all four paws, turned clumsy with drink. He tripped and slid down to a landing, chin first, biting his tongue. The night spun around him, the moon careening through the sky.
Laughter spilled down the steps from King Krothen’s Rose Chamber above, and Grimly flinched at the sound. Now the party guests were applauding, but not for him. Never for him.
“In green halls first my song began
When first I heard another sing...”
That had been the poet Malodium, performing for Krothen’s father King Kruin in the Grimly Holt. Oh, what beauty. The wolver pup had yearned toward it from the bushes where he had crouched hidden. For years he had practiced with only the forest as an audience, and then he had come here, to Kothifir the Cruel, to find his master. Now an old man and out of favor, Malodium had nonetheless welcomed him and promised to present him to the king. With what pride had he stood forth to sing. Silence had greeted his end, and then laughter, with Malodium laughing hardest of all.
Now they called him the Wildman of the Woods, and he capered to win the only accolade they would give him, and he drank to blunt the shame of what he had become.
Here at last was the bottom of the stair. Grimly rose on his hind legs and shambled forward, naked except for a garland of wilted flowers. He began again to sing, or rather to howl.
Quick steps sounded on the pavement, and someone crashed into him. Grimly went down with a startled yelp.
“Rose, stop!” Somebody else had come up, hard on the heels of the first. “I’ve heard of this fellow. He clowns for the King.”
“I do not!” cried Grimly, curling up in a hairy puddle on the ground, his tail tucked tight between his legs. “I’m a court poet! Hic.”
A child stood regarding him. Where had she come from? Even in the moonlight, her hair was a dark red helm, her eyes a startling shade of green, her gaze solemn and direct.
“Is the puppy sick?” she asked.
The woman named Rose stepped away from Grimly. “No, dear. The puppy is drunk. Why did you attack my daughter?”
“Attack her?” wailed Grimly. “I didn’t even see her!”
Beside Rose and the child, two other people stood over him. One, like Rose, was a tall, rangy woman – a Kendar of Krothen’s mercenary Southern Host, most likely. The other was nearer Grimly’s age, not much more than a boy, slender and dark-clad.
“What are you doing in the city at night?” the latter asked the child with concern, as if he really cared. “The lift cages don’t even run after midnight.”
“I climbed.” The little girl handed Rose a packet. “You forgot your dinner.”
“Oh, Brier. How often do I have to tell you not to follow me?”
The boy nudged Grimly with a booted toe. His eyes were an arresting shade of silver-gray, set in a fine-boned face. No Kendar, this, but definitely Kencyr. Grimly’s scrambled wits came up with a name: Torisen. The city had noted this young Highborn although it had no idea how he fit into the Southern Host. The Caineron, most powerful of the nine houses that made up the Kencyrath, dismissed him as a bastard. Nonetheless, second–in-command Harn Grip-hard had first made him his clerk and then a one-hundred commander, tasked with learning why so many Kothifiran nobles were mysteriously dying. Neat and supple as tempered steel in its sheath, he made Grimly feel acutely uncouth.
“You can get up now,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
“’Sorry.’” Grimly heard the whine in his voice and hated it. “Who apologizes to a poor wolver so far from home?”
Torisen regarded his shadow as he rose. “Do all wolvers cast the shadow of a wolf?”
“It depends on the phase of the moon.”
“Which tonight is full. Do you know a wolver called the Gnasher?”
“Oh, him.” Above, people were clapping. Lights played against the paper thin marble petals of the king’s chamber. “Steer clear...hic...that’s my advice. I’m from the Grimly Holt, but he’s from the Deep Weald. ‘nother kind of beastie altogether. What?”
He looked up, perplexed, at three intent faces.
“When did you last see him?”
“Why, tonight. He’s up there, entertaining the king. Juggles lights, doesn’t he? Shining Glory, they call him. He’s performed for all the best families.”
“Damn,” said Torisen. “Rose, stay with your daughter. Rowan, with me.”
“Don’t you want to hear one of my poems?” the Wolver Grimly cried after them as they sprinted to the foot of the stair and began to climb its sweep of steps three at a time. He didn’t want them to go, especially not the young Highborn, but what could anyone like that want with someone like him?
“Oh, never mind,” he muttered, and stumbled back into the city.
It was hard, afterward, to figure out what had happened. The Gnasher had fled Kothifir. Apparently he had been behind all of the mysterious deaths through the casting of his shadow. Grimly only knew that his absence had opened no new opportunities for him, nor did he see the young Highborn Torisen again for some time.
Previously, Grimly had paid little attention to Kothifiran politics. What were they, after all, to an artist? Now he found himself wondering what role that silver-eyed boy might be playing in them.
Within days after the Gnasher had fled the Rose Tower, Kothifir declared war on the distant city of Urakarn, infamous for its religious fanatics. The reasons for this war were obscure: Princess Amantine had lost her husband to the Gnasher, and the Gnasher had some connection to the Karnid Prophet, who had been King Kruin’s advisor. Moreover, Lord Caineron’s favorite son, Genjar, was currently commandant of the Kencyrath’s Southern Host, and he was hot to prove himself in battle.
Grimly went out with most of Kothifir to see the Host assemble on the south-western training ground below their permanent camp. Genjar rode up, self-important on a showy white horse, trailed by his gaudy staff made up mostly of Kothifiran nobles. Native brass bands bounced around the perimeter of the field playing different patriotic tunes, chased by over-excited dogs and one confused donkey. Genjar made a speech that few could hear. Nonetheless, when he stopped the crowd cheered. Grimly ducked through their ranks, looking for Torisen. There he was at last, riding expressionless beside the scowling hulk that was Harn Grip-hard.
At last the Host marched away. When it was only dust on the horizon, everyone went home.
Days passed without news, then weeks. Grimly reminded himself that Urakarn was on the far, western side of the Southern Wastes, a month’s round trip at least. Patience, patience...
In the meantime, he moved into very modest quarters of his own among the abandoned towers, over the indignant protests of his mentor. Malodium had done very well out of exploiting his freakish guest.
“Just see what becomes of you without me!” he shouted after Grimly as the wolver trotted away down the street, his belongings in a bundle over his back, jeering children on his heels. “Kothifir isn’t called the Cruel for nothing!”
At least now Grimly could choose his own audiences. He drank less and practiced more, not that it did much good; Kothifirans were too used to him as a bumbling buffoon and laughed before he could even open his mouth. At night, he crouched on his shaky, rusty balcony overlooking the lit towers of the central city and sang to himself, not in court Rendish but in the crooning wails of his native holt. A swelling howl shaped the full moon. Shorter yips traced the outlines of trees and the walls of the ruined keep that was his pack’s den. Burbling ululations became the creek that run through the fallen blocks. Sometimes stray dogs below lifted their voices with his, but he did not understand them, nor did they him. Perhaps it was time to go home, back to the wood. First, however, he would wait until news came from Urakarn.
At last it did.
Genjar led back the tattered, bloody remnant of the Host, depleted by at least a quarter. The Karnids had ambushed him, he said, and there were too many of them. He hadn’t been warned of that. It was all the fault of the vanguard which had pressed too far forward, intent on stealing his glory. Damn Harn for his ambition and jealousy of his betters. Damn that sneaking bastard of a clerk, Torisen, for urging the big Kendar on. It served them right that they had all been slaughtered and that their bones were left to rot in the sun. At least he, Genjar, had brought what remained of the Host home safely. The Kencyrath and King Krothen owed him thanks for that.
Kothifir murmured, uneasily. At the foot of the Escarpment, the camp of the Southern Host settled into a sullen silence.
Grimly started to drink heavily again, often forgetting to eat. He couldn’t get Torisen’s fate out of his mind, or Genjar’s boasting. Besides “rescuing” the Host, the Caineron demanded praise for his feats in battle, which no one else had witnessed. To challenge him, however, would be to accuse him of lying, and one apparently did not do that to a Kencyr Highborn.
Then a summons arrived. The Caineron commandant had been holding high court ever since his return from the Wastes. Now he wanted the Wildman of the Woods to perform for him.
Grimly thought about that. He had ignored more and more requests while his funds had shrunken to a pittance. To drink or to eat? Food didn’t assuage his hunger. Drink, then, although sleep brought him increasingly vivid dreams of the hunt. The pursuit, the pounce, the rich red blood gushing between his sharp teeth – oh, so satisfying! – while wild, disbelieving eyes stared into his own...
When he woke from this fever dream, he found himself crouching before the eastern gate of the Caineron barracks. Despite being called a camp, the structures here were three stories high and quite substantial. It was morning. Surely he had been asked to sing at supper. On this day or another? And had he really meant to rip out Genjar’s throat for the sake of someone whom he barely knew? Because Torisen had been kind to a child? Because he had apologized to a wretched wolver? Because his hands and eyes were so beautiful?
Within the Caineron barracks, someone shouted. More echoed him, the alarm spreading throughout the fabric of the compound.
A door set in one leaf of the outer gate opened, and a figure stepped out, clad in shabby black rags.
“Oh, Grimly,” it said. “What have you done to yourself?”
The wolver had flattened to the ground in his full furs. For one distracted moment, he was aware of the matted gray coat that barely covered his prominent ribs and concave stomach.
“You’re dead!” he croaked.
Torisen thought about this, silver eyes huge and puzzled in a wasted face. “I don’t think so,” he said, doubtfully.
Caineron were running down the street from both directions. Grimly rose, grabbed the Kencyr’s arm, and hustled him across the way into the protection of the gate leading to the abandoned Knorth compound.
The tumult within the Caineron barracks increased.
“What did you do?” Grimly demanded.
“I? Nothing.” Then Torisen added, as if as an afterthought, “Genjar is dead.”
The other didn’t seem to hear him. He was shivering and the arm that Grimly felt through the tattered sleeve burned with fever. “It’s my fault,” he said, staring at nothing. “It’s all my fault.”
The wolver gripped him. “You need help,” he said. “The infirmary...”
“No!” With a quick movement, Torisen thrust his hands into his armpits and huddled over them. “I need Harn.”
“He’s alive too? Never mind. Come on.”
No one noticed them as they stumbled away from the barracks, across the inner ward, and into the office block set against the camp’s northern wall. Harn Grip-hard was in his quarters, issuing orders, a blood-stained bandage wrapped around his brow.
“Out,” he said to the crowd that surrounded him when over their heads he saw Grimly and Torisen in the doorway.
The room emptied, many glancing curiously at Torisen as they passed.
“Where have you been, boy?” Harn loomed over the new-comers, his haggard face like a bristly moon. “I told you to report to the surgeon.”
“I can’t. My hands...”
“Let me see.”
With surprising gentleness, he disengaged Torisen’s arms and held the latter’s hands in his own. Those slim, elegant fingers were swollen with infection and crisscrossed by a lacework of deep, angry burns, red and yellow and black.
“What happened?” Grimly blurted out, and Torisen answered as if dazed.
“The Karnids worship their god-prophet. They tried to convert me. ‘Do you recant...do you profess...’ I couldn’t. Our Three-faced God gives us no choice in such matters. ‘Then we must convince you, for your own good...’ They fit me with gloves of red-hot wire and I burned, I burned...”
He swayed in the wolver’s grip, horror dilating his eyes. “I-I can’t go to the infirmary. The surgeon will cut off my hands.”
“That’s as may be.” Harn scooped him up as one might a child. In the doorway, on the way out, he glanced back at Grimly. “Thank you.”
More days passed. The camp shut in on itself and little that happened there reached the city above. Rumor said that only four had returned from the Host’s vanguard – Harn, Rowan, a Kendar named Burr, and Torisen. A fifth had been lost in the Wastes – Rose Iron-thorn. Grimly wondered about her young daughter, Brier. He also worried about Torisen. Were his hands healing? And why did he blame himself for the slaughter that had befallen the Host’s vanguard?
Caldane, Lord Caineron, arrived to claim the body of his favorite son. Grimly saw him ride through the streets of Kothifir, a frog-faced man in gaudy robes with death in his eyes. Nusair, a younger, less favored son, rode beside him and chattered, unheeded, in his ear. They took the lift-cage down the Escarpment to the camp. There the Caineron barracks swallowed them.
With his last coins, Grimly bought passage down to the camp and slunk about its streets, hungry for news. A whisper sent him to the Caineron compound where Harn Grip-hard had been called to account for the Urakarn disaster. How to get in? Stray dogs nosed about the gate, looking for scraps. Grimly dropped to all fours and threaded between them, twice as big as they, snapping whenever one drew near. He passed over the threshold on Harn’s heels. The big Kendar glanced down at him but said nothing.
They crossed the grassy quadrangle and entered the barracks proper. Here was the great hall with Caldane enthroned at its head in squat majesty, his son Nusair lounging beside him.
“So,” he said heavily, regarding Harn. “You were my son’s second in command. I have heard about you. A Knorth, were you not, before Ganth Graylord’s fall? You never supported my son Genjar as you should. He told me that. I also hear that you were struck senseless by a rock early in the battle and so had little to do with its conclusion.”
“Nonetheless,” growled Harn, flexing his big hands, “I take responsibility for all that happened under my command.”
“Of course you do, and so you are,” said Nusair with a smirk. “No one forgets that.”
His father glowered sideways at him and he shut up. Lord Caineron turned back to Harn.
“My understanding is that your...ah...clerk took charge after you fell. Perhaps it is to him that I should speak.”
“He is still recovering from wounds taken in the campaign...” Harn began, but the Caineron checked him.
“Nonetheless,” he said, “here he is.”
Two Kendar pushed to the front of the crowd, towering over Torisen whom they held captive between them. He was dressed better than when Grimly had last seen him, all in black as befit his nickname. However, his face still looked harrowed and white bandages covered his hands. Kencyr heal quickly. Clearly, Torisen had not, as if he hadn’t let himself.
“It’s my fault,” he had said. “It’s all my fault.”
“I’m done with you,” said Caldane to Harn. “Go.”
The big Kendar drew himself up, glowering. “I’ll wait for Blackie.”
“Do it outside.”
Harn glanced at Torisen and then, fleetingly, at Grimly. Stay with him, said his eyes. With that, he turned on his heel and left.
The guards released Torisen and he stepped forward, drawing his hands protectively behind his back.
“My lord,” he said, with a respectful but wary nod to Caldane.
The Caineron leaned back in his chair. “So,” he said. “You are the mysterious boy whom Lord Ardeth sent to join the Host. I thought I knew every Highborn in the Kencyrath. No doubt you are one of Adric’s bastards, eh? Perhaps of mixed or unclean lineage? That house is so proud of its pure bloodlines. I wonder how many freaks it keeps in its shadows. So you took it upon yourself to assume command of the vanguard, and no one challenged you. Odd, that, but never mind. What happened?”
Torisen gulped, silver eyes refocusing on memory.
“The vanguard was surrounded by Karnids,” he said. “Commandant Genjar had ignored the reports of his scouts as to the enemy strength, and there were many, many more of them than he had thought. They were destroying us. Harn ordered me to fight my way back to the main body of the Host to ask for reinforcements. Then he fell. A handful of us went, only to find that the rest of our forces were also heavily engaged. They might have held, but Genjar panicked and fled. The rest of the Host followed him, leaving the vanguard to Karnid mercy, of which there was none. They slaughtered all but a quarter of us, whom they took prisoner. Only five escaped Urakarn and one, Rose Iron-Thorn, was swallowed by sink-sand.” He gulped again. “I had to tell her daughter.”
“You’re lying!” Nusair burst out. “My brother never ran away! He was a hero!”
Caldane raised a hand to stop his son, although he too looked pale. “Perhaps this conversation is best conducted in private, and the truth pursued by other means of...er...persuasion. Nusair? Make your brother proud. The rest of you, leave.”
The crowd broke up, muttering, and Torisen was led away. Grimly tried to follow, but a forest of Kendar surrounded him. Those who noticed as he shouldered his way through their midst cursed and kicked him. With difficulty he restrained himself from snapping right and left with jaws that could have sheered through flesh and bone.
Here in a hallway the mob thinned, but where was Torisen?
Grimly ran back and forth, anxiously seeking his scent. It seemed to take forever before he found and followed it, up stair after stair to the Caineron guest quarters. Grimly reared up, placed his paws on the door, and pushed. When it opened a crack, he slipped through into the empty antechamber beyond. Nusair’s muffled voice sounded from an inner room. The next door stood open, but furniture blocked the view of its interior. Tapestries covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Grimly crept in behind them. If anyone had been paying attention, which they were not, they would have seen a large bump making its way around the edge of the room. It was very dusty behind the arras. Grimly struggled not to sneeze. Then he found a gap between panels and cautiously pushed his nose through it.
A massive oaken table occupied the center of the room, strewn with loose papers with more in a stack at one corner, held down by a chunk of granite. Nusair lounged behind the table in a thronelike chair, elbows on its armrests, fingers steepled before him. He seemed to be trying to imitate Lord Caineron’s ponderous manner, but the effect was marred by his petulant expression.
On the other side of the table stood Torisen in the grip of a large, silent Kendar.
“Father says that you are an Ardeth bastard. Did they keep you locked up in the cellar full of creepy-crawlies? Is that why no one ever heard of you before you showed up here and became Harn’s pet? Is it true that he favors little boys?”
When Torisen didn’t answer, Nusair shifted in his seat and gave a moue of discontent.
“Where’s the fun if you won’t play the game? You talked to Father. Why not to me? Let’s try this again. You said that my brother Genjar ran away from the Karnids. Of course he didn’t. Why did you lie?”
Torisen hissed through his teeth; the Kendar had twisted one arm up behind his back. Grimly, with difficulty, kept still.
“I know that there’s been talk,” said Nusair, again moving restlessly. “A strange way to commit suicide,’ they say... People can be so petty, so vindictive, and the dead can’t speak for themselves. At least his death was honorable.” His voice rose as Torisen looked away. “Well, wasn’t it?”
The Kendar twisted again. This time he had shifted his grip to Torisen’s bandaged right hand, and the boy cried out involuntarily in pain.
“Ah, your hands. Let’s see them.”
Encircling him with long arms, the Kendar grabbed the young Highborn’s wrists and held his hands out, flat to the table. Nusair stripped off the wrappings, then sat back. A curious expression, which he tried to hide, flickered across his face.
“You are a mess, aren’t you?” he said. “After all of this time, too. I wonder.” He picked up the granite paperweight and balanced it on his palm. “If I were to smash your fingers with this, would they split open like bad sausages? So I ask you again: what have you heard – what do you know – about my brother’s death?”
Torisen strained in the Kendar’s grip, but said nothing.
Nusair licked his lips and smiled. His eyes bright, he raised the stone.
Grimly charged out from between the arras, leaped onto the table, and skidded across its top with scrabbling claws amidst a storm of loose papers. Nusair went over backward in the chair with a yelp, his feet flying up. The wolver checked himself and sprang at the Kendar, Torisen ducking aside just in time. Grimly hit the big man on the chest and knocked him over. As he fell, he struck his head on the corner of a chest and, once down, lay still.
“Don’t move!” Grimly snarled at Nusair as the Caineron peered fearfully around the seat of the overturned chair behind which he cowered.
Resuming his half-human form, the wolver threw an arm around Torisen’s shoulders and helped him out of the room, out of the apartment. They had stumbled down two flights of stairs to the ground floor before the commotion began above. Grimly ducked under the steps, drawing the Highborn boy with him. Footsteps thundered overhead.
“This house certainly runs around a lot,” said Grimly in a whisper, “especially when you’re involved.”
Torisen was staring at his swollen, burnt hands. “My fault,” he muttered. “All my fault.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“The Karnid prophet said that he only wanted me. If I surrendered the vanguard, he promised that he would spare them. I did. He didn’t. They all died.”
Grimly gaped at him. “And you blame yourself? By stone and bone, Tori, you did the best you could. What more could you have done?”
What more than to avenge them? How had Genjar died? But now was not the time for such a question.
“Forget it,” Grimly said, distractedly waving a hand that was half a furry paw. “Forget it all and heal!”
Torisen looked up, confused. “What, heel, like a dog?”
“No, dammit. Would I of all folk say that to anyone? Heal!”
“Oh.” The boy’s face twisted. He began to laugh with an edge of hysteria.
Grimly was alarmed: what if someone heard? But he felt the urge to giggle himself. They spent a moment choking on helpless laughter in the dust of the stair well.
“When this is over,” said Torisen, wiping his streaming eyes with a cuff, “if it ever is, I would like you to sing for me. Something honest. Something true.”
Grimly felt a long-closed window open up in his soul, through which blew the fragrance of leaf and loam and deep, cool shadows.
“Not in Rendish, then,” he said. “A song of the Holt.”
The grassy quadrangle was momentarily empty. They stumbled across it and out the door into the street, where Harn Grip-hard strode across the sun-lit cobbles to meet them.
Copyright © 2014 P.C. Hodgell
P.C. Hodgell is an award-winning fantasy writer, artist and professor. She holds a Master’s Degree in English literature and a Doctorate in 19th-century English literature. She is best known for the Kyncyrath series, the latest installment of which, The Sea of Time, is available now.