Want to read a sample before jumping in? Have no idea what Galfordian writing techniques look like, and would like a fair shake of them before tossing yourself into a trilogy? Have no fear; a preview is here.
The following takes place in the early pages (as I’m sure the chapter header makes clear) of As Feathers Fall, taking place immediately following the events of At Faith’s End. Enjoy!
It was bitterly damp wherever they seemed to move him. In his dreams—though he could no longer tell the difference between the real and ethereal—all smelled of urine and feces, and where his head rolled through the effort of drugged observation, they rustled through endless leagues of muck and thorny branch. Every turn enflamed the wounds that ate at his flesh. Every stumble through trails unknown and unpaved drew another whimper and threatened darkness.
In flashes, the world came to Rurik. They were less than visions, more like shades of shades—a flash of color here, a brush of wool there. There were hands on him even when he slept, and sometimes he came awake shouting, but another hand was always there to silence him. Sometimes he kicked, in his most violent moments, but they pressed him down and whispered his name until he had no more fight left in him.
Voren had hurt him with his blade. Bound and stuck him like a pig, until the blood had run hot across his skin. There were times, in his more lively moments, in which he felt the stickiness creeping along his sides and his hands and he told himself: more blood. There was always more. At least, for now. Eventually, he would run out. Men were lakes, dammed up by flesh. Without it to hold them back, they all ran out.
Rurik wished he were a braver man. He told himself he was dying and the very thought set him to whimpering. All the rest: an act. Face to face with the bowel-shaking notion of what the light would bring—if he could trust the light at all—he knew it to be so. He feared the dark that stalked him.
Somewhere between the boughs of the trees, pale fingers of warmth stroked against the shadows. He saw the forest. He remembered Verdan. Somewhere above him, eyes of green watched and waited, and he was not certain they would weep for his passing.
From the fragments of daylight, he sought some semblance of the madness around him, but what came to him was a fevered inability to reason. Thoughts jumbled and broke apart on contact. Yet he knew the pain was worse than the flesh. He felt as if his heart had sundered, pricking him by jagged pieces from within. This, he knew the baker had no ability to render. Those bloodied hands had never once laid the faintest touch upon his heart.
It was the needle that jarred him back. He screamed, but they were already half done before he came awake. Hands jerked against him and the weight of a swordsman forced him down, crying, “Easy, easy,” with Rowan’s voice. Still he thrashed, for the body fought against its pain with a single-minded will, and as the man’s cousin stitched together the serrated lines of his flesh, Rurik tried to retreat. Into himself. Away.
Breaths came in gulping, writhing waves. He whimpered, turning his head, and there, beside the dying embers of a small fire, he beheld the true reason for the pain.
Curses rode the wheezing figure of his guardian, wan beyond his years, nearly still amidst the forest weeds. His eyes were closed, the paleness spread even into the splits of his lips, so that Chigenda, set beside him, was as a great and terrible shadow over him. Nothing seemed large enough to encompass the madness of that vision.
He could not keep the sounds from coming. They burbled in his throat and warbled out with the dying of the light. Blood moved in him and he was cold, and fired in the same instant, and everything twisted up inside. His oldest friend. His guardian. Another father gone before.
They moved to let him retch his pain into the dust.
The sun had changed position again when he returned once more. For the first time in nearest memory, the pain within was a dulled thing—a constant, throbbing ache, but deprived the edge with which Voren Bäcker had carved him.
They had pulled him away, patched him up, saved his life, twofold salvations from the course of a day he never should have ended alive. Vaguely, he pulled at the memory of cannon and his brother’s eyes. These, too, had meant to be his end. Somehow, he had stepped along the path of the final circle, only to grow lost along the way. It was a boon he did not deserve.
Assal is not without his whims. What he offers to one must surely be taken from another.
All men had their paths, but all paths intersected, and all were equal. There was always an exchange when something so great as death became involved.
It took a long time for his shaking hands to press against his stomach. A blanket had been draped across him, but he shoved at its weight to reveal himself. What remained was more like a maze of thread than a body. Lines connected across his sides, his chest, and along the length of one arm—the very arm that had been broken, not so many moons ago. Every inch of him screamed against his rising, but he struggled, huffing, into the most terrible pounding he had ever known, and sat upright beneath the trees.
“Assal be damned. The idiots rise. Get you back down before you hurt yourself, child.”
Rowan spoke the words, but they did not still him. Fear was nothing before stubbornness. Before the need to know. He began to crawl before Essa cleared the gap and thrust her arms against him. She was stronger than she looked, and he, so much the weaker. Rurik sputtered and staggered, but she pressed him back, saying, “Stay, stay.”
But he would not stay. “I need to know,” he repeated. Their eyes met, dark and heavy as the double eclipse, and her hands faltered, but did not loose him.
“Your own wounds are not healed, Rurik. If you press them, they will bleed.”
The words rent him bitter. “And whom do we have to thank for that?”
The hurt was reflected in Essa’s eyes. They shuddered once, knowing, and the image sank away into their depths—devoured, accepted, with the weight of so much more.
“That was undeserved, Rurik,” Rowan chided him from across the clearing. He could not see Essa’s cousin, but the distasteful look was in his words. “There was not a one of us could have foreseen this day’s events. We’ll chalk up that talk now to pain, shock, and too little alcohol to numb it all up. But if you persist, I’m not above swatting a bloody man.”
The words bit. He retreated into himself, a lectured child, and felt all the more spiteful for his own bitterness. It was not his choice, merely bodily reaction—so he told himself, but so had Voren no doubt told himself, when his crazed mind propelled him to “defend Essa.”
Voren. Fire spread from his wounds deep into his heart and kindled there, surging against the merely mortal bonds that held him down. I will kill you for what you’ve done. You cannot run far enough. Nor fast enough.
The look Essa spared him suggested she peered into at least some aspect of his rage. She winced deeper, and wilted, but the rough touch did not leave him—it held him and even began to pick him up, to help him along toward their guardian. Whatever her own feelings, she was not above what needed to be done. She never had been. What fear lay in her was a different sort of fear altogether. Not a thing bred of weakness; a dread of what she knew would come to pass.
“I’m sorry,” he said belatedly. She did not look at him. “I didn’t mean—but this, all of this, let it change—”
“Now is not the time,” she answered sternly, and the tone as much as the words told him to let it be. They would speak in time, he knew. There was no need to press. So he fell silent, and looked to his oldest friend.
Shadows were longest where the old man lay. What time had not achieved in years, a blade had finally rent from him in hours. Days, perhaps—in the span between bitter rousings, Rurik had lost track of the time. Yet for Alviss, time was leaking out at an exponential rate. His skin was waxy, where once had surged the vision of a northern frost. Some of the braids of his hair had been cut away, and the grey strands in the blond seemed more prominent than ever before. He lay as if upon a bier, weaponless, defenseless, his eyes open—but scarcely—and his breathing shallow.
Rurik refused to accept what the vision meant. Could not fathom it. So in its space he attached other words, other thoughts. There had been worse, he told himself. Blood was like water to the Kuric, Alviss himself had once said. And he recalled his father’s own words on the man: that he was like a mountain, that man could not shape him with his hands, that only time could bear him out again. He was wrong, of course. They were all wrong. The proof lay before them in the dirt.
Over him, the shape of the Zuti remained unmoving. Hands folded over the Kuric’s breast, Chigenda’s lips twined again and again over the same silent prayer, eyes closed, head bowed. Tucked beneath him, his dark legs seemed to run into the very earth, though the dried blood upon his chest and his hands unraveled whatever serenity might be sought there.
As Rurik and Essa hobbled nearer, the Zuti looked up and stopped them with the same. It was the fierce, wary look of a mother lion scenting danger to her cubs. They tittered. “Can I…?” Rurik asked, but it was the motion of Alviss’s hand that bid him nearer, not the Zuti. Chigenda sat warily back on his haunches, but said nothing.
They huddled before him as children at their father’s feet. But there would be no nightly tale here. No sleep and no sweet dreams. Essa’s composure crumpled as she settled, and a tremor went through her, along with the wracking heave of a sob. Rurik could not bear to watch it. It was hard enough, he reckoned, to look on Alviss himself.
Alviss said, “No children anymore.”
Rurik reached out and took one of his hands. It lacked the warmth of flesh, though sweat slicked it. Words began to spill out. “I am so sorry, Alviss,” he said. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of it. If I had just stayed, none of this would have happened.”
“I would have smashed your skull. For father, brother…you.”
The truth of that pain left Rurik all but speechless. In the end, he pleaded, “Forgive me. I always learn too late.”
Alviss grunted. “Nothing…to forgive. It is. Doubt undoes nothing.” In the same breath, he squeezed the hand that gripped him. Then the hazed mirrors of his eyes swiveled to Essa. “Sweet, you are stronger than this. Peace. Peace.”
“How? How, even now, do you act so—how? I don’t understand. I’ve never understood. We don’t deserve you,” Essa said quietly, as she bundled deeper into herself.
“I know.” Alviss laughed once, mirthlessly, though not painlessly.
“Rest. Dis wait,” Chigenda added.
Crossing the gap of the forest, where he had settled onto the watch, Rowan anchored down across from the Zuti, to join the vigil. “He is not the only one that should.” He looked to Rurik, but no anger moved him. He ran a hand through the copper stretch of his hair, wincing as it touched a bright bruise there. “If there is anything we can do, Alviss…”
Alviss’s eyes closed. For a heartbeat, Rurik feared it would be for the last time.
After a long moment, he seemed to find the strength to speak again. “They need you,” he uttered, without focus. Then, “Away. Nothing…here.”
“Free as wind. As…grey dreams, old hands wrought.” The Kuric’s head rolled with that, a shudder passing through the bulk of his frail form, and his lips opened as if to scream—as in any lesser man should have sprung shrieking from them—but made no sound. He blinked several times before coming back into himself, and by then, Rurik and all the rest had huddled closer. Clinging.
Despite himself, Rurik flinched. That needled worse than all the rest, and he choked back a sob. It was not right. It was not fair. Any of it. Essa openly wept beside him then, burying herself against Alviss’s leg as Rowan, shaking his head, leaned closer still, until the old man could watch his lips.
“He’s not here anymore, Alviss. He’s gone back to Verdan.”
They had not told him. In all the rush, all the madness and the pain, they had withheld that final truth from him. If Alviss suspected, then he gave none of it away. His head moved in the slightest bobbing of a nod, and narrowed on some point between Chigenda and Essa.
“So should we. And you, Chigenda…”
Words trailed. They blended into some slurred nothing. Brows furrowed and the man lurched, seized, and Chigenda wrapped an arm around his shoulders, bearing him up. But it was no good. Alviss heaved, and rasped again, but nothing came. His eyes cast once, wildly, between them, yet seemingly saw nothing, before they fell on the practiced rage of the Zuti. Something passed there the rest could not see. Whatever it was, it chipped even Chigenda’s blank repose.
It was always different, the poets wrote, when Death came for a friend. It was never the end any man should wish.
There, in the midst of a forest in the middle of a burning province, so close to home and yet so far away, he shuddered once more and drew still. Soundless. Then Alviss was no more.
It was dusk and the sun was in their eyes. They did not seem to notice. For all intents and purposes, they were blind from realms far beyond the reach of that mortal sun, with blood slick on their hands and a still man cradled in their laps. For hours, the hunter had watched them. Studied them. Waiting for his moment.
Remorse, like a tick, drank at his heart’s blood, for the man they laid to rest. Were it any other moment he should have—no, not cried, for there was no moment in which he should have so divorced himself from the world—but he would have liked to say his piece to the man. Let him go without any doubts.
The dead man was a good man, and a friend. He had trained them all when they were boys. He and Ivon. He and Rurik. Tonight, he was glad the man had passed, in truth, that he should not have to bear witness to their reunion.
An hour before, the Zuti had gone. Heated words blew between the trees as the girl clawed at him, screeched at and beseeched him, but the southerner’s ears were filled with as much mud as his flesh. He left them, with shadows wrapped about him and blood in his eyes.
More than one man had been laid in that ground.
Still, the hunter waited. Waited long enough to know the Zuti was not coming back. For then there were three, and though the act would not change, he liked the thought of having to strike but three more than he liked the notion of striking four.
He eased back a moment, motionless, holding himself above the earth. Listening. No wind through the trees. The squirrels had ceased their chittering. No sound except the weeping of the young and the huffing of an eager dog.
With anyone else, he should have used a bow. Somehow, that one small distinction struck him as profane for this.
If the Zuti did return, it would be too late. The baker would distract him. The hunter had seen to that—bound the fool and wrapped his eyes, and set him walking through the woods. He had played his part. Freedom was his, if only he found the courage to take it. The hunter suspected he would not.
When the moment came, he snapped his fingers and Cathal—his faithful wolf-hound—burst through the trees. He tore from the cover of the woods on anxious, loping strides, his shadows streaming across the twilit field.
The hunter leapt from his perch and slit the rope that bound him there as his body sank against the dirt. He came on wordlessly, exhausted from the long night of no sleep, but lurching on for all this. The wind reeked of sage and lavender—unexpectedly sensual.
Tonight, Isaak was going to kill his brother.
The other voices were silenced. His trail followed Cathal, followed his slobbering announcement across the ground to the specks of men huddled in the blanket of leaves. He heaved over a bank and between the trees, hair snapping back in heavy chains across his face. They came for his brother as a pack.
With the gathering dampness of the morning, his mind cleared. Purpose gave it an edge. He saw them, narrowed on them, alone among the trees, their heads twisting to the sound of his hound’s sudden baying. He could see the fear—it was a collar, and it pulled them back into the realm of the living with a sharper, simpler grace.
The girl came to her feet with tears wet on her cheeks and a bow going natural to hand. The hunter strafed out of Cathal’s path with a whistle, and the hound copied him, its bounds taking on a serpentine reproach. The other did not rush as the hunter had supposed; he drew steel and kept his ground, digging in to meet the hound’s approach. An old hand. Steady.
Only Rurik did not rise. He edged and struggled, but he seemed incapable. Feeble. Even in the washed-out light, he could spy the flecks of blood that dragged him down. So close. So close.
He could see the boy’s eyes the moment he broke the line of trees: when all other eyes had laid upon his hound, when he stepped from the trees with a blade of sunlight in his hand, the breeze crying out the vengeance no flesh could steal from him.
Some people spoke in moralities. None shone behind his father’s eyes. The longer people lived, the more chance they had to see it in all its myriad shades of grey.