The day’s last light was fading and a dead man was hanging from the mill’s wheel.
“That’ll be him then,” said Glump as he dismounted his fleetsteed. “Nice waste of time this has been.”
Kilean couldn’t help but agree. They were saddle sore, empty bellied and he was tired of looking over his shoulder for Runehawk men. He knew they were being watched but why they hadn’t been set upon yet was beyond any energy he had left. Even a ruined mill might have offered a few hours’ worth of rest but the dead man meant there could be no rest now. They would ride back to Boterial, if they made it that far, and the warlocks would give them more names so that everything would begin again.
Wilf Brownsea had been a big man once but the crows had long since pecked the fat from his bones. All that remained to mark him out as the underknight he had once been was the patch over his left eye socket. Kilean remembered Brownsea lifting that patch when they were lost in the Red Desert of Qaro Dulx. There had been three of them; Kilean, Brownsea and Arnther Astagale.
“A fucking Grelghend pikeman swiped it out at the Battle of Breakhart Hollow,” Brownsea had told him. Beneath the patch, Kilean saw wrinkled scar tissue. He was eighteen then and though Brownsea was barely thirty he seemed ancient to him, ancient and terrifying. Arnther wasn’t much older and even he seemed to be made of something hard, something unbreakable. Kilean wanted to be made of granite, that was what a Wroot man should be made of. A Wroot man should be harder and more unbreakable than any other man because the granite was in his bones, blood and soul. That’s what Kilean’s father had always said.
“You’re scaring the shit out of the poor boy,” Arnther had laughed. “If he pisses himself make sure you have a cup ready to catch it, I’m parched.”
Brownsea had laughed then and lowered his patch. He had whispered something under his breath that Kilean hadn’t quite heard but might have been Wroot Whelp. Neither Brownsea nor Anther were fond of Eastellanders, they’d made sure he knew that on the voyage out of Mezzid.
“We didn’t ask for an Eastman,” Arnther had told him. “Eastmen bring nothing but storms with them on a voyage.”
But the desert had taken the three of them without caring whether they were Eastmen, Southswayers, Westerborns or Lacks. It swallowed them for five days and when at last they reached the glistening ivory city of Etevellum, Kilean felt somehow firmer, more unbreakable than when he’d left Wallvale. The scorched desert, the thirst and the near madness of sweltering heat, they had combined to make the granite flow through him. He felt too that he had never known any men as well as Brownsea and Arnther.
That was all many years ago now. Arnther was a headless usurper and what was left of Brownsea dangled from the wheel of the mill he had always wanted to retire to.
“I’m a miller’s son. I never meant to get myself knighted,” he had told Kilean on their fourth day in the Red Desert. “I need to get me back to a mill before I die.”
At least he had his wish, Kilean thought as he dismounted Gunner and followed Glump up the grass claimed path to the mill.
The river Whisper, a calm trickle of an offshoot of the Harkstone, ran beside the mill. It had been a good place once. Kilean imagined the wheel turning when the Whisper was full and though most of the mill had been pulled down he could still see vines clinging to what remained of the walls. It must have been a fine place.
“Should we cut him down?” asked Glump, drawing his blade but Kilean was already shaking his head. He glanced back west to where the Whisper vanished into woodland. They were out there somewhere. He wondered which of the Runehawks were following him. Kilean had heard that Swithen and Gregry, the king of Eastelland’s eldest sons, were riding west of the river Harkaway. It was also said that the brothers had crossed the Low Skurrets and were harrying the remnants of Cryspin’s northern army, pushing them into the path of a Grelghend army that were waiting deep in the Lack Lowlands. There were so many Runehawks that wanted Kilean dead these days. There was Bald Gregry, the King’s cousin and Round Rodmar Runehawk too. There were the Carentol lordlings, Randel, Orian and Ostmund. Even his own cousin, Tophias Wroot was hunting for him but Kilean couldn’t blame his cousin for that; Tophias had married a Fezeck Runehawk and his children were wards to Prince Lorense Runehawk in Castle Cort. Better slay your kin than have your kin slayed. No, it would be Peers Runehawk who would come for them. These lands, the plains that folk still called Imilrin’s Fields, had been ravaged over the past year by Peers and his band of mercenaries. Harlequins they called themselves and each of them carried shields displaying a chequered hawk, shields weathered by Southern blood. Kilean spat into the River Whisper. Let Peers try to take him, he always liked a good fight after a long ride no matter how sore his arse was.
“Leave him to rot,” Kilean told Glump. “It’s getting dark. Let’s have some sleep and wait for the bastards to find us.”
Glump smiled. Kilean saw the runt’s new white teeth. No, he reminded himself, he’s not a runt anymore, he’s a knight now.
“Tie the horses up and find us some dinner,” Kilean commanded. “I’m in need of a piss.”
He ducked through the doorway and into what was left of the mill. The door itself had long since been ripped from its hinges. Someone had lit a fire not too many days ago in the mill and there were bits of wood scattered about the ash blackened floor that might have once been a door. The roof was gone and the stairs led to nowhere. A rocking chair was pulled up to the hearth. The chimney had fared better than the rest of the mill. That was good, Glump might get them a fire lit after all. Let the smoke draw the bastards to us, thought Kilean. He walked through the ruins in the vain hope of finding a privy but if there ever was one it was lost beneath brick and beams. Tired of holding his piss in, he took off his armour and pulled down his breeches and pissed into a kettle. It was a long piss and soon overflowed the kettle onto the red tiled floor. Red tiles, red deserts. As he watched his piss clean the tiles he remembered standing in one of Etevellum’s high towers and looking out over the Red Desert. The warashahs were singing in the cloisters and the darwain’s best cooks were stewing lamb with spices that Kilean had never heard of. Even now he could remember those smells as they wafted up from the kitchens. They had been given a strange green wine that tasted of lemons. Arnther was off making his bargains with the darwain but Brownsea hadn’t been needed and so stood beside Kilean, biding his time until one of the darwain’s stewards came to show him the way to the whores he had been promised. Both men said nothing for a long time. They sipped the sweet citrusy wine and watched the red sun sink into the red desert. The world was on fire.
“They won’t give us it even if they have it,” Brownsea said when the crimson dusk had seeped away and the sky was black. A drum was beating somewhere and a woman was singing, high pitched and strange.
“And what will happen then?” Kilean asked.
Brownsea had put a rough hand on Kilean’s shoulder then and grinned. “Then we’ll go home and we’ll tell Estinian we’re done searching for a myth.”
Kilean laughed with his friend and though he knew that Brownsea was jesting he also wondered who would tell Estinian that the thing he craved most was a myth. Who could tell a king a truth like that?
It was the same now. He had wanted to tell Todwyn he was being a fool. He had told him so before many times. Kilean didn’t care that Todwyn was a king, he could still tell him the hard truths. But Todwyn’s eyes had been so wild and he was so certain. The plague was shimmering in the white of his pupil.
“Find it for me,” Todwyn had begged him, his words slurred with the weight of the gold in his tongue. “Find it and I’ll never ask another thing of you. Find it for me Kilean, you’re my only true friend.”
Todwyn had cried then. In all the years they had been friends, Kilean had never seen Todwyn shed a single tear and yet that day he blubbered like a baby. Kilean could tell no truths while his king cried. While his friend cried.
And so Kilean had come to a mill in search of a myth and the only man who might have known the truth of that myth was hanging from a wheel. Soon the Runehawks would come for them and he would give Blackheart a feed. He couldn’t be certain if he would survive this day but he was certain that he wouldn’t find what Todwyn craved.
His stream of piss dribbled to a stop. When he came back to the hearth, Glump was starting on a fire. Two rabbits were draped over the rocking chair.
“Never seen so many rabbits,” said Glump as he blew on the flames and the fire started to catch. “Reckon we’ll have time to eat?”
“Will we have time, my Lord?” Kilean corrected him. “Not reckon, reckon is for your pigs and your pigs are dead. Let your words die too.”
Glump said nothing. It was unfair to remind him that his pigs were dead but the boy needed to shake off his old way of speaking if he truly wanted to be a knight. Yes, Todwyn had tapped a sword against the boy’s forehead but the boy had to know that wasn’t the end of things. A knight’s training never truly stopped. Harsh truths were a part of that. The pigs were dead, the boy had to get used to that and the only way he’d get used to it was if Kilean never let him forget.
“They were old,” Glump said as he stood. “They went a better way than Trotter.”
“Aye,” was all Kilean said. He would never let the boy know but he had grown fond of the pigs. They had been called Crackling and Bacon but Kilean had renamed them Farter and Pisser. By their end he would bring them roast pigeon pie from the kitchens every night. Glump never knew that. Glump would never know that. It was strange how they’d died. Yes they were old but to just curl up at the foot of Glump’s bed like that and go to sleep, both of them, it was something Kilean had never seen. Glump had been too upset to bury them and so Kilean had carried them, first Farter and then Pisser, out into the Quadrangle. The groundskeeper had complained when Kilean began digging beneath the apple trees but Kilean ignored him. It was a good place for them to be buried. They loved apples. He put a stone on each of their graves and said the words a stoneholer would say; Stone you once were and Stone you will be again. He put two guards on the quadrangle for the next week to make sure no one dug them up but he needn’t have worried. Every underknight, road arl, servant, aspect and Doctor in the Black Arsenal must have come to pay their respects so that soon the graves were covered in hard biscuits, loaves of bread, all kinds of fruit and even fresh flowers. Before they’d left for Boterial, Glump had paid a carpenter to carve two pigs to mark the graves. Sometimes Kilean would hear the boy say their names as he slept; Crackling and Bacon, not Farter and Pisser.
Glump butchered and fried the rabbits with some wild garlic and a little wine so they at least ate a good meal. They had a skin of Woldean ale left each so they drank too. Glump fell asleep first. Kilean tried to stay awake but the harder he fought sleep the more his eyes grew heavy. He stared into the fire and as sleep over took him he saw shapes dance in the flames; a crown breaking, a bird of some kind falling to be consumed by the fire, a sword breaking, shadows moving. He was seeing the shadows all the time of late. They were in his dreams, they were just out of the corner of his eye, they were in unlit corridors waiting for him, they were following him on every road, they were out there. He had seen them first when a blow from the Nobody Knight’s war hammer had sent him into a fever dream yet they hadn’t merely been a dream. They were real. Every day he tried to chase away that thought but it was folly. They were as real as the phantom of his brother. They were as real as the Mist that men were seeing everywhere now, the Mist that seemed to fall from nowhere and move from village to village as if it were alive, taking any poor souls who it found be they men, women or sleeping babes. The Doctors were calling it the Unbidden but most just called it for what it was; the Mist. Neither Doctors nor poor men nor stoneholer prophet could say what the Mist was or where it was coming from. No one but Todwyn.
“The mist, it comes from the west,” the High King of the Arqary told Kilean. It was the day the king had awoken from another month of sleep. Kilean might have taken Todwyn’s words for lingering delirium or the constant and worsening rigours of the Golden Plague, but Todwyn couldn’t possibly have known about the Mist. Kilean had said nothing to him of the Mist, never told him that he had wandered through it. And yet when Todwyn woke he knew of it and claimed to know how to stop it.
“My cousin was right about the Orren,” Todwyn had told him when they were alone. “Estinian might have been a bad king but his warlocks had it right. The Orren, Kilean, we must find it.”
And that was Todwyn’s answer to the Mist and maybe to the Shadows that haunted Kilean’s waking and sleeping hours too. Find the Orren. Bring it to Boterial. Do what no man had ever done; make a myth real. Todwyn’s warlocks, the three pale Pelavos brothers, had given Kilean the names. First there had been a Yarch priest called Kestor who the warlocks said could be found in the Trully Hills far to the north. So Kilean and Glump had searched for the priest and found his body in a brothel in Catterast. Then there was Lady Morabelle Felbrigg who had not been seen by her husband or children for ten years. The Felbriggs said she had gone into the Alder Forest and they were right. Kilean and Glump found her sleeping beneath an ancient oak. They could not wake her from that sleep. In her hand was a vial of anasta syrup, the Last Sip. The wars began then and Cryspin, the fool, began killing Runehawks wherever he found them. Still Kilean and Glump journeyed from realm to realm in search of the names on the warlocks’ list but all they found were the dead.
“One of these names will lead you to the Orren,” said the palest of the three brothers, Timil.
“One name is all I need,” Kilean had told them. He could hardly look at the sickly brothers; their skin was taut and bone white, their eyes red without an eyelash between them, their noses sharp and long with slits for nostrils. Their hair was blood red, an unnatural colour, and they wore loose white smocks that hung from their bone poking frames.
“The name is there,” Caranmir had said. “We have done all we can.”
Kilean had turned to the brothers then. Todwyn was sleeping and Cryspin was hardly listening, just standing beside the open window looking down to the quiet predawn streets of Boterial. The three brothers held Kilean’s gaze. They were challenging him to question their magic, he could feel it. They wanted him to doubt them. And what then? What if had told them he doubted their magic, told them he thought it was as much a myth as the Orren? Would they show him how real their magic was? He had heard too many stories, no matter how fanciful they might have been, about the torture a warlock’s words could induce. And he had seen evidence something that other might have called magic from the warlock on the Durrendown Fields. Now is uncertain, the Future is lost in Mist. The warlock had spoken those words to Kilean amongst that field of the butchered and then he had vanished. Into mist. Into shadow.
Kilean shook his head and took the parchment from Seleho.
“One name,” Kilean said begrudgingly and the brothers had smiled their thin lipped smiles as one.
Now there was only one name left and the man who went by that name was hanging from a wheel waiting for the crows to return and finish their meal.
Sleep eventually defeated Kilean but as always the shadows followed him into his dreams. She became a shadow. She was always a shadow. Every night he would see the shadows coming for him and there amongst them would be Her. And Gwen, his brother Yewen’s young wife, was there too, her hand in Yewen’s. Sometimes his father and mother would be shadows. Sometimes even his dead sister Beth too. He knew that one day soon he would dream a shadow of Todwyn and on that day he would need no letters to tell him his King was dead.
Glump woke calling for Crackling. He was about to call for Bacon too when he remembered both pigs were dead. He was sure he had heard them grunting but then he had woken the same way many nights before. Once he had even woken and stroked what he thought was Crackling’s plump belly. Only when the whore asked him if he wanted to go again did he remember that Crackling was buried beneath an apple tree. That was why he had gone to the whore. He drank and drank and fucked but still he couldn’t shake the grief away.
It took him a moment to remember where he was. The fire in the hearth had died down and looking up he could see the stars where the roof should have been. I am in the mill, he thought, and the miller is dead.
In the haze of waking he was almost relieved that it was all over. He almost kidded himself that they were going home to Wallvale, that he could put fresh flowers on the graves of his pigs. No, Kilean had told him the truth as they rode.
“We’ll go back to Boterial,” his Lord had told him flatly. “They’ll give us more names. This won’t end until Todwyn is dead.”
Glump had noticed the look Kilean gave him then. It was the look Kilean always gave him when he mentioned a king. That was Glump’s fault, he should never have told his Lord about his dream. Kilean had asked him time and again which king he would kill but Glump knew better than to tell him.
“If I tell you then most likely you won’t kill no one and that’ll mean my dreams aren’t worth shit,” Glump told him. Let the dreams be, Glump wanted to tell him, let them live in the waking.
He could hear the river’s soft murmuring, its whispering flow near drowned out by Kilean’s snores. Does his head throb like mine, he wondered. The Woldean ale had been a strong brew, strong enough to make both men forget that they were being hunted and sleep when one of them should have been watching the road. Staring into the darkness, Glump wondered if the Runehawks were out there now. It would be as much a relief as seeing Brownsea hanging from his wheel. Glump had only ever killed one knight and that was when he was a runt. He was a knight himself now and no one could call him a runt without it meaning their end. He ran a hand across his naked chest and felt his hard muscles, then down his arms and to his hands. He was all muscle. He had sweated, bled and been battered to a pulp in the swordmaster’s yard and his body had changed beyond recognition from the boy who had ridden into Wallvale on a dead man’s horse. If the Runehawks came now then he would double his tally of dead knights.
“You’ll die,” said a voice from the darkness.
Glump tried to reach for his sword but nothing happened. He was frozen.
“I’m not here to kill you,” said the voice. Glump strained his eyes to see who was speaking but there was only darkness.
“Who are you?” Glump asked.
Kilean snored heavier. Someone moved off to Glump’s left but then the voice came from his right.
“Some might call me a warlock,” answered the voice.
Glump tried again to stretch out his arm but the more he tried the more his arm seemed to lock and refuse to budge.
“There are only three warlocks,” Glump said.
“Four,” answered the voice.
Glump gave up struggling. If the voice was truly a warlock’s then there was no good trying to fight his magic.
“Are you a Runehawk?” Glump asked.
The voice laughed and this time it seemed to come from behind him though there was only a wall there.
“I am a Nobody,” said the voice. “You have known Nobodies before, Glump Branch.”
“I’ve killed a Nobody before,” Glump answered trying to sound unafraid of the hold the warlock had over him.
For a moment there was only Kilean’s rumbling snores and the distant cry of a fox.
“Are you there?” asked Glump when the silence became too much.
“Aye,” answered the voice. “I was remembering something.”
Glump tried to follow the sound of the voice but it seemed that the darkness only deepened. “Why are you here?”
“To give you a message, runt.”
“Don’t call me that.”
The warlock laughed. “Your lord calls you it, why not I?”
“Because I’m a knight now.”
Again the warlock laughed. “You know who you are, Glump Pigson. You’re a murderer that’s all. Have you told your Lord about your other dreams?”
He can’t know that, thought Glump, even a warlock can’t see into a man’s mind. He had told no one of those dreams.
“What’s your message?” Glump asked, ignoring the warlock’s goading.
The warlock sighed within the darkness.
“Very well. My message for you and your Lord is that in the morning the Runehawks will come for you. If you fight them you will both die. If you lay down your arms they will take you to Carentol and there you will find what your king craves.”
“The Orren? Is it real then?”
Again the warlock laughed. “If that is what your king craves then that is what you will find.”
Glump tried to move again though he knew it would be useless. “Who are you?”
“Don’t you know that, Glump Runt?” whispered the warlock and as he spoke a gust of wind blew through the mill and the expunged fire in the hearth came suddenly to life, chasing the darkness away. “Do you see me now, Glump Pigbrother,” came the voice, this time from Glump’s left. He turned to the voice, released from whatever spell the warlock had cast on him and there stood the miller, Wilf Brownsea, not crow pecked and fleshless but Brownsea as he had looked before the noose went about his neck.
“You’re dead,” Glump said but even as he spoke he felt the chains of sorcery that held him loosen. He reached for his sword and leapt forward towards the spectre.
“We all die, Glump Mistbane,” said Brownsea. Before Glump could raise his blade the fire flickered and Brownsea or the warlock or whatever had stood before him was gone.
For the rest of the night Glump resisted the urge to sleep and made sure the fire didn’t die. In the morning the Runehawks came for them.
The warlock followed the river into the woods until it rose into the hills. He rested by a fallen ash and ate dried fruit and drank some of the milk he had left. He watched a kestrel hovering above the treeline before it dived and vanished into the woods. When the kestrel reappeared something small and dead dangled from its talons. The warlock climbed the hill called Never’s Peak. When he reached the top of the hill he knelt beside the ancient cairn. He took a fragment of granite from the pouch he had taken from the stoneholer hermit and laid it atop the cairn. He tried to remember the last time he had visited the cairn. It must have been before his father was killed, before his mother was dead. Yes, that was it. He had come with Clem and Theggen in the winter. It was the bad winter when the snows stifled spring and it had taken them two days to walk home so when their mother saw them she burst into tears and when her tears were spent she beat them. Clem and Theggen had left the village when the snows finally melted and that was the last he ever saw of them. Time swallowed them all.
The warlock ate more dried fruit and watched the men riding out of the woods towards the ruined mill. The Realm Knight and the pigboy came out of the mill and to the warlock’s relief he saw that their blades were sheathed. The pigboy had listened to him. That was good. It was always better to talk to men like the pigboy rather than men like the Realm Knight. Men like the pigboy always listened whereas men like the Realm Knight only ever listened to their own memories, to their guilt and regrets. The pigboy had memories just the same as any other men, but he had dreams too and there were not many left who still had dreams.
The Runehawks stopped on the road below the mill. Most of the Ruehawks wore plain armour and halfhelms. They carried shields baring a black hawk on a chequered field. The knight leading them wore richer armour of old Bonmazzel steel that seemed to suck in the new morning sun and his shield displayed a silver hawk on a red field. The warlock knew the knight well. His name was Prince Peers Runehawk. The warlock had heard some drunks in an inn in Carentol tell how Peers had lost three of his five sons to the war. One of the drunks said it was the Realm Knight and the pigboy who had killed the youngest of those sons but the warlock knew that was a lie. The warlock doubted very much if Peers knew that.
Peers dismounted his fleetsteed and without drawing his sword he called something up to the Realm Knight and the pigboy.
The warlock watched as the two sides exchanged words. The exchange went on for a long time but the warlock didn’t doubt what the outcome would be. The pigboy had listened to him. At last Peers called for four of his men and the Realm Knight and pigboy unbuckled their sword belts and laid down their weapons. The Runehawk men bound the Realm Knight and piboy’s hands while their horses were brought to them. As the Realm Knight passed Peers, the Runehawk prince leaned in towards him and whispered something but the Realm Knight resisted reacting.
Peers was the last to mount his fleetsteed. As the Realm Knight and the pigboy were helped onto their horses, Peers walked up to the mill and stood beneath the wheel. The crows were already pecking at what meat remained of the dead man. Peers watched as the crows feasted and when he’d had his fill of watching he turned and made his way back down to the road. Again he said something to the Realm Knight and again the Realm Knight resisted responding or even looking down to the prince.
When the last Runehawk knight had vanished into the woods, the warlock ate some more dried fruit and waited for the Mist.
It was noon before the Mist crossed the Whisper and dusk before it had climbed Never’s Peak.
“Stop,” said the warlock as the Mist crept closer to him. At his word the greenish mist came to a stop.
The warlock drew a knife from beneath his cloak. “Who is here?”
Something sighed within the Mist.
“We,” answered a voice that seemed to be composed of not one but hundreds of voices.
The warlock raised his knife and passed it slowly through the Mist. “What do you have for me?”
Where the knife and Mist met the green fog darkened until it became black. The sighing increased. Something began to move within the Mist. At first it was only a shapeless shadow but as the warlock moved closer towards the black wound it took shape and became a hand. The hand reached out of the wound. The warlock knew what the hand wanted. He bowed his head closer to it and prepared his body for what was to come. The shadow hand gently stroked his face and as the shadow fingers touched his skin, the warlock felt every part of his body begging him to pull away. He tensed his muscles and forced himself to stay still as the fingers reached his chin. When the hand finally moved away his stomach lurched and he felt sure he would vomit. He pushed the sickness away and closed his eyes. The sighing turned to moans and the moans to whimpers and then there was nothing. When he opened his eyes the Mist was gone and he knew what had to be done.
When the warlock slept that night he dreamed he was a kestrel. His beak tore at meat but no matter how much he gorged himself it was never enough to satisfy his hunger so he took flight above the woods and followed the winding River Whisper until it met the Harkstone. He flew north and west and over mountains. He saw the Mist then. It came from across the sea like a storm and when it touched land it swallowed villages, castles, forests, plains, valleys, lakes and cities until all of the Realms were consumed. He circled above the Mist and heard its familiar sighing. It was still hungry. It began to grow and spread beyond the great isle. It feasted upon the tundra of the north, the lost lands of the east, the deserts of the far south and the thousand isles of the west. Only when the world was covered by the Mist did the sighs quieten. He flew and flew but soon he became tired, his wings weak and his stomach still begging him for more scraps of mouse. Below him, within the Mist, shadows waited with hands reaching out for him. He tried to keep flying, hoping that in some part of the world there was a spec of land forgotten by the Mist but he was wrong. There was only the green Mist and the shadows within it. Soon the beating of his wings slowed. His body was heavy. He was falling and as he fell he wondered if he would wake before the shadows took him or if this was his punishment. If it was his punishment then he would accept it. He would plummet into the arms of the shadows and take that path. He had only ever done what was asked of him. He woke.