Up at the top of The Tower of Brandish it smelt like oil and grease but not woodsmoke. As far as Jorvak was concerned, woodsmoke would have been a welcome change. Woodsmoke meant action, if nothing else. The great beacon lay in a pile on the stone blocks of the floor, shiny with the agent of its potential ignition, yet unlit since the tower's construction. The thick lumps and cords of kindling were changed from time to time — there was a dry store, helpfully situated eight hundred feet below in the bowels of the tower — though they had never been used. They simply lay, waiting and rotting as the world grew older, and quietly forgot about the sentinel in the furthest reaches of the West.
Jorvak chuckled to himself. In that, at least, he and the tower were kindred spirits: forgotten.
He ran calloused hands across the rough stonework of the crenellations. He had been born with a worker's hands. Soft hands were the mark of a noble, somebody who had never done a day's manual labour. His, like his father's before him, were thick and leathery and heavily veined, though he was not yet thirty. A sigh fought its way past chipped and stained teeth. He knew his breath was foul: stale and sour with wine. What did it matter up here? He hadn't seen another human in two months. His company was the wind and what few birds ventured up this far.
Watchman was supposed to be an honoured profession, highly coveted and well-paid. Historically it had been the Watchmen who had warned the fledgling Empire of danger, providing muster points for the defence of the realm. Now the Empire spanned continents. It had outgrown hundreds of famous Watchtowers, names written into history, names like Spezak, Fringe, and Elm. He and his place of work were a novelty. No more.
of years’ work, all supplies provided on a monthly basis, solace, reflection,
and comfort - a world away from the rainy, windswept battlement on Pyce Island
that had been his home as a guardsman. That role had been largely ceremonial
anyway. The actual guarding had been done for him by the mighty Melvakian navy.
What slipped past their guns tended to be too battered and damaged to threaten
anything more than an overabundance of firewood, salt-stained and tarred but still useful to warm a peasant's feet.
When the recruitment parade came to Rygat, a small fishing village on the nearby mainland, Jorvak had hired a small boat and rowed himself out to meet them. By abandoning his post, he risked death at the hands of his fellow guardsmen should he ever return, but then he had no plans to ever go back. Not ever. Instead, he had gambled that the military was too big to worry about an errant guardsman, and he had been right. The recruiters were all too happy to accept new watchmen, regardless of the background. Apparently numbers had been low these last few years. More were signing up for the King's First instead, the army that was preparing an invasion of the Kirral. Riches were to be taken, women to be captured, fortunes to be made. Jorvak had never fancied himself a great warrior but Watchman he could do. The period of employment had been increased to two years from the traditional one but what was two years for a lifetime of respect, admiration, and wealth? Okay, so the pay was less than it had been in the past but it was still more than Jorvak could have earned in two decades guarding that rancid excuse for an island.
He looked out over the flat and barren land that was his ward. It stretched for countless miles: coarse scrub and grassland dotted here and there with boggy pools of stagnant water. Endless desolation. The Western Wastes made Pyce look like paradise. From the stories, Jorvak had always thought of this place as verdant and green. Instead it was a dirty orange, almost brown in colour, as if the life had been drawn from each wilted blade of grass.
past, the Emperor’s Council had offered a substantial royalty for those willing
to map the Wastes. Cartographers and adventurers alike had accepted the
challenge and all had failed equally. What little they had learned before they
were forced to turn back was that there was simply no life, nor even a chance
at it, out there beyond civilisation. The water was poisonous and foul, there
were no animals to hunt, no fruit to pluck. It was a dead land. A land of ghosts.
Jorvak shivered against a sudden breeze. As a Watchman, he was supposed to go on ranges every now and then, patrols to check that all was in order. The thought made him cringe. Nothing could convince him to go out there. Though it was lonely, the Tower of Brandish offered some sense of security. There were no windows below a hundred feet or any doors at all. Instead everything — including watchmen — was delivered via pulley to a spit of stone that jutted out from the otherwise cylindrical structure. Jorvak had made this spot his living quarters: a bright and airy room complete with a sort-of balcony, like one a nobleman might have. He was comfortable here.
The Watchman sighed and turned back towards the narrow wooden staircase that led down to the chamber below. It was here that watchmen were expected to reflect and think deeply on their time as a defender of the realm. Unlike most people he knew, Jorvak could read. His father — a gentle apprentice smith — had made sure that his only son was going to be a ‘man of letters.’
“Words is how they rule, lad. Learn their words and you can be one of them. That’s all it is, thoughts and ink.”
He had never thanked his father for that lesson but wished he could now. Words and numbers alike had indeed given him a power over other people. He could see when the quartermaster was short-changing him whereas his friends could not; he could read letters and orders, his friends could not.
In his fantasies his ability to read and write had propelled him to the highest tier of society. In reality it had meant that when Pyce’s sole educated guardsman succumbed to salt flux, Jorvak had been ‘promoted’ to clerk. There had been no additional pay.
Jorvak stumped down the creaky wooden staircase into the highest room of the tower. Pushed to one side was a great desk of glossy ebon, topped with quill and ink and a few loose sheathes of scroll. He wandered over and picked up the inkpot. Its contents were solid, a dry and useless lump of blue-black. Good for nothing.
Maybe I should start writing something down, he thought. Anything. Watchmen were actively encouraged to record their thoughts, sightings and ponderings in a huge leather-wrapped tome resting on a stone pedestal in the corner. Jorvak wandered over to it and turned the heavy pages until he got to where he had paused in his reading.
It was an entry by the last Watchman to occupy this tower. The page was stiff and dry and crackled lightly under gentle pressure. Jorvak craned his head to read the elaborate flowing script without damaging the vellum.
Gorbal Flesmin, Watchman of Brandish, 1071-1072 in the Reign of the King, Famesson IV, God-given, Blessed Son of the Pantheon.
‘…No sightings today. I awoke at dawn and had a simple breakfast of oat porridge and some fruit. I drank water. At noontime I witnessed a strange occurrence. Upon entering the reflection chamber, I noticed two blackbirds were waiting for me. One was sitting on the windowsill flicking its head back and forth as if keeping watch. The other sat upon this very tome in which I now write. If I did not know better I would say that it looked like he was reading. I shooed them away and they did indeed retreat, yet not in the fluttery panic I am accustomed to. They seemed reluctant and were wholly unafraid of me…'
Jorvak laughed. Some said that a year in a Watchtower was enough to send you mad. It seemed that Gorbal had started to crack under the weight of loneliness and responsibility. He read on.
‘…They came twice today, or at least there were two of them — one in the morning and one in the evening. Very tall and very thin-looking, in long robes of black. They were at a distance so I could not make out features, but they were there, standing like scarecrows in the middle of the Wastes. They were too far to hail so I lit a signal fire in the lowest window — it would be irresponsible to do so anywhere near the beacon, lest I started a panic. There was no reaction from either. Just silence and stillness.
‘I would be lying if I said I was not unnerved…'
Jorvak swallowed. Gorbal really was mad, then. The watchman didn’t know what he found more frightening, the fact that he was only months into a two-year watch or the thought of his predecessor’s phantoms.
He closed the tome with a thud, turning his neck slowly to peer out of the arrow-shaped window at the grassland beyond.
Jorvak chuckled to himself. What had he been expecting?
Making sure that the hatch to the beacon platform was secure against the elements, the Watchman began the long trudge down to his living quarters. It took him around ten minutes, but that was only because he was not hurrying. After all, h did not exactly have any reason to hurry.
Once in his modest room, he sat on his cot and pulled a bottle of wine from beneath the bed. It was a sour red he had started this morning and it burned his throat as he drank. He smacked his lips and leant back, resting his head and shoulders against the cool stone wall behind him.
Dinner would be the salted beef that was beginning to turn and an oatcake or two. After that he would drink until he passed out. It was the only way to get to sleep any more.
Watchmen were supposed to work in pairs so that they could keep a constant guard. More recently the Empire had resorted to posting single watchmen, advising them to keep irregular sleep patterns so that they were less likely to be surprised. Jorvak tipped back more wine. He could see across the Wastes for miles. Nothing would be able to get close without him noticing.
A nagging doubt clawed at his stomach. What about Gorbal’s watchers? He leaned forward on his bed and craned his neck to look towards the dun horizon.
And dropped his bottle.
The glass smashed on impact with the cold stone floor, spreading wine in a dark pool that looked too much like blood. Jorvak cursed and leaped to his feet to avoid the splashes. Inspecting his trews he saw that he had not been quick enough: several small spots of claret had already stained the wool.
The Watchman looked to the heavens in despair and froze. Slowly he looked back down and straight ahead out of the window.
A few hundred yards away, upon a grassy knoll that poked out from the tundra like a tuft of hair, stood a tall figure in a black cloak.
Jorvak whimpered and scuttled backwards, slipping in the puddle of wine in his haste. He fell with a crash, bruising his elbows on the floor as he broke his fall. Ignoring the pain he scrambled to his feet and crawled on hands and knees towards the low opening in the stone. Keeping below the lip of the window, he reached up with both hands and slowly poked his head over the edge.
A few hundred yards away, upon a grassy knoll that poked out from the tundra like a tuft of hair, was a small tree, weighed down by two blackbirds. If one was to look quickly at the scene with the corner of their eye, they might just be able to make out the form of a man. That is, if their mind was playing tricks on them.
Jorvak swore again and stood to his full height, rubbing his elbows now that they had started to throb. What’s happening to me? he thought.
He cleaned up the mess and, with one last look at the phantom mirage, went to bed. He decided that he was going to order some ink the next time Rycelle came with supplies. It was about time he started writing things down.
He awoke with a start. Something had roused him but he was not sure what. His mouth was dry and his tongue promised to cleave to the roof of his mouth if he did not get some water soon.
He stood too fast, sitting back down in a pile as a great rush of pain punched him behind the eyes. Had he really drunk that much? Jorvak blinked and rubbed his temples. A pale pink stain decorated the flagstones next to his bed. That had been a good vintage, as well. It did not matter; he had plenty more.
“Enjoy it, my friend.” He said aloud to the floor. He laughed and stood more slowly this time, stretching and arching his back like a cat in the sun.
still the false dawn — that grey brightness that wakes the foolish before the
sun is truly ready to ascend. That suits, thought Jorvak. If anything, I am certainly a fool. A hungry fool.
his way to the larder down in the basement. He cut a hunk of smoked cheese from
the huge wheel on the table and ripped some bread from a crusty loaf. Stuffing
a wadding of bread in his mouth he made his way back to his bed.
A piercing whistle broke his morning reverie, freezing him in his tracks. He stood for several moments before he realised that his mouth was wide open, a paste of cheese and bread threatening to fall out on to the floor. He swallowed quickly.
Putting his plate on the floor Jorvak ran back to his quarters and leaned out the window, straining so far forward that he had to steady himself in case he fell forward and out to the rock foundation below.
The Wastes were gone, or rather they were obscured by a mass of black-clad figures. Most wore long flowing robes that concealed their figures but Jorvak could make out the cruel edges of angular armour poking out from beneath the folds of a few. The whole land was a sea of activity as the army of phantoms marched past the Tower of Brandish without so much as an upward glance. Jorvak grabbed the wall for support and leaned over the edge to stare directly down at the base of the tower. The black-robed warriors were breaking around the massif that formed the tower’s foundation like water against rock. Nobody was attempting to climb or assault it.
A strange anger took flame in Jorvak’s gut, tempering his terror. Who was this arrogant enemy? As far as the eye could see they marched towards the territory of the Empire. Jorvak’s home.
The beacon! he thought with a start. He had to warn the Empire.
Jorvak broke into a run, stumbling awkwardly up the ancient wooden steps. Quickly he was out of breath but he struggled on, bending low to drag himself along with his arms whilst he was running, like some great ape from the Heatlands. After what seemed like an age he broke into the topmost room of the tower, not noticing the great volume of watchmen’s wisdom that lay open on its pedestal.
Taking the steps two at a time he rammed the hatch open with his shoulder, causing the wood to splinter as it slammed on to the stone rooftop. He emerged into bright sunlight and turned towards the beacon.
They were already waiting for him.
They had their backs to him, three great pillars of milky white flesh, their heavily muscled arms encased in black metal, giving way to long and cruel fingers, thin yet promising terrible strength. Each wore a strange cloak of black leather… no.
Jorvak gasped involuntarily as he realised what he was looking at. Each of these monstrous men bore a pair of thick veined wings, sprouting from their broad backs on great frames of bone. Every now and again the tips would twitch and stir as if imbued with a life of their own, restless for flight.
As one the three winged men turned, noticing Jorvak for the first time. Their faces were long and gaunt, with pointed chins, separated from the rest of their angular faces by thin purplish lips, less like mouths than crude gashes. Spilling over the lips of each were two pearly white fangs, long and sharp.
The Watchman stood frozen in terror. These were no men. These were creatures of lore, of nightmare. His mother had scared him as a babe in arms with tales of such beasts, foes of mankind since the beginning of time. Never in his most torturous dreams had he imagined that what stood before him now was anything more than a story.
Jorvak knew then that he would fail. They were between him and the beacon — his only duty. He could not even run and deliver his warning in person. The Tower was surrounded by monsters such as this, and even if he could get down to the ground, his flight would produce nothing more than good sport for his pursuers.
The fanged demon in the middle took a step towards him and Jorvak felt its piercing gaze strike him like an arrow.
“You shall be our message,” it said. Its voice was hollow and distant yet Jorvak did not know if his fear lent the words their alien quality or if it was simply how the creature spoke. “You shall carry the word of our coming to the realms of men. You shall be our agent of dread.”
Jorvak nearly fainted. He swallowed and tried to sound brave yet what came out could not have snuffed a candle. “Y-y-you m-mean to l-let me live?” he whimpered.
The thing before him grinned then, with all of its wicked teeth, and Jorvak breathed in the heady scent of death. “That is not what was said.”
Its hand shot out and suddenly Jorvak was falling, tumbling end over end. Stone, sky, earth, stone, sky. As he fell he felt very tired and his thoughts lost all cohesion.
He could not feel his arms or legs.
And for all the world he could swear that he had seen his own headless body still standing on the roof as he fell.