He awoke to bitter complaints from head and belly. It was dark and cool, he lay on a stone floor, on old mouldy straw. When he sat up darkness crowded his vision and his belly lurched a warning. He fell back, his head hit the stone floor a little too hard and when he opened his eyes again he saw double.
“Wake up, Woodsman,” two girls said, standing over him with a candle.
“Twins,” he muttered.
“What?” she asked. His vision resolved itself and he blinked at her candlelit form.
“Where am I?” he asked, his tongue thick, mouth sour, and voice gravelly. He wanted to sit up but decided he wasn’t quite ready to.
“You’re in the cellar,” she said. “Don’t you remember?” The pain in her eyes was enough of a reminder, memories toppled over one another. That explained his loose britches.
“Yes,” he said and attempted to smile at her as he laced himself up. “Is the sun in the sky?”
“Dawned a short time ago,” she said, setting the candle down and kneeling beside him. “The guardsmen woke, did you hear them?”
He sat up, shook his head and regretted it. He squeezed his eyes shut and held still a moment, trying to stop the world from spinning so.
“They took Sisila,” her voice cracked when she said it and she lowered her face. His eyes snapped open and he stared at her.
“The dark-haired one?” he asked. “The one who-?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I tried to stop them, but...” Her hands clutched at her skirt, white-knuckled, and she kept her face turned away so that he could not see her tears. The wound in his heart seemed to widen. He moved toward her and she threw herself into his arms, holding on with the strength of her fear and crying silently into his chest.
“She only slapped him,” she said through her sobs. “They dragged her out by her hair. When I tried to stop them he took his knife to my belly asked if I wanted ever wanted to have babies. I thought he was going to kill me, oh Dreamer help us!”
“I should have killed them,” he thought aloud. Guilt and anger warred with nausea and the aching in his brain. She pulled away, settling her sobs and wiping her face.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring hard eyed at him. “Why did you stand up to them?”
“If I had done nothing,” he said. “They would have done the same to her but sooner. If I had done nothing I would have been no better than they. Does a man’s honour count for nothing in this land?”
She laughed sadly and bit her lip. “Honour,” she said. “No man knows what that is. They have frightened it out of us.”
“They are a disgrace to their company,” he said. “How can they claim to be Queen’s Men, Red Talons, and forget their purpose is to protect the people?”
“Protect us!” she said, getting to her feet and smoothing her skirts. “The only protection we need is from them! They drink our ale and leave no coin, abuse my sisters, destroy the fields with their horsemanship, they rape and pillage and walk around as if the Gods were their servants. I don’t remember a time when they did any less. If they hadn’t killed the woods witches they’d have something to fear.”
“Woods witches?” he frowned and found his feet. “Magic is-,”
“No more against the law than what the lawmen do themselves,” she snarled.
“But it wasn’t always like this,” he insisted. “When Tanis Atholine was King’s Blade-,”
“Bosh!” she cried. “Whatever you’ve heard of him is midden, he did nothing for us, and his King did even less. He may as well have been Shen’nung for all the good he did.” Her words struck him a deep blow, not only for the insult to his family name but for the echo they were of Rora’s words. He had not listened to Rora when she had spoken such words, and only evil had come of it. But he could not comprehend the trouble that the people faced, the fear they had of guardsmen. He had only ever known the protection of the guardsmen and the castle. Growing up within those heavy stone walls, he had no fear of hunger or theft. He was not a noble but he was as deluded as they. His father had been Captain of the Guard, the King’s-Own-Blade and a war hero, a man that could do no wrong. And if he was in charge of the guard, then they could do no wrong, as well. A boy’s love of his father makes him blind. He remembered the look he would catch sometimes in his father’s eye, it was a sadness that had always made him think of his mother. But it wasn’t sadness in his father’s eye, it was fear. Fear of the men he trained turning to rot. Fear that no matter how hard he tried, there would always be a guardsman somewhere abusing his power. And his son, sheltered and naive, had taken his place with pride when he should have been shamed.
“Gods,” he sighed, leaning against the wall.
“You were one of them,” she said softly. He looked at her in the flickering candlelight. Her face was flushed, the scar stood out white, her big eyes were hard and sad, but not blue, as he had thought. They were steel.
“Yes,” he said, balling his fist and holding it up against his chest in the Andresei salute. Her expression became a sneer and her hand snapped out to slap him.
“Curse you,” she snarled. “And your brothers.” She spit in his face, shaking with rage. “I should have left you upstairs to rot. Father always said I was too kind. If I hadn’t been so worried about you maybe Sissy would still be here.”
He could have defended himself, but in a way he felt he deserved it.
“Get out, you filthy, lying wretch!” He could stand the slaps and her harsh words, but it was the pain in her eyes that moved him. The pain of betrayal. He wiped the spit off his face and moved up the stairs. He wanted to apologize, he wanted to explain, but he knew it would do no good. He had seen that look in a woman’s eyes before, it was a pain too deep to heal with words.
She cursed him all the way up the stairs. The common room was empty, but for a few of the serving girls sitting round the fire with downcast faces, they looked up as he moved toward the door, followed by her scorn and curses, but did nothing. The sun had been up perhaps an hour, the day seemed calm, sky clear, snow settled.
He turned back to look at her as he opened the door and she was silent, jaw clenched. He stepped out of the roadhouse, and caught the first of her sobs as he shut the door behind him. Her keening followed him down the path until he reached the High road.
The sunlight off the snow was blinding, but the closer to the city he got the less snow there was on the ground. The High road itself, made from massive slabs of stone, was dry and clear of snow.
It was not really he who had hurt the girl, it was the guardsmen, but he couldn’t help feel a further tearing of the wound in his heart. He fought against it, tried to focus on the sunlight and the fresh air. The gods did good works as well, they were not just trying to destroy him. Though his pounding head and uneasy belly told him otherwise.
He found out just how they had hurt Sisila as he came upon the city gates. They had hung her corpse by the neck on the wall, just outside the gate. Her naked body was white, mottled with dark bruises and dried blood.
The guards were not particularly interested in the people parading past them, and as such he managed to enter the city with relative ease. Once he was through he found a spot to lean and empty his belly.
Within the walls, the city of Andrese sprawled for two leagues. The High road directed traffic to the centre of town, to the Merchant’s Quarter where the money flowed and the buildings were full of colour and beauty and well kept. The large slabs of stone became red clay cobbles, which in the market district were flat and even and always clear of grass. Aligned with the main gates and the market district the King’s Road carried on, this of massive slabs of red slate, up the High Tor to the palace of Andrese. The palace itself seemed carved out of that tor and it towered over the city with the ocean waves crashing against it like thunder. On the lee side of the road, far from the stink of the ocean and the poor quarter were the rich houses of those nobles in the King’s favour; they were called Ur’magur, and so this Quarter was named after them. These were large houses, almost palaces, strong and beautiful. The Ur’magur Quarter was full of fountains and gardens, glass garden houses and personal chapels. Just outside of this lay the shops and houses of skilled workers; blacksmiths, farriers, clothiers, wine makers, ale merchants, and mead men; Inns and Taverns of good respect.
The High road took a sharp left at the Merchant’s Quarter, connecting the market with the docks and the Low Quarter, where the cobbles were loose and the undesirables abounded. The Low Quarter stunk of refuse and dead fish and waste, and consisted of the meanest, dirtiest folk imaginable. This was where the sailors lost their money; in gambling dens and whore houses, to cut-purses and con-men. Where brawlers made their living keeping Merchant’s warehouse’s safe. Where one slunk, silent in the night to find the Shen’nung, which in the old tongue meant dark sorcerer. The Shen’nung and their practices, outlawed centuries prior, but they were always there for those who looked hard enough. The low district was all mud and salt water and horse shit; it was ramshackle huts hastily put together from mud and straw; it was the poor and crippled. It was where Rora had lived.
Separating the Low District from the King’s road stood a handsome white washed building. It was a simple structure, square in basic shape, long and peak roofed, with a set of wide front doors that dominated one side of the building. The doors were slabs of red wood, with a detailed relief of the story of creation and the symbol of the Dreamer, a pentagon enclosing a five pointed star, in gilt. Dreamer was the god of the city, for all men dream, but She loved most the poor and madmen, which was why the chapel of Dreamer sat on the edge of the Low District.
The snow had fallen in the city as rain and the usually clean streets were mud strewn. There were a few street sweepers employed, ragged men, weak and in poor health. The man who called himself Tanis saw them and wondered at the changes that had come over this once proud and beautiful city. Rora had been right, the city was crumbling. He shook his head, tried to tell himself that it had never been so bad before, that things had been beautiful, clean and healthy when his father had been Captain of the Guard. But doubt covered these thoughts like mist on the harbour.
He moved through the throngs of muttered gossip, past beggars and guardsmen; toward the merchant’s quarter.
Tanis moved through the sparse crowds, money no longer seemed to flow as it once had, and the buildings in the market district were showing signs of wear that they would never have been allowed to show before. He turned along the road that lead to the docks, wondering how he could barter his way onto a ship. He felt uneasy here. Rora’s words had become prophecy, the city was falling apart, clutching with all its strength to its last vestiges of pride. A city like that was more dangerous than he could know, but he felt it in the air, felt the desperation and it made his skin crawl.
He had been thinking too hard and found himself standing in front of a familiar hovel, his hand resting on the rotting wooden door. Rora’s home. Or it had been. He could hear voices from within. Even a hovel like this would not remain empty for long. It had been a special place for him once, long ago; now it was a simple, one room cob hut, just like all the others in the Low District.
He let his hand fall to his side, turned and carried on toward the docks.
The docks stank. Not least because the castle’s waste was dumped into the ocean and pulled toward the docks on the tides. Piles of slimy green and red sea weed washed up on shore, catching everything out at sea and drawing it ashore to rot. The docks themselves were rotting and covered in kelp and barnacles, surveyed by screaming gulls; but empty of humanity. There was perhaps one or two ships in the bay, but mostly small row boats were tethered to the docks. Tanis had never seen a harbour that looked less like it should. And the place was crawling with Royal Guard, like flies on a carcass.
“You there,” one of them said. “What are you doing here?”
The man stalked over, his tabard was dirty and his cheeks were pocked. His hair too long and hung lank beside his pallid face, but his eyes were sharp and intelligent.
“I’m looking to board a ship,” Tanis told him.
“The harbour is closed,” he said. “Go home.”
“Yeah, closed,” the guard said. “You need a definition? It means piss off.”
“When will it reopen?” he asked.
“When her Majesty gets down on her knees and sucks my cock,” he said, turning away and laughing. There was a time when Tanis would have lost his temper at a comment like that, there was a time when he was a true Queen’s man, one among many, but not anymore. Times change.
He emptied the last of his water skein into a dry mouth and turned his back on the docks. Another way out of the city would present itself. For now he would have to be satisfied that he was alive. He moved slowly, with an aching head and an empty belly.
There was only one place to go when one had no money or food and was hungry. So he headed through the muddy streets to the chapel of the Dreamer.
The door opened easily and he stepped out of the city and into the glowing realm of the White Lady of Dreams. It was one large room with a recessed floor in the middle and vaulted ceiling. When standing in the doorway one was faced by an immense stained glass picture of the goddess on the opposite wall. The White Lady wore over her bandaged form a heavy, colourful robe which was the world and everyone in it. Directly beneath this was a wide altar of white marble, covered in candles, strewn round with offerings, coins and figures, rich things and poor. All along each side of the room were simple pallet beds, stacked three or four high with white ladders to get to the upper beds. Most of these were full of ragged dirty people and children. Some were sick, one man on the right side of the room was certainly dying of some fever or other, unable to stop his moaning. It was hot and stuffy, despite the enormity of the space and the candlelight was diffused by incense, which made the room sweet smelling, yet foggy and dreamlike. In the recessed middle portion of the room acolytes, men or women prostrated themselves before the altar of the Dreamer. They were called Dream Walkers and they slept and dreamed and searched for the Lady in Her realm. They wore loose white robes or shifts, bare of foot and hand and head, and shaved off all their hair. The hair on one’s head was supposed to be the path to the Lady of Dreams. The priests shaved the Dream Walkers heads so that they might find their own path to their Lady.
Though there were men among the acolytes none seemed to pass on to become priests. Perhaps they searched for her until they died or gave up, but never did they find her. Dreamer’s priests were all women in white habits with deep hoods and veils. No flesh showed of these women and they walked the room, comforting the sick, singing gentle hymns to the Dreamer and swinging crystal balls full of incense. Or once they had been crystal.
There was always food in the chapel of the Dreamer. Near the back of the room, behind the altar, under Dreamer’s benevolent glass gaze, long tables were laid with bread and cheese and fruit, and any who could speak a simple prayer were allowed to eat. The chapel of the Lady of Dreams was often the difference between life and death for the poor of Andrese.
“There are no weapons in this house,” a woman in white intoned. Her voice was deep, quiet and soothing.
“Beg pardon, Sister,” he said, trying in vain to see through her veil. He could barely see the impression of her face. He took the belt knife off and handed it to her, as well as the axe. The priests of the Dreamer, or White Sisters, were one’s who had found the Lady in her Realm. Sometimes it took years. Some folk said they were blinded by Her beauty and that was why they covered themselves, others said that Her beauty was such that they could not stand to see humanity’s pale reflection any longer. Whatever the case, Tanis could not see through her veil and did not think that she could either. Yet if she was blind, how did she know that he wore a weapon?
She placed his knife in a niche in the wall beside a group of melting tallow candles, a string of scratched glass beads, and a dull kris.
“Why have you come to the house of the Dreamer?” she asked.
Every full moon, called Dreamer’s moon, the poor mass at the chapel of Dreamer to pray and feast. It is the sovereign of Andrese’s duty to provide the feast and appear among the poor at this chapel on these days, though the Ur’magur remain in their private chapels to worship, away from the rabble. When the King entered the chapel on these days the eldest White Sister would come to him and this prayer was spoken before the mass began. Tanis knew it well.
“I am weary and must rest my head,” he replied.
“She knows your heart and will grant you rest.”
“I am hungry and my pockets are empty.”
“She knows your soul and will fill you up.”
“My heart is heavy and I cannot see the way.”
“You need only sleep, my child, and She will show you.” The White Sister took his hand and led him to the tables at the far end of the chapel. The food upon them, usually leavings from the castle or the Ur’magur, plentiful if not perfect, and often donations from visiting merchants, was scant and bare. A heel of dry bread, some bruised, half rotten fruit, and wormy porridge.
“The leavings are less and less,” the White Sister said. Tanis picked up a small wrinkled apple and bit into it. “Many starve and the castle has shut her gates to us.”
“How long has the harbour been closed?” Tanis asked. The apple was mushy and wormy but still sweet.
“Today is the fifth day,” she said. “The ships waited but have now moved on. Travelling merchant’s are few and far between and the crops this year were blighted. It seems the Lady of Dreams has found some displeasure with Andrese. We search and search but cannot find Her.”
The Lady of Dreams missing in Her own realm, refusing to appear to Her followers?
“That is the way of Gods,” he muttered.
“Dreamer loves us all,” she told him. “But you follow another.” She reached up and touched the centre of his chest, where, underneath many layers of cloth and fur hung the sigil of the Nameless One, the God who was not a God. How had she possibly seen it? He changed the subject.
“The King would not open the harbour?” he asked. “He would not call upon his neighbours for assistance?” He stared at her veiled face for a long time before she replied.
Finally, she said, “You are a stranger here. The King is dead, not six days past.”
His mouth turned dry and his heart fluttered weakly in his chest. He managed to swallow the rest of the apple but it had become sour and empty.
“How?” he managed to ask.
“It is not for me to say,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Bella’s mercy upon him.”
It was strange to hear those words from a White Sister. White and Black were always at odds.
“Bella comes for us all,” Tanis muttered without thinking. “And Her majesty?”
“Our beloved Queen has proclaimed the city in mourning until Dreamer’s moon.” Tanis had never heard of so many days of mourning, even when the Queen’s father had died there were but three days when the shops were closed and the city quiet. Days of mourning were about peace and giving, when those who had plenty were meant to walk the streets and give to the poor. But most often the shops merely closed their doors and the wealthy hid in their homes, leaving the poor to wander the streets and beg at the chapel. It explained why the harbour was closed, why the castle gates were shut, but the market should have been empty and quiet, and every window should have been covered in black cloth.
“Let us not speak of such things,” she said, as though she knew he were about to ask further. She took his hand and led him to a pallet bed on the left side of the room. He sat wondering if the end had come for Andrese; it really appeared as though the city were collapsing, the once carefully tended structures that held these people together seemed now only to be pushing them apart, pushing them into madness. But madness was a realm of the White Lady as well. If anyone knew that, it was this man. The White Sister removed his boots, setting them on the floor beside him and handed him a shallow cup of warm tea.
“Dream tea,” she told him. “To ease you to her realm. It does not do well to sleep after such terrible talk. I will sing to you of lighter times.”
He did not want to drink the tea, he did not want to sleep or to be sung to. He wanted to leave the city that was no longer home, the city that had crumbled in his absence. The city that he had not saved. He wished he had never returned.
He was in Dreamer’s house now, uncertain as to why he had come here at all. Under her sway, he drank the sweet and spicy tea. It soothed his dry throat and relaxed his muscles, it weighed upon his eyelids and he drifted away to the sound of the Sister’s soft voice.
Once, like all Andresei, he had been devout of the Dreamer. But She had showed him Her dark side and he had fled from Her. He had abandoned the city and it’s God, had run away and taken up with another; a Heretic God who had no name. Dreamer was not pleased. His dreams had been torture, until he found the way of the Nameless One, a sleep too light to enter the world of Dreams.
But Dreamer had him now, in Her house, with Her tea inside him, he was helpless in Her realm, and She tortured him once more.