A Secret and Its Poison
John left two days after Barrik named Jak his heir, and did not return. Nor did Barrik give Jak the lessons about the world he’d promised. He was away often, and most days he claimed he was tired and took to his bed right after dinner, then was away before dawn’s first light.
In First Spring, three boys had left. Ned and Hal were two of them, making pimple-faced Yeller the new eldest boy. Barrik brought in two other boys, both with thirteen winters, and both named John. They looked nothing alike, so to avoid confusion they got the nicknames Greeneyes and Big John.
“And the other one we’ll have to call Black John,” Tim declared one morning when the boys gathered together in the kitchen for cooked sausage and boiled coffee.
“What about Old John?” Yeller asked. “He’s the only one here that’s full-grown, looks older even than Barrik.”
“I like Black John,” Pig added. “It’s perfect—he looks like a shadow.” Jak nodded, thinking the title perfect.
Being oldest now, Yeller should have had final say, but in the end they had a vote. “All right, fine. Black John it is,” he said when the vote came in at seventeen to six.
Jak didn’t vote. He did very little to involve himself with the other boys at all, with the exception of Tim and Pig who remained his only friends.
It was Second Spring when he returned, just after the Festival of Firstblooms. The snows had stayed extra long this year and the gardens were still bare. Many supplies from northern merchants had not come, due to snow in the mountain passes. For Barrik’s house that meant less oil. For Jak, it meant a ration of one lantern’s light each working day.
The day was cold and threatened rain, so Jak kept the barn door closed and his lone lantern cast the far side of the stable into shadow. He was sweeping out the last few stalls when the rain finally came down in an assault that pelted the wood shingles. He was on his way to rub down Charley, knowing he was late for dinner, when the stable house door creaked open and Black John came in, leading his mountain destrier by the reins.
He looked ragged when he pushed his hood back. “Good to see you, lad. Barrik hasn’t scared you off yet?”
“Of course not,” Jak said. He set his curry comb down and went to help John with his horse.
“When a Pikelander wants to make a man out of you, it can be a fearsome thing. You haven’t run off, so I’m guessing my saddle-cousin’s tamed his ways. Good.”
Jak took the reins, noticing large clods of dirt caught at the destrier’s flank. The horse was dark brown, almost black. Its hair was tangled, like it hadn’t been combed in a long time. And there was something darker than the dirt streaking its sides and haunches in long crusts. The horse looked fine, but he would need a good comb before morning, most likely a wash with a sponge and lye water.
After Jak returned from settling the horse in an empty stall, he found John seated on a bench beneath the lantern, cleaning his sword. Faint, blackened streaks blotched the pale gray steel as he rubbed it over with his oilcloth—black like the black crusts on his horse.
“Is that blood?” Jak asked.
John nodded. “Didn’t have time to clean it all, just the worst to keep my Viper’s Fang from sticking in its scabbard.”
“That’s blood on your horse too,” Jak said, taking in John’s haggard look with concern. “What happened?”
“Nothing you need to be concerned about,” he said. “Lands are getting rougher in the mountain passes. You’d think twenty years after the god-king’s collapse there would be new laws, new order. But all we’ve got is bandits, groups of men in a hut who pick a king then run to wherever he tells them.”
John laughed it off. His sword oiled, he sheathed it and insisted they have dinner.
The rain pounded relentlessly above as Jak followed him, looking back at the stable, at the shadow that now seemed to hang oppressively over it. Just a skirmish, like he said. Nothing more to it.
Barrik was not home. Black John sat in his chair at the head of the table. Greeneyes proved his mettle as their new cook as they feasted on asparagus in honey-butter and Northshore salt, a stew with leeks and potato and rabbit that was so tender it fell apart in strands. Everyone was quieter than usual. The rain pelted the roof, and there was the occasional echo of thunder, faint and distant.
Akkarra still hung above the mantle, as it had since the night Barrik named Jak his heir. As promised, that remained a secret. Barrik had told the boys about being granted noble status. Now everyone wore dark vests with the House Fuller emblem on their right breast—two stallions in gold thread, prancing high, their front hooves interlocked. Sitting among them now, with Barrik absent, Jak felt the weight of Akkarra behind, but also in the emblem he wore. Here he was in Barrik’s grand house—one day his house—with the knowledge that someday it would be him in charge. Surely Barrik would come soon and teach him his ways, surely it was only a matter of time before Jak would get closer to him, understand him…understand his legacy and what role he had to live up to.
Jak ended up cleaning Black John’s horse late into the night. The rain did not relent. The occasional clap of thunder lingered in the mountaintops, making the wood of the stable house shiver. The destrier was calm the whole time. Its black eye reflected the sheen of the dim lighting, as though whatever horrors it had seen danced there still.
Jak was through his second time soaping the remaining patches of blood when the door to the stable creaked open. He started—then stumbled and knocked the bucket over on its side, swearing in the northern curses.
Jak righted the bucket and hesitated. He stared into the dance of firelight and shadow beyond the stall. He had a momentary vision of someone from the mountains come in pursuit of Black John, now in Barrik’s home, and the fleeting urge to hide.
Barrik stepped into view. “That you I heard cussing like a Northshore sailor? Remember what I said about the dirty hand and the clean one? My fault, truth told, for being so occupied.”
“I’m sorry,” Jak said. “You’re right—I’ve heard too much from the other boys, but I try not to. When you’re out, I work extra long to avoid them.”
Barrik nodded. “You’re forgetting what I told you about turning your soul to wood? Never mind, better wood than filth.”
Jak looked Barrik over. He wore a gray travel cloak, the hood back now, and under that his garb was black like John’s. How late was it? The second measure of dusk? Not long until midnight. Jak was usually fast asleep by now.
“Where do you go?” he asked. “You always come in late, then you’re gone early. I’d gladly accept the lessons you promised, even if you woke me late, or extra early.”
A queer expression came over Barrik, that searching look Jak knew too well, but his face was grave and solemn. He looked worried about something, something to do with Jak and what he was thinking about him right now.
Finally, Jak could take it no more. Curiosity and frustration over Barrik’s absences mounted, and before he could stop himself, the words came rushing free.
“I’ve never asked who you are,” Jak said. “I’ve wondered though, in fact most here do and just don’t talk about it. At least they think they’re being quiet and that you won’t find out. Always boys in your house, no girls. No one is allowed to bring girls home even. Sometimes the people in the town talk about you. ‘Barrik and his boys, strange tastes.’ Bags at the greengrocer sometimes asks me if I ever see anything untoward going on in the house. When I tell her no she seems disappointed, as though I’m hiding something. I can’t figure out what it all means: if it’s an insult or if they think you’re someone they know better than to meddle with. Like all the boys here. That’s the first rule they told me—don’t ask questions about Barrik. They just accept you, as though you’re here as more than some man looking after the horses for Ham Lasthall. As though you have some purpose for keeping us all, and that’s the end of it.” Jak took a deep breath, seeing how Barrik’s expression had evolved into something darker, a frown that hinted at anger. “I’m sorry. I need to know what I’ve gotten into. I’m your son, you said. But I don’t even know what that means…”
Barrik held that expression, didn’t take his eyes from Jak. “You’re right, boy,” he said at last. “As my son, you have the right to know more. I can’t reveal everything, but some I can. I trust you’ll keep it secret—everything I share.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Jak said. “I wouldn’t tell anyone anyway. The other boys are not worthy of trust—except Tim or Pig—but I wouldn’t tell them either, not if it means I’m breaking my word.”
Barrik nodded. “Follow me.”
Barrik fetched a torch and lit it from the lantern in the stable. He led Jak up the stair to the main house, then along a side hallway out in the guest wing, down a stair that descended to the cellar, then into the storeroom full of wine casks and barrels. At the far end, Barrik pushed aside a large crate of flour and revealed a trapdoor, which he opened with a long brass key.
Barrik climbed down a ladder and Jak followed. It led to a small landing, beyond which he could see a flight of stairs. Jak waited while Barrik went back up and pulled the trapdoor closed, locking them in with a snick that lingered in the darkness.
Barrik led on. The stair was narrow, the steps deep, and the walls stunk of tar and mold. Jak had to put his arms out to either side to steady himself as he descended. Barrik’s torchlight ahead was just bright enough for him to see the long dip in the step to come.
The stairs went on and the sound of thunder and rain faded. Jak counted thirty steps, then stopped counting…still they went down. He trusted Barrik, of course he trusted him, but where was he leading him? What was this place?
When the stair ended Jak was unable to see much more than the uneven stone beneath his feet. He felt a cool draft, carrying a strong scent, something rank like midden. Somewhere far away, he heard a soft splashing rhythm—water dripping into a pool.
Barrik led him onward. Darkness now surrounded Jak on every side. Every step he took, he became more aware of his ragged breath, the sputtering of flame, the tap of boot on stone, how it echoed in the open. He struggled to tame his mind, to keep following without question, without fear.
A short way ahead, a dim light appeared. It traced out a small arch, through which Jak could see an oval chamber. Pillars supported the long, low beams of the ceiling, where square-glass lanterns hung at even intervals, all lit. The ground was hard-packed dirt, broken only by a stone slab that rose up like an altar. Other archways opened from it, locked by black iron grates, mouths into darkness.
Barrik set his torch in a bracket, then turned to face Jak. “There are many passages below Fort Lasthall,” he said. “This is one of them. I come here often. Lantern oil is costly, but these are always lit. Always.”
Jak was still taking in the room, especially the other gateways leading on. The darkness seemed to call him, like the mountain. “Why do you come here?”
“Sometimes for meetings,” Barrik said. “Sometimes, to reflect.”
“Meetings?” Jak studied the lanterns. They burned with a wick on oil, and they weren’t large. Whoever kept them burning had to come at least once a day to refill the oil. “Who else comes here?”
Barrik narrowed his eyes. “What do you know of the god-king Azzadul? The wars that tore his empire apart? The secrets of the Mountainlands?”
“Azzadul?” Jak felt a rush of intrigue, his mind returning to his stories. “He was half human, half Dwarf Man, the one only of his kind. He lived more than two hundred years, and taught that everyone could live forever. He could touch the power of the Dragons. True magic…” These were the exact words from The History of the Mountainlands. Jak felt the doorways pressing in on him, but he spoke on, fixing his eyes on Barrik. “He reached too far with his power, and a curse entered his court. Madness. His Blackfriars came in the night, abducting young boys from their beds for his blood-rites. Thousands died. Then it all ended. No one knows how, or why. He simply vanished, and his empire collapsed.”
“Twenty years ago is when it all ended,” Barrik said. “For ten years before that, terror hung over all the lands near the mountains. The Dark Years, we called them. I can’t say if there’s truth in all those stories you’ve read about Dwarf Men or Dragons. You know how it goes—stories passed from mouth to mouth, filling in plain details like embroidery. But there’s no doubt that Azzadul commanded his acolytes to hunt for him when the sun was set. Many vanished, taken from their beds. They were tortured, cut with crude tools of metal, left alive to bleed for some strange art no one rightly understood. No one was safe. The kings had handed him their crowns when he seemed their destined savior, but now they were afraid of him. They’d do anything to prevent his wrath.”
As Barrik spoke, Jak’s uneasiness grew worse. His eyes were on the altar of stone now. It was just a plain slab, but its top was smooth and narrow, perhaps a bodyspan long. “Why are you telling me all this? What does it have to do with your meetings and why you come here? With why you brought me here?”
“Everything, boy,” he said. “I shouldn’t show you this place, but I have. I want you to see—see that there’s more to the life you lead now in my house, more to what I do, what we soon will do together. You say the god-king vanished and his empire collapsed. True, in some respects. The kings of nations far and wide are now free, though their kingdoms are broken and full of unrest. War does that. So Azzadul’s gone. But the power that held the Mountainlands…there’s those of us who aren’t so sure—who want to make sure, in case something’s coming. At least we’ll be ready.”
Jak looked away from the altar. He took in Barrik, as though for the first time. “That’s why you made me your heir…you want me to continue on. Part of this group who guards against evil, whatever it is you do….” Jak’s gaze returned to the altar, and the engulfing darkness in the gated portals behind it.
“I can only tell you so much,” Barrik said. “Oaths are oaths, and honor’s tested by the tongue. Your job now is to grow up, become the kind of man who will be ready when the time comes. I’ll teach you what I promised, to help shape you. You’ve got the right mettle for it, now that your mind’s not lost in books.”
The lessons began that night with a talk about Pikeland morality. Jak listened, stealing glances often at the altar and the dark portals and the lanterns. What kind of group Barrik was part of? Jak restrained the urge to ask him. Whatever way the man wanted to instruct him, Jak had to accept that. But his lessons went on too long. Jak found himself losing concentration, thinking about those dark doors and what mysteries lurked here…
Over the next few quartermoons, Barrik came to him late at night and taught him more. He never took him back to the hidden cavern below the house. Mostly, it was to a heavy-paneled study in the empty east wing of the house. But always somewhere private, the door locked, where none could interrupt.
Black John stayed until First Spring gave way to Second. Despite being privy to Barrik’s secret adoption ritual, he didn’t join in their lessons. Shortly after he left, Jak asked Barrik if John was part of those who met in the cavern underground, but Barrik’s response was strange. “There are oaths and there are loyalties of friends. Black John is loyal to me, but what his oaths are? That’s his business.”
Jak looked forward to their lessons, but as the days went past, he increasingly felt the oppressive weight of Tharrannor, and the cave-pocked cliff that loomed above the Fort…what secrets lay within, and below, waiting for him.
“Hell’s Cap—that’s what it’s called,” Tim told him after dinner one night. They were both looking out over the Fort toward the cliff-face, from the third floor window in the north wing.
“Why do they call it that?” Jak asked.
Tim shrugged. “You’re the one who’s read twenty more books than I have. Didn’t it mention anything?”
“No,” Jak said. “Only Tharrannor, the place where Dwarf Men go to die. Other places, higher in the mountains. We can’t see them from here, because we’re on the slope of Tharrannor and it hides the rest of the mountains from our view.”
“Dwarf Men,” Tim snickered. “There’s your answer: Hell’s Cap, the many dark pathways to death.”
“It’s not funny,” Jak said. “And anyway, Dwarf Men are always reborn, in Barrannor, to the east,” Jak waved to the other side of the house, where he imagined that farther peak to be. “But what does it matter? They’re all gone now.”
“That’s right they’re all gone, just like this house will be for all of us someday. So why worry about it?”
Jak nodded, and after long silence, Tim left him. But he stared out at Hell’s Cap until dusk shadows blanketed all of Tharrannor’s heights and the pockmarked cliff faded to sheer black.
Barrik told him more stories of the Dark Years that night. How he’d grown up during that time and lost his younger brothers to the god-king’s Blackfriar acolytes for their sacrifices. How Jak was fortunate to have grown up in a time when he didn’t have to worry about being taken in the night, used for obscene arts.
“And the worst of it all are those who go about their lives here,” he said, face etched by dim, ruddy lines of hearth glow. “On they go, bustling, working, picking up severed threads as though there never was a knife that cut them. No one says Azzadul, or Blackfriar, or Dark Times. They all live in fear, a silent kind that wraps around them, smothering. It’s a fear they hide behind their smiles and simple talk, as though these things will stop the darkness from coming again. As though these things will make it like it never was.”
Second Spring drew on. Jak found himself changing his errand routes, so that he’d conveniently end up taking the lane that passed the brewer houses, where he could look down the alley that wound toward the Fort’s low rectangular Library. He would stop there, longer than he should have. What other truths was Barrik not telling him? Books were for fool, he said, but they also had answers. All Jak had to do was go there and he would be lost in stories once more, and maybe somewhere in those, answers.
But he always turned away and continued on. Whether he liked the world Barrik described or not, Jak wanted the truth, based on life, not stories. That was Barrik’s way, and now, it was his way.
Barrik didn’t about the Dark Years anymore. Instead, he taught Jak about Pikeland customs, logic, morality, lust, and how to tame the passions of the flesh. Chastity, especially chastity. He mentioned it every time, sometimes more than once, and when he did his eyes became hard and his face stiff and serious.
“Cut yourself off,” he told Jak one night in Low Summer, in his south study. “Men who lie with women are as filthy as men who lie with men. Don’t be fooled by the things you’ll hear in these northern lands, how exchanging pleasures between men is common as a handshake. Your flesh will be your master, or you will master your flesh. There’s no way to do both. Don’t become like them, ever.”
“I won’t,” Jak said, though he felt confused by it. Why ever would Barrik think he’d do anything of the sort?
“You might think nothing of it now,” Barrik said. “But as you grow, your flesh will awaken with a mind of its own to tempt you. Don’t debase yourself. Stay away, always.”
Jak nodded. “The dirty hand and the clean hand. I know.”
“And I will teach you ways to fend this off, skills of the mind that come with practice. Repeat this at night when you’re alone. The mind is the enemy, Jak, not the world. Master your mind, or it will trick you into believing the countless lies that lead you astray.”
As High Summer unfolded, the lessons continued. Soon Jak had several phrases to repeat at night to train his mind, when he was in bed, sweat-slicked and trying to sleep. I am master of my flesh—to be repeated if ever he found his thoughts in images of carnality. My word is the master of my reality, not the word spoken upon me—to be said when he overheard the older boys cursing. Others—affirmations for self-edification, self-strength, so many self-somethings it was no wonder the Pikelanders were said to be made of rough timber and horse muscle. Jak repeated the words, but didn’t understand. It reminded him of the prayers a Red Sister had once taught him. He’d repeated those at bed, but soon forgot them because they meant nothing, and had done nothing. Barrik’s words though seemed different. Jak repeated them because every time he did, it reminded him of how he was becoming more like Barrik, and that felt right.
In Early Fall, the lessons became less frequent because Barrik was away for long journeys. When he was away, instead of repeating the affirmations, Jak found himself lying in bed at day’s end wondering more about Barrik. He wished he had the key to open that trapdoor and listen. Maybe he would find Barrik wasn’t gone at all. He might find him down there, meeting with those who plotted to keep Fort Lasthall safe—people who one day Jak would be a part of.
Yet as Late Fall came and the nights grew longer, curiosity evolved into worry. Who else had a key to that door? No one could get in, but who—or what—could get out of that door? Then he felt truly alone and afraid, going to sleep only after scolding himself for his fear. I am master of my fear, my fear is my slave, he recited, Barrik’s words for self-edification. Death to the idle mind. I will not fear the shadow unless it bears a blade, and if it does, I will fight it.
Late Fall deepened and winter approached. Barrik’s absence turned into the longest yet. It was the fourteenth day now. Greeneyes made them his cheese-and-bread. Sam, his now-helper, made a soup that he’d forgotten to salt, inciting a round of complains.
Three of the boys weren’t home. “Found Old Man Bobbi’s brothel, the one that doubles as a tavern,” Willy made a point of telling them all.
“As if you weren’t out earlier getting milked by the maiden at Anten’s House,” Gerry Slick put in.
“Think you’re all clever, eh? Think Barrik won’t find out about this? You’re all mistaken,” Yeller said.
Though Jak still kept away from him, he had actually come to respect Yeller. Yeller often shared in the jokes with the cruder boys, but he was strict and fair. More often than not, when the other boys insulted Jak, Yeller would chastise them.
The moon was full and rose before the sun had completely set. Jak ran a final errand, replenishing the stock of feed for the horses, and returned to a house full of gathering shadows. He planned to go to his room early to get a good sleep.
He crossed into the guest hall, half cast in shadow, few candles lit here to preserve their stock for the rest of the quartermoon. It was dark and quiet, no sign of anyone, only shadowed doorways to empty guest rooms. Shadowed doorways, like the locked doors in Barrik’s secret meeting place…
Maybe Barrik would come finally, and when he did, Jak planned to ask him more about why he was gone so long, exactly where he went. He was through with lessons on morality and stupid affirmations that were as useless as prayers. Though Barrik shared so many stories about his life, it felt like he was driving home the same points. Keep yourself pure. Your power to choose is the greatest power. Avoid women, they’ll give you whoreworms. Avoid men, idle passions steal your strength. Keep yourself separate, undefiled…
What was the point? If someday Jak would need to help watch the mountains against the evil that slept there—
Something struck Jak in the face. It stung, like a slap from a fist, and his first instinct was to drop to a crouch. Then he heard a giggle coming from one of the balconies above—Tim Lorry—and he took in what lay at his feet—the thing that had hit him, the pungent aroma familiar. Horse shit.
He barely had time to think about it before another one streaked at him from the air. There was a loud shout from the other side of the room, and as Jak dodged, Gassy Tom came running into plain view, more brown pies gathered in his hands.
Soon the room burst into shouts and laughter as more boys joined. It was all Jak could do to run and hide behind a high-backed chair near the wall. Horse shit flew from every level of the balcony like artillery in a siege. Sam joined too, throwing some of his cheese bread. Yeller came out shouting for them to stop, until a large piece of bread hit him in the face, covering it in tomato sauce. With a throaty roar, he picked up shit from around him, found a safe spot to hide behind a sofa, and began to fire and fling insults, in equal measure.
Tim’s giggles persisted like a squealing kettle, and soon Jak’s hiding spot was not enough. Pig was now on the second level and homed in on Jak. He succeeded by hitting his hair, and just as with Yeller, that provoked Jak at last.
He didn’t know quite what was happening, though he supposed it was some kind of game. In his wandering years, Jak had sometimes seen children playing games with small balls or sticks or flags. It had always seemed absurd to him as he would watch them from his shelter for the day—the way they trusted one another, the way they played so carefree.
It wasn’t until he finally took Pig with a clod of horse shit the size of two fists that Jak actually got it. He felt a thrill that made him laugh for no particular reason. Then Jak could not stop picking up more, throwing more. He was on the hunt, and soon he was laughing and shouting like the other boys.
Then it was over as fast as it had begun. Their brief war left the newel posts and balcony rails covered with small particles, as though the shit was now permanent texture on the wood. Here and there, streaks of tomato sauce joined them. Yeller was living up to his name as he shouted orders for everyone to clean up.
“You got any idea how much shit you’re in now when he gets back?” he said.
“We’re already in lots of shit.” This came from the new youngest boy, who they called Gabby.
Everyone laughed, except Jak. The boys now ran to fetch buckets, using the lever on the water pump to fill them, still laughing as they recounted the highlights of the fight. Jak followed along and joined in the clean-up, feeling alone once more. He heard Barrik’s voice in his head as he scrubbed newels and rails and skirting. A dirty hand and a clean hand. A dirty hand and a clean hand. You deserve better than dirt…
Jak had to wash twice in his dripbasin before he could actually sleep that night. When he did finally settle under the covers, he found for once he wasn’t preoccupied about where Barrik was. There was a sort of satisfaction to how he felt as he lay in bed, his arms and legs sore from the brief foray and the clean-up efforts afterward.
Many of the boys might have been filthy and lowly, but was it so wrong to at least be friendly to them? Even if he was the heir to Barrik’s house, that didn’t mean Jak was some kind of king. Being a part of them, even if it was so brief, made Jak think of all the times he’d watched children play their games from afar, how he’d imagine what it would be like to join them.
Barrik returned two days later. It was past midnight and Jak had drifted to sleep when he heard the soft tap at his door. He jerked awake, peering through the dark to see the door opening and the shadow of the man slip through.
Barrik said nothing. He waited, while Jak get to his feet and dressed in trousers and loose shirtsleeves. Then Barrik led him into the hall.
The halls were quiet. Jak had learned to step in the right spots on the floor boards so as not to make sound. Together, the two of them slipped down to the stair that led to the cellar, then the storeroom, as quiet as a whisper. It was only when Barrik lifted the trapdoor that Jak noticed Akkarra’s pommel at his waist, on a belt strapped beneath his coat.
It’s time. He’s finally going to tell me… Jak went ahead into the dark stair and waited. Barrik locked them in, then took the lead.
Jak could not contain his excitement. “Are you going to tell me about who you meet—”
Barrik hushed him. “Quiet, boy,” he whispered, sounding angry.
Jak became wary—Barrik had never taken an angry tone with him. The fight in the guest room. Is that what this is about? Why would he bring Akkarra though?
Jak did as instructed and followed. He could already hear the drawn out tirade waiting for him. “You put a dirty hand and a clean hand together, both come out dirty. What you are, some kind of dumb ox? Didn’t realize you’d stuffed wool in your ears last time I told you, boy. What were you thinking, lowering yourself to their level, playing along in their filthy games?”
The orange glow of lanterns appeared ahead. Jak braced himself for Barrik’s tirade, but his thoughts unraveled the moment they passed through the arch and he took in the wrought iron gates and pillars, the stone slab…
They were not alone.
A woman faced them, standing at the edge of the stone. She wore a dark gray cloak, the hood drawn back to reveal pale skin and long brown hair, her face an emotionless mask.
He was only aware of her briefly, for his gaze settled on the altar. A boy lay there, hands folded on his breast, feathery, raven-black locks spilling to either side of his head. He was sleeping. He looked about ten winters, dressed in a brown and gray doublet that marked him as nobility.
Jak stopped just past the entry, uncertain, but Barrik continued forward. There was a harsh whisper in the air as Barrik drew Akkarra. Barrik stopped before the altar, then grabbed one of the boy’s hands. He brought the blade to it, and cut with a sharp motion, drawing forth a line of blood that wept into the cup of the boy’s palm.
Uncertainty evolved into fear. “Run, Jak!” The image of red fire rose in his mind against his will.
He summoned the words Barrik had taught him. I am master of my fear, my fear is my slave. Death to the idle mind. I will not fear the shadow…
But it did nothing. The image of the woman’s melting face flashed into being, as though she were there too in the room. He heard the scream and it lingered. He stared at the boy, terrified now, disbelieving. Barrik is good. He won’t hurt me. He fights the dark…
“You must drink, Jak,” Barrik said. He moved the hand, now pooled with blood, toward Jak.
“What?” What in the icy heart of hell is going on? he wanted to say, but fear now gripped him in that familiar and unpleasant fist.
“Ask no questions. Just do as I say.”
For what felt like long measures of the night, passing in the space of a few breaths, Jak froze in place, not knowing if he should obey, or run. But Barrik held the hand out to him still, and the blood gathered; it was starting to spill onto the boy’s doublet.
Obey, or run. Obey… Run. Run. Jak felt the readiness of his legs, but instead he stared at the hand and Barrik…and Akkarra.
The blade, naked in the room, was a shadow untouched by lanterns. The falchion greedily consumed the light like a portal to another world. Stay, the falchion seemed to tell him. Don’t think. You must do this if you want to become Jak Fuller, and more. So much more.
The air vibrated around Akkarra, like the song of lazy flies in First Spring.
Obey, the voice told him again. The weaker voice that was Jak the Wandering Boy, pounding like the fists of someone trapped beneath a frozen pond, weak but desperate: Run away. He’s just like Azzadul stealing children and cutting them open! This is all wrong! Whoever these people are, whoever Barrik is. All wrong!
Drink… Become, the greater voice soothed. Its force settled in his limbs. The counterpoint of thought merged now only into a shroud of calm, as Jak shifted his attention to the small hand, the pool of blood. Waiting for him.
He took timid steps forward, then when he was close enough he reached out.
Barrik placed the boy’s hand in his. The pool of blood there trembled in Jak’s grip. Shadow-lines rippled across the reflection of lantern flame.
The air vibrated more, and there was a whispering, some kind of harsh language Jak had never heard, many voices. It grew louder and Akkarra seemed to make the very air ripple—or was it Jak’s knees shaking? A shiver rose up his spine and touched his heart like the tip of a claw. A power swept out across him, one force; in his mind, one command, one voice:
The ground met his knees, two soft thuds against his kneecaps. Jak’s eyes rolled upward and his vision dimmed. His face sunk lower and his lips met the pool of blood. A taste like salted broth washed over his tongue, but it was stronger, like water full of rust; thicker, like smooth cream in a heated vat. He closed his mouth, swallowing, and the blood rushed down his throat, warm, glowing in his chest.
He drank more. The taste mingled with the scent of metal, like the air around a blacksmith’s forge. He drank tentatively, but soon the pungent, salty taste awakened something…a hunger in him. The warmth in his chest grew stronger, soon hot, an inner fire that sent its rays tingling down into his fingertips. He sucked at the blood, slurping as the pool emptied and his lips grazed the soft flesh of the boy’s palm.
MORE, the force—the voice—commanded. His whole body quaked now with need. His member was stiff.
The blood was coming out too slow and the fire within was losing its strength. He drew back his lips, bared his teeth to sink them in—
Something wrapped around his shoulders and pulled him backward. He opened his eyes, the room materializing like town lights glimpsed through fog. The woman facing him, her face unchanged, her eyes striking blue, her silver antler brooch stark in the lantern light. The stone with the boy moving backward. The boy still sleeping, unaware, his hand draped over the side where Jak had dropped it. Wasted blood trickling to the gravel.
Jak roared, pushing at whatever had him.
“Enough boy.” Barrik’s voice, over his shoulder.
Jak’s sense of the room grew clearer. He took in the strong dark-sleeved arms imprisoning him, pulling him back. Akkarra’s hilt jutted out beside him, the blade now sheathed.
“Let me go!” he shouted, returning his focus to the hand dripping blood. Jak fought to break free. He tried to knock Barrik over, but he was only five feet tall—a little more than a bodyspan—and Barrik was half again that height.
“You’ve done what you had to,” Barrik said. “Keep going, and you’ll kill him.”
The blood dripped to the gravel, the words hanging in Jak’s mind like the inner voice. I was about to kill him. What was I doing?
The fire weakened in him, dying in a pain that twisted inside, an ache in his heart. Jak was hollow to it now, staring ahead in horror at the receding image of the boy, still sleeping, still bleeding. He saw it all, but like the pain within all he saw was the awareness of what he’d done; of what Barrik had made him do.
He gave up his fight, sunk against Barrik’s solid chest. The man hauled him backward, away from the blood, away from the boy and the watching woman. Away from the room and into the darkness. Backward Barrik dragged him and Jak was only vaguely aware of the woman following at a distance with a torch to light the way. Then Barrik had him by the shoulders, turning him and supporting him as he took weak steps upward. The ascent stretched forever where all Jak saw was the bleeding boy, an image of himself on his knees drinking, biting, tearing, drinking, drinking, drinking...
The woman stayed on the landing under the trapdoor. She handed Barrik the torch once he and Jak were through, then left them. Barrik led Jak onward, arm around his shoulder, the weight of it like stone.
The details of the passing house stood out in ways they never had before. The green tree-stamp on each barrel of wine or ale or goldfire from Myr. The odd crisscrossing slats on the crates of salt. The leather strings dangling from the sacks of flour or cinnamon. Stairs, up to the main house, pressed with the imprint of footsteps over time. One of the wood panels in the main hall was loose, in need of a nail. The guest room, still stinking of manure, the dark gathering there, fleeing only for the light of torch…
When they got to Jak’s room, Barrik sat him on his bed then stood before him, looking him over. “Say nothing of this—to anyone.”
His urgent tone sharpened Jak’s focus. He stared at Barrik’s face, traced the hard lines that ran to either side of his mouth. The wiry bristles of his mustache marching in file. The beak of his nose, angled, curling down at the tip. The hard eyes that seemed to be studying him. Barrik’s face became to Jak an actor’s mask. But what hid behind it? Why did you make me do it? Why?
“I need your promise,” Barrik said, once more sharpening Jak’s focus.
Only if you tell me exactly why you made me to that. What in the nine realms of hell this is all about…what it means to be Jak fucking Fuller. In his mind, Jak heard Gerry’s cocksure tone in the words, prepared himself to say it, but what came out instead was, “I promise.”
Barrik turned away. Jak thought he was going to leave, but he returned from the dripbasin with a cloth. He stooped low and wiped Jak’s mouth. His face so close, Jak could smell his breath, something faint like Myran goldfire, mingled with the punky aroma of old sweat.
“I wish there was another way, boy. I do.” Barrik’s mask changed, a look of concern, one Jak wanted to believe. “A man keeps his oaths, you know that. Trust no one, not even the one you share pillows with. It’s how we preserve what we do. Even though you’re now my son, I can’t tell you why this had to happen. I can only ask that you trust me.”
“Secret,” Jak said, his voice sounding strange, like someone else’s. “Have to keep it all secret. Like us.”
Barrik smiled, a clash with his worry-strained eyes. “You’re a fine man—a son who makes me proud. Good, you understand why. I worried you’d hate me for this.”
Jak nodded, the image of Barrik blurring a little. “Keep your oaths, always, or make none,” he said, one of Barrik’s lessons.
“Someday I’ll be able to tell you, when it’s your time, or when the order’s given.”
“Until then, I’ll keep learning from you,” Jak said, but his eyes lost focus, his words offered to the air.
Barrik ruffled his hair then pulled him close for a hug. Jak stiffened as the man’s stubble brushed his cheek and he felt his body heat. He had never hugged Jak before, never called him Son; it was only a title, a formality. Akkarra’s pommel pressed against his side too and Barrik’s crude embrace felt like the bars of a prison.
Jak was glad when Barrik left. He crawled under the covers, still wearing the tunic and trousers. The room was dark, the kind of dark that meant the moon had set and cloud must have covered the stars. There was no light to play against the lines of shadow from the window grills. Only darkness.
Jak lay awake and the measures of midnight stretched on into the measures of the first and second moon. Though Barrik was gone, he could still feel his arms around him, those solid bars holding him in place. Jak Fuller, this, his inheritance. Akkarra with its whispers. His secrets.
And as night passed Jak saw again and again the pool of blood and remembered its taste. He thought of Hell’s Cap and its watchful eyes and his destiny here. It held him like a cage, stayed the small voice that told him he should pack everything and leave— before it was too late.
Four times he almost got out of bed and did so. But each time his mind went back to the dark room with the boy…and how that call of fire still lingered in his heart, and the urge to drink again beckoned to him in the darkness.
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