The night had been cool this close to the hub, but not cold. Oran lay awake. He commonly woke before dawn nowadays, even though the necessity to rise before his troops was long past.
Outside, through the open blinds, the landscape was shrouded in a pale green shadowless light: dawn was still some way off. Somewhere down by the shore he could hear the keening of cliffbirds as they hunted the insects that swarmed in the half-light.
Tonight the pain gnawing at his insides was faint, nothing more than a dull thorn in the side. He had lived with it for three years now but while the pain itself was nothing, the fear of what it meant, and its ultimate outcome, troubled him greatly.
Careful not to wake the woman sleeping next to him, Oran slid from the bed, and then turned to face her briefly comparing his body with hers. He was tall, but not excessively so, and still well muscled, though no longer in the peak of fitness. Oran had always kept his dark hair neat and short, but now it was visibly greying and he could also see the slight thickening around his waist that cried of too much feasting and not enough recent action. Old warriors don’t die, he thought, they simply expand until no one would ever consider them a threat. At times like this he could almost feel his time ebbing away.
By contrast she was almost as old as he, but her body was still lithe and beautiful, denying her true age, just as he remembered how she had been when he had first met her. She lay on her belly, half covered by the light quilt, one leg and thigh uncovered. Her head, turned slightly on the pillow, was still covered by the deep russet hair that had enticed him to buy her all those years ago. If it weren’t for a thin tracery of lines on her face and hands she would still look as young as the day they’d first met.
Her name was Catherine, and he had originally bought her out of curiosity in the slave market of Tiandril on Kkromer. Her appearance had intrigued him: she had red hair such as he’d never encountered before, her features were thin and elegant and she was tall, the tallest woman he had ever seen. Then there was her unique accent and the fact that the language in which she cursed was unlike any he’d ever heard.
In all his years he had never seen her like, nor met any who knew of her origins. But she had served him well, first as concubine, then as leader of the household, and for many years now as his consort. All traces of that strange language were now gone from her voice, its residual accent long vanished, and she professed to remember none of it and to have forgotten the life she’d led before meeting him. But he had heard her mutter in that strange tongue in her sleep and in her nightmares she had sometimes talked of things that simply couldn’t be. Oran had never pressed her on this, and thought the dream-talk best forgotten.
Catherine’s hair stirred slightly, as if pulled by the first signs of dawn. Oran touched the strands, as they slowly began to move.
He could still clearly remember the first time he had bedded her, and he’d been woken by the furious lashing of that hair caught up in the dawn stream. He remembered the fear he had felt and the awe that followed when, with her at his side, he had led an army to recapture the walled city of Ptath. The attack had been at dawn and Catherine had ridden into battle bare-headed, her hair flaming and writhing in the pre-dawn, a living standard.
Outside the cliff birds wheeled, shrieking like banshees in the half-light. They swooped low across the veranda, chasing the insects attracted by the palace lights. Occasionally Oran could hear the rapid clicks the birds used to find their prey in the darkness, noises that few were capable of hearing. In his youth he’d been proud of that ability.
Outside in the gloom he could see nothing.
‘There was a guardian there yesterday … I saw it.’ Catherine’s voice snapped him back to the present. He looked at her and she took his unwavering gaze as a challenge, staring deep into his cool grey eyes with a piercing intensity. ‘I know what I saw!’ she added more firmly.
Her voice was layered with meaning. It told him many things: she was certain, tired, and wanted him to believe her. He had known her for too long to fail to recognize the unspoken thoughts that troubled her. She yawned, her hair waving gently. ‘I might never have seen one before, but I’ve read books . . . ’
‘We’ve been over this before,’ Oran said carefully. ‘Books tell you only half truths . . . they aren’t always written by those who experience something at first hand.’
She yawned again, and her pale blue eyes flicked away from him as she ignored what he’d just said. ‘I’ve read that guardians can herald news of a loved one who has gone missing. Perhaps this one is linked to Druss? Perhaps it wants to tell us something?’
There it was again, layer upon layer of nuance, unvoiced thoughts and fears. She suspected something, but dare not say it aloud.
‘Druss is dead,’ he said firmly, and it pained him. Druss, their youngest son, would have been 22 years of age by now. ‘If he had survived the fall of Jaracmoor we would have known months ago.’
‘Guardians are often linked with those that die in battle,’ Catherine insisted. ‘Simone in the “Book of Beasts” says that . . . ’
Oran silenced her with a wave: he had to stop her train of thought before it led somewhere dangerous.
‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read,’ he said. ‘There is no proof they exist, and . . .’
Oran was himself interrupted by a knock at the door. Without waiting for an answer the door was opened and a tall wide middle-aged man looked carefully in. He was large and heavy-set, dressed in the livery of the court, and although he wore it well it was obviously not his first calling. Several prominent scars along the side of his jaw underlined that fact. Gundarm lately seemed to sport a perpetual frown that shadowed his already-dark eyes in an even deeper gloom. To trouble him this early it must be important, and likely related to what they had discussed the previous day.
‘My Lord, I need to speak to you, the matter would not wait . . . ’
His voice trailed off, unsure how to finish the sentence.
‘I’m coming, Gundarm.’ Oran began dressing, and shot a quick smile at Catherine. ‘I won’t be long,’ he added, and then he was gone.
Catherine waited a moment before pulling on a gown and making her way towards the window. The dawn flow was stronger now, that storm-like tingle that only she and few others could feel, set her hair lashing less languidly, as she looked out into the half light.
‘It was a guardian,’ she said quietly to herself.
Oran and Gundarm strode quickly down the corridor leading to the courtyard.
‘It’s out there, Lord,’ said Gundarm, ‘lurking just beyond the fish ponds. After the Lady Catherine mentioned it yesterday we instigated a full search.’
‘I’ll go alone,’ Oran said flatly. Gundarm had seen his determined expression on too many campaigns to argue.
‘As you wish, Lord,’ he agreed, ‘but perhaps you should go armed?’
Oran stared at Gundarm for several seconds, weighing his answer carefully before replying. The man was not a servant, not exactly, and could not be treated as such. He was the eyes of the Guild, and while he had always been faithful and reliable, and sworn his allegiance to Oran’s family, there was no getting away from the fact that he was, in many ways, a spy in his household.
‘It is written that they cannot be harmed by swords,’ Oran said firmly.
Gundarm couldn’t help snorting. ‘Now you believe everything you read?’ Abruptly he realised that he’d overstepped the mark.
‘Is there something you aren’t telling me, Gundarm?’ Oran snapped back. ‘Have the pins told you something I should know?’
‘No, my Lord, there is nothing I haven’t passed on,’ came the hurried reply.
Oran turned a long stare on Gundarm. The man had served him loyally for many years, but Oran had always suspected that he never told the truth, not the whole of it. ‘Get me my sword then,’ he said. ‘At least we’ll find out if that is true. And, Gundarm . . . if she asks about guardians . . .’ He let the thought trail away.
There was an appreciable silence before his companion replied: ‘I will not lie to her. I vowed allegiance to you both, and I won’t lie, no matter the cost.’
Oran stare hardened. ‘Just make sure you don’t tell her the truth,’ he said finally.
‘Truth . . . I wouldn’t know what that was any more,’ Gundarm replied. He absently traced a finger along one of his scars, then pulled a timing glass from beneath his jacket. Upending it quickly he snapped it down onto a low shelf in a recessed alcove by the door and watched as the sand began to fall. ‘Be careful,’ he added. ‘If you haven’t returned before this runs out, I’ll come for you myself.’
For a moment Oran looked vaguely amused.
‘You’re not as fast as you were, nor as strong,’ he said quietly, ‘and to be honest you never were that good with a sword.’
Gundarm snorted and returned the stare for a moment. ‘Perhaps not, but I’ve saved your life more than once.’ He held out a long-bladed glass dagger. ‘Take this also, as we discussed,’ he added.
Oran nodded. After buckling his sword around his waist he stuffed the dagger into the pocket of his coat and stalked out into the gloom. Gundarm watched him go, wishing that he’d never told Oran of the pins and that he had told his lord the whole truth of what he would find.
Oran rapidly crossed the courtyard, past the topiary bushes and trees trained into the likenesses of fabulous beasts. In the half-light, silhouetted against the dimly rim-lit clouds, they looked far more real and menacing than they ever did in the day.
Idly Oran wondered how much time remained before dawn. He looked skywards towards the jagged frozen lightning-like slash across the sky they called the gash. It was outlined in violet flecks migrating towards its jagged centre. No sign of the orange or gold sparks that would herald day: there was at least a quarter of a glass before dawn.
As he walked he gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. It wasn’t a particularly long blade, but it was wide and heavy, and had served him well in many battles. He had received it over 20 years before in return for his help in some minor border dispute, and it was old then: Gundarm had once tried to track down its origins - the intricate symbols carved on hilt and blade hinted at an origin among the desert nomads of south Kkromer – and he’d traced it back almost 200 years before the trail went cold.
Hurrying through the darkened gardens Oran’s thoughts turned to Catherine. He felt guilty keeping the truth from her, but there were some things that were handed down verbally, which were not meant for books.
According to Gundarm it would be making for somewhere dark to sit out the day. Guardians weren’t hurt by light, but they did tend to avoid it.
He knew where it would be. Just ahead lay the outline of a large gnarled corn tree. The tree was ancient, hollowed out by the elements, but it still clung precariously to life. As he approached, its massive silhouette blotted out more and more of the sky.
Here he was further from the cliff, and with no nearby lights the noise of the cliffbirds could only be heard occasionally above the creak of the branches and rustling of leaves high above.
The lower part of the tree was deep in shadow. And he remembered that within its massive eroded trunk were several chambers, safe from prying eyes, chambers that Druss had loved to use as hiding places when he was a child, chambers which had once brought Oran nothing but fond memories.
Oran cast a last look skywards, in time to see a bright blue fleck roll slowly into the gash. One of the “Tears of Kessel”: there would be several more before dawn. He remembered his tutor teaching him how to navigate and tell time by the gash, knowledge that had stood him in good stead. There would be at least six more tears, and when the tear was tinged with orange then dawn would be but moments away.
Oran entered the shadows where a large dark opening in the trunk both beckoned, and repelled. He knew even before he heard the stirring of dried leaves. It was in there!
Something dark, darker than the shadows themselves moved out into the half-light. Its shape, suggested briefly by the reflections in its polished skin, grew more visible as it approached.
Twin downward-curving horns stuck from the bottom part of the triangular eyeless head. The body was small and barrel- shaped, edged with vertebrae-like spines. Its limbs were long and spindly, the legs lost in darkness, the arms terminating in talons that seemed to have only three claws. Around its body something hung in tatters, like strips of flesh hanging from a body that swings on a gibbet.
The creature moved towards him.
It shuffled out of the shadows, hunched against the low branches, its arms hanging loose by its sides. Oran’s breath caught in his throat: it was a guardian.
Instinctively he raised his sword but still the guardian moved forwards, its blackened skin rustling like stiff cloth as it advanced.
Less than ten paces separated them.
Oran felt fear. He had often known fear - he had fought in too many wars not to have experienced the feeling that went before a battle - but this was different. The creature that moved towards him across the shadow-dappled lawn was something out of myth; something that legend claimed could not be killed with a sword.
He pushed the thought away: the sword would protect him, as it had so many times in the past. No creature, least of all one with no visible armour, could turn the blade he now manoeuvred so gently in the cool predawn air.
Oran stepped backwards, slowly scything his sword back and forth ready to make use of any opening.
His sword felt strange, meeting resistance where there was nothing: it was as if it were moving through water.
The sword felt stranger still, the resistance now more keenly felt, almost like mud, or that someone were pushing it gently away. For a brief moment he felt the fear begin to rise in his belly and could almost taste its metallic tang, but he pushed it back and suppressed it as he had so many times before.
The guardian halted. The force was strong now, and Oran could do nothing: whatever pulled against the sword was too strong. He made one final attempt to strike. The guardian’s horns seemed to briefly glow blue, then his blade twisted in his hand, and was torn from his grip and hit the ground yards behind him with a dull thud.
The blue glow faded, and the guardian stood before him rocking gently from side to side.
Oran took a step back. The creature stepped forward, and stopped again.
The light was stronger now, closer to dawn, and Oran could see the guardian more clearly. High above two more orange tears drifted languidly towards the gash.
Fighting against all his instincts to run, Oran stepped forward towards the beast. The creature made no attempt to strike. It simply stood calmly before him, its stance loose and awkward. They were so close that he could see the decayed strips hanging from it . . . they looked like dirty cloth torn and weathered by elements, cloth that had once been a uniform of some sort.
Gundarm was right: this creature had once been human but, damn him, he hadn’t told him everything. Oran cursed as the cold premonition of something terrible pricked at him, causing the bile to rise once more in his throat.
Just inches apart now, and Oran could see that despite being heavily soiled and torn, the tattered remnants of cloth were the remains of a military collar that still showed a few distinct threads of golden embroidery. The pattern was unmistakable.
Tears welling in his eyes, Oran reached into his jacket and slowly removed the long glass dagger, the end tipped with a small liquid filled bulb. Barely able to restrain his emotions, he reached forward towards the guardian. ‘Forgive me,’ he stammered.
He could hardly see through his tears but he didn’t need to see: the dagger point had found its mark and pierced the skin easily. He thrust it deep into the dark parchment-dry body. Embracing the creature, he gave the dagger a sharp twist to break the point and released the poison deep within the body cavity.
The guardian convulsed, striking out wildly. One razor-like talon raked Oran’s left arm, shredding cloth and piercing the leather he wore below until he felt the sharpness against his skin. He held on tightly as the creature tried to break free, but the poison was swift, and within seconds it was dead.
Oran knelt by the crumpled body and wept as, soundlessly, the brightness of the dawn flashed about him: now he knew for certain that Catherine would never see their son again.