Authors: Tom Stacey
Copyright 2014 Tom
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced in any form, whole or part, without consent
from the author.
Cover art by Mr Canifu
Maps by Neishka
and the Heartlands
Table of Contents
The Year 1256 of the Common Watch
“Slow down, Loster!
You’re climbing too fast!” Barde’s reedy voice carried up to the small boy as
he dug his toe into a narrow crevice, skinning the top of his foot through the
boot. Loster was a confident climber but he had never been this far up, despite
having lived in the shadow of the Widowpeak all of his eleven years.
“Los!” The rest of
Barde’s protest was lost to the wind, bouncing off of the pitiless rock face
and tumbling backwards into the howling elemental maelstrom that plucked at
Loster’s clothing. His fine tunic of dark blue satin was ripped at the hip and
his leggings bore enough stains and small tears to render them rags.
None of that mattered
This far from the
ground, the Great Hall of his father was a god’s dollhouse. If he’d had the
courage to look down, Los would have been able to blot it out with only his
“Mother is going to beat
us if we’re home late again.” Barde hauled himself up until he was just beneath
his brother. As the elder by several years his arms were stronger, but he was
also heavier and therefore less nimble. “If we start back down now we might be
able to make it.” He did not need to mention what their father would do if they
Loster ignored the
hopeful tone. “Just a little bit further, then we can start back.” He grinned
to himself. “Of course if you’re scared…”
“I’m not! You’re the
baby here.” Barde clambered up alongside Loster. “Come on, let’s keep going.”
As he moved off, Loster couldn’t help but grin. Nevertheless, he caught the
hastily concealed edge of fear in his older brother’s voice — it pierced
his sense of calm like a broken bone. There were other signs too: the telltale
tremble of his legs and arms, the whiteness of his knuckles as his fingers gripped
handholds with the strength of a drowning man. Loster frowned. Maybe he was
pushing too hard. His brother was only here to look after him anyway. Barde
didn’t share Loster’s interest in exploration, unless it involved exploring
some of the prettier girls in the village. The small climber suddenly realised
how selfish and childish he was being. What if he got Barde killed?
“Hey, I think I found a
ledge,” Barde grunted and disappeared from sight only to reappear headfirst a
moment later. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand.”
Loster smiled. Mother
He wedged his boot into
a nook, scuffing the soft leather and gripping his brother’s clammy hand. Barde
heaved and dragged him up over the lip of the ledge, further ripping his fine
clothing. He didn’t care. Up here he was untouchable, far away from his
mother’s scolding and his father’s hard stares and harder hands. Loster glanced
sidelong at his brother. Barde was much bigger than him: broad in the
shoulders, long in the limbs. He was the confident one, calm in the knowledge
that his father’s status as Lord of Elk was enough to shield him from most of
the evils that the world had to offer, even if it could not shield him from his
father. Yet now Barde sat clutching his legs to his chest, well away from the
edge. To Loster it seemed that his brother had shrunk in stature.
He stood and walked
along the edge as if it were a line on the ground. He had seen a few of the
travelling troupes perform a similar feat with a length of rope and two tall
wooden beams. The act had spectators cooing and screaming with fear whenever
one of the high walkers feigned imbalance. Loster wondered what reaction his
high walk would get — surely nobody could boast about having performed at
such a height?
He stepped back on to
stable ground and sat next to his brother. Barde was breathing deeply and
looking at the ruin of his boots. It had taken courage for him to climb up this
high and Loster respected that — indeed, he was not exactly fearless
himself. If anything he saw himself as the victim of a self-imposed pressure.
Whenever an opportunity arose to do something that others would call daring or
dangerous, Loster’s head filled with a hushed but insistent voice, urging him
on. The voice had been with him for as long as he could remember and the only
way to quiet it — the only way to find peace — was to give in. He
wasn’t brave or even reckless. He was the opposite. He was weak.
“Do you think we’re the
first people to climb this high?” Barde asked, his eyes scanning a horizon
limned in bright cloud.
“I don’t know,” said
Loster. “We’re probably not as far up as we think we are.” He craned his neck
to view the rest of the mountain that towered into the heavens.
Barde blew the air from
his lungs noisily. “It’s far enough for me. Jaym said I should know my limits
and this is mine.” Loster rolled his eyes. Barde had begun lessons with the
family’s weapons master three weeks earlier on his fourteenth birthday.
He was still in awe of
the grizzled old bastard and often quoted him, no matter how banal or
ridiculous the statement.
Loster looked around
their perch. A few loose stones, just enough room for a grown man to lie down
without his feet dangling over the abyss. He walked up to the smooth stone wall
and pressed his hands against it. It was cool despite the sun beating down.
Even that brightest of torches could not warm the Widowpeak. He made to turn
around and stopped. A groove ran down the centre of the rock face, about a
finger’s width across, disappearing into the floor between his feet.
“Barde, come look at
this.” Loster ran a hand down the groove, freeing dust and dirt. Barde appeared
at his side, lips parted slightly.
“What is it?” he said.
“I don’t know but we
could pry it open. Give me your dirk.” Barde took a quick step back and clutched
at the prized dagger tucked in his belt. As a man of fighting age, he had been
gifted it by none other than his father, albeit grudgingly. It was a lovely
thing with a jewelled hilt and a blade of steel so bright that it shone blue.
“No, it’s mine. Father
said I must look after it.” The older boy turned his body away from Loster to
forestall any attempts at snatching the dirk from its oiled sheath, though
Loster suspected that it was also to hide his fear. Gaston Malix’s rage was a
dreadful thing. Almost as bad as his affection.
Loster held out his
hands. “Oh, come on. It’s a knife. You butter your bread with one.”
“That’s not the point.
This is a proper knife, used for fighting Veria’s enemies. Not spreading
butter.” He scowled. “You’re just jealous.”
Loster’s hands dropped
to his side. He stifled a grin as an idea leapt to mind. “What if this leads to
the tomb of some great king?” He waved a hand at the seam in the rock.
“Up here? Not likely,”
“Why not? Aifayne said
that there used to be a great city on this mountain. That’s what the ruins at
Stackstone are all about.”
“That old dustfart?”
Barde snorted, yet nevertheless elbowed past his brother. He ran a finger down
the gap in the rock face and turned back to Loster. “Give me your tunic.”
“If there is treasure
inside then we have to go and claim it, but I’m not damaging my knife. In case
there’s a dragon.”
“A dragon?” Loster
raised an eyebrow.
Barde flushed red. “Yes.
You never know. You were the one who said we were the first up here.”
“I said I didn’t know.”
“Just give me your
tunic.” Loster looked down at his soiled and tattered satin tunic. He sighed
and slipped it off, passing it to Barde and shivering as the cruel wind nipped
at his naked chest. The older boy grabbed the hem and wrapped it around his
dirk before turning back to the rock face. With a grunt of effort he rammed the
blade into the groove up to the hilt and began to saw it back and forth.
“It’s no use,” said
Barde, and slipped the knife from its tunic cover too quickly, slicing the
blade into the ball of his thumb. “Gods,” he cursed. A ruby droplet of blood
fell from his hand and sparkled as it splashed on to the ground. There was a
loud crack like bone splitting, and a great door opened in the rock, swinging
outwards and threatening to sweep the boys from the ledge. Barde leapt back,
knocking into his brother and sending them both tumbling over the edge.
Loster’s hand shot out
and grabbed a fistful of rough stone. Glancing to his right he saw Barde doing
likewise, terror etched on his features. A shadow passed overhead as the great
rock door passed above them, locking into position with a deep boom. Dust
showered down on the boys and then all was silence.
“Are you okay?” Barde
had remembered his courage and resumed his role as the older brother.
Loster smiled. “I’m
fine. Did you drop your knife?”
Barde cursed again. His
prized dirk was somewhere below, probably beyond recovery. Loster hauled
himself back up to the ledge and froze as Barde scrambled up beside him,
sucking his thumb to stem the flow of blood.
The door had revealed a
long corridor angled down into the heart of the mountain, and its passage had
gouged away a thick layer of dirt and dust, laying bare a quarter circle of
mosaic underneath. The hundreds of tiny tiles were chipped and faded, but
Loster could just about see a dark figure picked out in once-black and was-red.
The figure’s hands were raised towards a vibrant sun in a sky of azure
“What is it?” Barde
asked, his dagger forgotten. “It doesn’t look like the king of a great city.”
“That’s because it
isn’t.” Loster looked at Barde. “I’m not sure, but I think that’s… Him.”
“Who? Who’s ‘Him?’”
Barde knelt and wiped more dust from the floor, revealing a line of strange
runic script. Barde sat back on his haunches and frowned. Loster swallowed hard
and instinctively moved behind his brother. Barde looked over his shoulder at
him. “Well, what does it say?” he asked.
“It’s Old Verian, I
think,” Loster recognised the strange shapes from his studies with Aifayne,
Loster raised his hand
to his mouth, absently chewing his grimy thumbnail. “Well
word.” He pointed at a jagged symbol. “I’m not supposed to say
it out loud.”
“What do you mean?"
“I mean the writing, the
man in the picture. It’s Him.”
Barde blinked. “Not the
Loster gasped. “Ssssh.
What if He hears?” This adventure had been his idea but he was beginning to
like it less and less. None of the stories that haunted his slumber were more
chilling than the horror tales of the Unnamed. Loster had overheard His true
name once but knew it was not to be uttered aloud. Not unless you were one of
his thralls from the Temple Deep or were spinning the cruellest of
“Don’t be a baby. He
can’t hear us."
“He’s always listening.
That’s what gods do.” Loster could feel the cold without his tunic and had lost
his appetite for this particular excursion. “We should get back. Mother will be
worried.” He knelt and pulled on his soiled and torn shirt.
Barde knotted his brow.
“Well what about my dirk?” he asked, cocking his head.
“What about it?”
“I’m not going home
without it.” Barde folded his arms across his chest.
“But it went down
there," Loster said. He gestured at the emptiness behind him. “We have to
go down there to get it anyway."
“Not if there’s a better
one.” Barde jerked a thumb at the portal into the mountain.
To Loster it looked like
the maw of some fell beast waiting to swallow the two small boys. “We don’t
know what’s in there…”
“Afraid are we? That
makes sense at your age.”
Loster scowled. The
challenging voice in his head was strangely silent on this matter. Instead it
seemed that his older brother had taken its place.
“I’m not afraid, I
just…” he paused. “It’s
pointed at the mosaic. “We don’t know what it means.”
“So let’s find out,”
They stepped through the
doorway into the Widowpeak, though both took care to walk around the dark
figure on the floor.
The stairs were covered
in a fine dust, thick and cloying. Barde had scraped away a pile with his foot
near the entrance, uncovering black marble underneath. He led the way with
Loster a few paces behind, half crouched and ready to spring away at the first
sign of danger. Overhead, several beams of sunlight criss-crossed the
passageway, providing just enough illumination to see by.
“There must be channels
cut into the rock. Mirrors or something,” said Barde. Loster nodded and then
realised that his brother couldn’t see him. He gave him a gentle shove in the
back to keep moving.
As they went deeper, the
light from the entrance faded, yet Loster became aware of a bluish glow that
fought the gloom back into the corners. The air grew warmer, and Loster's
nostrils tingled with a musty, unpleasant smell. Once, perhaps, this tunnel had
been lit by rows of torches; he could see the rusted hoops clinging hopefully
to the walls at regular intervals. The walls themselves were smooth stone,
broken every now and again by a half-column that cast the stone on either side