Read a sample from THE GATHERING OF THE LOST by Helen Lowe
Malian’s dream was darkness: blackness without stars, water without light, a tower without a shadow that she remembered climbing—but that too fell away as she plummeted, diving head first through the dream. She kept her eyes open, remembering the crow in the shadow tower, the one that had told her this was something she would need to learn how to do.
The crow had been right, Malian thought, not that it helped when the universe of her dream was devoid of light.
“It is not the eyes.” The voice of Nhenir, the legendary helm that had once belonged to Yorindesarinen, the greatest of all Derai heroes, was a mixture of light and dark, speaking into Malian’s mind. “Yourinner awareness must be open: you must learn to eat the dark lest it eat you.”
Malian did not answer as she plunged deeper, and then deeper again into the well of her dream. Mind, heart, and soul, she felt as if she were made of darkness—but was that not fitting since her name was Night?
She was far, far down in the dream before she saw light, a single star drowned at the bottom of the well. She turned toward it and the light grew, finally becoming a torch that gleamed white in a crystal bracket. Malian caught at it with her mind and stepped forward—into the center of an enormous cave that was ringed with more torches.
The cave was so vast that both its roof and the light were lost in the darkness overhead. But the space surrounding Malian was not empty: thousands of warriors lay all around her on stone biers. All were armed, but their helms and weapons, like their companion beasts—horses, hounds, and even the occasional hawk—were disposed around them. They looked exactly, Malian thought, like the depictions of legendary heroes in ancient sepulchres. Yet these warriors were alive: she could see the steady rise and fall of their breath.
“Asleep,” Malian whispered, “they’re all asleep.”
Slowly, she paced their silent rows—and saw young faces and those that were older, keen faces and grim, worn faces and sad. Every face looked resolute, as though some grave purpose had brought them to this one place, and a great many, Malian noticed, were beautiful, the men and the women alike.
The crystal torches were spaced evenly around the cavern, with a gonfalon hanging beside each light. Malian did not know either the runes or the heraldic devices depicted, but saw that every pennant was colorful and finely wrought. Far down the length of rows, in the very heart of the cavern, three great standards rose on staves of yellow, white, and bright red-gold. The banners were worked in the colors of fire, and their brilliance both dazzled Malian and drew her close.
The central banner and the highest of the three was vermilion silk with a pattern of silver and gold flames at its center. Living fire, Malian realized, when she finally stood below it, and with some kind of creature, a serpent or perhaps a lizard, coiled at the heart of the conflagration. The eyes of the lizard, too, were burning coals.
It’s just a banner, Malian told herself, only a device.
She would never say now: It’s just a dream. For her kind, there was no such thing. She looked away with an effort, turning her eyes to the banners on either side. The one on her left was orange and gold and fiery rose, all three colors shifting and weaving together with a fire bird device extending its full length. The bird’s wings were like knives, its tail a fall of shooting stars. The banner to Malian’s right bore a bird device as well, partially concealed by folds in a fabric that was both intensely white and indigo-blue as the hottest flame. The brilliance hurt Malian’s eyes, so she looked down at the biers instead, one beneath each of the blazing banners.
All three were draped with rich cloth that matched the standard overhead—but for the first time in all that vast hall, two of the three biers stood empty. Armor and weapons alone were laid out on the central plinth and the one immediately to its right. Malian considered them, her brows drawn together, before turning to the bier beneath the white-hot banner. The warrior who lay there was armed like all his companions, but a coif of silver mail covered his head and chin, and a naked sword was set upon his breast. His gloved hands curved around the hilt and his expression was full of grief and weariness, the folded lips stern.
The mail of the coif was cunningly wrought, a master smith’s work, but the sword was plain, with a simple guard and straight blade that was dull as pewter. Clearly, though, the man was a leader, despite the plainness of the sword. The runes worked into the cloth on which he lay, as well as his position beneath the standard, led to that inevitable conclusion. Although perhaps, Malian decided—with a quick glance at the bier’s empty companions—he had not always been the only leader.
Her eyes returned to the sword, because there was something about it despite the unadorned simplicity—something that drew the eye and asked to be grasped, held aloft and wielded against one’s foes. Malian half extended her hand, even though she knew that grasping the sword might trigger some warding spell.
“It is not yet time.” The voice spoke out of the flames on the central banner and Malian snatched her hand back. Her eyes flew to the creature in the fire’s heart and saw that the watching eyes were no longer fiery coals, but had grown dull.
“Time for what?” Malian’s dream voice echoed in the vastness of the chamber.
“The Awakening. But it is not yet time and you are not the one appointed. So who are you then, that steps so boldly into my ages-old dream?”
Malian knew that it was dangerous to reveal her name—but it could be even more dangerous not to, caught in so deep a dream. Her heart was racing, but she raised her chin. “Malian of Night is my name and I, too, dream.”
Silence fell all around her and the fire in the torches lengthened, growing brighter. When the voice spoke again, it held a note of wonder: “Malian. Who named you, child?”
What an odd question, Malian thought, astonished. “I don’t know,” she said finally.
“It is not,” the voice reflected, “a name that belongs to Night.”
Malian could not recall ever having thought about her name before, but it certainly wasn’t a common Night form. “No,” she agreed. “Does it matter?”
“I would be interested to learn who it was that gave it to you,” the voice replied. “When you find out, you must return and tell me.” Malian heard a note beneath the unhurried, reflective voice that she could not quite identify, although she thought it might have been excitement.
“I may not be able to find you again,” she said.
“I think you know that you will,” the voice replied. “You are very strong, for all your youth. Besides, it will be easier if I wish to be found.”
Did you wish to be found this time? Malian wondered. She decided to be bold. “Who are you? And who are they, all these warriors? What are they doing here?”
“They are sleeping,” the other replied, “until the hour and the time appointed, which is not now. Your name would mean something to them, too, though—as would the name of the one who gave it to you. It could be . . . a very great gift.”
Malian shook her head. “You talk in riddles,” she said. “But one gift deserves another: you still have not told me your name.”
Humor tinged the voice’s reply. “You still have not told me who named you. So: a riddle for a riddle, an answer for an answer, a gift for a gift. You know my name already for it is also your name—although you might not recognize it as such.”
Malian ran a hand over her hair. “I’m not sure that you play fair,” she said ruefully. “Is that a prerogative of age?”
“My dear,” said the voice, “it is not that I am old. I am dead. I died a long time ago, so that they might live.”
Malian reflected that she might have erred, after all, in venturing so deep within the Gate of Dreams, where the dead were always more powerful than the living.
“Generally,” the voice continued, “I am not kindly disposed toward those who disturb my dreams, but you I could almost like, despite your youth.” A ghost of a laugh shivered through the cavern. “Besides, you bear a good name.”
“And,” Malian suggested, “may be able to discover something that interests you?”
“And,” the voice answered, laying a fine emphasis on the word, “you have powerful friends beyond this Gate of Dreams. They have been tolerant of my presence here; I do not wish to test their goodwill. The other reason is also worthy of consideration, of course.”
“Of course,” echoed Malian. She took a step back, away from the biers and the banners. On impulse, she bowed. “Farewell,” she said, “until we meet again.”
“Farewell, namesake.” The torches snuffed out so that Malian was again in darkness. She reached upward with her mind and back all the long way that she had come—and realized that she was far deeper in than she had thought.
“You must learn to be less reckless, child.” The voice whispered around her, dry, but a little amused as well, and Malian was given a sudden boost, so that instead of climbing against the weight of darkness she arced through it like a comet. “You are strong, yes, and young, but the Gate, too, is strong, its depths more profound than you can imagine. And not all those you may meet here are disposed to be . . . kind.”
The voice snuffed out as the flames had done, and Malian breached the surface of the darkness like a diver, to find herself standing before the main gate of the Keep of Winds. The keep cleaved the dream realm like the prow of a great ship, yet the Derai world massed behind it was as closed to her now, even in the realm of dreams, as it was in the waking world.
“Exile.” Malian whispered the word to herself, but the echo came back from the keep’s height: exile-exile-exile!
This time, it was Nhenir’s voice that spoke into her mind. “There is no part of the Gate of Dreams that is more closely warded. The barriers flung up when the Derai first arrived here have endured, and the two realms, the world of the Derai and that of Haarth, have not bonded. They overlap, but no more than that, a schism that is even clearer here on the dream plane than it is in the physical world.”
The dream was thinning, Malian thought, the Keep of Winds and the Derai world withdrawing into the whiteness. She could hear the bluster of the wind over the Winter Country and smell the smoky interior of a Winter lodge. Yet still she lingered, unwilling to cross back. “So even here,” she said, stifling a rush of grief and loss, “I cannot enter my own world anymore.”
“Not unless you force a way through, which I don’t advise until you have learned to conceal your use of power rather better than you can now. Even then, you would risk drawing attention—and creating a greater rift between Haarth and the Derai.”
And my reason for leaving the Wall, Malian reflected, was to disappear out of sight and mind among the lands of Haarth. Not without regret, she released the dream and opened her eyes to the smoky darkness of the lodge. She grimaced, feeling the cold of the frozen ground rising through the layers of felt and fur piled on the floor as she lifted Nhenir from her head.
The fire was a dull glow, turning the leather- and felt-hung walls to sepia, but Malian felt the touch of Kalan’s mind before she turned her head and saw him by the fire pit. Swathed in furs, his shadow hulked even larger against the lodge wall. “You went too far ,” he said abruptly, but Malian could hear his fear. “The contact between us broke. I know we’ve both learned a lot from the shamans this winter and you have Nhenir . . .” His mind voice trailed off as he shook his head. “You still need to be careful.”
“I know.” He could speak directly into her mind, but she could not respond in kind as she could with Nhenir—and as both of them had been able to do with Tarathan of Ar and Jehane Mor, the heralds of the Guild, when beyond the Gate of Dreams. The lack of reciprocity was a bitter frustration for Malian, and a danger, too. All the histories made that clear, even though they also indicated that the two-way link could well come with time. But what, Malian thought, if it does not, especially since we are not to remain together once the thaw begins?
“Did you find anything?” Kalan asked, still silently, because there were some things they tried never to speak of openly. “Any sign at all of the sword and shield?”
Malian shook her head. She had felt drawn to the sword on the sleeper’s breast, but Yorindesarinen’s armring had not burned with silver fire as it had when she found Nhenir. The helm, too, had not given any sign of recognizing the sword—which it would have if the sleeper’s blade had been Yorindesarinen’s famous, frost-fire sword.
“You have the armring,” Kalan replied. If he had spoken aloud his tone would have been heartening. “And Hylcarian said that all the lost arms would be rousing themselves to answer your need, as Nhenir did. So it has to be just a matter of time.”
“Besides, you already have me,” Nhenir pointed out. “And I am the greatest of the three.”
“Also the most modest?” Malian queried silently. She got up and sat close to Kalan, so that she could whisper a description of the cave and the sleepers without fear of being overheard. His eyes widened as he listened.
“It’s like something out of the oldest stories. But the sword you saw, you’re sure that it wasn’t Yorindesarinen’s?”
“It was too plain, and didn’t have any qualities of either frost or fire . . . ” She let her voice trail off, and he nodded.
“That namesake business, though—that’s really strange.” His look was curious. “And you really don’t know who named you? What about a naming ceremony sponsor?”
Malian shook her head, because if she had a sponsor, no one had ever told her—and not every Derai child, even those of the Blood, had a ceremony and a sponsor in any case. She remained silent, watching the flicker of the flames and listening to the roar of the wind. Linden, the spring-singer of Rowan Birchmoon’s clan, had told them this might be the last storm before the snowmelt began. “And once the floods that follow snowmelt are done,” she had added, “you can begin your journey south.”
Our separate journeys, Malian thought now, feeling hollow. She and Kalan had argued against being split up, each sharply aware that the other was all they had left of the Derai world, but the Winter leaders had been adamant. “If those you flee seek a girl and a boy together,” Linden had observed in her gentle way, “then the wise course must be to send you south by diverse routes—and to different destinations.”
“Besides,” the oldest of the shamans, Wolf, had added, “both smoke and stars show you following disparate paths to your power. Best, then, that we not meddle.”
He was Rowan Birchmoon’s great-uncle, Malian had discovered, his eyes shrewd in a face that was a mass of weathered seams—and his was the final ruling. So as soon as the weather allowed they would leave as part of separate hunting parties, each band following a distinct tributary of the Wildenrush south toward the River. A journey across the Wild Lands, Malian thought, which Linden says will take most of the summer. Yet only a few short months ago I believed that no one ever went there.
Despite the separation from Kalan, she felt a thrill of excitement. “One day,” she said, “I should like to go as far as Ishnapur and look out on the great sea of sands.”
“We should go there together,” Kalan agreed. “One day.”
They fell silent again, listening to the snowstorm buffet the lodge roof and scream around its entrance. From Ij to Ishnapur, Malian thought dreamily—and Linden will go with me as far as the Wildenrush, so that I may continue what I have begun and learn to read the patterns of smoke and stars like a shaman.
A vision of the cave of sleeping warriors filled her mind again, wavering into the Keep of Winds emerging out of mist and darkness. I must never forget why I am here, she told herself—that my duty to Night and to the Derai Alliance is why I follow this path. “We mustn’t change,” she said, quick and fierce, then wondered if the need to say the words at all was driven by her fear that Haarth would alter her. She saw the same thought reflected in Kalan’s face as he studied hers.
“We may have to,” he said slowly, “to survive where we’re going.” His eyes held hers. “But we must never change to each other.”
No, Malian thought silently, but if we alter in other ways . . . She shivered as the wind gusted again, shaking the lodge. Kalan built up the fire. “Spring coming or not, it’s still freezing. Sometimes, I think I’ve forgotten how to be warm.” He remained crouched on his heels, watching the flames lick across the dry wood and spark along a smear of resin. “When I was in the Temple quarter there were stories told. About the Lost.”
“The Lost?” Malian asked, her inner sight flashing to the cave of sleepers again.
“Renegades. Priest-kind—those with old powers who managed to flee the Wall and disappear into Haarth.”
As we’re doing, Malian thought. Her warrior upbringing made her wrinkle her nose at the association, before she reminded herself that she, too, was priest-kind now. “I thought the fugitives were always caught and brought back?”
Kalan shrugged. “I’ve heard rumors that some find sanctuary well beyond the Wall, although it’s probably just a story we spin to delude ourselves there’s hope. But you should know, just in case.”
In case I’m recognized as being warrior Derai, Malian wondered, and vengeance is sought against me for wrongs done on the Wall? These Lost would have to know who I am for that—although I suppose if they include seers in their number, they well might. Then again, if the Lost exist, they are still Derai. They might want to return home, if a path of honor opened for them.
And, she reflected, narrowing her eyes on this possibility, the Alliance is going to need all of those with the old power that it can get, even if most Derai on the Wall don’t realize it yet.
The day when they did was probably some way off though, as was the time when she and Kalan, let alone anyone else, could even contemplate returning. Kalan grinned when she said so aloud, but soon afterward they both yawned and burrowed into their separate piles of furs. Kalan’s breathing deepened quickly, but Malian kept thinking about the cave with its crystal torches. Time after time, she traversed the rows of sleeping warriors and wondered what it all meant: who were the sleepers and why had her seeking taken her there—and where exactly was there?
I know I went deep within the Gate of Dreams, she reflected, but are the sleepers of the present, the future, or the past? And why is my name a riddle to the power that guards them? Malian half thought that Nhenir might respond, but the helm remained silent even when she stretched out a hand and touched its curved surface. It was only when she was almost asleep that the ghost of a whisper crept into her mind.
“You stood in the long ago past, so deep and so long ago that you frightened even me. The dream touches on the present and the future, too, but as for the puzzle of your name—even I cannot resolve that.”
Riddles, Malian thought drowsily, before she let sleep take her—and so did not hear when the helm spoke again, a shiver across the blizzard’s roar.
“I wonder, Child of Night, if you could have returned so easily, despite your strength, if you had not had help? And how could you possibly understand the wonder of the help that you received? But then,” Nhenir continued, meditative, “she always was disposed to bekind—although that is something the Derai have chosen to forget.”