In the start of a compelling new series, the New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Druid Chronicles creates an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic.
THE BARD BEGINS
When we encounter a voice that moves us on an emotional level, by turns wringing tears from our eyes and plucking laughs from our bellies, there is an ineffable quality to its power: all we know is that we like listening to it and want to hear more. But when we encounter voices we find loathsome, we usually can pinpoint why without difficulty: too nasal, too whiny, too steeped in anger or sodden with melancholy.
The bard’s voice was the ineffable sort.
He planted himself behind the battlement facing the peninsula, where the vast sea of refugees swirled around their tents, and raised his hands from his sides as if to embrace all the people who had washed up there because of the war. Then he turned slowly as he spoke, including the city in his address as well: “Good people of Pelemyn, I am Fintan, Bard of the Poet Goddess Kaelin.” At once, eyes swiveled to lock upon his form or heads tilted in the far corners of the city to hear his disembodied voice better; conversations subsided, and other magics seemed to begin their work. His beaming face elicited a kindred response and lifted moods; the cup of watery beer from a nameless keg that I had in my hand suddenly tasted like the crisp, legendary brews of Forn; pleasant aromas of fresh food were accentuated and wafted about on the wind, and the less pleasant whiffs of unwashed bodies and rotting garbage faded away.
“It is my life’s work to tell stories,” the bard continued, his smile gone now and replaced with an earnest tone. “And no one else can tell you what I have seen. This great war of our time has indeed been terrible, and I am still struck with its horrors, waking up in the night sweating and—well, I am sure I don’t have to tell you.”
No, he didn’t. Most of the people on Survivor Field were still wearing the same clothes they’d been wearing when they’d had to flee their homes. They were all dirty and ragged now, and purple hollows lay under their eyes, testament to lost sleep, lost loved ones, just . . . loss.
“But I am also struck by the sudden heroism of people all across the continent. For I have come from the other side of it, the western front, where I participated in the great battle below the Godsteeth.” A tide of exclamation greeted that announcement, and I marveled that it came from far out on the peninsula and from the streets of the city as well. He was not shouting—his volume was what one might use for a toast at a fair-sized dinner party—yet no one had difficulty hearing him.
“Yes, I witnessed that and much more. I can tell you exactly what happened in the Granite Tunnel—” Here the people sent up another cheer. “—and I can reveal that a peace-loving citizen of Kauria, acting at the behest of Mistral Kira, long may she reign, has had a secret role to play in this war and indeed may have finally found a way to bring it to an end. It is why I am here now.” That earned him the loudest roar yet, and he nodded at Survivor Field, assuring them that what he said was true. “Friends, I have permission from the pelenaut to tell you that there is a fleet on its way here from Kauria this instant. And it is coming to pick up the two allied armies that are marching this way across the mountains—one from Rael and one from Forn—and together they will sail across the ocean with your own forces to answer the enemy in kind for what they have done to us!”
The emotion that news tore from the throats of the assembled would have drowned out even the power of his kenning. It was angry at first, not directed at him but at distant shores, a tide of people who had lost almost everything and hungered for a balancing of the scales, and then it lightened, morphing into jubilation as people felt hope for the first time in months. They hugged one another, danced in the mud, tears streaming down their faces as they punched the air with their fists, for it was good news at last instead of another dose of despair, and I was not immune to those feelings. I lost track of the bard for a few minutes as I surveyed Survivor Field and then crossed to the other side of the wall and saw the same celebration happening in the streets of the city.
People skipped out of the buildings to embrace and smile and savor the sight of teeth that weren’t bared in a snarl or a cry. I could not see my own house from the wall, but I imagined that even Elynea might be grinning right then, and I was sorry to miss it; she had never looked anything but haunted since she and her children had come to live with me. And when the bard spoke again, his voice cutting through the noise as people were trying to find their second wind, he was no longer standing on the wall, half hidden by the crenellations, but was up on an improvised stage a few mariners had cobbled together out of crates. “But our relief and the enemy’s defeat will not arrive tomorrow or even the next day. It will take time for it to get here and even more time to prepare the voyage. I am told it could be up to sixty days. In the meantime, the pelenaut thinks it wise that you all hear what has happened elsewhere, for it is doubtful you have heard more than rumors. He has asked me to share what I know with you all, and he is listening as well. I am therefore engaged in your service, and I will tell you the tale in the old way, performing each afternoon until the sun sets. I hope you will take heart, as I have, from the small victories against overwhelming odds, all of which allow us to be here today, to be here tomorrow, and, gods willing, generations hence, to tell these stories again.”
The bard had to pause here for another swell of applause, and while he did, a young woman stepped onto the stage of crates with a giant flagon and presented it to him, speaking a few words in his ear that did not carry like the bard’s voice. Fintan dipped his head in thanks to her, and then his voice floated again on the wind.
“It seems that Brynlön’s reputation for generosity is well deserved! Master Yöndyr, owner and brewmaster of the the Siren’s Call in the city, gives me a flagon of Mistmaiden Ale—purely medicinal, I’m sure—and lodging at his inn for the length of my engagement! Thank you, sir!” Appreciative noises were directed at Yöndyr for having such excellent sense, and I imagined that other inn owners were cussing themselves for not thinking of it first; the Siren’s Call had just received the best advertising possible. Smiling as he did so, Fintan took the opportunity to tip the flagon and then wipe the foam from his upper lip. He then returned the flagon to the woman and wrapped himself in an air of dramatic doom, saying, “Listen.” Everyone I could see on either side of the wall stood rapt, many of us grinning at him in anticipation despite the fact that he had advertised details of a war we already knew too well. It didn’t matter because we were all children again, waiting to be told a story, and we had hope now that it would end well.
“Like all tales worth the telling, I shall begin at the beginning—but your beginning, not Kauria’s or Forn’s or anyone else’s. We’ll get to them later. We’re going to start with the reason this city still stands—your own tidal mariner! So take some time, friends, wherever you are. Fill your cups, visit the privy, do what you must so that you can be free in a few minutes to bend an ear for my tale—come closer to the wall so you can see me if you are out of my sight! If you’re thirsty, I can confirm that Yöndyr’s Mistmaiden Ale can slake a thirst like nothing else! I’ll begin soon!”
An afternoon of entertainment with one of our own featured as the heroine? Maybe with snacks and beer? We couldn’t wait! Everyone began to move and talk at once, and there was a general rush for food and drink on either side of the wall, all other occupations forgotten. Master Yöndyr, no doubt, was delighted.
* * *
“Let us begin,” Fintan said, his voice spreading effortlessly across the city and the peninsula a few minutes later. “I’d like to invite someone very special up here: Pelemyn’s tidal mariner, Tallynd du Böll. Tallynd, please join me.”
A woman in a military uniform stepped onto the makeshift stage with Fintan to thunderous applause, favoring her left leg as she did so. She had insignia that I had never seen before, which I at first assumed was due to her blessing but which I learned later meant a new military rank. She had kind eyes, a weary smile, and close cropped hair going gray at the temples. She waved to the refugees on Survivor Field, and Fintan indicated that she should speak.
“Say something. I’ll make sure they hear you.”
“Oh. Well, hello?” Her voice carried for a league thanks to Fintan’s kenning, and she received cheers in response. “Wow. Okay. I want everyone to know that I have shared both my duty log and my personal thoughts with Fintan prior to this. Except I’m sure he will organize it all much better than I ever could or did. Anyway: it’s the truth of things, and I’m glad that he will tell it all. It’s not the sort of tale you may be thinking it is right now. And you should know it.”
Fintan pulled out what looked like a small black egg from a pouch tied to his belt and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. He cast the egg at his feet, and black smoke billowed up in a column, shrouding his body completely until his form resolved into an exact copy of Tallynd du Böll, uniform and all, growing a couple of inches in the process. Fintan was a fairly short, dark man—his skin not quite as dark as that of we Brynts—distinguished by an overlarge nose perched above a generous mouth in a narrow face. It was therefore quite a shock to everyone to see him transform into the distinguished savior of our city, stand right next to her, and say with her voice, “Thank you, Tidal Mariner.”
She gasped—everyone did, honestly—and she said, “Oh, drown me, do I really look and sound like that?” Laughter from the crowd. “Never mind. Thank you, Fintan.” She waved again and stepped off the stage, and the bard told us, as Tallynd, what really happened the night the giants came.
Before my husband died five years ago, in a moment mellowed by drink and the puff of a Fornish gourd bowl, he asked me what price I thought we would all pay for the peace we’d enjoyed for so many years.
“What are you talking about?” I asked him. We were sitting in our small fountain court behind our house, and I was idly using my kenning to curl the water in twirling spirals before they dropped into the reservoir below. He hunched forward, leaning elbows on knees, and withdrew the pipe from his mouth, squinting through the smoke and waggling the stem at me.
“You have been in the military for what, four years now? And you have yet to fight a single battle. There’s always a price to be paid for that.”
“Why must we pay it?” I countered. “Perhaps the price was already paid by those who came before us.”
He bobbed his head to either side, admitting the possibility. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “We read all those stale histories in school, you know, and I don’t doubt that they scrubbed away a whole lot of blood and pain. Countless tragedies happening to families like ours, all reduced to a sentence or three, while pages were devoted to what this ruler ate or what that rich person wore.” He snorted smoke through his nostrils. “But I still think we have it coming to us, love. And I worry about it. Because when it comes, you’ll be the first to greet it.”
I laughed at him then. I did! I remember it so clearly now, though it didn’t seem important then. Because in that time, in that place, when he was so handsome and I wanted to have another child with him, when the sun was setting and bronzed his beautiful dark face, I could not conceive of war. I could not conceive of it, in fact, right up until it came to me first, just as he said it would. But by the time it came, he was long returned to the ocean, and our two boys were eight and nine and barely remembered him. I thought that was the worst tragedy in the world until the Bone Giants sailed over my head.
Normally I’m on duty during daylight hours, but by request of the fisher clave I was mapping the crab beds and taking note of the feeding habits of other nocturnal species in the waters north of the peninsula, keeping an eye out as always for any ship-sinking predators. I was in deep water far offshore when I heard, or rather felt, the slicing of keels through water on the surface at moonrise. It was an anomaly since no boats should have been in the area during the course of my mapping. Even allowing for fishermen who ignored the boundary buoys, it was far too much turbulence for one or two rogue net trawlers. I rose to investigate.
During the ascent, I realized the number of keels was not merely an unusual grouping of boats but a massive fleet of transport ships of strange origin. Upon breaking the surface, I saw that they definitely were not a Brynt fleet. Nor were they of Raelech or Kaurian construction or any recognizable profile. They were broad-bottomed sailing ships outfitted with oars, though at the moment they were under full wind from the east. The decks mounted no harpoons or other visible weapons. They were, however, packed with people. Tall, thin people with bone armor on their torsos and arms. They looked like ribs. I also saw handheld weapons, swords of some kind. They all had them, and they were all looking ahead at the firebowls atop the walls of Pelemyn and the smaller lamps along the docks. Unless I was mistaken in the moonlight, their skin was pale and they had painted their faces to look like skulls.
Turning my head to the right, I saw that several ships had already passed by my position and were entering the harbor. All I could see in the moonlight at that distance was the sails, not the people, so I could not tell for certain that this was an invasion in progress. But the stark evidence before me shouted that this was no friendly trade embassy. Cargo ships aren’t packed bow to stern with armed and painted men.
Swimming closer to the nearest ship on a tightly channeled current, I called out to them: “Who are you? I am the tidal mariner of Pelemyn and require an answer.”
Someone replied in a strange language, and that was when I found out they had a few spears, too: three of them plunked into the water around my head, and I do not think I could have been more shocked if they had actually hit me. They were most definitely hostiles, and they had just triggered the war protocols. I was authorized—required, in fact—to use the powers of my kenning to apply coercive and lethal force against an invading fleet.
And I admit that it took me a few moments to process that. I had to look toward the docks again, take in the enormity of the dark shapes in the moonlight, realize what they intended, and say the words out loud to make myself believe it was happening: “This is an invading fleet. Invading us. Right now.”
Up to that point, I had never used my kenning for anything but peaceful purposes. Scout the spawning grounds up and down the coasts, map the crab beds for the fisher clave, make sure the currents kept the coral reefs well fed—that had been my duty. But right then I needed to kill as many strangers as possible to protect my city. It is a disorienting transition to make—I mean from peace to all-out war in the space of a minute—but somehow classifying it as my “duty” every bit as much as my peaceful occupations helped. It didn’t make it easy: it just made it possible. If you drape the word duty over murder, well—you can hardly tell it’s murder anymore. Add the words in wartime, and the word murder simply disappears.
How, then, should I do my duty? Summoning large waves to wash men overboard would be inefficient and tax my system so much that I would age quickly and become useless. Better to use funneled, targeted currents similar to what I used to propel myself quickly through the water.
My first effort to capsize the nearest boat gave the occupants a scare but didn’t succeed. A bit stronger, then: triple the force I would use for myself, applied to the right side of the keel, amidships. Over it went, bodies thrashing in the cold water, and I felt a small ache bloom between my eyes. It was not entirely without cost, then, to focus that kind of pressure, but it was a small cost. Propelling myself to the site, I drew out a black volcanic knife chipped from the flows of the Glass Desert, ideal for water work, and opened some long gashes along the limbs of these unnaturally tall invaders, passing through them to get to the other side, where another boat awaited my attention. Blood in the water would bring the bladefins along to finish the job I had started. Probability of a feeding frenzy was high.
As I repeated the process on the next boat, tumbling tall bodies into the deep, the true size of the force seeped into my consciousness, chilling me far more than the water did. It was no mere raiding party but an army of many thousands, capable of sacking the city. Had I been sleeping at home rather than on duty in the water, most if not all of them would have already landed before I could do anything. I could only hope that the mariners on night patrol would be able to handle those who slipped past me while I did everything I could to prevent any more from landing.
After the second boat, I zipped through the waves back to Pelemyn’s docks to take out the leading ships—the fewer that landed, the better. From there I worked my way back out, always taking out the nearest boat first. Even if some of the invaders managed to swim for shore, they would be cold and weary and demoralized when they tried to attack the walls and would be attacking singly or in very small groups rather than large waves.
Once near the docks, I saw that three ships had landed and a small horde of skeletal giants were disembarking, swords held high, removing all doubt about the nature of this fleet. I wanted to go ashore and help or raise the alarm but knew that my priority had to be preventing the rest from landing.
The ache between my eyes grew incrementally with every ship I scuttled, and I was breathing heavily after three. After the fifth the bladefins and other predators had homed in on the blood and were finishing what I had started. More blood meant more predators on the way; they could chew through the army for me if I could just get them into the water.
I had to dodge several bladefins myself, but they never came back for a second pass when there were so many other easy targets thrashing about, practically begging to be eaten.
And they were eaten. The invaders screamed underwater, but still I heard them, garbled bubbles of terror popping in my ears as jaws sank into them, their severed limbs and intestines floating past me in clouds of blood, each drop a siren call to frenzy for everything in the ocean possessed of more teeth than brains. Seeing and hearing that hurt me, for even then I doubted I was doing the right thing. Had we spoken the same language, I wondered, could we have avoided it all?
They did not look as if they had come to talk, and that was what my duty told me. But even if my duty stood tall and proud like the cliffs of Setyrön, waves of guilt kept crashing against them, determined to wear them down as I dumped ship after ship into the ocean and men flailed and gasped and died. And every effort I made to force water to do my will drew days of my life away, unseen like the undertow of tides yet felt and feared as all forces of nature should be. Aging quickly was the price I had to pay for my blessing, and I swore to myself when I first swam out of Bryn’s Lung that I would never regret using it in my country’s defense—still: ninety-seven ships and pain like a nail in my head. There had probably been a hundred men or more on each boat. Whoever these tall foreigners were, they had sent ten thousand men against us without warning or, so far as I knew, any provocation from us. They would have completely overwhelmed us had I not been on duty.
When the last ship capsized and the pale figures cried out, knowing what awaited them in the deep since they saw what had happened to all the others, I took a moment to simply tread water with my own muscles, bereft of my kenning, weary beyond anything I had ever known. The firebowls of Pelemyn were not even visible where I was, which told me I was far out to sea. Returning to the docks meant I would have to weave through the feeding frenzy, but it was necessary: better to dodge bladefins than krakens. I was in deep enough waters that I would have to worry about true monsters, and a disturbance in the currents beneath me hinted that one was approaching, attracted by all the blood.
That prompted me to wonder: How did such a fleet cross the ocean without falling prey to krakens? If I had felt the fleet’s passage on the surface, then surely the krakens would have.
I skimmed the floor of the ocean on the way back, opting to swim underneath the ongoing frenzy but unable to avoid seeing some of the aftermath. I saw a crab scuttling across the ocean floor with a pale chewed hand clutched in its claws. That was a hand that had belonged to a man who had used it to greet his friends once, or hug his mother, or offer a gift of love or perhaps an apology. Now it was food for a crawling thing in the ocean, and I had made that happen.
Ninety-seven hundred deaths on my head if my estimates were correct. And it was all duty. Not murder.
Per protocol, I had to report directly to the pelenaut after using lethal force, so I would use the Lung’s underwater locks to get to the city Wellspring from the harbor. I did surface briefly to see what was happening at the docks and immediately saw the bodies of a few mariners and citizens lying sprawled on the boards. The firebowls illuminated a battle for the walls in progress—the invaders had actually reached the top without benefit of towers or ladders. The ghoulish giants swarmed on top of one another, making ladders out of their own bodies, quick and lithe and horrifying like snow spiders—if spiders could wield swords! Once I saw them confronting our mariners at the top, I worried that we might lose the city to these mere three hundred, because
one of them, dressed in no more than bones and rags, hacked down a mariner by first splitting his shield and then carrying the blow through to cave in his skull through the helmet.
I had never seen the like; that took incredible force. Their weapons were swords in the sense that they were blades attached to a hilt but were nothing like any sword I had seen before. Only one side had been sharpened, and the blade angled up to a ridge, then back down again. Viewed from the side, the sword looked like a child’s drawing of a mountain, albeit a gently sloped one. Their long reach and that design, coupled with good steel, clearly gave them a deadly advantage. There were only a few of them up top as yet, though more were ascending, and they were mowing through mariners like cutting summer wheat. I almost decided to climb out of the water to give what help I could, but someone had raised the alarm with the garrison, and a squadron of archers arrived on the south side as I watched. They let loose a flight, and the giants went down, their scant armor doing little to stop the arrows. Another flight aimed at the base of the human ladder buckled it, and the pile of them collapsed to the ground. They wouldn’t make it back up the wall again. Confident that the garrison now had matters in hand, I ducked down beneath the waves and cycled through the Lung’s locks.
I emerged in the Wellspring behind the coral throne, in the pelenaut’s pool but around a little-used corner. None but one of Bryn’s blessed could navigate the locks without drowning, but the egress was guarded by a mariner anyway—one who had a spear pointed at me until she recognized my face. She raised it and apologized once I gave her a tired grin in greeting. “We’re feeling some pressure here, Gerstad,” she said, addressing me by my military rank rather than my kenning.
“As you should be,” I said, dripping on the floor a moment before wicking away the moisture with a thought, dropping it back into the pool. “I have a report for either the pelenaut or the Lung. May I see one or both?”
“Certainly. I can’t leave my post now but please proceed.”
“Thank you. Before I go—how old am I?”
“How old do I look?”
The mariner shrugged, uncertain. “Midthirties?”
That was a relief because I’d appeared to be in my midthirties before the watch began. Well, maybe my younger thirties, but midthirties wasn’t bad. I felt older and slower and wanted nothing so much as a cup of tea and a day or three of sleep, but that would have to wait. I trod down the short hall with the pool’s feeder channel on my right and rounded the corner to find the pelenaut pacing in front of his throne and his wall of water. The Lung was there, too, along with several military personages of higher rank than mine—even the Könstad was there—and some others I did not recognize. Before I could say anything or salute, the pelenaut spied me and interrupted the Lung. “Ah! Gerstad Tallynd du Böll! So glad you’re here! Please come, report.”
I recounted what I had done and the reasoning behind it and watched for signs of disapproval. I couldn’t tell if I had done the right thing: they all wore masks of grim stone, and I was giving my report without knowing the full situation outside. Had any of the invaders made it into the city? When I finished, Pelenaut Röllend said, “Thank you, Gerstad. Könstad du Lallend.”
“Please fetch me an update on our casualties and dispatch the rapids while I talk to the Gerstad for a moment.”
He motioned me to follow him and led me around the corner to his pool behind the throne, the same way I had entered. He dismissed the mariner on guard there and waited until we were alone, and then, much to my surprise, he hugged me.
“There is no doubt you have saved Pelemyn tonight,” he said. “Thank you. I was asleep until moments ago and would not have been able to stop them as you did.”
“Normally I would have been asleep, too.”
“We were fortunate for sure. I know you must be tired, but I can’t spare you now. There’s more to do.”
My headache flared at the mere thought of more water work, but I tried to smooth away the wince on my face and keep the pain out of my voice. “Of course, Pelenaut Röllend. What can I do?”
“I’m worried that we weren’t the only target. I need to know as soon as possible if other cities were attacked. If they haven’t been, then we need to warn them that an attack may be coming.”
“Down to Gönerled, then?”
“No, I’m sending a couple of rapids there. I need you to go up to Festwyf with all possible speed.” I had to swallow my fear at those words, and he saw it. “I know that’s asking a lot.” He was asking me to move so quickly through the water that I essentially became it and in the process stripped away years of my life. I had told my boys often that this day might come, but now that it was here, I doubted that they truly understood; already I had lost some time, and who knew how much older I would be when I came home?
“It’s your prerogative to ask,” I said, and once I got past my visceral reaction, I agreed it was necessary. Advance warning might be the difference between saving the city and losing it. “May I beg a small favor in return?”
“Look after my boys while I’m gone. I was supposed to be home in time to take them to school, and if I’m not there—” They had already gone to sleep one night and woken up without a father the next morning; I didn’t want them to lose another parent the same way. They would be worried regardless, but maybe someone could reassure them.
“Done,” he said.
“Thank you. And . . .” My question died in my throat. “Never mind. Time’s wasting.”
“No, go ahead and ask. You’ve certainly earned an extra question. A promotion, too, once we have the luxury of ceremony again.”
“Do you know who these people are? Or why they attacked us?”
The pelenaut shook his head. “I’ve never heard of them. Haven’t managed to even see them yet, but I’m told they’re definitely not Hathrim.”
“No. These are not like any giants we’ve seen before.”
A helpless shrug from the pelenaut. “I had no idea they existed. Which makes me wonder where they came from and how they knew we existed.”
“I’ll seal my questions in a jar, then, and open it later. Currents keep you safe, Pelenaut Röllend.”
“And you, Gerstad du Böll.”
I was back in the ocean minutes later, headed north, pushing water in front and pulling it down the length of my body, sleeving myself through the deep, but this time I pushed and pushed until the resistance faded and the water welcomed me as part of it, my uniform slipped away and foundered in my wake, and I became the tide rolling in to Festwyf, where the fresh sluice of the Gravewater River fed the Peles Ocean. I lost time traveling that way—so much time—and more prosaic things, like my glass knife. I didn’t pull out of the tide trance until I hit the freshwater. There I slowed down, felt the sharp ache of a year’s strain on my organs and bones—quite possibly more—and surfaced.
Festwyf was quiet, and for a moment I harbored a hope that all was well. The firebowls still burned on the walls and the docks as they should. But upon closer inspection, there were bodies slumped over the walls near those fires. There was blood in the river and corpses bobbed near the docks. And at those docks, stretching back into the ocean, was an anchored fleet of the giants’ ships.
But there were no screams or sounds of fighting, nor were there sounds of a victory celebration. In fact, there were no sounds of a city at all, even those which a city at night might be expected to make. There was only the sound of water, and this was the first time in my life when I did not find it comforting.
I swam closer to the docks and pulled myself out of the ocean, concluding that there was no reason to be worried about my modesty when everyone was dead. I saw that there were both Brynt and giant bodies littering the area, but far more Brynts. The giants had surprised Festwyf as they had surprised Pelemyn, except that Festwyf had had no tidal mariner here to keep them from landing. The other two tidal mariners, aside from Pelenaut Röllend himself, were to the south in Setyrön and Hillegöm; one could only hope they were in a position to do as I had done.
When I came to the first dead invader, who had three arrows through his chest, I crouched down to examine him a bit closer, since I’d had no chance previously. They were pasty men, seven to nine feet each, possessed of stringy muscles and little else. They had no armor whatsoever on their legs—no pants either, which I thought vaguely obscene—and only rudimentary fibrous material strapped to the soles of their feet. They wore bands of cloth wrapped around their loins and then a basic undershirt belted to it. On top of this they had tied a sheet of flat rib bones to the front and back of their torsos. Said bones were too large and wide to be human as I originally feared. They had also tied smaller sets of these to rest on top of their shoulders and to protect their upper arms. No helmets, but not for lack of steel. Their swords were well made. Except for the handles; those were wrapped in poor cloth rather than leather. With a start, I realized they had no leather at all. Even their belts were made of woven fibers.
I mentally added to the giants’ list of contradictions: Though their boats were crude, they had enough sophistication at sea to coordinate an attack at multiple sites on the same evening. But none of them remained on their ships—they were all silent, anchored hulks. So where were the invaders now?
I took the giant’s sword—a bit heavy for me, but it might prove useful later—and padded barefoot across the planks of the docks to the city walls. No one challenged me. The gates were open, and piles of the dead stared up at the sky or lay sprawled in positions they would never adopt in life, and each one of them said to me that I would find nothing different beyond. They were right.
Inside the city there was no sign of survivors apart from lit buildings. I investigated a few of them to see if anyone remained inside, but in each case they turned out to be untended candles or fires burning low, illuminating a massacre of the inhabitants. The Wellspring was littered with the bodies of the city’s leaders. And I discovered that many people had been slain in their beds, efficiently murdered in their sleep.
Bryn preserve us, they had killed the children, too.
So these giants were not fond of war cries and waking up the populace. In fact, much of Pelemyn might still be unaware the city had been attacked if they were living far from the ocean walls. I thought about what I’d seen so far at both Pelemyn and Festwyf: Any person the giants saw was a target. Beyond that they had no clear military goals. They weren’t loading their ships with material goods, so it wasn’t our wealth they wanted, nor did they want to conquer and rule. They certainly gave us no diplomatic warning. They simply came to wipe us out. No threats or bluster or even an overture of diplomacy. Just blades parting skin and sawing flesh.
“What did we do to deserve this?” I wondered aloud, stunned. “Why slaughter us all?” The dead gave me no answers.
There might have been some survivors hidden away—I dearly hoped there were—but it wasn’t my mission to conduct a search and rescue. I had to find the giants, and they had already moved on. I had to move also, even though all I wanted to do was weep for the dead.
Back to the Gravewater River. I dived in with the giant’s sword and sleeved myself upstream, keeping my head above the surface and my eyes turned to the southern shore. The Merchant Trail there was wide and would allow an army to move quickly. I found them only two leagues away, setting up a camp under moonlight and torchlight. They had raided for food at least and had a significant train behind them—everything pillaged from Festwyf, right down to the carts. I could make no accurate count but was sure there were many thousands, and they sprawled for a good distance along the riverbank. They obviously planned to move at speed down the Merchant Trail and attack the river cities in turn. They had no siege weapons and needed none, counting on surprise and their overwhelming numbers to win.
My orders were to report on Festwyf and the army’s whereabouts; technically, I had all I needed and should return now. But the pelenaut had also mentioned warning Festwyf if possible. I couldn’t do that now, but I was the only person who could warn Fornyd that there was an army bearing down on them in time to make a difference.
I didn’t know who was running Fornyd in the pelenaut’s name, but he or she would probably want some evidence of my report despite my kenning and in whose name I worked. I hoped the sword I carried would suffice.
Moving away from the riverbank toward the center where I’d be able to go a bit faster, I was just beginning to sleeve myself upriver when a giant shouted in surprise. My eyes tracked the sound to the shore, where I spied a slack-jawed brute relieving himself, adding his own stream to the river’s. His painted skull face gaped at me in disbelief. I could have simply moved on and probably should have, but instead he became a target for all my frustration and rage over what I’d seen in Festwyf. I wanted someone to pay for it, and he had been there. He had taken part in it. And he was in front of me now.
“So much blood you’ve spilled,” I growled at him through clenched teeth, though I’m sure he didn’t understand a word. “Drown in it!”
His body was largely made of water, as all creatures were, and I called to small pockets of it on either side of his chest, just a short pull, about the length of a finger joint. The blood burst from the vessels in his lungs and began filling them up with every beat of his heart. He tried to shout again but coughed wetly instead, and then he gurgled, collapsed, and died. I waited to feel better, for some sweet rush of justice or vindication, but it never came. That life, taken in anger, had not been my duty. I still regret it even though he quite probably deserved it.
I didn’t resume my full-speed pace upriver because I wanted to scout as I moved. Three times on the way to Fornyd I stopped, woke up camps of merchants sleeping in tents by the bank by shouting at them, and told them to head to Fornyd immediately or they would meet an army that would slaughter them. They didn’t question my authority; I floated in the river without being moved by its current or visibly swimming against it, and they knew that tidal mariners would not appear out of the river if it wasn’t an emergency.
At the gray croak of dawn I arrived at the riverside docks of Fornyd, looking at it the way the invaders would: a fat fish that practically jumps into your stew pot. The walls were not especially high or thick compared to those of the coastal cities. It would fall quickly if taken by surprise. Even with warning it might fall quickly. The giants would be atop those walls in no time, and there were more of them in that army than there were perhaps in the entire city; Fornyd was more of an ambitious town than a city, a trading hub for the farmers who sprawled out to the south and east and west.
The Lung’s Locks had not been used in years, perhaps not since my last visit when I was doing my river tour as a new tidal mariner. They had crusted over with sediment, and it took some work to open the outer hatch. Inside, however, the locks were unusually clean. Cleaner than Pelemyn’s, and Pelemyn’s enjoyed frequent use. The sleepy mariner stationed at the other end was mightily surprised to see me emerge, however. He jumped and made an undignified noise and only then remembered that he was supposed to be professional should a tidal mariner ever show up.
“I—uh. Sorry, mariner. Tidal Mariner. Sorry. How can I help?”
“I came at speed with urgent news. If you could provide me a robe?”
“Oh! Yes! Of course! Sorry again!” He turned to the wall behind him, where a robe waited precisely for occasions such as this. He plucked it off the hook and held it out, politely keeping his head turned toward the wall. When I had pulled myself out of the pool and wrapped the robe around me, he escorted me to the Wellspring and begged me to wait while he summoned the city’s quartermaster. It was still quite early, and she wouldn’t have risen yet.
She appeared less than a minute later, a woman in her forties with hair cropped short like mine, a blue robe hastily thrown on and still knuckling away sleep from her eyes but anxious to hear what I had to say. I liked her immediately—I had been kept waiting in the past by others.
“Yes? What’s the matter?”
“Gerstad Tallynd du Böll, sent by the pelenaut,” I said by way of introduction.
“Quartermaster Farlen du Cannym. What news?”
I held up the giant’s sword and said, “About ten thousand giants carrying these are headed this way. Festwyf is already lost, and you’re next.”
Her nostrils flared briefly and her eyes widened, and then she visibly controlled herself and clasped her hands together. “Hathrim are coming here?”
“No, these aren’t Hathrim. They top out at nine feet, I’d say, rather than twelve. They crossed the ocean. We’ve never seen them before.”
I explained the night’s events and respectfully suggested that her duty must be to warn not only the people of Fornyd but the other river cities and perhaps even Rael. Pelemyn was a safe place for people to run if they wished; I could speak for no other cities yet since the situation was still developing, but Pelenaut Röllend would keep it safe in my absence.
“Use archers, or pikemen if you must,” I offered. “Keep them at a distance because at close range they will win with their reach and these weapons every time. I’ll leave this with you so that your mariners can test it.”
“Leave? You’re leaving?” A note of panic might have crept into her voice and expression. She didn’t seem the type to boil over quickly, however. Perhaps it was only stress, which would be understandable.
“I must report back to the pelenaut and tell him about Festwyf. I’ll also tell him that I warned you and that you will hopefully warn the other river cities.”
“Of course; you can be sure of that. But . . . I have so few mariners here. Hardly any of the blessed, just a few rapids. We cannot possibly hope to stand against ten thousand.”
“I know, Quartermaster. But this isn’t a war you have to win by yourself. Pelenaut Röllend would never expect that. This is developing too quickly for anyone to help you—and I’m sure that’s by design. They are trying to move so quickly that each city is taken by surprise. But now you have the opportunity to save many people. Reduce the enemy’s numbers if you can. And seriously consider evacuating. If the invaders follow the pattern of Festwyf, they will leave the city intact, taking only food. They have no cavalry, and they don’t know the surrounding area like you do. They’re simply coming up the road and killing whatever’s in the way. So my advice is to get out of the way.”
She took a deep breath and nodded once on her exhalation. “I understand, Gerstad. Head for high ground when the floodwaters come.”
I knew Fornyd was in good hands then. “Exactly. What are floods but Bryn’s admonishment that we should build better? Let the flood pass over and rebuild in its wake.” I bowed. “And if I may make a suggestion, hide all the wells you can. Make them drink from the Gravewater. Since they’re not from around here, they probably don’t know how it got its name, if they know it at all.”
Her head jerked in surprise. “Oh! Yes, we’ll do that.”
“May the currents keep you safe.”
“And you as well.”
She was calling for her mariners and longshoremen before I left the room. I returned the robe to its hook and cycled through the locks to the Gravewater. Once there, I pushed myself past the flesh, becoming one with the tide again and flowing back to Pelemyn. I was using the Lung’s Locks for the second time by midmorning. The same mariner who’d been on duty during the night was still there. She looked worried this time as she helped me out of the pool.
“What?” I said. My voice was dry and scratchy to my own ears. “How bad is it?” Once I had wicked away the water and the mariner had settled a robe about my shoulders, a coughing fit racked me and everything hurt. Stabbing pains in my abdomen like a harpoon in my guts. Needles in my fingertips and toes. A vise squeezed my spine and all the muscles in my back, and my legs didn’t want to support me. I knelt at first, and when that was too much, I slumped sideways, curled up into a ball.
“I . . . it’s nothing, Gerstad. Forgive me,” she said. “Welcome home. Just catch your breath.” She patted my shoulder a couple of times as if I were a child. We both felt awkward about that, but she clearly didn’t know what else to do.
“Tell me,” I gasped, lying in a fetal position on the deck. We were still behind the coral throne, and no one else yet knew I had arrived unless my coughing fit had alerted them. “I need to know before I see myself in a glass. Before the others see me, too, so I can deal with their faces. Yours is a kind one.” She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Please. You’ll be doing me a favor.”
Grimacing, the mariner told me, “You look to be in your midforties now, Gerstad. Well, maybe the downstream half of it. I’m sorry.”
Almost fifty, then. I had looked to be in my midthirties when I woke up. But in truth I am twenty-nine.
I wondered if my boys would even recognize me when I got home. But before I could think too much along those lines, I nodded, said thank you, and extended my arm. The mariner grasped it and hauled me to my feet. I leaned on her for a moment, and she was patient while I collected myself.
“All right,” I finally said, standing straight and clutching my fists at my sides. “To the Wellspring to report. Currents keep you.”
I don’t even remember giving that report. I remember the shock and pity that flowed across the faces of the pelenaut and the Lung when they saw me. I remember them saying that Gönerled had been lost as well and remembered that my sister lived there. I know there was more, but nothing stuck in my memory.
“I need you to go home and rest now,” Pelenaut Röllend said. “You’re dismissed until the morning.”
The walk home across cobblestone streets was slow and painful to my knees, and though the sun was shining, I pulled up the hood of my robe and kept my head down to avoid encounters with people I knew. The last thing I wanted was to talk about what happened and why I looked so old.
People were still going about their business like it was any other midweek morning. Buying apples in the market and haggling over the price of cooking herbs. Apprentices running errands for their masters and laughing at ribald jokes. It was still too early: they had no idea that entire cities had been wiped out last night and might not even know that Pelemyn had escaped the same fate by lucky chance. They’d all know by the end of the day. But right then the blissful normality was a living memory of what Brynlön had lost. They wouldn’t be like this tomorrow or the day after that or for many days to come. For me it was like experiencing the past: these people were already ghosts from a better time.
And seeing them so happy, knowing it was to be that way for only a little while longer, and knowing that so many more were simply gone, like my sister, I wept.
There had been no time to weep before, to feel the enormity of it, because duty had given me no choice. And there had been the anger, of course. But on that lonely walk home, the only one aware that these were the final hours of what we once were, I could feel it. The sorrow bubbled within me until I could hardly breathe. I tried not to sob aloud and draw stares. I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s last few minutes of happiness.
But when I got home and closed the door behind me, I held nothing back. I simply dropped to the floor and cried for Festwyf and Gönerled and the others. For my sister and the mariners who’d died on Pelemyn’s walls and the people down by the docks. For my shortened life and knowing that I’d have to shorten it further before this was done. For the years I wouldn’t be with my boys. I knew I would never live to see my grandchildren, and I cried for that. And I knew that if I didn’t do my duty, then I wouldn’t have grandchildren at all, nor would anyone else.
And the worst part was not knowing the answers. Who were these giants, and why had they attacked us? How was it possible to cross the ocean in such huge fleets?
Picking myself up off the floor, I shuffled wearily to the kitchen and found a note from the next-door neighbor: “Boys are happy and off to school. Sleep well! —Perla”
And underneath that was written:
“Checked on them personally. They are safe. —Föstyr”
Thank the currents for that. I wondered if school would even continue for much longer. This might be their last day of bliss as well. I hoped it would be a good one and worth remembering. And I hoped that when they got home, my boys would love their older mother as much as they loved their younger mother from yesterday.
* * *
I wiped away tears from my cheeks, hoping nobody had seen me lose control, but then realized I was not the only person weeping. Seemed like everyone was because we did remember those last few hours of happiness before the news of the invasion, how sweet and peaceful life had been. And when the bard dispelled his seeming, the roar from Survivor Field grew and grew, not so much for him but for Tallynd, for she came back to the stage to wave and blow kisses at us. She was crying, too, and I understood why the bard had had to tell that story for her. How could anyone expect her to relive that as a performance? That gray at the temples I’d seen before—I thought stupidly that it reflected her true age. Like most people I’d heard that our tidal mariner had saved us the night of the invasion, but I had no idea what that involved or that she was a twenty-nine-year-old widow with two young boys.
All blessings have their particular curses, I’m told. Hygienists never age the way tidal mariners do, for example, but they become absolutely paranoid about contaminants and infections and scrub themselves constantly since they perceive impurities in almost everything.
But sacrifices like Tallynd’s should be recognized and rewarded. And just as I was thinking I should create the most glorious gift basket of all time for her, Pelenaut Röllend appeared and joined Tallynd and Fintan on the precarious stack of crates. He had the most glorious gift basket for her in his hands, which satisfied every Brynt’s dire need to give her one right then. Fintan projected both of their voices, and that was when I learned what that insignia on her uniform meant—it was indeed a new rank, and she wasn’t a Gerstad anymore.
“Second Könstad Tallynd du Böll, almost everyone within hearing right now owes their life to you, and they know it. If I don’t give you this gift basket right now, your house will be buried with them tomorrow.” Cathartic laughter and cheering. “Please accept this from a grateful pelenaut and a grateful people.”
She sort of laugh-cried, a chuckle followed by a sniff, and took it from him. “Thank you. Thank you all. This is the best gift basket I’ve ever received, and I will cherish it. It will have a place of honor in my home.”
There was more applause for her because she deserved all we could give, but eventually she and the pelenaut waved and departed, leaving Fintan alone on the stage.
“There will be more tomorrow,” he assured us as the sun was setting. “But these will be stories from the far west! Until then, may the gods of all the kennings keep your loves!”
Cheers followed the bard as he stepped down off the crates and took a long draught from the flagon of Mistmaiden Ale; the woman from the Siren’s Call had never left. He thanked her and asked her to lead the way to Master Yöndyr’s establishment, then he turned to me.
“Coming, Master Dervan?”