Chapter 3 :: Crossing of Blood
It was some time before I saw her again, for there was rioting to be subdued in the Eastmarch. Most of my spring was spent in chill mornings keeping the peace on the Cardinal's lands, and bringing swift and certain punishment to those who sought to disturb it. It took longer than planned, for the would-be revolutionaries were dug deep into the hills and thick woods of Eastmarch, and the land was treacherous with bogs. And yet in all the fighting of that spring, the one battle that shines most brightly in my memory was with no heretic, but with my own brother-- the first true fight Duane and I had had since the death of our father, and the only one we had as men.
It had been a cold, wet evening, like most springs one saw in the marches. I had come to Duane's tent to present him my report to be sent to headquarters, and to discuss plans for routing the last of the troublemakers. The cultists belonged to some obscure sect that followed Tamulis, which by the laws of the parliament was within their rights entirely. They were perfectly free to pierce their tongues and gibber in their foul rites, but plotting to overthrow the government that protected them was a step too far. As far as I was concerned, even the first freedom was too much, for in my eyes they were all the same as those miserable worms that had brought ruin upon us. Protecting their rights was to me like protecting plague-rats infesting a ship, and I was gladder to convert their skulls with the heavy end of my staff.
I had always assumed Duane felt the same, even though it was perhaps my own oversight that I had never asked him directly. He outranked me, and always had, and while this chafed me I put it more to his three years seniority than his exceeding me at any mental or martial arts.
I did not call out before entering his tent, a privilege I exercised mostly in memory of shared childhood. I thought that remembering a time when a loose bull caused him to piss his breeches merited me a certain kind of familiarity. Duane had never chastised me for it, at any rate, and even if he had, I would likely have bristled at such treatment.
His tent was warm, and grander than mine, but there was just as much of the inescapable mud, and none of us, not even Duane, were ever dry. My brother sat at his camp table with a lantern lit, poring over thick tomes of indecipherable script. The brazier in the center of the tent was spluttering on the soggy peat that was our only decent fuel, and was producing more smoke than heat, both of which escaped slowly through the main pole opening. My eyes stung at the smoke. My tent was small and cold, as there was no heat to be had save the lamp, but whenever I breathed in the smoke I was grateful for the chill.
"Duane," I said, because I never called him by title, anymore than he me, something that had greatly perturbed our minders when we were boys. "I have my report for Guildenstern."
He did not answer me, his lips moving slightly as he read. He was cleverer with books than I had been, which did not show as a boy because he rarely bothered with learning, but something that became quickly obvious when we joined the church. Even so it had been some time since I had seen him sounding letters, and wondered what language was the focus of his study. I crossed the tent and picked up one of the books on his table, but had little time to examine it, for it was snatched from my hand.
"What do you want?" Duane demanded, in even tones. He rarely got agitated, and did not often raise his voice, as the back of his hand made for a clearer message to his men than shouting ever did. "I am presently engaged."
"That is certain," I said, waving a hand at the books. "You look a very wandering university. I would have thought your time for study was long past."
"The man who does not continue to learn is a fool," Duane said, "else he will never advance beyond whatever position is given him and will only accept what is told him by others."
I could not help but feel that this was some insult directed at me. Our relationship, especially in recent years, had never been exactly cordial, but it was nevertheless quite civil. "Come now," I said, thinking it best to cosset him with a smile, even though it was surely forced, and my hands felt tight in their gloves. "You are not acting like a scholar. You act like a boy caught peeping through a knothole in a bawdy house. What is this you're reading?" I reached over the table and lifted the book he had taken from me, opening it to the mouldering first page. The writing was cramped enough to merit both my brother's irritation and his squint, but the letters were beyond me. "What language is this?"
Duane hesitated, as if reluctant, but at last he said, "Ancient Kildean."
I began to feel a distinct unease, perhaps because in spite of the heat of my hands the book's binding remained cold, frozen and slightly too heavy, like a small animal killed by early frost. "Are you a student of history, then? I had no idea."
"Try," Duane said, with more than a bit of agitation in his tone, "to not be a complete imbecile. If it is for your own merit it is one thing, but your continued ignorance is embarrassing me."
I slammed the book shut in my hand. "I cannot help but be ignorant if even my own brother fails to inform me of anything."
"You cannot wait to be informed of everything, Grissom." Duane took the book from my hand again, opened it, and pointed his finger at the feeble flame of the brazier. The words he spoke were as alien as the moon, but I could sense in them a cadence like rhyme, and the brittle sound of fractured frost. I stared in amazement as the flickering tongues of flame were suddenly encased in ice, still flashing pale yellow within their frozen sheath as if flame was a thing that could be captured. "What have you learned from your past?" Duane demanded, flinging the book down on the table. "Nothing! Nothing but the piety and prophecy that even those who taught you did not believe! All this time you have merely existed, but I will not have my life wrested from me again. I will take it from others in my own turn, and I will use whatever means best come to my hand."
The peat hissed protest as the magical ice at last began to melt, water trickling down the gilded legs of the brazier. I felt in me the same fear as that day I had watched my mother with her jewels, a fear of uncertainty, of the unknown. "Is this how you repay father's memory?" I asked quietly, as a strange fury turned the edges of my vision white. "And mother's sacrifice? By indulging in witchcraft?"
"You are as foolish as they were, brother mine." Duane said. "And I despair of you ever becoming anything besides what you are told to become."
"I should rather be a fool than a traitor." I was tempted to leave with that, but a rage such I had never known was coursing through me. I could not yet bring my will to bear on my legs, and remained.
"Traitor?" Duane's voice mocked my own. "You only show how little you know. How think you I came by these books, this knowledge?"
"Some dark meddling of your own, no doubt," I said, but feared I knew the true answer.
"You are in error. These grimoires are gifts to me from Guildenstern, as they would be as well to you, if you showed any ambition besides a desire to exterminate heathens. While you excel at it, I will not argue, it is a chore that can be done by any sell-sword, and you will never have our commander's trust so long as you show no more insight than a peculiarly devout mercenary." Duane sighed. "I would not see you wasted as one."
"Mother did not give us this life in order for us to use it in sorcery," I said, but even Duane could hear the doubt in my voice. Too many things were becoming clear to me: how often I was overlooked for promotion, how few men were under my command, how rarely I was assigned to any task requiring more than common butchery.
"Mother gave us this life in order for us to use it," Duane countered. "I will not idly live off her offering. Will you?"
"I swore an oath to exterminate Müllenkamp and all like them." I gestured to the pile of books. "And yet here you use their foul magics."
"You speak out of simple rage, as you have always done," Duane shook his head. "Yet I know you surely cannot be a fool. If a man is killed by a sword, who is to blame? The sword or the hand that wields it? Cultists can be slain by their own magics as surely as by the sword, and I will not scorn a weapon simply because of who else has used it. Such sentiment is good only for dead men."
"I will hold true to the name that was wrested from me," I said. Duane's words had a ring of truth to them, and I had no desire to hear it. I was angry, and wanted nothing so much as the understanding of my place that I had once had. Even if it did not exist.
"Your name will not save you!" Duane snapped, and the back of his hand came hard against the side of my face, as if I was one of his squires who had been disobedient. It was a way to strike a woman, or a servant, not a man and an equal. The anger that had been a sullen weight in my belly flared like lightning. It was a rage I called on only in battle, when any pain was beyond me and when it ended I could not tell if the blood I wore was mine or another's.
I might have killed him then, as I had killed countless others, but Duane's study had not been in vain, and I had barely taken a step when he spoke his witchcraft on me, and the very air around me exploded with fire, flinging me backwards.
"This is the power sought by the cardinal, Grissom." Duane was breathing heavily; I had caught him off guard. Perhaps he was right about me in some ways, but he had not been prepared for my attack. I thought later that he did not know me quite as well as he thought he did, or he would have known I would try to strike him back.
"The cardinal?" I brought my glove across my mouth, and it came away red where my lip had been split. "He seeks sorcery?"
"He seeks power," Duane said. "You are not blind, my brother. You have seen the greed and corruption that surround us, the injustices in the name of freedom. The cardinal and Guildenstern will stop that. Order will come to this land, and I will help to bring it. You seek to serve God? You would do it best by serving justice." He stepped over me, his shadow falling across my face. "I have not forgotten our name either, Grissom."
I curled my hand in the matted grass beneath me, stared at it. "...St. Just." I got to my feet painfully. Never before had Duane bested me in any conflict of strength. From my belt I pulled the scroll with my message to headquarters, and let it fall onto his table. "My report," I said. "For Guildenstern." I bowed stiffly, and turned to leave.
"Grissom," Duane said, and when I stopped to look back he was holding out a thin volume to me, bound in leather that time had turned black. For a long moment I hesitated, my face still stinging from his blow, the air still alive with the remnants of his spell. When at last I reached up to close my hand around the grimoire, it prickled in my hands as I took it, like the air before a summer thunderstorm. "Brother," Duane said. "Prove me wrong."
I looked at the faded writing on the leather folio and heard in it a sound, as if I could read but not yet comprehend it.
"Please," Duane said, and I had never yet or would after hear him be so tender in his speech to me. "You are better than what you are now. It has not pleased me to think ill of you."
I ran my fingers over the strange Kildean symbols, and thought inexplicably of Samantha, standing in the cathedral, her hair shining. I thought of my father, killed out of treacherous kindness; I thought of the silver brooch hanging inside my tunic on the fine chain I had bought for it with the first coin I had earned on my own. I thought of those silver wings gleaming in the perfect hands of the woman I desired, and power enough to bring her to my side without a thought for the restrictions of my place.
I left my brother's tent with the book in my hand, my mind full of such possibilities as I had never let myself dream.
Some days after I fell ill from the climate, as many of our men had, and was sent back to Valnain, where I lingered in delirium between life and death for the rest of the season. When I recovered my friends told me that I spoke as a madman, and that the mass for my death was already prepared. Of this time I remember little, but those who watched my door said that the Lady Samantha had been to see me, though I have no memory of her coming to me, save in dreaming, and of that I pray I spoke nothing in my fever.