Through Tempest Clouds
“You should burn it down.”
Thomus let the big man’s words wash over him. He didn’t answer. There was a spot on his own armor which currently occupied his mind. Thomus picked at it, frowning.
“There can be no lenience here. Seofin will only view our mercy as weakness.”
He managed to work a nail beneath the spot and flick it away. A bit of mud — or perhaps blood.
“Do you hear me? We must be firm. There can be no ambiguity here.”
Thomus turned now to the big man. Rynan, he was called, a hard man with a cruel face set between broad shoulders. He towered over Thomus, but most men did. It meant nothing. The command was still his. “Do you think there will be rain?” Thomus asked.
Rynan blinked. “What?”
“Those clouds,” said Thomus, pointing skyward. “They look like rain.”
The big man blew twin lines of steam from his nose. “I don’t know,” he groused. “I don’t play at guessing the weather. What I do know is that the shrain is down there, hiding, and she has nowhere left to run. And I aim to burn her out.”
“I ask,” said Thomus in the steady cadence he always used, “because rain is wet, Rynan. Have you ever tried to catch a spark on soaked timber?” There was venom in the big man’s glare. “Right, I suppose you have caught up, then. You are not a Judge, no more than I myself am. As such, neither of us possess the authority to condemn a village to the flame. If the shrain is there — and that is still an if — we will find her. Then I will do what needs be done. That is all.”
“She must answer for her treason.”
“Aye,” said Thomus, nodding. “And she will. But she is not alone.” He gave his horse a kick and began his way down the grassy slope. The rest of his men followed, eleven in total, though Rynan undoubtedly sat alone for a time before spurring his massive destrier into motion.
The road — no more than a brown line etched into the earth by years of beating feet and hooves — hugged the edge of the cliff. The village of Pilan was hidden to them, carved into the face of the cliff itself, but the road would lead them there. Rynan, though rash, was no fool. If the shrain was down there, as they both believed her to be, there was nowhere left for her to flee. Inevitable as the storm, no one escaped the Farenglass.
For nigh onto sixty days, they had tracked her, through hill and field, mountain and valley. It had not been a bloodless pursuit. Justice Goulta died in the muted yellow pastures of the Pierrin Flats, alongside six of his men. Command passed to Thomus and, for the second time since the war began, he had climbed higher than any motherless boy born to the slums of Ifrait could ever have dreamt.
Now, he was on the threshold of something even greater still. The war could be won on this day, if not wholly then at least set upon its ultimate motions. Eirse Uilthun, once the Shrain Beholden of the Blessed King Cerdonas and now a grand traitor to the Crown. She was the last, beside Seofin himself and what rabble of followers still gathered behind him, and she lay just there below where Thomus now rode.
Lightning split the sky in a violent flash to the east as Thomus Aquil, Second Sword of the Farenglass, led his men down upon the town of Pilan. Their onyx armor shone brilliantly in the slanting rays of midnoon sun. Hoofbeats rattled the empty pathways which crisscrossed Pilan’s limestone face, layered like delicate lace up the side of the cliff. They rode past tightened doors and shuttered windows, but Thomus could feel eyes watching through the cracks they found.
A man, alone and plainly dressed, stood in the center of the path before him.
“You should not have come here,” he said.
“We are the Farenglass,” replied Thomus as he pulled his gray to a soft halt. “We go where we please.”
“You will not find what you are looking for here.”
“Your speech and demeanor tell me otherwise. The shrain is here. You can bring her to us or us to her, but in the end, it makes no difference.”
“There are those here who would disagree.”
“Let them. It is already done. We are here.”
The man nodded, a solemn gesture. “So you are,” he said, then turned.
Thomus dismounted. He handed his reins to one of his men, a sinewy reed of a lad by the name of Dir. Rynan, a thick dark mass atop his destrier, trotted up to join them. “These homes need searching,” said Thomus. He spoke broadly, though his eyes were upon the big man.
“Aye, they do,” said Rynan as he unhooked a foot from his stirrup and swung himself down onto the pathway beside Thomus. The boards sighed beneath his bulk. “Dir will see to that.”
“No.” Thomus did not raise his voice, but the steel he put into the word was clear and sharp.
Rynan frowned, a brutal thing on a face as wide and crude as his. “I am Second Sword.”
“Are you? Does Seofin not still draw breath?”
The big man’s cheeks ruddied. “Seofin is a traitor to the Crown. He is no longer Farenglass.”
“That is not for you to say. Nor I, for that matter.” Memory flooded Thomus’ mind, but there was no time for that now. “Until the High Justice Bathelen himself says otherwise, Second Sword I remain. And you my third, a station of great esteem, which is why I need you here. Lead the men, scour the town. I will return shortly.”
Rynan’s lips pulled together in a line so tight Thomus was afraid it might shatter the man’s jaw. “Aye,” he bit off.
That was all Thomus needed to hear. He showed them his back and followed the villager down the winding paths of Pilan. The village was embedded in the cliff, such that the houses, shops and taverns of the town were all carved into the rough limestone while, to the opposite end of the protruding walkways, nothing but an airy expanse stretched out beyond the line of sight. It was a village resting upon a bed of swollen clouds which crackled and roared with thunder. A storm below and another rolling in above, Thomus thought.
They came upon a door, brown and unremarkable. “After you,” said Thomus. He let his hand drift to the hilt of his sword.
“There’s no need for that,” said the man, eyes following Thomus’ hand.
“There’s always need for it,” answered Thomus. He inclined his head toward the door. “Open it.”
The man grabbed the handle of the door and pushed it open. He weighed Thomus with tired eyes and then entered. Thomus followed, his fingers wrapped firmly around the hilt of his blade.
The room inside was empty, a hollow, rounded space hewn from pale stone. In its center stood a woman. Of a height with Thomus, she possessed a personal strength that was evident to any with eyes to look upon her. Her face was lineless and placid beneath a hood of blue cloth. She was alone, the room unmarked and quiet. A warm, musky odor hung on the air. An untamed, wild smell. Thomus knew it well.
“You must be desperate indeed to travel with a hound,” said Thomus. His words filled the room, echoing off the stone. She said nothing.
Thomus took a step forward. The floorboards creaked and whined beneath his boots. “You have been betrayed,” he told the shrain. “Your circle is shattered. Your would-be king sits besieged. Only you and what stragglers still follow my former brother remain opposed to the Crown. The Crown stands here now, come forth and face its justice.”
There was silence for a time and then she spoke. “Who are you to speak of justice?” She lowered her hood. Auburn curls cascaded down to her shoulders. “You are no Judge,” she said.
“No, I am not.” Thomus gripped his sword tighter. The shrain was not armed, nor was the man who had guided him here, but there was a hound, somewhere below perhaps, and he would not be taken unaware by it. He glanced around the empty room. “Do shrains not sit?”
“Where is Justice Goulta?” she asked, cutting to the heart of it.
“Dead,” said Thomus in kind. “His command passed to me. I am Thomus Aquil, Second Sword of the Farenglass, and I speak now on behalf of the Blessed King Cerdonas, carrying the full weight of the Crown’s Justice. You, Eirse Uilthun, are named traitor to the Crown.”
The shrain laughed. It was a bitter sound. “Second Sword, you say?” She took a few steps toward him, her long robe painting the floor behind. “Not First?”
“Aye,” said Thomus. He eyed her movement warily. “Unless you have some word of Seofin that is new to me.”
“What would you like to know?”
That surprised him. He searched her face, but could find nothing hidden there, and so he answered honestly. “I would like to know where he has fled to.”
“Fled? Is that how you see it?”
She was answering him only in questions, and he was growing tired of it. Thomus had never stood before a shrain, but he knew their reputation. They were shrewd, tricksy, and wielded language as a weapon. In the slums of Ifrait, the lowfolk spoke of them in hushed reverence. Sorcerers who could speak to the hounds, command them. A dangerous mythology, though the lowfolk didn’t seem to understand the depth of it. They couldn’t see how elevating a class to some preternatural level only served to crush the slums further underfoot.
But Thomus could.
The scrape of steel across steel bounced off the stone walls as he eased his blade free of its scabbard. “We have spoken enough, I think, and a storm is coming,” said Thomus. “Best we go now.”
The shrain did not move. “Ah, and there is the second sword itself. Tell me, how much blood did it cost you?”
“A hefty sum.” There was no hiding the truth of that. The road out of the Ifraitian gutter was not clean, for any who had the strength to walk it.
“And yet there is still more to be spilled if you mean to someday don the Judge’s helm,” she said.
“There will always be more blood to be spilled,” said Thomus and he could see the shrain knew that simple truth as well as he. “But it can also be spared.” He lifted his blade and leveled it at her. “Show me where you are hiding the hound. Share with me what knowledge you have of Seofin. Do these things and you have my word that the only one to meet the Blessed King’s Justice will be you and you alone.”
“You know nothing of darchunds.” Thomus let his eyes drift to the man who had spoken. Even in this act of defiance, he was unremarkable. But how many had shared just those same thoughts when first they looked upon Thomus?
“I know their scent. I know it sits upon this room.”
“Take us both,” said the man, lifting his arms wide and striding now towards Thomus. The shrain remained rooted in place, but Thomus thought he saw, for the first time, a change in that still face of hers. “Question us or strike us down,” said the man, “it makes no difference. You cannot stop what has been started. We do not fear you.”
“Then you’re a fool,” Thomus told him. He let the point of his blade drift toward the man, but still he marched forward, arms open. “Stop,” said Thomus, but the man did not. The steel flashed, alive with graceful motion as Thomus hefted it in his hand. There was a sick crack as he brought his wrist back, the hilt of his sword crashing into the man’s jaw, who collapsed to the floor in a heap without any further sound.
“Where is the hound?” Thomus asked the shrain again. He brought the point of his blade down to the floored man’s throat. “I will have the truth from you one way or the other. Speak now and spare his life, at the least.”
“I am not the one holding the blade.”
No, thought Thomus, it is never ones like you who must wield the sword. Those born high needn’t worry themselves with the stains left upon the palms of those who had to climb. “I will not ask again,” said Thomus. His blade drew a bead of blood from beneath the man’s chin. “Speak or watch him die.”
But for the sadness which she could not hide entirely from her tongue, the shrain showed no change as she folded steady hands across her body. “We all died the moment you rode upon this place. As did you, though you cannot see it yet.”
“Strange,” said Thomus, lifting his sword, “it feels as though I’m only just now finally being born.” He locked his arm, ready to stay the blade if the shrain conceded, but she said nothing. Only watched, a small thing, but enough for Thomus to know she wasn’t entirely like the rest. She did not turn away.
A shadow filled the doorway. “Liege,” said a tentative voice, that of Dir, the thin lad. Thomus relaxed his hand. “We have found something,” said the lad. “Something in one of the houses. Rynan meant to - well, we have need of you.”
Two other men stood without the door, flanking Dir’s narrow shoulders. “A hound?” asked Thomus, already knowing the answer. The lad looked at him then as if Thomus had somehow peered into his very mind itself. Dir nodded dumbly. “Come then,” said Thomus, lowering his blade. “Bring me to it. And take her along,” he gave a little sweep of his hand toward the shrain. “If she speaks, gag her, but do it gently.”
“What of the man?”
What of him, indeed? He lay crumpled at Thomus’ feet, plain face half buried into the floorboards. Only now did Thomus see that the man was not old, but that meant nothing. The shrain was right. They had died the moment he rode upon Pilan.
His blade flashed, a silver arc, and then it was done. Not for cruelty or for malice, he looked to the shrain. Compelled, perhaps, he felt he owed her that. She had not turned away. Thomus signaled to his men. She didn’t resist as they took her arms into their own and followed Thomus back out into a growing storm.