THE BROKEN TIRE SOFTENED AND then hardened again under Prosatio Silban’s kneading fingers, but he soon realized that his repairs were little stronger than the god which powered them.
O Tersten, Dispenser of Temporary Redemptions, many thanks for Your assistance, the beefy cook prayed, trying not to wish for a different supplicatee. May a Cold Wall rubber-wright be happy to improve my repair for a pot of something delicious.
He was midway up the Long Path: ten miles of straight pitted road slashed like an old dueling scar up the face of a mile-high sandstone cliff. Mountains pierced the clouds to the northeast and south. On the western horizon, the green hills of the Uulian Commonwell undulated toward him; below him the Hidden River flowed its marshy way to the Rimless Sea. Between the two, the green faded into a tumbled black – wounds of a war which had finished when Prosatio Silban was too young to understand it.
“All right, boy,” he said, wiping his hands on his blue cotton kneebreeches. “Let her down and we can be on our way.”
The galleywagon was roughly the size of a caravan-tent, and it settled with a creak and a clatter onto its four great wheels as a smooth chatoyant bulk rippled out from underneath. It extruded something like a dainty-toothed elephant’s trunk to accept a maroon fatberry cake, then oozed itself into the ox-sized harness. Prosatio Silban stroked what might have been its flank, told it what a good helper it was, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
The official raised a supercilious hand. “You are a visitor,” he told Prosatio Silban. “Tell me your business or you’ll practice it elsewhere.”
The tire would hold, or it wouldn’t. Just like his faith.
Prosatio Silban had been traveling thus for slightly longer than he cared to remember – longer anyway than his time as a Sacreant, those Uulian priests who interpret the enigmatic Flickering Gods for the inhabitants of the Three Cities and Thousand Villages. He removed from a pocket of his travel-stained white silk tunic a pair of grey artificial eyebrows – part of Sacreantal initiation had involved a permanent depilatory bath, and while the subterfuge was itchy it had proved more comfortable than prying questions.
Two hours later, the road had switched back above itself, leveled off and widened into a vast semicircular cliff. A high sandstone-block wall curved away from either side of a broad, three-story gate-tower parapeted with mastodon tusks. From a pole above the gate hung three wide pennants of gold, grey and blue, edged with dark red; the respective military flags of epicurean Pormaris, stony-hearted Tirinbar and cosmopolitan Soharis. Its finial was a mastodon skull inscribed with the cryptic runes of the Xai, and six Xai archers eyed him incuriously from the roof: four men and two women, tall and bronzely half-nude above grey leather kilts.
Prosatio Silban halted his wobbling galleywagon before the tower’s tall gate, which was open and flanked by four solid figures in the blued mail of Soharis. Ribbons of the same color fluttered from beneath the long blades of their spears. An official-looking man emerged from the gate, swathed in tricolor livery and bearing a large wax-tablet.
“Welcome to the border between the Cold Waste and the Exilic Lands, long may they be free and free of fear,” the official-looking man recited, and coughed. He raised his stylus. “Name?”
“Quite a climb to get here,” Prosatio Silban said. “Not many visitors come up this way?”
The official peered at him. “Name?”
“Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price.”
“I hope so, or else this long journey has been for naught.”
One of the Soharin guards snickered. “If that passes for your wit, it will be,” he said.
The official raised a supercilious hand. “You are a visitor,” he told Prosatio Silban. “Tell me your business or you’ll practice it elsewhere.”
Prosatio Silban opened his mouth to say his business was that of any free traveler and no one else’s. But then he noticed the eyes of the official and the other sentinels: a mix of brown and hazel, squints and stares, but the pupils of each were black pits of dispassion concerning the mercenary cook and his protests. Sophisticate and savage, both have seen the same horror, he thought, and smiled instead.
“I am but a humble cook-errant, lately come from epicurean Pormaris in search of new recipes and unfamiliar palates,” he said, raising his hands in placation. “I have never visited this part of the Exilic Lands, which seemed reason enough. But the road was unkind to my vehicle and I seek now also a rubberwright.”
The official raised his eyebrows. “We are near three weeks from the City of Gourmands – far enough to be forgotten by the Flickering Gods, or at least their servants. Do Pormaris’ cooks have the zeal her Sacreants lack?”
“So it is said,” said Prosatio Silban, idly rubbing an eyebrow. “Who knows? The Flickering Gods let me look after the belly; I let them look after the soul.”
“That is what they are there for.” The official poked at the wax tablet with his stylus, handed both to Prosatio Silban. “Sign.”
The cook frowned. “What is this?”
“You are entering the line between civilization and its opposite,” he said. “Such events and such places are the purview of the All-Limiter, may we not soon see his face. Besides, if you are killed, we must know that you were here of your own volition.”
Prosatio Silban signed. The Soharin guard snickered.
* * *
They seemed amiable enough, but Prosatio Silban couldn’t help noticing their haunted, deep-peering eyes.
The first thing Prosatio Silban noticed after his galleywagon wobbled through the gate and into the fortress-town proper were two great square towers tapering stark-red into the late afternoon sky. Between them and for forty miles on either side stretched Cold Wall’s namesake – a tall, sandstone-block barrier across the only corridor between “civilization and its opposite,” the Cold Waste: a howling badlands stretching farther than Xai or Uulian knowledge, populated only by goblin birds, twining thornvine and the ravening cannibal Dulk. The lowering sun painted the massive towers a warm gold, limned with winking glints from the spears of pacing sentinels. Against this backdrop a dozen or so cooking-fires sketched scattered streamers of smoke, with here and there a silk banner or carved skull proclaiming the pride and place of one or another nation.
The snickering Soharin guard – who had been introduced by his commander as Filipid Ilgor – was leading the galleywagon and its curious dray-beast along a broad curved street. To the left, the grey circular huts of Xai indigenes sprawled in groups of six centered around a common fire; to his right were the clean white lines of Uulian poured stone. Narrow perpendicular lanes branched off at regular intervals. The scene was alive with pre-twilight shufflings: soldiers hurrying home from watch; shopkeepers calling out end-of-day specials; housewomen rattling dinner pots and pans; a passing chorus of greetings. On one corner was a small tavern with outside tables, at one of which a handful of Uulian soldiers played an animated game of dice with two young Xai men. Two Delvers, those squat masters of mountain and cave, stood nearby cheering them on; one caught sight of Filipid Ilgor and waved. They seemed amiable enough, but Prosatio Silban couldn’t help noticing their haunted, deep-peering eyes.
“You see? We have everyone here,” said Filipid Ilgor, waving in turn. He looked back at Prosatio Silban. “Do you know this place?”
Prosatio Silban shook his head. “Only what everyone knows – that if it weren’t for Cold Wall, the cannibal Dulk would have overrun the Commonwell and its surrounding lands years ago.”
“Exactly! But now we have this,” Filipid Ilgor said. “A rotating guard between the Exilic Lands and the Cold Waste; the perfect place to temper our young men to hardness. Ah, here we are.”
He stopped the galleywagon in the southwest corner of a sparsely populated square with a central, four-spigot fountain. Bordering the square were a shuttered inn, neglected-looking shrine, and a well-maintained barracks and public bath, all of painted Uulian build. The barracks were connected to the Cold Wall itself by a poured-stone causeway, crossing a wide open space which ran the wall’s length. In the corner between barracks and shrine stood a rickety stall, next to which a middle-aged male Xai wearing a grey leather kilt and vest was scrubbing out a large black cauldron.
A brief round of introductions and inquiries ensued, after which Filipid Ilgor returned to his post. Prosatio Silban retrieved two bundles from his galleywagon, and Tharch – for such was the name of the Xai rubberwright – placed a large iron accordion-jack under the injured wheel. Soon, the galleywagon had been stabilized, its wheel removed, and Prosatio Silban was busying himself with a portable grill he had unslung from beneath the galleywagon. Xai palates were simple, and Tharch had expressed a particular fondness for pig-lizard, vinegar mushrooms and red blowberry, all skewered and roasted and drizzled with hot pepper sauce. Prosatio Silban rubbed the dark meat chunks vigorously with garlic, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and rolled them in a small, polished silver dish of golden sesame seeds. He lit the grill and noticed Tharch looking away from him again. The burly Xai had mounted the wheel in a wooden stand and was stripping the rubber-pocked rim, between furtive glances from eyes that Prosatio Silban had begun to think of as a Cold Wall birthmark.
“Yes?” Prosatio Silban said, thinking vaguely of native superstition. “Did you change your mind about the lizard?”
Tharch looked down, then back at Prosatio Silban. “I am wondering,” he said slowly. “Why are you here?”
Prosatio Silban looked reflexively round. “Why do you say that?”
“Those are not your eyebrows,” Tharch said, and grinned. “You are a Uulian godsman, yes?”
Prosatio Silban grinned back; the Xai were renowned for their artless acuity. “Secrets are a necessary inconvenience in civilized lands, the more so at their borders,” he said. “Suffice to say that I once was a … godsman, but I was on better terms with the Flickering Gods than I was with the other godsmen. So I left. Why are you here?”
“I am born here,” Tharch replied, “and am not knowing my grandfather’s grandfather’s land. But my grandfather is fighting when this Dulk war begins, and is telling me the first wall is strong – but the Dulk are climbing over on the bodies of their piling dead. So the wall is being higher than the bodies, now, and still they are coming. And never are they speaking.”
Prosatio Silban started. “They don’t speak? Do you mean that no one has ever talked to the Dulk?”
“Not even in the early years of the war, or before?”
“Not possibly,” Tharch said, irritation shading his voice. “Why?”
“Why?” Well … how do we know what they want, or why we are fighting?”
Tharch smiled, but not with his eyes. “To your question a Dulk is answering an axe in your head. Why ask your killer why he kills you?”
Blood and numbing fire seeped down Prosatio Silban’s arm.
“Because perhaps you can get him to stop.”
Tharch barked a harsh laugh and turned back to the wheelstand. Prosatio Silban felt a sudden pain in his left shoulder. One end of an arrow was sticking in it; the other was tipped with three dark brown feathers. He cried out.
“Dulk!” shouted Tharch, shoving Prosatio Silban to the ground with one massive hand.
In an instant, the afternoon was shattered by shouts and screams. The arrow throbbing in Prosatio Silban’s shoulder was one of dozens whistling through the skies to fall with clatters and shrieks in the square and its adjoining streets. A handful sprouted from the galleywagon’s sides and top. From his position Prosatio Silban couldn’t see his dray-beast; only a few prone figures and armed men running.
Tharch dragged Prosatio Silban into his stall and yanked the arrow from his shoulder. The cook screamed, then screamed again when Tharch pressed a pungent soaked rag against the wound.
“Hold!” the blacksmith spat. “Dulk dipping arrows in their dung.” Then he rose, snatched a bow and quiver from under the counter and vaulted over with a yell.
Blood and numbing fire seeped down Prosatio Silban’s arm. He pressed the rag tight and closed his eyes, feeling with his mind for whichever Flickering Gods were carrying the present. Through a boil of personal saviors he could clearly discern three: Valmasorn, Defender of the Way Home; Bohoran, Giver of Inexplicable Strength; and, of course, Angrim, the Watcher of Time. He wondered for the all-pervading comfort of Galien, Spring of Life – but she was diffuse, like a memory of some now-unobtainable sweetness. He threw away the rag, touched his wound with shaking fingers, chanted her name in an accent and cadence fashionable centuries ago. The skin sealed but the pain stayed unabated.
All around him Prosatio Silban could hear the sounds of people dying and killing: calls for help or mother; commands, rallying cries and screams; metallic clashing; bestial bellowing. He had no weapons to speak of save the cook’s knife and ladle tucked in his belt – as a Sacreant he had never needed them, and as a man he’d never wanted them – but as he looked out from the cover of the stall he saw the sprawled form of a Soharin spearman within scrambling distance.
It was Filipid Ilgor, sneering unseeing into the sky despite an arrow through the heart. Prosatio Silban bent and closed the man’s eyes. “Who saw you come, see you go,” he said in the old formula, and took up the spear. A shadow fell across Filipid Ilgor’s silent form, and Prosatio Silban looked up into a face out of nightmare.
The Dulk was nearly twice Prosatio Silban’ size, with twice as many arms, covered in a matted patchwork of brown and black fur. Its six eyes glittered with hate from a vulpine head above a distorted mouth bristling with fangs like broken obsidian. Each knobby claw held a crooked flint knife wet with blood.
Prosatio Silban smiled, trying to project confidence. Holding the spear as inoffensively as possible, he said in a calm voice, “Friend?”
A long hour later, night had covered everything but what pools of torchlight could reveal.
The Dulk screamed like a dying ox and lunged.
Prosatio Silban raised the spear crosswise to the Dulk’s attack, countering his enemy’s first thrust even as two others ripped like burning ice along his abdomen and right forearm. Another blow cracked the spear haft. Jagged stone nicked his left ear. He fell to one knee, saw the Dulk raise all four arms like a triumphant spider, and winced.
The Dulk screamed again. Prosatio Silban opened his eyes and saw two bronze arrows sprouting from the Dulk’s chest. The monster turned and swiped at Tharch, who was drawing the long knife sheathed at the small of his back. The swing caught Tharch’s left shoulder, whirling him around and down to the ground, and the Dulk grabbed Tharch’s wrists in its lower claws, pulling them wide. Gaping claws sought his neck.
Prosatio Silban clutched the broken spear and swayed to his feet. The Dulk’s back was to him. The cook raised the spear over his head with both hands.
It was the early Uulian philosopher Panateo Gostis who first described worldly existence as “a dance between Life and Time, freighted in moments of malleable length.” This concept had always struck Prosatio Silban as both axiomatic and enigmatic, and he had never really felt he understood it. But now, everything was calm and utterly clear: a carved crystal tableau he could rotate and view at leisure. And he understood that a moment lasts forever.
He could feel uneven ground beneath his feet, fire roaring in his wounds and intoxicating his limbs, burning wind whistling through dilated nostrils, dry mouth sour with fear, sounds of battle receding and dimming beneath his throbbing heartbeat, artificial eyebrows slipping from sweat soaking his face and silk tunic. He saw the small patch of skin between the Dulk’s shoulders, the whet marks on the spear tip hanging before his eyes. He knew he had to bring them together.
The Dulk’s claws found Tharch’s throat, squeezed.
Prosatio Silban had never killed anything bigger than could cling to a fishing line; had never considered killing as anything other than an academic exercise. He felt small and unsure and yanked-about and, more keenly than ever, the absence of Galien the All-Giver.
Tharch’s legs began to kick. The Dulk began to laugh.
What if I’m wrong? he thought. O Galien, where are you?
And then came the rough liquidy ffft of blade; the soft chuk of bone; the whupump whupumple of alarmed heartflesh, and he sobbed and groaned and pushed as it screamed and beat and died and died and died and die damn you died.
He let go. The Dulk rolled to the left, twitching. Tharch rolled to the right, coughing. Prosatio Silban stood in between, trying not to heave.
* * *
A long hour later, night had covered everything but what pools of torchlight could reveal. The Dulk warriors had evidently tunneled under the wall and into Cold Wall’s sewers, and now their limp bulks were piled in the square not far from the bodies of their victims. The air was ragged with Xai ululations and Uulian weeping. Prosatio Silban had seen to Tharch, then wandered the streets dispensing what kindnesses he could – easing the dying, consoling the living, and praying for everyone in between.
He was feeling neither well nor inclined to discuss it as he returned to the blacksmith stall. His hands held the memory of the killing, and he didn’t like that either – nor the “I killed/No, you saved” war in his heart. He was grateful that the galleywagon’s damage was minor, and more so that his strange dray-beast had flattened itself into the ground and thus escaped injury. He patted it affectionately, and a soulful brown eye looked up at him.
“It’s okay, boy,” he said. “We’re leaving in the morning.”
The big Xai had righted the fallen wheelstand and was gathering his scattered tools. He grabbed Prosatio Silban’s hand in his, searched his face. “You are not killing before this.”
“And not liking it now.”
“What? Of course not. Does anyone?”
“Only the Dulk,” Tharch replied. “That is why we are killing them first.”
Prosatio Silban did not like the sound of those words, much less the cold logic behind them. He shook his head at himself. The world is not only for me, but for everyone, he thought. Not for the first time – and knowing that, he felt Galien’s healing touch in his left shoulder.
Despite the ebbing pain, he didn’t like that much either.
The Cook For Any Price sighed, began picking up his own gear. The grill had burned itself out, but by some miracle the skewers were untouched. To live, we must eat, he thought. But why? He reached for the empty silver sesame-seed dish, picked it up, and caught in it the reflection of his eyes – his eyes, his new and terrible eyes.