The Roiling Sea

Chapter 1: Orphan of the Den

I will never forget the first time I saw the sea.

The space around me swayed and the cold clung to my skin like frost. Past the opening where I lay, the turbulent, grey horizon crackled, and beneath it, water rose around me in long swells. For the longest time, I did not understand how I could have survived it. It was an endless sea, a mass of grey that reflected the sky, and from it specks of salt water cascaded through the air. The waves were long and graceful and streaked with ribbons of black. The sight filled and mesmerized me.

Apart from that single, infant reflection, I remembered nothing else of my life prior to when I walked on my own two feet. My actual, tangible life, the one I can look back on and say - this is where I was born - began within the high grey walls of an old keep, orphaned and alone, in a deep stretch of wood.

The keep, or as it was known, the Boys' Den Orphanage, was a vast octagon of high fortified walls protecting a mismatched campus of dormitories and workshops beneath the thick fur of the great forest. Unlike many of the other boys, I did not remember arriving there, nor did I ever leave.

The Den could not have been more remote, or more fortified. My whole realm, as I knew it, lay inside those eight sharp corners, under high walls. I only knew those walls, and the dangers of the forest that lay immediately beyond. The great woods, thick with tresses of moss and sturdy pine and spruce infested every corner of our world, perennially blotting out the sky. Over time, I learned of a place far away, over the mountains, called the Great Court, which passed law down over the land. All who took refuge in the Den spoke of this Court, and of the god Josta, from which all law derived.

Tahn, they called me. I knew from my first memories at the Den that I was always different. Except for that memory of the sea, I knew nothing of my origin. Neither, it seemed, did the bureaucrats who kept the old place running. "You are Tahn. Nothing else to know" they repeated again and again. "Nothing else to know, boy." The other orphans related tales of their families, or their lives just before the Den, of mountains beyond the forest, of vast plains and open spaces, but I had nothing. It was all blank. When I tried to remember, a rushing sound filled my ears until I could no longer concentrate.

There were few mirrors at the Den, but I knew I looked unlike any of the other orphans. My complexion was dark most days, and my eyes were dark, but in the Winter, when cold air swept in from the north, freeze settled in walls and soil and my skin went pale like ice. It was pale fever, the infirmary nurse said - an unusual indisposition to cold. I did not know what an 'indisposition' was, but I knew when it got cold, I felt warm. In my tiny voice, I asked where cold comes from and they said it was something called 'Kol Ranges.' Like any child, I asked 'why?' and then since they didn't hear me the first time, I asked 'why?' again and again until the big adults rolled their eyes and told me to stay quiet and keep warm like all other good little boys. After a time, I learned to stop asking questions. 

Each day, at sundown, we had visitors. A single heavily fortified cart - pulled by armored horses, its contents sealed from view - rolled through the gate each day at sundown. It was always filled with an odd collection of strange people that scared us, among them blacksmiths, merchants and grocers, and distant relatives of the other boys. More rarely, knights and sailors came to visit. I also saw an endless cycle of unwanted orphans, like me, coming in and out in through those heavy carts. We watched them come and go, taken away by merchants and traders or tossed into our midst like refuse.

We were too young to get it, so we stood back, afraid, as all kind of person spilled out into the courtyard each day. Very rarely, a gaunt, misshapen knight or wild haired old man might step from the cart, and down onto the dirt of the courtyard, and we'd run, screaming and laughing. It was a game - we ran and hid behind barrels and crouched low, hiding from no one in particular. I often stayed hidden for most of the day, trying to breathe quietly and trying not to laugh. It was here, climbing into my hiding spaces, that I learned being alone and invisible could be the best thing in the whole world. Other visitors, including some local knights and sailors from distant places, sat out with us in the courtyard while they ate and drank, and taught us about their armor and their weapons.

I overhead much in my first years there. I learned to talk by listening. I watched people in silence, to watch their movements and mimic them. I learned to make polite conversation by listening to the guild merchants and aristocrats. I learned how to speak rough by hearing our cooks and liverymen. Everyone discussed other places in the world, places I would never see. They were all just whispers of adult conversation I did not understand. I learned of the gilded Hall of the Seven Saints, and of the Great Court, and fruit trees far to the south, and places full of rust and sea creatures near a huge place with birds and fish. I heard words of many names and places sweeping through my small mind like gusts of faint memory, but I did not understand where it was or why it mattered.

Some nights, as I lay awake in my cot, clutching my grey wool blanket, I heard a far off sound like a musical tone, high and sweet, from somewhere beyond the walls of our keep. The boys around me went right to sleep the second the eerie sound drifted through the window. I tried to wake the others, but I was all alone, alone with the sound that scared me. Then, my ears got loud like the sound of big wind in the trees, and I lay still and panicked, the only boy who remained awake while all the others slept. I cried and pushed my little hands over my ears, but nothing stopped it. The next morning, I'd I'd ask others over breakfast if they heard the music too, and wasn't it scary? They all said no, and if they maybe hated me, then they hated me even more now. Me, the odd orphan with the dark eyes, and the pale fever. I became convinced that the loud sounds in my head would go away with time, but they never did.

Each night, I combated my fears by retreating into my imagination. I closed my eyes and imagined I stood before the open gates of the Den. There, in the limitless vista of my imagination, I could travel to my heart's desire. I imagined the tall, imposing eight sided walls of the Keep fell away, and suddenly, the road leading out from the Den was not draped in purple shadow, but open and free from the dense danger of the bristly forest. Each night, I even imagined new paths for escape. Some sloped down until they fell under the earth and into some great cave where fire licked the roots in the dirt walls. Other paths crested steep hills, and looked down over another forest, where a whole city of Dens lay before me, all filled with boys like me, wishing and wondering and wandering just like me.

Other nights, I lay awake, my eyes closed, and imagined climbing the tallest pine tree in the land. Way up there, higher than the treeline, the air felt brisk and I could see big shapes all around me, like giants laying down and sleeping and guarding the forest.  Far beyond the trees lay a vast, sparkling sea. I did not have a name for it at the time, but it was the place of gulls and fish that the adults told me about. The very sight of it grabbed the air from my lungs and caused my heart to stop. Endless waves rolled along the horizon, curling like beckoning fingers, dark streaks in the water begging me to go below and submerge forever. I'd open my eyes, then, my ears full of that awful whoosh and rush of noise, and I ached. I ached that I would never, ever leave the Den, that the my life would always be small and quiet, under the brooding darkness of the big trees that hung over the keep like a ceiling.

At the end of one cool Autumn day, two boys were kicked from the visitor cart and left sprawled and spitting in the dirt. They were alone so I helped them up. Their names were Wasp and Nettle. They'd both been shunned for their handicaps - half of Nettle's face was paralyzed and Wasp walked with a heavy limp - and this drew me to them. Nettle, a ruddy cheeked lad with a wry sense of humor, confessed to me almost immediately that his father slapped the nerves out of his cheek. Wasp, a rather handsome young boy, only laughed and grinned wide when I asked him about his injury.

We became inseparable, the three of us. We took trade courses to make ourselves useful. We started by holding hammers and bags steady while the stockman shod the horses. Then, hands shaking, we donned aprons and did it ourselves. With the raw materials shipped to to the den, we moulded glass and crystal, tilled the hard soil and got things to grow from it. We held the buckets that ran overflowing with slop for the animals, or collected old rusty nails from the well worn horse-path that ran from the gate to the main hall.

Few of the younger orphans, like me, ever scaled the walls or tried to slip through an open gate, for fear of the awful tales told by the Den's keepers. We were warned of spindly creatures called Nougg who left long, whisper-thin webs hanging like traps from the high trees. Even if the tall gates had opened wide for us to explore - they never did - we would not have dared leave. Later, after we got too old for such nonsense, our masters amended the scary tales and tried to scare us with new, imaginative warnings about wood savages made of metal scales who mesmerized victims with soft music before swinging axes at their necks. A chill ran through me when I thought of the musical tone I often heard, faint and far off, echoing through the forest at night. 

As adolescence wriggled its way in, other orphans stepped up their taunts by calling me 'quiet ghost' and 'ice boy.' I lashed out and threw my taunters to the ground, striking them repeatedly until I was pulled away. Wasp and Nettle defended me, though, and even joined me in pummeling the other boys. It took only a Summer's worth of these vicious fights to stoke our reputations as boys not to be bothered. Soon afterward, no one dared say a word against us.

The Den began to not seem to large as it once did, but I could not bring myself to scale its walls. For all the dark feelings of rebellion filling my insides like scalding bathwater, I could not bring myself to brave it. There were days when my restlessness felt as a fever, but something in the strange music drifting through the stillness of the air, and something in the frightening tales of the forest condensed my rage down into a coil of pensive caution.

Other boys tried to escape, with mixed results. One day, two raucous troublemakers, Jaysen and Reen, ventured into the woods. Days later, the mounted patrols outside the Den - many of them former Den orphans - found Jaysen shaking, dazed and bloody in a clearing two kilometers from the walls. Jaysen's tunic was split open along the back in a single diagonal slash. Loose silk threads covered him from head to toe. Jaysen said nothing as the patrol brought him back inside the walls, and after enduring a week of his dazed silence, we woke one morning to find him gone. Reen, the other boy, was never found.

Chapter 2: Treebeth

In response to this and other such incidents, the bureaucrats brought in a Den lord to keep us in line - a gaunt man, hollow-cheeked, of ill humor, with a face like an oak and eyes like two pale purple flower petals. At two meters, he loomed over us like a walking tree. His arms were worn and knotted like rough branches, and he wore armor down his sleeves with fine patterns like leaves, and his rough nails were black with soot. He often walked back and forth along the inner halls, stroking one talon over his black mustache. He never smiled. His name was Konner Treebeth.

Treebeth had no patience for questions. When he first arrived, I asked him if there was truly, as my masters had claimed, "nothing else to know" about me. His answer was as theirs: "You was born here, young boy." he said. "Ask me again and I'll throw ya up a tree and let the Nouggs get ya." 

While silent about my origins, Treebeth had plenty to say about his own place of birth. "You all stay away from Dethguld!" he barked. "You hear me? Ye best all be lucky you don't end up there, my boys. You are all lucky as sin to be safe here, in the Den. Here you learn skills other than killin' and staying alive." The first time I heard the word 'sea' - the place of gulls and fish - it was from Treebeth. He'd stand over us and proclaim, "the forest is wild and the sea is wilder. Don't be swallowed by either one, my boys."

Something in the word 'sea' sent a shudder through me. Sometimes, over supper, I heard that same loud rush of sound in my mind. Treebeth would wander by my table, and seemed to sense my dread. He only glared at me angrily, his face tensing up, almost like he could hear the roaring too. Just momentarily, his eyes would flash over me, almost too quick to notice, then he'd wander away, running one finger over his lip.. 

One Autumn morning, Wasp, Nettle and I sat against an empty, cold boiler in a storeroom near the rear of the Den.

"That old shitbagger Treebeth is gonna muck us up." Nettle said out of the side of his mouth. "You wait and see, Tahn. We are gonna regret his bein' here."

Wasp, ever the fair-haired joker, was more dismissive.

"Have you ever met a fella as well named as that? He's a tree alright! I'll bet there are Nouggs nestin' in his hair. I look at 'im and I want to start climbin'!"

I just placed my chin in my palms, and glowered.

Old Treebeth hated me as much as I feared him. Shortly after his arrival, he wove me - and me alone - into the fabric of a brutal chore schedule. Long after the others had gone to bed, he kept me scrubbing, sanding, varnishing and slicing every surface. At his strict instruction, I wove rough nets and bags which the other boys used to gather stray branches and leaves for burning. He forced me to varnish wood until it resisted water. The Spring after his arrival, he gave me two particularly brutal projects to tackle. First, I was tasked with carving ornate wood designs on his office door. Second, he made me stitch old bed sheets together to make coverings for open carriages. I came away from those two projects feeling dark, and low, and discouraged, my hands worn and bent, but it never occurred to me - at least not then - that I was learning. At the time, I only felt singled out, so each time he denied me sleep, I kept my temper at bay, learning to obey. After a time, I showed the Den lord a strange kind of deference.

One night, I decided to confront Treebeth. He and I stood outside, late one night, at the high west wall. I tied knot and after knot and, on his order, tossed ropes through a series of metal loops jutting out from the wall. I was familiarized with a system he called 'block and tackle.' He had me memorize every part, every surface, each cleft in the pulleys. He said it was a contraption for moving heavy goods, but I felt it was just another torturous time waster. I summoned my courage, still remembering his threat to 'throw me up a tree' and asked:

"Sir, do you know where am I from?"

Treebeth stood silent for a moment and whittled a branch with his dagger. I expected him to stride over and pick me up by my collar and throw me up into the trees, as he had threatened to do. However, his expression did not change. He stayed where he was, and ran one finger thoughtfully over his lip, and replied "You're a boy of the den. You're old enough to scrape the grime off the walls. Is that good enough for ya, boy?"

"Yes, sir" I said.

"Do you consider yourself a servant of Josta?" he asked plainly.

"If the Great Court says, then it must be so." I answered.

He stared at me for a few moments, an odd look on his face, as if trying to decipher my words.

"So... that's enough for you? I know you've learned much from the merchants who come through here. I see you listening."

"Yes, sir." I nodded sagely, daring not look at him.

"So, you hear the news of the High Court." he said, tension in his voice. "They all speak of it."

Treebeth was right. Something in the world outside had shifted. The cartloads of merchants and travelers from lands far beyond the forest spoke of the tools of their trade, and of commodities like horses and food, and trade rules and numbers. Over the last week, though, their faces had overflowed with grim uncertainty. The High Court in the far land had changed, they said. The word 'blood' was on all their lips. Josta is swept away, they said. Bloodletting, they said. I did not know what that meant, but I remembered it well because it sounded dangerous and unsafe and frightening.

Treebeth watched me carefully, the branch still in his hand. I allowed the knotted rope in my hands to go slack as I thought it over. I hesitated only a moment longer, then spoke.

"I heard... and it was only talk that could not be ignored, sir... that the high court has forsaken Josta and the Seven Saints for a blood ritual. I don't know what those things are, but talk of it is everywhere."

"Is that all you heard?" he asked. He tossed his branch back down onto the ground.

"Yes." I replied quickly.

I expected him to say more, or chide me for eavesdropping and sticking my nose where it did not belong, but he kept curiously silent and wandered off, a trace of sly guile on his hollow face.

That night, I spoke with Nettle about my conversation with Treebeth.

"So what?" he said dismissively.

"But the magistrate just swept it all away!" I said. "Just like that! Treebeth doesn't think anything past these walls even matters?"

"It don't matter much." Nettle said, bored. "My dad... he was a Jostan missionary. Did ya know that? Of course not. I did not tell ya. You'd think he was a blessed soul from how he carried on with others, but he'd get home and let loose a demon inside 'o him. That's why I don't care a whit about what religion this land endorses or follows. Who's to say new ways are better or worse than the old? It's all a load of pig crap, it is. Leave it by the road, I say."

"So, nothing matters, then?"

"You dense louse, Tahn. Leave it by the road, I say. People fear the unknown, but that fear goes both ways. You can't let 'em get to ya."

Chapter 3: Old Salt

The following week, a wealthy merchant and his wife came through the Den. They chose Wasp for their servant. Wasp's limp prevented him from hard labor, but he was handsome and bright and blonde - even his eyebrows shone like glittering diamonds. The merchants were not Wasp's relatives, but after their generous donation, papers were drawn up. I was melancholy about losing my friend, but I knew it meant a better life for Wasp. Just before he left the Den for good, Nettle and I saw him off by the front gate. The merchant - a plump, jolly looking aristocrat - finished his dealings with Treebeth. I watched them closely as I did every visitor, taking care not to speak in their presence or look them in the eyes.

The Merchant jumped into his carriage and left the door open, a fixed grin on his face. Wasp said his goodbyes to us, and stepped away, bowing like a little gentleman. He struggled up onto the step and onto the carriage, and the merchant closed the door and drew the shade. Sudden unease overcame me as the carriage rumbled down the long path under the wood. Soon it was far out of sight, and the front gate of the Keep closed. I watched the doors for some time after that, as if I could still see the carriage in my mind.

In the weeks after Wasp left, sleep came slowly. An acrid unease flowed through the air. I felt like a small stone in a quick running trough full of water, unable to follow the current. More urgent whispers flowed from the mouths of passersby about change in the realm. An astonished looking aristocrat passing through the Den for a hot meal and a bed remarked, "I never thought I'd see the day! The Sastrans are on the run! They have fled!" He popped another crust of bread into his mouth. "The magistrate disbanded them! Who will protect the realm?" He shook his head.

Over time, my role at the Den shifted. The shadows in the trees did not seem so dark, and the world shrank. Nettle was too old to be a ward, so he transitioned into training with the mounted guards who roamed the perimeter of the Keep. Treebeth disappeared into his office for long stretches of time, and charged me to look after the youngest kids. He even let me welcome visitors. The azure gloom outside the walls that once cradled me, now dared me to leave. Since the disruptions in the Great Court, more exotic visitors were allowed to pass through unhindered - gypsies and gravediggers among them - into our tiny world, our tiny lives, utterly cut off from the rest of the land. I felt more alone than ever with Wasp gone and Nettle largely absent. For all my skills at weaving and roping and varnishing and scrubbing, I still savored a chance to see the world as it was, not as it appeared in my mind, with childhood tales of Nouggs and Savages still knocking about inside of it.

One fateful day, a mess of sailors spilled from the fortified cart like a long trail of alcohol and seawater. Two of them hit the dirt, vomiting, and most of them ignored me and went in search of beds. Their leader stepped out from the cart last. He was at least eighty years old, his skin beaten by years of exposure to the elements. He spoke freely with me and stood patiently by while I pelted him with question after question. He told me they hailed from Dethguld, the very town Treebeth used to bark at us about. The sailors' stop at the Den was only a brief mark on their way south toward a place called Oronoshk province.

I asked him what his name was, and with a wry grin he reflected that he had a proper name, but it was lost to another time. "My men call me Old Salt, and so should you." he told me. I showed him to his lodging, where most of his sailors already snored loudly. He thanked me, then without another look, waved me off.

Very early the next morning, I woke to the sound of alarm bells at the front gate. Since I was expected to welcome visitors, I rose quickly and ran out across the cold, foggy courtyard. My bare arms and legs hit the cold and they went ghostly white; my cold fever setting in. To my surprise, Old Salt and Treebeth already stood out by the large front gates with a few of the mounted patrol - Nettle among them - crowded around something or someone. The gates were closed, but the tiny door cut into the larger door was slightly ajar, and past its opening, I caught the misty, pale purple colors of the forest.

"We found him just outside the gate," a deep voiced guard said. "Alone, on foot, no cart or driver... just him and what'ver is there with him."

"Close the door!" screamed Treebeth. His voice rang out over the courtyard. "He's in! Close the door!" One mounted patrol swirled around jumped down off his horse, slamming the small door shut with a large clang and locking it with a large key.  For the first time, I spied the subject in their midst. His curly scraggly hair fell to his shoulders, and a red tunic adorned with beads and bells, and red silk bottoms and black curled shoes.  A curved black case hung in one hand. The moment I gazed on the fellow, his eyes sparkled, and he looked over the others' shoulders and directly at me.

Treebeth and Old Salt followed the man's gaze over to me. The cold fever had brought with it the strange ghostly pallor in my face and arms. Treebeth displayed his customary insouciance at my unwelcome presence, but Old Salt looked positively stunned, as if he'd been lashed. The old sailor almost dropped to one knee.

"Master Treebeth?" he asked, struggling to catch his breath. "How... why... have you got a Kol?" He lifted a crooked finger over at me.

The Den lord looked vulnerable and small. He took the old sailor aside and spoke low and emphatically to him.

The scraggly man took advantage of the others' distraction. He crouched and placed his case in the dirt. A look of delight came over his face. He reached, unsnapped the case, and gently lifted the violin out and rose, cradling it like an infant in both hands. The bow came from nowhere and he drew it across the strings. That high, sweet sound flowed over the courtyard. I shuddered. I knew little of music, other than amateur plucking from a few travelling minstrels, but it was clear to me that this was real music. It was far more entrancing than any music I'd heard. It was also deathly familiar.

The musician's playing seemed to slow down time. He walked as he played, and soon, he was only a foot away from me. He tilted his chin up, and looked down his hooked nose at me, as he drew the bow across the instrument. His eyes lit up as he played three last, final, forceful notes.

"Strand, at your service!" he sang. His voice was high, piercing the morning air like a poison tipped spear.

Old Salt intended to leave that morning with the rest of his men, toward Oronoshk, but he decided to stay another day. He sent his men away with promises that he'd meet them later. He and Treebeth seemed to know each other, and through most of that day, neither of them came around to see me. Treebeth even missed his morning rounds. Afternoon came and went, and as I wove a new mess of nets near the East Wall, the old sailor finally appeared, looking even more exhausted than the day prior.

"Tahn Kol," he said. "Come away from there."

"Why do you call me Kol?" I asked.

He waved off my question with one gnarled hand. "There's concert o'er by the fire, and it will give me time to talk to ya. I want that you keep an old man company."

"I have to finish the nets for Master Treebeth." I replied.

"Bugger Konner and his nets!" Old Salt shot back. "He's cast his damned nets all too readily over you in this place!" A fire came suddenly into his eyes. His fierceness surprised me. "That stubborn oak!" he growled. "I'll toss him out the gates on his ass if he says a word about it! Now get yerself up and join me!"

Tiny lanterns hung across the courtyard, illuminating the tamped earth in yellow light. Most of the orphans were assembled there, from the north edge of the main Keep all the way to the north gate. They jostled and cajoled each other. Most of them sat cross legged on the ground, as was the custom, but Old Salt had insisted on chairs for the two of us. I felt like royalty. Strand the musician stood at the center of the courtyard, wandering among the boys and entertaining them with a slow, measured, atonal oddity which he'd announced as his 'Filastrocca Albero in E Minor.'

Old Salt was the first to speak. I gazed over at him curiously.

What is Kol, sir?" I asked. "The Kol Ranges. Is that me, sir? Is that where I'm from?"

"No more callin' me sir. I had enough of that before I left my old life." he grumbled. He looked at me intently. "The ranges were named after the Kol." His eyes narrowed, and he rubbed his temple, looking over my shoulder at Strand, whose clear tones had transitioned to an agitato. "Few men can withstand the cold up there, and the thin air. You can. I saw ya this morning. You're a Kol."

"You know Master Treebeth? Are you friends?"

"Friends? Ha!" he laughed. "That's a good one. Treebeth had no idea I was coming." he cackled. "Now that I'm here, he is as scared and pissed as a whipped dog." He lifted a metal goblet from the other side of his chair, and handed it over to me. It was cold to the touch. "You ever drink? It's time you started. There'll be plenty more where we're goin. Go ahead."

I looked at him oddly.

"You're coming with me." he affirmed. "We're going south, to Oronoshk. There's a man there, Bryne, who is no stranger to noble deeds. I suspect he'll be very keen on meetin' you."

I then noticed Treebeth's tall shadow in a corner of the keep. He watched the concert angrily, his arms folded. He glowered like a master whose house had been rented out without his consent. He glared up at the yellow lanterns as if they'd wronged him.

"Ignore that rat bastard for once in yer life, Tahn." the old man gripped the side of his chair, and leaned back, staring philosophically up at the ceiling of leaves and high branches. "I'm forcin' him to cut you loose. He's kept ya in the dark, he has. You toil here, tucked away, hidden even from the sky. You're his dog. It's time you left."

I took a hesitant sip. I had never tasted anything like it. Something like exhilaration filled me. It was a sensation I'd known once before, and only in infant memories.

"Keep that one," he advised, and lifted another goblet filled with the brew.

"That fella there." Old Salt indicated the disheveled music man, who stilll wandered among the boys, gazing wildly around as he drew his bow back and forth across the violin. "You ever see him around here before, lad?"

"Never." I answered.

Old Salt appraised Strand silently. "I have my suspicions. He's from Dethguld. That's Konner's town. Wanton scavengers and gypsies."

"He got here without a cart." I observed. "He came on foot, didn't he?" 

"The forest cannot be traveled on foot, an' I don't know how he did it. Those wooden carriages comin' in and outta here are damned cramped, but it's the only way be safe."

"Safe from what?" I asked.

"Konner has just draped the sail over your eyes here, hasn't he?" Old Salt answered. His voice slurred and his eyes drooped. "You don't know how wise you were to never leave these walls, but I suspect Treebeth might have thrown you in a cell if you'd tried to get out. He's got his eye on you."

I began to feel lightheaded, and at the same time, a needling rage pricked the back of my neck. I gazed back at Treebeth. He no longer gazed up at the lamps, and was eyeing us both with razor intensity. For the first time, I looked him full in the eyes, holding my gaze longer than I had ever before dared.

You've kept me here all this time, I thought. You thought I belonged to you. Now I'm leaving.

Old Salt squinted his wrinkly eyes and shook his head. He held up his goblet, then sniffed the contents suspiciously. He reached out and grabbed mine, and tossed them both on the ground. He stood up, wavering. The boys were too entranced with Strand's playing to notice.

"What is the meaning of this, Konner?!" he shouted across the sea of boys. The violin playing stopped. Treebeth looked alarmed and gestured to some guards, a sneer on his face. Old Salt wavered and pulled on my tunic.

"Don't let 'em get you!" he muttered. "They will own you!"

A short, rusty haired patrolman yanked him back. Old Salt elbowed him in the gut and grabbed me again, leaning in close..

"No time! No time!" he gasped.

Nettle strode to the front of the guards. He held the rest of them back. "He's drunk! Let the old man lie down!" he ordered from the side of his mouth.  He rushed over to me and spoke low. "Tahn, you look pale, and not in your usual way. You look awful."

Old Salt was on his hands and knees now. 

"I'm a fool!" he croaked. I had to lean in to hear him. "That blasted Treebeth... you must never.... Your father... your mother... Gods!" he at last fell onto his stomach, gasping in pain. I kneeled beside him, my insides searing.

"What?!" I cried. "What were you going to say?!!" I felt loosed from a small prison, set free, but instead of flying away, I was falling. Old Salt no longer moved. I tried to listen for his breathing, to hear if air still passed through him, but before I knew it, the ground slammed into the side of my head and I began to lose consciousness. 

"Haul him off!" I heard Treebeth say. "He's had too much!" Rage and panic surged through me, but I could not move. I swore to myself that if I woke, I'd strangle Treebeth myself. The voices around me grew dim and indistinct, and I sensed strong hands under my arms, then all was dark.

Chapter 4: Escape

I woke on a stone bed in a cell. How long was I asleep? I'd never seen the inside of a cell, but I'd heard of them. They'd been part of the Keep, before it was an orphanage, a place I was told held prisoners in ancient wars. Until I'd woken to find myself in one, I'd been partially convinced they did not even exist. The cell's small windows faced the south end of the Keep, opposite from the front gates, and the sparse light through the trees afforded little light. I was in one now, alone, and my stomach ached.

No voices rang out down in the courtyard, none of the usual hammering and shouting and scraping. All was silent, except for the strong evening gusts that addled the trees and the back-and-forth of forest owls. I rose to my feet and clenched my fists. Old Salt's final words dug into me. They removed a stopper at the core of me. The faint rushing in my ears, which I tried to suppress all of my life, was full bore now. I grabbed the bars on the window, pulling myself up. Beyond, I spied the purple shadows of the forest. I thought of wedging myself through the window, but it would never work.

Just then, I heard the violin, high and sweet, echoing down the chamber outside the door to my cell. The tone hung suspended in the air, followed by a loud clatter of steel and a heavy thud. The music stopped then, and the door opened, and in slipped Strand. He looked particularly devilish in the faint light of the cell. His teeth flashed out in the darkness, and I could just make out the outline of his instrument, hanging at his side. The guards lay unconscious on the floor behind him.

"Poor, poor Tahn Kol." he said, bowing slightly. "Lord Treebeth killed your sailor friend. He means to keep you here. I will get you out. Shall we go?"

"Go?" I mumbled. "Go where?"

"We get you out, then we head south!" he answered. I peered out of the cell and noticed the four guards, all snoring loudly in the hall.  

Hours of forced slumber on a hard bed had left me sore and irritable. I fought an urge to run out of the cell and race into Treebeth's quarters and rouse him roughly, and strike him, but it would only get me captured again. I nodded cautiously at Strand. Now that the musician had freed me from the cell, I could work out my escape from the Den. You can keep your sneer, Treebeth, I thought roughly. I don't need your approval. I shoved my way past Strand.

"First, the kitchen." I said. "I am hungry, and I need to take some food."

Within minutes, I had acquired a small satchel from the kitchen and filled it with bread crusts and shaved strips of lamb that the cook had placed out the night before, and a stoppered leather bag filled with well water. I offered some to Strand, but he waved it off mirthfully.

If my mood had not been so dour, I might have laughed aloud at my current predicament. For many years, I imagined my departure from the Den would be as a very public ritual. I imagined my orphan charges might line up to wish me farewell. Those I trained with would congratulate me. Treebeth, even, might force a smile through that down-turned mouth of his. He would begrudgingly admit I was destined for better things. Instead, I stole myself away like a common thief in the night. In a way, it was fitting. I was again the tiny boy crouched behind the barrel and trying hard not to make a sound. I was invisible, and meant to keep it that way.

Nightfall had already descended over the keep, but something else hung over its confines. I couldn't figure it out. Even corners that normally rang with late night footfalls lay dormant. Strand shadowed me, holding his instrument across his neck and shoulders like a small weapon. He only stopped once or twice to peer around corners, but he walked steadily and with purpose. "They are all asleep!" he whispered slyly.

"Strand, where is our cart?" I asked him. "Other boys had tried to escape on foot and had failed.

"On foot we go, passing through the forest's mouth. I lead you away, I lead you South!" he announced. "The old Sailor has met his death, by the lord Master Treebeth. I am to free you from this prison, this prison of thickets," he stopped to lick his lips... "and walls, and more thickets. It is time to go, we must stay low."

"But the forest!" I protested. "On foot? There is no way out until morning!"

The scraggly musician spun to face me. He looked down the neck of his raised instrument, a look of pride on his hooked face. He played a low, long pensive note. As the wail emptied from his violin, he spoke low, like a narrator. "No, no, we must go..." he sang. "In the dead, dead of night. When the owls come to flight. Before the morning brings its light! Stay with me, you'll be alright!" He gestured up at the main dormitory of the Den, where all the windows were dark. "It's far too deep." he said. "Far to deep for those asleep."

He led me to the front of the Den's main gate. The doors rose over us, glinting steel in the dark of the courtyard. Strand hopped forward like a small bird, and placed his hands on the smaller black door. I'd only seen this door used, once before... just the day before, when Strand had entered. No one else at the Den ever entered or exited on foot, so the smaller door was always locked.

He played a long, low wavering note on his violin. Moments later, I heard a scraping sound, then a click. The door opened, and Strand waved his arm low, ushering me through. I took one final look at the only home I had ever known, uncertain if I would ever see it again - its desolate courtyard, lonely towers, slumbering orphans - and I stepped through the door into absolute darkness.

Chapter 5: The Great Forest

Strand immediately kicked the small door, and it shut with an abrupt clang. Panic seized me. I don't know how Strand had even unlocked the door, but we were both locked out now. Putting my trust in him was the height of foolery, and I had I really wanted to, I could have banged on the door until someone woke and let me back in. What good would it really do, I asked myself. I'd only end up back in a cell, or worse. This path was my path now, for better or for worse. I took a deep swallow, and began to walk. The lingering dark in the air made it seem as though the twisting shadows of the branches and the thick bramble had begun to move. 

The dirt road was flattened by decades, if not centuries, of horse hooves and carriage wheels. Horseshoe nails and random junk lay everywhere, having been tossed from the carriages. From the outside, the Den's walls revealed a decaying structure. Dark moss spread across the surface of the stone, except where iron fortifications lay across it in wide bands. I caught sight of crumbling stone carvings depicting long faces with deep set eyes. The surrounding trees hung so low to the ground that the high towers of the keep were obscured from view. Had I not just come from inside, I might not have known a structure existed there at all.

We walked in silence, heading deeper into the unknown. Strand busied himself with tuning his strings as he walked. I strode ahead, still propelled by rage at Treebeth's betrayal, letting the glass pane that had always stood between me and the outside world finally slide away. The many sounds of the great forest came as wild shrieks and murmuring hums. The faintest purple light filtered down through the trees, and as the road drew further and further from the keep, I caught hints of green in the brush. The southern road dipped and swerved southwest, and in my eagerness to plunge into the world, I lost sight of Strand.

A sound like trickling water emerged from somewhere far to my left, but as the road sloped further down, the gurgling noise rose high overhead. Strand appeared soundlessly beside me, and walked past me, his hands gripped on his violin. He played a long, thin note while he walked, gazing up through the holes in the canopy of trees. The gurgling sound ceased as he played. 

"I'll keep you alive, Tahn Kol..." he sung. "I'll keep you alive, so you can survive."

We stopped by the side of the path and took a rest. I ate sparingly - just a single strip of lamb and a slice of crusty dough. I offered some to Strand but he refused. We continued on as the path dipped even further down.

As I ate, Strand drew his bow and played a few somber notes. The cry of his instrument drifted up through the trees with a ghostly echo. I'd known from the moment I first heard him play, but if there had been any lingering doubt, it was all wiped away. It was same sound that once woke me in the middle of the night when I was a small boy, scaring me from my wits. It had now become my guide and accomplice.

"So it is true." I said to him, tearing into some lamb. "You've played in these forests for a long time. I've heard you. It was you."

Strand stopped playing and gazed at me sideways. His mouth curled up into a tiny smile.

"I was here before Josta fell, before the coming of the Stag and the Ram!" he said suddenly. "Before the Bull and the Horse!"

I expected no more than riddles from him. Nothing in his movements or the way he leered at me gave me any sense of his intention.

"Strand, where are you taking us?"

"...before the coming of the Bull and the Anteater!!" he went on, eyes blazing. His smile twisted into a brilliant grin. He stopped walking and spun in place. He began to playing an entirely different melody: the Filastrocca from the previous night. He danced as he played, smiling wide. The sounds of the forest ceased altogether, and the trees groaned and drooped, as if they'd been put to sleep. I, too, felt lulled to sleep, a strange sense of peace and calm overtaking me, but a slight tingling in the back of my mind kept me alert.

"I'll keep you alive, Tahn Kol!" he repeated. Once he stopped playing, the forest spun back to life and my senses whirred into overdrive. That tingling became a roaring, the same roaring in my head that had dogged me for so long. I felt a distinct urge to run. Even in the gloom, far off noises returned and the gurgling noise resumed. Strand danced under a veil of shadow, muttering to himself. I thought of his words: "I was here before Josta fell, and before the coming of the Stag..."

The road soon narrowed and the stiff soldiers of pines and spruce thinned their ranks for new recruits: dark, squat, bottom heavy trees. They bore heavy roots like burly arms, and deep, black knots like fissures. Their branches got thinner and sparse near the top, giving me my first glimpse of the night sky. So there it was, at last: the dark purple sky peering down at me. I gazed up at it in wonder as I walked on. I had an urge to cry. It was a new sight. While I gazed upward, my foot became wedged under a thick root in the road, and I fell forward, landing face down in the dirt.

Strand accented my fall by playing a short, menacing note. He giggled and moved past me. I picked myself off the ground.

"Funny," I grumbled.

The road grew overgrown with knotted roots from the squat, bottom heavy trees on either side of the path. Sharp bramble thorns pushed through the trees on either side, jutting out at dramatic angles. Further down the root-choked path, I saw long glances of silver light casting a magic glow across the forest. I'd learned of of the moon, but had never seen it for myself. I desired to climb the nearest tree and gaze up at it, catching my first glimpse of it hanging there in the sky, but the thorns were far too sharp for me to pass.

"Is this the only road?" I asked.

"Far, far from the main road," Strand answered, stepping carefully over the roots and gazing up every now and again. "Far from the carts with the sturdy loads."

He was giving me nonsense. I'd had enough of him.

I ran on ahead. The lit beams illuminated the ground and surrounding bramble clusters in a thick, silvery wash. The light shimmered and quivered, but as I got closer I saw it was not light, but thin threads of silk. They hung from the trees and tickled the roots at the base of the path. A wispy thread grazed my shoulder, igniting a loud, strangled gurgling from just overhead. I flinched and moved out of the way.

Another string descended from a second tree high over my head. The wind picked up, and the silken wisps began to drift sideways. The tree branches unfurled strangely, like an opening of clenched hands and outstretched fingers. Another string of silvery light ran past my ear and clung to me. I tried pulling it off by tugging on it, but as I tugged, more noise erupted overhead. 

"Strand!" I called. No answer.

The threads became impossible to avoid. They fell everywhere. When I touched one, more descended to hold me in place. As I struggled, the boughs above me descended, a mass of choked gurgling. Insect appendages dropped into the silver light, alive and writhing. They were larger than any insects I had ever seen roaming the Den. Thread gurgled out from small orifices near their large, arced stingers.


I ran to the left to get out from beneath them, but the silk held me in place. The insects swung my way, stabbing wildly with their stingers. I swerved headlong into the bramble, already feeling the threads yanking at my back. If necessary, I'd claw my bloody way thorough the thorns. I had to do something.

I strained against the backward pull of the threads. I clutched at the bramble and the thorns dug into the flesh of both of my hands, and I pulled away with a sharp cry. The worse I struggled, the tighter the threads became. I made a final attempt to reach out for a branch, anything to keep me from being lifted in the air, when the sweet cry of the Strand's violin rang out from the gloom of the forest.

The creatures, all around me now, let out tiny screams and scurried back up their threads. Strand's playing continued, and got louder, and the tension on the silk went slack and I was free. I immediately began to run back the way I came to safety. Strand stepped across the roots while he played. He walked right past me and spun in place, tilting his head at me and smiling.

"Walk with me, or they will come back. Walk with me, Kol, or you are dead."

I stood, and followed him across the roots warily. He removed his bow from the string, and more silver threads returned, casting an eerie light upon his face.

"What are you doing? Play!!" I shouted. "Please!"

He laughed high, tucked his bow somewhere unseen in his waist coast, and held his hand out toward a thread, and tugged it. The Nouggs dropped steadily from the branches again as he stood laughing at me.

"The Kol!" he called. "Begging for his life!" He laughed even harder, unable to contain himself, and set his violin back on his shoulder. I ran on past him, stooping to avoid the swinging Nouggs and hopping over roots. The roaring in my ears had consumed me now, and I looked down to see my legs maneuvering the knotty path with uncommon speed and dexterity. With the power of his music, Strand squeezed me through it like juice through a sieve. I had no choice but to run.

The tickle of insect legs scraped the back of my neck and an awful clicking noise whispered against my ears. The path deepened and twisted. I heard far off laughter. The notes cried out again, loud and clear along the path, the notes which had terrified me as a boy, now both protecting and tormenting me. The sound retreated, and the silver light returned again. Strand, it seemed, had the power to control the beasts. He sent them up into a bewildered sleep with his lullabies and then back down upon me like ghastly marionettes. I felt sure I would never see the sky, never break out from under the trees that had guarded me all my life, but just then, I spotted the opening in the path, and realized I might just break free after all.

Chapter 6: Sastrans

My breath ran ragged from my lungs by the time I spilled out into a wondrous clearing. The trees gave way to a sloped field of grass, and over me, a massive, dark blue sky adorned with long, light blue veils of clouds littered with stars. I'd seen glimmers of stars through the trees, but never like this, majestic and unsheathed from the forest's thick trappings. A few rocks lay strewn about, with one larger boulder in the center of the clearing, and everything glowed from the light of the pale moon overhead. A fierce wind ran through the hollow and bit relentlessly at my arms and face, and the roaring in my ears resumed. It had never been this relentless.

A sudden cacophony of whispers greeted me. As it turned out, I was not alone. A shrouded assembly of mounted figures gathered at the far edge of the clearing. Their voices came to me from far off. I should not have heard them, yet I did. Though far off, their voices carried over the air, and became a creeping presence in my inner ear. They didn't yet seen me, so I ran for the large boulder and crouched behind it. I peered slowly out from its edge to get a better look at them.

There were four of them. Their armor was strange - made from a haphazard net of scales, done up like patchwork. It lay connected all about their bodies, and underneath, something like gousset lining woven from twine the color of the trees  Their helms were all fashioned to resemble animal heads. I spied a rabbit helm, and one of a stag, a bull helm on the head of a giant knight, and lastly, a tall, commanding knight whose helm was obscured. 

"Lidea's army has no chance." a deep voice said. "They will try to stop us from entering the pass north of the Orchards. We will burn through the trees as we burn through treason. We burn through heathenish treachery. They will all burn." Murmurs of assent rose up from others. The Bull appeared to hissed through his helm, and I spied a gasp of steam sputtering into the field.

I ducked back behind the boulder. Strand's words repeated in my head: The coming of the stag and the ram. I pressed myself against the stone, gritting my teeth in fear.  A clop of hooves on grass neared, just on the other side of the boulder. I shimmied to my right, hoping to to run out and take my chances back in the forest, but before I had the chance, the rabbit-knight flanked me. The rabbit, stag and bull confronted me then.

The rabbit tried first. He lunged at me on his midnight steed but it lurched up on its hindquarters, startled. I fell onto the grass. The horse was spooked. The rabbit's helm bobbed lazily as he stalked me in a circle, his metal ears stabbing the air as he loped around me.

"Get up." he commanded in a cold voice.

He removed his helm. I cried out. It was Wasp. He was not the young and handsome Wasp I remembered from the Den. His once blonde hair had lost its luster. His face was lined with tiny scars, and the side of his lip was stitched. He reached out and I instinctively grabbed his hand, and pulled myself up off the ground.

"You will stand for the Sastran order!" he commanded. He turned to the other knights. "I know this one!" he said. "Another orphan from the Den."

"We will take him, too." breathed the bull-knight, a gargantuan behemoth astride a delicate, weakened horse. His heavy breath sent thick plumes of hot air jetting through nostril holes in his massive helm.  "We make you all men of Josta!" He adjusted himself in the saddle. His hulking mass was almost too much for it, and for the poor animal beneath him. I winced as he struck the creature's neck with the handle of his giant halberd in an attempt to get closer to me. The creature would not move toward me, all the while, its eyes pleading balefully for escape. 

"Wasp..." I whispered, looking up at my former friend sadly. I did not know what else to say.

Wasp re-affixed his helm and climbed back up on his horse.

"You pulled me from the dirt once. We are now even." he said tersely. His face was dead and solemn, and he rounded his horse and rode out of sight behind the boulder.

I gazed down at my hands. A familiar pale glow spread over my knuckles. My head spun with dark thoughts and impulses. I would not let these knights have me. I would not hand myself over to new warders so soon after having escaped the old ones.

"Humph..." grunted the bull. "He glows. What say you, Stag?"

The stag headed me off on his chestnut horse. He was a gangling, long-limbed knight. His rusty, corroded metal antlers looked as though they'd been hammered by rough, unsteady hands. His horse fought his attempts to get close to me.

"You owe the Sastrans." said the stag accusingly. He brought his horse in close enough to grab me, but the animal reared back again and just about flung him off. He cursed and kept his ragged cuisses pressed close to the animal in order to keep from falling off. I edged back, gazing back at the forest for possible escape.

"Do not run, boy, or I get you." the bull warned.

Just then, Strand danced out from between two trees. The sight of his grinning, treasonous face filled me with fury. He walked toward me, but as soon as he spotted the hidden knight at the edge of the clearing, all the confidence bled from his face in an instant. 

A mirthful, malevolent voice rang deep inside my mind.

"You imbecile." the voice cursed. "You've been gone weeks. You said you would track the Kol-lovers to Oronoshk. Who is this wasted looking wretch?"

"I... brought a surprise for you, Sastran." Strand stammered. "You will not believe, he lives as sure as breathes... I did as you commanded, lord. I tracked Lidea and his horde. They were for Oronoshk. But I could not just lead you to them, when this orphan lay hidden among the rough. He... is a Kol."

"The Kol are all gone! I have no patience for your rhymes! Speak plainly!" ordered the stag-knight.

Strand eyed the stag impatiently, and addressed the unseen Knight again. "He.. he let off the signs. His skin... he could only be Kol. I heard whispering of a pale boy. I brought him to you, a prize! Yes, a prize!"

The hidden Knight remained still under the trees like a giant statue, but when Strand spoke he moved out slowly from under them until the moonlight hit his giant helm. It was fashioned like an anteater, complete with pointed ears, and a long, slightly curved snout. He fixed his cold gaze on me. "Kol" he rasped. "Kol." He raised one hand and touched the side of his helm. "I know who you are, you miserable bastard dog." he seethed, as if remembering some past pain. "Did your family send you to us, hoping it would strike fear in our hearts?"

"He owes us his allegiance!" Wasp shouted obediently.

"Silence!" roared the Anteater. His voice whipped through the air. "The boy owes us nothing except his life."

He leaned down on his horse and fixed his gaze on me, and laughed again.

"Where is your kolleh now? You've blundered, Kol. You see, this is the sweetest mercy. This is the sweetest Jostan mercy." His laugh was slow and deep.

With a heavy wave of his gauntlet, he flung his arm in my direction. Before I could run, or duck, or flinch, I heard a ringing like a wood spoon against a bell. Some unknown pressure acted upon my shoulders as if to sink me to the ground. With it, came a cutting, icy frost. I'd never known such cold. Then, as suddenly as the sensation arrived, it dropped away from me, and the pressure on my shoulders lifted. Whatever the Anteater had tried to do, it had failed. Moreover, he seemed afraid. He tilted his giant helm and edged back toward the trees, as if waiting for something to happen. A loud crack, like the snapping of trees emanated from where the Anteater sat on his horse. His armor changed color, from silver to pale blue. He let out a sick, frustrated groan, and backed his sturdy mount completely under the trees' shadows. He seized up on his horse, exhausted and devastated. 

"No matter..." he rasped, breathing heavily. "There are simpler ways. Kill him."

The bull didn't wait. He drew out his mighty oak halberd and flung it toward me. I felt certain it would hit me but its arc dropped off as if it had hit an invisible wall. The spear-like weapon dropped into the grass just in front of me. The bull groaned nastily and tried to un-mount, with little success. I suspected that falling inelegantly was the Bull's only way off his horse. He would not dare do it in front of the other knights, so he stayed seated, stewing.

Strand tried next. He lifted out his instrument and slowly ran over the strings with his bow. He gave the knights a pitying look as the melody began. This displeased the Anteater, who seized up his massive gauntlet and aimed it at the musician. Strand's prized violin imploded in a mess of splinters.

"You had your chance, rat!" imported the Sastran leader. The scraggly servant cried hysterically and rushed me, baring his teeth like a rabid animal. A higher instinct surged through me and I kicked up my legs and whirled through the air, landing three meters away. Had I just done that? I'd performed a full flip in the air and now stood behind the downed musician. My curled fists blazed white.

"Your fault, Kol!" Strand screeched. "I spared you, despicable boy! Awful boy!" He spun and raised his arm to strike me, but I easily dodged him. He looked up at the hulking knights with a weird grin on his face.

"See?" he cawed. "I told you he was a Kol. I told you!"

"Bull." the Anteater ordered. "Stay and crush them. Twist their pale necks off."

The bull groaned in protest. "But the Kol fire..."

The Anteater hissed.

"I absorbed the bitch Kol's fire. Are you so weak that you cannot?"

"I'm not weak!" protested the bull.

With that, the other Sastrans disappeared into the trees. The Rabbit once known as Wasp held the rear guard. He gazed back at me one last time. He gave me a quick nod, kicked his horse and disappeared with the others into the pre-dawn gloom. The remaining knight, seeing that his companions had left, swung off the horse and fell to the ground with a clang. He grunted and scraped against the earth to stand up. 

Now without his violin, Strand dropped to the ground and rolled over onto his back, his bow still in hand. He began to laugh that strange, maniacal laugh I'd grown to despise. He grasped the bowstring and stretched it out until it snapped in two.

"Fat bull, the pitiful fool, never be more than a Sastran tool!" sang Strand, whacking his broken bow across the ground.

"Not afraid of your fire, Kol!" the Bull yelled. "Going to crush you both!"

A low channel of fog drifted in between the boulders. The bull removed his gauntlets, and cracked his giant, hairy knuckles. One after the other, he tossed the gauntlets at my head. My instincts bit at me and I leaped up and cartwheeled to the side, avoiding them entirely. The gauntlets flew past where I'd just stood and knocked violently into Strand.

The bull laughed and snorted disgustingly, and ran, his patchwork armor scraping like a sharpening stone against knives. I jumped into the air feet first, as if to kick him, but then let myself fall to the ground and slid between his legs and out the other side. He turned to grab at me, and his large hand raked down my back and through my tunic. I felt the cloth stretch and give way, and pulled out from his clutch. I ran at the knight's horse, crouched, and jumped. The grass left my feet. The dawn sky and trees spun wildly out of control. I knew for sure I'd fall. I expected to feel the grass slam into my shoulder, or worse, but I fell leg-first down onto the animal's back. Miraculously, I was astride it. I'd handled horses at the Den, but had never performed such a feat. 

The frustrated knight belied his size with uncommon speed. In the seconds it took me to jump through the air, he'd spanned the field in seconds. He was fast. He reached out and grasped at the horse's tail, but I spurred the steed on, and the creature yanked away. We ran us straight into the trees. I ducked against the animal's neck while the branches whipped around and against my face. Nougg threads hung everywhere. They adorned the branches like Jostan decorations, but the bull's horse weaved through them like an expert, keeping us from harm.

The earth shook behind us. The heavy steps of the knight thundered out through the woods. A sound of snapping, cracking wood ensued while he pushed whole trees aside. He called out in a savage voice. 

"I find you, Kol!" he roared.

I should have been afraid, but the horse carried my fear, and with each steady stride, took us further from danger. The encounter in the clearing had loosed something in me upon the world. The horse and I were the same. We fed on each other's strength. I sensed his yearning to escape the Bull's rough crop as desperately as I did. The behemoth would never catch up to us. He'd sooner be picked apart by Nouggs without his steed.

Low, stout trees whizzed by my head. The animal's fierce determination blew up into me, giving me strength. His lightness came upon me, too, and I shared in his exhilaration. I marveled at the certitude with which he swung his head to avoid the dangling threads. His leg muscles plowed through the earth of the forest like they'd been unchained and unleashed on the world. My spirit was already trained on what lay ahead. I swatted Nouggs away with a series of harsh yells. Their writhing carapaces shrank from us, back up into the trees as the wood grew sparser and the air brighter.

Chapter 7: The Journey North

At last we broke out from the trees and out into the top of an embankment. My anxiousness dissipated with the fog, and the bright grey haze thinned, giving me my first sight of land beyond the great forest. Beyond where we stood lay a landscape so vast I steadied myself to keep from falling from the horse. Ravens shrieked and circled overhead. Far below us, at the bottom of the embankment, a broad, flat highway ran across the earth like a ribbon of grey stone. Across the highway, strange hills covered in thick plants sloped and rolled. There, a stout, dark line pierced the haze. It was a wall, stretching to the north and south, as far as I could see. 

Just past the wall, I spied a distant glimmer of movement. It looked like a striking, slim chain of diamonds, swimming and turning with the light. I had dreamed of this place years ago. In those dreams, I'd climbed the tallest pine in the land and gazed down about the world, and it stole my breath. It stole my breath just as swiftly now, in my waking hours. I needed to go there. I needed to know that sparkling treasure.

The door on my world has unlocked, I thought, my heart racing. The roaring that had cursed me all my life flew from between my ears in that instant and became a sound urging me on from afar. 

"You were my key," I said gently to the steed, patting his neck. It was only fitting I name him Key. "You freed me as I freed you." I whispered. He whinnied softly and circled the area for sources of water and food. I thought nothing of food, or drink. I gazed about as if in a trance. 

When we reached the highway, I surveyed our path. Behind us, to the South, the highway dissolved into the dirt and perished, overtaken by the treeline. To the north the openness of the land continued on unabated. So much for Oronoshk, I thought, and steered us North along the highway. Key's legs kicked and curled into the air. I suspected my four legged friend enjoyed his new-found freedom as much as I did. He relished having escaped the punishing weight of the Bull.  

A few fortified carts passed us on the road, no doubt heading for one of the many side roads leading up to the great forest. Fearful eyes peered through the tiny cart windows. One after the other, as they passed by, it became evident that the sight of a traveler on horseback was rare on the road. Was it fear of the Nouggs that kept people inside those carts, or fear of the so-called 'wood savages?' Wood savages. No doubt, the Sastrans. I may have entered the world afraid of both, but I feared nothing now.

"Where'd you come from, boy?!" one voice asked from inside a cart. I stayed silent and rode on.

A few miles later, another cart passed me on the road. Through the slits in its side, I perceived small, wondering eyes peering out. They were orphans and servants, bound to arrive at the Den by morning.

"Give Master Treebeth my regards!" I said loudly and bitterly, and rode on.

A few more carts ambled by, then the road went curiously silent. I lay across Key's neck and closed my eyes, letting the gentle gray light pierce my eyelids. I let my mind wander. My head swam with visions. Somewhere far behind us, perhaps at that very moment, the animal knights, the Sastrans, made their way through the gloom of the forest on a strange campaign. I knew nothing of it and cared nothing for it. Something beyond my understanding screamed for me to care, but I was an orphan of the Den. I'd been shut out from the goings on of the world all of my life, and my revenge on the world was not to care. It was a land vaster than anything I'd been allowed to see. Now that I'd broken out over it, I dashed my obligations against the stone of the highway. I'd experience it on my terms. My body was a coiled spring that had at last sprung. The roaring ceased to torment me. Now, I'd follow it to its source.  

I thought of the whole of my life and felt a strange panic. Just days before, I was still a bug in a jar. Now, newly free, I gazed in at my former prison, and the thought of it made me choke and lose air. I could scarcely believe I'd called the old forest Keep home for so long. I thought on long days and nights held behind its walls, unable or unwilling to break loose and take my chances in the world. All my 'yes, sir's and 'no, sir's, my fearful sycophancy, it drained me of life. It kept me from leaving. I cursed and bit my lip, holding back tears. As if hearing me, Key whinnied softly. I remembered myself and laid back down across his neck.

I recalled what Old Salt told me on the night Treebeth poisoned him. He said, You don't know how wise you were to never leave these walls without protection. It didn't make sense. Salt knew I was a Kol, yet he thought me wise to stay? Maybe Salt's only words of wisdom came at the end, as he grasped me and shuddered, and told me he was a fool. He was right. He was a fool. They were all fools. Let the Sastrans burn through treason and treachery. None of it had anything to do with me. So, the Great Court had abandoned one set of laws for another? It had replaced unyielding edict with blood sacrifice? What nonsense! I thought of what Nettle told me long ago about hypocrisy, and the fear of the unknown. I decided to follow his advice, and I left my worries by the road. I urged Key to move faster.

The day wore on and light seeped from the highway. The trees to my right yielded to long stretches of hard clay pocked with pools of rain water. Behind them, a tall rock face emerged, looming up until the trees were no longer visible. Even the ravens' shrieking dissipated as the area grew remote, replaced by the sound of gulls and thundering waves. I was near.

We pushed around the cliff face, the beautiful, deadly ocean to our left, as the sun bade the day's farewell in an orange glimmer streaming out over the rocks. This wall's impenetrable onyx surface could not contain the tall graceful sprays. The sea churned and swirled like nothing I had ever seen. I suspected any craft on its surface might be dragged down immediately or cast down among the rocks. I somehow felt that were I to brave that sea, even without craft, that I would survive there. 

Chapter 8: Dethguld

Our path sloped up and around, slowly unveiling a vast cove. I could not hide my exhilaration at the strange sight before me. There were no signs or posts, only a single word, 'Dethguld' carved deep into the rock alongside us. Key and I rounded one last bend and at last emerged out into a shelf of stone at the center of a high, sloped city.  

Dethguld was built upon a series of shelves built into a tight bay of rocks. Its buildings may have once been made of wood and stone, but were fortified - much like the carts that traveled the forest - with metal. Subsequently, streaks of rust and thriving sea barnacles clung to almost every surface, every window, every thin, winding pathway. Complex clusters of buildings occupied each shelf except for the bottom-most one, near the wall. That lowest shelf was a channel of shallow water occupied by a series of water crafts tied up to the wall face with ropes and chains. They looked like they hadn't seen much use, and they bobbed nervously like a huddled group of refugees under the wall, which stretched out over the whole front of Dethguld like a huge shield from the sea. 

This vast wall stood higher and deeper here than it had to the south. Its surface was totally smooth except for a series of hooks, loops and pulleys. Far above, across the top lip of the wall, stood several cranes. I could only guess at their function, but even as I gazed over the strange adornments on the wall, they struck me as familiar. All of this complexity and fortification made me wonder if the wall protected residents from the wild sea. The whole place looked like a sea keep rather than a sailor town. 

Some noisy men spilled out from a hovel covered in barnacles. A minstrel stood between them, meekly holding a lute.

"Come on and play us a tune, then!" they shouted at him.

The minstrel gazed about nervously and plucked out a series of notes as I rode by. I looked away and hid my face, but one of them saw me and called out.

"That's a Sastran horse! What are you doin' so far north? Are you outcasts looking to occupy this shithole, too, or are you just lost?" They all laughed hysterically.

"It is a Sastran horse, so you'd best mind your tongue!" I lashed out. I wheeled Key around and faced them. I'd had enough. I clenched my fists and felt a tingle spread up and over my knuckles. "Just try me, imbeciles. Come on, then."

One of them stepped out, grinning. He gave me a single glance, then his eyes grew uneasy as he saw my fists.

"Okay, then," he said nervously. He still grinned, but his eyes had grown fearful. He gestured to the minstrel, who had stopped playing and was trying his best not to look at me. "Why did you stop, fool! Keep playing!" the sailor ordered. The tune resumed, and I turned and kept riding, all too aware of the murmurs behind me in the dark. Once or twice, I suspected I was being followed, but my path was too drowned in shadow for me to be sure.

A faint, rhythmic clanging echoed out from high above, somewhere on the second highest shelf of buildings. I saw lights, blinking on and off, illuminating on metal and stone. I headed upwards, toward the noise and light, guiding Key up narrow paths and across silent pathways flanked by low stone walls.  Some time later, I reached a massive, two story stone building. It stood just off the roadway at an odd slant, its entire frame crooked and bent.

A swinging sign out front read 'Top Shelf - Dancing & Drinking & Dining" I tied Key to a nearby post and walked inside. It was a strange place, full of multicolored lights that moved, and packed shoulder-to-shoulder with stumbling and distracted men and women. The whole interior was also at a slant, even the large front windows. Sailors, dancers, and musicians swirled around each other in a nonstop ebb and flow that reminded me of the sea past the wall. Drinks sloshed and spilled. Thick smoke wafted up into high rafter shadows, where drummers pounded away, just beyond the sight of the revelers below. I'd heard drums at the Den - minstrels often came by to perform for the boys - but the rhythmic beating at the Top Shelf was of an intensity I'd not heard before. 

Painted women stood lazily in the corners next to men with bulging pocketbooks and lascivious sneers. All of the massive, slanted barnacle crusted windows looked out over the entire bay. It was a beautiful sight. especially for my eyes, which looked on everything as new. The sight past the window consumed me. Past the window, I felt as if I gazed into a painting that forced my eyes down over each shelf, along the rusted rooftops and chimneys, down to the shallow channel and then to the great onyx wall with its loops and pulleys. Past that, the wild movement of the swirling water continued unabated. It was all a surreal sight, one I could hardly bear to pull my eyes from.

I pushed myself toward a huge drink counter and watched others order for a while. It was not unlike the food service in the Den, only here, I had a choice about what to eat or drink. That I even had a choice overwhelmed me.

As I waited, deciding, an older woman approached and leaned into me.

"You with somebody?" she asked. She looked like a gypsy, or of a kind of travelling troupes that had begun passing through Den. Such troupes were often isolated into their own carts, shunned and pushed aside. After the upheavals, they were no longer so isolated, and more often mingled with merchants and traders. 

She repeated herself more forcefully.

"You with someone? Are you deaf or something?"

"I don't get your meaning!" I responded. I spoke louder but the music and loud voices drowned me out.

"Well, why don't we talk about it over a drink?" she asked, leaning into me. I sensed an anxiousness in her manner. It made me nervous. While it was something I'd long thought about, it was the last thing on my mind at that moment. I had to find a water craft, and a group of sailors brave enough to come with me.

"I have to go soon," I told her. "But thank you."

She spat in my face and slapped me, hard, across the cheek.

"Don't thank me, you fucking beggar! Get the fuck away from me!" she spat on the ground, and wheeled around and stomped off.

I rubbed my face and collapsed into the bar.

"Give me your best!" I yelled. "Anything strong!"

A tall, ceramic decanter appeared in front of me. The ancient man behind the bar held up two fingers. Unsure of his meaning, I returned the gesture. He shouted at me in a language I did not understand. A bearded man wearing a head cloth leaned into the barman and whispered a few words in his ear. The barman cocked his head at me and waved me off. The bearded man vanished, and I was left with my drink. It was spicy and warm, and it made me remember how hungry I was.

Chapter 9: Sailors and Players

The drummers intensified their beating, kicking their legs out from an upper level railing as they played, guiding the other musicians down below. They whooped and yelled as they played, goading the dancers to dance faster and harder. I was pushed about by people slamming their fists on the counter demanding more drink, or merely stumbling by, by I welcomed the anonymity. Lights like colored stars flashed on and off. Candles flickered behind colored screens. It was not what I had expected from such a decrepit, windswept place. It was modern and yet old, so very old.

"There a problem?" asked another gent beside me. "She'd have treated you right."

"I don't want to be treated right." I answered derisively. "I want to be left alone."

"No, lad, nobody wants that. You're new here, but Oursa is a good lady. What are you drinking?"

I looked over at him. He'd seen better times. Tattered fineries hung off him like cloth butterflies. His eyes were lined in dark paint. He reminded me of Nettle, only taller and more haggard. I noticed a small hand harp at his side, all painted up in floral patterns. In recent years, I'd seen people like him passing through the Den. They were gypsies.

"I asked for the strongest they had." I said defensively.

"That's the spice malt, and it's shit. Let me buy you something proper."

An hour later, I was way over my head in drink, surrounded by the tattered man's friends at a table by the front window. They were all musicians. The tattered man asked me to watch a basket at their table, as they took turns stepping into the crowd and playing a song, and every now and again someone would drop some coins into the basket. I'd not bothered to ask any of their names. It didn't matter. The Den had taught me not to ask. I sat quietly, unable to say a word about myself for fear of an invisible hand that might drag me away, back into the forest. I am an orphan of the Den, I thought. I am invisible.

After the third ale, I dropped my chin into my palm and gazed out the window. Light faded throughout Dethguld as the day came to a close. Most of the musicians sat back down and joined me at the table. Through the window, I saw a vast, dark blue slope, and silhouettes of rooftops. Past it, a barely visible sky streaked with gray and red.

I broke my silence, and blurted out:

"I want to go past the wall!"

Most of them laughed and shrugged, but one of tattered man's friends raised his eyebrows and said nothing. He was a short, gnomish gent with a bowler hat pulled up so his forehead showed. He wrenched himself from their chatter and stepped in next to me.

"What did you just say?" he asked.

"I said, how do I get onto the sea? When does the next craft go over the wall?" I asked. "I wish to be on it."

The short man wheezed.

"No man goes over the wall!" he exclaimed. The others pulled themselves to my side.

"Eh wot?" the tattered man asked, incredulously. "You have no idea what you're askin', boy!"

"Don't call me boy!" I shot back. "I've had enough of that."

"Sorry, lad. But you're talking about doin' something no man has done for a long time. Men have tried, and failed, and left defeated, or died. It simply does not happen."

"What about the crafts, then?" I replied. "Why do they sit, waiting?"

"Oh, the boats? The boats are old. As old as the last time there was a successful breach over that wall. Going on fifteen years now, since the last time. It gave the sailors here reasons to hope."

"If there is no way to the sea, then what are sailors for?" I asked.

The whole group laughed long, until I was red in the face and hunched over the table. The music over the dance floor had changed. Two fiddlers raked their bows back and forth over their instruments. The sound was nothing short of excruciating, but most in the place danced on. The short man clapped me on the shoulder and leaned in.

"Were you born in a cave, then? You do know that sailors do not sail. They scavenge!"

"That's right!" Oursa cackled. "They take their nets and they catch the pickings that go over the wall!"

"On the safe side, off course!" tattered man added. "They drudge the channels of water on the safe side, they haul in meager piles of crustacean and fish and then go and brag to Dethguld about what hearty sailors they are."

"They're not men." Oursa went on. "They're braggarts." She added. "All but Lidea, that is."

The others nodded solemnly. I lifted my head and stared at each of them. I knew that name. I'd heard it before, in the forest, from Strand and the Sastrans.

"Lidea!" I exclaimed.

"So, you've heard of the Old Salt, then?" tattered man smiled. "So you was not raised in a cave? He's no stranger to Dethguld. He's a proper sailor, but he and his men have not been around for some time."

I looked back out the window at the deep violet cliffs and the black streak off wall far beyond. Only days ago, Old Salt clutched at my tunic and dropped to the ground, poisoned. Lidea's army, the Anteater had said. In Oronoshk? Old Salt had promised to take me there. Why? All of a sudden I felt unprepared and small. I'd blundered so far north to an impassable sea, and for what? To run away? To find myself?

I buried my head in my hands again and knocked my ale to the floor. The place was too noisy for me to care any more.

Chapter 10: The Viola Player

On our way out, I noticed that Key had disappeared from the post. The group explained that leaving a horse unguarded in Dethguld was like leaving a gold purse open in a brothel. I agonized over the loss of my companion, but when the gypsies asked me to stay with them, the grief shrunk by a small measure. They took pity on me, I suspected. They saw me as an innocent. If they'd seen my skin go pale in the fierce coastal wind - and I suspected they did - they ignored it. 

With Oursa's earnings and some coins from the others' music, they purchased what little food they could get.   The tattered band and I wound down across each shelf, until we reached their whip-worn tents, all spiked into the hard earth on the second shelf on the far, north edge of Dethguld. Other gypsies, most of them musicians, stayed and guarded against thieves.

It was their pity that caused them to share it with me, though I was a stranger, though I had no talent to add to their group. The tattered man finally gave his name as Ratlin. The smaller, round faced gent called himself Gaist. I knew Oursa - my cheek still carried some phantom sting from her slap.

The next day, we sat among the tents. No trace of sunlight beamed down from above. The sky remained like chalk and charcoal, and the patter of rain on the stones was soothing. I drifted in and out of sleep until the shadows deepened and the group picked up for the Top Shelf. Just as we left, a few stragglers wandered into our area, hoping to steal instruments or food, but several of the group remained behind to guard, and were ready for them. They all unsheathed daggers and rushed the thieves, who all dispersed, yelping like frightened dogs. Ratlin, Gaist and Oursa all looked down on the scene with dispassion. 

"Almost every night, they try to take our stuff." Gaist said, almost amused. "Every night, we kick their asses." He looked at me wearily. "Who can blame them, really? Hunger has no memory."

It was decided that night, at our table near the window, that if I was to stay with the group, I would need to learn to play an instrument. I initially cringed at this prospect - after all, when I thought of music, I thought of Strand's awful, rat-like face.

"Truth is," Oursa said, setting an ale before me. "You're handsome, and with a viola or a flute, you'll make us some coin." I went to reach for the ale but she pulled it back again, and took a sip. "But get this straight, love. You're not that handsome. You have to work like the rest of us."

I nodded, and gazed out the window again. The deepening grey hadn't yet obscured the whirling eddies in the water. I thought of Lidea. I'd considered telling them about Old Salt, but thought against it. After all, just mentioning his name - the name Lidea - would only raise more questions, and I'd have to tell them the whole story. After that, I'd no longer be anonymous. I'd be visible. I'd have to explain myself. I'd have to determine my purpose.

The following morning, I sat by the tents, still in awe of the sights around me. A few of the others tuned their instruments, packed supplies, and spoke with one another.

"You said nobody crosses the sea." I said to no one particular.

"Wrong." Gaist said. "Nobody reaches it. It's beyond you. You have no knowledge of sailing. You can't tie a rope, or fix a mast, or run those pulleys all by yourself. That sea is a harsh lover. She'll sooner spit you out and leave you broken on the bottom shelf then let you stay on her."

"True," I replied, all the while recalling what I'd spent my youth doing - making rope, fixing cloth, running strange contraptions over the West wall of the Den. I thought on hours I'd spent hurling ropes through loops and over pulleys.

It was decided that the viola was my instrument - a bit mysterious, and maybe unfairly maligned.

"Ok," Ratlin started, pulling out the instrument. He went over the terms for each playing style: vibrato, aggiato growl. I winced a little, thinking of Strand, but Ratlin pushed my shoulder. "Pay attention! See my elbow?" He'd angled it down. "This is the proper form. And watch how I apply more pressure to the c string. Hear that?" The tone struck the air and I gritted my teeth. I hated the sound, and for good reason. "Watch how I apply more pressure there! That's the key!" he instructed. "You're going to learn this quickly, I can tell."

That night blew in cold on the shelf, for me, but it was not so miserable. I lay near the opening and gazed out down over the rooftops and out to the wall and the sea beyond. Its roar pulled at me stronger than ever. Where others might see danger and death past the wall, I felt unexplained desire. Though sea was unsafe and dangerous, and made men into corpses, I knew I could tame it, if given the chance. 

The following day, the troupe and I wandered back up to Top Shelf. Before our performance began, I overheard two sailors speaking of the wall. I leaned in and trained my ear on their conversation.

"My mate got flung back from the wall last year. I know there's something out on the water, but it's just too rough." the first sailor muttered.

"Was dat de one who tried to get over on his own? I heard he shattered all his ribs?" said the second sailor, a gap-toothed man I suspected was much younger than he looked.

"Yeah, that fool wasn't content just trawling the channel. He wanted to get to the source." said the first man.

"Excuse me," I interrupted. "He tried to get over the wall?"

Gaist and Oursa shook their heads and laughed over at the sailors.

"Don't mind him." Oursa teased, indicating me. "He's obsessed with getting over that wall. I think he's in love with the tempest." 

"Yes, I think our boy wants to be the one to tame it!" Ratlin laughed. I waved them off and looked to the two sailors for some sort of answer.

The first sailor looked back at me and chuckled.

"Are you jokin', mate? I'd reckon there are things that can't be scavenged past that wall."

"Some queer folk came true here when I was younger, and tamed it." the second sailor offered, gazing at Ratlin. "They was zuh mountain tribe, my mum said. I looked for 'em, We'd never seen zer likes before. Dey made a big fuss coming through here, un' before you knew it some boats was gone'. Dey went over the wall, it was said."

"Only ones who done it far as I know." said the first sailor.

I looked back at my companions, and said, "See? It can be done?" I turned back to the sailors, and chose my words carefully.

"Did the tribe have a name? What did they look like?"

"Pale skin. No name dat I know of. Der was a real pretty girl wit 'em. My mum said she glowed and that she was wit child. Some old sailor was wit em, and got em over. It was a long time ago."

Just a few moments later, I stood near the head of our table, distracted and distressed, and fumbled all my notes while trying to play my first solo. Some force out past the wall called to me. Instead of staring at my hands, and at the strings, I gazed out the window longingly, sadly as I played. I could not stop thinking about what the sailor had told me. It had to be the Kol. A deep well of emotion broke in my gut, one I did not fully understand. I stood by the table and did my best to run the bow over the viola, as I'd practiced. I performed my best impression of what Ratlin had instructed me, but the sound I created might have scared even the Sastrans. The troupe, fearing my awful playing might scare away the coin, rolled their eyes and quickly picked up their instruments, drowning out my pathetic wailing. 

Chapter 11: Ropes and Pulleys

That night, a cold hand clenched inside my stomach and drew me from the tent. For the first time, I understood what pulled me to the sea. Before I could stop and roll back into my cot and forget the whole thing, I crept down steps and prowled softly past the brine encrusted shanties, toward the bottom shelf. The  sounds of late night revelry had all but ceased by the time I reached the bottom shelf looking out over the channel of water running past the wall inside Dethguld. The steep onyx surface rose seventy meters high. The noise from the angry sea swept down into the shallow trench where I stood, drowning out all other noise. The sea crafts there, from up close, looked virtually unusable. The sails were tattered or missing, no solid hulls, and some were simply shells without decks. They'd been battered by years of neglect and corrosion. 

Without hesitating, I jumped out into the water and climbed onto the nearest boat, a cracked hull filled with old block and tackle parts, and length of old rope. By now my skin glowed white from the cold water, and I set about assembling the parts as best I could. By the time the light around me turned from purple to soft azure, I'd fashioned a makeshift system. I flung some extra rope up over the nearest metal loop - shockingly similar to the loop at the Den - and used it to hoist myself up at least twenty five meters, almost halfway to the top. I gazed back and watched as the shelf behind me came to life. Figures had emerged from their homes and tents.

I remembered how I had somersaulted through the air in the clearing many nights past. Coarsing with white light made it a breeze to summon that energy again. I did a vertical run back and forth along the wall until I swung and kicked with my feet with enough force to sail up, right below the abutment. I untied the block and tackle set from my waist and went about setting it up. The blocks were old but solid and multi-cleaved, and the tackle, I suspected, could hold at least a few tons. I grasped one solid rope, yanked it, then swung fifteen meters to the other end. Then, grasping a cluster of ropes in each hand, I rappelled back down to the deck of a boat below and began fastening the contraption, two on aft and two forward.

The light blue in the air had turned gritty and grey. I assumed Ratlin and the others had woken and noticed my absence. I stood at the center of the deck of the bobbing craft, holding the four sets of rope. A light rain mist drifted over me, threatening a downpour. I'd need more than two hands to get the craft up over the wall. I'd also need a mast, and a whole lot of other things. I was anxious to go over the side, but not crazy. I swam back over the channel, put my wool cloak back on, and began the long hike back up to the encampment.

Rivulets of water streamed over every surface as I reached the sloped path leading to the camp. I again felt the presence of someone shadowing me. I spun to see the very real end of a cloak swiftly vanishing between two buildings.

When I wandered into camp, Ratlin came at me, more than displeased. "Where the hell have you been?!" he charged. He handed me my viola. "Here, Tahn, practice until it sounds less like a bleedin' cat and more like a songbird! You've got to prove yourself!" I said nothing to him or to the others about my time at the wall, or the pulley contraption I'd rigged. Instead, I helped myself to some ale, grabbed the instrument and sat at the ledge. I looked down across the sea town and played, and tried to remember all the techniques the others had taught me. I was a miserable failure. I'd failed at being a true servant of the Den - willful and obstinate. I'd even failed at being a desirable slave. I'd failed to glean one single thing about my history, aside from riddles and half truths.

"So, Tahn, you're soundin' better." Gaist came up behind me and sat next to me, adjusting his bowler hat. "We was worried about you. You know, Tahn, Ratlin only gets mad because he sees you're lost, and can't justify you stayin' with us unless you have something to give back."

"None of you know anything about me!" I shot back. "There are things about me that..."

"It's none of our business, unless you want it to be." Gaist interrupted sternly. "That's part of living in Dethguld. You think this place changed at all when travelers came through, complainin' bout blood rituals and Sastrans on the run?"

I glanced at him, and asked. "You mean when Josta fell?"

"Nothing changed with that, lad. Not here it didn't. Some called it the fall of Josta. It was Mad Malon's orders, after all."

"Who?" I asked, puzzled.

"You have been livin' in a cave, have ye?" Gaist said, amused. "Malon is the Magistrate, far off in the high Court. He took office and some say he just snapped. The Sastrans were run through or run off, but they ain't been seen around these parts in a long, long time. Mad Malon took the Jostan laws and burned 'em."

"One man did that?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yes, but, the way a lot of us see it, when mad Malon dies, the land may change again, fer better or worse, so what's the use in cryin' about the end of the world? Oh, and..." he reached out and grabbed my elbow, and pulled it closer to my side. "You really want to watch your form. It's half your problem when you play."

My playing that evening improved, but only by measures. The troupe waited a full minute before drowning out my solo at last with a full-throated musical intervention, a fast, rhythmic two-bar ballad. Ratlin snapped his fingers up at the drummers lining the balcony, and they commenced their playing. The place went wild. The entire time I sensed something like camaraderie - acceptance - between me and the others as we played together. I knew I was no good, but I was part of something and for that, I put my heart into it. While I held my bow, I remembered the mad musician and how he'd broken his useless bow in two and had spat a mouthful of blood onto the grass in the clearing. I recalled how frenzied he'd become without his instrument, and how he'd rushed me like a rabid animal. A chill coursed through me. 

The drums up above the dance floor pounded through the final section of the song, and I persisted in my playing, though I longed to set my instrument down in shame. I persisted, adding my voice to theirs, however much it faltered, until the song ended.

Once we finished, the others patted me on the back. Oursa even set an ale down in front of me approvingly.

"But I was terrible." I mused.

"You played til the end. You stayed with us." Gaist replied. "You didn't give up." 

I took a hearty swig of my drink. I though of the boat down by the wall, and the swinging ropes hanging high off the steep surface and looped into the hull. All I needed was a sail, and steady hands, and I might land it upon the water. I was Kol, after all. 

Chapter 12: Reckoning

My reverie was interrupted as the doors to the Top Shelf swung open. Cold, rain-swept wind blew in from the street, summoning the tall silhouette of a man. He stepped inside and headed straight for me. I recognized his gait, and his cloak. He was, without a doubt, the one who'd shadowed me through the alleys and winding paths of Dethguld for many days. As the light from the scones hit his face and knotted arms, I also realized I knew him from the Den. 

It was the stern and rigid taskmaster, Konner Treebeth, the man who'd held sway over most of my life. 

He called out to me as he approached.

"Now you've done it, boy!" he sneered.

A bearded man wearing a head cloth swung around from behind the bar, a scabbard and a gleaming hilt at his side. I knew him, too. He'd spoken to the barkeep my first night in Dethguld, then abruptly disappeared. I thought he meant to fight Treebeth, or to kick him out, but he joined the stern faced lord. Both of them, Treebeth and his companion, had taken pains to hide from me, it seemed. Now that they'd revealed themselves to me, I could only guess at their intent.

Both men reached our table just as a terrible noise bellowed somewhere outside. It moaned like a horn shuddering over stone. Figures ran past the windows. Someone shrieked, then there was a clatter of metal out by the main road. What trouble force had Treebeth wrought? 

I stood, clenching my fists. The others sensed my panic, and rose to their feet.

"How dare you come here!" I shouted at Treebeth, overcome with rage. "Now you've come to collect me? You'll have to try."

"Here to protect you, not collect you, fool!" growled Konner Treebeth. "He tracked you here. He's coming!" 

"Who's coming?" I asked.

"Who are these men?" charged Ratlin. He stood next to Treebeth and the swordsman, staring them down. "Who are you, then?"

"He's a murderer." I felt my eyes growing wet. "He poisoned the Old Salt. He poisoned Lidea."

"Who are you?" Oursa asked me. 

I started to speak, but a mass of screaming erupted outside. We all forgot ourselves momentarily, and pushed back from the table, our eyes trained on the door. Something in Dethguld was wrong. I felt as if the floor had dropped out from under us. There was death in the air. Even Treebeth stopped sneering at me for a moment to gaze back at the door. It didn't take long for him to turn back around and speak to me. He looked frustrated and exhausted, like a man tired of explaining himself.

"I only have time to say this once, boy! I did not poison Lidea. It was the violinist, Strand. He tricked you. He led you away on purpose."

"You lie!" I screamed.

"Put aside your rage and listen!" Treebeth commanded, the lines in his face looking more creased than ever. "Time has run out. You must lead him down to the water, away from here. He will kill anyone in his way. He is only after you."

"Strand is after me?"

"No, boy." he answered. "Not Strand. Something far worse."

The faint light outside the slanted windows blinked out, and drummers on the second floor ceased their commotion. A curious silence followed, but it ended soon enough, in a wide crack as the front doors groaned and snapped in two. Everyone around us ran immediately for the door, but found themselves blocked; not by a lock or a wall, but by the behemoth who stood in their way. I saw only his hulking shadow, but there was no doubt. It was the giant bull knight. He must have tracked me here, walking the stretch of highway alone. 

"Kol!!!" the bull bellowed. He stumbled forward on ungainly feet. "Kol thought he could hide! Not from me! Not from me!"

His armor had all but fallen off. The gousset lining holding his suit together had fallen apart, and his helm - once a round, sturdy bull - was half eaten away. I had a fleeting image of him being overtaken by Nouggs, their stingers glancing against his armor and eating it away. He must have come from the forest barely alive. He must have taken the highway on foot, alone, seeking me out. How could he have known where I'd be? 

I could see the left side of his face where the metal helm had fallen away - a bloated and scarred countenance set in grim determination.  His sloppy undergarments dripped with rainwater. The whole structure shook at he walked. The drummers from the upper balcony, now seized with the urgency of escape, came spilling out from the staircase. A few of them ran too close to the bull and he struck them aside with a single meaty fist, knocking them near enough to dead against the bar. Some of the bodies just barely missed Oursa, who'd taken refuse there. She ducked down out of sight. 

He was upon me almost the moment I saw him. Despite his girth, he was still awfully fast, and strong. Before I knew what was happening, a wall smashed into my left shoulder. I'd been thrown like a cloth doll and lay sprawling in the dark, stars swimming over my eyes. Screams erupted all around. Those who could now ran out through the front entrance, flailing their arms and shrieking. Before I could even stand to join them, his powerful hands grabbed my ankles and the floor flipped until I hung upside down. I could hear his breath in the electric air, ragged and coarse, as he readied his other hand to destroy me.

Treebeth's voice rang out in the darkness and confusion.

"Befouled beast! Spoiler of youth!" he cried out to the Knight.

A force must have hobbled the knight then, because the pressure on my ankles released, and I dropped to the floor. I looked up to see steel flashing in the bar's gloom. Treebeth's companion, the swordsman, wielded it high over his head as if summoning some great power. This held the knight back momentarily, but I had a sick feeling knotted up in my stomach.

"Get behind me, boy!" ordered Treebeth. I obeyed, falling in behind him. Was he telling the truth? Why would he come to me so insistently only to lie to me? I'd already fallen prey to the mad musician's deceit. If Strand had indeed poisoned Old Salt, I felt the fool twice over. The roaring in my ears commenced, calling me down to the wall. I knew I could not resist for long.

Ratlin and Gaist stood by us, but Treebeth held them back with one hand.

"How many tents do you have?" Treebeth barked, glancing nervously over at the Knight and swordsman at the far corner of the bar. "Tell me quick. No time. How many tents!!"

"Fif...fifteen!" stammered Gaist. Ratlin, meanwhile broke off a chair leg and wielded it clumsily in front of him.

"That will do you no good here, gypsy." advised Treebeth. "Fifteen tents. Good. All of you, head for your tents. Pull up your stakes but stay where you are. We'll find you."

They protested, but I urged them on, and soon, they had clamored out of one of the broken windows.

Oursa came out from behind the bar, and ran over to us, with a bottle in each hand. She handed me one.

"I won't leave you, Tahn. Run this over a lantern flame til the cloth lights, then toss!" she said quickly.

The swordsman, meanwhile, took his chance. He kept his blade high and lunged in, going for the Bull's exposed eye with the tip of his blade. It was a smart move - to take away the giant's sight. As the bearded man lunged forward, however, the knight lowered his head just in time, and pounded his fist onto the the poor man's head, caving it in instantly. The Knight fixed his single eye on me again, and a frightening sound, another language, spilled over his thick and ungainly tongue.

"He's berserking!" Treebeth yelled. "Boy - you are his target. I told you, run to the wall! He cannot swim!"

Oursa lit her bottle on a sconce and tossed it toward the gibbering bull. It exploded over his shoulder and torso. The flames licked over what was left of his garments, but did not faze him. He wheeled around in a crescent pattern, gaining enough speed to run me down. He clipped Oursa as he headed for me, and she flew up and over the bar, disappearing in a crash of glass. I hugged walls, stopping only to run my bottle over a sconce on the far wall.

"Run, Tahn Kol!" Treebeth yelled. "Better alive than dead! Run!"

I swung the bottle toward the huge knight, then split for the exit. 

Outside, Dethguld was awash in a storm. The bull smashed through the door, leaving the frame in splinters. He crashed his fist and kicked out his giant legs in huge, powerful sweeps, cracking faces open, maiming hardy sailors and hobbling women and children. Urchins and scavengers still ran from the popular bar, crying and panicking and giving out bloody shrieks for mercy. I'd come to this sea town to run away, to isolate myself, and I'd only brought death upon it. I wondered about Ratlin and Gaist and the others. Were they safe? 

That one knight, this single knight, caused them so much death. I might never understand why, but I would not allow him to do any more harm. If he wanted me, I'd let him try. 

"You fat, disloyal coward!!" I taunted him. "Can't kill a Kol? Come get me!!" He scraped his giant feet over the wet stone, then ran at me.

I leapt over the small walls that separated the shanties and landed onto the shelf below. The bull was impossible to miss, a giant blot at the center of the storm. He wasn't far behind me, a massive shadow bursting through metal and stone, smashing over structures that stood in his way and moaning in a frustrated, impotent rage. He allowed the crazed momentum of his berserking to catapult him down through the shacks. He meant to crush me. I prayed that nobody else stood in his way. I chose my path carefully, swerving and jumping to avoid people who might stand in his path. 

"Out of the way! Stay away from me!" I yelled, to anyone who would listen. Some scattered, others stood dumbly as the Bull knocked them down, or stamped the life out of them in a single crushing blow.

I'd descended halfway down through wide shelves of the city by speeding through alleys and hurling myself over abutments. My hope was to draw the bull knight further down to the lowest shelf, leading him away from the citizens of Dethguld. I reached corner after corner, flipping down recessed alleyways, the rain swirling off my clothes as I twirled through the air. I jumped at last to the pocked wall of an adjoining building hundreds of meters from the channel, a solid stone, two story tower crusted with moss and decay and covered in sea birds. Before I couch clamor to the top, the Bull smashed into the foundation of the tower below, and I fell through the air. Somehow I hoped the rain would catch me, but I hit the stone hard. Before I could roll or slide, he pulled his arm back and smashed me. The wind whirled around me and hard stone cracked against my back. My vision went dark momentarily, but I could still see him advancing on me, a dark shape in the rain. I was lying crumpled against the base of the tower, writhing in pain. 

"Bull is strong!" the Sastran grinned. He raised both arms to crush me and pulverize my innards, but fell suddenly, sprawled out in pain and struggling and pawing at the back of his giant leg. Behind him, I spied Key's beautiful dark rain swept coat. The former Sastran steed sidled like a show-horse and kicked at the giant a second time. The creature whinnied proudly at me while the Bull struggled to stand, and I climbed to my feet and rushed ahead, jumping and spinning onto Key's back.

"To the water, Key!" I urged, and we took off for the channel as the sound of the knight's guttural curses echoed over the shelf behind us. As we approached the wall, something rose in me, and my fear, little by little, began to wash away with the rain.

The channel ran dark under the wall. There was little that was not stained black there in the dead of night, little but the hints of silver water spray bursting out over the top of the wall high above our heads. The rain had slowed somewhat, but still pattered over the channel.

"You've done enough, boy. Run! I'll find you!" I pressed. Key would not move, even as the sounds of breaking stone came closer from the shanties near the wall. I pushed at Key's haunches. "Run, damn you!" I yelled. At last, with a high jolt of his head, Key took off along the channel. I sighed and jumped into the water. The cold swept over my bones, making me warm. The water around me glowed blue; I could spy the outline of my legs kicking below. A beautiful warmth filled me. I swam to the boat I'd rigged the night before,  and peered up at the vast city above, waiting.  

Over the sound of the rain I heard the great crashing of metal and the fast, frenzied shattering of stone blocks. An ugly trail of carnage snaked down the shelves. At the head of it was this giant blur of destruction. He was now standing at the edge of the stone, curling and uncurling his meaty fists, breathing hard.

"Kol is a coward!" I heard him say. "Alone! No Daddy! No Mommy! Come out and prove you can beat me! Show me your blue fire. I can..."

That familiar tingling rose to a feverish vibration coursing through me. This time, I was ready. I was already next to him before he finished speaking. I thought of Oursa and the others, and Nettle, and by Josta, even Wasp. Something split out of me through the spattering rain and the roaring waves overhead. The nearness of the sea erased my doubt. A tingling spilled from my hands and arms. The bull lunged with his massive form to grab me but clutched at air. I was there, but not there. I was only light and force, a great blue light that moved out over the stone, at least fifty meters in every direction. Great swells of water rose up from the channel. The whole of the shelf cracked in two.

This is what it means to be Kol, I thought.

The bull absorbed the force at first, but could not hold himself up any longer. He fell back in a giant crash. He tried to reach around himself, as the Anteater had done, and pull the energy in to absorb it, to resist, but could not. What was it the Anteater had said? I absorbed the Bitch Kol's fire. Are you so weak? The bull had failed the test.

"Are you so weak?!" I mocked.

"I.... I...." he croaked. "I live through this fire. The bull is not weak." Still, he struggled to take off his helm and could not do it. It had turned from silver to icy blue, as the Anteater's had, but it the Bull was unable to fight it. Black lines ran over his hands and face. They became fissures, then deep crevices. His last act was to open his mouth as his faced caved in and disintegrated. The water from the channel swept up onto the stone and claimed his remains - a giant smear of cloth and ash, and pulled them back toward the wall, where it drifted and then sank.

Chapter 13: Treebeth’s Tale

I slid back into the water, where it was safe, and rested my cheek against the stone ledge. I lost all sense of time. The moon might have made its rotation through the sky a hundred times, and I would not have noticed. The sound of buckling wood at last caught my attention, and I gazed about at the boats. Many of them were destroyed beyond recognition. The boat I'd rigged the night before had escaped damage, though. Its thick ropes still clung to the wall in a marionette's tangle. I tried hard to blot out the the screaming, the misery, the destruction all above and around me. I'd brought danger to this place unwittingly.

Up past the channel, I saw a tall shadow emerge like a spear, from a dark alley. He came out at last, alone and still cloaked, walking along the channel's edge toward me. Sea spray drifted down from the wall and across him in diagonal waves. It was Treebeth. "You destroyed the Sastran..." he intoned, his dark eyes glancing over the crack in the shelf. "I prayed you would. For what you did here, I am glad. I had hoped the sea would amplify your power. Any farther from the wall, and the brute might have won."

My rage had not subsided enough for me to trust him. Why was he here? What was his connection to all this? I still felt traces of the blue light flowing under my skin. I considered what overpowering him might accomplish. 

I pulled myself from the channel. "You gambled with my life!" I shouted, swinging at him. He leaned back, dodging the blow. I swung again. He dodged again and looked down at me, something like concern on his face.

"I knew of no other way you could defeat him!" he went on, gesturing back at the piles of rubble and then down at the fissure in the stone. "The Sastrans... they fear you. They fear what the Kol can do, but they fear little else."

"I'm going over the wall!!" I screamed.

"Yes, you are going over that wall!" he responded. I drew back, surprised and speechless. "But tell me," he said, his dark eyes glinting. "Who will pull the ropes, lifting your boat over the side? And where is your sail?"

The muscles in his face relaxed then. He took off his cloak. I flinched at first. but he just reached out and draped it over my shoulders.

"I don't understand you!" I pouted. "All my life, I've been in the dark because of you! Now you want to help me?!"

"Hate me, if you will, Tahn Kol, but let me help you." he said calmly. "Half of Dethguld just saw you running through their city. They are used to destruction and death, but not like this." He patted the cloak around my shoulders and pulled the hood up over my head. I tried to shake it off, but the sustained echoes of those Dethguld citizens who'd perished remained.

Nettle said to me once, about people fearing what they didn't understand. Fear goes both ways, he said. Since I'd been shut out from the world, I had shut myself away from it. I imagined the cost of isolation if I didn't take a first step forward. I could no longer be invisible. By trusting Treebeth, I was either being very brave, or very stupid, or both, but it was better than being alone, and certainly better than being invisible.

So I nodded, and said coldly,

"You owe me the truth."

"I'll tell you what I can." he said. "The gypsies will give us the cloth from their tents for a sail."  He looked up at the empty mast on my boat against the wall, and at the ropes holding it to the pulleys and cranes above. "Is this your rigging?" he asked. "I did not teach you as well as I'd hoped, but it will do. We have five hours until the daylight and you should not be here another day. You must get over the wall soon. We need to work fast."

When we reached camp, I saw that Gaist, Ratlin and the others had collapsed the fifteen tents, arranging them in large squares across the ground. I was especially relieved to see Oursa. She and her friends carried baskets filled with large needles and other sewing accouterments, and set them down near us. Oursa looked dazed, and traces of blood lined her face. I thought of how she'd tried to protect me at Top Shelf, and before I realized what I was doing, I put my arms around her.

"This Treebeth fella told me you was leading that monster away from here." she said low. "We thought you was dead for sure, love. And here you are... who knew you were good for something after all?" She leaned in and kissed me. I had no words for the sensation; no one had ever kissed me before.     

Treebeth and I began stitching the cloth. He'd trained me for years at the Den: stitching carriage coverings, bed sheets and canopies. I thought of all those menial tasks that had fallen on me over the years, how much he'd hated me to give me so much , how useless and cruel they'd seemed at the time. I thought on how often, in the last day, I had occasion to employ every one of those skills in service of getting over the wall. Had Treebeth known? How could he have known? 

He lined up two large swaths of cloth and looping a long needle through the next section, glaring intently at me. "Pick up your pace, Tahn. This is more than a two person job. This section needs to go on the main sail, and that one," he indicated a smaller section of cloth, "needs to be on the jib."

I glanced up at the rows of hovels in the shelves above. Clouds of smoke and debris still lingered over most of them. Some of it was woodfire smoke, and some from the Bulls' mad charge.

"When you destroyed that Sastran," Treebeth said, watching me as I surveyed the smoke in the air, "It is not something I have ever seen done. I've heard accounts of such power. I always suspected you had it. No ordinarily person gains strength from the wall, and the sea, as you did. No ordinary person can pass it." He paused, as if reading my thoughts. "But you can. Your people built it," he gestured out at the sea wall "...just as they built the walls of the Den."

I thought about the loops, pulleys and cranes on the sea wall. The moment I'd laid eyes on them, they'd reminded me of the walls of the Den.

"There is an old power in those walls." he said, his voice lowering to a reverent hush. "The Kol mix their blood with the stone, as they mix blood with the earth, and the water. That power remains wherever it flows. It flows in you." At last, he gestured out to the huge sea wall again, and swept one knotty hand over it, as if indicating the sea beyond. It shone pale purple in the early morning light. 

"The Den was once a Kol stronghold." he continued. "You wondered why I kept you and the boys behind those walls? You were all safe there!" I heard a hint of emotion in his voice.

"How did I arrive at the Den?" I asked, threading another end of cloth onto a section he'd already connected.

"I found you." he replied. The air between us became still, and I stopped what I was doing, stunned. "You were born out there, at sea..." He mused for a moment and stared up at the pre-dawn sky, as if remembering a day long ago. 

"Fifteen years ago," Treebeth said, "I was near a section of wall on the Southern Coast, near Oronoshk, and found a small craft tangled in a scavenger's net. You were inside. I knew you must be Kol, but what could I do? Send you back out on your own? The Kol had all departed by then, and the sea had grown too fierce. You were cut off from your own people, too young to sail, too young to harness the Kol's power over the sea."

"Who named me?" I asked.

"I named you Tahn, after an old Jostan word that means 'on the water.' Tahn, when I found you, I knew nothing of who your parents might be. You were born out there at sea. Whether you were lost or abandoned, I did not know. I knew that if you were not protected, and kept safe, that you might be discovered by thieves, or Sastrans!" Treebeth threw up his hands, and he suddenly looked sad. "All I ever tried to do was protect you!" he exclaimed. "When Lidea came to the Den, all that changed."

"How so?" I asked.

"When Lidea saw you at the Den, he was surprised, and angry.  He hated me for keeping you hidden. We fought that whole day about what to do with you. We even came to blows. He planned to spread the word far and wide that a Kol still remained on land. I feared that once word got out about you, you'd be captured by Sastrans and used to do their bidding." 

"Of course,' he sighed, refusing to look up at me as he threaded, "We knew nothing of the mad musician's allegiance to the Sastrans until it was too late, and you went missing. The traces of poison in the bottles you drank was meant to kill you both, but your Kol blood must have..." Treebeth had to stop talking for a moment. I thought that he might weep. He stood suddenly, and raised his voice. "I locked you away for fear of losing you, but that violinist fooled me!"

I thought of how angry I'd been at Treebeth that night, and how my exodus out into the forest had been fueled more by rage than by reason. 

He sat back down and mused quietly for a moment, fumbling with a large piece of cloth. 

"Lidea and I were both fools, in fact. I was the greater fool for letting the violinist make off with you. Lidea paid the higher price."

He looked into my eyes. "I underestimated you, boy. As did the Sastrans."

"Who are they?" I asked.

"The Sastrans were once grand knights of the Magi du Josta, of the Great Court." Treebeth said, handing me one end of the cloth. "When Malon took power, he disbanded and dishonored the Sastrans with a fury unlike any I'd seen. He all but dissolved the Court. Make no mistake, Tahn - the Sastrans are now a force of pure destruction; a perversion of Jostan law, bent on purging the land of their warped notions of treason. The animal masks they wear are a remnant from the visages of the seven saints, but Sastrans... they're just corrupt shadows of what was. They feed on the darkness of the forest, building their ranks with orphans and killing when they can." 

"Why do they live in the forest?"

"The purge killed most of them, but the rest fled to the great forest to hide, including their leader... a grand Knight. "

"I have seen him." I interrupted. recalled the Anteater and how his voice had grated inside my mind. "I fought them." I murmured. In the forest. I stole a horse. I.. I got away." 

"He has reason to fear you, Tahn. He fought another Kol before you were born, and it scarred him beyond recognition, leaving him... changed. This power he uses to control minds - but it is not power that can be used against itself. It cannot pierce the walls of the Den.

"Or me..." I whispered. "He cannot hurt me. Is that right?"

I thought of Wasp, and held back tears. Treebeth sensed my sadness, and seized my arm.

"Tahn," he said insistently. "The Kol that the Sastran fought was your mother. Her name was Chel Kol."

I looked at him in disbelief as he went on:

"She passed through here fifteen years ago with the last of the tribe, Tahn, and kept going until she was over the wall."

I thought of the gap-toothed sailor at Top Shelf, who'd spoken of a pretty girl who glowed and was with child. That must have been her. 

"Tahn... you need to find her. Find the Kol. Find your mother. They have been gone for far too long. We need you. We need them, or all the land will burn."

In those moments, there was no doubt that Treebeth was telling the truth. His voice still was icy and stern, but underneath it all I sensed him yielding at last, no longer casting a judging eye my way. 

"This is all too much for me." I moaned. It became impossible to breathe, and I rubbed my sore hands. 

We continued stripping the cloth and sewing the sections together. Gaist and a few of the others joined in, and soon, the final sail was finished. The sky overhead went from dark purple to light blue. We gathered the folded sails and, along with the others in the camp, made our way toward toward the wall. Sunrise was imminent.

"Find your strength, Tahn Kol." said Treebeth. We had reached the wall. "You must go alone. Find the Kol. Bring them back. It is time to tame the sea."

Chapter 14: Marry the Sea

At last, under a morning sky swept with dark clouds, I embraced the sea. Far below, a massive collection of scavengers and gypsies all lined up near the channel. They held several large ropes in tandem. The drummers from the Top Shelf stood on either side, pounding out a steady rhythm. Each crack of the drums was a signal for the crowd to pull on the rope. With each powerful pull, I felt the boat rise, and the roar of the sea grew until it was the only sound I heard. I ran about the craft, checking rigging, making sure the sails were ready to unfurl at the right moment. The wide lip of the wall at last greeted me. Past it, gigantic swells obscured the horizon under pillars of rain and mist. I trembled, bit my lip, and felt the crane at the wall's apex swing my boat forward out over the abyss. I was alone.

Anyone else might be terrified to face the tidal surges, but the moment my boat hit the water, I felt ecstatic. I was not thrown from the wall, or tossed about as countless others had been. The water did roil and spin nearby, but grew calm and placid as I approached. The ocean's whirling current calmed and flattened out for at least thirty meters in every direction. Sun hit my face too, right overhead, and the clouds opened high above me and a column of light glanced down onto the ship. I unfurled the mainsail and set the rigging about the boat, and instead of dragging the craft into the depths as I feared, the wind pulled it gracefully along. The tall swells parted for me, creating a fissure of water through which I traveled.

Behind me, Dethguld's vast cove dipped out of sight behind a great swell, and all traces of the wall vanished. To my left, a deep eddy twirled and sloshed, but as the keel neared it, the eddy dissipated and flattened out. I was safe in the wild sea, safer than any man could be. Ahead, the horizon rolled at a thousand angles, though the water parted for me, allowing me to pass its stormy, impassive surface with ease. Sea spray filled my nostrils and a small group of gulls spun in a tiny circle over the boat, drinking in the sunlight. I climbed the main mast and pulled out the lenses Treebeth had given me. Far off in the distance, I spied columns of light skating back and forth along the water. 

I clung to the mast for a while, gazing out over the expanse, then climbed down and re-checked my supplies. My heart pounded in my chest. I leaned over the side and, clutching a rope, slid over and down into the calm waters. The touch of the sea wrenched all sorrow away and dragged it to the depths, leaving me light and blissful. I grinned and I immersed myself, and warm tingling spread over my body. Anyone else might have gone numb and died in the water, but as it was in the Den, as it was in the fierce whipping winds of the forest, my skin went ice blue and my senses awakened. A tidal surge rose up on the aft side, but as it neared the boat, it flattened out. This was what it meant to tame the sea. It was my Kol blood doing all the work, or perhaps it was some blessing in the water meant only for Kol. I didn't know and I didn't care. Instead, I allowed the gentle current to pull the boat along on its own accord. 

After a time, I climbed back aboard and drank long and deep from the water my friends had set out for me. For the first time in my life, true happiness surged through me. I thought of Treebeth's final words to me after we'd hoisted the sail up on the boat, back in Dethguld.

"You must convince them the land is worth saving." Treebeth had said. "As only you can." He sat astride my horse, who had taken a strong liking to him. Key would serve Treebeth well on his journey South. "I'm taking Lidea's place in Oronoshk!" Treebeth had said. "Guide the Kol South, and meet us on the Orchard coast. The Sastrans fear nothing else but Kol; nothing else can defeat them. for only they - only you - can save us."

The grim purpose of this mission out on the sea weighed on me, but I pushed it back a while longer, allowing myself to live in the moment. I'd dreamed of reaching the sea all my life. Now, I understood. I looked down at my arms and watched as patterns of light danced under my skin. I didn't want to ever feel the hard, corruptible earth under my feet again, or feel the absolutism and exclusion of its institutions. I could imagine how the Kol must have felt, when they fled for the safety of the waves. I'd been an outcast all my life. Nothing tied me to the land's moorings, I thought. There was no reason to return. 

But then, I thought of the children I'd grown up with. Some of them had escaped the Den for lives of mundane servitude. Others had escaped only to join the Sastrans. I thought of Nettle with his cynical but loyal heart, patrolling the inner forest with the Den Guard, keeping the others safe. And Wasp... his dead eyes betraying that boy he once was. If I could only go back to the clearing that night and do it again, I might have tried to save him from the harshness that had grabbed hold of his heart. It was all too late for that.

I thought of the fortified carts full of children, some of them still bound for the Den. How many of those children would live to be my age, if the Sastrans fulfilled their promise to raze the land? I saw the faces of the gypsies who had taken me in. I thought of Gaist's kindness, Ratlin's fatherly pride, and Oursa's strong and noble heart. They were all my friends now. They ruined my chance to remain invisible. They lured me out of the shadows, but I welcomed that now. I could have been so angry for the rest of my life, and they ruined that, too. 

Night came, and with it, a great storm. Lightening and rain glanced on either side but never breached the space around the boat. Right above, I saw just night sky,and the beautiful stars. Shadows of giant waves surrounded me on either side. They were so large they could topple a boat the size of a large house, but they rolled by me. I drank long from a water flask and fell asleep with one white arm trailing through the water, leaving a shimmering blue trail in its wake.

Sometime well into the following day, they came without warning.

Two small, black ships drifted over the water, on each side of my boat. Several long hooks from either side snared the full reach of the aft and port sides of my vessel, crippling it. As I ran along the length of my boat, trying to wrench them free, a third, larger ship, shaped like a dark beetle, emerged from behind a wave and drifted right in front of me. I jumped away just in time as a dark plank flipped out from the larger ship's hull and crashed down onto my deck. It immediately crushing most of my supplies. I had no time to pull myself together, and sat, mesmerized as several people emerged from the ship and headed down the ramp. They were all masked, dressed in sharp, spiked armor and dark, thin material that rippled through the air as they moved. Before I could protest, they surrounded me and heaved me off the boat and up the ramp.

The moment I was aboard the cool chamber of the ship, the other two ships wrenched the hooks out from my boat, pulling it apart. It fell to pieces, and the sail I'd worked so long to finished sank beneath the water in seconds. As we pulled away from the wreckage, the untamed ocean overcame the last of the sail. I tried to resist the hands that grabbed me under each arm, but the spikes on their mail dug into my skin.

"What trick is this?" asked a voice.

"What is your Kolleh?" asked another. Her voice was and impatient. I felt something sharp against my lower back. "I asked you, what Kolleh?!"

I struggled to speak. "I'm.. I'm Tahn Kol!" I said finally. "I'm alone!"

"I don't recognize him, Chel." the first voice said. "I've never seen this one."

"Chel...?" I asked. My voice rang out in the darkness of the hull. "Chel Kol!" I said again, louder so that she could hear me. My eyes grew wet. The pressure on my back released, and a woman walked slowly around me and placed both of her hands on the top of my head, and held them there. Her hair was long and dark, eyes large as silver coins, with the pale skin of the Kol.

"Quiet. Do not move." she ordered. "Look at me."

I remained still, but I trembled slightly as she gazed into my eyes. I thought she might strike me, because hatred flashed through those eyes momentarily and she pressed her hands so hard against my head I thought I might pass out. But the steel in her eyes subsided, and I saw surprsie. She took her hands away, and placed one over her mouth, and gasped loudly. She crumpled down at my feet, as still as the water beneath the ship. The others tried to help her up, but she shook them off.

"Leave us! Go above deck!" she shouted. The others moved soundlessly up the steps at the far end of the chamber, leaving us alone. She still did not move, her head still buried in her pale hands. She stayed on the floor, in the dark, until the only sound was the creaking of the ship and soft flow of the water beneath. She started to heave uncontrollably, until the sound of her sobbing rose up in the dark. I could no longer take the strain.

"Why did you leave me?" I cried.

"I did not!!" she shouted back, lifting her face to me. "How are you here?"

She stood again, tears streaming, the blue glow illuminating the dark rib cage of the ship's hull. She wiped away the tears and fixed her face like stone. 

"I need air." she said.

She grabbed my arm and brought me up the stairs, where we emerged at the center of a strange, sleek deck. It was a massive, sturdy vessel, sailing high above the waves. The deck itself was crafted from wood stained almost black. From bow to stern, a huge number of Kol stood at the keel, keeping their distance from us. They had removed their armor and were drawing small blades across their heavily scarred arms, eking blood over the side and into the sea. My mother led me to the other end of the ship. Her voice was clipped and strained. 

"I do not know how you are here, but in seeing you, the ice cracks in me. I see your rage. I have to tell you how I came to lose you. Please do not turn away. Please hear me."

Chapter 15: Tahn Kol

While our ship cut southward through the waves, my mother told me the story of my birth. 

I am a half Kol by blood. My father was not a Kol, but an outsider and a prince of the Great Court. His name was Malon, she said. Malon. The moment she spoke his name, I gripped her hands so tight that she almost struck me down in anger. 

When she was a young woman, the High Prophets told Chel Kol she was meant to meet Malon. I was conceived the day they met, and on that day, a chain of events led the last of the Kol out to sea. My mother almost perished on the slopes of the Kol Ranges. The Sastrans sought to destroy the Kol, but she saved her tribe, and she saved my father's life. After that, his fate - and mine - were sealed. She brought set him down in the bluelands, still unconscious, and never saw him again.

Soon after that day, the last of her Kolleh, fearing the mighty fist of the Sastrans, fled for the sea, pledging never to return. She stayed silent at first, as the child grew inside of her, never speaking of Malon to anyone. Eventually, she spoke of him to the sailor who helped her people over the wall. She spoke of Malon and the sailor's eyes widened, but he said nothing. That sailor's name, she told me, was Lidea.

"Malon was a good man," she told me. "He was proud, and boastful, but good." 

"Lidea was his uncle." I told her. She shook her head stubbornly, gave a wry smile and ran one finger down her scarred arm. 

"The prophets told me nothing in the world is by chance." she murmured. "I believed them until the day you were born."

I was born on the water, she told me. I was born far from the murderous corruption of the Sastrans and the piety of the Jostan Court. The high prophets of the Kolleh who guided her fleet learned of her child. They insisted that she give me up to the waves. I was not meant for the sea, they insisted. Give him to us now, they insisted. He cannot be here.

The prophets had guided my mother all of her life. They guided her toward my father. They guided her off the land. She never refused them, but for the love she bore me, she did finally refuse, and in that refusal, a great battle ensued over the water. She protected me with all she had, but they stole me away from her, pledging to toss me to the waves. Thinking me dead, she destroyed the ships of the High Prophet, and with them, she destroyed the prophecies that directed the Kol. She pledged to never again set foot on land, where the Kol were unwelcome.

"It is all chance now, you see, my son. Nothing is fate. " she grumbled ruefully.

"Everything will burn if we don't sail back." I insisted. "I promised I would bring you back!"

"Why should we help?!" she challenged. "Forget them, Tahn Kol. Forget them. It does not matter anymore. We are consigned. Land has no need for us."

"No!" I shouted. "We will not turn our backs. I know you still care. Our blood watered the plants and flowed through the rivers, once, as it now feeds the sea." 

I reached out and grabbed her hands. The great ocean, now at last a part of me, elevated my soul up past the black masts and rough sails, and up to the hole in the clouds above.  As I spoke to her, I hardly felt the words forming inside of me.

"You've learned, as I have, that it takes but a single week, or a single day, to find purpose. I just found mine. You found yours fifteen years ago, but you've lost your way. Listen to me. Malon... you tell me he is my father. He is also the Magistrate."

She wrenched her hands away from mine, and stared out somewhere past my shoulder for many minutes. Her expression didn't change. She pursed her lips together, and a small tear fell from her cheek. She wiped it away, her expression still hard and fixed.

"He dishonored the Sastrans." I urged, trying to get her to look at me. "Everyone thinks he has gone mad. Mother, everyone I've ever known needs us."

Her stillness was uncompromising and immutable. I expected her to just walk away, or curse me, but when she finally took my hand, I thought she might toss me over the side. Without looking at me, shouted across the deck.

"Find a south wind and press on!" she ordered the crew. "Signal the other ships! Now! Southwest, toward land!"

The others looked her warily, but followed her orders without question.

Early the following morning, before the sun rose, I walked above deck wearing the heavy spiked breastplate of a full Kol. Most most of the other Kol hurried about in the deck, which was cold and unlit. We were invisible on the waves.

I walked over to the port side and waited for the tall waves to subside so I could catch a glimpse of land. The wild churning kept the horizon listless and unsteady. From the moment my mother, Chel Kol, had dressed me in the full Kol armor, I'd made the decision to blood as the others did. I quickly unsheathed my new ceremonial blade and grasped it, making a quick incision down my bare arm. My first scar. A few small drops of blood rolled across my skin and whipped out into the air and down into water below. Something like peace entered me, and only then I noticed my mother had approached. She said nothing, but stood next to me, looking up at the sky.

The morning was unusually calm as sunrise lit the far off sky behind the waves. We stood, side by side and watched as the sky grew beautiful, vast, and blood red. Under it, at last, we caught an orange streak on the horizon, something like land, reflecting that powerful first glare of the first sun. I'd never seen a sunrise, and had never known it to be so bright, so all-consuming.

"The Orchard Coast..." I said softly. I wiped my arm and glanced over at my mother. She peered forward, gazing at the sunrise. Not saying a word, she ran back to the main mast and jump up and flipped around until she stood on the platform.

"Tahn! Climb up! Now!" she shouted from high above. "You must see!"

I clutched each rung determinedly until I was by her side. Smoke billowed over the dark lip of the sea wall, drifting out to sea, where it seemed to even tamp out the waves. Just past it the wall, an inferno raged over the valley floor. Through the smoke, I caught a vast field of flames licking at a dense grid of trees, surging through low hills, and consuming clusters of homes and mills. Far past the fire, I caught a glimpse of high rocks, and from them, long trails of smoke plumed high into the sky. All was ablaze. The smoke rose up the wall and drifted out over the sea, curling even around the ship.

We will burn through the trees as we burn through treason. They will all burn.

"They're burning it all. We're too late." I sobbed, pressing my face against the wood of the mast. My mother said nothing, maintaining her fixed, determined expression. Only her knuckles, seizing the edge of the crow's nest, gave her away. They blazed white with a fury that I had never known.

Behind us, several other Kol ships sailed into view behind grey waves. We'd failed. We could still turn around and sail the seas, but we'd failed. I thought of the friends I'd pledge to protect. I even had a suddenly thought of my father, and how he'd never know of me. I struggled to hold back tears, and my mother, sensing my grief, touched my shoulder.

"We are not too late." Chel Kol proclaimed, her voice rising. ""Landward!!!!!" she screamed. Her fierce cry carried on the wind as she held her blade to the sky. A low roar of voices rose up from the deck below, and far off shouts from the other ships joined her in defiance. I wiped at my tears and then joined them in that cry, summoning the courage to again look out over the land.  


Popular Posts