The Cycle of Arawn: The Complete Epic Fantasy Trilogy
Edward W. Robertson
1It was the dog's fault Dante was about to die. The ruins of the chapel hunched behind him, hiding the man who'd soon kill him. Because of the dog, he was thirty miles from Bressel, ten from the nearest farm, and a world away from help. Despite his isolation, he didn't doubt his body would be found—corpses had gravity, as if the vapors released by death were starkly visible to the mind's eye. If the man who'd attacked him didn't find his body lying in the cold grass and colder wind, a farmer or a pilgrim would.But they wouldn't know who he was. He'd be a body. A nothing. Another lump on the surface of a world too large to understand.He sat up in the grass, pain rushing down his side and thigh. The chapel was supposed to be abandoned. Instead, he'd found a guard waiting inside its walls. The man had cut him. Badly. He'd been lucky to escape into the fields with his life.Blood gleamed dull black beneath the overcast sky. Dante's stomach cramped. He fell back into the grass, panting, tears sliding down his temples into his hair. He caught his breath and shrugged off his cloak. It tore easily. Too easily. Would never have made it through the upcoming winter. He bound his wounds, tying them tight, grimacing against the dizziness and nausea. Wind hissed through the grass and pines.He tested his leg and found that he could stand.It would be stupid to go back inside. Dumb like a severed arm is dumb. But the man lurking in the temple wasn't a looter or a squatter. He was a guard. Guards, by definition, guarded. The man wasn't there to protect the chapel itself. That had been torched during the Third Scour. The following century of weather and vandals had ruined the rest of it. Stonework rubbled the field, cracked rocks fuzzy with moss. Holes spotted the pitched roof, darker than the clouds. This temple of Arawn was four generations and a hard day's walk removed from the last time and place anyone had cared about its god. It was a cold night and the sporadic rain was colder still.And yet there was a guard. Dante was onto something.He drew his knife and crept toward the chapel, smelling the tall, wet grass as it soaked against his legs. Nothing moved except the wind-stirred trees. He touched the damp stone of the wall. He felt his way forward, fingers trailing the wall. After a few steps, they fell into empty space. He froze, breath catching in his chest. That moment of cowardice saved his life.A man coughed from so close Dante could smell his breath. The guard emerged from the hole in the wall into the cloud-occluded starlight. His sword hung from his hip. He gazed into the bobbing pines, most likely imagining the boy he'd cut up not five minutes before curled beneath the cold boughs, heat and blood slowly ebbing from his body.The man wandered into the grass. Dante pressed his back against the wall. He waited for the guard to take another step, then lunged forward and slashed at his hamstrings. The man screamed and fell. He rocked in the grass, clutching the backs of his legs. Dante danced back and wondered what the hell to do next."Get back!" the man yelled.Dante found himself. He pressed his boot against the man's ribs. "Where is the book?""What book?""I'll cut your throat," Dante said. His voice caught. He swallowed. "You'll be a body in the woods. Eaten by badgers.""I don't know of any book." The guard pawed a bloody hand at Dante's breeches. "If there was anything here, they took it back north long ago.""Then why are you here? Your health?"The man started to speak, then took a long, shuddery breath, squinting at Dante's face. "How old are you?""Would you ask death his age?" Dante said, and felt immediately foolish."I'd say he looks about fourteen.""I'm sixteen. My name is Dante Galand. And if you don't tell me where you keep the book, I'm the last man you'll ever see.""I'm telling you. It's gone. Returned to Narashtovik where men don't want to burn it."Dante knelt and dug his knife into the guard's smooth-worn leather shirt. The iron tip clicked against the man's breastbone. The guard sucked air between his teeth, eyes white and watery. Dante gulped down a retch, withdrew the knife, and hovered it over the man's heart."I hope its secrets are worth your life.""Stop!" The man wriggled his shoulders, pushing himself into the sodden grass. "It's in the basement. Downstairs.""I didn't see any stairs.""Third row of the graveyard. Fourth stone. There's a ladder underneath it. I haven't seen anything down there but candles and prayer books. I drank all the wine. But if there's a book, it's down there."They stared at each other in the damp autumn air. Dante couldn't leave the man here. It would be like cleaning a deer. Focus on the knife's edge. Keep your fingers out of the way. Work fast, concentrate on the cut. Wash up when you're done.But deer didn't talk back. They couldn't call you a murderer. Dante steeled himself and poked the blade between the man's ribs."You promised!" he gasped."And you tried to kill me."Dante drove down hard on the hilt. The guard bucked, legs thrashing, knocking Dante off balance. He grabbed the knife's handle again and leaned on it with all his weight. The man went as slack as a summer pond. Dante's stomach spasmed. He felt a thousand feet tall. He wanted to die. He was frozen, stunned, waiting to be smited by the man's god. The wind whispered to him through the needles of the pines.All this for a dog.He'd seen it just that summer. Its body lay on the bank of the creek miles upstream from his village. Short, skinny trees grew so thick around the stream that you could barely see the sky. One of the dog's paws dangled in the water. Its fur was clumped with blood, its eyes shut, legs rigid. Flies whirled around its nose and lips. A noose trailed from its neck.Its death was a stain on the face of innocence. Dante shrank behind a birch, gripping its smooth, papery bark. This was his place. There was nothing between it and the village but marshes and ponds. A few hills with grass on their crowns and trees in their folds. A couple of shacks, too, but their roofs were staved in, homes to no one. You could hunt it, perhaps—it was common ground—but it was otherwise useless land. Unless, like Dante, you had a thing for exploring. He spent whole days following the creek, turning stones over in its quiet pools, throwing pebbles at waterstriders, poking at snails to watch them suck into their shells. He was too old for such things. He knew that. He just didn't know where else to go.Leaves crackled thirty yards upstream from the dog. A man in a bright mail shirt stepped out from the trees and knelt beside the water. He cupped his hand, drank, and flopped back on the bank to pluck burrs from his black cloak. A silver icon clasped it around his throat, the emblem rayed like a tree or a star.Finished, the man stood, stretched, and started downstream toward Dante. The man's hand whipped for his sword. Dante breathed through his mouth, rooted in place. The man stalked forward and stopped over the dog.He hunkered down and prodded its throat. The stream splashed along beneath the clouds. The man drew a knife, put it to the dog's throat, and sawed briskly. Dante tasted bile. The man pulled the now-severed noose from the animal's neck and tossed it into the creek.He then touched his knife to his left hand. Blood winked from his palm. The air blurred around his hands. Small dark things flocked to his fingers, moths or horseflies or bad ideas, black motes that clung to the blood sliding down his wrist. They congealed into something round and semitranslucent. The man lowered his hands to the dog's ribs. The ball of shadows flowed into the motionless body.He fell back, smirking, and pressed his bleeding palm to his mouth. The dog kicked its legs.The man in the mail shirt got to his feet. After a faltering, stiff-limbed try, so did the dog. The man scratched its ears; it whined; the man laughed. Still whining, the dog backed up the bank and limped into the trees. The man belted his knife, glanced downcreek, and followed it into the woods.Through all of it, Dante could sense what was happening the way he could smell cold or feel a shadow on his skin. When the dog shivered up to its feet, that was the world showing him just how big it really was, and that if he wanted it—if he wanted to wield what the man in the bright mail had drawn from the air—he would have to come find it.Half-dazed, Dante ran back to the village. No one there had seen the man come through. When Dante turned and gazed at the creek winding its way out of town, the woods and fields looked pale and common. The snails and waterstriders were just bugs. Dante went to bed and couldn't sleep. When he was a child, his dad had made lights dance in his hands. Told stories of playing bodyguards for dukes. Of hiring on with ships and using his talents as a soldier-doctor. That route was technically illegal—only royals and the church could employ the ether-users—but it wasn't the law that had taken his father away. Nine years ago, the man had sailed west. He'd stayed there. Perhaps he'd died along the way.In the morning, Dante worked up his nerve and asked the monk who cared for him about living shadows and a silver star or tree. The monk's face grew distant. After a moment, he explained that before anyone now alive in Mallon had been born, shadow-wielding men carried the book of the White Tree and worshiped the old god Arawn. But they'd been burnt out of the land, the men and their books, during the Third Scour. The monk had once read a fragment of the book. The rest was lost to the ruin of the past.The monk retreated into the monastery in search of his notes on the fragment. Two weeks later, Dante went to Bressel in search of the book itself. There, he spent his pennies buying beer for the capital's archivists and churchmen. One mug at a time, Dante learned the book wasn't a sort of recipe of spells, but the holy text of the Arawnites, quite comparable to the Kalavar of Gashen or the Silver Thief of Carvahal. The scholars and priests agreed that all know copies had been burnt, but that if any remained, they could be identified by a cover bearing a white tree.That had been it. Dante ran out of money. Ran out of ideas. Empty-handed and out of options, he tracked down one of their temples and headed into the woods.The wind surged through the trees. A strange chain connected him from the dog to this place. Because of it, a man lay dead at his feet.He wiped his knife and hands in the grass and headed around the back of the chapel. Gravestones dotted the swaying grass. The fourth stone of the third row was flinty and black and flat. Dante nudged it with his toe, then dug his fingers under its lip. He strained against the stone and pivoted it into the weeds.It revealed a hole hardly wide enough for a man to pass his shoulders. Dante squinted into the gloom. The trapped air smelled musty, faint with the human odor of sweat and skin, the scent of another man's house. He shrank back, fighting a sudden terror for what lay in the darkness below. It wasn't anything as certain as eels or as vague as monsters that slunk through the outlands of his imagination, but something in between: pale things with the tentacles of squid, the intelligence of men, and the cruelty of the stars.He leaned over and spat, counting two before it spattered. So it had a bottom. The rungs of a time-smoothed ladder descended from the starlight into blackness. Dante dropped his legs over the edge and scrabbled for a rung. The ladder creaked. Hand over hand, he descended, armpits slimy with sweat, until he stood in a circle of faintest light at its bottom.Dante owned two things worth stealing. The first was his boots. The second was the only thing his father had left him before sailing into death or waters too warm to leave. He took it from his pocket, a torchstone, a small white marble. He held it in his palm and blew. It warmed and glowed. In the soft white light, dust caked the slanted shelves along the walls. Dante pawed through moldy cloth, water-spotted braziers, foul-smelling candles. A patina of age coated everything, greasy and yellow-gray.There were two shelves of books. Dante's heart leapt, but they were all copies of a common prayer manual he'd seen in the Library of Bressel and the vendors in the binding district. He stuffed the least mildewed in his pack anyway.He swept through the basement wall to wall. He turned in a circle, hunting for anything he'd missed, then went through it again, piling up the junky relics in the middle of the room and prodding the shelves and drawers for hidden compartments. What he'd taken as a stool turned out to be a scuffed-up chest. He smashed its rusty lock with a brick and was rewarded with three sludgy bottles. With waning patience and waxing despair, he searched the small basement a third time, moving as slowly and carefully as he could make himself go. At the end, he wandered to the circle of starlight and gazed up the ladder. It would be dawn soon. At some point the guard's relief would find the body cooling in the yard. Maybe not for days, but for all Dante knew a second guard had already arrived and was already scouring the grass for the killer of his friend.Dante was wearing down, too. The scabs of his cuts dribbled blood with every too-quick gesture. He was tired and thirsty and sore. The sphere of light shrank back toward the torchstone. In thickening shadow, Dante sat down on a desk. It was too big to have been lowered down the hole as it was. They must have brought it down in pieces and nailed it together in the cellar.His hope contracted with the light. The first frost would come any day. He'd used up half his cloak for bandages and didn't have a cent to replace it. If he went back to Bressel, he'd starve and freeze. If he returned to the village, he'd regret it all his life.The stone flickered, throwing the room into deep shadow, revealing a crease in the shelves near the ceiling. Before Dante could be certain it was there, the light blinked off for good.He shuffled across the blackened room, candlesticks clattering away from his feet, and bumped into the wooden shelves. He climbed them until he could press his palm against the cobwebbed ceiling. He'd seen the crease just below the top shelf. He scrabbled his fingernails against the coarse wood. They slid into a crack.Splinters drove under his nails. Bit by bit, he pried the false top away from the shelf. With a high-pitched groan, it fell away and whapped against the floor. He smelled dry paper and earthy leather. Dante reached blind into the crevice, heart beating hard. There couldn't possibly be anything lurking inside; there was no chance he'd feel a sharp tug and pull back one less knuckle than he'd started the day with. His fingers brushed over a flat, pebbled surface. It was the first thing he'd touched down here that wasn't dusty or greasy with neglect. He lifted the object loose. The shelf he stood on snapped in half.He hit the ground hard. His hip and shoulder roared with hammerblows of pain. He waited for the ache to fade to a dizzy tingle before he tested them for breaks. His limbs moved freely and without fresh hurts. By right, the fall should have left him broke-legged or paralyzed, trapped in the ground beneath the graves. He shouldn't have even made it this far. Except for dumb luck, he should have died two hours ago, struck down by the guard. His body splayed outside the chapel. Wounds long done bleeding. Body held down by the wind and the clouds until it merged with the dirt.But his bones weren't broken. The guard hadn't killed him. He was bruised and weak and leaking blood from his side, but the thing in his hands was a book. He'd held onto it as he fell. After he hit the ground. Now, he stashed it in his pack and climbed back up the ladder.Up top, he got it out once more, turning it to face the charcoal-clouded starlight. On its cover, a pale tree spread its branches to the darkness.The White Tree. Barden, the monk had called it. Supposedly, it was as real as the hills and stood in the twilight valley at the north end of the earth. According to the monk—even when they'd talked, Dante had been skeptical; wasn't it convenient that it existed so far away—it had sprouted from a god's own knuckle. Instead of bark and leaves and wood, it had grown of bone and bone alone. Its knotty trunk hewn from thighs and spines. Its long limbs the arcs of ribs and the knobby curls of fleshless fingers. Instead of flowers, it budded teeth.Book in hand, Dante laughed lowly, spooking himself. Why not just paint a bunch of flames around it, too? Or bind it in skin and ink it in blood? That would be no less ridiculous than the gleaming bones on its cover.Yet there was something to it. He could feel its weight. Its age. When he closed his eyes, he thought he could feel the power the man in the mail shirt had used to raise the dog from the creek. Goosebumps stood out on Dante's neck and arms. He packed away the book and hauled the heavy gravestone back over the pit into the cellar.Ragged black mountains hung to the west. To the east, Bressel was a full day's walk for a well-rested man. Dante slunk into the woods, shuffling along the rutted path hidden beneath the grass. As the sun rose, his legs faltered. He balled himself up under a squat tree, shading himself from the itchy light of morning.Before he slept, he gave himself one last look at the book. Exposed by the daylight, the tree looked less absurd, less melodramatically morbid, and more like something that could be waiting in the wilds, if only the world were a slightly weirder place.He'd wind up standing beneath it within half a year.