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Songs of the Earth- Chapter Four: Gatekeeper

Chapter Four: Gatekeeper

Masen breathed out slowly. His breath curled into steam on the frosty air and disappeared into the bare branches of the trees around him. He had to be careful now, not make the slightest sound, or his quarry would hear him, despite the chatter of the stony river. The stag’s hearing was exceptional, even for one of its kind. No wonder it had been hunted so unsuccessfully for so long.

He watched it pace through the trees ahead, a flicker of white amongst the winter-black trunks. The beast was a long way from home. This forest stretched the length of the Brindling Mountains from the an-Archen south to Astolar and they were well above the plains, almost to the snowline. No country for deer, especially one carrying such a magnificent rack of antlers. Deer lived on their wits and their speed; they did not willingly choose terrain that could foul their heads or break their legs. Something had brought it here, something it feared enough to overcome its instincts.

Masen shifted position a fraction, transferring his weight smoothly from one foot to the other. He would have sworn he made no sound, but the stag heard him and bounded ahead. Hooves clattered on stone, splashed through water. Well, if it knew he was here, he could afford a little less caution. Shaking out his net, he moved towards the river.

The stag stood four-square on a gravel-spit out in the rushing water. Its pelt glowed in the thin sunshine, each of the twenty points of its antlers shining silver. Wide blue-black eyes fixed on him and wet nostrils flared as it sifted out his scent.

A few more steps brought Masen to the water’s edge. He kept his net loose in his right hand. The stag’s head jerked warningly, antlers flashing – nineteen points, not twenty; one was broken and the rest furrowed and scarred from many battles. A wily one, this. It had chosen to face him across the deepest part of the river channel, where the water flowed fast and dark and ice sparkled on the stones. Behind it lay the shallows on the outside of the bend, ready for a swift escape. Masen grinned. Wily indeed.

Close to, it truly was magnificent. Finer-boned than a highland stag, but no less strong, with a deep chest – big lungs, for long running – and powerful haunches to drive it forward. Head up, its ears swept the air for the slightest sound. Every muscle under that snowy pelt was bunched and ready to run hard. He could take no chances here.

Slowly, Masen transferred his net to his other hand so he could shrug off his bow and quiver. The stag snorted and stamped a foot, scattering gravel into the water. With great care, he hung his weapons from a branch on the nearest tree and held up his hand, moving away from them. Its head turned to keep him in focus, ears flicking back and forth warily. A Kingdom boar had taught Masen not to underestimate these creatures. Seeing the scar on his thigh each time he undressed made sure he didn’t forget.

A breeze brought the scent of it across the river to him. He smelled the musk of the rut, rank sweat in its coat, the sour edge of fear. Pitching his voice low and soft, he began to speak. It didn’t matter what he said, for the stag had no language, but the tone was important. Masen murmured nonsense, hummed snatches of lullabies, anything he could think of that was soothing to the ear. Some of the tension drained from the stag. Its fixed stare shifted for a fraction of a second, then again as it dared to look around.

Masen hunkered down to make himself smaller and less threaten- ing, but he kept the net ready. The stag dipped its head towards the water and he saw a flash of its dark, purplish tongue. It was thirsty, and the smell of the water was overcoming its caution.

When it leaned down to drink, Masen lunged. Straightening his legs he thrust himself up and flung his arms wide. The invisible Song-woven net soared out over the river, spreading, falling, powered by his will. The stag’s head jerked up, but too late. The net coiled around it; in moments the Song had tangled the proud antlers and hobbled the stag’s legs. It crashed down on its side in the gravel and bleated frantically. Panicked eyes rolled in its head.

Masen hopped onto a rock in the middle of the water and then onto the spit, crouching beside his captive.

‘Hush, hush now,’ he murmured. ‘I mean you no harm. I’m here to take you home.’ He stroked its shoulder, the net prickling as his hand passed through it. He had to be careful not to leave his hand in one place for too long; the stag’s flesh was as cold as the snows. It panted and strained against the mesh, silvery hooves thrashing in the gravel.

‘Rest, my prince. All will be well.’

The inky eyes closed. It laid its head on the stones, breath huffing through flared nostrils.

‘There now, see? All will be well, I promise.’

Masen felt the hunter’s approach as a shiver in the air, not unlike someone close behind him calling the Song. He heard no sound but the river, no footfalls on the leaf-litter, but the world had changed its shape behind him and he knew the hunter was there.

Readying a defensive shield just in case, Masen pushed himself to his feet.
I see you, human.

He turned round. A hornbow was levelled at his heart, the arrow-point glistening like ice. The hunter himself stood half- hidden in shadows that fell the wrong way for the direction of the sun, the shadows themselves cast by massive trees that resembled none in the surrounding forest.

‘My lord.’ Masen bowed. ‘Well met.’

You have something of mine. Return it to me.

‘I will return it to its kingdom, for it does not belong here, but I will not hand it over to you. I will not break the law.’

Give it to me! The hunter took a half-step forward into a shaft of sunlight. Fierce green eyes sighted along the arrow-shaft, a breeze stirring his braided hair around his shoulders. Masen met his stare.

‘You must follow the law of the hunt, my lord.’

Give me the stag, human, or I will strike you down.

‘No, my lord, I will not. Your arrow will not pass the border of your kingdom.’

The stag passed.

‘The stag found a Gate and blundered through. There is no Gate here.’

With a silent curse, the hunter lowered his bow, easing the strain off the string. His stare remained forbidding. I have hunted the stag for many days. I had it at bay by the waterfall, within my grasp.

‘Then you must hunt it again, bring it to bay again. I will not gift you your prize.’

It would earn you much favour with the Queen.

‘I do not seek the favour of your Queen. I seek only to see the laws of the hunt upheld. I am bound by them, just as you are.’

At Masen’s feet the stag tossed its head. The Song’s shimmering, half-unseen mesh pressed into the winter-thick pelt. It knew that death was close at hand and its every fibre strained for flight.

Dropping the arrow back into the leather quiver at his shoulder, the hunter relaxed. His ragged, forest-coloured clothing blurred into the shadows around him. Very well, gatekeeper. I accede. But the Queen shall hear of this.

‘I’m sure she will,’ Masen said. ‘This is a royal stag, one of her pets. Greater hunters than you have sought to capture it and failed. You stand in exalted company, my lord.’

The hunter snarled. His hand dropped to his waist and a knife flashed into flight towards Masen’s chest. It shuddered to a halt just short with a flash of blue-white light like a spark from the Goddess’ own anvil. The hunter bared his teeth, then whirled and vanished into his forest.

Masen reached out towards the knife suspended in mid-air and laid his hand flat against the invisible barrier. The knife-point grazed his palm, not sharp enough to break the skin but firm as a bodkin through a blanket. He frowned. He should not have been able to feel anything at all. The knife should have bounced back at the hunter’s feet, not stuck there. That could mean only one thing. The boundary was weakening.

A chill slithered into the pit of his stomach. The Veil had not weakened like this in many years, not since the reiver. Oh, there had been tears in places, small rips that spilled a little of the Hidden Kingdom into the world the way an old sack spilled a few grains of wheat onto the floor, but that was easily swept up, easily mended. Since he had become Gatekeeper he had seen nothing to compare with this. In this place, the very fabric of the Veil was wearing thin.

He studied the hunter’s dagger. Long and flat, the blade was fashioned from icy blue light and etched with sigils. As he watched they faded into illegibility and the knife itself dissolved into smoke. The pressure against his palm was gone.

With the Song, Masen felt the slippery fabric of the boundary for a tear. No threads were snapped, but there was a distortion where the knife-point had pulled it askew, like a bramble-thorn on the weave of a shirt. Slowly, carefully, he wove together gossamer strands of the Song and eased the fabric smooth again. Its dancing light faded as he withdrew.

The stag stirred by his feet. Its breathing was more measured now, but its eyes were open, staring at the shore. Deftly Masen unpicked the net around it and rewove it as a leash. The stag scrambled to its feet and bolted, only to be fetched up short on its hind legs, cloven hooves pawing at the air.

‘Easy, my prince.’ He raised a hand to stroke its face and antlers lunged towards him. ‘I understand, I understand,’ he soothed.

‘You don’t want to be here. You’re frightened and alone and you can’t find your way back. You can’t feel the Gate from this side, can you? Not this far away.’

The stag snorted, saliva dripping from its jaws. Its pelt twitched and trembled with the urge to flee. With the leash still held tight, Masen began to sing in his throat, more than a hum, but not as articulate as speech, and the melody spread out and twined amongst the winter-bare trees as if it was a living thing, which in a way it was. Its rhythm obeyed no formal musical convention. Instead it resembled the flow of water or leaves in a breeze, constantly changing without ever repeating yet always, somehow, the same. Years of practice had been required to perfect the necessary breathing techniques, yet in its kingdom of origin that complex melody was a lullaby such as a mother might sing over a cradle.

The stag’s ears flicked upright, curved round to capture the sound. Blue-black eyes fixed on Masen’s and it ceased straining against his hand.

‘There now, that’s better. Let’s send you home, my prince. The Queen will be pining for you.’ He stepped onto the rock mid- stream, paying out some leash behind him. The stag leapt clean over the water to the shore where it looked back at him as if to ask why he was taking so long. Laughing, Masen jumped to the bank and, side by side, they set off into the forest.

The Gate was not far. The threshold tickled at Masen’s awareness, tugging at the nail in his pocket. Several Gates existed in this region; he had mapped them long ago. This was one of the highest, on the shoulder of the Brindling Mountains. He had seen no reason to seal them yet, not this far out. Though the lowland soil was fertile and well watered, few people had settled this region, and the ruined farmsteads of those who had tried scattered the plain below.

Too many ghosts. Ghosts of dead kingdoms, ancient battles,leached out of the soil like firedamp. Treachery and despair hung in the air, and spoiled a man’s sleep and greyed his hair until one day he piled everything he owned into his wagon and left his fields to return to the wild. Those plains were fertile because they were soaked in centuries of blood.

First Slaine, if legend was to be believed, then the city-state of Milanthor, had tried to claim the whole of the northern plains for itself. Its hundred towers were crow-eyries now. And then Gwlach’s army, east and south of here. At Riannen Cut the Knights had finally broken them, then driven them into bloody retreat through Whistler’s Pass. The night air was thick with their shades.

Masen scrambled up the steepening slope, using protruding roots and dangling branches to pull himself along. He envied the stag’s nimbleness; its dainty hooves found footing amongst the rocks where his clumsy boots could never fit. A tired grin split his face. ‘Have some patience with an old man, my prince!’

The stag snorted. Now who was the quarry and who the hunter?

At the top of the slope the thin scrub pine fell away entirely to leave the ridge-line bald. To the left the mountains continued to rise towards the high peaks and the Fjordain beyond, with their white heads in the clouds and their feet in the sea. To the right the knobby spine of the ridge sank back into the forest and the distant plains. The wind, sharp with snows to come, brought the thunder- ous boom of falling water.

Beside Masen, the stag strained forward, the leash carving a furrow in its pelt.

‘This is where you came through, eh?’ he asked. He paid out a little more slack and the creature shuffled forward as far as it could, eyes fixed on the unseen waterfall.

He’d have to seal the Gate behind it. He couldn’t take the risk that it would remember this world as a refuge when the hunt began. It could not be allowed to return at will. The balance would be upset, unless something from here passed through to the Hidden Kingdom in exchange, and that was precious risky at best. Small things, inert objects such as pebbles and twigs, could pass back and forth without harm, but a large animal was a different matter.

Besides, the stag was a creature of power. Its presence weighed on the world the way Masen felt stones in his pockets. Looked at with the Song, it was sculpted of blue-white light, cold and tumultuous music, a frozen river of energy that distorted every- thing around it. It did not belong here, and never could.

He walked to the edge and peered over at the roaring river. It had no name that he knew; if it had ever had, it had gone to dust with the cartographer who had plotted its course. Grey-white water boiled down a narrow defile, its steep walls gleaming with a sheath of ice. A path of sorts, where the rock had fractured into a series of shallow steps, led down the gorge to where it ended, maybe a hundred yards away.

There it simply opened into space and the river poured out in a foaming mare’s tail that the wind would fray into rain long before it ever reached the ground.

The hunter’s waterfall, at a guess. It was rare that the landscapes of the Hidden Kingdom coincided with the daylight world. Usually it was an echo, distorted by time and distance until it was barely recognisable as what it had been. Forests were older, or younger, or had other features subtly rearranged to be more pleasing to the creatures that inhabited them. Rivers changed their course or became lakes, even dried up altogether. Occasionally there were points of congruence, places such as this where the two kingdoms could intersect, and there were the Gates.

Masen started carefully down the path with the stag clattering behind him. He would have to get closer to the falls to find the Gate. This looked to be the only way, and the wet ice was un- forgiving. Make haste slowly, then. One cautious step at a time, he descended into the cleft.

The noise of the river pummelled at his ears, confined and amplified by the rocky walls. Needle-sharp spray stung his face, soaked his clothes. Behind him he heard the stag huff excitedly and risked a glance over his shoulder. Spray turned its antlers to liquid silver and beaded its coat like seed-pearls, so lovely it made Masen’s heart ache to see it, but the glamour of the Hidden’s creatures was treacherous. He turned his back again and with clenched teeth edged further along the path.

The threshold pulled more strongly now. The stag sensed something too, tugging on the leash to dart ahead, its silvery hooves ringing on the rock. It snorted, eager to be gone. It had the scent of home in its nostrils, undetectable to Masen amongst the smells of water and pine and cold wet rock. They were almost above the falls now; the wind whirled around them, reminding him that he stood perilously close to the void. From his pocket he pulled a horseshoe nail and held it up by the thread tied to it. It swung instantly to point towards the waterfall. He’d reached the right place. There was a Gate above the falls, still open to the Hidden Kingdom.

He dropped the nail back into his pocket, where it pressed insistently at the fabric of his coat. Then he slipped the leash on the stag with a thought and released his hold on the Song.

‘Time to go home,’ he said.

The stag threw back its head and belled. Its cry was more tenor than the bass bellow of a bull elk, less raw than a red deer, but just as unearthly. Its hindquarters bunched and it launched itself down the precipitous slope towards the waterfall. One bound, then another, somehow finding footholds on the ice-covered rock, then it soared out into the gorge. Brilliant spangles surrounded it as if the sun had lanced through the clouds and refracted from every single droplet of water on its pelt. In a blink it was gone.

‘Goddess speed you,my prince,’ Masen murmured, gazing after it. Even after all this time, it unnerved him to see one of the Kingdom’s creatures disappear without a track through a Gate, especially ones that seemed to open into plain air. He should have become accustomed to it, but it still lifted the hairs on the back of his neck.

He picked his way back along the path to the rim of the gorge and started down the slope. His spray-damp clothes clung un- comfortably to his limbs; by the time he reached his camp he’d be thoroughly chilled. Sealing the Gate would have to wait for another day. Even with ropes and climbing irons it would be next to impossible to reach alone. Easier by far would be to destroy the lintel-stone, assuming he could find it, though that would leave an ugly tear in the Veil that was in its own way just as dangerous as an unprotected Gate and would take twice as long to stitch up as simply sealing it properly in the first place.

But for now it would have to keep. He had a far more pressing task at hand. Masen slid and skidded down through the trees. The Order had to be warned. It was twenty days’ hard riding down the Greenway to the upper arm of the Great River, where he could transfer to a ship. Astolar was closer, but with the High Seats in turmoil they might close their borders. He could not afford to spend weeks wandering in the Astolan Hills, unable to find a route out, should the White Court move to isolate itself. The journey would be long and arduous enough as it was.

No, the Greenway it had to be, then south. He was sure to be able to find a ship of some kind – hells, he’d earn his passage as deckhand if he had to; it wouldn’t be the first time – anything that would send him on his way to Fleet. If the Veil was failing, he had no time to waste.