Path of Revenge
Husk - Book 1
FORMAT: Trade paperback
How to kill an immortal?
The question whispers along the cold stone walls. It has a life of its own, this question. Husk imagines the words have found a path through the maze of corridors deep beneath Andratan, a route to freedom, so many times has he whispered them over the last seventy years.
Perhaps they have, he thinks. Perhaps they have. But freedom, however tempting, is not the path he intends to take. A far more dangerous route invites him onward.
Searing pain as sweet air mixes with the wreckage of blood-fouled lungs. Agony. Torment. Must stay strong, must not be sidetracked. Concentrate ...
A fleeting mind-touch, anticipated, expected. Someone walks the corridor. Two people. Warders on their regular rounds. They will expect him to be in his cell, not at large in the corridor. Draw a little from them both, just a little from their memories. There, and there. One of the men stumbles and utters a curse. The mind-touch tells Husk this, who has no ears to hear. He has drawn too much — still careless — but the bright power, so necessary, how can it be resisted? It supplies the strength for thought, for the rational part of his mind to function. For another breath.
One jailer, new to the task, says something to the other. Husk can feel it, faint currents of air brushing against his open wounds like the promise of healing. He hears the question in the jailer’s mind: what is that dreadful smell? Husk knows, but he cannot tell. Husk is ashamed, but he is powerless to alter what he is.
He suppresses the cough reflex. Coughing would set him back days, would consume too much of his carefully pieced-together strength. So much strength required to stave off the pain, to keep the broken body working; so little left to maintain mind contact with those in his thrall. The captain, the priest and the girl. One cough, one spasm such as those he suffered in the early years, and he could lose contact. He worries especially about the girl, the most recent, the most vulnerable of his acquisitions. Lose her, lose the Stone, lose everything.
In the few moments of clarity he has been able to fashion during seventy years of suffering, Husk has often thought on the impossibility of the task he has set himself. It is all he focuses on. All that matters. Seventy dreadful years. He should have let go in the beginning, should have fallen into the death that hovered so close, but he did not. He has held his betrayal clenched tightly in his hand for so long now he cannot release it, cannot choose death even if he wanted it.
A known smell nearby. A rat. Plenty of them down here. They learn to stay away from him. He can draw them to him, kill them with his mind, send his will spiking into their tiny brains. Without the fat, juicy rats he would never have survived. This one scuttles nervously past him on the other side of the corridor. He can sense it, though his eyeless sockets cannot see it. The rat knows about Husk, oh yes.
How to kill an immortal?
Again and again he asked the darkness, and after so many long and painful years of silence the darkness delivered him an answer.
Less than two years ago she was sent down here, his answer, his sweet answer. Strongly gifted, she saw through his mask, found him lying on the floor of his cell. Pitied him. Oh, angel! He remembers the caress of the cloth she applied to the worst of his wounds, unimaginable balm in the midst of raging pain. He repaid her by driving a small spike of himself into her vulnerable young mind, and there he found her secret.
It was hidden in a sealed-off corner of her memory, too painful to examine until he rooted it out and lanced it with his magic. She was aware of the existence of a Stone, though she did not know what it was or what it could do. Husk knows what it can do. He needs it. With the Stone he can undo the magic of an immortal. With the Stone he can bring his enemy down.
He lets the breath out slowly, lest excitement overwhelm good sense. His little spike is secure but he checks it just the same, seeing through her eyes, hearing through her ears, though she is many weeks’ journey from his prison, part of an expedition he arranged for her to join. They are using her again, but what is that to one such as he who has experienced the horror of being unmade?
He reviews his plan. The Stone she will bring him is the key to everything. But it will not be sufficient on its own. Just as well, then, that he has set two other opportunistic spikes. The first he drove into the self-deluded mind of a priest from the west, a foolish Falthan spy. The lies Husk taught him will certainly draw forth the Falthan queen, she with the Blood he so desperately needs. The second he set in the naïve mind of a young, brash captain, an explorer from Elamaq, the great southern empire. The temptation he placed there will bring north the Emperor to wield the Stone and take the Blood.
Husk is in the perfect place to gnaw on his dreams of revenge. The master of this terrible prison can pick the very thoughts out of one’s mind, but down here, in the crawling depths of the Undying Man’s dungeon, everyone harbours such dreams. Their futile hungers mask Husk’s far more powerful desire. He disguises himself, cloaks his continued existence with the rotted hopelessness and petty anger of his cellmates. Here, only here, can he safely put together a plan to destroy his destroyer.
How to kill an immortal?
Using the Stone, the Blood and the Emperor, that is how. Husk will have them all in his hands very soon. And then revenge.
Breathe in. And savour.
The northern sun, tinged with a tired orange at day’s end, ebbed slowly towards the dark sea-cliffs. Small white clouds scuttled out of her way like lambs fleeing a farmer’s dog. The air remained warm even as the sun weakened, unusual in early spring, especially under a clearing sky. A black-beaked gull hung for a moment against the darkening firmament, then wheeled and, with a cry, plunged into the eggshell-blue water in search of the day’s last catch.
Other fishermen wended their way home, their tasks done. Trousers rolled up to their knees, three men talked animatedly together as they walked barefooted across the warm sand. The nets had been full today, the work demanding enough to prevent the men sharing their gossip until now. Of course, such a plentiful catch meant a hard row home, then two hours of hauling nets to the fish market followed by tedious cleaning and repair work; but now, with the sun setting over their shoulders, their nets hung out and their boat beached, the fishermen forgot the stiffness in their backs and began to think about the excitement to come.
‘Warm wind tonight,’ one of them said, an older man with thinning hair and the beginnings of a paunch. ‘Good for the celebrations.’
‘Good for the dancing, you mean,’ said the young man beside him, poking an elbow into his ribs. ‘You think the warm air will bring out the widow Nellas.’ All three men laughed.
‘Well it might, well it might,’ the older man agreed. ‘But I know who else it’ll bring out. All of young Mustar’s admirers, that’s who. Half the cliff-girls will stand there sighing at his magnificent body. None of the dandies who live on The Circle have bodies like that.’ He leaned over and wagged a finger in Mustar’s handsome face. ‘You keep your shirt on tonight, you hear, or I’ll crack your head.’
Mustar smiled. ‘Tonight I oil myself up and leave my shirt at home,’ he announced. ‘The cliff-girls can look all they want, but they can’t touch. I’m saving myself for the widow Nellas!’
‘You’re not!’ cried the old man, then reddened at their laughter.
‘No one will be able to dance,’ he said, trying to recover his poise. ‘Not once I take my shirt off. The cobbles will be covered in drool from all the panting tongues.’
‘Once the Recruiters get a sight of your flabby gut, Sautea, they’ll pack up and head straight for Neherius,’ Mustar said. ‘Maybe you’d better stay home tonight. I shall go up and suggest it to the Hegeoman.’ More laughter accompanied the absurd idea that a fisherman could be on speaking terms with the village leader.
‘You speak more wisdom than my son,’ the third man said to Mustar. His voice, though rich and good-natured, was unmistakably one of authority. The prudent man would step lightly around its owner, even when he indulged in gentle mockery, as he did now. ‘Are you sure you won’t be applying for recruitment?’
‘Noetos, you know me better than that. I’m far better off working for the Fisher of Fossa than risking my fate up north.’ Mustar frowned. ‘Not that there’s anything to risk. Arathé, now, she made the right choice.’
Noetos laughed and ruffled the young man’s hair. ‘I understand you, lad. Don’t think it hasn’t been hard for us with my girl in the service of Andratan. But it was all for the best.’ Unquestioningly for the best. He remembered how the boys of Fossa, Mustar at their head, had lusted after her. Arathé had done well to escape this village and the mean life it promised her.
A position in the service of Andratan. It was what most of them wanted, the young people growing up without prospects below the dark cliffs of Fossa. A chance to be tutored in the arts of magic, to live a useful, meaningful life. Noetos could understand their motivation. There was little for them here.
The three men negotiated the ruts and bumps of Beach Lane as they talked, and off to the west the orange sun touched the cliffs more in surrender than triumph. ‘Aye, another season like this one and I’ll be able to afford the down payment on a boat of my own,’ the youth continued, then stopped. Embarrassment spread over his features, as though he’d been shamed by speaking his dream aloud, and he rubbed his thin moustache nervously.
‘Will you now?’ Noetos growled, his brows lowering in mock anger. ‘A boat of your own! And what will I do for a spotter once you’ve gone?’
The young man looked around uneasily but found no support from Sautea, who hid behind a poker face. He turned back to Noetos.
‘Aaah, Mustar, you think I didn’t know about your plans?’ the big man boomed. ‘I’ve already put the word out amongst the other boats. I’ll have no problem finding a spotter when you move on. Maybe I’ll get one who can find some fish for me!’ he said, and clapped the youngster on the shoulder.
‘Four nets’ worth of spotting isn’t so bad,’ Mustar said. ‘I’ll do all right on my own. My Pa always said I should aim for my own boat.’
‘Halieutes would have said that, wouldn’t he? It’s not as simple as that, of course, not by a long cast. And now he’s no longer here to guide you, I suppose you’ll be coming to me for advice.’ The big man’s voice was mild.
‘Fishing advice, maybe,’ the handsome youth answered, a sly smile on his lips. ‘But not dancing advice. I’ve seen you dance. Have you ever seen a stranded whale flop about on a beach? Kindest thing I could say about your dancing. Perhaps I could trade you advice?’
‘I don’t need advice,’ Fisher Noetos said, smiling in turn. ‘Unlike you, lad, I am married, and so no longer need to dance.’ He spun around and pointed a finger at Sautea, whose mouth was open. ‘And don’t you say anything!’
The older man grinned. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it, my friend,’ he said, merriment wrapped around the words. ‘You may not care to dance, but we Old Fossans would love to see you at the gathering tonight. No one cares that you are a cliff-man now. Will you come?’
A frown creased Noetos’s brow. ‘I doubt Opuntia will wish to go. She will want to remain home to prepare my son for the Recruiters. Sorry, Sautea. Pass on my regards to the widow Nellas, and if she chooses to dance with you, tell her to wear her heaviest boots.’ The jest was forced, but Sautea laughed regardless.
They reached the junction of Beach Lane and Short Run. Normally the three men would share the road up the gentle slope of Short Run, turn left onto Lamplight Lane, Fossa’s main road, then right into Old Fossa Road, where the fishermen lived with their families. Noetos would leave them there, as he had each day for the past two years, and climb the steep Zig Zag up the side of the cliff to The Circle, the road that wound its way around the cliff that enfolded Fossa, holding her close to the sea. Today, however, pleading a stiffness in his joints, he bade them farewell at the bottom of Short Run and continued south along Beach Lane towards the place where The Circle descended towards the sea along a spur of rock. The two men, the old and the young, watched their master walk slowly away, rubbing his shoulder as he went.
‘I’ll always live in Old Fossa, just like Pa did, even when I’m rich enough to own four boats,’ the youth declared fervently.
‘Then don’t marry for beauty alone,’ his companion replied.