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From The Devil in the Dust

Not the first, Marron knelt in the Chamber of the King's Eye and thought, What need Ascariel? Why had his father, had so many fathers fought and died to win possession of that golden city, that dream of priests and kings, when it seemed that they had it all already? When the dream and the deaths and the very Mount itself could be contained within a bare room rock-hewn and chilly, where the walls sweated sour-tasting water and it needed only a single plaited candle and the words of a fat and sour-sweating brother to bring forth miracles?

The thought, of course, was heresy. It should be confessed, and due penance paid. But Marron was fresh come from far away, gentler country where he'd seen no more true magic than the seasons' changes, the hand of blessing laid upon the land. Here his mind was dizzy with wonder, and it was from that unaccustomed whirling strangeness in his head that the words and the idea - what need Ascariel? - had been flung up, all unintended. He thought both souls of the God would understand him.

Besides, his troop had burned a village for heresy only the day before, and he was afraid of his confessor.

It had seemed like a celebration, he remembered thinking even at the time, in the heat and the hard light and the hurry, hurry urgency of it all. Not the human arm of the God's justice wielded, but only something done in madness to mark the end of a long march and their new home almost in sight now, very much on their minds. They'd been too many days in the saddle, a storm had forced them ashore too soon; days and days of eating tack and sleeping on dusty earth and riding, riding. The sun savage above the alien hills, their bodies baked as dry as the road they followed, vows resurgent in their minds and untried steel impatient at their backs, seeming as hot and as thirsty as they were themselves.

And Fra' Piet had led them away from the road one morning, promising them the castle by tomorrow sunset and the God's work now; and they had followed a track high into the hills till they came at the bright dead of the day to close-shuttered huts with domed roofs and ragged mud-mortared walls, two dozen such and a well, and a temple of dressed stone at the heart of the village. And the heresy was there, clear to be seen on a weathered board above the temple's door: the Blinded Eyes, the double loop that was the sign of the God Divided but the hollow spaces filled as though to say His unremittingly-watchful eyes were closed, for now and always. Fra' Piet had warned them of worse in these hills, of the sign painted with a fringe of lashes below, to say that the God slept; but that was deliberate defiance, a sign of Catari revolt. This, these blank circles were something entirely other.

The Heresy of Korash: that the God moved indeed on His doubled path but that He gave no heed to mortal men, that He cared not a whit for their deeds on the earth. Though Korash had been redeemed by fire and his bones crushed to powder two hundred years ago, he still had his adherents, here particularly, in these hills long lost to the voice of the true church. So they had been told, Marron and his new-sworn brothers, and so it had proved.

They had ridden into that hilltop village, three dozen men with the ache of their weary road still on them, hungry for more than food. Fra' Piet's disfigured hands had swung the axe that smashed that sacrilegious sign, it had been his hoarse voice that called down fire and steel and his own weapon again that hacked the black-robed priest on the temple steps. After that, though, he had only sat his horse and watched. It had been a test, Marron thought later, or a challenge. Perhaps a baptism.

One half of a baptism, he thought now, the opening rite. This was the completion, here under the castle, a gift of marvel from the King's Eye.

They had been mad that day, young men crazed by the sun, drawn and deadly. They had screamed, he remembered, louder than the women and the children both; now they were mute, transfixed. In themselves emblems of the God, turning and turning, each one a traveller on two paths: to the savage, to the serene. Looping always to the centre, to the Godhead, and always passing through.

Not an hour had passed since their arrival. They'd ridden up the precipitous hill and through the gate of the massive castle, up the broad shallow steps and the long covered ramp that followed, as weary as their horses and stained with more than travel now. In the courtyard by the inner moat, their packs and mounts had been taken from them by thin black-haired boys, Sharai slaves, someone had said; and without even the chance to change their habits or rinse the caked dust from their skins they had been ordered to silence although they were silent already, and led up another ramp too narrow for horses and so into the castle proper. Then down: down and down they had come, soon confused by the winding stairs and the ill-lit passages, shivering in the sudden chill and the uncertainty.

At last a door, cedarwood bound with iron; and beyond that, this. Nothing like the great halls and pillared spaces they'd heard of and not yet seen, caught like bubbles of air within the mass of rock and stone above their heads. A troop of men made this small chamber crowded. Where they knelt in a rough circle, each brother's legs and shoulders brushed his neighbours' on either side, but the touch of another human was nothing but relief here. Even the smell of his brothers' bodies and his own too long unwashed, the rank heavy odour of woollen habits damp with sweat, even those gave Marron something to cling to, something to root him to the known world in a place of wonder and terror strangely mixed.

What is this? was the question they must all have been asking silently as they had filed in behind the brother with the torch. None had spoken it aloud, but Marron had seen it in their eyes as they'd glanced at each other and at the crudely rounded walls and the uneven floor, as some few of them had reached to touch damp rock and carry the wetness on their fingers to dusty lips. He had done that himself, and then had wanted to spit, had swallowed instead though his mouth had twisted at the rancid taste of it.

The brother with the torch, Fra' Tumis had gestured them into a circle and then onto their knees, his heavy-jowled face frowning with suspicion as his narrow eyes had flickered around watching for any semblance of disobedience. Denied that, he did finally speak himself, though only to say, "This is the Chamber of the King's Eye," which told them nothing. Then he went to the only furniture in the chamber, an iron tripod holding a four-wicked candle, two white and two black tapers plaited and twisted into a single column.

He lit the wicks from his torch before handing that across the kneeling circle to Fra' Piet, who had carried it outside and closed the door behind him.

Somehow the click of the latch set a shiver to run down Marron's spine, nothing to do with cold or rank wet air. Fra' Piet scared him, to be sure; but it was a fear born of knowledge and witness, many weeks in the man's company and one frantic hour caught in his madness, when they'd been brought by him into the pitiless possession of the God.

That fear Marron could understand and deal with. It was good sense, to be afraid of Fra' Piet.

This was different. Here he was ignorant and bewildered and his brothers the same, strangers both to the land and to the life. Only a few short months since, they had been yeomen or artisans or peasants in another world. Fra' Piet was their bridge from that to this. He was their mentor, albeit harsh in his demands and obsessive in his duties; he was a rock in an ocean, craggy and dangerous and sure. And he had left them suddenly in the hands of an unknown, in this bare hand-hewn cave of a chamber, and Fra' Tumis seemed bored or contemptuous or both but not at all fearful and yet Marron was fearful of him, or of what he meant to do.

What Fra' Tumis meant was a mystery; what he did had been hard enough to see, in the moving shadows of the candle's light. Harder still after he'd glared around the circle and stabbed one hand sharply downward, redirecting their nervous, curious stares to laps or folded hands or the dark damp stone they knelt on.

Marron had lowered his head obediently, but no will of his or any other's could have stopped his eyes from spying, as best they could. It seemed to him, in what bare glimpses he dared risk, that Fra' Tumis held his hands above the bending flames of the candle, to cup the light within his fingers; it had seemed as if that pudgy flesh went too close, there should have been a smell of singeing and a yelp of pain.

But Tumis had chanted softly, and his voice at least was sweet. The words, the language Marron didn't know. Nor did he know how there could have been more light suddenly in the chamber and not less, when Tumis' hands guarded the candle so nearly. Light there was, though, fierce white light that made him squint, that had drawn hisses of breath from all around the circle, that made his neighbour - Aldo, for the love of your skin, be still! - grunt and draw his hood up over his head, to shade dazzled eyes within it.

Light, they had been taught, is the chief token of the God's even-handedness, that we walk half our time in the sun and half in darkness. It is His gift to us, that we may see our way to virtue; it is also an instrument of His justice, that others may see our sin.

This was light as Marron had never known it, though, light they had made no space for in his theology. This light drew lines of gold and fire in the air, and not only Aldo was moving now. Men were making the sign of the God against their brows, more in superstition than in prayer, Marron thought; but he gave them only a glance, only a moment before his eyes and his mind were gripped again.

This hard light came, it seemed, from the candle: flames rose above it like glass, like white-hot rods of glass, so rigid and so still. The walls of the chamber were in shadow, though Tumis had snatched his hands away now; Tumis also stood in shadow, though he stood only a pace back from the candle. Fragile and strong as skeins of silk drawn taut, all the light there was struck down to the heart of the brothers' circle, and there it showed them wonders.

You will see miracles, they had been told before ever they set out for the Sanctuary Land, you will see miracles and monsters; be prepared.

But how could they ever have prepared their minds for this?

"This is the King's Eye," Fra' Tumis intoned, against their staring, straining silence. "It is the God's benediction upon the king, that he may watch over all this land in the God's name, to guard the borders from the God's enemies and the heartlands from heresy. It is the king's kindness to his subjects, that he gives this blessing also to the Church Militant, that we may serve the better."

Was this kindness? Marron was unsure. He sweated cold in that cold place, his fingers trembled with the beat of his blood, this was the second time in two days that he had been stricken to the core of him and the blade in his heart was not more than half of wonder. The rest was sheer terror.

The light drew lines like golden wires, and planes like sheets of gold. It drew walls and domes and minarets; it built a palace or a temple in miniature, like a princess's golden toy only that this toy burned his eyes, its making burned his mind like a brand, and it lay still in the air a hand's span above the floor.

"This is the Dir'al Shahan in Ascariel," said Tumis, "that was their greatest temple when the Ekhed governed the city. It would have been destroyed," it should have been destroyed his voice seemed to say, "when the God gave us victory there; but the King decreed otherwise, and took it for his own. Now it is his palace, and the seat of his power."

And it turned in the air and seemed to move further off, from all sides at once; and as it moved so other buildings flowed into the light, and streets, and vast gardens on steep slopes and a river below, and...

"This is Ascariel," said Tumis, when all the city on its high hill was before them, gleaming golden in that foetid air; and Marron thought, What need the real world, then, what needed all those deaths?

The Devil in the Dust

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© Chaz Brenchley, 2004, 2008, 2022.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.