Mazarkis Williams: Knife Sworn

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Mazarkis Williams Knife Sworn
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    Knife Sworn
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    Английский
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Mazarkis Williams


Knife Sworn

PROLOGUE

Aldryth looked out over the sands of Cerana. There, hidden far beyond any well or waypost, waited the place where his god had died.

He sat upon a rock and pulled from his sack a crust of hard bread and an apple. He worked the crust in his mouth, sipping from a water pouch to soften it. He had come through the high passes of Mythyck and across the jagged beaches that no empire wished to claim but which claimed for themselves innumerable ships, leaving them battered and broken upon the shore. From there he had made his way through Parigol Pass, the last and loneliest place on the map to bear a name, bent against the howling wind, until at last he stood on the edge of the great desert.

Now he looked out over the vast emptiness and took a last mouthful of water before sealing the skin tight. Already sand scoured his tongue and gritted against his teeth. He saw no animals, no plants, not even insects. Here the sounds of life grew quiet and careful listening was required.

The next day he reached the sands. He sheltered from the heat in the lee of a dune, but even in the shade it seared his eyes and he wasted water by splashing them. Though his throat was raw he chanted the promises of his faith: sacrifice and love.

That night he drew the pattern for water, calling for its essence, but none came.

After three days in the desert his pace slowed as each step between the simmering dunes became a challenge. His skin blistered and peeled. His lips cracked and bled. His legs were abraded by sand. And yet he moved inexorably towards the Scar.

By the seventh day the sun had burned away his thirst, his hunger and all hesitation. Memories of the waterfalls of Mythyck, the lush valleys, the green trees and tart fruits, had dried to thin impressions and crackled from him with his skin. By day the soles of his boots crumbled into the burning sand; at night he shivered, the heat a distant memory. He kept his mind focused on Mogyrk, but it was the Scar that pulled at him, not with its power, but with its silence.

One night-he could no longer remember how many it had been-he stumbled over something, a corner of a square, flat stone inscribed with criss-crossing lines: a pattern-piece. Time and wind had submerged all but that edge. Scuffing at the sand he found others, and more besides, forming a wide arc. He felt the hum of living things, though it became confused and frayed, there and not there: the unwinding sorrows of flower and fish, tree and scorpion. I’m close now. He settled into the sand. Just some rest first. Some rest…

Flowers, red and purple, sprouted from a nearby dune. Aldryth had little time to look at them before they unwound, showing him the roots of their colour, the roads inside them by which light and water travelled, the pollen that nestled within their soft petals. Then he saw nothing but their patterns, triangles and circles floating on the wind, and soon those too were undone, until the dune lay bare and white before him.

He moved away, wanting to sleep where dreams of the Scar would not disturb him, and yet they did: patterns dissolved and drifted away across the sand, here an autumn leaf, there a drop of honey, each gone pale, drifting apart. The wound torn by the god’s death was spreading, a fraying of the fabric of existence, an unravelling, expanding in all directions as if the god’s doom had been a stone cast in the pond of the world and only now were the ripples starting to show. Sometimes Aldryth saw only blackness, and then he trembled, convinced for a moment that a void was all that existed and life was no more than a fading memory.

He began to chant his devotions, but his parched mouth ached and he found he could no longer remember the tune, its rises and breaks, the picture it drew from notes and the spaces between them. He looked at his hand and saw it complete-muscle and bone, blood and sinew-but could not remember how to make the signs for any part of it. The Scar was spreading.

Aldryth felt it in the core of himself, the Unwinding, the essence of his life coming undone, not a peeling of skin or a breaking apart of bone, but a dissolving, the falling away of component pieces for which he could no longer find the words. Now he understood. Mortals were built upon many patterns but the god had only one: a single pattern stronger than the many, one pattern to cover the world. Mogyrk. He shaped the word with his tongue that was no longer a tongue, his undone lips and his throat that for the moment before it disappeared could have shouted to wake the entire desert: Mogyrk.

CHAPTER ONE

GRADA

Thrashing churned the water, white foam, tinged brown with river mud. Grada knelt on a broad stone bedded in the shoreline, her arms elbow deep, wringing as she had wrung out the robes of the wealthy many times before.

Muscle bunched across her shoulders. Jenna had always said she was strong. Ox-strong, head-strong.

Further out the river slid past, green-brown, placid. Somewhere a widderil called out its song of three notes with all its heart.

They had come from the thickness of the pomegranate grove, two of them sticky with sweat, laying down their pruning hooks as they saw her. Both of them old enough for wives, young enough for wickedness, stripped to loincloth and sandals, white-orange blossom from the second crop clinging to their chests and arms. The men had angled Grada’s way as she walked in the shade at the margins, where trees gave way to the river road.

“Hey, girl!” The taller of the two, both of them wiry with white teeth behind their grins.

Sometimes trouble sneaks up on you, but most of the time it comes waving a flag for any with eyes to see. Jenna, she’d never had the eyes the gods gave her, blinded by too much trust she’d been. Happy though. A friend to the world, right until the day it upped and killed her.

“Where are you off to?” The second man, trouble right behind him swinging that flag.

“I’ve business downriver,” Grada had said. She backed pace by pace towards the obelisk set to mark the orchard’s boundary, some temple slab brought in from the desert. Its shadow reached out to touch her shoulders.

“Have a pomegranate.” The first man gestured back into the greenery, so lush it looked wrong, like sickness.

Had she been the one to offer fruit they neither of them would take it from her, not from an Untouchable. But they would touch her.

“Come and help yourself.” His friend. “We’ve been plucking all day.” He savoured ‘plucking’.

She stepped deeper into the shadow, wondering why they would want her. They would have wives at home, babies perhaps, girls in the Maze who might very well take their lusts for a reed-net of pomegranates.

“Don’t play games now.” The shorter one, friendly entreaties gone from his eyes, leaving them hard. An old scar across his chest caught the sunlight, a thin white line.

Both came closer, taking turns to nibble away the distance, egging each other on. Don’t play games now.

Grada’s hands went to the belt that cinched her robe. A simple length of knotted rope, slipped through a loop at one end, the final knot larger and set through with a heavy ring of iron.

“I need to be on my way. I can’t stay.” But she didn’t leave, didn’t step away from the obelisk rising behind her; that would have been foolish.

“And we need you to stay.” They brought the perfume of the trees with them, sweet and heady. The man grinned, an ugly thing that dropped away as he moved into the shadow.

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