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DARK IS THE MOON

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 1999.

  1. The Storm

Dark Is The Moon

An untuned horn moaned the midnight hour. Maigraith tossed in her steamy bed, her skin on fire with prickly heat. The humid air sweated beads of moisture onto every surface.   Two sweltering days had passed, two hot and sticky Thurkad nights since Faelamor had passed through the gate, disguised as Vartila, and one since Yggur followed her. Neither had returned.

The storm began with a sudden shrieking gust of wind that rattled the windows of Yggur’s fortress, an ancient structure whose black stonework brooded over the skyline of the city. The wind withdrew; for a moment there was silence. Without warning a flash of white lightning lit up Maigraith’s room as stark and bright as midday. A shattering roar of thunder followed. The calm that sighed into the sound vacuum was eerie.

Leaping out of bed Maigraith ran to a window. A storm was approaching the like of which she had never seen. Bolt after bolt of lightning jagged down, the flashes moving slowly along the hills from the west end to the east. Thunder beat against the great building — measured beats. See what is coming to Thurkad, the pulses said to her. Fear it!

No longer could she bear her confining room with its stifling heat and prison-cell windows. The storm called her out. Maigraith flung on a gown, donned glasses that concealed the colour of her eyes and ran up the stairs to the tower at the eastern end of the fortress. There, protected by a dome standing on six squat columns of soot-stained stone, she leaned on the marble rail and peered out.

A fitful moon shone through tormented clouds that belched up into towers of black and cream, illuminated from within by lightning that lit up the whole of the city. The billowing stacks were just as quickly rent apart again. Clouds racing nowhere, everywhere! Her scalp began to crawl. The storm was swirling towards one place: the centre of Thurkad, Yggur’s fortress, the tower in which she stood.

The wind flung itself at the tower from the north, then the east, then the south, one minute dying to a whisper so that the humidity choked her, the next screaming at her from the opposite direction. Maigraith had to twine her fingers in the twisted iron below the rail to avoid being blown out into the night. Slates torn from the roofs were whirled across the sky like papers before the wind. Chimneys began to topple all around, their long flat bricks streaming onto the close-packed roofs. Now whole roofs were torn up, slates, battens and all, and driven across the city flapping like paper birds. Like paper birds they were crumpled by the gale and tossed into the harbour.

Clouds shut out the moon. It grew calm. An uncanny dark descended, broken every few seconds by a diffuse incandescence, the internal lightning revealing each thunderhead’s milky intestines. But the thunder was muffled now, hiding something.

A scrap of paper spiralled up toward the top of the dome, though there was no wind. Maigraith could feel her hair being drawn up too, glowing and crackling.

From the angry clouds above came a pulse of light, so close that she could feel the heat. Now a double pulse, blinding, blending into a third, the city cast in black and white as if made of lead and plaster. Lightning arched down all around, making an umbrella of light over the tower. The wind shrieked again, wrenching a copper sheet off the dome. Twisted into a knot, it drifted away out of sight. A massive bolt struck the roof, sending sparks and glowing droplets of copper in all directions. The thunder became a cacophony, a roaring, thundering, smashing brutality. Maigraith was lifted and flung into the floor, wrenching her knee. She lay there for a long moment, afraid to look.

A hot metal stench blew across her face. Opening her eyes, Maigraith saw a river of molten copper running across the floor, dividing into two streams to surround her. As she sprang up her knee collapsed and she had to hop to safety. A fire was burning in fallen timber on the far side of the space. More than half the leaves of the dome were gone, leaving her vantage open to the blistered sky.

At the top of the stair a crowd of people stood. Even before the lightning flashed she knew that they were Whelm. They had not all broken their oath to Yggur; near half had remained behind when the others rebelled and, as Ghâshâd, turned Shazmak into bloody ruin. Why did they stay faithful to a master that they held in contempt? She did not know. Why had Yggur kept them after the rest had turned their coats? She had no idea of that either. Now they went down on their knees and their thin arms reached out and up. But to what?

The first fat drops wobbled down, then the air was thick with rain, teeming down so heavily that within minutes the floor was awash, dammed by rubble and timber in the doorway. As the lightning flashed behind her the air became alive with rainbow colours. Forward her gaze went, to where the remaining leaves of the cupola had been wrenched up to form an arching hood that swayed in the wind. A waterfall cascaded off it.

Lightning struck again with a simultaneous battering of thunder. She hardly heard it, her ears still ringing from the previous blast. The flash burned her eyes. Maigraith was saturated, the drops flung so hard that they stung her scalp, her arms, her bare feet. She was cold as well, for her only garment was the thinnest of shifts.. Every hair on her body stood erect with an icy dread. Shivers began at the top of her head and slowly pulsed their way down her back. She rubbed her eyes; opened them.

Sight slowly returned. Standing massive and terrible before her, beneath that hood so that no rain fell on him, though it smoked about his black-booted, wide-spread legs; dark-bearded; dark mane rippling behind, arms folded across his massive chest, sparks of carmine in his indigo eyes, a look of wild exultation on his face, stood a man that she knew at once — Rulke!

Maigraith was paralysed with terror and longing. He was free! This was the moment that Santhenar had dreaded for a thousand years. Tensor had failed, and Yggur too. Rulke was here, proud and terrible. Her fear of him was as black as hatred, for so she had been brought up. Yet she was drawn to him too. Surely he was not plagued by the doubts that paralysed her. What could it mean, his presence here? Had he broken his enemies already? If so, where did her duty lie now? Always a follower, she was not used to such thinking.

From the Whelm came a groan of ecstasy and a young woman broke free. Going down on her knees in the water, she threw out her arms toward Rulke. At the same time Maigraith caught sight of a movement on the other side of the space. A lean, hatchet-nosed figure squatted there as well, watching. It was Vartila, and she had her mouth open, staring at Rulke not in adulation, as the other Whelm did, but in puzzlement. As if she could not understand why he had such a hold over them.

The Whelm gave forth a low, ululating cry. Maigraith knew what was going to happen. They would swear allegiance to Rulke, become his Ghâshâd just as the other Whelm had done last winter.

Rulke turned towards them and spoke in power and majesty. The lightning flashed behind his back, swelling him to the size of his shadow.

‘Faithful ones,’ his voice boomed above the thunder. ‘Know that Rulke prizes loyalty above all other virtues. Soon you will have your reward. None has earned it by harder labour, or longer* service.’

That is a lie, thought Maigraith, shivering. The Great Betrayer, the world calls you. The most treacherous man ever to walk Santhenar. Yet everything about him was magnificent — the powerful body, the intelligent eyes, the sensuous mouth, the confidence that oozed out of him. She could not believe ill of him.

He stretched out his arms like a father to his children, and his voice was nectar. ‘Come to me, my Ghâshâd. I have been prisoner for a thousand years. There is much I need to know, and so little time. Tell me about my enemies.’

They gathered around Rulke like the petals of a flower, speaking around the circle one after another, never interrupting. Maigraith could see their dark eyes shining, the pupils contracted to vertical black slits. After a long time the petals unwound to form a ring around him.

‘One more service you must do me,’ he said, and now his voice was hoarse, the strain telling on him. To Maigraith it was a sign of his humanity.

‘Name it, master!’ cried an extremely gaunt Whelm with oily grey, shifting eyes and one shoulder hanging lower than the other. ‘My name is Japhit. Command me!’

‘Go forth, Japhit, make a show of my strength. Show the power of Rulke to all Meldorin. Let none doubt who is master now.’

‘We will do it!’ said Japhit. His voice was a gritty rasp, the sound of a saw grinding against sandstone. ‘And Thurkad?’

Rulke frowned. ‘Thurkad?’

‘Yggur has disappeared; the people are rebellious.’

‘Then restore order!’ cried Rulke, his voice cracking. ‘Bring the Ghâshâd forth from Shazmak. My warrant I give to you, none other. Do not fail me!’

Japhit seemed to glow. ‘I will not fail, master,’ he said, his scratchy voice pale beside Rulke’s. ‘You have done me honour.’

Rulke began to fade. ‘Master!’ shouted the young woman Maigraith had noticed earlier. She was trembling with emotion, with yearning for her master. Her black hair was hacked into ragged clumps, yet she was an appealing woman, as Whelm go.

Rulke did not see her. He was barely more than a luminous outline now. ‘Master!’ she screamed. Desperate to be noticed, she thrust out her breasts at him. Parting grey lips, she moaned deep in her throat.

As if he would want you, Maigraith thought, and knew at once how mean that thought was, and how true.

Rulke reappeared but the exultation was gone; now he was weary and imperious. He stared at the woman. ‘Why do you call me back? I have many burdens and little time left. Do as you are commanded!’

‘Master, my name is Yetchah,’ she cried, wringing her thin hands. Looking frantically around, her eyes settled on Maigraith. ‘This one has power, lord. What shall we do with her?’

Rulke peered through the misty dark towards Maigraith’s hide. He saw a slender woman with rich brown hair, skin as smooth as honey dripping from a comb, a long beautiful face, though often downcast, and the most remarkable eyes in the world. They could be indigo or carmine, or both, depending on her mood and on the light. But the world feared her eyes, and she had been taught to hide the colour with special glasses.

Maigraith crouched down in the rain, water streaming down her face. She did not want him to see her like this. Sodden, downcast, she knew she looked a dispirited lump. And Maigraith, a modest woman, was conscious that her wet shift concealed nothing.

He strode toward her and cold vapour smoked where each boot touched. Examining her from head to toe, he put his hand beneath her chin and drew her to her feet. His hand was hot though the touch was as light as gossamer. He was hardly there, she realised. A breeze glued the shift to her breasts and belly. His scrutiny was unbearable, but she would not be dominated by him; by anyone. She threw back her shoulders, tossed her head and met him eye to eye.

Rulke seemed shocked by her courage. Then a smile broke across his achingly handsome face. ‘Who are you?’ he rumbled.

‘I am Maigraith,’ she replied. ‘I was Faelamor’s lieutenant once.’

‘You lowered yourself,’ he said enigmatically. ‘There is something about you—’ He stooped to pluck off her glasses, to look into her eyes. His palms and fingers were cruelly burnt and blistered. She felt his pain. As he touched the glasses his hand shook and he faded to transparency.

‘The spell fails already,’ Rulke said to himself. With an effort he reappeared.   He gave a chilly laugh. ‘No time! Do not harm her,’ he said to Japhit. ‘Hold her until I return. Protect her with your lives.’

‘We will, master!’ they cried as one, even a flush-faced Yetchah. Maigraith did not like the look in her eye.

Rulke raised his arms, gazed back at Maigraith, hesitated, then he was gone in a clap of thunder and the rain teemed down once more.

The Whelm were all staring at her. Maigraith did not move. She was seized by such powerful emotions that momentarily she could not care whether they saw her naked or not. The terror of Rulke, and the longing, was a thousand times greater now.

Japhit stared raptly after Rulke, as if a great truth had been revealed. Finally he moved, his jerky gait hardly noticeable.

‘The master ordered us to display his strength,’ he rasped. ‘Go forth now and do so. Drive Yggur’s soldiers from this fortress! Turn his armies on one another. Bring chaos out of order. Take word to our brethren in Shazmak too.   Know that we are Whelm no longer. Henceforth we go back to our first name — Ghâshâd! And Ghâshâd, know one further thing…’

As Maigraith edged past he seized her by the wrist and held up her arm. ‘Rulke has put his sign on Maigraith. Treat her with courtesy; guard and protect her with your lives. She may do what she wishes, but she may not leave the fortress.’

Vartila led Maigraith below to Yggur’s apartments. There she lingered by Maigraith’s side, picking up things and putting them down again, as if she wanted to speak but could not find the words. Finally the agony burst out.

‘I don’t remember him!’

‘I beg your pardon?’ said Maigraith with disinterested politeness.

‘Did you see how they all cried him master? Was he our master once? How majestic he was! My breast aches for him. To serve such a master I would be completed at last.’

‘Then go and serve him,’ said Maigraith irritably, desperate to be alone, hating Vartila intruding on this place, her only sanctuary in a pitiless world. She was alien, impossible to understand.

‘You don’t know what it is like to be Whelm,’ Vartila replied furiously. She must have been in anguish to display her feelings so — and to an enemy. She had tormented Maigraith in Fiz Gorgo and Maigraith had never forgotten it. ‘Service is everything to us. Life and death and love, meat and blood. Only one way can I break our vow of service to Yggur — by finding that a previous oath to Rulke still holds.’ Tears dripped from her sunken eye pouches, but in her anguish even this shame she was oblivious to. ‘And I know it does. I know in my heart that he is the one.’ Her voice rose until it became a wail. ‘But I don’t remember him! I am blind to my master.’

‘Are you age old?’ Maigraith wondered.

‘I am thirty-seven, but that is irrelevant. Our oath has the force of a thousand years. My very bones should remember that my forefathers swore it.’

What devotion the Whelm must have, thought Maigraith, to have waited for him all these centuries — dying, being born, growing old and dying in their turn, and yet cleaving to their duty to a master that none of this generation, or the past forty generations, had ever seen.

‘And the way he looked at you,’ Vartila continued. ‘You of all people! It burns me. He can never be your master.’

‘No man can be my master,’ said Maigraith, and all at once she felt weak at the knees and had to sit down. ‘No woman either, evermore.’

‘Then guard yourself well,’ said Vartila, ‘for I remain Whelm and serve Yggur, but most of my fellows are Ghâshâd now. Rulke has put his mark on you; they will never let you go!’ She wiped her eyes and stalked out.

*

Maigraith felt so alone, trapped in the old fortress with her Ghâshâd guard, dreadful enemies of the Aachim. Her enemies too.

Her room felt like a prison cell, but whenever she went out, a scowling Yetchah peeled away from the door to follow. Is this what my life is to be like? Maigraith thought. To be shadowed wherever I go, cocooned as a prize for their master? I will not endure that.

She pressed her nose to one of the small window panes, gazing at the unchained moon. It was nearly full tonight, and showing only the yellow side. The rugged terrain of the other side was blotched red and black, between which were seas coloured a violent purple. The moon’s turgid rotation brought the dark side round roughly every two lunar cycles, though thankfully that only occasionally coincided with a full moon. The dark side was an ill-omen, but a dark full moon was a disastrous portent.

Each day and each hour and each fragment of an hour stretched out eternally. And for the few who had remained Whelm too, in their uneasy coexistence with the Ghâshâd. She could see it in their faces. They stalked the corridors of the fortress like hyenas, skittish as if they stood to rise or fall on what was happening far away. They too were come to crisis. And Vartila was more tense than any, going back and forth on her long shanks, her robes rasping together, her sandals slapping on the flags. Her skin seemed greyer than ever, her dog teeth sharper and longer, her face harder than agate.

With the Ghâshâd patrolling outside, Maigraith was reminded of Fiz Gorgo and her previous imprisonment, of Faelamor and her earlier life. Life was a prison: whether of the flesh or the spirit, it hardly mattered. She had not a friend in the world. Karan had offered friendship and Maigraith had rejected her. Maigraith often thought about Karan, about how badly she’d treated her, and what Karan had suffered because if it. Whatever had happened to her? I failed her, not least in Thurkad when she tried to give me the Mirror and I refused it. How arrogantly I forced her to pay back her obligation to me, and yet I ignored my duty to her. I forced her, for a handful of silver.

That thought was followed by a shocking realisation — but Karan was never paid! Maigraith blushed, breast and throat and face in scarlet mortification. That she had so lectured Karan on duty, honour and obligation, and so failed in her own. I see my failures everywhere. I must put it right. I will!

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