Fall of Light (Excerpt)
STEPPING OUT FROM THE TENT, RENARR FACED THE BRIGHT morning light, and did not blink. Behind her, on the other side of the canvas wall, the men and women were rising from their furs, voicing bitter complaints at the damp chill, snapping at the children to hurry with the hot, spiced wine. Within the tent, the air had been thick with the fug of lovemaking, the rank sweat of the soldiers now gone, the metallic bite of the oils with which the soldiers honed weapons and worked to keep leather supple, the breaths of drunkards and the faint undercurrent of vomit. But out here those smells were quickly swept away, clearing her head as she watched the camp stir awake.
Bantam Press (UK)
Tor Books (US)
She took coin no different from the other whores, although she did not need it. She made her false moans and moved beneath a man like a woman both eager and hungry, and when they shuddered, emptying their hoards into her and becoming weak and childlike, she held them as would a mother. In every way, then, she was the same as the others. Yet they kept her apart, forever pushed away from their close company. She was the adopted daughter of Lord Urusander, after all, Legion Commander and reluctant holder of the title of Father Light, and this was a privilege worthy of dreams, and if flower petals were scattered in her wake, they were the colour of blood. She had no friends. She had no followers. The company she kept had all the warmth of a murder of crows.
There was frost silvering the tufts of grass between the tents and the ground was frozen hard underfoot. The smoke rising from the cookfires did not rise far, drifting like confusion about the heads of the soldiers as they readied their gear.
She could see, in their agitated gestures, in the nerves betrayed by fumbling at buckles and the like, and could hear, in the surly tones of their conversations, that many now believed that this would be the day. A battle was coming, marking the beginning of the civil war. If she turned to her left, and could make her vision cut through the hillside to the northeast, through the unlit tumble of stone and earth and root and then out again into the morning light, she would see the camp of the Wardens, a camp little different from this one, barring these snow-burnished skins and hair now the hue of spun gold. And in that other camp’s centre, on a standard rising from the command tent, she would make out the heraldry of Lord Ilgast Rend.
The day felt reluctant, but in an ironic way, like a woman feigning resistance on her first night, with rough hands pushing her thighs apart, the air then filling with its share of harsh breaths, ecstatic moans and clumsy grunts. And when it was all done with, amidst deep pools of satisfied heat, there would be blood on the grass.
Just so. And as Hunn Raal would say, had he the wits, justice is a sharp-edged thing and today it will be unsheathed, and wielded with a firm hand. The reluctance is an illusion, and as only Osserc knows, my resistance was indeed feigned, the day Urusander’s son took me to rough bed. We are awash in lies.
Of course, it was equally likely that Lord Urusander would defy this seemingly inevitable destiny. Bind the woman’s legs together, securing a chastity belt with thorns on both sides, to refuse satisfaction from either direction. He might well ruin things for everyone.
So, in its more prosaic details—the frost, the faint but icy wind, the plumes of breath and smoke, the distant neighing of horses and the occasional bray of a pack-mule; all the sounds of a day’s dawning in the company of men, women, children and beasts—she could, if unmindful, believe the stream of life to be unbroken, with all its promise arrayed before it, bright as the morning sun.
She drew her cloak about her rounded shoulders, and set out through the camp. She passed between tent rows, stepping carefully to avoid the ropes and stakes, taking caution on the furrows that cut diagonally across her path, and the stubble left behind by the harvesting only a week past. She skirted the trenches carved deep into the soil where wastes floated on the sluggish surface of murky water, along with the bloated carcasses of rats. By mid-afternoon, when the sun warmed the air enough, mosquitoes would arrive in thick, spinning clouds, thirsty for blood. If soldiers stood arrayed in ranks, facing the enemy, there would be little comfort preceding the clash of weapons.
Though her mother had been a captain in the Legion, Renarr had little sense of the makings and leavings of war. For her, it was a force that had, until now, been locked in her past: a realm of sudden absences, hollow with losses and ill luck, where even sorrow felt cool to the touch. It was a place somewhere else, and to give it any thought was to feel as if she was stealing a stranger’s memories. The veterans she took to her furs had known that realm, and each night, as the prospect of battle drew closer, she sensed in them a vague weariness, a kind of fatalism, dulling their eyes and stealing away what few words they were inclined to utter. And when they made love, it seemed an act of shame.
My mother died on a field of battle. She woke to a morning like this one, settling bleak eyes upon what the day would bring. Did she taste her death on the air? Did she see a vision of her rotting corpse, there in her own shadow? And would she have known, by sight, the weapon that would cut her down—a blinding flash drawing closer through the press? Did she look into the glaring eyes of her slayer, and see in them her death writ plain?
Or was she no different, on that morning, from every other fool in her company?