To Know the Dark

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ToKnowtheDarkv2

The Laws

Bolt the doors, no eyes on the Dark.

Live pure, make not a mark.

Warm the hearth, all paths lead to home.

Live for today, a restful mind.

Fair is fair, like for like.

Law is Law.


 

Bluebird

 

The Edge of the world was hurting.

Kori pressed her cheek against the smooth cool sky, close to where it arched into the ground. The noise came from deep inside the sky, below her and distant. It was an irregular pulse and thrum against her skin like the heartbeat of a struggling animal. It was a mumble, a chiff-chaff, a gnawing of tooth on bone. The hum paused then began again.

Her fingers left dark smudge marks on the blue of the sky. She brushed the sky clean with her fingertips, knocking the little grains of dirt back into the ploughed field where they belonged.

“Are you ill, Bluebird?” asked her father from a few steps away.

Kori stood and wiped the soil from her bare knees. She shook the hem of her rough dress to keep it as clean as a work dress needed to be. “The Edge is making a noise …”

Her father carried on planting seed potatoes from a sack tied around his back. His calloused hands were black on black with the soil. He kept up a steady rhythm, taking a handful of potatoes and planting them one by one. The flow and reach of it was practised and honed over long years, oiled with honest sweat.

“Always dreaming, eh? Maybe the sky will grow arms and help us plant this field.”

Kori picked up her own sack of potatoes and hoisted it over her shoulder. The rope cut into her neck, settling into the aching groove that had been building over the past turn. She found where she had left off, a furrow leading away from the edge and back down the slope towards the farmhouse. There was another turn and a half of work, she reckoned, and then the Edge field would be fully planted. And her back would be on fire with the bending and stooping.

She turned away from the grumbling sky, set her nose towards home and tried to settle into something resembling her father’s flowing movements. The dark earth sucked at her fingers.

When something worked well it had a flow, a dance, a swoop, whether it was a machine crafted by the hand of man or a natural force. A cow’s steaming breath, the dimming of the sky’s light, the caw of the bluebird singing from the stable’s gable end, the rise of pliant dough under kneading fingers. These things had a way of being that was a rightness. Just so. Even the thorn-prick of a rose had a song and flow, not that it made you feel any better when it scratched.

But when something was ill, it stuttered and grumbled and coughed. Discordant and clashing like men arguing over their ale and pushing fingers into chests with shouted words and curses. That was how the Edge felt. Its surface was as smooth as always, but the humming was grumbly, discordant.

As if on cue, the sky dimmed a notch into eight-turn. That meant two turns until Dark. Whatever was grumbling inside the Edge it wasn’t making the day any shorter or the planting any easier.

 

* * *

 

That day’s planting never made it to nine-turn. Before two more notches had past, Kori sensed a change in the wind. It was not much. A subtle shift and altering. A happening was in the offing. She stopped planting and looked up, rubbing filthy hands against a back that ached and clicked back into place.

A small group of men appeared on the path leading up to their home – too far to call out to but close enough to see. She recognised two of them – the Mayor Berhad, fat and wheezing but with sly eyes, and his cute son, Anders, a tall boy with curling blond hair and a patter of shy freckles. The Mayor leant on a soot-black wooden stick. An older man followed on behind – tall, thin and grey like an ancient stork and wearing the white and black mask of a Lawgiver.

“What does that carrion crow want at this late turn?” said her father. “Fat old windbag with soft hands.”

Kori loved it when her father grew angry like this and used the juicy insults that her mother did not like. “We had better go talk to them,” she said.

“Aye? Both of us?”

The Knowing was on her. “Yes. Both of us.”

 

* * *

 

Their small kitchen looked crowded with so many men in the room. Mayor Berhad presumptuously took her father’s seat at the head of the table, his wide backside overflowing the wooden chair. He laid his walking stick across the table as if this was his house and he was lord and master. Kori bridled a little to see dirt from the road smudging the wooden table top. She itched for a cloth to wipe it off.

The Lawgiver had taken her mother’s chair. He was the exact opposite of the Mayor. He had not a shred of fat on him, with long lanky legs and arms like a spider. A painted leather mask covered his face from chin to hairline, its blank eye holes and straight mouth covering whatever expression he wore underneath.

His eyes were predatory and intense. Kori noticed with a slight thrill that one of his ears was pierced with a highly polished fragment of bone in the shape of white wooden star. His black cloak seemed plain at first, but as she looked closer she could see detailed stitching, a fine silk lining and the merest hint of a knife hilt hidden in the folds. A badge of black circles on a white background proclaimed him to be a Lawgiver.

Anders lolled by the door, his shoulder propped against the wall. He played with a bone knife, rubbing a small stone steadily across the blade. Kori knew that the blade would not hold a keen edge for very long. Anders would be forever sharpening and testing the edge with his thumb until the motion became engrained and instinctive. The swish and scrape of stone on bone was moulding him as much as the blade.

Kori’s mother wiped her hands on an ever-present apron. “I’ll go see to the chores.”

“You can stay if you wish,” said the Mayor, his politician’s voice unctuous and untrustworthy like oiled silk. “This concerns your daughter.”

“It usually does,” said Kori’s mother sourly as she squeezed through the doorway leading from the kitchen and into their small home. The door thunked closed behind her.

Kori took her usual seat at the table. It was the last seat left vacant as if at an inquisition. Her father stood behind her, his strong hands on her shoulders. She could smell the loamy earth on his fingers, the animal tang of his sweat from a long day in the field. It felt reassuring and normal, more like home than their invaded kitchen did. Nothing could go wrong when her father had such strength.

“Is this the child?” asked the grey Lawgiver.

“It is,” said Mayor Berhad. Kori felt her father’s fingers clench a little on her shoulders.

“Hmm, I see,” said the man turning his gaze full on to Kori. “Tell me, child. The gift – is it true?”

A weariness took her. Always this. Sometimes it took them longer to say it, even if they were thinking it from the start.

Kori reached over and took the grey man’s hand in hers. He tried to snatch it away, but she was too fast. Her fingers closed over his and held him firm. His hands were surprisingly cold and as dry as parchment. Dead man’s fingers.

She did not know the how or the why of the Knowing. It was not the voice in her head which the village boys claimed she could hear. It was not pictures, nor music nor words. It was deeper than that, a well-spring of knowledge that came from her deepest darkest places. She perceived things as if she had always known them.

“You don’t want to be here,” she said, after a few moments of thought. “You despise us. Scratching a poor living out of the thin soil at the edge of the world. We are … uncivilized peasants. Necessary but not of your kind.”

“Anyone could guess that,” said the Lawgiver, but there was a hesitation in his voice that was not there before.

Kori continued, letting the knowledge tumble out of her. “Your name is … Porvi. Something has frightened you. Something that you have been afraid of for some time. A truth that you don’t want to admit. You don’t want to have to ask for a peasant’s help. A peasant should exist to do nothing more than put bread on your table. You …”

“That’s enough,” said Porvi, pulling his hand away with a gesture that was part fear and part anger.

“You don’t want more proof?” asked Kori. She could not resist that last little tease. It was often this way. Sometimes the Knowing would tell her that a horse was with foal, a living beat of young life. Or that an old maid had a dark canker growing inside her and that she would not see out the next winter. And when she said these things they would look at her with a mixture of gratitude and fearful mistrust that she should have such sight.

“It is settled then,” said the Mayor with a self-satisfied grin that matched the sour look on the other man’s thin face.

“Now wait on there. I am still master in my own home,” said Kori’s father. “She nearly died last time.”

“Which means she did not.”

The two men glared at each other. Kori could not see her father standing behind her, but she knew that his strained face and grubby clothes contrasted sharply with the Mayor’s calm pudgy expression and spotless robes. The others in the room held their breath. This was a moment which could explode into angry words or subside into mere distrust.

“She’s just a child,” said her father. “Not yet sixteen summers old.”

Kori reached over her shoulder to place one of her hands on her father’s hand. My dirty skin on yours, she thought. Dirt from the same field, blood of blood. She gave a little squeeze of reassurance. It will all be okay. Trust me.

“Law is Law. We all know I am going to help you,” Kori said, as much for her father’s benefit as anyone else’s. It was a fact that they all shared. She might as well say it.

“Bluebird, you don’t have to do this.”

They both knew that was not true. This was duty, and duty was Law. She smiled as she stroked his powerful farmer’s hand. Her father knew what was about to happen, Kori could see that. He might not have the Knowing, but like all parents he sensed when a door was opening in his child’s life, whether he liked it not. Kori so wanted to give him a big hug and tell him that it was all going to be fine. But she didn’t have the Knowing of that, and she hated to tell an untruth.

In the calmest voice she could muster, she said: “Mr Mayor, tell me what you need me to do.”

The Lawgiver Porvi spoke: “Pack for a journey. You must come with us to Freival tonight.”

Her father drew a sharp breath. “This late? You can’t mean that. It is nigh on nine-turn.”

Kori looked out at the darkening sky. The light was fading fast. She could feel her heart beating faster as she thought of the Dark to come. It was a time to shutter the windows, not a time to be setting out on the road. Bolt the doors, no eyes on the Dark. That was what the Law said. All her instincts cried out to shut out the Dark, not to start a journey into it.

If she was being entirely honest, she had a little thrill of excitement too. This was daring. It was dangerous and new. Most of all, it was an adult step away from a little farm on dry soil at the Edge of the world.

“And what is the problem that needs my Kori’s skills?”

The Mayor pursed his thick lips. “That is between us and her. We will leave behind my son as fair balance to tend your fields. Fair is fair. He’s a good worker, when you can keep him away from the cider.”

Anders bowed his head with just a hint of sourness. So that was why he was here, thought Kori. He was barter for her time. That too was Law. In a way, it was a shame that he would not be making the journey with them. He would be better company than the Mayor and his dry-stick companion.

Her mother’s return broke the tension. She placed a canvas rucksack on the table in front of Kori and draped a heavy cloak around her shoulders. Leaning close to kiss Kori’s cheek, she whispered: “Safe roads, little one.”

And with that, it was decided. Her father sagged, his chin dropping.

 

* * *

 

It was a little after nine-turn when the three of them started out on the road. The Mayor strode on ahead, his black stick rising and falling, clacking and tapping on the road. The Lawgiver hurried on behind him, all knees and elbows. A fit person could walk to Freival in a turn, provided they did not stop on the way. But it was not a journey to be attempted after nine-turn had notched. Not unless the need was strong.

Kori paused to look back. Her parents stood in the doorway, framed by the small house. Her father had his arm around her mother, who was wringing her hands nervously. Anders stood to one side, kicking at a small stone that his boots had found. Kori wanted to say something, but knew that there was nothing she could say. Words would only waste what little time they had for the journey. She gave as cheery a wave as she could manage then turned on her heel. The weight of the rucksack bumped against her shoulders and back.

The Dark was building. The sky had notched down from blue to a cooling grey with an almost apologetic breeze tickling her face. She smoothed away a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. If I had known I was going to Freival, I would have plaited it, she thought. But then the Knowing was always cunning. It showed her some things, but not everything. She knew that she had to go with these men, but she had not known that at breakfast. And she still did not know why they needed her. The Knowing chose what to show her and what to leave in shadow.

“Keep up, girl,” said the Mayor as he pushed on at a far faster pace than he would normally use. His long robes trailed in puddles, smudging the edges with brown mud.

Kori may have been tired from the day’s planting, but she could still run rings around these two old men. The Mayor was roly-poly lardy from too many lavish dinners, the old Lawgiver was so whip-thin that he could barely have any energy in him. They scuttled as best they could, and understandably so for the lateness of the turn, but their best was still easy for Kori to match. She quickened her pace and caught up with them.

The path led them through the dense apple orchards of Tenvor’s farm, their neighbours. Kori looked to see if any of the Tenvor family were abroad. She liked the children, even if old Ma Tenvor had a shrill tongue and nothing was quite good enough for her. But the fields were empty. There was only a wheelbarrow and a tangle leaning of tools hand tools. The smell of apple wood was sweetly biting on the cool evening air.

They would be safe at home, bolting doors and shuttering windows against the Dark, just as her parents would be. Just as all sensible people would be doing all over the world. The need to find shelter – to be home – was a growing hunger inside her. This late walking was utterly wrong, she knew it. It was dangerous beyond words. It was something that you simply did not do. Bolt the door, no eyes on the Dark.

Whatever the Mayor needed her for, it must be something very important. He was not a man who risked his own life lightly. And that worried Kori even more. This journey was bad enough, but what was at the other end that would force him to take such risks? What was it that could not wait one more day to make the journey in daylight? She could not see, and the not-knowing was a fear that ate away at her.

The gloom under the tree canopy was a false Dark, as the shadows started to deepen into true black. Shade puddled around the tree trunks and clustered under bushes. It teased at her fears with the age old riddle – is the darkness simply an absence of light or does it hide something that does not want to be seen? A shiver played through her. Her shoulders twitched, rolling the rucksack against her elbows and the bones of her spine.

Kori stifled the question inside her as she walked faster. She had never been out this late before. Now she realised that the orchard was a place where the Dark might come early. A place where Terrors might grow in the unlit spaces.

Before long she was leading the little group of three. She could hear the shuffle-clack shuffle-clack of the Mayor’s feet and stick behind her and the rasping wheeze of his breathing. The Lawgiver made no sound, as if he was so insubstantial that there was no room in his skinny frame for noise or breath.

The path started to rise up a short incline where the previous night’s rainfall had carved gullies of baby rivers for their feet to stumble through. Rain-pushed stones snagged at her boots as her footing slithered over the uneven ground. Kori realised with regret that she was still wearing her rough working dress. In all the rush she had not thought to put on warmer clothes to guard against the cold or smarter clothes to look her best for the cultured townsfolk of Freival. Some Knower she was turning out to be.

The path crested a rise and the trees stopped at a hard line, a boundary fence between the Tenvor’s land and the next farm along. Now the landscape was of dark-ploughed fields sloping down to the cluster of walls and roofs that was the town of Freival. The sky notched another darkening of grey as Kori paused for the two men to catch up. She had lost count of the notches, but there could not be long now until ten-turn and the fall of full Dark.

At least now they could see their destination, even if it was still a hard walk away. She knew from previous trips to the town that distance could be deceiving. Sometimes journey’s end could be on you in a twinkle, especially if your father was tricking your mind with a captivating story. At other times – say when your feet were sore or your bladder was bursting for release – the end could remain a tantalising age away.

“So … far … still …” said Porvi through laboured breaths. He fell to his knees in mud at the hill’s crest.

“It gets no closer for the grumbling,” said the Mayor. He pushed on, taking the lead for the first time in several notches. His walk was becoming more of a frantic waddle now.

Kori hitched up the straps of the rucksack and started to follow Mayor Berhad. She had a sudden desire to get ahead of him so that her view would be of Freival getting closer and not of his fat behind getting sweatier.

A pained cry behind her made her stop. She turned around to see the Lawgiver crumpled on the ground. His long thin hands held on to one ankle. He whimpered and rattled his head from side to side.

“Get up, you fool,” said the Mayor. He leant upon the stick which bowed alarmingly under his weight.

Kori rushed to take Porvi’s arm. The arm underneath his robes felt like little more than bone and sinew.

He squealed as he put the ankle to the ground, leaning heavily on Kori for support. The mask jiggled, revealing a patch of skin around his chin and cheek. Kori noticed with a jolt that the skin of his face was scarred with red burn marks that coiled and slashed. Porvi quickly pulled the mask back into place.

Kori knew at once that his ankle was broken. There was now no point in speculating about whether there was enough of nine-turn left for their journey. However much time there was it would not be enough.

“We must get him to one of the farms,” she said.

“No time,” said the Mayor. “Freival is the closest. Leave him behind.”

The words were chilling. Porvi grabbed Kori’s sleeve, looked at her with widened eyes and shook his head. He did not need to say anything for his meaning to be clear. The Terrors danced behind his frightened eyes. The grip on her sleeve intensified as if he was refusing to let go.

“Here, lean on me,” she said, putting his arm around her shoulder. For a fleeting instant, her mind conjured a parallel image of her father putting his arm around her mother, less than a turn past.

“Thank you, child, thank you!”

“You’ll never make it,” said the Mayor. His head flicked from side to side, as he looked first at the road ahead and then back at Kori and the thin man. “Come, leave him be. You and I can get there still.”

“I will not leave him,” said Kori. She could not leave him behind. It was unthinkable. Together, they formed a new walking creature with three good legs and one that was lifted high from the path. A creature that shambled and shuffled painfully rather than walked.

The Mayor kept on glancing at Freival and then back at Kori, and then at Freival again. Kori knew that he was trying to make a difficult decision, just as she knew exactly what he was going to do.

Without saying a word, the Mayor harrumphed a dismissive snort and turned his back on them. He started off for the town at a pace they simply could not match. Kori wished that she could think of a witty insult or a powerful curse to hurl after him, as he waddled away.

There was nothing left to decide or to worry about. It was just the two of them and the road, and the fast gathering gloom around them. Kori found an odd sense of peace. The fear of the Terrors was deeply ingrained in her, but so too was the need to help this man. That meant that there was no real choice and no need for fear.

They struggled on, finding an awkward three-legged rhythm of a sort, like a baby learning to walk for the first time.

It was easier not to look ahead at the town which now seemed so permanently far away. Instead she focused on the ground ahead of them. Each step was a victory, a thing to be cherished.

“Will it … be quick?” asked Porvi.

“The journey?”

“The Dark.”

Kori thought of the stories she had heard about the Dark, of the Terrors that came burrowing up from dark places. She had heard tales of some who had flirted with the edges of the Dark and lived to brag about it. Equally there were tales of folk being taken barely a notch past ten-turn.

“I can’t see. I have no Knowing.”

Another notch darkened. There could not be many left. It almost did not matter whether they missed their mark by a hair’s breadth or by an eternity, because there could be no hope of finding safety now.

“At least we won’t be alone. That is a comfort,” she said, trying to believe it. She had once before come close to death. She had found then, as she found now, that there was a calmness that took over her – an acceptance and a peace that seemed at odds with the imagined terrors of the Dark.

“Yes. I suppose.”

It was the lights she noticed first. She looked up to see a flicker of orange glinting across stones in the path. These lights puzzled her. She had thought that the Terrors would come stealthily with darkness upon darkness. No-one had said that creatures of the shadows would have pretty lights.

Then sounds up ahead. Soft snatches of noise coalesced into voices, human voices, men’s voices.

A party of men were running towards them from the direction of Freival. They held lanterns, their gleaming lights bouncing crazily as they ran. All were armed – Kori spotted longbows strung over backs, with long staves and spears held outstretched. Guardsmen of Freival.

Within moments, the men were with them. One held a lantern high to illuminate a broad smile set in an otherwise hard and worn face. His build was massive, like a wide-shouldered bull or a giant amongst men. Kori instantly knew that he was the leader of this little band.

“We’ve come to bring you to Freival, Kori of the Edge,” he said. His voice had a strange blend of compassion and command. Here was a man who could love with passion, share an ale with his companions or make war without fear. It was a man that she could trust.

“We must bring him too,” she said.

The tall guardsman leaned in close to both of them, and then lifted Porvi effortlessly onto his shoulder like a sack of grain.

“Of course,” he said, with a hint of a chuckle in his deep voice. “I didn’t think you’d come otherwise.”

 

* * *

 

They kept up a cruelly fast pace. It was not quite a run, but was faster than a walk. Kori soon found that her legs were burning.

The sky notched again, and this time it was for full Dark. The only light that Kori could see came from the lanterns – glowing fat lamps inside cages of darkened wood. These cast a ghostly pool of light around them, but beyond that pool there was nothing except complete blackness. It was as if they had created their own edge of the world – much smaller than the real one – and that nothing existed beyond it.

Except that Kori knew what was beyond the pool of light. The Terrors would be massing. The nameless and formless Terrors that raged against casement and wall, and would rip to gory ribbons anyone stupid enough to be out of doors beyond ten-turn. Bolt the doors, no eyes on the Dark – that was what the Law said. And with good reason.

“There’s time yet,” said the lead guardsman, as if reading her thoughts. The other men unshouldered bows and nocked arrows onto strings. Kori caught a glimpse of the lamplight gleaming against bone arrowheads. They seemed pitifully small against the Terrors. Could an arrow, even with a tip of the sharpest bone, harm a Terror? There was no knowing of this, but Kori felt it as an aching doubt.

And then a mass of lights up ahead, a glimpse of huge doors opening – the gates of Freival – and the walled town swallowed them in a warm embrace.

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