13 September 2008

The Flint Lord: first chapter

Fodich felt his fingers move. He touched the hard spikes of gorse. He closed his hand and made it bleed.
    He was alive.
    He was cold.
    Needles of rain hurt his back where the flesh was open, rain in the wind like the soldier spikes in his palm.
    Fodich was hallucinating. They had nearly killed him, tied him to a ladder and rendered him useless, and thrown him away to die. Night had come, yet in his head it was still morning and he was at the ladder. That first moment had not ended. All day it had been with him, receding, coming back, filling his mind. In his mind he was still hanging by his forearms, and it was as if he had lived no other life but this, known no sensation but pain, seen nothing but the wooden rung before his eyes. The whole of his existence had become this silent, dreaming agony after the lash. He luxuriated, spread his wings, drifted in the mist, and heard his screams as at a distance.
    Far above him, Brennis Gehan Fifth came to the window. He pushed aside the shutter, opening it into the wind, and looked down into the outer enclosure of the fort, beyond the spiked top of the inner palisade which surrounded his own residence.
    He tapped his fingernails on the rough wooden sill. At the new year, a month away, he would be thirty, but he looked older: a man of middle height, strongly made, his blond hair left uncut since the summer. Where his beard ended, flecked dark and light, the form of his cheekbone angled into a plane which changed shape as he opened his mouth and revealed his teeth. But he did not smile. As he stood watching, dressed in sealskin and lynx, the soft leather of his tunic flapping at his neck, only his eyes showed that thoughts were passing. His eyes were luminous, clear, and grey; and they saw everything that was happening below.
    A slave was being punished. He was the source of the screaming that had brought Gehan to the window. The man, stocky, in his early thirties, had been tied to a ladder leant against one of the workshops. Two overseers were flogging him, watched by an ordered crowd of two or three hundred people: men, women, children, dressed in animal skins and tatters, none properly clad against the blusters of rain-bearing wind driving in from the marshes and the sea. They were slaves, and they had been brought to watch. Many of the men were still grimed with the chalky soil of the mines.
    The slave had been stripped to the knees. His back was being flayed. With each new blow he writhed as if he would break the ladder, only to sag in the moment before the next stripe was made.
    Brennis Gehan, the fifth Lord of Valdoe, studied the progress of the punishment with a detached interest. He observed particularly the reactions of the other slaves: those who were watching, mulishly or in sympathy; those who had turned away; the faces of the children.
    A girl’s voice came from the chamber behind him. “What is it?”
    “Nothing to worry about.”
    She came and joined her brother. She was eight years younger, with waist-length blonde hair tied at the neck. In texture her hair was like his, but it was paler, and in the regularity of her features could be discerned a resemblance, of attitude rather than shape: her eyes were bluer, her mouth softer, her brow more sensitive; but, unlike her brother, she had allowed her face to remain expressive and alive. He was intellect; she was emotion. She drew her furs to her chin and watched without speaking.
    A heavy man in sheepskins was supervising the punishment, arms folded. From time to time some of his words reached the window.
    “… see Fodich now. He did not even reach the trees … away from the hill … and the hounds … let this serve you all …”
    The girl shuddered.
    Gehan turned. “Do you like to watch it, Ika?”
    “Who is the man?”
    “Just a slave.”
    “Why is he being beaten?”
    “The overseers say he tried to escape.”
    “And did he?”
    “He will not work. In the mines he causes only trouble. It is salutary to the others to provide an escapee now and then.”
    A more active light entered Ika’s eyes as the man’s screams ended and he hung limply at his bonds, unconscious and bleeding. She took her brother’s arm. Her fingers felt the strength under his sleeve and moved among the sensual warmth of the lynx fur there. Something flickered about her lips, almost pleasure, perverse and incomprehensible: the overseers were not stopping. Each by turn, the two men with whips continued to step forward. The sound of it was the only sound above the wind.
    “Look,” she said. “They’re beating him to death.”
    “It is cold here, Ika. Let us go back inside.”
    The Trundleman noticed the shutter closing. Under his breath he began to count the blows, almost as if its closing had been a cue, a sign of the all-seeing approval of Lord Brennis, as if the remaining supervision could be delegated now that the chief effect had been secured. The Trundleman understood. The beating needed to be severe to have any purpose. Fodich had turned out lazy and, worse, uncooperative. The overseers had tried to make his life easier. They had given him warnings, repeated warnings which no sane man would have disregarded. Yet still he had refused to work. And then, one afternoon a week previously, he had threatened to be violent.
    … Nine, ten …
    “That’s enough,” the Trundleman said.
    They cut him down and threw a bucket of water over his back. It made him cry out. Whimpering, he tried to crawl away.
    The Trundleman bent at the waist and with hands on knees examined the slave’s wounds. Fodich’s hair was gripped and he tried to see the face looking into his own. He tightened his grasp on the soldier spikes. His mouth was open against the ground. In his hallucination a whole day had passed, a morning and afternoon, reduced to nothing. In his crawling downhill he had forced his head sideways: there was no Trundleman’s face to see.
    “Take him to the hill.”
    They carried him from the fort. He was not worth keeping &endash; it would take too long to make him better, and even then he would not be able to work as they wanted &endash; and it was unlucky for him to die inside the fort. He was a savage, a wild man: better that his spirit should be released in the open. Two soldiers in leather tunics took his wrists and ankles and, with his head hanging back and his jaw open, carried him across the waste ground that once had been fields. Halfway down the hill, on a rough scarp of broken soil and brown winter grass, they stopped. This was far enough. They let him fall and turned back up the hill towards the fort.
    It was midday. Under a grey sky Fodich opened his eyes and saw the black branches of a thorn bush straining in the wind. He rolled on his stomach and fainted with pain: a hundred grass stems had torn open congealed blood.
    Some time later he was conscious again, in the afternoon. He knew he had to get out of the wind. Shelter first, always shelter. The soldiers had given him his freedom: he would not waste it. He would not die alone, an empty soul without ancestors or tribe, without a place among his people. He thought of his children and his woman. They did not even know he was still alive; they did not know he had been captured and taken to Valdoe. By now they would be at the winter camp. He knew the way there, the old routes followed by the nomads since the world began. He would be with them again soon. Was he not Fodich, a hunter, resourceful, provider of plenty?
    He raised his face and saw the gorse bushes a long way down the hill, dark green, almost black, pinstuck with yellow flowers in defiance of winter, offering shelter, making dense shambling screens of warmth. He estimated the distance he would have to crawl and did not think it could be done. If he kept still the pain reduced slowly to a constant level; otherwise it became unbearable, worse than it had been at the ladder. And to cover the rough ground of the hillside would cost him too much in movement. Each tussock would be an agony to get round. But he knew he had to do it, to find a calm place out of the wind. If he stayed in the open much longer he knew he would go to sleep and not wake up.
    He shut his eyes, just for a moment, very close to peace. At once it drew nearer, blissful and warm, enticing him down.
    No. He would not give in. He willed himself to think of the morning, of the ladder and the ragged crowd of onlookers, the overseers. They had cut him down and thrown icy water on his back. It had hurt. It had made him crawl, like an animal at first, and then like a broken man, down the hill, among the thorns and tussocks, knowing he had to want the pain to come back.
    He opened his eyes and the grass-blades were different. They had changed. He must have been moving. He must have been moving and he did not even know it. He crawled like a broken man. The Trundleman gripped his hair and looked into his face; he tried to stare back, his head forced sideways in his progress down the hill. The whole day a dream, a cry of pain, darkening to dusk as the afternoon waned.
    It was night. There was something sticky in his palms. Blood. His own blood. He squeezed the vicious spikes again. Fresh blood.
    Lie in this darkness and the pain will go away. A route passes a few miles from the hill. Tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, you will be strong enough to find it.
    With bleeding hands he dragged himself out of the wind. He listened to the noises above him, fluted spikes on shaggy branches in the wild stream of night, pelted with rain, gusting harder; he smelled dryness and an odd scent of woody green stems, and just faintly an aromatic sweetness of the small yellow flowers he had seen so long ago.
    Fodich realized he had reached the gorse bushes.

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