Orlah’s Lament

Early on the second turn following my precipitous arrival, I found my brother, Orlah, standing alone atop a precipice at land’s edge. I know he hears my approach. Whatever else may lie between us now, we are Brethren after all.

I let my pace carry me to a place barely a reach from him and wait in silence for his acknowledgement. A minute passes, and then another. The concussion of breakers battering the cliff face below fills the waiting.

I wonder at the person he has become in the space since last we were together, sparring, gaming, laughing… he is now withdrawn and ominous. Dressed in his skin, save for a breechclout and harness from which his weapons are slung, the pair of sunburst scars on his back stand out in Solva’s green glow like puncturevine flowers.

Beneath us, driven by the violence of the Churn’s surge, a cannonade of waves persists without relent. I imagine I feel the rock beneath our feet shudder with each detonation. Twenty beats pass, a languid inhalation, before the next standing wall of water erupts against the escarpment and sizzles among the  crags.

Into the spray and measured pause, Orlah begins to speak. “In crèche, callow and rambunctious as we were allowed to be, even then we were being groomed to walk these Lands as the Lord of Hevn’s dire and irresistible Hammer. We were bred, trained, and armed to confront any challenge to His agency, His Law.

“His aegis gave us abilities beyond our simple natures, allowed us to cross the Colors without effect or harm—to go, in fact, anywhere. We were like gods, feared and revered, were we not? Loved by some, even.

“Bolstered by the indomitable might of those who came before us, we believed ourselves invincible as well. Look at us now, Narregan. Neither loved nor feared, discredited, beaten, outcasts…fugitives, in truth. To this we have fallen.”

His reverie stalls. His head turns just enough to cast a look askance. “Where were you?”

“That is a story for lastmeal, perhaps. Someplace dry, certainly. Not at land’s edge. What has happened to you, brother?”

He lifts his hair away from his neck, beckons me to observe his symbiote. It is devastated, its petals twisted and blackened. Its heart, an unhealthy ochre hue, quivers. Surrounding it, raw red tissue seeps a foul-looking pus. It appears a malignant coal affixed to the base of Orlah’s skull, burning there. My own symbiote reacts with shock and revulsion for the space of a beat.

Orlah shows me his face at last. I remember his eyes a sharp, sparking violet, dulled now and haunted. The anguish in his face is terrible. It is hard to hold his gaze.

“It still lives, you see,” he says, “after a fashion. Still a part of me, but disconnected from its greater self. Where once the pool of our Order’s combined experience was an activating thought away, it now keeps me in silence.”

A shudder runs through me to my boots.

“With one exception.”

A gust of spray erupts over the cliff’s edge. Orlah’s skin sluices water better than my other-world cloak. He seems oblivious to it.

“Swon’s cry in my ears as they killed her is just a memory, Narregan, and a memory’s immediacy fails with time. But not here.” He touches the ember on his neck without flinching. “Here is her last instant of life as the traitors’ bolts tore her to pieces. Not a memory. It will not be blunted by time. It is she! Always here! The sum of her last moments burned into me by this undead thing I cannot be rid of!”

He draws a shuddering breath.

“I should have died, too. I thought for a time that I had. Then, for a while, I was glad to be alive, enthusiastic to plan our retribution for this betrayal. That did not last the turn.”

We stand in silence, misted from below. I do not know what to say, but know enough to say nothing. Orlah is deep in his private misery.

“Her scream of helpless fury and pain is endless. You do not want to know what I have to do to sleep, but the LOSS of her, Narregan…” He makes a plaintive sound. “It is as immediate as an amputation and it is more than I will bear any longer. Better one merciful step now, than another turn of this torture and the promise of an unwinnable campaign—our ragged little band of renegades against the singular Force that tamed all Hevn.”

I have heard enough and into my brother’s pause I tell him, “I recognize you in there, Orlah, damaged but also able. Are you so afraid of Him you would abdicate your Oaths, abandon us, knowing this ragged little band needs your unique experience and ability?”

“Did you not hear me?”

“This Fayne did not tame all Hevn,” I remind him. “His predecessor brought the Law to the Colors. Not him. He is an administrator; the Acachi his enforcers. The First Fayne conceived the Acachi to be His Arm, His emissaries and, as necessary, His lawful Fist. As you said, brother, engineered and augmented over the course of an Age, WE were the Force that tamed all Hevn.”

“Were.”

“Even Takt-ot-sutoc sides with us. Think of that for a moment.” I brush the floret at the back of my own neck. Its petals riffle against my fingers. “This incomprehensible collective mind has understood our predicament and our purpose, and has chosen to risk its existence in support of ours.”

“That does nothing for me.”

“Tu’chah-j’toc abets us as well.”

I watch something cross Orlah’s features like a ripple of… hope would be too strong a word, but whatever momentary light shone from his eyes, a darkness I gratefully cannot fathom chases it from him.

“The legendary artifact,” he says. “Oh, Narregan, my credulous brother, always the wide-eyed innocent. You would bait me with a crèche-tale like that?”

“These circumstances, this juncture in time, and our place in it have never occurred before. The spinning shard will stop where it will and we may not prevail, but we will never have a better chance to finish this. The outcome remains…”

“…inevitable,” Orlah says with finality.

A wave explodes up the wall and rains down like a sheet. Orlah is screaming at the top of his lungs.

“None of that matters! He is T’sunghan! We are not! Wake up, you fool; we are already lost!”

“We are not lost!”

The sea inhales.

Orlah’s face is stone.

“I am lost.”

And there it is. There is nothing more to say.

He did not ken the figure approaching us as he gave voice to his despair.

Barth’s tread is familiar to me, as is the bow-wave of heat and fury that now precedes him. Regardless of any legendary status that may have been attributed to me in my absence, I am not fool enough to impede him.

Orlah pivots to meet the Warder.

Barth steps in close and bellows into his face.

“Had your own Warder witnessed your cowardice, heard your sniveling, comprehended the liability your weakness and stupidity pose to every one of us, he would have dutifully hurled you to the death you so ardently crave! Better perhaps he died without knowing the tragic waste of his effort you have become. Give me your t’sungathrah, ward, that I may see it to Soulbridge for you when you are gone.”

“Stand away from me, Barth! You bark like a dog at sounds in the distance without the least cognizance of their nature or purpose. Your noise does not move me.”

“Oh, I will move you, sloke!”

Barth’s lunge is explosive. Orlah turns with fluid grace off the line of Barth’s trajectory. I see his small blade flash from its place at his side, a thrust unerring to the old Warder’s heart. It is an outcome as natural as the cycles of the turn.

Barth sweeps the repost effortlessly aside, turning Orlah’s stroke in a lazy, harmless circle, and slams an elbow into the warrior’s throat. Driven backward, somehow managing to keep his feet under him, Orlah throws himself at the Warder in an oblique zagging charge, blade dicing.

“THAT’S the spirit, boy!”

Orlah’s edge cuts air.

The hard ridge of the Warder’s foot smashes Orlah’s breath away in a gust, loops beneath a last, vaguely motivated slash, and sweeps into the side of the warrior’s head, spinning him about like a drunkard. Orlah’s blade skitters once on stone and gone.

Bent back with a gnarled fist entwined in his hair, the tips of his toes alone anchor my brother to Hevn’s firmament. Beneath him jagged stone teeth and Havoc’s thundering breakers gnash. Barth raises his voice just enough to be heard above the din.

“You clamor for death. Have it then.”

A fractional release, a reflexive gasp.

“Or not. But choose now, or I will choose for you.”

Orlah’s lips work, but his punished airway produces only a gagging sound.

“I cannot hear you, porc’uc vomit. My ears must be failing. I am old and weak. I cannot hold you like this much longer.”

A burst of spray washes them both from soles to crown.

Orlah gags and sputters, “Life…” His voice is raw. “I will hon…,“ a gasp, “honor my oath.”

Barth is unmoved.

“Hear me then, ward; I’ll not repeat it. Your life, pathetic as it is, is now mine. I will direct how and when you may end it. Do you understand me?”

Orlah’s nod is not enough.

“Say it, ward!”

“H… ha’eh, Barth je! Ha’eh. On my honor.”

“You have none with me this-turn. It will likely take the rest of your life to restore it.”

Barth jerks Orlah away from the precipice, releasing him.

Orlah stumbles, hits his knees. His voice is a hoarse grating thing without subtlety. “I have disgraced myself, dishonored my Guardian’s memory and that of my Warder, Ybarra. I am unworthy, Barth je.”

“I find it encouraging that you have so accurately summed up your vast inadequacy.”

“Let me die.”

“When your Death calls to you, only when the lives of your Brethren and Bonded are no longer at risk will I allow you to join with her and not before. Until then, remind yourself always, each one of us carries with us personal loss and grief. No one thinks yours, however unique it may be, is in any way softer or easier to bear than their own… but for Gog’s sake, SHUT UP ABOUT IT!”

Head lowered, perhaps out of respect, more likely to mask the anger I now sense in him, Orlah nods. “Ha’eh, Barth je.”

“Good. Get out of my sight.”

Orlah straightens and, turning on a heel, strides past me back along the path to the encampment. His retreating form is swallowed by the vegetation even as Fayneem Occu paints the far nor’n horizon with a thin, crystalline halo.

Barth turns to me with a look of shifting emotions. One heavy eyebrow lifts, his question obvious.

“He will hold himself as long as he must,” I say. “I believe in him yet.”

The old Warder nods acknowledgement if not agreement. “His reflexes seem adequate still, given his handicap.”

“Your feint was convincing enough, but he nearly split you with his reply.”

Barth’s scowl is counterbalanced by a flicker at one corner of his scarred lips. “Pfff!” he says and tips his head toward the corona limning the far Edgelands. “We should be well beyond the ken of His Eye before it opens upon us, Narregan.”

“There is still some time before that. Sit with me, Barth je. I have been thinking.”

Bathed in mist and streaming rivulets, Barth sounds almost jovial. “I don’t share your sense of leisure. Fewest words, ward.”

I think of all I intended to say, bore down to the nut of it, and say that. “The Book of Turns.”

My Warder locks eyes with me, unblinking. My taproot opens to him without my bidding. I let it; it saves a lot of time.

An uncharacteristic astonishment owns Barth’s expression for a long count.

“Right under the nose of the madman himself,” he whispers and, for maybe the third time in my life, I see his face do something it was not made to do.

Weathered, creased, and scarred by time and violence, his grin is an awful mask—nothing but teeth and savagery. He steps in close. If I did not know and love him, I would have stepped away.

There is an unfiltered, maniacal merriment in his eyes. It transfers through the tap to me in a rush. “I like it,” he says, giving me an affable punch in the chest.

He steps off toward the encampment, into the thicket that seems to part before him, then close around his form. Another wave explodes below me and drowns his laughter filtering back up the trail.

Fayne’s Eye opens in a blaze of white incandescence over the edge of the world.

 

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