Sounding the gong impelled its living energea to action, draining energea from—all who heard it?—funneling that energea into the gong’s heart, and then sending it out into the world to . . . where? Or whom? And why? He didn’t know, but he had to find out.
In the meantime, he’d checked the balcony outside his chambers, and no one had fallen from that height to the floor of the great hall below it. Thank Tiamar. He’d sent a messenger to the privy smithy, requesting a bronze padlock for his storeroom door to be ready immediately. Meaning tonight, before the privy smith put the forge to bed. And he still had this morning’s tallies to format for tomorrow’s review, as well as the rumor about sword breakage to follow up. (Was it really true that the breakage rate was up? He doubted it.)
In other words, he had his normal work to do.
It was almost automatic, after seven years of tallying and preparing compiled reports of his tallies. Dividing his attention, he could keep his quill sharp and filled with ink, transfer the rough tallies from their parchments to the comparison compilations without error, and sand the wet ink so it did not smudge, while another part of his mind entertained thoughts altogether unrelated to his tallying tasks.
His quill scratched, and the parchments rustled. Faint shouts drifted up from the artisans’ yard below, barely heard through the glass of his casements and the wood louvers of the inner shutters. Footsteps sounded in the stairwell outside the closed door—normal traffic—swift and pattering messengers, slow and tramping porters carrying heavy loads, decisive magnos climbing to attend the march. The tallow dips burned steadily in the still air.
Gael found himself considering again the matter of loyalty and how accurately any one man—or troll—could assess another’s loyalty. Carbraes had assessed Gael’s loyalty well. But who could match Carbraes’ acuity? Could Gael do so?
How well did Gael know even his friends, here in Belzetarn?
Take Arnoll, the armor smith. Gael had known him longest, right from the moment of his arrival in Belzetarn’s bailey. He’d never forget that moment, as he lay bleeding in the snow, more dead than alive and uncertain if he even wished for life.
The scouts of the First Cohort in the Second Legion had dragged him in—although he’d not known their status at the time—tossed him down, and summoned the regenen.
Gael had figured he was done for.
Certainly his wanderings in the wild—starving, cold, and lost—were over. Either the regenen would take him in (Gael didn’t think he wanted that) or the regenen would kill him. (Gael knew he didn’t want that. But what choice did he have?)
Carbraes’ icy blue gaze had felt as piercing as the scouts’ spears when they had captured him. “Check him,” the regenen ordered the troll standing beside him. Arnoll.
Gael had barely noticed the smith’s burly shoulders, his curling iron gray hair, or the small char marks on his buff apron of calfskin, burned by sparks flying from his forge. Arnoll’s blue eyes were warm, where Carbraes’ were cold, and Arnoll’s tanned and leathery face was kind.
He’d knelt beside Gael, saying, “Fear naught, lad. You’ve come home, given I see what I expect to see.”
Arnoll’s gaze went distant as he consulted his inner sight. Then he nodded and rose. “Troll,” he said to Lord Carbraes.
“Get him up,” commanded Carbraes.
The scouts hauled Gael to his feet.
Carbraes faced him square, quite close. “Belzetarn is my citadel. All who dwell here obey me. Without exception. In return, I grant shelter, food, clothing, and my unshakeable defense. While you reside under me, none of my enemies shall strike you down unopposed.” The regenen paused, studying Gael a moment before he continued. “The unafflicted are my enemies. Every single one free of the truldemagar. Is that clear?” The regenen’s voice was crisp. His authority emanated from him like heat from the sun.
Gael shook his head, confused and in pain, but Carbraes seemed to take his ‘no’ for a ‘yes.’
“Swear loyalty to me now, and you will live and heal. Deny me, and you die.”
Gael wondered if he dreamed. The scene—a snowy bailey bounded by stone fortifications and paced by troll warriors, his own blood spotting the ice crystals, a tall black tower farther up the slope reaching toward the overcast sky—seemed unreal. And yet Carbraes’ words were real. Gael knew, deep in his gut, that Carbraes meant them.
“No,” he choked.
Carbraes nodded, unoffended by Gael’s refusal. The regenen lifted a hand, about to order Gael’s execution.
“Wait!” Arnoll caught his regenen’s arm. “Let the physician see to his wounds. Let me make cogent argument to him. This is a man who responds to reason, where he will not respond to bare force. My lord.”
How had Arnoll known?
Carbraes met Arnoll’s entreating gaze, his own stern. He turned to scrutinize Gael. “Very well. Summon me when you deem him ready to make that reasoned choice.” Had there been sarcasm in that word ‘reasoned’? Gael still didn’t know.
But Arnoll had convinced Gael. Not through reason, as things fell out, but through Arnoll’s almost fatherly care for the trolls for whom he forged armor in the smithy at Belzetarn’s roots. Arnoll was no enemy to the unafflicted ones, but he was a staunch partisan to the trolls.
“Would you exile a man because he contracted lung fever?” Arnoll argued. “Or because a blow to his head stole his wits? The afflicted deserve care and healing, not exile and death.”
Gael wasn’t convinced that was a fair comparison. He himself had contracted the truldemagar while dragging men into the earth by magery, there to suffocate. No innocence gilded his past. Surely many of Carbraes’ trolls had performed deeds equally foul to bring the disease upon them.
Not that Gael regretted his choice. He would protect his king, Heiroc, all over again in just the same way, had he to do the past over. But he was not innocent in the way a man sickened by plague or maimed by an accident was innocent.
Despite his lack of innocence, when Gael’s wounds had healed and Arnoll brought Carbraes to hear Gael’s oath, Gael had sworn fealty to the regenen. And, thus far, had not regretted it. Carbraes was . . . worthy of loyalty.
Gael shook his head, smiling, and pulled his thoughts away from the past. How was it that memory had claimed him so thoroughly? Twice, now. Was it the gong? Or something else that prompted him to visit what he normally avoided? Every troll learned that there was little profit to gain from remembering one’s losses. For every troll had lost his former life, the one he led before his vile transformation.
The morning’s routine tallies were ready for the morrow. He shook the sand from the final parchment, laid it atop the stack, and set that stack in the low pigeonhole he reserved for the most recent records.
Where was Keir? Surely the boy should have finished re-tallying the tin.
Gael wanted to check that re-tally against the original before he visited the quartermaster about sword breakage and before he consulted the various smiths about melting down that injurious gong. Should he go in search of Keir? Or assume Keir would catch up with him when the re-tally was complete?
Gael brought his assistant before his mind’s eye: ash blond; gray-eyed; slim and slight, still more a child than a young man, and yet with the cool control and the cool logic of one fully grown. Coolly observant, too. Keir missed little.
The word might have been coined to describe Keir. And yet Gael did not find the boy cold or heartless. He would swear that hidden beneath Keir’s collected demeanor lay the potential for heat, passion, and anger. Even vengeance.
Although . . . just as Gael knew nothing of Arnoll’s past—genial, protective Arnoll—so Gael knew nothing of Keir’s either. Just how well did he know Keir? How accurate were his perceptions of the boy?
Gael snorted in irritation with himself. Nothing wrong with thinking and assessing, but he was doing altogether too much of it this day. Enough of pondering hidden realities and secrets.
Keir was quick, focused, and diligent. And it was not like him to be late.
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 7)
The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 5)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)