The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 52)

Standing on that smooth passage floor in Olluvarde, the cold smells of rock and earth permeating the dimness, Keiran had called up a pale silvery light with her energea, to create a splash of illumination around her in the shadowed subterranean space. Underfoot, a mosaic of black, white, and gray tiles depicted swans afloat on a river. Overhead, roses carved into the stone vaulting created the illusion of a garden pergola.

But it was the murals on the lefthand wall that had captured Keiran’s attention.

She studied the bas relief panel before her, a marvel of finely carved white marble. It depicted a magus of the ancients at work.

The artist had chosen to render the curls of energea streaming from the magus’ fingers in traceries of stone, as though the viewer were looking with the inner vision of a magus, rather than the outer vision that could not see the safe blues and greens and silvers.

The ancient magus strove to enchant a smooth pebble just large enough to fit in the palm of his hand. Vignettes incorporated in the moldings around the scene depicted arcane diagrams—perhaps instructions for the method the ancients used to manipulate energea?—as well as portrayals of life on the island. A healer at work. A spinner.

Keiran’s footsteps echoed faintly as she moved on to the next bas relief mural, this one depicting a vast tsunami rolling across the sea to bear down on an isle with a city sprawling down the slope of its central mountain peak to its harbor. The wave seemed to tower over the small scrap of land. Keiran shivered.

She’d been fortunate in her own crossing from Fiors to the Hamish coast. A brisk following wind had pushed her west with speed. It was only after Fiors had disappeared over the horizon behind her that she’d remembered the fishermen’s talk of a gigantic whirlpool haunted by the spirit of a murdered mer-king. But she’d encountered nothing like that, merely the expected northerly current as she drew near her destination at the dawning of the next day. She’d come ashore in a heavy sea, but the approach to the beach, although steep, had been clear of rocks. She’d arrived safely, if weary.

The next mural showed the ancient magus again, affixing his magical stone and its twin to the gondola of a magnificent airship, while children of all ages bade tearful farewells to their maters and paters before hurrying across the gangways to board.

Pater had put Keiran aboard a vessel of the sea, not a vessel of the sky, but he’d wept just like the paters of that threatened, mythical island. If it was mythical. Keiran had heard stories of the ancient airships, and always classed them as legend. Seeing one rendered in such loving detail—the polished wood of the gondola with its bronze fittings, the varnished oblong of canvas that shielded the airbags—made her wonder if they were merely history so ancient as to seem legendary.

In the fourth mural, the gusting winds of a storm smashed one airship out of the sky and into the thundering sea, while another—the vessel with the magical stones affixed to its gondola—sailed untouched through the tumult.

The next mural saw the airship docked at a mooring tower and the children disembarking, greeted on the far side of the gangway by their rejoicing parents.

Would her pater rejoice, if she were to return to him?

At sea, when the full realization of her troll-disease fell upon her, she’d remembered the repugnance on her pater’s face and the long time he’d left her alone on the sands of the rocky cove. Had he hated her then? Her people hated the troll horde for the ravages done them during the ruin of Fiors. And Pater hated trolls more personally as the authors of his maiming. How must he have felt when his daughter became a troll?

But he’d spoken no words of hate to her, there at the last.

“I love you. I’ll always love you. Never doubt me.”

She would trust that he’d spoken true, that he might have felt shock and horror and grief at what had come to pass, but never hatred for her, never disgust for her. He’d said he loved her, and she would hold to that.

A faint mutter of sound murmured on the air of the buried passage as she advanced to the next carved mural—the sixth. The breeze outside must have shifted, carrying the rush of the nearby cascade to her ears.

In the sixth bas relief scene, the mooring tower of the earlier mural lay in ruins. Beside it, the great airship had also fallen to earth, and a beautiful woman plucked the enchanted stones from its moldering gondola.

Keiran frowned. The first five panels formed a tight sequence, depicting events that had surely followed one immediately after another. But this sixth . . . was it decades later? Centuries? Perhaps the abstract patterns carved into the walls between the murals was the writing of the ancients, telling of the events rendered in stone, but she could not read it.

The seventh mural depicted the firing of one of the two stones enchanted by the ancient magus, transforming it into the central boss of a mighty gong. More of the energetic diagrams—like those adjacent to the very first mural in the sequence—surrounded the scene.

Keiran, uninterested in the magical forging techniques of old, walked to view the eighth and last mural. The bas relief portrayed a battle between the troll horde and the knights of a Hamish queen. The dead of both sides littered the blood-soaked ground. The troll warriors brandished warhammers and maces. The queen’s knights charged forward with pikes. Behind the knights, a giant of a man held the magical gong, while a slighter man beat upon its metal with his mallet.

Once again the unknown sculptor rendered the arcs of energea, curving out from the gong to fill the air. And where they fell upon one of the troll horde, that warrior grimaced in pain, his weapon falling from his grip as he sank down.

Keiran stared at the gruesome tangle of severed limbs and broken blades beneath the dying trolls. Was this how it had been on Fiors in her grandmother’s day, when the troll horde descended? On Fiors, the trolls had won, although they had not remained to savor their victory, but passed onward to the Hamish lands.

How might it have gone differently, if her people had possessed the wondrous gong wielded by these Hamish defenders? Could Fiors’ ruin have been averted? Would renegade trolls have avoided Fiors ever after as the place of their downfall? Would pater never have lost his leg?

Keiran shook her head. The flint knives and spears carried by Fiors’ fighters bore enchantments of energea, but Fiors had never possessed anything like this Hamish artifact. She tried to imagine it: resonance that brought trolls to their knees.

But she was a troll now. It would be she who fell when the mallet beat upon the brazen gong, if some phantasm were ever to bring it out of the lost past.

As she stared, the murmur of the nearby cascade strengthened to a rapid pattering and then a pounding. This was not water she was hearing, but footsteps racing across stone, many footsteps.

She twisted abruptly, placing her back to the wall and feeling for her hunting knife.

A band of trolls burst around the curve of the passage in which she stood.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 11 (scene 53)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 51)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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The Tally Master

 

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