The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 2)

On the landing outside his tally chamber, Gael quelled the impulse to skip necessities in urgent haste. One always had the time to do over that which was done improperly. Better to do it properly in the first place.

Removing his heavy keyring from the fibula pinned at his waist, he selected the proper key and unlocked the bronze padlock from its anchorage on the tally room door jamb, passed its shackle through the hasps of door and jamb, and pressed the shackle home. It clunked satisfyingly. Some dastard might steal Carbraes’ precious tin, but he would not gain access to the tallies—Gael’s tallies—that revealed the miscreant, damn him.

Gael unset his teeth, nodded calmly to Keir as the boy turned left to head up to the metal vaults, and then himself turned right to the steps down.

It was a long descent to the tower gate, and his weak left ankle clicked. Not that his tally chamber perched anywhere near Belzetarn’s battlements. But the view from its arrowslits—when he latched the inner shutters open—was a scary height above the artisans’ yard and the warriors’ bailey.

Passing two upward-bound porters carrying a heavy chest, Gael moved to the outside of the treads where they were so broad as to require an extra step to reach the riser. He had to duck an empty torch bracket. It would be filled, come nightfall, but the sunlight shining in through the open arrowslits provided illumination enough by day. A young messenger scampering in the porters’ wake grinned as he hugged the central column, letting Gael keep the comfortable middle territory. Evidently the boy didn’t mind the narrowness of the inner treads.

Gael shook his head. If that uncanny throbbing groan were to sound again, Gael was uncertain of his own welfare even on the broad surfaces of the outside treads. How would those on the narrow inside treads avoid a fall?

Five twists around the central column and three landings later, Gael reached the floor of the main place of arms. Muffled thumps, shouts, and the erratic clash of metal on metal carried through the stub of corridor connecting the stairwell to the larger space.

The cool of the stone floors felt good by the time he arrived at the lower place of arms adjacent to the melee gallery. Filled with shadows and strong beams of sunlight channeled by the deep embrasures burrowing through the massive walls at the base of the tower, the vast space was uncharacteristically empty of warriors. A cluster of page boys at a storage room doorway showed Gael where Lord Carbraes no doubt awaited him.

Wishing for a long draught of cool clean water—a man could grow just as warm and thirsty descending stairs as he did ascending them—Gael crossed the place of arms, his measured strides echoing under the high vault.

The pages made way for him respectfully, two bobbing quick bows as he passed into the storage room.

Gael barely saw the litter of wooden practice weapons, cutting butts and pillars, and leather mats pushed to the walls of the small chamber.

Lord Carbraes captured one’s focus—not through mannerism or mere posturing, but because of the aura of absolute assurance that cloaked him. Gael had never witnessed the regenen at a loss, which was startling given that he was losing the long war with the unafflicted enemies who assailed the trolls. Gael figured the troll-lord must think in numbered matrices. He always had a second plan when the first failed, and a third after that.

Carbraes stood just a touch taller than Gael, but his shoulders were considerably broader and bulkier. Rumor insisted that the regenen did sixty handstand push-ups every other day to keep his strength. Gael suspected rumor—in this instance—was correct. The expression in Carbraes’ ice blue eyes said he would tackle and succeed at any feat, no matter how challenging.

Despite his strenuous regimen, the truldemagar marked Carbraes’ physique. Deep crow’s feet bracketed his eyes and reached back across his temples to his hairline. His skin was roughened and chapped red. His nose possessed the typical upward curve and bluntness. He wore a short and neatly clipped blond beard and mustache—perhaps to hide the lines around his mouth and the blurring of his chin? His curling blond hair was equally short and threaded with silver, revealing his still shapely ears, unusual in a troll.

He went garbed in a white thistlesilk blouse under a knee-length tunic of cream suede ornamented with bronze rivets at the hem and other stress points along the seams. An ecru thistlesilk cape flowed back from his shoulders. Brown leather warrior’s boots were laced up his shins.

The natural colors were easy on the eye, or at least on Gael’s eyes. He disliked the garish costumes sported by Belzetarn’s castellanum and the magus, blessedly not present at this moment.

Carbraes finished instructing the two page boys kneeling before him. “You”—he tapped the brown-haired one on the shoulder—“run to the castellanum’s cabinet chamber and tell him just what I told you.” The boy nodded, sprang to his feet, and dodged around Gael to dash away through the place of arms. Carbraes tapped the black-haired boy on the chest to re-gather his straying attention. “Go to the field quartermaster and bid him compile a tally of the blades broken across the last three moons versus the number broken three years ago in the same season.”

The boy followed his fellow with equal alacrity.

Lord Carbraes looked up and spotted Gael. “Hah! Secretarius! You come in good time. Look on what the scouts of the Third Cohort have brought me.”

A pair of warriors stepped from behind the regenen. Gael’s gaze passed over their tunics of bronze scale armor—light and shining and flawless, made by Arnoll in the armor smithy—to fasten on the massive bronze shield they carried between them.

No, not a shield. Surely not. Wider than the full length of a troll’s arm, etched with curling traceries, and deeply furled around its circumference, the artifact would be far too heavy to serve as a shield in battle. So what was it?

Two punched and beaded holes near the top edge gave Gael the answer: a gong.

“Examine it,” Carbraes instructed him. “First with your eyes.”

Gael frowned, not liking where this was going.

The central boss of the piece—matte black and oddly dimpled—was surely meteoric iron, rarer than tin and deucedly hard to melt or work. It required forges far more powerful than those lurking in Belzetarn’s roots. Who would possess such resources? And why had they been deployed on this gong?

Gael stiffened his knees, resisting the memory of the groan uttered by Belzetarn’s regenen stair recently. It had not been the stair—or the tower—from which hailed the muttering reverberation, surely, but this trophy Carbraes bade him study.

The bronze surrounding the iron boss held a silvery sheen atop its warm coppery tints, no doubt made of an arsenical alloy, rather than a tin one. The abstract traceries adorning its surface were finely drawn, the curves displaying perfect mathematical symmetry.

Gael spoke his assessments aloud, concluding with, “Exceptional work by an exceptional smith in an exceptional forge. I shouldn’t think the Ghriana-folk of the mountains had the capability.”

Carbraes lifted an eyebrow. “What?” He gestured to the warriors to lay the gong down on the stone floor, instructing them, “Carefully,” when they moved too quickly for his liking.

Gael was getting a very uncomfortable feeling about this prize of war, if battle were indeed where it had come from.

Carbraes said, “No, this didn’t come from the Ghriana-folk. It’s old, far older than they.”

“Where did it come from?” asked Gael, moderating his emphasis on did.

“The scouts pulled it out of the ruins of Olluvarde after some chucklehead tossed a pebble down a dry well and the resulting resonance brought them all to their knees.”

Olluvarde. A city of the ancients built a thousand years ago or more, when the fabulous airships of Navellys still sailed across the sea, bringing riches. Or so legend said. What had the ancients wanted with a gong that weakened trolls? No trolls had ever marred their paradise. The dread truldemagar swept the world only after Navellys was drowned.

“Open your inner senses, Gael,” said Carbraes. “Tell me what you see. I must understand the essence of this thing, that I may choose its fate—and ours—wisely.”

Gael felt his heart clench within him. He’d feared Carbraes would make this request from the moment the regenen said, first with your eyes. Why specify, unless a different looking would follow? And . . . while such looking to check his own energea, or Keir’s, or even that of a random notarius or messenger, was innocent enough . . . scrutinizing an artifact forged by the potent energea of the ancients might lead him to magery. Or worse.

Gael remembered the worse all too well.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 3)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)