The Tally Master, Interstice 2

Gael’s Dream

Sleeping, Gael dreamed.

Dreaming, he spoke, making confession to a young acolyte in training under Tiamar’s priest, back home in Hadorgol. But he spoke not in good faith. He sought to awe the young man rather than to clear his own conscience.

Within the dimness of the confessional booth, the dark wood smelled musty, as though it had been immersed in deep water and then allowed to dry imperfectly. The bench under Gael’s haunches pressed his flesh uncomfortably against his bones.

On the other side of the carved screen shielding his confessor from sight, the acolyte’s robes rustled faintly. Was the youth nervous in his unaccustomed role?

“I bear the mark of Gaelan on my face, as do my brethren,” intoned Gael. “Great curved noses, line-bracketed eyes, and sallow skin mar our visages. But I alone, amongst all in the legions under my lord Carbraes, bear Gaelan’s name. It is fitting, for I betrayed them to their deaths.

“I am Gael.

“I am kin-slayer.

“There in the bowels of the mad tower I crouched, listening to the scratching of my own quill pen. I tallied ingots of copper, ingots of tin—tin so rare. Who would believe the record keeper could be more lethal than the warrior?

“The stone foundations around me echoed the metallic beating of swords, of shields, of helmets. My lord Carbraes was winning this war. His trolls mined copper ore from veins beneath the ancient hills and smelted it with precious tin arriving from afar. Every ingot in received its mark in my ledger scrolls. Every ingot out—tin and copper married to make bronze—I tallied likewise.

“Who was to know that the bronze was brittle? Not the one part of tin to nine of copper demanded by the smith’s recipe, but two tin for eight copper. The blades hammered from these ingots would shatter, and how would the warrior who bore one fare then?

“Channeled by the tower’s tunnels, the roar of the furnaces deafened my thoughts.

“Whom would I betray? My troll-kin who brought Lord Carbraes victory? The peculator defiling the bronze?

“Oh? Did you think it was I? Secreting nuggets away in some fastness?

“No, ’twas another. Should I betray him?

“Or must I betray our enemies, crushed beneath Carbraes’ might? Our enemies—the unafflicted—those with pure faces, the ones from whom we come, trailing glory, before Gaelan marks us as his own.

“But you know I betrayed someone, else I would not now speak this confession in your ear.

“In the end, I betrayed them all.

“For a time, I kept silence, protecting the traitor and letting my silence reap the troll-warriors on the bloody fields. Blade after blade shattered, piercing the disarmed ones with their fragments or merely leaving them defenseless before the adversary, who slew without remorse.

“Then my conscience misgave me, and I betrayed the traitor to his death.

“‘Behold him,’ I pronounced, ‘the author of your defeats, the one who stole your lives! He defiled the bronze of your blades, and they failed you.’

“I watched as the executioner severed his head, and I wept. For he was my friend. And he bore the courage and singleness of purpose I possessed not, fighting for the unafflicted even amidst his truldemagar.

“And then I watched as the unafflicted fell upon the battlefields, assailed by the fierce weapons of the troll-horde and a strange, deep throbbing on the air and in the earth that stole the strength from their straight limbs.

“I am guilty in every way that guilt may be measured.

“I betrayed my comrades. I betrayed my lord. I betrayed my friend. I betrayed the pure ones, undefiled by Gaelan’s mark and deserving of my protection. Can any penance you devise wash clean my sin? I think not.”

Gael’s auditor began an answer, but the young man’s voice was wrong: an elder’s baritone, not a youth’s tenor. No acolyte pronounced judgment on Gael’s crimes, nor yet the head priest. The depth and power beneath that voice belonged to no mere mortal. This was Tiamar himself, puissant and all-knowing.

He spoke soothingly, reassurance in his tone, but Gael could not discern the sense of his words. It mattered not. Nothing the god might say could shake Gael’s condemnation of himself.

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Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 92)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 19 (scene 90)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

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