East of the Sun.
2. Sons of the Mountain.
The Lord King of Istaav, Dün-Seçen, was seated at the Hall's great throne. Truly, he appeared a King, but so did Yüsek. Dressed in the richest of his regalia, save the absence of the crown.
He stood at the iron doors, divided from the King by one hundred foot of blood stained stone and a gathering of all those who had been loyal in his long reign. They looked upon Yüsek with ghostly expressions. Betrayal, hurt, confusion. Eyes that seared into Yüsek's skin. Faces he could not bring himself to gaze upon.
Dün-Seçen was a clever man. Yüsek had know as much, but the thoughts were confirmed when he'd been bought his finest clothes and told to dress.
To have a broken man, wearing rags, swear his fealty meant little. To have a man of propriety and power bowed before him was another matter entirely. It had clearly crossed the Kings mind that his claim might be questioned while Yüsek's head remained attached. This demonstration was assuage to the people. It was a display of power. A crowning ceremony to replace Yüsek's beheading.
It was all Yüsek could do to keep his shoulders stiff and his face straight. These people would still fight for him, if he asked. Men and women. Each and every one. But none other than the Lord King and Black Guard could carry weapons in the Hall, and this Guard was hardly familiar to him. Their gleaming silver helmets bristled black along the centre. It would be a massacre, and Dün-Seçen knew Yüsek could do no such thing to the people he loved.
He would defend them to his dying breath, but to ask the same of them, in this bleak hour… No. He never could.
So he took his first steps towards the throne and the Lord King. Passing between the tall candelabra that lit his path. He could look neither left nor right, but the taunting pictures of people he knew caught in his periphery. The King. Have eyes only for the King.
Dün-Seçen would be seated in the sun from high windows, but for Istaav's endless churning clouds. Though the massive throne should have dwarfed him, it seemed he had been born for it. Confident in posture, regal in face. Watching Yüsek approach with unflinching eyes.
Yüsek knew what it was to sit and look across the hall for the first time. He knew the headiness of its bleak beauty. The breath of victory that seemed flood the veins with power, and the satisfaction in knowing that one could ascend no further. Sat, literally, at the peak of the world, with the might of the most powerful nation at ones back.
The victory had had been his, an age ago. For those unfortunate, a lifetime.
As he reached the dais, if felt as though the weight of those eyes forced him to his knee. A murmur of noise ran through the people at his back, and it drove home like a spear to the gut. Vertigo threatened to overbalance him. A nausea he tried to swallow as the colour drained from his face. It was small mercy they could see only his shoulders, because he could not hide his shame from them. Not in his moment of weakness, that shattered his armour as surely as glass.
The King spoke, his voice carried out across the hall. "Yüsek. Uncrowned King of Istaav. Why do you kneel before me?"
Clever. To pose such a question. As though Yüsek came of his own volition. He opened his mouth, but found the words choked in his throat. Silent and stuck for far too long before his forced the words free of his lips.
Yet when he spoke, the struggle did not show. He sounded, even to himself, like a sure man. "To swear my fealty to you, my Lord, King. To pledge my love and my blood to you, my Lord, King."
Though he did not lift his head, Yüsek could hear the smile in Dün-Seçen's voice. "I will hear your pledge."
The breath he took was deep and slow, wading through the turmoil of his mind to the oath he had heard, and accepted, many times, yet never said. He could remember them all.
"I, Yüsek, sixty-fourth son of the mountain, Istaav. Fourth Son of the Bear. Once bearer of the Black Banner, once Lord of the Black Guard. Once Master of the Second Realm, the cities of Est-Alfsoln, Alfmon, Stjersk, Frudal and Alfsvard, and the peoples of said cities; protector of the Northern Reach, protector of the Southern Reach, the flood lands, the vale and the eastern climb, do swear my…"
He faltered, the word stuck behind his teeth. What little pride he held still loathe to say it. Loathe to bow and bend as no King should. But the voice of protest was thin and frail as a starved man, swallowed in mere seconds by the deafening silence of defeat.
"…my fealty in the presence of my house, and the many honourable who call home or have come to the Southern Reach, Est-Alfsoln, and the mountain, Istaav, for which the realm is named, and the fortress that stands there on; in the presence of the glorious dead, the sixty three sons of Istaav, who have come before me, and the Black Guard, who are men of honour and honesty, and all present who are witness and shall know that I, the said Yüsek, sixty-fourth son of the mountain, Istaav, will be forever a faithful vassal of The Lord King, Dün-Seçen of Bebel, sixty-fifth son of the mountain, Istaav.
"I pledge by blood and the steel of my sword to love my Lord King above all others. By hand and mouth I will defend you, my Lord King, and all those you call your allies, and all the Lands you hold, and all the people that are yours, in peace and war, against all malefactors and invaders, faithfully, till I should breathe my last."
He finished with the strength he had begun, but every word felt like failure on his tongue. It was an oath he would hold, forever, until the end of his days, but it was not given freely. Drawn forth from the lips of the defeated. He hoped the King felt the hollowness of his victory.
Dün-Seçen rose from his throne in the ensuing silence, and came to stand before Yüsek. As he had the night prior, he lay his hand against the crown of Yüsek's skull, but then leaned forward to place a kiss upon his brow.
It seemed like a demonstration for the people before whom they were gathered, but the words he uttered were for their ears alone. And they shook Yüsek with their surprise. Their strange reverence. The complete truth he heard in the King's voice.
"I take your vow to my heart, Warrior of Bears. And vow to you, you are my own."
The Lord King stood in the banner hall, filled with the flags of all Kings who had passed. The Black Flag had been removed from the wall and lain before him. So huge it took ten men to lift. His fingers brushed the velvet, and the silver thread that made the bear sewn there on.
Yüsek was shown to the room by two guards. He assumed he had been summoned, and at complete loss of strength and direction, merely stood beside the door. He was not a man of avoidance, but when the King's eyes had ever fallen on him, it was with complete rapture; Dün-Seçen's attention was overbearing. He felt no twitch of his face was left unnoticed. No flinch in his voice unheard. The touches, too, disturbed him. Then the strange awe, the strange reverence. What was he to make of these things?
So he stood and waited, an ache settled deep into his spine. He had not slept the night before. Closed his eyes many times only to find himself face to face with Dün-Seçen's burning gaze. Branded onto his mind. His failure always at the forefront of his thoughts.
The King seemed fixated with the flag. Dark, angular brows drawn down to crease his forehead. So long was he looking that Yüsek grew complacent, and the King's voice took him off-guard. "Though I would…I cannot keep the bear on the Black Flag." He touched at the bear's great fang. Longer on the flag than both his hands. "My families coyote is poor replacement."
The Bear's silence roared. Teeth and claws bared, the mighty creature flattened. The beast that had been his guardian. The proud and beautiful symbol of his kingdom, his people and his reign. But the events of the day before meant its meaning was forever changed, reduced to lesser things; never to join the annals of history and honoured men. He was never supposed to see it be replaced. This…should never have come to pass.
"No. My family have no place here." The King shook his head… "But what, then? What creature…"
Yüsek was uncertain whether it was he the king addressed, or if he simply thought aloud. Whatever the case, he was unanswered. A great weight was settled on Yüsek's shoulders that robbed him of the will to speak. Every King of Istaav had his flag upon these walls. The eyes of wolves, and owls and great cats staring in silver from sixty three black flags. Each representing a man, or woman, beheaded in battle, in Istaav fields, on Istaav stones, in the very Hall. But he. His great beast, had not the right to join them..
If the King expected Yüsek to suggest a replacement, he was not so clever as he seemed.
"Yüsek." The King finally addressed him directly, but it took him far too long to tear his attention from the bear, finding that Dün-Seçen's eyes fixed him in place. "You look tired."
Tired. Of course. But more than that. Defeated. He could not bring a single word to his lips. Could do nothing. No weaker man could have stood in his place right then.
"I would thank you for this morning. You deliver yourself with dignity." The King was equally unmoved from his place. Though he did incline his head, as though to regard Yüsek with his hawk gaze from another angle. "I near expected an uprising in the Hall. But I see I have nothing to fear."
It was difficult to picture. This man in fear. Dün-Seçen's had looked so secure on his won throne. As though he had been born, suckled, weaned and raised on its chilling stone seat.
"You have nothing to fear from me, my King." Yüsek forced the speech. If he sounded bitter, so be it.
"I am not a man of fear." Dün-Seçen hand left the flag and he crossed he hollow space between them, to stop but a foot away. "Yet... I have never felt so much fear as when I raised my sword to you, Bear King. I looked into your face and I saw the smoke and flames of six razed cities. I saw the heads of my father's army roll." He shook his head. "Never in my life, and never again."
Yüsek knew the very moment he spoke of. The instant the gaze of two great killers locked. The instant that silenced the deafening roar of battle echoing across stone. Though the fear of his killer had plagued him for years, Yüsek had not thought, in that instant, this man could be him. His voice was cold as Istaav stone when he spoke. "Had it been eight years ago…had it been four, I would have your gizzards on my sword."
It was when the words were beyond retraction that Yüsek realised how wrong they were. That he could no more speak like a king when the King stood before him. But Dün-Seçen did not look insulted, or angered. He smiled. A slow smile of warmth that softened his face. Made him look, perhaps, the age he was "This, I know. But I fear you no longer, Yüsek. And you…do not fear me."
It was the truth. Perhaps it showed on Yüsek's face, perhaps the King came to the conclusion without prompt, but something made his eyes narrow with new scrutiny. "Why? Why don't you fear me? And do not say it is because you do not fear."
"The Bear is dead. As dead as if you took my head." Yüsek could not look away from Dün-Seçen's face. From his unflinching scrutiny. " All you see before you is skin and bone, and that alone is incapable of fear."
The King was silent, unmoving. His smile was gone and it seemed for the barest moments that deep sadness passed across his face. So brief that Yüsek dismissed it as his imagination. Then King seemed to strip layers from his face, and said with all gravity: "This, I don't believe."
Dün-Seçen stepped forward, and though Yüsek's instinct was to pull away he held himself still, reminded that this was indeed the King. His King, who brushed his hair aside and curled a hand around the back of his neck, drawing him into intimate space to speak in hushed tones that would not touch the corners of the vast room. "The Bear only sleeps." There was such a tone of certainty to his voice. Truly a king in that regard. But Yüsek knew himself, and never had he felt so aged. The Bear lay down, but only to die. He would not say as such.
"You do not believe me. I can see it on your face." Dün-Seçen's attention was unflinching. Burning. Too much to bear. "But I will rouse the Bear, and he will roar again. This time, at my side."
The fingers dug the slightest into his neck, and the very air felt suddenly heavy. He could see in Dün-Seçen face, somehow, that the King wanted to push him to his knees. An ounce more pressure and he would fall without resistance. Weak. To rest his head at the kings thigh, or even his boots. It would at least be an honest portrayal of what he had become, not like the lie of riches he wore.
Dün-Seçen held him there. On the brink, at command of the palm of his hand. He heard the King draw slow breath and could not understand why, again, he hesitated. Why he was left standing in cruel oblivion.
Just as the King had not struck the final blow, he did not command Yüsek to his knees. His hand instead ran his collar, smoothing thick, dark fur. When he stepped back, Yüsek's pulse burned too fast, and he near shook with relief as the King's gaze moved elsewhere. He struggled not to press his palms to eyes.
Dün-Seçen gestured vaguely. "Come. I need you." He turned, sharply, and Yüsek followed with half a mind. They left the hall of flags and drifted down the corridor. Stone fixtures and features he knew, that had been his own. His home only the day before. What was it to him now?
The day beyond the waved glass windows was washed white in snow. Each candle lit in its bracket to illuminate the stretching stone corridor. Dün-Seçen's strides were long, brimming confidence, and Yüsek was keenly aware of walking in his shadow. They were heading towards the council chambers, and though he tried to halt the flow of old thoughts, Yüsek could not help but think on the people that had been in his charge. Those closest to him. What had happened to his house staff and the women of the Fortress? What of his Black Guard? The beheading of the King was a safeguard to the people of Istaav; they would lay down their weapons and embrace their new Lord and Master. Yüsek could not see his loyal Bairn and the men of the Guard surrendering while he drew breath, but it made him sick to think they may have fought and died on Dün-Seçen's whim.
This decision of the King would have consequences that would trickle far beyond the mountain and the fortress at its peak. Far beyond Dün-Seçen's reach. It broke near four centuries of tradition that had dictated much of Istaav's culture. Many of Istaav's people would regard it as law, as they regarded their King the true and absolute governor. His right won by blood and defended to the death. They may not take Dün-Seçen with their full hearts. Even if he were to behead Yüsek before a crowd of thousands, the moment of battle was forever lost. The moment of glory. Dün-Seçen did not understand what he had destroyed for them both. He couldn't understand, or he would not have done what he had done. There was no sense in it.
They approached a large set of double doors, guarded by two Black Guard. The door was closed on a formal lounge, used to entertain in breaks of war-talk. The need for the two hooded Guard was perplexing, no longer dressed in gleaming armour uniform but the traditional robes that lent to speed and silence. Dark, Bebish eyes watched him from beneath the shadows of their cowls. Who, or what did Dün-Seçen hold behind those doors? Yüsek refused to dwell on it. It was no longer for him to know.
The silent guards bowed as the King passed, the double sickle symbol of Istaav flashing on the crown of their hoods. Black and silver. The King did not even glance their way, pushing open the next set of doors on the war council chamber. The room frigid cold and lit dimly only by the distant, high set windows and a single torch. Silent as only stone is silent. Many mornings Yüsek had come here alone, waiting on the men who'd fill the table and ramble. Its very quiet seemed to echo with the voices of the dead. A thousand deliberations and decisions that changed the course of a million lives.
Like the flag, Dün-Seçen had the map of four faces lain out across the massive oak table. He took the single lit torch from its bracket and carried it across the room. The flame bending with his wake and dropping sparks across the ice cold air.
The light fell across aged, yellow paper. Thick as a blade and lined with the image of their world. Bebel and its islands in the South, joined to the mainland only by a thin bridge of stone and sand. The split kingdoms of Ergaurd and Brutgaurd in the east. The Yellow fields and its ruins at the foot of Istaav's encircling mountains, and in the North, Istaav itself. The fortress at its fore, embedded high and mighty between the cracked peaks of the highest mountain. The city, Est-Alfsoln, in the cradle of the fortress, then the sunken, fertile kingdom that stretched to the frozen edge of the map. Naturally protected by the impenetrable wall of the mountain rage, fed by the mighty waters of the river Friss. Dün-Seçen lay his palm across the fortress, the fire dancing on the surface of his eyes.
"King is such a strange concept…" He muttered, and again Yüsek wondered if he spoke to himself. "We are but men, yet this power is lent to us by two million upraised palms. I wave my hand and stronger men than I break their neck to obey."
The King swept around the table to hover his flame over Bebel. The capital, Şesin, where Dün-Seçen's Grandfather precariously held the throne. "Successions is scourge. A heinous shame of incest and ignoble murder… After you killed my father in the fields, my mother married her father's brother to be a dead man closer to the throne. She bore him four deformed children, three sons, all for the belief that sovereignty runs through the blood."
It was difficult to read the tone of his voice. Candid, but cold. The bluntest truth spoken plainly. He saw the King's lip curl. "Weak, imbecile children. Each and every one. And my mother regarded me inferior for my common blood."
Yüsek had heard a tale nearly two years before, passed to him by Bairn as they rode the lower mountain slopes. A son of Bebel had been poisoned by his half blooded sibling. He hid in the city slums, on the brink of death, and returned with the rage of rabid wolf to slaughter each and every one. He strung their corpses at the gate of their home, and forced a drink on his mother that made her womb barren.
The King was looking at him, and Yüsek knew this man and that to be one and the same. That understanding passed between them, unspoken. Demon of the Blade indeed.
"Since King Dün-Held and his family were beheaded in… 1161, the King's of Istaav have no women and bear no children. They were all nine slaughtered on the Hall steppe, is this correct?"
"And all King's of istaav are common men, in the sense of blood, but we hold more power than the three faces combined… Do you know the King of Bebel? Ibourk of the Sands?"
An old man with a face yellowed and sunken. His eyes retreating to their sockets. Yüsek had met him only once, before the old man had been crowned. "I have seen him. I was not impressed."
The King smiled. A flash of gleaming teeth in the hanging gloom. He seemed pleased with the assessment. "Yes, a dog. A cowards dog. He would tremble in fear and grovel on his belly before the Bear King." His face changed again, and an expression passed that sent ice down Yüsek's spine. Ire and wrath. A coldness that hung like a familiar friend in the empty hall. "He will tremble before me."
"You have plans." The words left Yüsek's lips slowly. Watching the King's steady hand trace lines of the map. Roads and paths and trail's long forgotten to those not of Istaav. He could see the war banners unfurl, and the hooves tear up the yellow fields.
"Yes… I have plans. But they will wait. The home is tended before the garden, if that is the saying."
They fell into silence. Yüsek would not speak before the King. He did not wish to speak at all. The dark wood chairs of the long table beckoned his tired body, he craved little more than to sit and rest his head on the table top, but dare not move. The King's eyes riveted on the map, thankfully, not on him. He seemed to explore his new country with the tips of his fingers, as though he touched the greenness of the fields, and faces of the towns drawn before him. Finally, he spoke.
"I do not know how it is here, but in Bebel, even the walls have ears. Of all places, I thought the war chambers safest to speak."
Clever indeed. For Yüsek, all the fortress had been safe. So much had he trusted his people. But for Dün-Seçen, who had broken a tradition longer than living memory, he could not say the same. "You can speak here. These walls will turn to dust with your secrets."
The King raised the torch and smiled in its lick. The same strange smile of fondness that set Yüsek on edge and made him falter when the King beckoned. "Come to me, then."
Like a loyal servant, he went, and the smile was gone from one moment to the next. With all gravity, the King passed the torch to Yüsek and lay both heavy hands on his shoulders. He stared unflinching into Yüsek's face, and Yüsek was riveted by the reflection of flames on the blackness of his pupils. His voice low and measured, so close, he might well have whispered in his ear. "There are certain types of men who seek the covet throne. Good men like Jord of the Wing, who are brave but made stupid by chivalry, and are bought to despair. Proud and stupid men, Luke Dün-Held, whose blood pours down the steppe. Clever but greedy men, like Greck of the Hounds, who eyes exceed the belly and are themselves consumed… Then there are men such as us…. Clever men of hunger who see what is ours and do not fear to take it. But I think… Yüsek… I know my greed is too much, I know I am tainted by vengeance, and it will cloud my vision if I let it. And my head will be struck from my shoulders within a year."
The King stopped to take a breath. His eyes crashed closed for a lingering moment. Dark fan of lashes almost brushing his cheek. "But you… You are the untainted warrior. The paths were unclouded before you, and your vision is keen. I need your hand in this. I need your loyalty…." His breath faltered, and Yüsek could not move had he wished to. "You swore your oath before the people. But you will swear it to me, just for my ears."
Yüsek opened his mouth. To protest, perhaps, but the thought was never borne to air. The King cut him to silence with the faintest incline of his head. The pinch of his brow, as though any word Yüsek spoke would be offensive to his ears. So Yüsek was silent, and the King continued. There seemed no escaping his eyes. The black pit of them. "Your honour will bind you…but I would have more. Do you understand?" The King's hands moved to touch his throat at either side, then cup his jaw. Burning, branding touch that made Yüsek feel weak. So weak. "Your Guard, Bairn…"
The name snagged like brambles on Yüsek's mind, and the King saw it. A slow, smug satisfaction unfurling across his lips as he realised a chord was struck. "Bairn. He roared like I raped his sister. It took nine of my men to bring him down. Not dead. Don't fear… but his rage echoed from the prison through the night and well after dawn."
Bairn. The Guard's strange, wolf blue eyes flashed across Yüsek's mind. Saturated with unabashed love and loyalty. The weight of his body as he rest his head on Yüsek's shoulder, and said with all reverence 'I would be close to my King.' That loyalty the King would ask of him.
"I see your face." The King murmured, and it was the truth. There was no hiding the grief that rolled like fog through his veins, and polluted every reach of his body. He would not be standing, would not be silent, if it weren't for the Kings hands on his face. The King's eyes that bore into his own, drinking all they saw. "I see you, Yüsek. Warrior of Bears. I know you understand what I ask." He dropped his touch, suddenly, and stepped away. It left Yüsek reeling in ways it shouldn't. "It will not happen now. Maybe not a year from now. But of your own choice you will go to your knees. And you will swear to me."
Yüsek could not see it. Not in one hundred years. Dün-Seçen had stolen too much.
"Now. Tending to the home." The King took the torch from his hand, and raised it once more over the map. "We must discuss the Guard, and how I am to integrate mine and yours. And how I treat this odious…wound I seem to have caused." He snorted, a noise of derision. "You'd think they'd be happier you live."
"As you wish, my King."
Note: This goes a little in circles. I can see it, but am too lazy to change it. Next chapter should break that cycle. I think I need to work on prioritising clarity over style, but forgive me for the moment. I'm having too much fun experimenting. Next chapter: Bairn, blood and loyalty.
Please let me know what you think. At this point, especially of Dün-Seçen. I have only vague plot plans that are spiralling all over the place. Not a particularly good sign for a healthy narrative, but I'm working on it! His character could go so many directions, but I'd like to know what impression he gives you guys. Good, bad, stable, unhinged, calculating, delusional, dangerous, brave, conceited. Any words that come to mind :D
We will get more out of Yüsek, too. At the moments he's a bit of a wet blanket, but I will get blood from this stone!
Thanks to all who commented first chapter. Endlessly appreciated.
All my Love.