Siggurd held his sword to the statuette of the false goddess, preparing to dash it to pieces. The goddess gazed back, sorrow in her painted eyes. Her shattered temple sparkled all around but this last act of destruction froze Siggurd.
He heard the words of Father Ulrich, beaten into Siggurd during his year as an acolyte. Idols. False icons. They must all be destroyed. And it was true this goddess meant nothing to Siggurd. Still he hesitated. Perhaps it was simply the beauty of the statuette, the elegant lines of the brushwork. Perhaps simply the thought of all the hours that had gone into making it.
A life can turn on the smallest detail. So it was with Siggurd then, although he didn’t know it.
“Siggurd? Why do you not strike?”
Horst, his fellow acolyte, slashed at tapestries with his sword, reducing them to tattered shreds. He watched Siggurd, suspicion on his face. Siggurd could think of only one thing to say.
“I’m praying to Aednir. To consecrate the act.”
Horst looked unconvinced. Secretly, Siggurd envied his tall, broad-shouldered companion. Horst was never racked with doubts. He didn’t see the beauty of the temple. Didn’t see the gold filigree of the prayer-screens or the glasswork of the windows aglow with sunlight. This was a hushed place of glints and sheens, the air thick with sweet smoke from the swinging brass thuribles, and Siggurd secretly delighted in it all.
“Smash it,” said Horst. “Smash it now, then grind the unholy fragments into dust beneath your heel.”
Siggurd swung his sword. The statuette blossomed into a thousand fragments of brightly-painted plaster.
When they had finished their work, the two acolytes walked quietly from the ruined temple. Siggurd could still taste the dust of the shattered statuette in his mouth. He pulled his brown hood over his face so he couldn’t be identified. The temple’s entrance had been well hidden, down a meandering alley in the slums of Armon. Now the locals lined the dusty lane. None spoke or tried to stop them. They outnumbered the two acolytes thousands to one, could have torn them limb-from-limb. None of them moved. Siggurd noticed the restraining hands of more than one elder on the shoulders of younger, fiercer men. These people might not believe in Aednir but they knew what would happen if an agent of Aednir came to harm. Only the sharp looks in their eyes as Siggurd and Horst walked by showed their true feelings.
Their journey back to the Thingwir, Aednir’s mountain cathedral, took three weeks. It had been a successful mission all told: four heathen temples uprooted. Still, Siggurd felt little jubilation. His moment of hesitation over the statue troubled him more and more. How could he have been so stupid? Doubt was weakness, a denial of Aednir. And Horst had seen that moment of doubt.
The two acolytes spoke little as they swayed along on their horses through the summer heat, flicking uselessly at the swarm of flies that had come along for the ride. On more than one occasion, Siggurd caught Horst’s gaze upon him, a look of sly delight in the other’s eyes. A calculating look. Horst was younger and had arrived at Thingwir six months after Siggurd. Which meant Siggurd was ahead of him in line for elevation to the Fathers. Siggurd was in the way.
More than once Siggurd thought about fleeing. Escaping with the horses in the middle of the night. Or slaying Horst. Once, while his companion slept, Siggurd began, gently, to pull his sword from its sheath. Who would know it hadn’t been bandits? But Aednir saw all. The Fathers would find out. Eventually he let go of the sword and lay back down. Siggurd just had to hope Horst said nothing. Or that, if he did, the Fathers believed Siggurd’s version of events.
The single, conical peak of Thingwir loomed larger and larger above them as they approached across the steppes. Cold winds bit into them now. The horses labored and huffed with the long effort of the climb into the highlands. The swarm of flies had long since been left behind in the lazy warmth of the southern plains. Siggurd squinted up at the peak of the mountain, circled as ever by specks of black. The Holy Ravens; the eyes of Aednir. The peak seemed impossibly distant, up among the clouds rather than a part of the ground. As Siggurd led his horse through the stone archway at the mountain’s base he felt the weight of all that stone bearing down on him.
He spent the next three days in a state of grinding anxiety. Each time one of the Fathers addressed him his throat tightened and his heart hammered. He had given his own account of their mission and knew Horst had done so, too. The Fathers would surely know of his weakness. But nothing happened and after three days, losing himself in reassuring rituals of prayer and labor, Siggurd began to relax.
They came for him in the dead of night. A rough hand, shaking him awake in the darkness. A gruff voice, unmistakably that of Father Ulrich.
“Follow me, acolyte.”
Siggurd, shivering in his thin night-gown, did as he was told. He knew he wouldn’t be returning. In his first week another boy had disappeared in the night. They said he’d mocked Aednir. No one ever heard from him again.
Father Ulrich led Siggurd down winding stone steps, deeper and deeper into the ground. Siggurd thought about escaping. But they would surely capture him, sooner or later. He trudged along after the grey cloak of the Father, trying to think of ways to escape his fate. What would they do to him down here? Hurl him into some fiery pit? Break him on one of the torture engines the acolytes whispered about? He longed to ask Father Ulrich, plead his innocence.
The cut stones of the walls gave way to natural rock. More than once Siggurd had to bend low beneath the uneven ceiling. They were deep underground. The air smelled of earth and damp and the sickly tallow of the torches. Always Father Ulrich marched on ahead, barely slowing down.
They finally emerged in a large cavern lit by more guttering torches. Five Fathers stood waiting. An iron tank of cold water stood in the center of the room. Beyond, a line of cell doors had been cut into the rock.
Only then did Siggurd notice the black-robed figure standing in the shadows. Acolytes wore brown and the Fathers, grey. Only the Talons wore black: the private guard of the Wirfather, Aednir’s hand in the world of men. The acolytes and the Fathers alike lived in fear of the Talons. Their devotion to Aednir was absolute.
Siggurd did run, then, his reason finally deserting him. He turned and scrambled back up the stairs, desperate to be away from this underground chamber. This dead-end. Father Ulrich bellowed behind him, but Siggurd was too quick. Breathing panicky, he raced along passageways and up further flights of stairs. If he could find his way to the archway he could flee Thingwir. Flee and never return. Anything was better than that dungeon.
He ran into the iron grate without seeing it. Somewhere he had taken a wrong turning. Or else, the door had been sealed behind them as they descended. He pushed and pulled at the thick bars but it was no use. He was trapped. He raced back, hoping to find another passageway, another way out. Around a corner and straight into the arms of Father Ulrich.
“This way, acolyte. There is no escape.”
Now Siggurd was pushed forward, the Father behind him. Back down the steps and into the chamber. At a signal from the Talon, Father Ulrich dragged Siggurd across the cavern and threw him into a cell.
Inside stood a long, low wooden table with iron hoops riveted to it. Its purpose was clear. Dark stains mapped its surfaces. Siggurd bucked and screamed as the Fathers lifted him on and began to lock the hoops across his chest, his neck, his legs. The iron was cold, its edge sharp. He struggled but strong arms pinned him down until he was locked into place. The iron band across his neck was tight, half suffocating him as he struggled. He lay still, then, eyes wide, his chest heaving against his restraints.
The Talon stepped forwards. His face was invisible in the depths of his black cowl. “Leave us,” he said to the assembled Fathers. “Close the door behind you.”
When they were alone, the Talon stood for a moment, deciding which torture to inflict first. He walked to a corner of the room that Siggurd, his head clamped in place, couldn’t see. He heard the sound of something metallic being scraped across stone. A blade being sharpened with slow, careful strokes. Siggurd’s pulse pounded in his ears.
The Talon reappeared holding a delicate blade. Everyone knew about the tortures inflicted down here. The acolytes whispered about them at night to terrify new arrivals. Flaying was common. If, somehow, you survived, you were left alive for your skin to grow back. Then it was peeled off you again.
Saying nothing, the Talon walked around to stand behind Siggurd’s head. Siggurd’s scalp was shaved bald, as that of all acolytes was. He felt the briefest spike of cold as the metal of the blade touched his bare skin, and then the searing agony began. With infinite slowness and care, the Talon set about removing the skin from Siggurd’s head.
He knew screaming would make no difference, but Siggurd screamed anyway. He tried to writhe his head out of the way but the Talon responded by tightening some screws on the iron bands, clamping him into place. In the end, Siggurd could do nothing but lie and endure.
It was soon too much. He slipped into a delirium of confused nightmares.
He awoke in utter darkness. Sharp spikes of pain prickled all across the top of his head but he wasn’t hurt anywhere else. Was that what they did? Waited for you to regain your senses before returning to strip off more skin? He was no longer shackled to the torture table. The ground was cold beneath his back. Siggurd reached up to touch the top of his head, gently feeling the lacerations in his tortured skin. His fingers sent sharp pain lancing through him again. He whimpered out loud. No. He mustn’t do that. Mustn’t let them know he was awake. His only hope was to make them think he was asleep. Asleep or dead. He lay unmoving, listening for some sound, dreading to hear approaching footsteps, the rattle of key in lock.
Aednir brought justice but Siggurd’s sins had been so slight. Did he really deserve this terrible, drawn-out death? He lay for a long time before the cramps in his shivering muscles became too much. Slowly he stretched out and pulled himself to his knees. He began to explore the cell, reaching out with his hands as he crawled about. A small, square room; not the cell with the table in it. They must have thrown him in there to recover. Or perhaps they needed the table for someone else. He found the door, its metal colder than the surrounding stone, but no light crept in around the edges. Perhaps he was in some deeper level of the caverns.
Reaching up with his hand he found he had room to stand up. He rose to his feet and was just working some life back into his legs when he heard footsteps approaching, suddenly loud outside his cell door.
Siggurd threw himself back to the ground and closed his eyes. Perhaps they wouldn’t check him; perhaps they’d think he was still asleep and leave him be for a little longer. Sooner or later they’d come, of course, but any delay was worth it.
He expected the door to swing open, but instead there was a thin metallic scraping sound. A square of bright light flooded into the cell from the bottom of the door. Siggurd barely dared to breathe. The light cut out with another scrape and the footsteps receded.
Siggurd waited long minutes before moving. He crawled back across the cell, feeling with his outstretched fingers. He touched something lukewarm and liquid. Gruel. They were feeding him. It made little sense. Why would they keep him alive? To torture him for longer? He thought about not eating the food, staying in his corner. He kneeled there in the darkness, debating with himself. But he had to eat to live. He began to eat the gruel with the wooden spoon provided.
Afterwards, he explored the cramped cell with his hands. As he crept around, his fingers brushed slimy creatures that slithered away rapidly. The creatures made no sound. Perhaps there were hundreds of them, all over the ceiling. He imagined them hanging there, creeping down when he slept to slither and slide all over him.
He began to form a picture in his mind of his cell. It had rough walls like a natural cavern. Apart from the iron door, the only other feature was a small drainage hole in one corner, far too small to escape through. Cold, dank air breathed up from it. He experimented with dropping pebbles down to see how deep it went, but he couldn’t convince himself he heard them striking rock or water below. Perhaps the shaft went on forever.
No one came to drag him off to the torture cell. He stopped exploring and sat, staring into the darkness. After a time he began to see faces. He knew it was his mind starved of sensation, inventing phantoms, but he welcomed them. Father Ulrich with his look of sour disapproval. Horst with his sly smile. The statue of the goddess he had hesitated over. Then, overlaid on the goddess, his own mother, smiling at him as she tousled his hair. She’d been so proud of him going to Thingwir.
Before Siggurd had been born, before the Fathers of Aednir had come to their village, his mother had carved beautiful figures in wood. His older sister had told him all about them. Faces and figures so exquisite people would walk for miles to sit for her. His mother, it was said, could bring dead wood to life by the skill of her hands. But all that had stopped when the Fathers came. To create the likeness of life was to usurp Aednir. A terrible sin. His mother had turned to carving chair-legs and ox-yokes. But, every now and then, Siggurd would catch her with some new length of wood in her hands, turning it over and over as if seeing the shape concealed within. Carving with her eyes what her hands dared not.
Eventually he fell asleep again, until the arrival of more gruel roused him. Days – impossible to say how many – began to pass by like this. Siggurd was torn between relief at being left alone and a growing panic that he would grow old and die in his subterranean stone box. Then, gripped by sudden panic, he would hack at the walls with his spoon. He never got very far, the wooden implement making no impression on the stone. Once or twice he called out, longing for someone, anyone to reply, even if it was one of the Talons. No one did.
Then came the day his cell door was finally thrown open. Bright light flooded his cell, silhouetting a figure in the doorway. Siggurd, sprawled on the floor, squinted through his fingers.
“Come with me.” A voice he didn’t recognize. Grateful for the release, terrified of what would happen to him, Siggurd began to crawl forwards.
The Talon who had come for him waited and watched. Deciding, perhaps, where on his body to begin work next. Siggurd’s hand went to his head, remembering the agonies he’d endured. His scalp was covered with a stubble of hair, now, hiding his wounds. Did the Talon intend to start all over again? Was that what they did?
The Talon strode up a flight of rough stone steps. Siggurd pulled himself to his feet to follow. He glanced back once into the cell he had lived in. It was tiny; in his mind it had become so much bigger. Then he, too, began to climb.
He found himself counting as they ascended. One hundred, two hundred, three. The bare rock became cut stone once again. Daylight rather than the yellow glow of the torches illuminated their way. It made little sense. Surely it wasn’t this far back to the torture chamber?
Still they climbed, now ascending spiral staircases, crossing echoing hallways and onto more stairways. Was he to be hurled from the top of the mountain? Fed to the ravens? Siggurd’s heart hammered, from his growing alarm and the exertion of the climb. The Talon didn’t stop. His monstrous shadow danced on the walls. They climbed higher than Siggurd had ever been before. He had long since stopped counting the steps.
Eventually they arrived at an ancient wooden door studded with iron. Three more Talons stood on guard, their hands resting on their serrated swords. There were torches here, but they spat and flared in an icy breeze from somewhere. Siggurd’s chest labored and his head spun. He thought about his home. He wondered if anyone would tell his parents what had happened to him. He hoped not.
The Talons conversed in low tones for a moment, the one who had led him up nodding his head in Siggurd’s direction. Finally, the guards stepped aside.
“The Wirfather will see you now,” said the Talon.
Terror pounded within Siggurd. He had never even seen the Wirfather, who spent his days up here in silent prayer, communing with Aednir or watching the world through the eyes of the ravens. The door was pulled open and Siggurd was thrust inside.
He found himself in a wide room. Pools of torch-light were islands in a sea of shadows. He shivered, despite the exertion of the long climb. The night air from the windows was sharp with cold. In the east he could see the sky beginning to shade from black to purple. Some new day dawning. But in the room, away from the torches, the darkness was absolute.
He noticed the figure then. Four hissing torches had been set on gold stands around a table and a white-robed man stood beyond them.
The voice echoed in the cold air. It was all sharp edges, metal and ice. Siggurd’s throat contracted as he tried to reply.
“Wirfather.” Should he bow? Debase himself on the ground? He had no idea. The Fathers had not prepared him for this. The Wirfather was ancient, it was said, sustained by Aednir. He could strike you down with a simple wave of his hand.
“You are lately returned from Armon.”
“And tell me, did you find the statuette of their goddess so very beautiful?”
Siggurd’s last hope of survival vanished. He thought about trying to lie, but knew it was useless. Aednir could see into your heart, read your innermost thoughts. Which meant the Wirfather could, too. Perhaps if he told the truth he would be spared the worst of what was to come. He tried to form an answer, but no words would come.
“You come from a family of craftsmen and sculptors, do you not?” said the Wirfather. “Perhaps you recognized their work?”
A new shock rang through Siggurd: the thought his family might be punished for his mistake. The terror of that finally freed his voice.
“No, Wirfather. They would never carve false images. Only flowers, trees and other lowly creatures without souls.”
“But when you were growing up. In private. Your mother copied you, perhaps? Her beloved boy. Carved a likeness of your face?”
“No, Wirfather. Of course not. She would never insult Aednir so.”
“Yet she once did exactly that.” The words were spoken quietly, as sharp as an icicle slipping into Siggurd’s flesh. The Wirfather was right. But that was all so long ago.
“When I was just a boy,” said Siggurd. “She carved some butterflies. But then, after she had finished, the Fathers … learned that butterflies have souls. My mother destroyed her work immediately when she found out.”
These were dangerous words, he knew. Somewhere in Thingwir, legions of Fathers labored over animal specimens, examining their behavior and dissecting their living bodies. Occasionally they decreed this or that creature was, and always had been, a higher being with an immortal soul and therefore an aspect of Aednir. So it had been with the butterflies. Overnight, images of them became objects of heresy.
“These butterflies were beautiful?” asked the Wirfather.
“Mere shadows of the true creature.”
Siggurd could think of nothing to say but the truth. “Yes. But we didn’t know any better.”
The Wirfather stared at him for some time. Siggurd had the clear impression of his innermost thoughts being exposed. Weighed. Tested. There was nothing he could do to resist. Was that why he’d been sent on his journey with Horst? Devout, reliable Horst. Had the whole thing been a trial?
The Wirfather turned and shuffled through the shadows to a smaller table, another pool of light. He moved with a clear limp, as if one leg was shorter than the other. Was he really centuries old? He indicated that Siggurd should follow. A sheet of white cotton shrouded the smaller table, an assortment of lumps beneath it. More instruments of torture? Siggurd’s breath formed a faint mist as he exhaled.
The white sheet was pulled aside to reveal what lay beneath. The sight puzzled him: a jumbled assortment of wooden fragments, each intricately carved, polished curves ending abruptly in jagged splinters. The fragments had been laid out like the pieces of a puzzle. They formed the rough shape of a body. A stretch of leg here, a rib there. The wooden skull, at least, looked complete, although disconnected, its eye-sockets empty. The craftsmanship that had gone into it was wonderful.
“Do you know what this is, acolyte?”
Siggurd shook his head.
“Her name was Anarvon Astrogale, the first of the three miraculous homunculi of Endest. You know the story?”
Puzzlement filled Siggurd. He’d been steeling himself to meet his end, not engage in talk about children’s stories.
“Yes. I didn’t think they were real.”
“Oh, they were. Built by the master craftsmen of Endest, the jewelers and watchmakers, woodworkers and silversmiths. It is said each homunculus took ten years to fashion into life.”
“Indeed so. When the world learned what Endest had wrought they rose up in horror and revulsion. Endest is now little more than dust. Aednir spoke and those who tried to usurp him were destroyed.”
“That is to the glory of Aednir, Wirfather.” Siggurd shivered in the sharp wind through the open windows, not understanding anything that was happening.
“Three homunculi were made,” continued the Wirfather. “The third was part-constructed when Endest was overthrown. Catafar Cursimon. A poor, half-formed creature of glass and crystal, easily cracked and smashed. The other two escaped. Anarvon Astrogale here was found and killed thirty years ago. In the end it took forty Talons to bring her down. Five died and went to Aednir in the struggle with the demon.”
Siggurd’s anxiety began to return. A glimmer of where this must be leading. Was this why his torture had so abruptly stopped? Because of some new, worse fate set out for him? It would, at least, be a noble end. If he died pursuing it – when he died – it would be in the service of Aednir. Perhaps that would spare his family from further punishment. It was all he could hope for, now.
“What happened to the other?” he heard himself ask. The Wirfather looked up at him. Siggurd imagined a smile in the depths of that cowl, as if he had said the right thing.
“Borealis Banderwar. The homunculus of silver and brass. I will show you now where he is.”
The Wirfather covered up the shattered remains of the wooden demon and crossed to another table, the largest in the room. An image, greens and yellows and blues, was painted upon it.
“Here is a map of the known world, acolyte.”
Siggurd studied the drawing, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. The single peak of Thingwir lay at the center of the world, with an array of cities and forests and mountain ranges drawn around it. Here and there were marked terrible creatures: giants and river-serpents and men with faces in their chests and men that were half-horse. Whole sections of the map were completely blank, lands unknown. Around the edge of everything lay a circular sea and then, presumably, the edge of the world.
He picked out Armon, almost next to Thingwir. Yet it had been three week’s ride. The map covered vast distances. How far must it be to that great encircling sea?
“Here lies the land of Pirathia,” said the Wirfather. “Many leagues distant, up the Glass River, over the Tower Peaks and across the Red Plain. You have heard of it?”
“Missionaries returned from there recently with tales of a human machine that rules over the Pirathians with an iron fist. The Clockwork King they call him. It is, it can only be, Borealis, the last of the three miraculous homunculi of Endest.”
“This machine is their king?”
“Their tyrant. The homunculus is doing what it was made to do. The Craftsmasters of Endest created them to rule.”
“Why would they enslave themselves so?”
“Some devil possessed them, some madness. They thought to improve on the omniscient rule of Aednir with mere machines of wood and metal and glass.”
“But how did this Borealis become their ruler? Wouldn’t the people have fought it?”
“Pirathia is a lawless, brutal place, controlled by squabbling warlords and petty kings. Borealis must have built an army. Formed alliances to suit his evil needs. The homunculi are devious devices, built to attain power. Their ingenuity should not be underestimated.”
“And I am to go there.”
The Wirfather nodded. “This is to be your penance, acolyte. Free the Pirathians from the demon so the light of Aednir may shine upon them.”
“I am to kill the demon?”
“No. Not kill it. You are to bring it here so we can be sure it is destroyed. Aednir will not be content until the demon is melted down and returned to ore.”
Siggurd bowed his head. They both knew he was simply being punished for his lack of faith. To overpower the metal homunculus. To bring it back to Thingwir. To even reach Pirathia in the first place. It was all impossible.
“You will leave immediately. Study the map so you know the route.”
A faint glimmer of hope woke within Siggurd as he looked at the vast distances between Thingwir and Pirathia. He tried to suppress the thought so Aednir couldn’t see it in his heart. But here was a possible escape. Surely even ravens couldn’t fly over deserts?
“This is a sacred duty laid upon you. You failed before in Armon. Do not fail me again.”
Siggurd dipped his head in reply but did not speak.
An hour later Siggurd stood at the foot of the mountain. His breath billowed from his mouth in little clouds. His horse stood patiently, head drooped, while he adjusted her straps. She was old, surely not strong enough for such a long journey. They were both being sent away to die. High overhead he could hear the harsh cronks of the circling ravens. His only hope was to get as far away from Thingwir as possible. Could you outrun a god? He would at least try. Perhaps in some distant land, where the name of Aednir was unknown, he would be able to find safety and peace.
Horst emerged then from the shadowed gateway. He strode forward, something glinting in one hand. He wore a broad smile on his face.
“How fortunate you are to be given such an important mission, Brother Siggurd. I wish I were accompanying you once more, I really do.”
Siggurd resisted the urge to strike the younger acolyte in the face. “I am sure it won’t be long before you, too, are given such a quest,” said Siggurd. “Everyone in Thingwir would be very keen to see you go.”
Horst’s grin wavered but then returned. “I was instructed to give you this before you departed.”
He held out the amulet he carried: an eye-shaped red gem strung on a gold chain. Depictions of the holy ravens had been worked through the decorated mount. To depict a raven, especially one of Aednir’s, was a terrible heresy. But these talismans were made, or at least blessed, by the Wirfather himself. They were, effectively, the work of Aednir.
Siggurd bowed his head while Horst placed the amulet over his head.
“How can I ever thank you?” said Siggurd.
“Oh, no need. You deserve the blessing, for this is no ordinary amulet.”
“You will find it hard to believe, I know, but there are those who think about fleeing the church when they are out and about in the world. Aednir sees and knows, of course, but these amulets provide more … immediate restitution.”
“Now that you wear it, it is tied to you. If you stray from the path of Aednir – which of course is unthinkable for one so devout – the Wirfather will know. Wherever you are in the world, any act of heresy, even an attempt to remove the amulet, and he’ll know. The amulet will awake and choke the life out of you. Nothing you can do. Is Aednir not wonderful, Brother Siggurd?”
Siggurd didn’t reply. He turned his back on Horst, on Thingwir, and walked away, leading his weary horse by her reins.
He came close to death many times on his journey. His sword, once so heavy and clumsy in his hand, became more comfortable as he learned to wield it. For a month or more, the amulet afforded him some protection. Bandits and cutpurses, wary of Aednir, stepped backwards when they saw it around his neck. But the farther Siggurd roamed from Thingwir, the weaker the fear of Aednir became. After three months travel it became clear the amulet was a draw for outlaws rather than a ward against them. He took to wearing it under his tunic. Many times he thought about removing it altogether, tossing it into some lake or selling it at the market of the next town. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t at all sure he believed Horst, and the further south he travelled, the more distant the stories about Aednir seemed. But still he could never be sure.
His horse, who he had named Grani, proved to be more spirited than he’d thought. She carried him uncomplainingly up hills, across plains and through raging rivers. Perhaps she, too, was glad to be away from Thingwir. Her needs were simple: water and grass and a comforting pat on the neck, all of which Siggurd was happy to supply. As the weeks and months wore on he found himself talking to her more and more. Grani watched him with her round chestnut eyes as he talked of his childhood and his time at Thingwir. He asked of her all the questions about Aednir that filled his mind. She didn’t reply, but nor did she interrupt him.
The main feature of the map Siggurd had studied was the line of the Tower Peaks, a long mountain range that curved like a scimitar across the lands. He would have to cross those peaks, or else detour many hundreds of leagues around, passing through lands drawn only vaguely upon the map. At first it had seemed an impossible barrier, but then he’d seen the trail: a faint dotted line snaking up into the mountains and down the other side. High in the peaks it crossed a gorge where a bridge was marked. Here was a path he could follow.
More than once, as he and Grani toiled up the slopes, he had doubts. The trail, so clear on the map, was hard to find on the ground. Not many people passed this way. But they struggled onwards and upwards, both glad to be putting each extra yard between themselves and Thingwir.
After weeks of climbing they reached the top. Jagged peaks surrounded them. Siggurd’s breathing was labored as if the very air shunned the mountains. The bridge was there before them: a spindly, wooden crossing over a deep, steep-sided gorge, hundreds of feet wide. The central third of the bridge had no support at all. It swayed visibly in the wind.
The problem was the figure standing at the edge of the bridge. A tall, muscular man with a sword slung across his back. There had been faded words on the map but Siggurd hadn’t been able to read them. Perhaps they’d been some warning. As Grani trotted forward the figure strode to meet them, practicing swings through the air with his sword. Sunlight glinted off his cuirass and helm. Only as they neared each other did it become clear this was no man. The guardian was huge, perhaps ten feet tall. Siggurd had seen little sign of the fabulous beasts marked on the map but here, clearly, was one. A giant guarded the bridge.
“You must pay to cross,” said the giant, his words rough, only half-emerged from a muddy growl.
“I have nothing to pay with,” said Siggurd.
“That bauble around your neck,” said the giant. Siggurd hadn’t bothered to keep it hidden in the mountains.
Siggurd put his hand to the amulet. “I cannot give you this. If I remove it I will die. Aednir will kill me.”
The giant laughed, a deep rumbling laugh. “Then this Aednir will save me the trouble of killing you myself. Hand it over if you have no other means to pay.”
“No,” said Siggurd.
“Then return the way you came.”
“No,” said Siggurd again. “I must cross.”
The giant planted his sword into the dust of the ground. “Then there is only one way.”
“What is that?”
“You are both scrawny scraps of meat. But that horse of yours would fill my belly for a week.”
As if she knew what the giant was saying, Grani turned her head to glance back at Siggurd, alarm clear in her eyes.
“No,” said Siggurd once again.
The giant grasped his sword again. “Then I will have both of you and eat for two weeks.” He began to lumber forward, scything his vast sword in front of him, half-roaring, half-laughing.
Once again, Siggurd drew the sword the Fathers had given him. Surely Aednir would help him slay this monster? The giant’s face was unprotected; one well-timed blow would be enough. With a cry he urged Grani into a canter. The giant laughed then crouched, blade thrust forward for Grani to impale herself.
Grani did something unexpected then. She had been a faithful companion, plodding along at Siggurd’s bidding, never complaining. Now some fire awoke within her. She snorted and broke into a gallop, charging directly at the looming giant. Siggurd forgot his sword and grasped the reins to prevent himself falling off backwards. Grani raced forwards, her hooves thundering across the ground.
“Grani!” Siggurd shouted. She paid no attention, racing towards the waiting giant. Then at the last moment, that great sword directly in front of her chest, she leapt.
She had never shown any inclination to jump before, preferring to wade through streams or plod amiably around a wall if she could. Now, as if she had been saving herself all this time, she flew through the air, higher than Siggurd would have thought possible. For one dizzying moment he was in the sky, rising out of the saddle, the world and the giant and the sword beneath him.
Then the ground leapt up towards them. Grani stumbled with the impact, pitching Siggurd forwards. He managed to hold on with his legs. The giant roared behind them. Grani recovered and regained her stride. She shot forward again, ears back, and thundered onto the bridge. Siggurd could hear the giant’s great blade whistling through the air just behind them, the giant’s rapid clumping steps very close.
The blade whistled again and Grani jolted as if stung. The giant’s sword had opened up a red gash on her flanks. Siggurd thought she would crumble at last. But instead she hurled herself forward even faster, hooves clattering, off the bridge and onto the dusty rock of the other side.
She rode and rode, refusing to slow her pace, racing faster and harder than Siggurd had ever known. The roaring giant pursued them for a time but eventually gave up the chase. With one final curse he stopped.
Grani galloped on for several minutes before slowing to a canter, a trot. Finally she stopped and wandered over to a patch of scrubby grass to eat, as if nothing unusual had happened. Siggurd dismounted to examine her wound. She was still bleeding. He washed the cut with water from a bottle. It didn’t look too deep but they would have to take it slowly for a week or two.
He walked round to pat her neck. Froth still foamed from her mouth. She looked at him with her placid eyes, then bent down to resume her chewing.
She died, eventually, not at the hands of giants or bandits but because of a scree slope. Four months later, scrabbling down the side of a hill onto the desert plains of Pirathia, she slipped and tumbled, sending Siggurd rattling downwards. When he had recovered himself and worked his way across to her, he knew it was bad. She couldn’t stand, one of her forelegs bent at a bad angle. Siggurd could do nothing for her but give her a swift end. Still uncomplaining, she watched him as he brought his knife up to her throat. Tears filled his eyes as he struck.
When it was done, Siggurd sat with his head in his hands, leaning against her warm body. Once again, he was tempted to cast away the amulet. How had Aednir allowed this to happen? Or any of the other gods whose worshippers he’d encountered? There was no justice to it.
The amulet still around his neck, he set off alone for the city of Pirathia, half-falling, half-sliding down to the desert plains. He followed the meandering course of a river cutting across the sands. The loop took him many leagues out of his way, but he knew from the map it would get him there eventually, and its waters would keep him alive beneath that blazing sun.
Pirathia dazzled him as he approached. Its high walls were painted a blinding white. Beyond them, the clashing sun glinted off sloping roofs of gold and red. The city seemed to float above the shimmering heat-haze, as if not actually touching the ground. Somehow he had to get inside. Get inside and capture the tyrant who controlled it. Borealis Banderwar, the silver and brass homunculus. In all his months of wandering Siggurd had tried many times to think of an alternative path. Tried and failed. If, by some whole series of miracles, he succeeded in returning the homunculus to distant Thingwir, then perhaps the Wirfather would remove the amulet. And perhaps Siggurd would be able to resume his life. It was his only hope. In truth he knew he would die here, one way or another. He accepted it. Welcomed it even. It would at least be an end to his torments. And he was so far from home his family would never know. They would think him alive somewhere, wandering strange and distant lands.
At the walls he expected to be accosted by the guards, seized and slain without even entering the city, his red blood soaking into the red sands. But instead, as he approached, he saw wide-open gates and streams of merchants arriving and leaving, their trains of camels and desert horses laden with swaying goods. There were guards, clad in brightly polished brass, but they paid Siggurd no attention. He walked between them, conscious his clothes were little more than tattered rags now, under the teeth of the city’s portcullis and into Pirathia.
The city inside the walls hummed with activity. Merchants vied with each other to accost passers-by. Dazzling arrays of goods were piled high upon stalls: fruits and glass orbs and brass lamps and pots of colorful spices and items Siggurd couldn’t identify. The noise and smell and clamor made his head spin. None of it was what he’d expected. He’d imagined slaves; a population beaten down by the tyrant’s soldiers. Instead he heard the babble of conversation and laughter threading among the merchants’ calls. None of the words made sense to his ears, but their tone and meaning was clear. These were well-fed, contented people. Perhaps the homunculus had already been destroyed. Perhaps it had never been here.
And if that was the case, perhaps he did have a chance after all. If the Wirfather saw what the amulet saw, he would surely see the truth of the situation. Siggurd could make the return journey to Thingwir knowing he had done all he could. A rare flicker of hope flared within him.
He stopped to admire the carvings on one of the stalls: wooden figures of men and women, all portrayed with sinuous, flowing lines. Beautiful to see. He touched one, tracing his finger along the smooth curves. How his mother would have delighted in it. He was about to pick it up when he felt the iron grip of a gauntleted hand on his shoulder.
He spun round to find two guards standing there. Two guards and a third: a woman who was clearly their commander, her armor more elaborate, her hair braided with red gems. She stepped forwards, speaking harsh words. The woman seized hold of his amulet and, before he could react, tore it from his neck, pulling him to the ground as she did so. Siggurd lay in the dust, shocked, expecting his end to come from that blue sky at any moment.
Instead, at a curt word from the woman, the guards grasped him beneath his arms and began to haul him away. Siggurd tried to struggle to his feet, seeing suddenly the possibility of freedom. He hadn’t died. Aednir hadn’t struck him down. If he could shake himself loose he could escape into the hubbub of the bazaars. Flee the city and never return.
But the guards’ grip was too firm. Crying and writhing to no avail, Siggurd was hauled through iron doors into the sudden cool of some high, stone building. The guards dragged him down twisting corridors illuminated by flickering torches before throwing him into a small, dark room. The squeal and clang of the iron gate being closed upon him echoed around and around.
His long journey was complete: a trek that had started in a dungeon in the frozen cathedral of Aednir had ended in an airless, dusty cell in the fortress of Borealis Banderwar the homunculus.
Siggurd heard his torturer – or his executioner – approaching little more than an hour later. Crisp, purposeful footsteps approached rapidly, the stone walls outside his cell lit by a sudden bloom of blue light. Siggurd stood, although he knew it would make little difference.
But it wasn’t the brute armed with saws and spikes he’d imagined. Instead, his door was pulled open by a short, slight figure and the blue radiance came not from a torch but, somehow, from the man himself. His whole body glowed with it; a luminance that lit up the intricate, whirring contrivance of cogs and cables and springs making up his body. His silver and brass body. There could be no doubt. Borealis Banderwar himself had come to deliver Siggurd his fate.
As he stood awaiting the end, Siggurd found not fear but a sense of wonder filling him. The homunculus truly was miraculous: an intricate, living machine. The workings of his body were all visible but the craftsmen had also contrived to give the homunculus a face: glass eyes in a metal visage that moved and flexed as the cables and cams in the creature’s head worked. There was no other word: the homunculus was beautiful. Siggurd almost laughed with delight at the sight of him.
“My apologies for your treatment,” the creature said then, his voice clear and bright, lips moving in perfect time to his words. “My guards were told to be wary of invaders from the distant northlands. Your pendant gave you away, but now that I see you, I think my people may sleep safely in their beds for one more night.”
“You know of Thingwir? Of Aednir?”
The homunculus moved forwards to stand directly in front of Siggurd. “A little. I know many of the northern lands are under the thrall of the Wirfather. And he sent you to destroy me?” He didn’t sound angry, or incredulous. Merely curious.
“To capture you,” said Siggurd.
“Ah,” said the homunculus, as if this was a possibility that hadn’t previously occurred to him.
“What will you do with me?” asked Siggurd.
Somehow, the arrangement of wheels and brass plates in the creature’s face conveyed a sense of amusement. “Nothing at all. You are free to leave. We have nothing to fear from you. But if you would stay a while and tell me your story I would be delighted to hear it.”
“I crave knowledge and you must have seen much. But please, come upstairs where it is more comfortable. You require food and drink?”
The glowing machine turned and left, leaving the cell door wide open. Siggurd followed, expecting some trick, some fresh torment. But no one stopped him. He followed the homunculus upwards until they reached a wide, airy room. Finely carved limestone screens let in a filtered sunlight. In the center of the room, a table had been laid with all manner of foods: fruit and spiced meat and cheeses and jugs of colorful juices.
“Please, eat as much as you like,” said the homunculus. “I have no need of any of it, of course.” The creature pulled open one of the screens and walked onto a balcony to survey the city. Siggurd, famished, began to eat. From outside came the hum of countless people’s footsteps, their mingled calls and shouts and laughter. The voice of the great city.
After twenty minutes Siggurd sat back, unable to eat any more. The homunculus returned to sit beside him on the terracotta floor. Up close, the mechanisms of his body, the flexings and foldings of his limbs, were fascinating to see. Siggurd wondered at the workmanship that had gone into him. Several tiny cogs spun to and fro in the contraption’s chest as if they were his beating heart.
“So will you tell me your story?” asked the homunculus.
“What do you wish to know?”
“Everything. Please, leave out no detail however unimportant it may seem to you.”
“Starting from when?”
“From your earliest memories, if you’re willing. I have all day. All week if you need. Pirathia more or less runs itself these days.”
“And then I can leave?”
“You may leave now if you wish.”
“You aren’t what I expected,” said Siggurd. “None of this is what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“The Wirfather said you were a tyrant. That you had enslaved the people of Pirathia.”
The mechanical face rearranged its features into a smile. “He is right, in a way. I certainly became the king. We were designed for that. And there was a certain amount of fighting in the early days. Fighting and killing, although I tried everything to prevent it. But now Pirathia is at ease. There are no slaves here anymore. So, will you tell me your story?”
Siggurd sipped at some red fruit juice he couldn’t identify and then began with his earliest memories of his boyhood.
When he had finished, darkness had gathered in the room. Only the blue glow from the homunculus’s body lit the scene.
“I am sorry for your horse,” the machine said at last.
“Grani. She sounded noble. Strange as it may seem for one who is not actually alive, I abhor death. It is how I was constructed.”
“Why were you constructed?” asked Siggurd. “What were you for?”
“We were built to rule, as your Wirfather said. To bring order. My wooden sister Anarvon Astrogale, my crystal brother Catafar Cursimon and I. Endest had been riven by wars for centuries and each leader that came along only made it worse. In the end the Guilds and Craftsmasters decided enough was enough and began to construct a thinking machine instead. A device with no ties to any sides, no ancient resentments, no secret agendas. An uncluttered mind. That, eventually, became Anarvon. Ten years later I was built. Metal, it was thought, would last longer than wood. We were crafting Catafar from glass and crystal when Endest was attacked.”
“The Wirfather said the world rose up against you in revulsion.”
“It is true our neighboring Queens, Emperors and God-kings united to attack us. The first and last time they have ceased their squabblings and cooperated. But I suspect the real reason was fear for their own futures.”
“But you escaped.”
“We did. The people of Endest smuggled us away, thinking us too precious to lose. Ironic given that they, as living creatures, were the truly miraculous ones. Catafar was incomplete and couldn’t move quickly enough. He was taken away to be smashed to glass shards. Anarvon and I escaped to watch the destruction of Endest from afar. Beautiful, glorious Endest.
“And then you came here?”
“We decided to go our separate ways, to try and do some good in the world. I ended up here. The fate of Anarvon you have seen.”
“I don’t know what I should do now,” said Siggurd. “I don’t know where I should go.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“Decide in the morning. Or the next day. You have travelled a hard road.”
Siggurd nodded in the darkness, although whether Borealis could see this or not Siggurd didn’t know.
Borealis rose to his feet. “Follow me. I will show you where you may rest.”
The following morning there was more food on the table. While Siggurd ate, courtiers carried ewers of steaming, scented water into a side-chamber, filling a bathing-room. All of it was for his own use.
Later, he sat on the balcony, gazing across the shining rooftops to the wide, red desert and the line of purple mountains. It was a long time since he’d had enough food to eat, or enough hours to sleep, and Siggurd welcomed both gladly. He saw no one save the courtiers. Once or twice he descended the stairs that led down into the bustle of the city and even walked through the city gates to stand with his feet in the burning sand of the desert. Each time he returned: partly in hope of completing his quest, but also because he wanted to see Borealis again. The homunculus dazzled and fascinated him.
But Borealis didn’t return that day, nor the next. It was a full week before the glowing artificial man reappeared. “Forgive me. I have been tying up affairs of state. I’ve brought your amulet back.”
“Did you find any means by which it could converse with Thingwir?” asked Siggurd.
“None at all. It is just an amulet. Either that or it functions in a way I cannot comprehend. But you are still alive so I suspect the former. Perhaps this Horst merely said what he said to frighten you. Or perhaps he believed it to be true.”
“Why are you tying up your affairs?”
“Because I am leaving Pirathia.”
“Where will you go?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Thingwir? But you must not,” he heard himself say. “They will destroy you just as they destroyed your brother and sister.”
“I have done all I can here, Siggurd. Pirathia is at peace. And from everything you have told me there is work to be done in the north. You should be pleased. You came to take me there and now you will succeed in your impossible mission. If you wish to come with me. And if we make it that far.”
“But you will go without me?”
“I will. Although I would prefer it if you came. We could fill the long journey with tales of all we have seen.”
Siggurd still hadn’t decided where to go next. He appeared to be free. Still, the north was his home and he missed it. He worried, also, about his family. If he didn’t return would they be held responsible? On the other hand, if he did return with Borealis, the Wirfather would surely consider his penance paid.
“I would happily go with you,” said Siggurd. “But I would not happily hand you over to the Wirfather. I would be buying my life with yours.”
“But I am not alive, Siggurd. I am only a clever, intricate thing. You are more important. I ask you to come – not least because you know the way – but it is your decision to make.”
Siggurd considered. He imagined himself standing on that balcony, watching the homunculus striding northwards into the distance. He knew, then, he would wish to follow. He needed to know how this story turned out.
“I will come,” said Siggurd.
“Consider,” said Borealis. “If you do return with me they may kill us both.”
“Why would they kill me?” asked Siggurd.
“Perhaps you were never supposed to return. Perhaps they expected you to die on your way here. The Wirfather may have sent you on this quest as a kindness.”
“In his terms, yes. Dying in the service of Aednir is better than dying as a heretic in the dungeons of Thingwir. Perhaps he thought he was saving your soul. But he may not be pleased if you return alive.”
Siggurd considered a moment more.
“I will travel with you,” he said.
The homunculus nodded his head, cogs in his neck whirring backwards and forwards to effect the movement. “I am pleased. But there is something else I must ask you, too. A small thing, and an odd one, but it might be important.”
“What is it?”
Borealis considered for a moment, features arranged into a frown. “You see, there was one thing in your story I didn’t understand. A puzzle. And now I think I have solved it.”
“You said they began to torture you. They tied you down to flay you.”
“But then they stopped, suddenly. Why was that? It made no sense to me when you recounted it.”
Siggurd shrugged. “I assumed they changed their mind. That the Wirfather decided to send me on this quest instead.”
“And yet there was that long delay between the two events. Many weeks, you said.”
“So how do you explain it?”
“I may be wrong. But, if I may, I’d like to shave the hair off your head. I believe there may be something tattooed there.”
Ten minutes later, Siggurd sat on a wooden chair while the Clockwork King of Pirathia shaved off his hair with a barber’s blade. The homunculus moved with swift, sure strokes, never once drawing blood, repeatedly dipping his steel blade into a bowl of water. Cascades of long, brown hair fell to the ground, collecting around Siggurd’s chair.
“Anything?” he said. “Do you see a message?”
“There are marks,” said Borealis. “I will reveal all of it and then we may see.”
A few more minutes and the homunculus stopped his cutting and scraping.
“Well,” said Siggurd. “What does it say?”
“Hold this mirror and I will angle mine.”
The top of Siggurd’s own head became visible in the glass he held in his lap. It was immediately obvious what the delicate blue lines upon his scalp were. Not words. A picture.
“That is Thingwir.”
“A map, I would say,” said Borealis. “You said there was only one entrance?”
“Yes. The main gates at the base.”
“Then here is another mystery. Look closely. There, on the northern flanks, this small symbol. It is surely a door.”
“A secret entrance?”
“I presume so.”
“The northern slopes of Thingwir are sheer cliffs for a quarter of a mile. No one can climb them.”
“No person, perhaps. But I could.”
“But … but why would the Wirfather reveal this door’s existence by tattooing a map of it onto my head? It makes no sense.”
“And more interestingly,” said Borealis, “why not even tell you about it? You might never have learned of the map’s existence.”
“Then how do you explain it?”
“I cannot. Yet it seems to me this is a trail given us to follow.”
“It seems to me it’s a trap,” said Siggurd.
“Sometimes the only way to disarm a trap is to spring it,” said Borealis. “Will you still come?”
Siggurd studied the blue lines on the bare, pink skin of his scalp. If it was a trap, it was a trap for Borealis, not him.
“I will,” he said.
The following morning they stood together at the gates of Pirathia. Despite the early hour, the red sand beneath Siggurd’s feet was already warm. The bright sunlight shone through Borealis’s body, illuminating the cogs and wheels within his chest, making his workings shimmer and glisten. The horse provided for Siggurd stood patiently beside them. Siggurd stroked her neck while he checked her straps were properly tightened.
“She is the finest Pirathia has to offer,” said Borealis. “A thoroughbred. Her name is Harmattan, the name of the wind that blows off the desert. She is swift, but whether she has the heart of Grani remains to be seen.”
“Where is your horse?”
“I have no need of one. I can run as far and fast as any steed.”
“But you must need food? Or at least sustenance of some kind?”
“I have a collection of spare parts that I may need, along with various oils and tools. Other than that I need only sunlight. I collect all my power directly. It is one reason I came south, where the sun is strong.”
“But we are travelling to the far north, where the light is low and weak. During the winter it is absent completely for three months. How will you survive there?”
“I will have to hibernate during the long night. I will be limited. But I will be fully functional in the warmer months. Everything will take longer to complete, but there is no way round it. It is late summer now and your journey here took the best part of a year. We can at least time our arrival at Thingwir for my period of peak activity.”
Borealis spoke to the gathered crowd then, thanking them, making them laugh with his recollections and his advice. Finally they set off, following the banks of the river that snaked its way through the desert towards the mountains.
Five months later, Siggurd and Borealis lay on a lip of rock and peered down at the ravine cutting through the Tower Peaks.
“There is the bridge,” said Siggurd. “And the giant.”
“A bridge troll, I think,” said Borealis.
“Can you kill it?”
Borealis considered for a moment, the familiar whirring from his chest as if he used his whole body to think. “I could. But I will not.”
“Why? I see no other way.”
“I was made not to kill. You know this, my friend.”
“But you kill when you have to.”
Borealis sat down behind the lip of rock. “Let me show you something,” he said. He began to turn some tiny brass screws in his chest, using an implement built into the tip of one of his fingers. He handed each screw to Siggurd to hold as he freed them. Finally he hinged off a round plate. Underneath were some numbers on dials. The numbers read 74.
“What is that?” asked Siggurd.
“This is the count of the number of people I have killed.”
“You keep a tally?”
“My mechanisms record the number automatically. Every time I directly kill someone these dials count up.”
“I do everything to preserve life, but my builders recognized that, sometimes, it is necessary to kill. I have told you many of the stories. One tyrant slain may save the lives of many.”
“You’ve also said you can never really know whether you’re doing the right thing.”
“Just so. Who can? But these numbers stop me going too far. You see there are only two dials? They can only count up to 99.”
“And if you kill a hundredth?”
“Then my workings will shatter. Certain strong springs will release and my mechanisms will be ripped apart, scattered into thousands of useless pieces.”
“But you could prevent that happening. Fix these springs within you.”
Borealis shook his head. “No. I cannot fix myself because I am not broken. These dials are a good thing. They are, if you like, my conscience. When I reached Pirathia they read 17. I had to kill fifty-seven people to bring peace to the desert lands. A high price to pay, perhaps too high, but I could have killed thousands to achieve the same end.”
“So, how can we get past this troll without killing it? It would take years to go the long way round.”
“The answer is simple,” said Borealis. “Grani is not here to save us and Harmattan, for all her speed, would bolt in terror before facing a troll. I think it is time to release him, let him run free. And then we will jump across the ravine, you and I.”
“My voltaic cells are fully charged. This slope will give me a good run-up for the leap across. Can you wrap your arms around my neck and hold on?”
“You can leap that far?”
“I have calculated the distance most carefully. Are you ready?”
“There is no other way I can see. But you may, of course, turn back with Harmattan.”
“No, no. I’m coming,” said Siggurd. Warily, he climbed onto the back of the homunculus.
“You will have to hold firm,” said Borealis. “I will not be able to support your weight. I will need my arms for the run and the jump.”
“Trust me, I won’t let go.”
“Good. Then let us try.”
“What do you mean try?”
But Borealis was already running, skimming across the ground with alarming speed. Siggurd clutched his hands as tightly as he could around the homunculus’s neck, enough to choke a real person. Borealis ran faster and faster, jolting Siggurd so hard that he bit his tongue. The lip of the ravine, the edge of the great chasm, was suddenly there, directly before them. The far side was impossibly, unreachably distant.
“Borealis! It’s too far. We can’t…”
With a great lurch, Borealis leapt.
They soared high into the air and out over the gaping drop. The world became a blur of rock faces and rushing wind, stifling Siggurd’s scream. His stomach lurched around within him. He caught a glimpse of the troll, watching them from the nearby bridge. Then the distant ground beneath them, a thin ribbon of glinting water running at the bottom of the ravine. Then the approaching rock-face of the other side, suddenly huge in front of them. He saw they weren’t going to make it. They would crash into that cliff and fall.
He was screaming again when the jarring impact came. But not the rock-face, the flat of the far side. Siggurd was thrown forward as Borealis crashed into the ground. Siggurd’s face and hands and knees scraped across rock as he tumbled forwards. Borealis curled himself into a ball and rolled along before smashing into boulders.
Siggurd came to a halt, dust filling his mouth. He lay on the ground and groaned. Borealis had come to a halt several yards farther on. Siggurd watched as the homunculus stretched out and began to check his limbs and inner workings.
“Did you really calculate you could make that leap?” asked Siggurd. “Because it looked very close to me.”
The homunculus considered the distance he had jumped. “I was fairly sure I could make it.”
“Fairly sure? You tell me that now?”
Borealis stood. “The odds were very good. And everything we do is a risk, my friend. I have never leaped so far before, it is true, but I thought I would make it. Sometimes you surprise yourself if you try something new. But I’m sorry if I alarmed you.”
“Just give me the odds next time, understand?”
Borealis bowed in consent. “I promise. And now we’d better leave. That troll looks rather angry for some reason.”
When Thingwir finally rose from the horizon in front of them, more months later, they ceased their long northward trek.
“We should circle around,” said Borealis. “Approach it from the north. The hidden door is that way and most will approach from the south.”
“The ravens see everything,” said Siggurd. “Aednir sees everything.” Was that true? Borealis clearly didn’t believe so. Yet Borealis was only a machine. Aednir was a god. Wasn’t it more likely Aednir knew they were approaching but chose not to act to stop them? After all, why should he? They were already doing exactly what the Wirfather had instructed.
“Let us find out,” said Borealis.
They journeyed for another week, toiling their way across a landscape of pine-wooded hills, always keeping the peak of Thingwir visible in the distance. Slowly it sidled its way around the horizon, sliding down to the east and, finally, the south. They were now farther north that Siggurd had ever been in his life. Although it was still summer on the northern tundra, the sun gave little heat, and icy winds from even further north cut through him. He had forgotten what true cold was like during his time in the south. Borealis, of course, didn’t notice the chill, but once or twice his movements were awkward, as if the low light was beginning to take its toll.
The wind at least provided some relief from the clouds of biting midges that swarmed across the tundra. When the air was still, and especially at dawn and dusk, they would appear from nowhere, turning the air black with their teeming flight. Siggurd suffered terribly. At first it was just his face and hands, but soon he itched all over as the tiny insects crawling under his clothes to find fresh flesh. Once again, Borealis was unaffected. The midges landed on him and, indeed, crawled inside him, coating his workings like a black scribble. He paid them no attention.
Only the smoke from a fire drove them away. In the evenings, as the blue sky darkened to purple and the diamond stars began to shine out, Siggurd collected grass and what twigs he could find and Borealis, triggering some flintlock mechanism within one of his fingers, touched a flame to them. Freed from the midges and warmed by the fire, they would sit there together, Siggurd staring into the flames, Borealis lost in his own machinations. Or else Siggurd would pick out the constellations and point them out to Borealis.
“There is the Sword, and here the Spilt Chalice. Then the three Ravens, circling around the Eye of Aednir.”
“In the south that Eye is called the North Star and it sits in the constellation of the Ice Bear.”
Siggurd nodded. He had learned that people had many different names for the constellations. That they grouped the familiar arrangements into different patterns. Another thought to trouble him. He had always been told Aednir had arranged all the stars. Yet further south there were stars he didn’t have names for. Hadn’t Aednir formed them also?
“Tell me,” said Siggurd, pushing the questions aside, “if you can climb the mountain, and if this doorway even exists, what will you do then? The Talons will capture you and destroy you. Dismantle you or melt you down. We could still leave without them knowing.”
Borealis sat on the other side of the flames, the heat rising off the fire making his features ripple and distort. “No. I will attempt the mountain tomorrow. And if I am destroyed, what does it matter? Machines can be rebuilt. It would be possible to create a device identical to me if the plans could be found. But you, Siggurd. There can never be another you. You must decide your course carefully.”
“It doesn’t trouble you to die?”
“It does, of course. The need for self-preservation was built into me. But this urge is subservient to the main reason for my existence. Life and the living are all that really matter.”
“But Aednir will not allow you to succeed. The Fathers and the Talons and the Wirfather will not allow you to succeed.”
There was a pause for a moment, while some workings within Borealis whirred and clicked. “Tell me, Siggurd, do you think Aednir really exists?”
Siggurd didn’t reply for a moment, struggling again with the delicious, forbidden thought he may not. “Everyone knows Aednir exists,” said Siggurd. “He created all this. He created you and me.”
“He didn’t create me.”
“He caused you to be made.”
Borealis nodded. “And yet I have talked to many people in many lands who know that another god created everything. And I have never been able to detect any proof of any of it. I am just a machine and perhaps I am incapable of understanding, but from my observations it appears Aednir – and all the others – exist only in peoples’ heads.”
“No. Aednir is real. Just because there are unbelievers elsewhere doesn’t change the truth.”
“I see,” said Borealis. He looked genuinely interested now, as if this was all a fascinating puzzle. “And all the suffering and death you described to me. The acolytes who disappeared. Or the way your mother was prevented from carving her wood. The senseless end of Grani. Why does Aednir allow such things to happen? Why does he cause them?”
“Just because we can’t understand Aednir’s design doesn’t make it less real.”
“I see,” said Borealis again. “There is certainly much I don’t understand in the world. But I suppose tomorrow we will find out the truth one way or another.”
“If I climb that mountain and find them waiting, then it must mean Aednir exists,” said Borealis. “The Wirfather’s trap, the Ravens, the amulet, all of it must be true. But if I enter Thingwir and no one prevents me, then perhaps the Wirfather does not see everything after all.”
“You mean we,” said Siggurd.
“When we climb that mountain. I am coming with you.”
“You are sure, my friend?”
Borealis grinned. “Ah. Good.”
“Are you sure you have enough power for this?” asked Siggurd. More than once on the trek southwards, Borealis had tripped and nearly overbalanced, something Siggurd had never seen him do in all their time together.
They stood now at the foot of Thingwir, the grey rock of the mountain a vertical cliff in front of them, the stone cold to Siggurd’s touch. High, high above, he could see the ravens circling around, their coarse calls quieted by the distance.
“I am sure,” said Borealis. “This low light does not suit me but my voltaic cells contain enough energy.”
“And the entrance? Can you see it?”
“There is a cleft in the rock, high up, in about the correct position.”
“I can see nothing,” said Siggurd, stepping backwards and craning his neck upwards. The rock was sheer all the way to the sky.
“It was easier to see as we crossed the tundra,” said Borealis. “I was able to focus in and study the rock face in close detail by employing a different set of lenses.”
“But you didn’t see that actual door?”
“I did not.”
“And if it isn’t there, will you have enough power to climb down again?”
Borealis calculated for a moment, cogs whirring with sudden speed within him. “No. I will lose all power part-way down and fall. The impact will destroy me.”
“And if you have me on your back?”
“It changes little for me. I will still have enough power to make the ascent but not the descent. It makes a great deal of difference to you, of course. As ever the risk is yours to take, Siggurd.”
Siggurd nodded. He could still walk away. He could make his way around the feet of Thingwir and tell the Fathers where the demon Borealis Banderwar was. He should do exactly that. Instead he said, “I will come with you.”
Borealis’s face worked its way into a clear smile. He knelt down in front of Siggurd. “Climb onto my back once more. Hook your hands through these leather straps so you won’t slip off when your fingers become numb.”
Borealis’s body was surprisingly warm as Siggurd climbed on. He watched over the machine’s shoulder as Borealis operated tiny wheels on his wrists, extending sharp metal talons from each of his fingertips.
“These will allow me to find purchase in the smallest of cracks,” said Borealis. “I have planned my route up very carefully.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said Siggurd.
As they climbed, Siggurd’s hands soon lost all sensation, frozen by the icy chill, numbed by the leather straps cutting into his wrists. His hands were just dead things hooked through the thongs. Borealis, meanwhile, clung on to the cliff-face by only the spikes protruding from his fingertips. Such delicate, tiny spikes. Again and again, Borealis reached up to find some higher crack in the rock before hauling them both up another foot. Beneath and behind them gaped the great emptiness of the air, the plunge to the ground that would kill them both.
Siggurd didn’t dare speak to Borealis for fear of distracting him. He could do nothing but wait. The higher they climbed, the stronger the wind blew, threatening to pluck them from the side of the mountain. After a while, Siggurd closed his eyes and simply endured, trying to lose himself to childhood memories.
And so it came as a surprise when, after an eternity of jerking ascent, Borealis suddenly lurched forward, pitching Siggurd off his back and onto a ledge of rock.
“We are here,” said Borealis. The homunculus wasn’t out of breath, of course, but his words were mumbled and slow, as if he had little energy left. Siggurd nodded, his face muscles too cold to work properly. They sat on a narrow ledge of rock, high, high up, the ground so distant it seemed almost unimportant.
If the doorway wasn’t there they were doomed. And what would they do then? Sit and wait to freeze to death, or leap from the ledge to end it quickly? Siggurd climbed to his knees, not daring to stand on the narrow lip of rock, and began to study the rock face.
There was no door. But a fold in the rock rose vertically upwards for several feet. Patting with his numb hands, Siggurd found there was a narrow gap between one lip of rock and the other. Holding on, he rose to wobbling legs and, turning sideways, began to push his way through the crack into the darkness. For a moment he became stuck, his chest wedged between the two walls of rock. But, by standing on tiptoes, he found he was able to force his way through. He was suddenly falling into a wide, dark cavern within the mountain.
“Borealis. I am inside. The doorway is here.”
A moment later the homunculus appeared, his blue glow faint and flickering in the darkness. The two of them sat for a moment, relishing the solid ground beneath them. The calm stillness of the air.
“Well,” said Borealis. “It seems we are not expected.”
“What will you do?” asked Siggurd.
“Do you think you can show me the way to the Wirfather?”
“We need to climb,” said Siggurd. “But what will you do when we get there? Will the Wirfather be your seventy-fifth?”
“Perhaps,” said Borealis. “There will still be the Talons and the Fathers and all the other followers of Aednir.”
“Killing him might show them Aednir is not all-powerful.”
“Do you think that is what I should do, Siggurd?”
At some point in their long journey together, Siggurd had come to accept the stories of Aednir were just that. Stories. He had suffered too much at the hands of the Wirfather. Suffered for no reason. Thinking back, Grani’s death had been the turning point. It was hard to entertain such thoughts; he had known Aednir existed since he could think. Yet there was no trap. The amulet had only ever been pieces of intricately-wrought metal.
“I see no other way,” said Siggurd.
Lights flared all around them, then, flame running around the edge of the room as a spark was touched to a line of some oil. The light blinded Siggurd for a moment. He was aware of shapes moving into the circle of light. Many shapes, running to surround them. Squinting through narrow eyes he saw one of the figures approaching.
A grey-robed figure stood there. The Father waited for a moment then threw back his hood to show his face.
“Horst,” said Siggurd.
“Father Horst to you.”
“He has completed his quest,” said Borealis, stepping in front of Siggurd. “He has brought me here to the Wirfather as he was told to do. Do not harm him.”
Horst laughed. “Do you think us so dim-witted, demon? Do you think we don’t know what is happening here? You cannot protect Siggurd. We all heard the two of you plotting to slay the Wirfather. You will both be taken to him. You will both die this day.”
“I cannot die,” said Borealis.
“We shall see,” said Horst. He nodded his head and the Talons converged, some holding chains, some swords. Siggurd took out the knife he carried and prepared to fight. Horst, laughing, stepped forward, holding a blade of his own.
“And will you slay me, Siggurd? Or will you hesitate again, as you did in that temple. That moment when you revealed your true self?”
Siggurd swung, flashing the blade towards Horst’s face. But his muscles were still cold and slow and Horst dodged easily. The Father swung his own sword into the side of Siggurd’s head.
Siggurd staggered, putting his hand to his face. There was no blood. Horst had hit him with the flat of his blade. Siggurd gripped his knife in both hands again and prepared to attack.
“Borealis! Kill them! We can still escape.”
“No, Siggurd,” said Borealis.
The homunculus stood behind him. Thick chains had been wrapped around his body, pinning his arms to his sides.
“You can break free,” said Siggurd. “You can kill them all.”
Borealis shook his head. “No. I am too weak. I am sorry. The climb … I may have miscalculated. And I cannot kill so many. Put your blade down, Siggurd. It will achieve nothing.”
Siggurd looked back at the grinning Horst. The urge to kill the Father filled Siggurd. If Horst had said nothing after that day in the temple, none of this would have happened. Horst was to blame. But attacking him would only make things worse. They were beaten. They had walked into a trap. The Wirfather and Aednir had seen everything, known everything, after all.
Siggurd let his knife clatter to the ground.
The Talons bound the two of them to stone pillars in the Wirfather’s icy chamber, Siggurd with ropes, Borealis with iron chains as thick as Siggurd’s arm. A thin light shone through the windows, but the two of them had been deliberately placed in the shadows so that Borealis could not recharge.
“Leave us now,” said the hooded Wirfather to the Talons and Fathers who had hauled Siggurd and Borealis to the chamber.
“But, Wirfather,” said Horst. “We should remain to protect you. In case the demon escapes.”
“Aednir will protect me,” said the Wirfather. “The demon is weak, drained by its long climb. As I intended. Now, go.”
Horst and the rest bowed and departed, leaving the three of them alone. Borealis sagged from his chains, lifeless, all his energy spent. Siggurd struggled against his ropes but couldn’t loose himself. He thought about all his heresies, all his sinful thoughts. He thought about what the Wirfather would do to him. He and his family. He had failed this second test as well. He should never have listened to Borealis’s lies. His only hope was for a death that didn’t linger for too many days.
The Wirfather limped towards them, taking his time. As he approached, a spark kindled within Borealis. Wheels whirred within his head and the homunculus looked up.
“Catafar, my brother,” he whispered. “It is you isn’t it?”
The Wirfather stood unmoving for a moment as if puzzled. Siggurd thought he would strike Borealis for his heresy. But instead the Wirfather threw back his hood to reveal his face. His face not of flesh but of polished crystal. Glowing threads of some silvery metal ran throughout like the branches of a tree. By some trickery of the threads, a face was visible on the glass, projected from within. A face that expressed a deep sadness. The projected eyes moved, examining them, and then the projected lips parted as the crystal homunculus spoke.
“Yes, my brother. It is me. Or what is left of me.”
The Wirfather – Catafar – let his robe drop to the floor, then, showing them both what remained of him. His head and torso, half an arm and one leg. Crude lengths of metal replaced his missing limbs. A great crack ran diagonally up his body, as if he might split in two at any moment.
“They nearly destroyed you,” said Borealis. “I am sorry.”
Siggurd looked from one to the other: the metal and the crystal homunculus. Shock gave way to anger within him. “But … you didn’t tell me? You both kept this from me?”
“I am sorry, Siggurd,” said Catafar. “Sorry for everything you have been through. I couldn’t risk the truth escaping. I thought I could trust you, but even so. Even the bravest will buy their freedom with their secrets if they have to.”
“And I only suspected,” said Borealis. “It was another chance taken. But I also couldn’t risk Catafar’s identity being revealed.”
Catafar stooped awkwardly to retrieve his robes. He pulled a knife from his belt and began to saw at the ropes binding Siggurd.
“What happened to you?” asked Borealis.
“I killed seventeen of them when I was captured but I was too weak to fight them all. Far too weak. They brought me here, this fractured, broken wreck, for the old Wirfather to toy with.”
“Yet you managed to kill him?” asked Borealis.
“No, I could not,” said Catafar. “I was too broken. But before the Wirfather started work on me he began to talk. It transpired he had many questions. Doubts. And until I came he had no one to discuss any of it with. Apart from Aednir, of course, but Aednir has the annoying habit of never replying.”
“So he just … let you take over from him?”
“Eventually. We were together here for twenty years. Talking, arguing, debating. He was a good man, trapped in the role of Wirfather. A role he came to despise. He thought the Fathers had lost their way. All their brutality. But couldn’t bring himself to change them. That was too much for him. He was torn by his doubts, but we found a sort of understanding in the end. A friendship.”
“Is it possible, then, you are still carrying out Aednir’s plans?” asked Borealis. “By taking over?”
“Perhaps,” said Catafar. “I don’t know. I do know Aednir has never spoken to me. Perhaps our builders didn’t equip me with the right sort of ears. But in the end, the previous Wirfather thought Aednir was merely an … ideal. I’m not sure of the right words. A metaphor, perhaps. So, when he was dying, he told no one and let me become Wirfather in his place.”
“The Fathers didn’t notice?”
“No one questions the Wirfather. Blind devotion has its advantages. And few ever see me anyway, locked away up here in this icy chamber.”
The sadness returned to Catafar’s glass face. “I could do nothing to help our sister. I had her remains brought here for safekeeping. It is a strange thing but I have often found myself talking to the fragments of her body over the years. She has never replied either. And then I heard stories of the Clockwork King of Pirathia and knew it must be you. So I sent many messengers south. But only Siggurd, it seems, managed to reach you.”
“Only Siggurd,” said Borealis. “I have thought, often, of coming in search for you and Anarvon. But I didn’t know where to look.”
The last rope fell to the floor. Catafar stepped back and studied Siggurd. “We have much to thank you for. I hope we can repay you.”
“But how did you even know we were coming?” asked Siggurd. “Did you see through the amulet?”
Catafar’s face smiled. “That? No. It is just glass. I have been watching for you through my telescopes. Three days ago, finally, I spotted you heading south. And so I arranged for you to be brought here.”
Siggurd tried to work some life back into his limbs. “But I don’t understand. What now? Why have you done all this?”
Catafar began to fumble with the locks on Borealis’s chains, peering close as if his eyes didn’t function properly. “I am weak, Siggurd. A few minutes activity each day drains me. I can achieve little. And all the north is under the thrall of Aednir. I soon saw replacing the Wirfather would not be enough. Bringing enlightenment will take many years. Generations. I needed my brother and sister to help. To repair me, and then to lay plans with me. We must wean the people gently from their stories for fear of traumatizing them. We must shine a light on their nightmares. Disband the Talons and close the dungeons. I believe most will accept the change, given time. Although I’m afraid some never will.”
“Brother and sister?” said Borealis. “So Anarvon can be repaired?”
The chains rattled to the floor and Catafar stepped backwards. “I believe so. I have all the designs, but I lack the skills and the materials.”
He limped across the chamber and pulled back the sheet to reveal the shattered remains of the wooden homunculus, lying there just as Siggurd remembered.
Borealis joined him. He stroked the smooth curves of the polished wood. “Ah, Anarvon. What have they done to you?”
“We will need a very skilled wood carver to restore her,” said Catafar.
“Ah,” said Borealis. “Yes, I see.” Both homunculi turned to Siggurd.
“I’ve heard there is one who can bring wood to life by the skill of her hands,” said Borealis. “Is that not so, Siggurd?”
“Your mother,” said Catafar. “Will you bring her here? Your whole family? Your mother can carve again. Anarvon will surely be her greatest work.”
“For my mother to carve again. Is that … is that possible?”
Catafar looked up. The lights within his glass skull glittered. “There are many secret chambers above us where they and Borealis can dwell until these lightless days are finally over. But, yes. To the Wirfather anything is possible, my friend. My brave, noble friend. Will you go?”
Siggurd could see how beautiful Catafar must once have been. Catafar Cursimon and Anarvon Astrogale and Borealis Banderwar together.
“I will,” said Siggurd.
A day later, Siggurd strode out from the entrance to Thingwir. Before he left for his boyhood home he had one final task to complete. The Talons at the gate parted to let him pass. A short distance away, Horst stood and waited, holding the horse he had been given for his long journey.
Siggurd watched the fury and hatred playing across the tall Father’s face. But Horst said nothing. The Wirfather had redeemed Siggurd and made him a Father and that meant Siggurd was Horst’s superior by six months.
Siggurd took the amulet he carried and placed it over Horst’s neck. “I believe you know what this is for. Aednir sees all, does he not?”
“He does, Father,” said Horst, speaking very quietly.
“And you know the route you must take?”
“I do. South for the Tower Peaks.”
“Just so,” said Siggurd. “The troll who guards the bridge is a mighty warrior. But the way must be opened up, and you will surely be victorious in the fight. With Aednir on your side.”
Horst looked down to the ground but didn’t reply. He knew he was being sent away to die.
“Very well,” said Siggurd. “Now, go.”
Horst looked as if he wanted to reply. Instead he turned and plodded away, leading his horse by her reins.
Siggurd watched them for a long while. He felt sorry for the horse. Perhaps she would bolt before they reached the bridge. He hoped so.
He turned and strode back into Thingwir. He had much to do. He would leave within the hour to fetch his family. The journey home and back to Thingwir would take weeks.
Then, when they returned, his mother could begin her work.