Caught In The Wake
Tallis gently readjusted his legs to get them into a more comfortable position, easing the pins and needles that were punishing his foot. He wriggled slightly, shoulder-blades pressing into the dirt beneath him, and then froze as one of the two bodies he was hiding beneath shifted.
His skin crawled as he strained his ears, but the sounds of the quiet battlefield didn’t change. The occasional birdcall echoed as crows descended upon the dead to feast, and from far away drifted the sounds of victorious war-cries from human and uplift alike.
There was a howl, made thin and reedy by distance; the Purkoy dogs, giant and armoured, joining the Salt Wolves, Tallis supposed. He relaxed back into the small hollow he had made for himself and sighed. The two bodies above him were stiff and heavy, pressed against him as they were. The one he didn’t know was wearing heavy plate, and smelled of blood and dirt mixed with rank body odour. The other corpse, her eyes staring sightlessly into his own, was Thereta.
He held the gaze for as long as he could. She’d only joined them a few weeks previously, no real experience. He’d been gently working on her for most of that time - a wink here and there, the odd remark with a raised eyebrow, gradually getting closer - a hand on the shoulder, a blush from her, a lingering gaze. Another couple of days would have done it, he mused. But not now; some of her blood had seeped from the gaping chest wound down into the joins between his own armour, the result a sticky mess that would take hours to properly clean out. Like broken veins, strands of her dark hair were sealed to her paling face by dried sweat. His hand twitched as those eyes stared down at him, through him, but his arm was pinned against his side by her dead weight.
Still, soon the sun would be down, the hot summer air cooling, and he could crawl out from under Thereta and… whoever the man in plate was, crawl out and creep away. Maybe Meria, if I can get across the mountains. Plenty of folk there to hide amongst, because bugger this for a game of-
A sound like a sail flapping in the wind cut off all thought, followed by a thump that shook the ground and threatened to dislodge the bodies on top of Tallis. He grabbed at them as another thundering concussion sent tremors through the soil, and then a third.
The air in his little nook was suddenly stuffy as even the sounds of the distant victors faltered and died. He gasped a little as more thuds sounded, giant footsteps that slowly grew closer. The fluttering accompanied them, as though they wore robes of paper.
“No, no,” he whispered.
Thereta’s dead eyes found his again, sunken slightly into an expression of accusation. You did this; we’re dead because you wouldn’t fight, and now it’s coming for you. Coward.
The immense footfalls came closer and paused. Tallis held his breath, trying to still his heaving chest. Nobody here. Just dead folk. His stomach whirled and he clenched down as his guts threatened to loosen. Why them? Why here?
A shaft of sunlight speared down, blinding him, as the man in plate was suddenly dragged off to one side. Tallis gasped as feeling flooded back through his leg, and he threw his hand up to shield his eyes. Her stare holding his the entire way, Thereta rose into the air and was flung off to one side.
Above him, silhouetted against the bright sky, stood a vulture. Before he even had time to shout, to get up and run, one taloned foot shot down and grabbed him around the midsection.
The vulture slowly drew him out into the light and up towards its head. It blinked yellow eyes at him as he began to struggle, pushing against the claws.
“Let me go! Let me- Ah!”
The world tilted violently as it shook him like a rag doll. There was a tinkle as his sword, stolen off some minor noble’s corpse and thrust into his belt, fell to the floor. The vulture turned and croaked. Two more of the giant creatures, stalking amongst the bodies, croaked back, and as one they spread their brown wings.
The downdraft from the first beat of those mighty wings kicked up a cloud of dust, and Tallis choked out a yell as the vulture carrying him began to rise from the ground. He grabbed at the buckles of his own chest-piece and fumbled with them, writhing in an iron grip that only got tighter.
The ground fell away, and he stared down at the lethal fall beneath him. The slew of corpses - the entire company, mixed in with a few scattered Purkoy and the occasional uplifted dog or wolf - seemed small against the gently-sloping hillside, and already the wolves and dogs that still lived were grey-brown smudges atop the ridge. Tallis craned his neck around as the wind whistled in his ears, feeling the world tilt under him, and finally gave in to the urge to scream.
The vultures moved into a loose formation, and after a few minutes Tallis realised that they were set in for a long flight. Their wingbeats had moved into a smooth rhythm that had already carried them miles, and he slowly brought his breathing under control long enough to take stock.
All three vultures had the same basic colouration; brown feathers, darker underneath, and brown bodies, but their heads were covered in finer white-grey feathers. The talons that held him were the grey of dead flesh, tipped with sharp points longer than his hand. Their beaks were the same shade, long and blunt until the sharp point that seemed to drip off the end.
They flew in silence, staying below the clouds, and he watched the land beneath him roll away. Johalland’s towns and cities unfurled like a map, the patchwork of fields and fine tracery of roads joining clots of houses, churches, market stalls. The shadow from the three vultures flickered and danced as they passed over it all.
“Where are you taking me?” Tallis shouted above the wind. He thumped the talons a couple of times with a fist. “I don’t want to go, wherever it is!”
The vulture rolled one yellow orb down to look at him, but didn’t reply. He looked up at the sun, then back down at the ground. “South east,” he muttered. “There’s nothing out there but cliffs and mountains.”
As though summoned by his words, the horizon resolved itself into stony peaks, and the vultures wheeled around slightly. Tallis opened his mouth to ask another question, then growled and redoubled his grip on the vulture’s talon. “Whatever you do, don’t bloody drop me,” he said, and clenched his teeth.
The vultures began to dive, speeding up as they plummeted towards the mountains, and Tallis felt the scream rising in his chest again as one stone fang loomed higher and closer. Their wings snapped out, sending him lurching forward, and they soared around the mountain and on towards the next.
Left and right the vultures swept, around bare mountain peaks; Tallis caught glimpses of stone cairns built atop the highest points, of animals, goats mostly, grazing peaceably on the sparse vegetation. On one of the mountains, on a path that wound to its summit, Tallis thought he saw a human, watching. He went to call out, but the vulture holding him squeezed tighter and cut his breath off. They flew on.
The sky was darkening, the sun trapped behind a bank of cloud that moved in all the faster as they flew towards it. Just as Tallis opened his mouth to shout another futile question, the vulture holding him began to dive again. More smoothly this time, it angled down towards a dark gash on a sheer mountainside, slowing itself in the air, until it hopped to a landing with barely a bump on the edge.
As the first fat drops of rain began to fall, it carefully placed Tallis down on the stone, then turned and took off again, rejoining the other two that had stayed above circling the mountain. All three wheeled around and were gone.
Tallis waited until the rattle of feathers had gone before easing himself upright. Every muscle ached, and it was a long moment before he could stand.
He ventured as close to the edge of the cliff as he dared; below, it was sheer, ending in the mists of what looked like a waterfall, hundreds of feet below; above, the cliff soared uninterrupted until it met the clouds. The hiss of rain was constant, thunder cracking off in the distance, and the edge of the cliff was already slick with water. The immense crack in which he stood extended for only forty feet into the mountain before it became a rocky tunnel.
His shout echoed off the stone around him and far away he heard the mocking croak of a vulture laughing back at him. He growled, pulled his trousers and tunic straight, and set off into the tunnel.
The passageway turned once, cutting the noise and cold of the wind, and Tallis poked his head tentatively around the corner. Beyond, the tunnel came to an abrupt end with a wooden door, a single candle burning on a sconce either side.
Tallis looked back, but there was nothing behind him. He grimaced, then crept up to the door and eased the catch open, one hand curling into a fist.
The chamber beyond was immense, seeming to span the entire mountain. Vaguely circular in shape, it was filled with quiet conversation and the hiss of torches, and the smell of sickness.
Stone slabs, like tables, stood in neat rows, and upon each lay a body. As he moved nearer, Tallis could see that they were all alive, chests moving; the nearest one was a woman, her eyes closed as she slept beneath a thin woollen blanket. The pink of fresh scars was a splash of agony across her throat, but she seemed to be otherwise fine. The man on the next bed was missing a leg, but the stump had been dressed and treated, and he too was asleep.
Further into the chamber lay those still being treated, and among them moved brown-robed figures. As though on some unspoken signal, one of them looked up from their ministrations and began to move towards Tallis.
“Welcome,” the robed woman said. Her hood was up, masking the top of her face, but her ginger hair hung down below the collar of her cloak. “You are…?”
“…Tallis. What is this place?”
The woman smiled and held up a hand. “You have many questions. I shall endeavour to answer them all.” She came to stand next to Tallis, gesturing around the room. “Welcome to the home of the Wake, Mr Tallis. My name is Vorna, and I am one of the servitors here. You are safe while you are here; as you can see, this is a place of healing.”
They began to walk between the tables, Vorna’s quiet alto carrying over the murmurs. “You may have heard of the Wake before - vultures who descend on battlefields and carry away those living, but unable to leave due to injury. They are brought here, treated, and traded back to their people.”
“Traded for what?”
Tallis threw his hands up and began to back away. “Well, that’s great, but I’m not injured, and I don’t want to be ransomed back to my people. Your vulture friends have made a mistake, and… and I demand they take me back!” The servitor’s smile never left her face, and Tallis balled his fist up again. “Take me back! Or take me somewhere else!”
“Some injuries,” Vorna said quietly, “are less visible than others. For example, some come here with legs missing; others, eyes. Some, like you, even come here with their entire spine missing.” She half-turned. “Come on. There is more to see.”
She moved off, leaving Tallis staring at her retreating back, and the man had to jog to keep up.
“We servitors are just that - servants of the Wake,” she said, directing Tallis’s gaze to the right wall. Hidden in a crevice, as still as a statue, stood a vulture. Its brown wings wrapped around its body, mirroring the robes of the servitors. “They have occupied this place since long before I was born, and will continue to do so long after my death.”
“Why did they bring me here?”
“Ah, that question you will have to pose to them,” Vorna said. “We are not privy to their decisions, only to the outcomes.”
“What if I leave?”
Vorna spread her hands, long sleeves hanging loose. “You are welcome to try. Many have before you.”
They had arrived at an empty slab, and Vorna placed one hand on it. “This is yours. As you quite rightly pointed out, you have no physical injuries. You will probably be ransomed back to your people in a couple of days.”
Tallis leaned in close, dropping his voice. “What if they don’t pay? There’s no-one back there that wants me.”
“Someone will always pay.” Vorna gave him a small nod, then turned and moved to the next slab over. “Lord Kaladin,” Tallis heard her saying to the slab’s occupant. “How are we today?”
Tallis tuned him out, looking around the room. There were exits to other tunnels in each corner as well as the one he had come in through, and they seemed to be in free use by the acolytes. One was big enough for the vultures, and he looked over at the one standing watch; its gaze flicked around the room, those intractable yellow-marble eyes seeming to be everywhere at once.
What the hell. They can only stop me. He waited until one of the brown-cloaked servitors had just left the nearest tunnel exit, then slid smoothly off his empty slab and walked out.
An hour later, he was back on his slab, swearing under his breath.
“Not that easy, is it,” a weak voice said from the next slab over.
Tallis looked up as the figure on the slab sat up, pushing his blanket down to reveal fine clothes. A bloody rent had been torn in the front and back, and presumably through the man himself, but he seemed well enough.
“Not a pretty sight, I know,” he said, poking at the hole in his gold-trimmed doublet. “Bandits, would you believe, attacked us in the night. How the Wake found me, I don’t know.” He stuck his hand out towards Tallis. “Sorry, terribly rude of me, old chap. Lord Kaladin of Bassendale.”
Tallis shook it, taking in the man’s soft hands and chins. Too right you’re a lord. “Tallis, of…” He shrugged. “Nowhere in particular at the moment, actually. Leaton, most recently. What d’you mean, not that easy?”
“You were looking for a way out, hm?” Kaladin smiled. “Most of us did that, and new people most often do. They don’t much mind people walking around because, as you’ve just discovered, there’s not really anywhere to go, hm?”
Reluctantly, Tallis nodded. “That way just led to quarters for these servitor folks, and the other to some storerooms and the latrines. Is the whole complex only available by flight?”
“Hm, that’s right. Makes a certain kind of sense, really, when you sit and think about it.”
Tallis leaned against his slab and folded his arms. “So how long have you been here?”
“A week. They brought me in in rather a sorry state. Stabbed clean through - in here, see, and out…” Kaladin gestured to his back, then winced. “Mostly patched up, now, hm. Wonderful the things they can do with a little yellowdust.”
Taking a long look at the vulture standing watch, Tallis shifted against the uncomfortable stone. “So what now for you? They take you back?”
For the first time, Kaladin’s cheery smile wilted at the edges. “Ah, sort of. To Lady Tarran.” He gave a pained shrug. “Turns out father doesn’t put quite as much store in his youngest. Tarran’s lot were the ones we were fighting when I got, ah, run through.”
Tallis raised an eyebrow. “So they sent, what, an emissary-”
“That’s right, one of those chaps with the brown robes.”
“And the other side are paying more for you?” Tallis threw his hands up. “This is ridiculous.”
“I do owe them my life,” Kaladin said quietly. “What they do with it is somewhat up to them.”
A hush fell over the room as another vulture marched out of the tunnel and picked its way over to the one standing guard. They bent their heads close to each other, like priests hearing confession, and then switched places. The new guard folded its wings around itself and settled to its duty, as the quiet hubbub in the room slowly returned.
“Who gives them the right?” Tallis shook his head. “I’ll be damned if they trade me away like some crate of goods.”
“I wish you the very best of luck,” Kaladin said, laying back down on his slab. He arranged the blanket over himself and closed his eyes.
Tallis looked around the chamber again. Most of the occupants were laying down, corpse-like, and the only real movement was from the attendants. One was going around the edges of the chamber, handing out bowls to those who were awake, and filling them from a cauldron hung on her arm. The hood of her robe was thrown back to reveal her face, the ginger hair now gathered into a braid.
Tallis pushed himself away from his slab and intercepted her as she drew close.
“Hi,” he said. “Vorna, wasn’t it?”
She turned and looked at him, her head cocked slightly to the side. “Mr Tallis,” she said. Her eyes flicked over to the vulture standing watch, only for a moment, and Tallis frowned.
“That’s right. We spoke earlier - you showed me around. Listen, what’s really going on here? Are you prisoners?”
She smiled broadly, as though the idea had genuinely amused her. “Not really, Mr Tallis. Thank you for your concern, but we’re properly cared for here. The Wake provide. And for you, too.” She drew another bowl out of a small sack over her shoulder and filled it from the cauldron. The smell of meat stew flooded around him, and Tallis took it gratefully.
“How?” he said, in between mouthfuls. “You can’t fly, unless you’re hiding a pair of wings under that cloak.”
Her eyes unfocused slightly as she stared at something unknowable. “Ah, that would be amazing. To fly like they do, like any uplifted bird can.” She shook her head. “No, we can’t fly, but they carry us out to nearby towns for supplies, and we make efficient use of what we have.”
Tallis drained the last of his stew and handed the bowl back. “What about… what about rubbish? Dead bodies? Human waste? Some of it must leave here somehow.”
“Nothing is wasted, Mr Tallis. The Wake abhor waste. Anything that we can’t use for food or clothing, or in some other way, are used in others.”
“So you never leave.”
“We often leave, just never under our own effort.” She raised a knowing eyebrow. “You’re not very good at hiding what you want, are you?”
He grabbed her arm, holding her in place, ignoring the twist of pain in her eyes. “I want to get out of here, you hear me? No-one’s going to pay anything for me, and I’m not injured, so just tell your masters, or partners, or whatever the hell they are, that they can just damned-well pick me back up and fly me out of here right now.”
“You can tell them yourself,” she said, looking up and behind him.
Tallis didn’t even have time to turn before a beak descended on his shoulder, buckling his knees and forcing him down. The weight was incredible, and he reflexively let go of Vorna’s wrist.
“I wish you hadn’t grabbed me,” Vorna said quietly. “Please try not to scream so loudly - you’re disturbing the rest of others.”
“Tell it to let go!” The vulture slapped a taloned foot down onto him, crushing him into the stone floor. “Tell it-!”
“It’s as intelligent as you are… more so perhaps,” she said, laughter in her voice. “Tell it yourself.”
“Let me go!”
The vulture’s foot pressed down harder.
“I’m no use to you dead! I thought you - ugh - didn’t want waste!”
The weight paused for a moment, then lifted.
Tallis eased himself to his feet, and by the time he looked around, the vulture was almost back at its post. Vorna, one hand on her hip, shook her head, lips curling into a half-smile.
“Honestly, I’d sit it out if I were you. It’s night-time already - hard to tell in here, I know. Go get some sleep. In the next couple of days, we’ll send an emissary - one of us browncloaks - to your people and negotiate your return.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Tallis said hoarsely. He turned and limped towards his slab, wincing as his muscles screamed in protest. He slid onto the stone and lay down, not even bothering to find a blanket.
When he awoke, a vulture was standing over him.
It looked down, eyes shining in the dim light, then moved on to Kaladin’s slab. Again, it stopped, considering the man, before moving on to the next. A woman lay there, groggily waking up.
The vulture’s beak shot down and grabbed at her body, and Tallis jerked forward.
But the expected crunch of flesh and bone didn’t come; instead, the woman let out a strangled cry as she was lifted bodily off her slab, securely held in the vulture’s beak. It turned and marched out of the chamber, carrying the woman.
“Her time,” Kaladin said. He turned and looked behind him to Tallis. “That’ll be me tomorrow.”
Tallis, heart pounding, leapt off his slab. “And there’s nothing we can do, huh? This is ridiculous!”
“Keep your voice down, old chap,” Kaladin said. “Don’t want to attract too much attention, like you did last night.” He motioned Tallis closer. “Listen. I’ve been awake a few hours this morning… couldn’t sleep, I guess, and… well, I heard something.”
Tallis properly looked at the man for the first time since waking up. He had a strange gleam in his eyes, a ruddy glow to his fat cheeks. “Go on.”
“It was two of these servitors… the browncloaks? They were talking about rain coming in - apparently it rained hard overnight, and an old chimney has leaked.”
“So there’s a way out.” The lord’s voice was an insistent hiss.
Tallis looked at the vulture standing watch - was it the same one as last night? Impossible to know. “I see… Why tell me this?”
Kaladin gestured to himself. “Look at me, hm? I’m not exactly in the best fighting fitness, am I? But I don’t want to be ransomed off to enemies of my family… who knows what they’ll do to me? I shudder to think.”
“You want help.”
“In return for knowing that there is a way out, yes, I want your help getting out.”
Tallis considered Kaladin for a moment, then put his hand out to shake.
“Deal. Where am I going?”
“We, dear boy. We are going to-”
“Hey, hey, no. You think we’re just going to wander over to wherever this chimney is and smile sweetly at the browncloaks? No. This needs casing out. Guard timings. Any equipment we need, all that stuff.” Tallis shook his head. “No, you tell me where it is and I’ll make sure we can do it.”
“I’m fat and entitled, not stupid,” Kaladin said, but the good humour in his voice was gone for a moment, replaced by steel. Then the moment was over, and he shook his head. “But you’re probably right. I would imagine that even this small sliver of hope would vanish in a heartbeat were we to be discovered.”
He pointed at the smaller passageway that led out of the cavern. “Along there you will eventually come to a store-room. This room has a small, unused access hatch from above - at some point, I believe, supplies were ported in from the upper floors or perhaps even the mountaintop. This hatch, once opened, leads to an upper level of the store-room, and the chimney we are concerned with.”
Tallis nodded. “I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes,” he said, and squeezed Kaladin’s shoulder. “Be ready to leave.”
“Good luck, old chum.”
The store-room was exactly where Kaladin had said it would be, half-full of crates and barrels. A couple of sacks had potatoes and carrots spilling out from them, earth-scented. He ignored them all, focusing instead on the wooden hatch in the ceiling.
“Exactly as the fat boy said,” Tallis murmured, moving closer. Water had seeped in around the hatch, staining the wood and marking the floor, and a small puddle had formed there. The crates had been moved aside, out of the wet, forming a small wall.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Tallis ducked down behind the stack of crates, holding his breath. The footsteps carried on past, and when he poked his head back up the corridor was empty.
“Carefully now.” He gently lifted the topmost crate, feeling its contents shift slightly, and placed it down in the puddle. Another, placed on top, and he was able to reach the hatch.
It creaked open on its hinges, revealing a dark space above. Tallis pulled himself up, letting the hatch drop quietly closed behind himself.
The room above was empty, but for a few broken pieces of wood that lay in a pile - the remains of a crate, judging by the joints. Tallis walked past it and up to the room only source of dim light.
The chimney was a simple hole in the ceiling against one wall, bored out of the living stone of the mountain by some ancient art. Across its lower mouth a rusty metal bar had been fastened, complete with hooks for a kettle or cauldron. Water had pooled beneath the chimney, becoming rivulets that wended their way across the room to the hatch. Tallis tentatively reached up and tested the bar, his hand coming away slick and covered in flecks of rust.
“Nothing for it,” he muttered, leaping up to grab it. It held, and, swinging for a moment, he pulled himself into the chimney.
Almost immediately, he hit his head on the wall, which sloped at an angle towards the light. A shelf had been carved into the side, and he shuffled onto it, looking up.
Directly above, a small rectangle of grey sky shone down. He climbed gingerly to his feet, looking around. The chimney was at the same time spacious and narrow once beyond the shelf.
“Bugger,” he said.
While narrow in its width, the walls of the chimney, lengthways, were almost five feet apart. An experimental attempt to climb by spread-eagling his arms and legs did nothing but tear the top layer of skin from his hands. He tore a strip off the bottom of the stained tunic he still wore and used his teeth to tear it in two, then knotted it around his palms.
Widthways, the walls were only three feet apart, too close for him to both get his back against one wall and his feet against the other. He sat on the shelf again, legs dangling down into the storeroom, and sucked on his teeth.
“Alright, Kaladin, you win,” he muttered. He slid back off the shelf, careful this time not to hit the sloping ceiling, and lowered himself back into the room.
Kaladin was waiting for him when he made his way back to their slabs.
“So? Is it, hm, a go-er?”
Tallis nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I think we can probably get out, but it’ll take both of us, and it’s going to take some effort. You sure you’re healthy enough for it?”
Kaladin slapped at his belly. “Fit as a fiddle, old boy. Ah, are your hands quite alright?”
“Just a little… I moved some crates, didn’t want to rub up, y’know, splinters or anything.” Tallis shrugged. “We going or what?” He looked across at the other side of the chamber, to where the vulture was standing on guard. Its head was in their direction, no longer scanning.
“Do you think it’s safe?”
“Safer than staying here.” Tallis gestured, and they weaved their way between occupied slabs to the corner. He looked back to see Kaladin crouching in hideous parody of stealth, and Tallis stopped him with a hand to the shoulder.
“Not like that,” he hissed. “Walk like you own the place. No-one ever stops someone going about their business if they look like they’re supposed to be doing it.”
“Oh.” Kaladin stood up a little straighter. “You’ve done this, ah, sort of thing before then.”
“Once or twice.” They started to move again, this time at a stride. “Someone sneaking is automatically suspicious, see.”
They entered the tunnel and Tallis led them into the store-room. The crates were still stacked in the corner, and he climbed up onto them to loosen the hatch.
“I’m going to pull you up,” he said. “Wait until there’s no-one coming along the corridor though.”
Before the lord could protest, Tallis heaved himself back into the upper room. He lay on the floor, head and shoulders over the hatch, and lowered an arm. “Up you get.”
With surprising alacrity, Kaladin clambered onto the crates and grabbed Tallis’s hand. He reached up with the other one to grasp the edge of the hatch. Tallis set his own free hand against the floor and heaved.
Slowly, Kaladin rose into the room, legs kicking on empty air until he got purchase on the rim of the hatch. He wriggled along the floor and, as soon as he was clear of the hatch, Tallis let it close.
Kaladin struggled back to his feet, and Tallis gestured to the chimney. “Mind your head as you go up,” he said. “Here.” He laced his hands together, bracing himself against the wall.
The lord put one foot in Tallis’s hands and grabbed hold of the metal bar above. “Ready.”
With an almighty effort, Tallis launched Kaladin up. There was the sound of a head striking stone, and a muffled curse.
“I’ll take it you’re up,” Tallis called. He leapt up, pulling himself along the slope and onto the shelf.
“Goodness,” Kaladin puffed. He was sat on the shelf, back against the wall. “That was a bit of a struggle.”
“That’s nothing to what’s coming.” Tallis shook his head. “You sure you’re up to this?”
“I’ll be fine,” Kaladin said. “I just need a moment.”
Tallis shrugged, settling down next to the man.
After a moment, Kaladin broke the silence. “Why are you here?”
“You’re not injured. I was brought off the battlefield, nearly dead, and they, ah, healed me so they could ransom me off. But you’re not injured. And you clearly know how to handle yourself, hm. How to look out for yourself…”
As Kaladin trailed off, Tallis drew his knees up and rested his elbows on them. “Why d’you want to know?”
“Ah… curious, I suppose.”
“I am good at looking out for myself,” Tallis said, finally. “They found me under a couple of corpses.”
“Goodness. Bad place to be.”
“I put myself there,” Tallis said quietly. “Safest place to be in a fight - somewhere where the other side thinks you’re already dead. You’re not a threat, then.”
“Oh. So you’re a…”
Tallis’s mouth quirked into a half-smile. “There are several ways that sentence could end.”
“I was press-ganged,” Tallis said. “This time, anyway. Sort of. Magistrate offered it as an alternative to prison, if you get me, me and a few folks I used to run with. Next thing I know, we’re in a wagon, and we’re chained, and we’re told we’re going to fight for Council and Country, all that guff. They tell us they’ll pay us, though, which is a bonus. So I hang around for a bit hoping to get a bit of coin before I… do what comes naturally. One thing leads to another, and suddenly I’m being sent to fight some dog-riders from Meria, the Purkoy. They’ve teamed up with some ocean-going wolves, if you can believe it. Battle goes badly, and, well, I can see which way the wind’s blowing. So I hunker down.”
“What did they catch you for?”
“Trying to pass false notes of promise for yellowdust.” Tallis shrugged. “Wasn’t my fault. The guy who forged them said they’d pass muster. I’ll find him eventually.”
Kaladin was quiet for a moment, then let out a small chuckle. “I suppose I should be grateful.”
The big man turned to face Tallis fully, eyes boring into him. “Seems like the sort of man who would do all that, be in that situation, is the sort of man who’d just have left by now. But you came back to get me.”
Tallis could only hold the sincere stare for a moment before shrugging and turning away. “We should get on. Long climb, if you’re up to it.”
They stood, manoeuvring awkwardly in the tight space. Kaladin nodded to the patch of grey sky above. “So what’s the plan, hm?”
“I used to do this as a boy,” Tallis said. “You put your backs together, link your arms, and walk up the wall. As long as we walk at the same pace, and don’t let go, it’ll be no problem.”
Kaladin’s eyes were wide. “…you’re sure?”
“Dead certain,” Tallis said. He turned his back and held his arms out. “Ready?”
The lord didn’t reply, but linked arms. Tallis leaned back, and felt Kaladin do the same.
“First couple of steps are the hardest,” he said. “Left foot first.”
The two men pressed back against each other as they shoved upwards, legs against the wall, and balanced there for a moment.
“Good.” Tallis looked up. The hole in the top of the chimney seemed a long way off, and his muscles were already starting to protest. “Now, when I count, we march.”
He began to sound off, and they climbed.
The world diminished to just the sound of his counting echoing off the chimney walls, to the steadily-growing feeling of cold as they neared the top, and to the screaming agony of his muscles. Kaladin had gone strangely silent, presumably concentrating on the climb, and Tallis said a silent prayer for that at least. His counting died away as they found a rhythm, and after that the only sound was the scrape of boots on stone.
They climbed on and on, walking up the wall for what felt like hours but could only have been minutes. Finally, they reached the top and empty air, and hovered dangerously for a moment on the edge.
“Sideways,” Tallis grunted, and they pitched over to the left. Both men released their arms and scrabbled for a moment, hanging over the edge.
Kaladin pressed down on the stone and hauled himself over, rolling a couple of times, then stood up. His face was dripping sweat, but if anything the climb seemed to have invigorated him. Tallis’s arms and legs felt as though they had been beaten to a pulp, and it was all he could do to hang on.
“Come on, dear boy,” Kaladin said, reaching down. With one final effort, Tallis grabbed at Kaladin’s arm. With an incredible strength, the lord pulled him over the edge.
Tallis coughed, muscles trembling all over his body, as he looked around. They were on top of the mountain, a flat table that was completely empty. He staggered to his feet, the wind tugging at him, and looked over the edge.
The sides weren’t sheer, and he breathed a sigh of relief. A sort of path wound down, ridges of stone that had been formed over time near enough to make a route that led down and around the mountain. Low-hanging fog obscured the path beyond a certain height.
“This way,” Tallis said, and began to make his way down.
The wind gusted at them as they descended, moving from ledge to ledge. More than once, the way ahead was nothing more than a crack in the mountainside just big enough to admit a hand; each time, Tallis looked back, expecting to have to help Kaladin, but the man seemed to have found some inner well of strength despite his bulk.
The path widened slightly as they found a fault-line in the rock, a skittering path down at an angle that was treacherous. Tallis pressed himself back against the wall as they inched down, until abruptly the trail ended ahead.
“Got a problem,” he called back. “Dead end.”
“Keep going,” Kaladin called. “In on the right.”
Tallis peered closer. Sure enough, the ridge they were stood on led to a tunnel entrance back into the mountain, almost hidden by the shape of the rock wall. “How did you see that?”
Kaladin didn’t reply, and Tallis shook his head, continuing down. A few moments later, both men were stood in the tunnel.
“Along the tunnel,” Tallis said. “Unless you fancy climbing down the mountain. No ropes. Nothing to hold on to.” He looked back over the edge, but the drop was sheer and ended in fog. “You’re on your own if you do.” Behind him, he heard a groan. He looked back to see Kaladin a few feet further into the cave. “What?”
“It ends here,” Kaladin said. “There’s just a wall. It really is a dead end.”
“No,” Tallis said. He shoved Kaladin out of the way and ran his hands over the unyielding stone. “No!”
“’Fraid so, old chap.”
Tallis beat his fist against the wall and howled. “After all that! After hauling you up that god-damned chimney, after climbing all this way… just to have to go back?” He slumped, head in his hands.
“I think it was, ah, a joint effort,” Kaladin said.
“They’ll probably just kill me when they find out I’m not worth anything to them, and you? You’re happy to go back and be ransomed off?”
Kaladin smiled gently. “Well. At least if we go back up, back down the chimney, we’ll still be, ah, alive.”
Tallis looked up into the lord’s chubby face, into his quiet smile. He nodded, eventually. “I suppose you’re right.”
“That will not be necessary,” a woman’s voice said. Tallis leapt up as the wall he was leaning on moved, opening inwards as though hinged.
Tallis gaped at the sight of the brown-cloaked servitor stood on the other side of the well-disguised door. Her pale face, stark contrast to her hair, was lit by the flaming torch she held.
“Vorna? What the hell?”
“Come in,” she said, standing to the side and gesturing. “It’s cold out here, and you’ve had a long journey.”
Scrambling up, Tallis pushed past her and into the cave. He dashed along its short length. It connected directly to the tunnel that led to the store-room.
“We’re back inside,” he whispered. “Back in the same position as before!”
He looked back to where Kaladin was helping Vorna to pull the hidden door closed.
“You’ll not keep me here,” Tallis shouted, but Kaladin held his hands up.
“Peace, old chap,” the man said. “Know when the game is over.”
The door, once closed, was seamless; even knowing it was there didn’t help him to see the join. Vorna walked away from it into the corridor, gesturing for them to follow, and led them along past the many rows of slabs, each laden down with a person being healed. She walked without pause into the larger tunnel, designed for the vultures, and into a room off to the left.
Inside crouched a vulture, one old enough that his feathers had grown ragged and patchy. His eyes, still golden-yellow, were clouded, and he moved creakily. Vorna bowed before him, and he looked down as though he could see her. Then she turned, taking up a position to the giant bird’s right.
“Ok,” Tallis said. “Let’s get this charade over with.”
The vulture nodded, rising up. He began to use his head and wings to sign, each one stiff and full of effort.
I am Fain. You have been tested, he signed, and passed.
“Tested for what?”
Your worth. Fain shifted on his feet, letting out a small sound of pain, and Vorna laid a hand on his feathers. He subsided, settling gratefully back down.
“For generations, the Wake has sat in judgement,” she said quietly. “The humans that uplifted those first vultures were arrogant, believing that only they could measure the worth of a person. They tried to imprint upon the vultures the idea that anything not worthwhile should be killed. Done away with.”
That is not our way, Fain signed. That is wasteful.
Tallis shook his head. “So what did you do with those first humans?”
Vorna smiled, a tiny curling of the lips, as Fain answered. Their flesh was not wasted.
Tallis shuddered. “So now what? You’re going to eat me? Some sort of offering?”
“Good grief, no,” Vorna said, shaking her head and chuckling. “Now, when someone is injured, we patch them up and sell them back to their own, asking for enough to cover our own expenses in yellowdust for the vultures, food for us servitors, and the like. But when they’re not… when they’re like you…” She began to walk around him, and Tallis turned to follow her. “You’re a coward, if I don’t miss my guess. Spent your life just getting by, maybe skirting the law. No-one to ransom you to, no-one who would pay. But not worthless, not in the slightest. Just skilled in ways that aren’t socially acceptable. Look at how you saved Kaladin here, when you could have maybe gotten away on your own - if not that way then another, more inventive, way. For a moment, you looked beyond yourself while still maintaining your own principles, your character.” She stood back at the vulture’s side. “No. People like you? We offer them a job.”
“A job? As what?”
“As one of us. A servitor. The human face of the Wake. Someone to go and collect ransoms, to deliver messages, to trade for dust.”
Tallis looked at Kaladin, who was stood off to one side. “And him? I suppose he’s worth something to you. You’ll probably make me go and deliver him to prove my worth, or something.”
Kaladin shrugged and began to unbutton his embroidered tunic. “Actually, you won’t need to… old chap.” Beneath the tunic, he was wearing a bolster stuffed with some kind of feathery mass. It was tied to his body with thick twine that gave it shape, and, as Tallis watched open-mouthed, Kaladin undid the twine to let the padded prosthetic fall away. He stood up straight, the multiple chins disappearing as he tilted his head up. The man beneath the costume was slim, well-muscled, and looked completely different.
“I suppose your name’s not really Kaladin either,” Tallis said sourly.
“Not in the slightest,” Kaladin said, and all trace of the noble accent was gone. “But it’ll do for now.”
“Was anything you told me true?”
Kaladin finished buttoning his tunic back up, the fabric now hanging loosely on his frame. “Actually yes. I came in the same way you did - deserting, on the battlefield. I really was the son of a noble, too weak and poor to be of note, and when I saw my chance to get out, I did. The Wake found me first, though, and offered me the chance to be something more than just another noble’s dead son.”
“And if I refuse?”
Kaladin shrugged, but it was Fain that answered, feathers rustling like dry paper. We will be disappointed, but you will be returned to your point of origin. It will be wasteful, but we will accept that it is your choice.
“You’re a conman, sneaky, dishonest,” Kaladin said. “Someone used to pretending to be something they’re not. I’ve seen it before; you live by lying, never quite feeling like you can be yourself.” He held his hand out. “Here’s a chance to put all that to good use.”
Tallis hesitated for a moment, then shook Kaladin’s hand.
“Good man,” Kaladin said. Then he grinned. “Maybe not yet, actually. But you will be, one day.”
“Will be what?”
“A good man.” He slapped Tallis on the back and nodded to Vorna and Fain. “Come on. I’ll show you to some quarters, get you properly acquainted.”
Tallis nodded. Vorna gave him another small smile, but Tallis’s gaze was held by Fain. The vulture’s head swivelled to follow him, a piercing stare that chased him from the room.
Catching up with Kaladin, Tallis tugged at his arm. “Fain.”
“He’s blind, right?”
Tallis followed quietly behind Kaladin, and not until long after he was left alone in a small bedroom, brown robes neatly folded on the bed next to him, did the feeling of being watched by those blind eyes leave him.