1. The Fall of Abbalas

I am not sure of the day. The month could still be Lev or perhaps we are now into Chert. The clouds were so curdled, so dark and low in the days after the cataclysm we couldn’t tell noon from midnight and we clawed through the rubble for our children in darkness, sleet cutting our tears and snow, snow in Abbalas! snow in the north! falling like ash, chilling us to the bone.

Someone must come eventually who knows the day and I will note it and with the tally marks at the top of this page I will figure the day on which I started this record and amend it. The court is gone but still I follow the laws of documents. The written word continues to witness the living truth.

So much is gone. Crumbled upon the mountain’s face. The temples. The first families. For once the high terraces suffered more than the low. No! Already these lines defy the truth. Forgive me, I have no capacity to think before I write. The first families and their stewards and the city watch that watched only the high terraces, they were consumed in an instant. They did not know suffering or loss or even fear. And the poor huddled in the Shabs below the skirt of Abbalas, they stood and watched the mages’ spire, that great grey buttress of uncut stone, the heart of a mountain that divided our city, that towered over it, they watched it crack and shatter and fall upon them. They knew mortal fear and greater. They watched the spire fall upon them and knew there would be no pyre for their flesh, no joining the great hearth, only the crushing of stone. So few of the dead will have a pyre. Their lives ended and their reward snatched from them. I have not met a single priestess during these dark days of searching and scrabbling. All those lifetimes of devotion unrewarded.

Death is not meant to be the subject. But I write this with the ruins of Abbalas above, and the rubble of the spire at my back, under which thousands, thousands upon thousands and more, and their crowded hovels and the thronging markets and busy workshops and raucous wine houses and stinking beer stalls lie buried. A pocket of survivors, almost all from the west wing of Abbalas, west of the spire when the great stone heart still divided the city, gather between the rubble and the river. Few buildings here stand. The collapsing spire threw great slabs and spears of rock in all directions. They blasted the trading houses, the traveller rests, the warehouses, the boat builders, the chandleries, the rope walks, the people, into the river. The splintered wood has been carried by the current out to sea but yet the rubble of the broken spire fills the harbour like stepping stones. The flotsam jostling around them and against the high walls are all that is left of the boats and barges moored there. The harbour will not be usable, the river will not be passable until, until…maybe never again. The edge of Yalla's Cut has broken and fallen. The river backed up and now flows over and through the debris. The passage through the mountain, the glory of the ancient mages, is closed to boats, to people, to everything except birds and goats. That’s how we live now. Like goats and birds. But we are working. We are spending our days rebuilding, using our bare hands because that is all we now have.

The mages, hiding in their spire these last months, have died within it. How will the giant rocks be moved without them? Must we chisel and chip them away? I still tremble to think of all we will not do without their magic. Our enemies will pounce. And our friends, well, Abbalas has not had friends for a long time. Without the mages — whose predecessors carved Abbalas out of the mountain, who tamed the rivers, who twice humbled and drove off the Aelera, who brought peace to the Tithing Lands — how will the city ever be rebuilt?

Enough. Enough meandering. Enough mourning. With this line in perfect time of recorder’s hand writ sublime I brace myself. Ears be ready, heart be steady, fingers be quick.

I, Tammin Poletetsē, of Terrace Shallat when it stood, once humble scribe of the law courts of Abbalas, once and still devoted husband to Malla, once and still loving father to Pili, Bessa, Rin, and Salla, may these pages endure so their memory might endure when my heart does not, swear this will be a true recording and a full account of all that will be told to me and six true witnesses from Abbalas, before attending citizens and foreigners, by the son of Abbalas named Graef, with no father’s name, in this place, the warehouse of Irtsan Mallac, rug trader, presumed among the lost, to whom we are grateful for the warmth of his walls, the comfort of the stacked rugs we sit and lie upon, and the protection of what remains of his roof, on this, the __ day of the month __ of the 1426th year since the rout of the fiendish Aelera and the founding of Abbalas.

This fellow Graef is known to me and to several of the others present. He is not a personal acquaintance so I am impartial in making this record at his request. And for this record, Graef has black hair of medium length, longer at the back, showing the first touches of grey at the temples. His eyes are dark under thick brows. His eyes are a dark brown, though they now look black across the fire. He is tall, taller than all of us here, and broad across the shoulders. I remember him as a man of great strength and with the body to carry it, but he now appears worn and thin, like he has suffered a grave illness since I last set eyes upon him. A time which I count in months, but not a full year. He needs a shave, but all men do. His black whiskers show patches of grey under the sides of his jaw. He sits with his hands dangling over the knees of his crossed legs. His hands are large like the rest of him. The back of each hand shows the blue stain of a tattoo. He has long fingers that look square and solid as wooden pegs. I note all his fingers are present, unlike the last time I saw him. This caused some discussion, some doubt, some suspicion. The missing fingers had been noticed by others, but he promised their return will be explained during his testimony.

His gaze is steady. When he is not staring into the fire his eyes readily meet those of others and my own. He shows none of the blinking and flitting glances of a liar preparing his story. Out of everyone present he appears to be the most calm and the most alert. I have seen him working among the rubble with others. Just this day I saw him stacking some of the scattered, splintered wood, remnants from the hovels of the Shabs, for anyone to take to build a fire. He helps, but he appears untouched by the destruction. Ah! That is what is different. In his calmness and alertness there is no haunted look. No fear of what is to come. That fear is in every face around the fire. If I had a mirror I would see it in my reflection. Is it the warrior’s nonchalance? I know by talk he was a mercenary. One of the tattoos on his hands attests to that.

This record drifts into guesses and away from recording and I apologise. Going forward I will record only truly and faithfully the words spoken by Graef.

The witnesses settle. The fire is fed so we can better see him. He begins and I record thus:

For you who don't know me, I am Graef. I want all who can to hear what I have to tell. Aye. I want it known why and how destruction fell so heavily on Abbalas. And I am sure you want to know the why and the how. I could tell you short and straight — this and then this and so this, but you’d think I’m mad. If not mad, then a liar. So I'm going to start the story back a few years. It starts in the mud of a battlefield so that you might listen.

The end you know. Beautiful Abbalas, the eagle white, crumbling into gravel and sand. Its heart crushed. Its people weeping and freezing.

The cold will end. The sky is clearing. Look, up there, through the hole where tiles were blasted from the roof. We can see a few stars. The moon still hangs and glows to brighten the clouds that hide it. The cold will go. This is the sunny north. The cold can’t stay. It will go soon. I can’t say for your tears.

Before I finish you will want to blame me. Aye, I was part of it. I was half of it. Just hear me to the end and you will know who to blame. You will understand. You might stand off and curse me. Believe me, words are all you have that can cut me. So you might curse me at the end. You will do it knowing it is only because of me you have breath to draw. You will curse me knowing it is only because of me you have ground to stand on. You will curse me knowing it is only because of me there are clouds to hang above us. And aye, even that there remain stars above them.

Now to that battlefield. And that mud. You know the battle. Where the Havaag were finally broken. Where their swathe of destruction, from the fringes of the Southern Wastes to the heart of the Tithing Lands, was ended. Where their slaughtering of the old, their slaving of the young, and their burning of field and town, was stopped.

You know the battle, but not the battlefield. Or the yellow sucking mud. Here is how it was from one who was there.

The river Delvit is at our back. The thaw is sending it over the banks to seep into the ground. We all wear boots heavy with mud. Our wet feet within them are numb. We cannot retreat. I say battlefield. There has not been a single battlefield during the Havaag’s winter rampage. And neither is the mud by the Delvit a field of battle. It is a field of slaughter. Soon, torn bodies will pour steam into the air and blood into the muck. The screams of the dying will be drowned out by the screams of the chakkas.

Those terrible slavering beasts. Those fanged white monsters. They bound over mud like they bound over snow. To look up into their teeth is to know the coldest dread. They will eat us as they slaughter us, stopping only to tear a head or a limb from the dead.

Arrows can’t penetrate their heavy white fur. Their eyes are protected by harnesses with screens. The Havaag also armour their long bellies. If you dodged past their fang-filled snout, if you ran under their belly, your sword is useless. And then they would jump or twist or curl or flip and you are bit in two.

All we have are spears. You might get past the armour and behind the front leg. Or into the vulnerable cavity between the back legs and the body. But they spun and twisted and lashed out like fury itself. Your spear they would swipe aside. Or step on, driving it out of your hands or driving you to the ground. On the ground they would split you with a black claw as long as your arm.

What? Aye, we knew about hamstrings. So did the Havaag. They were armored as well.

I am there in the mud out of loyalty. Our crew, the Stokers of the Ragged Field, for the first time in its storied history, is not requiring coin to fight. We joined the hastily assembled army facing the Havaag not for payment, but for a grudge and some hope. Despite the force shrinking overnight as the cowards snuck away, we remain out of reputation and history. The Stokers have never fled a battle. We have never retreated. It is the Stoker’s way. It is Lias’s way.

Have you heard of our crew? The Stokers of the Ragged Field? No? We always thought songs would be written about us one day.

We deserve to be remembered. This mark on the back of my right hand is our mark. I took the circled flame days after getting my towie mark on the left, here, striped. How quickly we change direction when opportunity arises.

The Stokers deserve to be remembered. I might be biased. We were a mercenary crew. One among who knows how many. If I place us over the rest it is because of Lias. We were Lias’s crew. And Lias, too, deserves to be remembered.

I met him in Praan when I was a boy of sixteen. Aye, I’ve been to Praan. No, she is nothing like Abbalas. I wouldn’t call her little sister to Abbalas. Maybe a dour, stunted cousin. Her black stone terraces are mage cut like ours, but the Great Falls eat away at the western edge and her people extend the city to the east by hand. And their hand is rough. I was there in summer and it was cold. I would not want to visit in winter when the mist of the falls drapes the city in ice.

What was I doing in Praan? Praan was where the rivers started. Praan was far away from Abbalas and I was a runaway from the spire, escaping cleaning and fetching and lamp carrying, escaping abuse and hard labour, escaping the narrow, windowless corridors and stairs the servants were confined to and the sweat and grind of the hall.

Aye, I ran away from the spire once it occurred to me that I could and the chance presented itself. I was fourteen when I fled the spire and the city. Yes, people run away from Abbalas. Nowhere near the number who run to Abbalas, that is true.

I took the easiest job for an over-sized fourteen year old to find and the hardest job for anyone to keep — tow crew, pulling boats and barges upriver, south, into the heart of the land, away from the balmy north. I discovered there, in the harness, in the heat and the cold, in the daily struggle against the river, what strength was, where endurance came from. That was a time. The current easing after the narrows and with it the cut of the straps. Ending the day standing while others collapsed. Eating around an autumn fire, the biting gnats dispersed at last by the cold. The dense woods on the banks muffling the scrape of a barge’s hull as it is dragged over the ice in its winter cradle. Laughing at the stories behind an old towie’s missing fingers. Tightening the straps around my chest as the dawn mist rises from the river like sadness leaving a body.

Two years of constant trudging I had. Never riding free downriver. Ever onward. Ever further from Abbalas. I reached the river’s end, its beginning, where it plunged over the mountain beside the city of Praan. There, sitting on a post on the wharf, the roar of the falls in the background, flanked by two ancient towies, their heads and necks jutting out like turtles from a life in the harness, a third scratched the Praan stripes into the tattoo on the back of this hand. He had eight stars around his own. Eight times he had towed the full length of the river, from Abbalas on the coast to Praan in the Black Mountains and back again. As many years pulling boats as I had lived and more. He spat into the river when I told him that.

“Sixteen? Aren’t you a big one starting young. You could add ten or twelve stars before you break, if you wanted.”

“I’m thinking maybe twenty,” I say because I’m a child with no sense of time who knows nothing of ageing but quite a bit about bravado.

The three laugh at my boast because they know time better than me, though none of us understood time at all. They laugh as they lead me to a pub where, as per tradition, I buy them a jug of wine to mark the occasion and to pay for the status they granted me with the addition of the stripes to my towie tattoo. Before the evening ended I knew it would remain untouched, never to see a star, used only to ride free downriver when there was nothing to keep me away from Abbalas. For it was in that same pub, loud with hoarse voices chanting the bawdy verses from the Praan epic, that I met my blood siblings, the Stokers of the Ragged Field, and their leader Lias, who was to be a father, a brother, and a friend to me.

We met in a tug-o-war, one against one, each end of a belt wrapped around a hand and wrist, trying to drag each other across a line slashed through the wet sand that hid the stone floor. The only rule was you could not touch the belt with your free hand. My opponents would scream and jerk and swear and swing their fists and try to kick me and I would send them stumbling across the line, over the ground, into the arms of the crowd. The towies were doing well and I was their champion. I passed on the drinks I won to them. I was undefeated and their drunkenness would become legendary. Then Lias rose from a bench and belched, hushing the crowd.

“I’ll be up,” he says and proceeds to remove his leather coat and place it upon the table in front of him. On top of that he places knives he pulls out from under the cuffs on his forearms, then the cuffs, then a hatchet he produces from the small of his back. He pats himself, nods at his gear and at his bench mates.

The drinkers shove each other to get out of his way as he advances to the line to stand across from me. At the time of our first meeting he is broader than me, but within a year or so I will catch him in size and keep growing. His hair is cut short to fit under a helmet and his beard is cropped, but the moustache under his flattened nose is like a pair of hawk wings.

“What’s our wager?” he says as he grabs the end of the belt and twists his arm through it, jerking, trying to gain any slack I might have slipped.

“A jug of wine or beer,” I say, doing my own jerking and pulling. This is where the game starts.

“That’d be right,” he says, nodding at my hand. “A towie wager on towie wages. I don’t bet that small. A Praan tercet.”

That is the equivalent of a month’s earnings.

“It’s only a game,” I say. “A jug is all it’s worth.”

He is jerking the belt around, pulling in and suddenly releasing. I resist, but not much, to give him a false sense of my strength.

“That’s not going to keep my interest,” he says. “I’ll wager you this. You lose, you bring a jug of wine to my table. You win, you get a tercet.”

“Fine,” I say, “I’ll take your money.”

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