Gareth had no idea that he was dying.
Blind luck was the only reason the boy wasn't dead already. The Orcs had attacked at dusk, their brutal cries echoing across the valley the very moment the sun had touched the horizon. Gareth had been working in the millet fields south of the village when they came. If the Orcs had come from the south or if Gareth had been working his father's plot instead of helping his Uncle Hugan with the harvest, the Orcs would have come upon him first and he would no doubt be dead already. In the bitter nights to come, Gareth would often wonder if the Orcs had meant to avoid the men working in the fields, so they could torment them with the screams of their wives and children before the real fight began. As it was, Gareth had sprinted back to the village with the rest of the men as soon as the first bellows had sounded, but by the time they returned it was far too late: the village was dying, if not already dead.
Gareth was only fourteen years old, and had never seen a battle before - until this autumn, Korbing Village had been spared the troubles that blighted the rest of the World. Until now, all Gareth knew of battle and death were old stories and a boy's imaginings. He'd listened to his Aunt Mirryn's stories of the High King and his valorous knights, and shivered at Uncle's stories of Orcs and fouler creatures. How many nights had he lain awake, imagining himself in the thick of a great battle, strong as an Ogre and braver than any knight, hacking through a swarm of foes? The farmer's son had finally come to his first battle, and now he knew the truth. Stories are just air, and dreams even less than that.
Gareth and Hugan had rounded a burning hut and come face to face with a massive Orc, the blade of his wicked battleaxe slick with innocent blood. Hugan had yelled out a battle cry, and Gareth had turned to help his uncle, but in less than a second the fight was over. The Orc's hulking arm swung, lightning fast, and half of head had vanished in a hot red spray of gore. The sight of that had been too much: Gareth had frozen in terror, unable to strike or even flee. The Orc had regarded him for a moment, his tusked face full of hate and loathing. Then the hulking brute barked something in its own hideous language (could it have been laughing?), and ran to the next hut, leaving Gareth to watch as his home died around him.
As the massacre wore on, Gareth was still standing there, bathed in his uncle's blood, gasping. How long had it been? Only a moment or two? It seemed impossible. The battle swirled around him, a bewildering dance of sounds, colors, and shapes, with Gareth standing in the very eye of the storm. The terror had passed like a summer rain, leaving him filled with a strange, empty calm. With it had come a dazzling clarity - the thick, hot taste of the smoke from the burning houses, the gleam of the crimson sunset on the Orcs' blades, the smell of blood and death - all of these were impossibly bright and clear. Gareth could even feel poor Hugan's blood all over him, hot and sticky. The heavy hoe Gareth had carried back from the fields was still in his hands, and even though Gareth could feel every seam, crack, and knot in the smooth wood of its handle, he could not bring himself to swing it at one of the man-beasts who were slaughtering his kin.
"Gareth!" The shrill cry managed to move through the calm somehow and rise out of the uniform din of bestial grunts, ringing steel, and death moans that seemed thicker than water, thicker than mud. "Gareth!" The call again"; Gareth knew the voice. Whose voice? he thought, and suddenly it dawned on him like lightning, and the calm shattered like glass. Morgan! He thought, and looked up from Hugan's butchered corpse to see his younger brother standing across the square, sandy blonde hair matted with blood, a huge Orc towering over him.
"MORGAN!" Gareth cried out, and leaped to defend his brother. Or at least, he tried to. His scream ended in a fit of coughing, and only then did Gareth notice the hot taste of blood in his mouth. What's this? He thought, and then he tried to run, but the pain shot through him like lightning; blinding, unimaginable, unbearable. The hoe clattered to the ground as Gareth's right arm went numb, and looking down, the boy was terrified to see the point of an arrow sticking out of his chest. What's this? How did that get there? Only then did Gareth realize that the blood all over him was as much his own as Hugan's, if not more. Gareth fell in a heap, and when he hit the turf the pain shot through him again, so sharp and terrible that the world turned gray, and the sounds of battle faded to nothing. He tried to call to Morgan, but could only cough, which hurt even worse.
Gareth finally realized that he was dying. The thought of Morgan in peril cut through the pain, bringing Gareth out of his daze and back to the terrible present. His face has covered with dirt, and he could feel the blood running out of his mouth, caking his face with black mud. He turned his head, and saw Morgan, still threatened by the Orc. The Orc lashed out with its wicked cleaver, but the wiry boy managed to duck under the swing and roll towards the nearest hut. Gareth watched, helpless, as Morgan scrambled through the door and slammed it shut a mere second before the Orc reached him. Gareth smiled, but his elation turned to terror as he saw the bright flames dancing over the hut's thatched roof. Morgan started to pull the door open again, but the Orc, grinning cruelly, grabbed the handle and held it fast. Gareth could see the door quivering as his brother pulled and pulled, but Morgan was no match for the Orc's strength.
"No... No... I'm coming, brother!" Gareth thought, and tried to crawl toward the hut. Try as he might, he could not move his legs. He could not even feel them anymore. Gareth's mouth contorted around his brother's name again and again, even though he had no voice: Morgan... Morgan. He raised his hand toward the hut, reaching... And then the thatched roof collapsed in a storm of sparks and embers. The pulling on the door stopped. Thankfully, Gareth couldn't hear his brother's screams or the Orc's laughter over the rushing sound in his ears. He tried to call, to scream, to say anything, but could find no breath. It wasn't until the hideous smell from the burning hut washed over him that the dying farm boy finally found his voice.
"NOOOOOOOO!!!!" he screamed, his anguished cry trailing off into a fresh storm of coughing. Gareth's vision blurred again, this time from the hot tears that filled his eyes.
The sights and sounds of the slaughter faded away, leaving only the blinding pain and crushing grief. The brothers had never known their mother, and as his life's blood ran out, all Gareth could think of were his father's last words that cruel winter. He could still see his father, tall, strong, framed in the doorway as he looked back one last time. The stern man had gone out to hunt for deer but had never come back.
"Look after your brother." He'd said, then vanished into the snowy twilight. For more than ten years Gareth had striven to do just that. But now poor Morgan was dead; all his people were dead. Soon Gareth would be dead too. I'm sorry, Morgan. I've failed you. Forgive me...
Before Gareth's tear-filled eyes the evening turned to midnight, and a crimson fog fell over the burning village as his sight finally failed. The red haze turned to black, and then the pain melted away as Gareth breathed his last.
He found himself adrift, alone in darkness thick as water, finally free of the pain. A timeless, empty moment passed, and Gareth finally felt a kind of peace, as if the grief might fade. Gareth struggled to hang on to his brother's memory, and as he did he noticed a strange chill creeping into his awareness, growing ever stronger. As the chill took hold, Gareth was suddenly sure that he could feel eddies and currents in the dark, and that he was not alone. A voice (or was it voices?) seemed to linger at the edge of hearing, whispering" whispering... The darkness had grown colder than ice, and Gareth suddenly felt a presence near him. At first he thought it might be his brother, but then it drew closer, and he saw the others.
- Then there was Terror...
- And then only darkness...
- And then... nothing.
Gareth was screaming when his eyes opened. The fire shone full in his face, impossibly bright. It was cold, so cold" As Gareth raised his hands to cover his eyes, he caught a fleeting glimpse of wisps of steam rising from his naked arms. Dazzled by the light, Gareth fell to his knees, his mind reeling. It took him a moment to remember his own name, and then half-remembered impressions of the Darkness rose to the surface. Why was he so afraid? A gentle breeze blew across the bare skin of Gareth's back, and he shivered with the chill. Blinking, Gareth finally looked back up into the glare from the bonfire in front of him and forced his eye to focus. A human shape, black in silhouette, was moving toward him, arms outstretched. The sight of it stirred other memories of the Darkness, and Gareth screamed again, cowering in terror.
- "Fear nothing, my child. You shall come to no harm here. The worst of it is past..."
The voice was old and calm, and the hands that touched his shoulders were warm and alive, not like the claws of" what, exactly? The terrible memory was already fading. The warm arms embraced Gareth, holding him as a father would a crying child. "The nightmare is over, son. You have passed through it, and are free. Be at peace; for you are alive, and whole again." The terror passed, and Gareth drew back from the kindly embrace and found himself staring into an old, worn face, drawn long and thin, with bright blue eyes peering out from under an imposing brow and thick gray eyebrows. There was kindness in the eyes, tempered with something else.
"Who- who are you?" Gareth stammered. He looked about him, finally taking in the wide, cobbled courtyard and the bonfires, dozens of them. "What is the place?" The old man smiled.
"You are in the Garden of Redemption, a place of peace and rebirth. As for me, I am but a humble servant of the All- Father's glory. Call me Mandemus." Gareth rose to his feet and looked around him, puzzled. Beyond the pillars of flame he could see a shadowy wall, with the dark shapes of sentries making their rounds. Above the parapet stretched the night sky, choked with glimmering stars. The bloated moon, pale as a corpse and eternally full, was just beginning to rise over the wall, its jaundiced glow drowning out the stars.
"How did I get here? When I saw the fires" I thought I was in the Crucible of Perdition."
"No dear child. The way to Hell is closed. This is not a place of punishment, but of salvation. Through the teachings of Saint Malorn the Just, the Temple of the Cleansing Flame has kindled these fires to shine like a beacon in the darkness that has overwhelmed the World." Aglimmer seemed to shine in Mandemus' eyes as he spoke, and upon hearing his words Gareth's stomach went cold.
"You - you're a follower of the Flame?"
"I am, my child. I am but a humble Confessor, an Initiate of the Redeemers, who hold this Safehold in Saint Malorn's name." Gareth remembered all the whispered stories he'd heard of the Temple of the Flame, of sacrifice, torture, and fanaticism. They were the only holy men his father had hated more than Prelates. His eyes widened in fear.
"Are you going to... burn me?"
"Burn you? Oh, my dear child, of course not!" Mandemus laughed. "You must not believe the vile tales the sinful spread of our Order. The Temple works not to punish, but to save, as it has saved you. Look behind you," the old man said, gesturing flamboyantly to the great white tree that stood in the center of the ring. "There is the instrument of your salvation. A Tree of Life, sprung from one root of the First Tree, which His hand planted and the hand of man did mar. You were bound to this tree, and so you have come back to it from beyond death."
"Bound?" Gareth stared at the massive tree, white bark shining gold in the firelight. It looked at once like an oak and a willow, and yet was neither. Gareth reached out his hand to touch the tree, and was shocked to learn that it was made of stone, as hard as marble. Hard, yet not cold, and as Gareth held his hand to the stony bark, he began to feel a strange sensation moving up his arm, a vibration of immeasurable power. Gareth withdrew his hand and rubbed his fingers. A breeze blew through the garden again, but no part of the stone tree stirred; not a single petrified leaf. The sound of the wind moving through the stone boughs made Gareth shudder. "Bound to it? How?"
"Perhaps as a child," the old man said slowly, following Gareth to the immense, twisted trunk. "Your parents likely brought you here, before you could remember;"
"I don't know what you're talking about! What is this place? Stop with your sermons and answer my questions!" Frustrated, Gareth shoved the old man away from him.
"This is the Garden of Redemption, as I told you. It lies at the heart of the Chapterhouse of the Cleansing Flame, which itself lies in the heart of the Safehold of Colver. You have died and been returned to flesh, an experience that can be very disorienting. Where are you from, my child? How much can you remember?"
"I'm from Korbing Village," Gareth said. "I remember that there were Orcs" and suddenly the memory of the pain and the blood came back to him. In horror, Gareth looked down at his chest and grabbed for the arrow with frantic fingers, but his chest was bare. There was no arrow there, no wound, not even a scar. Gareth looked up, amazed.
"Korbing, you say?" Mandemus frowned gravely. "I know not that name."
"Just as I know nothing of Colver. I've never traveled beyond my village. The only Safehold I've ever heard of is Wanford."
"Wanford City? On the shores of the Icy Sea?" recognition sparked in he old man's eyes.
"Aye, the same. My father used to take stock there for market."
"But you never went there yourself? To the great Cathedral there?"
"No. Never." Gareth remembered his father, and how the grim man would spit on the ground every time somebody mentioned the Holy Church.
"And you had no tree such as this in your village?" Mandemus gestured to the marble tree, shining in the moonlight.
"At last I understand. Your father has done you a great disservice, my child. Wanford lies hundreds of leagues to the north, across all of old Alveatia and the region of Ethyria besides. There is a great tree there like this one. Had your father bound you to it in childhood, you would have returned to flesh and life there instead of here, but as it happened, fate has brought you to this Safehold above all others. Here," the old man said, and pulled a sharp awl from a pouch at his belt. "Can you write?"
"Your name at least?"
"That much, but little more." Mandemus put the narrow spike into Gareth's hand.
"Then take this, and carve your name upon the tree. Hundreds of others have before you. Once this is done, you will be bound to the tree, and if you should die again you will come here, rather than drifting aimlessly through oblivion." Gareth followed the old priest's advice, and carved his name into the tree. As he worked, he could see the moonlight shining on a web of thousands of tiny scratches that played across the surface of the bark. Looking closer, Gareth could see that they were names, hundreds of names, thousands... Gareth's crudely-carved scrawl joined them, and the instant his work was done a heaviness passed from Gareth's heart, and he felt refreshed. All of the chill left his body, and the breeze was not half as cold.
"What's happening to me?"
"You have bound yourself to the tree. This tree sprang from the First Tree, from which came all the life in our sundered World. The forces Confess your sins to me, and your spirit shall be reborn just as your body has been, free from all care." Gareth looked into those old eyes and thought long. The guilt was there, all right, and grief along with it. The bonfire raging over the old man's shoulder brought back memories of a burning roof, and his brother Morgan screaming. Oh, Morgan, how I've failed you! Gareth thought, and his heart was sick with grief. Then the boy looked back at the shining white tree, and a sudden realization dawned in him. In less than an instant, his decision was made.
"Mandemus, good priest, you are very kind," he said in a slow, cautious tone, "but I will not make confession to you. My sins and my pain are my own." All of the hope and warmth in Mandemus' old face melted away, leaving only contempt.
"Then I fear the Temple has nothing to offer you." The old man's tone was terse and barely civil. "May the All-Father bless you in your endeavors. Now be gone from this place." Seven days later Gareth was crouched in a garbage-strewn alley, hunger gnawing relentlessly at his belly. He'd cobbled together what clothes he could, threadbare rags that even the beggars had set aside, and stayed alive through begging and doing odd chores. Every evening he came back here, to the square overlooking the Temple and the Garden of Redemption. He'd been waiting a week, and still Morgan had not emerged. Gareth couldn't wait much longer. As the farm-boy-turned-vagabond stared at the great beacon atop the central spire, he felt anger stirring within him, hot and fierce as the fire that always burned above the Temple. His brother was alive. Gareth was sure of it. He himself was, after all, so why should things be any different for Morgan? He must have gone through the Darkness and come out at some other Safehold. Gareth didn't know how many such places there were, or where they lay, but he was determined to find out. But how? He was, after all, still only a boy. The great gates of the Temple opened, and a long procession of Holy Templars exited, the light of the setting sun gleaming on their red enameled armor. Every face in the column was fierce, stern, and terrible. Gareth tried to match the grim devotion of their expressions. Behind the warriors came a line of Confessors, carrying scraps for the poor. Another dinner soon, Gareth thought, and his stomach rumbled loudly.
A tall, thin figure passed in front of the alley entrance just as Gareth began to rise, and in an instant the large, purple eyes swept over Gareth, and one hand had moved to the sword at his belt. Gareth found himself staring at a long, pale face, painted with jagged, swirling tattoos. Gareth recognized the Aelfborn instantly, though the half breed obviously didn't remember him, or didn't care to. In less than a second the tattooed warrior decided that Gareth posed no threat, and turned to walk on. Not knowing why, Gareth spoke. "Did the whoreson pay?" he asked the Aelfborn stranger. The man stopped and turned back toward Gareth with the speed of a cat.
"What did you say, guttersnipe?" His voice was as sharp as the look in his eyes. His sword moved in its sheath, showing a shining inch of steel. Gareth tried not to be afraid.
"The" traitorous whoreson you mentioned in" in the Garden. Did his liver suit you?" The Aelfborn's eyes narrowed in puzzlement for a moment, and then recognition dawned in them. A smile leaped across the tattooed face, and then the Aelfborn laughed, a sound like music.
"It did indeed, my lad, it did indeed." The half breed's sword hissed back into its sheath, and all the tension went out of his frame. "That's the last time Largo Gord ever stabs his partner in the back, that I promise you! So, we meet again in the reeking town of Colver, my young friend. I am Greymalkin Horodrim, warrior and wanderer. What is your name, good my beggar?"
"I'm no beggar," Gareth snarled, with a tone that made Greymalkin smile wider.
"My name's Gareth."
"Gareth! A fine name. A hero's name. So, if ye be no beggar, why then does Greymalkin find you lurking by evening, covered in filth, clad in rags? If you are no beggar, what are you then?"
"I'm" I'm" alone." Gareth finally answered. "Orcs slaughtered all my townsfolk, and now I'm stuck here, a thousand leagues from home."
"Ah, so you've lost all you had, and the world about is cold and grim, is that it?" The half breed's smile vanished, and his face grew stern. "I know what it is to lose everything, and to belong nowhere. Take heart!" The tall warrior clapped a hand on Gareth's shoulder, strong despite its slimness. "Look you, Gareth. Your destiny is now your own to take. Why need you fear death any longer? You've seen the worst it has to offer; now choose your own path. Take the world by the throat and make it give you your heart's desire!" The Aelfborn's words struck a chord in Gareth, and a grim light sparkled in his eyes as he listened. "Ah, my lad! I see you're hungry for more than stale bread and kitchen slop, "Greymalkin said, smiling again. "So, if any wish of yours could be granted, what would ye do?" Gareth thought long and hard, and the memories of his dying village filled him with rage and yearning.
"I would find my brother," Gareth said.
"Well, that just takes but a journey, yes? What else?"
"Orcs," Gareth said, the hate poisoning his tone.
"I would kill Orcs." Greymalkin's smile faded. "I see. You seek vengeance. Be warned: Orcs are no easy prey; you'll have to walk the warrior's path a while before you can hope to best an Orc in battle."
"However long the path, I'll walk it." Gareth looked at the half elf's blade. "Could you teach me?"
"Teach you? Why? Do you think that Greymalkin has no errands of his own?" The leer crept back into the Aelfborn's face, and the anger bloomed anew in his gaze. "I've no time for every lowborn; " Greymalkin stopped suddenly, and cocked his head to one side. He squinted, as if listening intently, but to what Gareth could not tell. "Truly?" the warrior asked his unseen conspirators. After a few seconds more and some mumbled comments, Greymalkin turned back to Gareth, and smiled again. "Fortune smiles upon you, boy." He said. "A great hero such as Greymalkin always has need of a herald or a squire, and I think you'll do well. The wee folk favor you."
"Ask no questions; it only infuriates them and makes them conjure bad weather. Here, take this," Gareth drew forth a small hatchet from under his motley colored jacket, and handed it to Gareth. The boy took it, felt the weight, and swung it at the empty air. "Start with this."˜Twill be a while before you'll be ready to learn a sword." Gareth swung his axe again, harder, imagining an Orc's face splitting at the end of his stroke. He looked back up at Greymalkin.
"Oh, don't thank me yet, my little guttersnipe," Greymalkin answered, "you'll have to work hard to pay for your schooling. Make no mistake: to deal death and pain, you must first learn what they are. I shall teach you." The warrior held out his hand reverently. Gareth took it, and they grasped each other's wrists, shaking to seal the bargain. "Now, if Greymalkin is to pass the evening with the maidens at the Gasping Grobold, we'll have to keep you from emptying the place with your stench. Gareth needs a bath, methinks. Come." With that, the haughty Aelfborn spun on his heel and strode out of the alley. Gareth followed, hurrying to keep up with the warrior's long strides. He knew not what the future held, but Gareth was certain of two things: his brother was alive, and Gareth's struggle to win his destiny had begun.