Book title in original: Ruckley Brian. Exile

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Brian Ruckley

Exile

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I

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Wren could feel the damage as she cupped her brother’s face in her hands. There was a softness, a yielding in the cheekbone beneath her fingers. His nose was split and had poured blood over his mouth and chin. He was blinking slowly. She did not think he could even see her. One of his eyes was bloodshot; the other almost obscured by the swollen and torn lid. She was kneeling on his spilled teeth. They dug into her skin. She barely noticed.

He was not dead, but he had been beaten a good half of the way there. Her beloved younger brother. He had always thought he should try to look after her, even though she was the older – sixteen to his fourteen – and the stronger. Sometimes she let him think she needed his help because it made him feel good. Their parents knew what she was doing, and knew just how little of his protection she really needed. They said nothing.

Now Wren held him, broken, in her arms and understood that nothing was ever going to be quite the same. Today was the day she was finally going to spread her wings and fly, because how could she not? They had left her brother bleeding, barely alive, in a ditch at the side of a field. She had to answer that.

She knew who had done this. The Larkanen family tenanted the fields adjoining her father’s. For years, a feud had been rumbling over straying cattle, misappropriated land, stolen crops. Anything and everything, with its origins all but forgotten. It had never before reached the point of violence but the Larkanen sons had just started to come of age. There were three of them. Big, strong, angry and with a fiery desire to prove their manhood.

Wren had spent years denying the power within her the kind of release it demanded. Kneeling at her brother’s side, hearing his ragged breathing, she was possessed by a fell and hot intent. The time for denial was gone.

She half carried, half dragged her brother back to their cottage through the gathering dusk. Her father was not there. He had taken some piglets to the market in the nearest village. He would not be back until tomorrow.

Her mother tried to keep her there. In later years, Wren would understand the agonies of those moments: a bloodied son in need of tending; a daughter about to undo her whole life. At the time, she was only dimly aware of what was happening. She pushed away her mother’s hands, ignored her anguished pleas.

Wren went out into the fields and stood amid the barley, staring at the Larkanen house. It sat atop a slight rise. It was larger than her own family’s but still hardly opulent.

She had not allowed the entelech to stir within her for years. In that field, beneath that moon, she spread her arms wide and let it come. She gave herself up to it and let her rage determine what followed. What she remembered of those intoxicated moments was not rage though. It was joy. Exultation in the power surging through her, in the breaking of a dam that had held for so long. Nothing had ever felt so deeply, definitely right.

Every Clever was bound most closely to but one of the four entelechs. Wren’s was the Autumnal. That was the force and flavour of her vengeance. The ground under one half of the Larkanen house turned to loose, liquid mud. Part of the slope just slid away, taking walls and roof and floor with it. She let loose rot in their fields for a hundred paces around the house. She spun the storms of autumn into a knot and cast them into the shattered building and blew out roof shingles and all the windows. She called rain to fall and told it to change into hail that beat an ecstatic drum rhythm out of the earth and the wreckage.

Then she vomited and fell. She crawled back through the barley stems to her own house, dizzy and half delirious.

Lying in her bed later, barely aware of what was happening around her, there was only one thing she remembered clearly. Her mother’s voice, all pain and love and grief woven together: ‘You must run, my most beautiful girl. You must run.’

And she had run.

II

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NINE YEARS LATER

There was a Clever in the river. That was the only explanation Wren could imagine, for who else but a Clever would be floating there, splayed out on his back in the cold waters muttering to himself all but inaudibly?

His left ankle was tethered to the bow of the barge. The current was spreading his brown hair like weed. By rights, he should have been shivering. The Hervent was a huge, wide river, loaded with the memory of the mountain snow that fed its headwaters. He did not shiver though.

His eyes were closed, and Wren had little doubt that he was barely aware of all that cold, all that water flowing around and beneath him. He was doing what only a Clever could do: channelling the essential entelechs that underlay – and made – the world. That tended to distract from more trivial concerns.

Wren knew as much because she was a Clever too, but a secret one. A hidden one. Hidden partly because of what she might do if she let loose that turbulent power, partly because of what others might do. Experience had taught her to conceal what she was. Not something that worried the waterlogged man in the river evidently. He had a protection that she did not. He was of the Free.

There were precious few in the entire Hommetic Kingdom who might dare to question the Free, and none of them were on this barge. There were only a handful of passengers. They were villagers, petty traders, impoverished fugitives. The sort of folk, in other words, to whom the Free were the stuff of legend: the last and by far the greatest of the mercenary companies that had shaped the world’s history.

The Clever floating and muttering in the Hervent was not the only one of the Free here. There were two more. A tan-skinned archer was leaning against the prow, his attention switching back and forth between his comrade in the water and everyone else on the barge. He was calm, his face quite placid. A long stalk of grass he must have plucked from the bank before boarding was clamped between his teeth, its seed-head nodding gently. Wren was not fooled by his relaxed manner. Hawk not dove, she knew. The Free did not employ doves.

A woman of indeterminate age was sitting on the deck at the archer’s feet. Her knees were drawn up, enfolded by her arms. She was unremarkable and, as far as Wren could see, unarmed. Another Clever perhaps.

‘You should sit down with the rest,’ the archer said to Wren around the grass stem.

He jabbed with the end of his short bow towards the other passengers. They were keeping themselves well away. They busied themselves arranging their few goods on the deck, pretending to doze or to talk softly among themselves about entirely inconsequential things.

Wren glanced at them and then looked back to the archer.

‘What’s he doing?’ she asked. ‘Your friend in the water.’

‘Having a wash,’ the archer said levelly.

The woman at his feet snorted in amusement.

The archer had the look of the far south in his skin and hair and face. A man of sun and sand. Perhaps where he came from manners and humour ran a little differently, but Wren rather doubted he was fumbling an attempt at friendliness. She wrinkled her nose in mild irritation. It occurred to her that getting annoyed with one of the Free was exactly the kind of silly incaution her mother had spent years arguing out of her. Still, she did not like to be dismissed so casually. Not when the subject at hand – a Clever, the entelechs – was so important, so personal to her.

‘He’ll be all clean in a moment or two,’ the man said with a pleasant enough smile. ‘Then they’ll be casting off and we can all go where we want to go. Sit yourself down and don’t fret.’

Wren toyed with the idea of pushing harder. She had spent half her life wondering and learning about Clevers, trying to understand what those who shared her gifts did and how they did it.

She told herself that the Free were probably not the ones to answer her questions. They famously counted exceptionally powerful Clevers among their number, and just as famously existed outside the control of the School that governed the lives of such people everywhere else in the Kingdom. But they were not known as friends to outsiders. They were not teachers.

She gave a little shrug as if to say I meant no harm , and retreated down the length of the barge. She took a place underneath one of the crude awnings, as close as seemed prudent to the Free. Other passengers, also crowded in under that same canvas cover, had a lot of baggage with them. All their worldly possessions in some cases, Wren would guess. That was what she had with her too. Everything. Which amounted to a couple of blankets for a bed, a bag of food, walking staff, knife. An empty pouch which had held a few coins until she handed them over to the barge’s master.

She unrolled one of the blankets and stretched out on it, lying on her side so that she could watch the Free. The archer and the silent woman, reacting to some sign, leaned over the side of the barge. They heaved at the rope that tethered the other Clever.

It looked like they were hauling up a sack of rags which had been lying on the riverbed for a month or two. The man came up limp and sodden. When they rolled him onto the deck he flopped over with a wet thump and lay there without moving. Water spread over the planks around him and darkened them.

Wren knew what it did to a body to have the entelechs coursing through it. To forge some new shape or happening in the world as Clevers did was to unbalance a scale: it could not be done without letting something else, some ordered part of the world, flow back the other way into formless disorder. And the part of the world that shed order was, inevitably as far as Wren knew, the Clever’s own body or mind.

There had been times, over the years of her secretive, itinerant life, when she had come close to losing too much. The first had been that night when she avenged her brother. There had been two or three more since then. On each occasion her body had irretrievably lost some part of its essence. She had been diminished. She knew she looked older than she really was.

This Clever, this man of the Free, was perhaps stronger – more skilled, certainly – than she was. He spluttered and coughed and levered himself up into a sitting position. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and nose. Wren glimpsed blood there, just fleetingly, but the man was laughing. His teeth chattered as he did it, making the sound strange and convulsive.

‘Next time, we bring spare horses, Hamdan,’ Wren heard him stutter to the archer.

Hamdan nodded, then looked back down the length of the barge.

‘Let’s go, captain,’ he shouted.

III

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Wren could guess why the Free were here: there was battle and chaos loose in these parts.

She was not clear on all the whys and hows of it, but a people called the Huluk Kur were on the march. She had overheard someone in a resthouse saying they had been driven from their own lands by the Empire of Orphans. Whatever the reason, they were raging through the north along the border of the Hommetic Kingdom. Trying to come south. Trying to seize new lands to make their own. Above all, according to the gruff captain who had taken the last of Wren’s coin before he would let her aboard this very barge, trying to get across the Hervent.

Which was exactly what Wren was trying to do, except that where the Huluk Kur meant to come south, she meant to go north. Into wild lands she was not even sure were really part of the Kingdom, precisely the places the Huluk Kur were wrecking and ruining. She was trying to get closer to the trouble everyone else was fleeing. Everyone apart from the Free, no doubt. She doubted whatever they were up to involved trying to get out of the path of trouble.

Her fellow passengers whispered about the Free as night came on and the barge slipped easily down the current. How could they not when legends were among them?

‘King’s levy went north of the river to try to stop the Huluk Kur, I heard,’ an old and thin man murmured to his wife. ‘Got chewed up and spat out. They say the Huluks floated a thousand corpses down the river the next day. Half of the levy still alive ran off south. Plenty more just plain wouldn’t fight.’

‘’S’true,’ another man – eavesdropping like Wren – interjected. ‘I saw them scuttle back down the Wardle Road.’

‘So, the King’s paid the Free to come up here and put some spine into things,’ the first went on. ‘Word is these ones here’ – he flicked his chin towards the silent figures by the prow – ‘already threw down the Wardle Bridge. Just the three of them.’

The part about the bridge’s fall, at least, Wren knew to be true. She had meant to cross it to carry her lonely search into the north. Word of its destruction had forced her onto this barge, drifting downriver towards Hamming Ferry. There were supposed to be boatmen there who might take her to the distant northern bank of the Hervent. Not that she had any coin left to pay for such a service, of course. But that, as her mother would say, was a bridge for another day.

‘The Free’ll cover the hills with Huluk Kur dead,’ the old man continued, not hiding his pleasure at the thought. ‘You could wager your life on it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not,’ his wife grunted. ‘Mara Red at the wayhouse said there’s ten thousand of them out there.’

The woman gazed into the night, northwards towards the snow-dusted peaks and ridges standing silent beneath the moon.

‘That’s a lot of savages to get in the way of, if they’re really set on going somewhere,’ she mused. ‘She said they’re eating folks.’

‘Mara’s an empty-head,’ her husband snorted. ‘They ain’t eating anybody. They’re slaving them and killing them. Ain’t that enough?’

Wren watched the three mercenaries thoughtfully. They were little more than shadows in the gloom. The archer sat with his back to the gunwale, only the occasional glint of reflected lamplight in his eyes betraying his watchfulness. The other two – the Clevers – were lying beyond him. They had not stirred for a long time.

A rumble of her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since boarding the barge. She had not seen any of the Free eat either. She had seen no sign that they even had any food with them. Her own stock of supplies for the journey was meagre, but she might spare a little if it won her favour or information.

‘You look like you might be short on food.’

The archer – Hamdan, the Clever had called him when he came up out of the river – regarded the bread in Wren’s hand. Then he looked up into her eyes.

‘We had plenty, but most of it was on a horse that got loose.’

‘Got shot full of arrows and threw itself into the river, you mean,’ the male Clever observed. Wren had thought him asleep, and even now he did not move or open his eyes.

‘There was a lot going on, Kerig. I thought it might be more important to keep you alive than the horses.’ Hamdan smiled at Wren and shrugged one shoulder. ‘Didn’t have time to consider the choice as fully as I might have liked.’

He reached out and took the bread from Wren, nodding in thanks.

‘What were you doing in the river?’ Wren asked.

Hamdan raised his eyebrows, and she could not quite tell whether he was perturbed by her temerity or merely surprised by it. Kerig, the Clever, just lay there.

‘Is she talking to me?’ he grunted without cracking an eyelid so much as a hair’s breadth.

‘She is,’ Hamdan confirmed, taking a bite from the bread. He sounded vaguely amused now. ‘She did feed us. You could trade a word or two for it if you want.’

Kerig sighed and sat up. His movements were stiff and laboured. He took the bread from Hamdan’s hand just as the archer was about to have another mouthful.

‘She’d have gone away by now if you hadn’t been so friendly,’ he said. ‘You talk too much.’

Kerig looked at Wren for the first time as he chewed. He was a handsome man, she thought. His use of the entelechs had not aged or marred him too much. Not outwardly at least.

‘There’s people waiting for us at Homneck and we need to get there quickly,’ he said. ‘Since our horses came to grief at the Wardle Bridge,’ – he cast a sideways glance towards Hamdan – ‘and it seems there’s no more to be had in this forsaken quarter, our only way to get back to our fellows is this.’

He waved the bread at the deck beneath him.

‘Too slow though,’ he went on, ‘so I… you’d not really understand. I opened the river, near as makes no difference. I sped our passage so all the rest of you get the fastest, easiest barge ride you could ever wish for.’

Wren nodded. She understood more than he imagined. He was probably a Vernal Clever, most capable when shaping the entelech of that name. Flowing water was a partial expression of the Vernal, so if he was strong and skilled he might control even a huge river like the Hervent. Depending upon how much of himself he was willing to surrender in exchange for that control.

Kerig made to settle back and pretend more sleep.

‘You broke the Wardle Bridge?’ Wren asked. ‘I’d heard it was big, that bridge.’

Kerig paused for a moment, halfway down to his repose on the deck, and then turned back to her with pointed effort.

‘It was  big. And we did break it. Me and Ena Marr there.’ He nodded towards the slumbering form beside them; the woman Wren had guessed, when she first saw her, must be another Clever.

‘So much use of the entelechs’d break most people, wouldn’t it?’ Wren asked, and knew at once she had stepped that one unwise pace beyond the invisible border that separated the Free from everyone else. She saw in their faces – both Kerig’s and Hamdan’s – that she had become a trespasser.

‘And how would you know I’m not half broken?’ Kerig muttered. ‘Maybe that’s why I need to sleep. Now.’

With that he lowered himself down and rolled onto his side so that his back was to Wren. She retreated, silently scolding herself.

‘Thank you for the bread,’ Hamdan said behind her, and she glanced back as she went. Kerig had raised himself up again on one elbow. He and the archer were both watching Wren intently as she walked away.

Foolish woman , she thought. So excited to see others of her own kind – others who had not submitted to the School, who chose their own path – that she had acted like a needy girl. Forgot years of caution and care.

She looked out over the river as she settled herself down. The moon had slipped behind cloud. The high ground to the north was an indistinct mass of dark shapes looming over the Hervent. Somewhere out there, in the wild lands, was the exile. Lame Ammenor. The man who, Wren had come to believe, was her last and best chance at understanding what she was, and what she might be. Her last chance at finding a life she could bear to live. She had left everything she had known behind to get this far. She had killed people. Now was not the moment for distraction. Nothing mattered but getting beyond this river and finding the exile.

IV

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‘What do you mean you’re not stopping at Hamming Ferry?’ Wren exclaimed in disbelief.

Her fury washed over the barge captain without so much as making him blink.

‘Not my doing,’ he growled. He pointed up the length of the barge with his thumb. ‘You want to shout at someone, you take it up with the Free. Whatever they’ve done, we’re getting sucked downstream like there’s a wall-tide at our back. Couldn’t pole to shore if I wanted to.’

‘And you didn’t think to tell anyone until now?’

The captain shrugged, which did nothing but stoke up the fire of Wren’s anger.

‘There’s not one thing any of us can do about it, unless you get the Free to change their plans. You’ll not hear many complaining about getting to Homneck fast.’

I  need to get to Hamming Ferry,’ Wren snapped, and pushed him hard at the shoulder.

A mistake, as was immediately apparent. He stiffened his legs and leaned against her shove. His bearded lips pulled back to bare teeth so crooked it looked as though his mother had just flung a handful in there when he was a child, and they had taken root where they fell.

‘You don’t go raising your hand to a barge’s captain unless you know how to swim. You know how to swim, sow?’

Wren could not swim. But nor had she ever been the sort to let misfortune knock her from her feet without at least kicking its shin as she fell.

‘You took every coin I had left to carry me to Hamming Ferry,’ she said.

The captain almost smiled at that.

‘And the fare to Homneck is more, so you’ve turned a good bargain. There’s a bridge there. You’re so desperate to get yourself on the end of a Huluk Kur spear, you can cross the river easier there than at Hamming.’

He turned his back, but Wren hooked a hand on his shoulder.

‘And how many more days of walking will that mean?’ she demanded. ‘How much time are you costing me?’

She wondered if she would regret squandering food on the Free. She wondered how much further her tired legs and blistered feet could carry her. She wondered whether the Huluk Kur were even now killing the man she sought.

‘Three days,’ the captain said, glaring at her, pushing her hand roughly from his shoulder. ‘Four maybe, unless you’re stronger than you look.’

You have no idea how much stronger, Wren thought, but all she could bring herself to speak was a furious echo: ‘Four days?’

‘Aye,’ the captain shouted, the last of his patience gone. ‘Four days. Now are you going to close up your mouth or am I going to…?’

The end of Hamdan’s bow came to rest gently on the captain’s chest. The archer leaned in.

‘The woman’s disappointed,’ Hamdan said quietly. ‘Can’t blame her for that.’

The captain’s brow furrowed and twitched. He scraped his ramshackle teeth over his upper lip. And turned silently away. A murmur from one of the Free was all it took to quell his anger. Not Wren’s. Not entirely.

‘I’m more than disappointed,’ she told Hamdan, fixing him with much the same hostile gaze she had bestowed upon the captain.

‘I heard. Everyone did.’

Wren glanced around. Most of her fellow passengers, most of the crew, were watching her. They looked away without fail as she frowned at them.

‘I needed to cross at Hamming Ferry,’ she said, recognising the tone of defeat in her own voice.

‘And what’s over the river from there that’ll be gone by the time you walk up from Homneck?’

Ena Marr drifted up behind Hamdan while he spoke. It was the closest and clearest view Wren had yet had of this Clever, and she saw a small woman, almost frail. One who moved over the deck all but silently, light as a breeze. There was hard strength in her eyes though. A weight.

‘Wants to wed herself to a Huluk Kur hunter maybe?’ Ena Marr mused with a fleeting, faint smile.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Wren said. ‘We’re going to Homneck whatever I say, aren’t we?’

Hamdan nodded. He lowered his voice, slipping into a conspiratorially soft tone. ‘The thing is – what’s your name, anyway?’

‘Wren.’

It ran against her instincts to give the truth like that. She had spent many years wearing other names, the better to avoid unwanted attention. But the time for that was passing, she supposed. As likely as not, she was leaving Hommetic lands for the last time.

‘So, Wren,’ Hamdan continued, still in that near-whisper, ‘the thing is, we broke the Wardle Bridge because we need the Huluk Kur to try to cross at Homneck. The only way they can get there is through the Hung Gate Pass, and that’s our chance to stop them. If we fail, if they get across the river, there’ll be no sun for a month with all the corpse-fires that’ll be burning.’

‘If you say so,’ Wren said grudgingly.

‘I do. Our Captain’s got a hundred of our fellows and a thousand of the King’s spears up at the Hung Gate. He’s expecting us. Waiting for us to bring word. Soon.’

Hamdan was reasoned. Calm. Almost sympathetic. But Wren knew her cause was lost and her indignation futile. Her dashed hopes meant nothing to anyone but herself. So be it. So it had been for many years.

She turned her back on the Free and retreated into the solitude she knew so well.

V

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Not for the first time, Wren wondered if she had made a terrible mistake. Not that she could tell what that mistake might have been. Perhaps running for the north in the first place. Just as easily, it might have been running too late. If she had made for the Hervent years ago, the Wardle Bridge would still be standing and the Free would not be blithely commandeering barges without regard for anyone else’s intent.

All in all, she felt a powerful urge to break something. She doubted that would please the crew, so she contented herself with staring fixedly out over the water. She glared at the innocent landscape as if it were to blame for all of this.

The contrast between the north and south banks of the Hervent was marked. South, for almost as far as the eye could see, lay wide fields. Hamlets and farmsteads, trackways and barns. To the north, nothing but hills rising steadily into dim and distant mountains patched with pockets of snow.

Wren would be seeing plenty of what lay to the north before very long if all went according to what little remained of her plan. So she faced south and watched the villages drift by.

Eventually, what drifted by was an array of wooden quays jutting out into the river like fingers, and a cluster of stone buildings behind them.

‘Hamming Ferry,’ one of the passengers leaning against the gunwale muttered.

Wren glumly noted the many little boats lining the quays and drawn up on muddy beaches beside the village. Any of them might have been the one to carry her across the great Hervent and send her on her way. As it was, she was condemned to float along, impotently watching all that might have been pass her by.

Had she not been so preoccupied, she might have realised what was happening rather sooner. She might have had time to prepare herself, or consider what to do more carefully and calmly. Instead, by the time she noticed that a long, thin boat had put out from Hamming Ferry, it was already cutting across the current, carving out a course to intercept the barge.

Her first thought was to rush to the prow and hail it. Promise whatever it took to somehow get the oarsmen to rescue her from this moving prison and take her ashore. That notion died like a snuffed candle flame when she saw who manned the approaching boat. Saw the colour of their raiment, to be precise. They wore light blue tunics. That meant the Clade, and the Clade meant the School. And the School… Wren had spent most of her life hiding from the School.

In all the land there were only two great warbands that were beyond the King’s control: the Free and the School’s Clade. The School might have begun as just that – a school for the care and training of Clevers – but it had long since become something much more complicated and powerful. Along the path of its ascent it had acquired, in the Clade, an army all its own.

Now Wren watched half a dozen of those blue-shirted warriors closing quickly on the barge and felt fear like a hollow in her gut. Things, as it turned out, could always get worse.

Six months ago she had killed two Clade men. That, more than anything, was why she was here now. She had looked down at their rotting corpses and known that she had slain not only them but any hope of continuing her own furtive, itinerant existence in the Hommetic Kingdom.

She was a Clever unsanctioned by the School, one who did not serve or submit to their purposes. One guilty – by their definitions – of grave crimes. Those two Clade spearmen had meant to make her a prisoner, or quite possibly a corpse. When the first of them set his hand on her, she had called up from the Autumnal e


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ntelech the very essence of decay and set it loose within the bodies of those two men. A mistake perhaps; done out of instinct and desperation. Panic. She was not certain she had even intended to do it. She regretted it. Part of her did at least. Not all.

Even as the stench of the corruption that consumed them filled her nose, she had known she had to run. Make of herself an exile and seek out one who had done that before: Lame Ammenor.

Now, seeing the comrades of the men she had killed drawing near, her mind raced. It raced uselessly, like a dog chasing its tail. No plan or stratagem emerged. She found herself turning and bending to gather her blankets, her few modest possessions.

If the Clade found and recognised her for what she was, they would kill her or – little better – make a captive of her. Or she would have to kill them, unleashing the entelechs here on a floating splinter with only innocents and the Free for company. That was unlikely to end any better than was capture by the Clade.

The barge’s master was shouting, ‘You’ve got to let me heave to! It’s the Clade, man!’

He was up near the prow, gesturing frantically at Hamdan and Kerig and Ena Marr. The Free appeared entirely unconcerned.

‘Not much I can do about it,’ Wren heard Kerig saying. ‘What’s done is done, and I can’t just unpick it like a little loose stitch.’

He was smiling, Wren realised. He found all this amusing: the captain’s panic, the frustration of the Clade warriors as they watched the barge surging on.

Wren slung her rolled blankets and her sack of rations over her shoulder. She tightened her grip on her walking staff. There was no real reason these Clade men should know she was here, or what she had done. Their comrades had found her by chance, and she had hidden their bodies as best she could. Buried them a yard down. They’re not here for me, she told herself. They can’t be. But they were here nonetheless, and they served the Clevers of the School. Anything was possible.

It seemed for a moment as if her luck was going to take an unexpected turn for the better. No matter how the oarsmen heaved, the barge was going to rush past the Clade boat. Perhaps even ram it and brush it aside. That was how it looked to Wren at least.

The two vessels were so close she could see the faces of the Clade men quite clearly. Their smaller vessel rocked and trembled in the spreading bow wave of the great barge. Then came grappling hooks. One bounced away and splashed into the Hervent. Two took hold and ropes sprang taut. Which as far as Wren was concerned should have been enough, in any just or gentle world, to overturn the Clade boat and spill its blue-clad occupants into the river. They were whalers, anchored to a vast and remorseless beast by carelessly thrown harpoons, and they should have paid the price, but they did not. They knew their business.

Men hauled on the ropes; the tillerman leaned and heaved; the oarsmen strained. The Clade boat came swinging into the flank of the barge, crashed against it and stayed there. The two boats raced on down the Hervent, locked together.

Wren was still struggling with her disbelief at that when they started to come over the side. One, then two, then three vaulting up and over and landing on the deck with swords already half drawn, fierce intent in their piercing eyes.

The barge’s captain approached them, hands raised. He looked like a man resigned to a sorry fate.

‘What’s happening?’ one of the Clade warriors snarled.

‘The Free,’ the captain blurted out, glancing towards the three figures still standing, still quite calm, at the prow.

‘Always a delight to come across the Clade in the course of our labours,’ Hamdan said, yet there was nothing of delight in his tone or expression. Only ice; only a hard contempt.

The Free were no friends to the School. Everyone knew that. Wren clung to it, a raft in the flood. Perhaps the Clade were here for the Free. Perhaps larger, fiercer contests than her own little adventures were being played out. She shrank back among the other passengers, edging her way as far from those blue tunics as she could without attracting notice. So she hoped.

‘We’re on the King’s commission,’ Hamdan said loudly. ‘Not to be stayed or delayed. This barge serves our need.’

Kerig and Ena Marr were moving just as slowly and carefully as she was herself, Wren noted. They were not retreating or hiding though. They were giving themselves room. Arraying themselves to face the three Clade warriors. It seemed absurd that anyone would offer violence to the Clade, but then the Free wrote their own rules. It was their nature. Their purpose, perhaps.

The Clade men did not quail before the challenge. Nor did they take it up.

‘We’re not here for old arguments,’ their leader said.

‘They’re not as old as you think,’ Kerig muttered, but he was ignored.

The blue-shirted warrior turned away from the Free and looked towards the little crowd of passengers and nervous crew.

‘There’s people think the wild times up here give them shelter and disguise,’ the Clade swordsman said, drawing his blade and taking a long step closer. ‘Smugglers and fugitives and thieves. Every boat on the river gets searched. Every pack gets emptied.’

And Wren felt the lurch of the world turning against her once more. Felt the trap closing. It showed in her face, that feeling. She could not help it. It showed in the slumping of her shoulders. She betrayed herself.

‘You,’ – the Clade man stretched his arm and pointed levelly at her with the tip of his blade – ‘Stand still.’

He twisted his head slightly, calling over his shoulder without taking his eyes off Wren.

‘Captain, who is this?’

The other passengers were drifting away from her. Abandoning her. As she would have done, she supposed, if someone else had drawn this terrible attention.

‘I don’t know,’ the barge captain stammered. ‘Just that she wanted to go to Hamming Ferry.’

Wren took a step backwards.

‘Let her be,’ Hamdan said.

The Clade ignored him. The three of them advanced over the deck.

‘Stand where you are,’ one of them told Wren. ‘Set down your staff.’

Kerig tripped him just as he completed the command. The Clade man toppled in a blue-tinged flurry of loose arms. He fell heavily, cracking his knees hard on the planking.

‘Sorry,’ Kerig said.

Again, Clade faced Free, and this time the air all but sang with imminent violence.

‘Will you test the Clade today?’ the man Kerig had felled demanded as he got lithely to his feet.

He leaned in close to Kerig, and the two of them locked gazes, neither flinching.

‘Is it to be today?’ the Clade man shouted into Kerig’s face.

Wren saw Hamdan looking at her. He was frowning slightly. Then his mouth twitched, and he hung his head.

‘No,’ he said.

He did not sound cowed, or defeated. If anything, there was perhaps just a hint of disappointment.

‘Not today,’ he said quite clearly. Which to Wren sounded like the end of hope.

She moved back as the Clade came on. The barge, which had seemed so huge when she first saw it, now was small and tight. She felt the gunwale against the small of her back. Nowhere else to go. She turned and faced the huge expanse of the Hervent and beyond it the high, snow-crowned ground of the north. She threw herself over the side of the barge.

VI

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She fell and heard people shouting. She hit the water hard and its cold punched the breath out of her. The river took hold of her clothes and pulled her down.

She was aware of all of this and yet not, for as she went she opened herself to the Autumnal entelech. It had been her constant companion since childhood. Always there, always churning away just beyond the edge of her awareness like a storm beyond the horizon. The one of the four entelechs that called to her, that shaped itself most easily to her will and imagination.

Earth, rain, decay. Time, change, melancholy. They and a thousand thousand other possible shapes of the Autumnal filled her as she sank. Not rivers or swimming or floating. Nothing obviously connected to not drowning. As the Hervent turned her slowly in its dark grip, ever further from the light and from the air, she heard her own death in the overwhelming rumble of the vast water. Felt it in the awful weight pressing in on her.

Panic stirred as she sank and rolled in the remorseless depths. It pushed away clarity of mind. She gathered the entelech to her. The season was in her favour: the year was waning, and the Autumnal coming into its strongest time. Power and possibility trembled in her mind, in her body. She was blind, here in the chill darkness; deaf to all save the river’s dull roar. She did not know which way was up. But she had the entelech, and she had the one thought that stayed clear and sharp: I’m not dying now. I’m not finished yet .

There was enough in the bottomless silt of the river’s bed that spoke of the Autumnal to give her mind a grip upon it. She could shape it and move it by melding her will with the entelech.

She felt grit on her face. Imagined herself wreathed in a rising cloud of water-borne dirt and clay. Imagined the very earth beneath the Hervent reaching up to embrace her and save her. But the imagining was hard. The visions she tried to shape and express through the entelech were indistinct, blurred by fear and desperation. There was only one answer to that. She let the Autumnal pour through her like a torrent. She did with raw, brute power what she could not do with precision.

Pain convulsed her. Her bones felt as though they crumbled to dust within her. Hot needles rooted around behind her eyes. She saw, within the creaking box of her own skull, the riverbed rushing up, turning the water to thickening mud. A terrible pressure swelled in her chest and rose chokingly through her throat and burst out of her mouth. She breathed in.

VII

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When Wren opened her eyes she saw a dark rock dressed in slick, wet green slime. It was so close that her eyelashes almost brushed it as she blinked. She smelled vomit: her own, spilled among these jumbled boulders.

She made to rise, and her body shook and creaked in protest. She had to give up that first attempt and sink back into soaking, aching immobility. There was a dangerous appeal to the idea of just lying here, letting the sleep she could sense in the cloudy corners of her mind wash over her. Not a sleep she was likely to wake from, she knew. The air had a cold edge to it, sharpened by a fluttering breeze, and she was as wet as it was possible to be. Her clothes felt like iced lead on her back.

Against all the outraged protests of her limbs she levered herself up onto her hands and knees. She twisted to look back across the great expanse of the Hervent. What she saw there was enough to banish any thought of sleep or rest. The barge was a distant fleck, far off down the river. The lean boat of the Clade was a good deal less distant, and coming towards her. Its oarsmen were fighting the mighty current, making slow progress. But progress was progress, slow or otherwise.

Wren gathered up her walking stave from where it lay among the rocks and staggered away from the riverbank into the concealing brush.

She knew what it was to journey over hard ground. The roughest and most remote corners of the Hommetic Kingdom had often been her territory in the last few years. They were the only places where a Clever who wished to avoid the attentions of the School might pass unnoticed. This going was as hard as any she remembered.

Her boots were thinning and beginning to split, much like her feet within them. She had not eaten well for a long time and the walk north to reach the Hervent had taken its toll on her body. All of that had been before she’d plunged into the river and before she’d let the entelechs loose.

She had no memory of what exactly had happened, how the Autumnal and her unthinking mind had conspired to save her, but it had damaged her. She could not tell how far the damage went. It was all mixed up with the cold, the hunger and the bruises she had acquired in the Hervent’s embrace. But she could feel, in a way only a Clever might have understood, her own lessening. There were moments of confusion when her mind itself seemed to thin like mist in the morning sun. There were moments when she was not certain her hand even had the strength to keep its grip upon her staff. Some of this would pass; perhaps not all of it.

No matter how weak she felt though, or how unforgiving these lands were, she had the knowledge that the School’s Clade might be on her trail to keep her moving forward. That, and the hope that somewhere ahead of her, somewhere amid the rising ground and the forests and the rocks, Lame Ammenor was waiting for her. He might not know it yet, but he was.

Wren had first heard whispers of Ammenor when she was young, not long flighted from her home. They came from hedge-witches, selling paltry magics in the far parts of the Kingdom. Wren had never followed that path but she shared with them a longing to escape the clutches of the School, with all its rules and bonds and cruelties. She had resisted for a long time, but eventually had come to hear the faint murmur of hope in the stories about him.

Those stories said he was the only Clever alive to have been raised within the suffocating confines of the School and then cast them off. He had fought the School and escaped and disappeared into self-imposed exile in the north. Where, some whispered, he still lived, and might aid and guide another of his kind. If they could find him.

‘He’s an Autumnal of strength unequalled,’ a ragged man had told Wren in an abandoned barn somewhere near Mondoon. They had both been in there sheltering from an unseasonal downpour. ‘Knows more about the entelechs than half the School. That’s how he beat them. They came after him – howl, howl – and he cast them down and rent them and killed them, the dead-hearted piglings they are.’

The man had been at least half mad, Wren suspected.

Finding Lame Ammenor meant climbing through these sparse forests, stumbling over the uneven ground. It meant one foot after another, on and on, without allowing the bone-deep weariness and pain to get a hold on her mind. Wren had always had a gift for the stubborn.

Stubbornness could only take her so far. Fear of those who might be at her back and what they would do if they caught her let her push herself a little bit beyond that limit. She had not waited to see if the men of the Clade came ashore on this northern bank, or ventured away from the river. Perhaps they had turned back for their hearths and beds once they realised she was not washed up among the rocks; or perhaps they pursued her still, tracking her on and up into the wild north. That possibility gave her the steel it needed to battle against exhaustion. It was not a war she could win, but she fought it for a long time. Into the dusk and the darkness.

She was shivering violently by the time she conceded defeat. She staggered to a halt in a sheltered dell. There were willow trees by a tiny brook, the ground beneath them dense with fallen branches and twigs. She made a rough low shelter – angled branches overlain with rushes and grass – of a sort she had used once or twice before when she wished to remain unseen. No one would even notice it in the dark. So she told herself at least.

She stripped off her still-wet clothes and lay wrapped in her blankets. It was cold and uncomfortable. Even so, as she surrendered to sleep, it was not despair she felt but relief. She was where she wanted to be, moving in the direction she had chosen for herself. Whatever might come tomorrow, she was not dead yet. Undefeated.

VIII

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Wren slept much longer than she had intended: it was already full daylight by the time she woke. Her eyes ached. Rising out of sleep was like struggling up and out of cloying mud. Her body and mind, still enfeebled by her use of the entelech, wanted no part of it. This was why even the strongest Clevers were so miserly in the use of their powers. It could be a crippling business even when it went well. If it went badly it could be fatal. Or worse.

‘Still alive,’ Wren murmured, addressing the School, the Clade, the entirety of the Hommetic kingdom. The whole world, entelechs and all, in a way.

There were no tracks or trails that Wren could make out as she struggled northwards. She did see an occasional sign of human presence. An old campsite, a few felled trees. Slashes cut into a pine to harvest resin. But no paths, as far as she could tell. That would have been too easy.

Nobody had been able to tell her precisely where Lame Ammenor might be found. The closest she had ever come to directions was ‘Over the Hervent from Hamming Ferry. A couple of days into the wilds from there’.

She followed the narrow valley of a stream into a fold in the hills. Gloomy woods lay across the slopes. She had to rest often. Blisters on her feet broke and bled. Birds she did not know chittered in the trees. Far, far away she heard a wolf howling for a time. No others of its kind answered it, and she wondered what chance she had of finding someone to guide her if even the wolves travelled alone here.

In the afternoon she wearied of the oppressive trees and climbed up onto an open ridge above them. She sat there on the wiry grass, a blanket wrapped around her, and ate shrivelled little brambleberries which she had gathered on the way.

Squinting into the glare of the low sun, she saw something off in the distance, back towards the river, that made her pause. A fleck of blue which moved for a moment among dark trees and then was lost to sight.

She spat half-chewed berries from her mouth, slapped her thigh in frustration. The Clade, across the river. Fanatics and fools, chasing a single errant Clever into the wilderness. It was beyond all wisdom and sense that they should still be coming after her, into this land where there was no food or shelter and where the Huluk Kur roamed. But perhaps other things drove the Clade than wisdom. Very well. Other things than wisdom or sense or caution must drive her too if she was to finally escape the clutches of her past and her fears. She must go higher, faster, away into places even the Clade would not follow her.

Black forests swallowed her up. She stumbled through them without care for the scratches and thumps from branches and coarse trunks. There was no point, to her way of thinking, in trying to hide her trail. She was already weak, already slow. If she delayed, the Clade would be on her in no time. Her best chance was to simply go further than they were willing to go; make herself more trouble than she was worth to catch.

Her body resisted her, the terrain resisted her. It felt, in truth, as if all the world was resisting her. Conspiring to snatch away the faint glimmer of a hopeful future she had glimpsed on the horizon. If the Clade took her now… to have come so close and be brought up short would be unbearable.

So Wren fought her way through the woods, out onto rock slopes, and down into tangled thickets once more. Fell to her knees beside a tumbling stream there among the trees and scooped up water to her mouth. Her hands trembled, putting circles of ripples into the water she cupped in them. She was breathing hard, almost panting, and still could not seem to haul in enough air to put any strength into her limbs. She closed her eyes and listened, hearing nothing but the gurgling of the water and her own rasping breaths. The darkness was restful. She leaned against a tree, just for a moment.

And was snapped awake by the sound of a branch breaking. It was sharp, like the cracking of a whip, and not far away. She rolled around the tree and sheltered behind it, peering out. Nothing moved. No other sound came. She trusted neither the silence nor the stillness, so she waited.

Blue among the trees again. Not distant this time, but close. Close enough that she could make out the pale hair of the man who wore it. He was picking his way through the forest, moving across Wren’s view. Not coming straight for her at least. They had lost her trail perhaps, and now drifted through the dense undergrowth in search of it, or of her.

She breathed out. Would they never stop, these hounds of the School? Would they hunt her all the way to the ice in the north? She could not believe that, and therefore she could not believe that all hope was lost. And if they did, if nothing else would shake them loose, there was still the entelech. She did not want to kill again, but she would if the choice was between that and her own death or incarceration.

The man had disappeared from view. No others came into sight, though she knew they must be here somewhere, not far away. There had been six or seven or eight of them in that boat on the Hervent. Even if not all had come ashore, there would be at least three or four of them hunting her. No one in their right mind would come here on their own. Wren smiled to herself. No one in their right mind except a Clever with nothing left to lose.

She pushed herself away from the tree and went north.

It was not possible to move both silently and invisibly. The woods gave her cover, but betrayed her passage with snapping twigs, crunching needles. When she ventured across open ground there was no sound, but her mind quailed at the exposure. How could anyone fail to see a woman scurrying across these bare slopes?

That was just where they did see her in the end. As she staggered over a hard rock field, her feet pulsing with pain, she heard a single shout some way behind her. She glanced back and saw two of the Clade coming out onto the same wide waste-ground. Not hobbling and struggling as she did, but running. A part of her wanted to weep at the sight. The greater part was not done yet.

The slope steepened and turned. She rounded a rocky outcrop that took her out of her pursuers’ view. Crags above her which could not be climbed. She limped on. Open rock ahead of her, patched with snow, rising to the north. She began to reach for the entelech, bereft of other choices, knowing it might wreck and ravage her in her enfeebled state. Beneath her, down a steep short scree, a hollow choked with little knotted trees and bushes.

She heard footsteps and stones tumbling behind her. They would be around that outcrop and onto her in moments. She stopped, and began to turn. She set her staff to the ground as she did so, pushing herself around with it. Its heel slipped on smooth rock and shot out into space. It took her weight with it and she had neither the strength nor balance to stop herself.

Wren went sliding and rolling down the scree. Stones battered her and tore at her clothes. She careened downwards in a shower of pebbles, plunging towards the thicket of scrub below. The sound was deafening and seemed to hurt as much as the blows to her knees and elbows and back.

She fell amongst wizened pines and thorns that gouged at her face. The impact winded and dizzied her. She stared up through obscuring needles and twigs. Three Clade men were up there at the top of the scree, staring down. They were pointing and exchanging curt words. She did not think they could see her now, but they knew where she was.

There were fragments of bark and stone dust in her mouth. She spat them out, and even that effort hurt. She wanted to move. Her limbs refused. She wanted to call the entelech to her. Her mind and will floundered as precious moments flickered by. The Clade began to descend.

Then the world seemed to blur and shift. A mist passed across it, shapes flowed. At first Wren thought it was her own faltering senses that were tricking her. Then she dimly saw the Clade men hesitating, turning this way and that. It looked as if some thickness of the air had taken hold of their heads and mantled them in mist. She saw one reach out an arm as a man might do in darkness or blindness. Another turned and scrambled back up the scree. He blundered over the loose rocks and began to struggle back the way they had come. All the while, the crags above seemed to ripple and distort. The clouds in the sky rolled and coiled and ran like milk.

This was a Clever, Wren knew. This was an entelech playing across her senses and her mind, just as it did those of the Clade. They had lost her, her fell pursuers. They had lost their grip upon the world itself, for a time at least. She would do the same if she lingered here.

She crawled and crept her way through the undergrowth, heedless now of whatever noise she made. Even that sounded muffled and fluid in her ears. She emerged on the far side of the thicket and went on hands and knees up the slope of the bowl.

Only one of the Clade men was still visible to her by then. He was reeling like a drunken oaf, wandering away over lichen-cloaked rocks. She blinked again and again, as if that might clear the mist from her eyes and the strangeness from the trembling world. It did not entirely. When she looked north though, she could see clearly enough to just make out a far distant figure receding. Ascending into a higher band of trees. Trails of mist reached out from him and they lingered after he was gone from sight. They pointed the way on and up, into the forest.

Wren got stiffly to her feet and set out to follow him and that trail of fading mist. Her feet still hurt. She limped. That seemed fitting, for she was almost certain that, as he had disappeared, the faint, faraway man had been limping too.

IX

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There was a house – a shack, really – built of split logs. It was old, the wood worn and stained and overgrown with lichens. There were little windows, sealed and covered over with furs. Wolfskins. It sat in a wide clearing and bushes grew around it. Many of them bore nuts or berries, and they had surely been planted where they stood for that very purpose.

None of that was what caused Wren to stand still and stare for long moments. The bushes were not the only things sprouting from the ground. Standing among them, before the house, was a great ring of statues unlike any she had seen before. The circle filled almost the whole breadth of the clearing, with perhaps a dozen paces between each of the figures. They were of a stone she did not recognise. Dark and smooth as if polished.

She could not imagine how any human hand could have crafted such effigies as these. They had the outline and form of men and women, but none of the details. No features, mere bulges for heads. Ridges and curves that suggested arm or leg. They were all hint and indication. It was almost as if an array of fine sculptures had been roasted until they softened and slipped, sloughing away everything that was specific or distinctive until only the crudest memory of their former shape remained.

Some of them were bent over, some halfway buried as if they had been petrified in the act of shrugging their way up out of the earth. One or two were so small they might have been children.

Wren was so captivated and puzzled by this strange collection of stonework that she did not at first notice the door of the hut opening. By the time she looked that way, the man she had come so far to find was already standing in the doorway.

He was tall and broad, though some of that was perhaps the heavy bearskin he was wearing as a coat. His beard was itself so dense and wiry that it might have been torn from the pelt of some great beast. It had more than a little grey in it. That beard and the great bushy eyebrows and the deer-hide cap pulled low over his brow obscured much of his face. What Wren could see of it was creased and weathered and blotched. He was old.

And he was lame, of course. One foot was booted in fur; the other was not there at all. In its place was a blunt wooden stump bound to what remained of his leg with an intricate web of leather strapping.

Ammenor limped out a few paces. He jabbed a massive thumb at the mute and mysterious statues.

‘It’s a Permanence,’ he said gruffly.

Wren quailed at that. She took an involuntary step backwards. A Permanence was what remained when a Clever lost control of an entelech and was consumed by it. Replaced by it. For all that these stone figures might look like a thing of the physical world, strange but nonetheless natural, they were not. If what Ammenor said was true, they were pure entelech. Intrusions into the world from the formless, primordial


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place in which essence resided. And a Clever had died – ended – when that intrusion happened.

‘Don’t worry.’ Ammenor sniffed. ‘It sleeps and does nothing. It’s Hibernal, I reckon.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Wren murmured. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘Ha. You think you’ve heard of every Permanence in the world?’

She had never really considered it, but yes: she had always assumed that the few she could name were most, if not all. A Permanence was not the kind of thing that passed unnoticed or unmentioned. They entered into fearful rumour and whispered tales.

The Unhomed Host – that ranged across the entire continent and wrought devastation wherever it went. It had destroyed cities. Peoples. The Deep Stone, a rock the size of a fist which weighed more than ten thousand men. The Fold in the Sea which ate ships. All untamed, uncontrollable.

There were only two, as far as Wren knew, that had yielded in some measure to human will. They were among the most feared of all. Somewhere in the secret fastnesses of the School resided the Bereaved. Many said that the constant threat of its release was all that had kept the Hommetic Kingdom from being swallowed up by the Empire of Orphans long ago. And – if more recent rumour was true – there was the Clamour. Monstrous, bestial and somehow mastered by the Free just a few years ago. Used by them as a weapon.

‘There are more Permanences in the world than you imagine,’ Ammenor said. ‘Of course there are. There have been many Clevers, and it’s easier to lose control once than keep it a whole lifetime.’

He patted the formless face of the nearest figure.

‘It’s called the Ganger Gley in the old tongue of these parts. I just call it the Cold Men, because no matter how much sun it gets it’s always cold to the touch. You want to feel it?’

‘No,’ Wren said a little more quickly and emphatically than she had intended.

‘No.’ Lame Ammenor nodded. He stared at her. It was not hostile. More blank than anything.

‘What do you want?’ he asked her.

‘I came to find you.’

‘Of course you did,’ the old Clever sighed. ‘Of course you did. Well, you shouldn’t have. Go away.’

X

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Wren had hidden her abilities for many years, living quietly with her parents and brother on their farm. All through that time she had heard the entelechs – especially the Autumnal – calling to her. Inviting her to bring them into the world to work wonders. Her parents did not want that. They knew that any child displaying such a talent would be found and swept away by the School. The whole village knew it, for Wren was not the first of her kind to be born there.

There had been a boy, a few years older than her. He was taken when she was very young, so she remembered only fragments. Strangers dragging the child along the lane. Shouting. Screaming, even. Blue men – Clade warriors, she would understand later – among the houses. Swords. The boy’s mother knocked down, his father held on the ground, face pressed into the dirt. And, most clearly of all those fragments, the song her mother had sung to her when she was too frightened to sleep that night. The song of water willows and weaving wrens. The only thing that had been able – for a time – to make her forget those screams and those swords.

That was the fate her parents foresaw for her: carried off into the distant, faceless labyrinth of the School to serve the King, his Kingdom and the School’s own interests. They did not want to lose their child for ever to those high and haughty powers. They did not want their child dying young, damaged, because of her use of the entelechs.

It could never have lasted, Wren knew now. For years it seemed like it might, and the illusion had been a happy one. But to ask a Clever to close out the entelechs and wilfully turn her back on them was like asking a young bird not to fly. It had wings, and the air was constantly offering to carry it aloft and show it the whole world.

Inevitably, there came that day when she finally spread her wings. The day when she found her brother in a ditch, breathing through blood and trembling in pain. The day when she had to run.

There had been nothing else to do, for she had transgressed. No Clever could use the entelechs unless they were a part of, or sanctioned by, the School. Any Clever bringing harm to others by such use was subject to the judgement of the School, and that judgement was uncompromising. They had executioners.

She ran, and though it broke her heart to do it, it filled her with relief as well. She was not pretending any more. She had been running, one way or another, for all the years since. Her heart had never healed, but the relief had never entirely gone away either. And always, as she ran, there had been the hope that one day she might find a place or a way to stop. To rest and simply be.

‘Go away,’ Lame Ammenor said to her, and the words numbed her. Dulled the light of the sky and the sounds of the forest.

‘I have nowhere else to go,’ she said.

He ignored her. He turned and hobbled back towards his little house.

‘I outran the School and the Clade to get here,’ Wren snapped. ‘I’ve left everything behind. Why save me from those men only to turn me away?’

Ammenor stopped at that, on the very threshold of his hut. He angled his head so that he was almost, but not quite, looking back at her over his shoulder.

‘You’re a Clever?’ he asked gruffly.

‘Autumnal.’

‘It seemed likely,’ he grunted. ‘The Clade don’t chase many other kinds of folk.’

‘You’re an Autumnal too, aren’t you?’

He turned reluctantly to face her once more, glowering.

‘What do you want from me? Congratulations?’

‘No,’ Wren said indignantly. ‘I want you to help me understand what it means. How to live free and unafraid.’

‘I didn’t interfere to save you from the Clade, you fool. I did it to keep them from my own doorstep. It seems you know who I am, so you know I’m not the sort to welcome visitors in blue.’

‘I can’t go away,’ Wren exclaimed with more than a hint of exasperation, or perhaps desperation. ‘I don’t – I want to learn to be who I am, not be told who I am by others. Not live my life as a servant to others.’

Ammenor wrinkled his nose as if amused.

‘I killed two of the Clade,’ Wren said flatly.

‘Ho ho,’ Ammenor snorted. ‘You went to war with the School. Well, good fortune to you, my lady. I hope your armies are numerous and your allies potent.’

He disappeared into the shadows of his dwelling. Wren was left standing amid the Cold Men and the berry bushes, struggling to believe just how terribly this was all turning out.

‘Were yours?’ she shouted at the hut. ‘Were your armies and allies at your back when you warred with the School?’

Silence. Just the chirping of some little birds foraging in the clearing.

Then: ‘Do you suppose I came all the way out here, to live with bears and blizzards, because I craved human company?’ came Ammenor’s voice from out of the darkness. ‘Go away.’

XI

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Wren did not go away because it was not in her nature to do so. And because she had told Ammenor the truth. She really did have nowhere else to go.

She spread her one remaining blanket on the ground just outside the ring of the Permanence, within clear sight of the door to Ammenor’s hut. She sat cross-legged on it and ate wizened berries plucked from nearby bushes. If he objected to her foraging, let him come out and tell her so.

She stayed there even when it began to snow lightly. The dense woods around the clearing could offer a bit of shelter but snow was snow and sooner or later it would drive her from this high ground no matter how many trees she got herself beneath. Her situation was, in short, verging on the disastrous. Therefore she ignored it and simply sat there and chewed and stared fixedly at the doorway.

Before long, the scent of food cooking reached her. A faint mist of pale smoke was rising from slots cut in the peak of the hut’s roof. The smell made Wren’s stomach clench and ache. Meagre handfuls of berries were no real answer to her yawning hunger.

Moving stiffly in the cold she shuffled over to the nearest hazel bush. She knelt and took hold of one of its thicker branches. Amid the hardship and disappointment that had decided to gather about her, she at least did not need to slowly starve to death.

Bounty could be shaped from the Autumnal. Other entelechs might express themselves through other forms of abundance but fruitfulness and ripening, these were facets of the Autumnal. She envisioned those things flowing through her, rising up from the ground and moving through her chest and her arm and seeping into the hazel wood. There was a warmth to it.

In only a few moments she would have fine and fat hazelnuts to feast upon, and the prospect was deeply pleasing.

‘What are you doing, you stupid woman?’

The harsh voice broke in upon her so abruptly that her connection to the entelech snapped out of existence. She let go of the hazel bush and turned. Lame Ammenor was standing, massive and glowering, in the door of his hut.

Wren said nothing. It was no doubt entirely obvious to him what she was doing.

‘You’d spend your very substance for the sake of a few nuts?’ the exiled Clever growled. ‘A whaler wouldn’t break apart his own boat to make one harpoon. Do you forget there’s a tomorrow to come after today?’

‘I’m hungry today,’ Wren snapped.

A snowflake settled upon her eyelashes, and she had to blink and then rub it away, which she supposed rather spoiled the effect of her indignation.

Ammenor glared at her, and she glared back. They remained thus – he standing, she kneeling – for long moments.

‘I’ve got pigeons cooking,’ Ammenor said grudgingly. ‘Do you want some of that?’

The pigeons were boiling in a clay pot which sat directly on the fire inside Ammenor’s hut. They were small and untender, but they tasted good.

Lame Ammenor watched her as she ate. It made her uncomfortable. She did not complain, since he was not telling her to go away for the moment and that felt like a great victory. The first she had won in a long time.

He gave her water to drink, and kept watching her while she gulped it down. Eventually she tired of it and stared back at him pointedly. He sniffed and began to stir the fire with a stick. Embers sprang up and faded like momentary fireflies.

‘Letting the entelechs loose feels good, wouldn’t you say?’ he asked at length. ‘As if you’re touching the truth about the world.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Wren without hesitation.

‘It feels right,’ Ammenor said. He sounded more resigned to her agreement than pleased by it.

Wren frowned at him. He was so completely not what she had expected, and not what she had hoped, that she found it all bewildering.

‘Why didn’t you want to be taken in by the School?’ he asked quietly.

‘Because once they have you, it’s for life. They might not call it such, but it’s slavery. A lifetime of serving them and their ambitions and their rules. Because they kill folks who break those rules, and no part of it is justice.’

‘True.’ Ammenor nodded. ‘Not entirely, but more or less. So what life is it you dream of instead, Clever-girl?’

‘Only to understand what I am, and to be it without others caging me, commanding me. Using me.’

‘Those are immodest dreams.’ Ammenor snorted. ‘Some people worshipped us, years – centuries – gone by. There’ve always been more who want to use us, so you’d best get used to that. They don’t know half of us are mad. They don’t care that all of us die a little each time we perform for them.

‘We’re condemned, everyone like us. Born to hear and sing the song of the world’s raw essence. And doomed to suffering and decay if we ever do sing.’

By way of demonstration he tapped his wooden foot with the stick he had been using to stir the fire. A little cloud of ash and cinders plumed and then sank away.

‘At best we pay with body or soul for any use of our powers. At worst, if we reach too far or lose control for even just a moment, we become nothing more than dead-mother to a Permanence.’

He glared at her, all bitter pain. It had nothing to do with her, she realised. Not really.

‘Gone.’ Ammenor snapped his blunt fingers. ‘As if we never were. There’s the wonder of being a Clever for you. Wither yourself away working a few little tricks or try for a big trick and be snuffed out and forgotten.’

He threw the stick into the fire. He and Wren both stared as it crackled into flame.

‘None of it makes any difference,’ Ammenor went on. ‘People still live, die, suffer, breed. The seasons still turn. The entelechs ebb and flow. Us Clevers are twigs on the water just like everyone else. And whenever someone’s tried to be more than that… When Clevers think they might actually change something, that’s when the really terrible things start to happen.’

‘All I’m asking for is the freedom to live my life as I wish, and to be what I was born to be,’ Wren insisted.

‘Wrong, am I? Wait, let me think… no. I’m not. When you’ve lived as long as me, then decide whether I am wrong.’

‘I’ve seen enough,’ Wren said. She was getting angry herself now. ‘You’re wrong and you’re life-weary. You fought the School for your freedom. It turns out you didn’t know what to do with it once you won.’

‘Oh, you think me a fool. Who is the greater fool then? Me or the dreamer who came looking for me?’

And to that she had no answer. None that she wanted to contemplate just yet anyway. She stared at her feet, and the rather pathetically ragged boots that enclosed them.

‘You can sleep here, I suppose,’ Ammenor said softly. ‘One night.’

XII

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The snow saved her. Or condemned her; she was no longer entirely sure which. Either way, it fell in the night and by morning was deep and soft. Not the kind of world even one as gruff and sour as Ammenor would willingly send a weary traveller out into.

‘Bear dung,’ he muttered to himself as he looked out over the smooth white folds of the hills. ‘Stinking bear dung.’

‘I don’t smell anything,’ Wren said at his shoulder.

‘It’s an expression,’ Ammenor growled.

The snow had not settled on the Cold Men. It lay heavy on the trees and the bushes, but not on those strange statues. Not even snow could get a grip upon them, it seemed.

Ammenor stared up at the featureless sky. It was nothing but cloud, a single vast sheet of the stuff. Almost as pale as the snow.

‘Not going to be a thaw any time soon,’ Ammenor mused. ‘I need to walk my snare lines. Might not get the chance again in the next few days.’

‘I can help,’ Wren suggested at once.

He looked doubtful, but did not refuse.

Lame Ammenor dressed himself in a heavy fur cloak before venturing out into the wintry forests. He did not offer Wren any such comfort. She draped her blanket around her shoulders. That would have to do.

He led her into the pine woods, crunching through the snow on a course that carried them slightly downhill. Back, as best she could judge, in roughly the direction she had come when searching for him.

‘What if the Clade are roaming around?’ Wren asked.

‘They’re lost still,’ Ammenor muttered. ‘That or given up and gone home. And what does it matter if not? You die fast up here without meat, so there’s no choice.’

He glanced at her, one corner of his mouth hooked up into a smirk.

‘Worry about the Huluk Kur, girl. They catch you, your life’ll be even shorter and sadder than in the hands of the Clade.’

His wooden leg did not seem to hamper him overly much, but it was not long before his breathing was heavy and hard. Walking along behind him, Wren could hear it quite clearly. His breath turned into clouds of mist and streamed back over his shoulders. He was old, she reminded herself. And his life here was hard.

They walked for perhaps half an hour. By then, Ammenor was starting to slow. Wren was close to suggesting they rest when he abruptly stopped and pointed ahead. At first, Wren could see nothing amid the dark straight trees and the thin snow. Then her eyes picked out a flicker of movement.

A squirrel was caught by the throat in a loop of thin cord. It twitched and tried to race away at their approach, but was snapped back by the snare. Ammenor picked it up and broke its neck. He slipped the little corpse into a canvas bag hanging from his belt.

‘Squirrels and hares,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve eaten more of them than most folks see in their whole lives.’

He glanced at Wren.

‘You know how to kill a squirrel?’

‘Never done it,’ Wren said, ‘but I killed chickens on the farm when I was young.’

Ammenor nodded.

‘You can do the next one then.’

But there was no next one. They trudged through stands of trees, across tiny streamlets, out onto open slopes. Ammenor found and checked a dozen snares that Wren would likely never have even noticed had he not been there. All were empty and undisturbed. Ammenor gathered some in, reset others. He started to grunt in irritation at each barren snare. His eyes narrowed.

‘Did they know who you are, those School-swords who chased you up here?’ he unexpectedly asked her as they were crossing a shallow slope where the snow was no more than a dusting over bare rock and boulders. ‘Do they know you’re a Clever, and that you killed their fellows?’

‘They know I’m a Clever,’ Wren said. ‘The rest of it… no, I don’t think they know about the men I killed. It was just bad luck that they stumbled across me on the barge.’

‘Neither the School nor their Clade are much interested in what happens beyond Hommetic borders. Not even a runaway Clever. You think they couldn’t find me and take me if they really wanted to? If they cared enough?’

He gave a muffled laugh and turned to face her. He swung an arm in a wide arc, encompassing the snow and rocks and silent dark trees.

‘You’re as good as free, woman. Well done. Enjoy your liberty in this abundant and verdant land.’

Wren looked despondently at the scene. He might be right, but if this was freedom it was not what she had imagined.

‘You want my advice: learn to hunt,’ Ammenor grunted. ‘And close your ears to the entelechs. Their whispers sound like love to all of our kind, but every time you embrace them you jump yourself a bit closer to death.’

‘Every day jumps us a bit closer to death,’ Wren muttered.

‘By a single day. Using the entelechs’ll do it by weeks and months at a time. Let’s sit for a time. I need rest more than I used to.’

He brushed snow from a sloping flat rock and settled himself on to it. He kneaded the thigh of his half-leg, grimacing at whatever aches or stiffness lived in there. Wren sat beside him.

‘I’m a Clever,’ she said. ‘The entelechs are part of me. What’s the point of a long life that denies that? You’d have me be like those Cold Men in your garden. Half-formed. Unfinished.’

Ammenor shrugged. There was an impotence in the gesture.

‘I didn’t throw myself into the Hervent and then climb all the way up here for you to tell me I should go back to pretending I’m not what I am,’ Wren said in exasperation.

Ammenor regarded her for a moment.

‘So you swam the Hervent?’ he asked, not troubling to conceal his scepticism.

‘I can’t swim. I used the Autumnal. That’s why the Clade knew I was a Clever.’

Ammenor’s heavy eyebrows twitched upward.

‘That’s interesting.’

Wren waited for him to say more, but he merely sat there and chewed his lower lip.

‘Why interesting?’ she asked irritably.

‘That sort of thing’d leave most of our kind in a bad place. Empty, damaged, places like that. If it’d been me, I’d still be waiting for myself to show up here by the time next week came around. Do you have rituals or habits you use to prepare yourself?’ Ammenor asked.

‘No.’

‘That’s interesting,’ he said again, and Wren had to resist the urge to roll her eyes.

‘A lot of us,’ he continued, ‘the skilled ones, use ritual before letting the entelechs in. Helps with concentration, preparation. Means less harm when you do open yourself up.’

‘Like talking to yourself,’ murmured Wren, thinking of the Free’s Clever, Kerig, whispering to himself as he floated in the Hervent.

‘Sometimes,’ Ammenor nodded. ‘Can be anything. I’ve seen some draw pictures in the dirt. Others drum a log or a stone. Anything to clear the mind. If you’ve been throwing an entelech around without any of that sort of training, I’d expect you to be a wreck by now. Your natural abilities must be… well, it’s interesting. That’s all.’

But Wren was barely listening to him any more. She was remembering the Free, and was taken by an unexpected and vague feeling of regret. There had been two Clevers there on that barge who were not afraid to show what they were. Kerig and Ena Marr. Two who lived up to the name of their company.

‘There are Clevers marching with the Free to fight the Huluk Kur,’ she said, hearing the wistfulness in her own voice.

‘Oh, the Free,’ said Ammenor. ‘The mighty Free. Well, let’s hope they win. The Huluk Kur leave corpses behind them like most folks leave footprints. They reckon anyone who’s not their own kind to be worth less than cattle. A lot less, in fact. They value cattle quite highly.’

He sighed.

‘They have no Clevers, the Huluk Kur. You know why?’

Wren waited for him to answer his own question. He seemed to prefer doing that more often than not.

‘Because they kill them. They kill their own children if they’re Clevers. There’s how kind the world is to the likes of you and me.’

‘Well, the Free are waiting for them at some pass called the Hung Gate,’ Wren said. ‘I imagine that’ll be the end of the Huluk Kur.’

‘Hung Gate’s a good idea, right enough. Tight ground, could let the few beat the many. And if all the dying’s going to get done up there, we can rest a little easier. That’s far enough north of here we won’t even be able to smell the corpse-fires.’

Wren watched him for a moment or two. He would not meet her gaze. Still, there was just a hint of a softening. There had been that fleeting interest in her abilities, and he seemed almost willing to talk. A crack in the wall, or just a trick of her stubborn hope?

‘Let’s get to the rest of the snares,’ Ammenor said after a little while.

XIII

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‘I’m done.’

Ammenor leaned against a twisted pine. It stood alone on exposed ground. The wind and cold had stunted and bent it.

They had been walking for a good hour. Wren did not know how these things usually went, but suspected that a single squirrel was a miserable haul. Ammenor hung his head and closed his eyes as he sucked in the mountain air.

Wren clasped the edges of her blanket about her neck. She rubbed at her cheeks. Her feet were almost numb now.

‘There are two more snares down there,’ Ammenor said.

He gestured towards the wide open, rock-strewn land ahead. Wren looked where he pointed, frowning in suspicion. She could guess what he was about to say and did not like it.

‘See that broken tree?’ he asked her. ‘The stump?’

Two or three hundred paces further on stood a chest-high stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning or snapped by the wind. Wren said nothing.

‘There’s a snare on the far side of it. Then another the same distance on, in a straight line. It’s in a gap between two juniper bushes, beside a stream.’

He glanced at her expectantly. Still she said nothing.

‘I have good days and I have bad days,’ Ammenor said. ‘That’s what the entelechs get you. Today’s not as good a day as I thought it was.’

She felt a sliver of pity for him.

‘You can find your way back to the Cold Men?’ he asked her.

She thought about it and, not without reluctance, nodded.

‘Be kind enough to check the last snares for me,’ Ammenor said. The words hung in that imprecise space between statement, instruction and request, having a bit of each about them. ‘Do that and you can have another night of shelter and food.’

Wren did not know whether he was trying to lose her or whether he truly needed her help. In the end, she chose to believe the latter. And she did, she was sure, know her way back to his cottage so what harm could come of that belief?

‘Thank you,’ Ammenor said quietly as he pushed himself away from the tree.

She watched him walk heavily back the way they had come. He did look exhausted. His shoulders were low. His limp was worse, more marked, than it had been before. Wren pursed her lips. He might not be the man she had hoped and needed to find but that was not entirely his fault. He was who he was; it had been her dreams and longings that tried to make him something else. She could hardly blame him for not answering the question she had shaped her life into.

Then he glanced back over his shoulder and called out, ‘Gather some firewood on your way back, would you?’ And Wren decided she might be able to spare a little blame for him after all.

She found the first snare without any difficulty, there at the base of the blasted tree. Empty like all the rest.

The second was not so easy. Between juniper bushes beside a stream, Ammenor had said. The stream was nothing more than a feeble trickle in a tiny channel winding its way between turf and rocks. He had neglected to warn her that there were dozens of low, scrubby junipers strewn along its banks though. Dozens and dozens and dozens.

Wren doggedly kept searching longer than was entirely reasonable. She never found the snare. Beyond the little stream, the ground grew rough and uneven. It was a confusing muddle of rocks and grass and lichens and snow patches, all the different shades and textures conspiring to disorientate the eye. The sprawling junipers hid traps, and eventually she stubbed her toe, hard, on a stone.

Cursing, she straightened. For the first time since she had parted from Ammenor, she lifted her gaze towards the horizon. Until that moment she had been watching her footing, searching the ground. By coming down here she had emerged from the shielding wall of a long, high spur and could only now take in a huge sweep of the hills and mountains in a single glance. That was what she did, and as she did it she saw the Huluk Kur. All of them.

XIV

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It was like nothing she had ever seen before. A fragmented, disjointed river of humanity creeping its way across the rugged landscape. Not an army, but an entire people. Thousand after thousand. The closest of them were barely a mile from where she stood. The rest stretched out beyond sight.

There were bands of men mounted on rugged little horses, riding at the head of the march. They were spread out. Behind them came everyone and everything else. Men, women and children; some riding but most walking. Trains of horses and mules carried great mounds of baggage. Simple two-wheeled wagons trundled along. Lines of captives, ropes yoking their necks together, walked in the midst of the column. Most of them were bent low by the weight of the supplies they carried.

Wren stared at this spectacle with something approaching awe. They were too far from her for any clear sound to carry but she could imagine it. The rumble and the grinding and the clatter and clank. She had thought she understood what it meant when people spoke of the Huluk Kur being on the move. She had not. It was the kind of thing that could only be truly understood by seeing it. A black and grey and brown host laid out over hill after hill, trudging snow to mud so that it left a dark stain across the whole landscape as if some sky giant had reached down and gouged a furrow across the earth with a single massive finger.

Her eyes tracked back along the length of the vast column. Beyond it, rising from behind the distant peaks its tail was still crossing, there were indistinct pillars of smoke. They left corpses behind them, Ammenor had said. Fires too. This was havoc on the march.

And it was all wrong, Wren thought grimly. It must be. Everything Ammenor had said, everything she had assumed meant that the Huluk Kur should be far away. There was no pass for them to cross here, only high cruel ground and snow and wind. The Free and the King’s army were wa


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iting for them at the Hung Gate. That was not here.

The sound of stone on stone might be unremarkable in a place such as this, where the bones of the earth were exposed to the air. There was something in the single grating rasp, though, that made Wren shrink down before she was even sure where it came from. She made herself small.

A band of Huluk Kur were coming out from a stand of lean pine trees. They emerged cautiously onto a field of loose rocks and scree. Stones moved beneath their feet. Wren was above them, barely two hundred paces distant. Hidden, she hoped, by the undulations of the rough ground. She glanced over her shoulder. Instinct again. Marking the position of sun and skyline, to be sure she would not silhouette herself.

They must be scavengers or scouts, ranging ahead and away from the main host. They were on foot, for which she gave small thanks. Nothing else about them was remotely encouraging or comforting. They were heavy with muscle and thick-furred jackets and weaponry. They moved across the hillside with all the ease and alert confidence of wolves.

Wren pressed herself down, entirely out of sight. Her last glimpse of them stayed with her though. The closest of the brawny men had wrapped around his belt a roll of blue cloth. Another had a blue tunic tied about his neck like a short cape. She knew what that meant; she did not need to concern herself about the Clade any more. The cruel men who hunted her had met something much worse than themselves in this bleak land.

She crept away. She retraced her steps not on her feet but on hands and knees, even crawling on her belly sometimes. Her every movement was measured and considered. Her mind rattled with fear and uncertainty, but she quelled it and forced herself to think only of silence and concealment. There was nothing of consequence now save surviving the next few minutes, the next few yards of ground. Her life was measured in reaches, shifts of weight, the smallest of increments.

Back to the stream and then up its tiny channel, pretending it to be a gorge so deep it would hide her from any eye. Around boulders and among the low juniper scrub. To the decapitated tree, where she paused for the first time and ventured a careful look back. She could not see the Huluk Kur, and they could not see her. She went more quickly after that.

XV

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To Wren’s surprise, Ammenor roared when she told him. A great bellow of frustration that echoed from the stone forms of the Cold Men. He hung his head and stamped his wooden lump of a foot.

‘And you walked back up here from there, did you? In a nice straight line, I suppose?’

Wren did not say anything. There was already a glimmer of guilty doubt in her mind before Ammenor went on.

‘The Huluk Kur can track a deer for days. One of their babes, fresh off the teat, could follow whatever trail you’ve left.’

‘That might be true,’ Wren acknowledged. ‘I thought you needed to know. It’s not safe here any more.’

He flicked her half-apology away with a loose hand. He was frowning, turning things over inside his head.

‘You’re sure it was the whole tribe?’

Wren nodded.

‘They’re mad to try crossing the hills with their entire people at this time of year,’ Ammenor said, as much to himself as to Wren. ‘But perhaps not. If they make it, they’ll come out on the plains by Homneck Bridge. They’ll miss the Hung Gate entirely. That’ll spoke the wheels of the Free and the King’s army.’

He stared at Wren.

‘And by spoke the wheels,’ he said, ‘I mean kill them all, most likely. The Huluk Kur’ll be behind them, between them and the river. Nice open ground for them to play in.’

‘We should go,’ Wren said flatly.

Ammenor frowned.

‘I’ve skinned that squirrel,’ he said. ‘Spitted it already.’

She stared at him in disbelief.

‘They could be here any moment. Now, today, tomorrow.’

‘Or never,’ he muttered. Almost petulant, almost like a stubborn child.

‘Fool,’ she snapped. Her anger, her grief, all her roiling emotions balled themselves up into a knot and made Ammenor their target. ‘What have you got here that you’d sooner die than leave? If they never come this way, you can return in a day or two and go back to pretending this is the life you want. But if they do come and you’re still here – we’re here – then it’s done. Dead and burned.’

He hung his head and stared at the snow.

‘Me, I’m making for the Hung Gate and for the Free,’ Wren went on, deciding it for herself almost in the same instant she spoke it.

‘You know where to go, do you?’ Ammenor asked pointedly.

‘Show me. The Free are the only thing that might stop the Huluk Kur now, as best I understand. And you said yourself they’re undone if they stay where they are.’

‘It’s too late to save the Free,’ Ammenor stated.

‘You can’t be certain of that. I might not be able to live in the Kingdom now, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the Huluk Kur hacking their way across it. It’s still my home, my root. I still have family there. And I’m not afraid to try, even if you are.’

Ammenor glared at her, as fierce as she had ever seen him. She thought perhaps she had gone too far, set the barb a little too deeply into his flesh. But he looked away.

‘It would take days to reach the Hung Gate,’ he said faintly.

‘I don’t care!’ Wren cried, flinging her arms wide. ‘What else is there? I’ve come into this wasteland and found nothing but rock and snow and defeat. And savages covering everything in blood and ashes. What would you have me do, old man? I have nothing left!’

She breathed in deeply and mastered herself.

‘I’m going to reach the Free before the Huluk Kur reach the river,’ she told him. ‘You don’t think a Clever can change anything? You’re wrong. You hear me? Wrong!’

And finally, sluggishly, he nodded.

Wren’s impatience mounted as she waited for Ammenor to ready himself. The man moved as if weighed down by a terrible burden. He laid furs on the ground and brought out from his hut those few things he could carry with him. To and fro he went, emptying out the home he had made for himself. Piece by piece, he assembled as much of his life as he could on the furs. There was not a lot of it.

‘We have to go,’ Wren said. She kept her voice level and calm.

‘You go then, woman,’ he growled. ‘I’m not so old and frail I can’t catch you up.’

She went, but only as far as the edge of the clearing. Where the forest began she stopped and stood there, beneath the first of the trees, to wait for him. Watching him gathering nuts and berries from those bushes he must have planted years ago, she began to feel his weary sorrow as if it were her own.

There had never been anything splendid about his exile, for all the tales the hedge-witches told of him. There was only an embittered man, living a life he had no more than half chosen for himself and hoping to be left alone. Now he was exiled even from that life and hope.

Ammenor folded away his meagre harvest in a square of canvas and tucked it into his belt. He rolled up the furs and bound them with cords. He hooked the bundle under one arm and stood there among the Cold Men, looking around. Saying a silent farewell, Wren supposed.

‘We should go,’ she called softly again from the trees.

Ammenor cocked his head, like a dog catching a sound or scent no human could detect. He glanced sideways and then looked straight at Wren.

‘Get down,’ he hissed. ‘Stay there and don’t move.’

She opened her mouth to question his abrupt commands but already he was turning away from her. He dropped his roll of furs to the ground. Wren saw figures emerging from the trees on the far side of the clearing beyond him. She clamped her lips tight and sank down onto her stomach, burying herself in the undergrowth at the forest’s edge.

They were big men, made bigger by the bulky furs and animal hides that clothed them. Their faces were as pale as any Wren had ever seen, their hair blond, thick and unruly. Claws and teeth hung from their jackets. Feathers were sewn into the seams of their sleeves. Some had small animal skulls – fox, hare, hawk – pinned to their breasts like brooches. They carried spears, bows and cudgels. Some held clubs studded with points and flakes of sea-ivory and dark stone. Some wore tunics that had once belonged to the Clade.

‘Take what you want,’ Ammenor said without any hint of anger or resistance. He waved an almost casual arm towards his shack. ‘There’s food and furs and tools. I’ll not keep you from it.’

The Huluk Kur advanced, spread out. The nearest of them regarded the Clever’s shabby home with unreadable eyes. He seemed entirely uninterested in the strange stone figures arrayed around the clearing. It was almost as if he could not see the Cold Men. They held no meaning for him.

He spoke in a jagged, barking tongue Wren did not remotely understand. Nor did Ammenor evidently, for he shrugged.

Another of the northerners strode to the Clever’s side and kicked at his baggage roll on the ground, testing its weight and worth.

‘Take what you want,’ Ammenor repeated.

The Huluk Kur warrior struck him without even looking at him. A single fast backward sweep of his arm caught the old man on the side of his face and knocked him to the ground. Some of the others laughed. Some began moving towards the hut. One began pulling berries from a nearby bush and crushing them into his mouth.

Lame Ammenor tried to get to his feet. His wooden stump slipped on the slushy ground, sending him back onto one knee. The man who had hit him gave a harsh laugh and said something clearly contemptuous to his fellows. The warrior hefted the ivory-flaked club in his hand and stepped closer to Ammenor. He raised the club over his head. The Clever looked up.

Wren felt a tremble in her heart and her arms and her throat. It was a shiver of fear and alarm, and the bow wave of the Autumnal entelech rising up in her. It came unbidden, volunteering itself for violence. But another was faster than her.

‘Very well,’ Ammenor muttered, still gazing up at the Huluk Kur who meant to kill him, and lifted his hand.

In his palm he held soil and snow, mixed and muddled. The warrior frowned. Ammenor blew across his hand.

Wren felt the blast even from where she hid. A cold gust buffeted her face. It was not directed at her though. A storm of ice- and grit-laden wind engulfed the Huluk Kur. In the moment between two heartbeats, the clearing was transformed into a whirling chaos. Debris and frost and dirt churned the air into a maelstrom.

The branches of the trees beneath which Wren hid shook themselves, shedding veils of snow. The storm caught it and spun it into the clearing in great white spirals. Wren’s eyes stung. She closed them and pressed her face into the crook of her arm to shield it.

This did not feel like the Autumnal to her. It was surely Hibernal. It was the entelech that spoke in the language of cold and darkness and slumber and death. Not Ammenor’s natural affinity, but it might be that the presence of the Cold Men changed the balance of things here. Anything was possible when a Permanence was involved.

The roaring of turbulent air and clatter of falling twigs and wind-driven debris was deafening. In amongst it, Wren thought she could perhaps hear the Huluk Kur crying out. They were fierce and hard men, but an entelech wielded by a determined Clever could be fiercer and harder still. Wren could not imagine anyone standing in this tempest, let alone moving through it.

She lifted her head, eyes narrowed against the biting gale. There was nothing to see. Just the obscuring, churning storm. Which began to subside even as she stared, blinking, into it. The wind dropped. Dirt and snow began to settle.

Ammenor was limping towards her from out of a mist of ice crystals. Behind him, beside him, Wren saw terrible things. Not one of the Huluk Kur who had entered the clearing still stood. Some were dead, some merely maimed. That ice mist hid much, and Wren was glad of it. What she could make out was more than enough. Gelid shards which had burst outward, springing from bone like winter knives, splitting faces open. Raw red flesh where the storm of grit had scoured away skin. Eyes white, frozen in their sockets.

She could hear nothing but the gentle settling of snow and ice, and the moaning and the weeping of those who still lived. And a voice, she thought dimly. She blinked again and looked at Ammenor. He was unsteady, pale. The skin beneath his eyes had loosened and slipped. There was blood trickling from his nose. He was talking to her, she realised.

‘Run, girl,’ he was saying. ‘Don’t wait for me. Run…’

And his voice bubbled away in a tangled froth as an arrowhead appeared, protruding from the front of his throat. Wren had not heard the impact. Ammenor’s eyes just opened a little wider as those bushy brows lifted and he made a strained coughing sound. He stopped and lifted one hand towards his neck and began to turn as he did so. His fingertips brushed the bloody point jutting out just above his collarbone.

As he turned, another arrow hit him in the shoulder. He went down onto one knee. Wren could not move. She lay there in the brush, transfixed.

Indistinct figures were moving among the last remnants of the icy tempest. It was as if the Cold Men had come to life, suddenly closing towards Ammenor. But as the air cleared, Wren saw that these were no statues. More Huluk Kur clubmen. They did not all come into the clearing, she wanted to cry out to Ammenor. They were not all close enough. You were not savage enough.

Then Wren felt the weight that had been holding her down lifting. Her limbs remembered themselves. She began to rise, not to run as Ammenor had told her but to go forward. To cloak herself in the entelech and spread her wings and carry death with her into that clearing.

Her movement betrayed her. Before she was even fully on her feet, the nearest of the Huluk Kur was staring at her. He was still staring at her as he calmly and slowly pushed the point of his spear down into the notch between Ammenor’s neck and shoulder. Deeper than Wren would have thought possible. Ammenor gave out a long, fluttering gasp. The Clever fell forwards. The spear came out covered in gore.

The moment in which Wren’s eyes remained locked with those of Ammenor’s killer stretched. Her mind filled its unbounded space. She could not save Ammenor. She did not know precisely where all her enemies were, or how many. Already, in the indistinct corners of her vision, she could see more shapes moving, coming closer. If she died too, there would be none to carry warning of the Huluk Kur’s intent, nor to work vengeance upon them.

She spun about and ran into the forest. Twigs and brambles lashed at her clothes and face. She bounded over fallen branches and roots half hidden by snow and slush. Behind her, she heard the warriors shouting in their hard-edged language. Their cries followed her like the voices of blackbirds.

XVI

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She knew she could not outrun them. She knew too that she did not need to. Through all her life, one thing only had been unchanging, constant: she was a Clever. She had denied it and hidden it. No longer.

Her body ran and staggered and stumbled. Her mind took the raw stuff of the Autumnal entelech and made real one of the countless possibilities it carried within it. She shaped a mist, thick and heavy. She wove it from the air and called it forth from the trunks of the trees. She wreathed herself in it so that her very passage through the forest laid it in thick banks amongst the trees. It flowed behind her like a sluggish river and spilled over every hump and hollow of the ground and sent tendrils curling up into the canopy.

The mist was so dense it swallowed all sound. She heard only her own footfalls and ragged breathing and the cracking of twigs beneath her feet. Behind, there was only silence. As if the world there had ceased to exist, erased into a still, grey fog. She ran on, and everything disappeared in her wake.

Without Ammenor, she could not be certain which way to go. It hardly mattered. Her vision blurred, as if the mist she had summoned was leaking into her own eyes. The only thing that was important was putting distance between her and the wolves behind her.

The ground began to fall away and she found herself leaping, almost falling, as her own weight rushed her on and on. She brushed against tree trunks that flashed past her. She reeled and almost fell time and again. Yet she did not slow. Not even when her lungs and throat began to burn in their desperation to feed her body with air. She staggered into a wide and rocky stream and went flailing across it in plumes of icy water.

The trees thinned and she ran on and up, her leggings now wet and heavy. Every muscle cried out. She let the entelech go and her body shook with its passing. She stumbled – she could not run any further – onto a moor of heather and grass. There were fewer trees here. She had left behind the forest, wrapped in its silent shroud of mist.

There at last she slumped against the bole of one of the pines. She leaned on it, and on the staff she held in her other hand, and panted. Gasped for a renewed vigour that would not come. She felt like she might be sick.

She did not know how long she stayed there, for time slipped away from her. She was not even sure what gave her warning. It might have been a sound or a glimpse of movement. It might have been nothing but chance that made her look back the way she had come just as a lone Huluk Kur warrior came trotting into sight.

‘Come on, then!’ Wren cried, pushing herself a little unsteadily from the tree.

It was the man who had killed Ammenor. She thought so at least: her vision was still not clear.

‘I’m glad it’s you,’ Wren said to him, knowing he would not understand or care. She cared though, and that gave her some strength to call upon. It gave her the will to suffer just a little bit more, and to bend the Autumnal to her purpose one more time.

He closed on her with determined strides, no hint of hesitation. He had both hands on his spear and held it level with Wren’s stomach as he drew nearer. She allowed him to come within a dozen paces and no further.

She made small movements with her free hand – reaching and grasping – the more easily to envisage her desire. It was hard to tell whether that really helped or not, but she got what she wanted.

Arms of mist came over the Huluk Kur’s shoulders. The vapour masked his face, taking hold so firmly that he jerked to a halt and reflexively dropped his spear. He raised his hands and tried to claw his way free but it was only fog that held him and his fingers passed through it as if it was not there.

Wren imagined the mist penetrating his eyes and his mouth and nose. Writhing its way into him. She heard him scream. The sound was muffled. She blended decay into the mist. Rot and the maggots that fed on it. The softening and browning, the melting and the eating by which flesh became earth. He screamed again, a sound that quickly faded away.

The Huluk Kur slumped to his knees. His arms hung limply at his sides. Wren turned her back. She did not want to see what would be revealed when she eventually allowed the mist that hid his features to dissipate. This was the first man she had killed with aforethought, and without a hint of regret afterwards. That did not mean she liked it.

She walked away.

There had to be balance and exchange. Something had to go back into the formless expanse of the primal entelechs. All this exertion was too much for her. Her body was emptied. Her mind spun and thinned. It was only some time – too late – after she had left the corpse behind her that she realised she should have taken the spear. It might have been of use, but it had not even occurred to her. Her thoughts were blunt and broken things.

Dizzy, she blundered half-blinded into a new stretch of forest and soon enough her foot found the edge of a thick root, slid over its slick, wet surface and twisted as she fell heavily.

She lay there, dazed, staring up through the canopy for a time. It would be easy to remain where she was. Easier by far than the alternative. She hauled herself to her feet.

As soon as weight was on her ankle, pain shot through the joint and up the sides of her shin. And she laughed.

‘Of course,’ she said to the forest. ‘Why not?’

Leaning on her staff, she could make a sluggish kind of progress. She imagined herself, lame like Ammenor, as a wounded deer. Hounded. How fitting and entirely of a piece with the world’s bleak humour it all felt. The wind had only been blowing in one direction from the moment she stepped onto that cursed barge on the Hervent. Of course she found herself hobbled. Of course.

She discovered that she was not afraid as she struggled on among the trees. She was angry that her hopes and dreams had become dust so completely and quickly. She was filled with bitter loathing for the savages who had carried death onto this high ground and tormented by the thought that she might have led them to Ammenor. But she was not afraid. Instead, she was finding within herself an answer to the world’s casual cruelty. If she was to die out here in the wilds, it would be as herself. For perhaps the first time in her life she could be wholly and completely what she had for so long hidden. A Clever. A powerful one.

Ammenor had clearly thought her abilities unusual in some way. He had been impressed by what she had done without training or practice. Very well. She would put his judgement to the test. The Huluk Kur would yet find this deer was a terrible quarry, with antlers sharp as knives and hoofs that broke stone.

XVII

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They almost caught her in the night. She did not want to stop and rest, not even for a moment. Her body overruled her mind. As she staggered through a darkness that the half-obscured moon barely touched, she lost her footing one time too many. Her injured ankle howled its protest. When she made to raise herself up, her arms shook and folded as if boneless.

It was all she could do to crawl into a sheltered corner between two boulders. She spread her blanket as best she could over her body and made a ball of herself beneath it. Her stomach growled. Every limb hurt and shivered. Despite all of that, she fell towards sleep in moments.

They did not find her, but it was close. Their voices woke her. They drifted past in the night. She could see nothing, just hear those harsh cries. Some were distant. Her alarm perhaps exaggerated it, but the closest seemed to come from no more than a few dozen paces away.

As the sound of her hunters faded into the distance, she did not dare to move. She stayed there, pressed into the shelter and moonshadows of the protective boulders, glad of the darkness. However good at tracking the Huluk Kur might be, a deep night and a clouded moon were enough to defeat them. A small piece of good fortune to set in the scale against all the ill.

She remained in her hiding place until she judged the night well on the way to its end. Until she had not heard a Huluk Kur voice for hours. She doubted it would pay to test the generosity of her newfound luck.

The dawn found her climbing again. She craved open, high ground where she might see what was coming for her and what lay before her. She marked the first hint of light on the horizon and took that for east. As best she could tell – which was only a little more than a guess – the Huluk Kur had been heading in that direction when they passed her in the dark. She headed north, where the land allowed it. She thought the Hung Gate might lie in that direction.

For much of the morning, as she laboured along a bleak ridgeline, her left arm would give an involuntary shiver every so often. It worried her, but only a little. There were any number of greater concerns to occupy her mind, and before long she stopped noticing it. By the time she stopped to drink from a puddle of meltwater, around the middle of the day, the arm had remembered itself and returned to her control. She still felt dull and slow of thought. Her ankle still hurt. Yesterday had been worse though. Tomorrow would be better, she told herself. All she had to do was live to see it.

Soon she was high enough to see for miles. Ahead of her, the view was deeply uninviting. More rock than grass. More snow. Her mind turned to possibilities she had not allowed herself to consider until now. She was a Clever. The world was hers to shape, if she was willing to pay the price such shaping demanded.

Could she make mist of herself and flow over the cliffs and obstacles before her? Could she pass into the earth beneath her feet and emerge, remade, somewhere far away? Could she make of herself a bird and truly spread wings for a time? Perhaps. Perhaps, too, doing so would take everything she had to give, every last piece of her.

There had never been anybody to tell her how such marvels might be performed without losing herself to the entelechs entirely. She was all but certain that, in her already weakened state, she would never come back from such extravagant spending of body and soul. It would be the kind of desperate gamble that invited a Permanence into the world, and plotted a course for her out of existence. She was not ready to risk that yet. Not quite.

She slept for a few hours on a bed of moss in the lee of a rocky overhang. It gave her some shelter but little comfort. It was lucky, she supposed, that wind or snow did not come in the night. That might have been too much for her. As it was, in the watery dawn that followed she discovered what desperation looked like. She saw what was needed to make her consider gambling everything.

At first she did not know what she was hearing. A grinding, as of a distant, lazy rockslide? It went on too long and deep for that. More like an entire river of rock slowly rolling its way over the land. With that image coming to mind, she guessed what it might be.

She eased her way along a ledge from where she had slept and clambered onto the top of the ridge, wedging her staff into crevices to lever herself up. She shuffled on hands and knees over slabs of rock and patches of flat turf. The heavy rumbling note grew slowly louder.

When she came to an edge, she lay flat and stared down across a long, tumbling scree of boulders to a plain of grass below.

No hunting or scouting party this. No handful of warriors. It was the van of the Huluk Kur host. Hundreds of horsemen. Behind them, indistinct in the weak light of the morning, came the head of the main column. They must have broken their camp before dawn, she thought. Or perhaps marched through the hours of darkness.

For long minutes she lay there, lost to herself. She was too slow, too weak to race this vast, remorseless people. Her body had too little left to give. Nothing remained to her but to hide herself away somewhere in these mountains. Exile herself from whatever was happening and was going to happen. Hide and be quiet and be what – and who – Ammenor had been.

Unless she was willing to risk everything. Unless she was willing to flirt with death. Might she after all become mist or bird or…

‘Stand up.’

The sudden command set her heart skipping. She rolled and turned slowly, expecting nothing good.

Behind her, four men were standing in a loose arc, horses patient and silent at their backs. They had bows at the ready, arrows on the strings. All aiming at her. She cursed herself inwardly for becoming so lost in the maze of her own thoughts that she could not even hear four riders drawing near. Then she belatedly recognised the closest of the men.

‘Oh ho,’ Hamdan cried. ‘Put up your bows, boys. It’s the river girl! It’s the one I told you about. Dislikes the Clade so much she chose the Hervent over their company!’

He sounded genuinely pleased. Delighted, almost.

XVIII

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Wren rode behind Hamdan, arms about his waist, back to the Free’s camp. She had ridden a horse before, often enough that she would have said she could be trusted in the saddle. This was a different kind of riding. Fast and fearless. Every one of the archers seemed born to it, and every horse born to carry them. To Wren’s eye, their descent was wildly dangerous, barely controlled at times. Pebbles cascaded after them. Before long, Wren chose not to look ahead over Hamdan’s shoulder. She found knowing wh


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at they were plummeting towards did nothing but feed alarm. Instead, she concentrated on not falling off.

The camp, when at last they reached it, was not what Wren had expected. A thousand of the King’s levy, a hundred of the Free, Hamdan had told her so long ago on the barge. An army. A small one, but an army nonetheless. This was not that. This was three or four hundred men at most. There were not even enough tents to shelter that many. Not enough horses to bear them all. Only a handful of wagons, and those not fully laden with supplies. There were perhaps a dozen small campfires burning, sending tendrils of smoke up into the still air. Looking up at the faint tracks across the sky, Wren frowned.

‘They’ll see your smoke,’ she said over Hamdan’s shoulder. ‘You’ll bring them down on you.’

‘That’s the idea,’ Hamdan grunted. ‘Our contract says the Huluk Kur don’t cross the Hervent. If we’re to fulfil those terms, we have to face them here and now.’

The camp lay on the edge of a wide, flat mire. On two sides stood high and rocky ridges; on the others – the direction the Huluk Kur might appear from – there were only low hills, treeless and bleak. The great open expanse immediately before the camp was cut by streams and pockmarked with great pools of dark water. Rushes and reeds grew there, though none of them were tall.

They dismounted and Hamdan led Wren through the camp. Hardly anyone looked up as they passed. Many men were sleeping, stretched out on the bare ground. The mood of the place was dour and Wren felt a foreboding take hold of her. Hamdan halted her with a touch on her arm.

‘Wait a moment, if you don’t mind,’ the archer said, and without waiting for an answer he ducked inside the closest tent.

It was the same as the others. Simple, unadorned. Nothing to mark it out as of any special consequence. From within, Wren heard hushed voices. Hamdan’s and one other. She did not quite know what to do with herself as she stood there waiting. She folded her arms and set her weight on one hip. Just as she was starting to think she should sit down to protect her still-sore ankle, Hamdan abruptly emerged. A larger figure came just a pace or two behind him.

‘This is Yulan,’ the archer said. ‘Captain of the Free.’

He was a tall man, his skin the same soft brown shade as Hamdan’s. Another man of the south then. One rather more intimidating in stature and appearance. Yulan’s head was smooth-shaven, save for what must be a single long tail of hair that was folded up and pinned into a knot atop his scalp. He regarded Wren with intelligent, intense eyes.

‘Hamdan tells me the Huluk Kur are close at hand,’ he said to her. His voice was gentler than she might have expected.

‘They are,’ she said. ‘The first of them will be on you in an hour or two, I’d guess.’

‘That’s lucky,’ Yulan said, and Wren could only think that their notions of luck must not live under the same roof. He saw her surprise and gave a faint smile and the slightest shrug of one shoulder.

‘We weren’t certain of their course, and it would be hard to move again to get between them and Homneck Bridge. Everyone is tired.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Wren said, shaking her head wearily. ‘I thought I’d have to reach the Hung Gate to find you. And that there’d be more spears at your back when I did.’

‘Not even the Huluk Kur can move thousands of people over mountains without getting noticed sooner or later. Not if their enemies are wise enough to have scouts and watchers strewn across the land. Certainly not if they insist on setting fire to every village or cottage they find along the way. They’re fierce and brave, the Huluk Kur, but not exactly cunning. Not careful.’

Wren looked around her. These were tired men, Yulan had said, and she could see it clearly. They sat in small groups, some heads resting on knees. Any talk was soft.

‘Is this all?’ she asked.

Yulan nodded.

‘The rest are following, but cannot reach here in time. These are the strongest. Fifty of the Free; three hundred others. The only ones fit to do what was needed. We have walked and ridden further in the last day and night than most could manage in a week. No eating, no sleeping, no slowing.’

‘How?’

‘You’re a Clever, aren’t you?’ Yulan asked her. ‘That’s the tale running from the Clade and not drowning in the Hervent would tell.’

Wren only nodded. It seemed a lifetime ago that she might have pretended otherwise. Everything had turned on its head.

‘Then you would understand,’ Yulan said. He pointed to a flat-bedded wagon standing a short distance away. ‘It cost us one of our Clevers to do what we have done. Ena Marr.’

Wren went over there and Yulan followed. He stood at her side and they both looked down at the pale, unconscious woman lying on the wagon. They had wrapped her in blankets and set a fur beneath her head. There were blisters on her cheek. The fine red tapestry of a hundred little burst blood vessels around her eyes.

‘She fed us, all these hundreds, with strength. She carried us, in a way. She will not wake for a long time, Kerig says. She will never be quite as she once was.’ There was such a depth of regret in Yulan’s voice it tightened Wren’s throat just to hear it. ‘Kerig could help her now, bring her at least part of the way back. But I need his strength undimmed. I might yet have to ask him to spend himself entirely too, once the Huluk Kur arrive. So Ena Marr must sleep and never be quite as she once was. That is a hard truth to bear.’

Wren gazed upon the sorry, unmoving figure and saw there the very fate Ammenor had foretold for all Clevers. The fate Wren’s own parents had always feared lay in wait for their daughter. And all to no purpose, as Ammenor would have had it. Making no lasting change in the world. Perhaps so, Wren thought. Only time would tell for certain. At least Ena Marr had tried.

‘You’ve two Clevers, if you need them,’ she said, still staring down at Ena Marr.

‘Homneck Bridge is that way,’ Yulan said, pointing.

‘And if you fail here, could I reach it, alone, before the Huluk Kur overrun me?’

‘I don’t know. Probably not.’

‘Then, as I said, you’ve two Clevers if you need them.’

‘I’ll try not to make you pay the price for those words,’ Yulan told her.

Something in the way he said it sent an unexpected surge of emotion pulsing through Wren. It was diffuse, hard to define. She thought it might be something leaving her. She thought perhaps it might be the burden of solitude departing.

Kerig arrived beside them. He stood in silence for a few heartbeats, looking just as they did at the wagon’s slumbering cargo. Wren thought she caught a fleeting wince of – what? Sympathy, guilt, sorrow? – on his face. It was gone as quickly as it came. He turned to Wren. His cheeks twitched a little then, as if a smile was trying to show itself. There was the faintest of twinkles in his eye.

‘You look like you’ve been dragged behind a horse all the way from the river to here,’ he observed.

Wren simply glared at him.

XIX

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‘They’re here!’ someone cried.

Wren looked up. Everyone did. Yulan had set his few hundred levymen in a line, laying a thicket of spears and shields along the edge of the sodden, marshy ground. Behind them, the far fewer of the Free waited. Wren was standing beside the wagon that carried Ena Marr. Kerig was in there, cross-legged on the wagon’s bed close by his fellow Clever. Hamdan and his twenty or so archers sat on horseback. Yulan and a dozen or more swordsmen were sitting together on a hummock, quiet and calm. There were axemen and slingers scattered about. Wren would have called it a fearsome, mighty warband had she not known what was coming towards them.

It was some of the Huluk Kur outriders who had appeared. They crested the low hill on the far side of the mire, dark shapes against the white of the clouds. Five, then ten, then thirty. All along the shieldwall there was a shifting and a clattering as men set their spears and shuffled their feet in search of the firmest footing. Yulan stood up and walked steadily forward.

‘They do not reach the Hervent,’ he cried out. ‘Know that and remember it. The Free stand with you, and the Huluk Kur do not reach the Hervent.’

The horsemen on the horizon began to descend, spreading out as they came. A hundred or more of them now. Wren did not understand their intent. They were surely still too few to challenge Yulan’s defence. But then it might be that the Huluk Kur did not think of such things quite as others would.

As the riders began to pick their way through the bog, Wren could hear the splash of hoofs in water, the sucking gulps of mud. They were brandishing spears and clubs and bows above their heads. They bared their teeth and howled and spat as they came closer.

‘Folk like these always enjoy making a noise,’ she heard Kerig mutter.

Some of the horsemen held aloft objects Wren could not quite make out. Sacks or bags perhaps. They whirled them about their heads. Their stout little horses jumped forwards beneath jabbing heels and came cantering through showers of spray straight towards the line of spears.

‘Stand fast,’ Yulan was shouting.

Wren found herself tensing in anticipation of the terrible sounds and sights that would come when those riders crashed madly against the shieldwall. But they did not come. Not yet. The Huluk Kur drew their horses up and wheeled them about, churning the soft ground. They barked out guttural yells. The men carrying those strange objects spun them and hurled them in high looping arcs.

Wren realised what they were while they were still in flight. Heads. Twenty, thirty of them came tumbling down, thudding to the ground. Some fell short, some long. A few fell among the men of the line. Shields were raised and the severed heads smacked against them and rolled away.

More and more horsemen were flowing over the hill, picking their way through the marsh to join the mass of their fellows that seethed before the wall of spears and shields. Taunts and abuse flew. Then, without any warning sign that Wren could see, riders were streaming away to one side. Dozens of them rushed across the front of the defenders, seeking to turn the end of the line.

‘Retreat the right flank!’ Yulan cried.

The spearmen there hurried to put an angle in their wall.

‘Hamdan!’ Yulan shouted without looking round, and almost before the sound of his voice had faded there were arrows in the air. A tight little flock of them vaulted out and fell chattering into the knot of Huluk Kur horsemen out on the right just as they began to charge in. Men fell. Horses pitched over in the mud. More arrows came, faster than Wren would have thought possible, and the charge became a chaos of tumbling, stumbling, lurching bodies. It reached the shieldline, even so.

A wild melee engulfed the spearmen. The end of their wall buckled and broke and there were Huluk Kur among them, hacking downwards with clubs and axes. Hamdan’s archers kept flicking arrows into the tumult, somehow picking out targets from all the confusion. Still, it seemed the end could be neither long nor kind in coming. Wren blew out a long breath as she felt the Autumnal rising, felt it answering a call she had not even been aware of giving.

Then Yulan and the swordsmen of the Free were rushing in. They plunged into the madness and cut through it. Wren had not known such measured violence was possible in the midst of battle. They pulled down horses and unseated riders. They turned aside every blow that came at them and danced where others were staggering and flailing. They killed as if killing were a craft refined over a lifetime of labour. They turned back the Huluk Kur, and not one of them fell in doing it.

Wren let the entelech slip away, trembling at the release of so much tension.

‘That was the easy part,’ she heard Kerig saying.

She glanced at him and then followed the line of his gaze. The Huluk Kur host was arriving. Their multitudes were colouring the high ground grey and black.

XX

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Wren stood with Yulan and Hamdan and Kerig, gazing out at the impossibly huge throng gathering itself before them. Readying itself to crush them and trample them into the soft earth.

‘I told you we should have brought the Clamour,’ Kerig observed.

‘Now, you know that wouldn’t have been a good idea,’ Hamdan chided him with a wry smile. ‘Not on a journey like this. Too far, too hard. We might all be about to die, but there’s no call for taking such a foolish risk.’

Kerig rolled his eyes.

‘You Massatans are all mad.’

‘Hush,’ Yulan said. ‘I’d not want the levymen to hear you talking of dying and Permanences. Not now. A bit of faith and hope’s the only armour they’ve got.’

‘It’ll not last long against a few thousand Huluk Kur,’ Kerig said bluntly.

Yulan glanced at the Clever.

‘You need to foster some faith of your own, Kerig. This woman here,’ – he gestured towards Wren – ‘came out of those hills alive. You don’t think we can match her mettle? And you don’t think your Captain might have a few more gambits of his own?’

It was said quite calmly, but Wren thought she heard some spikes – frustration at least – just below the surface of the words. There was not quite the same easy trust between Yulan and Kerig as lay between him and Hamdan. Kerig did not seem to notice, or did not care. He smiled.

‘You should know it doesn’t come easy, but I’ll foster what I can, Captain.’

‘Good. Now go find me that man who speaks the Huluk Kur tongue. It’s time for a little talking, I think. Always better to try that rather than just rushing into the killing and the dying.’

Yulan went out a little way, accompanied by a single spearman whose slumping shoulders and heavy tread betrayed his unhappiness. In one hand, Yulan carried a single severed head, holding it by the hair. He stopped and raised it up, displaying it to the great host of the Huluk Kur arrayed there before him like an audience to some fell ceremony.

Wren saw Yulan speaking to the spearman at his side. She could not hear what he said. Then the spearman called out in the Huluk Kur tongue. His was the only voice in the huge bowl of land. It sounded clear and loud.

Whatever he said, the Huluk Kur greeted it with a howl and a roar. Yulan threw the head into the marsh before him and turned and set his back to the army of his enemies. He and his relieved companion returned through the line of spearmen.

‘What’s happening?’ Wren asked as Yulan passed her.

‘I’ve told them to give me their strongest and their best man. The one who’s never been defeated. I told them I’ll kill him, and when I do they’ll go away into the north and leave the Kingdom in peace.’

‘Oh,’ Wren said.

‘Pride can be a terrible weakness, especially when mixed with anger. We’ll see how much of those things the Huluk Kur have.’

The Huluk Kur warrior who came out from among their ranks was, as best Wren could judge, the biggest man she had ever seen in her life. He stood a full head taller than Yulan and his shoulders were like logs resting atop his chest. He was stripped to the waist. Spiral scars adorned his breast. Each of his massive arms had half a dozen cords tied around it, all dyed a different colour. And in his hands he carried a sword so huge Wren doubted she would even be able to lift it. From pommel to blade tip it looked to be as long as she was tall.

‘Well,’ Hamdan mused. ‘That’s a very big sword he’s got there.’

‘It is,’ said Yulan. ‘I’ve not seen any of the rest of them with a sword. Have you?’

‘No.’

‘No. What do you suppose the chances are that he doesn’t really know how to use it?’

‘I doubt it matters if he knows how to use it,’ Hamdan sniffed. ‘If he lands a blow, it won’t stop till it meets stone or earth clean on the other side of you. I’d suggest you don’t let him hit you.’

‘Get me a short-sword and dagger, would you?’ Yulan said quietly, setting down his shield. He unbuckled his own belt and let it fall, with scabbard and blade, to the ground.

‘You want me to protect you?’ Kerig asked as Hamdan moved away.

Yulan shook his head emphatically.

‘You’ll need all your strength to save everyone if I die.’

‘And how should I do that?’

‘I have no idea. That’s why we have Clevers in the Free. To deliver surprises and wonders. You didn’t think you were going to get rich without having to work for it, did you?’

‘No,’ Kerig grunted. ‘It’s been clear that wasn’t going to happen since the first day I fell in with you people.’

‘And if the will’s there, all things are possible for a Clever, are they not?’

‘All things are possible,’ Kerig acknowledged. ‘I’d rather you concentrated on the possibility of beating that giant out there though.’

‘I’ll do that,’ Yulan said. ‘If you want my wager, mind you, they’re coming at us again whatever happens between me and that slab of flesh.’

‘Why fight him then?’ Wren asked, somewhat bemused at the air of calm these Free affected in the face of such a hopeless prospect. Though she supposed more sensible fear would not be of any great help to them now.

‘Because I might be wrong,’ Yulan told her. ‘It has been known. And even if I’m right, this buys some time, doesn’t it? Time for you and Kerig here to dream up some of those surprises and wonders.’

So the Free really would have me fight for them if it comes to it , she thought to herself. Once that very notion would have set a fire burning in her mind, unleashing excitement, fear, confusion, all manner of tumult. Now she only noted it. She was far too tired for tumult.

‘Listen, both of you,’ Yulan said to her and Kerig, abruptly grave. ‘Whatever happens, whatever you do: no women or children die. None of the slaves or captives the Huluk Kur have taken. Nobody dies but those who bear arms against us. No matter what that restraint might cost us, we hold to it. Always.’

Kerig nodded. Plainly, he already knew his Captain’s mind. So now did Wren, and she found it to her liking.

Yulan went out alone to meet his opponent. He picked his way carefully over the treacherous ground. Wren could see his feet sinking ankle-deep into water and mud. He carried sword and dagger loosely at his side.

They stood facing one another. Yulan was quite still. The champion of the Huluk Kur rolled his shoulders, swaying his great sword from side to side. His teeth showed in a snarl. He was talking to Yulan, an endless jagged chain of meaningless words.

‘Can he win this?’ Wren asked Hamdan softly.

‘He doesn’t like it much, but Yulan has a rare talent for killing men. That is his gift, and his burden. I doubt the Huluk Kur have ever quite seen its like.’

Nor had Wren. The huge Huluk Kur moved first. He surged forward, tearing his mighty legs free from the marsh. His sword curved up and round and down again far too quickly for such a huge weapon. It angled in towards Yulan’s shoulder like a falling tree.

But Yulan was not there when it fell. He was gliding sideways, as easily as if there was the hardest of ground beneath his feet. He moved as lightly as thought from beneath the descending sword. Ducking, he went around the Huluk Kur, under his arm. The dagger in his left hand darted out and cut its own neat, precise curve through air and through leggings and skin and muscle.

The Huluk Kur cried out and staggered, almost hopping. He pressed a hand to the back of his thigh. Even from where she stood, Wren could see the blood on the huge man’s palm when he lifted it again. A ragged cheer rose from the watching levymen. A rumble from the host on the far slopes.

Yulan set himself once more, balanced and still. The Huluk Kur limped at him. The blade came in a flat arc this time, at chest height. Yulan swayed backwards. The tip of the sword passed so close he must have felt the wind of its sweep on his face. Before that sweep was even done, while its strength was still twisting the Huluk Kur’s torso round, Yulan rushed in and stabbed the dagger up into his opponent’s armpit. It went deep and stayed there, buried in the crease between arm and shoulder, as the man howled and reeled backwards.

Yulan followed him and the two of them splashed through pools and around tufts of rushes. The great sword sank low, the arms that held it faltering. The short one flashed and cut. It opened long wounds, and at the last it drove up under the ribcage and found the life it sought and snuffed it out.

Yulan walked back towards his followers, leaving the great corpse behind him settling slowly into the soft, wet earth. A minute or two. No more. It took less than that, after their champion fell, for the army of the Huluk Kur to surge forward. They poured across the mire. They rushed around it, streaming across the slopes. They came raging and howling, hungry for the massacre.

XXI

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They were all going to die. Wren saw that as clearly as she had ever seen anything. Before the first deaths, before the first cudgel rang on a shield or the first arrow nested in flesh, she knew how this ended.

The Huluk Kur charged in their hundreds and their thousands, shaking the ground and the sky. The rocks echoed. The grass and the reeds trembled.

The Free stood behind the shieldwall. Yulan was shouting something but Wren could not hear it. Hamdan and his archers were emptying their quivers, and the arrows fell among the horde and disappeared. Ten, twenty times as many shafts came in the other direction, rising as if in answer and pattering down. They quilled the grass. Stones came with them, launched from a hundred slings. They made for a sharp, hard hail.

Kerig, close by, was murmuring something. Readying himself. The world around Wren seemed to slow. The Huluk Kur came on. Spears bristled to meet them. It all looked as foolish as a fawn standing at bay to face a hundred-strong pack of wolves. The first of the northern tribesmen crashed in, then more and more endlessly pouring up to the bank of shields and over it. Around it. A great inundation, embracing and engulfing those who would stand against it.

What was happening lost its meaning to Wren’s eyes. She saw it all as some great storm, or a turbulent roiling flood. It was not a host of men struggling and falling and howling; it was chaos, almost formless. But Kerig was there, and him she saw clearly.

He knelt not far from her, his hands sunk deep into the earth. Two men of the Free flanked him, shields raised over him to ward against arrows or slingstones. Kerig’s eyes were closed and he rocked gently back and forth. His arms trembled. The grass around him trembled, and shivered and writhed. Patterns spread out through the turf, radiating out from him. Patterns of growth, patterns of darkening, all reaching towards the battle and the Huluk Kur. Wren saw the tips of coiling briars rising from the earth. Kerig had called the Vernal entelech onto the battlefield.

Then a stone, loosed from some distant sling, found a gap between the guarding shields. It flicked down from the sky and clipped the side of Kerig’s head. He slumped limply onto his side. In an instant, the Vernal was gone. The grass stilled and the emerging briars withered.

Wren turned about, stunned. Her eyes fell upon Yulan, who stood on the edge of the raging battle. He was staring back at Kerig’s fallen form, then he looked towards Wren. Just for a moment, he stared at her, his gaze unyielding and potent. Then he spun to catch a slashing knife on his blade and turn it away and kill the man who wielded it. And he plunged into the maelstrom.

Wren’s mind raced. It scrabbled for the possible in the face of the terrible. Ammenor had been an Autumnal like her. Yet he had brought the Hibernal into the world, there among the Cold Men. He had wielded it against the Huluk Kur and might have saved himself with it had he pushed harder, been more ruthless. Had he sacrificed more of himself.

No sword or arrow could stand against this tide, or turn it back. But a Clever still might, Wren knew. Ena Marr was gone. Kerig was gone. She remained.

‘The wrens are in the willows,’ she murmured, half singing. ‘Weaving nests of grass.’

She reached for the memory of those words on her mother’s lips. The calm, the peace they had brought her many years ago when she lay as a child unable to sleep for fear of the Clade.

‘The wrens are in their nests.’

She could remember her mother’s face. She could remember the stillness that had overtaken her own young body as the soft song filled her ears, gently crowding out all fears and frets.

The Hibernal came. It shook her. Nothing familiar and easy about this as there was to the channelling of the Autumnal. This was jagged and ragged, rasping through her like blades. It convulsed her and made her cry out.

But oh, it was potent. It was urgent and irresistible. A dam was broken and floodwaters poured out from the world beneath the world: the entelech in full torrent. It might not be the season for it, but she was in the north amid mountains. The Cold Men were there like a beacon beyond the horizon. They called the entelech of which they were a part to it. The Hibernal was hungry and vast and rushing out into a place it longed to claim.

What Wren did with it she barely knew. The violence of its passage through her was too much for her senses to bear. They scattered, storm-blown leaves. As they went, they saw ice crackling into being across all the wide expanse of the bog. It seized legs and spun crystals around them and into them. It tore men down and buried them beneath its glassy sheets. It spat flocks of glaucous daggers into the air which lashed and spun and cut.

She let the Hibernal pour through her, and knew she might never be able to stop it. With every heartbeat, it was carrying more of her with it as it swept from the formless to the real. Her mind and her will struggled with it as it rushed into the world, barely able to grasp it, barely able to twist it into the shapes she wanted. She could hear men shouting and wailing all around, but their voices were growing distant, sunk beneath the white howling of the entelech within her.

And still it was not enough. Still she dimly saw, dimly felt the great host of Huluk Kur rolling on. Climbing over the dead and dying. Crunching through ice. Still killing. She needed more. She had to give more.

Yet she had nothing left to give. In the last few days she had called upon the entelechs too often, too strongly. Her last reserves of body and mind were gone. Aches already occupied every corner of her bones. Her thoughts moved like oozing mud. All that remained to her were the last threads of her very life, so that was what she gave. It seemed to her in those final slow moments that she had no better use for it. It felt natural, as if she was being who she was meant to be.

Death was a part of the Hibernal, so she gave it that shape. She let death enter into her and possess her, and sent it on and out to walk among the Huluk Kur. She walked with it, a part of it. She became the entelech and went with it out onto the field. There she saw and felt men dying. She found the chieftains of the Huluk Kur, in horned skullcaps and fur robes, and brushed black fingers over their cheeks and breathed black winter-death into their mouths.

She felt the terror and the dread of what she was doing and what she had become. Darkness, blindness, these too were of this entelech. They descended. She made them descend. She set them loose across the hills.

And then she was alone. Drifting in black isolation. Aware that her body was shaking and twisting as the Hibernal consumed it, but feeling no pain. Barely feeling anything. She was disappearing. In moments, only the entelech would be left. A Permanence , the last fragments of her mind whispered. I will go, and perhaps something terrible that can never be undone will come into the world in my place .

That, she did not want. That was a burden too much. The frail vestiges of who she was were all that remained, and she spent them in closing the channel she had become. She refused the entelech and dammed it once more. That was what broke her in the end. She sent the ice and the darkness and the blindness away, returned them to whence they had come. But not the death. Not all of it. That was beyond her. Some part of it remained, hers and hers alone. It folded itself about her heart and carried her down into shadow. She did not fight it. She had no strength left for that. And she had changed the world at least before she left it.

XXII

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She could feel her own ending in her chest like a fluttering bird. Faltering wings. The daylight had retreated from her, or she herself was sinking away from it. She felt herself dwindling. She did not know where she was or where she was going. Nor how long she had been travelling.

‘Don’t let her die,’ she heard someone saying very far away.

South , her fading mind whispered. Yulan .

‘You want me to trade my life for hers?’

Kerig .

‘A little of it, yes. Not all, by preference. She saved us, and I cannot thank a corpse. Nor can you.’

Then hands, gentle on her cheeks. Cupping her face. Holding her. And through them, through the palms, the warmth of life and of mending. A voice, murmuring so softly that she could not make out any words or meaning. Could not even be entirely certain if it was within or without her.

There were immeasurable moments in which she could no longer tell where she began or ended. What was her, what was Kerig, what was the Vernal entelech that he flooded her with. The entelech of mending, of healing.

And in those long moments, death turned away from her. Its time was not yet. As it went, and the promise of it went into abeyance, she was left for a short time with just Kerig. Not only the sense of him there beside her, touching her skin. Perhaps because she was a Clever too, everything that he was seemed to inhabit her just as it did him. She knew him briefly, and it was like nothing she had ever known before. Hot and harsh and guarded. Wounded and selfless and loving life, not death. All at once, all together.

After, she gladly slept.

She woke and smelled acrid smoke. She was lying in the wagon beside Ena Marr. The smoke was drifting above them. She stared up at it. For a time, she did not feel able to move.

When she did, she had to clutch the side of the wagon to haul herself up into a sitting position. She blinked. The smoke stung her eyes, and so did the light.

‘Go slow.’

She looked round. Kerig was sitting on the end of the wagon, twisted around to watch her. He looked wan and drained. There were dark patches beneath his eyes, a livid bruise and unhealed cut at his temple.

Beyond him, Wren saw the source of the smoke. The King’s men were burning their dead. A pyre was set where the shieldline had once been. It was much smaller than Wren would have expected. There were more men by far gathered around it than she would have expected. The reason for that lay out in the mire and on the further slopes. The bodies of the Huluk Kur had been left where they fell. There were too many to burn.

Hundreds of them. A drift of them where their charge had met spear and shield. A great scattering everywhere else. They lay in the pools and the mud. As far as the eye could see. Wren did not want to know how much of the death was her doing. Much of it, of course. Most of it.

Kerig set finger and thumb to his lips and gave out a shrill whistle. Yulan, standing by the corpse-fire, turned at the sound. He walked over to the wagon.

‘The Huluk Kur?’ Wren asked as he drew near, the words rasping out from her dry throat.

‘Gone away to the north to choose themselves new chieftains and find themselves new lands. They found the price of trying to cross the Hervent too high in the end. My killing of their champion did not concern them too much. You… you they do not want to meet again.’

Wren hung her head. She did not know what to feel at that.

‘I have not been Captain of the Free for long, and my first months have not been without failings,’ Yulan said.

Kerig stirred, perhaps to protest, but Yulan silenced him with a glance.

‘Without you, today might have been another for that list,’ he continued as he returned his attention to Wren. ‘I mean to do better in the years to come and for that, I need the strength and courage of others. You have both in abundance. Kerig tells me you’re as strong as any Clever he’s ever seen. Rash and untutored, but strong. Surprises and wonders, as I said. Not all Clevers are willing to give as much of themselves as you have. Not all of them are willing to fight.’

‘I am,’ Wren said faintly. ‘To live. To be free.’

Yulan smiled.

‘That is what they call us. Sometimes, people who are lost can find a home under that name.’

‘Is it always like this?’

Yulan shook his head.

‘No. It’s never easy, but this… this was bad.’

‘And can you keep the School from me?’ Wren asked. ‘Can you be the armies and the allies that will do that?’

Something in Yulan’s face hardened. Not against her, Wren thought. Against the School, or against some memory or knowledge he carried within him.

‘The School will not touch you if you ride with us. By law, under the rights of our charter, they cannot.’

‘Good. Then I ride with you. Tomorrow though. Is that all right? Now, I need more sleep.’

‘As you wish.’

She was already yielding to the deep exhaustion within. She blinked at the Captain of the Free.

‘Give me another blanket.’

Yulan looked puzzled.

‘I’ve been cold for days. I want to be warm.’

She heard Kerig laughing. It was a surprisingly gentle, honest sound.

‘She can have mine,’ the Clever said. ‘She can have mine.’


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