nigar Stoop opened his eyes and blinked into the darkness of the guidehouse. The smoke fires had gone out while he slept, and it took him long moments to make sense of the unfamiliar shadows of deepest night. Something in his chest wasn’t right. His heartbeat was the same as ever, but there was a vague soreness beneath his ribs, a sense that muscle had been working while he slept.
Indistinct forms loomed around him, their edges bleeding into the darkness like ink spilled on cloth. To calm himself Blackhail’s clan guide named the forms in his head--the little stone font where he drew his water, the hog-backed coffer where he kept his ceremonial robes, the statue of Ione that had been carved from a riven fragment of the guidestone by the great warrior-guide Harlec Sewell--but the ache in his chest persisted. Raising a hand to knead his ribcage, Inigar became aware of the great stillness he disturbed. The guidehouse was as cold and quiet as a grave dug for a horse. The smell of damp earth had pushed through the sandstone walls, and Inigar could feel its coolness moving through his lungs. Fighting the desire to shiver, he swung his legs over the side of the pallet and rose to standing.
Something is wrong here.
Rock dust crunched beneath his bare feet as he crossed toward the fire pit. He had not swept here in many days, and debris from the guidestone lay thick on the flagstone floor. The time for spring tilling was fast approaching and every farmer in the clanhold would soon demand a measure of this dust to scatter in his fields along with the grain. Night soils to fertilize the earth; stone soils to hallow it. Nothing shed from the Hailstone was wasted. Sometimes Inigar thought he was as much butcher as shaman; dividing the carcass of the monolith, grinding down its bones.
But a carcass meant death, and this guidestone had to be alive.
The gods stored part of their souls here.
Inigar brought his hand to his forehead, pressed fingers deep into his pulse points, and almost succeeded in halting his thoughts. Please Gods, do not withdraw from this clan.
Yet hadn’t the retreat already begun? Frost had been living in the Hailstone since the Eve of Breaking, when good clansmen had turned against their own, sending a hound to the fire and trying a child as a witch. It went back further than that, though. Frost could not enter a shored-up house. Blackhail’s house had been vulnerable for half a year, ever since its chief had been slaughtered in the badlands by nameless raiders. Something evil had punched a hole through clan walls that day. Something immense and calculating, whose age was greater than the earth he stood upon and whose purpose Inigar feared to name.
I cannot dwell on it. A guide blunted by fear is no good for his clan. Sharp of mind and sharp of chisel: that is the way we must be.
Working from touch alone he slipped on braided leather sandals and pulled a polished pigskin cloak across his shoulders. Air was quickening. The short gray hairs at the base of Inigar’s scalp rocked in their follicles like loose teeth. Once as a seven year old he had climbed down a wellshaft on a dare. The well had been known as Witch’s Cunt, and a collapsed embankment upcountry had poisoned its water with tar. It was old beyond knowing, and so deep that as Inigar had descended, probing for toeholds in the dark, the very nature of the air had changed. Saturated with groundwater, it resisted exhalation. That sense of aliveness, the sudden revelation that air had a will of its own and there were some places in this world where it would rather not be, had haunted Inigar’s dreams for fifty years. He had felt it two other times since then: the day on the great court when Raif Sevrance had sworn his oath to his clan; and here and now in the guidehouse at the hang man’s hour before dawn.
The guide’s swollen fingers sifted for a flint and striker along the workbench. Ice growing in the heart of the Hailstone made the guidehouse colder by the day. Fires could not warm it, and the dour and god-fearing masons of Blackhail had ensured sunlight never entered this place. As Inigar knelt before the fire pit and struck a light, he found himself wishing for a single window in the south wall so that he could throw back its shutters and let in the glow of the moon. The great bodies that circled the earth had powers to combat darkness that no man-struck flame could match.
Still. He felt some easing in his chest when the kindling finally took and the red glow of a smokepile seeded with iron filings lit the room. Yet even as he took his first deep breath since waking he became aware of the presence of the guidestone.
The great turning-wheel of its awareness, the sense of seeing and knowing, was gone. What was left was something forceless, an ember flickering after a fire. A year ago Inigar could not lay a hand upon the monolith without feeling a jolt of life. Now the stone would rip off his skin if he touched it without the protection of padded gloves. Ice had spread through the guidestone like cancer; cumulating crystal upon crystal, sparkling, sharp, and irreversibly cold, gnawing away at the rock. Two weeks ago the guidestone might have sent out a flare, a feeble attempt at communion, a weak assertion of power. Touch it tonight and Inigar knew what he would feel: something dying beneath the surface.
Reaching for the bellows, Inigar returned his attention to the fire. The first thing he had been taught as an apprentice was how to tend a smokefire. The old clan guide Beardy Hail had been uncle to Dagro Blackhail, the chief. Beardy never explained things more than once and never gave praise for a job well done. Every morning when he took possession of the guidehouse he would inspect the smokefire for flames. A flame of any sort was not permitted. The smoke pile had to smolder, not burn. Inigar had spent most of those early days attending the fire; chopping green wood, breaking coal, filing iron. Too much fuel and flames would ignite, too little and the fire would die. For years Inigar had wondered why it mattered--smoke resulted either way--yet one day, when Beardy was laid-up with the gout and unable to check the smokepile, Inigar had come to an understanding.
Any fool could build a fire; stack logs, lay kindling, strike a flint and blow. Once lit, the fire would burn hot and die out in its own time. But a smokefire was never done. You could not walk away and leave it unattended. A smokefire had to be fueled and doused, stacked and banked, raked and poked and pumped. Most of all it must be watched.
It was, Inigar decided, the most important lesson Beardy had ever taught him. A clan guide must be vigilant. He could not afford to turn his back and let his clan burn or die. A smolder must be maintained. And the watch never cease.
Inigar’s dry old lips cracked a smile. Beardy had been, without a doubt, the most foul-smelling clansman in Blackhail. He kept pigs for a reason Inigar had never fathomed and only took a bath once a year. The smile turned into a wheezing cough, and Inigar slapped a palm against the floor to steady himself. Fifty years of inhaling smoke did that to a man, addled the lungs. As he crouched by the glowing smokepile and waited for the hacking to stop, an impulse he didn’t understand made him reach for more wood.
Tonight he wanted light, not smoke.
The skin on Inigar’s hands tightened so quickly with gooseflesh his fingers jumped. A wolf howl, close and to the north. Yet the wolves had long-since abandoned the territory around the Hailhouse and its man-smelling forests and fields. What did it mean?
Inigar held his swollen hands over the flames, glad to feel the heat. The light in the guidehouse was increasing, but instead of calming it unsettled him. The flames flickered wildly, yet he could detect no draft. The shadows they created swung crazily around the room. He took his time turning his gaze to the guidestone. A wolf had howled in the Hailhold and he feared what he might see.
The monolith steamed. So vast it pulled motes of dust from the air as surely as the moon pulled waves onto the shore, it stood black and still and wounded. Deep fissures dissected it like forks of frozen lightening. Pores once brimming with shale oil were now filled with lenses of ice. The narrow cane-and-timber ladder that Inigar used to access the carving face was white with hoarfrost. Only yesterday he had stood on those rungs and chiseled out a heart for a fallen clansman. A young woman in this very house awaited delivery of the fist-sized chunk of granite. Widows without bones needed stone.
So much work to do in times of war, so many calls upon the stone. I best get to it then. Stop fussing over a late season cold snap and get down to the business of men’s souls.
As Inigar stood to fetch himself water, he caught sight of the northern face of the monolith. A crack as wide as his forearm and as tall as two men had opened up overnight.
Dear Gods, help us.
Could he have done more? Mace Blackhail was a strong leader, a fine warrior, and a fiercely ambitious chief. The Stone Gods demanded jaw, and Mace Blackhail had so much of it he could barely keep his teeth from springing apart. Jaw had landed him the chiefdom and driven him into war. Under Mace’s leadership, Blackhail had seized control of Dhoone-spoke Ganmiddich and was now challenging old boundaries in the east. Mace had rallied Blackhail warriors and reclaimed the Hailish badge. He’d fired-up the sworn clans with talk of glory, making weary and jaded allies eager to fight at his side. Bannen had been Hails-sworn for a thousand years but it had ever been a weak alliance. The clan that called itself ‘the Ironheads’ did not follow others lightly. Somehow Mace had managed to do what other Blackhail chiefs could not: gain the respect of that proud and grudging clan. Now there was talk of Bannen and Blackhail riding out to meet swords with Dhoone.
Thanks to Mace, Blackhail warriors stationed across the clanholds this very night were filled with the passion and terror of war--and was that not what the Stone Gods loved best?
A thin film of ice had formed over the water jug and Inigar punched it with his finger and drank. The bald eagle foot resting against the apple of this throat bobbed up and down as he swallowed.
Jaw was a tricky thing. It was courage in all its forms from bravery to recklessness. It was seizing the moment and acting without hesitation, and being brazenly sure you were right. Mostly it was sheer bloody-minded audacity: pulling off something no one else thought could be done.
It was not cunning or deceit. Inigar closed his fist around his eagle lore and weighed it. A bald eagle saw much and so did he. Mace Blackhail was not a perfect man, Inigar had known that all along. Yet a chief had been slain and a new one needed anointing, and Mace Blackhail had been the first to stake a claim. That was jaw and it counted for something. Now Inigar wondered if it counted for enough. Half a year later questions about the raid remained unanswered. Mace had returned from the Badlands, claiming he had barely escaped the hell-forged swords of Clan Bludd, yet Raif Sevrance had also been at the campground that day and swore he saw no evidence of Bludd.
And then there was Raina, Mace’s stepmother and wife. Inigar claimed little knowledge of women--they did not fight and so mattered little to him--but he had been struck by the changes in Raina Blackhail. She hid them, as was fitting for a chief’s wife, yet eagle lores could not hide from their own kind and Inigar observed things that others did not. She hated her husband, and shrank back whenever he touched her. It was a little thing, easily covered by other movements, yet Inigar had made a note of it. He’d seen such behavior before: in women who had been raped or beaten.
Imaging he had heard a sound, Inigar set down the water jug and listened. Nothing. Where was the dawn? Where was the kitchen boy with fresh bread and ewe’s milk still warm from the teat? Aware he was becoming agitated and feeling the soreness shift strangely in his chest, Inigar tried to calm himself. The wolf had not cried out again. He was just hearing echoes in his head. Eagles had never been known for the ears.
The air was growing unstable. Flames began leaping free of the fire, and mist ceased rising from the monolith began to cumulate around the base. The crack in its northern face suddenly looked to Inigar like a newly-opened vein. Something vital was pumping out.
“What happened on the night of First Breaking?” Inigar cried, suddenly needing to hear the sound of his own voice. “Did Mace order the killing of the girl?”
Had it been enough, that order to murder Effie Sevrance? Or had the guidestone been keeping tally all along and judged it one misdeed too far? Inigar had heard the whispers: Mace had killed the swordsman Shor Gormalin, ordered the slaughter of innocent children on the Bluddroad, and arranged the murder of the Orrl chief, Spynie Orrl.
There was that noise again. Inigar’s head whipped around as he tried to hear. For a moment he thought he detected something, almost knew what it was, but then it was gone. Cold made his eyes slow to focus, and it took him a moment to realize that he could no longer see the Hailstone clearly. Mist folded in on itself, twisting and swirling, mushrooming outward in quiet lobes before being sucked back by the monolith.
Inigar pushed his fist against his ribcage. Thirty years he’d attended the stone, and not one day missed in all that time. He knew the lay of the stone; knew that its northern face was the hardest, and that its southeastern foot was deeply veined with silver and did not take well to the grindstone. He knew where the greatest concentrations of quartz could be found, and the best places to tap for sacred oil. He knew its cavities, its lines of cleavage, its rusts and lichens and flaws.
History was carved on its many faces like text in a book. The iron ring on its northwestern corner where the kingslayer Ayan Blackhail had been chained whilst awaiting judgment still stood, immovable now and swollen with rust. A series of blunted steps cut into the east face told of the time when the monolith had stood ten feet taller and had lain on the greatcourt, exposed to rain and frost. Clanwives had once climbed those steps and watched as their husbands returned from the War of Sheep. Every chief since Stanner Blackhail had left his mark upon the stone. Black Harald and Ewan the Bold, Mordrag, Gregor, Duncan, Albor and his son also named Albor, Theobad, Allister and more. The line of marks was long and uncannily telling. Black Harald had chosen crossed swords as his mark, but at some point during his chiefdom he must have ordered the clan guide to take up his chisel and change it. The points and hilts of the swords could still be seen, but the blades had been hewn away, replaced by a thickly-carved dram cup: the sign of parley. Mordrag’s mark was a deeply bored hole--fitting for the man who called himself the Mole Chief--Ewan’s was a half-closed fist, poised to crush the Bloody Blue Thistle of Dhoone, and Albor the Second had chosen a horse shoe, just like his da.
Dagro’s mark was unfinished, the stag and swords he’d chosen mere tracelines in the stone.
Inigar’s gaze lapsed upon the circling mist as his thoughts fell inward. I know this stone like the back of my hand, but do I know this clan?
Should he have looked further after Dagro's death? One event, two differing stories: had he dismissed Raif Sevrance’s account too soon? The boy had called Mace a liar, said that Dagro had fallen by the rendering pit, not by the tent poles as Mace insisted. Even Raif’s brother Drey, who was a staunch supporter of Mace, had agreed with his younger brother’s version of events. Yet Raif Sevrance was just a boy, barely seventeen and without an oath. His father had been slain at the same time as Dagro, and he was simmering with rage and grief. The murderers had escaped, unchallenged and unpursued, and Inigar knew what kind of feelings that stirred in a man. Someone had to be made to suffer. Inigar had assumed that Raif’s anger toward Mace was simple misdirection. A raw boy looking for someone to blame. Had he been wrong?
The wolf. So close now the horses would be stirring in the stalls and the chickens pecking at the wire in the coop. Inigar knew how they felt: uneasy, restive, trapped.
Sucking in icy air, he listened for a response. Every summer since the Hundred Year Cull, bands of Hailsmen rode out along the far borders to hunt pack wolves that ranged too close to the hold. The slain animals were skinned, not butchered. For while no Hailsman ate wolfmeat, many enjoyed the pleasure of walking on wolf-pelt rugs. In recent times the cull had grown sparse as packs moved north and west, out of range of Hailish steel. Pack wolves were cautious. They had pups and yearlings to protect, and their collective wisdom gave them an advantage over solitary beasts.
The animal that howled this night was not part of such a pack though, for nothing but deathly silence returned its call.
A lone wolf.
Fear and understanding slowly began to coalesce in Inigar’s thoughts. Something terrible was about to happen. Here, in the exact and sacred center of clan.
The Hail Wolf had returned home.
Inigar stood perfectly straight and still and decided what he would do. Mist from the guidestone glided across his face yet he did not shrink back or blink. Quite suddenly his greatest mistake was clear to him. It had not been misjudging Mace Blackhail or taking an oath from Raif Sevrance that he knew from the very beginning the boy was doomed to break. No. Grave though those errors were they did not match his failure to train an apprentice guide.
He had wanted Effie Sevrance so badly he’d refused to consider anyone else. She was so powerful, that was the thing, the augers that preceded her birth so potent. And she had been born to the stone. No one in any clan at any time Inigar could remember had been born to the guidestone. Yet that was the girl’s lore, and he had coveted its power for his office and himself. Possessiveness had made him blind. Other candidates had been worthy--Jebb Onnachre, Nitty Hart, Will Sperling--yet he had rejected them out of hand.
Now who would guide Blackhail when he was gone?
A sound, pitched so low it was almost beyond hearing pulsed through the guidehouse like an earth tremor. This time Inigar heard it clearly, instantly recognizing the source. The Hailstone. The vast chunk of black granite and blackened silver that had been cut from the great stone fields of Trance Vor seven centuries earlier and floated a thousand miles upstream along the Flow was returning the call of the Hail Wolf.
Ice mist switched violently, sending waves rippling out from the stone. Inigar could smell it now: cold and vast, like the sky on a clear winter night. It was the smell of Gods. A part of his brain, made just for this moment, came to life solely to recognize the scent. Tears sprung to his eyes. Here, was everything he had ever wanted: to exist in the presence of gods. To regard them and be regarded. To know and to be known.
At his last moment what should a man do? Inigar thought of all he had been and all he had hoped to be...but he would not dwell on his failings. The time for that was done. He thought of clan; of the Shankses and Sevrances, the Blackhails, Murdochs, Ganlows and Lyes. Imperfect men and women, but the sum of the whole was good. He thought of Embeth Hare, the girl who would have wed him if he’d asked. “Inny,” she had said to him on that perfect summer day as they lay out on the hay piles, soaking in the sun. “If you decide to become Beardy’s apprentice you must never forget two things. It’s not enough that we fear the gods. We must love them also.” When he had asked her what the second thing was, she had pulled up her skirt and made love to him. His first and only time.
Embeth had always been smarter than him. Wind whipped against his face as ice mist started to rotate around the guidestone. Faster and faster it moved, round and round, blasting tools and smoking embers from its path. The gods were leaving Blackhail. And what sort of gods would that make them if they left quietly without a sound?
No longer able to stand in the hurricane, Inigar dropped to his knees. The air was full of debris now; strips of leather, shammies, ashes, woodchips, and dust. The oak work bench he’d sat at every day slid across the room, legs squealing. A powerful blast of air sent it smashing against the wall. Inigar felt little shards of oak pierce his shoulder. A moment later something punctured his hip. Looking down he saw his chisel poking from the pad of muscle at the top of his thigh. He took its handle in his fist and yanked it out.
An eye was forming above the center of the guidestone. It was beautiful and terrible, a calmness in the storm of spinning clouds. A noise, bass and so full of power it set the walls and floor vibrating, boomed out of the stone. Inigar’s eyes and nose began to bleed. His pigskin cloak was snatched from his back and sucked into the tow. He was beyond feeling pain now, and barely registered the missiles slamming against his side. He was the guide of Clan Blackhail and he had his chisel in his hand, and witnessing the gods’ power was not a bad way to die.
Suddenly everything stopped. Litter dropped from the air, thudding and tinkling. Mist sank away like water down a drain. The guidestone stood still and silent, as old as the earth itself. Wonder and sadness filled Inigar’s heart. Who would guide Blackhail when he was gone?
And then the Hailstone exploded into a million bits of shrapnel and the clan guide knew no more.