The supplicant provides the need, the deceased the want. A good Speaker possesses no desire, no need, no want. The Speaker is a conduit that allows need to grasp want. He is invisible, pure, and selfless.
The Rule of Saint Bennig, Lessons for the Speaker
I am a god, thought Speaker Bryn as he twitched his right thumb, pulling a wire that released smoke from concealed vents in the walls. The supplicant’s eyes widened even more than they had when Bryn had spoken her name and the name of her deceased husband without hearing them from her lips.
Thank you, Brother Ysa, Bryn thought as he shifted his foot and tapped a pedal hidden beneath the desk.
Heavy footfalls sounded on the floorboards behind the woman. She spun around, nearly knocking her offering from Bryn’s desk. Bryn rolled his eyes back in his head and tensed his muscles, forcing himself to tremble. He heard the chair creak beneath the woman and her astonished gasp as she whirled back to stare at him. Puppet, he sneered as he caressed a raised spot beneath the edge of his desk. The wall-mounted candles flickered, once, twice.
Thank you, Brother Gerold.
Bryn let his mouth fall open. During the short interview and benediction, he had spoken in his normal voice—neutral tones, slight hint of the patrician. Now, he slipped effortlessly into the lilting burr of a north coast accent indistinguishable from that of a native. His instructors at seminary had been brutal in their demands for perfection.
The supplicant’s voice was soft and awed as she spoke—or thought she spoke—to her dead husband, washed up on the unforgiving rocks beneath the cliffs of Dunshane just five days prior. Bryn used the knowledge provided by Brother Ysa and the Order of Gleaners to steer the conversation, navigating using a half-drawn map, reading subtle cues and coaxing out more information than the woman realized she was surrendering. She was an easy one. Faithful to a fault and blind to doubt. As were the three that followed.
A good day, thought Bryn as he listened to Brother Ysa ushering the final supplicant from the chapel. Despite the miserable weather, dull populace, and dreary environs, the village of Dunshane and the rest of the north coast had thus far proved a relaxing, if not entirely enjoyable, posting for Bryn.
Dunshane wasn’t large enough to merit a constant presence from the Church of the Holy Communicator, but faith was strong in these north coast fishing communities. Speaker Bryn and his two assistants, Brothers Ysa and Gerold, had spent the last two months passing from village to village, spending a few days here, a week there. In another day or two, they would lock the Dunshane chapel and board the carriage for the next town on their list. He had not bothered to memorize the names of the places they visited—Brother Ysa would provide an itinerary and any information he needed when he needed it.
A soft knock on the door announced Ysa’s return. The Gleaner slipped through the door without waiting for Bryn to acknowledge him.
Worrying, that, thought Bryn. Too comfortable by half. Ysa lowered himself into the supplicants’ chair and shuffled a stack of papers, background on tomorrow’s list of supplicants. Brother Ysa was a small man, hairless and colorless in his gray robes. He lifted his hooded gaze, and Bryn, keyed by training and practice to read the slightest of cues, saw worry there. Bryn arched an eyebrow, knowing that Ysa would realize that his own eyes had betrayed him.
Let that be a lesson against growing too comfortable, Bryn thought, gratified to know that he had put the little man on edge.
“Third from the bottom,” Brother Ysa said as he slid a paper across the desk. Bryn had often wondered if Ysa’s voice—a thin thing of rustling paper and whispered secrets—had always been that way or if it had molded itself to his occupation.
Bryn tapped the paper but didn’t look at it yet. Brother Gerold had appeared in the doorway behind Ysa, dark and bearded. Bryn motioned the Maintainer to enter and watched as Gerold began to busy himself with the contraptions hidden throughout the room, oiling the gears of concealed machinery and checking the tension in wires so thin they were nearly invisible.
The apparatus of deception, thought Bryn. And that bearded monk cares more for it than he does for any living creature.
Bryn sighed and looked down at Ysa’s list.
His eyes found the third name from the bottom.
The breath rushed out of him, and his vision narrowed, the walls of a slate gray tunnel closing around him. Dimly, Bryn was aware of Ysa’s bald head tilting. Out of concern or curiosity? What will he report to his masters about this reaction? Bryn dismissed the thought. It was no secret that the Gleaners’ information gathering was not limited to those outside the church.
“Maggie,” he whispered.
Ysa raised himself slightly in his chair. Bryn glanced up to see the frown creasing Ysa’s round face. His head shook slightly as he looked down at the list.
“The name is Ishalde Malin, Speaker,” he said, carefully deferent.
“Yes,” Bryn replied, his skin prickling with sweat despite the chill in the chapel.
“She is not a resident here,” said Ysa, still frowning. “She is staying at the hotel in the village. A traveler.” His hooded eyes found Bryn’s, probing for secrets.
And he can’t find any information in the Gleaner record books about an Ishalde Malin, Bryn thought, because Ishalde Malin doesn’t really exist. He would have smiled at the discomfort this uncertainty was causing the little Gleaner were it not for the fact that his own feelings were mired in an all too similar state of doubt. Why was she here? Why now?
“Her real name is Magadienne Gishe,” he said.
Ysa controlled himself well, but Bryn’s eye was seminary trained. He saw the tightening around the eyes, the increase in the rigidity of his assistant’s posture, the slight quickening of his breath. The Gishe name carried power. Gerold bustled past, humming tunelessly, ignoring everything save the servicing of his precious machines.
“How do you know this, Speaker?” asked Ysa.
Bryn brushed the curled edge of Ysa’s list flat. “She is a distant cousin. We were raised together.”
This time, Ysa’s reactions did not betray him, though Bryn couldn’t be sure why. Speakers and their brethren rarely shared their pasts with each other, but Bryn could not dismiss the possibility that the little spy had used his Gleaner resources to discover Bryn’s own family background. Admitting he was a cousin of a Gishe was tantamount to saying he came from wealth and power. Perhaps Ysa’s control had simply improved after the initial shock of hearing the name.
“When we were away from the manor sometimes,” Bryn continued, “she would call herself Ishalde Malin so as to escape the burden of the Gishe name.”
Ysa nodded, but was not satisfied. “That explains why my consultations in the Holy Records came to so little.” His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “So what does she want?”
Again, Bryn would have smiled if he were not beset by such doubts himself. The Gleaners were a paranoid order. They feasted upon information and consequently panicked when deprived of its comforting presence. Speakers were much better adapted to thinking on their feet, to making decisions on instinct and intuition and the subtleties of human behavior. Still, Bryn couldn’t help but feel the constricting grip of panic himself. What did she want?
He pushed the list back to his assistant. “I will find out, Brother. Do not let it trouble you.”
“But she comes as a supplicant, and I have nothing with which to guide you.” Faint spots of color decorated Ysa’s sunken cheeks.
Bryn smiled, cold and confident, slamming down a wall between them. Gleaners knew much, but there were still some mysteries of the Speakers’ order they had yet to penetrate. “Thank you, Brother Ysa. But my training will be quite sufficient.”
Ysa stood stiffly. Even Brother Gerold looked up briefly from his tinkering, finally aware of the tension in the room.
Ysa bowed. “Your pardon, Speaker.”
Bryn eyed him in silence for a moment, still aware of the list lying on the far end of the desk, still aware of the name that lurked there. Finally, he sighed and waved a hand toward the chair opposite him.
“Sit, Brother Ysa,” he said. “We have a long list to review.”
* * *
In the dream, Bryn saw Maggie as he had last known her. Black waves of hair bound in ribbon. Forest-dark eyes. Skin lightly tanned in open defiance of her father’s austere traditionalism and its demands for aristocratic pallor.
Bryn fought down a momentary surge of panic as he thought of her father. Glaring eyes beneath glossy, dark hair. Stiff, military-issue mustache. A great, curved sword at his hip. Freddig Gishe—Lord Connamarche, head of the War Council. He was also a widower, his late wife a cousin of Bryn’s mother. When Bryn’s parents had died, Lord Connamarche had taken in Bryn, age three, half a year younger than Maggie, and raised them together. Or rather, the houseful of silent soldiers, ancient servants, and starched tutors had raised them.
They had been the only children in the great house, so it was little wonder that they became inseparable. Bryn had been a cautious boy, careful not to offend, wary of risks and terrified of the great man with the mustache and the sword. Maggie had no such fears. The graveyard had been her idea.
In the dream, Bryn felt the weight of the satchel on his shoulder, felt the hammering of his lovestruck heart. Thirteen-year-old Maggie had found the book in a dusty corner of the library, a forbidden volume from before the time of Saint Bennig the Holy Communicator. They had spent months translating and interpreting the ancient text. And now here they were, Bryn carrying the book and the necessary supplies in the satchel, following Maggie through the shadowed copse.
Toward the graveyard.
They emerged beneath a heavy yellow moon, slipping past the pale tombs of her illustrious ancestors to the more modest plots behind. Servants’ plots. They found Old Joste’s grave, the dirt still fresh-turned upon it. Bryn’s fingers shook as he pulled forth the book, the powdered chalk, the candles. Maggie, lovely Maggie, smiling as she shaped the summoning circle with the chalk, eyes dancing between grave and book, replicating the symbols in exacting detail.
She took Bryn’s hand as they knelt. He trembled with fear, but his heart sang at her touch. They said the archaic, blasphemous words as best their inexperienced tongues could shape them. As the spell drifted away on the night air, they knelt, expectant. The tongues of flame atop the black candles swayed.
“Nothing,” she had said, and Bryn had never wanted to hear such disappointment in her voice again. He turned to her, intending to say something comforting.
Instead, he had screamed.
The black hair on her head writhed like tentacles. The moonlight was tinged green. Something indistinct pulled itself from the dirt of Old Joste’s grave, something that looked a bit like Old Joste himself with a luminous, serpentine appendage wrapped around his waist.
Bryn’s mouth fell open. His senses reeled. His skull felt like it had been split, like something was probing the contents of his head. Then his world went dark.
He awoke what seemed like hours later, but Maggie assured him it had only been moments. She also claimed he had been speaking in Old Joste’s voice, though the words were in a language she did not understand. Joste had been born in a foreign land, she had mused. Perhaps Bryn had been speaking in Joste’s native tongue.
Her excitement had been terrible for him. He knew that she would demand they do this again. He also knew that he could not. He could not bring himself to share with her the terror he had felt as he slid into darkness. Nor could he tell her of the stench of rotting flesh, the moaning of voices trapped in the abyss beyond. They screamed at him, pleaded with him, drawn to his living spark as insects to a flame.
And then there had been the thing of tentacled shadow, reaching, grasping, trying to pull Bryn into its immortal embrace.
The Speaker is a conduit. The Speaker is detached. Thus, he does not serve as Speaker for friends or relatives. Emotional attachment clouds the channel, colors the connection, and makes an obscenity of the rite of Holy Communication.
The Rule of Saint Bennig, Admonitions
Bryn was finding it difficult to take his usual pleasure in the appointments. He had awoken several times during the night, damp and chill in the small stone cottage the villagers maintained for visiting Speakers, the fleeting impression of cold serpents squirming in his brain, the sensation of grasping appendages lingering on his limbs. The distant voice of the waves slamming against a rocky shore had seemed to carry messages his ears struggled to interpret. The broken night had left him exhausted and distracted, and he was making simple mistakes, missing obvious cues. The mistakes were small—subtle things really—and the folk of Dunshane were too rustic and faithful to notice. But Bryn noticed, and he felt sure that Maggie would notice as well.
He redoubled his efforts with the fourth to last supplicant. He focused on the man’s broad, weathered face, the shapeless cap clutched in his gnarled hands.
Concentrate, he told himself. Enjoy the ritual as you always have. But the effort was futile. Maggie was next. Magadienne Gishe. She sat in the antechamber even now. Bryn could have used the hidden spyhole to see her at any point since Brother Ysa had informed him of her arrival, but he had refrained, the denial a product both of anxiety and of prolonging the anticipated pleasure of being in her presence again. Would she be so different from the girl of thirteen he had last seen twelve years ago? Would he even know what to say to her? And most importantly, why now? Why was she seeking him out now?
The old man bowed and mumbled his thanks as Brother Ysa ushered him out. Bryn noticed the leather-bound copy of The Rule of Saint Bennig that Ysa held close to his chest as he murmured to the departing villager. Bryn frowned. The bald spy was holding himself so that the book was obvious to Bryn. One of his fingers was shoved into the pages, serving as a bookmark.
The Admonitions no doubt, Bryn thought sourly. He had admitted that Maggie was his cousin, that he had been raised with her, and the Admonitions proscribed a Speaker performing the rite for relatives. Ysa would not openly contradict a Speaker’s actions, but Bryn was certain they would not escape mention when the Gleaner filed his reports.
Bryn heard Brother Ysa open the exterior door and the distant growl of thunder—or was that the waves? A mumble of voices. Men’s voices. Ysa bidding the old man farewell, then. No hint of a feminine voice yet, no Maggie.
Too nervous to sigh, Bryn placed his hands upon the desk to keep from clasping them together. He remained seated as he heard Ysa call Ishalde Malin. A Speaker performing services for a Gishe would be expected to rise in her presence, but Maggie was here under an assumed name. The family name Malin did not appear on the lists of the Great Houses. That was why Maggie had chosen the name—so she could pass as common. No Speaker would be compelled to rise before a commoner.
He heard the creak of a chair and the sound of footfalls approaching the door. This was the girl—woman now, he reminded himself—who had encouraged him to join the church, had convinced him that he had a gift that needed to be developed. The wires wrapped around his fingers, attached to the hidden machinery of the chapel, felt suddenly hot, like they were betrayals of the faith she had placed in him.
Brother Ysa preceded her. He glared at Bryn as he passed through the door, The Rule of Saint Bennig prominently displayed against his gray-robed chest. The Gleaner stepped aside, bowing as the supplicant entered. Bryn’s heart hammered as loudly as it had twelve years ago whenever he had been in her presence.
She had changed, but she was still beautiful. The wild, beribboned curls of her youth had given way to a conservative bun. She wore a skirt and jacket of soft gray and a pale blouse. Whatever tan she had once possessed had faded to the aristocratic pallor her father had always desired. She stood, tall and straight, staring down imperiously over her slightly upturned nose. The Gishe nose.
And her eyes.
Her eyes were still the deep, verdant green of forest shadow, and they were cold as they regarded him.
Brother Ysa shuffled nervously beside the door, and Bryn flicked out his hand in a dismissive gesture, not bothering to look at the Gleaner as he departed. Sullen and glowering no doubt, finger still wedged in Saint Bennig’s tome. But Bryn could not pull his eyes from Magadienne Gishe to verify this.
She stared at him for a long moment, then deliberately let her gaze track around the room, her eyes resting momentarily on each of the hidden locations of his devices. She glanced back at him, making sure he noticed what she was doing.
She knows, he thought, but quelled the rising panic. Of course she knows. She’s a Gishe. Privileged. Bryn felt a stab of regret for the lost faith of her childhood. It had been such a wild, unadulterated thing. But he also felt relief. If she knew that what he did here was a sham, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about attempting to fool her.
But if she knew that the ritual was an elaborate ruse, then why was she here? Her face betrayed neither smile nor recognition as she sat in the supplicant’s chair. With a start, Bryn noticed the black mourning band above the jacket sleeve on her right arm. Someone close to her had died recently. Again he felt a moment of panic.
But she knows the truth, thought Bryn. Surely she does not wish the rite? Surely she could not expect a Speaker of the Church to perform that other ritual, that heresy? He shuddered, knowing that it wasn’t the heresy he feared to perform, it was the aftermath.
Despite her cold exterior, Bryn thought he detected a hint of her youthful fire banked in her eyes. She couldn’t have changed completely from the girl he had known.
“Hello, Bryn,” she said, her voice smooth and patrician, every bit the Gishe.
Bryn nodded and kept his hands flat against the desk’s surface, hoping that she didn’t notice their trembling or the faint sheen of sweat upon them.
“Hello, Magadienne,” he said. Somehow it seemed wrong to call her Maggie. Too informal. Too familiar. “It’s been a long time.”
The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “A lifetime,” she agreed, raising her left hand to brush the black armband.
“Twelve years is hardly a lifetime.”
Her eyes narrowed. “For some it is.” She noticed him staring at the armband. “My husband,” she said.
Bryn’s heart skipped a beat, leaving him nauseous and unbalanced when its thundering pace resumed. Of course she had married. She was a beautiful woman from a powerful family that needed to strengthen political and business alliances. But it was the way she said “husband” and touched that armband that had wounded him. Bryn would not have needed to be a seminary trained Speaker to read those cues. She had loved her husband deeply.
And what made you think, he berated himself, that she ever had feelings for you? Even if she had, what concern would the feelings of a Speaker of the Church of the Holy Communicator—a man who had foresworn love and women—be to her? What concern would she have for a cousin she had not seen for over a decade, for whom she had never professed feelings beyond familial? Strangely, the sick feeling in his stomach gave way to anger, not disappointment.
I’m jealous, Bryn thought with something like wonder. Jealous of my thirteen-year-old self and a dead man.
“How did he pass?” he asked, reverting unconsciously to the patterns of his training.
“The war,” she said and paused, apparently unaware of either his turmoil or his slip into the beginning stages of the ritual.
Her eyes went distant for a moment, and Bryn’s training took over. He began to shade in the details in his mind. Naturally, her husband would have been a leader of men, if not a lauded hero of the conflict. He would be of noble family and high standing. It stood to reason after all—he had married a Gishe.
“He was covering the atrocities for the papers…” Magadienne trailed off as she closed her eyes.
Bryn scrambled to redraw his hasty sketch of her husband. A journalist? A Gishe had married a journalist? Still, he supposed that a bored aristocrat might dabble in letters. But only one side had committed atrocities that had made the papers.
Our side, Bryn thought, then admonished himself. You have no side, you are of the Church. He struggled to reconcile what she had said. Married to a Gishe and going against the wishes of the government? Wasn’t going against the government equivalent to going against the wishes of the Gishe?
Bryn remained quiet, not trusting himself to speak, but also allowing her the opportunity to fill the silence, to fill the gaps in his knowledge. As he had been trained. As the ritual demanded. The ritual that was his life.
“I need to know,” she said softly, her hand pressed against the band of mourning.
She lifted her eyes, and Bryn could see them glimmering with unshed tears.
“I need to know how it happened. Who to blame.”
Bryn reeled. How? Who? But she knew the rite to be a sham. Even as he framed the thought, he knew that she wasn’t asking for the Rite of Saint Bennig.
Invisible tentacles brushed at his thoughts.
“You must know that I cannot serve as Speaker for relatives and loved ones.”
Her eyes flared and she came out of her chair, hands white-knuckled against the desk, leaning over him. No mustache, no sword, but she was every inch her father’s daughter.
“Forget Bennig and his lies,” she hissed.
Bryn had known that she no longer held to the faith, but the venom in her blasphemy still carried the power to shock him. She came around the desk in three quick strides and lashed out, the arc of her sweeping arm catching invisible wires. Smoke vented. Knocking sounded from the walls. She pulled open his desk drawer, revealing bags of flashpowder, vials of burning ink, jars of mild hallucinogens.
She pulled levers and pressed buttons, cataloguing the effects in a quiet, cold voice. “Distant moaning, chains rattling, waves crashing, rifles firing.” She whirled and pointed. “Oh, and look, the bookshelf trembles!”
She lowered her face, white-lipped, toward Bryn’s, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Tears stained her cheeks. Bryn reached up to touch her, but she turned away, hugging herself as she retreated to the other side of the desk. She collapsed in the supplicants’ chair and covered her face.
“I’m sorry, Bryn,” she sobbed.
“Sorry?” he asked.
For mocking his profession? For making him feel like a cheap and sordid entertainer?
“For condemning you to this.” Her eyes glimmered. “In the graveyard…”
Tentacles brushed at Bryn’s mind again.
“What happened…what you said…and did. I was so sure.” Her voice was little more than a whisper now. “I thought you must be destined for the church.”
Bryn stared at her, watched as she regained control, sat straighter. He pulled a handkerchief from his drawer of props and tricks and held it out to her, but she ignored it, wiping her cheeks with the sleeve of her jacket. Like a peasant, he thought, not a Gishe.
“I was so proud of you,” she continued. “And so jealous. But then I met Marten.” She paused and touched the armband. “I learned about the Church, about the Speakers.” She lifted her eyes, dry now, and fixed Bryn with a cold stare. “I wondered why you didn’t leave when you discovered the truth.”
Bryn seethed, but remained silent. What could she possibly know about the truth, about what he had seen and felt reaching for him from the beyond?
“How can you do all of this?” she demanded. “How can you trick and lie to these poor people?”
You don’t know, he thought. You don’t know what lengths the Church will go to, what oaths we swear, what secrets we protect. You don’t know the power.
“How can you perform this…this…fraud when you have a real gift?”
Bryn shuddered, remembering slithering darkness and bodies in the grip of…
He touched a button deep beneath the desk, one that she had failed to trigger. The door swung open behind her, and Brother Ysa peered in. He must have heard Magadienne’s raised voice and the succession of noises from the machines, but he had restrained his curiosity, his natural inclination to pry. The ritual and the Gishe name carried too much weight.
“Brother Ysa will see you out, madam,” Bryn said coldly. “Our business is concluded.”
Magadienne Gishe stood. For a moment she appeared shaken and confused, but by the time Ysa had reached her, the imperious stare had returned. A cold anger burned in her dark eyes.
“Thank you for your time, Speaker,” she said, all traces of her former emotion purged from her voice.
She did not wait for Ysa to lead her out but turned and strode directly for the door. Ysa made a small surprised sound and darted out of her way.
Bryn fixed his eyes on the dark beams that crossed the ceiling. How dare she question him, question his motivations? He felt Ysa hesitate, then slowly move from the room. The door closed with a soft click behind him.
She had been the one to insist that he pursue the teachings of the church, that he seek admission to the Order of Speakers. He had done all that she asked of him. She had been adamant that he could not ignore his gift.
Bryn lowered his eyes and stared at his hands, flat upon the polished surface of the desk. They trembled slightly. The veins stood out upon them, ropy and pulsing.
Like the tentacles, shifting in the darkness, grasping, always grasping…
She doesn’t know what she asks, Bryn thought. She can’t possibly know.
He shivered and stood abruptly, his chair scraping loudly in the small room. He suddenly felt confined. Magadienne wasn’t in the antechamber when he strode through, tearing his cloak from the hook by the door and whipping it around his shoulders.
“Sp-Speaker,” Brother Ysa spluttered from his desk as Bryn pulled open the door to the street, the wind outside nearly ripping it from his grasp as it howled into the chapel.
Isolated droplets of rain spattered against Bryn’s robes and cloak. He turned and glared at Ysa. The little Gleaner cringed, licked his lips, then looked pointedly at the two remaining supplicants. Bryn glanced at them. An old woman and a young man, both in traditional north coast garb. They stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. The howling wind tugged at his cloak and robes, loose folds streaming back into the room.
“Tomorrow,” he said to Ysa, almost shouting to be heard over the wind. “I’ll see them just after sunrise.”
Neither Ysa nor Gerold would be happy with the change, but Bryn would be of no use to these people tonight.
“Tomorrow, Brother Ysa,” Bryn growled, and went out into the street.
The clouds were low and gray, wind buffeting the coast and driving squalls of rain ahead of it. Bryn pulled up his hood and leaned into the gale, staggering down the village’s main street—its only street—toward the water. He could see it ahead of him, framed by the tightly packed buildings that lined the street, the gray sea tossing and rimed with froth. Magadienne Gishe was nowhere to be seen.
She had probably had a carriage waiting for her, Bryn thought with a bitter smile. Not that he’d wanted to see her now anyway.
Few villagers were out braving the storm. Several fishermen hurried home beneath glistening oilskins, casting appraising glances at the sky. One threw open a door to a public house just ahead of Bryn, and a swell of conversation and song spilled into the street with an orange glow. Bryn was tempted, but only for a moment. His presence would only kill the mood and the music anyway. He staggered past the door as it swung shut.
The waterfront was abandoned. Most of the boats had been pulled well clear of the water or lashed tight against the long pier that thrust out into the harbor. Bryn made his way out onto the pier, his thin-soled shoes slipping on the wet wood. The rain was a cold torrent now, though he could not be sure where the rain ended and the heavy spray coming off the storm-wracked sea began.
Bryn fell to his knees at the end of the pier, face numbed by rain and sea-spray. He stared into the gray swells, capped with foam, and sought solace in the tempest. His assistants would not follow him out into such weather. Some of the townsfolk might have—if only to make sure of his safety as a man of the Church—but they had all sought safety indoors and would not mark him kneeling at the end of the pier, masked by the rain and the surging of the sea.
He lifted his face, reveling in the punishing force of the wind and rain. “She cannot know what she asks!” he shouted into the storm, the wind ripping his words away.
Water dripped from his close-cropped curls, winding a tickling path down his neck beneath his robes. Bryn shuddered. Serpentine appendages. Reaching, grasping. The spirits of the dead and the damned, their limbs entwined, their mouths gaping. The words of those dead legions rushing through him, tearing apart his own thoughts, seeking escape. The slithering in his mind. The creeping madness. The agony of the multitude imprisoned in the beyond.
“I cannot!” he howled into the wind.
Its only response was to howl back.
* * *
Bryn shivered beneath his blankets, still chilled to the core, though the cold that afflicted him was not all of the storm’s doing. Several times he had heard padded footsteps approach his door—Brother Ysa, no doubt—then shuffle away without knocking. In less troubled times, Bryn might have bothered to worry about what the Gleaner’s report to his masters would contain. Now, the fear of the beyond consumed all other concerns.
He plunged in and out of dreams.
A jar of sleeping powder lay open on the little table beside his bed, but its soothing magics had failed him. Time and again he would awaken to stare at the ceiling, the embers of the fire casting threatening shadows while the storm raged outside.
A dream. He and Maggie, both reaching to turn a page in the forbidden tome. His blushes when their hands touched. The queer sounds of the archaic words to which he bent his lips and tongue. Old Joste rising, rising from the grave, the luminous thing wrapped around his waist. The words spilling from him. Words he did not understand. And always the chill stench of something creeping closer and closer. He opened his mouth to scream and fell into…
A carriage pulling away from the Gishe manor, crowned with snow. The frozen track crunching beneath heavy wheels. Looking back at Maggie standing in the doorway beside her father, his face pale as the snow. She waved to the carriage, her face bright, ribbons dancing in her hair.
“It’ll be so exciting for you,” she had said to him as she shoved books into his trunk, more spoils from the cache where she had found the forbidden book. “The secrets. Talking to the dead.”
Her eyes had glittered, dark and alive. He put his hand against the cold glass of the carriage as girl and father vanished, obscured by falling snow. But I don’t want those things, Bryn shouted into the darkness. You do. I don’t want to leave you, Maggie…
And his hand, older now, was pressed against the cover of the ancient tome. He was sweating, contemplating the horror he had faced the first time, but also the need to know. Jerrot had been perfectly healthy. Top of their class at seminary. Freakishly gifted at reading others and intuiting their needs. He had been Acolyte Bryn’s only friend, and now he was dead at sixteen. Rumors swirled. Bryn needed to know. He drew a deep breath and opened the book to practice again the strange, archaic words…
And knelt before Jerrot’s unmarked grave. Acolytes without families of significance were buried in a plot behind the seminary chapel. There were far more graves here than Acolyte Bryn would have imagined. How many acolytes died during training? Why? Bryn placed the candles, drew the chalk circle. The rough fabric of his robes made his forearms itch.
Then darkness. Then grasping terror. His mind left blank in the silent graveyard when he awakened in the pre-dawn chill. Blank save for two tenuous scenes that slipped away whenever he tried to focus upon them. The afterimage of a luminous tentacle slipping from Jerrot’s neck to reveal a dark necklace of bruises, superimposed upon a dangling body. Twitching. Twitching. And Jerrot’s voice, a strangled whisper in the darkness of the abyss, “the journal, the journal.”
And finally, dreamless darkness.
The true Speaker is born with a full stock of sanity that is pierced and slowly sapped with every trip into the void. How long until his stock runs dry? One time? Three? Seven? Prediction is difficult, if not impossible. We must, however, conserve these true Speakers, for there is no better way to combat skepticism.
journal of Brother Oreg, Master Gleaner
Bryn sat with the thin journal on his lap. The morning’s appointments had been the usual affairs, and even in his weary state, he had conducted the ritual without flaw. Perhaps he was too mechanical, too cold, but the supplicants had not noticed. His eyes were heavy and itched fiercely. Bryn rubbed at them and stared down at the little book.
The Master Gleaner’s journal had been one of the ancient, dusty volumes that Maggie had liberated from the manor library and stuffed into Bryn’s trunk before he had departed for seminary. She had had no idea what it was or what it contained. Neither had Bryn until after his nightmare upon Jerrot’s grave.
His friend must have been looking through his books without his knowledge. Bryn found notes in Jerrot’s hand scribbled on a half dozen papers folded and placed as bookmarks within the journal. Notes that recorded Jerrot’s growing knowledge of the truth of what he was and what was to become of him. Bryn’s eyes had teared when first he read those notes. He had not cried at all in reaction to Jerrot’s death, had not cried at all since leaving the Gishe manor to come to seminary.
But those notes. And the journal itself.
Jerrot had the “gift” as well, and had used it more frequently than Bryn according to his notes. Master Oreg’s journal left little doubt what fate awaited Jerrot in the living world. Either he would be discovered and imprisoned by the Church until he was needed to disprove the skeptics or he would face the inevitable descent into madness.
The journal claimed that Speakers had not always been charlatans. Indeed, some still possessed the ability to penetrate the veil and establish communion with the recently dead. But Oreg’s journal told of the terrible price they paid in the wake of their confrontation with what lurked in the spaces beyond, the lingering horror that festered and bred in that awful void. It also told of how few possessed the true talent, and the need for the Church to spread despite a limited number of true Speakers. But how was it to do so if there were so few capable of “speaking”?
Bryn caressed the levers and buttons of his trade, a trade that brought comfort to so many and lined the coffers of the Church of the Holy Communicator.
I cannot help her, he thought. Already the darkness slithered through his mind like a snake through reeds. Would the next dip into the realm of the dead push him over the approaching precipice?
He thought of Jerrot. So normal the day before his death. Had he taken one final, fatal plunge that left him little alternative but to try and escape the lurking horror by hanging himself? Was there any escape?
Or had the Church discovered his gift and come for him?
A soft knock on the door. Bryn looked up with a start, then took a deep breath and settled his nerves. Nobody knew his own secret but Magadienne, and she would not betray him. Not if she still needed his help.
Bryn touched the hidden button that swung the door open. Brother Ysa stood in the doorway, his lips pressed together as he stared at a folded piece of paper pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Slowly, he looked up at Bryn, his eyes calculating.
Could the little Gleaner have guessed? Had he overheard? Bryn willed himself to remain calm.
“Message, Speaker,” Ysa held up the paper.
Bryn motioned him in. Ysa walked to his desk and placed the paper upon it, sliding it toward Bryn with the tips of his short fingers.
The hairs on the nape of Bryn’s neck stood on end as he saw the seal pressed in the red wax. An owl with a snake in its talons beneath a crescent moon. House Gishe’s mark. He looked up and saw Ysa’s colorless eyes darting from him to the paper and back, hungry for the secrets that lay beneath the seal.
“Thank you, Brother Ysa. That is all.”
Ysa’s darting gaze stopped, fixed upon Bryn. “But, Speaker. You may—”
Bryn held up a hand. “That is all,” he repeated.
Ysa’s eyes flared briefly, but then he bowed and retreated from the room. Bryn waited a few moments, knowing that Ysa probably waited just on the other side of the door, listening. He broke the seal and unfolded the paper.
She hates me, he thought. She thinks me a coward and never wishes to see me again. Perhaps she will even use her influence to have the Church assign me to some even more remote region.
As a girl, her writing had been full of flourish and ornament. Bryn had many examples from the first few years after he had left for seminary. But slowly the letters had dried up, probably owing to his increasingly terse responses after Jerrot’s death. Bryn had not seen anything in her hand for nearly five years and found her style more spare now—still precise and graceful, but with little in the way of ornament.
My Dearest Bryn, he read, and felt the heat blossom on his cheeks.
Perhaps you do not know of love…
Bryn’s lips curled into a snarl.
…but I loved Marten, and love him still. When he died, I swore that I would discover the manner of his death, whether it be accident, as they claimed, or otherwise. I had to know if I should seek revenge, and, if so, against whom.
Believe me when I tell you that I exhausted every other method of investigation before seeking your aid. There was nothing. No hint. No clue. But I have never forgotten Old Joste’s grave and what you did there. I have never forgotten you or your gift.
I had hoped that your increasing silence at seminary was due to the rigor of your studies and not to any ill feeling between us. Always I have loved you as a brother.
Bryn slammed his fist down on the table without considering the force of his blow. He stared at his hand with dull incomprehension as the pain began to radiate through him. He rubbed the hand absently and stared around the room, wondering that the blow had not set off any of Brother Gerold’s hidden devices. Finally, his eyes wandered back to the letter.
I hoped that you would still bear me some affection from our time together as children and render me this small service.
Dark shapes danced at the edges of Bryn’s vision. He felt there was something lurking behind him. Something dark and looming. But he suppressed the feelings. Focus, he told himself. She does not know.
I was convinced that you would succeed where mundane methodology had failed, that your gift would give me the insight and direction I desired.
I see now that I was mistaken in my belief in you, and I am left with only one certain path by which to discover the answers I seek. It is a path that perhaps will not let me carry out any revenge or continue the work Marten had begun, but at least we will be together.
Yours in faith,
Bryn dropped the letter and stared at it, recoiling from the implications of those last words. He noted vaguely that her signature still carried a touch of the flourish she had employed as a girl. The girl he had loved.
“Ysa!” he bellowed, and stood suddenly, his chair toppling backward with a crash.
Bryn snatched up the letter and hurried for the door. He yanked it open and Brother Ysa nearly stumbled into him. Bryn grabbed the Gleaner’s robes and pushed him against the frame of the door.
“Where is she staying?”
Brother Ysa’s eyes were wild and wide. Sweat stood out on his bald pate. Bryn could feel him trembling.
“The hotel. Atop the hill.”
Bryn released him and hurried through the outer room, not even bothering to gather his cloak. “Speaker—” Brother Ysa began to say behind him, but Bryn was already in the street, hurrying to the top of the hill.
A low ceiling of gray clouds spread a misting rain upon the single cobbled road that ran through Dunshane. Bryn recited a silent prayer of thanks to the Order of Gleaners and their obsessive need to gather information as he picked up his pace, nearly running now despite the restrictions imposed by his robe. He ignored the villagers who gaped at his Speaker’s dress, his uncovered head, his awkward progress.
The mist was letting up by the time Bryn reached the hotel, and a pale sun lurked behind the gray veil of clouds. He filled his lungs in great, gasping breaths as he staggered onto the porch where several guests were taking their tea. They watched him with wide eyes, a waiter slipping through the door and returning a moment later with the hotel manager.
“Revered Speaker, we are honored—”
“Magadienne Gishe,” Bryn gasped.
The manager shook his head, struggling to keep the professional smile from sliding off his face. Fear and confusion lurked behind it. In the door behind him, Bryn for a moment saw a dark and gaping maw. He shook his head to clear the image. She wouldn’t have used her real name, he berated himself.
“Ishalde Malin,” he tried.
This time, the manager nodded, his smile reinforced by having definite ground to stand upon. “Yes, Speaker. She is staying here. She left a short while ago. Walking out toward the cliffs. And in this weather, can you—”
Bryn did not hear the rest.
His legs shook as he hurried along the path of trampled grass that led to the cliff. He was not used to such exertions, and fear threatened to rob him of whatever desperate energy had allowed him to come this far without collapsing. The stones that marked the path and the hedge weeds that grew around them snagged at his robes, twice tearing them, but he stumbled on toward the thunderous sound of waves crashing on a rocky shore.
The mist had begun to fall again, and Bryn felt his hair plastered to his skull by rain and sweat. He wiped both from his eyes and tried to spy a figure moving along the cliff’s edge, now visible through the gloom. Threads of fog blew in over that edge, and a dozen times he thought he saw her figure, only to watch the slender white form dissipate as wind picked the fog apart.
As he neared the cliff’s edge, the slick wetness that lay upon his skin seemed to slip into his brain. Bryn felt it trickling through his thoughts, gathering in black pools in the dark places within him. Distracted, he tripped. He flung out his hands to break his fall and felt something tear into his palms. On his knees, he stared down and saw the sharp black stones embedded in his raw and bleeding palms.
The distant roar of the surf below pulled his attention from his injuries, and Bryn crawled out to the edge of the cliff. Mist gave way to fat splatters of rain, and the fog that hid the base of the cliff thinned enough that he could make out the shape of rocks and the pale foam of the crashing waves below.
And another, irregular shape among the rocks.
A pale blouse.
“Maggie,” Bryn whispered.
He could not see clearly enough to be certain, but he knew it was her. He felt it in the tight constricting of the tentacles around his brain. The wind howled, seeming to carry voices, and Bryn lowered himself to the ground, laying his cheek against the low-lying vegetation that clung to the lip of the cliff.
He saw the satchel.
It lay in the lee of a jutting stone. It looked very much like the satchel he had carried to the graveyard on that nightmare evening a dozen years ago. He crawled toward it, saw the unmistakable mark of House Gishe embossed on the leather flap. He lifted the flap.
A book. Black candles. Chalk. She had come prepared, knowing what he would need.
Her scent drifted up from the interior of the satchel. Something slid from his neck, down his back, leaving a chill trail. Rain, he wondered, or something else? Distinctions between the physical and the imaginary were becoming less important. Bryn stared at the book, the candles, the chalk. He had returned the books to the Gishe manor shortly after Jerrot’s death, all but the journal.
Is it the same book? Is she trying to tell me something by leaving it here? Might I speak with her one last time? Does she want that?
The sea sang a crashing dirge at the base of the cliff, coming to claim his Maggie. But it was not alone. That thing, Bryn thought, grasping and groping, was also coming for Maggie. Soon to drag her well beyond the in-between where he could still find her, could still speak to her. One last time.
That way lies madness.
“Maggie,” he whispered in a broken voice, seeing again the wonder in her forest green eyes as he swam back to awareness on the turned earth of Old Joste’s grave.
Rain dripped on the spine of the ancient book as he reached out for it. His mind tumbled in the grip of encroaching darkness, and the wind carried voices Speaker Bryn could not, or would not, interpret.