A Covenant with Death

by

James Enge



Morlock caught sight of the glass lizard by the gleam of gold in its eyes, brightening just before it leapt. He drew his face back from the water he had been about to drink and simultaneously brought his hands up in a clapping motion, catching the nearly invisible beast in midair. It hissed angrily, and a fine cloud of venom puffed out as he broke its neck with his thumbs. It had been aiming for his eyes, of course: a glass lizard eats little else by choice.

He crouched by the side of the stream for ten rather rapid heartbeats, considering: for the glass lizard is not native to the land of which Morlock was one of the lesser guardians, nor can it live long there. Then he stood, still holding the lizard and walked along the side of the stream, down the steep overgrown slope to the shore of the Narrow Sea, where the others were.

The others: five young men and women in gray capes like Morlock's own, clustered aroung a taller, older man cloaked in red: the Vocate Jordel. He was holding forth with a routinely spellbinding discourse, but broke off at Morlock's approach and said loudly, "But here comes Sir Morlock, fresh from his ablutions. Shall we tell him what we have abluted in his absence? Or shall he guess?"

A mixed chorus of the Thains (candidates to the Graith of Guardians, of which Jordel was a full member) responded.

"Have to work on that ar-tic-u-la-tion, my Thains," Jordel murmured. "But I guess you'll be guessing, Morlock."

"There is a Kaenish warrior on this mountain," Morlock said curtly. He had the pleasure of seeing several jaws drop among the crowd of his peers. Jordel's jaw did not drop but he was obviously surprised and displeased by Morlock's answer.

Jordel was a Westhold peasant who had risen to be a Vocate of the Realm by a combination of charm, luck, toughness and real brilliance. He was fully seven feet tall with light curly brown hair and hazel eyes. He was thinly built, but with wiry strength. He was a fast friend to his peers, an intolerable nuisance to his seniors, the Three Summoners (who led the Graith of Guardians), and brilliantly engaging to his juniors: the Thains, the Guardians-in-training. But if there was one thing he hated it was what he called "an aspiring Thain," and he had long ago singled out Morlock as one of these. Besides, Morlock--dark-haired, crookedly built and sullen though he was--was an aristocrat twice-over: by birth, as heir to the Ambrosii, and by adoption into the Dwarvish clan of syr Theorn. Jordel did not even pretend not to resent this.

"What have you found?" he asked Morlock impatiently.

Morlock held up the glass lizard, its transparency clouding now in death.

"But that might have been here for years," one of the Thains, Drnja, objected.

"No, no, no," Jordel said irritably. "Its poison sacs are nearly full. They've been bred for the poison, you see, and now they have to be milked each day, like cows, or they'll die of their own accumulated venom. Morlock is quite right, as usual. Look here, Wonder-Thain: what do you make of this?"

He pointed over at a rowboat that had been drawn up on the shore. Morlock instantly went over, going down on one knee in the surf to examine it. The bottom was stoven in, the oars broken. There were two braces driven in to the inside of the boat; Morlock guessed something had been lashed to them--such as a lance.

"Unicorn-killer!" he exclaimed, then added cautiously, "Or someone who wants to seem like one."

"Nonsense!" Jordel replied. "Kaenish gentlemen don't seem, Sir Morlock--it's unseemly. They are too frank, too above-board for that. Besides, this fellow can't have expected anyone to trip over his trail so soon--look at the breaks in that wood--hardly more than two days old. And in another day his stove boat would have been invisibly submerged and his glass lizard opaquely dead; the idea that this is a set piece to give us a false impression verges on mania. No, what we have is very clearly a young Kaenish tirgan versed in the classic tales of chivalry, who has just crossed the Narrow Sea to acquire that peerless talisman of bravery and skill, a unicorn's horn."

"Or someone who wants us to think so," Morlock repeated.

Jordel looked bleakly at Morlock and then turned away to the other Thains, most of whom were drifting over to the campsite. "Hey! Where are you going there?"

A very young Thain named Kendral said apologetically, "We're a little late for lunch."

"You'll be later yet, young sir. Haven't you gathered the import of this young gentleman's deductions? Shall I have him explain them to you?"

The Thain Ilkea glanced at Morlock and interceded quickly. "An alien warrior has entered the Wardlands. The Guard is not maintained."

"Maintain the Guard!" Jordel cried. It was the entirety of a Guardian's oath.

"Maintain the Guard," the Thains echoed dutifully, save Morlock and Ilkea.

"If you mean it, what do you mean by it? What do you propose to do, young ladies and gentlemen? Now that you have swiftly and correctly deduced that stuffing your faces will not maintain the Guard?"

"We ought to raise the alarm," Kendral said tentatively, after a brief pause. "Notify the Thains at the Gray Tower at least," he added, naming the training post and guard station from which they had set out on this patrol of the coast.

"Not bad, not bad. Why don't you, Kendral, and you, Drnja, go do that?"

The two named Thains turned away and walked north along the shore toward the Gray Tower.

"The question remains," Jordel noted, once they were out of earshot, "what they will tell, and what good it will do. They don't even have a rendezvous planned with any member of our group, and they don't know what we intend to do. Nor will all the messages in the world defend the unicorn the killer wants to kill."

Ilkea silently moved to go after them, but Jordel stayed her. "Never mind that. What are we going to do now?"

"Track the hunter," Ilkea said instantly.

"Good. You can do this?"

"Yes."

"Excellent. Where did he go?"

"Inland." Ilkea pointed. "There. West by southwest."

"Really?" Jordel was actually impressed. "So, take Lesten, here--"

"I'd rather take--I'll go alone."

"Then go."

"Where do we meet? And when?"

"Hm. Here. In two days or sooner; check around noon. Good hunting, Thain."

Ilkea nodded, glanced quickly at Morlock, then turned and ran uphill. In a moment she had disappeared among the trees.

"Leaves the four of us, hey?" Jordel said. "Any ideas? Not you, Morlock."

Morlock closed his mouth without speaking.

"No?" Jordel continued, after a brief silence. "I propose this: we split into two groups. Two of us cover the coast of the Narrow Sea northward, the other two southward. Ilkea may be the best tracker in the world and yet lose this unicorn-killer; those Kaenish hunters are cunning goats. Anyone here a tracker? Not you, Morlock? No? How extraordinary. How very, very extraordinary. What's that, Brelling?"

"I said, 'I hunt a little,' " Brelling said doubtfully.

"Excellent. You and Lesten there go north. Follow the coast. If you come up short, go to the Gray Tower and put yourself at the disposal of the Senior Thain. Good fortune to you."

They nodded solemnly and walked away.

"Men with a mission," Jordel observed, when they were out of earshot. "They  won't find anything, of course, but they're good order-takers, and you always need some of those."

Morlock, still on one knee, said nothing. He dropped the dead lizard in the water beside the broken boat.

"That Ilkea is as sharp as breaking glass, and not so noisy," Jordel continued. "She might actually catch this unicorn-killer, but I don't think so. She doesn't know how they operate. She'd never have known that was a unicorn-hunter's boat in a thousand years of looking at it."

"She doesn't read Kaenish," Morlock said.

"You do, though. Read all the Kaenish classics of adventure and romance, I expect. You know exactly what's bubbling in our young tirgan's brain, I'm sure. He's a gentleman, like yourself. And you might not expect it with my humble origins, but I've mixed with some Kaenish nobility. So we both know where we're going."

Morlock said nothing to this.

"I know! I know!" Jordel said, as if Morlock had responded. "I can't stand you either. But it's got to be you and me against this Kaenish hunter. Ilkea is smart and tough, but she's got too much to learn. The rest are more or less worthless."

Jordel's voice trailed off. He was clearly waiting for Morlock to say something, and he was clearly disappointed when Morlock did not.

"Get up and let's go," the Vocate said wearily. Morlock stood and they walked away, southward along the shore.

#

They walked through the rest of that day and into the night along the crooked stony beaches between the Grartan Mountains and the Narrow Sea. They watched the slopes to their right for any sign of the unicorn-hunter and saw none. At last Jordel said, "We have outdistanced him. It's time to sleep."

"If we sleep--"

"Not you, sir. You'll watch the slope. Our hunter will not sleep, not yet: he is consecrate to death and sleep would be an impiety."

"How do you know he is not far south of here by now?" Morlock demanded, as Jordel arranged his red cloak atop a bed of sand-moss.

"I know it," Jordel said, in lieu of an answer. "And you, Sir Morlock, do not know everything. Wake me," he said, lying down on his cloak and wrapping himself in it, "when the stars spin 'round to the sixth hour. Then I'll watch."

#

Morlock roused Jordel before the fourth hour of night ended. "I saw a gleam of metal," he explained, after Jordel came silently, completely awake at one touch.

"Where?" the Vocate demanded. Morlock pointed a stretch of pine woods, far up a nearby slope.

"Sure you knew what you were seeing?" Jordel grumbled, as he stood to shake moss off his cloak.

Morlock said nothing to this.

"Let's go, then," Jordel said, as if Morlock had answered. They began to climb the long slope, gray in the moonlight.

They had hardly entered the dense black cluster of pine trees when Jordel motioned Morlock to a halt. He gazed absently at the trees, the ground, at what could be seen of the sky, and sighed. "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear," he said. "I don't like the look of this at all." He turned to Morlock. "You say you saw the gleam of metal from these woods?"

"From the clearing just ahead," Morlock said, gesturing.

"Ah. You see it all, of course."

"I see nothing."

For once Jordel refrained from repartee at Morlock's expense. "The hunter and his pack of lizards--larger than the one you caught; dog-sized, I should say--come east. This is their trail here. And a few paces yonder, this is their trail leading back west, up the mountain."

"Then?"

"If you are asking what I am driving at, I am telling you that they made their kill."

"What kill? The unicorn?"

Jordel stared at him, the mask of shadows across his face not concealing his surprise. Finally he explained, "The hunter travels a... I don't know what you uplander types call it... a zig-zag path. It is a shape consecrate to death. He cannot turn left or right without making a kill of a certain dignity."

Morlock shook his head. "How can he hope to pursue one of the Swift People by such an awkward method?"

"He doesn't want to pursue a unicorn; he wants to kill a unicorn. His methods are not woodcraft but a magical ritual, part of his covenant with the Kaenish god of death. Fulfillment of his part of the bargain will foredestine the unicorn's death at his hands."

Morlock nodded. Jordel looked at him dubiously. "Maybe I should have sent you north with the others," he remarked.

Shaking his head impatiently, Morlock said, "If you are correct, we should have passed the kill that allowed the hunter to turn."

"I think we did." Jordel turned and led the way back to where the angling paths met. At their junction was a pine tree, its bark deeply torn by claws. Jordel reached up and shook one of its branches; Ilkea's body dropped like a rotten fruit to the ground.

The night changed color for Morlock. Kneeling down by the body, he thrust a finger into its ruined mouth.

"Still warm!" he reported.

"That's more than I can say for you," Jordel remarked pleasantly. "And I thought you were fond of Ilkea. Sustainer, those beasts must have been hungry; they ate a good deal more than her eyes, didn't they?"

"We can still catch him," Morlock said flatly, wiping off his hand.

"We will, too. Ilkea must have caught on to the hunter's pattern sooner than I expected and cut across the lines. Stupid of her to tackle him alone, though, and stupider still to get caught by him--"

"You call her stupid!" shouted Morlock.

"Why, yes," said Jordel, frankly confused by Morlock's display of emotion. "If she had simply gone back the way she came, or angled off in any other direction, he could not have pursued her without breaking his pact with death. He might have, anyway, but I doubt it. By planting herself in his way she guaranteed her own death."

"You didn't tell her."

"Tell her?"

"About the hunter's covenant with death."

"It's common knowledge."

"I didn't know. And I read Kaenish. There have been no unicorn-hunters in the Wardlands for a hundred years."

"Why not?"

"Unicorns lost status, by a decree of the Dark Seven. The kill of highest status is now an exile from these lands. There are said to be several fine trophy-heads in the audience hall of the current king of Kaen."

"Sustainer!" swore Jordel in honest outrage. "But that's monstrous!"

Morlock, whose natural parents were exiles from the Wardlands, agreed, but did not say so. In fact, he said nothing, but tore two squares from Ilkea's cloak and bound her torn hands in them. It was the mourning custom of his people, not hers, like the prayer of revenge he silently uttered to her spirit. But he never knew her customs or her people. And: he was himself, not her.

"I suppose you're thinking, 'If Jordel had only told Ilkea everything he knew, everything would be sten-friendly.' But you're wrong about that. If I had taken time to tell her everything I know about Kaen we would still be crouching over that stove boat."

Morlock reflected that Jordel had already taken more time to extenuate his guilt over Ilkea's death than he might have taken to prevent it. But he held his peace and knelt by Ilkea's body.

"You talk about the Dark Seven," Jordel continued. "But when the time came to walk against them, Illion had only Noree, and me, behind him."

"There is night left," Morlock observed, finally.

"If you are done here, let's go," Jordel said briskly.

Morlock stood and followed Jordel southward along the wooded slope.

#

In wordless union and mutual distaste they cut across the lines of the unicorn-hunter's trail. There were too many of these, they soon saw--too many to be accounted for by the unicorn-hunter, if he had really landed in the Realm but a few days ago. Either there was more than one, or he had been there longer--perhaps a month.

Jordel assumed the former, muttering, "How many unicorns have they butchered, I wonder?" as he rose from a trail of lizard-slime, gray and powder-dry. He had judged it at least twenty days old, from rain-streaks in the trail. Morlock, in contrast, was wondering what one hunter might have prepared on the mountain in a month's time. He wondered if a man could really stay awake that long (as Jordel said a hunter must during his hunt). He wondered what it would do to a man.

Then they heard the unicorn behind them, the hoofbeats reminding Morlock of the strokes of a broad hammer on soft lead. They turned and saw the Swift One, twisting like an eel as it ran among the pines, close-set on the steep slope.

Jordel planted his feet and held out his hands, making strange vague motions, as if shooing off chickens. "Go back!" he cried. "There is danger here!" He followed this with a few tootling cries, such as Westholders use to speak to horses.

Morlock stepped aside, not wishing to be speared by the unicorn's horn. "Talking to unicorns" was a synonym for idiocy among his foster-kin, but he was too alarmed to take much notice of Jordel's efforts along this line. It struck him as ominous that the unicorn should be travelling exactly the same path as they were. He thought of Jordel's words about the hunter's methods: not woodcraft but a magical ritual. Were they and the unicorn being drawn by the same death-magic? In any case, they could assume the worst about the ground toward which the unicorn was so senselessly running.

"No!" screamed Jordel. "No!" as if he could force the unicorn to understand him, or at least obey him, by sheer force of volume. And as the unicorn passed, its horn like lightning, its eyes deadly and blind, its beard streaming like cirrus clouds, Jordel leapt to sieze it about the neck. Incredibly, he landed across its shoulder and, still more incredibly, landed running when it shook him off with a single silken motion.

"Come on!" screamed Jordel over his shoulder. "We've got to catch it!"

Morlock might have shouted No! or Why? but he saved his breath for running. Jordel was clearly in the grip of something stronger than reason.

The Vocate was taller and swifter than he was, and if the chase had been over flat ground it would have been hopeless. But the dense pinewood, slanting up the steep mountainside, kept Jordel in view of the unicorn and Morlock almost within arm's reach of Jordel.

They broke into a clearing. Morlock caught a glimpse of a man standing, dressed in white down to his boots and gloves, at the clearing's edge. He saw the unicorn lift its feet and sail over an apparently innocuous stretch of ground. He drove himself forward and snatched Jordel by the collar just as the Vocate's feet hit the ground that the unicorn had leapt across. It disappeared like a dream and they fell toward a yawning pit.

Earth hit Morlock's chest like a hammer. The breath went out of him, and for a moment the dim dawnlit world wavered. But he kept hold of Jordel's scruff with his right hand and scrabbled for a hold with his left, finally closing on a pine root as he began to be dragged across the rough slimy ground.

A long silence. It was hard to say how much time passed. Neither Jordel nor Morlock spoke. Then, finally: footsteps. The man in white approached them; Morlock turned to watch, but the man's movements were interested rather than threatening. He held a knife in his hand and a pack of glass lizards as large as shepherd dogs slavered silently over his white boots.

"I suppose I should greet you,"  he remarked in Kaenish to Jordel, whose rather strained face could be seen just over the edge of the pit. "I greet you: good morning."

"It is morning, isn't it?" Jordel replied pleasantly. The sky was suddenly blue, the pines about them were suddenly evergreen again; the dirt on Jordel's sweating face was now brown, rather than black.

"I wanted you to see something," the man in white continued. "I wanted you to see this." He beckoned to his hunting lizards and slit the throat of each in turn as it was offered to him. None seemed deterred by the death of any of the others. Finally they all lay cloudy in death and the man in white dropped the blade, gleaming with milky ichor, into the pit.

"If I understand your ways," Jordel observed, "you have come to the end of your hunt. My condolences on your failure."

The man in white smiled indulgently. His eyes were red as a lemur's, as red as fresh blood. "You're saying that to irritate me. But you can't irritate me. You are the almost-final kill; you anchor the blood rite which has drawn and will continue to fix the unicorn in yonder ravine." He gestured with a white gloved hand, slick with translucent lizard-blood. "I am happy to do it with a kill of such high status, although I suppose almost anything, even your crookback boy, would have done."

"You evidently know who I am," Jordel said sharply. "Let me introduce you to my Thain: Morlock syr Theorn, sometimes known as Morlock Ambrosius, for he has two fathers."

The narrow-faced tirgan laughed agreeably. "A crookback, a cripple or a leper is a kill of no special status. Please don't try to make me feel better by telling me that your crookback is the son of another crookback--or, on the other hand, that he is also the son of a Dwarf." He looked down on Morlock, who met his red eyes defiantly and strove at the same time to heave Jordel clear of the pit.

"And may we--oof!--and may we not know your name?" Jordel inquired, with a fair imitation of politeness.

The white tirgan shook his narrow head. "Since you go to serve in my house in the Netherworld, you will soon know me by many names--more than I can know myself, until I go to serve myself in the Netherworld. For the moment, there is no need; for the moment, I am Death to you. The blood-rite is complete and the death of the unicorn is foredestined."

"You may--oof!--be premature," Jordel remarked. "You have not killed Morlock, myself, or the unicorn yet."

"I don't intend to kill the hunchback; I have a use for the hunchback. But he will not save you, though he is trying so manfully to save you. It is a Kembley's serpent in the pit, a Kembley's serpent that has you by the legs."

"Never heard of them. Dangerous beasties?"

"In a way. In a way they are. They strike fast and they have but one idea: they do not let go. What they grip with their tail they bring to their maw and devour; they do not let go. I pinned the skull of this one to the floor of the pit; you can just see it down there, if you turn your head: it is pinned to bedrock."

"I see it. You have planned this whole business out more elaborately than I imagined."

"I planned nothing; there is no plan; the plan was not mine. I was guided every moment by the Waking Dream. It was the Waking Dream that told me to dig this pit, as first and final anchor to the blood-rite. It was the Waking Dream that told me where and when you would come, and who you would be."

"A well-informed dream."

"It knows all things; knowledge is nothing; there is nothing it does not know. It lets its wisdom pass to me, a little at a time, only a little at a time, lest I know all and go insane."

"That would be unfortunate," Jordel agreed mildly.

A knife-thin, contemptous smile creased the tirgan's narrow face. "The hunchback will not be able to save you. In a time he will grow weary and let go, or his shoulders will give way; he cannot save you. But he will carry the story to your Land; that he can do. For the fame of the kill is part of my bargain with Death; fame and the unicorn are the favors I buy with your death."

"And if his story is not flattering to you...?"

The white tirgan shrugged. "I serve Death, not Truth; it is Death that I serve. Jordel, goodbye." He saluted them with his dark lance, the tip gleaming with poison. He walked away and was lost in the shadows of the narrow ravine.

"Morlock," said Jordel urgently. "Let me go. It's up to you now. Save that unicorn."

Morlock grunted a refusal. He repositioned his body and pulled again, hard, at Jordel. He could only hope the leather jerkin Jordel wore was well-made; at least it hadn't torn yet...

Jordel struck at Morlock's arm. The blow was pitiable; he was already weakening; perhaps he was already dying. But there was life in his voice as he snapped "Thain Morlock! I order you to let me go and save that unicorn."

Morlock didn't speak. He had Jordel's shoulders above the edge of the pit.

"You're afraid, aren't you?" Jordel's voice dripped contempt. "Afraid to defend the unicorn alone. I'm not your third father, you crook-backed bastard!"

"Won't. Work. Either." Morlock spoke through clenched teeth. "Go. Faster. If. Help."

Jordel swore and grabbed Morlock's right arm. After long moments of agonized straining, Jordel was able to lay both hands on the tree root that had anchored Morlock.

"There. Thank you. Thank you. Now go. I can hold on here!"

Morlock ignored him. Drawing his belt-knife he knelt by Jordel's legs, wrapped by the red and black grasping foot of the Kembley's serpent. Methodically propping the coil open with a crossed pair of sticks, he cut through the serpent's body and tore the writhing coil from Jordel's legs. He examined the still-writhing foot with some interest in passing.

"There may be venom," he remarked. "Your legs--"

"My feet are numb," Jordel interrupted. "All the better to kick your mutinous rump."

"Can you walk?" But Jordel was already rising to his feet.

"Come on!" the Vocate shouted impatiently. "We may already be too late!"

They were too late. When they entered the narrow shadow-heavy ravine the foredestined death had already occurred.

#

Morlock buried the shattered body of the unicorn-hunter, alongside his shattered poison-tipped lance, where they both had fallen before the unicorn in the narrow ravine.

Jordel sat nearby, working life into his poisoned legs, and remarked, "One part of the hunter's bargain will be kept. This place will be famous. We'll run groups of Thains down here from the Gray Tower, teach them how a Kaenish tirgan hunts on the ground."

Morlock thought of the unicorn as it had run past them, out of the ravine, after killing the hunter: its eyes wild with something like hate, the glory of its horn veiled with blood. He thought of Ilkea's body, ruined by hunting lizards, still unburied on the mountain, her life gone wherever life goes after death. All this seemed a high price for a Thain's training exercise. But he had no words for this.

"I'd like to know why you refused to let me go at the pit," Jordel said. After a moment's silence he resumed, "I imagine there are at least three possible reasons. First: sheer resentment against that slimy hunter; he said you'd let go, so you didn't. Second, resentment against me: I said to let go, so you didn't. But, third: you realized that preventing my death voided the hunter's magical ritual. Only that could liberate the unicorn from its state of fascination and prevent the hunter from killing it."

Jordel waited but Morlock didn't speak; he continued scraping dirt into the hunter's grave, using the spade he had found among the hunter's gear. When he was done he broke the handle and drove both splintered ends deep into the loose earth. It was all the funeral the Kaenish death-worshipper would ever receive.

"Or perhaps," Jordel continued, "you were so fond of me you couldn't bear to let me fall and be snake-food."

Morlock grunted. "I am not fond of you."

"Really? I'm amazed. Really, I am. I'm fond of you, you know, or I'm beginning to be. I like ornery people--contrast, I suppose. Sometimes I think I'm too placid, too amiable, too much of a good fellow. Don't you agree?"

"No."

###



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A Covenant with Death by James Enge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.