Covenant with Death
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
"But that might have been here for years," one of the Thains, Drnja,
"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
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
"Maintain the Guard," the Thains echoed dutifully, save Morlock and
"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?"
"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."
"Where do we meet? And when?"
"Hm. Here. In two days or sooner; check around noon. Good hunting,
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 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
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"Morlock," said Jordel urgently. "Let me go. It's up to you now. Save
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
Morlock didn't speak. He had Jordel's shoulders above the edge of the
"You're afraid, aren't you?" Jordel's voice dripped contempt. "Afraid
to defend the unicorn alone. I'm not your third father, you
"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
"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
A Covenant with Death
by James Enge
is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States