Lady of Shadows: Part 9
The gap between the Stormclaw and Black Spine Mountains is some fifteen miles wide, and those who have never been there must wonder why the route through is termed a pass, or why Nibenay bothers to maintain a fort to guard the road.
Prologue and Other Parts
The gap between the Stormclaw and Black Spine Mountains is some fifteen miles wide, and those who have never been there must wonder why the route through is termed a ‘pass’, or why Nibenay bothers to maintain a fort to guard the road. But the land between the mountains is scattered with huge boulders carved from the peaks by ancient war-magic and by millennia of fierce winds and infrequent but heavy rains, and riven with deep chasms that make travel all but impossible except upon the raised causeway that carries the road from Nibenay to the cities of the north.
As it enters the pass, the causeway rises up on massive stone pylons, once carved into the forms of robed men and women, but now so worn that they might have been carved from native rock by the wind. In my first year as a bride of the Shadow King, an older templar-wife told me, with great pride, that our lord and husband was one of the figures depicted there in his original human form. I do not know whether this is true, or merely one of the many rumours that circulate among the lower ranks of the templarate, occasionally evolving over decades or centuries into something like religious mythology. Our husband does not demand, nor even encourage, such spiritual devotion, only worldly loyalty and the competent execution of our duties. But many of my fellow templar-wives, especially the younger ones, seem to need an object for such devotion. Surely it is better to worship the Shadow King as a god than to fall into the veneration of false deities, as has happened in Raam, where even the Sorceress-Queen styles herself a mere priestess!
Squatting above the causeway like a bloated stone spider, about a third of the way from the northern end of the pass, is the fort that marks the most northerly extent of the Shadow King’s domain. Built from cyclopean blocks of red and black granite, it has guarded Bremil Pass for longer than anyone – save perhaps the Shadow King himself – can say. I have seen temple records from two millennia ago, upon parchment so fragile that it must be kept preserved within ensorcelled crystal slabs, that speak of Bremil Fort as though it were already ancient. There is a tradition within the Temple of War that Bremil was the name of the first high consort of that temple, though I have no idea whether it is based upon truth. Certainly, it is not a Nibenese name (nor even, to my ears, a woman’s name).
But, then, neither does the fort resemble anything of Nibenay in its architecture. It is in the form of a massive gateway, with two square towers flanking the narrow portal. The walls are utterly plain and glassy-smooth, their granite blocks fitted together so closely that, even after uncounted centuries of sand-scouring winds, the joints are invisible from more than a few feet away. The elaborate carvings that would adorn every surface of a Nibenese building – even a military one – are entirely absent. Attempts were made, some four centuries ago, to adorn at least the lower sections of the towers with celebratory carvings of the Shadow King and his high consorts, but they came to naught. No chisel, not even an iron one, could so much as scratch the stone’s surface. Sunara, the high consort whose scheme it had been, fell from her lord and husband’s favour soon after and died a traitor’s death within the year. No more such attempts have been made.
The crimson sun was just brushing the peaks of the Stormclaw Mountains as the silt skimmer rumbled to a halt before the gates of the fort. The sky was deepening to violet above us, the tops of the fort’s twin towers outlined in faint auras of jade-green to my elf-tainted eyes. To the east, the first stars were just becoming visible. After the blood and horror of the previous night, they seemed to me like the hungry eyes of night-predators, hunting us. I shivered despite the day’s lingering heat.
Figures approached us in the gathering darkness. Half a dozen guards in armour made from inix scales – two of them half-giants, the rest humans – escorted two women clad in the distinctive dress of templar-wives.
It has long been a matter of (often heated) debate in the halls of the Naggaramakam, what the most appropriate and seemly style of dress should be for a loyal templar-wife. In Nibenay, it has always been the tradition for nobles and others of great wealth or status to wear very little clothing. The patriarch or matriarch of a noble house usually goes naked save for a simple breechcloth (and often a great deal of expensive jewellery), while slaves are expected to cover their bodies (which are, after all, the possessions of another) from head to foot. But a templar is not merely a woman of high status; she is also a servant (we would never, of course, use the term ‘slave’) of the Shadow King. More to the point, having the Shadow King’s wives’ and daughters’ bodies on open display to the masses always struck many within the Templarate as unseemly. We stand outside the normal social hierarchy of Nibenay, so we can afford to dress more modestly. Of course, there are always some among our number (often the scions of noble houses) who take more of a pride in their physical beauty than in their duties as templar-wives, and who bridle at the idea of hiding their bodies away like slaves.
Thus, without anyone ever establishing any official rules, a sort of ‘uniform’ has evolved over the centuries. Most templar-wives who wish to make their status obvious wear a sampot of wyrm-silk that hangs to the ankles and is usually coloured a dark blue or purple, an ornate horned and spired crown of ivory and painted or gilded wood, and a beaded collar that hangs down over the chest to hide as much or as little of the breasts as the individual templar desires.
Within the forbidden halls of the Naggaramakam, of course, we do go entirely naked. That is probably the only thing the scurrilous and filthy-minded tale-spinners of the Western District taverns do have right. I suspect the primary reason is simply to make it more difficult to hide a knife or a vial of poison when one is visiting the quarters of a rival.
With a strange mingling of relief and awkwardness, I realised that I recognised the elder of the two templar-wives. Abhivada had always been, if never exactly kind, then at least always approachable, in her calm and dutiful way. Like many other young shadow-brides, I had had my spirit steadied, if not quite restored, by her words of cool and pragmatic comfort after encounters with my more vicious sister-wives. Looking back with the clear sight of an adult, I think the closest Abhivada ever came to actually consoling any of us was a gentle admonition to “stop being such a silly girl, wasting all that precious water”, but compared to some of the treatment we youngsters were used to, that seemed like a mother’s love to us at the time.
She was silver-haired now, though still handsome, her face lined only around the eyes and at the corners of her thin lips. As she had always done, she wore her beads long and her sampot discreetly fastened. Her hands were empty at her sides: as I knew very well, she needed no weapon to enforce her will.
Her companion looked to be in her late teens, and perhaps her youth was sufficient excuse for the shamelessness of her dress. She had tied her sampot so that it fell open at the left side, displaying one shapely leg from painted toes all the way to softly-rounded hip. Her collar of amethysts and carnelians only emphasised her jutting breasts. But much worse was the young woman’s attitude of obvious contempt for everyone around her, even for Abhivada, who as a senior templar-wife deserved her unconditional respect.
Even from the deck of the silt skimmer, I could feel Abhivada’s disapproval for this young harlot like a wall of ice between them.
Then the old woman’s sharp eyes caught mine in the fading light and, for a moment, the rest of the world seemed to slide away into the darkness. She did not speak to me, neither in words nor mind to mind, for she recognised immediately that I was not travelling openly, and knew as well as I did that a master of the Way was aboard and might easily intercept any telepathic message. I received only the impression of mild curiosity as she brushed against my mind.
Neren and Enamdis clambered down to speak to Abhivada, ignoring the younger templar-wife. The girl’s eyes glittered with impotent fury and, despite myself, I felt almost sorry for her then. No doubt she had come to the Templarate from some noble house, fondly imagining that her new status would be immeasurably loftier than that she left behind as an unwanted and unregarded younger daughter. The first few years as a templar-wife were never kind to such creatures: she would quickly have learned that a new templar-wife has little real power, and even less comfort. Seeing that she was superfluous, she stalked away back towards the fort, radiating all the burning frustration of a caged kirre.