Iron Kingdoms Tales - Of Dust and Ash

Of Dust and Ash

by Matt Goetz

 

A hateful wind from the east scoured the Bloodstone Marches, bringing with it the tingling ozone of the Stormlands. Bursts of lightning flashed amid the roiling clouds of dust. Any wise creature chose to huddle in the shelter of caves or the leeward side of large rocks, lest they risk the whipping sands might strip away their very skin.

The reclaimer walked through this storm, fighting against the winds. His hood was pulled low, head bowed like a penitent man in the temple; in one hand he held the reins of his horse, Alban. The other gripped his weapon Usher, using it like a walking stick as he struggled up another shifting dune.

Others called him the Hand of Silence. Since taking his oath as a reclaimer, no words had passed his lips. He had not cried out in grief or agony, in praise or exaltation, for almost fifteen years. In that time, he’d helped guide hundreds of faithful souls to Urcaen, shielding them from the predation of necromancers, infernals, and the Devourer Wurm. In every instance, he felt Menoth’s guiding hand, urging his steps to put him in the right place to preserve the fallen spirit.

Never before had he felt such urgency. Instead of showing him the way, the feeling of divine guidance was like a hook in his breast that dragged him across the desert. It kept him moving even when Alban tired. For days, he went without food or sleep, nourished only by the approach of his righteous work and the sense of the Creator guiding his steps.

As he reached the summit of the dune, the raging storm ebbed. Through a fog of ochre dust, he saw the regular shapes of buildings ahead, the low adobe structures of the Idrian tribes. The reclaimer gave a silent prayer of thanks and pulled Alban along into the shelter of the small village.

A dozen small buildings surrounded a large common house. The reclaimer left Alban at the hitching post outside the large structure and pushed open its frail wooden door. Inside, several families huddled together in a space that was part meeting hall, part storehouse, and filled with the tribes’ livestock, shaggy goats, and dune pheasants.

“Traveler,” an elder Idrian said, rising from a reed mat, “you are welcome to shelter the storm with my family, but we are poor and cannot offer you water or salt.”

The reclaimer dismissed the excuse with a gesture and studied the room. There was a small shrine with a figurine of a priest capped with a wooden menofix in one corner, but the Idrians had hung bundles of dried sage and shed Bloodstone constrictor skins around it. Tokens of the old ways.

He moved from one Idrian to the next, yanking back their sleeves to check their arms for tattoos or brands. Some tribes made an appearance of faith to Menoth but adhered to their old ways, marking themselves with ancestors’ names and symbols of predatory beasts—signs of Devourer worship. If he found such blasphemy, he would purify the village with fire.

Nothing. A few made confused noises, bleating like the agitated goats they sat beside.

“What is it you seek, traveler?” the elder asked. “Say the word, and I will help you find it.”

“Perhaps he is mute?” suggested a young mother with an infant at her breast. “Or he wears a mask to hide his disfigurement?”

“Hush, Shanri,” another man said in a fearful tone. “This man is a priest of graves. They all wear such masks.”

The elder said, “A guide for the dead, are you? We have no dead, reclaimer. Not for two summers.” The man made a token gesture of thanks. “Creator bless you for your concern, of course.”

The reclaimer scowled. Menoth would not lead him astray. The Idrians were hiding something.

“But a serpent bit the rhaz of the ibn Ves, a day to the north of here,” the elder offered. He placed a hand on the reclaimer’s shoulder and offered gentle pressure to the door. “Yes, the ibn Ves must be who you seek. If you hurry, you should reach them before sundown. Their hearts would be warmed by your presence.”

The Hand of Silence knew he was guided by divine will and would not allow another man to veer him from his course. He placed his palm on the old man’s chest and shoved. Years spent among the Great Crusade had blessed him with strength—the elder toppled back, limbs splayed. Others of the tribe barked in protest and moved to help the old man up. The reclaimer ignored them, moving to the pile of supplies at the back of the common house.

Ripping down baskets of cactus fruit and spilling sacks of grain, he searched. He imagined another elder hidden there, one whom the Idrians wished to give their unclean traditional rites.

A hand grabbed him to pull him back. Without looking, he flung a gauntleted fist back, crushing his assailant’s nose. Another tried to restrain his arm, so he broke fingers on the hand that gripped him. With Usher, he swept through their stores, sending a flock of dune pheasants scattering with a chorus of angry cackles. Angry and confused, he kept driving deeper into the common house, forming his own dunes of discarded supplies along his path. Where was it? Why had Menoth brought him here?

Then, at the back, he saw it. Hidden behind stacks of reeds propped against the back wall to dry, a body on a bier. It was stitched into a canvas coffin, with the bones of small animals and dried flowers worked into a wreath around its neck. The reclaimer tore the crude stitches open with Usher’s blade to reveal the body within.

It was not an elder, not even Idrian. The body was a young man with fair skin and hair. In the place of rawhide garb, the body wore a breastplate of bronze with angular filigree and a black cloak. Clasped before its chest was a gnarled wooden axe inscribed with grotesque runes.

Feet shuffled behind the reclaimer. “He was our protector,” one of the Idrians said, his voice thick and husky. “When there was no rain last spring, he came to us and brought a new spring. When the farrow descended from the Erud Hills, he turned them back with a word. He came to us two nights ago, injured from battle in distant lands, and pleaded for our assistance.”

“His wounds were grave,” offered the elder as he came forward, holding onto the young woman for support. “All we could offer was water so he would not thirst before death took him.”

The reclaimer rounded on them. Menoth would not require him to guide this Wurm-loving druid’s soul to Urcaen. He must have come for some other task.

“Please, priest,” the young mother said. “We love the Creator. It’s just. . . Well, we are so far from the cities that we are not protected. What are we to do?”

The woman’s glistening eyes reflected the hungry glow of Usher’s pilot flame. Like the Idrians, the Hand of Silence had made his choice.

***

The Hand of Silence rides alongside the armies of the Great Crusade, but his path is set by Menoth’s will. On his steed Alban, he thunders over the battlefield, directing the spirits of the faithful to their place in the City of Man. As a widely recognized member of the Reclaimant Order, he stands ready to scorch unbelievers or strike them down with his weapon, Usher. The Hand of Silence cares little for the fate of these misguided souls.

***

The common house roared, a shared pyre for all those within.

All but one. Under his left arm, the Hand of Silence carried a bundle swaddled in linen. The infant squirmed, kicking its legs and letting out a soft squeal of upset.

When he had plucked the infant from its mother’s arms, the Hand of Silence felt a surge of relief. Perhaps, for the first time along his long path, the soul Menoth wanted him to preserve was one of the living, not one of the dead. Had the child grown up among the tribe, it no doubt would have fallen into the lukewarm worship of Menoth that its parents shared. One day, it too would have consorted with blackclads.

The reclaimer looked down at the bundled child. It began to cry, perhaps frightened by the sound of the wind or the sting of the sand. It had a strong voice, a powerful one. Perhaps one day that voice would join its power to a choir of warpriests in praise of Menoth. Or perhaps, like his own voice, it might one day take a vow never to be heard again.

The Hand of Silence smiled softly behind his mask and pressed a finger to the crying child’s lips.

“Shh,” the reclaimer said. The storm winds grabbed the sound and tore it away to vanish among the sounds of the wind.