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Way of Kings Prime Chapter 5: Merin 2

This is a chapter from the original 2002 draft of The Way of Kings. The 2010 published version was completely rewritten.

Three days after the battle, clinging to his horse’s saddle as the ground blurred by below, Merin had cause to regret his oath to Lord Dalenar. Every hoofbeat jostled, threatening to hurl him to the deadly stones below. White-knuckled, he gripped the saddle and whispered lines from The Arguments—inside, however, he doubted it would help. The Almighty allowed fools to bring their own fates, and Merin had certainly been a fool for climbing on the back of such a dreadful beast.

Finally—blessedly—the horse lurched to a stop. Merin carefully raised his head, hands still gripping the saddle. Lords Aredor and Renarin had stopped their horses, and his own animal had followed their lead. Merin had been half afraid that the creature would just keep on going into eternity, bearing a long-decayed Merin in its saddle.

Lord Aredor swung off his horse, dropping to the stones below. “See,” he said, looking back with a broad grin. “That wasn’t so bad.”

Merin shivered. “Aredor, that was the most horrible experience of my life.” The first few hours, traveling at a moderate speed, had been bad enough. Aredor hadn’t suggested a gallop until they neared their destination. Merin should have known better than to ask what exactly a ‘gallop’ was.

Aredor laughed, handing his reins to an approaching soldier as his brother dismounted as well. “You’ll get used to it.”

Merin looked woozily down at the ground, not trusting his legs to move just yet. “I think not. Man wasn’t meant to travel that fast, Aredor. It was terrifying.”

“Ha,” Aredor said, walking over to offer Merin a hand. “This from the man who fearlessly attacked a Shardbearer with no weapon but his own hands?”

“Yes,” Merin said, carefully sliding out of the saddle. “But I did that on my own feet.”

Aredor chuckled again, moving over to speak with the nearby squad captain. Merin stood unsteadily for a moment. There was a dull ache through the lower part of his body, reminiscent of that first horrible day when he had joined the army and begun his training with the spear. Soreness would set in before too long.

He sighed, turning back to his horse and untying his Shardblade from the back of the saddle. The roan beast looked back at him, watching with an almost amused expression—as if it received no end of pleasure from torturing those who saw fit to climb on its back.

Though several days had passed, Merin still felt a strange numbness regarding his new position. It just didn’t seem possible that he was a lord. Who was he, Merin of Stonemount, to carry a Shardblade and ride with Lord Dalenar’s heir? Yet whenever Merin slipped and called Aredor ‘my lord,’ the older man was quick to correct him. In fact, Aredor treated Merin like an equal. Like a friend. True, Aredor had been ordered to help Merin adapt, but the man hardly needed to be as accommodating as he was.

Merin tried to maintain his perspective—as Meridas had said, he wasn’t really a lord, not like the others. However, Aredor’s affable personality was disarming; Merin couldn’t help treating the man like one of the spearmen from his squad. Or at least a very well-dressed and mannered spearman.

Merin sighed, hefting his Shardblade and resting it on his shoulder. That seemed to be the best way to carry the weapons until they were bonded. He turned, studying the landscape. The scenery was familiar—the barren stones and distant cliffs proved that he was still in Prallah. The main bulk of the army had moved on toward Orinjah, the once-capital of Pralir, creeping at the pace of the unwieldy creature it was.

Merin was looking forward to leaving the third peninsula, traveling through the Oathgate back to Alethkar. He’d never seen an Oathgate before, but apparently one could use one to transport instantly back to Ral Eram, the capital of Alethkar. Ground that had taken years of fighting to cross could instead be covered in a few heartbeats. However, Orinjah would have to wait, for the moment. Dalenar had ordered his sons and Merin to return to the scene of the battlefield several days before; Aredor had yet to explain their errand to Merin.

“It’s so cold here,” Renarin said in a quiet voice.

Merin paused as a young soldier led his horse away. Renarin stood a short distance away, beside a small hill.

“Cold?” Merin asked. While the stormlands were generally a bit cooler than Alethkar, it was still midsummer. It was rarely ‘cold,’ except maybe following a highstorm.

Then, however, Merin noticed the smoke. Ahead of them, just over a slick-topped hill, several dark trails crept toward the sky. Burning stations—the places where those soldiers unfortunate enough to draw corpse duty were gathering and burning the bodies of their fallen comrades. Thousands of men had died on this battlefield—many more Prallans than Aleths, but in death all were treated the same. Their corpses were transformed through fire, their souls sent to the Almighty, continuing the cycle of Remaking.

Renarin stared quietly up at the columns of smoke. He was so different from his brother. Short with dark, curly hair, Renarin was as unpretentious as Aredor was outgoing. Yet both had a strange way of drawing one’s attention. Aredor did it with sheer force of personality, Renarin with his unnerving, somber eyes. Apparently Merin and Renarin were the same age, but Merin always felt like a child before those eyes.

Merin shivered slightly, reaching for his glyphward—then realizing he didn’t have it on. Aredor had given him some nobleman’s clothing to wear beneath Dalenar’s cloak. The seasilk was unusually soft on his skin, not to mention amazingly tough. It wasn’t as lavish as his cloak, but it was noble, and he had decided not to wear the crom-stained glyphward his mother had given him the day he left for the war. Now, he wished he hadn’t been so prideful. He stood uncomfortably beside Renarin, glad when Aredor finished his conversation and approached.

Aredor paused beside the two of them, growing subdued as he regarded the trails of smoke. “Come on,” he said, nodding to the horses.

Merin groaned. “You’re kidding.”

“Just a short distance this time,” Aredor promised. “The second battlefield isn’t far away.”

So this is it, Merin thought, looking across the simple field of rock. This is the place where Renarin lost his Shardblade. Like everyone else in the army, Merin had heard the stories of the strange midhighstorm battle. Five thousand Aleth troops and three Shardbearers had faced down and defeated a troop of twenty thousand, killing the Traitor and the Pralir king in the process.

Merin looked down at his Shardblade. It seemed unfair to him that Renarin should bear the king’s anger, losing his Blade on the same day Merin had gained one. Merin’s weapon still showed the markings of its previous owner, though they were hidden by the impromptu ‘sheath’ Aredor had given him. The sheath was little more than a folded piece of metal, shaped so that it could be placed over the sharp edge of the Blade and tied tight at the back. The sheath was another remnant from Epoch Kingdom days—it had been fashioned from the same metal as Shardplate, to be used by men during their hundred-days bonding period.

Set in the pommel, held by four clasps, was a medium-sized opal. Merin eyed the stone carefully, looking for some sort of change in its color. He could find none—it still glistened with the same multi-colored sheen as before.

Aredor chuckled, clasping him on the shoulder. “It’s only been a couple of days, Merin,” he said. “You won’t be able to notice anything yet.”

“How long?” Merin asked.

Aredor shrugged. “You should begin to see a change in ten days or so. Don’t worry, it’s working. When the stone has turned completely black, one hundred days will have passed, and you’ll have bonded the Blade.”

Merin nodded. Ahead, Renarin was already walking down the trail to the battlefield. Merin grimaced slightly as the wind changed, bringing with it the stink of death. While the main battlefield was mostly clean of bodies, this one had barely been touched. A small squad of men worked at a burning station short distance away, but most of the corpses still lay where they had fallen.

“Aredor,” he asked, frowning. “What winds brought us here?”

“You were a spearman, right?” Aredor asked, handing Merin a seasilk handkerchief that smelt strongly of perfume.

“Yes,” Merin replied, thankfully holding the cloth to his face as they followed Renarin toward the battlefield.

“Father wants you to look at the uniforms and armor of the dead men,” Aredor explained, voice slightly muffled by his cloth. “Look for anything . . . odd.”

“Odd how?”

“I’m not sure,” Aredor confessed. “Anything irregular or out of place—discrepancies that make you think the men might not actually be from our army.”

“What?” Merin asked, frowning.

Aredor paused, eyeing the battlefield distrustfully, then turning toward Merin. “Something very strange happened here, Merin. You were a footman. How would you feel, facing a force four times your size? How likely would you have been to win?”

Merin shivered. Four to one? Two to one was practically an assured loss. “The king says that the Almighty gave them victory,” Merin replied.

“The king says a lot of things,” Aredor replied. “He doesn’t believe my father’s suspicions—he claims that one Aleth soldier is easily worth four Prallans. In a way, he’s right. Our men have far better training, superior equipment, and strong morale . . . but even still, four to one?”

“But what other explanation is there? The Prallans wouldn’t have killed themselves.”

“No, but someone else might have done it,” Aredor explained. “Father thinks there was a third force in this battle. One of the arguments against a third army is the fact that they left no bodies behind. Or at least that’s what it seemed like originally.”

“Lord Dalenar thinks they were disguised?” Merin asked.

“It would answer a lot of questions,” Aredor said. “The third force could have approached the battlefield wearing Prallan uniforms. Once they attacked, their dead would have been indistinguishable from those they killed.”

Merin nodded, turning toward the battlefield again. Several Aleth soldiers approached, bowing and giving them rods to use for examining the bodies. Even still, it was grisly work. Merin, however, had been assigned to corpse detail before. After a while, he was able to ignore the faces and focus on the uniforms.

He picked across the field, Aredor doing likewise. Merin tried to look for anything unusual or suspicious. It was difficult work. Footmen were given weapons and armor at the beginning of their training, and cared for their own equipment—oiling and polishing after highstorms, fitting and padding to improve flexibility and reduce discomfort. It was difficult to distinguish what might be odd, and what was simply personalized.

The Aleth soldiers wore leather skirts and vests covered by wooden plates running down the chest. It was relatively cheap, but still effective—the leather and wood could be created easily through Awakening, and required no further smithing. The Prallans wore similar materials, though it was more piecemeal and of a far lesser quality. Merin didn’t know the enemy uniforms well enough to determine if they were odd or not. All of them seemed similar enough.

Merin picked his way across the field. Most of the men appeared to have died from crushing blows. He knew to recognize spear wounds, and most of these wounds weren’t caused by spears. The corpses were bloodied and mangled, but they weren’t cut. Other than that, he had difficulty discerning anything strange.

Eventually, Aredor approached him, waving his hand. They retreated to the peripheral of the battle. “Anything?” he asked.

Merin shook his head. “I don’t know, Aredor. I keep seeing things that might be odd, but then again they might just be individual peculiarities.”

“I agree,” Aredor said. “I did a quick count, and there appear to be about five thousand Aleths—which is the number Renarin sent. If the third force imitated our men, they didn’t leave enough dead behind to make it noticeable.”

“And if they imitated the Prallans?”

Aredor sighed. “I looked. I can’t see anything—I don’t think even the Prallans could. They were forced to stretch for resources during the last part of the war. A lot of their soldiers had makeshift armor, or none at all. You can’t find inconsistencies where there’s no regularity.”

Merin nodded.

“We could count the enemy numbers,” Aredor continued, musing to himself, “but we never did have a very accurate count in the first place. Of course, it would make sense for a third force imitate the Prallans, since they’re less uniform.”

Merin nodded, looking across the field again. He and Aredor stood near the western edge, beside a rift in the ground. At first, Merin thought it might have hid some secret, but the chasm was obviously empty. Its empty bottom was smooth and well-lit in the afternoon sun—no caves or other secrets hid in its sides.

“There is one thing,” Merin said.

Aredor raised an eyebrow.

“These men weren’t killed by spearmen.”

Aredor nodded. “Father noticed that too. The third force must have been very well-equipped with heavy infantry.”

“Yes,” Merin said. “But I think it’s more than that. There should have been fields of sliced-up bodies where the Shardbearers fought.”

Aredor paused. “By the Truthmaker!” he said. “You’re right. I didn’t see any bodies killed by Shardbearers—yet we know there were at least five on the battlefield. Our three, the Traitor, and the Pralir king. The Prallans probably had a couple more too.”

Aredor stood with a dissatisfied posture, regarding the battlefield again. As he thought, Renarin approached. Dalenar’s second son paused a short distance from Merin and Aredor, however, choosing to turn and stand apart from them as he began his own contemplations.

Dalenar’s second son had looked through the battlefield as well, but his movements had been more erratic. He hadn’t examined bodies like Merin, or made counts like Aredor. Eventually, Renarin whispered something to himself.

Aredor turned. “What was that, Renarin?”

“I said that this is my fault,” the younger son repeated. “I sent these men to their doom. The king was right to take my Blade away.”

Aredor walked over, placing a comforting hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Renarin. The king would probably have done exactly what you did.”

Renarin shook his head, falling silent.

Merin joined them, studying the battlefield with a careful eye. He was no military expert, but he had spent several years fighting, and had seen large battles before. “I don’t know much, Aredor,” he said, “but I think your father might be right about the third army.”

“Yes, but the king will want evidence,” Aredor said, stepping up beside Merin. Behind them, Renarin sighed and sat down on the ground, staring down at the rocks in front of him. “Elhokar can be winds-cursed stubborn, and he doesn’t want to bother with the possibility of a third army.”

“Then we have to find a way to prove that some of these corpses in Prallan uniforms weren’t part of the Traitor’s army,” Merin said. “That has to be the answer.”

“No,” Renarin whispered from behind.

Merin turned, then shivered. Renarin was doing it again, looking at him with those eyes of his. Staring, yet unfocused.

“These corpses were all either men from our army, or men from the Traitor’s force,” Renarin said.

Aredor frowned. “You’re saying there wasn’t a third army?”

Renarin shook his head. “There was. It just didn’t leave any bodies behind. They must have taken their corpses with them.”

Merin frowned, looking back at the battlefield. That seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go through—not to mention the time factor. The highstorm had been only a couple of hours long. It would have been near impossible to kill twenty-five thousand men in that time, let alone pick out the corpses of the fallen and transport them somewhere.

Merin turned skeptical eyes toward Aredor. The elder brother, however, was regarding Renarin with interested eyes.

“You’re sure, Renarin?” Aredor asked.

Renarin nodded, looking a bit sick. “I can see it in the patterns of their bodies. There were dead here that are gone now.” He waved distractedly toward a section of the battlefield. “The two sides had begun to disengage, in preparation for the highstorm. Then someone else came—over there, on the southern side. After that, our men and the Traitor’s army fought together. They’re all dead now, though. Every one.”

Aredor stood for a moment, contemplative. Renarin volunteered no more.

“Let’s go back,” Aredor finally said.

As little as Merin wanted to admit it, the trip back to the army was nowhere near as arduous as the previous ride had been. Perhaps the growing soreness and fatigue in Merin’s body distracted him from the unnatural motions, or perhaps the ‘gallop’ before had shown him that regular horse speeds were comparably sane.

As the hours passed, his grip relaxed, his mind too tired to bother being terrified. Evening was approaching by the time they reached the location of the army’s morning campsite. It was, of course, now empty—the army had moved on, leaving behind remnants of cloth, trash, fire scars, and cesspits.

The three continued riding. Aredor was confident that they could reach the army by nightfall—Orinjah was supposed to be less than a day’s march from the campsite. Indeed, as they moved on, Merin began to notice a gradual shift in the landscape. They had already begun to leave the stormlands behind, and as they moved further to the southeast, the scenery became eerily familiar.

The barren rock of the highlands changed to the more sheltered hillsides of common farmlands. The rocky hills lay in belts of land sheltered by the higher grounds nearby, which weakened highstorms. The lower the elevation, the more prevalent rockbuds became, until the stonelike polyps could be seen growing here and there on nearly every surface. Roshtrees hung from overhangs—they appeared as wide tubes of stone at the moment, but after highstorms they would let down vines covered with foliage, and sometimes fruit. A few of the more sheltered ones even had their vines down in the evening coolness.

The most telling sign of the farmland, however, was the hills that had been cleared of rockbuds and other plant life. Though barren at the moment, they bore ringlike scars made by inavah polyps, which had clung to the hillsides before the summer harvest. They were so similar to the fields of Stonemount that they could have been in Alethkar, if it hadn’t been for the ragged highlands behind them and the absence of the Mount of Ancestors in the distance.

The road itself was clean of polyps, and beyond that it was easy to see where the army had traveled. Rockbuds were resilient, but their shells were far more brittle than regular stone. A large swath of them lay shattered—shells broken, delicate stalks inside smashed flat—by tromping soldiers bearing metal-heeled boots. The remnants had already dried in the arid summer air.

Aredor’s promise that they would reach the army by nightfall proved a bit premature. About an hour after sunset, they finally crested a hill to find hundreds of lights burning across the landscape before them, marking the rise and fall of the land.

“There,” Aredor said, pointing to the side. In the waning light, Merin could barely make out a steep drop-off in the land. The Prenan Lait, the valley that sheltered the city of Orinjah.

Aredor nodded in satisfaction, reining in his horse. “I told you it was within a day’s travel. The king should have already negotiated the city’s surrender. We won’t be able to make it home this evening—the soldiers back home only open the Oathgate to check for us at dawn. Tomorrow, however, we’ll sleep in our own beds.”

“The Oathgate,” Merin said with wonder. “What does it feel like? Traveling through one?”

“You’ve never done it before?” Aredor asked with surprise.

Merin shook his head. “I’ve never even seen the capital. I come from a Tenth City?”

Aredor smirked. “Right. Don’t worry—there’s nothing frightening about the Oathgates.”

“That’s what you said about horses,” Merin noted.

“The Oathgates are even more harmless than horses,” Aredor promised. “They’re really nothing more than doorways—you can barely tell that there’s anything unusual about them, except the fact that they open up on the other side of Roshar.”

Merin nodded as their horses began to move again. He wasn’t convinced, but if the other option was riding a horse for several weeks back around the sea of Chomar and down the second peninsula to Ral Eram, he was willing to give the Oathgate a try. Besides, he couldn’t suppress his curiosity. He would finally have an image to place with the gateways he had heard of in stories and ballads. The Oathgates were said to have given to man by the Heralds themselves. The ten portals connected the ten capitals of the legendary Epoch Kingdoms back to Ral Eram, the First City, a grand neutral city open to all. The Epoch Kingdoms were long since fallen, and Alethkar controlled Ral Eram now, but it would still be exciting to travel through the gate.

They rode into camp, Aredor nodding friendly acknowledgments to many of those they passed. Dalenar’s heir was greeted well by all, even those who knew him only by reputation. Merin smiled at the warmth of the reception. Somehow, Aredor managed to remain friendly with even those who should have been his political enemies.

Renarin followed behind them, looking distracted as he rode. Merin eyed him for a moment, then turned to Aredor. “Are we going to report to your father right now?”

Aredor shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

“Are we going to report . . . everything? Even the things your brother thinks?”

Aredor glanced at Merin, then followed his look back toward Renarin. Finally he turned forward again. “I know my brother seems odd, Merin, but he’s really not. He’s just . . . not comfortable with those he doesn’t know. Once you get to know him, you’ll realize he’s not strange at all, just a bit of a daydreamer.”

Aredor paused. “Besides,” he continued. “Live with him for a decade or two, and you’ll find that he has an uncanny ability to . . . well, know things. I’ve rarely known him to be wrong. He notices things, Merin. Things regular people just don’t see.”

Merin frowned, reaching reflexively for his glyphward, then again cursing his decision not to wear it. The three of them dismounted at the perimeter of the noble tents, and then made their way toward Dalenar’s pavilion. Outside, Merin saw several unfamiliar guards. One, a shorter man, bald and lithe with a short beard, eyed them with a careful look as they entered the tent.

Inside, Lord Dalenar sat in discussion with a woman Merin had seen only at a distance. Lady Jasnah Kholin was striking with her immaculate hair, fine features, and poised attitude. She sat in one of Dalenar’s chairs, wearing a green noblewoman’s dress, well illuminated by the room’s four lanterns. Behind her stood a young woman with red hair and a roundish face.

“No, he didn’t tell me either,” Dalenar was saying. He waved Merin and his sons forward, not pausing in his dialogue. “But whatever it is, Elhokar believed it. Part of me is eager to see Balenmar in favor at court again—the man served Nolhonarin right up to the day of his death, even taking a wound in defense of his king despite his age.”

“I don’t like secrets, Uncle,” Lady Jasnah said. “Even if they are kept by allies.” She paused, eyeing Merin with a critical look.

“The boy is trustworthy, Jasnah,” Dalenar said. “He’s a ward in my house now.”

Jasnah didn’t seem as convinced as Dalenar, and Merin glanced down, feeling self-conscious before her eyes.

“Regardless,” Dalenar said. “We can’t keep our suspicions secret from them—we did, after all, send them to spy for us.”

“I should hardly call it spying, Father,” Aredor said lightly, stepping forward and pouring himself something to drink from the winetable at the side of the tent. “After all, the dead can hardly offer complaint.”

“What did you discover?” Jasnah asked, her tone cool and businesslike.

“Very little,” Aredor said. Renarin stayed near the front of the tent, and Merin—uncertain of his place, did likewise. “There was definitely a third army,” Aredor continued.

“You have proof?” Lady Jasnah asked.

“Not a bit,” Aredor said, sighing and taking a seat beside his father. “But the third army is the only reasonable explanation. The way the soldiers were standing when they died . . . the strange manner of the wounds . . . it all points toward a third force.”

Lord Dalenar frowned deeply. “The idea of a vanishing army that can destroy twenty thousand troops makes me very uncomfortable, Jasnah.”

“Agreed,” Lady Jasnah said in her calm, almost emotionless voice. “However, I’m having enough trouble keeping my brother from riding of to try and conquer the rest of the world—it won’t be easy to persuade him to listen to our worries.”

“I don’t know that I care whether or not he listens,” Dalenar replied. “I’m just worried that this attack will lead to something else. Another strike of some sort.”

Jasnah nodded and the tent fell silent, the only sound that of Aredor sipping his wine. Eventually, Jasnah spoke. “We have another problem as well, Uncle. Balenmar’s words regarding the Queen Nanavah appear to be true—I’ve been interviewing the messengers who have visited Ral Eram recently. I may have a battle on my hands when I return.”

Dalenar shook his head. “Now is not the time for the queen to begin growing into her station. I thought perhaps once the war was over, things would get easier.”

“They never do,” Jasnah said. “No good can come from leaving the court to itself for two years.”

“I wish Elhokar would . . .” Dalenar tapered off, sighing. “I don’t know, Jasnah. I don’t have the patience to deal with your brother anymore. It takes all of my effort to remain civil when I talk to the boy.”

Lady Jasnah sat for a moment, looking thoughtful. Her eyes were composed, her demeanor withdrawn. Looking into that face, Merin could believe the stories he’d often heard told about her. She seemed to lack anything in the way of emotion—save, perhaps, for displeasure.

“Shall we divide our efforts, then, Uncle?,” Lady Jasnah asked. “I will see to my brother and the queen, and will try and find out just what Balenmar said to gain himself the king’s graces again. See what you can discover about our vanishing army, and send word to me if you discover anything.”

“Very well,” Dalenar said.

“Good evening, then. I have preparations to make for the morrow’s return.”

Lady Jasnah rose, and Dalenar stood courteously as she turned to go. She paused briefly beside Renarin as she reached the tent’s exit. “Renarin,” she said, “how are you managing?” The words were sincere, even if her tone remained neutral—perhaps there was more warmth beneath that face than was first apparent.

Renarin smiled. “I’m fine, my lady. Please, don’t worry about me.”

“I will get you another Shardblade,” she said.

“Don’t,” Renarin said. “I never really needed one anyway.”

Lady Jasnah paused, then nodded to him, and swept from the room, female attendant following behind.

Lord Dalenar waved the boys forward, seating himself and nodding for them to do likewise. “Now,” he said. “Tell me exactly what you saw and thought when you searched the battlefield.”

|   Castellano