The following is an excerpt from Steven Erikson‘s most recent novel, Forge of Darkness. Over the next several weeks, Erikson will carefully deconstruct this excerpt for the purpose of providing readers and writers with a glimpse into the manner in which the elements of fiction are incorporated into the writing process.
Kadaspala was not a believer in gods, but he knew that belief could create them. And once made, they bred in kind. He had seen places where discord thrived, where violence spun roots through soil and flesh both, and the only propitiation left to those who dwelt there was the spilling of yet more blood. These were venal gods, the vicious spawn of a stew of wretched emotions and desires. There was no master and no slave: god and mortal fed on each other, like lovers sharing a vile fetish.
He knew that there was power in emotion, and that it could spill out to soak the ground, to stain stone and twist wood; that it could poison children and so renew the malign cycle, generation upon generation. Such people made of their home a god’s lap, and they curled tight within its comforting, familiar confines.
Kadaspala wanted none of it, and yet he was never as immune as he would have liked: even the pronouncement that he ever stood outside such things was itself an illusion. He was not a believer in gods, but he had his own. They came to him in the simplest of all forms, eschewing even shape and, at times, substance itself. They came to him in a flood, with every moment – indeed, even in his sleep and the dream worlds that haunted it. They howled. They whispered. They caressed. Sometimes, they lied.
His gods were colours, but he knew them not. They bore heady emotions and before them, in moments of weakness or vulnerability, he would reel, or cry out, seeking to turn away. But their calls would bring him back, helpless, a soul on its knees. At times he could taste them, or feel their heat upon his skin. At times he could smell them, redolent with promise and quick to steal from his memories, and so claim those memories for their own. So abject his worship had become, that he now saw himself in colours – the landscape of his mind, the surge and ebb of emotions, the meaningless cascades behind the lids of his eyes when shut against the outside world; he knew the blues, purples, greens and reds of his blood; he knew the flushed pink of his bones, with their carmine cores; he knew the sunset hues of his muscles, the silvered lakes and fungal mottling of his organs. He saw flowers in human skin and could smell their perfumes, or, at times, the musty readiness of desire – that yearn to touch and to feel.
The gods of colour came in lovemaking. They came in the violence of war and the butchering of animals, in the cutting down of wheat. They came in the moments of birth and in the wonder of childhood – was it not said that newborn babies saw aught but colours? They came in the muted tones of grief, in the convulsions of pain and injury and disease. They came in the fires of rage, the gelid grip of fear – and all that they touched they then stained, for all time.
There was but one place and one time when the gods of colour withdrew, vanished from the ken of mortals, and that place, that time, was death.
Kadaspala worshiped colours. The were the gifts of light; and in their tones, heavy and light, faint and rich, was painted all of life.
When he thought of an insensate world, made of insensate things, he saw a world of death, a realm of incalculable loss, and that was a place to fear. Without eyes to see and without a mind to make order out of chaos, and so bring comprehension, such a world was where the gods went to die. Nothing witnessed and so, nothing renewed. Nothing seen and so, nothing found. Nothing outside and so, nothing inside.
It was midday. He rode through a forest, where on all sides the sun’s light fought its way down to the ground, touching faint here, bold there. Its gifts were brush-strokes of colour. He had a habit of subtly painting with the fingers of his right hand, making small caresses in the air – he needed no brush; he needed only his eyes and his mind and the imagination conjured in the space between them. He made shapes with deft twitches of those fingers, and then filled them with sweet colour – and each one was a prayer, an offering to his gods, proof of his love, his loyalty. If others saw the motions at the end of his right hand, they likely thought them twitches, some locked-in pattern of confused nerves. But the truth was, those fingers painted reality and for all Kadaspala knew, they gave proof to all that he saw and all that existed to be seen.
He understood why death and stillness were bound together. In stillness the inside was silent. The living conversation was at an end. Fingers did not move, the world was not painted into life, and the eyes, staring unseen, had lost sight of the gods of colour. When looking upon the face of a dead person, when looking into those flat eyes, he could see the truth of his convictions.
It was midday. The sun fought its way down and the gods fluttered, dipped and filled patches of brilliance amidst gloom and shadow, and Kadaspala sat on his mule, noting in a distracted fashion the thin wisps of smoke curling round his mount’s knobby ankles, but most of his attention was upon the face, and the eyes, of the corpse laid out on the ground before him.
There had been three huts on this narrow trail. Now they were heaps of ash, muddy grey and dull white and smeared black. One of the huts had belonged to a daughter, old enough to fashion a home of her own, but if she had shared it with a husband his body was nowhere to be seen, while she was lying half out of what had probably been the doorway. The fire had eaten her lower body and swollen the rest, cooking it until the skin split and here the gods sat still, as if in shock, in slivers of lurid red and patches of peeled black. Her long hair had been thrown forward, over the top of her head. Parts of it had burned, curling into fragile white nests. The rest was motionless midnight, with hints of reflected blue, like rainbows on oil. She was, mercifully, lyying face-down. One rupture upon her back was different, larger, and where the others had burst outward this one pushed inward. A sword had done that.
The body directly before him, however, was that of a child. The blue of the eyes was now covered in a milky film, giving it its only depth, since all that was behind that veil was flat, like iron shields or silver coins, sealed and abandoned of all promise. They were, he told himself yet again, eyes that no longer worked, and the loss of that was beyond comprehension.
He would paint this child’s face. He would paint it a thousand times. Ten thousand. He would offer them as gifts to every man and every woman of the realm. And each time any one man or woman stirred awake the hearth-gods of anger and hate, feeding the gaping mouth of violence and uttering pathetic lies about making things better, or right, or pure, or safe, he would give them yet another copy of this child’s face. He would spend a lifetime upon this one image, repeated on walls in plaster, on boards of sanded wood, in the threads of tapestry; upon the sides of pots and carved on stones and in stone. He would make it one argument to defy every other god, every other venal emotion or dark, savage desire.
Kadaspala stared down at the child’s face. There was dirt on one cheek but otherwise the skin was clean and pure. Apart from the eyes, the only discordant detail was the angle between the head and the body, which denoted a snapped neck. And bruising upon one ankle, where the killer had gripped it when whipping the boy in the air – hard enough to separate the bones of the neck.
The gods of colour brushed lightly upon that face, in tender sorrow, in timorous disbelief. They brushed light as a mother’s tears.
The fingers of his right hand, folded over the saddle horn, made small motions, painting the boy’s face, filling the lines and planes with muted colour and shade, working round the judgement-less eyes, saving those for last. His fingers made the hair a dark smudge, because it was unimportant apart from the bits of twig, bark and leaf in it. His fingers worked, while his mind howled until the howling fell away and he heard his own calm voice.
Denier child … so I call it. Yes, the likeness is undeniable – you knew him? Of course you did. You all know him. He’s what falls to the wayside in your triumphant march. Yes, I kneel now in the gutter, because the view is one of details – nothing else, just details. Do you like it?
Do you like this?
The gods of colour offer this without judgement. In return, it is for you to make the judgement. This is the dialogue of our lives.
Of course I speak only of craftsmanship. Would I challenge your choices, your beliefs, the way you live and the things you desire and the cost of those things? Are the lines sure? Are the colours true? What of those veils on the eyes – have you seen their likeness before? Judge only my skill, my feeble efforts in imbuing a dead thing with life using dead things – dead paints, dead brushes, dead surface, with naught but my fingers and my eyes living, together striving to capture truth.
I choose to paint death, yes, and you ask why – in horror and revulsion, you ask why? I choose to paint death, my friend, because life is too hard to bear. But it’s just a face, dead paints on dead surface, and it tells nothing of how the neck snapped, or the wrongness of that angle with the body. It is, in truth, a failure.
And each time I paint this boy, I fail.
I fail when you turn away. I fail when you walk past. I fail when you shout at me about the beautiful things of the world, and why didn’t I paint those? I fail when you cease to care, and when you cease to care, we all fail. I fail, then, in order to welcome you to what we share.
This face? This failure? It is recognition.
There were other corpses. A man and a woman, their backs cut and stabbed as they sought to hold their bodies protectively over those children they could reach, not that it had helped, since those children had been dragged out and killed. A dog, lying half cut in two just above the hips, the hind limbs lying one way, the fore limbs and head the opposite way. Its eyes, too, were flat.
When traveling through the forest, Kadaspala was in the habit of leaving the main track, of finding these lesser paths that took him through small camps such as this one. He had shared meals with the quiet forest people, with the Deniers although they denied nothing of value that he could see. They lived in familiarity and in love, and wry percipience and wise humility, and they made art that took Kadaspala’s breath away.
The figurines, the masks, the beadwork – all lost in the burnt huts now.
Someone had carved a wavy line on the chest of the dead boy. It seemed that worship of the river god was a death sentence now.
He would not bury these dead. He would leave them lying where they were. Offered to the earth and the small scavengers that would take them away, bit by bit, until the fading of flesh and memory were one.
He painted with his fingers, setting in his mind where all the bodies were lying in relation to one another; and the huts and the dead dog, and how the sun’s light struggled through the smoke to make every detail scream.
Then, kicking his mule forward, he watched as the beast daintily stepped over the boy’s body, and for the briefest of moment hid every detail in shadow.
In the world of night promised by Mother Dark, so much would remain forever unseen. He began to wonder if that would be a mercy. He began to wonder if this was the secret of her promised blessing to all her believers, her children. Darkness now and forever more. So we can get on with things.
A score or more horses had taken the trail he was now on. The killers were moving westward. He might well meet them if they had camped to rest up from their night of slaughter. They might well murder him, or just feed him.
Kadaspala did not care. He had ten thousand faces in his head, and they were all the same. The memory of Enesdia seemed far away now. If he was spared, he would ride for her, desperate with need. For the beauty he dared not paint, for the love he dared not confess. She was where the gods of colour gathered all the glory in their possession. She was where he would find the rebirth of his faith.
Every artist was haunted by lies. Every artist fought to find truths. Every artist failed. Some turned back, embracing those comforting lies. Others took their own lives in despair. Still others drank themselves into the barrow, or poisoned everyone who drew near enough to touch, to wound. Some simply gave up, and wasted away in obscurity. A few discovered their own mediocrity, and this was the cruelest discovery of all. None found their way to the truths.
If he lived a handful of breaths from this moment, or if he lived a hundred thousand years, he would fight – for something, a truth, that he could not even name. It was, perhaps, the god behind the gods of colour. The god that offered both creation and recognition, that set forth the laws of substance and comprehension, of outside and inside and the difference between the two.
He wanted to meet that god. He wanted a word or two with that god. He wanted, above all, to look into its eyes, and see in them the truth of madness.
With brush and desire, I will make a god.
But in this moment, as he rode through swords of light and shrouds of shadow, upon the trail of blind savagery, Kadaspala was himself like a man without eyes. The painted face was everywhere. His fingers could not stop painting it, in the air, like mystical conjurations, like evocations of unseen powers, like a warlock’s curse and a witch’s warding against evil. Fingers that could close wounds at a stroke, that could unravel the bound knots of time and make anew a world still thriving with possibilities – that could do all these things, yet tracked on in their small scribings, trapped by a face of death.
Because the god behind the gods was mad.
I shall paint the face of darkness. I shall ride the dead down the throat of that damned god. I, Kadaspala, now avow this: world, I am at war with you. Outside – you, outside, hear me! The inside shall be unleashed. Unleashed.
I shall paint the face of darkness. And give it a dead child’s eyes.
Because in darkness, we see nothing.
In darkness, behold, there is peace.
Cover image used with author’s permission
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
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