Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
The Jiünati Steppe
Welcome to Chapter Twelve of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Eleven!
I have explained how Maithanet yoked the vast resources of the Thousand Temples to ensure the viability of the Holy War. I have described, in outline, the first steps taken by the Emperor to bind the Holy War to his imperial ambitions. I have attempted to reconstruct the initial reaction of the Cishaurim in Shimeh from their correspondence with the Padirajah in Nenciphon. And I have even mentioned the hated Consult, of whom I can at long last speak without fear of ridicule. I have spoken, in other words, almost exclusively of powerful factions and their impersonal ends. What of vengeance? What of hope? Against the frame of competing nations and warring faiths, how did these small passions come to rule the Holy War?
—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the Holy War
…though he consorts with man, woman, and child, though he lays with beasts and makes a mockery of his seed, never shall he be as licentious as the philosopher, who lays with all things imaginable.
—Inri Sejenus, Scholars, 36, 21, The Tractate
So, eventually the knowledge that the Consult is back must common knowledge, else Achamian wouldn’t be fearful of speaking of them without ridicule. While this passage is foreshadowing for the events to come we should ask why Bakker put it here. At no point is the Consult discussed. So why does Bakker reveal the consult is unmasked. Who does it. Well, this chapter reintroduces Kellhus. Our young man who is descended from kings and setting out on a traditional Campbellian hero’s journey. Only he’s not an innocent youth but a cold, calculating, unemotional man. A man who sees far more keenly than “world-born men.”
The Tractate is like the New Testament to the Tusk’s Old Testament. Apparently, Inri does not like philosophers. There is something to what he says about philosophers, but they are trying to tackle the great mysteries and truths of life, logic, morality, religion, society, etc. Inri makes it sound distasteful, and Bakker seems to be saying that religion and philosophy are mutually exclusive, or, I should say, between rigid, fundamental thoughts and asking questions and seeking answers wherever those thoughts lead. Which provides a parallel in the chapter on how the Dûnyain work and how Cnaiür is seduced into betraying his father.
Early Spring, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Northern Jiünati Steppe
Cnaiür is riding across the steppes north of the Utemot camp. Since the disaster at Kiyuth, the Utemot have become a “thin people.” They lost more men then their neighboring tribes and while Cnaiür had accomplished much, the Utemot are still close to extinction.
On the horizon, Cnaiür spots a vulture circling in the air and goes to investigate what has died. He finds a dead man, felled by arrows, and signs that Sranc had killed the man. But they did not have a chance to mutilate his corpse. Cnaiür examines the body and sees it is a blond Norsirai but learns nothing else.
He follows the tracks and finds another dead man, murdered in Sranc fashion, strangled by his own bowels. Cnaiür continues on and finds a dead Sranc at the base of the large barrow where Utemot chieftans are buried. When Sranc die they become “rigid as stone.” This one was felled by a Sranc weapon. Cnaiür grows more confused. The summit of the barrow is covered in vultures, and Cnaiür begins to climb. At the summit, Cnaiür finds the summit covered by corpses of Sranc.
The last stand of a single man. An impossible stand.
The survivor sat cross-legged on the barrow summit, his forearms resting against his knees, his head bowed beneath the shining disc of the sun. The Steppe’s pale lines framed him.
No animal possesses senses as keen as those of vultures; within moments they began croaking in alarm, scooping the wind in great ragged wings. The survivor lifted his head, watching them take flight. Then, as though his senses were every bit as keen as a vulture’s, he turned to Cnaiür.
Cnaiür could discern very little of his face. Long, heavy-featured but aquiline. Blue eyes, perhaps, but that simply followed from his blond hair.
Yet with horror Cnaiür thought, I know this man…
Cnaiür is stunned with disbelief. He recognizes the man and raises his sword. “Bloodied, pale, but it was him. A nightmare made flesh.” The man calmly studies Cnaiür. Cnaiür advances, sticks the point of his sword into the man’s throat. “You are Dûnyain,” Cnaiür states. The man continues his study of Cnaiür, then passes out from blood loss. Cnaiür, bewildered, realizes where he stands, the hill was his father’s barrow.
Later, Cnaiür lies in bed with Anissi, “the first wife of his heart.” Anissi is reporting to Cnaiür what the man, now revealed to be Kellhus the son of Moënghus, said to her. Kellhus had set out from Atrithau with followers.
A pang of apprehension clutched his heart. Followers. He is the same . . . He possesses men the way his father once possessed—
“What does it matter,” Anissi asked, “the identity of dead men?”
“It matters.” Everything mattered when it came to the Dûnyain.
Kellhus revealed he is looking for his father and Cnaiür hopes to use Kellhus to find Moënghus to get revenge, to see him die at his feet the way his father, Skiötha, died at Moënghus. Cnaiür is fearful of Kellhus possessing him like Moënghus did once.
Cnaiür remembers when he was sixteen and Anasûrimbor Moënghus was found on the steppes, captured by a band of Sranc. He was “rescued” by the Utemot and made a slave, given to Skiötha as tribute. For several weeks, Moënghus played the role as slave perfectly and only revealed himself on when Cnaiür returned from the Rite-of-the-Spring-Wolf, an Utemot coming of age ritual. Cnaiür was light-headed from blood loss and collapsed and Moënghus stanched his bleeding.
“You’ve killed the wolf,” the slave said, drawing him up from the dust. The shadowy encampment swam about Moënghus’s face, and yet his glistening eyes seemed as fixed and immovable as the Nail of Heaven. In his anguish, Cnaiür found a shameful reprieve in those outland eyes—sanctuary.
Thrusting aside the man’s hands, he croaked, “But it didn’t happen as it should.”
Moënghus nodded. “You have killed the wolf.”
You have killed the wolf.
Those words captured Cnaiür. The next day, as Cnaiür recoveres from his wounds, Moënghus returns and abandons all pretense of being a slave. Cnaiür is outraged that a slave would look him in the eye and beat him. All the while, forgiveness shows in Moënghus’s eyes. The second time Moënghus look Cnaiür in the eye, Cnaiür beat Moënghus badly and was shamed by how he reacted.
Only years afterward would he understand how those beatings had bound him to the outlander. Violence between men fostered an unaccountable intimacy—Cnaiür had survived enough battlefields to understand that. By punishing Moënghus out of desperation, Cnaiür had demonstrated need. You must be my slave. You must belong to me! And by demonstrating need, he’d opened his heart, had allowed the serpent to enter.
The third time Moënghus matched his gaze, Cnaiür did not reach for his stick. Instead he asked: “Why? Why do you provoke me?”
“Because you, Cnaiür urs Skiötha, are more than your kinsmen. Because you alone can understand what I’ve to say.”
Cnaiür was captured fully and Moënghus begin to teach him about the Logos. Moënghus carefully leads Cnaiür to the realization that the traditions of his people limit them, they there are more than one way to accomplish something.
The ways of the People, he’d been told, were as immutable and as sacred as the ways of the outlanders were fickle and degenerate. But why? Weren’t these ways simply different trails used to reach similar destinations? What made the Scylvendi way the only way, the only track an upright man might follow? And how could this be when the trackless Steppe dwelt, as the memorialists said, in all things Scylvendi?
For the first time Cnaiür saw his people through the eyes of an outsider. How strange it all seemed! The hilarity of skin dyes made from menstrual blood. The uselessness of the prohibitions against bedding virgins unwitnessed, against the right-handed butchering of cattle, against defecating in the presence of horses. Even the ritual scars on their arms, their swazond, seemed flimsy and peculiar, more a mad vanity than a hallowed sign.
Cnaiür learned to ask “why.” Moënghus teaches him on the trackless steppes there are “no crime, no transgression, no sin save foolishness or incompetence, and no obscenity save the tyranny of custom.” Moënghus asks what Cnaiür wants more than anything and Cnaiür wants to become a great chieftain. Moënghus promises this to Cnaiür, “I shall show you a track like no other,” and seduces the youth. Months later, Skiötha was dead, Cnaiür was chief, and Moënghus was free to continue his journey.
Two seasons later, his mother gave birth to a blonde girl and was murdered by the other women for adultery Cnaiür realizes that Moënghus seduced his mother to get access to himself and that he was used as a knife to win Moënghus his freedom. Cnaiür is stunned by Moënghus’s betrayal and that Moënghus never loved Cnaiür.
In bed, Anissi breaks Cnaiür from his reminiscing, asking him why he refuses to see Kellhus. Cnaiür replies that the man has great power. Anissi tells Cnaiür she has senses his power and is both frightened by Kellhus and by Cnaiür. Cnaiür demands to know why he frightens her.
“I fear him because already he speaks our tongue as well as any slave of ten years. I fear him because his eyes . . . do not seem to blink. He has already made me laugh, made me cry.”
Silence. Scenes flashed through his thoughts, a string of broken and breaking images. He stiffened against the mat, tensed his limbs against her softness.
“I fear you,” she continued, “because you’ve told me this would happen. Each of these things you knew would happen. You know this man, and yet you’ve never spoken to him.”
She reports that Kellhus asks why Cnaiür waits. Cnaiür asks if she has said anything about him to Kellhus, and she says she hasn’t. Cnaiür realizes that Kellhus sees him through Anissi’s actions. Anissi thinks Kellhus is a sorcerer. Cnaiür disagrees: “No. He is less. And he’s more.”
The next day, Cnaiür finally meets with Kellhus, who has already mastered the Sclyvendi language. Cnaiür tells Kellhus his wives think he’s a witch and tosses a Chorae at Kellhus who catches it and asks what it is. Cnaiür replies it kills witches, a git from “our God.” Kellhus asks if Cnaiür fears him.
“I fear nothing.”
No response. A pause to reconsider ill-chosen words.
“No,” the Dûnyain finally said. “You fear many things.”
Cnaiür clamped his teeth. Again. It was happening again! Words like levers, shoving him backward over a trail of precipices. Rage fell through him like fire through choked halls. A scourge.
Cnaiür tells Kellhus that he knows that Kellhus had learned much about him from his wives. Cnaiür tells him he knows exactly who he is and Cnaiür will be purposefully random. Cnaiür tells Kellhus to explain his purpose and what he’s learned since arriving or Cnaiür will have him executed.
Kellhus has deduced his father passed through here and committed a crime and Cnaiür seeks revenge. Kellhus knows that Cnaiür wishes to use him to this end. Cnaiür is trouble by this then becomes suspicious. Kellhus continues, saying Cnaiür fears that Kellhus is catering to his exceptions, like Moënghus did. Cnaiür becomes angry and decides to act like a Sranc and has Kellhus tortured till he appears to break. Cnaiür believes it to be an act.
After the torture, Cnaiür interrogates Kellhus again, starting out by telling Kellhus he doesn’t believe he has been broken, that Dûnyain can’t be broken. Kellhus agrees and says his mission is all that matters. He has been sent to kill Moënghus.
Silence, save for a gentle southern wind.
The outlander continued: “Now the dilemma is wholly yours, Scylvendi. Our missions would seem to be the same. I know where and, more important, how to find Anasûrimbor Moënghus. I offer you the very cup you desire. Is it poison or no?”
Dare he use the son?
“It’s always poison,” Cnaiür grated, “when you thirst.”
Cnaiür’s wives minister to Kellhus’s wounds and until he recovers. When he and Cnaiür depart, the wives cried but they do not know who they cried for “the man who had mastered them or the man who had known them.” Only Anissi knew.
Cnaiür and Kellhus rode towards the Nansur empire, passing into the Kuöti pastures. The Dûnyain persists in making conversation with Cnaiür, and after several days Cnaiür reluctantly asks what he wants to know, disturbed by Kellhus’s flawless Scylvendi. Out here on the steppes, Cnaiür no longer had his wives to act as intermediaries. “Now he was alone with a Dûnyain, and he could imagine no greater danger.”
Earlier that day they met with a band of Kuöti Scylvendi, and Kellhus is curious why they were allowed to pass unmolested. Cnaiür explains that it is custom to raid the empire for “slaves. For plunder. But for worship, most of all.” The Scylvendi’s God was murdered and the Scylvendi worship by killing men of the Three Seas who slew their God. Cnaiür regrets talking, knowing silence is his greatest ally. Kellhus persists, and Cnaiür asks why Kellhus has been sent to kill his father.
Kellhus declines to answer and instead asks how his father crossed the Steppe alone after leaving Utemot. Cnaiür explains that Moënghus scarred his arms in secret, dyed his hair, and shaved his beard. After that, it was easy for him to pretend he was on pilgrimage This is why Cnaiür has denied Kellhus access to clothing. Kellhus asks who gave Moënghus the dye and Cnaiür answers he did.
“I was possessed!” he snarled. “Possessed by a demon!”
“Indeed,” Kellhus replied, turning back to him. There was compassion in his eyes, but his voice was stern, like that of a Scylvendi. “My father inhabited you.”
And Cnaiür found himself wanting to hear what the man would say. You can help me. You are wise . . .
Again! The witch was doing it again! Redirecting his discourse. Conquering the movements of his soul. He was like a snake probing for opening after opening. Weakness after weakness. Begone from my heart!
Cnaiür asks again why Kellhus was sent to kill his father. Cryptically, Kellhus says because Moënghus summoned him. He explains how the Dûnyain have hid for two thousand years. When Kellhus was a child, a Sranc warband found them. After they were destroyed, Moënghus was sent into the wilderness to find out if others knew about them. When he returned, he was deemed contaminated and banished. Then he sent dreams, used sorcery. The “purity of our isolation had been polluted,” so Kellhus was sent to kill him. Cnaiür doesn’t believe him.
“The Dûnyain,” Kellhus said after a time, “have surrendered themselves to the Logos, to what you would call reason and intellect. We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before? Only the Logos allows one to mitigate that slavery. Only knowing the sources of thought and action allows us to own our thoughts and our actions, to throw off the yoke of circumstance. And only the Dûnyain possess this knowledge, plainsman. The world slumbers, enslaved by its ignorance. Only the Dûnyain are awake. Moënghus, my father, threatens this.”
Cnaiür still doesn’t believe a son would be sent to kill the father. Kellhus explains that a son’s love for his father “simply deliver us to the darkness, makes us slaves of custom and appetite…” Kellhus does not love his father, and will kill him for his brethren’s mission.
As they talk, Kellhus focuses all his senses on Cnaiür, ignoring the Steppes. Since he had left Ishuäl, the men he encountered were easy to master. 47 left with him from Atrithau and they all died out of love for him. Cnaiür was different. Normally, suspicious men “yielded more than most when they finally gave their trust.” His most devout followers had been doubters at first. But after thirty years of obsession, Cnaiür had figured out several truths of the Dûnyain and was able to avoid Kellhus snare thus far. “He knew too much.” Kellhus tries to figure out Moënghus mistake, and see if he can undo it.
Kellhus realized, he need to make Cnaiür suspicion work for him instead of trying to work around them. “Kellhus saw the Shortest Way. The Logos.” Hesitantly, he apologizes. Defiantly, Cnaiür asks how do you control thoughts like horses. Kellhus is pleased that Cnaiür saw the lie.
“What do you mean?” Kellhus asked sharply, as though he were deciding whether to be offended. The tonal cues of the Scylvendi tongue were numerous, subtle, and differed drastically between men and women. Though the plainsman did not realize it, he’d denied Kellhus important tools by restricting him to his wives.
“Even now,” Cnaiür barked, “you seek to steer the movements of my soul!”
The faint thrum of his heartbeat. The density of blood in his weathered skin. He’s still uncertain.
Kellhus has realized truth is the best way to deceive “Every man I’ve met, I understand better than he understands himself.” Cnaiür asks how. The Dûnyain have been bred and trained. Kellhus explains that men cannot see where their thoughts and deeds come from. “What comes before determines what comes after.” The puppet strings of men are language, custom, passion, and history and they may be seized.
If he knew how deep I see . . .
How it would terrify them, world-born men, to see themselves through Dûnyain eyes. The delusions and the follies. The deformities.
Kellhus did not see faces, he saw forty-four muscles across bone and the thousands of expressive permutations that might leap from them—a second mouth as raucous as the first, and far more truthful. He did not hear men speaking, he heard the howl of the animal within, the whimper of the beaten child, the chorus of preceding generations. He did not see men, he saw example and effect, the deluded issue of fathers, tribes, and civilizations.
He did not see what came after. He saw what came before.
Cnaiür is stunned by the abilities of the Dûnyain. Cnaiür realizes the logical conclusion that men are slaves to what comes before. Cnaiür is outraged that the Dûnyain use such womanish deception. Kellhus asks if Cnaiür never deceived his foes in battle. Cnaiür objects, those are his enemies, does that make all men the Dûnyain’s enemies. Kellhus is impressed by Cnaiür insight. Kellhus asks, what if all men the Dûnyain’s children and “what father does not rule his yaksh?”
Cnaiür asks if that what they are to him, children and Kellhus answers yes, “How else could my father have used you so effortlessly?” Cnaiür is angry, and Kellhus tells him he wept easily as a child. Kellhus learned this from Anissi, because Cnaiür loves her because “she weathers your torment and still loves.” Cnaiür roars in outrage.
If Cnaiür urs Skiötha suspected Kellhus, then Kellhus would pay the wages of his suspicion. Truth. Unspeakable truth. Either the Scylvendi preserved his self-deception by abandoning his suspicion, thinking Kellhus a mere charlatan whom he need not fear, or he embraced the truth and shared the unspeakable with Moënghus’s son. Either way Kellhus’s mission would be served. Either way Cnaiür’s trust would eventually be secured, be it the trust of contempt or the trust of love.
Kellhus asks if all warrior’s flinch from truth. Cnaiür suddenly calms down and sneers at a Dûnyain telling truth. This was not the response Kellhus wanted, Cnaiür knowledge once again hindered him. Kellhus switches tactics and begins using an analogy of men’s thoughts and the trackless steps.
Cnaiür instantly grows angry, and Kellhus realized his error. Moënghus had used this metaphor. It was a simple strategy but allowed Cnaiür too much insight. Cnaiür is incensed with anger and Kellhus sees murder in his eyes.
By the end of the Steppe. I need him to cross Scylvendi lands, nothing more. If he hasn’t succumbed by the time we reach the mountains, I will kill him.
That night, sitting around the fire, Cnaiür asks why Moënghus summoned him. Kellhus doesn’t know and explains the dreams were images of Shimeh. “A violent contest between peoples.” Cnaiür persists, and Kellhus answers his father is at war, and what “father fails to call on his son in a time of war?” Cnaiür answers, if that son is his enemy, and then asks who Moënghus wars against.
“I don’t know,” Kellhus replied, and for instant he almost looked forlorn, like a man who’d wagered all in the shadow of disaster.
Pity? He seeks to elicit pity from a Scylvendi? For a moment Cnaiür almost laughed. Perhaps I have overestimated—But again his instincts saved him.
With his shining knife, Cnaiür sawed off another chunk of amicut, the strips of dried beef, wild herbs, and berries that were the mainstay of their provisions. He stared impassively at the Dûnyain as he chewed.
He wants me to think he’s weak.
Well its been a bad times for the Utemot. Probably was a bad idea for the Utemot to sacrifice so many of their tribe to try to kill Cnaiür. Just saying, doesn’t seem like it would have been worth it in the long run even if they won at Kiyuth. Oh well, idiots never plan far ahead.
Page 336 of my Kindle edition, Anasûrimbor Kellhus finally renters the story. We’ve been through three whole parts of the book without the series titular character. And we are immediately reminded to the level of skill Kellhus has with the sword by the carpet of dead at the hilltop.
Cnaiür relationship with Anissi is interesting. She is the only one of his wives that Cnaiür cares for. She’s the only one that has the courage to hold him when he weeps in the night. She isn’t afraid of him. While Cnaiür thinks he loves her for her great beauty, as Kellhus rightly points out, she’s the only one that loves the whole of Cnaiür, even the weak one that cries at night.
“For a Dûnyain, even degradation was a potent tool—perhaps the most potent.” Cnaiür reflects on how Moënghus used degradation to illicit emotions in his captor. We pity the degraded and find sympathy for them. But we never fear them. We’re not cautious around them but underestimate the. Exactly the way a Dûnyain would want you to feel. A Dûnyain never wants you to see the trap he is fashioning and that most will willingly walk into.
“You alone understand.” What a powerful thing for Moënghus, or anyone, to say to teenager. Especially one who’s trying to so hard to fit in with his people. Even as a child, I get the feeling, Cnaiür wasn’t the average Sclyvendi. He cries easily and flinches whenever his dad tries to beat him. Even his coming of age right doesn’t work out for him, though we aren’t told exactly why. Maybe the Cnaiür was disappointed by the hype of the ritual and didn’t find it this transformative experience he was led to believe it to be. Or maybe, he wasn’t supposed to get wounded.
The way Moënghus uses violence to bind Cnaiür to him is interesting. First, it shows Dûnyain commitment to their goals. This is followed up by Moënghus giving Cnaiür a crash course on Nietzsche’s philosophy, leading him slowly off the path of Scylvendi custom into the decadent world of sin and going back to our quote from the Tractate.
And now, a Dûnyain has returned in to Cnaiür’s life. Worst, it is the son of the Moënghus. Cnaiür is uniquely prepared to deal with Kellhus. His obsession has made him a fitting foil to Kellhus and makes their back and forths some of the best philosophical musing you can find in literature. It is verbal fencing at its finest. Or more like Kellhus fencing and dodging Cnaiür claymore. It also shows that, despite Kellhus’s intellect, he can make mistakes. He is not infallible, but there are times he comes close.
Even when a Dûnyain tell you the truth, it’s troubling. He knows the cup is poisoned, but he thirsts for vengeance. He is desperate. Cnaiür can’t decide if Kellhus is speaking the truth. But Cnaiür, in the end, cannot resist the carrot of revenge on Moënghus. Even when you understand how Dûnyain work, they making it so hard not to play into their hands.
When they leave only Anissi know who she cried for, but for which one? While you might hope it is for Cnaiür, she probably weeps for Kellhus. Because he was the man who knew her. Also, Cnaiür is abandoning his people when they are weak and only his reputation is keeping their enemies from destroying them. He is leaving Anissi to rape or murder or both. His need for revenge is greater than even the love for “the first wife of his heart,” let only the responsibility for his people. His drive for revenge consumes him and we shall see where it leads him. Going forward, he hardly spares her a thought, especially after finding a surrogate. He discards everything for his vengeance.
We learn a lot about how the Dûnyain think as Cnaiür and Kellhus spar on the Steppes. Kellhus has his first failure in trying to seduce Cnaiür. The man is to smart and knows to much about how the Dûnyain operate. Moënghus had made a mistake with Cnaiür. Maybe Moënghus figured it wouldn’t matter if some random tribesman knows about the Dûnyain’s methodology. Moënghus is not infallible.
Cnaiür points out something interesting. Moënghus had to know how the Dûnyain would respond to his summons. They would send Kellhus to kill him for two reason, to get rid of Moënghus and by sending Kellhus, there would be no reason for Moënghus to continue bothering them if Kellhus fails to kill him. Moënghus most have a way to convince Kellhus to betray the Dûnyain and aide him in his plan.
We also know Moënghus is in Shimeh and is preparing for a war. He must be a Cishaurim since he knows sorcery and Shimeh is the home of the Cishaurim. The Cishaurim, Mallahet, was a foreigner and despite that had risen to the second highest position in the Cishaurim. He knew of the Holy War before Maithanet ever took power. Coincidentally, Maithanet came from the south, and while he’s too young to be Moënghus, we can’t discount the possibility he was been molded into a weapon by him. It would explain how the Shriah knew of the secret Cishaurim-Scarlet Spire war.
Moënghus should know about how long it would take for Kellhus to reach the Nansur Empire (the most logical route to take to cross the Steppes from Atrithau). Not a coincident that Kellhus is nearing it just as the host of the Holy War gathers at Momemn.