STEPPING OUT FROM THE TENT, RENARR FACED THE BRIGHT morning light, and did not blink. Behind her, on the other side of the canvas wall, the men and women were rising from their furs, voicing bitter complaints at the damp chill, snapping at the children to hurry with the hot, spiced wine. Within the tent, the air had been thick with the fug of lovemaking, the rank sweat of the soldiers now gone, the metallic bite of the oils with which the soldiers honed weapons and worked to keep leather supple, the breaths of drunkards and the faint undercurrent of vomit. But out here those smells were quickly swept away, clearing her head as she watched the camp stir awake.
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She took coin no different from the other whores, although she did not need it. She made her false moans and moved beneath a man like a woman both eager and hungry, and when they shuddered, emptying their hoards into her and becoming weak and childlike, she held them as would a mother. In every way, then, she was the same as the others. Yet they kept her apart, forever pushed away from their close company. She was the adopted daughter of Lord Urusander, after all, Legion Commander and reluctant holder of the title of Father Light, and this was a privilege worthy of dreams, and if flower petals were scattered in her wake, they were the colour of blood. She had no friends. She had no followers. The company she kept had all the warmth of a murder of crows.
There was frost silvering the tufts of grass between the tents and the ground was frozen hard underfoot. The smoke rising from the cookfires did not rise far, drifting like confusion about the heads of the soldiers as they readied their gear.
She could see, in their agitated gestures, in the nerves betrayed by fumbling at buckles and the like, and could hear, in the surly tones of their conversations, that many now believed that this would be the day. A battle was coming, marking the beginning of the civil war. If she turned to her left, and could make her vision cut through the hillside to the northeast, through the unlit tumble of stone and earth and root and then out again into the morning light, she would see the camp of the Wardens, a camp little different from this one, barring these snow-burnished skins and hair now the hue of spun gold. And in that other camp’s centre, on a standard rising from the command tent, she would make out the heraldry of Lord Ilgast Rend.
The day felt reluctant, but in an ironic way, like a woman feigning resistance on her first night, with rough hands pushing her thighs apart, the air then filling with its share of harsh breaths, ecstatic moans and clumsy grunts. And when it was all done with, amidst deep pools of satisfied heat, there would be blood on the grass.
Just so. And as Hunn Raal would say, had he the wits, justice is a sharp-edged thing and today it will be unsheathed, and wielded with a firm hand. The reluctance is an illusion, and as only Osserc knows, my resistance was indeed feigned, the day Urusander’s son took me to rough bed. We are awash in lies.
Of course, it was equally likely that Lord Urusander would defy this seemingly inevitable destiny. Bind the woman’s legs together, securing a chastity belt with thorns on both sides, to refuse satisfaction from either direction. He might well ruin things for everyone.
So, in its more prosaic details—the frost, the faint but icy wind, the plumes of breath and smoke, the distant neighing of horses and the occasional bray of a pack-mule; all the sounds of a day’s dawning in the company of men, women, children and beasts—she could, if unmindful, believe the stream of life to be unbroken, with all its promise arrayed before it, bright as the morning sun.
She drew her cloak about her rounded shoulders, and set out through the camp. She passed between tent rows, stepping carefully to avoid the ropes and stakes, taking caution on the furrows that cut diagonally across her path, and the stubble left behind by the harvesting only a week past. She skirted the trenches carved deep into the soil where wastes floated on the sluggish surface of murky water, along with the bloated carcasses of rats. By mid-afternoon, when the sun warmed the air enough, mosquitoes would arrive in thick, spinning clouds, thirsty for blood. If soldiers stood arrayed in ranks, facing the enemy, there would be little comfort preceding the clash of weapons.
Though her mother had been a captain in the Legion, Renarr had little sense of the makings and leavings of war. For her, it was a force that had, until now, been locked in her past: a realm of sudden absences, hollow with losses and ill luck, where even sorrow felt cool to the touch. It was a place somewhere else, and to give it any thought was to feel as if she was stealing a stranger’s memories. The veterans she took to her furs had known that realm, and each night, as the prospect of battle drew closer, she sensed in them a vague weariness, a kind of fatalism, dulling their eyes and stealing away what few words they were inclined to utter. And when they made love, it seemed an act of shame.
My mother died on a field of battle. She woke to a morning like this one, settling bleak eyes upon what the day would bring. Did she taste her death on the air? Did she see a vision of her rotting corpse, there in her own shadow? And would she have known, by sight, the weapon that would cut her down—a blinding flash drawing closer through the press? Did she look into the glaring eyes of her slayer, and see in them her death writ plain?
Or was she no different, on that morning, from every other fool in her company?
. . . so you have found me and would know the tale. When a poet speaks of truth to another poet, what hope has truth? Let me ask this, then. Does one find memory in invention? Or will you find invention in memory? Which bows in servitude before the other? Will the measure of greatness be weighed solely in the details? Perhaps so, if details make up the full weft of the world, if themes are nothing more than the composite of lists perfectly ordered and unerringly rendered; and if I should kneel before invention, as if it were memory made perfect.
Do I look like a man who would kneel?
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There are no singular tales. Nothing that stands alone is worth looking at. You and me, we know this. We could fill a thousand scrolls recounting the lives of those who believe they are each both beginning and end, those who fit the totality of the universe into small wooden boxes which they then tuck under one arm – you have seen them marching past, I’m sure. They have somewhere to go, and wherever that place is, why, it needs them, and failing their dramatic arrival it would surely cease to exist.
Is my laughter cynical? Derisive? Do I sigh and remind myself yet again that truths are like seeds hidden in the ground, and should you tend to them who may say what wild life will spring into view? Prediction is folly, belligerent assertion pathetic. But all such arguments are past us now. If we ever spat them out it was long ago, in another age, when we both were younger than we thought we were.
This tale shall be like Tiam herself, a creature of many heads. It is in my nature to wear masks, and to speak in a multitude of voices through lips not my own. Even when I had sight, to see through a single pair of eyes was a kind of torture, for I knew – I could feel in my soul – that we with our single visions miss most of the world. We cannot help it. It is our barrier to understanding. Perhaps it is only the poets who truly resent this way of being. No matter; what I do not recall I shall invent.
There are no singular tales. A life in solitude is a life rushing to death. But a blind man will never rush; he but feels his way, as befits an uncertain world. See me, then, as a metaphor made real.
I am the poet Gallan, and my words will live for ever. This is not a boast. It is a curse. My legacy is a carcass in waiting, and it will be picked over until dust devours all there is. And when my last breath is long gone, see how the flesh still moves, see how it flinches.
When I began, I did not imagine finding my final moments here upon an altar, beneath a hovering knife. I did not believe my life was a sacrifice; not to any greater cause, nor as payment into the hands of fame and respect. I did not think any sacrifice was necessary at all.
No one lets dead poets lie in peace. We are like old meat on a crowded dinner table. Now comes the next course to jostle what’s left of us, and even the gods despair of ever cleaning up the mess. But there are truths between poets, and we both know well their worth. It is the gristle we chew without end.
Anomandaris. That is a brave title. But consider this: I was not always blind. It is not Anomander’s tale alone. My story will not fit into a small box. Indeed, he is perhaps the least of it. A man pushed from behind by many hands will go in but one direction, no matter what he wills.
It may be that I do not credit him enough. I have my reasons.
You ask: where is my place in this? It is nowhere. Come to Kharkanas, here in my memory, in my creation. Walk the Hall of Portraits and you will not find my face. Is this what it is to be lost, in the very world that made you, that holds your flesh? Do you in your world share my plight? Do you wander and wonder? Do you start at your own shadow, or awaken to rattling disbelief that this is all you are, prospects bleak, bereft of the proof of your ambition?
Or do you march past sure of your frown and indeed that is a fine box you carry . . .
Am I the world’s only lost soul?
Do not begrudge my smile at that. I too cannot be made to fit into that small box, though many will try. No, best discard me entire, if peace of mind is desired.
The table is crowded, the feast unending. Join me upon it, amidst the wretched scatter and heaps. The audience is hungry and its hunger is endless. And for that, we are thankful. And if I spoke of sacrifices, I lied.
Remember well this tale I tell, Fisher kel Tath. Should you err, the list-makers will eat you alive.
There will be peace.
The words were carved deep across the lintel stone’s facing in the ancient language of the Azathanai. The cuts looked raw, untouched by wind or rain, and because of this, they might have seemed as youthful and as innocent as the sentiment itself. A witness lacking literacy would see only the violence of the mason’s hand, but surely it is fair to say that the ignorant are not capable of irony. Yet like the house-hound who by scent alone will know a guest’s true nature, the uncomprehending witness surrenders nothing when it comes to subtle truths. Accordingly, the savage wounding of the lintel stone’s basalt face remained imposing and significant to the unversed, even as the freshness of the carved words gave pause to those who understood them.
There will be peace. Conviction is a fist of stone at the heart of all things. Its form is shaped by sure hands, the detritus quickly swept from view. It is built to withstand, built to defy challenge, and when cornered it fights without honour. There is nothing more terrible than conviction.
It was generally held that no one of Azathanai blood could be found within Dracons Hold. Indeed, few of those weary-eyed creatures from beyond Bareth Solitude ever visited the city-state of Kurald Galain, except as stone-cutters and builders of edifices, summoned to some task or venture. But the Hold’s lord was not a man to welcome questions in matters of personal inclination. If by an Azathanai hand ambivalent words were carved above the threshold to the Hold’s Great House – as if to announce a new age with either a promise or a threat – that was solely the business of Lord Draconus, Consort to Mother Dark.
In any case, it was not often of late that the Hold was home to its lord, now that he stood at her side in the Citadel of Kharkanas, making his sudden return after a night’s hard ride both disquieting and the source of whispered rumours.
The thunder of horse hoofs approached through the faint light of the sun’s rise – a light ever muted by the Hold’s nearness to the heart of Mother Dark’s power – and that sound grew until it rumbled through the arched gateway and pounded into the courtyard, scattering red clay from the road beyond. Neck arched by the reins held tight in his master’s gloved hands, the warhorse Calaras drew up, breath billowing, lather streaming down its sleek black neck and chest. The sight gave the onrushing grooms pause.
The huge man commanding this formidable beast then dismounted, abandoning the reins to dangle, and strode without comment into the Great House. Household servants scrambled like hens from his path.
There was no hint of emotion upon the Lord’s face, but this was a detail well known and not unexpected. Draconus gave nothing away, and perhaps it was the mystery in those so-dark eyes that had ever been the source of his power. His likeness, brushed by the brilliant artist Kadaspala of House Enes, now commanded pride of place in the Citadel’s Hall of Portraits, and it was indeed a hand of genius that had managed to capture the unknowable in Draconus’s visage, the hint of something beyond the perfection of his Tiste features, a deepening behind the proof of his pure blood. It was the image of a man who was king in all but name.
Arathan stood at the window of the Old Tower, having taken position there upon hearing the bell announcing his father’s imminent return. He watched Draconus ride into the courtyard, eyes missing nothing, one hand up to his face as he bit skin and pieces of nail from his fingers – the tips were red nubs, swollen with endless spit, and on occasion they bled, staining the sheets of his bed at night. He studied the movements of Draconus as the huge man dismounted, carelessly abandoning Calaras to the grooms, to then stride towards the entrance.
The three-storey tower commanded the northwest corner of the Great House, with the house’s main doors to the right and out of sight from the upper floor’s window. At moments like these, Arathan would tense, breath held, straining with all his senses for the moment when his father crossed the threshold and set foot on the hard bared stones of the vestibule. He waited, for a change in the atmosphere, a trembling in the ancient walls of the edifice, the very thunder of the Lord’s presence.
As ever, there was nothing. And Arathan never knew if the failing was his, or if his father’s power was sealed away inside that imposing frame and behind those unerring eyes, contained by a will verging on perfection. He suspected the former – he saw how others reacted, the tightening of expressions among the highborn, the shying away of those of lesser rank, and how on occasion both reactions warred within the same individual. Draconus was feared for reasons Arathan could not comprehend.
In truth, he did not expect more of himself in this matter. He was a bastard son, after all, and a child born of a mother he never knew and had never heard named. In his seventeen years of life he had been in the same room with his father perhaps twenty times; surely no more than that, and not once had Draconus addressed him. He was not privileged to dine in the main hall; he was tutored in private and taught the use of weapons alongside the recruits of the Houseblades. Even in the days and nights immediately following his near-drowning, when in his ninth winter he’d fallen through ice, he’d been attended to by the guards’ healer, and had received no visitors barring his three younger half-sisters, who had peered in through the doorway – a trio of round, wide-eyed faces – only to immediately flee down the corridor voicing squeals.
For years, their reaction upon seeing him had led Arathan to believe he was unaccountably ugly, a conviction that had first brought his hands to his face in a habit of hiding his features, and soon the kiss of his own fingertips served for all the tactile reassurance he required. He no longer believed himself to be ugly. Simply . . . plain, not worthy of notice by anyone.
Though no one ever spoke of his mother, Arathan knew that she had named him. His father’s predilections on such matters were far crueller. He told himself that he remembered his half-sisters’ mother, a brooding, heavy woman with a strange face, who had either died or departed shortly after weaning the triplets she had borne, but a later comment from Tutor Sagander suggested that the woman he’d remembered had been a wet-nurse, a witch of the Dog-Runners who dwelt beyond the Solitude. Still, he preferred to think of her as the girls’ mother, too kind-hearted to give them the names they now possessed – names that, to Arathan’s mind, shackled each sister like a curse.
Envy. Spite. Malice. They remained infrequent visitors to his company. Flighty as birds glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Whispering from around corners in the corridors and behind doors he walked past. Clearly, they found him a source of great amusement.
Now in the first years of adulthood, Arathan saw himself as a prisoner, or perhaps a hostage in the traditional manner of alliance-binding among the Greater Houses and Holds. He was not of the Dracons family; though there had been no efforts at hiding his bloodline, in fact the very indifference of this detail only emphasized its irrelevance. Seeds spill where they may, but a sire must look into the eyes to make the child his own. And this Draconus would not do. Besides, there was little of Tiste blood in him – he had not the fair skin or tall frame, and his eyes, while dark, lacked the mercurial ambivalence of the pureborn. In these details, he was the same as his sisters. Where, then, the blood of their father?
It hides. Somehow, it hides deep within us.
Draconus would not acknowledge him, but that was no cause for resentment in Arathan’s mind. Man or woman, once childhood was past the world beyond must be met, and a place in it made, by a will entirely dependent upon its own resources. And the shaping of that world, its weight and weft, was a match to the strength of that will. In this way, Kurald Galain society was a true map of talent and capacity. Or so Sagander told him, almost daily.
Whether in the court of the Citadel or among the March villages, there could be no dissembling. The insipid and the incompetent had no place in which to hide their failings. ‘This is natural justice, Arathan, and thus by every measure it is superior to the justice of, say, the Forulkan, or the Jaghut.’ Arathan had no good reason to believe otherwise. This world, so forcefully espoused by his tutor, was all he had ever known.
And yet he . . . doubted.
Sandalled feet slapped closer up the spiral stairs behind him, and Arathan turned in some surprise. He had long since claimed this tower for his own, made himself lord of its dusty webs, its shadows and echoes. Only here could he be himself, with no one batting his hand away from his mouth, or mocking his ruined fingertips. No one visited him here; the house-bells called him when lessons or meals were imminent; he measured his days and nights by those muted chimes.
The footsteps approached. His heart thumped in his chest. He snatched his hand away from his mouth, wiped the fingers on his tunic, and stood facing the gap of the stairs.
The figure that climbed into view startled him. One of his halfsisters, the shortest of the three – last from the womb – her face flushed with the effort of the climb, her breath coming in little gasps. Dark eyes found his. ‘Arathan.’
She had never before addressed him. He did not know how to respond.
‘It’s me,’ she said, eyes flaring as if in anger. ‘Malice. Your sister, Malice.’
‘Names shouldn’t be curses,’ Arathan said without thinking.
If his words shocked her, the only indication was a faint tilt of her head as she regarded him. ‘So you’re not the simpleton Envy says you are. Good. Father will be . . . relieved.’
‘You are summoned, Arathan. Right now – I’m to bring you to him.’
She scowled. ‘She knew you’d be hiding here, like a redge in a hole. Said you were just as thick. Are you? Is she right? Are you a redge? She’s always right – or so she’ll tell you.’ She darted close and took Arathan’s left wrist, tugged him along as she returned to the stairs.
He did not resist.
Father had summoned him. He could think of only one reason for that.
I am about to be cast out.
The dusty air of the Old Tower stairs swirled round them as they descended, and the peace of this place felt shattered. But soon it would settle again, and the emptiness would return, like an ousted king to his throne, and Arathan knew that he would never again challenge that domain. It had been a foolish conceit, a childish game.
‘In natural justice, Arathan, the weak cannot hide, unless we grant them the privilege. And understand, it is ever a privilege, for which the weak should be eternally grateful. At any given moment, should the strong will it, they can swing a sword and end the life of the weak. And that will be today’s lesson. Forbearance.’
A redge in a hole – the beast’s life is tolerated, until its presence becomes a nuisance, and then the dogs are loosed down the earthen tunnel, into the warrens, and somewhere beneath the ground the redge is torn apart, ripped to pieces. Or driven into the open, where wait spears and swords eager to take its life.
Either way, the creature was clearly unmindful of the privileges granted to it.
All the lessons Sagander delivered to Arathan circled like wolves around weakness, and the proper place of those cursed with it. No, Arathan was not a simpleton. He understood well enough.
And, one day, he would hurt Draconus, in ways not yet imaginable. Father, I believe I am your weakness.
In the meantime, as he hurried along behind Malice, her grip tight on his wrist, he brought up his other hand, and chewed.
If you never knew
the worlds in my mind
your sense of loss
would be small pity
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and we’ll forget this on the trail.
Take what you’re given
and turn away the screwed face.
I do not deserve it,
no matter how narrow the strand
of your private shore.
If you will do your best
I’ll meet your eye.
It’s the clutch of arrows in hand
that I do not trust
bent to the smile hitching my way.
We aren’t meeting in sorrow
or some other suture
We haven’t danced the samethin ice
and my sympathy for your troubles
I give freely without thought
of reciprocity or scales on balance.
It’s the decent thing, that’s all.
Even if that thing
is a stranger to so many.
But there will be secrets
you never knew
and I would not choose any other way.
All my arrows are buried and
the sandy reach is broad
and all that’s private
cools pinned on the altar.
Even the drips are gone,
that child of wants
with a mind full of worlds
and his reddened tears.
The days I feel mortal I so hate.
The days in my worlds,
are where I live for ever,
and should dawn ever arrive
I will to its light awaken
as one reborn.
Poet’s Night iii.iv
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Fisher kel Tath
COTILLION DREW TWO DAGGERS. HIS GAZE FELL TO THE BLADES.The blackened iron surfaces seemed to swirl, two pewter rivers oozing across pits and gouges, the edges ragged where armour and bone had slowed their thrusts. He studied the sickly sky’s lurid reflections for a moment longer, and then said, ‘I have no intention of explaining a damned thing.’ He looked up, eyes locking. ‘Do you understand me?’The figure facing him was incapable of expression. The tatters of rotted sinew and strips of skin were motionless upon the bones of temple, cheek and jaw. The eyes held nothing, nothing at all.Better, Cotillion decided, than jaded scepticism. Oh, how he was sick of that. ‘Tell me,’ he resumed, ‘what do you think you’re seeing here? Desperation? Panic? A failing of will, some inevitable decline crumbling to incompetence? Do you believe in failure, Edgewalker?’
The apparition remained silent for a time, and then spoke in a broken, rasping voice. ‘You cannot be so…audacious. I asked if you believed in failure. Because I don’t. Even should you succeed, Cotillion. Beyond all expectation, beyond, even, all desire. They will still speak of your failure.’He sheathed his daggers. ‘And you know what they can do to themselves.’The head cocked, strands of hair dangling and drifting. ‘Arrogance?’
‘Competence,’ Cotillion snapped in reply. ‘Doubt me at your peril. They will not believe you. I do not care, Edgewalker. This is what it is.’When he set out, he was not surprised that the deathless guardian followed. We have done this before. Dust and ashes puffed with each step. The wind moaned as if trapped in a crypt. ‘Almost time, Edgewalker. I know. You cannot win.’
Cotillion paused, half turned. He smiled a ravaged smile. ‘That doesn’t mean I have to lose, does it?’Dust lifted, twisting, in her wake. From her shoulders trailed dozens of ghastly chains: bones bent and folded into irregular links, ancient bones in a thousand shades between white and deep brown. Scores of individuals made up each chain, malformed skulls matted with hair, fused spines, long bones, clacking and clattering. They drifted out behind her like a tyrant’s legacy and left a tangled skein of furrows in the withered earth that stretched for leagues.Her pace did not slow, as steady as the sun’s own crawl to the horizon ahead, as inexorable as the darkness overtaking her. She was indifferent to notions of irony, and the bitter taste of irreverent mockery that could so sting the palate. In this there was only necessity, the hungriest of gods. She had known imprisonment. The memories remained fierce, but such recollections were not those of crypt walls and unlit tombs. Darkness, indeed, but also pressure. Terrible, unbearable pressure.Madness was a demon and it lived in a world of helpless need, a thousand desires unanswered, a world without resolution. Madness, yes, she had known that demon. They had bargained with coins of pain, and those coins came from a vault that never emptied. She’d once known such wealth.And still the darkness pursued.
Walking, a thing of hairless pate, skin the hue of bleached papyrus, elongated limbs that moved with uncanny grace. The landscape surrounding her was empty, flat on all sides but ahead, where a worn-down range of colourless hills ran a wavering claw along the horizon.
She had brought her ancestors with her and they rattled a chaotic chorus. She had not left a single one behind. Every tomb of her line now gaped empty, as hollowed out as the skulls she’d plundered from their sarcophagi. Silence ever spoke of absence. Silence was the enemy of life and she would have none of it. No, they talked in mutters and grating scrapes, her perfect ancestors, and they were the voices of her private song, keeping the demon at bay. She was done with bargains.Long ago, she knew, the worlds – pallid islands in the Abyss – crawled with creatures. Their thoughts were blunt and simple, and beyond those thoughts there was nothing but murk, an abyss of ignorance and fear. When the first glimmers awakened in that confused gloom, they quickly flickered alight, burning like spot fires. But the mind did not awaken to itself on strains of glory. Not beauty, not even love. It did not stir with laughter or triumph. Those fires, snapping to life, all belonged to one thing and one thing only.The first word of sentience was justice. A word to feed indignation. A word empowering the will to change the world and all its cruel circumstances, a word to bring righteousness to brutal infamy. Justice, bursting to life in the black soil of indifferent nature. Justice, to bind families, to build cities, to invent and to defend, to fashion laws and prohibitions, to hammer the unruly mettle of gods into religions. All the prescribed beliefs rose out twisting and branching from that single root, losing themselves in the blinding sky.But she and her kind had stayed wrapped about the base of that vast tree, forgotten, crushed down; and in their place, beneath stones, bound in roots and dark earth, they were witness to the corruption of justice, to its loss of meaning, to its betrayal.Gods and mortals, twisting truths, had in a host of deeds stained what once had been pure.
Well, the end was coming. The end, dear ones, is coming. There would be no more children, rising from the bones and rubble, to build anew all that had been lost. Was there even one among them, after all, who had not suckled at the teat of corruption? Oh, they fed their inner fires, yet they hoarded the light, the warmth, as if justice belonged to them alone.She was appalled. She seethed with contempt. Justice was incandescent within her, and it was a fire growing day by day, as the wretched heart of the Chained One leaked out its endless streams of blood. Twelve Pures remained, feeding. Twelve. Perhaps there were others, lost in far-flung places, but she knew nothing of them. No, these twelve, they would be the faces of the final storm, and, pre-eminent among them all, she would stand at that storm’s centre.She had been given her name for this very purpose, long ago now. The Forkrul Assail were nothing if not patient. But patience itself was yet one more lost virtue.Chains of bone trailing, Calm walked across the plain, as the day’s light died behind her.
‘God failed us.’Trembling, sick to his stomach as something cold, foreign, coursed through his veins, Aparal Forge clenched his jaw to stifle a retort. This vengeance is older than any cause you care to invent, and no matter how often you utter those words, Son of Light, the lies and madness open like flowers beneath the sun. And before me I see nothing but lurid fields of red, stretching out on all sides.This wasn’t their battle, not their war. Who fashioned this law that said the child must pick up the father’s sword? And dear Father, did you really mean this to be? Did she not abandon her consort and take you for her own? Did you not command us to peace? Did you not say to us that we children must be as one beneath the newborn sky of your union?What crime awoke us to this?
I can’t even remember.’Do you feel it, Aparal? The power?’
‘I feel it, Kadagar.’ They’d moved away from the others, but not so far as to escape the agonized cries, the growl of the Hounds, or, drifting out over the broken rocks in ghostly streams, the blistering breath of cold upon their backs. Before them rose the infernal barrier. A wall of imprisoned souls. An eternally crashing wave of despair. He stared at the gaping faces through the mottled veil, studied the pitted horror in their eyes. You were no different, were you? Awkward with your inheritance, the heavy blade turning this way and that in your hand.Why should we pay for someone else’s hatred?’What so troubles you, Aparal? We cannot know the reason for our god’s absence, Lord. I fear it is presumptuous of us to speak of his failure.’Kadagar Fant was silent.
Aparal closed his eyes. He should never have spoken. I do not learn. He walked a bloody path to rule and the pools in the mud still gleam red. The air about Kadagar remains brittle. This flower shivers to secret winds. He is dangerous, so very dangerous.
‘The Priests spoke of impostors and tricksters, Aparal.’ Kadagar’s tone was even, devoid of inflection. It was the voice he used when furious. ‘What god would permit that? We are abandoned. The path before us now belongs to no one else – it is ours to choose.’Ours. Yes, you speak for us all, even as we cringe at our own confessions. ‘Forgive my words, Lord. I am made ill – the taste— We had no choice in that, Aparal. What sickens you is the bitter flavour of its pain. It passes.’ Kadagar smiled and clapped him on the back. ‘I understand your momentary weakness. We shall forget your doubts, yes? And never again speak of them. We are friends, after all, and I would be most distressed to be forced to brand you a traitor. Set upon the White Wall… I would kneel and weep, my friend. I would.’A spasm of alien fury hissed through Aparal and he shivered. Abyss! Mane of Chaos, I feel you! ‘My life is yours to command, Lord. Lord of Light!’
Aparal turned, as did Kadagar.
Blood streaming from his mouth, Iparth Erule staggered closer, eyes wide and fixed upon Kadagar. ‘My lord, Uhandahl, who was last to drink, has just died. He – he tore out his own throat! Then it is done,’ Kadagar replied. ‘How many?’Iparth licked his lips, visibly flinched at the taste, and then said, ‘You are the First of Thirteen, Lord.’Smiling, Kadagar stepped past Iparth. ‘Kessobahn still breathes? Yes. It is said it can bleed for centuries—’
‘But the blood is now poison,’ Kadagar said, nodding. ‘The wounding must be fresh, the power clean. Thirteen, you say. Excellent.’Aparal stared at the dragon staked to the slope behind Iparth Erule. The enormous spears pinning it to the ground were black with gore and dried blood. He could feel the Eleint’s pain, pouring from it in waves. Again and again it tried to lift its head, eyes blazing, jaws snapping, but the vast trap held. The four surviving Hounds of Light circled at a distance, hackles raised as they eyed the dragon. Seeing them, Aparal hugged himself. Another mad gamble. Another bitter failure. Lord of Light, Kadagar Fant, you have not done well in the world beyond.Beyond this terrible vista, and facing the vertical ocean of deathless souls as if in mocking madness, rose the White Wall, which hid the decrepit remnants of the Liosan city of Saranas. The faint elongated dark streaks lining it, descending just beneath the crenellated battlements, were all he could make out of the brothers and sisters who had been condemned as traitors to the cause. Below their withered corpses ran the stains from everything their bodies had drained down the alabaster facing. You would kneel and weep, would you, my friend?Iparth asked, ‘My lord, do we leave the Eleint as it is? No. I propose something far more fitting. Assemble the others. We shall veer.’
Aparal started but did not turn. ‘Lord— We are Kessobahn’s children now, Aparal. A new father, to replace the one who abandoned us. Osserc is dead in our eyes and shall remain so. Even Father Light kneels broken, useless and blind.’Aparal’s eyes held on Kessobahn. Utter such blasphemies often enough and they become banal, and all shock fades. The gods lose their power, and we rise to stand in their stead. The ancient dragon wept blood, and in those vast, alien eyes there was nothing but rage. Our father. Your pain, your blood, our gift to you. Alas, it is the only gift we understand. ‘And once we have veered? Why, Aparal, we shall tear the Eleint apart.’He’d known what the answer would be and he nodded. Our father.
Your pain, your blood, our gift. Celebrate our rebirth, O Father Kessobahn, with your death. And for you, there shall be no return.’I have nothing with which to bargain. What brings you to me? No, I see that. My broken servant cannot travel far, even in his dreams. Crippled, yes, my precious flesh and bones upon this wretched world. Have you seen his flock? What blessing can he bestow? Why, naught but misery and suffering, and still they gather, the mobs, the clamouring, beseeching mobs. Oh, I once looked upon them with contempt. I once revelled in their pathos, their ill choices and their sorry luck. Their stupidity.’But no one chooses their span of wits. They are each and all born with what they have, that and nothing more. Through my servant I see into their eyes – when I so dare – and they give me a look, a strange look, one that for a long time I could not understand. Hungry, of course, so brimming with need. But I am the Foreign God. The Chained One. The Fallen One, and my holy word is Pain. ‘Yet those eyes implored.
‘I now comprehend. What do they ask of me? Those dull fools glittering with fears, those horrid expressions to make a witness cringe. What do they want? I will answer you. They want my pity.
‘They understand, you see, their own paltry scant coins in their bag of wits. They know they lack intelligence, and that this has cursed them and their lives. They have struggled and lashed out, from the very beginning. No, do not look at me that way, you of smooth and subtle thought, you give your sympathy too quickly and therein hide your belief in your own superiority. I do not deny your cleverness, but I question your compassion.
‘They wanted my pity. They have it. I am the god that answers prayers – can you or any other god make that claim? See how I have changed. My pain, which I held on to so selfishly, now reaches out like a broken hand. We touch in understanding, we flinch at the touch. I am one with them all, now.
‘You surprise me. I had not believed this to be a thing of value. What worth compassion? How many columns of coins balance the scales? My servant once dreamed of wealth. A buried treasure in the hills. Sitting on his withered legs, he pleaded with passers-by in the street. Now you look at me here, too broken to move, deep in the fumes, and the wind slaps these tent walls without rest. No need to bargain. My servant and I have both lost the desire to beg. You want my pity? I give it. Freely.
‘Need I tell you of my pain? I look in your eyes and find the answer.
‘It is my last play, but you understand that. My last. Should I fail…
‘Very well. There is no secret to this. I will gather the poison, then. In the thunder of my pain, yes. Where else?
‘Death? Since when is death failure?
‘Forgive the cough. It was meant to be laughter. Go then, wring your promises with those upstarts.
‘That is all faith is, you know. Pity for our souls. Ask my servant and he will tell you. God looks into your eyes, and God cringes.’
Three dragons chained for their sins. At the thought Cotillion sighed, suddenly morose. He stood twenty paces away, ankle deep in soft ash. Ascendancy, he reflected, was not quite as long a stride from the mundane as he would have liked. His throat felt tight, as if his air passages were constricted. The muscles of his shoulders ached and dull thunder pounded behind his eyes. He stared at the imprisoned Eleint lying so gaunt and deathly amidst drifts of dust, feeling…mortal. Abyss take me, but I’m tired.
Edgewalker moved up alongside him, silent and spectral.
‘Bones and not much else,’ Cotillion muttered.
‘Do not be fooled,’ Edgewalker warned. ‘Flesh, skin, they are raiment. Worn or cast off as suits them. See the chains? They have been tested. Heads lifting…the scent of freedom.’
‘How did you feel, Edgewalker, when everything you held fell to pieces in your hands? Did failure arrive like a wall of fire?’ He turned to regard the apparition. ‘Those tatters have the look of scorching, come to think of it. Do you remember that moment, when you lost everything? Did the world echo to your howl?’
‘If you seek to torment me, Cotillion—’
‘No, I would not do that. Forgive me.’
‘If these are your fears, however…’
‘No, not my fears. Not at all. They are my weapons.’
Edgewalker seemed to shiver, or perhaps some shift of the ash beneath his rotted moccasins sent a tremble through him, a brief moment of imbalance. Settling once more, the Elder fixed Cotillion with the withered dark of its eyes. ‘You, Lord of Assassins, are no healer.’
No. Someone cut out my unease, please. Make clean the incision, take out what’s ill and leave me free of it. We are sickened by the unknown, but knowledge can prove poisonous. And drifting lost between the two is no better. ‘There is more than one path to salvation.’
‘It is curious. What is?’
‘Your words…in another voice, coming from…someone else, would leave a listener calmed, reassured. From you, alas, they could chill a mortal soul to its very core.’
‘This is what I am,’ Cotillion said.Edgewalker nodded. ‘It is what you are, yes.’Cotillion advanced another six paces, eyes on the nearest dragon, the gleaming bones of the skull visible between strips of rotted hide. ‘Eloth,’ he said, ‘I would hear your voice. Shall we bargain again, Usurper?’The voice was male, but such details were in the habit of changing on a whim. Still, he frowned, trying to recall the last time. ‘Kalse, Ampelas, you will each have your turn. Do I now speak with Eloth?’
‘I am Eloth. What is it about my voice that so troubles you, Usurper? I sense your suspicion. I needed to be certain,’ Cotillion replied. ‘And now I am. You are indeed Mockra.’A new draconic voice rumbled laughter through Cotillion’s skull, and then said, ‘Be careful, Assassin, she is the mistress of deceit.’Cotillion’s brows lifted. ‘Deceit? Pray not, I beg you. I am too innocent to know much about such things. Eloth, I see you here in chains, and yet in mortal realms your voice has been heard. It seems you are not quite the prisoner you once were.’
‘Sleep slips the cruellest chains, Usurper. My dreams rise on wings and I am free. Do you now tell me that such freedom was more than delusion? I am shocked unto disbelief.’Cotillion grimaced. ‘Kalse, what do you dream of? Ice.’
Does that surprise me? ‘Ampelas? The rain that burns, Lord of Assassins, deep in shadow. And such a grisly shadow. Shall we three whisper divinations now? All my truths are chained here, it is only the lies that fly free. Yet there was one dream, one that still burns fresh in my mind. Will you hear my confession? My rope is not quite as frayed as you think, Ampelas. You would do better to describe your dream to Kalse. Consider that advice my gift.’ He paused, glanced back at Edgewalker for a moment, and then faced the dragons once more. ‘Now then, let us bargain for real.’
‘There is no value in that,’ Ampelas said. ‘You have nothing to give us. But I do.’
Edgewalker suddenly spoke behind him. ‘Cotillion— Freedom,’ said Cotillion.Silence.
He smiled. ‘A fine start. Eloth, will you dream for me? Kalse and Ampelas have shared your gift. They looked upon one another with faces of stone. There was pain. There was fire. An eye opened and it looked upon the Abyss. Lord of Knives, my kin in chains are…dismayed. Lord, I will dream for you. Speak on.’
‘Listen carefully then,’ Cotillion said. ‘This is how it must be.’The depths of the canyon were unlit, swallowed in eternal night far beneath the ocean’s surface. Crevasses gaped in darkness, a world’s death and decay streaming down in ceaseless rain, and the currents whipped in fierce torrents that stirred sediments into spinning vortices, lifting like whirlwinds. Flanked by the submerged crags of the canyon’s ravaged cliffs, a flat plain stretched out, and in the centre a lurid red flame flickered to life, solitary, almost lost in the vastness.Shifting the almost weightless burden resting on one shoulder, Mael paused to squint at that improbable fire. Then he set out, making straight for it.Lifeless rain falling to the depths, savage currents whipping it back up into the light, where living creatures fed on the rich soup, only to eventually die and sink back down. Such an elegant exchange, the living and the dead, the light and the lightless, the world above and the world below. Almost as if someone had planned it.He could now make out the hunched figure beside the flames, hands held out to the dubious heat. Tiny sea creatures swarmed in the reddish bloom of light like moths. The fire emerged pulsing from a rent in the floor of the canyon, gases bubbling upward.
Mael halted before the figure, shrugging off the wrapped corpse that had been balanced on his shoulder. As it rocked down to the silts tiny scavengers rushed towards it, only to spin away without alighting. Faint clouds billowed as the wrapped body settled in the mud.The voice of K’rul, Elder God of the Warrens, drifted out from within his hood. ‘If all existence is a dialogue, how is it there is still so much left unsaid?’Mael scratched the stubble on his jaw. ‘Me with mine, you with yours, him with his, and yet still we fail to convince the world of its inherent absurdity.’K’rul shrugged. ‘Him with his. Yes. Odd that of all the gods, he alone discovered this mad, and maddening, secret. The dawn to come…shall we leave it to him? Well,’ Mael grunted, ‘first we need to survive the night. I have brought the one you sought.’
‘I see that. Thank you, old friend. Now tell me, what of the Old Witch?’Mael grimaced. ‘The same. She tries again, but the one she has chosen…well, let us say that Onos T’oolan possesses depths Olar Ethil cannot hope to comprehend, and she will, I fear, come to rue her choice. A man rides before him.’Mael nodded. ‘A man rides before him. It is…heartbreaking. “Against a broken heart, even absurdity falters.”’
‘“Because words fall away.”’Fingers fluttered in the glow. ‘“A dialogue of silence.” “That deafens.”’ Mael looked off into the gloomy distance. ‘Blind Gallan and his damnable poems.’ Across the colourless floor armies of sightless crabs were on the march, drawn to the alien light and heat. He squinted at them. ‘Many died. Errastas had his suspicions, and that is all the Errant needs. Terrible mischance, or deadly nudge. They were as she said they would be. Unwitnessed.’ K’rul lifted his head, the empty hood now gaping in Mael’s direction. ‘Has he won, then?’Mael’s wiry brows rose. ‘You do not know?’
‘That close to Kaminsod’s heart, the warrens are a mass of wounds and violence.’Mael glanced down at the wrapped corpse. ‘Brys was there. Through his tears I saw.’ He was silent for a long moment, reliving someone else’s memories. He suddenly hugged himself, released a ragged breath. ‘In the name of the Abyss, those Bonehunters were something to behold!’The vague hints of a face seemed to find shape inside the hood’s darkness, a gleam of teeth. ‘Truly? Mael – truly?’Emotion growled out in his words. ‘This is not done. Errastas has made a terrible mistake. Gods, they all have!’
After a long moment, K’rul sighed, gaze returning to the fire. His pallid hands hovered above the pulsing glow of burning rock. ‘I shall not remain blind. Two children. Twins. Mael, it seems we shall defy the Adjunct Tavore Paran’s wish to be for ever unknown to us, unknown to everyone. What does it mean, this desire to be unwitnessed? I do not understand.’Mael shook his head. ‘There is such pain in her…no, I dare not get close. She stood before us, in the throne room, like a child with a terrible secret, guilt and shame beyond all measure. Perhaps my guest here will have the answer. Is this why you wanted him? To salve mere curiosity? Is this to be a voyeur’s game, K’rul? Into a woman’s broken heart? Partly,’ K’rul acknowledged. ‘But not out of cruelty, or the lure of the forbidden. Her heart must remain her own, immune to all assault.’ The god regarded the wrapped corpse. ‘No, this one’s flesh is dead, but his soul remains strong, trapped in its own nightmare of guilt. I would see it freed of that.’
‘How? Poised to act, when the moment comes. Poised to act. A life for a death, and it will have to do.’Mael sighed unevenly. ‘Then it falls on her shoulders. A lone woman. An army already mauled. With allies fevered with lust for the coming war. An enemy awaiting them all, unbowed, with inhuman confidence, so eager to spring the perfect trap.’ He lifted his hands to his face. ‘A mortal woman who refuses to speak. Yet they follow.’
‘They follow. Mael, do they truly have a chance?’
He looked down at K’rul. ‘The Malazan Empire conjured them out of nothing. Dassem’s First Sword, the Bridgeburners, and now the Bonehunters. What can I tell you? It is as if they were born of another age, a golden age lost to the past, and the thing of it is: they don’t even know it. Perhaps that is why she wishes them to remain unwitnessed in all that they do. What do you mean?’
‘She doesn’t want the rest of the world to be reminded of what they once were.’K’rul seemed to study the fire. Eventually, he said, ‘In these dark waters, one cannot feel one’s own tears.’Mael’s reply was bitter. ‘Why do you think I live here? If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement. But if I am to be accused of being cleverer than I am – and how is this even possible? – or, gods forbid, too aware of every echo sent charging out into the night, to bounce and cavort, to reverberate like a sword’s edge on a shield rim, if, in other words, I am to be castigated for heeding my sensitivities, well, then something rises like fire within me. I am, and I use the word most cogently, incensed.’
Udinaas snorted. The page was torn below this, as if the author’s anger had sent him or her into an apoplectic frenzy. He wondered at this unknown writer’s detractors, real or imagined, and he thought back to the times, long ago, when someone’s fist had answered his own too-quick, too-sharp wits. Children were skilled at sensing such things, the boy too smart for his own good, and they knew what needed doing about it. Beat him down, lads. Serves him right. So he was sympathetic to the spirit of the long-dead writer.’But then, you old fool, they’re dust and your words live on. Who now has the last laugh?’The rotting wood surrounding him gave back no answer. Sighing, Udinaas tossed the fragment aside, watched flakes of parchment drift down like ashes. ‘Oh, what do I care? Not much longer, no, not much longer.’ The oil lamp was guttering out, used up, and the chill had crept back in. He couldn’t feel his hands. Old legacies, no one could shake them, these grinning stalkers.Ulshun Pral had predicted more snow, and snow was something he had grown to despise. ‘As if the sky itself was dying. You hear that, Fear Sengar? I’m almost ready to take up your tale. Who could have imagined that legacy?’Groaning at the stiffness in his limbs, he clambered out of the ship’s hold, emerged blinking on the slanted deck, the wind battering at his face. ‘World of white, what are you telling us? That all is not well. That the fates have set a siege upon us.’
He had taken to talking to himself. That way, no one else had to cry, and he was tired of those glistening tears on weathered faces. Yes, he could thaw them all with a handful of words. But that heat inside, well, it had nowhere to go, did it? He gave it to the cold, empty air instead. Not a single frozen tear in sight.Udinaas climbed over the ship’s side, dropped down into knee-deep snow, and then took a fresh path back to the camp in the shelter of rocks, his thick, fur-lined moccasins forcing him to waddle as he ploughed through the drifts. He could smell woodsmoke.
He caught sight of the emlava halfway to the camp. The two enormous cats stood perched on high rocks, their silvered backs blending with the white sky. Watching him. ‘So, you’re back. That’s not good, is it?’ He felt their eyes tracking him as he went on. Time was slowing down. He knew that was impossible, but he could imagine an entire world buried deep in snow, a place devoid of animals, a place where seasons froze into one and that season did not end, ever. He could imagine the choking down of every choice until not a single one was left.
‘A man can do it. Why not an entire world?’ The snow and wind gave no answer, beyond the brutal retort that was indifference.
In between the rocks, now, the bitter wind falling off, the smoke stinging awake his nostrils. There was hunger in the camp, there was white everywhere else. And still the Imass sang their songs. ‘Not enough,’ Udinaas muttered, breath pluming. ‘It’s just not, my friends. Face it, she’s dying. Our dear little child.’
He wondered if Silchas Ruin had known all along. This imminent failure. ‘All dreams die in the end. Of all people I should know that. Dreams of sleep, dreams of the future, sooner or later comes the cold, hard dawn.’ Walking past the snow-humped yurts, scowling against the droning songs drifting out around the hide flaps, he made for the trail leading to the cave.
Dirty ice crusted the rocky maw, like frozen froth. Once within its shelter the air warmed around him, damp and smelling of salts. He stamped the snow from his moccasins, and then strode into the twisting, stony corridor, hands out to the sides, fingertips brushing the wet stone. ‘Oh,’ he said under his breath, ‘but you’re a cold womb, aren’t you?’
Ahead he heard voices, or, rather, one voice. Heed your sensitivities now, Udinaas. She stands unbowed, for ever unbowed. This is what love can do, I suppose.
The old stains on the stone floor remained, timeless reminders of blood spilled and lives lost in this wretched chamber. He could almost hear the echoes, sword and spear, the gasp of desperate breaths. Fear Sengar, I would swear your brother stands there still. Silchas Ruin staggering back, step by step, his scowl of disbelief like a mask he’d never worn before, and was it not ill-fitting? It surely was. Onrack T’emlava stood to the right of his wife. Ulshun Pral crouched a few paces to Kilava’s left. Before them all reared a withered, sickly edifice. Dying House, your cauldron is cracked. She was a flawed seed.
Kilava turned upon his arrival, her dark animal eyes narrowing as would a hunting cat’s as it gathered to pounce. ‘Thought you might have sailed away, Udinaas.’
‘The charts lead nowhere, Kilava Onass, as I’m sure the pilot observed upon arriving in the middle of a plain. Is there anything more forlorn than a foundered ship, I wonder?’
Onrack spoke. ‘Friend Udinaas, I welcome your wisdom. Kilava speaks of the awakening of the Jaghut, the hunger of the Eleint, and the hand of the Forkrul Assail, which never trembles. Rud Elalle and Silchas Ruin have vanished – she cannot sense them and she fears the worst.’
‘My son lives.’
Kilava stepped closer. ‘You cannot know that.’
Udinaas shrugged. ‘He took more from his mother than Menandore ever imagined. When she faced that Malazan wizard, when she sought to draw upon her power, well, it was one of many fatal surprises that day.’ His gaze fell to those blackened stains. ‘What happened to our heroic outcome, Fear? To the salvation you gave your life to win? “If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement.” But the world’s judgement is cruel.’
‘We contemplate a journey from this realm,’ said Onrack.
Udinaas glanced at Ulshun Pral. ‘Do you agree?’
The warrior freed one hand to a flurry of fluid gestures.
Udinaas grunted. Before the spoken word, before song, there was this. But the hand speaks in broken tongue. The cipher here belongs to his posture – a nomad’s squat. No one fears walking, or the unfolding of a new world. Errant take me, this innocence stabs the heart. ‘You won’t like what you will find. Not the fiercest beast of this world stands a chance against my kind.’ He glared at Onrack. ‘What do you think that Ritual was all about? The one that stole death from your people?’
‘Hurtful as his words are,’ growled Kilava, ‘Udinaas speaks the truth.’ She faced the Azath once more. ‘We can defend this gate. We can stop them.’
‘And die,’ snapped Udinaas.
‘No,’ she retorted, wheeling to face him. ‘You will lead my children from here, Udinaas. Into your world. I will remain. I thought you said “we”, Kilava.’
‘Summon your son. No.’
Her eyes flared.’Find someone else to join you in your last battle. I will stand with her,’ said Onrack.’You will not,’ hissed Kilava. ‘You are mortal—’
‘And you are not, my love? I am a Bonecaster. I bore a First Hero who became a god.’ Her face twisted but there was anguish in her eyes. ‘Husband, I shall indeed summon allies to this battle. But you, you must go with our son, and with Udinaas.’ She pointed a taloned finger at the Letherii. ‘Lead them into your world. Find a place for them— A place? Kilava, they are as the beasts of my world – there are no places left! You must find one.’
Do you hear this, Fear Sengar? I am not to be you after all. No, I am to be Hull Beddict, another doomed brother. ‘Follow me! Listen to all my promises! Die.’ ‘There is nowhere,’ he said, throat tight with grief, ‘In all the world…nowhere. We leave nothing well enough alone. Not ever. The Imass can make claim to empty lands, yes, until someone casts upon it a covetous eye. And then they will begin killing you. Collecting hides and scalps. They will poison your food. Rape your daughters. All in the name of pacification, or resettlement, or whatever other euphemistic bhederin shit they choose to spit out. And the sooner you’re all dead the better, so they can forget you ever existed in the first place. Guilt is the first weed we pluck, to keep the garden pretty and smelling sweet. That is what we do, and you cannot stop us – you never could. No one can.’
Kilava’s expression was flat. ‘You can be stopped. You will be stopped.’Udinaas shook his head.
‘Lead them into your world, Udinaas. Fight for them. I do not mean to fall here, and if you imagine I am not capable of protecting my children, then you do not know me. You condemn me, Kilava. Summon your son.’
‘No. Then you condemn yourself, Udinaas.’
‘Will you speak so coolly when my fate extends to your children as well?’When it seemed that no answer was forthcoming, Udinaas sighed and, turning about, set off for the outside, for the cold and the snow, and the whiteness and the freezing of time itself. To his anguish, Onrack followed.’My friend.’
‘I’m sorry, Onrack, I can’t tell you anything helpful – nothing to ease your mind. Yet,’ rumbled the warrior, ‘you believe you have an answer. Hardly.’
Errant’s nudge, it’s hopeless. Oh, watch me walk with such resolve. Lead you all, yes. Bold Hull Beddict has returned, to repeat his host of crimes one more time.Still hunting for heroes, Fear Sengar? Best turn away, now.’You will lead us, Udinaas. So it seems.’
Onrack sighed.Beyond the cave mouth, the snow whipped down.
He had sought a way out. He had flung himself from the conflagration. But even the power of the Azath could not breach Akhrast Korvalain, and so he had been cast down, his mind shattered, the fragments drowning in a sea of alien blood. Would he recover? Calm did not know for certain, but she intended to take no chances. Besides, the latent power within him remained dangerous, a threat to all their plans. It could be used against them, and that was not acceptable. No, better to turn this weapon, to take it into my own hand and wield it against the enemies I know I must soon face. Or, if that need proves unnecessary, kill him.Before either could ever happen, however, she would have to return here. And do what must be done. I would do it now, if not for the risk. Should he awaken, should he force my hand…no, too soon. We are not ready for that.Calm stood over the body, studying him, the angular features, the tusks, the faint flush that hinted of fever. Then she spoke to her ancestors. ‘Take him. Bind him. Weave your sorcery – he must remain unconscious. The risk of his awakening is too great. I will return before too long. Take him. Bind him.’ The chains of bones slithered out like serpents, plunging into the hard ground, ensnaring the body’s limbs, round the neck, across the torso, stitching him spread-eagled to this hilltop.She saw the bones trembling. ‘Yes, I understand. His power is too immense – that is why he must be kept unconscious. But there is something else I can do.’ She stepped closer and crouched. Her right hand darted out, the fingers stiff as blades, and stabbed a deep hole in the man’s side. She gasped and almost reeled back – was it too much? Had she awoken him?Blood seeped down from the wound.
But Icarium did not move.
Calm released a long, unsteady breath. ‘Keep the blood trickling,’ she told her ancestors. ‘Feed on his power.’Straightening, she lifted her gaze, studied the horizon on all sides. The old lands of the Elan. But they had done away with them, leaving nothing but the elliptical boulders that once held down the sides of tents, and the old blinds and runs from an even older time; of the great animals that once dwelt in this plain not even a single herd remained, domestic or wild. There was, she observed, admirable perfection in this new state of things. Without criminals, there can be no crime. Without crime, no victims. The wind moaned and none stood against it to give answer.Perfect adjudication, it tasted of paradise.Reborn. Paradise reborn. From this empty plain, the world. From this promise, the future.Soon.
She set out, leaving the hill behind, and with it the body of Icarium, bound to the earth in chains of bone. When she returned again to this place, she would be flush with triumph. Or in desperate need. If the latter, she would awaken him. If the former, she would grasp his head in her hands, and with a single, savage twist, break the abomination’s neck.
And no matter which decision awaited her, on that day her ancestors would sing with joy.Crooked upon the mound of rubbish, the stronghold’s throne was burning in the courtyard below. Smoke, grey and black, rose in a column until it lifted past the ramparts, where the wind tore it apart, shreds drifting like banners high above the ravaged valley.Half-naked children scampered across the battlements, their voices cutting sharp through the clatter and groan from the main gate, where the masons were repairing yesterday’s damage. A watch was turning over and the High Fist listened to commands snapping like flags behind him. He blinked sweat and grit from his eyes and leaned, with some caution, on the eroded merlon, his narrowed gaze scanning the well-ordered enemy camp spread out along the valley floor.From the rooftop platform of the square tower on his right a child of no more than nine or ten years was struggling with what had once been a signal kite, straining to hold it overhead, until with thudding wing-flaps the tattered silk dragon lifted suddenly into the air, spinning and wheeling. Ganoes Paran squinted up at it. The dragon’s long tail flashed silver in the midday sunlight. The same tail, he recalled, that had been in the sky above the stronghold the day of the conquest.What had the defenders been signalling then?
Distress. Help.He stared up at the kite, watched it climb ever higher. Until the wind-spun smoke devoured it.Hearing a familiar curse, he turned to see the Host’s High Mage struggling past a knot of children at the top of the stairs, his face twisted in disgust as if navigating a mob of lepers. The fish spine clenched between his teeth jerking up and down in agitation, he strode up to the High Fist.’I swear there’re more of them than yesterday, and how is that possible? They don’t leap out of someone’s hip already half grown, do they?’
‘Still creeping out from the caves,’ Ganoes Paran said, fixing his attention on the enemy ranks once more.Noto Boil grunted. ‘And that’s another thing. Whoever thought a cave was a decent place to live? Rank, dripping, crawling with vermin. There will be disease, mark my words, High Fist, and the Host has had quite enough of that. Instruct Fist Bude to assemble a clean-up crew,’ Paran said. ‘Which squads got into the rum store? Seventh, Tenth and Third, Second Company. Captain Sweetcreek’s sappers.’
Noto Boil plucked the spine from his mouth and examined the pink point. He then leaned over the wall and spat something red. ‘Aye, sir. Hers.’Paran smiled. ‘Well then. Aye, serves them right. So, if they stir up more vermin— They are children, mage, not rats. Orphaned children. Really? Those white bony ones make my skin crawl, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’ He reinserted the spine and it went up and down. ‘Tell me again how this is better than Aren.’
‘Noto Boil, as High Fist I answer only to the Empress.’The mage snorted. ‘Only she’s dead. Which means I answer to no one, not even you. And that’s the problem, nailed straight to the tree, sir. Nailed to the tree.’ Seemingly satisfied with that statement, he pointed with a nod and jab of the fish spine in his mouth. ‘Lots of scurrying about over there. Another attack coming?’Paran shrugged. ‘They’re still…upset.’
‘You know, if they ever decide to call our bluff— Who says I’m bluffing, Boil?’The man bit something that made him wince. ‘What I mean is, sir, no one’s denying you got talents and such, but those two commanders over there, well, if they get tired of throwing Watered and Shriven against us – if they just up and march themselves over here, in person, well…that’s what I meant, sir. I believe I gave you a command a short while ago.’Noto scowled. ‘Fist Bude, aye. The caves.’ He turned to leave and then paused and looked back. ‘They see you, you know. Standing here day after day. Taunting them.’
‘I wonder,’ Paran mused as he returned his attention to the enemy camp.’Sir?’
‘The Siege of Pale. Moon’s Spawn just sat over the city. Months, years. Its lord never showed himself, until the day Tayschrenn decided he was ready to try him. But here’s the thing, what if he had? What if, every damned day, he’d stepped out on to that ledge? So Onearm and all the rest could pause, look up, and see him standing there? Silver hair blowing, Dragnipur a black god-shitting stain spreading out behind him.’
Noto Boil worked his pick for a moment, and then said, ‘What if he had, sir?’
‘Fear, High Mage, takes time. Real fear, the kind that eats your courage, weakens your legs.’ He shook his head and glanced at Noto Boil. ‘Anyway, that was never his style, was it? I miss him, you know.’ He grunted. ‘Imagine that.’
‘Noto, do you understand anything I say? Ever?’
‘I try not to, sir. No offence. It’s that fear thing you talked about.’
‘Don’t trample any children on your way down.’
‘That’s up to them, High Fist. Besides, the numbers could do with some thinning.’
‘We’re an army, not a crèche, that’s all I’m saying. An army under siege. Outnumbered, overcrowded, confused, bored – except when we’re terrified.’ He plucked out his fish spine again, whistled in a breath between his teeth. ‘Caves filled with children – what were they doing with them all? Where are their parents?’
‘We should just hand them back, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’
‘Haven’t you noticed, today’s the first day they’re finally behaving like normal children. What does that tell you?’
‘Doesn’t tell me nothing, sir.’
‘Fist Rythe Bude. Now.’
‘Aye sir, on my way.’
Ganoes Paran settled his attention on the besieging army, the precise rows of tents like bone tesserae on a buckled floor, the figures scrambling tiny as fleas over the trebuchets and Great Wagons. The foul air of battle never seemed to leave this valley. They look ready to try us again. Worth another sortie? Mathok keeps skewering me with that hungry look. He wants at them. He rubbed at his face. The shock of feeling his beard caught him yet again, and he grimaced. No one likes change much, do they? But that’s precisely my point.
The silk dragon cut across his vision, diving down out of the reams of smoke. He glanced over to the boy on the tower, saw him struggling to keep his footing. A scrawny thing, one of the ones from up south. A Shriven. When it gets too much, lad, be sure to let go.
Seething motion now in the distant camp. The glint of pikes, the chained slaves marching out to the yokes of the Great Wagons, High Watered emerging surrounded by runners. Dust slowly lifting in the sky above the trebuchets as they were wheeled forward.
Aye, they’re still upset all right.
‘I knew a warrior once. Awakening from a wound to the head believing he was a dog, and what are dogs if not loyalty lacking wits? So here I stand, woman, and my eyes are filled with tears. For that warrior, who was my friend, who died thinking he was a dog. Too loyal to be sent home, too filled with faith to leave. These are the world’s fallen. When I dream, I see them in their thousands, chewing at their own wounds. So, do not speak to me of freedom. He was right all along. We live in chains. Beliefs to shackle, vows to choke our throats, the cage of a mortal life, this is our fate. Who do I blame? I blame the gods. And curse them with fire in my heart.’When she comes to me, when she says that it’s time, I shall take my sword in hand. You say that I am a man of too few words, but against the sea of needs, words are weak as sand. Now, woman, tell me again of your boredom, this stretch of days and nights outside a city obsessed with mourning. I stand before you, eyes leaking with the grief of a dead friend, and all I get from you is a siege of silence.’
She said, ‘You have a damned miserable way of talking your way into my bed, Karsa Orlong. Fine then, get in. Just don’t break me. I only break what I do not want. And if the days of this relationship are numbered? They are,’ he replied, and then he grinned. ‘But not the nights.’
Faintly, the distant city’s bells tolled their grief at the fall of darkness, and in the blue-lit streets and alleys, dogs howled.In the innermost chamber of the palace of the city’s lord, she stood in shadows, watching as he moved away from the hearth, brushing charcoal from his hands. There was no mistaking his legacy of blood, and it seemed the weight his father had borne was settling like an old cloak on his son’s surprisingly broad shoulders. She could never understand such creatures. Their willingness to martyrdom. The burdens by which they measured self-worth. This embrace of duty.He settled into the high-backed chair, stretched out his legs, the awakening fire’s flickering light licking the studs ringing his knee-high leather boots. Resting his head back, eyes closed, he spoke. ‘Hood knows how you managed to get in here, and I imagine Silanah’s hackles are lifting at this very moment, but if you are not here to kill me, there is wine on the table to your left. Help yourself.’Scowling, she edged out from the shadows. All at once the chamber seemed too small, its walls threatening to snap tight around her. To so willingly abandon the sky in favour of heavy stone and blackened timbers, no, she did not understand this at all. ‘Nothing but wine?’ Her voice cracked slightly, reminding her that it had been some time since she’d last used it.His elongated eyes opened and he observed her with unfeigned curiosity. ‘You prefer?’
‘Ale. Sorry. You will need to go to the kitchens below for that. Mare’s milk, then.’His brows lifted. ‘Down to the palace gate, turn left, walk half a thousand leagues. And that is just a guess, mind you.’Shrugging, she edged closer to the hearth. ‘The gift struggles.’
‘Gift? I do not understand.’She gestured at the flames.
‘Ah,’ he said, nodding. ‘Well, you stand in the breath of Mother Dark—’ and then he started. ‘Does she know you’re here? But then,’ he settled back again, ‘how could she not? Do you know who I am?’ she asked.’An Imass.’
‘I am Apsal’ara. His night within the Sword, his one night, he freed me. He had the time for that. For me.’ She found she was trembling.He was still studying her. ‘And so you have come here.’
She nodded.’You didn’t expect that from him, did you? No. Your father – he had no reason for regret.’He rose then, walked over to the table and poured himself a goblet of wine. He stood with the cup in hand, staring down at it. ‘You know,’ he muttered, ‘I don’t even want this. The need…to do something.’ He snorted. ‘“No reason for regret”, well… They look for him – in you. Don’t they?’
He grunted. ‘Even in my name you will find him. Nimander. No, I’m not his only son. Not even his favoured one – I don’t think he had any of those, come to think of it. Yet,’ and he gestured with the goblet, ‘there I sit, in his chair, before his fire. This palace feels like…feels like— His bones?’
Nimander flinched, looked away. ‘Too many empty rooms, that’s all. I need some clothes,’ she said.He nodded distractedly. ‘I noticed. Furs. Skins.’
‘You intend to stay, Apsal’ara?’
‘At your side, yes.’He turned at that, eyes searching her face.’But,’ she added, ‘I will not be his burden.’A wry smile. ‘Mine, then? Name your closest advisers, Lord.’
He swallowed half the wine, and then set the goblet down on the table. ‘The High Priestess. Chaste now, and I fear that does not serve her well. Skintick, a brother. Desra, a sister. Korlat, Spinnock, my father’s most trusted servants. Tiste Andii.’
‘Of course. And the one below?’
‘The one? Did he once advise you, Lord? Do you stand at the bars in the door’s window, to watch him mutter and pace? Do you torment him? I wish to know the man I will serve.’
She saw clear anger in his face. ‘Are you to be my jester now? I have heard of such roles in human courts. Will you cut the sinews of my legs and laugh as I stumble and fall?’ He bared his teeth. ‘If yours is to be my face of conscience, Apsal’ara, should you not be prettier?’She cocked her head, made no reply.Abruptly his fury collapsed, and his eyes fell away. ‘It is the exile he has chosen. Did you test the lock on that door? It is barred from within. But then, we have no problem forgiving him. Advise me, then. I am a lord and it is in my power to do such things. To pardon the condemned. Yet you have seen the crypts below us. How many prisoners cringe beneath my iron hand? One.’
‘And I cannot free him. Surely that is worth a joke or two. Is he mad?’
‘Then no, not even you can free him. Your father took scores for the chains of Dragnipur, scores just like this Clip. I dare say he did not call it freedom. Nor mercy,’ she replied. ‘They are beyond a lord’s reach, even that of a god. Then we fail them all. Both lords and gods – we fail them, our broken children.’This, she realized, would not be an easy man to serve. ‘He drew others to him – your father. Others who were not Tiste Andii. I remember, in his court, in Moon’s Spawn.’
Nimander’s eyes narrowed.She hesitated, unsure, and then resumed. ‘Your kind are blind to many things. You need others close to you, Lord. Servants who are not Tiste Andii. I am not one of these…jesters you speak of. Nor, it seems, can I be your conscience, ugly as I am to your eyes—’He held up a hand. ‘Forgive me for that, I beg you. I sought to wound and so spoke an untruth, just to see it sting. I believe I stung you first, my lord.’He reached again for the wine, and then stood looking into the hearth’s flames. ‘Apsal’ara, Mistress of Thieves. Will you now abandon that life, to become an adviser to a Tiste Andii lord? All because my father, at the very end, showed you mercy?’
‘I never blamed him for what he did. I gave him no choice. He did not free me out of mercy, Nimander. Then why?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. But I mean to find out. And this pursuit – for an answer – has brought you here, to Black Coral. To…me. Yes.’
‘And how long will you stand at my side, Apsal’ara, whilst I govern a city, sign writs, debate policies? Whilst I slowly rot in the shadow of a father I barely knew and a legacy I cannot hope to fill?’Her eyes widened. ‘Lord, that is not your fate.’
He wheeled to her. ‘Really? Why not? Please, advise me.’She cocked her head a second time, studied the tall warrior with the bitter, helpless eyes. ‘For so long you Tiste Andii prayed for Mother Dark’s loving regard. For so long you yearned to be reborn to purpose, to life itself. He gave it all back to you. All of it. He did what he knew had to be done, for your sake. You, Nimander, and all the rest. And now you sit here, in his chair, in his city, among his children. And her holy breath, it embraces you all. Shall I give you what I possess of wisdom? Very well. Lord, even Mother Dark cannot hold her breath for ever. She does not—’
‘When a child is born it must cry. You—’
‘With its voice, it enters the world, and it must enter the world. Now,’ she crossed her arms, ‘will you continue hiding here in this city? I am the Mistress of Thieves, Lord. I know every path. I have walked them all. And I have seen what there is to be seen. If you and your people hide here, Lord, you will all die. And so will Mother Dark. Be her breath. Be cast out. But we are in this world, Apsal’ara!’
‘One world is not enough. Then what must we do? What your father wanted. And what is that?’
She smiled. ‘Shall we find out? You have some nerve, Dragon Master.’
A child shrieked from somewhere down the walkway.Without turning, Ganoes Paran sighed and said, ‘You’re frightening the young ones again. Not nearly enough.’ The iron-shod heel of a cane cracked hard on the stone. ‘Isn’t that always the way, hee hee! I don’t think I appreciate the new title you’re giving me, Shadowthrone.’
A vague dark smear, the god moved up alongside Paran. The cane’s gleaming head swung its silver snarl out over the valley. ‘Master of the Deck of Dragons. Too much of a mouthful. It’s your…abuses. I so dislike unpredictable people.’ He giggled again. ‘People. Ascendants. Gods. Thick-skulled dogs. Children. Where is Cotillion, Shadowthrone? You should be tired of that question by now. I am tired of waiting for an answer. Then stop asking it!’ The god’s manic shriek echoed through the fortress, rattled wild along corridors and through hallways before echoing back to where they stood atop the wall.
‘That has certainly caught their attention,’ Paran observed, nodding to a distant barrow where two tall, almost skeletal figures now stood.Shadowthrone sniffed. ‘They see nothing.’ He hissed a laugh. ‘Blinded by justice.’Ganoes Paran scratched at his beard. ‘What do you want? Whence comes your faith? Excuse me?’
The cane rapped and skittered on the stone. ‘You sit with the Host in Aren, defying every imperial summons. And then you assault the Warrens with this.’ He suddenly cackled. ‘You should have seen the Emperor’s face! And the names he called you, my, even the court scribers cringed!’ He paused. ‘Where was I? Yes, I was berating you, Dragon Master. Are you a genius? I doubt it. Leaving me no choice but to conclude that you’re an idiot.’
‘Is that all? Is she out there?’
‘You don’t know? Do you?’
Paran slowly nodded. ‘Now I understand. It’s all about faith. A notion unfamiliar to you, I take it. This siege is meaningless! Is it?’
Shadowthrone hissed, one ethereal hand reaching out, as if to claw at Paran’s face. Instead, it hovered, twisted and then shrank into something vaguely fist-shaped. ‘You don’t understand anything!’
‘I understand this,’ Paran replied. ‘Dragons are creatures of chaos. There can be no Dragon Master, making the title meaningless.’
‘Exactly.’ Shadowthrone reached out to gather up a tangled snarl of spider’s web from beneath the wall’s casing. He held it up, apparently studying the cocooned remnant of a desiccated insect.
Miserable turd. ‘Here is what I know, Shadowthrone. The end begins here. Do you deny it? No, you can’t, else you wouldn’t be haunting me—’
‘Not even you can breach the power surrounding this keep,’ the god said. ‘You have blinded yourself. Open your gate again, Ganoes Paran, find somewhere else to lodge your army. This is pointless.’ He flung the web away and gestured with the head of his cane. ‘You cannot defeat those two, we both know that.’
‘But they don’t, do they?’
‘They will test you. Sooner or later.’
‘I’m still waiting.’
‘Perhaps even today.’
‘Will you wager on that, Shadowthrone?’
The god snorted. ‘You have nothing I want.’
‘Then I have nothing you want.’
‘Actually, as it happens…’
‘Do you see me holding a leash? He’s not here. He’s off doing other things. We’re allies, do you understand? An alliance. Not a damned marriage!’
Paran grinned. ‘Oddly enough, I wasn’t even thinking of Cotillion.’
‘A pointless wager in any case. If you lose you die. Or abandon your army to die, which I can’t see you doing. Besides, you’re nowhere near as devious as I am. You want this wager? Truly? Even when I lose, I win. Even when I lose… I win!’
Paran nodded. ‘And that has ever been your game, Shadowthrone. You see, I know you better than you think. Yes, I would wager with you. They shall not try me this day. We shall repulse their assault…again. And more Shriven and Watered will die. We shall remain the itch they cannot scratch.’
‘All because you have faith? Fool!’
‘Those are the conditions of this wager. Agreed?’
The god’s form seemed to shift about, almost vanishing entirely at one moment before reappearing, and the cane head struck chips from the merlon’s worn edge. ‘Agreed!’
‘If you win and I survive,’ resumed Paran, ‘you get what you want from me, whatever that is, and assuming it’s in my power to grant. If I win, I get what I want from you.’
‘If it’s in my power—’
Shadowthrone muttered something under his breath, and then hissed. ‘Very well, tell me what you want.’
And so Paran told him.
The god cackled. ‘And you think that’s in my power? You think Cotillion has no say in the matter?’
‘If he does, best you go and ask him, then. Unless,’ Paran added, ‘it turns out that, as I suspect, you have no idea where your ally has got to. In which case, Lord of Shadows, you will do as I ask, and answer to him later.’
‘I answer to no one!’ Another shriek, the echoes racing.
Paran smiled. ‘Why, Shadowthrone, I know precisely how you feel. Now, what is it you seek from me?’
‘I seek the source of your faith.’ The cane waggled. ‘That she’s out there. That she seeks what you seek. That, upon the Plain of Blood and Chains, you will find her, and stand facing her – as if you two had planned this all along, when I damned well know you haven’t! You don’t even like each other!’
‘Shadowthrone, I cannot sell you faith.’
‘So lie, damn you, just do it convincingly!’
He could hear silk wings flapping, the sound a shredding of the wind itself. A boy with a kite. Dragon Master. Ruler over all that cannot be ruled. Ride the howling chaos and call it mastery – who are you fooling? Lad, let go now. It’s too much. But he would not, he didn’t know how.
The man with the greying beard watches, and can say nothing.
He glanced to his left, but the shadow was gone.
A crash from the courtyard below drew him round. The throne, a mass of flames, had broken through the mound beneath it. And the smoke leapt skyward, like a beast unchained.
Elan Plain, west of Kolanse
THERE WAS LIGHT, AND THEN THERE WAS HEAT. He knelt, carefully taking each brittle fold in his hands, ensuring that every crease was perfect, that nothing of the baby was exposed to the sun. He drew the hood in until little more than a fist-?sized hole was left for her face, her features grey smudges in the darkness, and then he gently picked her up and settled her into the fold of his left arm. There was no hardship in this.
Bantam Press (UK)
They’d camped near the only tree in any direction, but not under it. The tree was a gamleh tree and the gamlehs were angry with people. In the dusk of the night before, its branches had been thick with fluttering masses of grey leaves, at least until they drew closer. This morning the branches were bare.
Facing west, Rutt stood holding the baby he had named Held. The grasses were colourless. In places they had been scoured away by the dry wind, wind that had then carved the dust out round their roots to expose the pale bulbs so the plants withered and died. After the dust and bulbs had gone, sometimes gravel was left. Other times it was just bedrock, black and gnarled. Elan Plain was losing its hair, but that was something Badalle might say, her green eyes fixed on the words in her head. There was no question she had a gift, but some gifts, Rutt knew, were curses in disguise.
Badalle walked up to him now, her sun-charred arms thin as stork necks, the hands hanging at her sides coated in dust and looking oversized beside her skinny thighs. She blew to scatter the flies crusting her mouth and intoned:
‘Rutt he holds Held Wraps her good
In the morning
And then up he stands—’
‘Badalle,’ he said, knowing she was not finished with her poem but knowing, as well, that she would not be rushed, ‘we still live.’
She nodded. These few words of his had become a ritual between them, although the ritual never lost its taint of surprise, its faint disbelief. The ribbers had been especially hard on them last night, but the good news was that maybe they had finally left the Fathers behind.
Rutt adjusted the baby he’d named Held in his arm, and then he set out, hobbling on swollen feet. Westward, into the heart of the Elan.
He did not need to look back to see that the others were following. Those who could, did. The ribbers would come for the rest. He’d not asked to be the head of the snake. He’d not asked for anything, but he was the tallest and might be he was the oldest. Might be he was thirteen, could be he was fourteen.
Behind him Badalle said,
‘And walks he starts
Out of that morning
With Held in his arms
And his ribby tail
It snakes out
Like a tongue
From the sun.
You need the longest
When searching for
Like the sun likes to do . . .’
Badalle watched him for a time, watched as the others fell into his wake. She would join the ribby snake soon enough. She blew at the flies, but of course they came right back, clustering round the sores puffing her lips, hopping up to lick at the corners of her eyes. She had been a beauty once, with these green eyes and her long fair hair like tresses of gold. But beauty bought smiles for only so long. When the larder gapes empty, beauty gets smudged. ‘And the flies,’ she whispered, ‘make patterns of suffering. And suffering is ugly.’
She watched Rutt. He was the head of the snake. He was the fangs, too, but that last bit was for her alone, her private joke.
This snake had forgotten how to eat.
She’d been among the ones who’d come up from the south, from the husks of homes in Korbanse, Krosis and Kanros. Even the isles of Otpelas. Some, like her, had walked along the coast of the Pelasiar Sea, and then to the western edge of Stet which had once been a great forest, and there they found the wooden road, Stump Road they sometimes called it. Trees cut on end to make flat circles, pounded into rows that went on and on. Other children then arrived from Stet itself, having walked the old stream beds wending through the grey tangle of shattered tree-?fall and diseased shrubs. There were signs that Stet had once been a forest to match its old name which was Forest Stet, but Badalle was not entirely convinced—all she could see was a gouged wasteland, ruined and ravaged. There were no trees standing anywhere. They called it Stump Road, but other times it was Forest Road, and that too was a private joke.
Of course, someone had needed lots of trees to make the road, so maybe there really had once been a forest there. But it was gone now.
At the northern edge of Stet, facing out on to the Elan Plain, they had come upon another column of children, and a day later yet another one joined them, down from the north, from Kolanse itself, and at the head of this one there had been Rutt. Carrying Held. Tall, his shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles protruding and the skin round them slack and stretched. He had large, luminous eyes. He still had all his teeth, and when the morning arrived, each morning, he was there, at the head. The fangs, and the rest just followed.
They all believed he knew where he was going, but they didn’t ask him since the belief was more important than the truth, which was that he was just as lost as all the rest.
‘All day Rutt holds Held
And keeps her
In his shadow.
Not to love Rutt
But Held doesn’t
And no one loves Held
Visto had come from Okan. When the starvers and the bone-?skinned inquisitors marched on the city his mother had sent him running, hand in hand with his sister who was two years older than he was, and they’d run down streets between burning buildings and screams filled the night and the starvers kicked in doors and dragged people out and did terrible things to them, while the bone-?skins watched on and said it was necessary, everything here was necessary.
They’d pulled his sister out of his grip, and it was her scream that still echoed in his skull. Each night since then, he had ridden it on the road of sleep, from the moment his exhaustion took him until the moment he awoke to the dawn’s pale face.
He ran for what seemed forever, westward and away from the starvers. Eating what he could, savaged by thirst, and when he’d outdistanced the starvers the ribbers showed up, huge packs of gaunt dogs with red-?rimmed eyes and no fear of anything. And then the Fathers, all wrapped in black, who plunged into the ragged camps on the roads and stole children away, and once he and a few others had come upon one of their old night-?holds and had seen for themselves the small split bones mottled blue and grey in the coals of the hearth, and so understood what the Fathers did to the children they took.
Visto remembered his first sight of Forest Stet, a range of denuded hills filled with torn-?up stumps, roots reminding him of one of the bone-?yards that ringed the city that had been his home, left after the last of the livestock had been slaughtered. And at that moment, looking upon what had once been a forest, Visto had realized that the entire world was now dead. There was nothing left and nowhere to go.
Yet onward he trudged, now just one among what must be tens of thousands, maybe even more, a road of children leagues long, and for all that died along the way, others arrived to take their place. He had not imagined that so many children existed. They were like a great herd, the last great herd, the sole source of food and nourishment for the world’s last, desperate hunters.
Visto was fourteen years old. He had not yet begun his growth-?spurt and now never would. His belly was round and rock hard, protruding so that his spine curved deep just above his hips. He walked like a pregnant woman, feet splayed, bones aching. He was full of Satra Riders, the worms inside his body endlessly swimming and getting bigger by the day. When they were ready—soon—they would pour out of him. From his nostrils, from the corners of his eyes, from his ears, from his belly button, his penis and his anus, and from his mouth. And to those who witnessed, he would seem to deflate, skin crinkling and collapsing down into weaving furrows running the length of his body. He would seem to instantly turn into an old man. And then he would die.
Visto was almost impatient for that. He hoped ribbers would eat his body and so take in the eggs the Satra Riders had left behind, so that they too would die. Better yet, Fathers—but they weren’t that stupid, he was sure—no, they wouldn’t touch him and that was too bad.
The Snake was leaving behind Forest Stet, and the wooden road gave way to a trader’s track of dusty, rutted dirt, wending out into the Elan. So, he would die on the plain, and his spirit would pull away from the shrunken thing that had been its body, and begin the long journey back home. To find his sister. To find his mother.
And already, his spirit was tired, so tired, of walking.
At day’s end, Badalle forced herself to climb an old Elan longbarrow with its ancient tree at the far end—grey leaves fluttering—from which she could turn and look back along the road, eastward, as far as her eyes could retrace the day’s interminable journey. Beyond the mass of the sprawled camp, she saw a wavy line of bodies stretching to the horizon. This had been an especially bad day, too hot, too dry, the lone waterhole a slough of foul, vermin-?ridden mud filled with rotting insect carcasses that tasted like dead fish.
She stood, looking for a long time on the ribby length of the Snake. Those that fell on the track had not been pushed aside, simply trampled on or stepped over, and so the road was now a road of flesh and bone, fluttering threads of hair, and, she knew, staring eyes. The Snake of Ribs. Chal Managal in the Elan tongue.
She blew flies from her lips. And voiced another poem.
‘On this morning We saw a
tree With leaves of grey
And when we got closer
The leaves flew away.
At noon the nameless boy With the
eaten nose Fell and did not move
And down came the leaves
At dusk there was another tree Grey
fluttering leaves Settling in for the
night Come the morning They’ll fly
Ampelas Rooted, the Wastelands
The machinery was coated in oily dust that gleamed in the darkness as the faint glow of the lantern light slid across it, conveying motion where none existed, the illusion of silent slippage, as of reptilian scales that seemed, as ever, cruelly appropriate. She was breathing hard as she hurried down the narrow corridor, ducking every now and then to avoid the lumpy black cables slung along from the ceiling. Her nose and throat stung with the rank metal reek of the close, motionless air. Surrounded by the exposed guts of Root, she felt besieged by the unknowable, the illimitable mystery of dire arcana. Yet, she had made these unlit, abandoned passageways her favoured haunt, knowing full well the host of self-?recriminating motivations that had guided her to such choices.
The Root invited the lost, and Kalyth was indeed lost. It was not that she could not find her way among the countless twisting corridors, or through the vast chambers of silent, frozen machines, evading the pits in the floors over which flagstones had never been installed, and staying clear of the chaos of metal and cables spilling out from unpanelled walls—no, she knew her way round, now, after months of wandering. This curse of helpless, hopeless bewilderment belonged to her spirit. She was not who they wanted her to be, and nothing she said could convince them of that.
She had been born in a tribe on the Elan Plain. She had grown into adulthood there, from child to girl, from girl to woman, and there had been nothing to set her apart, nothing to reveal her as unique, or gifted with unexpected talents. She had married a month after her first blooding. She had borne three children. She had almost loved her husband, and had learned to live with his faint disappointment in her, as her youthful beauty gave way to weary motherhood. She had, in truth, lived a life no different from that of her own mother, and so had seen clearly—without any special talent—the path of her life ahead, year after year, the slow decay of her body, the loss of suppleness, deepening lines upon her face, the sag of her breasts, the miserable weakening of her bladder. And one day she would find herself unable to walk, and the tribe would leave her where she was. To die in solitude, as dying was always a thing of solitude, as it must ever be. For the Elan knew better than the settled peoples of Kolanse, with their crypts and treasure troves for the dead, with the family servants and advisors all throat-?cut and packed in the corridor to the sepulchre, servants beyond life itself, servants for ever.
Everyone died in solitude, after all. A simple enough truth. A truth no one need fear. The spirits waited before they cast judgement upon a soul, waited for that soul—in its dying isolation—to set judgement upon itself, upon the life it had lived, and if peace came of that, then the spirits would show mercy. If torment rode the Wild Mare, why, then, the spirits knew to match it. When the soul faced itself, after all, it was impossible to lie. Deceiving arguments rang loud with falsehood, their facile weakness too obvious to ignore.
It had been a life. Far from perfect, but only vaguely unhappy. A life one could whittle down into something like contentment, even should the result prove shapeless, devoid of meaning.
She had been no witch. She had not possessed the breath of a shaman, and so would never be a Rider of the Spotted Horse. And when the end of that life had come for her and her people, on a morning of horror and violence, all that she had revealed then was a damning selfishness—in refusing to die, in fleeing all that she had known.
These were not virtues.
She possessed no virtues.
Reaching the central, spiral staircase—each step too shallow, too broad for human strides—she set off, her gasps becoming shallower and quicker with the exertion as she ascended level after level, up and out from Root, into the lower chambers of Feed, where she made use of the counterweighted ramp that lifted her by way of a vertical shaft past the seething vats of fungi, the stacked pens of orthen and grishol, drawing to a grating, shivering halt on the base level of Womb. Here, the cacophony of the young assailed her, the hissing shrieks of pain as the dread surgeries were performed—as destinies were decreed in bitter flavours—and, having regained some measure of her wind, she hastened to ascend past the levels of terrible outrage, the stench of wastes and panic that shone like oil on soft hides among shapes writhing on all sides—shapes she was careful to avoid with her eyes, hurrying with her hands clapped over her ears.
From Womb to Heart, where she now passed among towering figures that paid her no heed, and from whose paths she had to duck and dodge lest they simply trample her underclaw. Ve’Gath Soldiers stood flanking the central ramp, twice her height and in their arcane armour resembling the vast machinery of Root far below. Ornate grilled visors hid their faces save their fanged snouts, and the line of their jaws gave them ghastly grins, as if the implicit purpose of their breed delighted them. More so than the J’an or the K’ell, the true soldiers of the K’Chain Che’Malle frightened Kalyth to the very core of her being. The Matron was producing them in vast numbers.
No further proof was needed—war was coming.
That the Ve’Gath gave the Matron terrible pain, each one thrust out from her in a welter of blood and pungent fluid, had become irrelevant. Necessity, Kalyth well knew, was the cruellest master of all.
Neither soldier guarding the ramp impeded her as she strode on to it, the flat stone underfoot pitted with holes designed to hold claws, and from which cold air flowed up around her—the plunge in ambient temperature on the ramp evidently served somehow to quell the instinctive fear the K’Chain experienced as the conveyance lifted with squeals and groans up past the levels of I leart, ending at Fyes, the Inner
Keep, Acyl Nest and home of the Matron herself. Riding the ramp alone, however, the strain of the mechanism was less pronounced, and she heard little more than the rush of air that ever disoriented her with a sense of falling even as she raced upward, and the sweat on her limbs and upon her brow quickly cooled. She was shivering by the time the ramp slowed and then halted at the base level of Eyes.
J’an Sentinels observed her arrival from the foot of the half-?spiral stairs that led to the Nest. As with the Ve’Gath, they were seemingly indifferent to her—no doubt aware that she had been summoned, but even were that not so they would see in her no threat whatsoever to the Matron they had been bred to protect. Kalyth was not simply harmless; she was useless.
The hot, rank air engulfed her, cloying as a damp cloak, as she made her way to the stairs and began the awkward climb to the Matron’s demesne.
At the landing one last sentinel stood guard. At least a thousand years old, Bre’nigan was gaunt and tall—taller even than a Ve’Gath—and his multilayered scales bore a silvered patina that made the creature seem ghostly, as if hewn from sun-?bleached mica. Neither pupil nor iris was visible in his slitted eyes, simply a murky yellow, misshapen with cataracts. She suspected the bodyguard was blind, but in truth there was no way to tell, for when Bre’nigan moved, the J’an displayed perfect sureness, indeed, grace and liquid elegance. The long, vaguely curved sword slung through a brass ring at his hip—a ring half embedded in the creature’s hide—was as tall as Kalyth, the blade a kind of ceramic bearing a faint magenta hue, although the flawless edge gleamed silver.
She greeted Bre’nigan with a nod that elicited no reaction whatsoever, and then stepped past the sentinel.
Kalyth had hoped—no, she had prayed—and when she set eyes upon the two K’Chain standing before the Matron, and saw that they were unaccompanied, her spirits plummeted. Despair welled up, threatened to consume her. She fought to draw breath into her tight chest.
Beyond the newcomers and huge on the raised dais, Gunth’an Acyl, the Matron, emanated agony in waves—and in this she was unchanged and unchanging, but now Kalyth felt from the enormous queen a bitter undercurrent of . . . something.
Unbalanced, distraught, Kalyth only then discerned the state of the two K’Chain Che’Malle, the grievous wounds half-?healed, the chaotic skeins of scars on their flanks, necks and hips. The two creatures looked starved, driven to appalling extremes of deprivation and violence, and she felt an answering pang in her heart.
But such empathy was shortlived. The truth remained: the K’ell Hunter Sag’Churok and the One Daughter Gunth Mach had failed.
The Matron spoke in Kalyth’s mind, although it was not speech of any sort, simply the irrevocable imposition of knowledge and meaning. ‘Destriant Kalytb, an error in choice. We remain broken. I remain broken. You cannot mend, not alone, you cannot mend.’
Neither knowledge nor meaning proved gifts to Kalyth. For she could sense Gunth’an Acyl’s madness beneath the words. The Matron was undeniably insane. So too the course of action she had forced upon her children, and upon Kalyth herself. No persuasion was possible.
It was likely that Gunth’an Acyl comprehended Kalyth’s convictions—her belief that the Matron was mad—but this too made no difference. Within the ancient queen, there was naught but pain and the torment of desperate need.
‘Destriant Kalytb, they shall try again. What is broken must be mended.’
Kalyth did not believe Sag’Churok and the One Daughter could survive another quest. And that was another truth that failed in swaying Acyl’s imperative.
‘Destriant Kalyth, you shall accompany this Seeking. K’Chain Che’Malle are blind to recognition.’
And so, at last, they had reached what she had known to be inevitable, despite her hopes, her prayers. ‘I cannot,’ she whispered.
‘You shall. Guardians are chosen. K’ell Sag’Churok, Rythok, Kor Thuran. Shi’gal Gu’Rull. One Daughter Gunth Mach.’
‘I cannot,’ Kalyth said again. ‘I have no . .. talents. I am no Destriant—I am blind to whatever it is a Destriant needs. I cannot find a Mortal Sword, Matron. Nor a Shield Anvil. I am sorry.’
The enormous reptile shifted her massive weight, and the sound was as of boulders settling in gravel. Lambent eyes fixed upon Kalyth, radiating waves of stricture.
‘I have chosen you, Destriant Kalyth. It is my children who are blind. The failure is theirs, and mine. We have failed every war. I am the last Matron. The enemy seeks me. The enemy will destroy me. Your kind thrives in this world—to that not even my children are blind. Among you, I shall find new champions. My Destriant must find them. My Destriant leaves with the dawn.’
Kalyth said no more, knowing any response was useless. After a moment, she bowed and then walked, feebly, as if numb with drink, from the Nest.
A Shi’gal would accompany them. The significance of this was plain. There would be no failure this time. To fail was to receive the Matron’s displeasure. Her judgement. Three K’ell Hunters and the One Daughter, and Kalyth herself. If they failed . . . against the deadly wrath of a Shi’gal Assassin, they would not survive long.
Come the dawn, she knew, she would begin her last journey.
Out into the wastelands, to find Champions that did not even exist.
And this, she now understood, was the penance set upon her soul. She must be made to suffer for her cowardice. I should have died with the rest. With my husband. My children. I should not have run away. I now must pay for my selfishness.
The one mercy was that, when the final judgement arrived, it would come quickly. She would not even feel, much less see, the killing blow from the Shi’gal.
A Matron never produced more than three assassins at any one time, and their flavours were anathema, preventing any manner of alliance. And should one of them decide that the Matron must be expunged, the remaining two, by their very natures, would oppose it. Thus, each Shi’gal warded the Matron against the others. Sending one with the Seeking was a grave risk, for now there would be only two assassins defending her at any time.
Further proof of the Matron’s madness. To so endanger herself, whilst at the same time sending away her One Daughter—her only child with the potential to breed—was beyond all common sense.
But then, Kalyth was about to march to her own death. What did she care about these terrifying creatures? Let the war come. Let the mysterious enemy descend upon Ampelas Rooted and all the other Rooted, and cut down every last one of these K’Chain Che’Malle. The world would not miss them.
Besides, she knew all about extinction. The only real curse is when you find yourself the last of your kind. Yes, she well understood such a fate, and she knew the true depth of loneliness—no, not that paltry, shallow, self-?pitying game played out by people everywhere—but the cruel comprehension of a solitude without cure, without hope of salvation.
Yes, everyone dies alone. And there may be regrets. There may be sorrows. But these are as nothing to what comes to the last of a breed. For then there can be no evading the truth of failure. Absolute, crushing failure. The failure of one’s own kind, sweeping in from all sides, finding this last set of shoulders to settle upon, with a weight no single soul can withstand.
There had been a residual gift of sorts with the language of the K’Chain Che’Malle, and it now tortured Kalyth. Her mind had awakened, far beyond what she had known in her life before now. Knowledge was no blessing; awareness was a disease that stained the entire spirit. She could gouge out her own eyes and still see too much.
Did the shamans of her tribe feel such crushing guilt, when recognition of the end finally arrived? She remembered anew the bleakness in their eyes, and understood it in ways she had not comprehended before, in the life she had once lived. No, she could do naught but curse the
deadly blessings of these K’Chain Che’Malle. Curse them with all her heart, all her hate.
Kalyth began her descent. She needed the closeness of Root; she needed the decrepit machinery on all sides, the drip of viscid oils and the foul, close air. The world was broken. She was the last of the Elan, and now her sole remaining task on this earth was to oversee the annihilation of the last Matron of the K’Chain Che’Malle. Was there satisfaction in that? If so, it was an evil kind of satisfaction, making its taste all the more alluring.
Among her people, death arrived winging across the face of the setting sun, a black, tattered omen low in the sky. She would be that dread vision, that shred of the murdered moon. Driven to the earth as all things were, eventually.
This is all true.
See the bleakness in my eyes.
Shi’gal Gu’Rull stood upon the very edge of Brow, the night winds howling round his tall, lean form. Eldest among the Shi’gal, the assassin had fought and defeated seven other Shi’gal in his long service to Acyl. He had survived sixty-?one centuries of life, of growth, and was twice the height of a full-?grown K’ell Hunter, for unlike the Hunters—who were flavoured with mortality’s sudden end at the close of ten centuries—the Shi’gal possessed no such flaw in their making. They could, potentially, outlive the Matron herself.
Bred for cunning, Gu’Rull held no illusions regarding the sanity of Mother Acyl. Her awkward assumption of godly structures of faith ill fitted both her and all the K’Chain Che’Malle. The matron sought human worshippers, human servants, but humans were too frail, too weak to be of any real value. The woman Kalyth was proof enough of that, despite the flavour of percipience Acyl had given her—a percipience that should have delivered certitude and strength, yet had been twisted by a weak mind into new instruments of self-?recrimination and self-?pity.
That flavour would fade in the course of the Seeking, as Kalyth’s swift blood ever thinned Acyl’s gift, with no daily replenishment possible. The Destriant would revert to her innate intelligence, and that was a meagre one by any standard. She was already useless, as far as Gu’Rull was concerned. And upon this meaningless quest, she would become a burden, a liability.
Better to kill her as soon as possible, but alas, Mother Acyl’s command permitted no such flexibility. The Destriant must choose a Mortal Sword and a Shield Anvil from among her own kind.
Sag’Churok had recounted the failure of their first selection. The mass of flaws that had been their chosen one: Redmask of the Awl.
Gu’Rull did not believe the Destriant would fare any better. Humans might well have thrived in the world beyond, but they did so as would feral orthen, simply by virtue of profligate breeding. They possessed no other talents.
The Shi’gal lifted his foreshortened snout and opened his nostril slits to scent the chill night air. The wind came from the east and, as usual, it stank of death.
Gu’Rull had plundered the pathetic memories of the Destriant, and therefore knew that no salvation would be found to the east, on the plains known as the Elan. Sag’Churok and Gunth Mach had set out westward, into the Awl’dan, and there too they found only failure. The north was a forbidding, lifeless realm of ice, tortured seas and bitter cold.
Thus, they must journey south.
The Shi’gal had not ventured outside Ampelas Rooted in eight centuries. In that short span of time, it was likely that little had changed in the region known to humans as the Wastelands. Nonetheless, some advance scouting was tactically sound.
With this in mind, Gu’Rull unfolded his month-?old wings, spreading the elongated feather-?scales so that they could flatten and fill out under the pressure of the wind.
And then the assassin dropped over the sheer edge of Brow, wings snapping out to their fullest extent, and there arose the song of flight, a low, moaning whistle that was, for the Shi’gal, the music of freedom.
Leaving Ampelas Rooted … it had been too long since Gu’Rull felt this . . . this exhilaration.
The two new eyes beneath the lines of his jaw now opened for the first time, and the compounded vision—of the sky ahead and the ground below—momentarily confused the assassin, but after a time Gu’Rull was able to enforce the necessary separation, so that the vistas found their proper relationship to one another, creating a vast panorama of the world beyond.
Acyl’s new flavours were ambitious, indeed, brilliant. Was such creativity implicit in madness? Perhaps.
Did that possibility engender hope in Gu’Rull? No. Hope was not possible.
The assassin soared through the night, high above a blasted, virtually lifeless landscape. Like a shred of the murdered moon.
Bantam Press (UK)
Surrounded in a city of blue fire, she stood alone on the balcony. The sky’s darkness was pushed away, an unwelcome guest on this the first night of the Gedderone Fete. Throngs filled the streets of Darujhistan, happily riotous, good- natured in the calamity of one year’s ending and another’s beginning. The night air was humid and pungent with countless scents.
There had been banquets. There had been unveilings of eligible young men and maidens. Tables laden with exotic foods, ladies wrapped in silks, men and women in preposterous uniforms all glittering gilt – a city with no standing army bred a plethora of private militias and a chaotic proliferation of high ranks held, more or less exclusively, by the nobility.
Among the celebrations she had attended this evening, on the arm of her husband, she had not once seen a real officer of Darujhistan’s City Watch, not one genuine soldier with a dusty cloak- hem, with polished boots bearing scars, with a sword- grip of plain leather and a pommel gouged and burnished by wear. Yet she had seen, bound high on soft, well- fed arms, torcs in the manner of decorated soldiers among the Malazan army – soldiers from an empire that had, not so long ago, provided for Darujhistan mothers chilling threats to belligerent children. ‘Malazans, child! Skulking in the night to steal foolish children! To make you slaves for their terrible Empress – yes! Here in this very city!’
But the torcs she had seen this night were not the plain bronze or faintly etched silver of genuine Malazan decorations and signi.ers of rank, such as appeared like relics from some long- dead cult in the city’s market stalls. No, these had been gold, studded with gems, the blue of sapphire being the commonest hue even among the coloured glass, blue like the blue .re for which the city was famous, blue to proclaim some great and brave service to Darujhistan itself.
Her fingers had pressed upon one such torc, there on her husband’s arm, although there was real muscle beneath it, a hardness to match the contemptuous look in his eyes as he surveyed the clusters of nobility in the vast humming hall, with the proprietary air he had acquired since attaining the Council. The contempt had been there long before and if anything had grown since his latest and most triumphant victory.
Daru gestures of congratulation and respect had swirled round them in their stately passage through the crowds, and with each acknowledgement her husband’s face had grown yet harder, the arm beneath her fingers drawing ever tauter, the knuckles of his hands whitening above his sword- belt where the thumbs were tucked into braided loops in the latest fashion among duellists. Oh, he revelled in being among them now; indeed, in being above many of them. But for Gorlas Vidikas, this did not mean he had to like any of them. The more they fawned, the deeper his contempt, and that he would have been offended without their obsequy was a contradiction, she suspected, that a man like her husband was not wont to entertain.
The nobles had eaten and drunk, and stood and posed and wandered and paraded and danced themselves into swift exhaustion, and now the banquet halls and staterooms echoed with naught but the desultory ministrations of servants. Beyond the high walls of the estates, however, the common folk rollicked still in the streets. Masked and half naked, they danced on the cobbles – the riotous whirling steps of the Flaying of Fander – as if dawn would never come, as if the hazy moon itself would stand motionless in the abyss in astonished witness to their revelry. City Watch patrols simply stood back and observed, drawing dusty cloaks about their bodies, gauntlets rustling as they rested hands on truncheons and swords.
On the balcony where she stood, the fountain of the unlit garden directly below chirped and gurgled to itself, buffered by the estate’s high, solid walls from the raucous festivities they had witnessed during the tortured carriage ride back home. Smeared moonlight struggled in the softly swirling pool surrounding the fountain.
The blue fire was too strong this night, too strong even for the mournful moon. Darujhistan itself was a sapphire, blazing in the torc of the world. And yet its beauty, and all its delighted pride and its multitudinous voice, could not reach her tonight.
This night, Lady Vidikas had seen her future. Each and every year of it. There on her husband’s hard arm. And the moon, well, it looked like a thing of the past, a memory dimmed by time, yet it had taken her back.
To a balcony much like this one in a time that now seemed very long ago.
Lady Vidikas, who had once been Challice Estraysian, had just seen her future. And was discovering, here in this night and standing against this rail, that the past was a better place to be.
Talk about the worst night yet to run out of Rhivi flatbread. Swearing under her breath, Picker pushed her way through the crowds of the Lakefront market, the mobs of ferociously hungry, drunk revellers, using her elbows when she needed to and glowering at every delirious smile swung her way, and came out eventually at the mouth of a dingy alley heaped ankle- deep in rubbish. Somewhere just to the south of Borthen Park. Not quite the route back to the bar she would have preferred, but the fete was in full frenzy. Wrapped package of flatbread tucked under her left arm, she paused to tug loose the tangles of her heavy cloak, scowled on seeing a fresh stain from a careless passer- by – some grotesque Gadrobi sweetcake – tried wiping it off which only made it worse, then, her mood even fouler, set out through the detritus.
With the Lady’s pull, Bluepearl and Antsy had fared better in finding Saltoan wine and were even now back at K’rul’s. And here she was, twelve streets and two wall passages away with twenty or thirty thousand mad fools in between. Would her companions wait for her? Not a chance. Damn Blend and her addiction to Rhivi flatbread! That and her sprained ankle had conspired to force Picker out here on the first night of the fete – if that ankle truly was sprained, and she had her doubts since Mallet had just squinted down at the offending appendage, then shrugged.
Mind you, that was about as much as anyone had come to expect from Mallet. He’d been miserable since the retirement, and the chance of the sun’s rising any time in the healer’s future was about as likely as Hood’s forgetting to tally the count. And it wasn’t as if he was alone in his misery, was it?
But where was the value in feeding her ill temper with all these well- chewed thoughts? Well, it made her feel better, that’s what.
Dester Thrin, wrapped tight in black cloak and hood, watched the big- arsed woman kicking her way through the rubbish at the other end of the alley. He’d picked her up coming out of the back door of K’rul’s Bar, the culmination of four nights positioned in the carefully chosen, darkness- shrouded vantage point from which he could observe that narrow postern.
His clan- master had warned that the targets were all ex- soldiers, but Dester Thrin had seen little to suggest that any of them had kept .t and trim. They were old, sagging, rarely sober, and this one, well, she wore that huge, thick woollen cloak because she was getting heavy and it clearly made her self- conscious.
Following her through the crowds had been relatively easy – she was a head taller than the average Gadrobi, and the route she took to this decrepit Rhivi market in Lakefront seemed to deliberately avoid the Daru streets, some strange affectation that would, in a very short time, prove fatal.
Dester’s own Daru blood had permitted him a clear view of his target, pushing purposefully through the heaving press of celebrants.
He set out to traverse the alley once his target exited at the far end. Swiftly padding at a hunter’s pace, he reached the alley mouth and edged out, in time to see the woman move into the passageway through Second Tier Wall, with the tunnel through Third just beyond.
The Guild’s succession wars, following the disappearance of Vorcan, had finally been settled, with only a minimum amount of spilled blood. And Dester was more or less pleased with the new Grand Master, who was both vicious and clever where most of the other aspirants had been simply vicious. At last, an assassin of the Guild did not have to be a fool to feel some optimism regarding the future.
This contract was a case in point. Straightforward, yet one sure to earn Dester and the others of his clan considerable prestige upon its summary completion.
He brushed his gloved hands across the pommels of his daggers, the weapons slung on baldrics beneath his arms. Ever reassuring, those twin blades of Daru steel with their ferules filled with the thick, pasty poison of Moranth tralb.
Poison was now the preferred insurance for a majority of the Guild’s street killers, and indeed for more than a few who scuttled Thieves’ Road across the rooftops. There’d been an assassin, close to Vorcan herself, who had, on a night of betrayal against his own clan, demonstrated the deadliness of fighting without magic. Using poison, the assassin had proved the superiority of such mundane substances in a single, now legendary night of blood.
Dester had heard that some initiates in some clans had raised hidden shrines to honour Rallick Nom, creating a kind of cult whose adherents employed secret gestures of mutual recognition within the Guild. Of course, Seba Krafar, the new Grand Master, had in one of his very first pronouncements outlawed the cult, and there had been a cull of sorts, with five suspected cult leaders greeting the dawn with smiling throats.
Still, Dester had since heard enough hints to suggest that the cult was far from dead. It had just burrowed deeper.
In truth, no one knew which poisons Rallick Nom had used, but Dester believed it was Moranth tralb, since even the smallest amount in the bloodstream brought unconsciousness, then a deeper coma that usually led to death. Larger quantities simply speeded up the process and were a sure path through Hood’s Gate.
The big- arsed woman lumbered on.
Four streets from K’rul’s Bar – if she was taking the route he believed she was taking – there’d be a long, narrow alley to walk up, the inside face of Third Tier Wall Armoury on the left, and on the right the high wall of the bath- house thick and solid with but a few scattered, small windows on upper floors, making the unlit passage dark.
He would kill her there.
Perched on a corner post’s finial at one end of the high wall, Chillbais stared with stony eyes on the tattered wilds beyond. Behind him was an overgrown garden with a shallow pond recently rebuilt but already unkempt, and toppled columns scattered about, bearded in moss. Before him, twisted trees and straggly branches with crumpled dark leaves dangling like insect carcasses, the ground beneath rumpled and matted with greasy grasses; a snaking path of tilted pavestones leading up to a squat, brooding house bearing no architectural similarity to any other edifice in all of Darujhistan.
Light was rare from the cracks between those knotted shutters, and when it did show it was dull, desultory. The door never opened.
Among his kin, Chillbais was a giant. Heavy as a badger, with sculpted muscles beneath the prickly hide. His folded wings were very nearly too small to lift him skyward, and each sweep of those leathery fans forced a grunt from the demon’s throat.
This time would be worse than most. It had been months since he’d last moved, hidden as he was from prying eyes in the gloom of an overhanging branch from the ash tree in the estate garden at his back. But when he saw that .ash of movement before him, that whispering flow of motion, out from the gnarled, black house and across the path, even as earth erupted in its wake to open a succession of hungry pits, even as roots writhed out seeking to ensnare this fugitive, Chillbais knew his vigil was at an end.
The shadow slid out to crouch against the low wall of the Azath House, seemed to watch those roots snaking closer for a long moment, then rose and, .owing like liquid night over the stone wall, was gone.
Grunting, Chillbais spread his creaking wings, shook the creases loose from the sheets of membrane between the rib- like fingers, then leapt forward, out from beneath the branch, catching what air he could, then flapping frenziedly – his grunts growing savage – until he slammed hard into the mulched ground.
Spitting twigs and leaves, the demon scrambled back for the estate wall, hearing how those roots spun round, lashing out for him. Claws digging into mortar, Chillbais scrabbled back on to his original perch. Of course, there had been no real reason to fear. The roots never reached beyond the Azath’s own wall, and a glance back assured him- Squealing, Chillbais launched back into the air, this time out over the estate garden.
p; Oh, no one ever liked demons!
Cool air above the overgrown fountain, then, wings thudding hard, heaving upward, up into the night.
A word, yes, for his master. A most extraordinary word. So unexpected, so incendiary, so fraught!
Chillbais thumped his wings as hard as he could, an obese demon in the darkness above the blue, blue city.
Zechan Throw and Giddyn the Quick had found the perfect place for the ambush. Twenty paces down a narrow street two recessed doorways faced each other. Four drunks had staggered past a few moments earlier, and none had seen the assassins standing motionless in the inky darkness. And now that they were past and the way was clear . . . a simple step forward and blood would flow.
The two targets approached. Both carried clay jugs and were weaving slightly. They seemed to be arguing, but not in a language Zechan understood. Malazan, likely. A quick glance to the left. The four drunks were just leaving the far end, plunging into a motley crowd of revellers.
Zechan and Giddyn had followed the two out from K’rul’s Bar, watching on as they found a wine merchant, haggled over what the woman demanded for the jugs of wine, settled on a price, then set out on their return leg of the journey.
Somewhere along the way they must have pulled the stoppers on the jugs, for now they were loud in their argument, the slightly taller one, who walked pigeon- toed and was blue- skinned – Zechan could just make him out from where he stood – pausing to lean against a wall as if moments from losing his supper.
He soon righted himself, and it seemed the argument was suddenly over. Straightening, the taller one joined the other and, from the sounds of their boots in the rubbish, set out by his side.
Nothing messy, nothing at all messy. Zechan lived for nights like this.
Dester moved quickly, his moccasins noiseless on the cobbles, rushing for the woman striding oblivious ahead of him. Twelve paces, eight, four-
She spun, cloak whirling out.
A blurred sliver of blued steel, .ickering a slashing arc. Dester skidded, seeking to pull back from the path of that weapon – a longsword, Beru fend! – and something clipped his throat. He twisted and ducked down to his left, both daggers thrust out to damn her should she seek to close.
Heat was spilling down his neck, down his chest beneath his deerhide shirt. The alley seemed to waver before his eyes, darkness curling in. Dester Thrin staggered, flailing with his daggers. A boot or mailed fist slammed into the side of his head and there was more splashing on to the cobbles. He could no longer grip the daggers. He heard them skitter on stone.
Blind, stunned, lying on the hard ground. It was cold.
A strange lassitude filled his thoughts, spreading out, rising up, taking him away.
Picker stood over the corpse. The red smear on the tip of her sword glistened, drawing her gaze, and she was reminded, oddly enough, of poppies after a rain. She grunted. The bastard had been quick, almost quick enough to evade her slash. Had he done so, she might have had some work to do. Still, unless the fool was skilled in throwing those puny daggers, she would have cut him down eventually.
Pushing through Gadrobi crowds risked little more than cutpurses. As a people they were singularly gentle. In any case, it made such things as picking up someone trailing her that much easier – when that someone wasn’t Gadrobi, of course.
The man dead at her feet was Daru. Might as well have worn a lantern on his hooded head, the way it bobbed above the crowd in her wake.
Even so . . . she frowned down at him. You wasn’t no thug. Not with daggers like those.
Sheathing her sword and pulling her cloak about her once more, ensuring that it well hid the scabbarded weapon which, if discovered by a Watch, would see her in a cell with a damned huge fine to pay, Picker pushed the wrapped stack of flatbread tighter under her left arm, then set out once more.
Blend, she decided, was in a lot of trouble.
Zechan and Giddyn, in perfect unison, launched themselves out from the alcoves, daggers raised then thrusting down.
A yelp from the taller one as Giddyn’s blades plunged deep. The Malazan’s knees buckled and vomit sprayed from his mouth as he sank down, the jug crashing to a rush of wine. Zechan’s own weapons punched through leather, edges grating along ribs. One for each lung. Tearing the daggers loose, the assassin stepped back to watch the red- haired one fall.
A short sword plunged into the side of Zechan’s neck.
He was dead before he hit the cobbles.
Giddyn, looming over the kneeling Malazan, looked up.
Two hands closed round his head. One clamped tight over his mouth, and all at once his lungs were full of water. He was drowning. The hand tightened, fingers pinching his nostrils shut. Darkness rose within him, and the world slowly went away.
Antsy snorted as he tugged his weapon free, then added a kick to the assassin’s face to punctuate its frozen expression of surprise.
Bluepearl grinned across at him. ‘See the way I made the puke spray out? If that ain’t genius I don’t know what-‘
‘Shut up,’ Antsy snapped. ‘These weren’t muggers looking for a free drink, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Frowning, Bluepearl looked down at the body before him with the water leaking from its mouth and nose. The Napan ran a hand over his shaved pate. ‘Aye. But they was amateurs anyway. Hood, we saw those breath plumes from halfway down the street. Which stopped when those drunks crossed, telling us they wasn’t the target. Meaning-‘
‘We were. Aye, and that’s my point.’
‘Let’s get back,’ Bluepearl said, suddenly nervous.
Antsy tugged at his moustache, then nodded. ‘Work up that illusion again, Bluepearl. Us ten paces ahead.’
‘I ain’t no sergeant no more.’ ‘Yeah? Then why you still barking orders?’
By the time Picker arrived within sight of the front entrance to K’rul’s Bar, her rage was incandescent. She paused, scanned the area. Spotted someone leaning in shadows across from the bar’s door. Hood drawn up, hands hidden.
Picker set off towards the figure.
She was noticed with ten paces between them, and she saw the man straighten, saw the growing unease betrayed by a shift of those covered arms, the cloak rippling. A half- dozen celebrants careened between them, and as they passed, Picker took the last stride needed to reach the man.
What ever he had been expecting – perhaps her accosting him with some loud accusation – it was clear that he was unprepared for the savage kick she delivered between his legs. As he was going down she stepped closer and slapped her right hand against the back of his head, adding momentum to the man’s collapse. When his forehead cracked against the cobbles there was a sickly crunch. The body began to spasm where it lay.
A passer- by paused, peered down at the twitching body.
‘You!’ Picker snarled. ‘What’s your damned problem?’
Surprise, then a shrug. ‘Nothing, sweetie. Served ‘im right, standin’ there like that. Say, would y
ou marry me?’
As the stranger ambled on, bemoaning his failure at love, Picker looked around, waiting to see if there was someone else . . . bolting from some hidden place nearby. If it had already happened, then she had missed it. More likely, the unseen eyes watching all of this were peering down from a rooftop somewhere.
The man on the ground had stopped twitching.
Spinning round, she headed for the entrance to K’rul’s Bar.
1154th Year of Burn’s Sleep
96th Year of the Malazan Empire
The Last Year of Emperor Kellanved’s Reign
Bantam Press (UK)
THE STAINS OF RUST SEEMED TO MAP BLOOD SEAS ON THE BLACK, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.
The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. The Vane’s silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock’s Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory’s heights.
Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock’s Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist’s holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.
For Ganoes, the ancient fortification overlooking the city was too familiar to be of interest. This visit was his third in as many years; he’d long ago explored the courtyard with its heaved cobblestones, the Old Keep-now a stable, its upper floor home to pigeons and swallows and bats-and the citadel where even now his father negotiated the island export tithe with the harbour officials. In the last instance, of course, a goodly portion was out of bounds, even for a son of a noble house; for it was in the citadel that the Fist had his residence, and in the inner chambers that such affairs of the Empire as concerned this island were conducted.
Mock’s Hold forgotten behind him, Ganoes’ attention was on the tattered city below, and the riots that ran through its poorest quarter.
Mock’s Hold stood atop a cliff. The higher land of the Pinnacle was reached by a switchback staircase carved into the limestone of the cliff wall. The drop to the city below was eighty armspans or more, with the Hold’s battered wall adding still another six. The Mouse was at the city’s inland edge, an uneven spreading of hovels and overgrown tiers cut in half by the silt-heavy river that crawled towards the harbour. With most of Malaz City between Ganoes’ position and the riots, it was hard to make out any detail, beyond the growing pillars of black smoke.
It was midday, but the flash and thundering concussion of magery made the air seem dark and heavy.
Armour clanking, a soldier appeared along the wall near him. The man leaned vambraced forearms on the battlement, the scabbard of his longsword scraping against the stones. ‘Glad for your pure blood, eh?’ he asked, grey eyes on the smouldering city below.
The boy studied the soldier. He already knew the complete regimental accoutrements of the Imperial Army, and the man at his side was a commander in the Third-one of the Emperor’s own, an elite. On his dark grey shoulder-cloak was a silver brooch: a bridge of stone, lit by ruby flames. A Bridgeburner.
High-ranking soldiers and officials of the Empire commonly passed through Mock’s Hold. The island of Malaz remained a vital port of call, especially now that the Korel wars to the south had begun. Ganoes had brushed shoulders with more than his share, here and in the capital, Unta.
‘Is it true, then?’ Ganoes asked boldly.
‘Is what true?’
‘The First Sword of Empire. Dassem Ultor. We heard in the capital before we left. He’s dead. Is it true? Is Dassem dead?’
Subterranean Press (USA)
The man seemed to flinch, his gaze unwavering on the Mouse. ‘Such is war,’ he muttered, under his breath, as if the words were not meant for anyone else’s ears.
‘You’re with the Third. I thought the Third was with him, in Seven Cities. At Y’Ghatan-‘
‘Hood’s Breath, they’re still looking for his body in the still-hot rubble of that damned city, and here you, are, a merchant’s son three thousand leagues from Seven Cities with information only a few are supposed to possess.’ He still did not turn. ‘I know not your sources, but take my advice and keep what you know to yourself.’
Ganoes shrugged. ‘It’s said he betrayed a god.’
Finally the man faced him. His face was scarred, and something that might have been a burn marred his jaw and left cheek. For all that, he looked young for a commander. ‘Heed the lesson there, son.’
‘Every decision you make can change the world. The best life is the one the gods don’t notice. You want to live free, boy, live quietly.’
‘I want to be a soldier. A hero.’
‘You’ll grow out of it.’
Mock’s Vane squealed as a wayward gust from the harbour cleared the grainy smoke. Ganoes could now smell rotting fish and the waterfront’s stink of humanity.
Another Bridgeburner, this one with a broken, scorched fiddle strapped to his back, came up to the commander. He was wiry and if anything younger-only a few years older than Ganoes himself, who was twelve. Strange pockmarks covered his face and the backs of his hands, and his armour was a mixture of foreign accoutrements over a threadbare, stained uniform. A shortsword hung in a cracked wooden scabbard at his hip. He leaned against the merlon beside the other man with the ease of long familiarity.
Bantam Press (UK)
‘It’s a bad smell when sorcerers panic,’ the newcomer said. ‘They’re losing control down there. Hardly the need for a whole cadre of mages, just to sniff out a few wax-witches.’
The commander sighed. ‘Thought to wait to see if they’d rein themselves in.’
The soldier grunted. ‘They are all new, untested. This could scar some of them for ever. Besides,’ he added, ‘more than a few down there are following someone else’s orders.’
‘A suspicion, no more.’
‘The proof’s right there,’ the other man said. ‘In the Mouse.’
‘You’re too protective,’ the man said. ‘Surly says it’s your greatest weakness.’
‘Surly’s the Emperor’s concern, not mine.’
A second grunt answered that. ‘Maybe all of us before too long.’
The commander was silent, slowly turning to study his companion.
The man shrugged. ‘Just a feeling. She’s taking a new name, you know. Laseen.’
‘Napan word. Means-‘
‘I know what it means.’
‘Hope the Emperor does, too.’
Ganoes said, ‘It means Thronemaster.’
The two looked down at him.
The wind shifted again, making the iron demon groan on its perch-a smell of cool stone from the Hold itself. ‘My tutor’s Napan,’ Ganoes explained.
A new voice spoke behind them, a woman’s, imperious and cold.
Both soldiers turned, but without haste. The commander said to his companion, ‘The new company needs help down there. Send Dujek and a wing, and get some sappers to contain the fires-wouldn’t do to have the whole city burn.’
The soldier nodded, marched away, sparing the woman not a single glance.
She stood with two bodyguards near the portal in the citadel’s square tower. Her dusky blue skin marked her as Napan, but she was otherwise plain, wearing a saltstained grey robe, her mousy hair cut short like a soldier’s, her features thin and unmemorable. It was, however, her bodyguards that sent a shiver through Ganoes. They flanked her: tall, swathed in black, hands hidden in sleeves, hoods shadowing their faces. Ganoes had never seen a Claw before, but he instinctively knew these creatures to be acolytes of the cult. Which meant the woman was…
The commander said, ‘It’s your mess, Surly. Seems I’ll have to clean it up.’
Ganoes was shocked at the absence of fear-the near-contempt in the soldier’s voice. Surly had created the Claw, making it a power rivalled only by the Emperor himself.
‘That is no longer my name, Commander.’
The man grimaced. ‘So I’ve heard. You must be feeling confident in the Emperor’s absence. He’s not the only one who remembers you as nothing more than a serving-wench down in the Old Quarter. I take it the gratitude’s washed off long since.’
The woman’s face betrayed no change of expression to mark if the man’s words had stung. ‘The command was a simple one,’ she said. ‘It seems your new officers are unable to cope with the task.’
‘It’s got out of hand,’ the commander said. ‘They’re unseasoned-‘
‘Not my concern,’ she snapped. ‘Nor am I particularly disappointed. Loss of control delivers its own lessons to those who oppose us.’
‘Oppose? A handful of minor witches selling their meagre talents-to what sinister end?’
‘Finding the coraval schools on the shoals in the bay.’
‘Hood’s Breath, woman, hardly a threat to the Empire.’
‘Unsanctioned. Defiant of the new laws-‘
‘Your laws, Surly. They won’t work, and when the Emperor returns he’ll quash your prohibition of sorcery, you can be certain of that.’
The woman smiled coldly. ‘You’ll be pleased to know that the Tower’s signalled the approach of the transports for your new recruits. We’ll not miss you or your restless, seditious soldiers, Commander.’
Without another word, or a single glance spared for the boy standing beside the commander, she swung about and, flanked by her silent bodyguards, re-entered the citadel.
Ganoes and the commander returned their attention to the riot in the Mouse. Flames were visible, climbing through the smoke.
‘One day I’ll be a soldier,’ Ganoes said.
The man grunted. ‘Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking up the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.’
Ganoes scowled. ‘You’re not like the other soldiers I’ve talked to. You sound more like my father.’
‘But I’m not your father,’ the man growled.
‘The world,’ Ganoes said, ‘doesn’t need another Izrine merchant.’ The commander’s eyes narrowed, gauging. He opened his mouth to make the obvious reply, then shut it again.
Ganoes Paran looked back down at the burning quarter, pleased with himself. Even a boy, Commander, can make a point.
Mock’s Vane swung once more. Hot smoke rolled over the wall, engulfing them. A reek of burning cloth, scorched paint and stone, and now of something sweet. ‘An abattoir’s caught fire,’ Ganoes said. ‘Pigs.’
The commander grimaced. After a long moment he sighed and leaned back down on the merlon. ‘As you say, boy, as you say.’
What see you in the horizon’s bruised smear
That cannot be blotted out
By your raised hand?
Toc the Younger
1163rd Year of Burn’s Sleep
Ninth Year of the Rule of Empress Laseen
Year of the Cull
Bantam Press (UK)
He came shambling into Judgement’s Round from the Avenue of Souls, a misshapen mass of flies. Seething lumps crawled on his body in mindless migration, black and glittering and occasionally falling away in frenzied clumps that exploded into fragmented flight as they struck the cobbles.
The Thirsting Hour was coming to a close and the priest staggered in its wake, blind, deaf and silent. Honouring his god on this day, the servant of Hood, Lord of Death, had joined his companions in stripping naked and smearing himself in the blood of executed murderers, blood that was stored in giant amphorae lining the walls of the temple’s nave. The brothers had then moved in procession out onto the streets of Unta to greet the god’s sprites, enjoining the mortal dance that marked the Season of Rot’s last day.
The guards lining the Round parted to let the priest pass, then parted further for the spinning, buzzing cloud that trailed him. The sky over Unta was still more grey than blue, as the flies that had swept at dawn into the capital of the Malazan Empire now rose, slowly winging out over the bay towards the salt marshes and sunken islands beyond the reef. Pestilence came with the Season of Rot, and the Season had come an unprecedented three times in the past ten years.
The air of the Round still buzzed, was still speckled as if filled with flying grit. Somewhere in the streets beyond a dog yelped like a thing near death but not near enough, and close to the Round’s central fountain the abandoned mule that had collapsed earlier still kicked feebly in the air. Flies had crawled into the beast through every orifice and it was now bloated with gases. The animal, stubborn by its breed, was now over an hour in dying. As the priest staggered sightlessly past, flies rose from the mule in a swift curtain to join those already enshrouding him.
It was clear to Felisin from where she and the others waited that the priest of Hood was striding directly towards her. His eyes were ten thousand eyes, but she was certain they were all fixed on her. Yet even this growing horror did little to stir the numbness that lay like a smothering blanket over her mind; she was aware of it rising inside but the awareness seemed more a memory of fear than fear now alive within her.
She barely recalled the first Season of Rot she’d lived through, but had clear memories of the second one. Just under three years ago, she had witnessed this day secure in the family estate, in a solid house with its windows shuttered and cloth-sealed, with the braziers set outside the doors and on the courtyard’s high, broken-glass-rimmed walls billowing the acrid smoke of istaarl leaves. The last day of the Season and its Thirsting Hour had been a time of remote revulsion for her, irritating and inconvenient but nothing more. Then she’d given little thought to the city’s countless beggars and the stray animals bereft of shelter, or even to the poorer residents who were subsequently press-ganged into cleanup crews for days afterwards.
The same city, but a different world.
Felisin wondered if the guards would make any move towards the priest as he came closer to the Cull’s victims. She and the others in the line were the charges of the Empress now—Laseen’s responsibility—and the priest’s path could be seen as blind and random, the imminent collision one of chance rather than design, although in her bones Felisin knew differently. Would the helmed guards step forward, seek to guide the priest to one side, lead him safely through the Round?
‘I think not,’ said the man squatting on her right. His half-closed eyes, buried deep in their sockets, flashed with something that might have been amusement. ‘Seen you flicking your gaze, guards to priest, priest to guards.’
The big, silent man on her left slowly rose to his feet, pulling the chain with him. Felisin winced as the shackle yanked at her when the man folded his arms across his bare, scarred chest. He glared at the approaching priest but said nothing.
‘What does he want with me?’ Felisin asked in a whisper. ‘What have I done to earn a priest of Hood’s attention?’
The squatting man rocked back on his heels, tilting his face into the late afternoon sun. ‘Queen of Dreams, is this self-centred youth I hear from those full, sweet lips? Or just the usual stance of noble blood around which the universe revolves? Answer me, I pray, fickle Queen!’
Felisin scowled. ‘I felt better when I thought you asleep—or dead.’
‘Dead men do not squat, lass, they sprawl. Hood’s priest comes not for you but for me.’
She faced him then, the chain rattling between them. He looked more of a sunken-eyed toad than a man. He was bald, his face webbed in tattooing, minute, black, square-etched symbols hidden within an overall pattern covering skin like a wrinkled scroll. He was naked but for a ragged loincloth, its dye a faded red. Flies crawled all over him; reluctant to leave they danced on—but not, Felisin realized, to Hood’s bleak orchestration. The tattooed pattern covered the man—the boar’s face overlying his own, the intricate maze of script-threaded, curled fur winding down his arms, covering his exposed thighs and shins, and the detailed hooves etched into the skin of his feet. Felisin had until now been too self-absorbed, too numb with shock to pay any attention to her companions in the chain line: this man was a priest of Fener, the Boar of Summer, and the flies seemed to know it, understand it enough to alter their frenzied motion. She watched with morbid fascination as they gathered at the stumps at the ends of the man’s wrists, the old scar tissue the only place on him unclaimed by Fener, but the paths the sprites took to those stumps touched not a single tattooed line. The flies danced a dance of avoidance—but for all that, they were eager to dance.
The priest of Fener had been ankle-shackled last in the line. Everyone else had the narrow iron bands fastened around their wrists. His feet were wet with blood and the flies hovered there but did not land. She saw his eyes flick open as the sun’s light was suddenly blocked.
Hood’s priest had arrived. Chain stirred as the man on Felisin’s left drew back as far as the links allowed. The wall at her back felt hot, the tiles—painted with scenes of imperial pageantry—now slick through the thin weave of her slave tunic. Felisin stared at the fly-shrouded creature standing wordless before the squatting priest of Fener. She could see no exposed flesh, nothing of the man himself—the flies had claimed all of him and beneath them he lived in darkness where even the sun’s heat could not touch him. The cloud around him spread out now and Felisin shrank back as countless cold insect legs touched her legs, crawling swiftly up her thighs—she pulled her tunic’s hem close around her, clamping her legs tight.
The priest of Fener spoke, his wide face split into a humourless grin. ‘The Thirsting Hour’s well past, Acolyte. Go back to your temple.’
Hood’s servant made no reply but it seemed the buzzing changed pitch, until the music of the wings vibrated in Felisin’s bones.
The priest’s deep eyes narrowed and his tone shifted. ‘Ah, well now. Indeed I was once a servant of Fener but no longer, not for years—Fener’s touch cannot be scrubbed from my skin. Yet it seems that while the Boar of Summer has no love for me, he has even less for you.’
Felisin felt something shiver in her soul as the buzzing rapidly shifted, forming words that she could understand. ‘Secret… to show… now…’
‘Go on then,’ the one-time servant of Fener growled,’show me.’
Perhaps Fener acted then, the swatting hand of a furious god-Felisin would remember the moment and think on it often-or the secret was the mocking of immortals, a joke far beyond her understanding, but at that moment the rising tide of horror within her broke free, the numbness of her soul seared away as the flies exploded outward, dispersing in all directions to reveal… no-one.
The former priest of Fener flinched as if struck, his eyes wide. From across the Round half a dozen guards cried out, wordless sounds punched from their throats. Chains snapped as others in the line jolted as if to flee. The iron loops set in the wall snatched taut, but the loops held as did the chains. The guards rushed forward and the line shrank back into submission.
‘Now that,’ the tattooed man shakily muttered, ‘was uncalled for.’
An hour passed, an hour in which the mystery, shock and horror of Hood’s priest sank down within Felisin to become but one more layer, the latest but not the last in what had become an unending nightmare. An acolyte of Hood… who was not there. The buzzing of wings that formed words. Was that Hood himself? Had the Lord of Death come to walk among mortals? And why stand before a once-priest of Fener—what was the message behind the revelation?
But slowly the questions faded in her mind, the numbness seeping back, the return of cold despair. The Empress had culled the nobility, stripped the Houses and families of their wealth followed by a summary accusation and conviction of treason that had ended in chains. As for the ex-priest on her right and the huge, bestial man with all the makings of a common criminal on her left, clearly neither one could claim noble blood.
She laughed softly, startling both men.
‘Has Hood’s secret revealed itself to you, then, lass?’ the ex-priest asked.
‘What do you find so amusing?’
She shook her head. I had expected to find myself in good company, how’s that for an upturned thought? There you have it, the very attitude the peasants hungered to tear down, the very same fuel the Empress has touched to flame-
The voice was that of an aged woman, still haughty but with an air of desperate yearning. Felisin closed her eyes briefly, then straightened and looked along the line to the gaunt old woman beyond the thug. The woman was wearing her night-clothes, torn and smeared. With noble blood, no less. ‘Lady Gaesen.’
The old woman reached out a shaking hand. ‘Yes! Wife to Lord Hilrac! I am Lady Gaesen…’ The words came as if she’d forgotten who she was, and now she frowned through the cracked make-up covering her wrinkles and her red-shot eyes fixed on Felisin. ‘I know you,’ she hissed. ‘House of Paran. Youngest daughter. Felisin!’
Felisin went cold. She turned away and stared straight ahead, out into the compound where the guards stood leaning on pikes passing flasks of ale between them and waving away the last of the flies. A cart had arrived for the mule, four ash-smeared men clambering down from its bed with ropes and gaffs. Beyond the walls encircling the Round rose Unta’s painted spires and domes. She longed for the shadowed streets between them, longed for the pampered life of a week ago, Sebry barking harsh commands at her as she led her favourite mare through her paces. And she would look up as she guided the mare in a delicate, precise turn, to see the row of green-leafed leadwoods separating the riding ground from the family vineyards.
Beside her the thug grunted. ‘Hood’s feet, the bitch has some sense of humour.’
Which bitch? Felisin wondered, but she managed to hold her expression even as she lost the comfort of her memories.
The ex-priest stirred. ‘Sisterly spat, is it?’ He paused, then dryly added, ‘Seems a bit extreme.’
The thug grunted again and leaned forward, his shadow draping Felisin. ‘Defrocked priest, are you? Not like the Empress to do any temples a favour.’
‘She didn’t. My loss of piety was long ago. I’m sure the Empress would rather I’d stayed in the cloister.’
‘As if she’d care,’ the thug said derisively as he settled back into his pose.
Lady Gaesen rattled, ‘You must speak with her, Felisin! An appeal! I have rich friends-
The thug’s grunt turned into a bark. ‘Farther up the line, hag, that’s where you’ll find your rich friends!’
Felisin just shook her head. Speak with her, it’s been months. Not even when Father died.
A silence followed, dragging on, approaching the silence that had existed before this spate of babble, but then the ex-priest cleared his throat, spat and muttered, ‘Not worth looking for salvation in a woman who’s just following orders, Lady, never mind that one being this girl’s sister-‘
Felisin winced, then glared at the ex-priest. ‘You presume-
‘He ain’t presuming nothing,’ growled the thug. ‘Forget what’s in the blood, what’s supposed to be in it by your slant on things. This is the work of the Empress. Maybe you think it’s personal, maybe you have to think that, being what you are…’
‘What I am?’ Felisin laughed harshly. ‘What House claims you as kin?’
The thug grinned. ‘The House of Shame. What of it? Yours ain’t looking any less shabby.’
‘As I thought,’ Felisin said, ignoring the truth of his last observation with difficulty. She glowered at the guards. ‘What’s happening? Why are we just sitting here?”
The ex-priest spat again. ‘The Thirsting Hour’s past. The mob outside needs organizing.’ He glanced up at her from under the shelf of his brows. ‘The peasants need to be roused. We’re the first, girl, and the example’s got to be established. What happens here in Unta is going to rattle every nobleborn in the Empire.’
‘Nonsense!’ Lady Gaesen snapped. ‘We shall be well treated. The Empress shall have to treat us well-
The thug grunted a third time—what passed for laughter, Felisin realized—and said, ‘If stupidity was a crime, lady, you would’ve been arrested years ago. The ogre’s right. Not many of us are going to make it to the slave ships. This parade down Colonnade Avenue is going to be one long bloodbath. Mind you,’ he added, eyes narrowing on the guards, ‘old Baudin ain’t going to be torn apart by any mob of peasants…”
Felisin felt real fear stirring in her stomach. She fought off a shiver. ‘Mind if I stay in your shadow, Baudin?’
The man looked down at her. ‘You’re a bit plump for my tastes.’ He turned away, then added, ‘But you do what you like.’
The ex-priest leaned close. ‘Thinking on it, girl, this rivalry of yours ain’t in the league of tattle-tails and scratch-fights. Likely your sister wants to be sure you-‘
‘She’s Adjunct Tavore,’ Felisin cut in. ‘She’s not my sister any more. She renounced our House at the call of the Empress.’
‘Even so, I’ve an inkling it’s still personal.’
Felisin scowled. ‘How would you know anything about it?’
The man made a slight, ironic bow. ‘Thief once, then priest, now historian. I well know the tense position the nobility finds itself in.’
Felisin’seyes slowly widened and she cursed herself for her stupidity. Even Baudin-who could not have helped overhearing—leaned forward for a searching stare. ‘Heboric,’ he said. ‘Heboric Light Touch.’
Heboric raised his arms. ‘As light as ever.’
‘You wrote that revised history,’ Felisin said. ‘Committed treason-‘
Heboric’s wiry brows rose in mock alarm. ‘Gods forbid! A philosophic divergence of opinions, nothing more! Duiker’s own words at the trial—in my defence, Fener bless him.’
‘But the Empress wasn’t listening,’ Baudin said, grinning. ‘After all, you called her a murderer, and then had the gall to say she bungled the job!’
‘Found an illicit copy, did you?’
‘In any case,’ Heboric continued to Felisin, ‘it’s my guess your sister the Adjunct plans on your getting to the slave ships in one piece. Your brother disappearing on Genabackis took the life out of your father… so I’ve heard,’ he added, grinning. ‘But it was the rumours of treason that put spurs to your sister, wasn’t it? Clearing the family name and all that-
‘You make it sound reasonable, Heboric,’ Felisin said, hearing the bitterness in her voice but not caring any more. ‘We differed in our opinions, Tavore and I, and now you see the result.’
‘Your opinions of what, precisely?’
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She did not reply.
There was a sudden stirring in the line. The guards straightened and swung to face the Round’s West Gate. Felisin paled as she saw her sister—Adjunct Tavore now, heir to Lorn who’d died in Darujhistan—ride up on her stallion, a beast bred out of Paran stables, no less. Beside her was the ever-present T’amber, a beautiful young woman whose long, tawny mane gave substance to her name. Where she’d come from was anyone’s guess, but she was now Tavore’s personal aide. Behind these two rode a score of officers and a company of heavy cavalry, the soldiers looking exotic, foreign.
‘Touch of irony,’ Heboric muttered, eyeing the horsesoldiers.
Baudin jutted his head forward and spat. ‘Red Swords, the bloodless bastards.’
The historian threw the man an amused glance. ‘Travelled well in your profession, Baudin? Seen the sea walls of Aren, have you?’
The man shifted uneasily, then shrugged. ‘Stood a deck or two in my time, ogre. Besides,’ he added,’the rumour of them’s been in the city a week or more.’
There was a stirring from the Red Sword troop, and Felisin saw mailed hands close on weapon grips, peaked helms turning as one towards the Adjunct. Sister Tavore, did our brother’s disappearance cut you so deep? How great his failing you must imagine, to seek this recompense… and then, to make your loyalty absolute, you chose between me and Mother for the symbolic sacrifice. Didn’t you realize that Hood stood on the side of both choices? At least Mother is with her beloved husband now… She watched as Tavore scanned her guard briefly, then said something to T’amber, who edged her own mount towards the East Gate.
Baudin grunted one more time. ‘Look lively. The endless hour’s about to begin.’
It was one thing to accuse the Empress of murder, it was quite another to predict her next move. If only they’d heeded my warning. Heboric winced as they shuffled forward, the shackles cutting hard against his ankles.
People of civilized countenance made much of exposing the soft underbellies of their psyche—effete and sensitive were the brands of finer breeding. It was easy for them, safe, and that was the whole point, after all: a statement of coddled opulence that burned the throats of the poor more than any ostentatious show of wealth.
Heboric had said as much in his treatise, and could now admit a bitter admiration for the Empress and for Adjunct Tavore, Laseen’s instrument in this. The excessive brutality of the midnight arrests—doors battered down, families dragged from their beds amidst wailing servants—provided the first layer of shock. Dazed by sleep deprivation, the nobles were trussed up and shackled, forced to stand before a drunken magistrate and a jury of beggars dragged in from the streets. It was a sour and obvious mockery of justice that stripped away the few remaining expectations of civil behaviour—stripped away civilization itself, leaving nothing but the chaos of savagery.
Shock layered on shock, a rending of those fine underbellies. Tavore knew her own kind, knew their weaknesses and was ruthless in exploiting them. What could drive a person to such viciousness?
The poor folk mobbed the streets when they heard the details, screaming adoration for their Empress. Carefully triggered riots, looting and slaughter followed, raging through the Noble District, hunting down those few selected highborns who hadn’t been arrested—enough of them to whet the mob’s bloodlust, give them faces to focus on with rage and hate. Then followed the reimposition of order, lest the city take flame.
The Empress made few mistakes. She’d used the opportunity to round up malcontents and unaligned academics, to close the fist of military presence on the capital, drumming the need for more troops, more recruits, more protection against the treasonous scheming of the noble class. The seized assets paid for this martial expansion. An exquisite move even if forewarned, rippling out with the force of Imperial Decree through the Empire, the cruel rage now sweeping through each city.
Bitter admiration. Heboric kept finding the need to spit, something he hadn’t done since his cut-purse days in the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. He could see the shock written on most of the faces in the chain line. Faces above nightclothes mostly, grimy and filthy from the pits, leaving their wearers bereft of even the social armour of regular clothing. Dishevelled hair, stunned expressions, broken poses -everything the mob beyond the Round lusted to see, hungered to flail-
Welcome to the streets, Heboric thought to himself as the guards prodded the line into motion, the Adjunct looking on, straight in her high saddle, her thin face drawn in until nothing but lines remained—the slit of her eyes, the brackets around her uncurved, almost lipless mouth—damn, but she wasn’t bom with much, was she? The looks went to her young sister, to the lass stumbling a step ahead of him.
Heboric’s eyes fixed on Adjunct Tavore, curious, seeking something—a flicker of malicious pleasure, maybe—as her icy gaze swept the line and lingered for the briefest of moments on her sister. But the pause was all she revealed, a recognition acknowledged, nothing more. The gaze swept on.
The guards opened the East Gate two hundred paces ahead, near the front of the chained line. A roar poured through that ancient arched passageway, a wave of sound that buffeted soldier and prisoner alike, bouncing off the high walls and rising up amidst an explosion of terrified pigeons from the upper eaves. The sound of flapping wings drifted down like polite applause, although to Heboric it seemed that he alone appreciated that ironic touch of the gods. Not to be denied a gesture, he managed a slight bow.
Hood keep his damned secrets. Here, Fener you old sow, it’s that itch 1 could never scratch. Look on, now, closely, see what becomes of your wayward son.
Some part of Felisin’s mind held on to sanity, held with a brutal grip in the face of a maelstrom. Soldiers lined Colonnade Avenue in ranks three deep, but again and again the mob seemed to find weak spots in that bristling line. She found herself observing, clinically, even as hands tore at her, fists pummelled her, blurred faces lunged at her with gobs of spit. And even as sanity held within her, so too a pair of steady arms encircled her-arms without hands, the ends scarred and suppurating, arms that pushed her forward, ever forward. No-one touched the priest. No-one dared. While ahead was Baudin—more horrifying than the mob itself.
He killed effortlessly. He tossed bodies aside with contempt, roaring, gesturing, beckoning. Even the soldiers stared beneath their ridged helmets, heads turning at his taunts, hands tightening on pike or sword hilt.
Baudin, laughing Baudin, his nose smashed by a well-flung brick, stones bouncing from him, his slave tunic in rags and soaked with blood and spit. Every body that darted within his reach he grasped, twisted, bent and broke. The only pause in his stride came when something happened ahead, some breach in the soldiery—or when Lady Gaesen faltered. He’d grasp her arms under the shoulders, none too gently, then propel her forward, swearing all the while.
A wave of fear swept ahead of him, a touch of the terror inflicted turning back on the mob. The number of attackers diminished, although the bricks flew in a constant barrage, some hitting, most missing.
The march through the city continued. Felisin’s ears rang painfully. She heard everything through a daze of sound, but her eyes saw clearly, seeking and finding—all too often -images she would never forget.
The gates were in sight when the most savage breach occurred. The soldiers seemed to melt away, and the tide of fierce hunger swept into the street, engulfing the prisoners.
Felisin caught Heboric’s grunting words close behind her as he shoved hard: ‘This is the one, then.’
Baudin roared. Bodies crowded in, hands tearing, nails clawing. Felisin’s last shreds of clothing were torn away. A hand closed on a fistful of her hair, yanked savagely, twisting her head around, seeking the crack of vertebrae. She heard screaming and realized it came from her own throat. A bestial snarl sounded behind her and she felt the hand clench spasmodically, then it was gone. More screaming filled her ears.
A strong momentum caught them, pulling or pushing-she couldn’t tell—and Heboric’s face came into view, spitting bloody skin from his mouth. All at once a space cleared around Baudin. He crouched, a torrent of dock curses bellowing from his mashed lips. His right ear had been torn off, taking with it hair, skin and flesh. The bone of his temple glistened wetly. Broken bodies lay around him, few moving. At his feet was Lady Gaesen. Baudin held her by the hair, pulling her face into view. The moment seemed to freeze, the world closing in to this single place.
Baudin bared his teeth and laughed. ‘I’m no whimpering noble,’ he growled, facing the crowd. ‘What do want? You want the blood of a noblewoman?’
The mob screamed, reaching out eager hands. Baudin laughed again. ‘We pass through, you hear me?’ He straightened, dragging Lady Gaesen’s head upward.
Felisin couldn’t tell if the old woman was conscious. Her eyes were closed, the expression peaceful—almost youthful -beneath the smeared dirt and bruises. Perhaps she was dead. Felisin prayed that it was so. Something was about to happen, something to condense this nightmare into a single image. Tension held the air.
‘She’s yours!’ Baudin screamed. With his other hand grasping the Lady’s chin, he twisted her head around. The neck snapped and the body sagged, twitching. Baudin wrapped a length of chain around her neck. He pulled it taut, then began sawing. Blood showed, making the chain look like a mangled scarf.
Felisin stared in horror.
‘Fener have mercy,’ Heboric breathed.
The crowd was stunned silent, withdrawing even in their bloodlust, shrinking back. A soldier appeared, helmetless, his young face white, his eyes fixed on Baudin, his steps ceasing. Beyond him the glistening peaked helms and broad blades of the Red Swords flashed above the crowd as the horsemen slowly pushed their way towards the scene.
No movement save the sawing chain. No breath save Baudin’s grunting snorts. Whatever riot continued to rage beyond this place, it seemed a thousand leagues away.
Felisin watched the woman’s head jerk back and forth, a mockery of life’s animation. She remembered Lady Gaesen, haughty, imperious, beyond her years of beauty and seeking stature in its stead. What other choice? Many, but it didn’t matter now. Had she been a gentle, kindly grandmother, it would not have mattered, would not have changed the mind-numbing horror of this moment.
The head came away with a sobbing sound. Baudin’s teeth glimmered as he stared at the crowd. ‘We had a deal,’ he grated. ‘Here’s what you want, something to remember this day by.’ He flung Lady Gaesen’s head into the mob, a whirl of hair and threads of blood. Screams answered its unseen landing.
More soldiers appeared—backed by the Red Swords -moving slowly, pushing at the still-silent onlookers. Peace was being restored, all along the line—in all places but this one violently, without quarter. As people began to die under sword strokes, the rest fled.
The prisoners who had filed out of the arena had numbered around three hundred. Felisin, looking up the line, had her first sight of what remained. Some shackles held only forearms, others were completely empty. Under a hundred prisoners remained on their feet. Many on the paving stones writhed, screaming in pain; the rest did not move at all.
Baudin glared at the nearest knot of soldiers. ‘Likely timing, tin-heads.’
Heboric spat heavily, his face twisting as he glared at the thug. ‘Imagined you’d buy your way out, did you, Baudin? Give them what they want. But it was wasted, wasn’t it? The soldiers were coming. She could have lived-‘
Baudin slowly turned, his face a sheet of blood. To what end, priest?’
‘Was that your line of reasoning? She would’ve died in the hold anyway?’
Baudin showed his teeth and said slowly, ‘I just hate making deals with bastards.’
Felisin stared at the three-foot length of chain between herself and Baudin. A thousand thoughts could have followed, link by link—what she had been, what she was now; the prison she’d discovered, inside and out, merged as vivid memory—but all she thought, all she said, was this: ‘Don’t make any more deals, Baudin.’
His eyes narrowed on her, her words and tone reaching him, somehow, some way.
Heboric straightened, a hard look in his eyes as he studied her. Felisin turned away, half in defiance, half in shame.
A moment later the soldiers—having cleared the line of the dead—pushed them along, out through the gate, onto the East Road towards the pier town called Luckless. Where Adjunct Tavore and her retinue waited, as did the slave ships of Aren.
Farmers and peasants lined the road, displaying nothing of the frenzy that had gripped their cousins in the city. Felisin saw in their faces a dull sorrow, a passion born of different scars. She could not understand where it came from, and she knew that her ignorance was the difference between her and them. She also knew, in her bruises, scratches and helpless nakedness, that her lessons had begun.
The ancient wars of the T’lan Imass and the Jaghut
saw the world torn asunder. Vast armies contended
on the ravaged lands, the dead piled high, their bone
the bones of hills, their spilled blood the blood of seas.
Sorceries raged until the sky itself was fire…
Ancient Histories, Vol. I
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Maeth’ki Im (Pogrom of the Rotted Flower), the 33rd Jaghut War
298,665 years before Burn’s Sleep
SWALLOWS DARTED THROUGH THE CLOUDS OF MIDGES DANCING OVER the mudflats. The sky above the marsh remained grey, but it had lost its mercurial wintry gleam, and the warm wind sighing through the air above the ravaged land held the scent of healing.
What had once been the inland freshwater sea the Imass called Jaghra Til – born from the shattering of the Jaghut ice-fields – was now in its own death-throes. The pallid overcast was reflected in dwindling pools and stretches of knee-deep water for as far south as the eye could scan, but none the less, newly birthed land dominated the vista.
The breaking of the sorcery that had raised the glacial age returned to the region the old, natural seasons, but the memories of mountain-high ice lingered. The exposed bedrock to the north was gouged and scraped, its basins filled with boulders. The heavy silts that had been the floor of the inland sea still bubbled with escaping gases, as the land, freed of the enormous weight with the glaciers’ passing eight years past, continued its slow ascent.
Jaghra Til’s life had been short, yet the silts that had settled on its bottom were thick. And treacherous.
Pran Chole, Bonecaster of Cannig Tol’s clan among the Kron Imass, sat motionless atop a mostly buried boulder along an ancient beach ridge. The descent before him was snarled in low, wiry grasses and withered driftwood. Twelve paces beyond, the land dropped slightly, then stretched out into a broad basin of mud.
Three ranag had become trapped in a boggy sinkhole twenty paces into the basin. A bull male, his mate and their calf, ranged in a pathetic defensive circle. Mired and vulnerable, they must have seemed easy kills for the pack of ay that found them.
But the land was treacherous indeed. The large tundra wolves had succumbed to the same fate as the ranag. Pran Chole counted six ay, including a yearling. Tracks indicated that another yearling had circled the sinkhole dozens of times before wandering westward, doomed no doubt to die in solitude.
How long ago had this drama occurred? There was no way to tell. The mud had hardened on ranag and ay alike, forming cloaks of clay latticed with cracks. Spots of bright green showed where windborn seeds had germinated, and the Bonecaster was reminded of his visions when spiritwalking – a host of mundane details twisted into something unreal. For the beasts, the struggle had become eternal, hunter and hunted locked together for all time.
Someone padded to his side, crouched down beside him.
Pran Chole’s tawny eyes remained fixed on the frozen tableau. The rhythm of footsteps told the Bonecaster the identity of his companion, and now came the warm-blooded smells that were as much a signature as resting eyes upon the man’s face.
Cannig Tol spoke. ‘What lies beneath the clay, Bonecaster?’
‘Only that which has shaped the clay itself, Clan Leader.’
‘You see no omen in these beasts?’
Pran Chole smiled. ‘Do you?’
Cannig Tol considered for a time, then said, ‘Ranag are gone from these lands. So too the ay. We see before us an ancient battle. These statements have depth, for they stir my soul.’
‘Mine as well,’ the Bonecaster conceded.
‘We hunted the ranag until they were no more, and this brought starvation to the ay, for we had also hunted the tenag until they were no more as well. The agkor who walk with the bhederin would not share with the ay, and now the tundra is empty. From this, I conclude that we were wasteful and thoughtless in our hunting.’
‘Yet the need to feed our own young…’
‘The need for more young was great.’
‘It remains so, Clan Leader.’
Cannig Tol grunted. ‘The Jaghut were powerful in these lands, Bonecaster. They did not flee – not at first. You know the cost in Imass blood.’
‘And the land yields its bounty to answer that cost.’
‘To serve our war.’
‘Thus, the depths are stirred.’
The Clan Leader nodded and was silent.
Pran Chole waited. In their shared words they still tracked the skin of things. Revelation of the muscle and bone was yet to come. But Cannig Tol was no fool, and the wait was not long.
‘We are as those beasts.’
The Bonecaster’s eyes shifted to the south horizon, tightened.
Cannig Tol continued, ‘We are the clay, and our endless war against the Jaghut is the struggling beast beneath. The surface is shaped by what lies beneath.’ He gestured with one hand. ‘And before us now, in these creatures slowly turning to stone, is the curse of eternity.’
There was still more. Pran Chole said nothing.
‘Ranag and ay,’ Cannig Tol resumed. ‘Almost gone from the mortal realm. Hunter and hunted both.’
‘To the very bones,’ the Bonecaster whispered.
‘Would that you had seen an omen,’ the Clan Leader muttered, rising.
Pran Chole also straightened. ‘Would that I had,’ he agreed in a tone that only faintly echoed Cannig Tol’s wry, sardonic utterance.
‘Are we close, Bonecaster?’
Pran Chole glanced down at his shadow, studied the antlered silhouette, the figure hinted within furred cape, ragged hides and headdress. The sun’s angle made him seem tall – almost as tall as a Jaghut. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘They are weakening. A night of travel will weaken them yet more.’
‘Good. Then the clan shall camp here tonight.’
The Bonecaster listened as Cannig Tol made his way back down to where the others waited. With darkness, Pran Chole would spiritwalk. Into the whispering earth, seeking those of his own kind. While their quarry was weakening, Cannig Tol’s clan was yet weaker. Less than a dozen adults remained. When pursuing Jaghut, the distinction of hunter and hunted had little meaning.
He lifted his head and sniffed the crepuscular air. Another Bonecaster wandered this land. The taint was unmistakable. He wondered who it was, wondered why it travelled alone, bereft of clan and kin. And, knowing that even as he had sensed its presence so it in turn had sensed his, he wondered why it had not yet sought them out.
She pulled herself clear of the mud and dropped down onto the sandy bank, her breath coming in harsh, laboured gasps. Her son and daughter squirmed free of her leaden arms, crawled further onto the island’s modest hump.
The Jaghut mother lowered her head until her brow rested against the cool, damp sand. Grit pressed into the skin of her forehead with raw insistence. The burns there were too recent to have healed, nor were they likely to – she was defeated, and death had only to await the arrival of her hunters.
They were mercifully competent, at least. These Imass cared nothing for torture. A swift killing blow. For her, then for her children. And with them – with this meagre, tattered family – the last of the Jaghut would vanish from this continent. Mercy arrived in many guises. Had they not joined in chaining Raest, they would all – Imass and Jaghut both – have found themselves kneeling before that Tyrant. A temporary truce of expedience. She’d known enough to flee once the chaining was done; she’d known, even then, that the Imass clan would resume the pursuit.
The mother felt no bitterness, but that made her no less desperate.
Sensing a new presence on the small island, her head snapped up. Her children had frozen in place, staring up in terror at the Imass woman who now stood before them. The mother’s grey eyes narrowed. ‘Clever, Bonecaster. My senses were tuned only to those behind us. Very well, be done with it.’
The young, black-haired woman smiled. ‘No bargains, Jaghut? You always seek bargains to spare the lives of your children. Have you broken the kin-threads with these two, then? They seem young for that.’
‘Bargains are pointless. Your kind never agree to them.’
‘No, yet still your kind try.’
‘I shall not. Kill us, then. Swiftly.’
The Imass was wearing the skin of a panther. Her eyes were as black and seemed to match its shimmer in the dying light. She looked well fed, her large, swollen breasts indicating she had recently birthed.
The Jaghut mother could not read the woman’s expression, only that it lacked the typical grim certainty she usually associated with the strange, rounded faces of the Imass.
The Bonecaster spoke. ‘I have enough Jaghut blood on my hands. I leave you to the Kron clan that will find you tomorrow.’
‘To me,’ the mother growled, ‘it matters naught which of you kills us, only that you kill us.’
The woman’s broad mouth quirked. ‘I can see your point.’
Weariness threatened to overwhelm the Jaghut mother, but she managed to pull herself into a sitting position. ‘What,’ she asked between gasps,’do you want?’
‘To offer you a bargain.’
Breath catching, the Jaghut mother stared into the Bonecaster’s dark eyes, and saw nothing of mockery. Her gaze then dropped, for the briefest of moments, on her son and daughter, then back up to hold steady on the woman’s own.
The Imass slowly nodded.
The earth had cracked some time in the past, a wound of such depth as to birth a molten river wide enough to stretch from horizon to horizon. Vast and black, the river of stone and ash reached southwestward, down to the distant sea. Only the smallest of plants had managed to find purchase, and the Bonecaster’s passage – a Jaghut child in the crook of each arm – raised sultry clouds of dust that hung motionless in her wake.
She judged the boy at perhaps five years of age; his sister perhaps four. Neither seemed entirely aware, and clearly neither had understood their mother when she’d hugged them goodbye. The long flight down the L’amath and across the Jagra Til had driven them both into shock. No doubt witnessing the ghastly death of their father had not helped matters.
They clung to her with their small, grubby hands, grim reminders of the child she had but recently lost. Before long, both began suckling at her breasts, evincing desperate hunger. Some time later, the children slept.
The lava flow thinned as she approached the coast. A range of hills rose into distant mountains on her right. A level plain stretched directly before her, ending at a ridge half a league distant. Though she could not see it, she knew that just the other side of the ridge, the land slumped down to the sea. The plain itself was marked by regular humps, and the Bonecaster paused to study them. The mounds were arrayed in concentric circles, and at the centre was a larger dome – all covered in a mantle of lava and ash. The rotted tooth of a ruined tower rose from the plain’s edge, at the base of the first line of hills. Those hills, as she had noted the first time she had visited this place, were themselves far too evenly spaced to be natural.
The Bonecaster lifted her head. The mingled scents were unmistakable, one ancient and dead, the other… less so. The boy stirred in her clasp, but remained asleep.
‘Ah,’ she murmured, ‘you sense it as well.’
Skirting the plain, she walked towards the blackened tower.
bsp; The warren’s gate was just beyond the ragged edifice, suspended in the air at about six times her height. She saw it as a red welt, a thing damaged, but no longer bleeding. She could not recognize the warren -the old damage obscured the portal’s characteristics. Unease rippled faintly through her.
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The Bonecaster set the children down by the tower, then sat on a block of tumbled masonry. Her gaze fell to the two young Jaghut, still curled in sleep, lying on their beds of ash. ‘What choice?’ she whispered. ‘It must be Omtose Phellack. It certainly isn’t Tellann. Starvald Demelain? Unlikely.’ Her eyes were pulled to the plain, narrowing on the mound rings. ‘Who dwelt here? Who else was in the habit of build-mg in stone?’ She fell silent for a long moment, then swung her attention back to the ruin. ‘This tower is the final proof, for it is naught else but Jaghut, and such a structure would not be raised this close to an inimical warren. No, the gate is Omtose Phellack. It must be so.’
Still, there were additional risks. An adult Jaghut in the warren beyond, coming upon two children not of its own blood, might as easily
I kill them as adopt them. ‘Then their deaths stain another’s hands, a Jaghut’s.’ Scant comfort, that distinction. It matters naught which of you kills us, only that you kill us. The breath hissed between the woman’s teeth. ‘What choice?’ she asked again.
She would let them sleep a little longer. Then, she would send them through the gate. A word to the boy – take care of your sister. The journey will not be long. And to them both – your mother waits beyond. A lie, but they would need courage. If she cannot find you, then one of her kin will. Go then, to safety, to salvation.
After all, what could be worse than death?
She rose as they approached. Pran Chole tested the air, frowned. The Jaghut had not unveiled her warren. Even more disconcerting, where were her children?
‘She greets us with calm,’ Cannig Tol muttered.
‘She does,’ the Bonecaster agreed.
‘I’ve no trust in that – we should kill her immediately.’
‘She would speak with us,’ Pran Chole said.
‘A deadly risk, to appease her desire.’
‘I cannot disagree, Clan Leader. Yet… what has she done with her children?’
”Can you not sense them?’
Pran Chole shook his head. ‘Prepare your spearmen,’ he said, stepping forward.
There was peace in her eyes, so clear an acceptance of her own imminent death that the Bonecaster was shaken. Pran Chole walked through shin-deep water, then stepped onto the island’s sandy bank to stand face to face with the Jaghut. ‘What have you done with them?’ he demanded.
The mother smiled, lips peeling back to reveal her tusks. ‘Gone.’
‘Beyond your reach, Bonecaster.’
Pran Chole’s frown deepened. These are our lands. There is no place here that is beyond our reach. Have you slain them with your own hands, then?’
The Jaghut cocked her head, studied the Imass. ‘I had always believed you were united in your hatred for our kind. I had always believed that such concepts as compassion and mercy were alien to your natures.’
The Bonecaster stared at the woman for a long moment, then his gaze dropped away, past her, and scanned the soft clay ground. ‘An Imass has been here,’ he said. ‘A woman. The Bonecaster-‘ the one I
could not find in my spiritwalk. The one who chose not to be found. ‘What has she done?’
‘She has explored this land,’ the Jaghut replied. ‘She has found a gate far to the south. It is Omtose Phellack.’
‘I am glad,’ Pran Chole said, ‘I am not a mother.’ And you, woman, should be glad I am not cruel. He gestured. Heavy spears flashed past the Bonecaster. Six long, fluted heads of flint punched through the skin covering the Jaghut’s chest. She staggered, then folded to the ground in a clatter of shafts.
Thus ended the thirty-third Jaghut War.
Pran Chole whirled. ‘We’ve no time for a pyre. We must strike southward. Quickly.’
Cannig Tol stepped forward as his warriors went to retrieve their weapons. The Clan Leader’s eyes narrowed on the Bonecaster. ‘What distresses you?’
‘A renegade Bonecaster has taken the children.’
The Clan Leader’s brows knitted.
‘The renegade would save this woman’s children. The renegade believes the Rent to be Omtose Phellack.’
Pran Chole watched the blood leave Cannig Tol’s face. ‘Go to Morn, Bonecaster,’ the Clan Leader whispered. ‘We are not cruel. Go now.’
Pran Chole bowed. The Tellann warren engulfed him.
The faintest release of her power sent the two Jaghut children upward, into the gate’s maw. The girl cried out a moment before reaching it, a longing wail for her mother, who she imagined waited beyond. Then the two small figures vanished within.
The Bonecaster sighed and continued to stare upward, seeking any evidence that the passage had gone awry. It seemed, however, that no wounds had reopened, no gush of wild power bled from the portal. Did it look different? She could not be sure. This was new land for her; she had nothing of the bone-bred sensitivity that she had known all her life among the lands of the Tarad clan, in the heart of the First Empire.
The Tellann warren opened behind her. The woman spun round, moments from veering into her Soletaken form.
An arctic fox bounded into view, slowed upon seeing her, then sembled back into its Imass form. She saw before her a young man, wearing the skin of his totem animal across his shoulders, and a battered antler headdress. His expression was twisted with fear, his eyes not on her, but on the portal beyond.
The woman smiled. ‘I greet you, fellow Bonecaster. Yes, I have sent them through. They are beyond the reach of your vengeance, and this pleases me.’
His tawny eyes fixed on her. ‘Who are you? What clan?’
‘I have left my clan, but I was once counted among the Logros. I am named Kilava.’
‘You should have let me find you last night,’ Pran Chole said. ‘I would then have been able to convince you that a swift death was the greater mercy for those children than what you have done here, Kilava.’
‘They are young enough to be adopted-‘
‘You have come to the place called Morn,’ Pran Chole interjected, his voice cold. ‘To the ruins of an ancient city-‘
‘Not Jaghut! This tower, yes, but it was built long afterward, in the time between the city’s destruction and the T’ol Ara’d – this flow of lava which but buried something already dead.’ He raised a hand, pointed towards the suspended gate. ‘It was this – this wounding – that destroyed the city, Kilava. The warren beyond – do you not understand? It is not Omtose Phellack! Tell me this – how are such wounds sealed? You know the answer, Bonecaster!’
The woman slowly turned, studied the Rent. ‘If a soul sealed that wound, then it should have been freed… when the children arrived-‘
‘Freed,’ Pran Chole hissed, ‘,”” exchanger
Trembling, Kilava faced him again. ‘Then where is it? Why has it not appeared?’
Pran Chole turned to study the central mound on the plain. ‘Oh,’ he whispered, ‘but it has.’ He glanced back at his fellow Bonecaster. ‘Tell me, will you in turn give up your life for those children? They are trapped now, in an eternal nightmare of pain. Does your compassion extend to sacrificing yourself in yet another exchange?’ He studied her, then sighed. ‘I thought not, so wipe away those tears, Kilava. Hypocrisy ill suits a Bonecaster.’
‘What…’ the woman managed after a time, ‘what has been freed?’
Pran Chole shook his head. He studied the central mound again. ‘I am not sure, but we shall have to do something about it, sooner or later. I suspect we have plenty of time. The creature must now free itself of its tomb, and that has been thoroughly warded. More, there is the T’ol Ara’d’s mantle of stone still clothing the barrow.’ After a moment, he added. ‘But time we shall have.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Gathering has been called. The Ritual of Tellann awaits us, Bonecaster.’
She spat. ‘You are all insane. To choose immortality for the sake of a war – madness. I shall defy the call, Bonecaster.’
He nodded. ‘Yet the Ritual shall be done. I have spiritwalked into the future, Kilava. I have seen my withered face of two hundred thousand and more years hence. We shall have our eternal war.’
Bitterness filled Kilava’s voice. ‘My brother will be pleased.’
‘Who is your brother?’
‘Onos T’oolan, the First Sword.’
Pran Chole turned at this. ‘You are the Defier. You slaughtered your clan – your kin-‘
‘To break the link and thus achieve freedom, yes. Alas, my eldest brother’s skills more than matched mine. Yet now we are both free, though what I celebrate Onos T’oolan curses.’ She wrapped her arms around herself, and Pran Chole saw upon her layers and layers of pain. Hers was a freedom he did not envy. She spoke again. ‘This city, then. Who built it.’
‘I know the name, but little else of them.’
Pran Chole nodded. ‘We shall, I expect, learn.’
Children from a dark house
choose shadowed paths.
—Nathii Folk Saying
Bantam Press (UK)
The dog had savaged a woman, an old man and a child before the warriors drove it into an abandoned kiln at the edge of the village. The beast had never before displayed an uncertain loyalty. It had guarded the Uryd lands with fierce zeal, one with its kin in its harsh, but just, duties. There were no wounds on its body that might have festered and so allowed the spirit of madness into its veins. Nor was the dog possessed by the foaming sickness. Its position in the village pack had not been challenged. Indeed, there was nothing, nothing at all, to give cause to the sudden turn.
The warriors pinned the animal to the rounded back wall of the clay kiln with spears, stabbing at the snapping, shrieking beast until it was dead. When they withdrew their spears they saw the shafts chewed and slick with spit and blood; they saw iron dented and scored.
Madness, they knew, could remain hidden, buried far beneath the surface, a subtle flavour turning blood into something bitter. The shamans examined the three victims; two had already died of their wounds, but the child still clung to life.
In solemn procession he was carried by his father to the Faces in the Rock, laid down in the glade before the Seven Gods of the Teblor, and left there.
He died a short while later. Alone in his pain before the hard visages carved into the cliff-face.
This was not an unexpected fate. The child, after all, had been too young to pray.
Long before the Seven Gods opened their eyes.
Urugal the Woven’s Year
They were glorious tales. Farms in flames, children dragged behind horses for leagues. The trophies of that day, so long ago, cluttered the low walls of his grandfather’s longhouse. Scarred skull-pates, frail-looking mandibles. Odd fragments of clothing made of some unknown material, now smoke-blackened and tattered. Small ears nailed to every wooden post that reached up to the thatched roof.
Evidence that Silver Lake was real, that it existed in truth, beyond the forest-clad mountains, down through hidden passes, a week – perhaps two – distant from the lands of the Uryd clan. The way itself was fraught, passing through territories held by the Sunyd and Rathyd clans, a journey that was itself a tale of legendary proportions. Moving silent and unseen through enemy camps, shifting the hearthstones to deliver deepest insult, eluding the hunters and trackers day and night until the borderlands were reached, then crossed – the vista ahead unknown, its riches not even yet dreamed of.
Karsa Orlong lived and breathed his grandfather’s tales. They stood like a legion, defiant and fierce, before the pallid, empty legacy of Synyg – Pahlk’s son and Karsa’s father. Synyg, who had done nothing in his life, who tended his horses in his valley and had not once ventured into hostile lands. Synyg, who was both his father’s and his son’s greatest shame.
True, Synyg had more than once defended his herd of horses from raiders from other clans, and defended well, with honourable ferocity and admirable skill. But this was only to be expected from those of Uryd blood. Urugal the Woven was the clan’s Face in the Rock, and Urugal was counted among the fiercest of the seven gods. The other clans had reason to fear the Uryd.
Bantam Press (UK)
Nor had Synyg not proved masterful in training his only son in the Fighting Dances. Karsa’s skill with the bloodwood blade far surpassed his years. He was counted among the finest warriors of the clan. While the Uryd disdained use of the bow, they excelled with spear and atlatl, with the toothed-disc and the black-rope, and Synyg had taught his son an impressive efficiency with these weapons as well.
None the less, such training was to be expected from any father in the Uryd clan. Karsa could find no reason for pride in such things. The Fighting Dances were but preparation, after all. Glory was found in all that followed, in the contests, the raids, in the vicious perpetuation of feuds.
Karsa would not do as his father had done. He would not do . . . nothing. No, he would walk his grandfather’s path. More closely than anyone might imagine. Too much of the clan’s reputation lived only in the past. The Uryd had grown complacent in their position of pre-eminence among the Teblor. Pahlk had muttered that truth more than once, the nights when his bones ached from old wounds and the shame that was his son burned deepest.
A return to the old ways. And I, Karsa Orlong, shall lead. Delum Thord is with me. As is Bairoth Gild. All in our first year of scarring. We have counted coup. We have slain enemies. Stolen horses. Shifted the hearthstones of the Kellyd and the Buryd.
And now, with the new moon and in the year of your naming, Urugal, we shall weave our way to Silver Lake. To slay the children who dwell there.
He remained on his knees in the glade, head bowed beneath the Faces in the Rock, knowing that Urugal’s visage, high on the cliff-face, mirrored his own savage desire; and that those of the other gods, all with their own clans barring ‘Siballe, who was the Unfound, glared down upon Karsa with envy and hate. None of their children knelt before them, after all, to voice such bold vows.
Complacency plagued all the clans of the Teblor, Karsa suspected. The world beyond the mountains dared not encroach, had not attempted to do so in decades. No visitors ventured into Teblor lands. Nor had the Teblor themselves gazed out beyond the borderlands with dark hunger, as they had often done generations past. The last man to have led a raid into foreign territory had been his grandfather. To the shores of Silver Lake, where farms squatted like rotted mushrooms and children scurried like mice. Back then, there had been two farms, a half-dozen outbuildings. Now, Karsa believed, there would be more. Three, even four farms. Even Pahlk’s day of slaughter would pale to that delivered by Karsa, Delum and Bairoth.
So I vow, beloved Urugal. And I shall deliver unto you a feast of trophies such as never before blackened the soil of this glade. Enough, perhaps, to free you from the stone itself, so that once more you will stride in our midst, a deliverer of death upon all our enemies.
I, Karsa Orlong, grandson of Pahlk Orlong, so swear. And, should you doubt, Urugal, know that we leave this very night. The journey begins with the descent of this very sun. And, as each day’s sun births the sun of the next day, so shall it look down upon three warriors of the Uryd clan, leading their destriers through the passes, down into the unknown lands. And Silver Lake shall, after more than four centuries, once again tremble to the coming of the Teblor.
Karsa slowly lifted his head, eyes travelling up the battered cliff-face, to find the harsh, bestial face of Urugal, there, among its kin. The pitted gaze seemed fixed upon him and Karsa thought he saw avid pleasure in those dark pools. Indeed, he was certain of it, and would describe it as truth to Delum and Bairoth, and to Dayliss, so that she might voice her blessing, for he so wished her blessing, her cold words . . . I, Dayliss, yet to find a family’s name, bless you, Karsa Orlong, on your dire raid. May you slay a legion of children. May their cries feed your dreams. May their blood give you thirst for more. May flames haunt the path of your life. May you return to me, a thousand deaths upon your soul, and take me as your wife.
Listen! The seas whisper
and dream of breaking truths
in the crumbling of stone
—Hantallit of Miner Sluice
Year of the Late Frost
One year before the Letherii Seventh Closure
The Ascension of the Empty Hold
Bantam Press (UK)
Here, then, is the tale. between the swish of the tides,when giants knelt down and became mountains. When they fell scattered on the land like the ballast stones of the sky, yet could not hold fast against the rising dawn. Between the swish of the tides, we will speak of one such giant. Because the tale hides with his own.
And because it amuses.
In darkness he closed his eyes. Only by day did he elect to open them, for he reasoned in this manner: night defies vision and so, if little can be seen, what value seeking to pierce the gloom?
Witness as well, this. He came to the edge of the land and discovered the sea, and was fascinated by the mysterious fluid. A fascination that became a singular obsession through the course of that fated day. He could see how the waves moved, up and down along the entire shore, a ceaseless motion that ever threatened to engulf all the land, yet ever failed to do so. He watched the sea through the afternoon’s high winds, witness to its wild thrashing far up along the sloping strand, and sometimes it did indeed reach far, but always it would sullenly retreat once more.
When night arrived, he closed his eyes and lay down to sleep. Tomorrow, he decided, he would look once more upon this sea.
In darkness he closed his eyes.
The tides came with the night, swirling up round the giant. The tides came and drowned him as he slept. And the water seeped minerals into his flesh, until he became as rock, a gnarled ridge on the strand. Then, each night for thousands of years, the tides came to wear away at his form. Stealing his shape.
But not entirely. To see him true, even to this day, one must look in darkness. Or close one’s eyes to slits in brightest sunlight. Glance askance, or focus on all but the stone itself.
Of all the gifts Father Shadow has given his children, this one talent stands tallest. Look away to see. Trust in it, and you will be led into Shadow. Where all truths hide.
Look away to see.
Now, look away.
The mice scattered as the deeper shadow flowed across snow brushed blue by dusk. They scampered in wild panic, but, among them, one’s fate was already sealed. A lone tufted, taloned foot snapped down, piercing furry flesh and crushing minute bones.
At the clearing’s edge, the owl had dropped silently from its branch, sailing out over the hard-packed snow and its litter of seeds, and the arc of its flight, momentarily punctuated by plucking the mouse from the ground, rose up once more, this time in a heavy flapping of wings, towards a nearby tree. It landed one-legged, and a moment later it began to feed.
The figure who jogged across the glade a dozen heartbeats later saw nothing untoward. The mice were all gone, the snow solid enough to leave no signs of their passing, and the owl froze motionless in its hollow amidst the branches of the spruce tree, eyes wide as they followed the figure’s progress across the clearing. Once it had passed, the owl resumed feeding.
Dusk belonged to the hunters, and the raptor was not yet done this night.
As he weaved through the frost-rimed humus of the trail, Trull Sengar’s thoughts were distant, making him heedless of the forest surrounding him, uncharacteristically distracted from all the signs and details it offered. He had not even paused to make propitiation to Sheltatha Lore, Daughter Dusk, the most cherished of the Three Daughters of Father Shadow – although he would make recompense at tomorrow’s sunset – and, earlier, he had moved unmindful through the patches of lingering light that blotted the trail, risking the attention of fickle Sukul Ankhadu, the Daughter of Deceit, also known as Dapple.
The Calach breeding beds swarmed with seals. They’d come early, surprising Trull in his collecting of raw jade above the shoreline. Alone, the arrival of the seals would engender only excitement in the young Tiste Edur, but there had been other arrivals, in ships ringing the bay, and the harvest had been well under way.
Letherii, the white-skinned peoples from the south.
Bantam Press (UK)
He could imagine the anger of those in the village he now approached, once he delivered the news of his discovery – an anger he shared. This encroachment on Edur territories was brazen, the theft of seals that rightly belonged to his people an arrogant defiance of the old agreements.
There were fools among the Letherii, just as there were fools among the Edur. Trull could not imagine this broaching being anything but unsanctioned. The Great Meeting was only two cycles of the moon away. It served neither side’s purpose to spill blood now. No matter
that the Edur would be right in attacking and destroying the intruder ships; the Letherii delegation would be outraged at the slaughter of its citizens, even citizens contravening the laws. The chances of agreeing upon a new treaty had just become minuscule.
And this disturbed Trull Sengar. One long and vicious war had just ended for the Edur: the thought of another beginning was too hard to bear.
He had not embarrassed his brothers during the wars of subjugation; on his wide belt was a row of twenty-one red-stained rivets, each one marking a coup, and among those seven were ringed in white paint, to signify actual kills. Only his elder brother’s belt sported more trophies among the male children of Tomad Sengar, and that was right and proper, given Fear Sengar’s eminence among the warriors of the Hiroth tribe.
Of course, battles against the five other tribes of the Edur were strictly bound in rules and prohibitions, and even vast, protracted battles had yielded only a handful of actual deaths. Even so, the conquests had been exhausting. Against the Letherii, there were no rules to constrain the Edur warriors. No counting coup. Just killing. Nor did the enemy need a weapon in hand – even the helpless and the innocent would know the sword’s bite. Such slaughter stained warrior and victim alike.
But Trull well knew that, though he might decry the killing that was to come, he would do so only to himself, and he would stride alongside his brothers, sword in hand, to deliver the Edur judgement upon the trespassers. There was no choice. Turn away from this crime and more would follow, in waves unending.
His steady jog brought him past the tanneries, with their troughs and stone-lined pits, to the forest edge. A few Letherii slaves glanced his way, quickly bowing in deference until he was past. The towering cedar logs of the village wall rose from the clearing ahead, over which woodsmoke hung in stretched streams. Fields of rich black soil spread out to either side of the narrow, raised track leading to the distant gate. Winter had only just begun to release its grip on the earth, and the first planting of the season was still weeks away. By midsummer, close to thirty different types of plants would fill these fields, providing food, medicine, fibres and feed for the livestock, many among the thirty of a flowering variety, drawing the bees from which honey and wax were procured. The tribe’s women oversaw the slaves in such harvesting. The men would leave in small groups to journey into the forest, to cut timber or hunt, whilst others set out in the Knarri ships to harvest from the seas and shoals.
Or so it should be, when peace ruled the tribes. The past dozen years had seen more war-parties setting out than any other kind, and so the people had on occasion suffered. Until the war, hunger had never threatened the Edur. Trull wanted an end to such depredations. Hannan Mosag, Warlock King of the Hiroth, was now overlord to all the Edur tribes. From a host of warring peoples, a confederacy had been wrought, although Trull well knew that it was a confederacy in name only. Hannan Mosag held as hostage the firstborn sons of the subjugated chiefs – his K’risnan Cadre – and ruled as dictator. Peace, then, at the point of a sword, but peace none the less.
A recognizable figure was striding from the palisade gate, approaching the fork in the trail where Trull now halted. ‘I greet you, Binadas,’ he said.