Please enjoy this excerpt from Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont, a novel set in the Malazan universe, newly out today from Tor Books! And stay tuned!—we’ll have more for you from the Malazan universe this week…
The Elder Age
Height of the Jacaruku Crusades
The Many Isles
Uli knew it for a bad omen the moment he saw it. he’d been readying his nets for the pre-dawn fishing when the unnatural green and blue aura bruised the sky. It appeared out of the lightening east and swelled, becoming more bloated with every passing moment. The bay was choppy as if as agitated as he, and he’d been reluctant to push his shallow boat out into the waves. But his family had to eat, and cramped stomachs belch no end of complaints.
Through the first of the morning’s casts he kept his face averted from the thing where it hung in the discoloured sky, blazing like the baleful eye of some god. The catch that morning was poor: either his distraction, or the fish fleeing the apparition. In either case he decided to abandon the effort as cursed, threw his net to the bottom of the craft, and began paddling for shore. The blue-green eye now dazzled brighter than the sun; he shaded his gaze from the points of alien light glimmering on the waves. He paddled faster.
A strange noise brought his frantic, gasping efforts to a halt. A great roaring it was, like a landslide. He glared about, searching for its source. The alien eye now seemed to fill half the sky. No remnant of the sun’s warm yellow glow touched the waters, the treed shore, or the dark humps of the distant islands. Then, with unnatural speed, the surface of the bay stilled as if cowed. Uli held his breath and ducked side to side in his tiny craft.
The eye broke apart. Shards calved trailing blue flames, arcing. A roaring such as he had never before endured drove him to clap his hands to his head and scream his pain. A great massive descending piece like an ember thrown from a god’s fire drove smashing down far to the east. A white incandescent blaze blinded Uli’s vision. It seemed as if something had struck the big island.
Just as his vision returned, another glow flashed from behind. It threw his shadow ahead like a black streamer across the bay. Turning, he gaped to see a great scattering of shards descending to the west while others cascaded on far above. He rubbed his pained eyes – could it be the end of the world? Perhaps it was another of the moons falling, as he’d heard told of in legends. He remembered his paddle; Helta and the little ’uns would be terrified. He returned to churning water with a desperate fury, almost weeping his dread.
The hide boat ground on to mudflats far sooner than usual. Mystified, he eased a foot over the side. Shallows where none had ever stretched before. And the shore still a good long hike away. It was as if the water were disappearing. He peered up and winced; in the east a massive dark cloud of billowing grey and black was clawing its way up into the sky. It had already swallowed the sun. Untold bounty lay about him: boatloads of fish gasping and mouthing the air, flapping their death-throes.
Yet not one bird. The birds – where had they gone?
The light took on an eerie, darkly greenish cast. Uli slowly edged round, turning his head out to sea, and all hope fell from him. Something was swelling on the waters: a wall of dirty green. Floods such as the old stories tell of. Mountains of water come to inundate the land as all the tales foretell. It seemed to rear directly overhead, so lofty was it. Foam webbed its curved leading face, dirty white capped its peak. He could only gape upwards at its remorseless, fatal advance.
Run, little ’uns, run! The water comes to reclaim the land!
Approx. 400 years bw (Before the Wall)
The Empty Isles
Temal pushed himself upright from the chilling surf and crouched, sword ready. He gazed uncomprehendingly around the surface of the darkening waters, wiping the cold spray from his face. Where have they gone? One moment he’s fighting for his life and the next the sea-demons disappear like the mist that preceded them. Weak coughing sounded from his flank. He slogged among the rocks to lift a soaked comrade: Arel, a distant cousin. Though almost faint with exhaustion, Temal dragged the man to shore. Survivors of his war band ran down to the surf to pull both to the reviving warmth of a great bonfire of driftwood.
‘What happened?’ he stammered through chattering teeth.
‘They withdrew,’ answered Temal’s older sword-brother, Jhenhelf. His tone conveyed his bewildered disbelief. ‘Yet why? They had us.’
Temal did not dispute the evaluation; he was too tired, and he knew it to be true. He had less than twenty hale men in his band and too many of those inexperienced youths.
‘They will return with the dawn to finish us,’ Jhenhelf continued from across the fire. Temal held his old comrade’s gaze through the leaping flames and again said nothing. At their feet Arel coughed, then vomited up the seawater he’d swallowed.
‘What of Redden?’ one of the new recruits asked. ‘We could send for aid.’
Faces lifted all round the fire, pale with chill and fear.
‘They could be with us by dawn . . .’
‘Redden is just as hard-pressed as us,’ Temal cut in strongly. ‘He must defend his own shore.’ He glanced from one strained face to another. ‘Redden cannot spare the men.’
‘Then—’ began one of the youths.
‘Then we wait and rest!’ Jhenhelf barked. ‘Arel, Will, Otten – keep watch. The rest of you, get some sleep.’
Grateful for the support of his old friend, Temal eased himself to the ground. He thrust his sandalled feet out to the fire and tried to ignore the agonizing sting of salt licking his many cuts and gashes. He felt the heat work upon him and hunched forward, hand across his lap at the grip of his sheathed sword, and through slit eyes he watched the mist climb from his drying leathers.
He had no idea why the damned sea-demon Riders attacked. Despite them, it was an attractive land. The peninsulas and islands were rich and cultivable. It was ready to be wholly settled but for a few ignorant native tribals. His father and his grandfather before him had fought to keep their tenuous foothold. As leader of his extended clan he had to think of the future: enough futile wandering! They would hang on to these islands and all the lands beyond. Dark Avallithal with its haunted woods had not suited, nor the savage coast of Dhal-Horn, nor the brooding Isles of Malassa. Here flew their standard. Here his forebears burned their boats. He would not allow these Riders to force them out; they had nowhere to go.
Temal jerked awake, knocking aside Jhenhelf’s touch. It was almost dawn. ‘An attack?’ He struggled up on legs numb and stiff.
His lieutenant’s face held an unfamiliar expression. ‘No.’ He lifted his chin to their rear, to where the grass-topped cliffs of the shore rose; to the meadows and forests and farmland beyond, all of which would soon be dead and withered should the sea-demons be allowed to work their witchery unmolested.
Everyone, Temal noted, stared inland, not out to sea where they should be keeping watch for the first pearl-like gleams of the Riders’ approach. ‘What is it?’
Jhenhelf did not answer, and it occurred to Temal that the strange expression on his friend’s coarse, battle-hardened face might be awed wonder. He squinted up to the top of the cliffs’ ragged silhouette. A figure stood there, tall beneath dark clouds in the red-gold of the coming dawn’s light. The proportions of what he was seeing struck Temal as strange: whoever that was, he or she must be a giant to rear so high from so far away . . .
‘I’ll go,’ he said, his gaze fixed. ‘You keep guard.’
‘Take Will and Otten.’
‘If I must.’
Dawn was in full flush when they reached the crest, and when they did Will and Otten fell silent, staring. Though the shore breeze was strong, a repulsive stench as of rotting flesh struck Temal. He clenched his lips and stomach against the reek and forced himself onward alone.
The figure was gigantic, out of all proportion, twice the height of the Jaghut or other Elders he’d heard talk of, such as the Toblakai or Tarthinoe, and vaguely female with its long greasy tresses hanging down to its waist, its thrusting bosom, and the dark tangle of hair at its crotch. Yet its flesh was repulsive: a pale dead fish, mottled, pocked by rotting open sores. The fetor almost made Temal faint. At the thing’s side rested a large block of black stone resembling a chest or an altar.
Temal glanced out to sea, to the clear unmarred surface gleaming in the morning light, where no hint of wave-borne sea-demons remained. He glanced back to the figure. Dark Taker! Could this be she? The local goddess some settlements invoked to protect them? That many claimed offered sanctuary from the Riders?
The broad bloodless lips stretched in a knowing smile, as if the being had read his thoughts. Yet the eyes remained empty of all expression, lifeless, dull, like the staring milky orbs of the dead. Temal felt transformed. She has come! She has delivered them from certain annihilation at the lances of the sea-demons! Not knowing what to say he knelt on one knee, offering wordless obeisance. Behind him Will and Otten knelt as well.
The figure took a great sucking breath. ‘Outlander,’ it boomed, ‘you have come to settle the land. I welcome you and offer my protection.’ The Goddess gestured with a gnarled and twisted hand to the block at her feet. ‘Take this most precious sarcophagus. Within rests flesh of my flesh. Carry it along the coast. Trace a path. Mark it and build there a great wall. A barrier. Defend it that behind it you may rest protected from those enemies from the sea who seek to ravage this land. Do you accept this my gift to you and all your people?’
Distantly, Temal felt cold tears trace lines down his face. Hardly trusting himself to speak, he gasped: ‘We accept.’
The Goddess spread her ponderous arms wide. ‘So be it. What is done is done. This is our covenant. Let none undo it. I leave you to your great labour.’
Temal bowed again. The Goddess lumbered south in prodigious strides that shook the ground beneath Temal’s knees. She was gone in moments. He did not know how long he remained bowed but in time Will and Otten came to stand with him. The sun bore down hot on his back. Sighing, he straightened, dizzy.
What had he done? What could he have done? No choice. They were losing. Each year they were fewer while the enemy seemed just as strong, if not stronger. But her mere approach had driven them back.
Will found his voice first. ‘Was it a Jaghut? Or her? The Goddess?’
‘It was her. She has offered her protection.’
‘Well, she’s gone now – they’ll be back,’ Otten said, ever sceptical.
Temal gestured to the basalt coffin. ‘No. She’s still here.’
‘What is it?’ Otten asked, reaching for it.
‘No!’ Temal pushed them back. ‘Get Jhenhelf. And Redden.’
‘But you said they were to keep guard.’
‘Never mind what I said. Listen to me now. Get them both. Tell them to bring wood and rope.’
‘But what of the demons?’
‘They won’t be back. At least, not near us.’ He extended a palm to the black glittering block. Heat radiated from it as from a stone pulled from a fire. Flesh of her flesh. Good Goddess! Gracious Lady! May we never fail you or your trust.
Korelri year 4156 sw (Since the Wall)
Year 11 of the Malazan Occupation
Kingdom of Rool
Island of Fist
Karien’el, a lieutenant of the City Watch, led Bakune under the wharf to where the young woman’s body lay tangled in seaweed at the base of the jumbled rocks of the breakwater. The lieutenant, ever con- scious of rank, reached up to aid the man across the slippery rocks though he himself carried more years than Bakune, newly installed Assessor of Banith.
With Bakune’s arrival at the chilly wave-pounded shore the men of the Watch straightened. A number quickly cinched tight helmets, adjusted leather jerkins and the hang of their truncheons and their badge of honour: swords – albeit shortswords – which they alone among the subject peoples of Fist were allowed to carry by the Malazan overlords. Also conscious of rank, in his own way, Bakune answered the salutes informally, hoping to set them all at ease. It still did not feel right to him that these men, many veterans of the wars of invasion, should salute him. Uncomfortable, and hugging his robes to himself for warmth, he raised a brow to the Watch lieutenant. ‘The body?’
‘Here, Assessor.’ The lieutenant led him down to the very edge of lazy swells and blackened, seaweed-skirted boulders large as wine tubs. An old man waited there, sun and wind-darkened, kneeling on scrawny haunches, tattered sandals on filthy feet, in a ragged tunic with a ragged beard to match
‘And this one?’ Bakune asked Karien’el.
Brought us to the body.’
The old man knelt motionless, his face flat, carefully watchful. The body lay at his feet. Bakune crouched. Newly cast up; the smell did not yet overpower the surrounding shore stink. Naked. Crabs had gnawed extremities of hands and feet; had also taken away most of the face (or deliberate disfigurement?). Very young, slim, no doubt once attractive. A prostitute? Odd marks at the neck – strangulation. Faded henna tattoos – a common vanity.
Without looking up Bakune asked: ‘Who was she to you?’
‘No one,’ the old man croaked in thickly accented Roolian.
‘Then why the Watch?’
‘Is one anonymous dead girl not worth your attention?’
Bakune slowly raised his head to the fellow: dark features, kinky greying hair. The black eyes in return studied him with open, what others might term impertinent, intent. He lowered his head, picked up a stick to shift the girl’s arm. ‘You are a tribesman. Of the Drenn?’
‘You know your tribes. That is unusual for you invaders.’
Bakune peered up once again, his eyes narrowed. ‘Invaders? The Malazans are the invaders.’
A smile empty of any humour pulled at the edge of the old man’s lips. ‘There are invaders and then there are invaders.’
Straightening, Bakune dropped the stick and regarded the old man directly. As a trained Assessor he knew when he himself was being . . . examined. He crossed his arms. ‘What is your name?’
Again the patient smile. ‘In your language? Gheven.’
‘Very well, Gheven. What is your – assessment – here?’
‘I’m just an itinerant tribal, vaunted sir. What should my opinion matter?’
‘It matters to me.’
The lips hardened into a straight tight line; the eyes almost disappeared into their nests of wrinkles. ‘Does it? Really?’
For some odd reason Bakune felt himself almost faltering. ‘Well, yes. Of course. I am the Assessor. It is my duty.’
A shrug and the hardened lines eased back into the distant, flat watchfulness. ‘It’s more and more common now,’ he began, ‘but it goes far back. You all blame the Malazan troops, of course. These Malazans, they’ve been here for what, ten years now? They walk your streets, billet themselves in your houses and inns. Visit your taverns. Hire your prostitutes. Your women take up with them. Often these girls are killed for such mixing. Usually by their own fathers or brothers for smearing what they call their “honour”—’
‘That’s a damned lie, tribal scum! It’s the Malazans!’
Bakune almost jumped – he’d forgotten the Watch lieutenant. He raised a placating hand to the man who stood seething, knuckles white on the grip of his shortsword. ‘You said usually . . . ?’
The man’s lined face had knotted in uncompromising distaste; his gnarled hands remained loose at his sides. He seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, how close he was to being struck down. Luckily for him Bakune shared his disgust, and, generally, his assessment as well. Gheven nodded his craggy head up and down, and the tightened lips unscrewed. ‘Yes. Usually. But not this time. Much of the flesh is gone but note the design high on the right shoulder.’
Bakune knelt, and, dispensing with the niceties of any stick, used his own hands to shift the body. The henna swirls were old and further faded by the bleaching of the seawater, but among the unremarkable geometric abstracts one particular symbol caught his eye . . . a broken circle. A sign of one of the new foreign cults outlawed by their native Korel and Fistian church of their Saviour, their Lady of Deliverance. He tried to recall which one among the bewildering numbers of all those foreign faiths, then he remembered: a minor one, the cult of the ‘Fallen God’.
‘What of it? You are not suggesting that just because of one such tattoo the Guardians of Our Lady—’
‘I am suggesting worse. Note the bruises at the throat. The cuts at the wrists. It has been a long time, has it not, Assessor, since the one who you claim protects you from the sea-demons, the Riders, has demanded her payment, yes?’
‘Drenn filth!’ Karien’el grasped the man by the neck. Iron scraped wood as his sword swung free of its scabbard.
‘Lieutenant!’ The man froze, panting his fury. ‘You forget yourself. Release him. I am assessing here.’
Slowly, reluctantly, the officer peeled his fingers free and slammed home the blade, pushing the man backwards. ‘Same old lies. Always defaming Our Lady despite her protection. She protects even you, you know. You tribals. From the sea-demons. You should stay in your mountains and woods and consider yourselves blessed.’
Gheven said nothing, but in the old man’s taut, almost rigid, mien Bakune saw a fierce unbowed pride. The dark eyes shifted their challenge to him. ‘And what is your judgement here . . . Assessor?’
Bakune retreated from the shoreline where stronger waves now cast up cold spray that chilled his face. He pulled a handkerchief from a sleeve to dab away the briny water. ‘Your, ah, suspicions are noted, Gheven. But I am sorry. Strong accusations require equally strong evidence and that I do not see here. Barring any further material facts the murder remains as you originally suggested – a murder or a distasteful honour killing. That is my assessment.’
‘We are finished here?’ Karien’el asked. His slitted eyes remained unwavering on the old tribesman.
‘Yes. And Lieutenant, no harm is to come to this man. He did his duty in calling our attention to an ugly crime. I will hold you personally responsible.’
The officer’s sour scowl twisted even tighter but he bowed his accord. ‘Yes, Assessor.’
Climbing back up on to the breakwater walk Bakune adjusted his robes and clenched his chilled fingers to bring life back to them. Of course he’d seen the marks encircling the neck, but some things one must not admit aloud – at least not so early in one’s career. He regarded the lieutenant who had followed, one boot on the stone ledge, ever dutiful. ‘Report to me directly the discovery of any more such bodies. Or rumoured disappearances of youths, male or female. There may be a monster among us, Karien.’
A salute of fingertips to the knurled brow of his iron helmet. ‘Aye, Assessor.’
The officer descended the slope, his boots scraping over the boulders, cloak snapping in the wind. Bakune hugged himself for warmth. The coast, Lady, how he hated it: the chill wind that smelled of the Riders, the clawing waters, the cold damp that mildewed all it touched. Yet a positive review here could lead to promotion and that posting in Paliss he hoped for . . . yet another good reason for discretion.
He looked for the tribesman down among the wet boulders but the man was gone. Good. He didn’t want a beating on his conscience. What an accusation! Why jump to such an assessment? True, long ago the ancient ways sanctioned such acts in the name of the greater good – but all that had been swept aside by the ascendancy of Our Saviour, the Blessed Lady. And in their histories it is plain that that man’s ancestors practised it, not ours! Thus the long antipathy between us and these swamp- and wasteland-skulking tribals with their bastardized blood.
Perhaps in truth a killing by an enraged father or brother, but without sufficient evidence who can assess? In lieu of evidence the locals will decide that this one, like all those prior, was plainly the work of their bloody-handed murderous occupiers, the Malazans.
From between tall boulders Gheven watched the two walk away. The Watch officer, Karien’el, lingered, searching for him. That did not trouble him; he intended to be moving on in any case. In the eyes of the Roolian occupiers of this land they called Fist he was officially itinerant, after all. And why not, since he was on pilgrimage – an itinerary of sacred paths to walk and sites to visit, and in walking and visiting thus reinscribing and reaffirming? A remarkable confluence of diametric attitudes aligning.
He turned to go. With each step the dreamscape of his ancient ancestral land unfolded itself around him. For the land was their Warren and they its practitioners. Something all these foreign invaders, mortal and immortal, seemed incapable of apprehending. And he too was finished here. The seeds had been sown; time would tell how strong or deep the roots may take.
If this new Assessor was true to his calling then Gheven pitied him. Truth tellers were never welcome; most especially one’s own. Better to be a storyteller – they at least have grasped the essential truth that everyone prefers lies.
Korelri year 4176 sw
Year 31 of the Malazan Occupation
Kingdom of Rool
Island of Fist
The occupant of the small lateen-rigged launch manoeuvred it through the crowded Banith harbour to tie up between an oared merchant galley out of Theft, and a rotting Jourilan cargo scow. He threw his only baggage, a cloth roll cinched tight by rope, on to the dock, then climbed up on to the mildewed blackwood slats. He straightened his squat broad form, hands at the small of his back, and stretched, grimacing.
An excise officer taking inventory on the galley pointed his baton of office. ‘You there! You can’t tie up here! This is a commercial dock. Take that toy to the public wharf.’
‘Take what?’ the man asked blandly.
The dock master opened his mouth to respond, then shut it. He’d thought the fellow old by his darkly tanned shaven head, but power clearly remained in the meaty thick neck, rounded shoulders, and gnarled, big-knuckled hands. More alarmingly, faded remnants of blue tattoos swirled across his brow, cheeks, and chin, demarking a fiercely snarling boar’s head. ‘The boat – move the boat.’
‘Yes it is! I saw you tie it up just now!’
‘You there,’ the fellow called to an old man in rags on his hands and knees scouring the dock with a pumice stone. ‘How about a small launch? Battered but seaworthy.’
The elder stared then laughed a wet cackle, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t the coin.’
The newcomer threw a copper coin to the dock. ‘Now you do.’
The excise officer’s gaze flicked suspiciously between the two. ‘Wait a moment . . .’
The old man took up the coin, cocked an amused eye at the excise officer and tossed it back. The newcomer snatched it from the air. ‘Talk to this man,’ he told the officer, turning his back.
‘Hey! You can’t just—’
‘I’ll be moving my boat right away, sir!’ the old man cackled, revealing a dark pit empty of teeth. ‘Wouldn’t think of tying up here, sir!’
Walking away, the newcomer allowed his mouth to widen in a broad frog-like grin beneath his splayed, squashed nose.
He passed Banith’s harbour guardhouse, where his gaze lingered on the Malazan soldiers lounging in the shade of the porch. He took in the opened leather jerkin of one, loosened to accommodate a bulging stomach; the other dozing, chair tipped back, helmet forward over his eyes.
The newcomer’s smile faded. Ahead, the front street of Banith ran roughly east–west. The town climbed shallow coastal hills, its roofs dominated by the tall jutting spires of the Holy Cloister and the many gables of the Hospice nearby. Beyond these, rich cultivated rolling plains, land once forested, stretched into the mist-shrouded distance. The man turned right. Walking slowly, he studied the shop fronts and stalls. He passed a knot of street toughs and noted the much darker or fairer hues of mixed Malazan blood among them, so different from the uniformly swart Fistian heritage.
‘Cast us a coin, beggar priest,’ one bold youth called, the eldest.
‘All I own is yours,’ the fellow answered in his gravelly voice.
That brought many up short. Glances shot between the puzzled youths until the older tough snorted his disbelief. ‘Then hand it all over.’
The squat fellow was examining an empty shop front. ‘Easily done – since I own nothing. This building occupied?’
‘Debtors’ prison,’ answered a girl, barefoot, in tattered canvas pants and dirty tunic, boasting the frizzy hair of mixed Korel and foreign parentage. ‘Withholding taxes from the Malazan overlords.’
The man raised his thick arms to it. ‘Then I consecrate it to my God.’
‘Which of all your damned foreign gods is that?’
The man turned. A smile pulled up his uneven lips and distorted the faded boar’s head tattoo. His voice strengthened. ‘Why, since you ask . . . Let me tell you about my God. His domain is the downtrodden and dispossessed. The poor and the sick. To him social standing, riches and prestige are meaningless empty veils. His first message is that we are all weak. We all are flawed. We all are mortal. And that we must learn to accept this.’
‘Accept? Accept what?’
‘Our failings. For we are all of us imperfect.’
‘What is the name of this sick and perverted god?’
The priest held out his hands open and empty. ‘It is that which resides within us – each god is but one face of it.’
‘Each god? All? Even Our Lady who shields us from evil?’
‘Yes. Even she.’
Many of the gang flinched then, wincing, and they moved off as they sensed a more profound and disquieting sacrilege flowing beneath the usual irreverence of foreigners.
‘And his second message?’ a girl asked. She had stepped closer, but her eyes remained watchful on the street, and a sneer seemed fixed at her bloodless lips.
‘Anyone may achieve deliverance and grace. It is open to all. It cannot be kept from anyone like common coin.’
She pointed to her thin chest. ‘Even us? The divines of the Sainted Lady turn us away from their thresholds – even the Hospice. They spit at us as half-bloods. And the old Dark Collector demands payment for all souls regardless.’
The man’s dark eyes glittered his amusement. ‘What I speak of cannot be bought by any earthly coin. Or compelled by any earthly power.’
Perplexed, the girl allowed her friends to pull her on. But she glanced back, thoughtful, her sharp brows crimped.
Smiling to himself again, the newcomer took hold of the door’s latch and pushed with a firm steady force until wood cracked, snapping, and the door opened. He slept that night on the threshold under his thin quilted blanket.
He spent the next morning sitting in the open doorway, nodding to all who passed. Those who did not spurn his greeting skittered from him like wary colts. Shortly after dawn a Malazan patrol of six soldiers made its slow deliberate round. He watched while coins passed from shopkeepers into the hands of the patrol sergeant; how the soldiers, male and female, helped themselves to whatever they wanted from the stalls, eating bread, fruit, and skewered meat cooked over coals as they swaggered along.
Eventually they came to him and he sighed, lowering his gaze. He’d heard it was bad here in Fist – which was why he’d come – but he’d no idea it was this bad.
The patrol sergeant stopped short, his thick, dark brows knitting. ‘What in the name of Togg’s tits is a Theftian priest of Fener doing here?’
The newcomer stood. ‘Priest, yes. But no longer of Fener.’
‘Kicked out? Buggery maybe?’
‘No – you get promoted for that.’
The men and women of the patrol laughed. The sergeant scowled, his unshaven jowls folding in fat. He tucked his hands into his belt; his gaze edged slyly to his patrol. ‘Looks like we got an itinerant. You have any coin, old beggar?’
‘I do.’ The priest reached into a fold of his tattered shirt and tossed a copper sliver to the cobbled road.
‘A worthless Stygg half-penny?’ The sergeant’s fleshy mouth curled.
‘You’re right that it’s worthless. All coins are worthless. It’s just that some are worth less than others.’
The sergeant snorted. ‘A Hood-damned mystic too.’ He pulled a wooden truncheon from his belt. ‘We don’t tolerate layabouts in this town. Get a move on or I’ll give you payment of another kind.’
The priest’s wide hands twitched loosely at his sides; his frog-like mouth stretched in a straight smile. ‘Lucky for you I no longer have any use for that coin either.’
The sergeant swung. The truncheon slapped into the priest’s raised open hand. The sergeant grunted, straining. His tanned face darkened with effort. Yanking, the priest came away with the truncheon, which he then cracked across his knee, snapping it. He threw the shards to the road. The men and women of the patrol eased back a step, hands going to swords.
The sergeant raised a hand: Hold. He gave the priest a nod in acknowledgement of the demonstration. ‘You’re new, so I’ll give you this one. But from now on this is how it’s gonna work – you want to stay, you pay. Simple as that. Otherwise, it’s the gaol for you. And here’s a tip . . . stay in there long enough and we sell your arse to the Korelri. They’re always lookin’ for warm bodies for the wall and they don’t much care where they come from.’ He eased his head from side to side, cracking vertebrae, and offered a savage smile. ‘So, you’re a priest. We got priests too. Guess I’ll send them around. You can talk philosophy. Till then – sleep tight.’
The sergeant signalled for the patrol to move on. They left, grinning. One of the female soldiers blew a kiss.
The priest sat back down to watch them as they went, collecting yet more extortion money. The street youths, he noted, were nowhere in evidence. Damn bad. Worse than he’d imagined. It’s a good thing the old commander isn’t here to see this. Otherwise it would be the garrison itself in the gaol.
He picked up the two shards of the truncheon, hefted them. Still, mustn’t be too harsh. Occupation and subjugation of a population – intended or not – is an ugly thing. Brutalizing. Brings out the worst in both actors. Look at what he’d heard of Seven Cities. And this is looking no better.
Well, he has his God. The priest’s wide mouth split side to side. Ah yes, his God. And a browbeaten and oppressed population from which to recruit. Fertile ground. He edged his head sideways, calculating. Yes . . . it just might work . . .
First year of the rule of Emperor Mallick Rel ‘The Merciful’
(Year 1167 Burn’s Sleep)
City of Delanss, Falar Subcontinent
Sitting across from his hulking grey-haired friend, Kyle squeezed his tumbler of wine and tried to keep his worry from his face. The long, stone-hued hair that had given his friend his old nickname, Greymane, now hung more silver than pewter. And though he attacked his rice and Falaran hot peppered fish sauce with his usual gusto and appetite, Kyle could see that his strained finances must be taking their toll: new lines furrowed his mouth, dark circles shaded his eyes, and Kyle swore the man was losing weight.
They sat on a terrace overlooking an enclosed courtyard of raked sand where racks of weapons boasted swords of all makes plus daggers, pole-weapons and staves, as well as padded hauberks, helmets and shields. Everything, Kyle reflected, one might need for a fighting academy.
So far, Kyle didn’t think Greymane, who now insisted on his original given name, Orjin, had attracted more than thirty paying bodies to his new school. Kyle didn’t count himself; he’d tried paying for all the lessons and sparring he’d been privileged to have from the man, but Orjin wouldn’t accept a penny. The three cousins who’d come along with him and Greymane had also tried to help, but after their version of ‘training’ broke bones and bloodied noses Orjin asked them to quit. Bored with hanging around, Stalker, Coots and Badlands had said their goodbyes and shipped out on a vessel heading west. Kyle’s guardian spirit, or haunt, seemed to have also drifted off: Stoop, the ghost of a dead Crimson Guardsman, one of the Avowed, those who swore a binding vow to oppose the Malazan Empire so long as it should endure. And that vow, which granted them so much, extended life and strength, also bound them in death, chaining them to the world. But over the months he too had faded away, returning, perhaps, to his dead brethren. Kyle had thought he saw a kind of disappointment in the haunt’s eyes when it appeared that last time to say farewell.
So over the months he’d spent his time talking up Orjin’s school at every chance. He suspected, though, that his friend wasn’t interested in what the regular burghers and farmers of the markets, inns and taverns thought of his new academy – he had his eyes on a far more elevated, and moneyed, tier of the local Delanss society.
Small chance there. Delanss, capital city of the second most populous island of the Falaran subcontinent and archipelago, boasted prestigious long-established schools: Grieg’s Academy, the School of the Curved Blade, the Black Falcon School. Academies that rivalled the famous officers’ school of Strike Island. And privately, Kyle did not believe his friend would ever manage to push his way into such a closed, tightly knit market in what seemed such a closed, tightly knit society. As far as he could see, this region’s capitulation to its Malazan invaders seemed to have amounted to no more than changing the colour of the flags atop the harbour fortress.
Greymane – Orjin – tore a piece of greasy flatbread and used it to sop up the last of his sauce; he looked as though he was about to speak, but chewed moodily instead. Kyle sipped his white rice wine, thought about asking whether any classes were scheduled for the day, decided he’d better not.
It seemed to him that all this must be especially galling since his friend had to hide his past. A past that would have officer hopefuls battering down his doors should they know of it. Unfortunately, word of his past career as an Imperial Malazan military general, a Fist, and subsequent outlaw from that same Empire, would have him a hunted man on this subcontinent as well.
A sound from below turned Kyle’s attention to the practice floor. A man had entered. He was dressed in the rounded cloth hat, thick robes and bright jewellery of just that social stratum Orjin was so keen to attract; the fellow gazed bemusedly about the empty school. Following Kyle’s gaze, Orjin peered down, then shot upright from his chair, sending it crashing backwards. ‘Yes, sir!’ he boomed. ‘May I be of service?’
The man jumped at the bellow trained to penetrate the crash of battle, squinted up, uncertain. ‘You are the master of this establishment?’ he asked in Talian, the unofficial second tongue of the archipelago.
‘Yes, sir! A moment, sir!’ Orjin wiped his mouth, disentangled himself from his fallen chair and headed for the stairs. Crossing the practice floor, he bowed. ‘How may I help you, sir?’
Kyle finished his wine and followed. He stopped at the base of the stairs, leaned against the banister of unfinished wood. The fellow wore the full fashion of the local aristocracy: multiple rings at his fingers, thick silver chains round his neck over fur-trimmed robes with fur cuffs. His hat consisted of wrapped dark burgundy cloth set with semi-precious stones. His goatee was finely trimmed, and while looking Orjin up and down he stroked it, showing off the large gems in his rings. ‘What are your credentials?’
Orjin bowed again. He looked what Kyle hoped was properly severe and professional in his tanned leathers. ‘I served in the Malazan Fourth Army, sir, and attained the rank of captain before injury at the Battle of the Plains.’
The man’s brows rose. ‘Truly? Then you were there when the Empress fell?’
‘Yes, sir. Though I did not witness it.’
‘Few did, I understand. What, then, is your impression of this new Emperor, Mallick Rel?’
Orjin glanced back to Kyle, cleared his throat. ‘Well, sir, I’m not a politician. But I was glad that he did not prosecute the officers who had rebelled against the Empress.’
The man’s calculating gaze seemed to say, Because you were among them? ‘He’s Falari, you know.’
‘No, sir. I did not know that.’
‘Yes. And I will tell you this – there were many of us here who were not in the least bit surprised at the news of his, ah, advancement.’
‘Is that so, sir.’
The man shrugged uneasily beneath his layered furred robes. ‘Anyway . . . Your rates?’
‘A half-silver per hour for individual instruction.’
The man’s mouth drew down. ‘That is much more than I was expecting.’
‘Ah, but . . .’ The big man motioned to Kyle. ‘I can also offer instruction from my compatriot here, who was of the famed mercenary company, the Crimson Guard.’
The nobleman eyed Kyle thinly. ‘And now employs those skills breaking arms.’
Orjin actually winced. ‘Yes, well. You can always withdraw should you not judge the instruction beneficial.’
‘It is not for myself. It is for my son.’
‘I see. His age?’
‘Still a boy, really . . . but rowdy. Undisciplined.’ He tilted his head as he stroked his goatee. ‘But you look as if you might be able to handle him.’ He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes. Thank you. Until then.’ He bowed.
Orjin answered the bow. ‘I look forward to it.’
The man left. Kyle ambled across the floor to Orjin’s side. ‘Think we’ll see him again?’
‘He didn’t even ask to see your papers.’
‘Perhaps he knows how easily all that bullshit can be forged.’
‘Maybe.’ Kyle eyed his friend sidelong. ‘A half-silver per hour? Pretty steep. I couldn’t afford you.’
The man smiled wolfishly and his glacial blue eyes glittered with humour. For a moment he had the appearance of his old self. ‘He looked as if he could spare it.’
Kyle laughed. ‘Aye. Tomorrow, then.’
‘Yes – sword and shield work.’
Backing away, Kyle waved the suggestion aside. ‘Gods, no. There’s no skill in that.’
‘No skill! There’s ignorance speaking. Do you in, that ignorance might one day.’
‘Not before I knife it.’
‘Knife? Useless against anyone in a shred of armour.’
Kyle paused. ‘I’ll—’ A knock sounded just as he was reaching for the doors. Frowning, he opened one of the wide leaves. Three men, plainly dressed, bearing expensive Falaran-style longswords and daggers, the blades straight and slim. Three more! Must be Greymane’s – Orjin’s – banner day. He nodded to one. ‘Morning.’
This one, a young swell in a broad-brimmed green felt hat, looked him up and down and made no effort to disguise his lack of approval. ‘You are this new weapon-master?’
‘No.’ Kyle motioned up the tunnel. ‘He’s it.’ He stood aside. The three men entered, leaving the door ajar. The indifferent condescension of that act – as if the three were used to others opening and shutting doors for them – moved Kyle to stroll along behind them, curious.
He stopped in the mouth of the tunnel that led to the court. The three had met Orjin at a weapon rack. ‘You are this new weapon-master, Orjin Samarr?’ their spokesman asked in a tone that was almost accusatory.
Orjin turned, blinking mildly. His eyes glinted bright like sapphires in the shade. ‘Aye? May I help you? You would like a lesson, perhaps?’
The three exchanged glances, their mouths twisting up, amused. ‘Yes,’ the fellow in the green hat began, backing off and setting a gloved hand on his sword. ‘You can help us settle a wager my friends and I have made . . .’ The other two stepped aside to Orjin’s right and left. Kyle pushed himself from the wall, edged closer to a weapon rack. ‘. . . as to whether any foreigner could possibly provide fighting instruction in any way approximating that quality with which Delanss has been so blessed.’
Orjin nodded his understanding. He drew a bound stave from the weapon rack, sighted down its length. ‘I see. Well, normally I charge a half-silver for lessons. But perhaps the three of you would like to go in together on a group rate—’
They drew, snarling. Orjin sprang upon the one on his right, the stave smacking the man’s right hand, and he yelped, tucking it under an arm. Orjin spun to face the other two. Kyle drew a wooden baton from the weapon rack, tossed it end over end while he watched.
Using a two-handed grip, Orjin parried, the stave blurring, knocking the slim double-edged blades aside. The fellow in the felt hat furiously threw it aside and drew his parrying dagger. The clack of the stave against the blades echoed in the court. Kyle listened for the telltale catch of iron biting wood, but so far Orjin had managed to avoid that particular danger. The man’s face was reddening and Kyle stopped tossing the baton.
Too early; far too early for any exertion to be showing. ‘They’re using knives,’ he observed conversationally.
Orjin shot him a glare, his cheeks puffing. The three danced around him while he shifted slowly, knees bent, stave cocked. ‘Now, normally,’ he began, ‘none of you would have occasion to meet an opponent using a two-handed weapon . . .’ One lunged in, and Orjin’s stave smacked his face, sending him tottering aside. Orjin returned his guard on the remaining two. ‘Normally, it is too slow and awkward to move from side to side across the body. A nimble opponent should—’ The same one charged, slashing. Orjin’s stave parried, dipped, and came up into the fellow’s groin. The man fell like a string-cut puppet. Kyle winced in empathetic pain.
Sweat now sheathing his face, Orjin faced their spokesman, who smiled, acknowledging the lesson, and immediately attacked. Parrying, Orjin dipped his head, shouting his encouragement. ‘Yes, yes! That’s right – draw the point aside, prepare the gauche for the hidden thrust!’
A warning shout from Kyle died in his throat as the hand-slapped fellow re-entered the fray to grip Orjin from behind. Kyle was amazed by the foolhardiness of the move; the bhederin-like Orjin was half again as broad as any man he’d ever met.
Shrugging, Orjin wrenched an arm around to get the man in a headlock and threw him over his shoulder stomach up like a sack of grain. Stave in one hand, he faced the spokesman. ‘Now you have the advantage – a one-handed opponent!’
The spokesman did not hesitate. His booted feet shushed and thumped the sand as he dodged, feinting, circling the ponderously shifting Orjin. Kyle kicked himself from the wall. Shit! He’s really gonna try it! The longsword scraped up the shaft of the stave, holding it aside, and he stepped in the gauche, thrusting, but Orjin spun, the blade sawing shallowly across his side as the legs and boots of the man across his shoulder smashed into his assistant, sending him flying aside. Orjin tossed the man on to his sprawled fellow and stood panting. He touched his side gingerly and flinched. ‘The lesson is . . .’ he drew a heavy breath, ‘that you all should’ve attacked at once, regardless.’
Kyle watched the big man’s chest rising and falling. Out of breath already? Not good. No, not good at all. He replaced the baton.
As the spokesman struggled to rise Orjin put a booted foot to his backside and sent him tumbling to the tunnel. ‘I’d charge you. But I suspect you’re all incapable of learning anything.’
Gathering up their fallen weapons, they backed off to the exit. Kyle bowed as they passed. ‘Honoured sirs!’ They merely glared and mouthed curses. Kyle ambled out to Orjin, who was cleaning up. ‘Winded already . . .’
The man shot him a glare. ‘Been a while.’ He found a rag, wiped his jowls.
‘A little dust-up like that shouldn’t—’
Kyle’s brows rose. Short-tempered too. ‘So I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon then for that sword and shield work. What do you say? Full armour too?’
Orjin made a face. ‘Very funny. Now get out of here. I have to get cleaned up.’
Kyle saluted and backed away.
But he’d been serious.
In a shaded narrow alleyway a few streets down, the young tough, his green felt hat in one hand, dabbed a silk handkerchief to his bleeding nose and mouth and faced the richly dressed Delanss noble in his furred robes and thick silver chains. With a ringed hand the noble edged the young man’s head aside to examine one cheek, tsked beneath his breath. ‘So he did manage to handle you . . .’
‘So, what do you think? Is he the one?’
‘He must be. He lifted Donas like a child.’
‘Very well. I’ll send word. Until then, hire men to keep an eye on the school.’
The young man bowed.
‘And no retribution! No crossbows in the night, or knives in the market. They want him alive.’
The young man rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, father.’
The noble stroked his grey-shot goatee, studied the young man. ‘I must say I am impressed by the man’s control. He put you down without breaking any bones at all. He showed great restraint in the face of almost intolerable insult.’
First year of the rule of Emperor Mallick Rel ‘The Merciful’
(Year 1167 Burn’s Sleep)
At dawn, Kuhn Eshen, called Kuhn ‘The Nose’, master of Rich Tidings, a Katakan freetrader, dropped anchor offshore from the town of Thickton and spent an anxious morning waiting to see whether the stories of the lands of Stratem being open once more to the outside world were true.
As the hours passed the usual small boats made their way out, offering fresh fruit, bread, fish and pigs. Boys and girls swam the cold waters, offering to lead the crew to boarding houses or brothels, or to act as general guides about town. All good signs of a growing openness to trade. By noon the larger open launches were oaring out, bearing merchant agents. These men and women Kuhn greeted. He offered a taste of the Styggian liqueur he’d brought, and showed bolts of Jass broadcloth. They listened with barely concealed eagerness to his talk of Korel; news only a few weeks old rather than the two or three months it usually took for any word to reach this stretch of the isolated Sea of Chimes.
One woman among them, however, mystified Kuhn and he kept a wary eye on her. She stood leaning self-contained against the side. Dressed in dark leathers, with a sword belted at her side, her long auburn hair pulled back and fixed with a bright green tortoiseshell clip, she almost looked to be a military officer of some sort. She took no interest in his wares; instead she watched his crew as they in turn eyed the thickly treed shore. Some few garbled stories had reached Korel lands concerning events on their southern neighbour. Word of a band of hireswords carving out a private kingdom. But all that had been long ago. Still, he wondered: could she be one of them?
After expressing an interest in board feet of the local hardwoods, in tanned hides, and furs, Kuhn spent a time doling out news of Korel lands. The crowded circle of locals hung on every scrap – true or not. He was talking of the Stormwall when his audience went silent and all eyes edged aside, glancing past him. He turned.
The woman in dark leathers had come up behind him. She was watching him expectantly, her sharp chin raised. ‘I’m sorry . . . ?’ he stammered.
‘I said what was that . . . what you were just talking of.’
‘Just the latest news from the Stormwall, honoured lady. And you are . . . ?’
‘I represent the governor of this province – Haven Province, of Stratem.’
‘Truly? A governor?’ Kuhn looked to a nearby agent who was nodding seriously, his thick neck bulging. Intriguing. This news could be worth much in certain ports of Korel. ‘And this governor – does he have a name?’ Closer now, he saw that she wore a single piece of jewellery high on the left of her chest – what looked like a dragon or snake wrought in silver.
The woman’s thin lips edged sideways in an almost cruel knowing smile. ‘You first.’
Ah. Going to be that way, is it? Kuhn shrugged, and rested his forearms on the ship’s gunwale. ‘Certainly, m’lady. My news is always free. It’s half the reason we traders are welcome wherever we go. I was just speaking of the Stormwall. The ranks of the Chosen have thinned, you know. But this last season a new champion has arisen on the wall. The Korelri are full of his exploits. They call him Bars – odd name, that.’
The woman’s reaction made Kuhn flinch. She fairly paled; a hand rose as if to shake him by the throat but to his relief merely clutched air. ‘Bars,’ she hissed aloud in an almost awed whisper. She threw herself over the side, slipping down the rope ladder by her hands alone. Landing jarringly in a launch, she immediately ordered it away. She even lent a hand at an oar herself and it was all the rest of the burly crew could do to keep up. All this Kuhn watched bemusedly, scratching his scalp. ‘Who in the name of the Blessed Lady was that?’
‘That was Janeth, warder of the town.’
‘Warder? What does that mean? Is she your ruler?’
A shake of the head. ‘No, gentle sir. We have a council. She enforces the laws. Her men guard the coast. Arrest thieves and killers – not that we’ve had a killin’ here in some time.’ The agent warmed to his subject, crossed his arms on the gunwale. ‘Last season raiders from your neighbour Mare came through. They show up from time to time. She and her men drove them off.’
Kuhn eyed the retreating launch. Drove off Mare raiders? Her and how many men? So, law enforcement and protection. Agent of this self-styled governor. A king by any other name? News indeed for the Korelan Council of the Chosen concerning their once sleepy southern neighbour. ‘And this provincial governor. He has a name?’
An easy shrug beneath bunched hides. ‘I heard him called “Blues” once. We just call him the Lord Governor. He’s living in an old fort called Haven. Hasn’t been around lately. Not that I’d know him to see him.’
Enough for now. Smiling easily, Kuhn slapped the agent on the arm. ‘Well, thank you. See you this evening?’
‘Oh, yes. Esta’s house. She runs a clean place. Best ever. You’ll see.’
Best ever? My friend, I very much doubt that this muddy backwater could offer any attractions rivalling those of infamous Danig of Theft, or legendary Ebon of Stygg.
© 2011 Ian C. Esslemont