Malazan fans! Take a look at the latest tome, Blood and Bone by Ian Cameron Esslemont, out on May 21:
In the western sky the bright emerald banner of the Visitor descends like a portent of annihilation. On the continent of Jacuruku, the Thaumaturgs have mounted another expedition in a bid to tame the neighbouring wild jungle. Yet this is no normal wilderness. It is called Himatan, and it is said to be half of the spirit-realm and half of the earth. And it is said to be ruled by a powerful entity who some name the Queen of Witches and some a goddess: the ancient Ardata.
Saeng grew up knowing only the rule of the magus Thaumaturgs but it was the voices from that land’s forgotten past that she listened to. And when her rulers launch their invasion of this jungle, those voices send her and her brother on a desperate mission.
To the south, the desert tribes are united by the arrival of a foreign warleader, a veteran commander in battered ashen mail men call the Grey Ghost. This warrior leads these tribes on a raid unlike any other, deep into the heart of Thaumaturg lands.
While word comes to K’azz, and mercenary company the Crimson Guard, of a contract in Jacuruku. And their employer? Could it be the goddess herself…
The voice of an old friend hailed me, when, first returned from my Wanderings, I paced again in that long street of Darujhistan which is called the Escarpment Way; and suddenly taking me wonderingly by the hand, said, ‘Tell me, since you are returned again by the assurance of Osserc, whilst we walk, as in former years, towards the blossoming orchards, what moved you, or how could you take such journeys into the Wastes of the World?’
Journeys of D’argatty
Saeng pounded mortar with pestle, grinding the sauce for the midday meal. In went nuts, young crayfish, greens and peppers, all to be mixed in with sliced unripe papaya for a salad. She worked on her knees, bent over the broad stone mortar, her muscular forearms clenching and flexing. Her long black hair stuck to her sweaty brow and she pushed it away with the back of a hand.
All the other women her age in the village were performing the same task in their family huts, yet with the all-important difference of fixing the meal for husbands and children. Saeng had neither. She prepared meals and cleaned house for herself and her aged mother, who, to Saeng’s continual annoyance, never missed an opportunity to criticize her efforts, or to wonder pointedly why her daughter was on her way to an early spinsterhood. How could it be otherwise, Mother? With you dismissing all our neighbours’ religious festivals as superstitious cowshit, their household shrines as false idols, and their faiths as ignorant childishness? No wonder Father disappeared. And no wonder we stand as the village pariahs.
She dished the meal on to two banana leaves then squatted crosslegged, frowning. Not that her own habits helped. Everyone named her a witch. A servant of the Night-Mother, Ardata. In the past some had even secretly approached her asking that she curse a rival, or strike down a neighbour’s buffalo. And their indignation when she refused! It would be laughable if weren’t so sad.
As it was, the village had their scapegoat for every stillborn calf, every sick child, and every poor harvest. And she herself was heartily tired of it. But Mother – who would take care of Mother? Yet again she wished Hanu was still with them. How she missed his quiet strength. He should’ve married and she should’ve moved in with him to rule it over his wife, leaving her free to escape all this. Instead, the unthinkable had happened and he’d been taken by the Thaumaturgs.
And she supposed she should be thankful. For that fact alone – the prestige accruing from their sacrifice and the relief of all her neighbours that such a price fell to another – allowed them their tenuous grip here on the very edge of the village.
She took up a pinch of rice with the salad and chewed without enthusiasm. And soon Mother would arrive fresh with gossip from her morning round. So-and-so is expecting another grandchild! And so-and-so’s nephew has a cough! Saeng hung her head. Gods deliver her!
And here she comes up the path. Saeng took a steadying breath. ‘So,’ she welcomed her, ‘what news, Mother?’ After some moments she peered up, a pinch of rice in one hand. Her mother watched her, quite uncharacteristically silent. ‘Yes? What is it?’
Her mother stood just before the open front veranda. She twisted her hands in the cloth of her mulitcoloured wrap. ‘News? Yes – real news this time, Saeng. Refugees passing the village. Fleeing the west. And Mae’s relations have arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.’
Saeng sat back, frowning even more than usual. ‘What is it?’
‘An army comes, littlest. Our lords the Thaumaturgs march to war and they come impressing into service everyone they find.’
Saeng popped the ball of rice into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. ‘Well, what is that to us? We’ve already paid.’
Her mother shook her head. ‘I don’t think that will count any longer. And—’ but she stopped herself.
‘Saeng,’ her mother began again, reaching out a hand, ‘the old faith is explicit! In times of war the priestess must be in the temple . . .’
‘Please, Mother . . . don’t go on about that.’
Her mother clasped her hands, shocked. ‘Do not blaspheme! Your great-grandmother was unswerving in this – you must seek out the Great Temple.’
Saeng could hardly find the words. ‘Mother . . . the old faith is long dead. No one even knows where the temples are!’ She laughed a touch nervously. ‘Really – you’re being . . . silly.’
But her mother’s face eased into her usual disappointment and she shook her head. Clenching her lips, Saeng looked away and finished her meal.
That night she couldn’t sleep. The Nak-ta called to her louder than they had in many years. No matter which way she tossed or turned she couldn’t shut them out. And even more distantly, when she concentrated, she thought she could hear the crash of great shapes lumbering ever closer through the jungle.
Then a voice called even louder than the wind rustling the palm leaves and shaking the rattan. Wordless it was; no more than a moan that sounded like someone gagged or wounded. Never before had she heard such a thing. And the voice – a man’s. One of the villagers? Occasionally some fool would stagger drunk or sick off the paths only to be taken. If she got to them soon enough she would try to intercede, but when the shades had claimed their victim it was almost impossible to retrieve him. Only once had she exerted the extra, and very perilous, effort necessary – and that had been for a child. She threw on her wrap and padded out past their cleared garden patch into the wall of trees that was the verge of the trackless jungle that stretched from one coast to the other of her land, Jacuruku.
Once within the darkness between the tall trunks she paused, listening and sensing. She reached out, extending her awareness in an ever-broadening circle. She felt the footfall of the many night creatures surrounding the village, from a small family group of snuffling peccary to the nosing of a tiny shrew. Pushing even further she sensed the hot watchful presence of a night-hunting cat high in its perch, and on the far side of the circle of huts a troop of monkeys scavenged a meal – as far from the cat as possible.
Strange. Was there no one? Usually those who left the paths at night crashed blindly about as hard to miss as an elephant. So much for the flesh. What of the discarnate? Perhaps—
A footfall sounded. Close. Heavy. Far too heavy to be that of any villager. Then another. And a shape emerged from the deeper darkness, a monstrously huge figure, tall and broad. It crossed an errant beam of the green-tinged moonlight as it approached and Saeng’s breath caught as she recognized one of the Thaumaturg’s giant armoured soldiers. The yakshaka.
So – they were here already.
She calmed herself and knelt, head bowed, awaiting the arrival of its master, who could not be too distant. These indestructible giants guarded the Thaumaturgs and were the backbone of their armies. So it is true. They march to the eastern highlands. An advance upon the true source of the wilderness’s lurking dangers: the vast primeval tracks of the Demon-Queen’s demesnes. The jungle of Himatan, half of this land, half of the spirit realm.
Yet I sense no others nearby.
A strange grating noise raised her attention to the yakshaka. Wary, she peeped up. It was doing something at its neck with its heavy armoured hands. Perhaps adjusting the great full helm. The mosaic of inlaid stones that covered its armour glittered as it moved. To Saeng’s horror the helm lifted off revealing a head beneath, the scalp shaved and horribly scarred. Dark eyes – human eyes – blinked, wincing even at this unaccustomed dim light, then peered down at her with a strange gentle intimacy.
She stared, terrified, and irrationally all she could think was: They’ll blame me for breaking it!
Then the mouth moved soundlessly, forming a word. A word she couldn’t believe such a creature would know. Her name, Saeng.
And her flesh prickled in shocked recognition. She knew that face, disfigured though it might be.
She answered, hardly daring to breathe: ‘Hanu . . .’
The yakshaka nodded, its mangled lips rising in a travesty of a smile.
She came close and pressed a hand to its chest, then recoiled at the cold rigidity of the armour. ‘What happened? Why are you here? What’s going on? Oh, dear Hanu – what’s happened to you?’
The smile fell from her brother’s lips and his gaze fell. Taking a deep breath he touched a finger to his lips then opened his mouth. Puzzled, Saeng looked, then felt the strength leave her knees and darkness take her.
His tongue had been sliced away.
She came to, finding herself propped up against a tree. Hanu stood over her, his gaze on the surrounding woods. She peered up at him for a time, enjoying the old familiarity of his presence.
Guarding me still. But you should not be here. What’s going on?
‘Hanu,’ she whispered, ‘why are you here?’
He turned, peering down. With one gauntleted hand he made a shape and Saeng recognized it as one of their old hand-language signs, part of a system they had invented for silent communication.
‘Promise? Whatever do you mean, promise? Your promise to protect me? That?’
‘Coming,’ he signed.
‘Coming? So – they are coming.’ She stood, brushed the damp rotting humus from herself. ‘Well . . . what’s that to me?’
‘Danger? Why? Who am I—’ And she understood. The Thaumaturgs’ long hatred of their neighbour extended to denouncing and drowning any considered under her influence. No doubt she would be killed out of hand as a suspected witch and servant of the DemonQueen. ‘So you—’ She cut herself off again, staring anew. ‘All the lost gods . . . you’ve run off . . . You deserted to warn me!’
‘You great fool!’ she yelled. ‘How does this help? Now it’s your head they’ll want!’
He winced, signing again, ‘Quiet.’
‘Well this is just wonderful. Now we’re both fugitives.’
‘Perfect.’ She set her fists on her hips, eyeing him. She watched while he began refitting his helm. ‘Fine . . . we’ll need food. I’ll go find what I can.’
‘Yes, yes.’ She padded back to the hut. Here she set to filling a sack with rice and collected all the preserved fish and vegetables she could find. Through it all her mother lay breathing wetly in her cot. For a moment Saeng considered waking her to say goodbye, but only for a moment. She’d make too much of a fuss.
Well . . . I yearned for this moment for so long and now that it’s here I don’t want it. I’m finally getting out of here but this is surely not the way I dreamed of it.
She threw together a bag of the sturdiest clothes she could find, plus sandals and bedding. From outside the hiss of a light rain brushed against the grass walls. Wonderful. And in the rainy season, too.
She collected an umbrella of thin wood and set off into the mist.
Hanu joined her in the dark. He pointed then signed a question, indicating obviously enough, ‘Which way?’
Under the umbrella, Saeng clutched her bag to herself and bit her lip. Yes, which way? Steeling herself, she extended her awareness outwards farther than she ever had dared before. It expanded to encompass the village, its surrounding garden plots, and the outlying fields and further fallow wildlands that constituted their outlying holdings. It swept onward over neighbouring villages’ wilds and fields, then the modest hamlets themselves. Like thinning ripples its furthest leading edge now brushed up against something far to the west – a sizzling unfamiliar power that repelled her mild questing like a thick wall of dressed stone.
The army of the Thaumaturgs. And not just passing by in their litters or carts on their mysterious errands. Marching with defences raised and powers unfurled.
‘North, I think. We can let them pass by, then return.’
Hanu simply peered down at her, signing nothing. She felt his mute scepticism. Irritated, she scanned the dense fronds and hanging vines while the light rain pattered down around them as the faintest hint of the downpours to come. She waved him to follow. ‘This way.’
Murken Warrow, known in Untan black-market circles as ‘Murk’, narrowed his already unusually thin eyes on the coast of desert dunes and the forest of strange pillar-like stone markers, then shifted that dubious gaze to his partner Hint, known as ‘Sour’. Together, the duo had achieved a level of notoriety unhealthy in their line of work. They had even come to be pointed out in the streets of Unta as . . . well, as Murk and Sour. By then it was long past a prudent time to leave the city – as their arrest proved.
‘I don’t like it,’ Sour said.
Hands stuffed into the pockets of his vest, Murk rolled his eyes to the overcast sky and let out a great sigh of long-suffering and annoyance. ‘Why am I not surprised?’
‘Got a bad feeling ’bout this contract.’
‘Gonna end in tears.’
‘As always,’ Murk answered beneath his breath as he squinted to the stern deck where the sponsor of their current contract was speaking with the ship’s captain.
‘Miss Nibs is gonna be the death of us,’ Sour continued, aware of his partner’s shift in attention.
‘Only if you keep makin’ passes at her.’
‘It’s those legs o’ hers. They just go on forever.’
Murk grunted his agreement at that. The woman wore the most amazing outfits: tall leather boots as high as her knees, tight trousers, a shape-hugging leather hauberk over a lacy white silk shirt. She looked like someone’s fever dream out of a bordello. But the sword strapped to her belt was well worn, and early in the voyage a single punch from her had floored one of the mercenaries for some suggestive remark, real or imagined.
Most oddly, she insisted on the name Spite.
Murk smiled now in remembrance of Sour’s remark when she’d given that name. Sour had screwed up his frog eyes and asked, “Would that be Miss or Mrs Spite?” Sometimes the squirrelly guy really did crack him up.
Orders sounded and the crew began readying the launch and unstowing cargo. ‘Something tells me we’re gonna earn our pay on this one,’ Sour said. Murk let a breath hiss between clenched lips. ‘Gonna be hairy.’
‘Enough! Would you just – keep it to yourself for a change?’
Sour pulled at the tiny tuft of a beard he kept on his chin, frowned while he eyed the coast. ‘Might not make it out.’
Murk clenched the railing and hung his head in defeat.
The mercenaries went first to secure the landing. They were a scruffy lot Spite said she picked up on the southern coast of Genabackis. Pirate territory, that. None of them admitted to taking imperial coin. But he could tell they had served their time – though he had yet to call any of them on it, as the same could be said for him and Sour. Their leader, Yusen he gave as his name, smelled especially of officer material. Had that demeanour: that old familiar you’re an idiot look he gave them whenever they had anything to say.
Reminded him of their days as imperial mage cadre.
Not much later the scouts returned to the shore to sign the all-clear and the unloading of equipment began.
They watched the ship’s crew and the mercenaries busy unstowing the crates and sacks, lowering them to the launch, and arranging them in the bobbing craft.
Some time into the process Murk became aware of the tall slim figure of their employer, Spite, at his side, her arms crossed and her eyes, an amazing rich golden hazel, on them. He nudged Sour and they touched their brows. ‘Ma’am.’
‘Things would go much quicker if everyone lent a hand.’
‘Just keepin’ an eye out for trouble,’ Sour volunteered.
One shapely eyebrow arched. ‘Really? When I hired you – or should I say rescued you? – from certain arrest and imprisonment in Unta, I was under the impression that you were not a mage of Ruse. Are you a mage of Ruse?’
Sour lowered his confused gaze and kicked at the decking. ‘No, ma’am.’
‘Then tell me – how could you be any help here at sea should there be any . . . trouble?’
The squat mage raised his head, his mouth open to speak, paused, frowned as he reconsidered, and scratched his scalp instead.
Spite continued: ‘I want you two to go ashore and reconnoitre.’
‘And do not enter the circle of the dolmens, yes?’
‘Dolmens?’ Sour asked. ‘Is that what them pillar things is called?’
‘Yes,’ Spite answered as if addressing the village idiot. ‘That’s what they’re called. Don’t enter their formation. Range around. I want to know who’s in the immediate vicinity. Do you think you two can manage that?’
‘Oh yes, ma’am.’
‘Well and good. That is something at least.’ And she turned away.
They watched her walk off; Murk could swear she put an extra swing in her hips as she went. At his side Sour gave a heavy sigh.
‘They just go on and on . . .’ he murmured.
Irritated that this sweaty, unwashed, bow-legged fellow should be giving voice to his own thoughts, Murk elbowed him none too gently. ‘Let’s go.’
They waited until the launch was completely loaded then climbed down a rope and wood ladder. Sour carried down a chicken in a wicker basket that he handed to a sailor. ‘There you go.’
The man grabbed it from him while mouthing something under his breath. The two lay down on rolled tent canvas near the bows, crossed their arms, and shut their eyes. The sailors and mercenaries readied the oars.
As the bows ground up on the beach a light misting rain began to drift over them. Murk and Sour jumped down to the wet sands and walked up the steep shore. More of the crew of mercenaries, who numbered about fifty in all, wandered down to help unload. Yusen appeared and waved the two over to him. When they reached the man in his leather and mail hauberk, mail skirting, iron greaves and vambraces, helmet under his arm, Murk fought an urge to salute.
He looked them up and down with barely concealed distaste on his lined mouth and in his slate-blue eyes. ‘What do you two think you’re doing?’
‘Reconnoitring,’ Murk supplied.
‘I have scouts out.’
Sour made a show of touching a finger to the side of his nose. ‘Not like us.’
The man rolled his eyes to the thick cloud cover; then, peering about, he allowed, grudgingly, ‘Well, from the looks of this place I’d be right careful, if I were you.’
Murk almost saluted at that, murmuring instead, ‘Our thanks . . . Cap’n.’
The man’s gaze hardened and he dismissed them with a jerk of his head. ‘Get going.’
‘Oh, aye aye.’
They left the sands behind to enter a forest of trees the likes of which Murk had never seen before: some held wide leaves almost as broad as shields, others thick waxy ones like hard bullets. ‘What d’ya think?’ Sour asked as they walked. ‘Fourth Army?’
‘Maybe. Long as he weren’t Fifth. Anyways . . .’ Sour sniffed the air. ‘What d’ya think?’ he repeated.
Murk shrugged, wiped the misted rain from his face. ‘Hardly anyone. Just a few fisherfolk.’
‘Yeah . . . I think so.’ Sour sat against the base of a tree and stretched out his legs. ‘Is it noon?’
Murk eyed the other forest just to the north: a forest of grey pillars, dolmens, darkening in the gathering rain. ‘See the ruins when we came in?’
Sour’s eyes were shut. ‘Yeah. Damned big city.’ His eyes popped open. ‘Say! Think there’s treasure ’n’ such there? Maybe we should have a poke around.’
Murk favoured his partner with his most scornful glare. ‘There’s no treasure lying around ruined cities. All that’s just silly troubadour’s songs. Naw – it’s all gone. Just dust and rot and dead spiders.’
Sour shuddered. ‘Gods, spiders. Did you hafta mention spiders? I got feeling all shivery when you said that. Don’t like it at all.’
Murk’s attention had remained on the dolmens. ‘I know what you mean.’
Sour cocked his head, one eye screwed up shut. ‘But maybe there’s tombs ’n’ such. Buried loot. How ’bout that?’
‘Buried?’ Murk continued to study the maze of stone pillars. ‘Yeah. That would be a whole ’nother question, wouldn’t it . . .’
Sour’s gaze followed his partner’s. ‘Aw, for the love of . . .’ The crab-like fellow gave a great shiver. ‘Bad news that. Knew it the moment I clapped eyes on it.’ He bit at a dirty fingernail. ‘Has to be it, though, don’t it? Any other place and I’d jump right in. But there . . . what a damned shame.’
Murk spat aside. ‘Aye. Gonna be keep-your-bags-packed scary.’
‘You’re startin’ to sound like me,’ Sour complained.
Murk grimaced. Great gods, now there’s reason enough for me to jump right in.
It was dusk when Murk tapped a snoring Sour to wake him. He motioned aside, mouthing, ‘Here she is.’ Sour nodded. He smacked his lips and stretched. The two shadowed their employer, skulking from towering dolmen to dolmen. The woman was pacing a slow encirclement of the entire installation. As she walked she held a Warren open and the two mages had to glance away wincing and shading their eyes from the powers summoned and manipulated in her hands. The sculpted energy remained behind as a flickering and pulsing wall of power.
They followed, peering round the pillars, which consisted of stone blocks fitted one on top of the other, tapering to a blunt tip.
‘You see what I see?’ Sour fairly yelled to be heard.
Head turned away, eyes slit, Murk answered, ‘Cutting it off from everything! Nothing’s getting past that wall o’ wards and seals!’
Together, the two suddenly glanced aside where the rippling barrier of folded Warren-energies stood between them and the outside.
‘Shit!’ they mouthed as one and both pelted for the opposite side of the maze of standing stones. As he ran past row after row of the columns, Murk noted how they appeared to possess a slight curve, and he realized that they inscribed immense nested circles, one inside the other. Sour was ahead, his worn shoes kicking up sand, only to stop so suddenly that Murk almost ran over him. Righting himself, he saw what had put a halt to his partner’s flight. It was an open circular court or plaza, empty and utterly featureless, lying at the centre of the dolmens, made of what appeared to be raked gravel.
The shortest way was straight across, but one glance was all Murk needed to see that that was no option. His mage-sight revealed an entirely different version superimposed upon the apparently empty plaza. Something writhed and coursed under the surface just as a monstrous sea-serpent might thrash beneath ocean waves. Murk hit his partner’s shoulder and gestured aside. Together they took off round the plaza’s border. They reached the opposite side of the massive ruin long before Spite appeared, tracing her ward. They watched her complete the intricate and blindingly powerful ritual while they lay flat behind a dune.
Sour slid further into cover and wiped a sleeve across his slick face. Murk joined him. ‘So . . . maybe we should just save time and run off now?’ Sour asked.
Murk rested his arms on his knees. ‘Naw. I’m kinda curious.’
Sour’s gaze slit almost closed. ‘Curious? You’re curious. You mean your wretched Shadow patron’s all curious, ain’t that what you mean!’
‘Oh, and you’re sayin’ little Miss Enchantress ain’t!’
Sour blew a nostril to empty it. ‘Don’t need to be a fortune-teller to know where this is gonna end. With us handed our heads!’
Murk looked to the darkening sky, now clearing of the thick clouds. ‘You know – when you predict the same damned thing over and over it kinda loses its credibility.’
‘Call for rain long enough and you’re bound to be right.’
Murk threw open his arms. ‘Now that doesn’t even make any goddamned sense!’
Sour’s wall-eyed gaze shifted to right and left. ‘It will . . . eventually.’
‘Would you stop that!’
‘You lovebirds finished your little spat?’ a new voice asked from the cover of nearby brush.
‘Whosat?’ Sour called, sinking even lower.
A fellow straightened from the thicket and approached to squat next to them. It was one of Yusen’s scouts. The man wore leathers, longknives at his sides, and a plain and battered Malazan-issue iron helmet that brought back plenty of memories to Murk. None of them happy. ‘What’re you doing here?’ he demanded – he was of the opinion that when caught off guard an aggressive front can often compensate.
The scout shifted a twig from one side of his mouth to the other while eyeing them. ‘Cap’n wants your report.’
‘What report?’ Sour asked.
‘On what you’ve sniffed out.’
‘We ain’t seen nothing,’ Sour answered, crossing his arms.
The man removed the twig from his mouth, studied it, then tucked it back in. ‘Yeah. I see that.’
Murk wanted to slap the damned thing from the fellow’s mouth. ‘Listen, merc. What’s your name?’
‘Sweetly,’ the man answered, his face flat of any emotion.
‘Sweetly,’ Murk echoed. ‘What’s your name – Sweetly?’
The scout glanced about the darkening shadows of the dunes and pockets of low dry brush. His gaze returned to them. The twig sank as his mouth drew down. ‘’Sright. Now c’mon. You two got a report to make.’ He jerked his head towards the coast and started off.
Murk and Sour followed along. ‘Oh look at me,’ Sour grumbled sotto voce as they walked. ‘I’m a tough guy. I chew twigs. Look out for me.’
‘You just don’t like meetin’ someone named Sweetly,’ Murk told him, smiling.
Sour’s grumbling descended into dark mouthings.
They found a camp pitched just inland, sheltered from the winds by a high dune. Pickets led them to a central tent, currently more of a simple awning as its canvas sides were still raised. Yusen ducked from beneath. Sweetly gave a tilt of his head then ambled off.
The mercenary captain regarded them from within the deep nests of wrinkles surrounding his eyes then drew a heavy breath and crossed his arms.
‘What?’ Sour said, bristling.
‘Let’s have it,’ the man sighed.
‘She’s interested in the dolmens,’ Murk answered.
‘The standing stones. That’s why we’re here.’ Yusen got a pained look on his face. He lowered his eyes to study the ground for a time. ‘Damn. I was hoping that wasn’t the case.’
Sour glanced to Murk. ‘Now what?’
‘Now you two stay on her good side, that’s what,’ Yusen answered.
Again, Murk almost saluted. ‘Yes, Cap’n,’ he said. The man shot him a searching sideways glance then grimaced his impatience and waved them away. They ambled off.
After searching for a while Murk stopped a mercenary and asked, ‘Which one’s our tent?’
‘That one,’ the woman answered, pointing to a pile of poles and bundled canvas. Then she walked away.
‘Yeah, very funny,’ Murk called after her. He waved to Sour. ‘Looks like you’ll have to put it up.’
‘Me? Whaddya mean, me? You put it up.’
‘Well, I sure ain’t.’
‘Both of you put it up!’ a mercenary bellowed from the next tent. ‘Or I’ll put them tent-poles up where they don’t belong!’
Both offered choice gestures towards the side of the tent then knelt to the damp canvas. ‘Just like the old days, hey?’ Sour murmured.
K’azz, it turned out, fully intended to go alone. He only acquiesced to a token guard when Shimmer told him flat out they would come regardless. In the end she chose two of the remaining Avowed mages, Lor-sinn and Gwynn, and three of their best swords: Cole, Turgal, and Amatt.
Tarkhan, captain of the Third Company, would be left behind to command Stratem. Shimmer was not happy with this arrangement as the Wickan tribesman, a formidable knife-fighter, had been among the top lieutenants of Cowl’s ‘Veils’. Though, she could admit, the intervening years of commanding the Third through various contracts across the world did appear to have tempered the man. And K’azz had every confidence in him. But then, that was one thing K’azz always did well – give and instil confidence.
Seeing the surviving Avowed gathered together in Haven was a pleasure for Shimmer – and at the same time a melancholy reunion. A pleasure to see old friends; heartbreaking for all the absent faces and the painful thinness of the ranks. Her count put the total number at less than seventy. Yet that number varied as the occasional lost Avowed would suddenly appear in Stratem, having made their way from imprisonment, service to some patron, or from simply being stranded in this or that land. And there was always Cal-Brinn’s Fourth Company as well: gone missing in Assail lands but possibly still surviving if Bars’ reappearance was any indication. Of the near forty Avowed who chose to follow Skinner into exile, well, they would meet them soon enough.
A week later, the foreigners’ vessel, the Serpent, was readied and fully victualled. When all had been stowed away and the vessel started south under quarter-sail, Rutana turned to K’azz and growled resentfully, ‘I was expecting some sort of an army yet here you come nearly alone. This is an insult to my mistress. Better not to have answered at all.’
Again, to Shimmer’s eyes, K’azz displayed remarkable forbearance in merely quirking his lips. ‘I understand your mistress is something of a seer – surely then she knew this when she sent you . . .’ and, bowing in the face of the sour woman’s mutterings, he added, ‘I will be in my cabin.’
Alone with Rutana at the vessel’s side, Shimmer offered no comment. The woman wrenched angrily at the bindings on her arm, shot her a hot glare, and grumbled, ‘And I hate all this damned water.’ She marched off. Shimmer leaned over the side to watch the foaming wake. She rather enjoyed being at sea.
Exiting the Sea of Chimes, they headed west round the desolate coast of the Grey Lands. This desert wasteland supported only the thinnest scatterings of scrub and stunted twisted oak and pine. Shimmer had heard the mages discussing whether its barrenness was due to natural unproductive soils and lack of rainfall, or whether the ruins of ancient K’Chain Che’Malle citadels hinted at another possible cause. In either case it was a forbidding peninsula of windswept semi-arid desert, scrubland and broken rock.
Once past its horn, which the Guard had named half jokingly ‘Cape Dire’, the Jacuruku pilot sent them more or less on a due west heading out into the rough waters of what some called the ‘Explorers’ Sea’ and others the ‘White Spires Sea’, named for the hazards of its many floating ship-sized mountains of ice. Indeed, it was even speculated that an immense floating field of ice blocked passage between these lands and those to the immediate west – Jacuruku itself. Yet this vessel had slipped through as, Shimmer knew, another ship bearing Crimson Guard deserters had as well: Kyle and other Bael land recruits who then went on to rescue K’azz from the Dolmens.
And now he leads us back to this land. Why? What is so pressing at these Dolmens of Tien? K’azz spoke little of his time there though it had changed him profoundly: before, like Shimmer, he’d not shown his age but when he returned he looked every one of his hundred plus years. From Rutana’s words, and her commander’s reaction, she gathered that something inhabited the Dolmens. Something that he agreed mustn’t be disturbed.
The crossing was for the most part boring. Rutana and Nagal kept to their cabin, as did K’azz. The dull repetitive drone of shipboard routine would only be broken by jolting periods of sheer terror when the call ‘Ice spire!’ rang from the lookouts. Then all aboard ran for the sides while the crew scrambled to the sails and the pilot rammed the tiller aside. Shimmer and the other Avowed watched fascinated as the emerald and white glowing floating sculptures edged past. They looked to her to have been made by the gods, so otherworldly and beautiful were their curving blade-like lines.
Now that they had entered the corridor of ice crags, the captain ordered the sweeps unshipped and their progress slowed to a tentative crawl. Crew and Avowed passengers alike watched from the sides, long poles at hand. Two observers occupied the crow’s nest at all times. Yet despite all these precautions one night Shimmer was thrown from her hammock as the ship rocked and shuddered beneath her like a hammered child’s toy. She lay stunned on the timbers while around her everyone groaned, rousing themselves. The sound of something scraping the ship’s planking tore at her ears and ran its jagged clawed nails down her spine.
‘Ice crag!’ came the panicked yell from above.
Pretty damned late! Shimmer grabbed her gear and ran for the deck. Up top she found open panic as the sailors ran about, yet the captain was calmly shouting and pointing: ‘Shanks, inspect the damage! Why aren’t the pumps sounding? Stow that cargo!’
She crossed to the slim figure of K’azz, peering over the side. ‘What happened?’
He shrugged. ‘Some sort of submerged ice mountain no one saw. Sideswiped us.’
Everyone took a hand at the pumps. A bucket line was organized. All the while the ship’s carpenter and his apprentices were below inspecting the damage. Finally, Shimmer was waved to where the captain, K’azz and Rutana were speaking with the carpenter, Shanks.
‘Not at sea,’ the carpenter was saying as he shivered, sodden, his lips blue.
‘No choice,’ the captain growled.
‘Something temporary, perhaps?’ K’azz suggested.
‘Land!’ came a shout from the lookout, startling everyone.
The captain scowled behind his beard. ‘Are you daft, man!’ he bellowed back. ‘There’s no land here!’
The captain and the carpenter shared a wary glance.
‘What is it?’ K’azz asked.
‘The floating ice field,’ Rutana answered after neither of the sailors responded. ‘Haunted. No one goes near it.’
‘No choice, I should think,’ K’azz said. He gave the captain a speculative look. ‘We’ll heave up and repair on the ice.’
The captain waved his dismissal. ‘This is no slim galley. We don’t have enough hands to heave up on to the ice.’
‘We have enough mages – isn’t that so, Rutana?’
The woman’s hard gaze narrowed, perhaps at the implied challenge, then she sneered her answer. ‘Of course!’
The captain ordered a narrow set of sail and they limped slowly towards the distant white line to the west. They slipped under high clouds and a snowfall began of thick huge flakes that Shimmer could almost hear hissing as they touched the wood of the ship. The captain knocked the snow from his shoulders and tangled hair as if it were some sort of contagion. Watching Shimmer’s amusement at the man’s antics, Rutana crossed to her side to explain: ‘Many name this the Curse of the Demons of Cold. The Jaghut. Somewhere within, a shard of their frozen realm, Omtose Phellack, endures. It is the cause of this. And it hates us – all who are not of their kind.’
‘Or perhaps it is we who hate all others who are not of our kind,’ K’azz observed from nearby.
The Jacuruku envoy appeared surprised by the suggestion – and she startled Shimmer by nodding even as she scowled. ‘You are right to say so.’
Once the ship came close to the edge of the vast plain of ice, a party containing the Avowed mages Gwynn and Lor-sinn, together with Rutana and Nagal, disembarked to prepare a surface for the vessel. Shimmer watched from the railing while some sort of chute was melted in the jagged shore. Then the crew fixed lines and almost everyone disembarked. With the aid of the mages and Nagal and Rutana, the Serpent was slowly eased up, stern first, on to the carved chute of gleaming ice.
That night they camped on the ice. The captain and crew jumped at every crack and rumble and shot anxious glances to the tall mounds of jumbled shelves that looked to Shimmer like a giant’s heap of carelessly piled timber. The captain had even insisted that pickets be posted, though the waste appeared devoid of all habitation. K’azz acquiesced, murmuring to Shimmer that in fact there might be carnivorous beasts about.
Shimmer agreed to the pickets, but she did not think anyone at risk, what with the Avowed present, plus the Jacuruku emissaries. That night, while doing a tour of the perimeter, she found K’azz out on the ice with Turgal. The latter still preferred heavy armour, as had been his habit. He now wore a cuirass of banded iron with mail skirting and a large shield on his back, all beaten and badly scraped. The long grip and pommel of a hand-and-a-half blade stood tall from the sheath at his side. The two stood staring off to the west across the ice field. She joined them to scan the plain, which was brilliantly lit by the Great Banner arcing high like a sickly bruise across the night sky.
After seeing no movement at all among the ink-black shadow and nauseatingly green snow, she asked, ‘What is it?’
‘Do you not sense it there?’ Turgal asked, his voice hoarse, as if from disuse.
‘The shard our Jacuruku emissary spoke of,’ K’azz explained.
‘Omtose Phellack,’ Turgal added, his breath pluming. ‘The ice-magery of the Jaghut. Don’t you sense it there?’
‘No.’ Shimmer almost added I am no mage, but snapped her mouth shut, realizing and neither are they. How then . . . ? Well, K’azz invoked the Vow after all. Perhaps that gave him some sort of privileged insight. But Turgal? Why should he possess such an awareness?
And yet . . . there were times when she sensed people nearby before seeing them; and the Jacuruku emissaries – their potency buzzed at her awareness like two distracting flies. So, perhaps she should not be surprised.
‘A danger?’ she asked.
K’azz shook his head. ‘No. It is fading. In a hundred years, who knows? All this may be gone.’
A wind sharp with cold blew particles of ice into Shimmer’s eyes and bit at her naked hands. ‘Yet to have endured for so long . . . Why now?’
The snow crackled beneath K’azz’s boots as he shifted his stance. ‘It seems that perhaps we live now in an age when the old is passing away.’ He cocked his head, thinking. ‘Yet does it seem this way to us merely because we are living now? Or does every age feel the same to those who live through it? Every age, after all, is an age of transition from what came before to what will follow.’
Turgal gave a soft laugh in appreciation of the point. ‘A question for the cross-eyed philosophers of Darujhistan I think, Duke.’
‘No. Let us have mercy upon them. They are cross-eyed enough.’
‘Come,’ Shimmer urged, motioning to the tents. ‘This inhuman cold grips my bones.’
K’azz eyed her, surprised. ‘You are cold?’
All the crew and the Guard lent a hand to the repairs, which were completed in less than three days. Their fourth and last night, Shimmer suddenly awoke in the utter darkness. She knew that something powerful was approaching; she did not know how she knew, but she was certain of it. In the dark she pulled on her long mail coat, belted on her whipsword, and ducked out of the tent.
Outside it was quiet but for the snow and ice particles hissing wind-driven against the hide tents. That and the stentorian snoring of a few of the sailors. And it had to be the sailors, for Shimmer saw that her fellow Avowed were awake already. Like ghosts summoned to some haunt, the figures of her companions walked silently among the tents, tying their last knots, adjusting belts, gathering to the west where they formed line – all without any given order.
She joined them next to K’azz. ‘What is it?’ she whispered, her breath steaming.
Without shifting his slit gaze from the darkened ice field he answered, ‘Not certain yet. But close.’
Shimmer signed ‘Ready’ to the left and right. Turgal unsheathed his massive hand-and-a-half blade and raised his shield. Amatt drew his heavy broadsword and likewise readied his wide infantryman’s shield. Cole, who fought after the two-sword style, stepped aside a way for room to slide free his twinned longswords. Lor-sinn and Gwynn took up positions behind the line.
‘Ware!’ Gwynn warned, his voice taut with anticipation.
Shimmer scanned the snowdrifts and gleaming wind-bitten ice shelves, seeing nothing. Damn, it was strong! She felt it now: a terrible potency. In fact, she’d not felt anything like it since—
Dust or some sort of wind-lashed dirt spun upwards like a wave from the snow. While they watched it merged, solidifying to reveal a single figure wrapped in ragged furs. It stood on legs of naked bone stained brown. A fleshless face stared at them from beneath the ridge of the bone helmet fashioned from the skull of some prehistoric beast. An Imass.
K’azz stepped forward, raising a hand. ‘Greetings, Elder. We of the Crimson Guard salute you.’
The undead’s jaws worked, the sinew creaking, and a word whispered across the ice, ‘Greetings.’
‘To what do we owe this honour?’
‘Your presence here . . . drew me.’
‘Are we trespassing? If so, we apologize and will leave at once.’
The great width of its robust shoulders rose and fell. ‘We are all in kind trespassers here.’
‘You mean the Jaghut . . .’
‘Is this why you are here?’
‘No – none remain. I merely pass by. I follow the call to the east. All are gathering. A Summoner has come to us.’
K’azz bowed his head. ‘Yes. I heard. Go with our best wishes. But before you go – may you honour us with your name?’
‘I am Tolb Bell’al, Bonecaster to the Ifayle T’lan Imass. And long have I been absent.’
‘Our thanks, Tolb Bell’al. I am K’azz D’Avore.’
‘We know you, K’azz.’ Tolb inclined his head a fraction. ‘Farewell. Until we meet again.’
Shimmer drew breath to ask what the creature meant but the Imass slumped into a scarf of dust that the wind snatched away. K’azz turned to her and they shared a wondering glance. ‘What did he – or she – mean by that?’
K’azz shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea. Perhaps it meant in the afterlife.’
‘Afterlife?’ Cole growled, coming up. ‘What afterlife? They’re already after life.’
K’azz waved to close the subject. ‘It’s gone now. And with the dawn so too shall we.’
‘Following its call,’ Cole mused.
K’azz frowned at that then signed: ‘Stand down.’
The capital of the kingdom of the Thaumaturgs, Anditi Pura, possessed no walls, fortress, or defensive works. At its centre lay the sprawling complex known only as the Inner City. Here could be found the centralized administrative offices, the dormitories, and the training academy of the Thaumaturgs who served both as rulers and bureaucrats of the state.
The generalship of the Army of Righteous Chastisement fell to the next in line to join the Thaumaturg ruling Circle of Nine, Golan Amaway. The Grand Masters of the Mysteries judged the position – correctly – all too demanding in its duties and thus too much of a distraction from the continued pursuit of their one and only obsession: penetrating the secrets of life, and of death.
As the lowest ranked of the Adepts, and thus not sworn into their highest mysteries, Golan had been sanguine in the assignment. He bowed to the assembled Nine Masters, accepted the proffered Rod of Execution, and exited to make ready.
After all, he told himself in solace, it was not as if the Nine Masters would remain behind in idle meditation. They would follow the march at a convenient distance. For as soon as the forces penetrated Ardata’s territory – what the ignorant peasants invoked in superstitious dread as the spirit realm of Himatan – no doubt all would be needed to keep at bay the worst of her attacks.
His bodyguard of ten yakshaka fell unnoticed into step about him. He tapped the heavy rod of blackwood chased in silver in one palm, already considering plans of how best to ensure that their untrustworthy foreign allies, these Isturé, might be manipulated into bearing the brunt of every engagement.
Now, after months of exhausting preparation, they marched east for the mountain highlands, the Gangrek Mounts, that divided the as yet untamed borderlands of Thaumaturg territory from the deep jungle of Ardata’s haunts. A land quite thinly populated where, their own peasants believed, continued existence could only be assured by pacts and deals with elder spirits, demons and monsters of the world’s youth.
A version not too far from the truth should their Isturé traitors’ intelligence be accurate. In any case, they should know soon enough.
Golan travelled in a large covered litter born by four yakshaka. Normally he would travel to war by elephant. However, painful experience gathered through the many – unsuccessful – punitive campaigns against Ardata had demonstrated the limited effectiveness of their war-elephant columns. The dense jungle impeded their progress, they became mired in the deep swamps and they sickened in droves from the raging clouds of insects and thick miasmas. Those few that remained were driven mad by the terrors of the night. And so this army was carried forward by human feet and bent human backs alone.
It was also his habit to travel far closer to the front lines than his predecessors judged prudent. Yet he felt himself to be at no risk. Not only did he enjoy the protection of his bolstered bodyguard of twenty yakshaka soldiers, he also stood at the centre of an encircling crowd of his staff of regular army officers, messengers and ordinary soldiers. Not to mention yet a further army of clerks and scribes travelling with their own logistical support of reams upon reams of records listing everything carried and worn by the army entire. He would not even be surprised if there lay within the clerks’ long train of paperwork a sheet reading General of the Army: one.
His second in command, U-Pre, edged close to the open side of the rocking litter, bowed for permission to speak. ‘Yes?’ Golan said, and waved a switch to brush away the plaguing flies.
‘The leader of the foreign mercenaries wishes to speak, Master.’
‘Very well, U-Pre.’
The man bowed again and jogged off.
Golan rocked with the motion of the raised platform. A light rain, no more than a mist, masked the distant green line that was the highlands where they appeared now and again through gaps in the surrounding forest canopy. The swaying helped Golan maintain a meditative calm despite the horrors that, as earlier campaigns reported, awaited beyond that ragged mountain range.
Heavy armoured boots thumping into the dirt of the track next to his litter announced the presence of this Skinner, commander of the Isturé. ‘You wish to speak?’ Golan asked without turning to look.
‘The slow progress of our advance still troubles you, yes?’
The long silence following that observation told Golan that he was correct in his prediction. After marching for a time the foreign mercenary, once an aristocrat within Ardata’s demesnes, and, it was rumoured, so much more than that, cleared his throat to speak again.
Golan slid his gaze sideways to the man: tall helm under an arm, long coat of armour glittering darkly like a curtain of night, wide brutal face so unlike the properly symmetrical rounded features of those of Jacuruku. And, unusually, a long mass of pale hair the colour of sun-dried grass. Was this the feature that had caught the eye of Ardata herself?
‘Yes,’ the man admitted, ‘the slow pace remains an irritation. Allow my command to travel ahead to scout the way and to evaluate the character of the resistance.’
Golan edged his gaze away. ‘No, Isturé. We shall all stay together. Present a strong united front, yes? Like any good artisan I wish to keep all my tools with me so that I may respond appropriately to whatever situation may arise. As a skilled craftsman yourself, you understand this, yes?’
The foreigner’s answering smile was thin. ‘Of course, Master Thaumaturg. How could I possibly argue with such sound reasoning?’ And he bowed to take his leave. ‘If I may?’
Golan waved his switch to indicate his permission. The man tramped heavily off. From the edge of his vision Golan watched him go. As if I would allow you to travel alone in the land you once ruled! Perhaps to meet clandestinely with representatives of Ardata. Who knows what trickery may be hatched against us! No. I shall keep you close, traitor or failed usurper that you are.
He noted the emaciated reed-thin figure of Principal Scribe Thorn hurrying up to the litter. The shoulder bag at his side bulged with paper sheets, his inkpot swung on its leather strap round his neck, and Golan sat back with a suppressed groan. He waved the switch across his face, eyes shut. As he heard the man’s sandals slapping the churned dirt next to his litter he said, loudly, ‘Yes? What is it, Principal Scribe Thorn?’
‘Amazing, Master!’ the man squawked in his hoarse buzzard voice. ‘Your powers astound us mere mortals. How could you have ever known it was I?’
The carrion stench, perhaps? No, that is not fair. The man is merely doing his job. With the meticulousness of an ant building a mountain out of sand – one grain at a time.
Eyes still closed, Golan sighed, ‘You have something to report?’
‘Ah! Yes, Master. The manifest of our honoured yakshaka, sir. A routine recount has recently been completed and it would seem, contrary to all expectations, that we are short one.’
Golan’s eyes snapped open. He turned in his seat to peer down at the scrawny man. Long curved neck just like a buzzard as well. ‘You are saying that we are missing a yakshaka?’
The man jerked his sweaty shaven head, his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing.
‘You have rechecked the count?’
Now the man flinched, offended. ‘Of course, Master! It is my duty to be absolutely certain before bringing such an incongruence before you.’
‘Perhaps one has been mislaid . . . like a broom or an umbrella?’
Thorn’s gaze fell and he fiddled with the leaf-green carved jade inkpot hanging from his neck, his badge of office. ‘My master is demonstrating his sense of humour?’ he murmured.
Golan arched a brow. Was that sly mockery? Well, the man would hardly have achieved his vaunted office without some measure of guile. Golan made a show of sniffing a great wad of catarrh then spat over the side of the litter. All the minor officers nearby mouthed sounds of admiration for such prodigious capacity.
‘Good health, Master,’ Thorn added, admiringly.
‘My thanks. And no, Principal Scribe. Merely exploring all options. I applaud your thoroughness. Send Cohort Leader Pon-lor to me.’
The man jerked a bow. ‘I will order a messenger at once.’ He hiked up his robes and ran off bandy-legged through the churned-up mud and trampled grasses.
Golan fell back into his padded seat. Through slit eyes he watched the dense forest pass on either side. Screens of infantrymen walked in a broad arc among the tree trunks while the main column, consisting almost entirely of file upon file of impressed labourers burdened beneath the materiel and supplies of war, kept to the trampled path. A few carts followed far behind, drawn by oxen or water buffalo. These carried the field hospital and various smiths and armourers. All rumbling and tramping east. And what awaits us there? What will we find? Will we be able to scavenge enough food to support our numbers should we run short of supplies? Will we even be able to find Ardata’s centre of power, this fabled city in the depths of the jungle, Jakal Viharn? The Isturé, of course, were sure that they could find the way – after every prior Thaumaturg expedition had found only failure and madness, none even to return from that green abyss.
Cohort Leader Pon-lor arrived next at the litter and bowed, smoothing his robes. From beneath heavy lids Golan’s thin gaze appraised him. Apprentice Thaumaturg of the Seventh Rank. A promising junior officer. ‘Cohort Leader,’ Golan began, brushing his switch before his face, ‘One of our yakshaka has had the poor grace to go missing. No doubt it has sunk into a bog. However, I am charging you with ascertaining its fate. We cannot have them blundering about knocking down peasants’ huts, can we?’
The lad raised a hand to push back his long straight black hair, but stopped himself, clasping his hands behind his back. ‘No, Master.’
Golan had hoped for at least a flicker of a smile at such an image, but the young man was too conscious of rank. He waved the switch to send the officer on his way. ‘Very good, Cohort Leader. Take twenty men.’
Pon-lor bowed again and hurried off.
Now, if only I could dispatch these foreign Isturé in such a manner!
That night in the encampment of the Thaumaturg army, Skinner’s High Mage, Mara, prepared for her evening meditations. She arranged the parchment, inkpot and stylus on a low enamelled table then sat cross-legged before it. She tied a black silk scarf across her eyes, set her hands on her knees and worked to calm her mind. The noises of the surrounding camp distracted her at first but she was no stranger to such sounds and so slowly, in stages, she managed to relegate all to the background. After achieving the necessary inner calm, she began to sketch.
A knock sounded at the front pole of her tent.
She let out a thin hissed breath, stylus poised, then set down the copper instrument. After one calming breath she pulled down the scarf to study the incomplete sketch before her. Simple flat lines hinting at a bare landscape, and amid this desolation a tall robust spar or boulder.
Obelisk. All that is past. Yet here it stands before me.
Disquieting. She did not like her past.
The knock sounded again. She carefully replaced the cap on her iron inkpot and rose to cross the tent. She thrust aside the hanging to surprise a Thaumaturg army officer who jerked, startled, then bowed – but not before his gaze slid down the wide curves of her silk shirt and sashed trousers. Mara was of pure Quon Dal Honese descent, and as black as all from that land could be: she knew the men here found this exoticism . . . fascinating. And she also knew all men everywhere were dogs. ‘What is it?’ she demanded, deliberately pitching her voice as seductively low as possible.
The officer worked to clear his throat. ‘We have captured a man who claims to be a monk—’
‘What of it?’
The officer paused, offered a thin smile. ‘He also claims to have a message for you.’
‘Couldn’t it wait until the morning? I ought not to be disturbed while communing with demon spirits.’
The man’s alarmed gaze flicked past her to the darkness of the tent and he hastily bowed again.
Head still lowered, the officer said, ‘He claims the message comes from his, ah . . . god.’
So. I see. ‘Very well. You may bring him to me.’
Mara turned away and let the tent flap fall closed. She dressed in her robes then waited, gathering her powers to her until she could feel the very edges of her D’riss Warren sizzling about her.
Another knock and an old man was thrust into the tent. He stood blinking in the relative dark. Even from this distance she could smell the filth of his tattered robes. ‘You have a message for me?’ she demanded.
An unnerving grin climbed the man’s cracked lips. ‘Indeed, Isturé. My master grows impatient. Pacts were made. Agreements were reached between your master and mine. You have your mission. When can we expect fulfilment?’
‘Soon?’ the man echoed scornfully. ‘We tire of this “soon”. We demand action. Events unfold. The need grows ever more dire.’
‘I will press for action.’
The man tilted his head in slight concord, his eyes glittering bright and black across the tent. ‘Let us hope so . . . for your sake. My master does not take betrayal lightly. When you find your courage I will be nearby, with instructions.’
Mara answered the slight bow in kind. The man thrust aside the heavy cloth and exited. Tentatively, Mara reached out with her senses and flinched from the lingering moil of Warren-poisoning that was the unmistakable sign of the Shattered God.
That stupid Kingship of Chains. What need have we for it? Yet perhaps Skinner sees some hidden way it could aid our final goal . . .
Mara pushed back her robes and sat once more before the table. She raised the scarf to her eyes and attempted to ease her breathing. But the requisite centring would not come. Her thoughts were too disturbed.
And through that disequilibrium the ghosts returned. She saw them suddenly standing before her light-starved eyes. The wavering presences of her dead brothers and sisters, all the Brethren of the Crimson Guard. Their relentless demanding voices whispered once more in her ears.
You swore . . . Always remember . . . Remember your Vow . . .
An arm of dried skin stretched across bone gestured, inviting. Lacy.
‘Walk with me, sister,’ the corpse murmured. ‘Our path ever remains. It is unavoidable. Why this obstinate lingering? It shall ever lie before you . . .’
‘No!’ She yanked the scarf away and drew in a ragged breath. Her flesh prickled cold and damp with sweat. Her gaze found the sheet with its sketch of the Obelisk before her. Snarling, she crumpled it and threw it on to the brazier of coals at the centre of the tent where it burst aflame.
Jatal, prince of the Hafinaj, rode with his escort into the encampment of this foreign Warleader to find it much larger than he had anticipated. In truth it was not one encampment at all, but a conglomeration of lesser compounds each the province of one of the tribes, Greater and Lesser. Offhand, Jatal recognized the standards of the Awamir, the Salil and the Manahir, plus many of the Lesser families. This self-styled Warleader appeared to have succeeded in his bid to interest the tribes of the Adwami, the People, in a major punitive campaign against the cursed Thaumaturgs.
Hardly a month ago an emissary of the Warleader had arrived at their camp offering word of a negotiated collective truce among all the tribes. A concord during which all families were invited to discuss the assemblage of a great force to strike deep into Thaumaturg lands. Such raiding was of course nearly an annual ritual: small bands sneaking across the bordering canyon lands, looting villages, stealing crops and taking captives. Now this foreign Warleader promised a raid such as had not been seen in a generation. Entire caravans of riches and an army of slaves to be won.
At the head of his column, Jatal eased his mount into a gentle walk as he parted the assembled fighters and camp followers. Talk died away and heads turned and Jatal felt reassured for this was as it should be – the Hafinaj being the largest and most powerful of all the Adwami. Foreign warriors pointed him on towards the main tent at the centre of the assembled compounds.
His father, patriarch of all Hafinaj, had been dismissive at first. Who was this outlander to speak to them of war? Such effrontery! Had the man no respect or manners? He would have nothing to do with such foolishness. Then word came of the crushing of the Fal’esh and the Birkeen and the subsequent rounding to the man’s standard of the majority of the Lesser families.
This and the promised riches brought in a few of the Greater houses. And once this was accomplished, Jatal knew, none other of the Adwami could risk the loss of prestige and gold that standing aside would bring. So it was that shortly after the news broke he was summoned before his father: the lesser son of a lesser concubine.
‘Jatal,’ his father had brusquely welcomed him from where he reclined on the cushions of his raised platform. And Jatal knelt before him on the ground, head bowed. ‘Remember that you are a prince of the Hafinaj! As such, you must not arrive like some tattered beggar. Therefore I send with you fifty of our knights, plus seven hundred men at arms. The largest of all the contingents, I’ll wager!’ and he laughed at that, anticipating the envy and gritted teeth of his rivals among the other families. ‘Yes, very good. Do not shame us,’ and he waved him off.
‘Father,’ Jatal had murmured respectfully, and backed away, head lowered.
Now, as he approached the great tent surrounded by its foreign guards, a man emerged. Tall and thin as one of the tent-poles themselves. He wore a long coat of mail, bore a grey beard and had a face as lined as a desert draw. But the eyes! Such lofty arrogance in their washed-out paleness. It was as if the man were looking down upon him, though he now had reined in at his side. ‘You are this Warleader?’
Something like a smile tightened the man’s thin lips. ‘I am. You must be a son of the Hafinaj.’
‘Welcome, Prince Jatal, to my humble encampment. You honour us with your presence. My men will show you a place for your lancers. No doubt you wish to refresh yourself. May I expect you this night for an assemblage of families?’
‘Very good.’ The man bowed though his eyes held no deference in the least.
Vaguely irritated, Jatal answered with the curtest of nods.
That night, with the help of his retainers, Prince Jatal dressed in his best silk shirt and trousers and thrust through his waist sash the most jewelled of his ornamental daggers – all because his father had warned him not to shame his family. He ate first before going to the dinner so as not to be distracted by his hunger, or the carnality of eating itself.
Foreign guards opened the tent flap at his approach. Entering, he paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the greater brightness of all the torches and braziers. Low tables encircled the walls at which all the guests were seated on carpets and cushions. Opposite the entrance sat the Warleader, cross-legged, incongruously still encumbered by his mail coat. From one side a huge bear of a fellow lumbered to his feet and swept up to Jatal, arms out. He recognized the man as Ganell of the Awamir, longtime allies of the Hafinaj.
‘Prince Jatal!’ the fat man boomed. ‘How you have grown!’ He made a show of looking Jatal up and down. ‘How the ladies must have swooned at your departure! You are every inch the prince now.’
‘Ganell.’ Jatal greeted the man with a hug that could only embrace a portion of his bulk.
‘Come sit with me. I insist! We of the Awamir welcome the Hafinaj!’
‘You honour me.’
Sitting, Jatal noted across the way the glowering bearded face of Sher’ Tal, Horsemaster of the Saar, their traditional blood-enemy. Jatal chose to merely glance away to their host, the Warleader. The man nodded his welcome.
Servants came and went carrying platters of steamed cracked wheat, entire roasted lamb and goat, fruits and decanters of wine. Jatal allowed a plate to be set before him but partook of none. He lifted a bronze wine goblet to his lips but did not drink.
Meanwhile, Ganell, next to him, consumed enough for two or three, laughing and entertaining everyone with a story about one of his sons, whom he considered a gaggle of empty-headed smokeaddicts good only for spending his gold.
‘Not like you, Jatal!’ he boomed, slapping him on the shoulder. ‘Poet and philosopher, I hear! Just like the princes of old!’
‘Yet they honour you, I’m sure,’ Jatal murmured.
‘What? By their fornicating? Their dissipation and squandering? In that I suppose they honour me.’
‘For myself,’ began Sher’ Tal from across the tent, ‘I did not come to hear stories of the consequences of inbreeding.’
‘Breeding?’ Ganell responded, peering about and making a show of being puzzled. ‘Speaking of breeds, I hear the braying of an ass!’
Sher’ Tal lunged to his feet.
‘Gentlemen!’ the foreigner shouted, also rising. ‘Gentlemen – and ladies,’ he added, nodding towards the women who had come as representatives. ‘Let us not forget we are here to discuss cooperation.’
‘And why should we listen to you?’ one of the crowd called.
The man paced to the centre of the tent. His mail rustled like the stirring of dry leaves. He made a show of frowning as if deep in thought. ‘Good question. First, I am, as you say, a foreigner. And a mercenary. I fight for gold. Assemblies of tribes such as these have been attempted in the past, yes? Is that not so?’ The man circled, searching for confirmation. Many nodded their agreement. ‘Just so,’ he continued. ‘Yet they failed. They could not hold together and so they fell apart before they could achieve anything of any significance. Why?’ He searched among them again.
Jatal noted how almost all the representatives present shot accusatory glances to one another. Even Ganell leaned close to murmur, ‘Because they all have the brains of water buffalo.’
The Warleader nodded as if what he saw confirmed his thoughts. ‘They fell apart because none could agree upon who should lead. The Vehajarwi would not listen to the Hafinaj. And the Saar would not follow the Awamir . . .’
‘Never!’ Sher’ Tal called.
Grinning, Ganell tossed a handful of cashews into his mouth, muttering aside, ‘Buffalo.’
Jatal worked hard to suppress a laugh.
Circling, the Warleader raised his lined hands for calm. ‘Just so, just so. It is understandable. I, however, am an outsider. A professional. War is my calling. My men and I fight for payment alone. I will favour no tribe over any other. And when the campaign is finished we will simply take our share and go . . .’
‘And what would be your share?’ Jatal asked.
The old man’s brows rose in appreciation of the question. ‘Prince Jatal wishes to dispense with the airy assurances. Very good. For the services of my tactical and strategic leadership and the blood of my fighting men I ask one tenth of all spoils.’
Ganell choked on his cashews. ‘Outrageous!’ he spluttered.
Everyone objected at once. ‘Would you beggar us?’ Andanii, princess of the Vehajarwi, called out.
The Warleader had raised his arms again, beseeching silence. His huge second, or lieutenant, Jatal noted, sat unconcerned throughout, gnawing on a lamb haunch and drinking. Normally, it seemed to him, the discussion of fees for services ought to interest such a one.
Jatal raised a hand for quiet. Slowly, one by one, the representatives ceased their objections. Once silence had been regained he began, ‘Warleader, what you ask is not our way. Traditionally, the band that defeats an enemy, or takes a village, is due all the glory and spoils accruing from the victory . . .’
Nods all around. ‘Rightly so!’ Ganell called.
‘However,’ Jatal continued, ‘a wise man might agree that ninetenths of a meal is better than no meal at all . . .’
Ganell chortled and slapped a wide paw to the table. ‘Haw! The prince has the right of it!’
‘. . . and so perhaps we should measure the size of the meal before we turn our nose from it.’
Princess Andanii rose from her seat and threw down her eating knife so that it stuck into the table. ‘Speaking for the Vehajarwi, we have heard quite enough.’
‘If you would allow me to finish.’ The Warleader spoke through gritted teeth. Clearly he was not used to being dismissed, or even petitioning, for that matter. He seemed unable to blunt a habit of prideful high-handedness. An attitude, Jatal reflected, that was hardly helping his case here among so many likewise vain and bloated personages. And in the figure of Princess Andanii the man had quite met his match in blind overweening conceit.
The girl, one of the deadliest living archers, it had to be said, pushed back her long braid of midnight hair and raised what to Jatal was a perfect heart-shaped chin to command scornfully, ‘Speak, then . . . I give you leave.’
The old man’s stiff answering bow was a lesson in suppressed bile. ‘My thanks . . . Princess. What I propose is that our combined forces sack the Thaumaturg southern capital and ritual centre of Isana Pura.’
The outrage that had heated the air before was as nothing compared to the howls of protest that met that announcement. Even Jatal sat back, shocked by the daunting scale of such a proposal. Like no raid in over a generation. Dread King . . . in living memory!
Next to him Ganell bent to the right and left, spilling his wine, ‘Can it be done? Could we do that?’
So stunned by the scheme was the princess that she sat quite heavily. His gaze unfocused, Jatal pressed his hands together, touching his fingers to his lips. A quick dash in. Surprise. Swift flight before any response could be organized or brought to bear. It may work.
‘You will face the Thaumaturgs,’ a new harsh voice cut through the din.
Jatal did not look up. But what is the garrison? And what of the yakshaka guardians? We will need intelligence.
A pall of quiet spread through the tent as one by one those present fell silent.
‘Many Thaumaturgs in the great ritual centre of Isana Pura,’ the grating voice continued.
Frowning, Jatal peered up to see all eyes turned to the opening where a newcomer stood. What he saw squeezed the breath from him in distaste and a shudder of dread. It was a shaduwam dressed in the traditional rags of his calling. His torso was smeared in layers of dirt and caked ash painted his face white. His hair was a piled mane of unwashed tangled locks. He carried in his hands the traditional accoutrements of his calling: the staff and begging bowl. But in this one’s case, the begging bowl was an upturned human skull.
Everyone lurched to their feet in disgust, alarm, and, it had to be admitted, atavistic fear. ‘Who allowed this abomination among us!’ demanded Sher’ Tal. ‘Guards!’
‘Iron and flesh are no barrier to me,’ the shaduwam grinned, revealing teeth filed to fine sharp points.
The guards came rushing in, only to flinch in loathing from the holy man. ‘A curse comes to any who dare touch me!’ he warned.
‘Curse wind and wood, then, dog,’ answered Princess Andanii, and she turned to her guards: ‘Bring me my bow!’
‘Would you strike down your own beloved mother and father, Princess?’ the shaduwam challenged. ‘For that is what will happen should you slay me. They too shall die . . . and not quickly.’
Andanii paled yet her dark eyes glared a ferocious rage.
‘What is it you wish?’ the Warleader called, breaking the silence.
Ganell waved the question aside. ‘Nay! Do not invite this one into our congress, stranger. Do you not see the skull in his hands? He is no normal holy man. He is an Agon. He has enslaved his spirit to dark powers: the Fallen One, and the Demon-King, the infernal Kell-Vor.’
‘Kell-Vor?’ the Warleader echoed, and his lips quirked up as if amused.
The shaduwam had been staring avidly at the foreigner all this time. His own mouth tilted as if sharing some dark secret with the man.
The Warleader broke the gaze and shrugged his indifference. ‘Yet it seems to me we should fight sorcery with sorcery. Is that not so?’
Sher’ Tal clawed his full beard as he examined the priest the way one would a diseased animal – with disgust and wariness. ‘If these dark ones will slay theurgist mages then it is about time they did something useful . . .’
The Agon smiled, baring sharpened teeth that looked to Jatal as if eager to sink into the man.
‘Then it is decided,’ the Warleader said. ‘When—’
‘It is not decided!’ Princess Andanii called, interrupting him yet again. She faced the priest while making a great show of her loathing. ‘You offer to help us . . . yet you speak not of any price! What is it you would demand of us?’
Many of the assembled tribal chiefs murmured in support of Andanii, including Jatal, despite their families’ traditional antipathy. He called: ‘Aye. We would have it now.’
The priest drew himself up tall: easily as disdainful of them as they of him. ‘Gold and jewels are as coloured dust and dirt to us. Our price is one quarter of all captives.’
‘Blood rites!’ Ganell spat. ‘Unholy sacrifice!’
‘Never!’ Andanii swore, and she yanked her belt knife from the table.
Jatal stood as well to show his support of the princess. His own father had always carried a particular hatred of the shaduwam Agon priests and forbade any to enter his lands. Ganell surged to his feet also and with that all representatives waved the priest from the tent.
The priest’s seething slit gaze shifted to the Warleader, who remained silent. The foreigner offered a small pursed frown of regret as if to say: I am very sorry, but there is nothing I can do . . .
The priest bowed to the Warleader and backed away. Yet it seemed to Jatal that the mocking smile remained, half hidden, as he ducked from the tent.
Across the way, Princess Andanii offered a pleased nod in acknowledgement of Jatal’s support. He bowed then sat, as did all. Ganell called for another round of sweetmeats and wine, ‘To clear this gods-awful taste from all our mouths.’
After the cups had been refilled the Warleader raised a hand and conversation died away. ‘My lords and ladies,’ he began. ‘Have I your answer, then?’
Peering about the circle of tribal representatives, Jatal saw in the eager faces that most appeared convinced. He cleared his throat and eyes shifted to him. ‘Warleader,’ he began, and gestured in an arc to everyone assembled, ‘I see some twenty tribes and families of the Adwami gathered here this night. Each of which, myself included, expect no more than our fair share of any spoils.’ He opened his hands. ‘All things being equal, that should come to one twentieth share each. And so I ask myself . . . why should your share amount to twice that of all others?’
‘By all the demon gods!’ Ganell exploded. ‘You have the right of that, Jatal!’
Most of those present joined their voices in support of the point. ‘Well?’ Andanii demanded.
The Warleader offered Jatal a slit of a smile that eerily echoed that of the Agon priest. ‘Prince,’ he began after the calls had died down, ‘your wisdom is unassailable. However, I bring to this raid my experienced fighting men—’
‘Are you claiming ours are inexperienced?’ burst out Sher’ Tal. ‘Are you saying that we of the Adwami know nothing of fighting?’
The Warleader offered a stiff sitting bow, hands on knees. ‘Not at all. I merely . . . misspoke . . . However, I am a very experienced commander in matters of tactics and strategy—’
‘Then you may serve as a valuable adviser in this endeavour,’ Princess Andanii cut in, decisive. ‘And no servant should expect a share larger than that of any of the Adwami.’ She cocked a brow to Jatal, inviting his reaction to her judgement.
He offered a deep bow of respect. At his side, Ganell sighed admiringly, ‘Such a spirited mare . . .’ Jatal, however, now studied the Warleader. The man’s jaws worked behind his thin iron-grey beard while his eyes held an unspoken fury. Yet somehow the man mastered himself and slowly inclined his head in concord. ‘Very well,’ he ground out. ‘One twentieth share. We are in agreement.’
Many in the assembly raised their cups, cheering. Ganell slammed his goblet against all he could reach, all the while offering up his great belly laugh. Jatal noted the hulking lieutenant of the Warleader. The man now frowned at the gnawed bone before him and shot narrowed glances to his superior. It appeared to Jatal that such cavalier halving of his expected proceeds did not sit well with him. And Jatal had to agree: it seemed to him that for a mercenary who fights for gold the Warleader acquiesced to the loss of rewards far too easily.
Negotiations finished, calls arose for more drink and for entertainment, musicians and dancers. Ganell launched into an old story of a legendary hunt he and one of Jatal’s uncles went out on only to become lost and nearly shoot each other. It was a story very familiar to Jatal and he listened with one ear only, already thinking ahead to the problem of intelligence-gathering.
A challenge. The Thaumaturg had always been very effective in intercepting their raiding parties. Their mage’s arts, no doubt. He believed there were one or two among his family’s men-at-arms who bore the scars of Thaumaturg shackles upon their wrists and ankles. He would interview them. He also possessed among his documents accounts of travels through their neighbours’ lands. Had he brought them? He clasped Ganell on the arm, murmuring, ‘A pleasure, my friend. But I must clear my head.’
The big man squeezed his hand, laughing, ‘Of course, of course!’
He stood, inclined his head to the foreign Warleader, now their Warleader, who answered the gesture, then departed for his tent. He did not see the gaze of Princess Andanii follow him as he left.
After searching among his possessions Jatal found that indeed, no, he had not brought the relevant documents; one can never anticipate everything. Irritated with himself and unable to sleep, he set off on a walk round the sprawling encampment. His wandering brought him to a darkened edge where a picket faced away over the brushclumped hillsides. He paused here for a time and listened to the insects whirring through the night air, and watched the flitting of the bats feeding upon them.
It occurred to him then that a strange glow lit the dark far out across the rolling low hills. ‘Is that a fire out there?’ he asked a nearby picket.
The young man bowed. ‘Just a reflection, no doubt, noble born.’
Jatal studied the guard: of a Lesser house, the Birkeen, and very young. ‘You have not investigated?’
The guard appeared stricken and wet his lips, smiling his apology. ‘My post is here, noble born.’
Jatal bit down on his cutting response; it would be of no use. And no sense wasting even more time berating the lad. The Birkeen were among the poorest of all the families. No hired tutors for this one. He was like the majority of the Adwami: superstitions ruled his world. Jatal went to where he knew he would find those willing to walk out into the night – the foreigners’ compound.
After calling for the officer in charge he waited and was quite surprised when the broad hulking shape of the Warleader’s lieutenant came lumbering up.
‘Yes?’ the fellow rumbled – the due honorific forgotten, or ignored.
‘A light out amid the hills. Thought you’d want to investigate.’
A wide blunt hand rose to rub equally wide jowls where pronounced canines, tusks almost, thrust. ‘That I would.’ He turned to a guard. ‘Gather a team and follow me.’
‘I will show the way,’ Jatal said.
The lieutenant’s brows rose in his own surprise. ‘Very good. Lead on.’
While they walked Jatal eyed the fellow: quite tall, but much more markedly broad – like an ambulatory shack. ‘You are . . . ?’
The man eyed him up and down. ‘Prince, hey?’ Jatal heard the deliberate lack of respect but let it pass – perhaps where this man was from the title was unknown, or was considered just plain silly. The fellow was only a benighted foreigner, after all.
Before they reached the border of the camp Jatal had described the situation and Scarza had ordered his mercenary team to encircle the area while he and Jatal approached openly. Walking, Jatal rested his hand on his curved sword’s grip. ‘Hardly a spy,’ he murmured aside to Scarza as they entered the dark.
‘A very poor spy?’ the big foreigner supplied, arching his brows.
Jatal allowed himself a wry smile; while the character of the Warleader left him feeling uneasy, he suspected that he might just come to like his lieutenant.
The faint dancing light led them to a depression and a stunted nearly dead tree, half bare of bark, limbs twisted and gnarled. Set before the tree and in its branches glowed a great number of candles. Some had burned down, or been blown out. Amid the candles lay tatters of torn cloth and coconut-shell bowls containing dark fluids, and symbols of some sort had been slashed into the dirt and daubed in powders. Jatal smelled old blood. He and Scarza stood peering down for some time, then the lieutenant crouched for a closer look.
‘Dark magic,’ Jatal said, warning him.
‘The work of our shaman friend?’
‘Shaman? Ah – shaduwam. Yes. He is a practitioner of Agon. Sacrilege and desecration. Note the cloth. I see the weave of the Awamir, Manahir, Vehajarwi and my own Hafinaj. Curses upon all our heads.’
‘Not a man to be denied.’
Scarza’s mercenaries emerged from the dark to shake their heads. Scarza stood, brushing the dirt from his knees. ‘Well, he’s long gone.’ He waved a hand, indicating the evil makeshift shrine. ‘You believe in any of this?’
‘They have power, these shaduwam. And they are immune to punishment or threats.’
‘It is their religion, you see. They worship pain and violation of the flesh.’
The man grunted his understanding. ‘Not immune to a plain old beheading then.’
‘No. But such a one would probably embrace that fate. He would be considered a holy martyr.’
The lieutenant appeared to be staring at the candles yet again while he rubbed his jowls. ‘Have to punish him with forced feeding then,’ he mused, his thoughts seeming elsewhere. ‘And dancing girls.’
Jatal smiled his appreciation. ‘Yes. A fate worse than death.’
Scarza half reached out for one of the candles then reconsidered, lowering his hand. ‘Burn this down,’ he ordered his men and turned away. Jatal followed.
The throne room lay empty but for the shifting shadows cast from the dim flames of lamps hung on chains that climbed disappearing into the gloom. Footfalls on the polished stone flags announced the entrance of a man, tall and powerful, his hair a mane of white. Crossing to a wall, the man studied the shelves of artwork and scrolls. He spared a glance to the tall wooden throne where it stood enmeshed in shadows then lifted a scroll and opened it, reading its contents. ‘Just what effect are you trying for, Usurper?’ he asked, still studying the scroll. After a time he raised his head to the throne. ‘Well?’
‘God-like patience, I should imagine,’ a reedy voice answered from the gloom.
The man narrowed his eyes, which glowed a molten gold. ‘I don’t see it.’
‘You are quite finished, Osserc? I would have you know I am very busy.’
The man returned the scroll then lifted a vase from another shelf. ‘Then you need not follow me about like an anxious shopkeeper.’
‘Ha!’ A finger pointed from the murk obscuring the seat of the throne. ‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Then you’ll try . . . whatever it is you mean to try, then . . . won’t you!’
Osserc turned a rather puzzled glance upon the throne. ‘I’ll do . . . what?’
The tall man frowned and cocked his head, attempting to work his way through that. Shrugging, he replaced the vase. ‘Well, you need worry no longer. I am finished here.’
‘You most certainly are!’
‘I go to speak with another.’
‘Another? Who? Who would you speak to?’ Osserc ignored the question and walked up a darkened hall. The murky transparent figure on the throne leaned forward as if listening. ‘Where are you going?’ The flickering light in the main hall changed, dimming even further. ‘Osserc? Hello?’ He leaned back. ‘So . . . gone! Ha! Drove him off, the fool!’ A fisted hand banged from one armrest. ‘But where has he gone?’ Hands flew to a head cowled in shreds of shadow. ‘Gaa! I must know! I must know everything!’
A tiny monkey-like animal came waddling from a corner. In one hand it turned something bright which glimmered and flashed. ‘You!’ the figure on the throne yelled. The monkey whipped its hands behind its back and peered about innocently. ‘You! Do something!’
The animal’s expressive face wrinkled up with something resembling determination. It sat on one of the steps leading up to the throne and proceeded to stare off into the distance. It stroked the tuft of hair at its chin as if deep in thought.
‘Oh, you’re a big help.’
Blood and Bone © Ian C. Esslemont 2013