Tyranny comes in many guises, and tyrants thrive in palaces and one-room hovels, in back alleys and playgrounds. Tyrants abound on the verges of civilization, where disorder frays the rule of civil conduct and propriety surrenders to brutal imposition. Millions are made to kneel and yet more millions die horrible deaths in a welter of suffering and misery.
But leave all that behind and plunge into escapist fantasy of the most irrelevant kind, and in the ragged wake of the tale told in Lees of Laughter’s End, those most civil adventurers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their suitably phlegmatic manservant, Emancipor Reese, make gentle landing upon a peaceful beach, beneath a quaint village at the foot of a majestic castle. There they make acquaintance with the soft-hearted and generous folk of Spendrugle, which lies at the mouth of the Blear River and falls under the benign rule of the Lord of Wurms in his lovely keep…
Coming July 8th from Tor Books, The Wurms of Blearmouth is a new novella from author Steven Erikson, set in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Read an excerpt below!
“Behold!” Arms spread wide and braced against the wind, Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render paused and glanced back at Scribe Coingood. “See how this bold perch incites me to declamation, Scribe?” His narrow, hawkish features darkened. “Why are you not writing?”
Scribe Coingood wiped a drip from his nose, worked his numb fingers for a moment, and then scratched out the one word onto the tablet. Here atop the high tower, it was so cold that the wax on the tablet had chipped and flaked beneath the polished bone point of his scribe. He could barely make out the word he had just written, and the biting ice in his eyes didn’t help matters. Squinting against the buffeting wind, he hunched down, pulling tighter his furs, but that did nothing to ease his shivering.
He cursed his own madness that had brought him to West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding. He also cursed this insane sorcerer for whom he now worked. He cursed this rotting keep and its swaying tower. He cursed the town below: Spendrugle of Blearmouth was a hovel, its population cowering under the tyranny of its new lord. He cursed the abominable weather of this jutting spur of land, thrashed by the wild ocean on three sides on most days, barring those times when the wind swung round to howl its way down from the north, cutting across the treeless blight that stretched inland all the way to yet another storm-wracked ocean, six days distant. He cursed his mother, and the time when he was seven and looked in on his sister’s room and saw things—oh, what was the point? There were plenty of reasons a man had to curse, and with infernal intimacy he knew most of them.
His dreams of wealth and privilege had suffered the fate of a lame hare on the Plain of Wolves, chewed up and torn to bits; and the wind had long since taken away those tattered remnants: the tufts of blood-matted fur, the wisps of white throat-down, and the well-gnawed splinters of bone. All of it gone, scattered across the blasted landscape of his future.
Chewing on the end of his graver, Coingood considered setting that description down in his secret diaries. A lame hare on the Plain of Wolves. Yes, that’s me all right… was that me or my dreams, that hare? Never mind, it’s not like there’s a difference. Not when he was huddled here atop the tower, miserably subject to his lord’s whim, and Hood knew, a manic, eye-gleaming whim it was.
“Have you written it down now, Scribe? Gods below, if I’d known you were so slow I would never have hired you! Tell me, what did I say? I’ve forgotten. Read it back, damn you!”
“M-m-master, y’said… er… ‘Behold!’ ”
“Is that it? Didn’t I say anything more?”
“S-s-something ’bout a bold p-p-perch, M-m-milord.”
Lord Fangatooth waved one long-fingered, skeletal hand. “Never mind that. I’ve told you about my asides. They’re just that. Asides. Where was I?”
“ ‘Behold!’ ”
The lord faced outward again, defiant against the roaring seas, and struck a pose looming ominously over the town. “Behold! Oh, and note my widespread arms as I face this wild, whore-whipped sea. Oh, and that wretched town directly below, and how it kneels quivering like an abject slave. Note, too, the grey skies, and that fierce colour of… grey. What else? Fill the scene, fool!”
Coingood started scratching furiously on the tablet.
Watching him, Fangatooth made circular, tumbling motions with one hand. “More! Details! We are in the throes of creativity here!”
“I b-b-beg you, m-m-milord, I’m j-j-just a s-s-scribe, n-n-not a poet!”
“Anyone who can write has all the qualifications necessary for artistic genius! Now, where was I? Oh, right. Behold!” He fell silent, and after a long, quivering moment, he slowly lowered his arms. “Well,” he said. “That will do for now. Go below, Scribe, and stoke up the fires and the implements of torture. I feel in need of a visit to my beloved brother.”
Coingood hobbled his way to the trapdoor.
“Next time I say ‘Behold!’,” Fangatooth said behind him, “don’t interrupt!”
“I w-w-won’t, M-m-milord. P-p-promise!”
“There he was again!” Felittle hissed through chattering teeth. “You seen him too, didn’t you? Say you did! It wasn’t just me! Up on that tower, arms out to the sides, like a… like a… like a mad sorcerer!”
Spilgit Purrble, deposed Factor of the Forgotten Holding yet still trapped in the town of Spendrugle of Blearmouth, at least until winter’s end, peered across at the young woman now struggling to close the door to his closet-sized office. Snow had melted and then refrozen across the threshold. He’d need to take a sword to that at least one more time, so that he could officially close up for the season and retreat back to the King’s Heel. As it was, his last day maintaining any kind of office for the backstabbing mob ruling the distant capital and, ostensibly, all of Elingarth, promised to be a cold one.
Even the arrival of Felittle, here in these crowded confines, with her soft red cheeks and the overdone carmine paint on her full lips, and those huge eyes so expansive in their blessed idiocy, could do little to defeat the insipid icy draught pouring in past her from around the mostly useless door. Spilgit sighed and reached for his tankard. “I’ve warmed rum in that kettle, mixed with some wine and crushed blackgem berries. Would you like some?”
“Ooh!” She edged forward, her quilted coat smelling of smoke, ale and her mother’s eye-watering perfume that Spilgit privately called Whore Sweat—not that he’d ever utter that out loud. Not if he wanted to get what he wanted from this blissful child in a woman’s body. And most certainly never to that vicious hag’s face. While Felittle’s mother already despised him, she’d not yet refused his coin and he needed to keep it that way for a few more months, assuming he could find a way of stretching his fast-diminishing resources. After that…
Felittle was breathing fast as Spilgit collected the kettle from its hook above the brazier and poured out a dollop into the cup she’d taken down from the shelf beside the door. He considered again the delicious absence of guilt that accompanied his thoughts of stealing Felittle away from her tyrant of a mother; away from this miserable village that stank of fish all summer and stank of the people eating that fish all winter; away from her mother’s whores and the sordid creatures that crawled into the King’s Heel every day eager for more of the old wickdipping from that gaggle of girls only a blind man would find attractive, at least until the poor fool’s probing fingers broke through the powdery sludge hiding their pocked faces. Away, then, and away most of all, from that deranged sorcerer who’d usurped his own brother to carve out, in broken bones, spilled blood and the screaming of endless victims, his private version of paradise.
Oh, there was no end to the horrors of this place, but Lord Fangatooth Claw sat atop them all like a king on a throne. How Spilgit hated sorcerers!
“You’re still shivering, darling,” he said to Felittle. “Drink that down and have another, and come closer. Now, with only this one chair, well, sit on my lap again, will you. That’s surely one way to get warm.”
She giggled, swinging her not-ungenerous backside onto him and then leaning back with one arm snaking round the back of his neck. “If Mother saw this, she’d hack off your mast and roast it on a fire till it was burnt crisp!”
“But my sweetheart, are we not dressed? Is this not entirely proper, given the cold and the cramped conditions of this office?”
“Oh, and who else do you do this with?”
“No one, of course, since you are the only person to ever visit me.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but he knew it to be an act, since she well knew that he entertained only her. Felittle missed nothing in this village. She was its eyes and ears and, most of all, its mouth, and it was remarkable to Spilgit that such a mouth could find fuel to race without surcease day after day, night upon night. There were barely two hundred people in Spendrugle, and not one of them could be said to be leading exciting lives. Perhaps there was a sort of cleverness in Felittle, after all, in the manner of her soaking in everything that it was possible to know in Spendrugle, and then spewing it all back out with impressive accuracy. Indeed, she might well possess the wit to match a… a…
“Blackgem berries make me squirt, you know.”
“Squirt water, of course! What else would I squirt? What a dirty mind you have!”
…sea-sponge? “Well, I didn’t know that. I mean, how could I, since it’s such a… well, a private thing.”
“Not for much longer,” she said, taking another mouthful.
Spilgit frowned, only now feeling the unusual warmth in his lap. “You call that a squirt?”
“Well,” she said, “it’s just that it got me all excited!”
“Really? Oh, then should we—”
“Not you, silly! Fangatooth! On the tower, with his arms spread wide like I said!”
“Alas, I didn’t see any of that, Felittle. Busy as I was in here, putting things in order and all. Even so, for the life of me I can’t see what it was that excited you about such a scene. He does that most mornings, after all.”
“I know that, but this morning it was different. Or at least I thought it was.”
“Well,” she paused to drink down the rum, gusted out a sweet sigh, and then made a small sound. “Oop, it’s all going now, isn’t it?”
Spilgit felt the heat spreading in his crotch, and then his thighs as it pooled in the chair. “Ah, yes…”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I thought he was looking at the wreck, you see? But I don’t think he was. I mean—”
“Hold on, darling. A moment. What wreck?”
“Why, the one in the bay, of course! Arrived last night! You don’t know anything!”
She shrugged. “Nobody’s been down to look yet. Too cold.”
“Gods below!” Spilgit pushed her from his lap. He rose. “I need to change.”
“You look like you peed yourself! Hah hah!”
He studied her for a moment, and then said, “We’re heading down, darling. To that wreck.”
“Really? But we’ll freeze!”
“I want to see it. You can come with me, Felittle, or you can run back to your ma.”
“I don’t know why you two hate each other. She only wants what’s best for me. But I want to do what her girls do, and why not? It’s a living, isn’t it?”
“You’re far too beautiful for that,” Spilgit said.
“That’s what she says!”
“And she’s right, on that we’re agreed. The thing we don’t agree on is what your future is going to look like. You deserve better than this horrible little village, Felittle. She’d as much as chain you down if she thought she could get away with it. It’s all about her, what she wants you to do for her. Your ma’s getting old, right? Needing someone to take care of her, and she’ll make you a spinster if you let her.”
Her eyes were wide, her breaths coming fast. “Then you’ll do it?”
“Steal me away!”
“I’m a man of my word. Come the spring, darling, we’ll swirl the sands, flatten the high grasses and flee like the wind.”
“Okay, I’ll go with you!”
“No, down to the wreck, silly!”
“Right, my little sea-sponge. Wait here, then. I need go back to the Heel and change… unless you need to do the same?”
“No, I’m fine! If I go back Ma will see me and find something for me to do. I’ll wait here. I wasn’t wearing knickers anyway.”
Well, that explains it, doesn’t it. Oh darling, you’re my kind of woman.
Except for the peeing bit, that is.
The hand gripping his cloak collar was hard as iron as he was dragged from the foaming, icy surf. Hacking, spitting out seawater and sand, Emancipor Reese opened his eyes to stare up at a grey, wintry sky. He heard gulls but couldn’t see them. He heard the war-drums of the waves pounding the rocks flanking this slip of a bay. He heard his own phlegmatic gasping, punctuated by the occasional groan as that hand continued dragging him up the beach, across heaps of shells, through snarled knots of seaweed, and over sodden lumps of half-frozen driftwood.
He flailed weakly, clawing at that hand, and a moment later it released him. His head fell back with a thump and he found himself staring up at his master’s upsidedown face.
“Will you recover, Mister Reese?”
“Very good. Now get up. We must take stock of our surroundings.”
“It’s made up of air, not water. That’s enough of the surroundings I need to know.”
“Nonsense, Mister Reese. We seem to have lost Korbal Broach, and I could use your assistance in finding him.”
At that, Emancipor Reese sat up, blinking the rime from his eyes. “Lost? Korbal’s lost? Really? He must be dead. Drowned—”
“No, nothing so dire, I’m sure,” Bauchelain replied, brushing sand from his cloak.
“Oh.” Emancipor found himself staring at the wreck of the ship. There wasn’t much left. Fragments were being tossed up to roll in the surf. “What is it about me and the sea?” he muttered. Amidst the flotsam were more than a few bodies, their only movement coming from the water that pushed and pulled at their limp forms. “It’s a miracle we survived that, Master.”
“Mister Reese? Oh, that. Not a miracle at all. Willpower and fortitude. Now, I believe I spied a settlement upon the headland, one that includes a rather substantial fortification.”
“No,” moaned Emancipor, “not another fortification.”
“Prone to draughts, I’m sure, but more suited to our habits. We shall have to introduce ourselves to the local lord or lady, I think, and gauge well the firmness of his or her footing. Command, Mister Reese, is a state of being to which I am not only accustomed, but one for which my impressive talents are well-suited. That said, and given our record thus far when assuming positions of authority, even I must acknowledge that trial and error remains an important component to our engagement with power.”
“Now here’s a miracle,” said Emancipor as he pulled out his pouch of rustleaf. “The hawker claimed it would be watertight, and she was right.” He found his pipe, blew the wet and sand from it and began tamping the bowl. “Life’s looking up already, Master.”
“The lightening of your spirits is most welcome, Mister Reese.”
“Show me a man who can’t smoke and you’re looking at the end of civilization.”
“I’ll not argue with that assessment, Mister Reese.”
The crescent beach they’d found banked steeply above the waterline, and high ragged cliffs rose beyond, but Emancipor could make out a trail. “There’s a way up, Master.”
“So I see, and if I’m not mistaken, we will find our companion in yonder village.”
“He didn’t wait for us?”
“He elected wings to effect his escape from the sinking ship, Mister Reese. I would have done the same, if not for you.”
“Ah. Appreciate that, Master. I really do.”
“My pleasure. Now— Oh, we have company on the way.”
Emancipor saw, too, the three figures making their way down the trail, hunched over against the buffeting wind. “Are they armed, Master? This could be a wreckers’ coast.”
“My eyes ain’t what they used to be, Master.”
“No, Mister Reese. Not excessively so. I assure you, to us they pose no danger.”
“Glad to hear it, Master.” Emancipor was starting to get cold, or, rather, he was starting to feel it. His dunk in the seas had numbed things up pretty fast. Glancing over at Bauchelain, he saw that the tall necromancer was not even wet. Mages, he concluded, were obnoxious in so many ways it was almost pointless listing them.
Now shivering, he studied the three strangers making their way down the trail.
Hordilo Stinq’s pirating days were behind him now. He liked the feel of solid ground under him, even as that terrible sea still held him close, within reach, stubborn as an ex-wife whose sole reason to breathe was the conviction that she was still owed something by the fool she’d tossed away, and it didn’t matter how many years had passed since he’d last wallowed in her icy arms. The watery witch never let him wander too far from her thrashing shores. These days, it was nothing to step outside to begin his daily patrol, and feel on the wind the wet spray of her bitter spite. Aye, an ex-wife, spitting like a cat and howling like a dog. A hoary, wild thing with venom under her long nails and dead spiders in her hair.
“You ain’t answered me, Stinq,” said Ackle, who sat across from him and was, thankfully, not looking Hordilo’s way, busy instead plucking clumps of old mud from his deadman’s cloak. “Ever been married?”
“No,” Hordilo replied. “Nor do I want to be, Ackle. Want no ex-wives chasing me down everywhere I go, throwing snotty runts at my feet I never seen before and sayin’ they’re mine. When they aren’t. I mean, if my seed produced anything as ugly as that—well, gods below, I’ve known plenty of women, if you know what I mean, and not one of them ever called me ugly.”
Ackle paused, examining a long root he’d pulled from the woolen cloak. “Heard you like Rimlee,” he said. “She can’t see past her nose.”
“Nothing, friend. Just that she’s mostly blind. That’s all.”
Hordilo drained his tankard and glared out through the thick, pitted glass of the window. “Feloovil’s whores ain’t selected for how good they look—see, I mean. How good they see. But I bet you wish they wasn’t the smelling kind, don’t you?”
“If they smell I remain unaware of it,” Ackle replied.
“That’s not what I meant. They smell just fine, and that’s your problem, isn’t it?”
At that Ackle looked up—Hordilo could see the man’s face reflected blurrily, unevenly, in the window, but even this distorted view couldn’t hide Ackle’s horrible, lifeless eyes. “Is that my problem, Hordilo? Is that why I can’t get a woman to lie with me no matter how much I offer to pay? You think so? I mean, my smell turns them, does it? Are you sure about that?”
Hordilo scowled. Out on the street beyond he saw Grimled stump past, making the first circuit of the day. “You don’t smell too good, Ackle. Not that you could tell.”
“No, I couldn’t. I can’t. But you know, there’s plenty of men in here who don’t smell too good, but they get company in their beds upstairs anyway, every night if they can afford it.”
“Different kind of smell,” Hordilo insisted. “Living smell, if you know what I mean.”
“I would think,” said Ackle, straightening in his seat, “that my smell is the least of their concerns. I would think,” he went on, “that it’s more to do with my having been pronounced dead, stuck in a coffin for three days, and then buried for two more. Don’t you think it might be all that, Stinq? I don’t know, of course. I mean, I can’t be sure, but it seems plausible that these details have something to do with my lonely nights. At least, it’s a possibility worth considering, don’t you think?”
Hordilo shrugged. “You still smell.”
“What do I smell like?”
“Like a corpse in a graveyard.”
“And have I always smelled that way?”
Hordilo scowled. “How should I know? Probably not. But I can’t really say, can I? Since I never knew you before, did I? You washed up on shore, right? And I had a quota to fill and you were broke.”
“If you’d let me lead you to the buried chest you’d be rich now,” Ackle said, “and I wouldn’t have been strung up because your lord likes to see ’em dance. It could’ve gone another way, Hordilo, if you had any brains in that skull of yours.”
“Right. So why don’t you lead me to that damned chest you keep talkin’ about? It’s not like you need the coin anymore, is it? Anyway, the whole point you’re avoiding is that we hanged you good, and you was dead when we took you down. Dead people are supposed to stay in the ground. It’s a rule.”
“If I was dead I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, would I? Ever clawed your way up out of the ground? If that coffin lid wasn’t just cheap driftwood, and if your ground wasn’t so hard and if your gravediggers weren’t so damned lazy, why, I would never have made it back. So, if there’s anyone to blame for me being here, it’s all of you in this lousy village.”
“I didn’t dig the grave though, did I? Anyway, there ain’t no buried chest. If there was, you’d have gone back to it by now. Instead, you sleep under the table, and that only because her dogs like rolling on you to disguise their scent. Feloovil thinks you’re funny, besides.”
“She laughs at my dead eyes, you mean.”
Hordilo glanced into the tavern’s main room, but Feloovil was still sitting behind the bar, her head barely visible, her eyes closed. The woman stayed up till dawn most nights, so it was no surprise she slept most of the day every day. He’d watched that useless Factor, Spilgit Purrble, slink past her a while earlier, and she’d not raised a lid, not even when the man returned from his upstairs room only moments later, and wearing a change of clothes. There’d been a suspicious look on the Factor’s face that was still nagging Hordilo, but for the moment he didn’t feel like moving, and besides, with Feloovil asleep it was no difficult thing to draw the taps for a flagon or two, on the house as it were. “Lucky you,” he finally said, “that she’s got an uncanny streak in her. Unlucky for you that her girls don’t share it, hah.”
“With what they must see in a man’s eyes every night,” said Ackle, “you’d think they’d welcome mine.”
“Lust ain’t so bad t’look at,” Hordilo said.
“Oh indeed. Why, it charms a woman right out of her clothes, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s just like love, isn’t it? Love with all the dreamy veils torn aside.”
“What veils? Her girls don’t wear veils, you fool. The point is, Ackle, what they see every night is what they’re used to, and they’re fine with that. Dead eyes, well, that’s different. It puts a shiver on the soul, it does.”
“And does my reflection in the window keep you warm, Stinq?”
“If I had an ex-wife, she’d probably have your eyes.”
“But I don’t need reminding of what I’ve been lucky enough to avoid all these years. Well, sometimes, but not all the time. I got a limit to what I can stomach, if you get my meaning.”
“I get your meaning, Stinq. Well, sometimes, but not all the time, as you’re such a subtle man.”
Hordilo grunted, and then frowned. Grimled should have been by already, second time around. It was a small village, and doing the circuit was what Grimled did, and did well, since he didn’t know how to do it otherwise. “Something funny,” he said.
“Fangatooth’s golem, Grimled.”
“What about it?”
“Not ‘it.’ ‘Him.’ Anyway, he showed up as usual—”
“Yes, I saw that.”
“The rounds, right? Only, he ain’t come back.”
Ackle shrugged. “Might be sorting something out.”
“Grimled don’t sort things out,” Hordilo replied, squinting and wiping at the steamy glass. “To sort things out, all he has to do is show up. You don’t argue with a giant lump of angry iron. Especially one carrying a twohanded axe.”
“It’s the bucket head that I don’t like,” said Ackle. “You can’t talk to a bucket, can you? Not face-to-face, I mean. There is no face. But that bucket’s not iron, Stinq.”
“Yes it is.”
“Got to be tin, or pewter.”
“No, it’s iron,” said Hordilo. “You don’t work with Grimled the way I do.”
“Work with it? You salute it when you pass it by. It’s not like you’re its friend, Stinq.”
“I’m the lord’s executioner, Ackle. Grimled and his brothers do the policing. It’s all organized, right? We work for the Lord of Wurms. It’s like the golems are milord’s right hands, and I’m the left.”
“Right hands? How many does he have?”
“Count it up, fool. Six right hands.”
“What about his own right hand?”
“All right. Seven right hands.”
“And two left?”
“That’s right. I guess even the dead can count, after all.”
“Oh, I can count, friend, but that doesn’t mean it all adds up, if you understand my meaning.”
“No,” Hordilo said, glaring at the reflection, “I don’t.”
“So the bucket’s iron. Fine, whatever you say. Grimled’s gone missing and even I will admit: that’s passing strange. So, as executioner and constable or whatever it is you say you do, officially, I mean, and let’s face it, you chirp something different every second day. So, as whatever you are, why are you still sitting here, when Grimled’s gone missing. It’s cold out there. Maybe it rusted up. Or froze solid. Go get yourself a tub of grease. It’s what a real friend would do, under the circumstances.”
“Just to prove it to you, then,” said Hordilo, rising up and tugging on his cloak, “I’ll do just that. I’ll head out there, into this horrible weather, to check on my comrade.”
“Use a wooden bucket for that grease,” said Ackle. “You don’t want to insult your friend, do you?”
“I’ll just head over to the Kelp carter’s first,” said Hordilo, nodding as he adjusted his sword belt.
“For the grease.”
“That’s right. For the grease.”
“In case your friend’s seized up.”
“Yeah, what is it with these stupid questions?”
Ackle held up two dirt-stained palms, leaning back. “Ever since I died, or, rather, didn’t die, but should’ve, I’ve acquired this obsession with being… well, precise. I have an aversion to vague generalities, you see. That grey area, understand? You know, like being stuck between certain ideas, important ideas, that is. Between say, breathing and not breathing. Or being alive and being dead. And things like needing to know how many hands Lord Fangatooth has, which by my count is seven right hands and two left hands, meaning, I suppose, that he rarely gets it wrong.”
“What in Hood’s name are you going on about, Ackle?”
“Nothing, I suppose. It’s just that, well, since we’re friends, you and me, I mean. As much as you’re friends with Grimled… well, what I’m saying is, this cold slows me up something awful, I’ve found. Maybe I don’t need grease, as such, but if you see me out there sometime, not moving or anything. I guess the point I’m making, Stinq, is this. If you see me like that, don’t bury me.”
“Because you ain’t dead? You idiot. You couldn’t be more dead than you are now. But I won’t bury you. Burn you on a pyre, maybe, if only to put an end to our stupid conversations. So take that as a warning. I see you all frozen up out there, you’re cordwood in my eyes and that’s all.”
“So much for friendship.”
“You got that right. I ain’t friends with a dead man I don’t even know.”
“No, just lumps of magicked iron with buckets for heads.”
“Right. At least we got that straight.” Hordilo pushed the chair back and walked over to the door. He paused and glanced back to see Ackle staring out the window. “Hey, look somewhere else. I don’t want your dead eyes tracking me.”
“They may be dead,” Ackle replied with a slow smile, “but they know ugly when they see it.”
Hordilo stared at the man. “You remind me,” he said, “of my ex-wife.”
The Wurms of Blearmouth © Steven Erikson, 2014