It is a bitter winter, and civil war is ravaging Kurald Galain. Urusander’s Legion prepares to march on the city of Kharkanas. The rebels’ only opposition lies scattered and weakened—bereft of a leader since Anomander’s departure in search of his estranged brother. The remaining brother, Silchas Ruin, rules in his stead. He seeks to gather the Houseblades of the highborn families to him and resurrect the Hust Legion in the southlands, but he is fast running out of time…
Steven Erikson returns to the Malazan world with Fall of Light, the second book in a dark and revelatory new epic fantasy trilogy, one that takes place a millennium before the events in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Available April 26th from Tor Books, Fall of Light continues to tell the tragic story of the downfall of an ancient realm, a story begun in the critically acclaimed Forge of Darkness. Read chapter one below, and stay tuned for additional excerpts throughout the month!
The Seduction of Tragedy
So they lust for blood. poets know its taste, but some know it better than others. A few are known to choke on it. Stand at a distance, then, and make violence into a dance. Glory in its sounds, in the mayhem and those stern expressions that seem better suited to an unpleasant task completed with reluctant forbearance. There is for the audience that glee of admiration in the well-swung sword, the perfect thrust, the cold, professional face with the flat eyes. Revel, then, in the strut, and see something enticing in the grim camaraderie of failed men and women—
Failed? You say many do not see that? Oh dear.
Shall I then offer up the reek of shit and piss? The cries for loved ones far away? The hopeless longing for a mother’s embrace to ease the pain and the terror, to bless the gentle slowing of the hammering heart? Shall I describe the true faces of violence? The twist of fear, the heaviness of dread, the panic that rushes in a surge of blood, a surge that drains the visage and bulges the eyes? But what value any of this, when to feel is to acknowledge the frailty of one’s own soul, and such frailty must ever be denied in the public swagger that so many find essential, lest they lose grip.
Indeed, I would think armour itself whispers of weakness. Tug free the helm’s strap, let your scalp prickle in the cool air. Strip down until you stand naked, and let’s see again that swagger.
There are poets who glory in their recounts of battle, of all those struggles so deftly ritualized. And they tend lovingly their garden of words, heaping high the harvest of glory, duty, courage and honour. But each of those luscious, stirring words is plucked from the same vine, and alas, it is a poisonous one. Name it necessity, and look well upon its spun strands, its fibrous belligerence.
Necessity. The soldiers attack, but they attack in order to defend. Those they face stand firm, and they stand firm to defend as well. The foes are waging war in self-defence. Consider this, I beg you. Consider this well and consider this long. Choose a cool dusk, with the air motionless, with dampness upon the ground. Draw away from all company and stand alone, watching the dying sun, watching the night sky awaken above you, and give your thoughts to necessity.
The hunter knows it. The prey knows it. But on a field of battle, when every life totters in the balance, where childhoods, begun long ago, and youthful days suddenly past, have all, impossibly, insanely, led to this day. This fight. This wretched span of killing and dying. Was this the cause your father and mother dreamed of, for you? Was this the reason for raising you, protecting you, feeding you, loving you?
What, in the name of all the gods above and below, are you doing here?
Necessity, when spoken of in the forum of human endeavour, is more often a lie than not. Those who have laid claim to your life will use it often, and yet hold you at a distance, refusing you that time of contemplation, or, indeed, recognition. If you come to see the falseness of their claim, all is lost. Necessity: the lie hiding behind the true virtues of courage and honour—they make you drunk on those words, and would keep you that way, until comes the time for you to bleed for them.
The poet who glories in war is a spinner of lies. The poet who delights in visceral detail, for the sole purpose of feeding that lust for blood, has all the depth of a puddle of piss on the ground.
Oh, have done with it, then.
Stepping out from the tent, renarr faced the bright morning light, and did not blink. Behind her, on the other side of the canvas wall, the men and women were rising from their furs, voicing bitter complaints at the damp chill, snapping at the children to hurry with the hot, spiced wine. Within the tent, the air had been thick with the fug of lovemaking, the rank sweat of the soldiers now gone, the metallic bite of the oils with which the soldiers honed weapons and worked to keep leather supple, the breaths of drunkards and the faint undercurrent of vomit. But out here those smells were quickly swept away, clearing her head as she watched the camp stir awake.
She took coin no different from the other whores, although she did not need it. She made her false moans and moved beneath a man like a woman both eager and hungry, and when they shuddered, emptying their hoards into her and becoming weak and childlike, she held them as would a mother. In every way, then, she was the same as the others. Yet they kept her apart, forever pushed away from their close company. She was the adopted daughter of Lord Urusander, after all, Legion Commander and reluctant holder of the title of Father Light, and this was a privilege worthy of dreams, and if flower petals were scattered in her wake, they were the colour of blood. She had no friends. She had no followers. The company she kept had all the warmth of a murder of crows.
There was frost silvering the tufts of grass between the tents and the ground was frozen hard underfoot. The smoke rising from the cookfires did not rise far, drifting like confusion about the heads of the soldiers as they readied their gear.
She could see, in their agitated gestures, in the nerves betrayed by fumbling at buckles and the like, and could hear, in the surly tones of their conversations, that many now believed that this would be the day. A battle was coming, marking the beginning of the civil war. If she turned to her left, and could make her vision cut through the hillside to the northeast, through the unlit tumble of stone and earth and root and then out again into the morning light, she would see the camp of the Wardens, a camp little different from this one, barring these snowburnished skins and hair now the hue of spun gold. And in that other camp’s centre, on a standard rising from the command tent, she would make out the heraldry of Lord Ilgast Rend.
The day felt reluctant, but in an ironic way, like a woman feigning resistance on her first night, with rough hands pushing her thighs apart, the air then filling with its share of harsh breaths, ecstatic moans and clumsy grunts. And when it was all done with, amidst deep pools of satisfied heat, there would be blood on the grass.
Just so. And as Hunn Raal would say, had he the wits, justice is a sharp-edged thing and today it will be unsheathed, and wielded with a firm hand. The reluctance is an illusion, and as only Osserc knows, my resistance was indeed feigned, the day Urusander’s son took me to rough bed. We are awash in lies.
Of course, it was equally likely that Lord Urusander would defy this seemingly inevitable destiny. Bind the woman’s legs together, securing a chastity belt with thorns on both sides, to refuse satisfaction from either direction. He might well ruin things for everyone.
So, in its more prosaic details—the frost, the faint but icy wind, the plumes of breath and smoke, the distant neighing of horses and the occasional bray of a pack-mule; all the sounds of a day’s dawning in the company of men, women, children and beasts—she could, if unmindful, believe the stream of life to be unbroken, with all its promise arrayed before it, bright as the morning sun.
She drew her cloak about her rounded shoulders, and set out through the camp. She passed between tent rows, stepping carefully to avoid the ropes and stakes, taking caution on the furrows that cut diagonally across her path, and the stubble left behind by the harvesting only a week past. She skirted the trenches carved deep into the soil where wastes floated on the sluggish surface of murky water, along with the bloated carcasses of rats. By mid-afternoon, when the sun warmed the air enough, mosquitoes would arrive in thick, spinning clouds, thirsty for blood. If soldiers stood arrayed in ranks, facing the enemy, there would be little comfort preceding the clash of weapons.
Though her mother had been a captain in the Legion, Renarr had little sense of the makings and leavings of war. For her, it was a force that had, until now, been locked in her past: a realm of sudden absences, hollow with losses and ill luck, where even sorrow felt cool to the touch. It was a place somewhere else, and to give it any thought was to feel as if she was stealing a stranger’s memories. The veterans she took to her furs had known that realm, and each night, as the prospect of battle drew closer, she sensed in them a vague weariness, a kind of fatalism, dulling their eyes and stealing away what few words they were inclined to utter. And when they made love, it seemed an act of shame.
My mother died on a field of battle. She woke to a morning like this one, settling bleak eyes upon what the day would bring. Did she taste her death on the air? Did she see a vision of her rotting corpse, there in her own shadow? And would she have known, by sight, the weapon that would cut her down—a blinding flash drawing closer through the press? Did she look into the glaring eyes of her slayer, and see in them her death writ plain?
Or was she no different, on that morning, from every other fool in her company?
The questions seemed banal, like things covered in dust, the dust shaken free, blown into the air by a heavy but meaningless sigh. Renarr was not born to take sword in hand. The knife in its thin leather sheath at her hip was modest in its pragmatic necessity. She was not yet ready to imagine drawing it. As she walked, unburnished, her skin as yet unblessed by whiteness, soldiers surrounded her, and in the bright light, which rose like another world, a world unlike the night before, she was deftly ignored, seen but not seen, and the sight of her, if it yielded anything at all, raised surely little more than a pang of regret—the soft feel of her flesh, the weight she carried that surprised every man she straddled in the dark. None of these things were relevant now.
But there was power to be found nonetheless: the cheap woman as harbinger of regret, making faces turn away, making strong men bend to some task, frowns cascading on their bared brows. The pleasures of flesh made but a sharp fold in the sensations of life, and upon its opposite side that flesh knew pain and terrible damage. In a careless moment, one could mistake the stains of one for the other.
She was the reminder they did not want, not here and not now, and so she walked unaccosted, too solid to be a ghost, but shunned all the same. Of course, this could perhaps be said of all ghosts—the living ones at least—and if so, then the world was full of them, solid but not quite solid enough, and each day they wandered unseen, dreaming of a future moment, imagining their one perfect gesture that would yield in everyone the delicious shock of recognition.
The banner of the command tent, the golden sun in its blue field, was directly ahead now, and as she drew nearer she noted the gap surrounding that tent, as if some invisible barrier occupied the space. No soldiers edged closer and those that she could see, there on the periphery, were all turned away. Moments later, she could make out shouting from within, the harsh bark of anger, bridling: the voice of Vatha Urusander, commander of the Legion and her adoptive father.
Those who might have replied to Urusander spoke in low tones, with murmurs that failed in passing through canvas walls, and so it seemed as if their lord was arguing with himself, like a madman at war with the voices in his head. For a brief instant, Renarr imagined him alone in the command tent. And in she would stride, to witness his decrepit ignominy. She saw herself observing, strangely unaffected, as he swung to her a confused, baffled face. Then the moment passed and she approached the entrance, where the stained flap hung down like a beggar’s blanket.
She was still a half-dozen strides from the tent when she saw that flap stir and then buckle to one side. Captain Hunn Raal emerged, drawing on his leather gauntlets as he straightened. His face was red beneath the bleached mask of his miraculous transformation, but then, it was always red. Pausing, he glanced around, gaze momentarily fixing on Renarr, who had slowed her steps. One of his cousins appeared behind him, Sevegg, and upon her round, chalky face there was a subtle flash of expression, which might have been pleasure, that then curled into a sneer when she saw Renarr.
Nudging her cousin, Sevegg stepped to one side and sketched a mocking bow. ‘If you ache on this chill morning, dear girl,’ she said, ‘winter is not to blame.’
‘I am well beyond aching,’ Renarr replied, moving past.
But Hunn Raal reached out and touched her shoulder.
She halted, faced him.
‘I think he would not delight in seeing you, Renarr,’ the captain said, studying her with his bloodshot eyes. ‘How many cloaks of defeat can one man wear?’
‘You smell of wine,’ Renarr replied.
She drew aside the flap and strode into the tent.
Their lord was not alone. Looking tired, Lieutenant Serap—two years older than her sister, Sevegg, and a stone heavier—sat to the man’s left, in a battered camp-chair little different from the one bearing Urusander’s weight. The map table was set up in the centre of the chamber, but it stood askew, as if it had been shoved or kicked. On its battered surface, the vellum map denoting the immediate area had pulled loose from its anchor stones on one end and the corners had curled up and around, as if eager to hide what it revealed.
With skin so white as to be almost glowing, Renarr’s adoptive father was staring at the muddy canvas floor beyond his equally muddy boots. There was gold in his long hair now, streaking the silver. Virtually all among the Legion were now white-skinned.
Serap, her expression grave, cleared her throat and said, ‘Good morning, Renarr.’
As soon as she began speaking, Urusander stood, grunting under his breath. ‘Too many aches,’ he muttered. ‘Memories awaken in the bones first, and send pain to every muscle, and all this serves to remind a man of the years behind him.’ Ignoring his adopted daughter, the lord faced Serap and seemed to study her quizzically for a moment. ‘You’ve not seen my portrait yet, have you?’
Renarr saw the lieutenant blink, as if in surprise. ‘No, milord, although I am told Kadaspala’s talent was—’
‘His talent?’ Urusander bared his teeth in a humourless smile. ‘Oh indeed, let us speak of his talent, shall we? Eye wedded to hand. Deft strokes of genius. And in this, my likeness is well captured in thinnest paint. You can look upon my face, on that canvas, Serap, and tell yourself how perfectly it renders depth, as if I stood in a world you could step into. And yet draw close, if you dare, and you’ll find my face is naught but paint, thin as skin, with nothing behind it.’ His smile was strained now. ‘Nothing at all.’
‘Milord, no painting can do other than that.’
‘No. In any case, the portrait awaits a washing of white now, yes? Perhaps a sculpture, then? Some Azathanai artisan with the usual immeasurable talent. Dust on his hands and a chisel that shouts. But then, whenever has pure marble revealed the truth beneath the surface? The aches, the strains, the twinges springing from nowhere, as if every thread of nerve within has forgotten its own health.’ Sighing, he faced the entrance. ‘Even marble pits with time. Lieutenant, I am done with Hunn Raal on this day, and all matters of campaign. Do not seek me out and send no messenger in search—I am going for a walk.’
‘Very well, milord.’
He strode from the tent.
Renarr walked over to the chair Urusander had vacated and settled in it. The heat of him remained on the leather saddle.
‘He’ll not acknowledge you in this state,’ Serap said. ‘You have fallen far and fast, Renarr.’
‘I am a ghost.’
‘The ghost of regret for Lord Urusander. You appear as the underside
of your mother, like a turned stone, and where all we saw of her was in sunlight, you are nothing but darkness.’
Renarr held out her right arm and studied the not quite pearlescent skin. ‘Stained marble, not yet gnawed by age. Naked, you are like snow. But I am not.’
‘It comes to you,’ Serap said. ‘But slowly, to mark the reluctance of your faith.’
‘Is that it? I but wear my hesitation?’
‘At least our enemies wear their blight for all to see.’
Renarr dropped her arm. ‘Take him to your furs,’ she said. ‘His aches, his twinges—drive away his thoughts of mortality.’
Serap made a disgusted sound, and then asked, ‘Is that what you glimpse each night, Renarr? In that uncaring face hovering above your own? Some faint flush of immortality, like a rose in a desert?’
Renarr shrugged. ‘He’s made his flesh a sack of faults. Untie the knot, lieutenant.’
‘For the good of the Legion?’
‘If your conscience needs a salve.’
‘Conscience. That’s a word I’d not thought to hear from you.’ Serap waved a hand in dismissal. ‘Today, it will be Hunn Raal leading the Legion. Out to parley with Lord Ilgast Rend. This madness needs to end.’
‘Oh yes, and he’s a man of constraint, is our Hunn Raal.’
‘Raal is given his orders, and we were witness to them. Urusander fears arriving at the head of his legion will prove too provocative on this day. He will not invite public argument between himself and Lord Ilgast Rend.’
Renarr shot the woman a quick glance, then looked away again. ‘Trust Hunn Raal to make this argument public, if we are to descend into euphemisms for battle.’
Shaking her head, Serap said, ‘If weapons are drawn this day, they will come first from Ilgast Rend and his misfit Wardens.’
‘Jabbed by insult and driven to a corner by Hunn Raal’s smirking visage, I would say what you describe is inevitable.’
The woman’s fine brows lifted. ‘A whore and seer both. Well done. You have achieved what Mother Dark’s priestesses yearn for as they thrash through the night. Shall I send you to Daughter Light, then, as her first acolyte in kind?’
‘Yes, that is indeed the name Syntara has chosen for herself. Daughter Light. I always thought it a presumption. Oh, and now of you, too, in assuming you have the right to send me anywhere.’
‘Forgive my transgression, Renarr. There is a tutor in the camp—have you seen him? The man lacks a leg. Perhaps he would take you under his care. I shall suggest it to Urusander when next I see him.’
‘You mean Sagander, fled from House Dracons,’ Renarr replied, indifferent to the threat. ‘The whores speak of him. But he already has a child he deems to teach. The daughter of Tathe Lorat, or so I am told. Sheltatha Lore, upon whom he leans, like a man crippled by self-pity.’
Serap’s eyes hardened. ‘Sheltatha? That’s a rumour I have not yet heard.’
‘You do not consort with camp-followers and whores. Well, not regularly,’ she added with a small smile. ‘In any case, I have had my fill of tutors. Too many years of that, and oh how delicately they treated the daughter of a dead hero.’
‘They did not fail in honing your wit, Renarr, although I doubt any would take pride in the woman they created.’
‘More than a few come to mind who would happily share my furs and consider sweet their belated reward.’
Snorting, Serap arose. ‘What did you come here to witness, Renarr? This is your first time to your father’s command tent since we left Neret Sorr.’
‘I needed to remind him,’ Renarr replied. ‘While I remain unseen to his eyes, still he steps around me.’
‘You are his anguish.’
‘I have plenty of company in that, lieutenant.’
‘Now, I will join my giggling companions, atop a hill from which to watch the battle. We’ll fix corbie eyes on the field below, and talk of bloodied rings and brooches.’
She felt the woman’s eyes upon her for some time, a full four or five breaths, and then Serap exited the tent, leaving Renarr alone.
Rising, she approached the map table, replacing the anchor stones to force down the curled edges of the map. Then she leaned over it and studied the thin inked lines denoting the terrain. ‘Ah, that hill there, then, should do us well on this day.’ Conversations of greed with glinting eyes. Sharp laughter and cackling, crude jests, and if the men and women we took last night soon lie cold and still in the mud of the valley below, well, there will always be others to take their place.
Avarice makes whores of us all.
* * *
Captain Havaral rode at a canter down the slope, the wind skirling dead leaves across his path. The broad basin of the valley ahead was not quite as level as he would have liked, with a slight climb favouring the enemy. From the crest of the rise behind him, where Ilgast Rend had arrayed his army of Wardens, the lie of the land here had seemed more or less ideal, but now he found himself picking his way around sinkholes hidden by knots of leafless brush and small, twisted trees, and here and there thin but deep run-off tracks crooked their way downward, inviting a horse’s ankle and then the sickening snap of bones. The Wardens were a mounted force, relying upon speed and mobility. What he was seeing of this slope troubled him.
He had been a Warden all his adult life, and had in Calat Hustain’s absence often taken overall command as senior officer. It was not easy to simply shrug off his sense of betrayal in learning that Lord Ilgast Rend had supplanted him in this responsibility, but he would follow orders nonetheless, without a word of complaint, nor an instant’s resentment in his expression. Personal slights were the least of his worries this morning, in any case. That the Wardens had marched on Urusander; that he and his companions were now preparing for battle, all for the sake of a few hundred slaughtered peasants in the forests, was, to his mind, utter madness.
To make matters worse, they had no reliable intelligence on the Legion’s complement. Was it fully assembled? Or was it, as Rend clearly believed, yet to achieve that? Pragmatic concerns, these. On this day they could find themselves facing the full might of Urusander’s Legion.
Civil war. I refused to think on it. I stripped the hides off my Wardens whenever they even so much as hinted at it. Now here I am, an old fool, laid siege to by knowing looks. Best hope, then, that I’ve not burned the last vestiges of respect among my soldiers. Nothing fashions a fool quicker than a hollow tirade.
But even fools could possess courage. They would follow his orders. To think otherwise was inconceivable.
For the moment he rode alone, watched by fifteen hundred of his kin, carrying to Lord Urusander an invitation to private parley with Ilgast Rend. This battle could still be prevented. Peace could be carved out of this misshapen mess, and to yearn for that was not a failing of courage. It was, in truth, a desperate grasp for the last vestiges of wisdom.
How would Urusander fare in the face of Lord Rend’s fury? That would be a scene worth witnessing, if only through a pinprick hole in the tent’s back wall. Not that such a thing was even possible. The two men would meet alone, and it was unlikely that their voices would carry enough to be heard by anyone outside.
He was halfway across the basin when he saw a troop of riders appear on the opposite crest.
Havaral frowned, his mount momentarily losing its way as he unconsciously slackened the reins.
The banner did not belong to Vatha Urusander. Instead, the standard-bearer was displaying the colours of the Legion’s First Cohort.
Hunn Raal. Have we not had enough of that man?
The insult was plain, and Havaral found himself hesitating. Then he silently berated himself. No, not for me. I am neither Calat Hustain nor Ilgast Rend. I have no right to wear this affront. Besides, Urusander might be awaiting word, and but sends his captain just as Rend has sent me. The notion sounded convincing in his head, provided he did not direct too much scrutiny its way. Kicking his mount forward, with renewed assurance, he continued on, heading directly for the delegation.
Sevegg rode beside her cousin, and the others in Raal’s company were the same lackeys who had accompanied him on their visit to the camp of the Wardens. The truth of the rumours was plain to Havaral’s eyes. They were transformed, their skins like alabaster. Still, seeing this miraculous blessing of Light was a shock. They rode with arrogance, with the air of believing themselves privy to dangerous secrets and so worthy of both fear and respect. Like so many soldiers, they were worse than children.
The air tasted bitter, and Havaral struggled not to spit.
In crass announcement of discourtesy or bold contempt, they reined in first, to await his arrival.
The wind was building, cutting down the length of the basin, spinning leaves around the ankles of the horses and making them skittish, and already clouds of mosquitoes lifted up from the grasses to swarm in the shelter of soldier and mount.
As Havaral drew up before them, Sevegg was the first to speak. ‘Ilgast sends an old man to greet us? We can hardly call you a veteran, can we? Wardens are not soldiers. Never were, as you shall soon discover.’
Hunn Raal held up a hand to forestall any further commentary from his cousin. ‘Captain Havaral, isn’t it? Welcome. The morning is chilly, is it not? The kind that settles into your bones.’
And that was meant to soften my resolve? Vitr take me, man, you are not even sober. ‘I bring word from Lord Ilgast Rend,’ Havaral said, fixing his gaze on Raal’s reddened eyes made ghastly against the white skin. ‘He seeks private parley with Lord Vatha Urusander.’
‘I am sorry, then, my friend,’ said Hunn Raal, the secret smile of drunks playing about his thin lips. ‘That is not possible. My commander has instructed me to speak in his stead. That said, I am happy to parley with Lord Rend. Although, I think, not in private. Advisers are useful in such circumstances.’
‘Bodyguards, you mean? Or assassins?’
‘Neither, I am sure,’ Hunn Raal said, with a short easy laugh. ‘It seems your commander esteems his life of greater import than is warranted. Nor am I inclined to feel in any way threatened by his close proximity.’
‘The pride of the highborn,’ Sevegg said, shaking her head as if in disbelief. ‘Wave him down here, captain, and let’s get on with it. Since he would play the soldier again, remind him of our plain ways.’
‘Enough of that, cousin,’ Hunn Raal said. ‘See how this man pales.’
Havaral collected the reins. ‘What you invite upon yourselves on this day, sirs, is a stain of infamy that even your skins cannot hide. May you ever wear it in shame.’ Swinging his mount around, he set off back across the basin.
As they watched him ride away, Sevegg said, ‘Dear cousin, do let me cut him down, I beg you.’
Hunn Raal shook his head. ‘Save the bloodlust, dear. We leave Rend to unleash his rage, thus provoking the battle to come. By this means, cousin, we are absolved of the consequences.’
‘Then I will find that old man on the field, and take his life.’
‘He was no more than a messenger,’ Hunn Raal said.
‘I saw hate in his eyes.’
‘You stung it awake, cousin.’
‘The slur in sending him to us belongs to Lord Ilgast Rend, I’ll grant you. But I see nothing to respect among the Wardens. If only it was Calat Hustain leading them.’
Her cousin snorted. ‘Dear fool, Calat would never have brought them to us in the first place.’
She said nothing for a moment, and then managed a dismissive shrug. ‘We’re saved the march, then.’
At Hunn Raal’s lead, they pulled their horses round and set off, back the way they had come. The mosquitoes swept in pursuit, but were soon outdistanced.
* * *
The morning lengthened, gathering its own violence with a sharp, buffeting wind that flattened the grasses on the hill where Renarr stood, a short distance from the other men and women. Behind them, on this island of ill desires, the orphaned children who had, in no official manner, adopted the score or so whores who shared this particular tent ran and laughed and cursed the frenzied insects. Some were building a fire from a few ragged dung-chips, in the hope that the smoke would send the bugs away, but such fuel offered up little in the way of relief. Others lit pipes if they could beg the rustleaf from a favoured whore. Those who could not simply stuffed grass into the bowls. Their wretched coughing triggered gales of piping laughter.
Whores from other tents were appearing along the hilltop, a few shouting insults across the gaps. The rival groups of children began throwing stones at one another. The day’s first blood was drawn when a sharp rock caught a girl on the temple, adding to her facial scars. In fury she charged the boy who had thrown the rock and he fled squealing.
Renarr watched with all the others as boy and girl ran down the slope.
To the right, Hunn Raal had drawn up his own cohort, although the ancient title was misplaced, as each cohort of Urusander’s Legion now comprised a full thousand soldiers. This was the force Raal offered up to the measure of Ilgast Rend and his Wardens, who were arrayed on the valley’s opposite ridgeline. Unseen by the Wardens and their lord, two flanking cohorts waited on the back-slope, with units of lightly armoured cavalry among the foot soldiers.
Along the crest, she could see, pikes were being readied in the six-deep line behind Hunn Raal and his officers, and she understood such weapons to be the best suited when facing cavalry. A few hundred skirmishers were moving down the slope, armed with javelins. Some of these shouted now at the two children, warning them off, but neither reacted, and the girl’s long legs were closing the gap between her and the smaller boy, whose laughter was gone, and who ran in earnest.
Renarr could see how the blood now covered one half of the girl’s face.
The boy made a sharp turn moments before she reached him, rushing out towards the distant enemy.
Catching up again, the girl pushed with both arms, sending the boy tumbling. He rolled and sought to regain his feet but she was quicker, driving him down with her knees, and only now did Renarr see the large rock in her right hand.
The shouts from the skirmishers fell away, as the girl brought the stone down on the boy’s head, again and again. The waving arms and kicking legs of the boy flopped out to the sides and did not move as the girl continued driving the rock down.
‘Pay up, Srilla!’ cried one of the whores. ‘I took your wager, so pay up!’
Renarr pulled her robe tighter about herself. She saw a skirmisher move nearer the girl, and say something to her. When it was clear that she was not hearing his words, he edged closer and cuffed the side of her head. Dropping his javelin, he grasped the girl’s arms and forced the bloodied stone from her small hands. Then he shoved her away.
She stumbled off, looking up and seeing, as if for the first time, where her hunt had taken her. Once again her long legs flashed as she ran back towards her hill, but she ran as one drunk on wine.
The body of the boy was small and bedraggled, spreadeagled like the remnant of some grisly sacrifice, and the skirmishers gave it a wide berth as they advanced.
‘Now that’s the way to start a war!’ the whore cried, holding up a fist clutching her winnings.
* * *
The captains and their messengers clustered around Lord Ilgast Rend. For all that the nobleborn commander looked solid, heavy in his wellworn armour and bearing a visage betraying nothing but confidence as he sat astride his warhorse, Havaral fought against a cold dread. There was a hollow pit in his gut that no bravado could fill.
He remained at the outer edge of this cluster of officers, with Sergeant Kullis at his side, to act as a rider and flag-crier once the orders were given.
Flat-faced and dour, Kullis was a man of few words, so when he spoke Havaral was startled. ‘It is said every army is like a body, a thing of flesh, bone and blood. And of course, the one who commands can be said to be its head, its brain.’ The sergeant’s voice was pitched low. It was unlikely that anyone else could make out his words.
‘This is not the time, sergeant,’ Havaral said in a soft growl, ‘to raise matters of faith.’
As if unwilling to be dissuaded, Kullis continued, ‘But an army also possesses a heart, a slow-beating drum in the very centre of its chest. A true commander knows that he or she must command that first, before all else.’
‘Kullis, that will be enough.’
‘Today, sir, the heart commands the head.’
The sergeant’s methodical thinking had made slow and measured steps, arriving at a truth Havaral had understood with the man’s first words. Lord Ilgast Rend was too angry, and the drumbeat’s ever quickening pace had brought them headlong to this ridge, beneath this cold morning sky. The enemy facing them here were, one and all, heroes of Kurald Galain. Worse, they had not marched on the Wardens, and so had offered no direct provocation.
It will be simple, then, to set the charge of this civil war’s beginning at the feet of Lord Ilgast Rend. And us Wardens.
‘We wonder, sir,’ Kullis then said, turning to look upon his captain, ‘when you will speak.’
‘Speak? What do you mean?’
‘Who better knows the mind of Calat—’
‘Calat Hustain is not here.’
‘Was given command of the Wardens. Sergeant, who is this “we” you speak of?’
Kullis snorted. ‘Your kin, sir. All of whom are now looking to you. This moment, sir. They are looking to you.’
‘I conveyed Hunn Raal’s words,’ Havaral said, ‘and the lord chooses to answer them.’
‘Yes sir, I see the knife in his hand. But we sacks of blood now bear beads of sweat.’
Havaral looked away. The sickness pooling in his stomach churned. His eyes travelled down the length of the Wardens waiting on their wood-armoured horses, the breaths of the beasts softly pluming, the occasional head tossing amidst the mosquitoes. His kin were motionless in their saddles, their lacquered, banded-wood breastplates gleaming in the bright sunlight. Beneath the rims of their helmets he saw, one after another, faces too young for this.
My blessed misfits, who could never in comfort wear the soldier’s garb. Who forever stood outside the company of others. Could face down a dozen scaled wolves, and not blink. Ride to the Vitr and voice no complaint at the poison air. Wait here now, for the call to advance, and then to charge. My children.
My sacks of blood.
‘Urusander’s Legion is eager for this,’ Havaral said. ‘Once at strength, it would have had to march on the Wardens, before closing on Kharkanas. The Legion could not countenance us at its back. We meet it today, on dead grasses and in a bitter wind, and dream of a gentle spring to come.’
Havaral turned on the man, his face twisting. ‘Do you think the captains have all remained mute?’ he hissed. ‘Did you fools actually imagine we swallowed down our bile, and did nothing but bow meekly before our commander?’
Kullis flinched slightly at his captain’s words.
‘Hear me,’ Havaral said, ‘I do not command here. What shame would you have me suffer? Do you think I will not be riding down there with you? With my lance drawn and hard at your side? Abyss take you, Kullis—you have unmanned me!’
‘Sir, I did not mean such a thing. Forgive me my words.’
‘Did I not warn you against matters of faith?’
‘You did, sir. I am sorry.’
Voices rose then, drawing their attention to the valley floor, where two small figures had appeared, one pursuing the other.
They then, in silence, witnessed a murder.
Skirmishers arrived to chase away the child, and continued on in their advance.
A moment later, Ilgast Rend’s voice carried clear in the cold air. ‘The Legion ill keeps its tent, it seems. Think well on that misery, Wardens, and the cruelty of childhood. Hunn Raal commands the field of play in the manner of the thug. The bully. And dreams of a place for himself in the Citadel.’ The words did not echo, as the wind was quick to sweep them away. After a brief pause, the lord continued, ‘But you are children no longer. Awaken what memories you need, and make answer!’
Clever words, Havaral conceded, to so probe old wounds.
‘Ready lances and prepare to advance. Captains Havaral and Shalath, flanks will rise to canter and then swing inward at the blue flags. We’ll trap those skirmishers and be done with them.’
Havaral gathered his reins. ‘To our troop now, sergeant. Trust this will be well timed, as I see the pikes now on the move.’
‘They yield the crest,’ Kullis said, as they set off for the flank units.
‘The slope suffices.’
‘And less winded our mounts upon reaching them!’
Nodding, Havaral said, ‘They see the wooden cladding and imagine our horses lacking in endurance. They are in for a surprise, sergeant.’
‘That they are, sir!’
‘Ilgast Rend was a soldier,’ Havaral said. ‘Remember that—battle is no stranger to him.’
‘I’ll watch for the blue flags, sir.’
‘You do that, sergeant.’
They arrived opposite their troop, wheeling forward just as the command to advance was sounded. ‘’Ware your steps, Wardens!’ Havaral shouted, recalling the pitfalls on the slope.
Taking the lead, the captain began the descent. His mount wanted to canter rather than trot, but he held the reins tight and leaned back in the saddle, forcing the animal to take its time.
The skirmishers, each one bearing three or four lances, were spreading out. They seemed reluctant now, their pace slowing upon seeing the cavalry drawing closer.
From a troop to Havaral’s left, a horse screamed, tumbling its rider as it broke a foreleg in a burrow or rut.
‘Eyes ahead!’ Havaral snapped. ‘Gauge every step!’
Drawn by sweat and harsh breaths, the mosquitoes massed ever thicker as the Wardens made their way towards the valley floor. The captain heard comrades cough as they inhaled bugs. Curses sounded, but mostly the sound was of creaking armour, the thump of horse hoofs, and the gusting wind that slid beneath iron helms and moaned as if trapped.
Havaral left the slope and rode out on to the basin, at last giving the horse freedom to quicken its trot. His troop drew up behind him, keeping pace.
He had loved a man once, long ago now, and the memory of that face had been years buried. It appeared suddenly in his mind’s eye, as if emerging from shadows, as lively and enticing as it had ever been. Others crowded behind it, all the confused desires that had marked his adolescence, and with them came a dull pain, an ache of the spirit.
It was no crime to turn from the common path, yet it came at a cost nonetheless. No matter. The young man had gone away, unwilling to stay with any one lover, and his name had vanished from the living world after the burning of his village by Forulkan raiders. Whether he died or took for himself another life, Havaral knew not.
But now your knowing smile is before me. I only regret the end, my love, only the end.
Confusion filled his head, and sent down into his soul a sorrowful song that brought the blur of tears to his eyes. An old man’s song, this one. A song of all the deaths in a normal life, how they come up and then go past like verses, and this chorus that bridges each one, oh, it voices nothing but questions none can answer.
Beside him, Sergeant Kullis leaned over and, with a hard smile, said, ‘How clear the mind is at this moment, sir! The world is almost too sharp to behold!’
Havaral nodded. ‘Damn this wind,’ he then growled, blinking.
The first shade of blue appearing among the flag-stations lifted them into a canter, and they swung out, away from the skirmishers. As the horseshoe formation took shape, the foot soldiers suddenly recoiled in comprehension. The flags spun to show the deeper blue side, announcing the inward wheel and the charge.
The skirmishers had drawn out too far—Havaral could see that plain—and the pike line was still trudging at its turgid pace, only halfway down the far slope.
Havaral brought his lance down and slid its butt into the arm’s length leather sheath affixed to the saddle. He heard and felt the solid impact the end made with the bronze socket.
‘They’re all caught!’ Kullis shouted. ‘We’re too fast!’
The captain said nothing. He saw javelins launched from arms, saw lances dip to knock most of them away before they could strike the chests of horses. A few animals screamed, but now the voices of the Wardens filled the air, rising above the thunder of horse hoofs.
Borrowed anger this might be, but it will do.
Skirmishers scattered like jackrabbits.
A few hundred Legion soldiers were about to die, and the tears streamed from Havaral’s eyes, making cold tracks down his cheeks.
It begins. Oh, blessed Mother Dark, it begins.
* * *
Sevegg cursed and then turned to Hunn Raal. ‘They went too far, the fools. Who commands them?’
‘Altras! Cousin, he’s a quartermaster’s aide!’
‘And so very eager, like a pup off its leash.’
She looked at the captain at her side. His profile was sharp, almost majestic if one did not look too closely. If witnessing the imminent slaughter of three hundred Legion soldiers affected him, there was no discernible sign. A different flavour of command, then. Lord Urusander would never have done it this way. And yet, there is no value in questioning this. She studied her cousin’s face, remembering how that expression crumpled in lovemaking, achieving nothing so much childlike as dissolute.
On the field below, the wings of the Warden cavalry tightened their deadly noose about the skirmishers. Lances dipped, caught hold of bodies and lifted them into the air, or drove them into the ground. Most weapons took soldiers from behind.
From the corner of her eye she caught Hunn Raal’s gesture, an almost lazy wave of one gauntleted hand.
Behind them, the outer units of Legion cavalry on the back-slope lurched into motion, quickly surging into a canter. Then, pivoting as if one end was fixed to the ground, the troops wheeled to face the slope. The riders leaned forward as their mounts climbed.
He should have ordered this earlier. A hundred heartbeats. Five hundred. Not a single skirmisher will be left.
As if reading her mind, Hunn Raal said, ‘I had a list of malcontents. Soldiers too inclined to question what is necessary to bring peace to the realm. They argued at the campfires. They muttered about desertion.’
Sevegg said nothing. There was no crime in asking questions. The last accusation was absurd. Deserters never talked about it beforehand. Instead, it was the opposite. They went quiet in the days before disappearing. Every soldier knew the signs.
The foremost ranks of the Legion cavalry crested the slope, swept over and then flowed down in a solid mass, arriving on the field of battle beyond the Warden flanks. She saw the first of the enemy riders discover the threat, and confusion take hold, lances lifting to allow the quick about-face. The centre formation, where the bulk of Rend’s force still advanced at the trot, began to bulge.
‘See that,’ Hunn Raal suddenly said. ‘He abandons his flanks to a mauling, and sets eyes only for our pikes.’
‘Those armoured mounts of theirs are surprisingly agile,’ Sevegg said, seeing how the outside ranks were already settling, lances dipping as they rode out to meet the Legion cavalry.
‘Outnumbered,’ Raal said, ‘and on weary beasts.’
The way ahead for Rend’s centre was now clear, with only motionless bodies to ride over as they approached the slope. Three-quarters of the way down the hillside, Raal’s pikes now halted, setting their weapons and anchoring the heels against the unyielding, frozen ground.
In the past war against the Jheleck, the pike had proved its efficacy. But the giant wolves charged without discipline, and proved too foolish and too brave and too stubborn to change their ways. Even so, Sevegg could not see how the Wardens could answer that bristling line of barbed iron points. ‘Rend has lost his mind,’ she said, ‘if he hopes to break our centre.’
Hunn Raal grunted. ‘I admit to some curiosity about that. We’ll see soon enough what he has in mind.’
The Legion cavalry had turned inward, rising to the charge. The Wardens answered. Moments later, the leading edges collided.
* * *
On the crest of her hilltop, Renarr flinched at the distant impact. She saw bodies silently rising as if invisible hands had reached down from the empty sky, snatching them from their saddles. Their limbs flailed, and blooms of red snapped sudden as flags in the midst of the crush. Horses went down, thrashing and kicking. An instant later, the thunder of that collision reached her.
The whores were shouting, while the children now crowded between the men and women along the ridge, silent and watching with wide eyes, some with thumbs in their mouths, others pulling on pipes.
Renarr could see how, in the initial impact, many more Legion horses staggered and fell than did those of the Wardens. She suspected that this was unanticipated. An advantage of the wooden armour of the enemy’s mounts, she supposed, which while providing surprising defence did little to slow the swiftness and agility of the beasts. Even so, the Legion’s superior numbers checked that counterattack, absorbing the blow, and now, as riders fought in the crowded, churning maelstrom, the Wardens began giving ground.
She looked to the centre, and saw the foremost Wardens reach the base of the slope. Flags rippled, changing colour in a wave leading out from the stations upon the opposite hillside, and all at once the Wardens charged up the slope.
The pikes awaiting them glinted in the sun like the thread of a mountain stream.
Sensing someone at her side, Renarr glanced down and saw the girl with the bloodied face. Tears had cleaned her cheeks in narrow, crooked trails, but her pale eyes, fixed upon the battle below, were dry.
* * *
His lover’s face was everywhere now, upon all sides. Beneath the rims of helms, among his kin and among the enemy surging around him. He sobbed as he fought, howled as he cut down that dear man again and again, and screamed each time one of his comrades fell. He had left his lance buried halfway through a horse, the point driving into its chest and reaching all the way to its gut. Disbelief had flashed through Havaral then: he’d felt little resistance along the weapon’s shaft. The point had slipped past every possible obstacle. The horse’s rider had attempted to swing his heavy longsword at the captain, but the beast collapsing under him had tugged him away, and moments later a Warden’s lance cut clean through his neck, sending the head spinning.
His troop was falling back, collapsing inward. Lord Rend had done nothing to prevent it, and Havaral understood the role his flank now inherited, as a sacrificial bulwark protecting the centre. They would fight on, without hope of victory or even escape, and in this forlorn fate their only task was to take a long time in dying.
He knew nothing of the rest of the battle. The few flags he caught sight of, barely glimpsed and distant on the far slope, were all black.
He swung his sword, hacking at Legion soldiers. The multitude of his lover’s face showed twisted, enraged expressions, filled with hate and fury, with terror. Others showed him that face in grey, clouded confusion, as they sank back, or slid from their saddles. The surprise of death was one no actor on a stage could capture, because its truth cast an inhuman shade upon the eyes, and that shade spread out to claim the skin of the face, rushing down to bleach the throat. It was silent and it was, horribly, irrefutable.
Beloved, why are you doing this to me? Why are you here? What have I done to you, to so earn this?
He had lost sight of Kullis, and yet longed for the man, desperate to see a visage other than those that now surrounded him. He imagined holding the man tightly in his arms, burying his face in the crook of neck and shoulder, and weeping as only an old man could.
Was not love its own shock? A match to that of death? Did it not take the eyes first? Such reverberations as to weaken the bravest man or woman—its trembling echoes never left a mortal soul. He had fooled himself. There was no music in this, no song, no chorus of longing and regret. There was only chaos, and a lover’s face that never, ever went away.
He killed his beloved without pause. Again and again, and again.
* * *
With a gap of only a few horse-lengths separating the two centres, Sevegg saw the lances of the enemy riders angle to one side, and only at that instant did she note that one entire half of the Wardens in the front line had anchored their weapons on their left sides—and that line was to her right.
As the forces collided, the foremost line of riders peeled out to the sides in staggered timing, and a roar of clashing announced the rippling collision of their lance shafts with those of the pikes facing them as they swept those weapons outward, as if folding to one side blades of grass.
Immediately behind them, and matching the staggered cadence of those before them, the second line hammered into the exposed front line of the centre, the impact rippling out to the sides.
Sevegg shouted her astonishment. The precision of the manoeuvre was appalling, the effect devastating.
The Legion centre buckled, as dying bodies were plucked from the ground and driven into the ranks behind them. Pikes caught on fellow soldiers, dragging weapons or snapping the shafts. Moments later swords flashed down, hacking at heads, necks and shoulders.
Against the slope, the soldiers struggled to back up, many driven to the ground instead, and still the fist of the enemy drove deeper, churning up the slope.
‘Shit of the Abyss!’ Hunn Raal hissed, suddenly galvanized. ‘Commit our foot flanks!’ he shouted, rising on his stirrups. ‘Hurry, damn you all!’ He sawed his mount around. ‘Second rank centre, down the slope at the double! Form a second line and hold to save your lives!’
And ours. Sevegg’s mouth was suddenly dry, and she felt her insides contract, as if every organ fought to retreat, to flee, only to be trapped by the cage of her bones. She closed a hand about the grip of her sword. The leather wrapping the handle was too smooth—not yet worn or roughened by sweat—and the weapon seemed to resist her grasp.
‘Keep it sheathed, you fool!’ her cousin snapped. ‘If you panic my soldiers I’ll see you skinned alive.’
Below, the Wardens chopped, slashed and hacked their way ever closer. Of the six-deep line of pikes, only two remained, and the lead one was fast fragmenting.
Then soldiers seethed over the crest to both sides of Sevegg and Hunn Raal, closing up once past and levelling their pikes.
‘We’ll grind them down now,’ Hunn Raal said. ‘But damn, that was well played.’
‘He did not imagine he was facing three entire cohorts,’ Sevegg said, her voice sounding thin to her own ears, even as relief flooded through her.
‘I could have done with two more.’
Thus emptying Urusander’s camp. But that would have made Raal’s intent too clear.
‘Ah, see the left flank! Our cavalry is through!’
She looked, and relief gave way to elation. ‘I beg you, cousin, let me join them!’
‘Go on, then. No, wait. Hold together your troop, Sevegg. Wet your swords by all means, but only on the edges—I want you riding for Ilgast Rend. He does not escape. Chase him down if necessary. He will face me in chains today, do you understand me?’
‘Alive. Now, go, have your fun.’
Too quick to call me the fool, cousin. I won’t forget these public humiliations, and when I next have you in my arms, I’ll remind you of pleasure’s other side. Waving to her troop, she set off along the crest.
* * *
Kicking, Havaral tried pushing his way out from under his dead horse. The beast’s weight was immense, trapping one leg, and yet still he struggled. When the pinned knee succumbed to the relentless pull, and the bone popped from its joint, he shouted in pain.
Blackness washed through him, and, gasping, he fought to remain conscious.
Well, that is that. I go nowhere.
Somewhere behind him, beyond sight, the Legion cavalry was savaging the centre. The captain had failed to hold them back, and now, he knew, the battle was lost.
Bodies and carcasses lay in heaps around him. Blood and spilled entrails made a glistening carpet on the ground, and he was covered in the same. The mosquitoes swarmed so thick around his face they filled his mouth like soft cornmeal, choking him as he swallowed them down again and again. The insects seemed both frenzied and baffled by this unflinching bounty, and though they clustered in such numbers as to blacken nearby corpses in their hunger, it appeared to be futile, as though they could not draw blood without the pressure of their prey’s pumping heart.
Havaral assembled these observations, holding on to his musings as if the rest of the world, with all its drama, and all its wretched desperation, was now beneath notice. Even his lover was gone from the field, and those faces that he could see, whether Warden or Legion, were one and all made strangers by death. He knew none of them.
He heard voices nearby, and then a guttural shout, and moments later a rider appeared, reining in and suddenly looming above him. The sun was high, casting the figure in silhouette, but he knew the voice when she spoke. ‘Old man, such fortune in finding you.’
Havaral said nothing. Mosquitoes kept drowning in the corners of his eyes, making them water all the more. He thought he had wept himself dry long ago. The high sun disturbed him. Surely they had fought longer than that?
‘Your Wardens are broken,’ Sevegg said. ‘We slaughter them. They thought we would permit a retreat, as if honour still lived in this day and age. Had any of you possessed a soldier’s mind, you wouldn’t have been so naïve.’
Blinking, he studied the dark shadow where her face should be.
‘Will you say nothing now?’ she asked. ‘Not even a curse or two?’
‘How fits shame, lieutenant?’
To that query she made no reply, but quickly dismounted, and then moved to crouch beside him. At last he could see her face.
She was studying him curiously. ‘We captured Lord Rend. My troop now delivers him to Hunn Raal. I will grant Ilgast this—he did not flee us, and looks to accept his fate as just punishment for failing on this day.’
‘Today,’ agreed Havaral, ‘marks a day of failures.’
‘Well, let me give you this. You’ll not scorn my pity, I hope. I see you at last. Old and useless, with every pleasure long behind you now. This hardly seems a fitting end, does it? Alone, with only me to caress your eyes. So, at the very least, I choose to offer you a gift. But first, I see you covered in blood and guts—where is your wound? Do you feel much pain, or has that faded?’
‘I feel nothing, lieutenant.’
‘That’s good then.’ She laughed. ‘Here I was going on and on, too unmindful by far.’
‘I’ll take the sharp point of your gift now, Sevegg, and deem it the sweetest kiss.’
Sevegg frowned briefly, as if struggling to understand the meaning of his invitation. Then she shook her head. ‘No, I cannot do that. I’ll let you bleed out instead.’
‘This is your first field of battle, isn’t it?’ he asked.
Her frown deepened. ‘Everyone has a first.’
‘Yes, I suppose that’s true. I will concede your innocence here, then.’
The furrows of her brow beneath the helm’s rim faded, and, smiling, she said, ‘That’s generous of you. I think now we could have been friends. I could well have looked on you as a father.’
‘A father to you, Sevegg Issgin? Now you curse me in earnest.’
She bore that well and nodded, looking off to one side for a moment before returning her attention to him. ‘So there’s still some fire in you. Not a daughter, then. We’ll imagine the lover instead. More blessed then my gift.’ She reached down and grasped the wrist of his left hand, tugging off the gauntlet. ‘Here, old man, one last time, a soft pleasure.’ And she moved his hand up under her leather breastplate. ‘You can squeeze if you’ve the strength.’
He met her eyes, feeling the swell of her tit cupped by his calloused palm. And then he laughed.
Confusion clouded her face, and at that moment, as he brought up his other hand and drove the knife it held up under her rib cage, using all his strength to pierce the leather, and felt it slide home to take her heart—at that moment, he looked hard at her face, seeing no one but a stranger. And this pleased him even more than the surprise he saw in that visage.
‘I bear no wounds,’ he said to her. ‘A veteran would have checked, woman.’
The weapon sobbed as she slipped back from him and fell awkwardly on to her heels.
Someone shouted in dismay. There was hurried motion. A sword flashed in Havaral’s eyes, like a lick of blinding sunlight, and at the same instant something slammed into his forehead, delivering a new, unexpected surprise.
* * *
Soldiers had brought camp-stools to the summit overlooking the valley of the slain, with one to take Hunn Raal, as he contended with the grief of his cousin’s treacherous murder. The captain sat with a jug of wine balanced on one thigh, the other leg flung out, the foot resting on its outer ankle. He was indifferent to the activity around him, and the wine in his gut felt heavy and sour, yet comforting all the same.
He had ill news to deliver to Serap, who had become the last survivor among his kin. There was greater need now in keeping her close by Urusander’s side, as a valued officer in the commander’s staff. On the day that Urusander took the throne beside Mother Dark’s, she would be well placed in the new court. But he was running out of pawns.
Some hurts were not worth looking at, and if his display here before his soldiers—that of a captain reduced to a man, and a man reduced to a grieving child in a family twice broken—if all that yielded pity he could use, well, he would.
Drunks were well known as master tacticians. Seductively familiar with strategies of all sorts. The hurting thirst of his habit had honed him well, and he would not refuse his own tempered nature. Drunks were dangerous, in every way imaginable. Especially in matters of faith, trust and loyalty.
Hunn Raal knew himself, down to the core—to that dark, gleeful place where he invented new rules for old games, and made small excuses kneel in servitude to their father and master, their mother and mistress, all of whom were one and the same. Where the me within me sits. My very own throne, my very own slippery seat of imagined power.
Urusander, you will take what we give you. What I give you, and what our new High Priestess gives you. I see now the fantasy of your elevation, your return to glory. But you will suffice, and I will empty the libraries of every scholar across Kurald Galain to keep you buried to your neck in mouldy scrolls, and so content in what little world you would live in. This is a kindness beyond imagining, milord, beyond imagining.
He could weather any amount of berating from his commander, and anticipated a tirade to end this triumphant day. It would not sour Hunn Raal. Not for a moment. If anything, he would struggle to keep a smile from his face. Now was not yet the time for contempt.
Eventually, he looked up, to the nobleborn commander who had been bound in chains and made to kneel on the cold, hard ground opposite him. The distance between them was modest, and yet impossibly vast, and this notion made Hunn Raal drunker than any jug of wine could achieve. ‘Do you recall,’ he now said, ‘how we rode together out to the Wardens’ summer camp?’
‘I should have cut you down then.’
‘In conversation with my friends,’ Hunn Raal said, ignoring Rend’s pointless, redundant assertion, ‘with you lagging out of earshot, I made a comment about you. There was laughter. Do you, perchance, recall that moment?’
Hunn Raal said nothing as he slowly leaned forward, and then he smiled and whispered, ‘I think you lie, friend.’
‘Think what you like. Deliver me to Urusander now. This scene grows tired.’
‘What words, like rotten fruit, have you collected up, Ilgast, to deliver to my commander, I wonder?’
‘I leave you to tend that garden alone.’
Hunn Raal waved his free hand. ‘You know, you impressed me today. Not the whole day, mind you. Your desire to seek this battle, for example, was ill conceived. But I saw your genius in that clash against my pikes—I would think only the Wardens could have managed that. The finest riders this realm has ever known. And see what you’ve done—you’ve thrown them away. If in the name of justice I would deliver you to someone, surely it would be Calat Hustain.’
At that, he was pleased to see, Ilgast Rend flinched.
The pleasure did not last, and he felt a sudden regret. ‘Oh, Ilgast, look what you’ve done this day!’ The words came out in pain, in honest anguish. ‘Why did you not bring the Wardens to our cause? Why did you not come here to embrace our desire for what’s right? How differently this day would have played out.’
‘Calat Hustain refused your invitation,’ Ilgast said, trembling. ‘I could not in honour betray that.’
Hunn Raal scowled in exasperated disbelief. ‘My friend!’ he whispered, leaning still closer. ‘By your honour you could not betray him? Ilgast—look upon the field behind you! Yet you would fling those words at me? Honour? Betrayal? Abyss below, man, what am I to make of this?’
‘Not even you can deepen my shame, Hunn Raal. I am here, cleareyed—’
‘You are nothing of the sort!’
‘Deliver me to Urusander!’
‘You’ve taken your last step, my friend,’ Hunn Raal said, leaning back. Closing his eyes, he raised his voice and said, in a weary tone, ‘Have done with it, then. This man is a criminal, a traitor to the realm. We’ve already seen how the nobleborn can bleed like any other mortal. Go on, I beg you, execute him now, and show me no corpse when I next open my eyes.’
He heard the solid chop of the sword blade, a moment’s worth of choked sob, and then the man’s body falling along with his head. Fingers playing on the ear of the wine jug, he listened as both offending objects were dragged away.
A soldier then spoke. ‘It is done, sir.’
Hunn Raal opened his eyes, blinking in the bright glare, and saw that it was so. He waved his soldiers away. ‘Leave me now, to my grief, and make a list of heroes. It has been a dark day, but I will see light born of it nonetheless.’
Overhead, the winter sun offered little heat. The cold air invited sobriety, but he was having none of that. He’d earned his right to grieve.
* * *
Renarr watched the other whores moving among the corpses below, and the children running this way and that, their thin cries drifting up as they found a precious ring or torc, or a small bag full of coins or polished river pebbles. The light was fading as the short day hurried to its close.
She was chilled to the bone, and not yet ready to think of the boldness of the men who would find her in the evening to come, but her imagination defied such aversion. They would taste different—she was sure—but not on the tongue. This would be a deeper change, something to absorb from sweat and from what they leaked in their passion. It was a taste she would glean wherever their flesh met. She could not yet know, of course, but she did not think it would be bitter, or sour. There would be relief, and perhaps something of the despondent, in that intimate flavour. If it burned, it would burn with life.
She caught sight of the girl whose killing had started the day. She walked with followers now, regal as a queen among the dead.
Renarr studied her, and did not blink.
* * *
You could find a kind of justice in Urusander’s fate, although I will grant you, his ascension to the title of Father of Light made justice a mockery. So yes, indulge me now and give this blind old man a moment or two to catch his breath. This tale has far to go, after all. Free me to muse on the notions of righteous consequence, since they lie scattered before us like stepping stones across history’s torrent.
I have no doubt Urusander was no different from you or me, or rather, no different from most thinking creatures. For myself, I make no common claim. The poet’s view of justice is a secret one, and you and I need not discuss its rules. A few deft twitches on the fingers of one hand bind us in hidden kinship, with strangers none the wiser. So I am certain that you too will hold back when I speak of Urusander’s similitude.
To be plain, he saw justice as a clear thing, and from that raging river of progress, which ever tugs us along, he longed to dip a hand in at any point and raise to the heavens a pool of clean water, sparkling in the cup of his palm.
We look upon this same torrent and see the silts of flood waters, of banks breached, and islands of detritus crowded with shivering refugees. To steal a palm’s worth is to look down upon a cloudy, impenetrable world, a microcosm of history’s messy truth. And in the anguish and despair with which we contend, upon observing our dubious prize, we can hardly call our vision a virtue.
Virtue. Surely, of all words that might belong to Lord Vatha Urusander, it is that one. Such clear justice, in hand as it were, must indeed be a worthy virtue. So, Urusander was a man who longed to cleanse the waters of history, through the sluice of hard judgement. Must we fault him in that noble desire?
There is that old saying, couched as a truism, and to utter it is to assert its primacy: justice, we say, is blind. By this we mean that its rules defy all the seeming privileges of the wealthy and the highborn. Laudable, without question, if from the rules of justice we are to fashion a civilization worthy of being deemed decent and righteous. Even children can be stung in the face of what they perceive to be unfair. Unless, of course, they are the ones profiting from it. And in that moment of comprehension, of unfairness to the other also being a reward to oneself, that child faces—for the first but not the last time—the inner war we all know so well, between selfish desire and the common good. Between injustice, clutched so possessively deep in the soul, and a justice that now, suddenly, stands outside that child, like a stern foe.
With luck, the regard of others will force submission upon the child, in the name of fairness, but make no mistake, it is indeed forced. Wrenched from small hands, and then indifferent to the child’s raging impotence. Thus in our childhoods we learn the lessons of strength and weakness, and violence delivered in the name of justice. We deem this maturity.
Father Light. Such a bold title. Sire to the Tiste Liosan, observing all of his children from a place of clear, unopposed light. A place of purity, then, eternal bane to darkness. A father to lead us into history. The god of justice.
Of course he adored the Forulkan, barring those hundreds who slid lifeless down the blade of his sword. After all, their worship of justice was intransigent in the virtue of its purity. As unassailable, whispers this poet, as a blind man’s darkness. But then, we poets suffer our imperfections, do we not? We are seen, in our seeming equivocations and indecision, as weak of spirit. Gods help a kingdom ruled by a poet!
What? No, I do not know King Tehol the Only. Will you interrupt me again?
So. I sense you manning still the ramparts of your admiration for the Son of Darkness. Will I never scour that romance from your vision? Must I beat you about the head with his flaws, his errors in judgement, his obstinacy?
You are eager for the tale. No patience left for an old man trying to make a point.
Kadaspala etched his god, in the end. Did you know that? He etched that god into life, and then, appalled at the long-awaited perfection of his talent, he killed them both.
What are we to make of that?
No matter. We have already seen Kadaspala find the promise of peace, delivered by his own hands, in a time of unbearable grief. The visionary is the first to be blinded, if a civilization is to fall. Set him aside. He is no longer relevant. Leave him to his small chamber in the Citadel, muttering his madness. His work is done. No, another artist must be dragged to the fore. Another sacrifice necessary to advance a people’s suicide.
In this tale, then, look to the sculptor’s hands…
…as he carves his monument. I leave the choosing of its title to you, my friend. But not yet. Hear the tale first. There is only so much we can indulge, before the chorus grows restless, and gives voice to its displeasure.
I am known to flirt with impatience? Now, surely, that is an unjust accusation.
Excerpted from Fall of Light © Steven Erikson, 2016