Fall of Light, Chapter Three

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 three below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one!

 

 

THREE

‘There will be justice!’

When that call came, echoing down the long, foul tunnels, Wareth thought it a sour joke. Belatedly, he comprehended the earnestness in that cry. And when he dropped the heavy pick in his hands, the sudden absence of that familiar weight almost made him stagger back a step.

He was alone, at the far end of a deep vein. The words whispered their echoes as if the iron ore itself was speaking to him in the darkness. He remained motionless, drawing in the chill air, as the ache in his hands slowly faded. The past was a cruel and remorseless pursuer, and in this place—for Wareth and for all the others down these shafts—it muttered of justice more often than not.

Again the call sounded. Close around him, the rock wept its unceasing tears, making glittering runnels around patches of luminescence, pooling at his feet. If those words iterated a promise, it was far too late. If a summons, then far past time. He had yet to turn round. The way ahead, just visible in the gloom, was a blunted, battered wall. He had been beating at it for weeks now. It had served him well, as a place where he could, with his back to the world, live out his wakeful existence. He had grown to admire the vein’s stubborn defiance, had come to grieve its shattering surrender, piece by piece.

The pick Wareth had wielded was a fine tool. Iron tamed and given shape. Iron domesticated, subjugated, forged into a slayer of its wild kin. This was the only battle he fought, and he and the pick fought it well, and so the wild ore retreated, shard by shard. Of course, the truth was, the vein did not retreat. It simply died, in buckets of rubble. This was the only war he knew how to win.

The cry sounded a third time, but fainter now, as the other miners worked their way to the surface, rising sunward. He thought to retrieve his pick, to resume his assault. The wild stood no chance. It never did. Instead, he swung round, to make his way back to the surface.

More often than not, justice was a word written in blood. The curiosity that tugged him onward, and upward, made him no different from anyone else. That righteous claim needed a victim. It depended on there being one, and this fed a kind of lust.

Hunched over, he made his way up the shaft, his boots splashing through the pools made by the weeping rock. The trek took some time.

Eventually, he stood at the mine’s ragged entrance, blinking in the harsh sunlight. Sharp pains stabbed at his lower back as he straightened to his full height for the first time since rising from his cot that morning. Sweat streamed from him despite the air’s wintry bite, mixing with dust and grime as it ran down his bared torso. He could feel his muscles slowly contracting to the cold and it seemed as if simple light and clean, bitter air could cleanse him, scouring skin, flesh, bone and down into his very soul, and so yield the miracle of restitution, of redemption. In the wake of that notion came mocking derision.

Other miners were shouting, some singing, running like children across the snow-dusted ground. He heard the word freedom and listened to laughter that would make a sane man cringe. But Wareth looked to the prison guards for the truth of this day. They still ringed the vast pit that housed the mining camp’s compound. Many of them now ebonskinned, they leaned on their spears and made grim silhouettes against the skyline on all sides. At the south edge, at the end of the ramp that climbed to a barricaded gatehouse and barracks, the iron gates remained shut.

He was not alone in remaining silent, and watchful. He was not alone in his growing scepticism.

No one freed prisoners, unless indeed the civil war had seen an overthrow of all authority; or, with a new ruler upon the Throne of Darkness, an amnesty had been announced. But the cries of freedom lacked specific details. ‘We are to be freed! On this day! Prisoners no longer!’

‘There will be justice at last!’

That last proclamation was absurd. Every miner in this camp belonged here. They had committed crimes, terrible crimes. They had, in the words of the magistrate, abrogated their compact with civil society. In more common diction, they were one and all murderers, or worse.

The guards remained. Society, it seemed, was not yet ready to welcome them. The hysteria of the moment was fast fading, as others at last took notice of the guards in their usual positions, and the barred gate with its barbed fangs. Elation collapsed. Voices growled, and then cursed.

Wareth looked over to the women’s camp. The night-shifters were stumbling from their cells, dishevelled and drawing together in knots. No guards stood between them and the men. He could sense their burgeoning fear.

All the animals loose in the corral. Even this cold air cannot stifle a beast’s passions. Trouble is moments away.

Regretting leaving his pick behind, he looked round, and saw a shovel on the ground beside an ore cart, a breach of rules more shocking than anything else this day. He walked over and collected it, and then, as if unable to stop what he had begun, he slowly made his way towards the women.

Wareth was tall, and his nine years in the shafts as lead rock-biter had broadened his shoulders and thickened his neck. His body now bore unnatural proportions, his arms and torso too large for his hips and legs. The curl and pull of overworked muscles had spread wide his shoulder blades while drawing him inward at his upper chest, giving him a hunched-over appearance. The bones of his legs had bowed, but not as much as he could see in many other miners. At shift’s end, after his meal, he took to his cot, where he had bound belts to the iron frame, and these he fastened about himself, forcing his legs straight. And the one man he trusted, Rebble, would come to him then and tighten the straps across his chest and shoulders, forcing them flat. The agony of these efforts lived with him every night, yet exhaustion proved its master, and he slept despite the pain.

With something cold gripping his insides, he wended his way through the crowd, pushing aside those who had not seen him approaching. Others simply stepped back to clear his path. Faces frowned at him, uncomprehending, eyes narrowing as they saw the shovel in his hands.

He was through most of the press when a man ahead suddenly laughed and shouted, ‘The kittens are awake, my friends! See the way unopposed—I think this is the freedom we’ve won!’

Wareth reached the man even as he began moving towards the women.

With all his strength, he swung the shovel into the man’s head, crushing one side of the skull and snapping the neck. The sound it made was a shock that silenced those nearby. The body fell, twitched, blood and something like water leaking out around its broken head. Wareth stared down at the corpse, filled with the usual revulsion and fascination. The shovel was almost weightless in his hands.

Then something pulled him away, made him continue on, to take his place in the gap between the men and the women. As he turned to face his brothers of the pit, resting the shovel on one shoulder, he saw Rebble emerging, carrying a bulker’s pick. The third man to appear, also armed with a shovel, was Listar. Quiet and shy, his crime was a lifelong abuse of his wife that ended in her strangulation. But questions remained whether the cord had been in his hands. Questions, too, on that charge of abuse. But Listar would say nothing, not even to plead innocence. Wareth could never be sure of the man, yet here he was, ready to give his life in defence of unarmed women.

Rebble was tall and wiry. He had not cut the hair on his head and face since arriving at the mine, seven years past. His dark eyes glittered amidst a black, snarled nest, showing everyone that his temper was close. Once unleashed, the man knew not how to stop that rage. He had killed four men, one of whom had possibly insulted him. The other three had tried to intervene.

No others joined Wareth, and he saw men finding their own picks and shovels, and then making their way forward. One of them pointed a shovel at Wareth. ‘Ganz never even saw you coming. The coward strikes again. Rebble, Listar, look to this man who holds your centre, and when I go to him, watch him run!’

Wareth said nothing, but even he could feel how their moment of bold chivalry was fast fading. Neither Rebble nor Listar could count on him, and they had just realized it. He turned to Rebble and spoke under his breath. ‘Break open the women’s shed. Let them arm themselves.’

Rebble’s smile was hard and cold. ‘And you’ll do what, Wareth? Hold them here?’

‘He may not, but I will,’ said Listar. ‘This is a day of justice. Let me face it and be done with.’ He glanced over at Wareth. ‘I know you hated Ganz. His mouth always got him in trouble. But this stand here, Wareth? It’s not like you.’

Listar spoke the truth, and Wareth had no answer to give.

Ganz’s friend was edging closer, with his companions drawing up behind him.

Wareth had hoped that some old feuds would erupt among the men. Explosions of violence to distract them—acts of vengeance such as his attack on Ganz. Instead, he had caught their collective attention. A mistake, and one likely to see him killed. A pick between my shoulder blades.

As I run.

With a curious glance at Listar, Rebble moved off.

Ganz’s friend laughed. ‘The bold line collapses!’

The heat was building in Wareth despite the chill, an old familiar fire. It pooled and dissolved his insides. He could feel it burning his face and knew that for shame. His heart pounded fast and a weakness took his legs.

A loud crack startled everyone, and then the squeal of the shed door sounded behind Wareth.

‘Shit,’ someone swore. ‘We’re too fucking late now. Wareth, you’ll pay for this. Cut him down, Merrec. The chase will make it a fine game, hey?’

Men laughed.

Wareth turned to Listar. ‘Not today, then, your justice.’

Listar shrugged, stepping back. ‘Then another. So, best you start running.’

Merrec advanced on Wareth. ‘You’ve killed enough people from behind. All these years. Stand still now, rabbit.’ He raised the shovel.

Wareth tensed, terror rising up from his stomach to grip his throat. He prepared to throw the shovel, before bolting.

There was a solid thud and Merrec halted suddenly, looked down at the arrow buried deep in his chest.

Someone shouted.

Merrec sank to the ground, disbelief giving way to agony on his face.

The guards were now descending from the rim of the bowl, and on the gatehouse ramp there stood a dozen soldiers, and from them came a thin moaning sound.

Wareth knew that sound. He knew it well. He flinched back, dropping his shovel.

* * *

‘That was dishonourable,’ said Seltin Ryggandas, glaring at Galar Baras. ‘By this craven murder, with a hunter’s arrow at that, we are to see the rebirth of Hust Legion?’

Dishonour. Now there’s a word. Dry as tinder, needing only the hint of a spark to flare up, burn bright, rage incandescent. Dishonour. The stake pinning us all to the ground, and see us now. You, Hunn Raal, with your poisoned wine, and me, here, both of us writhing in place. Galar Baras drew off his gauntlets and carefully folded them, before tucking them behind his sword-belt. ‘Quartermaster, even honour must, on occasion, surrender to timing.’

Seltin’s expression of disgust was unchanged. ‘Timing? You waited too long to intervene.’

Ignoring the Legion’s quartermaster, Galar Baras glanced skyward. The chill winter blue was unbroken by cloud, making the vault seem all the more remote. As we see the heavens constrained, by all that we do here. No matter—these are smaller dramas than they feel. He turned to the pit’s overseer. ‘Sir, tell me about those three.’

The elderly man shook his head. ‘If you sought to single them out in the name of decency, your desire was misplaced. No, it was doomed from the start, as I could have told you, captain. Not one down there is worthy of Lord Henarald’s largesse. They ended up here for a reason, every one of them.’

Galar Baras sighed. He had weathered the same complaints, the same bleak observations, from the overseers of the last two prison mines. ‘Indulge me then, and speak of the three men who chose to defend the women.’

The overseer was long in replying, warring with something like reluctance, as if in the details he would offer, hope would die many deaths. Galar felt a moment of sympathy for the man, but insufficient to dissuade him from his task here. He was about to set iron in the command when the overseer finally spoke. ‘The lanky one, who showed the wit to break open the shed and so give leave to the women to arm themselves, he is named Rebble.’

‘Go on.’

‘Brave enough, I suppose. But captain, Rebble is slave to a mad rage. He skirts a pit, and is known to leap into it at the slightest hint of disrespect.’

Dishonour, again. It is the only language left us, it seems, here in Kurald Galain. ‘Rebble, then. The next man?’

‘Listar, upon the other side, was a bully to the weak, and down there the weak are all long dead. His stand surprised me, I admit. He was accused following charges laid by the family of his murdered wife. Accused, tried, and then sentenced. None refuted the evidence, least of all Listar.’

‘He confessed his guilt?’

‘He said nothing at all, and upon that matter remains silent to this day.’ The overseer hesitated, and then added, ‘Guilt binds his tongue, I should think. Captain, do not imagine some secret virtue in Listar’s silence. Do not look for anything worthy of redemption—not here, not among those men and women below.’

‘Now, the big-shouldered one.’

‘The worst of the lot,’ the overseer said, frowning at Galar. He paused, and then added, ‘A Legion soldier, but witnessed to be a coward in battle.’

‘Legion?’ Galar Baras asked. ‘Which legion?’

The overseer scowled. ‘You do not recognize him? I thought you but played with me. That is Wareth, once of the Hust.’

Galar Baras looked back down in the pit. For a moment, he could not see Wareth. Then he caught sight of him, sitting on the side of an oxtrough, forearms resting on his thighs as he looked out on the compound, where the guards were forcing the men to one side and the women to the other. For all the comfort of picks and shovels in the hands of the prisoners, none was foolish enough to face armoured guards wielding spears. ‘He has changed,’ the captain said.

‘No,’ the overseer replied. ‘He hasn’t.’

Redemption—ah, but overseer, what else can I offer? What other currency, beyond vile freedom, for these fools who so ruined their lives? That word should not taste so bitter. That desire should not make such grisly paths, bridging what was and what is to come.

The notion hovered in his mind, as if a standard raised high, to face an enemy upon the other side of the valley. Yet dishonour has its own banner, its stained flag of recrimination. Are they even enemies? But look at any civil war, and see two foes marching in parallel, stubborn on their chosen tracks to their chosen future. To clash upon battle’s field, they must first clash in their respective minds. Arguments of righteousness will lead us all, in the end, to the anguished need for redemption.

All for day’s end. And yet, for these prisoners, these criminals, I can only offer them a walk back along the path they each left behind, an uncurling of deeds, an unravelling of fates.

This purpose, here, made for solitary thoughts. But not a single doubt could be exercised, he knew. The time was not now. The company was all wrong. ‘Sergeant Bavras, take two with you and go down and collect Listar, Rebble and Wareth.’

‘Wareth, sir?’

‘Wareth,’ Galar Baras said. ‘Overseer, if you’d be so kind, I would make use of your office in the gatehouse.’

The man shrugged. ‘My office. Both title and place are dead to me now. Or so I now understand. At my age, captain, the future narrows to a single road, fading into the unseen. One walks, eyeing the closing mists, but no mortal power of will, or desire, can halt these plodding steps.’

‘Lord Henarald will not abandon you, sir.’

‘Shall I, too, don a dead soldier’s weeping armour? Take up a howling sword? Not my road, captain.’

‘I’m sure that you will be free to choose from a number of appointments, overseer.’

‘They would kill me, you know,’ the man said, nodding down at the prisoners. ‘A thousand times over. For so long, I have been the face of their guilt, which they will despise until death takes them.’

‘I imagine so. I am not so foolish as to think otherwise. But sir, there is more to being a soldier of the Hust than just the weapons and armour.’

‘They’ll not fight for the realm.’

‘To that, I must agree,’ said Seltin Ryggandas, crossing his arms.

‘If you two are correct,’ Galar said, ‘then, overseer, you will soon be back here. And so will those men and women below. And you, quartermaster, can return to your storerooms of materiel, with none to claim it.’

Seltin’s laugh was low and only mildly harsh. ‘You describe a clerk’s paradise, captain.’

After a moment, the overseer snorted. ‘There is such joy in this appointment.’

Galar Baras managed a smile, and he settled a hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘For what is to come, which would you prefer, your task or mine?’

The overseer shook his head. ‘Captain, I yield my office.’

* * *

Wareth stood as the three Hust soldiers approached. He saw that they had already rounded up Listar and Rebble, and neither man looked pleased. Proof to the rumours, the Hust soldiers now wore banded armour of the same black-smeared iron as the weapons in their scabbards, and as they drew nearer the moaning sounds shifted into a kind of chatter, as if a crowd was gathering. Wareth thought he heard laughter.

‘Come with us,’ the sergeant said.

‘I prefer the shafts below,’ Wareth said. ‘Ask your captain to make this day like any other. For me. There is still ore to be won from the rock.’

The sergeant was working hard at keeping the disgust from his expression. He was young, but not too young for contempt. ‘This pit is now closed. Save your words for the captain.’ He gestured and then set off. The two soldiers moved to push Wareth forward. He fell in alongside Rebble and Listar.

‘What manner of game is this?’ Rebble asked. ‘If they were coming for you, that I can see. It’s a wonder they didn’t execute you in the field. But what do they want with us?’

Wareth had his ideas about that. If those ideas circled the truth, he surely did not belong in the company of these two prisoners. ‘My sword defied them,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘On the field,’ Wareth said. ‘When they sought to disarm me, before executing me. My sword tried to kill them all.’

‘Then it’s true,’ said Listar. ‘The weapons live.’

‘In the end,’ Wareth said, ‘I agreed to surrender it. By then, the commander had arrived, and I was sent to her tent in chains. She was drunk… with victory,’ he added.

‘She deemed the mines a mercy?’ Rebble asked, in astonishment.

‘No. Perhaps. I could not guess her mind.’

He knew the soldiers were listening to this conversation, but none offered a comment.

They reached the ramp and began the ascent. The captain had left the small company of Hust soldiers positioned there, and the overseer stood to one side, like a man forgotten. Wareth met his eyes and the overseer shook his head.

Am I to be executed then? We three are collected up, but for two purposes. Theirs, I think I understand. Mine? Well, nine years is a long reprieve, by any sane standards.

He could feel his terror returning, familiar as a treacherous friend. It muttered its belated warnings, fuelling his imagination. It mocked his stupidity.

I should have ignored the unarmed women. I should have let this damned Hust captain see what we all really were. But Ganz used to spit down from the top of the shaft, aiming for me beside the water station. I don’t forget such things.

They passed through the gate. On one side of the gatehouse, beyond the razor-studded bars, was a door that had been left open. The sergeant halted the group just outside the doorway. ‘The captain wishes to speak to each of you, but one at a time.’ The man pointed at Listar. ‘You first.’

‘Any reason for that?’ Rebble asked in a growl.

‘No,’ the sergeant replied, before escorting Listar into the corridor beyond the door.

The remaining pair of soldiers moved off to one side, and began a muted conversation that was marked, on occasion, by a glance back at Wareth. Now he took note that one of them—the woman—had a hunter’s bow strapped to her back. Merrec’s last kiss.

‘You’ve too many friends,’ Rebble muttered, pulling at the joints of his fingers, making each one pop. He did this in a particular order, the part of the habit that defied Wareth’s attempts at making sense of it, and once again he bit back on his curiosity. For all he knew, it was the secret code of his friend’s forbearance, and a fragile one at that.

‘Before you,’ he now replied, ‘I had but one.’

Rebble glanced at him with his dark, half-mad eyes. ‘That sword?’

‘You have the truth of it.’

‘Yet you never saw me as metal for your confessions.’

‘I would say, perhaps, I learned my lesson.’

Rebble grunted, nodding. ‘I have many friends. Of course I do. Better my friend than my enemy, hey?’

‘The regret of the broken bodies strewn in the wake of your temper, Rebble. But when that rage is chained, you are an honourable man.’

‘You think? I doubt the worth of that honour, Wareth. Maybe this is why we’re friends.’

‘I will take that wound,’ Wareth said after a moment. ‘It was your temper, after all, that warded me when I was bound to the cot.’

‘If you’d been bound face-down, even that would not have sufficed.’

‘Rapists don’t live long in the pit.’

‘Nor do the raped.’

‘So,’ Wareth said, and he ground the word out. ‘We have a code.’

‘Of honour? Maybe so, when you put it that way. Tell me, does it take cleverness to be a coward?’

‘I think so.’

‘I think so, too.’

The sergeant reappeared with Listar. The miner looked confused and would not meet the eyes of his companions, and there was something in the set of his body that whispered defeat.

The sergeant gestured to one of the waiting soldiers and said, ‘Take him to the wagons.’ Then he pointed at Rebble. ‘Now you.’

‘If any of you asks me to cut my hair,’ Rebble said, straightening from the wall against which he had been leaning, ‘I’ll kill you.’

‘Come with me.’

Wareth was left alone. He glanced over to see the last remaining soldier studying him. After a moment the woman turned away. That’s right. You saved my life. How does it feel?

No matter. Merrec got what he deserved. A bully. Full of talk. All the women he had, all the husbands he cuckolded, until the one who got in his face and made trouble. But a knife in the back took care of that one. And you dared to call me a coward, Merrec?

But you would have done for me today, knowing I’d run. He studied the Hust soldier, the slantwise curve of her back as she settled most of her weight on one leg, hip cocked. Her attention was fixed southward, out across the broken landscape pockmarked by pulled tree trunks. Her armour seemed to ripple of its own accord. On occasion, the scabbarded sword at her side jolted as if knocked by her knee—but she had made no move.

The Hust. Few were left. The story had come in hushed tones—even for the savage killers in the pit, there was something foul in the poisoning of almost three thousand men and women. But it seemed that civil war precluded all notions of criminality, and who among the victors—standing beside Hunn Raal—would even contemplate a redressing of justice? Blows were struck, the cause sure and true, a rushing sluice to wash away what lingered on the hands, what stained the boots. The first words of the triumphant were always about looking to the future, restoring whatever nostalgic illusion of order they’d fought for. The future, for such creatures, was a backhanded game of revising the past. It was a place, Wareth well knew, where lies could thrive.

He was chilled now, having left his shirt in the shaft far below the earth’s surface. He used the wall behind him to keep his back straight, although the effort made his spine ache, but the cold of the stone quickly sank into his muscles, offering some relief.

A coward saw regret as if regarding a lost lover, as a thing used hard and fast only to quickly pall, pulling apart in mutual disgust. Those regrets then died of starvation. But their carcasses littered his world, all within easy reach. Occasionally, when driven by need, he would pick one up and seek to force life into it once again. But any carcass could be prodded this way and that, given gestures that resembled those of the living. A child would understand this easily enough, and deem it play. The games adults played, however, existed in a realm of ever-shifting rules. Regrets were the pieces, escape the coward’s prize, and each time, the prize turned out to be failure.

He lived in a world of confusion, and neither the world nor the confusion ever went away. I am slave to living, and nothing is to be done for that. He will see that. The captain is not a fool. Wise enough to survive the Poisoning. One of the very few, if the rumours are true.

Had he stayed, hidden among them, he would now be dead.

But the coward ever finds ways to live. It is our one gift.

The sound of footsteps, and then Rebble reappeared. He looked over at Wareth. ‘Half the game, us,’ he said. ‘I pity the other half.’

‘The women?’

Rebble nodded.

The sergeant detailed the last soldier to escort Rebble to the wagons beyond the camp. Before they drew out of earshot, Rebble turned and shouted, ‘The captain has lost his mind, Wareth! Just so you know!’

Scowling, the sergeant waved Wareth into the corridor.

‘You do not argue his opinion,’ Wareth said as they approached the office.

Saying nothing, the man opened the door and gestured.

‘Alone?’ Wareth asked.

‘The captain elects privacy in this,’ the sergeant said, ‘as is his privilege. Go in now, Wareth.’

But the miner hesitated, eyes narrowing on the man. ‘Did we once know each other?’

‘No, but your name is known to us all. The Hust Legion’s lone blot of shame.’

From within the office, the captain spoke. ‘That’s enough, sergeant. Wait outside.’

‘Sir,’ the man replied.

And if shame was the only blot, we could do away with swords. And war. And punishment, for that matter. We would guard ourselves against the crime of failing oneself, and feel only pity—like Rebble—for those who fell.

Wareth walked into the overseer’s office. Looking round for a moment, he saw a clerk’s abode, which made somewhat pathetic the hatred the prisoners had heaped on the overseer. Then he looked down at the man seated behind the desk. It was a moment before he could pierce the ebon skin and see the features. Galar Baras.

The captain looked distracted, perhaps even irritated. He moved a hand, encompassing the room. ‘Not much different from my own. Well, the one I had in Kharkanas. Needless to say, the similarity has soured my mood.’

Wareth remained silent.

Sighing, Galar Baras went on, ‘Rebble claimed it was his idea. Breaking open the shed. But I saw you speak to him in the moment before. I think it was your idea, Wareth.’

‘And this is an important distinction, sir?’

‘It is. So, tell me the truth of it.’

‘The idea was Rebble’s, sir. As he told you.’

The captain slowly leaned back in the chair. ‘I understand you want to return to the pit. Will you work alone, then?’

‘You cannot take these men and women for the Hust, sir. You cannot.’

‘So everyone keeps telling me.’

‘Is this by Commander Toras Redone’s order, sir? You’ve seen us. Go back and tell her it’s a mistake.’

‘The disposition of the commander is not your concern, Wareth. Right now, I am your only concern.’

‘Do not execute me, sir. It’s been nine years, damn you!’

Galar Baras blinked. ‘That notion had not even occurred to me, Wareth. All right, you turned and fled. You probably had your reasons, but that was long ago.’

‘Nothing has changed, sir.’

‘You stood between the men and the women down there. You were the first to do so. I was looking for leaders. Natural leaders. Ones with honour.’

Wareth laughed. It was a hard, bitter laugh. ‘And I stepped to the fore! Oh, you poor man.’

‘At least we can share the chagrin,’ Galar Baras said, smiling.

‘It’s impossible, sir. And not just with me. Rebble’s temper—’

‘Yes, I know all about that. And Listar strangled his wife.’

‘Even if he didn’t, sir, he is guilty of something, and whatever it is, he would walk into death at the first chance.’

‘Then help me.’

‘Sir?’

Galar Baras leaned forward. ‘We are in a civil war! Mother Dark’s most powerful army lies buried beneath mounds a league south of here! And now we’ve had word of a battle—the shattering of the Wardens. As of this moment, the only forces standing between Kharkanas and Urusander are the Houseblades of the Great Houses.’

‘Then surrender, sir.’

The captain shook his head. ‘Not my call, Wareth. I have been commanded to replenish the Hust. I need bodies.’

‘And you are desperate,’ Wareth said. ‘I see.’

‘I doubt you do.’

‘I see well enough, sir. Go back to the commander—’

‘This order comes from the Lord Silchas Ruin.’

‘Not his to make!’ Wareth snapped. ‘Toras Redone—’

‘Lies disarmed and in a drunken stupor in a locked room.’

After a moment, Wareth said, ‘She was drunk when she spared me.’ ‘I know.’

‘You do? How? She was alone in the command tent.’

‘She told me.’

Wareth fell silent.

‘I need officers,’ Galar Baras said.

‘Promote every Hust soldier you have left, sir.’

‘I will, but they’re not enough.’

‘You will forge a nightmare. The Hust swords will twist in the hands of this pit’s murderers.’

Galar Baras’s eyes were level. ‘I would think it the other way round, Wareth.’

‘This is your faith in all of this? Abyss below! Captain, I know the limits of those weapons—perhaps more than any of you, and I tell you, it is not enough.’

‘Your sword failed in making you brave.’

‘It begged in my hand, damn you! And still I ran!’

‘I see only one way through this, Wareth. I am attaching you to my staff.’

‘You are indeed mad. Sir.’

‘Then I well suit the times, lieutenant.’

‘Lieutenant? You would promote a coward? Sir, the sergeants will turn their backs to you. As for my fellow lieutenants, and your fellow captains, they will—’

‘I am the last captain bar one,’ Galar Baras said. ‘And that one is in no condition to assume command. There were two others, after the Poisoning. Both took their own lives.’

‘You’ll need more.’

‘I’ll worry about that time when it comes. As for your fellow lieutenants, they will take their orders from me, as expected. Oh, I am not so foolish as to think you face anything but a lonely future, but, Wareth, you will be my bridge to these prisoners. From you, to Rebble and Listar, and to whatever women I can lift through the ranks—and as to that, can you give me a few names?’

‘Only by reputation,’ Wareth said, and in his mind he could well see the future the captain offered him. In his staff, hovering around the command tent. Away from the battle. The image rose like an island from the seas of his confusion and fear. I can weather the scorn. I’ve lived with my own long enough. ‘We were kept entirely separate, and hardly saw one another. They were the cats, the night-shift in the shafts.’

‘I know, Wareth. This isn’t the first pit I’ve emptied. I’ll take those names, lieutenant.’

‘When I said “reputation”, I did not mean it in a good way.’

‘Right now, that distinction is irrelevant.’

Wareth looked down at the man. ‘I think, sir, that we will lose this civil war.’

‘Keep that opinion to yourself.’

‘As you wish.’

‘Now, the names, lieutenant.’

* * *

The stench of a burned forest slipped in through every pore. Its stink soaked skin and the flesh beneath. It lurked in a man’s hair, his beard, like a promise of fire. It fouled clothes and the taste of food and water. Glyph walked through heaps of ash, around blackened stumps and the bones of tree-falls with their charred roots stark in the still air. His face was covered by a rag, leaving exposed only his red-rimmed eyes. He wore the hide of a deer, turned inside out in a feeble effort at disguise, as the deerskin’s underside was pale grey. He had rubbed handfuls of gritty ash into his black hair.

He could see too far in this forest, now. In past winters, there had been enough evergreen to offer up places to hide, blocking lines of sight, to allow a hunter to move unseen if care was taken.

Among the Deniers, it was the men who hunted. This tradition was older than the forest itself. And the great hunts, in the spring and again at summer’s end, when all the men set out, bearing bows and javelins, making their way through the forest to where the last herds still walked in their seasonal migration, far to the north now—these things too were old beyond memory.

Traditions died. And those who held fast to them, cursing and filled with hate as their precious ways of living were torn from their hands, they dwelt in a world of dreams where nothing changed. A predictable world that knew nothing of the fears that every mortal must face. He recalled the tale of the lake, and the families that lived on its shore. In all of their memories, reaching back to the very beginning, they fished that lake. They used spears in the shallows during the spawning season. They used nets and weirs at the streams that fed the lake. And for the creatures that crawled upon the lake bottom, they built traps. It was their tradition, this way of living, and they were known to all as the people who fished the lake.

There came a spring when no women walked out from that place, seeking husbands among the other peoples. And those women of the other peoples, who thought to travel to the homes of the people who fished the lake, they arrived to find empty camps and cold hearths, with huts fallen in under the weight of the past winter snows. They found nets, rotting on the scaffolds where they’d been hung to dry. They found unused fish spears amidst the high heaps of fishbone and broken mussel shells. They found all this, but nowhere could they find the people who fished the lake.

One young woman looked out to the lake’s lone island, a hump of moss and rock on which the last tree had been cut down long ago. Taking a canoe, she set out for that island.

There, she found the people who fished the lake. Crow-picked and withered by the winter. Their skin was sun-blackened in the manner of fish strips hung over a smoking fire. The children that she found had been eaten, every bone picked clean, and the bones then boiled so they were now light as twigs.

And in the lake, no fish remained. No mussels and no freshwater crabs or lobsters. The waters were clear and empty. When she paddled back across it, she could look down to a lifeless bottom of grey silts.

Tradition was not a thing to be worshipped. Tradition was the last bastion of fools. Did the fisherfolk see their final fate? Did they comprehend their doom? Glyph believed the answer to both questions, among those who still worked the waters, was yes. But the elders on the shore droned on about vast harvests in times past, when the gutted fish hung in their tens of thousands and the smoke of the fires drifted low and thick on the water, hiding the lake’s distant shores. Hiding this island, even. And oh, how they all grew fat and lazy in the weeks that followed, their bellies soft and bulging. There are fish in the lake, the elders said. There have always been fish in the lake. There always will be fish in the lake.

And the witch flung fish spines on to level beds of ash, reading in their patterns the secret hiding places of those fish. But she had done the same the last season, and the one before that, and now no hiding places remained.

The elders stopped telling their stories. They sat silent, their bellies hollowing out, the bones of their wizened faces growing sharp and jutting. They spat out useless teeth. They bled at their fingertips, and made foul stench over the shit-pits. They grew ever weaker, and then slept, rushing into the distant dreams of the old days, from which they never returned.

One cannot eat tradition. One cannot grow fat on it.

The witch was cast out for her failure. The nets were all bound together, into one that could sweep through half the lake, from the muddy bottom to the surface. There was talk that some otters might be snared, or fishing birds. But those creatures had long since left. Or died. Every canoe was pushed out into the water, to draw that net through the waters. They circled the island, a slow spin around its treeless mound, and when at last they returned to their camp, everyone joined in the task of drawing in that net.

It was easier than it should have been.

Tradition is the great slayer. It clings to its proof and it drowns in its own net, from which nothing ever escapes.

Glyph and the other men had left their camps when the leaves turned brown. They trekked into the north, out on to the barrenlands, seeking the last, dwindling herds that had summered in the forest. Bearing bows and javelins, they gathered into hunting parties, seeking hoof-sign, and at night they told tales of past hunts, of hundreds of beasts slain where the herds crossed the cold rivers. They spoke of the wolves that joined them, and became comrades in the slaughter. Wolves they all came to know by sight—and surely, it was the same for the wolves—and like old friends they were given names. Odd-eye. Silvermane. Broketooth.

And, as the fires died down and darkness closed in with the moaning wind, the hunters sought to find the names the wolves had for each of them.

Fartwind. Sackscratch. Prickpump. Nubhide.

Laughter bit the cold from the air on those nights.

The layering of memories built tradition’s high walls, until the place made by those walls became a prison.

Glyph now saw how the very last tradition, when all the others had done their grisly work, was just this: a prison. The tales told, the memories gathered up like clay and then made into something hard as stone. It was what the elders of the lake had clung to, with their bleeding fingers. It was what Glyph and his fellow hunters had clung to, on those empty nights so filled with empty words.

He walked through the scorched bones of the forest, and the bitter ash on his tongue had become a kind of mortar, and he felt himself beginning the building of his own wall. A modest two or three stones. A meagre wall. But he would find more to work with, he was certain of that. Constructed from new memories. These memories…

The failed hunt just past. The cruel pathos of the stories told at night out in the barrens. The hopeless search for hoof-sign. The wolves that did not come and did not howl with the fall of dusk.

The long return to the forest, hungry and silent with shame. The smoke to the south, above the treeline. The sudden scattering of the parties, as family members drew together and then split away, rushing to the camps of their kin. The wandering among the slain. The dead wife, the dead sister who had made it halfway out of her burning hut before a sword slid into her back. The dead son whose neck had been snapped.

The desperate journey to the monasteries of Yedan and Yannis. The beseeching of the priests and priestesses within. The bitter bargain offered.

Bring us your children.

The hunters wailed. They cried, What children?

On that day, Glyph took for himself that vicious title the people of the towns and the city had given them. He was now a Denier.

The name had become his promise. His destiny, in fact. Denier. Denier of life. Denier of truth. Denier of faith.

Dusk had arrived when he finally found the camp of the Legion soldiers whom he had been tracking. There were three of Urusander’s ilk, travelling east, making for Neret Sorr as had so many others before them. Glyph crept his way closer in the darkness, safe beyond the dungchip fire’s pool of light. He still possessed all his arrows, a half-dozen of them bearing iron barbs. The others were flint-tipped.

When he was in place, beside a stump and behind the tree that had toppled from it, he silently removed three arrows, the first two ironheaded, the last one bearing his best flint—long-bladed and sharp-edged under the single strand of gut binding it to the end of the shaft. Each arrow he set point-down into the ground beside him, making a neat row.

Two men and a woman. They were talking. The two men were arguing over who would lie with the woman this night. She was laughing as she set one against the other. They sat round the fire, under the cold night’s bright stars. Glyph concluded, as he waited, that she wanted neither of them.

He selected the first iron-barbed arrow and set it to his bow’s gut string. Lifted the weapon clear of the black trunk and drew on the string as he did so, pulling until it pressed against his lower lip.

Then he released the arrow.

The man directly opposite Glyph made a choking sound, toppling backward.

His friend on his right barked a laugh, as if the dead man was jesting. But then the woman spied the fletching jutting from the dying man’s throat, and she cried out.

Glyph was already drawing the bow. The second iron arrow sank deep under her left breast. With a small gasp, she fell on to her side.

The last man unsheathed his sword, wheeling round, but blinded still by the firelight.

The flint-tipped arrow buried itself in his stomach. He shrieked, doubling over. The arrow’s shaft tilted and then, at his frantic scrabbling, it fell to the ground. The long flint head remained in his gut.

Glyph settled back, watching.

The man sank to his knees, moaning.

Shaking his head, Glyph spoke. ‘You will run.’

The head snapped up, revealing a face pinched with fierce pain. ‘Come here, you fucking turd, so I can cut you down before my last breath!’

‘You will run,’ Glyph repeated. ‘Or I will put another arrow in you, and you’ll not be able to hold up your sword. Then I will come to you and with my knife I will slice off your cock. Then your sac, and throw them on to your pretty fire. I will drag you half across that fire, and add the remaining chips over your legs, and we’ll watch you roast down there.’

‘Fuck!’ The man groaned to his feet, still doubled over, and then he staggered out from the firelight.

He was slow, his flight aimless. Glyph stayed fifteen paces behind him, moving quietly.

In his mind he saw the flint arrow-head, buried deep in the man’s body, slicing this way and that with each stride the soldier took. And he imagined the pain, the raging fire.

After a disappointingly short time, the man fell to the ground, curling up around his wound.

Glyph approached.

The soldier had dropped his sword early on in his flight, not that he could have done anything with it now. Moving to stand beside the prone form, Glyph sighed. ‘It is tradition,’ he said, ‘to use the arrow for beasts. An ignoble weapon. That is how we are to think of it. To down a fellow man or a woman from a distance is the coward’s way. But we Deniers are making a new tradition now.’

‘Go to the Abyss,’ the man gasped, eyes squeezed shut.

‘You made a few new ones of your own,’ Glyph said. ‘So really, you have no cause to complain. What new traditions, you ask? I will remind you. The hunting and killing of women and children. Of elders. Rape, and whipping little boys through the air. Watching a beautiful young woman burned in half, before one of you showed a last vestige of mercy and stabbed her through the heart. A sister, that one, always laughing, always teasing. I loved her more than my life. As I did my wife. And my son. I loved them all more than my life.’

He continued looking down, and saw that the soldier was dead.

Drawing his iron knife, he knelt and pushed the body on to its back. He cut into the blood-smeared gut, making the arrow-wound big enough to fit his hand, and then, carefully, he worked his hand into that hot fissure. The flint edges were sharp and he did not want to cut himself. Finally, the tips of his fingers found the blade. It had worked down into the man’s liver, slicing it almost in half. Gingerly, he drew it out, praying that it had not broken against a bone.

But no, the arrow-head was whole, not even chipped anywhere along its edges. Glyph wiped it clean on the man’s cape.

Then he straightened and began making his way back to the camp. There would be food there, and he’d not eaten in a week. This hunt had taken all of his strength and he was feeling light-headed.

He wanted to retrieve his arrows from the other bodies, check the iron points, and then find the shaft that had fallen out from the last man.

Here is my new story. Before the end, some fish had left the lake. They went upstream. When they returned, they found all their kin gone. In rage, one walked out from the water, leaving for ever his world, and blessed by the lake’s grieving spirit he was given legs and arms, and his scales fell away to be replaced by skin. He was given eyes that could see in this new, dry world. He was given lungs that did not drown when filled with air. He was given hands with which to collect weapons.

Then he set out.

The people who fished the lake had distant kin, out on the drylands.

He would cast wide his net.

And begin the tradition of slaughter.

He realized that he would need a name. So he named himself Glyph, so that others could read the truth of his deeds, and so that the other fish that walked out on to the land and were given arms, legs and hands would join him.

He saw before him a modest wall, there on the shore, between water and land. The birth of a tradition, in a place between two worlds. I came from the water, but now I walk the shore. And from the land beyond there will be streams of blood and they will bless this shore, and make of it a sacred thing.

* * *

Wreneck’s mother told him that he was now eleven years of age. That seemed a long time to be alive, since most of it had been hard. Always working, always worrying. Whippings and kicked shins from his mistress, and all the other little things she did that hurt him: it seemed that those things made up all the millions of days in which he had been alive.

The burns from the fire had left smooth, shiny weals on his hands, his forearms, his shoulders, and on his left cheek just under the eye. He might have more on his head, but his hair had mostly grown back. Those scars were like places where the roughness had been rubbed away, and only when the sunlight was on them did they begin hurting again. The scar where he had been stabbed was bigger and took a lot longer to heal.

He had not returned to the ruins of the Great House. He had heard from his mother that ghosts had been seen there. But one day, ghosts or not, he knew he would make his way back. He would walk in the burned-out ruins. He would remember how everything had looked before the coming of the soldiers. There was a reason for having to go back, but he did not yet know what it was. The idea of it, of standing on the blackened stones of the Great House’s threshold, seemed like the end of something, and that end felt right, somehow.

It was worth reminding himself, he decided, that whole worlds could die. No different from people. People who died left bones. Worlds left ruins.

He had saved a girl at that estate, a girl he had loved, but she was gone now. Returned, he supposed, to her family, but as that family was not from round here no one knew who they were, or even where they lived. His ma wouldn’t tell him anything about any of that. It was just a truth he had to live with, an unhappy one like all the other unhappy ones: Jinia was gone.

There were lots of burned places now. Black ruins on the skyline on all sides of Abara Delack. Looted farmhouses made blackened smears across the fields. He couldn’t see much of the monastery from where he lived with his mother, and yet, above all the others, it drew his eye the most: a distant hill toothed by a ragged black wall. He was curious about it. He wondered if he would feel the same about it as he did about the Great House, as a place deserving at least one visit.

Ma wanted him close by these days. She wanted him going nowhere out of her sight. But he was eleven now. And he looked even older, especially with the burn scars. And this morning, when at last he slipped out from her grasp, and set off down the track that led to the road that led through the town and then back up again on the other side, to the old monastery, she had wailed behind him, reaching out with her hands as if to drag him back.

Her tears made him feel bad, and he vowed to fix everything when he returned home. The soldiers were finally gone from Abara Delack. They had marched east, into the forest that had been burned down first, to make the going easier. But people were hungry in the town. They were leaving because there was not enough food there. When they left, pulling carts, they took with them whatever the soldiers hadn’t stolen from them. Wreneck had seen them on the road, all going somewhere else, but it seemed no one could decide where that was, as the families went off in different directions from each other. And every now and then one of them came back, only to leave again a few days later, heading out another way.

So the town Wreneck walked into was almost empty of people, and those who remained were mostly staying in their houses. The livery had burned down, he saw. So had the land office. A few men and women stood outside the tavern, not doing much or saying anything, and they watched Wreneck walk past.

Pausing, he looked into the narrow alley beside the tavern, thinking to see the one-armed man who had been Orfantal’s mother’s secret friend, since the alley was where the man lived. But he wasn’t at his usual place on the steps to the cellar. Then he caught a faint motion deeper in the alley’s shadows, something small and huddled, trying to keep warm beneath a thin blanket.

Wreneck headed over, stepping quietly, as if sneaking up on a nesting bird. He couldn’t remember the man’s name, so he said nothing.

When the figure started and looked up, Wreneck halted. He saw, shining out from a grimy face, eyes that he knew well.

‘Jinia?’

At the name the girl shrank back, pushing up against the stone wall and turning her face away. Her bare feet pushed out from under the thin blanket, and their soles were black and cracked.

‘But why didn’t you go to your family? Ma said you did. She said you went off in the night, when I was asleep. When I was still getting better.’

She said nothing.

‘Jinia?’ Wreneck edged closer. ‘You need to come back home with me.’

Finally, she spoke, her voice thin and sounding tired. ‘She didn’t want me.’

‘Who?’

Still she kept herself turned away, her face hidden. ‘Your mother, Wreneck. Listen. You’re a fool. Go away. Leave me alone.’

‘Why didn’t she want you? I saved you!’

‘Oh, Wreneck, you don’t know anything.’

Confused, he looked around, but no one was in sight. The people in front of the tavern had not come to help, or even look. He didn’t understand grown-ups at all.

‘I’m broken inside,’ she said, in a dull voice. ‘I won’t have babies. Everything down there will hurt, always. This is my last winter, Wreneck, and it’s how I want it. There’s no point. No point to any of this.’

‘But,’ said Wreneck, ‘I’m broken inside, too.’

She was so quiet he thought she hadn’t heard him, and then she sobbed.

He went to her. Knelt at her side and put a hand on her shoulder. She smelled bad. She smelled like what the old men had begun distilling in their sheds, and only now did Wreneck see the rotting heap of potato skins nearby, that she had been eating. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to die. If you did you wouldn’t be eating that. And you wouldn’t be trying to stay warm. I love you, Jinia. And that brokenness. That hurt. It’s just what lives inside. That’s all it is. On the outside, you’re always the same. That’s what we’ll give each other—everything that’s on the outside, do you see?’

She wiped at her face and then looked up at him, the eye that wasn’t wandering meeting his gaze. ‘That’s not how it is, Wreneck. That’s not love at all. You’re too young. You don’t understand.’

‘That’s not true. I’m eleven now. I’ve made a spear, and I’m going to hunt them down and I’m going to kill them. Telra and Farab and Pryll. I’m going to stick my spear in them until they’re dead. And you’re going to watch me do it.’

‘Wreneck—’

‘Come with me. Let’s go explore the monastery.’

‘I’m too drunk to walk.’

‘It’s just what you’ve been eating.’

‘It kills the pain.’

‘So you can walk and it won’t hurt.’ He reached down and helped her stand. ‘I’m going to take care of you,’ he said. ‘From now on.’

‘Your mother—’

‘And after the monastery, we’re going away. I told you. We’re going hunting, for the people who did that to you.’

‘You’ll never find them.’

‘I will.’

‘They’ll kill you.’

‘They tried that already. It didn’t work.’

She let him take her weight and when he felt it there was a stab of dull pain from the sword-scar. They tottered for a moment, and then hobbled out of the alley.

As they turned to make their way up the street, one of the men in front of the tavern called out, ‘You’re wasting your time, son. All you’ll get is a lot of blood.’

The others laughed.

Wreneck swung round. ‘You grown-ups make me ashamed!’

They were silent then, as he and Jinia slowly walked up the main street. She leaned hard against him, but he was still big, still strong, and where the soldier had stabbed him it only hurt a little bit now, not like the first time, when he thought that maybe something had ripped.

Everyone was broken inside. It was just that some were more broken than others, and when they were broken bad inside, it was all they could do to keep the outside looking normal. That took all the work and that’s what living was—work. He had years of practice.

‘You’re sweating,’ Jinia said when at last they reached the outskirts of town and looked up to the hill and its summit where huddled the scorched ruins of the monastery, showing them a gap-toothed wall and a gateway with no gate.

‘It’s hot.’

‘No, it’s cold, Wreneck.’

‘I’m just working hard, Jinia. I’m used to that, and it’s good and you know why?’

‘Why?’

He thought about how he would say what he felt, and then nodded. ‘It reminds me that I’m alive.’

‘I’m sorry, Wreneck,’ she said. ‘For your burns, from when you carried me through the burning rooms. I should have said that before. But I was mad at you.’

‘Mad at me? But I saved your life!’

‘That’s why, Wreneck.’

‘They weren’t much,’ he said after a moment. ‘Those rooms, I mean. There was hardly anything in them. So the places where rich people live, why, they’re still just rooms.’

They had begun the ascent, much slower now. At his words, Jinia snorted. ‘They would tell you otherwise.’

‘I saw them. Those rooms. They can try telling me anything they like. I saw them.’

‘You were friends with Orfantal.’

Wreneck shook his head. ‘I was a bad friend. He hates me now. Anyway, I won’t be that again. The nobleborn grown-ups don’t scare me any more. Orfantal wasn’t like them, but I’m sorry that he hates me.’

‘Nobleborn,’ she mused, and he smelled her sweet breath. ‘It seems I’ve found one of my own.’

He didn’t understand what she meant. She was still a little drunk.

Then they ran out of breath with which to talk, as the hill was steep and the track slippery under its thin coat of snow. The monks were all dead for sure, since they would have swept this clear. There was nothing living in sight. Even the crows had long gone.

At last, they reached the summit, and Jinia stepped away from him, to stand on her own, but she reached across and took his hand.

Suddenly cowed by her gesture, and the feel of her thin fingers and her pinched palm, so easily swallowed up by his too-big hand, Wreneck said nothing. But he felt very grown up.

‘I’m not so cold any more,’ she said. ‘Not so drunk, either. But the pain’s back.’

He nodded. Yes, it was back, and not just where the soldier had stabbed him. It was back in other places, too, all through his insides. Aches. Deep, deep aches. When he could stand them no longer and he had to move, he stepped forward, and she fell in at his side, and they walked towards the shell of the tumbled wall’s gate.

‘They used to bring food into town and give it away to the poor,’ Jinia said. ‘But only once or twice a year. The years they didn’t, everyone hated them. But it was just bad harvests. When they only had enough to feed themselves. Still, everyone hated them.’

They passed beneath the arch and strode into the littered compound, and were halted by the sight of all the snow-covered corpses.

Jinia pulled sideways at his hand, stretching out his arm.

But all the pain he’d been fighting against inside was suddenly too much, and blood had leaked out from his sword-wound, and once it leaked out, the battle was over. Darkness took him, and he sank into it, although in the instant before he knew nothing, he heard Jinia cry out as his hand tugged loose from her grasp.

When he next opened his eyes, the ground under his back was wet where the snow had melted. Jinia was kneeling beside him, and she had taken off her blanket and draped it over him, and he saw tears on her cheeks. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked her.

‘You fainted. There was blood. I thought—I thought you died!’

‘No,’ he said. ‘I didn’t. It was just that the wound remembered the sword.’

‘You should never have helped me.’

‘I can’t help helping you,’ he said, pushing the brokenness back inside and sitting up.

She wiped at her cheeks. ‘I thought I was alone. All over again. Wreneck, I can’t do this with you. I lost everything and I have nothing and it has to stay that way.’

He watched her stand, watched her brush the crusted snow from her bared, bony knees, revealing cracked red skin and scabs. ‘You can’t make me hope,’ she said. ‘It’s not fair.’

‘You’re leaving me?’

‘I told you! I can’t stay with you!’

‘Don’t die in that alley, Jinia.’

‘Stop crying. I won’t. I’ll survive. I’m like you. They can’t kill us. I get food left for me. Not every grown-up is bad, Wreneck. Don’t think that, or you will be a very lonely man.’ She looked around. ‘There’re cloaks I can find here, maybe even real blankets—horse-blankets, maybe. There’re some sheds that didn’t burn. I’ll search in those and find something. I won’t freeze to death.’

‘You promise?’

‘I promise, Wreneck. Now, when you go back home, go round the town. Don’t go down the main street. Some people there are mad at you, for what you said. It’s a longer walk, but go across the fields. Say you’ll do that. Say it.’

He wiped at his eyes and nose. ‘I’ll cross the fields.’

‘And don’t tell your mother about any of this.’

‘I won’t. But I won’t be there long anyway.’

‘Stay with her, Wreneck. If you leave, you’ll break her heart.’ ‘I’ll make it better.’

‘Good. That’s good.’ She nodded towards the gateway. ‘Go on, then.’

The sadness in him was a worse pain than any other he’d ever felt, but he stood up. The cold bit at his wet shirt against his back. ‘Goodbye, Jinia.’

‘Goodbye, Wreneck.’

Then, remembering his regrets after he saw Orfantal off, he lunged to her and hugged her tight, and all the pain he felt when he did that, from the sword-wound, from everything else, seemed right.

She seemed to shrink in his arms, and then she was pushing him away, taking hold of his shoulders to turn him round and then giving him a little push.

He walked through the gateway.

Wreneck would cross the fields, as he had promised. But he wasn’t going home. He was going off to make things right, because even in this world some things just had to be made right. His ma would still be there when he finally went home, after he’d done everything he needed to do. He could fix things with her then.

But now, he would wait for dusk, hidden from sight, and then go and collect the spear he had buried under the snow near the old stone trough.

He was eleven, and it felt as if the year before it had been the longest one in his life. As if he’d been ten for ever. But that was the thing about growing older. He’d never be ten again.

The soldiers went east, into the burned forest.

He would find them there. And do what was right.

* * *

‘What are you doing?’ Glyph quietly asked.

Startled, the dishevelled man looked up. He was crouched beside a heap of stones that had been pulled from the frozen ground along the edge of the marsh. His hands were filthy and spotted with blood from scrapes and broken fingernails. He was wearing a scorched wolf hide, but it didn’t belong to him. Nearby, left on the snow-smeared ground, was a Legion sword and scabbard and belt.

The stranger said nothing, eyes on the bow in Glyph’s hand, the arrow notched in the string, and the tension of the grip.

‘You are in my family’s camp,’ Glyph said. ‘You have buried them under stones.’

‘Yes,’ the man whispered. ‘I found them here. The bodies. I—I could not bear to see them. I am sorry if I have done wrong.’ He slowly straightened. ‘You can kill me if you like. I won’t regret leaving this world. I won’t.’

‘It is not our way,’ Glyph said, nodding down at the stones.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’

‘When the soul leaves, the flesh is nothing. We carry our dead kin into the marsh. Or the forest where it is deep and thick and unlit.’ He waved slightly with the bow. ‘But here, there was no point. You take the bodies away to keep your home clean, but no one lives here any more.’

‘It seems,’ said the man, ‘that you do.’

‘They had rotted down by the time I returned. No more than bones. They were,’ Glyph added, ‘easy to live with.’

‘I would not have had the courage for that,’ the stranger said.

‘Are you a Legion soldier?’

The man glanced across at his sword. ‘I killed one. I cut him down. He was in Scara Bandaris’s troop—the ones who deserted and rode away with the captain. I went with them for a time. But then I killed a man, and for the murder I committed Scara Bandaris banished me from his company.’

‘Why did he not take your life?’

‘When he discovered the truth of me,’ the man said, ‘he deemed life the greater punishment. He was right.’

‘The man you killed—what did he do to you? Your face is twisted. Scarred and bent. He did that?’

‘No. This face you see has been mine now for some time. Well, it’s always been mine. No.’ He hesitated, and then shrugged. ‘He spoke cruel words. He cut me with them, again and again. Even the others took pity on me. Anyway, he was not well liked, and none regretted his death. None but me, that is. Those words, while cruel, were all true.’

‘In your eyes, I can see,’ Glyph said, ‘you yearn for my arrow.’

‘Yes,’ the man whispered.

Slipping the arrow’s notch from the string, Glyph lowered his bow. ‘I have been hunting Legion soldiers,’ he said, stepping forward.

‘You have reason,’ the man said.

‘Yes. We have reasons. You have yours, and I have mine. They wield your sword. They guide my arrows. They make souls leave bodies and leave bodies to lie rotting on the ground.’ He brushed the cloth hiding the lower half of his face. ‘They are the masks we hide behind.’

The man started, as if he had been struck, and then he turned away. ‘I wear no mask,’ he said.

‘Will you kill more soldiers?’ Glyph asked.

‘A few, yes,’ said the man, collecting up his sword-belt and strapping it on. ‘I have a list.’

‘A list, and good reasons.’

He glanced across at Glyph. ‘Yes.’

‘I name myself Glyph.’

‘Narad.’

‘I have some food, from the soldiers. I will share it with you, for the kindness you meant when burying my beloved family. And then I will tell you a story.’

‘A story?’

‘And when I am done with my story, you can decide.’

‘Decide what, Glyph?’

‘If you will hunt with me.’

Narad hesitated. ‘I am not good with friends.’

Shrugging, Glyph went over to the hearth. He saw that Narad had taken away the stones that had ringed the ashes and cinders, adding them to the cairn. He set about finding some smaller stones, to build up around the hearth and so block the wind while he set to lighting a fire.

‘The people who fished the lake,’ he said as he drew out his firemaking kit and a small bag of dried tinder.

‘This is your story?’

‘Not theirs. But of the Last Fish. The story is his, but it begins with the people who fished the lake.’

Narad removed his sword again and let it drop. ‘There’s little wood left to burn,’ he said.

‘I have what I need. Please, sit.’

‘Last Fish, is it? I think this will be a sad story.’

‘No, it is an angry story.’ Glyph looked up, met the man’s misaligned eyes. ‘I am that Last Fish. I have come from the shore. This story I will tell, it has far to go. I cannot yet see its end. But I am that Last Fish.’

‘Then you are far from home.’

Glyph looked around, at the camp of his family, and the scraped ground where there had been bones. He looked to the fringe of brush and the thin ring of trees that still survived. Then he looked up at the empty, silvered sky. The blue was going away, as the Witch on the Throne devoured the roots of light. Finally, he returned his gaze to the man now seated opposite him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am far from home.’

Narad grunted. ‘I have never before heard a fish speak.’

‘If you did,’ Glyph asked, looking across at him, ‘what would he say?’

The murderer was silent for a moment, his gaze falling from Glyph’s, and then moving slowly over the ground to settle on the sword lying in the dirty snow. ‘I think… he might say… There will be justice.’

‘My friend,’ Glyph said, ‘on this night, and in this place, you and me. We meet each other’s eyes.’

The struggle that came in answer to Glyph’s words revealed itself on Narad’s twisted face. But then, finally, he looked up, and between these two men the bond of friendship was forged. And Glyph understood something new. Each of us comes to the shore. In our own time and in our own place.

When we are done with one life, and must begin another.

Each of us will come to the shore.

Excerpted from Fall of Light © Steven Erikson, 2016

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