A war is being waged in an impossible world.
The Skogsgra and the Naravelle have launched their final offensive, and Private Jones and his companions are caught in the melee. Tens of thousands will die before the battle is over. They travel deep underground, to find and release the Iron Beast… the one creature that can end not one world war, but two.
But at what cost…?
The Iron Beast is the high-octane conclusion to Remic’s phenomenal Song For No Man’s Land trilogy—available November 8th from Tor.com Publishing.
A Misery of Bone
11th. November 1917.
JONES KNEW HE was asleep, and yet he did not care, it did not matter. He held Orana tight, held her to his breast and hugged her, feeling her warmth, her life, the connection they had, heart to heart, soul to soul. Here was the woman of his dreams, here was the perfect person for him—somebody to bear his children, somebody to grow old with, somebody to die and be buried with. He loved her with all his heart. Tears gently ran down his cheeks, as she leant into him, and she sighed, and it was like a meeting of stars, colossal, mammoth, galaxy-changing, and yet carried out in slow motion, in complete and utter silence through the hydrogen wastes of space.
She looked up at him, and she smiled, and her beauty was the world. And he reached down, and he kissed her. Her lips were sweet and warm and he fell into her, fell deep into the well of love which was her soul, which made up her totality. And they swam together in those warm waters; they swam for an eternity. And he knew: whatever happened, no matter what pain befell them, no matter what hardships crossed their paths—ultimately, they would be together.
“I will love you forever,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“I will love you until the stars burn out.”
“I know,” she said.
“No matter what I do wrong, no matter what my actions, no matter what words I say, no matter how far away, I will always love you.”
She pressed hard against him.
“I know,” she said.
* * *
Orana gazed out over the ocean of red, like an ocean of blood beneath her, spreading away from the ice of the mountain flanks. The dawn sun rose, a copper disc, turning the snow and ice orange with a splash of slow-rolling light. The wind howled, mournful, like a widowed wolf.
“It’s enchanting,” murmured Orana, her words twisting through her long, yellow fangs, impeded by her muzzle, the muzzle of a female walrider. Then she turned her grey eyes back to the sleeping form of Jones, and she watched him breathe, and she grinned like a dog.
Her primal instinct was to kill. To feed.
But she could not.
Because… because Jones was a key to saving her, saving her family, saving her people. He had the key to the Stoneway. Not a key made from iron or brass, but a key locked in his mind, in his soul, the same key which allowed him past Sharpwood, into Heartwood, all those years ago during his twisted childhood.
And so, Orana leapt down and crouched above Jones, his face relaxed in sleep, his head cradled on his arm like a babe’s. And she gripped the German bayonet, gripped it with intent, as if she would plunge it down at any moment… but she did not. Could not.
“No,” she said, words slurred. “Death will come later. When you are spent.”
A pause. The world seemed to take a breath.
“When you have released the Iron Beast. When I can see with your eyes.”
She smiled, and a long roll of saliva drifted from her muzzle, and soaked into Jones’ battered, tattered coat.
The Forest of Bone.
11th. November 1917.
JONES WALKED IN silence through the snow, his feet numb and mind blank. He was tired, bone-weary, and aching. Orana walked by his side, and they did not talk—the journey over the mountains had left them drained, exhausted, wasted. Occasionally they looked at one another, and Jones smiled, for he could see the love for him shining like unshed tears in Orana’s eyes. This was enough to content him.
They descended towards the ocean of poppies, bright red and surreal. The snow thinned and trees sprang up to the left and right, larch and a few firs. All around, the ground was carpeted with poppies, and Jones felt bad treading on these beautiful flowers.
As noon passed and dark clouds gathered high overhead, Jones and Orana passed through the final narrow canyon with high jagged walls—so narrow, two horses could not pass by together. It was like a crack in the mountain, a crack in the earth, the world. A trench. Jones shuddered…
The canyon marked the end of their treacherous path through the mountains.
It marked a new beginning.
The end of pursuit.
The beginning of a new life together. For Jones and Orana.
“How far now to your homeland?” said Jones, pausing to catch his breath.
“A few miles.” She smiled, face beautiful, catching the light just so.
Jones nodded, and they moved on in silence, breaking free of the narrow canyon with its bare, rocky floor and emerging in woods, cold and damp and strewn with autumn waste amongst the swathes of poppies.
In the distance, Jones could spy low hills, rising to severe grey mountains that swept majestically to the right and away into infinity, peaks grey and sombre and capped with snow, walls vast and towering. They reminded him of a serrated blade.
Now, the ground fell away, sloping down through close-packed trees. Jones took hold of Orana’s hand in an act of tenderness and they stumbled, their knees aching, down the steep slope. Branches lay scattered amidst random poppies, and eventually the ground levelled out and Orana sat on a rock near the bottom, her face weary, shoulders slumped forward.
“I agree,” said Jones, smiling kindly. “It’s time to rest.”
“Thank you.” She returned his smile, eyes glowing.
They shared Jones’ canteen, and whilst sitting he checked his final magazine. Two bullets left. Only two bloody bullets! He shook his head and made sure the bayonet was secure. Soon, it would be his only weapon, and when that day came Jones hoped he would never have to face a walrider again.
He checked over his shoulder, an involuntary nervous reaction. He was tired of being followed. Tired of being hunted. But then he remembered the rockfall, watching his enemies plummet into the ravine, to their deaths. And he smiled a cold smile, a smile that once would never have graced the face of Robert Jones, 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
After twenty minutes of silent rest, they started off through the trees. The woodland began to thin, and suddenly a vision of such awesome strangeness opened up before Jones that he stopped dead in his stride, mouth open, his rifle pointed towards the earth and silent. He glanced to Orana, and she gave him a puzzled look and a little shake of her head.
“What’s the matter?”
“That,” he said, pointing. “What the hell are they?”
They moved away from the tree line and Jones readied his rifle, just in case. With a dry mouth he allowed Orana to lead the way towards the Forest of Bones, great black and red scorched bones thrusting phallic and twisted and angular from the earth, marked out with trenches and barbed wire-tangled and rust-filled and horrific. It was a scene of woodland carnage.
“They used to be trees,” said Orana, as they approached the outer defence and saw movement behind barbed wire. “There was a battle here decades ago; the Tonrothir generals used gas and it deformed the trees. Look at their structure, at the angular branches.”
Jones looked. The trunks were black, crusted, deformed, as if scorched by fire or acid. Thick lower branches spun upwards in circular sweeps and twisted, lover-like with their angular, higher comrades… some of the branches were stained red, a deep blood red, tipped with white… their shapes appeared bizarre, eerie, almost erotic. Some were bone, some wood, some like sharpened steel and red with a thick red crimson death… they were tall, taller than normal trees, and thick and strong and stinking of damp and fire and mould and sulphur…
And the forest of deformed trees spread out across the valley floor, stretching high and wild from the walls of the narrow mountain canyon at the top of the nearby slope, all the way across the valley to a grouping of heavy boulders and high, circular, grey stones marking the boundary of the opposite mountain slope, and the end of the ocean of poppies. It was as if all this destruction, and decay, and brimstone, had taken the very life out of the earth.
“This place is death,” said Jones.
“It has been like this for decades,” observed Orana. “It has become part of our lore, our history. Our children come to here to play.”
Jones stopped, and grabbed Orana’s shoulder. “Your children? Is it not unsafe for them?”
She looked away, almost shyly. “If it is dangerous, if it deforms, then we have not noticed.”
Jones gave a nod, and inside he felt sour and twisted. He thought of the Skogsgra. He thought of the woodlands of his childhood. The trees, living and breathing, an integral cog in the wheels of the world. And man, or the walriders, had done this. Taken the holy land of the woods and desecrated it with chemical filth.
Jones felt sick to his core. Ashamed to be a human being.
“Be careful now,” said Orana. “We approach my village. They will be on edge.”
“As will I,” whispered Jones.
They moved on, and crossed open ground before the Forest of Bone. And then Jones saw the defences, recognised the outskirts of a village, and he suddenly realised the villagers had dug defences, trenches from which to protect their land and property and people.
“Shit,” he said.
Jones eyed the defences with care. The villagers had dug long trenches within the blackened trees, using them as barriers and cover from behind which they could shoot. The trenches’ flanks were defended by heavy coils of rusting barbed wire and thick pole stakes set in narrow ridges of earth. It would take a good unit of soldiers to cross such defences, and no army could take the valley beyond without heavy losses. Unless, of course, it had superior weapons and numbers.
“Caldregna!” hissed a voice from the soil, and Jones’ rifle came up and he cursed the fact that he only had two bullets in the magazine. What possible threat could he be? It was all a smokescreen.
“Wait,” said Orana, and she stepped out, into clear view, and began to talk in her own language as Jones peered around, searching for hidden soldiers. He picked them out, witnessing the glint of knife here, the stock of a rifle there… they were concealed behind boles of bone trees and Jones lowered his rifle slowly as Orana continued to talk, and he realised they were seriously outnumbered. They were sitting ducks.
The man who had hissed the warning peered over his trench, then gestured to Jones and Orana to approach. They moved forward, and were helped down a rough-hewn ladder and into a trench filled with mud and strangely fashioned duckboards. But Jones did not have time to investigate, for a gun was pressed between his shoulder blades and his SMLE confiscated—and they were forced down through a series of winding trenches, a maze, leading towards the heart of the valley which was was Orana’s home.
“Nice reception,” muttered Jones.
“They are worried about you. There have been units of soldiers patrolling nearby but they have kept a wide berth from the Forest of Bone. They believe it is haunted. They believe it is tainted earth.”
“Really? I wonder why. But… what has this got to do with us? Surely these people know you?”
“They know me. But they don’t know you.”
Jones was silent, and Bainbridge’s voice, the dead voice of the dead Tommy Charlie Bainbridge, once Jones’ best friend, whispered in his skull, “I think you should wait until they’re not looking, then make a break for it. Orana will be able to guide you through the trenches. The soldier behind you is armed with a short rifle and he still carries your SMLE. You’ve got two bullets left—bloody use them!”
“Don’t listen,” said Webb. “He’s bloody ranting again. He always jumps straight into the frying pan, the headstrong idiot.”
“Who’s ranting?” ranted Bainbridge, and Jones could just imagine the scowl. He gave a narrow smile. It was all he could muster.
Jones continued to be led through the high-walled trenches; he passed dugouts, passed oval white faces that glanced up, dull-eyed, from polishing boots and
stripping rifles and loading magazines. He said nothing. Their eyes spoke volumes. Here was fatigue. Here was loneliness. Here was despair.
Above, Jones could make out the crooked limbs of huge deformed trees casting dark shadows over the trenches, filling the air with gloom and a sense of darkness and greyness and misery and foreboding. The whole scene was one of intense loss. These people had given up home. He swallowed hard. He could feel the tension. He could feel the desolation. These people were waiting to die.
Jones and Orana reached the end of a complicated line of interconnecting trenches and Orana was helped up a rough ladder by two men who hugged her as she reached the top. Jones grabbed a rung and looked up into the dark eye of a barrel—which led him up on his ascent, a constant before his face, and he found his mouth was very dry as he waited for that bullet to enter his brain between his eyes.
The two men were tall and well built; they both had brown hair, cropped short, and faces of no great intelligence: flat and brutal. One man wore a heavy beard and was now talking to Orana in heated argument in their mother tongue. The other man—the one with the rifle in Jones’ face—grinned and his two front teeth were missing. His eyes were bleak as a distant battlefield full of corpses, the bodies being ransacked by vicious, circling crows. Jones felt what little hope he had die inside. These were not men to walk the mountains with.
He waited, sweating freely, feeling as if he were serving some kind of death sentence. As if he were on trial, and might any second be executed.
Orana at last turned to him and smiled a weak smile, her face like melted candle wax. It did not fill him with hope, or a willingness to save these people.
She gestured to the two men. “Welcome to my village, Robert. These are my brothers—Gamesh,” she gestured to the man with the beard, who performed a short bow, his narrowed eyes never leaving Jones, “and this is Karn.” The man with the missing teeth grinned even more widely, his face welcoming some sudden movement that would justify ending Jones’ existence.
“Forgive me if I don’t shake their hands,” said Jones, voice sour, his mood darkening beyond even his own expectations.
Karn moved the rifle from Jones’ face and handed the Tommy back his own SMLE. Orana said, “Come, we should go and visit my father. Much has happened here since I left to find you.”
Orana led the way, and Gamesh and Karn shouted after Jones and laughed in a tone that he did not like. He followed Orana, glancing once over his shoulder to see both men watching him with dark, glittering eyes. He stared at them. Nothing good would come of this, he could feel it.
Behind them sprawled the expanse of bone trees, hemmed in by mountains and apparently trying to block out the sky. Jones gave a shiver. It was a dark scene he would carry to the grave.
The village was surprisingly large. The cabins were crude, built from thick logs and sporting thatched, gently sloping roofs. Windows were open, doors slabs of a dull black substance—Jones realised they had been carved from the bone trees. He reached out to touch a door as they passed, and found it cold, and very hard under his fingers.
As they reached the back of the village Jones could see a great wall of rock and staggered, discrete boulders, connecting up with a jagged cliff of mountain wall that towered up towards Heaven. Against this had been built a wooden house with carved creatures watching from the corners of the roof.
“My father’s house,” said Orana, simply.
“Let us hope his welcome is warmer than that of your brothers!”
As Orana stepped up onto the porch, the great black door swung wide and an old woman smiled broadly. She had iron grey hair in a tight bun, bound with leather, and wore a long dress of brown and woven gold thread. Her feet were bare. She held wide her arms and Orana leapt forward and embraced the woman, and turning to Jones, he saw the tears in her eyes.
“This is my mother. Mother, this is Robert Jones. The soldier I went searching for.”
Jones smiled, and the woman returned his smile; but there was something about the corner of her eyes that crept over him, made him feel cold. She did not want him here—and more, there was something deeply chilling about the look, something that bordered on dread, or maybe hate.
“Tral fellarna de mna pshalka kel traya enna,” came a deep, heavy voice, and a great man stepped from the darkened interior. Orana bowed down before her father, and then she was in his arms, and he enveloped her like a bear.
The man, though in his mid-fifties, was a giant. His great chest bore corded muscle and his eyes were steel, blue, and cold. His brown hair, streaked heavily with grey, was worn long under a half-helm carved from the bone trees. He was dressed in furs and woollen leggings, and his boots thudded solid on the wooden porch of the house.
Orana was somehow subtly moved aside and the large man approached Jones, who took an involuntary step back, but was wise enough not to raise his rifle even though every atom of his body screamed that he should do so, and in the back of his mind Bainbridge was howling, “By all the Gods, kill this bastard!”
“Greetings,” Jones said, licking his lips, wondering if death were about to visit. “I come from over the mountains. Your daughter found me. She thinks I can help your people. The people of this village.”
The man stepped down from the porch and moved in front of Jones. His fists were involuntarily balled, and Jones felt a sense of rising fear in his belly, in his chest, in his soul.
“You speak the old tongue?” said the man, accent thick, steel eyes never leaving Jones’ face.
“You are Naravelle?”
“The Naravelle have used the old tongue for many years. They supplement their own language with words we no longer use.”
“I am not Naravelle.” Jones narrowed his eyes.
“I will kill you if you lie.”
“Yes. I believe you.” Jones looked to Orana. “Tell him, tell him how we fought the creatures, the walriders; tell him how I rescued you from those bastards. Tell him.”
“Father, listen to him. He is Robert Jones. He comes from a distant land, from another people, another war. He saved my life, and he was lost, dying. I healed him, and we were pursued here by Naravelle soldiers… and creatures… we lost them in the mountains.”
The man extended his great calloused hand and gave a nod. “I am Jorian. This is my wife, Beth. I do not like the fact you are in our village, but I will permit you to stay. For now. But any sign of threat, we will cut your head from your miserable ——ing neck.”
Jones breathed softly. “I thank you.”
“What happened to your face?” asked Jorian, eyes alert, staring without shame at Jones’ mustard-gas scars.
Jones shrugged. “It’s a long story. Another life. Another war. Do I truly look that bad? That… horrific?” He felt his heart sink. How could Orana possibly love him when he was so deformed?
Like the trees, whispered the Skogsgra. Flesh abused.
“No,” lied Jorian, after a telling pause. “Now. Step inside. We will eat.”
Jorian and Beth entered the house, and Orana smiled sadly at Jones. He bit hard on his tongue. He did not want her pity. He followed Beth inside and was invited to sit at a broad table of rough-sawn planks.
They ate in silence, a simple thick broth of meat and vegetables, with fresh-baked bread and sweet melting butter. To Jones, it was a banquet from Heaven and he had never thought to enjoy such food again. It felt like it had been years. Maybe it had.
When the meal was finished, Beth cleared the plates away and once more Jorian fixed the Tommy with his steel gaze. “I would know what has been happening with my daughter during the last few weeks,” he said. “We have been worried, we thought her slain or bewitched by the Naravelle. But I will hear her speak later… first, I am curious. Tell me how you saved her life?”
Slowly, Jones told of the battle, his wounding, his confusion, and his waking within the forest and subsequent flight. All the while Jorian never took his eyes from the soldier and this made Jones nervous and also annoyed by the giant man. Eventually, he came to the part of the story where he threw Mills Bombs—he described the explosions and Jorian suddenly roared in anger, surging to his feet and overturning the great wooden table. He leapt forward, grabbed Jones’ coat and hoisted the Tommy to his feet, bringing their faces close.
“You have the power of demons!” he hissed, and Jones was suddenly aware of Orana shouting, dragging at her father’s arm. He could see Orana’s mother out of the corner of his eye, shaking… “And to think I invited you to eat at our table, you are worthless, you are a man in love with death…”
Jones started to protest, but he was shaken like a rat and he felt his own anger rising as he prepared to fight back. But… suddenly everything halted as a distant bugle sounded, lonely and haunting, and Jorian dropped Jones back to his seat and ran to the door, throwing it wide open.
Outside, a man stumbled to a halt carrying his rifle, and shouted, “They are coming, down from the forests… a unit of Naravelle! They have walriders with them…”
Jorian turned to Jones as the bugles continued in the distance.
“That is the sound for battle. The bastards are advancing on our trenches. Do you understand what you have done? Do you understand, fool?” He turned his eyes on Orana, who cowered under the intensity of her father’s gaze. “You have led them to us, you fools! We were hidden after the Battle of Yellow Pass, but now you have led them to us!”
Jorian swung back to Jones, advanced a step and Jones thought—for a moment—he was going to die. Then the large man turned and disappeared into the back of the house, appearing with a massive rifle.
He pointed the rifle at Jones, barrel first, and when he spoke the words were muffled but carried clear their obvious intent.
“You will leave my house, you will surrender your weapon, and you will stay away from my ——ing daughter!”
With that, the giant was gone, and in the distance rifles boomed and Jones exchanged glances with Orana, shook his head in sadness, and strode from the house leaving his Lee-Enfield where it had fallen.
The Poppy Fields.
11th. November 1917.
Five Stripe sat on a rock, twisting a little in pain from the onslaught of the rockfall in which he’d been caught, battered and nearly killed. Dried blood stained his warped skin.
He surveyed the great plain of poppies far below. No emotion flowed through the walrider—other than the simple hate for the man he hunted—and yet the beast had a certain flicker of something which spun like a splinter through his broken, deviant mind.
He watched as dark clouds gathered overhead, threatening more snow, and he grinned to himself, strings of drool spooling down from twisted jaws onto his lap, and onto the rocks beneath him. It melted through snow and ice, and laid bare the rocks. The walrider tilted his head slightly, and grinned. Just like I will do to you, little man, he thought, picturing Robert Jones’ face clearly—as clear as day. Like a sun beaming down through his splintered skull and filled with a hot bright needle of hate.
I will come for you.
I will find you.
I will curse you.
I will kill you.
I will eat you.
I will lay your bones bare, ripping through your soft white flesh.
I will absorb your eyes, and look out with your eyes, and understand what you have learned in your years of war, in your days of hardship, from your world of men whom I despise and will see fall.
And your world will fall.
Both worlds will fall…
With your help, little Robert Jones. Your help.
Five Stripe looked out across the world, this new world, and yet this old world.
I am home, he thought, and leapt down towards the poppies, and Robert Jones beyond.
Excerpted from The Iron Beast © Andy Remic, 2016