Fri
May 13 2011 4:23pm

Stonewielder: Chapter One (Excerpt)

Ian Cameron Esslemont

Stonewielder by Ian Cameron EsslemontPlease enjoy this second excerpt from Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont, a new novel set in the Malazan universe. The first excerpt (Prologue) is up here on Tor.com.

***

CHAPTER I

What is an old man but a pile of fading leaves?

Wisdom of the Ancients
Kreshen Reel, compiler

Year 33 of the Malazan Occupation
Korelri year 4178 sw
North of Elri, Korel Isle

The desk of the lord protector of the stormwall is constructed of planks taken from the wreck of a Mare war galley that the Stormriders, the enemy, had captured and used in an attempt to ram the wall. It had been one of their most successful stratagems of the recent century. Over thirty of the Chosen gave up their lives in holy martyrdom to stem that breach. The Lord Protector of the time, one of the few non-Korelri ever to have attained that august office, ordered the desk built to serve as a reminder to all his successors that while the Stormriders had for centuries thrown themselves against the wall in so far predictable, even repetitive tactics, one must never become complacent regarding them.

Lord Protector Hiam, the current holder of the highest office of the subcontinent of Korel, latest in an unbroken line reaching back to the first holder of the title, the legendary Founder, Temal-Esh, ran a hand over the smooth warm surface of this desk, thinking about its all too salient message from the past. During the height of the Riders’ assaults frost limned its corners as if it carried still within it the memory of its subverted purpose. That had been one of the most perilous moments for the Stormwall, yet at least it was a threat from without. And that was a peril Hiam would gladly exchange for the one facing them now.

Glancing up, he saw his aide, Staff Marshal Shool, patiently waiting through his woolgathering. He cleared his throat. ‘So, Shool, more falling recruitment estimates.’

Helm in the crook of one arm, dark azure cloak folded up over the other, Shool bowed and sat. He set his plain helm down. ‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

‘With retirements, casualties, and the usual attrition – where does that put us for the coming fall?’

‘Even shorter than last year.’

And that year shorter than the one before. An undeniable trend that spoke of ultimate unavoidable disaster to anyone inclined to trace that particular trajectory into the future – but Hiam was not one so inclined. The Lady, their Preserver, would save them as she always had. He knew that common opinion blamed the thinning numbers on these invaders, the Malazans. A belief he did nothing to discourage precisely because he knew the trend reached back far before their arrival.

He crossed to the slit window overlooking the central and strongest sweeping curtain length of the leagues-long Stormwall. The glittering surface of the Ocean of Storm lay iron-grey and summer-calm. How many times had he stood here and wondered what that surface disguised? Were the enemy now likewise regarding them? Or did they withdraw between raids to some unimaginable depth or cavern to sleep away the intervening months? None knew, though poets and jongleurs speculated in endless romantic ballads and epics.

With the Lady’s aid may he yet wipe these Riders from the face of the earth.

He turned from the narrow slit in the arm-thick stone wall. ‘More provincial levies, Shool. Press them hard. Remind Jasston and Stygg of their obligations.’

Shool picked up his helmet and turned it in his hands. He seemed to study the blue-dyed leather wrapping and the silver chasing of the Chosen Stormguard. ‘You are expecting an offensive from the Malazans with this new Emperor?’

‘I am expecting an offensive, Shool,’ Hiam said levelly, ‘but not from the Malazans.’

The helmet froze. Shool dropped his head in acquiescence. ‘My apologies, Lord Protector.’

From a hook next to the window Hiam lifted the heavy layered wool cloak he wore year round, both in the dire biting wind of winter and in the simmering heat of summer. ‘Shall we?’

Shool stood hastily, bowing. ‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

 

They exited the main donjon to step out on to the wide, windswept main marshalling surface of the wall, fifty paces wide. Seaward rose a thinner wall, lined by staircases of stone and topped by a walkway and parapets – the outer machicolations. The grey granite blocks of the wall’s construction glittered dark from a recent rain and pools reflected the overcast sky.

Distraction, Hiam told himself. These Malazans. Nothing more than a distraction from their true calling – their God-given purpose. Never mind that too many seemed unduly impressed by that Empire’s accomplishments elsewhere. But they were no fleabitten barbarians gawping at the mysteries of ordered infantry, nor decadent city-dwellers to be intimidated or bought; they were the Stormguard, the Chosen, defenders of all the lands from its greatest enemy.

They would not be overborne. They could not.

A Chosen met them just outside the doorway. He stood wrapped in the thick dark-blue cloak that was their unofficial uniform, crested helmet on his head and wide leaf-bladed spear held tall. Wall Marshal and Quartermaster, Quint of Theft. He bowed to Hiam and his dark, scarred features twisted in what the Lord Protector knew passed as the man’s smile; he inclined his head in acknowledgement.

As they made their inspection tour, Hiam could not help noting troubling details even as he passed them over without comment: cracked steps in ill-repair; torn baskets that ought to be replaced; thin frayed rope past its best years; the tattered edges of Quint’s cloak and his cracked sandals. Lack of maintenance, lack of equipment. All problems adequate funds could solve. But what monies the Stormguard did pull in through tribute, taxation and levies it poured entirely into acquiring warm bodies to man the wall – in any manner it could.

And that flow of tribute and taxation was diminishing. Particularly now with the presence of the invaders, the Malazans, emboldening resentful neighbours such as Stygg and Jasston to neglect their ages-old treaties and agreements.

‘How go repairs, Marshal?’ Hiam asked.

Quint’s scarred face – the gift of a Rider’s jagged blade – twisted down even further. Beneath his cloak he shifted his arms, cradling the spear haft. ‘Slow as fastidious whores in a brothel, these labourers.’

Hiam could not keep an answering wry smile from his lips. The man had the reputation of being most ferocious Stormguard on the wall. Together they went all the way back to induction, though Quint preceded him. ‘They aren’t volunteers, like the old days.’ Unlike us.

An answering grunt was all the marshal would allow – an informality none other would dare before the Lord Protector. ‘If they worked a fraction as hard as they complained we’d have every job done by now. You should hear them, Hiam. How they give enough in the winter without having to provide work gangs in the summer. Yet not one man of them has ever stood the wall. We rely more on foreign levies now than on true Korelri. It’s a damned disgrace is what it is. It wouldn’t surprise me . . .’ His voice trailed away, then he gave a harsh laugh. ‘Well, their song always changes when the snow flies, hey, Hiam?’

Hiam had glanced up to see Quint’s gaze on Shool’s shocked face. Yes, old friend, we aren’t alone. Going to say you wouldn’t be surprised if Our Lady turned her face from us for our sins, hey? We’re now the old dogs grumbling about how standards have fallen, just as did our instructors and superiors before us.

Stopping, Hiam nodded to Shool. ‘That’s all. I’ll look at the inventories later.’

Shool bowed. ‘My lord.’

Quint watched him go. ‘Too soon from the tit, that one,’ he growled.

‘He did his season.’ Quint grunted, unimpressed. ‘So, give it to me straight, Quartermaster. Not your usual sweet-talk.’

‘’Sa bloody cock-up, is what it is. We’re behind schedule everywhere. There’s a crack in the facing east of Vor you could shove a man through. But,’ and he bared yellowed uneven teeth, ‘I could say the same thing about a woman I knew from Jourilan.’

‘Master Stimins?’

Quint let go a snort of exasperation. ‘Let me tell you about Master Engineer Stimins. Last week he drags me down the wall behind the fifth tower north of Storm, and he points to a little course of sand in the rocks. The man’s pulling his hair out over some tiny dried-up rivulet while I’m trying to find enough masons to fill gaps!’

‘He’s worried about the foundations.’

‘Foundation my arse. The wall’s as heavy as a mountain. It can’t fall down. Anyway, it’s just a place to stand – it’s the men and women defending it who count. And we need more of them.’

‘Lady bless that, Quint. So, what about the latest crop? How are they shaping up?’

‘As useful as eunuchs and seamstresses. But we’ll knock them into line. The usual prison scrapings from Katakan and Theft aren’t worth the food we buy to feed them. The Dourkan and Jourilan contingents are pretty solid, as ever. Mare has sent a shipload of Malazan prisoners. We even have some debtors from Rool – the Malazans continue to allow it, apparently.’

‘They get their cut, I’m sure. Speaking of them, how’s the current champion?’

The quartermaster shook a sour negative. ‘We can’t count on another season out of him. He has the death wish. I’ve seen it before.’

‘Too bad. He accomplished some amazing feats.’

‘True. ’Cept he laughs like a lunatic every time we call him Malazan.’

Nodding to himself, Hiam listened to the wind carrying the distant metallic clinks of mallets on stone, the calls of foremen, and the low heartbeat of the quickening autumn surf. His arms were sweaty beneath the sweltering cloak. ‘Very good, Quartermaster. I won’t keep you from your duties any longer.’

Quint tilted his head suspiciously. ‘Where’re you off to?’

‘To find our good Master Engineer.’

‘Ha! You’ll likely find him on his hands and knees, sniffing around our foundations like a dog, no doubt.’

‘Carry on, Wall Marshal – and stay out of Stimins’ way.’

‘With pleasure.’

 

It was not until late that afternoon that the Lord Protector finally tracked down Master Engineer Stimins. And – true to Quint’s prediction – the man was sniffing around the base of the wall. By that time Hiam had picked up an escort: two veterans, Stall of Korel and solid Evessa out of Jourilan, whom many suspected of carrying more than a drop of the old blood. They’d arrived care of Quint, whose message was that it was unseemly for the Lord Protector to be wandering about without guards. Hiam did not bother pointing out that it was just as unseemly for Quint to allow the Master Engineer to do so.

He heard Stimins long before he found him, among the huge tumbled boulders of the slope that graded back from the wall’s rear. ‘You’re a pretty one,’ he heard the old fellow coo, and he didn’t have to wonder what the man was addressing. ‘Very nice, very nice.’ Stumbling along with him, their spears clattering, Stall and Evessa shared a glance and rolled their eyes.

Hiam wondered if he was stalking a parrot.

Eventually, circling round a tall boulder, he found the man hunched down on all fours like a pale spider investigating a crevice for food. ‘Master Engineer . . .’ Hiam began.

The man jumped, and glared about myopically beneath bushy white brows. ‘Who’s that? Who?’

‘It’s Hiam, Stimins.’

‘Oh, young Hiam. What in the Lady’s name are you doing down here?’

‘Looking for you,’ Hiam observed tartly.

‘Ah! Well, whatever for?’

Hiam crooked his head to motion away his escort. Bowing, they moved off to lean back amongst the tumbled boulders, arms crossed over the hafts of their spears. ‘Your report.’

The engineer was fiddling with small rocks in the palm of one hand, turning them round and round. ‘Report? What report?’

The Lord Protector slapped a hand to the hot gritty side of a boulder. Dried bird guano streaked the stone white and patches of lichen grew green and orange. ‘Your report on the state of the wall!’

‘Ah. That report. Well, it’s not conclusive yet. I need to study things further.’

‘That’s what you said last year, and the year before that.’

The snowy brows rose over pale, watery blue eyes. ‘I did? Well, there you go.’

‘With all due respect, Master Engineer. We no longer have the time for the luxury of conclusiveness . . . Your current assessment will have to do.’

Stimins sniffed his disapproval. ‘That’s the trouble with you younger generations – no patience to do the job right. Things are off to the Abyss in a broken wagon, they are.’

Hiam crossed his arms, and his cloak fell open to reveal the broad scarred forearms, the dire gouges and deep scrapes in the bronze and leather vambraces. The Master Engineer extended his bony hand, clenched, knuckles knotted in joint-ache. Hiam held his own out, open. Two small stones fell into his palm.

‘My report,’ Stimins said.

Mystified, Hiam studied the two stones. Taking one in each hand he found that they fitted together exactly: two halves of the same piece. ‘What’s this? A broken rock?’

‘Shattered cleanly in half, Lord Protector. By the corroding cold itself.’

Now Hiam regarded his Master Engineer. ‘The cold? How could it do such a thing?’

Stimins raised his hands for patience. ‘Let me correct myself. By frost. By moisture, freezing suddenly. Explosively.’

Hiam thought of casks of water left out during the worst of the assaults, how some exploded at the touch of the Riders’ sorceries. ‘I see . . . I think.’

‘All up and down the wall,’ Stimins continued, his voice becoming dreamy, ‘freezing, thawing, year after year. But not the mild slow advance of nature, mind you. The forced unnatural fist of the Riders slamming winter after winter. Pounding the wall to slivers.’

‘How—’ Hiam coughed to clear his throat. ‘How long do we have?’

The old man, his face still unfocused, shrugged his maddening disregard. ‘Who is to say? Another one hundred years – or one.’

Struggling to contain himself, Hiam threw the stones to clatter among the boulders. ‘Thank you for your report, Master Engineer.’ Though it be utterly useless to our current crisis. ‘And I remind you that such information is to be shared only between you and me.’

The old man blinked his confusion, his brows crimping. ‘But of course, Lord Protector.’

‘Very good. Carry on.’ The Lord Protector left his Master Engineer scratching his thin hair and frowning among the rocks.

His escort, Stall and Evessa, straightened from where they leaned among the menhir-sized boulders. Stall tossed away a handful of pebbles. ‘Odd noises among these stones, hey, Evessa?’

‘The strangest echoes, Stall.’

***

Ivanr hacked his farm out of the unsettled far south of Jourilan, hard up against the foothills of the immense mountain chain some named the Iceback range. Wanderers and religious refugees fleeing south from the cities often passed his field. Many claimed that the Priestess was nearby but still Ivanr was surprised when she appeared one day. Her voice startled him as he was bent over weeding his garden and he straightened, blinked the sweat from his eyes.

‘Ivanr,’ she said, ‘what is it you fear about me?’

He studied the slip of a girl-woman in her dirty rags before him. A foreigner come to convert an entire land. He saw a face lined and drawn by a suffering no youth should be asked to endure; limbs emaciated, almost warped by the tasks that had been exacted from them. And yet the undeniable aura of power hovered about her, warning off any who would consider a challenge. Shrugging, he returned to his weeding.

‘Priestess, I do not fear you.’

‘Yet you resolutely avoid me.’

He gestured broadly to his field. ‘I have work to do.’

Dry leaves shushed as she closed. Her bare feet were dirty, her robes no more than mud-smeared tatters. ‘As do I. Could it be, Ivanr, that you fear I may have other work for you?’

‘You have plenty of others to choose from.’

‘Yet here I am speaking to you.’

He straightened, towering over her, and she raised her chin to meet his gaze. Her tangled black hair blew about her face like a cowl. He had to flinch from the depths of those compelling eyes. ‘Well, you’re wasting your time.’

‘You presume to know what I am doing? They mock you, you know. Call you farmer. Dirt-grubber. Coward.’

‘And I grow things called tomatoes, beans, marrow.’ That raised a brief haunted smile. ‘You do not need me. I’m told you have many of the aristocrats. The pure-blooded ruling families.’

‘True. Sons and daughters of the highest Jourilan names have marched up to my modest fig tree. “Teach me,” they demand. “Instruct me in this new way we hear of.” Already perhaps they are too far down the wrong path. But I cannot show them that – only you can.’

He studied his dirt-smeared hands; cut and bloodied, calloused, nails broken. Just as during all those years of training and duelling. ‘They won’t listen to me. I’m . . . of the wrong background.’

‘Ah yes. That taint so shameful to the Jourilan. Mixed blood. Do you know the name of your ancestors, Ivanr?’

He shrugged, his gaze hooded. ‘My mother said her people were of the Red-Rock tribe of the Thoul-Alai. That is all I know.’

The Priestess’s voice hardened in sudden outrage. ‘Your people were of the Toblakai, Ivanr! Blessed of the children of the Great Mother! Some of you survive, isolated, in pockets here and there, despite the best efforts of all those who have stolen your lands.’

‘Stolen? Strong language for an outlander.’

Now the Priestess hugged her angular frame, the lines at her mouth deepened in shadow. ‘It is a story not unfamiliar to me.’

Ivanr stared wonderingly. So, a vulnerable side. An opening up. Careful. Seduction bears many faces. ‘Immaterial. What’s done is done. Nothing can bring back the past.’

‘I would never seek that.’ Her words were softer now, her tone closer to that of her true tender age. He felt the wounds that she carried and something within him ached to hold her, to soothe that pain.

Dangerous indeed.

‘The question is how to proceed into the future. You, Ivanr, the warrior champion who defied the call to the Stormwall. I have heard many rumours as to why. But I have my own theory . . .’

His gaze found a flight of crows crossing over the face of the distant Jourilan central plateau. Smoke obscured the north horizon; he shielded his eyes, squinting. Burning already – damned early. ‘It was cowardice – leave it at that.’

‘No. It would be cowardice to leave it at that.’

He let his hand fall. She eyed him levelly, almost coolly, and he felt himself shrinking under that steady gaze. Such suffering scoured into that lined hatchet face that should be unmarred! And a haunt- ing glow as well – the lingering hint of the revelation everyone whis- pers of? Who is he to dare dispute this one’s choices? But surely he must be unworthy! How could he, who once gloried in conflict, possibly serve Dessembrae, the Lord of Tragedy, or any of these foreign gods?

‘I couldn’t. I’m not—’

‘Not worthy? Not pure enough? Not dedicated enough? Not . . . certain? None of us is. And none who is certain interests the Lord of Tragedy. Those minds are closed. He requires the mind be open.’ She now seemed to eye him sidelong, almost mockingly. ‘It was your open mind that led you to your conclusion, to that intuitive flash that so changed you, yes?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘You saw instinctively, on your own, the uselessness of it all.’

Gods, this woman was dangerous! How could she know? And yet – wasn’t this the essence of her sermonizing, her own message? He ran a hand across his slick forehead and said, his voice hoarse, ‘Dangerous talk, Priestess. Talk that can get a man, or a woman, put to death.’

‘So you are afraid . . .’

He offered a half-smile. ‘Of the Jourilan Emperor’s torture pits, yes.’

They aren’t the enemy. The enemy is ignorance and hate. Aren’t these worth opposing?’

Pure idealism. Ye gods, where does one begin with such a one? His gaze found the peppers ripening at his feet. ‘Priestess,’ he began, slowly, ‘you don’t really think you’re the first, do you?’ He waved to encompass the fields. ‘The Lady Our Saviour has kept a tight watch on her garden all these generations. She weeds thoroughly. And ruth- lessly. No unwelcome invader has been allowed to take hold. I’ve seen it before.’

The Priestess raised her gaze, and perhaps it was day’s late argent light, or a reflection of some kind, but the eyes flared as if molten.

‘Have you not wondered,’ she asked in a low voice, ‘why you must constantly weed in the first place?’

He cocked his head, uncertain of her tack.

‘It is because the weeds are far hardier than the crop you’re trying to raise.’

Ivanr found that he’d flinched away. He paced the field, stepping between the plants. Damn you, woman! How dare you plague me with such outrageous demands! Haven’t I done enough? But perhaps walking away wasn’t enough. Perhaps walking away was never enough. He stopped his pacing. Turning to her, he could only offer his mute denial.

She approached gently, as if afraid he would flee, and proffered a hand. ‘Take this. And come to my fig tree. Sit at my side. Listen to the message that has come to me. I believe you are already far down the path.’

When he would not raise his own hand she took it and pressed an object into it. Her hand was a fraction the size of his, yet far harder. As sharp and unyielding as stone slivers. She walked away, the long tatters of her robes dragged behind through the stalks. Ivanr opened his hand. A square-cut iron nail like a sword in miniature, with a lace of leather drawn through the small loop that was the grip and pommel. The symbol of the cult of Dessembrae.

Word of the heresy of polytheism had come north down the mountain foothills only a few years ago. It had been twice that time since Ivanr had refused the Call and thrown down his swords in the dust of the training grounds at Abor. They’d imprisoned him, beaten him almost to his death, cursed him as half-breed Thel scum – not that his background had mattered while his sword served. But they would not kill him; not great Ivanr whom they had lauded as the greatest Jourilan champion in living memory.

And so it was that he had found himself blinking in the unfamiliar bright sunlight with only the rags about his loins to his name. The guards who had prodded him from the wagon threw a skin of water at his feet and told him that if he returned to the city he’d be killed out of hand. The wounds on his lashed back split open as he knelt to pick up the water.

He had walked south. At first he thought he’d simply keep walking until his feet brought him to the vast glacier wilderness held in abeyance by the Iceback range. Where he would no doubt have perished. But when he reached the foothills he came across many more of his kind, clustered in small family camps around smoking firepits, digging the earth beside the road. Some purebred, some mixed – remnants, those bearing the mark of the prior inhabitants of the land. Some markedly tall, like himself, others broad and low to the ground. The Thoul-Alai, or variously ‘Thel’ or ‘Thoul’, as the invaders had parsed. And so he decided that here was perhaps where he belonged. He selected a section of a hardscrabble unfavourable hillside, and planted. The local ranchers who raised a breed of cattle called Baranal thought him mad and regularly ran their beasts through his field. His fellow Thel also thought him touched; none of them farmed. But it seemed to him that a society reliant on a way of life no longer viable, namely hunting and gathering, really ought to adapt. He judged farming a reasonable substitution.

Then word came of this new cult. Blasphemous! They deny the Goddess! They speak against the Stormwall! This priestess who led them was a witch who enslaved men with sex. They held orgies at which babies were murdered and eaten.

It seemed strange to him that everyone should be so ready to believe that a cult that preached nonviolence should also be murdering babies. But from what he’d seen in life there was much insanity surrounding religion.

Then the first of the prisoner gangs came shuffling along the road that ran through the valley beneath his hillside. A corpse suspended from a gibbet swung at the head of the column. After working the day with his back pointedly turned to the valley, Ivanr finally threw aside his digging tools and walked down to where the Jourilan captors had staked the chain gang. An officer of the detachment came out to meet him, flanked by troopers.

‘These are the heretics?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’ The officer watched him narrowly; Ivanr saw many of his brother and sister Thel among the shackled prisoners. None raised their heads.

‘They are for Abor?’

‘Yes.’

‘Execution?’

‘Yes.’

‘The usual? Stoning? Crushing? Public garrotting and impale- ment? Or just plain crucifixion? Violent ends for people who swear to nonviolence.’

The Jourilan officer’s gaze hardened even further. ‘Is that an objection?’

‘Just an observation.’

The officer motioned him off. ‘Then observe from far away.’

 

A month later Ivanr was sitting in front of his sod-roofed hut sharpening his tools when a file of dusty beggars approached. An old man led them, of pure Jourilan invader stock, haggard and unwashed, but holding his head high and walking with a firm stride, planting a walking staff strongly before him. He stopped his band of followers a discreet distance off then stepped up and leaned on the staff.

‘Spare a drink of water for those who thirst, stranger?’

Ivanr set down his sharpening stone. He scanned the horizon for any Jourilan patrol. Saw none. ‘Aye.’ He carried out a small keg of captured rainwater and a tarred leather cup. The old man bowed, took a small sip, then handed on the keg to his band. The entire time, the dark eyes slitted in his sun-burned, lined face did not leave Ivanr’s.

‘You are from the south?’ Ivanr asked.

‘Aye.’

‘You carry word of this new faith?’

The cracked and bloodied lips climbed with faint humour. ‘We follow the Priestess and bring the word of her teachings. Word of the new faith revealed to her. A faith that embraces life. Rejects death.’

‘You reject death?’

‘We accept it. And thereby deny it any power over us.’ ‘And you are headed north?’

‘Yes. To Pon-Ruo.’

‘I think you’ll find what you deny waiting for you there.’

Again, the half-smile. ‘Death awaits us all. The question, then, really should be how to live.’

‘You mean survive?’

‘No – how to live one’s life. Harming others is no way to honour life.’

Ivanr, who up until then had merely been amusing himself, shivered at those words. The old pilgrim did not seem to notice; he gestured to Ivanr’s fields. ‘Farming honours life.’

Ivanr waved the man off. ‘Take the water and go.’ He walked away.

‘You cannot hide from life,’ the old man called after him. ‘You harm yourself and give power to that from which you turn.’

‘Go!’

The old man bowed. ‘We honour you for your gift.’

Just go, damn you!

***

Of all the places to die in Banith, Bakune believed that this was very probably the ugliest. He could almost smell the madness that must have driven the old woman to her death here in this dead-end alley. What he could not avoid smelling was the stale sweat, the animal fear, and the dried piss.

She’d been a nun in attendance at Our Lady the Saviour Cloister and Hospice. That much the Watch had ascertained. A woman gone mad to end her life in a frothing twisted heap at the back of a garbage-strewn alley, fingers bloody and torn where she’d clawed at the stone walls.

And he’d almost missed this one.

The Watch hardly bothered to call him in any more. Just another corpse. The Assessor came, poked about, asked his obtuse questions, then went back to frown and potter over his reports. What was the use? For his part, Bakune saw that while the Watch respected his judgements from the bench, all the same they wished he’d just stay in his chambers. After all these years it was becoming, well, an embarrassment.

But there was something different about this one. What was a nun of the temple doing outside in the middle of the night? How had she gotten out without anyone noticing? And why? Why lose herself in this warren of alleys? Lunacy, he supposed, was the easy answer.

But too glib for his liking. The temple revealed little of the finer points of its faith, let alone its inner workings. How could this embarrassment have escaped its self-policing? No doubt the madwoman had been under virtual house arrest for some time now, perhaps locked in an ascetic’s cell. A visit to the cloisters might just be in order.

He straightened from the stiffened corpse to find that his escort, two soldiers of the Watch, had retreated to the mouth of this rat-run of an alley, where it met a slightly larger and less choked back way. Sighing, Bakune stepped over the rotting garbage and dumped nightsoil to join them.

‘A right reek,’ the moustached one offered – as close to an apology as any of the street-level patrolmen might offer him.

‘I want to talk to the Abbot.’

The two shared a flicked glance, and in that quick exchange Bakune was chagrined to read the true bankruptcy of his influence and reputation: babysitting the Assessor while he pottered among alleyways was one thing, allowing him to pester the Abbot of the Cloister of Our Lady was another altogether.

He was chagrined, yes, but not surprised. The City Watch valued action and quick results. To him, the blunt brutal truncheons at their sides were fitting weapons for the blunt and brutal instruments of state that carried them. ‘You need not accompany me.’

Again the flicked glance. ‘No, Assessor,’ the less dull-looking of the two drawled. ‘It’s our job.’

‘Very good. Let’s hope the Abbot is available on such short notice.’

 

The Cloister of the Blessed Lady was the third most revered holy site on the island of Fist, after the caves of the Ascetics near Thol, and the Tabernacle of Our Lady at Paliss. Neither Mare nor Skolati possessed any such sites worthy of pilgrimage. The Cloister was raised around the very bare rock where it was said the Lady herself shed blood on her holy mission to forestall the sea-borne enemy.

Bakune headed to the pilgrim route that twisted its way from the waterfront docks to the Cloister’s double copper doors. The cacophony reached him first. Touts and hawkers bawled to catch the attention of the penitents as they tramped the ancient path that climbed the hillside to those beaten-panelled doors. Bakune, followed by his guards, joined the file. Shop fronts, stalls, and modest laid carpets lined the narrow Way of Obtestation. Each displayed a seemingly infinite array of charms, blessed bracelets, healing stones, bones of this or that monk or nun or saint, swatches of cloth taken from the backs of noted devouts who passed away in frenzied rapture – anything and everything, in short, that might tempt pilgrims come to enhance their spiritual purification.

He brushed aside sticks thrust at him laced with charms like small forests of beading. ‘Cure the ague, rot, and the clouding blindness!’ a tout yelled. A flask hanging from a tall stave was swung at him. ‘Blessed waters from the Cloister’s fount! All-healing!’ He knew that to be truly efficacious such waters must be taken from their source, but first-time pilgrims knew no better.

A grimed street urchin yanked at his robes. ‘Inspect the holy virgins?’ The leer was startling on a face so young. One of the guards sent the boy on with a kick.

Bakune could only shake his head; it had been a long time since he’d made his own obligatory visitations, but he did not remember the whole thing being so, well, seamy. He paused to turn, and, brushed by the shoulders of those who passed, heads lowered in contemplation, looked back the length of this arc of the Way, taking in not only the hawkers and purveyors of religious goods, legitimate or not, but the food sellers, the inns, the stablers, all the many services the enterprising citizens of Banith provided the steady year-round stream of visitors. In this unimportant seaside town it was frankly the one and only going business. To threaten the flow would be to threaten the city’s very lifeblood, and Bakune felt a cold chill creep upon him in the face of so visceral a reaffirmation of what he’d always appreciated intellectually.

His escort drew up short, eyed him quizzically then exchanged bored glances. Turning back without comment, he waved them on.

Near the Cloister the press thinned. Here high-priced shops behind narrow doorways catered to the wealthier pilgrims – merchants themselves, perhaps, or the wives of highly ranked civil servants from Dourkan or Jourilan. Here also patrolled Guardians of the Faith in their dark severe robes, armed with iron-heeled staves. The order had begun as a militant cadre of the faith in response to the Malazan invasions. It was charged with the duty to protect the pilgrims, and the faith itself, from backsliding and corruption. In Bakune’s eyes it was the worst of the innovations brought about by the pressure of foreign occupation – perhaps because the order was a sort of rival religious police adjudicating what was permitted behaviour and what was not, and perhaps because it saw itself as above the earthly laws represented locally by none other than himself.

As he came to the tall double doors of the Cloister grounds, the sight of so many of the Guardians loitering about brought to Bakune’s mind that during his entire approach he had not seen one trooper of their erstwhile occupiers, the Malazans. Politic, that: keeping away from the pilgrimage route where tempers might flare.

Two Guardians stepped forward to bar the open doorway. ‘What business in the Cloister?’ one demanded.

He cocked a brow; since when had they begun interrogating visitors? ‘My business is my own. By what right do you ask?’

The man bristled, clenching his stave tight. ‘By right of faith.’ He eyed Bakune up and down, taking in his dark cloak, cloth trousers, brocaded satin vest, and clean linen shirt. ‘You are no pilgrim. What is your business?’

‘I’m dying of the bloody-lung.’

The Guardian flinched, but recovered, raising his chin. ‘That is not a matter for jest. Men and women are dying of that very affliction in the Hospice, praying for Our Lady’s blessing and her healing waters even as you make light of it.’

Bakune was impressed by the speed with which the man had charged the high moral summit, though the move was by far too naked and bold. Bludgeons. Like his own guards, even now dragging themselves up the cobbled way, these too were yet mere blunt instruments.

Sighing his irritation, he pulled off one moleskin glove and extended his hand. ‘Assessor Bakune. I am come to see the Abbot.’

The Guardian frowned over the ring of office. Belatedly, Bakune realized that he might as well have thrust a live polecat at the man for all he understood of the significance of the seal of a magistrate of the state. Yet a survivor’s instinct told the man that perhaps there may be something to all this and he nodded, grudgingly, and stepped aside. That, or the overdue arrival of Bakune’s two guards of the Watch, both licking grease from their fingers.

Bakune entered beneath the wooden vaulted ceiling of the tunnel that led to the grounds. The other Guardian, perhaps the brighter of the two, had run ahead to bring word of his arrival. Past the tunnel, shaded colonnaded walks beckoned to the right and left, while ahead lay the gravel paths of the manicured gardens and walks of Blessed Contemplation. Beyond, to the right, rose the three storeys of the wooden Hospice of Our Lady, largest of such installations in all Fist, eclipsed only by that servicing the veteran Chosen of Korel. To the left, over the tops of the hedges and ornamental trees, reared the tall spires of the rambling Cloister itself. A city within a city, complete with its own schools, administration, kitchens and bakery, nunnery, library, orphanage, even the Hospice to shelter its aged and dying brothers and sisters.

Bakune chose to wait outside. He drew off his other glove to better appreciate the blossoms of the late-blooming winter-lace, whose tiny white flowers were considered melancholy as their appearance signalled the coming of winter. He appreciated their delicate scent. His guards sprawled on a bench and eyed the more hale inmates of the Hospice shuffling back and forth on their constitutional walks. Eventually, as Bakune knew he must, if only for the sake of form, came Abbot Starvann Arl, trailed by a gaggle of his higher functionaries and staff.

They embraced as the equals they were – at least in principle. Starvann, head of the Cloister, with authority over all matters of faith locally, answerable only to the Prioress herself at the capital, Paliss. And Bakune, Assessor and magistrate, the highest local legal authority, answerable only to the High Assessor at the same city. Yet what a difference; Bakune was rendered a bare grudging sort of assistance from the City Watch while Starvann commanded all the staff of the Cloister, numbering perhaps more than a thousand – plus the authority of the order of the Guardians of the Faith themselves. Yes, Bakune reflected tartly, equal in principle only.

‘Bakune! Good to see you. We meet too rarely. How gracious of you to visit us.’ The Abbot captured Bakune’s hands in a surprisingly bone-hard grip. Then the smile behind his thick beard faded and his startling pale eyes clouded over. ‘I know why you have come,’ he said sadly.

Bakune raised a quizzical brow. ‘You do?’

Starvann gave the Assessor’s hands one last painful squeeze before releasing them. ‘Sister Prudence. Word came to me only this morning.’ He pressed a hand to Bakune’s back and gently but firmly urged him on. ‘Come, let us walk the grounds . . . forgive me, but I find it refreshing.’

‘Certainly.’ Bakune allowed himself to be steered on to a path between low evergreen shrubs. The Abbot clasped his hands behind his back. His plain dark robes brushed the gravel as he walked. His dress was appropriately severe and august, his only ornament a diadem suspended from his neck in the starburst sigil of the faith of the Blessed Lady.

‘She is dead, then?’ he asked, head lowered.

‘Yes.’

‘Then she has at last found peace with Our Lady.’

‘Yes. Did you say Sister . . . Prudence?’

The head rose, and the long grey hair blew in the mild breeze. ‘The name she chose when she joined the order as a child.’

‘Ah, I see. May I ask—’

‘How I knew she had passed on?’

Bakune cleared his throat, had to narrow his gaze in the light of the man’s unearthly pale eyes. ‘Well . . . yes.’

The gentle smile returned and the Abbot squeezed his shoulder. Bakune knew he should be reassured by the smile and flattered by the personal attention, but somehow he was not. The suspicious adjudicator’s voice that spoke to him when in the magistrate’s chair murmured now: Why should he bother?

We’ve met before. It is merely professional courtesy.

And you feel gratitude for this condescension, do you not?

And he wondered in his most ruthless self-analysis: was this jealousy?

Bakune glanced behind and had to strangle an urge to laugh. The Abbot’s entire entourage was now bunched up behind his two ambling guards, one of whom was exploring the cavity of a nostril.

The Abbot continued his slow pacing. Gravel crackled beneath his sandals. ‘She has been with us all her life. We have had to – how shall I put it? – restrain Sister Prudence for some time now. When she escaped from the Hospice we all knew how it would end. A terrible act. Terrible. But,’ and he took a slow deep breath, ‘no doubt the Lady has taken in her troubled spirit and now protects and soothes her.’

‘Yes. Of course. May I ask – what were her duties?’

Starvann paused and turned. His tangled brows rose. ‘Her duties? Why, no different from those of all her sisters. Devotional, of course. Praying for and easing the suffering of those within the Hospice. She rotated through the kitchens and cleaning duties as do all the sisters. And she served within the orphanage as well. I remember she was particularly fond of working with our young charges.’

‘I see. Thank you, Abbot, for your time.’

Starvann bowed. ‘Of course. Thank you for coming personally. Your attention is noted.’ He gave a small bow.

Bakune bowed in answer; his audience was over. The man actually thinks I came seeking to impress him with my diligence! And something moved him to press his case – perhaps that very condescension. ‘Had she a particular friend, Abbot? Within the order, I mean?’

Caught in the act of turning away, the Abbot frowned. He made a vague gesture. ‘There might have been a friend – Sister Charity, I believe.’

Though the Abbot was now walking away, Bakune again raised his voice: ‘And where might I find this Sister Charity?’

The Abbot’s lips thinned. His entourage had pushed past Bakune’s guards and were now ushering him off. ‘She left the order years ago,’ he said slowly. ‘Good day.’

Bakune bowed, murmuring, ‘Good day,’ but no one remained but his guards – who had their hands tucked into their belts while they watched the crowd shuffle away. ‘Looks like we’re finished here,’ he told them.

‘Looks like,’ one drawled.

‘I want to see your captain now.’

Sharing a glance, the two rolled their eyes.

***

A year ago Kyle quit the mercenary company he’d fought with since he was taken from the tall grass steppes he’d known all his youth. Now, trying to get by in Delanss, the capital city of the island of the same name, he suddenly discovered the pressing need for something he’d never known before: cash for room and board. He met this problem by agreeing to serve as a hiresword for a fellow named Best. The job consisted of little more than warming a bench, drinking the man’s ale and sleeping at his tavern while occasionally intimidating people stupid enough to have borrowed money from him.

This night as usual he was drinking in the common room when his immediate boss, Tar Kargin, stomped downstairs and waved together all the regular muscle. ‘Got a job. Straight from Best.’ He led the way out on to the darkening, rain-slick cobblestone street.

Tar, broad as a boat, lumbered down the middle of the way flanked by his chosen enforcers and followed by Kyle, who marvelled at the way the fellow, perhaps by dint of plain dull-witted obstinacy and towering self-absorption, could bully everyone and everything from his path. Not only all late night pedestrians of the capital city melted aside, but also men drawing carts, stevedores grunting under heaped bags and bales, even horse-drawn carriages which were diverted at the last instant lest they flatten, or be flattened by, him. Astonishingly, he even forced aside an ass leading a blind man on a rope.

‘Got your trophies?’ he demanded of Kyle without turning his bull neck.

Kyle gritted his teeth and reluctantly drew the grisly, stinking belt from a pouch and hung it round his neck. Tanned, wrinkled-up things hung from it – ears perhaps, or noses. He wasn’t sure and frankly didn’t want to know. Best had dug it up from somewhere and made him wear it when on the job. Said it frightened everyone good. What frightened Kyle was the smell.

They stopped close to the waterfront in front of a row of darkened two-storey shop houses and Kargin banged on a door. ‘Bor ’eth! Open up! I know you’re in there! Open up!’

The three thugs grinned at Kyle and thumbed the truncheons they carried pushed down their shirt-fronts. Kyle crossed his arms and for the hundredth time cursed this civilized innovation called work. He didn’t think much of it so far.

A vision-slit opened and an old man peered out. ‘Oh! It’s you, Kargin. You know, it’s funny, but I was just—’

‘Stow it and open up.’

‘But tomorrow I’ll—’

‘Today’s too late.’

‘I swear, tomorrow—’

‘If you don’t let me in now, next time I won’t ask so nice.’

‘Oh . . . well . . . if you must . . .’ Locks rattled and jangled. The thick door slowly swung until Kargin thrust it wide and stepped in. The thugs followed and Kyle brought up the rear.

They jammed into the foyer of a shop that in the dim light of the old man’s lantern looked stocked with fine imported goods. A shelf next to Kyle held goblets of various sizes and shapes. Kargin gently reached out to take the lantern from the old man, Bor ’eth, and set it high on a nearby shelf. He motioned for one of his boys to shut the door. The old man’s smile slipped as the thug shot the bolts.

‘I’ll pay, Kargin – you know that. I will.’ He tried to smile again but only looked frozen and terrified. ‘It’s just that business is slow right now . . .’

‘Slow . . .’ Kargin raised and lowered his great bulk in a sigh heavy with weary patience. He waved Kyle forward. Kyle remembered to set his face in his best sullen glower. ‘See this lad here?’ Bor ’eth nodded uncertainly. ‘He comes from a savage distant land where they don’t think twice about killin’ one another. Don’t value human life. Not like us civilized people here. See that belt?’ Again an unsure nod. ‘Those are the ears and noses and . . . other things he’s cut from the men he’s killed.’ Peering up, the old man flinched back, pulled the quilt he’d thrown about his shoulders tighter. ‘I’d just have to snap my fingers like that, and he’d have your ears . . . What do you think about that?’

The old man clutched his neck and glanced from face to face as if wondering whether this were a joke or not. ‘Really?’ he gasped, his voice high and quavering. ‘Amazing . . .’

Take his ears!

Kyle launched himself forward and grasped a handful of the old man’s thin orange-grey hair, pressing the edge of his knife just under one ear. The fellow screeched like a hoarse bird, flailed uselessly at Kyle’s arms. Kyle turned a glance on Kargin.

The big man let out a great belly-laugh and took Bor ’eth from Kyle’s hands. He held him in a tight hug. ‘But I won’t let him do that this time, Bor ’eth! Why would I do such a thing to a paying customer, right?’ The old fellow was fairly sobbing and clung to Kargin as if he’d just saved his life. ‘No . . . that’s what I’ll do to you if you don’t bring the money to Best tomorrow. This is what I do to those who are late.’ He nodded to the thugs and, grinning, they pulled Bor ’eth from him.

‘What . . . ?’ the old man gasped.

‘Break his hand.’

Laughing, the lads hefted their truncheons, and while one held the squirming man’s hand on a counter the other two raised the weapons.

‘No . . . please . . . In the name of Soliel . . .’

‘I am being merciful, Bor ’eth.’ He gave a curt nod. One truncheon whistled down to smack the counter. The old man shrieked. The second truncheon swung and landed with a wet bang. Bor ’eth went limp in the thug’s arms. The lad shook him until he roused. ‘Again,’ Kargin said. The batons rose.

Kyle examined the goblets while the thugs shattered the merchant’s hand. All this pain and trouble over coins; he’d grown up without any on open plains where his people hunted for the food they needed and made the tools they used. They had some coins and other bits and pieces they kept for trade, but other than that he’d grown up without the need. From what he’d seen in his travels since, his people had been better off without this one particular advance of civilization. And if someone pressed such a need upon him, he’d just walk away.

Kargin raised a hand. Kyle glanced over; released, the old man slid down to sit rocking back and forth, cradling the bloody broken thing that was his hand to his chest. Kargin motioned to the door. Kyle set the rose-hued cut-crystal goblet back in place on its shelf.

 

Out on the street, as they walked back to Best’s, the night air cold and crisp after a light rain, one of the young thugs sidled up to Kyle and grinned, exposing his broken uneven teeth. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked.

‘See what?’

‘Pissed himself, the old guy. Wet those expensive robes of his,’ and he laughed.

‘Congratulations. You beat an old guy into pissing himself.’

The grin fell away. The young tough tossed his long hair from his pimply face. ‘You ever do any of that stuff Kargin says – cuttin’ ears and such?’

Kyle set his mouth in a leer and leaned close. ‘All the fucking time.’

Close to the front of Best’s inn, Kargin stopped and waved everyone on. ‘Too bad about your friend,’ he said to Kyle.

Kyle stopped, untied the string of fetid trophies and slowly lowered it into its bag. ‘What do you mean?’

‘That fellow you used to chum with, the other foreigner. The merchant houses he got to put up the money for his place . . . they foreclosed on him. Closed him up tight.’

Cinching the pouch, Kyle glanced over. ‘Really?’

‘Uh-huh. When I heard the news, I wondered . . . what would you have done if it was his place we went to visit tonight?’

Kyle hefted the feather-light pouch. ‘Nothing. I wouldn’t have had to do anything because he would have scattered you lot like geese.’

The chief enforcer for Best, the man who controlled most of the blackmailing and extortion in the city, seemed to peer down sleepily at Kyle over the great bulk of his chest. His nostrils flared as he snorted. ‘Some kinda hot ex-mercenary you’ve turned out to be. I ain’t seen fuck-all that impresses from you yet.’

‘And you won’t. Here,’ Kyle flicked the pouch at him, ‘keep your ears on. See you around.’

‘I don’t think so,’ the man called after him. ‘He’d be in prison right now ’cept someone bought his debts – and that someone ain’t from around here . . .’

The man’s sly rumbling laughter followed Kyle down the darkened street.

 

Some Falaran legal documents, all ribboned and weighted by wax seals, hung nailed to the door of Orjin’s school. Kyle tried the door and found it unlocked. Just inside the tunnel he stopped to study the empty practice floor; the sand shone in the moonlight like glittering quicksilver.

‘Orjin?’ he hissed. ‘Orjin?’ Movement from the shadows. A figure staggered into the pale light, sword held slack and low in one hand. Great Harrier preserve us! What’s happened? He ran to him, grunted as the man’s extraordinary weight sagged on him. ‘What’s happened? Are you wounded?’

Something banged from Kyle’s head, sloshing. He snatched an earthenware jug from Orjin’s hand. ‘What’s this?’

‘No more of your talk!’ the man bellowed hotly in his ear. ‘Keep your contracts and writs! Dare to face me like a man, Dead Poliel take you!’

‘Oh for Hood’s sake!’ Kyle pushed him away. He should’ve smelled it, but the last months spent sitting in a common room had blunted his nose.

Tottering, Orjin swung the slim Darujhistan epée, almost cutting Kyle. ‘Come on! Arm yourself! We’ll settle this the old-fashioned way!’ He crossed to a weapon rack and heaved it over in a ringing clatter of ironmongery. ‘Take your pick! As you see – there’s plenty!’

‘Orjin . . . Greymane . . .’

The man blinked, weaving. ‘What’s that? Greymane? Greymane?’ His head sank chin to chest and for a time he seemed to study all the fallen swords glowing silver in the moonlight. ‘That man is dead.’

‘Orjin . . . I heard someone’s coming. Someone from elsewhere – that can only mean the Malazans. They’ve found you.’ He stepped closer. ‘Now come on. Let’s go. There’s nothing for us here. I hate this place. These people would bend over for donkeys if they had gold. Let’s go.’

Orjin breathed out a noisy wet sigh and eased himself down amid the blades. He hung his head. His long unkempt mane shone just as bright as the tangled iron. ‘No. I’m finished. Let them come.’ He waved broadly to encompass the surroundings. ‘This was always my dream, you know, Kyle. Retire. Open a fighting college. Teach something of what I’ve learned.’ At random, he picked up a longsword, a heavy northern Genabackan weapon; sighted down the blade. ‘But no one really wants to know what a bellyful of war teaches.’

Looking down at the man, Kyle considered trying to wrench him up but didn’t think he’d be able to budge his bulk. He knelt to his haunches. ‘Listen, Orjin. Hood take these merchants and gangsters. They’re no different from each other. Let’s just go! Hire on to the first ship we come to in the harbour – who cares where it’s headed.’

‘No, no. That’s a young man’s game. I’m too old. You go.’

‘No one’s after me.’

‘Then what are you doing here?’

‘I’m here because—’ A small sound, the scuff of a foot on sand, turned Kyle’s head. Four figures emerged from the gloom of the entrance tunnel. All were dressed alike in dark leathers and bore two blades at their sides, one long, one short. Kyle straightened, taking up the nearest weapon as he did so, a sturdy heavy-bladed cutlass. ‘Who are you?’

‘Whoever you are,’ one answered, waving him away, ‘stand aside.’

The accent was not Malazan. It didn’t resemble any accent Kyle had ever heard in all his travels. At the voice, however, Orjin’s head snapped up, and he said to Kyle, his words suddenly stone-cold sober, ‘Go, now. Leave us.’

‘Go? Who are these guys? Hired killers?’

‘Killers, yes.’ Orjin stood, gathering up a long slim blade in each hand. ‘But not for gold or treasure – hey, Cullel?’ A gleaming bright hungry grin from the spokesman answered Orjin. ‘You kill for something else, don’t you? For religious faith alone.’

‘We exterminate heretics,’ Cullel assented, his voice a low purr. The four slowly spread out, walking the perimeter of the practice floor.

‘Where in the Abyss are these lunatics from?’ Kyle demanded.

‘They are Korelri. Veterans of the Stormwall. They’ve been given special dispensation to hunt me down. Yes, Cullel?’

‘Hunt you down?’ Kyle asked.

Orjin shifted to put his back to Kyle’s. ‘Yes.’

‘But I thought the Malazans wanted you.’

‘Ah . . . well . . . them too.’

‘Wonderful.’

The four now occupied each of the sides of the practice yard. As one they drew their weapons, the long and the short blades.

‘Get rid of that and use your fancy blade,’ Orjin told Kyle.

‘I . . . don’t have it.’

‘You don’t—’ Orjin sent an exasperated look over his shoulder. ‘Why in the Abyss not?’

‘Gentlemen . . .’ Cullel called softly.

‘It was stolen from my room.’

Stolen?

‘Gentlemen!’

‘Well, we’re in a right fix now, thanks to you,’ Orjin grumbled.

‘Thank you,’ Cullel said. ‘Now, before we execute our duty it is my obligation to inform you, Greymane, that you have been tried in absentia by the High Council of the Chosen, Defenders of the Lands of Korel and All Greater Fist and Beyond, and have been found guilty of making pacts with the enemy. And that you did enter into said pacts and covenants with the daemonic Riders wilfully, and of your own cognizance.’

Pacts?’ Kyle whispered to Orjin.

The man gave a beefy shrug of acquiescence. ‘I talked to them.’

‘Them – the Riders? You really cut a deal with the Stormriders?

‘Gentlemen! Decorum, if you please. The discharge of justice is a solemn responsibility.’

‘Justice?’ Kyle barked, offended by the idea. ‘You’re damned up yourself, aren’t you?’

Distaste twisted the man’s blade-narrow face. ‘Very well. Judgement has been delivered. And now, the sentence . . .’ He nodded to his fellows.

They advanced together, blades raised. So much for justice, Kyle decided – four against two. Entering the moonlight, the four Korelri suddenly blazed as the slanting rays revealed that their armour, fittings and scabbards were all studded and filigreed with thin curving traceries of the finest silver.

It chanced that Kyle faced Cullel. Shifting his sandalled foot, Kyle kicked a scarf of sand for cover and parried the other Korelri. Instantly, he knew he faced the best swordsmen he’d ever met. He could barely deflect their attacks. Light cuts welled blood on his forearms. A thrust tore into his thigh and he almost fell. They even worked as a team: he could only watch while they coordinated their attacks to draw him out and expose his side – Wind take it! There is nothing I can do! He sensed Orjin, behind, going down to one knee. Hit already?

Then Greymane was up and the two swordsmen facing Kyle flinched, seeing something beyond him. One of the Korelri behind Kyle snarled his pain while the other flew into view, tumbling loosely over the sand as if tossed by a ferocious blow. Then Orjin stepped in front of Kyle, swinging a two-handed dull-grey blade that Kyle had only seen once before. Cullel parried, but his sword blade shattered like brittle bronze and Orjin’s swing continued on to smash into his side, crumpling him. The last remaining Defender yelled ferociously and leapt, only to be impaled on the thick blade. Orjin kicked the man from the coarse, gritty-looking weapon, and shook the blood from its length.

Kyle took in the four fallen men, then Orjin’s ragged, two-handed sword. ‘Where by all the Queen’s Mysteries did that come from?’

A wet laugh sounded from where Cullel lay. It raised Kyle’s hackles. He squeezed the bloody cut in the leathers over his thigh and limped over.

‘What’s that? You have even more to say?’

‘So it is true . . .’ the man gasped. Blood welled up with the word. ‘The claims are true. Stonewielder . . . He betrayed all humanity for that artefact.’

‘Bullshit!’

The man’s eyes widened with a fevered light. ‘No. His reward. Ask him, though he’ll no doubt lie.’ He fought to say more but blood now filled his mouth and he gasped in a coughing fit, straining for breath. His body clenched rigid then slowly eased, relaxing, falling limp.

Kyle raised his eyes to Orjin. ‘Well?’

The big man simply walked off and knelt to pick up the fallen gourd of wine. When he straightened, the blade was gone. Kyle crossed the floor. ‘Where is it?’

‘Where’s what?’

‘The sword.’ He scanned the ground but saw no sign of it. ‘Where’d it go?’

‘Never mind, Kyle. Leave it alone.’ Orjin took a deep swig from the gourd.

‘But . . . what is it?’

Orjin wiped his sleeve across his mouth, sighed. ‘Damned useless is what it is.’

‘Useless?’

Waving aside all discussion, Orjin crossed to a bench, sat heavily. As his leg was steadily numbing Kyle decided to join him. He took the gourd and sipped to wet his caked mouth, spat. ‘So? Did the Riders give it to you?’

Orjin nodded his slow assent. ‘Yeah. They gave it to me. Not for any damned pact or deal or anything. We just talked and they gave it to me.’

‘Just like that.’

The man turned his head to glare one-eyed. ‘Don’t be trite. One night I climbed down the cliffs to the edge of the Ocean of Storm and waited – you try that one night. Eventually, some showed up. They speak Korelri . . . there’s irony for you. Anyway, we talked. They claimed they weren’t the enemy at all. I pointed out that attacking the Stormwall for generations tended to give the appearance. They said the Korelri were denying them access to their own territory and blocking some kind of ancient obligation, or holy pilgrimage . . . or some such thing.’ He cleared his throat, waved a hand. ‘Anyway, I couldn’t really make it all out.’

Kyle got the impression there was more to it, but apparently this was all the other would say – for now. He took another sip. He rested his eyes on the four still figures gleaming in the moonlight. ‘How come they can speak Korelri if they’re such sworn enemies? Do they take captives from the wall or something like that? Torture them in their undersea lairs?’

Orjin leaned forward to give him a long hard look.

‘What?’

Orjin snatched back the gourd. ‘You’ve listened to too many romances. It’s rotted your brain. No, the thought occurred to me too, so I asked. They said they’d always listened to the men on the wall and to sailors on ships.’

‘Well then, why don’t they just yell from the water then? Talk to them?’

‘They said they tried that but the men always ignored them, called them liars and sirens and such. So they stopped.’

‘And the sword?’

Again the beefy shrug. ‘They were grateful I’d talked to them so they offered it as a gift. I said sure.’

‘So what is it? Where’s it from?’

Orjin finished the gourd, tossed it aside. ‘They didn’t know. Said they’d found it deep at the bottom of the Cut far beneath the sea. They did say it was very old, and I agree.’

‘But you never use it.’

He edged his head side to side. ‘No. It’s too powerful. Too dangerous.’

‘But you have used it – I remember, against that warlock.’

A small thoughtful nod, eyes ahead, perhaps also studying the mute meaning of the four dead Defenders of the Faith.

‘So, that name I’d heard for you – Stonewielder.’

‘Yeah. A few called me that before I was arrested by Malazan High Command.’

‘But . . . I thought you were in command of Malazan forces in Korel.’

‘Military, yes. The marines and regulars. But there was a civilian authority. A governor. Hemel. Hemel ’Et Kelal. A Bloorian nobleman. Never did know what happened to the man. Anyway, he and a gang of minor officers denounced me for treating with the Riders . . . and that was that.’

‘And then?’ Kyle asked, fascinated, almost forgetting the pain clenching his leg.

Orjin waved it all away. ‘Never mind. Ancient history.’ Groaning and wincing, he stood. ‘I’m out of wine and you need that leg looked at.’ He held out a hand. ‘Let’s go.’

Kyle pulled himself upright, held on to the man’s shoulder as he limped along. ‘So we’ll sign on to a ship?’

‘Trake no! We’re going to get your sword back.’

‘But I told you – someone stole it from my room.’

Orjin shook his head. ‘Kyle . . . you’re too trusting.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Best is one of the heads of Delanss’ black market. The man’s a thief. He stole it.’

‘He said he’d get it back for me!’

Orjin stopped short and peered down at him for a time. ‘And then he suggested that you might as well do some work for him in the meantime . . .’

Kyle gave a sheepish shrug. ‘Something like that.’

‘That settles it. Can you walk?’

‘Yeah – some.’

‘Okay. Head to the waterfront. Wait for me there. I’ll be back with your sword and then we’ll have to be off right quick.’

‘Grey— Orjin, I can’t let you do that.’

‘Might as well make it Greymane, Kyle. I took a stab at being plain old Orjin Samarr once more, but it didn’t take. So it’s Greymane again. And it’ll be Greymane who’ll be visiting Best tonight.’

Kyle peered about at the silent rain-slick street, the moonlit shop fronts. ‘Grey, it’s not worth it. Let’s get out of here while we can.’

‘Not worth it? You know that’s a lie. Your friends in the Guard, Stalker and his cousins, they told me who gave you that weapon. So we both know it’s worth it.’ His pale blue eyes, buried deep in their sockets, flashed something that might have been amusement. ‘We’re both burdened by blades that are more than we would want.’ He motioned Kyle on. ‘Get us berths on a ship leaving at dawn!’

Kyle watched him go, then limped for the waterfront. So Stalker had told him – or he’d asked. In any case, it was true. Osserc, a being Kyle’s people worshipped as a patron god of Wind, Sky and Light, had given him the blade. Since then he’d discovered that Osserc was merely – merely! – a powerful entity, an Ascendant. Such as the Tiste Andii leader Anomander, Son of Darkness, or as some name the Enchantress, the Queen of Dreams.

But now Kyle considered all its power more trouble than it was worth. He couldn’t even draw the thing without calling extraordinary attention to himself, just like Greymane. And now the damned fool was off to get himself killed . . . and for what? Maybe, it occurred to Kyle as he hobbled along, the man was doing it to prove a point to himself – that he could do it.

 

It was close after dawn and Kyle was sitting high on the afterdeck of a galley out of Curaca when he spotted the renegade. The ship’s bone-mender was wrapping his leg but he sat up, yelling: ‘There he is! Let off! Go!’

‘Aiya!’ the old woman shouted, and gave his leg an agonizing squeeze. ‘Sit still!’

From the railing, the mate warned, ‘Your man better be worth it.’ Then he called, ‘Cast off all lines!’

The big man was jogging down the wharf, a long wrapped object in one hand. Behind him, between buildings, erupted a mass of armed men and women, civilians and city guards alike. The bone-mender let go a wild cackle at the sight.

‘Wide Ocean below!’ the mate swore. ‘Your man’s stirred up a hornets’ nest! What’s he done?’

‘You know Best, the black marketeer?’

‘That cockroach? Yeah.’

‘Well, I think my friend has kicked him in the balls.’

The mate grinned and turned to his men. ‘Look lively and ready pikes to repel boarders!’

The old crone laughed again. Her riotous cackle unnerved Kyle far more than he thought it should.

*

A Delanss nobleman entered the ransacked and empty practice quarters of Orjin’s School of Swordsmanship and tucked his hands into his thick robes behind the heavy silver links of rank. Everything, he noted, had been stripped overnight. ‘Hello?’ Blood stained the sand but he saw no signs of the bodies. ‘Anyone here?’

‘Yes.’

The man jumped, and turned to where a woman stepped forward from the shadows. She wore plain dark clothes and soft leather shoes. She was a very deep brown, her hair tightly curled and cut short. Something about her reminded the nobleman of the Korelri he’d just dealt with, though he knew this woman for no Fistian. Perhaps it was the stink of fanaticism that seemed to hang about them both.

‘I apologize for this Orjin fellow. I had no idea he was so unstable. I heard that he bulled his way through Best’s entire bodyguard and proceeded to hold him by one hand over a privy hole until the man handed over one just one particular item. It’s not my fault he went berserk.’

The woman lazily dismissed his concerns with a wave of a long-fingered hand. ‘Do not worry yourself. You would have been paid in full even if the Korelri had managed to kill him.’

‘Even then?’

‘Yes. Because then we would’ve known he was no longer the man for us.’

The nobleman raised both brows. ‘Really? And now – after he has wounded over twenty men, overcome a patrol of the city guard, and thumbed his nose at all civilized authority – what do you know now?’

The woman’s deep brown eyes seemed to laugh at him, and more, to do things that only the most recent of his mistresses was able to accomplish with just a look. She said, smiling, ‘That he is exactly the one we want.’

***

The lock to Corlo’s cell ratcheted and the door opened. A Korelri officer in their silver-chased, blue-black armour waved him out. He wasn’t one of the regulars Corlo knew. Idly, the thought occurred to him that he had yet to meet a female Korelri Chosen – the order must somehow disapprove or work against their promotion. He swung his feet from his pallet. ‘What is it?’

‘Come with us.’

He pointed to the metal torc at his neck. ‘Take this off.’

The officer snorted. ‘You think us fools, warlock?’

Not so much fools, Corlo reflected as he followed the man into the hall, as inexperienced. These Korelri were so unfamiliar with mages they were willing to sink fortunes into collars alloyed with a touch of the magic-deadening otataral ore for when they might actually come to meet one. Was it irony, the mage wondered, that the source of that ore was the invaders themselves, the Malazans? A squad of Korelri crossbowmen crowded the hall, covering him. Inexperienced and fearful. They seemed to actually think the talents of magery must somehow be connected to their traditional enemies, the sea-demons. Rather ignorant here behind their wall. But then, that’s what happens when you raise walls. And the Lady no doubt stands behind their beliefs.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Quiet, Malazan. Move.’

By now Corlo had long given up trying to enlighten his captors on politics outside their isolated islands. The subtleties seemed beyond them, or they really just didn’t give a damn. Yes, he was a native of the Malazan Empire, from Avore, in fact, before the old Emperor wiped it from the map. But more important, he was also a member of the Crimson Guard. A mercenary company dedicated to the destruction of that very Empire. Or at least he used to be; and the company was once. Now, he didn’t know – none of his surviving companions knew.

 

The officer and his escort led him out of the complex of cells and grottoes that honeycombed the Stormwall here north of Fortress Kor, then up wide twisting sets of stairs to the barracks behind the rock field that tumbled down from the wall’s base. It was a sunny day but the shadows were chilly, reminding Corlo that winter was coming and with it another season standing the wall. After a few turns he knew where he was being taken and his chest clenched: Oh, please Burn. He hasn’t tried again, has he?

Sure enough, the way led to the walled barracks of those favoured prisoners who stood the wall. Here captives from all over the globe, men and women of proven ability and cooperative spirit, lived in relative luxury and ease. Here his commander in the Crimson Guard, Iron Bars, ranked an entire suite of rooms all to himself. Not that he’s all that cooperative.

At the door to Bars’ rooms Corlo’s escort thrust an arm across the hall. ‘If you value the life of your friend,’ he warned, ‘you’ll remind him of where his best interests lie.’

Corlo edged the man’s arm aside. ‘He’s my friend.’

Behind the narrow slit of his blackened iron helm the man’s dark brown eyes remained unconvinced. We can do without you lot, Corlo read in the hard unswerving gaze. The man lifted his chin to the guards. One unlatched the door.

Corlo pushed aside the heavy iron barrier on to a scene of chaos. Shards of pots and smashed wooden chairs and tables littered the polished floor. Drying pools of wine stained the stones and tossed salvers of fruit and bread lay amid the trampled wreckage. Whimpering brought his gaze down to a girl hunched next to the door, arms wrapped around her knees.

He raised her up and she stood shivering, hugging herself. No, he couldn’t have . . . He lifted her chin. Kohl had run from her eyelids and was smeared across her face. She would not meet his gaze, but he saw only fear and confusion in her demeanour. Like nothing you’ve ever run into before, hey, child? Yeah, he’s like that.

He gently handed her out to the guards then crept forward through the mess of shattered furnishings. The remains of glass carafes and fine ceramic jars crackled beneath his sandals. He heard the door pulled shut and secured behind him. Eventually, after searching the main room, he found his commander slumped beneath a barred window, unshaven, hair lank with sweat, a wide-bladed knife held to his neck. The man flashed his teeth like a wild animal upon seeing him.

Corlo pointed to the blade. ‘That won’t work.’

The fixed smile was ghastly. Bars let the weapon clatter to the floor. ‘They don’t know that.’ His voice was a hoarse croak.

Corlo didn’t bother asking what had happened. He simply leaned back against the wall, crossed his arms and studied the man, hoping that beneath his regard Bars would come to feel something. Please let him still be able to feel – something.

But the man would not look at him; his gaze roved about the remains of the broken and smashed furniture as if wondering how much it might all cost. ‘I can’t go on like this, Corlo,’ he said, finally, into the long silence. ‘I’m dying.’ And he laughed, making Corlo wince. ‘I’m dying but I cannot die.’ Beneath sweat-tangled hair he shot a quick glance at the mage. ‘Like the irony of that?’

‘Walk away.’

An impatient shrug brought a long silence. Bars reached out to a stoneware jug and took a long pull. ‘I won’t leave any of you behind.’

‘They know that.’

‘So. What to do.’ He rested the jug on his lap.

Corlo studied his hands clasped at his sash, glanced up. ‘They won’t kill us. They say they would, but they won’t. I’ve been listen- ing – they need everyone they can get.’

Bars’ gaze narrowed; they were edging into old territory. ‘To go where . . .’

‘Stratem—’

The jug exploding over his head made Corlo duck. ‘Fuck Stratem!’

Saying nothing, Corlo straightened, flexed his neck to ease his nervous tension. Bars fell back, frowned after a time at the course of his own thoughts. ‘We were so close. I could sense the Guard Brethren at the end there. I sensed them turning away from the mission to that scum Skinner. And he mocked me. He mocked me!’ The man pressed his hands to his hanging head. ‘The Crimson Guard betrayed its vow and left us to rot. And . . . I . . . still . . . can’t . . . die!’

Corlo could only remain silent. So. The foundation at last. Betrayal. Failure. Helplessness and futility. What could he possibly say? Feeling ill with self-loathing, he reached for his last remaining tool – the one his captors employed for the very same purpose. He straightened from the wall, pressed his sweaty hands to his sides. ‘For the men, Bars. Hang on.’

His commander bit down on a convulsive laugh. He pushed his hands up through his hair so ferociously Corlo thought he meant to tear it out. ‘Yes. Well. Back to that.’

‘No choice.’

‘No. None.’

Corlo allowed himself a shallow nod of assent. ‘I’ll tell them to clean up.’

Bars said nothing; Corlo thought his eyes looked empty, as if the man had retreated to somewhere far away. He gingerly edged his way to the door, which opened to his knock.

‘You can clean the place up, but leave him alone.’

The Korelri Chosen simply motioned him to follow. The curt ingratitude raised no anger in Corlo; it was shame that burned in his chest as he descended the barracks stairs. I am the same as you, he told the iron-armoured back of his guide. No, perhaps I am even worse. I am a collaborator. A traitor who conspires with the enemy in the enslavement of my friend.

For a hundred years ago the original men and women of the Crimson Guard had sworn a terrible vow: the eternal opposition of the Malazan Empire. And thereby was granted them something ap- proaching immortality – so long as the Empire should endure. But even so Corlo knew they could die. If Bars really want to, he could do it. The wall is high and the waters cold. Nooses throttle. Long thin blades pierce the eye and the brain behind.

That was his fear. That the man would just give up. Most would have by now, probably. But Bars had never given up in the past – that had always been his strength as an Avowed in the Guard. That was what Corlo was counting on.

The man just had to be reminded of it from time to time.

***

An inhabitant of Malaz city on the isle of that name, out during a night of its frigid autumn rains – a drunk, or a baker, or a night watchman, should there have ever been a night watch in Malaz – might have seen a slim cloaked figure lingering before the iron gate of an abandoned house of particularly evil reputation. The Deadhouse, the locals called it, when forced to acknowledge its existence at all. A house where none live, where the grounds are humped with the mounds of countless burials, and where those who enter never leave.

Such a wet and chilled witness might have seen the figure place a hand upon the gate, obviously intending to enter where no resident would ever dare, and then might have heard a shout, a woman’s voice commanding, ‘Hold!

No doubt at this point any resident of Malaz, who ought not to have been out in the first place in such fell weather and at such a time, would have had the sense to withdraw, to leave these callers on night-time errands to their dark business, and to speak of such things to no one. And so they would not have seen the taller of the two, revealed as a young woman, take the hand of the speaker, an older woman in a shawl, and kiss it.

 

Kiska stretched out her legs and peered about at the cramped and cluttered nest of shelves and boxes and stacked burlap sacks that was Agayla’s spice shop. To think as a child it had once seemed roomy to her. She rubbed a towel over her damp short hair and gave a gentle snort; that had been a long time ago. Still, each breath – and she sniffed the heady, redolent melange of countless spices – reminded her of that home.

Her aunt Agayla returned carrying soup on a tray. Not a true blood relation, but close enough for those less bureaucratic days when anyone could take in anyone and damn the local authorities who could go jump in the bay anyway. Her long hair was touched by more grey than Kiska remembered. Her arms were even thinner and more wiry than they had been, but for all that she looked remarkably well preserved.

The woman regarded her now over the steaming bowls. Her narrow severe face was set in hard disapproval.

‘I wasn’t about to kill myself, Agayla.’

A dark brow arched. ‘Oh? What were you about to do then?’

‘It’s . . . complicated, auntie.’

Both brows rose. ‘Ah. Complicated, is it?’

‘Auntie! I . . .’ She searched for words in the face of the woman’s censure, and failed. She waved a hand. ‘Never mind.’

‘Drink your soup.’

Feeling exactly like the sullen resentful child she must have been more than a decade ago, Kiska scooped up the bowl and spoon. It was delicious, of course. The best meal she’d tasted in years. A twisted bunch of twigs floated on the surface that she nudged aside to sip the broth. Sage? she wondered, inhaling its sharp breath.

‘I’ve heard, of course,’ Agayla began, setting down her own bowl. ‘And I am deeply sorry.’

Heard? Yes, Kiska imagined the woman had. Who hadn’t? The High Mage Tayschrenn, possibly the greatest practitioner of the age, sucked into a void and cast out not even the gods knew where. And she, his bodyguard, left alive to face the truth of her complete, and abject, failure. She must be the most storied failure since Greymane. Yes, there was no doubt Agayla had heard. She herself had yet to bolt awake every morning without seeing it.

‘They were Avowed, girl. That you faced them down at all is remarkable.’

‘Yet I wasn’t good enough.’

‘Console yourself with the fact that there are few who would have been.’ The woman gathered her long mane of hair over one shoulder and began pulling a shell comb through it. Kiska watched. Despite her resentment, she felt the magic of the familiar ritual stealing over her as her limbs relaxed, and the knot of her shoulders eased. She remembered standing behind the woman on so many nights doing that very brushing, counting every stroke. ‘So what did you intend?’ Agayla asked, after a time.

‘A proposition for whoever opened that door.’

The brushing paused; dark eyes regarded her, glittering. ‘A proposition of what?’

‘A service for a service. They help me find him and I will serve them.’

The woman set down the comb. ‘A very dangerous gamble.’

‘What? Entering the grounds?’

‘No. Dangerous should they, or it, actually accept your offer.’

To hide her irritation at that familiar high-handedness, Kiska looked away, to where sacks of some sort of dried leaves sat slumped and threadbare. ‘It is no longer for you to say, Agayla. I was Tayschrenn’s bodyguard for a decade. I travelled with him to negotiate treaties. Met an ambassador sent from Anomander Rake himself. I have visited Darujhistan where we met a delegation of ex-Free City mages. I now know you for a talented practitioner in your own way, Agayla. At least here on this island. But this is a very small island. And these are larger matters.’

The woman’s thick dark brows climbed higher than Kiska had ever seen. ‘Oho! I see the way the tiles have fallen now. Quite sufficient, am I, for curing the pox? Or helping out the local girls who have gotten themselves into trouble, yes?’

‘No offence, auntie – but have you even left the island?’

Agayla knotted her hair into one long braid. ‘This island hedge-witch can be of no help to one like yourself who has moved in such high and mighty circles, hmm?’

‘Agayla . . .’

‘Just call the wind and make my candles, shall I?’

Kiska simply hung her head and waited for the storm to blow itself out. Eventually she said, studying her hands on her lap, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘You’re young yet, child,’ Agayla said, her voice softening. ‘Full of yourself. Quite certain you know the way of things now that you’ve seen the world. When in truth you’ve hardly even begun your education.’

Kiska’s head snapped up. ‘Don’t treat me like a child. I may still be so in your memories, but I have moved on. I am a grown woman now and I will make my own decisions.’ She steeled herself for more argument but it never came. Her aunt merely inclined her head, conceding the point.

‘True. To me, you will always be that child whose cries I soothed, whose hands I guided. Nothing can ever change that.’ She bound up the thick coil of her hair. ‘So enough talk for tonight. Sleep. Your bed remains. Things may look different in the morning.’

And Kiska eased back into her chair, let her hands rest on her lap. She was tired. The soup was a warm caress in her stomach. Nodding, she stood and made her way to the rear of the shop where a narrow stairway led up to her old room.

‘Sleep,’ Agayla murmured to her retreating back, her eyes narrowed once more. And more softly yet, ‘And dream.’

 

When she was alone, Agayla crossed the shop to the latest tapestry stretched upon her loom. She set her feet on the pedals and pushed the shuttle across the weave, then reset the pattern. She worked on towards dawn, the frame rattling as the threads crossed, the wooden shuttle making its countless passes. As she worked she cast her mind far from the task at hand; her fingers moved automatically; her gaze was unfocused, seeking deep into the dazzling pattern emerging from the weft.

‘Enchantress,’ she entreated. ‘This lowly servant would seek counsel. Bless this one with your guidance.’

For every pass of the shuttle was a prayer sent; every shift in the woof a revelation. ‘O Queen—’

And came the answer, that cool gentle voice so familiar: Greetings, Agayla Atheduru Remejhel. Most valued servant. Always I welcome your wisdom.

‘My Queen. I beg an audience. News has come. Though my heart is heavy with the weight of it, I may have an answer to that problem we have spoken of.’

And the answer came, full of understanding and thus sharing in that same heaviness: Bring her.

Agayla clamped her hands upon the loom, stilling the mechanism. She blinked to return her vision to the dawn’s light. It took many slow breaths to calm the hammering of her heart. An audience. It has been so many years. Oh, Kiska . . . what have I done? Yet how else could I stop you? She saw before her how her tears darkened the polished wood.

***

At night in an alley in Banith, four men dressed in loose dark clothes crouched, whispering. ‘All we have to do is walk in!’ said one. ‘The door isn’t even locked.’

‘This foreigner claims he keeps it open,’ added the second, aside.

‘It’s open. What are we waiting for?’

After a moment’s silence, the third cleared his throat. ‘It’s consecrated ground. We shouldn’t spill blood there.’

‘Consecrated to what?’ said the first. ‘Some nameless foreign entity? The man’s a charlatan. A fake. He’s just pocketing everything. It’s a mockery.’

‘No one’s seen him take any coin from anyone,’ pointed out the third.

‘He eats, doesn’t he?’ the first answered. The third nodded, conceding the argument.

‘Perhaps he eats what his followers provide,’ a new voice rumbled from the deeper gloom within the alley.

The four spun. Eight blades glittered in the starlight.

‘Whoever you are, stranger,’ said the first, ‘turn round now and walk away. Listen to me. I’m giving you this one chance.’

The figure moved closer and the faint silver light revealed a huge shape, unnaturally tall and wide, much of his height coming from a great mane of tangled black hair. ‘As you can see,’ the newcomer said, ‘turning around is out of the question for me. You’ll have to back out yourselves.’

‘Are you a fool? Can’t you see?’

‘Yes I can – better than you, I suspect. As to being a fool . . . no, I am a thief.’

‘A thief?’ the second echoed in disbelief. He looked the giant figure up and down. ‘How could you possibly steal anything?’

‘Oh, that’s easy. Like this,’ and the figure leaned forward, lowering his voice. ‘Give me your money.’

The four exchanged confused glances, then all chuckled. ‘You’re trying my patience,’ the first warned, his voice tight.

‘No. I’m trying to take your money.’

The grins fell away. The first and the second, paired side by side, edged forward, blades extended. ‘Go now – or die.’

‘As I said, I cannot back up. And besides, one of my favourite foot-stalls is there across the street.’

‘Die a fool then!’ The two lunged. Blades thudded home, driven with force. The broad figure grunted with the strength of the thrusts. Then the two assailants loosed surprised exclamations as they yanked on the blades. ‘Stuck!’ one snarled. The newcomer swept his arms closed, crashing together the two men who fell, senseless.

‘There. Now, you two?’ the immense figure invited, stepping over the fallen shapes. The remaining pair stared for an instant at this astounding vision, then turned and ran.

‘Damn,’ the huge man said into the emptiness of the alley. He made to turn but his bulging front and back lodged against the walls of the narrow alley and he cursed again in a different language. After grunting and straining to turn round, he abandoned the effort and carefully walked backwards. He felt behind himself with each step until the two fallen attackers lay before him once more. ‘Simplicity itself,’ he said, and brushed his hands together. ‘Now then.’ He bent, grunting, reaching with a hand for one of the unconscious shapes. Sighing, he straightened then tried again with the opposite hand. He reached, cursing and hissing. His fingers clawed the air just above the shoulder of his prey.

Gasping, the man straightened to suck in great breaths. He pulled out a cloth and wiped his glistening flushed face. ‘Ah, of course!’ he murmured, smiling, and patted the loose robes that hung down over his wide armoured chest and stomach. He found a dagger grip standing out from his side and he yanked on it, grunting. After several tries he managed to withdraw the blade. He studied it, impressed. One of the fallen attackers groaned then, stirring, and the fellow reversed the dagger and threw it down to crack pommel-first against the man’s head. Then he found the second blade and began yanking on it, snarling and grumbling beneath his breath again.

‘What do you think you’re doing here, Manask?’

The giant flinched, jerking the dagger free and dropping it. He blinked mildly at the squat muscular newcomer before him. ‘Ipshank. Fancy meeting you here.’

The man scowled, the lines of tattoos on his face twisting. ‘I live here, Manask. This is my temple.’

‘Ah!’ Manask took hold of another lodged dagger. ‘Is that what you call it?’ He pulled on the weapon, wrenching it from side to side. ‘But I recall . . . hearing that . . . Fener is no more!’ The blade came free and he studied it, pleased.

‘I’ve found a new god.’

‘Oh? A new one?’ The tall man held out a hand, thumb and fore- finger close together. ‘Perhaps a tiny baby one?’

‘Spare me your scepticism. I see you still have your, ah, armour.’

Manask clasped his wide sides. ‘Why of course. It’s like my own flesh and blood.’

‘Exactly,’ Ipshank answered beneath his breath. He kicked at one fallen man. ‘Who’s this?’

‘Ahhh!’ Manask murmured, holding up the dagger. ‘A question very pertinent for you.’ Bending, he pushed the blade through the clothes of one fellow, then raised the weapon to bring the unconscious man into reach and grasped him with his free hand. All this Ipshank watched expressionless, arms crossed.

‘You are making powerful enemies, my friend,’ the big man explained as he rifled the attacker’s clothes. ‘These men work for the City Watch.’ A pouch of coins and other weapons were tucked into pockets hidden all about Manask’s loose robes. Finished, he dropped the fellow and bent to the next.

‘I don’t want you interfering. You’ll only ruin everything.’

Manask peered up, grinning, ‘Oh? Ruin what?’

Ipshank mouthed a silent curse. ‘Nothing.’

‘Oho! I knew it!’ Manask straightened with the second assailant. ‘A new scam. I’ll have your back again – just like the old days.’

The priest raised his face to the night sky and the boar’s face superimposed in faded blue ink stood out in sudden relief. He gave a suffering sigh. ‘No, Manask. No more tricks. No more deceits. I’m finished. Retired. Do me a favour now and don’t hang around.’ Down on the littered cobbles the first attacker groaned, mumbling something and wincing his pain. Ipshank kicked him across the temple.

The big man let the second fellow drop. ‘Now don’t get greedy. We’ve always split the gains. You’re not going all priestly on me, are you?’

‘How many times do I have to tell you? There’ll be no proceeds from this operation, Manask. Not the tangible kind, in any case.’

Manask clasped his fingertips across the top of his great bulging front and peered down at the squat man before him. His tangled brows knitted together. ‘Oh dear. You are going all religious in your old age, aren’t you? Very well. If you must indulge your guilty conscience. Temples do as well as any other racket – better than many.’

Ipshank pressed his fists to his forehead. ‘How many times do I have to . . .’ The fists fell. ‘Never mind. Do as you will. As far as I’m concerned we’re no longer associated. Don’t expect anything from me.’ And he marched away, grumbling under his breath.

Manask stood for a time in the dark alley, fingertips clasped and brows clenched. Then a sly smile blossomed on his long face and he raised a finger, chuckling. ‘Ahh! So that’s how we’re going to play it! I see it now. A falling out! Very good. No one will suspect.’ He chuckled more, tried to turn and jammed his stomach on the brick wall. ‘Damn! Curse it to the Dark Taker . . .’ He clasped his front in an attempt to squeeze himself, hissing and puffing. ‘Oh, to the Lady with it!’ He began feeling his way backwards. ‘Oh yes,’ he murmured as he retreated into the gloom. ‘We’ll fleece these Fistians to the bone, my friend. I can smell it in the air, the turmoil, the tension, and – oh dear – what have I stepped in?’

 

Stonewielder © 2011 Ian Cameron Esslemont

2 comments
Timmyocean
3. Timmyocean
is there no further additions to the stonewielder re-read??

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