Check out Stella Gemmell’s debut solo novel, The City, out on June 4:
The City is ancient, layers upon layers. Once a thriving metropolis, it has sprawled beyond its bounds, inciting endless wars with neighboring tribes and creating a barren wasteland of what was once green and productive.
In the center of the City lives the emperor. Few have ever seen him, but those who have recall a man in his prime, though he should be very old. Some grimly speculate that he is no longer human, if he ever was. A small number have come to the desperate conclusion that the only way to stop the war is to end the emperor’s unnaturally long life.
From the mazelike sewers below the City, where the poor struggle to stay alive in the dark, to the blood-soaked fields of battle, where few heroes manage to endure the never-ending siege, the rebels pin their hopes on one man—Shuskara. The emperor’s former general, he was betrayed long ago and is believed to be dead. But, under different aliases, he has survived, forsaking his City and hiding from his immortal foe. Now the time has come for him to engage in one final battle to free the City from the creature who dwells at its heart, pulling the strings that keep the land drenched in gore.
First there was the darkness—heavy and choking, blue-black and tangible, filling the mouth and ears and mind. Then the smell—huge, as solid as rough stone beneath bare feet or a pillow over the face, suffocating thought. Finally, the sound of the sewer—the never-ending sigh of the stream, the drips and the splashes and gushing.
And the pitter-patter of sharp claws on wet brick.
The rat was big and old, and he was canny. He needed no light to follow the contours of the labyrinthine sewer in which he lived out his days. His paws detected the minute variations of texture on the bricks he raced along, high above the never-ending stream of life. The astonishing discrimination of his twitching nose told him how high the stream was flowing, the quality of its contents—a high, thin flood brought vegetation, small dead things, sometimes larger ones; a low thick turgid flow held its own treats for the discerning rodent—and the quality of the air, which was sometimes enough to make even a rat ill. He could tell by the air pressure on his sensitive ears whether he was running through a small tight tunnel, or where the ceiling opened high above him into one of the soaring vaults designed by a longforgotten master architect, raised by a team of City builders, a wonder of mathematics, unseen for centuries, forgotten.
The rat could hear his friends pittering on the other side of the brick wall he followed, pattering in the next damp tunnel above him. But for a while he had outrun them all, following his nose’s relentless demand.
The corpse was barely bloated, barely dead, the rigour of mortality only recently departed. It was naked save for a rag drifting round its neck, the skin pale and cold as winter sunrise. It had fetched up against the worn teeth of a broken metal grille, which for a short while resumed its long-abandoned role of stopping large objects from moving farther downstream into the deeper depths of the sewer.
A burgeoning of the stream would happen later that day, and the dead man would travel on alone—but for a while the rat kept him company.
The boy awoke with a start on the tiny ledge where he slept. He kicked out. The kick might have been an errant muscle or the deadend of a bad dream, but it was only a small movement. He’d been taking his rest on this ledge for long enough to know—even in sleep—he could not afford any sudden move, far less a sleepy roll, which would dump him into the stream of life unreeling endlessly below him. But when he went to his rest at night he was always dog-tired, dead to the world (dead, certainly, in the world’s mind), and he lay unmoving, unconscious until it was time to wake.
Elija, who had been living in the sewer for four years, was ten years old.
He knew he held a privileged position. When he and his sister had first found sanctuary there their protector, an older boy, a redhead called Rubin, had to fight for their right to stay in that place of warmth and safety. Then for nights without number one of them had to stay on guard lest they be dumped into the stream by those jealous of their territory. But that was a long time ago; his little sister Em couldn’t remember back that far. They had been in the sewers for longer than most of the Dwellers, and their status was, for the time, secure.
Elija shifted carefully, his bare foot detecting the variations of texture on the bricks until it hit an outcrop of broken cement, its contours betterknown to him than the palm of his hand. He levered up to sitting. Watery light was filtering through broken stonework high in the roof above him. It wasn’t light enough to see by, but it thinned the air and gave it a texture of motes Elija felt he could trap in his hand and keep for later in the day, deeper in the sewer, where it might be needed.
His memories were mostly of a crying woman and a hard-handed man, fist constantly raised, face red. Then there was the time of being alone with Em, running and hiding, always frightened. His dreams often contained blood, although he remembered none. The fear still lay on the edge of his consciousness, but he had no memory of it; he was glad to be safe.
Rubin explained to them about the stream. It was a small river which rose high above the City in the south, in a place of blue hills and silver trees under constant sun. It was called the Sheepwash there. It dived underground to take on its new guise as a sewer many leagues from the City. Goats dipped their feet in it in final tribute before it left the daylight forever.
The light was stronger now. Elija had been aware of the presence of his sister since he woke, but now he turned carefully and could see the curve of her dark head above the huddled lump of her body.
“Wake up, slugabed,” he said quietly, with no real intention of waking her. She needed more sleep than he did. She didn’t stir, although he could hear other movement around him as the Dwellers roused themselves for another day of darkness. There were stirring sounds, the occasional muttered exchange, a sudden echoing shout or imprecation to the gods of the Halls.
Elija stood and relieved himself into the stream, which now ran the height of a man below his ledge. He walked confidently along the narrow shelf and picked up the small bag of belongings which lay between him and Em at night. He sat down and opened it, taking out the piece of valuable sapphire moss they had found beyond the Eating Gate. The moss still smelled fresh and he tore a piece off and rubbed it into his face and hands, relishing the fast-fading sweetness, the tang Rubin had told him was called lemon. He was supposed to use it on his feet, he knew, to ward off foot-rot, which claimed so many of the Dwellers. But they only had a little left and he didn’t want to waste it on his feet. He would see that Em did, though.
His hands clean, he foraged in the bag again and came up with strips of dried meat he’d bought from Old Hal. He chewed them slowly and thoroughly, coping stoically with the familiar cramps in his middle which flowed then ebbed.
He called again. “Wake up Em. Time to eat.”
He kicked her gently and knew she was awake though she didn’t move. From the sack he used for a pillow he took out the rags for his feet and spent the next few moments carefully winding them and rewinding them round ankles, heels, paying special care to the ankle bones, insteps, toes. In his years in the Halls he had got to know many people who were now dead, many of them from sicknesses arising in the feet.
Em was moving at last, going sleepily through her own morning rituals. Her brother did not speak to her and he focussed his eyes on far walls and the movements of distant Dwellers, giving her privacy.
It was as light now as it would get. Above him the vaulted dome was filled with a shining silver mist which never entirely went away but sometimes thinned and drifted in clouds. Hundreds of ledges ran along the curved walls, mostly above the height of Elija’s shelf, mostly inaccessible and untenanted. The Dwellers called it the Hall of Blue Light. Elija and Emly called it home.
Rivers flowed in from three brick arches at the base of the dome, met in a maelstrom of water at the centre, then exited through a pitch-black maw towards the perils of the Eating Gate, the little Hellespont, Dark Water and, finally, to the ocean itself uncounted leagues away.
A harsh voice behind him brought Elija quickly to his feet.
“Lije. Em. Let’s march.”
And the new day began.
The leader of today’s foraging party was called Malvenny. He was tall—a disadvantage in the Halls—and his face was long and thin, his nose hooked and bent sideways. Em said his eyes were green. She had the disconcerting habit of looking straight into peoples’ faces, whereas Elija always addressed Malvenny at chest-level.
He followed the tall man closely, Em to his right, well within the sputtering light of Malvenny’s torch. There were seven in the party, and only the dog-tail had a torch too. They carried plenty with them, of course, but used them sparingly in well-travelled Halls.
It was more than an hour’s march to the Eating Gate, then more than that to their foraging-ground today. Malvenny had not told them where they were going—he was the leader, it was his privilege and he had the food—but Elija knew there would be poor pickings any closer. He had confidence in Malvenny. Elija walked briskly through the dark, watching Em’s small feet and feeling her hot hand in his.
They reached the Malefactors’ Cross, a sturdy bridge built of tarred rope and planks which led to the main highway. They crossed it—as Rubin used to say—with respect.
As he always did, Elija stopped in the middle for a moment to lean on the thick ropes and to look down into the Whithergo, a diversion from the main stream which, everyone knew, shortly plunged down a great hole deep into the fastnesses of the earth. Nobody went into the Whithergo tunnel. It led to only darkness and death.
“Get on there, boy,” a gruff voice said behind him.
Elija watched his feet as he walked, and he thought about food, as he usually did if his brain wasn’t busy elsewhere. He guessed what Malvenny was carrying—mealy cakes and dried meat, maybe some dried fruit if they were lucky. Once the tall man had given them some eggs, rock-hard and pickled in spicy vinegar, which they had all fallen on, delighted by something different to eat. Today Malvenny’s sack looked sadly thin.
They stopped to rest at the Last Talking Point, beyond which the paralysing roar of the Eating Gate would make conversation impossible. They all sat, and Malvenny took the sack from his back and handed out fresh water and thin oatcakes. These were eaten ferociously and in silence. Elija felt his stomach grip them and he rubbed Em’s back gently as she ate hers.
Malvenny returned his cup to his sack, cleared his throat and spat into the stream. “We’re going to the Westering Shores.” The others took the news without comment, except the man with the gruff voice, a newcomer whose name Elija didn’t know.
“Where’s that, man? How far?”
“It’s a long way, there’s good pickings, treasure sometimes.”
“How far is far?”
“We cross the Eating Gate,” Malvenny explained, “then take the rising Hall farthest on the far side. It’s a long haul, but it’s dry.” He burrowed again in his sack as if to discourage more questions.
All he said was true. The shores rose for a long way, then plunged down again. As a result it was often drier than other places and pickings were found more easily. Even treasure, as Malvenny said. Em had found a silver and a piece of citrine glass there on the same day. But it was also true that it was more dangerous. If there was a flood, from a heavy storm in the distant outside, then the Westering Shores became a trap. By the time any Dwellers there realised the water was rising, it would be too late.
The gruff man, who now called himself Bartellus, had many names in the world above. The world had called him Shuskara. It had called him father, and son, and husband, and general. It had called him criminal and traitor. Now it called him deceased.
He thought the world was probably right as he followed two grimy children along a narrow slippery ledge through the darkness of the sewers deep beneath the City. The boy held tightly to the girl’s hand, yet she walked on the side of the ledge nearest the sewer and Bartellus watched anxiously as her steps veered toward the stream then away to safety again. He was not sure the thin little boy had the strength to hold her if she slipped and fell. He wondered if he had.
The attrition rate among the City’s soldiers, in their never-ending war with the world beyond the walls, was so high that the birth rate was plummeting. Children were becoming an increasingly rare sight. So each child should be precious, the old man thought, kept safe like a jewel, hoarded and nurtured. Not discarded, flushed into the sewers, or left as prey for evil men. He brought his hand to his chest in reflex invocation, praying to the Gods of Ice and Fire to overlook two such small children in this terrible place.
Elija didn’t like the Eating Gate—it was dangerous to cross, it was so noisy your brain went dead, and the stench here was worse, if possible, than anywhere in the Halls—but he found it reassuring. It was a fixed point in his world. From the monstrous structure were measured the distances to all the other places under the City. Wherever he had been in his time as a Dweller, he could hear its cacophony, and know how far he was from home. Elija knew he would never get lost in the Halls, because of the Gate. He never went anywhere except as part of a foraging party, so he was unlikely to get lost anyway. Drowned, yes, caught by a trap-tide, crushed in a roof fall, murdered for pickings by a gang of reivers, killed by the emperor’s patrols, but not simply lost. Expeditions never got lost, certainly not those led by Malvenny.
The Eating Gate was a high weir, built of timber and metal, dripping with water, slick with slippery weed. It rose taller than three tall men above the walking ledge, and measured the width of the stream, which at this point was more than thirty spans. He could barely make out the other side. The stream was running high today and Elija could not see the twenty great rolling barrels which formed the gate’s machinery, but they were not far below the surface; the water was churning violently, heaving and rolling. They sucked in the stream high on the south side, pulverised anything floating in it between the turning barrels, then spat it out lower down. High on either side of the gate simple filters allowed the stream to flow continuously, should the tide be very full.
In the torchlight Elija could see the new man had his hands over his ears. Elija said, “You get used to it.” He knew the man couldn’t hear him, but he knew what he’d said. It was something you heard daily in the Halls. You get used to it.
Getting across the Eating Gate was no more dangerous than most exploits in the Halls. A wooden ledge crossed the structure a man’s height below the top. It was reached on each side by spiral steps. It was slippery with water and rat droppings and the pale sinister plantlife that mysteriously flourished in the darkness and damp. You had to step carefully. Elija had seen a woman fall from the top of the Eating Gate once. A nasty death, but a quick one, crushed between the barrels in moments. Elija had no intention of falling.
A small hand pulled at his sleeve and he turned to see Em gazing at the top of the Gate, a rare smile on her heart-shaped face. Elija saw what she was staring at.
It was a gulon, a rare sight this deep into the Halls. The creature was walking casually along the top of the gate, stopping to look down at them, sniffing its way, then walking on, tail high. The company watched as it reached the end of the gate then padded lithely down the steps. It was a big thing, big as a pig, dark as the Halls themselves, with a sharp whiskery snout, crumpled ears and golden eyes. Its face was sharp, like a fox, but its body had feline grace. It sat and wrapped its bushy tail neatly round its paws and stared at them.
Em ran forward and crouched down in front of it, one grubby hand outstretched. The gulon stood and stepped back two deliberate paces, then stretched out its neck and hissed, showing strong yellow teeth. Elija was going to tell her not to get too close—you could die from a scratch down here. But the grey-haired newcomer strode forward and snatched up the little girl and put her down again next to Elija. Startled, Em looked about to cry, but then the familiar look of tired resignation came over her face. She held on to her brother’s hand as the company passed wide of the watching creature and started up the winding stairs.
The gulon sat down again in a puddle of filth and started delicately washing its paws.
The company was more than a league’s march beyond the Eating Gate before the noise of its machinery was sufficiently muffled to allow speech. The way was uphill and Malvenny signalled a halt, raising his torch. They stopped gratefully and were about to sit when Emly stepped forward to the edge of the ledge and stared across the stream. She turned to her brother and pulled at his sleeve, pointing to the other side.
Bartellus was holding a torch and, as he squinted through the thick air, he thought he could see a pale blur upstream. He lowered the torch and blinked and shifted his gaze back and forth slightly to focus his eyes.
“A corpus,” commented a stooped old Dweller, not without relish. “Ay, that’s a corpus.” He nodded and looked around the company, seeking agreement.
Bartellus squinted again and could barely see what Em’s sharp young eyes and the veteran’s ancient ones had picked out. On the other side of the stream another, smaller, waterway joined it through a pitch-black tunnel, and at the junction there was a broken grille. The grille was broken in two halves, one fallen outward. Between the two halves a body had lodged. Bartellus could make out nothing of it, except an arm, or possibly a leg, stretched out, appearing and disappearing in the flow of the stream.
“Good,” said Malvenny, “there’ll be pickings.”
He glanced around his team, then said, “You, new man, with me.” He jerked his head. “Rest of you stay here.” He set off without looking back.
Bartellus started up after him then, realising they had both the torches, turned back and thrust his burning brand into Anny-Mae’s hand. When he turned again Malvenny was far ahead, just a bobbing point of light in the darkness. Bartellus caught up with him with effort and they continued on until the newcomer started to wonder if the leader knew where he was going. He had no doubt of the possible value of a corpse in the Halls. Where a copper pente could lead to a fight to the death, the chance of finding a gold tooth—perhaps several—was worth considerable risk.
They came to a break in the stream, where a mighty shifting of the land had broken the tunnel, moving it sideways, so the near side came close to the far side. A man could easily jump the gap, he thought. A man could easily jump the gap—if it wasn’t dark, wet and slippery. And a slip of the foot didn’t mean a hideous death.
Malvenny handed him the torch, took three steps back, then forward, and jumped lightly, landing rock-solid, his weight perfectly balanced. He turned back to Bartellus and gestured for him to throw the torch. Bartellus threw it carefully and the leader caught it nonchalantly. He stepped back.
Bartellus dismissed the image of the river of sewage beneath his feet, replacing it in his mind with a lush greensward. He jumped the stream easily, and by the time he landed Malvenny had turned and was already returning along the stream.
The corpse was that of a man. The body was bloated, so it was hard to judge if he was once fat or thin. His head was shaved and his skin decorated with the pale blue and green lines of tattoos. He was naked. A sad rag of clothing remained round his neck. Rats had been at him, Bartellus saw.
Malvenny squeezed through the broken grille and hunkered waist-deep at the man’s head. He pulled open the mouth and peered quickly around, then stood up. “Tongue’s cut out. No gold.” He spat in the stream with venom. “Let’s go.”
Bartellus gazed at the corpse. It was an arm, lighter than the rest, that waved in the flowing water, waved in the direction of their little group which Bartellus could now see huddled on the opposite side of the main stream. The chest and back were covered with tattoos, lines that had faded, just as the colours of the skin had faded, until they looked like the lines on a map, a plan of campaign, thought the old campaigner.
Just as Malvenny was about to return through the gap in the grille, Bartellus stepped forward and squeezed through, forcing the leader to make room for him.
Tattoos were common enough, especially among the soldiery. Some carried pictures of spiders or panthers. That was the mark of the tribe. This man was a walking picturebook, his torso closely tattooed with birds and beasts and obscure signs. He even had tattoos on his scalp. Bartellus saw the man’s hair had started to grow again in a dense stubble.
“Give me the torch.” He held his hand up, but Malvenny said, “Time to move on.”
Bartellus looked up. “Give me the torch!”
Malvenny paused. A Dweller for more years than he could count, he knew the movements of the stream and the times of the tides better than any man or woman. Without any compass he could calculate the trip to the Westering Shores and back precisely. When he said it was time to move on, it was.
But he realised the quiet-voiced newcomer could well break his neck if he refused. A long-time student of the practical, he handed over the torch, and watched as the older man bent again to the corpse.
There was an old scar, thick and white, high on the man’s right shoulder, an S-shape which stirred a memory in Bartellus’ mind. He studied it, frowning.
“Time to move on,” said the voice behind him.
It was a brand, Bartellus realised. The memory stirred again, then disappeared, ungrasped. His memory was full of lacunae now. It worried him that whole episodes of his past had vanished into those gaps. The old soldier foraged in the pouch at his waist and took out a small sharp knife.
He looked up. “Do we come back this way?”
Bartellus paused, uncertain, then put his knife away and stood up. He looked down at the fading tattoos again, trying to commit them to his unreliable memory. Then he bent at the last moment and snatched the piece of cloth drifting round the corpse’s neck. Malvenny looked at him oddly, but Bartellus nodded to the leader and they both climbed back through the ironwork grille. Malvenny waved to the waiting group on the other side of the stream, then set off uphill again. Bartellus paced thoughtfully behind him, the piece of cloth squeezed dripping in his fist.
The long length of a season had passed since Bartellus was forced to retreat into the sewers, and he marvelled at the resilience of the Dwellers who had lived there for months, even years. He trudged along at the centre of their party, the two children in front of him, the little woman Anny-Mae at his side. The tunnel was high there, with vertical walls, and the foul stream ran in a deep channel. Even after a few days Bartellus found the smell endurable, and the nausea that at first had constantly cramped his stomach had faded.
Anny-Mae paused and beckoned, and he courteously bent his ear to her. “Nearly there,” she told him cheerfully, beaming as if she were personally responsible for the proximity of their goal. And before long Bartellus felt the air around him lighten and the tunnel opened out, soaring high above their heads and widening on all sides. The light of the torches thinned and was lost in the deep expanses of gloom. Bartellus saw they were at the edge of a wide flat basin, where the main watercourse ran down the middle, leaving rolling banks of sludge on either side. The old soldier looked straight upwards, and for a moment found himself gripped with terror at the thought of the massive weight of the great City, bearing down on this shell of a sewer.
He heard a high thin squealing and saw a pack of huge rats flowing across the mudbanks, fleeing the unaccustomed light. He saw rats every day, they were constant companions in the Halls, but he had never seen such giant ones, or so many. “They’re half blind,” he had been told. “They can only tell light and dark, and they always flee the light.” Somehow blind rats seemed more sinister.
He turned an ear to what Malvenny was saying. “Move quick as you like. We’ve got little time.” The leader glanced meaningfully at Bartellus. “New man, stick with Anny-Mae. She’ll tell you where you can’t go. Stay away from the shallow vaults.”
He waved a hand towards the darkest corner of the shores, dismissing them.
“What are the shallow vaults?” Bartellus asked the woman.
Her eyes were already fixed on the mud at her feet. “Over there,” she explained, pointing, “the vaults beneath are crumbling like sweetcake. You’d fall through in a trice.” She beamed up at him.
He glanced at where she was gesturing. “But, the children . . .” He could see the brother and sister already darting across the mudbanks searching for “pickings.” An image of another world flashed across his mind of two other children, golden-haired, on a beach at sunrise, searching for crabs and shrimps in rock pools.
“Lije knows what he’s doing,” said the little woman. “They’re lighter than us, they can go safe. Everyone’s afeard of it so there’s good pickings.” Her sharp black eyes picked out the pain in his face and, misunderstanding, she repeated kindly, “Young Lije knows what he’s up to.”
Bartellus found there was little for him to do. He held the torch, moving it where she pointed, while the woman used a small rake, combing through the sludge which lay in smooth undulating banks around them. She unhitched a flat sieve from the paraphernalia at her waist and sifted the mud, picking over small objects unearthed.
Once she put up her hand and showed him a coin. He held the torch flame close to it, but could make nothing of it. Her experienced fingers ran over the dull surface. “Third Empire,” she told him triumphantly, handing it to him. “It’s gold!” Then she was back to work, bent over, and he placed the precious piece in a pouch. He wondered how they would divide their spoils.
Anny-Mae moved quickly, stopping occasionally to prod the handle of the rake in the mudbank in front of her, testing the depth, the firmness of the sludge. She pounced with pleasure on small things Bartellus would never have spotted. She found several coins, though no more gold, half a broken hinge, which she told him to pocket, and a knife handle. She found a metal box, empty, which she discarded, and the leather cover to a book. She handed that to Bartellus, perhaps thinking him a man of letters.
There were dead rats, and cats, and the half-eaten bodies of dogs washed up on the shores. But they saw no more human corpses. Bartellus guessed the layers of grilles stopped large bodies floating this way. He thought back to the corpse and its tattoos. A memory nudged again at his brain, but he failed to catch it and it fled away.
His thoughts were idling in the past when he realised the Dwellers all stood listening. He could hear little above the sound of rushing water. Then he heard it too—a far-distant banging as of a hundred saucepans being struck like gongs.
“Rain!” shouted Malvenny, and the Dwellers started to hurry back the way they had come, discarding precious sieves, rakes and trowels, carrying only torches in their haste to get away.
Anny-Mae grabbed Bartellus’ arm. Her face was anxious. “This shore will flood in a trice,” she told him. “We must scurry.”
Bartellus saw the children were in front of them as they streamed back along the crumbling path, hurrying with care on the treacherous footing. “What was the noise?” he asked Anny-Mae’s back.
“Dwellers high above,” the woman told him, watching her steps, struggling as fast as she could on tiny feet. “They bang the drain covers when it rains. Warn us all.”
Bartellus realised the stream they were following was rising as he watched. When they had travelled this way earlier it had been far below them. Now it was swirling just below the lip of the path, its surface foaming and roiling with grey froth and big bubbles which burst slowly and stickily. And he became aware they were still travelling down.
“This is downwards!” he cried, but Anny-Mae was too busy hurrying and watching her feet to answer him.
The children were quickly losing ground from the rest of the party, whose torches were flickering far ahead. The little girl suddenly slithered as her feet hit a slimy patch of pathway, and her legs went out from under her. She slid feet first towards the stream. Elija grabbed at her, but he was hampered by the torch he carried, and he missed and fell too. In the last moment, as she slipped helplessly to the edge, Bartellus snatched the girl’s stick-like arm and pulled her up and into his chest. She was tiny, weighing less than a good sword. He looked into her white face. Her eyes were wide and unseeing, beyond terror and exhaustion.
The boy climbed to his feet and stopped in front of them, forcing Bartellus to halt. Anny-Mae pushed past, chasing the rest of the group, now gone from view. Elija glared up at Bartellus. The old soldier gazed down at him calmly, then said, “I will carry her. Let me help.” Elija didn’t move, and his face was set. Bartellus nodded his head the way they were going. “Move along, boy,” he growled.
Elija turned and ran on, more quickly, and Bartellus raced to catch up with him, for the boy still held the torch.
When they caught up with the group, Bartellus’ heart sprang into his mouth. They had arrived at the convergence of two mighty tunnels. Fresh water—he could smell it—thundered down a second drain, carrying lightly its burden of branches and other debris. It joined their rising sewer in a crash of tormented water roiling with debris.
A flimsy rope-and-plank bridge spanned the maelstrom. It was the only way. By the hectic torchlight Bart could see the water was foaming round the bridge, the drooping centre under water. Yet the first man was already making his way across, clinging to the ropes, dragging himself along, half drowned by the floodwater. The others were ready to follow him.
As Elija ran up, Malvenny thrust the boy onto the bridge, taking his torch. “Go, boy!” he shouted. Elija looked to his sister and hesitated, and another man thrust himself in front of him and jumped on the bridge, discarding his torch. Anny-Mae pushed the boy onto the bridge, then followed him, smacking him in the back. Elija cast a glance at his sister then grabbed the submerged ropes and started dragging himself across.
Malvenny, holding the last torch, yelled in Bartellus’ ear. “The bridge’ll go any moment!” he shouted. “When it does hold on to rope or wood. Don’t let go!”
Bartellus stepped onto the bridge, which bucked and reared like a maddened cavalry horse. He felt the little girl’s arms creep round his neck and tighten, and he grasped the ropes with both hands. Then he was submerged in the foaming water. In an instant all feeling left him. He could not breathe, could not tell which was up or down. He could not feel anything beneath his feet, or the girl’s body against his chest, only rough rope under his hands.
Then the bridge gave way and he felt himself swept into darkness, a piece of flotsam in the turbulent water. He gripped rope and plank, then he squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for the life of the little girl.
In his dreams he often found himself in a lush green valley. On the faraway horizon grey mountains were capped with sparkling snow. He was on his knees in thick wet grass, each blade fat with drops of dew, and he ran his hands through its coolness. Then he would raise wet hands to his face and clean away the sweat and blood and the pain. He would stand then, and look around. There was no one to be seen, no beasts, no birds. The air was fresh, as if it had never been used. He wondered if it was the dawn of the world.
He had asked a fortune teller once whether the dream had meaning. The wizened old man, small as a child, had pitched his tent at the rear of an army as they waited to do battle, although Bartellus could not remember which army or which battle. The man did steady business throughout the night as frightened soldiers sought comfort before facing the new day.
“The valley is where you were born, general,” the old man had said to him, grinning with ruined teeth. “The meaning is clear. Green speaks of fertility, and the valley represents a woman. Your birth was blessed by the gods. You will live long, have many sons and return to the valley before you die.” He glanced over Bartellus’ shoulder, already seeking the next customer’s copper.
But the general stayed seated and scowled. “Your words are not clear to me, old one,” he said. “Is the valley my mother, or is it where I was born?”
“Both,” the oldster replied smoothly. “The green valley . . .”
“For,” Bartellus cut across his words, “I was born on the desolate plain of Garan-Tse, in the midst of the Third Battle of the Vorago. My mother’s cries were echoed by the screams of dying men and there was only blood and mud for leagues in every direction.”
The old man squinted at him irritably. “It is a representational valley,” he explained. “All men are born in blood and pain. But you are surrounded by fertility. You have sons?” Bartellus nodded. “And you are wealthy?”
When Bartellus nodded again, the old man shrugged. “Then you are a lucky man.”
“Most men would not call me lucky,” Bartellus growled.
“You are a general, general,” the fortune teller argued mildly. “And you are alive. Most men would not call you unlucky.”
Amillion drains sucked the rain down, channeling it through the ancient system of pipes and ducts, culverts and channels, drawing it deep beneath the City. Most of the water made it through the wide drains into the great river Menander which drove through the City’s bowels. A weight of rain filtered through layers of the City’s history, deep down to where the sewers were crushed and broken, squeezed flat by the weight of time. A thousand branches, washed into culverts and through broken grilles, scoured the walls of the sewers, washing away the dirt and debris of years, and for a while, a few days, the Halls were cleansed of filth and the smell was of grass and good earth.
On its perch on top of the Eating Gate, the gulon stretched its paws and laid its scrawny length along a piece of timber. Through slitted eyes it watched as scores of Dwellers were swept under the rolling barrels of the gate and pulverised. It closed its eyes and slept.
The boy Elija was dragging himself step by step across the thrashing bridge when it was torn apart by the stormwaters. His only fears were for his sister. I cannot rescue her if I die, he thought, and he clung desperately to a wooden plank and tried to survive. For a long time he was battered and flung about by the water, then at last he stopped moving and he realised he could breathe. He gratefully took a painful lungful of air, his thin chest sore and bruised. Opening his eyes, he found he was in total darkness. He was upside down and entangled in ropes, perhaps the ropes of the bridge. He could still hear the crash of water close by. Anxiously he tried to move his arms and legs. Everything ached, but nothing appeared broken. He could move, but he could not free himself. And if I do get free, he thought, where will I go in the dark?
Trussed like a goat for sacrifice, hanging helpless from the wall of a sewer in total darkness deep in the bowels of the City, the little boy started to cry.
When Bartellus rose to consciousness he realised instantly that the atmosphere had changed. Gone was the stifling foetid odour that had pressed on his senses for wretched days beyond counting. Now the air was lighter, and smelled of wet hay, rotten fruit, smoke and, faintly, flowers. He lay on his back, his body an old wooden raft barely floating in a sea of pain. There was a weight on his chest and, when he opened his eyes and stretched his neck, he saw it was the little girl, motionless. He thought she was dead, but when he tried to sit his involuntary groan woke her and she scrambled away from him, eyes huge in her pinched white face.
Then the girl gazed up and around her, and for the first time it occurred to Bartellus that he could see. They were in a round stone chamber. All around torches in brackets cast moving shadows on the dripping walls. There were black and white pictures on those walls, faint and faded, of soaring birds and flying feathers. Bartellus and the girl were on a sturdy ledge high above the stream, which glided in a deep channel through the centre of the chamber. Bartellus laid his head back and rested for a while, watching the birds as they flickered eerily in the torchlight. He could do no more.
Then he heard a whisper of sound and lifted his head again. Floating like a mirage in the deserts of the south, a cloaked and hooded figure walked towards them through the yellow light. All his soldier’s instincts deadened, Bartellus lay vulnerable as the figure approached and stopped before them. The old man saw the tip of a sword blade below the lower edge of the cloak. He thought he ought to move, to defend himself and the child, but he had no power.
“You are not dead,” said a woman’s impassive voice, echoing a little off the wet stone. Bartellus was uncertain if this was intended to reassure or was merely a statement of fact.
“We were caught by the stormwaters,” he explained, noting as he said it that an explanation was scarcely necessary. Understandably, the woman did not reply. She loomed over him silently. Her presence was unsettling. He sat up with difficulty. His whole body seemed bruised and his back screamed with pain.
“This girl needs dry clothes, food in her belly and fresh water to drink,” he told the woman.
She took a moment to answer. Then she said coolly, “I am sure you are right. But why are you telling me?”
Frustration overcame his exhaustion, and a rare spark ignited in his chest.
“The wretches who live here are the dregs of the City,” he said. “Yet in my experience, young woman, none of them needs it explained why a halfdrowned child needs food and drink and comfort! If you can’t give this girl the help she needs, lead us to whoever can.”
His words sounded pompous, even to him, and the child started to cry. Bartellus realised helplessly that he had frightened her.
The woman gazed at him unmoved. “This is not a market stall, or an orphanage, or a hospital, old man.”
This time he held his temper. “No,” he told her reasonably, “but you are well enough fed, by the look of you, and there is clearly organisation here. I cannot believe you cannot bring this child and a plate of food together. Is this so much to ask?”
“Why do you think there is organisation here?” the woman asked.
He nodded to the torches. “Elsewhere in the Halls any unguarded torch would be stolen within moments. There is authority in this place, and one that it respected.”
She nodded in the darkness of her hood. “Very well. Come, child,” she said, turning away and walking back across the bird-haunted chamber.
The little girl looked to Bartellus, who smiled reassuringly, and she trailed after the woman, glancing back often to see the old man was still there.
When the two had disappeared Bartellus raised himself up with an effort, marvelling that he had no broken bones. He walked to the edge of the stream, where he relieved himself long and luxuriously. Feeling remarkably cheered by this simple act, he followed the woman and child.
As he passed through the circle of torches darkness closed in again, and he blinked the grime out of his eyes until he saw a faint glow. Light was filtering through an archway to his right. There was a barred gate, open, and he passed through it, following the glow until he came to a round chamber lit not by the acrid light of torches but by soft candles, dozens of them. He squinted. All around were stone pillars, their capitals carved in the shapes of perched and watching birds. The room was very old and the stone stares of the carvings weighed down on him.
There was no sign of the girl, but the woman sat on the edge of a wide wooden table. She had thrown her hood back, and her hair was dark red in the torchlight. He saw her face was young, but lines of experience were already gathering the corners of her eyes, which were the violet of flowers. An unsheathed sword lay across her thighs.
“Where is this place?” he asked her.
“The Dwellers call it the Hall of Watchers. They fear to come here. They fear my colleagues and me.” She laid her hand idly on the sword’s hilt.
His dislike of her rose quickly again, and he told her, “If your colleagues are anything like yourself, they probably fear sharp tongues more than they fear sharp swords.”
She scowled at him. “First you ask for our hospitality, then you insult me?”
He glanced around the room, as if uncaring of her words or sword. On another table lay a jug of water and a platter of meat and biscuits. His stomach lurched with craving. He let his eyes pass casually over the food. He would starve to death before showing his need to this odious girl.
“You are thin-skinned and quick to anger,” he commented mildly, as if it was of no consequence. “If you were one of my soldiers I would not let you bear a fruit knife, far less a sword.”
The woman leaped from the table, blade in hand, but a soft voice said, “Indaro.”
Bartellus looked round. A newcomer stood in a narrow archway half concealed by a wall hanging. Her long hair was white as ice, and her face was lined. Like the girl Indaro, she wore a close-fitting leather tunic. But while the younger woman wore leather leggings, like a cavalry officer, the elder wore a long midnight blue skirt above shiny boots. Round her shoulders was draped a brown greatcoat. On her breast silver gleamed.
“He is right, girl. You are too eager to take offence,” she said. Indaro made no reply, but at a nod from the woman she stalked out of the room.
“If she were one of your soldiers, general, she would be dead long since,” the woman said when Indaro had gone.
Bartellus felt his chest tighten. For all the horrors and deprivations of the Halls, he had become used to being an anonymous old man, no longer harried and chased.
She walked across to the table and poured a glass of water. She handed it to him. She was tall and graceful and he wondered who, in the name of the Gods of Ice and Fire, she could be.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
She looked at him curiously. “Do you not?” she answered. Then, “I am Archange Vincerus. What do you call yourself?”
He hesitated. “Bartellus,” he said finally.
“A good name. And common enough. Particularly among our men at arms.” She turned and picked up the platter of food and handed it to him. He took a biscuit and crunched into it. The surge of flavour and sweetness in his mouth made his head spin, and he slowly took a sip of water.
“Archange. I know that name.” He cursed his treacherous memory, in which his experiences swirled and drifted, ebbed and flowed like mist over ice. “Who are you, lady, and why are you living in this sewer?”
“I do not live here. I merely visit,” she said sharply.
Bartellus was suddenly tired of these women and their haughty ways. Why did he care what they thought of him? He took the platter of food and, sitting at the table, started to eat with unashamed need. She sat too and there was silence for some time as he devoured the meat and more of the biscuits. He drank two tall glasses of fresh water. It tasted like morning dew on grass.
Then, ignoring his companion, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the high-backed chair. He found his mind was clearer. He allowed himself to think of those other two children, his sons, he had seen waving goodbye in a sunlit garden as he left them for the last time. Joron, the elder, was waving above his head a wooden sword his father had made him just that day. The toddler, Karel, was waving excitedly too, following his brother’s lead, but he was too young to understand what was happening. He stopped waving when he spotted one of the new puppies. He toddled over to it, and Snowy the white hound wandered across the garden to guard her pup. Bartellus’ last sight of his smallest son was with his chubby arms round the patient hound’s neck, his father forgotten.
Tears coursed down his face.
His wife, Marta, had not been outside to see him off. She lay in bed, exhausted in the last stages of a hard pregnancy. He had kissed her goodbye, and promised to be home for winter. He had no real fears for her; her two previous labours had been difficult, but their sons were born healthy, and she had regained her strength within days. He was sorry he would not be there to see his daughter born. He was sure it would be a daughter this time.
He could not remember kissing Marta goodbye. He was certain he had done so, for he always did. But he had been distracted by the coming campaign, and he had kissed her without thinking, a casual buss on the cheek. The last kiss.
Then he had ridden away with his old friend Astinor Redfall, who had come to summon him. He did not know, on that shining morning, that he was being taken to his brief trial and awful punishment. He did not know then, or for more than a year afterwards, that within the hour his family all lay dead, his longed-for daughter spilling from a great gash in Marta’s belly.
The City © Stella Gemmell 2013