The Godless, book one of Ben Peek’s exciting new epic fantasy series, publishes August 19 from Thomas Dunne and Tor UK. A new chapter of the book will appear on Tor.com every morning from Monday, June 9 to Friday, June 13. Keep track of them all here, and dig in to Chapter Two below!
The Gods are dying. Fifteen thousand years after the end of their war, their bodies can still be found across the world. They kneel in forests, lie beneath mountains, and rest at the bottom of the world’s ocean. For thousands of years, men and women have awoken with strange powers that are derived from their bodies.
The city Mireea is built against a huge stone wall that stretches across a vast mountain range, following the massive fallen body of the god, Ger. Ayae, a young cartographer’s apprentice, is attacked and discovers she cannot be harmed by fire. Her new power makes her a target for an army that is marching on Mireea. With the help of Zaifyr, a strange man adorned with charms, she is taught the awful history of ‘cursed’ men and women, coming to grips with her new powers and the enemies they make. Meanwhile, the saboteur Bueralan infiltrates the army that is approaching her home to learn its terrible secret…
After the door closed, a low, frustrated breath escaped Ayae. She had not wanted to argue with him after he had just come back, but it was difficult.
Leaving the half-eaten burned toast in the kitchen and walking to her wardrobe, Ayae considered that maybe it was for the best he wouldn’t be returning tonight. She knew that she was quick to attack verbally when frustrated, and Faise—a plump, brown-skinned girl who had grown up in the orphanage with her, her best friend now living in Yeflam—once told her that no one cut as hard and sharp as Ayae when she was angry.
She dressed in brown leather trousers, a light black-buttoned shirt, and boots made from thin, hard snakeskin—her standard outfit when huddling over a large table, working on a new map for Orlan. She was very rarely seen in the front of his workshop and the elderly white man had no strict dress code, so Ayae dressed for comfort rather than style. It was also perfect for the morning’s martial training. When the lessons had begun over a month ago, Ayae had been initially reluctant: she could remember all too well the sway of the old ships on the black waves as they left Sooia, the country of her birth. The scrappy, flameridden, walled compound she had spent her first years in had slowly receded, the marks of battle scars she could see miles out, and for a moment she felt as if that ship were returning to it. As if she would wake and find the Spine of Ger similarly pitted and ruined. Yet, after a few days of the training, she found that the morning exercise focused her mind and alleviated the anxiety she felt about the raids. Exposure to the soldiers also made her realize that the Lady of the Spine’s plan to train her populace as a last-minute army was as much about empowering the people as it was ensuring that the Lady could protect her home, a notion that Ayae had begun to appreciate more and more as the training continued.
She opened the door and stepped into the warm morning’s sun. Lady Wagan’s decision to train the Mireeans had come weeks before the first refugee camps on the north of the Spine of Ger had been established. On the day the ground was broken for the camp, the first company of mercenaries, Mirin, had arrived. By that night, however, the story of one Mirin soldier attempting to rape a young teacher was made known. His victim, one of those trained alongside Ayae each morning, had fought back and managed to stab him. Despite Lady Wagan’s swift retaliation against the culprit, Ayae felt as if the previous security she had found in the city as a dispossessed child, was suddenly lost. That night, she had dreamed again of the refugee camps in Sooia, something she hadn’t done since she was a child. She dreamed of fire catching on the fabric of the tents, of the faceless figure of the Innocent, the immortal general Aela Ren, who had decimated her country and whose fear and reputation had spread where his armies did not. In the morning, she awoke to the news that Lady Wagan had dismissed the entire company outright and, on the following day, Ayae had stood at the window of Orlan’s shop as the mercenary troop were escorted out of the city, the body of their rapist left swinging on a gibbet over the main entrance.
Along with the training, there had been further announcements that she was less enthusiastic about. Her house was in a modest neighborhood, one built around narrow, cobbled paths that looped around blocks of four or five, and were hidden beneath a thick canopy of the trees lining the streets. It meant her house and the road had shade in the hottest parts of the day. Or used to have. As Ayae follow the cobbled path, she could see the empty sky and the morning’s sun—the first sun—above the single-story, red and brown brick houses, a new, harsh sight after the dense canopy had been brutally cut back. The lumber from the trees had been taken into the main streets and used to build a series of walls and gates, blockades designed to cut off a section of Mireea a piece at a time if it was breached. It left the newly exposed skyline of the city jagged, as if an ancient fortress made from roughly hewn wood had raised its shadow amid the bricks and mortar and struggled to assert dominance over its modern descendant. Ayae guessed that it was supposed to be reassuring, a promise that the city’s populace would be defended, cemented by the straight figures of the Mireean Guard patrolling the wooden barriers in chain and leather, pikes and crossbows in hand.
That saddened Ayae. With an adopted child’s logic, she had loved Mireea from the day the refugee wagon had entered the city, led in by representatives of an aid group that owned the orphanage and had brought the children across continents. It was so different from Sooia. There, the land was ravaged, the ground so hard that the bodies of her parents, like so many other parents, had lain above it in cairns of stone, a site still in her earliest memories: a pilgrimage made in a child’s act of disobedience that she could no longer remember the reason for. The hardship of the camps had made it an easy trip to begin with, a difficult one to endure, and by the end, her four-year-old self had learned no more of the people who sent her to safety as the Innocent’s conquering forces emerged on the plains. In contrast, Mireea, untouched by war, had been a place of security and peace after the death and bloodshed she’d been born into. She’d even found comfort in the stories her rescuers had entertained the children with, about the dead god Ger and his bones which lay buried deep in the mountain beneath them. It had been a camp fire story, part horrifying, part amusing, part comforting, and she had taken solace in it. If a god lay beneath them, surely nothing could harm her. Even now, looking upon the Spine of Ger, the huge monolith that ran along the entire mountain range, gave her a sense of calm, a barrier to the rising tensions surrounding her. It was said that the Spine followed the broken back of the god, that the stone sank into his vertebrae and that its path altered only as Ger’s bones sank further into the ground. After Ayae had walked up the two hundred and thirty-three steps to the top of the wall, the sight of the mountains around her and the empty blue sky left her with the feeling that she was standing on the back of a god.
Today, however, what awaited her on the top of the wall were rows ten people deep made up from men and women, young and old. Ayae’s spot was behind a thirteen-year-old bakery apprentice, Jaerc, and next to two women, Desmonia, who worked in the bar Red’s Grin, and Keallis, one of the city’s planners.
Shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare, Ayae saw Captain Heast, a lean, gray-haired man with his left leg made from steel, make his way slowly to the platform in front of everyone. It still surprised her that the old soldier joined them every day and led them in the stretching and light exercise. Once, she had seen him walk past her with a ring of blood seeping through the leg of his trousers.
Behind him, two men took up positions by large drums, beginning a slow beat, accompanied by Captain Heast’s voice directing exercises. After thirty minutes of synchronized movements, the drums stopped and soldiers emerged in front of each column, wooden swords at their feet. She did not like sword practice: it reminded her too much of the camps, of the empty eyed men who walked the walls, but she had come to accept it. In part, it had been made easier by the fact that she was paired with Jaerc, who was slim and quick and made a game out of it that did not begin to approach the reality of what real weapons could do. They had even begun to joke that it was a duel of apprentices, and that their masters gambled on who performed better; but she had seven years on him and a little more speed, and the contest invariably ended in her favor.
With a grin, Jaerc broke the line and rushed forward to grab a pair of swords and a rope. The pair were seldom bothered in sword practice. Both were quick, did not fear a bruise and required no guidance from the soldiers who walked along the lines, helping others with basic instructions: how to hold a sword, how to thrust, how to block. Despite her reticence with the acts of war, Ayae had never had any trouble learning the first steps.
After the rope line had been made, the young baker’s apprentice came in first, thrusting low. She met it easily. There was warmth in her limbs, an energy that she felt more keenly now that she moved around Jaerc, blocking and parrying, and then snapping high at him. Every time their swords hit she felt her grip tighten, her breath catch, and the energy in her press her forward. It almost got her caught twice, but a third and fourth time her attacks caught Jaerc—once on the thigh, then on his shoulder; the fifth time she moved too eagerly, and he slapped his blade against the side of her chest. Pushing that aside she readied to leap forward again, only to stop as she felt a presence behind her.
Turning, she found herself staring at a large, bald black man. The only hair on his face was white stubble on his chin, hair that looked to have been dyed to match the spiraling white tattoos that twisted across his bare arms, disappearing beneath his clothing, a dark shirt and dark leather leggings, laced together with white straps. On his hips he wore a pair of curved hand axes, the hilts wrapped with worn, sweat-stained leather grips.
“You got good speed, girl,” he said, his voice deep and heavy with an accent that betrayed his Ooilan nativity. “A natural eye.”
The men and women around her stopped, while others accompanying him—three men and two women, road-stained, wearing similar black leather— watched.
Turning to Jaerc, he said, “’Scuse me, son, mind if I borrow your sword?” It was dwarfed in his grasp as he spun it around, his attention back on Ayae. “Now, the problem is, your eye and your speed are not entirely in sync. You constantly leave yourself open, which against anyone with experience is going to have you hurt. You got a name, miss?”
She told him.
“My name is Bueralan. This a problem for you?”
She felt the gaze of the crowd on her. “No,” she said. “I’m here to learn.”
His grin was wide, revealing white teeth. “That natural speed you got, that’s more than what I have. I got some height and muscle on you, though.”
“I would never have guessed.”
Around her, the crowd laughed.
“Go,” he said.
Ayae’s sword snapped up, quicker than she had thought she could move. He blocked, but only just, and she pressed her attack, adrenalin coursing through her. This was not Jaerc, but a mercenary, a seasoned soldier. A danger. This was the kind of man who had been drawn to the camp in Sooia, deserters, scavengers and thieves, men with no hope and no honor. That he probably wasn’t any of that was, momentarily, lost to Ayae. His name meant nothing to her. He meant nothing. The fury of her past, the worries of her present gave her a strength and speed so that she pressed the mercenary backward, forcing the crowd to part, and felt a thrill at doing so.
It was short-lived: Bueralan’s sword slapped her own aside, the force of it putting her off balance, and quicker than she thought possible, the wooden edge of his borrowed practice blade tapped her neck.
“Balancing speed and eye,” he said, “that’s a virtue that goes missed by many fighters. A lot will try to hack their way through you with the first, think nothing of the second.”
“You backed up though.”
“That I did.” His nod was short, approving. “You caught me a little flat on my feet and it took a few steps to find my balance. If your swings had been a little more controlled, you might have had me.”
Her eyebrow rose. “Might?”
“Well.” Half a smile lifted his right cheek. “In a real fight, I probably would have cheated.”
Despite herself, Ayae laughed.
“Learn to juggle.” The big man handed the sword back to Jaerc. “Anything that helps with your hand-eye coordination won’t hurt.”
Before she could ask him if he was serious, he nodded and walked through the crowd ringed around him. The men and women in leather followed him, except for one. He did not have the look of a mercenary about him: he wore a simple, loose-fitting shirt, his trousers tucked into riding boots. His plain, pale face and brown hair had nothing to recommend it and Ayae was not sure why he had caught her eye.
“Do you know who that is?” Jaerc asked.
“Him?” She turned, and saw he was looking at the big black man heading toward the podium. “No.”
“That was the exiled baron, Bueralan Le, Captain of Dark.”
Shrugging, not having the background knowledge about mercenary groups to be able to share Jaerc’s awe, Ayae turned back toward the other man who had been staring at her, but he was gone.
The Godless © Ben Peek, 2014