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 Three 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…
According to the friends of the disgraced Baron of Kein, Bueralan’s greatest character flaw was that after seventeen years in exile, he showed no remorse. One day, his enemies said, it would be the death of him.
Beneath the steely gaze of Captain Heast, that assessment—inaccurate, the subject of it had said more than once—returned to Bueralan. His lack of socalled remorse arose from the fact that he did not often think himself wrong, but he knew he had overstepped his boundaries with the girl he was walking away from. Heast, loyal, pragmatic, professional and capable of shocking coldness, did not appreciate others breaking his discipline, and would remember that: the captain had long ago earned the reputation as a man who had a library of memories, each of them meticulously annotated and referenced.
“I see the wilds and my cousin have taught you nothing,” the Captain of the Spine said evenly as the podium’s stairs creaked beneath Bueralan’s weight. “I was hoping for humility, at the very least.”
“Only in death.”
Their handshake was strong, firm.
“She shows promise,” Bueralan said. “A lot of promise.”
“The apprentices of cartographers are not here for careers in warfare.” Heast’s gaze swept over the men and women behind the exiled baron. “Your people can retire to the North Keep’s barracks.”
Dark waited down the stairs, five in number, a mix of nationalities and ages clothed in aged, stained leather and bearing close-quarter weapons. Zean, who was all the family that Bueralan had left, stood at their head, tall and lean, an ugly knife on each hip and more hidden. Behind him stood the oldest, Kae, a pale-skinned swordsman who stood taller than Zean and whose left hand was missing the two smallest fingers. The sisters, Aerala and Liaya, dark-haired and olive-skinned, stood next to him, the first holding a longbow in her hands, while the second, younger and slightly smaller, carried a worn satchel over her sword. And lastly, at the end, stood Ruk, a white man with mud-colored hair whose most blessed attribute was not the sword he carried but rather that he had nothing of note to distinguish him from another man on the street, not even when he spoke.
As a whole, they were formidable, dangerous, but to Bueralan they looked mostly tired. It was not the journey that left them so, but the last job. Paid by a small lord in the equally small kingdom of Ille, the mercenary group had been hired for work that had been mean and dispiriting, a month spent cutting out the heart of a peasant rebellion in the poverty stricken countryside. At the end of it, they had had enough money to pay a widow poor compensation for her loss and, as he looked over them, he saw the scars of that experience, the weariness that was not so much about flesh, as it was about soul. With a nod to them they left to follow Heast’s directions; when he turned the captain’s fingers were pressed against his leg. A faint ring of blood showed at the hip.
“You ought to see a healer about that,” Bueralan said.
“A real healer. Not the ones here that cover you in herbs and stitch wounds.”
“You mean warlocks?” said Heast coldly. “Witches? Heal with blood and pay with gold.”
Behind them, one of the drummers hit his skin softly, testing it. “It would make it easier to climb stairs, at least,” Bueralan said.
“Ease is not something I concern myself with.” Approaching the drummer who was tapping out a soft beat, he said, “I’ll take this man to see the Lady, Oric. Ten more minutes and you can begin cleaning up.”
The limping captain led Bueralan off his podium, the latter slowing his pace for the former as he made his way awkwardly down the stairs.
Ahead sat the Keep of the Spine. Set against the solid stone of the mountain, it used the natural formation as a wall and a foundation for its four tall towers, the dark stones giving it the appearance of having been carved from the mountain, rather than built into it. The illusion had been recently broken by a huge wooden wall that ran from the edge of the Keep down into the Spine of Ger itself, the hard, warm light of the sun following each angle of the construction.
As the Spine’s Keep drew closer, Bueralan saw that the walls in front had been reinforced, and the grounds there reduced to flat dirt. There had been gardens, once, and though they were not renowned, Lady Wagan’s reputation as a proud gardener, the mercenary recalled, was because of the diversity that she had managed to grow in the tropical heat. As he followed the path up to the Keep’s entrance, he remembered that previously the grounds had been an array of clashing colors, a living, visual equivalent of the diversity that swept through the cobbled streets of Mireea, and the trade found in its markets.
It had been different last time he’d been here, Bueralan thought. Then as he’d walked through the famed markets of Mireea, and followed each turn of the cobbled road, he’d been accompanied by the clamor of merchants yelling, the aroma of food, of spice and tobacco. The best and most expensive merchants had been here, within easy reach of the Keep, but even in the working class sections around yards and small houses, there had been stalls selling everyday necessities. But now, from the gate, through the wide roads that led to the poorer parts, Bueralan saw only a city that was defined by its silence. The archways in the Spine that had once been so full of people, bartering, a good-natured bickering, were now bricked-up lanes with mercenaries gathered, singly and in groups, waiting to see if they would be offered work by either the larger mercenary groups already hired, or by Heast himself. Beyond them, the woods that had pressed against the Spine were gone, making way for a wide, loosely packed killing ground of dirt.
“Did he die well?” Heast asked abruptly.
“Does anyone?” They were talking about Elar, Heast’s cousin, the man Bueralan had lost in Ille. “He died hard,” he admitted.
“Don’t we all?”
“We were forced to cremate him before we sent him home.”
Heast grunted, unsurprised. “Was the business finished?”
“Yes.” A silence fell between the two, awkward for a moment. “Do you not run the markets any more?” Bueralan asked.
“They stopped six months ago,” Heast said.
“And the city’s economy?”
“You’ll get paid, Baron.” The captain’s tone was dry. “You’ll not have to fear for your purse.”
Bueralan chuckled. Both men knew the ritual, the mercenary’s concern and complaint about money, and how they used it. Both had fought for more than one lord and lady and found, once the dying began, that there was no money in the coffers to pay for their services. Some mercenary troops, especially the larger ones like Steel, worked for money that would be paid in ransoms, rewards and debts to be settled after the battles, but Dark did not take prisoners or petition for the safety of others. They were a small group, a private group who tried to stay out of the public’s gaze—unlike many other mercenary groups, they did not authorize cheap novels or plays about their exploits. Bueralan did not need to march into a city with flowers being thrown at his feet, accompanied by trumpet fanfares and mobbed by enthusiastic children. He did not need to look outside the window of his barracks and see youngsters re-enacting scenes from the fictions that were created from his exploits—in short he did not feel the need to be a hero or legend to anyone but the members of Dark.
Seeing how other mercenary groups had been short-changed or unpaid, Bueralan had changed the way they operated and ensured they were paid twofifths in advance, the rest in completion, and their rates were reasonable. Until, that is, special requests were made.
It did not make him popular, but he wasn’t out to win any contests in that area.
He liked the money, liked that no one would take on a job just to meet him in combat in an attempt to make a name for themselves, and liked especially that no one asked why an exiled baron needed to lead an army. He had, for a while, tried to keep his exile a secret, but the very nature of it made that difficult and, surprisingly, it had given him a reputation of trustworthiness, for it was clear that he was only interested in the money rather than feats of glory, that he and his company would get the job done, keep quiet and honest and then leave. Despite his attempts at anonymity, such was the nature of the fascination with mercenary groups that he was known in some quarters by enthusiasts with more passion for fiction than reality. The boy who sparred with the girl had known him, he was sure. Half a dozen others might have, as well. Ever since the fictions had become popular, it had become harder for people like him to keep a low profile, and the more he worked at ensuring that he and Dark weren’t in books, weren’t in songs, the more, it seemed, a select few spent their time trying to aggrandize their exploits into something glorious and thrilling rather than the blood, dirt and shortened life he knew were associated with his line of work.
The two men passed through the gates, leaving the empty streets behind and walking at a steady, albeit one-sided limping pace, to the Keep’s heavy doors. These were made from the timber of ancient trees that had grown along Ger’s Spine. Inside, the scent of spice drifted through the air. It reminded Bueralan of the Plateau, where the vegan diets of pacifist tribes were similarly spiced— and where he had been, but once, officially—but the direction from where the spices came was not where Heast led him. They made their way down the hall, walking over warm tiles to a second grand door, where two guards revealed a spacious, well-lit room.
Inside, the floor was decorated with a sprawling, circular pattern, and at its center was a silver throne. High on the roof, an intricate array of lights shone and, with almost theater-like drama, a white light was centered on the throne whenever the Lord or Lady of the Spine held court. The immense throne was a relic of an older age, recovered from the cities that had been built in the caves throughout the mountains, by a cult who had been outlawed during the Five Kingdoms, but who had destroyed by the men and women who came to dig for a new life in the ground for gold, the men and women who would later build Mireea. Heast led Bueralan past it without comment. Through a door on the other side of the room, a narrow corridor turned into a spiraling staircase where, at the end of several levels, a single guard stood. He nodded as Heast emerged and opened the door to reveal another large room.
Inside sat the Lady of the Spine, Muriel Wagan.
Despite her reputation for being strict with an iron will, she looked like a softer woman, verging gently into fat, her dyed red hair that hung like a younger woman’s ponytail over a gown of bright yellow and orange reflecting a mind that was anything but sharp and precise.
“Your ladyship, I present to you Captain Bueralan Le,” Heast said, his hands folding before him.
“My Lady.” Bueralan bowed his head. “A pleasure.”
Her smile revealed discolored teeth. “My Lord. Captain, how are you feeling?”
“I’ll take that to mean in considerable pain, as always.” Her smile was affectionate, taking no offense at his grunted reply. “Take yourself downstairs. Have that leg looked at.”
The captain glanced at Bueralan.
“Aned,” the Lady of the Spine said, “don’t make me dismiss you.”
With a faint inclination of his head, the briefest frown of displeasure slipping across his face, the soldier left the room. When the door shut, the affection left Lady Wagan’s face and she turned her gaze on Bueralan. “Dark,” she said, her pale green eyes holding his. “Saboteurs.”
“For your price, I could hire a small army.”
“You already have small armies,” he replied. “What you don’t have are soldiers who slip into the ranks of your enemy, who poison rivers and dams, who blow up bridges and collapse tunnels.”
“And assassinate generals.”
He shook his head. “Not often. Once—twice, it has happened, but both were opportunities taken advantage of, rather than planned. First time, the army was so small that it did fall apart without the leader. Second time, another man took the spot and the army kept moving. My advice has always been that you are better to cripple the body than to strike the head of an army.”
“Aned speaks very highly of you, Captain,” she said.
“I’ll try not to disappoint him.” He nodded to the chair. “Do you mind?” “No. I must profess, I don’t know much about you. Where did you meet my captain?”
Easing into the cushions, Bueralan replied, “On the western coast of the Wilate in a port called Wisal. Merchants had hired a small army to conquer it after it declared its independence from the Southern League. The Wisal Governor put Heast in charge of fighting what was turning into an ugly little war over trade routes. I think they expected him to hire an army, but instead he took on a group of saboteurs. It was the first squad I worked for, and the job took two weeks and two deaths before the war failed to start properly.” He met the lady’s gaze. “He’s a fine soldier. In another part of the world, there are books written about him. Important books.”
“I have read them.” Behind her, a large window displayed the cut back canopy of the forest. The morning’s sun had risen to its high point and threatened to flood the room. “He told me that Dark numbered eight, not six.”
Stretching his legs out in front of him, he nodded. “Lost two in Ille. The first was Elar—he had been with us for six years. You can’t replace a man like that easily.”
“And the other?”
“He was new. This wasn’t the kind of work for him.”
“Did he make the right choice?”
The question had never been asked of him and, as the light filtered into the upper half of the room, the saboteur paused. “Any mercenary will tell you, people come and go in this work,” he said, finally. “Sometimes, they have debts to pay. Other times, they’re just going from one place to another. Mostly, mercenaries are just soldiers who only know this work and there’s either no place at home for them or home has changed. Occasionally, a man or a group gets famous, but most don’t last that long. It’s different when you’re a saboteur. It is not a thing you can pick up and put down. If you know your job, you know too much. You keep professional, because you work for people you like, and people you don’t. Sometimes, it is just numbers and maths and theories, and sometimes, you get paid to kill men and women, to poison wells, to kill crops and to steal cattle. At times, it is a hard thing to look in the eye of someone to do. Other times, you get paid to slip into a war you don’t want to be part of, to spend time with people you don’t want to spend time with. You’ve got to close off the enemy like a good soldier does: it is steel on steel, but it’s harder when you share drinks with them for a month. You realize no one is born evil, just as no one is born pure, but the job is a lot easier if you keep the morals straight with the people you work with. The boy’s first job was one I regret, a choice we made that we ought not to have made, and the price we paid was high. At the end, he thought we were a little too much like assassins and wasn’t ready for a life of sleeping on the cold ground, eating last, dying first, and watching warm bits of silver and gold spend quicker than you could kill for.”
“A surprisingly philosophical response,” Lady Wagan replied. “Why then do you continue with it?”
“My poetry sells poorly.”
Lady Wagan laughed. “Would you like a drink, Captain?”
“I rarely say no.”
From beneath her table, the Lady of the Spine produced two glasses and a long, straight bottle of laq, a clear liquor from Faaisha. She poured a generous two fingers into each, and pushed one forward to the edge of the table.
“This war that I am engaged in is a terrible waste,” she said, leaning back into the light. “Mireea is a neutral trade city. A city that runs off mathematics, I have heard it said. Whether you believe that or not, it is a city where only coin is worshipped. Your race, creed and color do not matter—so long as you understand that the market can reward and punish you for both at the same time. This war has damaged my coin. No doubt you have seen my empty streets. My closed stores. Before the first force is sighted, it has cost me what is most important and ruined my belief in my neighbors.”
Bueralan’s thick fingers closed around the glass. “Your treaties?”
“Have ensured that all legal trade has been cut off from Leera. Anything else will require me to renegotiate at the cost of my financial independence.”
The candid response surprised him. “You’ve not heard anything from Rakun, then?”
“The King of Leera has made no demands and sent no diplomats. No one has heard from him in close to a year.”
“A long time.”
“A long time for a lot of rumors, but let’s assume he is dead.” Lady Wagan lifted her drink in salute, finished it in one motion. “The last envoy I had from Leera claimed to work for a general by the name of Waalstan. Rumors— whispers, really—suggest that he is a warlock. I have no information as to whether that is true or not; what he wanted was to begin digging into the Mountain of Ger. He offered a token amount for the rights, but the land he wanted to take was so large that he cannot have thought I would be anything but offended. He didn’t even offer a reason for wanting the land. I pointed out that the gold was mostly tapped, and the envoy told me that there were other precious things in the ground. You can use your imagination. Anyhow, after I told this envoy no, I heard nothing. It had been three seasons since we saw crops from Leera and five since there was any trade in fish or meat, and I figured that they would have to return soon enough, but then the attacks began, and the cannibalism followed.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. No one I have sent has come back with information. Not spies, diplomats or mercenaries.”
“How did you hear that?”
“I didn’t, but the border of Leera tells many tales. The only rumor we have heard relates to two years of stories about priests.” “Priests?”
Bueralan placed his empty glass on the table. “Any particular god they worship?”
“They want to dig up the mountain, Captain” she said, the sun dipping further into the room. “There has been nothing officially said, and this close to Yeflam, I can understand why. But the rumor is that they have put priests in positions of power, though they are probably nothing more than witches and warlocks. There have been a few signs of rituals in campsites, and my husband’s torture was not the work of a simple man. I assume that the general is nothing more than the man with the largest bag of blood by his side for use in their blood magic, but regardless the information suggests I am caught in a holy war—or the appearance of one. I need to know for sure, however, and that is why I have hired you and your soldiers. I need to know who is running Leera’s war. I also need to know what kind of feeling is in the country, whether food and water is low, how big an army it is, and how deep the chains of command run. I need to know if they can be stopped before a siege is laid, or if it will be a longer, more drawn out path to victory.”
“But you would win?”
Her smile was easy, confident. “Mireea is a small nation, but not a poor one. I will use my resources wisely.”
“Indeed you will, ma’am. Dark could do with a few days’ rest before you send us out, if that’s possible.”
“The wet season ended a week ago in Leera. Take a day or two, but don’t wait too long. The roads will start to fill up soon.”
He nodded, pushed himself up, ready to leave.
“Captain?” The Lady’s gaze was intent, unwavering. “Speed and accuracy is important. There are already spies in my city.”
The Godless © Ben Peek, 2014