Tens of thousands of years of ice is melting, and the land of Assail, long a byword for menace and inaccessibility, is at last yielding its secrets. Tales of gold discovered in the region’s north circulate in every waterfront dive and sailor’s tavern, and now countless adventurers and fortune-seekers have set sail in search of riches.
Into this turmoil ventures the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. Not drawn by contract, but by the promise of answers: answers to mysteries that Shimmer, second in command, wonders should even be sought.
Arriving also, part of an uneasy alliance of Malazan fortune-hunters and Letherii soldiery, comes the bard Fisher kel Tath. And with him is a Tiste Andii who was found washed ashore and cannot remember his past life, yet who commands far more power than he really should. Also venturing north is said to be a mighty champion, a man who once fought for the Malazans, the bearer of a sword that slays gods: Whiteblade.
And lastly, far to the south, a woman guards the shore awaiting both her allies and her enemies. Silverfox, newly incarnated Summoner of the undying army of the T’lan Imass, will do anything to stop the renewal of an ages-old crusade that could lay waste to the entire continent and beyond.
Ian C Esslemont’s Assail, available August 5th from Tor Books, is the final chapter in the epic story of the Empire of Malaz. Read an excerpt below!
Kyle sat in his accustomed seat in a sailors’ dive in kevil, Mare, of south Fist, and considered his dwindling stash of coins, and thus options, for escaping these damnably insular Korel lands. It was a region so notoriously hostile to foreigners that should any here find him, an obvious stranger, wounded in the street, many would go out of their way to kick and spit upon him.
Especially as he wore the gear of the hated Malazans.
He’d ordered a stein of beer, which finally arrived at his table only because he’d proved himself a paying customer; something which might end soon enough. He supposed he could afford the short jaunt across Black Strait to Stygg on the mainland, and from there it was but a hop and a skip overland south across the Great Ice Wastes to Stratem, wasn’t it, my lad? He had the money for that at least. Or he could always join the Mare navy. They at least were recruiting. Not that they’d take a foreigner, and certainly not a blasted ex-Malazan who’d been at the naval engagement where the much vaunted Mare galleys had been razed to the waterline by said invaders and their allies.
He sipped the beer and damned that Katakan captain he’d hired. Once Fist slipped below the horizon the man turned round! He should’ve put his sword to his throat and forced him to sail on east. ’Course, there was no way he could’ve kept the whole crew at knife point for two weeks—but at least he’d have gotten off the wretched island.
Patience, he told himself, Kylarral-ten, son of Tulo, of the People of the Wind. There will be other chances.
Abyss, maybe a foreign trader would put in and he’d be able to hire on as crew. He was wondering how long it would be before that happened, and whether he had enough coin, when someone eased himself down into the chair opposite.
‘You are looking for a ship,’ the fellow said, and crossed his arms. He was wearing a canvas shirt, ragged and much patched, and his trousers were similar. His face and neck were sunand winddarkened to the Mare sailor’s usual deep polished brown. An antlerhandled dirk stood up from the strip of hair rope he wore tied as a belt. His dark eyes held the common disapproval and scarcely hidden hostility Kyle usually found directed at him as the cut of his leathers, his belt, sheath and boots, labelled him as being of those recent invaders.
Kyle allowed a guarded nod. ‘Unsuccessfully,’ he said.
‘I speak for Tulan Orbed, Master of the Lady’s Luck. He is interested in your talk of lands east of here across the Bloodmare Ocean.’ The man’s face and tone, however, made it plain that he was not.
‘Those lands are so close the Bloodmare Ocean should be named a strait.’
The sailor leaned forward to push his stubbled chin out over their tiny round table. ‘Listen, Malazan. We Marese are the greatest sailors of the age. If there was any such land so close then it would be our colony by now.’
Not if those lands are the ones I seek, my friend, Kyle silently rejoined. He also thought it politic not to mention that the combined Malazan and Moranth Blue navies, having defeated the Mare navy, might have a word to say about who were the greatest sailors of the age. In any case, he allowed himself a small shrug. ‘What does Master Tulan Orbed say?’
The sailor fell back, scowling. Knife scars on his cheeks and chin twisted and paled a ghostly white as they stretched. ‘He would meet you to discuss the matter. He would have you come on board.’
‘Tonight. Tomorrow. Whenever,’ and he echoed Kyle’s indifferent shrug.
‘Then I will come this night.’
‘We would require payment before we push out,’ he warned, and he thrust his chin forward once again.
Kyle stood, tossed a coin to the table. ‘That is for your master and me to discuss, I should think.’
He left the tavern not even glancing back. The fellow had made his disapproval obvious. There was nothing more to discuss. He headed to the wharf, or rather series of wharves. For Kevil, as he had discovered, like all Mare cities, was really nothing more than a land-based depot and servicing centre for their extraordinary, apparently unsinkable, galleys.
At least, he reflected, they may not sink but the Moranth certainly proved that they do burn.
He walked the uneven cobbles of the wharf’s main way. It bore ruts from centuries of foot and cart traffic. The cortex of many stones had eroded through to the creamy brown flint beneath. Through the evening gloom of clouds, smoke and mist he could just make out the looming shapes of the nearest moored vessels. All thrusting so tall and proud their sculpted galley bow-figures of waves, dolphins, and, of course, the obligatory women.
Well… maybe not quite so proud these days.
The famed galleys of Mare, when not drawn up for repairs, were each housed in their own slip flanked by piers allowing easy access to the long slim vessels. The effect of the league-long line of such berths was of a great set of teeth deployed ready to bite the waters of the bay.
Dragging steps behind announced the resentful sailor following. Kyle searched for and found a lad lounging among the piled cargo of boxes and bales. He approached; the lad made a show of ignoring him. He cleared his throat. ‘I’m looking for the Lady’s Luck.’
A lazy sullen gaze scoured Kyle up and down. The gaze slid away. ‘Her mate’s a knife thrust behind you.’
‘Where’s his ship?’
The lad just smiled his contempt and crossed his arms, leaning farther back.
Calm, Kyle, he reminded himself. Calm. It’s worth it to get out from among these ignorant inward-looking people.
He headed on. Movement on his left and the mate appeared. He decided to give the man another chance. ‘This direction, I assume.’
The mate said nothing.
So, am I right or wrong? If they reached the end of the wharf, he decided he’d throw the man off.
After a long silent walk, interminably long it seemed to him, the mate edged his head over and muttered a grudging, ‘The Lady’s Luck.’
A tiny orange glow at the raised stern deck marked a lit brazier. Kyle stepped down into the longship, edged along the narrow seating of the oarsmen up on to the central raised walkway, and climbed the seven slim steps that led to the open stern deck. The mate followed all the way.
Here Kyle found two men, one old and one young, each wrapped in furs against the chill of the passing winter, roasting titbits of meat on skewers over the brazier.
The older one, a great boar of a man with a thick black head of curly hair and beard to match, eyed him while he licked his fingers clean, one at a time. His dark face carried the scars of decades of fighting and exposure to sun and wind. The younger’s face was smooth and pale; Kyle hazarded a guess that he had been to sea rarely if at all. The lad glanced from his elder, his father perhaps, to the mate, then to Kyle, and back round again.
‘You are this foreigner speaking of lands to the east?’ the elder rumbled.
‘I am Tulan Orbed, Master of the Lady’s Luck.’ He waved a great paw to the lad. ‘This here is my nephew, Reuth.’
‘The black storm cloud behind you is Storval, First Mate.’
‘Ha! I intuit from your tone that you certainly have. So gloomy is he we name him Black Storval.’ He urged Kyle to him. ‘Come, come. Set yourself at ease. We see so few foreigners here. Tell us of the world beyond Fist. You have seen these distant shores to the east?’
Kyle was rather taken aback to meet such a cosmopolitan attitude. He sat easily enough, but to one side, so as not to put his back to the ill-tempered mate. Tulan chuckled at this, and winked. Then, peering up sharply, he said, ‘Another horn and more ale, Storval.’
The man scowled even more but ground out a nod. ‘Aye, captain.’ He thumped down the stairs.
Tulan extended a wood skewer to Kyle, who took it and jabbed a scrap of meat that he then held over the glowing brazier coals. ‘I have seen them.’
The captain’s gaze flicked to his nephew. ‘Indeed. And does this land have a name?’
‘It does. The southern lands are known to some as Bael. The northern some name…’ and here he paused, wondering whether to mention the damned ill-omened name at all. But he ploughed on, thinking, wind toss it, no one from Korel would know it anyway: ‘…Assail.’ The captain eyed his nephew once more. But the lad was watching Kyle. A faintly amused smile pulled at his mouth. They know this already, he realized. They just wanted to see if I’d lie about that name. ‘Anything else?’
‘Where were you there? A port? Did you land?’
Kyle nodded while he ate his sizzling cut of meat. Storval returned, set down a third drinking horn and a fat skin. Kyle used the skewer to pick his teeth. ‘A city on the east coast. Kurzan.’
Again, Tulan eyed his nephew, who nodded.
Kyle turned to the unprepossessing pale blotchy-faced lad and looked him up and down. ‘You’ve been there?’
He blushed furiously, his face almost glowing, and shook his head.
‘Reuth’s a scholar,’ Tulan explained. ‘But a particular kind of scholar. I paid a fortune to send him to poke through dusty records in Jasston and Jourilan. Isn’t that so, Reuth?’
The lad nodded vigorously.
Tulan picked up the skin and squeezed a stream of ale into the horn. He offered it to Kyle. ‘His passion is cartography. Know you this line of knowledge?’
Kyle accepted the horn, nodding. ‘Charts and maps.’
‘Indeed. He is only happy when bent over dusty sheets.’ The captain glanced to his nephew. ‘Quite the secret hoard of charts they have in Jourilan, confiscated from every vessel that ever landed or wrecked itself upon the coast. Isn’t that so, Reuth?’
The lad leaned forward, all eagerness. ‘Yes. And you, sir, your accent is not Malazan, sir. Where are you from? Is it Seven Cities?’
The captain raised a paw as if to backhand the lad. ‘Not now, dammit to the Lady’s grave!’ Reuth flinched away. ‘Apologies,’ Tulan growled. ‘The lad has spent too much time among scrolls and records and not enough time crewing among men—some of whom may not look kindly upon questions regarding their past.’
Kyle gave the young man a reassuring smile. ‘I welcome curiosity. I find it… refreshing.’
Tulan grunted a laugh. ‘No doubt you do here along these shores!’ He wiped his greasy hands on his furs. ‘Now to business. How many days to cross—by your estimate?’
‘Due east of here? A fortnight at the least, I should think. With favourable winds.’
Again the captain eyed his nephew, who answered with a curt nod of approval. ‘Good, good. Such a crossing is as nothing for us of Mare.’
Yet none of you have ventured it, Kyle reflected. On the other hand, perhaps some have… they’ve simply never returned. He sipped the ale and found it even worse than he’d anticipated; he grimaced. ‘And is your goal—pure exploration?’
Tulan guffawed anew. His toothy grin was conspiratorial and he hunched forward, lowering his voice. ‘Come now, friend. That you seek these eastern lands proves you’ve heard the rumours.’
The big man sat back and frowned behind his greasy beard. ‘No need to play things so close. We of Mare are traders, sea-scavengers. Aye, I’ll even admit it openly here upon the deck of my own good ship… marauders and raiders. No need to pretend with me.’
Kyle had no idea what the man was getting at. He swirled the dregs of the ale in its horn, considered dumping it over the side. Rumours? There were plenty of rumours surrounding Assail. Yet these were all of a kind that would send you fleeing it. Not seeking passage to it. He slowly shook his head, all the while keeping his gaze steady on the man. ‘I’m sorry, Tulan, captain. But I have heard no recent rumours.’
Tulan once more waved a hairy hand at his nephew. ‘Foreign gods, man. Even Reuth here has heard, in Kor! The ports are seething with the news.’
Kyle continued to shake his head.
Reuth cleared his throat. ‘A word, Uncle, if I may?’
‘What?’ Tulan grunted, now all ill-humour.
‘Our friend is a foreigner in these lands, yes? No one here would speak to him regarding anything. Let alone pass on choice bits of news, or even gossip to while away the time.’
The captain’s dark masses of brows rose as he considered his nephew’s words. He slammed his horn to the keg he used as a table. ‘Of course! No one would pass such news along to some damned foreigner—ah, no insult intended.’ By way of apology, he held out the ale-skin and Kyle could only answer by extending his horn for refilling. ‘An offering to our journey!’ Tulan laughed as he overtopped the horn, spilling ale to the deck. ‘And a propitiation to the new gods to come. Though,’ and he lost his smile, ‘after the Lady, we’ve quite had our fill of gods in this region, I should think.’
‘The news then?’
Tulan raised his horn to the toast. Reuth joined, and Kyle also, though inwardly dreading more of the brackish drink. ‘To a profitable, ah… venture, friend. For it is all the news that gold has been discovered in the northern mountains of the lands across the Bloodmare Sea. Great wide fields of gold. Enough wealth to make kings of us all.’
So astounded by this claim was Kyle that he mechanically threw back his drink and had to force the vile liquid down. Ye gods! Gold in northern Assail? This news would draw thousands from all across the lands. Especially if word of it had reached even isolated and inward Korel. ‘When was the strike made?’ he asked, clearing his throat and coughing.
Tulan waved the horn airily. ‘Well, admittedly, it has taken some time for the news to come to us. Apparently, word first came from a shipwreck on the Jourilan coast. Some people heralding from some backward land named Lether. The crew had heard of it first hand from a stricken vessel they’d come across and… ah… rescued.’
Kyle shook his head, unconvinced. ‘Tall tales to save their skins.’
Tulan winked. ‘So too would I have thought. But then similar news came by way of a vessel that put in for repairs on the north Fist coast. This ship hailed from Falar, north of Malaz. Know you it?’
‘I know it. Excellent mariners, the Falari.’
‘Yes. They claimed to have landed on an island within spitting distance of the Assail mainland only to find the place nearly deserted. Entire villages empty. They questioned some oldsters who gave them the news… gold had been discovered in Assail. Everyone picked up and went after it.’
Kyle raised his hands wide. ‘Then we are too late. These strikes are usually cleaned out in months. All the rich ground worth sifting gets claimed.’
The captain winked again—it was an engaging gesture that seemed to say: ‘Yes, this may be so, but we are both men of the world and we know better…’ Kyle found himself warming to the old pirate—for pirate he had as good as confessed to being. ‘But this is Assail,’ Tulan said, pushing more meat on to his blackened skewer. ‘We know the tales of that land.’ Don’t we now, Kyle silently answered, and he shook his head at the dreadfulness of them. ‘Just so. Few will live to reach the fields, yes? And as to claims or ownership… well.’ The big man gave an eloquent shrug.
Kyle knew this to be true. If the stories were to believed, no state existed up there to grant any rights of ownership, or to recognize any claims or stakes. It would be utter chaos. Armed bands would provide the only authority, and they answerable only to themselves. And as to those who already lived up there—petty warlords, pocket tyrants continuously at war with their neighbours—they could find themselves utterly overrun. Surely not even they could kill quickly enough to stem the tide soon to be breaking on their shores.
He almost tossed back the last of his drink but stopped himself in time. He eyed the grinning pirate captain. ‘You plan to take a rich claim, empty it, and cut your way back to the Lady’s Luck?’
Tulan blew on the cooked meat then pulled it off the skewer with his teeth. ‘Nothing as crude as that,’ he answered, chewing. ‘Godsblood, man, you almost make it sound like hard work.’ He offered his nephew a wink and topped up his horn. ‘Nothing like that. Think it through, man. We don’t do any of that hardscrabble digging! We let other poor unfortunates do all the hard work sifting and washing and transporting and such. We’ll just lie in wait along the coast, won’t we? After all, they’ll want to get it out of such a godsforsaken pesthole.’ He opened his hands wide at the obviousness of it. ‘That’s when we liberate it.’
‘Ah, I see. An elegant plan.’
Tulan grinned his agreement. ‘Thank you, my friend.’
‘So you have a crew.’
‘Oh yes, the prettiest gang of murderers and hireswords. Why, we even have a squad of ten Stormguard who are—how shall I put it—dissatisfied with the new regime.’
That alarmed Kyle, and he must have not made a good enough job of disguising his reaction as the captain held up a hand. ‘You are Malazan. I understand your concern. But do not worry. All that is the past, no? We are now brothers together in this venture for gainful capital, yes?’
Kyle allowed a wary smile. ‘Of course.’ Struck by a new thought, he studied Reuth. ‘So you know the coast…’
The lad blushed and lowered his gaze. Tulan stroked his beard and grinned like a proud uncle, saying, ‘We have the best maps outside Assail itself, I am sure.’
Reuth dared a glance. ‘The names,’ he whispered, as if frightened. ‘I don’t understand the names. Have you heard those names?’
Kyle nodded his agreement. Yes. Those names haunted the stories of his youth. All of them ghost stories. ‘Wrath…’ he murmured. ‘Wrack… Dread… Black Pit… the Anguish Coast.’
Tulan grunted, but not unkindly. ‘You’re young, Reuth.’ He held another titbit of meat over the brazier. ‘We may be ignorant provincials here in these lands, friend Kyle, but I know a tale or two. I’ve heard tell of lands where people name their children “Fool”, “Louse”, or even “Splitnose”. Know you why they would do such cruel things to their own children?’
Kyle smiled his understanding. ‘To turn away the attention of the gods—or demons.’
‘Exactly. So, tell me, friend Kyle, if you wanted to ruin a place what would you name it?’
His smile twisted to its side. ‘I suppose I’d tout it as Paradise. Or Bounty.’
‘Exactly. And if you wanted to keep people away?’ Tulan turned his questioning gaze on Reuth.
The lad nodded. ‘I see.’
‘Or perhaps they are just awful places,’ Kyle suggested.
Tulan burst out in a great bout of laughter. ‘Perhaps indeed they are, friend Kyle.’ He rubbed his hands again on his already greasy furs and leathers. ‘So. You will bunk here on the Lady’s Luck, yes?’
Kyle motioned that he had no objection.
‘You have gear? I could send Storval.’
‘No—no thank you.’
The captain waved to Kyle’s side. ‘Need you another blade? We have plenty.’
He could not stop his hand from going to his belt where he carried his sword wrapped in leather. ‘No. It is quite all right. I will repair it.’
The big man shrugged. ‘Suit yourself. Storval will see you bunked. We’ll push out with tomorrow’s evening tide, yes?’
Kyle rose. ‘Very good. Thank you.’ He bowed to the captain and noted how Reuth now could not keep his gaze from the wrapped blade at his side. He descended to the rowing deck. Tulan bellowed: ‘Storval! Rouse your worthless hide! See to this man’s berth!’
While the first mate rubbed his eyes and stretched, Kyle stood with his hand still resting on his covered sword. He wondered whether these two had heard certain tales of the war against the Lady. Stories making the rounds of the invasion and rebellion. Of the Malazan commander Greymane, named Stonewielder here, and his foreign companion, and of two swords—one grey and one pale. The grey one was gone. The stuff of mere legend now. But the rumours also told of an ivory sword carried by a foreign warrior. A blade that could cut through anything. A sword he’d heard the stories here named Whiteblade. A weapon, they said, fit for a god.
These stories were closer to the truth than even their tellers knew. For the blade came to his hand from the hand of the Sky-King Osserc himself, and Kyle was beginning to suspect just what it might be. The possibilities terrified him. And so he dared not leave it out of his sight, yet he dared not show it either. The burden of it was a curse. A damned curse. So had Greymane named the stone sword he had wielded. And now Kyle understood the man completely.
He clenched the weapon in its leather wrap more tightly to his side. Storval motioned curtly to the steps down into the low-roofed storage cabin beneath the stern deck. ‘You may sleep here tonight,’ he growled, then smiled wolfishly and added, ‘But after tomorrow it’s the rowing benches for you—what say you to that, foreigner?’
Kyle shrugged indifferently. ‘Beats the ground.’
The first mate sneered his disbelief and waved him down.
Shimmer did not want to do it, but two months after returning from Jacuruku and the harrowing though successful expedition to that cursed land, she requested that a select few officers of the Crimson Guard meet her in the forest just north of Fortress Haven, Stratem.
She realized that this decision had been some time in coming. These last months of indecision and inactivity on the part of K’azz had merely provoked it. Cal-Brinn and the Fourth remained trapped in Assail and still no steps were being taken to organize their rescue. K’azz had even been told that answers to what awaited the Guard in the future lay in those lands. Yet he did nothing. No vessels had been hired nor were efforts being made to begin construction. K’azz had simply disappeared once more into the wild tracts of Stratem’s interior.
It was infuriating. And it was saddening. He was allowing her no choice. She had to act. It was in the best interest of the Guard.
Yet she was also self-aware enough to reflect: or so I tell myself.
Even so, it cost her a full month of sleepless nights. The doubts and self-recriminations would not go away. Was she no better than Skinner? He too had expressed his dissatisfaction with K’azz’s leadership—though in a far more direct and decisive fashion.
He’d buried his old commander alive to keep him out of the way. Yet she wondered whether what she intended was any gentler. Usurpation is still usurpation, she told herself. She’d finally decided: look on the bright side… they might run me through the minute they realize what I am proposing.
When she entered the glade Blues was already present, standing among the tall weeds. It was a clear night. The sky was dark once more. The Gods’ Road arched across its spine as it always had before the invasion of the Visitor with its long arching tail of jade flame. A weak wind stirred the tall dry grass and sent a whispering and brushing among the leaves.
Not only worry pinched Blues’ namesake Napan features. The man had lost weight. The mission to Korelri had been a particularly trying one. Though it too had met with success: Bars had been found and returned to the fold.
And the man brought further news of Assail. Cal-Brinn and the Fourth had been fleeing north when they parted ways. Fleeing. CalBrinn, one of the strongest mages of the Guard. An adept of Rashan and a fearsome swordsman, together with some thirty Avowed. Fleeing for their lives.
Blues said nothing, though he did nod a welcome. He suspects, she saw. Will he challenge? A caustic smile twisted her lips as she realized that they’d both come armed. He with the multitude of weapons he habitually carried: sticks, knives, twinned longswords, and who knew what else hidden away. Gods, he was the Guard’s weaponmaster. A fish would be deadly in this man’s hands.
She, of course, wore her whipsword sheathed at her back, its twohanded grip extending up over her left shoulder. The one weapon she might be the last living master of, she reflected.
Petal entered next and his appearance did nothing for Blues’ sour expression.
She knew Blues saw Petal only as a mage loyal to Skinner. Blues had been on his own mission. Hadn’t walked the jungled paths of Jacuruku with them. He had not shared all that Petal and she had shared. The brothers and sisters who walked into exile under Skinner would listen to Petal. She must bridge this gulf of suspicion between him and Blues.
Tarkhan arrived next and it was Shimmer’s turn to clench her lips.
Always a creature of Cowl. She’d never liked this one. And now Cowl had returned… if in body only. For Hood’s sake, the man had been captive of an Azath House! Who knew what was going on in his crazed mind? Yet Tarkhan carried the loyalty of the First company. She must win him.
The squat Wickan paused at the edge of the glade. His broad dark face was unreadable in the dimness. His eyes glittered as they shifted from her to Blues and Petal. He too had come armed: the traditional Wickan curved knives rested on his hips.
Steeling herself, Shimmer advanced into the glade. Fieldmice scurried from her boots as she pushed through the thick grasses and thorn bushes. Among the trees an owl gave an excited hoot at this rousting of prey.
When the four met at the centre of the meadow, none spoke. There was no need. Shimmer read in their expressions that all had deduced why she had called them here this night. She was pained to see disappointment in Blues’ frown, while Tarkhan carried a sort of smirk that seemed to say… and you were doubting of my loyalty? Petal held his hands clasped before his wide stomach and his eyes were downcast; it seemed he could not meet her eyes.
Damn. Had she lost them already? Would none support her? What then was left? Exile?
She almost wavered then. The option remained to travel half the path. Voice mere concerns. Play the worried subordinate.
Yet they would see through that and know her failure of nerve here, now, on the cliff’s edge. She would lose any remaining shreds of their respect: not only disloyal, but a coward as well. Imagining such a loss stung her to draw breath, but she caught sight of a fifth, uninvited, figure entering the clearing and clamped her lips shut.
It was Cowl in his tattered finery. He came swaggering up with his maddening knowing grin. The scars across his throat—put there by Dancer himself—seemed to glow in the darkness. His unkempt black hair fell across his face like deeper shadows of night. He offered his manic grin to each.
‘You have no part in this conclave,’ Shimmer ground out. ‘Be gone.’
The High Mage and master assassin of the Guard appeared not to hear. He continued to cast his gaze about the meadow as if he were out for a mid-night stroll.
‘There is poetry here,’ he suddenly announced, seemingly apropos of nothing.
The sensation of things crawling upon her skin that always accompanied this man’s presence returned to Shimmer. ‘What do you want?’ she growled. She was emboldened—and encouraged—to see even Tarkhan shift uneasily and rub his arms in discomfort in the presence of his old master.
‘It was not so far from here that other masks were removed,’ the man said airily, as if this fully answered her demand.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, dearest Shimmer, that this is not far from the spot where Skinner and I abandoned the pretence of searching for K’azz and he stepped forward to claim command of the Guard.’
Shimmer’s throat clenched far too tight for words. Bastard! What was he trying to do? Might as well stick the knife in and be done with it!
‘I don’t believe Shimmer here means to try anything that radical,’ Blues ground out, an unspoken warning in his voice. He turned his narrowed gaze upon her. ‘’Least not the Shimmer I knew.’
‘No,’ she agreed. ‘But I cannot stand silently by either. Duty and loyalty drive me to call attention to K’azz’s neglect of his responsibilities.’
Cowl brayed a mocking laugh and Shimmer fought down an urge to yank her whipsword free and add to the scars across the man’s neck.
‘Quiet,’ Blues growled. To Shimmer: ‘I share your concern. What of you, Tarkhan?’
The Wickan inclined his head in agreement. ‘I, too, am concerned. We are mercenaries yet we pursue no contracts. We are idle. What, then, are we?’
‘And you, Petal?’ Shimmer asked.
The giant was pulling thoughtfully on his fat lower lip. He blushed beneath their attention and dipped his head, murmuring, ‘I am come merely as an observer—I have no standing to vote on any of this.’
‘We ain’t voting on anything,’ Blues was quick to answer. ‘’Least not yet, anyways.’ His gaze fixed upon Shimmer. ‘What do you propose?’
The weaponmaster’s gaze flayed her to the bone and she drew a steadying breath. It was as if the man were waiting poised for one misstep from her, one wrong word, and she would feel his blade in her heart before she sensed his move. She found her throat had gone quite dry, and licked her lips to wet them. Even though she felt as if she were declaring her own death sentence, she began: ‘I must formally question K’azz’s fitness to command.’
Blues’ hands did not rise from where they rested close to the grips of his long-knives. Tarkhan’s dark eyes, like glistening obsidian, shifted from her to Blues while he brushed his fingertips across his belt. Petal had stopped pulling at his lip and now stood motionless with it pinched between his fingers.
A long slow mocking laugh echoed through the clearing and Shimmer, as did the rest, shifted her gaze to Cowl, High Mage of the Guard.
‘Quiet from you,’ Blues warned again.
The man bowed. ‘My apologies. Please, do continue, dear Shimmer. Do go on. You now propose yourself as acting commander given K’azz’s, ah, desertion of his duties. Yes?’
‘I propose no such thing.’
The man’s acid smile slipped away and he tilted his head in puzzlement. ‘Oh? You do not?’
‘No. I propose Blues as acting commander.’
The Napan swordsman’s brows shot up. ‘Now wait a Trakedamned minute.’
‘I have no objection,’ Tarkhan put in quickly, and he smiled evilly as if taking enormous pleasure in Blues’ discomfort.
‘Well I do,’ Blues growled. ‘I decline. And anyway, it makes no difference either way.’
Shimmer frowned, not certain what he meant, but sensing the truth of the man’s words. They carried an echo of something out of Jacuruku. ‘What do you mean?’ she said slowly, almost in dread.
He waved to Cowl. ‘What this jackal’s laughin’ about. You’re not a mage, Shimmer. You don’t understand. Makes no difference who we put forward to take over. Can’t be done.’
‘As I now have come to see,’ Cowl whispered, and his toothy white smile broadened once again. ‘The Vow is binding.’
What of the Vow? she wondered. Whatever did the man— Damn! We swore to K’azz! He commands… until we are all gone? No escape? We are… helpless? A strange dizziness assaulted her and her vision darkened. A hand steadied her—Blues’—and she nodded her thanks. ‘Then there is nothing we can do,’ she barely said aloud. The words sounded desolate to her ears. There was no hope for them.
‘Make the arrangements, Shimmer,’ Blues said gently. ‘Just go ahead. We will go to Assail.’
‘Who should come?’
‘I must,’ Cowl said, and his manic smile returned.
‘Then I will,’ Blues answered, glaring at the mage.
‘And myself,’ Shimmer answered. She cast an invitation to Petal.
He raised his brows, quite surprised. ‘I would—if I may. And I suggest Gwynn.’
‘Bars must come, of course,’ Blues added. ‘What of you, Tarkhan?’
The plainsman shifted his broad stance, uncomfortable. ‘If you lot are going then I am certain K’azz will once more leave command of Stratem to me.’ He smoothed his moustache and scowled his disgust. ‘There you are. Neither Shimmer nor you get command. It comes to me, unwanted and unasked for.’
‘I am sorry, Tarkhan,’ Shimmer offered. ‘But I am also relieved.’
The man snorted.
‘We must go in force,’ Blues continued. ‘At least ten more swords.’Shimmer nodded her assent. ‘Two Blades, then. You take one, I the other.’
‘And K’azz?’ Petal asked, his hand at his chin.
Blues waved the question aside. ‘He can come or not. His choice. We aren’t leaving Cal to rot.’
The south coastal people called her the Ghost Woman, the Stranger, or She-Who-Speaks-to-the-Wind. All anyone knew was that she appeared just a few seasons ago here on this stretch of their coast and that that day there had been a terrible battle in which the dead rose to fight all the day and all the night. Since that time this length of seashore was avoided by all and was cursed with the name, the Dead Coast.
And over the seasons the clash and clamour of battle had returned to rage from that coastline. At those times, day or night, the locals would huddle in their huts, throw themselves down before their altars, and beg that the gods and demons pass them by.
Sumaran, son of Jirel, was one of these inhabitants. A fisherman by trade. Once, when the winds pushed his outrigger too far up the coast, he spotted the woman herself. She was out walking the dunes all alone, just as others had reported seeing her—reports he’d doubted himself. Yet that day there she appeared, a lonely figure, her long hair blowing in the shoreward winds, her ragged clothes snapping and flicking as well. Then she had stilled, and it seemed to him that her face turned to him, and he thought he saw her mouth moving as if she were speaking though no one was there. Or she was casting a spell upon him. He had made the sign against evil at his heart and paddled on as fast as he could.
Now, this morning, the winds had taken hold of his outrigger once more and were determined to toss him upon the Dead Coast. He’d lowered his mast and paddled furiously but still the rising winds pushed him in towards the submerged rocks that guarded this stretch of beach. It was, he decided, as if some malevolent god or demon was working to make this day his last. He wondered what he had done to earn such wrath and realized that it could have been anything. He was no stranger to the capriciousness of the gods, and the demons and spirits of the coast were even worse. It occurred to him then, briefly, that perhaps this was the curse of the Ghost Woman herself for that single forbidden glimpse.
Then the outrigger ground up against the rocks and he was heaved over the side. Waves tossed him rolling until he knew not which way was up. Rocks gouged his shoulder; his chest flamed. The clear bright sky suddenly glared upon him and he gasped one breath before the waves pushed him under once more. His arm struck the sandy bottom and he stood, coughing, squeezing his shoulder.
He staggered to shore even though he knew he was no better off. This was the Dead Coast where the dead ruled. He had to flee. He ran, panting, the wet sands pulling on his feet, his shoulder blazing its pain and his hand slick with blood.
He ran mouthing prayers and entreaties to all the gods and spirits of the coast: please allow him to escape! Please look away! He would sacrifice half his catch from this day forth should he live to see tomorrow’s dawn!
Pleading gave way to tears and curses as his feet became heavy and he tripped, falling again and again. His breath burned in his throat and his vision blurred. He rose one more time to stumble on. A dark figure suddenly appeared before him as if swirling out of the night itself and he threw himself aside shrieking his terror. There, peering down at him, was the ravaged face of death itself, and Sumaran knew nothing more.
He awoke to the cawing of seabirds. The sun was just rising. He lay upon the open sands, the remains of a fire before him. Something held him tight and he felt at his chest. Some sort of cloth was tied tightly over his shoulder. He peered about, terrified. Where was death? He thought he’d come for him. Perhaps it had been nothing more than a nightmare.
A figure approached from over the dunes. Sumaran tensed to run but his legs would not move: he was frozen in dread. It was the Ghost Woman. The wind tossed her long tangled hair. She wore a hide shirt and trousers and over this a tattered fur cloak that flapped and snapped. She was old, he saw, as wrinkled as any elder. Strings of polished green and blue stones hung about her neck. She stood peering down at him and it seemed that there was no sympathy in her hard black eyes.
‘You are well?’ she asked in an odd accent, using very archaic phrasing.
Remembering whom he dealt with he quickly lowered his gaze. ‘What do you wish of me?’ he stammered.
‘I wish nothing of you. You need not fear me. I will not harm you.’
He knew not what to say. What could one say? ‘I—I am grateful for my life,’ he murmured, his eyes still downcast.
‘It was nothing. If your strength has returned you may go. You are from the villages to the east, I believe?’
He swallowed to wet his throat. ‘Yes.’
‘And what is it they name me there?’
He dared not reveal that. He searched for some possible answer until the Ghost Woman chuckled and murmured, ‘That bad, is it?’ He ducked his head, even more petrified. ‘Never mind,’ she continued, ‘I understand. It is not important. You should go now before—’ and a catch came to her voice, almost as if she was pained.
Suraman dared a glance. The Ghost Woman was studying the horizon and for a moment it seemed as if she was far more terrified than he. He almost spoke then, to ask what it was she saw, but he feared her anger far too much to dare such a thing.
He used his good arm to raise himself up, all the while keeping his gaze downcast. ‘I—I will go, then. My thanks again.’
He dared another glance: the witch was still peering aside, squinting, something like unease tightening her mouth. For a moment the strange impression struck Suraman that instead of haunting the coast, this entity was in fact guarding it. He headed off, limping slightly. Yet that startling image drove him to turn back. Glancing up, he asked: ‘How, then, are you known—I may ask?’
The woman was still staring off towards the sea. Her old patched furs lashed and snapped about her. She answered, ‘You may call me Silverfox.’
When he was far enough away he risked one final glance back. The woman was still where he’d last seen her. All alone, staring off towards the surging ocean waves, hands clasped behind her back. She appeared even more alone and sad to him then. Something about her pulled at his heart. He was about to turn away when suddenly she was no longer alone there among the dunes. Other figures stood with her. Dark they were, ragged and worn in outline. Bulky furs draped their odd figures, and long tatters of hides blew about them. The head of one carried gnarled antlers.
This sight drove icy atavistic shivers down his spine and he backed away, horrified once again. The dead. She is the sad Queen of the Dead. To think if he had drowned in the surf he, too, could now be standing among them!
He spun and ran. He must warn everyone! No one need doubt any longer. This was the Dead Coast in truth!
Of the countless freebooters, hijackers, and outright pirates of the south Genabackan coast and the archipelago of the Free Confederacy, Burl Tardin knew he wasn’t the first to hear word of a rich gold strike in the legendary north Assail lands. He knew also that he was not the first to set out south to dare the stormy Galatan Sweep and from there pass onward, entering the semi-mythical Sea of Hate as it was known in the old lays. And he knew that though he was not even the first to succeed in said crossings, at great risk and cost, it was an achievement worthy of song all the same.
This he became certain of as he passed the shattered hulls of Genabackan vessels lying strewn along what those self-same old songs and stories named the ‘Wreckers’ Coast’.
He did, however, suspect that he was among the first to reach the gauntlet of rocks known as the Guardians. These rocks, and the twisted course between, choked Fear Narrows, the entrance to the inland Dread Sea—which some also called the Sea of Dread. He did believe he was the first of his compatriots to manage this particular miracle of seamanship.
And now he, his vessel—the Sea Strike—and his crew lay becalmed somewhere on the pale milky waters of the Dread Sea. His crew manned the oars, of course, though progress was hard to determine among the near constant mists and fogs that shrouded the stars at night and obscured the unfamiliar coast by day. Many were for putting in until the damned fogs abated, but he suspected that such conditions were unavoidable here in these strange lands and waters. Besides, each time they’d put in for water, or to hunt, hostile locals had met them and they’d put spears through four of his crew.
Banks of the thick mists drifted by like smoke to enmesh them in their clinging arms. Dark shapes seemed to loom through the fogs. Other ships, perhaps, just as lost. His lookouts shouted but only their own calls echoed back across the waters. Or so Burl assumed, as the returning shouts sounded eerily like voices in other languages calling their warning. Perhaps even crying their panic.
‘Sea-monster!’ a lookout warned one morning and Burl almost ordered the poor fellow to come down as his eyes were playing tricks upon him. But others called now, pointing to port, where a dark shape closed upon them. Long and tall it was in the fog. By the great sea-god himself, Burl swore, amazed: a sea-dragon.
The fog parted in swirling wafts and the lookout voiced a panicked: ‘’Ware! Ice!’
‘Stave it off!’ Burl bellowed.
The crew on the starboard side jumped to unship their oars while those on the port raised theirs and braced themselves. The huge shard of emerald ice came brushing up against the slim wooden poles. Wood shattered and crewmen grunted and shouted their pain as the oars lashed among them. Hernen went down with a shattered skull as one slammed him on the side of the head in a sickening wet crack.
The Sea Strike lurched under a side-swiping blow. Its planks groaned, and all aboard were thrown from their feet. Ice clattered in a gleaming shower to the decking, where the shards lay steaming.
‘Check the hull!’ Burl ordered and clambered to his feet. ‘Clear that ice.’
‘Aye,’ First Mate Whellen answered.
The great ice behemoth coursed on, not even scarred by its encounter. Burl watched it go, eerily silent, once more merging into the bank of hanging fog. ‘Hull’s still sound,’ his master carpenter reported and Burl nodded his relief.
A scream of pain snapped their attention to amidships. Whellen stood staring at his hands. Burl ran to him. ‘Gods, what is it?’
The mate stood gazing at his hands, wordless. Burl yanked on his shoulder. ‘Speak, man!’
The mate raised his eyes and Burl flinched away: they seemed utterly empty of awareness. ‘It burns,’ the mate whispered, awed. ‘The ice burns.’ Then he collapsed to the wet planking.
Burl ordered the man be wrapped in blankets and thought nothing more of it—he had a ship to check for soundness and an entire crew to handle. He had spare oars drawn and those that could be repaired kept. Yet they were now short of a full complement and when the crew returned to rowing they made even less progress than before.
The next day they sighted a vessel. It was a vague motionless silhouette in the mists at first. Oaring closer they hailed it, but no answer came. Burl ordered a cautious approach. The half of the crew not rowing hurried to ready weapons. As they closed the gap, the lines of the vessel revealed themselves in a form never before seen by him or his crew.
Long and narrow it was, a galley just like the Strike, but larger, and closed, not open-hulled. It lay becalmed, the sails of its one mast limp. To Burl it looked abandoned, like some sort of ghost ship. ‘Hello, vessel!’ he shouted again.
When no one answered he ordered the Strike closer and a small boarding party readied, led by the second mate, Gaff. Whellen still lay abed, stricken with whatever ailment it was that had hold of him.
The Strike bumped up amidships and the party clambered aboard. Burl and the crew waited and watched, weapons in hand. They did not have long to wait. Immediately, it seemed to him, the boarding party returned. They swung legs out over the taller side and jumped or eased themselves down. Burl searched among them for Gaff. Quiet they were, pale even. He found the man and looked him up and down. ‘Well?’
His second mate just shook his head, unable to speak. Unnervingly, Burl was reminded of Whellen’s reaction to holding the ice. The man shakily drew a sleeve across his sweaty glistening brow and swallowed as if pushing back bile. ‘Gone,’ he managed. ‘All gone.’
Burl scanned the rocking vessel. Its waterline foamed heavy with weeds and barnacles, as if it had lain becalmed in the water for years. ‘Dead? How?’
‘No, not dead, sir. Gone. She’s empty of all crew. Not one soul, living or dead. A ghost ship.’
‘Cut loose? An accident?’
The second mate rubbed his arms as if chilled, his gaze lingering on the silent vessel. ‘No sir. ’Tis as if the crew up and walked off during a voyage. Ropes lay half coiled. Meals still on the table. Still fresh.’
‘Fresh? How could that be? Any ship’s rutter?’
Gaff shook his head. ‘Didn’t look, sir.’
‘Didn’t look? Gods and demons, man! Get back on board and find the pilot’s rutter.’
Gaff jerked a negative. ‘Nay, sir. The vessel’s cursed. We must push off.’
Burl had been about to send the men back aboard to gather supplies and any potable water, but he noted the fierce nods that the second mate’s words collected. He saw the signs raised against evil and a kind of atavistic fear in the gazes of all. And as a sailor himself he knew how deep-rooted such superstitions could lie. He also knew he led by support of these men and so he merely gestured his contempt, muttering, ‘Very well. If you must.’
Gaff’s nod of acknowledgement was firm. He turned to the boarding party. ‘You brought nothing, yes? Good. Can’t risk the curse.’ Then he shouted to the rest of the crew: ‘Now cast off! Back oars!’
‘And just what curse is this, Gaff?’ Burl enquired, as the foreign vessel slid phantom-like into the fogs.
‘Sea of Dread, sir. Drives men insane, they say.’
Burl had heard such stories and songs. Tales of ships mysteriously abandoned. Floating hulks empty of all crew. He’d only half believed them before now. Why would a crew abandon a perfectly seaworthy vessel? It must have come from some nearby port. Slipped free of its mooring lines, surely. The crew wouldn’t just up and jump into the water!
Burl now became aware of his men murmuring among themselves. Even as they pulled strongly on the oars they spoke to one another under their breath. He heard much re-telling and re-sorting of all the hoary old tales of such ghost ships and curses. And repeated among the men he heard the name whispered like a curse itself: Dread Sea. Sea of Dread. The Dreadful Sea.
And now like the thick choking fog itself he felt that selfsame dread coiling about the entire ship. And he thought, perhaps it was too late. Perhaps all it took was some chance encounter with strangeness to taint the mind and the imagination—and this was the curse itself.
Orman Bregin’s son considered himself lucky to be alive. He’d grown up outside Curl beneath the cold shadow of the Iceblood Holdings. Hardscrabble farming on rocky land was the sum of what he knew. He and all his relatives and neighbours, all the Curl townsfolk. Lowlanders, he knew he and his neighbours were called among the tall Greathalls of the high slopes, as they in turn scornfully named the coastal kingdoms. Those high forests and mountain valleys leading up to the Salt range were forbidden; the Iceblood clans guarded their holdings jealously and warred constantly among themselves over their boundaries. All trespassers, lowlanders such as he, were simply killed out of hand.
Of course, for generations he and his had been at war as well, trying to oust the damned Icebloods and wipe them from the face of the land.
And he and his were winning. Leastways, that was what he heard from the benches of the White Hart. The townships were all steadily growing, and their local baron, P’tar Longarm, Baron Longarm, sat strong in his long hall.
At least, that was so before the last raid. Orman had almost joined that one. Most of his friends had. Longarm himself had led it. Nearly fifty armed men and women had set out to track down the Icebloods and burn their Greathalls to the ground.
Only twelve returned. Longarm was among them, though sorely wounded. None of Orman’s friends returned. There was much muted talk then round the White Hart of Iceblood magic. How they moved like ghosts through the woods and fought like cowards, attacking out of the night only to flee and disappear like will-o’-the-wisps.
The baron kept to his hall now and people named him Shortarm. Orman figured there’d be a new ruler soon enough. So it always was. Once the local king, or queen, or baron, weakened and could no longer hold what he had taken, others arose to take it from him.
Maybe King Ronal the Bastard out of Mantle town. Orman had heard Ronal crossed Hangman creek and cut a new settlement out of the tall pines of the Bain Holding. He also heard that Ronal kept the head of the Iceblood Shia Bain pickled in a jar at his table.
Once more, Orman congratulated himself on still being alive. Then over these last few seasons word had come spreading from town to town of rich gold strikes high up the river valleys of the Salt range—far into the Iceblood Holdings.
At first everyone he knew had been dismissive of it all. The lake to the south was called the Gold Sea and no doubt that was the cause of all the stir. The oldsters claimed it had happened before: some idiotic foreigner caught sight of that name on an old dusty map somewhere and before you knew it damned fools arrived thinking they just had to reach out to gather up great handfuls of the stuff.
But then came tales of foreigners arriving in the south. Just a trickle at first. A few tow-headed ignoramuses easily done away with. Then bands of them. Some even pushing upland, ignoring all the warnings. A few of them reappeared only as heads tossed across streams or left on stakes next to forest trails.
Now word was of shiploads arriving in the lowlander kingdoms. Two new towns had sprung up overnight along the shores of the Sea of Gold. He heard rumours of real warfare where the Bone Peninsula had been closed to these invaders.
Then late one night Gerrun Shortshanks came and sat down next to him among the benches of the Hart and started talking of this news of gold. Orman let him blather on for a time—too fond of his ale was Gerrun Shortshanks, with his gold earrings and felt shirts bought from traders up from the coastal kingdoms. So dismissive of the man was he that it took a while for the full significance of what he was whispering to sink in. He and the Reddin brothers heading out with Old Bear. And would he throw his lot in with them?
Any other night he would have brushed the fool’s talk aside. But the name of Old Bear gave him pause. One of the last of the high valley hunters. Seemed to come and go as he pleased from Blood Holdings. Rumours were that he’d served as a hired spear for the Heel clan years ago—back when he had both eyes. And the Reddin brothers, Keth and Kasson. They’d been among the eleven who’d returned with Longarm. Serious and quiet both of them. So quiet few knew which brother was which.
‘Why me?’ was Orman’s short answer, his forearms on the table, one to either side of his leather tankard.
Gerrun jerked his head, agreeing with the question. He took a quick sip, wiped his mouth. ‘Old Bear says he knew your father. That’s why. Says he even met you.’
Orman nodded. It was years ago. His father had been a sworn man to Longarm’s predecessor, Eusta. Eusta the Ill, she’d been known, as she’d always been sick with this or that. His father had been a borderman, had even slipped into the Blood Holdings now and then—and had taken Orman along a few times.
And had told him about the ghosts. The Iceblood Holdings were haunted, his father had explained the first night as they pressed close to their small fire. Haunted, he said, by the spirits of all the dead ancestors of the various clans: the Heel, the Bain, the Sayer, and all the others. And sometimes, his father whispered, leaning close, his great spear Boarstooth across his lap, if you listened very carefully you could hear them too.
And later he did hear them—or thought he did. Voices calling. It seemed as if the very land itself, the Iceblood Holding, was speaking to him. Now, thinking back some five years, he wondered whether he’d imagined it all. That perhaps he’d only heard things because his father had suggested it.
A joke played on an impressionable boy.
He did remember meeting Old Bear on one of those trips. The fellow had his name from the great brown shaggy hide he wore wrapped about himself, its head thrown up over his own like a hood. The rotting pelt had stunk even then—imagine how it must reek now. Unless the old fool had gotten himself a new one.
He thought he understood Bear’s real message now. He knew that his father had shown him around the lower vales of the Holdings. And he’d delivered the message all without leaving his mouthpiece, Gerrun, any the wiser.
He bought himself more time to think by taking a long slow pull at his tankard. He peered about the dark timbered hall of the White Hart. It was late; the fire was low in the stone hearth. Only the regulars remained: those few who paid for the privilege of passing the night on the floor among the straw and scavenging dogs. None was paying him and Gerrun any particular attention, so far as he could tell.
So. The Old Bear was pulling together a party to make a strike for the gold fields. Why a party, though? The veteran mountain man could pick it up by himself, surely. Maybe he already had collected some few nuggets here and there over the years… He must’ve found a rich bed—one worth digging up.
Then it came to him: Old Bear was expecting competition. He was betting that soon, perhaps by the end of this coming season, what with spring arriving, these hillsides would be crawling with lowlander and outlander fortune-hunters, raiders and outright thieves. All fighting over the claims or the sifted nuggets and dust itself.
Best to get in early before the rush arrived, then. And he and the Reddin brothers and Old Bear had all walked the Iceblood Holdings before—no coincidence, that. All of them but for Shortshanks here. Or was that so? He studied the man covertly while eyeing the mostly empty benches of the White Hart. Never short of coin for ale was Gerrun Shortshanks, though he worked no plot of land nor laboured for others. And what of his gold earrings? The thick band of twisted gold at his wrist? Thinking of it now, how came he to such wealth? Perhaps this man Gerrun was no stranger to certain high streams in the vales where it was said a few days’ panning could set a man up for years.
He cleared his throat into his fist and murmured, low, ‘All right. Where’s the meet?’
Gerrun smiled and took a deep drink. He wiped the foam from his moustache. ‘Know you the camp up towards Antler Rock? Over Pine Bridge?’
He nodded and finished off his ale. As he rose, Gerrun signed to Ost, the innkeep, for another.
It was a long chilly walk through the night back to his uncle’s holding, where he and his mother lived now after being taken in on the death of his father. A light icy rain fell. The snow was hard beneath his boots, the slush frozen with the night’s cold. Above, the Great Ice Bridge once more spanned the night sky, glittering and forbidding. It had been obscured of late, what with the passing of the Foreigner, or Trespasser, as some named it. People had sworn it foretold the end of the Icebloods. But no such blessing followed. As he walked the path of frozen mud he wondered whether in time it would come to be seen as a portent of this gold fever and the crushing of the Icebloods beneath the boots of a horde of outlanders… if enough really did reach this far north. In that sense perhaps it truly was an omen—of whatever came to pass.
He pushed open the door to the draughty outbuilding his uncle had grudgingly given over to them and crossed to the chest against the rear wall. He cleared away the piled litter of day-to-day life: the wood shavings, the old bits of burlap, wool, jute and linen his mother sewed and darned to make clothes; a wooden bowl he’d carved, now clattering with buttons, hooks, awls and needles, all carved by him from bone and antler. He opened the chest and pulled out his father’s leathers, rolled up and bound together with belts.
The strong scent of his father wafted over him then as animal fat and smoke together with pine sap and earth. The smell of the high forest.
‘You are leaving,’ came the voice of his mother behind him. He turned. She lay beneath piled blankets. Her long grey hair caught the moonlight that brightened their one window of stretched sheepskin.
‘I see. Where will you go?’
He squeezed the heavy leather shirt and trousers in his hands, cleared his throat. ‘Down to the coastal kingdoms. Perhaps I’ll join with Ronal the Bastard.’
After a long silence she said, ‘Take Boarstooth.’
He straightened, surprised. Boarstooth was his father’s spear. It hung now over the stone hearth of his uncle’s hall. ‘Jal has claimed it.’
‘I did not agree to that. But I said nothing at the time. You were too young.’ Her eyes, glittering in the faint light, shifted in the direction of the hall. ‘Go now. They will all be abed.’
He rose, slipped an arm through a belt and adjusted the roll on his back. Inside, he knew, would be the tall moccasins that his father always wore bound with leather strips up to his knees. His mother rose as well. In her long white shift she glowed like a ghost and Orman felt a shiver of premonition of her death. She met him at the door, said, ‘Go quietly.’
‘Like Father,’ he answered and she smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. A cold chill of wetness brushed his cheek as she kissed him. ‘Goodbye.’
None of his uncle’s household, his cousins or their hired men-atarms, challenged him as he climbed the hill to the longhouse and entered. The hounds greeted him eagerly, nosing his hands for treats. He stroked them all and shushed them as he crossed to the wide stone fireplace with its mantel of chiselled river stones. Reaching up, he lifted the spear from its wooden rests. The thick ash haft and the broad leaf-shaped head, unique in being struck from some unfamiliar stone, felt lighter than the last time he’d held it: at his father’s funeral pyre.
He was halfway across the hall when a woman’s voice commanded: ‘Orman! That is not yours to take.’ He turned. Raina, Jal’s wife, stood wrapped in a blanket at the door to their sleeping chamber.
‘It comes to me from my father.’
‘That is for Jal to decide.’
‘I claim it as my father’s bequest.’
Raina turned to the sleeping chamber. ‘Jal! Rouse yourself, you great oaf! Your nephew is an ungrateful thief!’
He did not wait for the household to bestir itself. Raina’s screeching shouts followed him down the hillside. ‘Orman! We name you thief! None will harbour you! Outlaw! You will be hunted down like the dog you are!’
He broke into a run then, making for the woods. His breath plumed and Boarstooth felt as light as a willow branch in his hand. The blade of creamy brown stone seemed to sing as it sliced the cold night air.
Ahead rose forested hillside heaped above hillside up on to slope and ridge, climbing to the broad shoulders of the Salt Mountains. Their snowcapped heights glowed dark silver in the moonlight, home to the leagues upon leagues of the Iceblood Holdings. This wild country beckoned to him now—a near infinity of possibilities, it seemed, his for the taking. A promise made by his father years ago.
Assail © Ian C. Esslemont, 2014