Welcome to the Malazan Reread of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll conclude our coverage of Crack’d Pot Trail.
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing. Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Crack’d Pot Trail, Part Eleven
Flicker tells us he’s never felt a sense of desperation. Nor, he continues, has he ever truly lost his inspiration, or second-guessed his work to the point of burning it. If we don’t believe him, too bad for us, he says. He’s quick to add this doesn’t mean he’s never made mistakes, but they have not deflated his confidence. And to make that clear, he bids us “bear witness… to the harrowed closing of this most truthful tale.”
They continue on, Arpo complaining he can’t see where they’re going (he’s still backwards on his horse), the host promising they’ll make the ferry by the end of the day, and Sellup slurping up bits of Nifty-brain. Vise tells Tiny to do something about Sellup or he will, but Tiny replies Sellup is growing on him. As Relish joins in laughing with her brothers, Flicker comments on how confident and free she seems, then looking again, realizes she thinks she really was pregnant. He thinks how she doesn’t know “free” and “pregnant” really don’t mesh, but then thinks again he’s never been a mother (nor is likely to be one), and beside, why disabuse her of whatever false notions she might hold?
Sellup sticks Nifty’s head on her hand like a puppet and begins pretending she’s him saying “poet things.” Vise tells her to stop, but they’re interrupted by Steck pointing out the ruts of a heavy carriage that had passed this way no more than a day earlier. Vise celebrates the discovery, saying they’ll be able to catch Bauchelain and Broach at the ferry. When Apto says it could be any carriage, Steck agrees it might be so. He asks Sardic Thew about the ferry, and the host informs them that it leaves once a day at dusk and reaches the other side at dawn, adding if they don’t stop for lunch they could probably make it. Arpo asks if they’re chasing a demon, and Vise answers they’re chasing a pair of evil necromancers. Arpo says he’s just as happy to kill them too, then rambles on about once living in the city of Fan’arrogal that was crawling with demons.
Must asks him about the city, and Vise says he lived there until the infestation of demons. Must said there was a “night of slaughter” that left the city destroyed, but now it’s being rebuilt, rising phoenix-like from its own ashes, renamed Farrog. Sardic Thew thinks Arpo must be the Indifferent God returned at last, but Brash says he’s just crazy. Flicker wonders how Must knows such an obscure thing as the old name of Farrog, and Must says he must have just “picked it up somewhere.” They all move on.
Tiny commands Flicker to continue his other story with the Imass woman. He picks up with the woman exiting the tent and finding first the slain animal, then dead dogs everywhere, and then the bodies of her kin stacked up, along with the “butchered remnants of three children.” The sled remains, but the hides have been removed, revealing the body of another younger Fenn, the wound indicating he’d been killed by a sword. She thinks back on the tale the warrior had told of the young Fenn killing the Uncle and has an epiphany. Midge wonders what, and Flicker tells him in all tales the hero wins that battle, but this is not a comforting tale, and sometimes the hero loses, sometimes the villain wins. Apto asks what possible moral is in this tale, and Purse says it’s a warning: “where hides the gravest threat? The one you invite into your camp.” She thinks Calap was crazy to have started this story, but Brash defends him, saying it was the only one he knew by heart. But Flicker, he says, had options. Purse, saying Flicker has chosen to “sicken our hearts,” and tells Flicker his time is just about up. Flicker, though, says their journey isn’t over yet. She asks if he thinks she’s still confident in his ability, and he tells her she should be.
Flicker wonders how many worlds are out there, saying is it so hard to imagine, when we find such a plenitude of worlds behind the eyes of “of every man, woman, child, and beast you happen to meet.” Or is it, he asks, that “these are in fact all facets of the same world? A man kneels in awe before a statue… whilst another pisses at its base. Do these two men see the same thing? Do they even live in the same world?” He says, “numberless worlds exist, and are in eternal collision, and the only miracle worth a damned thing is that we manage to agree on anything.” He tells us nowadays he looks “with fond indulgence upon my memories of the Indifferent God, if god he was” inside Arpo’s head, and the joy the god found in the workings of his right hand. His name, he informs us, is “not entirely unknown,” and he is regarded with “modest veneration,” even if it hasn’t brought him wealth. As for the relevance of all this, he isn’t saying yet.
Vise and the Chanters have readied themselves for battle as Steck leads the party toward a ridge and near it a lot of standards flapping in the wind. When Brash, driven near-crazy by the suspense/tension, whispers he hopes they find Bauchelain and Broach, Flicker tells him (loudly) “Perhaps the enemy is closer than any might imagine,” noting that Calap Roud chose his tale “after much consideration.” The group comes to a halt, and Flicker asks:
Do we not despair of the injustice that plagues our precious civilization… The unfairness to which we are ever witness… How can one believe in justice when it bleeds and crawls… dying before your very eyes? And without justice, how can redemption survive?… Shall we plead to the gods for justice?
He points to Arpo and tells them a god walks among them, but also warns them justice might “slice you in two on the backswing.” When he asks Purse if she believes in justice, Purse shakes her head no. Flicker continues his tale, saying the woman walked amongst pilgrims and killers, but the lines between her companions began to blur as the journey went on until it seems all were killers. All “wearing brazen faces. Wearing veiled ones. The masks all hide the same bloodless visage.” Where, the story asks, is the enemy: “Just beyond the horizon? Or somewhere much closer? What was that warning again? Ah yes, be careful who you invite into your camp.” He says he hears laughter. Tiny interrupts and, leaning against the carriage, tells them he hears breathing. Must admits that yes, his mistress does breathe, but when Tiny makes to say something else, Must warns him to back away. Tiny does not though, reminding them of how much the “old woman” eats. Arpo says he just noticed something, and when Vise asks what it was, Must tells Arpo “let the past lie.” But Arpo leaps to attack him and Must transforms into a demon as the two of them fight.
Chaos ensues, Arpo and Must struggle, the Chanters jump on the carriage to try and knock in the door, Steck’s crossbow is accidentally shot off, the animals collide and entangle, injuries are taken, and then the entire carriage, dragging Vise, and with the Chanters still on it, and must and Arpo as well, starts heading out of control toward the cliff’s edge. Steck chases after, as does Relish, then all else, and then “the mad mob plunged over the crest and vanished from sight.” Relish lets out a wail and then starts down the slope.
Apto, Purse, Brash, and Sardic all look down over the edge and see the wreckage of the carriage in flames and the mules, having somehow survived, swimming away with the horses just behind. The bodies of Flea and Midge are visible, but nobody sees anything of Tiny, Vise, Arpo, or Must. Relish was nearing Midge’s body. And out on the river moved the ferry, and on it a tall black carriage. They could see people standing at the railing.
Sardic, looking at the carriage still burning, asks if the Dantoc dead and Flicker says yes. Sardic then pays him. Apto is horrified, but Sardic tells him the Dantoc was “a vicious beast,” explaining how when his family got into debt, the Dantoc used their trouble to try and get the daughter, “for her pleasure pits. Just a child.” Flicker interrupts, saying he’s heard more than he needed to hear as far as reasons. He tells Purse, “So few dare believe in justice… I am what I am… Do I sleep at night? Most serenely.” He adds he doesn’t think redemption awaits him, but who knows. He asks her to judge, and she says she will not take his life.
Flicker repeats his earlier discussion with Apto:
“Do you believe art possesses relevance in the real world?”
“Now that is indeed a difficult question. After all, whose art?”
“Pray, don’t ask me.”
Flicker tells us in his profession he’s used all sorts of weapons, including the “crass” ones, but nothing beats a good “Murder by word.” He offers up a bit of an epilogue, saying how Brash won the award for Century’s Greatest Artist, that Purse and he (Flicker) had a long talk that night and well, he won’t give the details of what followed. And months or years later, he says, he finally met Bauchelain and Broach. And then, to “knot” the tales end, at least somewhat, he offers up one more scene, this one on the ferry with Bauchelain and Mancy.
Bauchelain tells Mancy how what they’d just seen (pointing to the dust cloud from the chaos and wreckage) shows “the true measure of civilization’s suicidal haste,” pointing out those people would rather die than be delayed a day or two. Mancy doesn’t get it, saying it should have been obvious that the ferry wasn’t going to turn around and come back for them. Bauchelain notes this is further evidence of why he feels the need to “adjust the vicissitudes of civilization as befits its more reasonable members.” After a moment, he says how Broach told him that the city they’re heading for is oppressed by an indifferent god, and that he and Broach had considered doing something about that, even to killing the god, since “A god that chooses indifference in the face of its worshippers… has reneged on the most precious covenant of all.” Mancy is shocked, but Bauchelain reminds him it isn’t like the world is lacking in other gods. He tells Mancy to rest, as “the city awaits our footfalls upon the coming dawn, and not even an unmindful god can change that now.” Neither hears the hooded ferryman’s mutter (as he plays with himself): “That what you think.”
Flicker’s lines about not having experienced writer’s block or desperation or self-doubt are somewhat interesting in the context of the writer’s world, but embedded in them are several clever phrasings that have more than a little resonance with what will happened at the book’s close: “The arrow of my intent is well trued. It sings unerringly to its target” and “My path is ever sure and I will not be turned aside. Even when it takes me off the cliff’s edge, I shall spare you all one last knowing nod.”
As far as the tone of that ending, he gives us more than a little hint by telling us it was be a “harrowed closing of this most truthful tale.”
Though I can’t say the “present” is all that delightful: “Our water was almost gone, the pieces of Callap Roud bubbling in our bellies, and our dastardly deeds clung to our shoulders with talon and fang. It did not help that Sellup was scooping out handfuls of Nifty’s brain and making yummy sounds…” Hard to see how this story ends all that well. And if it did, what would that say?
So here we are 90% (OK, 89%) of the way into the book and we’ve come across the first tangible evidence (perhaps) of out alleged main characters—Bauchelain and Broach. Clearly not a lot of time left if they’re to make an appearance (and they will right, I mean, it’s a Bauchelain and Broach novella, right?) and so we’re prepared for a major sprint to the close, being told they have only until dusk to make the ferry. Doable, but they can’t dawdle.
Arpo has an interesting revelation here (and its timing perhaps points to it playing a somewhat important role) in the time-honored fantasy mode of a suddenly-revealed past. Turns it he used to live in the demon-infested city of Fan’arrogal, at the site of their destination city Farrog. Just as intriguing is Must’s sudden interest in this (and how often does he display such initiative or interest?) and his, as Flicker takes pains to point out, the unlikelihood of his knowing about Fan’arrogal and its night of slaughter.
Then of course we have Sardic Thew’s declaration that Arpo must be the Indifferent God, which has to raise the questions: Is Sardic right—has Arpo always been the Indifferent God? Did his blow on the head open Arpo up to the Indifferent God’s influence or possession? Or just make Arpo crazy? Is Sardic crazy?
Love the momentary aside to comment on the fan’s wish-fulfillment: making the author their poet, choosing the author’s words for them, making the writer do what they want so all stories go in the way the fan/reader desires. Which may be another roundabout clue as to the ending of this tale.
And it doesn’t take long for the sense/tone of that ending to turn darker (is that possible in a tale about murder and cannibalism) via Flicker’s continuation of his Imass tale? (as opposed to my screwed up interpretation last post, which mixed up his two stories—sorry folks!) with the Imass woman listening for the sounds of life outside her tent as dawn awakens. And usually dawn is described as a new day, a new life—but here it “mocked all the colours in the world, and in this lifeless realm she sat unmoving.” Nor are there any of the sounds she’d expect, no sounds of movement, no “cries of delight,” no “sounds of childhood.” And outside her tent is only death—dead dogs, dead kin, dead children, dead younger Fenn, the hero of a tale that hadn’t happened. Because, as Flicker tells them, despite the way all the comforting tales end, the hero does not in reality always win. Sometimes, “the hero dies. Falls. Sometimes the last one standing is the enemy, the Betrayer, the Kinslayer. Sometimes… There is no comfort.” Is this perhaps another hint as to where our larger tale is headed too? Should one even look for “comfort” in a tale of murder and cannibalism?
Purse, though, does find a purpose in Flicker’s story—a warning that the “gravest threat” may lie closer than anyone thinks, may be in one’s “own camp.” Hmm, and the “gravest threat” they all seek is the duo of Bauchelain and Broach. Who all know travel in a carriage. With a servant/driver/footman. Hmmmm.
We get a “girded for battle” moment with Vise and the Chanter brothers, and mention of our two targeted adversaries—Bauchelain and Broach—discussions of alliance and weapons and sorcery and past “trails of devastation,” all appearing to lead us toward a major confrontation, as would be expected at the end of a story. But “as expected” is perhaps something we should not, well, expect.
And thus Flicker sets in motion via words, as we saw him do earlier with Callap Roud, the final stage of the journey, emphasizing that warning Purse noted, that “perhaps the enemy is closer than any might imagine.”
Though one has to wonder at his sidelight focus on “justice,” which seems a little odd here. Unless there’s a story under the story?
Then he more brings the tale’s focus back to the hunt for evil, driving home via his story the idea that the enemy may be walking beside you, may have been “invited into your camp.” Though the idea of “enemy” is a little mushy in a world where killers are everywhere, where all the faces are mere masks the killer beneath (and who wears more of a mask, or more of them, than a storyteller?)
And it does turn out that at least one of their party (more we’ll see) is wearing a mask, as Mister Must turns out to be a demon from Fan’arrogal and Arpo (possibly himself having been wearing a mask of mortality) leaps to the attack upon recognizing him. And then.
Well, and then. Talk about chaos. What a great cinematic scene here. A classic (there are actually some stagecoaches going over cliffs in old movies—what you thought the classic car goes over cliff—tumbles—blows up below was new?)
Love that description of the aftermath, when Flicker describes how some moments make you numb and wordless etc., and one thinks he’s talking of himself, but he turns the “camera” instead to Apto, Purse, and Brash who have that feeling (leaving us to wonder if he does as well, and if not why not) and an interestingly different look on Sardic Thew—who eyes are “glittering.”
In classic movie fashion, you can’t (a) kill off the animals (the audience would come after you with pitchforks. Kill of all the people you want in mad gobs of slaughter and mayhem, but not the dog!), and (b) have all the bodies be visible—someone needs the potential to return either for a “shock” at the end or the inevitable sequel. And so we have the mules and horses swimming off and no sign of Tiny Chanter or Tulgord Vise or Must or Arpo Relent.
But what is visible is a big black carriage and some “figures” standing on the ferry moving away off across the river. And you thought Bauchelain and Broach wouldn’t make an appearance…
And then we get what might seem like a normal bit of dialogue as Sardic wonders if the Dantoc is dead, but it all turns with his handing over money to Flicker. Talk about character assassination. Or, as he references, the relevance of art to the real world.
So, Flicker’s role on this journey was assassin, not storyteller, though he uses the more elegant weapons of one, how much more satisfying, he tells us, the do murder by word rather than by more “crass” tools like knives or garrotes. It was all manipulation. But isn’t that what all authors do?
And it turns out in this tale of Bauchelain and Broach, we never do see Broach, though we do get a scene with Bauchelain (confounding our readerly/fannish expectations. No complaining though—what are you, Sellup?).
And so we get a conversation with Bauchelain and Mancy. And this being a Malazan story, it of course involves the relationship between god and worshippers (how much difference between god: worshippers and artist: fans in this book, or the world?). And it tells us mischief is afoot from the two necromancers.
But who is that mysteriously hooded ferryman who thinks perhaps the two might be prevented from their goals? Well, that working hand under the breeches is a pretty good clue I’d say.
OK, whole novella wrap next time, maybe a whole novellas wrap, then a break, then back to the novels after the holiday!
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.