Global war devastated the environment, a zombie-like plague wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.
Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.
The Emperor’s Railroad, book one in an epic fantasy series from Guy Haley, is available April 19th from Tor.com Publishing.
Bridge of the Ancients
Quinn had two swords. One for killing the living, and one for killing the dead.
He wore them on top of each other on his left hip. On his right he had a six-gun.
A knight’s weapons.
You’ve probably not seen a knight. There’s not been one through these parts for a long time, not since just after Quinn, and that was fifty years back. Back then I’d never seen one neither. Truth be told, when we first saw him we weren’t right sure if he was what he said he was. There weren’t many knights left in those days; most had fallen in the war. Times like these we live in, you wonder at people. A knight’s weapons are hard to get hold of if you ain’t sanctioned by the Dreaming Cities, but not impossible.
My mom, she had her suspicions. But I knew from the start that he was a good man, I swear.
So this here’s the story of how I met Quinn, a knight of the angels. As it happens, it’s also the story of how I ended up here in the Winfort, and got involved with a dragon along the way.
First I got to say this. Time goes, it rubs away at your memory sure as the Kanawha river rubs at its banks. Memory moves. The river is still there, but the course is different, do you understand? I’m telling you this story, and I’ve told it before. Maybe it changes a bit every time I tell it, even when I’m sure that’s exactly what happened and it couldn’t be no other way. This is a wise thing, pay attention.
It’s the way people are. You never been in a heated argument that your recollection is right and that of your friend or brother is wrong? That’s how bad people are at remembering truly. The words my mom said to me on our journey that I’m going to tell you, they sure as hell ain’t the exact same words she used. Things happened that I forget, things happened that I remember a bit different every time I bring them to mind. Bits get dreamed up to join up the parts I do remember. And I’m getting older. Real old. My mind ain’t what it was. I open my eyes and everything is colored gray. I close them and it looks like the past is drenched in gold. The future is ashes, the past is treasure, seems to me, but do you think that’s really how it is? I’m not far from dead, is all. When you get where I am, I’m sure the past’ll look brighter to you as well.
Memory. Biggest traitor there is.
You get others involved, telling their memories of my memories, well, when I’m gone and you tell this story to someone else, then it’ll change some more. That’s how memories become stories, and everyone with a lick of sense knows stories ain’t the truth.
Saying that, there are some few things that never change, no matter how many times you think on them. Jewels in a box, you take them out from time to time to look at them and they never change. Some things stick in the mind unchanged forever. There were a lot of times like that on our journey.
One of them was seeing Quinn fight the first time on the edge of the Kanawha river, at the Emperor’s Railroad bridge. If I close my eyes, I see it clearer than I can see now, like I’m there again and seeing it for the first time.
This is how it is: my mom’s got her arms around my neck, like that’d protect me from the dead and they’d not just rip me from her. The sun is warm, but the morning cold, like they get to be in fall. The trees are got up in their finery, yellows, reds, and oranges. A Virginian morning, a late October morning. My mom’s heart’s beating so hard behind my head. I’m twelve, not long that age and afraid I’ll not see thirteen. She is scared. I’m scared. But there’s no shame in fear, not at a time like this.
That’s what it’s like. It’s happening in my mind right now.
There was the roar of the rapids downriver, water pouring over the leavings of the Gone Before. The moans of the dead. Quinn’s weapons hacking into flesh, meaty and workmanlike, not like I imagined a knight’s blade craft should be. Sight, sound; but the smells are the most important. That’s when you can tell it’s a true memory. I can smell the soap and the light tang of sweat on my mother, the road dirt and the leaf mold from camping in the woods. The weedy smell of the river, heavy and round. The smell at our backs of Quinn’s horses. Quinn himself, strong sweat, but clean and sharp, almost like lemons. Leather and iron.
And the stink of the dead. That ripe, rank stink, the shit on their hindquarters, old blood, vomit. All the hidden nastiness of the human body worn on the outside. They’re the devil’s affront to God.
The railroad bridge wasn’t like it is now, with the trains coming over four times a week. This here is still wild country, but it was wilder then. The new bridge is big, but you got to imagine what it was in the Gone Before. In those days it didn’t have a deck of wood for the trains, but a wide road of concrete for their miraculous carriages, tens of feet wide, and a road on that so smooth you could roll a marble clear from one end to the other with a little flick of your finger. That had mostly gone into the river by the time I saw it. But the piers stayed sound. That’s why the old emperor had chosen it for his railroad, laying a new bridge over the old piers. Back then it was the only way across the Kanawha north of Charleston. Still is.
The dead came out of the trees as we’d come up to it. Eight of them, hop-scrambling towards us, arms out, hands grasping. They don’t have no sense; they started moaning as soon as they smelled us, and Quinn had his heavy sword out before they were up the bank. If they’d waited, showed a bit of cunning, we’d have come off a lot worse. But the dead aren’t people no more. One lunged up out of the brush, ripping a nasty gash down the shoulder of Quinn’s big white horse. Quinn chopped down, spilling its rotten brains on the grass. The others were a ways off, staggering up from the nearer the water.
“Watch the horses,” he said. He never shouted, and he was never scared. He slid off his horse—Parsifal it was called—and walked into the dead. He didn’t charge, or yell. He walked down to them calmly, then set to cutting them down like he was reaping wheat.
We didn’t have no weapons. Simple folks like us are forbidden the likes of what Quinn had, sharp steel and gunpowder. The dead lunged at him, clacking their teeth, raking at him with their fingernails.
These dead ones were hungry. There’d not been many folk up this way since the emperor’s fall, what few there were were right here in the Winfort and did not venture as far south as the river.
With nothing to eat, the dead had chewed their own lips off. Their teeth were long and brown. Clotted blood was thick round their chins and on their chests. I hate the teeth the worst, I seen too much ill come from teeth like that. You watch me next mealtime, you’ll see I can’t be looking at anyone’s face, in case they forget their manners and chew with their mouths open. Makes me sick because it makes me think on the unliving.
The dead were naked. When they’re long gone over like that the clothes rot off or get torn away. Not a stitch on them. The nakedness makes them worse, somehow, makes them seem more human rather than less. I’ve seen men that reckon themselves brave turn and run at the sight of a pack like that. Not Quinn. I knew for sure he was a knight then, right at that moment, badge or not.
One of them got a hold of him, made my mom gasp out over and over, “Oh God, oh sweet dear Jesus.” Mom wasn’t one for blaspheming. That made it twice in one week, the other time being when Walter died. It never was a habit with her.
Fingers thin as twigs but strong as roots wrapped themselves round the top of Quinn’s off arm. An unliving’s head lunged for his bicep. It couldn’t bite through Quinn’s mail, but it didn’t let up, gnawing on his arm like a hungry man on a cob of corn, blood pouring out of its gums. Quinn let it break its teeth on his armor, and buried his sword in the head of another.
His heavy sword, the dead-killing sword, he called that a falchion. Quinn had lots of fancy words for things; for bits of his armor, for the past, for what he’d done, but he did it in that sort of way that made me think he was laughing at himself. This is a tasset, he’d say, this a pauldron, this is a falchion. The falchion was like the machetes we use to cut back the brush and clear a field, but heavier and longer, because his falchion was for the kind of weed that bites back.
The man-killing sword was lighter, four feet long. Straight where the falchion was curved, a fancy basket round the hilt that shone so bright I was sure it was silver, not steel.
That longsword stayed in its sheath most of the time. He wore his swords atop each other, and the hilts knocked together sometimes when he walked. When that happened, his hand went down, did this little motion to reset them so they wouldn’t tangle when he drew. He did it without thinking. It was a movement he must’ve done a million times before. His gun he wore on his right hip, because it’s different pulling a gun to a sword. Gun goes up, swords across. I only saw him use his gun the once.
We’ll get to that.
Quinn cut the dead man diagonally between the eyes. The skull made hollow noise, like a gourd split with a big knife. The dead man’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he died a second time. Quinn wrenched his falchion free. The other unliving was still at his arm, stumps of his teeth grinding themselves away on the mail. Quinn caved in its skull with three blows from his pommel. This was mighty big; a falchion’s got a heavy blade, and needs balancing.
That left five of the unliving, shambling in that way they have. Two were pawing at him, the other three still coming on, slowly. Their ribs were all showing in their skin, arms like sticks. They didn’t have it in them to run. They were starved.
Quinn cut down both by him. One lost its head, the other the use of its legs. Then he marched up to the others, bold as you like. The first one lost its hand to his sword, then its brains. Quinn was away to slam the second down with his left arm. The thing drops, and he steps over it, killing the last one with a single chop that took his blade clean down through its shoulder, most of the way to the heart. Then he pivoted on the spot, smooth as a cat, and cut the head right from the neck of the one he’d slammed down as it tried to get up.
He pulled off his helmet as he walked back to us, then the leather breathing mask under it. “Curse on the air, you ain’t got a care, curse in the mouth, you’re headed south.” You know the rhyme. You got to get bit, or get a lot of blood in you, to turn. Quinn wasn’t taking any chances. He said he always wore his mask under his helmet when he was fighting the dead. He pulled out raw cotton pads from pouches in the breathing mask and threw them away. He was sweating, but he wasn’t panting. He wasn’t even out of breath.
He checked around the dead. The one that he’d cut the legs out from moaned and scraped at the floor, the bones shiny white in the wounds. Thick blood pumped from the cuts, each spurt showing less vigor.
“You okay?” Quinn said. He didn’t say much, and what he did say was quiet.
My mom nodded. “Yes, yes. Thank you.” Her voice was breathy. She hugged me closer.
I looked at him. I was awestruck. “You are a knight,” I said. I was raised on stories of his kind. He was a hero to me.
He looked down at me, his expression unreadable. He had leathery skin, eyes narrowed by looking into the sun too much, a thick brown beard shot with gray. What I thought of as an old man’s face, and by that I meant he looked forty, forty-five maybe. He wasn’t like any man I’d seen. He was pale, really pale, and when he opened his eyes up, they were round. Not narrow like with other folks. Knights are all funny looking, you ask me. Not long after Quinn I saw two more knights coming through here, one with skin so dark it was near black, another one like Quinn, only paler yet, and with bright red hair. That’s a story for another day. The point I’m driving at here is that knights are surely people, but they look different than you or me.
I asked him once how old he was. “Older than you,” he said. That was that.
My mom tugged me in her arms, a hug with a rebuke in it. “Forgive my son, sir.” I was pretty sure she doubted he was a knight still.
“He’s a boy,” said Quinn, as if that explained something. He went to his horses. He had two. Parsifal was a tall, powerful stallion. He warned us against surprising it, but he let Mom and me ride it while he walked. The other horse was a round little pony that carried his gear. Clemente, he called it. Clemente took two strides for every one of the stallion’s, but it never tired. Both of them were cropping grass, neither bothered by the blood and stink. Quinn went to his charger and checked its wound. Shallow scratches, it turned out.
“Is he going to die?” I said.
“It looks worse than it is,” said Quinn. It did look bad, three parallel grooves, deep and bright with blood. He pulled out a fingernail from the bottom of one and threw it aside. That’s how strong the dead can be, strong enough to tear through horse hide. They rip their own fingernails out, and they don’t feel a damn thing.
He cleaned out the wound with a rag and something that smelled like moonshine.
“Why’s he doing that, Mom?” I asked.
“Infection, got to clean it,” said Quinn. “The animals don’t get the sickness, but they incubate it. And those things can give you a bad case of blood poisoning even if you don’t get what they’ve got.”
There was a moan from the dead on the ground. I started and clutched at my mom’s sleeve.
“Mr. Quinn . . .” my mom began.
“That dead ain’t dead! You gotta kill it, mister.”
Quinn glanced at the dead man, slowly bleeding his way to his second death. Quinn went back to cleaning out the scratch on his horse’s shoulder.
“They aren’t dead, kid, they just seem that way. That one won’t last long. He’ll die soon enough. Takes longer for them to die than a healthy man, but a wound that will kill you will kill them. Eventually.”
Half the time Quinn spoke like regular folks. But the other half he spoke strangely, old-fashioned like; you might say educated. My mother wasn’t a poor woman, not to start with. She had some learning, and she passed it on to me. Some of the children at New Karlsville used to tease me for it. Mom said they were afraid of what I knew and they didn’t. They had to slap me down to make themselves feel better, that they were stronger in their ignorance. I still know a few things that some don’t, and that ain’t all down to the teachings of the Lord. But Quinn, the way he spoke made me sound like the worst kind of wildman from the deepest woods, the ones that think giants built the world Gone Before, and sacrifice their kids to the angels. And the things he knew . . .
“How can you be sure, sir?”
“Are you afraid of blood, kid?”
“No, sir!” I shook my head hard.
“Then go see for yourself. It won’t have the strength to hurt you. It will bleed out in a few minutes.”
“Why don’t you just kill it?” I didn’t like the moaning, but I wasn’t going to say that.
“I won’t risk the edge on my blade. Hacking down at the ground’ll blunt it.”
“Show some pity, Mr. Quinn!” said my mom. She had a way about her, she was used to people doing what she said.
“Why?” he said, not looking at her. “It can’t feel anything. The mind’s all gone from that one. There’s no man in there. There’s nothing but animal left.”
She took in a deep breath, and tried again. “Could you show a little mercy, please, for the sake of my son? You say you are a knight, you should behave like one in front of him.” I pulled away from my mom then. She was angry and didn’t notice. “That poor man was once like you or I. He deserves a little dignity. Is there not something in your code of honor, sir?”
Quinn shrugged, and carried on cleaning out his horse’s cut.
By that point, I was over by the dead man.
Mom noticed where I’d gotten to and cried out. “Abney! Stay away!” Sometimes she could get a bit shrill, overprotective, I felt. I was that age where I always knew better. I didn’t pay her no attention.
The dead man was on the floor, his head rolling back and forth. I was fascinated and repulsed. I couldn’t look away from it. Quinn’s cut had smashed the bones in both thighs as well as cutting them deep. That’s how heavy a weapon a falchion is. It couldn’t move. It looked at me hungrily with those pale blue eyes they all have. Its mouth and nose were bloody holes. A black tongue, sore with self-inflicted bites, ran over its teeth. I hate the teeth.
Quinn shoved me back. His leather glove was rough on my chest, even through my shirt. He had his falchion in his hand.
“Not that close,” he said.
Although it’s a heavy sword meant for chopping, a falchion does have a point. Carefully, Quinn put this against the dead man’s left eye. The dead man groped at Quinn’s legs, but Quinn paid it no mind. He leaned on his sword pommel with both hands, pushing the point down through the skull. There was a scraping noise and a crack of bone. A slow breath escaped the dead man’s lips, the sigh of a man sinking into exhaustion after a hard day in the fields, and he was still.
“Dead now,” Quinn said.
Excerpted from The Emperor’s Railroad, © Guy Haley, 2016