The Malazan Saga Returns: Read Chapter One of Steven Erikson’s The God Is Not Willing

New York Times bestselling author Steven Erikson continues the beloved Malazan Book of the Fallen with The God Is Not Willing, first in the thrilling new Witness sequel trilogy—publishing November 9, 2021 with Tor Books.

Read Chapter One below, and find previous excerpts here.

 


 

As the helpless and wounded and young fled, it is said a line was made behind them, across the narrow cut of the pass. Twelve Teblor adults, bearing whatever weapons they could find, each took their last link of broken chain and hammered spikes through it, deep into the rock. Now bound by ankle shackle to the length of their chains, there they would stand against the ferocity of the slavers and their enforcers, the pursuing army seeking to regain its wealth in flesh.

It cannot be verified, of course, if this in truth occurred. What can be said, however, is that the flight of the liberated Teblor succeeded, thus bringing to an end the institution of slavery in the Malyn Province of Malazan Genabackis, which in turn saw the fall of the final hold-out of this wretched trade in flesh.

Valard of Tulips did make a curious recount in her Geographa ‘ta Mott, however, of the eponymous Teblor Pass, a mere three years later, noting the presence of a bone ridge in a certain line, there at the narrowest section of the trail, while upon the downward slope was found a deeper scatter of other bones. As if, she wrote, ‘a thousand men had died fighting a single line of defenders.’

It should be noted, as well, that Valard, being a devout Mystic of Denial, would have been entirely ignorant of both the Slave Rebellion of Malyn, and the local legend of the Stand of the Spike.

Gaerlon’s History, Vol. IX
The Great Library of Morn

***

 

Chapter One

Inauspicious beginnings often deliver the deadliest of warnings.

Sayings of the Fool
Thenys Bule

 

Sliptoe Garrison, Culvern Crossing, northeast of Malybridge, Genabackis

A pale sky made for a colourless world. the season had yet to turn. The thickets to either side of the cobbled road leading to the fort and the town that crowded against one of its sides remained a chaotic hue of browns, dull reds and duller yellows. Buds had finally appeared, and where there had been ice in the drainage ditches and in the fields beyond, there was now water, stretching out in grey puddles and shallow lakes reflecting the blank sky.

Someone once said—Oams couldn’t recall who—that the world was heaven’s mirror, the tin kind, scratched and mottled and pitted as if to mock heaven’s own face. No doubt, a point was being made by the observation. Strange how things said that made no sense could stay in the memory, while all the truths just fell away, abandoned in the way of things that had little relevance.

Any soldier who denied the lust for danger was a liar. Oams had been in the ranks since he was fifteen. Twenty-one years later, he’d been running from that truth for his entire adult life. While it was hardly alone back there, all the other pointless truths stayed in its shadow. The addict’s pleasure was always a guilty one, to be sure, the towering stalker he always found at his side when he stood looking down on a corpse that, had things turned out badly, could have been Oams himself. Living was easier, he reflected, when you could kill your fears. Then stare at its bloodless face, waiting for your heartbeat to slow and your breaths to settle.

And tomorrow was another day, another fear, another face, relief flowing like the sweetest drug in the veins.

He was a soldier and he couldn’t think of ever being anything else. He’d die on a battlefield, showing his killer his bloodless face, and probably he’d see, in his last moments, his enemy’s own towering stalker. Because everyone knew, death was the one truth you couldn’t outrun.

The north forest was at his back. His mount was weary, and it wouldn’t do to stay unmoving for too long, lest its muscles tighten up, but Oams remained motionless in his saddle. A few moments longer wouldn’t kill either of them. He hoped. At least enough time for his heart to slow down and his breaths to settle.

When it came to a spirit rising up from the worn cobbles in front of a person, there was no telling the mischief it might have in mind. It’d be a mistake to confuse sorcery and its warrens with the unseen worlds where the dead were far from alone. And the pantheon of gods and ascendants, caged in their temples, rising and dying like flowers as one age gave way to another, belonged to a realm different from all those inarticulate primal forces hanging on in the wilds and other forgotten places.

The tall, spectral thing before him now was almost formless. Barely human, outlines vague and elusive, its central mass a dark stain through which jagged streaks of something flickered as if agitated, trapped. All dull as the sky, dull as the lakes and puddles.

He’d been waiting for it to say something, wondering why his horse was paying it no attention at all. And as the moment stretched, his mind wandered over past battlefields—especially the last one—wondering if there was something he’d missed. Something like his own death. After all, did the dead even know they were dead? Was there a memory back there that he’d flung away, in some spasm of horror and regret? The savage burn of a spear-point sinking into his chest? The agony of a stomach wound, an opened throat, a bleeder in the thigh?

‘Is that it, then? I’m dead?’

His mount’s left ear flicked, alert and awaiting his next words.

The answer the apparition gave was unexpected. It swirled towards him, its darkness filling his vision, the chaotic skein of something arcing and slashing on all sides, and its embrace rushed through him, a shudder, and then a shiver that rolled like a wave. He tracked it passing over, around, and within his body.

And then was it gone.

Blinking, he looked around. Nothing but the dull, colourless world, a cool morning of early spring, the faint sound of trickling water, barely a breath of wind. His gaze dropped slightly to the road, to the place directly beneath the apparition’s appearance, and his eyes focused on a single cobble, mud-smeared but somehow different from all its companions.

‘Shit.’ He dismounted, reeled momentarily in the wake of that embrace, and then stepped forward and crouched down, wiping at the cobble’s surface, stripping away the sheen of muddy water. Revealing a carved face. Round, empty eyes, grooves to frame the nose into a rough, elongated triangle, a downturned mouth.

‘Fuck Genabackis,’ he muttered. ‘Fuck Culvern Wood, fuck all the dead people long gone, fuck all the forgotten spirits, gods, spectres and fucking everything else.’ He straightened, swung back to his placidly waiting horse. Then he paused as he recalled that ecstatic shiver, ‘But most of all, whoever you were, if that was a fuck, I’ll fucking take it.’

 

Edging the north side of the fort was an abandoned graveyard, a strange mixture of beehive tombs and mounded urn-pits along with mostly sunken, tilted platforms, hinting at more than one ancient, long-forgotten practice by equally forgotten peoples. When the Malazan 3rd Army had built the fortification, way back during the conquest, the trench and embankment had cut into the cemetery where the various grave markers edged onto the level area mapped out by the engineers. Some of the upturned stones, brickwork and platforms had been used to lay the foundations for what began as a wooden wall but was now mortared limestone. The unearthed bones had been discarded and left scattered here and there among the high grasses flanking the trench and cursus; some still remained visible, the shards splintered and bleached white among the tangled stems.

Messy work back then, but necessity was a harsh master. Besides, the damned cemetery was in the middle of nowhere, leagues from the nearest town, with only a handful of villages and hamlets within a half-day’s trek—not that the locals bothered, since they one and all insisted that the graveyard wasn’t theirs.

The southern side of the fort was marked by the new graveyard, with small rectangular stone-block crypts in the Genabarii style and a single longbarrow packed with the mouldering bones of a few hundred dead Malazan soldiers, on which a small forest was now growing. This cemetery was flanked by the fort wall through which a new gate had been built, and otherwise surrounded by the town that had grown up with the imperial outpost.

The land beyond the eastern wall was maintained as a training and marshalling ground, settlement prohibited, although sheep were allowed to graze there to keep the area from becoming overgrown.

The fort had been raised a hundred paces from Culvern River. In the intervening decades, the spring floods had been steadily worsening, and now the river’s bank was less than thirty paces from the fort’s western wall. In this narrow strip, the 2nd Company of the XIVth Legion had made their camp.

The sergeant had walked away from the sound of the rushing water, as he did every morning, since it was a sound he hated. Heading inland and skirting the fort to his right, he strode into the overgrown snarl of the abandoned cemetery, remembering the first time he’d seen it.

They’d been bloodied by an unexpected clash with the Crimson Guard, and news from the south was making the name Blackdog a curse word. One of the problems was that the Bridgeburners had been split up, two companies sent off to support the 2nd Army up here in the northeast, while the rest went down towards Mott.

The sergeant settled onto a slightly tilted stone platform, staring across the embankment to the solid stone wall of the fort. He remembered when it was nothing but wood and rubble. He remembered how his back ached between working the spade and swinging the pick, breaking up grave markers while the wood teams cut down an entire nearby copse to raise the first walls.

There had been a rawness in the air back then, or perhaps that was just him. Certainly wilder out here, on the very fringes of civilized settlement. It was the early days of the Bridgeburners being thrown into one nightmare after another. So, hope was alive, but it’d been getting fragile.

Peace had settled its suffocating blanket since then, snug around traders, innkeepers, crafts-people, sheep-herders and farmers and all the rest. Stone replaced wood, empty land sprouted a town. None of that seemed, or looked, real.

He hadn’t ever expected to return here. Not to a place where he’d twice pushed a spade into the earth, first to build a fort, and then to dig out a barrow, watching red-splashed friends being rolled into it. A soldier’s loyalty died to a thousand cuts, until it seemed there was no hope of finding it again—not to an empire, not to a commander, not even to a faith. He’d seen companions slip away, deserting, even among the famed Bridgeburners, too far gone and too alone in their heads to meet anyone’s eyes. He’d been damned close to that himself.

Years later and far to the southeast, in the rain outside Black Coral, High Fist Dujek Onearm had unofficially dissolved the Bridgeburners. The sergeant remembered that moment, standing in the deluge, listening to that torrid rush of water from the sky, from the mortally wounded Moon’s Spawn hanging almost directly overhead. A sound he had come to despise.

He should’ve done like the others, then, the few who were left. Just walked away. But he’d never been one to settle down anywhere. Not even the tempting delights of Darujhistan could hold him. Instead, he wandered, he circled, wondering what it was about loyalty that haunted him.

Was it any surprise that he found himself in the Malazan ranks once more? And had anything changed? The squads of marines never seemed to, despite the endless succession of faces, voices, histories and all the rest. Commanders came and went, some good, some bad. Years of peaceful postings were punctuated by nasty scraps, the restless oscillation without end. It was, he could see now, always the same. The Malazan Empire’s last moment, he had become convinced, would be when the last marine went down, on some useless battlefield at the back end of nowhere.

No, nothing out there had changed. But inside, inside the one ex-Bridgeburner still serving in the empire, it was a different story.

Black Coral. After the rains, after the white salt had been scuffed from the shoulders of his leather jerkin, and his dry eyes had been pulled from what he had been, not yet finding what he would become, he had walked to a barrow. A glittering mound, sparkling like all the world’s wealth, where he left his sigil of silver and ruby, his fire-licked burning bridge.

Strange, how a man he’d never met could have changed him so. A man, he had been told, who gave his life to redeem the T’lan Imass.

Itkovian. You of the single mad gesture, the appalling promise. Did you imagine what it would make you? I doubt it. I don’t think you spared that a single Hood-damned moment, when with clear eyes you went and forgave the unforgivable.

He’d not known much of that at the time. But in his near-aimless wandering, he closed a circle upon his eventual return to Black Coral, to see what had been made of the place where the Bridgeburners died. And had come face to face with the birth of a god, a faith, a hopeless dream.

You still didn’t blink, did you? So newly born, you gave only a wry smile at your impending death. While so many of us stepped forward, driven to defend you. Strange compulsion of loyalty, not to you, but to an idea, what you embodied.

No amount of abuse, no extreme of sensation, emotion, terror or lust; no place in all the worlds real and imagined, could disavow or discard this one, loving need.

Redemption.

Now there was a loyalty no mortal could shake, a need a mortal couldn’t help but turn back to, eventually, when all the distractions turned brittle and hollow and a long life neared its end.

In all his years, a soldier among soldiers, then a wanderer among strangers, a veritable sea of faces had been brushed by his searching gaze, and in each and every one of them he had seen the same thing. Often disguised, hidden away, but never well enough. Often denied, with bold defiance or uneasy diffidence. Often blunted, by drink or smoke.

Longing. Look for it, in every crowd, and you will find it. Paint it any colour you choose: grief, nostalgia, melancholy, remembrance, these are but flavours, poetic reflections.

And it is the Redeemer, holding redemption in his hands, who would answer our longing. If we but ask.

As it turned out, he wasn’t quite ready to do that, and even had he been, how would it look? Play out? What comes when longing is at last appeased? Was salvation something to be feared, the removal of the last thing to live for? Was longing for redemption no different from longing for death? Or were they fundamental opposites?

Distant motion drew his attention and he saw his night-blade, Oams, riding in from the east. So, that work was done. Still, it’d be worth hearing the report first-hand, before the call to gather came.

The sergeant stood, hands on his hips as he arched his lower back. Two days ago, not far from here, he’d been shovelling another hole. For the spill of familiar faces into the ground, and good night, one and all.

 

When Oams caught sight of his sergeant out among the old graves and tombs, he angled his mount off the track and rode to meet him. He was still thinking about that apparition, to be honest. Hard to drag his thoughts away. Nothing like that had ever happened before. It should have frightened him, but it hadn’t. He should have recoiled from its embrace, but he didn’t. And maybe that stone head, driven down into the ground and now part of an imperial cobbled road, had nothing to do with the spectre.

He had been thinking about the soldier’s lust, that cold light in the eyes, thinking about the trouble soldiers slid into when they finally buried the sword. And it had been the man now awaiting him at the edge of the cemetery that brought on those thoughts. The man too long in the ranks, but with nowhere else to go.

Oams reined in and dismounted. Hobbling the horse, he walked to meet his sergeant. ‘It was what you figured it would be, Spindle.’

‘And?’

‘Sorted,’ Oams replied. He shrugged. ‘I didn’t have much to do, to be honest. He was already taking his last breaths. Only thing keeping him alive was all that rage. In fact, he might’ve tried thanking me for killing him, but couldn’t get the words past all the blood in his mouth.’

Grimacing, Spindle glanced away. ‘Now that’s a comforting belief.’

‘I thought so,’ Oams said easily. After a moment, he shrugged again and said, ‘Well, I’d best stable the horse. And then it’s the tent and a whole lot of sleep—’

‘Not yet,’ the sergeant cut in. ‘Captain’s called us all to meet.’

‘New fucking orders? We just got ourselves seriously slapped down. We’re still licking wounds and ignoring all the empty chairs at the game table. Company’s down to three fucking squads and they want to send us off again?’

Spindle shrugged.

Eyeing him, Oams remained silent for a few moments, and then he looked around. ‘This place gives me the creeps. I mean, bodies on a battlefield is one thing—that all went down at once, half a day’s worth of work. It’s the role we play, so I’d better be comfortable with it, right? But graveyards. Generations of the dead, one on top of another on top of another and so on. For centuries. It’s depressing.’

‘Is it?’ Spindle asked, now studying Oams with an unreadable expression.

‘Smacks of… I don’t know. Futility?’

‘Why not continuity instead?’

Oams shivered. ‘Aye. The being dead kind.’ He hesitated, and then asked, ‘Sergeant, you ever think about the gods?’

‘No. Should I?’

‘Well, was it them who made us? And if they did, what the fuck for? And if that’s not bad enough, then they go around messing in our affairs. It’s like they can’t leave off and let us go our own way; like some damned chaperone who refuses to leave the fete, and there you are, breathing mutual lust with some beauty and both of you looking for some bushes to hide behind, and…’ Seeing the incredulous look on his sergeant’s face, Oams let the thought drift away. He rubbed swiftly at his face and offered up a sheepish smile. ‘Iskar take me, I’m tired.’

‘Go stable your horse, Oams,’ said Spindle. ‘You might have time for a bite or two before we gather.’

‘Aye, I’ll do that.’

‘And well done on the… mission.’

Oams nodded. And then returned to his mount.

 

The sun was a brighter white in a white sky, not yet noon. The sound of meltwater trickling in the narrow trench running parallel to the wall hung in the background. The rooster that had been crowing since dawn suddenly let out a strangled sound, and then fell ominously silent.

Stillwater stood watching the big, heavy soldier shrug his way into his mail shirt. Once again, iron links snagged strands of his long, filthy hair, tearing them from his scalp so that, here and there on his torso, golden glints floated above the blued iron. While he never made a sound when he did this, a few of the plucks were always savage enough to redden his pitted face and make his blue eyes watery.

With the mail shirt settled and pulling down his already sloping shoulders, he collected up his belted sword. Somehow, there were long wispy strands of red-blond hair caught up in the bronze fittings of the scabbard, too. Cinching the belt tight above his hips, he paused to scratch at his flattened, crooked nose, surreptitiously wiping at a tear leaking down from his left eye, took another moment to brush at his worn leather leggings, and then faced her.

‘Iskar’s limp, Folibore, we’re just walking to the command tent.’ She pointed across the compound’s central marshalling grounds. ‘There. Where it’s always been.’

‘I have always believed that preparation is the soldier’s salvation, Stillwater.’ He squinted across the compound. ‘Besides, the most deceitful paths are the ones that look easy. Should I get Blanket for this? He’s in the latrine.’

Stillwater made a face. Blanket made her nervous. ‘Well, how long has he been in there?’

Shrugging, Folibore said, ‘No telling how long it’ll take.’

‘Why, what’s wrong with him?’

‘Nothing. I told you. He’s in the latrine.’ He paused. ‘In the latrine. Dropped that amulet his grandmother gave him.’

‘The amulet with the inscription? The one that says kill this boy before he grows up? What kind of keepsake is that? Blanket’s not right in the head, you know.’

Looking uncomfortable, Folibore shrugged again.

‘Never mind,’ said Stillwater. ‘Let’s go. I doubt the captain’d be happy with a Blanket covered in shit anyway.’

They set out.

‘Ignore the others,’ Folibore said, ‘I for one appreciate your natural wit.’

‘My what?’

‘Your natural wit.’

She glanced across at him quizzically. Heavies were a strange lot. What was it that made the mailed fists in every squad so weird? They had one task, after all, and that was to plunge face-first into whatever maelstrom was coming at them. Get up front, weather the onslaught, and then punch back. Simple.

‘You don’t even need to be literate,’ she said.

‘Back on that again, Stillwater? Listen, reading’s easy. It’s what you do with all the words now in your head that’s hard. Consider. Ten people could read the same damned words and yet walk away with ten different interpretations.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘That’s why it’s a rule to keep us heavies away from written orders.’

‘Because they confuse you.’

‘Exactly. We get trapped in all the permutations, the nuances, the inferences and assumptions. It’s all so problematic. What does the captain really mean, after all? When he writes, say, “advance to the front”. The front of what? What if I’d had a run-in with some loan-shark and now there’s a contract out on me? Then it would more accurately be “retreat to the front”, wouldn’t it? That is to say, if I took that order personally.’

She glanced at him again. Too big for comfort, bony brows and massive, squarish head under that patchy long hair, a flattened face mostly swallowed up by the red beard framing the huge battered nose, small blue eyes with the most delicate lashes. ‘You’re saying that’s what happened to First Squad? The heavies got hold of the orders and half a bell later, they’re all dead?’

‘I’m not saying that’s what happened to the First,’ he replied. ‘Merely one among a long list of possibilities. And you’d probably know better than me.’

‘So what do you think happened to the First, Folibore?’

‘You’re asking me? How would I know? How would anyone know?’

She scowled. ‘Someone does.’

‘So you keep saying. Listen, forget the First. They’re gone. Dead. A real mess.’

‘What kind of mess?’

‘The real kind, obviously.’

They were nearing the command tent when Corporal Snack appeared from one side and intercepted them. ‘Just the two I was looking for!’

Stillwater winced at the knowing look Folibore gave her. Him and his warnings about easy paths.

Snack was struggling to cinch his belt, pawing bemusedly at his prodigious belly as if surprised to find it there. ‘Where’s Blanket?’ he demanded. ‘We need the whole squad for this. Captain’s waiting.’

‘He’s down in the latrine,’ Stillwater said. ‘Swimming in piss and shit looking for his amulet.’

‘The one he keeps up his butt hole?’

‘That’s a good guess,’ Stillwater said.

‘The one that once shot out of his butt on a spear of flame?’

‘Best fart fire ever seen, sir,’ Folibore said, nodding solemnly. ‘Bet you’re still sorry you missed it.’

‘Sorry ain’t the word,’ Snack said. ‘Well, go get him then. Both of you, that is. So there’s no argument.’

‘Then all three of us are going to be late,’ Folibore pointed out. ‘You might want to reconsider that order, based on the exacerbation being compounded, sir. One soldier not here right now, but then three not here. That’s half the Fourth Squad, sir.’

‘More than half,’ Stillwater chimed in. ‘No one’s seen Anyx Fro for days.’

Snack’s heavy brows lifted. ‘Anyx is still in our squad? I thought she got transferred.’

‘Did she?’ Stillwater asked.

Those brows now knitted. ‘Didn’t she?’

‘Wasn’t there an order come down?’

‘I never saw no order.’ Snack threw up his hands. ‘And now Anyx Fro’s been transferred!’

‘No wonder she’s not been around,’ Folibore said.

‘Hold on, Snack,’ said Stillwater. ‘As our corporal, how come you didn’t know about any transfer or orders or anything? It’s not like our sergeant never tells us anything.’

Snack stared at her in disbelief, fleshy face reddening. ‘Yes it is! That’s exactly how it is, you dim-witted witch! He never tells us anything!’

‘Anyway, more than half, then,’ Stillwater insisted. ‘The heavy’s got a point. Who’s all here for the Fourth? Right, the corporal and the sergeant. The rest of us are taking a bath in the fucking latrine. Won’t that smell bad when all the sergeant can do is shrug about his missing squad?’

‘Oh, Stillwater,’ said Folibore, ‘you should know I’m laughing inside.’

‘What?’

‘Such an innocent expression on your sweet face. And oh,’ he added, looking over her shoulder, ‘here she is now.’

Stillwater and Snack turned to see Anyx Fro slouching her way in their general direction. The corporal stepped forward. ‘Anyx! Over here, damn you!’

It wasn’t quite a straight path that she took, but it was a good try. Anyx was looking pale, but then, she always looked pale. That said, her eyes were drooping a bit more than usual. Cursed with a sickly disposition, was Anyx Fro. ‘Poor Anyx,’ Stillwater said as the woman joined them.

‘Why poor me anything?’ Anyx demanded. ‘Why are you all looking at me anyway?’

‘Corporal Snack said you’d been transferred,’ Folibore told her.

‘Have I? Oh, thank the gods.’

‘No!’ Snack said. ‘You haven’t been transferred, damn you. But you’ve been missing for days.’

‘No I haven’t. I knew where I was the whole time. Look, wasn’t there a call for the Measly Company to meet up?’

‘We don’t like that name,’ Snack said.

‘Who’s we?’ Anyx asked. ‘Not the we that calls us the Measly Company, that’s for sure. Which is pretty much everyone, Corporal.’

Their conversation was interrupted when Sergeant Drillbent emerged from the command tent.

Suddenly flustered, Snack said, ‘All here, Sergeant, except for Blanket who’s shitting amulets in the latrine. I mean—’

Stillwater, being merciful, cut in, ‘He means Blanket’s in the shitter for real.’

‘Oh,’ said Folibore, ‘I do love you, Stillwater.’

‘What?’ she demanded. ‘What did I say now?’ She returned her attention to Drillbent. ‘Point is, Sergeant, Blanket’s no loss for this meeting. Since without his amulet he can’t whistle out of his butt anyway.’

‘Captain was not impressed—’ began Anyx.

The sergeant’s grunt stopped her, and everyone else. All eyes were now on Drillbent, who then glanced up at the mostly white sky. After a moment he squeezed shut his mild, hazel eyes and briefly pinched the bridge of his oversized nose, before swinging about and heading back into the command tent. A faint gesture told them to follow.

Stillwater gave Snack a quick shove against one shoulder. ‘After him, idiot. It’s all good.’

 

The command tent was crowded. But then, with all the soldiers of the 2nd Company of the XIVth Legion in attendance, save one, it should have been a lot more crowded. Impossible, in fact. Stillwater tried to imagine twelve squads crammed in here and she had to fight a smile as she moved to find a canvas wall to put her back against, as was her habit. It wouldn’t do to smile, after all, given the paltry state of the 2nd, and all the faces she’d never see again.

For a brief moment, she wondered what was wrong with her. The general mood was bad, and it should be. Three pitiful squads left for the captain to command, at least until the new recruits arrived, and when would that be? Probably never. And then there were all of her dead friends to consider, and that was the problem. She never considered them at all, since they were dead.

Arms crossed, she watched the captain scanning the ring of marines. In a moment or two, he would stand up and begin speaking, and anybody who’d never met him, who knew of him by name only, would stare in open disbelief.

The captain’s name was his given name. Had to be. Not even long-dead Braven Tooth could have made it up, not this time, not for this man. It was too idiotic to fathom. She studied him, watching the performance as the captain glanced down to check his lavender silk shirt, paused to adjust the cuffs and then examine the thin leather gloves covering his long, thin fingers. Now came the sudden, fluid rise from the stool, his left hand angling up to hover close to his ear, fingers fluttering, and his painted face, so white as to be deathly, shifted into a smile that almost parted his red lips. ‘My dearest soldiers, welcome!’

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is Gruff, our beloved captain.

 

Paltry Skint stood as far away from her sergeant as she could manage. She’d put Oams, Benger and Corporal Morrut between her and the man, and she would have shoved Say No in there, too, except Say No, being left-handed, always fought on Paltry’s left side, and nothing was going to budge the woman from her habit.

It was not because Paltry didn’t like the sergeant, or trust him, or anything like that. Problem was, he stank. Well, not personally. It was his hairshirt that stank.

She’d heard a rumour that Spindle was the last living Bridgeburner, but she doubted he’d ever been in such infamous company. There were always rumours like that, swirling around certain soldiers who had a way about them. People needed it. The Malazan armies needed it.

Uncanny hints, curious mysteries, all the whispered tales of a lone figure seen wandering out beyond the camp, deep in the night, communing with the Horse-Spirits of Death’s Company. With Iskar Jarak himself, the limping guardian of Death’s Gate.

Only the last surviving Bridgeburner would keep such company, or so the argument went. Old friends, long dead, their bodies thin as mist and their horses sheathed in frost. Battered comrades still splashed in the blood of their deaths, swapping jokes with the sergeant in his hair-shirt. That stank of the dead.

Well, she’d never once seen Spindle out in some field beyond the campfires, gabbing with ghosts. And his hairshirt stank of the dead because it was made from his mother’s or maybe his grandmother’s hair. But maybe that bit was made up, too. Who’d wear something like that? While Spindle could be strange every now and then, he wasn’t insane. Then again, the hairshirt came from somewhere. And that could well be an old woman’s hair, grey and black and patchy with crinkles.

But what good were explanations? Knowing or not knowing made no difference to the stink. Anyway, Bridgeburners were said to have had tattoos on their foreheads, a bridge in flames—obviously—and all Spindle had on his high forehead were pock-marks that could have come from anything. Some childhood illness was a lot more likely than the spatter from a Moranth munition. Besides, no one had seen any of those for ten years or more.

Bridgeburners. Bonehunters. Coltaine’s Crows. The Malazan Empire had plenty of lost armies in its history. All dead but never forgotten. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? The dead needed forgetting, but like Say No was always saying, remembering’s one thing, but the reason for remembering is quite another.

She glanced at her fellow heavy, always there on her left. Say No looked over, and then shrugged.

Say No was always saying that, true. But what in all the world’s Black Feathers did it mean?

Captain Gruff finished preening and then stood.

 

Daint and Given Loud of the 2nd Squad had found a bench to share, and it was a tight squeeze, since they were both big men, but neither one was inclined to budge and though seated, they were locked in a titanic battle, shoulders, hips and thighs pressed against their opposites, trying to push the other body from the bench seat.

Their breaths had grown loud, whistling from nostrils, and the bench was creaking under the strain. Neither man looked at the other. There wasn’t any point. Even their features were physically matched: stolid, blunt, scarred, bearded, small eyes between flat noses, mouths seemingly incapable of smiling.

Almost within reach of Given Loud, So Bleak studied them from where he stood, slightly to the back of the rest of Shrake’s squad. He’d come over from the 1st Company when its remnants were broken up. Before that, he’d been a regular in the XVIIth until the Gris Mutiny rose up and was put down at the cost of half the damned legion. While So Bleak had a way of surviving, that had stopped being a good thing. Now he was a man known to leave wreckage in his wake. Unsurprisingly, a warm welcome to this squad had yet to materialize.

But he’d done passably in the scrap against Balk. There was that, at least. Courage had never been an issue. He’d even managed to get his shield between a spear-point and Corporal Undercart’s chest, which had earned a reluctant nod of thanks. Unless it wasn’t a nod at all, just the man looking down to make sure his chest was intact.

It had been the two heavies who’d done most of the work anyway. Daint and Given Loud, it turned out, were somewhat competitive, especially when fighting. In fact, So Bleak was beginning to realize, the two men had taken their rivalry to pathological extremes. It was now seething hatred. The two men never exchanged a word. Never even looked at each other. Never shared a canteen. And yet, were never apart, lest one get a step up on the other.

A less unlucky man would find it amusing, So Bleak mused. For himself, the endless battles between the two heavies had acquired the qualities of morbid fascination. And at this present moment, he was waiting for the bench to explode.

 

‘Alas,’ Gruff said after his warm welcome, ‘every region has its bandits.’ Both hands lifted to stifle a protest that, as far as Stillwater could see, no one seemed inclined to make. ‘I know, darlings, I know! How many bandits can field what amounts to a full company of well-equipped and exceptionally well-trained and most impressively disciplined troops? The Fist assured me, yet again last night, that the formidable nature of Balk’s forces was not even hinted at in the scouting reports.’ He paused and studied the faces surrounding him. ‘Accordingly, our company paid a high price in defeating him.’

‘But we didn’t,’ said Sergeant Shrake of the 2nd, twisting one end of her lone lock of long black hair. Her languid gaze slid across to Spindle. ‘If not for capturing Balk himself, and if not for the surprising loyalty his troops showed in laying down their arms once Spindle put a knife to the man’s throat, well, none of us would be here right now.’

‘I assure you, Shrake,’ Gruff said with a smile, ‘I was getting to my praise of the Third Squad’s impressive coup in capturing the bandit leader.’

Corporal Morrut spoke up from his usual position beside Spindle. ‘It was your plan to start with, Captain. Spindle always says credit where it’s due, sir.’

‘With the intention of cutting off the snake’s head, to be more precise,’ Gruff noted, since for all his affectations, he was not a man to polish his own horn. Well, probably not the best way of putting it, Stillwater amended. The captain went on, ‘Since was it not obvious that Balk’s sub-commanders were one and all able to continue prosecuting the engagement? Thus, Balk’s demise would have achieved little by way of salvaging the situation. That said,’ he added, left hand dangling once again, ‘Spindle’s threat of killing the man, without actually doing so, yielded a most opportune effect. In short, my dears, we were fucking lucky.’

This time, nods all around.

 

Stillwater was in the habit of wearing a ragged scarf, a tattered length of unbleached linen that had once covered the eyes of a corpse. It wasn’t like the corpse needed it, since the crypt was unlit anyway, and even if there’d been cracks between the barrow-stones bleeding in the odd tendril of daylight, the dead didn’t need eyes to see, so a cloth covering those eyes didn’t do anything. Thinking logically was a talent of hers.

Her old friend Brenoch had been with her in that witch’s barrow, she recalled. The problem with looting crypts and whatnot was that, without fail, some other looter had gotten there first. In some places, robbing the dead was a crime and the punishment was death and she was all for that, especially if it meant she could find just one damned barrow that hadn’t been picked through first.

Brenoch had been kicking through some rubbish near the back end, where the arched ceiling sloped down. He’d caught a glint of something, he said. She left him to it, happy enough to be standing beside the open sarcophagus, seeing the crowbar scars on the limestone rim where that bastard thief who’d beaten them to it had prised loose the lid to send it crashing down on the other side. And that detail was only interesting in reminding her that they could do with a couple of prybars the next time they busted into a barrow. What made her content was the witch’s shrivelled corpse and all the pretty linen that had been draped over it.

Most looters were men and men had no understanding of the finer things, and even if the linen shrouds were all speckled and crusty with flecks of dried skin and stained here and there with that mysterious liquid that leaked out of dead people, the stuff her mother had called Hood’s Honey, they were still linen, and linen was pretty.

So, Stillwater had taken the strip from the corpse’s eyes, and that’s how she found the two gold coins that’d been left underneath, neatly wedged into the sockets. She’d hidden them away quickly, but Brenoch had caught something, enough to be suspicious. In the end she told him about the coins, if only to silence his badgering. Brenoch had been furious, and then jealous, and then avaricious, until finally she had to kill him when he went and stole the damned things, and never mind all his protestations to the contrary. Poor Brenoch, joining that long list of friends she’d once had.

These days, Stillwater wore the scarf to hide the rope tattoo encircling her neck. Some might mistake it for a noose tattoo, which was ridiculous since a noose tattoo was just asking for trouble. But a golden finger-thick rope, looped round her neck, no beginning, no end, signifying her vocation and devotion to killing as many people as necessary, well, that was elegant.

Being an assassin had its risks. She would have avoided the profession altogether if not for her night of revelation. Which old friend had that been? Ah, Filbin. Who had a few ways with sorcery. Rashan, in fact, the sweet magic of shadows. And was idly teaching her a few things, when it suddenly hit her. Cotillion, my patron, Lord of Assassins. The Rope. But wait, he was only half of it, wasn’t he? It’d been him and Shadowthrone, together, who’d carved out the empire. The dagger and the magic, bound as one. Rope and Shadow. But who needs to be two people for that? An assassin mage! Why did no one ever think of it before?

She would be the first, and the best. She’d gone on to learn all she could from Filbin before she’d had to—well, poor Filbin.

The key was keeping the magic secret. And that made the tattoo useful when it might at first seem idiotic. Imagine, announcing to everybody your devotion to the Lord of Assassins! Who would do that? She would, especially when it served as misdirection. It’s one thing to know someone’s a killer and might be out to kill you, so you focus on all the ways to block an assassin. Leaving open the shadowy path of magic. And before you know it, here I am, stepping out from your very shadow and stab-stab-stab!

Drillbent knew what he had in Stillwater and he employed her talents accordingly. He never once asked why she’d joined the Malazan marines, when she could have chosen a life of demure opulence in some big city of the empire, taking contracts from the endlessly feuding nobility. When she could have worn silks and kept her jet-black hair long, shiny and clean, and besides, she knew how to do sultry or at least was pretty sure she did, only there wasn’t any call for sultry in the marines. No, not once had he asked anything about her.

There’d been assassins in the marines before. There’d been Tosspot, and Lurvin Waifwater, and Kalam Mekhar. Sooner or later, there was night-work to be done, and that’s what he had her do.

She wore the scarf for modesty, so as to not frighten her fellow soldiers. Oh, they all knew about her tattoo, but something about it gave them all the shivers. Unless it wasn’t the tattoo at all that made them start and act all edgy whenever they glanced at her neck. Maybe it was the twin Hood’s Honey stains on the scarf, the way they looked like eyes. When of course that was impossible. Even the dead couldn’t look through gold coins, could they?

She’d always wondered where Brenoch had hidden the coins. Probably swallowed them. Careless of her not to think of that at the time. She could have cut his belly open and retrieved them.

 

‘That wasn’t much fun,’ Snack said as they walked back to the squad’s modest circle of tents. There was plenty of room in the barracks but none of the survivors seemed in the mood to bunk there, with nothing but empty echoes to listen to all night.

‘Never is,’ said Anyx Fro. ‘Silver Lake. Wasn’t that the place of the Teblor Uprising? Heard half the town burned that night, and since the slave trade dried up there’s no money coming in. What’s the point of going there?’

‘The orders are complicated,’ said Folibore, and glancing over, Still-water saw his knotted brow.

‘No they aren’t,’ she told him. ‘We’re to reinforce the garrison there, indefinitely.’

But Folibore shook his head. ‘But that’s just it. How long is indefinite? We could grow old there, wasting our years away until we die of old age and end up buried in a grisly mound. Winters are cold beside that glacial lake, you know, as if being dead isn’t cold enough. No, I don’t like it and besides, I’m not sure the captain was precise enough. Word is, that garrison got chewed up by the slaves. There’s only, what, seven of ’em left? So, strictly speaking, they’d be reinforcing us, not us reinforcing them.’

Their sergeant was walking a few paces ahead of them, but as usual, Drillbent made no effort to settle things.

Snack tried. ‘We’re riding north to Silver Lake, Folibore. That’s all you need to know.’

‘Then why did Gruff ask Spindle to wait behind? Doing some quiet talking, right? There are implications to that, inferences to be made, even.’

‘Spindle’s Spindle,’ said Anyx Fro, as if that explained everything.

Folibore squinted across at her but said nothing.

Arriving at their camp, just beyond the fort’s western wall, they found Blanket at the hearth, making tea. Anyx made a gagging noise and retreated to her tent. Drillbent did the same but without the gagging, plunging into his tent without a word. Snack went to find his tin cup but in passing close to Blanket, he evidently changed his mind, and set off for the Trader’s Inn just up the road, one hand over his nose and mouth.

Folibore sat down on a log beside his fellow heavy. ‘Blanket, you stink.’

‘But it’s a triumphant stink.’

‘Found it, then?’

‘You’d be amazed at what you can find knee-deep in shit and piss with a sieve in your hands.’

‘A sieve?’ Stillwater demanded, keeping her distance. ‘Where’d you get a sieve from?’

‘Borrowed it from Clay Plate,’ Blanket replied.

‘Does he know?’

‘Doesn’t have to. I already returned it.’

At that moment there came a bellow of outrage from the 2nd Squad’s encampment. The three soldiers glanced in that direction, but only for a heartbeat or two.

‘I take it you didn’t clean it,’ said Stillwater.

‘Do I look clean?’

‘There’s a well in the fort.’

‘They wouldn’t let me near it. Those garrison guards don’t like us.’

The tea was ready. Folibore produced a cup and Blanket showed his manners in pouring it full first, before filling his own cup. Gestures like that made Blanket strange. Stillwater didn’t trust people with manners. Considerate, kind, helpful people—what was wrong with them? Something. You could be damned sure of that.

‘We have our new orders,’ Folibore said around blowing into his cup. Then he sipped noisily before adding, ‘Silver Lake.’

‘Now that’s troubling,’ said Blanket.

‘I know,’ Folibore replied. ‘I said so, but no one was listening to me. And the captain’s having a private chat with Spindle.’

‘That’s even worse.’

‘That’s what I said.’

Blanket puffed out his shit-smeared cheeks. ‘Silver Lake. Where the God of the Shattered Face had his first run-in with the empire.’

‘What?’ Stillwater asked, startled.

‘I was going to add that,’ said Folibore, ‘but no one was listening anyway.’

‘Blanket,’ Stillwater ventured a step closer, only to retreat again, ‘what was that you said?’

‘The God of the Shat—’

‘You mean Toblakai. But he rose out of the ashes of the Sha’ik Rebellion. Seven Cities. Raraku, not Silver fucking Lake.’

‘Before Raraku, Silver Lake,’ insisted Blanket. ‘Not a true Toblakai, either. A Teblor. That fallen, benighted mob of mountain savages to the north of here. Remember the story of the Idiot Attack? Three Teblor charging a garrisoned town? That was Silver Lake.’

‘Was it? I thought that was Bringer’s Foot.’

‘Bringer’s Foot didn’t even exist back then,’ Blanket explained. ‘Silver Lake was as far as the settlers got. No, the Idiot Attack happened at Silver Lake, Stillwater. And it was led by the one who would become the God of the Shattered Face.’

‘Portents,’ muttered Folibore between slurps. ‘Permutations… implications… things stirring beneath a deceivingly placid surface.’

‘And one of the three thought he was a dog.’

Bewildered, Stillwater stared at Blanket. ‘What does that mean?’

Blanket shrugged. ‘Hard to say.’

‘But significant,’ Folibore said.

Both men nodded at that and resumed drinking their tea.

Stillwater shook her head. ‘I thought the Idiot Attack was, I don’t know, a hundred years ago. Obviously,’ she added, ‘not at Bringer’s Foot, since as you say, that settlement’s new and all. Well, ten years old. I don’t know why I thought it was at Bringer’s Foot, since I also thought it happened a hundred years ago. It’s not like I’m an expert on the settlements in the North, am I?’

‘Clearly not,’ Blanket agreed.

She scowled. ‘Fine, you don’t have to make a big deal about it. The point is, I never connected Toblakai to the Idiot Attack. Never connected him to anywhere on Genabackis at all. You’re saying he’s Teblor? Which clan? Sunyd or Rathyd?’

‘Neither,’ answered Folibore, holding out his cup for more tea, to which Blanket obliged. ‘There’s more clans further north, higher up the mountains. The Sunyd and Rathyd were the ones the slavers cleaned out, though not all of them, as it turned out. The Uprising was in fact a liberation, by kin. If I had to guess, we’re heading to Silver Lake because something’s stirred up the Teblor. All over again.’

‘The God of the Shattered Face is what’s stirred them up this time,’ said Blanket.

‘What? He’s here?’

‘No, Stillwater, he’s not.’ Blanket then frowned. ‘At least, not that I heard. But then again, who knows where gods go, or what they do.’

Folibore said, ‘The God with the Shattered Face lives in a hut outside Darujhistan.’

Stillwater stared. ‘He does? Well, what the fuck for? What’s he doing there?’

‘No one knows,’ answered Folibore, ‘but he hasn’t moved in years. It’s said he refuses his ascension. It’s said he beats all his followers whenever they show up. And you know what that does? Brings him more followers. I know, there’s no making sense of people. Never was, never will be. Just like badly written orders. You can tell someone to go away and the someone leaves only to come back the next day with a friend, or three.’ He shrugged.

Blanket said, ‘But the cult’s among the Teblor by now, I’m sure.’

‘Oh,’ murmured Folibore, ‘that’s a point.’

There was a loud scuffle of canvas from Anyx Fro’s tent and her head poked out between the front flaps. ‘Will you all shut up? I’m trying to sleep.’

‘It’s the middle of the day, Anyx!’ snapped Stillwater. ‘That tent must be boiling inside!’

‘That’s why I wanted us camped on the east side of the fort.’

‘But that’d mean early morning light and waking up in a pool of sweat, like we told you.’

‘And I told you all that I’m an early riser!’

‘So go pitch your tent on the other side of the fort!’

‘I just might!’ Her head withdrew.

It was quiet for a few moments, and then Stillwater asked Blanket, ‘Find a safe place for your amulet now?’

‘Want to see a fire fart?’

 

Captain Gruff was pacing. ‘Still, I’d like to see you try.’ He paused to study Sergeant Spindle. Odd, wasn’t it? A genuine ex-Bridgeburner. But he looked perfectly normal. Save for that foul hairshirt, that is. Gruff always had a secret delight in seeing outrageous expressions of fashion. But there were limits.

Still, here the man was, slouched in that saddle-chair, one of the Legends. Granted, not precisely one of the famous ones. But since there was no one else left, just being the last survivor had to earn some prestige. Of a sort. Being the last, and yet, quite possibly, also the least. Made for a strange outlook, Gruff assumed, which no doubt accounted for Spindle being the tersest man he’d ever met. ‘You will try, won’t you?’

‘Loyalty’s an issue, sir.’

Gruff spun deftly on one heel and resumed pacing. ‘You might be surprised, my dear fellow, that I have few concerns in that regard.’ He paused for a glance. ‘Do you wonder why?’ At the single raised eyebrow, Gruff continued, ‘Yes, curiosity is a virtue indeed. I shall appease you forthwith. But first, I cannot help but admit to some concern, specifically with regard to how my company will take the announcement.’

‘They’ll take it,’ Spindle said.

‘Ah! A vote of confidence? What a relief!’

‘They’ll take the announcement, sir. Living with it’s another thing.’

‘Oh. Hmm, I see the distinction.’ He brightened. ‘Then again, a wise, calming word from you? Surely that would be more than enough… Oh dear, you don’t seem convinced.’

‘I can live with it,’ Spindle said after a few moments.

A statement uttered with a most severe lack of inflection was not one to reassure the listener. ‘Oh sweetness, this is sorely testing my faith, Sergeant.’

‘I can see that, sir.’

After a moment, Gruff flung up both hands. ‘Listen to us! Getting ahead of ourselves again. One bridge at a time—ah, as the saying goes. Well, rather. The first and thus far only relevant question to be answered here and now, my sergeant Spindle, is: will you do it?’

Spindle rose to his feet and then spent a moment kneading his lower back. ‘Won’t be easy.’

‘Oh?’

He shrugged. ‘Introduced myself with a knife pressing his throat, sir.’

‘Bygones, surely!’

‘Now you want him and his company sewn up with ours.’

‘I assuredly do, and is the solution not poetic?’

‘Aye, like a draught of poison for the soul, sir.’

Gruff blanched. ‘Dear me, what sort of poetry do you read? Never mind. It remains an elegant solution to our depleted state.’

‘They depleted that state, sir, in case you forgot.’

‘Bygones!’

Spindle stared, as if once again not quite sure of his commanding officer. ‘You said something about being confident.’

‘Indeed. It’s Balk’s pedigree, Sergeant. We are of a like, he and I.’

‘You are?’

‘Station, my dear. Station. Certain virtues will persist.’

Spindle was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, ‘His rank, sir?’

‘Ah… oh, I know. Lieutenant Balk. Why, that even sounds fetching.’

‘Aye, sir.’

‘Spindle, you do understand that it must be you who does the asking. Definitely not me.’

‘Not quite.’

‘Because it was your knife! It was you who forced them all to surrender.’

‘Makes me their favourite marine, does it?’

‘Well, had you cut open Balk’s throat…’

Spindle stared a bit more, until Gruff realized, with a sigh, that something more direct was required. He met the sergeant’s eyes and said, in a somewhat cooler tone, ‘If it had been me with a knife to Balk’s throat at that moment, Sergeant, I’d have sawn his head off.’

Spindle’s stare widened slightly. Silence stretched, and then the sergeant grunted. ‘I’ll ask him, then.’

Relaxing, Gruff smiled. ‘Excellent, my dear Sergeant Spindle.’

At the command tent’s entrance, Spindle paused and looked back. ‘Captain?’

‘Yes?’

‘Ever got your hands wet… that way?’

‘Sweetness! More times than I can count.’

Spindle said nothing and then, with a parting nod, left the tent.

Idly, Gruff wondered why admissions like that seemed to startle people. One would suppose fellow soldiers to have tougher hides than that. Most curious.

Shrugging, he sat at his officer’s desk and lifted up a mirror, and humming softly, began reapplying paint to his lips.

 

Excerpted from The God Is Not Willing, copyright © 2021 by Steven Erikson.

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