/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Malazan Empire

Stonewielder

Ian Esslemont


Ian Cameron Esslemont

Stonewielder

The Elder Age

Height of the Jacaruku Crusades

The Many Isles

Uli knew it for a bad omen the moment he saw it. He’d been readying his nets for the pre-dawn fishing when the unnatural green and blue aura bruised the sky. It appeared out of the lightening east and swelled, becoming more bloated with every passing moment. The bay was choppy as if as agitated as he, and he’d been reluctant to push his shallow boat out into the waves. But his family had to eat, and cramped stomachs belch no end of complaints.

Through the first of the morning’s casts he kept his face averted from the thing where it hung in the discoloured sky, blazing like the baleful eye of some god. The catch that morning was poor: either his distraction, or the fish fleeing the apparition. In either case he decided to abandon the effort as cursed, threw his net to the bottom of the craft, and began paddling for shore. The blue-green eye now dazzled brighter than the sun; he shaded his gaze from the points of alien light glimmering on the waves. He paddled faster.

A strange noise brought his frantic, gasping efforts to a halt. A great roaring it was, like a landslide. He glared about, searching for its source. The alien eye now seemed to fill half the sky. No remnant of the sun’s warm yellow glow touched the waters, the treed shore, or the dark humps of the distant islands. Then, with unnatural speed, the surface of the bay stilled as if cowed. Uli held his breath and ducked side to side in his tiny craft.

The eye broke apart. Shards calved trailing blue flames, arcing. A roaring such as he had never before endured drove him to clap his hands to his head and scream his pain. A great massive descending piece like an ember thrown from a god’s fire drove smashing down far to the east. A white incandescent blaze blinded Uli’s vision. It seemed as if something had struck the big island.

Just as his vision returned, another glow flashed from behind. It threw his shadow ahead like a black streamer across the bay. Turning, he gaped to see a great scattering of shards descending to the west while others cascaded on far above. He rubbed his pained eyes — could it be the end of the world? Perhaps it was another of the moons falling, as he’d heard told of in legends. He remembered his paddle; Helta and the little ’uns would be terrified. He returned to churning water with a desperate fury, almost weeping his dread.

The hide boat ground on to mudflats far sooner than usual. Mystified, he eased a foot over the side. Shallows where none had ever stretched before. And the shore still a good long hike away. It was as if the water were disappearing. He peered up and winced; in the east a massive dark cloud of billowing grey and black was clawing its way up into the sky. It had already swallowed the sun. Untold bounty lay about him: boatloads of fish gasping and mouthing the air, flapping their death-throes.

Yet not one bird. The birds — where had they gone?

The light took on an eerie, darkly greenish cast. Uli slowly edged round, turning his head out to sea, and all hope fell from him. Something was swelling on the waters: a wall of dirty green. Floods such as the old stories tell of. Mountains of water come to inundate the land as all the tales foretell. It seemed to rear directly overhead, so lofty was it. Foam webbed its curved leading face, dirty white capped its peak. He could only gape upwards at its remorseless, fatal advance.

Run, little ’uns, run! The water comes to reclaim the land!

Approx. 400 years BW (Before the Wall)

The Empty Isles

Temal pushed himself upright from the chilling surf and crouched, sword ready. He gazed uncomprehendingly around the surface of the darkening waters, wiping the cold spray from his face. Where have they gone? One moment he’s fighting for his life and the next the sea-demons disappear like the mist that preceded them. Weak coughing sounded from his flank. He slogged among the rocks to lift a soaked comrade: Arel, a distant cousin. Though almost faint with exhaustion, Temal dragged the man to shore. Survivors of his war band ran down to the surf to pull both to the reviving warmth of a great bonfire of driftwood.

‘What happened?’ he stammered through chattering teeth.

‘They withdrew,’ answered Temal’s older sword-brother, Jhenhelf. His tone conveyed his bewildered disbelief. ‘Yet why? They had us.’

Temal did not dispute the evaluation; he was too tired, and he knew it to be true. He had less than twenty hale men in his band and too many of those inexperienced youths.

‘They will return with the dawn to finish us,’ Jhenhelf continued from across the fire. Temal held his old comrade’s gaze through the leaping flames and again said nothing. At their feet Arel coughed, then vomited up the seawater he’d swallowed.

‘What of Redden?’ one of the new recruits asked. ‘We could send for aid.’

Faces lifted all round the fire, pale with chill and fear.

‘They could be with us by dawn…’

‘Redden is just as hard-pressed as us,’ Temal cut in strongly. ‘He must defend his own shore.’ He glanced from one strained face to another. ‘Redden cannot spare the men.’

‘Then-’ began one of the youths.

‘Then we wait and rest!’ Jhenhelf barked. ‘Arel, Will, Otten — keep watch. The rest of you, get some sleep.’

Grateful for the support of his old friend, Temal eased himself to the ground. He thrust his sandalled feet out to the fire and tried to ignore the agonizing sting of salt licking his many cuts and gashes. He felt the heat work upon him and hunched forward, hand across his lap at the grip of his sheathed sword, and through slit eyes he watched the mist climb from his drying leathers.

He had no idea why the damned sea-demon Riders attacked. Despite them, it was an attractive land. The peninsulas and islands were rich and cultivable. It was ready to be wholly settled but for a few ignorant native tribals. His father and his grandfather before him had fought to keep their tenuous foothold. As leader of his extended clan he had to think of the future: enough futile wandering! They would hang on to these islands and all the lands beyond. Dark Avallithal with its haunted woods had not suited, nor the savage coast of Dhal-Horn, nor the brooding Isles of Malassa. Here flew their standard. Here his forebears burned their boats. He would not allow these Riders to force them out; they had nowhere to go.

Temal jerked awake, knocking aside Jhenhelf’s touch. It was almost dawn. ‘An attack?’ He struggled up on legs numb and stiff.

His lieutenant’s face held an unfamiliar expression. ‘No.’ He lifted his chin to their rear, to where the grass-topped cliffs of the shore rose; to the meadows and forests and farmland beyond, all of which would soon be dead and withered should the sea-demons be allowed to work their witchery unmolested.

Everyone, Temal noted, stared inland, not out to sea where they should be keeping watch for the first pearl-like gleams of the Riders’ approach. ‘What is it?’

Jhenhelf did not answer, and it occurred to Temal that the strange expression on his friend’s coarse, battle-hardened face might be awed wonder. He squinted up to the top of the cliffs’ ragged silhouette. A figure stood there, tall beneath dark clouds in the red-gold of the coming dawn’s light. The proportions of what he was seeing struck Temal as strange: whoever that was, he or she must be a giant to rear so high from so far away…

‘I’ll go,’ he said, his gaze fixed. ‘You keep guard.’

‘Take Will and Otten.’

‘If I must.’

Dawn was in full flush when they reached the crest, and when they did Will and Otten fell silent, staring. Though the shore breeze was strong, a repulsive stench as of rotting flesh struck Temal. He clenched his lips and stomach against the reek and forced himself onward alone.

The figure was gigantic, out of all proportion, twice the height of the Jaghut or other Elders he’d heard talk of, such as the Toblakai or Tarthinoe, and vaguely female with its long greasy tresses hanging down to its waist, its thrusting bosom, and the dark tangle of hair at its crotch. Yet its flesh was repulsive: a pale dead fish, mottled, pocked by rotting open sores. The fetor almost made Temal faint. At the thing’s side rested a large block of black stone resembling a chest or an altar.

Temal glanced out to sea, to the clear unmarred surface gleaming in the morning light, where no hint of wave-borne sea-demons remained. He glanced back to the figure. Dark Taker! Could this be she? The local goddess some settlements invoked to protect them? That many claimed offered sanctuary from the Riders?

The broad bloodless lips stretched in a knowing smile, as if the being had read his thoughts. Yet the eyes remained empty of all expression, lifeless, dull, like the staring milky orbs of the dead. Temal felt transformed. She has come! She has delivered them from certain annihilation at the lances of the sea-demons! Not knowing what to say he knelt on one knee, offering wordless obeisance. Behind him Will and Otten knelt as well.

The figure took a great sucking breath. ‘Outlander,’ it boomed, ‘you have come to settle the land. I welcome you and offer my protection.’ The Goddess gestured with a gnarled and twisted hand to the block at her feet. ‘Take this most precious sarcophagus. Within rests flesh of my flesh. Carry it along the coast. Trace a path. Mark it and build there a great wall. A barrier. Defend it that behind it you may rest protected from those enemies from the sea who seek to ravage this land. Do you accept this my gift to you and all your people?’

Distantly, Temal felt cold tears trace lines down his face. Hardly trusting himself to speak, he gasped: ‘We accept.’

The Goddess spread her ponderous arms wide. ‘So be it. What is done is done. This is our covenant. Let none undo it. I leave you to your great labour.’

Temal bowed again. The Goddess lumbered south in prodigious strides that shook the ground beneath Temal’s knees. She was gone in moments. He did not know how long he remained bowed but in time Will and Otten came to stand with him. The sun bore down hot on his back. Sighing, he straightened, dizzy.

What had he done? What could he have done? No choice. They were losing. Each year they were fewer while the enemy seemed just as strong, if not stronger. But her mere approach had driven them back.

Will found his voice first. ‘Was it a Jaghut? Or her? The Goddess?’

‘It was her. She has offered her protection.’

‘Well, she’s gone now — they’ll be back,’ Otten said, ever sceptical.

Temal gestured to the basalt coffin. ‘No. She’s still here.’

‘What is it?’ Otten asked, reaching for it.

‘No!’ Temal pushed them back. ‘Get Jhenhelf. And Redden.’

‘But you said they were to keep guard.’

‘Never mind what I said. Listen to me now. Get them both. Tell them to bring wood and rope.’

‘But what of the demons?’

‘They won’t be back. At least, not near us.’ He extended a palm to the black glittering block. Heat radiated from it as from a stone pulled from a fire. Flesh of her flesh. Good Goddess! Gracious Lady! May we never fail you or your trust.

Korelri year 4156 sw (Since the Wall)

Year 11 of the Malazan Occupation

Kingdom of Rool

Island of Fist

Karien’el, a lieutenant of the City Watch, led Bakune under the wharf to where the young woman’s body lay tangled in seaweed at the base of the jumbled rocks of the breakwater. The lieutenant, ever conscious of rank, reached up to aid the man across the slippery rocks though he himself carried more years than Bakune, newly installed Assessor of Banith.

With Bakune’s arrival at the chilly wave-pounded shore the men of the Watch straightened. A number quickly cinched tight helmets, adjusted leather jerkins and the hang of their truncheons and their badge of honour: swords — albeit shortswords — which they alone among the subject peoples of Fist were allowed to carry by the Malazan overlords. Also conscious of rank, in his own way, Bakune answered the salutes informally, hoping to set them all at ease. It still did not feel right to him that these men, many veterans of the wars of invasion, should salute him. Uncomfortable, and hugging his robes to himself for warmth, he raised a brow to the Watch lieutenant. ‘The body?’

‘Here, Assessor.’ The lieutenant led him down to the very edge of lazy swells and blackened, seaweed-skirted boulders large as wine tubs. An old man waited there, sun and wind-darkened, kneeling on scrawny haunches, tattered sandals on filthy feet, in a ragged tunic with a ragged beard to match.

‘And this one?’ Bakune asked Karien’el.

‘Brought us to the body.’

The old man knelt motionless, his face flat, carefully watchful. The body lay at his feet. Bakune crouched. Newly cast up; the smell did not yet overpower the surrounding shore stink. Naked. Crabs had gnawed extremities of hands and feet; had also taken away most of the face (or deliberate disfigurement?). Very young, slim, no doubt once attractive. A prostitute? Odd marks at the neck — strangulation. Faded henna tattoos — a common vanity.

Without looking up Bakune asked: ‘Who was she to you?’

‘No one,’ the old man croaked in thickly accented Roolian.

‘Then why the Watch?’

‘Is one anonymous dead girl not worth your attention?’

Bakune slowly raised his head to the fellow: dark features, kinky greying hair. The black eyes in return studied him with open, what others might term impertinent, intent. He lowered his head, picked up a stick to shift the girl’s arm. ‘You are a tribesman. Of the Drenn?’

‘You know your tribes. That is unusual for you invaders.’

Bakune peered up once again, his eyes narrowed. ‘Invaders? The Malazans are the invaders.’

A smile empty of any humour pulled at the edge of the old man’s lips. ‘There are invaders and then there are invaders.’

Straightening, Bakune dropped the stick and regarded the old man directly. As a trained Assessor he knew when he himself was being… examined. He crossed his arms. ‘What is your name?’

Again the patient smile. ‘In your language? Gheven.’

‘Very well, Gheven. What is your — assessment — here?’

‘I’m just an itinerant tribal, vaunted sir. What should my opinion matter?’

‘It matters to me.’

The lips hardened into a straight tight line; the eyes almost disappeared into their nests of wrinkles. ‘Does it? Really?’

For some odd reason Bakune felt himself almost faltering. ‘Well, yes. Of course. I am the Assessor. It is my duty.’

A shrug and the hardened lines eased back into the distant, flat watchfulness. ‘It’s more and more common now,’ he began, ‘but it goes far back. You all blame the Malazan troops, of course. These Malazans, they’ve been here for what, ten years now? They walk your streets, billet themselves in your houses and inns. Visit your taverns. Hire your prostitutes. Your women take up with them. Often these girls are killed for such mixing. Usually by their own fathers or brothers for smearing what they call their “honour”-’

‘That’s a damned lie, tribal scum! It’s the Malazans!’

Bakune almost jumped — he’d forgotten the Watch lieutenant. He raised a placating hand to the man who stood seething, knuckles white on the grip of his shortsword. ‘You said usually…?’

The man’s lined face had knotted in uncompromising distaste; his gnarled hands remained loose at his sides. He seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, how close he was to being struck down. Luckily for him Bakune shared his disgust, and, generally, his assessment as well. Gheven nodded his craggy head up and down, and the tightened lips unscrewed. ‘Yes. Usually. But not this time. Much of the flesh is gone but note the design high on the right shoulder.’

Bakune knelt, and, dispensing with the niceties of any stick, used his own hands to shift the body. The henna swirls were old and further faded by the bleaching of the seawater, but among the unremarkable geometric abstracts one particular symbol caught his eye… a broken circle. A sign of one of the new foreign cults outlawed by their native Korel and Fistian church of their Saviour, their Lady of Deliverance. He tried to recall which one among the bewildering numbers of all those foreign faiths, then he remembered: a minor one, the cult of the ‘Fallen God’.

‘What of it? You are not suggesting that just because of one such tattoo the Guardians of Our Lady-’

‘I am suggesting worse. Note the bruises at the throat. The cuts at the wrists. It has been a long time, has it not, Assessor, since the one who you claim protects you from the sea-demons, the Riders, has demanded her payment, yes?’

‘Drenn filth!’ Karien’el grasped the man by the neck. Iron scraped wood as his sword swung free of its scabbard.

‘Lieutenant!’ The man froze, panting his fury. ‘You forget yourself. Release him. I am assessing here.’

Slowly, reluctantly, the officer peeled his fingers free and slammed home the blade, pushing the man backwards. ‘Same old lies. Always defaming Our Lady despite her protection. She protects even you, you know. You tribals. From the sea-demons. You should stay in your mountains and woods and consider yourselves blessed.’

Gheven said nothing, but in the old man’s taut, almost rigid, mien Bakune saw a fierce unbowed pride. The dark eyes shifted their challenge to him. ‘And what is your judgement here… Assessor?’

Bakune retreated from the shoreline where stronger waves now cast up cold spray that chilled his face. He pulled a handkerchief from a sleeve to dab away the briny water. ‘Your, ah, suspicions are noted, Gheven. But I am sorry. Strong accusations require equally strong evidence and that I do not see here. Barring any further material facts the murder remains as you originally suggested — a murder or a distasteful honour killing. That is my assessment.’

‘We are finished here?’ Karien’el asked. His slitted eyes remained unwavering on the old tribesman.

‘Yes. And Lieutenant, no harm is to come to this man. He did his duty in calling our attention to an ugly crime. I will hold you personally responsible.’

The officer’s sour scowl twisted even tighter but he bowed his accord. ‘Yes, Assessor.’

Climbing back up on to the breakwater walk Bakune adjusted his robes and clenched his chilled fingers to bring life back to them. Of course he’d seen the marks encircling the neck, but some things one must not admit aloud — at least not so early in one’s career. He regarded the lieutenant who had followed, one boot on the stone ledge, ever dutiful. ‘Report to me directly the discovery of any more such bodies. Or rumoured disappearances of youths, male or female. There may be a monster among us, Karien.’

A salute of fingertips to the knurled brow of his iron helmet. ‘Aye, Assessor.’

The officer descended the slope, his boots scraping over the boulders, cloak snapping in the wind. Bakune hugged himself for warmth. The coast, Lady, how he hated it: the chill wind that smelled of the Riders, the clawing waters, the cold damp that mildewed all it touched. Yet a positive review here could lead to promotion and that posting in Paliss he hoped for… yet another good reason for discretion.

He looked for the tribesman down among the wet boulders but the man was gone. Good. He didn’t want a beating on his conscience. What an accusation! Why jump to such an assessment? True, long ago the ancient ways sanctioned such acts in the name of the greater good — but all that had been swept aside by the ascendancy of Our Saviour, the Blessed Lady. And in their histories it is plain that that man’s ancestors practised it, not ours! Thus the long antipathy between us and these swamp- and wasteland-skulking tribals with their bastardized blood.

Perhaps in truth a killing by an enraged father or brother, but without sufficient evidence who can assess? In lieu of evidence the locals will decide that this one, like all those prior, was plainly the work of their bloody-handed murderous occupiers, the Malazans.

From between tall boulders Gheven watched the two walk away. The Watch officer, Karien’el, lingered, searching for him. That did not trouble him; he intended to be moving on in any case. In the eyes of the Roolian occupiers of this land they called Fist he was officially itinerant, after all. And why not, since he was on pilgrimage — an itinerary of sacred paths to walk and sites to visit, and in walking and visiting thus reinscribing and reaffirming? A remarkable confluence of diametric attitudes aligning.

He turned to go. With each step the dreamscape of his ancient ancestral land unfolded itself around him. For the land was their Warren and they its practitioners. Something all these foreign invaders, mortal and immortal, seemed incapable of apprehending. And he too was finished here. The seeds had been sown; time would tell how strong or deep the roots may take.

If this new Assessor was true to his calling then Gheven pitied him. Truth tellers were never welcome; most especially one’s own. Better to be a storyteller — they at least have grasped the essential truth that everyone prefers lies.

Korelri year 4176 sw

Year 31 of the Malazan Occupation

Kingdom of Rool

Island of Fist

The occupant of the small lateen-rigged launch manoeuvred it through the crowded Banith harbour to tie up between an oared merchant galley out of Theft, and a rotting Jourilan cargo scow. He threw his only baggage, a cloth roll cinched tight by rope, on to the dock, then climbed up on to the mildewed blackwood slats. He straightened his squat broad form, hands at the small of his back, and stretched, grimacing.

An excise officer taking inventory on the galley pointed his baton of office. ‘You there! You can’t tie up here! This is a commercial dock. Take that toy to the public wharf.’

‘Take what?’ the man asked blandly.

The dock master opened his mouth to respond, then shut it. He’d thought the fellow old by his darkly tanned shaven head, but power clearly remained in the meaty thick neck, rounded shoulders, and gnarled, big-knuckled hands. More alarmingly, faded remnants of blue tattoos swirled across his brow, cheeks, and chin, demarking a fiercely snarling boar’s head. ‘The boat — move the boat.’

‘’Tain’t mine.’

‘Yes it is! I saw you tie it up just now!’

‘You there,’ the fellow called to an old man in rags on his hands and knees scouring the dock with a pumice stone. ‘How about a small launch? Battered but seaworthy.’

The elder stared then laughed a wet cackle, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t the coin.’

The newcomer threw a copper coin to the dock. ‘Now you do.’

The excise officer’s gaze flicked suspiciously between the two. ‘Wait a moment…’

The old man took up the coin, cocked an amused eye at the excise officer and tossed it back. The newcomer snatched it from the air. ‘Talk to this man,’ he told the officer, turning his back.

‘Hey! You can’t just-’

‘I’ll be moving my boat right away, sir!’ the old man cackled, revealing a dark pit empty of teeth. ‘Wouldn’t think of tying up here, sir!’

Walking away, the newcomer allowed his mouth to widen in a broad frog-like grin beneath his splayed, squashed nose.

He passed Banith’s harbour guardhouse, where his gaze lingered on the Malazan soldiers lounging in the shade of the porch. He took in the opened leather jerkin of one, loosened to accommodate a bulging stomach; the other dozing, chair tipped back, helmet forward over his eyes.

The newcomer’s smile faded. Ahead, the front street of Banith ran roughly east-west. The town climbed shallow coastal hills, its roofs dominated by the tall jutting spires of the Holy Cloister and the many gables of the Hospice nearby. Beyond these, rich cultivated rolling plains, land once forested, stretched into the mist-shrouded distance. The man turned right. Walking slowly, he studied the shop fronts and stalls. He passed a knot of street toughs and noted the much darker or fairer hues of mixed Malazan blood among them, so different from the uniformly swart Fistian heritage.

‘Cast us a coin, beggar priest,’ one bold youth called, the eldest.

‘All I own is yours,’ the fellow answered in his gravelly voice.

That brought many up short. Glances shot between the puzzled youths until the older tough snorted his disbelief. ‘Then hand it all over.’

The squat fellow was examining an empty shop front. ‘Easily done — since I own nothing. This building occupied?’

‘Debtors’ prison,’ answered a girl, barefoot, in tattered canvas pants and dirty tunic, boasting the frizzy hair of mixed Korel and foreign parentage. ‘Withholding taxes from the Malazan overlords.’

The man raised his thick arms to it. ‘Then I consecrate it to my God.’

‘Which of all your damned foreign gods is that?’

The man turned. A smile pulled up his uneven lips and distorted the faded boar’s head tattoo. His voice strengthened. ‘Why, since you ask… Let me tell you about my God. His domain is the downtrodden and dispossessed. The poor and the sick. To him social standing, riches and prestige are meaningless empty veils. His first message is that we are all weak. We all are flawed. We all are mortal. And that we must learn to accept this.’

‘Accept? Accept what?’

‘Our failings. For we are all of us imperfect.’

‘What is the name of this sick and perverted god?’

The priest held out his hands open and empty. ‘It is that which resides within us — each god is but one face of it.’

‘Each god? All? Even Our Lady who shields us from evil?’

‘Yes. Even she.’

Many of the gang flinched then, wincing, and they moved off as they sensed a more profound and disquieting sacrilege flowing beneath the usual irreverence of foreigners.

‘And his second message?’ a girl asked. She had stepped closer, but her eyes remained watchful on the street, and a sneer seemed fixed at her bloodless lips.

‘Anyone may achieve deliverance and grace. It is open to all. It cannot be kept from anyone like common coin.’

She pointed to her thin chest. ‘Even us? The divines of the Sainted Lady turn us away from their thresholds — even the Hospice. They spit at us as half-bloods. And the old Dark Collector demands payment for all souls regardless.’

The man’s dark eyes glittered his amusement. ‘What I speak of cannot be bought by any earthly coin. Or compelled by any earthly power.’

Perplexed, the girl allowed her friends to pull her on. But she glanced back, thoughtful, her sharp brows crimped.

Smiling to himself again, the newcomer took hold of the door’s latch and pushed with a firm steady force until wood cracked, snapping, and the door opened. He slept that night on the threshold under his thin quilted blanket.

He spent the next morning sitting in the open doorway, nodding to all who passed. Those who did not spurn his greeting skittered from him like wary colts. Shortly after dawn a Malazan patrol of six soldiers made its slow deliberate round. He watched while coins passed from shopkeepers into the hands of the patrol sergeant; how the soldiers, male and female, helped themselves to whatever they wanted from the stalls, eating bread, fruit, and skewered meat cooked over coals as they swaggered along.

Eventually they came to him and he sighed, lowering his gaze. He’d heard it was bad here in Fist — which was why he’d come — but he’d no idea it was this bad.

The patrol sergeant stopped short, his thick, dark brows knitting. ‘What in the name of Togg’s tits is a Theftian priest of Fener doing here?’

The newcomer stood. ‘Priest, yes. But no longer of Fener.’

‘Kicked out? Buggery maybe?’

‘No — you get promoted for that.’

The men and women of the patrol laughed. The sergeant scowled, his unshaven jowls folding in fat. He tucked his hands into his belt; his gaze edged slyly to his patrol. ‘Looks like we got an itinerant. You have any coin, old beggar?’

‘I do.’ The priest reached into a fold of his tattered shirt and tossed a copper sliver to the cobbled road.

‘A worthless Stygg half-penny?’ The sergeant’s fleshy mouth curled.

‘You’re right that it’s worthless. All coins are worthless. It’s just that some are worth less than others.’

The sergeant snorted. ‘A Hood-damned mystic too.’ He pulled a wooden truncheon from his belt. ‘We don’t tolerate layabouts in this town. Get a move on or I’ll give you payment of another kind.’

The priest’s wide hands twitched loosely at his sides; his frog-like mouth stretched in a straight smile. ‘Lucky for you I no longer have any use for that coin either.’

The sergeant swung. The truncheon slapped into the priest’s raised open hand. The sergeant grunted, straining. His tanned face darkened with effort. Yanking, the priest came away with the truncheon, which he then cracked across his knee, snapping it. He threw the shards to the road. The men and women of the patrol eased back a step, hands going to swords.

The sergeant raised a hand: Hold. He gave the priest a nod in acknowledgement of the demonstration. ‘You’re new, so I’ll give you this one. But from now on this is how it’s gonna work — you want to stay, you pay. Simple as that. Otherwise, it’s the gaol for you. And here’s a tip… stay in there long enough and we sell your arse to the Korelri. They’re always lookin’ for warm bodies for the wall and they don’t much care where they come from.’ He eased his head from side to side, cracking vertebrae, and offered a savage smile. ‘So, you’re a priest. We got priests too. Guess I’ll send them around. You can talk philosophy. Till then — sleep tight.’

The sergeant signalled for the patrol to move on. They left, grinning. One of the female soldiers blew a kiss.

The priest sat back down to watch them as they went, collecting yet more extortion money. The street youths, he noted, were nowhere in evidence. Damn bad. Worse than he’d imagined. It’s a good thing the old commander isn’t here to see this. Otherwise it would be the garrison itself in the gaol.

He picked up the two shards of the truncheon, hefted them. Still, mustn’t be too harsh. Occupation and subjugation of a population — intended or not — is an ugly thing. Brutalizing. Brings out the worst in both actors. Look at what he’d heard of Seven Cities. And this is looking no better.

Well, he has his God. The priest’s wide mouth split side to side. Ah yes, his God. And a browbeaten and oppressed population from which to recruit. Fertile ground. He edged his head sideways, calculating. Yes… it just might work…

First year of the rule of Emperor Mallick Rel ‘The Merciful’

(Year 1167 Burn’s Sleep)

City of Delanss, Falar Subcontinent

Sitting across from his hulking grey-haired friend, Kyle squeezed his tumbler of wine and tried to keep his worry from his face. The long, stone-hued hair that had given his friend his old nickname, Greymane, now hung more silver than pewter. And though he attacked his rice and Falaran hot peppered fish sauce with his usual gusto and appetite, Kyle could see that his strained finances must be taking their toll: new lines furrowed his mouth, dark circles shaded his eyes, and Kyle swore the man was losing weight.

They sat on a terrace overlooking an enclosed courtyard of raked sand where racks of weapons boasted swords of all makes plus daggers, pole-weapons and staves, as well as padded hauberks, helmets and shields. Everything, Kyle reflected, one might need for a fighting academy.

Except pupils.

So far, Kyle didn’t think Greymane, who now insisted on his original given name, Orjin, had attracted more than thirty paying bodies to his new school. Kyle didn’t count himself; he’d tried paying for all the lessons and sparring he’d been privileged to have from the man, but Orjin wouldn’t accept a penny. The three cousins who’d come along with him and Greymane had also tried to help, but after their version of ‘training’ broke bones and bloodied noses Orjin asked them to quit. Bored with hanging around, Stalker, Coots and Badlands had said their goodbyes and shipped out on a vessel heading west. Kyle’s guardian spirit, or haunt, seemed to have also drifted off: Stoop, the ghost of a dead Crimson Guardsman, one of the Avowed, those who swore a binding vow to oppose the Malazan Empire so long as it should endure. And that vow, which granted them so much, extended life and strength, also bound them in death, chaining them to the world. But over the months he too had faded away, returning, perhaps, to his dead brethren. Kyle had thought he saw a kind of disappointment in the haunt’s eyes when it appeared that last time to say farewell.

So over the months he’d spent his time talking up Orjin’s school at every chance. He suspected, though, that his friend wasn’t interested in what the regular burghers and farmers of the markets, inns and taverns thought of his new academy — he had his eyes on a far more elevated, and moneyed, tier of the local Delanss society.

Small chance there. Delanss, capital city of the second most populous island of the Falaran subcontinent and archipelago, boasted prestigious long-established schools: Grieg’s Academy, the School of the Curved Blade, the Black Falcon School. Academies that rivalled the famous officers’ school of Strike Island. And privately, Kyle did not believe his friend would ever manage to push his way into such a closed, tightly knit market in what seemed such a closed, tightly knit society. As far as he could see, this region’s capitulation to its Malazan invaders seemed to have amounted to no more than changing the colour of the flags atop the harbour fortress.

Greymane — Orjin — tore a piece of greasy flatbread and used it to sop up the last of his sauce; he looked as though he was about to speak, but chewed moodily instead. Kyle sipped his white rice wine, thought about asking whether any classes were scheduled for the day, decided he’d better not.

It seemed to him that all this must be especially galling since his friend had to hide his past. A past that would have officer hopefuls battering down his doors should they know of it. Unfortunately, word of his past career as an Imperial Malazan military general, a Fist, and subsequent outlaw from that same Empire, would have him a hunted man on this subcontinent as well.

A sound from below turned Kyle’s attention to the practice floor. A man had entered. He was dressed in the rounded cloth hat, thick robes and bright jewellery of just that social stratum Orjin was so keen to attract; the fellow gazed bemusedly about the empty school. Following Kyle’s gaze, Orjin peered down, then shot upright from his chair, sending it crashing backwards. ‘Yes, sir!’ he boomed. ‘May I be of service?’

The man jumped at the bellow trained to penetrate the crash of battle, squinted up, uncertain. ‘You are the master of this establishment?’ he asked in Talian, the unofficial second tongue of the archipelago.

‘Yes, sir! A moment, sir!’ Orjin wiped his mouth, disentangled himself from his fallen chair and headed for the stairs. Crossing the practice floor, he bowed. ‘How may I help you, sir?’

Kyle finished his wine and followed. He stopped at the base of the stairs, leaned against the banister of unfinished wood. The fellow wore the full fashion of the local aristocracy: multiple rings at his fingers, thick silver chains round his neck over fur-trimmed robes with fur cuffs. His hat consisted of wrapped dark burgundy cloth set with semi-precious stones. His goatee was finely trimmed, and while looking Orjin up and down he stroked it, showing off the large gems in his rings. ‘What are your credentials?’

Orjin bowed again. He looked what Kyle hoped was properly severe and professional in his tanned leathers. ‘I served in the Malazan Fourth Army, sir, and attained the rank of captain before injury at the Battle of the Plains.’

The man’s brows rose. ‘Truly? Then you were there when the Empress fell?’

‘Yes, sir. Though I did not witness it.’

‘Few did, I understand. What, then, is your impression of this new Emperor, Mallick Rel?’

Orjin glanced back to Kyle, cleared his throat. ‘Well, sir, I’m not a politician. But I was glad that he did not prosecute the officers who had rebelled against the Empress.’

The man’s calculating gaze seemed to say, Because you were among them? ‘He’s Falari, you know.’

‘No, sir. I did not know that.’

‘Yes. And I will tell you this — there were many of us here who were not in the least bit surprised at the news of his, ah, advancement.’

‘Is that so, sir.’

The man shrugged uneasily beneath his layered furred robes. ‘Anyway… Your rates?’

‘A half-silver per hour for individual instruction.’

The man’s mouth drew down. ‘That is much more than I was expecting.’

‘Ah, but…’ The big man motioned to Kyle. ‘I can also offer instruction from my compatriot here, who was of the famed mercenary company, the Crimson Guard.’

The nobleman eyed Kyle thinly. ‘And now employs those skills breaking arms.’

Orjin actually winced. ‘Yes, well. You can always withdraw should you not judge the instruction beneficial.’

‘It is not for myself. It is for my son.’

‘I see. His age?’

‘Still a boy, really… but rowdy. Undisciplined.’ He tilted his head as he stroked his goatee. ‘But you look as if you might be able to handle him.’ He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes. Thank you. Until then.’ He bowed.

Orjin answered the bow. ‘I look forward to it.’

The man left. Kyle ambled across the floor to Orjin’s side. ‘Think we’ll see him again?’

‘Could be.’

‘He didn’t even ask to see your papers.’

‘Perhaps he knows how easily all that bullshit can be forged.’

‘Maybe.’ Kyle eyed his friend sidelong. ‘A half-silver per hour? Pretty steep. I couldn’t afford you.’

The man smiled wolfishly and his glacial blue eyes glittered with humour. For a moment he had the appearance of his old self. ‘He looked as if he could spare it.’

Kyle laughed. ‘Aye. Tomorrow, then.’

‘Yes — sword and shield work.’

Backing away, Kyle waved the suggestion aside. ‘Gods, no. There’s no skill in that.’

‘No skill! There’s ignorance speaking. Do you in, that ignorance might one day.’

‘Not before I knife it.’

‘Knife? Useless against anyone in a shred of armour.’

Kyle paused. ‘I’ll-’ A knock sounded just as he was reaching for the doors. Frowning, he opened one of the wide leaves. Three men, plainly dressed, bearing expensive Falaran-style longswords and daggers, the blades straight and slim. Three more! Must be Greymane’s — Orjin’s — banner day. He nodded to one. ‘Morning.’

This one, a young swell in a broad-brimmed green felt hat, looked him up and down and made no effort to disguise his lack of approval. ‘You are this new weapon-master?’

‘No.’ Kyle motioned up the tunnel. ‘He’s it.’ He stood aside. The three men entered, leaving the door ajar. The indifferent condescension of that act — as if the three were used to others opening and shutting doors for them — moved Kyle to stroll along behind them, curious.

He stopped in the mouth of the tunnel that led to the court. The three had met Orjin at a weapon rack. ‘You are this new weapon-master, Orjin Samarr?’ their spokesman asked in a tone that was almost accusatory.

Orjin turned, blinking mildly. His eyes glinted bright like sapphires in the shade. ‘Aye? May I help you? You would like a lesson, perhaps?’

The three exchanged glances, their mouths twisting up, amused. ‘Yes,’ the fellow in the green hat began, backing off and setting a gloved hand on his sword. ‘You can help us settle a wager my friends and I have made…’ The other two stepped aside to Orjin’s right and left. Kyle pushed himself from the wall, edged closer to a weapon rack. ‘… as to whether any foreigner could possibly provide fighting instruction in any way approximating that quality with which Delanss has been so blessed.’

Orjin nodded his understanding. He drew a bound stave from the weapon rack, sighted down its length. ‘I see. Well, normally I charge a half-silver for lessons. But perhaps the three of you would like to go in together on a group rate-’

They drew, snarling. Orjin sprang upon the one on his right, the stave smacking the man’s right hand, and he yelped, tucking it under an arm. Orjin spun to face the other two. Kyle drew a wooden baton from the weapon rack, tossed it end over end while he watched.

Using a two-handed grip, Orjin parried, the stave blurring, knocking the slim double-edged blades aside. The fellow in the felt hat furiously threw it aside and drew his parrying dagger. The clack of the stave against the blades echoed in the court. Kyle listened for the telltale catch of iron biting wood, but so far Orjin had managed to avoid that particular danger. The man’s face was reddening and Kyle stopped tossing the baton.

Too early; far too early for any exertion to be showing. ‘They’re using knives,’ he observed conversationally.

Orjin shot him a glare, his cheeks puffing. The three danced around him while he shifted slowly, knees bent, stave cocked. ‘Now, normally,’ he began, ‘none of you would have occasion to meet an opponent using a two-handed weapon…’ One lunged in, and Orjin’s stave smacked his face, sending him tottering aside. Orjin returned his guard on the remaining two. ‘Normally, it is too slow and awkward to move from side to side across the body. A nimble opponent should-’ The same one charged, slashing. Orjin’s stave parried, dipped, and came up into the fellow’s groin. The man fell like a string-cut puppet. Kyle winced in empathetic pain.

Sweat now sheathing his face, Orjin faced their spokesman, who smiled, acknowledging the lesson, and immediately attacked. Parrying, Orjin dipped his head, shouting his encouragement. ‘Yes, yes! That’s right — draw the point aside, prepare the gauche for the hidden thrust!’

A warning shout from Kyle died in his throat as the hand-slapped fellow re-entered the fray to grip Orjin from behind. Kyle was amazed by the foolhardiness of the move; the bhederin-like Orjin was half again as broad as any man he’d ever met.

Shrugging, Orjin wrenched an arm around to get the man in a headlock and threw him over his shoulder stomach up like a sack of grain. Stave in one hand, he faced the spokesman. ‘Now you have the advantage — a one-handed opponent!’

The spokesman did not hesitate. His booted feet shushed and thumped the sand as he dodged, feinting, circling the ponderously shifting Orjin. Kyle kicked himself from the wall. Shit! He’s really gonna try it! The longsword scraped up the shaft of the stave, holding it aside, and he stepped in the gauche, thrusting, but Orjin spun, the blade sawing shallowly across his side as the legs and boots of the man across his shoulder smashed into his assistant, sending him flying aside. Orjin tossed the man on to his sprawled fellow and stood panting. He touched his side gingerly and flinched. ‘The lesson is…’ he drew a heavy breath, ‘that you all should’ve attacked at once, regardless.’

Kyle watched the big man’s chest rising and falling. Out of breath already? Not good. No, not good at all. He replaced the baton.

As the spokesman struggled to rise Orjin put a booted foot to his backside and sent him tumbling to the tunnel. ‘I’d charge you. But I suspect you’re all incapable of learning anything.’

Gathering up their fallen weapons, they backed off to the exit. Kyle bowed as they passed. ‘Honoured sirs!’ They merely glared and mouthed curses. Kyle ambled out to Orjin, who was cleaning up. ‘Winded already…’

The man shot him a glare. ‘Been a while.’ He found a rag, wiped his jowls.

‘A little dust-up like that shouldn’t-’

‘Drop it.’

Kyle’s brows rose. Short-tempered too. ‘So I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon then for that sword and shield work. What do you say? Full armour too?’

Orjin made a face. ‘Very funny. Now get out of here. I have to get cleaned up.’

Kyle saluted and backed away.

But he’d been serious.

*

In a shaded narrow alleyway a few streets down, the young tough, his green felt hat in one hand, dabbed a silk handkerchief to his bleeding nose and mouth and faced the richly dressed Delanss noble in his furred robes and thick silver chains. With a ringed hand the noble edged the young man’s head aside to examine one cheek, tsked beneath his breath. ‘So he did manage to handle you…’

‘Father!’

‘So, what do you think? Is he the one?’

‘He must be. He lifted Donas like a child.’

‘Very well. I’ll send word. Until then, hire men to keep an eye on the school.’

The young man bowed.

‘And no retribution! No crossbows in the night, or knives in the market. They want him alive.’

The young man rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, father.’

The noble stroked his grey-shot goatee, studied the young man. ‘I must say I am impressed by the man’s control. He put you down without breaking any bones at all. He showed great restraint in the face of almost intolerable insult.’

‘Father!’

First year of the rule of Emperor Mallick Rel ‘The Merciful’

(Year 1167 Burn’s Sleep)

Stratem Subcontinent

At dawn, Kuhn Eshen, called Kuhn ‘The Nose’, master of Rich Tidings, a Katakan freetrader, dropped anchor offshore from the town of Thickton and spent an anxious morning waiting to see whether the stories of the lands of Stratem being open once more to the outside world were true.

As the hours passed the usual small boats made their way out, offering fresh fruit, bread, fish and pigs. Boys and girls swam the cold waters, offering to lead the crew to boarding houses or brothels, or to act as general guides about town. All good signs of a growing openness to trade. By noon the larger open launches were oaring out, bearing merchant agents. These men and women Kuhn greeted. He offered a taste of the Styggian liqueur he’d brought, and showed bolts of Jass broadcloth. They listened with barely concealed eagerness to his talk of Korel; news only a few weeks old rather than the two or three months it usually took for any word to reach this stretch of the isolated Sea of Chimes.

One woman among them, however, mystified Kuhn and he kept a wary eye on her. She stood leaning self-contained against the side. Dressed in dark leathers, with a sword belted at her side, her long auburn hair pulled back and fixed with a bright green tortoiseshell clip, she almost looked to be a military officer of some sort. She took no interest in his wares; instead she watched his crew as they in turn eyed the thickly treed shore. Some few garbled stories had reached Korel lands concerning events on their southern neighbour. Word of a band of hireswords carving out a private kingdom. But all that had been long ago. Still, he wondered: could she be one of them?

After expressing an interest in board feet of the local hardwoods, in tanned hides, and furs, Kuhn spent a time doling out news of Korel lands. The crowded circle of locals hung on every scrap — true or not. He was talking of the Stormwall when his audience went silent and all eyes edged aside, glancing past him. He turned.

The woman in dark leathers had come up behind him. She was watching him expectantly, her sharp chin raised. ‘I’m sorry…?’ he stammered.

‘I said what was that… what you were just talking of.’

‘Just the latest news from the Stormwall, honoured lady. And you are…?’

‘I represent the governor of this province — Haven Province, of Stratem.’

‘Truly? A governor?’ Kuhn looked to a nearby agent who was nodding seriously, his thick neck bulging. Intriguing. This news could be worth much in certain ports of Korel. ‘And this governor — does he have a name?’ Closer now, he saw that she wore a single piece of jewellery high on the left of her chest — what looked like a dragon or snake wrought in silver.

The woman’s thin lips edged sideways in an almost cruel knowing smile. ‘You first.’

Ah. Going to be that way, is it? Kuhn shrugged, and rested his forearms on the ship’s gunwale. ‘Certainly, m’lady. My news is always free. It’s half the reason we traders are welcome wherever we go. I was just speaking of the Stormwall. The ranks of the Chosen have thinned, you know. But this last season a new champion has arisen on the wall. The Korelri are full of his exploits. They call him Bars — odd name, that.’

The woman’s reaction made Kuhn flinch. She fairly paled; a hand rose as if to shake him by the throat but to his relief merely clutched air. ‘Bars,’ she hissed aloud in an almost awed whisper. She threw herself over the side, slipping down the rope ladder by her hands alone. Landing jarringly in a launch, she immediately ordered it away. She even lent a hand at an oar herself and it was all the rest of the burly crew could do to keep up. All this Kuhn watched bemusedly, scratching his scalp. ‘Who in the name of the Blessed Lady was that?’

‘That was Janeth, warder of the town.’

‘Warder? What does that mean? Is she your ruler?’

A shake of the head. ‘No, gentle sir. We have a council. She enforces the laws. Her men guard the coast. Arrest thieves and killers — not that we’ve had a killin’ here in some time.’ The agent warmed to his subject, crossed his arms on the gunwale. ‘Last season raiders from your neighbour Mare came through. They show up from time to time. She and her men drove them off.’

Kuhn eyed the retreating launch. Drove off Mare raiders? Her and how many men? So, law enforcement and protection. Agent of this self-styled governor. A king by any other name? News indeed for the Korelan Council of the Chosen concerning their once sleepy southern neighbour. ‘And this provincial governor. He has a name?’

An easy shrug beneath bunched hides. ‘I heard him called “Blues” once. We just call him the Lord Governor. He’s living in an old fort called Haven. Hasn’t been around lately. Not that I’d know him to see him.’

Enough for now. Smiling easily, Kuhn slapped the agent on the arm. ‘Well, thank you. See you this evening?’

‘Oh, yes. Esta’s house. She runs a clean place. Best ever. You’ll see.’

Best ever? My friend, I very much doubt that this muddy backwater could offer any attractions rivalling those of infamous Danig of Theft, or legendary Ebon of Stygg.

BOOK I

THE SEA

The so-called Malazan ‘empire’ began as a thalassocracy. That is, rule by sea power. In the undignified scholarly scramble to identify and distil the empire’s early stages this truly defining characteristic is usually overlooked. Yet the Malazan expansion was undeniably one of sea power and this was the key to its early successes. It was also the key to one of its early failures: the ill-conceived incursion into the archipelago and subcontinent known variously as Fist, Korel, or the Storm-cursed. For this archipelago was itself a supreme sea power, if non-expansionist. And in the end of course it was the sea that so definitively, and with such finality, put an end to all hostilities.

Imperial Campaigns (The Korel Occupations) Volume II, Fist Imrygyn Tallobant

CHAPTER I

What is an old man but a pile of fading leaves?

Wisdom of the Ancients

Kreshen Reel, compiler

Year 33 of the Malazan Occupation

Korelri year 4178 sw

North of Elri, Korel Isle

The desk of the Lord Protector of the Stormwall is constructed of planks taken from the wreck of a Mare war galley that the Stormriders, the enemy, had captured and used in an attempt to ram the wall. It had been one of their most successful stratagems of the recent century. Over thirty of the Chosen gave up their lives in holy martyrdom to stem that breach. The Lord Protector of the time, one of the few non-Korelri ever to have attained that august office, ordered the desk built to serve as a reminder to all his successors that while the Stormriders had for centuries thrown themselves against the wall in so far predictable, even repetitive tactics, one must never become complacent regarding them.

Lord Protector Hiam, the current holder of the highest office of the subcontinent of Korel, latest in an unbroken line reaching back to the first holder of the title, the legendary Founder, Temal-Esh, ran a hand over the smooth warm surface of this desk, thinking about its all too salient message from the past. During the height of the Riders’ assaults frost limned its corners as if it carried still within it the memory of its subverted purpose. That had been one of the most perilous moments for the Stormwall, yet at least it was a threat from without. And that was a peril Hiam would gladly exchange for the one facing them now.

Glancing up, he saw his aide, Staff Marshal Shool, patiently waiting through his woolgathering. He cleared his throat. ‘So, Shool, more falling recruitment estimates.’

Helm in the crook of one arm, dark azure cloak folded up over the other, Shool bowed and sat. He set his plain helm down. ‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

‘With retirements, casualties, and the usual attrition — where does that put us for the coming fall?’

‘Even shorter than last year.’

And that year shorter than the one before. An undeniable trend that spoke of ultimate unavoidable disaster to anyone inclined to trace that particular trajectory into the future — but Hiam was not one so inclined. The Lady, their Preserver, would save them as she always had. He knew that common opinion blamed the thinning numbers on these invaders, the Malazans. A belief he did nothing to discourage precisely because he knew the trend reached back far before their arrival.

He crossed to the slit window overlooking the central and strongest sweeping curtain length of the leagues-long Stormwall. The glittering surface of the Ocean of Storm lay iron-grey and summer-calm. How many times had he stood here and wondered what that surface disguised? Were the enemy now likewise regarding them? Or did they withdraw between raids to some unimaginable depth or cavern to sleep away the intervening months? None knew, though poets and jongleurs speculated in endless romantic ballads and epics.

With the Lady’s aid may he yet wipe these Riders from the face of the earth.

He turned from the narrow slit in the arm-thick stone wall. ‘More provincial levies, Shool. Press them hard. Remind Jasston and Stygg of their obligations.’

Shool picked up his helmet and turned it in his hands. He seemed to study the blue-dyed leather wrapping and the silver chasing of the Chosen Stormguard. ‘You are expecting an offensive from the Malazans with this new Emperor?’

‘I am expecting an offensive, Shool,’ Hiam said levelly, ‘but not from the Malazans.’

The helmet froze. Shool dropped his head in acquiescence. ‘My apologies, Lord Protector.’

From a hook next to the window Hiam lifted the heavy layered wool cloak he wore year round, both in the dire biting wind of winter and in the simmering heat of summer. ‘Shall we?’

Shool stood hastily, bowing. ‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

They exited the main donjon to step out on to the wide, windswept main marshalling surface of the wall, fifty paces wide. Seaward rose a thinner wall, lined by staircases of stone and topped by a walkway and parapets — the outer machicolations. The grey granite blocks of the wall’s construction glittered dark from a recent rain and pools reflected the overcast sky.

Distraction, Hiam told himself. These Malazans. Nothing more than a distraction from their true calling — their God-given purpose. Never mind that too many seemed unduly impressed by that Empire’s accomplishments elsewhere. But they were no fleabitten barbarians gawping at the mysteries of ordered infantry, nor decadent city-dwellerss to be intimidated or bought; they were the Stormguard, the Chosen, defenders of all the lands from its greatest enemy.

They would not be overborne. They could not.

A Chosen met them just outside the doorway. He stood wrapped in the thick dark-blue cloak that was their unofficial uniform, crested helmet on his head and wide leaf-bladed spear held tall. Wall Marshal and Quartermaster, Quint of Theft. He bowed to Hiam and his dark, scarred features twisted in what the Lord Protector knew passed as the man’s smile; he inclined his head in acknowledgement.

As they made their inspection tour, Hiam could not help noting troubling details even as he passed them over without comment: cracked steps in ill-repair; torn baskets that ought to be replaced; thin frayed rope past its best years; the tattered edges of Quint’s cloak and his cracked sandals. Lack of maintenance, lack of equipment. All problems adequate funds could solve. But what monies the Stormguard did pull in through tribute, taxation and levies it poured entirely into acquiring warm bodies to man the wall — in any manner it could.

And that flow of tribute and taxation was diminishing. Particularly now with the presence of the invaders, the Malazans, emboldening resentful neighbours such as Stygg and Jasston to neglect their ages-old treaties and agreements.

‘How go repairs, Marshal?’ Hiam asked.

Quint’s scarred face — the gift of a Rider’s jagged blade — twisted down even further. Beneath his cloak he shifted his arms, cradling the spear haft. ‘Slow as fastidious whores in a brothel, these labourers.’

Hiam could not keep an answering wry smile from his lips. The man had the reputation of being most ferocious Stormguard on the wall. Together they went all the way back to induction, though Quint preceded him. ‘They aren’t volunteers, like the old days.’ Unlike us.

An answering grunt was all the marshal would allow — an informality none other would dare before the Lord Protector. ‘If they worked a fraction as hard as they complained we’d have every job done by now. You should hear them, Hiam. How they give enough in the winter without having to provide work gangs in the summer. Yet not one man of them has ever stood the wall. We rely more on foreign levies now than on true Korelri. It’s a damned disgrace is what it is. It wouldn’t surprise me…’ His voice trailed away, then he gave a harsh laugh. ‘Well, their song always changes when the snow flies, hey, Hiam?’

Hiam had glanced up to see Quint’s gaze on Shool’s shocked face. Yes, old friend, we aren’t alone. Going to say you wouldn’t be surprised if Our Lady turned her face from us for our sins, hey? We’re now the old dogs grumbling about how standards have fallen, just as did our instructors and superiors before us.

Stopping, Hiam nodded to Shool. ‘That’s all. I’ll look at the inventories later.’

Shool bowed. ‘My lord.’

Quint watched him go. ‘Too soon from the tit, that one,’ he growled.

‘He did his season.’ Quint grunted, unimpressed. ‘So, give it to me straight, Quartermaster. Not your usual sweet-talk.’

‘’Sa bloody cock-up, is what it is. We’re behind schedule everywhere. There’s a crack in the facing east of Vor you could shove a man through. But,’ and he bared yellowed uneven teeth, ‘I could say the same thing about a woman I knew from Jourilan.’

‘Master Stimins?’

Quint let go a snort of exasperation. ‘Let me tell you about Master Engineer Stimins. Last week he drags me down the wall behind the fifth tower north of Storm, and he points to a little course of sand in the rocks. The man’s pulling his hair out over some tiny dried-up rivulet while I’m trying to find enough masons to fill gaps!’

‘He’s worried about the foundations.’

‘Foundation my arse. The wall’s as heavy as a mountain. It can’t fall down. Anyway, it’s just a place to stand — it’s the men and women defending it who count. And we need more of them.’

‘Lady bless that, Quint. So, what about the latest crop? How are they shaping up?’

‘As useful as eunuchs and seamstresses. But we’ll knock them into line. The usual prison scrapings from Katakan and Theft aren’t worth the food we buy to feed them. The Dourkan and Jourilan contingents are pretty solid, as ever. Mare has sent a shipload of Malazan prisoners. We even have some debtors from Rool — the Malazans continue to allow it, apparently.’

‘They get their cut, I’m sure. Speaking of them, how’s the current champion?’

The quartermaster shook a sour negative. ‘We can’t count on another season out of him. He has the death wish. I’ve seen it before.’

‘Too bad. He accomplished some amazing feats.’

‘True. ’Cept he laughs like a lunatic every time we call him Malazan.’

Nodding to himself, Hiam listened to the wind carrying the distant metallic clinks of mallets on stone, the calls of foremen, and the low heartbeat of the quickening autumn surf. His arms were sweaty beneath the sweltering cloak. ‘Very good, Quartermaster. I won’t keep you from your duties any longer.’

Quint tilted his head suspiciously. ‘Where’re you off to?’

‘To find our good Master Engineer.’

‘Ha! You’ll likely find him on his hands and knees, sniffing around our foundations like a dog, no doubt.’

‘Carry on, Wall Marshal — and stay out of Stimins’ way.’

‘With pleasure.’

It was not until late that afternoon that the Lord Protector finally tracked down Master Engineer Stimins. And — true to Quint’s prediction — the man was sniffing around the base of the wall. By that time Hiam had picked up an escort: two veterans, Stall of Korel and solid Evessa out of Jourilan, whom many suspected of carrying more than a drop of the old blood. They’d arrived care of Quint, whose message was that it was unseemly for the Lord Protector to be wandering about without guards. Hiam did not bother pointing out that it was just as unseemly for Quint to allow the Master Engineer to do so.

He heard Stimins long before he found him, among the huge tumbled boulders of the slope that graded back from the wall’s rear. ‘You’re a pretty one,’ he heard the old fellow coo, and he didn’t have to wonder what the man was addressing. ‘Very nice, very nice.’ Stumbling along with him, their spears clattering, Stall and Evessa shared a glance and rolled their eyes.

Hiam wondered if he was stalking a parrot.

Eventually, circling round a tall boulder, he found the man hunched down on all fours like a pale spider investigating a crevice for food. ‘Master Engineer…’ Hiam began.

The man jumped, and glared about myopically beneath bushy white brows. ‘Who’s that? Who?’

‘It’s Hiam, Stimins.’

‘Oh, young Hiam. What in the Lady’s name are you doing down here?’

‘Looking for you,’ Hiam observed tartly.

‘Ah! Well, whatever for?’

Hiam crooked his head to motion away his escort. Bowing, they moved off to lean back amongst the tumbled boulders, arms crossed over the hafts of their spears. ‘Your report.’

The engineer was fiddling with small rocks in the palm of one hand, turning them round and round. ‘Report? What report?’

The Lord Protector slapped a hand to the hot gritty side of a boulder. Dried bird guano streaked the stone white and patches of lichen grew green and orange. ‘Your report on the state of the wall!’

‘Ah. That report. Well, it’s not conclusive yet. I need to study things further.’

‘That’s what you said last year, and the year before that.’

The snowy brows rose over pale, watery blue eyes. ‘I did? Well, there you go.’

‘With all due respect, Master Engineer. We no longer have the time for the luxury of conclusiveness… Your current assessment will have to do.’

Stimins sniffed his disapproval. ‘That’s the trouble with you younger generations — no patience to do the job right. Things are off to the Abyss in a broken wagon, they are.’

Hiam crossed his arms, and his cloak fell open to reveal the broad scarred forearms, the dire gouges and deep scrapes in the bronze and leather vambraces. The Master Engineer extended his bony hand, clenched, knuckles knotted in joint-ache. Hiam held his own out, open. Two small stones fell into his palm.

‘My report,’ Stimins said.

Mystified, Hiam studied the two stones. Taking one in each hand he found that they fitted together exactly: two halves of the same piece. ‘What’s this? A broken rock?’

‘Shattered cleanly in half, Lord Protector. By the corroding cold itself.’

Now Hiam regarded his Master Engineer. ‘The cold? How could it do such a thing?’

Stimins raised his hands for patience. ‘Let me correct myself. By frost. By moisture, freezing suddenly. Explosively.’

Hiam thought of casks of water left out during the worst of the assaults, how some exploded at the touch of the Riders’ sorceries. ‘I see… I think.’

‘All up and down the wall,’ Stimins continued, his voice becoming dreamy, ‘freezing, thawing, year after year. But not the mild slow advance of nature, mind you. The forced unnatural fist of the Riders slamming winter after winter. Pounding the wall to slivers.’

‘How-’ Hiam coughed to clear his throat. ‘How long do we have?’

The old man, his face still unfocused, shrugged his maddening disregard. ‘Who is to say? Another one hundred years — or one.’

Struggling to contain himself, Hiam threw the stones to clatter among the boulders. ‘Thank you for your report, Master Engineer.’ Though it be utterly useless to our current crisis. ‘And I remind you that such information is to be shared only between you and me.’

The old man blinked his confusion, his brows crimping. ‘But of course, Lord Protector.’

‘Very good. Carry on.’ The Lord Protector left his Master Engineer scratching his thin hair and frowning among the rocks.

His escort, Stall and Evessa, straightened from where they leaned among the menhir-sized boulders. Stall tossed away a handful of pebbles. ‘Odd noises among these stones, hey, Evessa?’

‘The strangest echoes, Stall.’

Ivanr hacked his farm out of the unsettled far south of Jourilan, hard up against the foothills of the immense mountain chain some named the Iceback range. Wanderers and religious refugees fleeing south from the cities often passed his field. Many claimed that the Priestess was nearby but still Ivanr was surprised when she appeared one day. Her voice startled him as he was bent over weeding his garden and he straightened, blinked the sweat from his eyes.

‘Ivanr,’ she said, ‘what is it you fear about me?’

He studied the slip of a girl-woman in her dirty rags before him. A foreigner come to convert an entire land. He saw a face lined and drawn by a suffering no youth should be asked to endure; limbs emaciated, almost warped by the tasks that had been exacted from them. And yet the undeniable aura of power hovered about her, warning off any who would consider a challenge. Shrugging, he returned to his weeding.

‘Priestess, I do not fear you.’

‘Yet you resolutely avoid me.’

He gestured broadly to his field. ‘I have work to do.’

Dry leaves shushed as she closed. Her bare feet were dirty, her robes no more than mud-smeared tatters. ‘As do I. Could it be, Ivanr, that you fear I may have other work for you?’

‘You have plenty of others to choose from.’

‘Yet here I am speaking to you.’

He straightened, towering over her, and she raised her chin to meet his gaze. Her tangled black hair blew about her face like a cowl. He had to flinch from the depths of those compelling eyes. ‘Well, you’re wasting your time.’

‘You presume to know what I am doing? They mock you, you know. Call you farmer. Dirt-grubber. Coward.’

‘And I grow things called tomatoes, beans, marrow.’ That raised a brief haunted smile. ‘You do not need me. I’m told you have many of the aristocrats. The pure-blooded ruling families.’

‘True. Sons and daughters of the highest Jourilan names have marched up to my modest fig tree. “Teach me,” they demand. “Instruct me in this new way we hear of.” Already perhaps they are too far down the wrong path. But I cannot show them that — only you can.’

He studied his dirt-smeared hands; cut and bloodied, calloused, nails broken. Just as during all those years of training and duelling. ‘They won’t listen to me. I’m… of the wrong background.’

‘Ah yes. That taint so shameful to the Jourilan. Mixed blood. Do you know the name of your ancestors, Ivanr?’

He shrugged, his gaze hooded. ‘My mother said her people were of the Red-Rock tribe of the Thoul-Alai. That is all I know.’

The Priestess’s voice hardened in sudden outrage. ‘Your people were of the Toblakai, Ivanr! Blessed of the children of the Great Mother! Some of you survive, isolated, in pockets here and there, despite the best efforts of all those who have stolen your lands.’

‘Stolen? Strong language for an outlander.’

Now the Priestess hugged her angular frame, the lines at her mouth deepened in shadow. ‘It is a story not unfamiliar to me.’

Ivanr stared wonderingly. So, a vulnerable side. An opening up. Careful. Seduction bears many faces. ‘Immaterial. What’s done is done. Nothing can bring back the past.’

‘I would never seek that.’ Her words were softer now, her tone closer to that of her true tender age. He felt the wounds that she carried and something within him ached to hold her, to soothe that pain.

Dangerous indeed.

‘The question is how to proceed into the future. You, Ivanr, the warrior champion who defied the call to the Stormwall. I have heard many rumours as to why. But I have my own theory…’

His gaze found a flight of crows crossing over the face of the distant Jourilan central plateau. Smoke obscured the north horizon; he shielded his eyes, squinting. Burning already — damned early. ‘It was cowardice — leave it at that.’

‘No. It would be cowardice to leave it at that.’

He let his hand fall. She eyed him levelly, almost coolly, and he felt himself shrinking under that steady gaze. Such suffering scoured into that lined hatchet face that should be unmarred! And a haunting glow as well- the lingering hint of the revelation everyone whispers of? Who is he to dare dispute this one’s choices? But surely he must be unworthy! How could he, who once gloried in conflict, possibly serve Dessembrae, the Lord of Tragedy, or any of these foreign gods?

‘I couldn’t. I’m not-’

‘Not worthy? Not pure enough? Not dedicated enough? Not… certain? None of us is. And none who is certain interests the Lord of Tragedy. Those minds are closed. He requires the mind be open.’ She now seemed to eye him sidelong, almost mockingly. ‘It was your open mind that led you to your conclusion, to that intuitive flash that so changed you, yes?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘You saw instinctively, on your own, the uselessness of it all.’

Gods, this woman was dangerous! How could she know? And yet — wasn’t this the essence of her sermonizing, her own message? He ran a hand across his slick forehead and said, his voice hoarse, ‘Dangerous talk, Priestess. Talk that can get a man, or a woman, put to death.’

‘So you are afraid…’

He offered a half-smile. ‘Of the Jourilan Emperor’s torture pits, yes.’

‘They aren’t the enemy. The enemy is ignorance and hate. Aren’t these worth opposing?’

Pure idealism. Ye gods, where does one begin with such a one? His gaze found the peppers ripening at his feet. ‘Priestess,’ he began, slowly, ‘you don’t really think you’re the first, do you?’ He waved to encompass the fields. ‘The Lady Our Saviour has kept a tight watch on her garden all these generations. She weeds thoroughly. And ruthlessly. No unwelcome invader has been allowed to take hold. I’ve seen it before.’

The Priestess raised her gaze, and perhaps it was day’s late argent light, or a reflection of some kind, but the eyes flared as if molten.

‘Have you not wondered,’ she asked in a low voice, ‘why you must constantly weed in the first place?’

He cocked his head, uncertain of her tack.

‘It is because the weeds are far hardier than the crop you’re trying to raise.’

Ivanr found that he’d flinched away. He paced the field, stepping between the plants. Damn you, woman! How dare you plague me with such outrageous demands! Haven’t I done enough? But perhaps walking away wasn’t enough. Perhaps walking away was never enough. He stopped his pacing. Turning to her, he could only offer his mute denial.

She approached gently, as if afraid he would flee, and proffered a hand. ‘Take this. And come to my fig tree. Sit at my side. Listen to the message that has come to me. I believe you are already far down the path.’

When he would not raise his own hand she took it and pressed an object into it. Her hand was a fraction the size of his, yet far harder. As sharp and unyielding as stone slivers. She walked away, the long tatters of her robes dragged behind through the stalks. Ivanr opened his hand. A square-cut iron nail like a sword in miniature, with a lace of leather drawn through the small loop that was the grip and pommel. The symbol of the cult of Dessembrae.

Word of the heresy of polytheism had come north down the mountain foothills only a few years ago. It had been twice that time since Ivanr had refused the Call and thrown down his swords in the dust of the training grounds at Abor. They’d imprisoned him, beaten him almost to his death, cursed him as half-breed Thel scum — not that his background had mattered while his sword served. But they would not kill him; not great Ivanr whom they had lauded as the greatest Jourilan champion in living memory.

And so it was that he had found himself blinking in the unfamiliar bright sunlight with only the rags about his loins to his name. The guards who had prodded him from the wagon threw a skin of water at his feet and told him that if he returned to the city he’d be killed out of hand. The wounds on his lashed back split open as he knelt to pick up the water.

He had walked south. At first he thought he’d simply keep walking until his feet brought him to the vast glacier wilderness held in abeyance by the Iceback range. Where he would no doubt have perished. But when he reached the foothills he came across many more of his kind, clustered in small family camps around smoking firepits, digging the earth beside the road. Some purebred, some mixed — remnants, those bearing the mark of the prior inhabitants of the land. Some markedly tall, like himself, others broad and low to the ground. The Thoul-Alai, or variously ‘Thel’ or ‘Thoul’, as the invaders had parsed. And so he decided that here was perhaps where he belonged. He selected a section of a hardscrabble unfavourable hillside, and planted.

The local ranchers who raised a breed of cattle called Baranal thought him mad and regularly ran their beasts through his field. His fellow Thel also thought him touched; none of them farmed. But it seemed to him that a society reliant on a way of life no longer viable, namely hunting and gathering, really ought to adapt. He judged farming a reasonable substitution.

Then word came of this new cult. Blasphemous! They deny the Goddess! They speak against the Stormwall! This priestess who led them was a witch who enslaved men with sex. They held orgies at which babies were murdered and eaten.

It seemed strange to him that everyone should be so ready to believe that a cult that preached nonviolence should also be murdering babies. But from what he’d seen in life there was much insanity surrounding religion.

Then the first of the prisoner gangs came shuffling along the road that ran through the valley beneath his hillside. A corpse suspended from a gibbet swung at the head of the column. After working the day with his back pointedly turned to the valley, Ivanr finally threw aside his digging tools and walked down to where the Jourilan captors had staked the chain gang. An officer of the detachment came out to meet him, flanked by troopers.

‘These are the heretics?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’ The officer watched him narrowly; Ivanr saw many of his brother and sister Thel among the shackled prisoners. None raised their heads.

‘They are for Abor?’

‘Yes.’

‘Execution?’

‘Yes.’

‘The usual? Stoning? Crushing? Public garrotting and impalement? Or just plain crucifixion? Violent ends for people who swear to nonviolence.’

The Jourilan officer’s gaze hardened even further. ‘Is that an objection?’

‘Just an observation.’

The officer motioned him off. ‘Then observe from far away.’

A month later Ivanr was sitting in front of his sod-roofed hut sharpening his tools when a file of dusty beggars approached. An old man led them, of pure Jourilan invader stock, haggard and unwashed, but holding his head high and walking with a firm stride, planting a walking staff strongly before him. He stopped his band of followers a discreet distance off then stepped up and leaned on the staff.

‘Spare a drink of water for those who thirst, stranger?’

Ivanr set down his sharpening stone. He scanned the horizon for any Jourilan patrol. Saw none. ‘Aye.’ He carried out a small keg of captured rainwater and a tarred leather cup. The old man bowed, took a small sip, then handed on the keg to his band. The entire time, the dark eyes slitted in his sun-burned, lined face did not leave Ivanr’s.

‘You are from the south?’ Ivanr asked.

‘Aye.’

‘You carry word of this new faith?’

The cracked and bloodied lips climbed with faint humour. ‘We follow the Priestess and bring the word of her teachings. Word of the new faith revealed to her. A faith that embraces life. Rejects death.’

‘You reject death?’

‘We accept it. And thereby deny it any power over us.’

‘And you are headed north?’

‘Yes. To Pon-Ruo.’

‘I think you’ll find what you deny waiting for you there.’

Again, the half-smile. ‘Death awaits us all. The question, then, really should be how to live.’

‘You mean survive?’

‘No — how to live one’s life. Harming others is no way to honour life.’

Ivanr, who up until then had merely been amusing himself, shivered at those words. The old pilgrim did not seem to notice; he gestured to Ivanr’s fields. ‘Farming honours life.’

Ivanr waved the man off. ‘Take the water and go.’ He walked away.

‘You cannot hide from life,’ the old man called after him. ‘You harm yourself and give power to that from which you turn.’

‘Go!’

The old man bowed. ‘We honour you for your gift.’

Just go, damn you!

Of all the places to die in Banith, Bakune believed that this was very probably the ugliest. He could almost smell the madness that must have driven the old woman to her death here in this dead-end alley. What he could not avoid smelling was the stale sweat, the animal fear, and the dried piss.

She’d been a nun in attendance at Our Lady the Saviour Cloister and Hospice. That much the Watch had ascertained. A woman gone mad to end her life in a frothing twisted heap at the back of a garbage-strewn alley, fingers bloody and torn where she’d clawed at the stone walls.

And he’d almost missed this one.

The Watch hardly bothered to call him in any more. Just another corpse. The Assessor came, poked about, asked his obtuse questions, then went back to frown and potter over his reports. What was the use? For his part, Bakune saw that while the Watch respected his judgements from the bench, all the same they wished he’d just stay in his chambers. After all these years it was becoming, well, an embarrassment.

But there was something different about this one. What was a nun of the temple doing outside in the middle of the night? How had she gotten out without anyone noticing? And why? Why lose herself in this warren of alleys? Lunacy, he supposed, was the easy answer.

But too glib for his liking. The temple revealed little of the finer points of its faith, let alone its inner workings. How could this embarrassment have escaped its self-policing? No doubt the madwoman had been under virtual house arrest for some time now, perhaps locked in an ascetic’s cell. A visit to the cloisters might just be in order.

He straightened from the stiffened corpse to find that his escort, two soldiers of the Watch, had retreated to the mouth of this rat-run of an alley, where it met a slightly larger and less choked back way. Sighing, Bakune stepped over the rotting garbage and dumped nightsoil to join them.

‘A right reek,’ the moustached one offered — as close to an apology as any of patrolmen might offer him.

‘I want to talk to the Abbot.’

The two shared a flicked glance, and in that quick exchange Bakune was chagrined to read the true bankruptcy of his influence and reputation: babysitting the Assessor while he pottered among alleyways was one thing, allowing him to pester the Abbot of the Cloister of Our Lady was another altogether.

He was chagrined, yes, but not surprised. The City Watch valued action and quick results. To him, the blunt brutal truncheons at their sides were fitting weapons for the blunt and brutal instruments of state that carried them. ‘You need not accompany me.’

Again the flicked glance. ‘No, Assessor,’ the less dull-looking of the two drawled. ‘It’s our job.’

‘Very good. Let’s hope the Abbot is available on such short notice.’

The Cloister of the Blessed Lady was the third most revered holy site on the island of Fist, after the caves of the Ascetics near Thol, and the Tabernacle of Our Lady at Paliss. Neither Mare nor Skolati possessed any such sites worthy of pilgrimage. The Cloister was raised around the very bare rock where it was said the Lady herself shed blood on her holy mission to forestall the sea-borne enemy.

Bakune headed to the pilgrim route that twisted its way from the waterfront docks to the Cloister’s double copper doors. The cacophony reached him first. Touts and hawkers bawled to catch the attention of the penitents as they tramped the ancient path that climbed the hillside to those beaten-panelled doors. Bakune, followed by his guards, joined the file. Shop fronts, stalls, and modest laid carpets lined the narrow Way of Obtestation. Each displayed a seemingly infinite array of charms, blessed bracelets, healing stones, bones of this or that monk or nun or saint, swatches of cloth taken from the backs of noted devouts who passed away in frenzied rapture — anything and everything, in short, that might tempt pilgrims come to enhance their spiritual purification.

He brushed aside sticks thrust at him laced with charms like small forests of beading. ‘Cure the ague, rot, and the clouding blindness!’ a tout yelled. A flask hanging from a tall stave was swung at him. ‘Blessed waters from the Cloister’s fount! All-healing!’ He knew that to be truly efficacious such waters must be taken from their source, but first-time pilgrims knew no better.

A grimed street urchin yanked at his robes. ‘Inspect the holy virgins?’ The leer was startling on a face so young. One of the guards sent the boy on with a kick.

Bakune could only shake his head; it had been a long time since he’d made his own obligatory visitations, but he did not remember the whole thing being so, well, seamy. He paused to turn, and, brushed by the shoulders of those who passed, heads lowered in contemplation, looked back the length of this arc of the Way, taking in not only the hawkers and purveyors of religious goods, legitimate or not, but the food sellers, the inns, the stablers, all the many services the enterprising citizens of Banith provided the steady year-round stream of visitors. In this unimportant seaside town it was frankly the one and only going business. To threaten the flow would be to threaten the city’s very lifeblood, and Bakune felt a cold chill creep upon him in the face of so visceral a reaffirmation of what he’d always appreciated intellectually.

His escort drew up short, eyed him quizzically then exchanged bored glances. Turning back without comment, he waved them on.

Near the Cloister the press thinned. Here high-priced shops behind narrow doorways catered to the wealthier pilgrims — merchants themselves, perhaps, or the wives of highly ranked civil servants from Dourkan or Jourilan. Here also patrolled Guardians of the Faith in their dark severe robes, armed with iron-heeled staves. The order had begun as a militant cadre of the faith in response to the Malazan invasions. It was charged with the duty to protect the pilgrims, and the faith itself, from backsliding and corruption. In Bakune’s eyes it was the worst of the innovations brought about by the pressure of foreign occupation — perhaps because the order was a sort of rival religious police adjudicating what was permitted behaviour and what was not, and perhaps because it saw itself as above the earthly laws represented locally by none other than himself.

As he came to the tall double doors of the Cloister grounds, the sight of so many of the Guardians loitering about brought to Bakune’s mind that during his entire approach he had not seen one trooper of their erstwhile occupiers, the Malazans. Politic, that: keeping away from the pilgrimage route where tempers might flare.

Two Guardians stepped forward to bar the open doorway. ‘What business in the Cloister?’ one demanded.

He cocked a brow; since when had they begun interrogating visitors? ‘My business is my own. By what right do you ask?’

The man bristled, clenching his stave tight. ‘By right of faith.’ He eyed Bakune up and down, taking in his dark cloak, cloth trousers, brocaded satin vest, and clean linen shirt. ‘You are no pilgrim. What is your business?’

‘I’m dying of the bloody-lung.’

The Guardian flinched, but recovered, raising his chin. ‘That is not a matter for jest. Men and women are dying of that very affliction in the Hospice, praying for Our Lady’s blessing and her healing waters even as you make light of it.’

Bakune was impressed by the speed with which the man had charged the high moral summit, though the move was by far too naked and bold. Bludgeons. Like his own guards, even now dragging themselves up the cobbled way, these too were yet mere blunt instruments.

Sighing his irritation, he pulled off one moleskin glove and extended his hand. ‘Assessor Bakune. I am come to see the Abbot.’

The Guardian frowned over the ring of office. Belatedly, Bakune realized that he might as well have thrust a live polecat at the man for all he understood of the significance of the seal of a magistrate of the state. Yet a survivor’s instinct told the man that perhaps there may be something to all this and he nodded, grudgingly, and stepped aside. That, or the overdue arrival of Bakune’s two guards of the Watch, both licking grease from their fingers.

Bakune entered beneath the wooden vaulted ceiling of the tunnel that led to the grounds. The other Guardian, perhaps the brighter of the two, had run ahead to bring word of his arrival. Past the tunnel, shaded colonnaded walks beckoned to the right and left, while ahead lay the gravel paths of the manicured gardens and walks of Blessed Contemplation. Beyond, to the right, rose the three storeys of the wooden Hospice of Our Lady, largest of such installations in all Fist, eclipsed only by that servicing the veteran Chosen of Korel. To the left, over the tops of the hedges and ornamental trees, reared the tall spires of the rambling Cloister itself. A city within a city, complete with its own schools, administration, kitchens and bakery, nunnery, library, orphanage, even the Hospice to shelter its aged and dying brothers and sisters.

Bakune chose to wait outside. He drew off his other glove to better appreciate the blossoms of the late-blooming winter-lace, whose tiny white flowers were considered melancholy as their appearance signalled the coming of winter. He appreciated their delicate scent. His guards sprawled on a bench and eyed the more hale inmates of the Hospice shuffling back and forth on their constitutional walks. Eventually, as Bakune knew he must, if only for the sake of form, came Abbot Starvann Arl, trailed by a gaggle of his higher functionaries and staff.

They embraced as the equals they were — at least in principle. Starvann, head of the Cloister, with authority over all matters of faith locally, answerable only to the Prioress herself at the capital, Paliss. And Bakune, Assessor and magistrate, the highest local legal authority, answerable only to the High Assessor at the same city. Yet what a difference; Bakune was rendered a bare grudging sort of assistance from the City Watch while Starvann commanded all the staff of the Cloister, numbering perhaps more than a thousand — plus the authority of the order of the Guardians of the Faith themselves. Yes, Bakune reflected tartly, equal in principle only.

‘Bakune! Good to see you. We meet too rarely. How gracious of you to visit us.’ The Abbot captured Bakune’s hands in a surprisingly bone-hard grip. Then the smile behind his thick beard faded and his startling pale eyes clouded over. ‘I know why you have come,’ he said sadly.

Bakune raised a quizzical brow. ‘You do?’

Starvann gave the Assessor’s hands one last painful squeeze before releasing them. ‘Sister Prudence. Word came to me only this morning.’ He pressed a hand to Bakune’s back and gently but firmly urged him on. ‘Come, let us walk the grounds… forgive me, but I find it refreshing.’

‘Certainly.’ Bakune allowed himself to be steered on to a path between low evergreen shrubs. The Abbot clasped his hands behind his back. His plain dark robes brushed the gravel as he walked. His dress was appropriately severe and august, his only ornament a diadem suspended from his neck in the starburst sigil of the faith of the Blessed Lady.

‘She is dead, then?’ he asked, head lowered.

‘Yes.’

‘Then she has at last found peace with Our Lady.’

‘Yes. Did you say Sister… Prudence?’

The head rose, and the long grey hair blew in the mild breeze. ‘The name she chose when she joined the order as a child.’

‘Ah, I see. May I ask-’

‘How I knew she had passed on?’

Bakune cleared his throat, had to narrow his gaze in the light of the man’s unearthly pale eyes. ‘Well… yes.’

The gentle smile returned and the Abbot squeezed his shoulder. Bakune knew he should be reassured by the smile and flattered by the personal attention, but somehow he was not. The suspicious adjudicator’s voice that spoke to him when in the magistrate’s chair murmured now: Why should he bother?

We’ve met before. It is merely professional courtesy.

And you feel gratitude for this condescension, do you not?

And he wondered in his most ruthless self-analysis: was this jealousy?

Bakune glanced behind and had to strangle an urge to laugh. The Abbot’s entire entourage was now bunched up behind his two ambling guards, one of whom was exploring the cavity of a nostril.

The Abbot continued his slow pacing. Gravel crackled beneath his sandals. ‘She has been with us all her life. We have had to — how shall I put it? — restrain Sister Prudence for some time now. When she escaped from the Hospice we all knew how it would end. A terrible act. Terrible. But,’ and he took a slow deep breath, ‘no doubt the Lady has taken in her troubled spirit and now protects and soothes her.’

‘Yes. Of course. May I ask — what were her duties?’

Starvann paused and turned. His tangled brows rose. ‘Her duties? Why, no different from those of all her sisters. Devotional, of course. Praying for and easing the suffering of those within the Hospice. She rotated through the kitchens and cleaning duties as do all the sisters. And she served within the orphanage as well. I remember she was particularly fond of working with our young charges.’

‘I see. Thank you, Abbot, for your time.’

Starvann bowed. ‘Of course. Thank you for coming personally. Your attention is noted.’ He gave a small bow.

Bakune bowed in answer; his audience was over. The man actually thinks I came seeking to impress him with my diligence! And something moved him to press his case — perhaps that very condescension. ‘Had she a particular friend, Abbot? Within the order, I mean?’

Caught in the act of turning away, the Abbot frowned. He made a vague gesture. ‘There might have been a friend — Sister Charity, I believe.’

Though the Abbot was now walking away, Bakune again raised his voice: ‘And where might I find this Sister Charity?’

The Abbot’s lips thinned. His entourage had pushed past Bakune’s guards and were now ushering him off. ‘She left the order years ago,’ he said slowly. ‘Good day.’

Bakune bowed, murmuring, ‘Good day,’ but no one remained but his guards — who had their hands tucked into their belts while they watched the crowd shuffle away. ‘Looks like we’re finished here,’ he told them.

‘Looks like,’ one drawled.

‘I want to see your captain now.’

Sharing a glance, the two rolled their eyes.

A year ago Kyle quit the mercenary company he’d fought with since he was taken from the tall grass steppes he’d known all his youth. Now, trying to get by in Delanss, the capital city of the island of the same name, he suddenly discovered the pressing need for something he’d never known before: cash for room and board. He met this problem by agreeing to serve as a hiresword for a fellow named Best. The job consisted of little more than warming a bench, drinking the man’s ale and sleeping at his tavern while occasionally intimidating people stupid enough to have borrowed money from him.

This night as usual he was drinking in the common room when his immediate boss, Tar Kargin, stomped downstairs and waved together all the regular muscle. ‘Got a job. Straight from Best.’ He led the way out on to the darkening, rain-slick cobblestone street.

Tar, broad as a boat, lumbered down the middle of the way flanked by his chosen enforcers and followed by Kyle, who marvelled at the way the fellow, perhaps by dint of plain dull-witted obstinacy and towering self-absorption, could bully everyone and everything from his path. Not only all late night pedestrians of the capital city melted aside, but also men drawing carts, stevedores grunting under heaped bags and bales, even horse-drawn carriages which were diverted at the last instant lest they flatten, or be flattened by, him. Astonishingly, he even forced aside an ass leading a blind man on a rope.

‘Got your trophies?’ he demanded of Kyle without turning his bull neck.

Kyle gritted his teeth and reluctantly drew the grisly, stinking belt from a pouch and hung it round his neck. Tanned, wrinkledup things hung from it — ears perhaps, or noses. He wasn’t sure and frankly didn’t want to know. Best had dug it up from somewhere and made him wear it when on the job. Said it frightened everyone good. What frightened Kyle was the smell.

They stopped close to the waterfront in front of a row of darkened two-storey shop houses and Kargin banged on a door. ‘Bor ’eth! Open up! I know you’re in there! Open up!’

The three thugs grinned at Kyle and thumbed the truncheons they carried pushed down their shirt-fronts. Kyle crossed his arms and for the hundredth time cursed this civilized innovation called work. He didn’t think much of it so far.

A vision-slit opened and an old man peered out. ‘Oh! It’s you, Kargin. You know, it’s funny, but I was just-’

‘Stow it and open up.’

‘But tomorrow I’ll-’

‘Today’s too late.’

‘I swear, tomorrow-’

‘If you don’t let me in now, next time I won’t ask so nice.’

‘Oh… well… if you must…’ Locks rattled and jangled. The thick door slowly swung until Kargin thrust it wide and stepped in. The thugs followed and Kyle brought up the rear.

They jammed into the foyer of a shop that in the dim light of the old man’s lantern looked stocked with fine imported goods. A shelf next to Kyle held goblets of various sizes and shapes. Kargin gently reached out to take the lantern from the old man, Bor ’eth, and set it high on a nearby shelf. He motioned for one of his boys to shut the door. The old man’s smile slipped as the thug shot the bolts.

‘I’ll pay, Kargin — you know that. I will.’ He tried to smile again but only looked frozen and terrified. ‘It’s just that business is slow right now…’

‘Slow…’ Kargin raised and lowered his great bulk in a sigh heavy with weary patience. He waved Kyle forward. Kyle remembered to set his face in his best sullen glower. ‘See this lad here?’ Bor ’eth nodded uncertainly. ‘He comes from a savage distant land where they don’t think twice about killin’ one another. Don’t value human life. Not like us civilized people here. See that belt?’ Again an unsure nod. ‘Those are the ears and noses and… other things he’s cut from the men he’s killed.’ Peering up, the old man flinched back, pulled the quilt he’d thrown about his shoulders tighter. ‘I’d just have to snap my fingers like that, and he’d have your ears… What do you think about that?’

The old man clutched his neck and glanced from face to face as if wondering whether this were a joke or not. ‘Really?’ he gasped, his voice high and quavering. ‘Amazing…’

‘Take his ears!’

Kyle launched himself forward and grasped a handful of the old man’s thin orange-grey hair, pressing the edge of his knife just under one ear. The fellow screeched like a hoarse bird, flailed uselessly at Kyle’s arms. Kyle turned a glance on Kargin.

The big man let out a great belly-laugh and took Bor ’eth from Kyle’s hands. He held him in a tight hug. ‘But I won’t let him do that this time, Bor ’eth! Why would I do such a thing to a paying customer, right?’ The old fellow was fairly sobbing and clung to Kargin as if he’d just saved his life. ‘No… that’s what I’ll do to you if you don’t bring the money to Best tomorrow. This is what I do to those who are late.’ He nodded to the thugs and, grinning, they pulled Bor ’eth from him.

‘What…?’ the old man gasped.

‘Break his hand.’

Laughing, the lads hefted their truncheons, and while one held the squirming man’s hand on a counter the other two raised the weapons.

‘No… please… In the name of Soliel…’

‘I am being merciful, Bor ’eth.’ He gave a curt nod. One truncheon whistled down to smack the counter. The old man shrieked. The second truncheon swung and landed with a wet bang. Bor ’eth went limp in the thug’s arms. The lad shook him until he roused. ‘Again,’ Kargin said. The batons rose.

Kyle examined the goblets while the thugs shattered the merchant’s hand. All this pain and trouble over coins; he’d grown up without any on open plains where his people hunted for the food they needed and made the tools they used. They had some coins and other bits and pieces they kept for trade, but other than that he’d grown up without the need. From what he’d seen in his travels since, his people had been better off without this one particular advance of civilization. And if someone pressed such a need upon him, he’d just walk away.

Kargin raised a hand. Kyle glanced over; released, the old man slid down to sit rocking back and forth, cradling the bloody broken thing that was his hand to his chest. Kargin motioned to the door. Kyle set the rose-hued cut-crystal goblet back in place on its shelf.

Out on the street, as they walked back to Best’s, the night air cold and crisp after a light rain, one of the young thugs sidled up to Kyle and grinned, exposing his broken uneven teeth. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked.

‘See what?’

‘Pissed himself, the old guy. Wet those expensive robes of his,’ and he laughed.

‘Congratulations. You beat an old guy into pissing himself.’

The grin fell away. The young tough tossed his long hair from his pimply face. ‘You ever do any of that stuff Kargin says — cuttin’ ears and such?’

Kyle set his mouth in a leer and leaned close. ‘All the fucking time.’

Close to the front of Best’s inn, Kargin stopped and waved everyone on. ‘Too bad about your friend,’ he said to Kyle.

Kyle stopped, untied the string of fetid trophies and slowly lowered it into its bag. ‘What do you mean?’

‘That fellow you used to chum with, the other foreigner. The merchant houses he got to put up the money for his place… they foreclosed on him. Closed him up tight.’

Cinching the pouch, Kyle glanced over. ‘Really?’

‘Uh-huh. When I heard the news, I wondered… what would you have done if it was his place we went to visit tonight?’

Kyle hefted the feather-light pouch. ‘Nothing. I wouldn’t have had to do anything because he would have scattered you lot like geese.’

The chief enforcer for Best, the man who controlled most of the blackmailing and extortion in the city, seemed to peer down sleepily at Kyle over the great bulk of his chest. His nostrils flared as he snorted. ‘Some kinda hot ex-mercenary you’ve turned out to be. I ain’t seen fuck-all that impresses from you yet.’

‘And you won’t. Here,’ Kyle flicked the pouch at him, ‘keep your ears on. See you around.’

‘I don’t think so,’ the man called after him. ‘He’d be in prison right now ’cept someone bought his debts — and that someone ain’t from around here…’

The man’s sly rumbling laughter followed Kyle down the darkened street.

Some Falaran legal documents, all ribboned and weighted by wax seals, hung nailed to the door of Orjin’s school. Kyle tried the door and found it unlocked. Just inside the tunnel he stopped to study the empty practice floor; the sand shone in the moonlight like glittering quicksilver.

‘Orjin?’ he hissed. ‘Orjin?’ Movement from the shadows. A figure staggered into the pale light, sword held slack and low in one hand. Great Harrier preserve us! What’s happened? He ran to him, grunted as the man’s extraordinary weight sagged on him. ‘What’s happened? Are you wounded?’

Something banged from Kyle’s head, sloshing. He snatched an earthenware jug from Orjin’s hand. ‘What’s this?’

‘No more of your talk!’ the man bellowed hotly in his ear. ‘Keep your contracts and writs! Dare to face me like a man, Dead Poliel take you!’

‘Oh for Hood’s sake!’ Kyle pushed him away. He should’ve smelled it, but the last months spent sitting in a common room had blunted his nose.

Tottering, Orjin swung the slim Darujhistan epee, almost cutting Kyle. ‘Come on! Arm yourself! We’ll settle this the old-fashioned way!’ He crossed to a weapon rack and heaved it over in a ringing clatter of ironmongery. ‘Take your pick! As you see — there’s plenty!’

‘Orjin… Greymane…’

The man blinked, weaving. ‘What’s that? Greymane? Greymane?’ His head sank chin to chest and for a time he seemed to study all the fallen swords glowing silver in the moonlight. ‘That man is dead.’

‘Orjin… I heard someone’s coming. Someone from elsewhere — that can only mean the Malazans. They’ve found you.’ He stepped closer. ‘Now come on. Let’s go. There’s nothing for us here. I hate this place. These people would bend over for donkeys if they had gold. Let’s go.’

Orjin breathed out a noisy wet sigh and eased himself down amid the blades. He hung his head. His long unkempt mane shone just as bright as the tangled iron. ‘No. I’m finished. Let them come.’ He waved broadly to encompass the surroundings. ‘This was always my dream, you know, Kyle. Retire. Open a fighting college. Teach something of what I’ve learned.’ At random, he picked up a longsword, a heavy northern Genabackan weapon; sighted down the blade. ‘But no one really wants to know what a bellyful of war teaches.’

Looking down at the man, Kyle considered trying to wrench him up but didn’t think he’d be able to budge his bulk. He knelt to his haunches. ‘Listen, Orjin. Hood take these merchants and gangsters. They’re no different from each other. Let’s just go! Hire on to the first ship we come to in the harbour — who cares where it’s headed.’

‘No, no. That’s a young man’s game. I’m too old. You go.’

‘No one’s after me.’

‘Then what are you doing here?’

‘I’m here because-’ A small sound, the scuff of a foot on sand, turned Kyle’s head. Four figures emerged from the gloom of the entrance tunnel. All were dressed alike in dark leathers and bore two blades at their sides, one long, one short. Kyle straightened, taking up the nearest weapon as he did so, a sturdy heavy-bladed cutlass. ‘Who are you?’

‘Whoever you are,’ one answered, waving him away, ‘stand aside.’

The accent was not Malazan. It didn’t resemble any accent Kyle had ever heard in all his travels. At the voice, however, Orjin’s head snapped up, and he said to Kyle, his words suddenly stone-cold sober, ‘Go, now. Leave us.’

‘Go? Who are these guys? Hired killers?’

‘Killers, yes.’ Orjin stood, gathering up a long slim blade in each hand. ‘But not for gold or treasure — hey, Cullel?’ A gleaming bright hungry grin from the spokesman answered Orjin. ‘You kill for something else, don’t you? For religious faith alone.’

‘We exterminate heretics,’ Cullel assented, his voice a low purr. The four slowly spread out, walking the perimeter of the practice floor.

‘Where in the Abyss are these lunatics from?’ Kyle demanded.

‘They are Korelri. Veterans of the Stormwall. They’ve been given special dispensation to hunt me down. Yes, Cullel?’

‘Hunt you down?’ Kyle asked.

Orjin shifted to put his back to Kyle’s. ‘Yes.’

‘But I thought the Malazans wanted you.’

‘Ah… well… them too.’

‘Wonderful.’

The four now occupied each of the sides of the practice yard. As one they drew their weapons, the long and the short blades.

‘Get rid of that and use your fancy blade,’ Orjin told Kyle.

‘I… don’t have it.’

‘You don’t-’ Orjin sent an exasperated look over his shoulder. ‘Why in the Abyss not?’

‘Gentlemen…’ Cullel called softly.

‘It was stolen from my room.’

‘Stolen?’

‘Gentlemen!’

‘Well, we’re in a right fix now, thanks to you,’ Orjin grumbled.

‘Thank you,’ Cullel said. ‘Now, before we execute our duty it is my obligation to inform you, Greymane, that you have been tried in absentia by the High Council of the Chosen, Defenders of the Lands of Korel and All Greater Fist and Beyond, and have been found guilty of making pacts with the enemy. And that you did enter into said pacts and covenants with the daemonic Riders wilfully, and of your own cognizance.’

‘Pacts?’ Kyle whispered to Orjin.

The man gave a beefy shrug of acquiescence. ‘I talked to them.’

‘Them — the Riders? You really cut a deal with the Stormriders?’

‘Gentlemen! Decorum, if you please. The discharge of justice is a solemn responsibility.’

‘Justice?’ Kyle barked, offended by the idea. ‘You’re damned up yourself, aren’t you?’

Distaste twisted the man’s blade-narrow face. ‘Very well. Judgement has been delivered. And now, the sentence…’ He nodded to his fellows.

They advanced together, blades raised. So much for justice, Kyle decided — four against two. Entering the moonlight, the four Korelri suddenly blazed as the slanting rays revealed that their armour, fittings and scabbards were all studded and filigreed with thin curving traceries of the finest silver.

It chanced that Kyle faced Cullel. Shifting his sandalled foot, Kyle kicked a scarf of sand for cover and parried the other Korelri. Instantly, he knew he faced the best swordsmen he’d ever met. He could barely deflect their attacks. Light cuts welled blood on his forearms. A thrust tore into his thigh and he almost fell. They even worked as a team: he could only watch while they coordinated their attacks to draw him out and expose his side — Wind take it! There is nothing I can do! He sensed Orjin, behind, going down to one knee. Hit already?

Then Greymane was up and the two swordsmen facing Kyle flinched, seeing something beyond him. One of the Korelri behind Kyle snarled his pain while the other flew into view, tumbling loosely over the sand as if tossed by a ferocious blow. Then Orjin stepped in front of Kyle, swinging a two-handed dull-grey blade that Kyle had only seen once before. Cullel parried, but his sword blade shattered like brittle bronze and Orjin’s swing continued on to smash into his side, crumpling him. The last remaining Defender yelled ferociously and leapt, only to be impaled on the thick blade. Orjin kicked the man from the coarse, gritty-looking weapon, and shook the blood from its length.

Kyle took in the four fallen men, then Orjin’s ragged, two-handed sword. ‘Where by all the Queen’s Mysteries did that come from?’

A wet laugh sounded from where Cullel lay. It raised Kyle’s hackles. He squeezed the bloody cut in the leathers over his thigh and limped over.

‘What’s that? You have even more to say?’

‘So it is true…’ the man gasped. Blood welled up with the word. ‘The claims are true. Stonewielder… He betrayed all humanity for that artefact.’

‘Bullshit!’

The man’s eyes widened with a fevered light. ‘No. His reward. Ask him, though he’ll no doubt lie.’ He fought to say more but blood now filled his mouth and he gasped in a coughing fit, straining for breath. His body clenched rigid then slowly eased, relaxing, falling limp.

Kyle raised his eyes to Orjin. ‘Well?’

The big man simply walked off and knelt to pick up the fallen gourd of wine. When he straightened, the blade was gone. Kyle crossed the floor. ‘Where is it?’

‘Where’s what?’

‘The sword.’ He scanned the ground but saw no sign of it. ‘Where’d it go?’

‘Never mind, Kyle. Leave it alone.’ Orjin took a deep swig from the gourd.

‘But… what is it?’

Orjin wiped his sleeve across his mouth, sighed. ‘Damned useless is what it is.’

‘Useless?’

Waving aside all discussion, Orjin crossed to a bench, sat heavily. As his leg was steadily numbing Kyle decided to join him. He took the gourd and sipped to wet his caked mouth, spat. ‘So? Did the Riders give it to you?’

Orjin nodded his slow assent. ‘Yeah. They gave it to me. Not for any damned pact or deal or anything. We just talked and they gave it to me.’

‘Just like that.’

The man turned his head to glare one-eyed. ‘Don’t be trite. One night I climbed down the cliffs to the edge of the Ocean of Storm and waited — you try that one night. Eventually, some showed up. They speak Korelri… there’s irony for you. Anyway, we talked. They claimed they weren’t the enemy at all. I pointed out that attacking the Stormwall for generations tended to give the appearance. They said the Korelri were denying them access to their own territory and blocking some kind of ancient obligation, or holy pilgrimage… or some such thing.’ He cleared his throat, waved a hand. ‘Anyway, I couldn’t really make it all out.’

Kyle got the impression there was more to it, but apparently this was all the other would say — for now. He took another sip. He rested his eyes on the four still figures gleaming in the moonlight. ‘How come they can speak Korelri if they’re such sworn enemies? Do they take captives from the wall or something like that? Torture them in their undersea lairs?’

Orjin leaned forward to give him a long hard look.

‘What?’

Orjin snatched back the gourd. ‘You’ve listened to too many romances. It’s rotted your brain. No, the thought occurred to me too, so I asked. They said they’d always listened to the men on the wall and to sailors on ships.’

‘Well then, why don’t they just yell from the water then? Talk to them?’

‘They said they tried that but the men always ignored them, called them liars and sirens and such. So they stopped.’

‘And the sword?’

Again the beefy shrug. ‘They were grateful I’d talked to them so they offered it as a gift. I said sure.’

‘So what is it? Where’s it from?’

Orjin finished the gourd, tossed it aside. ‘They didn’t know. Said they’d found it deep at the bottom of the Cut far beneath the sea. They did say it was very old, and I agree.’

‘But you never use it.’

He edged his head side to side. ‘No. It’s too powerful. Too dangerous.’

‘But you have used it — I remember, against that warlock.’

A small thoughtful nod, eyes ahead, perhaps also studying the mute meaning of the four dead Defenders of the Faith.

‘So, that name I’d heard for you — Stonewielder.’

‘Yeah. A few called me that before I was arrested by Malazan High Command.’

‘But… I thought you were in command of Malazan forces in Korel.’

‘Military, yes. The marines and regulars. But there was a civilian authority. A governor. Hemel. Hemel ’Et Kelal. A Bloorian nobleman. Never did know what happened to the man. Anyway, he and a gang of minor officers denounced me for treating with the Riders… and that was that.’

‘And then?’ Kyle asked, fascinated, almost forgetting the pain clenching his leg.

Orjin waved it all away. ‘Never mind. Ancient history.’ Groaning and wincing, he stood. ‘I’m out of wine and you need that leg looked at.’ He held out a hand. ‘Let’s go.’

Kyle pulled himself upright, held on to the man’s shoulder as he limped along. ‘So we’ll sign on to a ship?’

‘Trake no! We’re going to get your sword back.’

‘But I told you — someone stole it from my room.’

Orjin shook his head. ‘Kyle… you’re too trusting.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Best is one of the heads of Delanss’ black market. The man’s a thief. He stole it.’

‘He said he’d get it back for me!’

Orjin stopped short and peered down at him for a time. ‘And then he suggested that you might as well do some work for him in the meantime…’

Kyle gave a sheepish shrug. ‘Something like that.’

‘That settles it. Can you walk?’

‘Yeah — some.’

‘Okay. Head to the waterfront. Wait for me there. I’ll be back with your sword and then we’ll have to be off right quick.’

‘Grey- Orjin, I can’t let you do that.’

‘Might as well make it Greymane, Kyle. I took a stab at being plain old Orjin Samarr once more, but it didn’t take. So it’s Greymane again. And it’ll be Greymane who’ll be visiting Best tonight.’

Kyle peered about at the silent rain-slick street, the moonlit shop fronts. ‘Grey, it’s not worth it. Let’s get out of here while we can.’

‘Not worth it? You know that’s a lie. Your friends in the Guard, Stalker and his cousins, they told me who gave you that weapon. So we both know it’s worth it.’ His pale blue eyes, buried deep in their sockets, flashed something that might have been amusement. ‘We’re both burdened by blades that are more than we would want.’ He motioned Kyle on. ‘Get us berths on a ship leaving at dawn!’

Kyle watched him go, then limped for the waterfront. So Stalker had told him — or he’d asked. In any case, it was true. Osserc, a being Kyle’s people worshipped as a patron god of Wind, Sky and Light, had given him the blade. Since then he’d discovered that Osserc was merely — merely! — a powerful entity, an Ascendant. Such as the Tiste Andii leader Anomander, Son of Darkness, or as some name the Enchantress, the Queen of Dreams.

But now Kyle considered all its power more trouble than it was worth. He couldn’t even draw the thing without calling extraordinary attention to himself, just like Greymane. And now the damned fool was off to get himself killed… and for what? Maybe, it occurred to Kyle as he hobbled along, the man was doing it to prove a point to himself — that he could do it.

It was close after dawn and Kyle was sitting high on the afterdeck of a galley out of Curaca when he spotted the renegade. The ship’s bone-mender was wrapping his leg but he sat up, yelling: ‘There he is! Let off! Go!’

‘Aiya!’ the old woman shouted, and gave his leg an agonizing squeeze. ‘Sit still!’

From the railing, the mate warned, ‘Your man better be worth it.’ Then he called, ‘Cast off all lines!’

The big man was jogging down the wharf, a long wrapped object in one hand. Behind him, between buildings, erupted a mass of armed men and women, civilians and city guards alike. The bone-mender let go a wild cackle at the sight.

‘Wide Ocean below!’ the mate swore. ‘Your man’s stirred up a hornets’ nest! What’s he done?’

‘You know Best, the black marketeer?’

‘That cockroach? Yeah.’

‘Well, I think my friend has kicked him in the balls.’

The mate grinned and turned to his men. ‘Look lively and ready pikes to repel boarders!’

The old crone laughed again. Her riotous cackle unnerved Kyle far more than he thought it should.

*

A Delanss nobleman entered the ransacked and empty practice quarters of Orjin’s School of Swordsmanship and tucked his hands into his thick robes behind the heavy silver links of rank. Everything, he noted, had been stripped overnight. ‘Hello?’ Blood stained the sand but he saw no signs of the bodies. ‘Anyone here?’

‘Yes.’

The man jumped, and turned to where a woman stepped forward from the shadows. She wore plain dark clothes and soft leather shoes. She was a very deep brown, her hair tightly curled and cut short. Something about her reminded the nobleman of the Korelri he’d just dealt with, though he knew this woman for no Fistian. Perhaps it was the stink of fanaticism that seemed to hang about them both.

‘I apologize for this Orjin fellow. I had no idea he was so unstable. I heard that he bulled his way through Best’s entire bodyguard and proceeded to hold him by one hand over a privy hole until the man handed over one just one particular item. It’s not my fault he went berserk.’

The woman lazily dismissed his concerns with a wave of a long-fingered hand. ‘Do not worry yourself. You would have been paid in full even if the Korelri had managed to kill him.’

‘Even then?’

‘Yes. Because then we would’ve known he was no longer the man for us.’

The nobleman raised both brows. ‘Really? And now — after he has wounded over twenty men, overcome a patrol of the city guard, and thumbed his nose at all civilized authority — what do you know now?’

The woman’s deep brown eyes seemed to laugh at him, and more, to do things that only the most recent of his mistresses was able to accomplish with just a look. She said, smiling, ‘That he is exactly the one we want.’

The lock to Corlo’s cell ratcheted and the door opened. A Korelri officer in their silver-chased, blue-black armour waved him out. He wasn’t one of the regulars Corlo knew. Idly, the thought occurred to him that he had yet to meet a female Korelri Chosen — the order must somehow disapprove or work against their promotion. He swung his feet from his pallet. ‘What is it?’

‘Come with us.’

He pointed to the metal torc at his neck. ‘Take this off.’

The officer snorted. ‘You think us fools, warlock?’

Not so much fools, Corlo reflected as he followed the man into the hall, as inexperienced. These Korelri were so unfamiliar with mages they were willing to sink fortunes into collars alloyed with a touch of the magic-deadening otataral ore for when they might actually come to meet one. Was it irony, the mage wondered, that the source of that ore was the invaders themselves, the Malazans? A squad of Korelri crossbowmen crowded the hall, covering him. Inexperienced and fearful. They seemed to actually think the talents of magery must somehow be connected to their traditional enemies, the sea-demons. Rather ignorant here behind their wall. But then, that’s what happens when you raise walls. And the Lady no doubt stands behind their beliefs.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Quiet, Malazan. Move.’

By now Corlo had long given up trying to enlighten his captors on politics outside their isolated islands. The subtleties seemed beyond them, or they really just didn’t give a damn. Yes, he was a native of the Malazan Empire, from Avore, in fact, before the old Emperor wiped it from the map. But more important, he was also a member of the Crimson Guard. A mercenary company dedicated to the destruction of that very Empire. Or at least he used to be; and the company was once. Now, he didn’t know — none of his surviving companions knew.

The officer and his escort led him out of the complex of cells and grottoes that honeycombed the Stormwall here north of Fortress Kor, then up wide twisting sets of stairs to the barracks behind the rock field that tumbled down from the wall’s base. It was a sunny day but the shadows were chilly, reminding Corlo that winter was coming and with it another season standing the wall. After a few turns he knew where he was being taken and his chest clenched: Oh, please Burn. He hasn’t tried again, has he?

Sure enough, the way led to the walled barracks of those favoured prisoners who stood the wall. Here captives from all over the globe, men and women of proven ability and cooperative spirit, lived in relative luxury and ease. Here his commander in the Crimson Guard, Iron Bars, ranked an entire suite of rooms all to himself. Not that he’s all that cooperative.

At the door to Bars’ rooms Corlo’s escort thrust an arm across the hall. ‘If you value the life of your friend,’ he warned, ‘you’ll remind him of where his best interests lie.’

Corlo edged the man’s arm aside. ‘He’s my friend.’

Behind the narrow slit of his blackened iron helm the man’s dark brown eyes remained unconvinced. We can do without you lot, Corlo read in the hard unswerving gaze. The man lifted his chin to the guards. One unlatched the door.

Corlo pushed aside the heavy iron barrier on to a scene of chaos. Shards of pots and smashed wooden chairs and tables littered the polished floor. Drying pools of wine stained the stones and tossed salvers of fruit and bread lay amid the trampled wreckage. Whimpering brought his gaze down to a girl hunched next to the door, arms wrapped around her knees.

He raised her up and she stood shivering, hugging herself. No, he couldn’t have… He lifted her chin. Kohl had run from her eyelids and was smeared across her face. She would not meet his gaze, but he saw only fear and confusion in her demeanour. Like nothing you’ve ever run into before, hey, child? Yeah, he’s like that.

He gently handed her out to the guards then crept forward through the mess of shattered furnishings. The remains of glass carafes and fine ceramic jars crackled beneath his sandals. He heard the door pulled shut and secured behind him. Eventually, after searching the main room, he found his commander slumped beneath a barred window, unshaven, hair lank with sweat, a wide-bladed knife held to his neck. The man flashed his teeth like a wild animal upon seeing him.

Corlo pointed to the blade. ‘That won’t work.’

The fixed smile was ghastly. Bars let the weapon clatter to the floor. ‘They don’t know that.’ His voice was a hoarse croak.

Corlo didn’t bother asking what had happened. He simply leaned back against the wall, crossed his arms and studied the man, hoping that beneath his regard Bars would come to feel something. Please let him still be able to feel — something.

But the man would not look at him; his gaze roved about the remains of the broken and smashed furniture as if wondering how much it might all cost. ‘I can’t go on like this, Corlo,’ he said, finally, into the long silence. ‘I’m dying.’ And he laughed, making Corlo wince. ‘I’m dying but I cannot die.’ Beneath sweat-tangled hair he shot a quick glance at the mage. ‘Like the irony of that?’

‘Walk away.’

An impatient shrug brought a long silence. Bars reached out to a stoneware jug and took a long pull. ‘I won’t leave any of you behind.’

‘They know that.’

‘So. What to do.’ He rested the jug on his lap.

Corlo studied his hands clasped at his sash, glanced up. ‘They won’t kill us. They say they would, but they won’t. I’ve been listening — they need everyone they can get.’

Bars’ gaze narrowed; they were edging into old territory. ‘To go where…’

‘Stratem-’

The jug exploding over his head made Corlo duck. ‘Fuck Stratem!’

Saying nothing, Corlo straightened, flexed his neck to ease his nervous tension. Bars fell back, frowned after a time at the course of his own thoughts. ‘We were so close. I could sense the Guard Brethren at the end there. I sensed them turning away from the mission to that scum Skinner. And he mocked me. He mocked me!’ The man pressed his hands to his hanging head. ‘The Crimson Guard betrayed its vow and left us to rot. And… I… still… can’t… die!’

Corlo could only remain silent. So. The foundation at last. Betrayal. Failure. Helplessness and futility. What could he possibly say? Feeling ill with self-loathing, he reached for his last remaining tool — the one his captors employed for the very same purpose. He straightened from the wall, pressed his sweaty hands to his sides. ‘For the men, Bars. Hang on.’

His commander bit down on a convulsive laugh. He pushed his hands up through his hair so ferociously Corlo thought he meant to tear it out. ‘Yes. Well. Back to that.’

‘No choice.’

‘No. None.’

Corlo allowed himself a shallow nod of assent. ‘I’ll tell them to clean up.’

Bars said nothing; Corlo thought his eyes looked empty, as if the man had retreated to somewhere far away. He gingerly edged his way to the door, which opened to his knock.

‘You can clean the place up, but leave him alone.’

The Korelri Chosen simply motioned him to follow. The curt ingratitude raised no anger in Corlo; it was shame that burned in his chest as he descended the barracks stairs. I am the same as you, he told the iron-armoured back of his guide. No, perhaps I am even worse. I am a collaborator. A traitor who conspires with the enemy in the enslavement of my friend.

For a hundred years ago the original men and women of the Crimson Guard had sworn a terrible vow: the eternal opposition of the Malazan Empire. And thereby was granted them something approaching immortality — so long as the Empire should endure. But even so Corlo knew they could die. If Bars really want to, he could do it. The wall is high and the waters cold. Nooses throttle. Long thin blades pierce the eye and the brain behind.

That was his fear. That the man would just give up. Most would have by now, probably. But Bars had never given up in the past — that had always been his strength as an Avowed in the Guard. That was what Corlo was counting on.

The man just had to be reminded of it from time to time.

An inhabitant of Malaz city on the isle of that name, out during a night of its frigid autumn rains — a drunk, or a baker, or a night watchman, should there have ever been a night watch in Malaz — might have seen a slim cloaked figure lingering before the iron gate of an abandoned house of particularly evil reputation. The Deadhouse, the locals called it, when forced to acknowledge its existence at all. A house where none live, where the grounds are humped with the mounds of countless burials, and where those who enter never leave.

Such a wet and chilled witness might have seen the figure place a hand upon the gate, obviously intending to enter where no resident would ever dare, and then might have heard a shout, a woman’s voice commanding, ‘Hold!’

No doubt at this point any resident of Malaz, who ought not to have been out in the first place in such fell weather and at such a time, would have had the sense to withdraw, to leave these callers on night-time errands to their dark business, and to speak of such things to no one. And so they would not have seen the taller of the two, revealed as a young woman, take the hand of the speaker, an older woman in a shawl, and kiss it.

Kiska stretched out her legs and peered about at the cramped and cluttered nest of shelves and boxes and stacked burlap sacks that was Agayla’s spice shop. To think as a child it had once seemed roomy to her. She rubbed a towel over her damp short hair and gave a gentle snort; that had been a long time ago. Still, each breath — and she sniffed the heady, redolent melange of countless spices — reminded her of that home.

Her aunt Agayla returned carrying soup on a tray. Not a true blood relation, but close enough for those less bureaucratic days when anyone could take in anyone and damn the local authorities who could go jump in the bay anyway. Her long hair was touched by more grey than Kiska remembered. Her arms were even thinner and more wiry than they had been, but for all that she looked remarkably well preserved.

The woman regarded her now over the steaming bowls. Her narrow severe face was set in hard disapproval.

‘I wasn’t about to kill myself, Agayla.’

A dark brow arched. ‘Oh? What were you about to do then?’

‘It’s… complicated, auntie.’

Both brows rose. ‘Ah. Complicated, is it?’

‘Auntie! I…’ She searched for words in the face of the woman’s censure, and failed. She waved a hand. ‘Never mind.’

‘Drink your soup.’

Feeling exactly like the sullen resentful child she must have been more than a decade ago, Kiska scooped up the bowl and spoon. It was delicious, of course. The best meal she’d tasted in years. A twisted bunch of twigs floated on the surface that she nudged aside to sip the broth. Sage? she wondered, inhaling its sharp breath.

‘I’ve heard, of course,’ Agayla began, setting down her own bowl. ‘And I am deeply sorry.’

Heard? Yes, Kiska imagined the woman had. Who hadn’t? The High Mage Tayschrenn, possibly the greatest practitioner of the age, sucked into a void and cast out not even the gods knew where. And she, his bodyguard, left alive to face the truth of her complete, and abject, failure. She must be the most storied failure since Greymane. Yes, there was no doubt Agayla had heard. She herself had yet to bolt awake every morning without seeing it.

‘They were Avowed, girl. That you faced them down at all is remarkable.’

‘Yet I wasn’t good enough.’

‘Console yourself with the fact that there are few who would have been.’ The woman gathered her long mane of hair over one shoulder and began pulling a shell comb through it. Kiska watched. Despite her resentment, she felt the magic of the familiar ritual stealing over her as her limbs relaxed, and the knot of her shoulders eased. She remembered standing behind the woman on so many nights doing that very brushing, counting every stroke. ‘So what did you intend?’ Agayla asked, after a time.

‘A proposition for whoever opened that door.’

The brushing paused; dark eyes regarded her, glittering. ‘A proposition of what?’

‘A service for a service. They help me find him and I will serve them.’

The woman set down the comb. ‘A very dangerous gamble.’

‘What? Entering the grounds?’

‘No. Dangerous should they, or it, actually accept your offer.’

To hide her irritation at that familiar high-handedness, Kiska looked away, to where sacks of some sort of dried leaves sat slumped and threadbare. ‘It is no longer for you to say, Agayla. I was Tayschrenn’s bodyguard for a decade. I travelled with him to negotiate treaties. Met an ambassador sent from Anomander Rake himself. I have visited Darujhistan where we met a delegation of ex-Free City mages. I now know you for a talented practitioner in your own way, Agayla. At least here on this island. But this is a very small island. And these are larger matters.’

The woman’s thick dark brows climbed higher than Kiska had ever seen. ‘Oho! I see the way the tiles have fallen now. Quite sufficient, am I, for curing the pox? Or helping out the local girls who have gotten themselves into trouble, yes?’

‘No offence, auntie — but have you even left the island?’

Agayla knotted her hair into one long braid. ‘This island hedge-witch can be of no help to one like yourself who has moved in such high and mighty circles, hmm?’

‘Agayla…’

‘Just call the wind and make my candles, shall I?’

Kiska simply hung her head and waited for the storm to blow itself out. Eventually she said, studying her hands on her lap, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘You’re young yet, child,’ Agayla said, her voice softening. ‘Full of yourself. Quite certain you know the way of things now that you’ve seen the world. When in truth you’ve hardly even begun your education.’

Kiska’s head snapped up. ‘Don’t treat me like a child. I may still be so in your memories, but I have moved on. I am a grown woman now and I will make my own decisions.’ She steeled herself for more argument but it never came. Her aunt merely inclined her head, conceding the point.

‘True. To me, you will always be that child whose cries I soothed, whose hands I guided. Nothing can ever change that.’ She bound up the thick coil of her hair. ‘So enough talk for tonight. Sleep. Your bed remains. Things may look different in the morning.’

And Kiska eased back into her chair, let her hands rest on her lap. She was tired. The soup was a warm caress in her stomach. Nodding, she stood and made her way to the rear of the shop where a narrow stairway led up to her old room.

‘Sleep,’ Agayla murmured to her retreating back, her eyes narrowed once more. And more softly yet, ‘And dream.’

When she was alone, Agayla crossed the shop to the latest tapestry stretched upon her loom. She set her feet on the pedals and pushed the shuttle across the weave, then reset the pattern. She worked on towards dawn, the frame rattling as the threads crossed, the wooden shuttle making its countless passes. As she worked she cast her mind far from the task at hand; her fingers moved automatically; her gaze was unfocused, seeking deep into the dazzling pattern emerging from the weft.

‘Enchantress,’ she entreated. ‘This lowly servant would seek counsel. Bless this one with your guidance.’

For every pass of the shuttle was a prayer sent; every shift in the woof a revelation. ‘O Queen-’

And came the answer, that cool gentle voice so familiar: Greetings, Agayla Atheduru Remejhel. Most valued servant. Always I welcome your wisdom.

‘My Queen. I beg an audience. News has come. Though my heart is heavy with the weight of it, I may have an answer to that problem we have spoken of.’

And the answer came, full of understanding and thus sharing in that same heaviness: Bring her.

Agayla clamped her hands upon the loom, stilling the mechanism. She blinked to return her vision to the dawn’s light. It took many slow breaths to calm the hammering of her heart. An audience. It has been so many years. Oh, Kiska… what have I done? Yet how else could I stop you? She saw before her how her tears darkened the polished wood.

At night in an alley in Banith, four men dressed in loose dark clothes crouched, whispering. ‘All we have to do is walk in!’ said one. ‘The door isn’t even locked.’

‘This foreigner claims he keeps it open,’ added the second, aside.

‘It’s open. What are we waiting for?’

After a moment’s silence, the third cleared his throat. ‘It’s consecrated ground. We shouldn’t spill blood there.’

‘Consecrated to what?’ said the first. ‘Some nameless foreign entity? The man’s a charlatan. A fake. He’s just pocketing everything. It’s a mockery.’

‘No one’s seen him take any coin from anyone,’ pointed out the third.

‘He eats, doesn’t he?’ the first answered. The third nodded, conceding the argument.

‘Perhaps he eats what his followers provide,’ a new voice rumbled from the deeper gloom within the alley.

The four spun. Eight blades glittered in the starlight.

‘Whoever you are, stranger,’ said the first, ‘turn round now and walk away. Listen to me. I’m giving you this one chance.’

The figure moved closer and the faint silver light revealed a huge shape, unnaturally tall and wide, much of his height coming from a great mane of tangled black hair. ‘As you can see,’ the newcomer said, ‘turning around is out of the question for me. You’ll have to back out yourselves.’

‘Are you a fool? Can’t you see?’

‘Yes I can — better than you, I suspect. As to being a fool… no, I am a thief.’

‘A thief?’ the second echoed in disbelief. He looked the giant figure up and down. ‘How could you possibly steal anything?’

‘Oh, that’s easy. Like this,’ and the figure leaned forward, lowering his voice. ‘Give me your money.’

The four exchanged confused glances, then all chuckled. ‘You’re trying my patience,’ the first warned, his voice tight.

‘No. I’m trying to take your money.’

The grins fell away. The first and the second, paired side by side, edged forward, blades extended. ‘Go now — or die.’

‘As I said, I cannot back up. And besides, one of my favourite foot-stalls is there across the street.’

‘Die a fool then!’ The two lunged. Blades thudded home, driven with force. The broad figure grunted with the strength of the thrusts. Then the two assailants loosed surprised exclamations as they yanked on the blades. ‘Stuck!’ one snarled. The newcomer swept his arms closed, crashing together the two men who fell, senseless.

‘There. Now, you two?’ the immense figure invited, stepping over the fallen shapes. The remaining pair stared for an instant at this astounding vision, then turned and ran.

‘Damn,’ the huge man said into the emptiness of the alley. He made to turn but his bulging front and back lodged against the walls of the narrow alley and he cursed again in a different language. After grunting and straining to turn round, he abandoned the effort and carefully walked backwards. He felt behind himself with each step until the two fallen attackers lay before him once more. ‘Simplicity itself,’ he said, and brushed his hands together. ‘Now then.’ He bent, grunting, reaching with a hand for one of the unconscious shapes. Sighing, he straightened then tried again with the opposite hand. He reached, cursing and hissing. His fingers clawed the air just above the shoulder of his prey.

Gasping, the man straightened to suck in great breaths. He pulled out a cloth and wiped his glistening flushed face. ‘Ah, of course!’ he murmured, smiling, and patted the loose robes that hung down over his wide armoured chest and stomach. He found a dagger grip standing out from his side and he yanked on it, grunting. After several tries he managed to withdraw the blade. He studied it, impressed. One of the fallen attackers groaned then, stirring, and the fellow reversed the dagger and threw it down to crack pommel-first against the man’s head. Then he found the second blade and began yanking on it, snarling and grumbling beneath his breath again.

‘What do you think you’re doing here, Manask?’

The giant flinched, jerking the dagger free and dropping it. He blinked mildly at the squat muscular newcomer before him. ‘Ipshank. Fancy meeting you here.’

The man scowled, the lines of tattoos on his face twisting. ‘I live here, Manask. This is my temple.’

‘Ah!’ Manask took hold of another lodged dagger. ‘Is that what you call it?’ He pulled on the weapon, wrenching it from side to side. ‘But I recall… hearing that… Fener is no more!’ The blade came free and he studied it, pleased.

‘I’ve found a new god.’

‘Oh? A new one?’ The tall man held out a hand, thumb and forefinger close together. ‘Perhaps a tiny baby one?’

‘Spare me your scepticism. I see you still have your, ah, armour.’

Manask clasped his wide sides. ‘Why of course. It’s like my own flesh and blood.’

‘Exactly,’ Ipshank answered beneath his breath. He kicked at one fallen man. ‘Who’s this?’

‘Ahhh!’ Manask murmured, holding up the dagger. ‘A question very pertinent for you.’ Bending, he pushed the blade through the clothes of one fellow, then raised the weapon to bring the unconscious man into reach and grasped him with his free hand. All this Ipshank watched expressionless, arms crossed.

‘You are making powerful enemies, my friend,’ the big man explained as he rifled the attacker’s clothes. ‘These men work for the City Watch.’ A pouch of coins and other weapons were tucked into pockets hidden all about Manask’s loose robes. Finished, he dropped the fellow and bent to the next.

‘I don’t want you interfering. You’ll only ruin everything.’

Manask peered up, grinning, ‘Oh? Ruin what?’

Ipshank mouthed a silent curse. ‘Nothing.’

‘Oho! I knew it!’ Manask straightened with the second assailant. ‘A new scam. I’ll have your back again — just like the old days.’

The priest raised his face to the night sky and the boar’s face superimposed in faded blue ink stood out in sudden relief. He gave a suffering sigh. ‘No, Manask. No more tricks. No more deceits. I’m finished. Retired. Do me a favour now and don’t hang around.’ Down on the littered cobbles the first attacker groaned, mumbling something and wincing his pain. Ipshank kicked him across the temple.

The big man let the second fellow drop. ‘Now don’t get greedy. We’ve always split the gains. You’re not going all priestly on me, are you?’

‘How many times do I have to tell you? There’ll be no proceeds from this operation, Manask. Not the tangible kind, in any case.’

Manask clasped his fingertips across the top of his great bulging front and peered down at the squat man before him. His tangled brows knitted together. ‘Oh dear. You are going all religious in your old age, aren’t you? Very well. If you must indulge your guilty conscience. Temples do as well as any other racket — better than many.’

Ipshank pressed his fists to his forehead. ‘How many times do I have to…’ The fists fell. ‘Never mind. Do as you will. As far as I’m concerned we’re no longer associated. Don’t expect anything from me.’ And he marched away, grumbling under his breath.

Manask stood for a time in the dark alley, fingertips clasped and brows clenched. Then a sly smile blossomed on his long face and he raised a finger, chuckling. ‘Ahh! So that’s how we’re going to play it! I see it now. A falling out! Very good. No one will suspect.’ He chuckled more, tried to turn and jammed his stomach on the brick wall. ‘Damn! Curse it to the Dark Taker…’ He clasped his front in an attempt to squeeze himself, hissing and puffing. ‘Oh, to the Lady with it!’ He began feeling his way backwards. ‘Oh yes,’ he murmured as he retreated into the gloom. ‘We’ll fleece these Fistians to the bone, my friend. I can smell it in the air, the turmoil, the tension, and — oh dear — what have I stepped in?’

Esslemont, Ian Cameron

Stonewielder

CHAPTER II

Point to the sky

Point to the ground

Point to the ocean all around

Spin your top

Spin your top

All fall down!

Children’s rhyme Traditional Korel Isles

Hisname was not Suth, but the Malazan recruiting officer at the station kept open year round just north of the Dal Hon lands shortened it into that and so was he entered into official Malazan rolls. He didn’t care. Names others chose to call one did not matter. People would use whatever forms of address they wished. These were merely terms imposed from without. For Suthahl ’Ani, the only thing that really mattered was what one named oneself.

And perhaps it was this indifference to names and the petty rivalries and contests for status among the new recruits, male and female, that prevented Suth from attracting yet another name — a nickname to be used within the ranks like so many of the recruits’: Dim, Worm, Lard, Roach or Thumbs.

He’d joined because of the stories of great battles up north, but when he got there all the fighting was over. Only the talking remained — too much talking for his liking. Boasting and storytelling. The cheap puffery of those who were cowards on the field, for only those who ran or hid from the fighting could have survived the slaughters they described.

Now he and a handful of recruits had been assigned their squads. After basic training on the march, he, Dim, and Lard ended up in the 17th Squad, 4th Company, 2nd Division, Malazan Fourth Army, encamped in the hills and coastline around the capital city, Unta. He felt privileged; instead of squatting under ponchos or makeshift tents in the rain, the 17th actually inhabited a thatch-roofed fisherman’s cottage, either abandoned, or seized. He wondered if perhaps the reason the squad rated such luxury was the man who met them in the night and beating downpour just outside its doorway.

He wore a battered janzerian cuirass with scaled armoured sleeves. A well-worn longsword hung peace-strapped at his belt. The rain ran down the mail coif under his plain iron helmet. Pale, mild eyes looked them up and down from beneath the dark rim of that helmet.

‘Welcome to the 17th,’ the man said in a surprisingly soft voice. He spoke the common Imperial dialect, Talian, close enough to Suth’s own Dal Hon. ‘I’m your sergeant, Goss. You three are here because you’re classed as heavies, and the 17th has always been a heavy infantry squad.’ He pointed to Lard. ‘What’s your name, soldier?’

‘Weveth Lethall,’ said Lard.

Their sergeant looked the hulking fellow up and down again. ‘You sure? Not Fatty? Or Bhederin? Or Ox?’

‘We call him Lard,’ said Dim, grinning good-naturedly.

‘And you?’

‘Dim.’

‘Right.’ He raised his chin to Suth. ‘You?’

‘Suth.’

‘Suth? What kind of name is that?’

‘It’s a name.’

‘Well, that it is. Okay, you three can sleep inside. I’ll see about getting you kitted out.’ And he remained, motionless, in front of them. It seemed to Suth that the man was waiting for something. Then he remembered his training and he saluted. Dim and Lard followed suit. Goss answered the salute. ‘Right. See you later.’

Their sergeant disappeared into the sheeting rain. Suth, Dim and Lard exchanged glances. Lard shrugged and headed to the open doorway. Suth and Dim followed. Inside, embers glowed in a stone hearth, old straw lay kicked about over a beaten dirt floor. A small, rat-faced fellow sat at a table of adzed planks, smoking a pipe. It was warm and humid and stank of sweat and manure. Lard headed to an inner door.

The little man’s eyes followed him. ‘Un-uh…’ he warned, his small pointy teeth clenched tight on the white clay pipe stem.

‘The sergeant told us to sleep in here,’ Lard said, testy. Suth wiped the rain from his face.

‘I know what he said. You three sleep here.’ He pointed to the floor.

‘What? On the floor? In the dirt?’

‘That or outside.’ He blew smoke from his pinched nose. ‘Your choice.’

‘And who’re you?’

‘Faro’s the name.’

‘Why in Hood’s name should we listen to you?’

‘’Cause it would be smart to play along till you know the rules.’ And he bared his tiny white teeth.

Shrugging, Suth sat next to the hearth and gathered up an armful of straw. Dim sat heavily across from him, grinning. He leaned close: ‘Just like home!’

Suth said nothing, but it was in fact just like home, hugging the firepit for warmth after minding the herd in the rain all day.

Lard sat awkwardly, cursing and grumbling. ‘Gave up a goddamned warm bed for this! Should’ve stayed home. Fucking choices I make.’

Suth lay down facing the glowing hearth, ignoring the stink of his soaked leather jerkin, his itching wool trousers, and heavy sodden rag wraps at his legs. He hoped to all the Dal Hon gods that the man would soon shut up.

A kick woke him to light streaming in the open doorway. He’d managed to sleep despite the scratchy clothes these Malazans had issued him, despite his hunger, and despite the massive passing of gas from his two ox-like companions. Someone was leaning over him, offering something — a beast’s horn.

‘Take it, it’s hot.’ He was an older fellow, a veteran, not their sergeant, his voice dry-sand hoarse.

‘Thanks.’ It was hot. A kind of weak tea. ‘I’m new.’

A tired indulgent smile drew up the man’s lips as if to hint at all the oh-so-smart comments he could make in response to that painfully obvious statement, but that he was far above scoring such easy points. A grey beard, hacked short, surrounded that mouth, and dark eyes peered out of deep wells of hatched lines. ‘Len’s the name. Sapper.’

‘Suth.’

‘Good to have you.’

Suth peered down at his snoring companions. ‘Let ’em rest,’ said Len. ‘Have to brew up more tea.’

The sunlight glare from the door was obscured and Suth shaded his gaze and stared at what he saw there. It was singularly the most unfavoured female he had ever set eyes on. She wore a dirty tattered uniform of a grey jupon over old leathers, was skinny to the point of malnourished, and even the bulging eyes that appeared to look in both directions at once couldn’t draw all attention away from a mouthful of uneven, yellowed teeth. ‘Where’s Hunter?’ she demanded.

‘Out. What’s the word, Urfa?’

The bulging eyes swivelled to focus on Suth; she appeared to ignore Len’s question. ‘More heavies,’ she announced, her mouth drawing down, musing. ‘Heavies and saboteurs is all we got. Hardly any lights or cav. Looks like it’s shaping into an assault on strong fortifications. Maybe south Genabackis.’

‘South Genabackis is a pest hole,’ Len observed. ‘And there ain’t nothin’ there worth assaulting. Not even their women.’

‘There’s Elingarth.’

‘No one’s that stupid.’

‘There’s that island off the coast. Saw it on a chart once. Somethin’ like… “the Island of the Seguleh”.’

Len choked on his own horn of tea. ‘Sure, all fifteen thousand of us might manage to take one fishing village on that island.’

She smiled, showing off her ragged teeth. ‘Just lookin’ on the bright side. Anyways, word is we’re shipping out so pack your bag of tricks and have one last screw with whichever sheep it is you found.’

‘The one better looking than you, Urfa,’ said Len, smiling.

‘Must be that old goat smell on you.’

Grinning, Len saluted and she responded. ‘Tell Hunter,’ she said and left.

Dim grunted then, blinking and smacking his lips.

‘Who was that?’ Suth asked.

‘Lieutenant Urfa. She commands the sappers, the saboteurs, in the company.’

‘Lieutenant?’

‘Aye.’ Len kicked Lard, who grunted. ‘There’s tea to brew,’ he told them. ‘Gotta find Hunter — that’s Goss — the sergeant.’

Suth saluted. Len waved it aside. ‘See you later.’

While Dim and Lard fussed over the pot on the hearth, Suth went out. A heavy low morning mist obscured the hillsides. It mingled with the thick white smoke of the countless fires of an army encamped and burning any wood it could scavenge, all green and unseasoned. In the distance the waters of Unta Bay seemed to lie motionless, dull and grey. A flotilla of ships of all sizes jammed the shallows. Their transport? The damp cold bit at Suth and he rubbed his arms for warmth; it was never this bad on the steppes.

Ox-drawn carts lumbered past, moving materiel down to the shore. Squads of soldiers marched by in that direction as well. One woman approached upslope, against the tide. She was tall — strapping, his father might have said — and she carried loose bundles of gear under her arms. She wore a padded leather shirt and trousers such as might be worn under heavy metal armour. She dropped the bundles on the dry porch of the cottage and nodded to Suth. Her olive complexion and hacked-short night-black hair identified her as Kanese, the only nation able to war with any success against his own Dal Hon league of kingdoms. But the women of Itko Kan were supposed to be tiny demure things. This woman was a giant, fully as tall as he, with the breadth across the shoulders of a heavy sword wielder.

‘Yana,’ she said, introducing herself.

‘Suth.’

‘Suth? That doesn’t sound Dal Honese.’

‘It’s not.’

A grunt of understanding. Dim and Lard staggered out, blinking. Lard turned to the wall, untied the lacing at the front of his trousers and let loose a great stream of piss that hissed against the mud-chinked planking.

‘Next time try the privy out back,’ Yana drawled.

Lard turned, tying up the lacing, and winked. ‘Gonna hold it for me too?’

‘Not even if I could find it.’ She motioned to the bundles. ‘These are for you, armour and weapons.’ Suth knelt at the nearest, began untying the leather strapping. Rolled around the outside was a padded leather and felt undergarment, called an aketon by his people, fully sleeved. When he pulled it over his head it hung down to his knees. Inside the bundle he was amazed to see two halves of a cuirass of banded iron, a hauberk with mailed sleeves, and a sheathed longsword. When he forced his arms through the hauberk and pulled it down, it hung just shorter than the aketon. Next he pulled on the cuirass and began lacing up the open side. He was stunned; among his own people only a king could afford such a set. How the Malazans had acquired such bounty, however, was revealed by the black stain of dried blood on one side and the gap between bands where a broad blade had penetrated.

Lard was holding up his own shirt of scaled armour and scowling. ‘What is this beat-up old shit?’

That comment offended Yana far more than the earlier jibe. She eyed Lard the way he was examining his armour. ‘Goss had to beg and trade all night to pull this gear together so you’d better appreciate it. It’s that or nothing.’ She turned to Dim. ‘What do you say?’

The man actually blushed beneath his tangled dirty-blond hair. ‘Good as Burn’s own blessing.’

‘And you, Suth?’

‘Far more than I was expecting.’

Yana grunted. ‘Damn right. Well, you’re heavies, and of the 17th. So you should at least last the first exchange.’ She raised her chin, peering in past them. ‘Pyke — you still in there?’

A muffled complaint answered.

‘Pack everything up. We’re shipping out.’

‘What am I? The Hood-damned servant?’

‘You’re last, is what you are. As usual. Okay, you three,’ she motioned to equipment piled at one end of the porch, ‘pick that up and come with me.’

Dim saluted but Yana stared, her brown eyes narrowing. ‘What was that for?’

‘You’re not the, ah, corporal?’

‘No. Pyke is.’

Dim hiked up his bundled armour and a roll of gear. ‘But you’re actin’ like it, ’n’ all.’

‘That’s because Pyke’s a worthless lazy bastard, that’s why.’

‘I heard that, you sexless bitch!’ Pyke yelled from within.

Yana ignored the disembodied voice. ‘C’mon, let’s go.’

They followed Yana. Suth adjusted his belt and sheath one-handed, a roped bundle under one arm. Around them the press thickened until they could advance no further and they joined one of many ragged lines of men and women squatting and sitting on the trampled muddy grass among rolls and crates of packed equipment.

‘Where’re we headed?’ Dim asked.

‘They don’t tell us,’ Yana answered mildly, scanning the nearby faces. She nodded and greeted many.

‘A woman came by earlier to talk to Len,’ Suth said. ‘A Lieutenant Urfa.’

Yana grunted. ‘There’s a crazy one. Get us all killed, she will. Sappers an’ their cracked schemes.’

Lard was examining his weapon, a heavy cutlass. ‘There was a guy in the cottage last night. Said his name was Faro.’

The woman was quiet for a time. ‘Faro’s a killer. The kind who’d be executed in peacetime, if you know what I mean. Stay out of his way. He answers only to Goss.’

‘And Goss — his other name is Hunter?’ Suth asked.

She turned to study him. ‘Where’d you hear that?’

‘Urfa said it.’

Yana grunted her understanding. ‘Well, forget it. It’s not a name for you.’

The morning warmed, the mist burning off. Clouds of tiny flies tormented everyone. The cacophony of lowing and complaining animals, shouting men and women, and screeching ungreased cartwheels kept Suth from dozing. He watched all the materiel being carried across long plank walkways laid over the mudflats out to waiting launches. He did not know ships — had only seen the ocean twice — but the vessels anchored in the bay did not seem to have a military cut to them. They looked instead like lumbering, ungainly merchant scows.

‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but I am so hungry,’ Dim finally announced after sighing and grimacing in vain. ‘We haven’t eaten since yesterday noon.’

Yana grunted again — it seemed her normal way of communicating. She stood. ‘I’ll see what I can roust up. You lot stay here.’

Noon passed and Yana did not return. Suth wondered whether they’d met everyone in their squad; he suspected not. A gang of men and women came and sat among the crates and bundles of equipment piled just ahead of them, then collected it all and began moving off. Suth, Dim, and Lard watched until they started gathering up their own squad’s gear in the process. Lard jumped to his feet. ‘Hey! That’s ours.’

The others froze. ‘Don’t try an’ be smart,’ said one fellow, offended. ‘We left all this here earlier.’

Suth and Dim stood. Lard grabbed one bundle. ‘Well, these ones are ours.’

‘Piss off. It’s all the same, okay?’

‘Then leave it,’ Suth suggested gently.

The gang — a full squad, Suth assumed — set everything down and straightened. Eight against their three. A challenging fight. He began unbuckling his sword belt.

The eight glanced to one another, smiling slyly. ‘Don’t be fools,’ the spokesman said. ‘It ain’t worth it.’

‘As I see it,’ Lard said, ‘you can either leave the gear or take a beating.’ He smiled as well. ‘Your choice.’

The eight began spreading out in a broad circle surrounding them. The spokesman, a scarred squat veteran, remained. He raised his hands, open and empty. ‘All right. You got more than talk?’

‘I got this,’ Lard said, and he swung one great fist.

The spokesman ducked under the wild swing and his fist cracked against Lard’s head. Suth winced at the solid smack of the blow. Lard straightened up to his full considerable height and rubbed his jaw. ‘Good shot.’

A crowd drawn from the nearby lines gathered around. Suth heard bets shouted, and a name, Keth, repeated. Lard swung broadly again, and again Keth, if that was his name, easily evaded the blow to hammer Lard with solid blows to the stomach and head.

But nothing fazed the big man as he relentlessly stalked the quicker fellow. Eventually, Lard caught Keth by one arm and drew him into a great hug, lifted him over his head, and brought him down crashing on top of a crate that collapsed, shattering. Amid a shower of sawdust and cloth rags a handful of small dark green globes rolled out on to the mud.

Immediately, everyone was silenced. Eyes bulged, staring. Suth glanced about, bemused. As quickly as it had come the crowd vanished. Even the other squad picked up their stunned comrade and melted away. Suth and Dim went to Lard who was puffing, winded, wiping at the blood running generously from his split brow and cheek.

‘Dumbass heavies,’ a woman grumbled, and they turned.

Two of the crowd had remained, a woman and the saboteur, Len. Ignoring the three of them, they knelt at the broken crate.

‘This shouldn’t be here,’ the woman said, and her gaze snapped up, glancing about.

‘Lifted,’ Len said, his voice a croak.

The two shared looks that struck Suth as fully the most gleeful and evil he’d seen in a long time. They scrounged blankets and ponchos to quickly cover the wreckage. Suth, Dim and Lard watched, bemused.

Everything covered, Len finally turned to Suth, though his gaze kept darting about the flats. ‘Dim and Lard,’ Suth introduced his companions. ‘Len.’

‘Keri,’ Len said, indicating the woman. She nodded while one by one gently wrapping the globes in rags and packing them into a shoulder bag.

‘I need another bag,’ she told Len, who nodded and began searching among the gear.

‘What’s going on?’ Suth asked.

‘Munitions,’ Len said. He looked up. ‘Know what I mean?’

Suth had heard of them; he nodded. Lard grunted his understanding, even conveying a measure of wonder. Dim just looked confused.

Shortly after Keri and Len had finished packing all the munitions Yana came up with a burlap sack in one hand. This she handed to Suth. ‘Share it out.’ To Len, ‘What happened here?’

The two saboteurs looked as if they were not sure which story to try. Suth said, ‘Some crates got dropped.’ Len shot him a wink.

Yana grunted her disinterest. ‘Clean up and we’ll go. I found Goss. We got our berth assignment. Pick everything up.’ She eyed Lard. ‘What in Soliel’s mercy happened to you?’

The man wiped blood from his mouth, offered a defiant smile. ‘I fell down.’

Their berthing was aboard the converted Cawnese merchant caravel, Lasana.. Here Suth was introduced to the remaining members of the squad, Wess and Pyke, both heavy infantry. In fact, the Lasana was fairly groaning under the weight of heavy infantry. It carried some four hundred men and women of the 4th Company, nearly all heavies, with a sprinkling of saboteurs. It looked to Suth as if Urfa’s predictions were correct; wherever they were headed the Malazans must be counting on an ugly fight. Wess was already asleep in one of the rows of hammocks assigned. It was a mystery to Suth how the man could be sleeping given the shattering chaos of loading. Pyke was a tall lanky veteran who ignored the three newcomers. Everyone shoved their gear into hammocks until Yana told them not to because they’d be sharing them with others rotating in eight-hour shifts. Len motioned to pegs where, like bodies impaled in the dark, kit bags of clothing and pieces of armour swung already.

‘Where’s Goss?’ Yana asked Pyke.

‘Up top.’

‘Okay.’ To everyone: ‘Stow your gear and head up top to keep this area clear.’

Suth pulled off his armour and hung it but Len took it down and handed it back. ‘Clean, repair, and oil it.’

‘I have nothing to use.’

‘I do.’

‘Thank you.’

The old saboteur waved that aside and headed back out to the companionway. Suth followed. He had to hunch almost double to manage the cramped quarters. They found the deck crammed with soldiers. So thick was the press that the sailors found it almost impossible to do their tasks. There was little work for them, however, as departure was delayed and delayed and then delayed some more. It was the night tide before any of the vessels began making their slow, awkward way out of the bay.

Suth and Dim sat with Len, their armour across their laps, as the man educated them in the care of their newfound riches. Half the time, though, Suth listened to the rumours circulating around them. They were headed north to Seven Cities to consolidate its pacification. To north Genabackis to relieve the 5th. East, to central Genabackis to occupy some rich city called Darujhistan. Or on to south Genabackis to initiate a new front.

Finally Suth asked Len, ‘Where are we headed?’

The veteran just frowned over the leathers he was sewing. ‘Doesn’t matter. Everywhere’s the same for us.’

Suth understood the cold reasoning behind that, yet this was a good deal farther than he’d ever imagined his vow to join the Malazans would take him. ‘Where do you think we’re headed?’

Len looked up, squinted into the clouded eastern night sky. ‘Well, it sounds to me like all this speculation on where we might be headed is shying scared from one of the possibilities. The one no one wants to consider.’

‘Which is what, old timer?’ a nearby soldier asked, and he raised a hand to silence his companions.

Len shrugged. ‘That we’re headed south, to Korel lands.’

‘That’s just so much horseshit!’ the soldier yelled. Everyone began talking at once. Suth watched, amazed, as this version became the new rumour, to spread like ripples over the crowded deck, outward to the rear and to the front, raising shouts of alarm and even horror as it went.

‘Go to Hood, old man!’ shouted the soldier who’d asked for Len’s opinion in the first place.

Len merely offered Suth a knowing grin. ‘See how you should always keep your mouth shut? People only want to hear what they want to hear.’

Suth agreed. It had also occurred to him that all the speculation involving Genabackis and some city named Darujhistan seemed to be where the speakers wanted to go more than where they thought they might be going. Everyone wanted to head to overseas postings in Genabackis, or even Seven Cities.

His own personal philosophy on life told him that, therefore, that was exactly where they were not headed. This name, Korel, he’d heard once or twice before. It was always mentioned more as a curse than anything. It was considered the very worst, the ugliest of all the holdings of the far-flung Malazan Empire. Well, he’d joined to be tested, and it looked as though he might be headed into one of the sternest trials of his life. That was good. It would be a waste of his time otherwise.

The street orphans were out playing on the courtyard across the way from the temple. Ella squatted on the threshold, preparing the midday meal while keeping one affectionate eye on them. She could hardly believe that just a few years ago she ran with her own gang of urchins. She saw hardly any of them any more. The Watch beat Harl to death as a probable thief. Peek disappeared entirely; and the pimps took Tillin. That would have been her fate had she not started listening to the priest.

It was here she had run when the trolling party had come for her: hired thugs on a sweep for young girls and boys to feed the brothels and slave markets all across the archipelago. And it was on this threshold that the priest faced them. One unarmed man against seven armed, and they backed down. She pounded the pestle and shook her head. The priest. She still could not understand him. He was like nothing from her experience as a child, abandoned to fend for herself on the streets of Banith. An extremely narrow education, she could admit. A school of casual violence, constant hunger, exploitation, and rape.

Yet not once had the priest indulged in similar practices — the stronger exacting what they wished from the weaker, including sexual gratification. Not that the man was a eunuch. It seemed that he simply refused to accept all the old, traditional ways of doing things. ‘Haven’t got us very far, have they?’ he once told her.

Giggling brought her attention back to her surroundings. A crowd of dirty grinning faces in a half-circle before her. ‘Lunch time, is it?’ Obeying the rules of the street, the feral children said nothing lest they misstep and lose their chance for a meal. They grinned instead, as if happy, and ‘made cute’ as they used to call it in her time. But in their too-bright shining eyes she saw the merciless torment of constant nagging hunger. She reached to the basket at her side, folded back the cloth across it, and distributed the small flatbreads she’d baked earlier that day. Laughing, they snatched their prizes and ran, shoving everything into their mouths before anyone, or anything, could steal it from them.

One young girl remained. Her clothes were finer than the rest, though just as torn and grimed. The bread remained in one hand. She watched Ella with large dark eyes, curiously calm and solemn. Ella returned to preparing the priest’s meal. ‘What is it, child?’ she asked.

‘Is this the house of the foreign holy man?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is it true that he eats babies?’

She stopped her pounding. ‘What?’

‘That’s what everyone says.’

Ella rocked back on her haunches, eyed the crowded square, the small day-market, the touts and hawkers jostling pilgrims just off the boats as they milled, organizing a procession to the Cloister. ‘So that’s what they say…’ she breathed.

‘Yes. They say that at night he changes into a beast and steals babies from houses and eats their hearts.’

‘What do you think?’ Ella asked, strangely unnerved by the child’s grisly imagination.

The girl pushed her tangled hair from her pale brow. Very pale — not of Fist? Fathered by a Malazan occupier perhaps? As she suspected she had been herself? The girl cocked her head, thinking. ‘Oh, I don’t think he does any of those things. I think he’s much more dangerous than that.’

Ella stared anew at this strange child. What an odd thing to say. But the child just smiled, her eyes almost mocking, and twirling a pinch of hair in her fingers, ‘making cute’, she wandered off. Watching her go, Ella was struck most not by the child’s precocious self-possession, her assured manner, or what she’d said. Rather, it was the fact that of the pack of hungry street urchins careering around her, most by far bigger and older, not one attempted to snatch the bread held so casually in one small hand.

Later she was arranging the sauce and boiled fish on a platter for the priest when everything changed out among the crowd in the square. A child of these streets, and sensitive to their moods, she stilled as well. The urchins were gone, as were the older idlers; the shouting of the merchants had quietened, as had the general talk. In the hush Ella heard the approach of a measured tramp of boots. A Malazan patrol.

Even the pilgrims paused in their reverences, hands raised in supplication to the towers of the Cloister. The column entered the square from a side street, marched across the broad open expanse. All eyes followed its progress. A standard preceded them, a black cloth bearing the Imperial sceptre. Their surcoats were a dark grey edged in blood red. As the column tramped past the front of the temple a detachment separated and halted. It was led by a figure familiar to all those of the Banith waterfront, Sergeant Billouth, main extortionist and strong arm of the local commander, Captain Karien’el.

‘The priest here?’ Billouth demanded in accented Roolian.

She bowed. ‘I’ll see…’

‘Yes?’ It was the priest in the doorway, a robe open to his waist showing his thick chest and bulging stomach, both covered in a thick pelt of bristle-like hair and the blue curls of tattooing. Ella looked away; she’d glimpsed before that the marks extended well beyond his face, but never guessed they descended quite so far. ‘What is it?’

‘We’re looking for a man,’ Billouth said, and he crossed his arms over his studded leather hauberk, a pleased smile growing on his lips. ‘A criminal fugitive. A thief. Big fellow. Said to hang out in the neighbourhood.’ He leaned forward, lowering his voice. ‘Know anything that could help us?’

The priest’s expression didn’t change. ‘No.’

Ella lowered her gaze.

‘Really? You wouldn’t be withholding information, would you? Because when we catch this fellow and squeeze him… Well, that would be bad news for you.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Billouth ran the back of a hand over his unshaven jowls. ‘If you say so. But I think we’ll be talking again real soon,’ and he winked. Straightening, the sergeant raised his voice. ‘Thank you very much for all the information, Priest. A lot of locals will end up dancing on the Stormwall thanks to you.’

Ella gaped. But he’d said nothing!

Billouth waved the detachment onward, saluted the priest.

Bastard, the priest mouthed.

Ella stood watching the Malazans march away, their wicked grins at the trouble they’d stirred up, hating them. The priest took the tray from her. ‘Thank you, Ella.’

‘They want you gone.’

‘Yes.’

‘Why don’t they just… you know…’

‘Get rid of me?’

‘Yes.’

His wide frog mouth twisted up. ‘They’ve tried. A number of times. Right now it’s an uneasy truce.’ He shrugged. ‘But why should they bother when they can get the locals to do it for them?’ He ducked inside.

Ella gasped, seeing it now. She followed him inside. ‘Rumours! They’re spreading rumours about you!’

‘Yes. Them and someone else. The priests at the Cloister, I imagine.’ He sat cross-legged on a mat to eat.

‘But why should they do that?’

He shrugged again. ‘They’re on top and I’m an unknown to them. Any possible change is a threat to their position. So their reaction is to suppress.’

Ella rounded on the entrance as if she would march out to confront them all. ‘But why? You let the homeless kids sleep here. You give shelter and food to the debtors.’

‘And I extort money and sex for the privilege, yes?’

She lowered her gaze, feeling her own face heat. ‘I’d heard that one too.’

He nodded thoughtfully, chewing. ‘They might even believe it, seeing as in their hearts they know that’s what they’d do in my place. But that’s not what I’m here for.’

Surprising herself, she asked in a small voice, ‘What are you here for?’

Still nodding, he spoke, his gaze lowered to his food. ‘I’ve seen religion from the top and from the bottom, Ella. I’ve been intimate with faith all my life. And it occurs to me that the transfixion of ecstasy, the transporting feeling of being one with a god, is the same everywhere. It matters not what image or idol is bowed to or hangs on the wall, be it the cowled figure of Hood, or a severed bull’s head. It’s all the same because the sensation, the feeling, is the same as it comes from within all of us. From inside. Not without.’ He looked up, his gaze narrowed. ‘That’s the important point. It is a natural innate emotion, a human quality, that can be exploited. That’s why I’m here.’

At some point Ella had clasped a hand to her throat as if to assure herself that she could still breathe. Taking that deep breath, she bowed to the priest and left the empty room for the cool outside. In the small front court she forced her chest to relax, drawing deep the refreshing air to stop her head from spinning. That eerie child was right. This man was somehow much more dangerous than anyone could possibly suspect.

And the question for her was, dare she follow? She saw how till now her life had been nothing more than a mad scramble to fill her stomach, avoid danger, find shelter. Now something more had been shown her; so much that she’d never even suspected existed in the world. She felt as if she’d been granted a glimpse of something terrifyingly huge, yet also awe-inspiring, impossibly grand. Oddly enough she felt humility in the glimpsing of it rather than the puffed-up self-importance she’d met in those claiming to be filled with the spirit of the gods. Was this sensation what the priest meant? If so, she knew immediately she would follow without hesitation. It felt right. Which, she supposed, was its strength, and its danger.

Ivanr spotted the mounted column when it entered the north cleft of the valley his fields overlooked. He could run, he supposed, abandon his home and all he’d worked so hard to build these last few years. But something prevented him. A kind of obtuse stubbornness that asserted itself always at the most inconvenient of times. Besides, there was a chance that they weren’t after him anyway. So it was that the column of Jourilan cavalry encircled him while he leaned on his hoe amid his field of beans.

Its captain drew off his helmet and the felt cap he wore beneath, then pushed back his matted sweaty hair. He inclined his head in greeting. ‘Ivanr of Antr. We arrest you in the name of the Jourilan Emperor. Will you come peaceably, or must we subdue you?’

He peered around at the encircling cavalry. Twelve armed men. Quite the compliment. He shaded his gaze to study the captain. ‘And the charge?’

Within his cuirass of banded iron the captain offered a shrug of complete indifference. ‘You have been denounced for aiding and abetting the heretic cultists.’

Ivanr nodded, accepting what he knew to have been inevitable. Eventually, he knew, word would have reached the Emperor’s secret police, or the Lady’s priesthood, that he looked the other way while refugees and travellers drank from his well and slept in the lean-to shelters he’d erected in his fields. They’d probably tortured it out of one they’d caught. ‘And should I cooperate? What then?’

‘You will be tried.’

So. A show trial. A very public demonstration that no one was above the law, not even disgraced past grand champions. At the moment, though, he faced twelve armed men and the capital was a long way off. Anything could happen in the intervening time. He dropped his hoe. ‘I’ll make no trouble.’

‘A wise decision, Ivanr.’ The captain motioned to his men. Two dismounted. One took a rope from his saddle. They approached carefully. Ivanr held out his fists together. They bound him at the wrists.

The leather of his saddle creaking, the captain turned to study the surrounding valley slopes. He replaced his helmet. ‘They said you’d lost your fire, Ivanr. That you’d sworn some kind of vow never to take another life. But I couldn’t believe it — I’d seen you fight, after all.’ The trooper tied the rope to his cantle, remounted. The captain shook his head. ‘Hard to believe you’re the same man I saw that afternoon out on the sands, taking on all comers. You were untouchable then.’ He regarded Ivanr for some time from beneath the lip of his helmet, his heavy gaze almost regretful. ‘Better, I think, had you died then.’

He motioned to a nearby tree, bare-limbed, black and grey. ‘That one will do.’

The troop kneed their mounts. The rope snaked taut then yanked Ivanr forward. ‘Captain! You mentioned something about a trial?’

The captain looked back. He reached a gloved hand into a pannier and pulled out a rolled scroll. ‘Didn’t I mention it had already occurred? You were found guilty, by the way. We’re here to fulfil the sentence.’

This, Ivanr told himself acidly, he should have seen coming as well. As the captain said — he was definitely losing his edge. Well, the captain had had his little surprise. Now it was time for his, and quickly. Jogging, he twisted his wrists, testing the rope, and found they’d bound him no more thoroughly than they would have any other prisoner, which was a mistake. Grunting with the effort, and the accompanying pain, he twisted his arms around the binding at the wrists until the rope snapped. Two long paces brought him level with the trooper leading him. Taking a grip on the saddle he pulled himself up to kick the startled man from his seat. He felt ribs snap beneath his heel.

Shouts of alarm all round. The mounts milled, kicking and nervous. ‘Just kill him!’ the captain shouted, disgusted.

Ivanr yanked a levelled spear from one trooper, swung it to slap the rump of a mount that reared, startled, dumping its rider. Ducking under another spear, he jabbed with the butt to knock the breath from a fourth rider, and very possibly rupturing internal organs. The captain charged past, swinging his blade. Ivanr blocked with the spear haft, twisting to whip the iron shank beneath the blade across the back of the man’s neck, pitching him on to his horse’s neck where he hung, seemingly unconscious. Ivanr swung again, knocking aside a number of thrusts, took hold of another spear to yank its wielder backwards off his mount, pulling himself from his feet in the process. That may have saved his life as the blades of two passing troopers hissed over him.

He picked up another fallen spear, kicked a groggy trooper to keep him down. The next two riders he unhorsed with his spear, leaving four to mill about him, swinging. If they’d simply dismounted and surrounded him he knew he’d have faced far worse odds. As it was, they’d given up the main advantage of the mounted troop’s charge. Now they merely impeded one another on their horses. They cut down at him while he ducked and thrust. Kicked-up red dust coated everyone. It stuck in Ivanr’s throat and stung his eyes. Dodging, keeping them in each other’s way, he thrust and jabbed them from their mounts one by one until the dust drifted aside and the last of the riderless horses ran off. Only he was left upright. He kicked two who looked to be rousing then found the captain where he’d fallen from his mount. He pulled the man’s helmet off and cuffed a cheek.

‘Captain?’

The man’s eyelids fluttered. He groaned, wincing. Dirt smeared the side of his face from his fall. The eyes found their focus. ‘I thought you’d sworn some kind of vow,’ he said, accusing.

‘I swore that I’d never kill again — not that I wouldn’t fight. I think you’ll find that none of your men are dead. Though a few might die if you don’t get them attention soon. I suggest back the way you came, to the village of Doun-el. I believe there’s a priest there.’

‘You mean I should do that rather than track you.’

‘It’s up to you.’ Ivanr yanked off the man’s weapon belt. ‘Now I’m going to teach you the proper way to tie someone up.’

‘We will track you,’ the captain swore while Ivanr turned him over and pulled his hands behind his back. ‘Others will be sent. Killers, the Emperor’s executioners.’

‘They are all welcome to try to follow me. Now, must I gag you?’

The captain’s sullen silence told Ivanr that the fellow was smarter than his performance to this point had indicated. He bound the rest of the men — they’d get free soon enough by helping one another. After this he gently gathered up the reins of the nearest horse and mounted. Swinging south, he snatched up the reins of a second for a spare mount, and headed off. He knew he ought to prepare more carefully, take the time to rifle all their packs and gear, but they were struggling and he didn’t know how much more punishment the poor fellows could take.

He made a show of heading south, keeping himself visible for some time to the lower slopes. After two days he swung east.

In the foothills Ivanr passed barley and millet fields still unharvested despite the waning season. The rutted cart paths he followed proved oddly free of traffic, given this time of trade and readying for the coming winter.

He did meet one riderless horse ambling carefree down to warmer climes. From the state of its matted and burr-laced coat he imagined it had been free for some time and this surprised him; horses were rare, and he with two was already a wealthy man. This runaway he did not bother tethering. Though it was friendly enough, nosing his palm for treats, it looked bloated, ill. It had probably eaten a great number of plants it shouldn’t have. Ivanr sent it on its way unmolested. As he crested a hillock his last view of the valley behind was of a vast expanse empty but for the solitary mangy horse walking north.

Past the hillock he came to a farmstead and a hamlet nestled beyond in a forested valley. No smoke rose from the home’s cobblestone chimney. The door stood ajar into darkness. A nearby corral was empty. He considered investigating, but with a flick of the reins decided against. His mount was pushing through the tall untended grasses next to the homestead’s courtyard when a woman’s shrill scream stunned him and shocked his horse into its own panicked rearing shriek. Ivanr ended up on his back, the wind knocked from him, while both mount and spare galloped off.

He straightened to watch the two horses making their way up the track to the hamlet, then turned to search the grasses. ‘Hello? Who’s there?’

A second sudden shriek and an explosion of pink flesh that made him jump as a brood of piglets and its sow burst from cover. Ivanr exhaled to ease his tensed shoulders. What an eerie noise those animals make.

He followed the brood to their old pen, its woven stick walls pushed down. But his grin slowly fell away and his chest clamped even tighter than before; jumbled and trampled bones, hair, and sinew there in the dried mud resolved itself into the remains of several adults and children, all gnawed, consumed by the pigs.

He flinched away, his stomach rising.

All the forgotten gods… what has happened here?

The open house beckoned but he turned away. No, no thank you. Sometimes it is best not to know. Though the silent and still hamlet did nothing to quell his unease, he followed his mounts into town.

No one walked the streets. Doors were barred, window shutters set. It was peaceful enough but a stink hung over the place, a whiff of charnel rot. They were waiting for him at a central dirt square. The men of the hamlet, armed with an assortment of spears, pikes, staves, wood axes, and a few swords. More of the villagers stepped out to bar his way behind.

A young fellow in the dark robes of a priest of the Lady came forward, bowing slightly. ‘Greetings, stranger,’ he called.

Ivanr gave his own wary greeting. ‘There are bodies in the farmstead beyond.’

The priest appeared genuinely shocked, his hand going to his thin black goatee. ‘There are? I am very sorry to hear that.’ His gaze slid aside to narrow on one old man. ‘All the unfortunates were to have been brought together for cleansing.’

This accused villager paled, his hollow unshaven cheeks turning even more sickly, and he bowed and fled.

The slim priest returned his attention to Ivanr. ‘And what of you, stranger? Surely you do not follow any foreign perversions of our one true faith.’

Ivanr gave an easy shrug. ‘Of course I have always been faithful to Our Blessed Lady.’

The priest shared Ivanr’s easy manner. ‘Of course. So, I can assume then that you have no objection to proving your devotion through a trial of fidelity.’

Ivanr eyed the crowd of villagers encircling him; he could easily win through, but where were his mounts? His supplies? ‘And this trial involves…?’

‘Simplicity itself.’ The priest’s lips drew back hungrily over yellowed rotting teeth. ‘A red-hot iron bar is placed in your hands and you must grip it while reciting the Opening Devotional. Naturally, Our Blessed Lady who protects us all will also preserve you — should your faith be pure.’

‘And should it prove… insufficient?’

The priest’s thin lips drew down in regret. ‘There has been a marked lack of purity among the flock of late.’ He gestured Ivanr to follow. ‘Come, I will show you.’

The crowd parted before the priest, who led him to the well at the centre of the commons. The festering stink that had been sickening Ivanr now rose to a choking reek of rotting flesh that made him gag. He covered his nose and mouth with the sleeve of his forearm. The priest nodded his understanding.

‘Offensive, yes, but you get used to it. I know it now as the sweet scent of cleansing.’ He gestured for Ivanr to peer into the well. ‘Come. Do not be afraid. Welcome deliverance unto Our Lady.’

Though he knew exactly what he would see, Ivanr could not help but look down the stone-lined pit. A strange fascination demanded that he bear full witness to what had occurred. Flies in a churning dark mass choked the opening. He waved them aside one-handed and edged forward. At first he saw nothing. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw that the well was not nearly so deep as he’d assumed. Something filled it. The dark mass of protruding limbs, heads, and bent torsos of a mass of human bodies stuffed the well to just below its lip. Ivanr flinched away, fighting down the bile clawing at his throat.

‘This is monstrous!’

‘We are doing the Lady’s work.’ The priest raised his voice, shouting to everyone, ‘The faith must be protected! Heretical doctrine must be cleansed!’

‘Heresy? Who says only one god must be worshipped?’

The priest now directed his response to the crowd: ‘And where were these so-called gods when our ancestors were being wiped from the land by the predations of the demon Riders? Where was this ancient sea god some go on about now? This god of healing? Or this earth goddess? All the multitude of others? Where were they then?’

Yet the crowd remained silent, more cowed than enthusiastic. It seemed the priest’s fanatical zealotry did not extend to them. Their faces did not shine with the conviction of true believers. Hunger, exhaustion, and days of constant fear had clawed them into a grey pallor. It seemed to Ivanr that they possessed a sullen suspicion directed more at each other than at him. They are terrified of this man, and their own neighbours. They have woven a bitter existence of constant mutual dread spiked by explosions of bloodletting. He eyed their drawn faces, sweaty grips on makeshift spears, and fevered gazes. Could they have been browbeaten and dominated into believing anything? Following anyone?

‘What is this?’ Ivanr demanded and snapped out a hand to grasp the priest’s robes at his neck. The man squawked and batted at the grip. Ivanr yanked as if tearing something then raised his hand high, a small object dangling there. ‘Look!’ he bellowed. ‘Look what this man wears secretly beneath his robes!’

The object swung on a leather thong. The token given him from the hand of the Priestess herself: the sword symbol of the cult of Dessembrae.

Ivanr felt all eyes shift to the priest. The young man glared back, scornful. ‘Fools! How stupid can you be?’

Wrong tack, my friend.

Faces twisted into masks of rage as long-suppressed anger and resentment found a path to release. Too late the priest realized his position and raised a hand for pause. It was as if that hand had motioned Begin as countless spears and sharpened hafts of broken tools punched into him. Ivanr was shouldered aside, so eager was everyone for a share in the man’s death. With the shafts of their weapons they levered up the still-twitching figure and thrust him over and into the well. Standing back, they raised those wet gleaming tools and looked at one another, amazed by what they had accomplished.

Then all those eyes shifted to him.

Ah… the flaw in the plan.

Squeaking of wood on wood announced the return of the old man into the square. He was pushing a wheelbarrow, a shovel resting in it. He set down the barrow to gape at everyone.

‘And there’s his lackey!’ Ivanr shouted.

With a beast-like throaty snarl the crowd went for the man. He ran, showing a good set of heels for a skinny old fellow. Ivanr found himself all alone in the square.

Now where are my blasted horses…

He tracked them down easily enough; fed and watered in a corral. As he led them through the hamlet complete murderous chaos raged. Neighbour slew neighbour as all past feuds, grudges, and outright hatreds erupted in an orgy of stalking and stabbing. Soothing his mounts, he passed bloodied corpses splayed across thresholds, trampled on the narrow cobbled ways, and slumped against walls. Men, women, even children.

He reflected that there seemed no stopping once all restraint was gone. And that chute was slicked by blood.

As a stranger, and no part of their feuds, Ivanr was ignored. Only once did he stop, and that was before a child, a young boy, standing in a doorway, blood from a gash in his head wet down his shoulder and shirt-front. The solemn regard of the youth’s deep brown eyes shook Ivanr more than all he’d seen. Stooping, he picked up the lad and set him on his spare mount. The boy did not complain; said nothing, in fact. Ivanr’s relief was palpable when they reached the cool breeze of the open pastures above the hamlet. Looking back, he saw black smoke pluming from here and there about the town.

Complete and utter collapse. The natural consequences of religious war? Or something more? Who was to say? It was all new to these lands where the Lady had ruled unquestioned for so many generations. Perhaps the eruption was natural, given how hard the Lady and her priests had clamped down, and how long.

He regarded the youth, who sat awkwardly, his thin legs wide, feet bare and dirty. Probably his first time on a horse. ‘What’s your name?’ But the boy just stared — not sullen, flat rather — emotionless. Am I to have no answers from you either? So be it. Spurn me as Thel half-breed, would they? Then to the Abyss with these Jourilan peoples and lands, and all their gods, new and old, with them. I am done with them.

Ivanr turned his back. The higher slopes of the foothills beckoned, and the snow-sheathed heights of the Iceback range beyond glittered in the slanting amber light of the passing day.

‘It was quick — if that’s any consolation.’

Hiam looked to his Wall Marshal, Quint. The man was staring down at the broken equipment and bodies smashed on the rocks below. The indifference on his scared face troubled Lord Protector Hiam. His callousness again. Was that why the man was passed over for command when the old Lord Protector chose? Turning away, Hiam waved to the Section Marshal, Felis, the only woman he knew of to have risen so high in the order. ‘What happened?’

Felis saluted and drew off her helm, revealing short brown hair that grew low on her forehead, almost to her brows. ‘Witnesses say equipment failure. Old rope. I take full responsibility, of course.’

Shameful. What would his predecessors say to see the order so reduced? ‘The builders?’

‘Theftian labourers. Part of their imbursement.’

Hiam once more peered down the dizzying slope of the curtain wall. A cold wind buffeted him. He examined where the boards and ropes hung tangled, swinging before a long dark rent, a fissure in the face of the set cyclopean blocks of the wall. ‘And that break?’

‘Largest in these three west sections,’ Quint answered.

He saw it in his mind’s eye: the specially sized block being lowered to the workers suspended below on their planks, where they would fit and set it. But something went wrong — the block fell, smashed through the workers to crash to the breakwater. And now there was no time to cut a new one. The frost was already upon them.

The fiends could dig their claws into this gap to pull the wall apart.

The answer came reflexively, as it should. He trusted his instincts. ‘We’ll set the Champion in this section.’

Quint did not disappoint. ‘Hiam! That is, Lord Protector! The centre bears the brunt. It’s always been the champion’s post.’

Hiam offered his deputy, the Wall Marshal, an amused smile. ‘You’re telling me things I don’t know?’

Quint’s bright gaze shifted to the Chosen nearby. His look told Hiam: If we were alone right now… ‘They’ll read something into the change. You mustn’t underestimate them.’

The Lord Protector’s smile broadened: that had always been his message. The Wall Marshal was obviously not above appropriating arguments. Anything to win the skirmish. ‘They might. We’ll watch their patterns, just as usual.’ The Wall Marshal was not appeased, but he did clamp his lips shut — a temporary withdrawal perhaps. The rain that had been long promised by the day’s low-hanging clouds scudding in from the north came spattering down. Hiam pulled his thick cloak higher and tighter. ‘Section Marshal Felis…’ The woman saluted. ‘My apologies that we could not provide you with adequate materiel to sufficiently defend your command. I am sorry.’

Felis appeared stricken to the bone. ‘Sir! I take full responsibility! The inspection-’

‘Was more than thorough, I’m sure. No, do not blame yourself, Marshal. Please convey my regrets to the rest of the Theftian crew and commend them for their efforts.’

The Section Marshal saluted smartly, her eyes fairly shining. ‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

Hiam answered the salute. ‘Dismissed.’ He invited Quint onward. ‘Since we’re here, let’s have a look at the Tower of Ruel’s Tears.’

‘Yes, Lord Protector.’

Wall Marshal Quint walked quietly at the side of his commander. Once more the man had shaken him by his seeming casual disregard for tradition and the hard-won wisdom of their predecessors. Was he not aware that thousands had died for the priceless knowledge of where best to place their defences and how best to deploy for every situation? Yet of course Hiam knew, perhaps better than he did himself; the man was, after all, a student of history. A reader of scrolls and books, unlike him.

He was a man of the spear. He had but two answers for all that existence could possibly throw his way: either the butt or the blade. Nothing need be more complicated than that.

Yet the protectorship had not come to him. Despite five seasons’ seniority. Was he not the Spear of the Wall? Was his service not storied? Now lately he wondered: was there something he lacked? Some quality unfathomable to him? On days such as this Hiam would make him think. That woman, Section Marshal Felis — a woman! Were they in truth that short of men? Yet by his words of support the Lord Protector had won her, helm to sandals. She was his now, would do anything for him. He saw it in her eyes. Hiam could do that with just a word or a glance — what was this the indefinite quality? And most important, was it what was needed by the Chosen at this time?

Or was it the butt or the blade?

They entered the Tower of Ruel’s Tears. Guard chambers on the first floor, beds to double as an infirmary. Up the circular stairs they came to dormitories. Chosen jumped to attention. Hiam and Quint answered their salutes.

‘All well here?’ Hiam asked.

‘Yes, sir,’ the ranking Chosen present responded, a Wall Provost, or sergeant, by the look of him.

Hiam pointed to a guard across the low-ceilinged room. ‘Allan, yes?’

The guard smiled, pleased. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Ramparts of the Stars, three seasons ago. That was quite the scuffle, yes?’

‘Yes, Lord Protector. A cold one.’

‘Good to see you. Carry on.’ Hiam brought his fist to his heart in salute.

‘Sir!’ rang the shouted response.

They continued up the stairway past further levels of dormitories, these empty, awaiting the arrival of the season’s contingents from abroad. Beyond these they came to an armoury jammed with racks of spears, swords, and a few sets of spare armour — boiled leather cuirasses mainly. At the walls stood barrels of the weapon of last resort: tar, pitch and rare alchemicals for a barrier of flame. Above this the stairs ended at a trapdoor to the uppermost chamber. Hiam pushed it open and stepped up. Quint followed.

Here broad windows faced all directions, all closed now by sturdy wood shutters bracketed in iron. At the centre of the small open chamber stood a stone pillar topped by an iron sleeve that could be raised and lowered by a lever. Hiam bent down, examining it. ‘This was tested this summer?’

‘Yes. Tested and inspected.’

‘Good. If there is one thing we mustn’t stint on, this is it.’

‘Yes.’ Their communication system. An oil flame within could be made to burn exceedingly bright with the addition of certain mineral powders. Raising and lowering the sleeve allowed them to send coded messages up and down the length of the wall. Simple communiques: attack, help, all-clear.

Quint examined his tall commander: grey coming into the beard and in the unkempt mane of thick hair. Yet seemingly young in his mannerisms. Not an outstanding spearman, it had to be said. But there was a certain something about his eyes and expression. Quint had always felt comfortable around the man, though he rarely felt comfortable around anyone. He crossed his arms under his cloak. ‘You didn’t drag me up here to discuss our communication system.’

A wry smile. ‘No. And direct as ever. Reassuring, Quint. You’ve been quiet of late.’ He went to the shuttered window facing north, unlatched it and stood peering out. ‘No, word has come via my ever-efficient Staff Marshal Shool of the Jourilan and Dourkan contingent.’ He turned, leaning back against the window ledge, hands clasping the edges of his thick cloak. ‘They have been halved.’

‘Halved. Halved? Well, what’s the point of that? Do they want to be overrun? They might as well send no one for all the use!’

Hiam raised a hand in agreement. ‘Yes, Quint. Yes. But what’s done is done. We cannot conjure up any further men or women. We can expect only some three thousand spears from Jourilan and Dourkan. That puts our strength for the coming season at some twenty thousand spears of active-service men and women. Twenty-five, if we pressed every possible standing body. Including, I suppose, even our Master Engineer Stimins.’

Despite the news, Quint barked a laugh at that vision. ‘It may be all worth it just to see that. But,’ and he slid a hand up from within his cloak to stroke his gouged chin between thumb and forefinger, ‘as you say, there seems nothing to discuss in all this. What’s done is done.’

‘Yes. There’s nothing to discuss,’ and the Lord Protector’s expression hardened, ‘save how we will respond to the fact that we are now below half-strength for the coming season.’

Quint shrugged easily. ‘Then there is nothing to discuss. We will defend. We are the Chosen, the Stormguard. Ours is a sacred responsibility to defend all the lands.’

Hiam pushed himself from the wall, nodding. ‘Very good, Quint. I knew that would be your answer. I merely wanted to have this out in the open between us. We are in complete agreement. We fight. We defend to the last man and woman. There is no alternative.’ He squeezed Quint’s shoulder, peered about the chamber. ‘You know this tower is named Ruel’s Tears because a millennium ago the Lord Protector of the time, Ruel, was said to have thrown himself from this very window after having been overcome by some terrible vision?’

Quint nodded; he’d heard the legend.

‘Some say his vision was of the ultimate defeat of the Stormguard. Had you heard that?’

Quint could only pinch his chin savagely; he’d heard that whispered a time or two.

Looking off as if he could see beyond the walls of the small chamber, Hiam said softly, ‘I never could understand such a reaction, Quint. All I feel is admiration. I sometimes think that if I were to die of anything, it would be of unbearable pride…’ He smiled then, looking away. ‘Very good, Wall Marshal. We are in accordance.’ And he started down the stairs.

Only later, long after he and Hiam had walked in silence completing the day’s inspection tour, did it occur to Quint that the discussion of Ruel’s Tears in truth had not at all been for Hiam to test his reaction to the news of this season’s shorthandedness; rather, it had been to reassure him, Quint, of Hiam’s own steadfast resolve in the face of such news.

For it was not in Quint’s nature ever to bend or to waver — neither the butt nor the blade allowed for that. However, in the months ahead he may come to wonder on the like determination of his Lord Protector. And Hiam had just neatly anticipated and eliminated any such misgivings on the part of his second in command. As he hung his cloak and sat watching the fire in the common room of the Tower of Kor, it occurred to Quint that perhaps there was more than met the eye to the indefinable quality that made Hiam the Lord Protector.

Rillish was playing with his toddler, Halgin, in the courtyard of his house just outside the hamlet of Halas when a column of Malazan cavalry came up the dirt road from the village. Straightening, he motioned the nanny to take the lad then walked out to meet them. They took their time. The grey dust of west Cawn coated their travelling cloaks and the sweaty flanks of their mounts. As they drew closer Rillish could see by the torc high on the leader’s arm that the commander was a captain, which was unusual for such a small detachment. His wife, Talia, broad with child, appeared at his side. ‘You needn’t come out,’ he told her. ‘It’s nothing, I’m sure.’

‘They wouldn’t be here for nothing,’ she said grimly.

The captain motioned a halt and nodded a greeting. She pulled off her gloves and batted the dust from her cloak. ‘Fist Rillish Jal Keth?’

‘That promotion was honorary only. I’m retired.’

The captain pulled off her helmet and the padded leather hood beneath. She was fair, startlingly so, her long white-blonde hair tightly braided. For the life of him Rillish could not place her background. Few on Quon were so pale, and there was something in her voice, the accent unusual.

‘That retirement was voluntary. Under terms of service you are still in reserve. The Empire, sir, did not let you go.’

‘That fat toad on the throne…’ Talia hissed beneath her breath.

Rillish raised a hand for quiet. ‘I’m sorry, Captain, but there must be some misunderstanding. Firm agreements were made in the terms of my service and retirement. I am finished with the Empire.’

The captain gave a judicious nod. ‘That may be true, sir. But, as I say, the Empire may not be finished with you.’

Talia’s hand found his, hot and sweaty. He squeezed. ‘There is nothing, Captain, that could induce me to return.’

‘Nothing?’ The captain peered about the yard, the modest garden plot, the fields, the paddock of horses, before finally returning to him. ‘Perhaps there is somewhere we can talk, sir?’

Rillish shrugged. ‘Well, we can go for a walk if you wish.’ He released Talia’s hand. ‘But I believe you’ve come a long way to no profit. You may water the mounts, of course, and perhaps we can find something for your troop.’

‘You are kind, sir.’ She turned to the detachment. ‘Stand down. See to the horses.’

Dismounted, the woman was as tall as Rillish, and far older than he’d thought, perhaps close to his own fifty. The lines around the eyes and mouth gave her age away. ‘And you are?’

She saluted. ‘Peleshar is my full name, but I go by Peles. At your service, Fist.’

Rillish let the rank reference pass. ‘Peleshar… an unusual name

…’

She nodded. ‘I am from south Genabackis.’

Rillish was surprised and impressed. ‘You served in One-Arm’s host?’

‘No, sir. I saw action in the Free City campaigns. Then I served in the liaison contingent to the Moranth.’

Even more impressive. A record of service that should warrant a rank far higher than captain. And the Free City campaigns — those went far back indeed. He managed to stop himself from being so gauche as to ask just how far back, and invited the captain to accompany him.

‘I’ll see what we can pull together for the troopers,’ Talia said, her gaze hard on the captain.

Peles bowed. ‘My thanks.’

They stopped at the paddock. Suspicious of the stranger, the horses snorted and edged away. The captain studied them with admiration. ‘Fine mounts. They are Wickan?’

Watching the horses as well, Rillish smiled his affection. ‘Yes. You are in the cavalry?’

A laugh. ‘Fanderay, no. I have had little exposure to horses. My people are not riders. We have other… specialties. I am a commander of marines.’

Rillish nodded, brushed drying bark from the still-green wood of the fence. ‘So, Captain. Why are you here?’

‘I am only the messenger, of course. I was asked to deliver this.’ She held out a slim, tightly bound scroll. ‘I am told it is from Emperor Mallick’s own hand.’

Rillish regarded it without moving. For a moment he feared it was poisoned. Then he mocked himself, thinking, why would the man bother when he could just dispatch his Claw assassins to kill them in their sleep? He took the scroll, broke the seal, and read.

It was a long time before he lowered the short note.

Captain Peles had not moved nor spoken the whole time. She had merely watched the horses, her surprisingly thick forearms resting on the paddock fence. Patient, this one. We might get along at that. Rillish returned the scroll. ‘Very well, Captain. I accept. As he knew I would, no doubt.’

‘Yes, Fist. So I was told.’

Rillish turned to face the yard where his wife and the servants were sharing out bread and cold meats. ‘Now the hard part, Captain.’

She nodded, clearing her throat. ‘I’ll ready my men and women.’

Before he even got close enough to speak, she knew. Her face stiffened and she turned away to enter the house without a word. Rillish followed, but she was gone, fled to some back room. He went to the storeroom where his gear lay rolled in leather. He dug about for his blades, his father’s old Untan two-edged longswords. He found them under the shelves, wrapped in oiled rags. When he straightened she was in the doorway. Tears glistened on her cheeks.

‘What did he offer?’

‘Everything.’

She gestured savagely to the surroundings, the house, the yard. ‘You have everything you need here — don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

She wiped the tears from her face. ‘Isn’t it enough?’

‘Yes.’ He closed to hold her but she backed away. ‘This is all I need, Talia. But he offered to give it all back — everything. How could I refuse?’

Her mouth tightened to a slit and she spat, ‘We don’t want it.’

He lowered his gaze, pulled one blade a short way from its scabbard, then shoved it home. When he looked up she was gone.

Captain Peles had halted her detachment a short way down the dirt road. With the help of his foreman, Rillish saddled his favourite mount, then led it out into the yard. Here Halgin waited with his nanny. When the toddler saw him he broke free to run. Rillish knelt to hold his shoulders. The lad peered up, his gaze as blue and open as the sky. Rillish kissed his forehead. He could hardly find his voice. ‘I’m going away for a time, son. What I’m doing, I’m doing for you, and for little Nil or Nether to come. I want you to know that I love you more than I could ever say. Goodbye for now.’

He straightened but Halgin grabbed his leg and would not let go. In the end the nanny came to pull the howling lad away. Mounting, Rillish searched for Talia but didn’t see her anywhere. That hurt, but he teased the reins to start down the road.

When he reached the detachment, Captain Peles raised her chin to motion back behind him and he turned. She stood there. The captain signed for her detachment to move on.

He watched her. For the longest time they remained unmoving, studying one another over the stretch of dusty dirt road between, she motionless beside the unfinished gate to their little yard hemmed in by the house and paddock. Such a small allotment, hardly enough to get by, let alone prosper. He thought of his family’s many estates in Unta. The largest, hard by the Gris border, a man could not cross in a full day’s riding. All that had been his before the Insurrection, before his choice to side against the Empress’s edicts on the Wickan pogrom had stripped him of it. Now the Emperor offered it all back for his return to active duty — and just where, he believed he knew. And he’d accepted. Not for himself of course, but for Halgin. It would be his legacy now. He hoped his son would have better luck of it than he or his father before him.

He raised a hand in farewell and she answered, slowly. He lowered his arm and turned away.

In the end Kiska had no idea why she agreed to Agayla’s request that she accompany her up-island for a walk among the windswept hills. Perhaps it was the daytime sight of the Deadhouse: if anything even more foreboding in the full glare of the sun and even more unsettling to her senses now than she remembered from her youth.

Could this tomb-like dilapidated hulk really be of the Azath? A mysterious network of dwellings, caves or houses, call them what you would — structures, of some sort — that some claimed pervade creation? All she knew of them was what she had overheard speculated about in Tayschrenn’s presence, and that precious little. In fact, she remembered scholars who had approached Tayschrenn for his knowledge of them and their outrage at his opinion that the Azath were not a matter for human investigation. ‘They are waning,’ she heard him say once. ‘We should let them go in peace.’

She rested a hand on the low wall of piled fieldstones surrounding the house’s grounds and thought of another night, seemingly so long ago, when she had faced the brooding presence last. That night saw the only known successful assault upon an Azath; and that by the most cunning — and probably most insane — mage of their time. The Emperor himself. All other would-be assailants through the ages, human, daemon, Jaghut, now crowded the many mounds humping the dead grounds, enslaved to the house.

Agayla was probably right. Perhaps but for the older woman’s intervention she too would now be rotting within one of those burial mounds. That would have been the most likely outcome. Too perilous a throw by far. She turned away to head to the river road to join Agayla for their walk. She would spend the day with her then say her farewells. Another tack, then, towards finding Tayschrenn. Genabackis, perhaps. The Moranth may be of help.

Leaving, she noticed an old man squatting against a stone wall across the way; his great thick arms hung over his knees, and a white thatching of scars criss-crossed his bald pate. The man’s gaze followed her as she left. She thought he looked vaguely familiar: probably from her youth on the island.

She met Agayla just outside the town proper, where allotments and garden plots widened and irrigation channels of set slate bordered the flint road. The fields were dull now with dead stalks. Low bruised clouds pressed overhead, cast up from the south, the Strait of Storm. The chill winds hinted at worse to come.

Her aunt carried a wicker basket on one arm, a shawl over her shoulders. ‘Remind you of the old days?’ she asked, and brushed wayward strands from her face.

‘I suppose so.’

Agayla headed off without comment in her swift energetic walk that Kiska recalled from those old days. Following, she pulled her thick lined cloak tighter and felt about for her gloves. After a time she called, ‘Mushrooming, are we?’

‘A little late for that. Roots mainly. Some stalks. Like the arrow.’

Kiska wouldn’t know an arrow plant if it jabbed her in the eye.

They climbed inland. Agayla struck off the road, following a narrow dirt path that wound between low brush. Looking back, Kiska caught glimpses of the town and the bay beyond before it was cut from view by an intervening hillock. She began to wonder just how far her aunt intended to take them.

At last she pushed through a dense stand of alder, their limbs cast backwards by the constant sea winds, to find Agayla sitting on a lump of rock before a circle of tall standing stones.

‘There you are!’ her aunt announced, patting the rock next to her. ‘Come sit with me.’

Kiska shrugged within her heavy cloak and came to stand next to her aunt. ‘Agayla,’ she began, awkwardly. ‘This has been… pleasant. But I really must be getting back to town…’

The woman raised a hand for silence. ‘Shh. It’s almost time. Now sit.’ She produced an apple from the basket.

Kiska grudgingly sat. ‘Time for what?’

‘This circle is sacred to many gods. Did you know that?’ Before Kiska could reply, she continued, ‘In the old days people were sacrificed here.’

Kiska eyed her aunt, wondering what the old woman was on about. Her mind wasn’t starting to meander in her old age, was it? She bit into the apple.

‘Ah… here we are.’

But Kiska had felt it too. She stood, dropping the apple, and slipped her hands into her cloak to rest where twin long-knives hung sheathed tightly to her sides. A shimmering was climbing between the stones… a wavering curtain of opalescent light. It fluttered to life around the circle’s full circumference.

‘What is this?’

‘Mind your manners now,’ Agayla said. She was pushing back her hair, adjusting her shawl.

Kiska eyed her, mistrustful. ‘What’s going on?’

Agayla stood before her, looked her up and down then gently laid a hand on her cheek. The palm was warm, smooth, and dry. It seemed as if the woman was examining her face for something and Kiska had no idea what it was she sought. ‘We are about to speak to one of the greatest powers presently at play here in this world,’ she began. ‘No — hush. Many name her a goddess but to me she is more, and I suppose less, than that. Not like Burn or Fanderay or Togg. Not some ancient entity or force that has come to represent what we choose to cast upon it. She remains a real living person whose influence transcends others’ because she is here, now, and can intervene directly as she sees fit.’ She gave Kiska’s chin a squeeze and gently edged her head side to side. ‘So behave yourself. Speak only when you are spoken to. Bow. Show some of those fancy manners you should have learned in Unta.’

The woman released her and Kiska shook her head as if to recover from some spell or blow. Greater influence than the gods’? What could her aunt possibly be on about? She eyed the shimmering barrier. ‘Who then? What mage?’

Agayla laughed. ‘Oh, Kiska. Not some mage or magus. The greatest. The Enchantress. The Mistress of Thyr. The Queen of Dreams.’ And she took her niece’s hand and led her through the curtain of light.

The brilliant glare momentarily blinded Kiska, and as she blinked to clear her vision she slowly became aware of her surroundings. It was the circle of standing stones she knew, but surrounded by a shimmering reflective silver border. And, standing at its centre waiting to meet them, a woman wrapped in loose pale blue cloth that was draped about her in countless folds. Kiska held back, dazzled by the vision of this diminutive, slim, raven-haired beauty. How could this be real? She’d heard that this woman walked with Anomander generations ago. Yet was she not the greatest enchantress of the age? She could appear as she wished and this was her choice; it was up to her, Kiska, to take from it what she would.

Agayla shared no such hesitation. She knelt before the woman, murmured something that sounded close to an invocation. But the Enchantress laughed and raised her up with her hands, saying, ‘Do not kneel before me, Agayla. Surely you of all people have not fallen to the cult of worship.’

Agayla bowed. ‘I give homage where I choose, m’lady.’

The Enchantress turned her glance upon Kiska. ‘So this is the one.’

The force of the woman’s attention struck her like a blow. Kiska found she could not order her thoughts. It was as if she were standing before a titanic waterfall or a storm front at sea; all she could do was stare, awestruck by the vision.

The woman had advanced and taken her hands, one in each of her own. ‘You would follow a perilous trail, Kiska.’ She searched her face as Agayla had and nodded as if having satisfied some unspoken question. Motes of gold seemed to float in her eyes. ‘It is good you do not pursue this out of some sort of infatuation. For I do not see him capable of such feelings. Still…’ She regarded Agayla. ‘For her to travel alone…’

‘I can think of one or two I would trust,’ Agayla said, frowning. ‘But they have taken on other duties.’

‘There is someone I can call upon-’

‘I can take care of myself,’ Kiska blurted out.

Agayla glared her irritation. The Enchantress waved a hand. ‘That is not the question. You must sleep sometime. And a lone traveller is too much of a temptation. Fortunately I have someone in mind…’ and she gestured aside, inviting.

A man stepped through the barrier. He was of middling height but wiry and obviously powerful. Under desert robes he wore armour Kiska recognized as the style of Seven Cities, a mix of boiled leather and mail. His dark flat features and long black moustache sealed his identity as a son of that region. The most ridiculous weapons hung strapped at his belt: two morningstars. ‘Who is this?’ she demanded.

Again her aunt glared for her silence.

The man appeared similarly unimpressed. He indicated Kiska with a lift of his chin but addressed the Enchantress. ‘When we made our deal I told you I was done with protecting.’

‘I do not need anyone’s protection.’

The Enchantress raised a hand. ‘This is… which name would you prefer?’

‘Damn fool comes to mind,’ the man ground out. Yet he bowed. ‘Jheval.’

‘This is Kiska. She is searching for someone. And it is a mission that has my blessing. The man she wishes to locate may be of interest to you, Jheval. He is Tayschrenn, once High Mage of the Malazan Empire.’

The man’s eyes widened and he almost stepped backwards. ‘You would ask me to help find him?’

‘The gratitude of the Empire would no doubt be extraordinary if he could be found and brought back to them.’

Those dark eyes narrowed then within their many wrinkles and a decidedly wolfish grin climbed his lips in a way that Kiska found hardly reassuring. ‘Thank you for your concern… m’lady,’ she said, ‘but I do not need this fellow.’

‘You will fail if you go alone.’

The finality of that pronouncement chilled Kiska.

‘How are we-’ Jheval began, then corrected himself. ‘That is, how is the man to be tracked down?’

The Enchantress gestured to a burlap sack atop the broad stone at the centre of the circle. Kiska could not recall seeing it there before.

‘The Void that took the High Mage opened on to Chaos and there your trail will take you. When you reach its borders open this. The thing within will then lead you on.’

Kiska wrapped the sack in her cloak. It was dirty, as if it had been buried. From what she could glimpse inside all it seemed to contain were broken twigs and a few scraps of cloth.

‘I can send you on your way from here,’ the Enchantress said. ‘Is that acceptable?’

‘Thank you, m’lady,’ Kiska said, bowing.

Jheval grunted his agreement.

Agayla, whom Kiska had thought uncharactisterically quiet all this time, now embraced her, kissing her cheeks. ‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘I see in the weave that this search will not be the simple task you believe. You may not know what it is you are really after.’

Kiska would have spoken, but she was silenced by the tears that brimmed in her aunt’s eyes. A moment ago she would have thought such a thing impossible. I never thought of her as old before yet now, suddenly, I see her so. Time is cruel.

The Enchantress motioned aside. ‘You will see hills. Keep them to your left.’ Kiska bowed again and turned away. Jheval followed, his hands tucked into his leather belt.

After the two had gone, the Enchantress gently brushed a hand across Agayla’s face. ‘Do not cry, Weaver.’

‘I fear I have sent the child to her death.’

‘I cannot see into Chaos. But what she has taken as her failure has wounded her to her core. I can only hope she will come to forgive herself.’

‘So much is on its way, T’riss. I see it in the weft. The knots ahead come so thick they may choke the shuttle. The cloth may part.’

‘It may. We can only do our best to see to it that it only tears in certain places.’

Agayla smiled then, perhaps at her fears. ‘Yes. It will be a new order.’

The Queen of Dreams’ face hardened as she looked off into the distance. ‘Yes,’ she said, her voice taut with something almost like distaste. ‘Let us hope it will be a better one.’

It took Bakune two months of questioning, searching archives, and squeezing minor city officials to track down the family name and possible current residence of the family of Sister Charity. Whether the woman yet lived remained to be discovered.

He left his offices at noon on foot, wrapped in a plain wool cloak. He took the west road until it exited the town proper and here he turned off the way, down towards the coast where a ghetto of shacks and huts spilled down the slope. Dogs raged at his heels, knowing full well he did not belong. Dirty half-naked children stared at him, many obviously the half-breed by-blows of Roolian mothers and the Malazan occupiers. Young toughs collected in the muddy narrow paths, staring silently at what he imagined must be quite the apparition of a Roolian citizen wandering lost in the maze of their neighbourhood. At every turn round a staked tent or wattle and daub hut the crowd seemed to grow until he faced a solid wall of young men and women, dressed no better than the urchins, many carrying wasted limbs, milky blinded eyes, ugly swellings, and other disfigurements of illnesses — all from the filth of their poverty, no doubt.

‘I’m looking for the Harldeth family,’ he called to one of the young men. ‘Harldeth. Do you know the name?’

Blocking Bakune’s way, the fellow just stared. His mouth was twisted in a harelip and Bakune would have suspected him slow but for the unaccountable hostility simmering in his gaze. ‘Stranger,’ a weak voice called from a nearby hut. Bakune ducked his head to squint into the darkness.

‘Yes?’

‘Enter.’

He had to crouch almost double to slip within. He found an old man cross-legged on a woven mat next to a dead blackened hearth. The man was bare-chested despite the gathering cold of autumn. Bakune introduced himself, and was invited to sit. The stink of smoke and old rotten food made him almost gag; he elected to crouch on his haunches. After the old man had sat regarding him for a time, his night-black eyes unreadable, Bakune prompted again, ‘Yes? You know the Harldeth?’

‘I know the family.’

‘Will you take me to them?’

‘Why do you seek them?’

‘I’m assessing a death. I need to question Lithel Harldeth. She was once a nun in the Cloister. I’m told her family now lives out here.’

The old man cocked his head. ‘So, you are assessing a death… Where is the Watch? Where are their truncheons? Where is your signed confession?’

Bakune pulled away, offended. ‘That’s not how we do things. We assess to apportion the balance of innocence and culpability.’

The old man just gave a sad indulgent smile. ‘You should spend more time out here, Assessor Bakune.’ He struggled to rise, pulling up a tall walking stick, which he held horizontal. ‘Come.’

Outside, the old man made some gesture and the crowd backed away. Bakune looked sharply at him; he wore only dirty trousers and jerkin, his grey hair hung stringy and bedraggled, yet his wiry limbs, dark as stained wood, held an obvious strength. A stone on a thong round his neck was the man’s only decoration other than the old branch he held as a staff. A thin cold rain had begun to fall that the old man ignored, though it chilled Bakune. ‘Do I know you?’ he asked, struck by a sudden vague recollection.

‘No, Assessor. You most certainly do not know me. This way…’

Surprised yells sounded up the mud path the way Bakune had come and the crowd parted there to reveal his two Watch guards, their cloaks pulled back from the shortswords hung at their sides.

‘Who are these?’ the old man asked.

Bakune sighed. Lady-damned fools! They’ll ruin everything! ‘Guards that the Watch captain insists follow me around.’

The old man’s dark eyes slid to Bakune; the indulgent, almost pitying smile returned. ‘Guards, Assessor? Or minders?’ He started off before Bakune could respond.

The path the old man followed was bewilderingly twisted, probably deliberately so. His two guards plodded along behind, hands at their belts. Each muddy trail they took between crowded shacks seemed identical to the last. Everyone ignored Bakune now, going about their daily business, carrying bundled firewood, earthenware pots of water. Women cooked over low smoky fires.

Then the old man stopped abruptly at a wattle and daub hut, no different from any other. He gestured within.

‘Thank you.’

He did not answer, only motioned inside once again.

Within, a family sat eating. Startled, Bakune nearly backed out until the woman present, mother Bakune assumed of the four wide-eyed children, pointed to a woven reed hanging farther within. Bowing, Bakune edged around the staring family and brushed the hanging aside. A thick cloud of smoke blinded him. He had entered what proved to be no more than a tiny nook, and he pressed a fold of his cloak over his nose and mouth. Eventually he made out a low shape hunched before some sort of altar cluttered with burned-down candle stubs, clay lamps, small rudely shaped statues, and stands of smouldering incense sticks.

‘Lithel Harldeth?’

The shape, which had been rocking gently from side to side and crooning to itself, stilled. The head rose, questing. ‘Who is there?’

‘Assessor Bakune. I am investigating the recent death of Sister Prudence. I’m told you knew her well.’

‘So, she is dead. We’ve been waiting many years.’ A gnarled hand went shakily to the altar, pointed to one crude statue. ‘Look here. The Great Mother Goddess. She has had countless names, though Lady is not one.’ The hand moved to another. ‘The Great Sky-Father this one is called, though Light is his aspect. Here, the Great Deceiver would push forward — not realizing that to succeed would spell his dissolution. Here, the Beast of War stirs again — what shall be the final shape of its rising? Here, the Dark Hoarder of Souls. He has my friend now — may both of them come to know peace. And here, the newcomer, the Broken God, watching and scheming from afar.’

Bakune recognized these ancient names and titles from his research into the indigenous peoples of the archipelago — all their old animistic spirits of earth, air, and night. All vaguely similar in character to the foreign Malazan faiths, of which, presumably, they were distant relatives. All the old pagan beliefs that had multiplied indiscriminately before the arrival of the Blessed Lady and the one true faith.

‘What would you call evil, Assessor?’ the old woman suddenly asked.

Bakune was rather startled by the question. Breathing in the heady, dizzying smoke he eased himself down to his knees. Vaguely, he wondered what drugs might be mixed in with the exotic woods and herbs being burned here. He’d already realized that he would get no straight answers from the crone, and could hardly press her. ‘I don’t know. The simple-minded would answer whatever is opposed to them. Whatever current enemy or rival they might face at the time. For my part I believe true evil lies in actions. In deliberate harmful acts.’

‘Spoken as a magistrate. And it must be said that there is some wisdom in your approach. However, can an act not be harmful in the immediate, yet beneficial in the long term? Could such an act be said to be evil?’

Bakune waved the choking coils of smoke from his face. The last thing he expected was to be challenged to a philosophical debate. ‘Again, I do not know. I suppose the harm would have to be weighed against the ultimate benefit accrued.’

The old woman turned her head to regard him directly. Her dirty hair hung like a veil before her face. ‘Exactly. It would have to be… assessed.’

Bakune suddenly felt stricken. ‘What are you getting at, Lithel?’

The woman turned away, rocking. ‘I have meditated long and hard on this vexing question, Assessor. There is really only a small set of final responses. My distillation is a refinement of one of them. True pure evil, Assessor, is waste. It is the blunting of potential, the cutting off of a person’s or a people’s promise, or options, for development. It is, emblematically, the death of a child.’ The old woman’s head sank. ‘Look then, Assessor, to the children.’

‘Lithel? Lithel?’

The old woman once more crooned to herself, and now Bakune could hear the ancient burnished pain in her moaning.

Outside, Bakune straightened, coughing. One of his guards offered a water skin and he took it with gratitude and washed out his mouth.

‘What did you hear?’ the old man asked.

‘Exactly what I did not want to hear.’

The old man’s smile climbed free of any reserve. ‘Good. We are done then. And Assessor…’

‘Yes?’

‘Do not return. Do not try to find this dwelling again. Because you never will.’

Bakune narrowed his gaze on the man. ‘You would threaten a magistrate?’

‘No threat. A fact.’

The guards snorted their disbelief. Bakune shrugged. His gaze caught the stone at the man’s neck. Engraved on it was a circle with a line across its middle like the line of a horizon. The very sigil scratched on the statue Lithel had named the Great Mother Goddess. Bakune motioned to the necklace. ‘The symbol of the old pagan Earth Mother.’

The old man’s hand went to the stone. ‘Yes. The old faith. I am of the Drenn.’

Bakune could not shake a feeling of familiarity. ‘I feel that we have met before.’

‘Perhaps briefly. Now, this way.’

The old man, who once gave his name to the Assessor as Gheven, stopped within the boundary of the shanty town and watched while the magistrate and his minders climbed to the west road. He was surprised, pleased and saddened all at once at having met him again. Surprised by the man’s resilience in keeping to his principles in the face of all that had confronted him for the length of his career; pleased to see him cleaving still to the path to justice — as he interpreted it at any rate — and saddened because he knew what all this would cost the man should he continue along the path as he, Gheven, hoped he would.

It was sad but necessary. Pain would be inflicted but was it not all to the greater good? A thorny question, that. One he did not feel qualified to settle.

Back in his office, Bakune settled into his chair and rested his head in his hands. His guards had drifted away once they’d reached the city centre and the blocks holding the mayoral palace and the courts. He didn’t know whether to be grateful for their dedication or to curse them for it. The old man’s insinuations had slid deep along the paths of his own suspicions. His secretaries appeared at his doorway, thick folders in their hands, but Bakune waved them off.

Rising, he crossed the office and locked the door. He went to a cabinet next to the desk and unlocked it. From the top shelf he pulled out a roll that he laid on his desk. He pulled the ribbon holding the cloth tight and unrolled it. It was a map of Banith that Bakune had ordered drafted years ago. On it, over the years, the Assessor had painstakingly painted in red dots the exact location of every murdered girl and boy he had personally visited, or that he could reliably place. The red dots lay in a thin spread throughout the city; no district was entirely free of their stain. The bright crimson, however, was thickest along the shore, where many bodies were dumped. But not evenly, not randomly. Over the years the marks clumped, observably so, into three main clusters. One to the west, one to the east, and one due south near the centre of the town’s waterfront. Leading more or less straight up from each cluster ran a main road into town. And if one traced each road one’s finger would end up right at the centre of town where lay the holy Cloister of Our Blessed Lady — near which, revealingly enough, not one bloody dot was to be found.

Bakune sat and stared long and hard at the map, his chin nearly touching his chest. Damn you for doing this to me. You’re killing me. Dot by dot, you are surely killing me. Please, won’t you please just stop. Just go away.

He pressed his fingertips to his throbbing temples and sat motionless, staring. By the Blessed Lady, what could he possibly be expected to do?

Around noon the ship’s captain came to talk to Kyle. He was dozing under the shade of an awning, his leg raised and bandaged, when he became vaguely aware that he wasn’t alone any more. Cracking open one eye he saw a wiry fellow gazing down at him, old, grey hair all unkempt, the light dusting of a moustache at the mouth, and a pipe clamped tight between the lips. Multiple gold earrings shone at the lobes and gold bracelets cluttered — her? — wrists. ‘Yes?’ Kyle asked, wary.

‘All comfy, are we?’

‘Yes, thank you. Your bone-mender knows her business.’

A smile of appreciation stretched the thin lips. ‘Speaking of business…’

‘Ah. You are the captain?’

‘Yes. June. Cursed June, they call me.’

‘Kyle. Cursed? May I ask why?’

A rise of the bony shoulders. ‘Had seven husbands is why.’ The woman tilted her head to examine him up and down. ‘Can’t place you, I have to say. There’s something of the Wickan about you with the moustache an’ your dark hue an’ all. But not quite.’

‘Perhaps we’re distantly related.’

‘P’rhaps.’

Kyle took a pouch from his belt and held it out. ‘All I have for transport to your next port of call.’

She hefted it, frowning. ‘Not much…’

‘My companion may have some coin as well.’ A noncommittal grunt. ‘Where are we headed, may I ask?’

‘East to Belid. Five days’ sail.’

‘We’re grateful.’

The woman grunted again, letting loose a stream of smoke. She clearly itched to ask their background and what lay behind their flight, but was also clearly old and canny enough to know she’d get no satisfaction. She nodded instead in a guarded, vaguely welcoming way, and continued on.

The bone-mender, Elia, thumped herself down next to him on the burlap-wrapped cargo tied down on the deck. ‘What think you of our captain, then?’

‘Rare to see a woman captain.’

‘Not at all here in Falar. Curaca ships are all owned and run by the city an’ the city demands profits an’ tight management. Men captains just get drunk or gamble away the margins. Not like the womenfolk. What say you to that?’ The old woman cuffed his shoulder.

‘I’d say that anyone who’d voluntarily go to sea must be addled.’

The woman whooped, laughing. ‘Spoken like a true son of the plains, Kyle.’

He eyed her, wondering whether that was a probe. ‘She said they call her cursed — is that true?’

‘Yes, it’s true. But here’s the kicker… is it true because she’s had seven husbands, or because she’s had seven husbands?’

Kyle could only stare, his brow tight. What in the name of the Hooded Harrower He shook his head. ‘How is… my companion, Orjin?’

‘Oho! Orjin, is it? Sleeping like a whale below. Four of the crew couldn’t move him.’

‘Any wounds?’

‘Nothing serious. And he’s seen his share of Denul rituals.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean that the man’s far older than he looks, and heals far faster than most.’

‘I suppose that’s where his money went,’ Kyle suggested, looking away.

‘I suppose so.’

Three days later, just after dawn, a crewman woke Kyle where he lay in a hammock below. Groggy, rubbing his face, he climbed the short steep stair to the deck. Above, a low cloudbank reflected the gold and pink of sunrise. The waters of the Storm Sea were high, but not choppy. It occurred to him that every region seemed to have its body of rough water or gales, its ‘storm sea’. Forward stood Captain June, the mate, Masul, Elia, and Greymane. He joined them; Greymane gave him a tight, concerned glance.

Captain June pointed to the south-east, just off the bow. ‘Friends of yours?’

Kyle squinted into the light: three dark shapes emerging from the glare of the sunrise. Large vessels, many sails. ‘Who are they?’

‘Malazan men-of-war,’ said June. ‘They seem to be coming on an intercept and we can’t outrun them. We’re no sleek raider.’

‘Wouldn’t suggest you try, Captain.’

‘No?’

‘No,’ affirmed Greymane.

June’s expressive brows rose. She drew heavily on her pipe. ‘Ain’t going to be any hostilities, are there? ’Cause my people won’t participate in anything like that.’

Greymane pushed a hand through his tangled silvery grey hair. ‘No, Captain. No hostilities.’

‘Hunh! All right then.’ She turned to the stern. ‘Steady on!’

‘Steady on, aye!’

Kyle moved until he stood next to Greymane. His eyes on the distant ships, he asked, ‘What’s it going to be?’

The man let go a long growled breath. ‘Don’t want these fellows to suffer. Can’t swim. So, we’ll let them come abreast then board the first and take them one by one.’

‘Not two at a time?’

He glanced sideways at Kyle. A straight smile pulled at his mouth. ‘Let’s not get carried away.’

It was a fleet of Malazan men-of-war, tall and moderately broad for greater stability, commissioned for war at sea. From the soldiers lining the high railings, the stern- and forecastles, Kyle estimated that each of the twenty vessels carried some four hundred marines. Much larger troop transports could be seen in the east, convoyed, lumbering south in long straight columns. Even from this distance something struck him as odd about the vessels: they appeared just too damn huge, and of an odd hue, almost that of the waters they rode.

To Kyle it looked like an invasion assembled to take a continent. ‘Have you ever seen the like?’ he murmured to Greymane, awed.

After a time the man answered, a strange, almost resigned note in his voice. ‘Yes, Kyle. I have.’

No fool, Captain June ordered sails furled. A launch appeared, lowered from the nearest warship. Greymane and Kyle watched while it crossed the distance between the vessels, oared by some eighteen marines.

June ordered a rope ladder thrown over the side. Three officers crowded the launch, including one obvious Moranth Blue. The first pulled himself aboard easily to stand comfortably on deck, hands clasped at his back. An obvious veteran, short and stocky with a bald sun-darkened pate, and a high officer by the hatching on the silver torc on his arm. His mouth was thin and tight and had the look of rarely being opened. ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he asked of no one in particular.

June let out a gust of smoke. ‘Could hardly refuse, now, could I?’

The man’s mouth did not move.

The second officer was a Dal Honese woman in dark silks, a small silver claw sigil at her breast. The sight chilled Kyle even though the woman’s pasty-greyish face and hand clutching the gunwale took somewhat from the power of her presence. The Moranth Blue climbed aboard easily despite the weight of the chitinous plated armour, to stand silent and self-contained. He — or she — nodded a greeting to Captain June.

Greymane broke the protracted silence. ‘I gather I am under arrest.’

The Malazan officer’s hairless brows rose. ‘Under arrest? Not at all, Commander.’

Commander? Kyle wondered.

Greymane shared Kyle’s confusion. He gaze flicked from face to face. ‘Not under arrest?’

‘No.’ The man saluted. ‘Fist Khemet Shul at your service, sir. Leading the convoy.’ He indicated the Claw. ‘Reshal. And this is Halat, liaison for the Moranth Blue Bhuvar — that is Admiral — Swirl.’

The Moranth Blue bowed to Greymane. ‘An honour.’

Greymane’s glacial eyes had narrowed to slits. ‘Why did you call me Commander?’

In answer, Reshal drew a scroll from her shirt and held it out, her left hand supporting her right, and bowed. ‘A missive from Emperor Mallick Rel the Glorious to be delivered personally to your hand.’

Greymane regarded the proffered scroll as one might a bared dagger. Yet, reluctantly, he took it. Kyle waited while the man read. Reshal swallowed hard and straightened, jaws clenched tight and hands pressed to her sides. Kyle thought he’d seen her eyeing him earlier and grinned at her condition. Her answering smile seemed to promise a knife-thrust — later.

Greymane lowered the scroll. He glanced at Kyle, attempting to reassure him with his gaze, which Kyle thought alarmed. ‘Insane, Captain. Utterly insane. Twice it’s been tried and twice the Riders and the Mare galleys destroyed the fleets. This one will manage no better.’

Shul bowed, accepting the point. ‘As you say, Commander. However, this time the Emperor has offered a contract to the Moranth. And they have delivered.’ He looked to Halat. ‘Liaison?’

The Moranth Blue bowed. Aqua hues churned over the polished plates of his armour as he moved. ‘We will break the Mare blockade, Greymane,’ he said, his voice hollow within his masking helm. ‘That is our promise.’

‘You are certain?’

‘Or we will die trying. Such is our word.’

‘Then — I accept the commission.’

Shul saluted crisply. ‘Very good, Fist. Your invasion fleet is assembling off the coast of Kartool.’

‘Are you the insane one?’ Kyle demanded the moment they had time alone in the empty crew quarters. ‘How could you accept — after the way they treated you?’

Squeezed on to a bench, the big man raised an accepting hand. ‘Yes, Kyle. I understand.’ He examined an empty carved wood cup, almost invisible in his wide shovel-like hand. ‘Believe me, I used to feel the same way.’ He took a great breath, turned the cup in small circles on the table before him. ‘But I’m older now. That attack from the Chosen, and the Malazans finding me now… I’ll never be able to hide. And perhaps I shouldn’t have run in the first place. I had people in Korel. People who depended on me. One fellow, Ruthan he was called, he was ready to fight, but I hope he followed my warning. When I was forced to leave… well, it’s always gnawed at me. Like a betrayal. I’ve sometimes found myself wondering — are they still alive?’

Kyle filled Greymane’s cup and one for himself from a jug of watered wine, and, ducking under hammocks, sat. He studied his friend across the table. The man’s long dirty hair, now the hue of iron in this dim light, hung almost to the table. He was unshaven, his wide jowls grey with bristles. Old. The man looks old, and tired. Was this some sort of misguided effort to fix past failures? But from what he understood the failures were not of his making… Still, it was obvious he felt responsibility.

Responsibilities. Duties. Why was it that those who took on such burdens did so of their own accord? Kyle supposed that, in the end, those were the only kind that truly mattered. Like his sitting here now across from his friend. No one had asked. He need not accompany the man. His hand slid to the sword at his side. Burdens willingly taken on, he decided, come to define the bearer.

‘So you are in charge then?’ Kyle finally said into the relative silence of the creaking hull planks and the waves surging past.

‘Of all land operations, yes. Once we arrive — Hood! Should we arrive.’

‘But not the fleet?’

‘No.’

‘Who is?’

Greymane offered a half-smile, his pale sapphire eyes holding a tempered humour. ‘You will have a chance to meet a living legend, Kyle. The name will mean nothing to you seeing as you’re a damned foreigner, but the naval assault will be commanded by Admiral Nok.’

But Greymane was wrong. Kyle had heard of him.

Esslemont, Ian Cameron

Stonewielder

CHAPTER III

Master of violence!

And violence mastered.

Companion to darkness.

Hail the Warlord!

Hammer fell and fist heavy.

What ancient seams

Does he mine when

Night thoughts turn

To fault, fracture,

And that which must be done?

Lament for the Warlord, Fisher Kel Tath

Courtiers in bright finery once crowded the reception hall of Fortress Paliss, capital of the once sovereign Kingdom of Rool. Tapestries lined its stone walls. Long tables offered up delicacies and wines from distant exotic lands in this, the most powerful state on Fist — rival to Korelri.

Once.

Now, the broad hall stood empty, dark and cold. A single occupant — other than his guards — sat at one bare table, his back to a blazing conflagration roaring within a stone fireplace four paces across.

Ussu entered and crossed the wide unlit hall. Shadows danced over him, flickering from the distant fire. His master, Yeull ’ul Taith, commander of what remained of the Malazan Sixth Army, Overlord of Fist, sat as no more than a silhouette of night, awaiting him.

With Ussu walked Borun, Black Moranth, leader of a contingent of that race shipwrecked on Fist some fifteen years ago and now Yeull’s second. Commander of what the locals cursed as Yeull’s ‘Black Hands’.

Ussu noted how Borun’s armoured boots grated on the stone while his footfalls came in comparative silence. He looked down to his leather sandals almost hidden beneath layered robes. Quiet. Hidden. And so it has always been. Who was to know that he, Ussu, once a mage of little note within the Empire, now pursued power by other, darker, means?

They halted before their commander. Yes, commander, now. Yeull ’ul Taith. Overlord. High Fist, after a fashion. First went Greymane — ousted on account of his outrageous leanings. Then that Imperial-appointed governor — what had his name been? Found dead. Then Fist Udara — but her suicide had appeared genuine. And now Yeull — clinging on like a man gripping a plank in a storm. Terrified of betrayal. Yet hanging on just the same, even more terrified of letting go.

Yeull straightened, a thick bearhide wrap falling from his shoulders. His long black hair hung wet with sweat over a pale scarred face. Dark eyes darted between Ussu and Borun. ‘Yes? What is it?’

‘News, m’lord. Of a kind.’

Yeull leaned in his tall chair, draped an arm over its back. ‘Look at you two.’ He gestured to Ussu: ‘White,’ then to Borun, ‘and black.’

Ussu favoured pale hues such as ivory and cream. And his hair was long and thoroughly grey. While Borun was, of course, black.

‘Is one to suggest caution, the other haste?’

‘M’lord…’

‘Is one to prove trustworthy, the other… well… not so trustworthy?’

‘M’lord!’

The dark eyes sharpened. ‘Overlord.’

Ussu bowed. ‘Yes, Overlord.’

‘What is it?’ He poured himself a glass of wine from an earthenware decanter. ‘Is it cold in here? I feel cold.’

As he stood before the roaring bonfire sweat now prickled Ussu’s underarms, chest and face. ‘No, m- Overlord. I am not cold.’

‘No? You’re not?’ He tossed back the glass in one swallow. ‘I am. To the bones.’

‘He is calling for you.’

Yeull looked up from studying the empty glass. ‘What? Someone calling me? Who?’

‘The prisoner,’ Borun said, his voice a coarse growl.

Yeull set down the glass carefully, straightened in his seat. ‘Ah. Him. What does he want?’

‘He must have news for us, High Fist. Something to offer, in any case.’

‘It is cold — I swear it is cold.’ Yeull turned aside. ‘More wood for the fire.’

Ussu turned a quick look to Borun but could see nothing within the vision slit of his lowered visor. These Moranth and their armour! The man must be sweltering.

‘So?’ Yeull demanded. ‘Why are you here speaking to me then? Speak to him.’

‘He will only talk to you.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes, High Fist.’

‘Out of the question.’ The High Fist drew the bearhide cloak tighter about his shoulders.

Ussu suppressed his irritation. ‘We have been through this before, High Fist. It must be you. None other.’

The man was looking aside, his gaze distant, almost empty. ‘It will be cold down there. So far below.’

‘We will bring torches.’

‘What’s that? Torches? Yes. Fire. We must bring fire.’

They walked the dark empty halls of Fortress Paliss. Guards — all Malazan regulars — saluted and unlocked doors to the deeper passageways. Ussu noted the many grey beards among them. They were none of them getting any younger, including himself. Who would carry on? They had trained and recruited thousands of soldiers from among the Rool and Skolati citizens, organized an army of over seventy thousand, but hardly any of the locals held a rank above captain.

Original Malazan officers constituted the ruling body. It was, in effect, the permanent rule of an occupying military elite. Yet their generation was passing away. Who would take up the sceptre — or the mace, in this instance — of rulership? Most had children, grown to men and women now, but these formed the new pampered aristocracy, not the least interested in service, or the world beyond their own sprawling estates. No, it seemed to Ussu more surely with every passing year that the local Fistian and Korelri policy was simply to ignore these invaders until they faded away. As surely they would, soldier by soldier, until nothing was left but for mouldering armour and dusty pennants from forgotten distant lands high on a wall.

The stalemate of initial invasion had ossified into formalized relations. It seemed that as far as the Korelri were concerned the Malazans simply ran the island of Fist now, as had the last Roolian dynasty before them. A mere change in administration. Frustration was not the word. Failure, perhaps, came closer to describing the acid bite in Ussu’s stomach and soul whenever his thoughts turned to it. He had failed his superiors, each commander in turn, failed in attaining his one assigned task: achieving Malazan domination in this theatre. Decades ago, before the invasion fleet left Unta, Kellanved himself had set the task upon him.

He remembered his surprise and terror that day, so long ago now, when the old ogre had taken his arm and walked him out along Unta’s harbour mole. Dancer had followed; how the man’s gaze had tracked their every move! ‘Ussu,’ Kellanved had said, ‘I will tell you this: in the end conquering is not about what territory or resources you control… it is about recasting the deck entirely.’

And he had mouthed something insipid about certainly meaning to and the Emperor had pulled his arm free to jab his walking stick impatiently to the south. ‘Everywhere, for every region — for every person — hands are dealt from the Dragons deck. To create true fundamental change you must force a complete reshuffling and recasting of all hands. Turn your thoughts to that.’ And the man had smiled slyly then, leaning on the silver hound’s head walking stick, staring out over the water and Ussu remembered thinking: As you have, wherever you have gone.

They reached the lowest levels of construction. A locked iron door barred entrance to deeper tunnels carved from the native rock. Here Ussu used a key from his own belt to unlock the portal; no guards remained. Beyond, Borun and Yeull lit torches from lanterns and continued; Ussu locked the door behind them.

He believed these rough winding ways dated back to before the establishment of Paliss itself as a state capital, or even as a settlement. It seemed to him the dust their footfalls kicked up carried with it a tang of smoke and sulphur. Perhaps a remnant of the immense crater lake that dominated the big island.

The torch Yeull carried spluttered and hissed as the man shivered ahead of Ussu, muttering beneath his breath as if in conversation with himself. Ussu wondered, not for the first time, just when a new overlord might be necessary. Not he or Borun; both had found their place. One of the remaining division commanders perhaps, Genarin, or Tesh kel. Yeull had never been popular with the men, given as he was to brooding. But he’d been getting less and less reliable of late.

Borun led the way into a chamber carved from stone. Along one side stood a row of smaller alcoves, each barred. Cells. And around the main room instruments of… punishment and persuasion.

Just as Ussu had found them so long ago when the fortress fell. Very bloodthirsty, that last Roolian dynasty. And forgotten in the most distant pit, enduring, perhaps older even than that generation itself, the last occupant. Had he been overlooked during those last days of panic as the Malazan fist closed? Or had he already been forgotten — slipping from the living memory of humanity as dynasty followed dynasty in their cycles of rebellion and decline? Who was to say? He himself refused to enlighten them.

Borun stopped at a great iron sarcophagus some three paces in length lying within a metal framework upon the bare stone. He set his torch in a brazier, then took hold of a tall iron wheel next to the frame. This he ratcheted, his breath harsh with effort. As the wheel turned long iron spikes slowly withdrew from holes set all down the sides of the sarcophagus, and in rows across its front.

When the ends of these countless iron spikes emerged from within the stained openings a thick black fluid, blood of a kind, dripped viscous and thick from their needle tips. A slow rumbling exhalation of breath sounded then. It stirred the dust surrounding the sarcophagus.

Ussu bent over the coffin. ‘Cherghem? You can hear me?’

A voice no more substantial than that breath sounded from within. I hear you.

‘You say you have information for us? You sense something?’

Food. Water.

‘Not until you speak.’

Water.

Ussu took a ladle from a nearby bucket and dashed its contents across the spike holes in the iron masking the head of the casket. ‘There. You have water. Now speak!’

And the Overlord? He is here?

‘Yes.’ Ussu gestured Yeull forward.

But the Overlord would not move; he stood immobile, staring, one hand clenching the fur hide at his neck, the other white upon the haft of a torch held so close as to nearly set his hair aflame. His face appeared drained of all blood, its skein of scars livid.

‘High Fist…’ Ussu began, coaxing, ‘you must speak.’

The mouth opened but no sound emerged.

I sense him there, his heart pounding like a star in the night. Overlord, I have news for you.

‘Yes? News?’ the man croaked, stricken. ‘What news?’

They are coming for you, Yeull.

‘What’s that? Who?’

Ussu cast an uncertain glance across the sarcophagus to Borun who had cocked his armoured head aside, gauntlets clenching.

You did not think they would allow you your own personal fiefdom, did you? Your superiors, far to the north, they are coming to reassert control of their territory. No doubt you will hang as a usurper.

‘How can you know this?’ Ussu demanded.

I sense their approach.

‘From whence will they come? The west or the east?’

The east.

Ussu did not think it possible for the High Fist to pale any further, yet he did. ‘High Fist… we cannot be sure…’

But Yeull was backing away, shaking his head in terrified denial, his eyes huge dark pits. ‘No, they are coming… they will never stop. Never leave me alone.’

Ussu moved to follow. ‘High Fist…’

And can you guess who leads them?

Though Ussu knew this ancient being was laughing within, savouring his power over them, he turned to regard the impassive scarred iron mask, had to ask, ‘Who?’

Your old friend, Overlord… the one some name Stonewielder.

Yeull leapt to the wheel, torch falling. ‘How do you know this?’ he demanded.

I sense what he carries at his side — an artefact unique in all existence, but for one other.

The ratcheting of the mechanism shocked Ussu as it spun under Yeull’s hand.

The spikes thrust their way irresistibly into Cherghem’s flesh — such as it was — much deeper than ever, as far as they could, and the prisoner groaned, convulsing in a shudder that shook the stone beneath their feet. Then, silence. Ussu listened for an intake of breath, heard none.

‘That’s enough from you,’ Yeull ground out, snarling. He retrieved his torch, motioned to the stairs. As they walked the Moranth commander fell back to join Ussu. ‘Think you he was lying?’

‘No. It was inevitable… just sooner than I had hoped.’

‘What must we do?’

Ussu eyed the back of the Overlord, almost invisible in the gloom. ‘More germane to my mind is the question… what will you do?’

The Moranth’s chitinous armour plates grated in an indifferent shrug. ‘I am pledged to Yeull, my commander. He orders, I obey.’

‘I see.’ Ussu did not bother disguising his relief. Over a thousand Black Moranth — our iron core. We may yet have a chance. ‘Through my contacts I will warn Mare, let them know another invasion fleet will be approaching.’ They reached the locked iron door and Overlord Yeull, waiting, jaws clenched rigid in irritation and frustrated rage. ‘With any luck,’ Ussu finished, ‘not one ship will escape them as before.’

No less than five times Tal, First of the Chase, promised her war band blood. Each time the trespassers slipped their grasp. No ambush succeeded. Not even the gathering cold slowed the passage of these foreigners across the icefields. Now the Chase, the premiere Jhek war party, must content itself with a protracted hunt across the crevasses of the Great Northern Agal.

Tal signalled a halt, pulled off her bulky fur and hide mitts. Her breath clouded the air. Hemtl, her second, stopped next to her. His furred hood and ivory eye-shield obscured his face, but she could well imagine his boyish sulk. He motioned to the tracks scuffing the snow. ‘Still they remain ahead. They must be of the demons of old, the Forkul.’

‘The Forkul would not run,’ said a third voice and Tal suppressed a jerked start of surprise — Ruk had done it again. She turned: there he stood, arms and legs all crooked, in his hides of white, hair whiter still, the pale silver of frost. ‘At least not from us,’ he finished.

‘What would you know of the Forkul?’ Hemtl demanded. Wincing, Tal turned away. You are second, Hemtl. Ruk did not seek the position. No need to remind anyone — except yourself.

Ruk was silent, allowing the wind to whisper his answer to each: More than you.

The rest of the hunt had halted a distance back and crouched, indistinguishable among the wind-blown drifts. ‘This is a waste,’ Tal said to the blinding white horizon. ‘I have lost count of the spoor we’ve passed.’

‘Five snow bear and stragglers of the Ice River herd,’ supplied Ruk.

‘The insult must be answered!’ Hemtl snarled.

Still facing away, Tal let out a long pluming breath. ‘What does the land say?’

‘Stone and rock are far away, Tal,’ said Ruk. ‘The Jaghut ice smothers all other voices.’

‘Yet?’

‘Yet there are whispers…’

She turned to the old man. Why the reluctance? His shielded gaze was turned aside. His hair blew free. Did the man not feel their old enemy’s biting cold? For the first time in the hunt Tal felt the tightening in her throat that comes with the cornering of a snow bear or a giant tusker. Who were these strangers? ‘Whispers of what?’ she breathed.

‘Of the ancestral Hold. Tellann.’

‘Impossible!’ burst out Hemtl. ‘That cannot be.’

‘Not impossible,’ answered Tal, thoughtful. ‘The Elders still walk the land. Logros, Kron, Ifayle. The path is still open — we have just lost the way.’

‘The Jag curse of ice has smothered it,’ Ruk agreed.

‘There are other ways…’ Hemtl said, his voice sullen. ‘The Broken God beckons.’

‘He is not of the land,’ Ruk answered, his dismissal complete.

Tal raised a hand to sign for a halt. ‘Ruk and I will go ahead, see if they will speak to us.’

‘Speak?’ said Hemtl. ‘To what end?’

‘Who knows?’ And she laughed to chide Hemtl. ‘Perhaps they will surrender, hey?’

Tal and Ruk jogged onward. They picked up their pace from their normal league-sustaining trot of pursuit, closing the distance between them and their quarry. After a time the change in tactics was discovered and the party of four ahead slowed then stopped, awaiting them far across the ice. Closing, she and Ruk slowed as well, came to a halt themselves. Tal held out her gloved hands. ‘Do you understand me?’ she called in Korelri.

‘We do,’ an accented voice answered from over the windswept field. ‘What is there for us to talk of?’

What was there for them to talk of? Where could she possibly start? ‘By what right do you so arrogantly cross our lands?’

The four spoke among themselves. One raised his hands to his mouth. ‘Your lands? We thought these wastes empty. Why do you chase us?’

Why? What fools these foreigners were! ‘Why? Because these are our lands! You are trespassers. You eat caribou — that is food taken from our families.’

The four spoke again. ‘We offer our apologies. But there are so many. That herd numbered thousands!’

Tal and Ruk could not help but exchange looks of exasperation. Foreigners! Elder Gods deliver them from the uncomprehending fools. Tal called across the ice, ‘Yes, so it would seem. Yet every one of those spoken for, and that all our families have! What of the herds of your lords? What if they were kept all together and someone, seeing all their number, helped himself to one seeing as they numbered so? What would then happen to him?’

‘He would be imprisoned, or maimed,’ admitted the foreign trespasser, his voice now sounding tired. ‘Very well. Come forward. Perhaps we should speak.’

Tal looked to Ruk, who nodded his assent. They found three men and one woman, all four ill dressed for the cold, shivering, the leathers under their cloaks soaked in sweat that froze into frost and ice before Tal’s eyes. How could these ill-prepared wretches have forestalled them time and again? But the spokesman, a muscular squat fellow, dark-skinned, was sitting on his haunches calmly awaiting them. Tal squatted down with him. ‘Greetings.’

‘Greetings. It would seem we owe you our apologies and reparation of some kind. That is acceptable to us if it is acceptable to you. What repayment would you require?’

Astonished, Tal glanced up at Ruk but found the man grinning at one of the strangers, a skinny youth bearing an unruly thatch of thick black hair. This one wore a brooch on his wool cloak, a silver snake or dragon over a red field. The sight of that insignia triggered a distant recognition within Tal. Thinking of that vague impression, she asked, ‘Your names, first.’

The four exchanged uncertain glances. Why the uneasiness? What could they possibly have to hide? But then the spokesman shrugged. ‘Fair enough. I am Blues. This is Fingers, Lazar, Shell. We are of the Crimson Guard.’

Tal rocked back on her heels. That name she knew. Crimson Guard — they had ruled Stratem to the south in her grandfather’s time. Warriors and mages, her grandfather had told her. War is for them as is the hunt for us. Examining the four, Tal now wondered who had let who escape back there so many times on the trail.

The two named Fingers and Shell straightened then, their gazes roving about. Blues frowned. ‘What…?’

‘It’s a trap,’ Fingers said. ‘We’re surrounded.’

Ruk thrust himself to his feet, cursing. ‘The young fool!’

Tal straightened as well, knowing what she would see. Hemtl had cast the Chase out in a broad encirclement and they closed now, he coming forward. He pointed his spear, calling, ‘Harm our two and you all die!’

None of the four had made any move to defend themselves or restrain Tal and Ruk. Tal raised her hands to Blues. ‘We had no knowledge of this.’

Blues gave his gentle assent. ‘I know — you wouldn’t have delivered yourselves otherwise.’

‘Let me speak to him.’

‘You’d better,’ the man answered quietly.

That gentle warning moved Tal to run to Hemtl. Ruk remained, as if offering himself out of shame as hostage.

‘You fool!’ she snarled, closing.

The young man was panting, his face flushed. ‘We have them. Your trick stopped them.’

‘It wasn’t a trick. This isn’t a game. I was close to terms. Now, thanks to you, I doubt I’ll be able to salvage this…’

But Hemtl wasn’t facing her. Spear levelled, he shouted, ‘Release our man or you will all die!’

Tal slapped him. The blow sent his visor flying, loosed his mane of long kinked hair to blow in the wind. His eyes went huge. ‘I see it now,’ he breathed. ‘You would betray us — allow them to escape for payment. You are a whore…’

She raised her arm to slap him again but he was quicker and it was as if instantly the man’s spear was through her stomach. She felt the broad flint head glance from the bone of her pelvis. How easy it is to die, she thought, amazed, before a sea of pain erased all else. To her shame she screamed but over that she heard the roar of Ruk’s bull outrage.

Tal did not expect to ever awaken again, yet she did. It was night. The lights of the Holds shimmered pink and green in the black starry sky. A fire burned nearby. A woman’s face loomed close. The foreigner, Shell. Then Ruk, face wet with tears. ‘What… what…’ she murmured before sleep took her once more.

When she awoke again it was light and she was strapped in a travois. The men and women of her hunt all gathered around. Ruk pushed his way forward. He took her head in his rough hands. ‘I thought we’d lost you.’

‘What happened?’

‘You were healed. The foreigners healed you. It was far beyond our skills. We’re taking you home now.’

‘Ruk!’ she snarled, then gasped her pain. ‘What happened?’

The old man glanced away. The wind threw his long snow-bright hair about. ‘I killed him.’

She’d thought so. Good — in that he’d managed to keep it among themselves. No new blood feud. Now Ruk would present himself at the Guth-Ull, the council of chiefs, and hear their judgement. They should be lenient, considering.

‘And the foreigners?’

‘Gone.’

‘Gone? I can’t even thank them?’

Ruk shook his head in wonderment at the strange ways of all those not blessed enough to be of the Jhek. ‘They left as soon as they knew you were mended. Would not wait. Said they’d been in a rush because they were in a hurry to rescue a friend. Damned odd these strangers, yes?’

No. Perhaps not so odd, old friend.

‘So where, in the name of all the buggering Faladah, are we?’

Kiska eyed the man. Her… what? Protector? She’d frankly rather die. Guide? Obviously not. Partner? Hardly. Ally?… Perhaps. To be generous — perhaps. She knew nothing of the man, though she’d like to think that the Enchantress was no fool. He was wrapping a cloth about his face and neck in a manner that spoke of long practice and easy familiarity. She scanned the horizon: league after league of desolate near-desert prostrate beneath a dull slate sky. She knew this place. It had been a long time, yet how could anyone ever forget?

‘Shadow. We are in the Shadow Realm.’

The man grunted his distaste. ‘The Kingdom of the Deceiver? He is reviled in my lands.’

Kneeling, Kiska laid her roll on the ground. She took articles from her pockets and waist, including a water skin, wrapped dried meat and the sack, and folded them tightly into the roll, which she then tied off with rope. This went on to her back. She pulled a grey cloth from beneath her leather hauberk, and, like Jheval, wrapped it round her head and face. Thin leather gloves finished the change; she yanked them tight, then checked the ties of the two long-knives she carried towards the back of each hip.

Jheval looked her up and down, from her now dusty knee-high boots up her trousers to her full-sleeved hauberk and the headscarf she was tucking in. ‘You’re too lightly armoured,’ he observed.

‘Have to do.’

‘It won’t.’

‘That’s my problem.’

‘Not if I have to carry you.’

‘You won’t.’

The Seven Cities native had half turned away, scanning the surroundings. Now he eyed her sidelong, bemused. ‘How did you know that?’

Arsehole. She gestured to one side. ‘Let’s take a look from that rise,’ she said, and headed off. After a moment she heard him follow. At least he hasn’t tried to take charge. That’s something. And he had the grace, or the confidence, to admit he had no idea where they were. Nothing too insufferable yet.

The yielding sands pulled at her feet; already she felt tired. From the modest rise she now saw what she presumed to be the hills the Enchantress spoke of. They were no more than lumps on the distant horizon — or what she assumed must be distant; there was no way of knowing here in Shadow. Beside her Jheval grunted upon spotting the feature, and in that single vocalization Kiska read his frustration and disgust at the sight.

Smiling behind her headscarf, she headed down the slope.

Some time later — and she had no way of knowing how long that might’ve been — as they walked more or less side by side, yet apart, she grew tired of squinting into the distances, searching for a hint of the geography she’d encountered during earlier visits to this realm. She saw nothing familiar, and decided it was ridiculous to search for it; Shadow must be vast, and any traveller in Genabackis may as well hope for a glimpse of the Fenn Mountains.

During all this time she hadn’t spoken. But then, neither had Jheval. Clearing her throat, her gaze fixed ahead, she began, ‘So. Strictly speaking, should we be enemies?’

A silent pause; perhaps long enough for a shrug. ‘Not at all. Are you some sort of Imperial fanatic?’

‘No! I withdrew from service.’ She glared to see his eyes amused above what must be a smile hidden by his scarf. ‘I was a private bodyguard.’

It was hard to tell, but she thought the smile disappeared. ‘Not so unalike after all, then.’

‘We are quite unalike, thank you,’ she sniffed, and regretted it instantly — that priggish superior tone. He just gave a low knowing chuckle and Kiska was then very glad of her scarf for it hid her flushed embarrassment.

For all their walking the range of hills appeared no closer. The dune fields interspersed by flats of hardpan passed monotonously. They passed occasional ruins of canted pillars and shattered stone walls half buried in the sands. The emptiness struck Kiska as odd; her memories were of a much more crowded place.

‘We were enemies once, I suppose,’ the man said after a time, perhaps only to hear a human voice in all this silence. ‘For you were a Claw.’

Kiska turned on him, about to demand who said so, and to deny it utterly, but then the absurdity of it all came to her and she deflated, her shoulders falling. She gave a dismissive wave and continued on. ‘How did you know? Did the Enchantress tell you?’

‘No. It’s in your walk. The way you move.’

‘Seen many, have you, up there in Seven Cities?’

‘I was stalked by a number of them,’ he answered, without any note of boasting.

She glanced over, attempting to penetrate the layers of his armour, his face-masking headscarf. ‘I’m impressed.’

It was his turn to wave the issue aside. ‘Don’t be. My friend killed most of them. He’s very good at killing. I’m not.’

Kiska was caught off guard by this surprising claim, or confession. ‘Really? What are you good at then?’

Now came an unmistakable broad smile behind the scarf. ‘Living.’

Kiska almost shared the contagious smile before quickly turning away. After walking again for a while, she began, ‘Yes. I was a Claw. I trained as one. Was offered command of a Hand. But I refused. I withdrew.’

‘I thought they wouldn’t allow that,’ he said. ‘That they’d just kill you.’

‘Sometimes. If you go independent. Not if you join the regular ranks. Or, as I did, serve as a bodyguard within the Imperium.’

‘It must have been hard… walking away from all that…’

‘Not at all. It was simplicity-’ She stopped, peering aside. ‘What’s that?’

The undulating terrain had brought a hollow into view where a large dark shape lay twisted among broken ground. Jumbled tracks led from it off to their right.

‘It’s not moving,’ said Jheval.

Kiska gestured onward. ‘Let’s just keep going.’

‘We should at least take a look.’

She shook her head. ‘No. This is Shadow — we mustn’t involve ourselves.’

But Jheval was already heading down the slope. ‘Aren’t you even curious?’

‘This is no place for curiosity… or stupidity,’ she added under her breath, peering warily about. Yet follow she did. It was the fresh corpse of a titanic lizard beast. Upright, it would have stood twice her height. Its forearms ended in curved blades, battered and stained. Jheval was crouched by its great head. He had pulled down his face scarf.

‘So… this is K’Chain Che’Malle,’ he said, musing.

‘Yes. A warrior. One of their Kell Hunters.’

‘What is it doing here, I wonder.’

‘I have no idea.’ Whatever had happened, the beast’s death had not been easy. Great savage wounds gouged its sides and legs. Dried blood sheathed its scaled skin. Kiska noted a track close by and she knelt: an enormous paw-print wider across than the span of her hand. She straightened, rigid. ‘Jheval…’

The sandpaper hiss of the tail shifting warned them and one forelimb scythed through the air where Jheval had been crouching. His morningstars appeared almost instantly as blurs. The beast twisted, lumbered to its clawed feet. A kind of harness of leather and metal hung from it in tattered ruins. Kiska saw there was no point in running: the thing’s stride was greater than her height. Jheval desperately gave ground in a series of clashing parries, somehow deflecting each of the Kell Hunter’s ponderous slashes. Kiska was appalled; it seemed to her that any one of those blows could have levelled a building.

Since they could not outrun it she had to slow it down. And it seemed to be ignoring her. She lunged after the beast, long-knives drawn. A forward roll brought her within reach of its trailing leg and she slashed. A bellow of pain rewarded her, together with a blow from its tail that crushed the breath from her and sent her tumbling across the sands.

She awoke coughing and gagging. Jheval was crouched over her, water skin raised. She wiped her face and peered about. Off in the distance a trumpet roar of pain and frustration blasted the air.

‘You carried me.’

He sat heavily, out of breath. ‘No. I dragged you.’

‘Thank you so much.’

‘You’re welcome.’

She suddenly remembered what she’d found next to the fallen Kell Hunter and struggled to rise. ‘We have to move.’

He pressed her down gently. ‘No, no. You crippled it. And it was too stupid to know it was dead anyway.’

She batted his hand aside. ‘No, you fool.’ Then, failing to stand, she grabbed the hand. ‘Oh, help me up.’

He pulled her to her feet and she hissed, cradling her side. It felt as if someone had swung a tree at her. ‘We have to go,’ she gasped. ‘They might return.’

The man was eyeing her, suspicious. ‘Who?’

Clutching his shoulder, she tried a step. ‘The creatures that tore that Kell Hunter apart. The hounds. The Hounds of Shadow.’

‘Even they could not-’

‘Trust me,’ she said, impatient. ‘I’ve seen them.’ She took a tentative step all on her own. ‘Now, we have to go.’

The man was scanning the surroundings, scowling, clearly dubious. But at length he shrugged, acquiescing. ‘If you insist.’ He took her elbow to help her along.

The corpses may have been fishermen unlucky enough to have had their boat sink, or overturn. Perhaps. They were found tangled on the shore of the tiny Isle of Skytower, a rocky outcropping at the centre of Tower Sea. Yet since the sea, and the isle, were forbidden to all by order of the Korelri Chosen, it was unlikely they had arrived by choice.

Summoned by the watch, Tower Marshal Colberant, commander of the garrison, reluctantly climbed his way down the bare jumbled rocks of the isle’s steep shore. He was old, and frankly cared nothing for the world beyond his life’s duty overseeing this, the most isolated and secure fortress of the Korelri Chosen. Living fishermen or sailors from nearby Jasston or Dourkan barely interested him; their dead remains could hardly be worthy of his attention. But Javus, their youngest recruit to this, the most demanding and important posting achievable for all Chosen, had been very insistent. Such keenness ought to be encouraged.

So Colberant hiked up his long cloak and steadied himself with the haft of his spear as he carefully tested each foothold among the jagged black rocks that led down to the island’s desolate shore. Desolate because within Tower Sea no fish swam, no bird nested, and no plant spread its green leaves. For here against Skytower ages ago the full fury of the demon Riders smashed winter after winter while Colberant’s ancestors fought to complete the final sections of the great Stormwall. And here even now, after so many thousands of years, the land had yet to heal and find its life again.

Downslope, Javus waited a good man-height above the tallest of the high-water marks. At least, Colberant mused, the lad knew better than to extend an arm to help his ageing commander. Planting his spear, Colberant made a show of peering about. ‘So where are these bodies that have so spooked you, young Javus?’

The youth smiled, already familiar with his commander’s teasing manner. He slipped an arm from his wrapped cloak. ‘Just there, Marshal. And it is not the corpses that are unsettling — rather the manner of their passing.’

Colberant arched a sharp brow. ‘Oh?’ But the young Chosen, his gaze lowered, would say no more. The marshal probed the rocks and continued on a few more paces. Here he halted, then lowered himself to his haunches, both fists tight on the spear haft.

He would not have thought them corpses had he come across them alone. Tangled lengths of sun-dried driftwood, perhaps. More than ten individuals certainly, deposited high above the highest of all the tide lines. Yet each was as browned and desiccated as if found within a cave.

It had been many years since he, an elder among the Order of the Chosen, had heard of such things. Squatting on his aching haunches he glanced up at the heights of the black volcanic rock tower looming above them. They say the Blessed Lady spurns many and that few achieve permission to sit at her right hand. Is this a warning? Have we angered her with our weakness of late? Who was to know? Not even he, considered the most ardent in his devotion, dared guess her moods. He straightened, returned to the waiting Javus.

He smiled his reassurance. ‘Drowned fishermen. Their boat must have overturned. No matter how many times we tell them not to enter Tower Sea, still they come.’

The young man remained troubled. ‘With all respect, Marshal, I’ve seen drowned bodies. Those men and women have not been in the sea.’

Colberant shrugged his indifference, began searching for a way up. ‘The sun, then, has dried them since.’

‘I only say, Marshal, because I am from Skolati originally…’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes… and in Fist is a similar inland sea, Fist Sea. And there on its shores we sometimes find similar… things.’

Colberant turned to face the recruit squarely. ‘I do not find it surprising, Javus, that people should drown in either sea.’

‘But as I said, none of-’

The marshal had raised a hand for silence. ‘Your diligence is to be commended… but this is a matter for the Order now. You will speak to no one regarding this.’

Drawing himself up taut, the youth bowed curtly. ‘As you say, Marshal.’

‘Thank you. Now, perhaps you could show an old man the easiest path back up to the tower, yes?’

Another stiff bow. ‘Of course, Marshal.’

Colberant had asked for Javus’ guidance but he did not need it; he had been walking these rocks for decades. His sandalled feet sought purchase on their own as his thoughts flew far ahead. I must send word to Hiam immediately. The supply launch must be readied. Javus will wonder… but to be honoured with this posting his loyalty must already stand beyond reproach. For here in this tower, secluded from the Stormwall, guarded by four hundred most dedicated of the Chosen, are sequestered the Order’s holiest of relics. Including, so our ancient lore has it, the gift responsible for the founding of our Order, given from the hand of the Blessed Lady herself.

All that day Ivanr knew of the army’s approach. He said nothing about it to the boy. Smoke and dust was a distant haze obscuring the higher valley. The hint of cook fires and the miasmic pong of stale human sweat and poorly cured leather made him wince; he had been a long time away from any human settlement.

He set camp in the evening, hobbled the mounts. The boy sat, arms tight around his shins, watching, silent still.

Not a word since leaving that pathetic village. Seeing one’s family butchered before one’s eyes might put a halt to discussion.

Yet look at me…

‘Hungry?’

No response, chin on knees, eyes big and hair unkempt.

Ivanr cleared his throat. ‘We have bread. Meat. Preserves. Care for some cheese?’

Nothing. A shudder from the gathering cool.

Ivanr sighed.

I have been alone in the mountains for a month and the one human being I choose to travel with won’t say a damned word. Serves me right, I suppose.

He set to gathering firewood.

While he collected the dry bracken and sticks, he called, ‘A man has only two hands, you know. Be nice to have a warm fire going by now

…’

He paused, glanced over his shoulder. The boy was watching him over his. ‘Never mind. Tricky business this, stalking twigs. Maybe when you’re older…’

He sat facing the camp fire, finishing off the bread; the boy stared back, the tear of dried meat that Ivanr had placed in his hand still there. Ivanr was waiting for the advance scouts of the force up-valley to decide they were harmless.

‘Am I evil?’ the boy asked, so sudden, so unbidden, that Ivanr thought someone else had spoken from the dark.

‘I’m sorry, lad. What was that?’

The earnestness of the boy’s gaze was a needle to Ivanr’s chest. ‘Am I evil?’

‘By all the gods true or false — no! Of course not. Who would say such a thing?’

‘My father did. When he gathered us all together. Ma and the little ‘uns. Said we were evil in the sight of the Lady and had to die for it.’

Ivanr stared through the fire between them. He felt his face darkening and a heart-squeezing pain. All the unholy gods. What can anyone say to that? ‘No, lad,’ he managed, fighting to keep his voice light. ‘That’s wrong. Your father was… led wrongly.’

He heard them approaching then through the rough chaparral. Encircling — at least they got that right. As the scouts emerged from the dark — two men and two women — the boy jolted upright mouthing an inarticulate yelp. Ivanr quickly crossed to set a hand on his shoulder. Beneath his palm the lad was shivering like a colt. ‘Who are you?’ Ivanr demanded, if only because they had said nothing.

‘Where are you from, Thel?’ one of the women demanded.

‘I’ve been farming. There’s a village beneath the slope here. They’re killing everyone. We fled.’

She studied him while the other three collected his gear and un-hobbled his mount. ‘Hey! That’s my horse.’

‘Not any longer,’ said the woman. She was hardly older than a girl. ‘Why did you flee?’

‘I’ve had enough of killing.’

That struck the woman as funny and she gave a derisive snort. ‘Then you should’ve kept to your fields, because you are now part of the Army of Reform.’

‘Reform? Who came up with that?’

The woman pressed the tip of her Jourilan longsword to his chest. ‘Careful, recruit.’ The lad’s eyes were huge on the woman’s sword.

‘You don’t kill your recruits, do you?’

‘Just the spies and infiltrators.’

‘I’m not the type.’

‘No? Then what are you?’

‘I’m a pacifist. I’ve renounced killing.’

Another derisive snort and the woman lowered her blade, sheathing it. She shook her head in disbelief. ‘A damned Thel pacifist. Now I’ve seen everything.’ She scanned the others. ‘We ready?’

‘Aye.’

‘Okay. Back to camp.’ She waved Ivanr onward. ‘Beneth might want a word with you.’

Walking through the night, a comforting arm over the lad’s shoulders, Ivanr wondered on that name, Beneth. Could it really be the same he’d heard so much of over the years? The heretic mystic of the mountains, hunted for so long. Had he now gathered to himself an army of followers? Or had refugees merely coaleesced naturally around him? The appearance of these scouts supported that theory: scruffy mismatched armour, no uniform. The possibility was troubling; he did not relish being pressed into an army of religious fanatics. He knew his history. There had been uprisings in the past, millennial movements, charismatics, schismatics, peasant rebellions. All crushed beneath the hooves of the Jourilan Imperial cavalry and the banner of the Blessed Lady.

Late in the night they passed between pickets and reached the army encampment. Here the woman stopped him. ‘Just you.’

The boy peered up, his brows troubled. Ivanr patted his shoulders. ‘He’s with me.’

The woman’s sour scowl, apparently her normal expression, eased into something like mild distaste. ‘We have a large train of followers. Refugees. Families. He can join the camp.’

It occurred to Ivanr that from all he’d seen so far this assemblage was nothing more than one bloated congregation of refugees, but he thought it imprudent to say so at the moment. He crouched before the lad. ‘Go with this girl here. She’ll take you to a family. They’ll feed you. Take you in. Okay?’

The boy just stared back, the crusted dried blood Ivanr couldn’t remove black in the dim torchlight. The eyes remained just as empty as before. Show something, damn you! Anything. Even fear.

He straightened, nodded to the woman. She took the lad’s hand. ‘Is he…’ and she gestured to her head.

Ivanr almost slapped the young scout. ‘No!’ He softened his voice. ‘He’s seen some terrible things.’

She grunted, dubious, pulled him away. The lad went without a sound. He looked back once over a shoulder, his eyes big and gleaming in the dark. It somehow saddened Ivanr that he should go so easily and he felt a stab of pain as he wondered if perhaps he’d been forgotten already. One of the remaining scouts gestured. ‘This way.’

The tent was large but no different from any of the others surrounding it. Guards stood before the closed flap. They searched him then waved him in. When he ducked within, the first thing that struck Ivanr was the heat, that and the bright light of a fire and numerous lamps. He stood blinking, hunched beneath the low roof.

‘Take a seat,’ said someone, a man. ‘You’re making me uncomfortable just looking at you.’

Squinting, he made out scattered blankets and cushions. He sat. ‘My thanks.’

‘So, you are just up from the lowlands.’

‘More or less.’

‘And what awaits us there?’

‘Chaos and bloodshed.’

A barked laugh. ‘You were just there, weren’t you?’

His vision adjusting, Ivanr made out three occupants. The speaker was middle-aged, bearded, well dressed in a tailored shirt and jacket of the kind once fashionable in the Jourilan courts. That and his accent placed him as a Jourilan aristocrat. The second occupant was a woman, thick-boned, dressed in a battered plain coat such as might also serve as underpadding for heavy armour. Her hair was hacked short, touched with grey, and her nose was flattened and canted aside, crushed long ago by some fearsome blow. He could not place her background — Katakan, perhaps. The last occupant was farther into shadows, a hump of piled blankets topped by an old man’s bald gleaming head, a cloth wrapped round the eyes. ‘What do you want with me?’ Ivanr asked. ‘I’m just a refugee.’

The old man’s face drew up in a wrinkled smile. ‘Greetings, refugee.’ He cocked his head to one side and raised it as if looking off just above Ivanr. ‘My name is Beneth. Describe him, Hegil.’

‘He’s the closest to a full-breed Thel that I’ve ever seen,’ said the bearded man. ‘Was once better fed but has lost weight recently. Carries himself like a soldier — is probably a veteran. And rides a horse recently stolen from the army.’

‘What do you say to that, Thel?’

‘I’d say your friend’s right — and that he’s been in the army too.’

The old man — blind for some time, Ivanr decided — seemed to wink behind the cloth wrap. ‘You are both correct, of course. I would hazard the guess that you are Ivanr. Welcome to our camp.’

Ivanr couldn’t help starting, amazed. ‘How did-’

‘Ivanr the Grand Champion?’ said Hegil, equally amazed.

The blind old man’s expression was unchanged, maddeningly secretive, almost mischievous. ‘As a soothsayer might say, I saw it in a dream. Now come. We have tea, and meat.’

Ivanr did not object when trenchers of food were passed round: goat on skewers, yoghurt, and freshly baked flatbread.

‘So someone here knows me,’ he said to the old man.

Beneth was chewing thoughtfully on his bread. ‘Not that I know of. Do you know him, Hegil?’

Hegil, obviously once a Jourilan officer, was now eyeing Ivanr with open hostility. ‘Only by reputation.’

Beneth nodded. ‘There you are. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. I guessed correctly because I was forewarned you might come to us.’

‘Forewarned by whom?’

‘By the Priestess.’

Ivanr almost choked on the goat. ‘Is she here?’

Again the knowing smile. ‘I hear in your voice that you’ve met her. No, she is not, but many of those gathered here are adherents of hers. They passed along the information. In any case, as I said, let us not get ahead of ourselves. Introductions first.’ He motioned to his left, where the woman in the functional-looking coat sat. ‘This is Martal, of Katakan.’ She inclined her chin in wary greeting. ‘Martal is in charge of organizing our forces.’

Best of luck to you, Martal.

‘Hegil is the commander of our cavalry.’

Ivanr nodded to the aristocrat. An odd arrangement — just who was in charge then? Hegil or the woman? He shifted uncomfortably and stretched a leg that threatened to seize in a knot. ‘Well, thank you for the meal and I wish you well, but I must be getting on. I’m sure you have better intelligence than I can provide.’

Beneth again cocked his head in thought, as if listening to distant voices only he could hear. ‘May I ask where you might be getting on to, Ivanr? Have you given any thought to where you might be headed?’

Ivanr chewed a mouthful of flatbread. He shrugged. ‘Well, no offence, but I would hardly tell you that, would I?’

The old man nodded at such prudence. ‘True. But let me guess. You were thinking of heading across the inland sea to the Blight Plains, and perhaps continuing east to the coast to take ship to other lands where the name of Ivanr is not known.’

Ivanr coughed on his flatbread, washed it down with a mouthful of goat’s milk. He glowered at the innocently beaming fellow. ‘Your point, old man?’

‘My point is that everyone here was drawn to this place for a reason. We are assembled here and in other locations for a purpose. What that purpose is I cannot say exactly. I can only perceive its vague outlines. But I do assure you this — it is a far greater end than that which any of us could achieve in the pursuit of our own individual goals.’

Ivanr stared at the blind old fellow. Delusional. And a demagogue. The two tended to go hand in hand. Prosecute someone, chase them into the wasteland, and they can’t help but be driven to the conclusion that it’s all for some sort of higher good — after all, the alternative would just be too crushing. It takes an unusually philosophic mind to accept that all one’s suffering might be to no end, really, in the larger scheme of things.

After a long thoughtful sip of goat’s milk, Ivanr raised and lowered his shoulders. ‘I can assure you that I was not drawn here.’

Beneth appeared untroubled. He waved a quavering, age-spotted hand. ‘A poor analogy maybe. Guided. Spurred along by events, perhaps.’

Scowling at his own foolishness in actually attempting to debate with the old hermit, Ivanr shrugged. He would get nowhere in this. ‘Well, again, thank you for the meal. Am I to assume that I am your prisoner? After all, you could hardly allow me to leave and possibly reveal your presence here in the hills.’

‘They know we’re here,’ said Hegil.

‘They’ve placed spies among us,’ added Martal, speaking for the first time.

Ivanr found it hard to penetrate her accent. ‘Really? Why don’t you get rid of them?’

The old man’s mouth crooked up. ‘Better that we know who the spies are than not. And we can use them to send along the information we want sent.’

Not quite so otherworldly, are you, holy man? Ivanr could not deny feeling a certain degree of admiration for such subtlety in thinking and tactics.

‘In any case,’ Beneth continued, ‘we could hardly deter Grand Champion Ivanr from leaving our modest camp, should he choose to. Yes?’

Ivanr merely raised an eyebrow. You damned well know you could should you choose to. About ten spearmen who knew what they were doing ought to take care of that.

‘But before we retire why don’t I tell you a story? My story, to be exact. One that I hope might shed some light on why we are here, and what we hope to accomplish. I am old, as you see. Very old. I was born long before the Malazans came to our shores with their foreign ways and foreign gods. I was also born different. All my life I could see things other people could not. Shadows of other things. These shadows spoke to me, showed me strange visions. When I spoke of these things to my parents, I was beaten and told never to entertain such evil again. For such is how all those born different are treated here among the Korelri and Roolians — all those you Thel name invaders.

‘Foolishly though, or stubbornly, I persisted in indulging my gifts, for they were my solace, my company, the only thing I had left after I had been named touched. And so one day representatives of the priesthood, the Lady’s examiners, came for me. Since you persist in your evil visions, they said, we will put a permanent end to your perverted ways. And they heated irons and put out my eyes. I was but fourteen years of age at the time.’

The old man cleared his throat. Martal pressed a skin of water into one of his hands, which he took and drank. ‘I was left to starve, blind, in the foothills of the mountains south of Stygg. The Ebon range. But I did not die. When I awoke I found that I possessed another kind of vision. The vision of a land like this but subtly different — a kind of shadow version. I wandered the wilderness, the ice wastes, the snow-topped Iceback range. There I was shown images of the past and present that lacerated my spirit, horrified me beyond recounting. I was shown that these lands are in the grip of a great evil, a monstrous deformation of life that has persisted, entwining itself into our ways here in these lands for thousands of years. One that must be rooted out and cleansed. And to that end we are all of us gathered here.’

Ivanr glanced from face to face searching for scepticism or ridicule, but saw only a kind of gentle affection for the old man. Hegil was nodding, his gaze downcast. Even Martal — who appeared the most hardened veteran Ivanr had met in a long time — was affected: her flat broad face twisted in a ferocious scowl. Lady preserve him, this was far worse than he’d imagined. Crusaders. The Priestess had infected all these people with her madness. Right then he saw that he had to confront her. Visions came of this refugee rabble marching to be mowed down by Jourilan Imperials. Mass murder. All in her name. Someone had to make her see her responsibility for all these deaths. To make her stop this hopeless cause. And it surely would not be any of them.

He cleared his throat and raised his hands, gesturing helplessly. ‘I’m sorry for all that you have suffered, Beneth. But again, none of this has anything to do with me. I wish you luck. Though I have to say that I do not think you will fare well against the Jourilan Army.’

‘We are not fighting the Jourilan Army. Or even the Jourilan Emperor himself. But that aside, I am surprised to hear you say that none of this has anything to do with you.’

He could not suppress a shiver of unease. ‘What do you mean?’ He could have sworn the old man cocked a brow behind the bandage across his eyes.

‘Why… she sought you out, of course. And now you have found your way here among us. Surely you do not think this mere coincidence?’

And why did the tree fall on my house? Because the hundred other ones that fell did not, old man. We invent patterns when we look back on what has brought us to wherever we happen to be. This particular choice, or that particular turn. All in hindsight… when in truth all was mere chance. This is where people go to flee the carnage below and so — wonders of wonders — here we have all congregated. That is all there is to it, old man. Nothing more. Ivanr finished his goat’s milk. ‘Well, we simply disagree there.’

Again, the knowing, indulgent smile. ‘So you say. But it is late. I must sleep. A guard will show you a billet. Good night.’

Ivanr nodded his assent. ‘Good night. It is an honour to meet you, none the less.’

‘The honour is mine, Ivanr.’

Once the Thel had quit the tent, the Jourilan aristocrat cleared his throat.

‘Yes, Hegil,’ Beneth said, somehow conveying an exact knowledge of what the man would say.

‘You did not tell him.’

The old man shook his head. ‘That would have been too cruel.’

‘He will find out eventually — perhaps in a worse way,’ Martal warned, her voice rough and flat, perhaps from her mashed nose.

‘Perhaps,’ the old man allowed. ‘Yet he will hardly bandy his name about, nor will we. And few of the cult have reached us as yet.’

Hegil snorted. ‘The cult of Ivanr. A pacifist cult in the name of a bloodthirsty Grand Champion! Surely things have gone too far in this proliferation of schisms and sects, Beneth.’

‘Hundreds have been inspired to refuse service. How many more have been imprisoned, or tortured to death? All in his name.’ The old man shook his head in rigid finality. ‘No. I would spare him that burden. At least for as long as we dare.’

When frost glittered on the hinges of his cell door, Corlo knew it was time for them to come for him. This season the wait was not long. He was meditating. Though the otataral torc at his neck precluded all access to the Warrens, as did the malign watchful presence of the Lady, he could still practise the mental disciplines that facilitated and deepened his reach.

The lock clattered and the door grated open to reveal the usual Chosen guard, backed by crossbowmen. The man motioned him up. ‘Time to go.’

Corlo eased himself from the cold stone floor, straightened his jerkin. ‘Time to move him?’

As usual, the Korelri did not answer. They marched him through the rambling tunnels of cells and storerooms; this time they passed many open doors, doors normally shut and locked at any other time of the year. What he saw puzzled him greatly: empty… so many empty rooms!

Outside, the cold clasped his throat like an enemy and Corlo gasped. Hood take them, but the Riders were upon them with a vengeance. His guards pushed him on to the stone stairs up to the barracks behind the jumbled rock slope at the wall’s base. It was a familiar path, the way to Bars’ chambers, and Corlo dragged his heels to enjoy the too brief period of relative freedom.

A troop of impressed guardsmen — shackled veterans of the wall — was coming down. A man came abreast and Corlo’s breath caught in recognition even as the man’s mouth opened in shocked mute surprise. Halfpeck! Corlo craned his neck to watch the man descend. Shackled at the ankles, the fellow Crimson Guardsman thrust up a fist, defiant, waving.

Corlo answered that fist with his own. The stock of a crossbow struck his head, sending him stumbling on. Halfpeck living! How many more might there still be? Last he’d been sure there were seven including him and Bars. All of the Blade alone. Of the fate of the crew, he knew little. Bars insisted on treating the surviving crew of their ship, the Ardent, as part of his command. But for his part, Corlo really only counted the Blade. Perhaps Halfpeck knew of others… where was that contingent headed?

Corlo climbed the stairs, his mind seething. And where might each survivor be? Where among the thousands of bodies and leagues of wall could they be hidden? Should he slip free of the otataral he might know in an instant — but so too would the Lady become aware of him. And he’d seen too much of the cruel insanity that resulted from her touch to risk that.

At the door to Bars’ quarters the Chosen ordered the crossbow be pressed against Corlo’s head, then banged the pommel of his sword to the boards. No one answered.

After a time the Chosen motioned for Corlo to speak. ‘It’s me, Corlo. They’re here to move you.’

Nothing from the other side. The Chosen unlatched the bar that crossed the door, lowered it, and stepped back. The door swung open, pushed from within.

Corlo stared, appalled. His commander’s hair hung in a ropy unwashed tangle. His eyes glared beneath, red-rimmed and bleary. A grey beard added decades to his appearance, not to mention the stained and torn linen shirt hanging loose. He held an earthenware jug in one fist. This he threw over a shoulder to fall somewhere with a crash. ‘Off to winter quarters, are we?’

The crossbow rammed its warning hard against the back of Corlo’s head. Corlo raised his hands. ‘Take it easy, Commander. Just a short walk.’

Weaving, Bars waved his reassurances. ‘Yes, yes. A nice ocean view for me, hey?’

The Chosen pointed the way with his naked blade.

The entire march up to the main walk of the wall Corlo wrestled with the decision whether to tell or not. He’d seen Halfpeck! How many more survivors might there be? Yet how much of a favour would the news be?

They walked a stretch of the main marshalling pavement, the top of the wall proper, just behind the raised walkways of the outer machicolations. Corlo felt the waves pounding up through his boots and icy drops burned his cheeks. Pennants hung heavy and stiff, already sheathed in frozen spray. Soldiers from all parts of the subcontinent came and went: Jourilan, Dourkan, Styggian, and others. These were honoured veterans, but not true Korelri Chosen of the Stormguard. Those could be seen up on the walls. Every twenty paces stood an erect figure wrapped in its deep-blue cloak, tall silver-chased spear held upright, facing the sea.

The Chosen assigned to lead their party directed them along the curve of the curtain wall to the nearby tower, the Tower of Stars, the main garrison of this section of the Stormwall.

As they entered its narrow stone passages and stairways, again Corlo was stricken. Should he tell? Opportunities were rapidly dwindling. Soon they would reach Bars’ holding cell. Indeed, it was not long before the Chosen called a halt and unlatched an ironbound door.

Bars stood eyeing the man, a crooked, almost fey grin on his lips. Corlo’s breath caught. Gods, no — don’t do it! The Chosen stepped away, gestured him in with his blade. Bars’ glacier-blue eyes shifted to Corlo and the mage winced to see seething rage, yes, and a bright fevered tinge of madness, but no despair. No flat resignation. He made his decision then.

Bars entered and the door was pushed shut behind him.

Corlo would wait for despair.

As he and Captain Peles rode through Unta’s yawning north gate, Rillish had to admit that the capital’s rebuilding was coming along well. One had to give this new Emperor his due. In the wake of the emergencies and chaos of the Insurrection — as it had come to be known — the plenipotentiary authorities the man so generously granted himself had allowed him to brush aside any resistance to his plans. He probably now had more personal authority than the old Emperor ever did.

And the capital’s old attitude of arrogant superiority was, if anything, even greater now. Captain Peles and he at the van of their troop had to press their way forward through an indifferent — even dismissive — mass of foot traffic and general cartage. It was an experience of the capital new to Rillish, who most recently had been a member of the Wickan delegation to the throne. Then, he had travelled with an honour guard of the Clans. Then, much scowling and moustache-brushing from his escort had met the harsh stares and glowers of the citizens. The veterans assigned as his bodyguard had savoured it. But Rillish had been disheartened. Was there to be no accord between these mistrusting neighbours?

Now, he couldn’t even urge aside a runny-nosed youth yanking a bow-legged donkey. He hunched forward to rest his leather and bronze vambraces on the pommel of his saddle and cast an ironic glance to Captain Peles. The woman held her helm under one arm, her long snow-white hair pulled back in a single tight braid. Sweat shone on her neck and she was scanning the crowd, her pale eyes narrowed. A large silver earring caught Rillish’s eye, a wolf, rampant, paws outstretched, loping, tongue lolling. He recalled the twin silver wolfheads, jaws interlocking, that was the clip of her weapon belt.

‘You are an adherent of the Wolves of War, Captain?’

Her head snapped around, startled, then she smiled shyly. ‘Yes, sir. “The Wolves of Winter”, we name them. I am sworn.’

Rillish waved aside a bundle of scented sticks a spice hawker thrust at him. ‘Sworn, Captain?’

The smile faltered and the woman looked away. ‘Our local faith.’

Much more there, of course — but any business of his?

‘Fist Rillish?’ a voice called from the press. ‘Rillish Jal Keth?’

He scanned the crowd, caught a face upturned, arm raised, straining. ‘Yes?’

It was a young woman, a servant. She offered a folded slip of paper. ‘For you, sir.’

‘My thanks.’ He opened the missive and found himself confronting runes — the written glyphs of the Wickan tongue. Dear Mowri spare him! Hours spent cracking his skull over these as a member of the Wickan delegation returned to him. He frowned over the symbols.

Come. Su.

Ah. One did not refuse the imperative form issued by the shaman Su. Especially when that elder was so respected — or feared — that she ordered about the most potent and famed Wickan witch and warlock, the twins Nil and Nether, as if they were her own children. A relationship not too far from the truth, Rillish mused, in a culture that named all elders ‘father’ and ‘mother’.

And that message conveyed in a manner assuring secrecy as well. He imagined no one else in the entire Imperial capital, other than a Wickan, could parse their runes. He tucked the slip into his glove, regarded Captain Peles. ‘We part ways here, Captain. I have an errand.’

She frowned, disapproving.

A worrier this one, always earnest.

‘My orders…’

‘Were to convey me to the capital. You have done so. Now I have business to attend to.’

A cool inclination of the head: ‘Very good, Fist.’

Rillish reined his mount aside. Not happy, this one, that I should wander off on my own. Perhaps to some tryst… He stopped, turned back on his saddle. ‘Captain, perhaps you would like to accompany me. Have an officer lead the troop to the garrison.’

The woman saluted, the surprise and confusion obvious on her broad open face.

Always wrong-foot them — keeps them on their toes.

Rillish led the captain to the east quarter of the city, a rich estate district. Just last year during the days of the Insurrection the mercenary army the Crimson Guard, an old enemy of the Empire, had attempted to destroy the capital by blowing up the Imperial arsenal. The firestorms that arose after that great blast had raged for days through several of the great family holdings: D’Arl, Isuneth, Harad ’Ul, Paran, and his own, Jal Keth. The devastation had been so widespread because, frankly, the general populace had not been particularly motivated to help out.

And so we reap what we sow.

He hooked a leg around the high pommel of his saddle, easing into a Wickan sitting style — though with a twinge as an old wound cramped his thigh. ‘My family is from here, you know, Captain.’

‘Is that so, Fist.’

‘Yes.’ Not too loquacious this one, either. ‘And what of you? Where are your people from?’

The broad jaws clenched, bunching. Then, reluctantly, ‘A land west of the region you name Seven Cities. A mountainous land of steep coasts.’

‘And does this land have a name?’

The woman actually appeared to blush. Or was it the heat beneath all that armour? ‘Perish, Fist.’

Perish? Don’t know it — though, somehow familiar. ‘Not an Imperial holding, then.’

Now a confident, amused smile curled the lips, almost wolfish.

‘No. And I would counsel against the Empire ever making the attempt.’

‘It seems we may get along well after all, Captain. The Wickans feel the same way — Imperial claims to the contrary.’ Rillish pulled up before the remains of a fire-eaten gateway. ‘And here we are.’

The woman wrinkled her nose at the lingering stink of old fire damage. ‘Are you sure, sir?’

Two figures straightened from the waist-tall weeds choking the gateway: two old veteran Wickans. One was missing an arm, the other an eye. Both offered Rillish savage grins and waved him in. He urged his mount up the bricked approach.

‘They seemed to know you well, sir,’ Peles noted.

‘We shared a long difficult ride once.’

Ahead, the fire-gutted stone walls of a manor house loomed in the deepening afternoon light. Already vines had climbed some galleries. In his mind’s eye Rillish saw those empty gaping windows glowing lantern-lit, carriages arriving up this very approach bearing guests for evening fetes. He could almost hear the clack of wooden swords in the countless wars he and his cousins had fought through these once manicured grounds. He shook his head to clear it of all the old echoes. Now weeds tangled the blackened brick. Fountains stood silent, the water scummed. Outbuildings, guesthouses, stables, stood as empty stone hulks. And in the midst of it all, smoke rising from cook fires, like conquerors amid the ruins, lay an encampment of Wickan yurts.

Rillish swung a leg over his saddle to slide easily down. The captain struggled with her mount, which seemed disgusted by her inexperience and just as determined to let her know it. Wickan youths ran up to yank its bit. ‘What is this?’ she asked, amazed.

‘Welcome to the Wickan delegation. This estate is now the property of the throne. I suggested that perhaps they could be housed here.’ Not that anyone else would take them. ‘Wan ma Su?’ he asked a girl.

She pointed. ‘Othre.’

‘This way, Captain.’ He led Peles across the grounds to the base of a towering ironwood tree, the only survivor of the firestorm that had raged through the district. The Wickan Elder and shaman, Su, seemed to live here, tucked in amid its exposed roots. The giant had been a favourite of his youth, though its limbs stood too tall for climbing. Rillish wondered whether the tree owed its continuing survival to her presence, or, judging from the woman’s extraordinary age, perhaps it was the other way round.

In either case he found the old woman’s gaze as sharp as ever, following their approach with a hawk-like measure. ‘And who is this great giant of a woman?’ she demanded, displaying all her usual tact.

But Rillish only smiled. He remembered achieving certain difficult clauses in the Wickan treaty of alliance merely by bringing Su into the chambers — how Mallick squirmed under her gaze! Whereas the Emperor still made his skin crawl. ‘Su, may I introduce Captain Peles of Perish.’

Su cocked her head, her black eyes sharpening even further. ‘Perish, you say? Interesting… Come here, child.’

Rillish wondered whether Su had ever heard of Perish; the woman had an annoying way of acting as if her every utterance or act was pregnant with meaning. Yet he’d learned to keep his doubts to himself as any questioning earned a terrifying tongue-lashing. And Peles, to her credit, knelt obediently.

‘Yes,’ Su murmured, peering up at the woman. ‘I see the wolves running in your eyes. Whatever you do, Peleshar Arkoveneth, you must not abandon hope. Hold to it! Do not give in to despair.’ She waved the captain off. ‘That is my warning for you. Now go.’ Peles straightened, bowing. She appeared, if anything, even more pale than before. Those sharp eyes now dug into Rillish. ‘And what of you? How many children have you now?’

‘Another on the way.’

The old shaman sniffed. ‘Very well. At least you are good for something still.’

‘You have some news then? Or did you ask me here just for the pleasantries?’

A crooked finger rose. ‘Careful, friend of my people. You remind me of a fellow I know from Li Heng. My patience is not boundless. You are off for Korel, that tortured land. Here is my warning. You Malazans go to fight a war in the name of the Emperor, but you go to fight the wrong war. Swords cannot win this war. Though the Empire sends many swords, perhaps even the most potent of all its swords, peace can never be brought to that land through force of arms. As the Sixth has discovered to its own shamed failure.’

She gestured to one side, snapping her fingers. ‘I have arranged to have attached to your command this woman as cadre mage…’

A figure emerged from a nearby yurt, a woman, middle-aged, thick-waisted, her hair a mousy brown tangle. ‘This is Devaleth. She is of Korel. From Fist, actually.’

Rillish was surprised. ‘A Korel mage? How can we possibly-’

‘Trust her? Rillish Jal Keth! As an Untan noble who negotiated a treaty for the Wickans I am disappointed in you. No, we have spoken long and she is concerned, Rillish. Concerned for her people and for her land. She will not betray you.’

He offered the woman a guarded nod.

‘So this is the fellow,’ the woman said to Su, her accent thick.

‘Yes. The best that could be arranged. Time was short, after all.’

Rillish glanced between them. ‘Now wait a moment…’

‘He has been apprised?’

‘Yes. To the extent that he is capable of understanding.’

‘Su!’ Rillish looked to Peles to find the woman hiding a grin behind her hand. He gave the Wickan shaman a curt nod and turned away. ‘It would seem I am outnumbered.’

‘A prudent withdrawal, sir?’ Peles offered, following.

‘Indeed, Captain. Indeed.’

At Imperial Command, Rillish’s honorary Fist rank could not even win him an audience with the secretary to the High Fist D’Ebbin. Instead, a clerk lieutenant studied the packet of orders supplied by Captain Peles and pursed his lips in disbelief. ‘You should have been through here weeks ago.’

Already Rillish’s teeth ached from clenching them. ‘That’s Fist, Lieutenant.’

‘Yes, Fist.’ The lieutenant’s stress made it clear that such a commonplace rank could not possibly impress anyone here at Command. He flipped shut the leather satchel and held it out. ‘Report to the West Tower.’

‘The Tower of Dust? Hasn’t that been given over to the mage cadre?’ The clerk’s tired look told Rillish that he had just been demoted to village idiot. He took the packet from the man’s limp hand.

‘The tower is-’

‘I know the way, Lieutenant.’

Rillish turned to Captain Peles, who had been standing a discreet distance off, helm under her arm.

‘It seems I am for the West Tower.’

Peles saluted, her bright blue eyes puzzled. ‘You are not to accompany us? We embark with the tide. We and some last elements are to catch up with the fleet.’

‘It looks as though they have something else in mind for me.’

Peles bowed, accepting the capriciousness of orders. Rillish answered the bow. Very much at ease with the chain of command, this one, he reflected.

Rillish had not even passed through the main entrance to the West Tower when his papers elicited shocked disbelief from the officious-looking woman challenging all comers. ‘You’re late,’ she accused. Knowing the army, Rillish didn’t bother pointing out that he had only accepted the reactivation a few days ago.

‘This way.’ Her tone allowed no doubt just how much trouble his existence was causing her.

She led him down a circular stairway. Rillish had never before been within the Tower of Dust, or beneath the old palace, and the sensation troubled him. Yet this is my birth city. Is it the taint of the old Emperor that seems to hang over these dusty passages?

They entered a round chamber floored by set stones. Rillish noted graven wards and symbols in silver encircling the floor’s circumference. Black gritty dust lay in heaps kicked aside here and there. Within waited two nondescript cadre mages, a man and a woman, their robes discoloured by the dust. Also waiting was the Fistian mage, Devaleth.

Rillish bowed to the woman. ‘Why did you not mention…’

‘I didn’t know myself,’ she ground out. Clearly she was even more put out than Rillish; her pale round face glistened with sweat even in this cool air, and her hands were clamped to her sides. ‘I have a horror of this,’ she hissed.

‘Of what?’

‘Warren travel.’

Now Rillish understood and he felt his mouth crook up in dry irony. ‘I have no fond memories of it myself.’

The two cadre mages clapped their hands and motioned them aside. Facing one another, they began tracing an intricate series of gestures and motions. While Rillish watched, the space between them darkened. Streaks of grey appeared behind each gesture, as if the mages were painting or slashing the air. Presently, the slashes broadened, thickened, and connected. A great gust of warm dusty air burst into the chamber. Rillish, blinking, hand raised before his face, saw a ragged gap opening on to a dark lifeless plain.

The two mages stepped within. One impatiently beckoned Rillish and Devaleth to follow. He gingerly stepped through. Almost immediately a gust of air pushed him forward. He peered round to find the four of them all alone in the midst of an ugly landscape of ash and gritty dead soil.

The two mages headed off without comment. Rillish let Devaleth go ahead. ‘Where are we?’ he asked.

‘The Imperial Warren,’ the male cadre mage called back over his shoulder, disgusted.

Devaleth barked a cutting laugh. The man glared, but said nothing. Presently he turned away, shoulders hunched.

‘Pray, what amuses?’ Rillish asked as they walked along. The sandals of the mages and his own riding boots raised small clouds of dust that hung lifeless in the heavy air.

‘The Imperial Warren?’ the woman sneered. ‘What arrogance. So may the fleas of a dog name the dog the Fleas’ Dog.’

The mage’s shoulders flinched even higher.

‘You say we are trespassers here?’

Clearing her throat of the dust, the woman spat. ‘Less than that. Cockroaches invading the abandoned house of a lost god. Maggots wiggling across a corpse and claiming it as theirs…’

‘I get the idea,’ Rillish offered, turning away to clear his own throat of the itching dust. Gods, what pleasant companionship. This was to be his cadre mage? ‘So, you are of Fist?’

‘Yes. From Mare.’

Rillish eyed her anew. Mare! A sea-witch of Mare, adept of Ruse! What could possibly have turned her against her own people? ‘I am a veteran of the invasion, you know.’

‘Yes. Su told me.’

‘And… if I may be so indelicate…’

The woman eyed him sidelong. ‘Why am I here now with you Malazans?’

‘Yes.’

She shrugged her rounded shoulders. ‘Travel broadens the mind, my Fist.’

Rillish was about to prod for further clarification but she was staring off into the distance, her mouth tight. He decided to wait, thereby granting the time for her to work through what appeared a natural — and to him understandable — reluctance to speak.

‘Having all you know or have ever been taught overturned as a deep pit of lies is a humbling experience,’ she eventually said, still staring away. ‘It is no wonder no one is allowed to travel from our homelands.’ The thick lips turned upwards in a humourless smile. ‘We were told it was because ours was the happiest and richest of all lands, and that anyone leaving would return to corrupt it with inferior ideologies and ways.’ She eyed the dull leaden sky, pensive. ‘And I suppose that is true — at least the half of it.’

‘I see.’ The woman’s views agreed with what little intelligence Rillish had gathered from interviewing natives of the archipelago. He hoped he could count on her. She would be an invaluable asset. Though she would not last long once exposed as a traitor. She would be marked for death, just as Greymane was for his heresies against their local cult.

He glanced to her as she walked along: head down as if studying the dust, hands clasped at her back.

She knows this far better than I.

Arrival was an anticlimax, even after the dull monotonous walk. The cadre mages merely re-enacted their ritual then curtly waved them through. No doubt in a hurry themselves to quit this unnerving, enervating realm. They stepped into an empty stone-flagged room, torchlit, disconcertingly similar to the one they’d just left. Rillish’s perplexity was eased by the entrance of an unfamiliar Malazan cadre mage, this one a cadaverous old man.

‘Welcome to Kartool, sir,’ the fellow wheezed. ‘The fleet is assembling. You are just in time.’

‘My thanks.’ Kartool. Vile place. Never did like it. ‘By any chance, would you know who is commanding the force?’

The old mage blinked his rheumy eyes, surprised. ‘Why, yes, Fist. Have you not heard? It is all the talk.’

Rillish waited for the man to continue, then cleared his throat. ‘Yes? Who?’

‘Why, the Emperor has pardoned the old High Fist, Greymane. Reinstated him. Is that not amazing news?’

Rillish was stunned, but he forgot his shock at the grunt of surprise and alarm from Devaleth. The woman had gone white and staggered as if about to faint. Despite his own reeling amazement — his old commander! Whom he had turned his back on! — Rillish caught the woman’s arm, steadying her.

Devaleth shook him off. ‘My apologies. It is one thing to join the enemy. But it is quite another to find oneself serving under a man condemned as the greatest fiend of the age. The Betrayer, they named him, the Korelri. The Great Betrayer.’

Betrayer? Gods! Wouldn’t the man regard him, Rillish, as just that? Didn’t they know at Command? No. They couldn’t have, could they? How the Twins must be helpless with laughter. For was it not his own silence that damned him now?

A mad laugh almost burst from him then as he contemplated the utter ruin he had prepared for himself.

No sooner did one of Bakune’s clerks appear at the door of his office to hurriedly announce, ‘Karien’el, Captain of the Watch,’ than the man himself entered and closed the door gently, but firmly, behind him.

Bakune sat staring, quill upraised, his surprise painfully obvious. Recovering, the Assessor returned the quill to the inkwell and opened his mouth to invite the man to sit, but the Watch captain thumped down heavily before Bakune could speak.

Clamping his mouth shut, Bakune nodded a neutral greeting, which the newcomer ignored, peering about the office, studying the many shelves groaning beneath their burdens of scrolls and heaped files.

‘Might I offer some Styggian wine?’ Bakune suggested, motioning to a side table.

‘No.’ The man still hadn’t glanced at him. ‘Have anything stronger?’

‘No.’

‘Pity.’ The small hard eyes swung to Bakune. ‘How long have we known each other, Assessor?’

Oh dear, very bad news. ‘A long time, Captain.’

Karien’el nodded, his neck bulging. Studying the man, it occurred to Bakune that all those intervening years had not been good to him. He’d put on weight, was unshaven, and generally looked unhealthy, with red-shot narrowed eyes, grey teeth, and a pasty complexion. Drank far too much as well. He, on the other hand, was wasting away with his thinning hair, constant stomach pains, and stiffening of the joints.

‘What can I do for you?’

An amused snort followed by a one-eyed calculating gaze. ‘Ever wonder why you’ve been here at Banith all this time… not one promotion while so many others went on from Homdo or Thol to the capital?’

Bakune pushed himself back from his desk. ‘I suppose I’m just not one to curry favour or agitate for consideration.’

‘Obviously.’

Bakune could not keep his irritation from tightening his face. ‘What is it you want, Captain?’

‘And your wife left you, didn’t she?’

‘Captain! I consider this interview finished. Please leave.’

But the man did not move; he just sat there, his wide blunt hands tucked into his belt at his stomach. He cocked his head aside as if evaluating the effects of his comments. Bakune had a flash of insight that raised the hair on his neck: just as he must when interrogating a suspect.

Swallowing, Bakune steadied his voice to ask, cautiously, ‘What is this about?’

A satisfied nod from the captain. ‘Truth be told, Assessor, I really shouldn’t be here at all. I’m here as a favour because of all the years we’ve worked together. It’s about your investigation.’

‘And which investigation would that be?’

The man cocked his gaze to the locked cabinet.

Dizzied, Bakune felt the blood draining from his face. ‘Your men have searched my office.’

An indifferent shrug from the captain. ‘Just doing my job.’

‘Your job is to enforce the law.’

The unshaven, pale moon face moved from side to side. ‘No, Assessor. Here is where you have failed to question far enough. I enforce the will of those who decide what is the law.’

So, there it was. The brutal truth of power. Was this why I failed to question further? A selective self-serving blindness? An inability, or a reluctance, to admit to this unflattering truth behind everything I stood for, or believed in? Or was it simply the everyday pedestrian distaste of peeling back the mask and revealing the ugliness behind?

‘In any case,’ Karien’el said, ‘we have our suspect.’

‘You do?’

A slow firm nod. ‘Oh yes. We’ve had our eye on him for some time now. A foreigner, and a priest of one of those degenerate foreign gods as well.’

Bakune pressed his hands to his cluttered desk. ‘And how long has the man been in the city?’

Again the man hunched his shoulders in an uncaring shrug. ‘A few years now.’

Bakune did not have to say that the killings went back decades.

Sighing, Karien’el straightened, pushed himself to his feet. ‘So, Assessor. You need not continue your investigation. We have our man. As soon as he makes a mistake we’ll bring him in.’

Meaning when the next body surfaces you’ll arrest him, trot out a few paid witnesses, then execute the man before anyone can pause to think.

And it occurred to Bakune that for that execution to be enacted he would have to draw up and sign the papers. My name will be the authority behind this execution.

Bakune hardly noticed Karien’el bow and leave the office, quietly shutting the door behind him. He sat unmoving, staring into the now empty space above the chair, silent.

And if I refuse? Who would write my name into that blank?

Would Karien?

Yes, he would.

But he does not have the authority.

Bakune rose, went to the tiny glass-paned window of his office, stared out at the pebbled rippling view of the Banith rooftops to the tall spires and gables of the Cloister beyond. But there was one other in the city who did.

You, dear Abbot. And you have sent your message by way of Karien. It seems that perhaps I have questioned enough. Come close enough for you to finally act.

The Assessor’s gaze shifted to the tall locked cabinet and a cold dread coiled in his stomach — that all too familiar pain sank its teeth into his middle. He crossed to the cabinet, the sturdiest piece of furniture in his office, and examined its doors. Unmarred, as far as he could tell. He drew the key from the set at his waist, pushed it in and gave it two turns.

He swung the doors open and stared within.

Swirling dust. Torn scraps. Empty shelves.

Failure.

A decades-long career of sifted evidence, signed statements, maps, birth certificates, and so many — too many — certificates of death. Affidavits, registries, and witnessed accounts.

Gone. All gone.

Bakune fell back into his chair. He hugged himself as the pain in his stomach doubled him over, retching and dry-heaving.

He wiped his mouth, leaving a smear of blood down his sleeve.

Damn them. Damn everyone. Damn the Abbot and his damned precious damned Lady.

The soldier was most definitely dead. Limp, looking boneless on the deck of the Lasana, he — and most definitely a he, being naked and such — had died a most ugly and agonizing death.

‘Take a good look, soldiers of the 4th!’ Captain Betteries shouted.

Not that he had to shout. Suth noted how the fish-pale corpse dumped on the decking silenced the constant chatter more surely than any sergeant’s bellow.

‘This soldier chose to desert… a crime punishable by death.’

The soldiers of 4th Company craned their necks, peering round their companions. Betteries, hailing from the archipelago region of Falar, shook his head disgusted, scowling behind his rust-red goatee and moustache.

‘But the real mistake this soldier made was trying to desert here and now on the island of Kartool.’ Suth, and everyone else on board, glanced towards the beckoning, oh-so-near, treed and shaded shore of Kartool. ‘Terrible mistake! And why?’

‘The spiders,’ everyone repeated on cue, halfheartedly.

‘That’s right, boys and girls. The yellow-banded paralt spiders to be exact. You’ve been repeatedly warned! The island’s overrun with them. Look how the poison attacks the nerves and muscles. I’m told the unbearable agony alone can kill.’

The man’s face was hideously contorted; so much so it was painful just to look at it. Suth didn’t think anyone could even recognize the fellow. And his limbs were twisted as if someone had broken the joints.

‘… look at the crotch and neck where the nodes of your clear humours are gathered. They have swollen and burst…’

Suth’s gaze skittered away from the crotch where — yes — the flesh was horribly mangled by exploded pustules.

‘… poor fellow. I almost feel sorry for the bugger. Better a clean sword-thrust, yes? Anyone care for a closer look?’

No one volunteered. Captain Betteries ordered the corpse be left lying on the boards. In less than one ship’s bell under the glaring sun its stink drove everyone to the stern decking behind the mast. Lard, Suth knew, was on punishment detail for the day. That detail would have to dispose of the body and scour the deck come sundown. Suth could only shake his head; the fool might mutiny.

Grisly though it was, opinion on board the Lasana was that the company captain’s display had been the highlight of the month, a welcome relief from the cloying boredom of weeks of confinement waiting like prisoners on board a flotilla of assembled hulks. Shore leave came in rotation once every five days and then strictly within the grounds of the Imperial garrison in Kartool city. And that was a full day of close-order drilling that left everyone wrung out like wet leather.

Other than more drilling and cleaning details on board the crowded ships, there was little else to do but engage in the soldier’s favourite pastime of out-strategizing Command. Suth was crouched on his haunches next to the ship’s side with his squadmates Dim, Len, Keri, Yana, Pyke and Wess. The two squad saboteurs, Len and Keri, had a line over the side; Dim could sit content to stare at nothing all day; Yana was inspecting her armour; Wess was apparently asleep; and Pyke was holding forth as he usually did.

‘Gonna get us all killed, the officers running this circus.’

Dim roused himself to shade his eyes. ‘Why’s that?’

The squad corporal gave the big Bloorian recruit a sneer of lazy contempt. ‘Don’t got us any squad mages, do we? Or healers or priests worth the name.’

‘Maybe they’re aware of that,’ Yana drawled without looking up from rubbing the rust from the mail of one sleeve.

A spasm of irritation twisted the man’s face and he glared down from the duffels and crates he reclined on. ‘Then maybe they should do something about it!’

‘Maybe they have — why should they tell you?’ she said distractedly, and scoured the mail with a handful of sand she kept in a pouch.

Pyke just made a face; he narrowed his gaze on Len, who was peering out over the gunwale, line in hand. ‘And what about you, Len? Still think we’re headed for Korel?’

‘It’s a good bet,’ the saboteur answered, his voice hushed, as if a fish were close to his bait of old rotting leather.

‘Ha! A pail of shit, that’s what that is! Korel! Might as well jump over the side with a stone tied round your neck right now. Save the Marese the trouble of doing it for you later. You lot are fools. No one’s gotten through that blockade.’

‘Some have,’ Len answered, still hushed.

Pyke again pulled a mocking face and this time his gaze settled on Suth. ‘What about you, Dal Hon? What’s your name again? Sooth? Hello? You speak Talian?’

A number of responses occurred to Suth as he crouched, testing his balance against the motions of the ship, and alternately tensing one arm, then the other. The traditional jamya dagger sheathed at his side thrown into the man’s neck was one. But murdering a fellow soldier — no matter how irritating — would get in the way of his testing himself against whichever enemy they were to face. And so he exhaled, easing the muscles of his shoulders, and said without looking up: ‘There is much running of vomit and faeces on board this ship. Please stop adding to it.’

Pyke, a native of Tali, just gaped a moment, uncomprehending. Then Dim chortled, having sorted his way through the comment, and the corporal leapt from the piled equipment, drawing a fighting knife from the rear of his belt. ‘Ignorant Dal Hon! I’ll teach you respect.’

Suth straightened as well. His curved jamya blade slipped easily from its oiled ironwood sheath. ‘Your constant chatter bores me.’

‘Give them room!’ Yana bellowed, straightening and using her armour to push back the crowd.

Word spread like an alarm through the hundreds of men and women gathered on the deck and they jostled for a view, climbing the piled crates and bales and lining the upper decking. So far no one had managed to force his or her way through to put a stop to the confrontation.

Pyke made a show of pointing the straight blade. His dark eyes were wide with a silky love of violence. ‘Talk? How ’bout if I cut your tongue out?’

Suth just bent his knees, arms spread. So far Pyke had squirmed out of every drill, ducked any practice, and shirked all work details. But he was a tall fellow, solidly built, a veteran of combat. And he gave every appearance of being experienced in killing — but so was Suth. This sort of one-on-one challenge was his specialty; he’d grown up practising it with his friends — and rivals — every day. What was new to him was all this Malazan organized soldiering.

‘Put them away!’ a new voice bellowed.

Suth edged sideways. Sergeant Goss had pushed his way into the cleared circle. Since the corporal gave no indication of complying, Suth chose not to as well. Goss pointed to Pyke. ‘Do I have to say that twice?’

Scowling, Pyke straightened, let his arms fall. ‘This recruit needs a lesson, sergeant.’

‘Knifing him won’t give it.’ Goss turned on Suth. ‘Put that away, trooper.’

Suth complied.

Goss raised his chin to the some three hundred infantry crowded on deck. ‘I know tempers are short. I know we’re all jammed in here like sheep with nothing to do. But the waiting’s near done. Remember, discipline is what will keep you alive! And…’ here the burly man lowered his voice, ‘on board ship naval punishment is the rule. And believe me… you don’t want to be whipped by the barbs of the daemon fish. You’ll wish you were dead. That’s all. Fall out.’

As the crowd turned away the sergeant motioned his squad to him. ‘Pyke,’ he said, his voice even softer, ‘you are hereby stripped of rank-’

‘What!’

Goss merely watched the taller man, his eyes almost lazy in their nests of wrinkles. He cocked his head ever so slightly. Pyke hunched, grumbling under his breath, ‘… better off on my own…’

‘Yana-’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘I’m not going to mother these apes.’

Goss grunted his understanding. ‘Len, you have it.’

‘Many thanks,’ the older saboteur answered, sounding far from pleased.

‘That’s all.’ Suth and the others saluted; Pyke merely flicked his hand as he turned away.

After a lunch of fish, hot grain porridge, and fruit fresh from the island, Suth sought out Len. At least, he reflected, these Malazans were making sure they ate well before being thrust into whatever in the Abyss awaited them…

He found that the saboteur had returned to his fishing. ‘Catch anything?’

‘Nothing edible. All the fish off the coast of this D’rek-damned island are poisonous — just like the spiders.’

‘What do you know of the sergeant?’

‘Goss?’

‘Yes. Everyone’s wary of him. We’re more crowded here on board this ship than a herd of thanu at a river crossing. I have to fight my way to get anywhere. I’ve watched him walk the deck here — everyone gets out of his way.’

Len turned to face him, set his elbows on the gunwale. Gulls and other seabirds swooped and dived over the waves between the anchored troop transports, squabbling over the trash and leavings cast overboard. Though it was nearing winter the sun’s heat prickled Suth’s back and chest. Growing up he’d rarely worn any sort of shirting; now Malazan military standardization had him and everyone in thick long-sleeved jerkins of wool, felt, leather or layered linen — the undergarments of their heavy armour.

‘Goss, hey?’ the old saboteur repeated thoughtfully, and he rubbed the crushed and uneven left side of his throat and jaw responsible for his hoarseness. ‘All I know is talk. Rumour. You know how it is. All kinds of stories get bandied about but no one really knows anything. Anyway, he’s served all his life and now he’s pushing fifty. Thing is, he’s new to the regulars. So, question is… what outfit was he with all that time?’ The man offered Suth a wink. ‘Some think maybe the Claw.’

The Claw. Imperial assassins. Trained slayers. These soldiers spoke of them with awe and fear. For his part Suth yearned to test himself against one. He nodded his understanding. ‘That saboteur lieutenant, Urfa. She called him “Hunter”.’

‘That’s right. The old hands, that’s their code for a Claw.’

Suth scanned the crowded deck; amidships room had been cleared for close-order drills and shield work. A detail was checking for rot in the sails of the three-masted vessel.

Len yawned expansively. ‘But it’s all talk. No one knows for sure. And he’s not saying.’

Across the way Suth caught Pyke watching. The man pointed as if still gripping his blade, and smiled a promise. Suth just looked away; it was his experience that those who made the most show and bluster were the least dangerous.

‘Listen,’ Len tapped him on the chest and raised his chin in the direction Suth was staring, ‘don’t worry about Pyke. He would’ve ridden you until you broke. Now he knows he can’t.’

Too bad. I’ve been too long without practice. ‘And the little mean-looking one, Faro?’

‘Faro?’ Len waved his disgust. ‘Faugh! The man’s wanted for murder in more cities and provinces than I can name. He just loves to pick fights and knife people. You stay out of his way.’

‘Yet he listens to Goss.’

‘Yeah… strange, that.’ And the saboteur offered a sly sidelong glance before returning to his fishing.

That night their squad had the last watch. Pyke didn’t even report. Wess showed up but promptly lay down among the piled equipment and went back to sleep. Lard was still on punishment detail for brawling. Suth had arrived on deck to find Len already fishing; best time of day for it, the saboteur had whispered hoarsely. That left him, Keri, Yana and Dim. Faro, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Suth didn’t mind standing alongside Keri and Yana, both veterans. But Dim — well, it wasn’t his fault, but the man was just painfully dim.

The water with its moods was alien to him, growing up as he had on the plains of Dal Hon. There, one’s ears were as important as one’s eyes — more so of course in the night. Dawn came differently as well, a distant flame-orange glow gathering across the sea’s clouded east and a diffuse bluish light all around. The bay was calm, as was the slate-grey expanse of Reacher’s Ocean beyond. A mild wind brought the surge of the heavier surf out beyond the bay. Cordage shifting and the planking of the ship’s hull creaking sounded unnaturally loud in the stillness. From another of the anchored vessels five bells rang.

Suth stopped his slow pacing to face east. The wind brought something else. Another noise rose and fell behind it. He cocked his head to one side, listening. A distant call? Horns? At sea?

‘Did you hear that?’ Keri had come to his side, whispering.

‘Something… There!’ Far out in the open waters a ship nosed into view beyond the bay’s headland. One far larger than any of the cargo vessels and coastal raiders Suth had seen so far. While he and Keri watched, another slid into view, identical in silhouette, three banks of oars flashing in the sunrise. And another.

‘Moranth Blue warships.’ Len now stood with them. ‘See the towers on the forecastles?’

Suth nodded, eyes slitted. Horns brayed all around, the assembled fleet welcoming the newcomers.

‘Our escort.’

Suth turned to Len. ‘How so?’

‘Built for naval warfare only, those ships. Not raiders. Not transports. Deepwater only. Hood, they draw too much even to enter a harbour.’ The old saboteur spat over the side. ‘No question where we’re headed.’ Suth, Keri, Dim and Yana now all studied the saboteur. ‘A naval battle such as hasn’t been seen since the crushing of the Falar fleets. The Empire never forgets a thing. It finally means to respond to these Marese defeats. So it’s Korel.’

Yana and Keri were clearly shaken. Suth’s reaction was merely relief. It was good that the waiting was finally over.

That morning the troop vessels were unnaturally quiet as the recruits and veterans of the 4th lined the sides, watching the fleet assemble. Even Wess found the interest, or the energy, to rouse himself from the folds of his cloak to join the crowd at the gunwale. Suth was surprised to see that the man was far older and more grizzled than he’d thought, and he wondered just how many campaigns the veteran had slept through.

Len pointed out Falar vessels, sleek and swift; broad Seven Cities galleys; and three-masted Quon men-of-war. But the Moranth Blue warships held everyone’s interest. They lumbered over all like the tusked behemoths of Suth’s native Dal Hon savannah. Armoured towers at the bows rose some three storeys tall.

Through the day, as their transports manoeuvred to join the convoy, talk turned to their presumed destination. Many still held out hope for Genabackis; perhaps a new southern front cutting across to join Black Coral. But Len just shook his head. The old saboteur gathered a great many dark looks, as if his broaching Korel had doomed them all to it.

‘What about these Korelri Chosen, the Stormguard?’ Yana asked Len as they sat in the shade of a reefed sail.

The veteran frowned. ‘I haven’t faced them, but they say they’re the best soldiers out there, man for man.’

Yana looked affronted. ‘Then it’s up to us women — as usual.’

Keri nodded her fierce support. But Len raised a hand. ‘I mean among them. They say there’re damn few women in their ranks, for some reason or ’nother.’

Pyke had been listening, clearly unimpressed. ‘I hear these Genabackan Seguleh are far more dangerous.’

‘The Seguleh aren’t soldiers,’ Len answered. He eyed the man directly. ‘Never forget that. If it came to war with them — we’d win.’

Pyke laughed, waved Len’s claim aside like nonsense.

‘The Korelri fight only one enemy,’ Wess announced from under the folds of his cloak, surprising everyone.

Suth took a bite of fruit fresh from shore and watched Len nod his assent. ‘True enough. You face a wall o’ water thirty feet high comin’ at you every winter and that breeds some discipline. It’s the other soldiers we’ll face, the Dourkan, Roolian and Jourilan. They fight because they know the Korelri are right there behind them and they won’t yield. They never yield. They can’t.’

‘If we even reach them,’ added the disembodied voice of Wess.

Len just pursed his lips, obviously displeased by Wess’ comment. Looking troubled, Yana said nothing as well. Suth searched their faces; there was something here. Something he was missing.

It was Pyke who broke the silence. Laughing, he pointed at Suth. ‘Dumbass Dal Hon! Better learn to swim before we get there. ’Cause none of you are even going to see the shore. No Malazan ship has reached Korelri in over twenty years.’

‘Shut the Hood up, Pyke,’ Len snarled. But he didn’t deny the man’s claim. No one did.

The snow was slashing almost diagonal in the chill wind streaming over the forward crenellations of the Stormwall here next to the Tower of Stars. Lord Protector Hiam watched the fat flakes stick like ash to his cloak. They glowed against the dark blue weave then melted with an almost audible hiss. Below, the heavy waves coming in from the strait heaved sullenly against the base of the wall. Their scum of slush and ice grated like the massed teeth of a thousand demons of the deep. Which was a poetic image not too far from the truth, if a touch overused by all the singers and bards. The numbness in his fingertips told Hiam what this weather presaged. The season of storms was upon them. From this evening onward the iron braziers and torchpoles all along the curtain walls and watchtowers would stay lit day and night against the arrival of the enemy, the alien wave-borne demon Riders.

But not their only enemy.

They were coming. The mindless expansionists from the north. Hiam stamped the iron heel of his spear to the stone flagging and continued his informal tour of the wall. Word had come from the Roolian priesthood of the Lady: a marshalling of all troops, the nation lumbering to a war footing. Columns marching east to the Skolati frontier. And word from their agents among the Mare ports: all available vessels being stocked and readied. What could these invaders possibly want here in this — and it had to be said — rather impoverished and frankly out-of-the-way region?

As Chosen officers and regular soldiers appeared out of the driven snow before the Lord Protector each hastily saluted, spear crossing chest. Hiam answered, offering a reassuring word, or a chiding joke where his instincts told him it would not be taken ill. Could the priests have been right all along? They said there was only one thing here in these lands that could attract any foreign power: the faith of the Blessed Lady. That these Malazans had come to crush the true religion.

It seemed inconceivable. But why else come? He could think of no other explanation. Surely these Malazans had lands enough all over the world. All that blood and treasure expended. And for what? One measly island the inhabitants of which were so self-centred, so self-deluded, that they actually named their island a continent?

A great dark knot of men and equipment loomed ahead through the blizzard. Though it was morning, clouds as low and thick as smoke lent the day the twilight pall of evening. Next to a wall-mounted giant crossbow scorpion, a work crew stood gathered, blowing on hands and stamping feet and peering out over the lip of the most outward machicolations. The cart of a movable winch rested with them, rope extending out and down.

Hiam waited while word of his presence spread through nudges and glances. Their blue jupons over leathers marked them as sworn apprentice engineers, not a compulsory work crew. They saluted, arm across chest. Hiam acknowledged then indicated the rope. ‘Fishing for Riders already?’

Grins all around. ‘It’s Master Stimins, sir,’ one answered. ‘We’ve been checking repairs all up and down the wall these last days.’

Hiam peered over the edge; the rope disappeared into bottomless swirling white. ‘Rather late in the season…’

Another salute. ‘Yes, sir.’ Tis.’

Hiam set a wry grin at his lips. ‘Our Master Stimins is afraid of nothing, hey? He’d push aside the Riders themselves to inspect a crack, yes?’

A few chuckles of appreciation answered, all of which Hiam thought a touch forced. He motioned to the winch. ‘Let him know he has to come up.’

‘Aye, sir.’

Hiam set his gaze northward into the churning slate grey where sky and sea melded into one brooding curtain. What could be so pressing? The time for repairs had long passed… though, Lady knew, they never had enough. Each summer it seemed all they could manage was to shore up the worst of the damage, let alone begin a course of rebuilding. His thoughts touched upon, but refused to pursue, the logical consequences of years of such makeshift repair: degradation, decay. Creeping structural weakness The clatter of the winch’s iron teeth interrupted the Lord Protector’s reverie. He watched the rope as it played in. It continued for some time. By all the false infernal gods, that was a lot of yardage. Was the man testing the water? The fool! Didn’t he know advance scouts had sometimes been spotted this early?

One particularly ugly snarl in the rope caught Hiam’s eye. Was that a splice? The man was trusting his life to a spliced rope? He could only shake his head. For all the man’s many faults, a lack of courage was not one.

Eventually a great yelling and spluttering reached them from below the machicolations. ‘I said I’m not done yet, you damned whoresons! Listen to me! Would you — oh, just help me up!’

A hand in fingerless gloves appeared, scrabbled at the stone ledge. The crew leaned over the edge to drag the man up. ‘Lady damn you all!’ he snarled, straightening, and pushing them away. He was shuddering with cold. ‘I’ll let you know-’ He caught sight of Hiam, clamped shut his lips.

‘A word please, Master Engineer.’

Mouth still set, the old man fumbled with the buckles of his harness. His hands were too numb and an apprentice untied them for him. He shouldered himself out of the leather strapping. ‘Take the winch to th’ fourteenth tower,’ he told the crew. ‘Wai’ for me there.’

The crew began packing the equipment. Hiam motioned for Stimins to follow him aside. When they were a distance off he asked: ‘Why are you still carrying out inspections, Toral? You’ve got that crew wondering.’

The old man was kneading and blowing on his hands. A shudder took his spider-like frame. Behind his grey beard his lips were blue. He was looking off into the distance, his mind clearly elsewhere. ‘We’re just behind, tha’s all.’

‘We’re behind every year. That’s no excuse. You’re checking something. What is it?’

‘Just… some old research.’

‘Does it have to do with what we spoke of…’ Hiam stepped closer, lowered his voice despite the moan of surf and wind. ‘The degradation?’

The Master Engineer was staring off into the middle distance once more, his lined face almost wistful. ‘Yes… That is, no. It bears upon it.’

Hiam fought down the urge to take hold of the man. What had so shaken him? ‘What is it? Tell me. I order you to tell me.’

But Stimins just glanced over, studying him, his rheumy eyes swimming, and then his lips twisted up into a grotesque attempt at a reassuring smile. Hiam was shocked to see in that expression the same face he turned to his own subordinates when they asked about undermanned patrols and empty seats at the messes. ‘Do not worry, sir,’ the old man said. ‘You’ve enough to concern yourself with.’

And he walked away to disappear into the driving snow, leaving Hiam alone to stare into that churning white that seemed to be consuming the wall while he spun on his own small island of stone and all he could think was… the fourteenth tower. Ice Tower. The lowest point in all the leagues of Stormwall.

Esslemont, Ian Cameron

Stonewielder

CHAPTER IV

It is said that the Priestess came alone out of the icy fastness of the Southern Emptiness, wearing only rags, her feet bare, leaving behind a path of blood. Yet all whom she met, priest and lay alike, bowed to the fire of her gaze. It has also been said that with the wave of a hand she flattened a Jourilan keep outside Pon-Ruo where the local priest of Our Lady the Saviour denounced her. This last rumour is not true. For she demands nothing, not even recognition; asks not a thing of anyone. All who would follow her must do so of their own volition. And do not be deluded. They do so. In their scores.

Prison Writings, Dust Ebbed, apostate Dourkan

On a rocky shore just east of the city of Ebon the campfires of the city’s outcasts and destitute flicker like the myriad lights of that great fortress and urban sprawl itself. At one such driftwood fire sit two old men and three old women, the women layered in threadbare shawls and skirts, the men in old finery, much patched and frayed.

One of the women rocked and sang tunelessly under her breath as she knitted. She cast a sly glance aside from beneath her ropy grey hair. ‘I see you there, Carfin,’ she crooned. ‘No sneaking up on ol’ Nebras!’

A shadow detached itself from the surrounding gloom, straightened long and tall. ‘I was not sneaking,’ a voice answered, as deep and slow as the surf licking almost to the fire’s edge. ‘I merely walk quietly.’ This fellow emerged from the night as a tall narrow-limbed man in dark shirt and trousers, both a patchwork of mending. He sat far back from the fire.

‘We are six,’ the second woman announced, and she jerked back a quick drink from a silver flask that then disappeared into her shawl.

‘We are indeed, Sister Gosh…’ one of the men answered, standing. He raised his gaze to the night sky, a hand going to his patchy goatee. Nebras rolled her eyes; the other man hung his head. ‘The stars are in alignment to allow our convening. The Goddess Below waits yet, breath held. Master of Chains searches without success. We, the High and Mighty Synod of Stygg Theurgists, Witches and Warlocks-’

‘Such as we are…’ muttered Nebras, not pausing in her knitting.

‘-are hereby come to order. Totsin Jurth the Third presiding as senior member. Now, first item of business. Sister Gosh, will you bless our assemblage?’

The silver flask disappeared once again into the shawl. Sister Gosh sat straighter, rearranged the folds of her layered wraps. She raised one crooked finger and squinted an eye. ‘Let’s see. Yes. May the Lady not track us down or sniff us out. May she not catch us in her grasping hands to stuff us down her greedy throat. May she not suck the marrow from our bones, nor boil our blood in the heat of her eternal hunger until our eyeballs pop and our tongues burst aflame.’ She eyed Totsin. ‘How was that?’

Totsin’s grey brows had risen quite high. ‘Well… yes. Thank you, Sister Gosh. Quite adequate, if rather visceral.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Now, second order of business. Absent members. What news of Sister Prentall?’

‘Caught by the witch-hunters and delivered to the Lady,’ announced the third woman.

‘Ah.’ Totsin glared at Sister Gosh, who mouthed I didn’t know! ‘Thank you, Sister Esa. Any other news? What of Brother Blackleg?’

‘Dead,’ said the other man, now staring deep into the fire, his chin in his hands.

‘Ah. Not… the Lady…?’

‘No. His liver.’

‘Ah. I’d thought him indestructible.’

‘As did he, obviously,’ the man observed laconically.

Totsin nodded, wiped his hands on his greasy trousers. ‘Very well.

Sad news. We are diminished greatly. Yet night turns inexorably, and winter comes. We needs must consider the future and what is to be our course of action given the proliferation of signs and portents confronting us…’ Nebras had drawn up her shawls tightly and raised a hand. Totsin blinked at her. ‘Ah, yes… Sister Nebras?’

‘As you say, Totsin. The wanderings of the Holds wait for no one — like the tide. And it is strangely high this night. Let us be on our way then.’

‘But… we have yet to decide…’

‘Very good, Totsin,’ cut in Sister Gosh. ‘I vote we decide. Carfin?’

The lanky man far from the fire pushed back his hanging black hair, clasped his frayed jerkin. ‘I abstain.’

‘Abstain?’ Sister Gosh snapped. ‘You came all this way just to abstain? Why didn’t you just stay in your mouldy cave?’

‘It is not a cave — it is a subterranean domicile.’

‘Perhaps we could-’ began Totsin.

‘And you’re an obtuse ingrate.’

‘Hag.’

‘Eunuch.’

‘If we could just-’

‘Actually, eunuch isn’t the technically correct word-’

‘I see something!’ the fellow staring into the fire announced.

Sister Gosh sat up, as did Totsin. Even Carfin drew closer. ‘What is it, Jool?’ Sister Esa whispered.

The man thrust out a clawed hand. ‘The tiles!’

Sister Nebras drew a pouch from her quilts, upended it into the man’s hand. He slashed his other hand through the fire, casting burning embers aside to reveal the steaming sands beneath. ‘Fire, Night, Earth, Light, Seas, Life, Death. All are gathered now for this coming season at the Stormwall.’ Jool cast the tiles across the steaming sands. ‘I see conflagration.’

‘Well… it is a fire,’ Totsin whispered to Carfin.

A glare from Sister Nebras silenced him.

Jool studied the spread of the small wood and ivory tablets. ‘All paths lead to destruction now. There is no escape for anyone. This season will see the grasp of the Lady tightened beyond all release. Or shattered beyond repair.’

‘Who opposes?’ Sister Esa hissed.

The man reached down to gingerly pluck one tile from the sprawl. He held it up to the light of the remnant embers and examined it, puzzled. ‘Where is this one from?’ he asked Sister Nebras.

She set it in her palm. Everyone crowded close. ‘It’s the oldest of all my dearies,’ Sister Nebras said, breathless. Her brows rose in wonder. ‘And yet my most recently gained.’

‘Bloodwood,’ Carfin observed.

‘Inscribed with a House,’ said Totsin.

‘The House of Death,’ Sister Nebras said, hushed.

‘It’s from Jakatakan,’ said Jool, certain.

Sister Esa let out a small yelp. ‘Jakatakan! Then… it’s them.’

Sister Gosh straightened, nodding. She took a fortifying nip from her flask and sucked her teeth. All waited, tense, while she gathered herself. ‘Jakatakan. Ancient isle. The mythical island beyond the Riders.’ She addressed the others. ‘But not so mythical, yes?’

‘Until they came,’ breathed Sister Esa.

‘And what name did they come bearing?’ Sister Gosh demanded.

‘The name of the Island of the House of Death,’ said Totsin.

‘Malaz,’ said Carfin, facing outward to the night.

‘They are coming,’ affirmed Sister Gosh. ‘All contend now. The Lady. The Stormriders. The Invaders. And whosoever shall prevail this season, this land shall see their grip so tightened, their power so increased, that never shall we escape.’

Totsin pulled at his beard. ‘Yet what of their domination? Foreigners…’

‘We are all foreigners here,’ Sister Nebras sneered.

Jool drew a surprised breath. ‘Bloodwood…’

‘Of course!’ Sister Esa answered. ‘The Elders. The First. They never capitulated.’

‘Blood,’ Carfin droned into the night, morose. ‘I like it not.’

Sister Nebras crouched to gather up the tiles. ‘So the time for flight and hiding is past. We must join our hands on to this casting. Aya!’

Jool knelt. ‘What is it?’

The old woman held up a gnarled hand, joints swollen and crooked. ‘Did you not see this one?’ Cradled in her palm was a tile that glimmered mother-of-pearl, carved from shell. On it was inscribed a stylized warrior armed with a long spear.

Jool examined it yet dared not reach out. ‘The tile of the Riders hidden there, deep within the heart of the fire.’

‘And yet even now deathly cold to my touch.’

The two locked gazes, saying no more. Sister Nebras drew an awed breath. ‘The Riders. The Lady and the Invaders shall bleed each other dry and they will finally prevail.’

‘The casting is… suggestive,’ Jool allowed.

‘Perhaps we should reconsider-’ Totsin began.

‘No,’ Sister Nebras said. ‘I’ve had my fill of her protection.’

‘Enough talk,’ Sister Esa agreed, adding, ‘she is always listening.’ With that the six separated, five walking off separately in different directions. The one remaining stared silently off into the night for a time. He kicked through the sands of the reading then drew himself up stiffly. All alone, he adjusted his tattered cuffs and smoothed his goatee. ‘Very good,’ he announced. ‘Very good. We are decided then. By my authority as senior member this assembly is adjourned.’

‘Biggest damned dogs I have ever seen…’ breathed Jheval, clearing his throat and spitting.

He and Kiska were hunched down in a narrow crevasse that split a rock face. Though the two Hounds of Shadow had withdrawn, Kiska glimpsed the occasional blur of dun brown and shaggy tan. Ye gods, what monsters these guardians of the Shadow Realm! Even more terrifying now than when she’d seen them in her youth. She still heard the occasional skitter of kicked stones, and sometimes she could feel the growls of the great beasts vibrating the stone against her back. Even when the silence lengthened she was not fooled. She knew they were still out there, waiting. Canny beasts. Sucking in great breaths, she lowered her head between her knees to fight the gathering darkness of utter exhaustion. She held her side. That had been close. So close, she had the impression that the hounds had been playing with them, allowing them the illusion of escape. It was only chance they’d come across this tiny retreat. But they hadn’t really escaped at all, had they? Only delayed the inevitable.

At least she was with someone who could keep his head. Even while she watched, Jheval took one sip from his water skin, just enough to wet his mouth. He knew how to survive in a desert — even if this really wasn’t a desert. A different kind of one, she supposed. A desert of eternity.

‘How long do we have?’ he asked, undoing his headscarf.

‘You mean — how long can we last?’

He used the scarf to rub his short sweat-soaked hair. ‘Yes, I suppose.’

‘Good question… This is Shadow. From what I’ve overheard it may be that in principle we have for ever. We will be slow to hunger and thirst. Eventually, I suppose one of us will be driven mad by our position and the other will be forced to kill that one…’

‘Or vice versa.’

She blinked at the man, then nodded her appreciation of the point. ‘Exactly so — by that time, who could say?’

He leaned his head back, staring up at the vault of the narrowing roof. ‘So, a waiting game.’ He offered her a sideways grin. ‘Luckily, I’m especially good at those.’ He edged himself down into a more comfortable position, giving every impression of a man completely at ease. ‘I have all the time in the world. What of you?’

Kiska considered the question. Could she definitively argue that time was of the essence? No one could know. Yet prudence would dictate that she not delay. ‘Unfortunately, I cannot say the same.’

A shrug. ‘Well then. Let us hope conditions change. As for myself — I care not.’

‘Truly? You really couldn’t care either way?’

‘No.’ He was tossing small stones out on to the cracked dirt before the opening. Kiska’s first reaction was irritation, but now she saw the reasoning behind the seemingly insignificant tic, and smiled. Teasing. The man was actually teasing them. And perhaps, eventually, they would tire of investigating these constant false alarms, and would come to ignore them. Then…

‘When I… left… Seven Cities,’ he began, musing, ‘I was with a woman. We had much in common. I thought that I’d finally met a woman I could come to think of as a partner.’ He let out a long breath, a wistful sigh. ‘But… she too couldn’t believe that the future held no fascination for me. It interested her, though. Greatly. She had ambitions. I, apparently, did not. And so we parted ways, and there was much shouting and many broken pots. An ugly domestic scene — the sort I swore never to find myself involved in.’ He looked over, his dark eyes narrow in what she imagined must be a habitual squint. ‘What of you?’

Kiska stretched her arms up over her head. She leaned her head back to stare at the dark crack above. ‘You asked of the Claw. Well… have you ever joined something because you thought it was a shining perfect example of what could be right in the world? Only, in time, to discover that it was just as corrupt and petty and, frankly, as stupid as everywhere else?’ She glanced over to catch him eyeing her with a strange intensity. He lowered his gaze. ‘So it was with the Claw. I was very young when I joined. I’d grown up sheltered — and a touch spoiled. Like anyone, I suppose.’

She shifted to find a more comfortable seat on the rock, began kneading her side. ‘I knew nothing. But then, that is the definition of being young, yes? So how can you possibly fault anyone for it? In any case, I began to see and hear around me how promotions went to those from certain families, or to those who knew certain people in the organization. The success and advance of incompetents is a universal mystery, yes? Some would say it is because those above prefer subordinates who do not threaten them. I do not agree. I would say such reasoning only reveals that person’s own preferences. Myself, I would want only the most skilled and accomplished around me — how else might one be more assured of success?’

‘Not everyone feels that way,’ Jheval muttered darkly, his gaze inward.

‘No,’ Kiska agreed. ‘So I found it to be in the Claw. I came to see that many were only concerned with their own advancement and avoiding responsibility for mistakes, and I saw how this directly threatened the lives of those below and around them. Including myself. And so I walked away rather than be a casualty of someone’s self-seeking.’

She glanced over and was startled to see the man studying her once more. He became aware of her regard and quickly looked away.

‘We haven’t heard anything for a time, have we?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps they’ve given up.’ And he smiled, knowing full well the answer.

‘And what of you?’ Kiska asked.

Jheval kept his gaze lowered, his eyes averted. After a long pause he murmured, ‘Another time, perhaps.’ A rather awkward silence followed that, into which Jheval clapped his hands and rose to his feet, bent over. ‘Right. Let’s have a look then.’

‘Don’t be a fool.’

He gave her a mad grin. ‘Have to test the waters occasionally, don’t we?’

‘Don’t-’

But he’d jumped out, rolling, and stood, knees bent. ‘Hey, y’shaggy lapdogs! Where are you?’

The answer came with stunning swiftness. A great dun mountain of muscled hide and flashing teeth pounced exactly where Jheval stood — or would have been standing had he not launched himself backwards to land scrambling and kicking his way back into their narrow hole. Kiska helped yank him in while a great blow struck shards of rock from the fissure and the enraged snarling was an avalanche. Jheval lay on top of her, gasping. He sent her a grin over his shoulder. ‘Your turn next time,’ he said, and rolled off.

Kiska just shook her head. The lunatic! He was actually enjoying himself! Still, that grin — so damned boyish.

Every jolt of the narrow launch sent lightning flashes of pain across Rillish’s sight. Wincing, he squeezed his brow while the eighteen-marine crew rowed him and Devaleth across the intervening sea to Admiral Nok’s flagship, the Star of Unta. He’d been drinking far too much Kartoolian spirit these last few days while trying to make sense out of this new posting.

Greymane, reinstated. Who would have thought it possible? He’d heard that the man’s own troops had tried to kill him; that Korelri assassins had cut his heart out; that he’d fled condemned by Malazan High Command. Now he was back after having served for a time in the ranks of the Empire’s most enduring enemy, the mercenary Crimson Guard. Mallick Rel obviously cared nothing for the man’s record under prior rulers — which dovetailed nicely with Rillish’s own evaluation of the Emperor: there was someone who cared nothing for old accepted ways, who would do whatever it took to win. Perhaps Mallick saw something of that quality in Greymane. Who knew? With the grim overcast dawn of this day he’d thrown the last empty bottle out of the window and come to the final conclusion that the best he could hope for was that the man would fail to remember him.

That would be the absolute best possibility. Otherwise… gods, how could he bear to face him?

Devaleth sat across the bows, utterly at ease in the pitching craft; she was, after all, a mage of Ruse, the Warren of Sea-magics. She sent him a narrowed glance, not supportive — nor, thank Burn, pitying — but watchful, coolly evaluating. She knew there was something between him and their High Fist, but either it was not her way to push herself forward, or she simply did not care the least. And, after all, she was in no hurry to meet the man herself, damned as a walking anathema in her own land.

In the end, it was that seeming indifference that brought Rillish to wave her to him. He rested a hand on the gunwale, steadying himself against the rough seas while the marines struggled to make headway. Devaleth merely crouched before him, somehow able to adjust to each pitch and roll. Cold spray splashed his arm and the shock further cleared his head.

‘It was my second command,’ he said, holding his voice low. At least here, unlike on board any crowded troopship, he could be assured of the necessary secrecy. ‘I was part of a contingent of reinforcements. Mare war galleys caught us short of Fist. Hardly a fifth of us made it to shore.’ He shuddered at the memory: the icy waters; the cries of the drowning. His words did not do justice to the hopelessness of seeing one’s command shattered before one’s eyes. ‘We were folded into the Sixth. Soon after, as a noble, I was called in to bear witness to the judgement of Governor Hemel and the court martial against Greymane.’ He could not stop his throat from tightening at the memory. ‘I was new, a mere lieutenant. I knew procedures had been rushed. Testimony was thin, if not fabricated. But I also knew the campaign had fallen apart and that Command was looking for someone to hang it on. I chose not to interfere.’ He glanced up and found her eyes hard and dark and fully on him, studying him rather mercilessly, and he looked away. ‘So that is it. That one time I put my career first. And now, it would seem, I’m to pay for it.’

Her gaze slid aside, to where the tall masts of the Star could be glimpsed beyond the rise and fall of the steel-blue crests and troughs. The wind dashed her unkempt hair. ‘You were young and new to the situation — perhaps that’s precisely why you were chosen. In any case, we shall see what sort of man this Greymane is by how he acts. I will watch — but remember I can be of little use. I am, after all, a traitor.’

As, it seems, am I.

The cabin was warm with the breath and presence of too many bodies in too small a space. He and Devaleth were the last to arrive. Nok, whom Rillish had never met, made the introductions; Rillish’s counterpart, Fist Khemet Shul of the Eighth Army, his bald scarred head resembling a lead sling bullet. The man gave a guarded nod. The Moranth Blue commander, Swirl. His armoured plates shone with the deep blue of open ocean. Kyle, a dark moustached youth resembling a Wickan warrior, though much broader and longer-limbed, who was Greymane’s adjunct. And the High Fist himself, who — thought Rillish — had watched him all this time with a brooding cold gleam in his eyes.

‘High Fist,’ Rillish said, bowing.

The man ignored him to study Devaleth. ‘You are most welcome, mage. As you know, we are short of cadre.’

‘With reason, High Fist. The, ah… influence… of the Blessed Lady will render them useless.’

‘But not you, nor your fellows?’ Nok put in, and he smiled behind his moustache to reassure her that this was no cross-examination.

‘No, Admiral. We in Mare have turned our eyes to the sea, and the mysteries of Ruse. Which, I imagine, brings us to the matter before us.’

The Admiral inclined his head. ‘Indeed.’ He turned to a small table and a map drawn on vellum. With one long pale finger he sketched the line of advance. ‘We anticipate contact in three weeks’ time, off the coast near Gost-’

‘Forgive me,’ Devaleth interrupted, ‘but you will be lucky to reach Fait.’

Nok’s snowy white brows rose, but it was the Moranth Blue commander Swirl who spoke: ‘You are so certain?’

All eyes shifted to Devaleth; Rillish felt like a spectator at his own briefing. The heavy-set woman was in no way intimidated by the weight of both Greymane’s and Nok’s regard and Rillish wondered whether it was because they were currently in the woman’s element.

She merely shrugged her rounded shoulders. ‘The moment your bows turned south, the murmur of those waves reached Mare. Even as we speak their warships are setting out as quickly as they can be readied. The goal will be to reach you as far north as possible.’

The High Fist and the Admiral exchanged glances. ‘Thank you, Devaleth,’ said Greymane. ‘You have been most forthcoming.’

‘We can anticipate, then, some sort of massing of forces, north of Fist?’ Nok asked.

Another shrug. ‘As best can be managed… yes.’

Nok smoothed his moustache. ‘I see. Thank you. Now, Fist Rillish, I have read your debriefing from when you returned from Korel, but I wonder if you might enlighten everyone as to conditions on Fist when you were sent out.’

Rillish acknowledged the request, but he was puzzled. ‘That was nearly ten years ago, Admiral. Surely you have more recent intelligence?’

‘Nothing reliable. Rumours, hearsay. No eyewitnesses, such as yourself.’

Ye gods. A decade of silence? What had been going on all this time? Rillish cleared his throat. ‘Well, Admiral, High Fist. I was under Captain Jalass, 11th Company-’

Greymane grunted, causing Rillish to stop. As all eyes turned to him, the High Fist appeared embarrassed. He cleared his throat, rumbled, ‘I remember her. She was a good officer.’

‘Yes,’ Rillish agreed, ‘she was.’ The High Fist’s emphasis on that she shook him, but he continued: ‘She stocked four Skolati traders and sent them out under my command. We were to await her off False Point just north of Aamil. We waited five days but she never appeared. On the fifth day I opened our orders and saw that our mission was to reach Malazan High Command and deliver a sealed packet of communications…’ Rillish’s gaze rose to the wooden ceiling beams and he took a steadying breath. ‘Because the northern route was so perilous, I elected to set a course due east, hoping to rendezvous with a Genabackan contingent and to return via the secure Falar trade route…’

Devaleth spoke up, disbelieving. ‘Am I to understand that you crossed the entire ocean, what we call the Bloodmare Ocean, in a Skolati tub?’

Rillish nodded.

The woman shook her head, appalled. ‘God of the Waters… I thought I was a sailor.’

Nok raised a hand to speak. ‘The report of the journey itself would make an amazing tale. Two vessels finally reached an island off the coast of Genabackis. There he landed for sweet water. Then, that night, the ship burst aflame and an attack by a band of black-masked children slaughtered a contingent of thirty marines in the time it took to draw breath…’

‘The Seguleh,’ Swirl grunted. ‘You set foot on the island of the Seguleh…’

‘So we discovered, yes. That was where we sighted land. We barely escaped.’

Swirl inclined his helmed head in salute. ‘That you escaped at all is remarkable.’

‘In the interests of time I must move ahead to that packet itself,’ Nok continued. ‘It was delivered. And its contents have remained one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Empire ever since. Laseen had me apprised. Possibly Dujek. But other than we few I do not know who else may be aware… Topper perhaps. Under the new Emperor’s orders you are all to be briefed now.’

Across the cabin Greymane’s gaze had narrowed and his thick lips drew down in disapproval. It seemed obvious to Rillish that the High Fist must be wondering why he had not been briefed beforehand. Yet Nok must have his reasons: perhaps it was to engender a kind of cohesion. After all, they were heading for Korel, and history showed that any force sent there found itself completely on its own.

The Admiral took a steadying breath, pausing as if searching for the right words. ‘In brief, within the orders and communiques contained in the packet was evidence that Command of the Sixth had named itself Overlord of Fist — not in the name of the Empire, but in pursuit of its own ambitions. That it had thrown off all fidelity to the Empire and considered itself sovereign.’ The Admiral’s pale gaze went to Greymane. ‘In short, High Fist, the Sixth has mutinied.’

Rillish felt gut-thrust. Hood preserve them. It’s official. Judgement has been levelled from the throne. The Sixth has gone too far. And how far did the conspiracy go back? Had the governor, and the Fists, had this in mind all along? And Greymane! Was this why he was thrust aside? Rillish studied the man: his old commander. What must he be feeling?

The big man had drawn a shaky breath and closed his eyes. In the weak light of the cabin he appeared to have paled.

Devaleth spoke into the silence: ‘This expedition… I take it then that it is less an invasion force…’

Nok nodded, his lips pursed. ‘You are correct, mage. We are invading, yes. But we are doing so to bring the Sixth to heel.’

And so, Rillish compiled to himself, we fight not only an entire subcontinent, Marese, Korelri, Theftian and Dourkan, but Malazans as well. Traitorous Malazans. Gods below — are we enough for even one of these enemies?

Horses were few in the Korel subcontinent and so the Army of Reform walked. What dray animals had been gathered — oxen, mules, and a few cast-off half-dead horses — went to hauling the large high-sided wagons that were under construction day and night. ‘For supplies,’ Ivanr had been told when he’d asked about the non-stop building. He was dubious: who needed such sturdy wagons to haul materiel? But it was none of his business and so he returned to searching for word of the boy among the mass of camp-followers, craftspeople, cooks, butchers, metalsmiths and petty merchants.

A quiet lad. Head wound. Might not have spoken at all. Came into camp a few days ago. On the fifth day a woman pulling a cart among the train of refugees got a thoughtful look in her eyes.

‘May have seen him. What’s he to you?’

‘I brought him in. Who’s he with? Do you know?’

‘Who’s he with?’ The woman laughed. ‘He’s with all the lads and lasses with two arms what can walk. Taken into the ranks he was.’

‘Into the- He’s just a child.’

Her gaze slitted and she spat to one side. ‘Tall as my Jenny he was, and as hale.’ She eyed him again. ‘Everyone must do their part. No place for layabouts… or cowards.’

Ivanr stopped walking alongside her. ‘My thanks.’

She just snorted and continued on, back hunched, hands wrapped in the leads of the two-wheeled cart in which rattled her few remaining possessions. An infant sat in the rear, legs kicking, thumb in mouth. Ivanr headed for the van of this great snaking mass of humanity.

Army of Reform? What army? He could find no army here in the traditional definition of the word. A mob of displaced farmers and city refugees clinging together out of fear and being issued cumbersome pikes and spears was all he could see. It was suicide. The Jourilan cavalry would sweep them from the field.

And yet… he had to admit some order lay beneath surface appearances. Far down the valley squads of men and women could be glimpsed scavenging and scouting the route; he’d seen the rags they used to mark the best paths. Dust obscured the main body where the files of infantry marched amid the great swaying hulks that were the wagons. Infantry! If you could call them that: youths in nothing more than cloth gambesons, if as much. Their only weapon these tall unwieldy spears. Not a sword to be shared among them. And riding with her staff up and down the course of the march, Martal all in black: dark dusty hauberk, leggings, boots and gloves. Some had even taken to calling her the ‘Black Queen’.

Martal… Ivanr wondered, seeing her ride past. Katakan, Beneth had said. He couldn’t recall hearing of any such military commander out of Katakan. He headed for the training grounds: trampled fields of relatively level land downslope where squads of recruits were massed. Stepping on each other’s feet and jabbing each other with their pointy sticks.

Looking back, he realized he was not alone. He was being followed by a Jourilan officer complete with a rounded iron helmet, a jack of boiled leather, and a thick green winter cloak. Ivanr stopped and waited to see what the fellow would do. The refugees filed by, some carrying great bundles of possessions; two barefoot children pulled an old man along by his rags.

Instead of stopping dead, or sidling guiltily past, as Ivanr expected, the man returned his glare with a ready smile, and saluted. ‘Lieutenant Carr, at your service, sir.’

Ivanr sighed inwardly and continued on. ‘My service? You are just passing by, I should think…’

The man kept pace, hands at his belt. ‘Respectfully, no, sir. I’ve been asked to escort you.’

‘Escort me? Escort me where?’

‘Why, wherever you should wish, sir.’

‘Don’t call me “sir”.’

‘I feel that I must, sir. Based upon your accomplishments.’

‘Accomplishments?’ Ivanr eyed the man sidelong. Young. ‘What accomplishments? Bashing people with a piece of metal is no accomplishment.’

But the man was not nonplussed; he grinned, cocking his head. ‘Well, if you put it that way…’

They passed behind a particularly long train of the tall wagons swaying like the great behemoths of the icefields to the south, and Ivanr waved the dust from his face, coughing. ‘Gods all around us! Why is Beneth burdening himself with these monstrous contraptions? They must halve his rate of march.’

‘For supplies, I understand,’ Carr said, sounding as convinced as Ivanr. ‘As to their speed… they are no slower than the refugee train.’

‘I’d drop that lot as well.’

‘Oh no, sir! They’re why we’re here.’

Ivanr now examined the officer directly. Just a lad — barely into his shaving. ‘Sounds backwards to me.’

Carr clasped his hands behind his back. ‘Traditionally speaking, I suppose so. But this is no traditional situation. At least, as far as these lands are concerned.’

Ivanr grunted and continued walking. Something in the lad’s mannerisms made him ask: ‘What were you doing before you joined?’

‘I was a scholar. An acolyte priest.’

Ivanr grunted again; he’d thought so. ‘And because you could write you were given a commission…’

‘A commission in a nonexistent military organization — just so, sir. And, I must admit, my family name is known. But all of us here are fleeing, or seeking, something, yes? Myself, I was fleeing… dogmatic rigidity, let us say.’ A self-deprecating shrug. ‘The army formed itself out of the disaffected, the apostate, or plain refugees of the fighting. It exists to protect and escort them.’

‘Escort them? Escort them where?’

‘Why, to Blight, of course.’

‘Blight? And what will happen when you get there, may I ask?’

‘The gates will be thrown open and we shall be welcomed as liberators.’

Ivanr halted; Carr peered up at him in mild surprise, blinking. ‘You are joking, I hope.’

The youth almost blushed and coughed into a fist to cover his reaction. ‘Only partially. We have reason to believe that a great proportion of the population is sympathetic to our aims. And that our arrival will be all that is needed to ignite them.’

Ivanr continued on. Fanatics. All of them. On both sides. ‘That may be so, Lieutenant. But when last I saw them the walls of Blight were tall. And I have the feeling that this army is not the only one on the move.’

He pushed through to the marching grounds where a knot of trainees — gods, could they even be called that? — milled into each other, their tall spears clattering. They squinted like befuddled children at a fellow red-faced from cursing them. Ivanr pulled a hand down his sweat-grimed face as if to wipe the vision from his sight. Gods protect us all. This will not do. They ought to be given some chance.

He cupped his hands to his mouth. ‘Halt!’

A great banging of hafts as half the trainees stopped.

The red-faced fellow gaped, then gathered himself. ‘Who in the name of the Lady of Lies are you?’

‘Temporary replacement.’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Talk to the lieutenant here.’

From then on Ivanr kept his back to the man and addressed the gathered infantry. Some hundred young lads and lasses, gap-toothed oldsters. The lad could be among them. Still, most are here because they want to be; not the impressed near-prisoners of the Imperial infantry. Well, first things first. ‘Who here knows his or her right hand?’ he bellowed, taking full advantage of his great Thel lung capacity and presence.

A few right arms rose timorously.

‘Very good! Some of you actually got that correct! Now, take that arm and extend it out straight from your shoulder — that’s right, move over! I want an arm’s length between everyone. Let’s go.’

The majority of the crowd just stared back, uncomprehending.

He took a great breath and roared: ‘Now!’

A forest of rattling as everyone ran into everyone else.

Ivanr turned to the lieutenant, who quickly swapped his stifled laughter for a look of sombre attention. The red-faced would-be drillmaster was nowhere in evidence. ‘Lieutenant Carr.’

‘Sir?’

‘I will have need of a drum, or some sort of drummer lad.’

‘Aye, sir.’

The identity of the man strapped and immobilized on the table was irrelevant to Ussu. A serum distilled from oil of durhang rendered the subject insensate while, most important, in no way inhibiting the fleshly systems. The body may as well be that of a dog or a sheep. Indeed, he had begun his experimentation with such animals. But — as he had discovered — for his purposes the human essence provided by far the greatest efficacy. He rested a hand upon the naked chest, felt the pounding of the heart. Strong. Excellent. Not the usual sickened or starved prisoner. Perhaps this one will last long enough…

He nodded to his apprentices. One, Yurgen, made a last circuit of the tower chamber, checking the iron shutters, the barred iron door, then drew his sword and readied his shield. Such experimentation can summon the most alarming manifestations. Ussu once almost lost an arm to an entity that took possession of the corpse of a great boarhound. His two other apprentices, Temeth and Seel, stood at his elbows.

He extended a hand and Seel gave over a knife of keen knapped obsidian, the handle leather-wrapped. Ussu felt down along the ribs of the subject — yes, just between these — and made an incision up over the barrel of the torso, beginning at the side and ending at the sternum.

Before he came to Korel none of these elaborate preparations would have been necessary. Indeed, he would have been repulsed by the idea. One merely had to reach out and there would be the Warren at one’s fingertips. Yet here he and all the other lesser Malazan practitioners had been rendered impotent. Some had been driven mad; others had killed themselves, directly or indirectly, through concoctions or drugs meant to facilitate access.

He held out the knife and Temeth took it away and another instrument was placed in his hand: a tool of wooden wedges and metal screws. Ussu eased the slim leading tips of the wooden wedges into the incision between the ribs. Seel daubed at the blood welling up.

‘Gently here,’ he warned the two, who nodded and leaned forward to peer more closely. He began working the screws, one by one. The wedges parted. Turn by turn, a hair’s-breadth at a time, Ussu created a cavity at the body’s side where the ribs curved.

He, however, had chosen a different path…

Power existed here in the Korelri subcontinent. The followers of the Lady had access. And the source of that potential, he had discovered, lay in… sacrifice.

When he judged the opening large enough he nodded and Seel took hold of the spacer. Leaning forward over the subject, almost hugging him, Ussu slipped his hand into the gap at the side. Gently, reverently almost, he eased inward, fingers straight. He felt his way around organs, slipped past ligaments, parted layers of fat, until the tips of his fingers brushed the vibrating, quivering, seat of life. With one last push he cradled the heart and with his other hand he reached out for his Warren.

Steady pressure on the heart brought to his summoning a tenuous ghost-image of Mockra. He eased his grip tighter; the heart laboured, pulsed in his fist like a terrified animal. He sought out a vision at the limits of the Warren’s divinatory potential — of prescience.

Grant me a vision of what is to come!

And he saw — he saw… desolation. Shores scoured clean by a tidal wave invasion of the sea-borne demon Riders. The land poisoned, lifeless. Cities inundated, corpses lolling in the surf in numbers beyond comprehension.

Annihilation.

No! How could this be?

A mere hand’s breadth from his face the eyes of the subject snapped open. The apprentices flinched away, yelping their terror. Yurgen charged forward.

‘Halt!’ Ussu returned the corpse’s dead stare, for dead it was, the organ immobile in his hand. ‘Greetings, Lady.’

A smile, the eyes rolling all white. ‘I have tolerated your heresies, Ussu,’ the corpse barely mouthed, ‘because I sense in you a great potential. Set aside your disbelief. Cleave to the True Path.’

‘They are coming, Blessed Lady. New Imperial forces are on their way. We must…’ he wet his lips, ‘join forces.’

‘You have seen this? How strong you are, Ussu. Stand at my side.’

She knows nothing of our prisoner. She is not omniscient.

Again the dead smile. ‘I allowed you Malazans to land because you brought a renewed vitality to the true faith. You have strengthened me in so many ways. There is nothing like a challenge to inspire and confirm a faith. And so I welcome you again.’

‘Yet the true enemy awaits. What of the Riders?’

The lips twisted, snarling. ‘I have no vision of them. She stymies me yet. That Queen bitch has ever stood in my way!’ The body eased beneath Ussu, the fit seeming to pass. ‘Kneel before me, Ussu. Embrace me as your Goddess.’

The corpse raised its head to whisper at his ear, intimately close: ‘Let me touch your heart.’

Revolted, Ussu threw himself from the body. Yurgen swung, the blade passing through the neck to slam into the table. Ussu pushed aside Seel and Temeth to stand swaying, his heart hammering as if brushed by ghostly fingers. Hood preserve them! What were they dealing with here? He crossed to a washbasin and rubbed the gore from his arms. Temeth passed him a towel and he dried himself then rolled down his sleeves.

He eyed the three. ‘A gag will be the order of the day, next time, Yurgen.’

All nodded, faces pale as snow.

They had been at sea for two weeks when Sergeant Goss came down to the jammed quarters below decks and crouched amid the hammocks. It was the beginning of their squad’s sleeping shift and some were bedding down while others were watching games of troughs and dice. Len gestured the squad close. Suth was lying in his hammock and he folded an arm under his head. Wess was snoring above him.

‘Guess you been hearing the rumours,’ Goss said when most had gathered round.

‘Which rumours? There’s been nothin’ but all this time,’ Pyke said.

Suth agreed. There was a plague of rumours aboard: that they would yet strike east for Genabackis; that they were headed for Stratem to pursue some mercenary company; that the expedition could not possibly succeed because the Empire had run out of cadre mages; that Greymane was commanding and he was bad luck; that the Emperor had struck a pact with the Stormriders; that Mare vessels had been sighted shadowing them and the sea would take them all. For his part Suth was unperturbed. To him this was just a particularly obvious example of how all talk was, in point of fact, useless.

‘First, it’s about Greymane. It’s official. He has command.’

‘Oponn’s luck!’ said Pyke. ‘Where’d they dig him up? I heard the man was so incompetent his own officers got rid of him. We’re better off without him.’

‘That’s not what I heard,’ Len growled. ‘The old veterans spoke well of him.’

‘Nothing we can do about it,’ Yana said from where she knelt, steadying herself on a hammock.

That observation struck Suth as extraordinarily wise and he nodded his sombre agreement.

‘The other’s about fighting alongside the Blues,’ Goss went on.

‘Yeah, we heard,’ Pyke said. ‘Some damn thing about volunteering to fight with them. Volunteer? What for? Not for damned honour ’n’ glory or any damned shit like that, I hope.’

‘Shut that anus you call a mouth,’ Yana murmured — she had less and less time for the man as the days wore on.

Unperturbed, Goss raised and let fall his shoulders. ‘There’s some as see it that way. But, no. This is for places on the Blues’ vessels that will lead the shore assault. So, you could say it’s a chance for some loot.’

‘Loot,’ Pyke snorted, scornful. ‘A gut full of iron more like.’

Fighting on land. To Suth that sounded preferable to fighting at sea. ‘How are they choosing? Do you just ask?’

Goss nodded, accepting the question. He leaned aside, clearing his throat into his fist. ‘Well, there’s to be what you might call tryouts. Them Blues is mighty selective. They won’t let just anybody on board.’

Lard looked up from juggling his dice. One eye was still black and his bald head still bruised from his last fit of brawling. ‘What’s that? Fighting?’

Pyke rolled his eyes. Goss rubbed the bristles at his cheeks, smiling. ‘Yeah. ’Gainst the Blues themselves.’

Blowing out a breath, Lard sat back down. Pyke’s laugh was a sneer. ‘Hard lumps. And for what? A chance to get yourself killed? No, the rule is don’t volunteer for nothin’.’

But Kyle leaned back to stare at the sweat-stained canvas hammock above. He’d been watching these armoured Moranth. Clearly worthy opponents. And he’d been too long without testing himself against anyone.

Far too long.

When the Lasana’s turn came and the volunteering squads were called to ready themselves for the next morning, the 17th was one of five named. Pyke was furious. Below decks he first pinned Lard: ‘Was you, wasn’t it? You Hood-damned fat fool.’ Lard waved the man away. He turned on Dim next: ‘Or you — dimwit?’

Dim just looked confused.

‘Shut up,’ said Yana from nearby. ‘Look to your kit.’

‘My kit? My kit! There’s no way I’m turning out for this! No way. You lot are the fools.’ And he stormed off.

‘Good riddance,’ Lard called after him, and aside, to Dim: ‘Was it you?’

Dim blinked at the man. ‘Was it me what?’

Lard caught Suth’s eye and raised his glance to the timbers above. ‘Never mind.’

Every soul on board the Lasana jammed the decks that morning. The sailors hung in the rigging, arms crossed under their chins. It was overcast, and a strong cold wind was blowing off the Strait of Storms. Two squads of Moranth Blue marines had come over by launch. The five Malazan squads had the stern deck to ready themselves while amidships was being cleared. The sergeants huddled together to draw lots to determine order. The 17th picked second. When Goss came back with the news Suth leaned close to his ear.

‘Swap for last.’

Goss eyed him. ‘What if they don’t want no swap?’ ‘Tell them we need time, we’re short, whatever you must.’ The sergeant grunted his agreement; you could say they were short. Faro, Pyke and Wess hadn’t shown. And it was clear from their usual plain leather jerkins that Len and Keri weren’t planning on fighting.

Yana joined them. She stood even taller and broader in her full shirt of thick padded scale, boots, broadsword at her wide leather belt, full helm under one arm. ‘Minimum is five,’ Goss said, as he rubbed his jaw and eyed the squads readying their arms. ‘If we can’t field five, we’re out.’

‘Where’s Pyke?’ Suth asked.

Goss’ jaws clenched. ‘Out. Says he fell down a companionway ladder. Twisted his knee.’

‘Dead-weight useless shit,’ Yana snarled. ‘We don’t need him. We have five with you anyway.’

‘No sergeants. Just regulars.’

‘Shit.’

‘And Wess?’ Suth asked.

‘I think he’s around here somewhere,’ Yana answered.

‘Dig him up — I’ll see what I can swing.’

Suth searched the crowds nearby. When he returned Goss was back. The sun was warming the decking and the wind had picked up. The sailors were busy trimming the canvas to steady the ship. ‘We’re fourth,’ Goss said.

‘Good.’

The sergeant eyed him; he brushed his fingers over his greying bristles. ‘You want to watch them fight…’

‘And they’ll be tired.’

Goss laughed. ‘Don’t count on that.’ He watched Suth again, a small tight smile pulling at his lips. ‘It was you, hey? Put our name in. I thought maybe Yana did it just to get Pyke’s goat.’

‘I’m bored.’

The sergeant leaned his elbows on the railing. ‘Well, you won’t be real soon.’

Suth motioned to the two squads of Moranth marines waiting amidships. The plates of their head-to-toe armour had taken on the iron-blue of the clouds, or were reflecting it. They were readying large oval shields and the weapons they’d brought: some sort of wooden shortswords. ‘They’re that good?’

‘These could be among their best. Veterans of years of warfare. I’ve even heard it said that alone among the Genabackan peoples the Moranth will fight the Seguleh. And it’s the Blues who meet them at sea. They’re good all right.’

Dim pushed through the crowd, shepherding along a mussed and irritated-looking Wess. ‘Here he is.’

‘Where’d you find him?’ Suth asked.

Dim’s thick brows clenched in their usual expression of befuddlement. ‘In a hammock, of course.’

Wess stuck his hands into his belt and lifted his chin amidships. ‘What’s all this?’

Goss shook his head in awed disbelief. ‘Just get kitted up,’ he said.

The 11th was first up. Everyone had to use the wooden weapons the Moranth provided. While they were no doubt dull-edged Suth imagined you could still easily maim someone with the vicious things. He, Yana, Lard and Dim watched; Wess lay down on his jack of banded armour and promptly went back to sleep, or pretended to. Len stood with Goss next to Suth. One of the Moranth squads squared off against the 11th’s picked troopers, three male and three female heavy infantry. The captain of the Lasana ordered the start by giving the nod to a trumpeter.

It was over far more swiftly than Suth’s worst fears. Not because of any weakness in the 11th. Rather, it was because of a terrible tactical choice: they decided to take the fight to the Moranth. When the trumpeter blew his blast the troopers charged.

Their rush was magnificent. A great shattering roar went up from the assembled men and women of the 4th Company and the Lasana seemed to shudder. Even Suth felt the hair on his neck rise and he mouthed his encouragement: Yes! Get ’em!

But they charged as individuals, shields unlocked. The Blues held easily and picked them off one by one. It was a brutal and efficient lesson in what a disciplined wall of shields can accomplish. Suth was especially sobered; less than six months ago that individual bellowing all-out attack would have been his. And he would have gone down just as swiftly. Having had the discipline of holding the line beaten into him, he now understood something neither he nor his brothers and sisters growing up on the Dal Honese plains could puzzle out. How was it that man for man, or woman for woman, no Kanese or Talian was a match for the Dal Hon warrior, yet years ago their tribal armies crashed like surf against the Malazan legion? How could that be? Poor generalship had been the judgement against the chieftains of their grandfather’s time.

Now he knew better. For the warrior fights as one, while the soldier fights all as one. No single warrior, no matter how skilled, can defeat ten, or fifty. Or in this case, five. But he, Suth, could defeat two… if he could just count on his fellows to hold long enough. Yana and Lard would hold, he believed. But Dim — the big man was just too good-natured, nothing ever seemed to rouse him. While Wess… all the gods of the plains… how many campaigns had the man slept through?

The 6th was up next. No dash and thrust for them. Seven rectangular Malazan-issue heavy-infantry shields lined and locked. The Moranth squads traded out. The trumpeter loosed a blast. Two shieldwalls carefully edged towards one other across the decking. Shouting went up; running odds on the match — three to one against the 6th.

‘A good lesson here,’ said Len at Suth’s side.

‘A good many,’ Suth answered absently, a finger brushing his lips, intent on the Blues’ swordplay, the shields grating and sliding along each other.

‘Including the hardest of all…’ Puzzled, Suth glanced to the man, who lifted his chin to the other selected four from the squad. ‘Trust.’

Suth almost snorted, dismissing the ridiculous claim, but caught himself. Trust. Yes, he could see that… yes, he could trust Yana. But a useless fool like Wess, or Dim? How could he possibly trust them? That would take…And his shoulders slumped. Mocking gods… it would take trust.

So. He was stuck with them. Was this the canny old saboteur’s lesson? He caught the man’s eye and nodded, then turned to his squadmates. If I am stuck with them, then if I just complain or am sullen or resentful I am no better than Pyke. The obvious step, then, is if I want the squad to work, it is up to me to do everything I can to make it work.

‘I want an edge,’ Lard demanded, his gaze fixed on the fight below. A groan sounded from all around as a trooper fell, screaming and clutching at his gut.

Suth considered. At least if Lard broke the centre wouldn’t be compromised. He shrugged. ‘Fine with me.’

Yana nodded.

‘What about me?’ asked Dim.

‘Yana and I will flank you.’

The big man brightened like a child. ‘That’s great!’

Suth and Yana shared a look: either she or he would have the best chance of recovering when he went down.

‘Wess!’ Yana bellowed. ‘You have one edge!’

A muted grumble answered her.

Soon after the first trooper fell the Malazan line disintegrated and the infantrymen lowered their arms as it was clear they’d been overborne. The Moranth disengaged and saluted.

The 20th was next. If the 4th Company had a heavy elite the 20th was the closest thing to it. The men and women were all veterans, none unblooded recruits. They formed up and waited, silent. The trumpet blew and they charged, taking everyone, including the Moranth, by utter surprise.

This was no disorganized rush. Shields remained locked and smashed as a line into the unprepared Blues. The Moranth fell back nearly to the ship’s side. A roar erupted such as never before. Troopers of the 4th jumped up and down, buffeting one another; the sailors shook the rigging.

Even Goss managed a full smile and muttered, ‘Nicely done.’ But he added aside to Suth, ‘They won’t fall for that again.’

After some fierce swordplay the Blues righted themselves, leaning away from being pressed into the side. Step by step they began edging round to circle back to the mid-deck. Cannily, the 20th matched the sidelong shift of shieldwall to abut against the mainmast. Both squads chose to use the mainmast to anchor their flank and now the fight shifted to the opposite flank. Whoever could turn that would win.

Though the weapons were blunted wood, blood now flowed on to the decking. Suth winced at the thought of the force it would take to break skin. With a great heave the Blues turned the open flank, bringing down that trooper. Unlike the 6th, however, the 20th formed a square of four and grimly fought on. The men and women of the 4th Company, quietened by the turning of the flank, now gained their voices, shouting their encouragement.

But the engagement was long past any question; it was just a matter of time. The 20th shrank to a triangle of three, then the remaining two back to back, and finally the last cut down by thrusts from all sides.

‘Well, we’re up,’ said Goss into the silence following that brutal demonstration. Sailors came out and wiped the decking. The Moranth squads changed out. Suth and his squad pushed their way down to the midships.

They broke through to the cleared decking and though Suth had faced uncounted duels and matches, he found his mouth dry, his heart racing. He saw Wess tuck a ball of something into his cheek. ‘What’s that?’

‘Resin of d’bayang poppy, and kaff leaves. Deadens pain. Want some?’

Suth didn’t bother hiding his distaste. ‘Gods, no. I don’t want to be doped.’

‘You’ll want some later. Believe me, we’re in for some pain.’

Suth just grunted; he couldn’t dispute that. He turned to the rest of the squad. ‘If it looks like we’re going to lose a flank, form square.’

Lard laughed at that. ‘Yeah. A square of five. Ha!’

‘Just do it.’

‘Who made you-’

‘Do it,’ cut in Yana.

Lard subsided, looked to tightening his shield strap. Suth adjusted his helmet.

‘Ready?’ Ship’s Captain Rafall called down.

Yana pulled on her tall full helm, clashed her wood sword against her broad infantry shield. ‘Ready!’

The Blues squad readied their shields.

Five, Suth saw. One for one. And an idea came to him. ‘Yana, Lard — concentrate on your man on the end. We’ll take up the slack.’

‘Two against one, aye,’ Yana answered.

The trumpet blew.

There was no time for strategy after that. Suth could only focus on hammering his right, hoping to cover for Dim, who should be covering for Yana. He only hoped Wess wouldn’t go down right away. The hardened tip of a wood shortsword jabbed for him like a viper. The Blue opposite bashed his shield like an anvil, hoping to overbear him. And he nearly succeeded, for this type of fighting was new to Suth. A great shout went up over the pounding of blood in his ears, the gasping breaths. He caught out of the corner of his eye the sight of Wess calmly and methodically edging aside the Blue’s thrusting shortsword, his moves precise and efficient, almost lazy. He’s conserving his strength! Gods! To think he’d doubted the man.

Dim, on his right, was too slow and awkward with his shield and was absorbing terrible punishment from the blunt-edged thrusts. But he didn’t go down. Too dumb to fall! It probably didn’t even occur to the man as a possibility. A starry hammer-blow to his head was Suth’s last clear impression and chagrin came with the realization that it was he who had lost his focus.

An uncertain amount of time later his surroundings unblurred and stopped spinning. He was standing; someone had his arm. He shook his head. ‘Okay… I’m okay.’

Goss’s face appeared close, squinting into his. ‘You took quite a shot.’

Suth touched a gloved hand to his forehead, hissed at the pain. The fingers came away wet with blood. ‘What happened?’

‘Lard and Yana teamed up. Took down two Blues.’

‘So we won!’

‘Naw. You lost. But you did better than most of the others. Congratulations.’

Troopers of the 4th came now, clapping him on the back and shoulders. Lard’s coarse laugh sounded above everyone’s voices. The Blues, Suth saw, were calmly readying for the next fight. All unharmed? And then, after this, off to the next ship and the next set of duels? By the Great Witch! It was inhuman.

He looked over and almost groaned: Wess was steadying him. Wess, of all people! The man let him go while giving him a sceptical eye, gauging his stability. ‘Told you so,’ he said, and spat out the ball of leaves and resin. Then he crossed his arms over his shield and leaned against it, apparently not even winded.

Oponn’s laughter! It just went to show you never could tell.

The 2nd went last. They acquitted themselves well, forming square immediately and offering a stubborn defence that held out the longest against the Blues’ steady pressure. Over the next few days word came of what squads were tapped to ship over to the Blues’ vessels. Of the five on the Lasana, three were asked: the 20th, the 2nd, and their own 17th. Of the two passed over, it occurred to Suth that each displayed one possible unforgivable failing: one did not fight as a unit, while the other did not fight to the end. It was a worrying lesson. It suggested to Suth that the Blues were expecting a ferocious confrontation where quarter would not be asked for, or given.

Banging at the front entrance to his house woke Bakune. It was past the mid-night. His housekeeper came to his bedroom door sobbing about ruffians and thieves. He ordered her to the kitchen. He felt quite calm, which was a surprise. He’d known he’d been living on borrowed time since all his files and records had been confiscated.

Would it be treason or heresy? Or did it really matter? Of course it didn’t.

Steeling himself, he left his rooms and descended the stairs to the front. He opened the door and blinked, uncertain. No troop of the Watch; no Guardians of the Faith from the Abbey; just one dumpy figure in a cloak dripping with wet snow who pushed him aside and slammed the door.

The figure threw back his hood to reveal himself as Karien’el.

Bakune could not keep from arching a brow. ‘I knew you’d be coming for me, but I didn’t think you’d come yourself.’

Weaving, Karien’el waved the comment aside. ‘Screw that.’ He was drunk, perhaps gloriously so, his nose a bulbous wreck of broken vessels, a web of flushed angry veins across his cheeks. ‘I’ve come to say my goodbyes, my friend. Do you have any wine or something stronger in this wretched house?’

‘So, someone is coming to take me, then?’

Karien looked confused for a moment, then chuckled. ‘Lady, no, my friend. I am the one going away. My just rewards, I suppose. Now, let’s have a toast to the old days.’ He headed for the parlour like an old visitor, when in fact Bakune could not remember ever allowing the man into his home.

Sighing, Karien’el thumped into a chair, glass of Styggian wine in hand, while Bakune teased the embers of the banked fire back to life. What could the Watch captain want here? Hadn’t he already destroyed his life? Perhaps he’d come to ask him to do the honourable thing.

‘You are going away then?’ he asked stiffly.

‘Yes. Haven’t you heard? No, I suppose you wouldn’t have.’

Bakune eyed him, uncertain.

‘The Lady and all these foreign gods as well, man!’ Karien growled. He tossed back the wine. ‘You remain a fool. But an honest one — which is why I’m here.’

Bakune did not answer. Pursing his lips, he prodded the wood with a poker; it seemed the man had come to talk and he had best allow him to unburden himself then send him on his way.

‘The Malazans, man. They’re leaving. Marching away tomorrow. All the garrison.’

Bakune almost dropped the poker. ‘Lady- That is… that’s unbelievable.’

Karien’el slyly tapped the side of his nose. ‘Part of my job is to know things, Assessor. And I’ve been hearing rumours of the massing of troops in the east, and a summoning of the Mare fleet.’

‘The Skolati…?’

‘No, man! Not the useless Skolati.’ He struggled to lever himself from the chair, gave up, and waved the empty glass. Bakune brought the carafe and poured.

‘No, not the Skolati. Mare doesn’t push out every hull that will float for the Lady-damned Skolati!’

Kneeling, Bakune returned to the strengthening fire. The house was freezing; it was an early winter. ‘Then… who?’

‘Exactly. So… who?’

Examining the fire, Bakune shrugged. ‘I assure you, Karien — I have no idea.’

The man cradled the glass against the round expanse of his gut like a sacred chalice. He hung his head and rolled it slowly from side to side. ‘All the gods real or unreal, cursed or blessed… Must I do everything for you, Assessor? I have wrapped it all up nice and tidy. Can you not make the leap?’

‘I am sorry, Karien. It is late. And really, I do not deal in supposition.’

Sitting back, the Watch captain rubbed his eyes and sighed his exhaustion, defeated.

‘No, I suppose not. I should have known better.’ He took a sip and smacked his lips. ‘Very well. I will do all the work for you — as usual. A second invasion. A new wave of Malazan legions.’

Bakune forgot the fire. He straightened. ‘But that is incredible

…’

‘Credible. Quite credible.’

‘Mare will-’

‘Mare failed the first time, don’t forget.’

‘Then the garrison, the Malazan Overlord, is marching on Mare?’

The captain made a disgusted face. ‘No he’s not marching on Mare! He’s marching to repulse the Malazans should any of them succeed in landing!’

‘But he’s Malazan…’

Karien’el stared at Bakune for a time then downed his remaining wine and pushed himself to his feet. ‘I don’t know why I bother. I think perhaps I pitied you, Assessor. All these years not taking one coin to drop a charge, or decide a case favourably.’ He gestured to the tiny parlour. ‘Look at this place. Here you are in a cramped walk-up in town when other Assessors hold estates and manor houses. I know what your pension will be, Bakune, and believe me — it won’t be enough.’ He headed for the foyer. ‘Yeull named himself Overlord of Fist for life, my friend. All these decades of tribute and taxation to our rulers the Malazans. The sales of slaves and prisoners to the Korelri… all that gold. Has any of it reached the Imperial throne in far-off Quon?’ He shook the melt from his cloak. ‘Not one Styggian penny! The throne wants its due in territory and taxation. They’ll hang Yeull as a usurper. And he knows it.’

‘But you say you are leaving…’

Karien snorted and drew on his cloak, throwing up its broad hood. ‘The Malazans aren’t going alone. They’re taking all the militia with them — and you are looking at the captain of the local militia.’

‘The Watch is marching with them?’

‘Yes. Not that we have a choice. I’m here now to give the lads the time to desert. If anyone’s left when I get back I’ll be surprised.’

Bakune stood in something of a daze; he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘Who will keep the peace? Enforce the laws?’

‘Ah! Now we get to the nub of the matter. The Abbot, my friend. The Guardians of the Faith will be the new authority.’

‘The Guardians? But they are nothing more than religious enforcers.’

‘Exactly. So be careful, man.’ He rested a hand on the door latch. ‘Which brings us to my final message. I’ve always been a betting man, Bakune, with an eye on the main chance and all my options. I’ve made no pretence about it all these years. Well, I’ve placed a number of bets. And in case I should not come back and the Malazans win through — as I believe they shall — then I want you to know that your files still exist. I was ordered to destroy them but I salted them away instead… just in case.

‘So, there you are. Those two lads who’ve been shadowing you? I transferred them to your office. They’re reliable. That’s it. The best I could do. Good luck. And farewell.’

Karien’el went out, pulling the door shut behind him. Bakune stared at the closed portal. And farewell to you, Karien. It would seem I never really knew you. But then, I suppose we are both hard men to know. Best of luck to you as well.

Winter is more than a bitter time on the Stormwall. The wind blows keen from the north. It cuts more than the breath or exposed flesh. The sight of an entire sea of hate charging down upon you does more than bruise the vision. It tests the spirit. One either breaks beneath the weight of all that unrelenting enmity, or one’s spirit is annealed into something stronger, something almost inhuman.

So it was with a calm detachment that Hiam opened his eyes to the dark of night and a knock at his door. He sat up, noted the grip of the cold on his arms, his breath misting the room. ‘Enter.’

His aid, Staff Marshal Shool, opened the door, helm under an arm. ‘Apologies, Lord Protector. Thought you would want to know. Riders sighting coming in via the communication towers.’

‘Very good, Shool.’ Hiam went to the hearth, where a pot of tea was kept hot night and day, poured a thimble. ‘Where?’

‘The Great Tower, Ruel’s Tears, and Wind Tower.’

‘A broad front.’

‘Yes, lord.’

‘Contact?’

‘Light skirmishing reported.’

‘Wall Marshal Quint?’

‘Tower Nine, I believe, lord.’

‘Very good, Shool. I will move command to the Great Tower.’

‘Yes, lord.’

Hiam inclined his head. ‘I will be down shortly.’

Shool bowed. ‘Very good, lord.’ He withdrew, pulling shut the door.

For the first time that season Hiam dressed for war. Over thick fleece insulating shirts and vesting he strapped on a boiled leather cuirass faced in iron rings and chased in silver, leather vambraces and leg greaves, and pulled on thick leather gauntlets backed in iron mail. Last was his layered felt cloak. He tucked his helm under an arm and went to the north window. Here iron shutters rimed in ice sealed the opening. He unbolted the shutters and yanked one open, sending a shower of ice clattering to the floor. A great gust of searingly cold air blasted into the chamber, buffeting the fire. The season’s cloud front hung like a dark ceiling, lashed by lightning. To the north, a bluish-green glow lit the horizon: the aura of the risen Stormriders. Below, waves crashed over the lowland rocks of the dead shore to pound the wall’s base like a hammer of demons. Hiam felt the report of each blow rising through his sandalled feet as a murmur of vibration.

So, a westerly launch. Were they hoping to draw attention from the centre? Too early to tell yet. And broad. A broad opening front. Could they know? No — how could they? Some claimed they spied from the shallows, counted men. He did not think so. Still, tradition dictated a constant showing of strength at each section. Even if it meant marching the same men up and down its length.

Hiam pulled on his helm, its forward-sweeping cheek guards allowing a tight slit for vision. He swung shut the iron leaf. Behind him the wind had snuffed the fire in its hearth. He struggled to dismiss attributing any significance to this sign. Lady strengthen them now. For now was the time of their greatest testing. He descended the stairs.

Upon the ramparts Chosen saluted as he passed. He was flanked by Shool and a picked troop of guards. ‘The Champion?’ Shool asked over the buffeting wind.

‘Have him moved out.’

‘Yes, lord.’ Shool waved for a runner.

Though the waves crashed, spume lashing, and the wind was a constant punishing roar, the iron nails set for traction in the sandals of the Chosen clashed loudest in the rhythm of their marching. Hiam took great satisfaction from that steady beat. Ahead, Tower Twelve jutted outwards, taking full advantage of a higher rocky headland. There Chosen and mixed guards pointed east, shouting, their words lost. Hiam stopped, leaned outward over crenellations for a look. Far back across the sweep of some four curtain walls — contact.

Immense breakers pounded, their weight cast back by the curved slope of the wall in broad wind-lashed swaths of spray. Within flowed the opalescent glow of Stormriders, speeding back and forth, seeking weaknesses in the defence. Hiam raised his spear, shaking it. ‘For the Lady!’

A great answering shout went up from the Chosen — though the regulars seemed far from eager, eyeing one another and shifting the grips on their spears.

‘Let us hurry,’ Hiam called to Shool. ‘This may be a full assault.’

The muted booming of waves reached Corlo through the uncounted tons of rock of the wall. He sat, arms crossed over his knees, shackled in a holding cell in line with other impressed and prisoner ‘defenders’ of the wall. So it was no surprise to him when the barred door rattled open and Chosen warders entered, unlocking chains.

‘Stand at attention!’

It took some effort to straighten, Corlo having been enclosed in the unheated cell for weeks so that his legs were numb and weak.

Beside him rose a great giant who he thought carried Thelomen or Tarthinoe blood. ‘Looks like we may see some action,’ he murmured to the man.

‘No talking in the ranks!’ a Chosen yelled.

‘If I should fall,’ the huge fellow rumbled, ‘I am Hagen of the Blackrock, Toblakai.’

Corlo’s legs felt weaker and he slid down the cold slick wall. ‘You are Toblakai?’

‘Yes. What of it?’

‘But the guards call you “Thel”.’

Hagen snorted his contempt. ‘Here in these lands — what do they know?’

‘You’re not of here?’

‘No. I am of the south. A land of mountain forests, cold rushing streams.’

Corlo gaped at the giant. ‘The south? You mean the Ice Wastes?’

‘No — beyond that.’

A Chosen warder stopped in front of Corlo, kicked his feet. ‘Stand!’ Corlo could only stare uncomprehending at the guard. South? But that was Stratem! Thinking furiously, he clutched a leg. ‘Ah! I cannot. My legs are numb. Frozen.’

The Chosen Stormguard scowled his disgust. ‘You’re coming whether you can walk or not.’ He gestured to the Toblakai. ‘You. Thel. Carry him.’

Behind his great mane of tangled hair and beard the giant gave Corlo such a grin.

Hagen cradled Corlo in his arms like a child. When they stepped out on to the ramparts and the cutting wind sawed at their flesh he hunched, protecting Corlo from the worst.

‘You are from Stratem, then?’ Corlo asked, his voice low.

‘I know of no Stratem.’

‘That is the land south of the Ice Wastes.’

‘My friend,’ Hagen rumbled, ‘the land south of the Ice Wastes is Toblakai land.’

Corlo thought it best not to press the matter. The giant’s shackles clattered and scraped across the ice-rimed stones of the walk. He glanced behind, then frowned down at Corlo. ‘Eight crossbowmen follow us. I usually only warrant four.’

‘I always have eight.’

‘You are a most dangerous fellow, are you?’

‘I’m a mage.’

The huge fellow grunted again. ‘A mage? Always I hear how these Korelri are so frightened of magi. You do not look so fearsome to me.’

A stave cracked against Hagen’s back. ‘No talking!’

‘Is that rain?’ Hagen asked airily. ‘I thought I felt a drop.’

‘Perhaps it was just the wind.’

‘Yes. The wind as from a baby’s rear.’

‘Far enough!’ the Stormguard shouted. ‘Stop here. You, Thel. Set him down. You, Malazan, stand or sit. It is up to you.’

Hagen set Corlo down. ‘You are a Malazan mage?’

Corlo winced at the phrasing, but nodded just the same.

The iron-bound door to a nearby tower swung open and out shambled a fettered and shackled figure in a torn linen shirt, his hair and beard tangled and matted.

‘Who is this unfortunate?’ Hagen asked.

Corlo took a deep breath, appalled — but not surprised — by Bars’ deterioration. ‘You are looking at the current Champion of the Stormwall, my friend.’

‘Great Mother protect us.’

‘Yes indeed,’ Corlo agreed softly.

The Chosen took a cocked crossbow from a guard and pressed it to Corlo’s head. ‘Talk to your friend, Malazan. Impress upon him the nearness of his death. He shall stand the wall whether he holds iron or not.’

A clout of the stock urged Corlo forward. He stopped before his friend and commander, Iron Bars. The man did not look up. Did not even seem aware that someone stood before him. A great wave crashed against the nearby curtain wall, sending a wind-driven lash of icy spray that drove everyone to hunch — all but Bars, who did not flinch. Corlo waved a hand before the man’s staring pale eyes. Not a glimmer of recognition. Lunacy? Withdrawn beyond all touch? No, he could not believe it. The vow he swore would not allow it. The Vow of the Crimson Guard: undying, unyielding resistance to the Malazan Empire so long as it should endure. This vow had sustained the original Guard, who swore it for some one hundred years, made them virtually immortal, able to defy even evidently mortal wounds. Such a vow would not allow defeat.

But he was torn — should he speak of Halfpeck? Would it make a difference? He raised a hand, ‘Bars… I have news…’

‘Enough, Malazan!’ The Stormguard shoved Corlo aside. ‘I have seen this pose before. A cold dash of the Storm Sea brings them all round right quick!’

Crossbowmen urged Bars forward. Chains clunked as he shuffled along.

Corlo and Hagen were forced to follow at a distance. ‘Your friend, I fear, has the look of a jumper,’ said Hagen.

‘I don’t believe he’ll jump.’

The Toblakai had the sensitivity not to answer.

The detail marched them about another league east, well past the Wind Tower. Here, they watched while Bars was unshackled. ‘I know why I am here, Hagen,’ Corlo said. ‘Why are you? Why were we chained together?’

‘I wondered that too, Malazan. But now I know.’

‘You do?’ Covered by crossbowmen, the Chosen led Bars by a single chain down on to the lowest defences, the outermost machicolations of this section of the wall. The way was treacherous; already ice layered the stone in a thick blue-green blanket. Hammering reached Corlo as the Chosen banged at an iron ring encased in ice. ‘So… why?’

The giant’s jaws worked and he let go a long heavy sigh. ‘Before your friend arrived, Malazan, I was the Champion of the wall.’

Corlo blinked, staring, then comprehension dawned, and he swallowed hard, kneading his hands. ‘I see.’

A great wave, a tall comber, came rolling up this curtain section of the wall, breaking at the crenellations. Chosen and regulars stood hunched behind shields, spears ready, watchful and tense. A half-section away what they waited for appeared in the shape of a Stormrider. It reared from the spume, scaled armour glittering hues of mother-of-pearl and opal. A long jagged ice-lance darted at the nearest guard, who took the blow upon his shield. Immediately, nearby guards closed, spears thrusting. The second rank, crossbowmen and archers, loosed upon the figure who turned away, shield raised, to submerge with the receding wave.

Corlo unclenched his teeth and let out a breath that plumed before him. He’d never get used to the way they just appeared like that. Who were these beings? The Korelri named them demons come to destroy the land. Malazan scholars thought them just another race — if a mindlessly hostile one.

Hagen flinched then, fists rising, as a Rider breasted the crenellations directly in front of Bars and the Chosen. The Stormguard spun, sword out blindingly fast to parry a lance-thrust, then rolled backwards out of range. Say what you would about these Chosen, Corlo reflected; they were damned good. The Rider thrust at Bars, who merely twisted sideways, the lance scything the air exactly where he had stood. A storm of crossbow bolts sent the Rider curving down behind the wall.

‘That one will be back next wave,’ Hagen murmured. ‘Certain.’

The Chosen drew an extra blade, dropped it at Bars’ feet and backed away. Around Corlo the crossbowmen quickly reloaded, using goatsfoot hooks to pull down the twisted sinew cords.

At the defences Bars made no move for the blade.

‘Take it, fool!’ Hagen bellowed, hands cupped to his mouth.

‘Take it, Bars!’ Corlo yelled.

Hagen tapped Corlo’s shoulder, motioned to the east. ‘Here it comes…’

A great swelling comber struck like an avalanche as it rolled down the curtain wall. All along its length, amid the spray, defenders thrust at glimmering phosphorescent figures that lunged, rearing.

‘Take it!’ Corlo roared with all his strength, into the rushing thunder of the wave. Bars seemed insensate, a bedraggled figure in a soaked linen shirt, long matted hair dripping, rags wrapped at loins and feet.

As the wave reached opposite, bulging and breaking, two Riders lunged, both thrusting jagged lances. Bars seemed merely to brush one thrust aside while grasping the other lance and pulling it from the hands of the Rider. The crossbowmen and archers fired volleys, driving the two helmed figures back. They regarded Bars steadily as they sank from view. Bars threw away the lance, which burst into fragments upon the flagged ramparts.

‘I will admit to being impressed,’ Hagen said.

The Chosen closed on Corlo. Steam plumed from the Stormguard. He yanked off his helmet and pushed back his sodden hair. ‘Your friend must defend the wall!’ he roared. ‘If he doesn’t — the next volley takes him! Then you’re next!’

‘I must get closer.’

‘No closer. I’ll not lose two men to this position.’

‘Time is running out,’ Hagen warned. ‘The next wave gathers.’

Corlo cupped his numb hands to his mouth. ‘Blade Commander! Commander! Avowed!’

At the defences, Bars’ head slowly turned their way. Corlo could make out no expression behind the wind-lashed hair and beard. This could be it — he may give himself up. Corlo’s last resort came to him and his stomach twisted at the thought. No! That would be terrible! Yet he had to save him… Sickened, he held up his hands, forcing insensate fingers straight. ‘Seven! Seven of the Blade!’

It appeared to Corlo that the eyes widened, the mouth opened as if in disbelief. Corlo thrust his hands higher, fingers extended. Bars raised his own hands, stared at them, then held them up with seven fingers out as well.

‘The wave…’ Hagen warned.

‘Yes! Seven!’

The hands dropped and the dishevelled figure stared about as if coming to himself. The wave struck in a shuddering impact, driving a lash of spume that obliterated the sight of Bars at the crenellations. When the sheet fell Bars remained, sodden, dodging the thrusts of two Riders then lashing out an arm to knock one down behind the wall. The other he punched, helm shattering like cracked shell to reveal, briefly, a head much like that of any man, if pale and thin. That Rider sank as well.

Bars picked up the blade still at his feet, turned, and pointed at Corlo.

Rather than thrilling Corlo the gesture terrified him. I am a dead man. If not the Riders, then my own commander. I am so sorry, Bars.

The Chosen grunted his relief. ‘Good. I was worried there, for a moment. Threat of death always brings them round. Half-detachment stand down! Warm your bones! You two as well,’ he added, indicating Corlo and Hagen.

As they shuffled to the nearest tower, Hagen leaned down to Corlo, who dragged along behind. ‘Very impressive. Your man reminds me of the fellow who was Champion before me — though he has not the man’s elegance. He was Malazan too. They called him Traveller. Do you know him?’

Corlo shook his head, hardly listening, feeling that he would vomit with self-loathing. ‘No. I don’t know anyone named Traveller.’

‘No? Too bad. If anyone deserved fame, he did. I would face anyone with sword, axe, or spear, but not that fellow.’ The Toblakai leaned closer, glancing left and right. ‘He escaped, you know,’ he whispered hoarsely, and winked.

Corlo could not muster any interest in the man’s hints. From what I have done, Hagen of the Toblakai, there is no escaping.

Closer to the wall’s centre sections, the door to a minor tower crashed open to admit two Chosen Stormguard aiding Hiam, the Lord Protector. They sat him next to a roaring fire. One pulled off the man’s helm, poured a glass of steaming tea. The other yanked off ice-layered gauntlets to rub the pale clawed hands.

‘He stood two shifts in the thick of it,’ said Shool, crouched, rubbing the man’s hands.

‘Come and get me next time!’ Wall Marshal Quint snarled.

‘I had his back!’

‘Quit bickering,’ Hiam slurred through numb lips. ‘I am fine.’

Gaze slitted, Quint canted his head to the door. Shool nodded. Aside, Quint rounded on the younger man. ‘You do not allow this to happen,’ he hissed, outraged.

‘I cannot order him-’

‘Then get me! Send word! Anything.’

‘He’s determined-’

‘I know. But standing to the end is my job right now, not his. We can’t afford to lose him. Understood?’

‘Yes.’

The older man’s scarred face softened, and he brushed melting ice and rime from Shool’s cloak. ‘It’s too early for this, yes? Wait for the midseason bonfires and the high-water bore. Let’s not all call for the Lady’s Grace yet, hey?’

A curt nod from Shool, who was hardly able to stand himself.

‘Very good. That’s the extent of it, you know — my sympathetic side. From now on it’s the butt of my spear for you lot and the business end for the Riders, yes?’

The lad managed a half-smile. ‘Aye, Wall Marshal.’

‘Good. We’re done here.’ Quint pulled on his helm then yanked open the door, admitting a blast of frigid wind and a swirl of snow, and stamped off to the ramparts.

Shool heaved the thick door shut behind him. Yes, old spear, there will no doubt be time for the Lady’s Grace. I can see it in the eyes of all the brothers and sisters. We may yet all be calling on the Lady before this season’s end.

Esslemont, Ian Cameron

Stonewielder

CHAPTER V

And so the people came to the land promised and set aside for them by the Blessed Lady from time immemorial. And they found it empty, virgin, and unspoilt, but for the wild peoples who lived like animals upon it and knew not Her name. And so the people brought to these wild folk Her name with flame and with sword. And they were enlightened.

Excerpt from The Glorious History of Fist, Compiled in the Cloister of Banith

Devaleth stood peering out of one of the large glazed windows of Nok’s cabin on board the Star of Unta. Rain lashed the glazing, obscuring her view of the dim evening light and the vessels rising and falling out amid the great iron-blue rollers. Yet they called to her, the gathered mages of Ruse out there. How the Warren beckoned! She just had to reach out… they would all know then, of course. And they would mass against her and she would not last an instant.

For the last three days and nights Greymane’s expeditionary force had been losing ships to Marese predation. It had become a continuous running engagement of sudden ramming and retreat into the heaving waves.

Greymane’s divisional Fists, Shul and the nobleman Rillish, had withdrawn to their own vessels. Greymane had asked her — his ‘sea-witch’, he called her — to remain with him and the Adjunct, Kyle, on board the flagship. Reports streamed in of these darting Marese attacks, and every dawn the list of lost vessels mounted. ‘Morale?’ Nok had asked one Malazan captain come in from the convoy rear. The woman shook her head. ‘We understand orders not to pursue or engage, Admiral. But… it’s hard to just sit there and wait for them to take us like ripe fruit.’

This evening Nok leaned over his desk, charts flat beneath his palms. His long white hair hung down, obscuring his lined face. ‘Prevailing winds will remain out of the north-west?’ he asked her.

‘Yes.’

‘By now, I presume,’ he continued, straightening, and pushing back his hair, ‘any fleet would have bunched up, ready for slaughter, or been torn apart in countless minor engagements.’

Devaleth glanced to Greymane, a dark shape hunched in a chair, leaning forward, thick forearms on his knees. ‘Yes.’ She remained fascinated by the man, unable to take her eyes from him.

‘Then,’ Nok gestured to an aide, ‘let us not disappoint.’ To the aide: ‘Send my compliments to Admiral Swirl. Have him direct the Blues’ warships to begin forming up.’

‘Yes, Admiral.’ The aide departed.

She’d been leaning against a wall, her arms across her wide chest. She watched the aide go, frowned her disquiet. ‘Admiral… with all due respect… no one has ever defeated we Marese at sea.’

‘That was never our intent,’ Greymane said from his dark corner seat.

The young Adjunct’s face echoed Devaleth’s own confusion — this was news to him as well. Greymane sat forward, the chair creaking ominously beneath his bulk. ‘Nok and I are in accord on this. Only a fool attacks an enemy where he or she is strong. Such a fool deserves to fail.’

‘But the battle order…’

‘The Blues will form a wedge between the Marese and us,’ Nok explained. ‘A skirmish line, or flying chevron, call it what you will. They will engage.’

‘While you…’

‘The transports, with a few Blue vessels, will punch through and head for the coast.’

Devaleth was shaking her head, horrified. ‘The losses…’

‘I am charged to secure this front for the Empire,’ rumbled Greymane. ‘And I intend to do that. One way. Or another.’

But she was not convinced. ‘You don’t understand what you are facing, High Fist. To you Malazans the “Warren of Ruse” is a forgotten mystery. We of Mare have never forgotten it. And it is more than a Warren of power to us. It is our religion. Every Mare vessel is sanctified to Ruse. Every vessel carries a priest-mage sworn to Ruse. The rowers and crew are all initiates. Every board and rope is bound by ward and ritual to the will of the captain. High Fist… our vessels cannot be sunk.’

‘If we are going to sink, Devaleth,’ Greymane said, low and precise, ‘then why are you with us?’

‘High Fist…’ Nok objected.

But she raised a hand, accepting the blunt question. ‘Fair enough. You have been to the region, High Fist. You know why I am returning.’

‘I may. But I want to hear it from you.’

She felt a tight grimace twisting her face. ‘The cult of the Lady. It must be confronted. It is a sickness upon us.’ In the gloom, Greymane was nodding his agreement. ‘Do you know, High Fist,’ Devaleth continued, musing, ‘why your Malazan invasion failed in the first place?’

‘No.’

Almost hoarse with the strength of her emotion, she ground out: ‘It is because our lands have already been conquered. We just don’t realize it.’

Kyle, she saw, shared a look with the High Fist and something eased within her chest. They know. Somehow, they understand.

‘Devaleth…’ Greymane began.

‘Yes?’

‘Remain with the Admiral. Give him all the help you can for the coming battle.’

She flinched, considered explaining how outnumbered she was — thought better of it — bowed curtly. ‘Yes, High Fist.’

Greymane gestured to Kyle. ‘And you…’

‘Yes?’

‘The assault. I want you with them in case there’s trouble.’

‘Me? What of you?’

‘I will be with the last transport.’

‘What? The Marese will pick you off!’

‘Kyle… consider the men. It won’t look like flight if my banner is with the rearguard.’

‘Admiral, talk some sense into him.’

Carefully pouring himself some wine while the vessel rolled and heaved, Greymane was almost chuckling. ‘The Admiral, Kyle, agrees.’

The youth sent a wordless appeal to Devaleth but she shook her head; she agreed as well. The least hopeless of all the hopeless options, it seemed to her.

Kyle stared from man to man, unable to find the words. The two commanders exchanged amused looks. Finally Kyle waved his disgust. ‘Lunatics — both of you!’ He stormed out.

Bowing, Devaleth followed.

Alone, the two were quiet for a time; Nok accepted a glass from Greymane. ‘Your Adjunct,’ Nok said, savouring the drink. ‘Are you sure the lad is up to the job?’

Greymane swallowed, then frowned over his answer, considering how to reply. Eventually he cleared his throat. ‘Nok… I tell you this in all trust. Kyle is from Assail.’

The old Admiral straightened, his eyes widening. ‘That is impossible.’

‘I was with the Crimson Guard when it slunk its way wide south of Assail lands. Kyle was recruited then. He’d come down from the north.’

‘There’s so much I would ask… What of the Imass?’

But the High Fist was shaking his head. ‘No. He’s just a tribesman. He knows nothing of wars or fighting further north. Although…’ and here the High Fist looked away, thoughtful, ‘there were three lads — friends of his — I believe they knew more of what was going on up north. They kept damned mum about it all, understandably.’

Nok raised his glass. ‘One mystery at a time then.’

Greymane answered the salute. ‘Yes. A slow fighting retreat, yes? Give us all the time you can, Admiral.’

The old man smoothed his white moustache, grinning. His eyes, deep in their nest of wrinkles, flashed an almost fey anticipation. He extended a hand. ‘Until we meet again on the west coast.’

Laughing, Greymane took the hand as hard and dry as wood. ‘Until then, Admiral.’

*

A shake of his foot woke Suth. The hold was almost completely black.

‘Collect your kit,’ Goss’s voice whispered from the dark. ‘We’re shipping out.’

Suth grunted his acknowledgement. He swung from his hammock, began pulling his gear together. Around him the 17th stirred to life.

He’d been thrown around below and so he knew what to expect when he climbed up on to the deck. Tall waves crashed into the Lasana, sending a biting spray across his face. Beside him a sailor was ordering a coil of rope. ‘There would be a storm, wouldn’t there?’ he said to the fellow.

The sailor looked up. He was chewing a great wad of something that he spat out. He glanced around at the low slate-grey clouds, the heaving rough seas. ‘Call this a storm?’

Smart arse. The 20th was gathered at the port rail. Suth carefully edged his way over. Next to the tall Lasana a small launch was struggling to come alongside. The waves alternately threw it up then dropped it suddenly and the waters threatened to suck it under the Lasana’s hull. On board, Blue marines used poles to fend it away from the giant transport. Sailors from the Lasana threw down rope ladders. ‘After you!’ one shouted gaily to the gathered heavies, laughing.

A trooper sent the man an evil eye.

‘Hey, Yana!’ a woman from the 20th yelled: Coral, its sergeant. Suth glanced back to see Yana running up. ‘This is stupid! We want a cradle.’

‘What’s the hold-up?’ Yana asked, her eyes puffy with sleep.

‘Ha! Very funny. We should have a cradle for this.’

‘Fuck, I hate all this fucking water,’ someone said next to Suth. Surprised, he glanced down to see Faro. Though the small man wore heeled boots, he barely came up to Suth’s shoulder. He held his pipe in his teeth, unlit, and wore a loose dark jacket over a vest and shirt. ‘Let’s get going,’ he said mostly to himself, set both gloved hands on the rail, and promptly vaulted over.

A horrified shout went up from everyone crowding the rail. Suth threw himself forward to peer down. The man was hanging from a rope ladder, being knocked about, swinging wildly.

‘Who in Hood’s name is that?’ someone said.

‘One of Goss’ boys.’

‘His pet knife.’

‘Get hisself killed.’

The Blue marines allowed the launch to lurch closer. Faro let go and flew, landing and rolling in the broad belly of the launch.

‘Blast it!’ Coral snarled. ‘Bring rope! Tie your gear to ropes.’

One by one the squads lowered bundled gear until the wide belly of the launch was fairly covered. Then they descended by rope ladder. By the end, the launch was riding insanely low in the rough seas. The Blues pushed off and set long sweeps. They gestured that everyone should lend a hand. Some thirty men and women scrambled to help, displaying more eagerness than they had the entire journey.

They crossed to a Blue vessel waiting nearby. Troopers were climbing netting hung at its sides while launches bobbed like insects and empty ones were being raised. Despite his fear of either drowning or being dashed to pieces, Suth was curious to see the inside of one of these ships. Eventually their turn came, but not soon enough for some of the men and women, who had thrown themselves to the sides, heaving up their guts.

Suth waited in line for the dangerous task of climbing the netting. When he finally pulled himself up on to the decking he lay soaked and exhausted. Their gear followed, heaved up on ropes. They collected their kits then were directed below decks to quarters. Rain lashed down now, as cold as ice. A Blue marine directed them to the companionway. On the way Len, next to Suth, touched his shoulder then brought a finger to his eye, glancing aside. Suth followed the man’s gaze to where a soldier leaned against the side, arms crossed. He was a young fellow, broad with a long moustache, in a sheepskin jacket under thick cloaks.

‘The Adjunct,’ Len murmured. It was the first Suth had seen of him. ‘Some say he’s Greymane’s hatchet-man.’ Suth merely grunted, knowing nothing of him. ‘Maybe he’ll lead the landing.’

‘Or maybe he’s here to execute anyone who holds back,’ said Pyke, who’d come abreast of them.

‘Then I guess that would be you,’ said Len, aside.

Suth laughed out loud as they took the stairs.

Like a curtain of night a dust storm hung in the distance, cutting the horizon in half. It was, Kiska finally decided, strangely beautiful in its own stark way. She had no idea how much time she’d spent watching the front’s grave, stately advance across the far plain. An afternoon? A day? Two days? Who was to know here in Shadow? Or were these even the right questions to ask?

Her companion in their unofficial captivity lay curled up asleep, or at least pretending. He was good at both: relaxing and pretending. She saw him as a natural hunter, with that ability to wait indefinitely for prey to wander by, while the pretending part was all the camouflage necessary. Indeed, so far he had learned much more about her than the reverse.

And on that note… Kiska turned from the narrow gap, adjusted her sore back on the jagged rock seating. She cleared her throat. ‘So… you fought against the invasion, then…’

Jheval grunted the affirmative, stretched.

The man is like a cat.

Blinking, he gave her a questioning look.

‘Did you face the Imass?’

‘Am I dead?’

‘Sorry. Silly question. Did you-’

The man had raised a hand for silence. He rubbed his face, yawning. ‘No, an understandable question. Your Imass hold such a grip on your Malazan imagination. There was only Aren, really.’

Kiska understood. It was shortly after the massacre at Aren that the dreaded undead army of Imass abandoned Imperial service to march off into the deserts west of the Seven Cities region. Everyone assumed it had to do with the transition from Kellanved, the Emperor, to Laseen, his successor. ‘But you fought…’

‘Oh, yes. I fought against you invaders.’ Jheval gestured vaguely, agreeing. ‘I was young, foolish. I thought I was so fast and skilled and smart that nothing could touch me.’

He stopped there, staring off at the rock wall; perhaps reliving old memories. ‘And?’ Kiska prompted after a time.

A shrug. ‘War taught me otherwise.’

‘You ran into someone smarter and more skilled than you?’

He looked to her, quite startled. ‘Oh no. I haven’t met anyone smarter or more skilled than I.’

Ye gods! Queen deliver me from this man’s overweening vanity! ‘So what did happen, then?’ she asked, rather drily.

‘I saw that such qualities were mostly irrelevant in war. Chance. It all just comes down to dumb chance. Whether you live or die. Chance. The tossed siege boulder crushing the man next to you. The arrow shot high into the sky coming down through your shoulder armour without breaking your skin. The half-strength patrol running into a party even smaller than it.’ Jheval made a wave through the air as if tossing something away. ‘So it goes. Some fall, some are spared. But not for any good reason.’

Such a cold and futile view of life made Kiska shudder. ‘Surely the gods decide…’

‘… who lives and who dies?’ Jheval canted his head, looking pensive. ‘We are trapped here, so it would be best not to argue… But from what I have seen the gods do not decide anything. Oh, certainly they intervene occasionally, when it suits their purposes, but otherwise I think they are as bound by happenstance as we. And you know what?’ He looked to her, knitted his fingers across his waist. ‘I find that endlessly reassuring.’

Kiska decided that she did not understand, nor possibly like, this man at all. Something in his words — the ideas behind them — instilled a nameless panic in her chest. Now she felt trapped, while all this time the possibility hadn’t really been a worry. She knew she had to act; she had to do something or be driven insane. She climbed to her feet, crouched over double in their cramped cave. ‘Time to test the waters… don’t you think?’

Jheval was surprised once again, his brows rising. ‘Really? I was only joking, you know. About taking turns. I’ll go.’

‘No. You’re right. We should share the risk. What weapon, do you think?’

‘What weapon?’ He laughed. ‘One of your Malazan Moranth munitions, I should think.’

Kiska held out her empty hands. ‘Barring one of those. A stave, I think, to hold them off.’

‘You’ve already gone mad if you think you could hold one of them off.’

Kiska began pulling lengths of blackened metal pipe from slim pockets in her cloak and at her belt and vest. She spoke while she worked: ‘I’ve seen them before, you know. These hounds. They’re strong, but they have their limitations.’ The sections screwed together and latched, locking.

Jheval watched closely without saying a thing. Finally, he cleared his throat. ‘Their limitations, I think, have nothing to do with us poor mortals. And that toy… it’s of no use. Let me go.’

‘This toy is as strong as, if not stronger than, any staff. It was custom built for me by the Moranth.’

‘I’m sure the hounds will pause to admire it.’

Kiska gave what she hoped was a carefree smile. ‘We shall see.’ And she edged out of the crack. She heard behind her a stifled call and was relieved. Good. At least he knew enough not to shout. Straightening to a fighting stance, she peered about, listened, and then sensed outwards with an awareness now long attuned to these surroundings. The bare rocky slope appeared empty, as did the sandy hillsides to either flank. Nothing so far. No swift ambush. Now comes, as they say, the weighing of the gold. How far dare I venture from our bolthole? Surely they are watching, waiting tensed for that one step too many.

Kiska bounded out three steps then immediately spun and raced back as fast as she could then spun again, crouched, stave ready. Nothing. Seen that one before perhaps.

A slight scrape snapped her attention to the rear. Jheval was there, edging out to the far side of the crack. His hands were clasped at the morningstars tied to his waist, ready to pull them free.

What was the fool doing? Offering himself up? Didn’t he trust her to do this right? She waved him back. All for naught, probably. Surely these hounds have better things ‘Kiska!’

She spun and there one was: bounding in the air, almost upon her. She had the impression of a tawny blur, the red maw, wet fangs, then she yanked her stave between them and the blow knocked her backwards. Sharp rocks slammed into her back, taking the breath from her. She lay dazed for what she was sure was her last moment.

Her awareness cleared and she saw Jheval fending off the hound. The morningstars spun almost invisible from his hands. The hound’s every effort to bull forward or lunge was met by a smashing blow from the flanged iron heads that sent it flinching, snarling and rumbling like the very stones grinding. Kiska put off her amazement at what she was seeing and jumped to her feet. Then it was a chaotic blur of images: her stave thumping the beast’s broad chest, Jheval’s feet clawed from beneath him in a red spray; the stave, twisted, sliding a blade and slashing beneath an eye, buying the time for the man to leap upright. The two retreated, scrambling, alive only because they could cover each other. Then a stumbling collapse backwards into the slim gap to fall over one another.

The beast howled an ecstasy of rage, sprayed froth and blood. Blows shuddered the rock face. Only then could Kiska relax her chest enough to draw a full breath. They lay immobile, limbs entwined, both watching the opening.

Low rumbling as the beast eyed them through the gap; its bulk almost completely occluded the dim half-light. It padded off.

Jheval started laughing. It began as a low chuckle but built to a loud full release of unreserved relief, exhilaration, and frank amazement. Kiska could smile and share an embrace but that was all.

Now she understood that this narrow cave could very well become her tomb. She sat with her knees tight to her chest and covered her face to wipe away hot tears that she could not stop.

Devaleth went to a side of the Star of Unta’s deck, grasped hold of the cold wet wood. Greymane had left for the final troop vessel while his Adjunct, the young Kyle, had taken a launch out to the Blue transport that would lead the shore assault, there to represent the High Fist. She wondered if the lad was up to it; he appeared to be a savage warrior, but could one so young command the respect of these hardened troops?

There on deck she might have thought of herself as alone when in truth she was far from it: sailors dashed back and forth setting out leather buckets of sand and water, readying ropes and repelling poles. Marines assembled the ship’s armoury of weapons, checked the crossbows, and oiled the large stone-throwing onager at the bows. Amid all this chaos and preparation Devaleth felt at home. She’d grown up spending more time at sea than on land. Her school had been sitting cross-legged next to a ship’s mage, old canny Parell, where she learned her trade through storms, battles, and calm nights when the sea became so still one could see all the way down to Ruse’s infinite gateways.

Nok was at the tall sterncastle, where he would oversee the coming battle. Next to him a Blue liaison coordinated with Swirl by way of a fire in a tall brazier that could be made to flare differing colours, sometimes intense orange, or a brilliant blood red, or green, or even sea blue.

‘The coming battle’ — listen to yourself, woman. As if what is to come can in any way be termed a battle. What is to come will be a slaughter. I may reach land by way of my Ruse talents, but for most of this force it will be the ancient sea god’s cold welcome below.

So why am I here, as this Betrayer so rightly challenged? Because something has to be done. I must make some effort, no matter how feeble it may prove to be.

I, too, am a betrayer.

A marine stopped at her side. ‘High Mage, the Admiral wishes your counsel.’

She nodded. ‘Of course.’

Ever courtly, the Admiral bowed as she joined him. Devaleth was grateful though she knew herself to be a far from courtly figure. Nok waved a long wing-like arm to encompass the night. ‘I would have your impressions, Devaleth. What’s going on?’

‘They have been waiting for a sufficient number of vessels.’

‘To do what?’

‘Attack en masse.’

‘And have they achieved this threshold?’

She shrugged. ‘I have no way of telling. Though I will know it when the order is given.’

He cocked a greying brow. ‘Oh?’

‘It will be given through Ruse,’ she said dully. ‘I will sense it.’

The Admiral glanced at her sharply then smiled behind his thick silver moustache. ‘You do not think much of our chances, do you?’

‘I’m sorry, Admiral. I do not see how this expedition can end any differently from its predecessors.’

He accepted that. His gaze scanned the distant low shapes of the Mare war galleys just visible in the gathering night. An aide came to his side, murmured something. He responded, ‘In a moment’; then, addressing Devaleth, said, ‘You in Korel do not really know the Moranth, do you?’

Uncertain of the Admiral’s tack, the High Mage was slow to respond. ‘No. Not really.’

‘We have been allies for decades now. We’ve achieved great things with what minor alchemies they were willing to trade with us.’

‘I have heard that the Malaz-Moranth alliance has cooled, of late.’

The flagship struck a particularly large wave, the bows rising very tall. Everyone on the sterncastle braced for the pitch forward. The vessel slammed down into the trough, the bows disappearing in spray. Nok had taken hold of the ship’s tiller. Devaleth alone stood with her hands held behind her back. Amazingly, the charcoal fire still burned in its brazier. A kind of foreign magic? And what was everyone waiting for? This time her Mare compatriots seemed slow to the attack, while the Moranth-Malaz expedition held back as well. She sensed her brethren’s uncertainty. These alien Moranth vessels… what hidden menace was deployed here? They were wary.

‘It is true that our alliance seems to be paper-thin these days,’ Nok said, resuming their conversation. ‘We’ve been unable to get any further soldiers out of them. It may be internal for all we know.’ He gestured to the Blue liaison with him. ‘But our deal with the Blue here is very different. A contract, cut and dried. Nothing political. So now we shall see what the Moranth themselves can accomplish when a task is given over to them wholly.’ He nodded to his liaison. ‘Give the order.’

‘Aye, sir.’ The Moranth Blue dropped a packet on to the brazier. It took a moment to catch, but then it flared, sizzling and popping, to send up a tall silvery-white flame that cast the sterncastle into fierce relief and flashed from the surrounding waters.

Devaleth was forced to turn away, shielding her eyes. Order for what? Engagement? Surely not!

After the blinding actinic-bright flare died down, she straightened, blinking, willing back her night vision. At first she saw nothing, heard only the ship groaning in the high seas. Of course, fool! It will take time for these two unwieldy giants to embrace.

‘Order the transports to move,’ Nok told the liaison.

‘Aye, sir.’ The Blue reached for another packet.

This time Devaleth was ready; she flinched away, an arm across her eyes. As it was, a brilliant gold glow dazzled her vision, fading to leave afterimages of dancing stars.

She straightened, temporarily blind. This was it. Now would be the clash. How many of Greymane’s transports would push through to reach the shore? All you foreign gods, please not the pitiful few of before.

*

Crammed into the hold of the Blue vessel, his knees drawn up to his chest, Suth was pressed in thigh to thigh with his fellow Malazan infantry. It was hot, clammy and damp, and the least comfortable he’d been all journey — especially with Wess asleep on his shoulder. The sergeants stood at small openings in the sides, peering out and passing on information. Other than the greater roominess and general cleanliness, the main difference between the Blue vessel and the one they had left was that the former didn’t stink nearly as foully as the Malazans’. In fact, it was nearly odourless. Ignoring the vile sour sweat of the men and women crowded in the hold, the main scents Suth could detect were very strange. One Len told him was sulphur, while another reminded him of honey, and another of pine sap. It was all very unnerving. And these Korelri think their Stormriders are alien.

A flash of brilliant white light cast a clear image of the hold, the troops sitting jammed together like firewood, their eyes and sweaty faces gleaming. Darkness returned just as instantly. Everyone clamoured to know what it was.

‘Some kind of signal,’ came the rather unhelpful explanation.

Then Moranth armoured boots tramped the decking, trapdoors crashed open. Orders to climb. Waiting in line, frigid seawater pouring down the steep stairs. Up on the pitching deck, ordered to sit alongside Blue marines. Suth steadied himself with a ratline to gaze out over the night-dark waters. Ahead, a line of Blue dromonds parting. Low dark Marese war galleys swarmed around them like dogs worrying tired Thanu. The strikes of ramming reached Suth like the reports of distant explosions.

A golden-amber flash lit the night like a reflection of the sun, searing the vessels into silhouettes against the dark waters, only to snap away instantly. The Blue marines surged to their feet. Orders were bellowed from the after-deck. Suth found Len amid the crowd of troopers. ‘What is it?’ he shouted over the thumping of boots and the crash of the sea.

‘We’re off the leash,’ the saboteur answered. ‘Now we’ll see if we came all this way to any purpose,’ he added grimly.

Suth gave his private agreement. He wore only his padded gambeson, trousers and helmet, sword at his side. His armour lay wrapped below. The order seemed a useless precaution given the freezing waters and distance from shore. Still, perhaps it served to reassure some. He saw the Adjunct at the rail, his long dark hair blowing loose. He too wore only hide pants and sheepskin jacket; the ivory or bone grip and pommel of his sword shone with a near unnatural brightness.

Fire lit the night, flickering out of the distance ahead. Everyone gaped, staring. Even the Adjunct turned, his dark eyes narrowed. Another burst of flame illuminated a scene out of the Harrower’s realm: a Blue man-of-war, rammed, and down from the tall tower at its bows poured not arrows or javelins, but a stream of liquid fire. While Suth watched, dark shapes on board the Mare vessel writhed amid the flames. Some threw themselves overboard. He thought he could almost hear their screams of agony.

‘Sorcery!’ rose a shout from nearby.

‘No,’ murmured someone — Len. ‘Alchemy. Moranth incendiary. It even burns on water — see!’ He pointed, urgent. Indeed, the flames were spreading across the waters, pooling and wave-tossed, to engulf yet another Mare war galley. ‘So this is their answer,’ the saboteur continued, awed. ‘Come close all you like… ram, and burn.’

*

As more fires burst to life in the darkness all around, Devaleth stared, horrified. Her countrymen! She lurched to the side of the sterncastle, clenched the wood to keep from falling. Torched like vermin! This was outrageous! She turned on Nok. ‘You knew…’

The Admiral had the grace to appear pained. ‘I knew their intent, yes. But whether it will be enough…’ He shrugged.

‘This is barbaric! You Malazans claim to be civilized.’

His gaze sharpened. ‘Is leaving a man to drown any more civilized? Dead is dead.’

She turned from him. So, will it be enough? All around she felt Ruse stirring. Flames died, steam misting into a suppressing fog. Yet through the waters, even submerged, the foreign alchemies of the Moranth burned on, sizzling and bubbling.

‘Give the order to advance with the transports,’ Nok told the liaison.

Moments later a verdant green brilliance threw Devaleth’s shadow out across the water, flashing from the sides of vessels locked together, sails burning, dark shapes flailing amid the waves. A light rain, Ruse-summoned, began to fall.

They passed a Blue dromond assaulted by three Mare war galleys. Two had stove it in, rams entangled in broken wood. Grapnels shot like quarrels from crossbows mounted on the side of the Moranth vessel. They trailed rope that entangled the enemy ship. Staccato eruptions reached Devaleth as the Blues tossed munitions of some sort down on to one war galley; shattered wood flew, bodies spun over the sides, and the vessel lurched like a kicked toy.

Yet the battle was not all one-way. The Marese streaked like greyhounds, ramming at will. Many Blue vessels reared stern high, or wallowed, dead in the water. These the Marese ignored; in the shifting action of a naval engagement, to lose mobility was to be useless. That Blue man-of-war, rammed twice — even if it remained afloat, it was now so cumbersome it was for all purposes sunk.

A war galley emerged from the smoke, the swirling flames and the spume-topped waves, and charged the flagship. Its sides were scorched and smoke poured from its decking, yet the crew rowed no slower. Devaleth glanced back to the Admiral, who was watching its approach, a hand raised. The temptation to summon her Warren pulled at her. The fleshly demands of plain self-preservation. Yet to do so would announce herself to every ship’s mage present and invite a storm of reprisals.

It was close now; the oars had hit that unmistakable frantic ramming pace. The mage at the stern was a scarecrow figure in burned robes streaming smoke. They must have fought through the Lady’s own fury to reach them. At the last instant Nok gave the order and the flagship swung over with a swiftness startling for a vessel of its size. Bows turning, the Star now threatened to run over the war galley’s bank of oars, but a barked order from that ship’s master brought the sweeps high and the two vessels passed within an arm’s span of one another. Devaleth saw Nok salute the ship’s master at the tiller, who watched the Malazan vessel, his face unreadable. The war galley sped off into the night, its fate unknown. Did it engage another vessel? Did it at last, burned to the waterline, put her vaunted claims to the test?

That master’s face had been unreadable because, like myself, he probably had no reference for what was happening all around him. Things simply did not happen this way when the Marese went to sea. It was more than humbling. It was shattering.

*

Having been rammed and sunk on his first run to Korel lands, Rillish Jal Keth watched Mare war galleys manoeuvre out amid the dark ocean waves and felt a bowel-tightening sense of having seen all this before.

That the great ungainly transport still floated was something of a miracle. It had been a day of dodging and running, hiding behind the screen of Blue men-of-war. But the order had been given to break out. The fence was down and the wolves were in the fold. Now two war galleys cooperated in cornering the tall Quon three-master carrying over four hundred souls.

He turned to the transport’s master next to the ship’s tiller. ‘Not long, I think, Captain.’

‘Aye. It’s every man for himself out here now,’ the man grumbled.

Rillish crossed his arms, eyed the low sleek vessels cutting through the waves under oar and sail as swift as arrows. A light rain had started up, obscuring everything in a chilling grey haze. ‘I’ve heard they are unsinkable,’ he mused.

‘So they say.’

Rillish cocked his head to one side, wiped his face with the back of a hand, thought of the ramming he’d experienced before. ‘We have near four hundred Malazan heavy infantry on board this vessel, Captain. Their ships might be better than ours, but I’m willing to wager that our marines are more ferocious than theirs. How would you like a vessel that can’t sink under your feet?’

The ship’s master stroked his whiskered chin. His slit gaze shifted over to one Mare war galley sliding past, forcing a port turn from the sailing master. Then his gaze shifted back to Rillish. A broad smile split the man’s whiskers. He leaned over the railing of the sterncastle. ‘Ready all grapnels! Ready all boathooks! All troops on deck! Ready for boarding!’

‘Aye, aye, sir!’ the mate shouted from amidships. ‘Ready for boarding!’

Rillish saluted the captain and went to his cabin. His aide helped him strap on his cuirass of banded iron, his vambraces and greaves. Last, he tied on his weapon belt and twinned Untan duelling swords. His helmet he tucked under an arm. Then he returned to the sterncastle. He found the ship’s captain and the sailing master both struggling with the long arm of the tiller.

‘Took your time,’ the captain called over the worsening weather. ‘Can’t hold them off any longer.’

‘Offer them a fat broadside target, Captain.’

The man spat with the wind. ‘Don’t tell me my business, landsman.’

‘I’ll be at the side.’

The captain waved him on. ‘Give them my sharp regards, yes?’

‘That’s my business, Captain.’ He descended to amidships and pushed his way through the crowd of heavies. He thrust his helmet at a nearby soldier, then climbed up into the ratlines. The spray of a wave crashing into the transport slashed over him. He regarded the crowded deck. ‘Soldiers of Malaz!’ he bellowed with all his strength. ‘We’re about to be rammed! There’s nothing to be done for it. But I’m glad!’ He pointed over the slate-grey waves. ‘Out there is a much better ship than this damned tub and they’re about to offer it to us! Now… what say you!’

Fists and swords thrust to the sky. A great answering roar momentarily drowned out the gusting wind, the booming sails. Rillish added his own raised fist. ‘Aye! Now — ready grapnels! Ready ropes! Ready boathooks!’

‘For the Fourth!’ rose a shout.

‘Eighth!’ came an answering call.

‘For the Empire!’ Rillish shouted.

A great roar answered that: ‘Aye!’

In no way did Rillish consider himself a sailor but even he could see the attack coming. One war galley threatened their port side, so the sailing master and the captain obligingly pressed their weight upon the arm to show the enemy their stern-plate and in so doing exposed their starboard to the second war galley, which was already lunging in upon them. Its bronze-capped ram thrust down into the dark green of a trough only to leap upwards again, throwing a crest of water high above the sleek vessel’s freeboard.

One more wave. ‘Brace for ramming!’ Rillish wrapped an arm and a leg in the ratlines.

The blow came as an enormous shudder, but such was the mass of the transport that it failed even to lurch sideways. Rillish was thrown yet managed to keep his grip on the ropes. Grapnels flew. The Marese crew back-oared powerfully. Canny Malazan marines used the boathooks to snare oars, throwing the banks into confusion. Shattered wood snarled as the master threw the tiller aside, bringing the vessels together. Marese oars snapped or were thrust down as the two ships swung to clash together. Rillish could imagine the carnage that must be occurring within the war galley.

‘Board!’ Rillish roared. Men swung down on ropes or jumped. One fell short and grasped an oar, only to disappear with a shriek as the sides pounded together. A rope ladder was tossed, unrolling, and Rillish grasped hold of it. Marese marines waited below in dark leathers. A volley of arrows slashed the side of the Malazan transport. Men and women fell, striking the deck with leaden thumps.

Rillish crashed heavily to the deck, righted himself. Around him marines pushed forward to the stern. The Marese had raised a shield-wall amidships and from behind this bow-fire raked the boarders. Rillish drew his two slim duelling blades. ‘Forward!’

More of the heavy infantry reached the deck, adding their weight to the surge against the shieldwall. Rillish clawed his way to the front rank. He danced high, stabbing down over a shield to feel the blade flense cheek, grate from teeth. The man screamed, gurgled, fell. Rillish tumbled down on top of him. In the cramped confines of the narrow vessel a marine fell across Rillish and as she did so a gout of water shot from her mouth and even from her ears. Her dead eyes rolled blood-red, their vessels burst.

Sea-magics! The ship’s mage! Rillish straightened, wiped the foul water from his face. There! At the stern, hair wild in the wind, gold torcs at his arms, gesturing, and with each wave a swath of marines falling, clutching their throats. Rillish gulped for air. ‘Take the stern, heavies! For the Empire!’

The press heaved against the shieldwall, but the Marese held. The ship’s mage wreaked murder through the marines. His powers seemed unlimited here in his element. Then a great bull of a trooper in bright mail broke through the wall and, wielding a two-handed blade that he chopped up and down more like an axe, reached the sterncastle stairs. The shieldwall was shattered, disintegrating. The trooper reached the stairway and marines poured up with him. The ship’s mage threw some magery that levelled many, but the trooper in the bright mail coat, the helm cast to resemble a snarling wolf’s head, shook it off to reach the man with a great two-handed blow that severed him from collarbone to sternum.

Rillish came clambering up to the stern to see the marine pull off the helm to show what he’d suspected: the matted silver hair and flushed sweaty face of Captain Peles. Rillish clapped her on the shoulder. ‘Well fought, Captain.’

She inclined her head to Rillish. ‘And not many Fists lead a charge against a shieldwall.’

Rillish waved that aside. ‘The mage — he didn’t slow you down…’

Panting, the woman gave a modest shrug. ‘The Wolves were with me this day, sir.’

‘Well, thank them for that.’

A sailor saluted Rillish. ‘Captain’s regards, Fist. The transport is stove through, irretrievable.’

‘Have all personnel transferred over. Cut the lines.’

‘All, sir? That’s far too much weight for a vessel this size. We’ll wallow in these high waves, take on water…’

Rillish just laughed. ‘Haven’t you heard, man? These vessels are unsinkable.’

After the sailor left, shaking his head, Peles regarded Rillish. She pushed back her sodden hair. ‘Now what, sir?’

‘Well, as the man said. We’re overcrowded.’ He gave Peles a grin. ‘I think we could use another ship.’

Peles was cleaning her two-handed blade on the robes of the dead mage. ‘Aye, sir. That we could.’

*

Suth’s Blue transport was secured side by side with a twin as a kind of gigantic catamaran. They carried suspended between them some sort of beam construction as long as the ships themselves. Despite this awkward arrangement they made good time, had bulled through swaths of burning sea, knocked aside rudderless hulks, submerged countless souls shouting and begging from the waves, and looked to be keeping place as the standard-bearer for the charge to the Fist coast. Dawn was nearing and in the half-light more Marese war galleys could be glimpsed cutting across their bows. ‘Too many,’ Len said, his elbows on the railing. ‘Don’t know how we’ll make it.’

Orders rang out and Blue sailors, indistinguishable from their marine brethren, climbed the rigging. More sail unfurled, billowed and bellied, taking the wind aslant. Suth watched the tall mainmast, amazed by the sight.

‘Still too slow,’ Len grumbled.

A Moranth sailor in the crow’s nest gave a warning shout.

‘Here they come,’ said Len.

The sleek black war galleys closed from either side, lunging like tossed javelins. As they closed the Blue captain found an extra ounce of speed from somewhere to slip just ahead. The troops sent up a great cheer as the Marese coursed across the transport’s broad foaming wake.

‘We won’t surprise them like that-’ Len was beginning when twin reports as of siege arbalests sounded from the Marese galleys and missiles came hissing through the air to crash into the transport’s stern. The vessel lurched almost to a standstill and everyone’s feet were cut from beneath them while barrels tumbled overboard and ropes snapped, singing.

Recovering, Suth clambered to the rear. Here among the wreckage of broken wood and twisted iron Blue marines were hacking at what appeared to be giant grapnels that had gouged hold of the stern.

‘Cut them!’ someone shouted.

‘They’re chain!’

‘We’re dragging!’

A Blue officer appeared, yelled orders. Axes emerged. Out amid the brightening waves Suth saw more Mare vessels closing. The grapnels led via lengths of chain to thick ropes that stretched to the two war galleys. Both were backing oars, sending up a great churning froth of water.

‘Cut them!’

‘Chop the wood!’

Then the young Adjunct was there. He brushed aside the Blue axemen. ‘Room,’ he shouted, and drew his blade. Sunlight blinded Suth, flashing from the curved ivory blade. The Adjunct swung it overhead two-handed, hacking, raising high piercing shrieks of metal. The transport lurched forward. A marine almost fell overboard but was pulled back. The Adjunct swung again and the ship sprang free, surging ahead. Suth stared where the chains swung, severed cleanly just back from the grapnel.

The Adjunct sheathed his blade.

‘It cut,’ someone whispered. ‘Cut iron…’

‘Did you ever see the like…’

The Adjunct glared with his dark eyes as if expecting some sort of challenge, then turned away without a word.

Later, Suth, like many, went to examine the severed links. He found the iron mirror-bright and clean. Its edge was so sharp it cut one of his fingers.

They had pushed on through the greatest concentration of Mare vessels. Behind, bursts of orange glare and a banner of thick black smoke hanging low over the water obscured dawn. A final war galley rammed them on the port forward of the mainmast, but a volley of lobbed munitions from the Moranth left the ship so devastated that it drifted away, seemingly unmanned. As for the transport, while Suth was bent over the gunwale inspecting the great hole punched into the side, a Blue marine just said: ‘Our ships are also hard to sink.’

Orders came later that day to return to the hold to get some sleep. The assault would come tomorrow. The marines filed back down. Talk now lingered on this Adjunct. Who was he? Where was he from? One crazy rumour had him once serving among the mercenary company the Crimson Guard.

‘I hope he’s with us tomorrow,’ Dim said.

For once, Pyke had nothing to say.

*

Their captured Mare war galley rocked dead in the water as it was too jammed with marines to row effectively. Rillish and the Malazan captain, a mariner named Sketh out of the Seven Cities region, argued over everything in their new overcrowded vessel. The captain berated Rillish for heaping everyone into the war galley; Rillish responded by inviting him to rejoin his crippled former command. The captain told him to keep his mouth shut, as he was the captain; Rillish pointed out that Seven Cities was a desert.

In the midst of another heated exchange, Captain Peles tapped Rillish’s shoulder and gestured aside. ‘We’re not alone.’

Another Marese war galley was oaring up slowly. It rose and fell with the waves. The crew looked to be curious. Rillish immediately ordered everyone down. ‘Flat!’ he hissed. ‘Lie on top of each other, damn you!’

Rillish left Sketh standing at the stern with its slim centre-set tiller arm. ‘What am I to do?’ the man whispered, fierce. ‘I am to stand here all alone?’

‘Wave them closer.’

Sketh waved. ‘I will report this to the Admiral, you fool. He will see you in chains.’

‘Just get them close.’

‘How? I am no foreigner like them.’

‘Yell in your Seven Cities dialect.’

Sketh gaped at Rillish, but kept waving. ‘What?’

‘Go ahead!’

‘Very well, fool!’ And he shouted something that sounded unpleasant.

A trooper near Rillish guffawed. ‘Yes?’ Rillish said.

The man looked uncomfortable, cleared his throat. ‘Ah, well. He said that he could smell their unwashed backsides from here and that he wished they would come no closer.’

Rillish turned to Peles. ‘That should confuse the Abyss out of them.’

Sketh yelled some more. This time the trooper almost blushed. Rillish eyed him expectantly.

‘Goats… and mothers,’ the man mumbled.

The Marese war galley was now so close Rillish could hear the crew talking. Someone in the vessel was shouting. Sketh answered in Seven Cities. Rillish heard oars knocking oars.

‘They’ve spotted you!’ Sketh shouted.

Rillish jumped up. ‘Now! Fire!’

The vessel was frustratingly just beyond a leap away, now backing oars. Malazan marines sprang up to fire crossbows point-blank across the deck and into the oarlocks. ‘Next rank!’ Rillish yelled.

Those who had fired fell back or squatted to reload. The next rank surged forward, firing almost immediately. ‘Bring us alongside!’ Rillish bellowed to Sketh.

‘We have no headway!’ Sketh answered, furious.

Fortunately the marines’ fire had raked the stern decking clear and the tiller of the galley swung loose. Anyone who raised a head was the target of a swath of crossbow bolts while wounded oarsmen encumbered their banks. The bronze-sheathed ram was swinging their way. The Malazan marines continued their merciless fusillade.

The ram bumped their side, slid, gouging the planking with a screech of wet wood. ‘Board!’ Rillish yelled a war cry and jumped with all his strength.

He didn’t make it. His heart lurched as he realized in mid-leap that he’d fall short. He grasped the gunwale, his face slamming into the wood. Stars burst across his vision and hot blood gushed over his mouth. A sailor reared up over him, sword raised, only to disappear as a Malazan trooper crashed down on to him. Dazed, Rillish struggled to pull himself over the side. Fighting raged across the vessel. Rillish tumbled gasping on to the decking amid the fallen. He straightened, wiped the back of a gauntlet across his wet mouth, clumsily drew one blade, and peered about, blinking. The fight was over. They had their second ship.

The rest of the morning did not go as satisfactorily. They had to fashion a rough kind of Malazan standard to fly over their captured vessels just to stop the Moranth from shooting fire at them whenever they drew close. Rillish peered up at the black cloth, squinted in the strengthening light, and shook his head. ‘Might as well call ourselves pirates and be done with it, hey, Captain Peles?’

She was offended. ‘Oh, no, sir. This is a fine ship. Our boatwrights could learn a few things from it, I think.’

So damned literal. He shrugged. The night and morning had been exhilarating yet disappointing and he was in a poor mood. Exhilarating because they were alive and the engagement was over and they were victorious. Disappointing because they were now spending the majority of the time in a futile chase of other Marese war galleys that always outpaced them. The Malazan sailors were unfamiliar with the rigging, Sketh didn’t have a feel for the vessel’s handling, and they were still overburdened.

Good enough. He sat, tucked his gauntlets into his belt, and dabbed a wet corner of his surcoat to the dried blood smearing his face. Sketh had command of the other captured vessel while his sailing master was with them. The man had sent them off with a storm of Seven Cities curses.

Rillish didn’t ask for a translation.

Now they trailed the transports heading to the coast. Marese war galleys shadowed them, keeping their distance. Somewhere ahead Greymane’s banner marked the straggling tail of the invasion force while behind the majority of the Blue dromonds maintained a screen sweeping southward. Onward to Mare itself… he wished them luck with that.

For now it was the landing that preoccupied him. How many transports had broken through? Would they succeed in taking Aamil? He knew he’d arrive too late for the first assault. Yet at least he’d arrive; there were too many as couldn’t boast that.

The day after the Malazan garrison and the city militia marched away inland, Bakune rose, put on his best robes as he had every day, and headed out for his offices close to the centre of town. He’d decided to face things squarely; to find out, for better or worse, where and how things stood. Was he to be arrested? And if not, what of his authority? Was he to be merely closely watched by the Abbot and his self-styled Guardians of the Faith? Or dragged in chains before the holy courts? He did not consider himself a brave man; the anxiety of not knowing was simply burning a hole in his guts.

His housekeeper wept as she shut and locked the door behind him.

The streets were unnaturally deserted for this early hour. Indeed, an air of uncertainty hung over the entire city. The harbour was almost empty; news of the renewed Marese blockade had stopped the pilgrim vessels from running; and Yeull, the Malazan Overlord, had ordered all naval and merchant vessels north to Lallit up the coast. To make things worse a bitterly cold front had swept over the Fall Strait to leave remnants of snow in the shaded edges of the streets and roofs. The only institution bustling with energy was the Blessed Cloister and Hospice, as hordes of citizens crowded its halls to pray and seek the intervention of the Lady.

Two Guardians of the Faith stood before the closed double doors of the city courts. Like all of these self-appointed morality police, they were bearded, wore heavy robes, and carried iron-bound staves. Bakune stopped short, drew a deep breath, and asked more bravely than he felt: ‘Why are these doors closed?’ A scornful superior look from both men sent a cold shiver down his back.

‘The civil courts are closed until further notice, petitioner.’

Bakune forced himself to ask, ‘By whose authority?’

The Guardians shared a surprised glance. ‘By order of Abbot Starvann, of course.’

Bakune swallowed hard, but pressed on: ‘And by what authority does the Abbot intervene in civil affairs?’

One Guardian stepped down from the threshold. He held his stave sideways across his body. ‘You are Assessor Bakune?’

Bakune managed a faint, ‘Yes.’ His hands were damp, cold, useless things at his sides.

‘You will come with me.’

The Guardian started down the street. Bakune hesitated. Why should he cooperate? But then, what else could he possibly do? Should he run? Where? Be dragged kicking and blubbering down the street? How undignified. The Guardian stopped, turned back to peer at him. He set his stave to the cobbles with a sharp rap of its iron-bound heel. To cover his panic, Bakune drew out his lined gloves and took his time pulling them on. When he had finally finished tugging each finger, his heart had slowed and he had reconciled himself to what was to come. As he approached the Guardian he even managed to say evenly, ‘Cold this morning, yes?’

The man turned away without replying.

After two turns the Guardian’s destination became clear to Bakune and his panic took hold of him once more. The Carceral Quarters. Of course. Where else for an undesirable such as himself? Despite the biting wind out of the west, sweat pricked his brow and he dabbed at it with the back of a glove. More Guardians at the thick armoured doors to the Carceral Quarters. The City Watch was no longer in charge of maintaining order. Bakune’s heart sank; not for himself, but for his city, his country. They were sliding back into the ancient age of superstition and religious rule. All the strides of civilization over the last few hundred years were being swept away by this crisis.

In the halls Bakune was handed over to a priest, who, with obvious distaste, looked him up and down. ‘You are Assessor Bakune?’

‘Yes.’

The priest gestured him on. Two Guardians walked behind, staves stamping the stone flags in time. He was led past many galleries of cells to one far beneath the holding areas reserved for common thieves and murderers. Bakune’s stomach tore a bite out of his innards with every turn and every staircase down. What a fool he’d been! Karien’el had as much as urged him to run! Looking back now, it seemed as usual that Karien’el had done all the work to lead him to the obvious, self-serving decision, which he had then mulishly refused. The priest opened the door to the cell and stood by it. The Assessor could not move; was this it then? The end for him? Would he obligingly walk in like a calf to the slaughter? A Guardian stepped close behind, set his stave down hard in a stamp that echoed harshly within the narrow passage. Almost unable to breathe, Bakune wiped a gloved hand down his face, and then straightened. No! No weakness! He would show these fanatics how a civilized man, a man of true ethical principles, behaved. He stepped up next to the priest, met his eyes and nodded. ‘Very well. Since you leave me no choice.’

The priest slammed the door shut behind him.

Facing what he had thought was to be his prison for perhaps the rest of his — presumably short — life, Bakune halted, startled, because it was not a cell. It was a courtroom. His heart clenched and his innards twisted; the Lady was not done with him. She was not content that he should quietly disappear in the confusion of all this upheaval and panic.

It was to be a trial. Signed confession. Public disapprobation. The courts divine would legitimize themselves by discrediting the courts civil. Very well. The good opinion of the public had never been his obsession. Quite the opposite, in fact.

A long table ran along one wall, and behind it sat three tall chairs. My judges. A single, much poorer chair faced the table from the other side. Bakune sat in this, crossed one leg over the other and carefully folded and smoothed his robes. He pulled off his gloves, clasped his hands on his lap. And waited.

Shortly thereafter many men came marching up the passage. The door clattered open. In walked another priest, this one much fatter and older, wearing the starburst symbol of Our Lady. He was vaguely familiar. The priest’s brows rose upon seeing Bakune. ‘My dear Assessor! Not there!’ Bakune placed him: Arten, Chief Divine of the Order of the Guardians of the Faith. Abbot Starvann’s second. This court was to have a seal of the highest authority. Chuckling, Arten invited Bakune to move to the other side of the table. ‘Here, if you would. On my right.’

Bakune could only stare up at the man. The other side of the table?

Arten repeated his invitation. Guardians now stood waiting at the door, someone in chains between them: a short, extremely stocky figure. Bakune rose shakily to his feet. Arten shepherded him round the table. ‘There you are. Very good.’ He nodded to the Guardians, who entered.

Bakune sat, blinking, quite shocked, while the prisoner was seated opposite, armed Guardians flanking him. Bakune took the time to study him. He was well past middle age yet still quite powerful, with burly shoulders and chest. But the man’s most striking feature was the faded blue facial tattooing of some sort of animal. A boar — so the man was, or had been, sworn to that foreign god… the boar… Fener! Lady, no. Could this be he? That foreign priest Karien’el had mentioned?

The priest who had first escorted Bakune now sat on Arten’s left. ‘Brother Kureh,’ Arten addressed him, ‘would you read the charges?’

Kureh drew a sheaf of parchments from within his robes, sorted through them, and then cleared his throat. ‘Defendant… would you state your given name?’

The man smiled, revealing surprisingly large canines. ‘As of now,’ he ground out in a rough voice, ‘I take the name Prophet.’

‘Prophet,’ Kureh repeated. ‘Prophet of what?’

‘A new faith.’

‘And does this new faith have a name?’ Arten asked.

The man regarded Arten through low heavy lids. ‘Not yet.’

‘And which degenerate foreign god does it serve?’

‘None… and all.’

Kureh threw down the parchments. ‘Come, come. You make no sense.’

The man lifted and let fall his shoulders, his chains clattering. ‘Not to your blinkered minds.’

Kureh glared his rage. Arten raised a hand for a pause. ‘Pray, please educate us.’

The man sighed heavily. ‘All paths that arise from within partake of the divine.’

Arten nodded, smiling. ‘True. And Our Lady is that divine source.’

Here the man revealed his first burst of emotion as his mouth drew down in disgust. ‘She is not.’

It seemed to Bakune that the man could not be trying harder to commit suicide.

Kureh slammed his hands to the table. ‘I for one have heard enough!’

Arten sadly shook his head. ‘Yes, brother. A disturbing case. There is almost nothing we can do for such delusion. We can only pray the Lady grant him peace.’ He regarded the man for a time, drew a breath as if reluctant to continue. ‘You give me no choice but to broach the distasteful subject of your implication in the murder of a young girl last week. Possessions of yours were found with the body-’

‘Convenient,’ the man sneered.

‘And witnesses…’ Arten gestured to Kureh, who raised papers, ‘have attested under oath to seeing you with the girl that evening. How do you plead?’

‘Disgusted.’

‘You remain defiant? Very well. The papers, Kureh.’ Brother Kureh slid a few sheets and a quill and inkpot to Arten, who signed the papers then slid them along to Bakune. ‘Assessor, if you would please

…’

Bakune examined the sheets. As he suspected: a death sentence calling for public execution. The charge, murder. He set them back on the table. ‘I cannot sign these.’

Arten slowly swung his head to look at him. ‘Assessor Bakune… I urge you to give due consideration to your position. And sign.’

Knowing full well what he was about to do to his own future, Bakune drew a weak breath and managed, ‘I see no compelling evidence of guilt.’

‘No evidence!’ Kureh exploded. ‘Have you not been sitting here? Have you not heard him self-confessed from his own mouth? His utter lack of seemly repentance?’

‘Sign, Assessor,’ the Prophet urged. ‘Do not sacrifice yourself on my account.’

‘The accused is dismissed!’ Arten roared, and pointed to the door.

The Guardians marched the man out. Arten rose to stand over Bakune. ‘I am disappointed, Assessor. Surely it must be clear to you that what we require is merely your cooperation in these few small matters. Give us this and you may return to your insignificant civil affairs of stolen apples and wandering cows.’

Bakune blinked up at the man. He clasped his hands to stop their shaking. ‘I do not consider the life of a man a small matter.’

‘Then I suggest, Assessor, that you spend your remaining time considering your own.’ He snapped his fingers and a Guardian entered. ‘Escort this man to his cell.’

‘Yes, Divine.’ The Guardian grasped hold of Bakune’s robes and pulled him to his feet, then marched him out. In the hall he glanced back to see the strange man, this Prophet, peering back at him as he was dragged off. And it was odd, but the man appeared completely unruffled. Bakune could not shake the impression that the fellow was allowing himself to be taken away.

‘That smoke in the distance there,’ Ivanr asked, gesturing to the northern horizon. ‘That all part of your big plan for deliverance?’

Lieutenant Carr had also been watching the north as they walked amid the dust of the main column, his expression troubled. Beneth’s rag-tag Army of Reform had reached the plains, which fell away, rolling gently to northern farmlands and the coast. To the east, they had passed the River White where it charged down out of the foothills bearing its meltwater to the bay. Burned cottages, the rotting carcasses of dead animals, and the blackened stubble of scorched fields was all that had greeted them so far. It seemed to Ivanr that the Jourilans would rather destroy their own country than see it given over to any other creed or rule.

They also met corpses. Impaled, crucified, eviscerated. Some hung from scorched trees. Many bore signs or had carved into their flesh the condemnation Heretic.

Ivanr knew that the advance scouts had passed these grim markers days ago, but Martal must have ordered them to remain untouched. At first the sight of the bodies and the vicious torture their torn flesh betrayed had horrified the untested volunteers of the army; many of the younger had actually fainted. As the days passed and the endless count of blackened, hacked bodies mounted, Ivanr saw that fear burn away, leaving behind a seething anger and outrage. His respect for this female general’s ruthlessness grew. It seemed odd to him that he’d never heard of her before. Where had Beneth found her? Katakan? He couldn’t think of any mercenary or military leader hailing from that backwater there in the shadow of Korel.

Carr waved the dust from his face. ‘There must be fighting in Blight.’

‘You think so?’

More Reform cavalry charged past, heading for the front of the straggling column. A small detail, only some forty horses. The sight reminded Ivanr of the Jourilan nobleman, Hegil, supposed commander of the army. So far all the man commanded was the cavalry. He seemed to share the Jourilan nobility’s contempt for infantry, judging the peasantry beneath his notice. But the vast majority of the Army of Reform was just those peasants — farmers and displaced burghers — and to them, if the army had any leader, it was Martal.

The potential for confusion or outright argument troubled him. An army was like a snake; it should not have two heads.

Ivanr and Carr’s place in the column reached a curve in a hillside offering a view east of the city of Blight and the Bay of Blight beyond. The city’s stone walls were tall. But now smoke wreathed them, billowing in plumes from almost everywhere within. It drifted inland, a great dark pall, driven by the prevailing wind that held from the north-east during this season of storms. The south gate gaped open, a dark invitation. The Army of Reform was ordering ranks before it. Seeing this, Ivanr cursed and pushed ahead. Carr followed.

Ivanr tracked Martal simply by keeping an eye on all the messengers coming and going. He found the woman mounted, surrounded by staff and bodyguards, dressed as always in her blackened armour, black boots and blackened gauntlets, her short night-dark hair touched with grey. Such martial imagery was all in keeping with some kind of legendary warrior-princess, until one saw her face: the lips full, yes, but habitually grim, drawn down as if constantly displeased; the eyes dark, but sharp and dismissive, not mysterious or alluring; and the nose what one would expect to see sported by some grizzled campaigner, canted and flattened. The Black Queen indeed.

A queen of war.

The guards allowed Ivanr and Carr through. When Martal finished with a messenger Ivanr cleared his throat. She nodded distractedly for him to speak.

‘You’re not going in there,’ his said, his disapproval clear.

A faint near-smile, her gaze scanning the broad columns of infantry. ‘No, Ivanr. We’re forming up. I’m told the adherents of the Lady are withdrawing to the north.’ She spared him a quick glance. ‘They need time to complete their flight.’

Ivanr grunted his appreciation. ‘You would burden the Jourilan Imperials with them.’

‘Yes. Why should we be the only force herding civilians along? The difference being ours fight.’

‘Once they withdraw the city will be ours,’ Carr said, triumphant.

‘So we’ll own a burned-out ruin,’ Ivanr added, sour.

Martal was reading a scrap of vellum brought in by a messenger. Its contents twisted her lips into an ugly scowl. ‘For Hegil,’ she told the messenger, who snapped his reins and charged off. She blinked now at Carr as if seeing him for the first time. ‘If we own it already, Lieutenant, then we can ignore it.’

‘You mean to just go round,’ Ivanr breathed, impressed.

‘In conquering a nation, squatting in the towns and cities is the surest route to failure.’

Ivanr’s breath caught. He eyed the woman anew, her heavy outland armour of iron bands over mail, black-lacquered, battered by years of service. That opinion had the sound of quoted text. ‘What would you know of conquering nations?’

The woman merely smiled. But it was not a reassuring smile; it spoke of secrets and a dark humour. She pointed a gauntleted hand to the west. ‘Jourilan lancers are harassing our flank. That would be the 10th Company, the Green Wall. Your lads and lasses, yes, Carr, Ivanr?’

The two exchanged alarmed looks. ‘Gods beyond, Martal,’ Ivanr exploded. ‘Why didn’t you say so?’ They pushed their way out of the ring of guards.

Tenth Company, which had selected the nickname the Green Wall, was formed up in a wide front, pikes and spears facing west. Beyond their ranks skirmishing Jourilan cavalry raced back and forth across open ground of burned fields. Edging his way through, Ivanr reached the front rank. He’d already collected a spear. ‘Lights,’ Carr said, drawing his sword. ‘They won’t press a charge.’

‘They’re pinning us down, though. Can’t advance. Where’s Hegil’s cav?’

Carr shrugged. ‘Occupied elsewhere, perhaps. We’ve few enough.’

‘Can’t just sit here. Martal’s damned wagons are about to roll up our backsides.’

Carr glanced behind: the entire mass of the Army of Reform was lurching west, groping its way round the city, about to run them over.

Ivanr straightened, taking a great breath. ‘Company! Broaden line! On my mark! Now!’ He watched to the right and left while the rows adjusted their spacing to allow an extra pace between them. It was one of the most difficult manoeuvres he’d covered with them. He’d never dare attempt it facing a body of heavies awaiting a chance for a charge. As it was, the movement caught the eye of the lights and they raced over, forming a chase line, swinging close, lances still held tall. Ivanr bellowed: ‘Company, brace!’ Carr raised his sword.

The flying chevron of lights charged obliquely across the line of the levelled pikes and spearheads. Lances and javelins flew. Men and women screamed, impaled. The clean line of bristling pikeheads shook, rattling. A second charge was swinging in behind the first. Ivanr fumed. Archers! Where was their support? They needed archers to drive these skirmishers off. ‘Steady, company! Brace!’

The second charge circled past. Another flight of javelins and lances drove ferocious punishment into the column. Ivanr saw the wall of pikes waver like wind-tossed grasses. ‘Steady, Lady damn you all! Break and you’re trampled!’

Then a wall of smoke came streaming down from the plumes overhead, obscuring everything. The thick greasy fumes stank of awful things. Things Ivanr didn’t want to imagine burning. He covered his mouth. Soot darkened his hands. Everyone was coughing and cursing. Blind to everything, he heard dropped pikes clattering to the ground. Somewhere in the dark horses shrieked their terror. He glimpsed a smudged light off to his right and staggered to it. Here in a small depression he found an old woman hunched over a smoking fire, blowing on the glowing brands.

‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded.

The old woman blinked up at him. She wore the tattered remains of layered wraps over frayed skirts. ‘Making lunch.’ She dropped handfuls of freshly cut green grass and green leaves on the fire. A great gout of white smoke billowed up.

‘Would you stop that!’

‘Stop it? I’m hungry.’

‘You’re making all this smoke!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. All this smoke is from the city.’

Carr came running up, waving the fumes from his face and coughing. ‘The cavalry has fled. The field is clear.’

Ivanr eyed the old woman crouched before the fire like a penitent, bony elbows sticking out like wings. She gave Ivanr a wink. ‘Horses, they say, are in a terrible fear of fire.’

‘What is your name?’

‘Sister Gosh.’

‘Well, Sister Gosh. If the Lady knew there was magery here on this field, you’d be a dead woman.’

‘Then it’s a good thing there was none o’ that. Just an errant gust of wind and smoke from the city, hey?’

‘You play a dangerous game, Sister.’

‘Now’s the time for it.’

Ivanr grunted his agreement. He faced Carr. ‘Have the company form up for advance. Martal wants us past the city.’

Carr saluted. ‘Aye, sir.’

Sir? When did that happen? And what did that make him? Ivanr frankly had no idea and he decided he didn’t care.

Those veterans who managed to doze off below decks were woken in the late afternoon just before evening. Some twenty Malazan squads and a horde of Blue marines crowded the two dromonds that constituted the ungainly catamaran. A meal of watery soup came around in pots and ladles. Sails were trimmed. The bow-crest eased to almost nothing. Suth nudged Len while they ate their flat hardbread. ‘We’ve slowed, yes?’

‘Yeah. Have to give the others t