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House of Chains

House of Chains


Steven Erikson House of Chains

Prologue

    Verge of the Nascent, the 943rd Day of the Search, 1139 Burn’s Sleep

    Grey, bloated and pocked, the bodies lined the silt-laden shoreline for as far as the eye could see. Heaped like driftwood by the rising water, bobbing and rolling on the edges, the putrefying flesh seethed with black-shelled, ten-legged crabs. The coin-sized creatures had scarcely begun to make inroads on the bounteous feast the warren’s sundering had laid before them.
    The sea mirrored the low sky’s hue. Dull, patched pewter above and below, broken only by the deeper grey of silts and, thirty strokes of the oar distant, the smeared ochre tones of the barely visible upper levels of a city’s inundated buildings. The storms had passed, the waters were calm amidst the wreckage of a drowned world.
    Short, squat had been the inhabitants. Flat-featured, the pale hair left long and loose. Their world had been a cold one, given the thick-padded clothing they had worn. But with the sundering that had changed, cataclysmically. The air was sultry, damp and now foul with the reek of decay.
    The sea had been born of a river on another realm. A massive, wide and probably continent-spanning artery of fresh water, heavy with a plain’s silts, the murky depths home to huge catfish and wagon-wheel-sized spiders, its shallows crowded with the crabs and carnivorous, rootless plants. The river had poured its torrential volume onto this vast, level landscape. Days, then weeks, then months.
    Storms, conjured by the volatile clash of tropical air-streams with the resident temperate climate, had driven the flood on beneath shrieking winds, and before the inexorably rising waters came deadly plagues to take those who had not drowned.
    Somehow, the rent had closed sometime in the night just past. The river from another realm had been returned to its original path.
    The shoreline ahead probably did not deserve the word, but nothing else came to Trull Sengar’s mind as he was dragged along its verge. The beach was nothing more than silt, heaped against a huge wall that seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. The wall had withstood the flood, though water now streamed down it on the opposite side.
    Bodies on his left, a sheer drop of seven, maybe eight man-heights to his right, the top of the wall itself slightly less than thirty paces across; that it held back an entire sea whispered of sorcery. The broad, flat stones underfoot were smeared with mud, but already drying in the heat, dun-coloured insects dancing on its surface, leaping from the path of Trull Sengar and his captors.
    Trull still experienced difficulty comprehending that notion. Captors. A word he struggled with. They were his brothers, after all. Kin. Faces he had known all his life, faces he had seen smile, and laugh, and faces-at times-filled with a grief that had mirrored his own. He had stood at their sides through all that had happened, the glorious triumphs, the soul-wrenching losses.
    Captors.
    There were no smiles, now. No laughter. The expressions of those who held him were fixed and cold.
    What we have come to.
    The march ended. Hands pushed Trull Sengar down, heedless of his bruises, the cuts and the gouges that still leaked blood. Massive iron rings had been set, for some unknown purpose, by this world’s now-dead inhabitants, along the top of the wall, anchored in the heart of the huge stone blocks. The rings were evenly spaced down the wall’s length, at intervals of fifteen or so paces, for as far as Trull could see.
    Now, those rings had found a new function.
    Chains were wrapped around Trull Sengar, shackles hammered into place on his wrists and ankles. A studded girdle was cinched painfully tight about his midriff, the chains drawn through iron loops and pulled taut to pin him down beside the iron ring. A hinged metal press was affixed to his jaw, his mouth forced open and the plate pushed in and locked in place over his tongue.
    The Shorning followed. A dagger inscribed a circle on his forehead, followed by a jagged slash to break that circle, the point pushed deep enough to gouge the bone. Ash was rubbed into the wounds. His long single braid was removed with rough hacks that made a bloody mess of his nape. A thick, cloying unguent was then smeared through his remaining hair, massaged down to the pate. Within a few hours, the rest of his hair would fall away, leaving him permanently bald.
    The Shorning was an absolute thing, an irreversible act of severance. He was now outcast. To his brothers, he had ceased to exist. He would not be mourned. His deeds would vanish from memory along with his name. His mother and father would have birthed one less child. This was, for his people, the most dire punishment-worse than execution by far.
    Yet, Trull Sengar had committed no crime.
    And this is what we have come to.
    They stood above him, perhaps only now comprehending what they had done.
    A familiar voice broke the silence. ‘We will speak of him now, and once we have left this place, he will cease to be our brother.’
    ‘We will speak of him now,’ the others intoned, then one added, ‘He betrayed you.’
    The first voice was cool, revealing nothing of the gloat that Trull Sengar knew would be there. ‘You say he betrayed me.’
    ‘He did, brother.’
    ‘What proof do you have?’
    ‘By his own tongue.’
    ‘Is it just you who claims to have heard such betrayal spoken?’
    ‘No, I too heard it, brother.’
    ‘And I.’
    ‘And what did our brother say to you all?’
    ‘He said that you had severed your blood from ours.’
    ‘That you now served a hidden master.’
    ‘That your ambition would lead us all to our deaths-’
    ‘Our entire people.’
    ‘He spoke against me, then.’
    ‘He did.’
    ‘By his own tongue, he accused me of betraying our people.’
    ‘He did.’
    ‘And have I? Let us consider this charge. The southlands are aflame. The enemy’s armies have fled. The enemy now kneels before us, and begs to be our slaves. From nothing, was forged an empire. And still our strength grows. Yet. To grow stronger, what must you, my brothers, do?’
    ‘We must search.’
    ‘Aye. And when you find what must be sought?’
    ‘We must deliver. To you, brother.’
    ‘Do you see the need for this?’
    ‘We do.’
    ‘Do you understand the sacrifice I make, for you, for our people, for our future?’
    ‘We do.’
    ‘Yet, even as you searched, this man, our once-brother, spoke against me.’
    ‘He did.’
    ‘Worse, he spoke to defend the new enemies we had found.’
    ‘He did. He called them the Pure Kin, and said we should not kill them.’
    ‘And, had they been in truth Pure Kin, then…’
    ‘They would not have died so easily.’
    ‘Thus.’
    ‘He betrayed you, brother.’
    ‘He betrayed us all.’
    There was silence. Ah, now you would share out this crime of yours. And they hesitate.
    ‘He betrayed us all, did he not, brothers?’
    ‘Yes.’ The word arrived rough, beneath the breath, mumbled-a chorus of dubious uncertainty.
    No-one spoke for a long moment, then, savage with barely bridled anger: ‘Thus, brothers. And should we not heed this danger? This threat of betrayal, this poison, this plague that seeks to tear our family apart? Will it spread? Will we come here yet again? We must be vigilant, brothers. Within ourselves. With each other. Now, we have spoken of him. And now, he is gone.’
    ‘He is gone.’
    ‘He never existed.’
    ‘He never existed.’
    ‘Let us leave this place, then.’
    ‘Yes, let us leave.’
    Trull Sengar listened until he could no more hear their boots on the stones, nor feel the tremble of their dwindling steps. He was alone, unable to move, seeing only the mud-smeared stone at the base of the iron ring.
    The sea rustled the corpses along the shoreline. Crabs scuttled. Water continued to seep through the mortar, insinuate the Cyclopean wall with the voice of muttering ghosts, and flow down on the other side.
    Among his people, it was a long-known truth, perhaps the only truth, that Nature fought but one eternal war. One foe. That, further, to understand this was to understand the world. Every world.
    Nature has but one enemy. And that is imbalance.
    The wall held the sea.
    And there are two meanings to this. My brothers, can you not see the truth of that? Two meanings. The wall holds the sea.
    For now.
    This was a flood that would not be denied. The deluge had but just begun-something his brothers could not understand, would, perhaps, never understand.
    Drowning was common among his people. Drowning was not feared. And so, Trull Sengar would drown. Soon.
    And before long, he suspected, his entire people would join him. His brother had shattered the balance.
    And Nature shall not abide.

Book One

    The slower the river, the redder it runs
Nathii saying

CHAPTER ONE

    Children from a dark house choose shadowed paths.
Nathii folk saying

    The dog had savaged a woman, an old man and a child before the warriors drove it into an abandoned kiln at the edge of the village. The beast had never before displayed an uncertain loyalty. It had guarded the Uryd lands with fierce zeal, one with its kin in its harsh, but just, duties. There were no wounds on its body that might have festered and so allowed the spirit of madness into its veins. Nor was the dog possessed by the foaming sickness. Its position in the village pack had not been challenged. Indeed, there was nothing, nothing at all, to give cause to the sudden turn.
    The warriors pinned the animal to the rounded back wall of the clay kiln with spears, stabbing at the snapping, shrieking beast until it was dead. When they withdrew their spears they saw the shafts chewed and slick with spit and blood; they saw iron dented and scored.
    Madness, they knew, could remain hidden, buried far beneath the surface, a subtle flavour turning blood into something bitter. The shamans examined the three victims; two had already died of their wounds, but the child still clung to life.
    In solemn procession he was carried by his father to the Faces in the Rock, laid down in the glade before the Seven Gods of the Teblor, and left there.
    He died a short while later. Alone in his pain before the hard visages carved into the cliff-face.
    This was not an unexpected fate. The child, after all, had been too young to pray.
    All of this, of course, happened centuries past. Long before the Seven Gods opened their eyes.

    Urugal the Woven’s Year 1159 Burn’s Sleep
    They were glorious tales. Farms in flames, children dragged behind horses for leagues. The trophies of that day, so long ago, cluttered the low walls of his grandfather’s longhouse. Scarred skull-pates, frail-looking mandibles. Odd fragments of clothing made of some unknown material, now smoke-blackened and tattered. Small ears nailed to every wooden post that reached up to the thatched roof.
    Evidence that Silver Lake was real, that it existed in truth, beyond the forest-clad mountains, down through hidden passes, a week-perhaps two-distant from the lands of the Uryd clan. The way itself was fraught, passing through territories held by the Sunyd and Rathyd clans, a journey that was itself a tale of legendary proportions. Moving silent and unseen through enemy camps, shifting the hearthstones to deliver deepest insult, eluding the hunters and trackers day and night until the borderlands were reached, then crossed-the vista ahead unknown, its riches not even yet dreamed of.
    Karsa Orlong lived and breathed his grandfather’s tales. They stood like a legion, defiant and fierce, before the pallid, empty legacy of Synyg-Pahlk’s son and Karsa’s father. Synyg, who had done nothing in his life, who tended his horses in his valley and had not once ventured into hostile lands. Synyg, who was both his father’s and his son’s greatest shame.
    True, Synyg had more than once defended his herd of horses from raiders from other clans, and defended well, with honourable ferocity and admirable skill. But this was only to be expected from those of Uryd blood. Urugal the Woven was the clan’s Face in the Rock, and Urugal was counted among the fiercest of the seven gods. The other clans had reason to fear the Uryd.
    Nor had Synyg proved less than masterful in training his only son in the Fighting Dances. Karsa’s skill with the bloodwood blade far surpassed his years. He was counted among the finest warriors of the clan. While the Uryd disdained use of the bow, they excelled with spear and atlatl, with the toothed-disc and the black-rope, and Synyg had taught his son an impressive efficiency with these weapons as well.
    None the less, such training was to be expected from any father in the Uryd clan. Karsa could find no reason for pride in such things. The Fighting Dances were but preparation, after all. Glory was found in all that followed, in the contests, the raids, in the vicious perpetuation of feuds.
    Karsa would not do as his father had done. He would not do… nothing. No, he would walk his grandfather’s path. More closely than anyone might imagine. Too much of the clan’s reputation lived only in the past. The Uryd had grown complacent in their position of preeminence among the Teblor. Pahlk had muttered that truth more than once, the nights when his bones ached from old wounds and the shame that was his son burned deepest.
    A return to the old ways. And I, Karsa Orlong, shall lead. Delum Thord is with me. As is Bairoth Gild. All in our first year of scarring.
    We have counted coup. We have slain enemies. Stolen horses. Shifted the hearthstones of the Kellyd and the Buryd.
    And now, with the new moon and in the year of your naming, Urugal, we shall weave our way to Silver Lake. To slay the children who dwell there.
    He remained on his knees in the glade, head bowed beneath the Faces in the Rock, knowing that Urugal’s visage, high on the cliff-face, mirrored his own savage desire; and that those of the other gods, all with their own clans barring Siballe, who was the Unfound, glared down upon Karsa with envy and hate. None of their children knelt before them, after all, to voice such bold vows.
    Complacency plagued all the clans of the Teblor, Karsa suspected. The world beyond the mountains dared not encroach, had not attempted to do so in decades. No visitors ventured into Teblor lands. Nor had the Teblor themselves gazed out beyond the borderlands with dark hunger, as they had often done generations past. The last man to have led a raid into foreign territory had been his grandfather. To the shores of Silver Lake, where farms squatted like rotted mushrooms and children scurried like mice. Back then, there had been two farms, a half-dozen outbuildings. Now, Karsa believed, there would be more. Three, even four farms. Even Pahlk’s day of slaughter would pale to that delivered by Karsa, Delum and Bairoth.
    So I vow, beloved Urugal. And I shall deliver unto you a feast of trophies such as never before blackened the soil of this glade. Enough, perhaps, to free you from the stone itself, so that once more you will stride in our midst, a deliverer of death upon all our enemies.
    I, Karsa Orlong, grandson of Pahlk Orlong, so swear. And, should you doubt, Urugal, know that we leave this very night. The journey begins with the descent of this very sun. And, as each day’s sun births the sun of the next day, so shall it look down upon three warriors of the Uryd clan, leading their destriers through the passes, down into the unknown lands. And Silver Lake shall, after more than four centuries, once again tremble to the coming of the Teblor.
    Karsa slowly lifted his head, eyes travelling up the battered cliff-face, to find the harsh, bestial face of Urugal, there, among its kin. The pitted gaze seemed fixed upon him and Karsa thought he saw avid pleasure in those dark pools. Indeed, he was certain of it, and would describe it as truth to Delum and Bairoth, and to Dayliss, so that she might voice her blessing, for he so wished her blessing, her cold words… I, Dayliss, yet to find a family’s name, bless you, Karsa Orlong, on your dire raid. May you slay a legion of children. May their cries feed your dreams. May their blood give you thirst for more. May flames haunt the path of your life. May you return to me, a thousand deaths upon your soul, and take me as your wife.
    She might indeed so bless him. A first yet undeniable expression of her interest in him. Not Bairoth-she but toyed with Bairoth as any young unwedded woman might, for amusement. Her Knife of Night remained sheathed, of course, for Bairoth lacked cold ambition-a flaw he might deny, yet the truth was plain that he did not lead, only follow, and Dayliss would not settle for that.
    No, she would be his, Karsa’s, upon his return, the culmination of his triumph that was the raid on Silver Lake. For him, and him alone, Dayliss would unsheathe her Knife of Night.
    May you slay a legion of children. May flames haunt the path of your life.
    Karsa straightened. No wind rustled the leaves of the birch trees encircling the glade. The air was heavy, a lowland air that had climbed its way into the mountains in the wake of the marching sun, and now, with light fading, it was trapped in the glade before the Faces in the Rock. Like a breath of the gods, soon to seep into the rotting soil.
    There was no doubt in Karsa’s mind that Urugal was present, as close behind the stone skin of his face as he had ever been. Drawn by the power of Karsa’s vow, by the promise of a return to glory. So too hovered the other gods. Beroke Soft Voice, Kahlb the Silent Hunter, Thenik the Shattered, Halad Rack Bearer, Imroth the Cruel and Siballe the Unfound, all awakened once more and eager for blood.
    And I have but just begun on this path. Newly arrived to my eightieth year of life, finally a warrior in truth. I have heard the oldest words, the whispers, of the One, who will unite the Teblor, who will bind the clans one and all and lead them into the lowlands and so begin the War of the People. These whispers, they are the voice of promise, and that voice is mine.
    Hidden birds announced the coming of dusk. It was time to leave.
    Delum and Bairoth awaited him in the village. And Dayliss, silent yet holding to the words she would speak to him.
    Bairoth will be furious.

    The pocket of warm air in the glade lingered long after Karsa Orlong’s departure. The soft, boggy soil was slow to yield the imprint of his knees, his moccasined feet, and the sun’s deepening glare continued to paint the harsh features of the gods even as shadows filled the glade itself.
    Seven figures rose from the ground, skin wrinkled and stained dark brown over withered muscles and heavy bones, hair red as ochre and dripping stagnant, black water. Some were missing limbs, others stood on splintered, shattered or mangled legs. One lacked a lower jaw while another’s left cheekbone and brow were crushed flat, obliterating the eye-socket. Each of the seven, broken in some way. Imperfect.
    Flawed.
    Somewhere behind the wall of rock was a sealed cavern that had been their tomb for a span of centuries, a short-lived imprisonment as it turned out. None had expected their resurrection. Too shattered to remain with their kin, they had been left behind, as was the custom of their kind. Failure’s sentence was abandonment, an eternity of immobility. When failure was honourable, their sentient remnants would be placed open to the sky, to vistas, to the outside world, so that they might find peace in watching the passing of eons. But, for these seven, failure had not been honourable. Thus, the darkness of a tomb had been their sentence. They had felt no bitterness at that.
    That dark gift came later, from outside their unlit prison, and with it, opportunity.
    All that was required was the breaking of a vow, and the swearing of fealty to another. The reward: rebirth, and freedom.
    Their kin had marked this place of internment, with carved faces each a likeness, mocking the vista with blank, blind eyes. They had spoken their names to close the ritual of binding, names that lingered in this place with a power sufficient to twist the minds of the shamans of the people who had found refuge in these mountains, and on the plateau with the ancient name of Laederon.
    The seven were silent and motionless in the glade as the dusk deepened. Six were waiting for one to speak, yet that one was in no hurry. Freedom was raw exultation and, even limited as it was to this glade, the emotion persisted still. It would not be long, now, until that freedom would break free of its last chains-the truncated range of vision from the eye-sockets carved into the rock. Service to the new master promised travel, an entire world to rediscover and countless deaths to deliver.
    Urual, whose name meant Mossy Bone and who was known to the Teblor as Urugal, finally spoke. ‘He will suffice.’
    Sin’b’alle-Lichen For Moss-who was Siballe the Unfound, did not hide the scepticism in her voice. ‘You place too much faith in these fallen Teblor. Teblor. They know naught, even their true name.’
    ‘Be glad that they do not,’ said Ber’ok, his voice a rough rasp through a crushed throat. Neck twisted and head leaning to one side, he was forced to turn his entire body to stare at the rock-face. ‘In any case, you have your own children, Sin’b’alle, who are the bearers of the truth. For the others, lost history is best left lost, for our purposes. Their ignorance is our greatest weapon.’
    ‘Dead Ash Tree speaks the truth,’ Urual said. ‘We could not have so twisted their faith were they cognizant of their legacy.’
    Sin’b’alle shrugged disdainfully. ‘The one named Pahlk also… sufficed. In your opinion, Urual. A worthy prospect to lead my children, it seemed. Yet he failed.’
    ‘Our fault, not his,’ Haran’alle growled. ‘We were impatient, too confident of our efficacy. Sundering the Vow stole much of our power-’
    ‘Yet what has our new master given of his, Antler From Summer?’ Thekist demanded. ‘Naught but a trickle.’
    ‘And what do you expect?’ Urual enquired in a quiet tone. ‘He recovers from his ordeals as we do from ours.’
    Emroth spoke, her voice like silk. ‘So you believe, Mossy Bone, that this grandson of Pahlk will carve for us our path to freedom.’
    ‘I do.’
    ‘And if we are disappointed yet again?’
    ‘Then we begin anew. Bairoth’s child in Dayliss’s womb.’
    Emroth hissed. ‘Another century of waiting! Damn these long-lived Teblor!’
    ‘A century is as nothing-’
    ‘As nothing, yet as everything, Mossy Bone! And you know precisely what I mean.’
    Urual studied the woman, who was aptly named Fanged Skeleton, recalling her Soletaken proclivities, and its hunger that had so clearly led to their failure so long ago. ‘The year of my name has returned,’ he said. ‘Among us all, who has led a clan of the Teblor as far along our path as I have? You, Fanged Skeleton? Lichen For Moss? Spear Leg?’
    No-one spoke.
    Then finally Dead Ash Tree made a sound that might have been a soft laugh. ‘We are as Red Moss, silent. The way will be opened. So our new master has promised. He finds his power. Urual’s chosen warrior already possesses a score of souls in his slayer’s train. Teblor souls at that. Recall, also, that Pahlk journeyed alone. Yet Karsa shall have two formidable warriors flanking him. Should he die, there is always Bairoth, or Delum.’
    ‘Bairoth is too clever,’ Emroth snarled. ‘He takes after Pahlk’s son, his uncle. Worse, his ambition is only for himself. He feigns to follow Karsa, yet has his hand on Karsa’s back.’
    ‘And mine on his,’ Urual murmured. ‘Night is almost upon us. We must return to our tomb.’ The ancient warrior turned. ‘Fanged Skeleton, remain close to the child in Dayliss’s womb.’
    ‘She feeds from my breast even now,’ Emroth asserted.
    ‘A girl-child?’
    ‘In flesh only. What I make within is neither a girl, nor a child.’
    ‘Good.’
    The seven figures returned to the earth as the first stars of night blinked awake in the sky overhead. Blinked awake, and looked down upon a glade where no gods dwelt. Where no gods had ever dwelt.

    The village was situated on the stony bank of Laderu River, a mountain-fed, torrential flow of bitter-cold water that cut a valley through the conifer forest on its way down to some distant sea. The houses were built with boulder foundations and rough-hewn cedar walls, the roofs thick-matted, humped and overgrown with moss. Along the bank rose latticed frames thick with strips of drying fish. Beyond a fringe of woods, clearings had been cut to provide pasture for horses.
    Mist-dimmed firelight flickered through the trees as Karsa reached his father’s house, passing the dozen horses standing silent and motionless in the glade. Their only threat came from raiders, for these beasts were bred killers and the mountain wolves had long since learned to avoid the huge animals. Occasionally a rust-collared bear would venture down from its mountain haunt, but this usually coincided with salmon runs and the creatures showed little interest in challenging the horses, the village’s dogs, or its fearless warriors.
    Synyg was in the training kraal, grooming Havok, his prized destrier. Karsa could feel the animal’s heat as he approached, though it was little more than a black mass in the darkness. ‘Red Eye still wanders loose,’ Karsa growled. ‘You will do nothing for your son?’
    His father continued grooming Havok. ‘Red Eye is too young for such a journey, as I have said before-’
    ‘Yet he is mine, and so I shall ride him.’
    ‘No. He lacks independence, and has not yet ridden with the mounts of Bairoth and Delum. You will lodge a thorn in his nerves.’
    ‘So I am to walk?’
    ‘I give you Havok, my son. He has been softly run this night and still wears the bridle. Go collect your gear, before he cools too much.’
    Karsa said nothing. He was in truth astonished. He swung about and made his way to the house. His father had slung his pack from a ridgepole near the doorway to keep it dry. His bloodwood sword hung in its harness beside it, newly oiled, the Uryd warcrest freshly painted on the broad blade. Karsa drew the weapon down and strapped the harness in place, the sword’s leather-wrapped two-handed grip jutting over his left shoulder. The pack would ride Havok’s shoulders, affixed to the stirrup-rig, though Karsa’s knees would take most of the weight.
    Teblor horse-trappings did not include a rider’s seat; a warrior rode against flesh, stirrups high, the bulk of his weight directly behind the mount’s shoulders. Lowlander trophies included saddles, which revealed, when positioned on the smaller lowlander horses, a clear shifting of weight to the back. But a true destrier needed its hindquarters free of extra weight, to ensure the swiftness of its kicks. More, a warrior must needs protect his mount’s neck and head, with sword and, if necessary, vambraced forearms.
    Karsa returned to where his father and Havok waited.
    ‘Bairoth and Delum await you at the ford,’ Synyg said.
    ‘Dayliss?’
    Karsa could see nothing of his father’s expression as he replied tonelessly, ‘Dayliss voiced her blessing to Bairoth after you’d set out for the Faces in the Rock.’
    ‘She blessed Bairoth?’
    ‘She did.’
    ‘It seems I misjudged her,’ Karsa said, struggling against an unfamiliar stricture that tightened his voice.
    ‘Easy to do, for she is a woman.’
    ‘And you, Father? Will you give me your blessing?’
    Synyg handed Karsa the lone rein and turned away. ‘Pahlk has already done so. Be satisfied with that.’
    ‘Pahlk is not my father!’
    Synyg paused in the darkness, seemed to consider, then said, ‘No, he is not.’
    ‘Then will you bless me?’
    ‘What would you have me bless, son? The Seven Gods who are a lie? The glory that is empty? Will I be pleased in your slaying of children? In the trophies you will tie to your belt? My father, Pahlk, would polish bright his own youth, for he is of that age. What were his words of blessing, Karsa? That you surpass his achievements? I imagine not. Consider his words carefully, and I expect you will find that they served him more than you.’
    ‘ “Pahlk, Finder of the Path that you shall follow, blesses your journey.” Such were his words.’
    Synyg was silent for a moment, and when he spoke his son could hear the grim smile though he could not see it. ‘As I said.’
    ‘Mother would have blessed me,’ Karsa snapped.
    ‘As a mother must. But her heart would have been heavy. Go, then, son. Your companions await you.’
    With a snarl, Karsa swung himself onto the destrier’s broad back. Havok swung his head about at the unfamiliar seating, then snorted.
    Synyg spoke from the gloom. ‘He dislikes carrying anger. Calm yourself, son.’
    ‘A warhorse afraid of anger is next to useless. Havok shall have to learn who rides him now.’ At that, Karsa drew a leg back and with a flick of the single rein swung the destrier smartly round. A gesture with his rein hand sent the horse forward onto the trail.
    Four blood-posts, each marking one of Karsa’s sacrificed siblings, lined the path leading to the village. Unlike others, Synyg had left the carved posts unadorned; he had only gone so far as to cut the glyphs naming his three sons and one daughter given to the Faces in the Rock, followed by a splash of kin blood which had not lasted much beyond the first rain. Instead of braids winding up the man-high posts to a feathered and gut-knotted headdress at the peak, only vines entwined the weathered wood, and the blunted top was smeared with bird droppings.
    Karsa knew the memory of his siblings deserved more, and he resolved to carry their names close to his lips at the moment of attack, that he might slay with their cries sharp in the air. His voice would be their voice, when that time arrived. They had suffered their father’s neglect for far too long.
    The trail widened, flanked by old stumps and low-spreading juniper. Ahead, the lurid glare of hearths amidst dark, squat, conical houses glimmered through the woodsmoke haze. Near one of those firepits waited two mounted figures. A third shape, on foot, stood wrapped in furs to one side. Dayliss. She blessed Bairoth Gild, and now comes to see him off.
    Karsa rode up to them, holding Havok back to a lazy lope. He was the leader, and he would make the truth of that plain. Bairoth and Delum awaited him, after all, and which of the three had gone to the Faces in the Rock? Dayliss had blessed a follower. Had Karsa held himself too aloof? Yet such was the burden of those who commanded. She must have understood that. It made no sense.
    He halted his horse before them, was silent.
    Bairoth was a heavier man, though not as tall as Karsa or, indeed, Delum. He possessed a bear-like quality that he had long since recognized and had come to self-consciously affect. He rolled his shoulders now, as if loosening them for the journey, and grinned. ‘A bold beginning, brother,’ he rumbled, ‘the theft of your father’s horse.’
    ‘I did not steal him, Bairoth. Synyg gave me both Havok and his blessing.’
    ‘A night of miracles, it seems. And did Urugal stride out from the rock to kiss your brow as well, Karsa Orlong?’
    Dayliss snorted at that.
    If he had indeed stridden onto mortal ground, he would have found but one of us three standing before him. To Bairoth’s jibe Karsa said nothing. He slowly swung his gaze to Dayliss. ‘You have blessed Bairoth?’
    Her shrug was dismissive.
    ‘I grieve,’ Karsa said, ‘your loss of courage.’
    Her eyes snapped to his with sudden fury.
    Smiling, Karsa turned back to Bairoth and Delum. ‘ “The stars wheel. Let us ride.” ’
    But Bairoth ignored the words and instead of voicing the ritual reply he growled, ‘Ill chosen, to unleash your wounded pride on her. Dayliss is to be my wife upon our return. To strike at her is to strike at me.’
    Karsa went motionless. ‘But Bairoth,’ he said, low and smooth, ‘I strike where I will. A failing of courage can spread like a disease-has her blessing settled upon you as a curse? I am warleader. I invite you to challenge me, now, before we quit our home.’
    Bairoth hunched his shoulders, slowly leaned forward. ‘It is no failing of courage,’ he grated, ‘that stays my hand, Karsa Orlong-’
    ‘I am pleased to hear it. “The stars wheel. Let us ride.” ’
    Scowling at the interruption, Bairoth made to say something more, then stopped. He smiled, relaxing once again. He glanced over at Dayliss and nodded, as if silently reaffirming a secret, then intoned, ‘ “The stars wheel. Lead us, Warleader, into glory.” ’
    Delum, who had watched all in silence, his face empty of expression, now spoke in turn. ‘ “Lead us, Warleader, into glory.” ’
    Karsa in front, the three warriors rode the length of the village. The tribe’s elders had spoken against the journey, so no-one came out to watch them depart. Yet Karsa knew that none could escape hearing them pass, and he knew that, one day, they would come to regret that they had been witness to nothing more than the heavy, muffled thump of hoofs. None the less, he wished dearly for a witness other than Dayliss. Not even Pahlk had appeared.
    Yet I feel as if we are indeed being watched. By the Seven perhaps. Urugal, risen to the height of the stars, riding the current of the wheel, gazing down upon us now. Hear me, Urugal! I, Karsa Orlong, shall slay for you a thousand children! A thousand souls to lay at your feet!
    Nearby, a dog moaned in restless sleep, but did not awaken.

    On the north valley side overlooking the village, at the very edge of the tree line, stood twenty-three silent witnesses to the departure of Karsa Orlong, Bairoth Gild and Delum Thord. Ghostly in the darkness between the broadleafed trees, they waited, motionless, until long after the three warriors had passed out of sight down the eastern track.
    Uryd born, Uryd sacrificed, they were blood-kin to Karsa, Bairoth and Delum. In their fourth month of life they had each been given to the Faces in the Rock, laid down by their mothers in the glade at sunset. Offered to the Seven’s embrace, vanishing before the sun’s rise. Given, one and all, to a new mother.
    Siballe’s children, then and now. Siballe, the Unfound, the lone goddess among the Seven without a tribe of her own. And so, she had created one, a secret tribe drawn from the six others, had taught them of their individual blood ties-in order to link them with their un-sacrificed kin. Taught them, as well, of their own special purpose, the destiny that would belong to them and them alone.
    She called them her Found, and this was the name by which they knew themselves, the name of their own hidden tribe. Dwelling unseen in the midst of their kin, their very existence unimagined by anyone in any of the six tribes. There were some, they knew, who might suspect, but suspicion was all they possessed. Men such as Synyg, Karsa’s father, who treated the memorial blood-posts with indifference, if not contempt. Such men usually posed no real threat, although on occasion more extreme measures proved necessary when true risk was perceived. Such as with Karsa’s mother.
    The twenty-three Found who stood witness to the beginning of the warriors’ journey, hidden among the trees of the valley side, were by blood the brothers and sisters of Karsa, Bairoth and Delum, yet they were strangers as well, though at that moment that detail seemed to matter little.
    ‘One shall make it.’ This from Bairoth’s eldest brother.
    Delum’s twin sister shrugged in reply and said, ‘We shall be here, then, upon that one’s return.’
    ‘So we shall.’
    Another trait was shared by all of the Found. Siballe had marked her children with a savage scar, a stripping away of flesh and muscle on the left side-from temple down to jawline-of each face, and with that destruction the capacity for expression had been severely diminished. Features on the left were fixed in a downturned grimace, as if in permanent dismay. In some strange manner, the physical scarring had also stripped inflection from their voices-or perhaps Siballe’s own toneless voice had proved an overwhelming influence.
    Thus bereft of intonation, words of hope had a way of ringing false to their own ears, sufficient to silence those who had spoken.
    One would make it.
    Perhaps.

    Synyg continued stirring the stew at the cookfire when the door opened behind him. A soft wheeze, a dragged foot, the clatter of a walking stick against the doorframe. Then a harsh accusatory question.
    ‘Did you bless your son?’
    ‘I gave him Havok, Father.’
    Somehow Pahlk filled a single word with contempt, disgust and suspicion all at once: ‘Why?’
    Synyg still did not turn as he listened to his father make a tortured journey to the chair closest to the hearth. ‘Havok deserved a final battle, one I knew I would not give him. So.’
    ‘So, as I thought.’ Pahlk settled into the chair with a pained grunt. ‘For your horse, but not for your son.’
    ‘Are you hungry?’ Synyg asked.
    ‘I will not deny you the gesture.’
    Synyg allowed himself a small, bitter smile, then reached over to collect a second bowl and set it down beside his own.
    ‘He would batter down a mountain,’ Pahlk growled, ‘to see you stir from your straw.’
    ‘What he does is not for me, Father, it is for you.’
    ‘He perceives only the fiercest glory possible will achieve what is necessary-the inundation of the shame that is you, Synyg. You are the straggly bush between two towering trees, child of one and sire to the other. This is why he reached out to me, reached out-do you fret and chafe there in the shadows between Karsa and me? Too bad, the choice was always yours.’
    Synyg filled both bowls and straightened to hand one to his father. ‘The scar around an old wound feels nothing,’ he said.
    ‘To feel nothing is not a virtue.’
    Smiling, Synyg sat in the other chair. ‘Tell me a tale, Father, as you once did. Those days following your triumph. Tell me again of the children you killed. Of the women you cut down. Tell me of the burning homesteads, the screams of the cattle and sheep trapped in the flames. I would see those fires once more, rekindled in your eyes. Stir the ashes, Father.’
    ‘When you speak these days, son, all I hear is that damned woman.’
    ‘Eat, Father, lest you insult me and my home.’
    ‘I shall.’
    ‘You were ever a mindful guest.’
    ‘True.’
    No more words were exchanged until both men had finished their meals. Then Synyg set down his bowl. He rose and collected Pahlk’s bowl as well, then, turning, he threw it into the fire.
    His father’s eyes widened.
    Synyg stared down at him. ‘Neither of us shall live to see Karsa’s return. The bridge between you and me is now swept away. Come to my door again, Father, and I shall kill you.’ He reached down with both hands and pulled Pahlk upright, dragged the sputtering old man to the door and without ceremony threw him outside. The walking stick followed.

    They travelled the old trail that paralleled the spine of the mountains. Old rockslides obscured the path here and there, dragging firs and cedars down towards the valley below, and in these places bushes and broadleafed trees had found a foothold, making passage difficult. Two days and three nights ahead lay Rathyd lands, and of all the other Teblor tribes it was the Rathyd with whom the Uryd feuded the most. Raids and vicious murders entangled the two tribes together in a skein of hatred that stretched back centuries.
    Passing unseen through Rathyd territories was not what Karsa had in mind. He intended to carve a bloody path through real and imagined insults with a vengeful blade, gathering a score or more Teblor souls to his name in the process. The two warriors riding behind him, he well knew, believed that the journey ahead would be one of stealth and subterfuge. They were, after all, but three.
    But Urugal is with us, in this, his season. And we shall announce ourselves in his name, and in blood. We shall shock awake the hornets in their nest, and the Rathyd shall come to know, and fear, the name of Karsa Orlong. As will the Sunyd, in their turn.
    The warhorses moved cautiously across the loose scree of a recent slide. There had been a lot of snow the past winter, more than Karsa could recall in his lifetime. Long before the Faces in the Rock awoke to proclaim to the elders, within dreams and trances, that they had defeated the old Teblor spirits and now demanded obeisance; long before the taking of enemy souls had become foremost among Teblor aspirations, the spirits that had ruled the land and its people were the bones of rock, the flesh of earth, the hair and fur of forest and glen, and their breath was the wind of each season. Winter arrived and departed with violent storms high in the mountains, the savage exertions of the spirits in their eternal, mutual war. Summer and winter were as one: motionless and dry, but the former revealed exhaustion while the latter evinced an icy, fragile peace. Accordingly, the Teblor viewed summers with sympathy for the battle-weary spirits, while they detested winters for the weakness of the ascendant combatants, for there was no value in the illusion of peace.
    Less than a score days remained in this, the season of spring. The high storms were diminishing, both in frequency and fury. Though the Faces in the Rock had long ago destroyed the old spirits and were, it seemed, indifferent to the passage of seasons, Karsa secretly envisioned himself and his two companion warriors as harbingers of one last storm. Their bloodwood swords would echo ancient rages among the unsuspecting Rathyd and Sunyd.
    They cleared the recent slide. The path ahead wound down into a shallow valley with a highland meadow open to the bright afternoon sunlight.
    Bairoth spoke behind Karsa. ‘We should camp on the other side of this valley, Warleader. The horses need rest.’
    ‘Perhaps your horse needs rest, Bairoth,’ Karsa replied. ‘You’ve too many feast nights on your bones. This journey shall make a warrior of you once again, I trust. Your back has known too much straw of late.’ With Dayliss riding you.
    Bairoth laughed, but made no other reply.
    Delum called, ‘My horse needs rest as well, Warleader. The glade ahead should make a good camp. There are rabbit runs here and I would set my snare.’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘Two weighted chains about me, then. The warcries of your stomachs leave me deafened. So be it. We shall camp.’
    There would be no fire, so they ate the rabbits Delum had caught raw. Once, such fare would have been risky, for rabbits often carried diseases that could only be killed by cooking, most of them fatal to the Teblor. But since the coming of the Faces in the Rock, illnesses had vanished among the tribes. Madness, it was true, still plagued them, but this had nothing to do with what was eaten or drunk. At times, the elders had explained, the burdens laid upon a man by the Seven proved too powerful. A mind must be strong, and strength was found in faith. For the weak man, for the man who knew doubt, rules and rites could become a cage, and imprisonment led to madness.
    They sat around a small pit Delum had dug for the rabbit bones, saying little through the course of the meal. Overhead, the sky slowly lost its colour, and the stars had begun their wheel. In the gathering gloom Karsa listened to Bairoth sucking at a rabbit skull. He was ever last to finish, for he left nothing and would even gnaw, on the next day, the thin layer of fat from the underside of the skin. Finally, Bairoth tossed the empty skull into the pit and sat back, licking his fingers.
    ‘I have given,’ Delum said, ‘some thought as to the journey ahead. Through Rathyd and Sunyd lands. We should not take trails that set us against skyline or even bare rock. Therefore, we must take lower paths. Yet these are ones that will lead us closest to camps. We must, I think, shift our travelling to night.’
    ‘Better, then,’ Bairoth nodded, ‘to count coup. To turn the hearthstones and steal feathers. Perhaps a few lone sleeping warriors can give us their souls.’
    Karsa spoke. ‘Hiding by day, we see little smoke to tell us where the camps are. At night, the wind swirls, so it will not help us find the hearths. The Rathyd and Sunyd are not fools. They will not build fires beneath overhangs or against rock-faces-we shall find no welcoming wash of light on stone. Also, our horses see better during the day, and are more sure-footed. We shall ride by day,’ he finished.
    Neither Bairoth nor Delum said anything for a moment.
    Then Bairoth cleared his throat. ‘We shall find ourselves in a war, Karsa.’
    ‘We shall be as an arrow of the Lanyd in its flight through a forest, changing direction with each twig, branch and bole. We shall gather souls, Bairoth, in a roaring storm. War? Yes. Do you fear war, Bairoth Gild?’
    Delum said, ‘We are three, Warleader.’
    ‘Aye, we are Karsa Orlong, Bairoth Gild and Delum Thord. I have faced twenty-four warriors and have slain them all. I dance without equal-would you deny it? Even the elders have spoken in awe. And you, Delum, I see eighteen tongues looped on the thong at your hip. You can read a ghost’s trail, and hear a pebble roll over from twenty paces. And Bairoth, in the days when all he carried was muscle-you, Bairoth, did you not break a Buryd’s spine with your bare hands? Did you not drag a warhorse down? That ferocity but sleeps within you and this journey shall awaken it once more. Any other three… aye, glide the dark winding ways and turn hearthstones and pluck feathers and crush a few windpipes among sleeping foes. A worthy enough glory for any other three warriors. For us? No. Your warleader has spoken.’
    Bairoth grinned over at Delum. ‘Let us gaze upward and witness the wheel, Delum Thord, for scant few such sights remain to us.’
    Karsa slowly rose. ‘You follow your warleader, Bairoth Gild. You do not question him. Your faltering courage threatens to poison us all. Believe in victory, warrior, or turn back now.’
    Bairoth shrugged and leaned back, stretching out his hide-wrapped legs. ‘You are a great warleader, Karsa Orlong, but sadly blind to humour. I have faith that you shall indeed find the glory you seek, and that Delum and I shall shine as lesser moons, yet shine none the less. For us, it is enough. You may cease questioning that, Warleader. We are here, with you-’
    ‘Challenging my wisdom!’
    ‘Wisdom is not a subject we have as yet discussed,’ Bairoth replied. ‘We are warriors as you said, Karsa. And we are young. Wisdom belongs to old men.’
    ‘Yes, the elders,’ Karsa snapped. ‘Who would not bless our journey!’
    Bairoth laughed. ‘That is our truth and we must carry it with us, unchanged and bitter in our hearts. But upon our return, Warleader, we shall find that that truth has changed in our absence. The blessing will have been given after all. Wait and see.’
    Karsa’s eyes widened. ‘The elders will lie!
    ‘Of course they will lie. And they will expect us to accept their new truths, and we shall-no, we must, Karsa Orlong. The glory of our success must serve to bind the people together-to hold it close is not only selfish, it is potentially deadly. Think on this, Warleader. We will be returning to the village with our own claims. Aye, no doubt a few trophies with us to add proof to our tale, but if we do not share out that glory then the elders will see to it that our claims shall know the poison of disbelief.’
    ‘Disbelief?’
    ‘Aye. They will believe but only if they can partake of our glory. They will believe us, but only if we in turn believe them-their reshaping of the past, the blessing that was not given, now given, all the villagers lining our ride out. They were all there, or so they will tell you, and, eventually, they will themselves come to believe it, and will have the scenes carved into their minds. Does this still confuse you, Karsa? If so, then we’d best not speak of wisdom.’
    ‘The Teblor do not play games of deceit,’ Karsa growled.
    Bairoth studied him for a moment, then he nodded. ‘True, they do not.’
    Delum pushed soil and stones into the pit. ‘It is time to sleep,’ he said, rising to check one last time on the hobbled horses.
    Karsa eyed Bairoth. His mind is as a Lanyd arrow in the forest, but will that aid him when our bloodwood blades are out and battlecries sound on all sides? This is what comes when muscle turns to fat and straw clings to your back. Duelling with words will win you nothing, Bairoth Gild, except perhaps that your tongue will not dry out as quickly on a Rathyd warrior’s belt.
    [missing text?]
    ‘At least eight,’ Delum murmured. ‘With perhaps one youth. There are indeed two hearths. They have hunted the grey bear that dwells in caves, and carry a trophy with them.’
    ‘Meaning they are full of themselves.’ Bairoth nodded. ‘That’s good.’
    Karsa frowned at Bairoth. ‘Why?’
    ‘The cast of the enemy’s mind, Warleader. They will be feeling invincible, and this will make them careless. Do they have horses, Delum?’
    ‘No. Grey bears know the sound of hoofs too well. If they brought dogs on the hunt, none survived for the return journey.’
    ‘Better still.’
    They had dismounted, and now crouched near the edge of the tree line. Delum had slipped ahead to scout the Rathyd encampment. His passage through the tall grasses, knee-high stumps and brush of the slope beyond the trees had not stirred a single blade or leaf.
    The sun was high overhead, the air dry, hot and motionless.
    ‘Eight,’ Bairoth said. He grinned at Karsa. ‘And a youth. He should be taken first.’
    To make the survivors know shame. He expects us to lose. ‘Leave him to me,’ Karsa said. ‘My charge will be fierce, and will take me to the other side of the camp. The warriors still standing will turn to face me one and all. That is when you two will charge.’
    Delum blinked. ‘You would have us strike from behind?’
    ‘To even the numbers, yes. Then we shall each settle to our duels.’
    ‘Will you dodge and duck in your pass?’ Bairoth asked, his eyes glittering.
    ‘No, I will strike.’
    ‘They will bind you, then, Warleader, and you shall fail in reaching the far side.’
    ‘I will not be bound, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘There are nine of them.’
    ‘Then watch me dance.’
    Delum asked, ‘Why do we not use our horses, Warleader?’
    ‘I am tired of talking. Follow, but at a slower pace.’
    Bairoth and Delum shared an unreadable look, then Bairoth shrugged. ‘We will be your witnesses, then.’
    Karsa unslung his bloodwood sword, closing both hands around the leather-wrapped grip. The blade’s wood was deep red, almost black, the glassy polish making the painted warcrest seem to float a finger’s width above the surface. The weapon’s edge was almost translucent, where the blood-oil rubbed into the grain had hardened, coming to replace the wood. There were no nicks or notches along the edge, only a slight rippling of the line where damage had repaired itself, for blood-oil clung to its memory and would little tolerate denting or scarring. Karsa held the weapon out before him, then slipped forward through the high grasses, quickening into the dance as he went.
    Reaching the boar trail leading into the forest that Delum had pointed out, he hunched lower and slipped onto its hard-packed, flattened track without breaking stride. The broad, tapered sword-point seemed to lead him forward as if cutting its own silent, unerring path through the shadows and shafts of light. He picked up greater speed.
    In the centre of the Rathyd camp, three of the eight adult warriors were crouched around a slab of bear meat that they had just unwrapped from a fold of deer hide. Two others sat nearby with their weapons across their thighs, rubbing the thick blood-oil into the blades. The remaining three stood speaking to one another less than three paces from the mouth of the boar trail. The youth was at the far end.
    Karsa’s sprint was at its peak when he reached the glade. At distances of seventy paces or less, a Teblor could run alongside a galloping warhorse. His arrival was explosive. One moment, eight warriors and one youth at rest in a clearing, the next, the tops of the heads of two of the standing warriors were cut off in a single horizontal blow. Scalp and bone flew, blood and brain sprayed and spat across the face of the third Rathyd. This man reeled back, and pivoted to his left to see the return swing of Karsa’s sword, as it swept under his chin, then was gone from sight. Eyes, still held wide, watched the scene tilt wildly before darkness burgeoned.
    Still moving, Karsa leapt high to avoid the warrior’s head as it thudded and rolled across the ground.
    The Rathyd who had been oiling their swords had already straightened and readied their weapons. They split away from each other and darted forward to take Karsa from either side.
    He laughed, twisting around to plunge among the three warriors whose bloodied hands held but butchering knives. Snapping his sword into a close-quarter guard, he ducked low. Three small blades each found their mark, slicing through leathers, skin and into muscle. Momentum propelled Karsa through the press, and he took those knives with him, spinning to rip his sword through a pair of arms, then up into an armpit, tearing the shoulder away, the scapula coming with it-a curved plate of purple bone latticed in veins attached by a skein of ligaments to a twitching arm that swung in its flight to reach skyward.
    A body dived with a snarl to wrap burly arms around Karsa’s legs. Still laughing, the Uryd warleader punched down with his sword, the pommel crunching through the top of the warrior’s skull. The arms spasmed and fell away.
    A sword hissed towards his neck from the right. Still in close-quarter guard, Karsa spun to take the blade with his own, the impact ringing both weapons with a pealing, sonorous sound.
    He heard the closing step of the Rathyd behind him, felt the air cleave to the blade swinging in towards his left shoulder, and he pitched instantly down and to his right. Wheeling his own sword around, arms extending as he fell. The edge swept above and past the warrior’s savage downstroke, cut through a pair of thick wrists, then tore through abdomen, from belly-button and across, between ribcage and point of hip, then bursting clear.
    Still spinning as he toppled, he renewed the swing that had been staggered by bone and flesh, twisting his shoulders to follow the blade as it passed beneath him, then around to the other side. The slash cleared the ground at a level that took the last Rathyd’s left leg at the ankle. Then the ground hammered into Karsa’s right shoulder. Rolling away, his sword trailing crossways across his own body, deflecting but not quite defeating a downward blow-fire tearing into his right hip-then he was beyond the warrior’s reach-and the man was shrieking and stumbling an awkward retreat.
    Karsa’s roll brought him upright once more, into a crouch that spurted blood down his right leg, that sent stinging stabs into his left side, his back beneath his right shoulder blade, and his left thigh where the knives were still buried.
    He found himself facing the youth.
    No more than forty, not yet at his full height, lean of limb as the Unready often were. Eyes filled with horror.
    Karsa winked, then wheeled around to close on the one-footed warrior.
    His shrieks had grown frenzied, and Karsa saw that Bairoth and Delum had reached him and had joined in the game, their blades taking the other foot and both hands. The Rathyd was on the ground between them, limbs jerking and spurting blood across the trampled grass.
    Karsa glanced back to see the youth fleeing towards the woods. The warleader smiled.
    Bairoth and Delum began chasing the floundering Rathyd warrior about, chopping pieces from his flailing limbs.
    They were angry, Karsa knew. He had left them nothing. Ignoring his two companions and their brutal torture, he plucked the butchering knife from his thigh. Blood welled but did not spurt, telling him that no major artery or vein had been touched. The knife in his left side had skittered along ribs and lay embedded flat beneath skin and a few layers of muscle. He drew the weapon out and tossed it aside. The last knife, sunk deep into his back, was harder to reach and it took a few attempts before he managed to find a sure clasp of its smeared handle and then pull it out. A longer blade would have reached his heart. As it was, it would probably be the most irritating of the three minor wounds. The sword-cut into his hip and through part of a buttock was slightly more serious. It would have to be carefully sewn, and would make both riding and walking painful for a while.
    Loss of blood or a fatal blow had silenced the dismembered Rathyd, and Karsa heard Bairoth’s heavy steps approach. Another scream announced Delum’s examination of the other fallen. ‘Warleader.’ Anger made the voice taut. Karsa slowly turned. ‘Bairoth Gild.’
    The heavy warrior’s face was dark. ‘You let the youth escape. We must hunt him, now, and it will not be easy for these are his lands, not ours.’
    ‘He is meant to escape,’ Karsa replied. Bairoth scowled.
    ‘You’re the clever one,’ Karsa pointed out, ‘why should this baffle you so?’
    ‘He reaches his village.’
    ‘Aye.’
    ‘And tells of the attack. Three Uryd warriors. There is rage and frenzied preparations.’ Bairoth allowed himself a small nod as he continued. ‘A hunt sets out, seeking three Uryd warriors. Who are on foot. The youth is certain on this. Had the Uryd had horses, they would have used them, of course. Three against eight, to do otherwise is madness. So the hunt confines itself, in what it seeks, in its frame of thought, in all things. Three Uryd warriors, on foot.’
    Delum had joined them, and now eyed Karsa without expression.
    Karsa said, ‘Delum Thord would speak.’
    ‘I would, Warleader. The youth, you have placed an image in his mind. It will harden there, its colours will not fade, but sharpen. The echo of screams will become louder in his skull. Familiar faces, frozen eternal in expressions of pain. This youth, Karsa Orlong, will become an adult. And he will not be content to follow, he will lead. He must lead; and none shall challenge his fierceness, the gleaming wood of his will, the oil of his desire. Karsa Orlong, you have made an enemy for the Uryd, an enemy to pale all we have known in the past.’
    ‘One day,’ Karsa said, ‘that Rathyd warleader shall kneel before me. This, I vow, here, on the blood of his kin, I so vow.’
    The air was suddenly chill. Silence hung in the glade except for the muted buzz of flies.
    Delum’s eyes were wide, his expression one of fear.
    Bairoth turned away. ‘That vow shall destroy you, Karsa Orlong. No Rathyd kneels before an Uryd. Unless you prop his lifeless corpse against a tree stump. You now seek the impossible, and that is a path to madness.’
    ‘One vow among many I have made,’ Karsa said. ‘And each shall be kept. Witness, if you dare.’
    Bairoth paused from studying the grey bear’s fur and defleshed skull-the Rathyd trophies-and glanced back at Karsa. ‘Do we have a choice?’
    ‘If you still breathe, then the answer is no, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘Remind me to tell you one day, Karsa Orlong.’
    ‘Tell me of what?’
    ‘What life is like, for those of us in your shadow.’
    Delum stepped close to Karsa. ‘You have wounds that need mending, Warleader.’
    ‘Aye, but for now, only the sword-cut. We must return to our horses and ride.’
    ‘Like a Lanyd arrow.’
    ‘Aye, just so, Delum Thord.’
    Bairoth called out, ‘Karsa Orlong, I shall collect for you your trophies.’
    ‘Thank you, Bairoth Gild. We shall take that fur and skull, as well. You and Delum may keep those.’
    Delum turned to face Bairoth. ‘Take them, brother. The grey bear better suits you than me.’
    Bairoth nodded his thanks, then waved towards the dismembered warrior. ‘His ears and tongue are yours, Delum Thord.’
    ‘It is so, then.’

    Among the Teblor, the Rathyd bred the fewest horses; despite this, there were plenty of wide runs from glade to glade down which Karsa and his companions could ride. In one of the clearings they had come upon an adult and two youths tending to six destriers. They had ridden them down, blades flashing, pausing only to collect trophies and gather up the horses, each taking two on a lead. An hour before darkness fell, they came to a forking of the trail, rode down the lower of the two for thirty paces, then released the leads and drove the Rathyd horses on. The three Uryd warriors then slipped a single, short rope around the necks of their own mounts, just above the collar bones, and with gentle, alternating tugs walked them backwards until they reached the fork, whereupon they proceeded onto the higher trail. Fifty paces ahead, Delum dismounted and backtracked to obscure their trail.
    With the wheel taking shape overhead, they cut away from the rocky path and found a small clearing in which they made camp. Bairoth cut slices from the bear meat and they ate. Delum then rose to attend to the horses, using wet moss to wipe them down. The beasts were tired and left unhobbled to allow them to walk the clearing and stretch their necks.
    Examining his wounds, Karsa noted that they had already begun to knit. So it was among the Teblor. Satisfied, he found his flask of blood-oil and set to repairing his weapon. Delum rejoined them and he and Bairoth followed suit.
    ‘Tomorrow,’ Karsa said, ‘we leave this trail.’
    ‘Down to the wider, easier ones in the valley?’ Bairoth asked.
    ‘If we are quick,’ Delum said, ‘we can pass through Rathyd land in a single day.’
    ‘No, we lead our horses higher, onto the goat and sheep trails,’ Karsa replied. ‘And we reverse our path for the length of the morning. Then we ride down into the valley once more. Bairoth Gild, with the hunt out, who will remain in the village?’
    The heavy man drew out his new bear cloak and wrapped it about himself before answering. ‘Youths. Women. The old and the crippled.’
    ‘Dogs?’
    ‘No, the hunt will have taken those. So, Warleader, we attack the village.’
    ‘Yes. Then we find the hunt’s trail.’
    Delum drew a deep breath and was slow in its release. ‘Karsa Orlong, the village of our victims thus far is not the only village. In the first valley alone there are at least three more. Word will go out. Every warrior will ready his sword. Every dog will be unleashed and sent out into the forest. The warriors may not find us, but the dogs will.’
    ‘And then,’ Bairoth growled, ‘there are three more valleys to cross.’
    ‘Small ones,’ Karsa pointed out. ‘And we cross them at the south ends, a day or more hard riding from the north mouths and the heart of the Rathyd lands.’
    Delum said, ‘There will be such a foment of anger pursuing us, Warleader, that they will follow us into the valleys of the Sunyd.’
    Karsa flipped the blade on his thighs to begin work on the other side. ‘So I hope, Delum Thord. Answer me this, when last have the Sunyd seen an Uryd?’
    ‘Your grandfather,’ Bairoth said.
    Karsa nodded. ‘And we well know the Rathyd warcry, do we not?’
    ‘You would start a war between the Rathyd and Sunyd?’
    ‘Aye, Bairoth.’
    The warrior slowly shook his head. ‘We are not yet done with the Rathyd, Karsa Orlong. You plan too far in advance, Warleader.’
    ‘Witness what comes, Bairoth Gild.’
    Bairoth picked up the bear skull. The lower jaw still hung from it by a single strip of gristle. He snapped it off and tossed it to one side. Then he drew out a spare bundle of leather straps. He began tightly wrapping the cheek bones, leaving long lengths dangling beneath.
    Karsa watched these efforts curiously. The skull was too heavy even for Bairoth to wear as a helm. Moreover, he would need to break the bone away on the underside, where it was thickest around the hole that the spinal cord made.
    Delum rose. ‘I shall sleep now,’ he announced, moving off.
    ‘Karsa Orlong,’ Bairoth said, ‘do you have spare straps?’
    ‘You are welcome to them,’ Karsa replied, also rising. ‘Be sure to sleep this night, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘I will.’

    For the first hour of light they heard dogs in the forested valley floor below. These faded as they backtracked along a high cliffside path. When the sun was directly overhead, Delum found a downward wending trail and they began the descent.
    Midway through the afternoon, they came upon stump-crowded clearings and could smell the smoke of the village. Delum dismounted and slipped ahead.
    He returned a short while later. ‘As you surmised, Warleader. I saw eleven elders, thrice as many women, and thirteen youths-all very young, I imagine the older ones are with the hunt. No horses. No dogs.’ He climbed back onto his horse.
    The three Uryd warriors readied their swords. They then each drew out their flasks of blood-oil and sprinkled a few drops around the nostrils of their destriers. Heads snapped back, muscles tensed.
    ‘I have the right flank,’ Bairoth said.
    ‘And I the centre,’ Karsa announced.
    ‘And so I the left,’ Delum said, then frowned. ‘They will scatter from you, Warleader.’
    ‘I am feeling generous today, Delum Thord. This village shall be to the glory of you and Bairoth. Be sure that no-one escapes on the other side.’
    ‘None shall.’
    ‘And if any woman seeks to fire a house to turn the hunt, slay her.’
    ‘They would not be so foolish,’ Bairoth said. ‘If they do not resist they shall have our seed, but they shall live.’
    The three removed the reins from their horses and looped them around their waists. They edged further onto their mounts’ shoulders and drew their knees up.
    Karsa slipped his wrist through the sword’s thong and whirled the weapon once through the air to tighten it. The others did the same. Beneath him, Havok trembled.
    ‘Lead us, Warleader,’ Delum said.
    A slight pressure launched Havok forward, three strides into a canter, slow and almost loping as they crossed the stump-filled glade. A slight shifting to the left led them towards the main path. Reaching it, Karsa lifted his sword into the destrier’s range of vision. The beast surged into a gallop.
    Seven lengthening strides brought them to the village. Karsa’s companions had already split away to either side to come up behind the houses, leaving him the main artery. He saw figures there, directly ahead, heads turning. A scream rang through the air. Children scattered.
    Sword lashed out, chopped down easily through young bone. Karsa glanced to his right and Havok shifted direction, hoofs kicking out to gather in and trample an elder. They plunged onward, pursuing, butchering. On the far sides of the houses, beyond the refuse trenches, more screams sounded.
    Karsa reached the far end. He saw a single youth racing for the trees and drove after him. The lad carried a practice sword. Hearing the heavy thump of Havok’s charge closing fast-and with the safety of the forest still too far in front of him-he wheeled.
    Karsa’s swing cut through practice sword then neck. A head thrust from Havok sent the youth’s decapitated body sprawling.
    I lost a cousin in such a manner. Ridden down by a Rathyd. Ears and tongue taken. Body strung by one foot from a branch. The head propped beneath, smeared in excrement. The deed is answered. Answered.
    Havok slowed, then wheeled.
    Karsa looked back upon the village. Bairoth and Delum had done their slaughter and were now herding the women into the clearing surrounding the village hearth.
    At a trot, Havok carried him back into the village.
    ‘The chief’s own belong to me,’ Karsa announced.
    Bairoth and Delum nodded, and he could see their heightened spirits, from the ease with which they surrendered the privilege. Bairoth faced the women and gestured with his sword. A middle-aged, handsome woman stepped forward, followed by a younger version-a lass perhaps the same age as Dayliss. Both studied Karsa as carefully as he did them.
    ‘Bairoth Gild and Delum Thord, take your first among the others. I will guard.’
    The two warriors grinned, dismounted and plunged among the women to select one each. They vanished into separate houses, leading their prizes by the hand.
    Karsa watched with raised brows.
    The chief’s wife snorted. ‘Your warriors were not blind to the eagerness of those two,’ she said.
    ‘Their warriors, be they father or mate, will not be pleased with such eagerness,’ Karsa commented. Uryd women would not-
    ‘They will never know, Warleader,’ the chief’s wife replied, ‘unless you tell them, and what is the likelihood of that? They will spare you no time for taunts before killing you. Ah, but I see now,’ she added, stepping closer to stare up at his face. ‘You thought to believe that Uryd women are different, and now you realize the lie of that. All men are fools, but now you are perhaps a little less so, as truth steals into your heart. What is your name, Warleader?’
    ‘You talk too much,’ Karsa growled, then he drew himself straight. ‘I am Karsa Orlong, grandson of Pahlk-’
    ‘Pahlk?’
    ‘Aye.’ Karsa grinned. ‘I see you recall him.’
    ‘I was a child, but yes, he is well known among us.’
    ‘He lives still, and sleeps calm despite the curses you have laid upon his name.’
    She laughed. ‘Curses? There are none. Pahlk bowed his head to beg passage through our lands-’
    ‘You lie!’
    She studied him, then shrugged. ‘As you say.’
    One of the women cried out from one of the houses, a cry more pleasure than pain.
    The chief’s wife turned her head. ‘How many of us will take your seed, Warleader?’
    Karsa settled back. ‘All of you. Eleven each.’
    ‘And how many days will that take? You want us to cook for you as well?’
    ‘Days? You think as an old woman. We are young. And, if need be, we have blood-oil.’
    The woman’s eyes widened. The others behind her began murmuring and whispering. The chief’s wife spun and silenced them with a look, then she faced Karsa once more. ‘You have never used blood-oil in this fashion before, have you? It is true, you will know fire in your loins. You will know stiffness for days to come. But, Warleader, you do not know what it will do to each of us women. I do, for I too was young and foolish once. Even my husband’s strength could not keep my teeth from his throat, and he carries the scars still. There is more. What for you will last less than a week, haunts us for months.’
    ‘And so,’ Karsa replied, ‘if we do not kill your husbands, you will upon their return. I am pleased.’
    ‘You three will not survive the night.’
    ‘It will be interesting, do you not think,’ Karsa smiled, ‘who among Bairoth, Delum and me will find need for it first.’ He addressed all the women. ‘I suggest to each of you to be eager, so you are not the first to fail us.’
    Bairoth appeared, nodded at Karsa.
    The chief’s wife sighed and waved her daughter forward.
    ‘No,’ Karsa said.
    The woman stopped, suddenly confused. ‘But… will you not want a child from this? Your first will carry the most seed-’
    ‘Aye, it will. Are you past bearing age?’
    After a long moment, she shook her head. ‘Karsa Orlong,’ she whispered, ‘you invite my husband to set upon you a curse-he will burn blood on the stone lips of Imroth herself.’
    ‘Yes, that is likely.’ Karsa dismounted and approached her. ‘Now, lead me to your house.’
    She drew back. ‘The house of my husband? Warleader-no, please, let us choose another one-’
    ‘Your husband’s house,’ Karsa growled. ‘I am done talking and so are you.’

    An hour before dusk, and Karsa led the last of his prizes towards the house-the chief’s daughter. He and Bairoth and Delum had not needed the blood-oil, a testament, Bairoth claimed, to Uryd prowess, though Karsa suspected the true honour belonged to the zeal and desperate creativity of the women of the Rathyd, and even then, the last few for each of the warriors had been peremptory.
    As he drew the young woman into the gloomy house with its dying hearth, Karsa swung shut the door and dropped the latch. She turned to face him, a curious tilt to her chin.
    ‘Mother said you were surprisingly gentle.’
    He eyed her. She is as Dayliss, yet not. There is no dark streak within this one. That is… a difference. ‘Remove your clothes.’
    She quickly climbed out of the one-piece hide tunic. ‘Had I been first, Karsa Orlong, I would have made home for your seed. Such is this day in my wheel of time.’
    ‘You would have been proud?’
    She paused to give him a startled look, then shook her head. ‘You have slain all the children, all the elders. It will be centuries before our village recovers, and indeed it may not, for the anger of the warriors may turn them on each other, and on us women-should you escape.’
    ‘Escape? Lie down, there, where your mother did. Karsa Orlong is not interested in escape.’ He moved forward to stand over her. ‘Your warriors will not be returning. The life of this village is ended, and within many of you there shall be the seed of the Uryd. Go there, all of you, to live among my people. And you and your mother, go to the village where I was born. Await me. Raise your children, my children, as Uryd.’
    ‘You make bold claims, Karsa Orlong.’
    He began removing his leathers.
    ‘More than claims, I see,’ she observed. ‘No need, then, for blood-oil.’
    ‘We will save the blood-oil, you and I, for my return.’
    Her eyes widened and she leaned back as he moved down over her. In a small voice, she asked, ‘Do you not wish to know my name?’
    ‘No,’ he growled. ‘I will call you Dayliss.’
    And he saw nothing of the shame that filled her young, beautiful face. Nor did he sense the darkness his words clawed into her soul.
    Within her, as within her mother, Karsa Orlong’s seed found a home.

    A late storm had descended from the mountains, devouring the stars. Treetops thrashed to a wind that made no effort to reach lower, creating a roar of sound overhead and a strange calm among the boles. Lightning flickered, but the thunder’s voice was long in coming.
    They rode through an hour of darkness, then found an old campsite near the trail the hunt had left. The Rathyd warriors had been careless in their fury, leaving far too many signs of their passage. Delum judged that there were twelve adults and four youths on horseback in this particular party, perhaps a third of the village’s entire strength. The dogs had already been set loose to range in packs on their own, and none accompanied the group the Uryd now pursued.
    Karsa was well pleased. The hornets were out of the nest, yet flying blind.
    They ate once more of the ageing bear meat, then Bairoth once again unwrapped the bear skull and resumed winding straps, this time around the snout, pulling them taut between the teeth. The ends left dangling were long, an arm and a half in length. Karsa now understood what Bairoth was fashioning. Often, two or three wolf skulls were employed for this particular weapon-only a man of Bairoth’s strength and weight could manage the same with the skull of a grey bear. ‘Bairoth Gild, what you create shall make a bright thread in the legend we are weaving.’
    The man grunted. ‘I care nothing for legends, Warleader. But soon, we shall be facing Rathyd on destriers.’
    Karsa smiled in the darkness, said nothing.
    A soft wind flowed down from upslope.
    Delum lifted his head suddenly and rose in silence. ‘I smell wet fur,’ he said.
    There had been no rain as yet.
    Karsa removed his sword harness and laid the weapon down. ‘Bairoth,’ he whispered, ‘remain here. Delum, take with you your brace of knives-leave your sword.’ He rose and gestured. ‘Lead.’
    ‘Warleader,’ Delum murmured. ‘It is a pack, driven down from the high ground by the storm. They have no scent of us, yet their ears are sharp.’
    ‘Do you not think,’ Karsa asked, ‘that they would have set to howling if they had heard us?’
    Bairoth snorted. ‘Delum, beneath this roar they have heard nothing.’
    But Delum shook his head. ‘There are high sounds and there are low sounds, Bairoth Gild, and they each travel their own stream.’ He swung to Karsa. ‘To your question, Warleader, this answer: possibly not, if they are unsure whether we are Uryd or Rathyd.’
    Karsa grinned. ‘Even better. Take me to them, Delum Thord. I have thought long on this matter of Rathyd dogs, the loosed packs. Take me to them, and keep your throwing knives close to hand.’
    Havok and the other two destriers had quietly flanked the warriors during the conversation, and now all faced upslope, ears pricked forward.
    After a moment’s hesitation, Delum shrugged and, crouching, set off into the woods. Karsa followed.
    The slope grew steeper after a score of paces. There was no path, and fallen tree trunks made traverse difficult and slow, though thick swaths of damp moss made the passage of the two Teblor warriors virtually noiseless. They reached a flatter shelf perhaps fifteen paces wide and ten deep, a high crack-riven cliff opposite. A few trees leaned against the rock, grey with death. Delum scanned the cliff side, then made to move towards a narrow, dirt-filled crevasse near the left end of the cliff that served as a game trail, but Karsa restrained him with a hand.
    He leaned close. ‘How far ahead?’
    ‘Fifty heartbeats. We’ve still time to make this climb-’
    ‘No. We position ourselves here. Take that ledge to the right and have your knives ready.’
    With baffled expression, Delum did as he was told. The ledge was halfway up the cliffside. Within moments he was in place.
    Karsa moved towards the game trail. A dead pine had fallen from above, taking the same path in its descent, coming to rest half a pace to the trail’s left. Karsa reached it and gave the trunk a nudge. The wood was still sound. He quickly climbed it, then, feet resting on branches, he twisted round until he faced the flat expanse of shelf, the game trail now almost within arm’s reach to his left, the bole and cliff at his back.
    Then he waited. He could not see Delum from his position unless he leaned forward, which might well pull the tree away from the cliffside, taking him with it in a loud, probably damaging fall. He would have to trust, therefore, that Delum would grasp what he intended, and act accordingly when the time came.
    A skitter of stones down the trail.
    The dogs had begun the descent.
    Karsa drew a slow, deep breath and held it.
    The pack’s leader would not be the first. Most likely the second, a safe beat or two behind the scout.
    The first dog scrambled past Karsa’s position in a scatter of stones, twigs and dirt, its momentum taking it a half-dozen paces out onto the flat shelf, where it paused, nose lifting to test the air. Hackles rising, it moved cautiously towards the shelf’s edge.
    Another dog came down the trail, a larger beast, this one kicking up more detritus than the first. As its scarred head and shoulders came into view, Karsa knew that he had found the pack’s leader.
    The animal reached the flat.
    Just as the scout began swinging his head around, Karsa leapt.
    His hands shot out to take the leader on the neck, driving the beast down, spinning it onto its back, his left hand closing on the throat, his right gripping both flailing, kicking front legs just above the paws.
    The dog flew into a frenzy beneath him, but Karsa held firm.
    More dogs tumbled in a rush down the trail, then fanned out in sudden alarm and confusion.
    The leader’s snarls had turned to yelps.
    Savage teeth had ripped into Karsa’s wrist, until he managed to push his chokehold higher under the dog’s jaw. The animal writhed, but it had already lost and they both knew it.
    As did the rest of the pack.
    Karsa finally glanced up to study the dogs surrounding him. At his lifting of head they all backed away-all but one. A young, burly male, who ducked low as it crept forward.
    Two of Delum’s knives thudded into the animal, one in the throat and the other behind its right shoulder. The dog pitched to the ground with a strangled grunt, then lay still. The others of the pack retreated still further.
    The leader had gone motionless beneath Karsa. Baring his teeth, the warrior slowly lowered himself until his cheek lay alongside the dog’s jawline. Then he whispered into the animal’s ear. ‘You heard the deathcry, friend? That was your challenger. This should please you, yes? Now, you and your pack belong to me.’ As he spoke, his tone soft and reassuring he slowly loosened his grip on the dog’s throat. A moment later, he leaned back, shifted his weight to one side, withdrawing his arm’entirely, then releasing the dog’s forelimbs.
    The beast scrambled to its feet.
    Karsa straightened, stepped close to the dog, smiling to see its tail droop.
    Delum climbed down from the ledge. ‘Warleader,’ he said as he approached, ‘I am witness to this.’ He retrieved his knives.
    ‘Delum Thord, you are both witness and participant, for I saw your knives and they were well timed.’
    ‘The leader’s rival saw his moment.’
    ‘And you understood that.’
    ‘We now have a pack that will fight for us.’
    ‘Aye, Delum Thord.’
    ‘I will go ahead of you back to Bairoth, then. The horses will need calming.’
    ‘We shall give you a few moments.’
    At the shelf’s edge, Delum paused and glanced back at Karsa. ‘I no longer fear the Rathyd, Karsa Orlong. Nor the Sunyd. I now believe that Urugal indeed walks with you on this journey.’
    ‘Then know this, Delum Thord. I am not content to be champion among the Uryd. One day, all the Teblor shall kneel to me. This, our journey to the outlands, is but a scouting of the enemy we shall one day face. Our people have slept for far too long.’
    ‘Karsa Orlong, I do not doubt you.’
    Karsa’s answering grin was cold. ‘Yet you once did.’ To that, Delum simply shrugged, then he swung about and set off down the slope.
    Karsa examined his chewed wrist, then looked down at the dog and laughed. ‘You’ve the taste of my blood in your mouth, beast. Urugal now races to clasp your heart, and so, you and I, we are joined. Come, walk at my side. I name you Gnaw.’
    There were eleven adult dogs in the pack and three not quite full-grown. They fell in step behind Karsa and Gnaw, leaving their lone fallen kin unchallenged ruler of the shelf beneath the cliff. Until the flies came.

    Towards midday, the three Uryd warriors and their pack descended into the middle of the three small valleys on their southeasterly course across Rathyd lands. The hunt they tracked had clearly been driven to desperation, to have travelled so far in their search. It was also evident that the warriors ahead had avoided contact with other villages in the area. Their lengthening failure had become a shame that haunted them.
    Karsa was mildly disappointed in that, but he consoled himself that the tale of their deeds would travel none the less, sufficient to make their return journey across Rathyd territory a deadlier and more interesting task.
    Delum judged that the hunt was barely a third of a day ahead. They had slowed their pace, sending outriders to either side in search of a trail that did not yet exist. Karsa would not permit himself a gloat concerning that, however; there were, after all, two other parties from the Rathyd village, these ones probably on foot and moving cautiously, leaving few signs of their stealthy passage. At any time, they might cross the Uryd trail.
    The pack of dogs remained close on the upwind side, loping effortlessly alongside the trotting horses. Bairoth had simply shaken his head at hearing Delum’s recount of Karsa’s exploits, though of Karsa’s ambitions, Delum curiously said nothing.
    They reached the valley floor, a place of tumbled stone amidst birch, black spruce, aspen and alder. The remnants of a river seeped through the moss and rotting stumps, forming black pools that hinted nothing of their depth. Many of these sinkholes were hidden among boulders and treefalls. Their pace slowed as they cautiously worked their way deeper into the forest.
    A short while later they came to the first of the mud-packed, wooden walkways the Rathyd of this valley had built long ago and still maintained, if only indifferently. Lush grasses filling the joins attested to this particular one’s disuse, but its direction suited the Uryd warriors, and so they dismounted and led their horses up onto the raised track.
    It creaked and swayed beneath the combined weight of horses, Teblor and dogs.
    ‘We’d best spread out and stay on foot,’ Bairoth said.
    Karsa crouched and studied the roughly dressed logs. ‘The wood is still sound,’ he observed.
    ‘But the stilts are seated in mud, Warleader.’
    ‘Not mud, Bairoth Gild. Peat.’
    ‘Karsa Orlong is right,’ Delum said, swinging himself back onto his destrier. ‘The way may pitch but the cross-struts underneath will keep it from twisting. We ride down the centre, in single file.’
    ‘There is little point,’ Karsa said to Bairoth, ‘in taking this path if we then creep along it like snails.’
    ‘The risk, Warleader, is that we become far more visible.’
    ‘Best we move along it quickly, then.’
    Bairoth grimaced. ‘As you say, Karsa Orlong.’
    Delum in the lead, they rode at a slow canter down the centre of the walkway. The pack followed. To either side, the only trees that reached to the eye level of the mounted warriors were dead birch, their leafless, black branches wrapped, in the web of caterpillar nests. The living trees-aspen and alder and elm-reached no higher than chest height with their fluttering canopy of dusty-green leaves. Taller black spruce was visible in the distance. Most of these looked to be dead or dying.
    ‘The old river is returning,’ Delum commented. ‘This forest slowly drowns.’
    Karsa grunted, then said, ‘This valley runs into others that all lead northward, all the way to the Buryd Fissure. Pahlk was among the Teblor elders who gathered there sixty years ago. The river of ice filling the Fissure had died, suddenly, and had begun to melt.’
    Behind Karsa, Bairoth spoke. ‘We never learned what the elders of all the tribes discovered up there, nor if they had found whatever it was they were seeking.’
    ‘I did not know they were seeking anything in particular,’ Delum muttered. ‘The death of the ice river was heard in a hundred valleys, including our own. Did they not travel to the Fissure simply to discover what had happened?’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘Pahlk told me of countless beasts that had been frozen within the ice for numberless centuries, becoming visible amidst the shattered blocks. Fur and flesh thawing, the ground and sky alive with crows and mountain vultures. There was ivory, but most of it was too badly crushed to be of any worth. The river had a black heart, or so its death revealed, but whatever lay within that heart was either gone or destroyed. Even so, there were signs of an ancient battle in that place. The bones of children. Weapons of stone, all broken.’
    ‘This is more than I have ever-’ Bairoth began, then stopped. The walkway, which had been reverberating to their passage, had suddenly acquired a deeper, syncopating thunder. The walkway ahead made a bend, forty paces distant, to the left, disappearing behind trees. The pack of dogs began snapping their jaws in voiceless warning. Karsa twisted round, and saw, two hundred paces behind them on the walkway, a dozen Rathyd warriors on foot. Weapons were lifted in silent promise.
    Yet the sound of hoofs-Karsa swung forward again, to see six riders pitch around the bend. Warcries rang in the air.
    ‘Clear a space!’ Bairoth bellowed, driving his horse past Karsa, and then Delum. The bear skull sprang into the air, snapping as it reached the length of the straps, and Bairoth began whirling the massive, bound skull over his and his horse’s head, using both hands, his knees high on his destrier’s shoulders. The whirling skull made a deep, droning sound. His horse loped forward.
    The Rathyd riders were at full charge. They rode two abreast, the edge of the walkway less than half an arm’s length away on either side.
    They had closed to within twenty paces of Bairoth when he released the bear skull.
    When two or three wolf skulls were used in this fashion, it was to bind or break legs. But Bairoth’s target was higher. The skull struck the destrier on the left with a force that shattered the horse’s chest. Blood sprayed from the animal’s nose and mouth. Crashing down, it fouled the beast beside it-no more than the crack of a single hoof against its shoulder, but sufficient to make it veer wildly, and plunge down off the walkway. Legs snapped. The Rathyd warrior flew over his horse’s head.
    The rider of the first horse landed with bone-breaking impact on the walkway, at the very hoofs of Bairoth’s destrier. Those hoofs punched down on the man’s head in quick succession, leaving a shattered mess.
    The charge floundered. Another horse went down, stumbling with a scream over the wildly kicking beast that now blocked the walkway.
    Loosing the Uryd warcry, Bairoth drove his mount forward. A surging leap carried them over the first downed destrier. The Rathyd warrior from the other fallen horse was just clambering clear and had time to look up to see Bairoth’s sword-blade reach the bridge of his nose.
    Delum was suddenly behind his comrade. Two knives darted through the air, passing Bairoth on his right. There was a sharp report as a Rathyd’s heavy sword-blade slashed across to block one of the knives, then a wet gasp as the second knife found the man’s throat.
    Two of the enemy remained, one each for Delum and Bairoth, and so the duels could begin.
    Karsa, after watching the effect of Bairoth’s initial attack, had wheeled his mount round. Sword in his hands, blade flashing into Havok’s vision, and they were charging back down the walkway towards the pursuing band.
    The dog pack split to either side to avoid the thundering hoofs, then raced after rider and horse.
    Ahead, eight adults and four youths.
    A barked order sent the youths to either side of the walkway, then down. The adults wanted room, and, seeing their obvious confidence as they formed an inverted V spanning the walkway, weapons ready, Karsa laughed.
    They wanted him to ride down into the centre of that inverted V-a tactic that, while it maintained Havok’s fierce speed, also exposed horse and rider to flanking attacks. Speed counted for much in the engagement to come. The Rathyd’s expectations fit neatly into the attacker’s intent-had that attacker been someone other than Karsa Orlong. ‘Urugal!’ he bellowed, lifting himself high on Havok’s shoulders. ‘Witness!’ He held his sword, point forward, over his destrier’s head, and fixed his gaze on the Rathyd warrior on the V’s extreme left.
    Havok sensed the shift in attention and angled his charge just moments before contact, hoofs pounding along the very edge of the walkway.
    The Rathyd directly before them managed a single backward step, swinging a two-handed overhead chop at Havok’s snout as he went.
    Karsa took that blade on his own, even as he twisted and threw his right leg forward, his left back. Havok turned beneath him, surged in towards the centre of the walkway.
    The V had collapsed, and every Rathyd warrior was on Karsa’s left.
    Havok carried him diagonally across the walkway. Keening his delight, Karsa slashed and chopped repeatedly, his blade finding flesh and bone as often as weapon. Havok pitched around before reaching the opposite edge, and lashed out his hind legs. At least one connected, flinging a shattered body from the bridge.
    The pack then arrived. Snarling bodies hurling onto the Rathyd warriors-most of whom had turned when engaging Karsa, and so presented exposed backs to the frenzied dogs. Shrieks filled the air.
    Karsa spun Havok round. They plunged back into the savage press. Two Rathyd had managed to fight clear of the dogs, blood spraying from their blades as they backed up the walkway.
    Bellowing a challenge, Karsa drove towards them.
    And was shocked to see them both leap from the walkway.
    ‘Bloodless cowards! I witness! Your youths witness! These damned dogs witness!’
    He saw them reappear, weapons gone, scrambling and stumbling across the bog.
    Delum and Bairoth arrived, dismounting to add their swords to the maniacal frenzy of the surviving dogs as they tore unceasing at fallen Rathyd.
    Karsa drew Havok to one side, eyes still on the fleeing warriors, who had been joined now by the four youths. ‘I witness! Urugal witnesses!’
    Gnaw, black and grey hide barely visible beneath splashes of gore, panted up to stand beside Havok, his muscles twitching but no wounds showing. Karsa glanced back and saw that four more dogs remained, whilst a fifth had lost a foreleg and limped a red circle off to one side.
    ‘Delum, bind that one’s leg-we will sear it anon.’
    ‘What use a three-legged hunting dog, Warleader?’ Bairoth asked, breathing heavy.
    ‘Even a three-legged dog has ears and a nose, Bairoth Gild. One day, she will lie grey-nosed and fat before my hearth, this I swear. Now, is either of you wounded?’
    ‘Scratches.’ Bairoth shrugged, turning away.
    ‘I have lost a finger,’ Delum said as he drew out a leather strap and approached the wounded dog, ‘but not an important one.’
    Karsa looked once more at the retreating Rathyd. They had almost reached a stand of black spruce. The warleader sent them a final sneer, then laid a hand on Havok’s brow. ‘My father spoke true, Havok. I have never ridden such a horse as you.’
    An ear had cocked at his words. Karsa leaned forward and set his lips to the beast’s brow. ‘We become, you and I,’ he whispered, ‘legend. Legend, Havok.’ Straightening, he studied the sprawl of corpses on the walkway, and smiled. ‘It is time for trophies, my brothers. Bairoth, did your bear skull survive?’
    ‘I believe so, Warleader.’
    ‘Your deed was our victory, Bairoth Gild.’
    The heavy man turned, studied Karsa through slitted eyes. ‘You ever surprise me, Karsa Orlong.’
    ‘As your strength does me, Bairoth Gild.’
    The man hesitated, then nodded. ‘I am content to follow you, Warleader.’
    You ever were, Bairoth Gild, and that is the difference between us.

CHAPTER TWO

    There are hints, if one scans the ground with a clear and sharp eye, that this ancient Jaghut war, which for the Kron T’lan Imass was either their seventeenth or eighteenth, went terribly awry. The Adept who accompanied our expedition evinced no doubt whatsoever that a Jaghut remained alive within the Laederon glacier. Terribly wounded, yet possessing formidable sorcery still. Well beyond the ice river’s reach (a reach which has been diminishing over time), there are shattered remains of T’lan Imass, the bones strangely malformed, and on them the flavour of fierce and deadly Omtose Phellack lingering to this day.
    Of the ensorcelled stone weapons of the Kron, only those that were broken in the conflict remained, leading one to assume that either looters have been this way, or the T’lan Imass survivors (assuming there were any) took them with them…
    The Nathii Expedition of 1012
Kenemass Trybanos, Chronicler

    ‘I believe,’ Delum said as they led their horses down from the walkway, ‘that the last group of the hunt has turned back.’
    ‘The plague of cowardice ever spreads,’ Karsa growled. ‘They surmised at the very first,’ Bairoth rumbled, ‘that we were crossing their lands. That our first attack was not simply a raid. So, they will await our return, and will likely call upon the warriors of other villages.’
    ‘That does not concern me, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘I know that, Karsa Orlong, for what part of this journey have you not already anticipated? Even so, two more Rathyd valleys lie before us. I would know. There will be villages-do we ride around them or do we collect still more trophies?’
    ‘We shall be burdened with too many trophies when we reach the lands of the lowlanders at Silver Lake,’ Delum commented.
    Karsa laughed, then considered. ‘Bairoth Gild, we shall slip through these valleys like snakes in the night, until the very last village. I would still draw hunters after us, into the lands of the Sunyd.’ Delum had found a trail leading up the valley side. Karsa checked on the dog limping in their wake. Gnaw walked alongside it, and it occurred to Karsa that the three-legged beast might well keep its mate. He was pleased with his decision to not slay the wounded creature.
    There was a chill in the air that confirmed their gradual climb to higher elevations. The Sunyd territory was higher still, leading to the eastern edge of the escarpment. Pahlk had told Karsa that but a single nass cut through the escarpment, marked by a torrential waterfall that fed into Silver Lake. The climb down was treacherous. Pahlk had named it Bone Pass.
    The trail began to wind sinuously among winter-cracked boulders and treefalls. They could now see the summit, six hundred steep paces upward.
    The warriors dismounted. Karsa strode back and lifted the three-legged dog into his arms. He set it down across Havok’s broad back and strapped it in place. The animal voiced no protest. Gnaw moved up to flank the destrier.
    They resumed their journey.
    The sun was bathing the slope in brilliant gold light by the time they had closed to within a hundred paces of the summit, reaching a broad ledge that seemed-through a sparse forest of straggly, wind-twisted oaks-to run the length of the valley side. Scanning the terrace’s sweep to his right, Delum voiced a grunt, then said, ‘I see a cave. There,’ he pointed, ‘behind those fallen trees, where the shelf bulges.’
    Bairoth nodded and said, ‘It looks big enough to hold our horses. Karsa Orlong, if we are to begin riding at night…’
    ‘Agreed,’ Karsa said.
    Delum led the way along the terrace. Gnaw scrambled past him, slowing upon nearing the cave mouth, then crouching down and edging forward.
    The Uryd warriors paused, waiting to see if the dog’s hackles rose, thus signalling the presence of a grey bear or some other denizen. After a long moment, with Gnaw motionless and lying almost flat before the cave entrance, the beast finally rose and glanced back at the party, then trotted into the cave.
    The fallen trees had provided a natural screen, hiding the cave from the valley below. There had been an overhang, but it had collapsed, perhaps beneath the weight of the trees, leaving a rough pile of rubble partially blocking the entrance.
    Bairoth began clearing a path to lead the horses through. Delum and Karsa took Gnaw’s route into the cave.
    Beyond the mound of tumbled stones and sand, the floor levelled out beneath a scatter of dried leaves. The setting sun’s light painted the back wall in patches of yellow, revealing an almost solid mass of carved glyphs. A small cairn of piled stones sat in the domed chamber’s centre. Gnaw was nowhere to be seen, but the dog’s tracks crossed the floor and vanished into an area of gloom near the back.
    Delum stepped forward, his eyes on a single, oversized glyph directly opposite the entrance. ‘That Bloodsign is neither Rathyd nor Sunyd,’ he said.
    ‘But the words beneath it are Teblor,’ Karsa asserted. ‘The style is very…’ Delum frowned, ‘ornate.’ Karsa began reading aloud, ‘ “I led the families that survived. Down from the high lands. Through the broken veins that bled beneath the sun…” Broken veins?’
    ‘Ice,’ Delum said.
    ‘Bleeding beneath the sun, aye. “We were so few. Our blood was cloudy and would grow cloudier still. I saw the need to shatter what remained. For the T’lan Imass were still close and much agitated and inclined to continue their indiscriminate slaughter.’ ” Karsa scowled. ‘T’lan Imass? I do not know those two words.’
    ‘Nor I,’ Delum replied. ‘A rival tribe, perhaps. Read on, Karsa Orlong. Your eye is quicker than mine.’
    ‘ “And so I sundered husband from wife. Child from parent. Brother from sister. I fashioned new families and then sent them away. Each to a different place. I proclaimed the Laws of Isolation, as given us by Icarium whom we had once sheltered and whose heart grew vast with grief upon seeing what had become of us. The Laws of Isolation would be our salvation, clearing the blood and strengthening our children. To all who follow and to all who shall read these words, this is my justification-” ’
    ‘These words trouble me, Karsa Orlong.’
    Karsa glanced back at Delum. ‘Why? They signify nothing of us. They are an elder’s ravings. Too many words-to have carved all these letters would have taken years, and only a madman would do such a thing. A madman, who was buried here, alone, driven out by his people-’
    Delum’s gaze sharpened on Karsa. ‘Driven out? Yes, I believe you are correct, Warleader. Read more-let us hear his justification, and so judge for ourselves.’
    Shrugging, Karsa returned his attention to the stone wall. ‘ “To survive, we must forget. So Icarium told us. Those things that we had come to, those things that softened us. We must abandon them. We must dismantle our…” I know not that word, “and shatter each and every stone, leaving no evidence of what we had been. We must burn our…” another word I do not know, “and leave naught but ash. We must forget our history and seek only our most ancient of legends. Legends that told of a time when we lived simply. In the forests. Hunting, culling fish from the rivers, raising horses. When our laws were those of the raider, the slayer, when all was measured by the sweep of a sword. Legends that spoke of feuds, of murders and rapes. We must return to those terrible times. To isolate our streams of blood, to weave new, smaller nets of kinship. New threads must be born of rape, for only with violence would they remain rare occurrences, and random. To cleanse our blood, we must forget all that we were, yet find what we had once been-” ’
    ‘Down here,’ Delum said, squatting. ‘Lower down. I recognize words. Read here, Karsa Orlong.’
    ‘It’s dark, Delum Thord, but I shall try. Ah, yes. These are… names. “I have given these new tribes names, the names given by my father for his sons.” And then a list. “Baryd, Sanyd, Phalyd, Urad, Gelad, Manyd, Rathyd and Lanyd. These, then, shall be the new tribes…” It grows too dark to read on, Delum Thord, nor,’ he added, fighting a sudden chill, ‘do I desire to. These thoughts are spider-bitten. Fever-twisted into lies.’
    ‘Phalyd and Lanyd are-’
    Karsa straightened. ‘No more, Delum Thord.’
    ‘The name of Icarium has lived on in our-’
    ‘Enough!’ Karsa growled. ‘There is nothing of meaning here in these words!’
    ‘As you say, Karsa Orlong.’
    Gnaw emerged from the gloom, where a darker fissure was now evident to the two Teblor warriors.
    Delum nodded towards it. ‘The carver’s body lies within.’
    ‘Where he no doubt crawled to die,’ Karsa sneered. ‘Let us return to Bairoth. The horses can be sheltered here. We shall sleep outside.’
    Both warriors turned and strode back to the cave mouth. Behind them, Gnaw stood beside the cairn a moment longer. The sun had left the wall, filling the cave with shadows. In the darkness, the dog’s eyes flickered.

    Two nights later, they sat on their horses and looked down into the valley of the Sunyd. The plan to draw Rathyd pursuers after them had failed, for the last two villages they had come across had been long abandoned. The surrounding trails had been overgrown and rains had taken the charcoal from the firepits, leaving only red-rimmed black stains in the earth.
    And now, across the entire breadth and length of the Sunyd valley, they could see no fires.
    ‘They have fled,’ Bairoth muttered.
    ‘But not from us,’ Delum replied, ‘if the Sunyd villages prove to be the same as those Rathyd ones. This is a flight long past.’ Bairoth grunted. ‘Where, then, have they gone?’ Shrugging, Karsa said, ‘There are Sunyd valleys north of this one. A dozen or more. And some to the south as well. Perhaps there has been a schism. It matters little to us, except that we shall gather no more trophies until we reach Silver Lake.’
    Bairoth rolled his shoulders. ‘Warleader, when we reach Silver Lake, will our raid be beneath the wheel or the sun? With the valley before us empty, we could camp at night. These trails are unfamiliar, forcing us to go slowly in the dark.’
    ‘You speak the truth, Bairoth Gild. Our raid will be in daylight. Let us make our way down to the valley floor, then, and find us a place to camp.’
    The wheel of stars had travelled a fourth of its journey by the time the Uryd warriors reached level ground and found a suitable campsite. Delum had, with the aid of the dogs, killed a half-dozen rock hares during the descent, which he now skinned and spit while Bairoth built a small fire.
    Karsa saw to the horses, then joined his two companions at the hearth. They sat, waiting in silence for the meat to cook, the sweet smell and sizzle strangely unfamiliar after so many meals of raw food. Karsa felt a lassitude settle into his muscles, and only now realized how weary he had become.
    The hares were ready. The three warriors ate in silence. ‘Delum has spoken,’ Bairoth said when they were done, ‘of the words written in the cave.’
    Karsa shot Delum a glare. ‘Delum Thord spoke when he should not have. Within the cave, a madman’s ravings, nothing more.’
    ‘I have considered them,’ Bairoth persisted, ‘and I believe there is truth hidden within those ravings, Karsa Orlong.’
    ‘Pointless belief, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘I think not, Warleader. The names of the tribes-I agree with Delum when he says there are, among them, the names of our tribes. “Urad” is far too close to Uryd to be accidental, especially when three of the other names are unchanged. Granted, one of those tribes has since vanished, but even our own legends whisper of a time when there were more tribes than there are now. And those two words that you did not know, Karsa Orlong. “Great villages” and “yellow bark”-’
    ‘Those were not the words!’
    ‘True enough, but that is the closest Delum could come to. Karsa Orlong, the hand that inscribed those words was from a place and time of sophistication, a place and a time where the Teblor language was, if anything, more complex than it is now.’
    Karsa spat into the fire. ‘Bairoth Gild, if these be truths as you and Delum say, I still must ask: what value do they hold for us now? Are we a fallen people? That is not a revelation. Our legends all speak of an age of glory, long past, when a hundred heroes strode among the Teblor, heroes that would make even my own grandfather, Pahlk, seem but a child among men-’
    Delum’s face in the firelight was deeply frowning as he cut in, ‘And this is what troubles me, Karsa Orlong. Those legends and their tales of glory-they describe an age little different from our own. Aye, more heroes, greater deeds, but essentially the same, in the manner of how we lived. Indeed, it often seems that the very point of those tales is one of instruction, a code of behaviour, the proper way of being a Teblor.’
    Bairoth nodded. ‘And there, in those carved words in the cave, we are offered the explanation.’
    ‘A description of how we would be,’ Delum added. ‘No, of how we are.’
    ‘None of it matters,’ Karsa growled.
    ‘We were a defeated people,’ Delum continued, as if he hadn’t heard. ‘Reduced to a broken handful.’ He looked up, met Karsa’s eyes across the fire. ‘How many of our brothers and sisters who are given to the Faces in the Rock-how many of them were born flawed in some way? Too many fingers and toes, mouths with no palates, faces with no eyes. We’ve seen the same among our dogs and horses, Warleader. Defects come of inbreeding. That is a truth. The elder in the cave, he knew what threatened our people, so he fashioned a means of separating us, of slowly clearing our cloudy blood-and he was cast out as a betrayer of the Teblor. We were witness, in that cave, to an ancient crime-’
    ‘We are fallen,’ Bairoth said, then laughed.
    Delum’s gaze snapped to him. ‘And what is it that you find so funny, Bairoth Gild?’
    ‘If I must needs explain, Delum Thord, then there is no point.’
    Bairoth’s laughter had chilled Karsa. ‘You have both failed to grasp the true meaning of all this-’
    Bairoth grunted, ‘The meaning you said did not exist, Karsa Orlong?’
    ‘The fallen know but one challenge,’ Karsa resumed. ‘And that is to rise once more. The Teblor were once few, once defeated. So be it. We are no longer few. Nor have we known defeat since that time. Who from the lowlands dares venture into our territories? The time has come, I now say, to face that challenge. The Teblor must rise once more.’
    Bairoth sneered, ‘And who will lead us? Who will unite the tribes? I wonder.’
    ‘Hold,’ Delum rumbled, eyes glittering. ‘Bairoth Gild, from you I now hear unseemly envy. With what we three have done, with what our warleader has already achieved-tell me, Bairoth Gild, do the shadows of the ancient heroes still devour us whole? I say they do not. Karsa Orlong now walks among those heroes, and we walk with him.’
    Bairoth slowly leaned back, stretching his legs out beside the hearth. ‘As you say, Delum Thord.’ The flickering light revealed a broad smile that seemed directed into the flames. ‘ “Who from the lowlands dares venture into our territories?” Karsa Orlong, we travel an empty valley. Empty of Teblor, aye. But what has driven them away? It may be that defeat stalks the formidable Teblor once more.’
    There was a long moment when none of the three spoke, then Delum added another stick to the fire. ‘It may be,’ he said in a low voice, ‘that there are no heroes among the Sunyd.’
    Bairoth laughed. ‘True. Among all the Teblor, there are but three heroes. Will that be enough, do you think?’
    ‘Three is better than two,’ Karsa snapped, ‘but if need be, two will suffice.’
    ‘I pray to the Seven, Karsa Orlong, that your mind ever remain free of doubt.’
    Karsa realized that his hands had closed on the grip of his sword. ‘Ah, that’s your thought, then. The son of the father. Am I being accused of Synyg’s weakness?’
    Bairoth studied Karsa, then slowly shook his head. ‘Your father is not weak, Karsa Orlong. If there are doubts to speak of here and now, they concern Pahlk and his heroic raid to Silver Lake.’
    Karsa was on his feet, the bloodwood sword in his hands.
    Bairoth made no move. ‘You do not see what I see,’ he said quietly. ‘There is the potential within you, Karsa Orlong, to be your father’s son. I lied earlier when I said I prayed that you would remain free of doubt. I pray for the very opposite, Warleader. I pray that doubt comes to you, that it tempers you with its wisdom. Those heroes in our legends, Karsa Orlong, they were terrible, they were monsters, for they were strangers to uncertainty.’
    ‘Stand before me, Bairoth Gild, for I will not kill you whilst your sword remains at your side.’
    ‘I will not, Karsa Orlong. The straw is on my back, and you are not my enemy.’
    Delum moved forward with his hands full of earth, which he dropped onto the fire between the two other men. ‘It is late,’ he muttered, ‘and it may be as Bairoth suggests, that we are not as alone in this valley as we believe ourselves to be. At the very least, there may be watchers on the other side. Warleader, there have been only words this night. Let us leave the spilling of blood for our true enemies.’
    Karsa remained standing, glaring down at Bairoth Gild. ‘Words,’ he growled. ‘Yes, and for the words he has spoken, Bairoth Gild must apologize.’
    ‘I, Bairoth Gild, beg forgiveness for my words. Now, Karsa Orlong, will you put away your sword?’
    ‘You are warned,’ Karsa said, ‘I will not be so easily appeased next time.’
    ‘I am warned.’

    Grasses and saplings had reclaimed the Sunyd village. The trails leading to and from it had almost vanished beneath brambles, but here and there, among the stone foundations of the circular houses, the signs of fire and violence could be seen.
    Delum dismounted and began poking about the ruins. It was only a few moments before he found the first bones.
    Bairoth grunted. ‘A raiding party. One that left no survivors.’
    Delum straightened with a splintered arrow shaft in his hands. ‘Lowlanders. The Sunyd keep few dogs, else they would not have been so unprepared.’
    ‘We now take upon ourselves,’ Karsa said, ‘not a raid, but a war. We journey to Silver Lake not as Uryd, but as Teblor. And we shall deliver vengeance.’ He dismounted and removed from the saddle pack four hard leather sheaths, which he began strapping onto Havok’s legs to protect the horse from the brambles. The other two warriors followed suit.
    ‘Lead us, Warleader,’ Delum said when he was done, swinging himself onto his destrier’s back.
    Karsa collected the three-legged dog and laid it down once more behind Havok’s withers. He regained his seat and looked to Bairoth.
    The burly warrior also remounted. His eyes were hooded as he met Karsa’s gaze. ‘Lead us, Warleader.’
    ‘We shall ride as fast as the land allows,’ Karsa said, drawing the three-legged dog onto his thighs. ‘Once beyond this valley, we head northward, then east once more. By tomorrow night we shall be close to Bone Pass, the southward wend that will take us to Silver Lake.’
    ‘And if we come across lowlanders on the way?’
    ‘Then, Bairoth Gild, we shall begin gathering trophies. But none must be allowed to escape, for our attack on the farm must come as a complete surprise, lest the children flee.’
    They skirted the village until they came to a trail that led them into the forest. Beneath the trees there was less undergrowth, allowing them to ride at a slow canter. Before long, the trail began climbing the valley side. By dusk, they reached the summit. Horses steaming beneath them, the three warriors reined in.
    They had come to the edge of the escarpment. To the north and east and still bathed in golden sunlight, the horizon was a jagged line of mountains, their peaks capped in snow with rivers of white stretching down their flanks. Directly before them, after a sheer drop of three hundred or more paces, lay a vast, forested basin.
    ‘I see no fires,’ Delum said, scanning the shadow-draped valley.
    ‘We must now skirt this edge, northward,’ Karsa said. ‘There are no trails breaking the cliffside here.’
    ‘The horses need rest,’ Delum said. ‘But we are highly visible here, Warleader.’
    ‘We shall walk them on, then,’ Karsa said, dismounting. When he set the three-legged dog onto the ground, Gnaw moved up alongside her. Karsa collected Havok’s single rein. A game trail followed the ridgeline along the top for another thirty paces before dropping slightly, sufficient to remove the silhouette they made against the sky.
    They continued on until the wheel of stars had completed a fifth of its passage, whereupon they found a high-walled cul de sac just off the trail in which to make camp. Delum began preparing the meal while Bairoth rubbed down the horses.
    Taking Gnaw and his mate with him, Karsa scouted the path ahead. Thus far, the only tracks they had seen were those from mountain goats and wild sheep. The ridge had begun a slow, broken descent, and he knew that, somewhere ahead, there would be a river carrying the run-off from the north range of mountains, and a waterfall cutting a notch into the escarpment’s cliffside.
    Both dogs shied suddenly in the gloom, bumping into Karsa’s legs as they backed away from another dead-end to the left. Laying a hand down to calm Gnaw, he found the beast trembling. Karsa drew his sword. He sniffed the air, but could smell nothing awry, nor was there any sound from the dark-shrouded dead-end and Karsa was close enough to hear breathing had there been anyone hiding in it.
    He edged forward.
    A massive flat slab dominated the stone floor, leaving only a forearm’s space on the three sides where rose the rock walls. The surface of the slab was unadorned, but a faint grey light seemed to emanate from the stone itself. Karsa moved closer, then slowly crouched down before the lone, motionless hand jutting from the slab’s nearmost edge. It was gaunt, yet whole, the skin a milky blue-green, the nails chipped and ragged, the fingers patched in white dust.
    Every space within reach of that hand was etched in grooves, cut deep into the stone floor-as deep as the fingers could reach-in a chaotic, cross-hatched pattern.
    The hand, Karsa could see, was neither Teblor nor lowlander, but in size somewhere in between, the bones prominent, the fingers narrow and overlong and seeming to bear far too many joints.
    Something of Karsa’s presence-his breath perhaps as he leaned close in his study-was sensed, for the hand spasmed suddenly, jerking down to lie flat, fingers spread, on the rock. And Karsa now saw the unmistakable signs that animals had attacked that hand in the past-mountain wolves and creatures yet fiercer. It had been chewed, clawed and gnawed at, though, it seemed, never broken. Motionless once more, it lay pressed against the ground.
    Hearing footsteps behind him, Karsa rose and turned. Delum and Bairoth, weapons out, made their way up the trail. Karsa strode to meet them.
    Bairoth rumbled, ‘Your two dogs came skulking back to us.’
    ‘What have you found, Warleader?’ Delum asked in a whisper.
    ‘A demon,’ he replied. ‘Pinned for eternity beneath that stone. It lives, still.’
    ‘The Forkassal.’
    ‘Even so. There is much truth in our legends, it seems.’
    Bairoth moved past and approached the slab. He crouched down before the hand and studied it long in the gloom, then he straightened and strode back. ‘The Forkassal. The demon of the mountains, the One Who Sought Peace.’
    ‘In the time of the Spirit Wars, when our old gods were young,’ Delum said. ‘What, Karsa Orlong, do you recall of that tale? It was so brief, nothing more than torn pieces. The elders themselves admitted that most of it had been lost long ago, before the Seven awoke.’
    ‘Pieces,’ Karsa agreed. ‘The Spirit Wars were two, perhaps three invasions, and had little to do with the Teblor. Foreign gods and demons. Their battles shook the mountains, and then but one force remained-’
    ‘In those tales,’ Delum interjected, ‘are the only mention of Icarium. Karsa Orlong, it may be that the T’lan Imass-spoken of in that elder’s cave-belonged to the Spirit Wars, and that they were the victors, who then left never to return. It may be that it was the Spirit Wars that shattered our people.’
    Bairoth’s gaze remained on the slab. Now he spoke. ‘The demon must be freed.’
    Both Karsa and Delum turned to him, struck silent by the pronouncement.
    ‘Say nothing,’ Bairoth continued, ‘until I have finished. The Forkassal was said to have come to the place of the Spirit Wars, seeking to make peace between the contestants. That is one of the torn pieces of the tale. For the demon’s effort it was destroyed. That is another piece. Icarium too sought to end the war, but he arrived too late, and the victors knew they could not defeat him so they did not even try. A third piece. Delum Thord, the words in the cave also spoke of Icarium, yes?’
    ‘They did, Bairoth Gild. Icarium gave the Teblor the Laws that ensured our survival.’
    ‘Yet, were they able, the T’lan Imass would have laid a stone on him as well.’ After these words, Bairoth fell silent.
    Karsa swung about and walked to the slab. Its luminescence was fitful in places, hinting of the sorcery’s antiquity, a slow dissolution of the power invested in it. Teblor elders worked magic, but only rarely. Since the awakening of the Faces in the Rock, sorcery arrived as a visitation, locked within the confines of sleep or trance. The old legends spoke of vicious displays of overt magic, of dread weapons tempered with curses, but Karsa suspected these were but elaborate inventions to weave bold colours into the tales. He scowled. ‘I have no understanding of this magic,’ he said.
    Bairoth and Delum joined him.
    The hand still lay flat, motionless.
    ‘I wonder if the demon can hear our words,’ Delum said.
    Bairoth grunted. ‘Even if it could, why would it understand them? The lowlanders speak a different tongue. Demons must also have their own.’
    ‘Yet he came to make peace-’
    ‘He cannot hear us,’ Karsa asserted. ‘He can do no more than sense the presence of someone… of something.’
    Shrugging, Bairoth crouched down beside the slab. He reached out, hesitated, then settled his palm against the stone. ‘It is neither hot nor cold. Its magic is not for us.’
    ‘It is not meant to ward, then, only hold,’ Delum suggested.
    ‘The three of us should be able to lift it.’
    Karsa studied Bairoth. ‘What do you wish to awaken here, Bairoth Gild?’
    The huge warrior looked up, eyes narrowing. Then his brows rose and he smiled. ‘A bringer of peace?’
    ‘There is no value in peace.’
    ‘There must be peace among the Teblor, or they shall never be united.’
    Karsa cocked his head, considering Bairoth’s words.
    ‘This demon may have gone mad,’ Delum muttered. ‘How long, trapped beneath this rock?’
    ‘There are three of us,’ Bairoth said.
    ‘Yet this demon is from a time when we had been defeated, and if it was these T’lan Imass who imprisoned this demon, they did so because they could not kill him. Bairoth Gild, we three would be as nothing to this creature.’
    ‘We will have earned its gratitude.’
    ‘The fever of madness knows no friends.’
    Both warriors looked to Karsa. ‘We cannot know the mind of a demon,’ he said. ‘But we can see one thing, and that is how it still seeks to protect itself. This lone hand has fended off all sorts of beasts. In that, I see a holding on to purpose.’
    ‘The patience of an immortal.’ Bairoth nodded. ‘I see the same as you, Karsa Orlong.’
    Karsa faced Delum. ‘Delum Thord, do you still possess doubts?’
    ‘I do, Warleader, yet I will give your effort my strength, for I see the decision in your eyes. So be it.’
    Without another word the three Uryd positioned themselves along one side of the stone slab. They squatted, hands reaching down to grip the edge.
    ‘With the fourth breath,’ Karsa instructed.
    The stone lifted with a grinding, grating sound, a sifting of dust. A concerted heave sent it over, to crack against the rock wall.
    The figure had been pinned on its side. The immense weight of the slab must have dislocated bones and crushed muscle, but it had not been enough to defeat the demon, for it had, over millennia, gouged out a rough, uneven pit for half the length of its narrow, strangely elongated body. The hand trapped beneath that body had clawed out a space for itself first, then had slowly worked grooves for hip and shoulder. Both feet, which were bare, had managed something similar. Spider webs and the dust of ground stone covered the figure like a dull grey shroud, and the stale air that rose from the space visibly swirled in its languid escape, heavy with a peculiar, insect-like stench.
    The three warriors stood looking down on the demon.
    It had yet to move, but they could see its strangeness even so. Elongated limbs, extra-jointed, the skin stretched taut and pallid as moonlight. A mass of blue-black hair spread out from the face-down head, like fine roots, forming a latticework across the stone floor. The demon was naked, and female.
    The limbs spasmed.
    Bairoth edged closer and spoke in a low, soothing tone. ‘You are freed, Demon. We are Teblor, of the Uryd tribe. If you will, we would help you. Tell us what you require.’
    The limbs had ceased their spasming, and now but trembled. Slowly, the demon lifted her head. The hand that had known an eternity of darkness slipped free from under her body, probed out over the flat stone floor. The fingertips cut across strands of hair and those strands fell to dust. The hand settled in a way that matched its opposite. Muscles tautened along the arms, neck and shoulders, and the demon rose, in jagged, shaking increments. She shed hair in black sheets of dust until her pate was revealed, smooth and white.
    Bairoth moved to take her weight but Karsa snapped a hand out to restrain him. ‘No, Bairoth Gild, she has known enough pressure that was not her own. I do not think she would be touched, not for a long time, perhaps never again.’
    Bairoth’s hooded gaze fixed on Karsa for a long moment, then he sighed and said, ‘Karsa Orlong, I hear wisdom in your words. Again and again, you surprise me-no, I did not mean to insult. I am dragged towards admiration-leave me my edged words.’
    Karsa shrugged, eyes returning once more to the demon. ‘We can only wait, now. Does a demon know thirst? Hunger? Hers is a throat that has not known water for generations, a stomach that has forgotten its purpose, lungs that have not drawn a full breath since the slab first settled. Fortunate it is night, too, for the sun might be as fire to her eyes-’ He stopped then, for the demon, on hands and knees, had raised her head and they could see her face for the first time.
    Skin like polished marble, devoid of flaws, a broad brow over enormous midnight eyes that seemed dry and flat, like onyx beneath a layer of dust. High, flaring cheekbones, a wide mouth withered and crusted with fine crystals.
    ‘There is no water within her,’ Delum said. ‘None.’ He backed away, then set off for their camp.
    The woman slowly sat back onto her haunches, then struggled to stand.
    It was difficult to just watch, but both warriors held back, tensed to catch her should she fall.
    It seemed she noticed that, and one side of her mouth curled upward a fraction.
    That one twitch transformed her face, and, in response, Karsa felt a hammerblow in his chest. She mocks her own sorry condition. This, her first emotion upon being freed. Embarrassment, yet finding the humour within it. Hear me, Urugal the Woven, I will make the ones who imprisoned her regret their deed, should they or their descendants still live. These T’lan Imass-they have made of me an enemy. I, Karsa Orlong, so vow.
    Delum returned with a waterskin, his steps slowing upon seeing her standing upright.
    She was gaunt, her body a collection of planes and angles. Her breasts were high and far apart, her sternum prominent between them. She seemed to possess far too many ribs. In height, she was as a Teblor child.
    She saw the waterskin in Delum’s hands, but made no gesture towards it. Instead, she turned to settle her gaze on the place where she had lain.
    Karsa could see the rise and fall of her breath, but she was otherwise motionless.
    Bairoth spoke. ‘Are you the Forkassal?’
    She looked over at him and half-smiled once more.
    ‘We are Teblor,’ Bairoth continued, at which her smile broadened slightly in what was to Karsa clear recognition, though strangely flavoured with amusement.
    ‘She understands you,’ Karsa observed.
    Delum approached with the waterskin. She glanced at him and shook her head. He stopped.
    Karsa now saw that some of the dustiness was gone from her eyes, and that her lips were now slightly fuller. ‘She recovers,’ he said.
    ‘Freedom was all she needed,’ Bairoth said.
    ‘In the manner that sun-hardened lichen softens in the night,’ Karsa said. ‘Her thirst is quenched by the air itself-’
    She faced him suddenly, her body stiffening. ‘If I have given cause for offence-’
    Before Karsa drew another breath she was upon him. Five concussive blows to his body and he found himself lying on his back, the hard stone floor stinging as if he was lying on a nest of fire-ants. There was no air in his lungs. Agony thundered through him. He could not move. He heard Delum’s warcry-cut off with a strangled grunt-then the sound of another body striking the ground.
    Bairoth cried out from one side, ‘Forkassal! Hold! Leave him-’ Karsa blinked up through tear-filled eyes as her face hovered above his. It moved closer, the eyes gleaming now like black pools, the lips full and almost purple in the starlight.
    In a rasping voice she whispered to him in the language of the Teblor, ‘They will not leave you, will they? These once enemies of mine. It seems shattering their bones was not enough.’ Something in her eyes softened slightly. ‘Your kind deserve better.’ The face slowly withdrew. ‘I believe I must needs wait. Wait and see what comes of you, before I decide whether I shall deliver unto you, Warrior, my eternal peace.’ Bairoth’s voice from a dozen paces away: ‘Forkassal!’ She straightened and turned with extraordinary fluidity. ‘You have fallen far, to so twist the name of my kind, not to mention your own. I am Forkrul Assail, young warrior-not a demon. I am named Calm, a Bringer of Peace, and I warn you, the desire to deliver it is very strong in me at the moment, so remove your hand from that weapon.’
    ‘But we have freed you!’ Bairoth cried. ‘Yet you have struck Karsa and Delum down!’
    She laughed. ‘And Icarium and those damned T’lan Imass will not be pleased that you undid their work. Then again, it is likely Icarium has no memory of having done so, and the T’lan Imass are far away. Well, I shall not give them a second chance. But I do know gratitude, Warrior, and so I give you this. The one named Karsa has been chosen. If I was to tell you even the little that I sense of his ultimate purpose, you would seek to kill him. But I tell you there would be no value in that, for the ones using him will simply select another. No. Watch this friend of yours. Guard him. There will come a time when he stands poised to change the world. And when that time comes, I shall be there. For I bring peace. When that moment arrives, cease guarding him. Step back, as you have done now.’
    Karsa dragged a sobbing breath into his racked lungs. At a wave of nausea he twisted onto his side and vomited onto the gritty stone floor. Between his gasping and coughing, he heard the Forkrul Assail-the woman named Calm-stride away.
    A moment later Bairoth knelt beside Karsa. ‘Delum is badly hurt, Warleader,’ he said. ‘There is liquid leaking from a crack in his head. Karsa Orlong, I regret freeing this… this creature. Delum had doubts. Yet he-’
    Karsa coughed and spat, then, fighting waves of pain from his battered chest, he climbed to his feet. ‘You could not know, Bairoth Gild,’ he muttered, wiping the tears from his eyes.
    ‘Warleader, I did not draw my weapon. I did not seek to protect you as did Delum Thord-’
    ‘Which leaves one of us healthy,’ Karsa growled, staggering over to where Delum lay across the trail. He had been thrown some distance, by what looked to be a single blow. Slanting crossways across his forehead were four deep impressions, the skin split, yellowy liquid oozing from the punched-through bone underneath. Her fingertips. Delum’s eyes were wide, yet cloudy with confusion. Whole sections of his face had gone slack, as if no underlying thought could hold them to an expression.
    Bairoth joined him. ‘See, the fluid is clear. It is thought-blood. Delum Thord will not come all the way back with such an injury.’
    ‘No,’ Karsa murmured, ‘he will not. None who lose thought-blood ever do.’
    ‘It is my fault.’
    ‘No, Delum made a mistake, Bairoth Gild. Am I killed? The Forkassal chose not to slay me. Delum should have done as you did-nothing.’
    Bairoth winced. ‘She spoke to you, Karsa Orlong. I heard her whispering. What did she say?’
    ‘Little I could understand, except that the peace she brings is death.’
    ‘Our legends have twisted with time.’
    ‘They have, Bairoth Gild. Come, we must wrap Delum’s wounds. The thought-blood will gather in the bandages and dry, and so clot the holes. Perhaps it will not leak so much then and he will come some of the way back to us.’
    The two warriors set off for their camp. When they arrived they found the dogs huddled together, racked with shivering. Through the centre of the clearing ran the tracks of Calm’s feet. Heading south.
    A crisp, chill wind howled along the edge of the escarpment. Karsa Orlong sat with his back against the rock wall, watching Delum Thord move about on his hands and knees among the dogs. Reaching out and gathering the beasts close, to stroke and nuzzle. Soft, crooning sounds issued from Delum Thord, the smile never leaving the half of his face that still worked.
    The dogs were hunters. They suffered the manhandling with miserable expressions that occasionally became fierce, low growls punctuated with warning snaps of their jaws-to which Delum Thord seemed indifferent.
    Gnaw, lying at Karsa’s feet, tracked with sleepy eyes Delum’s random crawling about through the pack.
    It had taken most of a day for Delum Thord to return to them, a journey that had left much of the warrior behind. Another day had passed whilst Karsa and Bairoth waited to see if more would come, enough to send light into his eyes, enough to gift Delum Thord with the ability to once more look upon his companions. But there had been no change. He did not see them at all. Only the dogs.
    Bairoth had left earlier to hunt, but Karsa sensed, as the day stretched on, that Bairoth Gild had chosen to avoid the camp for other reasons. Freeing the demon had taken Delum from them, and it had been Bairoth’s words that had yielded a most bitter reward. Karsa had little understanding of such feelings, this need to self-inflict some sort of punishment. The error had belonged to Delum, drawing his blade against the demon. Karsa’s sore ribs attested to the Forkrul Assail’s martial prowess-she had attacked with impressive speed, faster than anything Karsa had seen before, much less faced. The three Teblor were as children before her. Delum should have seen that, instantly, should have stayed his hand as Bairoth had done.
    Instead, the warrior had been foolish, and now he crawled among the dogs. The Faces in the Rock held no pity for foolish warriors, so why should Karsa Orlong? Bairoth Gild was indulging himself, making regret and pity and castigation into sweet nectars, leaving him to wander like a tortured drunk.
    Karsa was fast running out of patience. The journey must be resumed. If anything could return Delum Thord to himself, then it would be battle, the blood’s fierce rage searing the soul awake.
    Footsteps from uptrail. Gnaw’s head turned, but the distraction was only momentary.
    Bairoth Gild strode into view, the carcass of a wild goat draped over one shoulder. He paused to study Delum Thord, then let the goat drop in a crunch and clatter of hoofs. He drew his butchering knife and knelt down beside it.
    ‘We have lost another day,’ Karsa said.
    ‘Game is scarce,’ Bairoth replied, slicing open the goat’s belly. The dogs moved into an expectant half-circle, Delum following to take his place among them. Bairoth cut through connecting tissues and began flinging blood-soaked organs to the beasts. None made a move.
    Karsa tapped Gnaw on the flank and the beast rose and moved forward, trailed by its three-legged mate. Gnaw sniffed at the offerings, each in turn, and settled on the goat’s liver, while its mate chose the heart. They each trotted away with their prizes. The remaining dogs then closed in on what remained, snapping and bickering. Delum pounced forward to wrest a lung from the jaws of one of the dogs, baring his own teeth in challenge. He scrambled off to one side, hunching down over his prize.
    Karsa watched as Gnaw rose and trotted towards Delum Thord, watched as Delum, whimpering, dropped the lung then crouched flat, head down, while Gnaw licked the pooling blood around the organ for a few moments, then padded back to its own meal.
    Grunting, Karsa said, ‘Gnaw’s pack has grown by one.’ There was no reply and he glanced over to see Bairoth staring at Delum in horror. ‘See his smile, Bairoth Gild? Delum Thord has found happiness, and this tells us that he will come back no further, for why would he?’
    Bairoth stared down at his bloodied hands, at the butchering knife gleaming red in the dying light. ‘Know you no grief, Warleader?’ he asked in a whisper.
    ‘No. He is not dead.’
    ‘Better he were!’ Bairoth snapped.
    ‘Then kill him.’
    Raw hatred flared in Bairoth’s eyes. ‘Karsa Orlong, what did she say to you?’
    Karsa frowned at the unexpected question, then shrugged. ‘She damned me for my ignorance. Words that could not wound me, for I was indifferent to all that she uttered.’
    Bairoth’s eyes narrowed. ‘You make of what has happened a jest? Warleader, you no longer lead me. I shall not guard your flank in this cursed war of yours. We have lost too much-’
    ‘There is weakness in you, Bairoth Gild. I have known that all along. For years, I have known that. You are no different from what Delum has become, and it is this truth that now haunts you so. Did you truly believe we would all return from this journey without scars? Did you think us immune to our enemies?’
    ‘So you think-’
    Karsa’s laugh was harsh. ‘You are a fool, Bairoth Gild. How did we come this far? Through Rathyd and Sunyd lands? Through the battles we have fought? Our victory was no gift of the Seven. Success was carved by our skill with swords, and by my leadership. Yet all you saw in me was bravado, as would come from a youth fresh to the ways of the warrior. You deluded yourself, and it gave you comfort. You are not my superior, Bairoth Gild, not in anything.’
    Bairoth Gild stared, his eyes wide, his crimson hands trembling.
    ‘And now,’ Karsa growled, ‘if you would survive. Survive this journey. Survive me, then I suggest you teach yourself anew the value of following. Your life is in your leader’s hands. Follow me to victory, Bairoth Gild, or fall to the wayside. Either way, I will tell the tale with true words. Thus, how would you have it?’
    Emotions flitted like wildfire across Bairoth’s broad, suddenly pale face. He drew a half-dozen tortured breaths.
    ‘I lead this pack,’ Karsa said quietly, ‘and none other. Do you challenge me?’
    Bairoth slowly settled back on his haunches, shifting the grip on the butchering knife, his gaze settling, level now on Karsa’s own. ‘We have been lovers a long time, Dayliss and I. You knew nothing, even as we laughed at your clumsy efforts to court her. Every day you would strut between us, filled with bold words, always challenging me, always seeking to belittle me in her eyes. But we laughed inside, Dayliss and I, and spent the nights in each other’s arms. Karsa Orlong, it may be that you are the only one who will return to our village-indeed, I believe that you will make certain of it, so my life is as good as ended already, but I do not fear that. And when you return to the village, Warleader, you will make Dayliss your wife. But one truth shall remain with you until the end of your days, and that is: with Dayliss, it was not I who followed, but you. And there is nothing you can do to change that.’
    Karsa slowly bared his teeth. ‘Dayliss? My wife? I think not. No, instead I shall denounce her to the tribe. To have lain with a man not her husband. She shall be shorn, and then I shall claim her-as my slave-’
    Bairoth launched himself at Karsa, knife flashing through the gloom. His back to the stone wall, Karsa could only manage a sideways roll that gave him no time to find his feet before Bairoth was upon him, one arm wrapping about his neck, arching him back, the hard knife-blade scoring up his chest, point driving for his throat.
    Then the dogs were upon them both, thundering, bone-jarring impacts, snarls, the clash of canines, teeth punching through leather.
    Bairoth screamed, pulled away, arm releasing Karsa.
    Rolling onto his back, Karsa saw the other warrior stumbling, dogs hanging by their jaws from both arms, Gnaw with his teeth sunk into Bairoth’s hip, other beasts flinging themselves forward, seeking yet more holds. Stumbling, then crashing to the ground.
    ‘Away!’ Karsa bellowed.
    The dogs flinched, tore themselves free and backed off, still snarling. Off to one side, Karsa saw as he scrambled upright, crouched Delum, his face twisted into a wild smile, his eyes glittering, hands hanging low to the ground and spasmodically snatching at nothing. Then, his gaze travelling past Delum, Karsa stiffened. He hissed and the dogs fell perfectly silent.
    Bairoth rolled onto his hands and knees, head lifting.
    Karsa gestured, then pointed.
    There was the flicker of torchlight on the trail ahead. Still a hundred or more paces distant, slowly nearing. With the way sound was trapped within the dead-end, it was unlikely the fighting had been heard.
    Ignoring Bairoth, Karsa drew his sword and set off towards it. If Sunyd, then the ones who approached were displaying a carelessness that he intended to make fatal. More likely, they were lowlanders. He could see now, as he edged from shadow to shadow on the trail, that there were at least a half-dozen torches-a sizeable party, then. He could now hear voices, the foul tongue of the lowlanders.
    Bairoth moved up alongside him. He had drawn his own sword. Blood dripped from puncture wounds on his arms, streamed down his hip. Karsa scowled at him, waved him back.
    Grimacing, Bairoth withdrew.
    The lowlanders had come to the cul de sac where the demon had been imprisoned. The play of torchlight danced on the high stone walls. The voices rose louder, edged with alarm.
    Karsa slipped forward in silence until he was just beyond the pool of light. He saw nine lowlanders, gathered to examine the now-empty pit in the centre of the clearing. Two were well armoured and helmed, cradling heavy crossbows, longswords belted at their hips, positioned at the entrance to the cul de sac and watching the trail. Off to one side were four males dressed in earth-toned robes, their hair braided, pulled forward and knotted over their breastbones; none of these carried weapons.
    The remaining three had the look of scouts, wearing tight-fitting leathers, armed with short bows and hunting knives. Clan tattoos spanned their brows. It was one of these who seemed to be in charge, for he spoke in hard tones, as if giving commands. The other two scouts were crouched down beside the pit, eyes studying the stone floor.
    Both guards stood within the torchlight, leaving them effectively blind to the darkness beyond. Neither appeared particularly vigilant.
    Karsa adjusted his grip on the bloodsword, his gaze fixed on the guard nearest him.
    Then he charged.
    Head flew from shoulders, blood fountaining. Karsa’s headlong rush carried him to where the other guard had been standing, to find the lowlander no longer there. Cursing, the Teblor pivoted, closed on the three scouts.
    Who had already scattered, black-iron blades hissing from their sheaths.
    Karsa laughed. There was little room beyond his reach in the high-walled cul de sac, and the only chance of escape would have to be through him.
    One of the scouts shouted something then darted forward.
    Karsa’s wooden sword chopped down, splitting tendon, then bone. The lowlander shrieked. Stepping past the crumpling figure, Karsa dragged his weapon free.
    The remaining two scouts had moved away from each other and now attacked from the sides. Ignoring one-and feeling the broad-bladed hunting knife rip through his leather armour to score along his ribs-Karsa batted aside the other’s attack and, still laughing, crushed the lowlander’s skull with his sword. A back slash connected with the other scout, sent him flying to strike the stone wall.
    The four robed figures awaited Karsa, evincing little fear, joined in a low chant.
    The air sparkled strangely before them, then coruscating fire suddenly unfolded, swept forward to engulf Karsa.
    It raged against him, a thousand clawed hands, tearing, raking, battering his body, his face and his eyes.
    Karsa, shoulders hunching, walked through it.
    The fire burst apart, flames fleeing into the night air. Shrugging the effects off with a soft growl, Karsa approached the four lowlanders.
    Their expressions, calm and serene and confident a moment ago, now revealed disbelief that swiftly shifted to horror as Karsa’s sword ripped into them.
    They died as easily as had the others, and moments later the Teblor stood amidst twitching bodies, blood gleaming dark on his sword’s blade. Torches lay on the stone floor here and there, fitfully throwing smoky light to dance against the cul de sac’s walls.
    Bairoth Gild strode into view. ‘The second guard escaped up the trail, Warleader,’ he said. ‘The dogs now hunt.’
    Karsa grunted.
    ‘Karsa Orlong, you have slain the first group of children. The trophies are yours.’
    Reaching down, Karsa closed the fingers of one hand in the robes of one of the bodies at his feet. He straightened, lifting the corpse into the air, and studied its puny limbs, its small head with its peculiar braids. A face lined, as would be a Teblor’s after centuries upon centuries of life, yet the visage he stared down upon was scaled to that of a Teblor newborn.
    ‘They squealed like babes,’ Bairoth Gild said. ‘The tales are true, then. These lowlanders are like children indeed.’
    ‘Yet not,’ Karsa said, studying the aged face now slack in death.
    ‘They died easily.’
    ‘Aye, they did.’ Karsa flung the body away. ‘Bairoth Gild, these are our enemies. Do you follow your warleader?’
    ‘For this war, I shall,’ Bairoth replied. ‘Karsa Orlong, we shall speak no more of our… village. What lies between us must await our eventual return.’
    ‘Agreed.’
    Two of the pack’s dogs did not return, and there was nothing of strutting victory in the gaits of Gnaw and the others as they padded back into the camp at dawn. Surprisingly, the lone guard had somehow escaped. Delum Thord, his arms wrapped about Gnaw’s mate-as they had been throughout the night-whimpered upon the pack’s return.
    Bairoth shifted the supplies from his and Karsa’s destriers to Delum’s warhorse, for it was clear that Delum had lost all knowledge of riding. He would run with the dogs.
    As they readied to depart, Bairoth said, ‘It may be that the guard came from Silver Lake. That he will bring to them warning words of our approach.’
    ‘We shall find him,’ Karsa growled from where he crouched, threading the last of his trophies onto the leather cord. ‘He could only have eluded the dogs by climbing, so there will be no swiftness to his flight. We shall seek sign of him. If he has continued on through the night, he will be tired. If not, he will be close.’ Straightening, Karsa held the string of severed ears and tongues out before him, studied the small, mangled objects for a moment longer, then looped his collection of trophies round his neck.
    He swung himself onto Havok’s back, collected the lone rein.
    Gnaw’s pack moved ahead to scout the trail, Delum among them, the three-legged dog cradled in his arms.
    They set off.

    Shortly before midday, they came upon signs of the last lowlander, thirty paces beyond the corpses of the two missing dogs-a crossbow quarrel buried in each one. A scattering of iron armour, straps and fittings. The guard had shed weight.
    ‘This child is a clever one,’ Bairoth Gild observed. ‘He will hear us before we see him, and will prepare an ambush.’ The warrior’s hooded gaze flicked to Delum. ‘More dogs will be slain.’
    Karsa shook his head at Bairoth’s words. ‘He will not ambush us, for that will see him killed, and he knows it. Should we catch up with him, he will seek to hide. Evasion is his only hope, up the cliffside, and then we will have passed him, and so he will not succeed in reaching Silver Lake before us.’
    ‘We do not hunt him down?’ Bairoth asked in surprise.
    ‘No. We ride for Bone Pass.’
    ‘Then he shall trail us. Warleader, an enemy loose at our backs-’
    ‘A child. Those quarrels might well kill a dog, but they are as twigs to us Teblor. Our armour alone will take much of those small barbs-’
    ‘He has a sharp eye, Karsa Orlong, to slay two dogs in the dark. He will aim for where our armour does not cover us.’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘Then we must outpace him beyond the pass.’
    They continued on. The trail widened as it climbed, the entire escarpment pushing upward in its northward reach. Riding at a fast trot, they covered league after league until, by late afternoon, they found themselves entering clouds of mist, a deep roaring sound directly ahead.
    The path dropped away suddenly.
    Reining in amidst the milling dogs, Karsa dismounted.
    The edge was sheer. Beyond it and on his left, a river had cut a notch a thousand paces or more deep into the cliffside, down to what must have been a ledge of some sort, over which it then plunged another thousand paces to a mist-shrouded valley floor. A dozen or more thread-thin waterfalls drifted out from both sides of the notch, issuing from fissures in the bedrock. The scene, Karsa realized after a moment, was all wrong. They had reached the highest part of the escarpment’s ridge. A river, cutting a natural route through to the lowlands, did not belong in this place. Stranger still, the flanking waterfalls poured out from riven cracks, not one level with another, as if the mountains on both sides were filled with water.
    ‘Karsa Orlong,’ Bairoth had to shout to be heard over the roar rising from far below, ‘someone-an ancient god, perhaps-has broken a mountain in half. That notch, it was not carved by water. No, it has the look of having been cut by a giant axe. And the wound… bleeds.’
    Not replying to Bairoth’s words, Karsa turned about. Directly on his right, a winding, rocky path descended on their side of the cliff, a steep path of shale and scree, gleaming wet.
    ‘This is our way down?’ Bairoth stepped past Karsa, then swung an incredulous look upon the warleader. ‘We cannot! It will vanish beneath our feet! Beneath the hoofs of the horses! We shall descend indeed, like stones down a cliff side!’
    Karsa crouched and pried a rock loose from the ground. He tossed it down the trail. Where it first struck, the shale shifted, trembled, then slid in a growing wave that quickly followed the bouncing rock, vanishing into the mists.
    Revealing rough, broad steps.
    Made entirely of bones.
    ‘It is as Pahlk said, ‘Karsa murmured, before turning to Bairoth. ‘Come, our path awaits.’
    Bairoth’s eyes were hooded. ‘It does indeed, Karsa Orlong. Beneath our feet there shall be a truth.’
    Karsa scowled. ‘This is our trail down from the mountains. Nothing more, Bairoth Gild.’
    The warrior shrugged. ‘As you say, Warleader.’
    Karsa in the lead, they began the descent.
    The bones were lowlander in scale, yet heavier and thicker, hardened into stone. Here and there, antlers and tusks were visible, as well as artfully carved bone helms from larger beasts. An army had been slain, their bones then laid out, intricately fashioned into these grim steps. The mists had quickly laid down a layer of water, but each step was solid, broad and slightly angled back, the pitch reducing the risk of slipping. The Teblor’s pace was slowed only by the cautious descent of the destriers.
    It seemed that the rockslide Karsa had triggered had cleared the way as far down as the massive shelf of stone where the river gathered before plunging over to the valley below. With the roaring tumble of water growing ever closer on their left and jagged, raw rock on their right, the warriors descended more than a thousand paces, and with each step the gloom deepened around them.
    Pale, ghostly light broken by shreds of darker, opaque mists commanded the ledge that spread out on this side of the waterfall. The bones formed a level floor of sorts, abutting the rock wall to the right and appearing to continue on beneath the river that now roared, massive and monstrous, less than twenty paces away on their left.
    The horses needed to rest. Karsa watched Bairoth make his way towards the river, then glanced over at Delum, who huddled now among Gnaw’s pack, wet and shivering. The faint glow emanating from the bones seemed to carry a breath unnaturally cold. On all sides, the scene was colourless, strangely dead. Even the river’s immense power felt lifeless.
    Bairoth approached. ‘Warleader, these bones beneath us, they continue under the river to the other side. They are deep, almost my height where I could see. Tens of thousands have died to make this. Tens of tens. This entire shelf-’
    ‘Bairoth Gild, we have rested long enough. There are stones coming down from above-either the guard descends, or there will be another slide to bury what we have revealed. There must be many such slides, for the lowlanders used this on the way up, and that could not have been more than a few days ago. Yet we arrived to find it buried once more.’
    Sudden unease flickered through Bairoth’s expression, and he glanced over to where small stones of shale pattered down from the trail above. There were more now than there had been a moment ago.
    They gathered the horses once more and approached the shelf’s edge. The descent before them was too steep to hold a slide, the steps switch-backing for as far down as the Teblor could see. The horses balked before it.
    ‘Karsa Orlong, we shall be very vulnerable on that path.’
    ‘We have been so all along, Bairoth Gild. That lowlander behind us has already missed his greatest opportunity. That is why I believe we have outdistanced him, and that the stones we see falling from above portend another slide and nothing more.’ With that Karsa coaxed Havok forward onto the first step.
    Thirty paces down they heard a faint roar from above, a sound deeper in timbre than the river. A hail of stones swept over them, but at some distance out from the cliff wall. Muddy rain followed for a short time thereafter.
    They continued on, until weariness settled into their limbs. The mists might have lightened for a time, but perhaps it was nothing more than their eyes growing accustomed to the gloom. The wheels of sun and stars passed unseen and unseeing over them. The only means of measuring time was through hunger and exhaustion. There would be no stopping until the descent was complete. Karsa had lost count of the switchbacks; what he had imagined to be a thousand paces was proving to be far more. Beside them, the river continued its fall, nothing but mists now, a hissing deluge bitter cold, spreading out to blind them to the valley below and the skies above. Their world had narrowed to the endless bones under their moccasins and the sheer wall of the cliff.
    They reached another shelf and the bones were gone, buried beneath squelching, sodden mud and snarled bundles of vivid green grasses. Fallen tree branches cloaked in mosses littered the area. Mists hid all else.
    The horses tossed their heads as they were led, finally, onto level ground. Delum and the dogs settled down into a clump of wet fur and skin. Bairoth stumbled close to Karsa. ‘Warleader, I am distraught.’
    Karsa frowned. His legs were trembling beneath him, and he could not keep the shivering from his muscles. ‘Why, Bairoth Gild? We are done. We have descended Bone Pass.’
    ‘Aye.’ Bairoth coughed, then said, ‘And before long we will come to this place again-to climb.’
    Karsa slowly nodded. ‘I have thought on this, Bairoth Gild. The lowlands sweep around our plateau. There are other passes, directly south of our own Uryd lands-there must be, else lowlanders would never have appeared among us. Our return journey will take us along the edge, westward, and we shall find those hidden passes.’
    ‘Through lowlander territories the entire way! We are but two, Karsa Orlong! A raid upon the farm at Silver Lake is one thing, but to wage war against an entire tribe is madness! We will be hunted and pursued the entire way-it cannot be done!’
    ‘Hunted and pursued?’ Karsa laughed. ‘What is new in that? Come, Bairoth Gild, we must find somewhere dry, away from this river. I see treetops, there, to the left. We shall make ourselves a fire, we shall rediscover what it is like to be warm, our bellies full.’
    The ledge’s slope led gently down a scree mostly buried beneath mosses, lichens and rich, dark soil, beyond which waited a forest of ancient redwoods and cedars. The sky overhead revealed a patch of blue, and shafts of sunlight were visible here and there. Once within the wood, the mists thinned to a musty dampness, smelling of rotting treefalls. The warriors continued on another fifty paces, until they found a sunlit stretch where a diseased cedar had collapsed some time past. Butterflies danced in the golden air and the soft crunch of pine-borers was a steady cadence on all sides. The huge, upright root-mat of the cedar had left a bare patch of bedrock where the tree had once stood. The rock was dry and in full sunlight.
    Karsa began unstrapping supplies while Bairoth set off to collect deadwood from the fallen cedar. Delum found a mossy patch warmed by the sun and curled up to sleep. Karsa considered removing the man’s sodden clothes, then, seeing the rest of the pack gather around Delum, he simply shrugged and resumed unburdening the horses.
    A short while later, their clothes hanging from roots close to the fire, the two warriors sat naked on the bedrock, the chill slowly yielding from muscle and bone.
    ‘At the far end of this valley,’ Karsa said, ‘the river widens, forming a flat before reaching the lake. The side we are now on becomes the south side of the river. There will be a spar of rock near the mouth, blocking our view to the right. Immediately beyond it, on the lake’s southwest shore, stands the lowlander farm. We are very nearly there, Bairoth Gild.’
    The warrior on the other side of the hearth rolled his shoulders. ‘Tell me we shall attack in daylight, Warleader. I have found a deep hatred for darkness. Bone Pass has shrivelled my heart.’
    ‘Daylight it shall be, Bairoth Gild,’ Karsa replied, choosing to ignore Bairoth’s last confession, for its words had trembled something within him, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. ‘The children will be working in the fields, unable to reach the stronghold of the farmhouse in time. They will see us charging down upon them, and know terror and despair.’
    ‘This pleases me, Warleader.’

    The redwood and cedar forest cloaked the entire valley, showing no evidence of clearing or logging. There was little game to be found beneath the thick canopy, and days passed in a diffuse gloom relieved only by the occasional treefall. The Teblor’s supply of food quickly dwindled, the horses growing leaner on a diet of blueleaf, cullan moss and bitter vine, the dogs taking to eating rotten wood, berries and beetles.
    Midway through the fourth day, the valley narrowed, forcing them ever closer to the river. Travelling through the deep forest, away from the lone trail running alongside the river, the Teblor had ensured that they would remain undiscovered, but now, finally, they were nearing Silver Lake.
    They arrived at the river mouth at dusk, the wheel of stars awakening in the sky above them. The trail flanking the river’s boulder-strewn bank had seen recent passage, leading northwestward, but no sign of anyone’s returning. The air was crisp above the river’s rushing water. A broad fan of sand and gravel formed a driftwood-cluttered island where the river opened out into the lake. Mists hung over the water, making the lake’s far north and east shores hazy. The mountains reached down on those distant shores, kneeling in the breeze-rippled waves.
    Karsa and Bairoth dismounted and began preparing their camp, though on this night there would be no cookfire.
    ‘Those tracks,’ Bairoth said after a time, ‘they belong to the lowlanders you killed. I wonder what they’d intended on doing in the place where the demon was imprisoned.’
    Karsa’s shrug was dismissive. ‘Perhaps they’d planned on freeing her.’
    ‘I think not, Karsa Orlong. The sorcery they used to assail you was god-aspected. I believe they came to worship, or perhaps the demon’s soul could be drawn out from the flesh, in the manner of the Faces in the Rock. Perhaps, for the lowlanders, it was the site of an oracle, or even the home of their god.’
    Karsa studied his companion for a long moment, then said, ‘Bairoth Gild, there is poison in your words. That demon was not a god. It was a prisoner of the stone. The Faces in the Rock are true gods. There is no comparison to be made.’
    Bairoth’s heavy brows rose. ‘Karsa Orlong, I make no comparison. The lowlanders are foolish creatures, whilst the Teblor are not. The lowlanders are children and are susceptible to self-deception. Why would they not worship that demon? Tell me, did you sense a living presence in that sorcery when it struck you?’
    Karsa considered. ‘There was… something. Scratching and hissing and spitting. I flung it away and it then fled. So, it was not the demon’s own power.’
    ‘No, it wasn’t, for she was gone. Perhaps they worshipped the stone that had pinned her down-there was magic in that as well.’
    ‘But not living, Bairoth Gild. I do not understand the track of your thoughts, and I grow tired of these pointless words.’
    ‘I believe,’ Bairoth persisted, ‘that the bones of Bone Pass belong to the people who imprisoned the demon. And this is what troubles me, Karsa Orlong, for those bones are much like the lowlanders’-thicker, yes, but still childlike. Indeed, it may be that the lowlanders are kin to that ancient people.’
    ‘What of it?’ Karsa rose. ‘I will hear no more of this. Our only task now is to rest, then rise with the dawn and prepare our weapons. Tomorrow, we slay children.’ He strode to where the horses stood beneath the trees. Delum sat nearby amidst the dogs, Gnaw’s three-legged mate cradled in his arms. One hand stroked the beast’s head in mindless repetition. Karsa stared at Delum for a moment longer, then turned away to prepare his bedding.
    The river’s passage was the only sound as the wheel of stars slowly crossed the sky. At some point in the night the breeze shifted, carrying with it the smell of woodsmoke and livestock and, once, the faint bark of a dog. Lying awake on his bed of moss, Karsa prayed to Urugal that the wind would not turn with the sun’s rise. There were always dogs on lowlander farms, kept for the same reason as Teblor kept dogs. Sharp ears and sensitive noses, quick to announce strangers. But these would be lowlander breeds-smaller than those of the Teblor. Gnaw and his pack would make short work of them. And there would be no warning… so long as the wind did not shift.
    He heard Bairoth rise and make his way over to where the pack slept.
    Karsa glanced over to see Bairoth crouched down beside Delum. Dogs had lifted their heads questioningly and were now watching as Bairoth stroked Delum’s upturned face.
    It was a moment before Karsa realized what he was witnessing. Bairoth was painting Delum’s face in the battle-mask, black, grey and white, the shades of the Uryd. The battle-mask was reserved for warriors who knowingly rode to their deaths; it was an announcement that the sword would never again be sheathed. But it was a ritual that belonged, traditionally, to ageing warriors who had elected to set forth on a final raid, and thus avoid dying with straw on their backs. Karsa rose.
    If Bairoth heard his approach, he gave no sign. There were tears running down the huge warrior’s broad, blunt face, whilst Delum, lying perfectly still, stared up at him with wide, unblinking eyes.
    ‘He does not comprehend,’ Karsa growled, ‘but I do. Bairoth Gild, you dishonour every Uryd warrior who has worn the battle-mask.’
    ‘Do I, Karsa Orlong? Those warriors grown old, setting out for a final fight-there is nothing of glory in their deed, nothing of glory in their battle-mask. You are blind if you think otherwise. The paint hides nothing-the desperation remains undisguised in their eyes. They come to the ends of their lives, and have found that those lives were without meaning. It is that knowledge that drives them from the village, drives them out to seek a quick death.’ Bairoth finished with the black paint and now moved on to the white, spreading it with three fingers across Delum’s wide brow. ‘Look into our friend’s eyes, Karsa Orlong. Look closely.’
    ‘I see nothing,’ Karsa muttered, shaken by Bairoth’s words.
    ‘Delum sees the same, Warleader. He stares at… nothing. Unlike you, however, he does not turn away from it. Instead, he sees with complete comprehension. Sees, and is terrified.’
    ‘You speak nonsense, Bairoth Gild.’
    ‘I do not. You and I, we are Teblor. We are warriors. We can offer Delum no comfort, and so he holds on to that dog, the beast with misery in its eyes. For comfort is what he seeks, now. It is, indeed, all he seeks. Why do I gift him the battle-mask? He will die this day, Karsa Orlong, and perhaps that will be comfort enough for Delum Thord. I pray to Urugal that it be so.’
    Karsa glanced skyward. ‘The wheel is nearly done. We must ready ourselves.’
    ‘I am almost finished, Warleader.’
    The horses stirred as Karsa rubbed blood-oil into his sword’s wooden blade. The dogs were on their feet now, pacing restlessly. Bairoth completed his painting of Delum’s face and headed off to attend to his own weapons. The three-legged dog struggled in Delum’s arms, but he simply held the beast all the tighter, until a soft growl from Gnaw made the whimpering warrior release it.
    Karsa strapped the boiled leather armour onto Havok’s chest, neck and legs. When he was done, he turned to see Bairoth already astride his own horse. Delum’s destrier had also been armoured, but it stood without a rein. The animals were trembling.
    ‘Warleader, your grandfather’s descriptions have been unerring thus far. Tell me of the farmstead’s layout.’
    ‘A log house the size of two Uryd houses, with an upper floor beneath a steep roof. Heavy shutters with arrow-slits, a thick, quickly barred door at the front and at the back. There are three outbuildings; the one nearest the house and sharing one wall holds the livestock. Another is a forge, whilst the last one is of sod and likely was the first home before the log house was built. There is a landing on the lakeshore as well, and mooring poles. There will be a corral for the small lowlander horses.’
    Bairoth was frowning. ‘Warleader, how many lowlander generations have passed since Pahlk’s raid?’
    Karsa swung himself onto Havok’s back. He shrugged in answer to Bairoth’s question. ‘Enough. Are you ready, Bairoth Gild?’
    ‘Lead me, Warleader.’
    Karsa guided Havok onto the trail beside the river. The mouth was on his left. To the right rose a high, raw mass of rock, treed on top, leaning out towards the lakeshore. A wide strand of round-stoned beach wound between the pinnacle and the lake.
    The wind had not changed. The air smelled of smoke and manure. The farm’s dogs were silent.
    Karsa drew his sword, angled the glistening blade near Havok’s nostrils. The destrier’s head lifted. Trot to canter, onto the pebbled beach, lake on the left, rock wall sliding past to the right. Behind him, he heard Bairoth’s horse, hoofs crashing down into the stones, and, further back, the dogs, Delum and his horse, the latter lagging to stay alongside its once-master.
    Once clear of the pinnacle, they would shift hard right, and in moments be upon the unsuspecting children of the farm.
    Canter to gallop.
    Rock wall vanishing, flat, planted fields.
    Gallop into charge.
    The farm-smoke-blackened ruins barely visible through tall corn plants-and, just beyond it, sprawled all along the lake’s shore and back, all the way to the foot of a mountain, a town.
    Tall, stone buildings, stone piers and wood-planked docks and boats crowding the lake’s edge. A wall of stones enclosing most of the structures inland, perhaps the height of a full-grown lowlander. A main road, a gate flanked by squat, flat-topped towers. Woodsmoke drifting in a layer above the slate rooftops. Figures on those towers.
    More lowlanders-more than could be counted-all scurrying about now, as a bell started clanging. Running towards the gate from the cornfields, farming implements tossed aside.
    Bairoth was bellowing something behind Karsa. Not a warcry. A voice pitched with alarm. Karsa ignored it, already closing in on the first of the farmers. He would take a few in passing, but not slacken his pace. Leave these children to the pack. He wanted the ones in the town, cowering behind the now-closing gate, behind the puny walls.
    Sword flashed, taking off the back of a farmer’s head. Havok ran down another, trampling the shrieking woman under his hoofs. The gate boomed as it shut.
    Karsa angled Havok to the left of it, eyes on the wall as he leaned forward. A crossbow quarrel flitted past, striking the furrowed ground ten paces to his right. Another whistled over his head.
    No lowlander horse could clear this wall, but Havok stood at twenty-six hands-almost twice the height and mass of the lowlander breeds-and, muscles bunching, legs gathering, the huge destrier leapt, sailing over the wall effortlessly.
    To crash, front hoofs first, onto the sloped roof of a shack. Slate tiles exploded, wood beams snapped. The small structure collapsed beneath them, chickens scattering, as Havok stumbled, legs clawing for purchase, then surged forward onto the muddy cart ruts of the street beyond.
    Another building, this one stone-walled, reared up before them. Havok slewed to the right. A figure suddenly appeared at the building’s entrance, a round face, eyes wide. Karsa’s crossover chop split the lowlander’s skull where he stood just beyond the threshold, spinning him in place before his legs folded beneath him.
    Hoofs pounding, Havok swept Karsa down the street towards’ the gate. He could hear slaughter in the fields and the road beyond-most of the workers had been trapped outside the town, it seemed. A dozen guards had succeeded in dropping a bar and had begun fanning out to take defensive positions when the warleader burst upon them.
    Iron helm crunched, was torn from the dying child’s head as if biting at the blade as it was dragged free. A back-handed slash separated another child’s arm and shoulder from his body. Trampling a third guard, Havok pivoted, flinging his hindquarters around to strike a fourth child, sending him flying to crash up against the gate, sword spinning away.
    A longsword-its blade as puny as a long knife’s to Karsa’s eyes-struck his leather-armoured thigh, cutting through two, perhaps three of the hardened layers, before bouncing away. Karsa drove his sword’s pommel into the lowlander’s face, felt bone crack. A kick sent the child reeling. Figures were scattering in panic from his path. Laughing, Karsa drove Havok forward.
    He cut down another guard, whilst the others raced down the street.
    Something punched the Teblor’s back, then a brief, stinging blossom of pain. Reaching over, Karsa dragged the quarrel free and flung it away. He dropped down from the horse, eyes on the barred gate. Metal latches had been locked over the bar, holding the thick plank in place.
    Taking three strides back, Karsa lowered one shoulder, then charged it.
    The iron pins holding the hinges between blocks of mortared stone burst free with the impact, sending the entire gate toppling outward. The tower on Karsa’s right groaned and sagged suddenly. Voices cried out inside it. The stone wall began to fold.
    Cursing, the Teblor scrambled back towards the street as the entire tower collapsed in an explosion of dust.
    Through the swirling white cloud, Bairoth rode, threads of blood and gore whipping from his bloodsword, his mount leaping to clear the rubble. The dogs followed, and with them Delum and his horse. Blood smeared Delum Thord’s mouth, and Karsa realized, with a faint ripple of shock, that the warrior had torn out a farmer’s throat with his own teeth, as would a dog.
    Hoofs spraying mud, Bairoth reined in.
    Karsa swung himself back onto Havok, twisted the destrier round to face down the street.
    A square of pikemen approached at a trot, their long-poled weapons wavering, iron blades glinting in the morning light. They were still thirty paces distant.
    A quarrel glanced off the rump of Bairoth’s horse, coming from a nearby upper floor window.
    From somewhere outside the wall came the sound of galloping horses.
    Bairoth grunted. ‘Our withdrawal shall be contested, Warleader.’
    ‘Withdrawal?’ Karsa laughed. He jutted his chin towards the advancing pikemen. ‘There can be no more than thirty, and children with long spears are still children, Bairoth Gild. Come, let us scatter them!’
    With a curse, Bairoth unlimbered his bear skull bolas. ‘Precede me, then, Karsa Orlong, to hide my preparation.’
    Baring his teeth in fierce pleasure, Karsa urged Havok forward. The dogs fanned out to either side, Delum positioning himself on the war-leader’s far right.
    Ahead, the pikes slowly lowered, hovering at chest height as the square halted to plant their weapons.
    Upper floor windows on the street opened then, and faces appeared, looking down to witness what would come.
    ‘Urugal!’ Karsa bellowed as he drove Havok into a charge. ‘Witness!’ Behind him he heard Bairoth riding just as hard, and within that clash of sounds rose the whirring flow of the grey bear skull, round and round, and round again.
    Ten paces from the readied pikes, and Bairoth roared. Karsa ducked low, pitching Havok to the left even as he slowed the beast’s savage charge.
    Something massive and hissing whipped past him, and Karsa twisted to see the huge bolas strike the square of soldiers.
    Deadly chaos. Three of the five rows on the ground. Piercing screams.
    Then the dogs were among them, followed by Delum’s horse.
    Wheeling his destrier once again, Karsa closed on the shattered square, arriving in time to be alongside Bairoth as the two Teblor rode into the press. Batting aside the occasional, floundering pike, they slaughtered the children the dogs had not already taken down, in the passage of twenty heartbeats.
    ‘Warleader!’
    Dragging his bloodsword from the last victim, Karsa turned at Bairoth’s bellow.
    Another square of soldiers, this time flanked by crossbowmen. Fifty, perhaps sixty in all, at the street’s far end.
    Scowling, Karsa glanced back towards the gate. Twenty mounted children, heavily armoured in plate and chain, were slowly emerging through the dust; more on foot, some armed with short bows, others with double-bladed axes, swords or javelins.
    ‘Lead me, Warleader!’
    Karsa glared at Bairoth. ‘And so I shall, Bairoth Gild!’ He swung Havok about. ‘This side passage, down to the shoreline-we shall ride around our pursuers. Tell me, Bairoth Gild, have we slain enough children for you?’
    ‘Aye, Karsa Orlong.’
    ‘Then follow!’
    The side passage was a street almost as wide as the main one, and it led straight down to the lake. Dwellings, trader stores and warehouses lined it. Shadowy figures were visible in windows, in doorways and at alley mouths as the Teblor raiders thundered past. The street ended twenty paces before the shoreline. The intervening space, through which a wide, wood-planked loadway ran down to the docks and piers, was filled with heaps of detritus, dominant among them a huge pile of bleached bones, from which poles rose, skulls affixed to their tops.
    Teblor skulls.
    Amidst this stretch of rubbish, squalid huts and tents filled every clear patch, and scores of children had emerged from them, bristling with weapons, their rough clothing bedecked with Teblor charms and scalps, their hard eyes watching the warriors approach as they began readying long-handled axes, two-handed swords, thick-shafted halberds, whilst yet others strung robust, recurved bows and nocked over-long, barbed arrows-which they began to draw, taking swift aim.
    Bairoth’s roar was half horror, half rage as he sent his destrier charging towards these silent, deadly children.
    Arrows flashed.
    Bairoth’s horse screamed, stumbled, then crashed to the ground. Bairoth tumbled, his sword spinning away through the air as he struck, then broke through, a sapling-walled hut.
    More arrows flew.
    Karsa shifted Havok sharply, watched an arrow hiss past his thigh, then he was among the first of the lowlanders. Bloodsword clashed against an axe’s bronze-sheathed shaft, the impact tearing the weapon from the man’s hands. Karsa’s left hand shot out to intercept another axe as it swung towards Havok’s head. He plucked it from the man, sent it flying, then lunged forward the same hand to take the lowlander by the neck, lifting him clear as they continued on. A single, bone-crunching squeeze left the head lolling, the body twitching and spilling piss. Karsa flung the corpse away.
    Havok’s onward plunge was brought to a sudden halt. The destrier shrieked, slewed to one side, blood gushing from its mouth and nostrils, dragging with it a heavy pike, its iron head buried deep in the horse’s chest.
    The beast stumbled, then, with a drunken weave, it began toppling.
    Karsa, screaming his fury, launched himself from the dying destrier’s back. A sword point rose to meet him, but Karsa batted it aside. He landed atop at least three tumbling bodies, hearing bones snap beneath him as he rolled his way clear.
    Then he was on his feet, bloodsword slashing across the face of a lowlander, ripping black-bearded jaw from skull. An edged weapon scored deep across his back. Spinning, Karsa swung his blade under the attacker’s outstretched arms, chopped deep between ribs, jamming at the breastbone.
    He tugged fiercely, tearing his sword free, the dying lowlander’s body cartwheeling past him.
    Heavy weapons, many of them bearing knotted Teblor fetishes, surrounded him, each striving to drink Uryd blood. They fouled each other as often as not, yet Karsa was hard-pressed blocking the others as he fought his way clear. He killed two of his attackers in the process.
    Now he heard another fight, nearby, from where Bairoth had crashed into the hut, and, here and there, the snap and snarl of the dogs.
    His attackers had been silent until a moment ago. Now, all were screaming in their gibbering tongue, their faces filled with alarm, as Karsa wheeled once more and, seeing more than a dozen before him, attacked. They scattered, revealing a half-crescent line of lowlanders with bows and crossbows.
    Strings thrummed.
    Searing pain along Karsa’s neck, twin punches to his chest, another against his right thigh. Ignoring them all, the warleader charged the half-crescent.
    More shouts, sudden pursuit from the ones who had scattered, but it was too late for that. Karsa’s sword was a blur as he cut into the archers. Figures turning to run. Dying, spinning away in floods of blood. Skulls shattering. Karsa carved his way down the line, and left a trail of eight figures, some writhing and others still, behind him, by the time the first set of attackers reached him. He pivoted to meet them, laughing at the alarm in their tiny, wizened, dirt-smeared faces, then he lunged into their midst once more.
    They broke. Flinging weapons away, stumbling and scrambling in their panic. Karsa killed one after another, until there were no more within reach of his bloodsword. He straightened, then.
    Where Bairoth had been fighting, seven lowlander bodies lay in a rough circle, but of the Teblor warrior there was no sign. The screams of a dog continued from further up the street, and Karsa ran towards the sound.
    He passed the quarrel-studded corpses of the rest of the pack, though he did not see Gnaw among them. They had killed a number of lowlanders before they had finally fallen. Looking up, he saw, thirty paces down the street, Delum Thord, near him his fallen horse, and, another fifteen paces beyond, a knot of villagers.
    Delum was shrieking. He had taken a dozen or more quarrels and arrows, and a javelin had been thrust right through his torso, just above the left hip. He had left a winding trail of blood behind him, yet still he crawled forward-to where the villagers surrounded the three-legged dog, beating it to death with walking sticks, hoes and shovels.
    Wailing, Delum dragged himself on, the javelin scraping alongside him, blood streaming down the shaft.
    Even as Karsa began to run forward, a figure raced out from an alley mouth, coming up slightly behind Delum, a long-handled shovel in its hands. Lifting high.
    Karsa screamed a warning.
    Delum did not so much as turn, his eyes fixed on the now-dead three-legged dog, as the shovel struck the back of his head.
    There was a loud crunch. The shovel pulled away, revealing a flat patch of shattered bone and twisted hair.
    Delum toppled forward, and did not move.
    His slayer spun at Karsa’s charge. An old man, his toothless mouth opening wide in sudden terror.
    Karsa’s downward chop cut the man in half down to the hips.
    Tearing his bloodsword free, the warleader plunged on, towards the dozen or so villagers still gathered around the pulped corpse of the three-legged dog. They saw him and scattered.
    Ten paces beyond lay Gnaw, leaving his own blood-trail as, back legs dragging, he continued towards the body of his mate. He raised his head upon seeing Karsa. Pleading eyes fixed on the warleader’s.
    Bellowing, Karsa ran down two of the villagers and left their twitching corpses sprawled in the muddy street. He saw another, armed with a rust-pitted mattock, dart between two houses. The Teblor hesitated, then with a curse he swung about and moments later was crouched beside Gnaw.
    A shattered hip.
    Karsa glanced up the street to see the pike-wielding soldiers closing at a jog. Three mounted men rode in their wake, shouting out commands. A quick look towards the lakeside revealed more horsemen gathering, heads turned in his direction.
    The warleader lifted Gnaw from the ground, tucking the beast under his left arm.
    Then he set off in pursuit of the mattock-wielding villager.
    Rotting vegetables crowded the narrow aisle between the two houses which, at the far end, opened out into a pair of corralled runs. As he emerged into the track between the two fence lines, he saw the man, still running, twenty paces ahead. Beyond the corrals was a shallow ditch, carrying sewage down to the lake. The child had crossed it and was plunging into a tangle of young alders-there were more buildings beyond it, either barns or warehouses.
    Karsa raced after him, leaping across the ditch, the hunting dog still under his arm. The jostling was giving it great pain, the Teblor knew. He contemplated slitting its throat.
    The child entered a barn, still carrying his mattock.
    Following, Karsa ducked low as he plunged through the side doorway. Sudden gloom. There were no beasts in the stalls; the straw, still piled high, looked old and damp. A large fishing boat commanded the wide centre aisle, flipped over and resting on wooden horses. Double sliding doors to the left, one of them slightly pushed back, the ropes from the handle gently swinging back and forth.
    Karsa found the last, darkest stall, where he set Gnaw down on the straw. ‘I shall return to you, my friend,’ he whispered. ‘Failing that, find a way to heal, then journey home. Home, among the Uryd.’ The Teblor cut a thong of leather from his armour strappings. He tore from his belt-bag a handful of bronze sigils bearing the tribal signs, then strung the thong through them. None hung loose, and so would make no sound. He tied the makeshift collar round Gnaw’s thick, muscled neck. Then he laid one hand lightly upon the dog’s shattered hip and closed his eyes. ‘I gift this beast the soul of the Teblor, the heart of the Uryd. Urugal, hear me. Heal this great fighter. Then send him home. For now, bold Urugal, hide him.’
    He withdrew his hand and opened his eyes. The beast looked up at him calmly. ‘Make fierce your long life, Gnaw. We will meet again, this I vow upon the blood of all the children I have slain this day.’
    Shifting grip on his bloodsword, Karsa turned away and departed the stall without another backward glance.
    He padded towards the sliding door, looked out.
    A warehouse stood opposite, high-ceilinged with a loading loft beneath its slate-tiled roof. From within the building came the sounds of bolts and bars dropping into place. Smiling, Karsa darted across to where the loading chains dangled from pulleys, his eyes on the doorless loft platform high overhead.
    As he prepared to sling his sword back over a shoulder, he saw, with a start, that he was festooned with arrows and quarrels, and realized, for the first time, that much of the blood sheathing his body was his own. Scowling, he pulled the darts out. There was more blood, particularly from his right thigh and the two wounds in his chest. A long arrow in his back had buried its barbed head deep into muscle. He attempted to drag the arrow free, but the pain that resulted came close to making him faint. He settled for snapping the shaft just behind the iron head, and this effort alone left him chilled and sweating.
    Distant shouts alerted him to a slowly closing cordon of soldiers and townsfolk, all hunting him. Karsa closed his hands around the chains, then began climbing. Every time he lifted his left arm, his back flashed with agony. But it had been the flat of a mattock’s blade that had felled Gnaw, a two-handed blow from behind-the attack of a coward. And nothing else mattered.
    He swung himself onto the platform’s dusty floorboards, padded silently away from the opening as he drew his sword once more.
    He could hear breathing, harsh and ragged, below. Low whimpering between gasps, a voice praying to whatever gods the child worshipped.
    Karsa made his way towards the gaping hole in the centre of the platform, careful to keep his moccasins from dragging, lest sawdust drift down from between the floorboards. He came to the edge and looked down.
    The fool was directly beneath him, crouched down, trembling, the mattock held ready as he faced the barred doors. He had soiled himself in his terror.
    Karsa carefully reversed grip on his sword, held it out point downward, then dropped from the ledge.
    The sword’s tip entered atop the man’s pate, the blade driving down through bone and brain. As Karsa’s full weight impacted the warehouse floor, there was a massive, splintering sound, and Teblor and victim both plunged through, down into a cellar. Shattered floorboards crashed down around them. The cellar was deep, almost Karsa’s height, stinking of salted fish yet empty.
    Stunned by the fall, Karsa feebly groped for his sword, but he could not find it. He managed to raise his head slightly, and saw that something was sticking out of his chest, a red shard of splintered wood. He was, he bemusedly realized, impaled. His hand continued searching for his sword, though he could not otherwise move, but found only wood and fish-scales, the latter greasy with salt and sticking to his fingertips.
    He heard the sound of boots from above. Blinking, Karsa stared up as a ring of helmed faces slowly swam into view. Then another child’s face appeared, unhelmed, his brow marked in a tribal tattoo, the expression beneath it strangely sympathetic. There was a lot of conversation, hot with anger, then the tattooed child gestured and everyone fell silent. In the Sunyd dialect of the Teblor, the man said, ‘Should you die down there, warrior, at least you’ll keep for a time.’
    Karsa sought to rise once more, but the shaft of wood held him fast. He bared his teeth in a grimace.
    ‘What is your name, Teblor?’ the child asked.
    ‘I am Karsa Orlong, grandson of Pahlk-’
    ‘Pahlk? The Uryd who visited centuries ago?’
    ‘To slay scores of children-’
    The man’s nod was serious as he interjected, ‘Children, yes, it makes sense for your kind to call us that. But Pahlk killed no-one, not at first. He came down from the pass, half starved and fevered. The first farmers who’d settled here took him in, nourished him back to health. It was only then that he murdered them all and fled. Well, not all. A girl escaped, made her way back along the lake’s south shore to Orbs, and told the detachment there-well, told them everything they needed to know about the Teblor. Since that time, of course, the Sunyd slaves have told us even more. You are Uryd. We’ve not reached your tribe-you’ve had no bounty hunters as yet, but you will. Within a century, I’d hazard, there will be no more Teblor in the fastnesses of Laederon Plateau. The only Teblor will be the ones branded and in chains. Plying the nets on the fishing boats, as the Sunyd now do. Tell me, Karsa, do you recognize me?’
    ‘You are the one who escaped us above the pass. Who came too late to warn his fellow children. Who, I know now, is full of lies. Your tiny voice insults the Teblor tongue. It hurts my ears.’
    The man smiled. ‘Too bad. You should reconsider, in any case, warrior. For I am all that stands between your living or dying. Assuming you don’t die of your wounds first. Of course, you Teblor are uncommonly tough, as my companions have just been reminded, to their dismay. I see no blood frothing your lips, which is a good sign, and rather astonishing, since you’ve four lungs, while we have two.’
    Another figure had appeared and now spoke to the tattooed man in stentorian tones, to which he simply shrugged. ‘Karsa Orlong of the Uryd,’ he called down, ‘soldiers are about to descend, to tie ropes to your limbs so you can be lifted out. It seems you’re lying on what’s left of the town’s factor, which has somewhat abated the anger up here, since he was not a well-liked man. I would suggest, if you wish to live, that you not resist the, uh, warleader’s nervous volunteers.’
    Karsa watched as four soldiers were slowly lowered down on ropes. He made no effort to resist as they roughly bound his wrists, ankles and upper arms, for the truth was, he was incapable of doing so.
    The soldiers were quickly dragged back up, then the ropes were drawn taut, and Karsa was steadily lifted. He watched the shaft of splintered wood slowly withdrawing from his chest. It had entered high, just above his right shoulder blade, through muscles, reappearing just to the right of his clavicle on that side. As he was pulled free, pain overwhelmed him.
    A hand was then slapping him awake. Karsa opened his eyes. He was lying on the warehouse floor, faces crowding him on all sides. Everyone seemed to be speaking to him at once in their thin, weedy tongue, and though he could not understand the words raw hatred rode the tone, and Karsa knew he was being cursed, in the name of scores of lowlander gods, spirits and mouldering ancestors. The thought pleased him, and he smiled.
    The soldiers flinched back as one.
    The tattooed lowlander, whose hand had awakened him, was crouched down at Karsa’s side. ‘Hood’s breath,’ he muttered. ‘Are all Uryd like you? Or are you the one the priests spoke of? The one who stalked their dreams like Hood’s own Knight? Ah well, it doesn’t matter, I suppose, for it seems their fears were unfounded. Look at you. Half dead, with a whole town eager to see you and your companion flayed alive-there’s not a family to be found not in mourning, thanks to you. Grasp the world by the throat? Not likely; you’ll need Oponn’s luck to live out the hour.’
    The broken arrow shaft had been driven deeper into Karsa’s back with the fall, gouging into the bone of his shoulder blade. Blood was spreading out on the floorboards beneath him.
    There was a commotion as a new lowlander arrived, this one tall for his kind, thin with a severe, weather-lined face. He was dressed in shimmering clothes, deep blue and trimmed with gold thread sewn into intricate patterns. The guard spoke to him at length, though the man himself said nothing, nor did his expression change. When the guard was finished, the newcomer nodded, then gestured with one hand and turned away.
    The guard looked down at Karsa once more. ‘That was Master Silgar, the man I work for, most of the time. He believes you will survive your wounds, Karsa Orlong, and so has prepared for you a… a lesson, of sorts.’ The man straightened and said something to the soldiers. There followed a brief argument, which concluded with an indifferent shrug from one of the soldiers.
    Karsa’s limbs were lifted once more, two lowlanders to each, the men straining to hold him as they carried him to the warehouse doors.
    The blood dripping down from his wounds was slowing, pain retreating behind a dull lassitude in the Teblor’s mind. He stared up at blue sky as the soldiers carried him to the centre of the street, the sounds of a crowd on all sides. They set him down propped up against a cart wheel, and Karsa saw before him Bairoth Gild.
    He had been tied to a much larger spoked wheel, which itself rested against support poles. The huge warrior was a mass of wounds. A spear had been driven into his mouth, exiting just below his left ear, leaving the lower jaw shattered, bone gleaming red amidst torn flesh. The stubs of deep-driven quarrels crowded his torso.
    But his eyes were sharp as they met Karsa’s own.
    Villagers filled the street, held back by a cordon of soldiers. Angry shouts and curses filled the air, punctuated every now and then by wails of grief.
    The guard positioned himself between Karsa and Bairoth, his expression mockingly thoughtful. Then he turned to Karsa. ‘Your comrade here will tell us nothing of the Uryd. We would know the number of warriors, the number and location of villages. We would know more of the Phalyd as well, who are said to be your match in ferocity. But he says nothing.’
    Karsa bared his teeth. ‘I, Karsa Orlong, invite you to send a thousand of your warriors to wage war among the Uryd. None shall return, but the trophies will remain with us. Send two thousand. It matters not.’
    The guard smiled. ‘You will answer our questions, then, Karsa Orlong?’
    ‘I will, for such words will avail you naught-’
    ‘Excellent.’ The guard gestured with one hand. A lowlander stepped up to Bairoth Gild, drawing his sword.
    Bairoth sneered at Karsa. He snarled, the sound a mangled roar that Karsa nevertheless understood, ‘Lead me, Warleader!’
    The sword slashed. Through Bairoth Gild’s neck. Blood sprayed, the huge warrior’s head flopping back, then rolling from a shoulder to land with a heavy thump on the ground.
    A savage, gleeful roar erupted from the villagers.
    The guard approached Karsa. ‘Delighted to hear that you will cooperate. Doing so buys you your life. Master Silgar will add you to his herd of slaves once you’ve told us all you know. I don’t think you will be joining the Sunyd out on the lake, however. No hauling of nets for you, Karsa Orlong, I’m afraid.’ He turned as a heavily armoured soldier appeared. ‘Ah, here is the Malazan captain. Ill luck, Karsa Orlong, that you should have timed your attack to coincide with the arrival of a Malazan company on its way to Bettrys. Now then, assuming the captain has no objections, shall we begin the questioning?’

    The twin trenches of the slave-pits lay beneath the floor of a large warehouse near the lake, accessed through a trapdoor and a mould-smeared staircase. One side held, for the moment, only a half-dozen lowlanders chained to the tree trunk running the length of the trench, but more shackles awaited the return of the Sunyd net-haulers. The other trench was home to the sick and dying. Emaciated lowlander shapes huddled in their own filth, some moaning, others silent and motionless.
    After he had done describing the Uryd and their lands, Karsa was dragged to the warehouse and chained in the second trench. Its sides were sloped, packed with damp clay. The centre log ran along the narrow, flat bottom, half-submerged in blood-streaked sewage. Karsa was taken to the far end, out of the reach of any of the other slaves, and shackles were fixed to both wrists and both ankles-whereas, he saw, among everyone else a single shackle sufficed.
    They left him alone then.
    Flies swarmed him, alighting on his chilled skin. He lay on his side against one of the sloping sides. The wound within which the arrowhead remained was threatening to close, and this he could not allow. He shut his eyes and began to concentrate until he could feel each muscle, cut and torn and seeping, holding fast around the iron point. Then he began working them, the slightest of contractions to test the position of the arrow-head-fighting the pulses of pain that radiated out with each flex. After a few moments, he ceased, let his body relax, taking deep breaths until he was recovered from his efforts. The flanged iron blade lay almost flat against his shoulder blade. Its tip had scoured a groove along the bone. There were barbs as well, bent and twisted.
    To leave such an object within his flesh would make his left arm useless. He needed to drive it out.
    He began to concentrate once more. Ravaged muscles and tissue, a path inward of chopped and sliced flesh.
    A layer of sweat sheathed him as he continued to focus his mind, preparing, his breaths slowing, steadying.
    He contracted his muscles. A ragged scream forced its way out. Another welter of blood, amidst relentless pain. The muscles spasmed in a rippling wave. Something struck the clay slope and slid down into the sewage.
    Gasping, trembling, Karsa lay motionless for a long while. The blood streaming down from his back slowed, then ceased.
    ‘Lead me, War leader!
    Bairoth Gild had made those words a curse, in a manner and from a place of thought that Karsa did not understand. And then, Bairoth Gild had died senselessly. Nothing the lowlanders could do threatened the Uryd, for the Uryd were not as the Sunyd. Bairoth had surrendered his chance for vengeance, a gesture so baffling to Karsa that he was left stunned.
    A brutal, knowing glare in Bairoth’s eyes, fixed solely on Karsa, even as the sword flashed towards his neck. He would tell the lowlanders nothing, yet it was a defiance without meaning-but no, there was meaning… for Bairoth chose to abandon me.
    A sudden shiver took him. Urugal, have my brothers betrayed me? Delum Thord’s flight, Bairoth Gild’s death-am I to know abandonment again and again? What of the Uryd awaiting my return? Will they not follow when I proclaim war against the lowlanders?
    Perhaps not at first. No, he realized, there would be arguments, and opinions, and, seated around the camp hearths, the elders would poke smouldering sticks into the fire and shake their heads.
    Until word came that the lowlander armies were coming.
    And then they will have no choice. Would we flee into the laps of the Phalyd? No. There will be no choice but to fight, and I, Karsa Orlong, will be looked upon then, to lead the Uryd.
    The thought calmed him.
    He slowly rolled over, blinking in the gloom, flies scattering all around his face.
    It took a few moments of groping in the sludge to find the arrowhead and its stubby, splintered fragment of shaft. He then crouched down beside the centre log to examine the fittings holding the chains.
    There were two sets of chains, one for his arms and one for his legs, each fixed to a long iron rod that had been driven through the trunk, the opposite end flattened out. The links were large and solid, forged with Teblor strength in mind. But the wood on the underside had begun to rot.
    Using the arrow-head, he began gouging and digging into the sewage-softened wood around the flange.
    Bairoth had betrayed him, betrayed the Uryd. There had been nothing of courage in his last act of defiance. Indeed, the very opposite. They had discovered enemies to the Teblor. Hunters, who collected Teblor trophies. These were truths that the warriors of all the tribes needed to hear, and delivering those truths was now Karsa’s sole task. He was not Sunyd, as the lowlanders were about to discover. The rot had been drawn up the hole. Karsa dug out the soaked, pulpy mass as far as the arrow-head could reach. He then moved on to the second fitting. The iron bar holding his leg chains would be tested first. There was no way to tell if it was day or night outside. Heavy boots occasionally crossed the plank floor above him, too random to indicate a set passage of time. Karsa worked unceasingly, listening to the coughs and moans of the lowlanders chained further down the trunk. He could not imagine what those sad children had done, to warrant such punishment from their kin. Banishment was the harshest sentence the Teblor inflicted on those among the tribe whose actions had, with deliberate intent, endangered the survival of the village, actions that ranged from carelessness to kin-murder. Banishment led, usually, to death, but that came of starvation of the spirit within the one punished. Torture was not a Teblor way, nor was prolonged imprisonment.
    Of course, he reconsidered, it may be that these lowlanders were sick because their spirits were dying. Among the legends, there were fragments whispering that the Teblor had once owned slaves-the word, the concept, was known to him. Possession of another’s life, to do with as one wished. A slave’s spirit could do naught but starve.
    Karsa had no intention of starving. Urugal’s shadow protected his spirit.
    He tucked the arrow-head into his belt. Setting his back against the slope, he planted his feet against the log, one to either side of the fitting, then slowly extended his legs. The chain tautened. On the underside of the trunk, the flange was pulled into the wood with a steady splintering, grinding sound.
    The shackles dug into his hide-wrapped ankles.
    He began to push harder. There was a solid crunch, then the flange would go no further. Karsa slowly relaxed. A kick sent the bar thumping free on the other end. He rested for a few moments, then resumed the process once more.
    After a dozen tries he had managed to pull the bar up the span of three fingers from where it had been at the beginning. The flange’s edges were bent now, battered by their assault on the wood. His leggings had been cut through and blood gleamed on the shackles.
    He leaned his head back on the damp clay of the slope, his legs trembling.
    More boots thumped overhead, then the trapdoor was lifted. The glow of lantern light descended the steps, and within it Karsa saw the nameless guard.
    ‘Uryd,’ he called out. ‘Do you still breathe?’
    ‘Come closer,’ Karsa challenged in a low voice, ‘and I will show you the extent of my recovery.’
    The lowlander laughed. ‘Master Silgar saw true, it seems. It will take some effort to break your spirit, I suspect.’ The guard remained standing halfway down the steps. ‘Your Sunyd kin will be returning in a day or two.’
    ‘I have no kin who accept the life of slavery.’
    ‘That’s odd, since you clearly have, else you would have contrived to kill yourself by now.’
    ‘You think I am a slave because I am in chains? Come closer, then, child.’
    ‘ “Child,” yes. Your strange affectation persists, even while we children have you at our mercy. Well, never mind. The chains are but the beginning, Karsa Orlong. You will indeed be broken, and had you been captured by the bounty hunters high on the plateau, by the time they’d delivered you to this town you’d have had nothing left of Teblor pride, much less defiance. The Sunyd will worship you, Karsa Orlong, for killing an entire camp of bounty hunters.’
    ‘What is your name?’ Karsa asked.
    ‘Why?’
    The Uryd warrior smiled in the gloom. ‘For all your words, you still fear me.’
    ‘Hardly.’ But Karsa heard the strain in the guard’s tone and his smile broadened. ‘Then tell me your name.’
    ‘Damisk. My name is Damisk. I was once a tracker in the Greydog army during the Malazan conquest.’
    ‘Conquest. You lost, then. Which of our spirits has broken, Damisk Greydog? When I attacked your party on the ridge, you fled. Left the ones who had hired you to their fates. You fled, as would a coward, a broken man. And this is why you are here, now. For I am chained and you are beyond my reach. You come, not to tell me things, but because you cannot help yourself. You seek the pleasure of gloating, yet you devour yourself inside, and so feel no true satisfaction. Yet we both know, you will come again. And again.’
    ‘I shall advise,’ Damisk said, his voice ragged, ‘my master to give you to the surviving bounty hunters, to do with you as they will. And I will watch-’
    ‘Of course you will, Damisk Greydog.’
    The man backed up the stairs, the lantern’s light swinging wildly.
    Karsa laughed.
    A mornent later the trapdoor slammed down once more, and there was darkness.
    The Teblor warrior fell silent, then planted his feet on the log yet again.
    A weak voice from the far end of the trench stopped him. ‘Giant.’
    The tongue was Sunyd, the voice a child’s. ‘I have no words for you, lowlander,’ Karsa growled.
    ‘I do not ask for words. I can feel you working on this Hood-damned tree. Will you succeed at whatever it is you are doing?’
    ‘I am doing nothing.’
    ‘All right, then. Must be my imagination. We’re dying here, the rest of us. In a most terrible, undignified manner.’
    ‘You must have done great wrong-’
    The answering laugh was a rasping cough. ‘Oh indeed, giant. Indeed. We’re the ones who would not accept Malazan rule, so we held on to our weapons and hid in the hills and forests. Raiding, ambushing, making nuisances of ourselves. It was great fun. Until the bastards caught us.’
    ‘Careless.’
    ‘Three of you and a handful of your damned dogs, raiding an entire town! And you call me careless? Well, I suppose we both were, since we’re here.’
    Karsa grimaced at the truth of that. ‘What is it you want, lowlander?’
    ‘Your strength, giant. There are four of us over here who are still alive, though I alone am still conscious… and very nearly sane. Sane enough, that is, to comprehend the fullest ignobility of my fate.’
    ‘You talk too much.’
    ‘For not much longer, I assure you. Can you lift this log, giant? Or spin it over a few times?’
    Karsa was silent for a long moment. ‘What would that achieve?’
    ‘It would shorten the chains.’
    ‘I have no wish to shorten the chains.’
    ‘Temporarily.’
    ‘Why?’
    ‘Spin the damned thing, giant. So our chains wrap around it again and again. So, with one last turn, you drag us poor fools at this end under. So we drown.’
    ‘You would have me kill you?’
    ‘I applaud your swift comprehension, giant. More souls to crowd your shadow, Teblor-that’s how your kind see it, yes? Kill me, and I will walk with honour in your shadow.’
    ‘I am not interested in mercy, lowlander.’
    ‘How about trophies?’
    ‘I cannot reach you to take trophies.’
    ‘How well can you see in this gloom? I’ve heard that Teblor-’
    ‘I can see. Well enough to know that your right hand is closed in a fist. What lies within it?’
    ‘A tooth. Just fallen out. The third one since I’ve been chained down here.’
    ‘Throw it to me.’
    ‘I will try. I am afraid I’m somewhat… worse for wear. Are you ready?’
    ‘Throw.’
    The man’s arm wavered as he lifted it.
    The tooth flew high and wide, but Karsa’s arm shot out, chain snapping behind it, and he snatched the tooth from the air. He brought it down for a closer look, then grunted. ‘It’s rotted.’
    ‘Probably why it fell out. Well? Consider this, too. You will succeed in getting water right through the shaft, which should soften things up even more. Not that you’ve been up to anything down there.’
    Karsa slowly nodded. ‘I like you, lowlander.’
    ‘Good. Now drown me.’
    ‘I will.’
    Karsa slipped down to stand knee-deep in the foul muck, the fresh wounds around his ankles stinging at the contact.
    ‘I saw them bring you down, giant,’ the man said. ‘None of the Sunyd are as big as you.’
    ‘The Sunyd are the smallest among the Teblor.’
    ‘Must be some lowlander blood from way back, I’d imagine.’
    ‘They have fallen far indeed.’ Karsa lowered both arms, chains dragging, until his hands rested beneath the log.
    ‘My thanks to you, Teblor.’
    Karsa lifted, twisted the log, then set it down once more, gasping. ‘This will not be quick, lowlander, and for that I am sorry.’
    ‘I understand. Take your time. Biltar slid right under in any case, and Alrute looks about to the next time. You’re doing well.’
    He lifted the log once more, rolled it another half-twist. Splashes and gurgling sounds came from the other end.
    Then a gasp. ‘Almost there, Teblor. I’m the last. One more-I’ll roll myself under it, so it pins me down.’
    ‘Then you are crushed, not drowned.’
    ‘In this muck? No worries there, Teblor. I’ll feel the weight, true, but it won’t cause me much pain.’
    ‘You lie.’
    ‘So what? It’s not the means, it’s the end that matters.’
    ‘All, things matter,’ Karsa said, preparing once more. ‘I shall twist it all the way round this time, lowlander. It will be easier now that my own chains are shorter. Are you ready?’
    ‘A moment, please,’ the man sputtered.
    Karsa lifted the log, grunting with the immense weight pulling down on his arms.
    ‘I’ve had a change of heart-’
    ‘I haven’t.’ Karsa spun the log. Then dropped it.
    Wild thrashing from the other end, chains sawing the air, then frantic coughing.
    Surprised, Karsa looked up. A brown-smeared figure flailed about, sputtering, kicking.
    Karsa slowly sat back, waiting for the man to recover. For a while, there was naught but heavy gasping from the other end of the log. ‘You managed to roll back over, then under and out. I am impressed, lowlander. It seems you are not a coward after all. I did not believe there were such as you among the children.’
    ‘Sheer courage,’ the man rasped. ‘That’s me.’
    ‘Whose tooth was it?’
    ‘Alrute’s. Now, no more spinning, if you please.’
    ‘I am sorry, lowlander, but I must now spin it the opposite way, until the log is as it was before I started.’
    ‘I curse your grim logic, Teblor.’
    ‘What is your name?’
    ‘Torvald Nom, though to my Malazan enemies, I’m known as Knuckles.’
    ‘And how came you to learn the Sunyd tongue?’
    ‘It’s the old trader language, actually. Before there were bounty hunters, there were Nathii traders. A mutually profitable trade between them and the Sunyd. The truth is, your language is close kin to Nathii.’
    ‘The soldiers spoke gibberish.’
    ‘Naturally; they’re soldiers.’ He paused. ‘All right, that sort of humour’s lost on you. So be it. Likely, those soldiers were Malazan.’
    ‘I have decided that the Malazans are my enemy.’
    ‘Something we share, then, Teblor.’
    ‘We share naught but this tree trunk, lowlander.’
    ‘If you prefer. Though I feel obliged to correct you on one thing. Hateworthy as the Malazans are, the Nathii these days are no better. You’ve no allies among the lowlanders, Teblor, be sure of that.’
    ‘Are you a Nathii?’
    ‘No. I’m Daru. From a city far to the south. The House of Nom is vast and certain families among it are almost wealthy. We’ve a Nom in the Council, in fact, in Darujhistan. Never met him. Alas, my own family’s holdings are more, uh, modest. Hence my extended travels and nefarious professions-’
    ‘You talk too much, Torvald Nom. I am ready to turn this log once more.’
    ‘Damn, I was hoping you’d forgotten about that.’
    The iron bar’s end was more than halfway through the trunk, the flange a blunt, shapeless piece of metal. Karsa could not keep the aching and trembling from his legs, even as the rest periods between efforts grew ever longer. The larger wounds in his chest and back, created by the splinter of wood, had reopened, leaking steadily to mix with the sweat soaking his clothes. The skin and flesh of his ankles were shredded. Torvald had succumbed to his own exhaustion, shortly after the log had been returned to its original position, groaning in his sleep whilst Karsa laboured on.
    For the moment, as the Uryd warrior rested against the clay slope, the only sounds were his own ragged gasps, underscored by softer, shallow breaths from the far end of the trunk.
    Then the sound of boots crossed overhead, first in one direction, then back again, and gone.
    Karsa pushed himself upright once more, his head spinning.
    ‘Rest longer, Teblor.’
    ‘There is no time for that, Torvald Nom-’
    ‘Oh, but there is. That slavemaster who now owns you will be waiting here for a while, so that he and his train can travel in the company of the Malazan soldiers. For as far as Malybridge, at least. There’s been plenty of bandit activity from Fool’s Forest and Yellow Mark, for which I acknowledge some proprietary pride, since it was me who united that motley collection of highwaymen and throat-slitters in the first place. They’d have already come to rescue me, too, if not for the Malazans.’
    ‘I will kill that slavemaster,’ Karsa said.
    ‘Careful with that one, giant. Silgar’s not a pleasant man, and he’s used to dealing with warriors like you-’
    ‘I am Uryd, not Sunyd.’
    ‘So you keep saying, and I’ve no doubt you’re meaner-you’re certainly bigger. All I was saying is, be wary of Silgar.’
    Karsa positioned himself over the log.
    ‘You have time to spare, Teblor. There’s no point in freeing yourself if you’re then unable to walk. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in chains, and I speak from experience: bide your time, an opportunity will arise; if you don’t wither and die first.’
    ‘Or drown.’
    ‘Point taken, and yes, I understood your meaning when you spoke of courage. I admit to a moment of despair.’
    ‘Do you know how long you have been chained here?’
    ‘Well, there was snow on the ground and the lake’s ice had just broken.’
    Karsa slowly glanced over at the barely visible, scrawny figure at the far end. ‘Torvald Nom, even a lowlander should not be made to suffer such a fate.’
    The man’s laugh was a rattle. ‘And you call us children. You Teblor cut people down as if you were executioners, but among my kind, execution is an act of mercy. For your average condemned bastard, prolonged torture is far more likely. The Nathii have made the infliction of suffering an art-must be the cold winters or something. In any case, if not for Silgar claiming you-and the Malazan soldiers in town-the locals would be peeling the skin from your flesh right now, a sliver at a time. Then they’d lock you inside a box to let you heal. They know that your kind are immune to infections, which means they can make you suffer for a long, long time. There’s a lot of frustrated townsfolk out there right now, I’d imagine.’
    Karsa began pulling on the bar once more.
    He was interrupted by voices overhead, then heavy thumping, as of a dozen or more barefooted arrivals, the sound joined now by chains slithering across the warehouse floor.
    Karsa settled back against the opposite trench slope.
    The trapdoor opened. A child in the lead, lantern in hand, and then Sunyd-naked but for rough-woven short skirts-making a slow descent, their left ankles shackled with a chain linking them all together. The lowlander with the lantern walked down the walkway between the two trenches. The Sunyd, eleven in all, six men and five women, followed.
    Their heads were lowered; none would meet Karsa’s steady, cold regard.
    At a gesture from the child, who had halted four long paces from Karsa’s position, the Sunyd turned and slid down the slope of their trench. Three more lowlanders had appeared, and followed them down to apply the fixed shackles to the Teblor’s other ankles. There was no resistance from the Sunyd.
    Moments later, the lowlanders were back on the walkway, then heading up the steps. The trapdoor squealed on its hinges, closing with a reverberating thump that sent dust drifting down through the gloom.
    ‘It is true, then. An Uryd.’ The voice was a whisper.
    Karsa sneered. ‘Was that the voice of a Teblor? No, it could not have been. Teblor do not become slaves. Teblor would rather die than kneel before a lowlander.’
    ‘An Uryd… in chains. Like the rest of us-’
    ‘Like the Sunyd? Who let these foul children come close and fix shackles to their legs? No. I am a prisoner, but no bindings shall hold me for long. The Sunyd must be reminded what it is to be a Teblor.’
    A new voice spoke from among the Sunyd, a woman’s. ‘We saw the dead, lined up on the ground before the hunters’ camp. We saw wagons, filled with dead Malazans. Townsfolk were wailing. Yet, it is said there were but three of you-’
    ‘Two, not three. Our companion, Delum Thord, was wounded in the head, his mind had fallen away. He ran with the dogs. Had his mind been whole, his bloodsword in his hands-’
    There was sudden murmuring from the Sunyd, the word bloodsword spoken in tones of awe.
    Karsa scowled. ‘What is this madness? Have the Sunyd lost all the old ways of the Teblor?’
    The woman sighed. ‘Lost? Yes, long ago. Our own children slipping away in the night to wander south into the lowlands, eager for the cursed lowlander coins-the bits of metal around which life itself seems to revolve. Sorely used, were our children-some even returned to our valleys, as scouts for the hunters. The secret groves of bloodwood were burned down, our horses slain. To be betrayed by our own children, Uryd, this is what broke the Sunyd.’
    ‘Your children should have been hunted down,’ Karsa said. ‘The hearts of your warriors were too soft. Blood-kin is cut when betrayal is done. Those children ceased being Sunyd. I will kill them for you.’
    ‘You would have trouble finding them, Uryd. They are scattered, many fallen, many now sold into servitude to repay their debts. And some have travelled great distances, to the great cities of Nathilog and Genabaris. Our tribe is no more.’
    The first Sunyd who had spoken added, ‘Besides, Uryd, you are in chains. Now the property of Master Silgar, from whom no slave has ever escaped. You will be killing no-one, ever again. And like us, you will be made to kneel. Your words are empty.’
    Karsa straddled the log once more. He grasped hold of the chains this time, wrapping them about his wrists as many times as he could.
    Then he threw himself back. Muscles bunching, legs pushing down on the log, back straightening. Grinding, splintering, a sudden loud crack.
    Karsa was thrown backward onto the clay slope, chains snapping around him. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he stared down at the log.
    The trunk had split, down its entire length.
    There was a low hiss from the other end, the rustle of freed chains. ‘Hood take me, Karsa Orlong,’ Torvald whispered, ‘you don’t take insults well, do you?’
    Though no longer attached to the log, Karsa’s wrists and ankles were still chained to the iron bars. The warrior unravelled the chains from his battered, bleeding forearms, then collected one of the bars. Laying the ankle chain against the log, he drove the bar’s unflanged end into a single link, then began twisting it with both hands.
    ‘What has happened?’ a Sunyd asked. ‘What was that sound?’
    ‘The Uryd’s spine has snapped,’ the first speaker replied in a drawl.
    Torvald’s laugh was a cold chuckle. ‘The Lord’s push for you, Ganal, I’m afraid.’
    ‘What do you mean, Nom?’
    The link popped, sending a piece whipping across the trench to thud against the earthen wall.
    Karsa dragged the chain from his ankle shackles. Then he set to splitting the one holding his wrists.
    Another popping sound. He freed his arms.
    ‘What is happening?’
    A third crack, as he snapped the chain from the iron bar he had been using-which was the undamaged one, its flange intact, sharp-edged and jagged. Karsa clambered from the trench.
    ‘Where is this Ganal?’ he growled.
    All but one of the Sunyd lying in the opposite trench shrank back at his words.
    ‘I am Ganal,’ said the lone warrior who had not moved. ‘Not a broken spine after all. Well then, warrior, kill me for my sceptical words.’
    ‘I shall.’ Karsa strode down the walkway, lifting the iron bar.
    ‘If you do that,’ Torvald said hastily, ‘the others will likely raise a cry.’
    Karsa hesitated.
    Ganal smiled up at him. ‘If you spare me, there will be no alarm sounded, Uryd. It is night, still a bell or more before dawn. You will make good your escape-’
    ‘And by your silence, you will all be punished,’ Karsa said.
    ‘No. We were all sleeping.’
    The woman spoke. ‘Bring the Uryd, in all your numbers. When you have slain everyone in this town, then you can settle judgement upon us Sunyd, as will be your right.’
    Karsa hesitated, then he nodded. ‘Ganal, I give you more of your miserable life. But I shall come once more, and I shall remember you.’
    ‘I have no doubt, Uryd,’ Ganal replied. ‘Not any more.’
    ‘Karsa,’ Torvald said. ‘I may be a lowlander and all-’
    ‘I shall free you, child,’ the Uryd replied, turning from the Sunyd trench. ‘You have shown courage.’ He slid down to the man’s side. ‘You are too thin to walk,’ he observed. ‘Unable to run. Do you still wish for me to release you?’
    ‘Thin? I haven’t lost more than half a stone, Karsa Orlong. I can run.’
    ‘You sounded poorly earlier on-’
    ‘Sympathy.’
    ‘You sought sympathy from an Uryd?’
    The man’s bony shoulders lifted in a sheepish shrug. ‘It was worth a try.’
    Karsa pried the chain apart.
    Torvald pulled his arms free. ‘Beru’s blessing on you, lad.’
    ‘Keep your lowlander gods to yourself.’
    ‘Of course. Apologies. Anything you say.’
    Torvald scrambled up the slope. On the walkway, he paused. ‘What of the trapdoor, Karsa Orlong?’
    ‘What of it?’ the warrior growled, climbing up and moving past the lowlander.
    Torvald bowed as Karsa went past, a scrawny arm sweeping out in a graceful gesture. ‘Lead me, by all means.’
    Karsa halted on the first step and glanced back at the child. ‘I am warleader,’ he rumbled. ‘You would have me lead you, lowlander?’
    Ganal said from the other trench, ‘Careful how you answer, Daru. There are no empty words among the Teblor.’
    ‘Well, uh, it was naught but an invitation. To precede me up the steps-’
    Karsa resumed his climb.
    Directly beneath the trapdoor, he examined its edges. He recalled that there was an iron latch that was lowered when locked, making it flush with the surrounding boards. Karsa jammed the chain-fixing end of the iron bar into the join beneath the latch. He drove it in as far as he could, then began levering, settling his full weight in gradual increments.
    A splintering snap, the trapdoor jumping up slightly. Karsa set his shoulders against it and lifted.
    The hinges creaked.
    The warrior froze, waited, then resumed, slower this time.
    As his head cleared the hatchway, he could see faint lantern-glow from the far end of the warehouse, and saw, seated around a small round table, three lowlanders. They were not soldiers-Karsa had seen them earlier in the company of the slavemaster, Silgar. There was the muted clatter of bones on the tabletop.
    That they had not heard the trapdoor’s hinges was, to Karsa’s mind, remarkable. Then his ears caught a new sound-a chorus of creaks and groans, and, outside, the howl of a wind. A storm had come in from the lake, and rain had begun spraying against the north wall of the warehouse.
    ‘Urugal,’ Karsa said under his breath, ‘I thank you. And now, witness…’
    One hand holding the trapdoor over him, the warrior slowly slid onto the floor. He moved far enough to permit Torvald’s equally silent arrival, then he slowly lowered the hatch until it settled. A gesture told Torvald to remain where he was, understanding indicated by the man’s fervent nod. Karsa carefully shifted the bar from his left hand to his right, then made his way forward.
    Only one of the three guards might have seen him, from the corner of his eye, but his attention was intent on the bones skidding over the tabletop before him. The other two had their backs to the room.
    Karsa remained low on the floor until he was less than three paces away, then he silently rose into a crouch.
    He launched himself forward, the bar whipping horizontally, connecting with first one unhelmed head, then on to the second. The third guard stared open-mouthed. Karsa’s swing finished with his left hand grasping the red-smeared end of the bar, which he then drove crossways into the lowlander’s throat. The man was thrown back over his chair, striking the warehouse doors and falling in a heap.
    Karsa set the bar down on the tabletop, then crouched down beside one of the victims and began removing his sword-belt.
    Torvald approached. ‘Hood’s own nightmare,’ he muttered, ‘that’s what you are, Uryd.’
    ‘Take yourself a weapon,’ Karsa directed, moving on to the next corpse.
    ‘I will. Now, which way shall we run, Karsa? They’ll be expecting northwest, back the way you came. They’ll ride hard for the foot of the pass. I have friends-’
    ‘I have no intention of running,’ the warleader growled, looping both sword-belts over a shoulder, the scabbarded longswords looking minuscule where they rested against his back. He collected the flanged bar once more. He turned to find Torvald staring at him. ‘Run to your friends, lowlander. I will, this night, deliver sufficient diversion to make good your escape. Tonight, Bairoth Gild and Delum Thord shall be avenged.’
    ‘Don’t expect me to avenge your death, Karsa. It’s madness-you’ve already done the impossible. I’d advise you to thank the Lady’s pull and get away while you can. In case you’ve forgotten, this town’s full of soldiers.’
    ‘Be on your way, child.’
    Torvald hesitated, then he threw up his hands. ‘So be it. For my life, Karsa Orlong, I thank you. The family of Nom will speak your name in its prayers.’
    ‘I will wait fifty heartbeats.’
    Without another word Torvald headed to the warehouse’s sliding doors. The main bar had not been lowered into its slots; a smaller latch loosely held the door to the frame. He flipped it back, pushed the door to one side, sufficient only to pop his head out for a quick look. Then he shoved it open slightly more, and slipped outside.
    Karsa listened to his footfalls, the splash of bare feet in mud, hurrying away to the left. He decided he would not wait fifty heartbeats. Even with the storm holding fast the darkness, dawn was not far away.
    The Teblor slid the door back further and stepped outside. A track narrower than the main street, the wooden buildings opposite indistinct behind a slanting curtain of hard rain. To the right and twenty paces distant, light showed from a single murky window on the upper floor of a house standing next to a side street.
    He wanted his bloodsword, but had no idea where it might be. Failing that, any Teblor weapon would suffice. And he knew where he might find some.
    Karsa slid the door shut behind him. He swung right and, skirting the edge of the street, made his way towards the lakefront.
    The wind whipped rain against his face, loosening the crusted blood and dirt. The shredded leathers of his shirt flapped heavily as he jogged towards the clearing, where waited the camp of the bounty hunters.
    There had been survivors. A careless oversight on Karsa’s part; one he would now correct. And, in the huts of those cold-eyed children, there would be Teblor trophies. Weapons. Armour.
    The huts and shacks of the fallen had already been stripped, the doors hanging open, rubbish strewn about. Karsa’s gaze settled on a nearby reed-walled shack clearly still occupied. He padded towards it.
    Ignoring the small door, the warrior threw his shoulder against a wall. The reed panel fell inward, Karsa plunging through. There was a grunt from a cot to his left, a vague shape bolting into a sitting position. Iron bar swung down. Blood and bits of bone sprayed the walls. The figure sank back down.
    The small, lone room of the shack was cluttered with Sunyd objects, most of them useless: charms, belts and trinkets. He did find, however, a pair of Sunyd hunting knives, sheathed in beaded buckskin over wood. A low altar caught Karsa’s attention. Some lowlander god, signified by a small clay statue-a boar, standing on its hind legs.
    The Teblor knocked it to the earthen floor, then shattered it with a single stomp of his heel.
    Returning outside, he approached the next inhabited shack.
    The wind howled off the lake, white-maned waves crashing up the pebbled beach. The sky overhead was still black with clouds, the rain unceasing.
    There were seven shacks in all, and in the sixth one-after killing the two men entwined together in the cot beneath the skin of a grey bear-he found an old Sunyd bloodsword, and an almost complete set of armour that, although of a style Karsa had never seen before, was clearly Teblor in origin, given its size and the sigils burned into the wooden plates. It was only when he began strapping it on that he realized that the grey, weathered wood was bloodwood-bleached by centuries of neglect.
    In the seventh hut he found a small jar of blood-oil, and took the time to remove the armour and rub the pungent salve into its starved wood. He used the last of it to ease the sword’s own thirst.
    He then kissed the gleaming blade, tasting the bitter oil.
    The effect was instantaneous. His heart began pounding, fire ripping through his muscles, lust and rage filling his mind.
    He found himself back outside, staring at the town before him through a red haze. The air was foul with the stench of lowlanders. He moved forward, though he could no longer feel his legs, his gaze fixing on the bronze-banded door of a large, timbered house.
    Then it was flying inward, and Karsa was entering the low-ceilinged hallway beyond the threshold. Someone was shouting upstairs.
    He found himself on the landing, face to face with a broad-shouldered, bald child. Behind him cowered a woman with grey-streaked hair, and behind her-now fleeing-a half-dozen servants.
    The bald child had just taken down from the wall a longsword still in its jewel-studded scabbard. His eyes glittered with terror, his expression of disbelief remaining frozen on his features even as his head leapt from his shoulders.
    And then Karsa found himself in the last room upstairs, ducking to keep his head beneath the ceiling as he stepped over the last of the servants, the house silent behind him. Before him, hiding behind a poster bed, a young female lowlander.
    The Teblor dropped his sword. A moment later he held her before him, her feet kicking at his knees. He cupped the back of her head in his right hand, pushed her face against his armour’s oil-smeared breastplate.
    She struggled, then her head snapped back, eyes suddenly wild.
    Karsa laughed, throwing her down on the bed.
    Animal sounds came from her mouth, her long-fingered hands snatching up at him as he moved over her.
    The female clawed at him, her back arching in desperate need.
    She was unconscious before he was done, and when he drew away there was blood between them. She would live, he knew. Blood-oil was impatient with broken flesh.
    He was outside in the rain once more, sword in his hands. The clouds were lightening to the east.
    Karsa moved on to the next house.
    Awareness drifted away then, for a time, and when it returned he found himself in an attic with a window at the far end through which streamed bright sunlight. He was on his hands and knees, sheathed in blood, and to one side lay a child’s body, fat and in slashed robes, eyes staring sightlessly.
    Waves of shivering racked him, his breath harsh gasps that echoed dully in the close, dusty attic. He heard shouts from somewhere outside and crawled over to the round, thick-glassed window at the far end.
    Below was the main street, and he realized that he was near the west gate. Glass-distorted figures on restless horses were gathering-Malazan soldiers. As he watched, and to his astonishment, they suddenly set forth for the gate. The thundering of horse hoofs quickly diminished as the party rode westward.
    The warrior slowly sat back. There was no sound from directly beneath him, and he knew that no-one remained alive in the house. He knew, also, that he had passed through at least a dozen such houses, sometimes through the front door, but more often through recessed side and rear doors. And that those places were now as silent as the one in which he now found himself.
    The escape has been discovered. But what of the bounty hunters? What of the townsfolk who have yet to emerge onto the street, though the day is already half done? How many did I truly kill?
    Soft footfalls below, five, six sets, spreading out through the room under him. Karsa, his senses still heightened beyond normal by the blood-oil, sniffed the air, but their scent had yet to reach him. Yet he knew-these were hunters, not soldiers. He drew a deep breath and held it for a moment, then nodded to himself. Yes, the slavemaster’s warriors. Deeming themselves cleverer than the Malazans, still wanting me for their master.
    Karsa made no move-any shift of weight would be heard, he well knew. Twisting his head slowly, he glanced back at the attic’s hatch. It was closed-he’d no recollection of doing so, so probably it was the trapdoor’s own weight that had dropped it back into place. But how long ago? His gaze flicked to the child’s corpse. The blood dripping from his gaping wounds was thick and slow. Some time had passed, then.
    He heard someone speak, and it was a moment before he realized that he could understand the language. ‘A bell, sir, maybe more.’
    ‘So where,’ another asked, ‘is Merchant Balantis? Here’s his wife, their two children… four servants-did he own more?’
    There was more movement.
    ‘Check the lofts-’
    ‘Where the servants slept? I doubt fat old Balantis could have climbed that ladder.’
    ‘Here!’ another voice cried from further in. ‘The attic stairs are down!’
    ‘All right, so the merchant’s terror gave him wings. Go up and confirm the grim details, Astabb, and be quick. We need to check the next house.’
    ‘Hood’s breath, Borrug, I nearly lost my breakfast in the last place. It’s all quiet up there, can’t we just leave it at that? Who knows, the bastard might be chopping up the next family right now.’
    There was silence, then: ‘All right, let’s go. This time, I think Silgar’s plain wrong. That Uryd’s path of slaughter is straight for the west gate, and I’d lay a year’s column he’s heading for T’lan Pass right now.’
    ‘Then the Malazans will run him down.’
    ‘Aye, they will. Come on.’
    Karsa listened as the hunters converged on the front door then headed back outside. The Teblor remained motionless for another dozen heartbeats. Silgar’s men would find no further scenes of slaughter westward along the street. This fact alone would bring them back. He padded across to the trapdoor, lifted it clear, and made his way down the blood-spattered wooden steps. There were corpses strewn along the length of the hallway, the air foul with the reek of death.
    He quickly moved to the back door. The yard outside was churned mud and puddles, a heap of pavestones off to one side awaiting the arrival of labourers. Beyond it was a newly built low stone wall, an arched gate in its centre. The sky overhead was broken with clouds carried on a swift wind. Shadows and patches of sunlight crawled steadily over the scene. There was no-one in sight.
    Karsa crossed the yard at a sprint. He crouched down at the arched gate. Opposite him ran a rutted, narrow track, parallel to the main street, and beyond it a row of irregular heaps of cut brush amidst tall yellow grasses. The back walls of houses reared behind the heaps.
    He was on the western side of the town, and here there were hunters. It followed, then, that he would be safer on the eastern side. At the same time, the Malazan soldiers appeared to be quartered there, though he’d watched at least thirty of them ride out through the west gate. Leaving how many?
    Karsa had proclaimed the Malazans his enemy.
    The warrior slipped out onto the track and headed east. Hunched low, he ran hard, his eyes scanning the way ahead, seeking cover, expecting at any moment the shout that would announce his discovery.
    He moved into the shadows of a large house that leaned slightly over the alley. In another five strides he would come to the wide street that led down to the lakeshore. Crossing it undetected was likely to prove a challenge. Silgar’s hunters remained in the town, as did an unknown number of Malazans. Enough to cause him trouble? There was no telling.
    Five cautious strides, and he was at the edge of the street. There was a small crowd at the far end, lakeside. Wrapped bodies were being carried out of a house, whilst two men struggled with a young, naked, blood-splashed woman. She was hissing and trying to claw at their eyes. It was a moment before Karsa recollected her. The blood-oil still burned within her, and the crowd had drawn back in obvious alarm, their attention one and all fixed on her writhing form.
    A glance to the right. No-one.
    Karsa bolted across the street. He was but a single stride from the alley opposite when he heard a hoarse shout, then a chorus of cries. Skidding through sluicing mud, the warrior raised his sword and snapped his gaze towards the distant crowd.
    To see only their backs, as they fled like panicked deer, leaving the wrapped corpses strewn in their wake. The young woman, suddenly released, fell to the mud shrieking, one hand snapping out to clamp on the ankle of one of her captors. She was dragged through the mud for a body length before she managed to foul the man’s stride and send him sprawling. She clambered atop him with a snarl.
    Karsa padded into the alley.
    A bell started a wild clanging.
    He continued on, eastward, parallel to the main street. The far end, thirty or more paces distant, seemed to face onto a long, stone-walled, single level building, the windows visible bearing heavy shutters. As he raced towards it, he saw three Malazan soldiers dart across his field of vision-all were helmed, visors lowered, and none turned their heads.
    Karsa slowed his pace as he neared the alley’s end. He could see more of the building ahead now. It looked somehow different from all the others in the town, its style more severe, pragmatic-a style the Teblor could admire.
    He halted at the alley mouth. A glance to his right revealed that the building before him fronted onto the main street, beyond which was a clearing to match that of the west gate, the edge of the town wall visible just beyond. To his left, and closer to hand, the building came to an end, with a wooden corral flanked by stables and outbuildings. Karsa returned his attention to his right and leaned out slightly further.
    The three Malazan soldiers were nowhere to be seen.
    The bell was still pealing somewhere behind him, yet the town seemed strangely deserted.
    Karsa jogged towards the corral. He arrived with no alarms raised, stepped over the railing, and made his way along the building’s wall towards the doorway.
    It had been left open. The antechamber within held hooks, racks and shelves for weapons, but all such weapons had been removed. The close dusty air held the memory of fear. Karsa slowly entered. Another door stood opposite, this one shut.
    A single kick sent it crashing inward.
    Beyond, a large room with a row of cots on either side. Empty.
    The echoes of the shattered door fading, Karsa ducked through the doorway and straightened, looking around, sniffing the air. The chamber reeked of tension. He felt something like a presence, still there, yet somehow managing to remain unseen. The warrior cautiously stepped forward. He listened for breathing, heard nothing, took another step.
    The noose dropped down from above, over his head and down onto his shoulders. Then a wild shout, and it snapped tight around his neck.
    As Karsa raised his sword to slice through the hemp rope, four figures descended behind him, and the rope gave a savage yank, lifting the Teblor off his feet.
    There was a sudden splintering from above, followed by a desultory curse, then the crossbeam snapped, the rope slackening though the noose remained taut around Karsa’s throat. Unable to draw breath, he spun, sword cleaving in a horizontal slash-that passed through empty air. The Malazan soldiers, he saw, had already dropped to the floor and rolled away.
    Karsa dragged the rope free of his neck, then advanced on the nearest scrambling soldier.
    Sorcery hammered him from behind, a frenzied wave that engulfed the Teblor. He staggered, then, with a roar, shook it off.
    He swung his sword. The Malazan before him leapt backward, but the blade’s tip connected with his right knee, shattering the bone. The man shrieked as he toppled.
    A net of fire descended on Karsa, an impossibly heavy web of pain that drove him to his knees. He sought to slash at it, but his weapon was fouled by the flickering strands. It began constricting as if it possessed a life of its own.
    The warrior struggled within the ever-tightening net, and in moments was rendered helpless.
    The wounded soldier’s screams continued, until a hard voice rumbled a command and eerie light flashed in the room. The shrieks abruptly stopped.
    Figures closed in around Karsa, one crouching down near his head. A dark-skinned, scarred face beneath a bald, tattoo-stitched pate. The man’s smile was a row of gleaming gold. ‘You understand Nathii, I take it. That’s nice. You’ve just made Limp’s bad leg a whole lot worse, and he won’t be happy about that. Even so, you stumbling into our laps will more than make up for the house arrest we’re presently under-’
    ‘Let’s kill him, Sergeant-’
    ‘Enough of that, Shard. Bell, go find the slavemaster. Tell him we got his prize. We’ll hand him over, but not for nothing. Oh, and do it quietly-I don’t want the whole town outside with torches and pitchforks.’ The sergeant looked up as another soldier arrived. ‘Nice work, Ebron.’
    ‘I damned near wet my pants, Cord,’ the man named Ebron replied, ‘when he just threw off the nastiest I had.’
    ‘Just shows, don’t it?’ Shard muttered.
    ‘Shows what?’ Ebron demanded.
    ‘Well, only that clever beats nasty every time, that’s all.’
    Sergeant Cord grunted, then said, ‘Ebron, see what you can do for Limp, before he comes round and starts screaming again.’
    ‘I’ll do that. For a runt, he’s got some lungs, don’t he just.’
    Cord reached down and carefully slid his hand between the burning strands to tap a finger against the bloodsword. ‘So here’s one of the famed wooden swords. So hard it breaks Aren steel.’
    ‘Look at the edge,’ Shard said. ‘It’s that resin they use that makes that edge-’
    ‘And hardens the wood itself, aye. Ebron, this web of yours, is it causing him pain?’
    The sorcerer’s reply came from beyond Karsa’s line of sight. ‘If it was you in that, Cord, you’d be howling to shame the Hounds. For a moment or two, then you’d be dead and sizzling like fat on a hearthstone.’
    Cord frowned down at Karsa, then slowly shook his head. ‘He ain’t even trembling. Hood knows what we could do with five thousand of these bastards in our ranks.’
    ‘Might even manage to clean out Mott Wood, eh, Sergeant?’
    ‘Might at that.’ Cord rose and stepped away. ‘So what’s keeping Bell?’
    ‘Probably can’t find no-one,’ Shard replied. ‘Never seen a whole town take to the boats like that before.’
    Boots sounded in the antechamber, and Karsa listened to the arrival of at least a half-dozen newcomers.
    A soft voice said, ‘Thank you, Sergeant, for recovering my property-’
    ‘Ain’t your property any more,’ Cord replied. ‘He’s a prisoner of the Malazan Empire, now. He killed Malazan soldiers, not to mention damaging imperial property by kicking in that door there.’
    ‘You cannot be serious-’
    ‘I’m always serious, Silgar,’ Cord quietly drawled. ‘I can guess what you got in mind for this giant. Castration, a cut-out tongue, hobbling. You’ll put him on a leash and travel the towns south of here, drumming up replacements for your bounty hunters. But the Fist’s position on your slaving activities is well enough known. This is occupied territory-this is part of the Malazan Empire now, like it or not, and we ain’t at war with these so-called Teblor. Oh, I’ll grant you, we don’t appreciate renegades coming down and raiding, killing imperial subjects and all that. Which is why this bastard is now under arrest, and he’ll likely be sentenced to the usual punishment: the otataral mines of my dear old homeland.’ Cord moved to settle down beside Karsa once more. ‘Meaning we’ll be seeing a lot of each other, since our detachment’s heading home. Rumours of rebellion and such, though I doubt it’ll come to much.’
    Behind him, the slavemaster spoke. ‘Sergeant, the Malazan hold upon its conquests on this continent is more than precarious at the moment, now that your principal army is bogged down outside the walls of Pale. Do you truly wish for an incident here? To so flout our local customs-’
    ‘Customs?’ Still gazing down at Karsa, Cord bared his teeth. ‘The Nathii custom has been to run and hide when the Teblor raid. Your studious, deliberate corruption of the Sunyd is unique, Silgar. Your destruction of that tribe was a business venture on your part. Damned successful it was, too. The only flouting going on here is yours, with Malazan law.’ He looked up, his smile broadening. ‘What in Hood’s name do you think our company’s doing here, you perfumed piece of scum?’
    All at once tension filled the air as hands settled on sword-grips.
    ‘Rest easy, I’d advise,’ Ebron said from one side. ‘I know you’re a Mael priest, Silgar, and you’re right on the edge of your warren right now, but I’ll turn you into a lumpy puddle if you make so much as a twitch for it.’
    ‘Order your thugs back,’ Cord said, ‘or this Teblor will have company on his way to the mines.’
    ‘You would not dare-’
    ‘Wouldn’t I?’
    ‘Your captain would-’
    ‘No, he wouldn’t.’
    ‘I see. Very well. Damisk, take the men outside for a moment.’
    Karsa heard receding footsteps.
    ‘Now then, Sergeant,’ Silgar continued after a moment, ‘how much?’
    ‘Well, I admit I was considering some kind of exchange. But then the town’s bells stopped. Which tells me we’re out of time. Alas. Captain’s back-there, the sound of the horses, coming fast. All of this means we’re all official, now, Silgar. Of course, maybe I was stringing you along all the time, until you finally went and offered me a bribe. Which, as you know, is a crime.’
    The Malazan troop had arrived at the corral, Karsa could hear. A few shouts, the stamping of hoofs, a brief exchange of words with Damisk and the other guards standing outside, then heavy boots on the floorboards.
    Cord turned. ‘Captain-’
    A rumbling voice cut him off. ‘I thought I’d left you under house guard. Ebron, I don’t recall granting you permission to rearm these drunken louts…’ Then the captain’s words trailed away.
    Karsa sensed the smile on Cord’s face as he said, ‘The Teblor attempted an assault on our position, sir-’
    ‘Which no doubt sobered you up quick.’
    ‘That it did, sir. Accordingly, our clever sorcerer here decided to give us back our weapons, so that we could effect the capture of this overgrown savage. Alas, Captain, matters have since become somewhat more complicated.’
    Silgar spoke. ‘Captain Kindly, I came here to request the return of my slave and was met with overt hostility and threats from this squad here. I trust their poor example is not indicative of the depths to which the entire Malazan army has fallen-’
    ‘That they’re definitely not, Slavemaster,’ Captain Kindly replied.
    ‘Excellent. Now, if we could-’
    ‘He tried to bribe me, sir,’ Cord said in a troubled, distressed tone.
    There was silence, then the captain said, ‘Ebron? Is this true?’
    ‘Afraid it is, Captain.’
    There was cool satisfaction in Kindly’s voice as he said, ‘How unfortunate. Bribery is a crime, after all…’
    ‘I was just saying the same thing, sir,’ Cord noted.
    ‘I was invited to make an offer!’ Silgar hissed.
    ‘No you wasn’t,’ Ebron replied.
    Captain Kindly spoke. ‘Lieutenant Pores, place the slavemaster and his hunters under arrest. Detach two squads to oversee their incarceration in the town gaol. Put them in a separate cell from that bandit leader we captured on the way back-the infamous Knuckles is likely to have few friends locally. Barring those we strung up beside the road east of here, that is. Oh, and send in a healer for Limp-Ebron seems to have made something of a mess in his efforts on the unfortunate man.’
    ‘Well,’ Ebron snapped, ‘I ain’t Denul, you know.’
    ‘Watch your tone, Mage,’ the captain calmly warned.
    ‘Sorry, sir.’
    ‘I admit to some curiosity, Ebron,’ Kindly continued. ‘What is the nature of this spell you have inflicted on this warrior?’
    ‘Uh, a shaping of Ruse-’
    ‘Yes, I know your warren, Ebron.’
    ‘Yes, sir. Well, it’s used to snare and stun dhenrabi in the seas-’
    ‘Dhenrabi? Those giant sea-worms?’
    ‘Yes, sir.’
    ‘Well, why in Hood’s name isn’t this Teblor dead?’
    ‘Good question, Captain. He’s a tough one, he is, ain’t he just.’
    ‘Beru fend us all.’
    ‘Aye, sir.’
    ‘Sergeant Cord.’
    ‘Sir?’
    ‘I have decided to drop the charges of drunkenness against you and your squad. Grief for lost ones. An understandable reaction, all things considered. This time. The next abandoned tavern you stumble into, however, is not to be construed as an invitation to licentiousness. Am I understood?’
    ‘Perfectly, sir.’
    ‘Good. Ebron, inform the squads that we are departing this picturesque town. As soon as possible. Sergeant Cord, your squad will see to the loading of supplies. That will be all, soldiers.’
    ‘What of this warrior?’ Ebron asked.
    ‘How long will this sorcerous net last?’
    ‘As long as you like, sir. But the pain-’
    ‘He seems to be bearing up. Leave him as he is, and in the meantime think of a way to load him onto the bed of a wagon.’
    ‘Yes, sir. We’ll need long poles-’
    ‘Whatever,’ Captain Kindly muttered, striding away.
    Karsa sensed the sorcerer staring down on him. The pain had long since faded, no matter what Ebron’s claims, and indeed, the steady, slow tensing and easing of the Teblor’s muscles had begun to weaken it.
    Not long, now…

CHAPTER THREE

    Among the founding families of Darujhistan, there is Nom.
    The Noble Houses of Darujhistan
Misdry

    ‘I missed you, Karsa Orlong.’
    Torvald Nom’s face was mottled blue and black, his right eye swollen shut. He had been chained to the wagon’s forward wall and was slouched down amidst rotting straw, watching as the Malazan soldiers levered the Teblor onto the bed using stripped-down saplings that had been inserted beneath the limbs of the huge, net-wrapped warrior. The wagon shifted and groaned as Karsa’s weight settled on it.
    ‘Pity the damned oxen,’ Shard said, dragging one of the saplings free, his breath harsh and his face red with exertion.
    A second wagon stood nearby, just within the field of Karsa’s vision as he lay motionless on the weathered boards. In its back sat Silgar, Damisk, and three other Nathii lowlanders. The slavemaster’s face was white and patchy, the blue and gold trim of his expensive clothes stained and wrinkled. Seeing him, Karsa laughed.
    Silgar’s head snapped around, dark eyes fixing like knives on the Uryd warrior.
    ‘Taker of slaves!’ Karsa sneered.
    The Malazan soldier, Shard, climbed onto the wagon’s wall and leaned over to study Karsa for a moment, then he shook his head. ‘Ebron!’ he called out. ‘Come look. That web ain’t what it was.’
    The sorcerer clambered up beside him. His eyes narrowed. ‘Hood take him,’ he muttered. ‘Get us some chains, Shard. Heavy ones, and lots of them. Tell the captain, too, and hurry.’
    The soldier dropped out of sight.
    Ebron scowled down at Karsa. ‘You got otataral in your veins? Nerruse knows, that spell should have killed you long ago. What’s it been, three days now. Failing that, the pain should have driven you mad. But you’re no madder than you were a week ago, are you?’ His scowl deepened. ‘There’s something about you… something…’
    Soldiers were suddenly clambering up on all sides, some dragging chains whilst others held back slightly with crossbows cocked. ‘Can we touch this?’ one asked, hesitating over Karsa. ‘You can now,’ Ebron replied, then spat.
    Karsa tested the magical constraints in a single, concerted surge that forced a bellow from his throat. Strands snapped. Answering shouts. Wild panic.
    As the Uryd began dragging himself free, his sword still in his right hand, something hard cracked into the side of his head. Blackness swept over him.

    He awoke lying on his back, spread-eagled on the bed of the wagon as it rocked and jolted beneath him. His limbs were wrapped in heavy chains that had been spiked to the boards. Others crisscrossed his chest and stomach. Dried blood crusted the left side of his face, sealing the lid of that eye. He could smell dust, wafting up from between the boards, as well as his own bile.
    Torvald spoke from somewhere beyond Karsa’s head. ‘So you’re alive after all. Despite what the soldiers were saying, you looked pretty much dead to me. You certainly smell that way. Well, almost: In case you’re wondering, friend, it’s been six days. That gold-toothed sergeant hit you hard. Broke the shovel’s shaft.’
    A sharp, throbbing pain bloomed in Karsa’s head as soon as he tried to lift it clear of the foul-smelling boards. He grimaced, settling once more. ‘Too many words, lowlander. Be quiet.’
    ‘Quiet’s not in my nature, alas. Of course, you don’t have to listen. Now, you might think otherwise, but we should be celebrating our good fortune. Prisoners of the Malazans is an improvement over being Silgar’s slaves. Granted, I might end up getting executed as a common criminal-which is, of course, precisely what I am-but more likely we’re both off to work in the imperial mines in Seven Cities. Never been there, but even so, it’s a long trip, land and sea. There might be pirates. Storms. Who knows? Might even be the mines aren’t so bad as people say. What’s a little digging? I can’t wait for the day they put a pickaxe in your hands-oh my, won’t you have some fun? Lots to look forward to, don’t you think?’
    ‘Including cutting out your tongue.’
    ‘Humour? Hood take me, I didn’t think you had it in you, Karsa Orlong. Anything else you want to say? Feel free.’
    ‘I’m hungry.’
    ‘We’ll reach Culvern Crossing by tonight-the pace has been torturously slow, thanks to you, since it appears you weigh more than you should, more even than Silgar and his four thugs. Ebron says you don’t have normal flesh-same for the Sunyd, of course-but with you it’s even more so. Purer blood, I suppose. Meaner blood, that’s for sure. I remember, once, in Darujhistan, I was just a lad, a troop arrived with a grey bear, all chained up. Had it in a huge tent just outside Worrytown, charged a sliver to see it. First day, I was there. The crowd was huge. Everyone’d thought grey bears had died out centuries ago-’
    ‘Then you are all fools,’ Karsa growled.
    ‘So we were, because there it was. Collared, chained down, with red in its eyes. The crowd rushed in, me in it, and that damned thing went wild. Broke loose like those chains were braids of grass. You wouldn’t believe the panic. I got trampled on, but managed to crawl out from under the tent with my scrawny but lovely body mostly intact. That bear-bodies were flying from its path. It charged straight for the Gadrobi Hills and was never seen again. Sure, there’s rumours to this day that the bastard’s still there, eating the occasional herder… and herd. Anyway, you remind me of that grey bear, Uryd. The same look in your eyes. A look that says: Chains will not hold me. And that’s what has me so eager to see what will happen next.’
    ‘I shall not hide in the hills, Torvald Nom.’
    ‘Didn’t think you would. Do you know how you will be loaded onto the prison ship? Shard told me. They’ll take the wheels off this wagon. That’s it. You’ll be riding this damned bed all the way to Seven Cities.’
    The wagon’s wheels slid down into deep, stony ruts, the jarring motion sending waves of pain through Karsa’s head.
    ‘You still here?’ Torvald asked after a moment.
    Karsa remained silent.
    ‘Oh well,’ the Daru sighed.
    Lead me, Warleader.
    Lead me.
    This was not the world he had expected. The lowlanders were both weak and strong, in ways he found difficult to comprehend. He had seen huts built one atop another; he had seen watercraft the size of entire Teblor houses.
    Expecting a farmstead, they had found a town. Anticipating the slaughter of fleeing cowards, they had instead been met with fierce opponents who stood their ground.
    And Sunyd slaves. The most horrifying discovery of all. Teblor, their spirits broken. He had not thought such a thing was possible.
    I shall snap those chains on the Sunyd. This, I vow before the Seven. I shall give the Sunyd lowlander slaves in turn-no. To do such would be as wrong as what the lowlanders have done to the Sunyd, have done, indeed, to their own kin. No, his sword’s gathering of souls was a far cleaner, a far purer deliverance.
    He wondered about these Malazans. They were, it was clear, a tribe that was fundamentally different from the Nathii. Conquerors, it seemed, from a distant land. Holders to strict laws. Their captives not slaves, but prisoners, though it had begun to appear that the distinction lay in name only. He would be set to work.
    Yet he had no desire to work. Thus, it was punishment, intended to bow his warrior spirit, to-in time-break it. In this, a fate to match that of the Sunyd.
    But that shall not happen, for I am Uryd, not Sunyd. They shall have to kill me, once they realize that they cannot control me. And so, the truth is before me. Should I hasten that realization, I shall never see release from this wagon.
    Torvald Nom spoke of patience-the prisoner’s code. Urugal, forgive me, for I must now avow to that code. I must seem to relent.
    Even as he thought it, he knew it would not work. These Malazans were too clever. They would be fools to trust a sudden, inexplicable passivity. No, he needed to fashion a different kind of illusion.
    Delum Thord. You shall now be my guide. Your loss is now my gift. You walked the path before me, showing me the steps. I shall awaken yet again, but it shall not be with a broken spirit, but with a broken mind.
    Indeed, the Malazan sergeant had struck him hard. The muscles of his neck had seized, clenched tight around his spine. Even breathing triggered lancing stabs of pain. He sought to slow it, shifting his thoughts away from the low roar of his nerves.
    The Teblor had lived in blindness for centuries, oblivious of the growing numbers-and growing threat-of the lowlanders. Borders, once defended with vicious determination, had for some reason been abandoned, left open to the poisoning influences from the south. It was important, Karsa realized, to discover the cause of this moral failing. The Sunyd had never been among the strongest of the tribes, yet they were Teblor none the less, and what befell them could, in time, befall all the others. This was a difficult truth, but to close one’s eyes to it would be to walk the same path yet again.
    There were failings that must be faced. Pahlk, his own grandfather, had been something far less than the warrior of glorious deeds that he pretended to be. Had Pahlk returned to the tribe with truthful tales, then the warnings within them would have been heard. A slow but inexorable invasion was under way, one step at a time. A war on the Teblor that assailed their spirit as much as it did their lands. Perhaps such warnings would have proved sufficient to unite the tribes.
    He considered this, and darkness settled upon his thoughts. No. Pahlk’s failing had been a deeper one; it was not his lies that were the greatest crime, it was his lack of courage, for he had shown himself unable to wrest free of the strictures binding the Teblor. His people’s rules of conduct, the narrowly crafted confines of expectations-its innate conservatism that crushed dissent with the threat of deadly isolation-these were what had defeated his grandfather’s courage.
    Yet not, perhaps, my father’s.
    The wagon jolted once more beneath him.
    I saw your mistrust as weakness. Your unwillingness to participate in our tribe’s endless, deadly games of pride and retribution-I saw this as cowardice. Even so, what have you done to challenge our ways? Nothing. Your only answer was to hide yourself away-and to belittle all that I did, to mock my zeal…
    Preparing me for this moment.
    Very well, Father, I can see the gleam of satisfaction in your eyes, now. But I tell you this, you delivered naught but wounds upon your son. And I have had enough of wounds.
    Urugal was with him. All the Seven were with him. Their power would make him impervious to all that besieged his Teblor spirit. He would, one day, return to his people, and he would shatter their rules. He would unite the Teblor, and they would march behind him… down into the lowlands.
    Until that moment, all that came before-all that afflicted him now-was but preparation. He would be the weapon of retribution, and it was the enemy itself that now honed him.
    Blindness curses both sides, it seems. Thus, the truth of my words shall be shown.
    Such were his last thoughts before consciousness once more faded away.
    Excited voices awoke him. It was dusk and the air was filled with the smell of horses, dust and spiced foods. The wagon was motionless under him, and he could now hear, mingled with the voices, the sounds of many people and a multitude of activities, underscored by the rush of a river.
    ‘Ah, awake once more,’ Torvald Nom said.
    Karsa opened his eyes but did not otherwise move.
    ‘This is Culvern Crossing,’ the Daru went on, ‘and it’s a storm swirling with the latest news from the south. All right, a small storm, given the size of this latrine pit of a town. The scum of the Nathii, which is saying a lot. The Malazan company’s pretty excited, though. Pale’s just fallen, you see. A big battle, lots of sorcery, and Moon’s Spawn retreated-likely headed to Darujhistan, in fact. Beru take me, I wish I was there right now, watching it crossing the lake, what a sight that’d be. The company, of course, are wishing they’d been there for the battle. Idiots, but that’s soldiers for you-’
    ‘And why not?’ Shard’s voice snapped as the wagon rocked slightly and the man appeared. ‘The Ashok Regiment deserves better than to be stuck up here hunting bandits and slavers.’
    ‘The Ashok Regiment is you, I presume,’ Torvald said.
    ‘Aye. Damned veterans, too, one and all.’
    ‘So why aren’t you down south, Corporal?’
    Shard made a face, then turned away with narrowed eyes. ‘She don’t trust us, that’s why,’ he murmured. ‘We’re Seven Cities, and the bitch don’t trust us.’
    ‘Excuse me,’ Torvald said, ‘but if she-and by that I take you to mean your Empress-doesn’t trust you, then why is she sending you home? Isn’t Seven Cities supposedly on the edge of rebellion? If there’s a chance of you turning renegade, wouldn’t she rather have you here on Genabackis?’
    Shard stared down at Torvald Nom. ‘Why am I talking to you, thief? You might damn well be one of her spies. A Claw, for all I know.’
    ‘If I am, Corporal, you haven’t been treating me very well. A detail I’d be sure to put in my report-this secret one, the one I’m secretly writing, that is. Shard, wasn’t it? As in a piece of broken glass, yes? And you called the Empress “bitch”-’
    ‘Shut up,’ the Malazan snarled.
    ‘Just making a rather obvious point, Corporal.’
    ‘That’s what you think,’ Shard sneered as he dropped back down from the side of the wagon and was lost from sight.
    Torvald Nom said nothing for a long moment, then, ‘Karsa Orlong, do you have any idea what that man meant by that last statement?’
    Karsa spoke in a low voice, ‘Torvald Nom, listen well. A warrior who followed me, Delum Thord, was struck on the head. His skull cracked and leaked thought-blood. His mind could not walk back up the path. He was left helpless, harmless. I, too, have been struck on the head. My skull is cracked and I have leaked thought-blood-’
    ‘Actually, it was drool-’
    ‘Be quiet. Listen. And answer, when you will, in a whisper. I have awakened now, twice, and you have observed-’
    Torvald interjected in a soft murmur. ‘That your mind’s lost on the trail or something. Is that what I have observed? You babble meaningless words, sing childhood songs and the like. All right, fine. I’ll play along, on one condition.’
    ‘What condition?’
    ‘That whenever you manage to escape, you free me as well. A small thing, you might think, but I assure you-’
    ‘Very well. I, Karsa Orlong of the Uryd, give my word.’
    ‘Good. I like the formality of that vow. Sounds like it’s real.’
    ‘It is. Do not mock me, else I kill you once I have freed you.’
    ‘Ah, now I see the hidden caveat. I must twist another vow from you, alas-’
    The Teblor growled with impatience, then relented and said, ‘I, Karsa Orlong, shall not kill you once I have freed you, unless given cause.’
    ‘Explain the nature of those causes-’
    ‘Are all Daru like you?’
    ‘It needn’t be an exhaustive list. “Cause” being, say, attempted murder, betrayal, and mockery of course. Can you think of any others?’
    ‘Talking too much.’
    ‘Well, with that one we’re getting into very grey, very murky shades, don’t you think? It’s a matter of cultural distinctions-’
    ‘I believe Darujhistan shall be the first city I conquer-’
    ‘I’ve a feeling the Malazans will get there first, I’m afraid. Mind you, my beloved city has never been conquered, despite its being too cheap to hire a standing army. The gods not only look down on Darujhistan with a protective eye, they probably drink in its taverns. In any case-oh, shhh, someone’s coming.’
    Bootsteps neared, then, as Karsa watched through slitted eyes, Sergeant Cord clambered up into view and glared for a long moment at Torvald Nom. ‘You sure don’t look like a Claw…’ he finally said. ‘But maybe that’s the whole point.’
    ‘Perhaps it is.’
    Cord’s head began turning towards Karsa and the Teblor closed his eyes completely. ‘He come around yet?’
    ‘Twice. Doing nothing but drooling and making animal sounds. I think you went and damaged his brain, assuming he has one.’
    Cord grunted. ‘Might prove a good thing, so long as he doesn’t die on us. Now, where was I?’
    ‘Torvald Nom, the Claw.’
    ‘Right. OK. Even so, we’re still treating you as a bandit-until you prove to us you’re something otherwise-and so you’re off to the otataral mines with everyone else. Meaning, if you are a Claw, you’d better announce it before we leave Genabaris.’
    ‘Assuming, of course,’ Torvald smiled, ‘my assignment does not require me to assume the disguise of a prisoner in the otataral mines.’
    Cord frowned, then, hissing a curse, he dropped down from the side of the wagon.
    They heard him shout, ‘Get this damned wagon on that ferry! Now!’
    The wheels creaked into sudden motion, the oxen lowing.
    Torvald Nom sighed, leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes.
    ‘You play a deadly game,’ Karsa muttered.
    The Daru propped one eye open. ‘A game, Teblor? Indeed, but maybe not the game you think.’
    Karsa grunted his disgust.
    ‘Be not so quick to dismiss-’
    ‘I am,’ the warrior replied, as the oxen dragged the wagon onto a ramp of wooden boards. ‘My causes shall be “attempted murder, betrayal, mockery, and being one of these Claws”.’
    ‘And talking too much?’
    ‘It seems I shall have to suffer that curse.’
    Torvald slowly cocked his head, then he grinned. ‘Agreed.’

    In a strange way, the discipline of maintaining the illusion of mindlessness proved Karsa’s greatest ally in remaining sane. Days, then weeks lying supine, spread-eagled and chained down to the bed of a wagon was a torture unlike anything the Teblor could have imagined possible. Vermin crawled all over his body, covering him in bites that itched incessantly. He knew of large animals of the deep forest being driven mad by blackflies and midges, and now he understood how such an event could occur.
    He was washed down with buckets of icy water at the end of each day, and was fed by the drover guiding the wagon, an ancient foul-smelling Nathii who would crouch down beside his head with a smoke-blackened iron pot filled with some kind of thick, seed-filled stew. He used a large wooden spoon to pour the scalding, malty cereal and stringy meat into Karsa’s mouth-the Teblor’s lips, tongue and the insides of his cheeks were terribly blistered, the feedings coming too often to allow for healing.
    Meals became an ordeal, which was alleviated only when Torvald Nom talked the drover into permitting the Daru to take over the task, ensuring that the stew had cooled sufficiently before it was poured into Karsa’s mouth. The blisters were gone within a few days.
    The Teblor endeavoured to keep his muscles fit through sessions, late at night, of flexing and unflexing, but all his joints ached from immobility, and for this he could do nothing.
    At times, his discipline wavered, his thoughts travelling back to the demon he and his comrades had freed. That woman, the Forkassal, had spent an unimaginable length of time pinned beneath that massive stone. She had managed to achieve some movement, had no doubt clung to some protracted sense of progress as she clawed and scratched against the stone. Even so, Karsa could not comprehend her ability to withstand madness and the eventual death that was its conclusion.
    Thoughts of her left him humbled, his spirit weakened by his own growing frailty in these chains, in the wagon bed’s rough-hewn planks that had rubbed his skin raw, in the shame of his soiled clothes, and the simple, unbearable torment of the lice and fleas.
    Torvald took to talking to him as he would a child, or a pet. Calming words, soothing tones, and the curse of talking too much was transformed into something Karsa could hold on to, his desperate grip ever tightening.
    The words fed him, kept his spirit from starving. They measured the cycle of days and nights that passed, they taught him the language of the Malazans, they gave him an account of the places they travelled through. After Culvern Crossing, there had been a larger town, Ninsano Moat, where crowds of children had clambered onto the wagon, poking and prodding him until Shard arrived to drive them away. Another river had been crossed there. Onward to Malybridge, a town of similar proportions to Ninsano Moat, then, seventeen days later, Karsa stared up at the arched stone gateway of a city-Tanys-passing over him, and on either side, as the wagon made its rocking way down a cobbled street, huge buildings of three, even four levels. And all around, the sounds of people, more lowlanders than Karsa had thought possible.
    Tanys was a port, resting on tiered ridges rising from the east shore of the Malyn Sea, where the water was brackish with salt-such as was found in a number of springs near the Rathyd borderlands. Yet the Malyn Sea was no turgid, tiny pool; it was vast, for the journey across it to the city called Malyntaeas consumed four days and three nights.
    It was the transferring onto the ship that resulted in Karsa’s being lifted upright-unwheeled wagon bed included-for the first time, creating a new kind of torture as the chains took his full weight. His joints screamed within him and gave voice as Karsa’s shrieks filled the air, continuing without surcease until someone poured a fiery, burning liquid down his throat, enough to fill his stomach, after which his mind sank away.
    When he awoke he found that the platform that held him remained upright, strapped to what Torvald called the main mast. The Daru had been chained nearby, having assumed the responsibility for Karsa’s care.
    The ship’s healer had rubbed salves into Karsa’s swollen joints, deadening the pain. But a new agony had arrived, raging behind his eyes.
    ‘Hurting?’ Torvald Nom murmured. ‘That’s called a hangover, friend. A whole bladder of rum was poured into you, lucky bastard that you are. You heaved half of it back up, of course, but it had sufficiently worsened in the interval to enable me to refrain from licking the deck, leaving my dignity intact. Now, we both need some shade or we’ll end up fevered and raving-and believe me, you’ve done enough raving for both of us already. Fortunately in your Teblor tongue, which few if any aboard understand. Aye, we’ve parted ways with Captain Kindly and his soldiers, for the moment. They’re crossing on another ship. By the way, who is Dayliss? No, don’t tell me. You’ve made quite a list of rather horrible things you’ve got planned for this Dayliss, whoever he or she is. Anyway, you should have your sea-legs by the time we dock in Malyntaeas, which should prepare you somewhat for the horrors of Meningalle Ocean. I hope.
    ‘Hungry?’
    The crew, mostly Malazans, gave Karsa’s position wide berth. The other prisoners had been locked below, but the wagon bed had proved too large for the cargo hatch, and Captain Kindly had been firm on his instructions not to release Karsa, in any circumstances, despite his apparent feeble-mindedness. Not a sign of scepticism, Torvald had explained in a whisper, just the captain’s legendary sense of caution, which was reputedly extreme even for a soldier. The illusion seemed to have, in fact, succeeded-Karsa had been bludgeoned into a harmless ox, devoid of any glimmer of intelligence in his dull eyes, his endless, ghastly smile evincing permanent incomprehension. A giant, once warrior, now less than a child, comforted only by the shackled bandit, Torvald Nom, and his incessant chatter.
    ‘Eventually, they’ll have to unchain you from that wagon bed,’ the Daru once muttered in the darkness as the ship rolled on towards Malyntaeas. ‘But maybe not until we arrive at the mines. You’ll just have to hold on, Karsa Orlong-assuming you’re still pretending you’ve lost your mind, and these days I admit you’ve got even me convinced. You are still sane, aren’t you?’
    Karsa voiced a soft grunt, though at times he himself was unsure. Some days had been lost entirely, simply blank patches in his memory-more frightening than anything else he’d yet to experience. Hold on? He did not know if he could.

    The city of Malyntaeas had the appearance of having been three separate cities at one time. It was midday when the ship drew into the harbour, and from his position against the main mast Karsa’s view was mostly unobstructed. Three enormous stone fortifications commanded three distinct rises in the land, the centre one set back further from the shoreline than the other two. Each possessed its own peculiar style of architecture. The keep to the left was squat, robust and unimaginative, built of a golden, almost orange limestone that looked marred and stained in the sunlight. The centre fortification, hazy through the woodsmoke rising from the maze of streets and houses filling the lower tiers between the hills, appeared older, more decrepit, and had been painted-walls, domes and towers-in a faded red wash. The fortification on the right was built on the very edge of the coastal cliff, the sea below roiling amidst tumbled rocks and boulders, the cliff itself rotted, pock-marked and battle-scarred. Ship-launched projectiles had battered the keep’s sloped walls at some time in the past; deep cracks radiated from the wounds, and one of the square towers had slumped and shifted and now leaned precariously outward. Yet a row of pennants fluttered beyond the wall.
    Around each keep, down the slopes and in the flat, lowest stretches, buildings crowded every available space, mimicking its particular style. Borders were marked by wide streets, winding inland, where one style faced the other down their crooked lengths.
    Three tribes had settled here, Karsa concluded as the ship eased its way through the crowds of fisherboats and traders in the bay.
    Torvald Nom rose to his feet in a rustle of chains, scratching vigorously at his snarled beard. His eyes glittered as he gazed at the city. ‘Malyntaeas,’ he sighed. ‘Nathii, Genabarii and Korhivi, side by side by side. And what keeps them from each other’s throats? Naught but the Malazan overlord and three companies from the Ashok Regiment. See that half-ruined keep over there, Karsa? That’s from the war between the Nathii and the Korhivi. The whole Nathii fleet filled this bay, flinging stones at the walls, and they were so busy with trying to kill each other that they didn’t even notice when the Malazan forces arrived. Dujek Onearm, three legions from the 2nd, the Bridgeburners, and two High Mages. That’s all Dujek had, and by day’s end the Nathii fleet was on the bay’s muddy bottom, the Genabarii royal line holed up in their blood-red castle were all dead, and the Korhivi keep had capitulated.’
    The ship was approaching a berth alongside a broad, stone pier, sailors scampering about on all sides.
    Torvald was smiling. ‘All well and good, you might be thinking. The forceful imposition of peace and all that. Only, the city’s Fist is about to lose two of his three companies. Granted, replacements are supposedly on the way. But when? From where? How many? See what happens, my dear Teblor, when your tribe gets too big? Suddenly, the simplest things become ungainly, unmanageable. Confusion seeps in like fog, and everyone gropes blind and dumb.’
    A voice cackled from slightly behind and to Karsa’s left. A bandy legged, bald officer stepped into view, his eyes on the berth closing ahead, a sour grin twisting his mouth. In Nathii, he said, ‘The bandit chief pontificates on politics, speaking from experience no doubt, what with having to manage a dozen unruly highwaymen. And why are you telling this brainless fool, anyway? Ah, of course, a captive and uncomplaining audience.’
    ‘Well, there is that,’ Torvald conceded. ‘You are the First Mate? I was wondering, sir, about how long we’d be staying here in Malyntaeas-’
    ‘You were wondering, were you? Fine, allow me to explain the course of events for the next day or two. One. No prisoners leave this ship. Two. We pick up six squads of the 2nd Company. Three, we sail on to Genabaris. You’re then shipped off and I’m done with you.’
    ‘I sense a certain unease in you, sir,’ Torvald said. ‘Have you security concerns regarding fair Malyntaeas?’
    The man’s head slowly turned. He regarded the Daru for a moment, then grunted. ‘You’re the one might be a Claw. Well, if you are, add this to your damned report. There’s Crimson Guard in Malyntaeas, stirring up the Korhivi. The shadows ain’t safe, and it’s getting so bad that the patrols don’t go anywhere unless there’s two squads at the minimum. And now two-thirds of them are being sent home. The situation in Malyntaeas is about to get very unsettled.’
    ‘The Empress would certainly be remiss to discount the opinions of her officers,’ Torvald replied.
    The First Mate’s eyes narrowed. ‘She would at that.’
    He then strode ahead, bellowing at a small group of sailors who’d run out of things to do.
    Torvald tugged at his beard, glanced over at Karsa and winked. ‘Crimson Guard. That’s troubling indeed. For the Malazans, that is.’

    Days vanished. Karsa became aware once again as the wagon bed pitched wildly under him. His joints were afire, as his weight was shifted, chains snapping taut to jolt his limbs. He was being wheeled through the air, suspended from a pulley beneath a creaking framework of beams. Ropes whipped about, voices shouting from below. Overhead, seagulls glided above masts and rigging. Figures clung to that rigging, staring down at the Teblor.
    The pulley squealed, and Karsa watched the sailors get smaller. Hands gripped the bed’s edges on all sides, steadying it. The end nearest his feet dropped further, drawing him slowly upright.
    He saw before him the mid- and foredecks of a huge ship, over which swarmed haulers and stevedores, sailors and soldiers. Supplies were piled everywhere, the bundles being shifted below decks through gaping hatches.
    The bed’s bottom end scraped the deck. Shouts, a flurry of activity, and the Teblor felt the bed lifted slightly, swinging free once more, then it was lowered again, and this time Karsa could both hear and feel the top edge thump against the main mast. Ropes were drawn through chains to bind the platform in place. Workers stepped away, then, staring up at Karsa.
    Who smiled.
    Torvald’s voice came from one side, ‘Aye, it’s a ghastly smile, but he’s harmless, I assure you all. No need for concern, unless of course you happen to be a superstitious lot-’
    There was a solid crack and Torvald Nom’s body sprawled down in front of Karsa. Blood poured from his shattered nose. The Daru blinked stupidly, but made no move to rise. A large figure strode to stand over Torvald. Not tall, but wide, and his skin was dusky blue. He glared down at the bandit chief, then studied the ring of silent sailors facing him.
    ‘It’s called sticking the knife in and twisting,’ he growled in Malazan. ‘And he got every damned one of you.’ He turned and studied Torvald Nom once more. ‘Another stab like that one, prisoner, and I’ll see your tongue cut out and nailed to the mast. And if there’s any other kind of trouble from you or this giant here, I’ll chain you up there beside him then toss the whole damned thing overboard. Nod if you understand me.’
    Wiping the blood from his face, Torvald Nom jerked his head in assent.
    The blue-skinned man swung his hard gaze up to Karsa. ‘Wipe that smile off your face or a knife will kiss it,’ he said. ‘You don’t need lips to eat and the other miners won’t care either way.’
    Karsa’s empty smile remained fixed.
    The man’s face darkened. ‘You heard me…’
    Torvald raised a hesitant hand, ‘Captain, sir, if you will. He does not understand you-his brain is addled.’
    ‘Bosun!’
    ‘Sir!’
    ‘Gag the bastard.’
    ‘Aye, Captain.’
    A salt-crusted rag was quickly wrapped about Karsa’s lower face, making it difficult to breathe.
    ‘Don’t suffocate him, you idiots.’
    ‘Aye, sir.’
    The knots were loosened, the cloth pulled down to beneath his nose.
    The captain wheeled. ‘Now, what in Mael’s name are you all standing around for?’
    As the workers all scattered, the captain thumping away, Torvald slowly climbed to his feet. ‘Sorry, Karsa,’ he mumbled through split lips. ‘I’ll get that off you, I promise. It may take a little time, alas. And when I do, friend, please, don’t be smiling…’

    Why have you come to me, Karsa Orlong, son of Synyg, grandson of Pahlk?
    One presence, and six. Faces that might have been carved from rock, barely visible through a swirling haze. One, and six.
    ‘I am before you, Urugal,’ Karsa said, a truth that left him confused.
    You are not. Only your mind, Karsa Orlong. It has fled your mortal prison.
    ‘Then, I have failed you, Urugal.’
    Failed. Yes. You have abandoned us and so in turn we must abandon you. We must seek another, one of greater strength. One who does not accept surrender. One who does not flee. In you, Karsa Orlong, our faith was misplaced.
    The haze thickened, dull colours flashing through it. He found himself standing atop a hill that shifted and crunched beneath him. Chains stretched out from his wrists, down the slopes on all sides. Hundreds of chains, reaching out into the rainbow mists, and at the unseen ends of each one, there was movement. Looking down, Karsa saw bones beneath his feet. Teblor. Lowlander. The entire hill was naught but bones.
    The chains slackened suddenly.
    Movement in the mists, drawing closer from every direction.
    Terror surged through Karsa.
    Corpses, many of them headless, staggered into view. The chains that held the horrifying creatures to Karsa penetrated their chests through gaping holes. Withered, long-nailed hands reached towards him. Stumbling on the slopes, the apparitions began climbing.
    Karsa struggled, seeking to flee, but he was surrounded. The very bones at his feet held him fast, clattering and shifting tighter about his ankles.
    A hiss, a susurration of voices through rotting throats. ‘Lead us, Warleader.’
    He shrieked.
    ‘Lead us, Warleader.
    Climbing closer, arms reaching up, nails clawing the air-
    A hand closed about his ankle.
    Karsa’s head snapped back, struck wood with a resounding crunch. He gulped air that slid like sand down his throat, choking him. Eyes opening, he saw before him the gently pitching decks of the ship, figures standing motionless, staring at him.
    He coughed behind his gag, each convulsion a rage of fire in his lungs. His throat felt torn, and he realized that he had been screaming. Enough to spasm his muscles so they now clenched tight, cutting off the flow of his air passages.
    He was dying.
    The whisper of a voice deep in his mind: Perhaps we will not abandon you, yet. Breathe, Karsa Orlong. Unless, of course, you wish to once more meet your dead.
    Breathe.
    Someone snatched the gag from his mouth. Cold air flooded his lungs.
    Through watering eyes, Karsa stared down at Torvald Nom. The Daru was barely recognizable, so dark was his skin, so thick and matted his beard. He had used the very chains holding Karsa to climb up within reach of the gag, and was now shouting unintelligible words the Teblor barely heard-words flung back at the frozen, fear-stricken Malazans.
    Karsa’s eyes finally made note of the sky beyond the ship’s prow. There were colours there, amidst churning clouds, flashing and blossoming, swirls bleeding out from what seemed huge, open wounds. The storm-if that was what it was-commanded the entire sky ahead. And then he saw the chains, snapping down through the clouds to crack thunderously on the horizon. Hundreds of chains, impossibly huge, black, whipping in the air with explosions of red dust, crisscrossing the sky. Horror filled his soul.
    There was no wind. The sails hung limp. The ship lolled on lazy, turgid seas. And the storm was coming.
    A sailor approached with a tin cup filled with water, lifted it up to Torvald, who took it and brought it to Karsa’s scabbed, crusted lips. The brackish liquid entered his mouth, burning like acid. He drew his head away from the cup.
    Torvald was speaking in low tones, words that slowly grew comprehensible to Karsa. ‘… long lost to us. Only your beating heart and the rise and fall of your chest told us you still lived. It has been weeks and weeks, my friend. You’d keep hardly anything down. There’s almost nothing left of you-you’re showing bones where no bones should be.
    ‘And then this damned becalming. Day after day. Not a cloud in the sky… until three bells past. Three bells, when you stirred, Karsa Orlong. When you tilted your head back and began screaming behind your gag. Here, more water-you must drink.
    ‘Karsa, they’re saying you’ve called this storm. Do you understand? They want you to send it away-they’ll do anything, they’ll unchain you, set you free. Anything, friend, anything at all-just send this unholy storm away. Do you understand?’
    Ahead, he could see now, the seas were exploding with each lash of the black, monstrous chains, twisting spouts of water skyward as each chain retreated upward once more. The billowing, heaving clouds seemed to lean forward over the ocean, closing on their position from all sides now.
    Karsa saw the Malazan captain descend from the foredeck, the blue-tinged skin on his face a sickly greyish hue. ‘This is no Mael-blessed squall, Daru, meaning it don’t belong.’ He jerked a trembling finger at Karsa. ‘Tell him he’s running out of time. Tell him to send it away. Once he does that, we can negotiate. Tell him, damn you!’
    ‘I have been, Captain!’ Torvald retorted. ‘But how in Hood’s name do you expect him to send anything away when I’m not even sure he knows where he is? Worse, we don’t even know for sure if he’s responsible!’
    ‘Let’s see, shall we?’ The captain spun round, gestured. A score of crewmen rushed forward, axes in hand.
    Torvald was dragged down and thrown to the deck.
    The axes chopped through the heavy ropes binding the platform to the mast. More crew came forward then. A ramp was laid out, angled up to the starboard gunnel. Log rollers were positioned beneath the platform as it was roughly lowered.
    ‘Wait!’ Torvald cried out. ‘You can’t-’
    ‘We can,’ the captain growled.
    ‘At least unchain him!’
    ‘Not a chance, Torvald.’ The captain grabbed a passing sailor by the arm. ‘Find everything this giant owned-all that stuff confiscated from the slavemaster. It’s all going with him. Hurry, damn you!’
    Chains ripped the seas on all sides close enough to lift spray over the ship, each detonation causing hull, masts and rigging to tremble.
    Karsa stared up at the tumbling stormclouds as the platform was dragged along the rollers, up the ramp.
    ‘Those chains will sink it!’ Torvald said.
    ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
    ‘What if it lands wrong way up?’
    ‘Then he drowns, and Mael can have him.’
    ‘Karsa! Damn you! Cease playing your game of mindlessness! Say something!’
    The warrior croaked out two words, but the noise that came from his lips was unintelligible even to him.
    ‘What did he say?’ the captain demanded.
    ‘I don’t know!’ Torvald screamed. ‘Karsa, damn you, try again!’
    He did, yielding the same guttural noise. He began repeating the same two words, over and over again, as the sailors pushed and pulled the platform up onto the gunnel until it was balanced precariously, half over the deck, half over the sea.
    Directly above them, as he uttered his two words once more, Karsa watched the last patch of clear sky vanish, like the closing of a tunnel mouth. A sudden plunge into darkness, and Karsa knew it was too late, even as, in the sudden terror-stricken silence, his words came out clear and audible.
    ‘Go away.’
    From overhead, chains snapped down, massive, plunging, reaching directly for-it seemed-Karsa’s own chest.
    A blinding flash, a detonation, the splintering crackle of masts toppling, spars and rigging crashing down. The entire ship was falling away beneath Karsa, beneath the platform itself, which slid wildly down the length of the gunnel before crunching against the foredeck railing, pivoting, then plunging for the waves below.
    He stared down at the water’s sickly green, heaving surface.
    The entire platform shuddered in its fall as the cargo ship’s hull rolled up and struck its edge.
    Karsa caught an upside-down glimpse of the ship-its deck torn open by the impact of the huge chains, its three masts gone, the twisted forms of sailors visible in the wreckage-then he was staring up at the sky, at a virulent, massive wound directly overhead.
    A fierce impact, then darkness.
    His eyes opened to a faint gloom, the desultory lap of waves, the sodden boards beneath him creaking as the platform rocked to someone else’s movement. Thumps; low, gasping mutters.
    The Teblor groaned. The joints of every limb felt torn inside.
    ‘Karsa?’ Torvald Nom crawled into view.
    ‘What-what has happened?’
    The shackles remained on the Daru’s wrists, the chains connected on the other end to arm-length, roughly broken fragments of the deck. ‘Easy for you, sleeping through all the hard work,’ he grumbled as he moved into a sitting position, pulling his arms around his knees. ‘This sea’s a lot colder than you’d think, and these chains didn’t help. I’ve nearly drowned a dozen times, but you’ll be glad to know we now have three water casks and a bundle of something that might be food-I’ve yet to untie its bindings. Oh, and your sword and armour, both of which float, of course.’
    The sky overhead looked unnatural, luminous grey shot through with streaks of darker pewter, and the water smelled of clay and silts. ‘Where are we?’
    ‘I was hoping you’d know. It’s pretty damned clear to me that you called that storm down on us. That’s the only explanation for what happened-’
    ‘I called nothing.’
    ‘Those chains of lightning, Karsa-not one missed its target. Not a single Malazan was left standing. The ship was falling apart-your platform had landed right-side up and was drifting away. I was still working free when Silgar and three of his men climbed out of the hold, dragging their chains with them-the hull was riven through, coming apart all around the bastards. Only one had drowned.’
    ‘I am surprised they didn’t kill us.’
    ‘You were out of reach, at least to start with. Me, they threw overboard. A short while later, after I’d made it to this platform, I saw them in the lone surviving dory. They were rounding the sinking wreck, and I knew they were coming for us. Then, somewhere on the other side of the ship, beyond my sight, something must have happened, because they never reappeared. They vanished, dory and all. The ship then went down, though a lot of stuff has been coming back up. So, I’ve been resupplying. Collecting rope and wood, too-everything I could drag over here. Karsa, your platform is slowly sinking. None of the water casks are full, so that’s added some buoyancy, and I’ll be slipping more planks and boards under it, which should help. Even so…’
    ‘Break my chains, Torvald Nom.’
    The Daru nodded, then ran a hand through his dripping, tangled hair. ‘I’ve checked on that, friend. It will take some work.’
    ‘Is there land about?’
    Torvald glanced over at the Teblor. ‘Karsa, this isn’t the Meningalle Ocean. We’re somewhere else. Is there land nearby? None in sight. I overheard Silgar talking about a warren, which is one of those paths a sorcerer uses. He said he thought we’d all entered one. There may be no land here. None at all. Hood knows there’s no wind and we don’t seem to be moving in any direction-the wreckage of the ship is still all around us. In fact, it almost pulled us under with it. Also, this sea is fresh water-no, I wouldn’t want to drink it. It’s full of silt. No fish. No birds. No signs of life anywhere.’
    ‘I need water. Food.’
    Torvald crawled over to the wrapped bundle he had retrieved. ‘Water, we have. Food? No guarantees. Karsa, did you call upon your gods or something?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘What started you screaming like that, then?’
    ‘A dream.’
    ‘A dream?’
    ‘Yes. Is there food?’
    ‘Uh, I’m not sure, it’s mostly padding… around a small wooden box.’
    Karsa listened to ripping sounds as Torvald pulled away the padding. ‘There’s a mark branded on it. Looks… Moranth, I think.’ The lid was pried free. ‘More padding, and a dozen clay balls… with wax plugs on them-oh, Beru fend-’ The Daru backed away from the package. ‘Hood’s dripping tongue. I think I know what these are. Never seen one, but I’ve heard about them-who hasn’t? Well…’ He laughed suddenly. ‘If Silgar reappears and comes after us, he’s in for a surprise. So’s anyone else who might mean trouble.’ He edged forward again and carefully replaced the padding, then the lid.
    ‘What have you found?’
    ‘Alchemical munitions. Weapons of war. You throw them, preferably as far as you can. The clay breaks and the chemicals within explode. What you don’t want to happen is have one break in your hand, or at your feet. Because then you’re dead. The Malazans have been using these in the Genabackan campaign.’
    ‘Water, please.’
    ‘Right. There’s a ladle here… somewhere… found it.’
    A moment later Torvald hovered over Karsa, and the Teblor drank, slowly, all the water the ladle contained.
    ‘Better?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘More?’
    ‘Not yet. Free me.’
    ‘I need to get back into the water first, Karsa. I need to push some planks under this raft.’
    ‘Very well.’
    There seemed to be no day and no night in this strange place; the sky shifted hue occasionally, as if jostled by high, remote winds, the streaks of pewter twisting and stretching, but there was no change otherwise. The air surrounding the raft remained motionless, damp and cool and strangely thick.
    The flanges anchoring Karsa’s chains were on the underside, holding him in place in a fashion identical to that in the slave trench at Silver Lake. The shackles themselves had been welded shut. Torvald’s only recourse was to attempt to widen the holes in the planks where the chains went through, using an iron buckle to dig at the wood.
    Months of imprisonment had left him weakened, forcing frequent rests, and the buckle made a bloody mess of his hands, but once begun the Daru would not relent. Karsa measured the passing of time by the rhythmic crunching and scraping sounds, noting how each pause to rest stretched longer, until Torvald’s breathing told him the Daru had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Then, the Teblor’s only company was the sullen lap of water as it slipped back and forth across the platform.
    For all the wood positioned beneath it, the raft was still sinking, and Karsa knew that Torvald would not be able to free him in time.
    He had never before feared death. But now, he knew that Urugal and the other Faces in the Rock would abandon his soul, would leave it to the hungry vengeance of those thousands of ghastly corpses. He knew his dream had revealed to him a fate that was real, and inevitable. And inexplicable. Who had set such horrid creatures upon him? Undead Teblor, undead lowlander, warrior and child, an army of corpses, all chained to him. Why?
    Lead us, Warleader.
    Where?
    And now, he would drown. Here, in this unknown place, far from his village. His claims to glory, his vows, all now mocking him, whispering a chorus of muted creaks, soft groans…
    ‘Torvald.’
    ‘Uh… what? What is it?’
    ‘I hear new sounds-’
    The Daru sat up, blinking crusted silt from his eyes. He looked around. ‘Beru fend!’
    ‘What do you see?’
    The Daru’s gaze was fixed on something beyond Karsa’s head. ‘Well, it seems there’s currents here after all, though which of us has done the moving? Ships, Karsa. A score or more of them, all dead in the water, like us. Floating wrecks. No movement on them… that I can see as yet. Looks like there was a battle. With plenty of sorcery being flung back and forth…’
    Some indiscernible shift drew the ghostly flotilla into Karsa’s view, an image on its side to his right. There were two distinct styles of craft. Twenty or so were low and sleek, the wood stained mostly black, though where impacts and collisions and other damage had occurred the cedar’s natural red showed like gaping wounds. Many of these ships sat low in the water, a few with their decks awash. They were single-masted, square-sailed, the torn and shredded sails also black, shimmering in the pellucid light. The remaining six ships were larger, high-decked and three-masted. They had been fashioned from a wood that was true black-not stained-as was evinced from the gashes and splintered planks marring the broad, bellied hulls. Not one of these latter ships sat level in the water; all leaned one way or the other, two of them at very steep angles.
    ‘We should board a few,’ Torvald said. ‘There will be tools, maybe even weapons. I could swim over-there, that raider. It’s not yet awash, and I see lots of wreckage.’
    Karsa sensed the Daru’s hesitation. ‘What is wrong? Swim.’
    ‘Uh, I am a little concerned, friend. I seem to have not much strength left, and these chains on me…’
    The Teblor said nothing for a moment, then he grunted. ‘So be it. No more can be asked of you, Torvald Nom.’
    The Daru slowly turned to regard Karsa. ‘Compassion, Karsa Orlong? Is it helplessness that has brought you to this?’
    ‘Too many empty words from you, lowlander,’ the Teblor sighed. ‘There are no gifts that come from being-’
    A soft splash sounded, then sputtering and thrashing-the sputtering turning into laughter. Torvald, now alongside the raft, moved into Karsa’s line of sight. ‘Now we know why those ships are canted so!’ And the Teblor saw that Torvald was standing, the water lapping around his upper chest. ‘I can drag us over, now. This also tells us we’re the ones who’ve been drifting. And there’s something else.’
    ‘What?’
    The Daru had begun pulling the raft along, using Karsa’s chains. ‘These ships all grounded during the battle-I think a lot of the hand to hand fighting was actually between ships, chest-deep in water.’
    ‘How do you know this?’
    ‘Because there’s bodies all around me, Karsa Orlong. Against my shins, rolling about on the sands-it’s an unpleasant feeling, let me tell you.’
    ‘Pull one up. Let us see these combatants.’
    ‘All in good time, Teblor. We’re almost there. Also, these bodies, they’re, uh, rather soft. We might find something more recognizable if there’s any on the ship itself. Here’-there was a bump-‘we’re alongside. A moment, while I climb aboard.’
    Karsa listened to the Daru’s grunts and gasps, the slipping scrabble of his bare feet, the rustle of chains, finally followed by a muted thud.
    Then silence.
    ‘Torvald Nom?’
    Nothing.
    The raft’s end beyond Karsa’s head bumped alongside the raider’s hull, then began drifting along it. Cool water flowed across the surface, and Karsa recoiled at the contact, but could do nothing as it seeped beneath him. ‘Torvald Nom!’ His voice strangely echoed. No reply.
    Laughter rumbled from Karsa, a sound oddly disconnected from the Teblor’s own will. In water that, had he been able to stand, would likely rise no higher than his hips, he would drown. Assuming there would be time for that. Perhaps Torvald Nom had been slain-it would be a bizarre battle if there had been no survivors-and even now, beyond his sight, the Teblor was being looked down upon, his fate hanging in the balance.
    The raft edged near the ship’s prow. A scuffling sound, then, ‘Where? Oh.’
    ‘Torvald Nom?’
    Footsteps, half-stumbling, moved alongside from the ship’s deck. ‘Sorry, friend. I think I must have passed out. Were you laughing a moment ago?’
    ‘I was. What have you found?’
    ‘Not much. Yet. Bloodstains-dried. Trails through it. This ship has been thoroughly stripped. Hood below-you’re sinking!’
    ‘And I do not think you will be able to do anything about it, lowlander. Leave me to my fate. Take the water, and my weapons-’
    But Torvald had reappeared, rope in his hand, sliding down over the gunnel near the high prow and back into the water. Breathing hard, he fumbled with the rope for a moment before managing to slip it underneath the chains. He then drew it along and repeated the effort on the other side of the raft. A third time, down near Karsa’s left foot, then a fourth loop opposite.
    The Teblor could feel the wet, heavy rope being dragged through the chains. ‘What are you doing?’
    Torvald made no reply. Still trailing the rope, he climbed back onto the ship. There was another long stretch of silence, then Karsa heard movement once more, and the rope slowly tautened.
    Torvald’s head and shoulders moved into view. The lowlander was deathly pale. ‘Best I could do, friend. There may be some more settling, but hopefully not much. I will check again on you in a little while. Don’t worry, I won’t let you drown. I’m going to do some exploring right now-the bastards couldn’t have taken everything.’ He vanished from Karsa’s line of sight.
    The Teblor waited, racked with shivering as the sea slowly embraced him. The level had reached his ears, muting all sounds other than the turgid swirl of water. He watched the four lengths of rope slowly growing tighter above him.
    It was difficult to recall a time when his limbs had been free to move without restraint, when his raw, suppurating wrists had not known the implacable iron grip of shackles, when he had not felt-deep in his withered body-a vast weakness, a frailty, his blood flowing as thin as water. He closed his eyes and felt his mind falling away.
    Away…
    Urugal, I stand before you once more. Before these faces in the rock, before my gods. Urugal-
    ‘I see no Teblor standing before me. I see no warrior wading through his enemies, harvesting souls. I do not see the dead piled high on the ground, as numerous as a herd of bhederin driven over a cliff. Where are my gifts? Who is this who claims to serve me?
    Urugal. You are a bloodthirsty god-
    ‘A truth a Teblor warrior revels in!
    As I once did. But now, Urugal, I am no longer so sure-
    ‘Who stands before us? Not a Teblor warrior! Not a servant of mine!
    Urugal. What are thesebhederinyou spoke of? What are these herds? Where among the lands of the Teblor-
    ‘Karsa!’
    He flinched. Opened his eyes.
    Torvald Nom, a burlap sack over one shoulder, was climbing back down. His feet made contact with the raft, pushing it a fraction deeper. Water stung the outside corners of Karsa’s eyes.
    The sack made numerous clunking sounds as the Daru set it down and reached inside. ‘Tools, Karsa! A shipwright’s tools!’ He drew forth a chisel and an iron-capped mallet.
    The Teblor felt his heart begin pounding hard in his chest.
    Torvald set the chisel against a chain link, then began hammering.
    A dozen swings, the concussions pealing loudly in the still, murky air, then the chain snapped. Its own weight swiftly dragged it through the iron ring of Karsa’s right wrist shackle. Then, with a soft rustle, it was gone beneath the sea’s surface. Agony lanced through his arm as he attempted to move it. The Teblor grunted, even as consciousness slipped away.
    He awoke to the sounds of hammering, down beside his right foot, and thundering waves of pain, through which he heard, dimly, Torvald’s voice.
    ‘… heavy, Karsa. You’ll need to do the impossible. You’ll need to climb. That means rolling over, getting onto your hands and knees. Standing. Walking-oh, Hood, you’re right, I’ll need to think of something else. No food anywhere on this damned ship.’ There was a loud crack, then the hiss of a chain falling away. ‘That’s it, you’re free. Don’t worry, I’ve retied the ropes to the platform itself-you won’t sink. Free. How’s it feel? Never mind-I’ll ask that a few days from now. Even so, you’re free, Karsa. I promised, didn’t I? Let it not be said that Torvald Nom doesn’t hold to his-well, uh, let it not be said that Torvald Nom isn’t afraid of new beginnings.’
    ‘Too many words,’ Karsa muttered.
    ‘Aye, far too many. Try moving, at least.’
    ‘I am.’
    ‘Bend your right arm.’
    ‘I am trying.’
    ‘Shall I do it for you?’
    ‘Slowly. Should I lose consciousness, do not cease. And do the same for the remaining limbs.’
    He felt the lowlander’s hands grip his right arm, at the wrist and above the elbow, then, once again, mercifully, blackness swallowed him.
    When he came to once more, bundles of sodden cloth had been propped beneath his head, and he was lying on his side, limbs curled. There was dull pain in every muscle, every joint, yet it seemed strangely remote. He slowly lifted his head.
    He was still on the platform. The ropes that held it to the ship’s prow had prevented it from sinking further. Torvald Nom was nowhere in sight.
    ‘I call upon the blood of the Teblor,’ Karsa whispered. ‘All that is within me must be used now to heal, to gift me strength. I am freed. I did not surrender. The warrior remains. He remains…’ He tried to move his arms. Throbs of pain, sharp, but bearable. He shifted his legs, gasped at the agony flaring in his hips. A moment of light-headedness, threatening oblivion once again… that then passed.
    He tried to push himself to his hands and knees. Every minuscule shift was torture, but he refused to surrender to it. Sweat streamed down his limbs. Waves of trembling washed through him. Eyes squeezed shut, he struggled on.
    He had no idea how much time had passed, but then he was sitting, the realization arriving with a shock. He was sitting, his full weight on his haunches, and the pain was fading. He lifted his arms, surprised and a little frightened by their looseness, horrified by their thinness.
    As he rested, he looked about. The shattered ships remained, detritus clumped in makeshift rafts between them. Tattered sails hung in shrouds from the few remaining masts. The prow looming beside him held panels crowded with carvings: figures, locked in battle. The figures were long-limbed, standing on versions of ships closely resembling the raiders on all sides. Yet the enemy in these reliefs were not, it seemed, the ones the ship’s owners had faced here, for the craft they rode in were, if anything, smaller and lower than the raiders. The warriors looked much like Teblor, thick-limbed, heavily muscled, though in stature shorter than their foes.
    Movement in the water, a gleaming black hump, spike-finned, rising into view then vanishing again. All at once, more appeared, and the surface of the water between the ships was suddenly aswirl. There was life in this sea after all, and it had come to feed.
    The platform lurched beneath Karsa, throwing him off balance. His left arm shot out to take his weight as he began toppling. A jarring impact, excruciating pain-but the arm held.
    He saw a bloated corpse roll up into view alongside the raft, then a black shape, a broad, toothless mouth, gaping wide, sweeping up and around the corpse, swallowing it whole. A small grey eye behind a spiny whisker flashed into sight as the huge fish swept past. The eye swivelled to track him, then the creature was gone.
    Karsa had not seen enough of the corpse to judge whether it was a match to him in size, or to the Daru, Torvald Nom. But the fish could have taken Karsa as easily as it had the corpse.
    He needed to stand. Then, to climb.
    And-as he watched another massive black shape break the surface alongside another ship, a shape almost as long as the ship itself-he would have to do it quickly.
    He heard footsteps from above, then Torvald Nom was at the gunnel beside the prow. ‘We’ve got to-oh, Beru bless you, Karsa! Can you stand up? You’ve no choice-these catfish are bigger than sharks and likely just as nasty. There’s one-just rolled up behind you-it’s circling, it knows you’re there! Stand up, use the ropes!’
    Nodding, Karsa reached up for the nearest stretch of rope.
    An explosion of water behind him. The platform shuddered, wood splintering-Torvald screamed a warning-and Karsa knew without looking back over his shoulder that one of the creatures had just risen up, had just thrown itself bodily onto the raft, splitting it in two.
    The rope was in his hand. He gripped hard as the sloshing surface beneath him seemed to vanish. A flood of water around his legs, rising to his hips. Karsa closed his other hand on the same rope.
    ‘Urugal! Witness!’
    He drew his legs from the foaming water, then, hand over hand, climbed upward. The rope swung free of the platform’s fragments, threw him against the ship’s hull. He grunted at the impact, yet would not let go.
    ‘Karsa! Your legs!’
    The Teblor looked down, saw nothing but a massive mouth, opened impossibly wide, rising up beneath him.
    Hands closed on his wrists. Screaming at the pain in his shoulders and hips, Karsa pulled himself upward in a single desperate surge.
    The mouth snapped shut in a spray of milky water.
    Knees cracking against the gunnel, Karsa scrambled wildly for a moment, then managed to shift his weight over the rail, drawing his legs behind him, to sprawl with a heavy thump on the deck.
    Torvald’s shrieks continued unabated, forcing the Teblor to roll over-to see the Daru fighting to hold on to what appeared to be some kind of harpoon. Torvald’s shouts, barely comprehensible, seemed to be referring to a line. Karsa glanced about, until he saw that the harpoon’s butt-end held a thin rope, which trailed down to a coiled pile almost within the Teblor’s reach. Groaning, he scrabbled towards it. He found the end, began dragging it towards the prow.
    He pulled himself up beside it, looped the line over and around, once, twice-then there was a loud curse from Torvald, and the coil began playing out. Karsa threw the line around one more time, then managed something like a half-hitch.
    He did not expect the thin rope to hold. He ducked down beneath it as the last of the coil was snatched from his hands, thrumming taut.
    The galley creaked, the prow visibly bending, then the ship lurched into motion, shuddering as it was dragged along the sandy bottom.
    Torvald scrambled up beside Karsa. ‘Gods below, I didn’t think-let’s hope it holds!’ he gasped. ‘If it does, we won’t go hungry for a long while, no, not a long while!’ He slapped Karsa on the back, then pulled himself up to the prow. His wild grin vanished. ‘Oh.’
    Karsa rose.
    The harpoon’s end was visible directly ahead, cutting a V through the choppy waves-heading directly for one of the larger, three-masted ships. The grinding sound suddenly ceased beneath the raider, and the craft surged forward.
    ‘To the stern, Karsa! To the stern!’
    Torvald made a brief effort to drag Karsa, then gave up with a curse, running full tilt for the galley’s stern.
    Weaving, fighting waves of blackness, the Teblor staggered after the Daru. ‘Could you not have speared a smaller one?’
    The impact sent them both sprawling. A terrible splitting sound reverberated down the galley’s spine, and all at once there was water everywhere, foaming up from the hatches, sweeping in from the sides. Planks from the hull on both sides parted like groping fingers.
    Karsa found himself thrashing about in waist-deep water. Something like a deck remained beneath him, and he managed to struggle upright. And, bobbing wildly directly in front of him, was his original blood-sword. He snatched at it, felt his hand close about the familiar grip. Exultation soared through him, and he loosed an Uryd warcry.
    Torvald sloshed into view beside him. ‘If that didn’t freeze that fish’s tiny heart, nothing will. Come on, we need to get onto that other damned ship. There’s more of those bastards closing in all around us.’
    They struggled forward.
    The ship they had broadsided had been leaning in the other direction. The galley had plunged into its hull, creating a massive hole before itself shattering, the prow with its harpoon line snapping off and vanishing within the ship’s lower decks. It was clear that the huge ship was solidly grounded, nor had the collision dislodged it.
    As they neared the gaping hole, they could hear wild thrashing from somewhere within, deep in the hold.
    ‘Hood take me!’ Torvald muttered in disbelief. ‘That thing went through the hull first. Well, at least we’re not fighting a creature gifted with genius. It’s trapped down there, is my guess. We should go hunting-’
    ‘Leave that to me,’ Karsa growled.
    ‘You? You can barely stand-’
    ‘Even so, I will kill it.’
    ‘Well, can’t I watch?’
    ‘If you insist.’
    There were three decks within the ship’s hull, in so far as they could see, the bottom one comprising the hold itself, the other two scaled to suit tall lowlanders. The hold had been half-filled with cargo, which was now tumbling out in the backwash-bundles, bales and casks.
    Karsa plunged into waist-deep water, making for the thrashing sounds deeper within. He found the huge fish writhing on the second level, in sloshing, foaming water that barely covered the Teblor’s ankles. Spears of splintered wood jutted from the fish’s enormous head, blood streaming out to stain the foam pink. It had rolled onto its side, revealing a smooth, silvery underbelly.
    Clambering across to the creature, Karsa drove his sword into its abdomen. The huge tail twisted round, struck him with the strength of a destrier’s kick. He was suddenly in the air, then the curved wall of the hull struck his back.
    Stunned by the impact, the Teblor slumped in the swirling water. He blinked the drops from his eyes, then, unmoving in the gloom, watched the fish’s death-throes.
    Torvald climbed into view. ‘You’re still damned fast, Karsa-left me behind. But I see you’ve done the deed. There’s food among these supplies…’
    But Karsa heard no more, as unconsciousness took him once again.
    He awoke to the stench of putrefying flesh that hung heavy in the still air. In the half-light, he could just make out the body of the dead fish opposite him, its belly slit open, a pallid corpse partially tumbled out. There was the distant sound of movement somewhere above him.
    Well beyond the fish and to the right, steep steps were visible, leading upward.
    Fighting to keep from gagging, Karsa collected his sword and began crawling towards the stairs.
    He eventually emerged onto the midship’s deck. Its sorcery-scarred surface was sharply canted, sufficient to make traverse difficult. Supplies had been collected and were piled against the downside railing, where ropes trailed over the side. Pausing near the hatch to regain his breath, Karsa looked around for Torvald Nom, but the Daru was nowhere in sight.
    Magic had ripped deep gouges across the deck. There were no bodies visible anywhere, no indications of the nature of the ship’s owners. The black wood-which seemed to emanate darkness-was of a species the Teblor did not recognize, and it was devoid of any ornamentation, evoking pragmatic simplicity. He found himself strangely comforted.
    Torvald Nom clambered into view from the downside rail. He had managed to remove the chains attached to his shackles, leaving only the black iron bands on wrists and ankles. He was breathing hard.
    Karsa pushed himself upright, leaning on the sword’s point for support.
    ‘Ah, my giant friend, with us once more!’
    ‘You must find my weakness frustrating,’ Karsa grumbled.
    ‘To be expected, all things considered,’ Torvald said, moving among the supplies now. ‘I’ve found food. Come and eat, Karsa, while I tell you of my discoveries.’
    The Teblor slowly made his way down the sloping deck.
    Torvald drew out a brick-shaped loaf of dark bread. ‘I’ve found a dory, and oars to go along with a sail, so we won’t remain victims to this endless calm. We’ve water for a week and a half, if we’re sparing, and we won’t go hungry no matter how fast your appetite comes back…’
    Karsa took the bread from the Daru’s hand and began tearing off small chunks. His teeth felt slightly loose, and he was not confident of attempting anything beyond gentle chewing. The bread was rich and moist, filled with morsels of sweet fruit and tasting of honey. His first swallow left him struggling to keep it down. Torvald handed him a skin filled with water, then resumed his monologue.
    ‘The dory’s got benches enough for twenty or so-spacious for lowlanders but we’ll need to knock one loose to give your legs some room. If you lean over the gunnel you can see it for yourself. I’ve been busy loading what we’ll need. We could explore some of the other ships if you like, though we’ve more than enough-’
    ‘No need,’ Karsa said. ‘Let us leave this place as quickly as possible.’
    Torvald’s eyes narrowed on the Teblor for a moment, then the Daru nodded. ‘Agreed. Karsa, you say you did not call upon that storm. Very well. I shall have to believe you-that you’ve no recollection of having done so, in any case. But I was wondering, this cult of yours, these Seven Faces in the Rock or however they’re called. Do they claim a warren for themselves? A realm other than the one you and I live in, where they exist?’
    Karsa swallowed another mouthful of bread. ‘I had heard nothing of these warrens you speak of, Torvald Nom. The Seven dwell in the rock, and in the dreamworld of the Teblor.’
    ‘Dreamworld…’ Torvald waved a hand. ‘Does any of this look like that dreamworld, Karsa?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘What if it had been… flooded?’
    Karsa scowled. ‘You remind me of Bairoth Gild. Your words make no sense. The Teblor dreamworld is a place of no hills, where mosses and lichens cling to half-buried boulders, where snow makes low dunes sculpted by cold winds. Where strange brown-haired beasts run in packs in the distance…’
    ‘Have you visited it yourself, then?’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘These are descriptions given by the shamans.’ He hesitated, then said, ‘The place I visited…’ He trailed off, then shook his head. ‘Different. A place of… of coloured mists.’
    ‘Coloured mists. And were your gods there?’
    ‘You are not Teblor. I have no need to tell you more. I have spoken too much already.’
    ‘Very well. I was just trying to determine where we were.’
    ‘We are on a sea, and there is no land.’
    ‘Well, yes. But which sea? Where’s the sun? Why is there no night? No wind? Which direction shall we choose?’
    ‘It does not matter which direction. Any direction.’ Karsa rose from where he had been sitting on a bale. ‘I have eaten enough for now. Come, let us finish loading, and then leave.’
    ‘As you say, Karsa.’

    He felt stronger with each passing day, lengthening his turns at the oars each time he took over from Torvald Nom. The sea was shallow, and more than once the dory ground up onto shoals, though fortunately these were of sand and so did little to damage the hull. They had seen nothing of the huge catfish, nor any other life in the water or in the sky, though the occasional piece of driftwood drifted past, devoid of bark or leaf.
    As Karsa’s strength returned, their supply of food quickly dwindled, and though neither spoke of it, despair had become an invisible passenger, a third presence that silenced the Teblor and the Daru, that shackled them as had their captors of old, and the ghostly chains grew heavier.
    In the beginning they had marked out days based on the balance of sleep and wakefulness, but the pattern soon collapsed as Karsa took to rowing through Torvald’s periods of sleep in addition to relieving the weary Daru at other times. It became quickly evident that the Teblor required less rest, whilst Torvald seemed to need ever more.
    They were down to the last cask of water, which held only a third of its capacity. Karsa was at the oars, pulling the undersized sticks in broad, effortless sweeps through the murky swells. Torvald lay huddled beneath the sail, restless in his sleep.
    The ache was almost gone from Karsa’s shoulders, though pain lingered in his hips and legs. He had fallen into a pattern of repetition empty of thought, unaware of the passage of time, his only concern that of maintaining a straight course-as best as he could determine, given the lack of reference points. He had naught but the dory’s own wake to direct him.
    Torvald’s eyes opened, bloodshot and red-rimmed. He had long ago lost his loquaciousness. Karsa suspected the man was sick-they’d not had a conversation in some time. The Daru slowly sat up.
    Then stiffened. ‘We’ve company,’ he said, his voice cracking.
    Karsa shipped the oars and twisted round in his seat. A large, three-masted, black ship was bearing down on them, twin banks of oars flashing dark over the milky water. Beyond it, on the horizon’s very edge, ran a dark, straight line. The Teblor collected his sword then slowly stood.
    ‘That’s the strangest coast I’ve ever seen,’ Torvald muttered. ‘Would that we’d reached it without the company.’
    ‘It is a wall,’ Karsa said. ‘A straight wall, before which lies some kind of beach.’ He returned his gaze to the closing ship. ‘It is like those that had been beset by the raiders.’
    ‘So it is, only somewhat bigger. Flagship, is my guess, though I see no flag.’
    They could see figures now, crowding the high forecastle. Tall, though not as tall as Karsa, and much leaner.
    ‘Not human,’ Torvald muttered. ‘Karsa, I do not think they will be friendly. Just a feeling, mind you. Still…’
    ‘I have seen one of them before,’ the Teblor replied. ‘Half spilled out from the belly of the catfish.’
    ‘That beach is rolling with the waves, Karsa. It’s flotsam. Must be two, three thousand paces of it. The wreckage of an entire world. As I suspected, this sea doesn’t belong here.’
    ‘Yet there are ships.’
    ‘Aye, meaning they don’t belong here, either.’
    Karsa shrugged his indifference to that observation. ‘Have you a weapon, Torvald Nom?’
    ‘A harpoon… and a mallet. You will not try to talk first?’
    Karsa said nothing. The twin banks of oars had lifted from the water and now hovered motionless over the waves as the huge ship slid towards them. The oars dipped suddenly, straight down, the water churning as the ship slowed, then came to a stop.
    The dory thumped as it made contact with the hull on the port side, just beyond the prow.
    A rope ladder snaked down, but Karsa, his sword slung over a shoulder, was already climbing up the hull, there being no shortage of handholds. He reached the forecastle rail and swung himself up and over it. His feet found the deck and he straightened.
    A ring of grey-skinned warriors faced him. Taller than lowlanders, but still a head shorter than the Teblor. Curved sabres were scabbarded to their hips, and much of their clothing was made of some kind of hide, short-haired, dark and glistening. Their long brown hair was intricately braided, hanging down to frame angular, multihued eyes. Behind them, down amidships, there was a pile of severed heads, a few lowlander but most similar in features to the grey-skinned warriors, though with skins of black.
    Ice rippled up Karsa’s spine as he saw countless eyes among those severed heads shift towards him.
    One of the grey-skinned warriors snapped something, his expression as contemptuous as his tone.
    Behind Karsa, Torvald reached the railing.
    The speaker seemed to be waiting for some sort of response. As the silence stretched, the faces on either side twisted into sneers. The spokesman barked out a command, pointed to the deck.
    ‘Uh, he wants us to kneel, Karsa,’ Torvald said. ‘I think maybe we should-’
    ‘I would not kneel when chained,’ Karsa growled. ‘Why would I do so now?’
    ‘Because I count sixteen of them-and who knows how many more are below. And they’re getting angrier-’
    ‘Sixteen or sixty,’ Karsa cut in. ‘They know nothing of fighting Teblor.’
    ‘How can you-’
    Karsa saw two warriors shift gauntleted hands towards sword-grips. The bloodsword flashed out, cut a sweeping horizontal slash across the entire half-circle of grey-skinned warriors. Blood sprayed. Bodies reeled, sprawled backward, tumbling over the low railing and down to the mid-deck.
    The forecastle was clear apart from Karsa and, a pace behind him, Torvald Nom.
    The seven warriors who had been on the mid-deck drew back as one, then, unsheathing their weapons, they edged forward.
    ‘They were within my reach,’ Karsa answered the Daru’s question. ‘That is how I know they know nothing of fighting a Teblor. Now, witness while I take this ship.’ With a bellow he leapt down into the midst of the enemy.
    The grey-skinned warriors were not lacking in skill, yet it availed them naught. Karsa had known the loss of freedom; he would not accept such again. The demand to kneel before these scrawny, sickly creatures had triggered in him seething fury.
    Six of the seven warriors were down; the last one, shouting, had turned about and was running towards the doorway at the other end of the mid-deck. He paused long enough to drag a massive harpoon from a nearby rack, spinning and flinging it at Karsa.
    The Teblor caught it in his left hand.
    He closed on the fleeing man, cutting him down at the doorway’s threshold. Ducking and reversing the weapons in his hands-the harpoon now in his right and the bloodsword in his left-he plunged into the gloom of the passage beyond the doorway.
    Two steps down, into a wide galley with a wooden table in its centre. A second doorway at the opposite end, a narrow passage beyond, lined by berths, then an ornate door that squealed as Karsa shoved it aside.
    Four attackers, a fury of blows exchanged, Karsa blocking with the harpoon and counter-attacking with the bloodsword. In moments, four broken bodies dying on the cabin’s gleaming wooden floor. A fifth figure, seated in a chair on the other side of the room, hands raised, sorcery swirling into the air.
    With a snarl, Karsa surged forward. The magic flashed, sputtered, then the harpoon’s point punched into the figure’s chest, tore through and drove into the chair’s wood backing. A look of disbelief frozen on the grey face, eyes locking with Karsa’s own one last time, before all life left them.
    ‘Urugal! Witness a Teblor’s rage!’
    Silence following his ringing words, then the slow pat of blood dripping from the sorcerer’s chair onto the rug. Something cold rippled through Karsa, the breath of someone unknown, nameless, but filled with rage. Growling, he shrugged it off, then looked around. High-ceilinged for lowlanders, the ship’s cabin was all of the same black wood. Oil lanterns glimmered from sconces on the walls. On the table were maps and charts, the drawings on them illegible as far as the Teblor was concerned.
    A sound from the doorway.
    Karsa turned.
    Torvald Nom stepped within, scanning the sprawled corpses, then fixing his gaze on the seated figure with the spear still impaling it. ‘You needn’t worry about the oarsmen,’ he said.
    ‘Are they slaves? Then we shall free them.’
    ‘Slaves?’ Torvald shrugged. ‘I don’t think so. They wear no chains, Karsa. Mind you, they have no heads, either. As I said, I don’t think we have to concern ourselves with them.’ He strode forward to examine the maps on the table. ‘Something tells me these hapless bastards you just killed were as lost as us-’
    ‘They were the victors in the battle of the ships.’
    ‘Little good it did them.’
    Karsa shook the blood from his sword, drew a deep breath. ‘I kneel to no-one.’
    ‘I could’ve knelt twice and that might have satisfied them. Now, we’re as ignorant as we were before seeing this ship. Nor can the two of us manage a craft of this size.’
    ‘They would have done to us as was done to the oarsmen,’ Karsa asserted.
    ‘Possibly.’ He swung his attention on one of the corpses at his feet, slowly crouched. ‘Barbaric-looking, these ones-uh, by Daru standards, that is. Sealskin-true seafarers, then-and strung claws and teeth and shells. The one in the captain’s chair was a mage?’
    ‘Yes. I do not understand such warriors. Why not use swords or spears? Their magic is pitiful, yet they seem so sure of it. And look at his expression-’
    ‘Surprised, yes,’ Torvald murmured. He glanced back at Karsa. ‘They’re confident because sorcery usually works. Most attackers don’t survive getting hit by magic. It rips them apart.’
    Karsa made his way back to the doorway. After a moment Torvald followed.
    They returned to the mizzen deck. Karsa began stripping the corpses lying about, severing ears and tongues before tossing the naked bodies overboard.
    The Daru watched for a time, then he moved to the decapitated heads. ‘They’ve been following everything you do,’ he said to Karsa, ‘with their eyes. It’s too much to bear.’ He removed the hide wrapping of a nearby bundle and folded it around the nearest severed head, then tied it tight. ‘Darkness would better suit them, all things considered…’
    Karsa frowned. ‘Why do you say that, Torvald Nom? Which would you prefer, the ability to see things around you, or darkness?’
    ‘These are Tiste Andu, apart from a few-and those few look far too much like me.’
    ‘Who are these Tiste Andu?’
    ‘Just a people. There are some fighting in Caladan Brood’s liberation army on Genabackis. An ancient people, it’s said. In any case, they worship Darkness.’
    Karsa, suddenly weary, sat down on the steps leading to the forecastle. ‘Darkness,’ he muttered. ‘A place where one is left blind-a strange thing to worship.’
    ‘Perhaps the most realistic worship of all,’ the Daru replied, wrapping another severed head. ‘How many of us bow before a god in the desperate hope that we can somehow shape our fate? Praying to that familiar face pushes away our terror of the unknown-the unknown being the future. Who knows, maybe these Tiste Andu are the only ones among us all who see the truth, the truth being oblivion.’ Keeping his eyes averted, he carefully gathered another black-skinned, long-haired head. ‘It’s a good thing these poor souls have no throats left to utter sounds, else we find ourselves in a ghastly debate.’
    ‘You doubt your own words, then.’
    ‘Always, Karsa. On a more mundane level, words are like gods-a means of keeping the terror at bay. I will likely have nightmares about this until my aged heart finally gives out. An endless succession of heads, with all-too-cognizant eyes, to wrap up in sealskin. And with each one I tie up, pop! Another appears.’
    ‘Your words are naught but foolishness.’
    ‘Oh, and how many souls have you delivered unto darkness, Karsa Orlong?’
    The Teblor’s eyes narrowed. ‘I do not think it was darkness that they found,’ he replied quietly. After a moment, he looked away, struck silent by a sudden realization. A year ago he would have killed someone for saying what Torvald had just said, had he understood its intent to wound-which in itself was unlikely. A year ago, words had been blunt, awkward things, confined within a simple, if slightly mysterious world. But that flaw had been Karsa’s alone-not a characteristic of the Teblor in general-for Bairoth Gild had flung many-edged words at Karsa, a constant source of amusement for the clever warrior though probably dulled by Karsa’s own unawareness of their intent.
    Torvald Nom’s endless words-but no, more than just that-all that Karsa had experienced since leaving his village-had served as instruction on the complexity of the world. Subtlety had been a venomed serpent slithering unseen through his life. Its fangs had sunk deep many times, yet not once had he become aware of their origin; not once had he even understood the source of the pain. The poison itself had coursed deep within him, and the only answer he gave-when he gave one at all-was of violence, often misdirected, a lashing out on all sides.
    Darkness, and living blind. Karsa returned his gaze to the Daru kneeling and wrapping severed heads, there on the mizzen deck. And who has dragged the cloth from my eyes? Who has awakened Karsa Orlong, son of Synyg? Urugal? No, not Urugal. He knew that for certain, for the otherworldly rage he had felt in the cabin, that icy breath that had swept through him-that had belonged to his god. A fierce displeasure-to which Karsa had found himself oddly… indifferent.
    The Seven Faces in the Rock never spoke of freedom. The Teblor were their servants. Their slaves.
    ‘You look unwell, Karsa,’ Torvald said, approaching. ‘I am sorry for my last words-’
    ‘There is no need, Torvald Nom,’ Karsa said, rising. ‘We should return to our-’
    He stopped as the first splashes of rain struck him, then the deck on all sides. Milky, slimy rain.
    ‘Uh!’ Torvald grunted. ‘If this is a god’s spit, he’s decidedly unwell.’
    The water smelled foul, rotten. It quickly coated the ship decks, the rigging and tattered sails overhead, in a thick, pale grease.
    Swearing, the Daru began gathering foodstuffs and watercasks to load into their dory below. Karsa completed one last circuit of the decks, examining the weapons and armour he had pulled from the grey-skinned bodies. He found the rack of harpoons and gathered the six that remained.
    The downpour thickened, creating murky, impenetrable walls on all sides of the ship. Slipping in the deepening muck, Karsa and Torvald quickly resupplied the dory, then pushed out from the ship’s hull, the Teblor at the oars. Within moments the ship was lost from sight, and around them the rain slackened. Five sweeps of the oars and they were out from beneath it entirely, once again on gently heaving seas under a pallid sky. The strange coastline was visible ahead, slowly drawing closer.

    On the forecastle of the massive ship, moments after the dory with its two passengers slipped behind the screen of muddy rain, seven almost insubstantial figures rose from the slime. Shattered bones, gaping wounds bleeding nothing, the figures weaved uncertainly in the gloom, as if barely able to maintain their grip on the scene they had entered.
    One of them hissed with anger. ‘Each time we seek to draw the knot tight-’
    ‘He cuts it,’ another finished in a wry, bitter tone.
    A third one stepped down to the mizzen deck, kicked desultorily at a discarded sword. ‘The failure belonged to the Tiste Edur,’ this one pronounced in a rasping voice. ‘If punishment must be enacted, it should be in answer to their arrogance.’
    ‘Not for us to demand,’ the first speaker snapped. ‘We are not the masters in this scheme-’
    ‘Nor are the Tiste Edur!’
    ‘Even so, and we are each given particular tasks. Karsa Orlong survives still, and he must be our only concern-’
    ‘He begins to know doubts.’
    ‘None the less, his journey continues. It falls to us, now, with what little power we are able to extend, to direct his path onward.’
    ‘We’ve had scant success thus far!’
    ‘Untrue. The Shattered Warren stirs awake once more. The broken heart of the First Empire begins to bleed-less than a trickle at the moment, but soon it will become a flood. We need only set our chosen warrior upon the proper current…’
    ‘And is that within our power, limited as it still remains?’
    ‘Let us find out. Begin the preparations. Ber’ok, scatter that handful of otataral dust in the cabin-the Tiste Edur sorcerer’s warren remains open and, in this place, it will quickly become a wound… a growing wound. The time has not yet come for such unveilings.’
    The speaker then lifted its mangled head and seemed to sniff the air. ‘We must work quickly,’ it announced after a moment. ‘I believe we are being hunted.’
    The remaining six turned to face the speaker, who nodded in answer to their silent question. ‘Yes. There are kin upon our trail.’

    The wreckage of an entire land had drawn up alongside the massive stone wall. Uprooted trees, rough-hewn logs, planks, shingles and pieces of wagons and carts were visible amidst the detritus. The verges were thick with matted grasses and rotted leaves, forming a broad plain that twisted, rose and fell on the waves. The wall was barely visible in places, so high was the flotsam, and the level of the water beneath it.
    Torvald Nom was positioned at the bow whilst Karsa rowed. ‘I don’t know how we’ll get to that wall,’ the Daru said. ‘You’d better back the oars now, friend, lest we ground ourselves on that mess-there’s catfish about.’
    Karsa slowed the dory. They drifted, the hull nudging the carpet of flotsam. After a few moments it became apparent that there was a current, pulling their craft along the edge.
    ‘Well,’ Torvald muttered, ‘that’s a first for this sea. Do you think this is some sort of tide?’
    ‘No,’ Karsa replied, his gaze tracking the strange shoreline in the direction of the current. ‘It is a breach in the wall.’
    ‘Oh. Can you see where?’
    ‘Yes, I think so.’
    The current was tugging them along faster, now.
    Karsa continued, ‘There is an indentation in the shoreline, and many trees and logs jammed where the wall should be-can you not hear the roar?’
    ‘Aye, now I can.’ Tension rode the Daru’s words. He straightened at the bow. ‘I see it. Karsa, we’d better-’
    ‘Yes, it is best we avoid this.’ The Teblor repositioned himself at the oars. He drew the dory away from the verge. The hull tugged sluggishly beneath them, began twisting. Karsa leaned his weight into each sweep, struggling to regain control. The water swirled around them.
    ‘Karsa!’ Torvald shouted. ‘There’s people-near the breach! I see a wrecked boat!’
    The breach was on the Teblor’s left as he pulled the dory across the current. He looked to where Torvald was pointing, and, after a moment, he bared his teeth. ‘The slavemaster and his men.’
    ‘They’re waving us over.’
    Karsa ceased sweeping with his left oar. ‘We cannot defeat this current,’ he announced, swinging the craft around. ‘The further out we proceed, the stronger it becomes.’
    ‘I think that’s what happened to Silgar’s boat-they managed to ground it just this side of the mouth, stoving it in, in the process. We should try to avoid a similar fate, Karsa, if we can, that is.’
    ‘Then keep an eye out for submerged logs,’ the Teblor said as he angled the dory closer to shore. ‘Also, are the lowlanders armed?’
    ‘Not that I can see,’ Torvald replied after a moment. ‘They look to be in, uh, in pretty bad condition. They’re perched on a small island of logs. Silgar, and Damisk, and one other… Borrug, I think. Gods, Karsa, they’re starved.’
    ‘Take a harpoon,’ the Teblor growled. ‘That hunger could well drive them to desperation.’
    ‘A touch shoreward, Karsa, we’re almost there.’
    There was a soft crunch from the hull, then a grinding, stuttering motion as the current sought to drag them along the verge. Torvald clambered out, ropes in one hand and harpoon in the other. Beyond him, Karsa saw as he turned about, huddled the three Nathii lowlanders, making no move to help and, if anything, drawing back as far as they could manage on the tangled island. The breach’s roar was a still-distant thundering, though closer at hand were ominous cracks, tearing and shifting noises-the logjam was coming loose.
    Torvald made fast the dory with a skein of lines tied to various branches and roots. Karsa stepped ashore, drawing his bloodsword, his eyes levelling on Silgar.
    The slavemaster attempted to retreat further.
    Near the three emaciated lowlanders lay the remains of a fourth, his bones picked clean.
    ‘Teblor!’ Silgar implored. ‘You must listen to me!’
    Karsa slowly advanced.
    ‘I can save us!’
    Torvald tugged at Karsa’s arm. ‘Wait, friend, let’s hear the bastard.’
    ‘He will say anything,’ Karsa growled.
    ‘Even so-’
    Damisk Greydog spoke. ‘Karsa Orlong, listen! This island is being torn apart-we all need your boat. Silgar’s a mage-he can open a portal. But not if he’s drowning. Understand? He can take us from this realm!’
    ‘Karsa,’ Torvald said, weaving as the logs shifted under him, his grip on the Teblor’s arm tightening.
    Karsa looked down at the Daru beside him. ‘You trust Silgar?’
    ‘Of course not. But we’ve no choice-we’d be unlikely to survive plunging through that breach in the dory. We don’t even know this wall’s height-the drop on the other side could be endless. Karsa, we’re armed and they’re not-besides, they’re too weak to cause us trouble, you can see that, can’t you?’
    Silgar screamed as a large section of the logjam sank away immediately behind him.
    Scowling, Karsa sheathed his sword. ‘Begin untying the boat, Torvald.’ He waved at the lowlanders. ‘Come, then. But know this, Slavemaster, any sign of treachery from you and your friends will be picking your bones next.’
    Damisk, Silgar and Borrug scrambled forward.
    The entire section of flotsam was pulling away, breaking up along its edges as the current swept it onward. Clearly, the breach was expanding, widening to the pressure of an entire sea.
    Silgar climbed in and crouched down beside the dory’s prow. ‘I shall open a portal,’ he announced, his voice a rasp. ‘I can only do so but once-’
    ‘Then why didn’t you leave a long time ago?’ Torvald demanded, as he slipped the last line loose and clambered back aboard.
    ‘There was no path before-out on the sea. But now, here-someone has opened a gate. Close. The fabric is… weakened. I’ve not the skill to do such a thing myself. But I can follow.’
    The dory scraped free of the crumbling island, swung wildly into the sweeping current. Karsa pushed and pulled with the oars to angle their bow into the torrential flow.
    ‘Follow?’ Torvald repeated. ‘Where?’
    To that Silgar simply shook his head.
    Karsa abandoned the oars and made his way to the stern, taking the tiller in both hands.
    They rode the tumbling, churning sea of wreckage towards the breach. Where the wall had given way there was an ochre cloud of mist as vast and high as a thunderhead. Beyond it, there seemed to be nothing at all.
    Silgar was making gestures with both hands, snapping them out as would a blind man seeking a door latch. Then he jabbed a finger to the right. ‘There!’ he shrieked, swinging a wild look on Karsa. ‘There! Angle us there!’
    The place Silgar pointed towards looked no different from anywhere else. Immediately beyond it, the water simply vanished-a wavering line that was the breach itself. Shrugging, Karsa pushed on the tiller. Where they went over mattered little to him. If Silgar failed they would plunge over, falling whatever distance, to crash amidst a foaming maelstrom that would kill them all.
    He watched as everyone but Silgar hunkered down, mute with terror.
    The Teblor smiled. ‘Urugal!’ he bellowed, half rising as the dory raced for the edge.
    Darkness swallowed them.
    And then they were falling.
    A loud, explosive crack. The tiller’s handle split under Karsa’s hands, then the stern hammered into him from behind, throwing the Teblor forward. He struck water a moment later, the impact making him gasp-taking in a mouthful of salty sea-before plunging into the chill blackness.
    He struggled upward until his head broke the surface, but there was no lessening of the darkness, as if they’d fallen down a well, or had appeared within a cave. Nearby, someone was coughing helplessly, whilst a little farther off another survivor was thrashing about.
    Wreckage brushed up against Karsa. The dory had shattered, though the Teblor was fairly certain that the fall had not been overly long-they had arrived at a height of perhaps two adult warriors combined. Unless the boat had struck something, it should have survived.
    ‘Karsa!’
    Still coughing, Torvald Nom arrived alongside the Teblor. The Daru had found the shaft of one of the oars, over which he had draped his arms. ‘What in Hood’s name do you think happened?’
    ‘We passed through that sorcerous gate,’ Karsa explained. ‘That should be obvious, for we are now somewhere else.’
    ‘Not as simple as that,’ Torvald replied. ‘The blade of this oar-here, look at the end.’
    Finding himself comfortably buoyant in this salty water, it took only a moment for Karsa to swim to the end of the shaft. It had been cut through, as if by a single blow from an iron sword such as the lowlanders used. He grunted.
    The distant thrashing sounds had drawn closer. From much farther away, Damisk’s voice called out.
    ‘Here!’ Torvald shouted back.
    A shape loomed up beside them. It was Silgar, clinging to one of the water casks.
    ‘Where are we?’ Karsa asked the slavemaster.
    ‘How should I know?’ the Nathii snapped. ‘I did not fashion the gate, I simply made use of it-and it had mostly closed, which is why the floor of the boat did not come with us. It was sheared clean off. None the less, I believe we are in a sea, beneath an overcast sky. Were there no ambient light, we’d not be able to see each other right now. Alas, I can hear no coast, though it’s so calm there might be no waves to brush the shoreline.’
    ‘Meaning we could be within a dozen strokes and not know it.’
    ‘Yes. Fortunately for us, it is a rather warm sea. We must simply await dawn-’
    ‘Assuming there is one,’ Torvald said.
    ‘There is,’ Silgar asserted. ‘Feel the layers in this water. It’s colder down where our feet are. So a sun has looked down upon this sea, I am certain of it.’
    Damisk swam into view, struggling with Borrug, who seemed to be unconscious. As he reached out to take hold of the water cask Silgar pushed him back, then kicked himself further away.
    ‘Slavemaster!’ Damisk gasped.
    ‘This cask barely holds my weight as it is,’ Silgar hissed. ‘It’s near filled with fresh water-which we’re likely to need. What is the matter with Borrug?’
    Torvald moved along to give Damisk a place at the oar shaft. The tattooed guard attempted to drape Borrug’s arms over it as well and Torvald drew closer once more to help.
    ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him,’ Damisk said. ‘He may have struck his head, though I can find no wound. He was babbling at first, floundering about, then he simply fell unconscious and nearly slipped under. I was lucky to reach him.’
    Borrug’s head kept lolling beneath the surface.
    Karsa reached out and collected the man’s wrists. ‘I will take him,’ he snarled, turning about and dragging the man’s arms around his neck.
    ‘A light!’ Torvald suddenly shouted. ‘I saw a light-there!’
    The others swung round.
    ‘I see nothing,’ Silgar growled.
    ‘I did,’ Torvald insisted. ‘It was dim. Gone now. But I saw it-’
    ‘Likely an overwrought imagination,’ Silgar said. ‘Had I the strength, I’d open my warren-’
    ‘I know what I saw,’ the Daru said.
    ‘Lead us, then, Torvald Nom,’ Karsa said.
    ‘It could be in the wrong direction!’ Silgar hissed. ‘We are safer to wait-’
    ‘Then wait,’ Karsa replied.
    ‘I have the fresh water, not you-’
    ‘A good point. I shall have to kill you, then, since you have decided to stay here. We might need that water, after all. You won’t, because you will be dead.’
    ‘Teblor logic,’ Torvald chuckled, ‘is truly wonderful.’
    ‘Very well, I will follow,’ Silgar said.
    The Daru set off at a slow but steady pace, kicking beneath the surface as he pulled the oar shaft along. Damisk kept one hand on the length of wood, managing a strange motion with his legs that resembled that of a frog.
    Gripping Borrug’s wrists in one hand, Karsa moved into their wake. The unconscious lowlander’s head rested on his right shoulder, his knees bumping against the Teblor’s thighs.
    Off to one side, feet thrashing, Silgar propelled the water cask along. Karsa could see that the cask was far less filled than the slavemaster had claimed-it could have easily borne them all.
    The Teblor himself felt no need. He was not particularly tired, and it seemed that he possessed a natural buoyancy superior to that of the lowlanders. With each indrawn breath, his shoulders, upper arms and the upper half of his chest rose above the water. And apart from Borrug’s knees constantly fouling Karsa’s kicking, the lowlander’s presence was negligible…
    There was, he realized, something odd about those knees. He paused, reached down.
    Both legs were severed clean just beneath the kneecaps, the water warm in their immediate wakes.
    Torvald had glanced back. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
    ‘Do you think there are catfish in these waters?’
    ‘I doubt it,’ the Daru replied. ‘That was fresh water, after all.’
    ‘Good,’ Karsa grunted, resuming his swim.
    There was no recurrence of the light Torvald had seen. They continued on in the unrelieved darkness, through perfectly calm water.
    ‘This is foolish,’ Silgar pronounced after a time. ‘We exhaust ourselves for no purpose-’
    Torvald called, ‘Karsa, why did you ask about the catfish?’
    Something huge and rough-skinned rose up to land on Karsa’s back, its massive weight driving him under. Borrug’s wrists were torn from his grip, the arms whipping back and vanishing. Pushed more than a warrior’s height beneath the surface, Karsa twisted round. One of his kicking feet collided with a solid, unyielding body. He used the contact to propel himself away and back towards the surface.
    Even as he reached it-bloodsword in his hands-he saw, less than a body length distant, an enormous grey fish, its jagged-toothed mouth closing about the little that remained visible of Borrug. Lacerated head, shoulders and flopping arms. The fish’s wide head thrashed wildly back and forth, its strange saucer-like eyes flashing as if lit from within.
    There was screaming behind Karsa and he turned. Both Damisk and Silgar were kicking wildly in an effort to escape. Torvald was on his back, the oar held tight in his hands, his legs kicking beneath the surface-he alone was making no noise, though his face was twisted with fear.
    Karsa faced the fish once more. It seemed to be having trouble swallowing Borrug-one of the man’s arms was lodged crossways. The fish itself was positioned close to vertical in the water, ripping its head back and forth.
    Growling, Karsa swam towards it.
    Borrug’s arm came free even as the Teblor arrived, the corpse disappearing within the maw. Taking a deep breath and kicking hard, Karsa half rose out of the water, his bloodsword a curving spray as it chopped down into the fish’s snout.
    Warm blood spattered Karsa’s forearms.
    The fish seemed to fling its entire body backward.
    Karsa lunged closer, closing his legs around the creature’s body just beneath the flanking flippers. The fish twisted away at the contact, but could not drag itself free of Karsa’s tightening grip.
    The Teblor reversed his sword and plunged it deep into the beast’s belly, ripped it downward.
    The water was suddenly hot with blood and bile. The fish’s body became a dead weight, dragging Karsa downward. He sheathed his sword; then, as he and the fish sank beneath the surface, he reached down into the gaping wound. One hand closed on the thigh of Borrug-a shredded mass of flesh-and the fingers dug in to close around bone.
    Karsa pulled the lowlander through a cloud of milky, eye-stinging fluid, then, drawing the body with him, returned to the surface.
    Torvald was shouting now. Turning, Karsa saw the Daru, standing in waist-deep water, both arms waving. Near him, Silgar and Damisk were wading their way onto some kind of shore.
    Dragging Borrug with him, Karsa made his way forward. A half-dozen strokes and his feet thumped and scraped on a sandy bottom. He stood, still holding one of Borrug’s legs. Moments later, he was on the beach.
    The others sat or knelt on the pale strip of sand, regaining their breaths.
    Dropping the body onto the beach, Karsa remained standing, his head tilted back as he sniffed the warm, sultry air. There was heavy, lush foliage beyond the strand’s shell-cluttered high-tide line. The buzz and whine of insects, a faint rustle as something small moved across dry seaweed.
    Torvald crawled close. ‘Karsa, the man’s dead. He was dead when the shark took him-’
    ‘So that was a shark. The sailors on the Malazan ship spoke of sharks.’
    ‘Karsa, when a shark swallows someone you don’t go after the poor bastard. He’s finished-’
    ‘He was in my care,’ Karsa rumbled. ‘The shark had no right to him, whether he was dead or alive.’
    Silgar was on his feet a few paces away. At Karsa’s words he laughed, the sound high-pitched, then said, ‘From a shark’s belly to seagulls and crabs! Borrug’s pathetic spirit no doubt thanks you, Teblor!’
    ‘I have delivered the lowlander,’ Karsa replied, ‘and now return him to your care, Slavemaster. If you wish to leave him for seagulls and crabs, that is for you to decide.’ He faced the dark sea once more, but could see no sign of the dead shark.
    ‘No-one would believe me,’ Torvald muttered.
    ‘Believe what, Torvald Nom?’
    ‘Oh, I was imagining myself as an old man, years from now, sitting in Quip’s Bar in Darujhistan, telling this tale. I saw it with my own eyes, and even I am having trouble believing it. You were halfway out of the water when you swung that sword down-helps having four lungs, I suppose. Even so…’ he shook his head.
    Karsa shrugged. ‘The catfish were worse,’ he said. ‘I did not like the catfish.’
    ‘I suggest,’ Silgar called out, ‘we get some sleep. Come the dawn, we will discover what there is to discover of this place. For now, thank Mael that we are still alive.’
    ‘Forgive me,’ Torvald said, ‘but I’d rather give thanks to a stubborn Teblor warrior than to any sea god.’
    ‘Then your faith is sorely misplaced,’ the slavemaster sneered, turning away.
    Torvald slowly climbed upright. ‘Karsa,’ he murmured, ‘you should know that Mael’s chosen beast of the sea is the shark. I’ve no doubt at all that Silgar was indeed praying hard while we were out there.’
    ‘It does not matter,’ Karsa replied. He drew a deep breath of jungle-scented air, slowly released it. ‘I am on land, and I am free, and now I shall walk along this beach, and so taste something of this new land.’
    ‘I will join you, then, friend, for I believe the light I saw was to our right, slightly above this beach, and I would investigate.’
    ‘As you like, Torvald Nom.’
    They began walking along the strand.
    ‘Karsa, neither Silgar nor Damisk possesses a shred of decency. I, however, do. A small shred, granted, but one none the less. Thus: thank you.’
    ‘We have saved each other’s lives, Torvald Nom, and so I am pleased to call you friend, and to think of you as a warrior. Not a Teblor warrior, of course, but a warrior even so.’
    The Daru said nothing for a long time. They had moved well out of sight of Silgar and Damisk. The shelf of land to their right was rising in layers of pale stone, the wave-sculpted wall webbed with creepers from the thick growth clinging to the overhang. A break in the clouds overhead cast faint starlight down, reflecting on the virtually motionless water on their left. The sand underfoot was giving way to smooth, undulating stone.
    Torvald touched Karsa’s arm and stopped, pointing upslope. ‘There,’ he whispered.
    The Teblor softly grunted. A squat, misshapen tower rose above the tangle of brush. Vaguely square and sharply tapering to end at a flat roof, the tower hunched over the beach, a gnarled black mass. Three-quarters of the way up its seaward-facing side was a deeply inset triangular window. Dull yellow light outlined the shutter’s warped slats.
    A narrow footpath was visible winding down to the shore, and nearby-five paces beyond the high tide line-lay the collapsed remnants of a fisherboat, the sprung ribs of the hull jutting out to the sides wrapped in seaweed and limned in guano.
    ‘Shall we pay a visit?’ Torvald asked.
    ‘Yes,’ Karsa replied, walking towards the footpath.
    The Daru quickly moved up beside him. ‘No trophies, though, right?’
    Shrugging, the Teblor said, ‘That depends on how we are received.’
    ‘Strangers on a desolate beach, one of them a giant with a sword almost as tall as me. In the dead of night. Pounding on the door. If we’re met with open arms, Karsa, it will be a miracle. Worse yet, there’s not much likelihood of us sharing a common language-’
    ‘Too many words,’ Karsa cut in.
    They had reached the base of the tower. There was no entrance on the seaward side. The trail curved round to the other side, a well-trod path of limestone dust. Huge slabs of the yellow rock lay in heaps-many of them appearing to have been dragged in from other places and bearing chisel and cut marks. The tower itself was constructed of identical material, though its gnarled aspect remained a mystery until Karsa and Torvald drew closer.
    The Daru reached out and ran his fingers along one of the cornerstones. ‘This tower is nothing but fossils,’ he murmured.
    ‘What are fossils?’ Karsa asked, studying the strange shapes embedded in the stone.
    ‘Ancient life, turned to stone. I imagine scholars have an explanation for how such transformation occurred. Alas, my education was sporadic and, uh, poorly received. Look, this one-it’s a massive shell of some sort. And there, those look like vertebrae, from some snake-like beast…’
    ‘They are naught but carvings,’ Karsa asserted. A deep rumbling laugh made them swing round. The man standing at the bend in the path ten paces ahead was huge by lowlander standards, his skin so dark as to seem black. He wore no shirt, only a sleeveless vest of heavy mail stiffened by rust. His muscles were vast, devoid of fat, making his arms, shoulders and torso look like they had been fashioned of taut ropes. He wore a belted loincloth of some colourless material. A hat that seemed made of the torn remnant of a hood covered his head, but Karsa could see thick, grey-shot beard covering the lower half of the man’s face.
    No weapons were visible, not even a knife. His teeth flashed in a smile. ‘Screams from the sea, and now a pair of skulkers jabbering in Daru in my tower’s front yard.’ His head tilted upward slightly to regard Karsa for a moment. ‘At first I’d thought you a Fenn, but you’re no Fenn, are you?’
    ‘I am Teblor-’
    ‘Teblor! Well, lad, you’re a long way from home, aren’t you?’
    Torvald stepped forward. ‘Sir, your command of Daru is impressive, though I am certain I detect a Malazan accent. More, by your colour, I’d hazard you are Napan. Are we then on Quon Tali?’
    ‘You don’t know?’
    ‘Alas, sir, I am afraid not.’
    The man grunted, then turned back up the trail. ‘Carvings, ha!’ Torvald glanced back at Karsa, then, with a shrug, set off after the man.
    Karsa followed.

    The door was situated on the inland side. The path forked in front of it, one trail leading to the tower and the other to a raised road that ran parallel to the coastline, beyond which was a dark band of forest. The man pushed open the door and ducked inside. Both Torvald and Karsa had involuntarily paused at the fork, staring up at the enormous stone skull that formed the lintel above the low doorway. It was as long as the Teblor was tall, running the entire width of the wall. The rows of dagger-like teeth dwarfed even that of a grey bear.
    The man reappeared. ‘Aye, impressive, isn’t it? I’ve collected most of the bastard’s body, too-I should’ve guessed it would be bigger than I’d-’
    ‘Too many words,’ Karsa cut in. ‘This man wastes his life with stupid tasks. When I decide I am hungry, I will take food.’
    Though the Teblor was anticipating a violent reaction from Keeper, and though Karsa’s hand was close to the grip of his bloodsword, he was unable to avoid the blurred fist that lashed out, connecting with his lower ribs on his right side. Bones cracked. The air in his lungs exploded outward. Sagging, Karsa staggered back, incapable of drawing breath, a flood of pain darkening his vision.
    He had never been hit so hard in his life. Not even Bairoth Gild had managed to deliver such a blow. Even as consciousness slipped from him, he swung a look of astonished, unfeigned admiration on Keeper. Then he collapsed.
    When he awoke, sunlight was streaming through the open doorway. He found himself lying in the stone chips. The air was filled with mortar dust, descending from above. Groaning with the pain of cracked ribs, Karsa slowly sat up. He could hear voices from up near the tower’s ceiling.
    The bloodsword still hung from its straps on his back. The Teblor leaned against the stone leg bones of the skeleton as he climbed to his feet. Glancing up, he saw Torvald and Keeper, balanced in the wood framework directly beneath the ceiling, which had already been partly dismantled. The Daru looked down.
    ‘Karsa! I would invite you up but I suspect this scaffold wouldn’t manage your weight. We’ve made good progress in any case-’
    Keeper interrupted with, ‘It’ll take his weight. I winched up the entire spine and that weighs a lot more than a lone Teblor. Get up here, lad, we’re ready to start on the walls.’
    Karsa probed the vaguely fist-shaped bruise covering his lower ribs on his right side. It was painful to draw breath; he was unsure whether he would be able to climb, much less work. At the same time, he was reluctant to show weakness, particularly to that muscle-knotted Napan. Grimacing, he reached up to the nearest crossbeam.
    The climb was agonizing, torturously slow. High above, the two lowlanders watched in silence. By the time Karsa reached the walkway beneath the ceiling, dragging himself alongside Keeper and Torvald, he was sheathed in sweat.
    Keeper was staring at him. ‘Hood take me,’ he muttered, ‘I was surprised that you managed to stand at all, Teblor. I know that I broke ribs-damn’-he lifted a splinted, bandage-swathed hand-‘I broke bones of my own. It’s my temper, you see. It’s always been a problem. I don’t take insults too well. Best just sit there-we’ll manage.’
    Karsa sneered. ‘I am of the Uryd tribe. Think you that a lowlander’s tap concerns me?’ He straightened. The ceiling had been a single slab of limestone, slightly projecting beyond the walls. Its removal had involved chiselling away the mortar at the joins, then simply sliding it to one side until it toppled, crashing into pieces down at the foot of the tower. The mortar around the wall’s large, rough blocks had been cut away down to the edge of the scaffold. Karsa set his shoulder against one side and pushed.
    Both men snatched at the bloodsword’s straps as the Teblor toppled forward, a huge section of wall vanishing in front of him. A thunderous concussion from below shook the tower. There was a moment when it seemed that Karsa’s weight would drag all three of them over, then Keeper hooked a leg around a pole, grunting as the straps drew taut at the end of one arm. All hung in balance for a heartbeat, then the Napan slowly curled his arm, drawing Karsa back onto the platform.
    The Teblor could do nothing to help-he had come close to fainting when he had pushed the stones over, and pain roared through his skull. He slowly sank to his knees.
    Gasping, Torvald pulled his hands free of the straps, sat down on the warped boards with a thump.
    Keeper laughed. ‘Well, that was easy. Good enough, you’ve both earned breakfast.’
    Torvald coughed, then said to Karsa, ‘In case you were wondering, I went back down to the beach at dawn, to retrieve Silgar and Damisk. But they weren’t where we’d left them. I don’t think the slavemaster planned on travelling with us-he likely feared for his life in your company, Karsa, which you have to admit is not entirely unreasonable. I followed their tracks up onto the coast road. They had headed west, suggesting that Silgar knew more of where we are than he’d let on. Fifteen days to Ehrlitan, which is a major port. If they’d gone east, it would have been a month or more to the nearest city.’
    ‘You talk too much,’ Karsa said.
    ‘Aye,’ Keeper agreed, ‘he does. You two have had quite a journey-I now know more of it than I’d care to. No cause for worry, though, Teblor. I only believed half of it. Killing a shark, well, the ones that frequent this coast are the big ones, big enough to prove too much for the dhenrabi. All the small ones get eaten, you see. I’ve yet to see one offshore here that’s less than twice your height in length, Teblor. Splitting one’s head open with a single blow? With a wooden sword? In deep water? And what’s that other one? Catfish big enough to swallow a man whole? Hah, a good one.’
    Torvald stared at the Napan. ‘Both true. As true as a flooded world and a ship with headless Tiste Andu at the oars!’
    ‘Well, I believe all that, Torvald. But the shark and the catfish? Do you take me for a fool? Now, let’s climb down and cook up a meal. Let me get a harness on you, Teblor, in case you decide to go to sleep halfway down. We’ll follow.’
    The flatfish that Keeper cut up and threw into a broth of starchy tubers had been smoked and salted. By the time Karsa finished his two helpings he was desperately thirsty. Keeper directed them to a natural spring close to the tower, where both he and Torvald went to drink deep of the sweet water.
    The Daru then splashed his face and settled down with his back to a fallen palm tree. ‘I have been thinking, friend,’ he said.
    ‘You should do more of that, instead of talking, Torvald Nom.’
    ‘It’s a family curse. My father was even worse. Oddly enough, some lines of the Nom House are precisely opposite-you couldn’t get a word out of them even under torture. I have a cousin, an assassin-’
    ‘I thought you had been thinking.’
    ‘Oh, right. So I was. Ehrlitan. We should head there.’
    ‘Why? I saw nothing of value in any of the cities we travelled through on Genabackis. They stink, they’re too loud, and the lowlanders scurry about like cliff-mice.’
    ‘It’s a port, Karsa. A Malazan port. That means there are ships setting out from it, heading for Genabackis. Isn’t it time to go home, friend? We could work for our passage. Me, I’m ready to enter the embrace of my dear family, the long-lost child returned, wiser, almost reformed. As for you, I’d think your tribe would be, uh, delighted to have you back. You’ve knowledge now, and they are in dire need of that, unless you want what happened to the Sunyd to happen to the Uryd.’
    Karsa frowned at the Daru for a moment, then he looked away. ‘I shall indeed return to my people. One day. But Urugal guides my steps still-I can feel him. Secrets have power so long as they remain secret. Bairoth Gild’s words, to which I gave little thought at the time. But now, that has changed. I am changed, Torvald Nom. Mistrust has taken root in my soul, and when I find Urugal’s stone face in my mind, when I feel his will warring with my own, I feel my own weakness. Urugal’s power over me lies in what I do not know, in secrets-secrets my own god would keep from me. I have ceased fighting this war within my soul. Urugal guides me and I follow, for our journey is to truth.’
    Torvald studied the Teblor with lidded eyes. ‘You may not like what you find, Karsa.’
    ‘I suspect you are right, Torvald Nom.’
    The Daru stared for a moment longer, then he climbed to his feet and brushed sand from his ragged tunic. ‘Keeper has the opinion that it isn’t safe around you. He says it’s as if you’re dragging a thousand invisible chains behind you, and whatever’s on the ends of each one of them is filled with venom.’
    Karsa felt his blood grow cold within him.
    Torvald must have noted a change in the Teblor’s expression, for he raised both hands. ‘Wait! He only spoke in passing, it was nothing really, friend. He was simply telling me to be careful in your company-as if I didn’t already know that. You are Hood’s own lodestone-to your enemies, that is. In any case, Karsa, I’d advise you not to cross that man. Pound for pound he’s the strongest man I’ve ever met-and that includes you. Besides, while you’ve regained some of your old strength, you’ve a half-dozen broken ribs-’
    ‘Enough words, Torvald Nom. I do not intend to attack Keeper. His vision troubles me, that is all. For I have shared it, in my dreams. Now you understand why I must seek out the truth.’
    ‘Very well.’ Torvald lowered his hands, then sighed. ‘Still, I’d advise Ehrlitan. We need clothes and-’
    ‘Keeper spoke the truth when he said I am dangerous to be around, Torvald Nom. And that danger is likely to increase. I will join you on the journey to Ehrlitan. Then, I will see to it that you find a ship, so that you may return to your family. When this is done, we shall part ways. I shall, however, keep the truth of your friendship with me.’
    The Daru grinned. ‘It’s settled, then. Ehrlitan. Come, let us return to the tower, so we may give our thanks to Keeper for his hospitality.’
    They began making their way along the trail. ‘Rest assured,’ Torvald continued, ‘that I shall hold the truth of your friendship in me as well, though it’s a truth no-one else is likely to believe.’
    ‘Why is that?’ Karsa asked.
    ‘I was never very good at acquiring friends. Acquaintances, minions and the like-that was easy. But my big mouth-’
    ‘Sends potential friends fleeing. Yes, I understand. Clearly.’
    ‘Ah, now I see. You want to throw me on the first ship just to get away from me.’
    ‘There is that,’ Karsa replied.
    ‘In keeping with the pathetic state of my life, it makes sense all right.’
    After a moment, as they rounded a bend and came within sight of the tower, Karsa scowled and said, ‘Making light of words is still difficult-’
    ‘All that talk of friendship made for a momentary discomfort. You did well to slide away from it.’
    ‘No, for what I would say is this. On the ship, when I hung in chains from the mast, you were my only hold on this world. Without you and your endless words, Torvald Nom, the madness I had feigned would have become a madness in truth. I was a Teblor warleader. I was needed, but I myself did not need. I had followers, but not allies, and only now do I understand the difference. And it is vast. And from this, I have come to understand what it is to possess regrets. Bairoth Gild. Delum Thord. Even the Rathyd, whom I have greatly weakened. When I return on my old path, back into the lands of the Teblor, there are wounds that I shall need to mend. And so, when you say it is time to return to your family, Torvald Nom, I understand and my heart is gladdened.’
    Keeper was sitting on a three-legged stool outside the tower’s doorway. A large sack with shoulder-straps rested at his feet, along with two stoppered gourds glittering with condensation. He had in his unbandaged hand a small bag, which he tossed towards Torvald as the two men arrived.
    The bag jingled as the Daru caught it. Brows lifting, Torvald asked, ‘What-’
    ‘Silver jakatas, mostly,’ Keeper said. ‘Some local coin, too, but those are of very high denomination, so be careful of showing them. Ehrlitan’s cutpurses are legendary.’
    ‘Keeper-’
    The Napan waved a hand. ‘Listen, lad. When a man arranges his own death, he needs to plan ahead. A life of anonymity doesn’t come as cheap as you’d imagine. I emptied half of Aren’s treasury a day before my tragic drowning. Now, you might manage to kill me and try to find it, but it’d be hopeless. So thank me for my generosity and get on your way.’
    ‘One day,’ Karsa said, ‘I shall return here and repay you.’
    ‘For the coin or the broken ribs?’
    The Teblor simply smiled.
    Keeper laughed, then rose and ducked through the doorway. A moment later, they could hear him climbing the frame.
    Torvald collected the pack, drawing the straps over his shoulders, then handed one of the gourds to Karsa.
    They set off down the road.

CHAPTER FOUR

    ‘Has a drowned Napan’s body ever surfaced?’
    Empress Laseen to High Mage Tayschrenn
    (following the Disappearances)
    Life of Empress Laseen
Abelard

    There were villages on the coastal road, usually set on the inland side, as if the inhabitants sought nothing from the sea. A scattering of adobe dwellings, flimsy corrals, goats, dogs and dark-skinned figures hidden within swaths of full-length, sun-bleached cloth. Shadowed faces tracked the Teblor and the Daru from doorways but otherwise made no move.
    On the fourth day, in the fifth of such villages, they found a merchant’s wagon drawn up in the virtually empty market square, and Torvald managed to purchase, for a handful of silver, an antique sword, top-heavy and sharply curved. The merchant had bolts of cloth for sale as well, but nothing already made into clothing. The sword’s handle fell apart shortly afterwards.
    ‘I need to find a wood-carver,’ Torvald said after a lengthy and rather elaborate string of curses. They were once more walking down the road, the sun overhead fiercely hot in a cloudless sky. The forest had thinned to either side, low, straggly and dusty, allowing them a view of the turquoise water of the Otataral Sea to their right, and the dun tones of the undulating horizon inland. ‘And I’d swear that merchant understood Malazan-even as bad as I speak it. He just wouldn’t admit to that fact.’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘The Malazan soldiers in Genabaris said the Seven Cities was going to rebel against their occupiers. This is why the Teblor do not make conquests. Better that the enemy keeps its land, so that we may raid again and again.’
    ‘Not the imperial way,’ the Daru responded, shaking his head. ‘Possession and control, the two are like insatiable hungers for some people. Oh, no doubt the Malazans have thought up countless justifications for their wars of expansion. It’s well known that Seven Cities was a rat’s warren of feuds and civil wars, leaving most of the population suffering and miserable and starving under the heels of fat warlords and corrupt priest-kings. And that, with the Malazan conquest, the thugs ended up spiked to the city walls or on the run. And the wilder tribes no longer sweep down out of the hills to deliver mayhem on their more civilized kin. And the tyranny of the priesthoods was shattered, putting an end to human sacrifice and extortion. And of course the merchants have never been richer, or safer on these roads. So, all in all, this land is rife for rebellion.’
    Karsa stared at Torvald for a long moment, then said, ‘Yes, I can see how that would be true.’
    The Daru grinned. ‘You’re learning, friend.’
    ‘The lessons of civilization.’
    ‘Just so. There’s little value in seeking to find reasons for why people do what they do, or feel the way they feel. Hatred is a most pernicious weed, finding root in any kind of soil. It feeds on itself.’
    ‘With words.’
    ‘Indeed, with words. Form an opinion, say it often enough and pretty soon everyone’s saying it right back at you, and then it becomes a conviction, fed by unreasoning anger and defended with weapons of fear. At which point, words become useless and you’re left with a fight to the death.’
    Karsa grunted. ‘A fight beyond death, I would say.’
    ‘True enough. Generation after generation.’
    ‘Are all the people of Darujhistan like you, Torvald Nom?’
    ‘More or less. Contentious bastards. We thrive on argument, meaning we never go past the stage of using words. We love words, Karsa, as much as you love cutting off heads and collecting ears and tongues. Walk down any street, in any district, and everyone you speak to will have a different opinion, no matter what the subject. Even the possibility of being conquered by the Malazans. I was thinking a moment ago-that shark, choking on Borrug’s body. I suspect, should Darujhistan ever become part of the Malazan Empire, the empire will be like that shark, and Darujhistan like Borrug. We’ll choke the beast that swallows us.’
    ‘The shark did not choke for very long.’
    ‘That’s because Borrug was too dead to say anything about it.’
    ‘An interesting distinction, Torvald Nom.’
    ‘Well of course. Us Daru are a subtle folk.’
    They were approaching another village, this one distinct from the others they had walked through for having a low stone wall encircling it. Three large limestone buildings rose from its centre. Nearby was a pen crowded with goats, loudly complaining in the heat.
    ‘You’d think they’d be out wandering,’ Torvald commented as they came closer.
    ‘Unless they are about to be slaughtered.’
    ‘All of them?’
    Karsa sniffed the air. ‘I smell horses.’
    ‘I don’t see any.’
    The road narrowed at the wall, spanning a trench before passing through a crumbling, leaning arch. Karsa and Torvald crossed the bridge and passed under the arch, emerging onto the village’s main street.
    There was no-one in sight. Not entirely unusual, as the locals usually retreated into their homes at the Teblor’s arrival, although in this case the doors of those dwellings were firmly shut, the windows shuttered.
    Karsa drew his bloodsword. ‘We have walked into an ambush,’ he said.
    Torvald sighed. ‘I think you are right.’ He had wrapped his sword’s tang in spare leather strapping taken from the pack-a temporary and not entirely successful effort to make the weapon useful. The Daru now slid the scimitar from its cracked wooden scabbard.
    At the far end of the street, beyond the large buildings, horsemen now appeared. A dozen, then two, then three. They were covered from head to toe in loose, dark blue clothing, their faces hidden behind scarves. Short, recurved bows, arrows nocked, were trained on Karsa and Torvald.
    Horse hoofs from behind made them turn, to see a score more riders coming through the archway, some with bows, others with lances.
    Karsa scowled. ‘How effective are those tiny bows?’ he asked the Daru beside him.
    ‘Sufficient to punch arrows through chain,’ Torvald replied, lowering his sword. ‘And we’re wearing no armour in any case.’
    A year ago and Karsa would have attacked none the less. Now, he simply reslung his bloodsword.
    The riders behind them closed, then dismounted. A number approached with chains and shackles.
    ‘Beru fend,’ Torvald muttered, ‘not again.’
    Karsa shrugged.
    Neither resisted as the shackles were fitted onto their wrists and ankles. There was some difficulty in dealing with the Teblor in this matter-when the shackles clicked into place, they were so tight as to cut off the blood flow to Karsa’s hands and feet.
    Torvald, watching, said in Malazan, ‘Those will need to be changed, lest he lose his appendages-’
    ‘Hardly a consideration,’ said a familiar voice from the entrance to one of the larger buildings. Silgar, trailed by Damisk, emerged onto the dusty street. ‘You will indeed lose your hands and feet, Karsa Orlong, which should effectively put an end to the threat you pose. Of course, that will do much to diminish your value as a slave, but I am prepared to accept the loss.’
    ‘Is this how you repay saving your miserable lives?’ Torvald demanded.
    ‘Why, yes, it is. Repayment. For the loss of most of my men. For the arrest by the Malazans. For countless other outrages which I won’t bother listing, since these dear Arak tribesmen are rather far from home, and, given that they’re somewhat less than welcome in this territory, they are impatient to depart.’
    Karsa could no longer feel his hands and feet. As one of the Arak tribesmen pushed him forward he stumbled, then fell to his knees. A thick knout cracked into the side of his head. Sudden rage gripped the Teblor. He lashed out his right arm, ripping the chain from an Arak’s hands, and swung it full into the face of his attacker. The man screamed.
    The others closed in then, wielding their knouts-clubs made from black, braided hair-until Karsa fell senseless to the ground.
    When he finally regained consciousness, it was dusk. He had been tied to some sort of travois, which was in the process of being unhitched from a train of long-legged, lean horses. Karsa’s face was a mass of bruises, his eyes almost swollen shut, his tongue and the inside of his mouth cut and nicked by his own teeth. He looked down at his hands. They were blue, the fingertips darkening to black. They were dead weights at the ends of his limbs, as were his feet.
    The tribesmen were making camp a short distance from the coastal road. To the west, at the horizon’s very edge, was the dull yellow glow of a city.
    A half-dozen small, virtually smokeless fires had been lit by the Arak, using some sort of dung for fuel. Karsa saw, twenty paces distant, the slavemaster and Damisk seated among a group of the tribesmen. The hearth closest to the Teblor was being used to cook suspended skewers of tubers and meat.
    Torvald sat nearby, working on something in the gloom. None of the Arak seemed to be paying the two slaves any attention.
    Karsa hissed.
    The Daru glanced over. ‘Don’t know about you,’ he whispered, ‘but I’m damned hot. Got to get out of these clothes. I’m sure you are as well. I’ll come over and help you in a moment.’ There was the faint sound of ripping seams. ‘At last,’ Torvald murmured, dragging his tunic free. Naked, he began edging closer to Karsa. ‘Don’t bother trying to say anything, friend. I’m surprised you can even breathe, with the way they beat you. In any case, I need your clothes.’
    He came up alongside the Teblor, spared a glance towards the tribesmen-none of whom had noticed him-then reached up and began tugging at Karsa’s tunic. There was but a single seam, and it had already been stretched and sundered in places. As he worked, Torvald continued whispering. ‘Small fires. Smokeless. Camping in a basin, despite the insects. Talking in mumbles, very quiet. And Silgar’s words earlier, that stupid gloat-had the Arak understood him they would probably have skinned the idiot on the spot. Well, from his stupidity was born my brilliance, as you’ll soon see. It’ll likely cost me my life, but I swear I’ll be here even as a ghost, just to see what comes. Ah, done. Stop shivering, you’re not helping things at all.’
    He pulled the tattered tunic from Karsa, then took it with him back to his original position. He then tore handfuls of grasses from the ground, until he had two large piles. Bundling both pieces of tunic, he then stuffed them with the grass. Flashing Karsa a grin, he crawled over to the nearest hearth, bundles in tow.
    He pushed them up against the glowing fragments of dung, then retreated.
    Karsa watched as first one caught fire, then the other. Flames flared into the night, a roar of sparks and snake-like blades of grass lifting high. Shouts from the Arak, figures rushing over, scrambling for handfuls of earth, but there was little of that in the basin, only pebbles and hard, sun-dried clay. Horse-blankets were found, thrown over the roaring flames.
    The panic that then swept through the tribesmen left the two slaves virtually ignored, as the Arak rushed to break camp, repack supplies, saddle their horses. Through it all, Karsa heard a single word repeated numerous times, a word filled with fear. Gral.
    Silgar appeared as the Arak gathered their horses. His face was filled with fury. ‘For that, Torvald Nom, you have just forfeited your life-’
    ‘You won’t make it to Ehrlitan,’ the Daru predicted with a hard grin.
    Three tribesmen were approaching, hook-bladed knives in their hands.
    ‘I will enjoy watching your throat cut,’ Silgar said.
    ‘The Gral have been after these bastards all this time, Slavemaster. Hadn’t you realized that? Now, I’ve never heard of the Gral, but your Arak friends have one and all pissed onto their hearths, and even a Daru like me knows what that means-they don’t expect to live through the night, and not one of them wants to spill his bladder when he dies. Seven Cities taboo, I gather-’
    The first Arak reached Torvald, one hand snapping out to take the Daru by the hair, pushing Torvald’s head back and lifting the knife.
    The ridgeline behind the Arak was suddenly swarming with dark figures, silently sweeping down into the camp.
    The night was broken by screams.
    The Arak crouched before Torvald snarled and tore the knife across the Daru’s throat. Blood spattered the hard clay. Straightening, the tribesman wheeled to run for his horse. He managed not a single step, for a half-dozen shapes came out of the darkness, silent as wraiths. There was a strange whipping sound, and Karsa saw the Arak’s head roll from his shoulders. His two companions were both down.
    Silgar was already fleeing. As a figure rose before him, he lashed out. A wave of sorcery struck the attacker, dropped the man to the ground, where he writhed in the grip of crackling magic for a moment, before his flesh exploded.
    Ululating cries pealed through the air. The same whipping sound sang in the darkness from all sides. Horses screamed.
    Karsa dragged his gaze from the scene of slaughter and looked over at Torvald’s slumped body. To his amazement, the Daru was still moving, feet kicking furrows in the pebbles, both hands up at his throat.
    Silgar returned to Karsa’s position, his lean face gleaming with sweat. Damisk appeared behind him and the slavemaster gestured the tattooed guard forward.
    Damisk held a knife. He quickly cut at the bindings holding Karsa to the travois. ‘No easy out for you,’ he hissed. ‘We’re leaving. By warren, and we’re taking you with us. Silgar’s decided to make you his plaything. A lifetime of torture-’
    ‘Enough babbling!’ Silgar snapped. ‘They’re almost all dead! Hurry!’
    Damisk cut the last rope.
    Karsa laughed, then managed to form words. ‘What would you have me do now? Run?’
    Snarling, Silgar moved closer. There was a flare of blue light, then the three of them were plunging into fetid, warm water.
    Unable to swim, the weight of his chains dragging him down, Karsa sank into the midnight depths. He felt a tug on his chains, then saw a second flash of lurid light.
    His head, then his back, struck hard cobbles. Dazed, he rolled onto his side. Silgar and Damisk, both coughing, knelt nearby. They were on a street, flanked on one side by enormous warehouses, and on the other by stone jetties and moored ships. At the moment, there was no-one else in sight.
    Silgar spat, then said, ‘Damisk, get those shackles off him-he bears no criminal brand, so the Malazans won’t see him as a slave. I won’t be arrested again-not after all this. The bastard is ours, but we’ve got to get him off the street. We’ve got to hide.’
    Karsa watched Damisk crawl to his side, fumbling with keys. Watched as the Nathii unlocked the shackles on his wrists, then his ankles. A moment later, the pain struck as blood flowed back into near-dead flesh. The Teblor screamed.
    Silgar unleashed magic once more, a wave that descended on the Teblor like a blanket-that he tore off with unthinking ease, his shrieks slicing into the night air, echoing back from nearby buildings, ringing out across the crowded harbour.
    ‘You there!’ Malazan words, a bellow, then the swiftly approaching clash and clatter of armoured soldiers.
    ‘An escaped slave, sirs!’ Silgar said hastily. ‘We have-as you can see-just recaptured him-’
    ‘Escaped slave? Let’s see his brand-’
    The last words Karsa registered, as the pain in his hands and feet sent him plummeting into oblivion.
    He awoke to Malazan words being spoken directly above him. ‘… extraordinary. I’ve never seen natural healing such as this. His hands and feet-those shackles were on for some time, Sergeant. On a normal man I’d be cutting them off right now.’
    Another voice spoke, ‘Are all Fenn such as this one?’
    ‘Not that I’ve ever heard. Assuming he’s Fenn.’
    ‘Well, what else would he be? He’s as tall as two Dal Honese put together.’
    ‘I wouldn’t know, Sergeant. Before I was posted here, the only place I knew well was six twisting streets in Li Heng. Even the Fenn was just a name and some vague description about them being giants. Giants no-one’s seen for decades at that. The point is, this slave was in bad shape when you first brought him in. Beaten pretty fierce, and someone punched him in the ribs hard enough to crack bones-wouldn’t want to cross whoever that was. For all that, the swelling’s already down on his face-despite what I’ve just done to it-and the bruises are damned near fading in front of our eyes.’
    Continuing to feign unconsciousness, Karsa listened to the speaker stepping back, then the sergeant asking, ‘So the bastard’s not in danger of dying, then.’
    ‘Not that I can see.’
    ‘Good enough, Healer. You can return to the barracks.’
    ‘Aye, sir.’
    Various movement, boots on flagstones, the clang of an iron-barred door; then, as these echoes dwindled, the Teblor heard, closer by, the sound of breathing.
    In the distance there was some shouting, faint and muted by intervening walls of stone, yet Karsa thought he recognized the voice as belonging to the slavemaster, Silgar. The Teblor opened his eyes. A low, smoke-stained ceiling-not high enough to permit him to stand upright. He was lying on a straw-littered, greasy floor. There was virtually no light, apart from a dim glow reaching in from the walkway beyond the barred door.
    His face hurt, a strange stinging sensation prickling on his cheeks, forehead and along his jaw.
    Karsa sat up.
    There was someone else in the small, windowless cell, hunched in a dark corner. The figure grunted and said something in one of the languages of the Seven Cities.
    A dull ache remained in Karsa’s hands and feet. The inside of his mouth was dry and felt burnt, as if he’d just swallowed hot sand. He rubbed at his tingling face.
    A moment later the man tried Malazan, ‘You’d likely understand me if you were Fenn.’
    ‘I understand you, but I am not one of these Fenn.’
    ‘I said it sounds like your master isn’t enjoying his stay in the stocks.’
    ‘He has been arrested?’
    ‘Of course. The Malazans like arresting people. You’d no brand. At the time. Keeping you as a slave is therefore illegal under imperial law.’
    ‘Then they should release me.’
    ‘Little chance of that. Your master confessed that you were being sent to the otataral mines. You were on a ship out of Genabaris that you’d cursed, said curse then leading to the ship’s destruction and the deaths of the crew and the marines. The local garrison is only half-convinced by that tale, but that’s sufficient-you’re on your way to the island. As am I.’
    Karsa rose. The low ceiling forced him to stand hunched over. He made his way, hobbling, to the barred door.
    ‘Aye, you could probably batter it down,’ the stranger said. ‘But then you’ll be cut down before you manage three steps from this gaol. We’re in the middle of the Malazan compound. Besides, we’re about to be taken outside in any case, to join the prisoners’ line chained to a wall. In the morning, they’ll march us down to the imperial jetty and load us onto a transport.’
    ‘How long have I been unconscious?’
    ‘The night you were carried in, the day after, the next night. It’s now midday.’
    ‘And the slavemaster has been in the stocks all this time?’
    ‘Most of it.’
    ‘Good,’ Karsa growled. ‘What of his companion? The same?’
    ‘The same.’
    ‘And what crime have you committed?’ Karsa asked.
    ‘I consort with dissidents. Of course,’ he added, ‘I am innocent.’
    ‘Can you not prove that?’
    ‘Prove what?’
    ‘Your innocence.’
    ‘I could if I was.’
    The Teblor glanced back at the figure crouched in the corner. ‘Are you, by any chance, from Darujhistan?’
    ‘Darujhistan? No, why do you ask?’
    Karsa shrugged. He thought back to Torvald Nom’s death. There was a coldness surrounding the memory, but he could sense all that it held at bay. The time for surrender, however, was not now.
    The barred door was set in an iron frame, the frame fixed to the stone blocks with large iron bolts. The Teblor gave it a shake. Dust sifted out from around the bolts, pattered onto the floor.
    ‘I see you’re a man who ignores advice,’ the stranger observed.
    ‘These Malazans are careless.’
    ‘Overconfident, I’d suggest. Then again, perhaps not. They’ve had dealings with Fenn, with Trell, Barghast-a whole host of oversized barbarians. They’re tough, and sharper than they let on. They put an otataral anklet on that slavemaster-no magic from him any more-’
    Karsa turned. ‘What is this “otataral” everyone speaks of?’
    ‘A bane to magic.’
    ‘And it must be mined.’
    ‘Yes. It’s usually a powder, found in layers, like sandstone. Resembles rust.’
    ‘We scrape a red powder from cliffsides to make our blood-oil,’ the Teblor murmured.
    ‘What is blood-oil?’
    ‘We rub it into our swords, and into our armour. To bring on battle madness, we taste it.’
    The stranger was silent for a moment, though Karsa could feel the man’s eyes on him. ‘And how well does magic work against you?’
    ‘Those who attack me with sorcery usually reveal surprise on their faces… just before I kill them.’
    ‘Well now, that is interesting. It is believed that otataral is only found on the single large island east of here. The empire controls its production. Tightly. Their mages learned the hard way during the conquest, in the battles before the T’lan Imass got involved. If not for the T’lan Imass, the invasion would have failed. I have some more advice for you. Reveal nothing of this to the Malazans. If they discover there is another source of otataral, a source they do not control, well, they will send into your homeland-wherever that is-every regiment they possess. They will crush your people. Utterly.’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘The Teblor have many enemies.’
    The stranger slowly sat straighten ‘Teblor? That is what you call yourselves? Teblor?’ After a moment, he leaned back again, and softly laughed.
    ‘What do you find so amusing?’
    An outer door clanged open, and Karsa stepped back from the barred door as a squad of soldiers appeared. The three at the front had unsheathed their swords, while the four behind them held large, cocked crossbows. One of the swordsmen stepped up to the door. He paused upon seeing Karsa. ‘Careful,’ he called to his companions, ‘the savage has awakened.’ He studied the Teblor and said, ‘Do nothing stupid, Fenn. It matters nothing to us whether you live or die-the mines are crowded enough for them not to miss you. Understand me?’
    Karsa bared his teeth, said nothing.
    ‘You there, in the corner, on your feet. It’s time for some sunshine.’
    The stranger slowly straightened. He was wearing little more than rags. Lean and dark-skinned, his eyes were a startling light blue. ‘I demand a proper trial, as is my right under imperial law.’
    The guardsman laughed. ‘Give it up. You’ve been identified. We know precisely who you are. Aye, your secret organization is not as seamless as you might think. Betrayed by one of your own-how does that feel? Let’s go, you come out first. Jibb, you and Gullstream keep your crossbows on that Fenn-I don’t like his smile. Especially now,’ he added.
    ‘Oh look,’ another soldier said, ‘you’ve confused the poor ox. Bet he doesn’t even know his entire face is one big tattoo. Scrawl did good work, though. Best I’ve seen in a long while.’
    ‘Right,’ another drawled, ‘and how many escaped prisoner tattoos have you seen, Jibb?’
    ‘Just one, and it’s a work of art.’
    The source of the stinging sensation on Karsa’s face was revealed now. He reached up, seeking to feel something of the pattern, and slowly began tracing lines of slightly raised, damp strips of raw skin. They were not contiguous. He could make no sense of what the tattoo portrayed.
    ‘Shattered,’ the other prisoner said as he walked over to the door, which the first guard unlocked and swung open. ‘The brand makes your face look like it’s been shattered.’
    Two guards escorted the man outside, whilst the others, nervously eyeing Karsa, waited for their return. One of the crossbowmen, whose high forehead revealed white blotches-leading the Teblor to speculate that he was the one named Gullstream-leaned back against the opposite wall and said, ‘I don’t know, I’m thinking Scrawl made it too big-he was ugly enough to start with, now he looks damned terrifying.’
    ‘So what?’ another guard drawled. ‘There’s plenty of hill-grubbing savages that carve up their own faces to frighten weak-kneed recruits like you, Gullstream. Barghast and Semk and Khundryl, but they all break against a Malazan legion just the same.’
    ‘Well, ain’t none of them being routed these days, though, are they?’
    ‘That’s only because the Fist’s cowering in his keep and wants us all to put ’im to bed every night. Nobleborn officers-what do you expect?’
    ‘Might change when the reinforcements arrive,’ Gullstream suggested. ‘The Ashok Regiment knows these parts-’
    ‘And that’s the problem,’ the other retorted. ‘If this rebellion actually happens this time, who’s to say they won’t turn renegade? We could get smilin’ throats in our own barracks. It’s bad enough with the Red Blades stirrin’ things up in the streets…’
    The guards returned.
    ‘You, Fenn, now it’s your turn. Make it easy for us and it’ll be easy for you. Walk. Slow. Not too close. And trust me, the mines ain’t so bad, considering the alternatives. All right, come forward now.’
    Karsa saw no reason to give them trouble.
    They emerged onto a sunlit compound. Thick, high walls surrounded the broad parade ground. A number of squat, solid-looking buildings projected out from three of the four walls; along the fourth wall there was a line of prisoners shackled to a heavy chain that ran its entire length, bolted to the foundation stones at regular intervals. Near the heavily fortified gate was a row of stocks, of which only two were occupied-Silgar and Damisk. On the slavemaster’s right ankle there glinted a copper-coloured ring.
    Neither man had lifted his head at Karsa’s appearance, and the Teblor considered shouting to attract their attention; instead, he simply bared his teeth at seeing their plight. As the guards escorted him to the line of chained prisoners, Karsa turned to the one named Jibb and spoke in Malazan. ‘What will be the slavemaster’s fate?’
    The man’s helmed head jerked up in surprise. Then he shrugged. ‘Ain’t been decided yet. He claims to be rich back in Genabackis.’
    Karsa sneered. ‘He can buy his way out from his crimes, then.’
    ‘Not under imperial law-if they’re serious crimes, that is. Might be he’ll just be fined. He may be a merchant who deals in flesh, but he’s still a merchant. Always best to bleed ’em where it hurts most.’
    ‘Enough jawing, Jibb,’ another guard growled.
    They approached one end of the line, where oversized shackles had been attached. Once more, Karsa found himself in irons, though these were not tight enough to cause him pain. The Teblor noted that he was beside the blue-eyed native.
    The squad checked the fittings one more time, then marched away.
    There was no shade, though buckets of well-water had been positioned at intervals down the line. Karsa remained standing for a time, then finally settled down to sit with his back against the wall, matching the position of most of the other prisoners. There was little in the way of conversation as the day slowly dragged on. Towards late afternoon shade finally reached them, though the relief was momentary, as biting flies soon descended.
    As the sky darkened overhead, the blue-eyed native stirred, then said in a low voice, ‘Giant, I have a proposal for you.’
    Karsa grunted. ‘What?’
    ‘It’s said that the mining camps are corrupt, meaning one can carve out favours-make life easier. The kind of place where it pays to have someone guarding your back. I suggest a partnership.’
    Karsa thought about it, then he nodded. ‘Agreed. But if you attempt to betray me, I will kill you.’
    ‘I could see no other answer to betrayal,’ the man said.
    ‘I am done talking,’ Karsa said.
    ‘Good, so am I.’
    He thought to ask the man’s name, but there would be time enough for that later. For now, he was content to stretch the silence, to give space for his thoughts. It seemed Urugal was willing him to these otataral mines after all. Karsa would have preferred a more direct-a simpler-journey, such as the one the Malazans had originally intended. Too many blood-soaked digressions, Urugal. Enough.
    Night arrived. A pair of soldiers appeared with lanterns and sauntered down the line of prisoners, checking the fetters one more time, before heading off to the barracks. From where he slumped, Karsa could see a handful of soldiers stationed at the gate, whilst at least one patrolled the walkway along each wall. Two more stood outside the steps of the headquarters.
    The Teblor settled his head against the stone wall and closed his eyes.
    Some time later he opened them again. He had slept. The sky was overcast, the compound a mottled pattern of light and darkness. Something had awoken him. He made to stand but a hand stayed him. He looked over to see the native huddled motionless beside him-head lowered as if still asleep. The hand on the Teblor’s arm tightened a moment, then withdrew.
    Frowning, Karsa settled back. And then he saw.
    The guards at the gate were gone, as were those outside the headquarters. Along the wall walkways… no-one.
    Then, alongside a nearby building-movement, a figure sliding through shadows in silence, followed by another, padding along with far less stealth, one gloved hand reaching up to steady itself every now and then.
    The two were making directly for Karsa.
    Swathed in black cloth, the lead figure halted a few paces from the wall. The other moved up alongside it, then edged past. Hands lifted, slipped back a black hood-
    Torvald Nom.
    Bloodstained bandages encircling his neck, the face above it deathly pale and gleaming with sweat, but the Daru was grinning.
    He drew up to Karsa’s side. ‘Time to go, friend,’ he whispered, raising something that looked very much like a shackle key.
    ‘Who is with you?’ Karsa whispered back.
    ‘Oh, a motley collection indeed. Gral tribesmen here doing the sneaky work, and agents from their main trading partner here in Ehrlitan…’ His eyes glittered. ‘The House of Nom, no less. Oh, aye, the thread of blood between us is thin as a virgin’s hair, but it is being honoured none the less. Indeed, with delighted vigour. Now, enough words-as you are wont to say-we don’t want to wake anyone else-’
    ‘Too late,’ murmured the man chained beside Karsa.
    The Gral behind Torvald moved forward, but halted at a strange, elaborate series of gestures from the prisoner.
    Torvald grunted. ‘That damned silent language.’
    ‘It is agreed,’ the prisoner said. ‘I will be going with you.’
    ‘And if you wasn’t, you’d be sounding the alarm.’
    The man said nothing.
    After a moment, Torvald shrugged. ‘So be it. All this talk and I’m surprised everyone else in this line isn’t awake-’
    ‘They would be, only they’re all dead.’ The prisoner beside Karsa slowly straightened. ‘No-one likes criminals. Gral have a particular hatred for them, it seems.’
    A second tribesman, who had been moving along the line, reached them. A large, curved knife was in one hand, slick with blood. More hand gestures, then the newcomer sheathed his weapon.
    Muttering under his breath, Torvald crouched to unlock Karsa’s shackles.
    ‘You are as hard to kill as a Teblor,’ Karsa murmured.
    ‘Thank Hood that Arak was distracted at the time. Even so, if not for the Gral, I’d have bled to death.’
    ‘Why did they save you?’
    ‘The Gral like to ransom people. Of course, if they turn out worthless, they kill them. The trading partnership with the House of Nom took precedence over all that, of course.’
    Torvald moved on to the other prisoner.
    Karsa stood, rubbing his wrists. ‘What kind of trade?’
    The Daru flashed a grin. ‘Brokering the ransoms.’
    Moments later they were moving through the darkness towards the front gate, skirting the patches of light. Near the gatehouse a half-dozen bodies had been dragged up against the wall. The ground was soaked black with blood.
    Three more Gral joined them. One by one, the group slipped through the gateway and into the street beyond. They crossed to an alley and made their way down to the far end, where they halted.
    Torvald laid a hand on Karsa’s arm. ‘Friend, where would you go now? My own return to Genabackis will be delayed awhile. My kin here have embraced me with open arms-a unique experience for me, and I plan on savouring it. Alas, the Gral won’t take you-you’re too recognizable.’
    ‘He will come with me,’ the blue-eyed native said. ‘To a place of safety.’
    Torvald looked up at Karsa, brows rising.
    The Teblor shrugged. ‘It is clear that I cannot be hidden in this city; nor will I further endanger you or your kin, Torvald Nom. If this man proves unworthy I need only kill him.’
    ‘How long until the compound guards are changed?’ the blue-eyed man asked.
    ‘A bell at least, so you will have plenty-’
    Sudden alarms shattered the night, from the direction of the Malazan garrison.
    The Gral seemed to vanish before Karsa’s eyes, so quickly did they scatter. ‘Torvald Nom, for all you have done for me, I thank you-’
    The Daru scurried over to a pile of rubbish in the alley. He swept it aside, then lifted into view Karsa’s bloodsword. ‘Here, friend.’ He tossed the sword into the Teblor’s hands. ‘Come to Darujhistan in a few years’ time.’
    A final wave, then the Daru was gone.
    The blue-eyed man-who had collected a sword from one of the dead guards-now gestured. ‘Stay close. There are ways out of Ehrlitan the Malazans know nothing of. Follow, and quietly.’ He set off. Karsa slipped into his wake.
    Their route twisted through the lower city, down countless alleys, some so narrow that the Teblor was forced to sidle sideways along their crooked lengths. Karsa had thought that his guide would lead them towards the docks, or perhaps the outer walls facing onto the wasteland to the south. Instead, they climbed towards the single massive hill at Ehrlitan’s heart, and before long were moving through the rubble of countless collapsed buildings.
    They arrived at the battered base of a tower, the native not hesitating as he ducked in through the gaping, dark doorway. Following, Karsa found himself in a cramped chamber, its floor uneven with heaved flagstones. A second portal was barely visible opposite the entrance, and at its threshold the man paused. ‘Mebra!’ he hissed.
    There was movement, then: ‘Is it you? Dryjhna bless us, I had heard that you had been captured-ah, the alarms down below… well done-’
    ‘Enough of that. Do the provisions remain in the tunnels?’
    ‘Of course! Always. Including your own cache-’
    ‘Good, now move aside. I’ve someone with me.’
    Beyond the portal was a rough series of stone steps, descending into even deeper darkness. Karsa sensed the man Mebra’s presence as he edged past, heard his sharp intake of breath.
    The blue-eyed man below the Teblor halted suddenly. ‘Oh, and Mebra, tell no-one you have seen us-not even your fellow servants to the cause. Understand?’
    ‘Of course.’
    The two fugitives continued on, leaving Mebra behind. The stairs continued down, until Karsa had begun to think that they were approaching the bowels of the earth. When it finally levelled out, the air was heavy with damp, smelling of salt, and the stones underfoot were wet and streaked in slime. At the tunnel’s mouth a number of niches had been carved into the limestone walls, each one holding leather packs and travel gear.
    Karsa watched as his companion strode quickly to one niche in particular. After a moment’s examination, he dropped the Malazan sword he had been carrying and drew forth a pair of objects that moved with the sound of rustling chain.
    ‘Take that food-pack,’ the man instructed, nodding towards a nearby niche. ‘And you will find a telaba or two-clothes-and weapon-belts and harnesses-leave the lanterns, the tunnel ahead is long but has no branches.’
    ‘Where does it lead?’
    ‘Out,’ the man replied.
    Karsa fell silent. He disliked the extent to which his life was in this native’s hands, but it seemed that, for the time being, there was nothing he could do about it. Seven Cities was a stranger place than even the Genabackan cities of Malyntaeas and Genabaris. The lowlanders filled this world like vermin-more tribes than the Teblor had thought possible, and it was clear that none liked each other. While that was a sentiment Karsa well understood-for tribes should dislike each other-it was also obvious that, among the lowlanders, there was no sense of any other sort of loyalty. Karsa was Uryd, but he was also Teblor. The lowlanders seemed so obsessed with their differences that they had no comprehension of what unified them.
    A flaw that could be exploited.
    The pace set by Karsa’s guide was fierce, and though most of the damage done to the Teblor was well along in healing, his reserves of strength and stamina were not what they had once been. After a time, the distance between the two began to lengthen, and eventually Karsa found himself travelling alone through the impenetrable darkness, one hand on the rough-hewn wall to his right, hearing only the sounds of his own passage. The air was no longer damp, and he could taste dust in his mouth.
    The wall suddenly vanished under his hand. Karsa stumbled, drew to a halt.
    ‘You did well,’ the native said from somewhere on the Teblor’s left. ‘Running hunched over as you had to be… not an easy task. Look up.’
    He did, and slowly straightened. There were stars overhead.
    ‘We’re in a gully,’ the man continued. ‘It will be dawn before we climb out of it. Then it’s five, maybe six days across the Pan’potsun Odhan. The Malazans will be after us, of course, so we will have to be careful. Rest awhile. Drink some water-the sun is a demon and will steal your life if it can. Our route will take us from one place of water to the next, so we need not suffer.’
    ‘You know this land,’ Karsa said. ‘I do not.’ He raised his sword. ‘But know this, I will not be taken prisoner again.’
    ‘That’s the spirit,’ the lowlander replied.
    ‘That is not what I meant.’
    The man laughed. ‘I know. If you so wish it, once we are clear of this gully you may go in any direction you like. What I have offered you is the best chance of surviving. There is more than recapture by the Malazans to worry about in this land. Travel with me, and you shall learn how to survive. But as I said, the choice is yours. Now, shall we proceed?’

    Dawn arrived to the world above before the two fugitives reached the end of the gully. While they could see bright blue sky overhead, they continued walking through chill shadows. The means of exit was marked by a tumbled scree of boulders where a past flood had undercut one wall sufficiently to trigger a collapse.
    Clambering up the slope, they emerged onto a heat-blasted land of weathered crags, sand-filled riverbeds, cacti and thorny bushes, the sun blindingly bright, making the air shimmer in all directions. There was no-one in sight, nor was there any sign that the area was inhabited by anything other than wild creatures.
    The lowlander led Karsa southwestward, their route circuitous, making use of every form of cover available and avoiding ridges or hilltops that would set them against the sky. Neither spoke, saving their breath in the enervating heat as the day stretched on.
    Late in the afternoon, the lowlander halted suddenly and turned. He hissed a curse in his native language, then said, ‘Horsemen.’
    Karsa swung round, but could see no-one in the desolate landscape behind them.
    ‘Feel them underfoot,’ the man muttered. ‘So, Mebra has turned. Well, one day I will answer that betrayal.’
    And now Karsa could sense, through the callused soles of his bared feet, the tremble of distant horse hoofs. ‘If you’d suspected this Mebra why did you not kill him?’
    ‘If I killed everyone I was suspicious about I’d have scant company. I needed proof, and now I have it.’
    ‘Unless he told someone else.’
    ‘Then he’s either a traitor or stupid-both lead to the same fatal consequence. Come, we need to make this a challenge for the Malazans.’
    They set off. The lowlander was unerring in choosing paths that left no footprints or other signs of passage. Despite this, the sound of the riders drew ever nearer. ‘There’s a mage among them,’ the lowlander muttered as they raced across yet another stretch of bedrock.
    ‘If we can avoid them until nightfall,’ Karsa said, ‘then I shall become the hunter and they the hunted.’
    ‘There’s at least twenty of them. We’re better off using the darkness to stretch the distance between us. See those mountains to the southwest? That is our destination. If we can reach the hidden passes, we will be safe.’
    ‘We cannot outrun horses,’ Karsa growled. ‘Come dark, I will be done running.’
    ‘Then you attack alone, for it will mean your death.’
    ‘Alone. That is well. I need no lowlander getting underfoot.’
    The plunge into night was sudden. Just before the last light failed, the two fugitives, slipping onto a plain crowded with enormous boulders, finally caught sight of their pursuers. Seventeen riders, three spare horses. All but two of the Malazans were in full armour, helmed and armed with either lances or crossbows. The other two riders were easily recognizable to Karsa. Silgar and Damisk.
    Karsa suddenly recalled that, the night of their escape from the compound, the stocks had been empty. He’d thought little of it at the time, assuming that the two prisoners had been taken inside for the night.
    The pursuers had not seen the two fugitives, who quickly moved behind the cover of the boulders.
    ‘I have led them to an old campground,’ the lowlander at Karsa’s side whispered. ‘Listen. They’re making camp. The two who weren’t soldiers-’
    ‘Yes. The slavemaster and his guard.’
    ‘They must have taken that otataral anklet off him. He wants you badly, it seems.’
    Karsa shrugged. ‘And he will find me. Tonight. I am done with those two. Neither will see the dawn, this I swear before Urugal.’
    ‘You cannot attack two squads on your own.’
    ‘Then consider it a diversion and make good your escape, lowlander.’ With that the Teblor swung about and made his way towards the Malazan camp.
    He was not interested in waiting for them to settle. The crossbowmen had ridden all day with their weapons cocked. They would probably be replacing the wrapped cords at this very moment, assuming they followed the practice that Karsa had seen among the squads of the Ashok Regiment. Others would be removing saddles and tending to the horses, whilst most of the remaining soldiers would be preparing to cook meals and raise tents. At most, there would be two or three guards establishing a picket around the camp.
    Karsa paused behind a huge boulder just beyond the Malazans. He could hear them setting up their position for the night. The Teblor collected a handful of sand and dried the sweat from his palms, then he hefted his bloodsword in his right hand and edged forward.
    Three fires had been lit using dung, the hearths ringed with large rocks to cut the light cast out by the flickering flames. The horses stood within a rope corral, three soldiers moving among them. A half-dozen crossbowmen sat nearby, their weapons dismantled on their laps. Two guards stood facing the plain of boulders, one positioned slightly behind the other. The soldier closest to Karsa held a drawn short-sword and a round shield, his companion six paces behind him a short bow, arrow nocked.
    There were, in fact, more guards at the pickets than Karsa would have liked, one visible on each other flank of the encampment. The bowman was so positioned as to permit him a field of fire for every one of them.
    Crouched before a firepit near the centre of the camp were Silgar, Damisk and a Malazan officer, the latter with his back to Karsa.
    The Teblor silently worked his way around the boulder. The guard closest to him was looking to the left at the moment. Five paces to close in a charge. The bowman had turned in his restless scanning towards the guard at the far end of the camp.
    Now.
    The helmed head was swinging back, the weathered face pale beneath its rim.
    And then Karsa was alongside him, his left hand snapping out to close around the man’s throat. Cartilage collapsed with a dry popping sound.
    Enough to make the bowman whirl.
    Had his attacker the short legs of a lowlander, he would have had a chance to loose his arrow. As it was, he barely had time to draw before the Teblor reached him.
    The man’s mouth opened to shout as he tensed to throw himself backward. Karsa’s sword flashed outward, sending the helmed head tumbling from shoulders. Armour clattered behind him as the corpse fell to the ground.
    Faces swung round. Shouts rang through the night. Three soldiers rose from a hearth directly in front of the Teblor. Short-swords hissed from scabbards. One Malazan threw himself into Karsa’s path in an effort to give his companions time to find their shields. A brave and fatal gesture, for his weapon’s reach was no match for the bloodsword. The man shrieked as he lost both forearms to a vicious lateral slash.
    One of the next two Malazans had managed to ready his round shield, raising it into the path of Karsa’s downward swing. The bronze-banded wood exploded at the impact, the arm holding it shattering beneath it. As the soldier crumpled, the Teblor leapt over him, quickly cutting down the third man.
    A blaze of pain along the top of his right thigh as a lance ripped a path to thrum into the dusty ground behind him. Wheeling, he whipped his blade around in time to bat aside another lance which had been about to strike his chest.
    Footsteps rushing him from behind and to the left-one of the picket guards-while directly before him, three paces distant, stood Silgar, Damisk and the Malazan officer. The slavemaster’s face was twisted with terror, even as sorcery rose into a writhing wave in front of him, then roared towards Karsa.
    The magic struck him at the precise moment that the picket guard arrived. Sorcery engulfed them both. The Malazan’s scream ripped through the air. Grunting at the writhing, ghostly tendrils seeking to snare him in place, Karsa surged through it-and came face to face with the slavemaster.
    Damisk had already fled. The officer had thrown himself to one side, deftly ducking beneath Karsa’s side-swing.
    Silgar threw his hands up.
    Karsa cut them off.
    The slavemaster reeled back.
    The Teblor chopped down, severing Silgar’s right leg just above the ankle. The man toppled onto his upper shoulders, legs in the air. A fourth swing sent the left foot spinning.
    Two soldiers rushed Karsa from his right, a third one trailing.
    A bellowed command rang through the night, and the Teblor-weapon readied-was surprised to see the three men peel away. By his count there were five others, as well as the officer and Damisk. He spun, glaring, but there was no-one-just the sounds of boots retreating into the darkness. He looked to where the horses had been corralled-the animals were gone.
    A lance darted towards him. Snarling, Karsa splintered it as the back of his bloodsword deflected it to one side. He paused, then padded over to Silgar. The slavemaster had curled into a tight ball. Blood flowed from the four stumps. Karsa picked him up by his silk belt and carried him back to the plain of boulders.
    As he moved around the first of the massive rocks a voice spoke low and clear from the shadows. ‘This way.’
    The Teblor grunted. ‘You were supposed to have fled.’
    ‘They will regroup, but without the mage we should be able to elude them.’
    Karsa followed his companion deeper into the studded plain, then, after fifty or so paces, the man stopped and turned to the Teblor.
    ‘Of course, with your prize leaving a trail of blood, there will be little trouble in following us. Do something with him now.’
    Karsa dropped Silgar to the ground, kicked him onto his back. The slavemaster was unconscious.
    ‘He will bleed to death,’ the lowlander said. ‘You have your revenge. Leave him here to die.’
    Instead, the Teblor began cutting strips from Silgar’s telaba, tying them tight about the stumps at the ends of his arms and legs.
    ‘There will still be some leakage-’
    ‘Which we shall have to live with,’ Karsa growled. ‘I am not yet done with this man.’
    ‘What value senseless torture?’
    Karsa hesitated, then he sighed. ‘This man enslaved an entire tribe of Teblor. The Sunyd’s spirit is broken. The slavemaster is not as a soldier-he has not earned swift death. He is as a mad dog, to be driven into a hut and killed-’
    ‘So kill him.’
    ‘I shall… once I have driven him mad.’
    Karsa lifted Silgar once more, throwing him over a shoulder. ‘Lead us on, lowlander.’
    Hissing under his breath, the man nodded.

    Eight days later, they reached the hidden pass through the Pan’potsun Mountains. The Malazans had resumed their pursuit, but had not been seen since two days past, indicating that the efforts to evade them had succeeded.
    They ascended the steep, rocky trail through the course of the day.
    Silgar was still alive, fevered and only periodically aware. He had been gagged to prevent him making any sounds. Karsa carried him on his shoulder.
    Shortly before dusk they reached the summit, and came to the southwest edge. The path wound down into a shadowed plain. At the crest they sat down to rest.
    ‘What lies beyond?’ Karsa asked as he dropped Silgar to the ground. ‘I see naught but a wasteland of sand below.’
    ‘And so it is,’ his companion replied in a reverent tone. ‘And in its heart, the one I serve.’ He glanced over at Karsa. ‘She will, I think, be interested in you…’ he smiled, ‘Teblor.’
    Karsa scowled. ‘Why does the name of my people amuse you so?’
    ‘Amuse? More like appals. The Fenn had fallen far from their past glories, yet they remembered enough to know their old name. You cannot even make that claim. Your kind walked this earth when the T’lan Imass were still flesh. From your blood came the Barghast and the Trell. You are Thelomen Toblakai.’
    ‘These are names I do not know,’ Karsa growled, ‘even as I do not know yours, lowlander.’
    The man returned his gaze to the dark lands below. ‘I am named Leoman. And the one I serve, the Chosen One to whom I will deliver you, she is Sha’ik.’
    ‘I am no-one’s servant,’ Karsa said. ‘This Chosen One, she dwells in the desert before us?’
    ‘In its very heart, Toblakai. In Raraku’s very heart.’

BOOK TWO

COLD IRON
    There are folds in this shadow… hiding entire worlds.
    Call to Shadow
Felisin

CHAPTER FIVE

    Woe to the fallen in the alleys of Aren…
Anonymous

    A single kick from the burly soldier in the lead sent the flimsy door crashing inward. He disappeared into the gloom beyond, followed by the rest of his squad. From within came shouts, the sound of crashing furniture.
    Gamet glanced over at Commander Blistig.
    The man shrugged. ‘Aye, the door was unlocked-it’s an inn, after all, though such a lofty title for this squalid pit is stretching things somewhat. Even so, it’s a matter of achieving the proper effect.’
    ‘You misunderstood me,’ Gamet replied. ‘I simply cannot believe that your soldiers found him here.’
    Unease flitted across Blistig’s solid, broad features. ‘Aye, well, we’ve rounded up others in worse places, Fist. It’s what comes of-’ he squinted up the street, ‘of broken hearts.’
    Fist. The title still clambers into my gut like a starving crow. Gamet frowned. ‘The Adjunct has no time for broken-hearted soldiers, Commander.’
    ‘It was unrealistic to arrive here expecting to stoke the fires of vengeance. Can’t stoke cold ashes, though don’t take me wrong, I wish her the Lady’s luck.’
    ‘Rather more is expected of you than that,’ Gamet said drily.
    The streets were virtually deserted at this time of day, the afternoon heat oppressive. Of course, even at other times, Aren was not as it once had been. Trade from the north had ceased. Apart from Malazan warships and transports, and a few fisherboats, the harbour and river mouth were empty. This was, Gamet reflected, a scarred populace.
    The squad was re-emerging from the inn, carrying with them a rag-clad, feebly struggling old man. He was smeared in vomit, the little hair he had left hanging like grey strings, his skin patched and grey with filth. Cursing at the stench, the soldiers of Blistig’s Aren Guard hurried their burden towards the cart’s bed.
    ‘It was a miracle we found him at all,’ the commander said. ‘I truly expected the old bastard to up and drown himself.’
    Momentarily unmindful of his new title, Gamet turned and spat onto the cobbles. ‘This situation is contemptible, Blistig. Damn it, some semblance of military decorum-of control, Hood take me-should have been possible…’
    The commander stiffened at Gamet’s tone. The guards gathered at the back of the cart all turned at his words.
    Blistig stepped close to the Fist. ‘You listen to me and listen well,’ he growled under his breath, a tremble shivering across his scarred cheeks, his eyes hard as iron. ‘I stood on the damned wall and watched. As did every one of my soldiers. Pormqual running in circles like a castrated cat-that historian and those two Wickan children wailing with grief. I watched-we all watched-as Coltaine and his Seventh were cut down before our very eyes. And if that wasn’t enough, the High Fist then marched out his army and ordered them to disarm! If not for one of my captains delivering intelligence concerning Mallick Rel being an agent of Sha’ik’s, my Guard would have died with them. Military decorum? Go to Hood with your military decorum, Fist!’
    Gamet stood unmoving at the commander’s tirade. It was not the first time that he’d felt the snap of this man’s temper. Since he had arrived with Adjunct Tavore’s retinue, and was given the liaison role that took him to the forefront of dealing with the survivors of the Chain of Dogs-both those who had come in with the historian Duiker, and those who had awaited them in the city-Gamet had felt under siege. The rage beneath the mantle of propriety erupted again and again. Hearts not simply broken, but shattered, torn to pieces, trampled on. The Adjunct’s hope of resurrecting the survivors-making use of their local experience to steady her legions of untested recruits-was, to Gamet, seeming more and more unrealistic with each day that passed.
    It was also clear that Blistig cared little that Gamet made daily reports to the Adjunct, and could reasonably expect his tirades to have been passed on to Tavore, in culpable detail. The commander was doubly fortunate, therefore, that Gamet had as yet said nothing of them to the Adjunct, exercising extreme brevity in his debriefings and keeping personal observations to the minimum.
    As Blistig’s words trailed away, Gamet simply sighed and approached the cart to look down on the drunken old man lying on its bed. The soldiers backed away a step-as if the Fist carried a contagion. ‘So,’ Gamet drawled, ‘this is Squint. The man who killed Coltaine-’
    ‘Was a mercy,’ one of the guards snapped.
    ‘Clearly, Squint does not think so.’
    There was no reply to that. Blistig arrived at the Fist’s side. ‘All right,’ he said to his squad, ‘take him and get him cleaned up-and under lock and key.’
    ‘Aye, sir.’
    Moments later the cart was being pulled away. Gamet faced Blistig once more. ‘Your rather unsubtle plan of getting yourself stripped of rank, shackled in irons, and sent back to Unta on the first ship, will not succeed, Commander. Neither the Adjunct, nor I, care one whit for your fragile state. We are preparing to fight a war, and for that you will be needed. You and every one of your crumple-faced soldiers.’
    ‘Better we’d died with the rest-’
    ‘But you did not. We have three legions of recruits, Commander. Wide-eyed and young but ready to shed Seven Cities blood. The question is, what do you and your soldiers intend to show them?’
    Blistig glared. ‘The Adjunct makes the captain of her House Guard into a Fist, and I’m supposed to-’
    ‘Fourth Army,’ Gamet snapped. ‘In the 1st Company at its inception. The Wickan Wars. Twenty-three years’ service, Commander. I knew Coltaine when you were still bouncing on your mother’s knee. I took a lance through the chest but proved too stubborn to die. My commander was kind enough to retire me to what he figured was a safe position back in Unta. Aye, captain of the guard in the House of Paran. But I’d damn well earned it!’
    After a long moment, a wry grin twisted Blistig’s mouth. ‘So you’re as happy to be here as I am.’ Gamet grimaced, made no reply. The two Malazans returned to their horses.
    Swinging himself onto the saddle, Gamet said, ‘We’re expecting the last transport of troops from Malaz Island some time today. The Adjunct wants all the commanders assembled in her council chambers at the eighth bell.’
    ‘To what end?’ Blistig asked.
    If I had my way, to see you drawn and quartered. ‘Just be there, Commander.’

    The vast mouth of the Menykh River was a brown, turgid swirl that reached half a league out into Aren Bay. Leaning on the transport’s starboard railing just behind the forecastle, Strings studied the roiling water below, then lifted his gaze to the city on the river’s north shore.
    He rubbed at the bristles on his long jaw. The rusty hue of his beard in youth had given way now to grey… which was a good thing as far as he was concerned.
    The city of Aren had changed little in the years since he had last seen it, barring the paucity of ships in the harbour. The same pall of smoke hanging over it, the same endless stream of sewage crawling the currents into the Seeker’s Deep-through which the broad-beamed, sluggish transport now sailed.
    The newly issued leather cap chafed the back of his neck; it had damned near broken his heart to discard his old one, along with his tattered leather surcoat, and the sword-belt he’d stripped from a Falah’dan guard who no longer needed it. In fact, he had retained but one possession from his former life, buried down in the bottom of his kit bag in his berth below decks, and he had no intention of permitting its discovery by anyone.
    A man came alongside him, leaned casually on the rail and stared out over the water to the city drawing ever nearer.
    Strings offered no greeting. Lieutenant Ranal embodied the worst of Malazan military command. Nobleborn, commission purchased in the city of Quon, arrogant and inflexible and righteous and yet to draw a sword in anger. A walking death sentence to his soldiers, and it was the Lord’s luck that Strings was one of those soldiers.
    The lieutenant was a tall man, his Quon blood the purest it could be; fair-skinned, fair-haired, his cheekbones high and wide, his nose straight and long, his mouth full. Strings had hated him on sight.
    ‘It is customary to salute your superior,’ Ranal said with affected indifference.
    ‘Saluting officers gets them killed, sir.’
    ‘Here on a transport ship?’
    ‘Just getting into the habit,’ Strings replied.
    ‘It has been plain from the start that you have done this before, soldier.’ Ranal paused to examine the supple, black knuckles of his gloved hands. ‘Hood knows, you’re old enough to be the father of most of those marines sitting on the deck behind us. The recruiting officer sent you straight through-you’ve not trained or sparred once, yet here I am, expected to accept you as one of my soldiers.’
    Strings shrugged, said nothing.
    ‘That recruiting officer,’ Ranal went on after a moment, his pale blue eyes fixed on the city, ‘said she saw from the start what you’d been trying to hide. Oddly, she considered it-you, to be more precise-a valuable resource, even so much as to suggesting I make you a sergeant. Do you know why I find that odd?’
    ‘No, sir, but I am sure you will tell me.’
    ‘Because I think you were a deserter.’
    Strings leaned far forward and spat down into the water. ‘I’ve met more than a few, and they’ve all got their reasons and no two of them alike. But there’s one thing they all have in common.’
    ‘And what is that?’
    ‘You’ll never find them in an enlistment line, Lieutenant. Enjoy the view, sir.’ He turned away and wandered back to where the other marines sprawled on the midship deck. Most had long since recovered from their seasickness, yet their eagerness to disembark was palpable. Strings sat down, stretched out his legs.
    ‘Lieutenant wants your head on a plate,’ a voice murmured beside him.
    Strings sighed and closed his eyes, lifting his face to the afternoon sun. ‘What the lieutenant wants and what he gets ain’t the same thing, Koryk.’
    ‘What he’ll get is the bunch of us right here,’ the Seti half-blood replied, rolling his broad shoulders, strands of his long black hair whipping across his flat-featured face.
    ‘The practice is to mix recruits with veterans,’ Strings said. ‘Despite everything you’ve heard, there’s survivors of the Chain of Dogs in yon city over there. A whole shipload of wounded marines and Wickans made it through, I’ve heard. And there’s the Aren Guard, and the Red Blades. A number of coastal marine ships straggled in as well. Finally, there’s Admiral Nok’s fleet, though I imagine he’ll want to keep his own forces intact.’
    ‘What for?’ another recruit asked. ‘We’re heading for a desert war, aren’t we?’
    Strings glanced over at her. Frighteningly young, reminding him of another young woman who’d marched alongside him a while ago. He shivered slightly, then said, ‘The Adjunct would have to be a fool to strip the fleet. Nok’s ready to begin the reconquest of the coast cities-he could’ve started months ago. The empire needs secure ports. Without them we’re finished on this continent.’
    ‘Well,’ the young woman muttered, ‘from what I’ve heard, this Adjunct might be just what you said, old man. Hood knows, she’s nobleborn, ain’t she?’
    Strings snorted, but said nothing, closing his eyes once more. He was worried the lass might be right. Then again, this Tavore was sister to Captain Paran. And Paran had shown some spine back in Darujhistan. At the very least, he was no fool.
    ‘Where’d you get the name “Strings”, anyway?’ the young woman asked after a moment.
    Fiddler smiled. ‘That tale’s too long to tell, lass.’

    Her gauntlets thudded down onto the tabletop, raising a cloud of dust. Armour rustling, sweat soaking the under-padding between her breasts, she unstrapped her helmet and-as the wench arrived with the tankard of ale-dragged out the rickety chair and sat down.
    Street urchin messenger. Delivering a small strip of green silk which bore, written in a fine hand, the Malazan words: Dancer’s Tavern, dusk. Lostara Yil was more irritated than intrigued.
    The interior of Dancer’s Tavern consisted of a single room, the four walls making some ancient claim to whitewashed plaster, remnants of which now clung to the adobe bricks in misshapen, wine-stained patches, like a map of a drunkard’s paradise. The low ceiling was rotting before the very eyes of owner and patron, dust sifting down in clouds lit by the low sun that cast streams of light through the front window’s shutters. Already, the foam-threaded surface of the ale in the tankard before her sported a dull sheen.
    There were but three other patrons, two bent over a game of slivers at the table closest to the window, and a lone, mumbling, semi-conscious man slumped against the wall beside the piss trench.
    Although early, the Red Blade captain was already impatient to see an end to this pathetic mystery, if mystery it was meant to be. She’d needed but a moment to realize who it was who had set up this clandestine meeting. And while a part of her was warmed by the thought of seeing him again-for all his affectations and airs he was handsome enough-she had sufficient responsibilities to wrestle with as Tene Baralta’s aide. Thus far, the Red Blades were being treated as a company distinct from the Adjunct’s punitive army, despite the fact that there were few soldiers available with actual fighting experience… and even fewer with the backbone to put that experience to use.
    The disordered apathy rife in Blistig’s Aren Guard was not shared by the Red Blades. Kin had been lost in the Chain of Dogs, and that would be answered. If
    The Adjunct was Malazan-an unknown to Lostara and the rest of the Red Blades; even Tene Baralta, who had met her face to face on three occasions, remained unable to gauge her, to take her measure. Did Tavore trust the Red Blades?
    Maybe the truth is already before us. She’s yet to give our company anything. Are we part of her army? Will the Red Blades be permitted to fight the Whirlwind?
    Questions without answers. And here she sat, wasting time-The door swung open.
    A shimmering grey cloak, green-tinted leathers, dark, sun-burnished skin, a wide, welcoming smile. ‘Captain Lostara Yil! I am delighted to see you again.’ He strode over, dismissing the approaching serving wench with a casual wave of one gloved hand. Settling into the chair opposite her, he raised two crystal goblets that seemed to appear from nowhere and set them on the dusty table. A black bottle, long-necked and glistening, followed. ‘I strongly advise against the local ale in this particular establishment, my dear. This vintage suits the occasion far better. From the sun-drenched south slopes of Gris, where grow the finest grapes this world has seen. Is mine an informed opinion, you are wondering? Most assuredly so, lass, since I hold a majority interest in said vineyards-’
    ‘What is it you want with me, Pearl?’
    He poured the magenta-hued wine into the goblets, his smile unwavering. ‘Plagued as I am with sentimentality, I thought we might raise our glasses to old times. Granted, they were rather harrowing times; none the less, we survived, did we not?’
    ‘Oh yes,’ Lostara replied. ‘And you went your way, on to greater glory no doubt. Whilst I went mine-straight into a cell.’
    The Claw sighed. ‘Ah well, poor Pormqual’s advisers failed him dearly, alas. But I see now that you and your fellow Red Blades are free once more, your weapons returned to you, your place in the Adjunct’s army secure-’
    ‘Not quite.’
    Pearl arched an elegant brow.
    Lostara collected the goblet and drank a mouthful, barely noticing its taste. ‘We have had no indication of the Adjunct’s wishes towards us.’
    ‘How strange!’
    Scowling, the captain said, ‘Enough games-you surely know far more about it than we do-’
    ‘Alas, I must disabuse you of that notion. The new Adjunct is as unfathomable to me as she is to you. My failure was in making assumptions that she would hasten to repair the damage done to your illustrious company. To leave unanswered the question of the Red Blades’ loyalty…’ Pearl sipped wine, then leaned back. ‘You have been released from the gaols, your weapons returned to you-have you been barred from leaving the city? From headquarters?’
    ‘Only her council chambers, Pearl.’
    The Claw’s expression brightened. ‘Ah, but in that you are not alone, my dear. From what I have heard, apart from the select few who have accompanied her from Unta, the Adjunct has hardly spoken with anyone at all. I believe, however, that the situation is about to change.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘Why, only that there will be a council of war tonight, one to which your commander, Tene Baralta, has no doubt been invited, as well as Commander Blistig and a host of others whose appearance will likely surprise one and all.’ He fell silent then, his green eyes holding on her.
    Lostara slowly blinked. ‘That being the case, I must needs return to Tene Baralta-’
    ‘A fair conclusion, lass. Unfortunately wrong, I am afraid.’
    ‘Explain yourself, Pearl.’
    He leaned forward once more and topped up her drink. ‘Delighted to. As recalcitrant as the Adjunct has been, I did manage to have occasion to present to her a request, which she has approved.’
    Lostara’s voice was flat. ‘What kind of request?’
    ‘Well, sentimentality is my curse, as I mentioned earlier. Fond are my memories of you and me working together. So fond, in fact, that I have requested you as my, uhm, my aide. Your commander has of course been informed-’
    ‘I am a captain in the Red Blades!’ Lostara snapped. ‘Not a Claw, not a spy, not a mur-’ She bit the word back.
    Pearl’s eyes widened. ‘I am deeply hurt. But magnanimous enough this evening to excuse your ignorance. Whilst you may find no distinction between the art of assassination and the crude notion of murder, I assure you that one exists. Be that as it may, permit me to allay your fears-the task awaiting you and me will not involve the ghastlier side of my calling. No indeed, lass, my need for you in this upcoming endeavour depends entirely upon two of your numerous qualities. Your familiarity as a native of Seven Cities, for one. And the other-even more vital-your unquestioned loyalty to the Malazan Empire. Now, while you could in no way argue the veracity of the former, it now falls to you to reassert your claim to the latter.’
    She stared at him for a long moment, then slowly nodded. ‘I see. Very well, I am at your disposal.’
    Pearl smiled once more. ‘Wonderful. My faith in you was absolute.’
    ‘What is this mission we are to embark upon?’
    ‘Details will be forthcoming once we have our personal interview with the Adjunct this evening.’
    She straightened. ‘You have no idea, do you?’
    His smile broadened. ‘Exciting, yes?’
    ‘So you don’t know if it will involve assassination-’
    ‘Assassination? Who knows? But murder? Assuredly not. Now, drink up, lass. We must needs march to the palace of the late High Fist. I have heard that the Adjunct has little toleration for tardiness.’

    Everyone had arrived early. Gamet stood near the door through which the Adjunct would appear, his back to the wall, his arms crossed. Before him, stationed in the long, low-ceilinged council chamber, were the three commanders who had been assembled for this evening’s first set of meetings. The next few bells, with all the orchestration directing them, promised to be interesting. None the less, the once-captain of House Paran was feeling somewhat intimidated.
    He had been a common soldier years back, not one to find himself in councils of war. There was little comfort in this new mantle of Fist, for he knew that merit had had nothing to do with acquiring the title. Tavore knew him, had grown used to commanding him, to leaving to him the tasks of organization, the arranging of schedules… but for a noble household. Yet it seemed she intended to use him in an identical manner, this time for the entire Fourteenth Army. Which made him an administrator, not a Fist. A fact of which no-one present in this room was unaware.
    He was unused to the embarrassment he felt, and recognized that the bluster he often displayed was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to his own sense of inadequacy. For the moment, however, he did not feel capable of managing even so much as diffidence, much less bluster. Admiral Nok was standing a half-dozen paces away, in quiet conversation with the imposing commander of the Red Blades, Tene Baralta. Blistig sat sprawled in a chair at the far end of the map table, farthest from where the Adjunct would seat herself once the meeting commenced.
    Gamet’s eyes were drawn again and again to the tall admiral. Apart from Dujek Onearm, Nok was the last of the commanders from the Emperor’s time. The only admiral who didn’t drown. With the sudden deaths of the Napan brothers, Urko and Crust, Nok had been given overall command of the imperial fleets. The Empress had sent him and a hundred and seven of his ships to Seven Cities when the rumours of rebellion had reached fever pitch. Had the High Fist in Aren not effectively impounded that fleet in the harbour, Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs could have been prevented; indeed, the rebellion might well be over. Now, the task of reconquest promised to be a drawn-out, bloody endeavour. Whatever feelings the admiral might have regarding all that had occurred and all that was likely to come, he gave no outward indication, his expression remaining cold and impersonal.
    Tene Baralta had his own grievances. The Red Blades had been charged with treason by Pormqual, even as one of their companies fought under Coltaine’s command-fought, and was annihilated. Blistig’s first order once the High Fist left the city had been their release. As with the survivors of the Chain of Dogs and the Aren Guard, the Adjunct had inherited their presence. The question of what to do with them-what to do with them all-was about to be answered.
    Gamet wished he could allay their concerns, but the truth was, Tavore had never been free with her thoughts. The Fist had no idea what this evening would bring.
    The door opened.
    As was her style, Tavore’s clothes were well made, but plain and virtually colourless. A match to her eyes, to the streaks of grey in her reddish, short-cropped hair, to her unyielding, unprepossessing features. She was tall, somewhat broad in the hips, her breasts slightly oversized for her frame. The otataral sword of her office was scabbarded at her belt-the only indication of her imperial title. A half-dozen scrolls were tucked under one arm.
    ‘Stand or sit as you like,’ were her first words as she strode to the High Fist’s ornate chair.
    Gamet watched Nok and Tene Baralta move to chairs at the table, then followed suit.
    Back straight, the Adjunct sat. She set the scrolls down. ‘The disposition of the Fourteenth Army is the subject of this meeting. Remain in our company, Admiral Nok, please.’ She reached for the first scroll and slipped its ties. ‘Three legions. The 8th, 9th and 10th. Fist Gamet shall command the 8th. Fist Blistig, the 9th, and Fist Tene Baralta, the 10th. The choice of officers under each respective command is at the discretion of each Fist. I advise you to select wisely. Admiral Nok, detach Commander Alardis from your flagship. She is now in charge of the Aren Guard.’ Without pause she reached for a second scroll. ‘As to the survivors of the Chain of Dogs and sundry unattached elements at our disposal, their units are now dissolved. They have been reassigned and dispersed throughout the three legions.’ She finally looked up-and if she took note of the shock on the faces that Gamet saw, a shock he shared, she hid it well. ‘In three days’ time, I will review your troops. That is all.’
    In numbed silence, the four men slowly rose.
    The Adjunct gestured at the two scrolls she had laid out. ‘Fist Blistig, take these please. You and Tene Baralta might wish to reconvene in one of the side chambers, in order to discuss the details of your new commands. Fist Gamet, you can join them later. For now, remain with me. Admiral Nok, I wish to speak with you privately later this evening. Please ensure that you are at my disposal.’
    The tall, elderly man cleared his throat. ‘I shall be in the mess hall, Adjunct.’
    ‘Very good.’
    Gamet watched the three men depart.
    As soon as the doors closed, the Adjunct rose from her chair. She walked over to the ancient, woven tapestries running the length of one of the walls. ‘Extraordinary patterns, Gamet, don’t you think? A culture obsessed with intricacies. Well,’ she faced him, ‘that was concluded with unexpected ease. It seems we have a few moments before our next guests.’
    ‘I believe they were all too shocked to respond, Adjunct. The imperial style of command usually includes discussion, argument, compromise-’
    Her only reply was a brief half-smile, then she returned her attention to the weavings. ‘What officers will Tene Baralta choose, do you imagine?’
    ‘Red Blades, Adjunct. How the Malazan recruits will take-’
    ‘And Blistig?’
    ‘Only one seemed worthy of his rank-and he’s now in the Aren Guard and so not available to Blistig,’ Gamet replied. ‘A captain, Keneb-’
    ‘Malazan?’
    ‘Yes, though stationed here in Seven Cities. He lost his troops, Adjunct, to the renegade, Korbolo Dom. It was Keneb who warned Blistig about Mallick Rel-’
    ‘Indeed. So, apart from Captain Keneb?’
    Gamet shook his head. ‘I feel for Blistig at the moment.’
    ‘Do you?’
    ‘Well, I didn’t say what I was feeling, Adjunct.’
    She faced him again. ‘Pity?’
    ‘Some of that,’ he allowed after a moment.
    ‘Do you know what bothers Blistig the most, Fist?’
    ‘Witnessing the slaughter-’
    ‘He may well claim that and hope that you believe it, but you are wrong to do so. Blistig disobeyed a High Fist’s order. He stands before me, his new commander, and believes I hold no faith in him. From that, he concludes that it would be best for everyone concerned if I were to send him to Unta, to face the Empress.’ She turned away again, was silent.
    Gamet’s thoughts raced, but he finally had to conclude that Tavore’s thoughts proceeded on levels too deep for him to fathom. ‘What is it you wish me to tell him?’
    ‘You think I wish you to tell him something from me? Very well. He may have Captain Keneb.’
    A side door swung open and Gamet turned to see three Wickans enter. Two were children, the third one not much older. While the Fist had yet to meet them, he knew who they must be. Nether and Nil. The witch and the warlock. And the lad with them is Temul, the eldest among the warrior youths Coltaine sent with the historian.
    Only Temul seemed pleased at having been summoned into the Adjunct’s presence. Nil and Nether were both unkempt, their feet bare and almost grey with layers of dirt. Nether’s long black hair hung in greasy ropes. Nil’s deer-hide tunic was scarred and torn. Both held expressions of disinterest. In contrast, Temul’s war gear was immaculate, as was the mask of deep red face paint denoting his grief, and his dark eyes glittered like sharp stones as he drew himself to attention before the Adjunct.
    But Tavore’s attention was on Nil and Nether. ‘The Fourteenth Army lacks mages,’ she said. ‘Therefore, you will now be acting in that capacity.’
    ‘No, Adjunct,’ Nether replied.
    ‘This matter is not open for discussion-’
    Nil spoke. ‘We want to go home,’ he said. ‘To the Wickan plains.’
    The Adjunct studied them for a moment, then, gaze unwavering, said, ‘Temul, Coltaine placed you in charge of the Wickan youths from the three tribes present in the Chain of Dogs. What is the complement?’
    ‘Thirty,’ the youth replied.
    ‘And how many Wickans were among the wounded delivered by ship to Aren?’
    ‘Eleven survived.’
    ‘Thus, forty-one in all. Are there any warlocks among your company?’
    ‘No, Adjunct.’
    ‘When Coltaine sent you with the historian Duiker, did he attach warlocks to your company at that time?’
    Temul’s eyes flicked to Nil and Nether for a moment, then his head jerked in a nod. ‘Yes.’
    ‘And has your company been officially dissolved, Temul?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘In other words, Coltaine’s last command to you still obtains.’ She addressed Nil and Nether once more. ‘Your request is denied. I have need of both you and Captain Temul’s Wickan lancers.’
    ‘We can give you nothing,’ Nether replied. ‘The warlock spirits within us are silent,’ Nil added. Tavore slowly blinked as she continued to regard them. Then she said, ‘You shall have to find a means of awakening them once more. The day we close to battle with Sha’ik and the Whirlwind, I expect you to employ your sorcery to defend the legions. Captain Temul, are you the eldest among the Wickans in your company?’
    ‘No, Adjunct. There are four warriors of the Foolish Dog, who were on the ship bearing the wounded.’
    ‘Do they resent your command?’
    The youth drew himself straighter. ‘They do not,’ he replied, his right hand settling on the grip of one of his long knives. Gamet winced and looked away.
    ‘You three are dismissed,’ the Adjunct said after a moment. Temul hesitated, then spoke. ‘Adjunct, my company wishes to fight. Are we to be attached to the legions?’
    Tavore tilted her head. ‘Captain Temul, how many summers have you seen?’
    ‘Fourteen.’
    The Adjunct nodded. ‘At present, Captain, our mounted troops are limited to a company of Seti volunteers, five hundred in all. In military terms, they are light cavalry at best, scouts and outriders at worst. None have seen battle, and none are much older than you. Your own command consists of forty Wickans, all but four younger than you. For our march northward, Captain Temul, your company will be attached to my entourage. As bodyguards. The ablest riders among the Seti will act as messengers and scouts. Understand, I have not the forces to mount a cavalry engagement. The Fourteenth Army is predominantly infantry.’
    ‘Coltaine’s tactics-’
    ‘This is no longer Coltaine’s war,’ Tavore snapped.
    Temul flinched as if struck. He managed a stiff nod, then turned on his heel and departed the chamber. Nil and Nether followed a moment later.
    Gamet let out a shaky breath. ‘The lad wanted to bring good news to his Wickans.’
    ‘To silence the grumbling from the four Foolish Dog warriors,’ the Adjunct said, her voice still holding a tone of irritation. ‘Aptly named indeed. Tell me, Fist, how do you think the discussion between Blistig and Tene Baralta is proceeding at this moment?’
    The old veteran grunted. ‘Heatedly, I would imagine, Adjunct. Tene Baralta likely expected to retain his Red Blades as a discrete regiment. I doubt he has much interest in commanding four thousand Malazan recruits.’
    ‘And the admiral, who waits below in the mess hall?’
    ‘To that, I have no idea, Adjunct. His taciturnity is legend.’
    ‘Why, do you think, did he not simply usurp High Fist Pormqual? Why did he permit the annihilation of Coltaine and the Seventh, then of the High Fist’s own army?’
    Gamet could only shake his head.
    Tavore studied him for another half-dozen heartbeats, then slowly made her way to the scrolls lying on the tabletop. She drew one out and removed its ties. ‘The Empress never had cause to question Admiral Nok’s loyalty.’
    ‘Nor Dujek Onearm’s,’ Gamet muttered under his breath. She heard and looked up, then offered a tight, momentary smile. ‘Indeed. One meeting remains to us.’ Tucking the scroll under one arm, she strode towards a small side door. ‘Come.’
    The room beyond was low-ceilinged, its walls virtually covered in tapestries. Thick rugs silenced their steps as they entered. A modest round table occupied the centre, beneath an ornate oil lamp that was the only source of light. There was a second door opposite, low and narrow. The table was the chamber’s sole piece of furniture.
    Tavore dropped the scroll onto its battered top as Gamet shut the door behind him. When he turned he saw that she was facing him. There was a sudden vulnerability in her eyes that triggered a clutching anxiety in his gut-for it was something he had never before seen from this daughter of House Paran. ‘Adjunct?’
    She broke the contact, visibly recovered. ‘In this room,’ she quietly said, ‘the Empress is not present.’
    Gamet’s breath caught, then he jerked his head in a nod. The smaller door opened, and the Fist turned to see a tall, almost effeminate man, clothed in grey, a placid smile on his handsome features as he took a step into the chamber. An armoured woman followed-an officer of the Red Blades. Her skin was dark and tattooed in Pardu style, her eyes black and large, set wide above high cheekbones, her nose narrow and aquiline. She seemed anything but pleased, her gaze fixing on the Adjunct with an air of calculating arrogance. ‘Close the door behind you, Captain,’ Tavore said to the Red Blade. The grey-clad man was regarding Gamet, his smile turning faintly quizzical. ‘Fist Gamet,’ he said. ‘I imagine you are wishing you were still in Unta, that bustling heart of the empire, arguing with horse-traders on behalf of House Paran. Instead, here you are, a soldier once more-’
    Gamet scowled and said, ‘I am afraid I do not know you-’
    ‘You may call me Pearl,’ the man replied, hesitating on the name as if its revelation was the core of some vast joke of which only he was aware. ‘And my lovely companion is Captain Lostara Yil, late of the Red Blades but now-happily-seconded into my care.’ He swung to the Adjunct and elaborately bowed. ‘At your service.’
    Gamet could see Tavore’s expression tighten fractionally. ‘That remains to be seen.’
    Pearl slowly straightened, the mockery in his face gone. ‘Adjunct, you have quietly-very quietly-arranged this meeting. This stage has no audience. While I am a Claw, you and I are both aware that I have-lately-incurred my master Topper’s-and the Empress’s-displeasure, resulting in my hasty journey through the Imperial Warren. A temporary situation, of course, but none the less, the consequence is that I am at something of a loose end at the moment.’
    ‘Then one might conclude,’ the Adjunct said carefully, ‘that you are available, as it were, for a rather more… private enterprise.’ Gamet shot her a glance. Gods below! What is this about? ‘One might,’ Pearl replied, shrugging.
    There was silence, broken at last by the Red Blade, Lostara Yil. ‘I am made uneasy by the direction of this conversation,’ she grated. ‘As a loyal subject of the empire-’
    ‘Nothing of what follows will impugn your honour, Captain,’ the Adjunct replied, her gaze unwavering on Pearl. She added nothing more. The Claw half smiled then. ‘Ah, now you’ve made me curious. I delight in being curious, did you know that? You fear that I will bargain my way back into Laseen’s favour, for the mission you would propose to the captain and me is, to be precise, not on behalf of the Empress, nor, indeed, of the empire. An extraordinary departure from the role of Imperial Adjunct. Unprecedented, in fact.’ Gamet took a step forward, ‘Adjunct-’
    She raised a hand to cut him off. ‘Pearl, the task I would set to you and the captain may well contribute, ultimately, to the well-being of the empire-’
    ‘Oh well,’ the Claw smiled, ‘that is what a good imagination is for, isn’t it? One can scrape patterns in the blood no matter how dried it’s become. I admit to no small skill in attributing sound justification for whatever I’ve just done. By all means, proceed-’
    ‘Not yet!’ Lostara Yil snapped, her exasperation plain. ‘In serving the Adjunct I expect to serve the empire. She is the will of the Empress. No other considerations are permitted her-’
    ‘You speak true,’ Tavore said. She faced Pearl again. ‘Claw, how fares the Talon?’
    Pearl’s eyes went wide and he almost rocked back a step. ‘They no longer exist,’ he whispered.
    The Adjunct frowned. ‘Disappointing. We are all, at the moment, in a precarious position. If you are to expect honesty from me, then can I not do so in return?’
    ‘They remain,’ Pearl muttered, distaste twisting his features. ‘Like bot-fly larvae beneath the imperial hide. When we probe, they simply dig deeper.’
    ‘They none the less serve a certain… function,’ Tavore said. ‘Unfortunately, not as competently as I would have hoped.’
    ‘The Talons have found support among the nobility?’ Pearl asked, a sheen of sweat now visible on his high brow.
    The Adjunct’s shrug was almost indifferent. ‘Does that surprise you?’
    Gamet could almost see the Claw’s thoughts racing. Racing on, and on, his expression growing ever more astonished and… dismayed. ‘Name him,’ he said.
    ‘Baudin.’
    ‘He was assassinated in Quon-’
    ‘The father was. Not the son.’
    Pearl suddenly began pacing in the small chamber. ‘And this son, how much like the bastard who spawned him? Baudin Elder left Claw corpses scattered in alleys throughout the city. The hunt lasted four entire nights…’
    ‘I had reason to believe,’ Tavore said, ‘that he was worthy of his father’s name.’
    Pearl’s head turned. ‘But no longer?’
    ‘I cannot say. I believe, however, that his mission has gone terribly wrong.’
    The name slipped from Gamet’s lips unbidden but with a certainty heavy as an anchor-stone: ‘Felisin.’
    He saw the wince in Tavore’s face, before she turned away from all three of them to study one of the tapestries.
    Pearl seemed far ahead in his thoughts. ‘When was contact lost, Adjunct? And where?’
    ‘The night of the Uprising,’ she replied, her back to them still. ‘The mining camp called Skullcup. But there had been a… a loss of control for some weeks before then.’ She gestured at the scroll on the table. ‘Details, potential contacts. Burn the scroll once you have completed reading it, and scatter the ashes in the bay.’ She faced them suddenly. ‘Pearl. Captain Lostara Yil. Find Felisin. Find my sister.’

    The roar of the mob rose and fell in the city beyond the estate’s walls. It was the Season of Rot in Unta, and, in the minds of thousands of denizens, that rot was being excised. The dreaded Cull had begun.
    Captain Gamet stood by the gatehouse, flanked by three nervous guards. The estate’s torches had been doused, the house behind them dark, its windows shuttered. And within that massive structure huddled the last child of Paran, her parents gone since the arrests earlier that day, her brother lost and presumably dead on a distant continent, her sister-her sister… madness had come once again to the empire, with the fury of a tropical storm…
    Gamet had but twelve guards, and three of those had been hired in the last few days, when the stillness of the air in the streets had whispered to the captain that the horror was imminent. No proclamations had been issued, no imperial edict to fire-lick the commoners’ greed and savagery into life. There were but rumours, racing through the city’s streets, alleys and market rounds like dust-devils. ‘The Empress is displeased.’
    ‘Behind the rot of the imperial army’s incompetent command, you will find the face of the nobility.’
    ‘The purchase of commissions is a plague threatening the entire empire. Is it any wonder the Empress is displeased?’
    A company of Red Blades had arrived from Seven Cities. Cruel killers, incorruptible and far removed from the poison of noble coin. It was not difficult to imagine the reason behind their appearance.
    The first wave of arrests had been precise, almost understated. Squads in the dead of night. There had been no skirmishes with house guards, no estates forewarned to purchase time to raise barricades, or even flee the city.
    And Gamet thought he knew how such a thing came to pass. Tavore was now the Adjunct to the Empress. Tavore knew… her kind.
    The captain sighed, then strode forward to the small inset door at the gate. He drew the heavy bolt, let the iron bar drop with a clank. He faced the three guards. ‘Your services are no longer required. In the murder hole you’ll find your pay.
    Two of the three armoured men exchanged a glance, then, one of them shrugging, they walked to the door. The third man had not moved. Gamet recalled that he’d given his name as Kollen-a Quon name and a Quon accent. He had been hired more for his imposing presence than anything else, though Gamet’s practised eye had detected a certain… confidence, in the way the man wore his armour, seemingly indifferent to its weight, hinting at a martial grace that belonged only to a professional soldier. He knew next to nothing of Kollen’s past, but these were desperate times, and in any case none of the three new hirelings had been permitted into the house itself.
    In the gloom beneath the gatehouse lintel, Gamet now studied the motionless guard. Through the tidal roar of the rampaging mob that drew ever closer came shrill screams, lifting into the night a despairing chorus. ‘Make this easy, Kollen,’ he said quietly. ‘There are four of my men twenty paces behind you, crossbows cocked and fixed on your back.
    The huge man tilted his head. ‘Nine of you. In less than a quarter-bell several hundred looters and murderers will come calling.’ He slowly looked around, as if gauging the estate’s walls, the modest defences, then returned his steady gaze to Gamet.
    The captain scowled. ‘No doubt you would have made it even easier for them. As it is, we might bloody their noses enough to encourage them to seek somewhere else.
    ‘No, you won’t, Captain. Things will simply get… messier.
    ‘Is this how the Empress simplifies matters, Kollen? An unlocked gate. Loyal guards cut down from behind. Have you honed your knife for my back?
    ‘I am not here at the behest of the Empress, Captain.
    Gamet’s eyes narrowed.
    ‘No harm is to come to her,’ the man went on after a moment. ‘Provided I have your full co-operation. But we are running out of time.
    ‘This is Tavore’s answer? What of her parents? There was nothing to suggest that their fate would be any different from that of the others who’d been rounded up.
    ‘Alas, the Adjunct’s options are limited. She is under some… scrutiny.
    ‘What is planned for Felisin, Kollen-or whoever you are?
    ‘A brief stint in the otataral mines-’
    ‘What!?
    ‘She will not be entirely alone. A guardian will accompany her. Understand, Captain, it is this, or the mob outside.
    Nine loyal guards cut down, blood on the floors and walls, a handful of servants overwhelmed at flimsy barricades outside the child’s bedroom door. Then, for the child… no-one.Who is this “guardian”, then, Kollen?’
    The man smiled. ‘Me, Captain. And no, my true name is not Kollen.
    Gamet stepped up to him, until their faces were but a hand’s width apart. ‘If any harm comes to her, I will find you. And I don’t care if you’re a Claw-’
    ‘I am not a Claw, Captain. As for harm coming to Felisin, I regret to say that there will be some. It cannot be helped. We must hope she is resilient-it is a Paran trait, yes?
    After a long moment, Gamet stepped back, suddenly resigned. ‘Do you kill us now or later?
    The man’s brows rose. ‘I doubt I could manage that, given those crossbows levelled behind me. No, but I am to ask that you now escort me to a safe house. At all costs, we must not permit the child to fall into the mob’s hands. Can I rely upon your help in this, Captain?
    ‘Where is this safe house?
    ‘On the Avenue of Souls.’
    Gamet grimaced. Judgement’s Round. To the chains. Oh, Beru guard you, lass. He strode past Kollen. ‘I will awaken her.’

    Pearl stood at the round table, leaning on both hands, his head lowered as he studied the scroll. The Adjunct had departed half a bell past, her Fist on her heels like a misshapen shadow. Lostara waited, arms crossed, with her back against the door through which Tavore and Gamet had left. She had held silent during the length of Pearl’s perusal of the scroll, her anger and frustration growing with each passing moment.
    Finally, she’d had enough. ‘I will have no part of this. Return me to Tene Baralta’s command.’
    Pearl did not look up. ‘As you wish, my dear,’ he murmured, then added: ‘Of course I will have to kill you at some point-certainly before you report to your commander. It’s the hard rules of clandestine endeavours, I regret to say.’
    ‘Since when are you at the Adjunct’s beck and call, Pearl?’
    ‘Why,’ he glanced up and met her gaze, ‘ever since she unequivocally reasserted her loyalty to the Empress, of course.’ He returned his attention to the scroll.
    Lostara scowled. ‘I’m sorry, I think I missed that part of the conversation.’
    ‘Not surprising,’ Pearl replied, ‘since it resided in between the words actually spoken.’ He smiled at her. ‘Precisely where it belonged.’
    With a hiss, Lostara began pacing, struggled against an irrational desire to take a knife blade to these damned tapestries and their endless scenes of past glories. ‘You will have to explain, Pearl,’ she growled.
    ‘And will that relieve your conscience sufficiently to return you to my side? Very well. The resurgence of the noble class in the chambers of imperial power has been uncommonly swift. Indeed, one might say unnaturally so. Almost as if they were receiving help-but who? we wondered. Oh, absurd rumours of the return of the Talons persisted. And every now and then some poor fool who’d been arrested for something completely unrelated went and confessed to being a Talon, but they were young, caught up in romantic notions and the lure of cults and whatnot. They might well call themselves Talons, but they did not even come close to the real organization, to Dancer’s own-of which many of us Claw possessed firsthand experience.
    ‘In any case, back to the matter at hand. Tavore is of noble blood, and it’s now clear that a truly covert element of Talons has returned to plague us, and has been making use of the nobility. Placing sympathetic agents in the military and administration-a mutually profitable infiltration. But Tavore is now the Adjunct, and as such, her old ties, her old loyalties, must needs be severed.’ Pearl paused to tap a finger on the laid-out scroll before him. ‘She has given us the Talons, Captain. We will find this Baudin Younger, and from him we will unravel the entire organization.’
    Lostara said nothing for a long moment. ‘In a sense, then,’ she said, ‘our mission is not extraneous to the interests of the empire after all.’ Pearl flashed a smile.
    ‘But if so,’ Lostara continued, ‘why didn’t the Adjunct just say so?’
    ‘Oh, I think we can leave that question unanswered for the time being-’
    ‘No, I would have it answered now!’
    Pearl sighed. ‘Because, my dear, for Tavore, the surrendering of the Talons is secondary to our finding Felisin. And that is extraneous, and not only extraneous, but also damning. Do you think the Empress would smile upon this clever little scheme, the lie behind this all-too-public demonstration of the new Adjunct’s loyalty? Sending her sister to the otataral mines! Hood take us all, that’s a hard woman! The Empress has chosen well, has she not?’
    Lostara grimaced. Chosen well… based on what, though? ‘Indeed she has.’
    ‘Aye, I agree. It’s a fair exchange in any case-we save Felisin and are rewarded with a principal agent of the Talons. The Empress will no doubt wonder what we were doing out on the Otataral Isle in the first place-’
    ‘You will have to lie to her, won’t you?’
    Pearl’s smile broadened. ‘We both will, lass. As would the Adjunct, and Fist Gamet if it came to that. Unless, of course, I take what the Adjunct has offered me. Offered me personally, that is.’
    Lostara slowly nodded. ‘You are at a loose end. Yes. Out of favour with the Clawmaster and the Empress. Eager to make reparations. An independent mission-you somehow latched onto the rumour of a true Talon, and set off on his trail. Thus, the credit for unravelling the Talons is to be yours, and yours alone.’
    ‘Or ours,’ Pearl corrected. ‘If you so desire.’
    She shrugged. ‘We can decide that later. Very well, Pearl. Now,’ she moved to his side, ‘what are these details with which the Adjunct has so kindly provided us?’

    Admiral Nok had been facing the hearth, his gaze on its cold ashes. At the sound of the door opening, he slowly turned, his expression as impassive as ever.
    ‘Thank you,’ the Adjunct said, ‘for your patience.’
    The admiral said nothing, his level gaze shifting to Gamet for a moment.
    The midnight bell’s muted echoes were only now fading. The Fist was exhausted, feeling fragile and scattered, unable to meet Nok’s eyes for very long. This night, he’d been little more than the Adjunct’s pet, or worse, a familiar. Tacitly conjoined with her plans within plans, bereft of even so much as the illusion of a choice. When Tavore had first drawn him into her entourage-shortly after Felisin’s arrest-Gamet had briefly considered slipping away, vanishing in the time-honoured tradition of Malazan soldiers who found themselves in unwelcome circumstances. But he hadn’t, and his reasons for joining the Adjunct’s core of advisers-not that they were ever invited to advise-had, upon ruthless self-reflection, proved less than laudable. He had been driven by macabre curiosity. Tavore had ordered the arrests of her parents, had sent her younger sister into the horrors of the otataral mines. For her career’s sake. Her brother, Paran, had in some way been disgraced on Genabackis. He had subsequently deserted. An embarrassment, granted, but surely not sufficient to warrant Tavore’s reaction. Unless… There were rumours that the lad had been an agent of Adjunct Lorn’s, and that his desertion had led, ultimately, to the woman’s death in Darujhistan. Yet, if that were true, then why did the Empress turn her royal gaze upon another child of the House of Paran? Why make Tavore the new Adjunct? ‘Fist Gamet.’ He blinked. ‘Adjunct?’
    ‘Seat yourself, please. I would have some final words with you, but they can wait for the time being.’
    Nodding, Gamet glanced around until he spied the lone high-backed chair set against one of the small room’s walls. It looked anything but comfortable, which was probably an advantage, given his weariness.
    Ominous creaks sounded when he settled into the chair and he grimaced. ‘No wonder Pormqual didn’t send this one off with all the rest,’ he muttered.
    ‘It is my understanding,’ Nok said, ‘that the transport ship in question sank in the harbour of Malaz City, taking the late High Fist’s loot with it.’
    Gamet’s wiry brows rose. ‘All that way… just to sink in the harbour? What happened?’
    The admiral shrugged. ‘None of the crew reached the shore to tell the tale.’
    None?
    Nok seemed to note his scepticism, for he elaborated, ‘Malaz Harbour is well known for its sharks. A number of dories were found, all awash but otherwise empty.’
    The Adjunct had, uncharacteristically, been permitting the exchange to continue, leading Gamet to wonder if Tavore had sensed a hidden significance to the mysterious loss of the transport ship. Now she spoke. ‘It remains, then, a peculiar curse-unexplained founderings, empty dories, lost crews. Malaz Harbour is indeed notorious for its sharks, particularly since they seem uniquely capable of eating victims whole, leaving no remnants whatsoever.’
    ‘There are sharks that can do just that,’ Nok replied. ‘I know of at least twelve ships on the muddy bottom of the harbour in question-’
    ‘Including the Twisted,’ the Adjunct drawled, ‘the old emperor’s flagship, which mysteriously slipped its moorings the night after the assassinations, then promptly plummeted into the deeps, taking its resident demon with it.’
    ‘Perhaps it likes company,’ Nok observed. ‘The island’s fishermen all swear the harbour’s haunted, after all. The frequency with which nets are lost-’
    ‘Admiral,’ Tavore cut in, her eyes resting on the dead hearth, ‘there is you, and three others. All who are left.’
    Gamet slowly straightened in his chair. Three others. High Mage Tayschrenn, Dujek Onearm, and Whiskeyjack. Four… gods, is that all now? Tattersail, Bellurdan, Nightchill, Duikerso many fallen-
    Admiral Nok was simply studying the Adjunct. He had stood against the wrath of the Empress, first with Cartheron Crust’s disappearance, then Urko’s and Ameron’s. Whatever answers he had given, he had done so long ago.
    ‘I do not speak for the Empress,’ Tavore said after a moment. ‘Nor am I interested in… details. What interests me is… a matter of personal… curiosity. I would seek to understand, Admiral, why they abandoned her.’
    There was silence, filling the room, growing towards something like an impasse. Gamet leaned back and closed his eyes. Ah, lass, you ask questions of… of loyalty, as would someone who has never experienced it. You reveal to this admiral what can only be construed as a critical flaw. You command the Fourteenth Army, Adjunct, yet you do so in isolation, raising the very barricades you must needs take down if you would truly lead. What does Nok think of this, now? Is it any wonder he does not-
    ‘The answer to your question,’ the admiral said, ‘lies in what was both a strength and a flaw of the Emperor’s… family. The family that he gathered to raise an empire. Kellanved began with but one companion-Dancer. The two then hired a handful of locals in Malaz City and set about conquering the criminal element in the city-I should point out, that criminal element happened to rule the entire island. Their target was Mock, Malaz Island’s unofficial ruler. A pirate, and a cold-blooded killer.’
    ‘Who were these first hirelings, Admiral?’
    ‘Myself, Ameron, Dujek, a woman named Hawl-my wife. I had been First Mate to a corsair that worked the sea lanes around the Napan Isles-which had just been annexed by Unta and were providing a staging point for the Untan king’s planned invasion of Kartool. We’d taken a beating and had limped into Malaz Harbour, only to have the ship and its crew arrested by Mock, who was negotiating a trade of prisoners with Unta. Only Ameron and Hawl and I escaped. A lad named Dujek discovered where we were holed up and he delivered us to his new employers. Kellanved and Dancer.’
    ‘Was this before they were granted entry into the Deadhouse?’ Gamet asked.
    ‘Aye, but only just. Our residency in the Deadhouse rewarded us with-as is now clearly evident-certain gifts. Longevity, immunity to most diseases, and… other things. The Deadhouse also provided us with an unassailable base of operations. Dancer later bolstered our numbers by recruiting among the refugee Napans who’d fled the conquest: Cartheron Crust and his brother, Urko. And Surly-Laseen. Three more men were to follow shortly thereafter. Toc Elder, Dassem Ultor-who was, like Kellanved, of Dal Honese blood-and a renegade High Septarch of the D’rek Cult, Tayschrenn. And finally, Duiker.’ He half smiled at Tavore. ‘The family. With which Kellanved conquered Malaz Island. Swiftly done, with minimal losses…’
    Minimal… ‘Your wife,’ Gamet said.
    ‘Yes, her.’ After a long moment, he shrugged and continued, ‘To answer you, Adjunct. Unknown to the rest of us, the Napans among us were far more than simple refugees. Surly was of the royal line. Crust and Urko had been captains in the Napan fleet, a fleet that would have likely repelled the Untans if it hadn’t been virtually destroyed by a sudden storm. As it turned out, theirs was a singular purpose-to crush the Untan hegemony-and they planned on using Kellanved to achieve that. In a sense, that was the first betrayal within the family, the first fissure. Easily healed, it seemed, since Kellanved already possessed imperial ambitions, and of the two major rivals on the mainland, Unta was by far the fiercest.’
    ‘Admiral,’ Tavore said, ‘I see where this leads. Surly’s assassination of Kellanved and Dancer shattered that family irrevocably, but that is precisely where my understanding falters. Surly had taken the Napan cause to its penultimate conclusion. Yet it was not you, not Tayschrenn, Duiker, Dassem Ultor or Toc Elder who… disappeared. It was… Napans.’
    ‘Barring Ameron,’ Gamet pointed out.
    The admiral’s lined face stretched as he bared his teeth in a humourless grin. ‘Ameron was half-Napan.’
    ‘So it was only the Napans who deserted the new Empress?’ Gamet stared up at Nok, now as confused as Tavore. ‘Yet Surly was of the royal Napan line?’
    Nok said nothing for a long time, then he sighed. ‘Shame is a fierce, vigorous poison. To now serve the new Empress… complicity and damnation. Crust, Urko and Ameron were not party to the betrayal… but who would believe them? Who could not help but see them as party to the murderous plot? Yet, in truth,’ his eyes met Tavore’s, ‘Surly had included none of us in her scheme-she could not afford to. She had the Claw, and that was all she needed.’
    ‘And where were the Talons in all this?’ Gamet asked, then cursed himself-ah, gods, too tired-
    Nok’s eyes widened for the first time that night. ‘You’ve a sharp memory, Fist.’
    Gamet clamped his jaws tight, sensing the Adjunct’s hard stare fixing on him.
    The admiral continued, ‘I am afraid I have no answer to that. I was not in Malaz City on that particular night; nor have I made enquiries to those who were. The Talons essentially vanished with Dancer’s death. It was widely believed that the Claw had struck them down in concert with the assassinations of Dancer and the Emperor.’
    The Adjunct’s tone was suddenly curt. ‘Thank you, Admiral, for your words this night. I will keep you no longer.’
    The man bowed, then strode from the room.
    Gamet waited with held breath, ready for her fiercest castigation. Instead, she simply sighed. ‘You have much work ahead of you, Fist, in assembling your legion. Best retire now.’
    ‘Adjunct,’ he acknowledged, pushing himself to his feet. He hesitated, then with a nod strode to the door.
    ‘Gamet.’
    He turned. ‘Yes?’
    ‘Where is T’amber?’
    ‘She awaits you in your chambers, Adjunct.’
    ‘Very well. Goodnight, Fist.’
    ‘And to you, Adjunct.’

    Buckets of salt water had been sloshed across the cobbled centre aisle of the stables, which had the effect of damping the dust and sending the biting flies into a frenzy, as well as making doubly rank the stench of horse piss. Strings, standing just within the doors, could already feel his sinuses stinging. His searching gaze found four figures seated on bound rolls of straw near the far end. Scowling, the Bridgeburner shifted the weight of the pack on his shoulder, then headed over.
    ‘Who was the bright spark missing the old smells of home?’ he drawled as he approached.
    The half-Seti warrior named Koryk grunted, then said, ‘That would be Lieutenant Ranal, who then had a quick excuse to leave us for a time.’ He’d found a flap of hide from somewhere and was cutting long strands from it with a thin-bladed pig-sticker. Strings had seen his type before, obsessed with tying things down, or worse, tying things to their bodies. Not just fetishes, but loot, extra equipment, tufts of grass or leafy branches depending on the camouflage being sought. In this case, Strings half expected to see twists of straw sprouting from the man.
    For centuries the Seti had fought a protracted war with the city-states of Quon and Li Heng, defending the barely inhabitable lands that had been their traditional home. Hopelessly outnumbered and perpetually on the run, they had learned the art of hiding the hard way. But the Seti lands had been pacified for sixty years now; almost three generations had lived in that ambivalent, ambiguous border that was the edge of civilization. The various tribes had dissolved into a single, murky nation, with mixed-bloods coming to dominate the population. What had befallen them had been the impetus, in fact, for Coltaine’s rebellion and the Wickan Wars-for Coltaine had clearly seen that a similar fate awaited his own people.
    It was not, Strings had come to believe, a question of right and wrong. Some cultures were inward-looking. Others were aggressive. The former were rarely capable of mustering a defence against the latter, not without metamorphosing into some other thing, a thing twisted by the exigencies of desperation and violence. The original Seti had not even ridden horses. Yet now they were known as horse warriors, a taller, darker-skinned and more morose kind of Wickan.
    Strings knew little of Koryk’s personal history, but he felt he could guess. Half-bloods did not lead pleasant lives. That Koryk had chosen to emulate the old Seti ways, whilst joining the Malazan army as a marine rather than a horse warrior, spoke tomes of the clash in the man’s scarred soul.
    Setting down his pack, Strings stood before the four recruits. ‘As much as I hate to confess it, I am now your sergeant. Officially, you’re 4th Squad, one of three squads under Lieutenant Ranal’s command. The 5th and 6th squads are supposedly on their way over from the tent city west of Aren. We’re all in the 9th Company, which consists of three squads of heavy infantry, three of marines, and eighteen squads of medium infantry. Our commander is a man named Captain Keneb-and no, I’ve not met him and know nothing of him. Nine companies in all, making up the 8th Legion-us. The 8th is under the command of Fist Gamet, who I gather is a veteran who’d retired to the Adjunct’s household before she became the Adjunct.’ He paused, grimacing at the slightly glazed faces before him. ‘But never mind all that. You’re in the 4th Squad. We’ve got one more coming, but even with that one we’re undermanned as a squad, but so are all the others and before you ask, I ain’t privy to the reasons for that. Now, any questions yet?’
    Three men and one young woman sat in silence, staring up at him.
    Strings sighed, and pointed to the nondescript soldier sitting to Koryk’s left. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
    A bewildered look, then, ‘My real name, Sergeant, or the one the drill sergeant in Malaz City gave me?’
    By the man’s accent and his pale, stolid features, Strings knew him as being from Li Heng. That being the case, his real name was probably a mouthful: nine, ten or even fifteen names all strung together. ‘Your new one, soldier.’
    ‘Tarr.’
    Koryk spoke up. ‘If you’d seen him on the training ground, you’d understand. Once he’s planted his feet behind that shield of his, you could hit him with a battering ram and he won’t budge.’
    Strings studied Tarr’s placid, pallid eyes. ‘All right. You’re now Corporal Tarr-’
    The woman, who’d been chewing on a straw, suddenly choked.
    Coughing, spitting out pieces of the straw, she glared up at Strings with disbelief. ‘What? Him? He never says nothing, never does nothing unless he’s told, never-’
    ‘Glad to hear all that,’ Strings cut in laconically. ‘The perfect corporal, especially that bit about not talking.’
    The woman’s expression tightened, then unveiled a small sneer as she looked away in feigned disinterest.
    ‘And what is your name, soldier?’ Strings asked her.
    ‘My real name-’
    ‘I don’t care what you used to be called. None of you. Most of us get new ones and that’s just the way it is.’
    ‘I didn’t,’ Koryk growled.
    Ignoring him, Strings continued, ‘Your name, lass?’
    Sour contempt at the word lass.
    ‘Drill sergeant named her Smiles,’ Koryk said.
    ‘Smiles?’
    ‘Aye. She never does.’
    Eyes narrowing, Strings swung to the last soldier, a rather plain young man wearing leathers but no weapon. ‘And yours?’
    ‘Bottle.’
    ‘Who was your drill sergeant?’ he demanded to the four recruits.
    Koryk leaned back as he replied, ‘Braven Tooth-’
    ‘Braven Tooth! That bastard’s still alive?’
    ‘It was hard to tell at times,’ Smiles muttered.
    ‘Until his temper snapped,’ Koryk added. ‘Just ask Corporal Tarr there. Braven Tooth spent near two bells pounding on him with a mace. Couldn’t get past the shield.’
    Strings glared at his new corporal. ‘Where’d you learn that skill?’
    The man shrugged. ‘Don’t know. Don’t like getting hit.’
    ‘Well, do you ever counter-attack?’
    Tarr frowned. ‘Sure. When they’re tired.’
    Strings was silent for a long moment. Braven Tooth-he was dumbfounded. The bastard was grizzled back when… when the whole naming thing began. It had been Braven who’d started it. Braven who’d named most of the Bridgeburners. Whiskeyjack. Trotts, Mallet, Hedge, Blend, Picker, Toes… Fiddler himself had avoided a new name through his basic training; it had been Whiskeyjack who’d named him, on that first ride through Raraku. He shook his head, glanced sidelong at Tarr. ‘You should be a heavy infantryman, Corporal, with a talent like that. The marines are supposed to be fast, nimble-avoiding the toe-to-toe whenever possible or, if there’s no choice, making it quick.’
    ‘I’m good with a crossbow,’ Tarr said, shrugging.
    ‘And a fast loader,’ Koryk added. ‘It was that that made Braven decide to make him a marine.’
    Smiles spoke. ‘So who named Braven Tooth, Sergeant?’
    I did, after the bastard left one of his in my shoulder the night of the brawl. The brawl we all later denied happening. Gods, so many years ago, now… ‘I have no idea,’ he said. He shifted his attention back to the man named Bottle. ‘Where’s your sword, soldier?’
    ‘I don’t use one.’
    ‘Well, what do you use?’
    The man shrugged. ‘This and that.’
    ‘Well, Bottle, someday I’d like to hear how you got through basic training without picking up a weapon-no, not now. Not tomorrow either, not even next week. For now, tell me what I should be using you for.’
    ‘Scouting. Quiet work.’
    ‘As in sneaking up behind someone. What do you do then? Tap him on the shoulder? Never mind.’ This man smells like a mage to me, only he doesn’t want to advertise it. Fine, be that way, we’ll twist it out of you sooner or later.
    ‘I do the same kind of work,’ Smiles said. She settled a forefinger on the pommel of one of the two thin-bladed knives at her belt. ‘But I finish things with these.’
    ‘So there’s only two soldiers in this outfit who can actually fight toe-to-toe?’
    ‘You said one more’s coming,’ Koryk pointed out.
    ‘We can all handle crossbows,’ Smiles added. ‘Except for Bottle.’
    They heard voices from outside the commandeered stables, then figures appeared in the doorway, six in all, burdened with equipment. A deep voice called, ‘You put the latrine trench outside the barracks, for Hood’s sake! Bastards don’t teach ya anything these days?’
    ‘Compliments of Lieutenant Ranal,’ Strings said.
    The soldier who’d spoken was in the lead as the squad approached. ‘Right. Met him.’
    Aye, nothing more need be said on that. ‘I’m Sergeant Strings-we’re the 4th.’
    ‘Well hey,’ a second soldier said, grinning through his bushy red beard, ‘someone can count after all. These marines are full of surprises.’
    ‘Fifth,’ the first soldier said. There was a strange, burnished cast to the man’s skin, making Strings doubt his initial guess that he was Falari. Then he noted an identical sheen to the red-bearded soldier, as well as on a much younger man. ‘I’m Gesler,’ the first soldier added. ‘Temporarily sergeant of this next-to-useless squad.’
    The red-bearded man dropped his pack to the floor. ‘We was coastal guards, me and Gesler and Truth. I’m Stormy. But Coltaine made us marines-’
    ‘Not Coltaine,’ Gesler corrected. ‘Captain Lull, it was, Queen harbour his poor soul.’
    Strings simply stared at the two men.
    Stormy scowled. ‘Got a problem with us?’ he demanded, face darkening.
    ‘Adjutant Stormy,’ Strings muttered. ‘Captain Gesler. Hood’s rattling bones-’
    ‘We ain’t none of those things any more,’ Gesler said. ‘Like I said, I’m now a sergeant, and Stormy’s my corporal. And the rest here… there’s Truth, Tavos Pond, Sands and Pella. Truth’s been with us since Hissar and Pella was a camp guard at the otataral mines-only a handful survived the uprising there, from what I gather.’
    ‘Strings, is it?’ Stormy’s small eyes had narrowed suspiciously. He nudged his sergeant. ‘Hey, Gesler, think we should have done that? Changed our names, I mean. This Strings here is Old Guard as sure as I’m a demon in my dear father’s eye.’
    ‘Let the bastard keep whatever name he wants,’ Gesler muttered. ‘All right, squad, find some place to drop your stuff. The 6th should be showing up any time, and the lieutenant, too. Word is, we’re all being mustered out to face the Adjunct’s lizard eyes in a day or two.’
    The soldier Gesler had named Tavos Pond-a tall, dark, moustached man who was probably Korelri-spoke up. ‘So we should polish our equipment, Sergeant?’
    ‘Polish whatever you like,’ the man replied disinterestedly, ‘just not in public. As for the Adjunct, if she can’t handle a few scuffed up soldiers then she won’t last long. It’s a dusty world out there, and the sooner we blend in the better.’
    Strings sighed. He was feeling more confident already. He faced his own soldiers. ‘Enough sitting on that straw. Start spreading it out to soak up this horse piss.’ He faced Gesler again. ‘A word with you in private?’
    The man nodded. ‘Let’s head back outside.’
    Moments later the two men stood on the cobbled courtyard of the estate that had once housed a well-off local merchant and was now the temporary bivouac for Ranal’s squads. The lieutenant had taken the house proper for himself, leaving Strings wondering what the man did with all those empty rooms.
    They said nothing for a moment, then Strings grinned. ‘I can picture Whiskeyjack’s jaw dropping-the day I tell him you was my fellow sergeant in the new 8th Legion.’
    Gesler scowled. ‘Whiskeyjack. He was busted down to sergeant before I was, the bastard. Mind you, I then made corporal, so I beat him after all.’
    ‘Except now you’re a sergeant again. While Whiskeyjack’s an outlaw. Try beating that.’
    ‘I just might,’ Gesler muttered.
    ‘Got concerns about the Adjunct?’ Strings quietly asked. The courtyard was empty, but even so…
    ‘Met her, you know. Oh, she’s as cold as Hood’s forked tongue. She impounded my ship.’
    ‘You had a ship?’
    ‘By rights of salvage, aye. I was the one who brought Coltaine’s wounded to Aren. And that’s the thanks I get.’
    ‘You could always punch her in the face. That’s what you usually end up doing to your superiors, sooner or later.’
    ‘I could at that. I’d have to get past Gamet, of course. The point I was making is this: she’s never commanded anything more than a damned noble household, and here she’s been handed three legions and told to reconquer an entire subcontinent.’ He glanced sidelong at Strings. ‘There wasn’t many Falari made it into the Bridgeburners. Bad timing, I think, but there was one.’
    ‘Aye, and I’m him.’
    After a moment, Gesler grinned and held out his hand. ‘Strings. Fiddler. Sure.’
    They clasped wrists. To Strings, the other man’s hand and arm felt like solid stone.
    ‘There’s an inn down the street,’ Gesler continued. ‘We need to swap stories, and I guarantee you, mine’s got yours beat by far.’
    ‘Oh, Gesler,’ Strings sighed, ‘I think you’re in for a surprise.’

CHAPTER SIX

    We came within sight of the island, close enough to gaze into the depths through the ancient cedars and firs. And it seemed there was motion within that gloom, as if the shadows of long dead and long fallen trees still remained, swaying and shifting on ghostly winds…
    Quon Sea Charting Expedition of
    Drift Avalii
Hedoranas

    The journey home had been enough, if only to return one last time to the place of beginnings, to crumbled reminiscences amidst sea-thrust coral sands above the tide line, the handful of abandoned shacks battered by countless storms into withered skeletons of wood. Nets lay buried in glistening drifts blinding white in the harsh sunlight. And the track that had led down from the road, overgrown now with wind-twisted grasses… no place from the past survived unchanged, and here, in this small fisher village on the coast of Itko Kan, Hood had walked with thorough and absolute deliberation, leaving not a single soul in his wake.
    Barring the one man who had now returned. And the daughter of that man, who had once been possessed by a god.
    And in the leaning shack that had once housed them both-its frond-woven roof long since stripped away-with the broad, shallow-draught fisherboat close by now showing but a prow and a stern, the rest buried beneath the coral sand, the father had laid himself down and slept.

    Crokus had awakened to soft weeping. Sitting up, he had seen Apsalar kneeling beside the still form of her father. There were plenty of footprints on the floor of the shack from the previous evening’s random explorations, but Crokus noted one set in particular, prints large and far apart yet far too lightly pressed into the damp sand. A silent arrival in the night just past, crossing the single chamber to stand square-footed beside Rellock. Where it had gone after that left no markings in the sand.
    A shiver rippled through the Daru. It was one thing for an old man to die in his sleep, but it was another for Hood himself-or one of his minions-to physically arrive to collect the man’s soul.
    Apsalar’s grief was quiet, barely heard above the hiss of waves on the beach, the faint whistle of the wind through the warped slats in the shack’s walls. She knelt with bowed head, face hidden beneath her long black hair that hung so appropriately like a shawl. Her hands were closed around her father’s right hand.
    Crokus made no move towards her. In the months of their travelling together, he had come, perversely, to know her less and less. Her soul’s depths had become unfathomable, and whatever lay at its heart was otherworldly and… not quite human.
    The god that had possessed her-Cotillion, the Rope, Patron of Assassins within the House of Shadow-had been a mortal man, once, the one known as Dancer who had stood at the Emperor’s side, who had purportedly shared Kellanved’s fate at Laseen’s hands. Of course, neither had died in truth. Instead, they had ascended. Crokus had no idea how such a thing could come to be. Ascendancy was but one of the countless mysteries of the world, a world where uncertainty ruled all-god and mortal alike-and its rules were impenetrable. But, it seemed to him, to ascend was also to surrender. Embracing what to all intents and purposes could be called immortality, was, he had begun to believe, presaged by a turning away. Was it not a mortal’s fate-fate, he knew, was the wrong word, but he could think of no other-was it not a mortal’s fate, then, to embrace life itself, as one would a lover? Life, with all its fraught, momentary fragility.
    And could life not be called a mortal’s first lover? A lover whose embrace was then rejected in that fiery crucible of ascendancy?
    Crokus wondered how far she had gone down that path-for it was a path she was surely on, this beautiful woman no older than him, who moved in appalling silence, with a killer’s terrible grace, this temptress of death.
    The more remote she grew, the more Crokus felt himself drawn forward, to that edge within her. The lure to plunge into that darkness was at times overwhelming, could, at a moment’s thought, turn frantic the beat of his heart and fierce the fire of the blood in his veins. What made the silent invitation so terrifying to him was the seeming indifference with which she offered it to him.
    As if the attraction itself was… self-evident. Not worth even acknowledging. Did Apsalar want him to walk at her side on this path to ascendancy-if that was what it was? Was it Crokus she wanted, or simply… somebody, anybody?
    The truth was this: he had grown afraid to look into her eyes. He rose from his bedroll and quietly made his way outside. There were fisherboats out on the shoals, white sails taut like enormous shark fins plying the sea beyond the breakers. The Hounds had once torn through this area of the coast, leaving naught but corpses, but people had returned-there if not here. Or perhaps they had been returned, forcibly. The land itself had no difficulty absorbing spilled blood; its thirst was indiscriminate, true to the nature of land everywhere.
    Crokus crouched down and collected a handful of white sand. He studied the coral pebbles as they slipped down between his fingers. The land does its own dying, after all. And yet, these are truths we would escape, should we proceed down this path. I wonder, does fear of dying lie at the root of ascendancy?
    If so, then he would never make it, for, somewhere in all that had occurred, all that he had survived in coming to this place, Crokus had lost that fear.
    He sat down, resting his back against the trunk of a massive cedar that had been thrown up onto this beach-roots and all-and drew out his knives. He practised a sequenced shift of grips, each hand reversing the pattern of the other, and stared down until the weapons-and his fingers-became little more than blurs of motion. Then he lifted his head and studied the sea, its rolling breakers in the distance, the triangular sails skidding along beyond the white line of foam. He made the sequence in his right hand random. Then did the same for his left. Thirty paces down the beach waited their single-masted runner, its magenta sail reefed, its hull’s blue, gold and red paint faint stains in the sunlight. A Korelri craft, paid in debt to a local bookmaker in Kan-for an alley in Kan had been the place where Shadowthrone had sent them, not to the road above the village as he had promised.
    The bookmaker had paid the debt in turn to Apsalar and Crokus for a single night’s work that had proved, for Crokus, brutally horrifying. It was one thing to practise passes with the blades, to master the deadly dance against ghosts of the imagination, but he had killed two men that night. Granted, they were murderers, in the employ of a man who was making a career out of extortion and terror. Apsalar had shown no compunction in cutting his throat, no qualms at the spray of blood that spotted her gloved hands and forearms.
    There had been a local with them, to witness the veracity of the night’s work. In the aftermath, as he stood in the doorway and stared down at the three corpses, he’d lifted his head and met Crokus’s eyes. Whatever he saw in them had drained the blood from the man’s face.
    By morning Crokus had acquired a new name. Cutter.
    At first he had rejected it. The local had misread all that had been revealed behind the Daru’s eyes that night. Nothing fierce. The barrier of shock, fast crumbling to self-condemnation. Murdering killers was still murder, the act like the closing of shackles between them all, joining a line of infinite length, one killer to the next, a procession from which there was no escape. His mind had recoiled from the name, recoiled from all that it signified.
    But that had proved a short-lived rectitude. The two murderers had died indeed-at the hands of the man named Cutter. Not Crokus, not the Daru youth, the cutpurse-who had vanished. Vanished, probably never to be seen again.
    The delusion held a certain comfort, as cavernous at its core as Apsalar’s embrace at night, but welcome all the same.
    Cutter would walk her path.
    Aye, the Emperor had Dancer, yes? A companion, for a companion was what was needed. Is needed. Now, she has Cutter. Cutter of the Knives, who dances in his chains as if they were weightless threads. Cutter, who, unlike poor Crokus, knows his place, knows his singular task-to guard her back, to match her cold precision in the deadly arts.
    And therein resided the final truth. Anyone could become a killer. Anyone at all.
    She stepped out of the shack, wan but dry-eyed.
    He sheathed his knives in a single, fluid motion, rose to his feet and faced her.
    ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘What now?’

    Broken pillars of mortared stone jutted from the undulating vista. Among the half-dozen or so within sight, only two rose as tall as a man, and none stood straight. The plain’s strange, colourless grasses gathered in tufts around their bases, snarled and oily in the grey, grainy air.
    As Kalam rode into their midst, the muted thunder of his horse’s hoofs seemed to bounce back across his path, the echoes multiplying until he felt as if he was riding at the head of a mounted army. He slowed his charger’s canter, finally reining in beside one of the battered columns.
    These silent sentinels felt like an intrusion on the solitude he had been seeking. He leaned in his saddle to study the one nearest him. It looked old, old in the way of so many things within the Warren of Shadow, forlorn with an air of abandonment, defying any chance he might have of discerning its function. There were no intervening ruins, no foundation walls, no cellar pits or other angular pocks in the ground. Each pillar stood alone, unaligned.
    His examination settled on a rusted ring set into the stone near the base, from which depended a chain of seized links vanishing into the tufts of grass. After a moment, Kalam dismounted. He crouched down, reaching out to close his hand on the chain. A slight upward tug. The desiccated hand and forearm of some hapless creature lifted from the grasses. Dagger-length talons, four fingers and two thumbs.
    The rest of the prisoner had succumbed to the roots, was half buried beneath dun-coloured, sandy soil. Pallid yellow hair was entwined among the grass blades.
    The hand suddenly twitched.
    Disgusted, Kalam released the chain. The arm dropped back to the ground. A faint, subterranean keening sound rose from the base of the pillar.
    Straightening, the assassin returned to his horse.
    Pillars, columns, tree stumps, platforms, staircases leading nowhere, and for every dozen there was one among them holding a prisoner. None of whom seemed capable of dying. Not entirely. Oh, their minds had died-most of them-long ago. Raving in tongues, murmuring senseless incantations, begging forgiveness, offering bargains, though not one had yet-within Kalam’s hearing-proclaimed its own innocence.
    As if mercy could be an issue without it. He nudged his horse forward once more. This was not a realm to his liking. Not that he’d in truth had much choice in the matter. Bargaining with gods was-for the mortal involved-an exercise in self-delusion. Kalam would rather leave Quick Ben to play games with the rulers of this warren-the wizard had the advantage of enjoying the challenge-no, it was more than that. Quick Ben had left so many knives in so many backs-none of them fatal but none the less sure to sting when tugged, and it was that tugging the wizard loved so much.
    The assassin wondered where his old friend was right now. There’d been trouble-nothing new there-and, since then, naught but silence. And then there was Fiddler. The fool had re-enlisted, for Hood’s sake! Well, at least they’re doing something. Not Kalam, oh no, not Kalam. Thirteen hundred children, resurrected on a whim. Shining eyes following his every move, mapping his every step, memorizing his every gesture-what could he teach them? The art of mayhem? As if children needed help in that.
    A ridge lay ahead. He reached the base and brought his horse into a gentle canter up the slope.
    Besides, Minala seemed to have it all under control. A natural born tyrant, she was, both in public and in private amidst the bedrolls in the half-ruined hovel they shared. And oddly enough, he’d found he was not averse to tyranny. In principle, that is. Things had a way of actually working when someone capable and implacable took charge. And he’d had enough experience taking orders to not chafe at her position of command. Between her and the aptorian demoness, a certain measure of control was being maintained, a host of life skills were being inculcated… stealth, tracking, the laying of ambushes, the setting of traps for game both two- and four-legged, riding, scaling walls, freezing in place, knife throwing and countless other weapon skills, the weapons themselves donated by the warren’s mad rulers-half of them cursed or haunted or fashioned for entirely unhuman hands. The children took to such training with frightening zeal, and the gleam of pride in Minala’s eyes left the assassin… chilled.
    An army in the making for Shadowthrone. An alarming prospect, to say the least.
    He reached the ridge. And suddenly reined in.
    An enormous stone gate surmounted the hill opposite, twin pillars spanned by an arch. Within it, a swirling grey wall. On this side of the gate, the grassy summit flowed with countless, sourceless shadows, as if they were somehow tumbling out from the portal, only to swarm like lost wraiths around its threshold.
    ‘Careful,’ a voice murmured beside Kalam.
    He turned to see a tall, hooded and cloaked figure standing a few paces away, flanked by two Hounds. Cotillion, and his favoured two, Rood and Blind. The beasts sat on their scarred haunches, lurid eyes-seeing and unseeing-on the portal.
    ‘Why should I be careful?’ the assassin asked.
    ‘Oh, the shadows at the gate. They’ve lost their masters… but anyone will do.’
    ‘So this gate is sealed?’
    The hooded head slowly turned. ‘Dear Kalam, is this a flight from our realm? How… ignoble.’
    ‘I said nothing to suggest-’
    ‘Then why does your shadow stretch so yearningly forward?’
    Kalam glanced down at it, then scowled. ‘How should I know? Perhaps it considers its chances better in yonder mob.’
    ‘Chances?’
    ‘For excitement.’
    ‘Ah. Chafing, are you? I would never have guessed.’
    ‘Liar,’ Kalam said. ‘Minala has banished me. But you already know that, which is why you’ve come to find me.’
    ‘I am the Patron of Assassins,’ Cotillion said. ‘I do not mediate marital disputes.’
    ‘Depends on how fierce they get, doesn’t it?’
    ‘Are you ready to kill each other, then?’
    ‘No. I was only making a point.’
    ‘Which was?’
    ‘What are you doing here, Cotillion?’
    The god was silent for a long moment. ‘I have often wondered,’ he finally said, ‘why it is that you, an assassin, offer no obeisance to your patron.’
    Kalam’s brows rose. ‘Since when have you expected it? Hood take us, Cotillion, if it was fanatical worshippers you hungered for, you should never have looked to assassins. By our very natures, we’re antithetical to the notion of subservience-as if you weren’t already aware of that.’ His voice trailed off, and he turned to study the shadow-wreathed figure standing beside him. ‘Mind you, you stood at Kellanved’s side, through to the end. Dancer, it seems, knew both loyalty and servitude…’
    ‘Servitude?’ There was a hint of a smile in the tone.
    ‘Mere expedience? That seems difficult to countenance, given all that the two of you went through. Out with it, Cotillion, what is it you’re asking?’
    ‘Was I asking something?’
    ‘You want me to… serve you, as would a minion his god. Some probably disreputable mission. You need me for something, only you’ve never learned how to ask.’
    Rood slowly rose from his haunches, then stretched, long and languorous. The massive head then swung round, lambent eyes settling on Kalam.
    ‘The Hounds are troubled,’ Cotillion murmured. ‘I can tell,’ the assassin replied drily.
    ‘I have certain tasks before me,’ the god continued, ‘that will consume much of my time for the near future. Whilst at the same time, certain other… activities… must be undertaken. It is one thing to find a loyal subject, but another entirely to find one conveniently positioned, as it were, to be of practical use-’
    Kalam barked a laugh. ‘You went fishing for faithful servants and found your subjects wanting.’
    ‘We could argue interpretation all day,’ Cotillion drawled.
    There was a detectable irony in the god’s voice that pleased Kalam. In spite of his wariness, he admitted that he actually liked Cotillion. Uncle Cotillion, as the child Panek called him. Certainly, between the Patron of Assassins and Shadowthrone, only the former seemed to possess any shred of self-examination-and thus was actually capable of being humbled. Even if the likelihood was in truth remote. ‘Agreed,’ Kalam replied. ‘Very well, Minala has no interest in seeing my pretty face for a time. Leaving me free, more or less-’
    ‘And without a roof over your head.’
    ‘Without a roof over my head, aye. Fortunately it never seems to rain in your realm.’
    ‘Ah,’ Cotillion murmured, ‘my realm.’
    Kalam studied Rood. The beast had not relinquished its steady stare. The assassin was growing nervous under that unwavering attention. ‘Is your claim-yours and Shadowthrone’s-being contested?’
    ‘Difficult to answer,’ Cotillion murmured. ‘There have been… trembles. Agitation…’
    ‘As you said, the Hounds are troubled.’
    ‘They are indeed.’
    ‘You wish to know more of your potential enemy.’
    ‘We would.’
    Kalam studied the gate, the swirling shadows at its threshold. ‘Where would you have me begin?’
    ‘A confluence to your own desires, I suspect.’
    The assassin glanced at the god, then slowly nodded.

    In the half-light of dusk, the seas grew calm, gulls wheeling in from the shoals to settle on the beach. Cutter had built a fire from driftwood, more from the need to be doing something than seeking warmth, for the Kanese coast was subtropical, the breeze sighing down off the verge faint and sultry. The Daru had collected water from the spring near the trail head and was now brewing tea. Overhead, the first stars of night flickered into life.
    Apsalar’s question earlier that afternoon had gone unanswered. Cutter was not yet ready to return to Darujhistan, and he felt nothing of the calm he’d expected to follow the completion of their task. Rellock and Apsalar had, finally, returned to their home, only to find it a place haunted by death, a haunting that had slipped its fatal flavour into the old man’s soul, adding yet one more ghost to this forlorn strand. There was, now, nothing for them here.
    Cutter’s own experience here in the Malazan Empire was, he well knew, twisted and incomplete. A single vicious night in Malaz City, followed by three tense days in Kan that closed with yet more assassinations. The empire was a foreign place, of course, and one could expect a certain degree of discord between it and what he was used to in Darujhistan, but if anything what he had seen of daily life in the cities suggested a stronger sense of lawfulness, of order and calm. Even so, it was the smaller details that jarred his sensibilities the most, that reinforced the fact that he was a stranger.
    Feeling vulnerable was not a weakness he shared with Apsalar. She seemed possessed of absolute calm, an ease, no matter where she was-the confidence of the god who once possessed her had left something of a permanent imprint on her soul. Not just confidence. He thought once more of the night she had killed the man in Kan. Deadly skills, and the icy precision necessary when using them. And, he recalled with a shiver, many of the god’s own memories remained with her, reaching back to when the god had been a mortal man, had been Dancer. Among those, the night of the assassinations-when the woman who would become Empress had struck down the Emperor… and Dancer.
    She had revealed that much, at least, a revelation devoid of feeling, of sentiment, delivered as casually as a comment about the weather. Memories of biting knives, of dust-covered blood rolling like pellets across a floor…
    He removed the pot from the coals, threw a handful of herbs into the steaming water.
    She had gone for a walk, westward along the white beach. Even as dusk settled, he had lost sight of her, and he had begun to wonder if she was ever coming back.
    A log settled suddenly, flinging sparks. The sea had grown entirely dark, invisible; he could not even hear the lap of the waves beyond the crackling fire. A cooler breath rode the breeze.
    Cutter slowly rose, then spun round to face inland as something moved in the gloom beyond the fire’s light. ‘Apsalar?’
    There was no reply. A faint thumping underfoot, as if the sands trembled to the passage of something huge… huge and four-legged.
    The Daru drew out his knives, stepping away from the flickering light.
    Ten paces away, at a height to match his own, he saw two glowing eyes, set wide, gold and seemingly depthless. The head and the body beneath it were darker stains in the night, hinting at a mass that left Cutter cold.
    ‘Ah,’ a voice said from the shadows to his left, ‘the Daru lad. Blind has found you, good. Now, where is your companion?’
    Cutter slowly sheathed his weapons. ‘That damned Hound gave me a start,’ he muttered. ‘And if it’s blind, why is it looking straight at me?’
    ‘Well, her name is something of a misnomer. She sees, but not as we see.’ A cloaked figure stepped into the firelight. ‘Do you know me?’
    ‘Cotillion,’ Cutter replied. ‘Shadowthrone is much shorter.’
    ‘Not that much, though perhaps in his affectations he exaggerates certain traits.’
    ‘What do you want?’
    ‘I would speak with Apsalar, of course. There is the smell of death here… recent, that is-’
    ‘Rellock. Her father. In his sleep.’
    ‘Unfortunate.’ The god’s hooded head turned, as if scanning the vicinity, then swung back to face Cutter. ‘Am I your patron now?’ he asked.
    He wanted to answer no. He wanted to back away, to flee the question and all his answer would signify. He wanted to unleash vitriol at the suggestion. ‘I believe you might be at that, Cotillion.’
    ‘I am… pleased, Crokus.’
    ‘I am now named Cutter.’
    ‘Far less subtle, but apt enough, I suppose. Even so, there was the hint of deadly charm in your old Daru name. Are you sure you will not reconsider?’
    Cutter shrugged, then said, ‘Crokus had no… patron god.’
    ‘Of course. And one day, a man will arrive in Darujhistan. With a Malazan name, and no-one will know him, except perhaps by reputation. And he will eventually hear tales of the young Crokus, a lad so instrumental in saving the city on the night of the Fete, all those years ago. Innocent, unsullied Crokus. So be it… Cutter. I see you have a boat.’
    The change of subject startled him slightly, then he nodded. ‘We have.’
    ‘Sufficiently provisioned?’
    ‘More or less. Not for a long voyage, though.’
    ‘No, of course not. Why should it be? May I see your knives?’
    Cutter unsheathed them and passed them across to the god, pommels forward.
    ‘Decent blades,’ Cotillion murmured. ‘Well balanced. Within them are the echoes of your skill, the taste of blood. Shall I bless them for you, Cutter?’
    ‘If the blessing is without magic,’ the Daru replied.
    ‘You desire no sorcerous investment?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Ah. You would follow Rallick Nom’s path.’
    Cutter’s eyes narrowed. Oh, yes, he would recall him. When he saw through Sorry’s eyes, at the Phoenix Inn, perhaps. Or maybe Rallick acknowledged his patron… though I find that difficult to believe. ‘I think I would have trouble following that path, Cotillion. Rallick’s abilities are… were-’
    ‘Formidable, yes. I do not think you need use the past tense when speaking of Rallick Nom, or Vorcan for that matter. No, I’ve no news… simply a suspicion.’ He handed the knives back. ‘You underestimate your own skills, Cutter, but perhaps that is for the best.’
    ‘I don’t know where Apsalar’s gone,’ Cutter said. ‘I don’t know if she’s coming back.’
    ‘As it has turned out, her presence has proved less vital than expected. I have a task for you, Cutter. Are you amenable to providing a service to your patron?’
    ‘Isn’t that expected?’
    Cotillion was silent for a moment, then he laughed softly. ‘No, I shall not take advantage of your… inexperience, though I admit to some temptation. Shall we begin things on a proper footing? Reciprocity, Cutter. A relationship of mutual exchanges, yes?’
    ‘Would that you had offered the same to Apsalar.’ Then he clamped his jaw shut.
    But Cotillion simply sighed. ‘Would that I had. Consider this new tact the consequence of difficult lessons.’
    ‘You said reciprocity. What will I receive in return for providing this service?’
    ‘Well, since you’ll not accept my blessing or any other investment, I admit to being at something of a loss. Any suggestions?’
    ‘I’d like some questions answered.’
    ‘Indeed.’
    ‘Yes. Such as, why did you and Shadowthrone scheme to destroy Laseen and the empire? Was it just a desire for revenge?’
    The god seemed to flinch within his robes, and Cutter felt unseen eyes harden. ‘Oh my,’ Cotillion drawled, ‘you force me to reconsider my offer.’
    ‘I would know,’ the Daru pressed on, ‘so I can understand what you did… did to Apsalar.’
    ‘You demand that your patron god justify his actions?’
    ‘It wasn’t a demand. Just a question.’ Cotillion said nothing for a long moment.
    The fire was slowly dying, embers pulsing with the breeze. Cutter sensed the presence of a second Hound somewhere in the darkness beyond, moving restlessly.
    ‘Necessities,’ the god said quietly. ‘Games are played, and what may appear precipitous might well be little more than a feint. Or perhaps it was the city itself, Darujhistan, that would serve our purposes better if it remained free, independent. There are layers of meaning behind every gesture, every gambit. I will not explain myself any further than that, Cutter.’
    ‘Do-do you regret what you did?’
    ‘You are indeed fearless, aren’t you? Regret? Yes. Many, many regrets. One day, perhaps, you will see for yourself that regrets are as nothing. The value lies in how they are answered.’
    Cutter slowly turned and stared out into the darkness of the sea. ‘I threw Oponn’s coin into the lake,’ he said.
    ‘And do you now regret the act?’
    ‘I’m not sure. I didn’t like their… attention.’
    ‘I am not surprised,’ Cotillion muttered.
    ‘I have one more request,’ Cutter said, facing the god again. ‘This task you shall set me on-if I am assailed during it, can I call upon Blind?’
    ‘The Hound?’ The astonishment was clear in Cotillion’s voice.
    ‘Aye,’ Cutter replied, his gaze now on the huge beast. ‘Her attention… comforts me.’
    ‘That makes you rarer than you could imagine, mortal. Very well. If the need is dire, call upon her and she will come.’
    Cutter nodded. ‘Now, what would you have me do on your behalf?’

    The sun had cleared the horizon when Apsalar returned. After a few hours’ sleep, Cutter had risen to bury Rellock above the tide line. He was checking the boat’s hull one last time when a shadow appeared alongside his own.
    ‘You had visitors,’ she said.
    He squinted up at her, studied her dark, depthless eyes. ‘Aye.’
    ‘And do you now have an answer to my question?’
    Cutter frowned, then he sighed and nodded. ‘I do. We’re to explore an island.’
    ‘An island? Is it far?’
    ‘Middling, but getting farther by the moment.’
    ‘Ah. Of course.’
    Of course.
    Overhead, gulls cried in the morning air on their way out to sea. Beyond the shoals, their white specks followed the wind, angling south-westward.
    Cutter set his shoulder to the prow and pushed the craft back out onto the water. Then he clambered aboard. Apsalar joined him, making her way to the tiller.
    What now? A god had given him his answer.

    There had been no sunset in the realm the Tiste Edur called the Nascent for five months. The sky was grey, the light strangely hued and diffuse. There had been a flood, and then rains, and a world had been destroyed.
    Even in the wreckage, however, there was life.
    A score of broad-limbed catfish had clambered onto the mud-caked wall, none less than two man-lengths from blunt head to limp tail. They were well-fed creatures, their silvery-white bellies protruding out to the sides. Their skins had dried and fissures were visible in a latticed web across their dark backs. The glitter of their small black eyes was muted beneath the skin’s crinkled layer.
    And it seemed those eyes were unaware of the solitary T’lan Imass standing over them.
    Echoes of curiosity still clung to Onrack’s tattered, desiccated soul. Joints creaking beneath the knotted ropes of ligaments, he crouched beside the nearest catfish. He did not think the creatures were dead. Only a short time ago, these fish had possessed no true limbs. He was witness, he suspected, to a metamorphosis.
    After a moment, he slowly straightened. The sorcery that had sustained the wall against the vast weight of the new sea still held along this section. It had crumbled in others, forming wide breaches and foaming torrents of silt-laden water rushing through to the other side. A shallow sea was spreading out across the land on that side. There might come a time, Onrack suspected, when fragments of this wall were this realm’s only islands.
    The sea’s torrential arrival had caught them unawares, scattering them in its tumbling maelstrom. Other kin had survived, the T’lan Imass knew, and indeed some had found purchase on this wall, or on floating detritus, sufficient to regain their forms, to link once more so that the hunt could resume.
    But Kurald Emurlahn, fragmented or otherwise, was not amenable to the T’lan Imass. Without a Bonecaster beside him, Onrack could not extend his Tellann powers, could not reach out to his kin, could not inform them that he had survived. For most of his kind, that alone would have been sufficient cause for… surrender. The roiling waters he had but recently crawled from offered true oblivion. Dissolution was the only escape possible from this eternal ritual, and even among the Logros-Guardians of the First Throne itself-Onrack knew of kin who had chosen that path. Or worse…
    The warrior’s contemplation of choosing an end to his existence was momentary. In truth, he was far less haunted by his immortality than most T’lan Imass.
    There was always something else to see, after all.
    He detected movement beneath the skin of the nearest catfish, vague hints of contraction, of emerging awareness. Onrack drew forth his two-handed, curved obsidian sword. Most things he stumbled upon usually had to be killed. Occasionally in self-defence, but often simply due to an immediate and probably mutual loathing. He had long since ceased questioning why this should be so.
    From his massive shoulders hung the rotted skin of an enkar’al, pebbled and colourless. It was a relatively recent acquisition, less than a thousand years old. Another example of a creature that had hated him on first sight. Though perhaps the black rippled blade swinging at its head had tainted its response.
    It would be some time, Onrack judged, before the beast crawled out from its skin. He lowered his weapon and stepped past it. The Nascent’s extraordinary, continent-spanning wall was a curiosity in itself. After a moment, the warrior decided to walk its length. Or at least, until his passage was blocked by a breach.
    He began walking, hide-wrapped feet scuffing as he dragged them forward, the point of the sword inscribing a desultory furrow in the dried clay as it trailed from his left hand. Clumps of mud clung to his ragged hide shirt and the leather straps of his weapon harness. Silty, soupy water had seeped into the various gashes and punctures on his body and now leaked in trickling runnels with every heavy step he took. He had possessed a helm once, an impressive trophy from his youth, but it had been shattered at the final battle against the Jaghut family in the Jhag Odhan. A single crossways blow that had also shorn away a fifth of his skull, parietal and temporal, on the right side. Jaghut women had deceptive strength and admirable ferocity, especially when cornered.
    The sky above him had a sickly cast, but one he had already grown used to. This fragment of the long-fractured Tiste Edur warren was by far the largest he had come across, larger even than the one that surrounded Tremorlor, the Azath Odhanhouse. And this one had known a period of stability, sufficient for civilizations to arise, for savants of sorcery to begin unravelling the powers of Kurald Emurlahn, although those inhabitants had not been Tiste Edur.
    Idly, Onrack wondered if the renegade T’lan Imass he and his kin pursued had somehow triggered the wound that had resulted in the flooding of this world. It seemed likely, given its obvious efficacy in obscuring their trail. Either that, or the Tiste Edur had returned, to reclaim what had once been theirs.
    Indeed, he could smell the grey-skinned Edur-they had passed this way, and recently, arriving from another warren. Of course, the word ‘smell’ had acquired new meaning for the T’lan Imass in the wake of the Ritual. Mundane senses had for the most part withered along with flesh. Through the shadowed orbits of his eyes, for example, the world was a complex collage of dull colours, heat and cold and often measured by an unerring sensitivity to motion. Spoken words swirled in mercurial clouds of breath-if the speaker lived, that is. If not, then it was the sound itself that was detectable, shivering its way through the air. Onrack sensed sound as much by sight as by hearing.
    And so it was that he became aware of a warm-blooded shape lying a short distance ahead. The wall here was slowly failing. Water spouted in streams from fissures between the bulging stones. Before long, it would give way entirely.
    The shape did not move. It had been chained in place.
    Another fifty paces and Onrack reached it.
    The stench of Kurald Emurlahn was overpowering, faintly visible like a pool enclosing the supine figure, its surface rippling as if beneath a steady but thin rain. A deep ragged scar marred the prisoner’s broad brow beneath a hairless pate, the wound glowing with sorcery. There had been a metal tongue to hold down the man’s tongue, but that had dislodged, as had the straps wound round the figure’s head.
    Slate-grey eyes stared up, unblinking, at the T’lan Imass.
    Onrack studied the Tiste Edur for a moment longer, then he stepped over the man and continued on.
    A ragged, withered voice rose in his wake. ‘Wait.’
    The undead warrior paused and glanced back.
    ‘I–I would bargain. For my freedom.’
    ‘I am not interested in bargains,’ Onrack replied in the Edur language.
    ‘Is there nothing you desire, warrior?’
    ‘Nothing you can give me.’
    ‘Do you challenge me, then?’
    Tendons creaking, Onrack tilted his head. ‘This section of the wall is about to collapse. I have no wish to be here when it does.’
    ‘And you imagine that I do?’
    ‘Considering your sentiments on the matter is a pointless effort on my part, Edur. I have no interest in imagining myself in your place. Why would I? You are about to drown.’
    ‘Break my chains, and we can continue this discussion in a safer place.’
    ‘The quality of this discussion has not earned such an exercise,’ Onrack replied.
    ‘I would improve it, given the time.’
    ‘This seems unlikely.’ Onrack turned away.
    ‘Wait! I can tell you of your enemies!’
    Slowly, the T’lan Imass swung round once more. ‘My enemies? I do not recall saying that I had any, Edur.’
    ‘Oh, but you do. I should know. I was once one of them, and indeed that is why you find me here, for I am your enemy no longer.’
    ‘You are now a renegade among your own kind, then,’ Onrack observed. ‘I have no faith in traitors.’
    ‘To my own kind, T’lan Imass, I am not the traitor. That epithet belongs to the one who chained me here. In any case, the question of faith cannot be answered through negotiation.’
    ‘Should you have made that admission, Edur?’
    The man grimaced. ‘Why not? I would not deceive you.’
    Now, Onrack was truly curious. ‘Why would you not deceive me?’
    ‘For the very cause that has seen me Shorn,’ the Edur replied. ‘I am plagued by the need to be truthful.’
    ‘That is a dreadful curse,’ the T’lan Imass said.
    ‘Yes.’
    Onrack lifted his sword. ‘In this case, I admit to possessing a curse of my own. Curiosity.’
    ‘I weep for you.’
    ‘I see no tears.’
    ‘In my heart, T’lan Imass.’
    A single blow shattered the chains. With his free right hand, Onrack reached down and clutched one of the Edur’s ankles. He dragged the man after him along the top of the wall.
    ‘I would rail at the indignity of this,’ the Tiste Edur said as he was pulled onward, step by scuffing step, ‘had I the strength to do so.’
    Onrack made no reply. Dragging the man with one hand, his sword with the other, he trudged forward, his progress eventually taking them past the area of weakness on the wall.
    ‘You can release me now,’ the Tiste Edur gasped.
    ‘Can you walk?’
    ‘No, but-’
    ‘Then we shall continue like this.’
    ‘Where are you going, then, that you cannot afford to wait for me to regain my strength?’
    ‘Along this wall,’ the T’lan Imass replied.
    There was silence between them for a time, apart from the creaks from Onrack’s bones, the rasp of his hide-wrapped feet, and the hiss and thump of the Tiste Edur’s body and limbs across the mud-layered stones. The detritus-filled sea remained unbroken on their left, a festering marshland on their right. They passed between and around another dozen catfish, these ones not quite as large yet fully as limbed as the previous group. Beyond them, the wall stretched on unbroken to the horizon.
    In a voice filled with pain, the Tiste Edur finally spoke again. ‘Much more… T’lan Imass… and you’ll be dragging a corpse.’
    Onrack considered that for a moment, then he halted his steps and released the man’s ankle. He slowly swung about.
    Groaning, the Tiste Edur rolled himself onto his side. ‘I assume,’ he gasped, ‘you have no food, or fresh water.’
    Onrack lifted his gaze, back to the distant humps of the catfish. ‘I suppose I could acquire some. Of the former, that is.’
    ‘Can you open a portal, T’lan Imass? Can you get us out of this realm?’
    ‘No.’
    The Tiste Edur lowered his head to the clay and closed his eyes. ‘Then I am as good as dead in any case. None the less, I appreciate your breaking my chains. You need not remain here, though I would know the name of the warrior who showed me what mercy he could.’
    ‘Onrack. Clanless, of the Logros.’
    ‘I am Trull Sengar. Also clanless.’
    Onraek stared down at the Tiste Edur for a while. Then the T’lan Imass stepped over the man and set off, retracing their path. He arrived among the catfish. A single chop downward severed the head of the nearest one.
    The slaying triggered a frenzy among the others. Skin split, sleek four-limbed bodies tore their way free. Broad, needle-fanged heads swung towards the undead warrior in their midst, tiny eyes glistening. Loud hisses from all sides. The beasts moved on squat, muscular legs, three-toed feet thickly padded and clawed. Their tails were short, extending in a vertical fin back up their spines.
    They attacked as would wolves closing on wounded prey.
    Obsidian blade flashed. Thin blood sprayed. Heads and limbs flopped about.
    One of the creatures launched itself into the air, huge mouth closing over Onrack’s skull. As its full weight descended, the T’lan Imass felt his neck vertebrae creak and grind. He fell backward, letting the animal drag him down.
    Then he dissolved into dust.
    And rose five paces away to resume his killing, wading among the hissing survivors. A few moments later they were all dead.
    Onrack collected one of the corpses by its hind foot and, dragging it, made his way back to Trull Sengar.
    The Tiste Edur was propped up on one elbow, his flat eyes fixed on the T’lan Imass. ‘For a moment,’ he said, ‘I thought I was having the strangest dream. I saw you, there in the distance, wearing a huge, writhing hat. That then ate you whole.’
    Onrack pulled the body up alongside Trull Sengar. ‘You were not dreaming. Here. Eat.’
    ‘Might we not cook it?’
    The T’lan Imass strode to the seaside edge of the wall. Among the flotsam were the remnants of countless trees, from which jutted denuded branches. He climbed down onto the knotted detritus, felt it shift and roll unsteadily beneath him. It required but a few moments to snap off an armful of fairly dry wood, which he threw back up onto the wall. Then he followed.
    He felt the Tiste Edur’s eyes on him as he prepared a hearth.
    ‘Our encounters with your kind,’ Trull said after a moment, ‘were few and far between. And then, only after your… ritual. Prior to that, your people fled from us at first sight. Apart from those who travelled the oceans with the Thelomen Toblakai, that is. Those ones fought us. For centuries, before we drove them from the seas.’
    ‘The Tiste Edur were in my world,’ Onrack said as he drew out his spark stones, ‘just after the coming of the Tiste Andu. Once numerous, leaving signs of passage in the snow, on the beaches, in deep forests.’
    ‘There are far fewer of us now,’ Trull Sengar said. ‘We came here-to this place-from Mother Dark, whose children had banished us. We did not think they would pursue, but they did. And upon the shattering of this warren, we fled yet again-to your world, Onrack. Where we thrived…’
    ‘Until your enemies found you once more.’
    ‘Yes. The first of those were… fanatical in their hatred. There were great wars-unwitnessed by anyone, fought as they were within darkness, in hidden places of shadow. In the end, we slew the last of those first Andu, but were broken ourselves in the effort. And so we retreated into remote places, into fastnesses. Then, more Andu came, only these seemed less… interested. And we in turn had grown inward, no longer consumed with the hunger of expansion-’
    ‘Had you sought to assuage that hunger,’ Onrack said as the first wisps of smoke rose from the shredded bark and twigs, ‘we would have found in you a new cause, Edur.’
    Trull was silent, his gaze veiled. ‘We had forgotten it all,’ he finally said, settling back to rest his head once more on the clay. ‘All that I have just told you. Until a short while ago, my people-the last bastion, it seems, of the Tiste Edur-knew almost nothing of our past. Our long, tortured history. And what we knew was in fact false. If only,’ he added, ‘we had remained ignorant.’
    Onrack slowly turned to gaze at the Edur. ‘Your people no longer look inward.’
    ‘I said I would tell you of your enemies, T’lan Imass.’
    ‘You did.’
    ‘There are your kind, Onrack, among the Tiste Edur. In league with our new purpose.’
    ‘And what is this purpose, Trull Sengar?’
    The man looked away, closed his eyes. ‘Terrible, Onrack. A terrible purpose.’
    The T’lan Imass warrior swung to the corpse of the creature he had slain, drew forth an obsidian knife. ‘I am familiar with terrible purposes,’ he said as he began cutting meat.
    ‘I shall tell you my tale now, as I said I would. So you understand what you now face.’
    ‘No, Trull Sengar. Tell me nothing more.’
    ‘But why?’
    Because your truth would burden me. Force me to find my kin once more. Your truth would chain me to this world-to my world, once more. And I am not ready for that. ‘I am weary of your voice, Edur,’ he replied.
    The beast’s sizzling flesh smelled like seal meat. A short time later, while Trull Sengar ate, Onrack moved to the edge of the wall facing onto the marsh. The flood waters had found old basins in the landscape, from which gases now leaked upward to drift in pale smears over the thick, percolating surface. Thicker fog obscured the horizon, but the T’lan Imass thought he could sense a rising of elevation, a range of low, humped hills.
    ‘It’s getting lighter,’ Trull Sengar said from where he lay beside the hearth. ‘The sky is glowing in places. There… and there.’
    Onrack lifted his head. The sky had been an unrelieved sea of pewter, darkening every now and then to loose a deluge of rain, though that had grown more infrequent of late. But now rents had appeared, ragged-edged. A swollen orb of yellow light commanded one entire horizon, the wall ahead seeming to drive towards its very heart; whilst directly overhead hung a smaller circle of blurred fire, this one rimmed in blue. ‘The suns return,’ the Tiste Edur murmured. ‘Here, in the Nascent, the ancient twin hearts of Kurald Emurlahn live on. There was no way of telling, for we did not rediscover this warren until after the Breach. The flood waters must have brought chaos to the climate. And destroyed the civilization that existed here.’
    Onrack looked down. ‘Were they Tiste Edur?’
    The man shook his head. ‘No, more like your descendants, Onrack. Although the corpses we saw here along the wall were badly decayed.’ Trull grimaced. ‘They are as vermin, these humans of yours.’
    ‘Not mine,’ Onrack replied.
    ‘You feel no pride, then, at their insipid success?’
    The T’lan Imass cocked his head. ‘They are prone to mistakes, Trull Sengar. The Logros have killed them in their thousands when the need to reassert order made doing so necessary. With ever greater frequency they annihilate themselves, for success breeds contempt for those very qualities that purchased it.’
    ‘It seems you’ve given this some thought.’
    Onrack shrugged in a clatter of bones. ‘More than my kin, perhaps, the edge of my irritation with humankind remains jagged.’
    The Tiste Edur was attempting to stand, his motions slow and deliberate. ‘The Nascent required… cleansing,’ he said, his tone bitter, ‘or so it was judged.’
    ‘Your methods,’ Onrack said, ‘are more extreme than what the Logros would choose.’
    Managing to totter upright, Trull Sengar faced the T’lan Imass with a wry grin. ‘Sometimes, friend, what is begun proves too powerful to contain.’
    ‘Such is the curse of success.’
    Trull seemed to wince at the words, and he turned away. ‘I must needs find fresh, clean water.’
    ‘How long had you been chained?’
    The man shrugged. ‘Long, I suppose. The sorcery within the Shorning was designed to prolong suffering. Your sword severed its power, and now the mundane requirements of the flesh return.’
    The suns were burning through the clouds, their combined heat filling the air with humidity. The overcast was shredding apart, vanishing before their very eyes. Onrack studied the blazing orbs once more. ‘There has been no night,’ he said.
    ‘Not in the summer, no. The winters, it’s said, are another matter. At the same time, with the deluge I suspect it is fruitless to predict what will come. Personally, I have no wish to find out.’
    ‘We must leave this wall,’ the T’lan Imass said after a moment.
    ‘Aye, before it collapses entirely. I think I can see hills in the distance.’
    ‘If you have the strength, clasp your arms about me,’ Onrack said, ‘and I will climb down. We can skirt the basins. If any local animals survived, they will be on higher ground. Do you wish to collect and cook more from this beast?’
    ‘No. It is less than palatable.’
    ‘That is not surprising, Trull Sengar. It is a carnivore, and has fed long on rotting flesh.’
    The ground was sodden underfoot when they finally reached the base of the wall. Swarms of insects rose around them, closing on the Tiste Edur with frenzied hunger. Onrack allowed his companion to set the pace as they made their way between the water-filled basins. The air was humid enough to sheathe their bodies, soaking through the clothing they wore. Although there was no wind at ground level, the clouds overhead had stretched into streamers, racing to overtake them then scudding on to mass against the range of hills, where the sky grew ever darker.
    ‘We are heading right towards a squall,’ Trull muttered, waving his arms about to disperse the midges.
    ‘When it breaks, this land will flood,’ Onrack noted. ‘Are you capable of increasing your pace?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Then I shall have to carry you.’
    ‘Carry, or drag?’
    ‘Which do you prefer?’
    ‘Carrying seems somewhat less humiliating.’
    Onrack returned his sword to its loop in the shoulder harness. Though the warrior was judged tall among his own kind, the Tiste Edur was taller, by almost the length of a forearm. The T’lan Imass had the man sit down on the ground, knees drawn up, then Onrack squatted and slipped one arm beneath Trull’s knees, the other below his shoulder blades. Tendons creaking, the warrior straightened.
    ‘There’s fresh gouges all around your skull, or what’s left of it at any rate,’ the Tiste Edur noted.
    Onrack said nothing. He set forth at a steady jog. Before long a wind arrived, tumbling down from the hills, growing to such force that the T’lan Imass had to lean forward, his feet thumping along the gravel ridges between the pools. The midges were quickly swept away.
    There was, Onrack realized, a strange regularity to the hills ahead. There were seven in all, arrayed in what seemed a straight line, each of equal height though uniquely misshapen. The storm clouds were piling well behind them, corkscrewing in bulging columns skyward above an enormous range of mountains.
    The wind howled against Onrack’s desiccated face, snapped at the strands of his gold-streaked hair, thrummed with a low-pitched drone through the leather strips of his harness. Trull Sengar was hunched against him, head ducked away from the shrieking blast.
    Lightning bridged the heaving columns, the thunder long in reaching them.
    The hills were not hills at all. They were edifices, massive and hulking, constructed from a smooth black stone, seemingly each a single piece. Twenty or more man-lengths high. Dog-like beasts, broad-skulled and small-eared, thickly muscled, heads lowered towards the two travellers and the distant wall behind them, the vast pits of their eyes faintly gleaming a deep, translucent amber. Onrack’s steps slowed. But did not halt.
    The basins had been left behind, the ground underfoot slick with wind-borne rain but otherwise solid. The T’lan Imass angled his approach towards the nearest monument. As they came closer, they moved into the statue’s lee.
    The sudden falling off of the wind was accompanied by a cavernous silence, the wind to either side oddly mute and distant. Onrack set Trull Sengar down.
    The Tiste Edur’s bewildered gaze found the edifice rearing before them. He was silent, slow to stand as Onrack moved past him. ‘Beyond,’ Trull quietly murmured, ‘there should be a gate.’ Pausing, Onrack slowly swung round to study his companion. ‘This is your warren,’ he said after a moment. ‘What do you sense of these… monuments?’
    ‘Nothing, but I know what they are meant to represent… as do you. It seems the inhabitants of this realm made them into their gods.’
    To that, Onrack made no reply. He faced the massive statue once more, head tilting as his gaze travelled upward, ever upward. To those gleaming, amber eyes.
    ‘There will be a gate,’ Trull Sengar persisted behind him. ‘A means of leaving this world. Why do you hesitate, T’lan Imass?’
    ‘I hesitate in the face of what you cannot see,’ Onrack replied. ‘There are seven, yes. But two of them are… alive.’ He hesitated, then added, ‘And this is one of them.’

CHAPTER SEVEN

    An army that waits is soon an army at war with itself.
Kellanved

    The world was encircled in red. The hue of old blood, of iron rusting on a battlefield. It rose in a wall like a river turned on its side, crashing confused and uncertain against the rough cliffs that rose broken-toothed around the rim of Raraku. The Holy Desert’s most ancient guardians, those bleached limestone crags, now withering beneath the ceaseless storm of the Whirlwind, the raging goddess who could countenance no rival to her dominion. Who would devour the cliffs themselves in her fury.
    Whilst the illusion of calm lay within her heart. The old man who had come to be known as Ghost Hands slowly clambered his way up the slope. His ageing skin was deep bronze, his tattooed, blunt and wide face as creased as a wind-clawed boulder. Small yellow flowers cloaked the ridge above him, a rare blossoming of the low-growing desert plant the local tribes called hen’bara. When dried, the flowers made a heady tea, mender of grief, balm against pain in a mortal soul. The old man scrabbled and scraped his way up the slope with something like desperation.
    No life’s path is bloodless. Spill that of those blocking your path. Spill your own. Struggle on, wade the growing torrent with all the frenzy that is the brutal unveiling of self-preservation. The macabre dance in the tugging currents held no artistry, and to pretend otherwise was to sink into delusion.
    Delusions. Heboric Light Touch, once priest of Fener, possessed no more delusions. He had drowned them one by one with his own hands long ago. His hands-his Ghost Hands-had proved particularly capable of such tasks. Whisperers of unseen powers, guided by a mysterious, implacable will. He knew that he had no control over them and so held no delusions. How could he?
    Behind him, in the vast flat where tens of thousands of warriors and their followers were encamped amidst a city’s ruins, such clear-eyed vision was absent. The army was the strong hands, now at rest but soon to raise weapons, guided by a will that was anything but implacable, a will that was drowning in delusions. Heboric was not only different from all those below-he was their very opposite, a sordid reflection in a mangled mirror.
    Hen’bara’s gift was dreamless sleep at night. The solace of oblivion.
    He reached the ridge, breathing hard from the exertion, and settled down among the flowers for a moment to rest. Ghostly hands were as deft as real ones, though he could not see them-not even as the faint, mottled glow that others saw. Indeed, his vision was failing him in all things. It was an old man’s curse, he believed, to witness the horizons on all sides drawing ever closer. Even so, while the carpet of yellow surrounding him was little more than a blur to his eyes, the spicy fragrance filled his nostrils and left a palpable taste on his tongue.
    The desert sun’s heat was bludgeoning, oppressive. It had a power of its own, transforming the Holy Desert into a prison, pervasive and relentless. Heboric had grown to despise that heat, to curse Seven Cities, to cultivate an abiding hatred for its people. And he was trapped among them, now. The Whirlwind’s barrier was indiscriminate, impassable both to those on the outside and those within-at the discretion of the Chosen One.
    Movement to one side, the blur of a slight, dark-haired figure. Who then settled down beside him.
    Heboric smiled. ‘I thought I was alone.’
    ‘We are both alone, Ghost Hands.’
    ‘Of that, Felisin, neither of us needs reminding.’ Felisin Younger, but that is a name I cannot speak out loud. The mother who adopted you, lass, has her own secrets. ‘What is that you have in your hands?’
    ‘Scrolls,’ the girl replied. ‘From Mother. She has, it seems, rediscovered her hunger for writing poetry.’
    The tattooed ex-priest grunted, ‘I thought it was a love, not a hunger.’
    ‘You are not a poet,’ she said. ‘In any case, to speak plainly is a true talent; to bury beneath obfuscation is a poet’s calling these days.’
    ‘You are a brutal critic, lass,’ Heboric observed.
    ‘Call to Shadow, she has called it. Or, rather, she continues a poem her own mother began.’
    ‘Ah, well, Shadow is a murky realm. Clearly she has chosen a style to match the subject, perhaps to match that of her own mother.’
    ‘Too convenient, Ghost Hands. Now, consider the name by which Korbolo Dom’s army is now called. Dogslayers. That, old man, is poetic. A name fraught with diffidence behind its proud bluster. A name to match Korbolo Dom himself, who stands square-footed in his terror.’ Heboric reached out and plucked the first flower head. He held it to his nose a moment before dropping it into the leather bag at his belt. ‘ “Square-footed in his terror.” An arresting image, lass. But I see no fear in the Napan. The Malazan army mustering in Aren is nothing but three paltry legions of recruits. Commanded by a woman devoid of any relevant experience. Korbolo Dom has no reason to be afraid.’
    The young girl’s laugh was a trill that seemed to cut an icy path through the air. ‘No reason, Ghost Hands? Many reasons, in fact. Shall I list them? Leoman. Toblakai. Bidithal. L’oric. Mathok. And, the one he finds most terrifying of all: Sha’ik. My mother. The camp is a snake-pit, seething with dissent. You have missed the last spitting frenzy. Mother has banished Mallick Rel and Pullyk Alar. Cast them out. Korbolo Dom loses two more allies in the power struggle-’
    ‘There is no power struggle,’ Heboric growled, tugging at a handful of flowers. ‘They are fools to believe that one is possible. Sha’ik has thrown those two out because treachery flows in their veins. She is indifferent to Korbolo Dom’s feelings about it.’
    ‘He believes otherwise, and that conviction is more important than what might or might not be true. And how does Mother respond to the aftermath of her pronouncements?’ Felisin swiped the plants before her with the scrolls. ‘With poetry.’
    ‘The gift of knowledge,’ Heboric muttered. ‘The Whirlwind Goddess whispers in the Chosen One’s ear. There are secrets within the Warren of Shadow, secrets containing truths that are relevant to the Whirlwind itself.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    Heboric shrugged. His bag was nearly full. ‘Alas, I possess my own prescient knowledge.’ And little good it does me. ‘The sundering of an ancient warren scattered fragments throughout the realms. The Whirlwind Goddess possesses power, but it was not her own, not at first. Just one more fragment, wandering lost and in pain. What was the goddess, I wonder, when she first stumbled onto the Whirlwind? Some desert tribe’s minor deity, I suspect. A spirit of the summer wind, protector of some whirlpool spring, possibly. One among many, without question. Of course, once she made that fragment her own, it did not take long for her to destroy her old rivals, to assert complete, ruthless domination over the Holy Desert.’
    ‘A quaint theory, Ghost Hands,’ Felisin drawled. ‘But it speaks nothing of the Seven Holy Cities, the Seven Holy Books, the prophecy of Dryjhna the Apocalyptic.’
    Heboric snorted. ‘Cults feed upon one another, lass. Whole myths are co-opted to fuel the faith. Seven Cities was born of nomadic tribes, yet the legacy preceding them was that of an ancient civilization, which in turn rested uneasy on the foundations of a still older empire-the First Empire of the T’lan Imass. That which survives in memory or falters and fades away is but chance and circumstance.’
    ‘Poets may know hunger,’ she commented drily, ‘but historians devour. And devouring murders language, makes of it a dead thing.’
    ‘Not the historian’s crime, lass, but the critic’s.’
    ‘Why quibble? Scholars, then.’
    ‘Are you complaining that my explanation destroys the mysteries of the pantheon? Felisin, there are more worthy things to wonder at in this world. Leave the gods and goddesses to their own sickly obsessions.’
    Her laugh struck through him again. ‘Oh, you are amusing company, old man! A priest cast out by his god. An historian once gaoled for his theories. A thief with nothing left worth stealing. I am not the one in need of wonder.’
    He heard her climb to her feet. ‘In any case,’ she continued, ‘I was sent to find you.’
    ‘Oh? Sha’ik seeks more advice that she will no doubt ignore?’
    ‘Not this time. Leoman.’
    Heboric scowled. And where Leoman is, so too will be Toblakai. The slayer’s only quality his holding to his vow to never again speak to me. Still, I will feel his eyes upon me. His killer’s eyes. If there’s anyone in the camp who should be banished… He slowly clambered upright. ‘Where will I find him?’
    ‘In the pit temple,’ she replied.
    Of course. And what, dear lass, were you doing in Leoman’s company?
    ‘I would take you by hand,’ Felisin added, ‘but I find their touch far too poetic.’
    She walked at his side, back down the slope, between the two vast kraals which were empty at the moment-the goats and sheep driven to the pastures east of the ruins for the day. They passed through a wide breach in the dead city’s wall, intersecting one of the main avenues that led to the jumble of sprawling, massive buildings of which only foundations and half-walls remained, that had come to be called the Circle of Temples.
    Adobe huts, yurts and hide tents fashioned a modern city on the ruins. Neighbourhood markets bustled beneath wide, street-length awnings, filling the hot air with countless voices and the redolent aromas of cooking. Local tribes, those that followed their own war chief, Mathok-who held a position comparable to general in Sha’ik’s command-mingled with Dogslayers, with motley bands of renegades from cities, with cut-throat bandits and freed criminals from countless Malazan garrison gaols. The army’s camp followers were equally disparate, a bizarre self-contained tribe that seemed to wander a nomadic round within the makeshift city, driven to move at the behest of hidden vagaries no doubt political in nature. At the moment, some unseen defeat had them more furtive than usual-old whores leading scores of mostly naked, thin children, weapon smiths and tack menders and cooks and latrine diggers, widows and wives and a few husbands and fewer still fathers and mothers… threads linked most of them to the warriors in Sha’ik’s army, but they were tenuous at best, easily severed, often tangled into a web of adultery and bastardy.
    The city was a microcosm of Seven Cities, in Heboric’s opinion. Proof of all the ills the Malazan Empire had set out to cure as conquerors then occupiers. There seemed few virtues to the freedoms to which the ex-priest had been witness, here in this place. Yet he suspected he was alone in his traitorous thoughts. The empire sentenced me a criminal, yet I remain Malazan none the less. A child of the empire, a reawakened devotee to the old emperor’s ‘peace by the sword’. So, dear Tavore, lead your army to this heart of rebellion, and cut it dead. I’ll not weep for the loss.
    The Circle of Temples was virtually abandoned compared to the teeming streets the two had just passed through. The home of old gods, forgotten deities once worshipped by a forgotten people who left little behind apart from crumbling ruins and pathways ankle-deep in dusty potsherds. Yet something of the sacred still lingered for some, it seemed, for it was here where the most decrepit of the lost found meagre refuge. A scattering of minor healers moved among these destitute few-the old widows who’d found no refuge as a third or even fourth wife to a warrior or merchant, fighters who’d lost limbs, lepers and other diseased victims who could not afford the healing powers of High Denul. There had once numbered among these people abandoned children, but Sha’ik had seen to an end to that. Beginning with Felisin, she had adopted them all-her private retinue, the Whirlwind cult’s own acolytes. By Heboric’s last cursory measure, a week past, they had numbered over three thousand, in ages ranging from newly weaned to Felisin’s age-close to Sha’ik’s own, true age. To all of them, she was Mother.
    It had not been a popular gesture. The pimps had lost their lambs. In the centre of the Circle of Temples was a broad, octagonal pit, sunk deep into the layered limestone, its floor never touched by the sun, cleared out now of its resident snakes, scorpions and spiders and re-occupied by Leoman of the Flails. Leoman, who had once been Elder Sha’ik’s most trusted bodyguard. But the reborn Sha’ik had delved deep into the man’s soul, and found it empty, bereft of faith, by some flaw of nature inclined to disavow all forms of certainty. The new Chosen One had decided she could not trust this man-not at her side, at any rate. He had been seconded to Mathok, though it seemed that the position involved few responsibilities. While Toblakai remained as Sha’ik’s personal guardian, the giant with the shattered tattoo on his face had not relinquished his friendship with Leoman and was often in the man’s sour company.
    There was history between the two warriors, of which Heboric was certain he sensed but a fraction. They had once shared a chain as prisoners of the Malazans, it was rumoured. Heboric wished the Malazans had shown less mercy in Toblakai’s case.
    ‘I will leave you now,’ Felisin said at the pit’s brick-lined edge. ‘When next I desire to clash views with you, I will seek you out.’
    Grimacing, Heboric nodded and began making his way down the ladder. The air around him grew cooler in layers as he descended into the gloom. The smell of durhang was sweet and heavy-one of Leoman’s affectations, leading the ex-priest to wonder if young Felisin was following her mother’s path more closely than he had suspected.
    The limestone floor was layered in rugs now. Ornate furniture-the portable kind wealthy travelling merchants used-made the spacious chamber seem crowded. Wood-framed screens stood against the walls here and there, the stretched fabric of their panels displaying woven scenes from tribal mythology. Where the walls were exposed, black and red ochre paintings from some ancient artist transformed the smooth, rippled stone into multi-layered vistas-savannas where transparent beasts roamed. For some reason these images remained clear and sharp to Heboric’s eyes, whispering memories of movement ever on the edges of his vision.
    Old spirits wandered this pit, trapped for eternity by its high, sheer walls. Heboric hated this place, with all its spectral laminations of failure, of worlds long extinct.
    Toblakai sat on a backless divan, rubbing oil into the blade of his wooden sword, not bothering to look up as Heboric reached the base of the ladder. Leoman lay sprawled among cushions near the wall opposite.
    ‘Ghost Hands,’ the desert warrior called in greeting. ‘You have hen’bara? Come, there is a brazier here, and water-’
    ‘I reserve that tea for just before I go to bed,’ Heboric replied, striding over. ‘You would speak with me, Leoman?’
    ‘Always, friend. Did not the Chosen One call us her sacred triangle? We three, here in this forgotten pit? Or perhaps I have jumbled my words, and should reverse my usage of “sacred” and “forgotten”? Come, sit. I have herbal tea, the kind that makes one wakeful.’
    Heboric sat down on a cushion. ‘And what need have we to be wakeful?’
    Leoman’s smile was loose, telling Heboric that durhang had swept away his usual reticence. ‘Dear Ghost Hands,’ the warrior murmured, ‘it is the need of the hunted. It is the gazelle with its nose to the ground that the lion sups with, after all.’
    The ex-priest’s brows rose. ‘And who is stalking us now, Leoman?’
    Leaning back, Leoman replied, ‘Why, the Malazans, of course. Who other?’
    ‘Why, most certainly then we must talk,’ Heboric said in mock earnestness. ‘I had no idea, after all, that the Malazans were planning on doing us harm. Are you certain of your information?’
    Toblakai spoke to Leoman. ‘As I have told you before, this old man should be killed.’
    Leoman laughed. ‘Ah, my friend, now that you are the only one of us three who still has the Chosen One’s ear… as it were… I would suggest you relinquish that subject. She has forbidden it and that is that. Nor am I inclined to agree with you in any case. It is an old refrain that needs burying.’
    ‘Toblakai hates me because I see too clearly what haunts his soul,’ Heboric said. ‘And, given his vow to not speak to me, his options for dialogue are sadly limited.’
    ‘I applaud your empathy, Ghost Hands.’
    Heboric snorted. ‘If there is to be subject to this meeting, Leoman, let’s hear it. Else I’ll make my way back to the light.’
    ‘That would prove a long journey,’ the warrior chuckled. ‘Very well. Bidithal is back to his old ways.’
    ‘Bidithal, the High Mage? What “old ways”?’
    ‘His ways with children, Heboric. Girls. His unpleasant… hungers. Sha’ik is not all-knowing, alas. Oh, she knows Bidithal’s old predilections-she experienced them first-hand when she was Sha’ik Elder, after all. But there are close to a hundred thousand people in this city, now. A few children vanishing every week… easily passing virtually unnoticed. Mathok’s people, however, are by nature watchful.’
    Heboric scowled. ‘And what would you have me do about it?’
    ‘Are you disinterested?’
    ‘Of course not. But I am one man, without, as you say, a voice. While Bidithal is one of the three sworn to Sha’ik, one of her most powerful High Mages.’
    Leoman began making tea. ‘We share a certain loyalty, friend,’ he murmured, ‘the three of us here. With a certain child.’ He looked up then, leaning close as he set the pot of water on the brazier’s grate, his veiled blue eyes fixing on Heboric. ‘Who has caught Bidithal’s eye. But that attention is more than simply sexual. Felisin is Sha’ik’s chosen heir-we can all see that, yes? Bidithal believes she must be shaped in a manner identical to her mother-when her mother was Sha’ik Elder, that is. The child must follow the mother’s path, Bidithal believes. As the mother was broken inside, so too must the child be broken inside.’
    Cold horror filled Heboric at Leoman’s words. He snapped a glare at Toblakai. ‘Sha’ik must be told of this!’
    ‘She has,’ Leoman said. ‘But she needs Bidithal, if only to balance the schemes of Febryl and L’oric. The three despise each other, naturally. She has been told, Ghost Hands, and so she tasks us three in turn to be… watchful.’
    ‘How in Hood’s name am I supposed to be watchful?’ Heboric snapped. ‘I am damned near blind! Toblakai! Tell Sha’ik to take that wrinkled bastard and flay him alive, never mind Febryl and L’oric!’
    The huge savage bared his teeth at Leoman. ‘I hear a lizard hissing from under its rock, Leoman of the Flails. Such bravado is quickly ended with the heel of a boot.’
    ‘Ah,’ Leoman sighed to Heboric, ‘alas, Bidithal is not the problem. Indeed, he may prove Sha’ik’s saviour. Febryl schemes betrayal, friend. Who are his co-conspirators? Unknown. Not L’oric, that’s for certain-L’oric is by far the most cunning of the three, and so not a fool by any measure. Yet Febryl needs allies among the powerful. Is Korbolo Dom in league with the bastard? We don’t know. Kamist Reloe? His two lieutenant mages, Henaras and Fayelle? Even if they all were, Febryl would still need Bidithal-either to stand aside and do nothing, or to join.’
    ‘Yet,’ Toblakai growled, ‘Bidithal is loyal.’
    ‘In his own way,’ Leoman agreed. ‘And he knows that Febryl is planning treachery, and now but awaits the invitation. Whereupon he will tell Sha’ik.’
    ‘And all the conspirators will then die,’ Toblakai said.
    Heboric shook his head. ‘And what if those conspirators comprise her entire command?’
    Leoman shrugged, then began pouring tea. ‘Sha’ik has the Whirlwind, friend. To lead the armies? She has Mathok. And me. And L’oric will remain, that is certain. Seven take us, Korbolo Dom is a liability in any case.’
    Heboric was silent for a long moment. He made no move when with a gesture Leoman invited him to partake of the tea. ‘And so the lie is revealed,’ he finally murmured. ‘Toblakai has told Sha’ik nothing. Not him, nor Mathok, nor you, Leoman. This is your way of getting back into power. Crush a conspiracy and thereby eliminate all your rivals. And now, you invite me into the lie.’
    ‘Not a great lie,’ Leoman replied. ‘Sha’ik has been informed that Bidithal hunts children once more…’
    ‘But not Felisin in particular.’
    ‘The Chosen One must not let her personal loyalties place the entire rebellion at risk. She would act too quickly-’
    ‘And you think I give a damn about this rebellion, Leoman?’
    The warrior smiled as he leaned back on the cushions. ‘You care about nothing, Heboric. Not even yourself. But no, that is not true, is it? There is Felisin. There is the child.’
    Heboric climbed to his feet. ‘I am done here.’
    ‘Go well, friend. Know that your company is always welcome here.’
    The ex-priest made his way towards the ladder. Reaching it, he paused. ‘And here I’d been led to believe that the snakes were gone from this pit.’
    Leoman laughed. ‘The cool air but makes them… dormant. Be careful on that ladder, Ghost Hands.’
    After the old man had left, Toblakai sheathed his sword and rose. ‘He will head straight to Sha’ik,’ he pronounced.
    ‘Will he?’ Leoman asked, then shrugged. ‘No, I think not. Not to Sha’ik…’
    Of all the temples of the native cults in Seven Cities, only the ones raised in the name of a particular god displayed an architectural style that could be seen to echo the ancient ruins in the Circle of Temples. And so, in Heboric’s mind, there was nothing accidental to Bidithal’s choice of abode. Had the foundations of the temple the High Mage now occupied still held aloft walls and ceiling, it would be seen to be a low, strangely elongated dome, buttressed by half-arches like the ribs of a vast sea-creature, or perhaps the skeletal framework of a longship. The tent-cloth covering the withered and crumbled remnants was affixed to the few surviving upright wings. These wings and the floor plan gave sufficient evidence of what the temple had originally looked like; and in the Seven Holy Cities and among its more populated lesser kin, a certain extant temple could be found that closely resembled this ruin in style.
    And in these truths, Heboric suspected a mystery. Bidithal had not always been a High Mage. Not in title in any case. In the Dhobri language, he had been known as Rashan’ais. The archpriest of the cult of Rashan, which had existed in Seven Cities long before the Throne of Shadow had been reoccupied. In the twisted minds of humanity, it seemed, there was nothing objectionable about worshipping an empty throne. No stranger than kneeling before the Boar of Summer, before a god of war.
    The cult of Rashan had not taken well the ascension of Ammanas-Shadowthrone-and the Rope into positions of penultimate power within the Warren of Shadow. Though Heboric’s knowledge of the details was sketchy at best, it seemed that the cult had torn itself apart. Blood had been spilled within temple walls, and in the aftermath of desecrating murder, only those who acknowledged the mastery of the new gods remained among the devotees. To the wayside, bitter and licking deep wounds, the banished slunk away.
    Men like Bidithal.
    Defeated but, Heboric suspected, not yet finished. For it is the Meanas temples of Seven Cities that most closely mimic this ruin in architectural style… as if a direct descendant of this land’s earliest cults
    Within the Whirlwind, the cast-out Rashan’ais had found refuge. Further proof of his belief that the Whirlwind was but a fragment of a shattered warren, and that shattered warren was Shadow. And if that is indeed the case, what hidden purpose holds Bidithal to Sha’ik? Is he truly loyal to Dryjhna the Apocalyptic, to this holy conflagration in the name of liberty? Answers to such questions were long in coming, if at all. The unknown player, the unseen current beneath this rebellion-indeed, beneath the Malazan Empire itself-was the new ruler of Shadow and his deadly companion. Ammanas Shadowthrone, who was Kellanved-emperor of Malaz and conqueror of Seven Cities. Cotillion, who was Dancer-master of the Talon and the empire’s deadliest assassin, deadlier even than Surly. Gods below, something breathes there… I now wonder, whose war is this?
    Distracted by such troubling thoughts as he made his way to Bidithal’s abode, it was a moment before Heboric realized that his name had been called. Eyes straining to focus as he searched for the originator of that call, he was suddenly startled by a hand settling on his shoulder.
    ‘My apologies, Ghost Hands, if I frightened you.’
    ‘Ah, L’oric,’ Heboric replied, finally recognizing the tall, white-robed figure standing beside him. ‘These are not your usual haunts, are they?’
    A slightly pained smile. ‘I regret that my presence is seen as a haunting-unless of course your use of the word was unmindful.’
    ‘Careless, you mean. It was. I have been in the company of Leoman, inadvertently breathing fumes of durhang. What I meant was, I rarely see you in these parts, that is all.’
    ‘Thus explaining your perturbed expression,’ L’oric murmured.
    Meeting you, the durhang or Leoman? The tall mage-one of Sha’ik’s three-was not by nature approachable, nor given to drama. Heboric had no idea which warren the man employed in his sorceries. Perhaps Sha’ik alone knew.
    After a moment, the High Mage resumed, ‘Your route suggests a visit to a certain resident here in the Circle. Further, I sense a storm of emotions stirring around you, which could lead one to surmise the impending encounter will prove tumultuous.’
    ‘You mean we might argue, Bidithal and I,’ Heboric growled. ‘Well yes, that’s damned likely.’
    ‘I myself have but recently departed his company,’ L’oric said. ‘Perhaps a warning? He is much agitated over something, and so short of temper.’
    ‘Perhaps it was something you said, ‘Heboric ventured.
    ‘Entirely possible,’ the mage conceded. ‘And if so, then I apologize.’
    ‘Fener’s tusks, L’oric, what are you doing in this damned army of vipers?’
    Again the pained smile, then a shrug. ‘Mathok’s tribes have among them women and men who dance with flare-necked vipers-such as are sometimes found where grasses grow deep. It is a complicated and obviously dangerous dance, yet one possessed of a certain charm. There are attractions to such exercise.’
    ‘You enjoy taking risks, even with your life.’
    ‘I might in turn ask why are you here, Heboric? Do you seek to return to your profession as historian, thus ensuring that the tale of Sha’ik and the Whirlwind will be told? Or are you indeed ensnared with loyalties to the noble cause of liberty? Surely, you cannot say you are both, can you?’
    ‘I was a middling historian at best, L’oric,’ Heboric muttered, reluctant to elaborate on his reasons for remaining-none of which had any real relevance, since Sha’ik was not likely to let him leave in any case.
    ‘You are impatient with me. I will leave you to your task, then.’ L’oric made a slight bow as he stepped back.
    Watching the man walk away, Heboric stood motionless for a moment longer, then he resumed his journey. Bidithal was agitated, was he? An argument with L’oric, or something behind the veil? The High Mage’s dwelling was before him now, the tent walls and peaked ceiling sun-faded and smoke-stained, a dusty smear of mottled magenta squatting above the thick foundation stones. Huddled just outside the flap entrance was a sunburned, filthy figure, mumbling in some foreign language, face hidden beneath long greasy strands of brown hair. The figure had no hands and no feet, the stumps showing old scar tissue yet still suppurating a milky yellow discharge. The man was using one of his wrist stumps to draw broad patterns in the thick dust, surrounding himself in linked chains, round and round, each pass obscuring what had been made before.
    This one belongs to Toblakai. His master work-Sulgar? Silgar. The Nathii. The man was one of the many crippled, diseased and destitute inhabitants of the Circle of Temples. Heboric wondered what had drawn him to Bidithal’s tent.
    He arrived at the entrance. In tribal fashion, the flap was tied back, the customary expansive gesture of invitation, the message one of ingenuousness. As he ducked to step through, Silgar stirred, head snapping up.
    ‘Brother of mine! I’ve seen you before, yes! Maimed-we are kin!’ The language was a tangled mix of Nathii, Malazan and Ehrlii. The man’s smile revealed a row of rotting teeth. ‘Flesh and spirit, yes? We are, you and I, the only honest mortals here!’
    ‘If you say so,’ Heboric muttered, striding into Bidithal’s home. Silgar’s cackle followed him in.
    No effort had been made to clean the sprawling chamber within. Bricks and rubble lay scattered across a floor of sand, broken mortar and potsherds. A half-dozen pieces of furniture were positioned here and there in the cavernous space. There was a large, low bed, wood-slatted and layered in thin mattresses. Four folding merchant chairs of the local three-legged kind faced onto the bed in a ragged row, as if Bidithal was in the habit of addressing an audience of acolytes or students. A dozen small oil lamps crowded the surface of a small table nearby.
    The High Mage had his back to Heboric and most of the long chamber. A torch, fixed to a spear that had been thrust upright, its base mounded with stones and rubble, stood slightly behind Bidithal’s left shoulder, casting the man’s own shadow onto the tent wall.
    A chill rippled through Heboric, for it seemed the High Mage was conversing in a language of gestures with his own shadow. Cast out in name only, perhaps. Still eager to play with Meanas. In the Whirlwind’s name, or his own? ‘High Mage,’ the ex-priest called.
    The ancient, withered man slowly turned. ‘Come to me,’ he rattled, ‘I would experiment.’
    ‘Not the most encouraging invitation, Bidithal.’ But Heboric approached none the less.
    Bidithal waved impatiently. ‘Closer! I would see if your ghostly hands cast shadows.’
    Heboric halted, stepped back with a shake of his head. ‘No doubt you would, but I wouldn’t.’
    ‘Come!’
    ‘No.’
    The dark wrinkled face twisted into a scowl, black eyes glittering.
    ‘You are too eager to protect your secrets.’
    ‘And you aren’t?’
    ‘I serve the Whirlwind. Nothing else is important-’
    ‘Barring your appetites.’
    The High Mage cocked his head, then made a small, almost effeminate wave with one hand. ‘Mortal necessities. Even when I was Rashan’ais, we saw no imperative to turn away from the pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, the interweaving of the shadows possesses great power.’
    ‘And so you raped Sha’ik when she was but a child. And scourged from her all future chance at such pleasures as you now espouse. I see little logic in that, Bidithal-only sickness.’
    ‘My purposes are beyond your ability to comprehend, Ghost Hands,’ the High Mage said with a smirk. ‘You cannot wound me with such clumsy efforts.’
    ‘I’d been given to understand you were agitated, discomfited.’
    ‘Ah, L’oric. Another stupid man. He mistook excitement for agitation, but I will say no more of that. Not to you.’
    ‘Allow me to be equally succinct, Bidithal.’ Heboric stepped closer. ‘If you even so much as look in Felisin’s direction, these hands of mine will twist your head from your neck.’
    ‘Felisin? Sha’ik’s dearest? Do you truly believe she is a virgin? Before Sha’ik returned, the child was a waif, an orphan in the camp. None cared a whit about her-’
    ‘None of which matters,’ Heboric said.
    The High Mage turned away. ‘Whatever you say, Ghost Hands. Hood knows, there are plenty of others-’
    ‘All now under Sha’ik’s protection. Do you imagine she will permit such abuses from you?’
    ‘You shall have to ask her that yourself,’ Bidithal replied. ‘Now leave me. You are guest no longer.’
    Heboric hesitated, barely resisting an urge to kill the man now, this instant. Would it even be pre-emptive? Has he not as much as admitted to his crimes? But this was not a place of Malazan justice, was it? The only law that existed here was Sha’ik’s. Nor will I be alone in this. Even Toblakai has vowed protection over Felisin. But what of the other children? Why does Sha’ik tolerate this, unless it is as Leoman has said. She needs Bidithal. Needs him to betray Febryl’s plotting.
    Yet what do I care for all of that? This… creature does not deserve to live.
    ‘Contemplating murder?’ Bidithal murmured, his back turned once more, his own shadow dancing on its own on the tent wall. ‘You would not be the first, nor, I suspect, the last. I should warn you, however, this temple is newly resanctified. Take another step towards me, Ghost Hands, and you will see the power of that.’
    ‘And you believe Sha’ik will permit you to kneel before Shadowthrone?’
    The man whirled, his face black with rage. ‘Shadowthrone? That… foreigner! The roots of Meanas are found in an elder warren! Once ruled by-’ he snapped his mouth shut, then smiled, revealing dark teeth. ‘Not for you. Oh no, not for you, ex-priest. There are purposes within the Whirlwind-your existence is tolerated but little more than that. Challenge me, Ghost Hands, and you will know holy wrath.’
    Heboric’s answering grin was hard. ‘I’ve known it before, Bidithal. Yet I remain. Purposes? Perhaps mine is to block your path. I’d advise you to think on that.’
    Stepping outside once more, he paused briefly, blinking in the harsh sunlight. Silgar was nowhere to be seen, yet he had completed an elaborate pattern in the dust around Heboric’s moccasins. Chains, surrounding a figure with stumps instead of hands… yet footed. The ex-priest scowled, kicking through the image as he set forth.
    Silgar was no artist. Heboric’s own eyes were bad. Perhaps he’d seen only what his fears urged-it had been Silgar himself within the circle of chains the first time, after all. In any case, it was not important enough to make him turn back for a second look. Besides, his own steps had no doubt left it ruined.
    None of which explained the chill that clung to him as he walked beneath the searing sun.
    The vipers were writhing in their pit, and he was in their midst.

    The old scars of ligature damage made his ankles and wrists resemble segmented tree trunks, each pinched width encircling his limbs to remind him of those times, of every shackle that had snapped shut, every chain that had held him down. In his dreams, the pain reared like a thing alive once more, weaving mesmerizing through a tumult of confused, distraught scenes.
    The old Malazan with no hands and the shimmering, near solid tattoo had, despite his blindness, seen clearly enough, seen those trailing ghosts, the wind-moaning train of deaths that stalked him day and night now, loud enough in Toblakai’s mind to drown out the voice of Urugal, close enough to obscure his god’s stone visage behind veil after veil of mortal faces-each and every one twisted with the agony and fear that carved out the moment of dying. Yet the old man had not understood, not entirely. The children among those victims-children in terms of recently birthed, as the lowlanders used the word-had not all fallen to the bloodwood sword of Karsa Orlong. They were, one and all, the progeny that would never be, the bloodlines severed in the trophy-cluttered cavern of the Teblor’s history.
    Toblakai. A name of past glories, of a race of warriors who had stood alongside mortal Imass, alongside cold-miened Jaghut and demonic Forkrul Assail. A name by which Karsa Orlong was now known, as if he alone was the inheritor of elder dominators in a young, harsh world. Years ago, such a thought would have filled his chest with fierce, bloodthirsty pride. Now it racked him like a desert cough, weakened him deep in his bones. He saw what no-one else saw, that his new name was a title of polished, blinding irony.
    The Teblor were long fallen from Thelomen Toblakai. Mirrored reflections in flesh only. Kneeling like fools before seven blunt-featured faces carved into a cliffside. Valley dwellers, where every horizon was almost within reach. Victims of brutal ignorance-for which no-one else could be blamed-entwined with deceit, for which Karsa Orlong would seek a final accounting.
    He and his people had been wronged, and the warrior who now strode between the dusty white boles of a long-dead orchard would, one day, give answer to that.
    But the enemy had so many faces…
    Even alone, as he was now, he longed for solitude. But it was denied him. The rattle of chains was unceasing, the echoing cries of the slain endless. Even the mysterious but palpable power of Raraku offered no surcease-Raraku itself, not the Whirlwind, for Toblakai knew that the Whirlwind was like a child to the Holy Desert’s ancient presence, and it touched him naught. Raraku had known many such storms, yet it weathered them as it did all things, with untethered skin of sand and the solid truth of stone. Raraku was its own secret, the hidden bedrock that held the warrior in this place. From Raraku, Karsa believed, he would find his own truth.
    He had knelt before Sha’ik Reborn, all those months ago. The young woman with the Malazan accent who’d stumbled into view half carrying her tattooed, handless pet. Knelt, not in servitude, not from resurrected faith, but in relief. Relief, that the waiting had ended, that he would be able to drag Leoman away from that place of failure and death. They had seen Sha’ik Elder murdered while under their protection. A defeat that had gnawed at Karsa. Yet he could not deceive himself into believing that the new Chosen One was anything but a hapless victim that the insane Whirlwind Goddess had simply plucked from the wilderness, a mortal tool that would be used with merciless brutality. That she had proved a willing participant in her own impending destruction was equally pathetic in Karsa’s eyes. Clearly, the scarred young woman had her own reasons, and seemed eager for the power.
    Lead us, Warleader.
    The words laughed bitterly through his thoughts as he wandered through the grove-the city almost a league to the east, the place where he now found himself a remnant outskirt of some other town. Warleaders needed such forces gathered around them, arrayed in desperate defence of self-delusion, of headlong singlemindedness. The Chosen One was more like Toblakai than she imagined, or, rather, a younger Toblakai, a Teblor commanding slayers-an army of two with which to deliver mayhem.
    Sha’ik Elder had been something else entirely. She had lived long through her haunting, her visions of Apocalypse that had tugged and jerked her bones ever onward as if they were string-tied sticks. And she had seen truths in Karsa’s soul, had warned him of the horrors to come-not in specific terms, for like all seers she had been cursed with ambiguity-but sufficient to awaken within Karsa a certain… watchfulness.
    And, it seemed, he did little else these days but watch. As the madness that was the soul of the Whirlwind Goddess seeped out like poison in the blood to infect every leader among the rebellion. Rebellion… oh, there was truth enough in that. But the enemy was not the Malazan Empire. It is sanity itself that they are rebelling against. Order. Honourable conduct. ‘Rules of the common’, as Leoman called them, even as his consciousness sank beneath the opaque fumes of durhang. Yes, I would well understand his flight, were I to believe what he would present to us all-the drifting layers of smoke in his pit, the sleepy look his eyes, the slurred words… ah, but Leoman, I have never witnessed you actually partake of the drug. Only its apparent aftermath, the evidence scattered all about, and the descent into sleep that seems perfectly timed whenever you wish to close a conversation, end a certain discourse…
    Like him, Karsa suspected, Leoman was biding his time. Raraku waited with them. Perhaps, for them. The Holy Desert possessed a gift, yet it was one that few had ever recognized, much less accepted. A gift that would arrive unseen, unnoticed at first, a gift too old to find shape in words, too formless to grasp in the hands as one would a sword.
    Toblakai, once a warrior of forest-cloaked mountains, had grown to love this desert. The endless tones of fire painted on stone and sand, the bitter-needled plants and the countless creatures that crawled, slithered or scampered, or slipped through night-air on silent wings. He loved the hungry ferocity of these creatures, their dancing as prey and predator a perpetual cycle inscribed on the sand and beneath the rocks. And the desert in turn had reshaped Karsa, weathered his skin dark, stretched taut and lean his muscles, thinned his eyes to slits.
    Leoman had told him much of this place, secrets that only a true inhabitant would know. The ring of ruined cities, harbours one and all, the old beach ridges with their natural barrows running for league upon league. Shells that had turned hard as stone and would sing low and mournful in the wind-Leoman had presented him with a gift of these, a vest of hide on which such shells had been affixed, armour that moaned in the endless, ever-dry winds. There were hidden springs in the wasteland, cairns and caves where an ancient sea-god had been worshipped. Remote basins that would, every few years, be stripped of sand to reveal long, high-prowed ships of petrified wood that was crowded with carvings-a long-dead fleet revealed beneath starlight only to be buried once more the following day. In other places, often behind the beach ridges, the forgotten mariners had placed cemeteries, using hollowed-out cedar trunks to hold their dead kin-all turned to stone, now, claimed by the implacable power of Raraku.
    Layer upon countless layer, the secrets were unveiled by the winds. Sheer cliffs rising like ramps, in which the fossil skeletons of enormous creatures could be seen. The stumps of cleared forests, hinting of trees as large as any Karsa had known from his homeland. The columnar pilings of docks and piers, anchor-stones and the open cavities of tin mines, flint quarries and arrow-straight raised roads, trees that grew entirely underground, a mass of roots stretching out for leagues, from which the ironwood of Karsa’s new sword had been carved-his blood-sword having cracked long ago.
    Raraku had known Apocalypse first-hand, millennia past, and Toblakai wondered if it truly welcomed its return. Sha’ik’s goddess stalked the desert, her mindless rage the shriek of unceasing wind along its borders, but Karsa wondered at the Whirlwind’s manifestation-just whose was it? Cold, disconnected rage, or a savage, unbridled argument?
    Did the goddess war with the desert?
    Whilst, far to the south in this treacherous land, the Malazan army prepared to march.
    As he approached the heart of the grove-where a low altar of flat-stones occupied a small clearing-he saw a slight, long-haired figure, seated on the altar as if it was no more than a bench in an abandoned garden. A book was in her lap, its cracked skin cover familiar to Toblakai’s eyes.
    She spoke without turning round. ‘I have seen your tracks in this place, Toblakai.’
    ‘And I yours, Chosen One.’
    ‘I come here to wonder,’ she said as he walked into view around the altar to stand facing her.
    As do I.
    ‘Can you guess what it is I wonder about?’ she asked.
    ‘No.’
    The almost-faded pocks of bloodfly scars only showed themselves when she smiled. ‘The gift of the goddess…’ the smile grew strained, ‘offers only destruction.’
    He glanced away, studied the nearby trees. ‘This grove will resist in the way of Raraku,’ he rumbled. ‘It is stone. And stone holds fast.’
    ‘For a while,’ she muttered, her smile falling away. ‘But there remains that within me that urges… creation.’
    ‘Have a baby.’
    Her laugh was almost a yelp. ‘Oh, you hulking fool, Toblakai. I should welcome your company more often.’
    Then why do you choose not to?
    She waved a small hand at the book in her lap. ‘Dryjhna was an author who, to be gracious, lived with malnourished talent. There are naught but bones in this tome, I am afraid. Obsessed with the taking of life, the annihilation of order. Yet not once does he offer anything in its stead. There is no rebirth among the ashes of his vision, and that saddens me. Does it sadden you, Toblakai?’
    He stared down at her for a long moment, then said, ‘Come.’
    Shrugging, she set the book down on the altar and rose, straightening the plain, worn, colourless telaba that hung loose over her curved body.
    He led her into the rows of bone-white trees. She followed in silence.
    Thirty paces, then another small clearing, this one ringed tight in thick, petrified boles. A squat, rectangular mason’s chest sat in the skeletal shade cast down by the branches-which had remained intact down to the very twigs. Toblakai stepped to one side, studied her face as she stared in silence at his works-in-progress.
    Before them, the trunks of two of the trees ringing the clearing had been reshaped beneath chisel and pick. Two warriors stared out with sightless eyes, one slightly shorter than Toblakai but far more robust, the other taller and thinner.
    He saw that her breath had quickened, a slight flush on her cheeks. ‘You have talent… rough, but driven,’ she murmured without pulling her eyes from their study. ‘Do you intend to ring the entire clearing with such formidable warriors?’
    ‘No. The others will be… different.’
    Her head turned at a sound. She stepped quickly closer to Karsa. ‘A snake.’
    He nodded. ‘There will be more, coming from all sides. The clearing will be filled with snakes, should we choose to remain here.’
    ‘Flare-necks.’
    ‘And others. They won’t bite or spit, however. They never do. They come… to watch.’
    She shot him a searching glance, then shivered slightly. ‘What power manifests here? It is not the Whirlwind’s-’
    ‘No. Nor do I have a name for it. Perhaps the Holy Desert itself.’
    She slowly shook her head to that. ‘I think you are wrong. The power, I believe, is yours.’
    He shrugged. ‘We shall see, when I have done them all.’
    ‘How many?’
    ‘Besides Bairoth and Delum Thord? Seven.’
    She frowned. ‘One for each of the Holy Protectors?’
    No. ‘Perhaps. I have not decided. These two you see, they were my friends. Now dead.’ He paused, then added, ‘I had but two friends.’
    She seemed to flinch slightly at that. ‘What of Leoman? What of Mathok? What of… me?’
    ‘I have no plans on carving your likenesses here.’
    ‘That is not what I meant.’
    I know. He gestured at the two Teblor warriors. ‘Creation, Chosen One.’
    ‘When I was young, I wrote poetry, in the path that my mother already walked. Did you know that?’
    He smiled at the word ‘young’ but replied in all seriousness, ‘No, I did not.’
    ‘I… I have resurrected the habit.’
    ‘May it serve you well.’
    She must have sensed something of the blood-slick edge underlying his statement, for her expression tightened. ‘But that is never its purpose, is it. To serve. Or to yield satisfaction-self-satisfaction, I mean, since the other kind but follows as a returning ripple in a well-’
    ‘Confusing the pattern.’
    ‘As you say. It is far too easy to see you as a knot-browed barbarian, Toblakai. No, the drive to create is something other, isn’t it? Have you an answer?’
    He shrugged. ‘If one exists, it will only be found in the search-and searching is at creation’s heart, Chosen One.’
    She stared at the statues once more. ‘And what are you searching for? With these… old friends?’
    ‘I do not know. Yet.’
    ‘Perhaps they will tell you, one day.’
    The snakes surrounded them by the hundreds now, slithering unremarked by either over their feet, around their ankles, heads lifting again and again to flick tongues towards the carved trunks.
    ‘Thank you, Toblakai,’ Sha’ik murmured. ‘I am humbled… and revived.’
    ‘There is trouble in your city, Chosen One.’
    She nodded. ‘I know.’
    ‘Are you the calm at its heart?’
    A bitter smile twisted her lips as she turned away. ‘Will these serpents permit us to leave?’
    ‘Of course. But do not step. Instead, shuffle. Slowly. They will open for you a path.’
    ‘I should be alarmed by all this,’ she said as she edged back on their path.
    But it is the least of your worries, Chosen One. ‘I will keep you apprised of developments, if you wish.’
    ‘Thank you, yes.’
    He watched her make her way out of the clearing. There were vows wrapped tight around Toblakai’s soul. Slowly constricting. Some time soon, something would break. He knew not which, but if Leoman had taught him one thing, it was patience.
    When she was gone, the warrior swung about and approached the mason’s chest.

    Dust on the hands, a ghostly patina, tinted faintly pink by the raging red storm encircling the world.
    The heat of the day was but an illusion in Raraku. With the descent of darkness, the desert’s dead bones quickly cast off the sun’s shimmering, fevered breath. The wind grew chill and the sands erupted with crawling, buzzing life, like vermin emerging from a corpse. Rhizan flitted in a frenzied wild hunt through the clouds of capemoths and chigger fleas above the tent city sprawled in the ruins. In the distance desert wolves howled as if hunted by ghosts.
    Heboric lived in a modest tent raised around a ring of stones that had once provided the foundation for a granary. His abode was situated well away from the settlement’s centre, surrounded by the yurts of one of Mathok’s desert tribes. Old rugs covered the floor. Off to one side a small table of piled bricks held a brazier, sufficient for cooking if not warmth. A cask of well-water stood nearby, flavoured with amber wine. A half-dozen flickering oil lamps suffused the interior with yellow light.
    He sat alone, the pungent aroma of the hen’bara tea sweet in the cooling air. Outside, the sounds of the settling tribe offered a comforting background, close enough and chaotic enough to keep scattered and random his thoughts. Only later, when sleep claimed all those around him, would the relentless assault begin, the vertiginous visions of a face of jade, so massive it challenged comprehension. Power both alien and earthly, as if born of a natural force never meant to be altered. Yet altered it had been, shaped, cursed sentient. A giant buried in otataral, held motionless in an eternal prison.
    Who could now touch the world beyond, with the ghosts of two human hands-hands that had been claimed then abandoned by a god. But was it Fener who abandoned me, or did I abandon Fener? Which of us, I wonder, is moreexposed?
    This camp, this war-this desert-all had conspired to ease the shame of his hiding. Yet one day, Heboric knew, he would have to return to that dreaded wasteland from his past, to the island where the stone giant waited. Return. But to what end?
    He had always believed that Fener had taken his severed hands into keeping, to await the harsh justice that was the Tusked One’s right. A fate that Heboric had accepted, as best he could. But it seemed there was to be no end to the betrayals a single once-priest could commit against his god. Fener had been dragged from his realm, left abandoned and trapped on this world. Heboric’s severed hands had found a new master, a master possessed of such immense power that it could war with otataral itself. Yet it did not belong. The giant of jade, Heboric now believed, was an intruder, sent here from another realm for some hidden purpose.
    And, instead of completing that purpose, someone had imprisoned it.
    He sipped at his tea, praying that its narcotic would prove sufficient to deaden the sleep to come. It was losing its potency, or, rather, he was becoming inured to its effects.
    The face of stone beckoned.
    The face that was trying to speak.
    There was a scratching at the tent flap, then it was pulled aside.
    Felisin entered. ‘Ah, still awake. Good, that will make this easier. My mother wants you.’
    ‘Now?’
    ‘Yes. There have been events in the world beyond. Consequences to be discussed. Mother seeks your wisdom.’
    Heboric cast a mournful glance at the clay cup of steaming tea in his invisible hands. It was little more than flavoured water when cold. ‘I am uninterested in events in the world beyond. If she seeks wise words from me, she will be disappointed.’
    ‘So I argued,’ Felisin Younger said, an amused glint in her eyes. ‘Sha’ik insists.’
    She helped him don a cloak then led him outside, one of her hands light as a capemoth on his back.
    The night was bitter cold, tasting of settling dust. They set out along the twisting alleyways between the yurts, walking in silence.
    They passed the raised dais where Sha’ik Reborn had first addressed the mob, then through the crumbled gateposts leading to the huge, multi-chambered tent that was the Chosen One’s palace. There were no guards as such, for the goddess’s presence was palpable, a pressure in the chill air.
    There was little warmth in the first room beyond the tent flap, but with each successive curtain that they parted and stepped through, the temperature rose. The palace was a maze of such insulating chambers, most of them empty of furniture, offering little in the way of distinguishing one from another. An assassin who proceeded this far, somehow avoiding the attention of the goddess, would quickly get lost. The approach to where Sha’ik resided followed its own torturous, winding route. Her chambers were not central, not at the heart of the palace as one might expect.
    With his poor vision and the endless turns and twists, Heboric was quickly confused; he had never determined the precise location of their destination. He was reminded of the escape from the mines, the arduous journey to the island’s west coast-it had been Baudin in the lead, Baudin whose sense of direction had proved unerring, almost uncanny. Without him, Heboric and Felisin would have died.
    A Talon, no less. Ah, Tavore, you were not wrong to place your faith in him. It was Felisin who would not co-operate. You should have anticipated that. Well, sister, you should have anticipated a lot of things… But not this.
    They entered the square, low-ceilinged expanse that the Chosen One-Felisin Elder, child of the House of Paran-had called her Throne Room. And indeed there was a dais, once the pedestal for a hearth, on which was a tall-backed chair of sun-bleached wood and padding. In councils such as these, Sha’ik invariably positioned herself in that makeshift throne; nor would she leave it while her advisers were present, not even to peruse the yellowed maps the commanders were wont to lay out on the hide-covered floor. Apart from Felisin Younger, the Chosen One was the smallest person there.
    Heboric wondered if Sha’ik Elder had suffered similar insecurities. He doubted it.
    The room was crowded; among the army’s leaders and Sha’ik’s select, only Leoman and Toblakai were absent. There were no other chairs, although cushions and pillows rested against the base of three of the four tent walls, and it was on these that the commanders sat. Felisin at his side, Heboric made his way to the far side, Sha’ik’s left, and took his place a few short paces from the dais, the young girl settling down beside him.
    Some permanent sorcery illuminated the chamber, the light somehow warming the air as well. Everyone else was in their allotted place, Heboric noted. Though they were little more than blurs in his eyes, he knew them all well enough. Against the wall opposite the throne sat the half-blood Napan, Korbolo Dom, shaved hairless, his dusty blue skin latticed in scars. On his right, the High Mage Kamist Reloe, gaunt to the point of skeletal, his grey hair cut short to stubble, a tight-curled iron beard reaching up to prominent cheekbones above which glittered sunken eyes. On Korbolo’s left sat Henaras, a witch from some desert tribe that had, for unknown reasons, banished her. Sorcery kept her youthful in appearance, the heavy languor in her dark eyes the product of diluted Tralb, a poison drawn from a local snake, which she imbibed to inure her against assassination. Beside her was Fayelle, an obese, perpetually nervous woman of whom Heboric knew little.
    Along the wall opposite the ex-priest were L’oric, Bidithal and Febryl, the latter shapeless beneath an oversized silk telaba, its hood opened wide like the neck of a desert snake, tiny black eyes glittering out from its shadow. Beneath those eyes gleamed twin fangs of gold, capping his upper canines. They were said to hold Emulor, a poison rendered from a certain cactus that gifted not death, but permanent dementia.
    The last commander present was on Felisin’s left. Mathok. Beloved of the desert tribes, the tall, black-skinned warrior possessed an inherent nobility, but it was the kind that seemed to irritate everyone around him, barring perhaps Leoman who appeared to be indifferent to the war chief’s grating personality. There was, in fact, little to give cause to the dislike, for Mathok was ever courteous, even congenial, quick to smile-perhaps too quick at that, as if the man dismissed everyone as not worth taking seriously. With the exception of the Chosen One, of course.
    As Heboric settled, Sha’ik murmured, ‘Are you with us this evening, Ghost Hands?’
    ‘Well enough,’ he replied.
    An undercurrent of tense excitement was in her voice, ‘You had better be, old man. There have been… startling developments. Distant catastrophes have rocked the Malazan Empire…’
    ‘How long ago?’ Heboric asked.
    Sha’ik frowned at the odd question, but Heboric did not elaborate. ‘Less than a week. The warrens have been shaken, one and all, as if by an earthquake. Sympathizers of the rebellion remain in Dujek Onearm’s army, delivering to us the details.’ She gestured to L’oric. ‘I’ve no wish to talk all night. Elaborate on the events, L’oric, for the benefit of Korbolo, Heboric, and whoever else knows nothing of all that has occurred.’
    The man tilted his head. ‘Delighted to, Chosen One. Those of you who employ warrens will no doubt have felt the repercussions, the brutal reshaping of the pantheon. But what specifically happened? The first answer, simply, is usurpation. Fener, Boar of Summer, has, to all intents and purposes, been ousted as the pre-eminent god of war.’ He was merciful enough to not glance at Heboric. ‘In his place, the once First Hero, Treach. The Tiger of Summer-’
    Ousted. The fault is mine and mine alone.
    Sha’ik’s eyes were shining, fixed on Heboric. The secrets they shared taut between them, crackling yet unseen by anyone else.
    L’oric would have continued, but Korbolo Dom interrupted the High Mage. ‘And what is the significance of that to us? War needs no gods, only mortal contestants, two enemies and whatever reasons they invent in order to justify killing each other.’ He paused, smiling at L’oric, then shrugged. ‘All of which satisfies me well enough.’
    His words had pulled Sha’ik’s gaze from Heboric. An eyebrow rising, she addressed the Napan. ‘And what are your reasons, specifically, Korbolo Dom?’
    ‘I like killing people. It is the one thing I am very good at.’
    ‘Would that be people in general?’ Heboric asked him. ‘Or perhaps you meant the enemies of the Apocalypse.’
    ‘As you say, Ghost Hands.’
    There was a moment of general unease, then L’oric cleared his throat and said, ‘The usurpation, Korbolo Dom, is the one detail that a number of mages present may already know. I would lead us, gently, towards the less well known developments on far-away Genabackis. Now, to continue. The pantheon was shaken yet again-by the sudden, unexpected taking of the Beast Throne by Togg and Fanderay, the mated Elder Wolves that had seemed eternally cursed to never find each other-riven apart as they were by the Fall of the Crippled God. The full effect of this reawakening of the ancient Hold of the Beast is yet to be realized. All I would suggest, personally, is to those Soletaken and D’ivers among us: ’ware the new occupants of the Beast Throne. They may well come to you, eventually, to demand that you kneel before them.’ He smiled. ‘Alas, all those poor fools who followed the Path of the Hand. The game was won far, far away-’
    ‘We were the victims,’ Fayelle murmured, ‘of deception. By minions of Shadowthrone, no less, for which there will one day be a reckoning.’
    Bidithal smiled at her words, but said nothing.
    L’oric’s shrug affected indifference. ‘As to that, Fayelle, my tale is far from done. Allow me, if you will, to shift to mundane-though if anything even more important-events. A very disturbing alliance had been forged on Genabackis, to deal with a mysterious threat called the Pannion Domin. Onearm’s Host established an accord with Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake. Supplied by the supremely wealthy city of Darujhistan, the joined armies marched off to wage war against the Domin. We were, truth be told, relieved by this event from a short-term perspective, though we recognized that in the long term such an alliance was potentially catastrophic to the cause of the rebellion here in Seven Cities. Peace on Genabackis would, after all, free Dujek and his army, leaving us with the potential nightmare of Tavore approaching from the south, and Dujek and his ten thousand disembarking at Ehrlitan then marching down from the north.’
    ‘An unpleasant thought,’ Korbolo Dom growled. ‘Tavore alone will not cause us much difficulty. But the High Fist and his ten thousand… that’s another matter. Granted, most of the soldiers are from Seven Cities, but I would not cast knuckles on the hope that they would switch sides. Dujek owns them body and soul-’
    ‘Barring a few spies,’ Sha’ik said, her voice strangely flat.
    ‘None of whom would have contacted us,’ L’oric said, ‘had things turned out… differently.’
    ‘A moment, please,’ young Felisin cut in. ‘I thought that Onearm and his host had been outlawed by the Empress.’
    ‘Thus permitting him to forge the alliance with Brood and Rake,’ L’oric explained. ‘A convenient and temporary ploy, lass.’
    ‘We don’t want Dujek on our shores,’ Korbolo Dom said ‘Bridgeburners. Whiskeyjack, Quick Ben, Kalam, Black Moranth and their damned munitions-’
    ‘Permit me to ease your pattering heart, Commander,’ L’oric murmured. ‘We shall not see Dujek. Not anytime soon, at any rate. The Pannion War proved… devastating. The ten thousand lost close to seven thousand of their number. The Black Moranth were similarly mauled. Oh, they won, in the end, but at such a cost. The Bridgeburners… gone. Whiskeyjack… dead.’
    Heboric slowly straightened. The room was suddenly cold.
    ‘And Dujek himself,’ L’oric went on, ‘a broken man. Is this news pleasing enough? There is this: the scourge that is the T’lan Imass is no more. They have departed, one and all. No more will their terrors be visited upon the innocent citizens of Seven Cities. Thus,’ he concluded, ‘what has the Empress left? Adjunct Tavore. An extraordinary year for the empire. Coltaine and the Seventh, the Aren Legion, Whiskeyjack, the Bridgeburners, Onearm’s Host-we will be hard-pressed to best that.’
    ‘But we shall,’ Korbolo Dom laughed, both hands closed into pale-knuckled fists. ‘Whiskeyjack! Dead! Ah, blessings to Hood this night! I shall make sacrifice before his altar! And Dujek-oh, his spirit will have been broken indeed. Crushed!’
    ‘Enough gloating,’ Heboric growled, sickened.
    Kamist Reloe was leaning far forward, ‘L’oric!’ he hissed. ‘What of Quick Ben?’
    ‘He lives, alas. Kalam did not accompany the army-no-one knows where he has gone. There were but a handful of survivors from the Bridgeburners, and Dujek disbanded them and had them listed as casualties-’
    ‘Who lived?’ Kamist demanded.
    L’oric frowned. ‘A handful, as I said. Is it important?’
    ‘Yes!’
    ‘Very well.’ L’oric glanced over at Sha’ik. ‘Chosen One, do you permit me to make contact once more with my servant in that distant army? It will be but a few moments.’
    She shrugged. ‘Proceed.’ Then, as L’oric lowered his head, she slowly leaned back in her chair. ‘Thus. Our enemy has faced irreparable defeat. The Empress and her dear empire reel from the final gush of life-blood. It falls to us, then, to deliver the killing blow.’
    Heboric suspected he was the only one present who heard the hollowness of her words.
    Sister Tavore stands alone, now.
    And alone is what she prefers. Alone is the state in which she thrives. Ah, lass, you would pretend to excitement at this news, yet it has achieved the very opposite for you, hasn’t it. Your fear of sister Tavore has only deepened. Freezing you in place.
    L’oric began speaking without raising his head. ‘Blend. Toes. Mallet. Spindle. Sergeant Antsy. Lieutenant Picker… Captain Paran.’
    There was a thump from the high-backed chair as Sha’ik’s head snapped back. All colour had left her face, the only detail Heboric could detect with his poor eyes, but he knew the shock that would be written on those features. A shock that rippled through him as well, though it was but the shock of recognition-not of what it portended for this young woman seated on this throne.
    Unmindful, L’oric continued, ‘Quick Ben has been made High Mage. It is believed the surviving Bridgeburners departed by warren to Darujhistan, though my spy is in fact uncertain of that. Whiskeyjack and the fallen Bridgeburners… were interred… in Moon’s Spawn, which has-gods below! Abandoned! The Son of Darkness has abandoned Moon’s Spawn!’ He seemed to shiver then, and slowly looked up, blinking rapidly. A deep breath, loosed raggedly. ‘Whiskeyjack was killed by one of Brood’s commanders. Betrayal, it seemed, plagued the alliance.’
    ‘Of course it did,’ Korbolo Dom sneered.
    ‘We must consider Quick Ben,’ Kamist Reloe said, his hands wringing together incessantly on his lap. ‘Will Tayschrenn send him to Tavore? What of the remaining three thousand of Onearm’s Host? Even if Dujek does not lead them-’
    ‘They are broken in spirit,’ L’oric said. ‘Hence, the wavering souls among them who sought me out.’
    ‘And where is Kalam Mekhar?’ Kamist hissed, inadvertently glancing over his shoulder then starting at his own shadow on the wall.
    ‘Kalam Mekhar is nothing without Quick Ben,’ Korbolo Dom snarled. ‘Even less now that his beloved Whiskeyjack is dead.’
    Kamist rounded on his companion. ‘And what if Quick Ben is reunited with that damned assassin? What then?’
    The Napan shrugged. ‘We didn’t kill Whiskeyjack. Their minds will be filled with vengeance for the slayer among Brood’s entourage. Do not fear what will never come to pass, old friend.’
    Sha’ik’s voice rang startlingly through the room. ‘Everyone out but Heboric! Now!’
    Blank looks, then the others rose.
    Felisin Younger hesitated. ‘Mother?’
    ‘You as well, child. Out.’
    L’oric said, ‘There is the matter of the new House and all it signifies, Chosen-’
    ‘Tomorrow night. We will resume the discussion then. Out!’
    A short while later Heboric sat alone with Sha’ik. She stared down at him in silence for some time, then rose suddenly and stepped down from the dais. She fell to her knees in front of Heboric, sufficiently close for him to focus on her face. It was wet with tears.
    ‘My brother lives!’ she sobbed.
    And suddenly she was in his arms, face pressed against his shoulders as shudders heaved through her small, fragile frame.
    Stunned, Heboric remained silent.
    She wept for a long, long time, and he held her tight, unmoving, as solid as he could manage. And each time the vision of his fallen god rose before his mind’s eye, he ruthlessly drove it back down. The child in his arms-for child she was, once more-cried in nothing other than the throes of salvation. She was no longer alone, no longer alone with only her hated sister to taint the family’s blood.
    For that-for the need his presence answered-his own grief would wait.

CHAPTER EIGHT

    Among the untried recruits of the Fourteenth Army, fully half originated from the continent of Quon Tali, the very centre of the empire. Young and idealistic, they stepped onto blood-soaked ground, in the wake of the sacrifices made by their fathers and mothers, their grandfathers and grandmothers. It is the horror of war that, with each newly arrived generation, the nightmare is reprised by innocents.
    The Sha’ik Rebellion, Illusions of Victory
Imrygyn Tallobant

    Adjunct Tavore stood alone in front of four thousand milling, jostling soldiers, while officers bellowed and screamed through the press, their voices hoarse with desperation. Pikes wavered and flashed blinding glares through the dusty air of the parade ground like startled birds of steel. The sun was a raging fire overhead.
    Fist Gamet stood twenty paces behind her, tears in his eyes as he stared at Tavore. A pernicious wind was sweeping the dust cloud directly towards the Adjunct. In moments she was engulfed. Yet she made no move, her back straight, her gloved hands at her sides.
    No commander could be more alone than she was now. Alone, and helpless.
    And worse. This is my legion. The 8th. The first to assemble, Beru fend us all.
    But she had ordered that he remain where he was, if only to spare him the humiliation of trying to impose some kind of order on his troops. She had, instead, taken that humiliation upon herself. And Gamet wept for her, unable to hide his shame and grief.
    Aren’s parade ground was a vast expanse of hard-packed, almost white earth. Six thousand fully armoured soldiers could stand arrayed in ranks with sufficient avenues between the companies for officers to conduct their review. The Fourteenth Army was to assemble before the scrutiny of Adjunct Tavore in three phases, a legion at a time. Gamet’s 8th had arrived in a ragged, dissolving mob over two bells past, every lesson from every drill sergeant lost, the few veteran officers and non-coms locked in a titanic struggle with a four-thousand-headed beast that had forgotten what it was.
    Gamet saw Captain Keneb, whom Blistig had graciously given him to command the 9th Company, battering at soldiers with the flat of his blade, forcing them into a line that broke up in his wake as other soldiers pressed forward from behind. There were some old soldiers in that front row, trying to dig in their heels-sergeants and corporals, red-faced with sweat streaming from beneath their helms.
    Fifteen paces behind Gamet waited the other two Fists, as well as the Wickan scouts under the command of Temul. Nil and Nether were there as well, although, mercifully, Admiral Nok was not-for the fleet had sailed.
    Impulses at war within him, Gamet trembled, wanting to be elsewhere-anywhere-and wanting to drag the Adjunct with him. Failing that, wanting to step forward, defying her direct order, to take position at her side.
    Someone came alongside him. A heavy leather sack thumped into the dust, and Gamet turned to see a squat soldier, blunt-featured beneath a leather cap, wearing barely half of a marine’s standard issue of armour-a random collection of boiled leather fittings-over a threadbare, stained uniform, the magenta dye so faded as to be mauve. No insignia was present. The man’s scarred, pitted face stared impassively at the seething mob.
    Gamet swung further round to see an additional dozen decrepit men and women, each standing an arm’s reach from the one in front, wearing unrepaired, piecemeal armour and carrying an assortment of weapons-few of which were Malazan.
    The Fist addressed the man in the lead. ‘And who in Hood’s name are you people?’
    ‘Sorry we was late,’ the soldier grunted. ‘Then again,’ he added, ‘I could be lying.’
    ‘Late? Which squads? What companies?’
    The man shrugged. ‘This and that. We was in Aren gaol. Why was we there? This and that. But now we’re here, sir. You want these children quelled?’
    ‘If you can manage that, soldier, I’ll give you a command of your own.’
    ‘No you won’t. I killed an Untan noble here in Aren. Name of Lenestro. Snapped his neck with these two hands.’
    Through the clouds of dust before them, a sergeant had clawed free of the mob and was approaching Adjunct Tavore. For a moment Gamet was terrified that he would, insanely, cut her down right there, but the man sheathed his short-sword as he drew up before her. Words were exchanged.
    The Fist made a decision. ‘Come with me, soldier.’
    ‘Aye, sir.’ The man reached down and collected his kit bag.
    Gamet led him to where Tavore and the sergeant stood. An odd thing happened then. There was a grunt from the veteran at the Fist’s side, even as the wiry, red-and-grey-bearded sergeant’s eyes flickered past the Adjunct and fixed on the soldier. A sudden broad grin, then a quick succession of gestures-a hand lifting, as if holding an invisible rock or ball, then the hand flipping, index finger inscribing a circle, followed by a jerk of the thumb towards the east, concluded with a shrug. In answer to all this, the soldier from the gaol gave his kit bag a shake.
    The sergeant’s blue eyes widened.
    They arrived, coming alongside the Adjunct, who swung a blank gaze on Gamet.
    ‘Your pardon, Adjunct,’ the Fist said, and would have added more, but Tavore raised a hand and made to speak.
    She didn’t get a chance.
    The soldier at Gamet’s side spoke to the sergeant. ‘Draw us a line, will ya?’
    ‘I’ll do just that.’
    The sergeant pivoted and returned to the heaving ranks.
    Tavore’s eyes had snapped to the soldier, but she said nothing, for the man had set his bag down, drawn back its flap, and was rummaging inside it.
    Five paces in front of the legion’s uneven ranks, the sergeant once more drew his sword, then drove its blunt tip into the dust and set off, inscribing a sharp furrow in the ground.
    Draw us a line, will ya?
    The soldier crouched over his kit bag looked up suddenly. ‘You two still here? Go back to them Wickans, then all of you pull back another thirty, forty paces. Oh, and get them Wickans off their horses and a tight grip on the reins, and all of ya, take for yourselves a wide stance. Then when I give the signal, plug your ears.’
    Gamet flinched as the man began withdrawing a succession of clay balls from his bag. The bag… that thumped down beside me not fifty heartbeats ago. Hood’s breath!
    ‘What is your name, soldier?’ Adjunct Tavore rasped.
    ‘Cuttle. Now, better get moving, lass.’
    Gamet reached out and touched her shoulder. ‘Adjunct, those are-’
    ‘I know what they are,’ she snapped. ‘And this man’s liable to kill fifty of my soldiers-’
    ‘Right now, lady,’ Cuttle growled as he drew out a folding shovel, ‘you ain’t got any. Now take it from me, that otataral blade at your comely hip ain’t gonna help you one bit if you decide to stand here. Pull ’em all back, and leave the rest to me and the sergeant.’
    ‘Adjunct,’ Gamet said, unable to keep the pleading from his tone.
    She shot him a glare, then wheeled. ‘Let us be about it, then, Fist.’
    He let her take the lead, paused after a few paces to glance back. The sergeant had rejoined Cuttle, who had managed to dig a small hole in what seemed an absurdly short time.
    ‘Cobbles down there?’ The sergeant nodded. ‘Perfect!’
    ‘About what I figured,’ Cuttle replied. ‘I’ll angle these crackers, with the cusser a hand’s width deeper-’
    ‘Perfect. I’d have done the same if I’d thought to bring some with me.’
    ‘You supplied?’
    ‘Well enough.’
    ‘What I got here in my bag are the last.’
    ‘I can mend that, Cuttle.’
    ‘For that, Fid-’
    ‘Strings.’
    ‘For that, Strings, you’ve earned a kiss.’
    ‘I can’t wait.’
    Gamet pulled himself away with a shake of his head. Sappers.
    The explosion was a double thump that shook the earth, cobbles punching free of the overburden of dust-which had leapt skyward-to clack and clash in a maelstrom of stone chips and slivers. Fully a third of the legion were thrown from their feet, taking down others with them.
    Astonishingly, none seemed fatally injured, as if Cuttle had somehow directed the force of the detonation downward and out under the cobbles.
    As the last rubble pattered down, Adjunct Tavore and Gamet moved forward once again.
    Facing the silenced mob, Cuttle stood with a sharper held high in one hand. In a bellowing voice, he addressed the recruits. ‘Next soldier who moves gets this at his feet, and if you think my aim ain’t any good, try me! Now, sergeants and corporals! Up nice and slow now. Find your squads. You up here in front, Sergeant Strings here has drawn us a tidy nice line-all right, so it’s a bit messy right now so he’s drawing it again-walk up to it easy like, toes a finger’s width away from it, boots square! We’re gonna do this right, or people are going to die.’
    Sergeant Strings was moving along the front line now, ensuring the line was held, spreading soldiers out. Officers were shouting once more, though not as loud as before, since the recruits remained silent. Slowly, the legion began taking shape.
    Those recruits were indeed silent, and… watchful, Gamet noted as he and the Adjunct returned to close to their original position-the gaping, smoking crater off to one side. Watchful… of the madman with the sharper held high above his head. After a moment, the Fist moved up to stand beside Cuttle.
    ‘You killed a nobleman?’ he asked in a low voice, studying the assembling ranks.
    ‘Aye, Fist. I did.’
    ‘Was he on the Chain of Dogs?’
    ‘He was.’
    ‘As were you, Cuttle.’
    ‘Until I took a spear through a shoulder. Went with the others on the Silanda. Missed the final argument, I did. Lenestro was… second best. I wanted Pullyk Alar to start, but Alar’s run off with Mallick Rel. I want both of them, Fist. Maybe they think the argument’s over, but not for me.’
    ‘I’d be pleased if you took me up on that offer of command,’ Gamet said.
    ‘No thanks, sir. I’m already assigned to a squad. Sergeant Strings’s squad, in fact. Suits me fine.’
    ‘Where do you know him from?’
    Cuttle glanced over, his eyes thinned to slits. Expressionless, he said, ‘Never met him before today, sir. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I owe him a kiss.’

    Less than a quarter-bell later, Fist Gamet’s 8th Legion stood motionless in tight, even ranks. Adjunct Tavore studied them from where she stood at Gamet’s side, but had yet to speak. Cuttle and Sergeant Strings had rejoined the 9th Company’s 4th squad.
    Tavore seemed to reach some decision. A gesture behind her brought Fists Tene Baralta and Blistig forward. Moments later they came up alongside Gamet and halted. The Adjunct’s unremarkable eyes fixed on Blistig. ‘Your legion waits in the main avenue beyond?’
    The red-faced man nodded. ‘Melting in the heat, Adjunct. But that cusser going off settled them down.’
    Her gaze shifted to the Red Blade. ‘Fist Baralta?’
    ‘Calmed, Adjunct.’
    ‘When I dismiss the 8th and they depart the parade ground, I suggest the remaining soldiers enter by company. Each company will then take position and when they are ready the next one follows. It may take longer, but at the very least we will not have a repetition of the chaos we have just witnessed. Fist Gamet, are you satisfied with the assemblage of your troops?’
    ‘Well enough, Adjunct.’
    ‘As am I. You may now-’
    She got no further, seeing that the attention of the three men standing before her had slipped past, over her shoulder; and from the four thousand soldiers standing at attention, there was sudden, absolute silence-not a rustle of armour, not a cough. For the 8th had drawn a single breath, and now held it.
    Gamet struggled to maintain his expression, even as Tavore raised an eyebrow at him. Then she slowly turned.
    The toddler had come from nowhere, unseen by any until he arrived to stand in the very spot where the Adjunct had first stood, his oversized rust-red telaba trailing like a royal train. Blond hair a tangled shock above a deeply tanned, cherubic face smeared with dirt, the child faced the ranks of soldiers with an air of unperturbed calculation.
    A strangled cough from among the soldiers, then someone stepped forward.
    Even as the man emerged from the front line, the toddler’s eyes found him. Both arms, buried in sleeves, reached out. Then one sleeve slipped back, revealing the tiny hand, and in that hand there was a bone. A human longbone. The man froze in mid-step.
    The air above the parade ground seemed to hiss like a thing alive with the gasps of four thousand soldiers.
    Gamet fought down a shiver, then spoke to the man. ‘Captain Keneb,’ he said loudly, struggling to swallow a welling dread, ‘I suggest you collect your lad. Now, before he, uh, starts screaming.’
    Face flushed, Keneb threw a shaky salute then strode forward.
    ‘Neb!’ the toddler shouted as the captain gathered him up.
    Adjunct Tavore snapped, ‘Follow me!’ to Gamet, then walked to the pair. ‘Captain Keneb, is it?’
    ‘Your p-pardon, Adjunct. The lad has a nurse but seems determined to slip through her grasp at every opportunity-there’s a blown graveyard behind the-’
    ‘Is he yours, Captain?’ Tavore demanded, her tone brittle.
    ‘As good as, Adjunct. An orphan from the Chain of Dogs. The historian Duiker placed him into my care.’
    ‘Has he a name?’
    ‘Grub.’
    ‘Grub?’
    Keneb’s shrug was apologetic. ‘For now, Adjunct. It well suits him-’
    ‘And the 8th. Yes, I see that. Deliver him to your hired nurse, Captain. Then, tomorrow, fire her and hire a better one… or three. Will the child accompany the army?’
    ‘He has no-one else, Adjunct. There will be other families among the camp followers-’
    ‘I am aware of that. Be on your way, Captain Keneb.’
    ‘I–I am sorry, Adjunct-’
    But she was already turning away, and only Gamet heard her sigh and murmur, ‘It is far too late for that.’
    And she was right. Soldiers-even recruits-recognized an omen when it arrived. A child in the very boot prints of the woman who would lead this army. Raising high a sun-bleached thigh bone.
    Gods below…

    ‘Hood’s balls skewered on a spit.’
    The curse was spoken as a low growl, in tones of disgust.
    Strings watched Cuttle set his bag down and slide it beneath the low flatboard bed. The stable that had been transformed into a makeshift barracks held eight squads now, the cramped confines reeking of fresh sweat… and stark terror. At the back wall’s urine hole someone was being sick.
    ‘Let’s head outside, Cuttle,’ Strings said after a moment. ‘I’ll collect Gesler and Borduke.’
    ‘I’d rather go get drunk,’ the sapper muttered.
    ‘Later, we’ll do just that. But first, we need to have a small meeting.’
    Still the other man hesitated.
    Strings rose from his cot and stepped close. ‘Aye, it’s that important.’
    ‘All right. Lead on… Strings.’
    As it turned out, Stormy joined the group of veterans that pushed silently past ashen-faced recruits-many of them with closed eyes and mouthing silent prayers-and headed out into the courtyard.
    It was deserted, Lieutenant Ranal-who had proved pathetically ineffective at the assembly-having fled into the main house the moment the troop arrived.
    All eyes were on Strings. He in turn studied the array of grim expressions around him. There was no doubt among them concerning the meaning of the omen, and Strings was inclined to agree. A child leads us to our deaths. A leg bone to signify our march, withered under the curse of the desert sun. We’ve all lived too long, seen too much, to deceive ourselves of this one brutal truth: this army of recruits now see themselves as already dead.
    Stormy’s battered, red-bearded face finally twisted into an expression too bitter to be wry. ‘If you’re going to say that us here have a hope at Hood’s gate in fighting the tide, Strings, you’ve lost your mind. The lads and lasses in there ain’t unique-the whole damned three legions-’
    ‘I know,’ Strings cut in. ‘We ain’t none of us stupid. Now, all I’m asking is for a spell of me talking. Me talking. No interruptions. I’ll tell you when I’m done. Agreed?’
    Borduke turned his head and spat. ‘You’re a Hood-damned Bridgeburner.’
    ‘Was. Got a problem with that?’
    The sergeant of the 6th squad grinned. ‘What I meant by that, Strings, is that for you I’ll listen. As you ask.’
    ‘Same with us,’ Gesler muttered, Stormy nodding agreement at his side.
    Strings faced Cuttle. ‘And you?’
    ‘Only because it’s you and not Hedge, Fiddler. Sorry. Strings.’
    Borduke’s eyes widened in recognition of the name. He spat a second time.
    ‘Thank you.’
    ‘Don’t thank us yet,’ Cuttle said, but took the edge off with a slight smile.
    ‘All right, I’ll start with a story. Has to do with Nok, the admiral, though he wasn’t an admiral back then, just the commander of six dromons. I’d be surprised if any of you have heard this story but if you have don’t say nothing-but its relevance here should have occurred to you already. Six dromons. On their way to meet the Kartool fleet, three pirate galleys, which had each been blessed by the island’s priests of D’rek. The Worm of Autumn. Yes, you all know D’rek’s other name, but I said it for emphasis. In any case, Nok’s fleet had stopped at the Napan Isles, went up the mouth of Koolibor River to drag barrels-drawing fresh water. What every ship did when heading out to Kartool or beyond on the Reach. Six ships, each drawing water, storing the barrels below decks.
    ‘Half a day out of the Napan Isles, the first barrel was broached, by a cook’s helper, on the flagship. And straight out through the hole came a snake. A paralt, up the lad’s arm. Sank both fangs into his left eye. Screaming, he ran out on deck, the snake with its jaws wide and holding tight, writhing around. Well, the lad managed two steps before he died, then he went down, already white as a sun-bleached yard. The snake was killed, but as you can imagine, it was too late.
    ‘Nok, being young, just shrugged the whole event off, and when word spread and sailors and marines started dying of thirst-in ships loaded with barrels of fresh water that no-one would dare open-he went and did the obvious thing. Brought up another barrel. Breached it with his own hands.’ Strings paused. He could see that no-one else knew the tale. Could see that he had their attention.
    ‘The damned barrel was full of snakes. Spilling out onto the deck. A damned miracle Nok wasn’t bitten. It was just starting dry season, you see. The paralts’ season in the river was ending. The waters fill with them as they head down to the river mouth on their way out to sea. Every single barrel on those six dromons held snakes.
    ‘The fleet never closed to do battle with the Kartoolians. By the time it made it back to Nap, half of the complement was dead of thirst. All six ships were holed outside the harbour, packed with offerings to D’rek, the Worm of Autumn, and sent to the deep. Nok had to wait until the next year to shatter Kartool’s paltry fleet. Two months after that, the island was conquered.’ He fell silent for a moment, then shook his head. ‘No, I’m not finished. That was a story, a story of how to do things wrong. You don’t destroy an omen by fighting it. No, you do the opposite. You swallow it whole.’
    Confused expressions. Gesler’s was the first to clear and at the man’s grin-startling white in his bronze-hued face-Strings slowly nodded, then said, ‘If we don’t close both hands on this omen, we’re all nothing more than pall-bearers to those recruits in there. To the whole damned army.
    ‘Now, didn’t I hear that captain mention something about a nearby cemetery? Blown clear, the bones exposed to all. I suggest we go find it. Right now. All right, I’m finished talking.’
    ‘That was a damned thigh bone,’ Stormy growled.
    Gesler stared at his corporal.

    ‘We march in two days’ time.’
    Before anything else happens, Gamet silently added to the Adjunct’s announcement. He glanced over at Nil and Nether where they sat side by side on the bench against the wall. Both racked with shivers, the aftermath of the omen’s power leaving them huddled and pale.
    Mysteries stalked the world. Gamet had felt their chill breath before, a reverberation of power that belonged to no god, but existed none the less. As implacable as the laws of nature. Truths beneath the bone. To his mind, the Empress would be better served by the immediate disbanding of the Fourteenth Army. A deliberate and thorough breaking up of the units with reassignments throughout the empire, the wait of another year for another wave of recruits.
    Adjunct Tavore’s next words to those gathered in the chamber seemed to speak directly to Gamet’s thoughts. ‘We cannot afford it,’ she said, uncharacteristically pacing. ‘The Fourteenth cannot be defeated before it sets foot outside Aren. The entire subcontinent will be irretrievably lost if that happens. Better we get annihilated in Raraku. Sha’ik’s forces will have at least been reduced.
    ‘Two days.
    ‘In the meantime, I want the Fists to call their officers together, rank of lieutenant and higher. Inform them I will be visiting each company in person, beginning tonight. Give no indication of which one I will visit first-I want them all alert. Apart from guard postings, every soldier is restricted to barracks. Keep a particular eye on veterans. They will want to get drunk, and stay drunk, if they can. Fist Baralta, contact Orto Setral and have him assemble a troop of Red Blades. They’re to sweep the settlement of the camp followers and confiscate all alcohol and durhang or whatever else the locals possess that deadens the senses. Then establish a picket round that settlement. Any questions? Good. You are all dismissed. Gamet, send for T’amber.’
    ‘Aye, Adjunct.’ Uncharacteristically careless. That perfumed lover of yours has been kept from the sights of everyone here but me. They know, of course. Even so…
    Outside in the hallway, Blistig exchanged a nod with Baralta then gripped Gamet’s upper arm. ‘With us, if you please.’
    Nil and Nether shot them a glance then hurried off.
    ‘Take that damned hand off me,’ Gamet said quietly. ‘I can follow without your help, Blistig.’
    The grip fell away.
    They found an empty room, once used to store items on hooks fixed three-quarters of the way up all four walls. The air smelled of lanolin.
    ‘Time’s come,’ Blistig said without preamble. ‘We cannot march in two days’ time, Gamet, and you know it. We cannot march at all. There will be a mutiny at worst, at best an endless bleeding of desertions. The Fourteenth is finished.’
    The satisfied gleam in the man’s eyes triggered a boiling rage in Gamet. He struggled for a moment then managed to clamp down on his emotions, sufficient to lock gazes with Blistig and ask, ‘Was that child’s arrival set up between you and Keneb?’
    Blistig recoiled as if struck, then his face darkened. ‘What do you take me for-’
    ‘Right now,’ Gamet snapped, ‘I am not sure.’
    The once-commander of the Aren garrison tugged the peace-loop from his sword’s hilt, but Tene Baralta stepped between the two men, armour clanking. Taller and broader than either Malazan, the dusk-skinned warrior reached out to set a gloved hand on each chest, then slowly pushed the men apart. ‘We are here to reach agreement, not kill one another,’ he rumbled. ‘Besides,’ he added, facing Blistig, ‘Gamet’s suspicion had occurred to me as well.’
    ‘Keneb would not do such a thing,’ Blistig rasped, ‘even if you two imagine that I might.’ A worthy answer.
    Gamet pulled away and strode to face the far wall, back to the others. His mind raced, then he finally shook his head. Without turning round, he said, ‘She asked for two days-’
    ‘Asked? I heard an order-’
    ‘Then you were not listening carefully enough, Blistig. The Adjunct, young and untested though she may be, is not a fool. She sees what you see-what we all see. But she has asked for two days. Come the moment to march… well, a final decision will become obvious, either way, at that moment. Trust her.’ He swung round. ‘For this and this alone, if need be. Two days.’
    After a long moment, Baralta nodded. ‘So be it.’
    ‘Very well,’ Blistig allowed.
    Beru bless us. As Gamet made to leave, Tene Baralta touched his shoulder. ‘Fist,’ he said, ‘what is the situation with this… this T’amber? Do you know? Why is the Adjunct being so… cagey? Women who take women for lovers-the only crime is the loss to men, and so it has always been.’
    ‘Cagey? No, Tene Baralta. Private. The Adjunct is simply a private woman.’
    The ex-Red Blade persisted, ‘What is this T’amber like? Does she exercise undue influence on our commander?’
    ‘I have no idea, to answer your latter question. What is she like? She was a concubine, I believe, in the Grand Temple of the Queen of Dreams, in Unta. Other than that, my only words with her have been at the Adjunct’s behest. Nor is T’amber particularly talkative…’ And that is an understatement of prodigious proportions. Beautiful, aye, and remote. Has she undue influence over Tavore? I wish I knew. ‘And speaking of T’amber, I must leave you now.’
    At the door he paused and glanced back at Blistig. ‘You gave good answer, Blistig. I no longer suspect you.’ In reply, the man simply nodded.

    Lostara Yil placed the last of her Red Blade accoutrements into the chest then lowered the lid and locked it. She straightened and stepped back, feeling bereft. There had been a vast comfort in belonging to that dreaded company. That the Red Blades were hated by their tribal kin, reviled in their own land, had proved surprisingly satisfying. For she hated them in turn.
    Born a daughter instead of the desired son in a Pardu family, as a child she had lived on the streets of Ehrlitan. It had been common practice-before the Malazans came with their laws for families-among many tribes to cast out their unwanted children once they reached the fifth year of life. Acolytes from numerous temples-followers of mystery cults-regularly rounded up such abandoned children. No-one knew what was done with them. The hopeful among the rough circle of fellow urchins Lostara had known had believed that, among the cults, there could be found a kind of salvation. Schooling, food, safety, all leading to eventually becoming an acolyte in turn. But the majority of children suspected otherwise. They’d heard tales of-or had themselves seen-the occasional nightly foray of shrouded figures emerging from the backs of temples, wending down alleyways with a covered cart, on their way to the crab-infested tidal pools east of the city, pools not so deep that one could not see the glimmer of small picked bones at the bottom.
    One thing all could agree on. The hunger of the temples was insatiable.
    Optimistic or pessimistic, the children of Ehrlitan’s streets did all they could to evade the hunters with their nets and pole-ropes. A life could be eked out, a kind of freedom won, bitter though it might be.
    Midway through her seventh year, Lostara was dragged down to the greasy cobbles by an acolyte’s net. Her shrieks went unheeded by the citizens who stepped aside as the silent priest dragged his prize back to the temple. Impassive eyes met hers every now and then on that horrible journey, and those eyes Lostara would never forget.
    Rashan had proved less bloodthirsty than most of the other cults in the habit of hunting children. She had found herself among a handful of new arrivals, all tasked with maintenance of the temple grounds, destined, it seemed, for a lifetime of menial servitude. The drudgery continued until her ninth year, when for reasons unknown to Lostara she was selected for schooling in the Shadow Dance. She had caught rare and brief glimpses of the dancers-a hidden and secretive group of men and women for whom worship was an elaborate, intricate dance. Their only audience were priests and priestesses-none of whom would watch the actual dancers, only their shadows.
    You are nothing, child. Not a dancer. Your body is in service to Rashan, and Rashan is this realm’s manifestation of Shadow, the drawing of darkness to light. When you dance, it is not you that is watched. It is the shadow your body paints. The shadow is the dancer, Lostara Yil. Not you.
    Years of discipline, of limb-stretching training that loosened every joint, that drew out the spine, that would allow the Caster to flow with seamless movement-and all for naught.
    The world had been changing outside the temple’s high walls. Events unknown to Lostara were systematically crushing their entire civilization. The Malazan Empire had invaded. Cities were falling. Foreign ships had blockaded Ehrlitan’s harbour.
    The cult of Rashan was spared the purges of the new, harsh masters of Seven Cities, for it was a recognized religion. Other temples did not fare as well. She recalled seeing smoke in the sky above Ehrlitan and wondering at its source, and she was awakened at night by terrible sounds of chaos in the streets.
    Lostara was a middling Caster. Her shadow seemed to have a mind of its own and was a recalcitrant, halting partner in the training. She did not ask herself if she was happy or otherwise. Rashan’s Empty Throne did not draw her faith as it did the other students’. She lived, but it was an unquestioning life. Neither circular nor linear, for in her mind there was no movement at all, and the notion of progress was measured only in terms of mastering the exercises forced upon her.
    The cult’s destruction was sudden, unexpected, and it came from within.
    She recalled the night when it had all begun. Great excitement in the temple. A High Priest from another city was visiting. Come to speak with Master Bidithal on matters of vast importance. There would be a dance in the stranger’s honour, for which Lostara and her fellow students would provide a background sequence of rhythms to complement the Shadow Dancers.
    Lostara herself had been indifferent to the whole affair, and had been nowhere close to the best of the students in their minor role in the performance. But she remembered the stranger.
    So unlike sour old Bidithal. Tall, thin, a laughing face, remarkably long-fingered, almost effeminate hands-hands the sight of which awakened in her new emotions.
    Emotions that stuttered her mechanical dancing, that sent her shadow twisting into a rhythm that was counterpoint to that cast by not only her fellow students, but the Shadow Dancers themselves-as if a third strain had slipped into the main chamber.
    Too striking to remain unnoticed.
    Bidithal himself, his face darkening, had half risen-but the stranger spoke first.
    ‘Pray let the Dance continue,’ he said, his eyes finding Lostara’s own. ‘The Song of the Reeds has never been performed in quite this manner before. No gentle breeze here, eh, Bidithal? Oh no, a veritable gale. The Dancers are virgins, yes?’ His laugh was low yet full. ‘Yet there is nothing virginal about this dance, now, is there? Oh, storm of desire!’
    And those eyes held Lostara still, in fullest recognition of the desire that overwhelmed her-that gave shape to her shadow’s wild cavort. Recognition, and a certain pleased, but cool… acknowledgement. As if flattered, but with no invitation offered in return.
    The stranger had other tasks that night-and in the nights that followed-or so Lostara would come to realize much later. At the moment, however, her face burned with shame, and she had broken off her dance to flee the chamber.
    Of course, Delat had not come to steal the heart of a Caster. He had come to destroy Rashan.
    Delat, who, it proved, was both a High Priest and a Bridgeburner, and whatever the Emperor’s reason for annihilating the cult, his was the hand that delivered the death-blow.
    Although not alone. The night of the killings, at the bell of the third hour-two past midnight-after the Song of Reeds, there had been another, hidden in the black clothes of an assassin…
    Lostara knew more of what had happened that night in the Rashan Temple of Ehrlitan than anyone else barring the players themselves, for Lostara had been the only resident to be spared. Or so she had believed for a long time, until the name of Bidithal rose once more, from Sha’ik’s Apocalypse army.
    Ah, I was more than spared that night, wasn’t I?
    Delat’s lovely, long-fingered hands…
    Setting foot onto the city’s streets the following morning, after seven years’ absence, she had been faced with the terrifying knowledge that she was alone, truly alone. Resurrecting an ancient memory of when she was awakened following the fifth birthday, and thrust into the hands of an old man hired to take her away, to leave her in a strange neighbourhood on the other side of the city. A memory that echoed with a child’s cries for her mother.
    The short time that followed her departure from the temple, before she joined the Red Blades-the newly formed company of Seven Cities natives who avowed loyalty to the Malazan Empire-held its own memories, ones she had long since repressed. Hunger, denigration, humiliation and what seemed a fatal, spiralling descent. But the recruiters had found her, or perhaps she found them. The Red Blades would be a statement to the Emperor, the marking of a new era in Seven Cities. There would be peace. None of this interested Lostara, however. Rather, it was the widely-held rumour that the Red Blades sought to become the deliverers of Malazan justice.
    She had not forgotten those impassive eyes. The citizens who were indifferent to her pleas, who had watched the acolyte drag her past to an unknown fate. She had not forgotten her own parents.
    Betrayal could be answered by but one thing, and one thing alone, and the once-captain Lostara Yil of the Red Blades had grown skilled in that answer’s brutal delivery.
    And now, am I being made into a betrayer?
    She turned away from the wooden chest. She was a Red Blade no longer. In a short while, Pearl would arrive, and they would set out to find the cold, cold trail of Tavore’s hapless sister, Felisin. Along which they might find opportunity to drive a blade into the heart of the Talons. Yet were not the Talons of the empire? Dancer’s own, his spies and killers, the deadly weapon of his will. Then what had turned them into traitors?
    Betrayal was a mystery. Inexplicable to Lostara. She only knew that it delivered the deepest wounds of all.
    And she had long since vowed that she would never again suffer such wounds.
    She collected her sword-belt from the hook above the bed and drew the thick leather band about her hips, hooking it in place.
    Then froze.
    The small room before her was filled with dancing shadows.
    And in their midst, a figure. A pale face of firm features, made handsome by smile lines at the corners of the eyes-and the eyes themselves, which, as he looked upon her, settled like depthless pools.
    Into which she felt, in a sudden rush, she could plunge. Here, now, for ever.
    The figure made a slight bow with his head, then spoke, ‘Lostara Yil. You may doubt my words, but I remember you-’
    She stepped back, her back pressing up against the wall, and shook her head. ‘I do not know you,’ she whispered.
    ‘True. But there were three of us that night, so very long ago in Ehrlitan. I was witness to your… unexpected performance. Did you know Delat-or, rather, the man I would eventually learn was Delat-would have taken you for his own? Not just the one night. You would have joined him as a Bridgeburner, and that would well have pleased him. Or so I believe. No way to test it, alas, since it all went-outwardly-so thoroughly awry.’
    ‘I remember,’ she said.
    The man shrugged. ‘Delat, who had a different name for that mission and was my partner’s responsibility besides-Delat let Bidithal go. I suppose it seemed a… a betrayal, yes? It certainly did to my partner. Certainly to this day Shadowthrone-who was not Shadowthrone then, simply a particularly adept and ambitious practitioner of Rashan’s sister warren, Meanas-to this day, I was saying, Shadowthrone stokes eternal fires of vengeance. But Delat proved very capable of hiding… under our very noses. Like Kalam. Just another unremarked soldier in the ranks of the Bridgeburners.’
    ‘I do not know who you are.’
    The man smiled. ‘Ah, yes, I am well ahead of myself…’ His gaze fell to the shadows spread long before him, though his back was to an unlit, closed door, and his smile broadened as if he was reconsidering those words. ‘I am Cotillion, Lostara Yil. Back then, I was Dancer, and yes, you can well guess the significance of that name, given what you were being trained to do. Of course, in Seven Cities, certain truths of the cult had been lost, in particular the true nature of Shadow Dancing. It was never meant for performance, Lostara. It was, in fact, an art most martial. Assassination.’
    ‘I am no follower of Shadow-Rashan or your version-’
    ‘That is not the loyalty I would call upon with you,’ Cotillion replied.
    She was silent, struggling to fit sense to her thoughts, to his words. Cotillion… was Dancer. Shadowthrone… must have been Kellanved, the Emperor! She scowled. ‘My loyalty is to the Malazan Empire. The Empire-’
    ‘Very good,’ he replied. ‘I am pleased.’
    ‘And now you’re going to try to convince me that the Empress Laseen should not be the empire’s true ruler-’
    ‘Not at all. She is welcome to it. But, alas, she is in some trouble right now, isn’t she? She could do with some… help.’
    ‘She supposedly assassinated you!’ Lostara hissed. ‘You and Kellanved both!’ She betrayed you.
    Cotillion simply shrugged again. ‘Everyone had their… appointed tasks. Lostara, the game being played here is far larger than any mortal empire. But the empire in question-your empire-well, its success is crucial to what we seek. And, were you to know the fullest extent of recent, distant events, you would need no convincing that the Empress sits on a tottering throne right now.’
    ‘Yet even you betrayed the Emper-Shadowthrone. Did you not just tell me-’
    ‘Sometimes, I see further than my dear companion. Indeed, he remains obsessed with desires to see Laseen suffer-I have other ideas, and while he may see them as party to his own, there is yet no pressing need to disabuse him of that notion. But I will not seek to deceive you into believing I am all-knowing. I admit to having made grave errors, indeed, to knowing the poison of suspicion. Quick Ben. Kalam. Whiskeyjack. Where did their loyalty truly reside? Well, I eventually got my answer, but I am not yet decided whether it pleases me or troubles me. There is one danger that plagues ascendants in particular, and that is the tendency to wait too long. Before acting, before stepping-if you will-from the shadows.’ He smiled again. ‘I would make amends for past, at times fatal, hesitation. And so here I stand before you, Lostara, to ask for your help.’
    Her scowl deepened. ‘Why should I not tell Pearl all about this… meeting?’
    ‘No reason, but I’d rather you didn’t. I am not yet ready for Pearl. For you, remaining silent will not constitute treason, for, if you do as I ask, you two will walk step in step. You will face no conflict, no matter what may occur, or what you may discover in your travels.’
    ‘Where is this… Delat?’
    His brows rose, as if he was caught off guard momentarily by the question, then he sighed and nodded. ‘I have no hold over him these days, alas. Why? He is too powerful. Too mysterious. Too conniving. Too Hood-damned smart. Indeed, even Shadowthrone has turned his attentions elsewhere. I would love to arrange a reunion, but I am afraid I have not that power.’ He hesitated, then added, ‘Sometimes, one must simply trust in fate, Lostara. The future can ever promise but one thing and one thing only: surprises. But know this, we would all save the Malazan Empire, in our own ways. Will you help me?’
    ‘If I did, would that make me a Talon?’
    Cotillion’s smile broadened. ‘But, my dear, the Talons no longer exist.’
    ‘Oh, really, Cotillion, would you ask my help and then play me for a fool?’
    The smile slowly faded. ‘But I am telling you, the Talons no longer exist. Surly annihilated them. Is there knowledge you possess that would suggest otherwise?’
    She was silent a moment, then turned away. ‘No. I simply… assumed.’
    ‘Indeed. Will you help me then?’
    ‘Pearl is on his way,’ Lostara said, facing the god once again.
    ‘I am capable of brevity when need be.’
    ‘What is it you want me to do?’
    Half a bell later there was a light rap upon the door and Pearl entered.
    And immediately halted. ‘I smell sorcery.’
    Seated on the bed, Lostara shrugged then rose to collect her kit bag. ‘There are sequences in the Shadow Dance,’ she said casually, ‘that occasionally evoke Rashan.’
    ‘Rashan! Yes.’ He stepped close, his gaze searching. ‘The Shadow Dance. You?’
    ‘Once. Long ago. I hold to no gods, Pearl. Never have. But the Dance, I’ve found, serves me in my fighting. Keeps me flexible, and I need that the most when I am nervous or unhappy.’ She slung the bag over a shoulder and waited.
    Pearl’s eyebrows rose. ‘Nervous or unhappy?’
    She answered him with a sour look, then walked to the doorway. ‘You said you’ve stumbled on a lead…’
    He joined her. ‘I have at that. But a word of warning first. Those sequences that evoke Rashan-it would be best for us both if you avoided them in the future. That kind of activity risks drawing… attention.’
    ‘Very well. Now, lead on.’
    A lone guard slouched outside the estate’s gate, beside a bound bundle of straw. Pale green eyes tracked Lostara and Pearl as they approached from across the street. The man’s uniform and armour were dull with dust. A small human finger bone hung on a brass loop from one ear. His expression was sickly, and he drew a deep breath before saying, ‘You the advance? Go back and tell her we’re not ready.’
    Lostara blinked and glanced over at Pearl.
    Her companion was smiling. ‘Do we look like messengers, soldier?’
    The guard’s eyes thinned. ‘Didn’t I see you dancing on a table down at Pugroot’s Bar?’
    Pearl’s smile broadened. ‘And have you a name, soldier?’
    ‘Maybe.’
    ‘Well, what is it?’
    ‘I just told you. Maybe. Do you need me to spell it or something?’
    ‘Can you?’
    ‘No. I was just wondering if you was stupid, that’s all. So, if you’re not the Adjunct’s advance, come to warn us about that surprise inspection, then what do you want?’
    ‘A moment,’ Pearl said, frowning. ‘How can an inspection be a surprise if there’s advance warning?’
    ‘Hood’s leathery feet, you are stupid after all. That’s how it’s done-’
    ‘A warning, then.’ He glanced at Lostara and winked as he added, ‘Seems I’m offering those all day. Listen, Maybe, the Adjunct won’t be warning you about her inspections-and don’t expect your officers to do so either. She has her own rules, and you’d better get used to it.’
    ‘You still ain’t told me what you want.’
    ‘I need to speak to a certain soldier of the 5th squad of the 9th Company, and I understand he is stationed in the temporary barracks here.’
    ‘Well, I’m in the 6th, not the 5th.’
    ‘Yes… so?’
    ‘Well, it’s obvious then, isn’t it? You don’t want to speak to me at all. Go on in, you’re wasting my time. And hurry up, I’m not feeling too well.’
    The guard opened the gate and watched them stride inside, his eyes falling to Lostara’s swaying hips for a long moment before he slammed the reinforced gate shut.
    Beside him, the bale of straw shimmered suddenly then reformed as an overweight young man seated cross-legged on the cobbles.
    Maybe’s head turned and he sighed. ‘Don’t do that again-not near me, Balgrid. Magic makes me want to puke.’
    ‘I had no choice but to maintain the illusion,’ Balgrid replied, drawing a sleeve across his sweat-beaded brow. ‘That bastard was a Claw!’
    ‘Really? I could have sworn I saw him wearing a woman’s clothes and dancing at Pug-’
    ‘Will you shut up with that! Pity the poor bastard he’s looking for in the 5th!’
    Maybe suddenly grinned. ‘Hey, you just fooled a real live Claw with that damned illusion! Nice work!’
    ‘You ain’t the only one feeling sick,’ Balgrid muttered.
    Thirty paces took Lostara and Pearl across the compound to the stables.
    ‘That was amusing,’ said the man at her side.
    ‘And what was the point?’
    ‘Oh, just to see them sweat.’
    ‘Them?’
    ‘The man and the bale, of course. Well, here we are.’ As she reached to draw back one of the broad doors, Pearl closed a hand on her wrist. ‘In a moment. Now, there’s actually more than one person within that we need to question. A couple of veterans-leave them to me. There’s also a lad, was a guard at a mining camp. Work your charms on him while I’m talking with the other two.’
    Lostara stared at him. ‘My charms,’ she said, deadpan.
    Pearl grinned. ‘Aye, and if you leave him smitten, well, consider it a future investment in case we need the lad later.’
    ‘I see.’
    She opened the door, stepping back to let Pearl precede her. The air within the stables was foul. Urine, sweat, honing oil and wet straw. Soldiers were everywhere, lying or sitting on beds or on items from a collection of ornate furniture that had come from the main house. There was little in the way of conversation, and even that fell away as heads turned towards the two strangers.
    ‘Thank you,’ Pearl drawled, ‘for your attention. I would speak with Sergeant Gesler and Corporal Stormy…’
    ‘I’m Gesler,’ a solid-looking, bronze-skinned man said from where he sprawled on a plush couch. ‘The one snoring under those silks is Stormy. And if you come from Oblat tell him we’ll pay up… eventually.’
    Smiling, Pearl gestured at Lostara to follow and strode up to the sergeant. ‘I am not here to call in your debts. Rather, I would like to speak with you in private… concerning your recent adventures.’
    ‘Is that right. And who in Fener’s hoofprint are you?’
    ‘This is an imperial matter,’ Pearl said, his gaze falling to Stormy. ‘Will you wake him or shall I? Further, my companion wishes to speak with the soldier named Pella.’
    Gesler’s grin was cool. ‘You want to wake my corporal? Go right ahead. As for Pella, he’s not here at the moment.’
    Pearl sighed and stepped to the side of the bed. A moment’s study of the heap of expensive silks burying the snoring corporal, then the Claw reached down and flung the coverings clear.
    The hand that snapped to Pearl’s right shin-halfway between knee and ankle-was large enough to almost close entirely around the limb. The surge that followed left Lostara gaping.
    Up. Pearl yelling. Up, as Stormy reared from the bed like a bear prodded from its hibernation, a roar rolling from his lungs.
    Had the chamber contained a ceiling of normal height-rather than a few simple crossbeams spanning the space beneath the stable roof, none of which were, mercifully, directly overhead-Pearl would have struck it, and hard, as he was lifted into the air by that single hand clasped around his shin. Lifted, then thrown.
    The Claw cavorted, arms flailing, his knees shooting up over his head, spinning, legs kicking free as Stormy’s hand let go. He came down hard on one shoulder, the breath leaving his lungs in a grunting whoosh. He lay unmoving, drawing his legs up, in increments, into a curled position.
    The corporal was standing now, shaggy-haired, his red beard in wild disarray, the oblivion of sleep vanishing from his eyes like pine needles in a fire-a fire that was quickly flaring into a rage. ‘I said no-one wakes me!’ he bellowed, huge hands held out to either side and clutching at the air, as if eager to close on offending throats. His bright blue eyes fixed suddenly on Pearl, who was only now moving onto his hands and knees, his head hanging low. ‘Is this the bastard?’ Stormy asked, taking a step closer.
    Lostara blocked his path. Grunting, Stormy halted.
    ‘Leave them be, Corporal,’ Gesler said from the couch. ‘That fop you just tossed is a Claw. And a sharper look at that woman in front of you will tell you she’s a Red Blade, or was, and can likely defend herself just fine. No need to get into a brawl over lost sleep.’
    Pearl was climbing to his feet, massaging his shoulder, his breaths deep and shuddering.
    Hand on the pommel of her sword, Lostara stared steadily into Stormy’s eyes. ‘We were wondering,’ she said conversationally, ‘which of you is the better story-teller. My companion here would like to hear a tale. Of course, there will be payment for the privilege. Perhaps your debts to this Oblat can be… taken care of, as a show of our appreciation.’
    Stormy scowled and glanced back at Gesler.
    The sergeant slowly rose from the couch. ‘Well, lass, the corporal here’s better with the scary ones… since he tells them so bad they ain’t so scary any more. Since you’re being so kind with… uh, our recent push of the Lord at knuckles, me and the corporal will both weave you a tale, if that’s what you’re here for. We ain’t shy, after all. Where should we start? I was born-’
    ‘Not that early,’ Lostara cut in. ‘I will leave the rest to Pearl-though perhaps someone could get him something to drink to assist in his recovery. He can advise you on where to start. In the meantime, where is Pella?’
    ‘He’s out back,’ Gesler said.
    ‘Thank you.’
    As she was making her way to the narrow, low door at the back of the stables, another sergeant emerged to move up alongside her. ‘I’ll escort you,’ he said.
    Another damned Falari veteran. And what’s with the finger bones? ‘Am I likely to get lost, Sergeant?’ she asked as she swung open the door. Six paces beyond was the estate’s back wall. Heaps of sun-dried horse manure were banked against it. Seated on one of them was a young soldier. At the foot of a nearby pile lay two dogs, both asleep, one huge and terribly scarred, the other tiny-a snarl of hair and a pug nose.
    ‘Possibly,’ the sergeant replied. He touched her arm as she made to approach Pella, and she faced him with an enquiring look. ‘Are you with one of the other legions?’ he asked.
    ‘No.’
    ‘Ah.’ He glanced back at the stables. ‘Newly assigned to handmaid the Claw.’
    ‘Handmaid?’
    ‘Aye. The man needs… learning. Seems he chose well in you, at least.’
    ‘What is it you want, Sergeant?’
    ‘Never mind. I’ll leave you now.’
    She watched him re-enter the stables. Then, with a shrug, she swung about and walked up to Pella.
    Neither dog awoke at her approach.
    Two large burlap sacks framed the soldier, the one on the soldier’s right filled near to bursting, the other perhaps a third full. The lad himself was hunched over, holding a small copper awl which he was using to drill a hole into a finger bone.
    The sacks, Lostara realized, contained hundreds of such bones.
    ‘Pella.’
    The young man looked up, blinked. ‘Do I know you?’
    ‘No. But we perhaps share an acquaintance.’
    ‘Oh.’ He resumed his work.
    ‘You were a guard in the mines-’
    ‘Not quite,’ he replied without looking up. ‘I was garrisoned at one of the settlements. Skullcup. But then the rebellion started. Fifteen of us survived the first night-no officers. We stayed off the road and eventually made our way to Dosin Pali. Took four nights, and we could see the city burning for the first three. Wasn’t much left when we arrived. A Malazan trader ship showed up at about the same time as us, and took us, eventually, here to Aren.’
    ‘Skullcup,’ Lostara said. ‘There was a prisoner there. A young girl-’
    ‘Tavore’s sister, you mean. Felisin.’
    Her breath caught.
    ‘I was wondering when somebody would find me about that. Am I under arrest, then?’ He looked up.
    ‘No. Why? Do you think you should be?’
    He returned to his work. ‘Probably. I helped them escape, after all. The night of the Uprising. Don’t know if they ever made it, though. I left them supplies, such as I could find. They were planning on heading north then west… across the desert. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one aiding them, but I never found out who the others were.’
    Lostara slowly crouched down until she was at his eye-level. ‘Not just Felisin, then. Who was with her?’
    ‘Baudin-a damned frightening man, that one, but strangely loyal to Felisin, though…’ He lifted his head and met her gaze. ‘Well, she wasn’t one to reward loyalty, if you know what I mean. Anyway. Baudin, and Heboric.’
    ‘Heboric? Who is that?’
    ‘Was once a priest of Fener-all tattooed with the fur of the Boar. Had no hands-they’d been cut off. Anyway, them three.’
    ‘Across the desert,’ Lostara murmured. ‘But the west coast of the island has… nothing.’
    ‘Well, they were expecting a boat, then, weren’t they? It was planned, right? Anyway, that’s as far as I can take the tale. For the rest, ask my sergeant. Or Stormy. Or Truth.’
    ‘Truth? Who is he?’
    ‘He’s the one who’s just showed up in the doorway behind you… come to deliver more bones.’ He raised his voice. ‘No need to hesitate, Truth. In fact, this pretty woman here has some questions for you.’
    Another one with the strange skin. She studied the tall, gangly youth who cautiously approached, carrying another bulging burlap sack from which sand drifted down in a dusty cloud. Hood take me, a comely lad… though that air of vulnerability would get on my nerves eventually. She straightened. ‘I would know of Felisin,’ she said, slipping some iron into her tone.
    Sufficient to catch Pella’s notice, and he threw her a sharp look.
    Both dogs had awakened at Truth’s arrival, but neither rose from where they lay-they simply fixed eyes on the lad.
    Truth set down the bag and snapped to sudden attentiveness. Colour rose in his face.
    My charms. It’s not Pella who’ll remember this day. Not Pella who’ll find someone to worship. ‘Tell me about what happened on the western shore of Otataral Island. Did the rendezvous occur as planned?’
    ‘I believe so,’ Truth replied after a moment. ‘But we weren’t part of that plan-we just happened to find ourselves in the same boat with Kulp, and it was Kulp who was looking to collect them.’
    ‘Kulp? The cadre mage from the Seventh?’
    ‘Aye, him. He’d been sent by Duiker-’
    ‘The imperial historian?’ Gods, what twisted trail is this? ‘And why would he have any interest in saving Felisin?’
    ‘Kulp said it was the injustice,’ Truth answered. ‘But you got it wrong-it wasn’t Felisin that Duiker wanted to help. It was Heboric.’
    Pella spoke in a low voice quite unlike what she had heard from him moments earlier. ‘If Duiker is going to be made out as some kind of traitor… well, lass, better think twice. This is Aren, after all. The city that watched. That saw Duiker delivering the refugees to safety. He was the last one through the gate, they say.’ The emotion riding his words was now raw. ‘And Pormqual had him arrested!’
    A chill rippled through Lostara. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘Blistig loosed us Red Blades from the gaols. We were on the wall by the time Pormqual had his army out there on the plain. If Duiker was seeking to free Heboric, a fellow scholar, well, I have no complaint with that. The trail we are on is Felisin’s.’
    Truth nodded at that. ‘Tavore has sent you, hasn’t she? You and that Claw inside, listening to Gesler and Stormy.’
    Lostara briefly closed her eyes. ‘I am afraid I lack Pearl’s subtlety. This mission was meant to be… secret.’
    ‘Fine with me,’ Pella said. ‘And you, Truth?’
    The tall lad nodded. ‘It doesn’t really matter anyway. Felisin is dead. They all are. Heboric. Kulp. They all died. Gesler was just telling that part.’
    ‘I see. None the less, please say nothing to anyone else. We will be pursuing our task, if only to gather her bones. Their bones, that is.’
    ‘That would be a good thing,’ Truth said with a sigh.
    Lostara made to leave but Pella gestured to catch her attention. ‘Here.’ He held out to her the finger bone he had been drilling a hole through. ‘Take this for yourself. Wear it in plain sight.’
    ‘Why?’
    Pella scowled. ‘You’ve just asked a favour of us…’
    ‘Very well.’ She accepted the grisly object.
    Pearl appeared in the doorway. ‘Lostara,’ he called. ‘Are you done here?’
    ‘I am.’
    ‘Time to leave, then.’ She could see by his expression that he too had been told of Felisin’s death. Though probably in greater detail than the little that Truth had said.
    In silence, they retraced their route through the stables, out into the compound, then across to the gate. The door swung open as they arrived and the soldier named Maybe waved them out. Lostara’s attention was drawn to the bale of straw, which seemed to be wavering, strangely melting where it squatted, but Pearl simply waved her on.
    As they drew some distance from the estate, the Claw voiced a soft curse, then said, ‘I need a healer.’
    ‘Your limp is barely noticeable,’ Lostara observed.
    ‘Years of discipline, my dear. I’d much rather be screaming. The last time I suffered such strength used against me was with that Semk demon, that godling. The three of them-Gesler, Stormy and Truth-there’s more that’s strange about them than just their skin.’
    ‘Any theories?’
    ‘They went through a warren of fire-and somehow survived, though it seems that Felisin, Baudin and Heboric didn’t. Though their actual fate remains unknown. Gesler simply assumes they died. But if something unusual happened to those coastal guards in that warren, then why not the same to the ones who were washed overboard?’
    ‘I’m sorry. I was not told the details.’
    ‘We must pay a visit to a certain impounded ship. I will explain on the way. Oh, and next time don’t offer to pay off someone else’s debt… until you find out how big it is.’
    And next time, leave that pompous attitude at the stable doors. ‘Very well.’
    ‘And stop taking charge.’
    She glanced over at him. ‘You advised me to use my charm, Pearl. It’s hardly my fault if I possess more of that quality than you.’
    ‘Really? Let me tell you, that corporal was lucky you stepped between us.’
    She wanted to laugh, but pushed it back. ‘You clearly did not notice the weapon under the man’s bed.’
    ‘Weapon? I care-’
    ‘It was a two-handed flint sword. The weapon of a T’lan Imass, Pearl. It probably weighs as much as I do.’
    He said no more until they reached the Silanda.
    The ship’s berth was well guarded, yet clearly permission for Pearl and Lostara had been provided earlier, for the two were waved onto the old dromon’s battered deck then left deliberately alone, the ship itself cleared of all others.
    Lostara scanned the area amidships. Flame-scarred and mud smeared. A strange pyramidal mound surrounded the main mast, draped in a tarpaulin. New sails and sheets had been fitted, clearly taken from a variety of other vessels.
    Standing at her side, Pearl’s gaze fell upon the covered mound, and he voiced a soft grunt. ‘Do you recognize this ship?’ he asked.
    ‘I recognize it’s a ship,’ Lostara replied.
    ‘I see. Well, it’s a Quon dromon of the old, pre-imperial style. But much of the wood and the fittings are from Drift Avalii. Do you know anything of Drift Avalii?’
    ‘It’s a mythical island off the Quon Tali coast. A drifting island, peopled with demons and spectres.’
    ‘Not mythical, and it does indeed drift, though the pattern seems to describe a kind of wobbly circle. As for demons and spectres… well…’ he strode to the tarpaulin, ‘hardly anything so frightening.’ He drew the covering back.
    Severed heads, neatly piled, all facing outward, eyes blinking and fixing on Pearl and Lostara. The glimmer of wet blood.
    ‘If you say so,’ Lostara croaked, stepping back.
    Even Pearl seemed taken aback, as if what he had unveiled was not entirely what he had expected. After a long moment he reached down and touched a fingertip to the pooled blood. ‘Still warm…’
    ‘B-but that’s impossible.’
    ‘Any more impossible than the damned things being still conscious-or alive at the very least?’ He straightened and faced her, then waved expansively. ‘This ship is a lodestone. There are layers upon layers of sorcery, soaked into the very wood, into the frame. It descends upon you with the weight of a thousand cloaks.’
    ‘It does? I don’t feel it.’
    He looked at her blankly, then faced the mound of severed heads once more. ‘Neither demons nor spectres, as you can see. Tiste Andu, most of them. A few Quon Talian sailors. Come, let us go and examine the captain’s cabin-magic tumbles from that room in waves.’
    ‘What kind of magic, Pearl?’
    He had already begun walking towards the hatch. A dismissive gesture. ‘Kurald Galain, Tellann, Kurald Emurlahn, Rashan-’ He paused suddenly and swung round. ‘Rashan. Yet you feel nothing?’
    She shrugged. ‘Are there more… heads… in there, Pearl? If so, I think I’d rather not-’
    ‘Follow me,’ he snapped.
    Inside, black wood, the air thick as if roiling with memories of violence. A grey-skinned, barbaric-looking corpse pinned to the captain’s chair by a massive spear. Other bodies, sprawled here and there as if grabbed, broken then tossed aside.
    A dull, sourceless glow permeated the low, cramped room. Barring strange patches on the floor, smeared with, Lostara saw, otataral dust. ‘Not Tiste Andu,’ Pearl muttered. ‘These must be Tiste Edur. Oh, there are plenty of mysteries here. Gesler told me about the crew manning the oars down below-headless bodies. Those poor Tiste Andu on the deck. Now, I wonder who killed these Edur…’
    ‘How does all this lead us further onto Felisin’s trail, Pearl?’
    ‘She was here, wasn’t she? Witness to all this. The captain here had a whistle, strung around his neck, which was used to direct the rowers. It’s disappeared, alas.’
    ‘And without that whistle, this ship just sits here.’
    Pearl nodded. ‘Too bad, isn’t it? Imagine, a ship with a crew you never have to feed, that never needs rest, that never mutinies.’
    ‘You can have it,’ Lostara said, turning back to the doorway. ‘I hate ships. Always have. And now I’m leaving this one.’
    ‘I see no reason not to join you,’ Pearl said. ‘We have a journey ahead of us, after all.’
    ‘We do? Where?’
    ‘The Silanda travelled warrens between the place where it was found by Gesler, and where it reappeared in this realm. From what I can gather, that journey crossed the mainland, from the north Otataral Sea down to Aren Bay. If Felisin, Heboric and Baudin jumped off, they might well have reappeared on land somewhere on that route.’
    ‘To find themselves in the midst of the rebellion.’
    ‘Given what seems to have led up to it, they might well have considered that a far less horrendous option.’
    ‘Until some band of raiders stumbled onto them.’

    Captain Keneb’s 9th Company was called to muster in three successive assemblies on the parade ground. There had been no advance warning, simply the arrival of an officer commanding the soldiers to proceed at double-time.
    Squads 1, 2 and 3 went first. These were heavy infantry, thirty soldiers in all, loaded down in scale armour and chain vambraces and gauntlets, kite shields, weighted longswords, stabbing spears strapped to their backs, visored and cheek-guarded helms with lobster tails, dirks and pig-stickers at their belts.
    The marines were next. Ranal’s 4th, 5th and 6th squads. Following them were the bulk of the company’s troops, medium infantry, the 7th to the 24th squads. Only slightly less armoured than the heavy infantry, there was, among them, the addition of soldiers skilled in the use of the short bow, the longbow, and the spear. Each company was intended to work as a discrete unit, self-reliant and mutually supportive.
    As he stood in front of his squad, Strings studied the 9th. Their first assembly as a separate force. They awaited the Adjunct’s arrival in mostly precise ranks, saying little, not one out of uniform or weaponless.
    Dusk was fast approaching, the air growing mercifully cool.
    Lieutenant Ranal had been walking the length of the three squads of marines for some time, back and forth, his steps slow, a sheen of sweat on his smooth-shaven cheeks. When he finally halted, it was directly before Strings.
    ‘All right, Sergeant,’ he hissed. ‘It’s your idea, isn’t it?’
    ‘Sir?’
    ‘Those damned finger bones! They showed up in your squad first-as if I wouldn’t have noticed that. And now I’ve heard from the captain that it’s spreading through every legion. Graves are being robbed all over the city! And I’ll tell you this-’ He stepped very close and continued in a rough whisper. ‘If the Adjunct asks who is responsible for this last spit in her face over what happened yesterday, I won’t hesitate in directing her to you.’
    ‘Spit in her face? Lieutenant, you are a raging idiot. Now, a clump of officers have just appeared at the main gate. I suggest you take your place, sir.’
    Face dark with fury, Ranal wheeled and took position before the three squads.
    The Adjunct led the way, her entourage trailing.
    Captain Keneb awaited her. Strings remembered the man from the first, disastrous mustering. A Malazan. The word was out that he had been garrisoned inland, had seen his share of fighting when their company had been overrun. Then the flight southward, back to Aren. There was enough in that to lead Strings to wonder if the man hadn’t taken the coward’s route. Rather than dying with his soldiers, he’d been first in the rout. That’s how many officers outlived their squads, after all. Officers weren’t worth much, as far as the sergeant was concerned.
    The Adjunct was speaking with the man now, then the captain stepped back and saluted, inviting Tavore to approach the troops. But instead she drew a step closer to the man, reached out and touched something looped about Keneb’s neck.
    Strings’ eyes widened slightly. That’s a damned finger bone.
    More words between the man and the woman, then the Adjunct nodded and proceeded towards the squads.
    Alone, her steps slow, her face expressionless.
    Strings saw the flicker of recognition as she scanned the squads. Himself, then Cuttle. After a long moment, during which she entirely ignored the ramrod-straight Lieutenant Ranal, she finally turned to the man. ‘Lieutenant.’
    ‘Adjunct.’
    ‘There seems to be a proliferation of non-standard accoutrements on your soldiers. More so here than among any of the other companies I have reviewed.’
    ‘Yes, Adjunct. Against my orders, and I know the man responsible-’
    ‘No doubt,’ she replied. ‘But I am not interested in that. I would suggest, however, that some uniformity be established for those… trinkets. Perhaps from the hip belt, opposite the scabbard. Furthermore, there have been complaints from Aren’s citizenry. At the very least, the looted pits and tombs should be returned to their original state… as much as that is possible, of course.’
    Ranal’s confusion was obvious. ‘Of course, Adjunct.’
    ‘And you might note, as well,’ the Adjunct added drily, ‘that you are alone in wearing a… non-standard uniform of the Fourteenth Army, at this time. I suggest you correct that as soon as possible, Lieutenant. Now, you may dismiss your squads. And on your way out, convey my instruction to Captain Keneb that he can proceed with moving the company’s medium infantry to the fore.’
    ‘Y-yes, Adjunct. At once.’ He saluted. Strings watched her walk back to her entourage. Oh, well done, lass.

    Gamet’s chest was filled with aching as he studied the Adjunct striding back to where he and the others waited. A fiercely welling emotion. Whoever had come up with the idea deserved… well, a damned kiss, as Cuttle would have said. They’ve turned the omen.
    Turned it!
    And he saw the rekindled fire in Tavore’s eyes as she reached them.
    ‘Fist Gamet.’
    ‘Adjunct?’
    ‘The Fourteenth Army requires a standard.’
    ‘Aye, it does indeed.’
    ‘We might take our inspiration from the soldiers themselves.’
    ‘We might well do that, Adjunct.’
    ‘You will see to it? In time for our departure tomorrow?’
    ‘I will.’
    From the gate a messenger arrived on horseback. He had been riding hard, and drew up sharply upon seeing the Adjunct.
    Gamet watched the man dismount and approach. Gods, not bad news… not now…
    ‘Report,’ the Adjunct demanded.
    ‘Three ships, Adjunct,’ the messenger gasped. ‘Just limped into harbour.’
    ‘Go on.’
    ‘Volunteers! Warriors! Horses and wardogs! It’s chaos at the docks!’
    ‘How many?’ Gamet demanded.
    ‘Three hundred, Fist.’
    ‘Where in Hood’s name are they from?’
    The messenger’s gaze snapped away from them-over to where Nil and Nether stood. ‘Wickans.’ He met Tavore’s gaze once more. ‘Adjunct! Clan of the Crow. The Crow! Coltaine’s own!’

CHAPTER NINE

    At night ghosts come
    In rivers of grief,
    To claw away the sand
    Beneath a man’s feet
G’danii saying

    The twin long-knives were slung in a faded leather harness stitched in swirling Pardu patterns. They hung from a nail on one of the shop’s corner posts, beneath an elaborate Kherahn shaman’s feather headdress. The long table fronting the canopied stall was crowded with ornate obsidian objects looted from some tomb, each one newly blessed in the name of gods, spirits or demons. On the left side, behind the table and flanking the toothless proprietor who sat cross-legged on a high stool, was a tall screened cabinet.
    The burly, dark-skinned customer stood examining the obsidian weapons for some time before a slight flip of his right hand signalled an interest to the hawker.
    ‘The breath of demons!’ the old man squealed, jabbing a gnarled finger at various stone blades in confusing succession. ‘And these, kissed by Mael-see how the waters have smoothed them? I have more-’
    ‘What lies in the cabinet?’ the customer rumbled.
    ‘Ah, you’ve a sharp eye! Are you a Reader, perchance? Could you smell the chaos, then? Decks, my wise friend! Decks! And oh, haven’t they awakened! Yes, all anew. All is in flux-’
    ‘The Deck of Dragons is always in flux-’
    ‘Ah, but a new House! Oh, I see your surprise at that, friend! A new House. Vast power, ’tis said. Tremors to the very roots of the world!’
    The man facing him scowled. ‘Another new House, is it? Some local impostor cult, no doubt-’
    But the old man was shaking his head, eyes darting past his lone customer, suspiciously scanning the market crowd-paltry as it was. He then leaned forward. ‘I do not deal in those, friend. Oh, I am as loyal to Dryjhna as the next, make no claims otherwise! But the Deck permits no bias, does it? Oh no, balanced wise eyes and mind is necessary. Indeed. Now, why does the new House ring with truth? Let me tell you, friend. First, a new Unaligned card, a card denoting that a Master now commands the Deck. An arbiter, yes? And then, spreading out like a runaway stubble fire, the new House. Sanctioned? Undecided. But not rejected out of hand, oh no, not rejected. And the Readers-the patterns! The House will be sanctioned-not one Reader doubts that!’
    ‘And what is the name of this House?’ the customer asked. ‘What throne? Who claims to rule it?’
    ‘The House of Chains, my friend. To your other questions, there is naught but confusion in answer. Ascendants vie. But I will tell you this: the Throne where the King shall sit-the Throne, my friend, is cracked.’
    ‘You are saying this House belongs to the Chained One?’
    ‘Aye. The Crippled God.’
    ‘The others must be assailing it fiercely,’ the man murmured, his expression thoughtful.
    ‘You would think, but not so. Indeed, it is they who are assailed! Do you wish to see the new cards?’
    ‘I may return later and do that very thing,’ the man replied. ‘But first, let me see those poor knives on that post.’
    ‘Poor knives! Aaii! Not poor, oh no!’ The old man spun on his seat, reached up and collected the brace of weapons. He grinned, blue-veined tongue darting between red gums. ‘Last owned by a Pardu ghost-slayer!’ He drew one of the knives from its sheath. The blade was blackened, inlaid with a silver serpent pattern down its length.
    ‘That is not Pardu,’ the customer growled.
    ‘Owned, I said. You’ve a sharp eye indeed. They are Wickan. Booty from the Chain of Dogs.’
    ‘Let me see the other one.’
    The old man unsheathed the second blade.
    Kalam Mekhar’s eyes involuntarily widened. Quickly regaining his composure, he glanced up at the proprietor-but the man had seen and was nodding.
    ‘Aye, friend. Aye…’
    The entire blade, also black, was feather-patterned, the inlay an amber-tinged silver-that amber taint… alloyed with otataral. Crow clan. But not a lowly warrior’s weapon. No, this one belonged to someone important.
    The old man resheathed the Crow knife, tapped the other one with a finger. ‘Invested, this one. How to challenge the otataral? Simple. Elder magic.’
    ‘Elder. Wickan sorcery is not Elder-’
    ‘Oh, but this now-dead Wickan warrior had a friend. See, here, take the knife in your hand. Squint at this mark, there, at the base-see, the serpent’s tail coils around it-’
    The long-knife was startlingly heavy in Kalam’s hand. The finger ridges in the grip were overlarge, but the Wickan had compensated for this with thicker leather straps. The stamp impressed into the metal in the centre of the looped tail was intricate, almost beyond belief, given the size of the hand that must have inscribed it. Fenn. Thelomen Toblakai. The Wickan had a friend indeed. And worse, I know that mark. I know precisely who invested this weapon. Gods below, what strange cycles am I striding into here?
    There was no point in bartering. Too much had been revealed. ‘Name your price,’ Kalam sighed.
    The old man’s grin broadened. ‘As you can imagine, a cherished set-my most valuable prize.’
    ‘At least until the dead Crow warrior’s son comes to collect it-though I doubt he will be interested in paying you in gold. I will inherit that vengeful hunter, so rein in your greed and name the price.’
    ‘Twelve hundred.’
    The assassin set a small pouch on the table and watched the proprietor loosen the strings and peer inside.
    ‘There is a darkness to these diamonds,’ the old man said after a moment.
    ‘It is that shadow that makes them so valuable and you know it.’
    ‘Aye, I do indeed. Half of what is within will suffice.’
    ‘An honest hawker.’
    ‘A rarity, yes. These days, loyalty pays.’
    Kalam watched the old man count out the diamonds. ‘The loss of imperial trade has been painful, it seems.’
    ‘Very. But the situation here in G’danisban is doubly so, friend.’
    ‘And why is that?’
    ‘Why, everyone is at B’ridys, of course. The siege.’
    ‘B’ridys? The old mountain fortress? Who is holed up there?’
    ‘Malazans. They retreated from their strongholds in Ehrlitan, here and Pan’potsun-were chased all the way into the hills. Oh, nothing so grand as the Chain of Dogs, but a few hundred made it.’
    ‘And they’re still holding out?’
    ‘Aye. B’ridys is like that, alas. Still, not much longer, I wager. Now, I am done, friend. Hide that pouch well, and may the gods ever walk in your shadow.’
    Kalam struggled to keep the grin from his face as he collected the weapons. ‘And with you, sir.’ And so they will, friend. Far closer than you might want.
    He walked a short distance down the market street, then paused to adjust the clasps of the weapon harness. The previous owner had not Kalam’s bulk. Then again, few did. When he was done he slipped into the harness, then drew his telaba’s overcloak around once more. The heavier weapon jutted from under his left arm.
    The assassin continued on through G’danisban’s mostly empty streets. Two long-knives, both Wickan. The same owner? Unknown. They were complementary in one sense, true, yet the difference in weight would challenge anyone who sought to fight using both at the same time.
    In a Fenn’s hand, the heavier weapon would be little more than a dirk. The design was clearly Wickan, meaning the investment had been a favour, or in payment. Can I think of a Wickan who might have earned that? Well, Coltaine-but he carried a single long-knife, un-patterned. Now, if only I knew more about that damned Thelomen Toblakai
    Of course, the High Mage named Bellurdan Skullcrusher was dead.
    Cycles indeed. And now this House of Chains. The damned Crippled God-
    You damned fool, Cotillion. You were there at the last Chaining, weren’t you? You should have stuck a knife in the bastard right there and then.
    Now, I wonder, was Bellurdan there as well?
    Oh, damn, I forgot to ask what happened to that Pardu ghost-slayer…

    The road that wound southwest out of G’danisban had been worn down to the underlying cobbles. Clearly, the siege had gone on so long that the small city that fed it was growing gaunt. The besieged were probably faring worse. B’ridys had been carved into a cliffside, a longstanding tradition in the odhans surrounding the Holy Desert. There was no formal, constructed approach-not even steps, nor handholds, cut into the stone-and the tunnels behind the fortifications reached deep. Within those tunnels, springs supplied water. Kalam had only seen B’ridys from the outside, long abandoned by its original inhabitants, suggesting that the springs had dried up. And while such strongholds contained vast storage chambers, there was little chance that the Malazans who’d fled to it had found those chambers supplied.
    The poor bastards were probably starving.
    Kalam walked the road in the gathering dusk. He saw no-one else on the track, and suspected that the supply trains would not set out from G’danisban until the fall of night, to spare their draught animals the heat. Already, the road had begun its climb, twisting onto the sides of the hills.
    The assassin had left his horse with Cotillion in the Shadow Realm. For the tasks ahead, stealth, not speed, would prove his greatest challenge. Besides, Raraku was hard on horses. Most of the outlying sources of water would have been long since fouled, in anticipation of the Adjunct’s army. He knew of a few secret ones, however, which would of necessity have been kept untainted.
    This land, Kalam realized, was in itself a land under siege-and the enemy had yet to arrive. Sha’ik had drawn the Whirlwind close, a tactic that suggested to the assassin a certain element of fear. Unless, of course, Sha’ik was deliberately playing against expectations. Perhaps she simply sought to draw Tavore into a trap, into Raraku, where her power was strongest, where her forces knew the land whilst the enemy did not.
    But there’s at least one man in Tavore’s army who knows Raraku. And he’d damn well better speak up when the time comes.
    Night had arrived, stars glittering overhead. Kalam pressed on. Burdened beneath a pack heavy with food and waterskins, he continued to sweat as the air chilled. Reaching the summit of yet another hill, he discerned the glow of the besiegers’ camp beneath the ragged horizon’s silhouette. From the cliffside itself there was no light at all.
    He continued on.
    It was midmorning before he arrived at the camp. Tents, wagons, stone-ringed firepits, arrayed haphazardly in a rough semicircle before the rearing cliff-face with its smoke-blackened fortress. Heaps of rubbish surrounded the area, latrine pits overflowing and reeking in the heat. As he made his way down the track, Kalam studied the situation. He judged that there were about five hundred besiegers, many of them-given their uniforms-originally part of Malazan garrisons, but of local blood. There had been no assault in some time. Makeshift wooden towers waited off to one side.
    He had been spotted, but no challenge was raised, nor was much interest accorded him as he reached the camp’s edge. Just another fighter come to kill Malazans. Carrying his own food, ensuring he would not burden anyone else, and therefore welcome.
    As the hawker in G’danisban had suggested, the patience of the attackers had ended. Preparations were under way for a final push. Probably not this day, but the next. The scaffolds had been left untended for too long-ropes had dried out, wood had split. Work crews had begun the repairs, but without haste, moving slowly in the enervating heat. There was an air of dissolution to the camp that even anticipation could not hide.
    The fires have cooled here. Now, they’re only planning an assault so they can get this over with, so they can go home.
    The assassin noted a small group of soldiers near the centre of the half-ring where it seemed the orders were coming from. One man in particular, accoutred in the armour of a Malazan lieutenant, stood with hands on hips and was busy haranguing a half-dozen sappers.
    The workmen wandered off a moment before Kalam arrived, desultorily making for the towers.
    The lieutenant noticed him. Dark eyes narrowed beneath the rim of the helm. There was a crest on that skullcap. Ashok Regiment.
    Stationed in Genabaris a few years past. Then sent back to… Ehrlitan, I think. Hood rot the bastards, I’d have thought they would have stayed loyal.
    ‘Come to see the last of them get their throats cut?’ the lieutenant asked with a hard grin. ‘Good. You’ve the look of an organized and experienced man, and Beru knows, I’ve far too few of them here in this mob. Your name?’
    ‘Ulfas,’ Kalam replied.
    ‘Sounds Barghast.’
    The assassin shrugged as he set down his pack. ‘You’re not the first to think that.’
    ‘You will address me as sir. That’s if you want to be part of this fight.’
    ‘You’re not the first to think that… sir.’
    ‘I am Captain Irriz.’
    Captainin a lieutenant’s uniform. Felt unappreciated in the regiment, did you? ‘When does the assault begin, sir?’
    ‘Eager? Good. Tomorrow at dawn. There’s only a handful left up there. It shouldn’t take long once we breach the balcony entrance.’
    Kalam looked up at the fortress. The balcony was little more than a projecting ledge, the doorway beyond narrower than a man’s shoulders. ‘They only need a handful,’ he muttered, then added, ‘sir.’
    Irriz scowled. ‘You just walked in and you’re already an expert?’
    ‘Sorry, sir. Simply an observation.’
    ‘Well, we’ve a mage just arrived. Says she can knock a hole where that door is. A big hole. Ah, here she comes now.’
    The woman approaching was young, slight and pallid. And Malazan. Ten paces away, her steps faltered, then she halted, light brown eyes fixing now on Kalam. ‘Keep that weapon sheathed when you’re near me,’ she drawled. ‘Irriz, get that bastard to stand well away from us.’
    ‘Sinn? What’s wrong with him?’
    ‘Wrong? Nothing, probably. But one of his knives is an otataral weapon.’
    The sudden avarice in the captain’s eyes as he studied Kalam sent a faint chill through the assassin. ‘Indeed. And where did you come by that, Ulfas?’
    ‘Took it from the Wickan I killed. On the Chain of Dogs.’
    There was sudden silence. Faces turned to regard Kalam anew. Doubt flickered onto Irriz’s face. ‘You were there?’
    ‘Aye. What of it?’
    There were hand gestures all round, whispered prayers. The chill within Kalam grew suddenly colder. Gods, they’re voicing blessings… but not on me. They’re blessing the Chain of Dogs. What truly happened there, for this to have been born?
    ‘Why are you not with Sha’ik, then?’ Irriz demanded. ‘Why would Korbolo have let you leave?’
    ‘Because,’ Sinn snapped, ‘Korbolo Dom is an idiot, and Kamist Reloe even worse. Personally, I am amazed he didn’t lose half his army after the Fall. What true soldier would stomach what happened there? Ulfas, is it? You deserted Korbolo’s Dogslayers, yes?’
    Kalam simply shrugged. ‘I went looking for a cleaner fight.’
    Her laugh was shrill, and she spun in mocking pirouette in the dust. ‘And you came here? Oh, you fool! That’s so funny! It makes me want to scream, it’s so funny!’
    Her mind is broken. ‘I see nothing amusing in killing,’ he replied. ‘Though I find it odd that you are here, seemingly so eager to kill fellow Malazans.’
    Her face darkened. ‘My reasons are my own, Ulfas. Irriz, I would speak with you in private. Come.’
    Kalam held his expression impassive as the captain flinched at the imperious tone. Then the renegade officer nodded. ‘I will join you in a moment, Sinn.’ He turned back to the assassin. ‘Ulfas. We want to take most of them alive, to give us sport. Punishment for being so stubborn. I especially want their commander. He is named Kindly-’
    ‘Do you know him, sir?’
    Irriz grinned. ‘I was 3rd Company in the Ashok. Kindly leads the 2nd.’ He gestured at the fortress. ‘Or what’s left of it. This is a personal argument for me, and that is why I intend to win. And it’s why I want those bastards alive. Wounded and disarmed.’
    Sinn was waiting impatiently. Now she spoke up, ‘There’s a thought. Ulfas, with his otataral knife-he can make their mage useless.’
    Irriz grinned. ‘First into the breach, then. Acceptable to you, Ulfas?’
    First in, last out. ‘It won’t be my first time, sir.’
    The captain then joined Sinn and the two strode off.
    Kalam stared after them. Captain Kindly. Never met you, sir, but for years you’ve been known as the meanest officer in the entire Malazan military. And, it now seems, the most stubborn, too.
    Excellent. I could use a man like that.
    He found an empty tent to stow his gear-empty because a latrine pit had clawed away the near side of its sand-crusted wall and was now soaking the ground beneath the floor’s single rug along the back. Kalam placed his bag beside the front flap then stretched out close to it, shutting his mind and senses away from the stench.
    In moments he was asleep.
    He awoke to darkness. The camp beyond was silent. Slipping out from his telaba, the assassin rose into a crouch and began winding straps around his loose-fitting clothes. When he was done, he drew on fingerless leather gloves, then wound a black cloth around his head until only his eyes remained uncovered. He edged outside.
    A few smouldering firepits, two tents within sight still glowing with lamplight. Three guards sitting in a makeshift picket facing the fortress-about twenty paces distant.
    Kalam set out, silently skirting the latrine pit and approaching the skeletal scaffolding of the siege towers. They had posted no guard there. Irriz was probably a bad lieutenant, and now he’s an even worse captain. He moved closer.
    The flicker of sorcery at the base of one of the towers froze him in place. After a long, breathless moment, a second muted flash, dancing around one of the support fittings.
    Kalam slowly settled down to watch.
    Sinn moved from fitting to fitting. When she finished with the closest tower, she proceeded to the next. There were three in all.
    When she was working on the last fitting at the base of the second tower, Kalam rose and slipped forward. As he drew near her, he unsheathed the otataral blade.
    He smiled at her soft curse. Then, as realization struck her, she whirled.
    Kalam held up a staying hand, slowly raised his knife, then sheathed it once more. He padded to her side. ‘Lass,’ he whispered in Malazan, ‘this is a nasty nest of snakes for you to play in.’
    Her eyes went wide, gleaming like pools in the starlight. ‘I wasn’t sure of you,’ she replied quietly. Her thin arms drew tight around herself. ‘I’m still not. Who are you?’
    ‘Just a man sneaking to the towers… to weaken all the supports. As you have done. All but one of them, that is. The third one is the best made-Malazan, in fact. I want to keep that one intact.’
    ‘Then we are allies,’ she said, still hugging herself.
    She’s very young. ‘You showed fine acting abilities earlier on. And you’ve surprising skill as a mage, for one so…’
    ‘Minor magicks only, I’m afraid. I was being schooled.’
    ‘Who was your instructor?’
    ‘Fayelle. Who’s now with Korbolo Dom. Fayelle, who slid her knife across the throats of my father and mother. Who went hunting for me, too. But I slipped away, and even with her sorcery she could not find me.’
    ‘And this is to be your revenge?’
    Her grin was a silent snarl. ‘I have only begun my revenge, Ulfas. I want her. But I need soldiers.’
    ‘Captain Kindly and company. You mentioned a mage in that fortress. Have you been in touch with him?’
    She shook her head. ‘I have not that skill.’
    ‘Then why do you believe that the captain will join you in your cause?’
    ‘Because one of his sergeants is my brother-well, my half-brother. I don’t know if he still lives, though…’
    He settled a hand on her shoulder, ignoring the answering flinch. ‘All right, lass. We will work together on this. You’ve your first ally.’
    ‘Why?’
    He smiled unseen behind the cloth. ‘Fayelle is with Korbolo Dom, yes? Well, I have a meeting pending with Korbolo. And with Kamist Reloe. So, we’ll work together in convincing Captain Kindly. Agreed?’
    ‘Agreed.’
    The relief in her voice sent a twinge through the assassin. She’d been alone for far too long in her deadly quest. In need of help… but with no-one around to whom she could turn. Just one more orphan in this Hood-cursed rebellion. He recalled his first sight of those thirteen hundred children he had unwittingly saved all those months back, his last time crossing this land. And there, in those faces, was the true horror of war. Those children had been alive when the carrion birds came down for their eyes… A shudder ran through him.
    ‘What is wrong? You seemed far away.’
    He met her eyes. ‘No, lass, far closer than you think.’
    ‘Well, I have already done most of my work this night. Irriz and his warriors won’t be worth much come the morning.’
    ‘Oh? And what did you have planned for me?’
    ‘I wasn’t sure. I was hoping that, with you up front, you’d get killed quick. Captain Kindly’s mage wouldn’t go near you-he’d leave it to the soldiers with their crossbows.’
    ‘And what of this hole you were to blast into the cliff-face?’
    ‘Illusion. I’ve been preparing for days. I think I can do it.’
    Brave and desperate. ‘Well, lass, your efforts seem to have far outstripped mine in ambition. I’d intended a little mayhem and not much more. You mentioned that Irriz and his men wouldn’t be worth much. What did you mean by that?’
    ‘I poisoned their water.’
    Kalam blanched behind his mask. ‘Poison? What kind?’
    ‘Tralb.’
    The assassin said nothing for a long moment. Then, ‘How much?’
    She shrugged. ‘All that the healer had. Four vials. He once said he used it to stop tremors, such as afflicted old people.’
    Aye. A drop. ‘When?’
    ‘Not long ago.’
    ‘So, unlikely anyone’s drunk it yet.’
    ‘Except maybe a guard or two.’
    ‘Wait here, lass.’ Kalam set out, silent in the darkness, until he came within sight of the three warriors manning the picket. Earlier, they had been seated. That was no longer the case. But there was movement, low to the ground-he slipped closer.
    The three figures were spasming, writhing, their limbs jerking. Foam caked their mouths and blood had started from their bulging eyes. They had fouled themselves. A water skin lay nearby in a patch of wet sand that was quickly disappearing beneath a carpet of capemoths.
    The assassin drew his pig-sticker. He would have to be careful, since to come into contact with blood, spit or any other fluid was to invite a similar fate. The warriors were doomed to suffer like this for what to them would be an eternity-they would still be spasming by dawn, and would continue to do so until either their hearts gave out or they died from dehydration. Horribly, with Tralb it was often the latter rather than the former.
    He reached the nearest one. Saw recognition in the man’s leaking eyes. Kalam raised his knife. Relief answered the gesture. The assassin drove the narrow-bladed weapon down into the guard’s left eye, angled upward. The body stiffened, then settled with a frothy sigh. He quickly repeated the grisly task with the other two. Then meticulously cleaned his knife in the sand. Capemoths, wings rasping, were descending on the scene. Hunting rhizan quickly joined them. The air filled with the sound of crunching exoskeletons.
    Kalam faced the camp. He would have to stove the casks. Enemies of the empire these warriors might be, but they deserved a more merciful death than this.
    A faint skittering sound spun him around.
    A rope had uncoiled down the cliff-face from the stone balcony. Figures began descending, silent and fast.
    They had watchers.
    The assassin waited.
    Three in all, none armed with more than daggers. As they came forward one halted while still a dozen paces distant.
    The lead man drew up before the assassin. ‘And who in Hood’s name are you?’ he hissed, gold flashing from his teeth.
    ‘A Malazan soldier,’ was Kalam’s whispered reply. ‘Is that your mage hanging back over there? I need his help.’
    ‘He says he can’t-’
    ‘I know. My otataral long-knife. But he need not get close-all he has to do is empty this camp’s water casks.’
    ‘What for? There’s a spring not fifty paces downtrail-they’ll just get more.’
    ‘You’ve another ally here,’ Kalam said. ‘She fouled the water with Tralb-what do you think afflicted these poor bastards?’
    The second man grunted. ‘We was wondering. Not pleasant, what happened to them. Still, it’s no less than they deserved. I say leave the water be.’
    ‘Why not take the issue to Captain Kindly? He’s the one making the decisions for you, right?’
    The man scowled.
    His companion spoke. ‘That’s not why we’re down here. We’re here to retrieve you. And if there’s another one, we’ll take her, too.’
    ‘To do what?’ Kalam demanded. He was about to say Starve? Die of thirst? but then he realized that neither soldier before him looked particularly gaunt, nor parched. ‘You want to stay holed up in there for ever?’
    ‘It suits us fine,’ the second soldier snapped. ‘We could leave at any time. There’s back routes. But the question is, then what? Where do we go? The whole land is out for Malazan blood.’
    ‘What is the last news you’ve heard?’ Kalam asked.
    ‘We ain’t heard any at all. Not since we quitted Ehrlitan. As far as we can see, Seven Cities ain’t part of the Malazan Empire any more, and there won’t be nobody coming to get us. If there was, they’d have come long since.’
    The assassin regarded the two soldiers for a moment, then he sighed. ‘All right, we need to talk. But not here. Let me get the lass-we’ll go with you. On condition that your mage do me the favour I asked.’
    ‘Not an even enough bargain,’ the second soldier said. ‘Grab for us Irriz. We want a little sit-down with that fly-blown corporal.’
    ‘Corporal? Didn’t you know, he’s a captain now. You want him. Fine. Your mage destroys the water in those casks. I’ll send the lass your way-be kind to her. All of you head back up. I may be a while.’
    ‘We can live with that deal.’
    Kalam nodded and made his way back to where he’d left Sinn.
    She had not left her position, although instead of hiding she was dancing beneath one of the towers, spinning in the sand, arms floating, hands fluttering like capemoth wings.
    The assassin hissed in warning as he drew near. She halted, saw him, and scurried over. ‘You took too long! I thought you were dead!’
    And so you danced? ‘No, but those three guards are. I’ve made contact with the soldiers from the fortress. They’ve invited us inside-conditions seem amenable up there. I’ve agreed.’
    ‘But what about the attack tomorrow?’
    ‘It will fail. Listen, Sinn, they can leave at any time, unseen-we can be on our way into Raraku as soon as we can convince Kindly. Now, follow me-and quietly.’
    They returned to where the three Malazan imperials waited.
    Kalam scowled at the squad mage, but he grinned in return. ‘It’s done. Easy when you’re not around.’
    ‘Very well. This is Sinn-she’s a mage as well. Go on, all of you.’
    ‘Lady’s luck to you,’ one of the soldiers said to Kalam.
    Without replying, the assassin turned about and slipped back into the camp. He returned to his own tent, entered and crouched down beside his kit bag. Rummaging inside it, he drew out the pouch of diamonds and selected one at random.
    A moment’s careful study, holding it close in the gloom. Murky shadows swam within the cut stone. Beware of shadows bearing gifts. He reached outside and dragged in one of the flat stones used to hold down the tent walls, and set the diamond onto its dusty surface.
    The bone whistle Cotillion had given him was looped on a thong around his neck. He pulled it clear and set it to his lips. ‘Blow hard and you’ll awaken all of them. Blow soft and directly at one in particular, and you’ll awaken that one alone.’ Kalam hoped the god knew what he was talking about. Better if these weren’t Shadowthrone’s toys… He leaned forward until the whistle was a mere hand’s width from the diamond.
    Then softly blew through it.
    There was no sound. Frowning, Kalam pulled the whistle from his lips and examined it. He was interrupted by a soft tinkling sound.
    The diamond had crumbled to glittering dust.
    From which a swirling shadow rose.
    As I’d feared. Azalan. From a territory in the Shadow Realm bordering that of the Aptorians. Rarely seen, and never more than one at a time. Silent, seemingly incapable of language-how Shadowthrone commanded them was a mystery.
    Swirling, filling the tent, dropping to all six limbs, the spiny ridge of its massive, hunched back scraping against the fabric to either side of the ridge-pole. Blue, all-too-human eyes blinked out at Kalam from beneath a black-skinned, flaring, swept-back brow. Wide mouth, lower lip strangely protruding as if in eternal pout, twin slits for a nose. A mane of thin bluish-black hair hung in strands, tips brushing the tent floor. There was no indication of its gender. A complicated harness crisscrossed its huge torso, studded with a variety of weapons, not one of which seemed of practical use.
    The azalan possessed no feet as such-each appendage ended in a wide, flat, short-fingered hand. The homeland of these demons was a forest, and these creatures commonly lived in the tangled canopy high overhead, venturing down to the gloomy forest floor only when summoned.
    Summoned… only to then be imprisoned in diamonds. If it was me, I’d be pretty annoyed by now.
    The demon suddenly smiled.
    Kalam glanced away, considering how to frame his request. Get Captain Irriz. Alive, but kept quiet. Join me at the rope. There would need to be some explaining to do, and with a beast possessing no language-
    The azalan turned suddenly, nostrils twitching. The broad, squat head dipped down on its long, thickly muscled neck. Down to the tent’s back wall at the base.
    Where urine from the latrine pit had soaked through.
    A soft cluck, then the demon wheeled about and lifted a hind limb. Two penises dropped into view from a fold of flesh.
    Twin streams reached down to the sodden carpet.
    Kalam reeled back at the stench, back, out through the flap and outside into the chill night air, where he remained, on hands and knees, gagging.
    A moment later the demon emerged. Lifted its head to test the air, then surged into the shadows-and was gone.
    In the direction of the captain’s tent.
    Kalam managed a lungful of cleansing air, slowly brought his shuddering under control. ‘All right, pup,’ he softly gasped, ‘guess you read my mind.’ After a moment he rose into a crouch, reached back with breath held into the tent to retrieve his pack, then staggered towards the cliff-face.
    A glance back showed steam or smoke rising out from his tent’s entrance, a whispering crackle slowly growing louder from within it.
    Gods, who needs a vial of Tralb?
    He padded swiftly to where the rope still dangled beneath the balcony.
    A sputtering burst of flames erupted from where his tent had been.
    Hardly an event to go unnoticed. Hissing a curse, Kalam sprinted for the rope.
    Shouts rose from the camp. Then screams, then shrieks, each one ending in a strange mangled squeal.
    The assassin skidded to a halt at the cliff-face, closed both hands on the rope, and began climbing. He was halfway up to the balcony when the limestone wall shook suddenly, puffing out dust. Pebbles rained down. And a hulking shape was now beside him, clinging to the raw, runnelled rock. Tucked under one arm was Irriz, unconscious and in his bedclothes. The azalan seemed to flow up the wall, hands gripping the rippled ribbons of shadow as if they were iron rungs. In moments the demon reached the balcony and swung itself over the lip and out of sight.
    And the stone ledge groaned.
    Cracks snaked down.
    Kalam stared upward to see the entire balcony sagging, pulling away from the wall.
    His moccasins slipped wildly as he tried to scrabble his way to one side. Then he saw long, unhuman hands close on the lip of the stone ledge. The sagging ceased.
    H-how in Hood’s name-
    The assassin resumed climbing. Moments later he reached the balcony and pulled himself over the edge.
    The azalan was fully stretched over it. Two hands gripped the ledge. Three others held shadows on the cliffside above the small doorway.
    Shadows were unravelling from the demon like layers of skin, vaguely human shapes stretching out to hold the balcony to the wall-and being torn apart by the immense strain. As Kalam scrambled onto its surface, a grinding, crunching sound came from where the balcony joined the wall, and it dropped a hand’s width along the seam.
    The assassin launched himself towards the recessed doorway, where he saw a face in the gloom, twisted with terror-the squad mage. ‘Back off!’ Kalam hissed. ‘It’s a friend!’ The mage reached out and clasped Kalam’s forearm. The balcony dropped away beneath the assassin even as he was dragged into the corridor.
    Both men tumbled back, over Irriz’s prone body. Everything shook as a tremendous thump sounded from below. The echoes were slow to fade.
    The azalan swung in from under the lintel stone. Grinning. A short distance down the corridor crouched a squad of soldiers. Sinn had an arm wrapped round one of them-her half-brother, Kalam assumed as he slowly regained his feet.
    One of the soldiers the assassin had met earlier moved forward, edging past the assassin and-with more difficulty-the azalan, back out to the edge. After a moment he called back. ‘All quiet down there, Sergeant. The camp’s a mess, though. Can’t see anyone about…’ The other soldier from before frowned. ‘No one, Bell?’
    ‘No. Like they all ran away.’
    Kalam offered nothing, though he had his suspicions. There was something about all those shadows in the demon’s possession
    The squad mage had disentangled himself from Irriz and now said to the assassin, ‘That’s a damned frightening friend you have there. And it ain’t imperial. Shadow Realm?’
    ‘A temporary ally,’ Kalam replied with a shrug.
    ‘How temporary?’
    The assassin faced the sergeant. ‘Irriz has been delivered-what do you plan on doing with him?’
    ‘Haven’t decided yet. The lass here says you’re named Ulfas. Would that be right? A Genabackan Barghast name? Wasn’t there a war chief by that name? Killed at Blackdog.’
    ‘I wasn’t about to tell Irriz my real name, Sergeant. I’m a Bridgeburner. Kalam Mekhar, rank of corporal.’
    There was silence.
    Then the mage sighed. ‘Wasn’t you outlawed?’
    ‘A feint, one of the Empress’s schemes. Dujek needed a free hand for a time.’
    ‘All right,’ the sergeant said. ‘It don’t matter if you’re telling the truth or not. We’ve heard of you. I’m Sergeant Cord. The company mage here is Ebron. That’s Bell, and Corporal Shard.’
    The corporal was Sinn’s half-brother, and the young man’s face was blank, no doubt numbed by the shock of Sinn’s sudden appearance.
    ‘Where’s Captain Kindly?’
    Cord winced. ‘The rest of the company-what’s left, is down below. We lost the captain and the lieutenant a few days ago.’
    ‘Lost? How?’
    ‘They, uh, they fell down a well shaft. Drowned. Or so Ebron found out, once he climbed down and examined the situation more closely. It’s fast-running, an underground river. They were swept away, the poor bastards.’
    ‘And how do two people fall down a well shaft, Sergeant?’
    The man bared his gold teeth. ‘Exploring, I imagine. Now, Corporal, it seems I outrank you. In fact, I’m the only sergeant left. Now, if you aren’t outlawed, then you’re still a soldier of the empire. And as a soldier of the empire…’
    ‘You have me there,’ Kalam muttered.
    ‘For now, you’ll be attached to my old squad. You’ve got seniority over Corporal Shard, so you’ll be in charge.’
    ‘Very well, and what’s the squad’s complement?’
    ‘Shard, Bell and Limp. You’ve met Bell. Limp’s down below. He broke his leg in a rock-slide, but he’s mending fast. There’s fifty-one soldiers in all. Second Company, Ashok Regiment.’
    ‘It seems your besiegers are gone,’ Kalam observed. ‘The world hasn’t been entirely still while you’ve been shut up in here, Sergeant. I think I should tell you what I know. There are alternatives to waiting here-no matter how cosy it might be-until we all die of old age… or drowning accidents.’
    ‘Aye, Corporal. You’ll make your report. And if I want to ask for advice on what to do next, you’ll be first in line. Now, enough with the opinions. Time to go below-and I suggest you find a leash for that damned demon. And tell it to stop smiling.’
    ‘You’ll have to tell it yourself, Sergeant,’ Kalam drawled.
    Ebron snapped, ‘The Malazan Empire don’t need allies from the Shadow Realm-get rid of it!’
    The assassin glanced over at the mage. ‘As I said earlier, changes have come, Mage. Sergeant Cord, you’re entirely welcome to try throwing a collar round this azalan’s neck. But I should tell you first-even though you’re not asking for my advice-that even though those weird gourds, pans and knobby sticks strapped on to the beast’s belts don’t look like weapons, this azalan has just taken the lives of over five hundred rebel warriors. And how long did that take? Maybe fifty heartbeats. Does it do what I ask? Now that’s a question worth pondering, don’t you think?’
    Cord studied Kalam for a long moment. ‘Are you threatening me?’
    ‘Having worked alone for some time, Sergeant,’ the assassin replied in a low voice, ‘my skin’s grown thin. I’ll take your squad. I’ll even follow your orders, unless they happen to be idiotic. If you have a problem with all this, take it up with my own sergeant next time you see him. That’d be Whiskeyjack. Apart from the Empress herself, he’s the only man I answer to. You want to make use of me? Fine. My services are available to you… for a time.’
    ‘He’s on some secret mission,’ Ebron muttered. ‘For the Empress, is my guess. He’s probably back in the Claw-that’s where he started, after all, isn’t it?’
    Cord looked thoughtful, then he shrugged and turned away. ‘This is making my head ache. Let’s get below.’
    Kalam watched the sergeant push between the clump of soldiers crowding the corridor. Something tells me I’m not going to enjoy this much.
    Sinn danced a step.

    A blurred sword of dark iron rose along the horizon, a massive, bruised blade that flickered as it swelled ever larger. The wind had fallen off, and it seemed that the island in the path of the sword’s tip grew no closer. Cutter moved up to the lone mast and began storm-rigging the luffing sail. ‘I’m going to man the sweeps for a while,’ he said. ‘Will you take the tiller?’
    With a shrug Apsalar moved to the stern.
    The storm still lay behind the island of Drift Avalii, over which hung a seemingly permanent, immovable bank of heavy clouds. Apart from a steeply rising shoreline, there seemed to be no high ground; the forest of cedars, firs and redwoods looked impenetrable, their boles ever cloaked in gloom.
    Cutter stared at the island for a moment longer, then gauged the pace of the approaching storm. He settled onto the bench behind the mast and collected the sweeps. ‘We might make it,’ he said, as he dropped the oar blades into the murky water and pulled.
    ‘The island will shatter it,’ Apsalar replied.
    He narrowed his eyes on her. It was the first time in days that she had ventured a statement without considerable prodding on his part. ‘Well, I may have crossed a damned ocean, but I still understand nothing of the sea. Why should an island without a single mountain break that storm?’
    ‘A normal island wouldn’t,’ she answered.
    ‘Ah, I see.’ He fell silent. Her knowledge came from Cotillion’s memories, appearing to add yet another layer to Apsalar’s miseries. The god was with them once more, a haunting presence between them. Cutter had told her of the spectral visitation, of Cotillion’s words. Her distress-and barely constrained fury-seemed to originate from the god’s recruitment of Cutter himself.
    His choosing of his new name had displeased her from the very first, and that he had now become, in effect, a minion of the patron god of assassins appeared to wound her deeply. He had been naive, it now seemed in retrospect, to have believed that such a development would bring them closer.
    Apsalar was not happy with her own path-a realization that had rocked the Daru. She drew no pleasure or satisfaction from her own cold, brutal efficiency as a killer. Cutter had once imagined that competency was a reward in itself, that skill bred its own justification, creating its own hunger and from that hunger a certain pleasure. A person was drawn to his or her own proficiency-back in Darujhistan, after all, his thieving habits had not been the product of necessity. He’d suffered no starvation on the city’s streets, no depredation by its crueller realities. He had stolen purely for pleasure, and because he had been good at it. A future as a master thief had seemed a worthy goal, notoriety indistinguishable from respect.
    But now, Apsalar was trying to tell him that competence was not justification. That necessity demanded its own path and there was no virtue to be found at its heart.
    He’d found himself at subtle war with her, the weapons those of silence and veiled expressions.
    He grunted at the sweeps. The seas were growing choppy. ‘Well, I hope you’re right,’ he said. ‘We could do with the shelter… though from what the Rope said, there will be trouble among the denizens of Drift Avalii.’
    ‘Tiste Andu,’ Apsalar said. ‘Anomander Rake’s own. He settled them there, to guard the Throne.’
    ‘Do you recall Dancer-or Cotillion-speaking with them?’
    Her dark eyes flicked to his for a moment, then she looked away. ‘It was a short conversation. These Tiste Andu have known isolation for far too long. Their master left them there, and has never returned.’
    ‘Never?’
    ‘There are… complications. The shore ahead offers no welcome-see for yourself.’
    He drew the oars back in and twisted round on the seat.
    The shoreline was a dull grey sandstone, wave-worn into undulating layers and shelves. ‘Well, we can draw up easily enough, but I see what you mean. No place to pull the runner up, and tethering it risks battering by the waves. Any suggestions?’
    The storm-or the island-was drawing breath, tugging the sail. They were quickly closing on the rocky coast.
    The sky’s rumbles were nearer now, and Cutter could see the wavering treetops evincing the arrival of a high and fierce wind, stretching the clouds above the island into long, twisting tendrils.
    ‘I have no suggestions,’ Apsalar finally replied. ‘There is another concern-currents.’
    And he could see now. The island did indeed drift, unmoored to the sea bottom. Spinning vortices roiled around the sandstone. Water was pulled under, flung back out, seething all along the shoreline. ‘Beru fend us,’ Cutter muttered, ‘this won’t be easy.’ He scrambled to the bow.
    Apsalar swung the runner onto a course parallel to the shore. ‘Look for a shelf low to the water,’ she called. ‘We might be able to drag the boat onto it.’
    Cutter said nothing to that. It would take four or more strong men to manage such a task… but at least we’d get onto shore in one piece. The currents tugged at the hull, throwing the craft side to side. A glance back showed Apsalar struggling to steady the tiller.
    The dull grey sandstone revealed, in its countless shelves and modulations, a history of constantly shifting sea levels. Cutter had no idea how an island could float. If sorcery was responsible, then its power was vast, and yet, it seemed, far from perfect.
    ‘There!’ he shouted suddenly, pointing ahead where the coast’s undulations dropped to a flat stretch barely a hand’s width above the roiling water.
    ‘Get ready,’ Apsalar instructed, half rising from her seat.
    Clambering up alongside the prow, a coil of rope in his left hand, Cutter prepared to leap onto the shelf. As they drew closer, he could see that the stone ledge was thin, deeply undercut.
    They swiftly closed. Cutter jumped.
    He landed square-footed, knees flexing into a crouch.
    There was a sharp crack, then the stone was falling away beneath his moccasined feet. Cold water swept around his ankles. Unbalanced, the Daru pitched backward with a yelp. Behind him, the boat rushed inward on the wave that tumbled into the sinking shelf’s wake. Cutter plunged into deep water, even as the encrusted hull rolled over him.
    The currents yanked him downward into icy darkness. His left heel thumped against the island’s rock, the impact softened by a thick skin of seaweed.
    Down, a terrifyingly fast plummet into the deep.
    Then the rock wall was gone, and he was pulled by the currents under the island.
    A roar filled his head, the sound of rushing water. His last lungful of air was dwindling to nothing in his chest. Something hard hammered into his side-a piece of the runner’s hull, wreckage being dragged by the currents-their boat had overturned. Either Apsalar was somewhere in the swirling water with him, or she had managed to leap onto solid sandstone. He hoped it was the latter, that they would not both drown-for drowning was all that was left to him.
    Sorry, Cotillion. I hope you did not expect too much of me-
    He struck stone once more, was rolled along it, then the current tugged him upward and suddenly spat him loose.
    He flailed with his limbs, clawing the motionless water, his pulse pounding in his head. Disorientated, panic ripping through him like wildfire, he reached out one last time.
    His right hand plunged into cold air.
    A moment later his head broke the surface.
    Icy, bitter air poured into his lungs, as sweet as honey. There was no light, and the sounds of his gasping returned no echoes, seeming to vanish in some unknown immensity.
    Cutter called out to Apsalar, but there was no reply.
    He was swiftly growing numb. Choosing a random direction, he set out.
    And quickly struck a stone wall, thick with wet, slimy growth. He reached up, found only sheerness. He swam along it, his limbs weakening, a deadly lassitude stealing into him. He struggled on, feeling his will seep away.
    Then his outstretched hand slapped down onto the flat surface of a ledge. Cutter threw both arms onto the stone. His legs, numbed by the cold, pulled at him. Moaning, he sought to drag himself out of the water, but his strength was failing. Fingers gouging tracks through the slime, he slowly sank backward.
    A pair of hands closed, one on each shoulder, to gather the sodden fabric in a grip hard as iron. He felt himself lifted clear from the water, then dropped onto the ledge.
    Weeping, Cutter lay unmoving. Shivers racked him.
    Eventually, a faint crackling sound reached through, seeming to come from all sides. The air grew warmer, a dull glow slowly rising.
    The Daru rolled onto his side. He had expected to see Apsalar.
    Instead, standing above him was an old man, extraordinarily tall, his white hair long and dishevelled, white-bearded though his skin was black as ebony, with eyes a deep, glittering amber-the sole source, Cutter realized with a shock-of the light.
    All around them, the seaweed was drying, shrivelling, as waves of heat radiated from the stranger.
    The ledge was only a few paces wide, a single lip of slick stone flanked by vertical walls stretching out to the sides.
    Sensation was returning to Cutter’s legs, his clothes steaming now in the heat. He struggled into a sitting position. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said in Malazan.
    ‘Your craft has littered the pool,’ the man replied. ‘I suppose you will want some of the wreckage recovered.’
    Cutter twisted to stare out on the water, but could see nothing. ‘I had a companion-’
    ‘You arrived alone. It is probable that your companion drowned. Only one current delivers victims here. The rest lead only to death. On the isle itself, there is but one landing, and you did not find it. Few corpses of late, of course, given our distance from occupied lands. And the end of trade.’
    His words were halting, as if rarely used, and he stood awkwardly.
    She drowned? More likely she made it onto shore. Not for Apsalar the ignoble end that almost took me. Then again… She was not yet immortal, as subject to the world’s cruel indifference as anyone. He pushed the thought away for the moment.
    ‘Are you recovered?’
    Cutter glanced up. ‘How did you find me?’
    A shrug. ‘It is my task. Now, if you can walk, it is time to leave.’
    The Daru pushed himself to his feet. His clothing was almost dry. ‘You possess unusual gifts,’ he observed. ‘I am named… Cutter.’
    ‘You may call me Darist. We must not delay. The very presence of life in this place risks his awakening.’
    The ancient Tiste Andu turned to face the stone wall. At a gesture, a doorway appeared, beyond which were stone stairs leading upward. ‘That which survived the wrecking of your craft awaits you above, Cutter. Come.’
    The Daru set off after the man. ‘Awakening? Who might awaken?’
    Darist did not reply.
    The steps were worn and slick, the ascent steep and seemingly interminable. The cold water had stolen Cutter’s strength, and his pace grew ever slower. Again and again Darist paused to await him, saying nothing, his expression closed.
    They eventually emerged onto a level hallway down which ran, along the walls, pillars of rough-skinned cedars. The air was musty and damp beneath the sharp scent of the wood. There was no-one else in sight. ‘Darist,’ Cutter asked as they walked down the aisle, ‘are we still beneath ground level?’
    ‘We are, but we shall proceed no higher for the time being. The island is assailed.’
    ‘What? By whom? What of the Throne?’
    Darist halted and swung round, the glow in his eyes somehow deepening. ‘A question carelessly unasked. What has brought you, human, to Drift Avalii?’
    Cutter hesitated. There was no love lost between the present rulers of Shadow and the Tiste Andu. Nor had Cotillion even remotely suggested actual contact be made with the Children of Darkness. They had been placed here, after all, to ensure that the true Throne of Shadow remain unoccupied. ‘I was sent by a mage-a scholar, whose studies had led him to believe the island-and all it contained-was in danger. He seeks to discover the nature of that threat.’
    Darist was silent for a moment, his lined face devoid of expression. Then he said, ‘What is this scholar’s name?’
    ‘Uh, Baruk. Do you know him? He lives in Darujhistan-’
    ‘What lies in the world beyond the island is of no concern to me,’ the Tiste Andu replied.
    And that, old man, is why you’re in this mess. Cotillion was right. ‘The Tiste Edur have returned, haven’t they? To reclaim the Throne of Shadow. But it was Anomander Rake who left you here, entrusted with-’
    ‘He lives still, does he? If Mother Dark’s favoured son is displeased with how we have managed this task, then he must come and tell us so himself. It was not some human mage who sent you here, was it? Do you kneel before the Wielder of Dragnipur? Does he renew his claims to the blood of the Tiste Andu, then? Has he renounced his Draconian blood?’
    ‘I wouldn’t know-’
    ‘Does he now appear as an old man-older by far than me? Ah, I see by your face the truth of it. He has not. Well, you may go back to him and tell him-’
    ‘Wait! I do not serve Rake! Aye, I saw him in person, and not very long ago, and he looked young enough at the time. But I did not kneel to him-Hood knows, he was too busy at the time in any case! Too busy fighting a demon to converse with me! We but crossed paths. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Darist. Sorry. And I am most certainly not in any position to find him and tell him whatever it is you want me to say to him.’
    The Tiste Andu studied Cutter for a moment longer, then he swung about and resumed the journey.
    The Daru followed, his thoughts wild with confusion. It was one thing to accept the charge of a god, but the further he travelled on this dread path, the more insignificant he himself felt. Arguments between Anomander Rake and these Tiste Andu of Drift Avalii… well, that was no proper business of his. The plan had been to sneak onto this island and remain unseen. To determine if indeed the Edur had found this place, though what Cotillion would do with such knowledge was anyone’s guess.
    But that’s something I should think about, I suppose. Damn it, Cutter-Crokus would’ve had questions! Mowri knows, he would’ve hesitated a lot longer before accepting Cotillion’s bargain. If he accepted at all! This new persona was imposing a certain sense of stricture-he’d thought it would bring him more freedom. But now it was beginning to appear that the truly free one had been Crokus.
    Not that freedom ensured happiness. Indeed, to be free was to live in absence. Of responsibilities, of loyalties, of the pressures that expectation imposed. Ah, misery has tainted my views. Misery, and the threat of true grieving, which draws nearer-but no, she must be alive. Somewhere up above. On an island assailed… ‘Darist, please, wait a moment.’
    The tall figure stopped. ‘I see no reason to answer your questions.’
    ‘I am concerned… for my companion. If she’s alive, she’s somewhere above us, on the surface. You said you were under attack. I fear for her-’
    ‘We sense the presence of strangers, Cutter. Above us, there are Tiste Edur. But no-one else. She is drowned, this companion of yours. There is no point in holding out hope.’
    The Daru sat down suddenly. He felt sick, his heart stuttering with anguish. And despair.
    ‘Death is not an unkind fate,’ Darist said above him. ‘If she was a friend, you will miss her company, and that is the true source of your grief-your sorrow is for yourself. My words may displease you, but I speak from experience. I have felt the deaths of many of my kin, and I mourn the spaces in my life where they once stood. But such losses serve only to ease my own impending demise.’
    Cutter stared up at the Tiste Andu. ‘Darist, forgive me. You may be old, but you are also a damned fool. And I begin to understand why Rake left you here then forgot about you. Now, kindly shut up.’ He pushed himself upright, feeling hollowed out inside, but determined not to surrender to the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. Because surrendering is what this Tiste Andu has done.
    ‘Your anger leaves me undamaged,’ Darist said. He turned and gestured to the double doors directly ahead. ‘Through here you will find a place to rest. Your salvage awaits there, as well.’
    ‘Will you tell me nothing of the battle above?’
    ‘What is there to tell you, Cutter? We have lost.’
    ‘Lost! Who is left among you?’
    ‘Here in the Hold, where stands the Throne, there is only me. Now, best rest. We shall have company soon enough.’

    The howls of rage reverberated through Onrack’s bones, though he knew his companion could hear nothing. These were cries of the spirits-two spirits, trapped within two of the towering, bestial statues rearing up on the plain before them.
    The cloud cover overhead had broken apart, was fast vanishing in thinning threads. Three moons rode the heavens, and there were two suns. The light flowed with shifting hues as the moons swung on their invisible tethers. A strange, unsettling world, Onrack reflected.
    The storm was spent. They had waited in the lee of a small hill while it thrashed around the gargantuan statues, the wind howling past from its wild race through the rubble-littered streets of the ruined city lying beyond. And now the air steamed.
    ‘What do you see, T’lan Imass?’ Trull asked from where he sat hunched, his back to the edifices.
    Shrugging, the T’lan Imass turned away from his lengthy study of the statues. ‘There are mysteries here… of which I suspect you know more than I.’
    The Tiste Edur glanced up with a wry expression. ‘That seems unlikely. What do you know of the Hounds of Shadow?’
    ‘Very little. The Logros crossed paths with them only once, long ago, in the time of the First Empire. Seven in number. Serving an unknown master, yet bent on destruction.’
    Trull smiled oddly, then asked, ‘The human First Empire, or yours?’
    ‘I know little of the human empire of that name. We were drawn into its heart but once, Trull Sengar, in answer to the chaos of the Soletaken and D’ivers. The Hounds made no appearance during that slaughter.’ Onrack looked back at the massive stone Hound before them. ‘It is believed,’ he said slowly, ‘by the bonecasters, that to create an icon of a spirit or a god is to capture its essence within that icon. Even the laying of stones prescribes confinement. Just as a hut can measure out the limits of power for a mortal, so too are spirits and gods sealed into a chosen place of earth or stone or wood… or an object. In this way power is chained, and so becomes manageable. Tell me, do the Tiste Edur concur with that notion?’
    Trull Sengar climbed to his feet. ‘Do you think we raised these giant statues, Onrack? Do your bonecasters also believe that power begins as a thing devoid of shape, and thus beyond control? And that to carve out an icon-or make a circle of stones-actually forces order upon that power?’
    Onrack cocked his head, was silent for a time. ‘Then it must be that we make our own gods and spirits. That belief demands shape, and shaping brings life into being. Yet were not the Tiste Edur fashioned by Mother Dark? Did not your goddess create you?’
    Trull’s smile broadened. ‘I was referring to these statues, Onrack. To answer you-I do not know if the hands that fashioned these were Tiste Edur. As for Mother Dark, it may be that in creating us, she but simply separated what was not separate before.’
    ‘Are you then the shadows of Tiste Andu? Torn free by the mercy of your goddess mother?’
    ‘But Onrack, we are all torn free.’
    ‘Two of the Hounds are here, Trull Sengar. Their souls are trapped in the stone. And one more thing of note-these likenesses cast no shadows.’
    ‘Nor do the Hounds themselves.’
    ‘If they are but reflections, then there must be Hounds of Darkness, from which they were torn,’ Onrack persisted. ‘Yet there is no knowledge of such…’ The T’lan Imass suddenly fell silent.
    Trull laughed. ‘It seems you know more of the human First Empire than you first indicated. What was that tyrant emperor’s name? No matter. We should journey onward, to the gate-’
    ‘Dessimbelackis,’ Onrack whispered. ‘The founder of the human First Empire. Long vanished by the time of the unleashing of the Beast Ritual. It was believed he had… veered.’
    ‘D’ivers?’
    ‘Aye.’
    ‘And beasts numbered?’
    ‘Seven.’
    Trull stared up at the statues, then gestured. ‘We didn’t build these. No, I am not certain, but in my heart I feel… no empathy. They are ominous and brutal to my eyes, T’lan Imass. The Hounds of Shadow are not worthy of worship. They are indeed untethered, wild and deadly. To truly command them, one must sit in the Throne of Shadow-as master of the realm. But more than that. One must first draw together the disparate fragments. Making Kurald Emurlahn whole once more.’
    ‘And this is what your kin seek,’ Onrack rumbled. ‘The possibility troubles me.’
    The Tiste Edur studied the T’lan Imass, then shrugged. ‘I did not share your distress at the prospect-not at first. And indeed, had it remained… pure, perhaps I would still be standing alongside my brothers. But another power acts behind the veil in all this-I know not who or what, but I would tear aside that veil.’
    ‘Why?’
    Trull seemed startled by the question, then he shivered. ‘Because what it has made of my people is an abomination, Onrack.’
    The T’lan Imass set out towards the gap between the two nearest statues.
    After a moment, Trull Sengar followed. ‘I imagine you know little of what it is like to see your kin fall into dissolution, to see the spirit of an entire people grow corrupt, to struggle endlessly to open their eyes-as yours have been opened by whatever clarity chance has gifted you.’
    ‘True,’ Onrack replied, his steps thumping the sodden ground.
    ‘Nor is it mere naivete,’ the Tiste Edur went on, limping in Onrack’s wake. ‘Our denial is wilful, our studied indifference conveniently self-serving to our basest desires. We are a long-lived people who now kneel before short-term interests-’
    ‘If you find that unusual,’ the T’lan Imass muttered, ‘then it follows that the one behind the veil has need for you only in the short term-if indeed that hidden power is manipulating the Tiste Edur.’
    ‘An interesting thought. You may well be right. The question then is, once that short-term objective is reached, what will happen to my people?’
    ‘Things that outlive their usefulness are discarded,’ Onrack replied.
    ‘Abandoned. Yes-’
    ‘Unless, of course,’ the T’lan Imass went on, ‘they would then pose a threat to one who had so exploited them. If so, then the answer would be to annihilate them once they are no longer useful.’
    ‘There is the unpleasant ring of truth to your words, Onrack.’
    ‘I am generally unpleasant, Trull Sengar.’
    ‘So I am learning. You say the souls of two Hounds are imprisoned within these-which ones again?’
    ‘We now walk between them.’
    ‘What are they doing here, I wonder?’
    ‘The stone has been shaped to encompass them, Trull Sengar. No-one asks the spirit or the god, when the icon is fashioned, if it wishes entrapment. Do they? The need to make such vessels is a mortal’s need. That one can rest eyes on the thing one worships is an assertion of control at worst, or at best the illusion that one can negotiate over one’s own fate.’
    ‘And you find such notions suitably pathetic, Onrack?’
    ‘I find most notions pathetic, Trull Sengar.’
    ‘Are these beasts trapped for eternity, do you think? Is this where they go when they are destroyed?’
    Onrack shrugged. ‘I have no patience with these games. You possess your own knowledge and suspicions, yet would not speak them. Instead, you seek to discover what I know, and what I sense of these snared spirits. I care nothing for the fate either way of these Hounds of Shadow. Indeed, I find it unfortunate that-if these two were slain in some other realm and so have ended up here-there are but five remaining, for that diminishes my chances of killing one myself. And I think I would enjoy killing a Hound of Shadow.’
    The Tiste Edur’s laugh was harsh. ‘Well, I won’t deny that confidence counts for a lot. Even so, Onrack of the Logros, I do not think you would walk away from a violent encounter with a Hound.’
    The T’lan Imass halted and swung towards Trull Sengar. ‘There is stone, and there is stone.’
    ‘I am afraid I do not understand-’
    In answer, Onrack unsheathed his obsidian sword. He strode up to the nearer of the two statues. The creature’s forepaw was itself taller than the T’lan Imass. He raised his weapon two-handed, then swung a blow against the dark, unweathered stone.
    An ear-piercing crack ripped the air.
    Onrack staggered, head tilting back as fissures shot up through the enormous edifice.
    It seemed to shiver, then exploded into a towering cloud of dust.
    Yelling, Trull Sengar leapt back, scrambling as the billowing dust rolled outward to engulf him.
    The cloud hissed around Onrack. He righted himself, then dropped into a fighting stance as a darker shape appeared through the swirling grey haze.
    A second concussion thundered-this time behind the T’lan Imass-as the other statue exploded. Darkness descended as the twin clouds blotted out the sky, closing the horizons to no more than a dozen paces on all sides.
    The beast that emerged before Onrack was as tall at the shoulder as Trull Sengar’s full height. Its hide was colourless, and its eyes burned black. A broad, flat head, small ears…
    Faint through the grey gloom, something of the two suns’ light, and that reflected from the moons, reached down-to cast beneath the Hound a score of shadows.
    The beast bared fangs the size of tusks, lips peeling back in a silent snarl that revealed blood-red gums.
    The Hound attacked.
    Onrack’s blade was a midnight blur, flashing to kiss the creature’s thick, muscled neck-but the swing cut only dusty air. The T’lan Imass felt enormous jaws close about his chest. He was yanked from his feet. Bones splintered. A savage shake that ripped the sword from his hands, then he was sailing through the grainy gloom-
    To be caught with a grinding snap by a second pair of jaws.
    The bones of his left arm shattered into a score of pieces within its taut hide of withered skin, then it was torn entirely from his body.
    Another crunching shake, then he was thrown into the air once more. To crash in a splintered heap on the ground, where he rolled once, then was still.
    There was thunder in Onrack’s skull. He thought to fall to dust, but for the first time he possessed neither the will nor, it seemed, the capacity to do so.
    The power was shorn from him-the Vow had been broken, ripped away from his body. He was now, he realized, as those of his fallen kin, the ones that had sustained so much physical destruction that they had ceased to be one with the T’lan Imass.
    He lay unmoving, and felt the heavy tread of one of the Hounds as it padded up to stand over him. A dust- and shard-flecked muzzle nudged him, pushed at the broken ribs of his chest. Then lifted away. He listened to its breathing, the sound like waves riding a tide into caves, could feel its presence like a heaviness in the damp air.
    After a long moment, Onrack realized that the beast was no longer looming over him. Nor could he hear the heavy footfalls through the wet earth. As if it and its companion had simply vanished.
    Then the scrape of boots close by, a pair of hands dragging him over, onto his back.
    Trull Sengar stared down at him. ‘I do not know if you can still hear me,’ he muttered. ‘But if it is any consolation, Onrack of the Logros, those were not Hounds of Shadow. Oh, no, indeed. They were the real ones. The Hounds of Darkness, my friend. I dread to think what you have freed here…”
    Onrack managed a reply, his words a soft rasp. ‘So much for gratitude.’
    Trull Sengar dragged the shattered T’lan Imass to a low wall at the city’s edge, where he propped the warrior into a sitting position. ‘I wish I knew what else I could do for you,’ he said, stepping back.
    ‘If my kin were present,’ Onrack said, ‘they would complete the necessary rites. They would sever my head from my body, and find for it a suitable place so that I might look out upon eternity. They would dismember the headless corpse and scatter the limbs. They would take my weapon, to return it to the place of my birth.’
    ‘Oh.’
    ‘Of course, you cannot do such things. Thus, I am forced into continuation, despite my present condition.’ With that, Onrack slowly clambered upright, broken bones grinding and crunching, splinters falling away.
    Trull grunted, ‘You could have done that before I dragged you.’
    ‘I regret most the loss of an arm,’ the T’lan Imass said, studying the torn muscles of his left shoulder. ‘My sword is most effective when in the grip of two hands.’ He staggered over to where the weapon lay in the mud. Part of his chest collapsed when he leaned down to retrieve it. Straightening, Onrack faced Trull Sengar. ‘I am no longer able to sense the presence of gates.’
    ‘They should be obvious enough,’ the’Tiste Edur replied. ‘I expect near the centre of the city. We are quite a pair, aren’t we?’
    ‘I wonder why the Hounds did not kill you.’
    ‘They seemed eager to leave.’ Trull set off down the street directly opposite, Onrack following. ‘I am not even certain they noticed me-the dust cloud was thick. Tell me, Onrack. If there were other T’lan Imass here, then they would have done all those things to you? Despite the fact that you remain… functional?’
    ‘Like you, Trull Sengar, I am now shorn. From the Ritual. From my own kind. My existence is now without meaning. The final task left to me is to seek out the other hunters, to do what must be done.’
    The street was layered in thick, wet silt. The low buildings to either side, torn away above the ground level, were similarly coated, smoothing every edge-as if the city was in the process of melting. There was no grand architecture, and the rubble in the streets revealed itself to be little more than fired bricks. There was no sign of life anywhere.
    They continued on, their pace torturously slow. The street slowly broadened, forming a vast concourse flanked by pedestals that had once held statues. Brush and uprooted trees marred the vista, all a uniform grey that gradually assumed an unearthly hue beneath the now-dominant blue sun, which in turn painted a large moon the colour of magenta.
    At the far end was a bridge, over what had once been a river but was now filled with silt. A tangled mass of detritus had ridden up on one side of the bridge, spilling flotsam onto the walkway. Among the garbage lay a small box.
    Trull angled over towards it as they reached the bridge. He crouched down. ‘It seems well sealed,’ he said, reaching out to pry the clasp loose, then lifting the lid. ‘That’s odd. Looks like clay pots. Small ones…’
    Onrack moved up alongside the Tiste Edur. ‘They are Moranth munitions, Trull Sengar.’
    The Tiste Edur glanced up. ‘I have no knowledge of such things.’
    ‘Weapons. Explosive when the clay breaks. They are generally thrown. As far as is possible. Have you heard of the Malazan Empire?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Human. From my birth realm. These munitions belong to that empire.’
    ‘Well, that is troubling indeed-for why are they here?’
    ‘I do not know.’
    Trull Sengar closed the lid and collected the box. ‘While I would prefer a sword, these will have to do. I was not pleased at being unarmed for so long.’
    ‘There is a structure beyond-an arch.’
    Straightening, the Tiste Edur nodded. ‘Aye. It is what we seek.’
    They continued on.
    The arch stood on pedestals in the centre of a cobbled square. Floodwaters had carried silt to its mouth where it had dried in strange, jagged ridges. As the two travellers came closer, they discovered that the clay was rock hard. Although the gate did not manifest itself in any discernible way, a pulsing heat rolled from the space beneath the arch.
    The pillars of the structure were unadorned. Onrack studied the edifice. ‘What can you sense of this?’ the T’lan Imass asked after a moment.
    Trull Sengar shook his head, then approached. He halted within arm’s reach of the gate’s threshold. ‘I cannot believe this is passable-the heat pouring from it is scalding.’
    ‘Possibly a ward,’ Onrack suggested.
    ‘Aye. And no means for us to shatter it.’
    ‘Untrue.’
    The Tiste Edur glanced back at Onrack, then looked down at the box tucked under his arm. ‘I do not understand how a mundane explosive could destroy a ward.’
    ‘Sorcery depends on patterns, Trull Sengar. Shatter the pattern and the magic fails.’
    ‘Very well, let us attempt this thing.’
    They retreated twenty paces from the gate. Trull unlatched the box and gingerly drew forth one of the clay spheres. He fixed his gaze on the gate, then threw the munition.
    The explosion triggered a coruscating conflagration from the portal. White and gold fires raged beneath the arch, then the violence settled back to form a swirling golden wall.
    ‘That is the warren itself,’ Onrack said. ‘The ward is broken. Still, I do not recognize it.’
    ‘Nor I,’ Trull muttered, closing the munitions box once more. Then his head snapped up. ‘Something’s coming.’
    ‘Yes.’ Onrack was silent then for a long moment. He suddenly lifted his sword. ‘Flee, Trull Sengar-back across the bridge. Flee!’
    The Tiste Edur spun and began running.
    Onrack proceeded to back up a step at a time. He could feel the power of the ones on the other side of the gate, a power brutal and alien. The breaking of the ward had been noted, and the emotion reaching through the barrier was one of indignant outrage.
    A quick look over his shoulder showed that Trull Sengar had crossed the bridge and was now nowhere in sight. Three more steps and Onrack would himself reach the bridge. And there, he would make his stand. He expected to be destroyed, but he intended to purchase time for his companion.
    The gate shimmered, blindingly bright, then four riders cantered through. Riding white, long-limbed horses with wild manes the colour of rust. Ornately armoured in enamel, the warriors were a match for their mounts-pale-skinned and tall, their faces mostly hidden behind slitted visors, cheek and chin guards. Curved scimitars that appeared to have been carved from ivory were held in gauntleted fists. Long silver hair flowed from beneath the helms.
    They rode directly towards Onrack. Canter to gallop. Gallop to charge.
    The battered T’lan Imass widened his stance, lifted his obsidian sword and stood ready to meet them.
    The riders could only come at him on the narrow bridge two at a time, and even then it was clear that they simply intended their horses to ride Onrack down. But the T’lan Imass had fought in the service of the Malazan Empire, in Falar and in Seven Cities-and he had faced horse warriors in many a battle. A moment before the front riders reached him, Onrack leapt forward. Between the two mounts. Ignoring the sword that whirled in from his left, the T’lan Imass slashed his blade into the other warrior’s midsection.
    Two ivory blades struck him simultaneously, the one on his left smashing through clavicle and cutting deep into his shoulder blade, then through in a spray of bone shards. The scimitar on his right chopped down through the side of his face, sheering it off from temple to the base of the jaw.
    Onrack felt his own obsidian blade bite deep into the warrior’s armour. The enamel shattered.
    Then both attackers were past him, and the remaining two arrived.
    The T’lan Imass dropped into a crouch and positioned his sword horizontally over his head. A pair of ivory blades hammered down on it, the impacts thundering through Onrack’s battered frame.
    They were all past him now, emerging out onto the concourse to wheel their horses round, visored heads turned to regard the lone warrior who had somehow survived their attacks.
    Hoofs thudding the clay-limned cobbles, the four warriors reined in, weapons lowering. The one whose armour had been shattered by Onrack’s obsidian sword was leaning forward, one arm pressed against his stomach. Spatters of blood speckled his horse’s flank.
    Onrack shook himself, and pieces of shattered bone fell away to patter on the ground. He then settled his own weapon, point to the ground, and waited while one of the riders walked his horse forward.
    A gauntleted hand reached up to draw the visor upward, revealing features that were startlingly similar to Trull Sengar’s, apart from the white, almost luminous skin. Eyes of cold silver fixed on the T’lan Imass with distaste. ‘Do you speak, Lifeless One? Can you understand the Language of Purity?’
    ‘It seems no purer than any other,’ Onrack replied.
    The warrior scowled. ‘We do not forgive ignorance. You are a servant of Death. There is but one necessity when dealing with a creature such as you, and that is annihilation. Stand ready.’
    ‘I serve no-one,’ Onrack said, raising his sword once more. ‘Come, then.’
    But the wounded one held up a hand. ‘Hold, Enias. This world is not ours-nor is this deathless savage one of the trespassers we seek. Indeed, as you yourself must sense, none of them are here. This portal has not been used in millennia. We must needs take our quest elsewhere. But first, I require healing.’ The warrior gingerly dismounted, one arm still pressed against his midsection. ‘Orenas, attend me.’
    ‘Allow me to destroy this thing first, Seneschal-’
    ‘No. We shall tolerate its existence. Perhaps it will have answers for us, to guide us further on our quest. Failing that, we can destroy it later.’
    The one named Orenas slipped down from his horse and approached the seneschal.
    Enias edged his horse closer to the T’lan Imass, as if still mindful of a fight. He bared his teeth. ‘There is not much left of you, Lifeless One. Are those the scorings of fangs? Your chest has been in the jaws of some beast, I think. The same that stole your arm? By what sorcery do you hold on to existence?’
    ‘You are of Tiste blood,’ Onrack observed.
    The man’s face twisted into a sneer. ‘Tiste blood? Only among the Liosan is the Tiste blood pure. You have crossed paths with our tainted cousins, then. They are little more than vermin. You have not answered my questions.’
    ‘I know of the Tiste Andu, but I have yet to meet them. Born of Darkness, they were the first-’
    ‘The first! Oh, indeed. And so tragically imperfect. Bereft of Father Light’s purifying blood. They are a most sordid creation. We tolerate the Edur, for they contain something of the Father, but the Andu-death by our hands is the only mercy they deserve. But I grow weary of your rudeness, Lifeless One. I have asked you questions and you are yet to answer a single one.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Yes? What does that mean?’
    ‘I agree that I have not answered them. Nor do I feel compelled to do so. My kind has much experience with arrogant creatures. Although that experience is singular: in answer to their arrogance we proclaimed eternal war, until they ceased to exist. I have always believed the T’lan Imass should seek out a new enemy. There is, after all, no shortage to be noted among arrogant beings. Perhaps you Tiste Liosan are numerous enough in your own realm to amuse us for a time.’ The warrior stared, as if shocked speechless.
    Behind him, one of his companions laughed. ‘There is little value in conversing with lesser creatures, Enias. They will seek to confound you with falsehoods, to lead you away from the righteous path.’
    ‘I see now,’ Enias replied, ‘the poison of which you have long warned me, Malachar.’
    ‘There will be more to come, young brother, on the trail we must follow.’ The warrior strode up to Onrack. ‘You call yourself a T’lan Imass, yes?’
    ‘I am Onrack, of the Logros T’lan Imass.’
    ‘Are there others of your kind in this ruined realm, Onrack?’
    ‘If I did not answer your brother’s questions, why imagine I would answer yours?’
    Malachar’s face darkened. ‘Play such games with young Enias, but not with me-’
    ‘I am done with you, Liosan.’ Onrack sheathed his sword and swung away.
    ‘You are done with us! Seneschal Jorrude! If Orenas has completed his ministrations, I humbly request your attention. The Lifeless One seeks to flee.’
    ‘I hear you, Malachar,’ the seneschal rumbled, striding forward. ‘Hold, Lifeless One! We have not yet released you. You will tell us what we wish to know, or you will be destroyed here and now.’
    Onrack faced the Liosan once more. ‘If that was a threat, the pathos of your ignorance proves an amusing distraction. But I weary of it, and of you.’
    Four ivory scimitars lifted threateningly.
    Onrack drew his sword once more.
    And hesitated, his gaze drawn to something beyond them. Sensing a presence at their backs, the warriors turned.
    Trull Sengar stood fifteen paces away, the box of munitions at his feet. There was something odd about his smile. ‘This seems an uneven fight. Friend Onrack, do you require assistance? Well, you need not answer, for it has arrived. And for that, I am sorry.’
    Dust swirled upward around the Tiste Edur. A moment later, four T’lan Imass stood on the muddy cobbles. Three held weapons ready. The fourth figure stood a pace behind and to Trull’s right. This one was massively boned, its arms disproportionately long. The fur riding its shoulders was black, fading to silver as it rose up to surround the bonecaster’s head in a mangled hood.
    Onrack allowed his sword’s point to rest on the muddy cobbles once more. With his link, born of the Ritual, now severed, he could only communicate with these T’lan Imass by speaking out loud. ‘I, Onrack, greet you, Bonecaster, and recognize you as from the Logros, as I once was. You are Monok Ochem. One of many chosen to hunt the renegades, who, as did those of my own hunt, followed their trail into this realm. Alas, I alone of my hunt survived the flood.’ His gaze shifted to the three warriors. The clan leader, its torso and limbs tightly wrapped in the outer skin of a dhenrabi and a denticulated grey flint sword in its hands, was Ibra Gholan. The remaining two, both armed with bone-hafted, double-bladed axes of chalcedony, were of Ibra’s clan, but otherwise unknown to Onrack. ‘I greet you as well, Ibra Gholan, and submit to your command.’
    Bonecaster Monok Ochem strode forward with a heavy, shambling gait. ‘You have failed the Ritual, Onrack,’ it said with characteristic abruptness, ‘and so must be destroyed.’
    ‘That privilege will be contested,’ Onrack replied. ‘These horse warriors are Tiste Liosan and would view me as their prisoner, to do with as they please.’
    Ibra Gholan gestured to his two warriors to join him and the three walked towards the Liosan.
    The seneschal spoke. ‘We release our prisoner, T’lan Imass. He is yours. Our quarrel with you is at an end, and so we shall leave.’
    The T’lan Imass halted, and Onrack could sense their disappointment.
    The Liosan commander regarded Trull for a moment, then said, ‘Edur-would you travel with us? We have need of a servant. A simple bow will answer the honour of our invitation.’
    Trull Sengar shook his head. ‘Well, that is a first for me. Alas, I will accompany the T’lan Imass. But I recognize the inconvenience this will cause you, and so I suggest that you alternate in the role as servant to the others. I am a proponent of lessons in humility, Tiste Liosan, and I sense that among you there is some need.’
    The seneschal smiled coldly. ‘I will remember you, Edur.’ He whirled. ‘On your horses, brothers. We now leave this realm.’
    Monok Ochem spoke. ‘You may find that more difficult than you imagine.’
    ‘We have never before been troubled by such endeavours,’ the seneschal replied. ‘Are there hidden barriers in this place?’
    ‘This warren is a shattered fragment of Kurald Emurlahn,’ the bonecaster said. ‘I believe your kind have remained isolated for far too long. You know nothing of the other realms, nothing of the Wounded Gates. Nothing of the Ascendants and their wars-’
    ‘We serve but one Ascendant,’ the seneschal snapped. ‘The Son of Father Light. Our lord is Osric.’
    Monok Ochem cocked its head. ‘And when last has Osric walked among you?’
    All four Liosan visibly flinched.
    In his affectless tone, the bonecaster continued, ‘Your lord, Osric, the Son of Father Light, numbers among the contestants in the other realms. He has not returned to you, Liosan, because he is unable to do so. Indeed, he is unable to do much of anything at the moment.’
    The seneschal took a step forward. ‘What afflicts our lord?’
    Monok Ochem shrugged. ‘A common enough fate. He is lost.’
    ‘Lost?’
    ‘I suggest we work together to weave a ritual,’ the bonecaster said, ‘and so fashion a gate. For this, we shall need Tellann, your own warren, Liosan, and the blood of this Tiste Edur. Onrack, we shall undertake your destruction once we have returned to our own realm.’
    ‘That would seem expedient,’ Onrack replied.
    Trull’s eyes had widened. He stared at the bonecaster. ‘Did you say, my blood?’
    ‘Not all of it, Edur… if all goes as planned.’

CHAPTER TEN

    All that breaks must be discarded even as the thunder of faith returns ever fading echoes.
    Prelude to Anomandaris
Fisher

    The day the faces in the rock awakened was celebrated among the Teblor by a song. The memories of his people were, Karsa Orlong now knew, twisted things. Surrendered to oblivion when unpleasant, burgeoning to a raging fire of glory when heroic. Defeat had been spun into victory in the weaving of every tale.
    He wished Bairoth still lived, that his sagacious companion did more than haunt his dreams, or stand before him as a thing of rough-carved stone in which some chance scarring of his chisel had cast a mocking, almost derisive expression.
    Bairoth could have told him much of what he needed to know at this moment. While Karsa’s familiarity with their homeland’s sacred glade was far greater than either Bairoth’s or Delum Thord’s, and so ensured the likenesses possessed some accuracy, the warrior sensed that something essential was missing from the seven faces he had carved into the stone trees. Perhaps his lack of talent had betrayed him, though that did not seem the case with the carvings of Bairoth and Delum. The energy of their lives seemed to emanate from their statues, as if merged with the petrified wood’s own memory. As with the entire forest, in which there was the sense that the trees but awaited the coming of spring, of rebirth beneath the wheel of the stars, it seemed that the two Teblor warriors were but awaiting the season’s turn.
    But Raraku defied every season. Raraku itself was eternal in its momentousness, perpetually awaiting rebirth. Patience in the stone, in the restless, ever-murmuring sands.
    The Holy Desert seemed, to Karsa’s mind, a perfect place for the Seven Gods of the Teblor. It was possible, he reflected as he slowly paced before the faces he had carved into the boles, that something of that sardonic sentiment had poisoned his hands. If so, the flaw was not visible to his eyes. There was little in the faces of the gods that could permit expression or demeanour-his recollection was of skin stretched over broad, robust bone, of brows that projected like ridges, casting the eyes in deep shadow. Broad, flat cheekbones, a heavy, chinless jaw… a bestiality so unlike the features of the Teblor…
    He scowled, pausing to stand before Urugal which, as with the six others, he had carved level with his own eyes. Serpents slithered over his dusty, bared feet, his only company in the glade. The sun had begun its descent, though the heat remained fierce.
    After a long moment of contemplation, Karsa spoke out loud. ‘Bairoth Gild, look with me upon our god. Tell me what is wrong. Where have I erred? That was your greatest talent, wasn’t it? Seeing so clearly my every wrong step. You might ask: what did I seek to achieve with these carvings? You would ask that, for it is the only question worth answering. But I have no answer for you-ah, yes, I can almost hear you laugh at my pathetic reply.’ I have no answer. ‘Perhaps, Bairoth, I imagined you wished their company. The great Teblor gods, who one day awakened.’
    In the minds of the shamans. Awakened in their dreams. There, and there alone. Yet now I know the flavour of those dreams, and it is nothing like the song. Nothing at all.
    He had found this glade seeking solitude, and it had been solitude that had inspired his artistic creations. Yet now that he was done, he no longer felt alone here. He had brought his own life to this place, the legacies of his deeds. It had ceased to be a refuge, and the need to visit was born now from the lure of his efforts, drawing him back again and again. To walk among the snakes that came to greet him, to listen to the hiss of sands skittering on the moaning desert wind, the sands that arrived in the glade to caress the trees and the faces of stone with their bloodless touch.
    Raraku delivered the illusion that time stood motionless, the universe holding its breath. An insidious conceit. Beyond the Whirlwind’s furious wall, the hourglasses were still turned. Armies assembled and began their march, the sound of their boots, shields and gear a deathly clatter and roar. And, on a distant continent, the Teblor were a people under siege.
    Karsa continued staring at the stone face of Urugal. You are not Teblor. Yet you claim to be our god. You awakened, there in the cliff, so long ago. But what of before that time? Where were you then, Urugal? You and your six terrible companions?
    A soft chuckle from across the clearing brought Karsa around.
    ‘And which of your countless secrets is this one, friend?’
    ‘Leoman,’ Karsa rumbled, ‘it has been a long time since you last left your pit.’
    Edging forward, the desert warrior glanced down at the snakes. ‘I was starved for company. Unlike you, I see.’ He gestured at the carved boles. ‘Are these yours? I see two Toblakai-they stand in those trees as if alive and but moments from striding forth. It disturbs me to be reminded that there are more of you. But what of these others?’
    ‘My gods.’ He noted Leoman’s startled expression and elaborated, ‘The Faces in the Rock. In my homeland, they adorn a cliffside, facing onto a glade little different from this one.’
    ‘Toblakai-’
    ‘They call upon me still,’ Karsa continued, turning back to study Urugal’s bestial visage once more. ‘When I sleep. It is as Ghost Hands says-I am haunted.’
    ‘By what, friend? What is it your… gods… demand of you?’
    Karsa shot Leoman a glance, then he shrugged. ‘Why have you sought me out?’
    Leoman made to say one thing, then chose another. ‘Because my patience is at an end. There has been news of events concerning the Malazans. Distant defeats. Sha’ik and her favoured few are much excited… yet achieve nothing. Here we await the Adjunct’s legions. In one thing Korbolo Dom is right-the march of those legions should be contested. But not as he would have it. No pitched battles. Nothing so dramatic or precipitous. In any case, Toblakai, Mathok has given me leave to ride out with a company of warriors-and Sha’ik has condescended to permit us beyond the Whirlwind.’
    Karsa smiled. ‘Indeed. And you are free to harass the Adjunct? Ah, I thought as much. You are to scout, but no further than the hills beyond the Whirlwind. She will not permit you to journey south. But at least you will be doing something, and for that I am pleased for you, Leoman.’
    The blue-eyed warrior stepped closer. ‘Once beyond the Whirlwind, Toblakai-’
    ‘She will know none the less,’ Karsa replied.
    ‘And so I will incur her displeasure.’ Leoman sneered. ‘There is nothing new in that. And what of you, friend? She calls you her bodyguard, yet when did she last permit you into her presence? In that damned tent of hers? She is reborn indeed, for she is not as she once was-’
    ‘She is Malazan,’ Toblakai said.
    ‘What?’
    ‘Before she became Sha’ik. You know this as well as I-’
    ‘She was reborn! She became the will of the goddess, Toblakai. All that she was before that time is without meaning-’
    ‘So it is said, ‘Karsa rumbled. ‘Yet her memories remain. And it is those memories that chain her so. She is trapped by fear, and that fear is born of a secret which she will not share. The only other person who knows that secret is Ghost Hands.’
    Leoman stared at Karsa for a long moment, then slowly settled into a crouch. The two men were surrounded by snakes, the sound of slithering on sand a muted undercurrent. Lowering one hand, Leoman watched as a flare-neck began entwining itself up his arm. ‘Your words, Toblakai, whisper of defeat.’
    Shrugging, Karsa strode to where his tool kit waited at the base of a tree. ‘These years have served me well. Your company, Leoman. Sha’ik Elder. I once vowed that the Malazans were my enemies. Yet, from what I have seen of the world since that time, I now understand that they are no crueller than any other lowlander. Indeed, they alone seem to profess a sense of justice. The people of Seven Cities, who so despise them and wish them gone-they seek nothing more than the power that the Malazans took from them. Power that they used to terrorize their own people. Leoman, you and your kind make war against justice, and it is not my war.’
    ‘Justice?’ Leoman bared his teeth. ‘You expect me to challenge your words, Toblakai? I will not. Sha’ik Reborn says there is no loyalty within me. Perhaps she is right. I have seen too much. Yet here I remain-have you ever wondered why?’
    Karsa drew out a chisel and mallet. ‘The light fades-and that makes the shadows deeper. It is the light, I now realize. That is what is different about them.’
    ‘The Apocalyptic, Toblakai. Disintegration. Annihilation. Everything. Every human… lowlander. With our twisted horrors-all that we commit upon each other. The depredations, the cruelties. For every gesture of