Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged


The First Law: Book Two

For the Four Readers

You know who you are


PART I

The Great Leveller

Best Laid Plans

Questions

The Wounds of the Past

The Condition of the Defences

The Thing About Trust

Allies

Campfire Politics

Small Crimes

Rain

Bloody Company

Long Shadows

And Next… My Gold

Fear

One Hundred Words

The Blind Lead the Blind

Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem

Until Sunset

Long Odds

The Road to Victory

Necessary Evils

Among the Stones

The Fruits of Boldness

One for Dinner

One of Them

<p>PART I</p>

“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”

Heinrich Heine
<p>The Great Leveller</p>

Damn mist. It gets in your eyes, so you can’t see no more than a few strides ahead. It gets in your ears, so you can’t hear nothing, and when you do you can’t tell where it’s coming from. It gets up your nose, so you can’t smell naught but wet and damp. Damn mist. It’s a curse on a scout.

They’d crossed the Whiteflow a few days before, out of the North and into Angland, and the Dogman had been nervy all the way. Scouting out strange land, in the midst of a war that weren’t really their business. All the lads were jumpy. Aside from Threetrees, none of ’em had ever been out of the North. Except for Grim maybe. He weren’t saying where he’d been.

They’d passed a few farms burned out, a village all empty of people. Union buildings, big and square. They’d seen the tracks of horses and men. Lots of tracks, but never the men themselves. Dogman knew Bethod weren’t far away, though, his army spread out across the land, looking for towns to burn, food to steal, people to kill. All manner o’ mischief. He’d have scouts everywhere. If he caught Dogman or any of the rest, they’d be back to the mud, and not quickly. Bloody cross and heads on spikes and all the rest of it, Dogman didn’t wonder.

If the Union caught ’em they’d be dead too, most likely. It was a war, after all, and folk don’t think too clearly in a war. Dogman could hardly expect ’em to waste time telling a friendly Northman from an unfriendly one. Life was fraught with dangers, alright. It was enough to make anyone nervy, and he was a nervy sort at the best of times.

So it was easy to see how the mist might have been salt in the cut, so to speak.

All this creeping around in the murk had got him thirsty, so he picked his way through the greasy brush, over to where he could hear the river chattering. He knelt down at the water’s edge. Slimy down there, with rot and dead leaves, but Dogman didn’t reckon a little slime would make the difference, he was about as dirty as a man could be already. He scooped up water in his hands and drank. There was a breath of wind down there, out beyond the trees, pushing the mist in close one minute, dragging it out the next. That’s when the Dogman saw him.

He was lying on his front, legs in the river, top half up on the bank. They stared at each other a while, both fully shocked and amazed. He’d got a long stick coming out of his back. A broken spear. That’s when the Dogman realised he was dead.

He spat the water out and crept over, checking careful all around to make sure no one was waiting to give him a blade in the back. The corpse was a man of about two dozen years. Yellow hair, brown blood on his grey lips. He’d got a padded jacket on, bloated up with wet, the kind a man might wear under a coat of mail. A fighting man, then. A straggler maybe, lost his crew and been picked off. A Union man, no doubt, but he didn’t look so different to Dogman or to anyone else, now he was dead. One corpse looks much like another.

“The Great Leveller,” Dogman whispered to himself, since he was in a thoughtful frame of mind. That’s what the hillmen call him. Death, that is. He levels all differences. Named Men and nobodies, south or north. He catches everyone in the end, and he treats each man the same.

Seemed like this one had been dead no more ’n a couple of days. That meant whoever killed him might still be close, and that got the Dogman worried. The mist seemed full of sounds now. Might’ve been a hundred Carls, waiting just out of sight. Might’ve been no more than the river slapping at its banks. Dogman left the corpse lying and slunk off into the trees, ducking from one trunk to another as they loomed up out of the grey.

He nearly stumbled on another body, half buried in a heap of leaves, lying on his back with his arms spread out. He passed one on his knees, a couple of arrows in his side, face in the dirt, arse in the air. There’s no dignity in death, and that’s a fact. The Dogman was starting to hurry along, too keen to get back to the others, tell them what he’d seen. Too keen to get away from them corpses.

He’d seen plenty, of course, more than his share, but he’d never quite got comfortable around ’em. It’s an easy thing to make a man a carcass. He knew a thousand ways to do it. But once you’ve done it, there’s no going back. One minute he’s a man, all full up with hopes, and thoughts, and dreams. A man with friends, and family, and a place where he’s from. Next minute he’s mud. Made the Dogman think on all the scrapes he’d been in, all the battles and the fights he’d been a part of. Made him think he was lucky still to be breathing. Stupid lucky. Made him think his luck might not last.

He was halfway running now. Careless. Blundering about in the mist like an untried boy. Not taking his time, not sniffing the air, not listening out. A Named Man like him, a scout who’d been all over the North, should’ve known better, but you can’t stay sharp all the time. He never saw it coming.

Something knocked him in the side, hard, ditched him right on his face. He scrambled up but someone kicked him down. Dogman fought, but whoever this bastard was he was fearsome strong. Before he knew it he was down on his back in the dirt, and he’d only himself to blame. Himself, and the corpses, and the mist. A hand grabbed him round his neck, started squeezing his windpipe shut.

“Gurgh,” he croaked, fiddling at the hand, thinking his last moment was on him. Thinking all his hopes were turned to mud. The Great Leveller, come for him at last…

Then the fingers stopped squeezing.

“Dogman?” said someone in his ear, “that you?”

“Gurgh.”

The hand let go his throat and he sucked in a breath. Felt himself pulled up by his coat. “Shit on it, Dogman! I could ha’ killed you!” He knew the voice now, well enough. Black Dow, the bastard. Dogman was half annoyed at being throttled near to dying, half stupid-happy at still being alive. He could hear Dow laughing at him. Hard laughter, like a crow calling. “You alright?”

“I’ve had warmer greetings,” croaked Dogman, still doing his best to get the air in.

“Count yourself lucky, I could’ve given you a colder one. Much colder. I took you for one of Bethod’s scouts. Thought you was out over yonder, up the valley.”

“As you can see,” he whispered, “no. Where’s the others at?”

“Up on a hill, above this fucking mist. Taking a look around.”

Dogman nodded back the way he’d come. “There’s corpses over there. Loads of ’em.”

“Loads of ’em is it?” asked Dow, as though he didn’t think Dogman knew what a load of corpses looked like. “Hah!”

“Aye, a good few anyway. Union dead, I reckon. Looks like there was a fight here.”

Black Dow laughed again. “A fight? You reckon?” Dogman wasn’t sure what he meant by that.


“Shit,” he said.

They were standing up on the hill, the five of them. The mist had cleared up, but the Dogman almost wished it hadn’t. He saw what Dow had been saying now, well enough. The whole valley was full of dead. They were dotted high up on the slopes, wedged between the rocks, stretched out in the gorse. They were scattered out across the grass in the valley bottom like nails spilled from a sack, twisted and broken on the brown dirt road. They were heaped up beside the river, heaped on the banks in a pile. Arms and legs and broken gear sticking up from the last shreds of mist. They were everywhere. Stuck with arrows, stabbed with swords, hacked with axes. Crows called as they hopped from one meal to the next. It was a good day for the crows. It had been a while since Dogman saw a proper battlefield, and it brought back some sour memories. Horrible sour.

“Shit,” he said again. Couldn’t think of aught else to say.

“Reckon the Union were marching up this road.” Threetrees was frowning hard. “Reckon they were hurrying. Trying to catch Bethod unawares.”

“Seems they weren’t scouting too careful,” rumbled Tul Duru. “Seems like it was Bethod caught them out.”

“Maybe it was misty,” said Dogman, “like today.”

Threetrees shrugged. “Maybe. It’s the time of year for it. Either way they were on the road, in column, tired from a long day’s tramp. Bethod came on ’em from here, and from up there, on the ridge. Arrows first, to break ’em up, then the Carls, coming down from the tall ground, screaming and ready to go. The Union broke quick, I reckon.”

“Real quick,” said Dow.

“And then it was a slaughter. Spread out on the road. Trapped against the water. Nowhere much to run to. Men trying to pull their armour off, men trying to swim the river with their armour on. Packing in and climbing one on top o’ the other, with arrows falling down all round. Some of ’em might’ve got as far as those woods down there, but knowing Bethod he’d have had a few horsemen tucked away, ready to lick the plate.”

“Shit,” said Dogman, feeling more than a bit sick. He’d been on the wrong end of a rout himself, and the memory weren’t at all a happy one.

“Neat as good stitching,” said Threetrees. “You got to give Bethod his due, the bastard. He knows his work, none better.”

“This the end of it then, chief?” asked Dogman. “Bethod won already?”

Threetrees shook his head, nice and slow. “There’s a lot of Southerners out there. An awful lot. Most of ’em live across the sea. They say there’s more of ’em down there than you can count. More men than there are trees in the North. Might take ’em a while to get here, but they’ll be coming. This is just the beginning.”

The Dogman looked out at the wet valley, at all them dead men, huddled and sprawled and twisted across the ground, no more ’n food for crows. “Not much of a beginning for them.”

Dow curled his tongue and spat, as noisy as he could. “Penned up and slaughtered like a bunch o’ sheep! You want to die like that, Threetrees? Eh? You want to side with the likes of these? Fucking Union! They don’t know anything about war!”

Threetrees nodded. “Then I reckon we’ll have to teach ’em.”


There was a great press round the gate. There were women, gaunt and hungry-looking. There were children, ragged and dirty. There were men, old and young, stooped under heavy packs or clutching gear. Some had mules, or carts they were pushing, loaded up with all kinds of useless looking stuff. Wooden chairs, tin pots, tools for farming. A lot had nothing at all, besides misery. The Dogman reckoned there was plenty of that to go round.

They were choking up the road with their bodies and their rubbish. They were choking up the air with their pleading and their threatening. Dogman could smell the fear, thick as soup in his nose. All running from Bethod.

They were shouldering each other pretty good, some pushing in, some pushed out, here and there one falling in the mud, all desperate for that gate like it was their mother’s tit. But as a crowd, they were going nowhere. Dogman could see spear tips glinting over the heads of the press, could hear hard voices shouting. There were soldiers up ahead, keeping everyone out of the city.

Dogman leaned over to Threetrees. “Looks like they don’t want their own kind,” he whispered. “You reckon they’ll want us, chief?”

“They need us, and that’s a fact. We’ll talk to ’em, and then we’ll see, or you got some better notion?”

“Going home and staying out of it?” muttered Dogman under his breath, but he followed Threetrees into the crowd anyway.

The Southerners all gawped as they stepped on through. There was a little girl among ’em, looked at Dogman as he passed with great staring eyes, clutching some old rag to her. Dogman tried a smile but it had been a long time since he’d dealt with aught but hard men and hard metal, and it can’t have come out too pleasing. The girl screamed and ran off, and she wasn’t the only one scared. The crowd split open, wary and silent when they saw Dogman and Threetrees coming, even though they’d left their weapons back with the others.

They made it through to the gate alright, only having to give the odd shove to one man or another, just to start him moving. Dogman saw the soldiers now, a dozen of ’em, stood in a line across the gate, each one just the same as the one next door. He’d rarely seen such heavy armour as they had on, great plates from head to toe, polished to a blinding shine, helmets over their faces, stock-still like metal pillars. He wondered how you’d fight one, if you had to. He couldn’t imagine an arrow doing much, or a sword even, less it got lucky and found a joint.

“You’d need a pickaxe for that, or something.”

“What?” hissed Threetrees.

“Nothing.” It was plain they had some strange ideas about fighting down in the Union. If wars were won by the shinier side, they’d have had Bethod well licked, the Dogman reckoned. Shame they weren’t.

Their chief was sat in the midst of them, behind a little table with some scraps of paper on it, and he was the strangest of the lot. He’d got some jacket on, bright red. An odd sort of cloth for a leader to wear, Dogman thought. You’d have picked him out with an arrow easy enough. He was mighty young for the job an’ all. Scarcely had a beard on him yet, though he looked proud enough of himself all the same.

There was a big man in a dirty coat arguing with him. Dogman strained to listen, trying to make sense of their Union words. “I’ve five children out here,” the farmer was saying, “and nothing to feed them with. What do you suggest I do?”

An old man got in first. “I’m a personal friend of the Lord Governor, I demand you admit me to the—”

The lad didn’t let either one finish. “I don’t give a damn who your friends are, and I don’t care if you have a hundred children! The city of Ostenhorm is full. Lord Marshal Burr has decreed that only two hundred refugees be admitted each day, and we have already reached our limit for this morning. I suggest you come back tomorrow. Early.”

The two men stood there staring. “Your limit?” growled the farmer.

“But the Lord Governor—”

“Damn you!” screamed the lad, thumping at the table in a fit. “Only push me further! I’ll let you in alright! I’ll have you dragged in, and hung as traitors!”

That was enough for those two, they backed off quick. Dogman was starting to think he should do the same, but Threetrees was already making for the table. The boy scowled up at ’em as though they stank worse than a pair of fresh turds. Dogman wouldn’t have been so bothered, except he’d washed specially for the occasion. Hadn’t been this clean in months. “What the hell do you want? We’ve no need of spies or beggars!”

“Good,” said Threetrees, clear and patient. “We’re neither. My name is Rudd Threetrees. This here is the Dogman. We’re come to speak to whoever’s in charge. We’re come to offer our services to your King.”

“Offer your services?” The lad started to smile. Not a friendly smile at all. “Dogman, you say? What an interesting name. I can’t imagine how he came by it.” He had himself a little snigger at that piece of cleverness, and Dogman could hear chuckles from the others. A right set of arseholes, he reckoned, stitched up tight in their fancy clothes and their shiny armour. A right set of arseholes, but there was nothing to be gained by telling ’em so. It was a good thing they’d left Dow behind. He’d most likely have gutted this fool already, and got them all killed.

The lad leaned forward and spoke real slow, as if to children. “No Northmen are allowed within the city, not without special permission.”

Seemed that Bethod crossing their borders, slaughtering their armies, making war across their lands weren’t special enough. Threetrees ploughed on, but the Dogman reckoned he was ploughing in stony ground, alright. “We’re not asking much. Only food and a place to sleep. There’s five of us, each one a Named Man, veterans all.”

“His Majesty is more than well supplied with soldiers. We are a little short of mules however. Perhaps you’d care to carry some supplies for us?”

Threetrees was known for his patience, but there was a limit to it, and Dogman reckoned they were awful close. This prick of a boy had no idea what he was stepping on. He weren’t a man to be toyed with, Rudd Threetrees. It was a famous name where they came from. A name to put fear in men, or courage, depending where they stood. There was a limit to his patience alright, but they weren’t quite at it yet. Luckily for all concerned.

“Mules, eh?” growled Threetrees. “Mules can kick. Best make sure one don’t kick your head off, boy.” And he turned around and stalked off, down the road the way they came, the scared folks shuffling out the way then crowding back in behind, all shouting at once, pleading with the soldiers why they should be the ones to get let in while the others were left out in the cold.

“That weren’t quite the welcome we was hoping for,” Dogman muttered. Threetrees said nothing, just marched away in front, head down. “What now, chief?”

The old boy shot a grim look over his shoulder. “You know me. You think I’m taking that fucking answer?” Somehow, the Dogman reckoned not.

<p>Best Laid Plans</p>

It was cold in the hall of the Lord Governor of Angland. The high walls were of plain, cold render, the wide floor was of cold stone flags, the gaping fireplace held nothing but cold ashes. The only decoration was a great tapestry hanging at one end, the golden sun of the Union stitched into it, the crossed hammers of Angland in its centre.

Lord Governor Meed was slumped in a hard chair before a huge, bare table, staring at nothing, his right hand slack around the stem of a wine cup. His face was pale and hollow, his robes of state were crumpled and stained, his thin white hair was in disarray. Major West, born and raised in Angland, had often heard Meed spoken of as a strong leader, a great presence, a tireless champion of the province and its people. He looked a shell of a man now, crushed under the weight of his great chain of office, as empty and cold as his yawning fireplace.

The temperature might have been icy, but the mood was cooler still. Lord Marshal Burr stood in the middle of the floor, feet placed wide apart, big hands clasped white-knuckle tight behind his back. Major West stood at his shoulder, stiff as a log, head lowered, wishing that he had not given up his coat. It was colder in here than outside, if anything, and the weather was bitter, even for autumn.

“Will you take wine, Lord Marshal?” murmured Meed, not even looking up. His voice seemed weak and reedy thin in the great space. West fancied he could almost see the old man’s breath smoking.

“No, your Grace. I will not.” Burr was frowning. He had been frowning constantly, as far as West could tell, for the last month or two. The man seemed to have no other expressions. He had a frown for hope, a frown for satisfaction, a frown for surprise. This was a frown of the most intense anger. West shifted nervously from one numb foot to the other, trying to get the blood flowing, wishing he was anywhere but here.

“What about you, Major West?” whispered the Lord Governor. “Will you take wine?” West opened his mouth to decline, but Burr got in first.

“What happened?” he growled, the hard words grating off the cold walls, echoing in the chilly rafters.

“What happened?” The Lord Governor shook himself, turned his sunken eyes slowly towards Burr, as though seeing him for the first time. “I lost my sons.” He snatched up his cup with a trembling hand and drained it to the dregs.

West saw Marshal Burr’s hands clench tighter still behind his back. “I am sorry for your loss, your Grace, but I was referring to the broader situation. I am talking of Black Well.”

Meed seemed to flinch at the mere mention of the place. “There was a battle.”

“There was a massacre!” barked Burr. “What is your explanation? Did you not receive the King’s orders? To raise every soldier you could, to man your defences, to await reinforcements? Under no circumstances to risk battle with Bethod!”

“The King’s orders?” The Lord Governor’s lip curled. “The Closed Council’s orders, do you mean? I received them. I read them. I considered them.”

“And then?”

“I tore them up.”

West could hear the Lord Marshal breathing hard through his nose. “You tore… them up?”

“For a hundred years, I and my family have governed Angland. When we came here there was nothing.” Meed raised his chin proudly as he spoke, puffing out his chest. “We tamed the wilderness. We cleared the forests, and laid the roads, and built the farms, and the mines, and the towns that have enriched the whole Union!”

The old man’s eyes had brightened considerably. He seemed taller, bolder, stronger. “The people of this land look first to me for protection, before they look across the sea! Was I to allow these Northmen, these barbarians, these animals to raid across my lands with impunity? To undo the great work of my forefathers? To rob, and burn, and rape, and kill as they pleased? To sit behind my walls while they put Angland to the sword? No, Marshal Burr! Not I! I gathered every man, and I armed them, and I sent them to meet the savages in battle, and my three sons went at their head. What else should I have done?”

“Followed your fucking orders!” screamed Burr at the very top of his voice. West started with shock, the thunderous echoes still ringing in his ears.

Meed twitched, then gaped, then his lip began to quiver. Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes and his body sagged again. “I lost my sons,” he whispered, staring down at the cold floor. “I lost my sons.”

“I pity your sons, and all those others whose lives were wasted, but I do not pity you. You alone brought this upon yourself.” Burr winced, then swallowed and rubbed at his stomach. He walked slowly to the window and looked out over the cold, grey city. “You have wasted all your strength, and now I must dilute my own to garrison your towns, your fortresses. Such survivors as there are from Black Well, and such others as are armed and can fight you will transfer to my command. We will need every man.”

“And me?” murmured Meed, “I daresay those dogs on the Closed Council are howling for my blood?”

“Let them howl. I need you here. Refugees are coming southwards, fleeing from Bethod, or from the fear of him. Have you looked out of your window lately? Ostenhorm is full of them. They crowd around the walls in their thousands, and this is only the beginning. You will see to their well-being, and their evacuation to Midderland. For thirty years your people have looked to you for protection. They have need of you still.”

Burr turned back into the room. “You will provide Major West with a list of those units still fit for action. As for the refugees, they are in need of food, and clothing, and shelter. Preparations for their evacuation should begin at once.”

“At once,” whispered Meed. “At once, of course.”

Burr flashed West a quick glance from under his thick eyebrows, took a deep breath then strode for the door. West looked back as he left. The Lord Governor of Angland still sat hunched in his chair in his empty, freezing hall, head in his hands.


“This is Angland,” said West, gesturing at the great map. He turned to look at the assembly. Few of the officers were showing the slightest interest in what he had to say. Hardly a surprise, but it still rankled.

General Kroy was sitting on the right-hand side of the long table, stiff upright and motionless in his chair. He was tall, gaunt, hard, grey hair cropped close to his angular skull, black uniform simple and spotless. His enormous staff were similarly clipped, shaved, polished, as dour as a bevy of mourners. Opposite, on the left, lounged General Poulder, round-faced, ruddy-skinned, possessed of a tremendous set of moustaches. His great collar, stiff with gold thread, came almost to his large, pink ears. His retinue sat their chairs like saddles, crimson uniforms dripping with braid, top buttons carelessly undone, spatters of mud from the road worn like medals.

On Kroy’s side of the room, war was all about cleanliness, self-denial, and strict obedience to the rules. On Poulder’s it was a matter of flamboyance and carefully organised hair. Each group glared across the table at the other with haughty contempt, as though only they held the secrets of good soldiering, and the other crowd, try as they might, would never be more than a hindrance.

Either were hindrance enough to West’s mind, but neither one was half the obstacle that the third lot presented, clustered around the far end of the table. Their leader was none other than the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Ladisla himself. It was not so much a uniform that he was wearing, as a kind of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif. The lace on his cuffs alone could have made a good-sized tablecloth, and his staff were little less remarkable in their finery. Some of the richest, most handsome, most elegant, most useless young men in the whole Union were sprawled in their chairs around the Prince. If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed.

West turned back to the map, his throat uncomfortably dry.

He knew what he had to say, he needed only to say it, as clearly as possible, and sit down. Never mind that some of the most senior men in the army were behind him. Not to mention the heir to the throne. Men who West knew despised him. Hated him for his high position and his low birth. For the fact that he had earned his place.

“This is Angland,” said West again, in what he hoped was a voice of calm authority. “The river Cumnur,” and the end of his stick traced the twisting blue line of the river, “splits the province into two parts. The southern part is much the smaller, but contains the great majority of the population and almost all the significant towns, including the capital, Ostenhorm. The roads here are reasonably good, the country relatively open. As far as we know, the Northmen have yet to set foot across the river.”

West heard a loud yawning behind him, clearly audible even from the far end of the table. He felt a sudden pang of fury and spun round. Prince Ladisla himself appeared, at least, to be listening attentively. The culprit was one of his staff, the young Lord Smund, a man of impeccable lineage and immense fortune, a little over twenty but with all the talents of a precocious ten-year-old. He was slouched in his chair, staring into space, mouth extravagantly gaping.

It was the most West could do to stop himself leaping over and thrashing the man with his stick. “Am I boring you?” he hissed.

Smund actually seemed surprised to be picked on. He stared left and right, as though West might have been talking to one of his neighbours. “What, me? No, no, Major West, not in the least. Boring? No! The River Cumnur splits the province in two, and so forth. Thrilling stuff! Thrilling! I do apologise, really. Late night, last night, you see?”

West did not doubt it. A late night spent drinking and showing off with the rest of the Prince’s hangers-on, all so that he could waste everyone’s time this morning. Kroy’s men might be pedantic, and Poulder’s arrogant, but at least they were soldiers. The Prince’s staff had no skills whatever, as far as West could see, beyond annoying him, of course. At that, they were all expert. He was almost grinding his teeth with frustration as he turned back to the map.

“The northern part of the province is a different matter,” he growled. “An unwelcoming expanse of dense forests, trackless bogs, and broken hills, sparsely populated. There are mines, logging camps, villages, as well as several penal colonies operated by the Inquisition, but they are widely scattered. There are only two roads even faintly suitable for large bodies of men or supplies, especially given that winter will soon be upon us.” His stick traced the two dotted lines, running north to south through the woods. “The western road goes close to the mountains, linking the mining communities. The eastern one follows the coast, more or less. They meet at the fortress of Dunbrec on the Whiteflow, the northern border of Angland. That fortress, as we all know, is already in the hands of the enemy.”

West turned away from the map and sat down, trying to breathe slow and steady, squash down his anger and see off the headache which was already starting to pulse behind his eyes.

“Thank you, Major West,” said Burr as he got to his feet to address the assembly. The room rustled and stirred, only now coming awake. The Lord Marshal strode up and down before the map for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Then he tapped at it with his own stick, a spot well to the north of the Cumnur.

“The village of Black Well. An unremarkable settlement, ten miles or so from the coast road. Little more than a huddle of houses, now entirely deserted. It isn’t even marked on the map. A place unworthy of anyone’s attention. Except, of course, that it is the site of a recent massacre of our troops by the Northmen.”

“Damn fool Anglanders,” someone muttered.

“They should have waited for us,” said Poulder, with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Indeed they should have,” snapped Burr. “But they were confident, and why not? Several thousand men, well equipped, with cavalry. Many of them were professional soldiers. Not in the same class as the King’s Own perhaps, but trained and determined nonetheless. More than a match for these savages, one would have thought.”

“They put up a good fight though,” interrupted Prince Ladisla, “eh, Marshal Burr?”

Burr glared down the table. “A good fight is one you win, your Highness. They were slaughtered. Only those with good horses and very good luck escaped. In addition to the regrettable waste of manpower, there is the loss of equipment and supplies. Considerable quantities of each, with which our enemy is now enriched. Most seriously, perhaps, the defeat has caused panic among the population. The roads our army will depend on are clogged with refugees, convinced that Bethod will come upon their farms, their villages, their homes at any moment. An utter disaster, of course. Perhaps the worst suffered by the Union in recent memory. But disasters are not without their lessons.”

The Lord Marshal planted his big hands firmly on the table and leaned forwards. “This Bethod is careful, clever, and ruthless. He is well supplied with horse, foot, and archers, and has sufficient organisation to use them together. He has excellent scouts and his forces are highly mobile, probably more so than ours, especially in difficult country, such as that we will face in the northern part of the province. He set a trap for the Anglanders and they fell into it. We must not do the same.”

General Kroy gave a snort of joyless laughter. “So we should fear these barbarians, Lord Marshal? Would that be your advice?”

“What was it that Stolicus wrote, General Kroy? ‘Never fear your enemy, but always respect him.’ I suppose that would be my advice, if I gave any.” Burr frowned across the table. “But I don’t give advice. I give orders.”

Kroy twitched with displeasure at the reprimand, but at least he shut up. For the time being. West knew that he wouldn’t stay quiet for long. He never did.

“We must be cautious,” continued Burr, now addressing the room at large, “but we still have the advantage. We have twelve regiments of the King’s Own, at least as many men in levies from the noblemen, and a few Anglanders who avoided the carnage at Black Well. Judging from such reports as we have, we outnumber our enemy by five to one, or more. We have the advantage in equipment, in tactics, in organisation. The Northmen, it seems, are not ignorant of this. Despite their successes, they are remaining north of the Cumnur, content to forage and mount the odd raid. They do not seem keen to come across the river and risk an open battle with us.”

“One can hardly blame ’em, the dirty cowards,” chuckled Poulder, to mutterings of agreement from his own staff. “Probably regretting they ever crossed the border now!”

“Perhaps,” murmured Burr. “In any case, they are not coming to us, so we must cross the river and hunt them down. The main body of our army will therefore be split into two parts, the left wing under General Kroy, the right under General Poulder.” The two men eyed each other across the table with the deepest hostility. “We will push up the eastern road from our camps here at Ostenhorm, spread out beyond the river Cumnur, hoping to locate Bethod’s army and bring him to a decisive battle.”

“With the greatest respect,” interrupted General Kroy, in a tone that implied he had none, “would it not be better to send one half of the army up the western road?”

“The west has little to offer aside from iron, the one thing with which the Northmen are already well supplied. The coast road offers richer pickings, and is closer to their own lines of supply and retreat. Besides, I do not wish our forces to be too thinly spread. We are still guessing at Bethod’s strength. If we can bring him to battle, I want to be able to concentrate our forces quickly, and overwhelm him.”

“But, Lord Marshal!” Kroy had the air of a man addressing a senile parent who still, alas, retains the management of their own affairs. “Surely the western road should not be left unguarded?”

“I was coming to that,” growled Burr, turning back to the map. “A third detachment, under the command of Crown Prince Ladisla, will dig in behind the Cumnur and stand guard on the western road. It will be their job to make sure the Northmen do not slip around us and gain our rear. They will hold there, south of the river, while our main body splits in two and flushes out the enemy.”

“Of course, my Lord Marshal.” Kroy sat back in his chair with a thunderous sigh, as though he had expected no better but had to try anyway, for everyone’s sake, while the officers of his staff tutted and clucked their disapproval for the scheme.

“Well, I find it an excellent plan,” announced Poulder warmly. He smirked across the table at Kroy. “I am entirely in favour, Lord Marshal. I am at your disposal in any way you should think fit. I shall have my men ready to march within ten days.” His staff nodded and hummed their assent.

“Five would be better,” said Burr.

Poulder’s plump face twitched his annoyance, but he quickly mastered himself. “Five it is, Lord Marshal.” But now it was Kroy’s turn to look smug.

Crown Prince Ladisla, meanwhile, was squinting at the map, an expression of puzzlement slowly forming on his well-powdered face. “Lord Marshal Burr,” he began slowly, “my detachment is to proceed down the western road to the river, correct?”

“Indeed, your Highness.”

“But we are not to pass beyond the river?”

“Indeed not, your Highness.”

“Our role is to be, then,” and he squinted up at Burr with a hurt expression, “a purely defensive one?”

“Indeed. Purely defensive.”

Ladisla frowned. “That sounds a meagre task.” His absurd staff shifted in their seats, grumbled their discontent at an assignment so far beneath their talents.

“A meagre task? Pardon me, your Highness, but not so! Angland is a wide and tangled country. The Northmen may elude us, and if they do it is on you that all our hopes will hang. It will be your task to prevent the enemy from crossing the river and threatening our lines of supply, or, worse yet, marching on Ostenhorm itself.” Burr leaned forward, fixing the Prince with his eye, and shook his fist with great authority. “You will be our rock, your Highness, our pillar, our foundation! You will be the hinge on which the gate will hang, a gate which will swing shut on these invaders, and drive them out of Angland!”

West was impressed. The Prince’s assignment was indeed a meagre one, but the Lord Marshal could have made mucking out the latrines sound like noble work. “Excellent!” exclaimed Ladisla, the feather on his hat thrashing back and forth. “The hinge, of course! Capital!”

“Unless there are any further questions then, gentlemen, we have a great deal of work to do.” Burr looked round the half-circle of sulky faces. No one spoke. “Dismissed.”

Kroy’s staff and Poulder’s exchanged frosty glances as they hurried to be first out of the room. The two great generals themselves jostled each other in the doorway, which was more than wide enough for both of them, neither wanting to turn his back on the other, or to follow behind him. They turned, bristling, once they had pushed their way out into the corridor.

“General Kroy,” sneered Poulder, with a haughty toss of his head.

“General Poulder,” hissed Kroy, tugging his impeccable uniform smooth.

Then they stalked off in opposite directions.

As the last of Prince Ladisla’s staff ambled out, holding forth to each other noisily about who had the most expensive armour, West got up to leave himself. He had a hundred tasks to be getting on with, and there was nothing to be gained by waiting. Before he got to the door, though, Lord Marshal Burr began to speak.

“So there’s our army, eh, West? I swear, I sometimes feel like a father with a set of squabbling sons, and no wife to help me. Poulder, Kroy, and Ladisla.” He shook his head. “My three commanders! Every man of them seems to think the purpose of this whole business is his personal aggrandisement. There aren’t three bigger heads in the whole Union. It’s a wonder we can fit them all in one room.” He gave a sudden burp. “Damn this indigestion!”

West racked his brains for something positive. “General Poulder seems obedient, at least, sir.”

Burr snorted. “Seems, yes, but I trust him even less than Kroy, if that’s possible. Kroy, at least, is predictable. He can be depended on to frustrate and oppose me at every turn. Poulder can’t be depended on at all. He’ll smirk, and flatter, and obey to the tiniest detail, until he sees some advantage to himself, and then he’ll turn on me with double the ferocity, you’ll see. To keep ’em both happy is impossible.” He squinted and swallowed, rubbing at his gut. “But as long as we can keep them equally unhappy, we’ve a chance. The one thing to be thankful for is that they hate each other even more than they do me.”

Burr’s frown grew deeper. “They were both ahead of me in the queue for my job. General Poulder is an old friend of the Arch Lector, you know. Kroy is Chief Justice Marovia’s cousin. When the post of Lord Marshal became available, the Closed Council couldn’t decide between them. In the end they fixed on me as an unhappy compromise. An oaf from the provinces, eh, West? That’s what I am to them. An effective oaf to be sure, but an oaf still. I daresay that if Poulder or Kroy died tomorrow, I’d be replaced the next day by the other. It’s hard to imagine a more ludicrous situation for a Lord Marshal, until you add in the Crown Prince, that is.”

West almost winced. How to turn that nightmare into an advantage? “Prince Ladisla is… enthusiastic?” he ventured.

“Where would I be without your optimism?” Burr gave a mirthless chuckle. “Enthusiastic? He’s living in a dream! Pandered to, and coddled, and utterly spoiled his whole life! That boy and the real world are entire strangers to one another!”

“Must he have a separate command, sir?”

The Lord Marshal rubbed at his eyes with his thick fingers. “Unfortunately, he must. The Closed Council have been most specific on that point. They are concerned that the King is in poor health, and that his heir is seen as an utter fool and wastrel by the public. They hope we might win some great victory here, so they can heap the credit on the Prince. Then they’ll ship him back to Adua, glowing with the glamour of the battlefield, ready to become the kind of King the peasants love.”

Burr paused for a moment, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve done all I can to keep Ladisla out of trouble. I’ve put him where I think the Northmen aren’t, and with any luck won’t ever be. But war is anything but a predictable business. Ladisla might actually be called upon to fight. That’s why I need someone to look over his shoulder. Someone with experience in the field. Someone as tenacious and hard-working as his joke of a staff are soft and lazy. Someone who might stop the Prince blundering into trouble.” He looked up from under his heavy brows.

West felt a horrible sinking sensation in his guts. “Me?”

“I’m afraid so. There’s no one I’d rather keep, but the Prince has asked for you personally.”

“For me, sir? But I’m no courtier! I’m not even a nobleman!”

Burr snorted. “Aside from me, Ladisla is probably the one man in this army who doesn’t care whose son you are. He’s the heir to the throne! Nobleman or beggar, we’re all equally far below him.”

“But why me?”

“Because you’re a fighter. First through the breach at Ulrioch and all that. You’ve seen action, and plenty of it. You’ve a fighter’s reputation, West, and the Prince wants one himself. That’s why.” Burr fished a letter from his jacket and handed it across. “Maybe this will help to sweeten the medicine.”

West broke the seal, unfolded the thick paper, scanned the few lines of neat writing. When he had finished, he read it again, just to be sure. He looked up. “It’s a promotion.”

“I know what it is. I arranged it. Maybe they’ll take you a little more seriously with an extra star on your jacket, maybe they won’t. Either way, you deserve it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said West numbly.

“What, for the worst job in the army?” Burr laughed, and gave him a fatherly clap on the shoulder. “You’ll be missed, and that’s a fact. I’m riding out to inspect the first regiment. A commander should show his face, I’ve always thought. Care to join me, Colonel?”


Snow was falling by the time they rode out through the city gates. White specks blowing on the wind, melting as soon as they touched the road, the trees, the coat of West’s horse, the armour of the guards that followed them.

“Snow,” Burr grumbled over his shoulder. “Snow already. Isn’t that a little early in the year?”

“Very early, sir, but it’s cold enough.” West took one hand from his reins to pull his coat tighter round his neck. “Colder than usual, for the end of autumn.”

“It’ll be a damn sight colder up north of the Cumnur, I’ll be bound.”

“Yes, sir, and it won’t be getting any warmer now.”

“Could be a harsh winter, eh, Colonel?”

“Very likely, sir.” Colonel? Colonel West? The words still seemed strange together, even in his own mind. No one could ever have dreamed a commoner’s son would go so far. Himself least of all.

“A long, harsh winter,” Burr was musing. “We need to catch Bethod quickly. Catch him and put a quick end to him, before we all freeze.” He frowned at the trees as they slipped by, frowned up at the flecks of snow eddying around them, frowned over at West. “Bad roads, bad ground, bad weather. Not the best situation, eh, Colonel?”

“No, sir,” said West glumly, but it was his own situation that was worrying him.

“Come now, it could be worse. You’ll be dug in south of the river, nice and warm. Probably won’t see a hair of a Northman all winter. And I hear the Prince and his staff eat pretty well. A damn stretch better than blundering around in the snow with Poulder and Kroy for company.”

“Of course, sir.” But West was less than sure.

Burr glanced over his shoulder at the guards, trotting along at a respectful distance. “You know, when I was a young man, before I was given the dubious honour of commanding the King’s army, I used to love to ride. I’d ride for miles, at the gallop. Made me feel… alive. Seems like there’s no time for it these days. Briefings, and documents, and sitting at tables, that’s all I do. Sometimes, you just want to ride, eh, West?”

“Of course, sir, but now would—”

“Yah!” The Lord Marshal dug his spurs in with a will and his horse bolted down the track, mud flicking up from its hooves. West gaped after him for a moment.

“Damn it,” he whispered. The stubborn old fool would most likely get thrown and break his thick neck. Then where would they be? Prince Ladisla would have to take command. West shivered at the prospect, and kicked his own horse into a gallop. What choice did he have?

The trees flashed past on either side, the road flowed by underneath him. His ears filled with the clattering of hooves, the rattling of harness. The wind rushed in his mouth, stung his eyes. The snow flakes came at him, straight on. West snatched a look over his shoulder. The guards were tangled up with each other, horses jostling, lagging far back down the road.

It was the best he could do to keep up and stay in his saddle at the same time. The last time he’d ridden so hard had been years ago, pounding across a dry plain with a wedge of Gurkish cavalry just behind him. He’d hardly been any more scared then. His hands were gripping the reins painfully tight, his heart was hammering with fear and excitement. He realised that he was smiling. Burr had been right. It did make him feel alive.

The Lord Marshal had slowed, and West reined his own horse in as he drew level. He was laughing now, and he could hear Burr chuckling beside him. He hadn’t laughed like that in months. Years maybe, he couldn’t remember the last time. Then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.

He felt a sickening jolt, a crushing pain in his chest. His head snapped forward, the reins were ripped from his hands, everything turned upside down. His horse was gone. He was rolling on the ground, over and over.

He tried to get up and the world lurched. Trees and white sky, a horse’s kicking legs, dirt flying. He stumbled and pitched into the road, took a mouthful of mud. Someone helped him up, pulling roughly at his coat, dragging him into the woods.

“No,” he gasped, hardly able to breathe for the pain in his chest. There was no reason to go that way.

A black line between the trees. He staggered forward, bent double, tripping over the tails of his coat, crashing through the undergrowth. A rope across the road, pulled tight as they passed. Someone was half dragging him, half carrying him. His head was spinning, all sense of direction lost. A trap. West fumbled for his sword. It took him a moment to realise that his scabbard was empty.

The Northmen. West felt a stab of terror in his gut. The Northmen had him, and Burr too. Assassins, sent by Bethod to kill them. There was a rushing sound somewhere, out beyond the trees. West struggled to make sense of it. The guards, following down the road. If he could only give them a signal somehow…

“Over here…” he croaked, pitifully hoarse, before a dirty hand clamped itself over his mouth, dragged him down into the wet undergrowth. He struggled as best he could, but there was no strength in him. He could see the guards flashing by through the trees, no more than a dozen strides away, but he was powerless.

He bit the hand, as hard as he could, but it only gripped tighter, squeezing his jaw, crushing his lips. He could taste blood. His own blood maybe, or blood from the hand. The sound of the guards faded into the woods and was gone, and fear pressed in behind it. The hand let go, gave him a parting shove and he tumbled onto his back.

A face swam into view above him. A hard, gaunt, brutish face, black hair hacked short, teeth bared in an animal scowl, cold, flat eyes, brimful of fury. The face turned and spat on the ground. There was no ear on the other side of it. Just a flap of pink scar, and a hole.

Never in his life had West seen such an evil-looking man. The whole set of him was violence itself. He looked strong enough to tear West in half, and more than willing to do it. There was blood running from a wound in his hand. The wound that West’s teeth had made. It dripped from his fingertips onto the forest floor. In his other fist he held a length of smooth wood. West’s eyes followed it, horrified. There was a heavy, curved blade at the end, polished bright. An axe.

So this was a Northman. Not the kind who rolled drunk in the gutters of Adua. Not the kind who had come to his father’s farm to beg for work. The other kind. The kind his mother had scared him with stories of when he was a child. A man whose work, and whose pastime, and whose purpose, was to kill. West looked from that hard blade to those hard eyes and back, numb with horror. He was finished. He would die here in the cold forest, down in the dirt like a dog.

West dragged himself up by one hand, seized by a sudden impulse to run. He looked over his shoulder, but there was no escape that way. A man was moving through the trees towards them. A big man with a thick beard and a sword over his shoulder, carrying a child in his arms. West blinked, trying to get some sense of scale. It was the biggest man he had ever seen, and the child was Lord Marshal Burr. The giant tossed his burden down on the ground like a bundle of sticks. Burr stared up at him, and burped.

West ground his teeth. Riding off like that, the old fool, what had he been thinking? He’d killed them both with his fucking “sometimes you just want to ride”. Makes you feel alive? Neither one of them would live out the hour.

He had to fight. Now might be his last chance. Even if he had nothing to fight with. Better to die that way than on his knees in the mud. He tried to dig the anger out. There was no end to it, when he didn’t want it. Now there was nothing. Just a desperate helplessness that weighed down every limb.

Some hero. Some fighter. It was the most he could do to keep from pissing himself. He could hit a woman alright. He could throttle his sister half to death. The memory of it still made him choke with shame and revulsion, even with his own death staring him in the face. He had thought he would make it right later. Only now there was no later. This was all there was. He felt tears in his eyes.

“Sorry,” he muttered to himself. “I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and waited for the end.

“No need for sorry, friend, I reckon he’s been bitten harder.”

Another Northman had melted out of the woods, crouching down beside West on his haunches. Lank, matted brown hair hung around his lean face. Quick, dark eyes. Clever eyes. He cracked a wicked grin, anything but reassuring. Two rows of hard, yellow, pointed teeth. “Sit,” he said, accent so thick that West could scarcely understand him. “Sit and be still is best.”

A fourth man was standing over him and Burr. A great, broad-chested man, his wrists as thick as West’s ankles. There were grey hairs in his beard, in his tangled hair. The leader, it seemed, from the way the others made room for him. He looked down at West, slow and thoughtful, as a man might look at an ant, deciding whether or not to squash it under his boot.

“Which of ’em’s Burr, do you think?” he rumbled in Northern.

“I’m Burr,” said West. Had to protect the Lord Marshal. Had to. He clambered up without thinking, but he was still dizzy from the fall, and he had to grab hold of a branch to stop himself falling. “I’m Burr.”

The old warrior looked him up and down, slow and steady. “You?” He burst into a peal of laughter, deep and menacing as a storm in the distance. “I like that! That’s nice!” He turned to the evil-looking one. “See? I thought you said they got no guts, these Southerners?”

“It was brains I said they was short on.” The one-eared man glowered down at West the way a hungry cat looks at a bird. “And I’ve yet to see otherwise.”

“I think it’s this one.” The leader was looking down at Burr. “You Burr?” he asked in the common tongue.

The Lord Marshal looked at West, then up at the towering Northmen, then he got slowly to his feet. He straightened and brushed down his uniform, like a man preparing to die with dignity. “I’m Burr, and I’ll not entertain you. If you mean to kill us, you should do it now.” West stayed where he was. Dignity hardly seemed worth the effort now. He could almost feel the axe biting into his head already.

But the Northman with the grey in his beard only smiled. “I can see how you’d make that mistake, and we’re sorry if we’ve frayed your nerves at all, but we’re not here to kill you. We’re here to help you.” West struggled to make sense of what he was hearing.

Burr was doing the same. “To help us?”

“There’s plenty in the North who hate Bethod. There’s plenty who don’t kneel willing, and some who don’t kneel at all. That’s us. We’ve a feud with that bastard has been a long time brewing, and we mean to settle it, or die in the trying. We can’t fight him alone, but we hear you’re fighting him, so we reckoned we’d join you.”

“Join us?”

“We came a long way to do it, and from what we seen on the way you could use the help. But when we got here, your people weren’t keen to take us.”

“They was somewhat rude,” said the lean one, squatting next to West.

“They was indeed, Dogman, they was indeed. But we ain’t men to back off at a little rudeness. That’s when I hit on the notion of talking to you, chief to chief, you might say.”

Burr stared over at West. “They want to fight with us,” he said. West blinked back, still trying to come to terms with the notion that he might live out the day. The one called Dogman was holding out a sword towards him, hilt first, and grinning. It took West a moment to realise it was his own.

“Thanks,” muttered West as he fumbled with the grip.

“No bother.”

“There’s five of us,” the leader was saying, “all Named Men and veterans. We’ve fought against Bethod, and we’ve fought with him, all across the North. We know his style, few better. We can scout, we can fight, we can lay surprises, as you see. We’ll not shirk any task worth the doing, and any task that hurts Bethod is worth it to us. What do you say?”

“Well… er,” murmured Burr, rubbing his chin with his thumb. “You plainly are a most…” and he looked from one hard, dirty, scarred face to the next “…useful set of men. How could I resist an offer so graciously made?”

“Then I better make the introductions. This here is the Dogman.”

“That’s me,” growled the lean one with the pointy teeth, flashing his worrying grin again. “Good to meet.” He grabbed hold of West’s hand and squeezed it until his knuckles clicked.

Threetrees jerked his thumb sideways at the evil one with the axe and the missing ear. “This friendly fellow’s Black Dow. I’d say he gets better with time, but he don’t.” Dow turned and spat on the ground again. “The big lad is Tul Duru. They call him the Thunderhead. Then there’s Harding Grim. He’s off out there in the trees, keeping your horses off the road. Not to worry though, he’d have nothing to say.”

“And you?”

“Rudd Threetrees. Leader of this little crew, on account of our previous leader having gone back to the mud.”

“Back to the mud, I see.” Burr took a deep breath. “Well then. You can report to Colonel West. I’m sure that he can find food and quarters for you, not to mention work.”

“Me?” asked West, sword still dangling from his hand.

“Absolutely.” The Lord Marshal had the tiniest smile at the corner of his mouth. “Our new allies should fit right in with Prince Ladisla’s retinue.” West couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Just when he had thought his situation could not be any more difficult, he had five primitives to handle.

Threetrees seemed happy enough with the outcome. “Good,” he said, slowly nodding his approval. “That’s settled then.”

“Settled,” said the Dogman, his evil smile growing wider still. The one called Black Dow gave West a long, cold stare. “Fucking Union,” he growled.

<p>Questions</p>

To Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.

You will take ship immediately, and assume command of the Inquisition in the city of Dagoska. You will establish what became of your predecessor, Superior Davoust. You will investigate his suspicion that a conspiracy is afoot, perhaps in the city’s ruling council itself. You will examine the members of that council, and uproot any and all disloyalty. Punish treason with scant mercy, but ensure that your evidence is sound. We can afford no further blunders.

Gurkish soldiers already crowd to the peninsula, ready to exploit any weakness. The King’s regiments are fully committed in Angland, so you can expect little help should the Gurkish attack. You will therefore ensure that the defences of the city are strong, and that provisions are sufficient to withstand any siege. You will keep me informed of your progress in regular letters. Above all, you will ensure that Dagoska does not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the Gurkish.

Do not fail me.

Sult

Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Glokta folded the letter carefully and slipped it back into his pocket, checking once again that the King’s writ was safe beside it. Damn thing. The big document had been weighing heavily in his coat ever since the Arch Lector passed it to him. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands, the gold leaf on the big red seal glittering in the harsh sunlight. A single sheet of paper, yet worth more than gold. Priceless. With this, I speak with the King’s own voice. I am the most powerful man in Dagoska, greater even than the Lord Governor himself. All must hear me and obey. As long as I can stay alive, that is.

The voyage had not been a pleasant one. The ship was small and the Circle Sea had been rough on the way over. Glokta’s own cabin was tiny, hot and close as an oven. An oven swaying wildly all day and all night. If he had not been trying to eat gruel with the bowl slopping crazily around, he had been vomiting back up those small amounts he had actually managed to swallow. But at least below decks there was no chance of his useless leg giving way and dumping him over the side into the sea. Yes, the voyage has hardly been pleasant.

But now the voyage was over. The ship was already slipping up to its mooring in amongst the crowded wharves. The sailors were already struggling with the anchor, throwing ropes on to the dock. Now the gangplank was sliding across from ship to dusty shore.

“Right,” said Practical Severard. “I’m going to get me a drink.”

“Make it a strong one, but see you catch up with me later. We’ll have work to do tomorrow. Lots of work.”

Severard nodded, lanky hair swaying around his thin face. “Oh, I live to serve.” I’m not sure what you live for, but I doubt it’s that. He sauntered off, whistling tunelessly, clattered across the plank, down the wharf and off between the dusty brown buildings beyond.

Glokta eyed the narrow length of wood with not a little worry, worked his hand around the handle of his cane, tongued at his empty gums, building himself up to stepping on to it. An act of selfless heroism indeed. He wondered for a moment whether he would be wiser to crawl across on his stomach. It would reduce the chance of a watery death, but it would hardly be appropriate, would it? The city’s awe-inspiring Superior of the Inquisition, slithering into his new domain on his belly?

“Need a hand?” Practical Vitari was looking at him sideways, leaning back on the ship’s handrail, red hair sticking up off her head like the spines on a thistle. She seemed to have spent the entire journey basking in the open air like a lizard, quite unmoved by the reeling of the ship, enjoying the crushing heat every bit as much as Glokta despised it. It was hard to judge her expression beneath her black Practical’s mask. But it’s a good bet she’s smiling. No doubt she’s already preparing her first report to the Arch Lector: “The cripple spent most of the voyage below decks, puking. When we arrived at Dagoska he had to be hoisted ashore with the cargo. Already he has become a laughing stock…”

“Of course not!” snapped Glokta, hobbling up onto the plank as though he took his life in his hands every morning. It wobbled alarmingly as he planted his right foot on it, and he became painfully aware of the grey-green water slapping at the slimy stones of the quay a long drop below him. Body found floating by the docks…

But in the end he was able to shuffle across without incident, dragging his withered leg behind him. He felt an absurd pang of pride when he made it to the dusty stones of the docks and finally stood on dry land again. Ridiculous. Anyone would think I’d beaten the Gurkish and saved the city already, rather than hobbled three strides. To add insult to injury, now that he had become used to the constant lurching of the ship, the stillness of land was making his head spin and his stomach roll, and the rotten salt stink of the baking docks was very far from helping. He forced himself to swallow a mouthful of bitter spit, closed his eyes and turned his face towards the cloudless sky.

Hell, but it’s hot. Glokta had forgotten how hot the South could be. Late in the year, and still the sun was blazing down, still he was running with sweat under his long black coat. The garments of the Inquisition may be excellent for instilling terror in a suspect, but I fear they are poorly suited to a hot climate.

Practical Frost was even worse off. The hulking albino had covered every exposed inch of his milky skin, even down to black gloves and a wide hat. He peered up at the brilliant sky, pink eyes narrowed with suspicion and misery, broad white face beaded with sweat around his black mask.

Vitari peered sidelong at the pair of them. “You two really should get out more,” she muttered.

A man in Inquisitor’s black was waiting at the end of the wharf, sticking close to the shade of a crumbling wall but still sweating generously. A tall, bony man with bulging eyes, his hooked nose red and peeling from sunburn. The welcoming committee? Judging by its scale, I am scarcely welcome at all.

“I am Harker, senior Inquisitor in the city.”

“Until I arrived,” snapped Glokta. “How many others have you?”

The Inquisitor frowned. “Four Inquisitors and some twenty Practicals.”

“A small complement, to keep a city of this size free of treason.”

Harker’s frown grew more surly yet. “We’ve always managed.” Oh, indeed. Apart from mislaying your Superior, of course. “This is your first visit to Dagoska?”

“I have spent some time in the South.” The best days of my life, and the worst. “I was in Gurkhul during the war. I saw Ulrioch.” In ruins after we burned the city. “And I was in Shaffa for two years.” If you count the Emperors Prisons. Two years in the boiling heat and the crushing darkness. Two years in hell. “But I have never been to Dagoska.”

“Huh,” snorted Harker, unimpressed. “Your quarters are in the Citadel.” He nodded towards the great rock that loomed up over the city. Of course they are. In the very highest part of the highest building, no doubt. “I’ll show you the way. Lord Governor Vurms and his council will be keen to meet their new Superior.” He turned with a look of some bitterness. Feel you should have got the job yourself, eh? I’m delighted to disappoint you.

Harker set off into the city at a brisk pace, Practical Frost trudging along beside him, heavy shoulders hunched around his thick neck, sticking to every trace of shade as though the sun were shooting tiny darts at him. Vitari zig-zagged across the dusty street as if it was a dance-floor, peering through windows and down narrow side-streets. Glokta shuffled along doggedly behind, his left leg already starting to burn with the effort.

“The cripple shuffled only three strides into the city before he fell on his face, and had to be carried the rest of the way by stretcher, squealing like a half-slaughtered pig and begging for water, while the very citizens he was sent to terrify watched, dumbstruck…”

He curled his lips back and dug his remaining teeth into his empty gums, forced himself to keep pace with the others, the handle of his cane cutting into his palm, his spine giving an agonising click with every step.

“This is the Lower City,” grumbled Harker over his shoulder, “where the native population are housed.”

A giant, boiling, dusty, stinking slum. The buildings were mean and badly maintained: rickety shacks of one storey, leaning piles of half-baked mud bricks. The people were all dark-skinned, poorly dressed, hungry-looking. A bony woman peered out at them from a doorway. An old man with one leg hobbled past on bent crutches. Down a narrow alley ragged children darted between piles of refuse. The air was heavy with the stink of rot and bad sewers. Or no sewers at all. Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat, angry flies. The only creatures prospering here.

“If I’d known it was such a charming place,” observed Glokta, “I’d have come sooner. Seems the Dagoskans have done well from joining the Union, eh?”

Harker did not recognise the irony. “They have indeed. During the short time the Gurkish controlled the city, they took many of the leading citizens as slaves. Now, under the Union, they are truly free to work and live as they please.”

“Truly free, eh?” So this is what freedom looks like. Glokta watched a group of sullen natives crowding round a stall poorly stocked with half-rotten fruit and flyblown offal.

“Well, mostly.” Harker frowned. “The Inquisition had to weed out a few troublemakers when we first arrived. Then, three years ago, the ungrateful swine mounted a rebellion.” After we gave them the freedom to live like animals in their own city? Shocking. “We got the better of them, of course, but they caused no end of damage. After that they were barred from keeping weapons, or entering the Upper City, where most of the whites live. Since then, things have been quiet. It only goes to show that a firm hand is most effective when it comes to dealing with these primitives.”

“They built some impressive defences, for primitives.”

A high wall cut through the city before them, casting a long shadow over the squalid buildings of the slum. There was a wide pit in front, freshly dug and lined with sharpened stakes. A narrow bridge led across to a tall gate, set between looming towers. The heavy doors were open, but a dozen men stood before them: sweating Union soldiers in steel caps and studded leather coats, harsh sun glinting on their swords and spears.

“A well-guarded gate,” mused Vitari. “Considering that it’s inside the city.”

Harker frowned. “Since the rebellion, natives have only been allowed within the Upper City if they have a permit.”

“And who holds a permit?” asked Glokta.

“Some skilled craftsmen and so forth, still employed by the Guild of Spicers, but mostly servants who work in the Upper City and the Citadel. Many of the Union citizens who live here have native servants, some have several.”

“Surely the natives are citizens of the Union also?”

Harker curled his lip. “If you say so, Superior, but they can’t be trusted, and that’s a fact. They don’t think like us.”

“Really?” If they think at all it will be an improvement on this savage.

“They’re all scum, these browns. Gurkish, Dagoskan, all the same. Killers and thieves, the lot of them. Best thing to do is to push them down and keep them down.” Harker scowled out at the baking slum. “If a thing smells like shit, and is the colour of shit, the chances are it is shit.” He turned and stalked off across the bridge.

“What a charming and enlightened man,” murmured Vitari. You read my mind.

It was a different world beyond the gates. Stately domes, elegant towers, mosaics of coloured glass and pillars of white marble shone in the blazing sun. The streets were wide and clean, the residences well maintained. There were even a few thirsty-looking palms in the neat squares. The people here were sleek, well dressed, and white-skinned. Aside from a great deal of sunburn. A few dark faces moved among them, keeping well out of the way, eyes on the ground. Those lucky enough to be allowed to serve? They must be glad that we in the Union would not tolerate such a thing as slavery.

Over everything Glokta could hear a rattling din, like a battle in the distance. It grew louder as he dragged his aching leg through the Upper City, and reached a furious pitch as they emerged into a wide square, packed from one edge to the other with a bewildering throng. There were people of Midderland, and Gurkhul, and Styria, narrow-eyed natives of Suljuk, yellow-haired citizens of the Old Empire, bearded Northmen even, far from home.

“Merchants,” grunted Harker. All the merchants in the world, it looks like. They crowded round stalls laden with produce, great scales for the weighing of materials, blackboards with chalked-in goods and prices. They bellowed, borrowed and bartered in a multitude of different languages, threw up their hands in strange gestures, shoved and tugged and pointed at one another. They sniffed at boxes of spice and sticks of incense, fingered at bolts of cloth and planks of rare wood, squeezed at fruits, bit at coins, peered through eye-glasses at flashing gemstones. Here and there a native porter stumbled through the crowds, stooped double under a massive load.

“The Spicers take a cut of everything,” muttered Harker, shoving impatiently through the chattering press.

“That must be a great deal,” said Vitari under her breath. A very great deal, I should imagine. Enough to defy the Gurkish. Enough to keep a whole city prisoner. People will kill for much, much less.

Glokta grimaced and snarled his way across the square, jolted and barged and painfully shoved at every limping step. It was only when they finally emerged from the crowds at the far side that he realised they were standing in the very shadow of a vast and graceful building, rising arch upon arch, dome upon dome, high over the crowds. Delicate spires at each corner soared into the air, slender and frail.

“Magnificent,” muttered Glokta, stretching out his aching back and squinting up, the pure white stone almost painful to look at in the afternoon glare. “Seeing this, one could almost believe in God.” If one didn’t know better.

“Huh,” sneered Harker. “The natives used to pray here in their thousands, poisoning the air with their damn chanting and superstition, until the rebellion was put down, of course.”

“And now?”

“Superior Davoust declared it off limits to them. Like everything else in the Upper City. Now the Spicers use it as an extension to the marketplace, buying and selling and so on.”

“Huh.” How very appropriate. A temple to the making of money. Our own little religion.

“I believe some bank uses part of it for their offices, as well.”

“A bank? Which one?”

“The Spicers run that side of things,” snapped Harker impatiently. “Valint and something, is it?”

“Balk. Valint and Balk.” So some old acquaintances are here before me, eh? I should have known. Those bastards are everywhere. Everywhere there’s money. He peered round at the swarming marketplace. And there’s a lot of money here.

The way grew steeper as they began to climb the great rock, the streets built onto shelves cut out from the dry hillside. Glokta laboured on through the heat, stooped over his cane, biting his lip against the pain in his leg, thirsty as a dog and with sweat leaking out through every pore. Harker made no effort to slow as Glokta toiled along behind him. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask him to.

“Above us is the Citadel.” The Inquisitor waved his hand at the mass of sheer-walled buildings, domes and towers clinging to the very top of the brown rock, high above the city. “It was once the seat of the native King, but now it serves as Dagoska’s administrative centre, and accommodates some of the most important citizens. The Spicers’ guildhall is inside, and the city’s House of Questions.”

“Quite a view,” murmured Vitari.

Glokta turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. Dagoska was spread out before them, almost an island. The Upper City sloped away, neat grids of neat houses with long, straight roads in between, speckled with yellow palms and wide squares. On the far side of its long, curving wall lay the dusty brown jumble of the slums. Looming over them in the distance, shimmering in the haze, Glokta could see the mighty land walls, blocking the one narrow neck of rock that joined the city to the mainland, the blue sea on one side and the blue harbour on the other. The strongest defences in the world, so they say. I wonder if we shall be putting that proud boast to the test before too long?

“Superior Glokta?” Harker cleared his throat. “The Lord Governor and his council will be waiting.”

“They can wait a little longer, then. I am curious to know what progress you have made in investigating the disappearance of Superior Davoust.” It would be most unfortunate if the new Superior were to suffer the same fate, after all.

Harker frowned. “Well… some progress. I have no doubt the natives are responsible. They never stop plotting. Despite the measures Davoust took after the rebellion, many of them still refuse to learn their place.”

“I stand amazed.”

“It is all too true, believe me. Three Dagoskan servants were present in the Superior’s chambers on the night he disappeared. I have been questioning them.”

“And what have you discovered?”

“Nothing yet, unfortunately. They have proved exceedingly stubborn.”

“Then let us question them together.”

“Together?” Harker licked his lips. “I wasn’t aware that you would want to question them yourself, Superior.”

“Now you are.”


One would have thought it would be cooler, deep within the rock. But it was every bit as hot as outside in the baking streets, without the mercy of the slightest breeze. The corridor was silent, dead, and stuffy as a tomb. Vitari’s torch cast flickering shadows into the corners, and the darkness closed in fast behind them.

Harker paused beside an iron-bound door, mopped fat beads of sweat from his face. “I must warn you, Superior, it was necessary to be quite… firm with them. A firm hand is the best thing, you know.”

“Oh, I can be quite firm myself, when the situation demands it. I am not easily shocked.”

“Good, good.” The key turned in the lock, the door swung open, and a foul smell washed out into the corridor. A blocked latrine and a rotten rubbish heap rolled into one. The cell beyond was tiny, windowless, the ceiling almost too low to stand. The heat was crushing, the stench was appalling. It reminded Glokta of another cell. Further south, in Shaffa. Deep beneath the Emperor’s palace. A cell in which I gasped away two years, squealing in the blackness, scratching at the walls, crawling in my own filth. His eye had begun to twitch, and he wiped it carefully with his finger.

One prisoner lay stretched out, his face to the wall, skin black with bruises, both legs broken. Another hung from the ceiling by his wrists, knees brushing the floor, head hanging limp, back whipped raw. Vitari stooped and prodded at one of them with her finger. “Dead,” she said simply. She crossed to the other. “And this one. Dead a good while.”

The flickering light fell across a third prisoner. This one was alive. Just. She was chained by hands and feet, face hollow with hunger, lips cracked with thirst, clutching filthy, bloodstained rags to her. Her heels scraped at the floor as she tried to push herself further back into the corner, gibbering faintly in Kantic, one hand across her face to ward off the light. I remember. The only thing worse than the darkness is when the light comes. The questions always come with it.

Glokta frowned, his twitching eyes moving from the two broken corpses to the cowering girl, his head spinning from the effort, and the heat, and the stink. “Well this is very cosy. What have they told you?”

Harker had his hand over his nose and mouth as he stepped reluctantly into the cell, Frost looming just over his shoulder. “Nothing yet, but I—”

“You’ll get nothing from these two, now, that’s sure. I hope they signed confessions.”

“Well… not exactly. Superior Davoust was never that interested in confessions from the browns, we just, you know…”

“You couldn’t even keep them alive long enough to confess?”

Harker looked sullen. Like a child unfairly punished by his schoolmaster. “There’s still the girl,” he snapped.

Glokta looked down at her, licking at the space where his front teeth used to be. There is no method here. No purpose. Brutality, for it’s own sake. I might almost be sickened, had I eaten anything today. “How old is she?”

“Fourteen, perhaps, Superior, but I fail to see the relevance.”

“The relevance, Inquisitor Harker, is that conspiracies are rarely led by fourteen-year-old girls.”

“I thought it best to be thorough.”

“Thorough? Did you even ask them any questions?”

“Well, I—”

Glokta’s cane cracked Harker cleanly across the face. The sudden movement caused a stab of agony in Glokta’s side, and he stumbled on his weak leg and had to grab at Frost’s arm for support. The Inquisitor gave a squeal of pain and shock, tumbled against the wall and slid into the filth on the cell floor.

“You’re not an Inquisitor!” hissed Glokta, “you’re a fucking butcher! Look at the state of this place! And you’ve killed two of our witnesses! What use are they now, fool?” Glokta leaned forward. “Unless that was your intention, eh? Perhaps Davoust was killed by a jealous underling? An underling who wanted to silence the witnesses, eh, Harker? Perhaps I should start my investigations with the Inquisition itself!”

Practical Frost loomed over Harker as he struggled to get up, and he shrank back down against the wall, blood starting to dribble from his nose. “No! No, please! It was an accident! I didn’t mean to kill them! I just wanted to know what happened!”

“An accident? You’re a traitor or an utter incompetent, and I’ve no use for either one!” He leaned down even lower, ignoring the pain shooting up his back, his lips curling away to show his toothless smile. “I understand a firm hand is most effective when dealing with primitives, Inquisitor. You will find there are no firmer hands than mine. Not anywhere. Get this worm out of my sight!”

Frost seized hold of Harker by his coat and hauled him bodily through the filth towards the door. “Wait!” he wailed, clutching at the door frame, “please! You can’t do this!” His cries faded down the corridor.

Vitari had a faint smile around her eyes, as though she had rather enjoyed the scene. “What about this mess?”

“Get it cleaned up.” Glokta leaned against the wall, his side still pulsing with pain, wiped sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “Wash it down. Bury these bodies.”

Vitari nodded towards the one survivor. “What about her?”

“Give her a bath. Clothes. Food. Let her go.”

“Hardly worth giving her a bath if she’s going back to the Lower City.”

She has a point there. “Alright! She was Davoust’s servant, she can be mine. Put her back to work!” he shouted over his shoulder, already hobbling for the door. He had to get out. He could hardly breathe in there.


“I am sorry to disappoint you all, but the walls are far from impregnable, not in their present poor condition…” The speaker trailed off as Glokta shuffled through the door into the meeting chamber of Dagoska’s ruling council.

It was as unlike the cell below as it was possible for a room to be. It is, in fact, the most beautiful room I ever saw. Every inch of wall and ceiling was carved in the most minute detai geometric patterns of frightening intricacy wound round scenes from Kantic legends in life-size, all painted in glittering gold and silver, vivid red and blue. The floor was a mosaic of wondrous complexity, the long table was inlaid with swirls of dark wood and chips of bright ivory, polished to a high sheen. The tall windows offered a spectacular view over the dusty brown expanse of the city, and the sparkling bay beyond.

The woman who rose to greet Glokta as he entered did not seem out of place in the magnificent surroundings. Not in the slightest.

“I am Carlot dan Eider,” she said, smiling easily and holding her hands out to him as though to an old friend, “Magister of the Guild of Spicers.”

Glokta was impressed, he had to admit. If only by her stomach. Not even the slightest sign of horror. She greets me as though I were not a disfigured, twitching, twisted ruin. She greets me as though I looked as fine as she does. She wore a long gown in the style of the South: blue silk, trimmed with silver, it shimmered around her in the cool breeze through the high windows. Jewels of daunting value flashed on her fingers, on her wrists, round her throat. Glokta detected a strange scent as she came closer. Sweet. Like the spice that has made her so very rich, perhaps. The effect was far from wasted on him. I am still a man, after all. Just less so than I used to be.

“I must apologise for my attire, but Kantic garments are so much more comfortable in the heat. I have become quite accustomed to them during my years here.”

Her apologising for her appearance is like a genius apologising for his stupidity. “Don’t mention it.” Glokta bowed as low as he could, given the uselessness of his leg and the sharp pain in his back. “Superior Glokta, at your service.”

“We are most glad to have you with us. We have all been greatly concerned since the disappearance of your predecessor, Superior Davoust.” Some of you, I expect, have been less concerned than others.

“I hope to shed some light on the matter.”

“We all hope that you will.” She took Glokta’s elbow with an effortless confidence. “Please allow me to make the introductions.”

Glokta refused to be moved. “Thank you, Magister, but I believe I can make my own.” He shuffled across to the table under his own power, such as it was. “You must be General Vissbruck, charged with the city’s defence.” The General was in his middle forties, running slightly to baldness, sweating abundantly in an elaborate uniform, buttoned all the way to the neck in spite of the heat. I remember you. You were in Gurkhul, in the war. A Major in the King’s Own, and well known for being an ass. It seems you have done well, at least, as asses generally do.

“A pleasure,” said Vissbruck, scarcely even glancing up from his documents.

“It always is, to renew an old acquaintance.”

“We’ve met?”

“We fought together in Gurkhul.”

“We did?” A spasm of shock ran over Vissbruck’s sweaty face. “You’re… that Glokta?”

“I am indeed, as you say, that Glokta.”

The General blinked. “Er, well, er… how have you been?”

“In very great pain, thank you for asking, but I see that you have prospered, and that is a tremendous consolation.” Vissbruck blinked, but Glokta did not give him time to reply. “And this must be Lord Governor Vurms. A positive honour, your Grace.”

The old man was a caricature of decrepitude, shrunken into his great robes of state like a withered plum in its furry skin. His hands seemed to shiver even in the heat, his head was shiny bald aside from a few white wisps. He squinted up at Glokta through weak and rheumy eyes.

“What did he say?” The Lord Governor stared about him in confusion. “Who is this man?”

General Vissbruck leaned across, so close his lips almost brushed the old man’s ear. “Superior Glokta, your Grace! The replacement for Davoust!”

“Glokta? Glokta? Where the hell is Davoust anyway?” No one bothered to reply.

“I am Korsten dan Vurms.” The Lord Governor’s son spoke his own name as though it was a magic spell, offered his hand to Glokta as though it was a priceless gift. He was blond-haired and handsome, spread out carelessly in his chair, a well-tanned glow of health about him, as lithe and athletic as his father was ancient and wizened. I despise him already.

“I understand that you were once quite the swordsman.” Vurms looked Glokta up and down with a mocking smile. “I fence myself, and there’s really no one here to challenge me. Perhaps we might have a bout?” I’d love to, you little bastard. If I still had my leg I’d give you a bout of the shits before I was done.

“I did fence but, alas, I had to give it up. Ill health.” Glokta leered back a toothless smile of his own. “I daresay I could still give you a few pointers, though, if you’re keen to improve.” Vurms frowned at that, but Glokta had already moved on. “You must be Haddish Kahdia.”

The Haddish was a tall, slender man with a long neck and tired eyes. He wore a simple white robe, a plain white turban wound about his head. He looks no more prosperous than any of the other natives down in the lower City, and yet there is a certain dignity about him.

“I am Kahdia, and I have been chosen by the people of Dagoska to speak for them. But I no longer call myself Haddish. A priest without a temple is no priest at all.”

“Must we still hear about the temple?” whined Vurms.

“I am afraid you must, while I sit on this council.” He looked back at Glokta. “So there is a new Inquisitor in the city? A new devil. A new bringer of death. Your comings and goings are of no interest to me, torturer.”

Glokta smiled. Confessing his hatred for the Inquisition without even seeing my instruments. But then his people can hardly be expected to have much love for the Union, they’re little better than slaves in their own city. Could he be our traitor?

Or him? General Vissbruck seemed every inch a loyal military man, a man whose sense of duty was too strong, and whose imagination was too weak, for intrigue. But few men become Generals without looking to their own profit, without oiling the wheels, without keeping some secrets.

Or him? Korsten dan Vurms was sneering at Glokta as though at a badly-cleaned latrine he had to use. I’ve seen his like a thousand times, the arrogant whelp. The Lord Governor’s own son, perhaps, but it’s plain enough he has no loyalty to anyone beyond himself.

Or her? Magister Eider was all comely smiles and politeness, but her eyes were hard as diamonds. Judging me like a merchant judges an ignorant customer. There’s more to her than fine manners and a weakness for foreign tailoring. Far more.

Or him? Even the old Lord Governor seemed suspect now. Are his eyes and ears as bad as he claims? Or is there a hint of play-acting in his squinting, his demands to know what’s going on? Does he already know more than anyone?

Glokta turned and limped towards the window, leaned against the beautifully carved pillar beside it and peered out at the astonishing view, the evening sun still warm on his face. He could already feel the council members shifting restlessly, keen to be rid of him. I wonder how long before they order the cripple out of their beautiful room? I do not trust a one of them. Not a one. He smirked to himself. Precisely as it should be.

It was Korsten dan Vurms who lost patience first. “Superior Glokta,” he snapped. “We appreciate your thoroughness in presenting yourself here, but I am sure you have urgent business to attend to. We certainly do.”

“Of course.” Glokta hobbled back to the table with exaggerated slowness as if he were leaving the room. Then he slid out a chair and lowered himself into it, wincing at the pain in his leg. “I will try to keep my comments to a minimum, at least to begin with.”

“What?” said Vissbruck.

“Who is this fellow?” demanded the Lord Governor, craning forwards and squinting with his weak eyes. “What is going on here?”

His son was more direct. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “Are you mad?” Haddish Kahdia began to chuckle softly to himself. At Glokta, or at the rage of the others, it was impossible to say.

“Please, gentlemen, please.” Magister Eider spoke softly, patiently. “The Superior has only just arrived, and is perhaps ignorant of how we conduct business in Dagoska. You must understand that your predecessor did not attend these meetings. We have been governing this city successfully for several years, and—”

“The Closed Council disagrees.” Glokta held up the King’s writ between two fingers. He let everyone look at it for a moment, making sure they could see the heavy seal of red and gold, then he flicked it across the table.

The others stared over suspiciously as Carlot dan Eider picked up the document, unfolded it and started to read. She frowned, then raised one well-plucked eyebrow. “It seems that we are the ignorant ones.”

“Let me see that!” Korsten dan Vurms snatched the paper out of her hands and started to read it. “It can’t be,” he muttered. “It can’t be!”

“I’m afraid that it is.” Glokta treated the assembly to his toothless leer. “Arch Lector Sult is most concerned. He has asked me to look into the disappearance of Superior Davoust, and also to examine the city’s defences. To examine them carefully, and to ensure that the Gurkish stay on the other side of them. He has instructed me to use whatever measures I deem necessary.” He gave a significant pause. “Whatever… measures.”

“What is that?” grumbled the Lord Governor. “I demand to know what is going on!”

Vissbruck had the paper now. “The King’s writ,” he breathed, mopping his sweaty forehead on the back of his sleeve, “signed by all twelve chairs on the Closed Council. It grants full powers!” He laid it down gently on the inlaid table-top, as though worried it might suddenly burst into flames. “This is—”

“We all know what it is.” Magister Eider was watching Glokta thoughtfully, one fingertip stroking her smooth cheek. Like a merchant who suddenly becomes aware that her supposedly ignorant customer has fleeced her, and not the other way around. “It seems Superior Glokta will be taking charge.”

“I would hardly say taking charge, but I will be attending all further meetings of this council. You should consider that the first of a very great number of changes.” Glokta gave a comfortable sigh as he settled into his beautiful chair, stretching out his aching leg, resting his aching back. Almost comfortable. He glanced across the frowning faces of the city’s ruling council. Except, of course, that one of these charming people is most likely a dangerous traitor. A traitor who has already arranged the disappearance of one Superior, and may very well now be considering the removal of a second…

Glokta cleared his throat. “Now then, General Vissbruck, what were you saying as I arrived? Something about the walls?”

<p>The Wounds of the Past</p>

“The mistakes of old,” intoned Bayaz with the highest pomposity, “should be made only once. Any worthwhile education, therefore, must be founded on a sound understanding of history.”

Jezal gave vent to a ragged sigh. Why on earth the old man had undertaken to enlighten him was past his understanding. The towering self-interest, perhaps, of the mildly senile was to blame. In any case, Jezal was unshakable in his determination not to learn a thing.

“…yes, history,” the Magus was musing, “there is a lot of history in Calcis…”

Jezal glanced around him, unimpressed in the extreme. If history was nothing more than age, then Calcis, ancient city-port of the Old Empire, was plainly rich with it. If history went further—to grandeur, to glory, to something which stirred the blood—then it was conspicuously absent.

Doubtless the city had been carefully laid out, with wide, straight streets positioned to give the traveller magnificent views. But what might once have been proud civic vistas, the long centuries had reduced to panoramas of decay. Everywhere there were abandoned houses, empty windows and doorways gazing sadly out into the rutted squares. They passed side-streets choked with weeds, with rubble, with rotting timbers. Half the bridges across the sluggish river had collapsed and never been repaired; half the trees in the broad avenues were dead and withered, throttled by ivy.

There was none of the sheer life that crammed Adua, from the docks, to the slums, to the Agriont itself. Jezal’s home might have sometimes seemed swarming, squabbling, bursting at the seams with humanity, but, as he watched the few threadbare citizens of Calcis traipsing through their rotting relic of a city, he was in no doubt which atmosphere he preferred.

“…you will have many opportunities to improve yourself on this journey of ours, my young friend, and I suggest you take advantage of them. Master Ninefingers in particular, is well worthy of study. I feel you could learn a great deal from him…”

Jezal almost gasped with disbelief. “From that ape?”

“That ape, as you say, is famous throughout the North. The Bloody-Nine, they call him there. A name to fill strong men with fear or courage, depending on which side they stand. A fighter and tactician of deep cunning and matchless experience. Above all, he has learned the trick of saying a great deal less than he knows.” Bayaz glanced across at him. “The precise opposite of some people I could name.”

Jezal frowned and hunched his shoulders. He could see nothing to be learned from Ninefingers apart, perhaps, from how to eat with one’s hands and go days without washing.

“The great forum,” muttered Bayaz, as they passed into a wide, open space. “The throbbing heart of the city.” Even he sounded disappointed. “Here the citizens of Calcis would come to buy and sell, to watch spectacles and hear cases at law, to argue philosophy and politics. In the Old Time it would have been crammed shoulder to shoulder here, until late in the evening.”

There was ample space now. The vast paved area could easily have accommodated fifty times the sorry crowd that was gathered there. The grand statues round the edge were stained and broken, their dirty pedestals leaning at all angles. A few desultory stalls were laid out in the centre, crowded together like sheep in cold weather.

“A shadow of its former glory. Still,” and Bayaz pointed out the dishevelled sculptures, “these are the only occupants that need interest us today.”

“Really, and they are?”

“Emperors of the distant past, my boy, each with a tale to tell.”

Jezal groaned inwardly. He had nothing more than a passing interest in the history of his own country, let alone that of some decaying backwater in the far-flung west of the World. “There’s a lot of them,” he muttered.

“And these are by no means all. The history of the Old Empire stretches back for many centuries.”

“Must be why they call it old.”

“Don’t try to be clever with me, Captain Luthar, you have not the equipment. While your forebears in the Union were running around naked, communicating by gestures and worshipping mud, here my master Juvens was guiding the birth of a mighty nation, a nation that in scale and wealth, in knowledge and grandeur, has never been equalled. Adua, Talins, Shaffa, they are but shadows of the wondrous cities that once thrived in the valley of the great river Aos. This is the cradle of civilisation, my young friend.”

Jezal glanced round him at the sorry statues, the rotting trees, the grimy, the forlorn, the faded streets. “What went wrong?”

“The failure of something great is never a simple matter, but, where there is success and glory, there must also be failure and shame. Where there are both, jealousies must simmer. Envy and pride led by slow degrees to squabbles, then to feuds, then to wars. Two great wars that ended in terrible disasters.” He stepped smartly towards the nearest of the statues. “But disasters are not without their lessons, my boy.”

Jezal grimaced. He needed more lessons like he needed a dose of the cock-rot, and he in no sense felt himself to be anyone’s boy, but the old man was not in the least put off by his reluctance.

“A great ruler must be ruthless,” intoned Bayaz. “When he perceives a threat against his person or authority, he must move swiftly, and with no space left for regret. For an example, we need look no further than the Emperor Shilla.” He gazed up at the marble above them, its features all but entirely worn away by the weather. “When he suspected his chamberlain of harbouring pretensions to the throne, he ordered him put to death on the instant, his wife and all his children strangled, his great mansion in Aulcus levelled to the ground.” Bayaz shrugged. “All without the slightest shred of proof. An excessive and a brutal act, but better to act with too much force than too little. Better to be held in fear, than in contempt. Shilla knew this. There is no place for sentiment in politics, do you see?”

“I see that wherever I turn in life there’s always some fucking old dunce trying to give me a lecture.” That was what Jezal thought, but he was not about to say it. The memory of a Practical of the Inquisition bursting apart before his very eyes was still horribly fresh in his mind. The squelching sound of the flesh. The feeling of spots of hot blood pattering across his face. He swallowed and looked down at his shoes.

“I see,” he muttered.

Bayaz’ voice droned on. “Not that a great King need be a tyrant, of course! To gain the love of the common man should always be a ruler’s first aim, for it can be won with small gestures, and yet can last a lifetime.”

Jezal was not about to let that pass, however dangerous the old man might be. It was clear that Bayaz had no practical experience in the arena of politics. “What use is the love of commoners? The nobles have the money, the soldiers, the power.”

Bayaz rolled his eyes at the clouds. “The words of a child, easily tricked by flim-flam and quick hands. Where does the nobles’ money come from, but from taxes on the peasants in the fields? Who are their soldiers, but the sons and husbands of common folk? What gives the lords their power? Only the compliance of their vassals, nothing more. When the peasantry become truly dissatisfied, that power can vanish with terrifying speed. Take the case of the Emperor Dantus.” He gestured up at one of the many statues, one arm broken off at the shoulder, the other holding out a handful of scum in which a rich bloom of moss had taken hold. The loss of his nose, leaving a grimy crater, had left the Emperor Dantus with an expression of eternal embarrassed bewilderment, like a man surprised whilst on the latrine.

“No ruler has ever been more loved by his people,” said Bayaz. “He greeted every man as his equal, always gave half his revenues to the poor. But the nobles conspired against him, fixed on one of their number to replace him, and threw the Emperor into prison while they seized the throne.”

“Did they really?” grunted Jezal, staring off across the half-empty square.

“But the people would not abandon their beloved monarch. They rose from their homes and rioted, and would not be subdued. Some of the conspirators were dragged from their palaces and hung in the streets, the others were cowed, and returned Dantus to his throne. So you see, my lad, that the love of the people is a ruler’s surest shield against danger.”

Jezal sighed. “Give me the support of the lords every time.”

“Hah. Their love is costly, and fickle as the changing wind. Have you not stood in the Lords’ Round, Captain Luthar, while the Open Council is in session?” Jezal frowned. Perhaps there was some grain of truth in the old man’s babble. “Hah. Such is the love of nobles. The best that one can do is to divide them and work on their jealousies, make them compete for small favours, claim the credit for their successes, and most of all ensure that no one of them should grow too powerful, and rise to challenge one’s own majesty.”

“Who is this?” One statue stood noticeably higher than the others. An impressive-seeming man in late middle-age with a thick beard and curling hair. His face was handsome but there was a grim set to his mouth, a proud and wrathful wrinkling of his brow. A man not to be fooled with.

“That is my master, Juvens. Not an Emperor, but the first and last adviser to many. He built the Empire, yet he was also the principal in its destruction. A great man, in so many ways, but great men have great faults.” Bayaz turned his worn staff thoughtfully round in his hand. “One should learn the lessons of history. The mistakes of the past need only be made once.” He paused for a moment. “Unless there are no other choices.”

Jezal rubbed his eyes and stared across the forum. The Crown Prince Ladisla, perhaps, might have benefited from such a lecture, but Jezal rather doubted it. Was this why he had been torn away from his friends, from his hard-earned chance at glory and advancement? To listen to the dusty musings of some strange, bald wanderer?

He frowned. There were a group of three soldiers moving towards them across the square. At first he watched them, uninterested. Then he realised they were looking right at him and Bayaz, and moving directly towards them. Now he saw another group of three, and another, coming from different directions.

Jezal’s throat felt tight. Their armour and weapons, though of an antique design, looked worryingly effective and well-used. Fencing was one thing. Actual fighting, with its possibilities for serious wounding and death, was quite another. It was not cowardice, surely, to feel worried, not with nine armed men very clearly approaching them, and no possible route of escape.

Bayaz had noticed them too. “A welcome appears to have been prepared.”

The nine closed in, faces hard, weapons firmly gripped. Jezal squared his shoulders and did his best to look fearsome while meeting nobody’s eye, and keeping his hands well away from the hilts of his steels. He had no wish whatsoever for someone to get nervous, and stab him on a whim.

“You are Bayaz,” said their leader, a heavy-set man with a grubby red plume on his helmet.

“Is that a question?”

“No. Our master, the Imperial Legate, Salamo Narba, governor of Calcis, invites you to an audience.”

“Does he indeed?” Bayaz glanced around at the party of soldiers, then raised an eyebrow at Jezal. “I suppose it would be rude of us to refuse, when the Legate has gone to all the trouble of organising an honour guard. Lead the way.”


Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s in pain. He dragged himself over the broken cobblestones, wincing every time his weight went onto his bad ankle—limping, gasping, waving his arms to keep his balance.

Brother Longfoot grinned over his shoulder at this sorry display. “How are your injuries progressing, my friend?

“Painfully,” grunted Logen, through gritted teeth.

“And yet, I suspect, you have endured worse.”

“Huh.” The wounds of the past were many. He’d spent most of his life in some amount of pain, healing too slowly from one beating or another. He remembered the first real wound he’d ever taken, a cut down his face that the Shanka had given him. Fifteen years old, lean and smooth-skinned and the girls in the village had still liked to look at him. He touched his thumb to his face and felt the old scar. He remembered his father pressing the bandage to his cheek in the smoky hall, the stinging of it, wanting to shout but biting his lip. A man stays silent.

When he can. Logen remembered lying on his face in a stinking tent with the cold rain drumming on the canvas, biting on a piece of leather to keep from screaming, coughing it out and screaming anyway while they dug in his back for an arrow-head that hadn’t come out with the shaft. It had taken them a day of looking to find the bastard thing. Logen winced and wriggled his tingling shoulder blades at that memory. He hadn’t been able to talk for a week from all that screaming.

Hadn’t been able to talk for more than a week after the duel with Threetrees. Or walk, or eat, or see hardly. Broken jaw, broken cheek, ribs broken past counting. Bones smashed until he was no more than aching, crying, self-pitying goo, mewling like an infant at every movement of his stretcher, fed by an old woman with a spoon and grateful to get it.

There were plenty more memories, all crowding in and cutting at him. The stump of his finger after the battle at Carleon, burning and burning and making him crazy. Waking up sudden after a day out cold, when he got knocked on the head up in the hills. Pissing red after Harding Grim’s spear had pricked him through the guts. Logen felt them now on his tattered skin, all of his scars, and he hugged his arms around his aching body.

The wounds of the past were many, alright, but it didn’t make the ones he had now hurt any less. The cut in his shoulder nagged at him, sore as a burning coal. He’d seen a man lose an arm from nothing more than a graze he’d got in battle. First they had to take off his hand, then his arm to the elbow, then all the way to the shoulder. Next he got tired, then he started talking stupid, then he stopped breathing. Logen didn’t want to go back to the mud that way.

He hopped up to a crumbling stump of wall and leaned against it, painfully shrugged his coat off, fumbled at the buttons of his shirt with one clumsy hand, pulled the pin out of the bandage and peeled the dressing carefully away.

“How does it look?” he asked.

“Like the parent of all scabs,” muttered Longfoot, peering at his shoulder.

“Does it smell alright?”

“You want me to smell you?”

“Just tell me if it stinks.”

The Navigator leaned forwards and sniffed daintily at Logen’s shoulder. “A marked odour of sweat, but that might be your armpit. I fear that my remarkable talents do not encompass medicine. One wound smells much like another to me.” And he pushed the pin back through the bandage.

Logen worked his shirt on. “You’d know if it was rotten, believe me. Reeks like old graves, and once the rot gets in you there’s no getting rid of it but with a blade. Bad way to go.” And he shuddered and pressed his palm gently against his throbbing shoulder.

“Yes, well,” said Longfoot, already striding off down the near-deserted street. “Lucky for you that we have the woman Maljinn with us. Her talent for conversation is most extremely limited, but when it comes to wounds, well, I saw the whole business and don’t object to telling you, she can stitch skin as calm and even as a master cobbler stitches leather. She can indeed! She pulls a needle as nimble and neat as a queen’s dressmaker. A useful talent to have in these parts. I would not be the least surprised if we need that talent again before we’re done.”

“It’s a dangerous journey?” asked Logen, still trying to struggle back into his coat.

“Huh. The North has always been wild and lawless, heavy with bloody feuds and merciless brigands. Every man goes armed to the teeth, and ready to kill at a moment’s notice. In Gurkhul foreign travellers stay free only on the whim of the local governor, at risk of being taken as a slave at any moment. Styrian cities sport thugs and cutpurses on every corner, if you can even get through their gates without being robbed by the authorities. The waters of the Thousand Isles are thick with pirates, one for each merchant, it sometimes seems, while in distant Suljuk they fear and despise outsiders, and likely as not will hang you by your feet and cut your throat as soon as give you directions. The Circle of the World is full of dangers, my nine-fingered friend, but if all that is not enough for you, and you yearn for more severe peril, I suggest that you visit the Old Empire.”

Logen got the feeling that Brother Longfoot was enjoying himself. “That bad?”

“Worse, oh yes, indeed! Especially if, rather than simply visiting, one undertakes to cross the breadth of the country from one side to the other.”

Logen winced. “And that’s the plan?”

“That is, as you put it, the plan. For time out of mind, the Old Empire has been riven by civil strife. Once a single nation with a single Emperor, his laws enforced by a mighty army and a loyal administration, it has dissolved down the years into a boiling soup of petty princedoms, crackpot republics, city states and tiny lordships, until few acknowledge any leader who does not even now hold a sword over their heads. The lines between tax and brigandage, between just war and bloody murder, between rightful claim and fantasy have blurred and vanished. Hardly a year goes by without another power-hungry bandit declaring himself king of the world. I understand there was a time, perhaps fifty years ago, when there were no fewer than sixteen Emperors at one moment.”

“Huh. Fifteen more than you need.”

“Sixteen more, some might say, and not a one of them friendly to travellers. When it comes to getting murdered, the Old Empire presents a victim with quite the dazzling choice. But one need not be killed by men.”

“No?”

“Oh, dear me, no! Nature has also placed many fearsome obstacles in our path, especially given that winter is now coming fast upon us. Westward of Calcis stretches a wide and level plain, open grassland for many hundreds of miles. In the Old Time, perhaps, much of it was settled, cultivated, crossed by straight roads of good stone in every direction. Now the towns mostly lie in silent ruins, the land is storm-drenched wilderness, the roads are trails of broken stones luring the unwary into sucking bogs.”

“Bogs,” muttered Logen, slowly shaking his head.

“And worse beside. The river Aos, greatest of all rivers within the Circle of the World, carves a deep and snaking valley through the midst of this wasteland. We will have to cross it, but there are only two surviving bridges, one at Darmium, which is our best chance, another at Aostum, a hundred miles or more further west. There are fords, but the Aos is mighty, and fast-flowing, and the valley deep and dangerous.” Longfoot clicked his tongue. “That is before we reach the Broken Mountains.”

“High, are they?”

“Oh, extremely. Very high, and very perilous. Called Broken for their steep cliffs, their jagged ravines, their sudden plunging drops. There are rumoured to be passes, but all the maps, if indeed there ever were any, were lost long ago. Having negotiated the mountains we will take ship—”

“You plan to carry a ship over the mountains?”

“Our employer assures me he can get one on the other side, though how I do not know, for that land is almost utterly unknown. We will sail due west to the island of Shabulyan, which they say rises from the ocean at the very edge of the World.”

“They say?”

“Rumour is all that anyone knows of it. Even amongst the illustrious order of Navigators, I have heard of no man who lays claim to have set foot upon the place, and the brothers of my order are well known for… far-fetched claims, shall we say?”

Logen scratched slowly at his face, wishing that he’d asked Bayaz his plans before. “It all sounds a long way.”

“One could scarcely conceive, in fact, of a destination more remote.”

“What’s there?”

Longfoot shrugged. “You will have to ask our employer. I find routes, not reasons. Follow me please, Master Ninefingers, and I pray you not to dally. We have a great deal to do if we are to pose as merchants.”

“Merchants?”

“That is Bayaz’ plan. Merchants often risk the journey west from Calcis to Darmium, even beyond to Aostum. They are large cities still, and largely cut off from the outside world. The profits one can make carrying foreign luxuries to them—spices from Gurkhul, silks from Suljuk, chagga from the North—are astronomical. Why, you can triple your investment in a month, if you survive! Such caravans are a common sight, well armed and well defended, of course.”

“What about these looters and robbers wandering the plain? Aren’t merchants just what they’re after?”

“Of course,” said Longfoot. “It must be some other threat that this disguise is intended to defend against. One directed specifically at us.”

“At us? Another threat? We need more?” But Longfoot was already striding out of earshot.


In one part of Calcis at least, the majesty of the past was not entirely faded. The hall into which they were ushered by their guards, or their kidnappers, was glorious indeed.

Two lines of columns, tall as forest trees, marched down either side of the echoing space, carved from polished green stone fretted with glittering veins of silver. High above, the ceiling was painted a rich blue-black, marked with a galaxy of shining stars, constellations picked out by golden lines. A deep pool of dark water filled the space before the door, perfectly still, reflecting everything. Another shadowy hall below. Another shadowy night sky beyond it.

The Imperial Legate lay sprawled out across a couch on a high dais at the far end of the room, a table before him loaded with delicacies. He was a huge man, round-faced and fleshy. Fingers heavy with golden rings snatched up choice morsels and tossed them into his waiting mouth, eyes never leaving his two guests, or his two prisoners, for a moment.

“I am Salamo Narba, Imperial Legate and governor of the city of Calcis.” He worked his mouth, then spat out an olive stone which pinged into a dish. “You are the one they call the First of the Magi?”

The Magus inclined his bald head. Narba lifted up a goblet, holding the stem between his heavy forefinger and his heavy thumb, took a swig of wine, sloshed it slowly round in his mouth while he watched them, and swallowed. “Bayaz.”

“The same.”

“Hmm. I mean no offence.” Here the Legate snatched up a tiny fork and speared an oyster from its shell, “but your presence in this city concerns me. The political situation in the Empire is… volatile.” He picked up his goblet. “Even more so than usual.” Swig, slosh, swallow. “The last thing that I need is someone… upsetting the balance.”

“More volatile than usual?” asked Bayaz. “I understood that Sabarbus had finally calmed things.”

“Calmed them under his boot, for a while.” The Legate tore a handful of dark grapes from a bunch and leaned back on his cushions, popping them one by one into his gaping mouth. “But Sabarbus… is dead. Poison, they say. His sons, Scario… and Goltus… squabbled over his legacy… then made war on each other. An exceptionally bloody war, even for this exhausted land.” And he spat the pips out onto the table top.

“Goltus held the city of Darmium, in the midst of the great plain. Scario employed his father’s greatest general, Cabrian, to take it under siege. Not long ago, after five months of encirclement, starved of provisions, hopeless of relief… the city surrendered.” Narba bit into a ripe plum, juice running down his chin.

“So Scario is close to victory, then.”

“Huh.” The Legate wiped his face with the tip of his little finger and tossed the unfinished fruit carelessly onto the table. “No sooner had Cabrian finally taken the city, pillaged its treasures and given it over to a brutal sack by his soldiers, than he installed himself in the ancient palace and proclaimed himself Emperor.”

“Ah. You seem unmoved.”

“I weep on the inside, but I have seen all this before. Scario, Goltus, and now Cabrian. Three self-appointed Emperors, locked in a deadly struggle, their soldiers ravaging the land, while the few cities who have maintained their independence look on, horrified, and do their best to escape the nightmare unscathed.”

Bayaz frowned. “I mean to travel westward. I must cross the Aos, and Darmium is the closest bridge.”

The Legate shook his head. “It is said that Cabrian, always eccentric, has lost his reason entirely. That he has murdered his wife and married his own three daughters. That he has declared himself a living god. The city gates are sealed while he scours the city for witches, devils, and traitors. Every day there are new bodies hanging at the public gibbets he has raised on each corner. No one is permitted either to enter or to leave. Such is the news from Darmium.”

Jezal was more than a little relieved to hear Bayaz say, “it must be Aostum, then.”

“Nobody will be crossing the river at Aostum any longer. Scario, running from his brother’s vengeful armies, fled across the bridge and had his engineers bring it down behind him.”

“He destroyed it?”

“He did. A wonder of the Old Time which stood for two thousand years. Nothing remains. To add to your woes, there have been heavy rains and the great river runs swift and high. The fords are impassable. You will not cross the Aos this year, I fear.”

“I must.”

“But you will not. If you wish for my advice, I would leave the Empire to its misery and return from whence you came. Here in Calcis we have always tried to plough a middle furrow, to remain neutral, and firmly aloof from the disasters that have befallen the rest of the land, one hard upon another. Here we still cling to the ways of our forefathers.” He gestured at himself. “The city is yet governed by an Imperial Legate, as it was in the Old Time, not ruled by some brigand, some petty chieftain, some false Emperor.” He waved a limp hand at the rich hall around them. “Here, against the odds, we have managed to retain some vestige of the glory of old, and I will not risk that. Your friend Zacharus was here, not but a month ago.”

“Here?”

“He told me that Goltus was the rightful Emperor and demanded that I throw my support behind him. I sent him scurrying away with the same answer I will give to you. We in Calcis are happy as we are. We want no part of your self-serving schemes. Take your meddling and get you gone, Magus. I give you three days to leave the city.”

There was a long, quiet pause as the last echoes of Narba’s speech faded. A long, breathless moment, and all the while Bayaz’ frown grew harder. A long, expectant silence, but not quite empty. It was full of growing fear.

“Have you confused me with some other man?” growled Bayaz, and Jezal felt an urgent need to shuffle away from him and hide behind one of the beautiful pillars. “I am the First of the Magi! The first apprentice of great Juvens himself!” His anger was like a great stone pressing on Jezal’s chest, squeezing the air from his lungs, crushing the strength from his body. He held up his meaty fist. “This is the hand that cast down Kanedias! The hand that crowned Harod! You dare to give me threats? Is this what you call the glory of old? A city shrunken in its crumbling walls like some withered old warrior cowering in the outsize armour of his youth?” Narba shrank behind his silverware and Jezal winced, terrified that the Legate might explode at any moment and shower the room with gore.

“You think I care a damn for your broken piss-pot of a town?” thundered Bayaz. “You give me three days? I’ll be gone in one!” And he turned on his heel and stalked across the polished floor towards the entrance, the ringing echoes of his voice still grating from the shining walls, the glittering ceiling.

Jezal dithered a moment, weak and trembling, then shuffled guiltily away, following the First of the Magi past the Legate’s horrified, dumbstruck guards and out into the daylight.

<p>The Condition of the Defences</p>

To Arch Lector Sult,

head of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Your Eminence,

I have acquainted the members of Dagoska’s ruling council with my mission. You will not be surprised to learn that they are less than delighted at the sudden reduction in their powers. My investigation into the disappearance of Superior Davoust is already underway, and I feel confident that results will not be long in coming. I will be appraising the city’s defences as soon as possible, and will take any and all steps necessary to ensure that Dagoska is impregnable.

You will hear from me soon. Until then, I serve and obey.

Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska.

The sun pressed down on the crumbling battlements like a great weight. It pressed through Glokta’s hat and onto his stooped head. It pressed through Glokta’s black coat and onto his twisted shoulders. It threatened to squeeze the water right out of him, squash the life right out of him, crush him to his knees. A cool autumn morning in charming Dagoska.

While the sun attacked him from above, the salt wind came at him head on. It swept in off the empty sea and over the bare peninsula, hot and full of choking dust, blasting the land walls of the city and scouring everything with salty grit. It stung at Glokta’s sweaty skin, whipped the moisture from his mouth, tickled at his eyes and made them weep stinging tears. Even the weather wants to be rid of me, it would seem.

Practical Vitari teetered along the parapet beside him, arms outstretched like a circus performer on the high rope. Glokta frowned up at her, a gangly black shape against the brilliant sky. She could just as easily walk down here, and stop making a spectacle of herself. But at least this way there is always the chance of her falling off. The land walls were twenty strides high at the least. Glokta allowed himself the very slightest smile at the thought of the Arch Lector’s favourite Practical slipping, sliding, tumbling from the wall, hands clutching at nothing. Perhaps a despairing scream as she fell to her death?

But she didn’t fall. Bitch. Considering her next report to the Arch Lector, no doubt. “The cripple continues to flounder like a landed fish. He has yet to uncover the slightest trace of Davoust, or any traitor, despite questioning half the city. The one man he has arrested is a member of his own Inquisition…”

Glokta shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted into the blinding sun. The neck of rock that connected Dagoska with the mainland stretched away from him, no more than a few hundred strides across at its narrowest point, the sparkling sea on both sides. The road from the city gates was a brown stripe through the yellow scrub, cutting southwards towards the dry hills on the mainland. A few sorry-looking seabirds squawked and circled over the causeway, but there were no other signs of life.

“Might I borrow your eye-glass, General?”

Vissbruck flicked the eye-glass open and slapped it sulkily into Glokta’s outstretched hand. Plainly he feels he has better things to do than give me a tour of the defences. The General was breathing heavily, standing stiffly to attention in his impeccable uniform, plump face shining with sweat. Doing his best to maintain his professional bearing. His bearing is the only professional thing about this imbecile, but, as the Arch Lector says, we must work with the tools we have. Glokta raised the brass tube to his eye.

The Gurkish had built a palisade. A tall fence of wooden stakes that fringed the hills, cutting Dagoska off from the mainland. There were tents scattered about the other side, thin plumes of smoke rising from a cooking fire here or there. Glokta could just about make out tiny figures moving, sun glinting on polished metal. Weapons and armour, and plenty of both.

“There used to be caravans from the mainland,” Vissbruck murmured. “Last year there were a hundred of them every day. Then the Emperor’s soldiers started to arrive, and there were fewer traders. They finished the fence a couple of months ago. There hasn’t been so much as a donkey since. Everything has to come in by ship, now.”

Glokta scanned across the fence, and the camps behind, from the sea on one side to the sea on the other. Are they simply flexing their muscles, putting on a show of force? Or are they in deadly earnest? The Gurkish love a good show, but they don’t mind a good fight either—that’s how they’ve conquered the whole of the South, more or less. He lowered the eye-glass. “How many Gurkish, do you think?”

Vissbruck shrugged. “Impossible to say. At least five thousand, I would guess, but there could be many more, behind those hills. We have no way of knowing.”

Five thousand. At the least. If it’s a show, it’s a good one. “How many men have we?”

Vissbruck paused. “I have around six hundred Union soldiers under my command.”

Around six hundred? Around? You lackwit dunce! When I was a soldier I knew the name of every man in my regiment, and who was best suited to what tasks. “Six hundred? Is that all?”

“There are mercenaries in the city also, but they cannot be trusted, and frequently cause trouble of their own. In my opinion they are worse than worthless.”

I asked for numbers, not opinions. “How many mercenaries?”

“Perhaps a thousand, now, perhaps more.”

“Who leads them?”

“Some Styrian. Cosca, he calls himself.”

“Nicomo Cosca?” Vitari was staring down from the parapet, one orange eyebrow raised.

“You know him?”

“You could say that. I thought he was dead, but it seems there’s no justice in the world.”

She’s right there. Glokta turned to Vissbruck. “Does this Cosca answer to you?”

“Not exactly. The Spicers pay him, so he answers to Magister Eider. In theory, he’s supposed to follow my orders—”

“But he only follows his own?” Glokta could see in the General’s face that he was right. Mercenaries. A double-edged sword, if ever there was one. Keen, as long as you can keep paying, and provided that trustworthiness is not a priority. “And Cosca’s men outnumber yours two to one.” It would appear that, as far as the defences of the city are concerned, I am speaking to the wrong man. Perhaps there is one issue, though, on which he can enlighten me. “Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

General Vissbruck twitched his annoyance. “I have no idea. That man’s movements were of no interest to me.”

“Hmm,” mused Glokta, jamming his hat down tighter onto his head as another gritty gust of wind blew in across the walls. “The disappearance of the city’s Superior of the Inquisition? Of no interest whatsoever?”

“None,” snapped the General. “We rarely had cause to speak to one another. Davoust was well-known as an abrasive character. As far as I am concerned, the Inquisition has its responsibilities, and I have mine.” Touchy, touchy. But then everyone is, since I arrived in town. You’d almost think they didn’t want me here.

“You have your responsibilities, eh?” Glokta shuffled to the parapet, lifted his cane and prodded at a corner of crumbling masonry, not far from Vitari’s heel. A chunk of stone cracked away and tumbled from the wall into space. A few moments later he heard it clatter into the ditch, far below. He rounded on Vissbruck. “As commander of the city’s defences, would you count the maintenance of the walls as being among your responsibilities?”

Vissbruck bristled. “I have done everything possible!”

Glokta counted the points off with the fingers of his free hand. “The land walls are crumbling and poorly manned. The ditch beyond is so choked with dirt it barely exists. The gates have not been replaced in years, and are falling to pieces on their own. If the Gurkish were to attack tomorrow, I do believe we’d be in quite a sorry position.”

“Not for any oversight on my part, I can assure you! With the heat, and the wind, and the salt from the sea, wood and metal rot in no time, and stone fares little better! Do you realise the task?”

The General gestured at the great sweep of the towering land walls, curving away to the sea on either side. Even here at the top, the parapet was wide enough to drive a cart down, and they were a lot thicker at the base. “I have few skilled masons, and precious little materials! What the Closed Council gives me barely pays for the upkeep of the Citadel! Then the money from the Spicers scarcely keeps the walls of the Upper City in good repair—”

Fool! One could almost believe he did not seriously mean to defend the city at all. “The Citadel cannot be supplied by sea if the rest of Dagoska is in Gurkish hands, am I right?”

Vissbruck blinked. “Well, no, but—”

“The walls of the Upper City might keep the natives where they are, but they are too long, too low, and too thin to withstand a concerted attack for long, would you agree?”

“Yes, I suppose so, but—”

“So any plan that treats the Citadel, or the Upper City, as our main line of defence is one that only plays for time. Time for help to arrive. Help that, with our army committed hundreds of leagues away in Angland, might take a while appearing.” Will never appear at all. “If the land walls fall the city is doomed.” Glokta tapped the dusty flags underfoot with his cane. “Here is where we must fight the Gurkish, and here is where we must keep them out. Everything else is an irrelevance.”

“An irrelevance,” Vitari piped to herself as she hopped from one part of the parapet to another.

The General was frowning. “I can only do as the Lord Governor and his council instruct me. The Lower City has always been regarded as dispensable. I am not responsible for overall policy—”

“I am.” Glokta held Vissbruck’s eye for a very long moment. “From now on all resources will be directed into the repair and strengthening of the land walls. New parapets, new gates, every broken stone must be replaced. I don’t want to see a crack an ant could crawl through, let alone a Gurkish army.”

“But who will do the work?”

“The natives built the damn things in the first place, didn’t they? There must be skilled men among them. Seek them out and hire them. As for the ditch, I want it down below sea level. If the Gurkish come we can flood it, and make the city into an island.”

“But that could take months!”

“You have two weeks. Perhaps not even that long. Press every idle man into service. Women and children too, if they can hold a spade.”

Vissbruck frowned up at Vitari. “And what about your people in the Inquisition?”

“Oh, they’re too busy asking questions, trying to find out what happened to your last Superior. Or they’re watching me, and my quarters, and the gates of the citadel all day and night, trying to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to your new one. Be a shame, eh, Vissbruck, if I disappeared before the defences were ready?”

“Of course, Superior,” muttered the General. But without tremendous enthusiasm, I rather think.

“Everyone else must work, though, including your own soldiers.”

“But you can’t expect my men to—”

“I expect every man to do his part. Anyone who doesn’t like it can go back to Adua. He can go back and explain his reluctance to the Arch Lector.” Glokta leered his toothless smile at the General. “There’s no one that can’t be replaced, General, no one at all”

There was a great deal of sweat on Vissbruck’s pink face, great drops of it. The stiff collar of his uniform was dark with moisture. “Of course, every man must do his part! Work on the ditch will begin immediately!” He made a weak attempt at a smile. “I’ll find every man, but I’ll need money, Superior. If people work they must be paid, even the natives. Then we will need materials, everything has to be brought in by sea—”

“Borrow what you need to get started. Work on credit. Promise everything and give nothing, for now. His Eminence will provide.” He’d better. “I want reports on your progress every morning.”

“Every morning, yes.”

“You have a great deal to do, General. I’d get started.”

Vissbruck paused for a moment, as though unsure whether to salute or not. In the end he simply turned on his heel and stalked off. The pique of a professional soldier dictated to by a civilian, or something more? Am I upsetting his carefully laid plans? Plans to sell the city to the Gurkish, perhaps?

Vitari hopped down from the parapet onto the walkway. “His Eminence will provide? You’d be lucky.”

Glokta frowned at her back as she sauntered away, then he frowned towards the hills on the mainland, then he frowned up at the citadel. Dangers on every side. Trapped between the Arch Lector and the Gurkish, and with nobody but an unknown traitor for company. It’ll be a wonder if I last a day.


A committed optimist might have called the place a dive. But it scarcely deserves the name. A piss-smelling shack with some oddments of furniture, everything stained with ancient sweat and recent spillages. A kind of cesspit with half the cess removed. Customers and staff were indistinguishable: drunken, fly-blown natives stretched out in the heat. Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune, sprawled in amongst this scene of debauchery, soundly asleep.

He had his driftwood chair rocked back on its rear legs against the grimy wall, one boot up on the table in front of him. It had probably been as fine and flamboyant a boot as one could hope for, once, black Styrian leather with a golden spur and buckles. No longer. The upper was sagging and scuffed grey with hard use. The spur was snapped off short, the gilt on the buckles was flaking away and the iron underneath was spotted with brown rust. A circle of pink, blistered skin peered at Glokta through a hole in the sole.

And a boot could scarcely be better fitted to its owner. Cosca’s long moustaches, no doubt meant to be waxed out sideways in the fashion of a Styrian dandy, flopped limp and lifeless round his half-open mouth. His neck and jaw were covered in a week’s growth, somewhere between beard and stubble, and there was a scabrous, flaking rash peering out above his collar. His greasy hair stuck from his head at all angles, excepting a large bald spot on his crown, angry red with sunburn. Sweat beaded his slack skin, a lazy fly crawled across his puffy face. One bottle lay empty on its side on the table. Another, half-full, was cradled in his lap.

Vitari stared down at this picture of drunken self-neglect, expression of contempt plainly visible despite her mask. “So it’s true then, you are still alive.” Just barely.

Cosca prised open one red-rimmed eye, blinked, squinted up, and then slowly began to smile. “Shylo Vitari, I swear. The world can still surprise me.” He worked his mouth, grimacing, glanced down and saw the bottle in his lap, lifted it and took a long, thirsty pull. Deep swallows, just as if it were water in the bottle. A practised drunkard, as though there was any doubt. Hardly the man one would choose to entrust the defence of the city to, at first glance. “I never expected to see you again. Why don’t you take off the mask? It’s robbing me of your beauty.”

“Save it for your whores, Cosca. I don’t need to catch what you’ve got.”

The mercenary gave a bubbling sound, half laugh, half cough. “You still have the manners of a princess,” he wheezed.

“Then this shithouse must be a palace.”

Cosca shrugged. “It all looks the same if you’re drunk enough.”

“You think you’ll ever be drunk enough?”

“No. But it’s worth trying.” As if to prove the point he sucked another mouthful from the bottle.

Vitari perched herself on the edge of the table. “So what brings you here? I thought you were busy spreading the cock-rot across Styria.”

“My popularity at home had somewhat dwindled.”

“Found yourself on both sides of a fight once too often, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“But the Dagoskans welcomed you with open arms?”

“I’d rather you welcomed me with open legs, but a man can’t get everything he wants. Who’s your friend?”

Glokta slid out a rickety chair with one aching foot and eased himself into it, hoping it would bear his weight. Crashing to the floor in a bundle of broken sticks would hardly send the right message, now, would it? “My name is Glokta.” He stretched his sweaty neck out to one side, and then the other. “Superior Glokta.”

Cosca looked at him for a long time. His eyes were bloodshot, sunken, heavy-lidded. And yet there is a certain calculation there. Not half as drunk as he pretends, perhaps. “The same one who fought in Gurkhul? The Colonel of Horse?”

Glokta felt his eyelid flicker. You could hardly say the same man, but surprisingly well remembered, nonetheless. “I gave up soldiery some years ago. I’m surprised you’ve heard of me.”

“A fighting man should know his enemies, and a hired man never knows who his next enemy might be. It’s worth taking notice of who’s who, in military circles. I heard your name mentioned, some time ago, as a man worth taking notice of. Bold and clever, I heard, but reckless. That was the last I heard. And now here you are, in a different line of work. Asking questions.”

“Recklessness didn’t work out for me in the end.” Glokta shrugged. “And a man needs something to do with his time.”

“Of course. Never doubt another’s choices, I say. You can’t know his reasons. You come here for a drink, Superior? They’ve nothing but this piss, I’m afraid.” He waved the bottle. “Or have you questions for me?”

That I have, and plenty of them. “Do you have any experience with sieges?”

“Experience?” spluttered Cosca, “Experience, you ask? Hah! Experience is one thing I am not short of—”

“No,” murmured Vitari over her shoulder, “just discipline and loyalty.”

“Yes, well,” Cosca frowned up at her back, “that all depends on who you ask. But I was at Etrina, and at Muris. Serious pair of sieges, those. And I besieged Visserine myself for a few months and nearly had it, except that she-devil Mercatto caught me unawares. Came on us with cavalry before dawn, sun behind and all, damned unfriendly trick, the bitch—”

“I heard you were passed out drunk at the time,” muttered Vitari.

“Yes, well… Then I held Borletta against Grand Duke Orso for six months—”

Vitari snorted. “Until he paid you to open the gates.”

Cosca gave a sheepish grin. “It was an awful lot of money. But he never fought his way in! You’d have to give me that, eh, Shylo?”

“No one needs to fight you, providing they bring their purse.”

The mercenary grinned. “I am what I am, and never claimed to be anything else.”

“So you’ve been known to betray an employer?” asked Glokta.

The Styrian paused, the bottle halfway to his mouth. “I am thoroughly offended, Superior. Nicomo Cosca may be a mercenary, but there are still rules. I could only turn my back on an employer under one condition.”

“Which is?”

Cosca grinned. “If someone else were to offer me more.”

Ah, the mercenary’s code. Some men will do anything for money. Most men will do anything for enough. Perhaps even make a Superior of the Inquisition disappear? “Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

“Ah, the riddle of the invisible torturer!” Cosca scratched thoughtfully at his sweaty beard, picked a little at the rash on his neck and examined the results, wedged under his fingernail. “Who knows or cares to know? The man was a swine. I hardly knew him and what I knew I didn’t like. He had plenty of enemies, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a real snake pit down here. If you’re asking which one bit him, well… isn’t that your job? I was busy here. Drinking.”

Not too difficult to believe. “What would your opinion be of our mutual friend, General Vissbruck?”

Cosca hunched his shoulders and sank a little lower into his chair. “The man’s a child. Playing soldiers. Tinkering with his little castle and his little fence, when the big walls are all that count. Lose those and the game is done, I say.”

“I’ve been thinking the very same thing.” Perhaps the defence of the city could be in worse hands, after all. “Work has already begun on the land walls, and on the ditch beyond. I hope to flood it.”

Cosca raised an eyebrow. “Good. Flood it. The Gurkish don’t like the water much. Poor sailors. Flood it. Very good.” He tipped his head back and sucked the last drops from the bottle, then he tossed it on the dirty floor, wiped his mouth with his dirty hand, then wiped his hand on the front of his sweat-stained shirt. “At least someone knows what they’re doing. Perhaps when the Gurkish attack, we’ll last longer than a few days, eh?” Providing we aren’t betrayed beforehand.

“You never know, perhaps the Gurkish won’t attack.”

“Oh, I hope they do.” Cosca reached under his chair and produced another bottle. There was a glint in his eye as he pulled the cork out with his teeth and spat it across the room. “I get paid double once the fighting starts.”


It was evening, and a merciful breeze was washing through the audience chamber. Glokta leaned against the wall by the window, watching the shadows stretch out over the city below.

The Lord Governor was keeping him waiting. Trying to let me know he’s still in charge, whatever the Closed Council might say. But Glokta didn’t mind being still for a while. The day had been a tiring one. Slogging round the city in the baking heat, examining the walls, the gates, the troops. Asking questions. Questions to which no one has satisfactory answers. His leg was throbbing, his back was aching, his hand was raw from gripping his cane. But no worse than usual. I am still standing. A good day, all in all.

The glowing sun was shrouded in lines of orange cloud. Beneath it a long wedge of sea glittered silver in the last light of the day. The land walls had already plunged half the ramshackle buildings of the Lower City into deep gloom, and the shadows of the tall spires of the great temple stretched out across the roofs of the Upper City, creeping up the slopes of the rock towards the citadel. The hills on the mainland were nothing more than a distant suggestion, full of shadows. And crawling with Gurkish soldiers. Watching us, as we watch them, no doubt. Seeing us dig our ditches, patch our walls, shore up our gates. How long will they be content to watch, I wonder? How long before the sun goes down for us?

The door opened and Glokta turned his head, wincing as his neck clicked. It was the Lord Governor’s son, Korsten dan Vurms. He shut the door behind him and strode purposefully into the room, metal heel tips clicking on the mosaic floor. Ah, the flower of the Union’s young nobility. The sense of honour is almost palpable. Or did someone fart?

“Superior Glokta! I hope I have not kept you waiting.”

“You have,” said Glokta as he shuffled to the table. “That is what happens when one comes late to a meeting.”

Vurms frowned slightly. “Then I apologise,” he said, in the most unapologetic tone imaginable. “How are you finding our city?”

“Hot and full of steps.” Glokta dumped himself into one of the exquisite chairs. “Where is the Lord Governor?”

The frown turned down further. “I am afraid that my father is unwell, and cannot attend. You understand that he is an old man, and needs his rest. I can speak for him however.”

“Can you indeed? And what do the two of you have to say?”

“My father is most concerned about the work that you are undertaking on the defences. I am told that the King’s soldiers have been set to digging holes on the peninsula, rather than defending the walls of the Upper City. You realise that you are leaving us at the mercy of the natives!”

Glokta snorted. “The natives are citizens of the Union, no matter how reluctant. Believe me, they are more inclined to mercy than the Gurkish.” Of their mercy I have first-hand experience.

“They are primitives!” sneered Vurms, “and dangerous to boot! You have not been here long enough to understand the threat they pose to us! You should talk to Harker. He’s got the right ideas as far as the natives are concerned.”

“I talked to Harker, and I didn’t like his ideas. I suspect he may have been forced to rethink them, in fact, downstairs, in the dark.” I suspect he is rethinking even now, and as quickly as his pea of a brain will allow. “As for your father’s worries, he need no longer concern himself with the defence of the city. Since he is an old man, and in need of rest, I have no doubt he will be happy to pass the responsibility to me.”

A spasm of anger passed across Vurms’ handsome features. He opened his mouth to hiss some curse, but evidently thought better of it. As well he should. He sat back in his chair, rubbing one thumb and one finger thoughtfully together. When he spoke, it was with a friendly smile and a charming softness. Now comes the wheedling. “Superior Glokta, I feel we have got off on the wrong foot—”

“I only have one that works.”

Vurms’ smile slipped somewhat, but he forged on. “It is plain that you hold the cards, for the time being, but my father has many friends back in Midderland. I can be a significant hindrance to you, if I have the mind. A significant hindrance or a great help—”

“I am so glad that you have chosen to cooperate. You can begin by telling me what became of Superior Davoust.”

The smile slipped off entirely. “How should I know?”

“Everyone knows something.” And someone knows more than the rest. Is it you, Vurms?

The Lord Governor’s son thought about it for a moment. Dense, or guilty? Is he trying to think of ways to help me, or ways to cover his tracks? “I know the natives hated him. They were forever plotting against us, and Davoust was tireless in his pursuit of the disloyal. I have no doubt he fell victim to one of their schemes. I’d be asking questions down in the Lower City, if I was you.”

“Oh, I am quite confident the answers lie here in the Citadel.”

“Not with me,” snapped Vurms, looking Glokta up and down. “Believe me when I say, I would be much happier if Davoust was still with us.”

Perhaps, or perhaps not, but we will get no answers today. “Very well. Tell me about the city’s stores.”

“The stores?”

“Food, Korsten, food. I understand that, since the Gurkish closed the land routes, everything must be brought in by sea. Feeding the people is surely one of a governor’s most pressing concerns.”

“My father is mindful of his people’s needs in any eventuality!” snapped Vurms. “We have provisions for six months!”

“Six months? For all the inhabitants?”

“Of course.” Better than I expected. One less thing to worry about, at least, from this vast tangle of worries. “Unless you count the natives,” added Vurms, as though it was of no importance.

Glokta paused. “And what will they eat, if the Gurkish lay siege to the city?”

Vurms shrugged. “I really hadn’t thought about it.”

“Indeed? What will happen, do you suppose, when they begin to starve?”

“Well…”

“Chaos is what will happen! We cannot hold the city with four fifths of the population against us!” Glokta sucked at his empty gums in disgust. “You will go to the merchants, you will secure provisions for six months! For everyone! I want six months’ supplies for the rats in the sewers!”

“What am I?” sneered Vurms. “Your grocery boy?”

“I suppose you’re whatever I tell you to be.”

All trace of friendliness had vanished from Vurms’ face now. “I am the son of a Lord Governor! I refuse to be addressed in this manner!” The legs of his chair squealed furiously as he sprang up and made for the door.

“Fine,” murmured Glokta. “There’s a boat that goes to Adua every day. A fast boat, and it takes its cargo straight to the House of Questions. They’ll address you differently there, believe me. I could easily arrange a berth for you.”

Vurms stopped in his tracks. “You wouldn’t dare!”

Glokta smiled. His most revolting, leering, gap-toothed smile. “You’d have to be a bold man to bet your life on what I’d dare. How bold are you?” The young man licked his lips, but he did not meet Glokta’s gaze for long. I thought not. He reminds me of my friend Captain Luthar. All flash and arrogance, but with no kind of character to hang it on. Prick him with a pin, and he sags like a punctured wineskin.

“Six months’ food. Six months for everyone. And see that it’s done promptly.” Grocery boy.

“Of course,” growled Vurms, still staring grimly at the floor.

“Then we can get started on the water. The wells, the cisterns, the pumps. People will need something to wash all your hard work down with, eh? You will report to me every morning.”

Vurms’ fists clenched and unclenched by his sides, his jaw muscles worked with fury. “Of course,” he managed to splutter.

“Of course. You may go.”

Glokta watched him stalk away. And I have talked to two out of four. Two of four, and I have made two enemies. I will need allies if I am to succeed here. Without allies, I will not last, regardless of what documents I hold. Without allies I will not keep the Gurkish out, if they decide to try and come in. Worse yet, I still know nothing of Davoust. A Superior of the Inquisition, disappeared into thin air. Let us hope the Arch Lector will be patient.

Hope. Arch Lector. Patience. Glokta frowned. Never have three ideas belonged together less.

<p>The Thing About Trust</p>

The wheel on the cart turned slowly round, and squeaked. It turned round again, and squeaked. Ferro scowled at it. Damn wheel. Damn cart. She shifted her scorn from the cart to its driver.

Damn apprentice. She didn’t trust him a finger’s breadth. His eyes flickered over to her, lingered an insulting moment, then darted off. As if he knew something about Ferro that she did not know herself. That made her angry. She looked away from him to the first of the horses, and its rider.

Damn Union boy with his stiff back, sitting in his saddle like a King sits on his throne, as though being born with a good-shaped face was an achievement to be endlessly proud of. He was pretty, and neat, and dainty as a princess. Ferro smiled grimly to herself. The princess of the Union, that’s what he was. She hated fine-looking people even more than ugly ones. Beauty was never to be trusted.

You would have had to look far and wide to find anyone less beautiful than the big nine-fingered bastard. He sat in his saddle slumped over like some great sack of rice. Slow-moving, scratching, sniffing, chewing like a big cow. Trying to look like he had no killing in him, no mad fury, no devil. She knew better. He nodded to her and she scowled back. He was a devil wearing a cow’s skin, and she was not fooled.

Better than that damn Navigator, though. Always talking, always smiling, always laughing. Ferro hated talk, and smiles, and laughter, each one more than the last. Stupid little man with his stupid tales. Underneath all his lies he was plotting, watching, she could feel it.

That left the First of the Magi, and she trusted him least of all.

She saw his eyes sliding to the cart. Looking at the sack he’d put the box in. Square, grey, dull, heavy box. He thought no one had seen, but she had. Full of secrets is what he was. Bald bastard, with his thick neck and his wooden pole, acting as if he had done nothing but good in his life, as if he would not know where to begin at making a man explode.

“Damn fucking pinks,” she whispered to herself. She leaned over and spat onto the track, glowered at their five backs as they rode ahead of her. Why had she let Yulwei talk her into this madness? A voyage way off into the cold west where she had no business. She should have been back in the South, fighting the Gurkish.

Making them pay what they owed her.

Cursing the name of Yulwei silently to herself, she followed the others up to the bridge. It looked ancient—pitted stones splattered with stains of lichen, the surface of it rutted deep where a cart’s wheels would roll. Thousands of years of carts, rolling back and forward. The stream gurgled under its single arch, bitter cold water, flowing fast. A low hut stood beside the bridge, settled and slumped into the landscape over long years. Some wisps of smoke were snatched from its chimney and out across the land in the cutting wind.

One soldier stood outside, alone. Drew the short straw, maybe. He’d pressed himself against the wall, swathed in a heavy cloak, horse-hair on his helmet whipping back and forth in the gusts, his spear ignored beside him. Bayaz reined his horse in before the bridge and nodded across.

“We’re going up onto the plain. Out towards Darmium.”

“Can’t advise it. Dangerous up there.”

Bayaz smiled. “Dangers mean profits.”

“Profits won’t stop an arrow, friend.” The soldier looked them up and down, one by one, and sniffed. “Varied crowd, aren’t you?”

“I take good fighters wherever I can find them.”

“Course.” He looked over at Ferro and she scowled back. “Very tough, I’m sure, but the fact is the plains are deadly, and more than ever now. Some traders are still going up there, but they’re not coming back. That madman Cabrian has raiders out there, I reckon, keen for plunder. Scario and Goltus too, they’re little better. We keep some shred of law on this side of the stream, but once you’re up there, you’re on your own. There’ll be no help for you if you’re caught out on the plain.” He sniffed again. “No help at all.”

Bayaz nodded grimly. “We ask for none.” He spurred his horse and it began to trot over the bridge, onto the track on the other side. The others followed behind, Longfoot first, then Luthar, then Ninefingers. Quai shook the reins and the cart clattered across. Ferro brought up the rear.

“No help at all!” the soldier called after her, before he wedged himself back against the rough wall of his hut.


The great plain.

It should have been good land for riding, reassuring land. Ferro could have seen an enemy coming from miles away, but she saw no one. Only the vast carpet of tall grass, waving and thrashing in the wind, stretching away in every direction, to the far, far, horizon. Only the track broke the monotony, a line of shorter, drier grass, pocked with patches of bare black earth, cutting across the plain straight as an arrow flies.

Ferro did not like it, this vast sameness. She frowned as they rode, peering left and right. In the Badlands of Kanta, the barren earth was full of features—broken boulders, withered valleys, dried-up trees casting their clawing shadows, distant creases in the earth full of shade, bright ridges doused in light. In the Badlands of Kanta, the sky above would be empty, still, a bright bowl holding nothing but the blinding sun in the day, the bright stars at night.

Here all was strangely reversed.

The earth was featureless, but the sky was full of movement, full of chaos. Towering clouds loomed over the plain, dark and light swirling together into colossal spirals, sweeping over the grassland with the raking wind, shifting, turning, ripping apart and flooding back together, casting monstrous, flowing shadows onto the cowering earth, threatening to crush the six tiny riders and their tiny cart with a deluge to sink the world. All hanging over Ferro’s hunched up shoulders, the wrath of God made real.

This was a strange land, one in which she had no place. She needed reasons to be here, and good ones. “You, Bayaz!” she shouted, drawing up level with him. “Where are we going?”

“Huh,” he grunted, frowning out across the waving grass, from nothing, to nothing. “We are going westwards, across the plain, over the great river Aos, as far as the Broken Mountains.”

“Then?”

She saw the faint lines around his eyes, across the bridge of his nose, grow deeper, watched his lips press together. Annoyance. He did not like her questions. “Then we go further.”

“How long will it take?”

“All of winter and into spring,” he snapped. “And then we must come back.” He dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and trotted away from her, up the track towards the front of the group.

Ferro was not so easily put off. Not by this shifty old pink. She dug in her own heels and drew up level with him. “What is the First Law?”

Bayaz looked sharply over at her. “What do you know about it?”

“Not enough. I heard you and Yulwei talking, through the door.”

“Eavesdropping, eh?”

“You have loud voices and I have good ears.” Ferro shrugged. “I am not sticking a bucket on my head just to keep your secrets. What is the First Law?”

The lines round Bayaz’ forehead grew deeper, the corners of his mouth turned down. Anger. “A stricture that Euz placed on his sons, the first rule made after the chaos of ancient days. It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct. Forbidden to communicate with the world below, forbidden to summon demons, forbidden to open gates to hell. Such is the First Law, the guiding principle of all magic.”

“Uh,” snorted Ferro. It meant nothing to her. “Who is Khalul?”

Bayaz’ thick brows drew in together, his frown deepened, his eyes narrowed. “Is there no end to your questions, woman?” Her questions galled him. That was good. That meant they were the right questions.

“You’ll know if I stop asking them. Who is Khalul?”

“Khalul was one of the order of Magi,” growled Bayaz. “One of my order. The second of Juvens’ twelve apprentices. He was always jealous of my place, always thirsty for power. He broke the Second Law to get it. He ate the flesh of men, and persuaded others to do the same. He made of himself a false prophet, tricked the Gurkish into serving him. That is Khalul. Your enemy, and mine.”

“What is the Seed?”

The Magus’ face gave a sudden twitch. Fury, and perhaps the slightest trace of fear. Then his face softened. “What is it?” He smiled at her, and his smile worried her more than all his anger could have. He leaned towards her, close enough that no one else could hear. “It is the instrument of your vengeance. Of our vengeance. But it is dangerous. Even to speak of it is dangerous. There are those who are always listening. It would be wise for you to shut the door on your questions, before the answers to them burn us all.” He spurred his horse once again, trotting out ahead of the party on his own.

Ferro stayed behind. She had learned enough for now. Learned enough to trust this First of the Magi less than ever.


A hollow in the ground, no more than four strides across. A sink in the soil, ringed by a low wall of damp, dark earth, full of tangled grass roots. That was the best place they had found to camp for the night, and they had been lucky to find it.

It was as big a feature in the landscape as Ferro had seen all day.

The fire that Longfoot had made was burning well now, flames licking bright and hungry at the wood, rustling and flickering out sideways as a gust of wind swept down into the hollow. The five pinks sat clustered around it, hunched and huddled for warmth, light from it bright on their pinched-up faces.

Longfoot was the only one speaking. His talk was all of his own great achievements. How he had been to this place or that. How he knew this thing or that. How he had a remarkable talent for this, or for that. Ferro was sick of it already, and had told him so twice. The first time she thought she had been clear. The second time she had made sure of it. He would not be talking to her of his idiot travels again, but the others still suffered in silence.

There was space for her, down by the fire, but she did not want it. She preferred to sit above them, cross-legged in the grass on the lip of the hollow. It was cold up here in the wind, and she pulled the blanket tighter round her shivering shoulders. A strange and frightening thing, cold. She hated it.

But she preferred cold to company.

And so she sat apart, sullen and silent, and watched the light drain out of the brooding sky, watched the darkness creep into the land. There was just the faintest glow of the sun now, on the distant horizon. A last feeble brightness round the edges of the looming clouds.

The big pink stood up, and looked at her. “Getting dark,” he said.

“Uh.”

“Guess that’s what happens when the sun goes down, eh?”

“Uh.”

He scratched at the side of his thick neck. “We need to set watches. Could be dangerous out here at night. We’ll take it in shifts. I’ll go first, then Luthar—”

“I’ll watch,” she grunted.

“Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll wake you later.”

“I do not sleep.”

He stared at her. “What, never?”

“Not often.”

“Maybe that explains her mood,” murmured Longfoot.

Meant to be under his breath, no doubt, but Ferro heard him. “My mood is my business, fool.”

The Navigator said nothing as he wrapped himself in his blanket and stretched out beside the fire.

“You want to go first?” said Ninefingers, “then do it, but wake me a couple of hours in. We each should take our turn.”


Slowly, quietly, wincing with the need not to make noise, Ferro stole from the cart. Dry meat. Dry bread. Water flask. Enough to keep her going for days. She shoved it into a canvas bag.

One of the horses snorted and shied as she slipped past and she scowled at it. She could ride. She could ride well, but she wanted nothing to do with horses. Damn fool, big beasts. Smelled bad. They might move quick, but they needed too much food and water. You could see and hear them from miles away. They left great big tracks to follow. Riding a horse made you weak. Rely on a horse and when you need to run, you find you can’t any more.

Ferro had learned never to rely on anything except herself.

She slipped the bag over one shoulder, her quiver and her bow over the other. She took one last look at the sleeping shapes of the others, dark mounds clustered round the fire. Luthar had the blanket drawn up under his chin, smooth-skinned, full-lipped face turned towards the glowing embers. Bayaz had his back to her, but she could see the dim light shining off his bald pate, the back of one dark ear, hear the slow rhythm of his breathing. Longfoot had his blanket pulled up over his head, but his bare feet stuck from the other end, thin and bony, tendons standing out like tree roots from the mud. Quai’s eyes were open the tiniest chink, firelight shining wet on a slit of eyeball. Made it look like he was watching her, but his chest was moving slowly up and down, mouth hanging slack, sound asleep and dreaming, no doubt.

Ferro frowned. Just four? Where was the big pink? She saw his blanket lying empty on the far side of the fire, dark folds and light folds, but no man inside. Then she heard his voice.

“Going already?”

Behind her. That was a surprise, that he could have crept around her like that, while she was stealing food. He seemed too big, too slow, too noisy to creep up on anyone. She cursed under her breath. She should have known better than to go by the way things seemed.

She turned slowly round to face him and took one step towards the horses. He followed, keeping the distance between them the same. Ferro could see the glowing fire reflected in one corner of each of his eyes, a curve of cratered, stubbly cheek, the vague outline of his bent nose, a few strands of greasy hair floating over his head in the breeze, slightly blacker than the black land behind.

“I don’t want to fight you, pink. I’ve seen you fight.” She had seen him kill five men in a few moments, and even she had been surprised. The memory of the laughter echoing from the walls, his twisted hungry face, half snarl, half smile, covered in blood, and spit, and madness, the ruined corpses strewn on the stones like rags, all this was sharp in her mind. Not that she was frightened, of course, for Ferro Maljinn felt no fear.

But she knew when to be careful.

“I’ve no wish to fight you either,” he said, “but if Bayaz finds you gone in the morning, he’ll have me chasing you. I’ve seen you run, and I’d rather fight you than chase you. At least I’d have some chance.”

He was stronger than her, and she knew it. Almost healed now, moving freely. She regretted helping him with that. Helping people was always a mistake. A fight was an awful risk. She might be tougher than others, but she’d no wish to have her face broken into slop like that big man, the Stone Splitter. No wish to be stuck through with a sword, to have her knees smashed, her head ripped half off.

None of that held any appeal.

But he was too close to shoot, and if she ran he’d rouse the others, and they had horses. Fighting would probably wake them anyway, but if she could land a good blow quickly she might get away in the confusion. Hardly perfect, but what choice did she have? She slowly swung the bag off her shoulder and lowered it to the ground, then her bow and her quiver. She put one hand onto the hilt of her sword, fingers brushing the grip in the darkness, and he did the same.

“Alright then, pink. Let’s get to it.”

“Might be there’s another way.”

She watched him, suspicious, ready for tricks. “What way?”

“Stay with us. Give it a few days. If you don’t change your mind, well, I’ll help you pack. You can trust me.” Trust was a word for fools. It was a word people used when they meant to betray you. If he moved forward a finger’s width she would sweep the sword out and take his head off. She was ready.

But he did not move forward and he did not move back. He stood there, a big, silent outline in the darkness. She frowned, fingertips still tickling the grip of the curved sword. “Why should I trust you?”

The big pink shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Why not? Back in the city, I helped you and you helped me. Without each other, might be we’d both be dead.” It was true, she supposed, he had helped her. Not as much as she had helped him, but still. “Time comes you got to stick at something, don’t you? That’s the thing about trust, sooner or later you just got to do it, without good reasons.”

“Why?”

“Otherwise you end up like us, and who wants that?”

“Huh.”

“I’ll do you a deal. You watch my back, I’ll watch yours.” He tapped his chest slowly with his thumb. “I’ll stick.” He pointed at her. “You’ll stick. What d’you say?”

Ferro thought about it. Running had given her freedom, but little else. It had taken her through years of misery to the very edge of the desert, hemmed in by enemies. She had run from Yulwei and the Eaters had nearly taken her. Where would she run to now, anyway? Would she run across the sea to Kanta? Perhaps the big pink was right. Perhaps the time had come to stop running.

At least until she could get away unnoticed.

She took her hand away from her sword, slowly folded her arms across her chest, and he did the same. They stood there for a long moment, watching one another in the darkness, in the silence. “Alright, pink,” she growled. “I will stick, as you say, and we will see. But I make no fucking promises, you understand?”

“I didn’t ask for promises. My turn at the watch. You get some rest.”

“I need no rest, I told you that.”

“Suit yourself, but I’m sitting down.”

“Fine.”

The big pink began to lower himself cautiously towards the earth, and she followed him. They sat cross-legged where they had stood, facing each other, the embers of the campfire glowing beside them, casting a faint brightness over the four sleepers, across one side of the pink’s lumpy face, casting a faint warmth across hers.

They watched each other.

<p>Allies</p>

To Arch Lector Sult,

head of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Your Eminence,

Work is underway on the defences of the city. The famous land walls, though powerful, are in a shameful condition, and I have taken vigorous steps to strengthen them. I have also ordered extra supplies, food, armour, and weapons, essential if the city is to stand a siege of any duration.

Unfortunately, the defences are extensive, and the scale of the task vast. I have begun the work on credit, but credit will only stretch so far. I most humbly entreat that your Eminence will send me funds with which to work. Without money our efforts must cease, and the city will be lost.

The Union forces here are few, and morale is not high. There are mercenaries within the city, and I have ordered that more be recruited, but their loyalty is questionable, particularly if they cannot be paid. I therefore request that more of the King’s soldiers might be sent. Even a single company could make a difference.

You will hear from me soon. Until then, I serve and obey.

Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska.

“This is the place,” said Glokta.

“Uh,” said Frost.

It was a rough building of one storey, carelessly built from mud bricks, no bigger than a good-sized wood shed. Chinks of light spilled out into the night from around the ill-fitting door and the ill-fitting shutters in the single window. It was much the same as the other huts in the street, if you could call it a street. It hardly looked like the residence of a member of Dagoska’s ruling council. But then Kahdia is the odd man out in many ways. The leader of the natives. The priest without a temple. The one with least to lose, perhaps?

The door opened before Glokta even had the chance to knock. Kahdia stood in the doorway, tall and slender in his white robe. “Why don’t you come in?” The Haddish turned, stepped over to the only chair and sat down in it.

“Wait here,” said Glokta.

“Uh.”

The inside of the shed was no more auspicious than the outside. Clean, and orderly, and poor as hell. The ceiling was so low that Glokta could only just stand upright, the floor was hard-packed dirt. A straw mattress lay on empty crates at one end of the single room, a small chair beside it. A squat cupboard stood under the window, a few books stacked on top, a guttering candle burning beside them. Apart from a dented bucket for natural functions, that appeared to be the full extent of Kahdia’s worldly possessions. No sign of any hidden corpses of Superiors of the Inquisition, but you never know. A body can be packed away quite neatly, if one cuts it into small enough pieces…

“You should move out of the slums.” Glokta shut the door behind him on creaking hinges, limped to the bed and sat down heavily on the mattress.

“Natives are not permitted within the Upper City, or had you not heard?”

“I’m sure that an exception could be made in your case. You could have chambers in the Citadel. Then I wouldn’t have to limp all the way down here to speak to you.”

“Chambers in the Citadel? While my fellows rot down here in the filth? The least a leader can do is to share the burdens of his people. I have little other comfort to give them.” It was sweltering hot down here in the Lower City, but Kahdia did not seem uncomfortable. His gaze was level, his eyes were fixed on Glokta’s, dark and cool as deep water. “Do you disapprove?”

Glokta rubbed at his aching neck. “Not in the least. Martyrdom suits you, but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t join in.” He licked at his empty gums. “I’ve made my sacrifices.”

“Perhaps not all of them. Ask your questions.” Straight to business, then. Nothing to hide? Or nothing to lose?

“Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

“It is my earnest hope that he died in great pain.” Glokta felt his eyebrows lift. The very last thing I expected—an honest answer. Perhaps the first honest answer that I have received to that question, but hardly one that frees him from suspicion.

“In great pain, you say?”

“Very great pain. And I will shed no tears if you join him.”

Glokta smiled. “I don’t know that I can think of anyone who will, but Davoust is the matter in hand. Were your people involved in his disappearance?”

“It is possible. Davoust gave us reasons enough. There are many families missing husbands, fathers, daughters, because of his purges, his tests of loyalty, his making of examples. My people number many thousands, and I cannot watch them all. The one thing I can tell you is that I know nothing of his disappearance. When one devil falls they always send another, and here you are. My people have gained nothing.”

“Except Davoust’s silence. Perhaps he discovered that you had made a deal with the Gurkish. Perhaps joining the Union was not all your people hoped for.”

Kahdia snorted. “You know nothing. No Dagoskan would ever strike a deal with the Gurkish.”

“To an outsider, the two of you seem to have much in common.”

“To an ignorant outsider, we do. We both have dark skin, and we both pray to God, but that is the full extent of the similarity. We Dagoskans have never been a warlike people. We remained here on our peninsula, confident in the strength of our defences, while the Gurkish Empire spread like a cancer across the Kantic continent. We thought their conquests were none of our concern. That was our folly. Emissaries came to our gates, demanding that we kneel before the Gurkish Emperor, and acknowledge that the prophet Khalul speaks with the voice of God. We would do neither, and Khalul swore to destroy us. Now, it seems, he will finally succeed. All of the South will be his dominion.” And the Arch Lector will not be in the least amused.

“Who knows? Perhaps God will come to your aid.”

“God favours those who solve their own problems.”

“Perhaps we can solve some problems between us.”

“I have no interest in helping you.”

“Even if you help yourself as well? I have it in mind to issue a decree. The gates of the Upper City will be opened, your people will be allowed to come and go in their own city as they please. The Spicers will be turned out of the Great Temple, and it shall once again be your sacred ground. The Dagoskans will be permitted to carry arms; indeed, we will provide you with weapons from our own armouries. The natives will be treated like full citizens of the Union. They deserve nothing less.”

“So. So.” Kahdia clasped his hands together and sat back in his creaking chair. “Now, with the Gurkish knocking at the gates, you come to Dagoska, flaunting your little scroll as though it was the word of God, and you choose to do the right thing. You are not like all the others. You are a good man, a fair man, a just man. You expect me to believe this?”

“Honestly? I don’t care a shit what you believe, and I care about doing the right thing even less—that’s all a matter of who you ask. As for being a good man,” and Glokta curled his lip, “that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off. I’m interested in holding Dagoska. That and nothing else.”

“And you know you cannot hold Dagoska without our help.”

“Neither one of us is a fool, Kahdia. Don’t insult me by acting like one. We can bicker with each other until the Gurkish tide sweeps over the land walls, or we can cooperate. You never know, together we might even beat them. Your people will help us dig the ditch, repair the walls, hang the gates. You will provide a thousand men to serve in the defence of the city, to begin with, and more later.”

“Will I? Will I indeed? And if, with our help, the city stands? Will our deal stand with it?”

If the city stands, I will be gone. More than likely, Vurms and the rest will be back in charge, and our deal will be dust. “If the city stands, you have my word that I will do everything possible.”

“Everything possible. Meaning nothing.” You get the idea.

“I need your help, so I’m offering you what I can. I’d offer you more, but I don’t have more. You could sulk down here in the slums with the flies for company, and wait for the Emperor to come. Perhaps the great Uthman-ul-Dosht will offer you a better deal.” Glokta looked Kahdia in the eye for a moment. “But we both know he won’t.”

The priest pursed his lips, stroked his beard, then gave a deep sigh. “They say a man lost in the desert must take such water as he is offered, no matter who it comes from. I accept your deal. Once the temple is empty we will dig your holes, and carry your stone, and wear your swords. Something is better than nothing, and, as you say, perhaps together we can even beat the Gurkish. Miracles do happen.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Glokta as he shoved on his cane and grunted his way to his feet, shirt sticking to his sweaty back. “So I’ve heard.” But I’ve never seen one.


Glokta stretched out on the cushions in his chambers, head back, mouth open, resting his aching body. The same chambers that were once occupied by my illustrious predecessor, Superior Davoust. They were a wide, airy, well-furnished set of rooms. Perhaps they once belonged to a Dagoskan Prince, or a scheming vizier, or a dusky concubine, before the natives were thrown out into the dust of the Lower City. Better by far than my poky shit-hole in the Agriont, except that Superiors of the Inquisition have been known to go missing from these rooms.

One set of windows faced northward, out towards the sea, on the steepest side of the rock, the other looked over the baking city. Both were equipped with heavy shutters. Outside it was a sheer drop over bare stone to jagged rocks and angry salt water. The door was six fingers thick, studded with iron, fitted with a heavy lock and four great bolts. Davoust was a cautious man, and with good reason, it would seem. So how could assassins have got in, and having got in, how could they remove the body?

He felt his mouth curving into a smile. How will they remove mine, when they come? Already my enemies mount up—the sneering Vurms, the punctilious Vissbruck, the merchants whose profits I threaten, the Practical who served Harker and Davoust, the natives with good reason to hate anyone who wears black, my old enemies the Gurkish, of course, and all that providing his Eminence does not get anxious at the lack of progress, and decide to have me replaced himself. Will anyone come searching for my twisted corpse, I wonder?

“Superior.”

Opening his eyes and lifting his head was a great and painful effort. Everything hurt from his exertions of the past few days. His neck clicked like a snapping twig with every movement, his back was stiff and brittle as a mirror, his leg veered between nagging agony and trembling numbness.

Shickel was standing in the doorway, head bowed. The cuts and bruises on her dark face were healed. There was no outward sign of the ordeal she had suffered in the cells below. She never looked him in the eye, though, always at the floor. Some wounds take time to heal, and others never do. I should know.

“What is it, Shickel?”

“Magister Eider sends you an invitation to dinner.”

“Does she indeed?”

The girl nodded.

“Send word that I will be honoured to attend.”

Glokta watched her pad out of the room, head bowed, then he sagged back onto his cushions. If I disappear tomorrow, at least I will have saved one person. Perhaps that means my life has not been a total waste of time. Sand dan Glokta, shield to the helpless. Is it ever too late to be… a good man?


“Please!” squealed Harker. “Please! I know nothing!” He was bound tightly to his chair, unable to move his body far. But he makes up for it with his eyes. They darted back and forth over Glokta’s instruments, glittering in the harsh lamplight on the scarred table top. Oh yes, you understand better than most how this will work. Knowledge is so often the antidote to fear. But not here. Not now. “I know nothing!”

“I will be the judge of what you know.” Glokta wiped some sweat from his face. The room was hot as a busy forge and the glowing coals in the brazier were far from helping. “If a thing smells like a liar, and is the colour of a liar, the chances are it is a liar, would you not agree?”

“Please! We are all on the same side!” Are we? Are we really? “I have told you only the truth!”

“Perhaps, but not as much of it as I need.”

“Please! We are all friends here!”

“Friends? In my experience, a friend is merely an acquaintance who has yet to betray you. Is that what you are, Harker?”

“No!”

Glokta frowned. “Then you are our enemy?”

“What? No! I just… I just… I wanted to know what happened! That’s all! I didn’t mean to… please!” Please, please, please, I tire of hearing it. “You have to believe me!”

“The only thing I have to do is get answers.”

“Only ask your questions, Superior, I beg of you! Only give me the opportunity to cooperate!” Oh indeed, the firm hand does not seem such a fine idea any longer, does it? “Ask your questions, I will do my best to answer!”

“Good.” Glokta perched himself on the edge of the table just beside his tightly bound prisoner and looked down at him. “Excellent.” Harker’s hands were tanned deep brown, his face was tanned deep brown, the rest of his body was pale as a white slug with thick patches of dark hair. Hardly a fetching look. But it could be worse. “Answer me this, then. Why is it that men have nipples?”

Harker blinked. He swallowed. He looked up at Frost, but there was, no help there. The albino stared back, unblinking, white skin round his mask beaded with sweat, eyes hard as two pink jewels. “I… I am not sure I understand, Superior.”

“Is it not a simple question? Nipples, Harker, on men. What purpose do they serve? Have you not often wondered?”

“I… I…”

Glokta sighed. “They chafe and become painful in the wet. They dry out and become painful in the heat. Some women, for reasons I could never fathom, insist on fiddling with them in bed, as though we derive anything but annoyance from having them interfered with.” Glokta reached towards the table, while Harker’s wide eyes followed his every movement, and slid his hand slowly around the grips of the pincers. He lifted them up and examined them, the well-sharpened jaws glinting in the bright lamplight. “A man’s nipples,” he murmured, “are a positive hindrance to him. Do you know? Aside from the unsightly scarring, I don’t miss mine in the least.”

He grabbed the tip of Harker’s nipple and dragged it roughly towards him. “Ah!” squawked the one-time Inquisitor, the chair creaking as he tried desperately to twist away. “No!”

“You think that hurts? Then I doubt you’ll enjoy what’s coming.” And Glokta slid the open jaws of the pincers around the stretched out flesh and squeezed them tight.

“Ah! Ah! Please! Superior, I beg you!”

“Your begging is worthless to me. What I need from you is answers. What became of Davoust?”

“I swear on my life that I don’t know!”

“Not good enough.” Glokta began to squeeze harder, the metal edges starting to bite into the skin.

Harker gave a despairing shriek. “Wait! I took money! I admit it! I took money!”

“Money?” Glokta let the pressure release a fraction and a drop of blood dripped from the pincers and spattered on Harker’s hairy white leg. “What money?”

“Money Davoust took from the natives! After the rebellion! He had me round up any that I thought might be rich, and he had them hanged along with the rest, and we requisitioned everything they had and split it between us! He kept his share in a chest in his quarters, and when he disappeared… I took it!”

“Where is this money now?”

“Gone! I spent it! On women… and on wine, and, and, on anything!”

Glokta clicked his tongue. “Tut, tut.” Greed and conspiracy, injustice and betrayal, robbery and murder. All the ingredients of a tale to titillate the masses. Saucy, but hardly relevant. He worked his hand around the pincers. “It is the Superior himself, not his money, that interests me. Believe me when I say that I grow tired of asking the question. What became of Davoust?”

“I… I… I don’t know!”

True, perhaps. But hardly the answer I need. “Not good enough.” Glokta squeezed his hand and the metal jaws bit cleanly through flesh and met in the middle with a gentle click. Harker bellowed, and thrashed, and roared in agony, blood bubbling from the red square of flesh where his nipple used to be and running down his pale belly in dark streaks. Glokta winced at a twinge in his neck and stretched his head out until he heard it click. Strange how, with time, even the most terrible suffering of others can become… tedious.

“Practical Frost, the Inquisitor is bleeding! If you please!”

“I’th thorry.” The iron scraped as Frost dragged it from the brazier, glowing orange. Glokta could feel the heat of it even from where he was sitting. Ah, hot iron. It keeps no secrets, it tells no lies.

“No! No! I—” Harker’s words dissolved into a bubbling scream as Frost ground the brand into the wound and the room filled slowly with the salty aroma of cooking meat. A smell which, to Glokta’s disgust, caused his empty stomach to rumble. How long is it since I had a good slice of meat? He wiped a fresh sheen of sweat from his face with his free hand and worked his aching shoulders under his coat.

An ugly business, that we find ourselves in. So why do I do this? The only answer was the soft crunch as Frost slid the iron carefully back into the coals, sending up a dusting of orange sparks. Harker twisted, and whimpered, and shook, his weeping eyes bulging, a strand of smoke still curling up from the blackened flesh on his chest. An ugly business, of course. No doubt he deserves it, but that changes nothing. Probably he has no clue what became of Davoust, but that changes nothing either. The questions must be asked, and exactly as if he did know the answers.

“Why do you insist on defying me, Harker? Could it be… that you suppose… that once I’m done with your nipples I’ll have run out of ideas? Is that what you’re thinking? That your nipples are where I’ll stop?”

Harker stared at him, bubbles of spit forming and breaking on his lips. Glokta leaned closer. “Oh, no, no, no. This is only the beginning. This is before the beginning. Time opens up ahead of us in pitiless abundance. Days, and weeks, and months of it, if need be. Do you seriously believe that you can keep your secrets for that long? You belong to me, now. To me, and to this room. This cannot stop until I know what I need to know.” He reached forward and gripped Harker’s other nipple between thumb and forefinger. He took up the pincers and opened their bloody jaws. “How difficult can that be to understand?”


Magister Eider’s dining chamber was fabulous to behold. Cloths of silver and crimson, gold and purple, green and blue and vivid yellow, rippled in the gentle breeze from the narrow windows. Screens of filigree marble adorned the walls, great pots as high as a man stood in the corners. Heaps of pristine cushions were tossed about the floor, as though inviting passers-by to sprawl in comfortable decadence. Coloured candles burned in tall glass jars, casting warm light into every corner, filling the air with sweet scent. At one end of the marble hall clear water trickled gently in a star-shaped pool. There was more than a touch of the theatrical about the place. Like a Queen’s boudoir from some Kantic legend.

Magister Eider, head of the Guild of Spicers, was herself the centrepiece. The very Queen of merchants. She sat at the top of the table in a pristine white gown, shimmering silk with just the slightest, fascinating hint of transparency. A small fortune in jewels flashed on every inch of tanned skin, her hair was piled up and held in place with ivory combs, excepting a few strands, curling artfully around her face. It looked very much as if she had been preparing herself all day. And not a moment was wasted.

Glokta, hunched in his chair at the opposite end with a bowl of steaming soup before him, felt as if he had shuffled into the pages of a storybook. A lurid romance, set in the exotic south, with Magister Eider as the heroine, and myself the disgusting, the crippled, the black-hearted villain. How will this fable end, I wonder? “So, tell me, Magister, to what do I owe this honour?”

“I understand that you have spoken to the other members of the council. I was surprised, and just a little hurt, that you had not sought an audience with me already.”

“I apologise if you felt left out. It seemed only fitting that I saved the most powerful until last.”

She looked up with an air of injured innocence. And a most consummately acted one. “Powerful? Me? Vurms controls the budget, issues the decrees, Vissbruck commands the troops, holds the defences. Kahdia speaks for the great majority of the populace. I scarcely figure.”

“Come now.” Glokta grinned his toothless grin. “You are radiant, of course, but I am not quite blinded. Vurms’ budget is a pittance compared to what the Spicers make. Kahdia’s people have been rendered almost helpless. Through your pickled friend Cosca you command more than twice the troops that Vissbruck does. The only reason the Union is even interested in this thirsty rock is for the trade that your guild controls.”

“Well, I don’t like to boast.” The Magister gave an artless shrug. “But I suppose that I do have some passing influence in the city. You have been asking questions, I see.”

“That’s what I do.” Glokta raised his spoon to his mouth, trying his best not to slurp between his remaining teeth. “This soup is delicious, by the way.” And, one hopes, not fatal.

“I thought you might appreciate it. You see, I have been asking questions also.”

The water plopped and tinkled in the pool, the fabric rustled on the walls, the silverware clicked gently against the fine pottery of their bowls. I would call that first round a draw. Carlot dan Eider was the first to break the silence.

“I realise, of course, that you have a mission from the Arch Lector himself. A mission of the greatest importance. I see that you are not a man to mince your words, but you might want to tread a little more carefully.”

“I admit my gait is awkward. A war wound, compounded by two years of torture. It’s a wonder I got to keep the leg at all.”

She smiled wide, displaying two rows of perfect teeth. “I am thoroughly tickled, but my colleagues have found you somewhat less entertaining. Vurms and Vissbruck have both taken a decided dislike to you. High-handed was the phrase they used, I believe, among others I had better not repeat.”

Glokta shrugged. “I am not here to make friends.” And he drained his glass of a predictably excellent wine.

“But friends can be useful. If nothing else, a friend is one less enemy. Davoust insisted on upsetting everyone, and the results have not been happy.”

“Davoust did not enjoy the support of the Closed Council.”

“True. But no document will stop a knife thrust.”

“Is that a threat?”

Carlot dan Eider laughed. It was an easy, open, friendly laugh. It was hard to believe that anyone who made such a sound could be a traitor, or a threat, or anything other than a perfectly charming host. And yet I am not entirely convinced. “That is advice. Advice born of bitter experience. I would prefer it if you did not disappear quite yet.”

“Really? I had no idea I was such a winning dinner guest.”

“You are terse, confrontational, slightly frightening, and impose severe restrictions on the menu, but the fact is you are more use to me here than…” and she waved her hand, “wherever Davoust went to. Would you care for more wine?”

“Of course.”

She got up from her chair and swept towards him, feet padding on the cool marble like a dancer’s. Bare feet, in the Kantic fashion. The breeze stirred the flowing garments around her body as she leaned forwards to fill Glokta’s glass, wafted her rich scent in his face. Just the sort of woman my mother would have wanted me to marry—beautiful, clever, and oh so very rich. Just the sort of woman I would have wanted to marry, for that matter, when I was younger. When I was a different man.

The flickering candlelight shone on her hair, flashed on the jewels around her long neck, glowed through the wine as it sloshed from the neck of the bottle. Does she try and charm me merely because I hold the writ of the Closed Council? Nothing more than good business, to be on good terms with the powerful? Or does she hope to fool me, and distract me, and lure me away from the unpleasant truth? Her eyes met his briefly, and she gave a tiny, knowing smile and looked back to his glass. Am I to be her little urchin boy, dirty face pressed up against the bakers window, mouth watering for the sweetmeats I know I can never afford? I think not.

“Where did Davoust go to?”

Magister Eider paused for a moment, then carefully set down the bottle. She slid into the nearest chair, put her elbows on the table, her chin on her hands, and held Glokta’s eye. “I suspect that he was killed by a traitor in the city. Probably an agent of the Gurkish. At the risk of telling you what you already know, Davoust suspected there was a conspiracy afoot within the city’s ruling council. He confided as much to me shortly before his disappearance.”

Did he indeed? “A conspiracy within the ruling council?” Glokta shook his head in mock horror. “Is such a thing possible?”

“Let us be honest with each other, Superior. I want what you want. We in the Guild of Spicers have invested far too much time and money in this city to see it fall to the Gurkish, and you seem to offer a better chance of holding on to it than those idiots Vurms and Vissbruck. If there is a traitor within our walls I want him found.”

“Him… or her.”

Magister Eider raised one delicate eyebrow. “It cannot have escaped your notice that I am the only woman on the council.”

“It has not.” Glokta slurped noisily from his spoon. “But forgive me if I don’t discount you quite yet. It will require more than good soup and pleasant conversation to convince me of anyone’s innocence.” Although it’s a damn sight more than anyone else has offered me.

Magister Eider smiled as she raised her glass. “Then how can I convince you?”

“Honestly? I need money.”

“Ah, money. It always comes back to that. Getting money out of my Guild is like trying to dig up water in the desert—tiring, dirty, and almost always a waste of time.” Somewhat like asking questions of Inquisitor Harker. “How much were you thinking of?”

“We could begin with, say, a hundred thousand marks.”

Eider did not actually choke on her wine. More of a gentle gurgle. She set her glass down carefully, quietly cleared her throat, dabbed at her mouth with the corner of a cloth, then looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “You very well know that no such amount will be forthcoming.”

“I’ll settle for whatever you can give me, for now.”

“We’ll see. Are your ambitions limited to a mere hundred thousand marks, or is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Actually there is. I need the merchants out of the Temple.”

Eider rubbed gently at her own temples, as though Glokta’s demands were giving her a headache. “He wants the merchants out,” she murmured.

“It was necessary to secure Kahdia’s support. With him against us we cannot hope to hold the city for long.”

“I’ve been telling those arrogant fools the same thing for years, but stamping on the natives has become quite the popular pastime nonetheless. Very well, when do you want them out?”

“Tomorrow. At the latest.”

“And they call you high-handed?” She shook her head. “Very well. By tomorrow evening I could well be the most unpopular Magister in living memory, if I still have my post at all, but I’ll try and sell it to the Guild.”

Glokta grinned. “I feel confident that you could sell anything.”

“You’re a tough negotiator, Superior. If you ever get tired of asking questions, I have no doubt you’ve a bright future as a merchant.”

“A merchant? Oh, I’m not that ruthless.” Glokta placed his spoon in the empty bowl and licked at his gums. “I mean no disrespect, but how does a woman come to head the most powerful Guild in the Union?”

Eider paused, as though wondering whether to answer or not. Or judging how much truth to tell when she does. She looked down at her glass, turned the stem slowly round and round. “My husband was Magister before me. When we married I was twenty-two years old, he was near sixty. My father owed him a great deal of money, and offered my hand as payment for the debt.” Ah, so we all have our sufferings. Her lip twisted in a faint scowl. “My husband always had a good nose for a bargain. His health began to decline soon after we married, and I took a more and more active role in the management of his affairs, and those of the Guild. By the time he died I was Magister in all but name, and my colleagues were sensible enough to formalise the arrangement. The Spicers have always been more concerned for profit than propriety.” Her eyes flicked up to look at Glokta. “I mean no disrespect, but how does a war hero come to be a torturer?”

It was his turn to pause. A good question. How did that happen? “There are precious few opportunities for cripples.”

Eider nodded slowly, her eyes never leaving Glokta’s face. “That must have been hard. To come back, after all that time in the darkness, and to find that your friends had no use for you. To see in their faces only guilt, and pity, and disgust. To find yourself alone.”

Glokta’s eyelid was twitching, and he rubbed at it gently. He had never discussed such things with anyone before. And now here I am, discussing them with a stranger. “There can be no doubt that I’m a tragic figure. I used to be a shit of a man, now I’m a husk of one. Take your pick.”

“I imagine it makes you sick, to be treated that way. Very sick, and very angry.” If only you knew. “It still seems a strange decision, though, for the tortured to turn torturer.”

“On the contrary, nothing could be more natural. In my experience, people do as they are done to. You were sold by your father and bought by your husband, and yet you choose to buy and sell.”

Eider frowned. Something for her to think about, perhaps? “I would have thought your pain would give you empathy.”

“Empathy? What’s that?” Glokta winced as he rubbed at his aching leg. “It’s a sad fact, but pain only makes you sorry for yourself.”

<p>Campfire Politics</p>

Logen shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, and squinted up at the few birds circling around over the great flat plain. Damn but his arse hurt. His thighs were sore, his nose was all full of the smell of horse. Couldn’t find a comfortable position to put his fruits in. Always squashed, however often he jammed his hand down inside his belt to move ’em. A damn uncomfortable journey this was turning out to be, in all sorts of ways.

He used to talk on the road, back in the North. When he was a boy he’d talked to his father. When he was a young man he’d talked to his friends. When he’d followed Bethod he’d talked to him, all the day long, for they’d been close back then, like brothers almost. Talk took your mind off the blisters on your feet, or the hunger in your belly, or the endless bloody cold, or who’d got killed yesterday.

Logen used to laugh at the Dogman’s stories while they slogged through the snow. He used to puzzle over tactics with Threetrees while they rode through the mud. He used to argue with Black Dow while they waded through bogs, and no subject was ever too small. He’d even traded a joke or two with Harding Grim in his time, and there weren’t too many who could say that.

He sighed to himself. A long, painful sigh that caught at the back of his throat. Good times, no doubt, but far behind him now, in the sunny valleys of the past. Those boys were all gone back to the mud. All silent, forever. Worse yet, they’d left Logen out in the middle of nowhere with this lot.

The great Jezal dan Luthar wasn’t interested in anyone’s stories except his own. He sat stiff upright and aloof the whole time, chin held high, displaying his arrogance, and his superiority, and his contempt for everything like a young man might show off his first sword, long before he learned that it was nothing to be proud of.

Bayaz had no interest in tactics. When he spoke at all he barked in single words, in yeses and in nos, frowning out across the endless grass like a man who’s made a bad mistake and can’t see his way clear of it. His apprentice too seemed changed since they left Adua. Quiet, hard, watchful. Brother Longfoot was away across the plain, scouting out the route. Probably best that way. No one else had any talk at all. The Navigator, Logen had to admit, had far too much.

Ferro rode some distance away from the rest of this friendly gathering, her shoulders hunched, her brows drawn down in a constant scowl, the long scar on her cheek puckered up an angry grey, doing her best to make the others look like a sack of laughs. She leaned forwards, into the wind, pushing at it, as if she hoped to hurt it with her face. More fun to trade jokes with the plague than with her, Logen reckoned.

And that was the merry band. His shoulders slumped. “How long until we get to the Edge of the World?” he asked Bayaz, without much hope.

“Some way yet,” growled the Magus through barely open teeth.

So Logen rode on, tired, and sore, and bored, and watched those few birds gliding slowly over the endless plain. Nice, big, fat birds. He licked his lips. “We could do with some meat,” he muttered. Hadn’t had fresh meat in a good long time now. Not since they left Calcis. Logen rubbed his stomach. The fatty softness from his time in the city was already tightening. “Nice bit of meat.”

Ferro frowned over at him, then up at the few birds circling above. She shrugged her bow off her shoulder.

“Hah!” chuckled Logen. “Good luck.” He watched her slide an arrow smoothly out from her quiver. Futile gesture. Even Harding Grim could never have made that shot, and he was the best man Logen had ever seen with a bow. He watched Ferro nock her shaft to the curved wood, back arched, yellow eyes fixed on the gliding shapes overhead.

“You’ll never bag one of those, not in a thousand years of trying.” She pulled back the string. “Waste of a shaft!” he shouted.

“You’ve got to be realistic about these things!” Probably the arrow would drop back down and stab him in the face. Or stick his horse through the neck, so it died and fell over and crushed him under it. A fitting end to this nightmare of a journey. A moment later one of the birds tumbled down into the grass, Ferro’s arrow stuck right through it.

“No,” he whispered, gawping open-mouthed at her as she bent the bow again. Another arrow sailed up into the grey sky. Another bird flopped to the earth, just beside the first. Logen stared at it, disbelieving. “No!”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen stranger things,” said Bayaz. “A man who talks to spirits, who travels with Magi, the most feared man in all the North?”

Logen pulled his horse up and slithered down from the saddle. He walked through the long grass, bent down on wobbly, aching legs and picked up one of the birds. The shaft had stuck it right through the centre of the breast. If Logen had stabbed it with the arrow at a distance of a foot, he could hardly have done it more neatly. “That’s wrong.”

Bayaz grinned down, hands crossed on the saddle before him. “In ancient days, before history, so the legends say, our world and the Other Side were joined. One world. Demons walked the land, free to do as they pleased. Chaos, beyond dreaming. They bred with humans, and their offspring were half breeds. Part man, part demon. Devil-bloods. Monsters. One among them took the name Euz. He delivered humanity from the tyranny of devils, and the fury of his battle with them shaped the land. He split the world above from the world below, and he sealed the gates between. To prevent such terror ever coming again, he pronounced the First Law. It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct, or to speak with devils.”

Logen watched the others watch Ferro. Luthar and Quai, both frowning at this uncanny display of archery. She leaned right back in her saddle, bow string drawn as tight as it would go, glittering point of the next shaft held perfectly steady, still managing to nudge her mount this way and that with her heels. Logen could scarcely make a horse do what he wanted with the reins in his hands, but he failed to see what Bayaz’ crazy story had to do with it. “Devils and so on, the First Law.” Logen waved his hand. “So what?”

“From the start the First Law was filled with contradictions. All magic comes from the Other Side, falling upon the land as the light falls from the sun. Euz himself was part devil, and so were his sons—Juvens, Kanedias, Glustrod—and others beside. Their blood brought them gifts, and curses. Power, and long life, and strength or sight beyond the limits of simple men. Their blood passed on into their children, growing ever thinner, into their children’s children, and so on through the long centuries. The gifts skipped one generation, then another, then came but rarely. The devil-blood grew thin, and died out. It is rare indeed now, when our world and the world below have drifted so far apart, to see those gifts made flesh. We truly are privileged to witness it.”

Logen raised his eyebrows. “Her? Half devil?”

“Much less than half, my friend.” Bayaz chuckled. “Euz himself was half, and his power threw up the mountains and gouged out the seas. Half could strike a horror and a desire into your blood to stop your heart. Half could blind you to look upon. Not half. No more than a fraction. But in her, there is a trace of the Other Side.”

“The Other Side, eh?” Logen looked down at the dead bird in his hand. “So if I was to touch her, would I break the First Law?”

Bayaz chuckled. “Now that is a sharp question. You always surprise me, Master Ninefingers. I wonder what Euz would say to it?” The Magus pursed his lips. “I think I could find it in myself to forgive you. She however,” and Bayaz nodded his bald head at Ferro, “would most likely cut your hand off.”


Logen lay on his belly, peering through the tall grass into a gentle valley with a shallow brook in its bottom. There was a huddle of buildings on the side nearest them, or the shells of buildings. No roofs left, nothing but the tumbledown walls, mostly no more than waist high, the fallen stones from them scattered across the valley’s slopes, in amongst the waving grass. It could have been a scene out of the North. Lots of villages abandoned there, since the wars. People driven out, dragged out, burned out. Logen had watched it happen, often. He’d joined in more than once. He wasn’t proud of it, but he wasn’t proud of much from those times. Or any other, come to think of it.

“Not a lot left to live in,” whispered Luthar.

Ferro scowled at him. “Plenty left to hide behind.”

Evening was coming on, the sun had dropped low on the horizon and rilled the broken village up with shadows. There was no sign of anyone down there. No sounds beyond the giggling water, the slow wind slithering through the grass. No sign of anyone, but Ferro was right. No sign didn’t necessarily mean no danger.

“You had best go down there and take a look,” murmured Longfoot.

“I best?” Logen glanced sideways at him. “You’re staying here then, eh?”

“I have no talent for fights. You are well aware of that.”

“Huh,” muttered Logen. “No talent for the sorting of fights, plenty for the finding of ’em though.”

“Finding things is what I do. I’m here to Navigate.”

“Maybe you could find me a decent meal and a bed to sleep in,” snapped Luthar, in his whining Union accent.

Ferro sucked her teeth with disgust. “Someone’s got to go,” she growled, sliding over the lip of the slope on her belly. “I’ll take the left.”

No one else moved. “Us too,” Logen grunted at Luthar.

“Me?”

“Who else? Three’s a good number. Let’s go, and let’s keep it stealthy.”

Luthar peered through the grass into the valley, licked his lips, rubbed his palms together. Nervous, Logen could tell, nervous but proud at the same time, like an untried boy before a battle, trying to show he’s not scared by sticking his chin out. Logen wasn’t fooled. He’d seen it all a hundred times before.

“You planning to wait for the morning?” he grunted.

“Just keep your mind on your own shortcomings, Northman,” hissed Luthar as he started to wriggle forward down the slope. “You’ve enough of them!” The rowels of his big, shiny spurs rattled loud as he dragged himself over the edge, clumsy and unpractised, his arse sticking up in the air.

Logen grabbed hold of his coat before he got more than a stride. “You’re not leaving those on are you?”

“What?”

“Those fucking spurs! Stealthy I said! You might as well hang a bell off your cock!”

Luthar scowled as he sat up to pull them off.

“Stay down!” hissed Logen, pushing him back into the grass on his back. “You want to get us killed?”

“Get off me!”

Logen shoved him down again, then stabbed at him with his finger to make sure he got the point. “I’m not dying over your fucking spurs and that’s a fact! If you can’t keep quiet you can stay here with the Navigator.” He glowered over at Longfoot. “Maybe you both can navigate your way into the village once we’ve made sure it’s safe.” He shook his head and crawled down the slope after Ferro.

She was already halfway to the brook, rolling and slithering over the crumbled walls, sneaking across the spaces in between them, keeping low, hand on the grip of her curved sword, quick and silent as the wind over the plain.

Impressive, no doubt, but Logen was nobody’s fool when it came to a spot of sneaking. He’d been known for it, when he was younger. Lost count of the number of Shanka, the number of men he’d come up behind. The first you’ll hear of the Bloody-Nine is the blood hissing out of your neck, that used to be the rumour. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s stealthy.

He flowed up to the first wall, slid one leg over it, silent as a mouse. He lifted himself up, smooth as butter, keeping quiet, keeping low. His back foot caught on a set of loose stones, dragged them scraping with him. He grabbed at them, fumbled them, knocked over even more with his elbow and they clattered down loud around him. He stumbled onto his weak ankle, twisted it, squawked with pain, fell over and rolled through a patch of thistles.

“Shit,” he grunted, struggling up, one hand clutching at the hilt of his sword, all tangled up with his coat. Good thing he hadn’t had it out, or he could’ve stuck himself through with it.

Happened to a friend of his. So busy shouting that he tripped on a tree root and cut a big piece out of his head on his own axe. Back to the mud double time.

He crouched among the fallen stones, waiting for someone to jump him. No one came. Just the wind breathing through the gaps in the old walls, the water chuckling away in the brook. He crept along beside a heap of rough stones, through an old doorway, slithered over a slumping wall, limping and gasping on his bad foot, scarcely making any effort to stay quiet any longer. There was no one there. He’d known it as soon as he fell. No way they could have missed that sorry performance. The Dogman would most likely have been weeping right about now, had he been alive. He waved up at the ridge, and a moment later he saw Longfoot stand up and wave as well.

“No one here,” he muttered to himself.

“Just as well,” hissed Ferro’s voice, not more than a stride or two behind. “You got a new way of scouting, pink. Make so much noise that they come to you.”

“Out of practice,” grunted Logen. “Still, no harm done. No one here.”

“There was.” She was standing in the shell of one of the ruined buildings, frowning down at the ground. A burned patch in the grass, a few stones set around it. A campfire.

“No more ’n a day or two old,” muttered Logen, poking at the ashes with a finger.

Luthar walked up behind them. “No one here after all.” He had a smug, sucked-in look on his face, like he’d somehow been right about something all along. Logen didn’t see what.

“Lucky for you there isn’t, or we might be stitching you together right about now!”

“I’d be stitching the fucking pair of you!” hissed Ferro. “I ought to stitch your useless pink heads together! You’re both as worthless as a bag of sand in the desert! There’s tracks over there. Horses, more than one cart.”

“Merchants maybe?” asked Logen, hopefully. He and Ferro looked at each other for a moment. “Might be better if we stay off the track from now on.”

“Too slow.” Bayaz had made it down into the village now.

Quai and Longfoot weren’t far behind with the cart and the horses. “Far too slow. We stick to the track. We’ll see anyone coming in good time out here. Plenty of time.”

Luthar didn’t look convinced. “If we see them, they’ll see us. What then?”

“Then?” Bayaz raised an eyebrow. “Then we have the famous Captain Luthar to protect us.” He looked round at the ruined village. “Running water, and shelter, of a kind. Seems like a good place to camp.”

“Good enough,” muttered Logen, already rooting through the cart for logs to start a fire of their own. “I’m hungry. What happened to those birds?”


Logen sat, and watched the others eat over the rim of his pot.

Ferro squatted at the very edge of the shifting light from the campfire, hunched over, shadowy face almost stuck right into her bowl, staring around suspiciously and shoving food in with her fingers like she was worried it might be snatched away any moment. Luthar was less enthusiastic. He was nibbling daintily at a wing with his bared front teeth, as though touching it with his lips might poison him, discarded morsels lined up carefully along the side of his platter. Bayaz chewed away with some relish, his beard glistening with gravy. “It’s good,” he muttered around a mouthful. “You might want to consider cookery as a career, Master Ninefingers, if you should ever grow tired of…” he waved his spoon, “whatever it is you do.”

“Huh,” said Logen. In the North everyone took their turn at the fire, and it was reckoned an honour to do it. A good cook was almost as valued as a good fighter. Not here. These were a sorry crowd when it came to minding the pot. Bayaz could just about get his tea boiled, and that was as far as he went. Quai could get a biscuit out of the box on a good day. Logen doubted whether Luthar would even have known which way up the pot went. As for Ferro, she seemed to despise the whole notion of cooking. Logen reckoned she was used to eating her food raw. Perhaps while it was still alive.

In the North, after a hard day on the trail, when the men gathered around the long fires to eat, there was a strict order to who sat where. The chief would go at the top, with his sons and the Named Men of the clan around him. Next came the Carls, in order of fame. Thralls were lucky to get their own small fires further out. Men would always have their place, and only change it when their chief offered, out of respect for some great service they’d done him, or for showing rare good bones in a fight. Sitting out of place could earn you a kicking, or a killing even. Where you sat round the fire was where you stood in life, more or less.

It was different out here on the plains, but Logen could still see a pattern in who sat where, and it was far from a happy one. He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other. He glanced over at Luthar, sneering down into his bowl as though it was full of piss. No respect. He glanced over at Ferro, staring yellow knives at him through narrowed eyes. No trust. He shook his head sadly. Without trust and respect the group would fall apart in a fight like walls without mortar.

Still, Logen had won over tougher audiences, in his time. Threetrees, Tul Duru, Black Dow, Harding Grim, he’d fought each one in single combat, and beaten them all. Spared each man’s life, and left him bound to follow. Each one had tried their best to kill him, and with good reasons too, but in the end Logen had earned their trust, and their respect, and their friendship even. Small gestures and a lot of time, that was how he’d done it. “Patience is the chief of virtues,” his father used to say, and “you won’t cross the mountains in a day.” Time might be against them, but there was nothing to be gained by rushing. You have to be realistic about these things.

Logen uncrossed his stiff legs, took hold of the water-skin and got up, walked slowly over to where Ferro was sitting. Her eyes followed him all the way across. She was a strange one, no doubt, and not just the looks of her, though the dead knew her looks were strange enough. She seemed hard and sharp and cold as a new sword, ruthless as any man that Logen could think of. You would have thought she wouldn’t throw a log to save a drowning man, but she’d done more than that to save him, and more than once. Out of all of them, she was the one he’d trust first, and furthest. So he squatted down and held the skin out to her, its bulbous shadow flickering and shifting on the rough wall behind her.

She frowned at it for a moment, then frowned up at Logen. Then she snatched it off him and bent back over her pot, half turning her bony shoulders on him. Not a word of thanks, or a gesture even, but he didn’t mind. You won’t cross the mountains in a day, after all.

He dropped down again beside the fire, watched the flames dancing, casting shifting light across the grim faces of the group. “Anyone know any stories?” he asked, hopefully.

Quai sucked at his teeth. Luthar curled his lip at Logen across the fire. Ferro gave no sign that she had even heard. Hardly an encouraging start.

“Not any?” No reply. “Alright then, I know a song or two, if I can remember the words,” he cleared his throat.

“Very well!” cut in Bayaz. “If it will save us from a song, I know hundreds of stories. What did you have it in mind to hear about? A romance? A comedy? A tale of bravery against the odds?”

“This place,” cut in Luthar. “The Old Empire. If it was such a great nation, how did it come to this?” He jerked his head over at the crumbling walls, and what they all knew lay beyond. The miles and miles of nothing. “A wasteland.”

Bayaz sighed. “I could tell that tale, but we are lucky enough to have a native of the Old Empire with us on our little trip, and a keen student of history to boot. Master Quai?” The apprentice looked up lazily from the fire. “Would you care to enlighten us? How did the Empire, once the glittering centre of the world, come to this pass?”

“That story is long in the telling,” murmured the apprentice. “Shall I start from the beginning?”

“Where else should a man ever start?”

Quai shrugged his bony shoulders and began to speak. “Almighty Euz, vanquisher of demons, closer of gates, father of the World, had four sons, and to each he gave a gift. To his eldest, Juvens, he gave the talent of High Art, the skill to change the world with magic, tempered by knowledge. To his second son, Kanedias, went the gift of making, of shaping stone and metal to his own purposes. To his third son, Bedesh, Euz gave the skill of speaking with spirits, and of making them do his bidding.” Quai gave a wide yawn, smacked his lips and blinked at the fire. “So were born the three pure disciplines of magic”

“I thought he had four sons,” grumbled Luthar.

Quai’s eyes slid sideways. “So he did, and therein lies the root of the Empire’s destruction. Glustrod was the youngest son. To him should have gone the gift of communing with the Other Side. The secrets of summoning devils from the world below and binding them to one’s will. But such things were forbidden by the First Law, and so Euz gave nothing to his youngest son but his blessing, and we all know what those are worth. He taught the other three their share of his secrets and left, ordering his sons to bring order to the world.”

“Order.” Luthar tossed his platter down on the grass beside him and glanced disdainfully round at the shadowy ruins. “They didn’t get far.”

“At first they did. Juvens set about his purpose with a will, and bent all his power and all his wisdom to it. He found a people that pleased him, living beside the Aos, and favoured them with laws and learning, government and science. He gave to them the skills to conquer their neighbours, and made of their chief an Emperor. Son followed father, year followed year, and the nation grew and prospered. The lands of the Empire stretched as far as Isparda in the south, Anconus in the north, the very shores of the Circle Sea to the east, and beyond. Emperor followed Emperor, but always Juvens was there—guiding, advising, shaping all things according to his grand design. All was civilised, all was peaceful, all was content.”

“Almost all,” muttered Bayaz, poking at the guttering fire with a stick.

Quai gave a smirk. “We have forgotten Glustrod, just as his father did. The ignored son. The shunned son. The cheated son. He begged all three brothers for a share of their secrets, but they were jealous of their gifts, and all three refused him. He looked upon what Juvens had achieved, and was bitter beyond words. He found dark places in the world, and in secret he studied those sciences forbidden by the First Law. He found dark places in the world, and he touched the Other Side. He found dark places, and he spoke in the tongue of devils, and he heard their voices answer him.” Quai’s voice dropped down to a whisper. “And the voices told Glustrod where to dig…”

“Very good, Master Quai,” cut in Bayaz, sternly. “Your grip on the histories seems much improved. Let us not tarry on the details, however. We can leave Glustrod’s diggings for another day.”

“Of course,” murmured Quai, his dark eyes glittering in the firelight, his gaunt face full of gloomy hollows. “You know best, master. Glustrod laid plans. He watched from the shadows. He garnered secrets. He flattered, and he threatened, and he lied. It did not take him long to turn the weak-willed to his purposes, and the strong-willed against each other, for he was cunning, and charming, and fair to look upon. He heard the voices always, now, from the world below. They suggested that he sow discord everywhere, and he listened. They urged him to eat the flesh of men, and steal their power, and he did so. They commanded him to seek out those devil-bloods that remained in our world, spurned, hated, exiled, and make from them an army, and he obeyed.”

Something touched Logen’s shoulder from behind and he near jumped in the air. Ferro was standing over him, the water-skin held out in her hand. “Thanks,” he growled as he took it from her, pretending that his heart wasn’t knocking at his ribs. He took a quick swig and banged the stopper in with his palm, then put it down beside him. When he looked up, Ferro hadn’t moved. She stood there above him, looking down at the dancing flames. Logen shuffled up a step, making room. Ferro scowled, sucked her teeth, kicked at the ground, then slowly squatted down on her haunches, making sure to leave plenty of space between them. She held her hands out to the fire and bared her shining teeth at it.

“Cold over there.”

Logen nodded. “These walls don’t keep the wind off much.”

“No.” Her eyes swept across the group and found Quai. “Don’t stop for me,” she snapped.

The apprentice grinned. “Strange and sinister was the host that Glustrod gathered. He waited for Juvens to leave the Empire, then he crept into the capital at Aulcus and set his well-laid schemes in motion. It seemed as if a madness swept the city. Son fought with father, wife with husband, neighbour with neighbour. The Emperor was cut down on the steps of his palace by his own sons and then, maddened with greed and envy, they turned upon each other. Glustrod’s twisted army had slithered into the sewers beneath the city and rose up, turning the streets into charnel pits, the squares into slaughter yards. Some among them could take forms, stealing the faces of others.”

Bayaz shook his head. “Taking forms. A dread and insidious trick.” Logen remembered a woman, in the cold darkness, who had spoken with the voice of his dead wife, and he frowned and hunched his shoulders.

“A dread trick indeed,” said Quai, his sickly grin growing even wider. “For who can be trusted if one cannot trust one’s own eyes, one’s own ears, to tell friend from foe? But worse was to come. Glustrod summoned demons from the Other Side, bound them to his will and sent them to destroy those who might resist him.”

“Summoning and sending,” hissed Bayaz. “Cursed disciplines. Dire risks. Terrible breaches of the First Law.”

“But Glustrod recognised no law beyond his own strength. Soon he sat in the Emperor’s throne room upon a pile of skulls, sucking the flesh of men as a baby sucks milk, basking in his awful victory. The Empire descended into chaos, the very slightest taste of the chaos of ancient days, before the coming of Euz, when our world and the world below were one.”

A gust of wind sighed through the chinks in the ancient stonework around them, and Logen shivered and pulled his blanket tight around him. Damn story was making him nervous. Stealing faces, and sending devils, and eating men. But Quai did not stop. “When he found out what Glustrod had done, Juvens’ fury was terrible, and he sought the aid of his brothers. Kanedias would not come. He stayed sealed in his house, tinkering with his machines, caring nothing for the world outside. Juvens and Bedesh raised an army without him, and they fought a war against their brother.”

“A terrible war,” muttered Bayaz, “with terrible weapons, and terrible casualties.”

“The fighting spread across the continent from one end to the other, and drew in every petty rivalry, and gave birth to a host of feuds, and crimes, and vengeances, whose consequences still poison the world today. But in the end Juvens was victorious. Glustrod was besieged in Aulcus, his changelings unmasked, his army scattered. Now, in his most desperate moment, the voices from the world below whispered to him a plan. Open a gate to the Other Side, they said. Pick the locks, and crack the seals, and throw wide the doors that your father made. Break the First Law one last time, they said, and let us back into the world, and you will never again be ignored, be shunned, be cheated.”

The First of the Magi nodded slowly to himself. “But he was cheated once more.”

“Poor fool! The creatures of the Other Side are made of lies. To deal with them is to grasp the most awful peril. Glustrod made ready his rituals, but in his haste he made some small mistake. Only a grain of salt out of place, perhaps, but the results were horrible indeed. The great power that Glustrod had gathered, strong enough to tear a hole in the fabric of the world, was released without form or reason. Glustrod destroyed himself. Aulcus, great and beautiful capital of the Empire, was laid waste, the land around it forever poisoned. No one ventures within miles of the place now. The city is a shattered graveyard. A blasted ruin. A fitting monument to the folly and the pride of Glustrod and his brothers.” The apprentice glanced up at Bayaz. “Do I speak the truth, master?”

“You do,” murmured the Magus. “I know. I saw it. A young fool with a full and lustrous head of hair.” He ran a hand over his bald scalp. “A young fool who was as ignorant of magic, and wisdom, and the ways of power as you are now, Master Quai.”

The apprentice inclined his head. “I live only to learn.”

“And in that regard, you seem much improved. How did you like that tale, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen puffed out his cheeks. “I’d been hoping for something with a few more laughs, but I guess I’ll take what’s offered.”

“A pack of nonsense, if you ask me,” sneered Luthar.

“Huh,” snorted Bayaz. “How fortunate for us that no one did. Perhaps you ought to get the pots washed, Captain, before it gets too late.”

“Me?”

“One of us caught the food, and one of us cooked it. One of us has entertained the group with a tale. You are the only one among us who has as yet contributed nothing.”

“Apart from you.”

“Oh, I am far too old to be sloshing around in streams at this time of night.” Bayaz’ face grew hard. “A great man must first learn humility. The pots await.”

Luthar opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, pushed himself angrily up from his place and threw his blanket down in the grass. “Damn pots,” he cursed as he snatched them up from around the fire and stomped off towards the brook.

Ferro watched him go, a strange expression on her face that might even have been her version of a smile. She looked back at the fire, and licked her lips. Logen pulled the stopper from the water skin and held it out to her.

“Uh,” she grunted, snatched it from his hand, took a quick swallow. While she was wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she glanced sideways at him, and frowned. “What?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly, looking away and holding up his empty palms. “Nothing at all.” He was smiling on the inside, though. Small gestures and time. That was how he’d get it done.

<p>Small Crimes</p>

“Cold, eh, Colonel West?”

“Yes, your Highness, winter is nearly upon us.” There had been a kind of snow in the night. A cold, wet sleet that covered everything in icy moisture. Now, in the pale morning, the whole world seemed half-frozen. The hooves of their horses crunched and slurped in the half-frozen mud. Water dripped sadly from the half-frozen trees. West was no exception. His breath smoked from his runny nose. The tips of his ears tingled unpleasantly, numb from the cold.

Prince Ladisla hardly seemed to notice, but then he was swathed in an enormous coat, hat and mittens of shining black fur, no doubt several hundred marks worth of it. He grinned over. “The men seem good and fit, though, in spite of it all.”

West could scarcely believe his ears. The regiment of the King’s Own that had been placed under Ladisla’s command seemed happy enough, it was true. Their wide tents were pitched in orderly rows in the middle of the camp, cooking fires in front, horses tethered nearby in good order.

The position of the levies, who made up a good three quarters of their strength, was less happy. Many were shamefully ill-prepared. Men with no training or no weapons, some who were plainly too ill or too old for marching, let alone for battle. Some had little more than the clothes they stood up in, and those were in a woeful state. West had seen men huddled together under trees for warmth, nothing but half a blanket to keep the rain off. It was a disgrace.

“The King’s Own are well provided for, but I’m concerned about the situation of some of the levies, your—”

“Yes,” said Ladisla, talking over him precisely as if he had not spoken, “good and fit! Chomping at the bit! Must be the fire in their bellies keeps ’em warm, eh, West? Can’t wait to get at the enemy! Damn shame we have to wait here, kicking our heels behind this damn river!”

West bit his lip. Prince Ladisla’s incredible powers of self-deception were becoming more frustrating with every passing day. His Highness had fixed upon the idea of being a great and famous general, with a matchless force of fighting men under his command. Of winning a famous victory, and being celebrated as a hero back in Adua. Rather than exerting a single particle of effort to make it happen, however, he behaved as if it already had, utterly regardless of the truth. Nothing which was distasteful, or displeasing, or at odds with his cock-eyed notions could be permitted to be noticed. Meanwhile, the dandies on his staff, without a month’s military experience between them, congratulated him on his fine judgement, slapped each other on the back, and agreed with his every utterance, no matter how ludicrous.

Never to want for anything, or work for anything, or show the tiniest grain of self-discipline in a whole life must give a man a strange outlook on the world, West supposed, and here was the proof, riding along beside him, smiling away as though the care of ten thousand men was a light responsibility. The Crown Prince and the real world, as Lord Marshal Burr had observed, were entire strangers to one another.

“Cold,” Ladisla murmured. “Not much like the deserts of Gurkhul now, eh, Colonel West?”

“No, your Highness.”

“But some things are the same, eh? I’m speaking of war, West! War in general! The same everywhere! The courage! The honour! The glory! You fought with Colonel Glokta, didn’t you?”

“Yes, your Highness, I did.”

“I used to love to hear stories of that man’s exploits! One of my heroes, when I was young. Riding round the enemy, harassing his lines of communication, falling on the baggage train and whatnot.” The Prince’s riding crop rode around, harassed, and fell on imaginary baggage in the air before him. “Capital! And I suppose you saw it all?”

“Some of it, your Highness, yes.” He had seen a great deal of saddle-soreness, sunburn, looting, drunkenness, and vainglorious showing-off.

“Colonel Glokta, I swear! We could do with some of that dash here, eh, West? Some of that vim! That vigour! Shame that he’s dead.”

West looked up. “He isn’t dead, your Highness.”

“He isn’t?”

“He was captured by the Gurkish, and then returned to the Union when the war ended. He… er… he joined the Inquisition.”

“The Inquisition?” The Prince looked horrified. “Why on earth would a man give up the soldiering life for that?”

West groped for words, but then thought better of it. “I cannot imagine, your Highness.”

“Joined the Inquisition! Well, I never.” They rode in silence for a moment. Gradually, the Prince’s smile returned. “But we were talking of the honour of war, were we not?”

West grimaced. “We were, your Highness.”

“First through the breach at Ulrioch, weren’t you? First through the breach, I heard! There’s honour for you, eh? There’s glory, isn’t it? That must have been quite an experience, eh, Colonel? Quite an experience!”

Struggling through a mass of broken stones and timbers, littered with twisted corpses. Half-blind with the smoke, half-choking on the dust, shrieks and wails and the clashing of metal coming at him from all around, hardly able to breathe for fear. Men pressing in on all sides, groaning, shoving, stumbling, yelling, running with blood and sweat, black with grime and soot, half-seen faces twisted with pain and fury. Devils, in hell.

West remembered screaming “Forward!”, over and over until his throat was raw, even though he had no idea which way forward was. He remembered stabbing someone with his sword, friend or enemy, he did not know, then or now. He remembered falling and cutting his head on a rock, tearing his jacket on a broken timber. Moments, fragments, as if from a story he once heard someone else telling.

West pulled his coat tighter round his chilly shoulders, wishing it was thicker. “Quite an experience, your Highness.”

“Damn shame that bloody Bethod won’t be coming this way!” Prince Ladisla slashed petulantly at the air with his riding crop. “Little better than damn guard duty! Does Burr take me for a fool, eh, West, does he?”

West took a deep breath. “I couldn’t possibly say, your Highness.”

The Prince’s fickle mind had already moved off. “What about those pets of yours? Those Northmen. The ones with the comical names. What’s he called, that dirty fellow? Wolfman, is it?”

“Dogman.”

“Dogman, that’s it! Capital!” The Prince chuckled to himself. “And that other one, biggest damn fellow I ever saw! Excellent! What are they up to?”

“I sent them scouting north of the river, your Highness.” West rather wished he was with them. “The enemy are probably far away, but if they aren’t, we need to know about it.”

“Of course we do. Excellent idea. So that we can prepare to attack!”

A timely withdrawal and a fast messenger to Marshal Burr was more what West had in mind, but there was no point in saying so. Ladisla’s whole notion of war was of ordering a glorious charge, then retiring to bed. Strategy and retreat were not words in his vocabulary.

“Yes,” the Prince was muttering to himself, eyes fixed intently on the trees beyond the river. “Prepare an attack and sweep them back across the border…”

The border was a hundred leagues away. West seized his moment. “Your Highness, if I may, there is a great deal for me to do.”

It was no lie. The camp had been organised, or disorganised, without a thought for convenience or defence. An unruly maze of ramshackle canvas in a great clearing near the river, where the ground was too soft and had soon been turned into a morass of sticky mud by the supply carts. At first there had been no latrines, then they had been dug too shallow and much too close to the camp, not far from where the provisions were being stored.

Provisions which, incidentally, had been badly packed, inadequately prepared, and were already close to spoiling, attracting every rat in Angland. If it had not been for the cold, West did not doubt that the camp would already have been riddled with disease.

Prince Ladisla waved his hand. “Of course, a great deal to do. You can tell me more of your stories tomorrow, eh, West? About Colonel Glokta and so forth. Damn shame he’s dead!” he shouted over his shoulder as he cantered off towards his enormous purple tent, high up on the hill above the stink and confusion.

West turned his mount with some relief and urged it down the slope into the camp. He passed men tottering through the half-frozen sludge, shivering, breath steaming, hands wrapped in dirty rags. He passed men sitting in sorry groups before their patched tents, no two dressed the same, as close to meagre fires as they dared, fiddling with cooking pots, playing miserable games of damp cards, drinking and staring into the cold air.

The better-trained levies had gone with Poulder and Kroy to seek out the enemy. Ladisla had been left with the rump: those too weak to march well, too poorly equipped to fight well, too broken even to do nothing with any conviction. Men who might never have left their homes in all their lives, forced to cross the sea to a land they knew nothing of, to fight an enemy they had no quarrel with, for reasons they did not understand.

Some few of them might have felt some trace of patriotic fervour, some swell of manly pride when they left, but by now the hard marching, the bad food and the cold weather had truly worn, starved, and frozen all enthusiasm out of them. Prince Ladisla was scarcely the inspirational leader to put it back, had he even been making the slightest effort to do so.

West looked down at those grim, tired, pinched faces as he rode past, and they stared back, beaten already. All they wanted was to go home, and West could hardly blame them. So did he. “Colonel West!”

There was a big man grinning over at him, a man with a thick beard, wearing the uniform of an officer in the King’s Own. West realised with a start that it was Jalenhorm. He slid down from his saddle and grabbed hold of the big man’s hand in both of his. It was good to see him. A firm, honest, trustworthy presence. A reminder of a past life, when West did not move among the great men of the world, and things were an awful lot simpler. “How are you, Jalenhorm?”

“Alright, thank you, sir. Just taking a turn round the camp, waiting.” The big man cupped his hands and blew into them, rubbed them together. “Trying to stay warm.”

“That’s what war is, in my experience. A great deal of waiting, in unpleasant conditions. A great deal of waiting, with occasional moments of the most extreme terror.”

Jalenhorm gave a dry grin. “Something to look forward to then. How’re things on the Prince’s staff?”

West shook his head. “A competition to see who can be most arrogant, ignorant, and wasteful. How about you? How’s the camp life?”

“We’re not so badly off. It’s some of these levies I feel sorry for. They’re not fit to fight. I heard a couple of the older ones died last night from the cold.”

“It happens. Let’s just hope they bury them deep, and a good way from the rest of us.” West could see that the big man thought him heartless, but there it was. Few of the casualties in Gurkhul had died in battle. Accidents, illness, little wounds gone bad. You came to expect it. As badly equipped as some of the levies were? They would be burying men every day. “Nothing you need?”

“There is one thing. My horse dropped a shoe in this mud, and I tried to find someone to fit a new one.” Jalenhorm spread his hands. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s a smith in the whole camp.”

West stared at him. “Not one?”

“I couldn’t find any. There are forges, anvils, hammers and all the rest but… no one to work them. I spoke to one of the quartermasters. He said General Poulder refused to release any of his smiths, and so did General Kroy, so, well,” and Jalenhorm shrugged his shoulders, “we don’t have any.”

“No one thought to check?”

“Who?”

West felt the familiar headache tugging at the back of his eyes. Arrows need heads, blades need sharpening, armour and saddles and the carts that haul the supplies break, and need to be repaired. An army with no smiths is little better than an army with no weapons. And here they were, out in the frozen country, miles from the nearest settlement. Unless…

“We passed a penal colony on the way.”

Jalenhorm squinted as he tried to remember. “Yes, a foundry, I think. I saw smoke above the trees…”

“They would have some skilled metal-workers.”

The big man’s eyebrows went up. “Some criminal metalworkers.”

“I’ll take whatever we can get. Today your horse is short a shoe, tomorrow we might have nothing to fight with! Get a dozen men together, and a wagon. We’ll leave at once.”


The prison loomed up out of the trees through the cold rain, a fence of great, mossy logs tipped with bent and rusted spikes. A grim-looking place with a grim purpose. West swung from his saddle while Jalenhorm and his men reined up behind him, then squelched across the rutted track to the gate and hammered on the weathered wood with the pommel of his sword.

It took a while, but eventually a small hatch snapped open. A pair of grey eyes frowned at him through the slot. Grey eyes above a black mask. A Practical of the Inquisition.

“My name is Colonel West.”

The eyes regarded him coldly. “So?”

“I am in the service of Crown Prince Ladisla, and I need to speak to the commandant of this camp.”

“Why?”

West frowned, doing his very best to look impressive with his hair plastered to his scalp and the rain dripping off his chin. “There is a war on and I do not have time to bandy words with you! I need to speak to the commandant most urgently!”

The eyes narrowed. They looked at West for a while, and then at the dozen bedraggled soldiers behind him. “Alright,” said the Practical. “You can come in, but only you. The rest will have to wait.”

The main street was a stretch of churned-up mud between leaning shacks, water trickling from the eaves, spattering into the dirt. There were two men and a woman in the road, wet through, struggling to move a cart laden with stones, up to the axles in mush. All three had heavy chains on their ankles. Ragged, bony, hollow faces, as empty of hope as they were empty of food.

“Get that fucking cart shifted,” the Practical growled at them, and they stooped back to their unenviable task.

West struggled through the muck towards a stone building at the far end of the camp, trying to hop from one dry patch to another, without success. Another dour Practical was standing on the threshold, water running from a stained oilskin over his shoulders, hard eyes following West with a mixture of suspicion and indifference. He and his guide stepped past without a word and into the dim hall beyond, full of the noise of drumming rain. The Practical knocked at an ill-fitting door.

“Come in.”

A small, spare room with grey walls, cold and smelling slightly of damp. A mean fire flickered in the grate, a sagging shelf was stacked with books. A portrait of the King of the Union stared regally down from one wall. A lean man in a black coat sat writing at a cheap desk. He looked at West for a while, then carefully put down his pen and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with an inky thumb and forefinger.

“We have a visitor,” grunted the Practical.

“So I see. I am Inquisitor Lorsen, commandant of our little camp.”

West gave the bony hand the most perfunctory of squeezes. “Colonel West. I am here with Prince Ladisla’s army. We are camped a dozen miles to the north.”

“Of course. How might I be of assistance to his Highness?”

“We are desperately in need of skilled metal-workers. You run a foundry here, correct?”

“A mine, a foundry, and a smithy for the manufacture of farming tools, but I fail to see what—”

“Excellent. I will take a dozen or so men back with me, the most skilled men you have available.”

The commandant frowned. “Out of the question. The prisoners here are guilty of the most serious crimes. They cannot be released without a signed order from the Arch Lector himself.”

“Then we have a problem, Inquisitor Lorsen. I have ten thousand men with weapons that need sharpening, armour that needs mending, horses that need shoeing. We might be called into action at any moment. I cannot wait for orders from the Arch Lector or anyone else. I must leave with smiths, and there it is.”

“But you must understand that I cannot allow—”

“You fail to realise the gravity of the situation!” barked West, his temper already fraying. “By all means send a letter to the Arch Lector! I will send a man back to my camp for a company of soldiers! We can see who gets help first!”

The commandant thought about that for a while. “Very well,” he said eventually, “follow me.”

Two dirty children stared at West from the porch of one of the shacks as he stepped out of the commandant’s building, back into the incessant drizzle.

“You have children here?”

“We have whole families, if they are judged a danger to the state.” Lorsen glanced sideways at him. “A shame, but holding the Union together has always required harsh measures. I gather from your silence that you disapprove.”

West watched one of the shabby children limping through the muck, doomed, perhaps, to spend their whole life in this place. “I think it’s a crime.”

The commandant shrugged. “Don’t deceive yourself. Everyone is guilty of something, and even the innocent can be a threat. Perhaps it takes small crimes to prevent bigger ones, Colonel West, but it’s up to bigger men than us to decide. I only make sure they work hard, don’t prey upon each other, and don’t escape.”

“You only do your job, eh? A well-trodden way to avoid responsibility.”

“Which of us is it who lives among them, out here in the middle of nowhere? Which of us is it who watches over them, dresses them, feeds them, cleans them, fights the endless, pointless war against their damn lice? Is it you who stops them beating, and raping, and killing each other? You’re an officer in the King’s Own, eh, Colonel? So you live in Adua? In fine quarters in the Agriont, among the rich and well groomed?” West frowned, and Lorsen chuckled at him. “Which of us has truly avoided the responsibility, as you put it? My conscience has never been cleaner. Hate us if you like, we’re used to it. No one likes to shake hands with the man who empties the latrine pits either, but pits have to be emptied all the same. Otherwise the world fills up with shit. You can have your dozen smiths, but don’t try to take the high ground with me. There is no high ground here.”

West didn’t like it, but he had to admit the man made a good case, so he set his jaw and struggled on in silence, head down. They squelched towards a long, windowless, stone-built shed, thick smoke roiling up into the misty air from tall chimneys at each corner. The Practical slid back the bolt on the heavy door and heaved it open, and West followed him and Lorsen into the darkness.

The heat was like a slap in the face after the freezing air outside. Acrid smoke stung at West’s eyes, nipped at his throat. The din in the narrow space was frightening. Bellows creaked and wheezed, hammers clanged on anvils sending up showers of angry sparks, red hot metal hissed furiously in water barrels. There were men everywhere, packed in tight together, sweating, and groaning, and coughing, hollow faces half lit by the orange glow from the forges. Devils, in hell.

“Stop your work!” roared Lorsen. “Stop and form up!”

The men slowly set down their tools, lurched and stumbled and rattled forward to form a line while four or five Practicals looked on from the shadows. A shabby, broken, stooping, sorrowful line. A couple of the men had irons on their wrists as well as their ankles. They scarcely looked like the answer to all of West’s problems, but he had no choice. This was all there was.

“We have a visitor, from outside. Say your piece, Colonel.”

“My name is Colonel West,” he croaked, voice cracking on the stinging air. “There are ten thousand soldiers camped a dozen miles down the road, under Crown Prince Ladisla. We have need of smiths.” West cleared his throat, tried to speak louder without coughing his lungs out. “Who among you can work metals?”

No one spoke. The men stared at their threadbare shoes or their bare feet, with the odd sidelong glance at the glowering Practicals.

“You need not be afraid. Who can work metals?”

“I can, sir.” A man stepped forward from the line, the irons on his ankles rattling. He was lean and sinewy, slightly stooped. As the lamplight fell across his head West found himself wincing. He was disfigured by hideous burns. One side of his face was a mass of livid, slightly melted-looking scars, no eyebrow, scalp patchy with pink bald spots. The other side was little better. The man scarcely had a face at all. “I can work a forge, and I did some soldiering too, in Gurkhul.”

“Good,” muttered West, doing his best to swallow his horror at the man’s appearance. “Your name?”

“Pike.”

“Are any of these others good with metal, Pike?”

The burned man shuffled and clanked his way down the line, pulling men forward by their shoulders while the commandant looked on, his frown growing deeper with every passing moment.

West licked his dry lips. Hard to believe that in so little time he could have gone from so horribly cold to so horribly hot, but here he was, more uncomfortable than ever. “I’ll need keys to their irons, Inquisitor.”

“There are no keys. The irons are melted shut. They are not intended ever to be removed and I would strongly advise you not to. Many of these prisoners are extremely dangerous, and you should bear in mind that you will be returning them to us as soon as you can make alternative arrangements. The Inquisition is not in the business of early releases.” He stalked off to speak to one of the Practicals.

Pike sidled up, pulling another convict by the elbow. “Pardon me, sir,” he murmured, growling voice kept low. “But could you find a place for my daughter?”

West shrugged his shoulders, uncomfortable. He would have liked to take everyone and burn the damn place to the ground, but he was already pushing his luck. “It’s not a good idea, a woman in amongst all those soldiers. Not a good idea at all.”

“A better idea than staying here, sir. I can’t leave her on her own. She can help me at the forge. She can swing a hammer herself if it comes to that. She’s strong.”

She didn’t look strong. She looked skinny and ragged, bony face smeared with soot and grease. West could have taken her for a boy. “I’m sorry, Pike, but it’s no easy ride where we’re going.”

She grabbed hold of West’s arm as he turned away. “It’s no easy ride here.” Her voice was a surprise. Soft, smooth, educated. “Cathil is my name. I can work.” West looked down at her, ready to shake his arm free, but her expression reminded him of something. Painless. Fearless. Empty eyes, flat, like a corpse.

Ardee. Blood smeared across her cheek.

West grimaced. The memory was like a wound that wouldn’t heal. The heat was unbearable, every part of him was twitching with discomfort, his uniform like sandpaper against his clammy skin. He had to get out of this horrible place.

He looked away, his eyes stinging. “Her too,” he barked.

Lorsen snorted. “Are you joking, Colonel?”

“Believe me, I’m not in a joking mood.”

“Skilled men is one thing. I daresay you need them, but I cannot allow you to simply take whatever prisoners catch your eye—”

West turned on him with a snarl, his patience worn right through. “Her too, I said!”

If the commandant was impressed by West’s fury, he didn’t show it. They stood there for a long moment, staring at each other, while the sweat ran down West’s face and the blood pounded loud in his temples.

Then Lorsen nodded slowly. “Her too. Very well. I cannot stop you.” He leaned in a little closer. “But the Arch Lector will hear about this. He is far away, and it might take time for him to hear, but hear he will.” Even closer yet, almost whispering in West’s ear. “Perhaps one day you will find yourself visiting us again, but this time to stay. Perhaps, in the meantime, you should prepare your little lecture on the rights and wrongs of penal colonies. There’ll be plenty of time for it.” Lorsen turned away. “Now take my prisoners and go. I have a letter to write.”

<p>Rain</p>

Jezal had always found a good storm a thorough amusement. Raindrops lashing at the streets, and walls, and roofs of the Agriont, hissing from the gutters. Something to be smiled out at through the wet window while one sat, warm and dry in one’s quarters. Something that took the young ladies in the park by surprise and made them squeal, sticking their dresses excitingly to their clammy skin. Something to be dashed through, laughing with one’s friends, as one made one’s way from tavern to tavern, before drying out before a roaring fire with a mug of hot spiced wine. Jezal used to enjoy the rain almost as much as the sun.

But that was before.

Out here on the plains, storms were of a different stamp. This was no petulant child’s tantrum, best ignored and soon ended. This was a cold and murderous, merciless and grudge-bearing, bitter and relentless fury of a storm, and somehow it made all the difference that the nearest roof, let alone the nearest tavern, was hundreds of miles behind them. The rain came down in sheets, dousing the endless plain and everything on it with icy water. The fat drops stung at Jezal’s scalp like sling-stones, nipped at his exposed hands, the tops of his ears, the back of his neck. Water trickled through his hair, through his eyebrows, down his face in rivulets and into his sodden collar. The rain was a grey curtain across the land, obliterating anything more than a hundred strides ahead, although out here of course, there was nothing ahead or anywhere else.

Jezal shivered and clutched the collars of his coat together with one hand. A pointless gesture, he was already soaked to his skin. Damn shopkeeper back in Adua had assured him that this coat was entirely waterproof. It had certainly cost him enough, and he had looked very well in it in the shop, quite the rugged outdoorsman, but the seams had begun to leak almost as soon as the first drops fell. For some hours now he had been every bit as wet as if he had climbed into the bath with his clothes on, and a good deal colder.

His boots were full of icy water, his thighs were chafed ragged against his wet trousers, the waterlogged saddle creaked and squelched with every movement of his unhappy horse. His nose was running, his nostrils and his lips were sore, the very reins were painful in his wet palms. His nipples in particular were two points of agony in a sea of discomfort. The whole business was utterly unbearable.

“When will it end?” he muttered bitterly to himself, hunching his shoulders and looking up beseechingly at the gloomy heavens, the rain pattering on his face, in his mouth, in his eyes. Happiness seemed at that moment to consist of nothing more than a dry shirt. “Can’t you do something?” he moaned at Bayaz.

“Like what?” the Magus snapped back at him, water coursing down his face and dripping from his bedraggled beard. “You think that I’m enjoying this? Out on the great plain in a bastard of a storm at my age? The skies make no special dispensation for Magi, boy, they piss on everyone the same. I suggest you adjust to it and keep your whining to yourself. A great leader must share the hardships of his followers, of his soldiers, of his subjects. That is how he wins their respect. Great leaders do not complain. Not ever.”

“Fuck them then,” muttered Jezal under his breath. “And this rain, too!”

“You call this rain?” Ninefingers rode past him, a big smile spread across his ugly lump of a face. Not long after the drops began to come down hard, Jezal had been most surprised to see the Northman shrug off first his battered coat, and then his shirt, roll them up in an oilskin and ride on stripped to the waist, heedless of the water running down his great slab of scarred back, happy as a great hog wallowing in the mud.

Such behaviour had, at first, struck Jezal as another unforgivable display of savagery, and he had only thanked his stars that the primitive had deigned to keep his trousers on, but as the cold rain began to seep through his coat he had become less sure. It would have been impossible for him to be any colder or wetter without his clothes, but at least he would have been free of the endless, horrible chafing of wet cloth. Ninefingers grinned over at him as though he could read his thoughts. “Nothing but a drizzle. The sun can’t always shine. You have to be realistic!”

Jezal ground his teeth. If he was told to be realistic one more time he would stab Ninefingers with his short steel. Damn half-naked brute. It was bad enough that he had to ride, and eat, and sleep within a hundred strides of a cave-dweller like that, but that he had to listen to his fool advice was an insult almost too deep to bear.

“Damn useless primitive,” he muttered to himself.

“If it comes to a fight I reckon you’ll be glad to have him along.” Quai was looking sideways at Jezal, swaying back and forth on the seat of his creaking cart, long hair plastered to his gaunt cheeks by the rain, looking more pale and sickly than ever with a sheen of wet on his white skin.

“Who asked your opinion?”

“A man who doesn’t want opinions should keep his own mouth shut.” The apprentice nodded his dripping head at Ninefingers’ back. “That there is the Bloody-Nine, the most feared man in the North. He’s killed more men than the plague.” Jezal frowned over at the Northman, sitting sloppy in his saddle, thought about it for a moment, and sneered.

“Doesn’t scare me any,” he said, as loud as he could without Ninefingers actually hearing him.

Quai snorted. “I’ll bet you’ve never even drawn a blade in anger.”

“I could start now,” growled Jezal, giving his most threatening frown.

“Very fierce,” chuckled the apprentice, disappointingly unimpressed. “But if you’re asking me who’s the useless one here, well, I know who I’d rather have left behind.”

“Why, you—”

Jezal jumped in his saddle as a bright flash lit the sky, and then another, frighteningly close. Fingers of light clawed at the bulging undersides of the clouds, snaked through the darkness overhead. Long thunder rolled out across the gloomy plain, popped and crackled under the wind. By the time it faded the wet cart had already rolled away, robbing Jezal of his chance to retort. “Damn idiot apprentice,” he murmured, frowning at the back of his head.

At first, when the flashes had come, Jezal had tried to keep his spirits up by imagining his companions struck down by lightning. It would have been oddly appropriate, for instance, had Bayaz been cooked to a cinder by a stroke from the heavens. Jezal soon despaired of any such deliverance, however, even as a fantasy. The lightning would never kill more than one of them in a day, and if one of them had to go, he had slowly begun to hope it might be him. A moment of brilliant illumination, then sweet oblivion. The kindest escape from this nightmare.

A trickle of water ran down Jezal’s back, tickling at his raw skin. He longed to scratch it, but he knew that if he did he would only create ten more itches, spread across his shoulder blades and his neck and all the places hardest to reach with a hooked finger. He closed his eyes, and his head slowly drooped under the weight of his desperation until his wet chin hung against his wet chest.

It had been raining the last time he saw her. He remembered it all with a painful clarity. The bruise on her face, the colour of her eyes, the set of her mouth, one side twisted up. Just thinking of it made him have to swallow that familiar lump in his throat. The lump he swallowed twenty times a day. First thing in the morning, when he woke, and last thing at night, as he lay on the hard ground. To be back with Ardee now, safe and warm, seemed like the realisation of all his dreams.

He wondered how long she might wait, as the weeks dragged on, and she received no word. Might she even now be writing daily letters to Angland that he would never receive? Letters expressing her tender feelings. Letters desperately seeking news. Letters begging for replies. Now her worst expectations would all be confirmed. That he was a faithless ass, and a liar, and had forgotten all about her, when nothing could have been further from the truth. He ground his teeth in frustration and despair at the thought, but what could he do? Replies were hard to send from a blighted, blasted, ruined wasteland, even supposing he could have written one in this epic downpour. He inwardly cursed the names of Bayaz and Ninefingers, of Longfoot and Quai. He cursed the Old Empire and he cursed the endless plain. He cursed the whole demented expedition. It was becoming an hourly ritual.

Jezal began to perceive, dimly, that he had until now had rather an easy life. It seemed strange that he had moaned so long and hard about rising early to fence, or about lowering himself to play cards with Lieutenant Brint, or about how his sausages were always a touch overdone of a morning. He should have been laughing, bright-eyed and with a spring in his step, simply to have been out of the rain. He coughed, and sniffed, and wiped at his sore nose with his sore hand. At least with so much water around, no one would notice him weeping.

Only Ferro looked as if she was enjoying herself even less than him, occasionally glaring at the pissing clouds, her face wrinkled up with hatred and horror. Her spiky hair was plastered flat to her skull, her waterlogged clothes hung limp from her scrawny shoulders, water ran down her scarred face and dripped from the end of her sharp nose, the point of her sharp chin. She looked like a mean-tempered cat dunked unexpectedly in a pond, its body suddenly seeming a quarter of the size it had been, stripped of all its air of menace. Perhaps a woman’s voice might be the thing to lift him from this state of mind, and Ferro was the nearest thing to a woman within a hundred miles.

He spurred his horse up alongside her, doing his best to smile, and she turned her scowl on him. Jezal found to his discomfort that at close quarters, much of the menace returned. He had forgotten about those eyes. Yellow eyes, sharp as knives, pupils small as pin-pricks, strange and disconcerting. He wished he had never approached her now, but he could hardly go without saying something.

“Bet it doesn’t rain much where you come from, eh?”

“Are you going to shut your fucking hole, or do I have to hurt you?”

Jezal cleared his throat, and quietly allowed his mount to drop back away from her. “Crazy bitch,” he whispered under his breath. Damn her, then, she could keep her misery. He wasn’t about to start wallowing in self-pity. That wasn’t his way at all.


The rain had finally stopped when they came upon the place, but the air was still full of heavy damp, the sky above was still full of strange colours. The evening sun pierced the swirling clouds with pink and orange, casting an eerie glow over the grey plain.

Two empty carts stood upright, another was tipped up on its side, one wheel broken off, a dead horse still tethered to it, lying with its pink tongue lolling out of its mouth, a pair of broken arrows sticking from its bloody side. The corpses were scattered all around in the flattened grass, like dolls discarded by a bad-tempered child. Some had deep wounds, or limbs broken, or arrows poking from their bodies. One had an arm off at the shoulder, a short length of snapped bone sticking out as if from a butcher’s joint.

Rubbish was scattered all around them. Broken weapons, splintered wood. A few trunks smashed open, rolls of cloth ripped out and slashed across the wet ground. Burst barrels, shattered boxes, rooted through and looted.

“Merchants,” grunted Ninefingers, looking down. “Like we’re pretending to be. Life’s cheap out here alright.”

Ferro curled her lip. “Where isn’t it?”

The wind whipped cold across the plain, cutting clean through Jezal’s damp clothes. He had never seen a corpse before, and here were laid out… how many? At least a dozen. He started to feel slightly peculiar halfway through counting them.

No one else seemed much moved, though familiarity with violence was hardly surprising among these characters. Ferro was crawling around the bodies, peering down and prodding them with as little emotion as an undertaker. Ninefingers looked as though he had seen far worse, which Jezal did not doubt he had, and done far worse besides. Bayaz and Longfoot both looked mildly troubled, but not much more so than if they had come upon some unknown horse tracks. Quai scarcely even looked interested.

Jezal could have done with a share of their indifference at that moment. He would not have admitted it, but he was feeling more than a little sick. That skin: slack, and still, and waxy pale, beaded with wet from the rain. That clothing: ripped and rifled through, missing boots, or coats, or shirts even. Those wounds. Ragged red lines, blue and black bruises, rips and tears and gaping mouths in flesh.

Jezal turned suddenly in his saddle, looking behind, to the left, to the right, but every view was the same. Nowhere to run to, if he had even known in what direction the nearest settlement lay. In a group of six and yet he felt utterly alone. In a vast, open space, and yet he felt utterly trapped.

One of the corpses seemed to be staring, unnervingly, straight at him. A young man, no more than Jezal’s age, with sandy hair and protruding ears. He could have done with a shave, except, of course, that it hardly mattered now. There was a yawning red gash across his belly, his bloody hands lying on either side of it, as though trying to squeeze it shut. His guts glistened wetly inside, all purple-red. Jezal felt his gorge rising. He was already feeling faint from eating too little that morning. Damn sick of dry biscuit, and he could hardly force down the slops the others put together. He turned away from the sickening scene and stared down at the grass, pretending to be searching for important clues while his stomach clenched and heaved.

He gripped his reins as tightly as he could, forcing down the spit as it rushed into his mouth. He was a proud son of the Union, damn it. What was more, he was a nobleman, of a distinguished family. What was still more he was a bold officer of the King’s Own, and a winner of the Contest. To vomit at the sight of a little gore would be to disgrace himself before this mixture of fools and primitives, and that could under no circumstances be permitted. The honour of his nation was at stake. He glared fixedly at the wet ground, and he clamped his teeth shut, and he ordered his stomach to be still. Gradually, it began to work. He sucked in deep breaths through his nose. Cool, damp, calming air. He was in complete control. He looked back at the others.

Ferro was squatting on the ground with her hand in one of the victim’s gaping wounds as far almost as her wrist. “Cold,” she snapped at Ninefingers, “been dead since this morning at least.” She pulled her hand out, fingers slimy with gore.

Jezal had belched half his meagre breakfast down his coat before he had time even to slide out of his saddle. He staggered a couple of drunkard’s steps, took a gasping breath and retched again. He bent over, hands on his knees, head spinning, spitting bile out onto the grass.

“You alright?”

Jezal glanced up, doing his best to look nonchalant with a long string of bitter drool hanging from his face. “Something I ate,” he muttered, wiping at his nose and mouth with his trembling hand. A pitiful ruse, he had to admit.

Ninefingers only nodded, though. “That meat this morning, most likely. I been feeling sick myself.” He gave one of his revolting smiles and offered Jezal a water skin. “Best keep drinking. Flush it away, uh?”

Jezal sloshed a mouthful of water round his mouth and spat it out, watching Ninefingers walk back to the bodies, and frowning. That had been strange. Coming from another source it might have seemed almost a generous gesture. He took another swig of water, and began to feel better. He made, somewhat unsteadily, for his horse, and clambered back into the saddle.

“Whoever did it was well armed, and in numbers,” Ferro was saying. “The grass is full of tracks.”

“We should be careful,” said Jezal, hoping to impose himself on the conversation.

Bayaz turned sharply to look at him. “We should always be careful! That goes without saying! How far are we from Darmium?”

Longfoot squinted up at the sky, then out across the plain. He licked his finger and held it up to the wind. “Even for a man of my talents, it is hard to be accurate without the stars. Fifty miles or thereabouts.”

“We’ll need to turn off the track soon.”

“We are not crossing the river at Darmium?”

“The city is in chaos. Cabrian holds it, and admits no one. We cannot take the risk.”

“Very well. Aostum it is. We will take a wide route round Darmium and off westward. A slightly longer path but—”

“No.”

“No?”

“The bridge at Aostum lies in ruins.”

Longfoot frowned. “Gone, eh? Truly, God loves to test his faithful. We may have to ford the Aos then—”

“No,” said Bayaz. “The rains have been heavy and the great river is deep. The fords are all closed to us.”

The Navigator looked puzzled. “You, of course, are my employer, and as a proud member of the order of Navigators I will always do my utmost to obey, but I am afraid that I can see no other way. If we cannot cross at Darmium, or at Aostum, and we cannot ford the river…”

“There is one other bridge.”

“There is?” Longfoot looked baffled for a moment, then his eyes suddenly widened. “You cannot mean—”

“The bridge at Aulcus still stands.”

Everyone glanced at each other for a moment, frowning. “I thought you said the place was a ruin,” said Ninefingers.

“A shattered graveyard, I heard,” murmured Ferro.

“I thought you said no one goes within miles of the place.”

“It would hardly have been my first choice, but there are no others. We will join the river and follow the northern bank to Aulcus.” Nobody moved. Longfoot in particular had a look of stunned horror on his face. “Now!” snapped Bayaz. “It is plainly not safe to remain here.” And with that he turned his horse away from the corpses. Quai shrugged and flicked his reigns and the cart grumbled off through the grass after the First of the Magi. Longfoot and Ninefingers followed behind, all frowns and foreboding.

Jezal stared at the bodies, still lying where they had found them, their eyes staring accusingly up into the darkening sky. “Shouldn’t we bury them?”

“If you like,” grunted Ferro, springing up into the saddle in one easy motion. “Maybe you could bury them in puke.”

<p>Bloody Company</p>

Riding, that was what they were doing. That was what they’d been doing for days. Riding, looking for Bethod, with winter coming on. Bog and forest, hill and valley. Rain and sleet, fog and snow. Looking for signs that he was coming their way, and knowing that there wouldn’t be any. A lot of wasted time, to the Dogman’s mind, but once you’ve been fool enough to ask for a task, you better do the one you’re given.

“Stupid bloody job, this,” snarled Dow, wincing and twitching and fussing with his reins. He’d never been too much of a one for horseback. Liked to keep his feet on the ground and pointed at the enemy. “Waste of our fucking time. How d’you put up with scouting, Dogman? Stupid bloody job!”

“Someone’s got to get it done, don’t they? Least I got a horse now.”

“Well I’m right delighted for you!” he sneered. “You got a horse!”

The Dogman shrugged his shoulders. “Better than walking.”

“Better than walking, eh?” scoffed Dow. “That just binds it all up!”

“I got new breeches and all. Not to mention good woollens. The wind don’t blow half so cold round my fruits no more.”

That got a chuckle from Tul, but it seemed Dow wasn’t in a laughing mood. “Wind round your fruits? By the fucking dead, boy, is this what we’re come to? You forgotten who you are? You was Ninefingers’ closest! You came over the mountains with him in the first place! You’re in all them songs along with him! You scouted at the head of armies. A thousand men, all following your say-so!”

“That didn’t turn out too happy for anyone concerned,” muttered Dogman, but Dow was already laying into Tul.

“And how about you, big man? Tul Duru Thunderhead, strongest bastard in the North. Wrestled bears and won, I heard. Held the pass all alone, while your clan got clean away. A giant, they say, ten feet tall, born under a storm, and with a belly full o’ thunder. What about it, giant? The only thunder I’ve heard you make lately is when you take a shit!”

“What of it?” snarled Tul. “You any different? Men used to whisper your name, scared to speak it out loud. They’d grip their weapons tight and stick close by the fire if they thought you was within ten leagues! Black Dow, they used to say, quiet and cunning and ruthless as the wolf! He’s killed more men than winter, and he’s got less pity in him! Who cares a shit now, eh? Times have changed, and you rolled just as far downhill as the rest of us!”

Dow only smiled. “That’s my point, big lad, that’s just my point. We used to be something, each one of us. Named Men. Known men. Feared men. I remember my brother telling me that there ain’t no better man than Harding Grim with bow nor blade, no better man in all the North. Steadiest damn hand in the whole Circle of the World! How about that, eh, Grim?”

“Uh,” said Grim.

Dow nodded his head. “Exactly what I’m saying. Now look at us. We ain’t so much rolled downhill as fell off a bloody cliff! Running errands for these Southerners? These fucking women in men’s trousers? These damn salad-eaters with their big words and their thin little swords?”

Dogman shifted in his saddle, uncomfortable. “That West knows what he’s about.”

“That West!” sneered Dow. “He knows his arse from his mouth, and in that he’s a damn stretch better than the rest, but he’s soft as pig fat, and you know it. Got no bones in him at all! None of ’em have! I’d be shocked to my roots if the better part of ’em have ever seen a skirmish. You reckon they’d stand a charge from Bethod’s Carls?” He snorted hard laughter to himself. “Now there’s a joke!”

“It can’t be denied they’re a piss-weak crowd,” muttered Tul, and the Dogman couldn’t very well disagree. “Half of ’em are too hungry to lift a weapon, let alone swing one with some fire, if they could even work out how. All the good ones went north to fight Bethod, leaving us here with the scrapings from the pot.”

“Scrapings from a piss-pot, I’m thinking. What about you, Threetrees?” called Dow. “The Rock of Uffrith, eh? You were the spike up Bethod’s arse for six months, a hero to every right-thinking man in the North! Rudd Threetrees! There’s a man carved out of stone! There’s a man who never backs down! You want honour? You want dignity? You want to know what a man should be? Look no fucking further! What do you make of all this, eh? Running errands! Checking these bogs for Bethod where we all know he ain’t! Work fit for boys and we’re lucky to get it, I suppose?”

Threetrees pulled up his horse and turned it slowly round. He sat in his saddle, hunched up, tired looking, and he stared at Dow for a minute. “Open your ears and listen for once,” he said, “ ’cause I don’t want to be telling you this every mile we go. The world ain’t how I’d like it in all kind o’ ways. Ninefingers has gone back to the mud. Bethod’s made himself King of the Northmen. The Shanka are fixing to come swarming over the mountains. I’ve walked too far, and fought too long, and heard enough shit from you to fill a lifetime, and all at an age when I should have my feet up with sons to take care o’ me. So you can see I got bigger problems than that life hasn’t turned out the way you hoped. You can harp on the past all you please, Dow, like some old woman upset cause her tits used to stay up by themselves, or you can shut your fucking hole and help me get on with things.”

He gave each one of ’em a look in the eye, and the Dogman felt a touch shamed for doubting him. “As for checking for Bethod where he ain’t, well, Bethod’s never been one to turn up where he’s supposed to be. Scouting’s the task we’ve been given, and scouting’s the task I mean to get done.” He leaned forward in his saddle. “So how’s this for a fucking formula? Mouth shut. Eyes open.” And he turned and nudged his horse on through the trees.

Dow took a deep breath. “Fair enough, chief, fair enough. It’s just a shame is all. That’s what I’m saying. Just a shame.”


“There’s three of ’em,” said Dogman. “Northmen, for certain, but hard to tell their clan. Being as they’re down here, I’m guessing they follow Bethod.”

“More ’n likely,” said Tul. “Seems that’s the fashion these days.”

“Just three?” asked Threetrees. “No reason for Bethod to have three men on their own all the way out here. Must be more nearby.”

“Let’s deal with the three,” growled Dow, “and get to the rest later. I came here to fight.”

“You came here ’cause I dragged you here,” snapped Threetrees. “You was all for turning back an hour ago.”

“Uh,” said Grim.

“We can get around ’em if we need to.” Dogman pointed through the cold woods. “They’re up on the slope there, in the trees. No trouble to get around ’em.”

Threetrees looked up at the sky, pink and grey through the branches, and shook his head. “No. We’re losing the light, and I wouldn’t like leaving ’em behind us in the dark. Since we’re here, and since they’re here, we’d best deal with ’em. Weapons it is.” He squatted down, talking quiet. “Here’s how we’ll do it. Dogman, get round and above, up on that slope there. Take the one on the left when you hear the signal. You follow me? The one on the left. And best not to miss.”

“Aye,” said Dogman, “on the left.” Not missing more or less went without saying.

“Dow, you slide in quiet and take the middle.”

“The middle,” growled Dow. “He’s done.”

“That leaves one for you, Grim.” Grim nodded without looking up, rubbing at his bow with a rag. “Nice and clean, boys. I don’t want to be putting one o’ you in the mud over this. Places, then.”

The Dogman found a good spot up above Bethod’s three scouts and watched from behind a tree trunk. Seemed like he’d done this a hundred times, but it never got any easier on the nerves. Probably just as well. It’s when it gets easy that a man makes mistakes.

Dogman was watching for him, so he just caught sight of Dow in the fading light, slithering up through the brush, eyes fixed ahead on his task. He was getting close now, real close. Dogman nocked an arrow and took an aim at the one on the left, breathing slow to keep his hands steady. It was then that he realised. Now he was on the other side, the one that had been on the left was on the right. So which one should he shoot?

He cursed to himself, struggling to remember what Threetrees said. Get around and take the one on the left. Worst thing of all would have been to do nothing, so he aimed up at the one on his left and hoped for the best.

He heard Threetrees call from down below, sounding like a bird out in the woods. Dow gathered himself to jump. Dogman let his arrow fly. It thudded into the back of his task just as Grim’s arrow stuck him in the front, and Dow seized hold of the middle one and stabbed him from behind. That left one of ’em untouched, and very surprised-looking.

“Shit,” whispered the Dogman.

“Help!” screamed the last of ’em, before Dow jumped on him. They rolled in the leaves, grunting and thrashing. Dow’s arm went up and down—once, twice, three times, then he stood up, glaring through the trees and looking mighty annoyed. Dogman was just shrugging his shoulders when he heard a voice behind him.

“What?”

Dogman froze, cold all over. Another one, out in the bushes, not ten strides away. He reached for an arrow and nocked it, real quiet, then turned slowly round. He saw two of ’em, and they saw him, and his mouth went sour as old beer. They all stared. Dogman aimed at the bigger one and pulled the string right back.

“No!” he shouted. The arrow thudded into his chest and he groaned and stumbled, fell down on his knees. Dogman dropped his bow and made a snatch at his knife, but he hadn’t got it drawn before the other one was on him. They went down hard in the brush, and started rolling.

Light, dark, light, dark. Over and over they went, down the slope, kicking and tearing and punching at each other. Dogman’s head smacked against something and he was down on his back, wrestling with this bastard. They hissed at each other, not words exactly, sounds like dogs make fighting. The man pulled his hand free and got a blade out from somewhere and Dogman caught his wrist before he could stab it home.

He was pushing down with all his weight, both hands on the knife. Dogman was pushing the other way, both hands on his wrists, hard as he could, but not hard enough. The blade was coming down slowly, down towards Dogman’s face. He was staring at it cross-eyed, a tooth of bright metal not a foot from his nose.

“Die, you fucker!” and it came down another inch. The Dogman’s shoulders, his arms, his hands were burning, running out of strength. Staring at his face. Stubble on his chin, yellow teeth, pock marks on his bent nose, hair hanging down around it. The point of the blade nudged closer. Dogman was dead, and there was no help for it.

Snick.

And his head wasn’t there any more. Blood washed over Dogman’s face, hot and sticky and reeking. The corpse went slack and he shoved it away, blood in his eyes, blood up his nose, blood in his mouth. He staggered up, gasping and choking and spitting.

“Alright, Dogman. You’re alright.” Tul. Must’ve come up on them while they were struggling.

“I’m still alive,” Dogman whispered, the way Logen used to when a fight was done. “Still alive.” By the dead, though, that had been a close thing.

“They ain’t got too much in the way of gear,” Dow was saying, poking round the campsite. Cookpot on the fire, weapons and such like, but not much food. Not enough to be all alone out there in the woods.

“Scouts maybe,” said Threetrees. “Outriders for some bigger band?”

“Reckon they must be,” said Dow.

Threetrees slapped his hand down on the Dogman’s shoulder. “You alright?”

He was still busy trying to rub the blood off his face. “Aye, I think so.” Bit shaky still, but that would settle. “Cuts and scrapes, I reckon. Nothing I’ll die of.”

“Good, ’cause I can’t spare you. Why don’t you take a creep up through them trees and have a look-see, while we clear up this mess here? Find who these bastards were scouting for.”

“Right enough,” said the Dogman, sucking in a big breath and blowing it out. “Right enough.”


“Stupid bloody job, eh, Dow?” whispered Threetrees. “Work fit for boys and we’re lucky to get it? What do you say now?”

“Could be I made a mistake.”

“A big one,” said the Dogman.

There were a hundred fires burning down there on the dark slopes, a hundred fires and more. There were men down there too, it hardly needed saying. Thralls mostly, lightly armed, but plenty of Carls as well. Dogman could see the last light of the day glinting on their spear tips, and their shield-rims, and their mail coats, polished up and ready for a fight, clustered round close to the flapping standards of each clan’s chieftain. Lots of standards. Twenty of ’em, or thirty even, at a quick count. The Dogman had never seen more than ten together before.

“Biggest army there’s ever been out of the North,” he muttered.

“Aye,” said Threetrees. “All fighting for Bethod, and not five days’ ride from the Southerners.” He pointed down at one of the banners. “That Littlebone’s standard down there?”

“Aye,” growled Dow, and spat into the brush. “That’s his mark alright. I got scores with that bastard.”

“There’s a world o’ scores down there,” said Threetrees. “That’s Pale-as-Snow’s banner, and Whitesides, and Crendel Goring’s over by them rocks. That’s some bloody company. Them as went over to Bethod near the beginning. All grown fat on it now, I reckon.”

“What about them ones?” asked the Dogman, pointing out at some that he didn’t recognise—evil-looking signs, all leather and bones. Looked like hillmen’s marks to him, maybe. “That ain’t Crummock-i-Phail’s standard, is it?”

“Nah! He’d never have kneeled to Bethod or anyone else. That mad bastard’ll still be up there in the mountains somewhere, calling to the moon and all the rest.”

“Less Bethod done for him,” grunted Dow.

Threetrees shook his head. “Doubt it. Canny bastard, that Crummock. Been holding Bethod off for years, up in the High Places. He knows all the ways, they say.”

“Whose signs are they then?” asked Dogman.

“Don’t know, could be some boys from out east, past the Crinna. There’s some strange folk out that way. You know any o’ them banners, Grim?”

“Aye,” said Grim, but that was all he said.

“Don’t hardly matter whose signs they are,” muttered Dow, “just look at the numbers of ’em. There’s half the fucking North down there.”

“And the worst half,” said Dogman. He was looking at Bethod’s sign, set up in the middle of the host. A red circle daubed on black hides, an acre of ’em, it looked like, big as a field, mounted on a tall pine trunk, flapping evil in the wind. Huge great thing. “Wouldn’t fancy carrying it,” he muttered.

Dow slithered over and leaned in close. “Might be that we could sneak in there in the dark,” he whispered. “Might be we could sneak in and put a blade in Bethod.”

They all looked at each other. It was a terrible risk, but Dogman had no doubts it was worth the trying. Wasn’t a one of them hadn’t dreamed of sending Bethod back to the mud.

“Put a blade in him, the bastard,” muttered Tul, and he had a smile right across his face.

“Uh,” grunted Grim.

“That’s a task worth doing,” hissed Dow. “That’s real work!”

Dogman nodded, looking down at all them fires. “No doubt.” Noble work. Work for Named Men like them, or like they used to be, maybe. There’d be some songs about that, alright. Dogman’s blood was rushing at the thought, skin prickling on his hands, but Threetrees was having none of it.

“No. We can’t risk it. We got to go back and tell the Union. Tell ’em they got guests coming. Bad guests, and in numbers.” He tugged at his beard, and Dogman could tell he didn’t like it, backing off. None of ’em did, but they knew he was right, even Dow. Chances were they’d never get to Bethod, and if they did they’d never get out.

“We got to go back,” said Dogman.

“Fair enough,” said Dow. “We go back. Shame though.”

“Aye,” said Threetrees. “Shame.”

<p>Long Shadows</p>

“By the dead.”

Ferro said nothing, but for the first time since Logen met her, the scowl had slipped off. Her face was slack, mouth hanging slightly open. Luthar, on the other hand, was grinning like a fool.

“You ever see anything like that?” he shouted over the noise, pointing out at it with a trembling hand.

“There is nothing else like that,” said Bayaz.

Logen had to admit that he’d been wondering what all the fuss was about when it came to crossing a river. Some of the bigger ones in the North could be a problem, especially in the wrong season and with a lot of gear to carry. But if there was no bridge, you found a good ford, held your weapons over your head, and sloshed across. Might take a while for your boots to dry out, and you had to keep your eyes well opened for an ambush, but otherwise there was nothing much to fear from a river. Good place to fill your water-skin.

Filling your skin at the Aos would have been a dangerous business, at least without a hundred strides of rope.

Logen had once stood on the cliffs near Uffrith, and watched the waves crash against the rocks far below, the sea stretching away, grey and foaming out of sight. A dizzy, and a humbling, and a worrying place to stand. The feeling at the brink of the great river’s canyon was much the same, except that a quarter mile away or so another cliff rose up from the water. The far bank, if you could use the word about a towering rock face.

He shuffled up gingerly to the very edge, prodding at the soft ground with the toes of his boots, and peered over the brink. Not a good idea. The red earth overhung slightly, bound up with white grass roots, and then the jagged rocks dropped away, almost sheer. Where the frothing water slapped against them, far below, it sent great plumes of bright spray into the air, clouds of damp mist that Logen could almost feel on his face. Tufts of long grass clung to the cracks and the ledges, and birds flitted between them, hundreds of small white birds. Logen could just make out their twittering calls over the mighty rumble of the river.

He thought on being dropped into that thundering weight of dark water—sucked, and whirled, and ripped around like a leaf in the storm. He swallowed, and shuffled cautiously back from the edge, looking around for something to cling on to. He felt tiny, and weightless, as if a strong gust of wind might snatch him away. He could almost feel the water moving through his boots, the surging, rolling, unstoppable power of it, making the very earth tremble.

“So you can see why a bridge might be such a good idea!” shouted Bayaz in his ear.

“How can you even build a bridge across that?”

“At Aostum the river splits in three, and the canyon is much less deep. The Emperor’s architects built islands, and made their bridges of many small arches. Even so, it took them twelve years to build. The bridge at Darmium is the work of Kanedias himself, a gift to his brother Juvens when they were yet on good terms. It crosses the river in a single span. How he did it, none now can say.” Bayaz turned for the horses. “Get the others, we should keep moving!”

Ferro was already walking back from the brink. “So much rain.” She looked over her shoulder, frowned and shook her head.

“Don’t get rivers like that where you come from, eh?”

“Out in the Badlands, water is the most precious thing you can have. Men kill over a bottle of it.”

“That’s where you were born? The Badlands?” A strange name for a place, but it sounded about right for her.

“There are no births in the Badlands, pink. Only deaths.”

“Harsh land, eh? Where were you born, then?”

She scowled. “What do you care?”

“Just trying to be friendly.”

“Friends!” she sneered, brushing past him towards the horses.

“Why? You got so many out here you couldn’t use another?”

She stopped, half turned, and looked at him through narrowed eyes. “My friends don’t last, pink.”

“Nor do mine, but I reckon I’ll take the risk if you will.”

“Alright,” she said, but there was nothing friendly in her face. “The Gurkish conquered my home when I was a child, and they took me for a slave. They took all the children.”

“A slave?”

“Yes, fool, a slave! Bought and sold like meat by the butcher! Owned by someone else, and they do as they please with you, like they would with a goat, or a dog, or the dirt in their gardens! That what you want to know, friend?”

Logen frowned. “We don’t have that custom in the North.”

“Ssss,” she hissed, lip curling with scorn. “Good for fucking you!”


The ruin loomed over them. A forest of shattered pillars, a maze of broken walls, the ground around it strewn with fallen blocks as long as a man was tall. Crumbling windows and empty doorways yawned like wounds. A ragged black outline, chopped out from the flying clouds like a giant row of broken teeth.

“What city was this?” asked Luthar.

“No city,” said Bayaz. “At the height of the Old Time, at the greatest extent of the Emperor’s power, this was his winter palace.”

“All this?” Logen squinted at the sprawling wreck. “One man’s house?”

“And not even the whole year round. Most of the time, the court would stay in Aulcus. In winter, when the cold snows swept down off the mountains, the Emperor would bring his retinue here. An army of guardsmen, of servants, of cooks, of officials, of princes, and children, and wives, making their way across the plain ahead of the cold winds, taking up residence here for three short months in the echoing halls, the beautiful gardens, the gilded chambers.” Bayaz shook his bald head. “In times long past, before the war, this place glittered like the sea beneath the rising sun.”

Luthar sniffed. “So Glustrod tore it down, I suppose?”

“No. It was not in that war, but another that it fell, many years later. A war fought by my order, after the death of Juvens, against his eldest brother.”

“Kanedias,” muttered Quai, “the Master Maker.”

“A war just as bitter, just as brutal, just as merciless as the one before. And even more was lost. Juvens and Kanedias both, in the end.”

“Not a happy family,” muttered Logen.

“No.” Bayaz frowned up at the mighty wreckage. “With the death of the Maker, the last of the four sons of Euz, the Old Time ended. We are left only with the ruins, and the tombs, and the myths. Little men, kneeling in the long shadows of the past.”

Ferro stood up in her stirrups. “There are riders,” she barked, staring off at the horizon. “Forty or more.”

“Where?” snapped Bayaz, shading his eyes. “I don’t see anything.” Nor could Logen. Only the waving grass and the towering clouds.

Longfoot frowned. “I see no riders, and I am blessed with perfect vision. Why, I have often been told that—”

“You want to wait until you see them,” hissed Ferro, “or get off the road before they see us?”

“We’ll head into the ruins,” snapped Bayaz over his shoulder. “And wait for them to pass. Malacus! Turn the cart!”

The wreck of the winter palace was full of shadows, and stillness, and decay. The outsize ruins towered around them, all covered with old ivy and wet moss, streaked and crusted with the droppings of bird and bat. The animals had made the place their palace now. Birds sang from a thousand nests, high in the ancient masonry. Spiders had spun great glistening webs in leaning doorways, heavy with sparkling beads of dew. Tiny lizards sunned themselves in patches of light on the fallen blocks, swarming away as they came near. The rattling of the cart over the broken ground, the footfalls and the hoof beats echoed back from the slimy stones. Everywhere, water dripped, and ran, and plopped in hidden pools.

“Take this, pink.” Ferro slapped her sword into Logen’s hands.

“Where are you going?”

“You wait down here, and stay out of sight.” She jerked her head upwards. “I’ll watch them from up there.”

As a boy, Logen had never been out of the trees round the village. As a young man he’d spent days in the High Places, testing himself against the mountains. At Heonan in the winter, the hillmen had held the high pass. Even Bethod had thought that there was no way round, but Logen had found a way up the frozen cliff and settled that score. He could see no way up here, though. Not without an hour or two to spare. Cliffs of leaning blocks heavy with dead creeper, crags of tottering stonework slick with moss, seeming to lean and tip as the clouds moved fast above.

“How the hell you planning to get up…”

She was already halfway up one of the pillars. She didn’t so much climb as swarm like an insect, hand over hand. She paused at the top for a moment, found a footing she liked, then sprang through the air, right over Logen’s head, landed on the wall behind and scrambled up onto it, sending a shower of broken mortar down into his face. She squatted on the top and frowned down at him. “Just try not to make too much noise!” she hissed, then was gone.

“Did you see…” muttered Logen, but the others had already moved further into the damp shadows, and he hurried after them, not wanting to be left alone in this overgrown graveyard. Quai had pulled his cart up further on, and was leaning against it beside the restless horses. The First of the Magi was kneeling near him in the weeds, rubbing at the lichen-crusted wall with his palms.

“Look at this,” snapped Bayaz as Logen tried to edge past. “These carvings here. Masterpieces of the ancient world! Stories, and lessons, and warnings from history.” His thick fingers brushed gently at the scarred stone. “We might be the first men to look upon these in centuries!”

“Mmm,” muttered Logen, puffing out his cheeks.

“Look here!” Bayaz gestured at the wall. “Euz gives his gifts to his three oldest sons, while Glustrod looks on from the shadows. The birth of the three pure disciplines of magic. Some craftsmanship, eh?”

“Right.”

“And here,” grunted Bayaz, knocking some weeds away and shuffling along to the next mossy panel, “Glustrod plans to destroy his brother’s work.” He had to tear at a tangle of dead ivy to get at the one beyond. “He breaks the First Law. He hears voices from the world below, you see? He summons devils and sends them against his enemies. And in this one,” he muttered, tugging at the weight of brown creeper, “let me see now…”

“Glustrod digs,” muttered Quai. “Who knows? In the next one he might even have found what he’s looking for.”

“Hmm,” grumbled the First of the Magi, letting the ivy fall back across the wall. He glowered at his apprentice as he stood up, frowning. “Perhaps, sometimes, the past is better left covered.”

Logen cleared his throat and edged away, ducked quickly under a leaning archway. The wide space beyond was filled with small, knotty trees, planted in rows, but long overgrown. Great weeds and nettles, brown and sagging rotten from the rain, stood almost waist high around the mossy walls.

“Perhaps I should not say it myself,” came Longfoot’s cheerful voice, “but it must be said! My talent for navigation stands alone! It rises above the skills of every other Navigator as the mountain rises over the deep valley!” Logen winced, but it was Bayaz’ anger or Longfoot’s bragging, and that was no choice at all.

“I have led us across the great plain to the river Aos, without a deviation of even a mile!” The Navigator beamed at Logen and Luthar, as though expecting an avalanche of praise. “And without a single dangerous encounter, in a land reckoned among the most dangerous under the sun!” He frowned. “Perhaps a quarter of our epic journey is now safely behind us. I am not sure that you appreciate the difficulty involved. Across the featureless plain, as autumn turns to winter, and without even the stars to reckon by!” He shook his head. “Huh. Truly, the pinnacle of achievement is a lonely place.”

He turned away and wandered over to one of the trees. “The lodgings are a little past their best, but at least the fruit trees are still in working order.” Longfoot plucked a green apple from a low hanging branch and began to shine it on his sleeve. “Nothing like a fine apple, and from the Emperor’s orchard, no less.” He grinned to himself. “Strange, eh? How the plants outlast the greatest works of men.”

Luthar sat down on a fallen statue nearby, slid the longer of his two swords from its sheath and laid it across his knees. Steel glinted mirror-bright as he turned it over in his lap, frowned at it, licked a finger and scrubbed at some invisible blemish. He pulled out his whetstone, spat on it, and carefully set to work on the long, thin blade. The metal rang gently as the stone moved back and forward. It was soothing, somehow, that sound, that ritual, familiar from a thousand campfires of Logen’s past.

“Must you?” asked Brother Longfoot. “Sharpening, polishing, sharpening, polishing, morning and night, it makes my head hurt. It’s not as if you’ve even made any use of them yet. Probably find when you need them that you’ve sharpened them away to nothing, eh?” He chuckled at his own joke. “Where will you be then?”

Luthar didn’t even bother to look up. “Why don’t you keep your mind on getting us across this damn plain, and leave the swords to those who know the difference?” Logen grinned to himself. An argument between the two most arrogant men he had ever met was well worth watching, in his opinion.

“Huh,” snorted Longfoot, “show me someone who knows the difference and I’ll happily never mention blades again.” He lifted the apple to his mouth, but before he could bite into it, his hand was empty. Luthar had moved almost too fast to follow, and speared it on the glinting point of his sword. “Give me that back!”

Luthar stood up. “Of course,” he tossed it off the end of the blade with a practised flick of his wrist. Before Longfoot’s reaching hands could close around it, Luthar had snatched his short sword from its sheath and whipped it blurring through the air. The Navigator was left juggling with the two even halves for a moment before dropping them both in the dirt.

“Damn your showing off!” he snapped.

“We can’t all have your modesty,” muttered Luthar. Logen chuckled to himself while Longfoot stomped back over to the tree, staring up into the branches for another apple.

“Nice trick,” he grunted, strolling through the weeds to where Luthar was sitting. “You’re quick with those needles.”

The young man gave a modest shrug. “It has been remarked upon.”

“Mmm.” Stabbing an apple and stabbing a man were two different things, but quickness was some kind of start. Logen looked down at Ferro’s sword, turned it over in his hands, then slid it out from its wooden sheath. It was a strange weapon to his mind, grip and blade both gently curved, thicker at the end than at the hilt, sharpened only down one edge, with scarcely any point on it at all. He swung it in the air a couple of times. Strange weight, more like an axe than a sword.

“Odd-looking thing,” muttered Luthar.

Logen checked the edge with his thumb. Rough-feeling, it dragged at the skin. “Sharp, though.”

“Don’t you ever sharpen yours?”

Logen frowned. He reckoned he must have spent weeks of his life, all told, sharpening the weapons he’d carried. Every night, out on the trail, after the meal, men would sit and work at their gear, steel scraping on metal and stone, flashing in the light of the campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, polishing, tightening. His hair might have been caked with mud, his skin stiff with old sweat, his clothes riddled with lice, but his weapons had always gleamed like the new moon.

He took hold of the cold grip and pulled the sword that Bayaz had given him out of its stained scabbard. It looked a slow and ugly thing compared to Luthar’s swords, and to Ferro’s too, if it came to that. There was hardly any shine on the heavy grey blade at all. He turned it over in his hand. The single silver letter glinted near the hilt. The mark of Kanedias.

“Don’t know why, but it doesn’t need sharpening. I tried it to begin with, but all it did was wear down the stone.” Longfoot had hauled himself up into one of the trees, and was slithering along a thick branch towards an apple hanging out of reach near its end.

“If you ask me,” grunted the Navigator, “the weapons suit their owners to the ground. Captain Luthar—flash and fine-looking but never used in combat. The woman Maljinn—sharp and vicious and worrying to look upon. The Northman Ninefingers—heavy, solid, slow and simple. Hah!” he chuckled, dragging himself slightly further down the limb. “A most fitting metaphor! Juggling with words has always been but one among my many remarkable—”

Logen grunted as he swung the sword over his head. It bit through the branch where it met the trunk, clean through, almost to the other side. More than far enough that Longfoot’s weight ripped through the rest, and brought the whole limb, Navigator and all, crashing down into the weeds below. “Slow and simple enough for you?”

Luthar spluttered with laughter as he sharpened his short sword, and Logen laughed as well. Laughing with a man was a good step forward. First comes the laughter, then the respect, then the trust.

“God’s breath!” shouted Longfoot, scrabbling his way out from under the branch. “Can a man not eat without disturbance?”

“Sharp enough,” chuckled Luthar. “No doubt.”

Logen hefted the sword in his hand. “Yes, this Kanedias knew how to make a weapon, alright.”

“Making weapons is what Kanedias did.” Bayaz had stepped through the crumbling archway and into the overgrown orchard. “He was the Master Maker, after all. The one that you hold is among the very least of what he made, forged to be used in a war against his brothers.”

“Brothers,” snorted Luthar. “I know exactly how he felt. There’s always something. Usually a woman, in my experience.” He gave his short sword one last stroke with the whetstone. “And where women are concerned, I always come out on top.”

“Is that so?” Bayaz snorted. “As it happens, a woman did enter the case, but not in the way you’re thinking.”

Luthar gave a sickening grin. “What other way is there to think about women? If you ask me—gah!” A large clod of bird shit splattered against the shoulder of his coat, throwing specks of black and grey all over his hair, his face, his newly cleaned swords. “What the…?” He scrambled from his seat and stared up at the wall above him. Ferro was squatting on top, wiping her hand on a spray of ivy. It was hard to tell with the bright sky behind, but Logen wondered if she might not have the trace of a smile on her face.

Luthar certainly wasn’t smiling. “You fucking mad bitch!” he screamed, scraping the white goo from his coat and flinging it at the wall. “Bunch of bloody savages!” And he shoved angrily past and through the fallen arch. Laughter was one thing, it seemed, but the respect might be a while coming.

“In case any of you pinks are interested,” called Ferro, “the riders are gone.”

“Which way?” asked Bayaz.

“Away east, the way we came, riding hard.”

“Looking for us?”

“Who knows? They didn’t have signs. But if they are looking, more than likely they will find our trail.”

The Magus frowned. “Then you’d best get down from there. We need to move.” He thought about it for a moment. “And try not to throw any more shit!”

<p>And Next… My Gold</p>

To Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.

I am most troubled to discover that you think yourself short of both men and money.

As far as soldiers are concerned, you must make do with what you have, or what you can procure. As you are already well aware, the great majority of our strength is committed in Angland. Unfortunately, a certain rebellious temper among the peasantry throughout Midderland is more than occupying what remains.

As to the question of funds, I fear that nothing can he spared. You will not ask again. I advise you to squeeze what you can from the Spicers, from the natives, from anyone else who is to hand. Borrow and make do, Glokta. Demonstrate that resourcefulness that made you so famous in the Kantic War.

I trust that you will not disappoint me.

Sult

Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

“Matters proceed with the greatest speed, Superior, if I may say so. Since the gates to the Upper City were opened the work-rate of the natives has tripled! The ditch is down below sea level across the entire peninsula, and deepening every day! Only narrow dams hold back the brine at either end, and at your order the entire business is ready to be flooded!” Vissbruck sat back with a happy smile on his plump face. Quite as if the whole thing had been his idea.

Below them in the Upper City, the morning chanting was beginning. A strange wailing that drifted from the spires of the Great Temple, out over Dagoska and into every building, even here, in the audience chamber of the Citadel. Kahdia calls his people to prayer.

Vurms’ lip curled at the sound. “That time again already? Damn those natives and their bloody superstitions! We should never have let them back into their temple! Damn their bloody chanting, it gives me a headache!”

And it’s worth it for that alone. Glokta grinned. “If it makes Kahdia happy, your headache is something I can live with. Like it or not, we need the natives, and the natives like to chant. Get used to it, is my advice. That or wrap a blanket round your head.”

Vissbruck sat back in his chair and listened while Vurms sulked. “I have to admit that I find the sound rather soothing, and we cannot deny the effect the Superior’s concessions have had on the natives. With their help the land walls are repaired, the gates are replaced, and the scaffolds are already being dismantled. Stone has been acquired for new parapets but, ah, and here is the problem, the masons refuse to work another day without money. My soldiers are on quarter pay, and morale is low. Debt is the problem, Superior.”

“I’ll say it is,” muttered Vurms angrily. “The granaries are close to capacity, and two new wells have been dug in the Lower City, at great expense, but my credit is utterly exhausted. The grain merchants are after my blood!” A damn sight less keenly than every merchant in the city is after mine, I daresay. “I can scarcely show my face any longer for their clamouring. My reputation is in jeopardy, Superior!”

As if I had no larger concerns than the reputation of this dolt. “How much do we owe?”

Vurms frowned. “For food, water, and general equipment, no less than a hundred thousand.” A hundred thousand? The Spicers love making money, but they hate spending it more. Eider will not come up with half so much, if she even chooses to try.

“What about you, General?”

“The cost of hiring mercenaries, excavating the ditch, of the repairs to the walls, of extra weapons, armour, ammunition…” Vissbruck puffed out his cheeks. “In all, it comes to nearly four hundred thousand marks.”

It was the most Glokta could do to keep from choking on his own tongue. Half a million? A king’s ransom and more besides. I doubt that Sult could provide so much, even if he had the mind, and he does not. Men die all the time over debts a fraction of the size. “Work however you can. Promise whatever you want. The money is on its way, I assure you.”

The General was already collecting his notes. “I am doing all I can, but people are beginning to doubt that they will ever be paid.”

Vurms was more direct. “No one trusts us any longer. Without money, we can do nothing.”


“Nothing,” growled Severard. Frost slowly shook his head.

Glokta rubbed at his sore eyes. “A Superior of the Inquisition vanishes without leaving so much as a smear behind. He retires to his chambers at night, the door is locked. In the morning he does not answer. They break down the door and find…” Nothing. “The bed has been slept in, but there is no body. Not the slightest sign of a struggle even.”

“Nothing,” muttered Severard.

“What do we know? Davoust suspected a conspiracy within the city, a traitor intending to deliver Dagoska to the Gurkish. He believed a member of the ruling council was involved. It would seem likely that he uncovered the identity of this person, and was somehow silenced.”

“But who?”

We must turn the question on its head. “If we cannot find our traitor, we must make them come to us. If they work to get the Gurkish in, we need only succeed in keeping them out. Sooner or later, they will show themselves.”

“Rithky,” mumbled Frost. Risky indeed, especially for Dagoska’s latest Superior of the Inquisition, but we have no choices.

“So we wait?” asked Severard.

“We wait, and we look to our defences. That and we try to find some money. Do you have any cash, Severard?”

“I did have some. I gave it to a girl, down in the slums.”

“Ah. Shame.”

“Not really, she fucks like a madman. I’d thoroughly recommend her, if you’re interested.”

Glokta winced as his knee clicked. “What a thoroughly heartwarming tale, Severard, I never had you down for a romantic. I’d sing a ballad if I wasn’t so short of funds.”

“I could ask around. How much are we talking about?”

“Oh, not much. Say, half a million marks?”

One of the Practical’s eyebrows went up sharply. He reached into his pocket, dug around for a moment, pulled his hand out and opened it. A few copper coins shone in his palm.

“Twelve bits,” he said. “Twelve bits is all I can raise.”


“Twelve thousand is all I can raise,” said Magister Eider. Scarcely a drop in the bucket. “My Guild are nervous, business has not been good, the great majority of their assets are bound up in ventures of one kind or another. I have little cash to hand either.”

I daresay you have a good deal more than twelve thousand, but what’s the difference? I doubt even you have half a million tucked away. There probably isn’t that amount in the whole city. “One would almost think they didn’t like me.”

She snorted. “Turning them out of the temple? Arming the natives? Then demanding money? It might be fair to say you’re not their favourite person.”

“Might it be fair to say they’re after my blood?” And plenty of it, I shouldn’t wonder.

“It might, but for the time being, at least, I think I’ve managed to convince them that you’re a good thing for the city.” She looked levelly at him for a moment. “You are a good thing, aren’t you?”

“If keeping the Gurkish out is your priority.” That is our priority, isn’t it? “More money wouldn’t hurt, though.”

“More money never hurts, but that’s the trouble with merchants. They much prefer making it to spending it, even when it’s in their own best interests.” She gave a heavy sigh, rapped her fingernails on the table, looked down at her hand. She seemed to consider a moment, then she began to pull the rings from her fingers. When she had finally got them all off, she tossed them into the box along with the coins.

Glokta frowned. “A winning gesture, Magister, but I could not possibly—”

“I insist,” she said, unclasping her heavy necklace and dropping it into the box. “I can always get more, once you’ve saved the city. In any case, they’ll do me no good when the Gurkish rip them from my corpse, will they?” She slipped her heavy bracelets off her wrists, yellow gold, studded with green gemstones. They rattled down amongst the rest. “Take the jewels, before I change my mind. A man lost in the desert should take such water—”

“As he is offered, regardless of the source. Kahdia told me the very same thing.”

“Kahdia is a clever man.”

“He is. I thank you for your generosity, Magister.” Glokta snapped the lid of the box shut.

“The least I could do.” She got up from her chair and walked to the door, her sandals hissing across the carpet. “I will speak with you soon.”


“He says he must speak with you now.”

“What was his name, Shickel?”

“Mauthis. A banker.”

One more creditor, come clamouring for his money. Sooner or later I’ll have to just arrest the pack of them. That will be the end of my little spending spree, but it will almost be worth it to see the looks on their faces. Glokta gave a hopeless shrug. “Send him in.”

He was a tall man in his fifties, almost ill-looking in his gauntness, hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed. There was a stern precision to his movements, a steady coldness to his gaze. As though he is weighing the value of all he looks at in silver marks, including me.

“My name is Mauthis.”

“I was informed, but I am afraid that there are no funds available at the present moment.” Unless you count Severard’s twelve bits. “Whatever debt the city has with your bank will have to wait. It will not be for much longer, I assure you.” Just until the sea dries up, the sky falls in, and devils roam the earth.

Mauthis gave a smile. If you could call it that. A neat, precise, and utterly joyless curving of the mouth. “You misunderstand me, Superior Glokta. I have not come to collect a debt. For seven years, I have had the privilege of acting as the chief representative in Dagoska, of the banking house of Valint and Balk.”

Glokta paused, then tried to sound off-hand. “Valint and Balk, you say? Your bank financed the Guild of Mercers, I believe.”

“We had some dealings with that guild, before their unfortunate fall from grace.” I’ll say you did. You owned them, from the ground up. “But then we have dealings with many guilds, and companies, and other banks, and individuals, great and small. Today I have dealings with you.”

“Dealings of what nature?”

Mauthis turned to the door and snapped his fingers. Two burly natives entered, grunting, sweating, struggling under the weight of a great casket: a box of polished black wood, bound with bands of bright steel, sealed with a heavy lock. They set it down carefully on the fine carpet, wiped sweat from their foreheads, and tramped out the way they came while Glokta frowned after them. What is this? Mauthis pulled a key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. He reached forward and lifted the lid of the chest. He moved out of the way, carefully and precisely, so Glokta could see the contents.

“One hundred and fifty thousand marks in silver.”

Glokta blinked. And so it is. The coins flashed and glittered in the evening light. Flat, round, silver, five mark pieces. Not a jingling heap, not some barbarian’s horde. Neat, even stacks, held in place by wooden dowels. As neat and even as Mauthis himself.

The two porters were gasping their way back into the room, carrying between them a second box, slightly smaller than the first. They placed it on the floor and strode out, not so much as glancing at the fortune glittering in plain view beside them.

Mauthis unlocked the second chest with the same key, raised the lid, and stood aside. “Three hundred and fifty thousand marks in gold.”

Glokta knew his mouth was open, but he could not close it. Bright, clean, gold, glowing yellow. All that wealth seemed almost to give off warmth, like a bonfire. It tugged at him, dragged at him, pulled him forward. He took a hesitant step, in fact, before he stopped himself. Great big, golden, fifty mark pieces. Neat, even stacks, just as before. Most men would never in their lives see such coins. Few men indeed can ever have seen so many.

Mauthis reached into his coat and pulled out a flat leather case. He placed it carefully on the table and unfolded it: once, twice, three times.

“One half of one million marks in polished stones.”

There they lay on the soft black leather, on the hard brown table top, burning with all the colours under the sun. Two large handfuls, perhaps, of multi-coloured, glittering gravel. Glokta stared down at them, numb, and sucked at his gums. Magister Eiders jewels seem suddenly rather quaint.

“In total, I have been ordered by my superiors to advance to you, Sand dan Glokta, Superior of Dagoska, the sum of precisely one million marks.” He unrolled a heavy paper. “You will sign here.”

Glokta stared from one chest to another and back. His left eye gave a flurry of twitches. “Why?”

“To certify that you received the money.”

Glokta almost laughed. “Not that! Why the money?” He flailed one hand at it all. “Why all this?”

“It would appear that my employers share your concern that Dagoska should not fall to the Gurkish. More than that I cannot tell you.”

“Cannot, or will not?”

“Cannot. Will not.”

Glokta frowned at the jewels, at the silver, at the gold. His leg was throbbing, dully. All that I wanted, and far more. But banks do not become banks by giving money away. “If this is a loan, what is the interest?”

Mauthis flashed his icy smile again. “My employers would prefer to call it a contribution to the defence of the city. There is one condition, however.”

“Which is?”

“It may be that in the future, a representative of the banking house of Valint and Balk will come to you requesting… favours. It is the most earnest hope of my employers that, if and when that time comes, you will not disappoint them.”

One million marks worth of favours. And I place myself in the power of a most suspect organisation. An organisation whose motives I do not begin to understand. An organisation that, until recently, I was on the point of investigating for high treason. But what are my options? Without money, the city is lost, and I am finished. I needed a miracle, and here it is, sparkling before me. A man lost in the desert must take such water as is offered…

Mauthis slid the document across the table. Several blocks of neat writing, and a space, for a name. For my name. Not at all unlike a paper of confession. And prisoners always sign their confessions. They are only offered when there is no choice.

Glokta reached for the pen, dipped it in the ink, wrote his name in the space provided.

“That concludes our business.” Mauthis rolled up the document, smoothly and precisely. He slipped it carefully into his coat. “My colleagues and I are leaving Dagoska this evening.” A great deal of money to contribute to the cause, but precious little confidence in it. “Valint and Balk are closing their offices here, but perhaps we will meet in Adua, once this unfortunate situation with the Gurkish is resolved.” The man gave his mechanical smile one more time. “Don’t spend it all at once.” And he turned on his heel and strode out, leaving Glokta alone with his monumental windfall.

He shuffled over to it, breathing hard, and stared down. There was something obscene about all that money. Something disgusting. Something frightening, almost. He snapped shut the lids of the two chests. He locked them with trembling hands. He shoved the key in his inside pocket. He stroked the metal bindings of the two boxes with his fingertips. His palms were greasy with sweat. I am rich.

He picked up a clear, cut stone the size of an acorn, and held it up to the window between finger and thumb. The dim light shone back at him through the many facets, a thousand brilliant sparks of fire—blue, green, red, white. Glokta did not know much about gemstones, but he was reasonably sure that this one was a diamond. I am very, very rich.

He looked back at the rest, sparkling on the flat piece of leather. Some of them were small, but many were not. Several were larger than the one he held in his hand. I am immensely, fabulously wealthy. Imagine what one could do with so much money. Imagine what one could control… perhaps, with this much, I can save the city. More walls, more supplies, more equipment, more mercenaries. The Gurkish, thrown back from Dagoska in disarray. The Emperor of Gurkhul, humbled. Who would have thought it? Sand dan Glokta, once more the hero.

He rolled the shining little pebbles around with a finger-tip, lost in thought. But so much spending in so little time could raise questions. My faithful servant Practical Vitari would be curious, and she would make my noble master the Arch Lector curious. One day I beg for money, the next I spend it as if it burns? I was forced to borrow, your Eminence. Indeed? How much? No more than a million marks. Indeed? And who would lend such a sum? Why, our old friends at the banking house of Valint and Balk, your Eminence, in return for unspecified favours, which they might call in at any moment. Of course, my loyalty is still beyond question. You understand, don’t you? I mean to say, it’s only a fortune in jewels. Body found floating by the docks…

He pushed his hand absently through the cold, hard, glittering stones, and they tickled pleasantly at the skin between his fingers. Pleasant, but perilous. We must still tread carefully. More carefully than ever…

<p>Fear</p>

It was a long way to the edge of the World, of that there could be no doubt. A long, and a lonely, and a nervous way. The sight of the corpses on the plain had worried everyone. The passing riders had made matters worse. The discomforts of the journey had in no way diminished. Jezal was still constantly hungry, usually too cold, often wet through, and would probably be saddle-sore for the rest of his days. Every night he stretched out on the hard and lumpy ground, dozed and dreamed of home, only to wake to the pale morning more tired and aching than when he lay down. His skin crawled, and chafed, and stung with the unfamiliar feeling of dirt, and he was forced to admit that he had begun to smell almost as vile as the others. It was enough, altogether, to make a civilised man run mad, and now, to add to all of this, there was the constant nagging of danger.

From that point of view, the terrain was not on Jezal’s side. Hoping to shake off any pursuers, Bayaz had ordered them away from the river a few days earlier. The ancient road wound now through deep scars in the plain, through rocky gullies, through shadowy gorges, alongside chattering streams in deep valleys.

Jezal began to think on the endless, grinding flatness almost with nostalgia. At least out there one did not look at every rock, and shrub, and fold in the ground and wonder whether there was a crowd of bloodthirsty enemies behind it. He had chewed his fingernails almost until the blood ran. Every sound made him bite his tongue and spin around in his saddle, clutching at his steels, staring for a murderer, who turned out to be a bird in a bush. It was not fear, of course, for Jezal dan Luthar, he told himself, would laugh in the face of danger. An ambush, or a battle, or a breathless pursuit across the plain—these things, he imagined, he could have taken in his stride. But this endless waiting, this mindless tension, this merciless rubbing-by of slow minutes was almost more than he could stand.

It might have helped had there been someone with whom he could share his unease, but, as far as companionship went, little had changed. The cart still rolled along the cracked old road while Quai sat grim and silent on top. Bayaz said nothing but for the occasional lecture on the qualities of great leadership, qualities which seemed markedly absent in himself. Longfoot was off scouting out the route, only appearing every day or two to let them know how skilfully he was doing it. Ferro frowned at everything as though it was her personal enemy, and at Jezal most of all, it sometimes seemed, her hands never far from her weapons. She spoke rarely, and then only to Ninefingers, to snarl about ambushes, or covering their tracks better, or the possibilities of being followed.

The Northman himself was something of a puzzle. When Jezal had first laid eyes on him, gawping at the gate of the Agriont, he had seemed less than an animal. Out here in the wild, though, the rules were different. One could not simply walk away from a man one disliked, then do one’s best to avoid him, belittle him in company, and insult him behind his back. Out here you were stuck with the companions you had, and, being stuck with him, Jezal had come slowly to realise that Ninefingers was just a man, after all. A stupid, and a thuggish, and a hideously ugly one, no doubt. As far as wit and culture went, he was a cut below the lowliest peasant in the fields of the Union, but Jezal had to admit that out of all the group, the Northman was the one he had come to hate least. He had not the pomposity of Bayaz, the watchfulness of Quai, the boastfulness of Longfoot, or the simple viciousness of Ferro. Jezal would not have been ashamed to ask a farmer his opinion on the raising of crops, or a smith his opinion on the making of armour, however dirty, ugly or lowborn they might have been. Why not consult a hardened killer on the subject of violence?

“I understand that you have led men in battle,” Jezal tried as his opening.

The Northman turned his dark, slow eyes on him. “More than once.”

“And fought in duels.”

“Aye.” He scratched at the ragged scars on his stubbly cheek. “I didn’t come to look like this from a wobbly hand at shaving.”

“If your hand was that wobbly, you would choose, perhaps, to grow a beard.”

Ninefingers chuckled. Jezal was almost used to the sight now. It was still hideous, of course, but smacked more of good-natured ape than crazed murderer. “I might at that,” he said.

Jezal thought about it a moment. He did not wish to make himself appear weak, but honesty might earn the trust of a simple man. If it worked with dogs, why not with Northmen? “I myself,” he ventured, “have never fought in a full-blooded battle.”

“You don’t say?”

“No, truly. My friends are in Angland now, fighting against Bethod and his savages.” Ninefingers’ eyes swivelled sideways. “I mean… that is to say… fighting against Bethod. I would be with them myself, had not Bayaz asked me to come on this… venture.”

“Their loss is our gain.”

Jezal looked sharply across. From a subtler source, that might almost have sounded like sarcasm. “Bethod started this war, of course. A most dishonourable act of unprovoked aggression on his part.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on that score. Bethod’s got a gift when it comes to starting wars. The only thing he’s better at is the finishing of ’em.”

Jezal laughed. “You can’t mean that you think he’ll beat the Union?”

“He’s beaten worse odds, but you know best. We don’t all have your experience.”

The laughter stuttered out in Jezal’s throat. He was almost sure that had been irony, and it made him think for a moment. Was Ninefingers looking at him now, and behind that scarred, that plodding, that battered mask thinking, “what a fool”? Could it be that Bayaz had been right? That there was something to be learned from this Northman after all? There was only one way to find out.

“What’s a battle like?” he asked.

“Battles are like men. No two are ever quite the same.”

“How do you mean?”

“Imagine waking up at night to hear a crashing and a shouting, scrambling out of your tent into the snow with your trousers falling down, to see men all around you killing one another. Nothing but moonlight to see by, no clue who’re enemies and who’re friends, no weapon to fight with.”

“Confusing,” said Jezal.

“No doubt. Or imagine crawling in the mud, between the stomping boots, trying to get away but not knowing where to go, with an arrow in your back and a sword cut across your arse, squealing like a pig and waiting for a spear to stick you through, a spear you won’t even see coming.”

“Painful,” agreed Jezal.

“Very. Or imagine standing in a circle of shields no more than ten strides across, all held by men roaring their loudest. There’s just you and one other man in there, and that man’s won a reputation for being the hardest bastard in the North, and only one of you can leave alive.”

“Hmm,” murmured Jezal.

“That’s right. You like the sound of any of those?” Jezal did not, and Ninefingers smiled. “I didn’t think so, and honestly? Nor do I. I’ve been in all kind of battles, and skirmishes, and fights. Most of them started in chaos, and all of ’em ended in it, and not once did I not come near to shitting myself at some point.”

“You?”

The Northman chuckled. “Fearlessness is a fool’s boast, to my mind. The only men with no fear in them are the dead, or the soon to be dead, maybe. Fear teaches you caution, and respect for your enemy, and to avoid sharp edges used in anger. All good things in their place, believe me. Fear can bring you out alive, and that’s the very best anyone can hope for from any fight. Every man who’s worth a damn feels fear. It’s the use you make of it that counts.”

“Be scared? That’s your advice?”

“My advice would be to find a good woman and steer well clear of the whole bloody business, and it’s a shame no one told me the same twenty years ago.” He looked sideways at Jezal. “But if, say, you’re stuck out on some great wide plain in the middle of nowhere and can’t avoid it, there’s three rules I’d take to a fight. First, always do your best to look the coward, the weakling, the fool. Silence is a warrior’s best armour, the saying goes. Hard looks and hard words have never won a battle yet, but they’ve lost a few.”

“Look the fool, eh? I see.” Jezal had built his whole life around trying to appear the cleverest, the strongest, the most noble. It was an intriguing idea, that a man might choose to look like less than he was.

“Second, never take an enemy lightly, however much the dullard he seems. Treat every man like he’s twice as clever, twice as strong, twice as fast as you are, and you’ll only be pleasantly surprised. Respect costs you nothing, and nothing gets a man killed quicker than confidence.”

“Never underestimate the foe. A wise precaution.” Jezal was beginning to realise that he had underestimated this Northman. He wasn’t half the idiot he appeared to be.

“Third, watch your opponent as close as you can, and listen to opinions if you’re given them, but once you’ve got your plan in mind, you fix on it and let nothing sway you. Time comes to act, you strike with no backward glances. Delay is the parent of disaster, my father used to tell me, and believe me, I’ve seen some disasters.”

“No backward glances,” muttered Jezal, nodding slowly to himself. “Of course.”

Ninefingers puffed out his pitted cheeks. “There’s no replacement for seeing it, and doing it, but master all that, and you’re halfway to beating anyone, I reckon.”

“Halfway? What about the other half?”

The Northman shrugged. “Luck.”


“I don’t like this,” growled Ferro, frowning up at the steep sides of the gorge. Jezal wondered if there was anything in the world she did like.

“You think we’re followed?” asked Bayaz. “You see anyone?”

“How could I see anyone from down here? That’s the point!”

“Good ground for an ambush,” muttered Ninefingers. Jezal looked around him, nervously. Broken rocks, bushes, scrubby trees, the ground was full of hiding places.

“Well, this is the route that Longfoot picked for us,” grumbled Bayaz. “and there’s no purpose in hiring a cleaner if you’re going to swab the latrines yourself. Where the hell is that damn Navigator anyway? Never around when you want him, only turns up to eat and boast for hours on end! If you knew how much that bastard cost me—”

“Damn it.” Ninefingers pulled his horse up and clambered stiffly down from his saddle. A fallen tree trunk, wood cracked and grey, lay across the gorge, blocking the road.

“I don’t like this.” Ferro shrugged her bow from her shoulder.

“Neither do I,” grumbled Ninefingers, taking a step towards the fallen tree. “But you have to be real—”

“That’s far enough!” The voice echoed back and forth around the valley, brash and confident. Quai hauled on the reins and brought the cart to a sudden halt. Jezal looked along the lip of the gorge, his heart thumping in his mouth. He saw the speaker now. A big man dressed in antique leather armour, sitting carelessly on the edge of the drop with one leg dangling, his long hair flapping softly in the breeze. A pleasant and a friendly-looking man, as far as Jezal could tell at this distance, with a wide smile on his face.

“My name is Finnius, a humble servant of the Emperor Cabrian!”

“Cabrian?” shouted Bayaz. “I heard he’d lost his reason!”

“He’s got some interesting ideas.” Finnius shrugged. “But he’s always seen us right. Let me explain matters—we’re all around you!” A serious-seeming man with a short sword and shield stepped out from behind the dead tree trunk. Two more appeared, and then three more, creeping out from behind the rocks, behind the bushes, all with serious faces and serious weapons. Jezal licked his lips. He would laugh in the face of danger, of course, but now it came to it nothing seemed at all amusing. He looked over his shoulder. More men had come from behind the rocks they had passed a few moments before, blocking the valley in the other direction.

Ninefingers folded his arms. “Just once,” he murmured, “I’d like to take someone else by surprise.”

“There’s a couple more of us,” shouted Finnius, “up here, with me! Good hands with bows, and ready with arrows.” Jezal saw their outlines now against the white sky, the curved shapes of their weapons. “So you see that you’ll be going no further down this road!”

Bayaz spread his palms. “Perhaps we can come to some arrangement that suits us both! You need only name your price and—”

“Your money’s no good to us, old man, and I’m deeply wounded by the assumption! We’re soldiers, not thieves! We have orders to find a certain group of people, a group of people wandering out in the middle of nowhere, far from the travelled roads! An old bald bastard with a sickly-looking boy, some stuck-up Union fool, a scarred whore, and an ape of a Northerner! You seen a crowd that might fit that description?”

“If I’m the whore,” shouted Ninefingers, “who’s the Northerner?”

Jezal winced. No jokes, please no jokes, but Finnius only chuckled. “They didn’t tell me you were funny. Reckon that’s a bonus. At least until we kill you. Where’s the other one, eh? The Navigator?”

“No idea,” growled Bayaz, “unfortunately. If anyone dies it should be him.”

“Don’t take it too hard. We’ll catch up with him later.” And Finnius laughed an easy laugh, and the men around them grinned and fingered their weapons. “So if you’d be good enough to give your arms to those fellows ahead of you, we can get you trussed up and start back towards Darmium before nightfall!”

“And when we get there?”

Finnius gave a happy shrug. “Not my business. I don’t ask questions of the Emperor, and you don’t ask questions of me. That way, no one gets skinned alive. Do you take my meaning, old man?”

“Your meaning is hard to miss, but I am afraid that Darmium is quite out of our way.”

“What are you,” called Finnius, “soft in the head?”

The nearest man stepped forward and grabbed hold of Bayaz’ bridle. “That’s enough of that,” he growled.

Jezal felt that horrible sucking in his guts. The air around Bayaz’ shoulders trembled, like the hot air above a forge. The foremost of the men frowned, opened his mouth to speak. His face seemed to flatten, then his head broke open and he was suddenly snatched away as though flicked by a giant, unseen finger. He had not even time to scream.

Nor had the four men who stood behind him. Their ruined bodies, the broken remnants of the grey tree trunk, and a great quantity of earth and rocks around them were ripped from the ground and flung through the air to shatter against the rocky wall of the gorge a hundred strides distant with a sound like a house collapsing.

Jezal’s mouth hung open. His body froze. It had taken only a terrifying instant. One moment five men had been standing there, the next they were slaughtered meat among a heap of settling debris. Somewhere behind him he heard the hum of a bowstring. There was a cry and a body dropped down into the valley, bounced from the sheer rocks and flopped rag-like, face down in the stream.

“Ride, then!” roared Bayaz, but Jezal could only sit in his saddle and gape. The air around the Magus was still moving, more than ever. The rocks behind him rippled and twisted like the stones on the bed of a stream. The old man frowned, stared down at his hands. “No…” he muttered, turning them over before him.

The brown leaves on the ground were lifting up into air, fluttering as though on a gust of wind. “No,” said Bayaz, his eyes opening wide. His whole body had begun to shake. Jezal gawped as the loose stones around them rose from the ground, drifting impossibly upwards. Sticks began to snap from the bushes, clods of grass began to tear themselves away from the rocks, his coat rustled and flapped, dragged upwards by some unseen force.

“No!” screamed Bayaz, then his shoulders hunched in a sudden spasm. A tree beside them split apart with a deafening crack and splinters of wood showered out into the whipping air. Someone was shouting but Jezal could scarcely hear them. His horse reared and he had not the wit to hold on. He crashed onto his back on the earth while the whole valley shimmered, trembled, vibrated around him.

Bayaz’ head snapped back, rigid, one hand up and clawing at the air. A rock the size of a man’s head flew past Jezal’s face and burst apart against a boulder. The air was filled with a storm of whipping rubbish, of fragments of wood, and stone, and soil, and broken gear. Jezal’s ears were ringing with a terrifying clattering, rattling, howling. He flung himself down on his face, crossed his arms over his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

He thought of his friends. Of West, and Jalenhorm, and Kaspa, of Lieutenant Brint, even. He thought of his family and his home, of his father and his brothers. He thought of Ardee. If he lived to see them again, he would be a better man. He swore it to himself with silent, trembling lips as the unnatural wind ripped the valley apart around him. He would no longer be selfish, no longer be vain, no longer be lazy. He would be a better friend, a better son, a better lover, if only he lived through this. If only he lived through this. If only…

He could hear his own terrified breath coming in quick gasps, the blood surging in his head.

The noise had stopped.

Jezal opened his eyes. He lifted his hands from his head and a shower of twigs and soil fell around him. The gorge was full of settling leaves, misty with choking dust. Ninefingers was standing nearby, red blood running down his dirty face from a cut on his forehead. He was walking slowly sideways. He had his sword drawn, hanging down by his leg. Someone was facing him. One of the men that had blocked the way behind them, a tall man with a mop of red hair. Circling each other. Jezal watched, kneeling, mouth wide open. He felt in some small way that he should intervene, but he had not the beginnings of an idea how to do so.

The red-haired man moved suddenly, leaping forwards and swinging his sword over his head. He moved fast, but Ninefingers was faster. He stepped sideways so that the whistling blade missed his face by inches, then he slashed his opponent across the belly as he passed. The man grunted, stumbled a step or two. Ninefingers’ heavy sword chopped into the back of his skull with a hollow clicking sound. He tripped over his own feet and pitched onto his face, blood bubbling from the gaping wound in his head. Jezal watched it spread slowly out through the dirt around the corpse. A wide, dark pool, slowly mingling with the dust and the loose soil on the valley floor. No second touch. No best of three.

He became aware of a scuffling, grunting sound, and looked up to see Ninefingers staggering around with another man, a great big man. The two of them were growling and clawing at each other, wrestling over a knife. Jezal gawped at them. When had that happened?

“Stab him!” shouted Ninefingers as the two of them grappled. “Fucking stab him!” Jezal knelt there, staring up. One hand gripped the hilt of his long steel as though he were hanging off a cliff and this was the last handful of grass, the other hung limp.

There was a gentle thud. The big man grunted. There was an arrow sticking out of his side. Another thud. Two arrows. A third appeared, tightly grouped. He slid slowly out of Ninefingers’ grip, onto his knees, coughing and moaning. He crawled towards Jezal, sat back slowly, grimacing and making a strange mewling sound. He lay back in the road, the arrows sticking up into the air like rushes in the shallows of a lake. He was still.

“What about that Finnius bastard?”

“He got away.”

“He’ll get others!”

“It was deal with him or deal with that one there.”

“I had that one!”

“Course you did. If you could have held him another year, maybe Luthar might have got round to drawing a blade, eh?”

Strange voices, nothing to do with him. Jezal wobbled slowly up to his feet. His mouth was dry, his knees were weak, his ears were ringing. Bayaz lay in the road on his back a few strides away, his apprentice kneeling beside him. One of the wizard’s eyes was closed, the other slightly open, the lid twitching, a slit of white eyeball showing underneath.

“You can let go of that now.” Jezal looked down. His hand was still clenched around the grip of his steel, knuckles white. He willed his fingers to relax and they slowly uncurled, far away. His palm ached from all that gripping. Jezal felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “You alright?” Ninefingers’ voice.

“Eh?”

“You hurt?”

Jezal stared at himself, turning his hands over stupidly. Dirty, but no blood. “I don’t think so.”

“Good. The horses ran. Who can blame them, right? If I had four legs I’d be halfway back to the sea by now.”

“What?”

“Why don’t you catch them?”

“Who made you the leader?”

Ninefingers heavy brows drew in slightly. Jezal became aware that they were standing very close to one another, and that the Northman’s hand was still on his shoulder. It was only resting there, but he could feel the strength of it through his coat, and it felt strong enough to twist his arm off. Damn his mouth, it got him in all kinds of trouble. He expected a punch in the face at the very least, if not a fatal wound in his head, but Ninefingers only pursed his lips thoughtfully and began to speak.

“We’re a lot different, you and me. Different in all kind of ways. I see you don’t have much respect for my kind, or for me in particular, and I don’t much blame you. The dead know I got my shortcomings, and I ain’t entirely ignorant of ’em. You may think you’re a clever man, and I’m a stupid one, and I daresay you’re right. There’s sure to be a very many things that you know more about than I do. But when it comes to fighting, I’m sorry to say, there’s few men with a wider experience than me. No offence, but we both know you’re not one of ’em. No one made me the leader, but this is the task that needs doing.” He stepped closer still, his great paw gripping Jezal’s shoulder with a fatherly firmness, halfway between reassurance and threat. “Is that a worry?”

Jezal thought about it for a moment. He was out of his depth, and the events of the past few minutes had demonstrated beyond question just how far. He looked down at the man that Ninefingers had killed only a moment before, and the cleft in the back of his head yawned wide. Perhaps, for the moment, it would be best if he simply did as he was told.

“No worry,” he said.

“Good!” Ninefingers grinned, clapped him on the shoulder and let him go. “Horses still need catching, and you’re the man for the job, I reckon.”

Jezal nodded, and stumbled away to look for them.

<p>One Hundred Words</p>

There was something peculiar afoot, that was sure. Colonel Glokta tested his limbs, but he appeared unable to move. The sun was blinding bright in his eyes.

“Did we beat the Gurkish?” he asked.

“We certainly did,” said Haddish Kahdia, leaning over into Glokta’s field of view. “With God’s help we put them to the sword. Butchered them like cattle.” The old native went back to chewing on the severed hand he held. He’d already got through a couple of fingers.

Glokta raised his arm to take it, but there was nothing there, only a bloody stump, chewed off at the wrist. “I swear,” murmured the Colonel, “it’s my hand you’re eating.”

Kahdia smiled. “And it is entirely delicious. I do congratulate you.”

“Utterly delicious,” muttered General Vissbruck, taking the hand from Kahdia and sucking a strip of ragged flesh from it. “Must be all that fencing you did as a young man.” There was blood smeared across his plump, smiling face.

“The fencing, of course,” said Glokta. “I’m glad you like it,” though the whole business did seem somewhat strange.

“We do, we do!” cried Vurms. He was cupping the remains of Glokta’s foot in his hands like a slice of melon, and nibbling at it daintily. “All four of us are delighted! Tastes like roast pork!”

“Like good cheese!” shouted Vissbruck.

“Like sweet honey!” cooed Kahdia, sprinkling a little salt onto Glokta’s midriff.

“Like sweet money,” purred Magister Eider’s voice from somewhere down below.

Glokta propped himself up on his elbows. “Why, what are you doing down there?”

She looked up and grinned at him. “You took my rings. The least you can do is give me something in return.” Her teeth sank into his right thigh, deep in like tiny daggers, and scooped out a neat ball of flesh. She slurped blood hungrily from the wound, tongue darting out across his skin.

Colonel Glokta raised his eyebrows. “You’re right, of course. Quite right.” It really hurt a great deal less than one would have expected, but sitting upright was rather draining. He fell back onto the sand and lay there, looking up at the blue sky. “All of you are quite right.”

She had made it up to his hip now. “Ah,” giggled the Colonel, “that tickles!” What a pleasure it was, he thought, to be eaten by such a beautiful woman. “A little to the left,” he murmured, closing his eyes, “just a little to the left…”


Glokta sat up in bed with an agonising jerk, back arched as tight as a full-drawn bow. His left leg trembled under the clammy sheet, wasted muscles knotted hard with searing cramps. He bit down on his lip with his remaining teeth to keep from screaming, snorted heaving gasps through his nose, face screwed up with his furious efforts to control the pain.

Just when it seemed that his leg would rip itself apart, the sinews suddenly relaxed. Glokta collapsed back into his clammy bed and lay there, breathing hard. Damn these fucking dreams. Every part of him was aching, every part of him was weak and trembling, wet with cold sweat. He frowned in the darkness. There was a strange sound filling the room. A rushing, hissing sound. What is that? Slowly, gingerly, he rolled over and levered himself out of bed, hobbled to the window and stood there, looking out.

It was as though the city beyond his room had vanished. A grey curtain had descended, cutting him off from the world. Rain. It spattered against the sill, fat drops bursting into soft spray, throwing a cool mist into the chamber, dampening the carpet beneath the window, the drapes around the opening, soothing Glokta’s clammy skin. Rain. He had forgotten that such a thing existed.

There was a flash, lightning in the distance. The spires of the Great Temple were cut out black through the hissing murk for an instant, and then the darkness closed back in, joined by a long, angry muttering of distant thunder. Glokta stuck his arm out through the window, felt the water pattering cold against his skin. A strange, unfamiliar feeling.

“I swear,” he murmured to himself.

“The first rains come.” Glokta nearly choked as he spun around, stumbled, clutched at the wet stones around the window for support. It was dark as hell in the room, there was no telling where the voice had come from. Did I only imagine it? Am I still dreaming? “A sublime moment. The world seems to live again.” Glokta’s heart froze in his chest. A man’s voice, deep and rich. The voice of the one who took Davoust? Who will soon take me?

The room was illuminated by another brilliant flash. The speaker sat cross-legged on the carpet. An old black man with long hair. Between me and the door. No way past, even if I was a considerably better runner than I am. The light was gone as soon as it arrived, but the image persisted for a moment, burned into Glokta’s eyes. Then came the crash of thunder splitting the sky, echoing in the darkness of the wide chamber. No one would hear my despairing screams for help, even if anyone cared.

“Who the hell are you?” Glokta’s voice was squeaky with shock.

“Yulwei is my name. You need not be alarmed.”

“Not alarmed? Are you fucking joking?”

“If I had a mind to kill you, you would have died in your sleep. I would have left a body, though.”

“Some comfort.” Glokta’s mind raced, thinking over the objects within reach. I might make it as far as the ornamental tea-jar on the table. He almost laughed. And do what with it? Offer him tea? Nothing to fight with, even if I was a considerably more effective fighter than I am. “How did you get in?”

“I have my ways. The same ways in which I crossed the wide desert, travelled the busy road from Shaffa unobserved, passed through the Gurkish host and into the city.”

“And to think, you could have just knocked.”

“Knocking does not guarantee an entrance.” Glokta’s eyes strained against the gloom, but he could see nothing beyond the vague grey outlines of furniture, the arched grey spaces of the other windows. The rain pattered on the sill behind, hissed quietly on the roofs of the city below. Just when he was wondering if his dream was over, the voice came again. “I have been watching the Gurkish, as I have these many years. That is my allotted task. My penance, for the part I played in the schism that has split my order.”

“Your order?”

“The Order of Magi. I am the fourth of Juvens’ twelve apprentices.”

A Magus. I might have known. Like that bald old meddler Bayaz, and I gained nothing but confusion from him. As if there were not enough to worry about with politics and treachery, now we must have myth and superstition to boot. Still, it looks as if I will last out the night, at least.

“A Magus, eh? Forgive me if I don’t celebrate. Such dealings as I’ve had with your order have been a waste of my time, at best.”

“Perhaps I can repair our reputation, then. I bring you information.”

“Free of charge?”

“This time. The Gurkish are moving. Five of their golden standards pass down the peninsula tonight, under cover of the storm. Twenty thousand spears, with great engines of war. Five more standards wait behind the hills, and that is not all. The roads from Shaffa to Ul-Khatif, from Ul-Khatif to Daleppa, from Daleppa to the sea, all are thick with soldiers. The Emperor puts forth all his strength. The whole South moves. Conscripts from Kadir and Dawah, wild riders from Yashtavit, fierce savages from the jungles of Shamir, where men and women fight side by side. They all come northwards. Coming here, to fight for the Emperor.”

“So many, just to take Dagoska?”

“And more besides. The Emperor has built himself a navy. One hundred sail of great ships.”

“The Gurkish are no sailors. The Union controls the seas.”

“The world changes, and you must change with it or be swept aside. This war will not be like the last. Khalul finally sends forth his own soldiers. An army many long years in the making. The gates of the great temple-fortress of Sarkant are opening, high in the barren mountains. I have seen it. Mamun comes forth, thrice-blessed and thrice-cursed, the fruit of the desert, first apprentice of Khalul. Together they broke the Second Law, together they ate the flesh of men. The Hundred Words come behind, Eaters all, disciples of the Prophet, bred for battle and fed over these long years, adepts in the disciplines of arms and of High Art. No peril like it has faced the world since the Old Time, when Juvens fought with Kanedias. Since before that, perhaps, when Glustrod touched the Other Side, and sought to open the gates to the world below.”

And blah, blah, blah. A shame. He had been making surprising sense for a Magus. “You want to give me information? Keep your bed-time stories and tell me what happened to Davoust.”

“There is an Eater here. I smell it. A dweller in the shadows. One whose only task is to destroy those who oppose the Prophet.” And myself the first of them? “Your predecessor never left these chambers. The Eater took him, to protect the traitor who works within the city.”

Yes. Now we speak my language. “Who is the traitor?” Glokta’s voice sounded shrill, sharp, greedy in his own ear.

“I am no fortune-teller, cripple, and if I could give you the answer, would you believe me? Men must learn at their own pace.”

“Bah!” snapped Glokta. “You are just like Bayaz. You talk, and talk, and yet you say nothing. Eaters? Nothing but old stories and nonsense!”

“Stories? Did Bayaz not take you within the Maker’s House?” Glokta swallowed, his hand clinging trembling tight to the damp stone under the window. “Yet still you doubt me? You are slow to learn, cripple. Have I not seen the slaves march to Sarkant, dragged from every land the Gurkish conquer? Have I not seen the countless columns, driven up into the mountains? To feed Khalul and his disciples, to swell their power ever further. A crime against God! A breach of the Second Law, written in fire by Euz himself! You doubt me, and perhaps you are wise to doubt me, but at first light you will see the Gurkish have come. You will count five standards, and you will know I spoke the truth.”

“Who is the traitor?” hissed Glokta. “Tell me, you riddling bastard!” Silence, but for the splashing of rain, the trickling of water, the rustling of wind in the hangings about the window. A stroke of lightning threw sudden light into every corner.

The carpet was empty. Yulwei was gone.


The Gurkish host came slowly forward in five enormous blocks, two in front, three behind, covering the whole neck of land from sea to sea. They moved together in perfect formation to the deep thumping of great drums, rank upon rigid rank, the sound of their tramping boots like the distant thunder of the night before. Already, the sun had sucked away all evidence of the rain, and now it flashed mirror-bright on thousands of helmets, thousands of shields, thousands of swords, glittering arrow-heads, coats of armour. A forest of shining spears, moving inexorably forwards. A merciless, tireless, irresistible tide of men.

Union soldiers were scattered around the top of the land walls, squatting behind the parapet, fingering their flatbows, peering out nervously at the advancing host. Glokta could sense their fear. And who can blame them? We must be outnumbered ten to one already. There were no drums up here in the wind, no shouted orders, no hurried preparations. Only silence.

“And here they come,” mused Nicomo Cosca, grinning out at the scene. He alone seemed untouched by fear. He has either an iron nerve or a leaden imagination. Lazing in a drinking-hole or waiting for death all seems to be one to him. He was standing with one foot up on the parapet, forearms crossed on his knee, half-full bottle dangling from one hand. The mercenary’s battle dress was much the same as his drinking gear. The same sagging boots, the same ruined trousers. His one allowance for the dangers of the battlefield was a black breastplate, etched front and back with golden scrollwork. It too had seen better days, the enamel chipped, the rivets stained with rust. But it must once have been quite the masterpiece.

“That’s a fine piece of armour you have there.”

“What, this?” Cosca looked down at his breastplate. “In its day, perhaps, but it’s seen some hard use over the years. Been left out in the rain more than once. A gift from the Grand Duchess Sefeline of Ospria, in return for defeating the army of Sipani in the five month war. It came with a promise of her eternal friendship.”

“Nice, to have friends.”

“Not really. That very night she tried to have me killed. My victories had made me far too popular with Sefeline’s own subjects. She feared I might try to seize power. Poison, in my wine.” Cosca took a long swig from his bottle. “Killed my favourite mistress. I was forced to flee, with little more than this damn breastplate, and seek employment with the Prince of Sipani. That old bastard didn’t pay half so well, but at least I got to lead his army against the Duchess, and have the satisfaction of seeing her poisoned in her turn.” He frowned. “Made her face turn blue. Bright blue, believe me. Never get too popular, that’s my advice.”

Glokta snorted. “Over-popularity is scarcely my most pressing worry.”

Vissbruck cleared his throat noisily, evidently upset at being ignored. He gestured towards the endless ranks of men advancing down the isthmus. “Superior, the Gurkish approach.” Indeed? I had not noticed. “Do I have your permission to flood the ditch?”

Oh yes, your moment of glory. “Very well.”

Vissbruck strutted to the parapet with an air of the greatest self-importance. He slowly raised his arm, then chopped it portentously through the air. Somewhere, out of sight below, whips cracked and teams of mules strained on ropes. The complaining squeal of wood under great pressure reached them on the battlements, then a creaking and a cracking as the dams gave way, and then an angry thundering as the great weight of salt water broke through and surged down the deep ditch from both ends, foaming angry white. Water met water just beneath them, throwing glittering spray into the air as high as the battlements and higher yet. A moment later, and this new ribbon of sea was calm. The ditch had become a channel, the city had become an island.

“The ditch is flooded!” announced General Vissbruck.

“So we see,” said Glokta. “Congratulations.” Let us hope the Gurkish have no strong swimmers among them. They certainly have no shortage of men to choose from.

Five tall poles waved gently above the tramping mass of soldiers, Gurkish symbols glittering upon them in solid gold. Symbols of battles fought, and battles won. The standards of five legions, flashing in the merciless sun. Five legions. Just as the old man told me. Will ships follow, then? Glokta turned his head and peered out across the Lower City. The long wharves stuck into the bay like the spines of a hedgehog, still busy with ships. Ships carrying our supplies in, and a last few nervous merchants out. There were no walls there. Few defences of any kind. We did not think we needed them. The Union has always ruled the seas. If ships should come…

“Do we still have supplies of wood and stone?”

The General nodded vigorously, all eagerness. Finally adjusted to the changes in the chain of command, it seems. “Abundant supplies, Superior, precisely as your orders specified.”

“I want you to build a wall behind the docks and along the shoreline. As strong, and as high, and as soon as possible. Our defences there are weak. The Gurkish may test them sooner or later.”

The General frowned out at the swarming army of soldiers crawling over the peninsula, looked down towards the calm docks, and back. “But surely the threat from the landward side is a little more… pressing? The Gurkish are poor sailors, and in any case have no fleet worthy of the name—”

“The world changes, General. The world changes.”

“Of course.” Vissbruck turned to speak to his aides.

Glokta shuffled up to the parapet beside Cosca. “How many Gurkish troops, would you judge?”

The Styrian scratched at the flaky rash on the side of his neck. “I count five standards. Five of the Emperor’s legions, and plenty more besides. Scouts, engineers, irregulars from across the South. How many troops…” He squinted up into the sun, lips moving silently as though his head was full of complex sums. “A fucking lot.” He tipped his head back and sucked the last drops from his bottle, then he smacked his lips, pulled back his arm and hurled it towards the Gurkish. It flashed in the sun for a moment, then shattered against the hard dirt on the other side of the channel. “Do you see those carts at the back?”

Glokta squinted down his eye-glass. There did indeed seem to be a shadowy column of great wagons behind the mass of soldiery, barely visible in the shimmering haze and the clouds of dust kicked up by the stomping boots. Soldiers need supplies of course, but then again… Here and there he could see long timbers sticking up like spider’s legs. “Siege engines,” muttered Glokta to himself. All just as Yulwei said. “They are in earnest.”

“Ah, but so are you.” Cosca stood up beside the parapet, started to fiddle with his belt. A moment later, Glokta heard the sound of his piss spattering against the base of the wall, far below. The mercenary grinned over his shoulder, thin hair fluttering in the salt wind. “Everyone’s in lots of earnest. I must speak to Magister Eider. I’d say I’ll be getting my battle money soon.”

“I think so.” Glokta slowly lowered his eye-glass. “And earning it too.”

<p>The Blind Lead the Blind</p>

The First of the Magi lay twisted on his back in the cart, wedged between a water barrel and a sack of horse feed, a coil of rope for his pillow. Logen had never seen him look so old, and thin, and weak. His breath came shallow, his skin was pale and blotchy, drawn tight over his bones and beaded with sweat. From time to time he’d twitch, and squirm, and mutter strange words, his eyelids flickering like a man trapped in a bad dream.

“What happened?”

Quai stared down. “Whenever you use the Art, you borrow from the Other Side, and what is borrowed has to be repaid. There are risks, even for a master. To seek to change the world with a thought… the arrogance of it.” The corners of his mouth twitched up into a smile. “Borrow too often, perhaps, one time you touch the world below, and leave a piece of yourself behind…”

“Behind?” muttered Logen, peering down at the twitching old man. He didn’t much like the way Quai was talking. It was no smiling matter, as far as he could see, to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere without a clue where they were going.

“Just think,” whispered the apprentice. “The First of the Magi himself, helpless as a baby.” He laid his hand gently on Bayaz’ chest. “He clings on to life by a thread. I could reach out now, with this weak hand… and kill him.”

Logen frowned. “Why would you want to do that?”

Quai looked up, and smiled his sickly smile. “Why would anyone? I was merely saying.” And he snatched his hand away.

“How long will he stay like this?”

The apprentice sat back in the cart and stared up at the sky. “There’s no saying. Maybe hours. Maybe forever.”

“Forever?” Logen ground his teeth. “Where does that leave us? You have any idea where we’re going? Or why? Or what we do when we get there? Should we turn back?”

“No.” Quai’s face was sharp as a blade. Sharper than Logen would ever have expected from him. “We have enemies behind us. To turn back now would be more dangerous than to continue. We carry on.”

Logen winced, and rubbed at his eyes. He felt tired, and sore, and sick. He wished he’d asked Bayaz his plans when he’d had the chance. He wished he’d never left the North, if it came to that. He could have sought out a reckoning with Bethod, and died in a place he knew, at the hands of men that he at least understood.

Logen had no wish to lead. The time was he’d hungered after fame, and glory, and respect, but the winning of them had been costly, and they’d proved to be hollow prizes. Men had put their faith in him, and he’d led them by a painful and a bloody route straight back to the mud. There was no ambition in him any more. He was cursed when it came to making decisions.

He took his hands away and looked around him. Bayaz still lay muttering in his fevered sleep. Quai was gazing carelessly up at the clouds. Luthar was standing with his back to the others, staring down the gorge. Ferro was sitting on a rock, cleaning her bow with a rag, and scowling. Longfoot had reappeared, predictably, just as the danger ended, and was standing not far away, looking pleased with himself. Logen grimaced, and gave a long sigh. There was no help for it. There was no one else.

“Alright, we head for this bridge, at Aulcus, then we see.”

“Not a good idea,” tutted Longfoot, wandering up to the cart and peering in. “Not a good idea in the least. I warned our employer of that before his… mishap. The city is deserted, destroyed, ruined. A blighted, and a broken, and a dangerous place. The bridge may still stand, but according to rumour—”

“Aulcus was the plan, and I reckon we’ll stick with it.”

Longfoot carried on as though he hadn’t spoken. “I think, perhaps, that it would be best if we headed back towards Calcis. We are still less than halfway to our ultimate destination, and have ample food and water for the return journey. With some luck—”

“You were paid to go all the way?”

“Well, er, indeed I was, but—”

“Aulcus.”

The Navigator blinked. “Well, yes, I see that you are decided. Decisiveness, and boldness, and vigour, it would seem, are among your talents, but caution, and wisdom, and experience, if I may say, are among mine, and I am in no doubt whatsoever that—”

“Aulcus,” growled Logen.

Longfoot paused with his mouth half open. Then he snapped it shut. “Very well. We will follow the road back onto the plains, and head westward to the three lakes. Aulcus is at their head, but the journey is still a long and dangerous one, especially with winter well upon us. There should be—”

“Good.” Logen turned away before the Navigator had the chance to say anything more. That was the easy part. He sucked his teeth, and walked over to Ferro.

“Bayaz is…” he struggled for the right word. “Out. We don’t know how long for.”

She nodded. “We going on?”

“Er… I reckon… that’s the plan.”

“Alright.” She got up from her rock and slung the bow over her shoulder. “Best get moving then.”

Easier than he’d expected. Too easy, perhaps. He wondered if she was thinking of sneaking off again. He was considering it himself, truth be told. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”

She snorted. “I’ve never known where I was going. You ask me, it’s an improvement, you in charge.” She walked off towards the horses. “I never trusted that bald bastard.”

And that only left Luthar. He was standing with his back to the others, shoulders slumped, thoroughly miserable-looking. Logen could see the muscles on the side of his head working as he stared at the ground.

“You alright?”

Luthar hardly seemed to hear him. “I wanted to fight. I wanted to, and I knew how to, and I had my hand on my steels.” He slapped angrily at the hilt of one of his swords. “I was helpless as a fucking baby! Why couldn’t I move?”

“That it? By the dead, boy, that happens to some men the first time!”

“It does?”

“More than you’d believe. At least you didn’t shit yourself.”

Luthar raised his eyebrows. “That happens?”

“More than you’d believe.”

“Did you freeze up, the first time?”

Logen frowned. “No. Killing comes too easy to me. Always has done. Believe me, you’re the lucky one.”

“Unless I’m killed for doing nothing.”

“Well,” Logen had to admit, “there is that.” Luthar’s head dropped even lower, and Logen clapped him on the arm. “But you didn’t get killed! Cheer up, boy, you’re lucky! You’re still alive, aren’t you?” He gave a miserable nod. Logen slid his arm round his shoulder and guided him back towards the horses. “Then you’ve got the chance to do better next time.”

“Next time?”

“Course. Doing better next time. That’s what life is.”

Logen climbed back into the saddle, stiff and sore. Stiff from all the riding, sore from the fight in the gorge. Some bit of rock had cracked him on the back, that and he’d got a good punch on the side of his head. Could have been a lot worse.

He looked round at the others. They were all mounted up, staring at him. Four faces, as different as could be, but all with the same expression, more or less. Waiting for his say. Why did anyone ever think he had the answers? He swallowed, and dug his heels in.

Let’s go.

<p>Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem</p>

“You really should spend less time in here, Colonel West.” Pike set down his hammer for a moment, the orange light from his forge reflecting in his eyes, shining bright on his melted face. “People will start to talk.”

West cracked a nervous grin. “It’s the only warm place in the whole damn camp.” It was true enough, but a long way from the real reason. It was the only place in the whole damn camp where no one would look for him. Men who were starving, men who were freezing, men who had no water, or no weapon, or no clue what they were doing. Men who’d died of cold or illness and needed burying. Even the dead couldn’t manage without West. Everyone needed him, day and night. Everyone except Pike and his daughter, and the rest of the convicts. They alone seemed self-sufficient, and so their forge had become his refuge. A noisy, and a crowded, and a smoky refuge, no doubt, but no less sweet for that. He preferred it immeasurably to being with the Prince and his staff. Here among the criminals it was more… honest.

“You’re in the way, Colonel. Again.” Cathil shoved past him, a knife-blade glowing orange in the tongs in one gloved hand. She shoved it into the water, frowning, turning it this way and that while steam hissed up around her. West watched her move, quick and practised, beads of moisture on her sinewy arm, the back of her neck, hair dark and spiky with sweat. Hard to believe he’d ever taken her for a boy. She might handle the metal as well as any of the men, but the shape of her face, not to mention her chest, her waist, the curve of her backside, all unmistakably female…

She glanced over her shoulder and caught him looking. “Don’t you have an army to run?”

“They’ll last ten minutes without me.”

She drew the cold, black blade from the water and tossed it clattering onto the heap beside the whetstone. “You sure?”

Maybe she was right at that. West took a deep breath, sighed, turned with some reluctance, and ventured out through the door of the shed and into the camp.

The winter air nipped at his cheeks after the heat of the smithy, and he pulled up the collars of his coat, hugged himself as he struggled down the camp’s main road. It was deathly quiet out here at night, once he had left the rattling of the forge behind him. He could hear the frozen mud sucking at his boots, his breath rasping in his throat, the faint cursing of some distant soldier, grumbling his way through the darkness. He stopped a moment and looked up, arms folded round himself for warmth. The sky was perfectly clear, the stars prickling bright, spread across the blackness like shining dust.

“Beautiful,” he murmured to himself.

“You get used to it.”

It was Threetrees, picking his way between the tents with the Dogman at his shoulder. His face was in shadow, all dark pits and white angles like a cliff in the moonlight, but West could tell there was some ill news coming. The old Northman could hardly have been described as a figure of fun at the best of times, but now his frown was grim indeed.

“Well met,” said West in the Northern tongue.

“You think? Bethod is inside five days’ march of your camp.”

The cold seemed suddenly to cut through West’s coat and make him shiver. “Five days?”

“If he’s stayed put since we saw him, and that ain’t likely. Bethod was never one for staying put. If he’s marching south, he could be three days away. Less even.”

“What are his numbers?”

The Dogman licked his lips, breath smoking round his lean face in the chill air. “I’d guess at ten thousand, but he might have more behind.”

West felt colder yet. “Ten thousand? That many?”

“Around ten, aye. Mostly Thralls.”

“Thralls? Light infantry?”

“Light, but not like this rubbish you have here.” Threetrees scowled around at the shabby tents, the badly built camp fires, close to guttering out. “Bethod’s Thralls are lean and bloody from battles and tough as wood from marching. Those bastards can run all day and still fight at the end of it, if it’s needed. Bowmen, spearmen, all well-practised.”

“There’s no shortage of Carls and all,” muttered the Dogman.

“That there ain’t, with strong mail and good blades, and plenty of horses into the bargain. There’ll be Named Men too, no doubt. It’s the pick of the crop Bethod’s brought with him, and some sharp war leaders in amongst ’em. That and some strange folk from out east. Wild men, from beyond the Crinna. Must have left a few boys dotted about up north, for your friends to chase around after, and brought his best fighters south with him, against your weakest.” The old warrior stared grimly round at the slovenly camp from under his thick eyebrows. “No offence, but I don’t give you a shit of a chance if it comes to a battle.”

The worst of all outcomes. West swallowed. “How fast could such an army move?”

“Fast. Their scouts might be with us day after tomorrow. Main body a day later. If they’ve come right on, that is, and it’s hard to say if they will. Wouldn’t put it past Bethod to try and cross the river lower down, come round behind us.”

“Behind us?” They were scarcely equipped for a predictable enemy. “How could he have known we were here?”

“Bethod always had a gift for guessing out his enemies. Good sense for it. That and he’s a lucky bastard. Loves to take chances. Ain’t nothing more important in war than a good slice o’ luck.”

West looked around him, blinking. Ten thousand battle-hardened Northmen, descending on their ramshackle camp. Lucky, unpredictable Northmen. He imagined trying to turn the ill-disciplined levies, up to their ankles in mud, trying to get them to form a line. It would be a slaughter. Another Black Well in the making. But at least they had a warning. Three days to prepare their defences, or better still, to begin to retreat.

“We must speak to the Prince at once,” he said.


Soft music and warm light washed out into the chill night air as West jerked back the tent flap. He stooped through, reluctantly, with the two Northmen close behind him.

“By the dead…” muttered Threetrees, gaping round.

West had forgotten how bizarre the Prince’s quarters must appear to a newcomer, especially one who was a stranger to luxury. It was less a tent than a huge hall of purple cloth, ten strides or more in height, hung with Styrian tapestries and floored with Kantic carpets. The furniture would have been more in keeping in a palace than a camp. Huge carved dressers and gilt chests held the Prince’s endless wardrobe, enough to clothe an army of dandies. The bed was a gargantuan four-poster, bigger than most tents in the camp on its own. A highly polished table in one corner sagged under the weight of heaped-up delicacies, silver and gold plate twinkling in the candlelight. One could hardly imagine that only a few hundred strides away, men were cramped, and cold, and had not enough to eat.

Crown Prince Ladisla himself sat sprawled in a huge chair of dark wood, a throne, one could have said, upholstered in red silk. An empty glass dangled from one hand, while the other waved back and forth to the music of a quartet of expert musicians, plucking, fiddling, and blowing gently at their shining instruments in the far corner. Around his Highness were four of his staff, impeccably dressed and fashionably bored, among them the young Lord Smund, who had perhaps become, over the past few weeks, West’s least favourite person in the entire world.

“It does you great credit,” Smund was braying loudly to the Prince. “Sharing the hardships of the camp has always been a fine way to win the respect of the common soldier—”

“Ah, Colonel West!” chirped Ladisla, “and two of his Northern scouts! What a delight! You must take some food!” He made a floppy, drunken gesture towards the table.

“Thank you, your Highness, but I have eaten. I have some news of the greatest—”

“Or some wine! You must all have wine, this is an excellent vintage! Where did that bottle get to?” He fumbled about beneath his chair.

The Dogman had already crossed to the table and was leaning over it, sniffing at the food like… a dog. He snatched a large slice of beef from the plate with his dirty fingers, folded it carefully and stuffed it whole into his mouth, while Smund looked on, lip curled with contempt. It would have been embarrassing, under normal circumstances, but West had larger worries.

“Bethod is within five days march of us,” he nearly shouted, “with the best part of his strength!”

One of the musicians fumbled his bow and hit a screeching, discordant note. Ladisla jerked his head up, nearly sliding from his seat. Even Smund and his companions were pulled from their indolence.

“Five days,” muttered the Prince, his voice hoarse with excitement, “are you sure?”

“Perhaps no more than three.”

“How many are they?”

“As many as ten thousand, and veterans to a—”

“Excellent!” Ladisla slapped the arm of his chair as if it were a Northman’s face. “We are on equal terms with them!”

West swallowed. “Perhaps in numbers, your Highness, but not in quality.”

“Come now, Colonel West,” droned Smund. “One good Union man is worth ten of their kind.” He stared down his nose at Threetrees.

“Black Well proved that notion a fantasy, even if our men were properly fed, trained, and equipped. Aside from the King’s Own, they are none of these things! We would be well advised to prepare defences, and make ready to withdraw if we must.”

Smund snorted his contempt for that idea. “There is nothing more dangerous in war,” he disclaimed airily, “than too much caution.”

“Except too little!” growled West, the fury already starting to pulse behind his eyes.

But Prince Ladisla cut him off before he had the chance to lose his temper. “Gentlemen, enough!” He sprang up from his chair, eyes dewy with drunken enthusiasm. “I have already decided on my strategy! We will cross the river and intercept these savages! They think to surprise us? Hah!” He lashed at the air with his wine glass. “We will give them a surprise they will not soon forget! Drive them back over the border! Just as Marshal Burr intended!”

“But, your Highness,” stammered West, feeling slightly queasy, “the Lord Marshal explicitly ordered that we remain behind the river—”

Ladisla flicked his head, as though bothered by a fly. “The spirit of his orders, Colonel, not the letter! He can hardly complain if we take the fight to our enemy!”

“These men are fucking fools,” rumbled Threetrees, luckily in the Northern tongue.

“What did he say?” inquired the Prince.

“Er… he concurs with me that we should hold here, your Highness, and send to Lord Marshal Burr for help.”

“Does he indeed? And I thought these Northmen were all fire and vinegar! Well, Colonel West, you may inform him that I am resolved on an attack, and cannot be moved! We will show this so-called King of the Northmen that he does not hold a monopoly on victory!”

“Good show!” shouted Smund, stamping his foot on the thick carpet. “Excellent!” The rest of the Prince’s staff voiced their ignorant support.

“Kick them back across the border!”

“Teach them a lesson!”

“Excellent! Capital! Is there more wine?”

West clenched his fists with frustration. He had to make one more effort, however embarrassing, however pointless. He dropped to one knee, he clasped his hands together, he fixed the Prince with his eye and gathered every ounce of persuasiveness he possessed. “Your Highness, I ask you, I entreat you, I beg you to reconsider. The lives of every man in this camp depend on your decision.”

The Prince grinned. “Such is the weight of command, my friend! I realise your motives are of the best, but I must agree with Lord Smund. Boldness is the best policy in war, and boldness shall be my strategy! It was through boldness that Harod the Great forged the Union, through boldness that King Casamir conquered Angland in the first place! We will get the better of these Northmen yet, you’ll see. Give the orders, Colonel! We march at first light!”

West had studied Casamir’s campaigns in detail. Boldness had been one tenth of his success, the rest had been meticulous planning, care for his men, attention to every detail. Boldness without the rest was apt to be deadly, but he saw that it was pointless to say so. He would only anger the Prince and lose whatever influence he might still have. He felt like a man watching his own house burn down. Numb, sick, utterly helpless. There was nothing left for him to do but to give the orders, and do his best to see that everything was conducted as well as it could be.

“Of course, your Highness,” he managed to mutter.

“Of course!” The Prince grinned. “We are all in agreement, then! Capital! Stop that music!” he shouted at the musicians. “We need something with more vigour! Something with blood in it!” The quartet switched effortlessly to a jaunty martial theme. West turned, limbs heavy with hopelessness, and trudged out of the tent into the icy night.

Threetrees was hard on his heels. “By the dead, but I can’t work you people out! Where I come from a man earns the right to lead! His men follow because they know his quality, and respect him because he shares their hardships with ’em! Even Bethod won his place!” He strode up and down before the tent, waving his big hands. “Here you pick the ones who know the least to lead, and fix on the biggest fool o’ the whole pack for a commander!”

West could think of nothing to say. He could hardly deny it.

“That prick’ll march the lot o’ you right into your fucking graves! Back to the mud with you all, but I’m damned if I’ll follow, or any of my boys. I’m done paying for other folks’ mistakes, and I’ve lost enough to that bastard Bethod already! Come on, Dogman. This boat o’ fools can sink without us!” And he turned and stalked away into the night.

The Dogman shrugged. “Ain’t all bad.” He closed to a conspiratorial distance, reached deep into his pocket and pulled something out. West stared down at an entire poached salmon, no doubt pilfered from the Prince’s table. The Northman grinned. “I got me a fish!” And he followed his chief, leaving West alone on the bitter hillside, Ladisla’s martial music floating through the chill air behind him.

<p>Until Sunset</p>

“Oy.” A rough hand shook Glokta from his sleep. He rolled his head gingerly from the side he had been sleeping on, clenching his teeth at the pain as his neck clicked. Does death come early in the morning, today? He opened his eyes a crack. Ah. Not quite yet, it seems. Perhaps at lunch time. Vitari stared down at him, spiky hair silhouetted black in the early morning sun streaming through the window.

“Very well, Practical Vitari, if you really can’t resist me. You’ll have to go on top, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Ha ha. The Gurkish ambassador is here.”

“The what?”

“An emissary. From the Emperor himself, I hear.”

Glokta felt a stab of panic. “Where?”

“Here in the Citadel. Speaking to the ruling council.”

“Shit on it!” snarled Glokta, scrambling out of bed, ignoring the stabbing pain in his leg as he swung his ruined left foot onto the floor. “Why didn’t they call for me?”

Vitari scowled down at him. “Maybe they preferred to talk to him without you. You think that could be it?”

“How the hell did he get here?”

“He came in by boat, under sign of parley. Vissbruck says he was duty bound to admit him.”

“Duty-bound!” spat Glokta as he struggled to pull his trousers up his numb and trembling leg, “That fat fucker! How long has he been here?”

“Long enough for him and the council to make some pretty mischief together, if that’s their aim.”

“Shit!” Glokta winced as he shrugged his shirt on.


The Gurkish ambassador was, without doubt, a majestic presence.

His nose was prominent and hooked, his eyes burned bright with intelligence, his long, thin beard was neatly brushed. Gold thread in his sweeping white robe and his tall head-dress glittered in the bright sun. He held his body awesomely erect, long neck stretched out, chin held high, so that he looked always down at everything he deigned to look upon. Hugely tall and thin, he made the lofty, magnificent room seem low and shabby. He could pass for an Emperor himself.

Glokta was keenly aware of how bent and awkward he must look as he shuffled, grimacing and sweating, into the audience chamber. The miserable crow faces the magnificent peacock. Still, battles are not always won by the most beautiful. Fortunately for me.

The long table was surprisingly empty. Only Vissbruck, Eider, and Korsten dan Vurms were in their seats, and none of them looked pleased to see him arrive. Nor should they, the bastards.

“No Lord Governor today?” he barked.

“My father is not well,” muttered Vurms.

“Shame you couldn’t stay and comfort him in his illness. What about Kahdia?” No one spoke. “Didn’t think he’d take to a meeting with them, eh?” he nodded rudely at the emissary. “How lucky for everyone that you three have stronger stomachs. I am Superior Glokta and, whatever you might have heard, I am in charge here. I must apologise for my late arrival, but no one told me you were coming.” He looked daggers at Vissbruck, but the general was not interested in meeting his eye. That’s right, you blustering fool. I won’t forget this.

“My name is Shabbed al Islik Burai.” The ambassador spoke the common tongue perfectly, in a voice every bit as powerful, as authoritative, as arrogant as his bearing. “I come as emissary from the rightful ruler of all the South, mighty Emperor of mighty Gurkhul and all the Kantic lands, Uthman-ul-Dosht, loved, feared, and favoured above all other men within the Circle of the World, anointed by God’s right hand, the Prophet Khalul himself.”

“Good for you. I would bow, but I strained my back getting out of bed.”

Islik gave a delicate sneer. “Truly a warrior’s injury. I have come to accept your surrender.”

“Is that so?” Glokta dragged out the nearest chair and sank into it. I’m damned if I’m going to stand a moment longer, just for the benefit of this towering oaf. “I thought it was traditional to make such offers once the fighting is over.”

“If there is to be fighting, it will not last long.” The ambassador swept across the tiles to the window. “I see five legions, arrayed in battle order upon the peninsula. Twenty thousand spears, and they are but a fraction of what comes. The troops of the Emperor are more numerous than the grains of sand in the desert. To resist us would be as futile as to resist the tide. You all know this.” His eyes swept proudly across the guilty faces of the ruling council and came to rest on Glokta’s with a piercing contempt. The look of a man who believes he has already won. No one could blame him much for thinking so. Perhaps he has.

“Only fools or madmen would choose to stand against such odds. You pinks have never belonged here. The Emperor offers you the chance to leave the South with your lives. Open the gates to us and you will be spared. You can leave on your little boats and float back to your little island. Let it never be said that Uthman-ul-Dosht is not generous. God fights beside us. Your cause is lost.”

“Oh, I don’t know, we held our own in the last war. I’m sure we all remember the fall of Ulrioch. I know I do. The city burned brightly. The temples especially.” Glokta shrugged. “God must have been elsewhere that day.”

“That day, yes. But there were other battles. I am sure you also remember a certain engagement, at a certain bridge, where a certain young officer fell into our hands.” The emissary smiled. “God is everywhere.”

Glokta felt his eyelid flickering. He knows I am not likely to forget. He remembered his surprise as a Gurkish spear cut into his body. Surprise, and disappointment, and the most intense pain. Not invulnerable, after all. He remembered his horse rearing, dumping him from the saddle. The pain growing worse, the surprise turning into fear. Crawling among the boots and the bodies, gasping for air, mouth sour with dust, salty with blood. He remembered the agony as the blades cut into his leg. The fear turning to terror. He remembered how they dragged him, screaming and crying, from that bridge. That night they began to ask their questions.

“We won,” said Glokta, but his mouth was dry, his voice was cracked. “We proved the stronger.”

“That was then. The world changes. Your nation’s entanglements in the icy North put you at a most considerable disadvantage. You have managed to break the first rule of warfare. Never fight two enemies at once.”

His reasoning is hard to fault. “The walls of Dagoska have frustrated you before,” Glokta said, but it did not sound convincing, even to his own ear. Hardly the words of a winner. He felt the eyes of Vurms, and Vissbruck, and Eider on him, making his back itch. Trying to decide who holds the upper hand, and I know who I’d pick in their shoes.

“Perhaps some of you have more confidence in your walls than others. I will return at sunset for your answer. The Emperor’s offer lasts for this one day only, and will never be repeated. He is merciful, but his mercy has limits. You have until sunset.” And he swept from the room.

Glokta waited until the door had clicked shut before he slowly turned his chair around to face the others. “What in hell was that?” he snarled at Vissbruck.

“Er…” The General tugged at his sweaty collar. “It was incumbent upon me, as a soldier, to admit an unarmed representative of the enemy, in order to hear his terms—”

“Without telling me?”

“We knew you would not want to listen!” snapped Vurms. “But he speaks the truth! Despite all our hard work, we are greatly outnumbered, and can expect no relief as long as the war drags on in Angland. We are nothing more than a pinprick in the foot of a huge and hostile nation. It might serve us well to negotiate while we still hold a position of some strength. You may depend upon it that we will receive no terms beyond a massacre once the city has fallen!”

True enough, but the Arch Lector is unlikely to agree. Negotiating a surrender was hardly the task for which I was appointed. “You are unusually quiet, Magister Eider.”

“I am scarcely qualified to speak on the military aspects of such a decision. But as it turns out, his terms are generous. One thing is certain. If we refuse this offer, and the Gurkish do take the city by force, the slaughter will be terrible.” She looked up at Glokta. “There will be no mercy then.”

All too true. On Gurkish mercy I am the expert. “So all three of you are for capitulation?” They looked at each other, and said nothing. “It has not occurred to you that once we surrender, they might not honour your little agreement?”

“It had occurred,” said Vissbruck, “but they have honoured their agreements before, and surely some hope…” and he looked down at the table top, “is better than none.” You have more confidence in our enemy than in me, it would seem. Hardly that surprising. My own confidence could be higher.

Glokta wiped some wet from under his eye. “I see. Then I suppose I must consider his offer. We will reconvene when our Gurkish friend returns. At sunset.” He rocked his body back and winced as he pushed himself up.

“You’ll consider it?” hissed Vitari in his ear as he limped down the hall away from the audience chamber. “You’ll fucking consider it?”

“That’s right,” snapped Glokta. “I make the decisions here.”

“Or you let those worms make them for you!”

“We’ve each got our jobs. I don’t tell you how to write your little reports to the Arch Lector. How I manage those worms is none of your concern.”

“None of my concern?” Vitari snatched hold of Glokta’s arm and he tottered on his weak leg. She was stronger than she looked, a lot stronger. “I told Sult you could handle things!” she snarled in his face. “If we lose the city, without so much as a fight even, it’s both our heads! And my head is my concern, cripple!”

“This is no time to panic,” growled Glokta. “I don’t want to end up floating in the docks any more than you do, but this is a delicate balance. Let them think they might get their way, then no one will make any rash moves. Not until I’m good and ready. Understand me when I say, Practical, that this will be the first and the last time that I explain myself to you. Now take your fucking hand off me.”

Her hand did not let go, rather the fingers tightened, cutting into Glokta’s arm as hard as a vice. Her eyes narrowed, furious lines cut into her freckled face at their corners. Might I have misjudged her? Might she be about to cut my throat? He almost grinned at the thought. But Severard chose that moment to step out of the shadows further down the dim hall.

“Look at the two of you,” he murmured as he padded towards them. “It always amazes me, how love blooms in the least likely places, and between the least likely people. A rose, forcing its way through the stony ground.” He pressed his hands to his chest. “It warms my heart.”

“Have we got him?”

“Of course. Soon as he stepped out of the audience chamber.”

Vitari’s hand had gone limp, and Glokta brushed it off and began to shuffle towards the cells. “Why don’t you come with us?” he called over his shoulder, having to stop himself rubbing the bruised flesh on his arm. “You can put this in your next report to Sult.”


Shabbed al Islik Burai looked considerably less majestic sitting down. Particularly in a scarred, stained chair in one of the close and sweaty cells beneath the Citadel.

“Now isn’t this better, to speak on level terms? Quite disconcerting, having you looming over me like that.” Islik sneered and looked away, as though talking to Glokta were a task far beneath him. A rich man, harassed by beggars in the street, but we’ll soon cure him of that illusion.

“We know we have a traitor within our walls. Within the ruling council itself. Most likely one of those three worthies to whom you were just now giving your little ultimatum. You will tell me who.” No response. “I am merciful,” exclaimed Glokta, waving his hand airily, as the ambassador himself had done but a few short minutes before, “but my mercy has limits. Speak.”

“I am here under a flag of parley, on a mission from the Emperor himself! To harm an unarmed emissary would be expressly against the rules of war!”

“Parley? Rules of war?” Glokta chuckled. Severard chuckled. Vitari chuckled. Frost was silent. “Do they even have those any more? Save that rubbish for children like Vissbruck, that’s not the way grown-ups play the game. Who is the traitor?”

“I pity you, cripple! When the city falls—”

Save your pity. You’ll need it for yourself. Frost’s fist scarcely made any sound as it sank into the ambassador’s stomach. His eyes bulged out, his mouth hung open, he coughed a dry cough, somewhere close to vomiting, tried to breathe and coughed again.

“Strange, isn’t it,” mused Glokta as he watched him struggle for air. “Big men, small men, thin men, fat men, clever men, stupid men, they all respond the same to a fist in the guts. One minute you think you’re the most powerful man in the world. The next you can’t even breathe by yourself. Some kinds of power are nothing but tricks of the mind. Your people taught me that, below your Emperor’s palace. There were no rules of war there, I can tell you. You know all about certain engagements, and certain bridges, and certain young officers, so you know that I’ve been just where you are now. There is one difference, however. I was helpless, but you can stop this unpleasantness at any time. You need only tell me who the traitor is, and you will be spared.”

Islik had got his breath back now. Though a good deal of his arrogance is gone, one suspects for good. “I know nothing of any traitor!”

“Really? Your master the Emperor sends you here to negotiate without all the facts? Unlikely. But if it’s true, you really aren’t any use to me at all, are you?”

Islik swallowed. “I know nothing of any traitor.”

“We’ll see.”

Frost’s big white fist clubbed him in the face. It would have thrown him sideways if the albino’s other fist hadn’t caught his head before it fell, smashed his nose and knocked him clean over the back of the chair. Frost and Severard dragged him up between them, righted the chair and dumped him gasping into it. Vitari looked on, arms folded.

“All very painful,” said Glokta, “but pain can be put to one side, if one knows that it will not last long. If it cannot last, say, past sunset. To truly break a man quickly, you have to threaten to deprive him of something. To hurt him in a way that will never heal. I should know.”

“Gah!” squawked the ambassador, thrashing in his chair. Severard wiped his knife on the shoulder of the man’s white robe, then tossed his ear onto the table. It lay there, on the wood: a forlorn and bloody half-circle of flesh. Glokta stared at it. In a baking cell just like this, over the course of long months, the Emperors servants turned me into this revolting, twisted mockery of a man. One might have hoped that the chance at doing the same to one of them, the chance at cutting out vengeance, pound for pound, would provide some dull flicker of pleasure. And yet he felt nothing. Nothing but my own pain. He winced as he stretched his leg out and felt the knee click, hissed air through his empty gums. So why do I do this?

Glokta sighed. “Next will come a toe. Then a finger, an eye, a hand, your nose, and so on, do you see? It’ll be at least an hour before you’re missed, and we are quick workers.” Glokta nodded at the severed ear. “We could have a pile of your flesh a foot high by that time. I’ll carve you until you’re nothing but a tongue and a bag of guts, if that’s what it takes, but I’ll know who the traitor is, that I promise you. Well? Do you know anything yet?”

The ambassador stared at him, breathing hard, dark blood running from his magnificent nose, down his chin, dripping from the side of his head. Speechless with shock, or thinking on his next move? It hardly matters. “I grow bored. Start on his hands, Frost.” The albino seized hold of his wrist.

“Wait!” wailed the ambassador, “God help me, wait! It was Vurms. Korsten dan Vurms, the governor’s own son!”

Vurms. Almost too obvious. But then again, the most obvious answers are usually the right ones. That little bastard would sell his own father if he only thought that he could find a buyer—

“And the woman, Eider!”

Glokta frowned. “Eider? You sure?”

“She planned it! She planned the whole thing!” Glokta sucked slowly at his empty gums. They tasted sour. An awful sense of disappointment, or an awful sense of having known all along? She was always the only one with the brains, or the guts, or the resources, for treason. A shame. But we know better than to hope for happy endings.

“Eider and Vurms,” muttered Glokta. “Vurms and Eider. Our sordid little mystery comes to a close.” He looked up at Frost. “You know what to do.”

<p>Long Odds</p>

The hill rose out of the grass, a round, even cone like a thing man-made. Strange, this one great mound standing out in the midst of the level plain. Ferro did not trust it.

Weathered stones stood in a rough circle around its top and scattered about the slopes, some up on end, some lying on their sides, the smallest no more than knee high, the biggest twice as tall as a man. Dark, bare stones, standing defiant against the wind. Ancient, cold, angry. Ferro frowned at them.

It felt as though they frowned back.

“What is this place?” asked Ninefingers.

Quai shrugged. “Old is what this place is, terribly old. Older than the Empire itself. Built before the time of Euz, perhaps, when devils roamed the earth.” He grinned. “Built by devils, for all I know. Who can say? Some temple to forgotten gods? Some tomb?”

“Our tomb,” whispered Ferro.

“What?”

“Good place to stop,” she said out loud. “Get a look across the plain.”

Ninefingers frowned up at it. “Alright. We stop.”


Ferro stood on one of the stones, hands on hips, staring out across the plain through narrowed eyes. The wind tore at the grass and made waves from it, like the waves on the sea. It tore at the great clouds too, twisting them, ripping them open, dragging them through the sky. It lashed at Ferro’s face, nipped at her eyes, but she ignored it.

Damn wind, just like always.

Ninefingers stood beside her, squinting into the cold sun. “Anything out there?”

“We are followed.” They were far away, but she could see them. Tiny dots in the far distance. Tiny riders moving on the ocean of grass.

Ninefingers grimaced. “You sure?”

“Yes. You surprised?”

“No.” He gave up looking and rubbed at his eyes. “Bad news is never a surprise. Just a disappointment.”

“I count thirteen.”

“You can count ’em? I can’t even see ’em. They coming for us?”

She raised her arms. “You see anything else out here? Might be that laughing bastard Finnius found some more friends.”

“Shit.” He looked down at the cart, drawn up at the base of the hill. “We can’t outrun them.”

“No.” She curled her lip. “You could ask the spirits for their opinion.”

“So they could tell us what? That we’re fucked?” Silence for a moment. “Better to wait, and fight them here. Bring the cart up to the top. At least we’ve got a hill, and a few rocks to hide behind.”

“That’s what I was thinking. Gives us some time to prepare the ground.”

“Alright. We’d best get to it.”


The point of the shovel bit into the ground with the sharp scrape of metal on earth. An all too familiar sound. Digging pits and digging graves. What was the difference?

Ferro had dug graves for all kinds of people. Companions, or as close as she had come to companions. Friends, or as close as she had come to friends. A lover or two, if you could call them that. Bandits, killers, slaves. Whoever hated the Gurkish. Whoever hid in the Badlands, for whatever reason.

Spade up and spade down.

When the fighting is over, you dig, if you are still alive. You gather up the bodies in a line. You dig the graves in a row. You dig for your fallen comrades. Your slashed, your punctured, your hacked and your broken comrades. You dig as deep as you can be bothered, you dump them in, you cover them up, they rot away and are forgotten, and you go on, alone. That’s the way it’s always been.

But here, on this strange hill in the middle of this strange country, there was still time. Still a chance for the comrades to live. That was the difference, and for all her scorn, and her scowls, and her anger, she clung to it as she clung to the spade, desperate tight.

Strange how she never stopped hoping.

“You dig well,” said Ninefingers. She squinted up at him, standing over her at the edge of the pit.

“Lots of practice.” She dug the spade into the earth beside the hole, planted her hands on the sides and jumped out, sat on the edge with her legs hanging down. Her shirt was stuck to her with sweat, her face was running with it. She wiped her forehead with her dirty hand. He handed her the water-skin and she took it from him, pulled the stopper out with her teeth.

“How long do we have?”

She sucked a mouthful out of the skin and worked it round, spat it out. “Depends how hard they go.” She took another mouthful and swallowed. “They are going hard now. They keep that up, they could be on us late tonight, or maybe dawn tomorrow.” She handed the skin back.

“Dawn tomorrow.” Ninefingers slowly pushed the stopper back in. “Thirteen you said, eh?”

“Thirteen.”

“And four of us.”

“Five, if the Navigator comes to help.”

Ninefingers scratched at his jaw. “Not very likely.”

“That apprentice any use in a fight?”

Ninefingers winced. “Not much.”

“How about Luthar?”

“I’d be surprised if he’s ever thrown a fist in anger, let alone a blade.”

Ferro nodded. “Thirteen against two, then.”

“Long odds.”

“Very.”

He took a deep breath and stared down into the pit. “If you had a mind to run, I can’t say I’d blame you.”

“Huh,” she snorted. Strange, but she hadn’t even thought about it. “I’ll stick. See how it turns out.”

“Alright. Good. Can’t say I don’t need you.”

The wind rustled in the grass and sighed against the stones. There were things that should be said at a time like this, Ferro guessed, but she did not know what. She had never had much talk in her.

“One thing. If I die, you bury me.” She held her hand out to him. “Deal?”

He raised an eyebrow at it. “Done.” It was a long time, she realised, since she touched another person without the purpose of hurting them. It was a strange feeling, his hand gripped in hers, his fingers tight round hers, his palm pressed against hers. Warm. He nodded at her. She nodded at him. Then they let go.

“What if we both die?” he said.

She shrugged. “Then the crows can pick us clean. After all, what’s the difference?”

“Not much,” he muttered, starting off down the slope. “Not much.”

<p>The Road to Victory</p>

West stood by a clump of stunted trees, in the cutting wind, on the high ground above the river Cumnur, and watched the long column move. More accurately, he watched it not move.

The neat blocks of the King’s Own, up at the head of Prince Ladisla’s army, marched smartly enough. You could tell them from their armour, glinting in the odd ray of pale sun that broke through the ragged clouds, from the bright uniforms of their officers, from the red and golden standards snapping at the front of each company. They were already across the river, formed up in good order, a stark contrast with the chaos on the other side.

The levies had started eagerly, early that morning, no doubt relieved to be leaving the miserable camp behind, but it hadn’t been an hour before a man here or a man there, older than the others, or worse shod, had started to lag, and the column had grown ragged. Men slipped and stumbled in the half-frozen muck, cursing and barging into their neighbours, boots tripping on the boots of the man in front. The battalions had twisted, stretched, turned from neat blocks into shapeless blobs, merged with the units in front and behind, until the column moved in great ripples, one group hurrying forward while the next was still, like the segments of some monstrous, filthy earthworm.

As soon as they reached the bridge they had lost all semblance of order. The ragged companies squeezed into that narrow space, shoving and grunting, tired and bad-tempered. Those waiting behind pressed in tighter and tighter, impatient to be across so they could rest, slowing everything down still further with the weight of their bodies. Then a cart, which had no business being there in any case, had lost a wheel halfway across, and the sluggish flow of men over the bridge had become a trickle. No one seemed to know how to move it, or who to get to fix it, and contented themselves with clambering over it, or slithering around it, and holding up the thousands behind.

Quite a press had built up in the mud on this side of the fast-flowing water. Men barged and grumbled shoulder to shoulder, spears sticking up into the air at all angles, surrounded by shouting officers and an ever increasing detritus of rubbish and discarded gear. Behind them the great snake of shambling men continued its spastic forward movement, feeding ever more soldiers into the confusion before the bridge. There was not the slightest evidence that anyone had even thought about trying to make them stop, let alone succeeded.

All this in column, under no pressure from the enemy, and with a half decent road to march on. West dreaded to imagine trying to manoeuvre them in a battle line, through trees or over broken ground. He jammed his tired eyes shut, rubbed at them with his fingers, but when he opened them the horrifying, hilarious spectacle was still there before him. He hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

He heard the sound of hooves on the rise behind him. Lieutenant Jalenhorm, big and solid in his saddle. Short on imagination, perhaps, but a fine rider, and a trustworthy man. A good choice for the task that West had in mind.

“Lieutenant Jalenhorm reporting, sir.” The big man turned in his saddle and looked down towards the river. “Looks like they’re having some trouble on the bridge.”

“Doesn’t it just. Only the start of our troubles, I fear.”

Jalenhorm grinned down. “I understand we have the advantage of numbers, and of surprise—”

“As far as numbers go, maybe. Surprise?” West gestured down at the men milling around on the bridge, heard the vague, desperate shouts of their officers. “This rabble? A blind man would hear us coming from ten miles distance. A blind and a deaf one would probably smell us before we were halfway to battle order. We’ll be all day just getting across the river. And that’s hardly the worst of our shortcomings. In the area of command, I fear, the gulf between us and our enemy could not possibly be wider. The Prince lives in a dream, and his staff exist only to keep him there, at any price.”

“But surely—”

“The price could be our lives.”

Jalenhorm frowned. “Come on, West, I hardly want to be going into battle with that thought first on my mind—”

“You won’t be going.”

“I won’t?”

“You will pick out six good men from your company, with spare mounts. You will ride as hard as possible for Ostenhorm, then north to Lord Marshal Burr’s camp.” West reached into his coat and pulled out his letter. “You will give him this. You will inform him that Bethod is already behind him with the greater part of his strength, and that Prince Ladisla has most ill-advisedly decided to cross the river Cumnur and give the Northmen battle, directly against the Marshal’s orders.” West clenched his teeth. “Bethod will see us coming from miles away. We are handing the choice of the ground to our enemy, so that Prince Ladisla can appear bold. Boldness is the best policy in war, apparently.”

“West, surely it’s not that bad?”

“When you reach Marshal Burr, tell him that Prince Ladisla has almost certainly been defeated, quite possibly destroyed, and the road to Ostenhorm left open. He’ll know what to do.”

Jalenhorm stared down at the letter, reached out to take it, then paused. “Colonel, I really wish that you’d send someone else. I should fight—”

“Your fighting cannot possibly make any real difference, Lieutenant, but your carrying this message might. There is no sentiment in this, believe me. I have no more important task than this one, and you are the man I trust to get it done. Do you understand your orders?”

The big man swallowed, then he took the letter, undid a button and slid it carefully down inside his coat. “Of course, sir. I am honoured to carry it.” He began to turn his horse.

“There is one more thing.” West took a deep breath. “If I should… get myself killed. When this is over, could you carry a message to my sister?”

“Come on, there’ll be no need for—”

“I hope to live, believe me, but this is war. Not everyone will. If I don’t come back, just tell Ardee…” He thought about it for a moment. “Just tell her I’m sorry. That’s all.”

“Of course. But I hope you’ll tell her yourself.”

“So do I. Good luck.” West held out his hand.

Jalenhorm reached down and squeezed it in his own. “And to you.” He spurred his mount down the rise, away from the river. West watched him go for a minute, then he took a deep breath and set off in the other direction, towards the bridge.

Someone had to get that damn column moving again.

<p>Necessary Evils</p>

The sun was half a shimmering golden disc beyond the land walls, throwing orange light into the hallway down which Glokta shuffled, Practical Frost looming at his shoulder. Through the windows as he passed painfully by he could see the buildings of the city casting long shadows up towards the rock. He could almost tell, at each window that he came to, that the shadows were longer and less distinct, the sun was dimmer and colder. Soon it would be gone. Soon it will be night.

He paused for a moment before the doors to the audience chamber, catching his breath, letting the ache in his leg subside, licking at his empty gums. “Give me the bag, then.”

Frost handed him the sack, put one white hand against the doors. “You reathy?” he mumbled.

Ready as I’ll ever be. “Let’s get on with it.”

General Vissbruck was sitting stiff in his well-starched uniform, jowls bulging slightly over his high collar, hands plucking nervously at each other. Korsten dan Vurms was doing his best to look nonchalant, but his darting tongue betrayed his anxiety. Magister Eider was sitting upright, hands clasped on the table before her, face stern. All business. A necklace of large rubies glowed with the last embers of the setting sun. Didn’t take her too long to find some more jewels, I see.

There was one more member of the gathering, and he showed not the slightest sign of nerves. Nicomo Cosca was lounging against the far wall, not far behind his employer, arms crossed over his black breastplate. Glokta noted that he had a sword at his hip, and a long dagger at the other.

“What’s he doing here?”

“This concerns everyone in the city,” said Eider calmly. “It is too important a decision for you to make alone.”

“So he’s going to ensure that you get a fair say, eh?” Cosca shrugged and examined his dirty fingernails. “And what of the writ, signed by all twelve chairs on the Closed Council?”

“Your paper will not save us from the Emperor’s vengeance if the Gurkish take the city.”

“I see. So you have it in mind to defy me, to defy the Arch Lector, to defy the King?”

“I have it in mind to hear out the Gurkish emissary, and to consider the facts.”

“Very well,” said Glokta. He stepped forwards and upended the bag. “Give him your ear.” Islik’s head dropped onto the table with a hollow clonking sound. It had no expression to speak of, beyond an awful slackness, eyes open and staring off in different directions, tongue lolling slightly. It rolled awkwardly along the beautiful table top, leaving an uneven curve of bloody smears on the brightly polished wood, and came to rest, face up, just in front of General Vissbruck.

A touch theatrical, perhaps, but dramatic. You’d have to give me that. No one can be left in any doubt as to my level of commitment. Vissbruck gawped down at the bloody head on the table before him, his mouth slowly falling further and further open. He started up from his seat and stumbled back, his chair clattering over on the tiles. He raised a shaking finger to point at Glokta.

“You’re mad! You’re mad! There’ll be no mercy for anyone! Every man, woman, and child in Dagoska! If the city falls now, there’s no hope for any of us!”

Glokta smiled his toothless smile. “Then I suggest that every one of you commits themselves wholeheartedly to ensuring that the city does not fall.” He looked over at Korsten dan Vurms. “Unless it’s already too late for that, eh? Unless you’ve already sold the city to the Gurkish, and you can’t go back!”

Vurms’ eyes flickered to the door, to Cosca, to the horrified General Vissbruck, to Frost, hulking ominous in the corner, and finally to Magister Eider, still sitting steely calm and composed. And our little conspiracy is jerked from the shadows.

“He knows!” screamed Vurms, shoving back his chair and stumbling up, taking a step towards the windows.

“Clearly he knows.”

“Then do something, damn it!”

“I already have,” said Eider. “By now, Cosca’s men will have seized the land walls, bridged your channel, and opened the gates to the Gurkish. The docks, the Great Temple, and even the Citadel itself, are also in their hands.” There was a faint rattling beyond the door. “I do believe that I can hear them now, just outside. I am sorry, Superior Glokta, indeed I am. You have done everything his Eminence could have expected, and more, but the Gurkish will already be pouring into the city. You see that further resistance is pointless.”

Glokta looked up at Cosca. “May I retort?” The Styrian gave a small smile, a stiff bow. “Most kind. I hate to disappoint you, but the gates are in the hands of Haddish Kahdia, and several of his most committed priests. He said that he would open them to the Gurkish—what was his phrase—‘when God himself commanded it.’ Do you have a divine visitation planned?” It was plain from Eider’s face that she had not. “As for the Citadel, it has been seized by the Inquisition, for the safety of his Majesty’s loyal subjects, of course. Those are my Practicals that you can hear outside. As for Master Cosca’s mercenaries—”

“At their posts on the walls, Superior, as ordered!” The Styrian snapped his heels together and gave an impeccable salute. “They stand ready to repel any assault by the Gurkish.” He grinned down at Eider. “I do apologise that I must leave your service at such a crucial time, Magister, but you understand that I had a better offer.”

There was a stunned pause. Vissbruck could hardly have looked more flabbergasted if he had been struck by lightning. Vurms stared around, wild-eyed. He took one more step back and Frost took a stride towards him. Magister Eider’s face had drained of colour. And so the chase ends, and the foxes are at bay.

“You should hardly be surprised.” Glokta settled back comfortably in his chair. “Nicomo Cosca’s disloyalty is a legend throughout the Circle of the World. There’s hardly a land under the sun in which he hasn’t betrayed an employer.” The Styrian smiled and bowed once more.

“It is your wealth,” muttered Eider, “not his disloyalty, that surprises me. Where did you get it?”

Glokta grinned. “The world is full of surprises.”

“You fucking stupid bitch!” screamed Vurms. His steel was only halfway out before Frost’s white fist crunched into his jaw and flung him senseless against the wall. Almost at the same moment the doors crashed open and Vitari burst into the room, half a dozen Practicals behind her, weapons at the ready.

“Everything alright?” she asked.

“Actually, we’re just finishing up. Take out the rubbish would you, Frost?”

The albino’s fingers closed around Vurms’ ankle and hauled him bodily across the floor and out of the audience chamber. Eider watched his slack face slide across the tiles, then looked up at Glokta. “What now?”

“Now the cells.”

“Then?”

“Then we’ll see.” He snapped his fingers at the Practicals, jerked his thumb towards the door. Two of them tramped round the table, seized the Queen of merchants by her elbows and bundled her impassively out of the room.

“So,” asked Glokta, looking over at Vissbruck. “Does anyone else wish to accept the ambassador’s offer of surrender?”

The General, who had been standing silently the whole time, snapped his mouth shut, took a deep breath and stood to stiff attention. “I am a simple soldier. Of course I will obey any order from his Majesty, or his Majesty’s chosen representative. If the order is to hold Dagoska to the last man, I will give the last drop of my blood to do it. I assure you that I knew nothing of any plot. I acted rashly, perhaps, but at all times honestly, in what I felt were the best interests of—”

Glokta waved his hand. “I am convinced. Bored, but convinced.” I have already lost half the ruling council today. To lose any more might make me look greedy. “The Gurkish will no doubt make their assault at first light. You should look to our defences, General.”

Vissbruck closed his eyes, swallowed, wiped some sweat from his forehead. “You will not regret your faith in me, Superior.”

“I trust that I will not. Go.”

The General hurried from the room, as though worried that Glokta might change his mind, and the rest of the Practicals followed him. Vitari bent and lifted Vurms’ fallen chair and slid it carefully back under the table.

“A neat job.” She nodded slowly to herself. “Very neat. I’m happy to say I was right about you all along.”

Glokta snorted. “Your approval is worth less to me than you can ever know.”

Her eyes smiled at him above her mask. “I didn’t say that I approved. I just said that it was neat,” and she turned and sauntered out into the hallway.

That only left him and Cosca. The mercenary leaned against the wall, arms folded carelessly across his breastplate, regarding Glokta with a faint smile. He had not moved the whole time.

“You’d do well in Styria, I think. Very… ruthless? Is that the word? Anyway,” and he gave a flamboyant shrug, “I look forward very much to serving with you.” Until such time as someone offers you more, eh, Cosca? The mercenary waved a hand at the severed head on the table. “Would you like me to do something with that?”

“Stick it on the battlements of the land walls, somewhere it can be easily seen. Let the Gurkish understand the strength of our resolve.”

Cosca clicked his tongue. “Heads on spikes, eh?” He dragged the head off the table by its long beard. “Never goes out of fashion.”

The doors clicked shut behind him, and Glokta was left alone in the audience chamber. He rubbed at his stiff neck, stretched his stiff leg out beneath the bloody table. A good day’s work, all in all. But the day is over now. Outside the tall windows, the sun had finally set over Dagoska.

The sky was dark.

<p>Among the Stones</p>

The first traces of dawn were creeping over the plain. A glimmer of light on the undersides of the towering clouds and along the edges of the ancient stones, a muddy flare on the eastern horizon. A sight a man rarely saw, that first grey glow, or one that Jezal had rarely seen anyway. At home he would have been safely in his quarters now, sleeping soundly in a warm bed. None of them had slept last night. They had spent the long, cold hours in silence, sitting in the wind, peering into the dark for shapes out on the plain, and waiting. Waiting for the dawn.

Ninefingers frowned at the rising sun. “Almost time. Soon they’ll be coming.”

“Right,” muttered Jezal numbly.

“Listen to me, now. Stay here, and watch the cart. There’s plenty of ’em, and more than likely some will get round the back of us. That’s why you’re here. You understand?”

Jezal swallowed. His throat was tight with the tension. All he could think about was how unfair it was. How unfair, that he should die so young.

“Alright. Me and her will be round the front of the hill there, in around the stones. Most of ’em will come up that way, I reckon. You get in trouble, you shout for us, but if we don’t come, well… do what you can. Might be we’re busy. Might be we’re dead.”

“I’m scared,” said Jezal. He hadn’t meant to say it, but it hardly seemed to matter, now.

Ninefingers only nodded, though. “And me. We’re all scared.”

Ferro had a fierce smile on her face as she tightened the straps of her quiver around her chest, pulled the buckle on her sword-belt one notch further, dragged on her archery guard and worked her fingers, twanged at her bow-string, everything neat, and quick, and ready for violence. While she prepared for a fight that would most likely be the death of them all, she looked as Jezal might have done dressing for a night round the taverns of Adua. Yellow eyes shining, excited in the half light, as if she couldn’t wait to get started. He had never seen her look happy before. “She doesn’t look scared.” he said.

Ninefingers frowned over at her. “Well, maybe not her, but she’s not an example I’d want to follow.” He watched her for a moment. “Sometimes, when someone lives in danger for too long, the only time they feel alive is when death’s breathing on their shoulder.”

“Right,” muttered Jezal. The sight of the buckle on his own sword-belt, of the grips of his own steels, so proudly polished, made him feel sick now. He swallowed again. Damn it, but his mouth had never been so full of spit.

“Try to think about something else.”

“Like what?”

“Whatever gets you through it. You got family?”

“A father, two brothers. I don’t know how much they like me.”

“Shit on them, then. You got children?”

“No.”

“Wife?”

“No.” Jezal grimaced. He had done nothing with his life but play cards and make enemies. No one would miss him.

“A lover then? Don’t tell me there ain’t a girl waiting.”

“Well, maybe…” But he did not doubt that Ardee would already have found someone else. She had never seemed overly sentimental. Perhaps he should have offered to marry her when he had the chance. At least then someone might have wept for him. “What about you?” he mumbled.

“What? A family?” Ninefingers frowned, rubbing grimly at the stump of his middle finger. “I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.” He pointed at Ferro, then at Quai. “You see her, and him, and you?” He slapped his hand down on Jezal’s shoulder. “That’s my family now, and I don’t plan on losing a brother today, you understand?”

Jezal nodded slowly. You don’t pick your family. You make the best of it. Ugly, stupid, stinking, strange, it hardly seemed to matter now. Ninefingers held out his hand, and Jezal gripped it in his own, as hard as he could.

The Northman grinned. “Luck then, Jezal.”

“And to you.”


Ferro knelt beside one of the pitted stones, her bow in one hand, an arrow nocked and ready. The wind made patterns in the tall grass on the plain below, whipped at the shorter grass on the slope of the hill, plucked at the flights of the seven arrows stuck into the earth in front of her in a row. Seven arrows was all she had left.

Nothing like enough.

She watched them ride up to the base of the hill. She watched them climb from their horses, staring upwards. She watched them tighten the buckles on their scuffed leather armour, ready their weapons. Spears, swords, shields, a bow or two. She counted them. Thirteen. She had been right.

But that wasn’t much of a comfort.

She recognised Finnius, laughing and pointing up at the stones. Bastard. She would shoot him first, if she got the chance, but there was no point risking a shot at this range. They would be coming soon. Crossing the open ground, struggling uphill.

She could shoot them then.

They began to spread out, peering up at the stones over the tops of their shields, their boots rustling in the long grass below. They had not seen her yet. There was one at the front without a shield, pounding up the slope with a fierce grin on his face, a bright sword in each hand.

She drew the string back, unhurried, felt it dig reassuringly into her chin. The arrow took him in the centre of his chest, right through his leather breastplate. He sank to his knees, wincing and gasping. He pushed himself up with one of his swords, took a lurching step. Her second arrow stuck into his body just above the first and he fell to his knees again, dribbled bloody spit onto the hillside, then rolled onto his back.

But there were plenty more, and still coming on. The nearest one was hunched down behind a big shield, pressing slowly up the slope with it held in front of him, trying not to expose a single inch of flesh. Her arrow thudded into the edge of the heavy wood.

“Ssss,” she hissed, snatching another shaft from the earth. She drew back the string again, taking careful aim.

“Argh!” he cried, as the arrow stuck him through his exposed ankle. The shield faltered and wobbled, drifted to the side.

Her next shaft arced through the air and caught him cleanly through the neck, just above the shield rim. Blood bubbled down his skin, his eyes went wide and he toppled backwards, the shield sliding down the slope after him with her wasted arrow sticking from it.

But that one had taken too long, and too many shafts. They were well up the hillside now, halfway to the first stones, zigzagging left and right. She snatched her last two arrows from the earth and slithered through the grass, up the slope. That was all she could do, for now. Ninefingers would have to look after himself.


Logen waited, his back pressed against the stone, trying to keep his breathing quiet. He watched Ferro crawl further up the hill, away from him.

“Shit,” he muttered. Outnumbered and in trouble, yet again. He had known this would happen from the first moment he took charge. It always did. Well. He’d fought his way out of scrapes before, and he would fight his way out of this one now. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a fighter.

He heard hurrying footsteps in the grass, and breathless grunting. A man labouring up the hill, just to the left of the stone. Logen held his sword by his right side, fingered the hard metal of the grip, clenched his jaws together. He saw the point of the man’s spear wobble past, then his shield.

He stepped out with a fighting roar, swinging the sword round in a great wide circle. It chopped deep into the man’s shoulder and opened a huge gash across his chest, spraying blood into the air, lifting him off his feet and sending him crashing down the hill, flopping over and over.

“Still alive!” Logen panted as he sprinted away up the slope. A spear whistled past and sank into the turf beside him as he slid in behind the next stone. A poor effort, but they’d have plenty more. He peered round the edge. He saw quick shapes, rushing from rock to rock. He licked his lips and hefted the Maker’s sword. There was blood on the dark blade now, blood on the silver letter near the hilt. But there was much more work to do.


He came up the hillside towards her, peering over the top of his shield, ready to block an arrow if it came. No way to get at him from here, he was watching too hard.

She ducked away behind the stone and slipped into the shallow trench she had dug, started crawling. She came up to the far end, just behind another great rock. She edged round behind it and peered out. She could see him, his side to her, creeping up carefully towards the stone where she had been hiding. It seemed that God was feeling generous today.

Towards her, if not towards him.

The shaft buried itself in his side, just above his waist. He stumbled, stared down at it. She pulled out her last arrow and nocked it. He was trying to pull the first one out when the second one stuck him in the middle of his chest. Right through the heart, she guessed, from the way he fell.

The arrows were gone. Ferro tossed her bow away and drew out the Gurkish sword.

It was time to get close.


Logen stepped round one of the stones and found himself looking straight into a face, close enough almost to feel its breath on his cheek. A young face. A good-looking one, with clean skin and a sharp nose, wide open brown eyes. Logen smashed his forehead into it. The head snapped back and the young man stumbled, enough time for Logen to pull his knife from his belt with his left hand. He let go of his sword, grabbed the edge of the man’s shield and tore it out of the way. Brown Eyes’ head came up again, blood bubbling from his broken nose, snarling as he pulled back his sword arm for a thrust.

Logen grunted as he stabbed the knife into the man’s body.

Once, twice, three times. Hard, fast, underhand thrusts that half lifted him off his feet. Blood leaked out from the holes in his guts and over Logen’s hands. He groaned, dropped his sword, started to slide down the stone, his legs giving way, and Logen watched him go. A choice between killing and dying is no choice at all. You have to be realistic about these things.

The man sat in the grass, holding his bloody stomach. He looked up at Logen.

“Guh,” he grunted. “Gurruh.”

“What?”

Nothing else. His brown eyes were glassy.


“Come on!” screamed Ferro. “Come on, you fucking son of a whore!” She squatted on the grass, ready to spring.

He did not speak her language, but he got the gist. His spear arced spinning through the air. Not a bad throw. She moved to the side and it clattered away into the stones.

She laughed at him and he came charging—a big, bald, bull of a man. Fifteen strides away and she could see the grain on the handle of his axe. Twelve strides, and she could see the creases on his snarling face, the lines at the corners of his eyes, across the bridge of his nose. Eight strides, and she could see the scratches on his leather breastplate. Five strides, and he raised his axe high. “Thaargh!” he squealed as the grass in front of her suddenly collapsed beneath his feet and he pitched flailing into one of the pits, the weapon flying from his hand.

Should have watched where he stepped.

She sprang forward hungrily, swinging the sword without looking. He yelled as the heavy blade bit deep into his shoulder, squealed and gibbered, trying to get away, scrambling at the loose earth. The sword chopped a hole in the top of his head and he gurgled, thrashed, slid down into the bottom of the pit. The grave. His grave.

He did not deserve one, but never mind. She could drag him out later, and let him rot on the hillside.


He was a big bastard, this one. A great, fat giant of a man, half a head taller than Logen. He had a huge club, big as half a tree, but he threw it around easily enough, shouting and roaring like a madman, little eyes rolling with fury in his pudgy face. Logen dodged and tottered between the stones. Not easy, trying to keep one eye on the ground behind him and one on that huge flailing tree limb. Not easy. Something was bound to go wrong.

Logen stumbled on something. The boot of the brown-eyed man he’d killed a minute before. There’s justice for you. He righted himself just in time to see the giant’s fist crack him in the mouth. He waddled, dizzy, spitting blood. He saw the club swinging at him and he leaped back. Not far enough. The very tip of the great lump of wood clipped Logen’s thigh and nearly dragged him off his feet. He staggered against one of the stones, squawking and dribbling and grimacing from the pain, fumbled his sword and nearly stabbed himself with it, snatched it up just in time to tumble and fall on his back as the club smashed away a great chunk of rock beside him.

The giant lifted his club high over his head, bellowing like a bull. A fearsome move, perhaps, but not a clever one. Logen sat up and stabbed him through his gut, the dark blade sliding right up to the hilt almost, clean through his back. The club dropped from his hands and thudded on the turf behind him, but with some last desperate effort he leaned down, grabbed hold of a fistful of Logen’s shirt and hauled him close, roaring and baring his bloody teeth. He started to raise his great ham of a fist.

Logen pulled the knife out of his boot and rammed the blade into the side of the giant’s neck. He looked surprised, for just a moment, then blood dribbled from his mouth and down his chin. He let go of Logen’s shirt, stumbled back, spun slowly round, bounced off one of the stones and crashed on his face. Seemed that Logen’s father had been right. You can never have too many knives.


Ferro heard the bow string, but by then it was too late. She felt the arrow pierce her through the back of her shoulder, and when she looked down she could see the point sticking out the front of her shirt. It made her arm numb. Dark blood leaked out into the dirty cloth. She hissed to herself as she ducked behind one of the stones.

She still had the sword though, and one good arm to use it. She slithered round the rock, the rough surface scraping at her back, listening. She could heard the archer’s footfalls in the grass, searching for her, the soft ringing as he drew a blade. She saw him now, his back to her, looking right and left.

She jumped at him with the sword, but he turned in time and caught the blade on his own. They crashed down into the grass together and rolled over in a tangle. He scrambled up, thrashing and screaming, clutching at his bloody face. The arrow sticking from her shoulder had stabbed him through the eye as they struggled on the floor.

Lucky for her.

She sprang forward and the Gurkish sword chopped his foot out from under him. He screamed again, falling onto his side, mangled leg flopping. He was just pushing himself up when the curved blade hacked halfway through his neck from behind. Ferro scrambled through the grass, away from the body, her left arm hanging nearly useless, her right fist gripped tight around the grip of the sword.

Looking for more work.


Finnius moved this way and that, dancing around, light on his feet. He had a big square shield on his left arm, a short, thick sword in the other hand. He twirled it around as he moved, watery sun flashing on the edge, grinning all the while, long hair flapping round his face in the wind.

Logen was too tired to move much, so he just stood there and caught his breath, the Maker’s sword hanging down by his side.

“What happened to your sorcerer?” grinned Finnius. “No tricks this time, eh?”

“No tricks.”

“Well, you’ve led us a merry dance, I’ll give you that, but we got here in the end.”

“Got where?” Logen looked down at the corpse of the brown-eyed man, sat against the stone beside him. “If this was what you wanted you could have killed yourselves days ago and saved me the trouble.”

Finnius frowned. “You’ll find I’m made of different stuff from these fools, Northman.”

“We’re all made of the same stuff. I don’t need to carve another body to find that out.” Logen stretched his neck out, hefted the Maker’s sword in his hand. “But if you’re set on showing me your contents, I’ll not disappoint you.”

“Alright, then!” Finnius started forward. “If you’re that keen to see hell!”

He came on fast and hard, the shield up in front of him, herding Logen through the stones, jabbing and chopping quick with the sword. Logen stumbled back, short of breath, looking for an opening but not finding one.

The shield barged into his chest and knocked his breath out, pressed him back. He tried to dodge away but he lurched on his weak leg, and the short sword darted out and caught him across the arm. “Gah!” squawked Logen, staggering against a stone, drops of blood pattering from the cut into the grass.

“One to me!” chuckled Finnius, dancing sideways and waving his sword around.

Logen stood and watched him, breathing hard. The shield was a big one and this smiling bastard used it well. Gave him quite the advantage. He was quick, no doubt. Quicker than Logen, now, with a bad leg, a cut arm and a thick head from a punch in the mouth. Where was the Bloody-Nine when you wanted him? Logen spat on the ground. This fight he’d have to win alone.

He edged back, stooping more and panting harder than he needed to, letting his arm dangle as if it was useless, blood dripping from his limp fingers, blinking and wincing. He edged back past the stones into a space with more room. A nice wide space, where he could get a decent swing. Finnius followed him, shield held up in front. “That it?” he grinned as he came on. “Already fading, eh? I can’t say I’m not disappointed, I was hoping for a—”

Logen roared, springing suddenly forward and lifting the Maker’s sword above his head in both hands. Finnius scrambled back, but not quite far enough. The grey blade tore a chunk from the corner of his shield, sliced clean through and chopped deep into the side of one of the stones with a mighty clang, sending chips of rock spinning. The impact nearly tore the sword from Logen’s hands, sent him flailing sideways.

Finnius groaned. Blood was running from a cut on his shoulder, a cut right through his leather armour and into the flesh. The tip of the sword must have gashed him as it passed. Not deep enough to kill, unfortunately, but deep enough to make the point alright.

It was Logen’s turn to grin. “That it?”

They moved at the same moment. The two blades clanged together, but Logen’s grip was the stronger. Finnius’ sword twittered as it spun from his hand and away down the hillside. He gasped, snatching at his belt for a dagger, but before he could get there Logen was on him, growling and grunting as he chopped mindlessly away at the shield, hacking great scars in the wood and sending splinters flying, driving Finnius stumbling away. One last blow crashed into the shield and he staggered from the force of it, tripped over the corner of a fallen stone poking through the grass and tumbled onto his back. Logen gritted his teeth and swung the Maker’s sword down.

It sliced clean through the greave on Finnius’ shin and took his foot off just above the ankle, splattering blood into the grass. He dragged himself backwards, started to scramble up, shrieked as he tried to put his weight on his missing foot, dropped onto the stump and sprawled on his back again, coughing and groaning.

“My foot!” he wailed.

“Put it out of your mind,” growled Logen, kicking the dead thing out of his way and stepping forward.

“Wait!” gurgled Finnius, shoving himself back through the grass with his good leg towards one of the standing stones, leaving a bloody trail behind him.

“For what?”

“Just wait!” He dragged himself up the rock, hopped on his remaining foot, cringing away. “Wait!” he screamed.

Logen’s sword caught the inside rim of the shield, tore the straps away from Finnius’ limp arm and flung it bouncing down the slope on its chewed-up edge. Finnius gave a desperate wail and pulled out his knife, poised himself on his one good leg to lunge. Logen chopped a great gash in his chest. Blood sprayed out and showered down his breastplate. His eyes bulged, he opened his mouth wide but all that came out was a gentle wheeze. The dagger dropped from his fingers and fell silently into the grass. He slid sideways and dropped onto his face.

Back to the mud with that.

Logen stood, and blinked, and breathed. The cut on his arm was starting to sting like fire, his leg was aching, his breath was coming in ragged gasps. “Still alive,” he muttered to himself. “Still alive.” He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Shit,” he gasped. The others. He started to hobble back up the slope towards the summit.


The arrow in her shoulder had made her slow. Her shirt was wet with blood and she was getting thirsty, and stiff, and sluggish. He slid out from behind one of the stones, and before she knew it he was on her.

There was no room to use the sword any longer, so she let it drop. She made a grab for her knife but he caught her by the wrist, and he was strong. He threw her back against the stone and her head cracked against it, made her dizzy for a moment. She could see a muscle trembling under his eye, the black pores on his nose, the fibres standing out on his neck.

She twisted and struggled, but his weight bore down on her. She snarled and spat, but even Ferro’s strength was not endless. Her arms trembled, her elbows bent. His hand found her throat, and tightened round it. He muttered something through clenched teeth, squeezing and squeezing. She could not breathe any longer, and the strength was ebbing out of her.

Then, through her half-closed eyes, she saw a hand slither round his face from behind. A big, pale, three-fingered hand, caked with dry blood. A big, pale forearm followed it, and another, from the other side, folding his head tightly. He wriggled, and struggled, but there was no escape. The thick sinews flexed and squirmed under the skin and the pale fingers dug into his face, dragging his head back and to the side, further and further. He let go of Ferro, and she sagged against the stone, sucking in air. He scrabbled uselessly at the arms with his fingernails. He made a long, strange hissing sound as his head was twisted relentlessly round.

“Ssssss…” Crunch.

The arms let go and he crumpled on the floor, head hanging. Ninefingers stood behind. There was dry blood across his face, blood on his hands, blood soaked through his torn clothes. His face was pale and twitchy, streaked with dirt and sweat.

“You alright?”

“About like you,” she croaked. “Any left?”

He put one hand on the stone beside her and leaned over, spat blood out onto the grass. “Don’t know. Couple, maybe.”

She squinted up at the summit of the hill. “Up there?”

“Could be.”

She bent and snatched the curved sword up from the grass, started to limp up the slope, using it like a crutch. She heard Ninefingers struggling after her.


For some minutes now, Jezal had heard occasional shouting, screaming, and clashing of metal on metal. Everything was vague and distant, filtering to his ears through the blustering wind across the hilltop. He had no clue what was happening beyond the circle of stones at the hill’s summit, and he was not sure he wanted to know. He strode up and down, his hands opening and closing, and all the while Quai sat on the cart, looking down at Bayaz, silent and infuriatingly calm.

It was then that he saw it. A man’s head, rising up over the brow of the hill between two tall stones. Next came his shoulders, then his chest. Another appeared not far away. A second man. Two killers, advancing up the slope towards him.

One of them had piggy eyes and a heavy jaw. The other was thinner, with a tangled thatch of fair hair. They moved cautiously up onto the summit of the hill until they stood within the circle of stones, examining Jezal, and Quai, and the cart with no particular urgency.

Jezal had never fought two men at once before. He had never fought to the death before either, but he tried not to think about that. This was simply a fencing match. Nothing new. He swallowed, and drew his steels. The metal rang reassuringly as it slid out, the familiar weight in his palms was a small comfort. The two men stared at him and Jezal stared back, trying to remember what Ninefingers had told him.

Try to look weak. That, at least, did not present much difficulty. He did not doubt that he appeared suitably scared. It was the most he could do not to turn and run. He backed slowly away towards the cart, licking his lips with a nervousness that was anything but feigned.

Never take an enemy lightly. He looked them over, these two. Strong-looking men, well equipped. They both wore armour of rigid leather, carried square shields. One had a short sword, the other an axe with a heavy blade. Deadly-looking weapons, well worn. Taking them lightly was hardly his problem. They spread out, moving round to either side of him, and he watched them.

The time comes to act, you strike with no backward glances. The one on Jezal’s left came at him. He saw the man snarl, saw him rear up, saw the great unwieldy backswing. It was an absurdly simple matter for him to step out of the way and let it thud into the turf beside him. On an instinct he thrust with his short steel and buried it in the man’s side up to the hilt, between his breastplate and his backplate, just under his bottom rib. Even as Jezal was ripping the blade back he was ducking under the other’s axe and whipping his long steel across at neck height. He danced past them and spun around, steels held ready, waiting for the referee’s call.

The one he had stabbed staggered a step or two, wheezing and grabbing at his side. The other stood there, swaying, his piggy eyes bulging, his hand clutched to his neck. Blood began to pour out between his fingers from his slit throat. They fell almost at the same time, face down, right next to each other.

Jezal frowned at the blood on his long steel. He frowned at the two corpses he had made. Almost without thinking he had killed two men. He should have felt guilty, but he felt numb. No. He felt proud. He felt exhilarated! He looked up at Quai, watching him calmly from the back of the cart.

“I did it,” he muttered, and the apprentice nodded slowly. “I did it!” he shouted, waving his bloody short steel in the air.

Quai frowned, and then his eyes went wide. “Behind you!” he shouted, half jumping up out of his seat. Jezal turned, bringing up his steels, saw something moving out of the very corner of his eye.

There was a mighty crunching and his head exploded with brilliant light.

Then all was darkness.

<p>The Fruits of Boldness</p>

The Northmen stood on the hill, a thin row of dark figures with the white sky behind them. It was still early, and the sun was nothing more than a bright smear among thick clouds. Patches of half-melted snow were scattered cold and dirty in the hollows of the valley sides, a thin layer of mist was still clinging to the valley floor.

West watched that row of black shapes, and frowned. He did not like the flavour of this. Too many for a scouting, or a foraging party, far too few to mount any challenge, and yet they stayed there on the high ground, watching calmly as Ladisla’s army continued its interminable, clumsy deployment in the valley beneath them.

The Prince’s staff, and a small detachment of his guards, had made their headquarters on a grassy knoll opposite the Northmen’s hill. It had seemed a fine, dry spot when the scouts found it early that morning, well below the enemy perhaps, but still high enough to get a good view of the valley. Since then the passage of thousands of sliding boots, squashing hooves, and churning cartwheels, had ground the wet earth to sticky black muck. West’s own boots and those of the other men around were caked with it, their uniforms spattered with it. Even Prince Ladisla’s pristine whites had acquired a few smears.

A couple of hundred strides ahead, on lower ground, was the centre of the Union battle line. Four battalions of the King’s Own infantry formed the backbone, each one a neat block of bright red cloth and dull steel, looking at this distance as though they had been positioned with a giant ruler. In front of them were a few thin ranks of flatbowmen in their leather jerkins and steel caps; behind were the cavalry, dismounted for the time being, the riders looking strangely ungainly in full armour. Spread out to either side were the haphazard shapes of the levy battalions, with their assortment of mismatched equipment, their officers bellowing and waving their arms, trying to get the gaps to close up, the skewed ranks to straighten, like sheepdogs barking at a flock of wayward sheep.

Ten thousand men, perhaps, all told. Every one of them, West knew, was looking up at that thin screen of Northmen, no doubt with the same nervous mixture of fear and excitement, curiosity and anger that he was feeling at his first sight of the enemy.

They hardly seemed too fearsome through his eye-glass. Shaggy-headed men, dressed in ragged hides and furs, gripping primitive looking weapons. Just what the least imaginative members of the Prince’s staff might have been expecting. They scarcely looked like any part of the army that Threetrees had described, and West did not like that. There was no way of knowing what was on the far side of that hill, no reason for those men to be there but to distract them, or draw them on. Not everyone shared his doubts, however.

“They mock us!” snapped Smund, squinting up through his own eye-glass. “We should give them a taste of Union lances! A swift charge and our horsemen will sweep that rabble aside and carry that hill!” He spoke almost as if the carrying of that hill, irrelevant except for the fact that the Northmen were standing on it, would bring the campaign to a swift and glorious conclusion.

West could do nothing but grit his teeth and shake his head, as he had done a hundred times already today. “They have the high ground,” he explained, taking care to speak slowly and patiently. “Poor terrain for a charge, and they may have support. Bethod’s main body, for all we know, just over the rise.”

“They look like nothing more than scouts,” muttered Ladisla.

“Looks can lie, your Highness, and that hill is worthless. Time is with us. Marshal Burr will be marching to our aid, while Bethod can expect no help. We have no reason to seek a battle now.”

Smund snorted. “No reason except that this is a war, and the enemy stand before us on Union soil! You are always carping on the poor state of the men’s morale, Colonel!” He jabbed his finger up at the hill. “What could be more damaging to their spirits than to sit idle in the face of the enemy?”

“A sharp and purposeless defeat?” growled West.

It was an unfortunate chance that one of the Northmen chose that moment to loose an arrow down into the valley. A tiny black sliver sailed up into the sky. It came only from a shortbow. Even with the advantage of height the shaft plopped down harmlessly into open ground a hundred strides or more from the front lines. A singularly pointless gesture, but its effect on Prince Ladisla was immediate.

He abandoned his folding field chair and leaped to his feet. “Damn them!” he cursed, “they are mocking us! Issue orders!” He strode up and down, shaking his fist. “Have the cavalry form up for a charge immediately!”

“Your Highness, I urge you to reconsider—”

“Damn it, West!” The heir to the throne hurled his hat down on the muddy ground. “You oppose me at every turn! Would your friend Colonel Glokta have hesitated with the enemy before him?”

West swallowed. “Colonel Glokta was captured by the Gurkish, and caused the deaths of every man under his command.” He bent slowly and picked up the hat, offered it respectfully up to the Prince, wondering all the while whether he had just brought his career to an abrupt end.

Ladisla ground his teeth, breathing hard through his nose, snatched the hat out of West’s hand. “I have made my decision! Mine is the burden of command, and mine alone!” He turned back towards the valley. “Sound the charge!”

West felt suddenly, terribly tired. It seemed he scarcely had the strength to stand as the confident bugle call rang out in the crisp air, as the horsemen struggled into their saddles, eased forward between the blocks of infantry, trotted down the gentle slope, lances up. They broke into a gallop as they crossed the valley floor, half-obscured in a sea of mist, the thunder of their hoof-beats echoing round the valley. A few scattered arrows fell among them, glancing harmlessly from their heavy armour as they streamed forward. They began to lose momentum as they hit the upward slope, their lines breaking as they pushed on over the gorse and the broken ground, but the sight of all that weight of steel and horseflesh had its effect on the Northmen above. Their ragged line began to waver, then to break. They turned tail and fled, some of them tossing away their weapons as they disappeared over the brow of the hill.

“That’s the damn recipe!” yelled Lord Smund. “Drive ’em, damn it! Drive ’em!”

“Ride them down!” laughed Prince Ladisla, tearing off his hat again and waving it in the air. A scattering of cheers floated up from the levies in the valley, over the distant hammering of hooves.

“Drive them,” muttered West, clenching his fists. “Please.”

The riders crested the ridge and gradually disappeared from view. Silence fell over the valley. A long, strange, unexpected silence. A few crows circled overhead, croaking their harsh calls to one another. West would have given anything for their view of the battlefield. The tension was almost unbearable. He strode back and forth while the long minutes stretched out, and still no sign.

“Taking their time, eh?”

Pike was standing right next to him, his daughter just behind. West winced and looked away. He still found it somehow painful to look at that burned face for long, especially coming on him sudden and unannounced. “What are you two doing here?”

The convict shrugged his shoulders. “There’s plenty for a smith to do before a battle. Even more after it. Not much while the fighting’s happening, though.” He grinned, slabs of burned flesh folding up like leather on one side of his face. “Thought I’d take a look at Union arms in action. Besides, what safer place could there be than the Prince’s headquarters?”

“Don’t mind us,” muttered Cathil, a thin smile on her face, “we’ll make sure to keep out of your way.”

West frowned. If that was a reference to his being constantly in their way he was in no mood to enjoy it. There was still no sign of the cavalry.

“Where the hell are they?” snapped Smund.

The Prince took a break from chewing down his fingernails. “Give ’em time, Lord Smund, give ’em time.”

“Why doesn’t this mist dry up?” murmured West. There was enough sunlight breaking through the clouds now, but the mist only seemed to be thickening, creeping up the valley towards the archers. “Damn mist, it’ll work against us.”

“That’s them!” yelled one of the Prince’s staff, shrill with excitement, finger stretched out rigid towards the crest of the hill.

West raised his eye-glass, breathless, scanned quickly across the green line. He saw the spear-points, stiff, and regular, rising slowly over the brow. He felt a surge of relief. Rarely had he been happier to be proved wrong.

“It’s them!” yelled Smund, grinning broadly. “They’re back! What did I tell you? They’re…” Helmets appeared beneath the spear-points, and then mailed shoulders. West felt the relief seeping away, horror creeping up his throat. An organised body of armoured men, their round shields painted with faces, and animals, and trees, and a hundred other patterns, no two alike. More men appeared over the crest of the hill to either side of them. More mailed figures.

Bethod’s Carls.

They halted just beyond the highest point of the hill. A scattering of men came forward from the even ranks, knelt in the short grass.

Ladisla lowered his eye-glass. “Are those…?”

“Flatbows,” muttered West.

The first volley drifted up, gently almost, a shifting grey cloud of bolts, like a flock of well trained birds. They were silent for a moment, then the angry rattling of the bow strings reached West’s ears. The bolts began to drop towards the Union lines. They fell among the King’s Own, clattered down onto their heavy shields, their heavy armour. There were some cries, a few gaps appeared in their lines.

The mood in the headquarters had turned, in the space of a minute, from brash confidence, to mute surprise, to stupefied dismay. “They have flatbows?” someone spluttered. West stared at the archers on the hill through his eye-glass, slowly cranking back their bowstrings, pulling bolts from their quivers, fitting them into position. The range had been well judged. Not only did they have flatbows, but they knew how to use them. West hurried over to Prince Ladisla, who was gaping at a wounded man being carried, head lolling, from between the ranks of the King’s Own.

“Your Highness, we must advance and close the distance so that our archers can return fire, or withdraw to higher ground!” Ladisla only stared at him, giving no sign that he had heard, let alone understood. A second volley arced down into the infantry in front of them. This time it fell among the levies, a unit without shields or armour. Holes opened up all across the ragged formation, holes filled by the rising mist, and the whole battalion seemed to groan and waver. Some wounded man began to make a thin, animal screeching, and would not stop. “Your Highness, do we advance, or withdraw?”

“I… we…” Ladisla gaped over at Lord Smund, but for once the young nobleman was at a loss for words. He looked even more stupefied than the Prince, if that was possible. Ladisla’s lower lip trembled. “How… I… Colonel West, what is your opinion?”

The temptation to remind the Crown Prince that his was the burden of command, and his alone, was almost overpowering, but West bit his tongue. Without some sense of purpose, this rag-tag army might swiftly dissolve. Better to do the wrong thing, than nothing at all. He turned to the nearest bugler. “Sound the retreat!” he roared.

The bugles called the withdrawa blaring, discordant. Hard to believe they were the same instruments that had so brazenly called the charge just a few short minutes before. The battalions began to edge slowly backwards. Another volley fell among the levies, and another. Their formations were beginning to come apart, men hurrying backwards to escape the murderous fire, stumbling over each other, ranks dissolving into mobs, the air full of shrieks and confusion. West could scarcely tell where the next set of flatbow bolts fell, the mist had risen so high. The Union battalions had become nothing more than wobbling spears and the odd insubstantial helmet above a grey cloud. Even here, high up among the baggage, the mist was curling round West’s ankles.

Up on the hill the Carls began to move. They thrust their weapons in the air and clashed them against their painted shields. They gave a great shout, but not the deep roar that West might have expected. Instead, a weird and chilling howl floated over the valley, a keening wail that cut through the rattling and scraping of metal and into the ears of those watching, down below. A mindless, a furious, a primitive sound. A sound made by monsters, not by men.

Prince Ladisla and his staff gawped at one another, and stuttered, and stared, as the Carls began to tramp down the hill, rank upon rank of them, towards the thickening mist in the valley’s bottom where the Union troops were still blindly trying to pull back. West shouldered his way through the frozen officers to the bugler.

“Battle lines!”

The lad turned from staring at the advancing Northmen to staring at West, his bugle hanging from his nerveless ringers.

“Lines!” roared a voice from behind. “Form lines!” It was Pike, bellowing loud enough to match any drill sergeant. The bugler snapped his instrument to his lips and blew lines for all he was worth. Answering calls echoed through the mist, risen up all around them, now. Muffled bugles, muffled shouts.

“Halt and form up!”

“Form lines now, lads!”

“Prepare!”

“Steady!”

A chorus of rattles and clanks came through the murk. Men moving in armour, spears being set, swords drawn, calls from man to man and from unit to unit. Above all, growing steadily louder, the unearthly howling of the Northmen as they began their charge, surging down from the high ground and into the valley. West felt a chill in his own blood, even with a hundred strides of earth and a few thousand armed men between him and the enemy. He could well imagine the fear those in the front lines were feeling now, as the shapes of the Carls began to rise out of the mist before them, screaming their war cries with their weapons held high.

There was no sound that signified the moment of contact. The clattering grew louder and louder, the shouts and the howls were joined by high-pitched cries, low-pitched growls, shrieks of pain or rage mixed into the terrifying din with ever greater frequency.

Nobody in the headquarters spoke. Every man, West among them, was peering into the murk, straining with every sense to get some hint of what might be happening just before them in the valley.

“There!” someone shouted. A faint figure was moving through the gloom ahead. All eyes were fixed on it as it took shape before them. A young, breathless, mud-splattered and highly confused lieutenant. “Where the hell is the headquarters?” he shouted as he stumbled up the slope towards them.

“This is it.”

The man gave West a flamboyant salute. “Your Highness—”

“I am Ladisla,” snapped the real Prince. The man turned, bewildered, began to salute once more. “Speak your message, man!”

“Of course, sir, your Highness, Major Bodzin has sent me to tell you that his battalion is heavily engaged, and…” he was still gasping for breath, “he needs reinforcement.”

Ladisla stared at the young man as though he had been speaking in a foreign language. He looked at West. “Who is Major Bodzin?”

“Commander of the first battalion of the Stariksa levies, your Highness, on our left wing.”

“Left wing, I see… er…”

A semi-circle of brightly dressed staff officers had congealed around the breathless lieutenant. “Tell the Major to hold!” shouted one of them.

“Yes!” said Ladisla, “tell your Major to hold, and to, er, to drive back the enemy. Yes indeed!” He was warming to his role now. “To drive them back, and to fight to the last man! Tell Major Clodzin that help is on the way. Most definitely… on the way!” And the Prince strode off manfully.

The young Lieutenant turned, peered into the murk. “Which way is my unit?” he muttered.

More figures were already beginning to take form. Running figures, scrambling through the mud, panting for breath. Levies, West saw straight away, broken from the backs of crumbling units as soon as they had made contact with the enemy. As though there had ever been any chance that they would stand for long.

“Cowardly dogs!” cursed Smund at their receding backs. “Get back here!” He might as well have given orders to the mist. Everyone was running: deserters, adjutants, messengers seeking for help, for direction, for reinforcement. The first wounded too. Some were limping under their own power, or using broken spears for crutches, some were half-carried by comrades. Pike started forward to help a pale fellow with a flatbow bolt sticking from his shoulder. Another casualty was dragged past on a stretcher, muttering to himself. His left arm was off just below the elbow, oozing blood through a tightly bound stretch of dirty cloth.

Ladisla looked greasy pale. “I have a headache. I must sit down. What has become of my field chair?”

West chewed at his lip. He had no inkling of what to do. Burr had sent him with Ladisla for his experience, but he was every bit as clueless as the Prince. Every plan relied on being able actually to see the enemy, or at any rate one’s own positions. He stood there, frozen, as useless and frustrated as a blind man in a fist fight.

“What is happening, damn it!” The Prince’s voice cut across the din, shrill and petulant. “Where did this damn mist come from? I demand to know what is happening! Colonel West! Where is the Colonel? What is going on out there?”

If only he had been able to provide an answer. Men stumbled and darted and charged through the muddy headquarters, apparently at random. Faces loomed up from the mist and were gone, faces full of fear, confusion, determination. Runners with garbled messages or garbled orders, soldiers with bloody wounds or no weapons. Disembodied voices floated on the cold air, speaking over one another, anxious, hurried, panicked, agonised.

“…Our regiment has made contact with the enemy, and are falling back, or were falling back, I think…”

“My knee! Damn it, my knee!”

“…His Highness the Prince? I have an urgent message from…”

“Send, er… someone! Whoever is available… who is available?”

“…King’s Own are heavily engaged! They request permission to withdraw…”

“What happened to the cavalry? Where are the cavalry?”

“…devils not men! The Captain’s dead and…”

“We are falling back!”

“…fighting hard on the right wing and in need of support! In desperate need of support…”

“Help me! Somebody, please!”

“…And then counterattack! We are attacking all across the line…”

“Quiet!” West could hear something in the grey gloom. The jingling of a harness. The mist was so dense now that he could see no more than thirty strides, but the sound of trotting hooves drawing closer was unmistakable. His hand closed round the hilt of his sword.

“The cavalry, they’ve returned!” Lord Smund started eagerly forwards.

“Wait!” hissed West, to no effect. His eyes strained into the grey. He saw the outlines of horsemen, coming steadily through the gloom. The shapes of their armour, of their saddles, of their helmets were those of the King’s Own, and yet there was something in the way they rode—slouching, loose. West drew his sword. “Protect the Prince,” he muttered taking a step towards Ladisla.

“You there!” shouted Lord Smund at the foremost horseman. “Prepare your men for another—” The rider’s sword chopped into his skull with a hollow clicking sound. A spray of blood went up, black in the white mist, and the horsemen broke into a charge, screaming at the tops of their voices. Terrifying, eerie, inhuman sounds. Smund’s limp body was flung out of the way by the leading horse, trampled under the flailing hooves of the one beside it. Northmen, now, unmistakably, growing more horrifyingly distinct as they loomed up out of the murk. The foremost of them had a thick beard, long hair streaming out from beneath an ill-fitting Union helmet, yellow teeth bared, eyes of horse and rider both wide with fury. His heavy sword flashed down and hacked one of the Prince’s guards between the shoulder blades as he dropped his spear and turned to run.

“Protect the Prince!” screamed West. Then it was chaos. Horses thundered past all around, riders yelled, hacked about them with swords and axes, men ran in all directions, slipped, fell, were cut down where they stood, were trampled where they lay. The heavy air was full of the wind of passing horsemen, flying mud, screams and panic and fear.

West dived out of the way of flailing hooves, sprawled on his face in the muck, slashed uselessly at a passing horse, rolled and spun and gasped at the mist. He had no idea which way he was facing, everything sounded the same, looked the same. “Protect the Prince!” he shouted again, pointlessly, voice hoarse, drowned out in the din, spinning round and round.

“Over on the left!” someone shrieked. “Form a line!” There were no lines. There was no left. West stumbled over a body, a hand clutched at his leg and he slashed at it with his sword.

“Ah.” He was on his face. His head hurt terribly. Where was he? Fencing practice, perhaps. Had Luthar knocked him down again? That boy was getting too good for him. He stretched for the grip of his sword, lying trampled in the mud. A hand slithered through grass, far away, fingers stretching. He could hear his own breathing, painfully loud, echoing in his thumping head. Everything was blurred, shifting, mist before his eyes, mist in his eyes. Too late. He could not reach his sword. His head was throbbing. There was mud in his mouth. He rolled over onto his back, slowly, breathing hard, up onto his elbows. He saw a man coming. A Northman, by his shaggy outline. Of course. There was a battle. West watched him walk slowly forward. There was a dark line in his hand. A weapon. Sword, axe, mace, spear, what was the difference? The man took one more unhurried step, planted his boot on West’s jacket, and shoved his limp body down into the mud.

Neither of them said anything. No last words. No pithy phrases. No expressions of anger, or remorse, or of victory, or defeat. The Northman raised his weapon.

His body jolted. He lurched forward a step. He blinked and swayed. He half-turned, slowly, stupidly. His head jolted again.

“Got something in…” he said, lips fumbling with the words. He felt at the back of his head with his free hand. “Where’s my…” He swivelled round, falling sideways, one leg in the air, and crashed onto his side in the muck. Somebody stood behind him. They came close, leaned over. A woman’s face. She seemed familiar, somehow.

“You alive?”

Like that, West’s mind clicked back into place. He took a great coughing breath, rolled over and grabbed hold of his sword. There were Northmen, Northmen behind their lines! He scrambled to his feet, clawed the blood out of his eyes. They had been tricked! His head was pounding, spinning. Bethod’s cavalry, disguised, the Prince’s headquarters, overrun! He jerked around, wild-eyed, boot heels slipping in the mud, looking for enemies in the mist, but there was no one. Only him and Cathil. The sound of hooves had faded, the horsemen had passed, at least for now.

He looked down at his steel. The blade was snapped off a few inches from the hilt. Worthless. He let it fall, prised the Northman’s dead fingers from his sword and grabbed hold of the hilt, his head thumping all the time. A heavy weapon with a thick, notched blade, but it would serve.

He stared down at the corpse, lying on its side. The man who had been about to kill him. The back of his skull was a caved in mess of red splinters. Cathil had a smith’s hammer in her hand. The head was sticky dark with blood and strands of matted hair.

“You killed him.” She had saved his life. They both knew it, so there hardly seemed any point in saying it.

“What do we do now?”

Head for the front lines. That was what the dashing young officer always did in the stories West had read as a boy. March for the sounds of battle. Rally a new unit from stragglers and lead them into the fray, turn the tide of the fighting at the critical moment. Home in time for dinner and medals.

Looking down at the wreckage and the broken corpses the horsemen had left behind, West almost laughed at the idea. It was suddenly too late for heroics, and he knew it. It had been too late for a long time.

The fates of the men down in the valley had been set long ago. When Ladisla chose to cross the river. When Burr set upon his plan. When the Closed Council decided to send the Crown Prince to win a reputation in the North. When the great noblemen of the Union sent beggars instead of soldiers to fight for their King. A hundred different chances, from days, and weeks, and months before, all coming together here, on this worthless stretch of mud. Chances which neither Burr, nor Ladisla, nor West himself could have predicted or done anything to prevent.

He could make no difference now, no one could. The day was lost.

“Protect the Prince,” he muttered.

“What?”

West began to cast around on the ground, rooting through the scattered junk, rolling over bodies with his dirty hands. A messenger stared up at him, the side of his face split open, bloody pulp hanging out. West retched, covered his mouth, crawled on his hands and knees to the next corpse. One of the Prince’s staff, still with a look of faint surprise on his features. There was a ragged sword cut through the heavy gold braid of his uniform, reaching all the way down to his belly.

“What the hell are you doing?” Pike’s gruff voice. “There’s no time for this!” The convict had got an axe from somewhere. A heavy northern axe, with blood on the edge. Not a good idea, most likely, for a criminal to have a weapon like that, but West had other worries.

“We must find Prince Ladisla!”

“Shit on him!” hissed Cathil, “let’s go!”

West shook off her hand, stumbled to a heap of broken boxes, wiping more blood out of his eye. Somewhere here. Somewhere near here, Ladisla had been standing—

“No, I beg of you, no!” squealed a voice. The heir to the throne of the Union was lying on his back in a hollow in the dirt, half-obscured by the twisted corpse of one of his guards. His eyes were squeezed shut, arms crossed in front of his face, white uniform spotted with red blood, caked with black mud. “There will be a ransom!” he whimpered, “a ransom! More than you can imagine.”

One eye peered out from between his fingers. He grabbed at West’s hand. “Colonel West! Is it you? You’re alive!”

There was no time for pleasantries. “Your Highness, we have to go!”

“Go?” mumbled Ladisla, his face streaked with tear tracks. “But surely… you can’t mean… have we won?”

West nearly bit his own tongue off. It was bizarre that the task should fall to him, but he had to save the Prince. The vain and useless idiot might not deserve saving but that changed nothing. It was for his own sake that West had to do it, not for Ladisla’s. It was his duty, as a subject to save his future King, as a soldier to save his general, as one man to save another. It was all he could do, now. “You are the heir to the throne and cannot be spared.” West reached down and grabbed the Prince by the elbow.

Ladisla fumbled with his belt. “I lost my sword somewhere—”

“We have no time!” West hauled him up, fully prepared to carry him if he had to. He struck off through the mist, the two convicts close behind him.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” growled Pike.

“I’m sure.” He was anything but. The mist was thicker than ever. The pounding in his head and the blood trickling into his eye made it hard to concentrate. The sounds of fighting seemed to come from all around: clashing and grating metal, groans and wails and yells of fury, all echoing in the mist and seeming one moment far away, the next terrifyingly near. Shapes loomed and moved and swam, vague and threatening outlines, shadows drifting, just out of sight. A rider seemed to rise out of the mist and West gasped and raised his sword. The clouds swirled. It was only a supply cart, laden down with barrels, mule standing still before it, driver sprawled out beside, with a broken spear sticking from his back.

“This way,” hissed West, scuttling towards it, trying to keep close to the mud. Carts were good. Carts meant the baggage train, the supplies, the food and the surgeons. Carts meant they were heading up out of the valley, away from the front lines at least, if there still were any such things. West thought about it for a moment. Carts were bad. Carts meant plunder. The Northmen would swarm to them like flies to honey, eager for booty. He pointed off into the mist, away from the empty wagons, the broken barrels, the upended boxes, and the others followed him, silent but for their squelching footfalls, their rasping breath.

They slogged on, over open ground, dirty clumps of wet grass, gently rising. The others passed him, one by one, and he waved them on. Their only chance was to keep moving, but every step was harder than the one before. Blood from the cut on his scalp was tickling away under his hair, down the side of his face. The pain in his head was growing worse, not better. He felt weak, sick, horribly dizzy. He clung to the grip of the heavy sword as though it was keeping him up, bent over double, struggling to stay on his feet.

“You alright?” asked Cathil.

“Keep moving!” he managed to grunt at her. He could hear hooves, or thought that he could. Fear kept him going, and fear alone. He could see the others, ahead of him, labouring forwards. Prince Ladisla well in front, Pike next, Cathil just ahead, looking back over her shoulder. There was a group of trees, he could see them through the thinning mist. He fixed on their ghostly shapes and made for them, his breath rasping in his throat as he floundered up the slope.

He heard Cathil’s voice. “No.” He turned, horror creeping up his throat. He saw the outline of a rider, not far behind them.

“Make for the trees!” he gasped. She didn’t move, so he grabbed her arm and shoved her forwards, fell on his face in the mud as he did it. He rolled over, floundered up, began to stumble away from her, away from the trees, away from safety, sideways across the slope. He watched the Northman take shape as he rode up out of the mist. He had seen West now, was trotting up towards him, his spear lowered.

West carried on creeping sideways, legs burning, lungs burning, using his last grains of strength to lead the rider away. Ladisla was already in the trees. Pike was just sliding into the bushes. Cathil took one last look over her shoulder and followed him. West could go no further. He stopped, crouching on the hillside, too tired even to stand, let alone fight, and watched the Northman come on. The sun had broken through the clouds, was glinting on the blade of his spear. West had no idea what he would do when he arrived. Apart from die.

Then the horseman reared up in his saddle, scrabbled at his side. There were feathers there. Grey feathers, blowing in the wind. He let go a short scream. His scream stopped, and he stared at West. There was an arrow-head sticking out of his neck. He dropped his spear and tumbled slowly backwards out of his saddle. His horse trotted past, curved away up the slope, slowed to a walk, and stopped.

West crouched against the wet ground for a moment, unable to understand how he had escaped death. He tottered towards the trees, each stride a vast undertaking, all his joints floppy as a puppet’s. He felt his knees give way and he crashed down into the brush. There were strong fingers plucking at the wound on his scalp, words muttered in Northern. “Ah,” yelped West, prising his eyes open a crack.

“Stop whining.” The Dogman was staring down at him. “Just a scrape. You got off light. Came right to me, but you’re lucky still. I been known to miss.”

“Lucky,” muttered West. He turned over in the wet bracken and stared across the valley between the tree trunks. The mist was finally starting to clear, slowly revealing a trail of broken carts, of broken gear, of broken bodies. All the ugly detritus of a terrible defeat. Or a terrible victory, if you stood with Bethod. A few hundred strides away he watched a man running desperately towards another stand of trees. A cook maybe, by his clothes. A horseman followed him, spear couched in his arm. He missed at the first pass, caught him on the way back and knocked him to the ground. West should have felt horror as he watched the rider trot up and stab the helpless runner with his spear, but he only felt a guilty gladness. Glad that it wasn’t him.

There were other figures, other horsemen, moving on the slopes of the valley. Other bloody little dramas, but West could watch no more. He turned away, slid back down into the welcoming safety of the bushes.

The Dogman was chuckling softly to himself. “Threetrees’ll shit when he sees what I’ve caught me.” He pointed at the strange, exhausted, mud-spattered group one by one. “Half-dead Colonel West, girl with a bloody hammer, man with a face like the back end of a cook-pot, and this one here, less I’m deceived, is the boy who had charge o’ this fucking disaster. By the dead but fate plays some tricks.” He shook his head slowly, grinning down at West as he lay on his back, gasping like a landed fish.

“Threetrees… is going… to shit.”

<p>One for Dinner</p>

To Arch Lector Sult,

head of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Your Eminence,

I have happy news. The conspiracy is unmasked, and torn up by the roots. Korsten dan Vurms, the son of the Lord Governor, and Carlot dan Eider, the Magister of the Guild of Spicers, were the principals. They will be questioned, and then punished in such a manner that our people will understand the price of treason. It would appear that Davoust fell victim to a Gurkish agent, long hidden within the city. The assassin is still at large, but with the plotters in our power it cannot be long before we catch him.

I have had Lord Governor Vurms placed under close arrest. The treason of the son renders the father unreliable, and he has been a hindrance in the administration of the city in any case. I will send him back to you by the next ship, so that you and your colleagues on the Closed Council may decide his fate. Along with him will come one Inquisitor Harker, responsible for the deaths of two prisoners who might otherwise have rendered us valuable information. I have questioned him, and am fully satisfied he had no part in any plot, but he is nonetheless guilty of incompetence tantamount to treason. I leave his punishment in your hands.

The Gurkish assault came at first light. Picked troops rushed forwards with ready-made bridges and tall ladders, straight across open ground, and were met with a murderous volley from five hundred flatbows ranged along our walls. It was a brave effort, but a rash one, and was repulsed with much slaughter on their side. Only two bold parties made it to our man-made channel, where bridge, ladder, and men were quickly swept away by a fierce current that flows from the sea into the bay at certain times of day, a happy and unforeseen chance of nature.

Gurkish corpses now litter the empty ground between our channel and their lines, and I have ordered our men to fire upon anyone who attempts to offer succour to the wounded. The groans of the dying and the sight of Gurkish bodies rotting in the sun cannot but cause a useful weakening of their morale.

Though the first taste of victory has come to us, in truth, this attack was little more than a first feeling out of our defences. The Gurkish commander but dips his toe in the water, to test the temperature. His next attack, I do not doubt, will be on a different scale altogether. Three mighty catapults, assembled within four hundred strides of our walls, and more than capable of hurling huge stones clean into the Lower City, yet stand silent. Perhaps they hope to take Dagoska intact, but if our resistance holds, this hesitation cannot long continue.

They certainly do not want for men. More Gurkish soldiers pour onto the peninsula every day. The standards of eight legions are now plainly visible above the throng, and we have spotted detachments of savages from every corner of the Kantic continent. A mighty host, perhaps fifty thousand strong or more, is ranged against us. The Gurkish Emperor, Uthman-ul-Dosht, bends all his power against our walls, but we will hold firm.

You will hear from me soon. Until then, I serve and obey.

Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska.

Magister Carlot dan Eider, head of the Guild of Spicers, sat in her chair, hands in her lap, and did her best to maintain her dignity. Her skin was pale and oily, there were dark rings under her eyes. Her white garments were stained with the dirt of the cells, her hair had lost its sheen and hung lank and matted across her face. She looked older without her powder and her jewels, but she still seemed beautiful. More than ever, in a way. The beauty of the candle flame that has almost burned out.

“You look tired,” she said.

Glokta raised his brows. “It has been a trying few days. First there was the questioning of your accomplice Vurms, then the small matter of an assault by the Gurkish army camped outside our walls. You appear somewhat fatigued yourself.”

“The floor of my tiny cell is not that comfortable, and then I have my own worries.” She looked up at Severard and Vitari, leaning against the walls on either side of her, arms folded, masked and implacable. “Am I going to die in this room?”

Undoubtedly. “That remains to be seen. Vurms has already told us most of what we need to know. You came to him, you offered him money to forge his father’s signature on certain documents, to give orders in his father’s name to certain guardsmen, to participate, in short, in the betrayal of the city of Dagoska to the enemies of the Union. He has named everyone involved in your scheme. He has signed his confession. His head, in case you were wondering, is decorating the gate beside that of your friend Islik, the Emperor’s ambassador.”

“Both together, on the gate,” sang Severard.

“There are only three things he was not able to give me. Your reasons, your signature, and the identity of the Gurkish spy who killed Superior Davoust. I will have those three from you. Now.”

Magister Eider carefully cleared her throat, carefully smoothed the front of her long gown, sat up as proudly as she could. “I do not believe that you will torture me. You are not Davoust. You have a conscience.”

The corner of Glokta’s mouth twitched slightly. A brave effort. I do applaud you. But how wrong you are. “I have a conscience, but it’s a feeble, withered shred of a thing. It couldn’t protect you or anyone else from a stiff breeze.” Glokta sighed, long and hard. The room was too hot, too bright, his eyes were sore and twitchy and he rubbed at them slowly as he spoke. “You could not even guess at the things that I have done. Awful, evil, obscene, the telling of them alone could make you puke.” He shrugged. “They nag at me from time to time, but I tell myself I had good reasons. The years pass, the unimaginable becomes everyday, the hideous becomes tedious, the unbearable becomes routine. I push it all into the dark corners of my mind, and it’s incredible the room back there. Amazing what one can live with.”

Glokta glanced up at Severard’s eyes, and Vitari’s, glittering hard and pitiless. “But even supposing you were right, can you seriously pretend that my Practicals would have any such compunction? Well, Severard?”

“Any such a what?”

Glokta gave a sad smile. “You see. He doesn’t even know what one is.” He sagged back in his chair. Tired. Terribly tired. He seemed to lack even the energy to lift his hands. “I have already made all manner of allowances for you. Treason is not normally so gently dealt with. You should have seen the beating that Frost gave to your friend Vurms, and we all know that he was the junior partner in this. He was shitting blood throughout his last few miserable hours. No one has laid a finger on you, yet. I have allowed you to keep your clothes, your dignity, your humanity. You have one chance to sign your confession, and to answer my questions. One chance to comply utterly and completely. That is the full measure of my conscience.” Glokta leaned forwards and stabbed at the table with his finger. “One chance. Then we strip you and start cutting.”

Magister Eider seemed to cave in, all at once. Her shoulders slumped, her head fell, her lip quivered. “Ask your questions,” she croaked. A broken woman. Many congratulations, Superior Glokta. But questions must have answers.

“Vurms told us who was to be paid, and how much. Certain guards. Certain officials of his father’s administration. Himself, of course, a tidy sum. One name was strangely absent from the list. Your own. You, and you alone, asked for nothing. The very Queen of merchants, passing on a certain sale? My mind boggles. What did they offer you? Why did you betray your King and country?”

“Why?” echoed Severard.

“Fucking answer him!” screamed Vitari.

Eider cringed away. “The Union should never have been here in the first place!” she blurted. “Greed is all it was! Greed, plain and simple! The Spicers were here before the war, when Dagoska was free. They made fortunes, all of them, but they had to pay taxes to the natives, and how they chafed at that! How much better, they thought, if we owned the city ourselves, if we could make our own rules. How much richer we could be. When the chance came they leaped on it, and my husband was at the front of the queue.”

“And so the Spicers came to rule Dagoska. I am waiting for your reasons, Magister Eider.”

“It was a shambles! The merchants had no interest in running a city, and no skill at doing it. The Union administrators, Vurms and his like, were the scrapings from the barrel, men who were only interested in lining their own pockets. We could have worked with the natives, but we chose to exploit them, and when they spoke out against us we called for the Inquisition, and you beat them and tortured them and hung their leaders in the squares of the Upper City, and soon they despised us as much as they had the Gurkish. Seven years, we have been here, and we have done nothing but evil! It has been an orgy of corruption, and brutality, and waste!” That much is true. I have seen it for myself.

“And the irony is, we did not even turn a profit! Even at the start, we made less than before the war! The cost of maintaining the walls, of paying for the mercenaries, without the help of the natives it was crippling!” Eider began to laugh, a desperate, sobbing laughter. “The Guild is nearly bankrupt, and they brought it on themselves, the idiots! Greed, plain and simple!”

“And then the Gurkish approached you.”

Eider nodded, her lank hair swaying. “I have many contacts in Gurkhul. Merchants with whom I have dealt over the years. They told me that Uthman’s first word as Emperor was a solemn oath to take Dagoska, to erase the stain his father had brought upon his nation, that he would never rest until his oath was fulfilled. They told me there were already Gurkish spies within the city, that they knew our weakness. They told me there might be a way to prevent the carnage, if Dagoska could be delivered to them without a fight.”

“Then why did you delay? You had control of Cosca and his mercenaries, before Kahdia’s people were armed, before the defences were strengthened, before I even arrived. You could have seized the city, if you had wanted. Why did you need that dolt Vurms?”

Carlot dan Eider’s eyes were fixed on the floor. “As long as Union soldiers held the Citadel, and the city gates, taking them would have meant bloodshed. Vurms could give me the city without a fight. My entire purpose, believe it or not, the purpose you have so ably frustrated, was to avoid killing.”

I do believe it. But that means nothing now. “Go on.”

“I knew that Vurms could be bought. His father has not long to live, and the post is not hereditary. The son might only have this last chance to profit from his father’s position. We fixed a price. We set about the preparations. Then Davoust found out.”

“He meant to inform the Arch Lector.”

Eider gave a sharp laugh. “He had not your commitment to the cause. He wanted what everyone else wanted. Money, and more than I could raise. I told the Gurkish that the plan was finished. I told them why. The next day Davoust was… gone.” She took a deep breath. “And so there was no going back. We were ready to move, shortly after you arrived. All was arranged. And then…” she paused.

“Then?”

“Then you began to strengthen the defences, and Vurms got greedy. He felt that our position was suddenly improved. He demanded more. He threatened to tell you of my plans. I had to go back to the Gurkish to get more. It all took time. Finally we were ready to move again, but by then, it was too late. The chance had passed.” She looked up. “All greed. But for my husband’s greed, we would never have come to Dagoska. But for the Spicers’ greed, we might have succeeded here. But for Vurms’ greed, we might have given it away, and not a drop of blood spilled over this worthless rock.” She sniffed, and looked back at the floor, her voice growing faint. “But greed is everywhere.”

“So you agreed to surrender the city. You agreed to betray us.”

“Betray who? There would have been no losers! The merchants could have stepped away quietly! The natives would have been no worse off under Gurkish tyranny than they had been under ours! The Union would have lost nothing but a fraction of its pride, and what is that worth besides the lives of thousands?” Eider stretched forward across the table, her voice growing rough, her eyes wide and shining wet with tears. “Now what will happen? Tell me that. It will be a massacre! A slaughter! Even if you can hold the city, what will be the price? And you cannot hold it. The Emperor has sworn, and will not be denied. The lives of every man, woman and child in Dagoska are forfeit! For what? So that Arch Lector Sult and his like can point at a map, and say this dot or that is ours? How much death will satisfy him? What were my reasons? What are yours? Why do you do this? Why?”

Glokta’s left eye was twitching, and he pressed his hand against it. He stared at the woman opposite through the other. A tear ran down her pale cheek and dripped onto the table. Why do I do this?

He shrugged. “What else is there?”

Severard reached down and slid the paper of confession across the table. “Sign!” he barked.

“Sign,” hissed Vitari, “sign, bitch!”

Carlot dan Eider’s hand was trembling as she reached for the pen. It rattled against the inside of the inkwell, dripped black spots on the table top, scratched against the paper. There was no flush of triumph. There never is, but we have one more matter to discuss.

“Where will I find the Gurkish agent?” Glokta’s voice was sharp as a cleaver.

“I don’t know. I never knew. Whoever it is will come for you now, as they did for Davoust. Perhaps tonight…”

“Why have they waited so long?”

“I told them you were no threat. I told them that Sult would only send someone else… I told them I could handle you.” And so you would have, I do not doubt, were it not for the unexpected generosity of Masters Valint and Balk.

Glokta leaned forward. “Who is the Gurkish agent?”

Eider’s bottom lip was quivering so badly that her teeth were nearly rattling in her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered.

Vitari smashed her hand down on the table. “Who? Who? Who is it, bitch? Who?”

“I don’t know!”

“Liar!” The Practical’s chain rattled over Eider’s head and snapped taut around her throat. The one-time Queen of merchants was hauled over the back of her chair, legs kicking at the air, hands fumbling at the chain round her neck, and flung face down onto the floor.

“Liar!” The bridge of Vitari’s nose was screwed up with rage, red brows drawn in with effort, eyes narrowed to furious slits. Her boot ground into the back of Eider’s head, her back arched, the chain cut white into her clenched fists. Severard looked down on this brutal scene with a slight smile around his eyes, tuneless whistling vaguely audible over the choking, hissing, gurgling of Eider’s last breaths.

Glokta licked at his empty gums as he watched her thrashing on the cell floor. She has to die. There are no options. His Eminence demands harsh punishment. His Eminence demands examples made. His Eminence demands scant mercy. Glokta’s eyelid flickered, his face twitched. The room was airless, hot as a forge. He was damp with sweat, thirsty as hell. He could scarcely draw a breath. He felt almost as if he was the one being strangled.

And the irony is that she is right. My victory is a loss for everyone in Dagoska, one way or another. Already the first fruits of my labours are groaning their last in the waste ground before the city gates. There will be no end to the carnage now. Gurkish, Dagoskan, Union, the bodies will pile up until we’re all buried under them, and all my doing. It would be better by far if her scheme had succeeded. It would be better by far if I had died in the Emperor’s prisons. Better for the Guild of Spicers, better for the people of Dagoska, better for the Gurkish, for Korsten dan Vurms, for Carlot dan Eider. Better even for me.

Eider’s kicking had almost stopped. One more thing to scrape into the dark corners. One more thing to nag at me when I’m alone. She has to die, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. She has to die. Her next breath was a muffled rattle. The next was a gentle wheeze. Almost done now. Almost done.

“Stop!” barked Glokta. What?

Severard looked up sharply. “What?”

Vitari seemed not to have noticed, the chain was as tight as ever.

“Stop, I said!”

“Why?” she hissed.

Why indeed? “I give you orders,” he barked, “not fucking reasons!”

Vitari let go the chain, sneering her disgust, and took her boot off the back of Eider’s head. She did not move. Her breathing was shallow, a rustling scarcely audible. But she is breathing. The Arch Lector will expect an explanation, and a good one. What will my explanation be, I wonder? “Take her back to the cells,” he said, leaning on his cane and getting wearily out of his chair. “We might still find a use for her.”


Glokta stood by the window, frowned out into the night, and watched the wrath of God rain down upon Dagoska. The three huge catapults, ranged far out of bowshot beyond the city walls, had been in action now since the afternoon. It took perhaps an hour for each one to be loaded and made ready. He had watched the procedure through his eye-glass.

First the machine would be aligned, the range would be judged. A group of white robed, bearded engineers would argue with one another, peering through eye-glasses of their own, holding up swinging plumb-lines, fiddling with compasses, and papers, and abacuses, making minute adjustments to the huge bolts that held the catapult in place.

Once they were satisfied, the great arm was bent back into position. A team of twenty horses, well-whipped and well-lathered, was required to lift the enormous counterweight, a block of black iron carved in the shape of a frowning Gurkish face.

Next the huge shot, a barrel not much less than a stride across, was painstakingly manoeuvred into the waiting scoop by a system of pulleys and a team of frowning, bellowing, arm-waving labourers. Then men stepped away, hurried back fearfully. A lone slave was sent slowly forward with a long pole, a burning wad at its end. He placed it to the barrel. Flames leaped up, and somewhere a lever was hauled down, the mighty weight fell, the great arm, long as a pine trunk, cut through the air, and the burning ammunition was flung up towards the clouds. They had been flying up, and roaring down, for hours now, while the sun slowly sank in the west, the sky darkened around them, the hills of the mainland became a black outline in the distance.

Glokta watched as one of the barrels soared, searing bright against the black heavens, the path of it a fizzing line burned into his eye. It seemed to hang over the city for an age, as high almost as the Citadel itself, and then tumbled, crackling from the sky like a meteor, a trail of orange fire blazing behind. It fell to earth in the midst of the Lower City. Liquid flames shot upwards, spurted outwards, pounced hungrily upon the tiny silhouettes of the slum-huts. A few moments later, the thunder-clap of the detonation reached Glokta at his window and made him wince. Explosive powder. Who could have supposed, when I saw it fizzing on the bench of the Adeptus Chemical, that it might make such an awesome weapon?

He half-saw, half-imagined, tiny figures rushing here or there, trying to pull the injured from the burning wreckage, trying to save what they could from their ruined dwellings, chains of ash-blackened natives grimly passing buckets from hand to hand, struggling vainly to contain the spreading inferno. Those with the least always lose the most in war. There were fires all across the Lower City now. Glowing, shimmering, flickering in the wind off the sea, reflecting orange, yellow, angry red in the black water. Even up here, the air smelled heavy, oily and choking from the smoke. Down there it must be hell itself. My congratulations once more, Superior Glokta.

He turned, aware of someone in the doorway. Shickel, her slight shape black in the lamplight.

“I’m alright,” he murmured, looking back to the majestic, the lurid, the awful spectacle outside the window. After all, you don’t get to see a city burn every day. But his servant did not leave. She took a step forward into the room.

“You should go, Shickel. I’m expecting a visitor, of a sort, and it could be trouble.”

“A visitor, eh?”

Glokta looked up. Her voice sounded different. Deeper, harder. Her face looked different too, one side in shadow, one side lit in flickering orange from the fires outside the window. A strange expression, teeth half-bared, eyes fixed on Glokta and glittering with a hungry intensity as she padded slowly forward. A fearsome expression, almost. If I was prone to fear… And the wheels clicked into place.

“You?” he breathed.

“Me.”

You? Glokta could not help himself. He let out a burst of involuntary chuckling. “Harker had you! That idiot stumbled on you by mistake, and I let you go! And I thought I was the hero!” He could not stop laughing. “There’s a lesson for you, eh? Never do a good turn!”

“I don’t need lessons from you, cripple.” She took one more step. Not three strides away from him now.

“Wait!” He held up his hand. “Just tell me one thing!” She paused, one brow raised, questioning. Just stay there. “What happened to Davoust?”

Shickel smiled. Sharp, clean teeth. “He never left the room.” She stroked her stomach gently. “He is here.” Glokta forced himself not to look up as the loop of chain descended slowly from the ceiling. “And now you can join him.” She got half a step forward before the chain hooked her under the chin and jerked up, dragging her off her feet into the air, hissing and spitting, kicking and thrashing.

Severard sprang up from his hiding-place beneath a table, tried to grab hold of Shickel’s flailing legs. He yelped as her bare foot cracked into his face, sent him sprawling across the carpet.

“Shit,” gasped Vitari as Shickel wedged her hand under the chain and began to drag her down from the rafters. “Shit!” They crashed onto the floor together, struggled for a moment, then Vitari flew through the air, a flailing black shadow in the darkness. She wailed as she crashed into a table in the far corner of the room, flopped senseless on the floor. Severard was still groaning, rolling slowly onto his back in a daze, hands clasped to his mask. Glokta and Shickel were left staring at one another. Me and my Eater. This is unfortunate.

He backed against the wall as the girl sprang at him, but she only got a step before Frost barrelled into her at full tilt, crashed on top of her onto the carpet. They lay there for a moment, then she slowly rolled on to her knees, slowly fought her way up to standing, all of the hulking Practical’s great weight bearing down on her, slowly took a shuffling step towards Glokta.

The albino’s arms were wrapped tight round her, straining with every sinew to drag her away, but she kept moving slowly forward, teeth gritted, one thin arm pinned to her thin body while her free hand clawed out furiously towards Glokta’s neck.

“Thhhhh!” hissed Frost, the muscles in his heavy forearms bulging, his white face screwed up with effort, his pink eyes starting from his head. Still it was not enough. Glokta was pressed back against the wall, watching fascinated as the hand came closer, and closer still, just inches from his throat. This is very unfortunate.

“Fuck you!” screamed Severard. His stick whistled down and cracked into the grasping arm, breaking it clean in half. Glokta could see the bones poking through the ripped and bloody skin, and yet the fingers still twitched, reaching for him. The stick cracked into her face and her head snapped back. Blood sprayed out of her nose, her cheek was cut right open. Still she came on. Frost was gasping with the effort of keeping her other arm pinned as she strained forwards, mouth snarling, teeth bared, ready to bite Glokta’s throat out.

Severard threw down his stick and grabbed her round the neck, dragging her head backwards, grunting with the effort, veins pulsing on his forehead. It was a bizarre sight, two men, one of them big and strong as a bull, trying desperately to wrestle a slip of a girl to the ground. Slowly, the two Practicals began to drag her back. Severard had one of her feet off the floor. Frost gave a great bellow, lifted her and with one last effort flung her against the wall.

She scrabbled at the floor, clawing her way up, broken arm flopping. Vitari growled from the shadows, one of Superior Davoust’s heavy chairs raised high in the air. It burst apart over Shickel’s head with an almighty crash, and then the three Practicals were on her like hounds on a fox, kicking, punching, grunting with rage.

“Enough!” snapped Glokta. “We still have questions!” He shuffled up beside the panting Practicals and looked down. Shickel was a broken mess, motionless. A pile of rags, and not even a big one. Much as when I first found her. How could this girl almost have overcome these three? Her broken arm was stretched out across the carpet, fingers limp and bloody. Safe to say no threat to anyone, now.

Then the arm began to move. The bone slid back into the flesh, made a sickening crunching sound as it straightened out. The fingers twitched, jerked, scratched at the floor, began to slide toward Glokta, reaching for his ankle.

“What is she?” gasped Severard, staring down.

“Get the chains,” said Glokta, cautiously stepping back out of the way. “Quickly!”

Frost dragged two pairs of great irons clanking from a sack, grunting with the effort of lifting them. They were made for the most powerful and dangerous of prisoners, bands of black iron, thick as a sapling trunk, heavy as anvils. He squeezed one pair tight shut around her ankles, the other round her wrists, ratchets scraping into place with a reassuring finality.

Meanwhile Vitari had hauled a great length of rattling chain from the sack and was winding it round and round Shickel’s limp body while Severard held her up, dragging it tight, winding it round and round again. Two great padlocks completed the job.

They were snapped shut just in time. Shickel suddenly came alive, began thrashing on the floor. She snarled up at Glokta, straining at the chains. Her nose had already snapped back into place, the cut across her face had already closed. As though she was never hurt at all. So Yulwei spoke the truth. The chains rattled as she lunged forward with her teeth, and Glokta had to stumble back out of the way.

“It’s persistent,” muttered Vitari, shoving her back against the wall with her boot. “You’d have to give it that.”

“Fools!” hissed Shickel. “You cannot resist what comes! God’s right hand is falling upon this city, and nothing can save it! All your deaths are already written!” A particularly bright detonation flared across the sky, casting orange light onto the Practicals’ masked faces. A moment later the thunder of it echoed around the room. Shickel began to laugh, a crazy, grating cackle. “The Hundred Words are coming! No chains can bind them, no gates can keep them out! They are coming!”

“Perhaps.” Glokta shrugged. “But they will come too late for you.”

“I am dead already! My body is nothing but dust! It belongs to the Prophet! Try as you might, you will learn nothing from me!”

Glokta smiled. He could almost feel the warmth of the flames, far below, on his face.

“That sounds like a challenge.”

<p>One of Them</p>

Ardee smiled at him, and Jezal smiled back. He grinned like an idiot. He could not help it. He was so happy to be back where things made sense. Now they need never be parted. He wanted only to tell her how much he loved her. How much he missed her. He opened his mouth but she pressed her finger to his lips. Firmly.

“Shhh.”

She kissed him. Gently at first, then harder.

“Uh,” he said.

Her teeth nipped at his lip. Playful, to begin with.

“Ah,” he said.

They bit harder, and harder still.

“Ow!” he said.

She sucked at his face, her teeth ripping at his skin, scraping on his bones. He tried to scream, but nothing came out. It was dark, his head swam. There was a hideous tugging, an unbearable pulling on his mouth.

“Got it,” said a voice. The agonising pressure released.

“How bad is it?”

“Not as bad as it looks.”

“It looks very bad.”

“Shut up and hold that torch higher.”

“What’s that?”

“What?”

“That there, sticking out?”

“His jaw, fool, what do you think it is?”

“I think I’m going to be sick. Healing is not among my remarkable—”

“Shut your fucking hole and hold the torch up! We’ll have to push it back in!” Jezal felt something pressing on his face, hard. There was a cracking sound and an unbearable lance of pain stabbed through his jaw and into his neck, like nothing he had ever felt before. He sagged back.


“I’ll hold it, you move that.”

“What, this?”

“Don’t pull his teeth out!”

“It fell out by itself!”

“Damn fool pink!”

“What’s happening?” said Jezal. But all that came out was a kind of gurgle. His head was throbbing, pulsing, splitting with pain.

“He’s waking up now!”

“You stitch then, I’ll hold him.” There was a pressure round his shoulders, across his chest, folding him tight. His arm hurt. Hurt terribly. He tried to kick but his leg was agony, he couldn’t move it.

“You got him?”

“Yes I’ve got him! Get stitching!”

Something stabbed into his face. He had not thought the pain could grow any worse. How wrong he had been.

“Get off me!” he bellowed, but all he heard was, “thugh.”

He struggled, tried to wriggle free, but he was folded tight, and it only made his arm hurt more. The pain in his face got worse. His upper lip, his lower lip, his chin, his cheek. He screamed and screamed and screamed, but heard nothing. Only a quiet wheezing. When he thought his head would surely explode, the pain grew suddenly less.

“Done.”

The grip was released and he lay back, floppy as a rag, helpless. Something turned his head. “That’s good stitching. That’s real good. Wish you’d been around when I got these. Might still have my looks.”

“What looks, pink?”

“Huh. Best get started on his arm. Then there’s the leg to set an’ all.”

“Where did you put that shield?”

“No,” groaned Jezal, “please…” Nothing but a click in his throat.

He could see something now, blurry shapes in the half-light. A face loomed towards him, an ugly face. Bent and broken nose, skin torn and crossed with scars. There was a dark face, just behind it, a face with a long, livid line from eyebrow to chin. He closed his eyes. Even the light seemed painful.

“Good stitching.” A hand patted the side of his face. “You’re one of us, now, boy.”

Jezal lay there, his face a mass of agony, and the horror crept slowly through every limb.

“One of us.”


The Great Leveller

<p>The Great Leveller</p>

Damn mist. It gets in your eyes, so you can’t see no more than a few strides ahead. It gets in your ears, so you can’t hear nothing, and when you do you can’t tell where it’s coming from. It gets up your nose, so you can’t smell naught but wet and damp. Damn mist. It’s a curse on a scout.

They’d crossed the Whiteflow a few days before, out of the North and into Angland, and the Dogman had been nervy all the way. Scouting out strange land, in the midst of a war that weren’t really their business. All the lads were jumpy. Aside from Threetrees, none of ’em had ever been out of the North. Except for Grim maybe. He weren’t saying where he’d been.

They’d passed a few farms burned out, a village all empty of people. Union buildings, big and square. They’d seen the tracks of horses and men. Lots of tracks, but never the men themselves. Dogman knew Bethod weren’t far away, though, his army spread out across the land, looking for towns to burn, food to steal, people to kill. All manner o’ mischief. He’d have scouts everywhere. If he caught Dogman or any of the rest, they’d be back to the mud, and not quickly. Bloody cross and heads on spikes and all the rest of it, Dogman didn’t wonder.

If the Union caught ’em they’d be dead too, most likely. It was a war, after all, and folk don’t think too clearly in a war. Dogman could hardly expect ’em to waste time telling a friendly Northman from an unfriendly one. Life was fraught with dangers, alright. It was enough to make anyone nervy, and he was a nervy sort at the best of times.

So it was easy to see how the mist might have been salt in the cut, so to speak.

All this creeping around in the murk had got him thirsty, so he picked his way through the greasy brush, over to where he could hear the river chattering. He knelt down at the water’s edge. Slimy down there, with rot and dead leaves, but Dogman didn’t reckon a little slime would make the difference, he was about as dirty as a man could be already. He scooped up water in his hands and drank. There was a breath of wind down there, out beyond the trees, pushing the mist in close one minute, dragging it out the next. That’s when the Dogman saw him.

He was lying on his front, legs in the river, top half up on the bank. They stared at each other a while, both fully shocked and amazed. He’d got a long stick coming out of his back. A broken spear. That’s when the Dogman realised he was dead.

He spat the water out and crept over, checking careful all around to make sure no one was waiting to give him a blade in the back. The corpse was a man of about two dozen years. Yellow hair, brown blood on his grey lips. He’d got a padded jacket on, bloated up with wet, the kind a man might wear under a coat of mail. A fighting man, then. A straggler maybe, lost his crew and been picked off. A Union man, no doubt, but he didn’t look so different to Dogman or to anyone else, now he was dead. One corpse looks much like another.

“The Great Leveller,” Dogman whispered to himself, since he was in a thoughtful frame of mind. That’s what the hillmen call him. Death, that is. He levels all differences. Named Men and nobodies, south or north. He catches everyone in the end, and he treats each man the same.

Seemed like this one had been dead no more ’n a couple of days. That meant whoever killed him might still be close, and that got the Dogman worried. The mist seemed full of sounds now. Might’ve been a hundred Carls, waiting just out of sight. Might’ve been no more than the river slapping at its banks. Dogman left the corpse lying and slunk off into the trees, ducking from one trunk to another as they loomed up out of the grey.

He nearly stumbled on another body, half buried in a heap of leaves, lying on his back with his arms spread out. He passed one on his knees, a couple of arrows in his side, face in the dirt, arse in the air. There’s no dignity in death, and that’s a fact. The Dogman was starting to hurry along, too keen to get back to the others, tell them what he’d seen. Too keen to get away from them corpses.

He’d seen plenty, of course, more than his share, but he’d never quite got comfortable around ’em. It’s an easy thing to make a man a carcass. He knew a thousand ways to do it. But once you’ve done it, there’s no going back. One minute he’s a man, all full up with hopes, and thoughts, and dreams. A man with friends, and family, and a place where he’s from. Next minute he’s mud. Made the Dogman think on all the scrapes he’d been in, all the battles and the fights he’d been a part of. Made him think he was lucky still to be breathing. Stupid lucky. Made him think his luck might not last.

He was halfway running now. Careless. Blundering about in the mist like an untried boy. Not taking his time, not sniffing the air, not listening out. A Named Man like him, a scout who’d been all over the North, should’ve known better, but you can’t stay sharp all the time. He never saw it coming.

Something knocked him in the side, hard, ditched him right on his face. He scrambled up but someone kicked him down. Dogman fought, but whoever this bastard was he was fearsome strong. Before he knew it he was down on his back in the dirt, and he’d only himself to blame. Himself, and the corpses, and the mist. A hand grabbed him round his neck, started squeezing his windpipe shut.

“Gurgh,” he croaked, fiddling at the hand, thinking his last moment was on him. Thinking all his hopes were turned to mud. The Great Leveller, come for him at last…

Then the fingers stopped squeezing.

“Dogman?” said someone in his ear, “that you?”

“Gurgh.”

The hand let go his throat and he sucked in a breath. Felt himself pulled up by his coat. “Shit on it, Dogman! I could ha’ killed you!” He knew the voice now, well enough. Black Dow, the bastard. Dogman was half annoyed at being throttled near to dying, half stupid-happy at still being alive. He could hear Dow laughing at him. Hard laughter, like a crow calling. “You alright?”

“I’ve had warmer greetings,” croaked Dogman, still doing his best to get the air in.

“Count yourself lucky, I could’ve given you a colder one. Much colder. I took you for one of Bethod’s scouts. Thought you was out over yonder, up the valley.”

“As you can see,” he whispered, “no. Where’s the others at?”

“Up on a hill, above this fucking mist. Taking a look around.”

Dogman nodded back the way he’d come. “There’s corpses over there. Loads of ’em.”

“Loads of ’em is it?” asked Dow, as though he didn’t think Dogman knew what a load of corpses looked like. “Hah!”

“Aye, a good few anyway. Union dead, I reckon. Looks like there was a fight here.”

Black Dow laughed again. “A fight? You reckon?” Dogman wasn’t sure what he meant by that.


“Shit,” he said.

They were standing up on the hill, the five of them. The mist had cleared up, but the Dogman almost wished it hadn’t. He saw what Dow had been saying now, well enough. The whole valley was full of dead. They were dotted high up on the slopes, wedged between the rocks, stretched out in the gorse. They were scattered out across the grass in the valley bottom like nails spilled from a sack, twisted and broken on the brown dirt road. They were heaped up beside the river, heaped on the banks in a pile. Arms and legs and broken gear sticking up from the last shreds of mist. They were everywhere. Stuck with arrows, stabbed with swords, hacked with axes. Crows called as they hopped from one meal to the next. It was a good day for the crows. It had been a while since Dogman saw a proper battlefield, and it brought back some sour memories. Horrible sour.

“Shit,” he said again. Couldn’t think of aught else to say.

“Reckon the Union were marching up this road.” Threetrees was frowning hard. “Reckon they were hurrying. Trying to catch Bethod unawares.”

“Seems they weren’t scouting too careful,” rumbled Tul Duru. “Seems like it was Bethod caught them out.”

“Maybe it was misty,” said Dogman, “like today.”

Threetrees shrugged. “Maybe. It’s the time of year for it. Either way they were on the road, in column, tired from a long day’s tramp. Bethod came on ’em from here, and from up there, on the ridge. Arrows first, to break ’em up, then the Carls, coming down from the tall ground, screaming and ready to go. The Union broke quick, I reckon.”

“Real quick,” said Dow.

“And then it was a slaughter. Spread out on the road. Trapped against the water. Nowhere much to run to. Men trying to pull their armour off, men trying to swim the river with their armour on. Packing in and climbing one on top o’ the other, with arrows falling down all round. Some of ’em might’ve got as far as those woods down there, but knowing Bethod he’d have had a few horsemen tucked away, ready to lick the plate.”

“Shit,” said Dogman, feeling more than a bit sick. He’d been on the wrong end of a rout himself, and the memory weren’t at all a happy one.

“Neat as good stitching,” said Threetrees. “You got to give Bethod his due, the bastard. He knows his work, none better.”

“This the end of it then, chief?” asked Dogman. “Bethod won already?”

Threetrees shook his head, nice and slow. “There’s a lot of Southerners out there. An awful lot. Most of ’em live across the sea. They say there’s more of ’em down there than you can count. More men than there are trees in the North. Might take ’em a while to get here, but they’ll be coming. This is just the beginning.”

The Dogman looked out at the wet valley, at all them dead men, huddled and sprawled and twisted across the ground, no more ’n food for crows. “Not much of a beginning for them.”

Dow curled his tongue and spat, as noisy as he could. “Penned up and slaughtered like a bunch o’ sheep! You want to die like that, Threetrees? Eh? You want to side with the likes of these? Fucking Union! They don’t know anything about war!”

Threetrees nodded. “Then I reckon we’ll have to teach ’em.”


There was a great press round the gate. There were women, gaunt and hungry-looking. There were children, ragged and dirty. There were men, old and young, stooped under heavy packs or clutching gear. Some had mules, or carts they were pushing, loaded up with all kinds of useless looking stuff. Wooden chairs, tin pots, tools for farming. A lot had nothing at all, besides misery. The Dogman reckoned there was plenty of that to go round.

They were choking up the road with their bodies and their rubbish. They were choking up the air with their pleading and their threatening. Dogman could smell the fear, thick as soup in his nose. All running from Bethod.

They were shouldering each other pretty good, some pushing in, some pushed out, here and there one falling in the mud, all desperate for that gate like it was their mother’s tit. But as a crowd, they were going nowhere. Dogman could see spear tips glinting over the heads of the press, could hear hard voices shouting. There were soldiers up ahead, keeping everyone out of the city.

Dogman leaned over to Threetrees. “Looks like they don’t want their own kind,” he whispered. “You reckon they’ll want us, chief?”

“They need us, and that’s a fact. We’ll talk to ’em, and then we’ll see, or you got some better notion?”

“Going home and staying out of it?” muttered Dogman under his breath, but he followed Threetrees into the crowd anyway.

The Southerners all gawped as they stepped on through. There was a little girl among ’em, looked at Dogman as he passed with great staring eyes, clutching some old rag to her. Dogman tried a smile but it had been a long time since he’d dealt with aught but hard men and hard metal, and it can’t have come out too pleasing. The girl screamed and ran off, and she wasn’t the only one scared. The crowd split open, wary and silent when they saw Dogman and Threetrees coming, even though they’d left their weapons back with the others.

They made it through to the gate alright, only having to give the odd shove to one man or another, just to start him moving. Dogman saw the soldiers now, a dozen of ’em, stood in a line across the gate, each one just the same as the one next door. He’d rarely seen such heavy armour as they had on, great plates from head to toe, polished to a blinding shine, helmets over their faces, stock-still like metal pillars. He wondered how you’d fight one, if you had to. He couldn’t imagine an arrow doing much, or a sword even, less it got lucky and found a joint.

“You’d need a pickaxe for that, or something.”

“What?” hissed Threetrees.

“Nothing.” It was plain they had some strange ideas about fighting down in the Union. If wars were won by the shinier side, they’d have had Bethod well licked, the Dogman reckoned. Shame they weren’t.

Their chief was sat in the midst of them, behind a little table with some scraps of paper on it, and he was the strangest of the lot. He’d got some jacket on, bright red. An odd sort of cloth for a leader to wear, Dogman thought. You’d have picked him out with an arrow easy enough. He was mighty young for the job an’ all. Scarcely had a beard on him yet, though he looked proud enough of himself all the same.

There was a big man in a dirty coat arguing with him. Dogman strained to listen, trying to make sense of their Union words. “I’ve five children out here,” the farmer was saying, “and nothing to feed them with. What do you suggest I do?”

An old man got in first. “I’m a personal friend of the Lord Governor, I demand you admit me to the—”

The lad didn’t let either one finish. “I don’t give a damn who your friends are, and I don’t care if you have a hundred children! The city of Ostenhorm is full. Lord Marshal Burr has decreed that only two hundred refugees be admitted each day, and we have already reached our limit for this morning. I suggest you come back tomorrow. Early.”

The two men stood there staring. “Your limit?” growled the farmer.

“But the Lord Governor—”

“Damn you!” screamed the lad, thumping at the table in a fit. “Only push me further! I’ll let you in alright! I’ll have you dragged in, and hung as traitors!”

That was enough for those two, they backed off quick. Dogman was starting to think he should do the same, but Threetrees was already making for the table. The boy scowled up at ’em as though they stank worse than a pair of fresh turds. Dogman wouldn’t have been so bothered, except he’d washed specially for the occasion. Hadn’t been this clean in months. “What the hell do you want? We’ve no need of spies or beggars!”

“Good,” said Threetrees, clear and patient. “We’re neither. My name is Rudd Threetrees. This here is the Dogman. We’re come to speak to whoever’s in charge. We’re come to offer our services to your King.”

“Offer your services?” The lad started to smile. Not a friendly smile at all. “Dogman, you say? What an interesting name. I can’t imagine how he came by it.” He had himself a little snigger at that piece of cleverness, and Dogman could hear chuckles from the others. A right set of arseholes, he reckoned, stitched up tight in their fancy clothes and their shiny armour. A right set of arseholes, but there was nothing to be gained by telling ’em so. It was a good thing they’d left Dow behind. He’d most likely have gutted this fool already, and got them all killed.

The lad leaned forward and spoke real slow, as if to children. “No Northmen are allowed within the city, not without special permission.”

Seemed that Bethod crossing their borders, slaughtering their armies, making war across their lands weren’t special enough. Threetrees ploughed on, but the Dogman reckoned he was ploughing in stony ground, alright. “We’re not asking much. Only food and a place to sleep. There’s five of us, each one a Named Man, veterans all.”

“His Majesty is more than well supplied with soldiers. We are a little short of mules however. Perhaps you’d care to carry some supplies for us?”

Threetrees was known for his patience, but there was a limit to it, and Dogman reckoned they were awful close. This prick of a boy had no idea what he was stepping on. He weren’t a man to be toyed with, Rudd Threetrees. It was a famous name where they came from. A name to put fear in men, or courage, depending where they stood. There was a limit to his patience alright, but they weren’t quite at it yet. Luckily for all concerned.

“Mules, eh?” growled Threetrees. “Mules can kick. Best make sure one don’t kick your head off, boy.” And he turned around and stalked off, down the road the way they came, the scared folks shuffling out the way then crowding back in behind, all shouting at once, pleading with the soldiers why they should be the ones to get let in while the others were left out in the cold.

“That weren’t quite the welcome we was hoping for,” Dogman muttered. Threetrees said nothing, just marched away in front, head down. “What now, chief?”

The old boy shot a grim look over his shoulder. “You know me. You think I’m taking that fucking answer?” Somehow, the Dogman reckoned not.


Best Laid Plans

<p>Best Laid Plans</p>

It was cold in the hall of the Lord Governor of Angland. The high walls were of plain, cold render, the wide floor was of cold stone flags, the gaping fireplace held nothing but cold ashes. The only decoration was a great tapestry hanging at one end, the golden sun of the Union stitched into it, the crossed hammers of Angland in its centre.

Lord Governor Meed was slumped in a hard chair before a huge, bare table, staring at nothing, his right hand slack around the stem of a wine cup. His face was pale and hollow, his robes of state were crumpled and stained, his thin white hair was in disarray. Major West, born and raised in Angland, had often heard Meed spoken of as a strong leader, a great presence, a tireless champion of the province and its people. He looked a shell of a man now, crushed under the weight of his great chain of office, as empty and cold as his yawning fireplace.

The temperature might have been icy, but the mood was cooler still. Lord Marshal Burr stood in the middle of the floor, feet placed wide apart, big hands clasped white-knuckle tight behind his back. Major West stood at his shoulder, stiff as a log, head lowered, wishing that he had not given up his coat. It was colder in here than outside, if anything, and the weather was bitter, even for autumn.

“Will you take wine, Lord Marshal?” murmured Meed, not even looking up. His voice seemed weak and reedy thin in the great space. West fancied he could almost see the old man’s breath smoking.

“No, your Grace. I will not.” Burr was frowning. He had been frowning constantly, as far as West could tell, for the last month or two. The man seemed to have no other expressions. He had a frown for hope, a frown for satisfaction, a frown for surprise. This was a frown of the most intense anger. West shifted nervously from one numb foot to the other, trying to get the blood flowing, wishing he was anywhere but here.

“What about you, Major West?” whispered the Lord Governor. “Will you take wine?” West opened his mouth to decline, but Burr got in first.

“What happened?” he growled, the hard words grating off the cold walls, echoing in the chilly rafters.

“What happened?” The Lord Governor shook himself, turned his sunken eyes slowly towards Burr, as though seeing him for the first time. “I lost my sons.” He snatched up his cup with a trembling hand and drained it to the dregs.

West saw Marshal Burr’s hands clench tighter still behind his back. “I am sorry for your loss, your Grace, but I was referring to the broader situation. I am talking of Black Well.”

Meed seemed to flinch at the mere mention of the place. “There was a battle.”

“There was a massacre!” barked Burr. “What is your explanation? Did you not receive the King’s orders? To raise every soldier you could, to man your defences, to await reinforcements? Under no circumstances to risk battle with Bethod!”

“The King’s orders?” The Lord Governor’s lip curled. “The Closed Council’s orders, do you mean? I received them. I read them. I considered them.”

“And then?”

“I tore them up.”

West could hear the Lord Marshal breathing hard through his nose. “You tore… them up?”

“For a hundred years, I and my family have governed Angland. When we came here there was nothing.” Meed raised his chin proudly as he spoke, puffing out his chest. “We tamed the wilderness. We cleared the forests, and laid the roads, and built the farms, and the mines, and the towns that have enriched the whole Union!”

The old man’s eyes had brightened considerably. He seemed taller, bolder, stronger. “The people of this land look first to me for protection, before they look across the sea! Was I to allow these Northmen, these barbarians, these animals to raid across my lands with impunity? To undo the great work of my forefathers? To rob, and burn, and rape, and kill as they pleased? To sit behind my walls while they put Angland to the sword? No, Marshal Burr! Not I! I gathered every man, and I armed them, and I sent them to meet the savages in battle, and my three sons went at their head. What else should I have done?”

“Followed your fucking orders!” screamed Burr at the very top of his voice. West started with shock, the thunderous echoes still ringing in his ears.

Meed twitched, then gaped, then his lip began to quiver. Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes and his body sagged again. “I lost my sons,” he whispered, staring down at the cold floor. “I lost my sons.”

“I pity your sons, and all those others whose lives were wasted, but I do not pity you. You alone brought this upon yourself.” Burr winced, then swallowed and rubbed at his stomach. He walked slowly to the window and looked out over the cold, grey city. “You have wasted all your strength, and now I must dilute my own to garrison your towns, your fortresses. Such survivors as there are from Black Well, and such others as are armed and can fight you will transfer to my command. We will need every man.”

“And me?” murmured Meed, “I daresay those dogs on the Closed Council are howling for my blood?”

“Let them howl. I need you here. Refugees are coming southwards, fleeing from Bethod, or from the fear of him. Have you looked out of your window lately? Ostenhorm is full of them. They crowd around the walls in their thousands, and this is only the beginning. You will see to their well-being, and their evacuation to Midderland. For thirty years your people have looked to you for protection. They have need of you still.”

Burr turned back into the room. “You will provide Major West with a list of those units still fit for action. As for the refugees, they are in need of food, and clothing, and shelter. Preparations for their evacuation should begin at once.”

“At once,” whispered Meed. “At once, of course.”

Burr flashed West a quick glance from under his thick eyebrows, took a deep breath then strode for the door. West looked back as he left. The Lord Governor of Angland still sat hunched in his chair in his empty, freezing hall, head in his hands.


“This is Angland,” said West, gesturing at the great map. He turned to look at the assembly. Few of the officers were showing the slightest interest in what he had to say. Hardly a surprise, but it still rankled.

General Kroy was sitting on the right-hand side of the long table, stiff upright and motionless in his chair. He was tall, gaunt, hard, grey hair cropped close to his angular skull, black uniform simple and spotless. His enormous staff were similarly clipped, shaved, polished, as dour as a bevy of mourners. Opposite, on the left, lounged General Poulder, round-faced, ruddy-skinned, possessed of a tremendous set of moustaches. His great collar, stiff with gold thread, came almost to his large, pink ears. His retinue sat their chairs like saddles, crimson uniforms dripping with braid, top buttons carelessly undone, spatters of mud from the road worn like medals.

On Kroy’s side of the room, war was all about cleanliness, self-denial, and strict obedience to the rules. On Poulder’s it was a matter of flamboyance and carefully organised hair. Each group glared across the table at the other with haughty contempt, as though only they held the secrets of good soldiering, and the other crowd, try as they might, would never be more than a hindrance.

Either were hindrance enough to West’s mind, but neither one was half the obstacle that the third lot presented, clustered around the far end of the table. Their leader was none other than the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Ladisla himself. It was not so much a uniform that he was wearing, as a kind of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif. The lace on his cuffs alone could have made a good-sized tablecloth, and his staff were little less remarkable in their finery. Some of the richest, most handsome, most elegant, most useless young men in the whole Union were sprawled in their chairs around the Prince. If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed.

West turned back to the map, his throat uncomfortably dry.

He knew what he had to say, he needed only to say it, as clearly as possible, and sit down. Never mind that some of the most senior men in the army were behind him. Not to mention the heir to the throne. Men who West knew despised him. Hated him for his high position and his low birth. For the fact that he had earned his place.

“This is Angland,” said West again, in what he hoped was a voice of calm authority. “The river Cumnur,” and the end of his stick traced the twisting blue line of the river, “splits the province into two parts. The southern part is much the smaller, but contains the great majority of the population and almost all the significant towns, including the capital, Ostenhorm. The roads here are reasonably good, the country relatively open. As far as we know, the Northmen have yet to set foot across the river.”

West heard a loud yawning behind him, clearly audible even from the far end of the table. He felt a sudden pang of fury and spun round. Prince Ladisla himself appeared, at least, to be listening attentively. The culprit was one of his staff, the young Lord Smund, a man of impeccable lineage and immense fortune, a little over twenty but with all the talents of a precocious ten-year-old. He was slouched in his chair, staring into space, mouth extravagantly gaping.

It was the most West could do to stop himself leaping over and thrashing the man with his stick. “Am I boring you?” he hissed.

Smund actually seemed surprised to be picked on. He stared left and right, as though West might have been talking to one of his neighbours. “What, me? No, no, Major West, not in the least. Boring? No! The River Cumnur splits the province in two, and so forth. Thrilling stuff! Thrilling! I do apologise, really. Late night, last night, you see?”

West did not doubt it. A late night spent drinking and showing off with the rest of the Prince’s hangers-on, all so that he could waste everyone’s time this morning. Kroy’s men might be pedantic, and Poulder’s arrogant, but at least they were soldiers. The Prince’s staff had no skills whatever, as far as West could see, beyond annoying him, of course. At that, they were all expert. He was almost grinding his teeth with frustration as he turned back to the map.

“The northern part of the province is a different matter,” he growled. “An unwelcoming expanse of dense forests, trackless bogs, and broken hills, sparsely populated. There are mines, logging camps, villages, as well as several penal colonies operated by the Inquisition, but they are widely scattered. There are only two roads even faintly suitable for large bodies of men or supplies, especially given that winter will soon be upon us.” His stick traced the two dotted lines, running north to south through the woods. “The western road goes close to the mountains, linking the mining communities. The eastern one follows the coast, more or less. They meet at the fortress of Dunbrec on the Whiteflow, the northern border of Angland. That fortress, as we all know, is already in the hands of the enemy.”

West turned away from the map and sat down, trying to breathe slow and steady, squash down his anger and see off the headache which was already starting to pulse behind his eyes.

“Thank you, Major West,” said Burr as he got to his feet to address the assembly. The room rustled and stirred, only now coming awake. The Lord Marshal strode up and down before the map for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Then he tapped at it with his own stick, a spot well to the north of the Cumnur.

“The village of Black Well. An unremarkable settlement, ten miles or so from the coast road. Little more than a huddle of houses, now entirely deserted. It isn’t even marked on the map. A place unworthy of anyone’s attention. Except, of course, that it is the site of a recent massacre of our troops by the Northmen.”

“Damn fool Anglanders,” someone muttered.

“They should have waited for us,” said Poulder, with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Indeed they should have,” snapped Burr. “But they were confident, and why not? Several thousand men, well equipped, with cavalry. Many of them were professional soldiers. Not in the same class as the King’s Own perhaps, but trained and determined nonetheless. More than a match for these savages, one would have thought.”

“They put up a good fight though,” interrupted Prince Ladisla, “eh, Marshal Burr?”

Burr glared down the table. “A good fight is one you win, your Highness. They were slaughtered. Only those with good horses and very good luck escaped. In addition to the regrettable waste of manpower, there is the loss of equipment and supplies. Considerable quantities of each, with which our enemy is now enriched. Most seriously, perhaps, the defeat has caused panic among the population. The roads our army will depend on are clogged with refugees, convinced that Bethod will come upon their farms, their villages, their homes at any moment. An utter disaster, of course. Perhaps the worst suffered by the Union in recent memory. But disasters are not without their lessons.”

The Lord Marshal planted his big hands firmly on the table and leaned forwards. “This Bethod is careful, clever, and ruthless. He is well supplied with horse, foot, and archers, and has sufficient organisation to use them together. He has excellent scouts and his forces are highly mobile, probably more so than ours, especially in difficult country, such as that we will face in the northern part of the province. He set a trap for the Anglanders and they fell into it. We must not do the same.”

General Kroy gave a snort of joyless laughter. “So we should fear these barbarians, Lord Marshal? Would that be your advice?”

“What was it that Stolicus wrote, General Kroy? ‘Never fear your enemy, but always respect him.’ I suppose that would be my advice, if I gave any.” Burr frowned across the table. “But I don’t give advice. I give orders.”

Kroy twitched with displeasure at the reprimand, but at least he shut up. For the time being. West knew that he wouldn’t stay quiet for long. He never did.

“We must be cautious,” continued Burr, now addressing the room at large, “but we still have the advantage. We have twelve regiments of the King’s Own, at least as many men in levies from the noblemen, and a few Anglanders who avoided the carnage at Black Well. Judging from such reports as we have, we outnumber our enemy by five to one, or more. We have the advantage in equipment, in tactics, in organisation. The Northmen, it seems, are not ignorant of this. Despite their successes, they are remaining north of the Cumnur, content to forage and mount the odd raid. They do not seem keen to come across the river and risk an open battle with us.”

“One can hardly blame ’em, the dirty cowards,” chuckled Poulder, to mutterings of agreement from his own staff. “Probably regretting they ever crossed the border now!”

“Perhaps,” murmured Burr. “In any case, they are not coming to us, so we must cross the river and hunt them down. The main body of our army will therefore be split into two parts, the left wing under General Kroy, the right under General Poulder.” The two men eyed each other across the table with the deepest hostility. “We will push up the eastern road from our camps here at Ostenhorm, spread out beyond the river Cumnur, hoping to locate Bethod’s army and bring him to a decisive battle.”

“With the greatest respect,” interrupted General Kroy, in a tone that implied he had none, “would it not be better to send one half of the army up the western road?”

“The west has little to offer aside from iron, the one thing with which the Northmen are already well supplied. The coast road offers richer pickings, and is closer to their own lines of supply and retreat. Besides, I do not wish our forces to be too thinly spread. We are still guessing at Bethod’s strength. If we can bring him to battle, I want to be able to concentrate our forces quickly, and overwhelm him.”

“But, Lord Marshal!” Kroy had the air of a man addressing a senile parent who still, alas, retains the management of their own affairs. “Surely the western road should not be left unguarded?”

“I was coming to that,” growled Burr, turning back to the map. “A third detachment, under the command of Crown Prince Ladisla, will dig in behind the Cumnur and stand guard on the western road. It will be their job to make sure the Northmen do not slip around us and gain our rear. They will hold there, south of the river, while our main body splits in two and flushes out the enemy.”

“Of course, my Lord Marshal.” Kroy sat back in his chair with a thunderous sigh, as though he had expected no better but had to try anyway, for everyone’s sake, while the officers of his staff tutted and clucked their disapproval for the scheme.

“Well, I find it an excellent plan,” announced Poulder warmly. He smirked across the table at Kroy. “I am entirely in favour, Lord Marshal. I am at your disposal in any way you should think fit. I shall have my men ready to march within ten days.” His staff nodded and hummed their assent.

“Five would be better,” said Burr.

Poulder’s plump face twitched his annoyance, but he quickly mastered himself. “Five it is, Lord Marshal.” But now it was Kroy’s turn to look smug.

Crown Prince Ladisla, meanwhile, was squinting at the map, an expression of puzzlement slowly forming on his well-powdered face. “Lord Marshal Burr,” he began slowly, “my detachment is to proceed down the western road to the river, correct?”

“Indeed, your Highness.”

“But we are not to pass beyond the river?”

“Indeed not, your Highness.”

“Our role is to be, then,” and he squinted up at Burr with a hurt expression, “a purely defensive one?”

“Indeed. Purely defensive.”

Ladisla frowned. “That sounds a meagre task.” His absurd staff shifted in their seats, grumbled their discontent at an assignment so far beneath their talents.

“A meagre task? Pardon me, your Highness, but not so! Angland is a wide and tangled country. The Northmen may elude us, and if they do it is on you that all our hopes will hang. It will be your task to prevent the enemy from crossing the river and threatening our lines of supply, or, worse yet, marching on Ostenhorm itself.” Burr leaned forward, fixing the Prince with his eye, and shook his fist with great authority. “You will be our rock, your Highness, our pillar, our foundation! You will be the hinge on which the gate will hang, a gate which will swing shut on these invaders, and drive them out of Angland!”

West was impressed. The Prince’s assignment was indeed a meagre one, but the Lord Marshal could have made mucking out the latrines sound like noble work. “Excellent!” exclaimed Ladisla, the feather on his hat thrashing back and forth. “The hinge, of course! Capital!”

“Unless there are any further questions then, gentlemen, we have a great deal of work to do.” Burr looked round the half-circle of sulky faces. No one spoke. “Dismissed.”

Kroy’s staff and Poulder’s exchanged frosty glances as they hurried to be first out of the room. The two great generals themselves jostled each other in the doorway, which was more than wide enough for both of them, neither wanting to turn his back on the other, or to follow behind him. They turned, bristling, once they had pushed their way out into the corridor.

“General Kroy,” sneered Poulder, with a haughty toss of his head.

“General Poulder,” hissed Kroy, tugging his impeccable uniform smooth.

Then they stalked off in opposite directions.

As the last of Prince Ladisla’s staff ambled out, holding forth to each other noisily about who had the most expensive armour, West got up to leave himself. He had a hundred tasks to be getting on with, and there was nothing to be gained by waiting. Before he got to the door, though, Lord Marshal Burr began to speak.

“So there’s our army, eh, West? I swear, I sometimes feel like a father with a set of squabbling sons, and no wife to help me. Poulder, Kroy, and Ladisla.” He shook his head. “My three commanders! Every man of them seems to think the purpose of this whole business is his personal aggrandisement. There aren’t three bigger heads in the whole Union. It’s a wonder we can fit them all in one room.” He gave a sudden burp. “Damn this indigestion!”

West racked his brains for something positive. “General Poulder seems obedient, at least, sir.”

Burr snorted. “Seems, yes, but I trust him even less than Kroy, if that’s possible. Kroy, at least, is predictable. He can be depended on to frustrate and oppose me at every turn. Poulder can’t be depended on at all. He’ll smirk, and flatter, and obey to the tiniest detail, until he sees some advantage to himself, and then he’ll turn on me with double the ferocity, you’ll see. To keep ’em both happy is impossible.” He squinted and swallowed, rubbing at his gut. “But as long as we can keep them equally unhappy, we’ve a chance. The one thing to be thankful for is that they hate each other even more than they do me.”

Burr’s frown grew deeper. “They were both ahead of me in the queue for my job. General Poulder is an old friend of the Arch Lector, you know. Kroy is Chief Justice Marovia’s cousin. When the post of Lord Marshal became available, the Closed Council couldn’t decide between them. In the end they fixed on me as an unhappy compromise. An oaf from the provinces, eh, West? That’s what I am to them. An effective oaf to be sure, but an oaf still. I daresay that if Poulder or Kroy died tomorrow, I’d be replaced the next day by the other. It’s hard to imagine a more ludicrous situation for a Lord Marshal, until you add in the Crown Prince, that is.”

West almost winced. How to turn that nightmare into an advantage? “Prince Ladisla is… enthusiastic?” he ventured.

“Where would I be without your optimism?” Burr gave a mirthless chuckle. “Enthusiastic? He’s living in a dream! Pandered to, and coddled, and utterly spoiled his whole life! That boy and the real world are entire strangers to one another!”

“Must he have a separate command, sir?”

The Lord Marshal rubbed at his eyes with his thick fingers. “Unfortunately, he must. The Closed Council have been most specific on that point. They are concerned that the King is in poor health, and that his heir is seen as an utter fool and wastrel by the public. They hope we might win some great victory here, so they can heap the credit on the Prince. Then they’ll ship him back to Adua, glowing with the glamour of the battlefield, ready to become the kind of King the peasants love.”

Burr paused for a moment, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve done all I can to keep Ladisla out of trouble. I’ve put him where I think the Northmen aren’t, and with any luck won’t ever be. But war is anything but a predictable business. Ladisla might actually be called upon to fight. That’s why I need someone to look over his shoulder. Someone with experience in the field. Someone as tenacious and hard-working as his joke of a staff are soft and lazy. Someone who might stop the Prince blundering into trouble.” He looked up from under his heavy brows.

West felt a horrible sinking sensation in his guts. “Me?”

“I’m afraid so. There’s no one I’d rather keep, but the Prince has asked for you personally.”

“For me, sir? But I’m no courtier! I’m not even a nobleman!”

Burr snorted. “Aside from me, Ladisla is probably the one man in this army who doesn’t care whose son you are. He’s the heir to the throne! Nobleman or beggar, we’re all equally far below him.”

“But why me?”

“Because you’re a fighter. First through the breach at Ulrioch and all that. You’ve seen action, and plenty of it. You’ve a fighter’s reputation, West, and the Prince wants one himself. That’s why.” Burr fished a letter from his jacket and handed it across. “Maybe this will help to sweeten the medicine.”

West broke the seal, unfolded the thick paper, scanned the few lines of neat writing. When he had finished, he read it again, just to be sure. He looked up. “It’s a promotion.”

“I know what it is. I arranged it. Maybe they’ll take you a little more seriously with an extra star on your jacket, maybe they won’t. Either way, you deserve it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said West numbly.

“What, for the worst job in the army?” Burr laughed, and gave him a fatherly clap on the shoulder. “You’ll be missed, and that’s a fact. I’m riding out to inspect the first regiment. A commander should show his face, I’ve always thought. Care to join me, Colonel?”


Snow was falling by the time they rode out through the city gates. White specks blowing on the wind, melting as soon as they touched the road, the trees, the coat of West’s horse, the armour of the guards that followed them.

“Snow,” Burr grumbled over his shoulder. “Snow already. Isn’t that a little early in the year?”

“Very early, sir, but it’s cold enough.” West took one hand from his reins to pull his coat tighter round his neck. “Colder than usual, for the end of autumn.”

“It’ll be a damn sight colder up north of the Cumnur, I’ll be bound.”

“Yes, sir, and it won’t be getting any warmer now.”

“Could be a harsh winter, eh, Colonel?”

“Very likely, sir.” Colonel? Colonel West? The words still seemed strange together, even in his own mind. No one could ever have dreamed a commoner’s son would go so far. Himself least of all.

“A long, harsh winter,” Burr was musing. “We need to catch Bethod quickly. Catch him and put a quick end to him, before we all freeze.” He frowned at the trees as they slipped by, frowned up at the flecks of snow eddying around them, frowned over at West. “Bad roads, bad ground, bad weather. Not the best situation, eh, Colonel?”

“No, sir,” said West glumly, but it was his own situation that was worrying him.

“Come now, it could be worse. You’ll be dug in south of the river, nice and warm. Probably won’t see a hair of a Northman all winter. And I hear the Prince and his staff eat pretty well. A damn stretch better than blundering around in the snow with Poulder and Kroy for company.”

“Of course, sir.” But West was less than sure.

Burr glanced over his shoulder at the guards, trotting along at a respectful distance. “You know, when I was a young man, before I was given the dubious honour of commanding the King’s army, I used to love to ride. I’d ride for miles, at the gallop. Made me feel… alive. Seems like there’s no time for it these days. Briefings, and documents, and sitting at tables, that’s all I do. Sometimes, you just want to ride, eh, West?”

“Of course, sir, but now would—”

“Yah!” The Lord Marshal dug his spurs in with a will and his horse bolted down the track, mud flicking up from its hooves. West gaped after him for a moment.

“Damn it,” he whispered. The stubborn old fool would most likely get thrown and break his thick neck. Then where would they be? Prince Ladisla would have to take command. West shivered at the prospect, and kicked his own horse into a gallop. What choice did he have?

The trees flashed past on either side, the road flowed by underneath him. His ears filled with the clattering of hooves, the rattling of harness. The wind rushed in his mouth, stung his eyes. The snow flakes came at him, straight on. West snatched a look over his shoulder. The guards were tangled up with each other, horses jostling, lagging far back down the road.

It was the best he could do to keep up and stay in his saddle at the same time. The last time he’d ridden so hard had been years ago, pounding across a dry plain with a wedge of Gurkish cavalry just behind him. He’d hardly been any more scared then. His hands were gripping the reins painfully tight, his heart was hammering with fear and excitement. He realised that he was smiling. Burr had been right. It did make him feel alive.

The Lord Marshal had slowed, and West reined his own horse in as he drew level. He was laughing now, and he could hear Burr chuckling beside him. He hadn’t laughed like that in months. Years maybe, he couldn’t remember the last time. Then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.

He felt a sickening jolt, a crushing pain in his chest. His head snapped forward, the reins were ripped from his hands, everything turned upside down. His horse was gone. He was rolling on the ground, over and over.

He tried to get up and the world lurched. Trees and white sky, a horse’s kicking legs, dirt flying. He stumbled and pitched into the road, took a mouthful of mud. Someone helped him up, pulling roughly at his coat, dragging him into the woods.

“No,” he gasped, hardly able to breathe for the pain in his chest. There was no reason to go that way.

A black line between the trees. He staggered forward, bent double, tripping over the tails of his coat, crashing through the undergrowth. A rope across the road, pulled tight as they passed. Someone was half dragging him, half carrying him. His head was spinning, all sense of direction lost. A trap. West fumbled for his sword. It took him a moment to realise that his scabbard was empty.

The Northmen. West felt a stab of terror in his gut. The Northmen had him, and Burr too. Assassins, sent by Bethod to kill them. There was a rushing sound somewhere, out beyond the trees. West struggled to make sense of it. The guards, following down the road. If he could only give them a signal somehow…

“Over here…” he croaked, pitifully hoarse, before a dirty hand clamped itself over his mouth, dragged him down into the wet undergrowth. He struggled as best he could, but there was no strength in him. He could see the guards flashing by through the trees, no more than a dozen strides away, but he was powerless.

He bit the hand, as hard as he could, but it only gripped tighter, squeezing his jaw, crushing his lips. He could taste blood. His own blood maybe, or blood from the hand. The sound of the guards faded into the woods and was gone, and fear pressed in behind it. The hand let go, gave him a parting shove and he tumbled onto his back.

A face swam into view above him. A hard, gaunt, brutish face, black hair hacked short, teeth bared in an animal scowl, cold, flat eyes, brimful of fury. The face turned and spat on the ground. There was no ear on the other side of it. Just a flap of pink scar, and a hole.

Never in his life had West seen such an evil-looking man. The whole set of him was violence itself. He looked strong enough to tear West in half, and more than willing to do it. There was blood running from a wound in his hand. The wound that West’s teeth had made. It dripped from his fingertips onto the forest floor. In his other fist he held a length of smooth wood. West’s eyes followed it, horrified. There was a heavy, curved blade at the end, polished bright. An axe.

So this was a Northman. Not the kind who rolled drunk in the gutters of Adua. Not the kind who had come to his father’s farm to beg for work. The other kind. The kind his mother had scared him with stories of when he was a child. A man whose work, and whose pastime, and whose purpose, was to kill. West looked from that hard blade to those hard eyes and back, numb with horror. He was finished. He would die here in the cold forest, down in the dirt like a dog.

West dragged himself up by one hand, seized by a sudden impulse to run. He looked over his shoulder, but there was no escape that way. A man was moving through the trees towards them. A big man with a thick beard and a sword over his shoulder, carrying a child in his arms. West blinked, trying to get some sense of scale. It was the biggest man he had ever seen, and the child was Lord Marshal Burr. The giant tossed his burden down on the ground like a bundle of sticks. Burr stared up at him, and burped.

West ground his teeth. Riding off like that, the old fool, what had he been thinking? He’d killed them both with his fucking “sometimes you just want to ride”. Makes you feel alive? Neither one of them would live out the hour.

He had to fight. Now might be his last chance. Even if he had nothing to fight with. Better to die that way than on his knees in the mud. He tried to dig the anger out. There was no end to it, when he didn’t want it. Now there was nothing. Just a desperate helplessness that weighed down every limb.

Some hero. Some fighter. It was the most he could do to keep from pissing himself. He could hit a woman alright. He could throttle his sister half to death. The memory of it still made him choke with shame and revulsion, even with his own death staring him in the face. He had thought he would make it right later. Only now there was no later. This was all there was. He felt tears in his eyes.

“Sorry,” he muttered to himself. “I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and waited for the end.

“No need for sorry, friend, I reckon he’s been bitten harder.”

Another Northman had melted out of the woods, crouching down beside West on his haunches. Lank, matted brown hair hung around his lean face. Quick, dark eyes. Clever eyes. He cracked a wicked grin, anything but reassuring. Two rows of hard, yellow, pointed teeth. “Sit,” he said, accent so thick that West could scarcely understand him. “Sit and be still is best.”

A fourth man was standing over him and Burr. A great, broad-chested man, his wrists as thick as West’s ankles. There were grey hairs in his beard, in his tangled hair. The leader, it seemed, from the way the others made room for him. He looked down at West, slow and thoughtful, as a man might look at an ant, deciding whether or not to squash it under his boot.

“Which of ’em’s Burr, do you think?” he rumbled in Northern.

“I’m Burr,” said West. Had to protect the Lord Marshal. Had to. He clambered up without thinking, but he was still dizzy from the fall, and he had to grab hold of a branch to stop himself falling. “I’m Burr.”

The old warrior looked him up and down, slow and steady. “You?” He burst into a peal of laughter, deep and menacing as a storm in the distance. “I like that! That’s nice!” He turned to the evil-looking one. “See? I thought you said they got no guts, these Southerners?”

“It was brains I said they was short on.” The one-eared man glowered down at West the way a hungry cat looks at a bird. “And I’ve yet to see otherwise.”

“I think it’s this one.” The leader was looking down at Burr. “You Burr?” he asked in the common tongue.

The Lord Marshal looked at West, then up at the towering Northmen, then he got slowly to his feet. He straightened and brushed down his uniform, like a man preparing to die with dignity. “I’m Burr, and I’ll not entertain you. If you mean to kill us, you should do it now.” West stayed where he was. Dignity hardly seemed worth the effort now. He could almost feel the axe biting into his head already.

But the Northman with the grey in his beard only smiled. “I can see how you’d make that mistake, and we’re sorry if we’ve frayed your nerves at all, but we’re not here to kill you. We’re here to help you.” West struggled to make sense of what he was hearing.

Burr was doing the same. “To help us?”

“There’s plenty in the North who hate Bethod. There’s plenty who don’t kneel willing, and some who don’t kneel at all. That’s us. We’ve a feud with that bastard has been a long time brewing, and we mean to settle it, or die in the trying. We can’t fight him alone, but we hear you’re fighting him, so we reckoned we’d join you.”

“Join us?”

“We came a long way to do it, and from what we seen on the way you could use the help. But when we got here, your people weren’t keen to take us.”

“They was somewhat rude,” said the lean one, squatting next to West.

“They was indeed, Dogman, they was indeed. But we ain’t men to back off at a little rudeness. That’s when I hit on the notion of talking to you, chief to chief, you might say.”

Burr stared over at West. “They want to fight with us,” he said. West blinked back, still trying to come to terms with the notion that he might live out the day. The one called Dogman was holding out a sword towards him, hilt first, and grinning. It took West a moment to realise it was his own.

“Thanks,” muttered West as he fumbled with the grip.

“No bother.”

“There’s five of us,” the leader was saying, “all Named Men and veterans. We’ve fought against Bethod, and we’ve fought with him, all across the North. We know his style, few better. We can scout, we can fight, we can lay surprises, as you see. We’ll not shirk any task worth the doing, and any task that hurts Bethod is worth it to us. What do you say?”

“Well… er,” murmured Burr, rubbing his chin with his thumb. “You plainly are a most…” and he looked from one hard, dirty, scarred face to the next “…useful set of men. How could I resist an offer so graciously made?”

“Then I better make the introductions. This here is the Dogman.”

“That’s me,” growled the lean one with the pointy teeth, flashing his worrying grin again. “Good to meet.” He grabbed hold of West’s hand and squeezed it until his knuckles clicked.

Threetrees jerked his thumb sideways at the evil one with the axe and the missing ear. “This friendly fellow’s Black Dow. I’d say he gets better with time, but he don’t.” Dow turned and spat on the ground again. “The big lad is Tul Duru. They call him the Thunderhead. Then there’s Harding Grim. He’s off out there in the trees, keeping your horses off the road. Not to worry though, he’d have nothing to say.”

“And you?”

“Rudd Threetrees. Leader of this little crew, on account of our previous leader having gone back to the mud.”

“Back to the mud, I see.” Burr took a deep breath. “Well then. You can report to Colonel West. I’m sure that he can find food and quarters for you, not to mention work.”

“Me?” asked West, sword still dangling from his hand.

“Absolutely.” The Lord Marshal had the tiniest smile at the corner of his mouth. “Our new allies should fit right in with Prince Ladisla’s retinue.” West couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Just when he had thought his situation could not be any more difficult, he had five primitives to handle.

Threetrees seemed happy enough with the outcome. “Good,” he said, slowly nodding his approval. “That’s settled then.”

“Settled,” said the Dogman, his evil smile growing wider still. The one called Black Dow gave West a long, cold stare. “Fucking Union,” he growled.


Questions

<p>Questions</p>

To Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.

You will take ship immediately, and assume command of the Inquisition in the city of Dagoska. You will establish what became of your predecessor, Superior Davoust. You will investigate his suspicion that a conspiracy is afoot, perhaps in the city’s ruling council itself. You will examine the members of that council, and uproot any and all disloyalty. Punish treason with scant mercy, but ensure that your evidence is sound. We can afford no further blunders.

Gurkish soldiers already crowd to the peninsula, ready to exploit any weakness. The King’s regiments are fully committed in Angland, so you can expect little help should the Gurkish attack. You will therefore ensure that the defences of the city are strong, and that provisions are sufficient to withstand any siege. You will keep me informed of your progress in regular letters. Above all, you will ensure that Dagoska does not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the Gurkish.

Do not fail me.

Sult

Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Glokta folded the letter carefully and slipped it back into his pocket, checking once again that the King’s writ was safe beside it. Damn thing. The big document had been weighing heavily in his coat ever since the Arch Lector passed it to him. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands, the gold leaf on the big red seal glittering in the harsh sunlight. A single sheet of paper, yet worth more than gold. Priceless. With this, I speak with the King’s own voice. I am the most powerful man in Dagoska, greater even than the Lord Governor himself. All must hear me and obey. As long as I can stay alive, that is.

The voyage had not been a pleasant one. The ship was small and the Circle Sea had been rough on the way over. Glokta’s own cabin was tiny, hot and close as an oven. An oven swaying wildly all day and all night. If he had not been trying to eat gruel with the bowl slopping crazily around, he had been vomiting back up those small amounts he had actually managed to swallow. But at least below decks there was no chance of his useless leg giving way and dumping him over the side into the sea. Yes, the voyage has hardly been pleasant.

But now the voyage was over. The ship was already slipping up to its mooring in amongst the crowded wharves. The sailors were already struggling with the anchor, throwing ropes on to the dock. Now the gangplank was sliding across from ship to dusty shore.

“Right,” said Practical Severard. “I’m going to get me a drink.”

“Make it a strong one, but see you catch up with me later. We’ll have work to do tomorrow. Lots of work.”

Severard nodded, lanky hair swaying around his thin face. “Oh, I live to serve.” I’m not sure what you live for, but I doubt it’s that. He sauntered off, whistling tunelessly, clattered across the plank, down the wharf and off between the dusty brown buildings beyond.

Glokta eyed the narrow length of wood with not a little worry, worked his hand around the handle of his cane, tongued at his empty gums, building himself up to stepping on to it. An act of selfless heroism indeed. He wondered for a moment whether he would be wiser to crawl across on his stomach. It would reduce the chance of a watery death, but it would hardly be appropriate, would it? The city’s awe-inspiring Superior of the Inquisition, slithering into his new domain on his belly?

“Need a hand?” Practical Vitari was looking at him sideways, leaning back on the ship’s handrail, red hair sticking up off her head like the spines on a thistle. She seemed to have spent the entire journey basking in the open air like a lizard, quite unmoved by the reeling of the ship, enjoying the crushing heat every bit as much as Glokta despised it. It was hard to judge her expression beneath her black Practical’s mask. But it’s a good bet she’s smiling. No doubt she’s already preparing her first report to the Arch Lector: “The cripple spent most of the voyage below decks, puking. When we arrived at Dagoska he had to be hoisted ashore with the cargo. Already he has become a laughing stock…”

“Of course not!” snapped Glokta, hobbling up onto the plank as though he took his life in his hands every morning. It wobbled alarmingly as he planted his right foot on it, and he became painfully aware of the grey-green water slapping at the slimy stones of the quay a long drop below him. Body found floating by the docks…

But in the end he was able to shuffle across without incident, dragging his withered leg behind him. He felt an absurd pang of pride when he made it to the dusty stones of the docks and finally stood on dry land again. Ridiculous. Anyone would think I’d beaten the Gurkish and saved the city already, rather than hobbled three strides. To add insult to injury, now that he had become used to the constant lurching of the ship, the stillness of land was making his head spin and his stomach roll, and the rotten salt stink of the baking docks was very far from helping. He forced himself to swallow a mouthful of bitter spit, closed his eyes and turned his face towards the cloudless sky.

Hell, but it’s hot. Glokta had forgotten how hot the South could be. Late in the year, and still the sun was blazing down, still he was running with sweat under his long black coat. The garments of the Inquisition may be excellent for instilling terror in a suspect, but I fear they are poorly suited to a hot climate.

Practical Frost was even worse off. The hulking albino had covered every exposed inch of his milky skin, even down to black gloves and a wide hat. He peered up at the brilliant sky, pink eyes narrowed with suspicion and misery, broad white face beaded with sweat around his black mask.

Vitari peered sidelong at the pair of them. “You two really should get out more,” she muttered.

A man in Inquisitor’s black was waiting at the end of the wharf, sticking close to the shade of a crumbling wall but still sweating generously. A tall, bony man with bulging eyes, his hooked nose red and peeling from sunburn. The welcoming committee? Judging by its scale, I am scarcely welcome at all.

“I am Harker, senior Inquisitor in the city.”

“Until I arrived,” snapped Glokta. “How many others have you?”

The Inquisitor frowned. “Four Inquisitors and some twenty Practicals.”

“A small complement, to keep a city of this size free of treason.”

Harker’s frown grew more surly yet. “We’ve always managed.” Oh, indeed. Apart from mislaying your Superior, of course. “This is your first visit to Dagoska?”

“I have spent some time in the South.” The best days of my life, and the worst. “I was in Gurkhul during the war. I saw Ulrioch.” In ruins after we burned the city. “And I was in Shaffa for two years.” If you count the Emperors Prisons. Two years in the boiling heat and the crushing darkness. Two years in hell. “But I have never been to Dagoska.”

“Huh,” snorted Harker, unimpressed. “Your quarters are in the Citadel.” He nodded towards the great rock that loomed up over the city. Of course they are. In the very highest part of the highest building, no doubt. “I’ll show you the way. Lord Governor Vurms and his council will be keen to meet their new Superior.” He turned with a look of some bitterness. Feel you should have got the job yourself, eh? I’m delighted to disappoint you.

Harker set off into the city at a brisk pace, Practical Frost trudging along beside him, heavy shoulders hunched around his thick neck, sticking to every trace of shade as though the sun were shooting tiny darts at him. Vitari zig-zagged across the dusty street as if it was a dance-floor, peering through windows and down narrow side-streets. Glokta shuffled along doggedly behind, his left leg already starting to burn with the effort.

“The cripple shuffled only three strides into the city before he fell on his face, and had to be carried the rest of the way by stretcher, squealing like a half-slaughtered pig and begging for water, while the very citizens he was sent to terrify watched, dumbstruck…”

He curled his lips back and dug his remaining teeth into his empty gums, forced himself to keep pace with the others, the handle of his cane cutting into his palm, his spine giving an agonising click with every step.

“This is the Lower City,” grumbled Harker over his shoulder, “where the native population are housed.”

A giant, boiling, dusty, stinking slum. The buildings were mean and badly maintained: rickety shacks of one storey, leaning piles of half-baked mud bricks. The people were all dark-skinned, poorly dressed, hungry-looking. A bony woman peered out at them from a doorway. An old man with one leg hobbled past on bent crutches. Down a narrow alley ragged children darted between piles of refuse. The air was heavy with the stink of rot and bad sewers. Or no sewers at all. Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat, angry flies. The only creatures prospering here.

“If I’d known it was such a charming place,” observed Glokta, “I’d have come sooner. Seems the Dagoskans have done well from joining the Union, eh?”

Harker did not recognise the irony. “They have indeed. During the short time the Gurkish controlled the city, they took many of the leading citizens as slaves. Now, under the Union, they are truly free to work and live as they please.”

“Truly free, eh?” So this is what freedom looks like. Glokta watched a group of sullen natives crowding round a stall poorly stocked with half-rotten fruit and flyblown offal.

“Well, mostly.” Harker frowned. “The Inquisition had to weed out a few troublemakers when we first arrived. Then, three years ago, the ungrateful swine mounted a rebellion.” After we gave them the freedom to live like animals in their own city? Shocking. “We got the better of them, of course, but they caused no end of damage. After that they were barred from keeping weapons, or entering the Upper City, where most of the whites live. Since then, things have been quiet. It only goes to show that a firm hand is most effective when it comes to dealing with these primitives.”

“They built some impressive defences, for primitives.”

A high wall cut through the city before them, casting a long shadow over the squalid buildings of the slum. There was a wide pit in front, freshly dug and lined with sharpened stakes. A narrow bridge led across to a tall gate, set between looming towers. The heavy doors were open, but a dozen men stood before them: sweating Union soldiers in steel caps and studded leather coats, harsh sun glinting on their swords and spears.

“A well-guarded gate,” mused Vitari. “Considering that it’s inside the city.”

Harker frowned. “Since the rebellion, natives have only been allowed within the Upper City if they have a permit.”

“And who holds a permit?” asked Glokta.

“Some skilled craftsmen and so forth, still employed by the Guild of Spicers, but mostly servants who work in the Upper City and the Citadel. Many of the Union citizens who live here have native servants, some have several.”

“Surely the natives are citizens of the Union also?”

Harker curled his lip. “If you say so, Superior, but they can’t be trusted, and that’s a fact. They don’t think like us.”

“Really?” If they think at all it will be an improvement on this savage.

“They’re all scum, these browns. Gurkish, Dagoskan, all the same. Killers and thieves, the lot of them. Best thing to do is to push them down and keep them down.” Harker scowled out at the baking slum. “If a thing smells like shit, and is the colour of shit, the chances are it is shit.” He turned and stalked off across the bridge.

“What a charming and enlightened man,” murmured Vitari. You read my mind.

It was a different world beyond the gates. Stately domes, elegant towers, mosaics of coloured glass and pillars of white marble shone in the blazing sun. The streets were wide and clean, the residences well maintained. There were even a few thirsty-looking palms in the neat squares. The people here were sleek, well dressed, and white-skinned. Aside from a great deal of sunburn. A few dark faces moved among them, keeping well out of the way, eyes on the ground. Those lucky enough to be allowed to serve? They must be glad that we in the Union would not tolerate such a thing as slavery.

Over everything Glokta could hear a rattling din, like a battle in the distance. It grew louder as he dragged his aching leg through the Upper City, and reached a furious pitch as they emerged into a wide square, packed from one edge to the other with a bewildering throng. There were people of Midderland, and Gurkhul, and Styria, narrow-eyed natives of Suljuk, yellow-haired citizens of the Old Empire, bearded Northmen even, far from home.

“Merchants,” grunted Harker. All the merchants in the world, it looks like. They crowded round stalls laden with produce, great scales for the weighing of materials, blackboards with chalked-in goods and prices. They bellowed, borrowed and bartered in a multitude of different languages, threw up their hands in strange gestures, shoved and tugged and pointed at one another. They sniffed at boxes of spice and sticks of incense, fingered at bolts of cloth and planks of rare wood, squeezed at fruits, bit at coins, peered through eye-glasses at flashing gemstones. Here and there a native porter stumbled through the crowds, stooped double under a massive load.

“The Spicers take a cut of everything,” muttered Harker, shoving impatiently through the chattering press.

“That must be a great deal,” said Vitari under her breath. A very great deal, I should imagine. Enough to defy the Gurkish. Enough to keep a whole city prisoner. People will kill for much, much less.

Glokta grimaced and snarled his way across the square, jolted and barged and painfully shoved at every limping step. It was only when they finally emerged from the crowds at the far side that he realised they were standing in the very shadow of a vast and graceful building, rising arch upon arch, dome upon dome, high over the crowds. Delicate spires at each corner soared into the air, slender and frail.

“Magnificent,” muttered Glokta, stretching out his aching back and squinting up, the pure white stone almost painful to look at in the afternoon glare. “Seeing this, one could almost believe in God.” If one didn’t know better.

“Huh,” sneered Harker. “The natives used to pray here in their thousands, poisoning the air with their damn chanting and superstition, until the rebellion was put down, of course.”

“And now?”

“Superior Davoust declared it off limits to them. Like everything else in the Upper City. Now the Spicers use it as an extension to the marketplace, buying and selling and so on.”

“Huh.” How very appropriate. A temple to the making of money. Our own little religion.

“I believe some bank uses part of it for their offices, as well.”

“A bank? Which one?”

“The Spicers run that side of things,” snapped Harker impatiently. “Valint and something, is it?”

“Balk. Valint and Balk.” So some old acquaintances are here before me, eh? I should have known. Those bastards are everywhere. Everywhere there’s money. He peered round at the swarming marketplace. And there’s a lot of money here.

The way grew steeper as they began to climb the great rock, the streets built onto shelves cut out from the dry hillside. Glokta laboured on through the heat, stooped over his cane, biting his lip against the pain in his leg, thirsty as a dog and with sweat leaking out through every pore. Harker made no effort to slow as Glokta toiled along behind him. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask him to.

“Above us is the Citadel.” The Inquisitor waved his hand at the mass of sheer-walled buildings, domes and towers clinging to the very top of the brown rock, high above the city. “It was once the seat of the native King, but now it serves as Dagoska’s administrative centre, and accommodates some of the most important citizens. The Spicers’ guildhall is inside, and the city’s House of Questions.”

“Quite a view,” murmured Vitari.

Glokta turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. Dagoska was spread out before them, almost an island. The Upper City sloped away, neat grids of neat houses with long, straight roads in between, speckled with yellow palms and wide squares. On the far side of its long, curving wall lay the dusty brown jumble of the slums. Looming over them in the distance, shimmering in the haze, Glokta could see the mighty land walls, blocking the one narrow neck of rock that joined the city to the mainland, the blue sea on one side and the blue harbour on the other. The strongest defences in the world, so they say. I wonder if we shall be putting that proud boast to the test before too long?

“Superior Glokta?” Harker cleared his throat. “The Lord Governor and his council will be waiting.”

“They can wait a little longer, then. I am curious to know what progress you have made in investigating the disappearance of Superior Davoust.” It would be most unfortunate if the new Superior were to suffer the same fate, after all.

Harker frowned. “Well… some progress. I have no doubt the natives are responsible. They never stop plotting. Despite the measures Davoust took after the rebellion, many of them still refuse to learn their place.”

“I stand amazed.”

“It is all too true, believe me. Three Dagoskan servants were present in the Superior’s chambers on the night he disappeared. I have been questioning them.”

“And what have you discovered?”

“Nothing yet, unfortunately. They have proved exceedingly stubborn.”

“Then let us question them together.”

“Together?” Harker licked his lips. “I wasn’t aware that you would want to question them yourself, Superior.”

“Now you are.”


One would have thought it would be cooler, deep within the rock. But it was every bit as hot as outside in the baking streets, without the mercy of the slightest breeze. The corridor was silent, dead, and stuffy as a tomb. Vitari’s torch cast flickering shadows into the corners, and the darkness closed in fast behind them.

Harker paused beside an iron-bound door, mopped fat beads of sweat from his face. “I must warn you, Superior, it was necessary to be quite… firm with them. A firm hand is the best thing, you know.”

“Oh, I can be quite firm myself, when the situation demands it. I am not easily shocked.”

“Good, good.” The key turned in the lock, the door swung open, and a foul smell washed out into the corridor. A blocked latrine and a rotten rubbish heap rolled into one. The cell beyond was tiny, windowless, the ceiling almost too low to stand. The heat was crushing, the stench was appalling. It reminded Glokta of another cell. Further south, in Shaffa. Deep beneath the Emperor’s palace. A cell in which I gasped away two years, squealing in the blackness, scratching at the walls, crawling in my own filth. His eye had begun to twitch, and he wiped it carefully with his finger.

One prisoner lay stretched out, his face to the wall, skin black with bruises, both legs broken. Another hung from the ceiling by his wrists, knees brushing the floor, head hanging limp, back whipped raw. Vitari stooped and prodded at one of them with her finger. “Dead,” she said simply. She crossed to the other. “And this one. Dead a good while.”

The flickering light fell across a third prisoner. This one was alive. Just. She was chained by hands and feet, face hollow with hunger, lips cracked with thirst, clutching filthy, bloodstained rags to her. Her heels scraped at the floor as she tried to push herself further back into the corner, gibbering faintly in Kantic, one hand across her face to ward off the light. I remember. The only thing worse than the darkness is when the light comes. The questions always come with it.

Glokta frowned, his twitching eyes moving from the two broken corpses to the cowering girl, his head spinning from the effort, and the heat, and the stink. “Well this is very cosy. What have they told you?”

Harker had his hand over his nose and mouth as he stepped reluctantly into the cell, Frost looming just over his shoulder. “Nothing yet, but I—”

“You’ll get nothing from these two, now, that’s sure. I hope they signed confessions.”

“Well… not exactly. Superior Davoust was never that interested in confessions from the browns, we just, you know…”

“You couldn’t even keep them alive long enough to confess?”

Harker looked sullen. Like a child unfairly punished by his schoolmaster. “There’s still the girl,” he snapped.

Glokta looked down at her, licking at the space where his front teeth used to be. There is no method here. No purpose. Brutality, for it’s own sake. I might almost be sickened, had I eaten anything today. “How old is she?”

“Fourteen, perhaps, Superior, but I fail to see the relevance.”

“The relevance, Inquisitor Harker, is that conspiracies are rarely led by fourteen-year-old girls.”

“I thought it best to be thorough.”

“Thorough? Did you even ask them any questions?”

“Well, I—”

Glokta’s cane cracked Harker cleanly across the face. The sudden movement caused a stab of agony in Glokta’s side, and he stumbled on his weak leg and had to grab at Frost’s arm for support. The Inquisitor gave a squeal of pain and shock, tumbled against the wall and slid into the filth on the cell floor.

“You’re not an Inquisitor!” hissed Glokta, “you’re a fucking butcher! Look at the state of this place! And you’ve killed two of our witnesses! What use are they now, fool?” Glokta leaned forward. “Unless that was your intention, eh? Perhaps Davoust was killed by a jealous underling? An underling who wanted to silence the witnesses, eh, Harker? Perhaps I should start my investigations with the Inquisition itself!”

Practical Frost loomed over Harker as he struggled to get up, and he shrank back down against the wall, blood starting to dribble from his nose. “No! No, please! It was an accident! I didn’t mean to kill them! I just wanted to know what happened!”

“An accident? You’re a traitor or an utter incompetent, and I’ve no use for either one!” He leaned down even lower, ignoring the pain shooting up his back, his lips curling away to show his toothless smile. “I understand a firm hand is most effective when dealing with primitives, Inquisitor. You will find there are no firmer hands than mine. Not anywhere. Get this worm out of my sight!”

Frost seized hold of Harker by his coat and hauled him bodily through the filth towards the door. “Wait!” he wailed, clutching at the door frame, “please! You can’t do this!” His cries faded down the corridor.

Vitari had a faint smile around her eyes, as though she had rather enjoyed the scene. “What about this mess?”

“Get it cleaned up.” Glokta leaned against the wall, his side still pulsing with pain, wiped sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “Wash it down. Bury these bodies.”

Vitari nodded towards the one survivor. “What about her?”

“Give her a bath. Clothes. Food. Let her go.”

“Hardly worth giving her a bath if she’s going back to the Lower City.”

She has a point there. “Alright! She was Davoust’s servant, she can be mine. Put her back to work!” he shouted over his shoulder, already hobbling for the door. He had to get out. He could hardly breathe in there.


“I am sorry to disappoint you all, but the walls are far from impregnable, not in their present poor condition…” The speaker trailed off as Glokta shuffled through the door into the meeting chamber of Dagoska’s ruling council.

It was as unlike the cell below as it was possible for a room to be. It is, in fact, the most beautiful room I ever saw. Every inch of wall and ceiling was carved in the most minute detai geometric patterns of frightening intricacy wound round scenes from Kantic legends in life-size, all painted in glittering gold and silver, vivid red and blue. The floor was a mosaic of wondrous complexity, the long table was inlaid with swirls of dark wood and chips of bright ivory, polished to a high sheen. The tall windows offered a spectacular view over the dusty brown expanse of the city, and the sparkling bay beyond.

The woman who rose to greet Glokta as he entered did not seem out of place in the magnificent surroundings. Not in the slightest.

“I am Carlot dan Eider,” she said, smiling easily and holding her hands out to him as though to an old friend, “Magister of the Guild of Spicers.”

Glokta was impressed, he had to admit. If only by her stomach. Not even the slightest sign of horror. She greets me as though I were not a disfigured, twitching, twisted ruin. She greets me as though I looked as fine as she does. She wore a long gown in the style of the South: blue silk, trimmed with silver, it shimmered around her in the cool breeze through the high windows. Jewels of daunting value flashed on her fingers, on her wrists, round her throat. Glokta detected a strange scent as she came closer. Sweet. Like the spice that has made her so very rich, perhaps. The effect was far from wasted on him. I am still a man, after all. Just less so than I used to be.

“I must apologise for my attire, but Kantic garments are so much more comfortable in the heat. I have become quite accustomed to them during my years here.”

Her apologising for her appearance is like a genius apologising for his stupidity. “Don’t mention it.” Glokta bowed as low as he could, given the uselessness of his leg and the sharp pain in his back. “Superior Glokta, at your service.”

“We are most glad to have you with us. We have all been greatly concerned since the disappearance of your predecessor, Superior Davoust.” Some of you, I expect, have been less concerned than others.

“I hope to shed some light on the matter.”

“We all hope that you will.” She took Glokta’s elbow with an effortless confidence. “Please allow me to make the introductions.”

Glokta refused to be moved. “Thank you, Magister, but I believe I can make my own.” He shuffled across to the table under his own power, such as it was. “You must be General Vissbruck, charged with the city’s defence.” The General was in his middle forties, running slightly to baldness, sweating abundantly in an elaborate uniform, buttoned all the way to the neck in spite of the heat. I remember you. You were in Gurkhul, in the war. A Major in the King’s Own, and well known for being an ass. It seems you have done well, at least, as asses generally do.

“A pleasure,” said Vissbruck, scarcely even glancing up from his documents.

“It always is, to renew an old acquaintance.”

“We’ve met?”

“We fought together in Gurkhul.”

“We did?” A spasm of shock ran over Vissbruck’s sweaty face. “You’re… that Glokta?”

“I am indeed, as you say, that Glokta.”

The General blinked. “Er, well, er… how have you been?”

“In very great pain, thank you for asking, but I see that you have prospered, and that is a tremendous consolation.” Vissbruck blinked, but Glokta did not give him time to reply. “And this must be Lord Governor Vurms. A positive honour, your Grace.”

The old man was a caricature of decrepitude, shrunken into his great robes of state like a withered plum in its furry skin. His hands seemed to shiver even in the heat, his head was shiny bald aside from a few white wisps. He squinted up at Glokta through weak and rheumy eyes.

“What did he say?” The Lord Governor stared about him in confusion. “Who is this man?”

General Vissbruck leaned across, so close his lips almost brushed the old man’s ear. “Superior Glokta, your Grace! The replacement for Davoust!”

“Glokta? Glokta? Where the hell is Davoust anyway?” No one bothered to reply.

“I am Korsten dan Vurms.” The Lord Governor’s son spoke his own name as though it was a magic spell, offered his hand to Glokta as though it was a priceless gift. He was blond-haired and handsome, spread out carelessly in his chair, a well-tanned glow of health about him, as lithe and athletic as his father was ancient and wizened. I despise him already.

“I understand that you were once quite the swordsman.” Vurms looked Glokta up and down with a mocking smile. “I fence myself, and there’s really no one here to challenge me. Perhaps we might have a bout?” I’d love to, you little bastard. If I still had my leg I’d give you a bout of the shits before I was done.

“I did fence but, alas, I had to give it up. Ill health.” Glokta leered back a toothless smile of his own. “I daresay I could still give you a few pointers, though, if you’re keen to improve.” Vurms frowned at that, but Glokta had already moved on. “You must be Haddish Kahdia.”

The Haddish was a tall, slender man with a long neck and tired eyes. He wore a simple white robe, a plain white turban wound about his head. He looks no more prosperous than any of the other natives down in the lower City, and yet there is a certain dignity about him.

“I am Kahdia, and I have been chosen by the people of Dagoska to speak for them. But I no longer call myself Haddish. A priest without a temple is no priest at all.”

“Must we still hear about the temple?” whined Vurms.

“I am afraid you must, while I sit on this council.” He looked back at Glokta. “So there is a new Inquisitor in the city? A new devil. A new bringer of death. Your comings and goings are of no interest to me, torturer.”

Glokta smiled. Confessing his hatred for the Inquisition without even seeing my instruments. But then his people can hardly be expected to have much love for the Union, they’re little better than slaves in their own city. Could he be our traitor?

Or him? General Vissbruck seemed every inch a loyal military man, a man whose sense of duty was too strong, and whose imagination was too weak, for intrigue. But few men become Generals without looking to their own profit, without oiling the wheels, without keeping some secrets.

Or him? Korsten dan Vurms was sneering at Glokta as though at a badly-cleaned latrine he had to use. I’ve seen his like a thousand times, the arrogant whelp. The Lord Governor’s own son, perhaps, but it’s plain enough he has no loyalty to anyone beyond himself.

Or her? Magister Eider was all comely smiles and politeness, but her eyes were hard as diamonds. Judging me like a merchant judges an ignorant customer. There’s more to her than fine manners and a weakness for foreign tailoring. Far more.

Or him? Even the old Lord Governor seemed suspect now. Are his eyes and ears as bad as he claims? Or is there a hint of play-acting in his squinting, his demands to know what’s going on? Does he already know more than anyone?

Glokta turned and limped towards the window, leaned against the beautifully carved pillar beside it and peered out at the astonishing view, the evening sun still warm on his face. He could already feel the council members shifting restlessly, keen to be rid of him. I wonder how long before they order the cripple out of their beautiful room? I do not trust a one of them. Not a one. He smirked to himself. Precisely as it should be.

It was Korsten dan Vurms who lost patience first. “Superior Glokta,” he snapped. “We appreciate your thoroughness in presenting yourself here, but I am sure you have urgent business to attend to. We certainly do.”

“Of course.” Glokta hobbled back to the table with exaggerated slowness as if he were leaving the room. Then he slid out a chair and lowered himself into it, wincing at the pain in his leg. “I will try to keep my comments to a minimum, at least to begin with.”

“What?” said Vissbruck.

“Who is this fellow?” demanded the Lord Governor, craning forwards and squinting with his weak eyes. “What is going on here?”

His son was more direct. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “Are you mad?” Haddish Kahdia began to chuckle softly to himself. At Glokta, or at the rage of the others, it was impossible to say.

“Please, gentlemen, please.” Magister Eider spoke softly, patiently. “The Superior has only just arrived, and is perhaps ignorant of how we conduct business in Dagoska. You must understand that your predecessor did not attend these meetings. We have been governing this city successfully for several years, and—”

“The Closed Council disagrees.” Glokta held up the King’s writ between two fingers. He let everyone look at it for a moment, making sure they could see the heavy seal of red and gold, then he flicked it across the table.

The others stared over suspiciously as Carlot dan Eider picked up the document, unfolded it and started to read. She frowned, then raised one well-plucked eyebrow. “It seems that we are the ignorant ones.”

“Let me see that!” Korsten dan Vurms snatched the paper out of her hands and started to read it. “It can’t be,” he muttered. “It can’t be!”

“I’m afraid that it is.” Glokta treated the assembly to his toothless leer. “Arch Lector Sult is most concerned. He has asked me to look into the disappearance of Superior Davoust, and also to examine the city’s defences. To examine them carefully, and to ensure that the Gurkish stay on the other side of them. He has instructed me to use whatever measures I deem necessary.” He gave a significant pause. “Whatever… measures.”

“What is that?” grumbled the Lord Governor. “I demand to know what is going on!”

Vissbruck had the paper now. “The King’s writ,” he breathed, mopping his sweaty forehead on the back of his sleeve, “signed by all twelve chairs on the Closed Council. It grants full powers!” He laid it down gently on the inlaid table-top, as though worried it might suddenly burst into flames. “This is—”

“We all know what it is.” Magister Eider was watching Glokta thoughtfully, one fingertip stroking her smooth cheek. Like a merchant who suddenly becomes aware that her supposedly ignorant customer has fleeced her, and not the other way around. “It seems Superior Glokta will be taking charge.”

“I would hardly say taking charge, but I will be attending all further meetings of this council. You should consider that the first of a very great number of changes.” Glokta gave a comfortable sigh as he settled into his beautiful chair, stretching out his aching leg, resting his aching back. Almost comfortable. He glanced across the frowning faces of the city’s ruling council. Except, of course, that one of these charming people is most likely a dangerous traitor. A traitor who has already arranged the disappearance of one Superior, and may very well now be considering the removal of a second…

Glokta cleared his throat. “Now then, General Vissbruck, what were you saying as I arrived? Something about the walls?”


The Wounds of the Past

<p>The Wounds of the Past</p>

“The mistakes of old,” intoned Bayaz with the highest pomposity, “should be made only once. Any worthwhile education, therefore, must be founded on a sound understanding of history.”

Jezal gave vent to a ragged sigh. Why on earth the old man had undertaken to enlighten him was past his understanding. The towering self-interest, perhaps, of the mildly senile was to blame. In any case, Jezal was unshakable in his determination not to learn a thing.

“…yes, history,” the Magus was musing, “there is a lot of history in Calcis…”

Jezal glanced around him, unimpressed in the extreme. If history was nothing more than age, then Calcis, ancient city-port of the Old Empire, was plainly rich with it. If history went further—to grandeur, to glory, to something which stirred the blood—then it was conspicuously absent.

Doubtless the city had been carefully laid out, with wide, straight streets positioned to give the traveller magnificent views. But what might once have been proud civic vistas, the long centuries had reduced to panoramas of decay. Everywhere there were abandoned houses, empty windows and doorways gazing sadly out into the rutted squares. They passed side-streets choked with weeds, with rubble, with rotting timbers. Half the bridges across the sluggish river had collapsed and never been repaired; half the trees in the broad avenues were dead and withered, throttled by ivy.

There was none of the sheer life that crammed Adua, from the docks, to the slums, to the Agriont itself. Jezal’s home might have sometimes seemed swarming, squabbling, bursting at the seams with humanity, but, as he watched the few threadbare citizens of Calcis traipsing through their rotting relic of a city, he was in no doubt which atmosphere he preferred.

“…you will have many opportunities to improve yourself on this journey of ours, my young friend, and I suggest you take advantage of them. Master Ninefingers in particular, is well worthy of study. I feel you could learn a great deal from him…”

Jezal almost gasped with disbelief. “From that ape?”

“That ape, as you say, is famous throughout the North. The Bloody-Nine, they call him there. A name to fill strong men with fear or courage, depending on which side they stand. A fighter and tactician of deep cunning and matchless experience. Above all, he has learned the trick of saying a great deal less than he knows.” Bayaz glanced across at him. “The precise opposite of some people I could name.”

Jezal frowned and hunched his shoulders. He could see nothing to be learned from Ninefingers apart, perhaps, from how to eat with one’s hands and go days without washing.

“The great forum,” muttered Bayaz, as they passed into a wide, open space. “The throbbing heart of the city.” Even he sounded disappointed. “Here the citizens of Calcis would come to buy and sell, to watch spectacles and hear cases at law, to argue philosophy and politics. In the Old Time it would have been crammed shoulder to shoulder here, until late in the evening.”

There was ample space now. The vast paved area could easily have accommodated fifty times the sorry crowd that was gathered there. The grand statues round the edge were stained and broken, their dirty pedestals leaning at all angles. A few desultory stalls were laid out in the centre, crowded together like sheep in cold weather.

“A shadow of its former glory. Still,” and Bayaz pointed out the dishevelled sculptures, “these are the only occupants that need interest us today.”

“Really, and they are?”

“Emperors of the distant past, my boy, each with a tale to tell.”

Jezal groaned inwardly. He had nothing more than a passing interest in the history of his own country, let alone that of some decaying backwater in the far-flung west of the World. “There’s a lot of them,” he muttered.

“And these are by no means all. The history of the Old Empire stretches back for many centuries.”

“Must be why they call it old.”

“Don’t try to be clever with me, Captain Luthar, you have not the equipment. While your forebears in the Union were running around naked, communicating by gestures and worshipping mud, here my master Juvens was guiding the birth of a mighty nation, a nation that in scale and wealth, in knowledge and grandeur, has never been equalled. Adua, Talins, Shaffa, they are but shadows of the wondrous cities that once thrived in the valley of the great river Aos. This is the cradle of civilisation, my young friend.”

Jezal glanced round him at the sorry statues, the rotting trees, the grimy, the forlorn, the faded streets. “What went wrong?”

“The failure of something great is never a simple matter, but, where there is success and glory, there must also be failure and shame. Where there are both, jealousies must simmer. Envy and pride led by slow degrees to squabbles, then to feuds, then to wars. Two great wars that ended in terrible disasters.” He stepped smartly towards the nearest of the statues. “But disasters are not without their lessons, my boy.”

Jezal grimaced. He needed more lessons like he needed a dose of the cock-rot, and he in no sense felt himself to be anyone’s boy, but the old man was not in the least put off by his reluctance.

“A great ruler must be ruthless,” intoned Bayaz. “When he perceives a threat against his person or authority, he must move swiftly, and with no space left for regret. For an example, we need look no further than the Emperor Shilla.” He gazed up at the marble above them, its features all but entirely worn away by the weather. “When he suspected his chamberlain of harbouring pretensions to the throne, he ordered him put to death on the instant, his wife and all his children strangled, his great mansion in Aulcus levelled to the ground.” Bayaz shrugged. “All without the slightest shred of proof. An excessive and a brutal act, but better to act with too much force than too little. Better to be held in fear, than in contempt. Shilla knew this. There is no place for sentiment in politics, do you see?”

“I see that wherever I turn in life there’s always some fucking old dunce trying to give me a lecture.” That was what Jezal thought, but he was not about to say it. The memory of a Practical of the Inquisition bursting apart before his very eyes was still horribly fresh in his mind. The squelching sound of the flesh. The feeling of spots of hot blood pattering across his face. He swallowed and looked down at his shoes.

“I see,” he muttered.

Bayaz’ voice droned on. “Not that a great King need be a tyrant, of course! To gain the love of the common man should always be a ruler’s first aim, for it can be won with small gestures, and yet can last a lifetime.”

Jezal was not about to let that pass, however dangerous the old man might be. It was clear that Bayaz had no practical experience in the arena of politics. “What use is the love of commoners? The nobles have the money, the soldiers, the power.”

Bayaz rolled his eyes at the clouds. “The words of a child, easily tricked by flim-flam and quick hands. Where does the nobles’ money come from, but from taxes on the peasants in the fields? Who are their soldiers, but the sons and husbands of common folk? What gives the lords their power? Only the compliance of their vassals, nothing more. When the peasantry become truly dissatisfied, that power can vanish with terrifying speed. Take the case of the Emperor Dantus.” He gestured up at one of the many statues, one arm broken off at the shoulder, the other holding out a handful of scum in which a rich bloom of moss had taken hold. The loss of his nose, leaving a grimy crater, had left the Emperor Dantus with an expression of eternal embarrassed bewilderment, like a man surprised whilst on the latrine.

“No ruler has ever been more loved by his people,” said Bayaz. “He greeted every man as his equal, always gave half his revenues to the poor. But the nobles conspired against him, fixed on one of their number to replace him, and threw the Emperor into prison while they seized the throne.”

“Did they really?” grunted Jezal, staring off across the half-empty square.

“But the people would not abandon their beloved monarch. They rose from their homes and rioted, and would not be subdued. Some of the conspirators were dragged from their palaces and hung in the streets, the others were cowed, and returned Dantus to his throne. So you see, my lad, that the love of the people is a ruler’s surest shield against danger.”

Jezal sighed. “Give me the support of the lords every time.”

“Hah. Their love is costly, and fickle as the changing wind. Have you not stood in the Lords’ Round, Captain Luthar, while the Open Council is in session?” Jezal frowned. Perhaps there was some grain of truth in the old man’s babble. “Hah. Such is the love of nobles. The best that one can do is to divide them and work on their jealousies, make them compete for small favours, claim the credit for their successes, and most of all ensure that no one of them should grow too powerful, and rise to challenge one’s own majesty.”

“Who is this?” One statue stood noticeably higher than the others. An impressive-seeming man in late middle-age with a thick beard and curling hair. His face was handsome but there was a grim set to his mouth, a proud and wrathful wrinkling of his brow. A man not to be fooled with.

“That is my master, Juvens. Not an Emperor, but the first and last adviser to many. He built the Empire, yet he was also the principal in its destruction. A great man, in so many ways, but great men have great faults.” Bayaz turned his worn staff thoughtfully round in his hand. “One should learn the lessons of history. The mistakes of the past need only be made once.” He paused for a moment. “Unless there are no other choices.”

Jezal rubbed his eyes and stared across the forum. The Crown Prince Ladisla, perhaps, might have benefited from such a lecture, but Jezal rather doubted it. Was this why he had been torn away from his friends, from his hard-earned chance at glory and advancement? To listen to the dusty musings of some strange, bald wanderer?

He frowned. There were a group of three soldiers moving towards them across the square. At first he watched them, uninterested. Then he realised they were looking right at him and Bayaz, and moving directly towards them. Now he saw another group of three, and another, coming from different directions.

Jezal’s throat felt tight. Their armour and weapons, though of an antique design, looked worryingly effective and well-used. Fencing was one thing. Actual fighting, with its possibilities for serious wounding and death, was quite another. It was not cowardice, surely, to feel worried, not with nine armed men very clearly approaching them, and no possible route of escape.

Bayaz had noticed them too. “A welcome appears to have been prepared.”

The nine closed in, faces hard, weapons firmly gripped. Jezal squared his shoulders and did his best to look fearsome while meeting nobody’s eye, and keeping his hands well away from the hilts of his steels. He had no wish whatsoever for someone to get nervous, and stab him on a whim.

“You are Bayaz,” said their leader, a heavy-set man with a grubby red plume on his helmet.

“Is that a question?”

“No. Our master, the Imperial Legate, Salamo Narba, governor of Calcis, invites you to an audience.”

“Does he indeed?” Bayaz glanced around at the party of soldiers, then raised an eyebrow at Jezal. “I suppose it would be rude of us to refuse, when the Legate has gone to all the trouble of organising an honour guard. Lead the way.”


Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s in pain. He dragged himself over the broken cobblestones, wincing every time his weight went onto his bad ankle—limping, gasping, waving his arms to keep his balance.

Brother Longfoot grinned over his shoulder at this sorry display. “How are your injuries progressing, my friend?

“Painfully,” grunted Logen, through gritted teeth.

“And yet, I suspect, you have endured worse.”

“Huh.” The wounds of the past were many. He’d spent most of his life in some amount of pain, healing too slowly from one beating or another. He remembered the first real wound he’d ever taken, a cut down his face that the Shanka had given him. Fifteen years old, lean and smooth-skinned and the girls in the village had still liked to look at him. He touched his thumb to his face and felt the old scar. He remembered his father pressing the bandage to his cheek in the smoky hall, the stinging of it, wanting to shout but biting his lip. A man stays silent.

When he can. Logen remembered lying on his face in a stinking tent with the cold rain drumming on the canvas, biting on a piece of leather to keep from screaming, coughing it out and screaming anyway while they dug in his back for an arrow-head that hadn’t come out with the shaft. It had taken them a day of looking to find the bastard thing. Logen winced and wriggled his tingling shoulder blades at that memory. He hadn’t been able to talk for a week from all that screaming.

Hadn’t been able to talk for more than a week after the duel with Threetrees. Or walk, or eat, or see hardly. Broken jaw, broken cheek, ribs broken past counting. Bones smashed until he was no more than aching, crying, self-pitying goo, mewling like an infant at every movement of his stretcher, fed by an old woman with a spoon and grateful to get it.

There were plenty more memories, all crowding in and cutting at him. The stump of his finger after the battle at Carleon, burning and burning and making him crazy. Waking up sudden after a day out cold, when he got knocked on the head up in the hills. Pissing red after Harding Grim’s spear had pricked him through the guts. Logen felt them now on his tattered skin, all of his scars, and he hugged his arms around his aching body.

The wounds of the past were many, alright, but it didn’t make the ones he had now hurt any less. The cut in his shoulder nagged at him, sore as a burning coal. He’d seen a man lose an arm from nothing more than a graze he’d got in battle. First they had to take off his hand, then his arm to the elbow, then all the way to the shoulder. Next he got tired, then he started talking stupid, then he stopped breathing. Logen didn’t want to go back to the mud that way.

He hopped up to a crumbling stump of wall and leaned against it, painfully shrugged his coat off, fumbled at the buttons of his shirt with one clumsy hand, pulled the pin out of the bandage and peeled the dressing carefully away.

“How does it look?” he asked.

“Like the parent of all scabs,” muttered Longfoot, peering at his shoulder.

“Does it smell alright?”

“You want me to smell you?”

“Just tell me if it stinks.”

The Navigator leaned forwards and sniffed daintily at Logen’s shoulder. “A marked odour of sweat, but that might be your armpit. I fear that my remarkable talents do not encompass medicine. One wound smells much like another to me.” And he pushed the pin back through the bandage.

Logen worked his shirt on. “You’d know if it was rotten, believe me. Reeks like old graves, and once the rot gets in you there’s no getting rid of it but with a blade. Bad way to go.” And he shuddered and pressed his palm gently against his throbbing shoulder.

“Yes, well,” said Longfoot, already striding off down the near-deserted street. “Lucky for you that we have the woman Maljinn with us. Her talent for conversation is most extremely limited, but when it comes to wounds, well, I saw the whole business and don’t object to telling you, she can stitch skin as calm and even as a master cobbler stitches leather. She can indeed! She pulls a needle as nimble and neat as a queen’s dressmaker. A useful talent to have in these parts. I would not be the least surprised if we need that talent again before we’re done.”

“It’s a dangerous journey?” asked Logen, still trying to struggle back into his coat.

“Huh. The North has always been wild and lawless, heavy with bloody feuds and merciless brigands. Every man goes armed to the teeth, and ready to kill at a moment’s notice. In Gurkhul foreign travellers stay free only on the whim of the local governor, at risk of being taken as a slave at any moment. Styrian cities sport thugs and cutpurses on every corner, if you can even get through their gates without being robbed by the authorities. The waters of the Thousand Isles are thick with pirates, one for each merchant, it sometimes seems, while in distant Suljuk they fear and despise outsiders, and likely as not will hang you by your feet and cut your throat as soon as give you directions. The Circle of the World is full of dangers, my nine-fingered friend, but if all that is not enough for you, and you yearn for more severe peril, I suggest that you visit the Old Empire.”

Logen got the feeling that Brother Longfoot was enjoying himself. “That bad?”

“Worse, oh yes, indeed! Especially if, rather than simply visiting, one undertakes to cross the breadth of the country from one side to the other.”

Logen winced. “And that’s the plan?”

“That is, as you put it, the plan. For time out of mind, the Old Empire has been riven by civil strife. Once a single nation with a single Emperor, his laws enforced by a mighty army and a loyal administration, it has dissolved down the years into a boiling soup of petty princedoms, crackpot republics, city states and tiny lordships, until few acknowledge any leader who does not even now hold a sword over their heads. The lines between tax and brigandage, between just war and bloody murder, between rightful claim and fantasy have blurred and vanished. Hardly a year goes by without another power-hungry bandit declaring himself king of the world. I understand there was a time, perhaps fifty years ago, when there were no fewer than sixteen Emperors at one moment.”

“Huh. Fifteen more than you need.”

“Sixteen more, some might say, and not a one of them friendly to travellers. When it comes to getting murdered, the Old Empire presents a victim with quite the dazzling choice. But one need not be killed by men.”

“No?”

“Oh, dear me, no! Nature has also placed many fearsome obstacles in our path, especially given that winter is now coming fast upon us. Westward of Calcis stretches a wide and level plain, open grassland for many hundreds of miles. In the Old Time, perhaps, much of it was settled, cultivated, crossed by straight roads of good stone in every direction. Now the towns mostly lie in silent ruins, the land is storm-drenched wilderness, the roads are trails of broken stones luring the unwary into sucking bogs.”

“Bogs,” muttered Logen, slowly shaking his head.

“And worse beside. The river Aos, greatest of all rivers within the Circle of the World, carves a deep and snaking valley through the midst of this wasteland. We will have to cross it, but there are only two surviving bridges, one at Darmium, which is our best chance, another at Aostum, a hundred miles or more further west. There are fords, but the Aos is mighty, and fast-flowing, and the valley deep and dangerous.” Longfoot clicked his tongue. “That is before we reach the Broken Mountains.”

“High, are they?”

“Oh, extremely. Very high, and very perilous. Called Broken for their steep cliffs, their jagged ravines, their sudden plunging drops. There are rumoured to be passes, but all the maps, if indeed there ever were any, were lost long ago. Having negotiated the mountains we will take ship—”

“You plan to carry a ship over the mountains?”

“Our employer assures me he can get one on the other side, though how I do not know, for that land is almost utterly unknown. We will sail due west to the island of Shabulyan, which they say rises from the ocean at the very edge of the World.”

“They say?”

“Rumour is all that anyone knows of it. Even amongst the illustrious order of Navigators, I have heard of no man who lays claim to have set foot upon the place, and the brothers of my order are well known for… far-fetched claims, shall we say?”

Logen scratched slowly at his face, wishing that he’d asked Bayaz his plans before. “It all sounds a long way.”

“One could scarcely conceive, in fact, of a destination more remote.”

“What’s there?”

Longfoot shrugged. “You will have to ask our employer. I find routes, not reasons. Follow me please, Master Ninefingers, and I pray you not to dally. We have a great deal to do if we are to pose as merchants.”

“Merchants?”

“That is Bayaz’ plan. Merchants often risk the journey west from Calcis to Darmium, even beyond to Aostum. They are large cities still, and largely cut off from the outside world. The profits one can make carrying foreign luxuries to them—spices from Gurkhul, silks from Suljuk, chagga from the North—are astronomical. Why, you can triple your investment in a month, if you survive! Such caravans are a common sight, well armed and well defended, of course.”

“What about these looters and robbers wandering the plain? Aren’t merchants just what they’re after?”

“Of course,” said Longfoot. “It must be some other threat that this disguise is intended to defend against. One directed specifically at us.”

“At us? Another threat? We need more?” But Longfoot was already striding out of earshot.


In one part of Calcis at least, the majesty of the past was not entirely faded. The hall into which they were ushered by their guards, or their kidnappers, was glorious indeed.

Two lines of columns, tall as forest trees, marched down either side of the echoing space, carved from polished green stone fretted with glittering veins of silver. High above, the ceiling was painted a rich blue-black, marked with a galaxy of shining stars, constellations picked out by golden lines. A deep pool of dark water filled the space before the door, perfectly still, reflecting everything. Another shadowy hall below. Another shadowy night sky beyond it.

The Imperial Legate lay sprawled out across a couch on a high dais at the far end of the room, a table before him loaded with delicacies. He was a huge man, round-faced and fleshy. Fingers heavy with golden rings snatched up choice morsels and tossed them into his waiting mouth, eyes never leaving his two guests, or his two prisoners, for a moment.

“I am Salamo Narba, Imperial Legate and governor of the city of Calcis.” He worked his mouth, then spat out an olive stone which pinged into a dish. “You are the one they call the First of the Magi?”

The Magus inclined his bald head. Narba lifted up a goblet, holding the stem between his heavy forefinger and his heavy thumb, took a swig of wine, sloshed it slowly round in his mouth while he watched them, and swallowed. “Bayaz.”

“The same.”

“Hmm. I mean no offence.” Here the Legate snatched up a tiny fork and speared an oyster from its shell, “but your presence in this city concerns me. The political situation in the Empire is… volatile.” He picked up his goblet. “Even more so than usual.” Swig, slosh, swallow. “The last thing that I need is someone… upsetting the balance.”

“More volatile than usual?” asked Bayaz. “I understood that Sabarbus had finally calmed things.”

“Calmed them under his boot, for a while.” The Legate tore a handful of dark grapes from a bunch and leaned back on his cushions, popping them one by one into his gaping mouth. “But Sabarbus… is dead. Poison, they say. His sons, Scario… and Goltus… squabbled over his legacy… then made war on each other. An exceptionally bloody war, even for this exhausted land.” And he spat the pips out onto the table top.

“Goltus held the city of Darmium, in the midst of the great plain. Scario employed his father’s greatest general, Cabrian, to take it under siege. Not long ago, after five months of encirclement, starved of provisions, hopeless of relief… the city surrendered.” Narba bit into a ripe plum, juice running down his chin.

“So Scario is close to victory, then.”

“Huh.” The Legate wiped his face with the tip of his little finger and tossed the unfinished fruit carelessly onto the table. “No sooner had Cabrian finally taken the city, pillaged its treasures and given it over to a brutal sack by his soldiers, than he installed himself in the ancient palace and proclaimed himself Emperor.”

“Ah. You seem unmoved.”

“I weep on the inside, but I have seen all this before. Scario, Goltus, and now Cabrian. Three self-appointed Emperors, locked in a deadly struggle, their soldiers ravaging the land, while the few cities who have maintained their independence look on, horrified, and do their best to escape the nightmare unscathed.”

Bayaz frowned. “I mean to travel westward. I must cross the Aos, and Darmium is the closest bridge.”

The Legate shook his head. “It is said that Cabrian, always eccentric, has lost his reason entirely. That he has murdered his wife and married his own three daughters. That he has declared himself a living god. The city gates are sealed while he scours the city for witches, devils, and traitors. Every day there are new bodies hanging at the public gibbets he has raised on each corner. No one is permitted either to enter or to leave. Such is the news from Darmium.”

Jezal was more than a little relieved to hear Bayaz say, “it must be Aostum, then.”

“Nobody will be crossing the river at Aostum any longer. Scario, running from his brother’s vengeful armies, fled across the bridge and had his engineers bring it down behind him.”

“He destroyed it?”

“He did. A wonder of the Old Time which stood for two thousand years. Nothing remains. To add to your woes, there have been heavy rains and the great river runs swift and high. The fords are impassable. You will not cross the Aos this year, I fear.”

“I must.”

“But you will not. If you wish for my advice, I would leave the Empire to its misery and return from whence you came. Here in Calcis we have always tried to plough a middle furrow, to remain neutral, and firmly aloof from the disasters that have befallen the rest of the land, one hard upon another. Here we still cling to the ways of our forefathers.” He gestured at himself. “The city is yet governed by an Imperial Legate, as it was in the Old Time, not ruled by some brigand, some petty chieftain, some false Emperor.” He waved a limp hand at the rich hall around them. “Here, against the odds, we have managed to retain some vestige of the glory of old, and I will not risk that. Your friend Zacharus was here, not but a month ago.”

“Here?”

“He told me that Goltus was the rightful Emperor and demanded that I throw my support behind him. I sent him scurrying away with the same answer I will give to you. We in Calcis are happy as we are. We want no part of your self-serving schemes. Take your meddling and get you gone, Magus. I give you three days to leave the city.”

There was a long, quiet pause as the last echoes of Narba’s speech faded. A long, breathless moment, and all the while Bayaz’ frown grew harder. A long, expectant silence, but not quite empty. It was full of growing fear.

“Have you confused me with some other man?” growled Bayaz, and Jezal felt an urgent need to shuffle away from him and hide behind one of the beautiful pillars. “I am the First of the Magi! The first apprentice of great Juvens himself!” His anger was like a great stone pressing on Jezal’s chest, squeezing the air from his lungs, crushing the strength from his body. He held up his meaty fist. “This is the hand that cast down Kanedias! The hand that crowned Harod! You dare to give me threats? Is this what you call the glory of old? A city shrunken in its crumbling walls like some withered old warrior cowering in the outsize armour of his youth?” Narba shrank behind his silverware and Jezal winced, terrified that the Legate might explode at any moment and shower the room with gore.

“You think I care a damn for your broken piss-pot of a town?” thundered Bayaz. “You give me three days? I’ll be gone in one!” And he turned on his heel and stalked across the polished floor towards the entrance, the ringing echoes of his voice still grating from the shining walls, the glittering ceiling.

Jezal dithered a moment, weak and trembling, then shuffled guiltily away, following the First of the Magi past the Legate’s horrified, dumbstruck guards and out into the daylight.


The Condition of the Defences

<p>The Condition of the Defences</p>

To Arch Lector Sult,

head of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Your Eminence,

I have acquainted the members of Dagoska’s ruling council with my mission. You will not be surprised to learn that they are less than delighted at the sudden reduction in their powers. My investigation into the disappearance of Superior Davoust is already underway, and I feel confident that results will not be long in coming. I will be appraising the city’s defences as soon as possible, and will take any and all steps necessary to ensure that Dagoska is impregnable.

You will hear from me soon. Until then, I serve and obey.

Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska.

The sun pressed down on the crumbling battlements like a great weight. It pressed through Glokta’s hat and onto his stooped head. It pressed through Glokta’s black coat and onto his twisted shoulders. It threatened to squeeze the water right out of him, squash the life right out of him, crush him to his knees. A cool autumn morning in charming Dagoska.

While the sun attacked him from above, the salt wind came at him head on. It swept in off the empty sea and over the bare peninsula, hot and full of choking dust, blasting the land walls of the city and scouring everything with salty grit. It stung at Glokta’s sweaty skin, whipped the moisture from his mouth, tickled at his eyes and made them weep stinging tears. Even the weather wants to be rid of me, it would seem.

Practical Vitari teetered along the parapet beside him, arms outstretched like a circus performer on the high rope. Glokta frowned up at her, a gangly black shape against the brilliant sky. She could just as easily walk down here, and stop making a spectacle of herself. But at least this way there is always the chance of her falling off. The land walls were twenty strides high at the least. Glokta allowed himself the very slightest smile at the thought of the Arch Lector’s favourite Practical slipping, sliding, tumbling from the wall, hands clutching at nothing. Perhaps a despairing scream as she fell to her death?

But she didn’t fall. Bitch. Considering her next report to the Arch Lector, no doubt. “The cripple continues to flounder like a landed fish. He has yet to uncover the slightest trace of Davoust, or any traitor, despite questioning half the city. The one man he has arrested is a member of his own Inquisition…”

Glokta shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted into the blinding sun. The neck of rock that connected Dagoska with the mainland stretched away from him, no more than a few hundred strides across at its narrowest point, the sparkling sea on both sides. The road from the city gates was a brown stripe through the yellow scrub, cutting southwards towards the dry hills on the mainland. A few sorry-looking seabirds squawked and circled over the causeway, but there were no other signs of life.

“Might I borrow your eye-glass, General?”

Vissbruck flicked the eye-glass open and slapped it sulkily into Glokta’s outstretched hand. Plainly he feels he has better things to do than give me a tour of the defences. The General was breathing heavily, standing stiffly to attention in his impeccable uniform, plump face shining with sweat. Doing his best to maintain his professional bearing. His bearing is the only professional thing about this imbecile, but, as the Arch Lector says, we must work with the tools we have. Glokta raised the brass tube to his eye.

The Gurkish had built a palisade. A tall fence of wooden stakes that fringed the hills, cutting Dagoska off from the mainland. There were tents scattered about the other side, thin plumes of smoke rising from a cooking fire here or there. Glokta could just about make out tiny figures moving, sun glinting on polished metal. Weapons and armour, and plenty of both.

“There used to be caravans from the mainland,” Vissbruck murmured. “Last year there were a hundred of them every day. Then the Emperor’s soldiers started to arrive, and there were fewer traders. They finished the fence a couple of months ago. There hasn’t been so much as a donkey since. Everything has to come in by ship, now.”

Glokta scanned across the fence, and the camps behind, from the sea on one side to the sea on the other. Are they simply flexing their muscles, putting on a show of force? Or are they in deadly earnest? The Gurkish love a good show, but they don’t mind a good fight either—that’s how they’ve conquered the whole of the South, more or less. He lowered the eye-glass. “How many Gurkish, do you think?”

Vissbruck shrugged. “Impossible to say. At least five thousand, I would guess, but there could be many more, behind those hills. We have no way of knowing.”

Five thousand. At the least. If it’s a show, it’s a good one. “How many men have we?”

Vissbruck paused. “I have around six hundred Union soldiers under my command.”

Around six hundred? Around? You lackwit dunce! When I was a soldier I knew the name of every man in my regiment, and who was best suited to what tasks. “Six hundred? Is that all?”

“There are mercenaries in the city also, but they cannot be trusted, and frequently cause trouble of their own. In my opinion they are worse than worthless.”

I asked for numbers, not opinions. “How many mercenaries?”

“Perhaps a thousand, now, perhaps more.”

“Who leads them?”

“Some Styrian. Cosca, he calls himself.”

“Nicomo Cosca?” Vitari was staring down from the parapet, one orange eyebrow raised.

“You know him?”

“You could say that. I thought he was dead, but it seems there’s no justice in the world.”

She’s right there. Glokta turned to Vissbruck. “Does this Cosca answer to you?”

“Not exactly. The Spicers pay him, so he answers to Magister Eider. In theory, he’s supposed to follow my orders—”

“But he only follows his own?” Glokta could see in the General’s face that he was right. Mercenaries. A double-edged sword, if ever there was one. Keen, as long as you can keep paying, and provided that trustworthiness is not a priority. “And Cosca’s men outnumber yours two to one.” It would appear that, as far as the defences of the city are concerned, I am speaking to the wrong man. Perhaps there is one issue, though, on which he can enlighten me. “Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

General Vissbruck twitched his annoyance. “I have no idea. That man’s movements were of no interest to me.”

“Hmm,” mused Glokta, jamming his hat down tighter onto his head as another gritty gust of wind blew in across the walls. “The disappearance of the city’s Superior of the Inquisition? Of no interest whatsoever?”

“None,” snapped the General. “We rarely had cause to speak to one another. Davoust was well-known as an abrasive character. As far as I am concerned, the Inquisition has its responsibilities, and I have mine.” Touchy, touchy. But then everyone is, since I arrived in town. You’d almost think they didn’t want me here.

“You have your responsibilities, eh?” Glokta shuffled to the parapet, lifted his cane and prodded at a corner of crumbling masonry, not far from Vitari’s heel. A chunk of stone cracked away and tumbled from the wall into space. A few moments later he heard it clatter into the ditch, far below. He rounded on Vissbruck. “As commander of the city’s defences, would you count the maintenance of the walls as being among your responsibilities?”

Vissbruck bristled. “I have done everything possible!”

Glokta counted the points off with the fingers of his free hand. “The land walls are crumbling and poorly manned. The ditch beyond is so choked with dirt it barely exists. The gates have not been replaced in years, and are falling to pieces on their own. If the Gurkish were to attack tomorrow, I do believe we’d be in quite a sorry position.”

“Not for any oversight on my part, I can assure you! With the heat, and the wind, and the salt from the sea, wood and metal rot in no time, and stone fares little better! Do you realise the task?”

The General gestured at the great sweep of the towering land walls, curving away to the sea on either side. Even here at the top, the parapet was wide enough to drive a cart down, and they were a lot thicker at the base. “I have few skilled masons, and precious little materials! What the Closed Council gives me barely pays for the upkeep of the Citadel! Then the money from the Spicers scarcely keeps the walls of the Upper City in good repair—”

Fool! One could almost believe he did not seriously mean to defend the city at all. “The Citadel cannot be supplied by sea if the rest of Dagoska is in Gurkish hands, am I right?”

Vissbruck blinked. “Well, no, but—”

“The walls of the Upper City might keep the natives where they are, but they are too long, too low, and too thin to withstand a concerted attack for long, would you agree?”

“Yes, I suppose so, but—”

“So any plan that treats the Citadel, or the Upper City, as our main line of defence is one that only plays for time. Time for help to arrive. Help that, with our army committed hundreds of leagues away in Angland, might take a while appearing.” Will never appear at all. “If the land walls fall the city is doomed.” Glokta tapped the dusty flags underfoot with his cane. “Here is where we must fight the Gurkish, and here is where we must keep them out. Everything else is an irrelevance.”

“An irrelevance,” Vitari piped to herself as she hopped from one part of the parapet to another.

The General was frowning. “I can only do as the Lord Governor and his council instruct me. The Lower City has always been regarded as dispensable. I am not responsible for overall policy—”

“I am.” Glokta held Vissbruck’s eye for a very long moment. “From now on all resources will be directed into the repair and strengthening of the land walls. New parapets, new gates, every broken stone must be replaced. I don’t want to see a crack an ant could crawl through, let alone a Gurkish army.”

“But who will do the work?”

“The natives built the damn things in the first place, didn’t they? There must be skilled men among them. Seek them out and hire them. As for the ditch, I want it down below sea level. If the Gurkish come we can flood it, and make the city into an island.”

“But that could take months!”

“You have two weeks. Perhaps not even that long. Press every idle man into service. Women and children too, if they can hold a spade.”

Vissbruck frowned up at Vitari. “And what about your people in the Inquisition?”

“Oh, they’re too busy asking questions, trying to find out what happened to your last Superior. Or they’re watching me, and my quarters, and the gates of the citadel all day and night, trying to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to your new one. Be a shame, eh, Vissbruck, if I disappeared before the defences were ready?”

“Of course, Superior,” muttered the General. But without tremendous enthusiasm, I rather think.

“Everyone else must work, though, including your own soldiers.”

“But you can’t expect my men to—”

“I expect every man to do his part. Anyone who doesn’t like it can go back to Adua. He can go back and explain his reluctance to the Arch Lector.” Glokta leered his toothless smile at the General. “There’s no one that can’t be replaced, General, no one at all”

There was a great deal of sweat on Vissbruck’s pink face, great drops of it. The stiff collar of his uniform was dark with moisture. “Of course, every man must do his part! Work on the ditch will begin immediately!” He made a weak attempt at a smile. “I’ll find every man, but I’ll need money, Superior. If people work they must be paid, even the natives. Then we will need materials, everything has to be brought in by sea—”

“Borrow what you need to get started. Work on credit. Promise everything and give nothing, for now. His Eminence will provide.” He’d better. “I want reports on your progress every morning.”

“Every morning, yes.”

“You have a great deal to do, General. I’d get started.”

Vissbruck paused for a moment, as though unsure whether to salute or not. In the end he simply turned on his heel and stalked off. The pique of a professional soldier dictated to by a civilian, or something more? Am I upsetting his carefully laid plans? Plans to sell the city to the Gurkish, perhaps?

Vitari hopped down from the parapet onto the walkway. “His Eminence will provide? You’d be lucky.”

Glokta frowned at her back as she sauntered away, then he frowned towards the hills on the mainland, then he frowned up at the citadel. Dangers on every side. Trapped between the Arch Lector and the Gurkish, and with nobody but an unknown traitor for company. It’ll be a wonder if I last a day.


A committed optimist might have called the place a dive. But it scarcely deserves the name. A piss-smelling shack with some oddments of furniture, everything stained with ancient sweat and recent spillages. A kind of cesspit with half the cess removed. Customers and staff were indistinguishable: drunken, fly-blown natives stretched out in the heat. Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune, sprawled in amongst this scene of debauchery, soundly asleep.

He had his driftwood chair rocked back on its rear legs against the grimy wall, one boot up on the table in front of him. It had probably been as fine and flamboyant a boot as one could hope for, once, black Styrian leather with a golden spur and buckles. No longer. The upper was sagging and scuffed grey with hard use. The spur was snapped off short, the gilt on the buckles was flaking away and the iron underneath was spotted with brown rust. A circle of pink, blistered skin peered at Glokta through a hole in the sole.

And a boot could scarcely be better fitted to its owner. Cosca’s long moustaches, no doubt meant to be waxed out sideways in the fashion of a Styrian dandy, flopped limp and lifeless round his half-open mouth. His neck and jaw were covered in a week’s growth, somewhere between beard and stubble, and there was a scabrous, flaking rash peering out above his collar. His greasy hair stuck from his head at all angles, excepting a large bald spot on his crown, angry red with sunburn. Sweat beaded his slack skin, a lazy fly crawled across his puffy face. One bottle lay empty on its side on the table. Another, half-full, was cradled in his lap.

Vitari stared down at this picture of drunken self-neglect, expression of contempt plainly visible despite her mask. “So it’s true then, you are still alive.” Just barely.

Cosca prised open one red-rimmed eye, blinked, squinted up, and then slowly began to smile. “Shylo Vitari, I swear. The world can still surprise me.” He worked his mouth, grimacing, glanced down and saw the bottle in his lap, lifted it and took a long, thirsty pull. Deep swallows, just as if it were water in the bottle. A practised drunkard, as though there was any doubt. Hardly the man one would choose to entrust the defence of the city to, at first glance. “I never expected to see you again. Why don’t you take off the mask? It’s robbing me of your beauty.”

“Save it for your whores, Cosca. I don’t need to catch what you’ve got.”

The mercenary gave a bubbling sound, half laugh, half cough. “You still have the manners of a princess,” he wheezed.

“Then this shithouse must be a palace.”

Cosca shrugged. “It all looks the same if you’re drunk enough.”

“You think you’ll ever be drunk enough?”

“No. But it’s worth trying.” As if to prove the point he sucked another mouthful from the bottle.

Vitari perched herself on the edge of the table. “So what brings you here? I thought you were busy spreading the cock-rot across Styria.”

“My popularity at home had somewhat dwindled.”

“Found yourself on both sides of a fight once too often, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“But the Dagoskans welcomed you with open arms?”

“I’d rather you welcomed me with open legs, but a man can’t get everything he wants. Who’s your friend?”

Glokta slid out a rickety chair with one aching foot and eased himself into it, hoping it would bear his weight. Crashing to the floor in a bundle of broken sticks would hardly send the right message, now, would it? “My name is Glokta.” He stretched his sweaty neck out to one side, and then the other. “Superior Glokta.”

Cosca looked at him for a long time. His eyes were bloodshot, sunken, heavy-lidded. And yet there is a certain calculation there. Not half as drunk as he pretends, perhaps. “The same one who fought in Gurkhul? The Colonel of Horse?”

Glokta felt his eyelid flicker. You could hardly say the same man, but surprisingly well remembered, nonetheless. “I gave up soldiery some years ago. I’m surprised you’ve heard of me.”

“A fighting man should know his enemies, and a hired man never knows who his next enemy might be. It’s worth taking notice of who’s who, in military circles. I heard your name mentioned, some time ago, as a man worth taking notice of. Bold and clever, I heard, but reckless. That was the last I heard. And now here you are, in a different line of work. Asking questions.”

“Recklessness didn’t work out for me in the end.” Glokta shrugged. “And a man needs something to do with his time.”

“Of course. Never doubt another’s choices, I say. You can’t know his reasons. You come here for a drink, Superior? They’ve nothing but this piss, I’m afraid.” He waved the bottle. “Or have you questions for me?”

That I have, and plenty of them. “Do you have any experience with sieges?”

“Experience?” spluttered Cosca, “Experience, you ask? Hah! Experience is one thing I am not short of—”

“No,” murmured Vitari over her shoulder, “just discipline and loyalty.”

“Yes, well,” Cosca frowned up at her back, “that all depends on who you ask. But I was at Etrina, and at Muris. Serious pair of sieges, those. And I besieged Visserine myself for a few months and nearly had it, except that she-devil Mercatto caught me unawares. Came on us with cavalry before dawn, sun behind and all, damned unfriendly trick, the bitch—”

“I heard you were passed out drunk at the time,” muttered Vitari.

“Yes, well… Then I held Borletta against Grand Duke Orso for six months—”

Vitari snorted. “Until he paid you to open the gates.”

Cosca gave a sheepish grin. “It was an awful lot of money. But he never fought his way in! You’d have to give me that, eh, Shylo?”

“No one needs to fight you, providing they bring their purse.”

The mercenary grinned. “I am what I am, and never claimed to be anything else.”

“So you’ve been known to betray an employer?” asked Glokta.

The Styrian paused, the bottle halfway to his mouth. “I am thoroughly offended, Superior. Nicomo Cosca may be a mercenary, but there are still rules. I could only turn my back on an employer under one condition.”

“Which is?”

Cosca grinned. “If someone else were to offer me more.”

Ah, the mercenary’s code. Some men will do anything for money. Most men will do anything for enough. Perhaps even make a Superior of the Inquisition disappear? “Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

“Ah, the riddle of the invisible torturer!” Cosca scratched thoughtfully at his sweaty beard, picked a little at the rash on his neck and examined the results, wedged under his fingernail. “Who knows or cares to know? The man was a swine. I hardly knew him and what I knew I didn’t like. He had plenty of enemies, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a real snake pit down here. If you’re asking which one bit him, well… isn’t that your job? I was busy here. Drinking.”

Not too difficult to believe. “What would your opinion be of our mutual friend, General Vissbruck?”

Cosca hunched his shoulders and sank a little lower into his chair. “The man’s a child. Playing soldiers. Tinkering with his little castle and his little fence, when the big walls are all that count. Lose those and the game is done, I say.”

“I’ve been thinking the very same thing.” Perhaps the defence of the city could be in worse hands, after all. “Work has already begun on the land walls, and on the ditch beyond. I hope to flood it.”

Cosca raised an eyebrow. “Good. Flood it. The Gurkish don’t like the water much. Poor sailors. Flood it. Very good.” He tipped his head back and sucked the last drops from the bottle, then he tossed it on the dirty floor, wiped his mouth with his dirty hand, then wiped his hand on the front of his sweat-stained shirt. “At least someone knows what they’re doing. Perhaps when the Gurkish attack, we’ll last longer than a few days, eh?” Providing we aren’t betrayed beforehand.

“You never know, perhaps the Gurkish won’t attack.”

“Oh, I hope they do.” Cosca reached under his chair and produced another bottle. There was a glint in his eye as he pulled the cork out with his teeth and spat it across the room. “I get paid double once the fighting starts.”


It was evening, and a merciful breeze was washing through the audience chamber. Glokta leaned against the wall by the window, watching the shadows stretch out over the city below.

The Lord Governor was keeping him waiting. Trying to let me know he’s still in charge, whatever the Closed Council might say. But Glokta didn’t mind being still for a while. The day had been a tiring one. Slogging round the city in the baking heat, examining the walls, the gates, the troops. Asking questions. Questions to which no one has satisfactory answers. His leg was throbbing, his back was aching, his hand was raw from gripping his cane. But no worse than usual. I am still standing. A good day, all in all.

The glowing sun was shrouded in lines of orange cloud. Beneath it a long wedge of sea glittered silver in the last light of the day. The land walls had already plunged half the ramshackle buildings of the Lower City into deep gloom, and the shadows of the tall spires of the great temple stretched out across the roofs of the Upper City, creeping up the slopes of the rock towards the citadel. The hills on the mainland were nothing more than a distant suggestion, full of shadows. And crawling with Gurkish soldiers. Watching us, as we watch them, no doubt. Seeing us dig our ditches, patch our walls, shore up our gates. How long will they be content to watch, I wonder? How long before the sun goes down for us?

The door opened and Glokta turned his head, wincing as his neck clicked. It was the Lord Governor’s son, Korsten dan Vurms. He shut the door behind him and strode purposefully into the room, metal heel tips clicking on the mosaic floor. Ah, the flower of the Union’s young nobility. The sense of honour is almost palpable. Or did someone fart?

“Superior Glokta! I hope I have not kept you waiting.”

“You have,” said Glokta as he shuffled to the table. “That is what happens when one comes late to a meeting.”

Vurms frowned slightly. “Then I apologise,” he said, in the most unapologetic tone imaginable. “How are you finding our city?”

“Hot and full of steps.” Glokta dumped himself into one of the exquisite chairs. “Where is the Lord Governor?”

The frown turned down further. “I am afraid that my father is unwell, and cannot attend. You understand that he is an old man, and needs his rest. I can speak for him however.”

“Can you indeed? And what do the two of you have to say?”

“My father is most concerned about the work that you are undertaking on the defences. I am told that the King’s soldiers have been set to digging holes on the peninsula, rather than defending the walls of the Upper City. You realise that you are leaving us at the mercy of the natives!”

Glokta snorted. “The natives are citizens of the Union, no matter how reluctant. Believe me, they are more inclined to mercy than the Gurkish.” Of their mercy I have first-hand experience.

“They are primitives!” sneered Vurms, “and dangerous to boot! You have not been here long enough to understand the threat they pose to us! You should talk to Harker. He’s got the right ideas as far as the natives are concerned.”

“I talked to Harker, and I didn’t like his ideas. I suspect he may have been forced to rethink them, in fact, downstairs, in the dark.” I suspect he is rethinking even now, and as quickly as his pea of a brain will allow. “As for your father’s worries, he need no longer concern himself with the defence of the city. Since he is an old man, and in need of rest, I have no doubt he will be happy to pass the responsibility to me.”

A spasm of anger passed across Vurms’ handsome features. He opened his mouth to hiss some curse, but evidently thought better of it. As well he should. He sat back in his chair, rubbing one thumb and one finger thoughtfully together. When he spoke, it was with a friendly smile and a charming softness. Now comes the wheedling. “Superior Glokta, I feel we have got off on the wrong foot—”

“I only have one that works.”

Vurms’ smile slipped somewhat, but he forged on. “It is plain that you hold the cards, for the time being, but my father has many friends back in Midderland. I can be a significant hindrance to you, if I have the mind. A significant hindrance or a great help—”

“I am so glad that you have chosen to cooperate. You can begin by telling me what became of Superior Davoust.”

The smile slipped off entirely. “How should I know?”

“Everyone knows something.” And someone knows more than the rest. Is it you, Vurms?

The Lord Governor’s son thought about it for a moment. Dense, or guilty? Is he trying to think of ways to help me, or ways to cover his tracks? “I know the natives hated him. They were forever plotting against us, and Davoust was tireless in his pursuit of the disloyal. I have no doubt he fell victim to one of their schemes. I’d be asking questions down in the Lower City, if I was you.”

“Oh, I am quite confident the answers lie here in the Citadel.”

“Not with me,” snapped Vurms, looking Glokta up and down. “Believe me when I say, I would be much happier if Davoust was still with us.”

Perhaps, or perhaps not, but we will get no answers today. “Very well. Tell me about the city’s stores.”

“The stores?”

“Food, Korsten, food. I understand that, since the Gurkish closed the land routes, everything must be brought in by sea. Feeding the people is surely one of a governor’s most pressing concerns.”

“My father is mindful of his people’s needs in any eventuality!” snapped Vurms. “We have provisions for six months!”

“Six months? For all the inhabitants?”

“Of course.” Better than I expected. One less thing to worry about, at least, from this vast tangle of worries. “Unless you count the natives,” added Vurms, as though it was of no importance.

Glokta paused. “And what will they eat, if the Gurkish lay siege to the city?”

Vurms shrugged. “I really hadn’t thought about it.”

“Indeed? What will happen, do you suppose, when they begin to starve?”

“Well…”

“Chaos is what will happen! We cannot hold the city with four fifths of the population against us!” Glokta sucked at his empty gums in disgust. “You will go to the merchants, you will secure provisions for six months! For everyone! I want six months’ supplies for the rats in the sewers!”

“What am I?” sneered Vurms. “Your grocery boy?”

“I suppose you’re whatever I tell you to be.”

All trace of friendliness had vanished from Vurms’ face now. “I am the son of a Lord Governor! I refuse to be addressed in this manner!” The legs of his chair squealed furiously as he sprang up and made for the door.

“Fine,” murmured Glokta. “There’s a boat that goes to Adua every day. A fast boat, and it takes its cargo straight to the House of Questions. They’ll address you differently there, believe me. I could easily arrange a berth for you.”

Vurms stopped in his tracks. “You wouldn’t dare!”

Glokta smiled. His most revolting, leering, gap-toothed smile. “You’d have to be a bold man to bet your life on what I’d dare. How bold are you?” The young man licked his lips, but he did not meet Glokta’s gaze for long. I thought not. He reminds me of my friend Captain Luthar. All flash and arrogance, but with no kind of character to hang it on. Prick him with a pin, and he sags like a punctured wineskin.

“Six months’ food. Six months for everyone. And see that it’s done promptly.” Grocery boy.

“Of course,” growled Vurms, still staring grimly at the floor.

“Then we can get started on the water. The wells, the cisterns, the pumps. People will need something to wash all your hard work down with, eh? You will report to me every morning.”

Vurms’ fists clenched and unclenched by his sides, his jaw muscles worked with fury. “Of course,” he managed to splutter.

“Of course. You may go.”

Glokta watched him stalk away. And I have talked to two out of four. Two of four, and I have made two enemies. I will need allies if I am to succeed here. Without allies, I will not last, regardless of what documents I hold. Without allies I will not keep the Gurkish out, if they decide to try and come in. Worse yet, I still know nothing of Davoust. A Superior of the Inquisition, disappeared into thin air. Let us hope the Arch Lector will be patient.

Hope. Arch Lector. Patience. Glokta frowned. Never have three ideas belonged together less.


The Thing About Trust

<p>The Thing About Trust</p>

The wheel on the cart turned slowly round, and squeaked. It turned round again, and squeaked. Ferro scowled at it. Damn wheel. Damn cart. She shifted her scorn from the cart to its driver.

Damn apprentice. She didn’t trust him a finger’s breadth. His eyes flickered over to her, lingered an insulting moment, then darted off. As if he knew something about Ferro that she did not know herself. That made her angry. She looked away from him to the first of the horses, and its rider.

Damn Union boy with his stiff back, sitting in his saddle like a King sits on his throne, as though being born with a good-shaped face was an achievement to be endlessly proud of. He was pretty, and neat, and dainty as a princess. Ferro smiled grimly to herself. The princess of the Union, that’s what he was. She hated fine-looking people even more than ugly ones. Beauty was never to be trusted.

You would have had to look far and wide to find anyone less beautiful than the big nine-fingered bastard. He sat in his saddle slumped over like some great sack of rice. Slow-moving, scratching, sniffing, chewing like a big cow. Trying to look like he had no killing in him, no mad fury, no devil. She knew better. He nodded to her and she scowled back. He was a devil wearing a cow’s skin, and she was not fooled.

Better than that damn Navigator, though. Always talking, always smiling, always laughing. Ferro hated talk, and smiles, and laughter, each one more than the last. Stupid little man with his stupid tales. Underneath all his lies he was plotting, watching, she could feel it.

That left the First of the Magi, and she trusted him least of all.

She saw his eyes sliding to the cart. Looking at the sack he’d put the box in. Square, grey, dull, heavy box. He thought no one had seen, but she had. Full of secrets is what he was. Bald bastard, with his thick neck and his wooden pole, acting as if he had done nothing but good in his life, as if he would not know where to begin at making a man explode.

“Damn fucking pinks,” she whispered to herself. She leaned over and spat onto the track, glowered at their five backs as they rode ahead of her. Why had she let Yulwei talk her into this madness? A voyage way off into the cold west where she had no business. She should have been back in the South, fighting the Gurkish.

Making them pay what they owed her.

Cursing the name of Yulwei silently to herself, she followed the others up to the bridge. It looked ancient—pitted stones splattered with stains of lichen, the surface of it rutted deep where a cart’s wheels would roll. Thousands of years of carts, rolling back and forward. The stream gurgled under its single arch, bitter cold water, flowing fast. A low hut stood beside the bridge, settled and slumped into the landscape over long years. Some wisps of smoke were snatched from its chimney and out across the land in the cutting wind.

One soldier stood outside, alone. Drew the short straw, maybe. He’d pressed himself against the wall, swathed in a heavy cloak, horse-hair on his helmet whipping back and forth in the gusts, his spear ignored beside him. Bayaz reined his horse in before the bridge and nodded across.

“We’re going up onto the plain. Out towards Darmium.”

“Can’t advise it. Dangerous up there.”

Bayaz smiled. “Dangers mean profits.”

“Profits won’t stop an arrow, friend.” The soldier looked them up and down, one by one, and sniffed. “Varied crowd, aren’t you?”

“I take good fighters wherever I can find them.”

“Course.” He looked over at Ferro and she scowled back. “Very tough, I’m sure, but the fact is the plains are deadly, and more than ever now. Some traders are still going up there, but they’re not coming back. That madman Cabrian has raiders out there, I reckon, keen for plunder. Scario and Goltus too, they’re little better. We keep some shred of law on this side of the stream, but once you’re up there, you’re on your own. There’ll be no help for you if you’re caught out on the plain.” He sniffed again. “No help at all.”

Bayaz nodded grimly. “We ask for none.” He spurred his horse and it began to trot over the bridge, onto the track on the other side. The others followed behind, Longfoot first, then Luthar, then Ninefingers. Quai shook the reins and the cart clattered across. Ferro brought up the rear.

“No help at all!” the soldier called after her, before he wedged himself back against the rough wall of his hut.


The great plain.

It should have been good land for riding, reassuring land. Ferro could have seen an enemy coming from miles away, but she saw no one. Only the vast carpet of tall grass, waving and thrashing in the wind, stretching away in every direction, to the far, far, horizon. Only the track broke the monotony, a line of shorter, drier grass, pocked with patches of bare black earth, cutting across the plain straight as an arrow flies.

Ferro did not like it, this vast sameness. She frowned as they rode, peering left and right. In the Badlands of Kanta, the barren earth was full of features—broken boulders, withered valleys, dried-up trees casting their clawing shadows, distant creases in the earth full of shade, bright ridges doused in light. In the Badlands of Kanta, the sky above would be empty, still, a bright bowl holding nothing but the blinding sun in the day, the bright stars at night.

Here all was strangely reversed.

The earth was featureless, but the sky was full of movement, full of chaos. Towering clouds loomed over the plain, dark and light swirling together into colossal spirals, sweeping over the grassland with the raking wind, shifting, turning, ripping apart and flooding back together, casting monstrous, flowing shadows onto the cowering earth, threatening to crush the six tiny riders and their tiny cart with a deluge to sink the world. All hanging over Ferro’s hunched up shoulders, the wrath of God made real.

This was a strange land, one in which she had no place. She needed reasons to be here, and good ones. “You, Bayaz!” she shouted, drawing up level with him. “Where are we going?”

“Huh,” he grunted, frowning out across the waving grass, from nothing, to nothing. “We are going westwards, across the plain, over the great river Aos, as far as the Broken Mountains.”

“Then?”

She saw the faint lines around his eyes, across the bridge of his nose, grow deeper, watched his lips press together. Annoyance. He did not like her questions. “Then we go further.”

“How long will it take?”

“All of winter and into spring,” he snapped. “And then we must come back.” He dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and trotted away from her, up the track towards the front of the group.

Ferro was not so easily put off. Not by this shifty old pink. She dug in her own heels and drew up level with him. “What is the First Law?”

Bayaz looked sharply over at her. “What do you know about it?”

“Not enough. I heard you and Yulwei talking, through the door.”

“Eavesdropping, eh?”

“You have loud voices and I have good ears.” Ferro shrugged. “I am not sticking a bucket on my head just to keep your secrets. What is the First Law?”

The lines round Bayaz’ forehead grew deeper, the corners of his mouth turned down. Anger. “A stricture that Euz placed on his sons, the first rule made after the chaos of ancient days. It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct. Forbidden to communicate with the world below, forbidden to summon demons, forbidden to open gates to hell. Such is the First Law, the guiding principle of all magic.”

“Uh,” snorted Ferro. It meant nothing to her. “Who is Khalul?”

Bayaz’ thick brows drew in together, his frown deepened, his eyes narrowed. “Is there no end to your questions, woman?” Her questions galled him. That was good. That meant they were the right questions.

“You’ll know if I stop asking them. Who is Khalul?”

“Khalul was one of the order of Magi,” growled Bayaz. “One of my order. The second of Juvens’ twelve apprentices. He was always jealous of my place, always thirsty for power. He broke the Second Law to get it. He ate the flesh of men, and persuaded others to do the same. He made of himself a false prophet, tricked the Gurkish into serving him. That is Khalul. Your enemy, and mine.”

“What is the Seed?”

The Magus’ face gave a sudden twitch. Fury, and perhaps the slightest trace of fear. Then his face softened. “What is it?” He smiled at her, and his smile worried her more than all his anger could have. He leaned towards her, close enough that no one else could hear. “It is the instrument of your vengeance. Of our vengeance. But it is dangerous. Even to speak of it is dangerous. There are those who are always listening. It would be wise for you to shut the door on your questions, before the answers to them burn us all.” He spurred his horse once again, trotting out ahead of the party on his own.

Ferro stayed behind. She had learned enough for now. Learned enough to trust this First of the Magi less than ever.


A hollow in the ground, no more than four strides across. A sink in the soil, ringed by a low wall of damp, dark earth, full of tangled grass roots. That was the best place they had found to camp for the night, and they had been lucky to find it.

It was as big a feature in the landscape as Ferro had seen all day.

The fire that Longfoot had made was burning well now, flames licking bright and hungry at the wood, rustling and flickering out sideways as a gust of wind swept down into the hollow. The five pinks sat clustered around it, hunched and huddled for warmth, light from it bright on their pinched-up faces.

Longfoot was the only one speaking. His talk was all of his own great achievements. How he had been to this place or that. How he knew this thing or that. How he had a remarkable talent for this, or for that. Ferro was sick of it already, and had told him so twice. The first time she thought she had been clear. The second time she had made sure of it. He would not be talking to her of his idiot travels again, but the others still suffered in silence.

There was space for her, down by the fire, but she did not want it. She preferred to sit above them, cross-legged in the grass on the lip of the hollow. It was cold up here in the wind, and she pulled the blanket tighter round her shivering shoulders. A strange and frightening thing, cold. She hated it.

But she preferred cold to company.

And so she sat apart, sullen and silent, and watched the light drain out of the brooding sky, watched the darkness creep into the land. There was just the faintest glow of the sun now, on the distant horizon. A last feeble brightness round the edges of the looming clouds.

The big pink stood up, and looked at her. “Getting dark,” he said.

“Uh.”

“Guess that’s what happens when the sun goes down, eh?”

“Uh.”

He scratched at the side of his thick neck. “We need to set watches. Could be dangerous out here at night. We’ll take it in shifts. I’ll go first, then Luthar—”

“I’ll watch,” she grunted.

“Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll wake you later.”

“I do not sleep.”

He stared at her. “What, never?”

“Not often.”

“Maybe that explains her mood,” murmured Longfoot.

Meant to be under his breath, no doubt, but Ferro heard him. “My mood is my business, fool.”

The Navigator said nothing as he wrapped himself in his blanket and stretched out beside the fire.

“You want to go first?” said Ninefingers, “then do it, but wake me a couple of hours in. We each should take our turn.”


Slowly, quietly, wincing with the need not to make noise, Ferro stole from the cart. Dry meat. Dry bread. Water flask. Enough to keep her going for days. She shoved it into a canvas bag.

One of the horses snorted and shied as she slipped past and she scowled at it. She could ride. She could ride well, but she wanted nothing to do with horses. Damn fool, big beasts. Smelled bad. They might move quick, but they needed too much food and water. You could see and hear them from miles away. They left great big tracks to follow. Riding a horse made you weak. Rely on a horse and when you need to run, you find you can’t any more.

Ferro had learned never to rely on anything except herself.

She slipped the bag over one shoulder, her quiver and her bow over the other. She took one last look at the sleeping shapes of the others, dark mounds clustered round the fire. Luthar had the blanket drawn up under his chin, smooth-skinned, full-lipped face turned towards the glowing embers. Bayaz had his back to her, but she could see the dim light shining off his bald pate, the back of one dark ear, hear the slow rhythm of his breathing. Longfoot had his blanket pulled up over his head, but his bare feet stuck from the other end, thin and bony, tendons standing out like tree roots from the mud. Quai’s eyes were open the tiniest chink, firelight shining wet on a slit of eyeball. Made it look like he was watching her, but his chest was moving slowly up and down, mouth hanging slack, sound asleep and dreaming, no doubt.

Ferro frowned. Just four? Where was the big pink? She saw his blanket lying empty on the far side of the fire, dark folds and light folds, but no man inside. Then she heard his voice.

“Going already?”

Behind her. That was a surprise, that he could have crept around her like that, while she was stealing food. He seemed too big, too slow, too noisy to creep up on anyone. She cursed under her breath. She should have known better than to go by the way things seemed.

She turned slowly round to face him and took one step towards the horses. He followed, keeping the distance between them the same. Ferro could see the glowing fire reflected in one corner of each of his eyes, a curve of cratered, stubbly cheek, the vague outline of his bent nose, a few strands of greasy hair floating over his head in the breeze, slightly blacker than the black land behind.

“I don’t want to fight you, pink. I’ve seen you fight.” She had seen him kill five men in a few moments, and even she had been surprised. The memory of the laughter echoing from the walls, his twisted hungry face, half snarl, half smile, covered in blood, and spit, and madness, the ruined corpses strewn on the stones like rags, all this was sharp in her mind. Not that she was frightened, of course, for Ferro Maljinn felt no fear.

But she knew when to be careful.

“I’ve no wish to fight you either,” he said, “but if Bayaz finds you gone in the morning, he’ll have me chasing you. I’ve seen you run, and I’d rather fight you than chase you. At least I’d have some chance.”

He was stronger than her, and she knew it. Almost healed now, moving freely. She regretted helping him with that. Helping people was always a mistake. A fight was an awful risk. She might be tougher than others, but she’d no wish to have her face broken into slop like that big man, the Stone Splitter. No wish to be stuck through with a sword, to have her knees smashed, her head ripped half off.

None of that held any appeal.

But he was too close to shoot, and if she ran he’d rouse the others, and they had horses. Fighting would probably wake them anyway, but if she could land a good blow quickly she might get away in the confusion. Hardly perfect, but what choice did she have? She slowly swung the bag off her shoulder and lowered it to the ground, then her bow and her quiver. She put one hand onto the hilt of her sword, fingers brushing the grip in the darkness, and he did the same.

“Alright then, pink. Let’s get to it.”

“Might be there’s another way.”

She watched him, suspicious, ready for tricks. “What way?”

“Stay with us. Give it a few days. If you don’t change your mind, well, I’ll help you pack. You can trust me.” Trust was a word for fools. It was a word people used when they meant to betray you. If he moved forward a finger’s width she would sweep the sword out and take his head off. She was ready.

But he did not move forward and he did not move back. He stood there, a big, silent outline in the darkness. She frowned, fingertips still tickling the grip of the curved sword. “Why should I trust you?”

The big pink shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Why not? Back in the city, I helped you and you helped me. Without each other, might be we’d both be dead.” It was true, she supposed, he had helped her. Not as much as she had helped him, but still. “Time comes you got to stick at something, don’t you? That’s the thing about trust, sooner or later you just got to do it, without good reasons.”

“Why?”

“Otherwise you end up like us, and who wants that?”

“Huh.”

“I’ll do you a deal. You watch my back, I’ll watch yours.” He tapped his chest slowly with his thumb. “I’ll stick.” He pointed at her. “You’ll stick. What d’you say?”

Ferro thought about it. Running had given her freedom, but little else. It had taken her through years of misery to the very edge of the desert, hemmed in by enemies. She had run from Yulwei and the Eaters had nearly taken her. Where would she run to now, anyway? Would she run across the sea to Kanta? Perhaps the big pink was right. Perhaps the time had come to stop running.

At least until she could get away unnoticed.

She took her hand away from her sword, slowly folded her arms across her chest, and he did the same. They stood there for a long moment, watching one another in the darkness, in the silence. “Alright, pink,” she growled. “I will stick, as you say, and we will see. But I make no fucking promises, you understand?”

“I didn’t ask for promises. My turn at the watch. You get some rest.”

“I need no rest, I told you that.”

“Suit yourself, but I’m sitting down.”

“Fine.”

The big pink began to lower himself cautiously towards the earth, and she followed him. They sat cross-legged where they had stood, facing each other, the embers of the campfire glowing beside them, casting a faint brightness over the four sleepers, across one side of the pink’s lumpy face, casting a faint warmth across hers.

They watched each other.


Allies

<p>Allies</p>

To Arch Lector Sult,

head of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

Your Eminence,

Work is underway on the defences of the city. The famous land walls, though powerful, are in a shameful condition, and I have taken vigorous steps to strengthen them. I have also ordered extra supplies, food, armour, and weapons, essential if the city is to stand a siege of any duration.

Unfortunately, the defences are extensive, and the scale of the task vast. I have begun the work on credit, but credit will only stretch so far. I most humbly entreat that your Eminence will send me funds with which to work. Without money our efforts must cease, and the city will be lost.

The Union forces here are few, and morale is not high. There are mercenaries within the city, and I have ordered that more be recruited, but their loyalty is questionable, particularly if they cannot be paid. I therefore request that more of the King’s soldiers might be sent. Even a single company could make a difference.

You will hear from me soon. Until then, I serve and obey.

Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska.

“This is the place,” said Glokta.

“Uh,” said Frost.

It was a rough building of one storey, carelessly built from mud bricks, no bigger than a good-sized wood shed. Chinks of light spilled out into the night from around the ill-fitting door and the ill-fitting shutters in the single window. It was much the same as the other huts in the street, if you could call it a street. It hardly looked like the residence of a member of Dagoska’s ruling council. But then Kahdia is the odd man out in many ways. The leader of the natives. The priest without a temple. The one with least to lose, perhaps?

The door opened before Glokta even had the chance to knock. Kahdia stood in the doorway, tall and slender in his white robe. “Why don’t you come in?” The Haddish turned, stepped over to the only chair and sat down in it.

“Wait here,” said Glokta.

“Uh.”

The inside of the shed was no more auspicious than the outside. Clean, and orderly, and poor as hell. The ceiling was so low that Glokta could only just stand upright, the floor was hard-packed dirt. A straw mattress lay on empty crates at one end of the single room, a small chair beside it. A squat cupboard stood under the window, a few books stacked on top, a guttering candle burning beside them. Apart from a dented bucket for natural functions, that appeared to be the full extent of Kahdia’s worldly possessions. No sign of any hidden corpses of Superiors of the Inquisition, but you never know. A body can be packed away quite neatly, if one cuts it into small enough pieces…

“You should move out of the slums.” Glokta shut the door behind him on creaking hinges, limped to the bed and sat down heavily on the mattress.

“Natives are not permitted within the Upper City, or had you not heard?”

“I’m sure that an exception could be made in your case. You could have chambers in the Citadel. Then I wouldn’t have to limp all the way down here to speak to you.”

“Chambers in the Citadel? While my fellows rot down here in the filth? The least a leader can do is to share the burdens of his people. I have little other comfort to give them.” It was sweltering hot down here in the Lower City, but Kahdia did not seem uncomfortable. His gaze was level, his eyes were fixed on Glokta’s, dark and cool as deep water. “Do you disapprove?”

Glokta rubbed at his aching neck. “Not in the least. Martyrdom suits you, but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t join in.” He licked at his empty gums. “I’ve made my sacrifices.”

“Perhaps not all of them. Ask your questions.” Straight to business, then. Nothing to hide? Or nothing to lose?

“Do you know what became of my predecessor, Superior Davoust?”

“It is my earnest hope that he died in great pain.” Glokta felt his eyebrows lift. The very last thing I expected—an honest answer. Perhaps the first honest answer that I have received to that question, but hardly one that frees him from suspicion.

“In great pain, you say?”

“Very great pain. And I will shed no tears if you join him.”

Glokta smiled. “I don’t know that I can think of anyone who will, but Davoust is the matter in hand. Were your people involved in his disappearance?”

“It is possible. Davoust gave us reasons enough. There are many families missing husbands, fathers, daughters, because of his purges, his tests of loyalty, his making of examples. My people number many thousands, and I cannot watch them all. The one thing I can tell you is that I know nothing of his disappearance. When one devil falls they always send another, and here you are. My people have gained nothing.”

“Except Davoust’s silence. Perhaps he discovered that you had made a deal with the Gurkish. Perhaps joining the Union was not all your people hoped for.”

Kahdia snorted. “You know nothing. No Dagoskan would ever strike a deal with the Gurkish.”

“To an outsider, the two of you seem to have much in common.”

“To an ignorant outsider, we do. We both have dark skin, and we both pray to God, but that is the full extent of the similarity. We Dagoskans have never been a warlike people. We remained here on our peninsula, confident in the strength of our defences, while the Gurkish Empire spread like a cancer across the Kantic continent. We thought their conquests were none of our concern. That was our folly. Emissaries came to our gates, demanding that we kneel before the Gurkish Emperor, and acknowledge that the prophet Khalul speaks with the voice of God. We would do neither, and Khalul swore to destroy us. Now, it seems, he will finally succeed. All of the South will be his dominion.” And the Arch Lector will not be in the least amused.

“Who knows? Perhaps God will come to your aid.”

“God favours those who solve their own problems.”

“Perhaps we can solve some problems between us.”

“I have no interest in helping you.”

“Even if you help yourself as well? I have it in mind to issue a decree. The gates of the Upper City will be opened, your people will be allowed to come and go in their own city as they please. The Spicers will be turned out of the Great Temple, and it shall once again be your sacred ground. The Dagoskans will be permitted to carry arms; indeed, we will provide you with weapons from our own armouries. The natives will be treated like full citizens of the Union. They deserve nothing less.”

“So. So.” Kahdia clasped his hands together and sat back in his creaking chair. “Now, with the Gurkish knocking at the gates, you come to Dagoska, flaunting your little scroll as though it was the word of God, and you choose to do the right thing. You are not like all the others. You are a good man, a fair man, a just man. You expect me to believe this?”

“Honestly? I don’t care a shit what you believe, and I care about doing the right thing even less—that’s all a matter of who you ask. As for being a good man,” and Glokta curled his lip, “that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off. I’m interested in holding Dagoska. That and nothing else.”

“And you know you cannot hold Dagoska without our help.”

“Neither one of us is a fool, Kahdia. Don’t insult me by acting like one. We can bicker with each other until the Gurkish tide sweeps over the land walls, or we can cooperate. You never know, together we might even beat them. Your people will help us dig the ditch, repair the walls, hang the gates. You will provide a thousand men to serve in the defence of the city, to begin with, and more later.”

“Will I? Will I indeed? And if, with our help, the city stands? Will our deal stand with it?”

If the city stands, I will be gone. More than likely, Vurms and the rest will be back in charge, and our deal will be dust. “If the city stands, you have my word that I will do everything possible.”

“Everything possible. Meaning nothing.” You get the idea.

“I need your help, so I’m offering you what I can. I’d offer you more, but I don’t have more. You could sulk down here in the slums with the flies for company, and wait for the Emperor to come. Perhaps the great Uthman-ul-Dosht will offer you a better deal.” Glokta looked Kahdia in the eye for a moment. “But we both know he won’t.”

The priest pursed his lips, stroked his beard, then gave a deep sigh. “They say a man lost in the desert must take such water as he is offered, no matter who it comes from. I accept your deal. Once the temple is empty we will dig your holes, and carry your stone, and wear your swords. Something is better than nothing, and, as you say, perhaps together we can even beat the Gurkish. Miracles do happen.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Glokta as he shoved on his cane and grunted his way to his feet, shirt sticking to his sweaty back. “So I’ve heard.” But I’ve never seen one.


Glokta stretched out on the cushions in his chambers, head back, mouth open, resting his aching body. The same chambers that were once occupied by my illustrious predecessor, Superior Davoust. They were a wide, airy, well-furnished set of rooms. Perhaps they once belonged to a Dagoskan Prince, or a scheming vizier, or a dusky concubine, before the natives were thrown out into the dust of the Lower City. Better by far than my poky shit-hole in the Agriont, except that Superiors of the Inquisition have been known to go missing from these rooms.

One set of windows faced northward, out towards the sea, on the steepest side of the rock, the other looked over the baking city. Both were equipped with heavy shutters. Outside it was a sheer drop over bare stone to jagged rocks and angry salt water. The door was six fingers thick, studded with iron, fitted with a heavy lock and four great bolts. Davoust was a cautious man, and with good reason, it would seem. So how could assassins have got in, and having got in, how could they remove the body?

He felt his mouth curving into a smile. How will they remove mine, when they come? Already my enemies mount up—the sneering Vurms, the punctilious Vissbruck, the merchants whose profits I threaten, the Practical who served Harker and Davoust, the natives with good reason to hate anyone who wears black, my old enemies the Gurkish, of course, and all that providing his Eminence does not get anxious at the lack of progress, and decide to have me replaced himself. Will anyone come searching for my twisted corpse, I wonder?

“Superior.”

Opening his eyes and lifting his head was a great and painful effort. Everything hurt from his exertions of the past few days. His neck clicked like a snapping twig with every movement, his back was stiff and brittle as a mirror, his leg veered between nagging agony and trembling numbness.

Shickel was standing in the doorway, head bowed. The cuts and bruises on her dark face were healed. There was no outward sign of the ordeal she had suffered in the cells below. She never looked him in the eye, though, always at the floor. Some wounds take time to heal, and others never do. I should know.

“What is it, Shickel?”

“Magister Eider sends you an invitation to dinner.”

“Does she indeed?”

The girl nodded.

“Send word that I will be honoured to attend.”

Glokta watched her pad out of the room, head bowed, then he sagged back onto his cushions. If I disappear tomorrow, at least I will have saved one person. Perhaps that means my life has not been a total waste of time. Sand dan Glokta, shield to the helpless. Is it ever too late to be… a good man?


“Please!” squealed Harker. “Please! I know nothing!” He was bound tightly to his chair, unable to move his body far. But he makes up for it with his eyes. They darted back and forth over Glokta’s instruments, glittering in the harsh lamplight on the scarred table top. Oh yes, you understand better than most how this will work. Knowledge is so often the antidote to fear. But not here. Not now. “I know nothing!”

“I will be the judge of what you know.” Glokta wiped some sweat from his face. The room was hot as a busy forge and the glowing coals in the brazier were far from helping. “If a thing smells like a liar, and is the colour of a liar, the chances are it is a liar, would you not agree?”

“Please! We are all on the same side!” Are we? Are we really? “I have told you only the truth!”

“Perhaps, but not as much of it as I need.”

“Please! We are all friends here!”

“Friends? In my experience, a friend is merely an acquaintance who has yet to betray you. Is that what you are, Harker?”

“No!”

Glokta frowned. “Then you are our enemy?”

“What? No! I just… I just… I wanted to know what happened! That’s all! I didn’t mean to… please!” Please, please, please, I tire of hearing it. “You have to believe me!”

“The only thing I have to do is get answers.”

“Only ask your questions, Superior, I beg of you! Only give me the opportunity to cooperate!” Oh indeed, the firm hand does not seem such a fine idea any longer, does it? “Ask your questions, I will do my best to answer!”

“Good.” Glokta perched himself on the edge of the table just beside his tightly bound prisoner and looked down at him. “Excellent.” Harker’s hands were tanned deep brown, his face was tanned deep brown, the rest of his body was pale as a white slug with thick patches of dark hair. Hardly a fetching look. But it could be worse. “Answer me this, then. Why is it that men have nipples?”

Harker blinked. He swallowed. He looked up at Frost, but there was, no help there. The albino stared back, unblinking, white skin round his mask beaded with sweat, eyes hard as two pink jewels. “I… I am not sure I understand, Superior.”

“Is it not a simple question? Nipples, Harker, on men. What purpose do they serve? Have you not often wondered?”

“I… I…”

Glokta sighed. “They chafe and become painful in the wet. They dry out and become painful in the heat. Some women, for reasons I could never fathom, insist on fiddling with them in bed, as though we derive anything but annoyance from having them interfered with.” Glokta reached towards the table, while Harker’s wide eyes followed his every movement, and slid his hand slowly around the grips of the pincers. He lifted them up and examined them, the well-sharpened jaws glinting in the bright lamplight. “A man’s nipples,” he murmured, “are a positive hindrance to him. Do you know? Aside from the unsightly scarring, I don’t miss mine in the least.”

He grabbed the tip of Harker’s nipple and dragged it roughly towards him. “Ah!” squawked the one-time Inquisitor, the chair creaking as he tried desperately to twist away. “No!”

“You think that hurts? Then I doubt you’ll enjoy what’s coming.” And Glokta slid the open jaws of the pincers around the stretched out flesh and squeezed them tight.

“Ah! Ah! Please! Superior, I beg you!”

“Your begging is worthless to me. What I need from you is answers. What became of Davoust?”

“I swear on my life that I don’t know!”

“Not good enough.” Glokta began to squeeze harder, the metal edges starting to bite into the skin.

Harker gave a despairing shriek. “Wait! I took money! I admit it! I took money!”

“Money?” Glokta let the pressure release a fraction and a drop of blood dripped from the pincers and spattered on Harker’s hairy white leg. “What money?”

“Money Davoust took from the natives! After the rebellion! He had me round up any that I thought might be rich, and he had them hanged along with the rest, and we requisitioned everything they had and split it between us! He kept his share in a chest in his quarters, and when he disappeared… I took it!”

“Where is this money now?”

“Gone! I spent it! On women… and on wine, and, and, on anything!”

Glokta clicked his tongue. “Tut, tut.” Greed and conspiracy, injustice and betrayal, robbery and murder. All the ingredients of a tale to titillate the masses. Saucy, but hardly relevant. He worked his hand around the pincers. “It is the Superior himself, not his money, that interests me. Believe me when I say that I grow tired of asking the question. What became of Davoust?”

“I… I… I don’t know!”

True, perhaps. But hardly the answer I need. “Not good enough.” Glokta squeezed his hand and the metal jaws bit cleanly through flesh and met in the middle with a gentle click. Harker bellowed, and thrashed, and roared in agony, blood bubbling from the red square of flesh where his nipple used to be and running down his pale belly in dark streaks. Glokta winced at a twinge in his neck and stretched his head out until he heard it click. Strange how, with time, even the most terrible suffering of others can become… tedious.

“Practical Frost, the Inquisitor is bleeding! If you please!”

“I’th thorry.” The iron scraped as Frost dragged it from the brazier, glowing orange. Glokta could feel the heat of it even from where he was sitting. Ah, hot iron. It keeps no secrets, it tells no lies.

“No! No! I—” Harker’s words dissolved into a bubbling scream as Frost ground the brand into the wound and the room filled slowly with the salty aroma of cooking meat. A smell which, to Glokta’s disgust, caused his empty stomach to rumble. How long is it since I had a good slice of meat? He wiped a fresh sheen of sweat from his face with his free hand and worked his aching shoulders under his coat.

An ugly business, that we find ourselves in. So why do I do this? The only answer was the soft crunch as Frost slid the iron carefully back into the coals, sending up a dusting of orange sparks. Harker twisted, and whimpered, and shook, his weeping eyes bulging, a strand of smoke still curling up from the blackened flesh on his chest. An ugly business, of course. No doubt he deserves it, but that changes nothing. Probably he has no clue what became of Davoust, but that changes nothing either. The questions must be asked, and exactly as if he did know the answers.

“Why do you insist on defying me, Harker? Could it be… that you suppose… that once I’m done with your nipples I’ll have run out of ideas? Is that what you’re thinking? That your nipples are where I’ll stop?”

Harker stared at him, bubbles of spit forming and breaking on his lips. Glokta leaned closer. “Oh, no, no, no. This is only the beginning. This is before the beginning. Time opens up ahead of us in pitiless abundance. Days, and weeks, and months of it, if need be. Do you seriously believe that you can keep your secrets for that long? You belong to me, now. To me, and to this room. This cannot stop until I know what I need to know.” He reached forward and gripped Harker’s other nipple between thumb and forefinger. He took up the pincers and opened their bloody jaws. “How difficult can that be to understand?”


Magister Eider’s dining chamber was fabulous to behold. Cloths of silver and crimson, gold and purple, green and blue and vivid yellow, rippled in the gentle breeze from the narrow windows. Screens of filigree marble adorned the walls, great pots as high as a man stood in the corners. Heaps of pristine cushions were tossed about the floor, as though inviting passers-by to sprawl in comfortable decadence. Coloured candles burned in tall glass jars, casting warm light into every corner, filling the air with sweet scent. At one end of the marble hall clear water trickled gently in a star-shaped pool. There was more than a touch of the theatrical about the place. Like a Queen’s boudoir from some Kantic legend.

Magister Eider, head of the Guild of Spicers, was herself the centrepiece. The very Queen of merchants. She sat at the top of the table in a pristine white gown, shimmering silk with just the slightest, fascinating hint of transparency. A small fortune in jewels flashed on every inch of tanned skin, her hair was piled up and held in place with ivory combs, excepting a few strands, curling artfully around her face. It looked very much as if she had been preparing herself all day. And not a moment was wasted.

Glokta, hunched in his chair at the opposite end with a bowl of steaming soup before him, felt as if he had shuffled into the pages of a storybook. A lurid romance, set in the exotic south, with Magister Eider as the heroine, and myself the disgusting, the crippled, the black-hearted villain. How will this fable end, I wonder? “So, tell me, Magister, to what do I owe this honour?”

“I understand that you have spoken to the other members of the council. I was surprised, and just a little hurt, that you had not sought an audience with me already.”

“I apologise if you felt left out. It seemed only fitting that I saved the most powerful until last.”

She looked up with an air of injured innocence. And a most consummately acted one. “Powerful? Me? Vurms controls the budget, issues the decrees, Vissbruck commands the troops, holds the defences. Kahdia speaks for the great majority of the populace. I scarcely figure.”

“Come now.” Glokta grinned his toothless grin. “You are radiant, of course, but I am not quite blinded. Vurms’ budget is a pittance compared to what the Spicers make. Kahdia’s people have been rendered almost helpless. Through your pickled friend Cosca you command more than twice the troops that Vissbruck does. The only reason the Union is even interested in this thirsty rock is for the trade that your guild controls.”

“Well, I don’t like to boast.” The Magister gave an artless shrug. “But I suppose that I do have some passing influence in the city. You have been asking questions, I see.”

“That’s what I do.” Glokta raised his spoon to his mouth, trying his best not to slurp between his remaining teeth. “This soup is delicious, by the way.” And, one hopes, not fatal.

“I thought you might appreciate it. You see, I have been asking questions also.”

The water plopped and tinkled in the pool, the fabric rustled on the walls, the silverware clicked gently against the fine pottery of their bowls. I would call that first round a draw. Carlot dan Eider was the first to break the silence.

“I realise, of course, that you have a mission from the Arch Lector himself. A mission of the greatest importance. I see that you are not a man to mince your words, but you might want to tread a little more carefully.”

“I admit my gait is awkward. A war wound, compounded by two years of torture. It’s a wonder I got to keep the leg at all.”

She smiled wide, displaying two rows of perfect teeth. “I am thoroughly tickled, but my colleagues have found you somewhat less entertaining. Vurms and Vissbruck have both taken a decided dislike to you. High-handed was the phrase they used, I believe, among others I had better not repeat.”

Glokta shrugged. “I am not here to make friends.” And he drained his glass of a predictably excellent wine.

“But friends can be useful. If nothing else, a friend is one less enemy. Davoust insisted on upsetting everyone, and the results have not been happy.”

“Davoust did not enjoy the support of the Closed Council.”

“True. But no document will stop a knife thrust.”

“Is that a threat?”

Carlot dan Eider laughed. It was an easy, open, friendly laugh. It was hard to believe that anyone who made such a sound could be a traitor, or a threat, or anything other than a perfectly charming host. And yet I am not entirely convinced. “That is advice. Advice born of bitter experience. I would prefer it if you did not disappear quite yet.”

“Really? I had no idea I was such a winning dinner guest.”

“You are terse, confrontational, slightly frightening, and impose severe restrictions on the menu, but the fact is you are more use to me here than…” and she waved her hand, “wherever Davoust went to. Would you care for more wine?”

“Of course.”

She got up from her chair and swept towards him, feet padding on the cool marble like a dancer’s. Bare feet, in the Kantic fashion. The breeze stirred the flowing garments around her body as she leaned forwards to fill Glokta’s glass, wafted her rich scent in his face. Just the sort of woman my mother would have wanted me to marry—beautiful, clever, and oh so very rich. Just the sort of woman I would have wanted to marry, for that matter, when I was younger. When I was a different man.

The flickering candlelight shone on her hair, flashed on the jewels around her long neck, glowed through the wine as it sloshed from the neck of the bottle. Does she try and charm me merely because I hold the writ of the Closed Council? Nothing more than good business, to be on good terms with the powerful? Or does she hope to fool me, and distract me, and lure me away from the unpleasant truth? Her eyes met his briefly, and she gave a tiny, knowing smile and looked back to his glass. Am I to be her little urchin boy, dirty face pressed up against the bakers window, mouth watering for the sweetmeats I know I can never afford? I think not.

“Where did Davoust go to?”

Magister Eider paused for a moment, then carefully set down the bottle. She slid into the nearest chair, put her elbows on the table, her chin on her hands, and held Glokta’s eye. “I suspect that he was killed by a traitor in the city. Probably an agent of the Gurkish. At the risk of telling you what you already know, Davoust suspected there was a conspiracy afoot within the city’s ruling council. He confided as much to me shortly before his disappearance.”

Did he indeed? “A conspiracy within the ruling council?” Glokta shook his head in mock horror. “Is such a thing possible?”

“Let us be honest with each other, Superior. I want what you want. We in the Guild of Spicers have invested far too much time and money in this city to see it fall to the Gurkish, and you seem to offer a better chance of holding on to it than those idiots Vurms and Vissbruck. If there is a traitor within our walls I want him found.”

“Him… or her.”

Magister Eider raised one delicate eyebrow. “It cannot have escaped your notice that I am the only woman on the council.”

“It has not.” Glokta slurped noisily from his spoon. “But forgive me if I don’t discount you quite yet. It will require more than good soup and pleasant conversation to convince me of anyone’s innocence.” Although it’s a damn sight more than anyone else has offered me.

Magister Eider smiled as she raised her glass. “Then how can I convince you?”

“Honestly? I need money.”

“Ah, money. It always comes back to that. Getting money out of my Guild is like trying to dig up water in the desert—tiring, dirty, and almost always a waste of time.” Somewhat like asking questions of Inquisitor Harker. “How much were you thinking of?”

“We could begin with, say, a hundred thousand marks.”

Eider did not actually choke on her wine. More of a gentle gurgle. She set her glass down carefully, quietly cleared her throat, dabbed at her mouth with the corner of a cloth, then looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “You very well know that no such amount will be forthcoming.”

“I’ll settle for whatever you can give me, for now.”

“We’ll see. Are your ambitions limited to a mere hundred thousand marks, or is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Actually there is. I need the merchants out of the Temple.”

Eider rubbed gently at her own temples, as though Glokta’s demands were giving her a headache. “He wants the merchants out,” she murmured.

“It was necessary to secure Kahdia’s support. With him against us we cannot hope to hold the city for long.”

“I’ve been telling those arrogant fools the same thing for years, but stamping on the natives has become quite the popular pastime nonetheless. Very well, when do you want them out?”

“Tomorrow. At the latest.”

“And they call you high-handed?” She shook her head. “Very well. By tomorrow evening I could well be the most unpopular Magister in living memory, if I still have my post at all, but I’ll try and sell it to the Guild.”

Glokta grinned. “I feel confident that you could sell anything.”

“You’re a tough negotiator, Superior. If you ever get tired of asking questions, I have no doubt you’ve a bright future as a merchant.”

“A merchant? Oh, I’m not that ruthless.” Glokta placed his spoon in the empty bowl and licked at his gums. “I mean no disrespect, but how does a woman come to head the most powerful Guild in the Union?”

Eider paused, as though wondering whether to answer or not. Or judging how much truth to tell when she does. She looked down at her glass, turned the stem slowly round and round. “My husband was Magister before me. When we married I was twenty-two years old, he was near sixty. My father owed him a great deal of money, and offered my hand as payment for the debt.” Ah, so we all have our sufferings. Her lip twisted in a faint scowl. “My husband always had a good nose for a bargain. His health began to decline soon after we married, and I took a more and more active role in the management of his affairs, and those of the Guild. By the time he died I was Magister in all but name, and my colleagues were sensible enough to formalise the arrangement. The Spicers have always been more concerned for profit than propriety.” Her eyes flicked up to look at Glokta. “I mean no disrespect, but how does a war hero come to be a torturer?”

It was his turn to pause. A good question. How did that happen? “There are precious few opportunities for cripples.”

Eider nodded slowly, her eyes never leaving Glokta’s face. “That must have been hard. To come back, after all that time in the darkness, and to find that your friends had no use for you. To see in their faces only guilt, and pity, and disgust. To find yourself alone.”

Glokta’s eyelid was twitching, and he rubbed at it gently. He had never discussed such things with anyone before. And now here I am, discussing them with a stranger. “There can be no doubt that I’m a tragic figure. I used to be a shit of a man, now I’m a husk of one. Take your pick.”

“I imagine it makes you sick, to be treated that way. Very sick, and very angry.” If only you knew. “It still seems a strange decision, though, for the tortured to turn torturer.”

“On the contrary, nothing could be more natural. In my experience, people do as they are done to. You were sold by your father and bought by your husband, and yet you choose to buy and sell.”

Eider frowned. Something for her to think about, perhaps? “I would have thought your pain would give you empathy.”

“Empathy? What’s that?” Glokta winced as he rubbed at his aching leg. “It’s a sad fact, but pain only makes you sorry for yourself.”


Campfire Politics

<p>Campfire Politics</p>

Logen shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, and squinted up at the few birds circling around over the great flat plain. Damn but his arse hurt. His thighs were sore, his nose was all full of the smell of horse. Couldn’t find a comfortable position to put his fruits in. Always squashed, however often he jammed his hand down inside his belt to move ’em. A damn uncomfortable journey this was turning out to be, in all sorts of ways.

He used to talk on the road, back in the North. When he was a boy he’d talked to his father. When he was a young man he’d talked to his friends. When he’d followed Bethod he’d talked to him, all the day long, for they’d been close back then, like brothers almost. Talk took your mind off the blisters on your feet, or the hunger in your belly, or the endless bloody cold, or who’d got killed yesterday.

Logen used to laugh at the Dogman’s stories while they slogged through the snow. He used to puzzle over tactics with Threetrees while they rode through the mud. He used to argue with Black Dow while they waded through bogs, and no subject was ever too small. He’d even traded a joke or two with Harding Grim in his time, and there weren’t too many who could say that.

He sighed to himself. A long, painful sigh that caught at the back of his throat. Good times, no doubt, but far behind him now, in the sunny valleys of the past. Those boys were all gone back to the mud. All silent, forever. Worse yet, they’d left Logen out in the middle of nowhere with this lot.

The great Jezal dan Luthar wasn’t interested in anyone’s stories except his own. He sat stiff upright and aloof the whole time, chin held high, displaying his arrogance, and his superiority, and his contempt for everything like a young man might show off his first sword, long before he learned that it was nothing to be proud of.

Bayaz had no interest in tactics. When he spoke at all he barked in single words, in yeses and in nos, frowning out across the endless grass like a man who’s made a bad mistake and can’t see his way clear of it. His apprentice too seemed changed since they left Adua. Quiet, hard, watchful. Brother Longfoot was away across the plain, scouting out the route. Probably best that way. No one else had any talk at all. The Navigator, Logen had to admit, had far too much.

Ferro rode some distance away from the rest of this friendly gathering, her shoulders hunched, her brows drawn down in a constant scowl, the long scar on her cheek puckered up an angry grey, doing her best to make the others look like a sack of laughs. She leaned forwards, into the wind, pushing at it, as if she hoped to hurt it with her face. More fun to trade jokes with the plague than with her, Logen reckoned.

And that was the merry band. His shoulders slumped. “How long until we get to the Edge of the World?” he asked Bayaz, without much hope.

“Some way yet,” growled the Magus through barely open teeth.

So Logen rode on, tired, and sore, and bored, and watched those few birds gliding slowly over the endless plain. Nice, big, fat birds. He licked his lips. “We could do with some meat,” he muttered. Hadn’t had fresh meat in a good long time now. Not since they left Calcis. Logen rubbed his stomach. The fatty softness from his time in the city was already tightening. “Nice bit of meat.”

Ferro frowned over at him, then up at the few birds circling above. She shrugged her bow off her shoulder.

“Hah!” chuckled Logen. “Good luck.” He watched her slide an arrow smoothly out from her quiver. Futile gesture. Even Harding Grim could never have made that shot, and he was the best man Logen had ever seen with a bow. He watched Ferro nock her shaft to the curved wood, back arched, yellow eyes fixed on the gliding shapes overhead.

“You’ll never bag one of those, not in a thousand years of trying.” She pulled back the string. “Waste of a shaft!” he shouted.

“You’ve got to be realistic about these things!” Probably the arrow would drop back down and stab him in the face. Or stick his horse through the neck, so it died and fell over and crushed him under it. A fitting end to this nightmare of a journey. A moment later one of the birds tumbled down into the grass, Ferro’s arrow stuck right through it.

“No,” he whispered, gawping open-mouthed at her as she bent the bow again. Another arrow sailed up into the grey sky. Another bird flopped to the earth, just beside the first. Logen stared at it, disbelieving. “No!”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen stranger things,” said Bayaz. “A man who talks to spirits, who travels with Magi, the most feared man in all the North?”

Logen pulled his horse up and slithered down from the saddle. He walked through the long grass, bent down on wobbly, aching legs and picked up one of the birds. The shaft had stuck it right through the centre of the breast. If Logen had stabbed it with the arrow at a distance of a foot, he could hardly have done it more neatly. “That’s wrong.”

Bayaz grinned down, hands crossed on the saddle before him. “In ancient days, before history, so the legends say, our world and the Other Side were joined. One world. Demons walked the land, free to do as they pleased. Chaos, beyond dreaming. They bred with humans, and their offspring were half breeds. Part man, part demon. Devil-bloods. Monsters. One among them took the name Euz. He delivered humanity from the tyranny of devils, and the fury of his battle with them shaped the land. He split the world above from the world below, and he sealed the gates between. To prevent such terror ever coming again, he pronounced the First Law. It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct, or to speak with devils.”

Logen watched the others watch Ferro. Luthar and Quai, both frowning at this uncanny display of archery. She leaned right back in her saddle, bow string drawn as tight as it would go, glittering point of the next shaft held perfectly steady, still managing to nudge her mount this way and that with her heels. Logen could scarcely make a horse do what he wanted with the reins in his hands, but he failed to see what Bayaz’ crazy story had to do with it. “Devils and so on, the First Law.” Logen waved his hand. “So what?”

“From the start the First Law was filled with contradictions. All magic comes from the Other Side, falling upon the land as the light falls from the sun. Euz himself was part devil, and so were his sons—Juvens, Kanedias, Glustrod—and others beside. Their blood brought them gifts, and curses. Power, and long life, and strength or sight beyond the limits of simple men. Their blood passed on into their children, growing ever thinner, into their children’s children, and so on through the long centuries. The gifts skipped one generation, then another, then came but rarely. The devil-blood grew thin, and died out. It is rare indeed now, when our world and the world below have drifted so far apart, to see those gifts made flesh. We truly are privileged to witness it.”

Logen raised his eyebrows. “Her? Half devil?”

“Much less than half, my friend.” Bayaz chuckled. “Euz himself was half, and his power threw up the mountains and gouged out the seas. Half could strike a horror and a desire into your blood to stop your heart. Half could blind you to look upon. Not half. No more than a fraction. But in her, there is a trace of the Other Side.”

“The Other Side, eh?” Logen looked down at the dead bird in his hand. “So if I was to touch her, would I break the First Law?”

Bayaz chuckled. “Now that is a sharp question. You always surprise me, Master Ninefingers. I wonder what Euz would say to it?” The Magus pursed his lips. “I think I could find it in myself to forgive you. She however,” and Bayaz nodded his bald head at Ferro, “would most likely cut your hand off.”


Logen lay on his belly, peering through the tall grass into a gentle valley with a shallow brook in its bottom. There was a huddle of buildings on the side nearest them, or the shells of buildings. No roofs left, nothing but the tumbledown walls, mostly no more than waist high, the fallen stones from them scattered across the valley’s slopes, in amongst the waving grass. It could have been a scene out of the North. Lots of villages abandoned there, since the wars. People driven out, dragged out, burned out. Logen had watched it happen, often. He’d joined in more than once. He wasn’t proud of it, but he wasn’t proud of much from those times. Or any other, come to think of it.

“Not a lot left to live in,” whispered Luthar.

Ferro scowled at him. “Plenty left to hide behind.”

Evening was coming on, the sun had dropped low on the horizon and rilled the broken village up with shadows. There was no sign of anyone down there. No sounds beyond the giggling water, the slow wind slithering through the grass. No sign of anyone, but Ferro was right. No sign didn’t necessarily mean no danger.

“You had best go down there and take a look,” murmured Longfoot.

“I best?” Logen glanced sideways at him. “You’re staying here then, eh?”

“I have no talent for fights. You are well aware of that.”

“Huh,” muttered Logen. “No talent for the sorting of fights, plenty for the finding of ’em though.”

“Finding things is what I do. I’m here to Navigate.”

“Maybe you could find me a decent meal and a bed to sleep in,” snapped Luthar, in his whining Union accent.

Ferro sucked her teeth with disgust. “Someone’s got to go,” she growled, sliding over the lip of the slope on her belly. “I’ll take the left.”

No one else moved. “Us too,” Logen grunted at Luthar.

“Me?”

“Who else? Three’s a good number. Let’s go, and let’s keep it stealthy.”

Luthar peered through the grass into the valley, licked his lips, rubbed his palms together. Nervous, Logen could tell, nervous but proud at the same time, like an untried boy before a battle, trying to show he’s not scared by sticking his chin out. Logen wasn’t fooled. He’d seen it all a hundred times before.

“You planning to wait for the morning?” he grunted.

“Just keep your mind on your own shortcomings, Northman,” hissed Luthar as he started to wriggle forward down the slope. “You’ve enough of them!” The rowels of his big, shiny spurs rattled loud as he dragged himself over the edge, clumsy and unpractised, his arse sticking up in the air.

Logen grabbed hold of his coat before he got more than a stride. “You’re not leaving those on are you?”

“What?”

“Those fucking spurs! Stealthy I said! You might as well hang a bell off your cock!”

Luthar scowled as he sat up to pull them off.

“Stay down!” hissed Logen, pushing him back into the grass on his back. “You want to get us killed?”

“Get off me!”

Logen shoved him down again, then stabbed at him with his finger to make sure he got the point. “I’m not dying over your fucking spurs and that’s a fact! If you can’t keep quiet you can stay here with the Navigator.” He glowered over at Longfoot. “Maybe you both can navigate your way into the village once we’ve made sure it’s safe.” He shook his head and crawled down the slope after Ferro.

She was already halfway to the brook, rolling and slithering over the crumbled walls, sneaking across the spaces in between them, keeping low, hand on the grip of her curved sword, quick and silent as the wind over the plain.

Impressive, no doubt, but Logen was nobody’s fool when it came to a spot of sneaking. He’d been known for it, when he was younger. Lost count of the number of Shanka, the number of men he’d come up behind. The first you’ll hear of the Bloody-Nine is the blood hissing out of your neck, that used to be the rumour. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s stealthy.

He flowed up to the first wall, slid one leg over it, silent as a mouse. He lifted himself up, smooth as butter, keeping quiet, keeping low. His back foot caught on a set of loose stones, dragged them scraping with him. He grabbed at them, fumbled them, knocked over even more with his elbow and they clattered down loud around him. He stumbled onto his weak ankle, twisted it, squawked with pain, fell over and rolled through a patch of thistles.

“Shit,” he grunted, struggling up, one hand clutching at the hilt of his sword, all tangled up with his coat. Good thing he hadn’t had it out, or he could’ve stuck himself through with it.

Happened to a friend of his. So busy shouting that he tripped on a tree root and cut a big piece out of his head on his own axe. Back to the mud double time.

He crouched among the fallen stones, waiting for someone to jump him. No one came. Just the wind breathing through the gaps in the old walls, the water chuckling away in the brook. He crept along beside a heap of rough stones, through an old doorway, slithered over a slumping wall, limping and gasping on his bad foot, scarcely making any effort to stay quiet any longer. There was no one there. He’d known it as soon as he fell. No way they could have missed that sorry performance. The Dogman would most likely have been weeping right about now, had he been alive. He waved up at the ridge, and a moment later he saw Longfoot stand up and wave as well.

“No one here,” he muttered to himself.

“Just as well,” hissed Ferro’s voice, not more than a stride or two behind. “You got a new way of scouting, pink. Make so much noise that they come to you.”

“Out of practice,” grunted Logen. “Still, no harm done. No one here.”

“There was.” She was standing in the shell of one of the ruined buildings, frowning down at the ground. A burned patch in the grass, a few stones set around it. A campfire.

“No more ’n a day or two old,” muttered Logen, poking at the ashes with a finger.

Luthar walked up behind them. “No one here after all.” He had a smug, sucked-in look on his face, like he’d somehow been right about something all along. Logen didn’t see what.

“Lucky for you there isn’t, or we might be stitching you together right about now!”

“I’d be stitching the fucking pair of you!” hissed Ferro. “I ought to stitch your useless pink heads together! You’re both as worthless as a bag of sand in the desert! There’s tracks over there. Horses, more than one cart.”

“Merchants maybe?” asked Logen, hopefully. He and Ferro looked at each other for a moment. “Might be better if we stay off the track from now on.”

“Too slow.” Bayaz had made it down into the village now.

Quai and Longfoot weren’t far behind with the cart and the horses. “Far too slow. We stick to the track. We’ll see anyone coming in good time out here. Plenty of time.”

Luthar didn’t look convinced. “If we see them, they’ll see us. What then?”

“Then?” Bayaz raised an eyebrow. “Then we have the famous Captain Luthar to protect us.” He looked round at the ruined village. “Running water, and shelter, of a kind. Seems like a good place to camp.”

“Good enough,” muttered Logen, already rooting through the cart for logs to start a fire of their own. “I’m hungry. What happened to those birds?”


Logen sat, and watched the others eat over the rim of his pot.

Ferro squatted at the very edge of the shifting light from the campfire, hunched over, shadowy face almost stuck right into her bowl, staring around suspiciously and shoving food in with her fingers like she was worried it might be snatched away any moment. Luthar was less enthusiastic. He was nibbling daintily at a wing with his bared front teeth, as though touching it with his lips might poison him, discarded morsels lined up carefully along the side of his platter. Bayaz chewed away with some relish, his beard glistening with gravy. “It’s good,” he muttered around a mouthful. “You might want to consider cookery as a career, Master Ninefingers, if you should ever grow tired of…” he waved his spoon, “whatever it is you do.”

“Huh,” said Logen. In the North everyone took their turn at the fire, and it was reckoned an honour to do it. A good cook was almost as valued as a good fighter. Not here. These were a sorry crowd when it came to minding the pot. Bayaz could just about get his tea boiled, and that was as far as he went. Quai could get a biscuit out of the box on a good day. Logen doubted whether Luthar would even have known which way up the pot went. As for Ferro, she seemed to despise the whole notion of cooking. Logen reckoned she was used to eating her food raw. Perhaps while it was still alive.

In the North, after a hard day on the trail, when the men gathered around the long fires to eat, there was a strict order to who sat where. The chief would go at the top, with his sons and the Named Men of the clan around him. Next came the Carls, in order of fame. Thralls were lucky to get their own small fires further out. Men would always have their place, and only change it when their chief offered, out of respect for some great service they’d done him, or for showing rare good bones in a fight. Sitting out of place could earn you a kicking, or a killing even. Where you sat round the fire was where you stood in life, more or less.

It was different out here on the plains, but Logen could still see a pattern in who sat where, and it was far from a happy one. He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other. He glanced over at Luthar, sneering down into his bowl as though it was full of piss. No respect. He glanced over at Ferro, staring yellow knives at him through narrowed eyes. No trust. He shook his head sadly. Without trust and respect the group would fall apart in a fight like walls without mortar.

Still, Logen had won over tougher audiences, in his time. Threetrees, Tul Duru, Black Dow, Harding Grim, he’d fought each one in single combat, and beaten them all. Spared each man’s life, and left him bound to follow. Each one had tried their best to kill him, and with good reasons too, but in the end Logen had earned their trust, and their respect, and their friendship even. Small gestures and a lot of time, that was how he’d done it. “Patience is the chief of virtues,” his father used to say, and “you won’t cross the mountains in a day.” Time might be against them, but there was nothing to be gained by rushing. You have to be realistic about these things.

Logen uncrossed his stiff legs, took hold of the water-skin and got up, walked slowly over to where Ferro was sitting. Her eyes followed him all the way across. She was a strange one, no doubt, and not just the looks of her, though the dead knew her looks were strange enough. She seemed hard and sharp and cold as a new sword, ruthless as any man that Logen could think of. You would have thought she wouldn’t throw a log to save a drowning man, but she’d done more than that to save him, and more than once. Out of all of them, she was the one he’d trust first, and furthest. So he squatted down and held the skin out to her, its bulbous shadow flickering and shifting on the rough wall behind her.

She frowned at it for a moment, then frowned up at Logen. Then she snatched it off him and bent back over her pot, half turning her bony shoulders on him. Not a word of thanks, or a gesture even, but he didn’t mind. You won’t cross the mountains in a day, after all.

He dropped down again beside the fire, watched the flames dancing, casting shifting light across the grim faces of the group. “Anyone know any stories?” he asked, hopefully.

Quai sucked at his teeth. Luthar curled his lip at Logen across the fire. Ferro gave no sign that she had even heard. Hardly an encouraging start.

“Not any?” No reply. “Alright then, I know a song or two, if I can remember the words,” he cleared his throat.

“Very well!” cut in Bayaz. “If it will save us from a song, I know hundreds of stories. What did you have it in mind to hear about? A romance? A comedy? A tale of bravery against the odds?”

“This place,” cut in Luthar. “The Old Empire. If it was such a great nation, how did it come to this?” He jerked his head over at the crumbling walls, and what they all knew lay beyond. The miles and miles of nothing. “A wasteland.”

Bayaz sighed. “I could tell that tale, but we are lucky enough to have a native of the Old Empire with us on our little trip, and a keen student of history to boot. Master Quai?” The apprentice looked up lazily from the fire. “Would you care to enlighten us? How did the Empire, once the glittering centre of the world, come to this pass?”

“That story is long in the telling,” murmured the apprentice. “Shall I start from the beginning?”

“Where else should a man ever start?”

Quai shrugged his bony shoulders and began to speak. “Almighty Euz, vanquisher of demons, closer of gates, father of the World, had four sons, and to each he gave a gift. To his eldest, Juvens, he gave the talent of High Art, the skill to change the world with magic, tempered by knowledge. To his second son, Kanedias, went the gift of making, of shaping stone and metal to his own purposes. To his third son, Bedesh, Euz gave the skill of speaking with spirits, and of making them do his bidding.” Quai gave a wide yawn, smacked his lips and blinked at the fire. “So were born the three pure disciplines of magic”

“I thought he had four sons,” grumbled Luthar.

Quai’s eyes slid sideways. “So he did, and therein lies the root of the Empire’s destruction. Glustrod was the youngest son. To him should have gone the gift of communing with the Other Side. The secrets of summoning devils from the world below and binding them to one’s will. But such things were forbidden by the First Law, and so Euz gave nothing to his youngest son but his blessing, and we all know what those are worth. He taught the other three their share of his secrets and left, ordering his sons to bring order to the world.”

“Order.” Luthar tossed his platter down on the grass beside him and glanced disdainfully round at the shadowy ruins. “They didn’t get far.”

“At first they did. Juvens set about his purpose with a will, and bent all his power and all his wisdom to it. He found a people that pleased him, living beside the Aos, and favoured them with laws and learning, government and science. He gave to them the skills to conquer their neighbours, and made of their chief an Emperor. Son followed father, year followed year, and the nation grew and prospered. The lands of the Empire stretched as far as Isparda in the south, Anconus in the north, the very shores of the Circle Sea to the east, and beyond. Emperor followed Emperor, but always Juvens was there—guiding, advising, shaping all things according to his grand design. All was civilised, all was peaceful, all was content.”

“Almost all,” muttered Bayaz, poking at the guttering fire with a stick.

Quai gave a smirk. “We have forgotten Glustrod, just as his father did. The ignored son. The shunned son. The cheated son. He begged all three brothers for a share of their secrets, but they were jealous of their gifts, and all three refused him. He looked upon what Juvens had achieved, and was bitter beyond words. He found dark places in the world, and in secret he studied those sciences forbidden by the First Law. He found dark places in the world, and he touched the Other Side. He found dark places, and he spoke in the tongue of devils, and he heard their voices answer him.” Quai’s voice dropped down to a whisper. “And the voices told Glustrod where to dig…”

“Very good, Master Quai,” cut in Bayaz, sternly. “Your grip on the histories seems much improved. Let us not tarry on the details, however. We can leave Glustrod’s diggings for another day.”

“Of course,” murmured Quai, his dark eyes glittering in the firelight, his gaunt face full of gloomy hollows. “You know best, master. Glustrod laid plans. He watched from the shadows. He garnered secrets. He flattered, and he threatened, and he lied. It did not take him long to turn the weak-willed to his purposes, and the strong-willed against each other, for he was cunning, and charming, and fair to look upon. He heard the voices always, now, from the world below. They suggested that he sow discord everywhere, and he listened. They urged him to eat the flesh of men, and steal their power, and he did so. They commanded him to seek out those devil-bloods that remained in our world, spurned, hated, exiled, and make from them an army, and he obeyed.”

Something touched Logen’s shoulder from behind and he near jumped in the air. Ferro was standing over him, the water-skin held out in her hand. “Thanks,” he growled as he took it from her, pretending that his heart wasn’t knocking at his ribs. He took a quick swig and banged the stopper in with his palm, then put it down beside him. When he looked up, Ferro hadn’t moved. She stood there above him, looking down at the dancing flames. Logen shuffled up a step, making room. Ferro scowled, sucked her teeth, kicked at the ground, then slowly squatted down on her haunches, making sure to leave plenty of space between them. She held her hands out to the fire and bared her shining teeth at it.

“Cold over there.”

Logen nodded. “These walls don’t keep the wind off much.”

“No.” Her eyes swept across the group and found Quai. “Don’t stop for me,” she snapped.

The apprentice grinned. “Strange and sinister was the host that Glustrod gathered. He waited for Juvens to leave the Empire, then he crept into the capital at Aulcus and set his well-laid schemes in motion. It seemed as if a madness swept the city. Son fought with father, wife with husband, neighbour with neighbour. The Emperor was cut down on the steps of his palace by his own sons and then, maddened with greed and envy, they turned upon each other. Glustrod’s twisted army had slithered into the sewers beneath the city and rose up, turning the streets into charnel pits, the squares into slaughter yards. Some among them could take forms, stealing the faces of others.”

Bayaz shook his head. “Taking forms. A dread and insidious trick.” Logen remembered a woman, in the cold darkness, who had spoken with the voice of his dead wife, and he frowned and hunched his shoulders.

“A dread trick indeed,” said Quai, his sickly grin growing even wider. “For who can be trusted if one cannot trust one’s own eyes, one’s own ears, to tell friend from foe? But worse was to come. Glustrod summoned demons from the Other Side, bound them to his will and sent them to destroy those who might resist him.”

“Summoning and sending,” hissed Bayaz. “Cursed disciplines. Dire risks. Terrible breaches of the First Law.”

“But Glustrod recognised no law beyond his own strength. Soon he sat in the Emperor’s throne room upon a pile of skulls, sucking the flesh of men as a baby sucks milk, basking in his awful victory. The Empire descended into chaos, the very slightest taste of the chaos of ancient days, before the coming of Euz, when our world and the world below were one.”

A gust of wind sighed through the chinks in the ancient stonework around them, and Logen shivered and pulled his blanket tight around him. Damn story was making him nervous. Stealing faces, and sending devils, and eating men. But Quai did not stop. “When he found out what Glustrod had done, Juvens’ fury was terrible, and he sought the aid of his brothers. Kanedias would not come. He stayed sealed in his house, tinkering with his machines, caring nothing for the world outside. Juvens and Bedesh raised an army without him, and they fought a war against their brother.”

“A terrible war,” muttered Bayaz, “with terrible weapons, and terrible casualties.”

“The fighting spread across the continent from one end to the other, and drew in every petty rivalry, and gave birth to a host of feuds, and crimes, and vengeances, whose consequences still poison the world today. But in the end Juvens was victorious. Glustrod was besieged in Aulcus, his changelings unmasked, his army scattered. Now, in his most desperate moment, the voices from the world below whispered to him a plan. Open a gate to the Other Side, they said. Pick the locks, and crack the seals, and throw wide the doors that your father made. Break the First Law one last time, they said, and let us back into the world, and you will never again be ignored, be shunned, be cheated.”

The First of the Magi nodded slowly to himself. “But he was cheated once more.”

“Poor fool! The creatures of the Other Side are made of lies. To deal with them is to grasp the most awful peril. Glustrod made ready his rituals, but in his haste he made some small mistake. Only a grain of salt out of place, perhaps, but the results were horrible indeed. The great power that Glustrod had gathered, strong enough to tear a hole in the fabric of the world, was released without form or reason. Glustrod destroyed himself. Aulcus, great and beautiful capital of the Empire, was laid waste, the land around it forever poisoned. No one ventures within miles of the place now. The city is a shattered graveyard. A blasted ruin. A fitting monument to the folly and the pride of Glustrod and his brothers.” The apprentice glanced up at Bayaz. “Do I speak the truth, master?”

“You do,” murmured the Magus. “I know. I saw it. A young fool with a full and lustrous head of hair.” He ran a hand over his bald scalp. “A young fool who was as ignorant of magic, and wisdom, and the ways of power as you are now, Master Quai.”

The apprentice inclined his head. “I live only to learn.”

“And in that regard, you seem much improved. How did you like that tale, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen puffed out his cheeks. “I’d been hoping for something with a few more laughs, but I guess I’ll take what’s offered.”

“A pack of nonsense, if you ask me,” sneered Luthar.

“Huh,” snorted Bayaz. “How fortunate for us that no one did. Perhaps you ought to get the pots washed, Captain, before it gets too late.”

“Me?”

“One of us caught the food, and one of us cooked it. One of us has entertained the group with a tale. You are the only one among us who has as yet contributed nothing.”

“Apart from you.”

“Oh, I am far too old to be sloshing around in streams at this time of night.” Bayaz’ face grew hard. “A great man must first learn humility. The pots await.”

Luthar opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, pushed himself angrily up from his place and threw his blanket down in the grass. “Damn pots,” he cursed as he snatched them up from around the fire and stomped off towards the brook.

Ferro watched him go, a strange expression on her face that might even have been her version of a smile. She looked back at the fire, and licked her lips. Logen pulled the stopper from the water skin and held it out to her.

“Uh,” she grunted, snatched it from his hand, took a quick swallow. While she was wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she glanced sideways at him, and frowned. “What?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly, looking away and holding up his empty palms. “Nothing at all.” He was smiling on the inside, though. Small gestures and time. That was how he’d get it done.


Small Crimes

<p>Small Crimes</p>

“Cold, eh, Colonel West?”

“Yes, your Highness, winter is nearly upon us.” There had been a kind of snow in the night. A cold, wet sleet that covered everything in icy moisture. Now, in the pale morning, the whole world seemed half-frozen. The hooves of their horses crunched and slurped in the half-frozen mud. Water dripped sadly from the half-frozen trees. West was no exception. His breath smoked from his runny nose. The tips of his ears tingled unpleasantly, numb from the cold.

Prince Ladisla hardly seemed to notice, but then he was swathed in an enormous coat, hat and mittens of shining black fur, no doubt several hundred marks worth of it. He grinned over. “The men seem good and fit, though, in spite of it all.”

West could scarcely believe his ears. The regiment of the King’s Own that had been placed under Ladisla’s command seemed happy enough, it was true. Their wide tents were pitched in orderly rows in the middle of the camp, cooking fires in front, horses tethered nearby in good order.

The position of the levies, who made up a good three quarters of their strength, was less happy. Many were shamefully ill-prepared. Men with no training or no weapons, some who were plainly too ill or too old for marching, let alone for battle. Some had little more than the clothes they stood up in, and those were in a woeful state. West had seen men huddled together under trees for warmth, nothing but half a blanket to keep the rain off. It was a disgrace.

“The King’s Own are well provided for, but I’m concerned about the situation of some of the levies, your—”

“Yes,” said Ladisla, talking over him precisely as if he had not spoken, “good and fit! Chomping at the bit! Must be the fire in their bellies keeps ’em warm, eh, West? Can’t wait to get at the enemy! Damn shame we have to wait here, kicking our heels behind this damn river!”

West bit his lip. Prince Ladisla’s incredible powers of self-deception were becoming more frustrating with every passing day. His Highness had fixed upon the idea of being a great and famous general, with a matchless force of fighting men under his command. Of winning a famous victory, and being celebrated as a hero back in Adua. Rather than exerting a single particle of effort to make it happen, however, he behaved as if it already had, utterly regardless of the truth. Nothing which was distasteful, or displeasing, or at odds with his cock-eyed notions could be permitted to be noticed. Meanwhile, the dandies on his staff, without a month’s military experience between them, congratulated him on his fine judgement, slapped each other on the back, and agreed with his every utterance, no matter how ludicrous.

Never to want for anything, or work for anything, or show the tiniest grain of self-discipline in a whole life must give a man a strange outlook on the world, West supposed, and here was the proof, riding along beside him, smiling away as though the care of ten thousand men was a light responsibility. The Crown Prince and the real world, as Lord Marshal Burr had observed, were entire strangers to one another.

“Cold,” Ladisla murmured. “Not much like the deserts of Gurkhul now, eh, Colonel West?”

“No, your Highness.”

“But some things are the same, eh? I’m speaking of war, West! War in general! The same everywhere! The courage! The honour! The glory! You fought with Colonel Glokta, didn’t you?”

“Yes, your Highness, I did.”

“I used to love to hear stories of that man’s exploits! One of my heroes, when I was young. Riding round the enemy, harassing his lines of communication, falling on the baggage train and whatnot.” The Prince’s riding crop rode around, harassed, and fell on imaginary baggage in the air before him. “Capital! And I suppose you saw it all?”

“Some of it, your Highness, yes.” He had seen a great deal of saddle-soreness, sunburn, looting, drunkenness, and vainglorious showing-off.

“Colonel Glokta, I swear! We could do with some of that dash here, eh, West? Some of that vim! That vigour! Shame that he’s dead.”

West looked up. “He isn’t dead, your Highness.”

“He isn’t?”

“He was captured by the Gurkish, and then returned to the Union when the war ended. He… er… he joined the Inquisition.”

“The Inquisition?” The Prince looked horrified. “Why on earth would a man give up the soldiering life for that?”

West groped for words, but then thought better of it. “I cannot imagine, your Highness.”

“Joined the Inquisition! Well, I never.” They rode in silence for a moment. Gradually, the Prince’s smile returned. “But we were talking of the honour of war, were we not?”

West grimaced. “We were, your Highness.”

“First through the breach at Ulrioch, weren’t you? First through the breach, I heard! There’s honour for you, eh? There’s glory, isn’t it? That must have been quite an experience, eh, Colonel? Quite an experience!”

Struggling through a mass of broken stones and timbers, littered with twisted corpses. Half-blind with the smoke, half-choking on the dust, shrieks and wails and the clashing of metal coming at him from all around, hardly able to breathe for fear. Men pressing in on all sides, groaning, shoving, stumbling, yelling, running with blood and sweat, black with grime and soot, half-seen faces twisted with pain and fury. Devils, in hell.

West remembered screaming “Forward!”, over and over until his throat was raw, even though he had no idea which way forward was. He remembered stabbing someone with his sword, friend or enemy, he did not know, then or now. He remembered falling and cutting his head on a rock, tearing his jacket on a broken timber. Moments, fragments, as if from a story he once heard someone else telling.

West pulled his coat tighter round his chilly shoulders, wishing it was thicker. “Quite an experience, your Highness.”

“Damn shame that bloody Bethod won’t be coming this way!” Prince Ladisla slashed petulantly at the air with his riding crop. “Little better than damn guard duty! Does Burr take me for a fool, eh, West, does he?”

West took a deep breath. “I couldn’t possibly say, your Highness.”

The Prince’s fickle mind had already moved off. “What about those pets of yours? Those Northmen. The ones with the comical names. What’s he called, that dirty fellow? Wolfman, is it?”

“Dogman.”

“Dogman, that’s it! Capital!” The Prince chuckled to himself. “And that other one, biggest damn fellow I ever saw! Excellent! What are they up to?”

“I sent them scouting north of the river, your Highness.” West rather wished he was with them. “The enemy are probably far away, but if they aren’t, we need to know about it.”

“Of course we do. Excellent idea. So that we can prepare to attack!”

A timely withdrawal and a fast messenger to Marshal Burr was more what West had in mind, but there was no point in saying so. Ladisla’s whole notion of war was of ordering a glorious charge, then retiring to bed. Strategy and retreat were not words in his vocabulary.

“Yes,” the Prince was muttering to himself, eyes fixed intently on the trees beyond the river. “Prepare an attack and sweep them back across the border…”

The border was a hundred leagues away. West seized his moment. “Your Highness, if I may, there is a great deal for me to do.”

It was no lie. The camp had been organised, or disorganised, without a thought for convenience or defence. An unruly maze of ramshackle canvas in a great clearing near the river, where the ground was too soft and had soon been turned into a morass of sticky mud by the supply carts. At first there had been no latrines, then they had been dug too shallow and much too close to the camp, not far from where the provisions were being stored.

Provisions which, incidentally, had been badly packed, inadequately prepared, and were already close to spoiling, attracting every rat in Angland. If it had not been for the cold, West did not doubt that the camp would already have been riddled with disease.

Prince Ladisla waved his hand. “Of course, a great deal to do. You can tell me more of your stories tomorrow, eh, West? About Colonel Glokta and so forth. Damn shame he’s dead!” he shouted over his shoulder as he cantered off towards his enormous purple tent, high up on the hill above the stink and confusion.

West turned his mount with some relief and urged it down the slope into the camp. He passed men tottering through the half-frozen sludge, shivering, breath steaming, hands wrapped in dirty rags. He passed men sitting in sorry groups before their patched tents, no two dressed the same, as close to meagre fires as they dared, fiddling with cooking pots, playing miserable games of damp cards, drinking and staring into the cold air.

The better-trained levies had gone with Poulder and Kroy to seek out the enemy. Ladisla had been left with the rump: those too weak to march well, too poorly equipped to fight well, too broken even to do nothing with any conviction. Men who might never have left their homes in all their lives, forced to cross the sea to a land they knew nothing of, to fight an enemy they had no quarrel with, for reasons they did not understand.

Some few of them might have felt some trace of patriotic fervour, some swell of manly pride when they left, but by now the hard marching, the bad food and the cold weather had truly worn, starved, and frozen all enthusiasm out of them. Prince Ladisla was scarcely the inspirational leader to put it back, had he even been making the slightest effort to do so.

West looked down at those grim, tired, pinched faces as he rode past, and they stared back, beaten already. All they wanted was to go home, and West could hardly blame them. So did he. “Colonel West!”

There was a big man grinning over at him, a man with a thick beard, wearing the uniform of an officer in the King’s Own. West realised with a start that it was Jalenhorm. He slid down from his saddle and grabbed hold of the big man’s hand in both of his. It was good to see him. A firm, honest, trustworthy presence. A reminder of a past life, when West did not move among the great men of the world, and things were an awful lot simpler. “How are you, Jalenhorm?”

“Alright, thank you, sir. Just taking a turn round the camp, waiting.” The big man cupped his hands and blew into them, rubbed them together. “Trying to stay warm.”

“That’s what war is, in my experience. A great deal of waiting, in unpleasant conditions. A great deal of waiting, with occasional moments of the most extreme terror.”

Jalenhorm gave a dry grin. “Something to look forward to then. How’re things on the Prince’s staff?”

West shook his head. “A competition to see who can be most arrogant, ignorant, and wasteful. How about you? How’s the camp life?”

“We’re not so badly off. It’s some of these levies I feel sorry for. They’re not fit to fight. I heard a couple of the older ones died last night from the cold.”

“It happens. Let’s just hope they bury them deep, and a good way from the rest of us.” West could see that the big man thought him heartless, but there it was. Few of the casualties in Gurkhul had died in battle. Accidents, illness, little wounds gone bad. You came to expect it. As badly equipped as some of the levies were? They would be burying men every day. “Nothing you need?”

“There is one thing. My horse dropped a shoe in this mud, and I tried to find someone to fit a new one.” Jalenhorm spread his hands. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s a smith in the whole camp.”

West stared at him. “Not one?”

“I couldn’t find any. There are forges, anvils, hammers and all the rest but… no one to work them. I spoke to one of the quartermasters. He said General Poulder refused to release any of his smiths, and so did General Kroy, so, well,” and Jalenhorm shrugged his shoulders, “we don’t have any.”

“No one thought to check?”

“Who?”

West felt the familiar headache tugging at the back of his eyes. Arrows need heads, blades need sharpening, armour and saddles and the carts that haul the supplies break, and need to be repaired. An army with no smiths is little better than an army with no weapons. And here they were, out in the frozen country, miles from the nearest settlement. Unless…

“We passed a penal colony on the way.”

Jalenhorm squinted as he tried to remember. “Yes, a foundry, I think. I saw smoke above the trees…”

“They would have some skilled metal-workers.”

The big man’s eyebrows went up. “Some criminal metalworkers.”

“I’ll take whatever we can get. Today your horse is short a shoe, tomorrow we might have nothing to fight with! Get a dozen men together, and a wagon. We’ll leave at once.”


The prison loomed up out of the trees through the cold rain, a fence of great, mossy logs tipped with bent and rusted spikes. A grim-looking place with a grim purpose. West swung from his saddle while Jalenhorm and his men reined up behind him, then squelched across the rutted track to the gate and hammered on the weathered wood with the pommel of his sword.

It took a while, but eventually a small hatch snapped open. A pair of grey eyes frowned at him through the slot. Grey eyes above a black mask. A Practical of the Inquisition.

“My name is Colonel West.”

The eyes regarded him coldly. “So?”

“I am in the service of Crown Prince Ladisla, and I need to speak to the commandant of this camp.”

“Why?”

West frowned, doing his very best to look impressive with his hair plastered to his scalp and the rain dripping off his chin. “There is a war on and I do not have time to bandy words with you! I need to speak to the commandant most urgently!”

The eyes narrowed. They looked at West for a while, and then at the dozen bedraggled soldiers behind him. “Alright,” said the Practical. “You can come in, but only you. The rest will have to wait.”

The main street was a stretch of churned-up mud between leaning shacks, water trickling from the eaves, spattering into the dirt. There were two men and a woman in the road, wet through, struggling to move a cart laden with stones, up to the axles in mush. All three had heavy chains on their ankles. Ragged, bony, hollow faces, as empty of hope as they were empty of food.

“Get that fucking cart shifted,” the Practical growled at them, and they stooped back to their unenviable task.

West struggled through the muck towards a stone building at the far end of the camp, trying to hop from one dry patch to another, without success. Another dour Practical was standing on the threshold, water running from a stained oilskin over his shoulders, hard eyes following West with a mixture of suspicion and indifference. He and his guide stepped past without a word and into the dim hall beyond, full of the noise of drumming rain. The Practical knocked at an ill-fitting door.

“Come in.”

A small, spare room with grey walls, cold and smelling slightly of damp. A mean fire flickered in the grate, a sagging shelf was stacked with books. A portrait of the King of the Union stared regally down from one wall. A lean man in a black coat sat writing at a cheap desk. He looked at West for a while, then carefully put down his pen and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with an inky thumb and forefinger.

“We have a visitor,” grunted the Practical.

“So I see. I am Inquisitor Lorsen, commandant of our little camp.”

West gave the bony hand the most perfunctory of squeezes. “Colonel West. I am here with Prince Ladisla’s army. We are camped a dozen miles to the north.”

“Of course. How might I be of assistance to his Highness?”

“We are desperately in need of skilled metal-workers. You run a foundry here, correct?”

“A mine, a foundry, and a smithy for the manufacture of farming tools, but I fail to see what—”

“Excellent. I will take a dozen or so men back with me, the most skilled men you have available.”

The commandant frowned. “Out of the question. The prisoners here are guilty of the most serious crimes. They cannot be released without a signed order from the Arch Lector himself.”

“Then we have a problem, Inquisitor Lorsen. I have ten thousand men with weapons that need sharpening, armour that needs mending, horses that need shoeing. We might be called into action at any moment. I cannot wait for orders from the Arch Lector or anyone else. I must leave with smiths, and there it is.”

“But you must understand that I cannot allow—”

“You fail to realise the gravity of the situation!” barked West, his temper already fraying. “By all means send a letter to the Arch Lector! I will send a man back to my camp for a company of soldiers! We can see who gets help first!”

The commandant thought about that for a while. “Very well,” he said eventually, “follow me.”

Two dirty children stared at West from the porch of one of the shacks as he stepped out of the commandant’s building, back into the incessant drizzle.

“You have children here?”

“We have whole families, if they are judged a danger to the state.” Lorsen glanced sideways at him. “A shame, but holding the Union together has always required harsh measures. I gather from your silence that you disapprove.”

West watched one of the shabby children limping through the muck, doomed, perhaps, to spend their whole life in this place. “I think it’s a crime.”

The commandant shrugged. “Don’t deceive yourself. Everyone is guilty of something, and even the innocent can be a threat. Perhaps it takes small crimes to prevent bigger ones, Colonel West, but it’s up to bigger men than us to decide. I only make sure they work hard, don’t prey upon each other, and don’t escape.”

“You only do your job, eh? A well-trodden way to avoid responsibility.”

“Which of us is it who lives among them, out here in the middle of nowhere? Which of us is it who watches over them, dresses them, feeds them, cleans them, fights the endless, pointless war against their damn lice? Is it you who stops them beating, and raping, and killing each other? You’re an officer in the King’s Own, eh, Colonel? So you live in Adua? In fine quarters in the Agriont, among the rich and well groomed?” West frowned, and Lorsen chuckled at him. “Which of us has truly avoided the responsibility, as you put it? My conscience has never been cleaner. Hate us if you like, we’re used to it. No one likes to shake hands with the man who empties the latrine pits either, but pits have to be emptied all the same. Otherwise the world fills up with shit. You can have your dozen smiths, but don’t try to take the high ground with me. There is no high ground here.”

West didn’t like it, but he had to admit the man made a good case, so he set his jaw and struggled on in silence, head down. They squelched towards a long, windowless, stone-built shed, thick smoke roiling up into the misty air from tall chimneys at each corner. The Practical slid back the bolt on the heavy door and heaved it open, and West followed him and Lorsen into the darkness.

The heat was like a slap in the face after the freezing air outside. Acrid smoke stung at West’s eyes, nipped at his throat. The din in the narrow space was frightening. Bellows creaked and wheezed, hammers clanged on anvils sending up showers of angry sparks, red hot metal hissed furiously in water barrels. There were men everywhere, packed in tight together, sweating, and groaning, and coughing, hollow faces half lit by the orange glow from the forges. Devils, in hell.

“Stop your work!” roared Lorsen. “Stop and form up!”

The men slowly set down their tools, lurched and stumbled and rattled forward to form a line while four or five Practicals looked on from the shadows. A shabby, broken, stooping, sorrowful line. A couple of the men had irons on their wrists as well as their ankles. They scarcely looked like the answer to all of West’s problems, but he had no choice. This was all there was.

“We have a visitor, from outside. Say your piece, Colonel.”

“My name is Colonel West,” he croaked, voice cracking on the stinging air. “There are ten thousand soldiers camped a dozen miles down the road, under Crown Prince Ladisla. We have need of smiths.” West cleared his throat, tried to speak louder without coughing his lungs out. “Who among you can work metals?”

No one spoke. The men stared at their threadbare shoes or their bare feet, with the odd sidelong glance at the glowering Practicals.

“You need not be afraid. Who can work metals?”

“I can, sir.” A man stepped forward from the line, the irons on his ankles rattling. He was lean and sinewy, slightly stooped. As the lamplight fell across his head West found himself wincing. He was disfigured by hideous burns. One side of his face was a mass of livid, slightly melted-looking scars, no eyebrow, scalp patchy with pink bald spots. The other side was little better. The man scarcely had a face at all. “I can work a forge, and I did some soldiering too, in Gurkhul.”

“Good,” muttered West, doing his best to swallow his horror at the man’s appearance. “Your name?”

“Pike.”

“Are any of these others good with metal, Pike?”

The burned man shuffled and clanked his way down the line, pulling men forward by their shoulders while the commandant looked on, his frown growing deeper with every passing moment.

West licked his dry lips. Hard to believe that in so little time he could have gone from so horribly cold to so horribly hot, but here he was, more uncomfortable than ever. “I’ll need keys to their irons, Inquisitor.”

“There are no keys. The irons are melted shut. They are not intended ever to be removed and I would strongly advise you not to. Many of these prisoners are extremely dangerous, and you should bear in mind that you will be returning them to us as soon as you can make alternative arrangements. The Inquisition is not in the business of early releases.” He stalked off to speak to one of the Practicals.

Pike sidled up, pulling another convict by the elbow. “Pardon me, sir,” he murmured, growling voice kept low. “But could you find a place for my daughter?”

West shrugged his shoulders, uncomfortable. He would have liked to take everyone and burn the damn place to the ground, but he was already pushing his luck. “It’s not a good idea, a woman in amongst all those soldiers. Not a good idea at all.”

“A better idea than staying here, sir. I can’t leave her on her own. She can help me at the forge. She can swing a hammer herself if it comes to that. She’s strong.”

She didn’t look strong. She looked skinny and ragged, bony face smeared with soot and grease. West could have taken her for a boy. “I’m sorry, Pike, but it’s no easy ride where we’re going.”

She grabbed hold of West’s arm as he turned away. “It’s no easy ride here.” Her voice was a surprise. Soft, smooth, educated. “Cathil is my name. I can work.” West looked down at her, ready to shake his arm free, but her expression reminded him of something. Painless. Fearless. Empty eyes, flat, like a corpse.

Ardee. Blood smeared across her cheek.

West grimaced. The memory was like a wound that wouldn’t heal. The heat was unbearable, every part of him was twitching with discomfort, his uniform like sandpaper against his clammy skin. He had to get out of this horrible place.

He looked away, his eyes stinging. “Her too,” he barked.

Lorsen snorted. “Are you joking, Colonel?”

“Believe me, I’m not in a joking mood.”

“Skilled men is one thing. I daresay you need them, but I cannot allow you to simply take whatever prisoners catch your eye—”

West turned on him with a snarl, his patience worn right through. “Her too, I said!”

If the commandant was impressed by West’s fury, he didn’t show it. They stood there for a long moment, staring at each other, while the sweat ran down West’s face and the blood pounded loud in his temples.

Then Lorsen nodded slowly. “Her too. Very well. I cannot stop you.” He leaned in a little closer. “But the Arch Lector will hear about this. He is far away, and it might take time for him to hear, but hear he will.” Even closer yet, almost whispering in West’s ear. “Perhaps one day you will find yourself visiting us again, but this time to stay. Perhaps, in the meantime, you should prepare your little lecture on the rights and wrongs of penal colonies. There’ll be plenty of time for it.” Lorsen turned away. “Now take my prisoners and go. I have a letter to write.”


Rain

<p>Rain</p>

Jezal had always found a good storm a thorough amusement. Raindrops lashing at the streets, and walls, and roofs of the Agriont, hissing from the gutters. Something to be smiled out at through the wet window while one sat, warm and dry in one’s quarters. Something that took the young ladies in the park by surprise and made them squeal, sticking their dresses excitingly to their clammy skin. Something to be dashed through, laughing with one’s friends, as one made one’s way from tavern to tavern, before drying out before a roaring fire with a mug of hot spiced wine. Jezal used to enjoy the rain almost as much as the sun.

But that was before.

Out here on the plains, storms were of a different stamp. This was no petulant child’s tantrum, best ignored and soon ended. This was a cold and murderous, merciless and grudge-bearing, bitter and relentless fury of a storm, and somehow it made all the difference that the nearest roof, let alone the nearest tavern, was hundreds of miles behind them. The rain came down in sheets, dousing the endless plain and everything on it with icy water. The fat drops stung at Jezal’s scalp like sling-stones, nipped at his exposed hands, the tops of his ears, the back of his neck. Water trickled through his hair, through his eyebrows, down his face in rivulets and into his sodden collar. The rain was a grey curtain across the land, obliterating anything more than a hundred strides ahead, although out here of course, there was nothing ahead or anywhere else.

Jezal shivered and clutched the collars of his coat together with one hand. A pointless gesture, he was already soaked to his skin. Damn shopkeeper back in Adua had assured him that this coat was entirely waterproof. It had certainly cost him enough, and he had looked very well in it in the shop, quite the rugged outdoorsman, but the seams had begun to leak almost as soon as the first drops fell. For some hours now he had been every bit as wet as if he had climbed into the bath with his clothes on, and a good deal colder.

His boots were full of icy water, his thighs were chafed ragged against his wet trousers, the waterlogged saddle creaked and squelched with every movement of his unhappy horse. His nose was running, his nostrils and his lips were sore, the very reins were painful in his wet palms. His nipples in particular were two points of agony in a sea of discomfort. The whole business was utterly unbearable.

“When will it end?” he muttered bitterly to himself, hunching his shoulders and looking up beseechingly at the gloomy heavens, the rain pattering on his face, in his mouth, in his eyes. Happiness seemed at that moment to consist of nothing more than a dry shirt. “Can’t you do something?” he moaned at Bayaz.

“Like what?” the Magus snapped back at him, water coursing down his face and dripping from his bedraggled beard. “You think that I’m enjoying this? Out on the great plain in a bastard of a storm at my age? The skies make no special dispensation for Magi, boy, they piss on everyone the same. I suggest you adjust to it and keep your whining to yourself. A great leader must share the hardships of his followers, of his soldiers, of his subjects. That is how he wins their respect. Great leaders do not complain. Not ever.”

“Fuck them then,” muttered Jezal under his breath. “And this rain, too!”

“You call this rain?” Ninefingers rode past him, a big smile spread across his ugly lump of a face. Not long after the drops began to come down hard, Jezal had been most surprised to see the Northman shrug off first his battered coat, and then his shirt, roll them up in an oilskin and ride on stripped to the waist, heedless of the water running down his great slab of scarred back, happy as a great hog wallowing in the mud.

Such behaviour had, at first, struck Jezal as another unforgivable display of savagery, and he had only thanked his stars that the primitive had deigned to keep his trousers on, but as the cold rain began to seep through his coat he had become less sure. It would have been impossible for him to be any colder or wetter without his clothes, but at least he would have been free of the endless, horrible chafing of wet cloth. Ninefingers grinned over at him as though he could read his thoughts. “Nothing but a drizzle. The sun can’t always shine. You have to be realistic!”

Jezal ground his teeth. If he was told to be realistic one more time he would stab Ninefingers with his short steel. Damn half-naked brute. It was bad enough that he had to ride, and eat, and sleep within a hundred strides of a cave-dweller like that, but that he had to listen to his fool advice was an insult almost too deep to bear.

“Damn useless primitive,” he muttered to himself.

“If it comes to a fight I reckon you’ll be glad to have him along.” Quai was looking sideways at Jezal, swaying back and forth on the seat of his creaking cart, long hair plastered to his gaunt cheeks by the rain, looking more pale and sickly than ever with a sheen of wet on his white skin.

“Who asked your opinion?”

“A man who doesn’t want opinions should keep his own mouth shut.” The apprentice nodded his dripping head at Ninefingers’ back. “That there is the Bloody-Nine, the most feared man in the North. He’s killed more men than the plague.” Jezal frowned over at the Northman, sitting sloppy in his saddle, thought about it for a moment, and sneered.

“Doesn’t scare me any,” he said, as loud as he could without Ninefingers actually hearing him.

Quai snorted. “I’ll bet you’ve never even drawn a blade in anger.”

“I could start now,” growled Jezal, giving his most threatening frown.

“Very fierce,” chuckled the apprentice, disappointingly unimpressed. “But if you’re asking me who’s the useless one here, well, I know who I’d rather have left behind.”

“Why, you—”

Jezal jumped in his saddle as a bright flash lit the sky, and then another, frighteningly close. Fingers of light clawed at the bulging undersides of the clouds, snaked through the darkness overhead. Long thunder rolled out across the gloomy plain, popped and crackled under the wind. By the time it faded the wet cart had already rolled away, robbing Jezal of his chance to retort. “Damn idiot apprentice,” he murmured, frowning at the back of his head.

At first, when the flashes had come, Jezal had tried to keep his spirits up by imagining his companions struck down by lightning. It would have been oddly appropriate, for instance, had Bayaz been cooked to a cinder by a stroke from the heavens. Jezal soon despaired of any such deliverance, however, even as a fantasy. The lightning would never kill more than one of them in a day, and if one of them had to go, he had slowly begun to hope it might be him. A moment of brilliant illumination, then sweet oblivion. The kindest escape from this nightmare.

A trickle of water ran down Jezal’s back, tickling at his raw skin. He longed to scratch it, but he knew that if he did he would only create ten more itches, spread across his shoulder blades and his neck and all the places hardest to reach with a hooked finger. He closed his eyes, and his head slowly drooped under the weight of his desperation until his wet chin hung against his wet chest.

It had been raining the last time he saw her. He remembered it all with a painful clarity. The bruise on her face, the colour of her eyes, the set of her mouth, one side twisted up. Just thinking of it made him have to swallow that familiar lump in his throat. The lump he swallowed twenty times a day. First thing in the morning, when he woke, and last thing at night, as he lay on the hard ground. To be back with Ardee now, safe and warm, seemed like the realisation of all his dreams.

He wondered how long she might wait, as the weeks dragged on, and she received no word. Might she even now be writing daily letters to Angland that he would never receive? Letters expressing her tender feelings. Letters desperately seeking news. Letters begging for replies. Now her worst expectations would all be confirmed. That he was a faithless ass, and a liar, and had forgotten all about her, when nothing could have been further from the truth. He ground his teeth in frustration and despair at the thought, but what could he do? Replies were hard to send from a blighted, blasted, ruined wasteland, even supposing he could have written one in this epic downpour. He inwardly cursed the names of Bayaz and Ninefingers, of Longfoot and Quai. He cursed the Old Empire and he cursed the endless plain. He cursed the whole demented expedition. It was becoming an hourly ritual.

Jezal began to perceive, dimly, that he had until now had rather an easy life. It seemed strange that he had moaned so long and hard about rising early to fence, or about lowering himself to play cards with Lieutenant Brint, or about how his sausages were always a touch overdone of a morning. He should have been laughing, bright-eyed and with a spring in his step, simply to have been out of the rain. He coughed, and sniffed, and wiped at his sore nose with his sore hand. At least with so much water around, no one would notice him weeping.

Only Ferro looked as if she was enjoying herself even less than him, occasionally glaring at the pissing clouds, her face wrinkled up with hatred and horror. Her spiky hair was plastered flat to her skull, her waterlogged clothes hung limp from her scrawny shoulders, water ran down her scarred face and dripped from the end of her sharp nose, the point of her sharp chin. She looked like a mean-tempered cat dunked unexpectedly in a pond, its body suddenly seeming a quarter of the size it had been, stripped of all its air of menace. Perhaps a woman’s voice might be the thing to lift him from this state of mind, and Ferro was the nearest thing to a woman within a hundred miles.

He spurred his horse up alongside her, doing his best to smile, and she turned her scowl on him. Jezal found to his discomfort that at close quarters, much of the menace returned. He had forgotten about those eyes. Yellow eyes, sharp as knives, pupils small as pin-pricks, strange and disconcerting. He wished he had never approached her now, but he could hardly go without saying something.

“Bet it doesn’t rain much where you come from, eh?”

“Are you going to shut your fucking hole, or do I have to hurt you?”

Jezal cleared his throat, and quietly allowed his mount to drop back away from her. “Crazy bitch,” he whispered under his breath. Damn her, then, she could keep her misery. He wasn’t about to start wallowing in self-pity. That wasn’t his way at all.


The rain had finally stopped when they came upon the place, but the air was still full of heavy damp, the sky above was still full of strange colours. The evening sun pierced the swirling clouds with pink and orange, casting an eerie glow over the grey plain.

Two empty carts stood upright, another was tipped up on its side, one wheel broken off, a dead horse still tethered to it, lying with its pink tongue lolling out of its mouth, a pair of broken arrows sticking from its bloody side. The corpses were scattered all around in the flattened grass, like dolls discarded by a bad-tempered child. Some had deep wounds, or limbs broken, or arrows poking from their bodies. One had an arm off at the shoulder, a short length of snapped bone sticking out as if from a butcher’s joint.

Rubbish was scattered all around them. Broken weapons, splintered wood. A few trunks smashed open, rolls of cloth ripped out and slashed across the wet ground. Burst barrels, shattered boxes, rooted through and looted.

“Merchants,” grunted Ninefingers, looking down. “Like we’re pretending to be. Life’s cheap out here alright.”

Ferro curled her lip. “Where isn’t it?”

The wind whipped cold across the plain, cutting clean through Jezal’s damp clothes. He had never seen a corpse before, and here were laid out… how many? At least a dozen. He started to feel slightly peculiar halfway through counting them.

No one else seemed much moved, though familiarity with violence was hardly surprising among these characters. Ferro was crawling around the bodies, peering down and prodding them with as little emotion as an undertaker. Ninefingers looked as though he had seen far worse, which Jezal did not doubt he had, and done far worse besides. Bayaz and Longfoot both looked mildly troubled, but not much more so than if they had come upon some unknown horse tracks. Quai scarcely even looked interested.

Jezal could have done with a share of their indifference at that moment. He would not have admitted it, but he was feeling more than a little sick. That skin: slack, and still, and waxy pale, beaded with wet from the rain. That clothing: ripped and rifled through, missing boots, or coats, or shirts even. Those wounds. Ragged red lines, blue and black bruises, rips and tears and gaping mouths in flesh.

Jezal turned suddenly in his saddle, looking behind, to the left, to the right, but every view was the same. Nowhere to run to, if he had even known in what direction the nearest settlement lay. In a group of six and yet he felt utterly alone. In a vast, open space, and yet he felt utterly trapped.

One of the corpses seemed to be staring, unnervingly, straight at him. A young man, no more than Jezal’s age, with sandy hair and protruding ears. He could have done with a shave, except, of course, that it hardly mattered now. There was a yawning red gash across his belly, his bloody hands lying on either side of it, as though trying to squeeze it shut. His guts glistened wetly inside, all purple-red. Jezal felt his gorge rising. He was already feeling faint from eating too little that morning. Damn sick of dry biscuit, and he could hardly force down the slops the others put together. He turned away from the sickening scene and stared down at the grass, pretending to be searching for important clues while his stomach clenched and heaved.

He gripped his reins as tightly as he could, forcing down the spit as it rushed into his mouth. He was a proud son of the Union, damn it. What was more, he was a nobleman, of a distinguished family. What was still more he was a bold officer of the King’s Own, and a winner of the Contest. To vomit at the sight of a little gore would be to disgrace himself before this mixture of fools and primitives, and that could under no circumstances be permitted. The honour of his nation was at stake. He glared fixedly at the wet ground, and he clamped his teeth shut, and he ordered his stomach to be still. Gradually, it began to work. He sucked in deep breaths through his nose. Cool, damp, calming air. He was in complete control. He looked back at the others.

Ferro was squatting on the ground with her hand in one of the victim’s gaping wounds as far almost as her wrist. “Cold,” she snapped at Ninefingers, “been dead since this morning at least.” She pulled her hand out, fingers slimy with gore.

Jezal had belched half his meagre breakfast down his coat before he had time even to slide out of his saddle. He staggered a couple of drunkard’s steps, took a gasping breath and retched again. He bent over, hands on his knees, head spinning, spitting bile out onto the grass.

“You alright?”

Jezal glanced up, doing his best to look nonchalant with a long string of bitter drool hanging from his face. “Something I ate,” he muttered, wiping at his nose and mouth with his trembling hand. A pitiful ruse, he had to admit.

Ninefingers only nodded, though. “That meat this morning, most likely. I been feeling sick myself.” He gave one of his revolting smiles and offered Jezal a water skin. “Best keep drinking. Flush it away, uh?”

Jezal sloshed a mouthful of water round his mouth and spat it out, watching Ninefingers walk back to the bodies, and frowning. That had been strange. Coming from another source it might have seemed almost a generous gesture. He took another swig of water, and began to feel better. He made, somewhat unsteadily, for his horse, and clambered back into the saddle.

“Whoever did it was well armed, and in numbers,” Ferro was saying. “The grass is full of tracks.”

“We should be careful,” said Jezal, hoping to impose himself on the conversation.

Bayaz turned sharply to look at him. “We should always be careful! That goes without saying! How far are we from Darmium?”

Longfoot squinted up at the sky, then out across the plain. He licked his finger and held it up to the wind. “Even for a man of my talents, it is hard to be accurate without the stars. Fifty miles or thereabouts.”

“We’ll need to turn off the track soon.”

“We are not crossing the river at Darmium?”

“The city is in chaos. Cabrian holds it, and admits no one. We cannot take the risk.”

“Very well. Aostum it is. We will take a wide route round Darmium and off westward. A slightly longer path but—”

“No.”

“No?”

“The bridge at Aostum lies in ruins.”

Longfoot frowned. “Gone, eh? Truly, God loves to test his faithful. We may have to ford the Aos then—”

“No,” said Bayaz. “The rains have been heavy and the great river is deep. The fords are all closed to us.”

The Navigator looked puzzled. “You, of course, are my employer, and as a proud member of the order of Navigators I will always do my utmost to obey, but I am afraid that I can see no other way. If we cannot cross at Darmium, or at Aostum, and we cannot ford the river…”

“There is one other bridge.”

“There is?” Longfoot looked baffled for a moment, then his eyes suddenly widened. “You cannot mean—”

“The bridge at Aulcus still stands.”

Everyone glanced at each other for a moment, frowning. “I thought you said the place was a ruin,” said Ninefingers.

“A shattered graveyard, I heard,” murmured Ferro.

“I thought you said no one goes within miles of the place.”

“It would hardly have been my first choice, but there are no others. We will join the river and follow the northern bank to Aulcus.” Nobody moved. Longfoot in particular had a look of stunned horror on his face. “Now!” snapped Bayaz. “It is plainly not safe to remain here.” And with that he turned his horse away from the corpses. Quai shrugged and flicked his reigns and the cart grumbled off through the grass after the First of the Magi. Longfoot and Ninefingers followed behind, all frowns and foreboding.

Jezal stared at the bodies, still lying where they had found them, their eyes staring accusingly up into the darkening sky. “Shouldn’t we bury them?”

“If you like,” grunted Ferro, springing up into the saddle in one easy motion. “Maybe you could bury them in puke.”


Bloody Company

<p>Bloody Company</p>

Riding, that was what they were doing. That was what they’d been doing for days. Riding, looking for Bethod, with winter coming on. Bog and forest, hill and valley. Rain and sleet, fog and snow. Looking for signs that he was coming their way, and knowing that there wouldn’t be any. A lot of wasted time, to the Dogman’s mind, but once you’ve been fool enough to ask for a task, you better do the one you’re given.

“Stupid bloody job, this,” snarled Dow, wincing and twitching and fussing with his reins. He’d never been too much of a one for horseback. Liked to keep his feet on the ground and pointed at the enemy. “Waste of our fucking time. How d’you put up with scouting, Dogman? Stupid bloody job!”

“Someone’s got to get it done, don’t they? Least I got a horse now.”

“Well I’m right delighted for you!” he sneered. “You got a horse!”

The Dogman shrugged his shoulders. “Better than walking.”

“Better than walking, eh?” scoffed Dow. “That just binds it all up!”

“I got new breeches and all. Not to mention good woollens. The wind don’t blow half so cold round my fruits no more.”

That got a chuckle from Tul, but it seemed Dow wasn’t in a laughing mood. “Wind round your fruits? By the fucking dead, boy, is this what we’re come to? You forgotten who you are? You was Ninefingers’ closest! You came over the mountains with him in the first place! You’re in all them songs along with him! You scouted at the head of armies. A thousand men, all following your say-so!”

“That didn’t turn out too happy for anyone concerned,” muttered Dogman, but Dow was already laying into Tul.

“And how about you, big man? Tul Duru Thunderhead, strongest bastard in the North. Wrestled bears and won, I heard. Held the pass all alone, while your clan got clean away. A giant, they say, ten feet tall, born under a storm, and with a belly full o’ thunder. What about it, giant? The only thunder I’ve heard you make lately is when you take a shit!”

“What of it?” snarled Tul. “You any different? Men used to whisper your name, scared to speak it out loud. They’d grip their weapons tight and stick close by the fire if they thought you was within ten leagues! Black Dow, they used to say, quiet and cunning and ruthless as the wolf! He’s killed more men than winter, and he’s got less pity in him! Who cares a shit now, eh? Times have changed, and you rolled just as far downhill as the rest of us!”

Dow only smiled. “That’s my point, big lad, that’s just my point. We used to be something, each one of us. Named Men. Known men. Feared men. I remember my brother telling me that there ain’t no better man than Harding Grim with bow nor blade, no better man in all the North. Steadiest damn hand in the whole Circle of the World! How about that, eh, Grim?”

“Uh,” said Grim.

Dow nodded his head. “Exactly what I’m saying. Now look at us. We ain’t so much rolled downhill as fell off a bloody cliff! Running errands for these Southerners? These fucking women in men’s trousers? These damn salad-eaters with their big words and their thin little swords?”

Dogman shifted in his saddle, uncomfortable. “That West knows what he’s about.”

“That West!” sneered Dow. “He knows his arse from his mouth, and in that he’s a damn stretch better than the rest, but he’s soft as pig fat, and you know it. Got no bones in him at all! None of ’em have! I’d be shocked to my roots if the better part of ’em have ever seen a skirmish. You reckon they’d stand a charge from Bethod’s Carls?” He snorted hard laughter to himself. “Now there’s a joke!”

“It can’t be denied they’re a piss-weak crowd,” muttered Tul, and the Dogman couldn’t very well disagree. “Half of ’em are too hungry to lift a weapon, let alone swing one with some fire, if they could even work out how. All the good ones went north to fight Bethod, leaving us here with the scrapings from the pot.”

“Scrapings from a piss-pot, I’m thinking. What about you, Threetrees?” called Dow. “The Rock of Uffrith, eh? You were the spike up Bethod’s arse for six months, a hero to every right-thinking man in the North! Rudd Threetrees! There’s a man carved out of stone! There’s a man who never backs down! You want honour? You want dignity? You want to know what a man should be? Look no fucking further! What do you make of all this, eh? Running errands! Checking these bogs for Bethod where we all know he ain’t! Work fit for boys and we’re lucky to get it, I suppose?”

Threetrees pulled up his horse and turned it slowly round. He sat in his saddle, hunched up, tired looking, and he stared at Dow for a minute. “Open your ears and listen for once,” he said, “ ’cause I don’t want to be telling you this every mile we go. The world ain’t how I’d like it in all kind o’ ways. Ninefingers has gone back to the mud. Bethod’s made himself King of the Northmen. The Shanka are fixing to come swarming over the mountains. I’ve walked too far, and fought too long, and heard enough shit from you to fill a lifetime, and all at an age when I should have my feet up with sons to take care o’ me. So you can see I got bigger problems than that life hasn’t turned out the way you hoped. You can harp on the past all you please, Dow, like some old woman upset cause her tits used to stay up by themselves, or you can shut your fucking hole and help me get on with things.”

He gave each one of ’em a look in the eye, and the Dogman felt a touch shamed for doubting him. “As for checking for Bethod where he ain’t, well, Bethod’s never been one to turn up where he’s supposed to be. Scouting’s the task we’ve been given, and scouting’s the task I mean to get done.” He leaned forward in his saddle. “So how’s this for a fucking formula? Mouth shut. Eyes open.” And he turned and nudged his horse on through the trees.

Dow took a deep breath. “Fair enough, chief, fair enough. It’s just a shame is all. That’s what I’m saying. Just a shame.”


“There’s three of ’em,” said Dogman. “Northmen, for certain, but hard to tell their clan. Being as they’re down here, I’m guessing they follow Bethod.”

“More ’n likely,” said Tul. “Seems that’s the fashion these days.”

“Just three?” asked Threetrees. “No reason for Bethod to have three men on their own all the way out here. Must be more nearby.”

“Let’s deal with the three,” growled Dow, “and get to the rest later. I came here to fight.”

“You came here ’cause I dragged you here,” snapped Threetrees. “You was all for turning back an hour ago.”

“Uh,” said Grim.

“We can get around ’em if we need to.” Dogman pointed through the cold woods. “They’re up on the slope there, in the trees. No trouble to get around ’em.”

Threetrees looked up at the sky, pink and grey through the branches, and shook his head. “No. We’re losing the light, and I wouldn’t like leaving ’em behind us in the dark. Since we’re here, and since they’re here, we’d best deal with ’em. Weapons it is.” He squatted down, talking quiet. “Here’s how we’ll do it. Dogman, get round and above, up on that slope there. Take the one on the left when you hear the signal. You follow me? The one on the left. And best not to miss.”

“Aye,” said Dogman, “on the left.” Not missing more or less went without saying.

“Dow, you slide in quiet and take the middle.”

“The middle,” growled Dow. “He’s done.”

“That leaves one for you, Grim.” Grim nodded without looking up, rubbing at his bow with a rag. “Nice and clean, boys. I don’t want to be putting one o’ you in the mud over this. Places, then.”

The Dogman found a good spot up above Bethod’s three scouts and watched from behind a tree trunk. Seemed like he’d done this a hundred times, but it never got any easier on the nerves. Probably just as well. It’s when it gets easy that a man makes mistakes.

Dogman was watching for him, so he just caught sight of Dow in the fading light, slithering up through the brush, eyes fixed ahead on his task. He was getting close now, real close. Dogman nocked an arrow and took an aim at the one on the left, breathing slow to keep his hands steady. It was then that he realised. Now he was on the other side, the one that had been on the left was on the right. So which one should he shoot?

He cursed to himself, struggling to remember what Threetrees said. Get around and take the one on the left. Worst thing of all would have been to do nothing, so he aimed up at the one on his left and hoped for the best.

He heard Threetrees call from down below, sounding like a bird out in the woods. Dow gathered himself to jump. Dogman let his arrow fly. It thudded into the back of his task just as Grim’s arrow stuck him in the front, and Dow seized hold of the middle one and stabbed him from behind. That left one of ’em untouched, and very surprised-looking.

“Shit,” whispered the Dogman.

“Help!” screamed the last of ’em, before Dow jumped on him. They rolled in the leaves, grunting and thrashing. Dow’s arm went up and down—once, twice, three times, then he stood up, glaring through the trees and looking mighty annoyed. Dogman was just shrugging his shoulders when he heard a voice behind him.

“What?”

Dogman froze, cold all over. Another one, out in the bushes, not ten strides away. He reached for an arrow and nocked it, real quiet, then turned slowly round. He saw two of ’em, and they saw him, and his mouth went sour as old beer. They all stared. Dogman aimed at the bigger one and pulled the string right back.

“No!” he shouted. The arrow thudded into his chest and he groaned and stumbled, fell down on his knees. Dogman dropped his bow and made a snatch at his knife, but he hadn’t got it drawn before the other one was on him. They went down hard in the brush, and started rolling.

Light, dark, light, dark. Over and over they went, down the slope, kicking and tearing and punching at each other. Dogman’s head smacked against something and he was down on his back, wrestling with this bastard. They hissed at each other, not words exactly, sounds like dogs make fighting. The man pulled his hand free and got a blade out from somewhere and Dogman caught his wrist before he could stab it home.

He was pushing down with all his weight, both hands on the knife. Dogman was pushing the other way, both hands on his wrists, hard as he could, but not hard enough. The blade was coming down slowly, down towards Dogman’s face. He was staring at it cross-eyed, a tooth of bright metal not a foot from his nose.

“Die, you fucker!” and it came down another inch. The Dogman’s shoulders, his arms, his hands were burning, running out of strength. Staring at his face. Stubble on his chin, yellow teeth, pock marks on his bent nose, hair hanging down around it. The point of the blade nudged closer. Dogman was dead, and there was no help for it.

Snick.

And his head wasn’t there any more. Blood washed over Dogman’s face, hot and sticky and reeking. The corpse went slack and he shoved it away, blood in his eyes, blood up his nose, blood in his mouth. He staggered up, gasping and choking and spitting.

“Alright, Dogman. You’re alright.” Tul. Must’ve come up on them while they were struggling.

“I’m still alive,” Dogman whispered, the way Logen used to when a fight was done. “Still alive.” By the dead, though, that had been a close thing.

“They ain’t got too much in the way of gear,” Dow was saying, poking round the campsite. Cookpot on the fire, weapons and such like, but not much food. Not enough to be all alone out there in the woods.

“Scouts maybe,” said Threetrees. “Outriders for some bigger band?”

“Reckon they must be,” said Dow.

Threetrees slapped his hand down on the Dogman’s shoulder. “You alright?”

He was still busy trying to rub the blood off his face. “Aye, I think so.” Bit shaky still, but that would settle. “Cuts and scrapes, I reckon. Nothing I’ll die of.”

“Good, ’cause I can’t spare you. Why don’t you take a creep up through them trees and have a look-see, while we clear up this mess here? Find who these bastards were scouting for.”

“Right enough,” said the Dogman, sucking in a big breath and blowing it out. “Right enough.”


“Stupid bloody job, eh, Dow?” whispered Threetrees. “Work fit for boys and we’re lucky to get it? What do you say now?”

“Could be I made a mistake.”

“A big one,” said the Dogman.

There were a hundred fires burning down there on the dark slopes, a hundred fires and more. There were men down there too, it hardly needed saying. Thralls mostly, lightly armed, but plenty of Carls as well. Dogman could see the last light of the day glinting on their spear tips, and their shield-rims, and their mail coats, polished up and ready for a fight, clustered round close to the flapping standards of each clan’s chieftain. Lots of standards. Twenty of ’em, or thirty even, at a quick count. The Dogman had never seen more than ten together before.

“Biggest army there’s ever been out of the North,” he muttered.

“Aye,” said Threetrees. “All fighting for Bethod, and not five days’ ride from the Southerners.” He pointed down at one of the banners. “That Littlebone’s standard down there?”

“Aye,” growled Dow, and spat into the brush. “That’s his mark alright. I got scores with that bastard.”

“There’s a world o’ scores down there,” said Threetrees. “That’s Pale-as-Snow’s banner, and Whitesides, and Crendel Goring’s over by them rocks. That’s some bloody company. Them as went over to Bethod near the beginning. All grown fat on it now, I reckon.”

“What about them ones?” asked the Dogman, pointing out at some that he didn’t recognise—evil-looking signs, all leather and bones. Looked like hillmen’s marks to him, maybe. “That ain’t Crummock-i-Phail’s standard, is it?”

“Nah! He’d never have kneeled to Bethod or anyone else. That mad bastard’ll still be up there in the mountains somewhere, calling to the moon and all the rest.”

“Less Bethod done for him,” grunted Dow.

Threetrees shook his head. “Doubt it. Canny bastard, that Crummock. Been holding Bethod off for years, up in the High Places. He knows all the ways, they say.”

“Whose signs are they then?” asked Dogman.

“Don’t know, could be some boys from out east, past the Crinna. There’s some strange folk out that way. You know any o’ them banners, Grim?”

“Aye,” said Grim, but that was all he said.

“Don’t hardly matter whose signs they are,” muttered Dow, “just look at the numbers of ’em. There’s half the fucking North down there.”

“And the worst half,” said Dogman. He was looking at Bethod’s sign, set up in the middle of the host. A red circle daubed on black hides, an acre of ’em, it looked like, big as a field, mounted on a tall pine trunk, flapping evil in the wind. Huge great thing. “Wouldn’t fancy carrying it,” he muttered.

Dow slithered over and leaned in close. “Might be that we could sneak in there in the dark,” he whispered. “Might be we could sneak in and put a blade in Bethod.”

They all looked at each other. It was a terrible risk, but Dogman had no doubts it was worth the trying. Wasn’t a one of them hadn’t dreamed of sending Bethod back to the mud.

“Put a blade in him, the bastard,” muttered Tul, and he had a smile right across his face.

“Uh,” grunted Grim.

“That’s a task worth doing,” hissed Dow. “That’s real work!”

Dogman nodded, looking down at all them fires. “No doubt.” Noble work. Work for Named Men like them, or like they used to be, maybe. There’d be some songs about that, alright. Dogman’s blood was rushing at the thought, skin prickling on his hands, but Threetrees was having none of it.

“No. We can’t risk it. We got to go back and tell the Union. Tell ’em they got guests coming. Bad guests, and in numbers.” He tugged at his beard, and Dogman could tell he didn’t like it, backing off. None of ’em did, but they knew he was right, even Dow. Chances were they’d never get to Bethod, and if they did they’d never get out.

“We got to go back,” said Dogman.

“Fair enough,” said Dow. “We go back. Shame though.”

“Aye,” said Threetrees. “Shame.”


Long Shadows

<p>Long Shadows</p>

“By the dead.”

Ferro said nothing, but for the first time since Logen met her, the scowl had slipped off. Her face was slack, mouth hanging slightly open. Luthar, on the other hand, was grinning like a fool.

“You ever see anything like that?” he shouted over the noise, pointing out at it with a trembling hand.

“There is nothing else like that,” said Bayaz.

Logen had to admit that he’d been wondering what all the fuss was about when it came to crossing a river. Some of the bigger ones in the North could be a problem, especially in the wrong season and with a lot of gear to carry. But if there was no bridge, you found a good ford, held your weapons over your head, and sloshed across. Might take a while for your boots to dry out, and you had to keep your eyes well opened for an ambush, but otherwise there was nothing much to fear from a river. Good place to fill your water-skin.

Filling your skin at the Aos would have been a dangerous business, at least without a hundred strides of rope.

Logen had once stood on the cliffs near Uffrith, and watched the waves crash against the rocks far below, the sea stretching away, grey and foaming out of sight. A dizzy, and a humbling, and a worrying place to stand. The feeling at the brink of the great river’s canyon was much the same, except that a quarter mile away or so another cliff rose up from the water. The far bank, if you could use the word about a towering rock face.

He shuffled up gingerly to the very edge, prodding at the soft ground with the toes of his boots, and peered over the brink. Not a good idea. The red earth overhung slightly, bound up with white grass roots, and then the jagged rocks dropped away, almost sheer. Where the frothing water slapped against them, far below, it sent great plumes of bright spray into the air, clouds of damp mist that Logen could almost feel on his face. Tufts of long grass clung to the cracks and the ledges, and birds flitted between them, hundreds of small white birds. Logen could just make out their twittering calls over the mighty rumble of the river.

He thought on being dropped into that thundering weight of dark water—sucked, and whirled, and ripped around like a leaf in the storm. He swallowed, and shuffled cautiously back from the edge, looking around for something to cling on to. He felt tiny, and weightless, as if a strong gust of wind might snatch him away. He could almost feel the water moving through his boots, the surging, rolling, unstoppable power of it, making the very earth tremble.

“So you can see why a bridge might be such a good idea!” shouted Bayaz in his ear.

“How can you even build a bridge across that?”

“At Aostum the river splits in three, and the canyon is much less deep. The Emperor’s architects built islands, and made their bridges of many small arches. Even so, it took them twelve years to build. The bridge at Darmium is the work of Kanedias himself, a gift to his brother Juvens when they were yet on good terms. It crosses the river in a single span. How he did it, none now can say.” Bayaz turned for the horses. “Get the others, we should keep moving!”

Ferro was already walking back from the brink. “So much rain.” She looked over her shoulder, frowned and shook her head.

“Don’t get rivers like that where you come from, eh?”

“Out in the Badlands, water is the most precious thing you can have. Men kill over a bottle of it.”

“That’s where you were born? The Badlands?” A strange name for a place, but it sounded about right for her.

“There are no births in the Badlands, pink. Only deaths.”

“Harsh land, eh? Where were you born, then?”

She scowled. “What do you care?”

“Just trying to be friendly.”

“Friends!” she sneered, brushing past him towards the horses.

“Why? You got so many out here you couldn’t use another?”

She stopped, half turned, and looked at him through narrowed eyes. “My friends don’t last, pink.”

“Nor do mine, but I reckon I’ll take the risk if you will.”

“Alright,” she said, but there was nothing friendly in her face. “The Gurkish conquered my home when I was a child, and they took me for a slave. They took all the children.”

“A slave?”

“Yes, fool, a slave! Bought and sold like meat by the butcher! Owned by someone else, and they do as they please with you, like they would with a goat, or a dog, or the dirt in their gardens! That what you want to know, friend?”

Logen frowned. “We don’t have that custom in the North.”

“Ssss,” she hissed, lip curling with scorn. “Good for fucking you!”


The ruin loomed over them. A forest of shattered pillars, a maze of broken walls, the ground around it strewn with fallen blocks as long as a man was tall. Crumbling windows and empty doorways yawned like wounds. A ragged black outline, chopped out from the flying clouds like a giant row of broken teeth.

“What city was this?” asked Luthar.

“No city,” said Bayaz. “At the height of the Old Time, at the greatest extent of the Emperor’s power, this was his winter palace.”

“All this?” Logen squinted at the sprawling wreck. “One man’s house?”

“And not even the whole year round. Most of the time, the court would stay in Aulcus. In winter, when the cold snows swept down off the mountains, the Emperor would bring his retinue here. An army of guardsmen, of servants, of cooks, of officials, of princes, and children, and wives, making their way across the plain ahead of the cold winds, taking up residence here for three short months in the echoing halls, the beautiful gardens, the gilded chambers.” Bayaz shook his bald head. “In times long past, before the war, this place glittered like the sea beneath the rising sun.”

Luthar sniffed. “So Glustrod tore it down, I suppose?”

“No. It was not in that war, but another that it fell, many years later. A war fought by my order, after the death of Juvens, against his eldest brother.”

“Kanedias,” muttered Quai, “the Master Maker.”

“A war just as bitter, just as brutal, just as merciless as the one before. And even more was lost. Juvens and Kanedias both, in the end.”

“Not a happy family,” muttered Logen.

“No.” Bayaz frowned up at the mighty wreckage. “With the death of the Maker, the last of the four sons of Euz, the Old Time ended. We are left only with the ruins, and the tombs, and the myths. Little men, kneeling in the long shadows of the past.”

Ferro stood up in her stirrups. “There are riders,” she barked, staring off at the horizon. “Forty or more.”

“Where?” snapped Bayaz, shading his eyes. “I don’t see anything.” Nor could Logen. Only the waving grass and the towering clouds.

Longfoot frowned. “I see no riders, and I am blessed with perfect vision. Why, I have often been told that—”

“You want to wait until you see them,” hissed Ferro, “or get off the road before they see us?”

“We’ll head into the ruins,” snapped Bayaz over his shoulder. “And wait for them to pass. Malacus! Turn the cart!”

The wreck of the winter palace was full of shadows, and stillness, and decay. The outsize ruins towered around them, all covered with old ivy and wet moss, streaked and crusted with the droppings of bird and bat. The animals had made the place their palace now. Birds sang from a thousand nests, high in the ancient masonry. Spiders had spun great glistening webs in leaning doorways, heavy with sparkling beads of dew. Tiny lizards sunned themselves in patches of light on the fallen blocks, swarming away as they came near. The rattling of the cart over the broken ground, the footfalls and the hoof beats echoed back from the slimy stones. Everywhere, water dripped, and ran, and plopped in hidden pools.

“Take this, pink.” Ferro slapped her sword into Logen’s hands.

“Where are you going?”

“You wait down here, and stay out of sight.” She jerked her head upwards. “I’ll watch them from up there.”

As a boy, Logen had never been out of the trees round the village. As a young man he’d spent days in the High Places, testing himself against the mountains. At Heonan in the winter, the hillmen had held the high pass. Even Bethod had thought that there was no way round, but Logen had found a way up the frozen cliff and settled that score. He could see no way up here, though. Not without an hour or two to spare. Cliffs of leaning blocks heavy with dead creeper, crags of tottering stonework slick with moss, seeming to lean and tip as the clouds moved fast above.

“How the hell you planning to get up…”

She was already halfway up one of the pillars. She didn’t so much climb as swarm like an insect, hand over hand. She paused at the top for a moment, found a footing she liked, then sprang through the air, right over Logen’s head, landed on the wall behind and scrambled up onto it, sending a shower of broken mortar down into his face. She squatted on the top and frowned down at him. “Just try not to make too much noise!” she hissed, then was gone.

“Did you see…” muttered Logen, but the others had already moved further into the damp shadows, and he hurried after them, not wanting to be left alone in this overgrown graveyard. Quai had pulled his cart up further on, and was leaning against it beside the restless horses. The First of the Magi was kneeling near him in the weeds, rubbing at the lichen-crusted wall with his palms.

“Look at this,” snapped Bayaz as Logen tried to edge past. “These carvings here. Masterpieces of the ancient world! Stories, and lessons, and warnings from history.” His thick fingers brushed gently at the scarred stone. “We might be the first men to look upon these in centuries!”

“Mmm,” muttered Logen, puffing out his cheeks.

“Look here!” Bayaz gestured at the wall. “Euz gives his gifts to his three oldest sons, while Glustrod looks on from the shadows. The birth of the three pure disciplines of magic. Some craftsmanship, eh?”

“Right.”

“And here,” grunted Bayaz, knocking some weeds away and shuffling along to the next mossy panel, “Glustrod plans to destroy his brother’s work.” He had to tear at a tangle of dead ivy to get at the one beyond. “He breaks the First Law. He hears voices from the world below, you see? He summons devils and sends them against his enemies. And in this one,” he muttered, tugging at the weight of brown creeper, “let me see now…”

“Glustrod digs,” muttered Quai. “Who knows? In the next one he might even have found what he’s looking for.”

“Hmm,” grumbled the First of the Magi, letting the ivy fall back across the wall. He glowered at his apprentice as he stood up, frowning. “Perhaps, sometimes, the past is better left covered.”

Logen cleared his throat and edged away, ducked quickly under a leaning archway. The wide space beyond was filled with small, knotty trees, planted in rows, but long overgrown. Great weeds and nettles, brown and sagging rotten from the rain, stood almost waist high around the mossy walls.

“Perhaps I should not say it myself,” came Longfoot’s cheerful voice, “but it must be said! My talent for navigation stands alone! It rises above the skills of every other Navigator as the mountain rises over the deep valley!” Logen winced, but it was Bayaz’ anger or Longfoot’s bragging, and that was no choice at all.

“I have led us across the great plain to the river Aos, without a deviation of even a mile!” The Navigator beamed at Logen and Luthar, as though expecting an avalanche of praise. “And without a single dangerous encounter, in a land reckoned among the most dangerous under the sun!” He frowned. “Perhaps a quarter of our epic journey is now safely behind us. I am not sure that you appreciate the difficulty involved. Across the featureless plain, as autumn turns to winter, and without even the stars to reckon by!” He shook his head. “Huh. Truly, the pinnacle of achievement is a lonely place.”

He turned away and wandered over to one of the trees. “The lodgings are a little past their best, but at least the fruit trees are still in working order.” Longfoot plucked a green apple from a low hanging branch and began to shine it on his sleeve. “Nothing like a fine apple, and from the Emperor’s orchard, no less.” He grinned to himself. “Strange, eh? How the plants outlast the greatest works of men.”

Luthar sat down on a fallen statue nearby, slid the longer of his two swords from its sheath and laid it across his knees. Steel glinted mirror-bright as he turned it over in his lap, frowned at it, licked a finger and scrubbed at some invisible blemish. He pulled out his whetstone, spat on it, and carefully set to work on the long, thin blade. The metal rang gently as the stone moved back and forward. It was soothing, somehow, that sound, that ritual, familiar from a thousand campfires of Logen’s past.

“Must you?” asked Brother Longfoot. “Sharpening, polishing, sharpening, polishing, morning and night, it makes my head hurt. It’s not as if you’ve even made any use of them yet. Probably find when you need them that you’ve sharpened them away to nothing, eh?” He chuckled at his own joke. “Where will you be then?”

Luthar didn’t even bother to look up. “Why don’t you keep your mind on getting us across this damn plain, and leave the swords to those who know the difference?” Logen grinned to himself. An argument between the two most arrogant men he had ever met was well worth watching, in his opinion.

“Huh,” snorted Longfoot, “show me someone who knows the difference and I’ll happily never mention blades again.” He lifted the apple to his mouth, but before he could bite into it, his hand was empty. Luthar had moved almost too fast to follow, and speared it on the glinting point of his sword. “Give me that back!”

Luthar stood up. “Of course,” he tossed it off the end of the blade with a practised flick of his wrist. Before Longfoot’s reaching hands could close around it, Luthar had snatched his short sword from its sheath and whipped it blurring through the air. The Navigator was left juggling with the two even halves for a moment before dropping them both in the dirt.

“Damn your showing off!” he snapped.

“We can’t all have your modesty,” muttered Luthar. Logen chuckled to himself while Longfoot stomped back over to the tree, staring up into the branches for another apple.

“Nice trick,” he grunted, strolling through the weeds to where Luthar was sitting. “You’re quick with those needles.”

The young man gave a modest shrug. “It has been remarked upon.”

“Mmm.” Stabbing an apple and stabbing a man were two different things, but quickness was some kind of start. Logen looked down at Ferro’s sword, turned it over in his hands, then slid it out from its wooden sheath. It was a strange weapon to his mind, grip and blade both gently curved, thicker at the end than at the hilt, sharpened only down one edge, with scarcely any point on it at all. He swung it in the air a couple of times. Strange weight, more like an axe than a sword.

“Odd-looking thing,” muttered Luthar.

Logen checked the edge with his thumb. Rough-feeling, it dragged at the skin. “Sharp, though.”

“Don’t you ever sharpen yours?”

Logen frowned. He reckoned he must have spent weeks of his life, all told, sharpening the weapons he’d carried. Every night, out on the trail, after the meal, men would sit and work at their gear, steel scraping on metal and stone, flashing in the light of the campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, polishing, tightening. His hair might have been caked with mud, his skin stiff with old sweat, his clothes riddled with lice, but his weapons had always gleamed like the new moon.

He took hold of the cold grip and pulled the sword that Bayaz had given him out of its stained scabbard. It looked a slow and ugly thing compared to Luthar’s swords, and to Ferro’s too, if it came to that. There was hardly any shine on the heavy grey blade at all. He turned it over in his hand. The single silver letter glinted near the hilt. The mark of Kanedias.

“Don’t know why, but it doesn’t need sharpening. I tried it to begin with, but all it did was wear down the stone.” Longfoot had hauled himself up into one of the trees, and was slithering along a thick branch towards an apple hanging out of reach near its end.

“If you ask me,” grunted the Navigator, “the weapons suit their owners to the ground. Captain Luthar—flash and fine-looking but never used in combat. The woman Maljinn—sharp and vicious and worrying to look upon. The Northman Ninefingers—heavy, solid, slow and simple. Hah!” he chuckled, dragging himself slightly further down the limb. “A most fitting metaphor! Juggling with words has always been but one among my many remarkable—”

Logen grunted as he swung the sword over his head. It bit through the branch where it met the trunk, clean through, almost to the other side. More than far enough that Longfoot’s weight ripped through the rest, and brought the whole limb, Navigator and all, crashing down into the weeds below. “Slow and simple enough for you?”

Luthar spluttered with laughter as he sharpened his short sword, and Logen laughed as well. Laughing with a man was a good step forward. First comes the laughter, then the respect, then the trust.

“God’s breath!” shouted Longfoot, scrabbling his way out from under the branch. “Can a man not eat without disturbance?”

“Sharp enough,” chuckled Luthar. “No doubt.”

Logen hefted the sword in his hand. “Yes, this Kanedias knew how to make a weapon, alright.”

“Making weapons is what Kanedias did.” Bayaz had stepped through the crumbling archway and into the overgrown orchard. “He was the Master Maker, after all. The one that you hold is among the very least of what he made, forged to be used in a war against his brothers.”

“Brothers,” snorted Luthar. “I know exactly how he felt. There’s always something. Usually a woman, in my experience.” He gave his short sword one last stroke with the whetstone. “And where women are concerned, I always come out on top.”

“Is that so?” Bayaz snorted. “As it happens, a woman did enter the case, but not in the way you’re thinking.”

Luthar gave a sickening grin. “What other way is there to think about women? If you ask me—gah!” A large clod of bird shit splattered against the shoulder of his coat, throwing specks of black and grey all over his hair, his face, his newly cleaned swords. “What the…?” He scrambled from his seat and stared up at the wall above him. Ferro was squatting on top, wiping her hand on a spray of ivy. It was hard to tell with the bright sky behind, but Logen wondered if she might not have the trace of a smile on her face.

Luthar certainly wasn’t smiling. “You fucking mad bitch!” he screamed, scraping the white goo from his coat and flinging it at the wall. “Bunch of bloody savages!” And he shoved angrily past and through the fallen arch. Laughter was one thing, it seemed, but the respect might be a while coming.

“In case any of you pinks are interested,” called Ferro, “the riders are gone.”

“Which way?” asked Bayaz.

“Away east, the way we came, riding hard.”

“Looking for us?”

“Who knows? They didn’t have signs. But if they are looking, more than likely they will find our trail.”

The Magus frowned. “Then you’d best get down from there. We need to move.” He thought about it for a moment. “And try not to throw any more shit!”


And Next… My Gold

<p>And Next… My Gold</p>

To Sand dan Glokta,

Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.

I am most troubled to discover that you think yourself short of both men and money.

As far as soldiers are concerned, you must make do with what you have, or what you can procure. As you are already well aware, the great majority of our strength is committed in Angland. Unfortunately, a certain rebellious temper among the peasantry throughout Midderland is more than occupying what remains.

As to the question of funds, I fear that nothing can he spared. You will not ask again. I advise you to squeeze what you can from the Spicers, from the natives, from anyone else who is to hand. Borrow and make do, Glokta. Demonstrate that resourcefulness that made you so famous in the Kantic War.

I trust that you will not disappoint me.

Sult

Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

“Matters proceed with the greatest speed, Superior, if I may say so. Since the gates to the Upper City were opened the work-rate of the natives has tripled! The ditch is down below sea level across the entire peninsula, and deepening every day! Only narrow dams hold back the brine at either end, and at your order the entire business is ready to be flooded!” Vissbruck sat back with a happy smile on his plump face. Quite as if the whole thing had been his idea.

Below them in the Upper City, the morning chanting was beginning. A strange wailing that drifted from the spires of the Great Temple, out over Dagoska and into every building, even here, in the audience chamber of the Citadel. Kahdia calls his people to prayer.

Vurms’ lip curled at the sound. “That time again already? Damn those natives and their bloody superstitions! We should never have let them back into their temple! Damn their bloody chanting, it gives me a headache!”

And it’s worth it for that alone. Glokta grinned. “If it makes Kahdia happy, your headache is something I can live with. Like it or not, we need the natives, and the natives like to chant. Get used to it, is my advice. That or wrap a blanket round your head.”

Vissbruck sat back in his chair and listened while Vurms sulked. “I have to admit that I find the sound rather soothing, and we cannot deny the effect the Superior’s concessions have had on the natives. With their help the land walls are repaired, the gates are replaced, and the scaffolds are already being dismantled. Stone has been acquired for new parapets but, ah, and here is the problem, the masons refuse to work another day without money. My soldiers are on quarter pay, and morale is low. Debt is the problem, Superior.”

“I’ll say it is,” muttered Vurms angrily. “The granaries are close to capacity, and two new wells have been dug in the Lower City, at great expense, but my credit is utterly exhausted. The grain merchants are after my blood!” A damn sight less keenly than every merchant in the city is after mine, I daresay. “I can scarcely show my face any longer for their clamouring. My reputation is in jeopardy, Superior!”

As if I had no larger concerns than the reputation of this dolt. “How much do we owe?”

Vurms frowned. “For food, water, and general equipment, no less than a hundred thousand.” A hundred thousand? The Spicers love making money, but they hate spending it more. Eider will not come up with half so much, if she even chooses to try.

“What about you, General?”

“The cost of hiring mercenaries, excavating the ditch, of the repairs to the walls, of extra weapons, armour, ammunition…” Vissbruck puffed out his cheeks. “In all, it comes to nearly four hundred thousand marks.”

It was the most Glokta could do to keep from choking on his own tongue. Half a million? A king’s ransom and more besides. I doubt that Sult could provide so much, even if he had the mind, and he does not. Men die all the time over debts a fraction of the size. “Work however you can. Promise whatever you want. The money is on its way, I assure you.”

The General was already collecting his notes. “I am doing all I can, but people are beginning to doubt that they will ever be paid.”

Vurms was more direct. “No one trusts us any longer. Without money, we can do nothing.”


“Nothing,” growled Severard. Frost slowly shook his head.

Glokta rubbed at his sore eyes. “A Superior of the Inquisition vanishes without leaving so much as a smear behind. He retires to his chambers at night, the door is locked. In the morning he does not answer. They break down the door and find…” Nothing. “The bed has been slept in, but there is no body. Not the slightest sign of a struggle even.”

“Nothing,” muttered Severard.

“What do we know? Davoust suspected a conspiracy within the city, a traitor intending to deliver Dagoska to the Gurkish. He believed a member of the ruling council was involved. It would seem likely that he uncovered the identity of this person, and was somehow silenced.”

“But who?”

We must turn the question on its head. “If we cannot find our traitor, we must make them come to us. If they work to get the Gurkish in, we need only succeed in keeping them out. Sooner or later, they will show themselves.”

“Rithky,” mumbled Frost. Risky indeed, especially for Dagoska’s latest Superior of the Inquisition, but we have no choices.

“So we wait?” asked Severard.

“We wait, and we look to our defences. That and we try to find some money. Do you have any cash, Severard?”

“I did have some. I gave it to a girl, down in the slums.”

“Ah. Shame.”

“Not really, she fucks like a madman. I’d thoroughly recommend her, if you’re interested.”

Glokta winced as his knee clicked. “What a thoroughly heartwarming tale, Severard, I never had you down for a romantic. I’d sing a ballad if I wasn’t so short of funds.”

“I could ask around. How much are we talking about?”

“Oh, not much. Say, half a million marks?”

One of the Practical’s eyebrows went up sharply. He reached into his pocket, dug around for a moment, pulled his hand out and opened it. A few copper coins shone in his palm.

“Twelve bits,” he said. “Twelve bits is all I can raise.”


“Twelve thousand is all I can raise,” said Magister Eider. Scarcely a drop in the bucket. “My Guild are nervous, business has not been good, the great majority of their assets are bound up in ventures of one kind or another. I have little cash to hand either.”

I daresay you have a good deal more than twelve thousand, but what’s the difference? I doubt even you have half a million tucked away. There probably isn’t that amount in the whole city. “One would almost think they didn’t like me.”

She snorted. “Turning them out of the temple? Arming the natives? Then demanding money? It might be fair to say you’re not their favourite person.”

“Might it be fair to say they’re after my blood?” And plenty of it, I shouldn’t wonder.

“It might, but for the time being, at least, I think I’ve managed to convince them that you’re a good thing for the city.” She looked levelly at him for a moment. “You are a good thing, aren’t you?”

“If keeping the Gurkish out is your priority.” That is our priority, isn’t it? “More money wouldn’t hurt, though.”

“More money never hurts, but that’s the trouble with merchants. They much prefer making it to spending it, even when it’s in their own best interests.” She gave a heavy sigh, rapped her fingernails on the table, looked down at her hand. She seemed to consider a moment, then she began to pull the rings from her fingers. When she had finally got them all off, she tossed them into the box along with the coins.

Glokta frowned. “A winning gesture, Magister, but I could not possibly—”

“I insist,” she said, unclasping her heavy necklace and dropping it into the box. “I can always get more, once you’ve saved the city. In any case, they’ll do me no good when the Gurkish rip them from my corpse, will they?” She slipped her heavy bracelets off her wrists, yellow gold, studded with green gemstones. They rattled down amongst the rest. “Take the jewels, before I change my mind. A man lost in the desert should take such water—”

“As he is offered, regardless of the source. Kahdia told me the very same thing.”

“Kahdia is a clever man.”

“He is. I thank you for your generosity, Magister.” Glokta snapped the lid of the box shut.

“The least I could do.” She got up from her chair and walked to the door, her sandals hissing across the carpet. “I will speak with you soon.”


“He says he must speak with you now.”

“What was his name, Shickel?”

“Mauthis. A banker.”

One more creditor, come clamouring for his money. Sooner or later I’ll have to just arrest the pack of them. That will be the end of my little spending spree, but it will almost be worth it to see the looks on their faces. Glokta gave a hopeless shrug. “Send him in.”

He was a tall man in his fifties, almost ill-looking in his gauntness, hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed. There was a stern precision to his movements, a steady coldness to his gaze. As though he is weighing the value of all he looks at in silver marks, including me.

“My name is Mauthis.”

“I was informed, but I am afraid that there are no funds available at the present moment.” Unless you count Severard’s twelve bits. “Whatever debt the city has with your bank will have to wait. It will not be for much longer, I assure you.” Just until the sea dries up, the sky falls in, and devils roam the earth.

Mauthis gave a smile. If you could call it that. A neat, precise, and utterly joyless curving of the mouth. “You misunderstand me, Superior Glokta. I have not come to collect a debt. For seven years, I have had the privilege of acting as the chief representative in Dagoska, of the banking house of Valint and Balk.”

Glokta paused, then tried to sound off-hand. “Valint and Balk, you say? Your bank financed the Guild of Mercers, I believe.”

“We had some dealings with that guild, before their unfortunate fall from grace.” I’ll say you did. You owned them, from the ground up. “But then we have dealings with many guilds, and companies, and other banks, and individuals, great and small. Today I have dealings with you.”

“Dealings of what nature?”

Mauthis turned to the door and snapped his fingers. Two burly natives entered, grunting, sweating, struggling under the weight of a great casket: a box of polished black wood, bound with bands of bright steel, sealed with a heavy lock. They set it down carefully on the fine carpet, wiped sweat from their foreheads, and tramped out the way they came while Glokta frowned after them. What is this? Mauthis pulled a key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. He reached forward and lifted the lid of the chest. He moved out of the way, carefully and precisely, so Glokta could see the contents.

“One hundred and fifty thousand marks in silver.”

Glokta blinked. And so it is. The coins flashed and glittered in the evening light. Flat, round, silver, five mark pieces. Not a jingling heap, not some barbarian’s horde. Neat, even stacks, held in place by wooden dowels. As neat and even as Mauthis himself.

The two porters were gasping their way back into the room, carrying between them a second box, slightly smaller than the first. They placed it on the floor and strode out, not so much as glancing at the fortune glittering in plain view beside them.

Mauthis unlocked the second chest with the same key, raised the lid, and stood aside. “Three hundred and fifty thousand marks in gold.”

Glokta knew his mouth was open, but he could not close it. Bright, clean, gold, glowing yellow. All that wealth seemed almost to give off warmth, like a bonfire. It tugged at him, dragged at him, pulled him forward. He took a hesitant step, in fact, before he stopped himself. Great big, golden, fifty mark pieces. Neat, even stacks, just as before. Most men would never in their lives see such coins. Few men indeed can ever have seen so many.

Mauthis reached into his coat and pulled out a flat leather case. He placed it carefully on the table and unfolded it: once, twice, three times.

“One half of one million marks in polished stones.”

There they lay on the soft black leather, on the hard brown table top, burning with all the colours under the sun. Two large handfuls, perhaps, of multi-coloured, glittering gravel. Glokta stared down at them, numb, and sucked at his gums. Magister Eiders jewels seem suddenly rather quaint.

“In total, I have been ordered by my superiors to advance to you, Sand dan Glokta, Superior of Dagoska, the sum of precisely one million marks.” He unrolled a heavy paper. “You will sign here.”

Glokta stared from one chest to another and back. His left eye gave a flurry of twitches. “Why?”

“To certify that you received the money.”

Glokta almost laughed. “Not that! Why the money?” He flailed one hand at it all. “Why all this?”

“It would appear that my employers share your concern that Dagoska should not fall to the Gurkish. More than that I cannot tell you.”

“Cannot, or will not?”

“Cannot. Will not.”

Glokta frowned at the jewels, at the silver, at the gold. His leg was throbbing, dully. All that I wanted, and far more. But banks do not become banks by giving money away. “If this is a loan, what is the interest?”

Mauthis flashed his icy smile again. “My employers would prefer to call it a contribution to the defence of the city. There is one condition, however.”

“Which is?”

“It may be that in the future, a representative of the banking house of Valint and Balk will come to you requesting… favours. It is the most earnest hope of my employers that, if and when that time comes, you will not disappoint them.”

One million marks worth of favours. And I place myself in the power of a most suspect organisation. An organisation whose motives I do not begin to understand. An organisation that, until recently, I was on the point of investigating for high treason. But what are my options? Without money, the city is lost, and I am finished. I needed a miracle, and here it is, sparkling before me. A man lost in the desert must take such water as is offered…

Mauthis slid the document across the table. Several blocks of neat writing, and a space, for a name. For my name. Not at all unlike a paper of confession. And prisoners always sign their confessions. They are only offered when there is no choice.

Glokta reached for the pen, dipped it in the ink, wrote his name in the space provided.

“That concludes our business.” Mauthis rolled up the document, smoothly and precisely. He slipped it carefully into his coat. “My colleagues and I are leaving Dagoska this evening.” A great deal of money to contribute to the cause, but precious little confidence in it. “Valint and Balk are closing their offices here, but perhaps we will meet in Adua, once this unfortunate situation with the Gurkish is resolved.” The man gave his mechanical smile one more time. “Don’t spend it all at once.” And he turned on his heel and strode out, leaving Glokta alone with his monumental windfall.

He shuffled over to it, breathing hard, and stared down. There was something obscene about all that money. Something disgusting. Something frightening, almost. He snapped shut the lids of the two chests. He locked them with trembling hands. He shoved the key in his inside pocket. He stroked the metal bindings of the two boxes with his fingertips. His palms were greasy with sweat. I am rich.

He picked up a clear, cut stone the size of an acorn, and held it up to the window between finger and thumb. The dim light shone back at him through the many facets, a thousand brilliant sparks of fire—blue, green, red, white. Glokta did not know much about gemstones, but he was reasonably sure that this one was a diamond. I am very, very rich.

He looked back at the rest, sparkling on the flat piece of leather. Some of them were small, but many were not. Several were larger than the one he held in his hand. I am immensely, fabulously wealthy. Imagine what one could do with so much money. Imagine what one could control… perhaps, with this much, I can save the city. More walls, more supplies, more equipment, more mercenaries. The Gurkish, thrown back from Dagoska in disarray. The Emperor of Gurkhul, humbled. Who would have thought it? Sand dan Glokta, once more the hero.

He rolled the shining little pebbles around with a finger-tip, lost in thought. But so much spending in so little time could raise questions. My faithful servant Practical Vitari would be curious, and she would make my noble master the Arch Lector curious. One day I beg for money, the next I spend it as if it burns? I was forced to borrow, your Eminence. Indeed? How much? No more than a million marks. Indeed? And who would lend such a sum? Why, our old friends at the banking house of Valint and Balk, your Eminence, in return for unspecified favours, which they might call in at any moment. Of course, my loyalty is still beyond question. You understand, don’t you? I mean to say, it’s only a fortune in jewels. Body found floating by the docks…

He pushed his hand absently through the cold, hard, glittering stones, and they tickled pleasantly at the skin between his fingers. Pleasant, but perilous. We must still tread carefully. More carefully than ever…


Fear

<p>Fear</p>

It was a long way to the edge of the World, of that there could be no doubt. A long, and a lonely, and a nervous way. The sight of the corpses on the plain had worried everyone. The passing riders had made matters worse. The discomforts of the journey had in no way diminished. Jezal was still constantly hungry, usually too cold, often wet through, and would probably be saddle-sore for the rest of his days. Every night he stretched out on the hard and lumpy ground, dozed and dreamed of home, only to wake to the pale morning more tired and aching than when he lay down. His skin crawled, and chafed, and stung with the unfamiliar feeling of dirt, and he was forced to admit that he had begun to smell almost as vile as the others. It was enough, altogether, to make a civilised man run mad, and now, to add to all of this, there was the constant nagging of danger.

From that point of view, the terrain was not on Jezal’s side. Hoping to shake off any pursuers, Bayaz had ordered them away from the river a few days earlier. The ancient road wound now through deep scars in the plain, through rocky gullies, through shadowy gorges, alongside chattering streams in deep valleys.

Jezal began to think on the endless, grinding flatness almost with nostalgia. At least out there one did not look at every rock, and shrub, and fold in the ground and wonder whether there was a crowd of bloodthirsty enemies behind it. He had chewed his fingernails almost until the blood ran. Every sound made him bite his tongue and spin around in his saddle, clutching at his steels, staring for a murderer, who turned out to be a bird in a bush. It was not fear, of course, for Jezal dan Luthar, he told himself, would laugh in the face of danger. An ambush, or a battle, or a breathless pursuit across the plain—these things, he imagined, he could have taken in his stride. But this endless waiting, this mindless tension, this merciless rubbing-by of slow minutes was almost more than he could stand.

It might have helped had there been someone with whom he could share his unease, but, as far as companionship went, little had changed. The cart still rolled along the cracked old road while Quai sat grim and silent on top. Bayaz said nothing but for the occasional lecture on the qualities of great leadership, qualities which seemed markedly absent in himself. Longfoot was off scouting out the route, only appearing every day or two to let them know how skilfully he was doing it. Ferro frowned at everything as though it was her personal enemy, and at Jezal most of all, it sometimes seemed, her hands never far from her weapons. She spoke rarely, and then only to Ninefingers, to snarl about ambushes, or covering their tracks better, or the possibilities of being followed.

The Northman himself was something of a puzzle. When Jezal had first laid eyes on him, gawping at the gate of the Agriont, he had seemed less than an animal. Out here in the wild, though, the rules were different. One could not simply walk away from a man one disliked, then do one’s best to avoid him, belittle him in company, and insult him behind his back. Out here you were stuck with the companions you had, and, being stuck with him, Jezal had come slowly to realise that Ninefingers was just a man, after all. A stupid, and a thuggish, and a hideously ugly one, no doubt. As far as wit and culture went, he was a cut below the lowliest peasant in the fields of the Union, but Jezal had to admit that out of all the group, the Northman was the one he had come to hate least. He had not the pomposity of Bayaz, the watchfulness of Quai, the boastfulness of Longfoot, or the simple viciousness of Ferro. Jezal would not have been ashamed to ask a farmer his opinion on the raising of crops, or a smith his opinion on the making of armour, however dirty, ugly or lowborn they might have been. Why not consult a hardened killer on the subject of violence?

“I understand that you have led men in battle,” Jezal tried as his opening.

The Northman turned his dark, slow eyes on him. “More than once.”

“And fought in duels.”

“Aye.” He scratched at the ragged scars on his stubbly cheek. “I didn’t come to look like this from a wobbly hand at shaving.”

“If your hand was that wobbly, you would choose, perhaps, to grow a beard.”

Ninefingers chuckled. Jezal was almost used to the sight now. It was still hideous, of course, but smacked more of good-natured ape than crazed murderer. “I might at that,” he said.

Jezal thought about it a moment. He did not wish to make himself appear weak, but honesty might earn the trust of a simple man. If it worked with dogs, why not with Northmen? “I myself,” he ventured, “have never fought in a full-blooded battle.”

“You don’t say?”

“No, truly. My friends are in Angland now, fighting against Bethod and his savages.” Ninefingers’ eyes swivelled sideways. “I mean… that is to say… fighting against Bethod. I would be with them myself, had not Bayaz asked me to come on this… venture.”

“Their loss is our gain.”

Jezal looked sharply across. From a subtler source, that might almost have sounded like sarcasm. “Bethod started this war, of course. A most dishonourable act of unprovoked aggression on his part.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on that score. Bethod’s got a gift when it comes to starting wars. The only thing he’s better at is the finishing of ’em.”

Jezal laughed. “You can’t mean that you think he’ll beat the Union?”

“He’s beaten worse odds, but you know best. We don’t all have your experience.”

The laughter stuttered out in Jezal’s throat. He was almost sure that had been irony, and it made him think for a moment. Was Ninefingers looking at him now, and behind that scarred, that plodding, that battered mask thinking, “what a fool”? Could it be that Bayaz had been right? That there was something to be learned from this Northman after all? There was only one way to find out.

“What’s a battle like?” he asked.

“Battles are like men. No two are ever quite the same.”

“How do you mean?”

“Imagine waking up at night to hear a crashing and a shouting, scrambling out of your tent into the snow with your trousers falling down, to see men all around you killing one another. Nothing but moonlight to see by, no clue who’re enemies and who’re friends, no weapon to fight with.”

“Confusing,” said Jezal.

“No doubt. Or imagine crawling in the mud, between the stomping boots, trying to get away but not knowing where to go, with an arrow in your back and a sword cut across your arse, squealing like a pig and waiting for a spear to stick you through, a spear you won’t even see coming.”

“Painful,” agreed Jezal.

“Very. Or imagine standing in a circle of shields no more than ten strides across, all held by men roaring their loudest. There’s just you and one other man in there, and that man’s won a reputation for being the hardest bastard in the North, and only one of you can leave alive.”

“Hmm,” murmured Jezal.

“That’s right. You like the sound of any of those?” Jezal did not, and Ninefingers smiled. “I didn’t think so, and honestly? Nor do I. I’ve been in all kind of battles, and skirmishes, and fights. Most of them started in chaos, and all of ’em ended in it, and not once did I not come near to shitting myself at some point.”

“You?”

The Northman chuckled. “Fearlessness is a fool’s boast, to my mind. The only men with no fear in them are the dead, or the soon to be dead, maybe. Fear teaches you caution, and respect for your enemy, and to avoid sharp edges used in anger. All good things in their place, believe me. Fear can bring you out alive, and that’s the very best anyone can hope for from any fight. Every man who’s worth a damn feels fear. It’s the use you make of it that counts.”

“Be scared? That’s your advice?”

“My advice would be to find a good woman and steer well clear of the whole bloody business, and it’s a shame no one told me the same twenty years ago.” He looked sideways at Jezal. “But if, say, you’re stuck out on some great wide plain in the middle of nowhere and can’t avoid it, there’s three rules I’d take to a fight. First, always do your best to look the coward, the weakling, the fool. Silence is a warrior’s best armour, the saying goes. Hard looks and hard words have never won a battle yet, but they’ve lost a few.”

“Look the fool, eh? I see.” Jezal had built his whole life around trying to appear the cleverest, the strongest, the most noble. It was an intriguing idea, that a man might choose to look like less than he was.

“Second, never take an enemy lightly, however much the dullard he seems. Treat every man like he’s twice as clever, twice as strong, twice as fast as you are, and you’ll only be pleasantly surprised. Respect costs you nothing, and nothing gets a man killed quicker than confidence.”

“Never underestimate the foe. A wise precaution.” Jezal was beginning to realise that he had underestimated this Northman. He wasn’t half the idiot he appeared to be.

“Third, watch your opponent as close as you can, and listen to opinions if you’re given them, but once you’ve got your plan in mind, you fix on it and let nothing sway you. Time comes to act, you strike with no backward glances. Delay is the parent of disaster, my father used to tell me, and believe me, I’ve seen some disasters.”

“No backward glances,” muttered Jezal, nodding slowly to himself. “Of course.”

Ninefingers puffed out his pitted cheeks. “There’s no replacement for seeing it, and doing it, but master all that, and you’re halfway to beating anyone, I reckon.”

“Halfway? What about the other half?”

The Northman shrugged. “Luck.”


“I don’t like this,” growled Ferro, frowning up at the steep sides of the gorge. Jezal wondered if there was anything in the world she did like.

“You think we’re followed?” asked Bayaz. “You see anyone?”

“How could I see anyone from down here? That’s the point!”

“Good ground for an ambush,” muttered Ninefingers. Jezal looked around him, nervously. Broken rocks, bushes, scrubby trees, the ground was full of hiding places.

“Well, this is the route that Longfoot picked for us,” grumbled Bayaz. “and there’s no purpose in hiring a cleaner if you’re going to swab the latrines yourself. Where the hell is that damn Navigator anyway? Never around when you want him, only turns up to eat and boast for hours on end! If you knew how much that bastard cost me—”

“Damn it.” Ninefingers pulled his horse up and clambered stiffly down from his saddle. A fallen tree trunk, wood cracked and grey, lay across the gorge, blocking the road.

“I don’t like this.” Ferro shrugged her bow from her shoulder.

“Neither do I,” grumbled Ninefingers, taking a step towards the fallen tree. “But you have to be real—”

“That’s far enough!” The voice echoed back and forth around the valley, brash and confident. Quai hauled on the reins and brought the cart to a sudden halt. Jezal looked along the lip of the gorge, his heart thumping in his mouth. He saw the speaker now. A big man dressed in antique leather armour, sitting carelessly on the edge of the drop with one leg dangling, his long hair flapping softly in the breeze. A pleasant and a friendly-looking man, as far as Jezal could tell at this distance, with a wide smile on his face.

“My name is Finnius, a humble servant of the Emperor Cabrian!”

“Cabrian?” shouted Bayaz. “I heard he’d lost his reason!”

“He’s got some interesting ideas.” Finnius shrugged. “But he’s always seen us right. Let me explain matters—we’re all around you!” A serious-seeming man with a short sword and shield stepped out from behind the dead tree trunk. Two more appeared, and then three more, creeping out from behind the rocks, behind the bushes, all with serious faces and serious weapons. Jezal licked his lips. He would laugh in the face of danger, of course, but now it came to it nothing seemed at all amusing. He looked over his shoulder. More men had come from behind the rocks they had passed a few moments before, blocking the valley in the other direction.

Ninefingers folded his arms. “Just once,” he murmured, “I’d like to take someone else by surprise.”

“There’s a couple more of us,” shouted Finnius, “up here, with me! Good hands with bows, and ready with arrows.” Jezal saw their outlines now against the white sky, the curved shapes of their weapons. “So you see that you’ll be going no further down this road!”

Bayaz spread his palms. “Perhaps we can come to some arrangement that suits us both! You need only name your price and—”

“Your money’s no good to us, old man, and I’m deeply wounded by the assumption! We’re soldiers, not thieves! We have orders to find a certain group of people, a group of people wandering out in the middle of nowhere, far from the travelled roads! An old bald bastard with a sickly-looking boy, some stuck-up Union fool, a scarred whore, and an ape of a Northerner! You seen a crowd that might fit that description?”

“If I’m the whore,” shouted Ninefingers, “who’s the Northerner?”

Jezal winced. No jokes, please no jokes, but Finnius only chuckled. “They didn’t tell me you were funny. Reckon that’s a bonus. At least until we kill you. Where’s the other one, eh? The Navigator?”

“No idea,” growled Bayaz, “unfortunately. If anyone dies it should be him.”

“Don’t take it too hard. We’ll catch up with him later.” And Finnius laughed an easy laugh, and the men around them grinned and fingered their weapons. “So if you’d be good enough to give your arms to those fellows ahead of you, we can get you trussed up and start back towards Darmium before nightfall!”

“And when we get there?”

Finnius gave a happy shrug. “Not my business. I don’t ask questions of the Emperor, and you don’t ask questions of me. That way, no one gets skinned alive. Do you take my meaning, old man?”

“Your meaning is hard to miss, but I am afraid that Darmium is quite out of our way.”

“What are you,” called Finnius, “soft in the head?”

The nearest man stepped forward and grabbed hold of Bayaz’ bridle. “That’s enough of that,” he growled.

Jezal felt that horrible sucking in his guts. The air around Bayaz’ shoulders trembled, like the hot air above a forge. The foremost of the men frowned, opened his mouth to speak. His face seemed to flatten, then his head broke open and he was suddenly snatched away as though flicked by a giant, unseen finger. He had not even time to scream.

Nor had the four men who stood behind him. Their ruined bodies, the broken remnants of the grey tree trunk, and a great quantity of earth and rocks around them were ripped from the ground and flung through the air to shatter against the rocky wall of the gorge a hundred strides distant with a sound like a house collapsing.

Jezal’s mouth hung open. His body froze. It had taken only a terrifying instant. One moment five men had been standing there, the next they were slaughtered meat among a heap of settling debris. Somewhere behind him he heard the hum of a bowstring. There was a cry and a body dropped down into the valley, bounced from the sheer rocks and flopped rag-like, face down in the stream.

“Ride, then!” roared Bayaz, but Jezal could only sit in his saddle and gape. The air around the Magus was still moving, more than ever. The rocks behind him rippled and twisted like the stones on the bed of a stream. The old man frowned, stared down at his hands. “No…” he muttered, turning them over before him.

The brown leaves on the ground were lifting up into air, fluttering as though on a gust of wind. “No,” said Bayaz, his eyes opening wide. His whole body had begun to shake. Jezal gawped as the loose stones around them rose from the ground, drifting impossibly upwards. Sticks began to snap from the bushes, clods of grass began to tear themselves away from the rocks, his coat rustled and flapped, dragged upwards by some unseen force.

“No!” screamed Bayaz, then his shoulders hunched in a sudden spasm. A tree beside them split apart with a deafening crack and splinters of wood showered out into the whipping air. Someone was shouting but Jezal could scarcely hear them. His horse reared and he had not the wit to hold on. He crashed onto his back on the earth while the whole valley shimmered, trembled, vibrated around him.

Bayaz’ head snapped back, rigid, one hand up and clawing at the air. A rock the size of a man’s head flew past Jezal’s face and burst apart against a boulder. The air was filled with a storm of whipping rubbish, of fragments of wood, and stone, and soil, and broken gear. Jezal’s ears were ringing with a terrifying clattering, rattling, howling. He flung himself down on his face, crossed his arms over his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

He thought of his friends. Of West, and Jalenhorm, and Kaspa, of Lieutenant Brint, even. He thought of his family and his home, of his father and his brothers. He thought of Ardee. If he lived to see them again, he would be a better man. He swore it to himself with silent, trembling lips as the unnatural wind ripped the valley apart around him. He would no longer be selfish, no longer be vain, no longer be lazy. He would be a better friend, a better son, a better lover, if only he lived through this. If only he lived through this. If only…

He could hear his own terrified breath coming in quick gasps, the blood surging in his head.

The noise had stopped.

Jezal opened his eyes. He lifted his hands from his head and a shower of twigs and soil fell around him. The gorge was full of settling leaves, misty with choking dust. Ninefingers was standing nearby, red blood running down his dirty face from a cut on his forehead. He was walking slowly sideways. He had his sword drawn, hanging down by his leg. Someone was facing him. One of the men that had blocked the way behind them, a tall man with a mop of red hair. Circling each other. Jezal watched, kneeling, mouth wide open. He felt in some small way that he should intervene, but he had not the beginnings of an idea how to do so.

The red-haired man moved suddenly, leaping forwards and swinging his sword over his head. He moved fast, but Ninefingers was faster. He stepped sideways so that the whistling blade missed his face by inches, then he slashed his opponent across the belly as he passed. The man grunted, stumbled a step or two. Ninefingers’ heavy sword chopped into the back of his skull with a hollow clicking sound. He tripped over his own feet and pitched onto his face, blood bubbling from the gaping wound in his head. Jezal watched it spread slowly out through the dirt around the corpse. A wide, dark pool, slowly mingling with the dust and the loose soil on the valley floor. No second touch. No best of three.

He became aware of a scuffling, grunting sound, and looked up to see Ninefingers staggering around with another man, a great big man. The two of them were growling and clawing at each other, wrestling over a knife. Jezal gawped at them. When had that happened?

“Stab him!” shouted Ninefingers as the two of them grappled. “Fucking stab him!” Jezal knelt there, staring up. One hand gripped the hilt of his long steel as though he were hanging off a cliff and this was the last handful of grass, the other hung limp.

There was a gentle thud. The big man grunted. There was an arrow sticking out of his side. Another thud. Two arrows. A third appeared, tightly grouped. He slid slowly out of Ninefingers’ grip, onto his knees, coughing and moaning. He crawled towards Jezal, sat back slowly, grimacing and making a strange mewling sound. He lay back in the road, the arrows sticking up into the air like rushes in the shallows of a lake. He was still.

“What about that Finnius bastard?”

“He got away.”

“He’ll get others!”

“It was deal with him or deal with that one there.”

“I had that one!”

“Course you did. If you could have held him another year, maybe Luthar might have got round to drawing a blade, eh?”

Strange voices, nothing to do with him. Jezal wobbled slowly up to his feet. His mouth was dry, his knees were weak, his ears were ringing. Bayaz lay in the road on his back a few strides away, his apprentice kneeling beside him. One of the wizard’s eyes was closed, the other slightly open, the lid twitching, a slit of white eyeball showing underneath.

“You can let go of that now.” Jezal looked down. His hand was still clenched around the grip of his steel, knuckles white. He willed his fingers to relax and they slowly uncurled, far away. His palm ached from all that gripping. Jezal felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “You alright?” Ninefingers’ voice.

“Eh?”

“You hurt?”

Jezal stared at himself, turning his hands over stupidly. Dirty, but no blood. “I don’t think so.”

“Good. The horses ran. Who can blame them, right? If I had four legs I’d be halfway back to the sea by now.”

“What?”

“Why don’t you catch them?”

“Who made you the leader?”

Ninefingers heavy brows drew in slightly. Jezal became aware that they were standing very close to one another, and that the Northman’s hand was still on his shoulder. It was only resting there, but he could feel the strength of it through his coat, and it felt strong enough to twist his arm off. Damn his mouth, it got him in all kinds of trouble. He expected a punch in the face at the very least, if not a fatal wound in his head, but Ninefingers only pursed his lips thoughtfully and began to speak.

“We’re a lot different, you and me. Different in all kind of ways. I see you don’t have much respect for my kind, or for me in particular, and I don’t much blame you. The dead know I got my shortcomings, and I ain’t entirely ignorant of ’em. You may think you’re a clever man, and I’m a stupid one, and I daresay you’re right. There’s sure to be a very many things that you know more about than I do. But when it comes to fighting, I’m sorry to say, there’s few men with a wider experience than me. No offence, but we both know you’re not one of ’em. No one made me the leader, but this is the task that needs doing.” He stepped closer still, his great paw gripping Jezal’s shoulder with a fatherly firmness, halfway between reassurance and threat. “Is that a worry?”

Jezal thought about it for a moment. He was out of his depth, and the events of the past few minutes had demonstrated beyond question just how far. He looked down at the man that Ninefingers had killed only a moment before, and the cleft in the back of his head yawned wide. Perhaps, for the moment, it would be best if he simply did as he was told.

“No worry,” he said.

“Good!” Ninefingers grinned, clapped him on the shoulder and let him go. “Horses still need catching, and you’re the man for the job, I reckon.”

Jezal nodded, and stumbled away to look for them.


One Hundred Words

<p>One Hundred Words</p>

There was something peculiar afoot, that was sure. Colonel Glokta tested his limbs, but he appeared unable to move. The sun was blinding bright in his eyes.

“Did we beat the Gurkish?” he asked.

“We certainly did,” said Haddish Kahdia, leaning over into Glokta’s field of view. “With God’s help we put them to the sword. Butchered them like cattle.” The old native went back to chewing on the severed hand he held. He’d already got through a couple of fingers.

Glokta raised his arm to take it, but there was nothing there, only a bloody stump, chewed off at the wrist. “I swear,” murmured the Colonel, “it’s my hand you’re eating.”

Kahdia smiled. “And it is entirely delicious. I do congratulate you.”

“Utterly delicious,” muttered General Vissbruck, taking the hand from Kahdia and sucking a strip of ragged flesh from it. “Must be all that fencing you did as a young man.” There was blood smeared across his plump, smiling face.

“The fencing, of course,” said Glokta. “I’m glad you like it,” though the whole business did seem somewhat strange.

“We do, we do!” cried Vurms. He was cupping the remains of Glokta’s foot in his hands like a slice of melon, and nibbling at it daintily. “All four of us are delighted! Tastes like roast pork!”

“Like good cheese!” shouted Vissbruck.

“Like sweet honey!” cooed Kahdia, sprinkling a little salt onto Glokta’s midriff.

“Like sweet money,” purred Magister Eider’s voice from somewhere down below.

Glokta propped himself up on his elbows. “Why, what are you doing down there?”

She looked up and grinned at him. “You took my rings. The least you can do is give me something in return.” Her teeth sank into his right thigh, deep in like tiny daggers, and scooped out a neat ball of flesh. She slurped blood hungrily from the wound, tongue darting out across his skin.

Colonel Glokta raised his eyebrows. “You’re right, of course. Quite right.” It really hurt a great deal less than one would have expected, but sitting upright was rather draining. He fell back onto the sand and lay there, looking up at the blue sky. “All of you are quite right.”

She had made it up to his hip now. “Ah,” giggled the Colonel, “that tickles!” What a pleasure it was, he thought, to be eaten by such a beautiful woman. “A little to the left,” he murmured, closing his eyes, “just a little to the left…”


Glokta sat up in bed with an agonising jerk, back arched as tight as a full-drawn bow. His left leg trembled under the clammy sheet, wasted muscles knotted hard with searing cramps. He bit down on his lip with his remaining teeth to keep from screaming, snorted heaving gasps through his nose, face screwed up with his furious efforts to control the pain.

Just when it seemed that his leg would rip itself apart, the sinews suddenly relaxed. Glokta collapsed back into his clammy bed and lay there, breathing hard. Damn these fucking dreams. Every part of him was aching, every part of him was weak and trembling, wet with cold sweat. He frowned in the darkness. There was a strange sound filling the room. A rushing, hissing sound. What is that? Slowly, gingerly, he rolled over and levered himself out of bed, hobbled to the window and stood there, looking out.

It was as though the city beyond his room had vanished. A grey curtain had descended, cutting him off from the world. Rain. It spattered against the sill, fat drops bursting into soft spray, throwing a cool mist into the chamber, dampening the carpet beneath the window, the drapes around the opening, soothing Glokta’s clammy skin. Rain. He had forgotten that such a thing existed.

There was a flash, lightning in the distance. The spires of the Great Temple were cut out black through the hissing murk for an instant, and then the darkness closed back in, joined by a long, angry muttering of distant thunder. Glokta stuck his arm out through the window, felt the water pattering cold against his skin. A strange, unfamiliar feeling.

“I swear,” he murmured to himself.

“The first rains come.” Glokta nearly choked as he spun around, stumbled, clutched at the wet stones around the window for support. It was dark as hell in the room, there was no telling where the voice had come from. Did I only imagine it? Am I still dreaming? “A sublime moment. The world seems to live again.” Glokta’s heart froze in his chest. A man’s voice, deep and rich. The voice of the one who took Davoust? Who will soon take me?

The room was illuminated by another brilliant flash. The speaker sat cross-legged on the carpet. An old black man with long hair. Between me and the door. No way past, even if I was a considerably better runner than I am. The light was gone as soon as it arrived, but the image persisted for a moment, burned into Glokta’s eyes. Then came the crash of thunder splitting the sky, echoing in the darkness of the wide chamber. No one would hear my despairing screams for help, even if anyone cared.

“Who the hell are you?” Glokta’s voice was squeaky with shock.

“Yulwei is my name. You need not be alarmed.”

“Not alarmed? Are you fucking joking?”

“If I had a mind to kill you, you would have died in your sleep. I would have left a body, though.”

“Some comfort.” Glokta’s mind raced, thinking over the objects within reach. I might make it as far as the ornamental tea-jar on the table. He almost laughed. And do what with it? Offer him tea? Nothing to fight with, even if I was a considerably more effective fighter than I am. “How did you get in?”

“I have my ways. The same ways in which I crossed the wide desert, travelled the busy road from Shaffa unobserved, passed through the Gurkish host and into the city.”

“And to think, you could have just knocked.”

“Knocking does not guarantee an entrance.” Glokta’s eyes strained against the gloom, but he could see nothing beyond the vague grey outlines of furniture, the arched grey spaces of the other windows. The rain pattered on the sill behind, hissed quietly on the roofs of the city below. Just when he was wondering if his dream was over, the voice came again. “I have been watching the Gurkish, as I have these many years. That is my allotted task. My penance, for the part I played in the schism that has split my order.”

“Your order?”

“The Order of Magi. I am the fourth of Juvens’ twelve apprentices.”

A Magus. I might have known. Like that bald old meddler Bayaz, and I gained nothing but confusion from him. As if there were not enough to worry about with politics and treachery, now we must have myth and superstition to boot. Still, it looks as if I will last out the night, at least.

“A Magus, eh? Forgive me if I don’t celebrate. Such dealings as I’ve had with your order have been a waste of my time, at best.”

“Perhaps I can repair our reputation, then. I bring you information.”

“Free of charge?”

“This time. The Gurkish are moving. Five of their golden standards pass down the peninsula tonight, under cover of the storm. Twenty thousand spears, with great engines of war. Five more standards wait behind the hills, and that is not all. The roads from Shaffa to Ul-Khatif, from Ul-Khatif to Daleppa, from Daleppa to the sea, all are thick with soldiers. The Emperor puts forth all his strength. The whole South moves. Conscripts from Kadir and Dawah, wild riders from Yashtavit, fierce savages from the jungles of Shamir, where men and women fight side by side. They all come northwards. Coming here, to fight for the Emperor.”

“So many, just to take Dagoska?”

“And more besides. The Emperor has built himself a navy. One hundred sail of great ships.”

“The Gurkish are no sailors. The Union controls the seas.”

“The world changes, and you must change with it or be swept aside. This war will not be like the last. Khalul finally sends forth his own soldiers. An army many long years in the making. The gates of the great temple-fortress of Sarkant are opening, high in the barren mountains. I have seen it. Mamun comes forth, thrice-blessed and thrice-cursed, the fruit of the desert, first apprentice of Khalul. Together they broke the Second Law, together they ate the flesh of men. The Hundred Words come behind, Eaters all, disciples of the Prophet, bred for battle and fed over these long years, adepts in the disciplines of arms and of High Art. No peril like it has faced the world since the Old Time, when Juvens fought with Kanedias. Since before that, perhaps, when Glustrod touched the Other Side, and sought to open the gates to the world below.”

And blah, blah, blah. A shame. He had been making surprising sense for a Magus. “You want to give me information? Keep your bed-time stories and tell me what happened to Davoust.”

“There is an Eater here. I smell it. A dweller in the shadows. One whose only task is to destroy those who oppose the Prophet.” And myself the first of them? “Your predecessor never left these chambers. The Eater took him, to protect the traitor who works within the city.”

Yes. Now we speak my language. “Who is the traitor?” Glokta’s voice sounded shrill, sharp, greedy in his own ear.

“I am no fortune-teller, cripple, and if I could give you the answer, would you believe me? Men must learn at their own pace.”

“Bah!” snapped Glokta. “You are just like Bayaz. You talk, and talk, and yet you say nothing. Eaters? Nothing but old stories and nonsense!”

“Stories? Did Bayaz not take you within the Maker’s House?” Glokta swallowed, his hand clinging trembling tight to the damp stone under the window. “Yet still you doubt me? You are slow to learn, cripple. Have I not seen the slaves march to Sarkant, dragged from every land the Gurkish conquer? Have I not seen the countless columns, driven up into the mountains? To feed Khalul and his disciples, to swell their power ever further. A crime against God! A breach of the Second Law, written in fire by Euz himself! You doubt me, and perhaps you are wise to doubt me, but at first light you will see the Gurkish have come. You will count five standards, and you will know I spoke the truth.”

“Who is the traitor?” hissed Glokta. “Tell me, you riddling bastard!” Silence, but for the splashing of rain, the trickling of water, the rustling of wind in the hangings about the window. A stroke of lightning threw sudden light into every corner.

The carpet was empty. Yulwei was gone.


The Gurkish host came slowly forward in five enormous blocks, two in front, three behind, covering the whole neck of land from sea to sea. They moved together in perfect formation to the deep thumping of great drums, rank upon rigid rank, the sound of their tramping boots like the distant thunder of the night before. Already, the sun had sucked away all evidence of the rain, and now it flashed mirror-bright on thousands of helmets, thousands of shields, thousands of swords, glittering arrow-heads, coats of armour. A forest of shining spears, moving inexorably forwards. A merciless, tireless, irresistible tide of men.

Union soldiers were scattered around the top of the land walls, squatting behind the parapet, fingering their flatbows, peering out nervously at the advancing host. Glokta could sense their fear. And who can blame them? We must be outnumbered ten to one already. There were no drums up here in the wind, no shouted orders, no hurried preparations. Only silence.

“And here they come,” mused Nicomo Cosca, grinning out at the scene. He alone seemed untouched by fear. He has either an iron nerve or a leaden imagination. Lazing in a drinking-hole or waiting for death all seems to be one to him. He was standing with one foot up on the parapet, forearms crossed on his knee, half-full bottle dangling from one hand. The mercenary’s battle dress was much the same as his drinking gear. The same sagging boots, the same ruined trousers. His one allowance for the dangers of the battlefield was a black breastplate, etched front and back with golden scrollwork. It too had seen better days, the enamel chipped, the rivets stained with rust. But it must once have been quite the masterpiece.

“That’s a fine piece of armour you have there.”

“What, this?” Cosca looked down at his breastplate. “In its day, perhaps, but it’s seen some hard use over the years. Been left out in the rain more than once. A gift from the Grand Duchess Sefeline of Ospria, in return for defeating the army of Sipani in the five month war. It came with a promise of her eternal friendship.”

“Nice, to have friends.”

“Not really. That very night she tried to have me killed. My victories had made me far too popular with Sefeline’s own subjects. She feared I might try to seize power. Poison, in my wine.” Cosca took a long swig from his bottle. “Killed my favourite mistress. I was forced to flee, with little more than this damn breastplate, and seek employment with the Prince of Sipani. That old bastard didn’t pay half so well, but at least I got to lead his army against the Duchess, and have the satisfaction of seeing her poisoned in her turn.” He frowned. “Made her face turn blue. Bright blue, believe me. Never get too popular, that’s my advice.”

Glokta snorted. “Over-popularity is scarcely my most pressing worry.”

Vissbruck cleared his throat noisily, evidently upset at being ignored. He gestured towards the endless ranks of men advancing down the isthmus. “Superior, the Gurkish approach.” Indeed? I had not noticed. “Do I have your permission to flood the ditch?”

Oh yes, your moment of glory. “Very well.”

Vissbruck strutted to the parapet with an air of the greatest self-importance. He slowly raised his arm, then chopped it portentously through the air. Somewhere, out of sight below, whips cracked and teams of mules strained on ropes. The complaining squeal of wood under great pressure reached them on the battlements, then a creaking and a cracking as the dams gave way, and then an angry thundering as the great weight of salt water broke through and surged down the deep ditch from both ends, foaming angry white. Water met water just beneath them, throwing glittering spray into the air as high as the battlements and higher yet. A moment later, and this new ribbon of sea was calm. The ditch had become a channel, the city had become an island.

“The ditch is flooded!” announced General Vissbruck.

“So we see,” said Glokta. “Congratulations.” Let us hope the Gurkish have no strong swimmers among them. They certainly have no shortage of men to choose from.

Five tall poles waved gently above the tramping mass of soldiers, Gurkish symbols glittering upon them in solid gold. Symbols of battles fought, and battles won. The standards of five legions, flashing in the merciless sun. Five legions. Just as the old man told me. Will ships follow, then? Glokta turned his head and peered out across the Lower City. The long wharves stuck into the bay like the spines of a hedgehog, still busy with ships. Ships carrying our supplies in, and a last few nervous merchants out. There were no walls there. Few defences of any kind. We did not think we needed them. The Union has always ruled the seas. If ships should come…

“Do we still have supplies of wood and stone?”

The General nodded vigorously, all eagerness. Finally adjusted to the changes in the chain of command, it seems. “Abundant supplies, Superior, precisely as your orders specified.”

“I want you to build a wall behind the docks and along the shoreline. As strong, and as high, and as soon as possible. Our defences there are weak. The Gurkish may test them sooner or later.”

The General frowned out at the swarming army of soldiers crawling over the peninsula, looked down towards the calm docks, and back. “But surely the threat from the landward side is a little more… pressing? The Gurkish are poor sailors, and in any case have no fleet worthy of the name—”

“The world changes, General. The world changes.”

“Of course.” Vissbruck turned to speak to his aides.

Glokta shuffled up to the parapet beside Cosca. “How many Gurkish troops, would you judge?”

The Styrian scratched at the flaky rash on the side of his neck. “I count five standards. Five of the Emperor’s legions, and plenty more besides. Scouts, engineers, irregulars from across the South. How many troops…” He squinted up into the sun, lips moving silently as though his head was full of complex sums. “A fucking lot.” He tipped his head back and sucked the last drops from his bottle, then he smacked his lips, pulled back his arm and hurled it towards the Gurkish. It flashed in the sun for a moment, then shattered against the hard dirt on the other side of the channel. “Do you see those carts at the back?”

Glokta squinted down his eye-glass. There did indeed seem to be a shadowy column of great wagons behind the mass of soldiery, barely visible in the shimmering haze and the clouds of dust kicked up by the stomping boots. Soldiers need supplies of course, but then again… Here and there he could see long timbers sticking up like spider’s legs. “Siege engines,” muttered Glokta to himself. All just as Yulwei said. “They are in earnest.”

“Ah, but so are you.” Cosca stood up beside the parapet, started to fiddle with his belt. A moment later, Glokta heard the sound of his piss spattering against the base of the wall, far below. The mercenary grinned over his shoulder, thin hair fluttering in the salt wind. “Everyone’s in lots of earnest. I must speak to Magister Eider. I’d say I’ll be getting my battle money soon.”

“I think so.” Glokta slowly lowered his eye-glass. “And earning it too.”


The Blind Lead the Blind

<p>The Blind Lead the Blind</p>

The First of the Magi lay twisted on his back in the cart, wedged between a water barrel and a sack of horse feed, a coil of rope for his pillow. Logen had never seen him look so old, and thin, and weak. His breath came shallow, his skin was pale and blotchy, drawn tight over his bones and beaded with sweat. From time to time he’d twitch, and squirm, and mutter strange words, his eyelids flickering like a man trapped in a bad dream.

“What happened?”

Quai stared down. “Whenever you use the Art, you borrow from the Other Side, and what is borrowed has to be repaid. There are risks, even for a master. To seek to change the world with a thought… the arrogance of it.” The corners of his mouth twitched up into a smile. “Borrow too often, perhaps, one time you touch the world below, and leave a piece of yourself behind…”

“Behind?” muttered Logen, peering down at the twitching old man. He didn’t much like the way Quai was talking. It was no smiling matter, as far as he could see, to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere without a clue where they were going.

“Just think,” whispered the apprentice. “The First of the Magi himself, helpless as a baby.” He laid his hand gently on Bayaz’ chest. “He clings on to life by a thread. I could reach out now, with this weak hand… and kill him.”

Logen frowned. “Why would you want to do that?”

Quai looked up, and smiled his sickly smile. “Why would anyone? I was merely saying.” And he snatched his hand away.

“How long will he stay like this?”

The apprentice sat back in the cart and stared up at the sky. “There’s no saying. Maybe hours. Maybe forever.”

“Forever?” Logen ground his teeth. “Where does that leave us? You have any idea where we’re going? Or why? Or what we do when we get there? Should we turn back?”

“No.” Quai’s face was sharp as a blade. Sharper than Logen would ever have expected from him. “We have enemies behind us. To turn back now would be more dangerous than to continue. We carry on.”

Logen winced, and rubbed at his eyes. He felt tired, and sore, and sick. He wished he’d asked Bayaz his plans when he’d had the chance. He wished he’d never left the North, if it came to that. He could have sought out a reckoning with Bethod, and died in a place he knew, at the hands of men that he at least understood.

Logen had no wish to lead. The time was he’d hungered after fame, and glory, and respect, but the winning of them had been costly, and they’d proved to be hollow prizes. Men had put their faith in him, and he’d led them by a painful and a bloody route straight back to the mud. There was no ambition in him any more. He was cursed when it came to making decisions.

He took his hands away and looked around him. Bayaz still lay muttering in his fevered sleep. Quai was gazing carelessly up at the clouds. Luthar was standing with his back to the others, staring down the gorge. Ferro was sitting on a rock, cleaning her bow with a rag, and scowling. Longfoot had reappeared, predictably, just as the danger ended, and was standing not far away, looking pleased with himself. Logen grimaced, and gave a long sigh. There was no help for it. There was no one else.

“Alright, we head for this bridge, at Aulcus, then we see.”

“Not a good idea,” tutted Longfoot, wandering up to the cart and peering in. “Not a good idea in the least. I warned our employer of that before his… mishap. The city is deserted, destroyed, ruined. A blighted, and a broken, and a dangerous place. The bridge may still stand, but according to rumour—”

“Aulcus was the plan, and I reckon we’ll stick with it.”

Longfoot carried on as though he hadn’t spoken. “I think, perhaps, that it would be best if we headed back towards Calcis. We are still less than halfway to our ultimate destination, and have ample food and water for the return journey. With some luck—”

“You were paid to go all the way?”

“Well, er, indeed I was, but—”

“Aulcus.”

The Navigator blinked. “Well, yes, I see that you are decided. Decisiveness, and boldness, and vigour, it would seem, are among your talents, but caution, and wisdom, and experience, if I may say, are among mine, and I am in no doubt whatsoever that—”

“Aulcus,” growled Logen.

Longfoot paused with his mouth half open. Then he snapped it shut. “Very well. We will follow the road back onto the plains, and head westward to the three lakes. Aulcus is at their head, but the journey is still a long and dangerous one, especially with winter well upon us. There should be—”

“Good.” Logen turned away before the Navigator had the chance to say anything more. That was the easy part. He sucked his teeth, and walked over to Ferro.

“Bayaz is…” he struggled for the right word. “Out. We don’t know how long for.”

She nodded. “We going on?”

“Er… I reckon… that’s the plan.”

“Alright.” She got up from her rock and slung the bow over her shoulder. “Best get moving then.”

Easier than he’d expected. Too easy, perhaps. He wondered if she was thinking of sneaking off again. He was considering it himself, truth be told. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”

She snorted. “I’ve never known where I was going. You ask me, it’s an improvement, you in charge.” She walked off towards the horses. “I never trusted that bald bastard.”

And that only left Luthar. He was standing with his back to the others, shoulders slumped, thoroughly miserable-looking. Logen could see the muscles on the side of his head working as he stared at the ground.

“You alright?”

Luthar hardly seemed to hear him. “I wanted to fight. I wanted to, and I knew how to, and I had my hand on my steels.” He slapped angrily at the hilt of one of his swords. “I was helpless as a fucking baby! Why couldn’t I move?”

“That it? By the dead, boy, that happens to some men the first time!”

“It does?”

“More than you’d believe. At least you didn’t shit yourself.”

Luthar raised his eyebrows. “That happens?”

“More than you’d believe.”

“Did you freeze up, the first time?”

Logen frowned. “No. Killing comes too easy to me. Always has done. Believe me, you’re the lucky one.”

“Unless I’m killed for doing nothing.”

“Well,” Logen had to admit, “there is that.” Luthar’s head dropped even lower, and Logen clapped him on the arm. “But you didn’t get killed! Cheer up, boy, you’re lucky! You’re still alive, aren’t you?” He gave a miserable nod. Logen slid his arm round his shoulder and guided him back towards the horses. “Then you’ve got the chance to do better next time.”

“Next time?”

“Course. Doing better next time. That’s what life is.”

Logen climbed back into the saddle, stiff and sore. Stiff from all the riding, sore from the fight in the gorge. Some bit of rock had cracked him on the back, that and he’d got a good punch on the side of his head. Could have been a lot worse.

He looked round at the others. They were all mounted up, staring at him. Four faces, as different as could be, but all with the same expression, more or less. Waiting for his say. Why did anyone ever think he had the answers? He swallowed, and dug his heels in.

Let’s go.


Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem

<p>Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem</p>

“You really should spend less time in here, Colonel West.” Pike set down his hammer for a moment, the orange light from his forge reflecting in his eyes, shining bright on his melted face. “People will start to talk.”

West cracked a nervous grin. “It’s the only warm place in the whole damn camp.” It was true enough, but a long way from the real reason. It was the only place in the whole damn camp where no one would look for him. Men who were starving, men who were freezing, men who had no water, or no weapon, or no clue what they were doing. Men who’d died of cold or illness and needed burying. Even the dead couldn’t manage without West. Everyone needed him, day and night. Everyone except Pike and his daughter, and the rest of the convicts. They alone seemed self-sufficient, and so their forge had become his refuge. A noisy, and a crowded, and a smoky refuge, no doubt, but no less sweet for that. He preferred it immeasurably to being with the Prince and his staff. Here among the criminals it was more… honest.

“You’re in the way, Colonel. Again.” Cathil shoved past him, a knife-blade glowing orange in the tongs in one gloved hand. She shoved it into the water, frowning, turning it this way and that while steam hissed up around her. West watched her move, quick and practised, beads of moisture on her sinewy arm, the back of her neck, hair dark and spiky with sweat. Hard to believe he’d ever taken her for a boy. She might handle the metal as well as any of the men, but the shape of her face, not to mention her chest, her waist, the curve of her backside, all unmistakably female…

She glanced over her shoulder and caught him looking. “Don’t you have an army to run?”

“They’ll last ten minutes without me.”

She drew the cold, black blade from the water and tossed it clattering onto the heap beside the whetstone. “You sure?”

Maybe she was right at that. West took a deep breath, sighed, turned with some reluctance, and ventured out through the door of the shed and into the camp.

The winter air nipped at his cheeks after the heat of the smithy, and he pulled up the collars of his coat, hugged himself as he struggled down the camp’s main road. It was deathly quiet out here at night, once he had left the rattling of the forge behind him. He could hear the frozen mud sucking at his boots, his breath rasping in his throat, the faint cursing of some distant soldier, grumbling his way through the darkness. He stopped a moment and looked up, arms folded round himself for warmth. The sky was perfectly clear, the stars prickling bright, spread across the blackness like shining dust.

“Beautiful,” he murmured to himself.

“You get used to it.”

It was Threetrees, picking his way between the tents with the Dogman at his shoulder. His face was in shadow, all dark pits and white angles like a cliff in the moonlight, but West could tell there was some ill news coming. The old Northman could hardly have been described as a figure of fun at the best of times, but now his frown was grim indeed.

“Well met,” said West in the Northern tongue.

“You think? Bethod is inside five days’ march of your camp.”

The cold seemed suddenly to cut through West’s coat and make him shiver. “Five days?”

“If he’s stayed put since we saw him, and that ain’t likely. Bethod was never one for staying put. If he’s marching south, he could be three days away. Less even.”

“What are his numbers?”

The Dogman licked his lips, breath smoking round his lean face in the chill air. “I’d guess at ten thousand, but he might have more behind.”

West felt colder yet. “Ten thousand? That many?”

“Around ten, aye. Mostly Thralls.”

“Thralls? Light infantry?”

“Light, but not like this rubbish you have here.” Threetrees scowled around at the shabby tents, the badly built camp fires, close to guttering out. “Bethod’s Thralls are lean and bloody from battles and tough as wood from marching. Those bastards can run all day and still fight at the end of it, if it’s needed. Bowmen, spearmen, all well-practised.”

“There’s no shortage of Carls and all,” muttered the Dogman.

“That there ain’t, with strong mail and good blades, and plenty of horses into the bargain. There’ll be Named Men too, no doubt. It’s the pick of the crop Bethod’s brought with him, and some sharp war leaders in amongst ’em. That and some strange folk from out east. Wild men, from beyond the Crinna. Must have left a few boys dotted about up north, for your friends to chase around after, and brought his best fighters south with him, against your weakest.” The old warrior stared grimly round at the slovenly camp from under his thick eyebrows. “No offence, but I don’t give you a shit of a chance if it comes to a battle.”

The worst of all outcomes. West swallowed. “How fast could such an army move?”

“Fast. Their scouts might be with us day after tomorrow. Main body a day later. If they’ve come right on, that is, and it’s hard to say if they will. Wouldn’t put it past Bethod to try and cross the river lower down, come round behind us.”

“Behind us?” They were scarcely equipped for a predictable enemy. “How could he have known we were here?”

“Bethod always had a gift for guessing out his enemies. Good sense for it. That and he’s a lucky bastard. Loves to take chances. Ain’t nothing more important in war than a good slice o’ luck.”

West looked around him, blinking. Ten thousand battle-hardened Northmen, descending on their ramshackle camp. Lucky, unpredictable Northmen. He imagined trying to turn the ill-disciplined levies, up to their ankles in mud, trying to get them to form a line. It would be a slaughter. Another Black Well in the making. But at least they had a warning. Three days to prepare their defences, or better still, to begin to retreat.

“We must speak to the Prince at once,” he said.


Soft music and warm light washed out into the chill night air as West jerked back the tent flap. He stooped through, reluctantly, with the two Northmen close behind him.

“By the dead…” muttered Threetrees, gaping round.

West had forgotten how bizarre the Prince’s quarters must appear to a newcomer, especially one who was a stranger to luxury. It was less a tent than a huge hall of purple cloth, ten strides or more in height, hung with Styrian tapestries and floored with Kantic carpets. The furniture would have been more in keeping in a palace than a camp. Huge carved dressers and gilt chests held the Prince’s endless wardrobe, enough to clothe an army of dandies. The bed was a gargantuan four-poster, bigger than most tents in the camp on its own. A highly polished table in one corner sagged under the weight of heaped-up delicacies, silver and gold plate twinkling in the candlelight. One could hardly imagine that only a few hundred strides away, men were cramped, and cold, and had not enough to eat.

Crown Prince Ladisla himself sat sprawled in a huge chair of dark wood, a throne, one could have said, upholstered in red silk. An empty glass dangled from one hand, while the other waved back and forth to the music of a quartet of expert musicians, plucking, fiddling, and blowing gently at their shining instruments in the far corner. Around his Highness were four of his staff, impeccably dressed and fashionably bored, among them the young Lord Smund, who had perhaps become, over the past few weeks, West’s least favourite person in the entire world.

“It does you great credit,” Smund was braying loudly to the Prince. “Sharing the hardships of the camp has always been a fine way to win the respect of the common soldier—”

“Ah, Colonel West!” chirped Ladisla, “and two of his Northern scouts! What a delight! You must take some food!” He made a floppy, drunken gesture towards the table.

“Thank you, your Highness, but I have eaten. I have some news of the greatest—”

“Or some wine! You must all have wine, this is an excellent vintage! Where did that bottle get to?” He fumbled about beneath his chair.

The Dogman had already crossed to the table and was leaning over it, sniffing at the food like… a dog. He snatched a large slice of beef from the plate with his dirty fingers, folded it carefully and stuffed it whole into his mouth, while Smund looked on, lip curled with contempt. It would have been embarrassing, under normal circumstances, but West had larger worries.

“Bethod is within five days march of us,” he nearly shouted, “with the best part of his strength!”

One of the musicians fumbled his bow and hit a screeching, discordant note. Ladisla jerked his head up, nearly sliding from his seat. Even Smund and his companions were pulled from their indolence.

“Five days,” muttered the Prince, his voice hoarse with excitement, “are you sure?”

“Perhaps no more than three.”

“How many are they?”

“As many as ten thousand, and veterans to a—”

“Excellent!” Ladisla slapped the arm of his chair as if it were a Northman’s face. “We are on equal terms with them!”

West swallowed. “Perhaps in numbers, your Highness, but not in quality.”

“Come now, Colonel West,” droned Smund. “One good Union man is worth ten of their kind.” He stared down his nose at Threetrees.

“Black Well proved that notion a fantasy, even if our men were properly fed, trained, and equipped. Aside from the King’s Own, they are none of these things! We would be well advised to prepare defences, and make ready to withdraw if we must.”

Smund snorted his contempt for that idea. “There is nothing more dangerous in war,” he disclaimed airily, “than too much caution.”

“Except too little!” growled West, the fury already starting to pulse behind his eyes.

But Prince Ladisla cut him off before he had the chance to lose his temper. “Gentlemen, enough!” He sprang up from his chair, eyes dewy with drunken enthusiasm. “I have already decided on my strategy! We will cross the river and intercept these savages! They think to surprise us? Hah!” He lashed at the air with his wine glass. “We will give them a surprise they will not soon forget! Drive them back over the border! Just as Marshal Burr intended!”

“But, your Highness,” stammered West, feeling slightly queasy, “the Lord Marshal explicitly ordered that we remain behind the river—”

Ladisla flicked his head, as though bothered by a fly. “The spirit of his orders, Colonel, not the letter! He can hardly complain if we take the fight to our enemy!”

“These men are fucking fools,” rumbled Threetrees, luckily in the Northern tongue.

“What did he say?” inquired the Prince.

“Er… he concurs with me that we should hold here, your Highness, and send to Lord Marshal Burr for help.”

“Does he indeed? And I thought these Northmen were all fire and vinegar! Well, Colonel West, you may inform him that I am resolved on an attack, and cannot be moved! We will show this so-called King of the Northmen that he does not hold a monopoly on victory!”

“Good show!” shouted Smund, stamping his foot on the thick carpet. “Excellent!” The rest of the Prince’s staff voiced their ignorant support.

“Kick them back across the border!”

“Teach them a lesson!”

“Excellent! Capital! Is there more wine?”

West clenched his fists with frustration. He had to make one more effort, however embarrassing, however pointless. He dropped to one knee, he clasped his hands together, he fixed the Prince with his eye and gathered every ounce of persuasiveness he possessed. “Your Highness, I ask you, I entreat you, I beg you to reconsider. The lives of every man in this camp depend on your decision.”

The Prince grinned. “Such is the weight of command, my friend! I realise your motives are of the best, but I must agree with Lord Smund. Boldness is the best policy in war, and boldness shall be my strategy! It was through boldness that Harod the Great forged the Union, through boldness that King Casamir conquered Angland in the first place! We will get the better of these Northmen yet, you’ll see. Give the orders, Colonel! We march at first light!”

West had studied Casamir’s campaigns in detail. Boldness had been one tenth of his success, the rest had been meticulous planning, care for his men, attention to every detail. Boldness without the rest was apt to be deadly, but he saw that it was pointless to say so. He would only anger the Prince and lose whatever influence he might still have. He felt like a man watching his own house burn down. Numb, sick, utterly helpless. There was nothing left for him to do but to give the orders, and do his best to see that everything was conducted as well as it could be.

“Of course, your Highness,” he managed to mutter.

“Of course!” The Prince grinned. “We are all in agreement, then! Capital! Stop that music!” he shouted at the musicians. “We need something with more vigour! Something with blood in it!” The quartet switched effortlessly to a jaunty martial theme. West turned, limbs heavy with hopelessness, and trudged out of the tent into the icy night.

Threetrees was hard on his heels. “By the dead, but I can’t work you people out! Where I come from a man earns the right to lead! His men follow because they know his quality, and respect him because he shares their hardships with ’em! Even Bethod won his place!” He strode up and down before the tent, waving his big hands. “Here you pick the ones who know the least to lead, and fix on the biggest fool o’ the whole pack for a commander!”

West could think of nothing to say. He could hardly deny it.

“That prick’ll march the lot o’ you right into your fucking graves! Back to the mud with you all, but I’m damned if I’ll follow, or any of my boys. I’m done paying for other folks’ mistakes, and I’ve lost enough to that bastard Bethod already! Come on, Dogman. This boat o’ fools can sink without us!” And he turned and stalked away into the night.

The Dogman shrugged. “Ain’t all bad.” He closed to a conspiratorial distance, reached deep into his pocket and pulled something out. West stared down at an entire poached salmon, no doubt pilfered from the Prince’s table. The Northman grinned. “I got me a fish!” And he followed his chief, leaving West alone on the bitter hillside, Ladisla’s martial music floating through the chill air behind him.


Until Sunset

<p>Until Sunset</p>

“Oy.” A rough hand shook Glokta from his sleep. He rolled his head gingerly from the side he had been sleeping on, clenching his teeth at the pain as his neck clicked. Does death come early in the morning, today? He opened his eyes a crack. Ah. Not quite yet, it seems. Perhaps at lunch time. Vitari stared down at him, spiky hair silhouetted black in the early morning sun streaming through the window.

“Very well, Practical Vitari, if you really can’t resist me. You’ll have to go on top, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Ha ha. The Gurkish ambassador is here.”

“The what?”

“An emissary. From the Emperor himself, I hear.”

Glokta felt a stab of panic. “Where?”

“Here in the Citadel. Speaking to the ruling council.”

“Shit on it!” snarled Glokta, scrambling out of bed, ignoring the stabbing pain in his leg as he swung his ruined left foot onto the floor. “Why didn’t they call for me?”

Vitari scowled down at him. “Maybe they preferred to talk to him without you. You think that could be it?”

“How the hell did he get here?”

“He came in by boat, under sign of parley. Vissbruck says he was duty bound to admit him.”

“Duty-bound!” spat Glokta as he struggled to pull his trousers up his numb and trembling leg, “That fat fucker! How long has he been here?”

“Long enough for him and the council to make some pretty mischief together, if that’s their aim.”

“Shit!” Glokta winced as he shrugged his shirt on.


The Gurkish ambassador was, without doubt, a majestic presence.

His nose was prominent and hooked, his eyes burned bright with intelligence, his long, thin beard was neatly brushed. Gold thread in his sweeping white robe and his tall head-dress glittered in the bright sun. He held his body awesomely erect, long neck stretched out, chin held high, so that he looked always down at everything he deigned to look upon. Hugely tall and thin, he made the lofty, magnificent room seem low and shabby. He could pass for an Emperor himself.

Glokta was keenly aware of how bent and awkward he must look as he shuffled, grimacing and sweating, into the audience chamber. The miserable crow faces the magnificent peacock. Still, battles are not always won by the most beautiful. Fortunately for me.

The long table was surprisingly empty. Only Vissbruck, Eider, and Korsten dan Vurms were in their seats, and none of them looked pleased to see him arrive. Nor should they, the bastards.

“No Lord Governor today?” he barked.

“My father is not well,” muttered Vurms.

“Shame you couldn’t stay and comfort him in his illness. What about Kahdia?” No one spoke. “Didn’t think he’d take to a meeting with them, eh?” he nodded rudely at the emissary. “How lucky for everyone that you three have stronger stomachs. I am Superior Glokta and, whatever you might have heard, I am in charge here. I must apologise for my late arrival, but no one told me you were coming.” He looked daggers at Vissbruck, but the general was not interested in meeting his eye. That’s right, you blustering fool. I won’t forget this.

“My name is Shabbed al Islik Burai.” The ambassador spoke the common tongue perfectly, in a voice every bit as powerful, as authoritative, as arrogant as his bearing. “I come as emissary from the rightful ruler of all the South, mighty Emperor of mighty Gurkhul and all the Kantic lands, Uthman-ul-Dosht, loved, feared, and favoured above all other men within the Circle of the World, anointed by God’s right hand, the Prophet Khalul himself.”

“Good for you. I would bow, but I strained my back getting out of bed.”

Islik gave a delicate sneer. “Truly a warrior’s injury. I have come to accept your surrender.”

“Is that so?” Glokta dragged out the nearest chair and sank into it. I’m damned if I’m going to stand a moment longer, just for the benefit of this towering oaf. “I thought it was traditional to make such offers once the fighting is over.”

“If there is to be fighting, it will not last long.” The ambassador swept across the tiles to the window. “I see five legions, arrayed in battle order upon the peninsula. Twenty thousand spears, and they are but a fraction of what comes. The troops of the Emperor are more numerous than the grains of sand in the desert. To resist us would be as futile as to resist the tide. You all know this.” His eyes swept proudly across the guilty faces of the ruling council and came to rest on Glokta’s with a piercing contempt. The look of a man who believes he has already won. No one could blame him much for thinking so. Perhaps he has.

“Only fools or madmen would choose to stand against such odds. You pinks have never belonged here. The Emperor offers you the chance to leave the South with your lives. Open the gates to us and you will be spared. You can leave on your little boats and float back to your little island. Let it never be said that Uthman-ul-Dosht is not generous. God fights beside us. Your cause is lost.”

“Oh, I don’t know, we held our own in the last war. I’m sure we all remember the fall of Ulrioch. I know I do. The city burned brightly. The temples especially.” Glokta shrugged. “God must have been elsewhere that day.”

“That day, yes. But there were other battles. I am sure you also remember a certain engagement, at a certain bridge, where a certain young officer fell into our hands.” The emissary smiled. “God is everywhere.”

Glokta felt his eyelid flickering. He knows I am not likely to forget. He remembered his surprise as a Gurkish spear cut into his body. Surprise, and disappointment, and the most intense pain. Not invulnerable, after all. He remembered his horse rearing, dumping him from the saddle. The pain growing worse, the surprise turning into fear. Crawling among the boots and the bodies, gasping for air, mouth sour with dust, salty with blood. He remembered the agony as the blades cut into his leg. The fear turning to terror. He remembered how they dragged him, screaming and crying, from that bridge. That night they began to ask their questions.

“We won,” said Glokta, but his mouth was dry, his voice was cracked. “We proved the stronger.”

“That was then. The world changes. Your nation’s entanglements in the icy North put you at a most considerable disadvantage. You have managed to break the first rule of warfare. Never fight two enemies at once.”

His reasoning is hard to fault. “The walls of Dagoska have frustrated you before,” Glokta said, but it did not sound convincing, even to his own ear. Hardly the words of a winner. He felt the eyes of Vurms, and Vissbruck, and Eider on him, making his back itch. Trying to decide who holds the upper hand, and I know who I’d pick in their shoes.

“Perhaps some of you have more confidence in your walls than others. I will return at sunset for your answer. The Emperor’s offer lasts for this one day only, and will never be repeated. He is merciful, but his mercy has limits. You have until sunset.” And he swept from the room.

Glokta waited until the door had clicked shut before he slowly turned his chair around to face the others. “What in hell was that?” he snarled at Vissbruck.

“Er…” The General tugged at his sweaty collar. “It was incumbent upon me, as a soldier, to admit an unarmed representative of the enemy, in order to hear his terms—”

“Without telling me?”

“We knew you would not want to listen!” snapped Vurms. “But he speaks the truth! Despite all our hard work, we are greatly outnumbered, and can expect no relief as long as the war drags on in Angland. We are nothing more than a pinprick in the foot of a huge and hostile nation. It might serve us well to negotiate while we still hold a position of some strength. You may depend upon it that we will receive no terms beyond a massacre once the city has fallen!”

True enough, but the Arch Lector is unlikely to agree. Negotiating a surrender was hardly the task for which I was appointed. “You are unusually quiet, Magister Eider.”

“I am scarcely qualified to speak on the military aspects of such a decision. But as it turns out, his terms are generous. One thing is certain. If we refuse this offer, and the Gurkish do take the city by force, the slaughter will be terrible.” She looked up at Glokta. “There will be no mercy then.”

All too true. On Gurkish mercy I am the expert. “So all three of you are for capitulation?” They looked at each other, and said nothing. “It has not occurred to you that once we surrender, they might not honour your little agreement?”

“It had occurred,” said Vissbruck, “but they have honoured their agreements before, and surely some hope…” and he looked down at the table top, “is better than none.” You have more confidence in our enemy than in me, it would seem. Hardly that surprising. My own confidence could be higher.

Glokta wiped some wet from under his eye. “I see. Then I suppose I must consider his offer. We will reconvene when our Gurkish friend returns. At sunset.” He rocked his body back and winced as he pushed himself up.

“You’ll consider it?” hissed Vitari in his ear as he limped down the hall away from the audience chamber. “You’ll fucking consider it?”

“That’s right,” snapped Glokta. “I make the decisions here.”

“Or you let those worms make them for you!”

“We’ve each got our jobs. I don’t tell you how to write your little reports to the Arch Lector. How I manage those worms is none of your concern.”

“None of my concern?” Vitari snatched hold of Glokta’s arm and he tottered on his weak leg. She was stronger than she looked, a lot stronger. “I told Sult you could handle things!” she snarled in his face. “If we lose the city, without so much as a fight even, it’s both our heads! And my head is my concern, cripple!”

“This is no time to panic,” growled Glokta. “I don’t want to end up floating in the docks any more than you do, but this is a delicate balance. Let them think they might get their way, then no one will make any rash moves. Not until I’m good and ready. Understand me when I say, Practical, that this will be the first and the last time that I explain myself to you. Now take your fucking hand off me.”

Her hand did not let go, rather the fingers tightened, cutting into Glokta’s arm as hard as a vice. Her eyes narrowed, furious lines cut into her freckled face at their corners. Might I have misjudged her? Might she be about to cut my throat? He almost grinned at the thought. But Severard chose that moment to step out of the shadows further down the dim hall.

“Look at the two of you,” he murmured as he padded towards them. “It always amazes me, how love blooms in the least likely places, and between the least likely people. A rose, forcing its way through the stony ground.” He pressed his hands to his chest. “It warms my heart.”

“Have we got him?”

“Of course. Soon as he stepped out of the audience chamber.”

Vitari’s hand had gone limp, and Glokta brushed it off and began to shuffle towards the cells. “Why don’t you come with us?” he called over his shoulder, having to stop himself rubbing the bruised flesh on his arm. “You can put this in your next report to Sult.”


Shabbed al Islik Burai looked considerably less majestic sitting down. Particularly in a scarred, stained chair in one of the close and sweaty cells beneath the Citadel.

“Now isn’t this better, to speak on level terms? Quite disconcerting, having you looming over me like that.” Islik sneered and looked away, as though talking to Glokta were a task far beneath him. A rich man, harassed by beggars in the street, but we’ll soon cure him of that illusion.

“We know we have a traitor within our walls. Within the ruling council itself. Most likely one of those three worthies to whom you were just now giving your little ultimatum. You will tell me who.” No response. “I am merciful,” exclaimed Glokta, waving his hand airily, as the ambassador himself had done but a few short minutes before, “but my mercy has limits. Speak.”

“I am here under a flag of parley, on a mission from the Emperor himself! To harm an unarmed emissary would be expressly against the rules of war!”

“Parley? Rules of war?” Glokta chuckled. Severard chuckled. Vitari chuckled. Frost was silent. “Do they even have those any more? Save that rubbish for children like Vissbruck, that’s not the way grown-ups play the game. Who is the traitor?”

“I pity you, cripple! When the city falls—”

Save your pity. You’ll need it for yourself. Frost’s fist scarcely made any sound as it sank into the ambassador’s stomach. His eyes bulged out, his mouth hung open, he coughed a dry cough, somewhere close to vomiting, tried to breathe and coughed again.

“Strange, isn’t it,” mused Glokta as he watched him struggle for air. “Big men, small men, thin men, fat men, clever men, stupid men, they all respond the same to a fist in the guts. One minute you think you’re the most powerful man in the world. The next you can’t even breathe by yourself. Some kinds of power are nothing but tricks of the mind. Your people taught me that, below your Emperor’s palace. There were no rules of war there, I can tell you. You know all about certain engagements, and certain bridges, and certain young officers, so you know that I’ve been just where you are now. There is one difference, however. I was helpless, but you can stop this unpleasantness at any time. You need only tell me who the traitor is, and you will be spared.”

Islik had got his breath back now. Though a good deal of his arrogance is gone, one suspects for good. “I know nothing of any traitor!”

“Really? Your master the Emperor sends you here to negotiate without all the facts? Unlikely. But if it’s true, you really aren’t any use to me at all, are you?”

Islik swallowed. “I know nothing of any traitor.”

“We’ll see.”

Frost’s big white fist clubbed him in the face. It would have thrown him sideways if the albino’s other fist hadn’t caught his head before it fell, smashed his nose and knocked him clean over the back of the chair. Frost and Severard dragged him up between them, righted the chair and dumped him gasping into it. Vitari looked on, arms folded.

“All very painful,” said Glokta, “but pain can be put to one side, if one knows that it will not last long. If it cannot last, say, past sunset. To truly break a man quickly, you have to threaten to deprive him of something. To hurt him in a way that will never heal. I should know.”

“Gah!” squawked the ambassador, thrashing in his chair. Severard wiped his knife on the shoulder of the man’s white robe, then tossed his ear onto the table. It lay there, on the wood: a forlorn and bloody half-circle of flesh. Glokta stared at it. In a baking cell just like this, over the course of long months, the Emperors servants turned me into this revolting, twisted mockery of a man. One might have hoped that the chance at doing the same to one of them, the chance at cutting out vengeance, pound for pound, would provide some dull flicker of pleasure. And yet he felt nothing. Nothing but my own pain. He winced as he stretched his leg out and felt the knee click, hissed air through his empty gums. So why do I do this?

Glokta sighed. “Next will come a toe. Then a finger, an eye, a hand, your nose, and so on, do you see? It’ll be at least an hour before you’re missed, and we are quick workers.” Glokta nodded at the severed ear. “We could have a pile of your flesh a foot high by that time. I’ll carve you until you’re nothing but a tongue and a bag of guts, if that’s what it takes, but I’ll know who the traitor is, that I promise you. Well? Do you know anything yet?”

The ambassador stared at him, breathing hard, dark blood running from his magnificent nose, down his chin, dripping from the side of his head. Speechless with shock, or thinking on his next move? It hardly matters. “I grow bored. Start on his hands, Frost.” The albino seized hold of his wrist.

“Wait!” wailed the ambassador, “God help me, wait! It was Vurms. Korsten dan Vurms, the governor’s own son!”

Vurms. Almost too obvious. But then again, the most obvious answers are usually the right ones. That little bastard would sell his own father if he only thought that he could find a buyer—

“And the woman, Eider!”

Glokta frowned. “Eider? You sure?”

“She planned it! She planned the whole thing!” Glokta sucked slowly at his empty gums. They tasted sour. An awful sense of disappointment, or an awful sense of having known all along? She was always the only one with the brains, or the guts, or the resources, for treason. A shame. But we know better than to hope for happy endings.

“Eider and Vurms,” muttered Glokta. “Vurms and Eider. Our sordid little mystery comes to a close.” He looked up at Frost. “You know what to do.”


Long Odds

<p>Long Odds</p>

The hill rose out of the grass, a round, even cone like a thing man-made. Strange, this one great mound standing out in the midst of the level plain. Ferro did not trust it.

Weathered stones stood in a rough circle around its top and scattered about the slopes, some up on end, some lying on their sides, the smallest no more than knee high, the biggest twice as tall as a man. Dark, bare stones, standing defiant against the wind. Ancient, cold, angry. Ferro frowned at them.

It felt as though they frowned back.

“What is this place?” asked Ninefingers.

Quai shrugged. “Old is what this place is, terribly old. Older than the Empire itself. Built before the time of Euz, perhaps, when devils roamed the earth.” He grinned. “Built by devils, for all I know. Who can say? Some temple to forgotten gods? Some tomb?”

“Our tomb,” whispered Ferro.

“What?”

“Good place to stop,” she said out loud. “Get a look across the plain.”

Ninefingers frowned up at it. “Alright. We stop.”


Ferro stood on one of the stones, hands on hips, staring out across the plain through narrowed eyes. The wind tore at the grass and made waves from it, like the waves on the sea. It tore at the great clouds too, twisting them, ripping them open, dragging them through the sky. It lashed at Ferro’s face, nipped at her eyes, but she ignored it.

Damn wind, just like always.

Ninefingers stood beside her, squinting into the cold sun. “Anything out there?”

“We are followed.” They were far away, but she could see them. Tiny dots in the far distance. Tiny riders moving on the ocean of grass.

Ninefingers grimaced. “You sure?”

“Yes. You surprised?”

“No.” He gave up looking and rubbed at his eyes. “Bad news is never a surprise. Just a disappointment.”

“I count thirteen.”

“You can count ’em? I can’t even see ’em. They coming for us?”

She raised her arms. “You see anything else out here? Might be that laughing bastard Finnius found some more friends.”

“Shit.” He looked down at the cart, drawn up at the base of the hill. “We can’t outrun them.”

“No.” She curled her lip. “You could ask the spirits for their opinion.”

“So they could tell us what? That we’re fucked?” Silence for a moment. “Better to wait, and fight them here. Bring the cart up to the top. At least we’ve got a hill, and a few rocks to hide behind.”

“That’s what I was thinking. Gives us some time to prepare the ground.”

“Alright. We’d best get to it.”


The point of the shovel bit into the ground with the sharp scrape of metal on earth. An all too familiar sound. Digging pits and digging graves. What was the difference?

Ferro had dug graves for all kinds of people. Companions, or as close as she had come to companions. Friends, or as close as she had come to friends. A lover or two, if you could call them that. Bandits, killers, slaves. Whoever hated the Gurkish. Whoever hid in the Badlands, for whatever reason.

Spade up and spade down.

When the fighting is over, you dig, if you are still alive. You gather up the bodies in a line. You dig the graves in a row. You dig for your fallen comrades. Your slashed, your punctured, your hacked and your broken comrades. You dig as deep as you can be bothered, you dump them in, you cover them up, they rot away and are forgotten, and you go on, alone. That’s the way it’s always been.

But here, on this strange hill in the middle of this strange country, there was still time. Still a chance for the comrades to live. That was the difference, and for all her scorn, and her scowls, and her anger, she clung to it as she clung to the spade, desperate tight.

Strange how she never stopped hoping.

“You dig well,” said Ninefingers. She squinted up at him, standing over her at the edge of the pit.

“Lots of practice.” She dug the spade into the earth beside the hole, planted her hands on the sides and jumped out, sat on the edge with her legs hanging down. Her shirt was stuck to her with sweat, her face was running with it. She wiped her forehead with her dirty hand. He handed her the water-skin and she took it from him, pulled the stopper out with her teeth.

“How long do we have?”

She sucked a mouthful out of the skin and worked it round, spat it out. “Depends how hard they go.” She took another mouthful and swallowed. “They are going hard now. They keep that up, they could be on us late tonight, or maybe dawn tomorrow.” She handed the skin back.

“Dawn tomorrow.” Ninefingers slowly pushed the stopper back in. “Thirteen you said, eh?”

“Thirteen.”

“And four of us.”

“Five, if the Navigator comes to help.”

Ninefingers scratched at his jaw. “Not very likely.”

“That apprentice any use in a fight?”

Ninefingers winced. “Not much.”

“How about Luthar?”

“I’d be surprised if he’s ever thrown a fist in anger, let alone a blade.”

Ferro nodded. “Thirteen against two, then.”

“Long odds.”

“Very.”

He took a deep breath and stared down into the pit. “If you had a mind to run, I can’t say I’d blame you.”

“Huh,” she snorted. Strange, but she hadn’t even thought about it. “I’ll stick. See how it turns out.”

“Alright. Good. Can’t say I don’t need you.”

The wind rustled in the grass and sighed against the stones. There were things that should be said at a time like this, Ferro guessed, but she did not know what. She had never had much talk in her.

“One thing. If I die, you bury me.” She held her hand out to him. “Deal?”

He raised an eyebrow at it. “Done.” It was a long time, she realised, since she touched another person without the purpose of hurting them. It was a strange feeling, his hand gripped in hers, his fingers tight round hers, his palm pressed against hers. Warm. He nodded at her. She nodded at him. Then they let go.

“What if we both die?” he said.

She shrugged. “Then the crows can pick us clean. After all, what’s the difference?”

“Not much,” he muttered, starting off down the slope. “Not much.”


The Road to Victory

<p>The Road to Victory</p>

West stood by a clump of stunted trees, in the cutting wind, on the high ground above the river Cumnur, and watched the long column move. More accurately, he watched it not move.

The neat blocks of the King’s Own, up at the head of Prince Ladisla’s army, marched smartly enough. You could tell them from their armour, glinting in the odd ray of pale sun that broke through the ragged clouds, from the bright uniforms of their officers, from the red and golden standards snapping at the front of each company. They were already across the river, formed up in good order, a stark contrast with the chaos on the other side.

The levies had started eagerly, early that morning, no doubt relieved to be leaving the miserable camp behind, but it hadn’t been an hour before a man here or a man there, older than the others, or worse shod, had started to lag, and the column had grown ragged. Men slipped and stumbled in the half-frozen muck, cursing and barging into their neighbours, boots tripping on the boots of the man in front. The battalions had twisted, stretched, turned from neat blocks into shapeless blobs, merged with the units in front and behind, until the column moved in great ripples, one group hurrying forward while the next was still, like the segments of some monstrous, filthy earthworm.

As soon as they reached the bridge they had lost all semblance of order. The ragged companies squeezed into that narrow space, shoving and grunting, tired and bad-tempered. Those waiting behind pressed in tighter and tighter, impatient to be across so they could rest, slowing everything down still further with the weight of their bodies. Then a cart, which had no business being there in any case, had lost a wheel halfway across, and the sluggish flow of men over the bridge had become a trickle. No one seemed to know how to move it, or who to get to fix it, and contented themselves with clambering over it, or slithering around it, and holding up the thousands behind.

Quite a press had built up in the mud on this side of the fast-flowing water. Men barged and grumbled shoulder to shoulder, spears sticking up into the air at all angles, surrounded by shouting officers and an ever increasing detritus of rubbish and discarded gear. Behind them the great snake of shambling men continued its spastic forward movement, feeding ever more soldiers into the confusion before the bridge. There was not the slightest evidence that anyone had even thought about trying to make them stop, let alone succeeded.

All this in column, under no pressure from the enemy, and with a half decent road to march on. West dreaded to imagine trying to manoeuvre them in a battle line, through trees or over broken ground. He jammed his tired eyes shut, rubbed at them with his fingers, but when he opened them the horrifying, hilarious spectacle was still there before him. He hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

He heard the sound of hooves on the rise behind him. Lieutenant Jalenhorm, big and solid in his saddle. Short on imagination, perhaps, but a fine rider, and a trustworthy man. A good choice for the task that West had in mind.

“Lieutenant Jalenhorm reporting, sir.” The big man turned in his saddle and looked down towards the river. “Looks like they’re having some trouble on the bridge.”

“Doesn’t it just. Only the start of our troubles, I fear.”

Jalenhorm grinned down. “I understand we have the advantage of numbers, and of surprise—”

“As far as numbers go, maybe. Surprise?” West gestured down at the men milling around on the bridge, heard the vague, desperate shouts of their officers. “This rabble? A blind man would hear us coming from ten miles distance. A blind and a deaf one would probably smell us before we were halfway to battle order. We’ll be all day just getting across the river. And that’s hardly the worst of our shortcomings. In the area of command, I fear, the gulf between us and our enemy could not possibly be wider. The Prince lives in a dream, and his staff exist only to keep him there, at any price.”

“But surely—”

“The price could be our lives.”

Jalenhorm frowned. “Come on, West, I hardly want to be going into battle with that thought first on my mind—”

“You won’t be going.”

“I won’t?”

“You will pick out six good men from your company, with spare mounts. You will ride as hard as possible for Ostenhorm, then north to Lord Marshal Burr’s camp.” West reached into his coat and pulled out his letter. “You will give him this. You will inform him that Bethod is already behind him with the greater part of his strength, and that Prince Ladisla has most ill-advisedly decided to cross the river Cumnur and give the Northmen battle, directly against the Marshal’s orders.” West clenched his teeth. “Bethod will see us coming from miles away. We are handing the choice of the ground to our enemy, so that Prince Ladisla can appear bold. Boldness is the best policy in war, apparently.”

“West, surely it’s not that bad?”

“When you reach Marshal Burr, tell him that Prince Ladisla has almost certainly been defeated, quite possibly destroyed, and the road to Ostenhorm left open. He’ll know what to do.”

Jalenhorm stared down at the letter, reached out to take it, then paused. “Colonel, I really wish that you’d send someone else. I should fight—”

“Your fighting cannot possibly make any real difference, Lieutenant, but your carrying this message might. There is no sentiment in this, believe me. I have no more important task than this one, and you are the man I trust to get it done. Do you understand your orders?”

The big man swallowed, then he took the letter, undid a button and slid it carefully down inside his coat. “Of course, sir. I am honoured to carry it.” He began to turn his horse.

“There is one more thing.” West took a deep breath. “If I should… get myself killed. When this is over, could you carry a message to my sister?”

“Come on, there’ll be no need for—”

“I hope to live, believe me, but this is war. Not everyone will. If I don’t come back, just tell Ardee…” He thought about it for a moment. “Just tell her I’m sorry. That’s all.”

“Of course. But I hope you’ll tell her yourself.”

“So do I. Good luck.” West held out his hand.

Jalenhorm reached down and squeezed it in his own. “And to you.” He spurred his mount down the rise, away from the river. West watched him go for a minute, then he took a deep breath and set off in the other direction, towards the bridge.

Someone had to get that damn column moving again.


Necessary Evils

<p>Necessary Evils</p>

The sun was half a shimmering golden disc beyond the land walls, throwing orange light into the hallway down which Glokta shuffled, Practical Frost looming at his shoulder. Through the windows as he passed painfully by he could see the buildings of the city casting long shadows up towards the rock. He could almost tell, at each window that he came to, that the shadows were longer and less distinct, the sun was dimmer and colder. Soon it would be gone. Soon it will be night.

He paused for a moment before the doors to the audience chamber, catching his breath, letting the ache in his leg subside, licking at his empty gums. “Give me the bag, then.”

Frost handed him the sack, put one white hand against the doors. “You reathy?” he mumbled.

Ready as I’ll ever be. “Let’s get on with it.”

General Vissbruck was sitting stiff in his well-starched uniform, jowls bulging slightly over his high collar, hands plucking nervously at each other. Korsten dan Vurms was doing his best to look nonchalant, but his darting tongue betrayed his anxiety. Magister Eider was sitting upright, hands clasped on the table before her, face stern. All business. A necklace of large rubies glowed with the last embers of the setting sun. Didn’t take her too long to find some more jewels, I see.

There was one more member of the gathering, and he showed not the slightest sign of nerves. Nicomo Cosca was lounging against the far wall, not far behind his employer, arms crossed over his black breastplate. Glokta noted that he had a sword at his hip, and a long dagger at the other.

“What’s he doing here?”

“This concerns everyone in the city,” said Eider calmly. “It is too important a decision for you to make alone.”

“So he’s going to ensure that you get a fair say, eh?” Cosca shrugged and examined his dirty fingernails. “And what of the writ, signed by all twelve chairs on the Closed Council?”

“Your paper will not save us from the Emperor’s vengeance if the Gurkish take the city.”

“I see. So you have it in mind to defy me, to defy the Arch Lector, to defy the King?”

“I have it in mind to hear out the Gurkish emissary, and to consider the facts.”

“Very well,” said Glokta. He stepped forwards and upended the bag. “Give him your ear.” Islik’s head dropped onto the table with a hollow clonking sound. It had no expression to speak of, beyond an awful slackness, eyes open and staring off in different directions, tongue lolling slightly. It rolled awkwardly along the beautiful table top, leaving an uneven curve of bloody smears on the brightly polished wood, and came to rest, face up, just in front of General Vissbruck.

A touch theatrical, perhaps, but dramatic. You’d have to give me that. No one can be left in any doubt as to my level of commitment. Vissbruck gawped down at the bloody head on the table before him, his mouth slowly falling further and further open. He started up from his seat and stumbled back, his chair clattering over on the tiles. He raised a shaking finger to point at Glokta.

“You’re mad! You’re mad! There’ll be no mercy for anyone! Every man, woman, and child in Dagoska! If the city falls now, there’s no hope for any of us!”

Glokta smiled his toothless smile. “Then I suggest that every one of you commits themselves wholeheartedly to ensuring that the city does not fall.” He looked over at Korsten dan Vurms. “Unless it’s already too late for that, eh? Unless you’ve already sold the city to the Gurkish, and you can’t go back!”

Vurms’ eyes flickered to the door, to Cosca, to the horrified General Vissbruck, to Frost, hulking ominous in the corner, and finally to Magister Eider, still sitting steely calm and composed. And our little conspiracy is jerked from the shadows.

“He knows!” screamed Vurms, shoving back his chair and stumbling up, taking a step towards the windows.

“Clearly he knows.”

“Then do something, damn it!”

“I already have,” said Eider. “By now, Cosca’s men will have seized the land walls, bridged your channel, and opened the gates to the Gurkish. The docks, the Great Temple, and even the Citadel itself, are also in their hands.” There was a faint rattling beyond the door. “I do believe that I can hear them now, just outside. I am sorry, Superior Glokta, indeed I am. You have done everything his Eminence could have expected, and more, but the Gurkish will already be pouring into the city. You see that further resistance is pointless.”

Glokta looked up at Cosca. “May I retort?” The Styrian gave a small smile, a stiff bow. “Most kind. I hate to disappoint you, but the gates are in the hands of Haddish Kahdia, and several of his most committed priests. He said that he would open them to the Gurkish—what was his phrase—‘when God himself commanded it.’ Do you have a divine visitation planned?” It was plain from Eider’s face that she had not. “As for the Citadel, it has been seized by the Inquisition, for the safety of his Majesty’s loyal subjects, of course. Those are my Practicals that you can hear outside. As for Master Cosca’s mercenaries—”

“At their posts on the walls, Superior, as ordered!” The Styrian snapped his heels together and gave an impeccable salute. “They stand ready to repel any assault by the Gurkish.” He grinned down at Eider. “I do apologise that I must leave your service at such a crucial time, Magister, but you understand that I had a better offer.”

There was a stunned pause. Vissbruck could hardly have looked more flabbergasted if he had been struck by lightning. Vurms stared around, wild-eyed. He took one more step back and Frost took a stride towards him. Magister Eider’s face had drained of colour. And so the chase ends, and the foxes are at bay.

“You should hardly be surprised.” Glokta settled back comfortably in his chair. “Nicomo Cosca’s disloyalty is a legend throughout the Circle of the World. There’s hardly a land under the sun in which he hasn’t betrayed an employer.” The Styrian smiled and bowed once more.

“It is your wealth,” muttered Eider, “not his disloyalty, that surprises me. Where did you get it?”

Glokta grinned. “The world is full of surprises.”

“You fucking stupid bitch!” screamed Vurms. His steel was only halfway out before Frost’s white fist crunched into his jaw and flung him senseless against the wall. Almost at the same moment the doors crashed open and Vitari burst into the room, half a dozen Practicals behind her, weapons at the ready.

“Everything alright?” she asked.

“Actually, we’re just finishing up. Take out the rubbish would you, Frost?”

The albino’s fingers closed around Vurms’ ankle and hauled him bodily across the floor and out of the audience chamber. Eider watched his slack face slide across the tiles, then looked up at Glokta. “What now?”

“Now the cells.”

“Then?”

“Then we’ll see.” He snapped his fingers at the Practicals, jerked his thumb towards the door. Two of them tramped round the table, seized the Queen of merchants by her elbows and bundled her impassively out of the room.

“So,” asked Glokta, looking over at Vissbruck. “Does anyone else wish to accept the ambassador’s offer of surrender?”

The General, who had been standing silently the whole time, snapped his mouth shut, took a deep breath and stood to stiff attention. “I am a simple soldier. Of course I will obey any order from his Majesty, or his Majesty’s chosen representative. If the order is to hold Dagoska to the last man, I will give the last drop of my blood to do it. I assure you that I knew nothing of any plot. I acted rashly, perhaps, but at all times honestly, in what I felt were the best interests of—”

Glokta waved his hand. “I am convinced. Bored, but convinced.” I have already lost half the ruling council today. To lose any more might make me look greedy. “The Gurkish will no doubt make their assault at first light. You should look to our defences, General.”

Vissbruck closed his eyes, swallowed, wiped some sweat from his forehead. “You will not regret your faith in me, Superior.”

“I trust that I will not. Go.”

The General hurried from the room, as though worried that Glokta might change his mind, and the rest of the Practicals followed him. Vitari bent and lifted Vurms’ fallen chair and slid it carefully back under the table.

“A neat job.” She nodded slowly to herself. “Very neat. I’m happy to say I was right about you all along.”

Glokta snorted. “Your approval is worth less to me than you can ever know.”

Her eyes smiled at him above her mask. “I didn’t say that I approved. I just said that it was neat,” and she turned and sauntered out into the hallway.

That only left him and Cosca. The mercenary leaned against the wall, arms folded carelessly across his breastplate, regarding Glokta with a faint smile. He had not moved the whole time.

“You’d do well in Styria, I think. Very… ruthless? Is that the word? Anyway,” and he gave a flamboyant shrug, “I look forward very much to serving with you.” Until such time as someone offers you more, eh, Cosca? The mercenary waved a hand at the severed head on the table. “Would you like me to do something with that?”

“Stick it on the battlements of the land walls, somewhere it can be easily seen. Let the Gurkish understand the strength of our resolve.”

Cosca clicked his tongue. “Heads on spikes, eh?” He dragged the head off the table by its long beard. “Never goes out of fashion.”

The doors clicked shut behind him, and Glokta was left alone in the audience chamber. He rubbed at his stiff neck, stretched his stiff leg out beneath the bloody table. A good day’s work, all in all. But the day is over now. Outside the tall windows, the sun had finally set over Dagoska.

The sky was dark.


Among the Stones

<p>Among the Stones</p>

The first traces of dawn were creeping over the plain. A glimmer of light on the undersides of the towering clouds and along the edges of the ancient stones, a muddy flare on the eastern horizon. A sight a man rarely saw, that first grey glow, or one that Jezal had rarely seen anyway. At home he would have been safely in his quarters now, sleeping soundly in a warm bed. None of them had slept last night. They had spent the long, cold hours in silence, sitting in the wind, peering into the dark for shapes out on the plain, and waiting. Waiting for the dawn.

Ninefingers frowned at the rising sun. “Almost time. Soon they’ll be coming.”

“Right,” muttered Jezal numbly.

“Listen to me, now. Stay here, and watch the cart. There’s plenty of ’em, and more than likely some will get round the back of us. That’s why you’re here. You understand?”

Jezal swallowed. His throat was tight with the tension. All he could think about was how unfair it was. How unfair, that he should die so young.

“Alright. Me and her will be round the front of the hill there, in around the stones. Most of ’em will come up that way, I reckon. You get in trouble, you shout for us, but if we don’t come, well… do what you can. Might be we’re busy. Might be we’re dead.”

“I’m scared,” said Jezal. He hadn’t meant to say it, but it hardly seemed to matter, now.

Ninefingers only nodded, though. “And me. We’re all scared.”

Ferro had a fierce smile on her face as she tightened the straps of her quiver around her chest, pulled the buckle on her sword-belt one notch further, dragged on her archery guard and worked her fingers, twanged at her bow-string, everything neat, and quick, and ready for violence. While she prepared for a fight that would most likely be the death of them all, she looked as Jezal might have done dressing for a night round the taverns of Adua. Yellow eyes shining, excited in the half light, as if she couldn’t wait to get started. He had never seen her look happy before. “She doesn’t look scared.” he said.

Ninefingers frowned over at her. “Well, maybe not her, but she’s not an example I’d want to follow.” He watched her for a moment. “Sometimes, when someone lives in danger for too long, the only time they feel alive is when death’s breathing on their shoulder.”

“Right,” muttered Jezal. The sight of the buckle on his own sword-belt, of the grips of his own steels, so proudly polished, made him feel sick now. He swallowed again. Damn it, but his mouth had never been so full of spit.

“Try to think about something else.”

“Like what?”

“Whatever gets you through it. You got family?”

“A father, two brothers. I don’t know how much they like me.”

“Shit on them, then. You got children?”

“No.”

“Wife?”

“No.” Jezal grimaced. He had done nothing with his life but play cards and make enemies. No one would miss him.

“A lover then? Don’t tell me there ain’t a girl waiting.”

“Well, maybe…” But he did not doubt that Ardee would already have found someone else. She had never seemed overly sentimental. Perhaps he should have offered to marry her when he had the chance. At least then someone might have wept for him. “What about you?” he mumbled.

“What? A family?” Ninefingers frowned, rubbing grimly at the stump of his middle finger. “I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.” He pointed at Ferro, then at Quai. “You see her, and him, and you?” He slapped his hand down on Jezal’s shoulder. “That’s my family now, and I don’t plan on losing a brother today, you understand?”

Jezal nodded slowly. You don’t pick your family. You make the best of it. Ugly, stupid, stinking, strange, it hardly seemed to matter now. Ninefingers held out his hand, and Jezal gripped it in his own, as hard as he could.

The Northman grinned. “Luck then, Jezal.”

“And to you.”


Ferro knelt beside one of the pitted stones, her bow in one hand, an arrow nocked and ready. The wind made patterns in the tall grass on the plain below, whipped at the shorter grass on the slope of the hill, plucked at the flights of the seven arrows stuck into the earth in front of her in a row. Seven arrows was all she had left.

Nothing like enough.

She watched them ride up to the base of the hill. She watched them climb from their horses, staring upwards. She watched them tighten the buckles on their scuffed leather armour, ready their weapons. Spears, swords, shields, a bow or two. She counted them. Thirteen. She had been right.

But that wasn’t much of a comfort.

She recognised Finnius, laughing and pointing up at the stones. Bastard. She would shoot him first, if she got the chance, but there was no point risking a shot at this range. They would be coming soon. Crossing the open ground, struggling uphill.

She could shoot them then.

They began to spread out, peering up at the stones over the tops of their shields, their boots rustling in the long grass below. They had not seen her yet. There was one at the front without a shield, pounding up the slope with a fierce grin on his face, a bright sword in each hand.

She drew the string back, unhurried, felt it dig reassuringly into her chin. The arrow took him in the centre of his chest, right through his leather breastplate. He sank to his knees, wincing and gasping. He pushed himself up with one of his swords, took a lurching step. Her second arrow stuck into his body just above the first and he fell to his knees again, dribbled bloody spit onto the hillside, then rolled onto his back.

But there were plenty more, and still coming on. The nearest one was hunched down behind a big shield, pressing slowly up the slope with it held in front of him, trying not to expose a single inch of flesh. Her arrow thudded into the edge of the heavy wood.

“Ssss,” she hissed, snatching another shaft from the earth. She drew back the string again, taking careful aim.

“Argh!” he cried, as the arrow stuck him through his exposed ankle. The shield faltered and wobbled, drifted to the side.

Her next shaft arced through the air and caught him cleanly through the neck, just above the shield rim. Blood bubbled down his skin, his eyes went wide and he toppled backwards, the shield sliding down the slope after him with her wasted arrow sticking from it.

But that one had taken too long, and too many shafts. They were well up the hillside now, halfway to the first stones, zigzagging left and right. She snatched her last two arrows from the earth and slithered through the grass, up the slope. That was all she could do, for now. Ninefingers would have to look after himself.


Logen waited, his back pressed against the stone, trying to keep his breathing quiet. He watched Ferro crawl further up the hill, away from him.

“Shit,” he muttered. Outnumbered and in trouble, yet again. He had known this would happen from the first moment he took charge. It always did. Well. He’d fought his way out of scrapes before, and he would fight his way out of this one now. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a fighter.

He heard hurrying footsteps in the grass, and breathless grunting. A man labouring up the hill, just to the left of the stone. Logen held his sword by his right side, fingered the hard metal of the grip, clenched his jaws together. He saw the point of the man’s spear wobble past, then his shield.

He stepped out with a fighting roar, swinging the sword round in a great wide circle. It chopped deep into the man’s shoulder and opened a huge gash across his chest, spraying blood into the air, lifting him off his feet and sending him crashing down the hill, flopping over and over.

“Still alive!” Logen panted as he sprinted away up the slope. A spear whistled past and sank into the turf beside him as he slid in behind the next stone. A poor effort, but they’d have plenty more. He peered round the edge. He saw quick shapes, rushing from rock to rock. He licked his lips and hefted the Maker’s sword. There was blood on the dark blade now, blood on the silver letter near the hilt. But there was much more work to do.


He came up the hillside towards her, peering over the top of his shield, ready to block an arrow if it came. No way to get at him from here, he was watching too hard.

She ducked away behind the stone and slipped into the shallow trench she had dug, started crawling. She came up to the far end, just behind another great rock. She edged round behind it and peered out. She could see him, his side to her, creeping up carefully towards the stone where she had been hiding. It seemed that God was feeling generous today.

Towards her, if not towards him.

The shaft buried itself in his side, just above his waist. He stumbled, stared down at it. She pulled out her last arrow and nocked it. He was trying to pull the first one out when the second one stuck him in the middle of his chest. Right through the heart, she guessed, from the way he fell.

The arrows were gone. Ferro tossed her bow away and drew out the Gurkish sword.

It was time to get close.


Logen stepped round one of the stones and found himself looking straight into a face, close enough almost to feel its breath on his cheek. A young face. A good-looking one, with clean skin and a sharp nose, wide open brown eyes. Logen smashed his forehead into it. The head snapped back and the young man stumbled, enough time for Logen to pull his knife from his belt with his left hand. He let go of his sword, grabbed the edge of the man’s shield and tore it out of the way. Brown Eyes’ head came up again, blood bubbling from his broken nose, snarling as he pulled back his sword arm for a thrust.

Logen grunted as he stabbed the knife into the man’s body.

Once, twice, three times. Hard, fast, underhand thrusts that half lifted him off his feet. Blood leaked out from the holes in his guts and over Logen’s hands. He groaned, dropped his sword, started to slide down the stone, his legs giving way, and Logen watched him go. A choice between killing and dying is no choice at all. You have to be realistic about these things.

The man sat in the grass, holding his bloody stomach. He looked up at Logen.

“Guh,” he grunted. “Gurruh.”

“What?”

Nothing else. His brown eyes were glassy.


“Come on!” screamed Ferro. “Come on, you fucking son of a whore!” She squatted on the grass, ready to spring.

He did not speak her language, but he got the gist. His spear arced spinning through the air. Not a bad throw. She moved to the side and it clattered away into the stones.

She laughed at him and he came charging—a big, bald, bull of a man. Fifteen strides away and she could see the grain on the handle of his axe. Twelve strides, and she could see the creases on his snarling face, the lines at the corners of his eyes, across the bridge of his nose. Eight strides, and she could see the scratches on his leather breastplate. Five strides, and he raised his axe high. “Thaargh!” he squealed as the grass in front of her suddenly collapsed beneath his feet and he pitched flailing into one of the pits, the weapon flying from his hand.

Should have watched where he stepped.

She sprang forward hungrily, swinging the sword without looking. He yelled as the heavy blade bit deep into his shoulder, squealed and gibbered, trying to get away, scrambling at the loose earth. The sword chopped a hole in the top of his head and he gurgled, thrashed, slid down into the bottom of the pit. The grave. His grave.

He did not deserve one, but never mind. She could drag him out later, and let him rot on the hillside.


He was a big bastard, this one. A great, fat giant of a man, half a head taller than Logen. He had a huge club, big as half a tree, but he threw it around easily enough, shouting and roaring like a madman, little eyes rolling with fury in his pudgy face. Logen dodged and tottered between the stones. Not easy, trying to keep one eye on the ground behind him and one on that huge flailing tree limb. Not easy. Something was bound to go wrong.

Logen stumbled on something. The boot of the brown-eyed man he’d killed a minute before. There’s justice for you. He righted himself just in time to see the giant’s fist crack him in the mouth. He waddled, dizzy, spitting blood. He saw the club swinging at him and he leaped back. Not far enough. The very tip of the great lump of wood clipped Logen’s thigh and nearly dragged him off his feet. He staggered against one of the stones, squawking and dribbling and grimacing from the pain, fumbled his sword and nearly stabbed himself with it, snatched it up just in time to tumble and fall on his back as the club smashed away a great chunk of rock beside him.

The giant lifted his club high over his head, bellowing like a bull. A fearsome move, perhaps, but not a clever one. Logen sat up and stabbed him through his gut, the dark blade sliding right up to the hilt almost, clean through his back. The club dropped from his hands and thudded on the turf behind him, but with some last desperate effort he leaned down, grabbed hold of a fistful of Logen’s shirt and hauled him close, roaring and baring his bloody teeth. He started to raise his great ham of a fist.

Logen pulled the knife out of his boot and rammed the blade into the side of the giant’s neck. He looked surprised, for just a moment, then blood dribbled from his mouth and down his chin. He let go of Logen’s shirt, stumbled back, spun slowly round, bounced off one of the stones and crashed on his face. Seemed that Logen’s father had been right. You can never have too many knives.


Ferro heard the bow string, but by then it was too late. She felt the arrow pierce her through the back of her shoulder, and when she looked down she could see the point sticking out the front of her shirt. It made her arm numb. Dark blood leaked out into the dirty cloth. She hissed to herself as she ducked behind one of the stones.

She still had the sword though, and one good arm to use it. She slithered round the rock, the rough surface scraping at her back, listening. She could heard the archer’s footfalls in the grass, searching for her, the soft ringing as he drew a blade. She saw him now, his back to her, looking right and left.

She jumped at him with the sword, but he turned in time and caught the blade on his own. They crashed down into the grass together and rolled over in a tangle. He scrambled up, thrashing and screaming, clutching at his bloody face. The arrow sticking from her shoulder had stabbed him through the eye as they struggled on the floor.

Lucky for her.

She sprang forward and the Gurkish sword chopped his foot out from under him. He screamed again, falling onto his side, mangled leg flopping. He was just pushing himself up when the curved blade hacked halfway through his neck from behind. Ferro scrambled through the grass, away from the body, her left arm hanging nearly useless, her right fist gripped tight around the grip of the sword.

Looking for more work.


Finnius moved this way and that, dancing around, light on his feet. He had a big square shield on his left arm,