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Authors: Ian C. Esslemont

Tags: #Fantasy, #War, #Azizex666, #Science Fiction

Return of the Crimson Guard (133 page)

BOOK: Return of the Crimson Guard
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‘Right. Well, OK then. Burn favour you.’

‘We Seguleh do not accept the idea of luck or chance, but thank you just the same.’ The man jogged away.

Hurl glared at the horses and her men.
Horses. I can't believe I'm guarding Hood-damned horses.

Night came. Hurl set out a watch order then sat down to pack her shoulder-bag. Sharpers – as many as she could fit. And two – no, three cussors. That should send him on his way to the Abyss. Every noise from the dark yanked her to her feet. She scanned the dark. Liss's bonfire lit an intervening rise in bright silhouette against the night. She sat back down again, checked her weapons for the umpteenth time.

 

The horses nickered nervously, shifted, pulled at their staked hobblings. The men moved among them, calming, whispering. Hurl strained silent, listening. Had that been something? A noise? Distant rumbling?

A sudden grating snarl made her jump. The horses shrieked, kicking and rearing, entangling in their ropes. ‘See to them!’ she shouted and, grabbing her shoulder-bag, ran. Puffing, one arm pumping, the other supporting the stuffed shoulder-bag, she made the rise, started down.

Ahead, between her and the roaring bonfire shooting its sparks into the night sky an elemental vision confronted her: men, arms outstretched, shuffling side to side, closing in on a monster rearing some three times their height, slashing, bellowing. Beyond the fire the shape of Liss, dancing, circling the fire, turning, arms above her head twisting, somehow always opposite the monster no matter which way it lurched to reach.

Hurl stood transfixed. She imagined that if this were a troubadour's song at this time Liss would somehow be transformed into her younger lithe self by the magic of the dance. Her beauty would enchant the monster. But this was no courtly romance. Liss still held her familiar ungainly shape. Her arms were still thick, her
waist heavy. Yet the dance itself was beautiful, its movements mesmerizing. From where did the woman draw such grace? And it drew the man-eater. This must be old magic. A ritual of some kind – an ancient calling.

So fascinated was Hurl that she'd forgotten the battle. Six men now closed upon the beast. Roaring his outrage, Ryllandaras swept his long muscled arms to throw them aside. But none fell. His blows slid from firm broad shields, met sharp iron. Rearing once again, he hammered Temp down with a swipe of one long arm. He bent down to snatch the stunned man in his maw, larger than a horse's head, but Braven Tooth was there to cover Temp. He wielded a great two-handed blade with which he deflected raking swings from Ryllandaras. Incredibly, Temp stood once more, shook the shattered ruins of the shield from his arm, drawing a second weapon. The Seti warrior, Sweetgrass, charged in next, slicing savagely, bellowing his own challenge. He leapt in against Ryllandaras's leading leg – a hamstring! But the monster kicked him away; Hurl could almost hear the ribs breaking from where she stood.

Remembering herself, Hurl looked down to the sharper in her hand. She almost laughed at its puniness. No! This won't do at all … she started down the gentle slope while fishing for a cussor.

Behind Ryllandaras, surrounding the fire, a rippling in the night now grew where Liss danced. Hurl squinted. What was this? The ritual? For what? But her thoughts flew at the sight of Ryllandaras suddenly straightening with Urko on his back. She almost dropped the cussor to leap her triumph – who would have thought it possible, but who else could have achieved such a thing? The old commander had slid one cabled arm under the beast's jaws. The monster bellowed hoarsely, clawed at the man. The others charged in swinging, thrusting. And Ryllandaras gagged. His blazing carmine eyes rolled. He fell to his knees, then one taloned, misshapen hand. Urko's face was contorted black in effort, one fist closed at his opposite elbow, yanking, crushing. Ryllandaras was gasping for breath. Hurl could not believe what she was seeing; was this possible? The man-jackal, Quon's curse, brother to Treach, strangled by a mere man? She'd heard stories of Urko, of course – the man's feats were legendary, yet Ryllandaras seemed a force of nature.

A wide rake from the man-jackal sent the rest of the men staggering backwards. He reached up behind his head, talons tearing, grasped hold and yanked. Urko was thrown flying overhead, spinning, to disappear into the dark. Hurl heard the crunch of his fall.

Howling his own rage, Amaron charged. A massive blow gouged the man-jackal's side, sending him backwards one step, but the beast captured the weapon and slashed talons in a backhanded swipe across the big man's front that threw him spinning in a dance of torn mail and sheeting blood that stained the trampled grass wet.

Hurl continued to close. Now she could hear their laboured gasping breaths, grunts of pain. Though it appeared to her that Ryllandaras would slaughter them all, the beast tried to dash away then, only to meet Rell who fended him back into the circle, blades rippling and flashing in the firelight. Braven Tooth completed the encirclement, aiding Rell. Ryllandaras whirled with his astonishing speed: his jaws slashed the man's shoulder as he ducked, sending him stumbling backwards, bellowing his agony. Sweetgrass was up again; the man limped, hugged his chest, and his chin was dark with coughed-up blood but he closed, a long-knife in each hand.

And Liss emerged from behind the fire, beckoned to Ryllandaras's back. The beast spun – alarmed, it seemed to Hurl. It slashed at Liss but she wavered away, teasing, just beyond reach. She seemed to ripple as if a heat mirage. The glimmering band of light encircling the bonfire now glowed a gold and crimson brighter than the flames. Ryllandaras flinched from the radiance, turned away to face the remaining men. Temp, a longsword in one hand and heavy parrying gauche in the other, held each out wide, hunching low. Rell stretched his arms as well, one of the twin longswords almost touching Temp's blade. Sweetgrass also held his arms out, shuffling side to side.

Rearing back to his full massive height the monster opened its black-lipped jaws and loosed an infuriated eruption of frustrated blood-lust that stunned Hurl where she stood. It leapt upon Sweetgrass, hammering him to the ground, but Temp was there to bull him back like a man holding up a falling tower. A slash from Ryllandaras's black talons raked the mail and banded armour from the man's front and he fell to his knees. Rell lunged in, jabbing, thrusting, and the man-jackal yielded a step howling his agony. Its eyes rolled now, seeking escape, it seemed to Hurl. Rell pressed on, feet shuffling forward, blades dancing like liquid flame in the brilliance now bathing Ryllandaras's back.

The beast glanced behind, its eyes widened white all round. Rell lunged, one blade thrusting deep within the monster's furred stomach. Shrieking, it tottered backwards, sent one last swipe across Rell, ripping the helm from his head and spinning him from his feet. The effort threw the beast back as well and it fell into the circle of rippling light to disappear.

Hurl stared, cussor heavy in her sweaty hand. Not one remained standing. Only Temp on his knees, reeling side to side, head sunk forward. The spinning coruscating ring, or gate, or whatever it was that Liss had invoked, snapped away in an eruption of air that blew a storm of sparks from the low embers of the bonfire.

Hurl staggered forward. ‘Liss? Rell? Liss?’ Of the shamaness there was no sign in the dim glow of the fire. A figure came lurching out of the dark: Urko, holding himself tightly. Hurl ran to support him. He grasped her shoulder in a grip that shot lances of pain up and down her side. He peered blearily at her from a face gleaming with blood. The face turned to examine the battle. He blinked. ‘Coulda used a few more men, hey? Like maybe the Fifth Army.’

‘Take it easy now.’

He frowned at her, tilting his head down. ‘You take it easy.’

She saw that she carried the cussor tucked under her an arm like a helmet. ‘Sorry.’ She gently eased the man to the ground and just as gently slipped away the munition. ‘Are you OK?’
Gods, what a stupid question!

But he waved her off. ‘Go see to the others.’

The nearest man was Amaron. Dead, torn open across his vitals. Reports of hooves hammering the ground pulled Hurl to her feet. A column of cavalry closing at a frantic pace. Well, nothing she could do about that. Braven Tooth was closest then: he lay with a hand pressed to his wound, blood soaking the ground beneath his shoulder and lacerated arm. Though ghostly pale, his face glistening with sweat, he motioned her on with a curt jerk of his head.

She came to Temp; the man was struggling drunkenly to stand. She helped him up, groaned beneath his solid weight. He still held his weapons but his armour hung from him in lacerated tatters, clattering and swinging loose. ‘Gods damn him,’ he kept repeating. ‘Gods damn that
thing’
His wild gaze found her and he grinned his pain. ‘If you don't mind, lass, I'll have me a sit down. I think I'm gonna retire.’

‘Yes, go ahead.’ She eased him down.

Next was the Seti, Sweetgrass. He was breathing but shallowly, wetly. His eyes tracked her when she moved. He mouthed something to her. She bent her head close. ‘… She did it …’ came the faintest whisper.

Hurl nodded, ‘Yes. Yes, she did.’

‘… Maybe she really was … really …’

Hurl soothed him with a hand on his hot brow. ‘Yes – maybe.’
Or maybe she was just a crazy old mage.

The guards came running down the hillside, gesturing, while the column of Seti horsemen overtook them. The riders threw themselves from their mounts, ran to the wounded. Hurl saw among them many who looked like shamans and shamanesses, but none carried any animal totems that she could see. She left them to it as a number came to Sweetgrass and she crossed to Rell.

For some reason she'd come to him last. The moment she realized this she knew why. Something in the way he'd fallen. So limp. So … final. He lay now as he'd struck the earth. She knelt on her knees at his side. He was dead; his throat torn out and scarred face further gashed by the flesh-rending talons of the man-jackal.
Oh, Rell. I am so sorry.
She smoothed his ragged, newly grown hair.
This was not the way it was supposed to happen. Heng had taken you as its new protector. You were to take her place in the city temple. Usher in a long and prosperous future … yet here you lie. You gave your life to end the curse. Perhaps that was what they sensed. That somehow you would end it for them. This was just not the way anyone wanted it to happen.

What will we do? Go on, I suppose. Rebuild. Ha! Build. And only Silk and I are left. We alone survived the curse. If there ever was one. Yet there was, wasn't there? Ryllandaras himself.

She stood, walked the grounds around the dying fire just to be sure but found no sign of Liss.
So she succeeded where all others had failed. She'd delivered the Seti of their curse. And hadn't she given her own? What had it been …?

Seti shamanesses came and spoke to her but she ignored them, shaking her head.
No, not yet. What had it been? Ah, yes! That they would wander lost until they prayed for her forgiveness! Well, Lissarathel or not, the woman had just assured herself a place in their pantheon, or at least their legends. Certainly their prayers.

She rubbed her face, glanced around, sighing her exhaustion. Hours till dawn. She waved the corporal of the guard detachment to her. He ran up, saluted smartly, his eyes hugely wide. She motioned to Rell. ‘Wrap him up. We'll return him for burial. And bring the swords. They have to be returned. It's time to go home.’

EPILOGUE
 

A
BENT FIGURE DRAPED IN RAGS EMERGED FROM A SAGGING
, dilapidated tent of hides and felt blankets. He hobbled down to a broad white sand beach, leaning heavily on a stick of driftwood, pausing occasionally to catch his breath. He came to the surf where a turquoise lagoon washed up weakly in a thin line of spume. An armoured giant of a man lay half-buried in sand at the surf's edge. The bent figure stood looking down for a time then gave the figure a sharp rap with his stick. The man gasped, fumbling awkwardly, pushed himself heavily to his feet. He yanked off his tall helm to let it fall into the wet sand, clutched at his neck just beneath his blond beard. His eyes filled with wonder.

 

‘Yes, you are healed, Skinner.’

The man, Skinner, towered over the bent figure. ‘You answered …’ he rumbled.

‘Of course. Have I not been nearby for some time now? I know you sensed my aid here and there, yes? I have had my eye on you, Skinner of the Avowed.’ The figure, his shape obscured in the layered hanging rags, gestured to his tent. ‘The question is, what can you do … for
me
?’

Skinner ignored the invitation, peered up and down the shore. ‘Where are my people?’

Turning away, the figure shuffled haltingly back up the strand. ‘They are being held in abeyance until we have reached an accord, Skinner.’

‘We have an accord, Chained One,’ Skinner growled, straightening and wincing. He still touched at his neck.

The figure glanced back, his rag-wrapped head bent almost to the sands. ‘Oh? We do?’

‘Yes.’ Skinner studied the shore, squinted in the dazzling light reflected from the white sands. ‘Here are my terms – I deliver to you
myself and some forty Avowed and in return I claim the title of King.’

Oh? You
claim
it?’

Skinner drew off his gauntlets, let them fall on to the sands. He nodded, his gaze hooded, almost sleepy, on the bent-double figure. ‘Yes. It is mine.’

‘Good.’ The figure hobbled off. ‘It's about time
somebody
took it.’

‘My people!’

A negligent wave of a misshapen hand over his shoulder and the figure ducked within the low sagging tent. Skinner turned to examine the surf. In ones and twos men and women appeared washed up in the lazy waves. He went to help pull them up on to the strand.

* * *

It was night, and the battlefield of gouged, naked soil and blackened stubble was empty but for sniffing, hopeful jackals and the odd human scavenger searching for loot. A man in a mail coat under laced leathers stood motionless, his head lowered. His long black hair blew about his scarred dark face.

 

‘Greetings, Dessembrae,’ spoke a nearby gnawed skull, once buried but since dug up by scavengers. ‘And I say Dessembrae for I see you are here now in that aspect.’

The man let go a long breath, rolled his neck to ease its tension. ‘A long time, Hood.’

‘Indeed. Dare I say how just like those old times?’

The man's face twisted in loathing. ‘No, you may not.’

‘Yet here you are – why are you here?’

‘I am bearing witness to a death. A soldier's death.’

‘How … commonplace.’

‘He was no common soldier, though he knew it not. Had the Seti remained he would have out-generalled the Imperial forces, and had his bodyguard been a fraction of an instant faster, would have proven victorious over the Guard as well. He would have made High Fist and risen to become one of the greatest commanders ever thrown up by the Empire. But all that potential died here today, unrealized. Known to none.’

‘I know, Dessembrae. I took him.’

‘Yes. As you take everyone – eventually. And I will not ask what all others ask of you – why? Because what I have come to understand is that there is no
why.
To ask why is to impose expectations on mute
existence – expectations it is in no way obliged to meet or even extend. And so I make no more, ask no more.’

The skull was silent for a time – as skulls are. ‘So that is the course of your thoughts,’ said Hood, and the man believed he detected a note of … surprise.

‘What of it?’

Silence.

We will speak again, I promise you.

* * *

Lurin, Amagin and Shurll were out throwing stones at the Deadhouse. That was what everyone in Malaz city called the old abandoned building in its creepy grounds of trees that never grew leaves in any season. They'd always thrown stones at it, and their mothers and fathers before them had tossed their share as well. This night the streets gleamed from a cold rain that had swept in from the south. Lurin, barefoot, felt the chill so he put an extra effort into his arm to warm himself up.

 

‘Did you see that?’ he called to Amagin and Shurll. ‘Went right in that window – I swear.’

‘Didn't,’ Amagin sniffed.

‘Did too!’ He looked to Shurll for support but the older girl was just hugging herself, staring off down the street where it descended to the waterfront, the wharf and the sea glimmering beyond. She'd been doing that more often these days. ‘It did too, Shurll,’ he called. She shrugged her bony shoulders.

Amagin held out a stone, grinning, his nose wet and running. ‘No way you can hit that window.’

Lurin snatched it from him. ‘You'll see.’

He held the stone out before himself to sight on the window – heavier than he'd have chosen – Amagin always picked poor throwing stones which was why he couldn't hit any target to save his life. Tongue tucked firmly between his teeth, he drew back, raised one foot and threw.

The instant he released something changed on the grounds. A man now stood where Lurin couldn't recall ever having seen anyone walk. The man's hand snapped up then held something to his pale face. While they gaped, dumbfounded, he walked up to the wall near them.

Amagin was already sobbing. Shurll stared, immobile. Lurin flinched, tensed to run but unable. The man's clothes hung open in
sliced folds. Dark wetness gleamed beneath down his torso and arms. Scars gleamed also at his neck like lines of pearl. He held up Lurin's stone between thumb and forefinger, leaned over the wall.

‘Run.’

Blubbering, Amagin ran. Lurin threw himself at Shurll. She had not moved, perhaps not even blinked. He wrapped his arms around her, buried his face in her chest, too terrified to look. They were dead. It was a spirit come to drag them away to the Abyss. He waited for that bony touch that was Hood's beckon.

But after a time, heart in a frenzy, nothing happened. Shurll made quiet soothing sounds while her hands brushed his shoulders.

‘Welcome, Topper!’ Lurin heard the spirit call, his voice distant.

He dared a glance: the spirit, or man, had moved away and now faced the low front wall.

‘Don't be a fool, Cowl,’ another voice answered.

Lurin turned completely, pressed his back to Shurll, glanced up to her; she watched, avid, her eyes huge.

Cowl, the one within the grounds of the Deadhouse, gestured an invitation to the other with his blades. ‘Come in – let us finish our debate here. Who will have the last word, do you think?’

The other, Topper, stepped into view: long tangled white hair, dark-faced, clothes hanging rags. But his eyes! Angular and bright like lamps. He shrugged. ‘By my hand or the House's … is of no matter to me.’

Cowl spread his arms wide. ‘I choose my own fate, Topper. I remain undefeated. You lack the will to challenge me? So be it – the defeat is yours.’

‘Dancer took you.’

Cowl's eyes rolled as he made a show of considering. He pointed a blade to his neck. ‘I call this a draw.’

‘You are mistaking desperation for defiance. You only fool yourself.’

‘And you are a coward.’

Topper motioned to the grounds. ‘Time is short. Flee while you can.’

Lurin glanced across the yard and jerked, terrified. The tree branches were moving. Never had he seen those black limbs shiver or bend, even in the strongest of storms. Steam as of freshly turned earth climbed from the heaps that littered the grounds. The heavy mist gathered to carpet the yard.

Cold like a winter morning bit at Lurin. He shivered uncontrollably.

‘Fool!’ Topper called. ‘It will have you! Flee, now!’

Cowl stumbled as if something had yanked upon him. But his smile was fixed, his teeth bright and sharp. ‘I choose defiance!’ he yelled, wild fever in his voice.

‘You choose despair.’

Falling, the one called Cowl went on one knee. He laughed, low at first, but climbing in pitch and volume until it rang so loud it drowned out a comment from Topper. And then Lurin's skin crawled in horror as the one named Cowl appeared to sink – yes, sink straight down into the steaming earth as if pulled. ‘Come join me!’ he shouted, laughing mockingly.

Topper lunged forward to grip the top of the stone wall. ‘Fool! You are Avowed! You will never die!’ The man sounded genuinely horrified.

Cowl's answer to that was to burst forth with even greater fevered, ardent laughter – exulting, darkly triumphant – the mirth of a man gone truly mad. Lurin buried his face once more in Shurll's chest. Eventually, the peals choked off, fell to silence. When Lurin looked back the grounds were empty.

His gaze caught the one called Topper staring directly at them. Lurin's breath caught and he froze. The eyes burned in the night as he'd heard some jewels do. Then the man bowed, an arm across his stomach, the other held out. Stepping back he disappeared into darkness.

Eventually, Lurin found he could breathe again. He peered up at Shurll, whispered: ‘What happened?’

And she, looking off into the night, her gaze so distant, stroking his head, murmured repeatedly, ‘Nothing. It's all right. Nothing happened. It was nothing.’

* * *

In the morning Talia demanded he recite it all again – from the mad ride through the Abyss, to the battle, and Laseen's funeral cortege to Cawn – even the dull journey by coastal merchantman to Unta.

 

‘And the Imperial Funeral?’ she asked.

Rillish laughed, sitting up. ‘Gods no. We aren't invited to that.’

‘But you're a member of the official Wickan delegation to the Throne!’

Rillish leaned back, tucked a rolled blanket behind his back. ‘Believe me – I am no more welcome in Unta than the Wickans themselves. We are there on sufferance only.’

‘And this Mallick creature is to really succeed Laseen?’

‘By unanimous acclaim of the Assembly and all regional governors, Fists and all.’

She shook her head, her brows crimping. ‘And I've never even heard of the man.’

‘You should get out more, sergeant.’

She made a face. He pushed the sheets off her belly, eased his head on to her stomach. ‘Huh. Funny … You don't look pregnant.’

‘Not
yet,
you fool! Gods, you men.’

‘Humph … If you say so.’ He gently pressed a hand there on her belly.
Son or daughter – you might grow up in a world where all this is hut an ugly memory. And perhaps those decades from now if I am still around I will be able to show you all that might be yours by right of your name. And perhaps I will be able to give you more than my love. Though I know that even that is precious enough. And more than some.

* * *

Proprietor, merchant, innkeeper and ex-Imperial sailor, Aron Hul knew a dangerous man when he saw one and this newcomer sent all his nerves jangling the moment he dismounted from his well-fed and well-shod horse that bore new, well-oiled tack. Aron noted the man's soft leather boots, the studded leather wrappings at his legs, his fitted armour of boiled cuirass, vambraces, the twin ivory-handled sabres worn high under his arms, and his rich travelling cloak. But what fixed his attention was the extraordinary scar running across the man's face from left temple, notching the bridge of his flattened nose, to mar his right cheek. The man stood for a time in front of his trading establishment, stared south to the Idryn flowing so brown and wide on its way to the Bay of Cawn, and the Nap Sea. Then he turned and entered the trading post.

BOOK: Return of the Crimson Guard
10.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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